Pints and Pipes

Today there is a story to tell, with lots of connections to the West of Ireland – and our own Ballydehob! That’s Levis’s Corner Bar, below, one of the village’s fine hostelries: try them all if you visit. Levis’s is known for its musical events but also for its traditional appearance inside. Look at the photo of the Irish music session (you’ll see me bottom left playing concertina) – that was taken a few years ago, before Covid; we are still waiting for those good times to return. On the wall behind the players you can catch a glimpse of a painting of men with pints and pipes.

There’s a better view of the painting, above. When I first saw it – very many years ago now – I knew immediately that it was based on a photograph that had been taken by Tómás Ó Muicheartaigh – an Irish cultural hero who spent most of his life documenting traditional life, mainly in the western counties. He lived through the founding of the Irish Free State and was an enthusiastic proponent of the Irish language. This sketch portrait of him is by Seán O’Sullivan, a friend and compatriot:

Way back in the 1970s my then wife and I ran a small bookshop in a Devon market town, specialising in folklore and traditional life. It had a substantial section on Ireland, and Irish culture. We stocked a recently-published volume (1970) celebrating the work of Ó Muicheartaigh, and I very soon had to sell myself a copy, as it is a superb record of mainly rural life in Ireland during the early twentieth century. I have it to this day – of course.

There is the photograph in the book, above. It is captioned Piontí Agus Píopaí – Pints and Pipes, hence the title of this post. Below it is a photograph of two Aran Island fishermen relaxing on the rocks while waiting for the weather to improve before they set out to sea. But there is more – a list of the photographs with some expanded captions at the end of the book. The whole book is written in Irish so I have recruited Finola’s help in providing a transcription for the Pints and Pipes – here it is, in the original and then translated:

Piontí Agus Píopaí

Ceathrar pinsinéirí ag baint spraoi as lá an phinsin le píopa agus le pionta Pórtair. B’fhéidir nach mbeadh pionta go hAoine arís acu. A saol ar fad tugtha ar an bhfarraige acu seo. Féach, cé gur istigh ón ngaoth agus ón aimsir atá an ceathrar go bhfuill an cobhar ar píopa gach duine acu. Is mar chosaint are an ngaoth a bhíodh an cobhar agus chun tobac a spáráil, ach ní bhainfí an cobhar anuas den phíopa instigh ná amuigh

Pints and Pipes

Four pensioners enjoying pension day with pipes and pints of porter. They might not have another pint until Friday. They’ve spent their whole lives on the sea. Look, even though the four of them are inside, away from the wind and the weather, the cover is still on each of their pipes. The covers are to protect the tobacco from the wind and to make it last longer and they aren’t taken off inside nor out

So, a fascinating piece of social history. Apart from conjecturing a date for the photo, I didn’t have much information to add when I first published it on Roaringwater Journal in February 2016. Because of the juxtaposition in the book, I guessed that the picture might have been taken around 1938, when Tómás is known to have visited and photographed the Aran Islands (and would have travelled through Kerry to get there). Here is one of his views of a Curragh being launched on Inis Meáin at this time (Dúchas):

I didn’t expect my story of Pints and Pipes to advance beyond this. But, last week, I received a message from a reader who had seen the photograph in Roaringwater Journal and was able to provide very significant additional information!

. . . My name is Joanne and I live in London. My dad found a photo on your website from a blog dated 14 Feb 2016 entitled Images – it is the Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh photograph of the 4 men drinking in a bar. My great-grandad is the man on the far left. It was great to find the photo as it is much better quality than the copy we have, unfortunately my nan had an original postcard but it was borrowed by a representative of Guinness many years ago and never returned! 

Joanne, September 2021

Joanne has proved to be a wonderful contact, and I am so grateful to her for providing information and allowing me to use it here. In summary:

. . . My great-grandad’s name was Seán Mac Gearailt but he was known as Skip.  He was from Baile Loisce in Kerry.  The photo was taken in a bar which was then called Johnny Frank’s in Baile na nGall (Ballydavid) but I think is now called Tigh TP.  I can see from the photos that have been digitalised Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh took a lot of photographs at Baile na nGall. Pints and Pipes isn’t in that digitalised collection . . .

