Introducing the Holy Wells – of Kerry!

Remember the New Year Resolution – spend more time in Kerry? We lost no time in implementing it, and spent three days there this week. Our main purpose was to accompany Amanda and Peter as they started Amanda’s new project – to extend her Holy Wells of Cork recordings into Kerry as well. Of course, Robert and I had a small list of must-see items as well, which will likely appear in future blogs.

Above: Ballinskelligs Bay. Top photo: the mystical Skelligs. The larger one is Sceilg Mhichil (Skellig Michael) and the smaller is Sceilg Beag (Little Skellig). The Skelligs have featured in the Star Wars franchise, but are better known to us here as the home of hermit monks in the Early Christian Period

It’s always great fun to be out and about with Amanda and Peter. We had a few misgivings about the weather forecast, and indeed we had everything thrown at us – snow, hail, sleet, rain, gales – and brilliant sunshine! The sunshine persisted for our main day, to our delight, but the weather gods made up for it that night with a howling gale that knocked out the power to our hotel, the Royal Valentia. Undaunted, they served us up a great breakfast, and figured out how, with no electricity or internet, to charge our credit cards.

Robert’s post is mainly about Valentia Island, so I am concentrating on the holy wells. All of them will be written up in Amanda’s customary detailed style on her blog, so this is just a flavour of what we saw. By the way, if you are new to holy wells, check out her series of “On Wells” posts now. It will get you up and running.

St Crohane’s Holy Well site, with the well in the background, a Marian grove in the centre, and a mass rock in the foreground

Our first well was one that Robert and I had tried to find and failed on a previous trip to Kerry. This time we were with the expert and there it was – St Crohane’s well, behind an old graveyard with not one but two ruined churches and spectacular views across to the Beara. The well was once the centre of a mighty three-day pilgrimage and although that no longer happens, the well is cared for and visited.

The view from St Crohane’s, across to the Beara

I was thrilled to find a Richard King stained glass window in Ballinskelligs (future post) in a church dedicated to St Michael, patron saint of the Skelligs. Below the church is the holy well also dedicated to Michael. This is a curious site (below), almost certainly built on a fulacht fia, like the Trinity Well in Duhallow. This also was the centre of a huge pattern in its day.

We visited two wells dedicated to St Finnan (or Finan or Finian), a monk who is also associated with Lindisfarne and Iona. The first of these was a neglected little well on St Finian’s Bay – the pounding surf was a bit of a distraction (see below and final picture).

The neat little well house is the beehive-shaped structure to Robert’s left

The second was on Valentia Island and took a bit of finding until we stumbled upon the magic path through the woods. A classic well, with everything you needed to have a drink, and surrounded by slabs of slate. Robert had a sip – brave man, and now apparently safe from rheumatism.

Amanda always comes prepared with detailed research and notes, but wells can still be difficult to find

Our other Valentia well was dedicated to St Brendan (in one account, St Finnan was one of his acolytes) and was located at an amazing, windswept site, with crude cross slabs and a possible turas (pilgrim route) through the bog. Robert has more images of this haunting place.

Amanda gazes out across the bog, trying to make out the traces of a pilgrims’ path and possible stations

Two little wayside wells were encountered along the way, one along the road and one in the middle of Caherciveen – this last one, Well of the Holy Cross, a little sad and neglected, as urban wells tend often to be.

Although this was a holy well, dedicated to St John, it appears to have been repurposed as a Marian grotto, with St Bernadette in a small shelter of her own

Our final well was also the most spectacular – St Fursey’s well, located on the slopes of Knocknadobar (cnoc na dtobar – mountain of the well). Once, people climbed to the top of the mountain at Lúnasa for a three day festival. Although the festival is no more, in the 1880s local people erected stations of the cross, 14 of them, going all the way up the mountain to the top. Some of us managed to get to the second station, but saw a hardy soul way above us, well on his way.

Station 2 on the pilgrim trail from St Fursey’s Well to the top of Knockandobar

As ever, organising a trip around holy wells provided us with three days of adventures and experiences in jaw-dropping scenery and the opportunities to do lots of side-trips. The light in January is clear and sparkling and the roads are quiet, unlike at the height of tourist season.

The white dots going up the hill are the Stations

Although many restaurants, hotels and b and b’s close for the winter, enough remain open so that a hearty bowl of soup and a good coffee is never too far away. And three cheers for The Royal Valentia – open all year, great food, friendly staff and good in a crisis!

