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!

Reviving St Patrick’s Cross!

It’s an archaeologist’s job to dig things up from the past. Today – the Feast of St Patrick – I’m digging up an old custom and suggesting that it’s something we should all revive!

Examples of St Patrick’s crosses survive in glass cases today. These three are from Ireland’s National Museum of Country Life, Castlebar, Co Mayo

I have found much of my information on this subject in Kevin Danaher’s 1972 book The Year in Ireland – A Calendar published by The Mercier Press. Danaher begins his calendar on St Brighid’s Day (his spelling), and naturally discusses the custom of the making of bogha Bríde – the St Brighid’s cross. In this tradition, very much alive today, a cross is made from straw or reed and hung in the house to ensure good luck and protection for the coming year. In future years new crosses are made, but the old ones are never thrown away: if you visit a traditional Irish cottage, you are likely to see a whole lot of Brighid’s crosses pinned over the mantlepiece or among the rafters in various stages of decay.

A traditional Irish cottage, Finola and her St Brighid’s cross. See this post

When Danagher comes to the next important Irish Festival – St Patrick’s Day – he mentions a similar custom involving a St Patrick’s cross or badge, worn on the clothing for the day itself, and then hung in the house to ensure that the saint’s blessing continues through the years. The custom was still within living memory when Danaher wrote, but its practice appears to have died out altogether in the early years of the twentieth century, although surviving examples of these crosses, emblems or badges can be seen in museums today. I am not aware of anyone keeping up this custom so – to celebrate the day that’s in it – I am proposing a revival!

Danaher’s illustrations of St Patrick’s crosses from The Year in Ireland

First, the history: an English traveller in Ireland, Thomas Dinely, wrote in 1681:

The 17th day of March yearly is St Patrick’s, an immoveable feast when the Irish of all stations and conditions wore crosses in their hats, some of pins, some of green ribbon, and the vulgar superstitiously wear shamroges, 3-leaved grass, which they likewise eat (they say) to cause a sweet breath . . .

Dean Swift in his Journal to Stella wrote from London on 17 March 1713:

The Irish folks were disappointed that the Parliament did not meet to-day, because it was St Patrick’s day; and the mall was so full of crosses, that I thought all the world was Irish . . .

Here’s ‘Mannanaan Mac Lir’ writing in the Journal of the Cork Historical Society in 1895:

For a week or so preceding the National Festival, the grown members of the family are occupied in making “St Patrick’s Crosses” for the youngsters, boys and girls; because each sex have a radically different “Cross”. The “St Patrick’s Cross” for boys consists of a small sheet of white paper, about three inches square, on which is inscribed a circle which is divided by elliptical lines or radii, and the spaces thus formed are filled in with different hues, thus forming a circle of many coloured compartments. Another form of St Patrick’s Cross is obtained by drawing a still smaller circle, and then six other circles, which have points in the circumference of this circle as their centre, and its centre as their circumferential point, are added; after which one large outer circle encompasses the whole, thus forming a simple and not inartistic attempt at imitating those circle or bosses  of our beautiful Celtic cross pattern. The many spaces, concave, convex or otherwise, thus formed, are then shaded in; each a different hue, and this constitutes the “St Patrick’s Day Cross”, of which our little ones are so proud. In our time, when every school boy is supplied with a pair of compasses and a box of water colours, the making of a St Patrick’s Cross is only the work of a few idle moments . . .

Hmmm… Well, the architect in me is intrigued enough to try out these instructions and – perhaps – add a few embellishments to see what sort of a job can be made of it:

What do you think? I have to admit to using my electronic drawing board rather than the compasses and water colours! ‘Mannanaan Mac Lir’ goes on to describe the girl’s cross:

The little girl’s “St Patrick’s Day Cross” – which is made by an elder sister, or if sufficiently skilled, by herself – is formed of two pieces of card-board or strong thick paper, about three inches long, which are placed across at right angles, forming a cross humette. These are wrapped or covered with silk or ribbon of different colours, and a bunch or rosette of green silk in the centre completes the tasteful little girl’s “St Patrick’s Cross”, which is pinned on the bosom or shoulder . . .

Not a little curious is the etiquette of those children’s “St Patrick’s Crosses,” for whereas it would be considered effeminate of a little boy to wear “a girl’s cross”, it would be considered most unbecoming on the part of the little miss to don a boy’s paper cross . . .