. . . I gave my dad a call tonight and discussed the extract with him; he lived with his grandparents as a child in the late 1940’s/50’s and visited regularly so knows a lot about Skip. Dad remembers him collecting his pension on a Friday at Ballydavid and having a beer in Johnny Frank’s before going home to hand over the rest of the pension to his wife – so the extract in the book is correct on that. Skip was primarily a farmer but dad says he did go out fishing in a curragh at night. Dad remembers his nan being worried for him when he was out at sea. Dad doesn’t know the name of the other men in the photograph. Skip was friends with two Moriarty brothers (from Gallarus) – so dad thinks maybe the two men in the middle are them but he can’t know that for sure . . .

Joanne, September 2021

Wow! You can imagine how delighted I was to receive that information. But there’s more. I managed to find some early photos of Ballydavid (Baile na nGall in Irish), which is part of the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht area. In fact we have been there – when we took the Irish language immersion course two years ago.

We didn’t photograph the Ballydavid bar, Johnny Frank’s at that time, but here (above) is a view of it from Wiki Commons. Also, to help set the scene, is a little piece online which features the bar, and weaves a tale…

Regular readers will know my interest in the Napoleonic-era signal towers which dot the coast of Ireland, all built in the early years of the 19th century. There was one at Ballydavid Head, drawn (above) by George Victor Du Noyer as he passed by on one of his geological expeditions on 12 June 1856. We didn’t climb the Head when we visited, but we viewed it from a distance (below). The tower is now a ruin.

We have travelled far, far away from Ballydehob where, in some ways, the weaving of this tale began. We had better return. Here’s a reminder of that painted image of the ‘Pints and Pipes’ photograph in Levis’s Corner Bar. Compare it to the header photograph of this post.

It is so obviously based on the Tómás Ó Muicheartaigh portrait, yet there are some differences. The pipes of the two men in the middle are missing! I can’t tell you why this is the case, but I can tell you now who produced the painting, as I was given a valuable link by Joe O’Leary, landlord of Levis’s (which his been in his family for some generations – but that is another story). The painting has a signature:

Paul Klee was, of course, a well known Swiss-born German artist who lived between 1879 and 1940: he had no connection whatsoever with Ireland! Nor did he have anything to do with this painting, which was in fact from the brush of Raymond Klee, born in Barry, South Wales, in 1925 but living out much of his later life in Bantry, West Cork, until his death there in 2013. During the 1950s and 60s he lived in the Montmatre artists’ quarter in Paris, and is said to have been a close friend of Pablo Picasso. There can be no doubt that the Levis’s painting is his work, as I came across a short video, taken late in his life, in his Ballylickey Gallery. I managed to ‘freeze’ the fast-moving film at this point:

There, you can see the artist himself on the left, and over on the right is the partial image of a huge painting propped up: it’s another version of Pints and Pipes… I wonder what became of it? Or, indeed, of much of the large body of work which he left behind in Ballylickey? You will find examples on the internet, including several from the catalogues of art dealers. He doesn’t seem to have exhibited a particularly consistent style and – by repute – ‘churned out’ some of his works very quickly but – it has to be said – to a willing audience. During tours of the United States he would paint large canvases in front of a crowd – perhaps 200 spectators – and produce work which he immediately sold to the highest bidder in the room! I have selected a couple of images of paintings which might be of interest to my audience. The upper painting is titled The Local, while the lower one is Sky Over Inchydoney.

I must end my tale. Here is a little bonus, especially for my correspondent Joanne – and she won’t see this until she reads this post for the first time. We were leafing through the Tómás Ó Muicheartaigh book; it’s hard to put down – over 300 seminal photographs of Irish life. Finola’s eagle eye picked out one which I had never noticed before – and here it is: Seán Mac Gearailt, Joanne’s Great Grandfather, Skip. The caption underneath is apt. Many thanks, Joanne, for setting me on this journey…

GO mBEIRIMID BEO AR AN AM SEO ARÍS . . .

Thanks go to my very good friend Oliver Nares, who worked on the photographs of Pints and Pipes and Skip for me, and greatly improved their quality. Have look at his own site

Coomhola Country Revisited

Lines 1

Here’s a post I published in June last year – only 15 months ago. Many of you will remember it. I’m repeating it in order to remind you of the beauty of this particularly remote corner of West Cork and Kerry. We travelled this byway again last week, and were surprised to notice how ‘raw’ the landscape seemed in places. This is partly because a new roadway has been made down through the valley to serve local property. But also I was struck by the number of power lines which go through the area.