 

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:

“A Genius for Observation” – More from de La Tocnaye

In a previous post I introduced Frenchman Jacques-Louis of Bougrenet de La Tocnaye, an escapee from his homeland at the time of the Revolution, arriving in London on 29 December 1792. He settled for a time in Britain, where in 1795 he published an account of his perambulations through England and Scotland. This was sufficiently well received to encourage him to obtain letters of introduction and travel to Ireland to undertake a similar exploration, leading to a further volume: Promenade d’un Français dans l’Irlande, published (in French) in Dublin in 1797.

Header – The Market Womens’ March to Versailles  – de La Tocnaye was on the ‘wrong’ side during the upheaval of the Revolution which lasted from 1792 to 1802: for his own safety he exiled himself from France throughout that period, and spent his time exploring the British Isles. Above – The main road going west out of Dublin in 1783, much as it must have been in de La Tocnaye’s time: the ruin of Maynooth Castle, from Alexander Taylor’s map of County Kildare

Jacques-Louis said immodestly of himself that he had . . . a genius for observation . . . and his writings are invaluable to us as an account of down-to-earth aspects of normal life in Ireland in the late eighteenth century, although – as I pointed out in my previous post – the 1917 translator (John Stevenson) has diluted some of the more colourful descriptions which might have been considered indelicate – or even uninteresting – to the readers of his day.

Here is a wonderful composite engraving – by Charles Turner Warren (1762 – 1823) showing the major tourism sites in Ireland which would have been familiar during de La Tocnaye’s lifetime. They include: Rock of Cashel, Swords Round Tower, High Cross at Monasterboice, Giant’s Causeway and the Mountains of Killarney. Grateful thanks for this to the excellent Ireland Illustrated project from NUI Galway

Last time around, we sampled Wicklow, Wexford and Cork City depicted through de La Tocnaye’s eyes. After these experiences our writer moved west and touched the fringes of our own part of Cork County before travelling up country. Today, as a preamble to what I hope will be an enlightening series of posts on de La Tocnaye, I will touch on the day-to-day practicalities of reaching – and journeying through – Ireland in the late 1790s using his own text (via Stevenson), with the briefest interventions from me. It’s fascinating stuff!

More early Irish tourism: this engraving by W H Bartlett – titled Arrivée à Killarney, par la route de Kenmare illustrates today’s very popular Ring of Kerry section of the Wild Atlantic Way, seen through nineteenth century eyes. Another from the Ireland Illustrated project, NUI Galway

Some words on the modes of travel of the day: Jacques-Louis’ adventures in getting from England to Ireland, which included a brief sojourn in Wales –

. . .  at Carmarthen the inhabitants use for salmon fishing a boat, or rather a basket, covered with horse skin. They sit in the middle and preserve equilibrium very cleverly, and, fishing over, they carry the boat home with them, where it serves as a cradle for the children. The cemeteries also attracted my attention. Instead of filling them with an incongruous assortment of tombstones with ridiculous inscriptions, the relations of the lost cultivate on their graves flowers and plants, coming often to care for them, so that the cemeteries are more like gardens than homes of the dead. People practising such a custom must be of gentle manners, and I was very sorry that I could not live for a while among them. But I was on my way to Ireland, and hurried on to Milford Haven, an ugly hole in which the anxious traveller may eat up to his last penny while waiting for a favourable breeze. Three or four times we set sail, and as many times were we forced by the waves to return to port. On the fourth endeavour we stopped at Deal, a little village at the mouth of the bay, and there we stuck for eight long days. In the ordinary course of affairs, how impatiently I should have chafed at the delay, in spite of the sight of the large and beautiful bay and singular country! But chance had settled that I should engage a place in the same boat as that which was to carry an amiable Scotch family, and an Irishman who had served a long time in France, and I found myself in such good company that I began to fear, rather than to desire, a favourable wind. We made the crossing at last, and rather rapidly, for we reached the Irish coast within twenty-four hours . . .

