A Pyramid in West Cork

In our travels we always have an eye open for signposts, especially those that point down leafy, narrow boreens: there’s probably some piece of almost lost history at the end of every one. We were beckoned, last week, by a fading cast iron plate written in ‘old Irish’ – Reilig – and the English word Cemetery. It was in a remote spot, and indicated a long, green lane with a gate in the distance. There had to be something there for us!

We were in West Cork, just by the little harbour of Glandore (in Irish Cuan D’Ór – Harbour of Gold). The green boreen took us down to an old burial ground which surrounds the ruins of a church dating, probably, to the 12th century. Around this are ancient stones – marked and unmarked – which signify the resting places of generations. It seems an idyllic place to rest, right off the beaten track, with only the sounds of nature to enhance the peace.

‘As quiet as the grave’ might be an apt expression in this place where we spent half an afternoon and saw no living soul. But the physical evidence of those who had passed was constantly fascinating. In Ireland, the simplest of grave markers is just an undressed stone firmly embedded in the soil. To us, they look random and rough, but it is said that every stone is chosen for a particular shape which is always remembered by the family who set it, and who passed the knowledge on – no markers were needed as long as that memory continued. Other stones are inscribed, although these are fewer – and some are particularly fine: a Celtic cross which dates to 1931, for example.

So far, our explorations in the Old Cemetery were typical of many another burial ground, but as we walked around the back of the ruined church we were astonished to see something we have never come across before in Ireland – a large pyramid!

You get a sense of the scale of this construction by the figure in the picture above. No Giza, perhaps, but nevertheless something monumental and unexpected in this out-of-the-way corner of West Cork. It isn’t alone, as right next to it is another mausoleum (for a mausoleum is the pyramid’s purpose): an ivy-clad masonry stronghold, huge and impenetrable.

The two vast tombs stand side by side (above) in an odd juxtaposition. We scratched our heads in wonder and searched for clues of names and dates while we were there in the churchyard and, later, in records online. Very little is revealed. There are several inscriptions set on carved stone plaques on the pyramid – all impossible to read because of the moss and lichen growth. Over the iron doorway is a lintel inscribed with – I believe – the name John Hussey de Burgh.

Later searches revealed the following:

. . . John de Burgh was born on 10 June 1822 and died 25 April 1887. Page 159 of The Calendar of Wills and Administration 1858-1922 in the National Archives of Ireland records that the will of “John Hamilton Hussey de Burgh late of Kilfinnan Castle Glandore County Cork Esquire”, who died on 25 April 1887 at the same place, was proved at Cork on 6 July 1887 by “Louis Jane de Burgh Widow and FitzJohn Hussey de Burgh the Executors”. Effects £1,246 11s 1d . . .

Kilifinnan Castle (a replacement built on the site of a structure dating from 1215) is a short distance to the south of the old cemetery, and it is highly likely that John Hamilton is the de Burgh commemorated on the pyramid. Apparently, he had seven children so it is likely that at least some of the other plaques would refer to these. The large stone-block tomb was giving up no secrets, with no apparent entrance and no plaques. There are signs that the burial ground is still visited and kept tidy.

We had to tear ourselves away from Glandore’s Old Cemetery: it is a beautiful and peaceful place. We didn’t much increase our knowledge of the history of the settlement itself, although the 1861 C of I Christ Church (Kilfaughnabeg – The Little Church of Fachtna) above the bay has a display of local lore and tales and is in any case well worth a visit: the only approach to it is through a tunnel hewn from a rock face.

Our explorations in the Reilig left us with questions to be answered: not least, what was the inspiration for the pyramid, which seems so alien in far away West Cork?

A Walk on Sherkin Island

You can’t live in West Cork without constantly being aware of the sea – it’s all around us. And the offshore islands are always in our view as we look across Roaringwater Bay. It’s easy to get to the inhabited ones: there are good ferry services that run year round, although they can be hampered by winter storms. In this picture – above – the Cape Clear Ferry is leaving Baltimore, while the Sherkin Ferry is arriving to collect passengers for that island, including us: on a whim we went across on a wonderful warm September afternoon.

It’s a short sea voyage to Sherkin – all of 15 minutes! But it’s always exciting to be on the water. That’s the lighthouse on Sherkin in the picture above: it was built in 1885 of cast-iron construction and is now fully automated, as are all of Ireland’s lighthouses today.

We did have an aim – to find a piece of Rock Art that may be the earliest physical evidence of human occupation on the island. It’s a cupmarked stone in the townland of Kilmoon, overlooking Kinish Harbour. It was a fair walk to the west, over deserted roads and through fields. After a bit of backtracking we managed to find the stone, well weathered but with its markings still visible. It is situated with panoramic views all the way round, taking in the peaks of Mount Gabriel, Mount Corrin and Mount Kidd on the mainland: surely it must have been placed with those views in mind?

This picture shows the cupmarked stone in its present setting, just inside a private garden (if you go, please make sure you seek permission from the owners of the house!), while the one above shows the panoramic distant view which the stone commands.

