Through the Yellow Gap

The middle of January: you might expect to be battened down here in West Cork with raging gales or bitter north winds, but Saturday dawned with a clear sky to reveal a most beautiful sun-warmed landscape. We had to be out! We adopted exploring mode and headed for the hills to the north-east of Bantry. OS Map 85 entices with a whole swathe of archaeological sites from megalithic tombs to stone rows and circles, but it was a name that drew us: Barrboy – probably from the original Irish barrabhuidhe – which means ‘yellow summit’. As the highest point of the road in that place (pictured below – about 350m above sea level) is a mountain pass, we have chosen to name our journey Through the Yellow Gap.

The ‘Yellow Gap Road’ runs west to east across the centre of this extract from OS Map 85: we turned on to it from the N71 at Lahadane, just north of Bantry, and dropped back on to the main road to Drimoleague south of Coolkellure

The first part of our route followed the Mealagh river and we were intrigued by the boreens that cross it in places over very fine stone arches: these will have to be explored another time – we were aiming for the hills.

Our day offered us a study of light and landscape, which only the combination of January low sun and shadows can give. If anything the yellowness of the uplands with their rocks, mosses and furze is emphasised by this light: Finola is sure that the colour is due to the fionnán (blonde) grass which is so prevalent during the winter months (header picture). We felt we were in a very remote place, known only to those who spend their lives there, but we were in fact barely a hop and a skip from our own home.

Studies in light and landscape: with a different vista at every turn we were treated to outstanding views typical of rural Ireland

As is so often the case with our off-the-beaten-track excursions, we saw hardly anyone in the whole day, but we did chance to bump into our cycling friend Tim who is in training for yet another Everesting event. The rules are straightforward:

. . . The concept of Everesting is fiendishly simple. Pick any hill, anywhere in the world and ride repeats of it in a single activity until you climb 8,848m – the equivalent height of Mt Everest. Complete the challenge, and you’ll find your name in the Hall of Fame, alongside the best climbers in the world . . .

Tim on his way up the Yellow Gap Road (also known as Nowen Hill). He has to do this climb 56 times in one go to achieve the ‘Everest’. In fact, his aim is to do a ‘Double Everest’ on this hill! This will be his third Everesting event in West Cork… Good luck, Tim

Our travels took us through some very attractive ‘deep’ countryside dotted with cottages and small settlements. Humans have been here for a very long time and have left evidence of their occupation in enigmatic standing stones, alignments, circles and tombs. Some can be seen from the roadside, but many involve explorations across fields or into forests. Always, we are left wanting to know who these early settlers were and why they left us these monuments.

Upper pictures – single standing stones which can be seen from the roadside; lower picture – a five-stone circle and a two-stone alignment on high pasture land: all are ancient and mysterious

As the road threaded its way through the gap and began to descend we seemed to re-enter a less wild landscape, and habitations became more frequent. Eventually we found ourselves in a small community – Coolkelure – with a great sense of history. there was a fine C of I church, a school which had been in use until the 1950s, and an avenue leading to a large house which has had a chequered history, There is an entry in Duchas (the Schools Folklore Collection) about this village:

. . . Coolkelure is situated about four miles and a half west of Dunmanway. There is a holy well at the side of the road but it is covered in now with briars and bushes. Its origin is unknown. There are three steps going into it and there are medals, pieces of cloth and pennies up on a stone over the well. About twenty feet in from it there are rocks nearly a thousand feet high. It is said that a giant lived there in olden times. On the other side of the road is a marsh and the giant is supposed to be buried there. There is a huge stone over his grave. Further on is Coolkelure House. This formerly belonged to Shouldhams, now it is the property of Lady Bandon. The avenue looks beautiful in summer and it is hedged with rhododendrons of every hue . . . (Joan Collins, aged 12 years, from Patrick Collins, aged 60 years – c1934)

Upper – Coollkelure Church; centre – the Lodge at the gateway to Coolkelure House; lower – one of many fine gargoyles on the eccentric Lodge

Well, we didn’t see the holy well, the thousand feet high cliff, the giant or his grave. But we did see rhododendrons – large thickets of them – all the way along many of the roads we travelled. They must look very striking when in bloom in the springtime, but they are an invasive species which threatens the true natural hedgerows. In Coolkelure, also, occurred one of the highlights of our day. We met and got into conversation with Donal and Caitriona – a most hospitable couple who own a small house overlooking the lake. They invited us in, we were given coffee and cakes, and the chat was mighty!

