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!

A Taste of West Cork 2017

Young Ambassadors for Gloun Cross Dairy

We have this incredible food festival down here – A Taste of West Cork. I wrote about it in 2014 in this post and in this one. This year it was bigger and better than ever, with an astounding variety of events to choose from. We signed up for something every day and we are now in recovery.

We started off with a Sunday brunch in Glansallagh Gardens, cooked by Chef Bob, in the tractor loft of our old friend Richard, who supplies fresh and delicious vegetables to many local restaurants. Five courses, long harvest tables, strangers from all over chatting amiably, swapping stories and laughter, and then weaving home past the guard geese to snooze away the rest of Sunday.

We love Durrus Cheese and jumped at the chance to attend a demonstration of how it’s made and a tasting. Everything is local, everything is done by hand, the taste comes from years of making and a passion for quality. It felt like a privilege to glimpse behind the scenes.

Sarah, second-generation cheese maker, explains the different processes that produce the Durrus cheeses

The Chestnut Tree was a beloved Ballydehob pub, but it’s been closed for years. Recently, however, it was revived as an Airbnb and during the Festival was re-purposed once again as a restaurant. It worked wonderfully well as a convivial space.

French chef, Antony Cointre, was a popular choice at the Chestnut Tree

We signed up for a Ramen Bowl menu and were not disappointed. Chef Brian from Belfast makes everything – everything – from scratch and showed us how he makes the noodles. To taste his broth is to truly understand the concept of umami.

Our dining partners were Jack and Julia Zagar. Julia is the genius behind the dynamic e-presence of Discover Schull – website, Facebook Page and Instagram account. Jack generously lends his own images to local initiatives

From the Casual, we graduated to the Gracious: dinner at Drishane House was sumptuous. Drishane is the ancestral home of Edith Somerville, now the residence of Tom and Jane Somerville. Jane is a wonderful cook and Tom a genial host, and our fellow guests were a lovely mix of local and from-away. We dined by candlelight surrounded by portraits of Somervilles, wine and conversation flowed, delicious courses kept appearing (all locally sourced as is the ethic of this Festival), and the port and cheese arrived just as we felt that truly an evening could hold no more enjoyment.

Drishane House in the spring, and a portrait of Edith Somerville in her role of Master of the Fox Hounds

By no means is this Festival only about dinners and chefs. We were attracted into Levis’s pub in the early afternoon by the sound of music and found a lively session in full swing – the end of a walking tour of Ballydehob that promised soup (made from vegetables from that morning’s tiny local market) and music as a restorative after the exertions of the walk. Soup was pressed upon us and we didn’t object.

Bob, Liam and Joe entertain the walkers, while Robert has fun with Johanna

Perhaps the most fun we had was also at Levis’s – it was called Sing for your Supper and the idea was to eat and sing, and whoever was judged to be the best singer would win their supper. It was an absolute hoot, with lots of good sports belting out old favourites (I personally led a version of Satisfaction that would curdle milk) and several excellent singers enthralling us all. The food was superb, prepared by an acknowledged top Irish chef, and local man, Rob Krawczyk

Thanks to Colm Rooney of the wonderful local web design agency Cruthu Creative for the photos of Sing for Your Supper. Ah sure, you can’t belt out the numbers and be snapping at the same time, now can you?

We bonded as a table – there were six of us, and we were thrilled to discover the identity of the youngest member. It was Eoin Warner, and if that name means nothing to you, it will one day. Eoin narrated the Irish version of Wild Ireland, Eire Fhiáin, shown to rapturous acclaim on the Irish TV channel. The photography was extraordinary and opened many of our eyes to the wildlife we have here. Forget David Attenborough and the Amazon Jungles – to see a humpback whale bubble-netting up close is to realise how rich the oceans around Ireland are. Here’s an extract from Eire Fhiáin, with Eoin’s lovely, natural, narration and his deep sense of wonder. And – he has a great voice and won the competition!

The photo is from an Independent article that nicely sums up audience reaction to the program

Yesterday we went on a Cultural Taste Tour of Bere Island. It was our first time and it’s no exaggeration to say that we fell in love with it. I won’t say much about it because Robert’s post will fill you in, but I CAN say that we’re already planning our next trip back there.

One of our favourite stalls in the regular Saturday market had also set up in the Street Market – Olives West Cork is our source for excellent olive oil and the best parmesan cheese, as well as an amazing variety of nibbles

The week finished, as it always does, with the Skibbereen Street Market, and I will leave you with a slideshow of this colourful extravaganza.

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Start planning now for next year! Everything books up quite quickly when the program is announced and if you leave it too late there may be no place to stay and no tables left unclaimed. It will be the among the best few days you’ve ever spent!

