Derrynablaha and its Rock Art

A bit of a nostalgia trip for Finola and me this week: we spent a couple of days in Kerry and dropped in to Derrynablaha – the iconic valley which has some of Ireland’s most notable Rock Art. These stones were carved on natural rocks on the hillsides many thousands of years ago. To this day, we don’t know what they signify.

Some years ago, Finola and I organised exhibitions showing examples of Rock Art – many taken from Finola’s 1973 University of Cork thesis. The map above was drawn for the exhibitions: you can find Derrynablaha in the centre of the Iveragh Peninsula, left of centre. Below is a rendering of Finola’s thesis drawing showing – arguably – the most significant piece of Rock Art on this island:

Here’s a photo of these rocks which I took on my first visit to this valley, in 2012. It was a dull day! The next photo was taken on a better day three years later. This shows how weather conditions can affect the way that Rock Art motifs are seen:

On our most recent visit – last week – we didn’t have time to scale the steep hillside to view this rock formation, but we enjoyed just taking in the stunning landscapes of the townland.

Above, and in the header picture, you can see the ruin of the cottage, which was once the only dwelling in this valley. It was still lived in when Finola visited to carry out her survey of the Rock Art in 1972 – fifty years ago. Then it was occupied by John O’Sullivan and his sister, May. John’s brother – Daniel – discovered much of the Rock Art in the surrounding landscape and reported this in the 1960s to Michael Joseph O’Kelly, then Professor of archaeology at UCC, and his wife Claire. Subsequently the O’Kellys made some expeditions to Derrynablaha, as did the Italian rock art expert, Emannuel Anati. Daniel had died prior to Finola’s visits and she recalls that the remaining family were excellent stewards of the Rock Art, ensuring that it was preserved and not damaged. She has ‘hazy memories’ of being brought into the house and given cups of tea and brown bread.

After we had published earlier posts about Derrynablaha, Finola was contacted by Faith Rose – the great niece of the O’Sullivans who lived in this cottage in 1969: Faith had visited the valley in that year. She recalls:

. . . I remember their bedroom was downstairs, the staircase to the upstairs being unsafe. There were none of the usual services in the house. There was an old fashioned fireplace where you could cook with a settle at the side. I seem to remember being told it had been built under some government scheme and the original stone farmhouse was to be seen slowly returning to nature close by. I wonder if you recall any of this. My great aunt and uncle were shy people who extended us the best hospitality. To my sister and I it was a magical place, but the hardness of their lives there was clear . . .

Faith Rose 2021

There are the ruins of several other buildings set within this landscape, indicating that the settlement was once significantly more populated in earlier times. Now it is wildly lonely, but impressively beautiful. When Finola carried out her surveys, she recorded 23 pieces of Rock Art. Today it is recognised that there are 26 known examples, with a further 7 stones in the adjacent townland of Derreeny. Long term readers of this Journal may recall that we visited the townland in April of 2015 – together with a small group of enthusiasts – to seek out all the known examples. At that time Ken Williams was using techniques he had developed to photograph the carvings in fine detail. These employed several portable light sources. The following sequence shows one of the rocks (number 12) taken without lighting; Finola’s drawing traced in 1972; then Ken’s technique in action and his results, which are remarkable:

Once again you are reading about the Rock Art at Derrynablaha! There have been several posts on this subject over the years, but we make no apologies: we never tire of the beautiful landscapes of Kerry – and we have seen it in all weathers. It would be good if we could be closer to solving the meanings of these rock carvings; this is unlikely to happen. Over the last 300 years since the phenomenon was first recorded in Ireland (and Britain, and many other places in Europe and the world) there have been varying theories – dozens – put forward for its existence: none of them is conclusive. Think on . . .

A Map of the County of Cork, Part 2

In Part 1, I said that We don’t know who did this one, or when: The date is given as 1560-1620. It seems in some ways more basic than other maps of the period, and less exact. I have now gone to the Atlas itself in Trinity College and discovered that the maps in the Digital Repository are an incomplete set. Specifically, the original Atlas at TCD contains the reverse side, the ‘verso’ of each map. Here’s what’s on the verso of the County of Cork. This:

and this:

So we see that the map is attributed to our old friend Jobson – he who drew the plantation map I wrote about here and here and which was dated to 1589. There are similarities and differences between this map and that one – the galleons and scales for example look very alike. But there’s a lot more information on the plantation map and some of it is different from our Map of the County of Cork. As to the date of the County of Cork map – we will try in this post to see if we can narrow that down a bit from the broad estimate of 1560-1620. 