These lines were part of a programme to improve and extend the Eirgrid of Ireland – the remit of the ESB.

The distribution system delivers electricity from the transmission system to 2.3 million customers in Ireland, operating at 110kV in the Dublin area, and at 38kV, 20kV, 10kV and low voltage (LV) nationwide. In serving Ireland’s large rural population, the network length per capita is four times the European average and overhead lines outnumber underground cables 6 : 1 . . .

ESB Networks IE

Statistics are remarkable: 2.1 million wooden poles and 150,000 km of overhead line have been used to date, along with 22,000 km of underground supply cable. Due to the Rural Electrification Scheme led by ESB, by the 1960s 80% of rural households had electricity in their homes. Now, most households are connected to the grid, and works are in progress to upgrade the system across the country. In the image below the very first pole is being erected in 1944, while under that is a photo of a PR event ten years later (both are from the ESB Archives).

Emotions are mixed as we travel through this wild country and see how power lines can affect the rural areas, while obviously also providing essential services. We were surprised that so many lines – and poles – were required to get the supply over these particular hills. A correspondent has given us the full details (thank you Justin Cremin).

. . . The bigger line on the left is a 38kv line, it goes to Kikgarvan 38kv station and originates at Ballylickey 110kv station. This supplies all of the Beara peninsula with the Kilgarvan line as an alternative “just in case”. It was built in the 1950’s at a guess and would have primarily blasted by gelignite and the poles stood manually.The line on the right is called the Hydro line. It runs over the hill to Slaheny to a small hydro and originated in Bantry 38kv where it picks up another 3 small hydro stations along the way. This Borlin leg was stood in the very early 00’s/ very late 90’s . . .

We came across further grid improvement works currently in progress on a recent trip to the environs of Dunmanus Castle:

So here – to remind you – is the Coomhola and Borlin landscape as we discovered it, and recorded it, in our post of 2020:

As the Coomhola River tumbles from Borlin to the sea, gathering tributaries, it forms many pools amongst the riffles and glides. These pools, in summer, provide leafy shelters for salmon and trout. To anyone who has fished or walked the river, each pool has its own character, and each its own name . . .

[From Hidden Gold, History and Folklore of the Coomhola and Borlin Valleys Julia Kemp: Coomhola Borlin Community Development Association 1998]

On the header is the spectacular view from Borlin, looking down the great glen where the Coomhola River finds its way through a country formed by glaciers in the Midlandian period, about 10,000 years ago. The rugged Shehy mountain range (Cnoic na Seithe in Irish, meaning Hills of the Animal Hides) with its peaks of Knockboy, Caoinkeen and Kinkeen provides some of the most dramatic scenery in West Cork, its scarred outcrops clearly showing the downward progress of the ice sheets. The contrast between the barren high land and the lush pastoral meadows laid out below evoke a beauty which is hard to match – anywhere in the world!

The Kilgarvan (Co Kerry) to Ballylickey (Co Cork) road is one of the unsung feats of Irish engineering. Until the middle of the nineteenth century it was no more than a system of ‘nearways’, providing rough, narrow access tracks to remote mountain dwellings and hard-won field systems. A famine improvement project c1846, involving metalling, a tunnel, cuttings and stone retaining walls, transformed it to the ‘through road’ which exists today – although it may seem to us no more than a boreen. It’s there for all to travel on, and will provide a breathtaking experience – but be aware that it could also deliver some hair-raising reversing episodes on the rare occasions when a vehicle is encountered coming the other way. The upper photo shows the road ‘clinging on’ to the face of a mountain outcrop, while the map gives a good idea of the circuitous route that the way takes to keep as far as possible to a level contour on its journey.

This is the country of St Finnbar. If you follow the County border east from the top of the Borlin Glen (off-road) you will very soon come to the site of his sixth century monastic settlement at Gougane Barra. This whole area was loved by the Cork born writer and illustrator Robert Gibbings, whose book Sweet Cork of Thee tells of a seven month sojourn in this mountainous region in 1949, beautifully illustrated by his woodcuts.

Mountain Road by Robert Gibbings, woodcut from Sweet Cork of Thee, published 1951

As we drove along the road beside the Inchigeelagh lakes, we could see moorhens gathering material for their nests among the taselled reeds and swans on islets, piling up dead rushes in readiness for their eggs. A corncrake was calling from a meadow. Celandines and kingcups outshone the gorse.

