Northside of the Beara

We have written previous posts in praise of the remarkable narrow, remote, and rarely explored byways or boreens that serve the north coasts of our own peninsula – the Mizen – and our neighbour – the Sheep’s Head. Driving them can be an exhilarating and, at times (particularly when you meet something coming the other way!), harrowing experience although always worthwhile because of the unparalleled land- and sea-scapes which are revealed at every turn.

A view from the boreen that skirts the Northside of our own Mizen Peninsula

This week, however, we set out to explore a little corner of our land which we have, until now, neglected: the Northside of the Beara. Not too far away from us, the Beara Peninsula extends from West Cork into County Kerry and draws us like a magnet because of its dramatic scenery and inherent beauty in all weathers. Have a look at this post, for an overview of how sublime it is.

Looking towards the Northside: our route takes us through the Healy Pass and over the mountains

We headed out on the last day of September and were treated to a day of changing skies and theatrical light effects – the header picture, showing sheep on the Beara Northside, gives an example of the cloud atmospherics over the distant Ring of Kerry. We wanted to explore a corner which could easily be by-passed if you were travelling on the most direct routes through the peninsula.

Our first port of call took in the lakes at Cloonee. Finola was on the lookout for a very rare wildflower which has been seen around the shores but, after diligent searching, we concluded that we were too late in the season: we will have to return next year. That’s no hardship, of course.

Clonee Lakes – dramatic reflections and blue boats at rest

As you can see from the route map above, the terrain all around is wild and rugged. After the little settlement of Tousist the road runs mainly close to the coast and offers constant changes and contrasts. The wide panoramas across Kenmare Bay give way to small stony fields, some guarded from the prevailing weather by heavy-duty walls, then occasionally diving inland to briefly present an unexpected tree tunnel or tumbling stream. Always, the road is not far from an indented shoreline unpredictable in its many twists and turns.

The edge of the land – in this part of the Beara at least – is more heavily populated than the Mizen or Sheep’s Head Northsides. The small townland of Kilmakilloge, in particular, offers a substantial harbour, a bar and cafe ‘serving food all day’ (Helen’s Bar), a large cemetery in which it is possible to glean the part played by this little settlement in the whole history of Ireland, and the slopes of a geological wonder – the 330 metre high Knockatee Mountain. Described as ‘…a small hill with a massive view…’, this green-grey sandstone and purple siltstone mass is a spectacular backdrop to the burial ground: we didn’t climb it on our day out but it is evidently well worth it for the vistas it provides! Another good reason for us to revisit the area.

Approaching Derreen Gardens (you’ll find it described in this post), our excursion is close to the finishing line. The Beara is well supplied with hostelries, which seem to be surviving in spite of the Covid-19 difficulties, and one you shouldn’t miss is An Síbín, near Lauragh. I’m always amused by the old petrol pump there, which looks as though it should provide you with a fill-up of Murphy’s Draught! This is also the point where you have to decide which way to return home. In our case it was back over the beautiful Healy Pass: who wouldn’t want to look out again over those amazing views in all directions?

Friendly sheep have the right of way as we traverse the hairpins on the Healy Pass, heading back to the Mizen

It’s an easy day out for us – and we certainly can’t get enough of the Beara! If you have the chance, explore the Beara Northside yourselves!

Aiming High!

There seems to be a thread going through our recent posts: my Mizen Mountains and Signal Tower projects take us to high places, and today Finola reports on her exploration of hilltop crosses dating from the 1950 Holy Year. Our travels have brought us to many peaks and pinnacles in and beyond West Cork. I must say there’s nowhere I would rather be than far away from the crowds up on an Irish eminence which – without fail – provides us with the most spectacular views across the topography of this greenest of all lands.

After lockdown restrictions were eased, we made a little trip up to County Wicklow to see family and friends, and took full advantage of the many trails that cross the granite outcrops between Bray and Greystones. The header picture looks south-west from Bray Head towards the Great Sugar Loaf, part of the Wicklow mountain range which, at 501 metres, is significantly higher than our own Mount Gabriel in West Cork at 404m, but which nevertheless provides this view (above) towards the coast of Roaringwater Bay, and looks out over Carbery’s 100 Isles.

