Off the M8 – Kilree Monastic Site

Kilree is possibly the most perfectly contained and atmospheric site you will visit in Ireland. I defy you not to be enchanted with its leafy depths, its air of antiquity, and evidence of continued use. (I would also vote for Monaincha in Tipperary, a site that deserves its own post one of these days).

When you’re travelling from Cork to Dublin it’s easy to leave the M8 at Cahir and travel cross-country to join the M9. There are numerous sites to visit if you take this option: most recently we have written about Fethard and its Medieval Walls, but we also did a post about Kells Priory a long time ago (The Hallowed Fortress) and it remains one of our favourite sites and one of the most impressive monastic sites in Ireland. And don’t go without your copy of Ireland’s Ancient East by Neil Jackman – it’s our constant companion and a great resource. It’s available on Amazon but why not patronise your favourite bookstore?

Kells Priory, just up the road from Kilree and one of Ireland’s most impressive religious complexes

It’s a great contrast to Kilree. If you haven’t been to Kells Priory yet, try to take them both in, in the same day. What you will see is a typical example of an Early Medieval Irish monastic site (Kilree) and an excellent example of a large 12th to fifteenth century Augustinian Priory built to withstand the turbulent history of Kilkenny in those centuries. The monks in Kilree were living the life of Irish monastics in a pattern set down in the 6th century, while the Augustinians were mainstream European clerics invited over by the Normans.

Inside Kells Priory

The other things about Kilree is that it’s unspoiled (except for one thing – I’ll get to that later) and in Ireland, that means that the farmer who owns the land is using it. There’s a Bull sign on the gate and indeed there he was, with all his frisky bullock friends. We thought our chances of crossing the field were slim, but two friendly ladies on horseback offered to draw the attention of the cattle away from us so off we dashed while they were distracted, not giving much thought to how we might get back again.

Having charged off down the field after the horses (which were on the other side of the hedge) the bullocks, followed at a dignified pace by the bull) ended up beside the high cross so we decided to leave well enough alone and not venture over to that quarter. A distant shot will have to suffice for this post, but you can see excellent images of this cross at the Irish High Crosses website, and we thank them for that since this is the closest we will get for the moment.

But there was so much to see within the monastic enclosure. First, the round tower – it is missing its conical cap but apart from that it’s complete and in good shape. Brian Lalor, in his book The Irish Round Tower, assigns it an 11th century date based partly on the simple doorway. The arch, he points out, has been cut from the soffit of a monolithic lintel which is now cracked.

Crenellations were added to the top in later medieval times (you can see them in the first image) – the tower must have been renovated for some kind of defensive purpose at that time. When the Ordnance Survey folks came around in 1839 it was possible to climb to the top by means of rope ladders. There is no access now, apart from by the rooks and crows who have left evidence of their prodigious nest-building.

Lalor also points out that the round tower is perched on the circular boundary wall of an old churchyard which probably represents the position of the inner rampart of the monastic enclosure. What did such a monastic enclosure look like? I’ve used an illustration from a marvellous book called The Modern Traveller to the Early Irish Church, by Kathleen Hughes and Ann Hamlin (second edition, Four Courts Press, 1997). The site illustrated (Nendrum, County Down) was enclosed by three circular walls, a not-unusual configuration although one and two enclosing walls are also found. There is no real evidence left at Kilree for a second or third wall, but the location of the high cross indicates the likelihood of an outer wall.

The church is of an early form, rectangular, with antae at either end. To understand how this fits in with the architecture of the period, see my post Irish Romanesque – an Introduction. The nave, or main part of the church probably dates to the 10th or 11th century, but a chancel was added later, probably in the 12th century, by means of an inexpert Romanesque arch, which eventually had to be shored up with an even more awkward-looking inner arch.

Upper: East wall with buttresses added in 1945; Lower: The earlier Romanesque arch is clearly visible above the later one

The whole place was repaired by the Office of Public Works in the 1940s and it was they who built the buttresses which have successfully kept the east wall from falling down.

Upper: Looking through the linteled doorway into the nave and the chancel beyond; Lower: Looking towards the nave from the chancel. The chest tomb is on the right

There are several thirteenth to fifteenth century cross slabs within the church but the seventeenth century chest tomb just inside the chancel is the most interesting.