I want to go, as they say in Ireland, east along. That is, take off from where I finished last time, and travel east along the coast towards Cork, taking in the River Bandon. For the rest of this post, I’m keeping the map oriented as it is originally – that is, with west at the top (it’s actually surprising how quickly you can get used to this). Between Baltimore (Donashad) and Castlehaven (C haven), there are three castles shown, one labelled Sir Jmes Castell, Doneygodman and C skarthe. These are all a bit of a puzzle and I would invite readers to contribute ideas. On the archaeological list of Monuments for this area we can identify the O’Driscoll Castle on the Island in Lough Ine – could this be the Sir Jmes Castell? A promontory fort on Toe Head, known now as Dooneendermotmore, although likely originally an iron age refuge, was refortified in the 16th century and may, like the one I wrote about in Dunworley, have had a significant curtain wall. Was this Doneygodeman? It seems unlikely, as Doneygodeman is show inland – I wonder if instead it could be the castle at Raheen, which was a castle of the O’Donovans.

Finally, C skarthe might be a castle of the McCarthy’s – McCarthy is spelled in a variety of ways on this map, but there I can find no trace of it now. There was a castle in Listarkin, but once again, this is in the wrong place, unless this map, while certainly approximate in places, is wildly inaccurate. It seems reasonable to conclude that the more inland castles may have been harder to plot on a map that the coastal ones.

The castle at Glandore (c Landorgter) is clearly shown, along with two castles guarding the entrance to a long inlet labelled ‘the lepp.’ One may have been Kilfinnan, actually located near Glandore, which the other could possible be the coastal tower house at Downeen. This brings us to Rosscarbery (Roscarberye), shown as a collection of Buildings, as befits its status as a substantial town with a cathedral and a college, and a place of pilgrimage in the name of St Fachtna.

The entirety of this area, in green, is identified as Sir Owin Mc Cartis Countrey Called Carbery. Several other castles are identified here and there, and the course of the River Bandon is traced. The southernmost area is identified as Kenal Mekey, and to the south of the green-shaded section is Kennal Ley. In Canon O’Mahony’s magisterial History of the O’Mahony septs of Kinelmeky and Ivagha he states: 

In the history of South Munster there is no fact attested by more abundant evidence (evidence unknown to Smith and Gibson) than that the Sept-land of the Ui Eachach Mumhan during many centuries extended from Cork to the Mizen Head, as one continuous territory, including Kinelea and Muskerry, and was ruled by a chief whose principal residence was Rath Rathleann, in Kinelmeky.  Page 105

He identifies Rath Rathleann as the mighty multi-vallate ringfort of Gurranes, which was superseded by Castle Mahon, which stood where Bandon is now situated. And here it is, Kinelmeky, with C Mahon shown beside the river. Castle Mahon was later incorporated into Castle Bernard, home of Lords Bandon. Another Castle is shown further down the river – no doubt the one we are familiar with as we travel the N71.

We know that all this land was acquired by Richard Boyle after the Battle of Kinsale (1601) and that he started on his walled town of Bandon Bridge around 1620. Since this is still clearly identified as O’Mahony Territory I think we can take it that this map dates to before the battle of Kinsale.

We see Kenall Ley (Kinelea) in yellow, with the walled town of Kinsale at its heart. Kinsale walls were begun around 1380 and lasted until most of them were destroyed around 1690 by the forces of William of Orange. Inishannon is noted in Kinelea, as well as Park Castell (in what is now the townland of Castlelands) and finally B: Sardey (or is that a different first letter?). We know from another map in the Hardiman Atlas (below) that B designated a small town. Given that Kinsale is such a prominent walled town on this map, once again, a date before 1601 is likely. 

Supporting a pre-1600 date is the fact that it is the old Irish families that are identified with their territories – no settler or Plantation names are given. In fact the O’Mahonys and McCarthys are the only names on the sections of the map we have seen so far. Moreover, it it really was the work of Jobson, we know he was actively mapping in 1589.

