Drawn to the Beara

The spectacular landscapes of the Beara Peninsula draw us again and again: have a look at some of our past explorations here and here. There’s no doubt that for fine, distant views, tranquil coastlines and variety in geology, history and archaeology this part of Ireland takes some beating. And, for us, it’s ideal: near enough that we can have a full day out absorbing all these things, yet still being home in time for tea!

This is the weekend when clocks ‘spring forward’ – giving us longer evenings. But also the sun is getting noticeably stronger, colours are getting more intense, and the shadows are hardening. It’s a great time to be out on our travels.

That’s Hungry Hill above – highest peak in the Caha Mountain range, Co Cork – and the background setting for Daphne du Maurier’s 1943 novel of that name. The story is based on the real-life Puxley family who set up and ran Allihies copper mines in the first half of the nineteenth century. Du Maurier weaves the tale to give the name of the hill a symbolic meaning – the mines ‘swallow up’ the lives of those who work them and the plot is charged with tragedy and unhappiness.

We crossed the peninsula on the Healy Pass, one of Ireland’s great road journeys, with breathtaking views towards Bantry Bay in the south and the Kenmare River to the north as you traverse the 334 metre summit. The road, known in Irish as Bealach Scairte, was originally cut as a nineteenth century famine relief project, and improved in the 1930s, when it was named in honour of Tim Michael Healy, a Cork man who served as the first governor general of the Irish Free State.

We had a mission: to visit Dereen Garden, which is open all year round. We were there before the tourist season got going, and we mainly had the beautiful walks and vistas to ourselves. The woodland garden was laid out 150 years ago with sub-tropical plants from around the world and has been improved and added to since then; it is famous for its huge Arboreum rhododendrons. Evidently there is a variety of wildlife to be seen, including red squirrels, sitka deer and hares, but they were all keeping out of the way when we visited.

We were hoping to sample some of the fine eateries which have been set up on the Beara but, again, we were a little too early in the year: an excuse for another trip when they open up. So we reluctantly turned our way back towards the Healy Pass – to get the views from the other direction – and were stopped in our tracks by a sign pointing to ‘stone circles’. This is in a townland named Cashelkeelty and is near Lauragh, Co Kerry. Finola had a look at her archaeological records on the phone and found it was somewhere we had to go! It involved a long, uphill walk through a forest, but was very well worth it. Read Finola’s post to find all the details.

I will show only one picture as a taster (above) – but also to point out the proximity of the high grade overhead powerline which runs right by the ancient stones. Does it add or detract from the monument itself?

There were many more vistas to be taken in on our few hours spent on this dramatic peninsula, where mountains so spectacularly meet the sea. We can never tire of this, our own little part of the world.

Cashelkeelty – More Than Meets The Eye

It’s on the wild and remote Beara Peninsula and it’s a bit of a trek to get up to it – but so worth it. We are fortunate that we know quite a lot about Cashelkeelty, which is in the Kerry section of the Beara, not far from Lauragh. There were excavations here in the 70s and 80s led by old friends, John Barber and Anne Lynch. Pollen analysis in the region has added to our understanding of the environment during the Bronze Age.

You can see both the multiple stone circle (the closer set of stones) and the 5-stone circle and stone row from the knoll near the site

But none of this is obvious on the ground and there are no explanatory signs, so I’m going to lay out what we know about this marvellous complex of monuments, so that when you go (Yes, do go!) you’ll know a bit more about what you are looking at. Make it part of a day trip, like the one that Robert is describing this week.

Park in the little car park about 2 km west of the turn off for Derreen Garden. Someone has handily marked it on Google Maps as ‘Parking Place Stone Circle’ and take the path that runs upwards through the woods, turning left (and ever upwards) when you come to another path. It’s a Robert Frost experience – the woods are not only lovely, dark and deep but also mossy and mysterious, with hints of old walls here and there.

When you emerge into open country, you are actually on the Beara Way and this stretch was beautifully described by Peter Clarke in his Hikelines blog.

Peter Clarke’s sketch of the 5-stone circle and stone row ©Peter Clarke/Hikelines

In fact, you are walking now along or beside a medieval road that once ran from Kenmare to Castletownbere. Once you know this, you can pick it out and imagine walking or riding along it in rough woollen garments, or perhaps the  flowing robes of a monk, or the full armour of a knight. But this road is actually one of the newer items in this landscape.