Upper – looking back at our way through the mountains; centre – an example of the many stands of invasive rhododendrons that we encountered and lower – the road becomes tamer as we approach a pastured landscape

We left Coolkelure and headed out of the hills, feeling fulfilled by all the events of the day. Our adventures were not quite over, however, as we encountered Daisy and her owner with their ‘road-car’, delighted that we stopped to photograph them (below). In fact, between us we took at least two hundred photographs on our day out and can only include a modest selection on these pages.

West Cork Obscura – Robert’s Choices

‘Hidden West Cork’ and ‘off the beaten track’ have been oft-used phrases in our posts – and that’s part of our mission with Roaringwater Journal: exploration of some of the more secret places, and researching and recording their stories. Finola has looked out her own favourites; my current choices are here – although, with 569 posts written to date between us, we could have picked out so many.

Header and above – one of the discoveries which made a great impression on me during the year was Tralong Bay, out beyond Glandore and Drombeg: it’s a beautiful piece of the coastline, at the end of a cul-de-sac and – it seemed to us – very little visited. But to visit is to transport yourselves back thousands of years as, on the beach and exposed at low tide, are the remains of an ancient forest. Here is the post.

A quirky discovery, not too far away from Tralong, was the pyramid-shaped mausoleum in the old burial ground at Glandore. For us, ancient graveyards are treasure troves of local history. This one – a peaceful and secluded place well worth a visit anyway – conceals an enigma: find the story here.

The Rock Art at Castlemehigan in its spectacular setting (above). Below is a close view of some of the markings on the rock

Delving back a few years, I found this December post on a visit to a spectacular example of Rock Art at the far end the Mizen Peninsula: Castlemehigan. The cupmarks on this earthfast boulder are impressive and the view from it is spectacular, especially on the clear winter day that we were blessed with. The rock was also in use as a Mass Rock during penal times, and there is evidence of this on the surface. We were told a story about those times by Florence O’Driscoll, whose land the rock is on. Make sure you have permission to visit if you go!

Finola managed to combine her consuming interest in wildflowers with industrial history and an account of a very special walk on the Sheep’s Head. It’s one of the marked trails on that peninsula – and takes in the deserted settlement of Crimea where a cottage has been partially restored (picture above) – finishing at the abandoned mine workings at Gortavallig, perched precariously on the very edge of a cliff (below). Here is the link to Finola’s post.

Here am I trying to get my head around the enigmatic ‘Rolls of Butter’ (above). I have to admit they are in Kerry (only just), but involved us travelling one of our all-time favourite roads, much of which is actually in West Cork: that’s the Priest’s Leap Road which runs over the mountains from Bantry (more or less) to Kenmare (more or less). We go out of our way to use this road because of the superb views – and a special piece of folklore – but, if you give it a try, be prepared for a narrow and steep journey (below)! Here is the post.

Archaeology dictates many of our outings. One of the less well-known monuments is Ardgroom Outward Stone Circle (pictured above and below) on the Beara Peninsula. This year, following a harsh winter, the weather turned sublime, and we have travelled extensively to make the most of it. We find ourselves often drawn to the Beara (much of which is in West Cork). This post describes an expedition which included stone monuments, colourful villages, stained glass – and ice cream! Have a look.

It was almost five years ago that we first reported on one of our perenially favourite West Cork locations: Gougane Barra (above). It’s a holy place – an alluringly beautiful lake sited in the Shehy Mountains, close to the source of Cork’s special River Lee. Here, in the sixth century, Saint Finbarr set up a collection of cells for his monastic community on an island. Here, also, lived the couple ‘The Tailor and Ansty’, immortalised in a book written in 1942 by Eric Cross. It’s a not entirely happy story as the book was banned because of its down-to-earth portrayal of the facts of life, and storyteller Tim Buckley (‘The Tailor’) was forced to burn his copy of it in front of the local priests: the incident led to an abrasive debate in Seanad Éireann on censorship. This story is, perhaps, one of the less well-known historical aspects of West Cork (and Ireland), but visit Gougane Barra for its beauty – and make sure you find the gravestone of ‘The Tailor & Ansty’: it was carved by their friend Seamus Murphy and bears the inscription . . .  A Star Danced And Under That Was I Born . . .