Travellers through Wicklow have, since ancient times, oriented themselves using the high peaks. Pilgrims going to the holy city of Glendalough and keeping to the coastline south out of Dublin might have followed the routes which, today, pass over Bray Head. A modern way of doing it, at least in part, is on the railway line that hugs the cliffs between Greystones and Bray – a feat of engineering laid out by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 1850s and surviving to this day, although it has had to be realigned six times because of erosion and rockfalls. It has even been described as one of the world’s most picturesque train journeys – something of an exaggeration, perhaps, but it’s well worth taking the trip if you are in the area. The photos above show (from upper) the public trail leading from Windgate up to the Bray Head Cross; the railway line seen from the cliff path that runs close to the route – note the abandoned tunnel on the far right; the view from Bray Head looking south to Greystones with Dunbur Head, south of Wicklow town, far beyond.

Back in West Cork we have no end of high places to choose from. Our latest escapade was a climb to the 1950 cross at Dromore, between Bantry and Drimoleague, which provides the two views above and this one, below, from which you can see the high peak of Gabriel in the distant west.

We have shared with you some of our favourite high journeys in our own part of the country, including the remarkable Borlin Valley road, which crosses the County border between Cork and Kerry:

Climbing to the summit of Knockaphuca gave us this striking view over the Mizen village of Goleen and out to the ‘Wild’ Atlantic beyond it:

Heights still to be scaled: in the picture above I’m walking on a very old roadway which leads out to a ruined Napoleonic signal station perched right above Mizen Head. To my left is the distinctive Mizen Peak. Both sites will feature in future posts, and both reveal dramatic views over this western edge of the land.

We couldn’t complete any account of high places in the west of Ireland without mention of one of our favourite destinations: the Beara Peninsula. Above is the view north from the top of the Healey Pass, looking into Kerry. Below is a dizzying view into the heart of the Beara: look at the farmsteads and cottages below the ancient field system, dwarfed by the power of the mountains.

We will continue to share with you our experiencing of the landscapes here, and not just the high places, of course. We have many years of exploring Ireland under our belts, and look forward to lots still to come.

An Excursion to Dunboy

We have often visited the Beara Peninsula: it’s not too far away and makes a good day’s outing for us. Have a look at some recent posts here and here to get the feel of the geography. Yesterday we had a mission – to discover more about Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare (1561 – 1618) and his connections with Dunboy Castle, over by Castletown-Bearhaven – often known as Castletownbere or just Castletown – in the far west of County Cork.

Our first stop was at the bustling harbour of Castletownbere which sits at the foot of the Caha Mountains. …Where land and sea collide, untamed beauty abounds… – that’s the apt heading on the website of the town’s Development Association, and it most certainly seems a lively and flourishing community, a good base from which to explore the wealth of history and archaeology on the Beara. Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Hungry Hill, is set in the area and is a family saga loosely derived from the history of the Irish ancestors of du Maurier’s friend, Christopher Puxley.

We paused only for a much-needed coffee and a quick look in the Sarah Walker Gallery (precariously and picturesquely situated on the end of the town’s slipway – it’s the white building in the picture above) before setting out to find Dunboy. I had read a little of the history of the place, and knew that it had been a centre of rebellion following the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 – 1602, when allied Irish and Spanish forces were defeated at the culmination of the Nine Years War between England and the Gaelic lordships.

At the edge of the Dunboy Demense are traces of a castellated sea-wall and a gatehouse (above).  The territory was a stronghold of the O’Sullivan Beare clan leader, and was built to guard and defend the harbour of Berehaven. Its presence enabled O’Sullivan Beare to control the sea fisheries off the coast and collect taxes from Irish and continental European fishing vessels sheltering in the haven. It was also a centre for trade to and from the continent. In the aftermath of the Battle Of Kinsale Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare’s followers retreated to Dunboy Castle, which was considered an impregnable stronghold.