It’s hard to decipher as it’s faded and covered in lichen, but here is the description of it taken from the National Monuments listing:

Latin inscription, in a margin around the edge of the upper slab, was transcribed by Carrigan as, ‘Hic jacet Dns. Richardus Comerford quondam de Danginmore qui obit [date left uncut] et Dna Joanna St. Leger uxor eis pia hospitalis et admodum in omnes misericors matron quae obit 4 die October A. 1622’ and translated as, ’Here lie Mr. Richard Comerford, formerly of Danganmore, who died [left blank] and Johanna St. Leger, his wife, a matron pious, hospitable, and charitable to all, who died Oct 4th, 1622’. The front slab. . . is decorated with the symbols of the Passion flanked with stylised fluted pillars which taper towards the base. The symbols from dexter to sinister include a ladder, entwined ropes, a spear, dice and a seamless garment, 30 pieces of silver and beside them a bag with two straps, a cross ringed with a crown of thorns, a heart pierced with nails and pierced hands and feet above and below this, a scourge on either side of a plant, a cock on a three-legged pot, a sword, a chalice, a hammer, and pincer holding 3 nails and two sheaves of wheat. 

Can you recognise the details from the NM description?

Outside the church, the graveyard is quiet and picturesque, but I couldn’t help noticing the absence of vegetation of any sort. Older photographs I have seen show a covering of grass, and I suspect that somebody has been in here with the Roundup – I told you I would get to the one problem I have with this site, and this is it. It may be historically and archaeologically fascinating and important, but the ground itself is a dead zone – no biodiversity here. And that’s a pity because there was a swarm of bees about to settle in one of the trees. They will have to look outside the site for pollen.

We saw many old gravestones, dating from the early eighteenth century and into the current day. But the one that caught my eye was this one – all the instruments of the passion clearly carved for John Brenan, who died in 1772. Can you recognise and name them all?

I know you’re wondering how we made it back across the field. Well fortunately, the cattle stayed over by the hight cross and we sneaked back across without attracting their attention. I can’t decide whether their presence added to the experience or not, but it certainly made it more exciting, even though we didn’t get to see the high cross up close. Kilrea is a very special place, I think. I am hoping that next time we go back the grass will have been allowed to grow again.

Witches’ Marks and Lovelorn Shepherds: Inscribed Rock Art in a Remote Valley

One day in the summer of 1972 I set off on my Honda 50, backpack full of recording tools, to find a new and different example of rock art. This was not my usual prehistoric cup-and-ring carving, but inscribed or scratched markings in a ‘cave.’ When I returned yesterday, 47 years later, it was to a place even more remote and wildly beautiful than it had been in my memory. Read Robert’s post for a full account of our walk up the Valley of the Cooleenlemane River.

The site itself is arresting. Huge slabs lean against each other to form three shelters – nowadays harbouring sheep but in times past, perhaps humans. There is an account in the Halls’ Tour of Ireland of an encounter they had with a family living in this area in what looks remarkably like our destination.

The House of Rocks from Ireland, Its Scenery, Character, &c by Mr and Mrs S C Hall, page 149. Drawn by A Nicholl, engraved by Landells

The ‘caves’ are known locally as the Bealick – Pat Joe pronounced it The Bay Lick. Leach (pronounced lack) is the word for a flagstone or slab so this could be a reference to the enormous stones themselves, but baoleach (pronounced bway-lock) is also the Irish word for dangerous, which may refer to beliefs about the power of the place. The townland name, Cooleenlemane, could mean the Little Nook of the Rock Outcrop, or it could mean the Rock Outcrop at the Remote End (of the valley). Either way, it’s apt.

The arrow points to the Bealick: you can see it from a long way away as you walk up the valley

We’ve written many posts about rock art in this blog, but the closest we’ve come previously to dealing with Inscribed markings was Robert’s post on the Aultagh stone, which has been suggested as an Ogham (or fake-Ogham) stone. This one is very different.

This type of site has been described most comprehensively in Elizabeth Shee Twohig’s paper, An Enduring Tradition, Incised Rock Art in Ireland in the 2014 book From Megaliths to Metal: Essays in Honour of George Eogan. She coins the term COMBS, based on where these kinds of marks occur – Caves, Outcrops, Megaliths and Boulder-Shelters, and gives details on the ones that have been documented to date, including the list I included in my 1973 thesis.

I described and drew three of the sites then – Glanrastel, Kealanine and Cooleenlemane – and I hope to get back to the others also. Of the three, Cooleenlemane has the greatest range of markings. There are three caves here, but markings only in two, which I labelled the East and West Cave. The markings run the full gamut of Shee Twohig’s motif range. There are also initials and words and letters that do not form words but that seem to run together.

The East Cave has the widest range of markings

This is what I wrote in my 1973 thesis about how the carvings were made:

The three sites of Glanrastel, Kealanine and Cooleenlemane share an identical incising technique. The markings have a V-shaped cross-section with smooth faces. In the case of the lighter marks, this effect could have been achieved by scratching with a strong knife, and at Kealanine and Cooleenlemane this technique accounts for many of the initials and letters, and some of the straight strokes. The deeper strokes were probably made by reaming with the end of a pointed tool. This tool need not have been metal. Identical techniques of marking have been identified by Shee. . . from passage-graves, which she suggests were executed with the edge of a stone axe.

The West Cave has more words and letters

At the time, we had no idea how to interpret these kinds of markings. I did say in my thesis they were more likely to be historic rather than prehistoric, and pointed out the Christian nature of the many cross motifs. The initials and words are, of course, fully modern.

But in fact, incised markings such as these are known from many contexts, including prehistoric. They are widely distributed in southern Europe, where they may be associated with figurative carvings also. The 2014 Proceedings of the XVII UISPP World Congress was published as Post-Paleolithic Filiform Rock Art in Western Europe, filiform being the word chosen to describe incised rather than pecked rock art. A chart of what the authors call The Geometric Type (above) contain many motifs that would be at home in Cooleenlemane. Some of these may date from the Bronze Age or the iron Age.

Shee Twohig also points out the long and varied traditions of marks of the COMBS type, including Early Medieval inscribed crosses on rock outcrops, and thirteenth century mason’s marks. You may remember our post about Keith Payne’s exhibition, Early Marks: inspired by Genevieve von Petzinger’s book The First Signs, he depicted many such inscribed markings, including one from Blombos Cave in South Africa, reckoned to be 75,000 years old.

A recent discovery at Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire generated excitement earlier this year and may hold the answer to the puzzle of what at least some of these marks are all about. Dubbed Witches’ Marks, they are believed to have been tokens to ward off evil spirits. According to this BBC piece Protection marks are most commonly found in medieval churches and houses, near the entrance points, particularly doorways, windows and fireplaces. They are also often found in caves and shelters, near the entrance.

I said some of those marks – The initials and words, to my mind are equally important as evidence of our enduring need to leave our, er, mark on the world. How many generations of DKs (Several Dinny Keohanes, apparently, lived around the valley) carved their initials and hoped to be remembered? And was someone in the West Cave, in the time honoured-tradition of the love-struck everywhere, trying to make a declaration while sheltering with his sheep against a spring gale?

In the inevitable way of such special places in Ireland, the Bealick eventually became known as a Mass Rock (see this post for an explanation and examples) and it is described thus in the National Monuments records (Monument number CO091-003). Indeed, it would have made an excellent location for a mass rock, remote and hidden in its lonely valley.

From this angle you can see the three caves. There are no markings in the closest one

Seeing it again after all these years, I was struck by wonder at how my 22 year-old self managed to find it (I suspect I would have applied to the nearest dwelling and been directed there after multiple cups of tea and slices of brown bread) and to draw it. It must have taken hours then, but the 20 minutes I spent stooped inside yesterday trying to get photographs just about crippled me. But mostly what I felt was gratitude – first for the privilege I had been granted all those years ago of doing something so exciting and important for my thesis, and second for the untouched and pristine nature of the Bealick and its setting.

(Thanks, Keith, for the inspiration for this shot)

Coleenlemane – A Walk into History

Finola has written about the destination of our adventures yesterday – the inscribed ‘caves’ at Coleenlemane. Above is a photo of the view from the ‘cave’ entrance, looking back at the glen which we journeyed across. My post today is about that journey on foot through decades of human history and thousands of years of topographical transformation.

Upper – looking back and leaving the world behind: a rough track climbs up from the entrance to the Coleenlemane valley and very soon we were absorbed into the wild emptiness of the mountainsides (lower)

When I looked into the furthest reaches of the glen as we made our way over the rocky track I saw first, in my mind’s eye, the movement of the glacier which shaped it – the splintering, shuddering path it took and the debris it left in its wake: strangely distorted outcrops and huge erratic boulders feigning dice unrestrainedly scattered by a random hand.

Scribings on the rocks in the glen of Coleenlemane: these are made by nature (and the movement of glaciers) long before humans appeared in Ireland. I often wonder whether observation of these marks could have inspired our earliest artists?

Then I couldn’t help the vision that came into my mind of herds of the huge Irish Elk – Megaloceros giganteus – that ruled places such as this in Ireland after the ice receded 10,000 years ago. It was around that time that human habitation came back to these revitalised lands: some say that it was human hunters who wiped out the elk – and the bear – in Ireland using spears, bows and rocks. When you are immersed in these wild places, with no signs of the 21st century around you, it is easy to imagine such scenes from the distant past.

But – lonely and remote as this valley seems today – there is significant evidence of enduring human occupation here. As we journeyed up to the ‘caves’ we were tracing ancient tracks and paths and saw the remains of several settlements: stone walls, enclosures including a cashel, and many haphazard piles of rock that presumably came from rudimentary field clearances. We had the good fortune to meet and talk to Pat Joe O’Leary, who resides in the last house before you enter the glen, and he told us that sixteen families had lived out here.

Some of the many traces that remain of the dwellings which were once occupied by  families eking out their lives in the remoteness of Coleenlemane and (lower image) piles of stones cleared from the lands to provide pastures and potato beds

It’s right to describe the stories that Pat Joe told us as living memories, because he carries them. His own family has lived in the valley for generations so – like the bards of old – he is the keeper of the traditions and lore of the area. One of his tales was about a man from the glen who was the last to be hanged in Cork gaol. His name was Timothy Cadogan, and he was accused of the murder of William Bird, a land agent, at Bantry in 1900. Tim Cadogan was from one of the families who lived in Coleenlemane – who had been evicted by Bird – and Pat Joe assured us that the name T Cadogan is inscribed on a stone beside one of the old buildings in the valley. Unfortunately, we did not hear this until we were returning from our expedition, so missed seeing the stone. Interestingly there is a record in the Schools Folklore Collection – in Irish – describing the same event, more or less in the same words that Pat Joe used. The event occurred in 1900, became recorded as folklore in 1936, and was told to us as oral tradition in 2019!

Contemporary newspaper account of the hanging of Timothy Cadogan – formerly from Coleenamane – on 11 January 1901. Cadogan was tried twice before being sentenced to hang. The ‘Bungled Execution’ is reported as a failure on the part of the executioner, causing the condemned man to suffer a long, slow death by strangulation

Ignorant of such thoughts of the harsh realities of the world – even this far-away corner of it – we reached our destination: the ‘caves’. This is an unusual rock formation where a large outcrop has been split into enormous slabs, probably through glacial action. The rocks lean against each other and form crude shelters, within which are the inscribed surfaces. Finola’s post describes these in detail.

The rocks which form the ‘caves’ have a brooding presence on the landscape. It’s not surprising that they harbour enigmatic symbols with some possible other-worldly connotations

In addition to the sites of old farms and cottages that we passed by and explored on our trail, we clearly saw the imprint of ‘lazy-beds’ – ridge and furrow arable cultivation methods traditionally used in Ireland for planting the potato. These took our minds back to famine times and the harsh reality of having to forge an existence out of minimal resources. Also, we could only wonder at how clearly life – and history – have been etched into these aged and incredibly beautiful landscapes.

The very clear impressions of the potato beds which tell of the subsistence farming practiced for generations in Coleenlemane accompanied our hike

Looking back on our day in the wildness of West Cork, my abiding memories are beauty and poignancy. I have used this term before – achingly beautiful – and I often have to return to it in order to try to sum up my own emotional reaction to such unique places in Ireland. You won’t find these places in tourist guides – getting here is hard work! Nor will you find very much recorded in the archaeological records about Coleenlemane. But everything you see here is Ireland’s real history – deep, deep history; we are fortunate in every step we take into it.

Inish Beg Estate: Ancient Woods and New Discoveries

Craving a woodland walk, we took ourselves to Inish Beg this week – and found a lot more than bluebells!

This is a cillin, down beside the river. There are lots of stories associated with it

Inish Beg abounds in both the wild and the tame. That’s not such an easy balance to maintain and it’s a real tribute to the team on the ground that manages and nurtures the estate. Mostly, of course, it’s down to the vision and hard work of Paul and Georgiana Keane who bought the place in 1997 when it was crumbling and neglected. The house, Georgie told us, was close to collapse and had to be completely re-done – new roof, plumbing, electrics and a complete re-furbishment. It’s hard to believe now, when you see the beautiful place it has become.

