681 Days!

Yes – it has been 681 says since Covid-19 hit us and our world changed. From today, 22 January 2022, most restrictions in the state are gone, apart from the continuing need to wear masks in certain public places. Hopefully that West Cork sky over our house this morning, above, is a good omen for us. Today’s paper shows the stark tally:

The population of the Republic of Ireland as I write this is 5,023,337 (no doubt that is changing by the minute). That tells the story: 22.6% of the people here have had the virus. And of course it hasn’t gone away yet… But at least “social and economic life can begin to return to normal” says the Taoiseach. In order to mark the significance of the moment, my post looks back to our experiences over the last 681 days: in particular, how our lives changed at the beginning of the outbreak.

These two images of Ballydehob, taken at the beginning of April, 2020, sum up the shock of empty streets, closed businesses and everyone being advised to isolate. It all seemed very bleak: our movements were initially restricted to 2km from home, then that increased to a radius of 5km. If you lived in rural areas – as we do – you were permitted to travel beyond those distances if you needed to in order to shop or use essential services. We breached those rules on occasion – sometimes to get exercise in the deserted countryside all around us.

As the days went by, an amazing spring emerged, with day after day of beautiful weather. Human activity was curtailed, but the natural world continued along its course as though nothing was awry!

We humans are pretty adaptable. It was amazing to see the ingenuity of folks creating outlets for their energies without having to mix. Food-on-the-go blossomed as a craft industry: here are some examples.

We were very impressed with many of the examples we encountered – and which have survived over the months. Hopefully they will carry on, as casual coffee stalls in the middle of nowhere are welcome to us in our travelling. Pre-pandemic they were probably frowned upon by ‘the authorities’ – and they are certainly regulated – but ‘authority’ would have had to be very hard-hearted to close down these little lifelines. In our experience, every one we encountered was well-run, and spotless. It was an incidental opportunity to have a distanced ‘chat’: always a source of good local information on how others were coping.

We took the opportunity to climb – and descend – Knockaphuka during the pandemic. It’s a mountain a short distance from Nead an Iolair, but a little outside the limit. No-one was watching! I suppose being restricted to our immediate environment for so long – day after day – made us re-assess it, and our lives. Certainly we have got to know the fine detail of the beautiful place we call home.

Here’s a social issue: we couldn’t get a haircut for months! Finola kept me in trim, but it was a relief when salons were once again allowed to operate, albeit with some restrictions.

This is us having coffee on our own terrace, looking out over Roaringwater Bay in the wonderful spring of that first pandemic year. In fact, each of the two last years has been benign – with a few exceptional winter storms. We would have felt less relaxed if we had had persistent rain (which sometimes happens).

A sprig of green appears on a doorstep on May Day, 2020: a sign that we all still want to continue the old (perhaps ancient) traditions… There were ups and downs: things eased as the year went by and then the new variations came in. Numbers went down and we breathed out. Then they soared – especially with the Omicron variant, and everything went haywire again. Let’s hope that the present easing is here to stay. But the future can never be told…

Chasing Steeples!

I can’t resist a good Irish story . . . I look out for them wherever we go. Our latest adventure was over in the northern part of County Cork, searching out a number of holy wells and anything related to them: we were led by Amanda Clarke: look at her website here. Regular readers will know that we often get together with Amanda and Peter to share our mutual interests in the Irish landscape. On this most recent expedition our path took us through Buttevant, and specifically to St John’s C of I church there, where Finola was keen to inspect the stained glass windows. The present church was built in 1826, and replaced an older one, established in the late 1600s.

As you can see, it has a tower with a fine, elegant spire. I was fascinated to read that the predecassor of this church is credited with the historical significance of having ‘given birth’ to the Steeplechase horse race.