The 25″ historic Ordnance Survey map (upper picture) shows the location of the O’Sullivan Beare fortress, circled in red. Don’t be confused by the ‘Dunboy Castle’ label: this is a later building added to an existing tower house that stood on the hill above the promontory. The estate came into the hands of the Puxley family who invested significantly in the Allihies copper mines in the 19th century. The development in the centre of the aerial view above is Puxley Manor, and is a 21st century incarnation of the huge neo-gothic family mansion created by the family, which was burnt out by the IRA in the 1920s.

These pictures show the mansion after its destruction and today. In the lower photograph you can see the original tower house in the foreground: the buildings were fully restored as part of a high-profile ‘Celtic Tiger’ project to create a 6-star hotel which could have brought employment and significant economic benefits to the area. Unfortunately the project collapsed before completion, and the future of this decaying leviathan is uncertain.

We could only look in awe at the very evident and lavish quality of the restoration and development, even in its present state, and speculate how its fortunes might have fared in more stable times. But all this was a bit of a diversion, as our goal was a much less audacious – but far more historically important – site: the original ‘Dunboy Castle’. We followed the trackway along the inlet, which looks as though it was artificially constructed to form a quay serving the demesne.

The ruin itself is unassuming: thick stone walls barely a few metres high. However, the ground plan is clear to see – a typical ‘tower house’ design with splayed openings and steps contained in the thickness of the outer walls. Also visible in the surroundings, however, are the clear ‘star’ shapes of an enclosure, complete with salient angles. These outer defences, reminiscent of ‘star-shaped forts’ evidently date from Cromwellian times, constructed after the castle was destroyed.

These ruins conceal an unhappy tale. At Kinsale the clan chiefs had been joined by a large force of troops sent by King Philip III of Spain, who considered that a federation with Ireland would assist his aspirations against Elizabethan England. After the surrender, a number of O’Sullivan followers retreated to Dunboy, where they found the small Spanish force stationed there  preparing to hand the castle over to the queen’s Lord Deputy, Mountjoy. O’Sullivan overpowered and disarmed the Spaniards and later released them to return to Spain, having kept kept all of their arms, ordnance and munitions. Inevitably, an English force under George Carew set out for Dunboy: it is said that this force numbered between 4,000 and 5,000 troops. O’Sullivan Beare established defences at the castle, but set off himself with most of his own army to consolidate in the north of the Beara Peninsula. Only 143 of his men were left behind at Dunboy, together with Friar Dominic Collins to look after their spiritual welfare. The siege of Dunboy began with an artillery bombardment by land and sea. Owen O’Sullivan of Carriganass, a cousin of Donal Cam, had allied himself with the English and informed them of a weak point in the castle walls. The guns were directed to that point, and the walls were eventually breached. After a ten day siege, Dunboy was reduced to the ruin we see today.

Above is a wonderful graphic illustration of the Siege of Dunboy Castle from Pacata Hibernia or A History of the Wars in Ireland during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth first published in 1633. Only 72 of the Irish defenders survived the siege: they were all hanged, including Friar Dominic Collins. Most of the hangings took place in the bustling square of Castletown-Bearhaven, close to where we had enjoyed our coffee at the start of our excursion.

Here I am meeting Donal Cam himself in the ruins of his former stronghold. My account of the Siege of Dunboy is a very condensed version. Much more has been written about the details. As for O’Sullivan Beare, he eventually embarked on a long march to Leitrim with a thousand of his followers – but that’s a further unhappy story, best kept for another day!

Dunboy Castle and its immediate environs are publicly accessible and there is plenty of parking within easy reach. We finished our day on the Beara by following a rural loop walk from the castle ruin back to the gatehouse – about 5 kilometres in idyllic surroundings.

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, start by reading The Stone Circles of West Cork: Discussion. That post will point you to others as well.

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!