In Part 3 I’ll do a quick meander through the most interesting parts of the rest of the map. Stay tuned.


We embarked on a sea voyage in order to explore the island of Illaunloughan, which is off the coast of Kerry not far from Portmagee. To the north is Valentia Island. It is said that this tiny landfall – only 0.3 acres in area – is the smallest of Ireland’s offshore islands which contain medieval monastic remains.

Our sea journey was on board an aluminium fishing boat – there it is, below, with the island of Illaunloughan in the background.

And there’s the full crew (two pics below): myself, Amanda, Peter, David the boatman and Finola. We were – as you might guess – on an archaeological expedition in Kerry, which included the search for a holy well on this island.

You can see Portmagee in the background of the photo above. It’s not a long journey: just a few minutes from the harbour there. In fact it is said that on a couple of tidal events during the year you can actually walk across to Illaunloughan, but the voyage was far more exciting for us!

This is the view of the island as the boat approaches it: you can see various of the archaeological features. It doesn’t take long to explore – but it’s fascinating. A full survey of the surviving monuments was undertaken by Jenny White-Marshall and Claire Walsh in the 1990s: this resulted in the publication Illaunloughan Island: An Early Medieval Monastery in County Kerry, Wordwell Press, 2005. Here is a synopsis:

 . . . The gable-shrine is one of a small group of reliquary shrines that occurs at the western end of the Iveragh Peninsula: similar examples are found at Killoluaig, Kilpeacan and Killabuonia. These shrines or specially marked graves are generally ascribed to the founder. The base of the gable-shrine at Illaunloughan consists of a large terraced mound, 9m by 7.6m, which rises to a height of 1.5m. The mound is partly built on an area of rock outcrop which was levelled off on its southern side with soil, stone and pea-gravel. Vertically set kerb-stones and masonry walling were placed along the edges to retain this fill; the mound has been eroded on the northern side by the action of the sea. White quartz stones of varying sizes were liberally scattered over the mound. At its western edge stone steps lead up to an area of rough paving that surrounds a rectangular drystone structure on which stands the slab-shrine. The end-slabs are missing. When the side-slabs were removed an underlying core of pea-gravel and white quartz was exposed. This sealed two small, irregularly shaped, stone-lined cists, each of contained neatly stacked exhumed human bones. A minimum of three individuals, all male, is represented in this skeletal assemblage which comprised fragments of the skulls of two individuals, a single mandible, and several long bones. Large numbers of scallop shells and white quartz pebbles were placed both within and around the cists.
The eastern quadrant of the gravel mound was evidently planned as a cemetery for monks who wished to be buried close to their saints, for at least five bodies were interred here. These were laid side by side, and were extended inhumations oriented from east to west, with the heads to the west.
Following excavation, much of the shrine platform was dismantled. This revealed three rock-cut graves, all oriented from east to west, sealed beneath the mound material. The graves, located on the north-eastern, the southern and the western sides of the shrine, clearly predate the construction of the mound and shrine. Fragments of human bone were recovered from two of them, including a sizeable part of a shattered femur, found at the western end of the grave. No bone was recovered from the third grave. It is hoped to determine, through trace element analysis, whether the bones in the earlier graves represent parts of the individuals translated into the cists beneath the gable-shrine. The evidence so far collated on the Illaunloughan shrine indicates that it is a multiperiod structure. The presence of a sacred focus (an earlier shrine?) is strongly suggested by the earlier graves, though no trace of any such structure survives. C14 (AMS analysis) dating of bone from the cists beneath the gable-shrine has yielded a date in the early seventh century for one individual and the middle of the eighth century for a second. Half-scallop shells, present in the fill of the cists and on their stone lids, were clearly of some significance to those who interred the translated bones. Some of the scallop shells from the shrine have been perforated and they may have been suspended from cords. The scallop is, of course, the emblem of St James, whose remains were ‘discovered’ in a field of shells in Compostela, north-western Spain, in AD 813. The shrine at Compostela rose to prominence as a place of pilgrimage in the eleventh century (Harbison 1991, 22). This may be further evidence of refurbishment of the shrine at a late period . . .