. . . The term ‘steeplechase’ actually originated in a horse race first held in Ireland in the 18th century. As the name might suggest, that very first race took place in 1752 between two steeples in rural county Cork in the south of Ireland. At that time, church steeples were among the tallest buildings in the landscape. On that night, Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake were at dinner at Buttevant Castle, having a good time. They made a bet between themselves to race from the steeple of Saint John’s Church in Buttevant to that of Saint Mary’s Church in the town of Doneraile . . .

.europeana.eu

Sadly, the Castle at Buttevant is no longer habitable. It was built around 1200 by Philip and William de Barry, on land seized from the Gaelic O’Donegan’s. The poet Edmund Spenser (1553 – 1599) lived in the nearby castle of Kilcolman for many years, and wrote his poem The Faerie Queene there. He also mentions Buttevant Castle in his writings:

“Old father Mole, (Mole hight that mountain grey
That walls the Northside of Armulla dale)
He had a daughter fresh as floure of May,

VVhich gaue that name vnto that pleasant vale;
Mulla the daughter of old Mole, so hight
The Nimph, which of that water course has charge,
That springing out of Mole, doth run downe right
to Butteuant where spreading forth at large,
It giueth name vnto that auncient Cittie,
VVhich Kilnemullah cleped is of old:
VVhose ragged ruines breed great ruth and pittie,
To travallers, which it from far behold”

Spenser is supposed to have derived the names ‘Mole’ and ‘Armulla’ from Kilnemulla or, more correctly Cell na mullach, an early name for Buttevant. It is possible that the castle here fell victim to the 20th century Irish Civil War, although I cannot find any detailed information on this. Accounts generally suggest that the building was in use until the 1920s and another reference states that there was a significant fire which destroyed the interior in 1936. Today, it is a windowless ruin which is not accessible to the public.

I’m sure you are all anxious to get back to the story of that first Steeplechase – and you want to know who won? When taking in any Irish tale you have to be patient . . . We simple don’t know who won! It’s not recorded anywhere . . . The account continues:

. . .The distance was around 4 miles, crossing countryside and rivers. The winner would be the first to touch the base of the steeple in Doneraile. The prize? More than 600 gallons of port. Sadly, history has not recorded who actually won the race. But that race has gone down in history, with steeplechase races becoming a tradition . . .

.europeana.eu

Obviously, we had to continue our expedition with a visit to Doneraile, to view the finishing post. That’s St Mary’s Church, above. The present building does not have a spire: I would have thought that such a feature would be essential if you were looking out for it from a distance of four miles, even with fairly flat countryside in between. However, I have now learned that the term ‘steeple’ correctly refers either to a simple church tower, or a church tower with a spire on it. Have a look at the terrain from a birds’ eye view:

Here I have copied extracts from the first edition 6″ Ordnance Survey map, showing the terrain in more detail around the start and finish points as it was noted in the early nineteenth century:

On this occasion we didn’t have time to explore the route itself: I wonder if anyone else has? Is it significant that the townland which surrounds Doneraile Church is known as Horseclose?

In the present day, of course, Steeplechasing has an equine life of its own. Supposedly, the very first recognised English National Steeplechase took place in March 1830. In 1839, the British Grand National Race at Aintree was established, a race that is still run today over roughly the same distance of around 4 miles. Here’s a poster for the Irish equivalent – at Fairyhouse – on Easter Monday 1916, a very significant date in the Irish calendar . . .

While on the subject of the Aintree event, we must mention the most famous racehorse of all time (probably) who holds the record for winning the Grand National Steeplechase thrice – in 1973, 1974, and 1977 and coming second in 1975 and 1976: Red Rum.

. . . Red Rum was bred at Rossenarra stud in Kells, County Kilkenny, Ireland, by Martyn McEnery. Following a canter at Aintree Racecourse the day before the 1978 Grand National he was retired. The news of Red Rum’s retirement was the lead story on that night’s 9 O’Clock News on the BBC and was also front page news of the following morning’s newspapers. Red Rum had become a national celebrity, opening supermarkets and annually leading the Grand National parade for many further years. His likeness graced playing cards, mugs, posters, models, paintings, plates and jigsaw puzzles. Several books have been written about Red Rum, The horse helped launch the Steeplechase rollercoaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in 1977 . . .