Here is the surface of the stone which is heavily blotched with lichen, but it is possible to make out the well defined cupmarks: there are 14 in all. If you want to find out more about cupmarked stones and how they compare with Rock Art in general, we wrote this post a while ago. It sparked off a whole lot of debate (have a look at the comments at the end of that post) – and there is still much to be discovered in a history that may go back 5,000 years.

Our main mission was accomplished, but we couldn’t resist taking in some other historical sites while on the island. Firstly, we had a good look at the Franciscan friary – situated in the townland of Farranacoush – which has a colourful history. Here is a description from the current Irish Franciscans site:

. . . Permission for this foundation was given by Rome to Finighin O’Driscoll in 1449, but it was not until just after 1462 that the Observant friars actually arrived. The friary became the traditional burial place of the O’Driscoll’s. In 1537 the citizens of Waterford burned the building in retaliation for acts of piracy by the O’Driscolls. The great bell of the friary was on display in Waterford as late as 1615. There is no evidence to suggest that the friars were disturbed by the events of the Reformation until the island was garrisoned by the English following the Battle of Kinsale. The friars soon returned and, except at the height of the Cromwellian persecu­tion, were active all during the seventeenth and well into the eighteenth centuries. The last friar, Fr Patrick Hayes, died soon after 1766 . . .

In the picture above – taken from the OPW information board – you can see the attacks of 1537 by ‘the citizens of Waterford’ on both the Friary (in the foreground) and the O’Driscoll stronghold of Dún na Long (beyond). The castle was subsequently partially rebuilt and was garrisoned by a Spanish force in 1601. It was then acquired and restored by the Becher family in 1655 and remained in their ownership until the late nineteenth century. We went to see what remains of the castle today.

Our visit to Sherkin only took an afternoon – albeit a golden one. There’s plenty more to see there – and other islands to be investigated. And an endless exploration of history to be had in the landscapes of West Cork.

The Rock of Dunamase and Ireland’s Most Iconic Painting

The ruins on the Rock of Dunamase in County Laois date mainly from the 12th century, very shortly after the Norman Invasion of 1169. That invasion was led by Richard DeClare, Earl of Pembroke, known as Strongbow, and it was at the invitation of Diarmuid MacMurrough, King of Leinster. MacMurrough had been ousted from his kingdom by Tiarnan O’Rourke and his allies, partly because MacMurrough had abducted O’Rourke’s wife Devorgilla (although some accounts say she went willingly). His request for help to King Henry II was welcomed, as the King was hoping to provide distraction to some over-ambitious knights, including deClare.

One of MacMurrough’s incentives to Strongbow was the promise of his daughter, Aoife, in marriage. The marriage took place in Christ Church Cathedral in Waterford in 1170 and following the death of Diarmuid in 1171, Strongbow declared himself King of Leinster.

The summit of the Rock commands views of several counties

So where does the Rock of Dunamase come in? It was one of the MacMurrough strongholds, and accordingly was part of Aoife’s dowry when she married Strongbow. Thus, it is inextricably associated with the most turbulent events in Irish History. For some of the later (and indeed earlier) history of the Rock, I refer you to The Irish Aesthete’s excellent post A Rock and a Hard Place.

The Barbican Gate, with the curtain wall and corner tower above and behind

The fortifications and buildings at the Rock are in a ruinous state, of course, but enough remain to give you a good idea of what a strategic site this was and how the defences were designed. The first entrance was a barbican gate behind which was a small area known as the Inner Barbican. Once there, you were at the mercy of archers situated on top of the inner, or curtain wall, shooting down from their crenellated parapet.

From the OPW informational sign

The curtain wall ran around the entire top of the rock. For three quarters of its length it was impossible to attack or breach with the weapons of the time because the wall was built at the top of a steep slope.

The more gentle slope of the east side necessitated the additional defence of the barbican gate. From the inner barbican a massive gatehouse with two towers gave access to the bawn or ward, while two corner towers guarded the northerly and southerly extent of the wall.

Looking upwards towards the Great Hall from the massive Main Gatehouse

There are indications of other buildings inside the curtain wall, but all that is really significant today  is a large rectangular building known as the Great Hall. This was subject to reconstruction in the 1700s by the then owner (a grandfather of Charles Stewart Parnell) but the building project was never completed.

The main result of this reconstruction is to obscure and confuse original versus later parts of the fabric of the Hall. Everywhere you look what appears to be a gothic window embrasure is suddenly sporting red brick.

The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife is the title of an enormous painting by Daniel Maclise that hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland (see the final photograph for the complete painting). It is, in fact, the largest painting in the Gallery, and has been completely conserved in recent years – a series of videos recording this massive process is available on YouTube (just Google ‘Strongbow and Aoife conservation’). But start with this video, in which Dr Brendan Rooney talks about the painting itself.

According to Dr Rooney, the background to the painting is of the City of Waterford, the city on which the marriage took place. The use of this backdrop (rather than, say, the interior of a church)  is used to dramatise the conflict between the Normans and the Irish Chieftains and the consequences of the invasion. He points out a round corner tower that appears to be based on Reginald’s Tower in Waterford, and asserts that the arched gateway calls to mind ‘similar’ gateways in New Ross and Drogheda.