National MoNuments Historic Environment Viewer

Two views of the gable shrine (upper photographs) together with a scaled drawing from the National Monuments Service (above). This distinctive site, with its embellishments of white quartz pebbles and slate capping, suggests an internment of some great importance – probably a local saint. The gable-shrine was reconstructed after excavation and is now complete. Note from the description above (National Monuments Service) that three rock-cut graves were revealed under the present structure – empty – and the suggestion has been made that the later shrine was constructed to ‘translate’ the earlier burials because of the significant status of those who were buried there.

The gable shrine seen with the bridge from Portmagee to Valentia Island in the background. In front of the shrine are (probably much later) grave markers. It was common practice to put burials close to anciently sacred sites: in fact, up to the 20th century Illaunloughan was used as a cillín for the burial of unbaptised infants and as a graveyard by local people.

This plan of the island (National Monuments Service) shows the principal features: the gable shrine, an oratory, a stone hut and a well. It also serves to show how small the island actually is – yet it supported a community of men and children (one of the three burials in the shrine was seven or eight years old). Their main diet is said to have been fish and seafowl based. The drystone oratory (church) was excavated and radiocarbon dated to the 8th century. The excavations of the surrounding land revealed that a range of domestic and industrial activities were undertaken, including fine metal-working, bone-working and cereal processing (Irish Heritage News 2018).

The pics above show the oratory, a stone hut and the well. The latter would have been a necessity for any permanently based community on the island: Amanda’s particular interests in holy wells made her wonder whether this one had any local folklore or dedication.

Further areas of worked stone marked out enclosures or terraced areas which would have had some significance to the community based there. After excavation, the island’s features have been returned to good structural condition. The site suffered some serious vandalism in fairly recent years. Fortunately, its general lack of access has provided some protection.

This felt to us a very special site, and we were privileged to be able to visit it. If you read the book about it, you will see that the thinking of those who carried out the excavations was that it was active from the 7th to the 9th centuries. In more recent times this dating has been questioned – possibly because radio-carbon dating results have been revised since those findings. It is now being suggested that use of the monastic site may have continued into the 11th century: we have to note that a Hiberno-Norse coin of 1020-35 was found under the paving of the plinth surrounding the gable shrine. White-Marshall and Walsh suggest this could be evidence for the use or maintenance of the shrine in the 11th century, while another commentator – Cormac Bourke (in reviewing the excavation report) – has suggested the continuous use of the site into that period.

For Amanda, the dedication of this site to a local saint would be important. Two saints named Lochan appear in the Martyrology of Tallaght (c. AD 800); one could have been the founder. It’s also worth noting that Saint Finnbar of Cork was baptised Lochan: he was educated at Kilmacahil, Kilkenny, where the monks named him Fionnbharr (white head) because of his light hair. His dates in any case do not fit with Illaunloughan: Finnbar was born around 550.

The island of Illaunloughan is low-lying, and at some risk of future indundation if climate change leads to drastic sea-level rise. We were fortunate to get the opportunity to visit this magical place, thanks to our local boatman – who bore us safely back to dry land!

PS Many thanks to Amanda ClarkeHoly Wells of Cork & Kerry – for dreaming up this remarkable adventure. And for finding us a boatman!

Beranger’s West Cork?

Who was Gabriel Beranger and why was his work so important? And why have I added a question mark? All will be revealed.

Timoleague Castle, abbey and town, co[unty] of Cork (RIA MS 3 C 30/68)

While we have several Beranger watercolours of Cork subjects, only two, Timoleague (above) and Castlehaven, are from West Cork*. They are the earliest painted depictions of each place, and as such represent incredibly significant records. Each one dates between 1770 and 1799. The description of the watercolour above says: A scenic view of Timoleague Castle, abbey, surrounding town and river [Argideen] Co. Cork. Two men, hauling a boat along the bay are depicted in the foreground of drawing.

The Abbey (actually a Franciscan Friary) is easily recognisable, but the castle is nowadays hidden behind other buildings. There is no real sign of a ‘town.’

Here’s what it looks like nowadays.

There’s a second drawing of Timoleague, this time done from a different perspective and focussing on the Castle, which is surrounded by an extensive bawn wall.