Wikipedia

Yes, this is it: the Steeplechase Rollercoaster! You can join in the full experience here. Hopefully my account has enlivened your day: I’m sure there are many of you out there who are familiar with this tale and can, perhaps, add to it? I’ll finish with a view over Buttevant taken on our journey – an atmospheric winter morning.

With thanks to The Guardian for the header pic of the Aintree Grand National

The Wran, The Wran . . .

. . . New Year’s Day saw the Wran coming out in our village of Ballydehob, County Cork. It’s an old tradition here. That time “the fool” accompanied the wren boys. He was mounted on a donkey and carried a bladder tied to a stick. I got the song from John Levis, Ballydehob, (34 years of age) who procured it from Jeremiah Driscoll, Ballydehob (age 64yrs) who was an old wren boy. “Wren” is pronounced wran locally in Ballydehob and surrounding districts . . .

Duchas Schools Folklore Collection : Collector J Barry

This account dates from around 1936. It’s referring, therefore, to something happening regularly in the late 1800s and, probably long before that. ‘The Wran’ is still active in Ballydehob, well over a century later. I have written about our own Wran Day preparations not so long ago – and included the song – and I’m pleased to report that the day went well. That’s me, above and below, playing the melodeon (although perhaps I shouldn’t be giving away the disguise)! I’m actually wearing ‘tatters’, which was my costume when I took part in Mummers’ plays in England from relatively early in my life: I was brought up on the Surrey / Hampshire borders, prime country for this English tradition. Mumming also takes place in parts of Ireland, have a look here.

New Years’ Day was quiet day in the village – until we took to the streets! If you want to know the purpose of it all, I can’t really tell you. These are activities that happen around the natural turning point of the year – the change from the sun getting progressively lower in the sky, and weaker, to its returning strength: already we can sense the lengthening of each day. In the mumming on these islands you got a sense of it from a symbolic play where combatants fought and died, then were brought back to life by The Doctor who can apparently cure all illnesses. And, of course, we are always anxious to see the solstice in action!

In Ireland, the Wran Day tradition is accompanied by a play in some places, but more usually it’s a procession through a community, involving interaction by going into houses and shops, making a lot of noise and generally stirring up the spirits with a bit of mischief-making. We were fairly passive this year because of Covid restrictions, but it felt good to be out and about. Let’s hope that this anomaly in the regularity of daily life can become more marked as things gets back to near normal in future years!

Thanks are due to Sonia Caldwell – who instigated proceedings, keeping us all focussed – and Joe and Caroline of Levis’s Bar who provided the venue for making the masks – and gave great moral support! Traditionally, the masks are ritually burned on the following St Patrick’s day. Finola kindly provided the pics.

No Wrens Were Harmed in the Making of this Post… An Update!

Do you remember pre-Covid days? Those times seem to bring out the nostalgia in me… It’s only two years ago that I wrote a post about our preparations – in Ballydehob – for the Wran Day celebrations that would take place on St Stephen’s Day – 26 December – following. Those festivities did happen, and we were then all in happy ignorance of how our lives were to be changed mightily by the pandemic that struck the world just a few weeks later. We’d like to think that, after all this time has passed, a level of normality will be returning. That’s not quite the case – but we are planning a ‘Wran’ this year, and today we gathered in Levis’s Corner House to make ready for it. Here’s a photo – kindly loaned by Pól Ó Colmáin – of the results of the workshop we held to prepare for the ‘Wran’ in 2019.

So firstly, here’s an abridged version of the post I put up after that workshop two years ago. I’ll follow it with an update of the equivalent [but socially distanced!] event which we held today . . .