Even if the backdrop is intended to convey a picture of Waterford it seems obvious to me that it is inspired by and based heavily on the Rock of Dunamase. This makes perfect sense from both an historical and a visual point of view. First of all, Maclise was depicting a catastrophic moment in Irish history that is closely associated with the Rock, in that it was the seat of the MacMorroughs, transferred to Strongbow as part of Aoife’s dowry, and which allowed him to subsequently claim succession rights to the Kingship of Leinster.

Secondly – look at it! While there may be echoes of Reginald’s Tower and other Irish medieval sites (such as a round tower) in the painting, it is clearly the Rock of Dunamase that is being depicted. Waterford is essentially flat: there are still stretches of its town walls extant, but they are on level ground. Maclise was known for meticulously researching his subject matter and it seems obvious to me that the marriage is being consecrated in front of the Barbican Gate, while above and behind are the ramparts of the curtain wall. There are a few Irish Norman castle sites that are built on a rocky prominence, but the most dramatic of them is the Rock of Dunamase.

Maclise’s The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife is one of our most iconic paintings and has been one of the most beloved because of the subject matter. At the same time, the Rock of Dunamase is central to the most critical juncture on our history. They belong together – don’t you agree?

Daniel Maclise (1806-1870), ‘The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife’, c.1854. © National Gallery of Ireland

Tralong Bay, Co Cork – A Prehistoric Drowned Landscape

In West Cork it is possible to examine the remains of trees which were growing several thousand years ago – perhaps in the time of our earliest ancestors. Around the coasts of Ireland and Britain are sites of post-glacial forests which flourished close to an ancient shoreline until inundated by rising sea levels in the Neolithic period. Cycles of change in weather, tides and geology over millennia saw these remains flooded by encroaching seas, then resurfacing, only to be buried under sediment and sand as tides abated. We are living in an age of extremes and recent abnormal climate activity has in places exposed some of these remains which are as old as human activity in Ireland: this is Organic Archaeology!

Header – Tralong Beach, between Glandore and Rosscarbery, where the remains of very ancient woodland can be seen. Upper map – the c1850 6″ OS map showing the shape of the coastline at Tralong Bay, and Lower map – a closer aerial view of the beach in modern times: the darker mass shows the partly submerged peat beds

Little has been written about the Tralong site, but another comparable drowned landscape has been revealed in Northumberland UK where archaeologist Clive Waddington, of the company Archaeology Research Services, has found the remains of an ancient forest on the coast of Low Hauxley. He reports:

. . . In 5,000 BC, the sea level rose rapidly and swallowed the earth. The sand dunes were pushed inland, burying the forest, and then the sea receded somewhat. Now, the sea level increases again: it cuts out the sand dunes and exposes the forest . . . During the course of the investigation, the archaeologists found evidence of human presence in the area: traces of adults and children , the analysis of which revealed that they were wearing leather footwear. With human footprints the scientists also found footprints of wild boar and brown bears . . .

Part of the beach at Tralong Bay, Co Cork: the surface of the peat mass, which could be up to 4 metres thick, is interspersed with numerous tree boles, roots and scattered branch and twig debris. At one place I found a perfect complete pine cone, which could have been part of that debris.

The surface of the beach is dotted with these remnants of ancient forest, over a wide area. It seems remarkable that there are also extensive blankets of loose material retained in the bay which must also originate from the forest.

Upper picture – one of the huge blankets of organic material – mainly wood based – which has been washed up to the north end of the bay at Tralong since the extreme storms of 2014. Lower pictures – closer views of the debris showing recognisable material including twigs and branches.

In November 2015 Michael Viney wrote a piece in the Irish Times on drowned forests in Galway Bay:

. . . All summer the quiet tides returned the sand that last winter’s storms had dragged offshore, heaping it even deeper over the old oaken wreck on the strand . . . Perhaps, though I hope not, this winter’s great mill wheels of waves will grind that deeply again. Storms two years ago tore away whole layers of sand and stone west of Spiddal in Galway Bay, uncovering stumps of ancient oak, pine and birch from a 7,000-year-old forest drowned as the sea rose after the end of the Ice Age. The same exceptional seas, on the north coast of Connemara, exposed remnants of human occupation a metre thick in the sand-cliff shore of Omey Island. There were medieval burials among them, and bog at least 6,000 years old . . . Elsewhere along the west coast yet more of the kitchen shell middens of early settlers, back to the late Mesolithic, were stripped away. So the sea reveals the past and then takes it away . . . Glimpses of Ireland’s lost shores and drowned forests are not new. Pinewoods submerged off the Bray coast were described by Robert Lloyd Praeger at the end of the 19th century when construction of Bray harbour changed sediment flows and piles of collapsed trees appeared above the sand . . .

Ancient forests reappeared again in Bray, Co Wicklow, in 2001, and more were revealed recently – in 2017. The Irish Times reported earlier this year on a project to discover “the lost landscapes” of the Irish Sea

Tralong Beach will change again, as the weather patterns vary, and it may not always be possible to experience the drowned landscape here. It’s an unmissable journey into deep history.

With many thanks to Robin Lewando for introducing us to this site, and to Anthony Beese for providing additional material

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.