Now on to the watercolour of Castlehaven. It’s beautiful, I think. Importantly, it shows the tower house as complete, whereas it is nowadays only a stub, covered in ivy and brambles.

The church in Castlehaven graveyard is shown as a house rather than a church. The small addition to the left end of it may have been, according to Conor O’Buachaille of Gormú, a guardhouse, a feature of graveyards from the grave-robbing era.

Gabriel Beranger , born in around 1729, was from a Dutch Huguenot background, but settled in Ireland in his early 20s. He was a printer and watercolourist who spent a lot of time travelling around Ireland and recording what he saw – often landscapes, but particularly anything of antiquarian interest. Wealthy patrons employed him for that purpose, since antiquarian pursuits were popular among the gentry. Helpfully, he kept notes along the way in a journal. The journal, Beranger’s sketchbooks and some of the watercolours came into the possession of Sir William Wilde about a hundred years after Beranger’s death, and we are indebted to Wilde for most of what we now know about the artist. Wilde wrote a series of posts based on this material for the The Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland, now the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Wilde took up a lot of space with his own theories about the antiquities themselves (he didn’t believe that round towers could have been bell towers, for example) but did manage to squeeze in some biographical and professional data about Beranger.

The good old Dutchman was spare in person, of middle height, his natural hair powdered and gathered into a queue; he had a sharp, well-cut brow and good bushy eyebrows, divided by the special artistic indentation; a clear, observant, square-ended nose, that sniffed humbug and took in fun; clear, quick, brown eyes; a well-cut, playful, dramatic mouth, eloquent and witty; not a powerful, but a chin quite congruous with the face. Well shaven, no shirt to be seen, but his neck surrounded with a voluminous neckcloth, fringed at the ends, a drab, rather Quaker-cut coat and vest for household purposes, and when out on sketching excursions he had on a long scarlet frock coat, yellow breeches, top boots, a three-cocked hat, and held in his hand a tall staff and a measuring tape. Like Woverman’s white horse or Petrie’s red woman, he frequently introduced himself in this remarkable but at the time not uncommon costume into his pictures. He was a keen observer of nature, men, and manners, and appeared to relish Irish fun, as indeed his dramatic cast of countenance, shown in the very good crayon drawing made by himself when about middle life, would indicate, and of which an admirable lithograph is appended to this biography.

Memoir of Gabriel Beranger, and His Labours in the Cause of Irish Art, Literature, and Antiquities,
from 1760 to 1780, with Illustrations
W. R. Wilde
The Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland, Fourth Series, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1870),

Of his art, this is what Wilde has to say:

He was a most painstaking artist, and a faithful delineator of antiquarian remains. He is said to have been self-taught, and this may account for the hardness of some of his drawings; yet no one of his time could draw an old castle, a cromlech, or a round tower better ; but his extended landscapes were not good, and more resemble plans than pictures. He particularly failed in trees and green fields. Had his observations and descriptions, and his drawings of Irish scenery and antiquities, been published eighty or ninety years ago, they would have caused archaeological study to progress in this country, and perhaps forestalled the opinions of subsequent writers.


Then comes the part that is most pertinent to West Cork:

To each volume there is, at the commencement, a copious Alphabetical Index, followed by an ” Advertisement,” stating that ” the castles which com pose this collection I designed on the spot, except the following, which were communicated to me by various gentle men here undernamed, whose kindness I acknowledge with thanks,” &c. From this it would appear that besides his own drawings he obtained, with a view to publication, several others which I am inclined to think he copied with his own hand for the purposes of his work. Among the names of persons who contributed sketches, we find that of Colonel Charles Vallancey as the most conspicuous.


Wilde (below, as a young man) died before he could finish his series on Beranger and the last piece was written by Lady Wilde, who occupied most of it with a paean of praise to her husband. William and Jane were at the forefront of the literary of antiquarian movements of their day, and are also, of course, remembered as the parents of Oscar.

There is, as it turns out, no record of Beranger having been in West Cork, although we know he took extended painting trips to several counties – including Wicklow (see my post Antiquarians loved Glendalough) and Sligo (Robert’s Discovering Carrowmore). What we are sure about is that General Charles Vallancey was here, first to manage the defence of southwest Ireland against the threat of French invasion, and then to make a series of grand plans to link West Cork to the rest of Ireland and to the world! I hope to write more of this in a future post.