Jacques-Louis described the salmon-fishing boats – or baskets – which he saw in Wales; here is a 1972 photograph of John and Will Davies of Cenarth – the last two legitimate coracle fishermen on the River Teifi. They are both using the single-arm method of propulsion – a means of gliding downstream in a controlled way. They carried their coracles and their fish home on their backs. Photo in the public domain from Wikipedia

One of the delights of de La Tocnaye’s writings is the information he furnishes us with on the incidentals of his journey, such as this on the ‘customs’ of the day;

. . . The customs officers claim tribute on both sides of the water, demanding from the passengers half a crown per head, for the permission to ship or disembark their luggage. One who refused to pay had his bag tumbled and turned over in a cruel manner. The price of the passage is exorbitant — a guinea and a half in the cabin — and the packet was far from being either comfortable or clean. I had chosen the route from motives of economy, and found the charges to mount to double those of the Holyhead route. We entered the river Suir, at the mouth of which is a strong castle seated on a rock jutting out into the sea. Mr Latin, who travelled in the boat, was kind enough to ask me to his house at Drumdouny, and so from the very first day I spent on Irish soil I had the good fortune to enjoy Irish kindness and hospitality . . .

Another traveller whose work we might explore in future posts was Arthur Young (1741 – 1820). In 1780 he published A Tour in Ireland, with general observations on the present state of that kingdom: made in the years 1776, 1777, and 1778. This illustration of an Irish cabin is from that volume, and is drawn by Young

Hospitality was not always so straightforward:

. . . I had not taken the trouble to calculate distances very carefully in starting, and now, late in the evening, I found myself still eight miles from my destination — and eight miles Irish count for something. It was past eleven o’clock when I arrived at the house where I expected to be received. The doors were locked, and to my distress I found that the owner, who had invited me to his house, was not at home. Further, that there was no inn nearer than four miles distant, and that on the side of Dublin which I had left. To go back on my way was a hateful idea — I preferred rather to go ten miles forward than four back — and so I went on. At half-past twelve I found myself in a village, its name unknown to me. Everybody seemed to be asleep ; however, at the last, I found a cabin with a light in the window, the dwelling of some poor labourers who had returned late from the city. I entered, asked for hospitality, and had placed before me immediately what was in the house. For rest I passed the night on a three-legged stool, my back leaning against the wall. This for the first day of my travels was not a very agreeable beginning, but I had to take troubles as they came. There was no need to wake me in the morning. At dawn of day all the animals in the cottage, sleeping pell-mell with their masters, acquainted me with the fact that the sun was up, and I rose from my stool and left this unfortunate house of want. How profitable this night would have been to me had I been always the favoured child of fortune! I would advise parents to force their children thus to pass several nights in their youth; it would be more advantageous to them than years at school. Really to have compassion on the poor, and to have a real desire to help them requires that they should be approached; the careless rich, who have never seen the poor near at hand, think of them with disgust and turn away their eyes from the sight of poverty . . .

A superbly atmospheric drawing by Daniel Maclise (1806 – 1870) – an illustration for John Barrow’s A Tour Around Ireland, published in 1836. Barrow wrote: . . . I had often anticipated, but I had now the full experience of, the misery of an Irish car in a storm; and I can, without hesitation, pronounce it to be the most wretched of all possible modes of conveyance; I certainly never was before so exposed to such drenching rain: McIntosh’s cloak, and the water-proof boots, which I purchased last year at Tronyem, totally gave way to the merciless storm with which I was so piteously pelted . . . On entering any of the cottages to take shelter, at times when the wind and rain was so bad as to render it difficult to get the poor animal onwards, the general remark was, ‘Dear, dear, what a day to be out in!’ 

I was delighted to find that de La Tocnaye travelled by canal in their heyday – or rather in the days when the Irish canal network was still being built: the Grand Canal took 47 years to construct, being finally completed in its entirety in 1804. (For more on Irish waterways see my Green & Silver posts here). One particular post includes an extract from a Trollope novel in which passenger travel on the Grand Canal is also described. Here is de La Tocnaye’s experience:

. . . As it was my intention to reach Dublin as quickly as possible, I took place in a coach to convey me to Gorey, where I expected to join the Cork mail. Unfortunately when this arrived every place was occupied, and I was left in this miserable village with no way of proceeding with my luggage except by hiring what they call a car. Their car is a species of low cart on wheels two feet in diameter, made out of one or two pieces of wood, attached to a great axle of wood or iron turning with them. This singular construction seems to be well fitted for carrying heavy loads, but not for the country work in which they are commonly employed. I take it to be a farmer’s invention. Having then made a bargain with a driver to take me six miles at the price of a post-chaise, I mounted beside my luggage. My man stopped at every public- house to drink or talk, leaving me in the middle of the road exposed to the rain. Two or three times I begged him, civilly, to proceed, but as he did not appear to pay the slightest attention to my requests, I commenced to repeat those eloquent compliments which one may learn about the docks and markets of London, and was pleased to see that I had, at last, impressed him, for I heard him say, when quitting some of his friends, ‘By, I’m sure he’s a gentleman for he swears most confoundedly.’ After this little lesson I had not the least trouble with my charioteer, but the rain, and some annoyances due to my position at the horse’s tail, put me in such bad humour that I vowed never again to expose myself to such discomfort. I stopped at Carlow, where there has been established recently a seminary for Catholic priests. This town is situated on the Barrow, which joins with the Grand Canal of Ireland. Wishing to see something of this waterway I went to Athy, from whence every day there is a service of public boats to Dublin. At the entrance to the village I was stopped by four or five persons who asked for charity — they explained that it was to be used to give decent burial to a poor wretch who had died of hunger. I replied that since he was dead he wanted nothing. This answer did not appear to satisfy them, and so I contributed to the funereal pomp, the occasion being, perhaps, the only one in which the poor fellow’s friends were interested in his concerns. The canal boats are very comfortable, being indeed very like those of Holland, but the cost here is nearly double. The one in which I travelled carried a large number of political talkers of the type known in France as mouchards. Seeing that I was a foreigner, one of them spoke to me several times on delicate and difficult matters affecting the Government. Fearing false interpretations I responded in ambiguous terms, and in the end found it politic to feign sleep — a very good way of getting out of such difficulties. The canal is a magnificent piece of work, crossing immense tracts of moor, where ten or twelve feet of peat have had to be removed before reaching earth in which the waterway could be cut. Several aqueducts have been necessary, one of them of really prodigious length and height . . .

Above – I was unable to find any contemporary illustrations of passengers travelling on the Irish canals, but the above is a fine – if fanciful – illustration of a Packet  [passenger] Boat in London in 1801, just after the Grand Junction Canal was opened (courtesy the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries). Tailpiece – Whitworth Aqueduct carrying Ireland’s Royal Canal over the River Inny, Co Longford, photographed in 2016: the aqueduct was built between 1814 and 1817 at a cost of £5,000

Keep watching Roaringwater Journal for more snippets from de La Tocnaye’s travels!

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.

Sun’s Out!

On one April day after a bleak, harsh winter that had gales, hurricanes, blizzards and unceasing bitter east winds thrown at us – the sun came out! We were out too, and headed up to the Beara Peninsula to see if we could remember what sun-soaked landscapes felt like… They felt great!

Header – the glories of Cork and Kerry combine on the spectacular Beara; top photograph – finally, after a long,harsh winter, we see the spring blossoms appearing; middle – a wayside shrine on the road out from Glengariff; bottom – Hungry Hill dominates the views as we head west on the peninsula

You will remember our previous visits to the Beara: there are not enough superlatives for what it has to offer in the way of stunning scenery and colour. None of these photographs have been enhanced – what you see is exactly what we saw on the day – and it’s what you will see, too, if you choose aright (although even on dull days we always find plenty to interest us).

Top photograph – St Kentigern’s Church is in the centre of one of Ireland’s most colourful villages; middle – the sunlight plays games with the beautiful windows by glass artist George Walsh; bottom – light from the windows dances on the pews

We knew where we were going: Finola was keen to revisit the little Catholic church of St Kentigern in Eyeries, which has a fine collection of windows by George Walsh: it’s a gem – and at its best for the quality of the light enhancing it on the day. I wanted to see the settlement itself in the early spring sunlight as it’s one of the most colourful places in the whole of Ireland! Neither of us was disappointed.

Just a taster of the treats in store in Eyeries: on a beautiful spring day there was hardly a soul around, but we were still able to find an ice cream in O’Sullivan’s!

Our second objective was to travel into the hills and find Ardgroom Outward stone circle. The trail involves farm gates, stiles and a lot of mud – but the 9 stone circle (named locally ‘Canfea’) is a fine, almost intact monument with wide vistas to mountain and sea. The impressive outlier stone is 3.2m in height.

The magnificent Ardgroom Outward (or ‘Canfea’) stone circle is accessible via a marked, boggy path: the vistas from the site make the journey worthwhile. Finola is dwarfed by the huge outlier!

It’s barely a skip up to Eyeries from Nead an Iolair, so we had to carry on around the peninsula and take in the almost surreal views of oceans, lakes and mountains before dipping into Kerry and then heading over the top back into Cork county and down the Healy Pass – surely one of Ireland’s most spectacular road trips.