We hope that, between us, we might have given you some good ideas for exploration of our wonderful West Cork landscapes and – perhaps – encourage you off the highways and on to the byways: there are so many adventures to be had, summer or winter. Travel Well!

Kay Davenport – Creativity in West Cork

Writer, sculptor, ceramicist, historian . . .  the creative community here in West Cork rolls all these things into one person: Kay Davenport. For me, another side to Kay is one of the most important – she is, like me, a complete Hare Fanatic! You can tell because, when you drive past her entrance gates on the road between Ballydehob and Bantry, you are greeted by some wonderful hares which she has sculpted.

When we first met Kay – many years ago now – her Hare Pottery was in full swing, producing bespoke plates, ceramic trays, trivets and canvases with all the images inspired by the ‘marginalia’ in a series of 14th century French manuscripts. Most of these feature hares in various poses, usually turning the tables on the human world. Kay elaborates:

. . . the hare is a principal actor and unique in these books in her animosity towards the hunter/tailor who would kill her for her pelt to line hoods and cloaks. A number of marginal scenes revolves around the subject of the hare exacting revenge on the hunter and these could be described as the hunter hunted or the world upside down. The hare is also shown fighting with her old adversary, the hound, using shield and sword, or defending a castle against him and his troops. In one instance, the hare triumphs and bears him home, presumably to eat . . .

Upper: memories of Kay’s Hare Pottery, Ballydehob. Lower, a tile on the left – the title reads . . . The hare hunted for her pelt to line the hoods of ordinary people here wears the hood (lined with 100% human hair?) . . . Lower right – another of the marginalia illustrations from The Bar Books: here the hare plays a horn

2018 has heralded new ventures. She has become a prolific writer! Firstly, in March of this year she released a magnum opus: The Bar Books – a completely comprehensive study of the manuscripts illuminated for Renaud de Bar, Bishop of Metz between 1303 and 1316. It is these manuscripts that contain the hare marginalia which have always fascinated and inspired Kay. The study is about far more than the marginalia – it’s a very concentrated slice of a very particular historic period and a way of life lived then; and the book contains 242 black-and-white illustrations and 45 colour plates.

Top – from The Bar Books – examples from the colour plates. Middle – marginalia illustration, showing a hare being pursued by a boar (or, perhaps, a dragon?). Bottom – the marginalia have been used by Kay to illustrate her pottery: here the hares are making use of a temporary structure erected in the open for the king to have a bath while on the road. Hares of course are always on the road and have seized this ideal opportunity to give their baby a bath (with the baby swaddled like royalty)

As if such a magnificent achievement wasn’t enough for one year, Kay has surprised us all by suddenly launching a series of illustrated books for children – and just in time for Christmas! But it would be wrong to say that these books are only for children: we were thoroughly entertained by them – as will anyone be who has a sense of humour. And the suitable age group? Well, my grandchildren who range from 8 to 18 will be getting them – and enjoying them, I have no doubt. After all, there are terrible toddler tantrums, fierce wolves, and a hip-hop hero – what more could anyone want?

Above: the covers and a page from Sweet Dreams, in which a nightmare of a child learns the pitfalls of eating too many sweets. Kay’s rhyming text and illustrations are hilarious. below, the book Hip Hop Aesop – a wonderfully unique variation on the ‘cry wolf’ story.

Just to add to the melee, Kay has also provided the illustrations for a book by Michael Neill, Macdonald the Tiger. In my household, we always had to have books about tigers – especially those who ate children. This one would certainly have fitted the bill – and a few mothers get eaten along the way, too! But all ends well, of course.

Well, I hope this post has inspired you to go out and get some of Kay’s work. The books are available from Amazon, and they are also on sale in the Post Office in Ballydehob – what an easy way to fill your Christmas stockings!

A Frenchman’s Walk Through Ireland

Cork City in the eighteenth century (represented above and below in Cork’s Nano Nagle Centre) had an unhealthy reputation, according to one commentator – Frenchman Jacques-Louis of Bougrenet de La Tocnaye – who travelled through Ireland in the 1790s and happily left us with some written descriptions of his journey.