So – whose West Cork is this – Beranger’s or Vallancey? The answer is – both. In the Digital Repository, both are acknowledged as originators. Vallancey was a man of enormous energy and drive. He wrote several volumes of his Collectanea de rebus hibernicis, (available at the Internet Archive) and required illustrations for them – hence his patronage of Beranger, and others. The illustration above is from one of his Collectanea and so he must have wished himself to be depicted this way, as benign and intellectual. Love those little glasses! He was a scholar of Irish – one of the first to raise its profile as an ancient and beautiful language – and an antiquarian of the fanciful sort – forever banging on about druids and Chaldeans and coming up with far-fetched theories. Unfortunately, we don’t have Vallancey’s originals, so we can’t compare the accuracy of the drawings. While we know that Beranger’s reputation was for painstaking exactness, we don’t have the same information about Vallancey’s. To me, comparing it to places Beranger drew on the spot, the rendition of the castles looks a little approximate, especially the fenestration. Nevertheless, as illustrations of two places in eighteenth century West Cork, these watercolours are priceless.

One last detail and quote. Wilde was able to describe Beranger’s dress – that’s because he often put himself in the frame, to add human scale and interest. In his lively piece Beranger’s painted people – himself and others, Peter Harbison gives several examples. But we have our own, from the Timoleague Castle painting. There he is, in his long scarlet frock coat, yellow breeches, top boots, a three-cocked hat, and held in his hand a tall staff and a measuring tape. (Well, more or less.)

Do you know Timoleague and/or Castlehaven well? Can you add to the commentary on those painting? I’d love to have any comments you might have.

*I am grateful to the Digital Repository of Ireland, under whose Creative Commons License I have used these illustrations. See here for more of their Beranger collection.

Sugar Loaf

We were unexpectedly in County Wicklow, and had a day or two of sunshine. To take advantage of this, we found our way up to the Great Sugar Loaf, with every good intention of climbing to its peak – 501 metres above sea level. I’ll come clean and mention that the starting point for the walk is already halfway up this elevation – and also we didn’t make it all the way on this occasion, as we were heavily overdressed! Only yesterday we still seemed to be in the grip of a very harsh winter, so had assumed that gloves, scarves and thick jackets would be the order of the day. In fact, quite a few other climbers were clad in tee shirts and shorts…

The upper view was taken on the path going up to the top – this morning. The lower view – taken a couple of years ago from Bray Head – gives a good impression of the Great Sugar Loaf (the furthest peak on the right) as the high point in a range, rather than a lone conical summit. There is also a Little Sugar Loaf which – in this view – is the high point in the central range in the photo. From other places, the ‘Little’ loaf also appears like a conical ‘peak’. Have a look at the pic below, where I have tried to show both ‘cones’ in the same view.

This photo, which dates from the early 1900s, is taken from the old beach in Greystones: the Little Sugar Loaf is over to the left, while the ‘Great’ one is at the left end of the further ridge (photo by William Alfred Green (1870–1958) – courtesy of Ulster Folk Museum). Below – the same view of the two ‘sugar loaves’ taken from the Marina, Greystones, today.

Here’s another view of the ‘Great’ loaf, with further pics of today’s adventures below, including the prospects from on the hill:

The area deserves considerable further exploration. The extracts below are from the Schools Folklore Collection, recorded in the 1930s: valuable commentary and memories collected from local inhabitants.

. . . If we were to visit Kilmacanogue over a hundred years ago it would present to us a very different appearance from what it does now. Our journey would be by the end of the Sugar Loaf Hotel of today, up the school lane, turning west for about a quarter of a mile and crossing the present day Rocky Valley road and following in a south-western direction along the foot of Sugar Loaf mountain. On our left was a church (in Brerton’s Garden) but not even the ruins of this remain. It is said the monks fled from this church in the Penal days, burying behind them their gold chalice, which still lies hidden in the field still know as the Church field. The road leading from Kilmacanogue to Kilmurry (now known as the Old Road) was the Coach Road between Dublin and Wexford. At the Kilmurry end there is a plot of ground about one acre known as Kilmurry Green which is believed to have been an old burial ground. The lane leading off from this road to the present main road near Kilmurry Dispensary locally known as Connolly’s Lane is supposed to have been lined with houses. The field on the North side of this lane (now in the possession of Miss Powell) is called the Street Field which indicates that a village must have been there at one time. The south part of Kilmurry Green contains the sites of two buildings – the stones, are still to be seen there, which marked the foundation of the gable. Traces of graves remain, though the place has not been used as a burying ground within any person’s memory . . .

Schools folklore Collection Kilmacanogue, Bray
Teacher: Caitlín Ní Chuinneáin

The Great Sugarloaf was a popular subject for artists. Examples are these watercolours: from Views of Bray and the Sugarloaf, County Wicklow, circa 1820 John Henry Campbell (1757-1828) – Back to the Schools Folklore Collection: we were particularly interested in the mentions of Red Lane, where there was evidently once a church, burial ground and holy well: it is said that none of these are visible today, but we will pencil in some further visits to have a closer explore.

. . . At the Southern extremity of Kilmurry bordering on Calary are two ruins which are popularly called Leghteampall or the Monasteries. These ruins stand in two adjacent fields, separated by a narrow lane (Red Lane). They lie east and west of each other in the Kelly’s and Whelan’s land, that in the west forming a square of thirty two yards each way. On the south side stands an angle of ancient wall built of stones and mortar 4′ 2″ high 2′ 2″ thick. There is a clump of stones and thorns at the north side 30′ long by 12′ broad and 2’2′ in height. There is an ancient holly tree in full vigour at the south-east angle a cross is cut in the tree and funerals stopped here and recited the prayers for the dead. About thirty yards east of there are the traces of an ancient church. A few stones of irregular shape remain in the foundation of the south wall; the stones appear to have been carried away from the north side within a comparatively late period. A heap of stones and rubbish occupies the place of the western gable, along which lies a large shapeless lump of a stone, having at the top a rudely formed cavity 7″ deep and 9″ in diameter at top, narrowing gradually to the bottom. This was a holy water stoup, one of the rudest ecclesiastical antiquities. An ancient decayed ash tree stands on the north of the church and graves may be traced in several places around it, though it has not been used as a burying ground for a long time. About a furlong south west of this place is a holy well called Bride’s Well (in Chapman’s Lane) at which Patrons were held, but none was held there within the last forty years . . .

Schools folklore Collection Kilmacanogue, Bray
Teacher: Caitlín Ní Chuinneáin

This winter scene is courtesy of Wiki Commons: we would like to visit at that time of the year, although the mountain may well not be hospitable then. Below – that’s the somewhat unusual gateway to the car-park at the Great Sugarloaf: take care when entering!

Rathgall Hillfort

Our journeys in search of important Irish archaeology can take us a long way from home. Today’s subject – the impressive Rathgall Hillfort – is located in County Wicklow, on the east side of the island. But it is well worth a long journey: its size is impressive – it occupies an 18 acre site. And the history of the place goes as far back as the Neolithic age. We visited on a brisk spring day, when the clouds were determined to contribute to our appreciation of this monument.

The size and longevity of this hillfort push it into a rare category. The substantial central rampart of stone walling is medieval, but the outer rings of stone and earth appear to have considerably earlier dates.

. . . Rathgall was a site of quite exceptional importance in the centuries spanning the birth of Christ, an importance that was clearly pan-European. The variety of structural information that the excavation yielded is unprecedented in the Bronze Age and the extraordinary concentration of artifactual evidence from the site has not been matched elsewhere in the country. Rathgall opens a wide range of questions concerning, not merely the nature of the Ireland’s later Bronze Age, but also the role of the hillfort in contemporary cultural developments . . .

Professor Barry Rafferty 2004

Plan of the hillfort and surrounding earthworks taken from the site notice board. Red lines indicate the site excavations. This board states that:

. . . Rathgall Hillfort is a hilltop settlement enclosed and defended by four concentric ramparts which can be dated to the early and middle Neolithic period . . . The outer three ramparts are stone and earthen banks and are likely to be prehistoric in date. Within the central enclosure there is evidence of metalworking, a cemetery and a round house; all dating to the Late Bronze Age . . .

The two photographs above are taken from the time of archaeological investigations which commenced in 1969. The results of those excavations, which covered a number of years, have yet to be formally published. [Late edit: Elizabeth Shee has informed us that the findings will be published this summer by Wordwell, through the work of Katherina Becker of UCC. Many thanks, Elizabeth, we will look our for that]. The investigations found evidence that this was the site of an important and busy Bronze Age factory for metalworking (axe and spearheads, swords) and for pottery, jewellery and glass beads. In total over 50,000 pottery fragments were found, as well as 3,000 bronze and gold artefacts.

Rathgall from the early OS map. The importance of the site was realised and kept in use by successive generations.

Our knowledge of the societies that centred their life on settlements such as these in Ireland is sparse: here, and elsewhere, we are left with evidence of their stone structures (which will outlast us) but also intriguing finds – the following quotations summarize some of Professor Rafferty’s work here (courtesy of Rath Community Group and The Heritage Council):

1969 – 1971 . . . It took over 3 years to dig out the entire 15 metre wide section of the inner circle. Within an hour of starting work, he [Professor Rafferty] had located pottery pieces. Over 10,000 finds were from the inner circle; glass objects, clay moulds, stone and gold objects. Post holes indicate that there was a small house-like structure within the circle. The ditches were filled in with black material among the stones. An oval pit was discovered near the centre of the house. It had a carefully placed large boulder on top of black material almost covering the pit. The pit had been back filled in with yellow clay around the boulder. When the black clay was taken out, they found a small gold-plated copper ring, 1 cm wide approx, embedded in burnt baby’s bones. They came to the conclusion that this was a ritual burial pit . . .

1972 – 1973 . . . They moved to the southern slope of outside of the inner circle and were getting 400 finds per day. Prof Rafferty got down to prehistoric levels after 1 foot in some places. This area was “jampacked with artefacts, glass, gold, animal bones, pottery and basket remains.” Rabbits had done a lot of damage and stones were removed by people over the years. They found hundreds of clay mould fragments embedded in a black clay-like substance. Clay moulds are always broken when found as they could only be used once. The moulds were made for swords or whatever was needed: copper was poured in and in order to get out the sword etc, the mould had to be broken. He found a smaller crucible with traces of lead in it, parts of blades of swords or rapiers, spearheads, cauldron legs but not the cauldron . . .

1974 . . . In Bronze age times people were buried crouched down in a foetal position and put in a clay pot. The remains of a female and child were discovered in such a clay pot at Rathgall, buried in a pit underneath large slab stones. Eighty eight glass beads were uncovered, which is the largest quantity found in any Bronze Age site in Ireland. These beads are 1 – 3 cm wide, mostly circular in shape, blue-green in colour and with a hole in them. This collection is unprecedented in the late Bronze Age of Ireland and is also one of the largest from a single site as yet discovered in Western Europe (Rafferty and Henderson 1987). Prof Rafferty found a 2cm twisted gold cylinder with its ends finely hammered and a dark green glass bead mounted in the middle, 2 – 3cm wide. Tiny delicate loops of gold were attached to each end. This is an object of great beauty and advanced technological expertise. He also found a metal disc with mercury gilding on it. Mercury gilding was used to stick gold to bronze. He got this piece analysed by the British museum and the piece was dated back to 1000 BC. Before it was analysed, the Irish professionals were uninclined to believe that this came from Ireland as nowhere in the world had mercury gilding been found that dated back further than 400 BC. Prof Rafferty felt that this emphasised the exceptional importance of the Rathgall site . . .

While visiting this site I was reminded of an adventure we had last summer in Northern Ireland. You’ll find it here. There we discovered The Giant’s Ring: that earthwork struck us as ‘gigantic’. But it only occupies an area of 2.8 hectares. Our latest exploration is over 7 hectares! That makes it Cyclopean, surely! While this Co Wicklow site has been examined by archaeologists, we certainly don’t yet have all the answers as to why it existed, nor do we know everything we would like to about those who built it. We just can’t help expressing a sense of wonder at this – and other – artefacts which have made their marks on our landscapes. We are grateful to those who have explored and labelled these sites, and also to those who make sure they are conserved for our future generations, who might find more answers than we do as to their origins.