Paul and Georgie run it now as a hotel and wedding venue and it is totally set up for it. In fact it must be one of the most romantic venues in Ireland, ideally situated on an island on the Ilen River, accessible by an old stone bridge. It was originally O’Driscoll territory, but owned by the McCarthy family. When James Morrogh inherited it from a McCarthy relative in the 1830s he changed the family name to McCarthy Morragh – such stipulations were not unusual then.

In the 1890s the family built the grand house, and it is this house that is associated with its most famous inhabitant, Kay Summersby. A noted beauty, she was Eisenhower’s secretary in London during the war, and may (or may not) have had an affair with him.

She describes her early life at Inish Beg thus:

Our home, Inish Beg, was a somewhat run-down estate on a small but lovely emerald island in a river in County Cork. Our favourite pastime (I had a brother and three sisters) was to sail down that river four miles, to the Atlantic. There was a succession of governesses, hunts, spatting parents, riding in the fields and along the long avenue fringed with old trees . . . the usual pattern of life in that obsolete world.

The ‘usual pattern’ for some, perhaps – to me it sounds like a life of breathtaking privilege. However, like many such estates, it became difficult to sustain and by time the Keanes took it over it desperately needed their infusion of enthusiasm and capital. And what a magnificent job they have done with not only the house but the grounds as well.

There’s a walled garden (above) that’s full of organic goodies for the estate kitchens, and also features an indoor swimming pool! Tony O’Mahony, the head gardener, practises an organic philosophy and does not feel the need to eliminate wildness from the garden, which results in a delightful mix of plant life.

But we were here mainly for the woodland walks and we were certainly not disappointed. You could spend several hours wandering the trails here and right now the undergrowth is glorious. Bluebells were in abundance along with every wildflower that contributes to that colourful spring carpet that is so dear to our senses.

There are trails for the kids – pirates and a wildlife search are part of the system, as well as little fairy houses here and there.

There are lovely views (above) across the Ilen to the ruined church at Aughadown – burial place of the Tonsons that I wrote about in New Court Bridge – a Hidden Wonder. Surprisingly, beyond the church, you can see Mount Gabriel. I mention this because of its significance with our next find – a previously unrecorded cupmarked stone!

Regular readers know of our involvement with Prehistoric Rock Art – Neolithic or Bronze Age carvings on open air boulders and outcrops. The cupmark is the basic motif of all Irish Rock Art – a semi-spherical cup-shaped hollow (see more about Rock Art here and here and specifically about cupmarks here). Robert has an amazing eye for slight differences in rock surfaces and has developed a habit of examining every stone we come across for cupmarks. This time he struck gold! At least four cupmarks on the back of a stone along one of the trails.

We like to warn people that rock art can be a little underwhelming. I know these cupmarks don’t look like much, but they were probably carved several thousand years ago as part of a ritual we now know nothing about

The stone has been moved there from somewhere on the estate and the Keanes will try to track down where this was. It’s always important to see a rock like this in its context, of corse, but we are also curious to know if Mount Gabriel was visible from the location, as it is from so many of our West Cork Rock Art sites. We will be returning to do a proper record and see if we can add more information to the story before we send it in to be included in the National Monuments database.

There’s also a boulder burial on the estate, visible as you are leaving. It’s a pretty tumbledown affair, but still recognisable, and we found cupmarks on the capstone too. These may be already recorded, but we will let National Monuments know in case they aren’t.

Fabulous woodland walks, my fill of wildflowers, lovely vistas across the Ilen – and a new archaeological find. Too much excitement for one day!

The Monster of Red Strand!

Last week we investigated Castlefreke, the tallest High Cross in Ireland,  and the Long Strand. Not far away – and ripe for another day of exploration – is the intriguingly named Red Strand.

Header picture – looking across Red Strand towards Galley Head. Upper – Red Strand beach; lower – red stones are prolific on the beach at Red Strand: it is said the beach ran with blood after the battle between the Barryroe army and John Barry’s army

Tales abound as to how or why that West Cork beach got the name. A good source of such stories is the Schools Folklore Collection – an invaluable resource of memories recorded by local people about their own townlands. Although the collecting project took place in the mid 1930s, the schoolchildren were interviewing members of their own families who might have lived in the same location through several generations, and were probably retelling stories that had in some cases been passed across hundreds of years.