Born into an ancient noble family in Nantes in 1767, de La Tocnaye fled the French Revolution in 1792 and self-exiled himself to idle London (his words). Then – armed with a sheaf of letters of introduction to people who might be useful along the way – he set out on a walking journey which lasted for ten years, through England, Scotland, Ireland and Scandinavia. Remarkably, he was able to get his writings published as he went along and we are fortunate to have some of them preserved, after a fashion, through a translation into English by John Stevenson in 1917 of Promenade d’un Français dans l’Irlande 1796 – 1797.

It is necessary to quote from the preamble set down by this translator before we embark on the writing itself. Apologies if you feel – as I do – we might be missing out on a few of the more colourful observations from de La Tocnaye on Ireland because of Stevenson’s reservations. The end result is of great interest to us nevertheless.

. . . A word about the author’s style. He has none. A well-educated man, at home in the highest circles of society, and doubtless a brilliant conversationalist, he is evidently unaccustomed to writing . . . Therefore, in the rendering, it has been necessary, at times, to convey what he intended to say rather than what is actually set down . . . 

. . . He has a weakness for using the swear words of the country of his sojourn, and uses them unnecessarily and unwarrantably. Second-hand matter, in the form of stories ‘ lifted ‘ from Irish authors, or antiquarian information inserted out of compliment to his friends, has been omitted as of no interest to the reader of to-day; and certain little sallies in the French manner, innocent enough, but which in English print might wear the air of indecencies, have been modified or suppressed. For the rest, the translation is as literal as a care for readability in English will allow . . .

. . . Travelling on foot over the island, east, south, west, north, his whole baggage in his pockets, in two silk stockings from which he had cut the feet, or in a handkerchief slung en sautoir on the end of a combined sword-stick and umbrella, which he said ‘made the girls laugh’ he got to the very heart of Irish life . . .

Sackville Street and Gardiner’s Mall, Dublin c1750. Attributed to Joseph Tudor 1695–1759. (courtesy National Gallery of Ireland)

De La Tocnaye’s writings on his travels in Ireland alone amount to 90,000 words! Today I am taking just a few extracts to give you a flavour of what life was like here in the late eighteenth century – seen through the eyes of one observer. I have no doubt that more of this journal will follow on these pages in time.

Leaving Dublin, de La Tocnaye made a stop in County Wicklow:

. . . Following the course of the stream which flows from the lake, I came to Glendalough, a word which means ‘the valley of the two lakes’. It is remarkable that there is not a single ancient name in this country which has not its special signification. The appropriateness here is evident, for there are really two lakes, which join at the portion of the valley called ‘The Seven Churches.’ It is here in this desert place that are to be found the most ancient remains of the devotion of past centuries, remains whose antiquity reaches back to the early ages of Christianity. St Kevin here founded a monastery in the third or fourth century of the Christian era, probably on the ruins of a temple of the Druids, who sought always the wildest places for the practice of their cult. This was for long a bishopric, but now it is united to that of Dublin. Here are still to be seen the ruins of seven churches, and one of those round towers of unknown origin which are so common in Ireland . . . 

High Cross at Glendalough

De La Tocnaye goes on to pronounce, at length, on round towers (and Irish pishogues):

. . . They are all alike, having a door fifteen or twenty feet from the ground, generally opening eastward, some narrow windows, and inside not the slightest remains of a staircase, unless this may be found in a few projecting stones which may have served to support floors in which there must have been trap doors to allow of passing from one to another by means of ladders. These towers are always found at some distance from a church, and entirely isolated . . . Whatever these ancient buildings may have been, the Irish have now for them the greatest possible veneration. They come here from afar for pilgrimages and penitences, and on the day of the Saint, which is June 3, they dance afterwards and amuse themselves until nightfall. In this sacred enclosure are to be found remedies for many ills. Have you a pain in your arm ? — it suffices to pass the limb through a hole worked in a stone, and you are free from your trouble. There is another stone on which for another ailment you shall rub your back, and another one against which you shall rub your head. And there is a pillar in the middle of the cemetery which, if you can embrace, will make you sure of your wife. The Saint’s Bed is a hole about six feet long, hollowed in the rock — a very special virtue belongs to it. It is only to be reached after much trouble in scaling a steep slope of the mountain above the lake, but whoever has enough strength and resolution to climb to it, and will lie down in it, is sure never to die in childbirth. Belief in this virtue makes a great number of wives, and of girls who hope to become wives, come here to pay their devotions . . . All this seemed to come in very fitly at the beginning of my travels. I pushed my arm through the hole in the stone. I rubbed my back against the rock which cures the troubles of the back, and my head against another, thus ensuring my health for the remainder of my journey. I even tried to embrace the pillar, but I cannot tell with what result. As to the Saint’s Bed, I thought there was little danger of my dying from the malady against which it insures, and therefore I did not climb . . .