Returning home – with the evening sun setting gloriously over Roaringwater Bay – we reflected that there can’t be many places in the world where a single day can offer such a feast to satisfy all the senses.

 

Rock Art: Returning to Derrynablaha

Three years ago Finola and I both wrote posts about a remote valley in the Kerry hills, north of Sneem, where some iconic examples of Irish Rock Art can be found: Derrynablaha Expedition by Finola, and my own Glen of Ghosts. I think it’s time to revisit this hauntingly beautiful place, and its ancient carved stones which could date back 5,000 years, to Neolithic times.

All the examples of Rock Art illustrated in this post can be found in the townlands of Derrynablaha and Derreeny, Co Kerry

When Finola visited the valley in 1972 and 1973 she explored and recorded 23 marked stones, all within the townland of Derrynablaha: these were illustrated in her UCC thesis The Rock Art of Cork and Kerry. Between 1986 and 1996 The Iveragh Peninsula Archaeological Survey undertook further detailed research, resulting in a comprehensive volume published by Cork University Press: this contains a 30 page section on Rock Art and includes many of Finola’s drawings. The book lists 26 known examples, now, in Derrynablaha with a further 7 stones in the adjacent townland of Derreeny.

Cork University Press volume (left) which includes many of Finola’s drawings (sample page,right)

My introduction to prehistoric Irish Rock Art came in the early 1990s when I first visited West Cork to look at a piece of land which my friends Danny and Gill had purchased, with a view to building themselves a house: I was to be the designer. We walked the 5 acre site at Ballybane West and discovered a large, flat outcrop of rock some 30 metres long by 10 metres wide, the surface of which was covered with strange carved motifs. These intrigued and occupied me for many years. Eventually I made contact with the Department of Archaeology at University College Cork and unearthed Finola’s thesis. Finola had visited ‘Danny’s Rock’ during her explorations: she and I have just completed a comprehensive article on Rock Art in the environs of Ballybane West for a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Bantry Historical Society, due to be launched on 10 May.

Because of the number of pieces of Rock Art at Derrynablaha, as recorded by Finola, I set out to visit the site and was fortunate, I think, to locate several of the pieces there: they are hard to find. My most significant impression of the place was its isolation and loneliness: when Finola was there decades before, the O’Sullivan house was occupied – a family home and working farm – now it was a ruin returning to nature. No one lives in that valley today: it is home to sheep and eagles.

The most iconic piece of Rock Art in Derrynablaha is high up on the slopes of a mountain: there is no path, and the trek is across bogs, boulders and streams. Also remember that all the land is private – farmed now by another O’Sullivan from a neighbouring valley – and permission has to be sought in advance of any attempt to visit. Strict rules apply, understandably, to the use of gates and fences and no dogs will be permitted. The iconic piece is probably Ireland’s most important. When you stand up there, on a good day, you can see to distant horizons and take in outstanding views: time for reflection, perhaps, on what inspired our forebears to create such panels in these places – was it where they lived? Or did they assemble there for celebrations? The mountainside seems to present a natural platform here, with the carved rocks a central focal point. The work involved in carving these motifs would have been significant and time-consuming – they had only stone tools.

When we give talks about Rock Art we ask a question: Is it art? Some of it is certainly pleasing to the eye – the iconic Derrynablaha carvings are. But they also appear random, as though new carvings have been squeezed in amongst older ones: maybe the proliferation of motifs – or the number of carvers involved – was more important than any particular visual effect or relationship. We don’t ever try to answer that question, nor guess meanings for things we can never know. It’s enough – for me, at least – to experience these ‘footprints’ of former souls in such wild places.

We go far out of our way to look for Rock Art. It would take more than a lifetime to see every piece in Ireland. Some would argue that such a pursuit would be pointless – seen one, seen them all. It is true that the motifs are similar, although variable, across Rock Art panels, not only in Ireland, but in Britain and on continental Europe. That in itself is remarkable: 5,000 years ago humankind was making identical marks on rock surfaces all over its world. For me, however, it’s not really the motifs – spectacular though many of them are. It’s the places that they mark which are meaningful. Rock Art took me to the mountainside in that lonely Kerry glen and showed me a most incredible view across townlands and counties: I see it as inspiration, relevant as much in the 21st century of this struggling world as it was, perhaps, thousands of years ago, when the same world was a little bit newer.