The landscape itself is Bronze Age. People made their living here by growing some cereals (probably barley and emmer wheat) and by herding cattle and sheep. Pollen analysis tells us that forest cover declined – that is, it was cleared by the early agriculturalists – beginning about 1500BC and intensifying around 1100BC. Pre-bog field systems are everywhere here – look for the lines of upright boulders defining walls and small fields as you walk.

According to Billy O’Brien in his Iverni (got your copy yet?) deterioration in the climate and higher rainfall about 1000BC led to increased acidification and the spread of bogs in many areas. So what we are looking at here, in the Mid to Late Bronze Age, is an open pastoral landscape. This is important because the views from here are panoramic and significant, and they would not have been obscured by trees.

Ancient fields

And in this open landscape these early farmers lived in houses of which no traces remain, probably of wood and thatch. What does remain are the monuments they built of stone – they meant them to endure and endure they do. There’s a five-stone circle, and a stone row right beside it, and about 30 metres to the west another set of upright stones.

The stone row was built before the 5-stone circle, possible hundreds of years before. There are three stones now, but the Lynch excavation established that there had been a fourth. Like most of  the stone rows on this part of the world it is oriented ENE/WSW, or towards the morning and evening horizons in summer. As regular readers know, I am always intrigued by the way the shapes of the stones seem to mirror the landscape behind it and this is no exception.

The 5-stone circle now only has three stones, but the sockets for the remaining two were found in the course of the excavations. In the centre, covered by a stone slab, was the cremated remains of a person in his or her 20s. Radio carbon dates (later re-calibrated) established the construction to about 1300 to 700BC, placing it in the Late Bronze Age. Mike Wilson of the Mega-WHAT site has analysed the orientations of both the stone row and the 5-stone circle – you can see the results of that here.

Visitors love to leave little offerings at sites like this. You are looking into the 5-stone circle, towards the recumbent. The slab is more or less where the cremated remains were discovered in the excavation

From here you can clearly see another set of stones to the west. What looks like another stone row is actually the remaining uprights of a multiple stone circle, as Anne Lynch documented in her account of the excavation. There were either 11 or 13 stones originally. The tallest stone now standing must have been one of the portals. The middle stone was originally lying down but was re-erected in the course of the excavation.

Once again, I am struck by how these three stones appear to mirror the horizon behind them. Can this really be a coincidence? If so, it’s a an eerie one. To understand how and why multiple stone circles were built, read my post Ancient Calendars.

To round out the Bronze Age monuments, there’s a Fulacht Fia just south of the 5-stone circle – you can read more about these ancient cooking places in my post Ballyrisode Fulacht Fia.

This little road leads to a stone building, perhaps originally a cottage. It’s the green roof you can see in the second photograph

Cashelkeelty is an amazing site – so many monuments, such evidence of Bronze Age activity from daily living and farming to monument-building. We still have their stone edifices to remind us that these people were sophisticated builders who wanted certain of their practices and rituals to endure for centuries. What we no longer see easy signs of, we can imagine – the forest clearing, the planting and herding, the communal feasting. Take a little while at this site and ask whether our own efforts will endure for thousands of years.

 

Inspired by Stone

One of the many archaeological excitements in Ireland last summer was the discovery of a hitherto unknown passage grave with significant carvings beside Dowth Hall in the Bru na Boinne area of County Meath. These carvings are likely to date from around 5,500 years ago. In the picture above (courtesy of agriland.ie) from left to right are Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan; agri-technology company Devenish’s lead archaeologist Dr Cliodhna Ni Lionain; Devenish’s executive chairman Owen Brennan; and Professor Alice Stanton.

As you know, we are Rock Art addicts, so this week went along to this year’s Stone Symposium in Durrus, West Cork, to hear Cliodhna, above, give a fascinating illustrated talk on the finds at Dowth. Have a look at this post on the inaugural Stone Symposium from 2017. It’s great that the event is thriving and attracting interest and participants from far and wide.

Our attendance at the Symposium set me thinking about the whole subject of stone. It’s the most basic of creative materials, as relevant today in construction and art as it was to our Neolithic ancestors. Proleek Dolmen in County Louth (above) is an example of the early use of stone to create a structure which made a huge impact on the landscape. It’s a portal tomb over 3 metres high, and the supporting stones are around 2 metres high: the capstone is estimated to weigh 35 tons. It’s probably a more visually impressive structure today – in its ‘naked’ state – than it was when completed, as it is likely to have been covered over with a mound of earth and / or stones. There is folklore attached to this monument: it is known locally as the Giant’s Load, having been  carried to Ireland by a Scottish giant named Parrah Boug McShagean, who is said to be buried in the tomb or nearby.