* * * * * Back to 2019 * * * * *

Wran Hunting has featured before in Roaringwater Journal: that’s the way that St Stephen’s Day – 26 December – has been celebrated for generations in ‘Celtic’ parts of western Europe, specifically Ireland and The Isle of Man, but also in Cornwall – where it’s now only a memory – Brittany, Wales and Scotland. ‘The Wran’ is a very strong surviving tradition here, especially on the west side of the country. The Dingle Gaeltacht is the place to go if you want to see all the action (you may have to click on the bottom right of the window to turn on the sound):

In our own Ballyedhob community ‘The Wran’ is not forgotten. In fact you can even find a poem written about it in the Duchas folklore records. This was recorded in the 1930s by John Levis, aged 32, who took it down from Jeremiah Driscoll, aged 64 years. Jeremiah had been a Wren Boy in Ballydehob. Here’s the poem:

Come all you ladies and gentlemen,

For tis here we are with our famous wran

With a heart full of cheering for every man

To rise up a booze before the year is gone.

*

Mr O’Leary we came to see,

With our wran so weak and feeble,

The wran is poor and we can’t feed him,

So we hope your honour will relieve him

*

We’ve hunted our wran three miles and more

We’ve hunted this wran all around Glandore

Through hedges and ditches and fields so green,

And such fine sport was never seen.

*

As we copied our wran again

Which caused our wran-boys for to sing,
She stood erect and wagged her tail,
And swore she’d send our boys to jail.

*

As we went up through Leaca Bhuidhe

We met our wran upon a tree,

Up with a cubit and gave him a fall,

And we’ve brought him here to visit you all.

*

This the wran you may plainly see,

She is well mounted on a holly tree,

With a bunch of ribbons by his side

And the Ballydehob boys to be his guide.

*

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,

St Stephen’s day he was caught in the furze,

Although he is little, his family is great,

So rise up landlady and fill us a treat.

*

And if you fill it of the best,

We hope in Heaven your soul will rest,

But if you fill it of the small,

It won’t agree with our boys at all.

*

To Mr O’Leary and his wife

We wish them both a happy life,

With their pockets full of money, and their cellars full of beer,
We now wish a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

*

And now, our song is ended, we have no more to say,

We hope you’re not offended for coming here today,

For coming here this morning we think it is not wrong,

So give us our answer and let us all be gone.

Traditional, DUCHAS

By good fortune there’s ‘Mr O’Leary’ above! He’s the landlord of Levis’ Corner House Bar in Ballydehob: he allowed the Wran workshop to take over his pub yesterday. Basically that involved covering the whole place in straw out of which, magically, appeared lots of wonderfully crafted Wran masks. Joe is wearing a fine example.

Finola and I were at the workshop, and there I am with work in progress on the straw mask which we made (upper picture). You’ll notice that I’m wearing ‘tatters’: I’ve had these for years, and I used to don them for our own mumming tradition in Devon which also happened on 26 December (that’s me with the squeezebox mumming in the 1970s! – lower picture). Over there we called St Stephen’s ‘Boxing Day’ because that was when ‘Christmas boxes’ were given to the postman, the milkman and anyone else who provided their services through the year. Interestingly, Kevin Danaher mentions the ‘Wran box’ which was taken around the houses by the wrenners (or Wran Boys) and used to collect money ‘for the Wran’. This illustration of a Wren box from County Galway is from Danaher’s book The Year in Ireland:

The workshop in Levis’ was very well attended, and there is clearly great enthusiasm for reviving this custom. Sonia collected the straw at the annual Thrashing in Ballydehob – which is a traditional harvest celebration. It’s not easy to find the right straw for making the masks nowadays: anything that has been through a combine harvester has been flattened and will not survive the plaiting.

It’s a complex process, but the group coped well in acquiring the new skills under Sonia’s tutelage. The making – every year – has always been part of the tradition where it’s still practised today. Sometimes the straw masks (which are only one part of the ‘disguise’) are destroyed after Stephen’s. In some of the Dingle traditions they are ritually burned on the following St Patrick’s Day.

* * * * * * Fast Forward to 2021 * * * * *

Two years later, on a damp Sunday in Ballydehob, you might have seen the strange sight of bundles of straw being transported across the road to Levis’, where the 2021 Wran Workshop is about to take place in the ‘outback’ area of the bar. That’s Sonia (on the left above) who is masterminding the whole proceedings, and also oversaw the growing of the straw.

We all really appreciate Joe and Caroline – who run Levis’s – who are so supportive of community events and who, like everyone else, have had to struggle to keep business going through the ups and downs of Covid restrictions. The ‘Outback’ – formerly their yard – has been remarkably transformed into a comfortable outdoor venue, and live concerts and events are continuing through the winter season, helping to make our days seem as normal as possible.

We were a small but dedicated group, determined to get the tradition going again in Ballydehob. We are not sure, yet, when it will happen. Traditionally it should be Stephen’s Day, but it all depends on how available the participants will be. We will keep all our readers fully informed! meanwhile, if you need encouragement, look at the work that has gone into the straw masks this year . . .

Here’s Sonia Caldwell again, above. We have featured her Kilcoe Studios in a previous post. She is undoubtedly the energy behind this project. Look out for us all shortly after Christmas – there is good entertainment to be had. But, also, essential traditions to be kept alive to ensure that our world keeps turning!

That’s Pól Ó Colmáin, above, testing out his mask for size before finishing off the conical headpiece. Marie and he run the Working Artist Studios in the main Street of Ballydehob – a wonderful addition to our village’s thriving assets. Pol also bravely works away at teaching the Irish language to a number of students, including me! Here are both of them this afternoon with their completed Wran Day pieces – and also my own mask back at home . . .

The Wild One

We are past November Dark – traditionally a ‘low’ time of the year when the effects of the approaching cold months begin to displace autumnal skies and spectacular sunsets: the term traditionally refers to the appearance of the new moon of the month (which happened this year on the 4th), but is probably inspired by the preceding nights when no moon is visible. For us at the moment, on the shores of Roaringwater Bay, the dark time is emphasised by a constant pervading mist which clings and covers everything in films of moisture, especially the myriad cobwebs on the gorse bushes which surround us. Gone – for now – are our fine views out across to the islands, and there is a feeling of being marooned and suspended in a lifeless grey tract which encompasses sea and sky.

November Dark has brought with it tragedy to our garden. In explanation, I should first paint the idyllic picture of what we like to call our ‘peaceable kingdom’. For many years we have considered this domain a haven. Do you remember our fox – Ferdia – who was a constant companion to us in the first few years here at Nead an Iolair? He visited on a daily basis – often waking us by barking outside our bedroom window at dawn, and presided over a mixed community of birds and animals who share our territory – without any conflict.

Ferdia was happy enough to co-exist with the bird and pheasant families, the rats and mice, and the occasional cat that dropped in. I have a memory of fox and cat sitting side by side on our terrace, clearly having a conversation with each other: I would like to have eavesdropped, but whatever mutual language they share was not available to me! Ferdia vanished from our garden a few years back – gone to his happy hunting grounds no doubt; but the pheasants have remained with us through much of the decade we have been here.

In the upper picture Finnbarr and his young wife, Fidelma, patrol our garden some five years ago. The lower picture was taken just before the start of the Pandemic, in March 2019. The couple have been a daily feature of life outside Nead an Iolair. They always appreciated feeding time, when they got a share of the seeds I put out on our patch for the many bird visitors, small and large. The picture below taken during the summer of last year shows a family group: pheasant chicks have been seen but rarely.