. . . There is an old ruin of a castle in Dundeady which is about eight miles s.w. of Clonakilty. It is about 20 ft high. During the last storm a part of the top was blown off. There are holes in the walls where the guns were kept to shoot from. It was built by an anglo Norman named John Barry. One night they went east to Barryroe and stole cattle from another Norman named “Barry Bán”.

John Barry had a white horse which would not drink water of any well only the well in “Cráig Gaimhne”. Next day he went to the well with his horse and left him grazing in a field near by called “Pairchín Caol” whilst himself fell asleep near the fence.

It was not long until “Barry Bán” and a great army came attacking his castle. The horse ran to the fence where John was sleeping and started to screech into his ear and woke him.

When he saw the Barryroe army attacking his castle he jumped on his horse and off with him over the fields and fences as fast as he could. When he was crossing the “Góilín” he struck the horse with a magic wand. The horse jumped the “Góilín” which is about 15 yds. He struck the horse a second time and the horse fell dead.

The signs of the horses feet are plainly visible on the rock. That day there was a terrible battle fought between the Barryroe army and John Barry’s army and this battle is called the “Battle of the Red Strand”. They fought all the way across the “Red Strand”. They fought and fought across the “Red Strand” and up “Ballira Hill” as far as “Ballira House”. John Barry and his army slew and killed all of Barry Bán’s army nearby. John Barry and his army won the battle that day.

For months after there were bones and pieces of bones throughout the place where the battle was fought . .

Collected from Master Pat Hayes, Donour, by Duchas Schools Folklore Project 1937

Another collected tale also centres around the Lady Well at Dunowen (lower right on the aerial view, above):

. . .There is a well situated in a field belonging  to Michael Feen in the townland of Dunowen not far from the sea coast. It is said that the Blessed Virgin appeared there long ago and was seen by some fishermen when fishing near the coast. She appeared as a big swan and pitched on the edge of the boat. Then she flew eastwards and flew in a circle over the well. Then she knelt down and left the prints of her fingers and knees on the flag, But some 20 years ago  a young boy about 12 years who was blind from birth went to the well with his father, after being taken to the well he left a scream at his father to look at the frog. Then they both thanked god and went home cured . . .

Amanda fully describes and illustrates this well in Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry after her own visit to the area three years ago.

But – what’s this? Marooned on the beach is a strange, dismembered creature… Or, at least, the remains of a creature. I’ve labelled it monster on the aerial view, because I can’t think of a better way to describe it: alien, amorphous, slightly sinuous. It has a mouth, too.

Is it spewing out or sucking in? Will it swallow you or I if we are not careful with the tides? Why is it here, and who made it? Be careful, Robert . . .

It’s enormous! It runs the length of the west end of the beach: you can just make it out in the second picture from the top, lying along the bottom of the cliff face. It’s like a great, marine creature with a fin and blowholes.

But, if that is its mouth facing out to sea, then its tail seems to have exploded. Look at this more detailed aerial view:

This Google Earth image dates from 2009. Ten years later, much of the debris from the exploded part of the monster is disappearing under the shifting sands.

Those huge slabs now scattered over the west end of Red Strand are reinforced with steel girders: whatever has been here in the past was a massive and heavy structure. Is there any record of it? I found only one slightly oblique mention, after searching high and low, written by Noel Baker in the Irish Examiner in February 2014 – following one of the most severe storms ever recorded on the coast of West Cork:

. . . So much of what happens is hidden from plain sight. Take the beautiful beach area of Red Strand near Clonakilty. The recent storms have caused serious damage to counties from Mayo to Wexford and beyond. Sometimes the extent of the damage is obvious, other times not so much. Red Strand, not far from the villages of Rathbarry and Ardfield, has clear evidence of damage. One of the walls alongside the road has been knocked, the sands have been shifted, along with rocks and stones, and the pillar displaying the Red Strand plaque lies knocked on the sand. Local man Cornelius ‘Con’ Scully is a veritable historian of Red Strand. He has photos of the area dating back to the 19th century and knows every nook and cranny.

“The face of the strand has totally changed in a very short time,” he says from his conservatory overlooking the sea.

He remembers back to the 30s when a tunnel, a section of which is still visible to the left of the strand as you look from the road, was laid. “When that was built the high water [mark] was 20 ft further out to sea,” he says. “It’s coming in the whole time” . . .