Mick said to me: ‘My father’s sister lived a mile to the north of us here. She married a man by the name of Scanlan. His mother came from Gougane and ’twas one evening when she was travelling west by the lake – there was no road there then, only a little bit of a track – she looked in the lake and what did she see but fields of corn and sheep and every sort of land and crop and stock. She was an old woman at the time and she knew well enough ’twas a kind of enchantment must be on the lake, so she says to herself, if I can keep an eye on it all and throw a bit of iron at it the spell will be broken. So she kept her eyes fixed on the fields and the cattle and the pigs and the hens, and all the time she was thinking where would she get a bit of iron. And the only bit she could think of was in the heel of her shoe. ‘Twould be worth it to throw in the shoe, says she. But when she went to unrip the lace wasn’t it tangled in a knot, and for the glint of a second she took her eye off the land. When she looked again ’twas all disappeared and the lake was there the same as ever.’

Our road turned south, through a wilderness of rock and bog and lilied pools . . .

[Robert Gibbings Sweet Cork of Thee, J M Dent & Sons 1951]

From the highest rim of Borlin Glen (upper picture), the Comhoola River valley is laid out below. Home to sheep and ravens, the scattered farmsteads emerge from rock and forest and provide a living – as they have for countless generations – to a hardy people.

On the lush valley floor are signs of ancient activity and occupation. A stream flows through a meadow dotted with whitethorn trees (upper), while an old stone clapper bridge has been superseded by the modern boreen taking its way up to the Borlin Valley settlements (centre). Lower – a fascinating stone circle and mass rock site is interrupted by the field fence. Here, too, is a bullaun stone and cupmarked rock (below).

Let us give the last word to Johnny O’Driscoll from Snave, recorded by his grandson Sean O’Driscoll in the 1930s and featured in Julia Kemp’s Hidden Gold:

There is little gold in this area, but there is one place where it is said a crock of gold is buried. It is about a hundred yards from the Glaslough, between Coorycomade and Ardnatrush, about a mile and a half from Coomhola National School.

There is a bush growing at the exact location, and beneath the bush is a large stone which covers the hidden treasure. It belongs to a tiny dwarf, and anybody who visits the place at midnight can see this little creature on the bush above the gold.

People did go on one occasion in search of the gold, but they were unsuccessful. A little bright light is visible about midnight above the bush. I have seen it myself on several occasions . . .

Kerry Leftovers

We spent a couple of days in Kerry a week before midsummer, and gave you some account of our discoveries on Church Island, Lough Currane, and up in the hills at Caherlehillan – both memorable Early Christian sites. Our adventures did not end there: we managed to take in, also, some other ancient treasures, a couple of Kerry characters, and some stunning scenery – hard to match – as we travelled back to West Cork along the Ring of Kerry road (above).

Firstly, here are Charlie Chaplin and Michael Collins (above), both familiar figures in Waterville. The Hollywood star spent his summer holidays in the coastal town for many years with his family and is commemorated by a bronze statue, while Michael can be found on most days in this much photographed location, always ready to entertain with Kerry polkas and slides on his accordion.

Here’s a much earlier Kerry musician: he’s known as ‘The Fiddler’, and is an unusual medieval representation of an instrumentalist found in the romanesque ruin on Church Island, Lough Currane. I was pleased to find this photograph in the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Notes from 1908 by P J Lynch as it shows the carving as it was found by the OPW when they took over the site. Now the original, which had suffered accelerated weathering, is kept protected in a museum while a well-worn replica is in place on the site. I believe the carving is a good representation of a medieval bowed lyre, an instrument with six strings which survives today in some cultures, although Lynch gave the following commentary:

. . . The interest in this stone centres in the musical instrument. The examples of ancient carving in Ireland representing stringed instruments are few, and confined to harpers. The photograph illustrates this instrument very clearly. It is the ancient cruit or fidil, said to be the parent of the violin. There are six strings indicated by sunken lines in the stone. The figure appears to wear a kind of tight-fitting tunic. Dr O’Sullivan states that the word fidil being a teutonic version of the original name vièle, it may be concluded that the original instrument was introduced through the Anglo-Saxons, and not through the Normans. He adds that up to the eleventh century it consisted of a conical body, and after that it became oval. If this be a portion of the twelfth-century instrument, the older pattern must have survived. The Kerry people were probably as unwilling to change in those days as they are at present . . .

P J Lynch – Some notes on church island – RSAI 1908

Our trip out to Church Island (above) was accompanied by moody weather, but we were fortunate with other expeditions which included the discovery of ancient sites in the townland of Srugreana (Srúbh Gréine in Irish, which is translated variously as sunny stream, gravelly stream or – my favourite – snout of the sun: Kerry certainly offers some tricky pronunciations for those unfamiliar with the area, or the language!).

This extract from the 6″ OS map, dating from the mid-1800s, shows one area we explored on our Kerry day. It throws up some enigmas: Killinane Church (the church of Saint Lonan or Lonáin) is often referred to as Srugreana Abbey, but this is a separate site indicated further to the north-west on the early plan.

The church site at Srugreana is remarkable in many ways. A 2012 survey commissioned by Kerry County Council Heritage Office found there are at least 1,290 unhewn, uninscribed gravemarkers around the medieval church, and a significant number of ‘house type’ tombs, some of which are ‘two-storey’, like the one above. The concentration of graves – many of which cannot be dated – suggests how populous this now remote area was at one time.

The main purpose of our visit to Srugreana was to search out a holy well dedicated to Saint Gobnait (above). The expedition was led by Amanda, who runs the Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry website. You need to read her comprehensive article on this particular saint here. Interestingly, while we were visiting the well we met the new owner of the land on which it sits. She had no idea that there was a holy well here, and also was unaware of its apparently recent renovation! Note the crosses carved on the stones by visiting pilgrims, above.

From the above accounts, and our two previous posts, you can tell that we had a most productive time exploring just one small area in the ‘Kingdom’ of Kerry. I am rounding off this entry with some more photographs of our journey back along the coast. The weather gave of its best for this county which is our neighbour, and we will continue to explore it and look for more archaeological gems. Keep reading!

Caherlehillan

The Iveragh is the largest of the Atlantic peninsulas of Ireland: it is, perhaps, also the most romantically named. In Irish it is Uíbh Ráthach – ‘descendants of Ráthach‘. But we don’t know who Ráthach might have been: a Gaelic chieftain, a notable family – ancient inhabitants lost even to legend? Certainly this terrain is amongst the wildest and most beautiful in this green island. Today we are focussing on just one Kerry townland which encompasses a deep vein of history stretching back to prehistoric times.

The townland of Caherlehillan is defined by mountains. To the north is Knocknadobar (header and above), to the east Mullaghnarakill, and to the south Caunoge. The Fertha River flows down from Coomacarrea and creates a long, fertile valley floor which opens to Valencia Harbour at Cahersiveen.

It would be reasonable to assume that the river valley would have supported communities in ancient times, and the recorded archaeology of the area confirms this. The earliest antiquities include a Bronze Age stone row and – possibly Neolithic – Rock Art, explored and recorded by Finola fifty years ago: an eager student travelling alone through the wildernesses on a borrowed Honda 50!

Upper picture – stone row in Caherlehillan townland; lower – Finola’s drawing of Rock Art made in 1973 for her UCC thesis. Note the cruciform motif at the southern end of this large sandstone boulder: it is probable that this carving dates from a later period, and may have indicated its use as a Mass Rock in penal times. However, the ‘Patriarchal Cross’ format is unusual in this context, and warrants further study. Since Finola travelled those boreens, many more examples of Rock Art have been revealed in the area and are now identified on the Sites and Monuments records. On our visit to Caherlehillan we searched the hillsides in vain for some of these more recently discovered panels (below).

This further representation of Rock Art (above), also recorded by Finola, lies on the borders of the townlands of Caherlehillan and Gortnagulla: the motifs are quite unusual.

The central feature of Caherlehillan is the Caher (above), which gives the townland its name. The suffix ‘lehillan’ is probably from the Irish Leith-Uilleann, meaning half-angle, or elbow. There is a sharp bend in the Fertha River below the settlement, and it is most likely that this natural feature gave rise to the nomenclature. A Caher (Irish Cathair) is a stone fort, and is distinguished from a typical earthen rath, or ring-fort, by its size and construction. Forts, whether stone or earthen, were the dwelling places and shelters of people who lived in the first millennium in Ireland. Generally, stone-built forts were larger than earthen examples and are likely to have been inhabited by higher status families or communities. They would have been impressive structures and good views over the surrounding landscape was a requisite. Interestingly, the word Cathair is also given the meaning ‘city’ – ‘monastic city and settlement’ – and ‘Paradise’ (Teannglann). All of these could be relevant, as close to this Caher is an early ecclesiastical settlement.

This picture shows the spectacular setting of the Caher; the previous views show the extent of the enclosing stonework. Today it is a desolate place: many of the walls have been partially dismantled for use elsewhere, and the only close habitation is a single farm dwelling just below the fort. In this remote yet beautiful site it is hard to imagine the activity that was focussed here a thousand years ago.

Just to the west of the lone farmhouse is a small enclosure, bounded by stone walls. It would be easy to overlook this, but for one feature which stands out (above). It catches the eye because it is so unusual: a square box structure with stone sides and corner posts, and two upright engraved cross-slabs facing down the valley. Quartz rocks form a raised bed within the square. Around this ‘box’ are a number of low, unshaped stones set in the ground. This was long thought to have been just a children’s burial ground – a Ciilín or Ceallúnach, but we now know that this was a later use. Between 1994 and 2004 the site was substantially investigated and excavated by students from University College Cork’s Department of Archaeology under the direction of John Sheehan, with remarkable results.

. . . Recent excavations at the early medieval ecclesiastical site at Caherlehillan, Co Kerry, have resulted in the discovery of important information on its initial development and structure. The ritual core of the site, consisting of a church, cemetery and shrine (which probably originated as a ‘special’ or founder’s grave), dates to what is probably the formative phase of Christianity in the south-west of Ireland. The picture emerges of a site that was conceived and built as a coherent entity in accordance with a clear conceptual template . . .

John Sheehan, A Peacock’s Tail: Excavations at Caherlehillan, Ivereagh, 2009

These two illustrations are from the Sheehan / UCC Excavation summary. The photograph is a good representation of the two upright cross-slabs, while the illustration shows two fragments which were found during excavation. Both show the same motif displayed on the smaller slab, yet each representation is to a different scale. This motif therefore occurs three times at this site.

This is the plan that was made at the commencement of excavation, showing the ecclesiastical site at Caherlehillan. The south-eastern boundary is a built-up stone retaining wall (shown on the photograph below), and the indicated embankment above the later roadway implies that this site was originally circular in form (courtesy John Sheehan). Carbon dating of excavated materials suggest a date of mid-5th to early 6th centuries for the earliest activity on the site, while activity appears to have ceased beyond the 8th century. Most importantly, the excavations revealed – to the north-east of the ‘shrine’ – the foundations of a timber church dating from the 5th century – possibly the earliest church remains ever found in Ireland.

The photograph above is from Church Island on Lough Currane, Co Kerry, a site which we visited recently. It shows the shrine of Saint Fionán Cam, who was the founder of that ecclesiastical settlement. The island foundation was set up in the sixth century, and the name of the holy man and his exploits are recorded for us to observe today. Sheehan suggests that the ‘box’ at the Caherlehillan site is also a founder’s shrine, but we have no record of who this ‘saint’ or holy man was. Four hundred years of occupation of the site have, apparently, left him without a name, either through inscription, implication or oral tradition.

The upper picture shows a detail of the carving on the smaller cross slab at Caherlehillan. Sheehan (and others) suggest that the bird representation is in fact a peacock, which features frequently in early Christian art. This is because the wonderful plumage of the bird is entirely renewed every year, through moulting, and this symbolizes the underlying Christian theme of death and resurrection. The relief carving (above) from Northern Italy is dated to the 8th century and shows two confronted peacocks, ” . . .symbols of paradise and immortality in early Christian and Byzantine art . . . “. Sheehan in fact goes further, suggesting that the symbols on the shrine stones at Caherlehillan show a direct link with early Christian influences from the Mediterranean, something that is borne out by ceramic fragments also recovered from his excavations. These are of of ‘Bii type’, a form of pottery of north-eastern Mediterranean origin that may be firmly dated to the period between the late 5th and mid-6th centuries.

So there we have it: a small, remote settlement in a wild Kerry mountainside that has given up its ancient secrets to us. Dwellers there left us enigmatic Rock Art, possibly 5,000 years ago. Their descendants populated the fertile valley, farming the land and building here a prestigious stone fort, while nearby – and contemporary with that fort – was established perhaps the very earliest Christian foundation in Ireland! Today the place is sparse and rugged but, in keeping with Ireland’s spirit, breathing with an almost remembered past.

The researches and writings of John Sheehan, lecturer in Archaeology at University College Cork have been invaluable in formulating this post.

Half a Kerry Day

Kerry is an Irish county rich in history and archaeology. Our day was spent in the company of the ‘Saints’ – a term given to devout men and women who set themselves apart, leading small communities in the remotest of places, dedicated to order, prayer, knowledge, and the contemplation of humanity. Traces of these medieval ecclesiastical sites abound in Ireland, (sometimes described as The Land of Saints and Scholars), and we are always eager to search them out.

The header and the picture above are from Church Island, formerly known as Inis Uasal (meaning Island of the nobles), on Lough Currane near Waterville. The Lough – also known as Loch Luioch or Leeagh – is a substantial body of water, about 1,000 hectares in area. It is fed by the Cumneragh River in the north, Isknagahiny in the east, and drains to Ballinskelligs Bay at its south-western end. This Aerial view (below) shows the Lough in context, while the 6″ OS map extract dates from the 1840s.

We were fortunate to be taken to the island by Tom O’Shea. He is the owner of the island today, and a mine of information on its history and traditions associated with it. He is also a Ghillie – anciently the attendant of a Gaelic chief, whose job it was to carry the chief across a river or lake – but in the present day an organiser of fishing or hunting expeditions: Lough Currane is one of Ireland’s premier sea trout fisheries. We hired Tom to carry us across the water to this ancient sanctuary which had been occupied by saints and monks for over a thousand years!

That’s Tom ferrying us across the lake in the upper picture – only two at a time due to Covid restrictions. Above is my picture of the rest of our group on the island, with Tom in the centre explaining the geography and history of this remarkable place. The day was organised by our good friends Amanda and Peter Clarke, and we had along with us friends from Kerry – David and Janet, all of us discovering this gem for the first time.

The monastic foundation on Church Island was set up by Saint Fionán Cam in the sixth century. Cam means ‘bent’ or ‘squint-eyed’, and it is significant that the name already gives us a picture of the man – a picture which has survived in local tradition for more than fifteen hundred years. One of the most impressive aspects of this island is that some of the historic structures date from the time of the saint – the one above is known as his oratory, or ‘cell’. This is a ‘gallurus’ type of oratory, and would have been roofed completely in corbelled stone: the upper part of the roof has fallen. Archaeologists do not agree over the dating of the structure, but local tradition is clear that it was built by the saint himself, and his community. At its eastern end is a low doorway with two roof boxes above, while opposite is a small, rectangular ‘squint’. It has been noted that the opes of this oratory align with the sunrise at midsummer. As that is almost upon us as I write, it is appropriate that we should have visited at this time of the year. The old photograph is courtesy of the National Library of Ireland Lawrence Collection, dating from the late 1800s. Below is the same view today: the ivy and creeper growth has been removed, revealing the roof box ‘slots’.

Fionán Cam was an important figure in Kerry: he is regarded as one of the three coinnle – or ‘candles’ of the Múscraighe, and descended from Conaire Cóem, High King of Munster. His birth was miraculous, his mother Beagnad – a virgin – having conceived while swimming in Killarney Lake, with a salmon. There are numerous dedications to this Fionán in the west of Ireland, but most traditions link him to Lough Currane and he is reputed to be buried beneath one of the three Leachta – or shrines – on the island, within the enclosure of the Romanesque church at its eastern end.

The OPW took over the archaeology of the island in 1880 and this illustration (above) from the Duchas information board shows pilgrims paying their devotions at the Leachta in 1000 AD. Nearly a century and a half on, the OPW has not yet completed their work on the island! There were plans to restore the west doorway of the twelfth century church (below), but this has not happened.

One of the Leachta (shrines) in the church enclosure. This probably marks the burial place of a later saint (or holy man) – Anmchad Ua Dúnchada – described as ‘anchorite of God’ in the Annals of Inisfallen, which states that he was buried here in 1058. Close by this shrine, and shown in the photograph above, is an inscribed slab on which can still be read the inscription to him:

The eleven stone slabs – mentioned on the Duchas information board – are beautiful examples of this medieval craft: some are displayed now within the church building, although still open to the elements. Nevertheless they are surviving reasonably well.

One carved stone from Church Island is very unusual, being a rare representation of a musician. Known as ‘the fiddler’ the figure is clearly playing a stringed instrument with a bow. It is thought to be a lyre, an instrument which came to Europe in the eleventh century. This is the only known early representation of a lyre found in Ireland. In fact, the stone that we saw is a replica (on the left, below), which has become very weathered: the original (right) is being conserved in museum conditions.

There are other early buildings on the island, including the base of a ‘beehive hut’, said to have been the home of the early saint.

Some quite fine examples of graffiti by visitors to the island, on the Romanesque church walls: some of it dates from the nineteenth century.

Our visit to Church Island only occupied half of our Kerry day. We had more treats from medieval times – and earlier – in our explorations later on. These will have to wait for another post, but here are some tasters:

West Cork Rocks

It certainly does! But this post is – literally – about rock: the hard, knobbly kind that is underneath us, surrounds us, and which has historically built our environment. In the picture above, taken on a clear February day during the most severe Covid lockdown, Finola is walking through beautiful West Cork. Beyond her is the great, gaunt outcrop of Mount Gabriel. Beside her is a traditional stone wall: its design unchanged over centuries. In the landscape all around her are rocks – large and small – scattered in the rough pasture.

In the distance, of course, is the coast: there are very few places in West Cork where you cannot, at least, catch a glimpse of the sea – and so many where you can immerse yourself in it, or stand on its shore and admire the infinite textures which those same rocks display. It’s mostly Old Red Sandstone: that’s the correct geological term. It was laid down in the Devonian period – a while ago now: between 400 and 300 million years, in fact. This followed an era during which our mountains were built, known as the Silurian times. Continents were shifting and separating, and what was to become Ireland was a great arid desert – deserted: there was no-one around to see it!

Old Red Sandstone: in fact it varies in colour depending on its local history. Broadly, some of the mountain rocks are purple-grey, while those closer to the sea could be greeny-red, but that is probably far too wide a generalisation. The sheer beauty is in the infinite shapes and colours. What artist needs any finer palette?

In those deserted times, an ‘Old Red Sandstone Continent’ extended over what is now northwest Europe, but it is worth noting that in ‘our’ part of it – the Munster Basin, covering today’s Kerry and Cork – we have one of the densest masses of this rock in the world: at least 6 kilometres thick. And we have to appreciate what it has given to us – high mountain spines sweeping steeply down to an indented shoreline of coves, creeks and inlets, with the myriad mottled islands that we oversee. An unparalleled, unfolded world.

After the ‘desert’ period, but much later – only about a million and a half years ago – came the Pleistocene Epoch. the word is from the Greek polys and cene – meaning ‘most recent’ – and that brings us almost up to date. That was a time of great climate events: deserts were inundated and then covered in ice sheets 3 kilometres thick, while moving glaciers tore up the rock surfaces, advancing and retreating several times. Eventually, what had been desert became arctic tundra. It is supposed that the ancestors of our present day life forms happened along during this epoch, and managed to survive. But we don’t find any traces of them until after the last ice sheet retreated in our part of the world – only about 12,000 years ago. The landscape that was left behind was inundated by rising sea levels, and the very last land bridge (between Cornwall and the eastern tip of Wexford) was washed away after that, but not before the Giant Elk and its mammal relations had got a foothold on the western side. The snakes, however, didn’t make it. And what of the humans?

Well, the humans embraced the rocky landscape. They made their marks on the outcrops; then they moved the rocks about, and made architecture from them. We can still see their efforts, some 5,000 years later.

These Neolithic carved motifs could be the earliest human interventions on the natural Irish landscape: they might date from 3,000 BC. These examples are from West Cork, and were only discovered a few years ago. Finola wrote the definitive thesis on Rock Art when she studied at UCC in the 1970s, and we have staged exhibitions and given talks on the topic.

A couple of thousand years later, Irish people started to build things with the stones they found around them. This wedge tomb under the backdrop textures of Mount Gabriel at Ratooragh has rested here since the Bronze Age. Finola’s post today uncovers the fascinating folklore stories that generations have told about such artefacts. But restlessly working the fabric of the landscape – Old Red Sandstone – into walls, shelters, tower houses, temples and towns has never ceased.