‘Mannanaan Mac Lir’ continues to enlighten us further on this custom:

I have known two or three old priests in Cloyne diocese break up and distribute among the girls of their respective parishes their old and worn vestments, for the purpose of being made into St Patrick’s crosses. The cross thus made (from a priest’s vestment) was an object of veneration; and I have known many such forwarded by their owners to their kindred in America, where they were doubtless received as welcome souvenirs of an ancient custom in the land of their fathers . . .

My final offering (above) – have I encouraged you all to get busy and help me revive this custom in time for St Patrick’s Day next year? I hope so . . . I’ll finish off with a couple of pics of a custom that’s still as strong as ever: the annual St Patrick’s Day Parade in Ballydehob, West Cork. Of course, the sun shone out!

Saint Manchan, his Miraculous Cow, and his Shrine

I was in the little two-horse train which labours west from Clara to Banagher and the outlook was desolate. There was another chap in the carriage. He sat hunched up in the corner with his nose to the window. One glance convinced me that it was useless to say anything and there the two of us kept on staring rather lovingly at a wilderness of bog stretching away to the Slieve Bloom Mountains. It seemed to me that there was a kind of promised land on the other side. On past a few scattered farm houses some grey boulders and the ruins of a church. I found myself thinking dismally enough of the tourists. After all what do they get? Just ruins, ruins and more ruins – the saddest ruins in Europe. Then suddenly I heard my friend of the opposite corner speak in a mournful kind of way with his nose still glued to the window – “That’s Leamanaghan, a quare kind of place, decent people, too, the best in the world, people who’d give you all the milk you could drink but wouldn’t sell a drop of it for all the gold in Ireland and it’s all by raison of a cow, Saint Manchan’s cow.”

 

(St Manchan By Tomas O’Cleirigh, Midland Tribune 27th April 1935)

Upper – Finola is featuring the work of stained glass artist George Walsh this week. We were fortunate to find his portrait of Saint Manchan and his cow in the  little church at Baher , Co Offaly, on our travels. Centre – The Church of Saint Manchan

(From Robert’s diary, 2012) – St Manchan had a Cow, a miraculous animal that was always in milk, and the people of Leamonaghan had the milk for free (and, to this day, will not charge anyone for a pint straight from the herd). We tramped through a field of cows as we searched for St Manchan’s holy well: they gazed at us with some disdain. The well is a curious affair – old stones, concrete and rather ugly. The water is alive with tadpoles. We were tentative as we sampled the rank, slow moving stream – but it gave us the gift of credulity!

This detail from the Harry Clarke Studio window at St Manchan’s Church (dating from 1931) shows the miraculous cow

I went through a storm of real Irish rain to see Leamanaghan that very evening. It is four miles from Ferbane in County Offaly and hidden away in a vast bog region which is dotted with scattered boulders of magnesian limestone. The general depression is summed up in the name – Liath Manchan – the grey land of Manchan. Aye! The grey, lonely, chill land of Manchan. Saint Manchan lived here and died in AD 664. That might have been only yesterday, however as far as the good neighbours are concerned because he is the one subject over which every man, woman and child can get really voluble. I was taken to see the ruins of his church and then down to his well and heard how when you are sick you should pray here, walk three times round it and then go back and leave a little present for the saint himself in the window of the church . . . I was told that on the 24th January when all the rest of the world works, the people of Leamanaghan just take a holiday and make merry because it would be the unpardonable sin to think of work on their Saint’s day.

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)

The twelfth century shrine of St Manchan securely displayed in the church today, with the Harry Clarke Studio window behind it

St Manchan died in a plague which he had asked God to bring on his sinning people. After his death, his herdsmen – Bohooly (from which the name Ua Buachalla – or Buckley – is derived) found it necessary to call upon the Saint to help recover the Community’s cattle, which had been stolen by raiders. Manchan duly appeared, but one of his faithful herdsmen was so overjoyed to see his old master again that he threw his arms around him. This he should not have done, as he was a mortal sinner: the Saint fell into a heap of dry bones, but the cattle were recovered. We learn that Manchan’s bones were gathered up and taken to Clonmacnoise, where a fine casket was made to house them, out of yew wood, bronze and gold. Nearly a thousand years later we stumbled on this same shrine in the little church at Boher which carries the Saint’s name, with a glorious representation of itself shining out from a Harry Clarke Studio window set behind it. It resided in a case of armoured glass, alarmed and watched by cameras  – incongruous…. and ineffective: the day after we saw it there the shrine was stolen in broad daylight, evidently after only a few minutes’ work. (Robert’s diary, 2012)