So there we have it – a tunnel, ‘laid’ in the 1930s.

But we still have an enigma. Why was the tunnel built then? And while the term ‘tunnel’ would adequately describe the remaining long section of the monster, it gives no clue as to its purpose. The ‘exploded’ bit intrigues me the most. From what you can see of the debris today, there must have been some sort of box-sectioned structure running along the higher part of the beach. A number of possibilities spring to mind: a sea-bathing pool, fed from the high tide through the ‘tunnel’? Fish tanks? A sewage system? Settling beds (but for settling what)?

Let’s do a little more detective work by looking back at another aerial photograph from Google Earth. You can see that I have placed the beach – and the monster – in a broader context:

You can trace the snaking line of the monster, starting in the bottom right (ish) and heading up the beach: follow the disintegrated section, which heads for the outlet on to the beach of a stream, which passes under a road bridge. It might be reasonable to assume that whatever passed through the monster’s stomach (the ‘tunnel’) came from that stream.

This picture is looking over the wetlands that are beyond the road running along the top of Red Strand. In the middle distance are ‘old workings’, seen more closely below: these appear to be in the townland of Ganniv Beg.

Whatever those workings might be – or might have been (extraction of sand, minerals?) – any run-off could have been carried into the stream on the right and then spilled out over the beach. This could have been detrimental to the amenity of the beach, and the ‘monster’ might have been constructed to contain and carry the outfall away at high tide. Pure speculation on my part: I’m happy enough to be proved either right or wrong. I would just like my curiosity to be satisfied. So – who has the story? It’s a recent enough construction to be within living memory . . . Hopefully, this post will stir someone to comment: if they do, I will report back.

Mizen Magic 13: Dunmanus Promontory

It’s geologically and archaeologically fascinating – a substantial natural promontory just to the north of Dunmanus Castle: well worth an exploration. But, do be warned – there are cliff edges, exposed fissures, ankle-wrenching undulations and bogs to overcome. Also – it’s private, so please seek permission before crossing the land.

The west side of this shark’s fin-shaped promontory is wildly exposed to the ocean and its gales. You can see from the aerial views, above, how the rock bed is bare and visible, and the vestigial fields which occupy – or once occupied – the east side peter out, and the walls and banks which once formed them fade away altogether over on the left. In fact, these Google Earth images give a better impression of the oddly shaped enclosures than can be seen on the ground.

Three examples of many varied boundary features on the promontory are shown above. Each is differently constructed and they range from a series of vertically-set slabs to rocks-and-rubble and a raised bank reinforced with stones. In the picture below, follow with your eye the boundary as it traverses the scrub and makes a large S-bend on to the ridge facing the distant horizon.

Ireland – especially the west of it – is a huge stone landscape. Wherever people have settled, they have moved the stone and used it. To make fields, or any enclosures, they have had to clear the land. The stone taken from the land is used – sometimes to build shelter, often to build myriad walls to define the holdings. Here’s a striking example from the Aran Islands:

Nothing is recorded on the National Monuments Survey about these land boundaries at Dunmanus – or the significance of the promontory as a whole. Was it once a promontory fort? There are others on this coast. It could easily have been defended along the line of the present road running across the south. However, the land is flat and low, and there is no shelter.

Flat stone surfaces – of old red sandstone – remind us of the Burren landscape in Clare, and we can suppose that the present windswept bog and scrub could once have supported agriculture. But when? In medieval times, perhaps, when the nearby Dunmanus tower house was a thriving centre of occupation and, probably, commerce. In the shelter of the bay the little quay at Dunmanus survives and is still used by small boats searching out shellfish and scallops.

In some places the old walls seem to have a prehistoric feel: the use of slabs embedded vertically like standing stones is quite unusual in West Cork. The presence of large quartz rocks, too, is reminiscent of ancient sites, although they are natural geological occurrences here.

Other natural features on the peninsula include two ‘sea arches’ – bridges formed through erosion of the rocks and chasms by the ocean.

It’s a landscape of vestigial fields, sea – and stones. Nothing more. But I find it a mesmeric place; partly because we can see that it bears the marks of human toil, and we want to know more about who was there and how they lived. It’s a remote piece of Ireland to call ‘home’. Those marks remain after how many years – hundreds, thousands? They intrigue us, and compel us to explore.