Mount Corrin Walk

View from the cairn, Mount Corrin

View from the cairn, Mount Corrin

Walks that get you up to high places with panoramic views are terrific – especially when you don’t have to start at sea level! One such West Cork walk is Mount Corrin. Despite being on The Mizen, it’s part of the Sheep’s Head Walks system, which means it’s accessible and perfectly waymarked.

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The whole Mount Corrin loop walk is a 17km marathon and definitely not for the faint-hearted. But faint-hearted is exactly what we are, so we have chosen an option that can be easily accomplished on a pleasant afternoon – about a 5 km round trip. Some of these photographs are from a spring walk, and some from a fine autumn day.

From the trail - the Sheep's Head

From the trail – looking across at the Sheep’s Head

Wear good boots and bring a camera but leave the dog at home as no dogs are allowed on the Sheep’s Head Way. And if you do want to do the Big Walk, we highly recommend you pick up a copy of Walking the Sheep’s Head Way by Amanda Clarke. She and Peter have brought out a Second Edition that includes all the loop walks and they do a fabulous job of describing the whole route and provide wonderful photographs of what you can expect.

This curious little monument is right beside the parking spot

This curious little monument is right beside the parking spot

Our starting point is at a high point about half way between Durrus and Ballydehob. Drive out of Ballydehob via the road between Antonio’s Restaurant and Vincent Coghlan’s pub – that’s the Rathruane Road. About 3 km along this road you will come to a crossroads – turn right. Take the first turn left on that road and it will bring you up to the top of a hill. Once you cross over the top and start the descent on the other side you will see the waters of Dunmanus Bay ahead and to the left and a pull-out for parking on the right.

One of West Cork's most scenic parking spots

One of West Cork’s most scenic parking spots

This is your starting point – look back and you will see the way marked trail about 50ms back up the hill, running alongside a forestry plantation. It’s also your ending point: our walk will take you up to the summit and back.

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If you’re approaching from Durrus, take the R591 out of the village. Take the first turn left then the first right and follow the road to the summit. These are small country roads – be prepared to pull over or even reverse when you encounter other traffic.

Example of 'other traffic'

Example of ‘other traffic’

Once you set out, the first point of interest is what is described in the National Monuments inventory as a ‘megalithic structure’ and which looks likely to be a wedge tomb, although it is hard to be definitive about it. Whatever it is, it’s man made and intriguing.

A wedge tomb?

A wedge tomb?

You can see the cairn ahead – your destination.

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Before you get to it there is a row of standing stones. These ones are not marked on the NM inventory but it’s difficult to see what they could be other than a stone alignment. A final push now gets you to the cairn and to those panoramic views we mentioned.

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The first thing you’ll notice about the cairns (there are two of them) is the size of the large one and the scatter of stones all around them. The consensus seems to be that there has been a cairn on Mount Corrin since ancient times and that the current cairn, a more modern construction, sits on top of an older one.

The cairn on Mount Corrin is visible from this panel of rock art at Rathruane

The cairn on Mount Corrin is visible from this panel of rock art at Rathruane

We have certainly noted that the top of Mount Corrin, like the top of Mount Gabriel, is visible from several prehistoric sites and a cairn would have enhanced that visibility. The most persistent story about the cairn, though, links it to Lord Bandon.

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The Bernards, Earls of Bandon, are associated with Durrus, having laid out the town in the eighteenth century and having used Durrus Court as a summer residence. They had many interests in the area, including mining, and the always-interesting Durrus History blog gives us this information about Mount Corrin:

Mary Catherine Henrietta Bernard of Castle Bernard daughter of Lord Bandon married Colonel Aldworth on the 30th July 1863 and an address and copy of ‘God’s Holy Word’ was sent by Rev Freke and the tenantry of Durrus to which she returned thanks.  At Dreenlomane Mine (operating until c1920) owned by Lord Bandon, Captain Thomas set tar barrels alight on Mount Corrin which illuminated the sky all night and the 150 miners and their wives were treated to refreshments and similar celebrations were held in Carrigbui.

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The views from the cairn are stupendous, taking in the West Cork Peninsulas and the hinterland across to the Kerry mountains. Take a while to wander around the top – see if you can spot the collapsed walls of ancient hut sites.

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Making your way back, look down towards the farms on the northern slope of the mountain. You can still make out the unmistakeable signs of lazy beds, used to grow potatoes, and the ruins of houses abandoned long ago. It’s a poignant reminder that this land was once densely populated by people whose sole nutrition came from potatoes and who fled this area in the aftermath of the Great Famine.

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There now – that wasn’t gruelling at all, was it? And so rewarding. But still, a bit of effort required so you definitely deserve a coffee and cake at Budd’s, or a pint in Rosie’s. Tell them Roaringwater Journal sent you.

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Ogham

Captured! Ogham stones held in iron bands at UCC

Captured! Ogham stones held in iron bands at UCC

The Scythian King Fénius Farsaid lived at the time of the building of the Tower of Babel – some stories suggest that he had a hand in its construction. He gathered around him a group of scholars and methodically researched the new languages which were being spoken by the dispersed builders of the tower. Their work produced four languages: Hebrew, Greek, Latin and – the most sophisticated – Ogham. _ogham

 

 

Thus was the story that the bards of old related to explain the carvings on Ogham Stones (sometimes spelled Ogam but always pronounced oh-am) which are found in northern Europe, the greatest number being in the South West of Ireland.

King Fénius named each of the letters of the Ogham alphabet after his best scholars – 25 in all. The ‘letters’ are in fact simple lines inscribed on stone, either on opposite sides of a vertical line or on each side of a sharp corner of stone – the position and angle of each line defining the letter. Words are read starting at the bottom, going up the left side of the line or corner and coming down on the other side, and are generally thought to represent names, suggesting that the inscribed stones are memorials.

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Ballycrovane – the tallest Ogham Stone in the world is in West Cork

If you subscribe to the King Fénius theory of Ogham Stones (and why wouldn’t you?) you might wonder why historians place them in the early medieval period (4th to 9th centuries) and associate them with Christianity. Many of them appear to have been inscribed on older standing stones, including the gigantic megalith at Ballycrovane, overlooking Kenmare Bay and 5.3 metres tall.

An Ogham tray by Danny

An Ogham tray by Danny

Ogham is not a forgotten language: it is a saleable item of Irishness. But, consider – quite apart from the many examples of Ogham stones which remain in the wild there are those which are kept in captivity. Take a look in the Stone Corridor at University College Cork – there is a remarkable collection there, a collection that raises questions in my mind: why have the stones been removed from their original siting? Is that an archaeologically sound thing to do – to take them from their historic context and chain them up so unnaturally in a long, dark and urban corridor? If it’s time to give the Elgin Marbles back to Athens then it’s certainly got to be appropriate to redistribute the Ogham stones (and the other inscribed stones and Rock Art that are in the Corridor) back to their natural habitats – in the wilds of West Cork… maulin

In its rightful place: Maulinward Ogham Stone near Durrus

In its rightful place: Maulinward Ogham Stone near Durrus (front and back)

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Durrus Delight: Carraig Abhainn Gardens

 

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This week we visited a tiny jewel of a garden. Tucked behind Wiseman’s general store in Durrus is a two and a half acre gem called Carraig Abhainn (Rocky River, pronounced KA-rig OW-in [OW to rhyme with now]). It’s been a labour of love for over 20 years – the work of Eugene and Hazel Wiseman. We were lucky to have a chat with Eugene while we were there.

There are no large signs out on the road pointing the way and little advertising in the local media, so this is not as well known as it deserves. You pop into Wiseman’s shop, pay €5, open the gate at the end of the building, and step into a small wonderland.

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The first thing you become aware of is water.  A mill stream forms one boundary of the garden, crossed by little bridges here and there. The Four Mile River forms another – and this stretch is truly magnificent. Clear and sparkling, it rushes and falls and leaps over the rocks that give the garden its name. The paths have been cleverly constructed so that as you stroll you encounter the river at different points.  Each point has a unique vista that encourages you to gaze, contemplate, photograph or just sit and listen.

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The daffodils were over when we went and some of the rhododendrons had faded too. Nevertheless, around every bend was a new feast for the eye and the camera, from the undergrowth of bluebells to the camellias, yellow irises and the climbing clematis. Exotic trees add variety of colour, texture and size – “I wonder what that is?” became our mantra. (For those who need an answer, the garden website provides a list of plants.)

A wonderfully idiosyncratic feature of this garden is the statuary – a unique blend of the classical and the quirky, perfectly placed to enhance a long path, mark a set of steps, or simply be discovered rounding a corner. Near the entrance is a mural, with Greek columns and a water garden and benches that invite you to enjoy this sunny spot.

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There’s a West Cork Garden Trail in the second half of June and Carraig Abhainn is one of the gardens featured on the trail. But don’t wait until then – if you are anywhere in the vicinity of Durrus drop by Wiseman’s and treat yourself to a quiet hour or two soaking up the beauty and tranquility of this charming oasis. Bring a latte and piece of cake from the excellent Gateway restaurant next door – that’s all you need to complete your little slice of heaven. 

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