It’s wonderful that we can see the actual reliquary containing St Manchan’s bones returned to the church at Boher, Co Offaly, close to the ruins of the monastery at Leamonaghan which the Saint founded in the seventh century. Although it has suffered some damage over the centuries, the detailing is exquisite: it is one of Ireland’s finest medieval treasures 

They have all kinds of stories about the good saint but the best one of them all explains why Leamanaghan people don’t sell milk. Here it is: Saint Manchan had a cow – a wonderful cow that used to give milk to the whole countryside – good, rich milk for which no charge was ever made by the saint. Then, the people of the neighbouring Kil Managhan got jealous and watched for their chance. One fine day when Manchan was absent they came and stole the cow and started to drive her along the togher through the bog back home to Kil Managhan. The good cow, suspecting something was wrong, went backwards and most unwillingly, fighting, struggling and disputing every inch of the way. Now she’d slip designedly on the stones: again she’d lie down but every where she went, she managed to leave some trace of her rough passage on the stones of the togher. The marks are there to this day, – hoof marks, tail marks – every kind of marks and the chef-d’oeuvre of them all has a place of honour at the entrance to the little school. Alas! In spite of that very gallant resistance, the cow was finally driven to Kil Managhan. There, horrible to say, she was slain and skinned.

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)

The shrine wonderfully depicted in the Harry Clarke Studio window at St Manchan’s Church, Boher

Prior to being housed in the church the shrine had rested in an ancient chapel. This burned down, but the shrine was rescued and then was kept in a thatched cottage nearby: legend has it that the ruin of this cottage became the unprepossessing holy well that we had found . . . Miraculous cows; plagues; holy wells; a modern theft – St Manchan’s bones do not rest lightly in his casket. The stories tell that Manchan was a tall man with a limp. When the shrine was sent to the British Museum some years ago for refurbishment, the experts examined the bones and proclaimed that they belonged to a tall male who had suffered from arthritis. (Robert’s diary, 2012)

Remarkably, St Manchan’s Shrine has been exactly replicated. This full-sized copy of the reliquary is in the National Museum of Ireland: all the ‘missing’ figures and details have been restored. The drawing dates from 1867, and is a plate in a book titled The Towers and Temples of Ancient Ireland by Marcus Keane MRIA. In that book it is said that the copy belonged to Sir William Wilde, and it may well have been commissioned by him. It is likely that the Harry Clarke Studio modelled their version of the shrine on the replica, rather than on the original

In the meantime, the saint returned, missed his cow, and straightaway started in pursuit. He succeeded in tracing the thieves by the marks on the stones and arrived just at the moment when she was about to be boiled. He carefully picked the portions out of the cauldron, pieced them together, struck at them with his stick and immediately the cow became alive again. She was every bit as good as ever, too, except that she was a wee bit lame on account of one small portion of a foot which was lost. She continued to supply the milk as before, and, of course, no charge was made by the saint. Ever since the famous custom still lives on, and good milk is given away but never gold by the loyal people of Leamanaghan. Now, can any lover of the grand faith of Medievaldom beat that?

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)

A detail of the original Shrine in St Manchan’s Church

There’s one more piece to this Saint’s story: the fame of his miraculous cow grew and the people of neighbouring Kilmonaghan were jealous, and sent out some rustlers to drive the cow over into their own parish. The cow proved reluctant and stalled and slipped all the way, leaving hoof marks on the many stones that lay on the road. Those marks are still on the stones to this day (they say) and the Saint was able to follow her tracks and recover her. (Robert’s diary, 2012)

Saint Manchan, depicted in stained glass: Harry Clarke Studio (left) and George Walsh (right). Both can be seen in the church at Boher, Co Offaly

The very old vellum books state that Manchan of Liath was like unto Hieronomus in habits and learning. I can well believe it. Some distance away from the church is the little rectangle cell which he built for his mother – Saint Mella. Cold, austere and with no window, you get the shivers by even looking at it. There is also a large flag-stone on the togher leading from the well, and they say the saint and his mother used to meet here every day and sit down back to back without speaking a word because the saint had vowed never to speak to a woman!

 

(Tomas O’Cleirigh, 1935)

The Mass Rock – revisited

This post was originally published way back in 2014 but I have updated it with a few new photographs and edited the text slightly.

An raibh tú ag an gCarraig? / Were You at the Rock?

nó a’ bhfaca tú féin mó grá / Or did you yourself see my love,

nó a’ bhfaca tú gile, / Or did you see a brightness,

finne agus scéimh na mná? / The fairness and the beauty of the woman?