Round tower at Glendalough

Returning to de La Tocnaye’s comment about Cork City:

. . . I arrived at Cork, the dullest and dirtiest town which can be imagined. The people met with are yawning, and one is stopped every minute by funerals, or hideous troops of beggars, or pigs which run the streets in hundreds, and yet this town is one of the richest and most commercial of Europe . . .

View of Cork 1760

. . . There is no town where there is so much needful to do to make the place agreeable to a great number of the poor inhabitants. The spirit of commerce and self-interest has laid hold of all branches of the administration. For example, it would be very easy to furnish the town with a public fountain, but the person or company which has the privilege of bringing water in pipes to the houses thinks that by the building of such a fountain there would be lost a number of guinea subscriptions. Therefore, in order that the avidity of an obscure individual should be satisfied, thirty thousand inhabitants must suffer . . . I have seen poor people obliged to collect the water falling from the roofs on a rainy day, or to take it even from the stream in the streets. All the time there is perhaps hardly a place which it would be so easy to supply with water as Cork, by reason of the heights which surround it. There is even a spring or fountain about a mile away, which is called Sunday’s Well, which appears to me to have sufficient water for the supply of a public fountain in the centre of the town . . . The dirt of the streets in the middle of the town is shameful, and as if that were not enough, it would seem as if it were wished to hinder the wind and the sun from drying the filth, for the two ends of the street are terminated by prisons, which close the way entirely and prevent the air from circulating . . .

Cork Prison 1831 – engraving by W J Bartlett

Lest the people of Cork be offended, today, by de La Tocnaye’s descriptions of yesterday, rest assured that he had similar reactions to other places. Take Wexford, for example:

. . . From here I proceeded to Wexford, and without wishing it harm, I may say that it is one of the ugliest and dirtiest towns in the whole of Ireland. The excessive exercise in which I had indulged, and to which I had not been accustomed for a long time, compelled me to remain here eight days with a fever . . .

In spite of the title, this is a representation of Whiteboys from the 1780s. (courtesy National Library of Ireland)

That’s probably quite enough insults for one week! I have avidly ploughed through the writings of de La Tocnaye as he proceeded on his journey through Ireland, and there is much of considerable interest: we get from him a very good picture of life here two hundred years ago. Finola is writing today on the complexity of religious history in Ireland: I’ll close with a view from our French traveller:

. . . In every country of the world the peasant pays tithe with reluctance ; everywhere it is regarded as an onerous impost, prejudicial to the spread of cultivation, for the labourer is obliged to pay on the product of his industry. In Ireland it seems to me a more vexatious tax than elsewhere, for the great mass of the people being Catholic, it seems to them hard that they should be obliged to maintain a minister who is often the only Protestant in the parish, and who exacts his dues with rigour. Beyond the ordinary tithe he has a right, over nearly the whole of Ireland, to one-tenth of the milk of a cow, one-tenth of the eggs, and one-tenth of the vegetables of the gardens. One can easily understand that these conditions may be very severe when the minister exacts his dues in kind, and especially when it is considered that these poor miserable folk have, as well, to supply a subsistence for their own priests. They have often made complaints and claims in connection with this subject, and to these it was hardly possible to give attention without overturning the whole of the laws of the Establishment, as it is called; that is to say, the Established religion. From complaints and claims the peasants came to threats, and from threats to the execution of the things threatened. They assembled at night in great numbers in certain parts of Ireland, and in order that they might recognise each other safely, they wore their shirts outside their clothes, from whence came the name of White Boys. In this garb they overran the country, breaking the doors and gates of ministers’ houses, and if they could catch the cattle they mutilated them by cutting off their tails and ears. All the time they did no other violent act, and a traveller might have gone through the country with perfect security . . .

Tailpiece: Wexford Town in 1796 (courtesy Laurence Butler)

Ballyrisode – Pirate Connections

Last week, Finola wrote about the discovery of what is probably an intertidal fulacht fia on the beach at Ballyrisode, not too far west of us down the Mizen Peninsula. Following the publication of her post, we received a host of comments and messages, including from our friend Dr Connie Kelleher – an underwater archaeologist and well-known specialist on the history of piracy in West Cork. Connie told us that she and a colleague – Áine Brosnan – had examined the site back in 2012 because they were looking for links to pirate connections!

Header – this really is the colour of the remarkably clear water in Canty’s Cove seen on a recent visit: this is probably due to veins of copper ore. Above – Ballyrisode Strand is notable for its secluded location and its impressive white sand

The mention of pirates took me back to my 2016 post – Cantyclick here now and have a read, then return to this page for more insights. One of my resources when researching for Canty was an article by John Hawke in Volume 5 of the Mizen Journal, published in 1997: Canty’s Cove – Legend and History. I only used snippets in my post then, as I concentrated on Canty’s lair on the Northside. Today I’ll expand on Canty’s exploits to the south and west, including his connections with Ballyrisode. Connie made a very valuable point in her comments to us that Canty was a Gaelic-Irish pirate on the opposite side of the peninsula to William Hull and active at a time when the English pirates were headquartered in Leamcon, Baltimore and Crookhaven; he appears to have remained in control within his own domain to at least 1629 but most probably into the 1640s.

Upper – a photo from ‘Northside of the Mizen’ clearly showing the protected promontory known as ‘Canty’s Garden’ in the twentieth century. It is likely that this is the site of Dunkelly Castle, and was the scene of Canty’s grisly treatment of his visitors. Lower – looking across Canty’s Garden today

The following stories were told to John Hawke in 1995 by James Camier, and were handed down from his father, William Camier of Enaghoughter Townland: they therefore go back a good few generations:

. . . Boats from America and elsewhere came into Dunmanus Bay, the captains were invited into his house by Canty, were dazzled by a special grog, robbed and pushed through the north door over the cliff into the cove to the north. On one occasion Canty wanted to stop an invasion by some outsiders at Ballyrisode. He had a daughter, who did not want him to go and tried to stop him, so he shot her. He then crossed by land to Ballyrisode and by moonlight fought a battle on the first strand, which he won. Gravestones to the dead stood on the shore. One day, the son of a captain previously murdered by Canty, who was also a captain, on returning from America was invited in by Canty. But, knowing more than his father, when Canty asked him to step outside he pushed Canty over the cliff . . . James himself remembers some gravestones, but these have been covered by encroaching sand over recent years . . . Graves existing on the second strand are of drowned sailors . . .

Sailor’s graves – or the site of a pirate battle? The fulacht fia is upper right in this picture

This very categoric piece of information suggests that James Camier (or perhaps his father) attribute the stones on the ‘second strand’ to sailors’ graves. These stones are probably the small upright stones which lie close to the fulacht fia today: they certainly resemble grave markers in size and shape. In the context of a Bronze Age fulacht fia such stones were probably part of a hearth or roasting-pit.

It is illegal to disturb any archaeological site (please note!). Our activities at Ballysrisode were confined to measuring and photography. However, we made a series of probes across the beach to test the depth of the sand (and imagine how many excavations have been made on that beach over the years by eager sandcastle engineers!). Our results show that there seems to be a consistent depth of only 50mm to 200mm over the main beach. Hmmmm… not enough to bury any pirate bones methinks. Also, it’s rather unlikely that any pirates would stay around to firmly fix substantial stone markers over the graves of their dead comrades (or enemies). But I would never want to stand in the way of a good tale.

I know this is slightly ‘off subject’ but it’s worth adding to the whole picture of Canty and pirates another tale from the Camiers:

. . . Canty’s Cove was always seen in the locality as a lonesome place at night and there are various stories of unexplained sightings – old longboats coming in and out, a man walking along the ledge on the far side of the Cove from the pier and suddenly disappearing, and of “white” hands helping the captain to tie up his seine boat . . .

I’m not sure that I’d be up for a visit to Canty’s Cove after sunset (above), but the beautiful white strands at Ballyrisode would be most attractive in the moonlight, and – who knows – it might be a good time to see if there is any ghostly pirate activity in this historically significant place.

In the picture below Rosie the Dog investigates the apparently haunted piers at Canty’s Cove: they were extensively upgraded in the 1940s

A Flying Priest, and Rolls of Butter

Last week Finola reported on a journey over the mountains on the ‘Priest’s Leap’ road from Kenmare, Co Kerry to Bantry, in West Cork. We received a fusilade of comments from readers who told us we hadn’t seen half of what there is to be found on this road so, on the very first day of September, we were off again, this time getting a different perspective by travelling the other way. Before we left Bantry we had to find the very spot where the priest – being pursued by soldiers – landed after he and his horse leapt off the highest summit of the road which has been named after him.

It’s great that this stone has been left untouched by the modern roadmakers, so that all can see the hoof marks to this day. I calculated that, 400 years ago, the priest was airborne for a distance of some 12 kilometres as the crow (or horse!) flies – considerably more than some of those early aviators of the 20th century were credited with!

If you are not of a nervous disposition, and don’t mind travelling a narrow, single-track mountain road for some 15 kilometres, probably sharing it only with a few sheep, then to pass over this route is one of Ireland’s most spectacular experiences. Choose your day, though: we were lucky to have hot sun and clear views the whole way. If you survive it to the top, you are right on the Cork – Kerry border: in the photo below, the fence going on up the hill is exactly on that border line (and the point at which the priest and his horse took off is to the right of it at the peak). Stop and look around: the views in every direction are stunning.

After we crossed the border into Kerry we came downhill and stopped again at the remote, picturesque Feaghna burial ground in the townland of Garranes. On our last visit we were completely unaware of the existence of an unusual archaeological site nearby – one which has a number of traditions associated with it.

Popularly known as the ‘Rolls of Butter’ this site is technically a ‘Bullaun Stone’. These are fairly widespread over Ireland, but their original function is not known for sure. Here’s a summary from the National Monuments Service:

. . . The term ‘bullaun’ (from the Irish word ‘bullán’, which means a round hollow in a stone, or a bowl) is applied to boulders of stone or bedrock with hemispherical hollows or basin-like depressions, which may have functioned as mortars. They are frequently associated with ecclesiastical sites and holy wells and so may have been used for religious purposes. Other examples which do not appear to have ecclesiastical associations can be found in bedrock or outcrop in upland contexts, often under blanket bog, and are known as bedrock mortars. They date from the prehistoric period to the early medieval period  . . .

A drawing by the 19th century antiquarian W F Wakeman of a Bullaun Stone at Killinagh in Co Cavan. Here, the stones are known as ‘cursing stones’ – a term also applied by some commentators to the Feaghna site at Garranes. Interestingly, the Cavan site is also referred to as ‘St Brigid’s Stones’, while the Rolls of Butter are associated with the local saint, Fiachna. Beliefs – stories – are, of course, as fascinating as any archaeological evidence, and have to be investigated. Here, they abound – and are best learned from local sources: in this link folklorist Matt Sullivan has put together an entertaining selection of local opinion about the Rolls of Butter.

A few years ago I wrote a post covering some bullauns, ‘cursing stones’ and ‘curing stones’ – but at that time I wasn’t aware of these examples just a mere priest’s leap away from our own home.

There is much more archaeology and history in this mountainous country: here (above) in the townland of Erneen, the view from the road across one of the many remote glens shows up former enclosures and ‘hut sites’, which the National Monuments Service describes thus:

. . . A structure, usually discernible as a low, stone foundation or earthen bank enclosing a circular, oval or subrectangular area, generally less then 5m in maximum dimension. The remains are generally too insubstantial to classify as a house but the majority probably functioned as dwellings. These may date to any period from prehistory (c. 8000 BC – AD 400) to the medieval period (5th-16th centuries AD) . . .

It’s intriguing to think that these beautiful natural landscapes which appear so lonely to us were occupied hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years ago. It’s likely that they have changed very little over all that time: history is clearly set out for us as we travel over this ancient way.

The days are shortening, and we still didn’t have time to explore everything the Priest’s Leap road has to reveal. We’ll be back again before too long – in search of more stories.