Not long ago I reported on some ‘small road’ works close by our home in West Cork. Whenever we travel here in Ireland, we are on the lookout for ‘byways’ … very narrow routes, seldom used, but which often traverse the most scenic landscapes. For some – such as today’s example – you have to be fairly brave, and prepared to travel a long way in reverse if necessary!
We were coming back from a day out in Kenmare, aiming for our West Cork home. There’s a corner of the Beara Peninsula – within Kerry – that we had never explored before so we headed out to revisit the little church at Dawros, Tuosist parish. We have always been fascinated by the stone basin that is in the church grounds, mounted on crude pillars – I have seen it described as a ‘baptismal font’:
From the church we went north, over a mountain road which eventually connected to the main N71 towards West Cork, Glengariff, and home.
It looks straightforward enough on the Google map – and there are no turnings, so you can’t get lost! The winding route from Dawros to the N71 is about 10 kilometres. If you could go in a straight line it would be about half that distance! During our whole journey on that mountain road we didn’t see a single vehicle (but we can’t guarantee that would always be the case).
The early OS map (upper) and aerial view (lower) give an impression of the topography over part of the route. The field boundaries are fascinating – and obviously ancient: sweeping linear enclosures cascading down the slopes. From the early map we can see that the road we travelled (known in part as Gortnabinny Road – marked in green) did not actually reach the main Kenmare to Glengarriff road in those times. It presumably just served remote settlements and lonely holdings.
It couldn’t have been a better day for the drama of sunshine and clouds that outlined the valleys and hills. There is little sign, here, of a drought that is causing problems on farms and in town gardens. When distant views opened up, we were treated to some of the finest vistas in our counties.
Against the drama of the surrounding peaks we felt secure in our little vehicle which progressed steadily along the narrowest of boreens. Our only living companions in this place were sheep, easy to discern because of their brightly dyed coats.
While driving on roads such as this is a richly rewarding experience, you also need to get out and encounter the wildlife close-up.
We are always on the lookout for adventures, and we don’t have to be travelling far away from home in order to find them. In our experience, the ‘small roads of Ireland’ – wherever they are – can take us to unexplored territory.
The significant stone circle at Kenmare is an unusual monument in several respects. It is said to be the largest stone circle in the south west of Ireland, oval in shape and measuring 17.4 x 15.8m. It seems intact: I found no record of any intervention or ‘improvement’ to the circle, which consists of an oval ring of 15 stones with a central ‘boulder burial’. Although situated very close to the main streets of this Kerry town, it has often been described as ‘hard to find’. I can remedy that – here’s a present-day location map:
The site is just a few minutes’ walk from the centre of Kenmare and now has its own dedicated car park beside it. The circle is very ‘tidy’ and well looked after. A nominal entrance fee is requested, the funds being put towards the maintenance of the area.
While the circle is fairly well enclosed nowadays by a ring of tall trees, the vista would previously have been more open with extensive views. Quarrying has taken place in the vicinity in past years. Here is the historic 6″ OS map showing the site as it was around the late nineteenth century.
The archaeology.ie Historic Environment Viewer gives a brief, sober description of the site:
. . . In level pasture, on the SW outskirts of Kenmare town. A subcircular area (17m E-W; 15m N-S) is enclosed by fifteen stones (L 0.8-1.6m; T 0.2-0.7m; H 0.3-1.2m), two of which are prostrate. The axial stone is the lowest and is a regular flat-topped slab contrasting with most of the other stones, which with one or two exceptions, are of boulder type. A boulder-burial (KE093-032002-) occupies the centre of the stone circle. (Ó Nualláin 1984a, 26, no. 41) . . .
I was disappointed in my search for an antiquarian’s account of this circle: Ó Nualláin (quoted above) and others have included it in general lists of such monuments. I was hoping for some speculation on its significant size, and on the large central boulder, itself a slightly unusual feature within a stone circle.
. . . Boulder Burial – A large boulder or capstone of megalithic proportions, resting on a number of supporting stones, usually three or four in number, which, in most cases, do not form a recognisable chamber structure. Excavations suggest a Bronze Age date for this burial monument (c. 2400-500 BC) . . .
Archaeology.IE Monument Classification
Finola has pointed out, however, that there is no conclusive evidence for assuming that these ‘boulder burials’ are – well – principally burials.
. . . William O’Brien [Professor of Archaeology UCC] excavated three boulder burials in the late 1980s and found no evidence of burials. In his book, Iverni, he comments in an understated way, “The absence of human remains at Cooradarrigan and Ballycommane does pose some questions as to their use.” His findings dated the sites to the Middle Bronze Age, between 3000 and 3,500 years ago . . .
Finola Finlay, Roaringwater Journal
So, should we perhaps call them ‘elevated stones’? Visually, they are certainly always striking. This one at Kenmare is said to weigh around 7 tons. Bearing in mind the stones in this circle are likely to originate some few miles distant, we can imagine the efforts required to assemble them. O’Brien dates the boulder burials he studied to 1000 or 1500 BC. This would tie in with the general thinking that stone circles were Bronze Age also.
The two drawings above are from Jack Roberts. On his survey (top) I have superimposed an oval template which confirms the suggestion that the Kenmare ‘circle’ is egg-shaped. In the lower sketch view – probably dating from the 1980s – the stones appear to be out in the open, free from the present-day tree shielding.
While it is generally implied that all the stones in this monument were placed at the same time, there is always the possibility that there might have been an evolution in its construction. By that I mean that we could speculate that the ‘boulder burial’ stone was placed first and the circle came afterwards – perhaps to enhance its setting. Or vice versa.
This photograph clearly shows the recumbent stone. Many of the circles in south west Ireland are known as axial circles, where a ‘recumbent’ stone (seemingly placed on its long edge) may provide a horizon viewing point when observed from a ‘portal’ of two stones at the opposite side. The orientation axis created by this observation is usually from north east towards south west (as is the case here). Where a stone circle has a clear horizon (such as Drombeg, in West Cork) it has been noted that this alignment faces the setting sun at midsummer solstice.
As you can see from these close studies of some of the individual stones (above) there are quite significant differences in their shape and character within the circle. It has been suggested (elsewhere) that the shapes and the relative placing of the stones is significant. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ stones have been suggested – but this is yet more speculation.
As far as we can see there are no ancient markings on the stones at Kenmare (except for a possible single cup-mark on the upper surface of the boulder burial), but I am fascinated by the lichen shapes and textures on one particular stone (above). This is ‘nature’s art’, of course.
It’s impossible to ignore the two ‘fairy’ hawthorn trees that have been established within the vicinity of the stones. In my opinion it was an inspiration to exploit the idea of visitors purchasing ‘message cards’ from the site kiosk and writing down their own thoughts and personal wishes, which are then tied on to the branches. That’s Finola, above, being affected by the rainbow fairy vibes. She has written her own post today specifically on this aspect of the place. My favourite message is this one, below:
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