Irish Immersion!

We traversed the Dingle Peninsula on the way to our week-long ‘Irish Immersion’ course. Our route included the Conor Pass (above) – possibly Ireland’s highest mountain pass with a summit of 456m: not to be missed, as the views from it are spectacular in all directions. Do be careful, though, as it’s included in the list of ‘the World’s most dangerous roads’. That’s because in places it is only a winding single track, with the way almost tunnelled out of steep rock faces: don’t try it in a bus!

Once over the pass, however, it’s plain sailing and sunshine all the way down to Dingle itself, a busy waterside town (which sells the best ice-creams!),  where we stayed while we were on our course. Here’s the view from Coastline House, our very well-appointed B + B:

So why would I want to learn the Irish language? And how easy is it? The answer to the second question is: it’s fiendishly difficult – especially for an ear that’s been attuned to English for a lifetime! But – here I am in my eighth decade, an Irish citizen and a permanent resident of West Cork – so what would be more natural (and good for the ageing brain) than being able to communicate in the native tongue? Finola, of course, learnt Irish right through her schooldays (it’s been compulsory since the founding of the Irish State) and can hold her own in conversation, but she wants to improve her knowledge and took a course at a higher level: I was in the raw beginners’ class, together with our good friends Amanda and Peter Clarke, with whom we enjoyed great craic in our free time.

The western part of the Dingle Peninsula is a Gaeltacht area: that means it is a place where Irish is the dominant language; all street signs, traffic signs etc are in Irish only; anyone in shops, businesses etc is likely to speak in Irish, and there are a number of schools where teaching is all in Irish. Our courses were based in Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (in English it would be known as Ballyferriter) – to the west of Dingle town (which is, in Irish, An Daingean). You can tell from many of the photographs in this post how stunningly beautiful the landscape is in this part of Ireland. The upper picture above shows the very fine school building of Coláistí Chorca Dhuibhne, which hosts all the Irish classes. The ones for adults are run by the Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhneyou can find all the details here if you’ve a mind to give it a try yourself.

It’s a different world in the Gaeltacht areas: can you guess what the sign above is saying?

You ought to know, also, that the Gaeltacht area here is known as Corca Dhuibhne, which translates literally as ‘the seed or tribe of Duibhne’ and derives from the clan who anciently lived in this part of County Kerry. Try saying ‘Corca Dhuibhne‘ . . . How did you get on? This is what I should have heard:

Above – streetscapes in the lively village of Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (Ballyferriter). Note the signage in the upper picture. The lower picture will be self-explanatory to Star Wars fans: the film series is set “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” – Fadó Fadó is the Irish way of beginning a fairy-tale, meaning literally “long long ago….”. And – just to confuse you (and me) – Ar an mBualtín means “in Ballyferriter”! I know – I just told you that the town is Baile an Fheirtéaraigh in Irish, but the townland is known as an mBuiltín, which is in fact another way of describing a “booley” which, you will no doubt remember from my post here, is the place where cattle are taken up to the hill pastures in the summer. So, all things Irish are often not straightforward. Just to explain a connection: parts of the latest Star Wars episodes have been filmed on the promontories above Ballyferriter – a great ‘selling point’ for the local tourism industry!

Green roads lead to the hillside pastures which dominate the Dingle Peninsula

Our course was taxing, and I have the greatest admiration for our múinteoir (teacher), Caitríona Ní Chathail – a wonderful lady of infinite patience, and great enthusiasm for the language which she shared with us throughout the six days. We were allowed some treats – Caitríona took us out on a walk and introduced to us some of the history of the area (kindly, she spoke bilingually); on one evening we were given a talk on archaeology by Isabel Bennet, the very knowledgable curator of the museum in Baile an Fheirtéaraighand on the final evening we combined our various talents to give a concert to all the students, Oíche Airneáin – literally a “night of visiting”, and we each had to introduce ourselves in Irish!

Upper – Caitríona’s history walk around the locality; lower – my contribution to the Oíche Airneáin was some tunes played with Christy Martin on hammered dulcimer. Christy, a fellow student, is a professional travelling musician from California

How do I feel after the course? Exhilarated by the experience of having concentrated for a week on one fundamental aspect of Irish culture, but daunted by the very long path upon which I have embarked – and uncertain as to how to make sure to build on that grounding. One thing that impressed me above all is the obvious passion that the people of Baile an Fheirtéaraigh and Coláistí Chorca Dhuibhne have for their particular Gaeltacht: Caitríona made sure that we realised that the Irish which she taught us is specific to Corca Dhuibhne: each of the Gaeltacht areas has its own dialect, although – whichever version of Irish you learn – you will be understood by speakers from the other areas.

Traditions and stories are abundant in the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht: upper picture – the Wren is hunted on the Peninsula at Stephen’s Day (26 December), and I caught a glimpse of some ‘straws’ hanging behind a door: part of the costumes worn by one of four ‘Wran’ groups who keep the tradition alive in Dingle. Lower picture – two of many gullauns (standing stones) dating from ancient times and which remain in the landscape of the Peninsula: the backdrop is Mount Brandon, named after the 5th century saint – Brendan – who discovered America long before Christopher Columbus!

I was pleased to be presented with a certificate by Caitríona at the end of the course! We all had one, and mine will serve as a reminder of the intensive week. Hopefully, it will also serve as an incentive to delve further into the mysteries of Gaeilge. I am already determined to revisit the wonders of Corca Dhuibhne as soon as possible!

Oldest Lighthouse in the World!

It’s a bit off the beaten track, but we had to make the journey to visit the oldest working lighthouse in the world! It’s right at the southern tip of the Hook Peninsula, in County Wexford. Maybe it’s an extravagant claim that it is the ‘oldest in the world’: there is another ‘oldest’ lighthouse – The Tower of Hercules – in Galicia, northern Spain, which is said to have been built in the 2nd century. However, the Tower of Hercules was given a major restoration at the end of the 18th century, including a new neoclassical facade, with the original Roman structure retained behind this. Wexford’s assertion that the main visible structure of the Hook Lighthouse – both inside and out – is exactly what was built in the 13th century, perhaps gives it the edge. I was delighted to find, incidentally, that the Tower of Hercules has an Irish connection: it is mentioned in the 11th century Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Invasions of Ireland). If you recall my account of the story of Cesaire – the first person ever to set foot on Irish soil – you will remember that on her travels away from Egypt in the years before the Great Flood Cesaire stopped off in Spain and climbed to the top of a very tall tower from which she could see, in the distance, Ireland’s wonderful green land, and from there she travelled on to arrive on Ireland’s shores in Bantry Bay. Well, according to tradition, it was the Tower of Hercules which she climbed!

Header – the bulky main structure of the tower dates from the 13th century – its walls are four metres thick. The chambers within the tower are stone vaulted (above)

The lowest tier of the tower consists of three storeys, and has a base diameter of 13 metres. Each storey has a vaulted stone ceiling. Above this is the narrower section – 6 metres in diameter – which would have supported the original brazier, kept burning at all times to warn ships of the rocky ‘Hook’ of land at the entrance to the channel leading up to the port of New Ross – the most important in Ireland in the 13th century.

Upper – an exploded view of the structure of the lighthouse, one of the exhibits on the guided tour; centre – the whole tower: the topmost section, housing the electric lighting system, is relatively modern; lower – the treacherous rocks around the shore of the Hook 

But there was, in fact, a light burning on this headland for hundreds of years before the construction we see today: this was a beacon fire established by Saint Dubhán, a monk from Wales, in the 5th century. Dubhán came to Ireland as a missionary, and built his monastic settlement a little way inland: this is marked today by the medieval ruins of a church and burial ground.

Dubhán’s monastic site not far from Hook Head. It was the saint who set up the first beacon light on this peninsula

The lighthouse we see today was built by Strongbow’s son-in-law William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke (1147 – 1219). He constructed it and made sure that the light was maintained in perpetuity to fulfil a promise he made when he was threatened with shipwreck off the Hook while trying to get into the port of New Ross. Marshall is one of the medieval hero-warriors: known as ‘The Greatest Knight’ he is at the centre of many legends. Turtle Bunbury gives a good account of him here.

William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke is very much in evidence at Hook Head: you can even hear him telling his own story when you are in the lighthouse (above)!

If you find your way to Hook Head Lighthouse today you are in for many treats. Firstly, it’s good to know that it is open to visitors all the year round, and guided tours are always available (you can only go inside the tower with a guide). Also there is a welcome heritage centre on site with a shop and cafe – and a fine pirate-themed children’s playground.

Saint Dubhán and his followers are remembered through the displays in Hook Head Lighthouse: the mural above shows the first beacon established by the 5th century saint

It’s a grand day out, if you happen to be within reach of the Wexford coast. There are so many strands of Ireland’s multi-facetted history to be traced here: the earliest missionary monks, Norman Knights, sea-travel through the ages, connections with the medieval world – and a wonderful piece of early Irish architecture still serving its original function.

Coleenlemane – A Walk into History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monster of Red Strand!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lady Carbery’s High Cross

Wherever we travel in Ireland, I search out medieval high crosses. They are the epitome of ancient Irish art: this link will take you to a number of earlier posts which explore the subject.

It’s ironic, perhaps, that I haven’t yet discussed Ireland’s tallest high cross, which is in West Cork, not far from where we live. At 9.2 metres tall, it outshines the West Cross at Monasterboice, which is just 7 metres. However, Lady Carbery’s High Cross is not medieval – it was built on a hilltop with sweeping views over Long Strand, distant Galley Head and as far west as the Fastnet in 1902, in memory of her husband.

. . . Windswept Croachna Hill, just over the rise from Castle Freke, faces out towards the Atlantic and the sunset, as well as the mystic isle of Moy Mell, and a dangerous submerged rock of the same name. Here, in 1901, in view of the countless sailors who would pass and re-pass through the years, Grandmother had caused to be erected a huge cross as a monument to her first husband Algy, the last Carbery to spend his life in these parts and to make his home in County Cork. Fourteen tons of white limestone rise thirty feet into the sky. There are seven panels, each with sculptured designs from the Bible. The inscription on the east face reads: “To the greater glory of God, and in loving memory of Algernon William George, 9th Baron Carbery, who was born 9th September 1868 and who died 12th June 1898. This Cross has been erected by Mary, his wife, 1901. The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, they are in peace” . . .

Lady Mary Carbery wrote a journal following her husband’s death. It remained private until a century later, when her grandson Jeremy Sandford published much of it, together with his own commentary – the paragraph above is his. Recently widowed and sole mistress of the vast neo-medieval Castle Freke overlooking a remote headland in West Cork, Mary raised her young family in the company of servants, dependants and occasional visitors. Reflective and sensitive, Mary Carbery was deeply attuned to the spirit of place and to the people she lived amongst in Rosscarbery, studying Irish and taking note of local speech, folklife and customs. It’s no wonder that the memorial cross she commissioned from white limestone should have been such a tribute to the flowering of Irish art in the medieval period.


Algernon was the 9th Baron of Carbery. After his death, Mary stayed at Castle Freke long enough to see through a significant restoration following a fire in 1910, then met and married Professor Arthur Wellesley Sandford of Frankfield House, County Cork. She was evidently quite a character, a prolific writer and traveller: she spent some years travelling across Europe in Creeping Jenny, a caravan drawn by white oxen, and is credited with being the first person to install a bath in a mobile home. Meanwhile, the castle was taken over by her son John – the 10th Baron, an early aviator, who sold it in 1919 and took off for Kenya, where he joined the hedonistic Happy Valley community, infamous during the 20s and 30s for its decadent lifestyles, drug use and sexual promiscuity. During the latter part of the 20th century the castle fell into disrepair.

Changing fortunes: Lord Carbery’s monoplane in 1914; Castle Freke in reasonable condition, pre 1950, and the Castle in the present day undergoing renovation by Stephen Evans-Freke, son of the 11th Baron Carbery

We are fortunate that some parts of the former estate at Castle Freke are maintained by Coillte, the State-owned forestry business, and are publicly accessible. This includes the high cross, accessed by a footpath from the Long Strand.

The Coillte path up to the cross, leading from the car park at Long Strand. In the lower picture Gill and I give an idea of the scale of the monument

Take the opportunity to have a look at the old parish church of Rathbarry, also in the Castle Freke demense. Built in 1825, it closed in 1927, and is now an atmospheric ruin. Algernon, the 9th Baron, and Lady Mary commissioned some of the striking mosaic work which can still be seen.

I found a number of entries in the Duchas Folklore Collection centred on the  Long Strand, Red Strand and Castlefreke areas. They could make a good future post, but to finish off for now, here is just one: recounted by Denis Collins, aged 60, from Castlefreke, Duchas Collection, 1937 – “The Hidden Treasure of Castlefreke”:

. . . Two children from Rosscarbery wandered away from their home one day. They did not return to dinner nor to tea so their mother got very anxious about them because it was the time that the fairies were supposed to be about. She searched everywhere but in vain and it was said that they were spirited by the fairies. Many years afterwards a young man and woman came into the town of Ross. When the people of the town saw them they were afraid of them, but found to their surprise that they were the two children. When asked where they were all that time they said that they were taken away by fairies to a certain fort in Castlefreke where there was a treasure hidden. No one ever looked for the treasure as it is said to be guarded by a fairy . . .

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!