The idyll abruptly ended yesterday, when a bomb hit the garden – in the form of a small but fierce force of nature: only inches long but terrifying. I glanced out of the window where, minutes before, the two pheasants had been foraging as usual along the stone boundary wall. I was shocked to see Fidelma lying on her back, wings flapping, being dragged along the ground: there was a commotion among the small birds and Finnbarr had vanished. At first I could not see the attacker, but as I rushed outside I caught a glimpse of brown fur with a hint of white and black. My first thought – a rat! – could not have been borne out: we have lived side by side with rat families for years: they only ever appear to share the bird food, and are never aggressive.

You can see the conditions that prevailed on this worst of days from Finola’s picture (top), taken from indoors through the windows. And – below that – the brazen culprit, who danced around the garden at breakneck speed, very ready to threaten me if I made a wrong move! It was our first sighting here on our land of an Irish Stoat. Having now read the books, I know in hindsight what a shocking phenomenon had hit us. Although fearing the worst, I quickly removed Fidelma to an indoor refuge and then watched the rampaging of this fur powerball traversing our territory at lightning speed; leaping from walls, trees and bushes and aiming for any likely food source.

Finola has done her best to clarify the images in the photos she rapidly took through streaming wet glass (above) on this appalling day. The weather did not in any way impede the progress of the animal which circumscribed our whole acre, it seemed, in record time.

. . . The Stoat is often called the Weasel in Ireland, but although the weasel (Mustela nivalis) is very similar in appearance to the stoat, it is not native to Ireland and has never been introduced here. In Ireland the stoat or ‘weasel’ was regarded as a very intelligent animal, but also vengeful. For example, since they were believed to understand human speech, if a stoat was encountered the correct thing to do was to greet them politely. In County Clare the custom was to raise one’s hat in greeting, or even to bow. The person who insulted them, on the other hand, or pelted them with stones, could expect to lose all their chickens before too long. Deliberately killing a stoat was most unwise, since it caused all the deceased animal’s relations to descend on the house of the culprit and attack with great savagery . . .

Ireland’s Animals – Myth legends and Folklore, Niall Mc Coitir, The Collins Press, Cork 2010

The Duchas Schools Folklore Collection – gathered in the 1930s – has numerous entries referring to the stoat. Above is an example from Co Carlow. When I was sifting through these, I was struck by the fact that similar stories about stoats are repeated over and over again, but from different parts of Ireland. I could write a volume based on these accounts, but will choose only a few:

. . . One time there was a girl who was very fond of going to the seaside. One day she went to the seaside and lay down and fell asleep. Ten weasels went down her throat. So she awoke when the last one was going down. She went to the doctor and the doctor said she would need to undergo an operation and then she would die. One day she was going to the shop and her granny knew all about cures. So she went into the granny. Her granny told her to get two pounds of salt and eat all the salt and go to the seaside and drink no water and keep her mouth open and the weasels would have to come out for a drink. So this she did. The weasels came out for a drink. The girl counted them. There were ten in it and the girl came home cured . . .

William O’Donnell, Cabra Glebe, Co Donegal

. . . One day long ago two men went to cut the meadow with scythes. They cut away for a while until they came to a weasel’s nest where there were four young weasels out of the nest and left them near by on the ground. After a while the mother of the weasels came home and found her young on the ground and was very angry, She hesitated for a moment and then understood what the men had done. Now the men had had a can of milk with them for a drink which they left near the weasel’s nest, the old weasel saw the can and went to see what in it. When she saw what was in it she spat into it because a weasel’s spit is poison. When the men saw this they were terrified and put back the young weasels into the nest, and the old weasel was pleased and went back and upset the can and spilt the milk from fear the men would drink of it and be poisoned . . .

James Gormley Senior, Aged 82, Commeen, Co Roscommon

Note that the term ‘Weasels’ is used far more often in these accounts than ‘Stoats’. There can only be the one animal, however, as there have never been true ‘weasels’ in Ireland. The story above, from Co Roscommon, is the most common of all ‘weasel’ tales in Ireland, and variants of it have been recorded from all parts.

. . . Many years ago an old woman lived by herself. There was a nest of weasels under the hearth in the house in which she lived and every day the old woman fed them until they became quite tame. When the young weasels were reared they went off but the old one remained in the hearth. One day the woman was sitting by the fire when the old weasel came out and sat with her. The weasel was continually looking up the chimney and at last the woman said “What the dickens are you looking at?” and at the same time looking up herself. She saw a little bag hanging in the chimney and took it down. To her surprise and joy she found it was full of gold. This was the weasel’s reward for her kindness to her and her family . . .

Mrs L Millett, Fiddaun Lower, Inistioge, Co Kilkenny

. . . The Swarm or Drove of Weasels: the following story or rather fact come from a reliable source to wit a teacher in Ballyshannon. In the end of August or about that time some distance outside Ballyshannon a great whistling was heard as if a number of little birds and a mighty drove of Weasels was seen heading for the mountains. An old man said that he heard that weasels used make for the mountains during the Grouse Season. The Priests housekeeper saw or heard of the same thing in Antrim . . .

J Clarke, Navan, Co Meath

. . . Some time about forty years ago there were children playing on the side of a hill and they saw a few weasels. They started to run and cry. They looked round and saw thousands coming after them. Only they got away the weasels would have devoured them . . .


Written by Kathleen McKenna Bragan, Co Monoghan 25th November 1938

I couldn’t resist that little foray into weasel stories from the Folklore Collection. There are many many more pages full of them! Interestingly, stoats are a fully protected species in Ireland. If stoats are proving a problem, by killing chicks or other domestic animals, you must solve the problem by using good fencing; it is illegal to kill a stoat.

A possible reason for the attention which stoats attract in folklore is the fact that they can change colour, which adds a sense of the supernatural to them. In countries which have harsh winters the coat of the stoat becomes white in those months, offering a level of protection in the open landscape. The fur from the white – or ‘winter’ – stoat we call ermine, and the white fur is considered so precious that only royalty or nobility traditionally wear it. In the drawing above, the white stoat is wearing a cloak on which are printed the symbols of the flag of Brittany (below), which was an independent kingdom in medieval times. The white background represents the ermine fur, and the black markings are said to be based on the black tip of the tail which the animal retains, even in the winter.

Here (above) is another example of the Breton ermine representation: a finely worked silver antique brooch. In Ireland, the species of stoat which has evolved – Mustela erminea hibernica – does not usually turn white in winter, although examples have been noted. The animal is said to have been resident in Ireland from the post-glacial period and, in the present day, the population numbers are unknown: it is not a threatened species.

In spite of our attempts to care for Fidelma, she did not survive. Sadly, I decided to let Nature have her way and laid the body close to a fox-track above the house. Later, I noticed an assembly of corvids gathered in the area. When I returned there in the evening all traces had gone – just a few scattered feathers told the tale.

This morning, Finnbarr was absent from the garden. I did catch a glimpse of him wandering the distant pastures – forlorn and bereft. At least, those are the feelings my human soul projects onto him. He will find another mate, of course, and we hope they will continue to share our little bit of paradise. We will keep a lookout for unwelcome visitors, but we will always have to pay our respects to the ‘weasels’. If our stoat does return we will have to honour him with an Irish name: I am inclining towards Fiáinín – which means Little Wild One.

Lady with an Ermine, painted 1489–1491 by Leonardo da Vinci. The subject is said to be Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Leonardo’s Milanese employer, Ludovico Sforza. The Ermine is symbolic, rather than realistic – in fact it is pictured much larger than in real life. It has been suggested that the ermine in classical literature relates to pregnancy, sometimes as an animal that protected pregnant women. Around the time of the painting’s creation, Cecilia was known to be pregnant with Ludovico’s illegitimate son.

Castleruddery Stone Circle

Our travels are always attuned towards our particular interests, be they history, stained glass, art or – as in this case – archaeology. We go out of our way to take in sites we have never seen before – and there are so many. When we were ‘holidaying’ in Wicklow last week we searched out this stone circle in the townland of Castleruddery Lower. It was well worth the journey.

. . . Neglected, knee-high in grass and surrounded by round-crowned hawthorns whose May blossom speckles the bank, it is difficult to appreciate how important Castleruddery must have been early in the Bronze Age when Beaker copper prospectors and the Wicklow mountain goldminers passed by its brilliant entrance. It is not properly a stone circle but a henge, with a stone-lined interior. It was constructed on the summit of a hill just east of the valley into which the Little Slaney flows. Six miles north is the lovely Athgreany stone circle and only two miles to the south is the Boleycarrigeen ring, its stones embedded in a low earthen bank . . .

Aubrey Burl, Rings of Stone, France Lincoln Publishers, 1979

The aerial view, and the extract from the 25″ Ordnance Survey map (above) show the monument in the context of the surrounding landscape. Nearby is a medieval ‘Motte’, very much younger than the ‘Druidical Circle’ – thus named on many early maps. The local Irish name – Chaisleán an Ridire – translates as Knight’s Castle, which might make you think that there is some medieval connection between the circle and the Motte, but in fact Castleruddery stone circle is likely to date from the late Neolithic, around 2,500 BC, marking it as one of the earliest of this monument type in Ireland.

We noted this little figurine by the entrance gate to the circle: it made me wonder what folklore or traditions might be associated with the site today. I could find only one reference to Castleruddery in the Duchas Schools Folklore collection, dating from 1936:

The informer here was Michael Murphy, aged 68 – a ‘labourer’ from Colliga, Co Wicklow. The School collector was from Baile Dháithí, Dunlavin, Davidstown, Co Wicklow. There was no doubt in Mr Murphy’s mind that the stones could only have been placed there by supernatural powers!

The two quartz portal stones at the east side of the circle are remarkable: deliberately chosen, no doubt, to emphasise the importance of the orientation. The circle has 29 significant stones still standing today, but there were probably more. There is evidence of attempts to break up and remove some of the stones, which would have made good building or fencing material for someone who did not share respect for the integrity of the circle.

The two views above show iron ‘drill’ markings: these were made to try and separate sections of stone to be taken away for re-use. In the upper picture one section has been removed, but the operation was unsuccessful for the remainder of the boulder. One has to wonder whether otherworldy forces intervened – and meted out some form of ‘bad luck’ to the perpetrators.

In the present day it’s territory for sheep, and they seem to be unconcerned about any ancient associations or supernatural influences interrupting their tranquil grazing. The archaeologists tell us that this is more of a ‘henge’ monument than the type of stone circle we are familiar with in West Cork. It’s certainly larger, and crop marks have shown that the 29 stones surmount an earthen ring, approximately 30 metres in diameter, and there is a further ring which was once supported or reinforced by timber. Comparisons are made with a henge circle at Grange, close to Lough Gur, Co Limerick, which we visited in 2016. There the ring of at least 113 stones has an internal diameter of 46 metres. We took the two photos below at Grange.

The Grange circle was excavated in 1939 by professor S P Ó Riordáin, and the Duchas board at the site states:

. . . The excavation indicated that the enclosure was constructed purely for sacred or ritual purposes. The bank may have provided a stand where an audience could observe ceremonies within the enclosure . . . One of the stones is known as Rannach Cruim Duibh. This suggests that the circle became associated with the festival of Lughnasa, traditionally the first Sunday in August, and a celebration of the harvest. Crom Dubh, meaning the Dark Bent One, was credited with bringing the first sheaf of corn to Ireland . . .

Duchas, Grange Circle

There must surely be connections, and common purposes, between the many similar circle monuments all over Ireland. We always want to know What was it for…? probably, we never will, but it’s part of the whole romance of archaeology to wonder about such places. We must be grateful that so much remains for us to explore.