This beautiful song speaks to a revered tradition in Irish history and folk custom – the mass rock. During the period of the Penal Laws (late 17th and first half of 18th Century) when the practice of Catholicism was outlawed, parishioners would gather at a secret location to attend mass. The priest travelled from community to community in disguise, a lookout was posted, and mass was celebrated on a lonely rock far from the reach of the law. The song encodes the message that the people still find ways to attend mass, despite the harsh prohibition against it.

Mass rocks are often in remote locations, such as this one in Kerry, or the lead image on the Beara

Dr. Hilary Bishop, in her excellent website Find a Mass Rock says, As locations of a distinctively Catholic faith, Mass Rocks are important religious and historical monuments that provide a tangible and experiential link to Irish heritage and tradition. She also points out that, because of the imperative for secrecy, mass rocks are difficult to find.

This stained glass window shows mass at a mass rock, with a lookout posted to keep an eye out for the redcoats

We certainly experienced this when we set out for a day of mass rock hunting. Working from a list generated from the National Monuments Service database we spent a day on the Sheep’s Head and the Mizen and had trouble finding all the rocks on the list. One, if it was still there, had disappeared under impenetrable layers of gorse. A second rock was last recorded in the 1980s: residents were no longer familiar with it.

One of our favourite holy wells, at Beach on the Sheep’s Head, also incorporates a mass rock. Mass is celebrated here every August

Knowledge of mass rocks has passed down from generation to generation. In the deep countryside, the sites maintain a mystique and a sense of the sacred. We’ve written about the mass rock and holy well at Beach, where Mary conjured up a blanket of fog to confuse the English soldiers and allow the priest to escape. At Beach and at our first stop, the mass rock at Glanalin on the Sheep’s Head Way, mass is still celebrated.

The Glanalin rock (above), and the one we visited on the Beara Peninsula, are good examples of the remote locations typical of many mass rocks, high on a hillside or hidden in an isolated valley. You can picture the procession of worshippers, in ones and twos, slipping silently through the bracken, pausing to make sure they are not being watched, climbing higher, following an overgrown trail, arriving at the meeting place where the hushed crowd awaits the arrival of the priest.

One of the rocks we found (above) looked for all the world like a fallen standing stone – and that’s probably what it was. (I wonder if I should go to confession, though – I’m sure that sitting on a mass rock would qualify as at least a venial sin.)

A mass rock that is easily visited is the one at Cononagh Village (above), right at the side of the main road into West Cork, the N71. This site is beautifully maintained – Cononagh is obviously proud of its heritage: signage and flowers invite the passerby to take a closer look.

The mass rock we visited last year, at Foherlagh, has a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. This one even had a small scoop-out in the rock, identified as a holy well

Another easily accessible site is Altar, at Toormore. This is a wedge tomb, probably over 4,000 years old and excavated in 1989. It remained in use through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age. Dr. William O’Brien, in Iverni, says of this site: …over time this tomb came to be regarded as a sacred place, housing important ancestral remains in what was a type of community shrine. How fitting, then, that the flat capstone of the Altar wedge tomb became, in the Penal Days, a mass rock. And how intriguing to think of the continuation of this sacred space over the course of thousands of years.

But perhaps our favourite of all the mass rocks we have visited is the one at Castlemehigan. We wrote about it here. It started out life as a cupmarked stone perhaps in the Neolithic, then probably got converted into a bullaun stone in the Early Medieval period, before finally serving as a mass rock – and it has all the stories to go with its long history.

 

Valentia Adventure

At the very end of January – when we should have been in the dark depths of winter – we headed off to Valentia Island in County Kerry, and enjoyed sublime golden sun. This time of the year often gives us the best light: we experienced this on our expedition through the Yellow Gap in West Cork a fortnight ago, and again during these three days in our neighbouring county last week. It’s to do with the low sun: somehow it enriches the amber hues of the landscapes, which are themselves enhanced by backdrops such as the one above. An ancient stone is set against a distant turquoise ocean and dark, snow-capped mountain peaks.

Holy wells were on the agenda (see Finola’s post here), as we were joining our friends Amanda and Peter Clarke from the Sheep’s Head. Amanda has nearly come to the end of her chronicle which records all the Holy Wells in County Cork, and she is now starting to explore those in County Kerry. I’m not going to say too much about the wells we saw, as Amanda will cover them in great detail, but the expedition certainly provided great opportunities for observation and photography, and caused us to wonder – again – at this unique aspect of Ireland’s history and traditions.