Here’s another portal tomb – the largest in Europe – which I discussed in this post from last year. It’s known as Brownshill Dolmen, and is in County Carlow. Finola is in the picture to give the scale. This capstone is said to weigh 103 tons. The portal tombs demonstrate the use of stone in its rawest and most spectacular state: they are examples of Ireland’s earliest architecture, and we don’t really know what they were for. Perhaps it’s to do with status, either of the builders or of the chiefs or priests who might have been buried in them. They certainly make mighty marks on the landscape…

…As do all the other stone monuments which celebrate their makers – although perhaps they remain enigmatic to us today. Bronze Age stone circles have always fascinated, and at least we know that they have orientations which must have been significant. Drombeg in West Cork (above) is much visited at the winter solstice, when the path of the setting sun falls over the recumbent stone when observed through the two portal stones at the east side of the circle.

While the earliest dwellings of the inhabitants of Ireland thousands of years ago were probably constructed from organic materials  – earth, sticks and furze – stone began to play a part in architectural construction in Christian times. The remarkable Gallarus Oratory (above) on the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, was long thought to have dated from around the 8th century, although an early commentator – antiquarian George Petrie, writing in 1845 – suggested:

I am strongly inclined to believe that it may be even more ancient than the period assigned for the conversion of the Irish generally by their great apostle Patrick . . .

It’s a fascinating discussion to follow – Peter Harbison sets it out in detail here, and concludes that the Oratory could have been built as late as the 12th century, even after the great Romanesque flowering which included the building of monastic settlements and round towers.

The 12th century cathedral and (possibly earlier) round tower at Ardmore, County Waterford (above), should be a Mecca for stone enthusiasts because of its monumental architecture and carvings: St Declan founded the site in the 5th century, and his monastic cell survives. The Romanesque period in Ireland has many other examples of stone craftsmanship to show, proving that working with stone had become a high art in those medieval times. The examples below are from Killaloe Cathedral in County Clare.

One of the finest Romanesque sites is the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary. Finola has written in detail on this architectural gem here and here. Suffice it for me to illustrate only one of its treasures – Cormac’s tomb, a sarcophagus beautifully carved in the ‘Urnes’ style – a Scandinavian tradition of intertwined animals.

For centuries, stone has also been a ubiquitous utilitarian building material all over Ireland. ‘Castles’ or – more properly ‘Tower Houses’ – date from roughly 1400 to around 1650, and many remain in a ruined condition, particularly on the coastline of West Cork: we can see five of them from Nead an Iolair. Some have been restored in modern times, including Jeremy Irons’ Kilcoe Castle. The example below is from Conna, East Cork.

Ireland’s landscape is sculpted from stone. Drystone walling is an ancient tradition still practiced for dividing up land, and varies considerably in style regionally, reflecting the differing geology across the island. Two examples from the Beara Peninsula (below) show the essential geometry of field patterns which stone wall building has created over the centuries.

Stone has also long been a medium for communication. We have commemorated our ancestors for centuries with grave markers, often with elegantly carved lettering. Of the two examples below, the first is from Clonmacnoise, and is likely to be early medieval, while the second is an inscription from 1791.

This is just a brief history of our use of stone, dating over thousands of years: I have chosen many examples – almost at random – but hope that I have demonstrated how important it is to continue this ancient craft. The West Cork Stone Symposium is doing sterling work in promoting it today: long may this continue!

The Mass Rock – revisited

This post was originally published way back in 2014 but I have updated it with a few new photographs and edited the text slightly.

An raibh tú ag an gCarraig? / Were You at the Rock?

nó a’ bhfaca tú féin mó grá / Or did you yourself see my love,

nó a’ bhfaca tú gile, / Or did you see a brightness,

finne agus scéimh na mná? / The fairness and the beauty of the woman?

This beautiful song speaks to a revered tradition in Irish history and folk custom – the mass rock. During the period of the Penal Laws (late 17th and first half of 18th Century) when the practice of Catholicism was outlawed, parishioners would gather at a secret location to attend mass. The priest travelled from community to community in disguise, a lookout was posted, and mass was celebrated on a lonely rock far from the reach of the law. The song encodes the message that the people still find ways to attend mass, despite the harsh prohibition against it.

Mass rocks are often in remote locations, such as this one in Kerry, or the lead image on the Beara

Dr. Hilary Bishop, in her excellent website Find a Mass Rock says, As locations of a distinctively Catholic faith, Mass Rocks are important religious and historical monuments that provide a tangible and experiential link to Irish heritage and tradition. She also points out that, because of the imperative for secrecy, mass rocks are difficult to find.

This stained glass window shows mass at a mass rock, with a lookout posted to keep an eye out for the redcoats

We certainly experienced this when we set out for a day of mass rock hunting. Working from a list generated from the National Monuments Service database we spent a day on the Sheep’s Head and the Mizen and had trouble finding all the rocks on the list. One, if it was still there, had disappeared under impenetrable layers of gorse. A second rock was last recorded in the 1980s: residents were no longer familiar with it.

One of our favourite holy wells, at Beach on the Sheep’s Head, also incorporates a mass rock. Mass is celebrated here every August

Knowledge of mass rocks has passed down from generation to generation. In the deep countryside, the sites maintain a mystique and a sense of the sacred. We’ve written about the mass rock and holy well at Beach, where Mary conjured up a blanket of fog to confuse the English soldiers and allow the priest to escape. At Beach and at our first stop, the mass rock at Glanalin on the Sheep’s Head Way, mass is still celebrated.

The Glanalin rock (above), and the one we visited on the Beara Peninsula, are good examples of the remote locations typical of many mass rocks, high on a hillside or hidden in an isolated valley. You can picture the procession of worshippers, in ones and twos, slipping silently through the bracken, pausing to make sure they are not being watched, climbing higher, following an overgrown trail, arriving at the meeting place where the hushed crowd awaits the arrival of the priest.

One of the rocks we found (above) looked for all the world like a fallen standing stone – and that’s probably what it was. (I wonder if I should go to confession, though – I’m sure that sitting on a mass rock would qualify as at least a venial sin.)

A mass rock that is easily visited is the one at Cononagh Village (above), right at the side of the main road into West Cork, the N71. This site is beautifully maintained – Cononagh is obviously proud of its heritage: signage and flowers invite the passerby to take a closer look.

The mass rock we visited last year, at Foherlagh, has a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. This one even had a small scoop-out in the rock, identified as a holy well

Another easily accessible site is Altar, at Toormore. This is a wedge tomb, probably over 4,000 years old and excavated in 1989. It remained in use through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age. Dr. William O’Brien, in Iverni, says of this site: …over time this tomb came to be regarded as a sacred place, housing important ancestral remains in what was a type of community shrine. How fitting, then, that the flat capstone of the Altar wedge tomb became, in the Penal Days, a mass rock. And how intriguing to think of the continuation of this sacred space over the course of thousands of years.

But perhaps our favourite of all the mass rocks we have visited is the one at Castlemehigan. We wrote about it here. It started out life as a cupmarked stone perhaps in the Neolithic, then probably got converted into a bullaun stone in the Early Medieval period, before finally serving as a mass rock – and it has all the stories to go with its long history.

 

West Cork Obscura – Robert’s Choices

‘Hidden West Cork’ and ‘off the beaten track’ have been oft-used phrases in our posts – and that’s part of our mission with Roaringwater Journal: exploration of some of the more secret places, and researching and recording their stories. Finola has looked out her own favourites; my current choices are here – although, with 569 posts written to date between us, we could have picked out so many.

Header and above – one of the discoveries which made a great impression on me during the year was Tralong Bay, out beyond Glandore and Drombeg: it’s a beautiful piece of the coastline, at the end of a cul-de-sac and – it seemed to us – very little visited. But to visit is to transport yourselves back thousands of years as, on the beach and exposed at low tide, are the remains of an ancient forest. Here is the post.

A quirky discovery, not too far away from Tralong, was the pyramid-shaped mausoleum in the old burial ground at Glandore. For us, ancient graveyards are treasure troves of local history. This one – a peaceful and secluded place well worth a visit anyway – conceals an enigma: find the story here.

The Rock Art at Castlemehigan in its spectacular setting (above). Below is a close view of some of the markings on the rock

Delving back a few years, I found this December post on a visit to a spectacular example of Rock Art at the far end the Mizen Peninsula: Castlemehigan. The cupmarks on this earthfast boulder are impressive and the view from it is spectacular, especially on the clear winter day that we were blessed with. The rock was also in use as a Mass Rock during penal times, and there is evidence of this on the surface. We were told a story about those times by Florence O’Driscoll, whose land the rock is on. Make sure you have permission to visit if you go!

Finola managed to combine her consuming interest in wildflowers with industrial history and an account of a very special walk on the Sheep’s Head. It’s one of the marked trails on that peninsula – and takes in the deserted settlement of Crimea where a cottage has been partially restored (picture above) – finishing at the abandoned mine workings at Gortavallig, perched precariously on the very edge of a cliff (below). Here is the link to Finola’s post.

Here am I trying to get my head around the enigmatic ‘Rolls of Butter’ (above). I have to admit they are in Kerry (only just), but involved us travelling one of our all-time favourite roads, much of which is actually in West Cork: that’s the Priest’s Leap Road which runs over the mountains from Bantry (more or less) to Kenmare (more or less). We go out of our way to use this road because of the superb views – and a special piece of folklore – but, if you give it a try, be prepared for a narrow and steep journey (below)! Here is the post.

Archaeology dictates many of our outings. One of the less well-known monuments is Ardgroom Outward Stone Circle (pictured above and below) on the Beara Peninsula. This year, following a harsh winter, the weather turned sublime, and we have travelled extensively to make the most of it. We find ourselves often drawn to the Beara (much of which is in West Cork). This post describes an expedition which included stone monuments, colourful villages, stained glass – and ice cream! Have a look.

It was almost five years ago that we first reported on one of our perenially favourite West Cork locations: Gougane Barra (above). It’s a holy place – an alluringly beautiful lake sited in the Shehy Mountains, close to the source of Cork’s special River Lee. Here, in the sixth century, Saint Finbarr set up a collection of cells for his monastic community on an island. Here, also, lived the couple ‘The Tailor and Ansty’, immortalised in a book written in 1942 by Eric Cross. It’s a not entirely happy story as the book was banned because of its down-to-earth portrayal of the facts of life, and storyteller Tim Buckley (‘The Tailor’) was forced to burn his copy of it in front of the local priests: the incident led to an abrasive debate in Seanad Éireann on censorship. This story is, perhaps, one of the less well-known historical aspects of West Cork (and Ireland), but visit Gougane Barra for its beauty – and make sure you find the gravestone of ‘The Tailor & Ansty’: it was carved by their friend Seamus Murphy and bears the inscription . . .  A Star Danced And Under That Was I Born . . .

We hope that, between us, we might have given you some good ideas for exploration of our wonderful West Cork landscapes and – perhaps – encourage you off the highways and on to the byways: there are so many adventures to be had, summer or winter. Travel Well!

Sun’s Out!

On one April day after a bleak, harsh winter that had gales, hurricanes, blizzards and unceasing bitter east winds thrown at us – the sun came out! We were out too, and headed up to the Beara Peninsula to see if we could remember what sun-soaked landscapes felt like… They felt great!

Header – the glories of Cork and Kerry combine on the spectacular Beara; top photograph – finally, after a long,harsh winter, we see the spring blossoms appearing; middle – a wayside shrine on the road out from Glengariff; bottom – Hungry Hill dominates the views as we head west on the peninsula

You will remember our previous visits to the Beara: there are not enough superlatives for what it has to offer in the way of stunning scenery and colour. None of these photographs have been enhanced – what you see is exactly what we saw on the day – and it’s what you will see, too, if you choose aright (although even on dull days we always find plenty to interest us).

Top photograph – St Kentigern’s Church is in the centre of one of Ireland’s most colourful villages; middle – the sunlight plays games with the beautiful windows by glass artist George Walsh; bottom – light from the windows dances on the pews

We knew where we were going: Finola was keen to revisit the little Catholic church of St Kentigern in Eyeries, which has a fine collection of windows by George Walsh: it’s a gem – and at its best for the quality of the light enhancing it on the day. I wanted to see the settlement itself in the early spring sunlight as it’s one of the most colourful places in the whole of Ireland! Neither of us was disappointed.

Just a taster of the treats in store in Eyeries: on a beautiful spring day there was hardly a soul around, but we were still able to find an ice cream in O’Sullivan’s!

Our second objective was to travel into the hills and find Ardgroom Outward stone circle. The trail involves farm gates, stiles and a lot of mud – but the 9 stone circle (named locally ‘Canfea’) is a fine, almost intact monument with wide vistas to mountain and sea. The impressive outlier stone is 3.2m in height.

The magnificent Ardgroom Outward (or ‘Canfea’) stone circle is accessible via a marked, boggy path: the vistas from the site make the journey worthwhile. Finola is dwarfed by the huge outlier!

It’s barely a skip up to Eyeries from Nead an Iolair, so we had to carry on around the peninsula and take in the almost surreal views of oceans, lakes and mountains before dipping into Kerry and then heading over the top back into Cork county and down the Healy Pass – surely one of Ireland’s most spectacular road trips.

Returning home – with the evening sun setting gloriously over Roaringwater Bay – we reflected that there can’t be many places in the world where a single day can offer such a feast to satisfy all the senses.