All the photographs above are from a remote and atmospheric site on the north west side of Valentia Island: St Brendan’s Holy Well. It’s a long way off the beaten track: desolate, bleak and boggy – but justifies making the effort. There are ancient stone crosses, carved slabs, cures to be had, and history. St Brendan himself journeyed there from Tralee in the fifth century, climbed the cliffs at Culoo, and found two dying pagans at the site: he anointed them and they became Valentia’s first Christian converts.

Above – the way to St Brendan’s Well, Valentia Island, passes by O’Shea’s Pub . . . one of the furthest flung bars in the world, that you can’t—and could never—buy a proper pint at . . . The story is here.

I certainly endorse that sign in the centre, seen on Valentia Island. Hare trapping in South Kerry is illegal – and so it should be! But – how could we not follow a sign that says: Slate Quarry – Grotto?

The Grotto – in this case a statue of the BVM together with Saint Marie-Bernadette Soubirous, the girl who witnessed Mary’s apparition in Lourdes – was installed in the Marian Year of 1954 in a cave high above the entrance to the Valentia Slate Quarry on Geokaun Mountain, at the north end of the Island. The Quarry had been opened in 1816 and supplied slate to the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, London railway stations and many another building project. The quarry excavated a huge cave into the mountainside, and closed after a major rockfall in 1910.

Fr James Enright, who was the PP of Valentia in the Marian Year, saw a golden opportunity in such a setting for a commemorative grotto. Fr Enright decided exactly where the statues were to be positioned, but the burning issue was how were these heavy items going to be put in place and worked upon at over 90 feet from ground level? The answer came in the building of a deal timber ladder.

 

Jackie Clifford , who was a blacksmith based in Gortgower, made the iron to bind and reinforce the ladder and was helped in his forge by Denny Lyne and subsequently aided by other islanders. Having been transported to the quarry in sections, it was assembled there and put in place by the volunteering islanders. The ladder was over 100 feet long, being four feet wide at the bottom narrowing to a foot. and a half on top. The sections of ladder were joined at the various points with a four foot lap. Many island volunteers were enlisted with each townland taking their turns to work. The initial work involved levelling a massive mound in order to form a proper base. This was quite labour intensive, being done with pick and shovel. The ladder was hauled into place by means of a block and tackle pulley system with people at the ends of ropes from above and to the sides in order to control it and put it in place. As one islander succinctly put it “The greatest miracle to happen there was the erection of the ladder”.

 

Subsequent to the ladder being put in place, a number of daring and intrepid islanders had to climb it for the purpose of erecting the statues. The statues were hoisted up by rope with other tools and building materials. The concrete for the base was mixed by shovel above.

(Quote from The Kerryman, January 2015)

The Quarry has recently reopened, and it’s quite surreal to stand in front of the grotto with the sound of heavy machinery reverberating at the huge cave mouth from deep within the mountain.

Have a look again at the signs above: one points to ‘Tetrapod Trackway’. This is surely a must-see for any visitor to Valentia Island as the fossilised Tetropod footprints here, representing the point at which life left the Devonian Seas 370 million years ago to begin to evolve on dry land, are the best examples of only four sites found to date in the world! We hurried to have a look – but the site was closed for repairs. You can see a picture of the tracks here.

In the winter sunlight, the little village of Portmagee which stands at the threshold of Valentia Island and connects to it by a bridge opened in 1971, looks like a picture postcard. In fact, the bridge was opened twice – once on New Year’s Day, when it was blessed by the Bishop of Kerry – and again at Easter, because there was some debate about whether the first opening had been ‘official’ or not!

Here’s a railway map and photo dating from around 1901 showing ‘Valentia Harbour Station’. In fact, it’s not on the island at all, although Knightstown – the ‘planned village’ designed by Alexander Nimmo for the Knight of Kerry in the 1830s can be seen across the water. The station – the terminus of the most westerly railway in Europe – is on the mainland, to the east of  Valentia Island, which could be reached by a ferry. The Farranfore to Valentia Harbour Railway was 39½ miles long and operated from 1892 to 1960. The photo below shows the Valentia River Viaduct just outside Cahersiveen, now derelict but hopefully to have a new lease of life when a planned cycling greenway is developed along the old railway track.

Valentia Island has a great deal more to offer than I can show in a brief post. It’s well worth making the journey and staying for a little while: there is such varied landscape to be experienced – a microcosm of the West of Ireland, in fact – and much history if you want to delve under the surface.

The tailpiece shows a view from Knightstown looking across to Valentia Harbour on the mainland and the site of the former railway terminus: