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.

Pagan and Pure

How does a prehistoric calendar mark turn into a pagan feast and then into a Christian saint’s day? This year, the cross-quarter day is Feb 3, yesterday: that is, the day that lies half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Together with the solstices and equinoxes, the cross-quarter days divide the year into eight ‘months’ and they also establish the dates for the ancient festival days of Imbolc ( Feb 2, spring), Bealtaine ( May 1, summer ), Lunasa (Aug 1, harvest), and Samhain (Oct 31, start of winter). In fact, the actual cross-quarters times don’t fall always on those dates but close enough so they have become established as the festival days.

The Brigidine Centre in Kildare, run as retreat and contemplation house. The lead image in this post is a St Brigid stained glass window in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo

As so often happens when an ancient culture is Christianised, Imbolc became conflated with a saintly feast day, that of our own Saint Brigid, the female patron saint of Ireland. Brigid may have originally been a female deity, also called Brigid, or perhaps Danu. This is all controversial, of course – did the idea of the goddess or the idea of the saint come first, for example? Whatever the origins, the marking of the cross-quarter day turned into Imbolc the pagan festival, and finally into Saint Brigid’s Day, and all over the country we make St Brigid’s Crosses, leave a scarf out at night for her to bless, or, still, in Kerry, dress up as ‘Biddies’ and go from house to house, carrying a Brídeóg doll and singing and dancing in a ritual that must be as old as time.

Another custom is to visit those holy wells that are associated with Brigid. Amanda has a special post on that – and is celebrating two years of holy well hunting!

On one Imbolc that lives in our memories Robert and I arose early in the morning and went to watch the sun rise over a small prominence, standing on a piece of 5,000 year old rock art. Our account of that occasion is here, and below is the thrilling moment the sun rose, and lit up the ancient carvings.

Our friend, the poet Paul Ó Colmáin, from whom we take Irish lessons, used one of his own poems as a teachable moment this week, and I was struck by how perfectly it captures that sense of the turning year, the joy of sunrise, the deep embedding in our Irish souls of the ancient and the traditional and the embracing of both. I give the poem first in Irish. For those of you who do not speak it, you can take my word that the language is beautiful and contains nuances that his English version cannot capture, brilliant as it is.

Lá ‘le Bhríde

Dhúisigh an ghrian sinn

an mhaidin úd,

solas órga

ag stealladh

‘is ag scairdeach

isteach ar an urlár,

ag slaparnach

thuas na fallaí,

ag sruthlaíonn

an doras síor-oscailte isteach.

Níor thuigeamar

ar dtús

cad a bhí ag titim amach.

Níor aithníomar

torann buí na Gréine.

Ach chuimhníos

go tobann ar na bhfocail a dúraís,

mar dhraoi:

“Tiocfaidh an Ghrian thar nais ar Lá ‘le Bhríde.”

Agus d’árdaigh dóchas,

ársa, pagánaigh im’ chroí,

inár suí sa leaba,

Bríd nó Danú,

an lámh in uachtar ag an t-earrach,

bhí an geimhreadh, gruama thart.

“Tiocfaidh an Ghrian thar nais ar Lá ‘le Bhríde.”

Paul’s English version of the poem is given below. At the time he wrote it, Paul, his wife, the artist Marie Cullen, and their sons were living on the Great Blasket*, off the Dingle Peninsula, the only inhabitants of the Island.

The Blasket Islands lie off the cost of Kerry, near the Dingle Peninsula. An Irish speaking enclave, it is now uninhabited

Winter was long on the Island, made gloomier by the fact that the sun, due to a combination of high ground and orientation, did not shine on their dwelling all winter.

The sun awoke us.

Like a fanfare

or a burst of wild laughter.

Playfully.

Unfamiliar.

Spilling in along the floor.

Splashing up the walls.

Streaming in through the ever-open door.

We didn’t – at first-  know what was happening,

Didn’t recognise the bright clamour of the sun.

Then we remembered the words

That you, druidlike, had spoken:

“The Sun will come back on St. Brigid’s Day.”

And a welling of Hope,

Pagan and Pure,

Came rising inside us,

Sitting in bed,

Brigid or Danú,

The Winter defeated:

“The Sun will come back on St. Brigid’s Day.”

We’ve turned the corner and spring is finally in the air. Today was golden and we spent it on The Mizen (see below). Thank you Brigid/Danu/Imbolc/ancient Calendar Keepers!

*If you’re ever in Kerry, make sure to visit the Blasket Centre

Ireland’s Newest Stained Glass Window

It’s in Tralee, in St John’s Church – and it’s breathtaking!

It isn’t often that new stained glass windows are installed in Irish churches. In fact, depressingly, many churches fall into disrepair from lack of use and the windows break (or are broken). Nowadays we are more likely to be losing stained glass than gaining it. So it’s a huge cause for celebration when a community commissions a new piece. Hats off to Tralee!

The Garden of Eden or an image of reconciliation: one of the window details

This window is out of the ordinary in many ways. Let’s start with who commissioned it, which leads us on to the theme. Although it’s installed in the Catholic church, it was a joint initiative of the Catholic and Church of Ireland congregations. There may be other windows that can claim that distinction, but I don’t know of them. (Readers?)

The theme is Reconciliation, and the central figure is the return of the prodigal son. The right panel is of Jesus reading from the Book of Isaiah and the left is of John the Baptist, patron saint of the church.

The father embraces his prodigal son

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a natural choice to illustrate reconciliation, with the father embracing the son who has squandered his inheritance but returns home, contrite, to his family. Instead of punishing him (as his brother resentfully feels the father should do) his father embraces him, orders that the fatted calf be slain for a feast, and says, It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

Jesus Reading from Isaiah is perhaps at one remove from a direct reference to reconciliation. It happened in Nazareth, his old home town, and he read at the behest of the elders. The passage is a beautiful one and points to ideas of love and healing, and perhaps to the real purpose of Christianity, no matter the denomination: he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.

St John is the patron saint of the church 

Possibly my favourite image is that of John. Usually, he is shown in the act of baptising Jesus, but here he is, the ascetic in his coat of camel hair, very much as he described himself, as a voice crying in the wilderness.

A myriad of tiny images fills the panels – figures holding hands (reconciliation), swallows (hope of spring, renewal), Tralee Bay, figures from Tralee history. . . there are even tiny names engraved where it is impossible to see them. Take a look at this video, where Tom Denny shows us some of those names.

Tom Denny? Yes – he’s the artist but the significance of that goes beyond the fact that he is one of Britain’s most eminent and respected stained glass artists, responsible for numerous windows in British churches. A browse of his website reveals the breadth and depth of his skill and the uniqueness of his style. The Tralee windows are typical – blazing with colour, filled with large and small figures and scenes that reveal themselves upon close inspection, rich and intricate, thoughtfully composed to draw the viewer into the subject of the panels.

Tralee Bay

You see, the Denny’s came to Tralee as part of a British military expedition in the 1500s and the name is inextricably linked with the North Kerry area. Sir Edward Denny (1547 to 1599) was one of the architects and enforcers of the Plantation of Munster, and was rewarded with lands taken from the Earl of Desmond including Tralee Castle, a knighthood and the title of Governor of Kerry. Tom is a direct descendent. 

Sir Edward Denny. Image used with the permission of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Denny’s stayed in Ireland for hundreds of years, branching out and acquiring land and estates. Eventually the family spent less time in Ireland and concentrated on their estates in Britain**. In Ireland, such a history as this is a complicated legacy, and Tom was eager to be part of the whole idea of a reconciliation window, donating his services to the project. Over twenty members of the Denny family came for the unveiling. This adds a rich and poignant dimension to the purpose of the window – reconciling the past with the present, and looking to the future. 

The father runs out to meet his returning son

Finally, this magnificent work of art is only one of the many artistic delights of this Tralee church. They deserve a post of their own some day, but I will give you a sneak peek by telling you that the Stations of the Cross are by none other than the famous Irish artist, Sean Keating. Here’s a detail from just one of them.

My friend Eileen drew my attention to this new window.  So thank you, Eileen – as you can see I lost no time in making the trip to see it. I am SO glad I did.

**Edit: I got this wrong. There were no English estates. The Denny’s, along with many members of the Anglo-Irish landlord class, eventually lost their lands. In the case of Tom Denny’s grandfather, although he was a baronet he was also a clergyman,  living the life of an impoverished cleric dedicated to his church. The move to England was related to his church service. RTE has now screened their program on the window and it does a marvellous job of adding fascinating detail about the window and the history of the Dennys – mostly supplied by Tom himself.

The Best of Five

It’s been five years! That’s a long time to have kept up a journal, with original pieces appearing every week – usually two, each of us writing a post. It keeps us busy: 464 posts to date. We thought we should do a review of the posts which have been most popular: viewed by the most people. These are not necessarily the ones we would consider to be our own favourites: we’ll let you know what we feel our ‘finest hour’ has been next week – while you are all preparing the Christmas lunch!

We never quite understood the all-time popularity of Beyond Leap, Beyond the Law, my post which was simply a collection of photos taken at the West Cork village’s 2015 Scarecrow Festival – with a little bit of history about the place added in. It was certainly a wonderful display of the imagination of the people of Leap. Have a look at the post: just one or two photographs don’t do it justice.

Up next is Finola’s piece from 2016 – Outposts of Empire. This was a much more scholarly article, and involved a lot of research. As you must know, we never pass a church or a burial ground without a full investigation: they provide a wealth of local history. Finola became fascinated by the memorials – mainly military – which appear in Protestant churches around the country. This led her down the path of her own ancestors, many of whom served in the Irish regiments of the British forces. She found this wonderful photo from around 1900 of her Brabazon forebears. Her grandmother Marie is in the centre of the back row, while her great grandfather John Edward Brabazon, who had served in India and Afghanistan, wears a military medal. The two younger men are Finola’s great uncles Michael and James, and they are wearing the uniform of the Royal Hibernian Military School.

Finola’s series on ‘how to speak like a West Cork person’ was a winner, the most popular being her fifth episode: How Are You Keeping? Here is a link to all of them. They make amusing reading, but at the same time they give a lot of insights as to how the Irish language has coloured the way English is spoken here. And here is Finola’s great picture from that post: two Skibbereen gentlemen who might well be asking how are you keeping?

Archaeology comes next, with my account of a most eccentric decorated chambered cairn within the Boyne Valley complex: Fourknocks – the Little Giant. I was particularly taken with the adventure of visiting this tomb, from the first moment of having to collect the key from a farm a mile away in order to let ourselves in, to the experience of being inside with the door shut behind us: total darkness at first, but gradually becoming aware of the remarkable 5,000 year-old zigzag carvings on the rock surfaces within.

I’m pleased that the fifth most popular post of all time is also the one I most enjoyed writing: Aweigh in Kerry. This was all about a very unusual piece of architecture which we found while travelling in Kerry – a house shaped like a ship, sitting in the sand dunes on the shoreline of Ballycarnahan townland, facing a most spectacular view across to Derrynane, the home of ‘Ireland’s Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell. I was an architect in a former life, and I would have welcomed a commission such as this. It was built in the early 1950s.

Sixth and last in this little review is a post from Finola (happily, we had three each in this list of the top most popular posts!): Castle Haven. Such an account of a place in magical West Cork – which typically offers everything anyone could want in beautiful landscape, village architecture, archaeology, history, literary heritage, art and the omnipresent Atlantic coastline – is exactly what we aspired to for the foundation stone of Roaringwater Journal when we set out, in 2012 on this happy, continuing journey.

 

The Gap of Dunloe

It’s one of Ireland’s, and Kerry’s, premier tourist experiences, but I think it’s at its best when tourist season is over and winter foliage dominates the landscape. Pure winter light mixed with the occasional shower – that combination brings out the the kind of colours that stop me in my tracks. From Killarney, the way to the Gap is west from the town on the N72 to Killorglin – just look for the signs.

From the Wishing Bridge

Driving through the Gap of Dunloe is not recommended at any time except winter, and even then caution is advised. That’s because the traditional way of travelling through the gap is by jaunting car, on horseback, on foot, or by bicycle and cars can be a dangerous and unwanted addition. And those – the on-foot or by horseback options – are the best ways of seeing it. If you have a hankering to experience it for yourself, just Google Gap of Dunloe and all the options will present themselves.

This couple from Germany had walked from the Black Valley

Robert and I have driven it twice now, each time in winter, and each time he has dropped me off to walk at my own pace, camera in hand, and picked me up where he can find a lay-by.  We did it earlier this week, having ascertained that sunshine was a possibility (about the best that can be forecast this time of year), and we hit it lucky.

A river runs through it

The Gap is a deep glaciated valley, running north/south between MacGillycuddy’s Reeks and the Purple Mountain – can’t lose with a description that starts off like that! The road runs along the Loe River, which empties eventually into the Laune and thence into Lough Leane, the largest of the Lakes of Killarney.

Auger Lake

Several lakes lie along the course of the river – Black Lake, Cushvally, Auger Lake and Black Lough. The road switches from the west side of the lakes to the east side as you go along, and then back again. The first bridge you cross is the Wishing Bridge – tradition has it that wishes made on this bridge always come true. My highly scientific testing of this assertion confirms the truth of it.

This is Ireland, of course, so no matter how blue the sky you have to expect that it can rain at any moment. True to form, the top of the valley filled with cloud and before I could blink I, and my camera, were being, er, moisturised. The compensation? A rainbow to the north, spanning the Gap.

Is there a hint of a second rainbow? And oops – drops on the lens

The rain didn’t last long – just enough to ensure the air was filled with lots of droplets and vapour to lend extra luminescence to the air – the colours always seem at their most sparkly after a shower.

Black Lough – no need to wonder how that name was earned

It was a steep walk to the top of the Gap, and it was hard to keep going when every bend brought fresh temptation to stop and take more photographs as the light shifted and shimmered. The photograph at the top of this post was taken from the highest point.

The Black Valley

Once over the top, the Black Valley opens up before you. This is a walker’s paradise, but also a community, with small farms dotted here and there, a church and a school – surely one of the remotest in Ireland. The landscape softens slightly from the craggy steepness of Dunloe to more rounded valleys and mountains.

You have a choice now to carry on West along the interior of the Iveragh Peninsula, but we had to head for home so we joined the N71 at Moll’s Gap where a welcome coffee awaited in the excellent Avoca Cafe.

A road through the Black Valley

Next time, I think we will do this by the traditional horse-drawn method, and return to Killarney by boat from Lord Bandon’s Cottage. Perhaps even in the summer – I wonder how it will look then.

Looking back at the Gap of Dunloe from Moll’s Gap

Revealing Rock Art: 150 Years of Images

This week a powerful image from Ken Williams of Shadows and Stone (copyrighted, used with permission) lit up the Irish Rock Art Facebook Page (180,000 people had seen it at last count, and it’s been shared more than 1500 times). The photograph, taken with Ken’s signature blend of natural and artificial light, was of a stone in Kerry often known as the Staigue Bridge Rock Art, although technically it’s in the townland of Liss.

As it turns out, this is one of the best-documented rock art panels in Ireland, with images dating from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present day.

Taken on a recent visit to Liss/Staigue Bridge Rock Art site. This is probably what a casual visitor will see. Can you make out any carvings?

The response to this photograph highlights several important features of Irish rock art. First of all, it seems people are hungry to know more about these enigmatic carvings, and yet rock art is one of the least known aspects of Irish archaeology. Time after time, as Robert and I present exhibitions or give talks, we meet up with a near-universal response of “How come we’ve never heard about this before?”

Another view of the top section of the panel

Secondly, a photograph like this is not normally what you observe in the field. Commonly, rock art (and this one is no exception) is actually difficult to see under most lighting conditions. This rock is just off a popular hiking trail and the vast majority of walkers are unaware of what is a few meters from their path. Even if the route went right alongside it, most walkers would pass by without noticing anything unusual.

This will give you an idea of the extent of the panel

Thirdly, it is no longer possible to record rock art by any of the traditional methods that were in common use up to the 1990s. Nowadays, recording techniques that do not impact in any way with the rock surface are preferred, and that limits us to what can be imaged through photographic and scanning technology.

Aoibheann Lambe’s virtuoso photograph – this is the panel in the second photograph, taken from almost the same angle but under perfect natural lighting conditions. © Aoibheann Lambe

There are currently three ways in common use to photograph rock art so that the carvings will show up. The first is to use the natural low, slanting, shadow-casting, light at sunrise or sunset. Rock Art Kerry, the work of archaeologist Aoibheann Lambe, has an outstanding photograph of the rock surface using only natural light. Given our climate, it is likely that many visits to the rock in all kinds of temperatures, early in the morning or late in the evening, were necessary before the perfect shot was possible. Aoibheann’s Facebook page is the place to be these days for new finds – she is making discoveries at a breathtaking pace!

Another of Aoibheann’s photographs – this one shows the extent of lichen growth on the rock surface, which often functions to obscure carvings. © Aoibheann Lambe

The second is to use flash photography – a technique that Ken Williams has perfected and uses to great effect to show up even faint carvings. We’ve seen Ken working – this isn’t a mater of a simple flash on a camera – multiple flashes are deployed with a skill that comes from long experience, and respond to an electronic trigger on his camera.  If you haven’t already done so, a visit to his site is an absolute must for anyone interested in rock art – or indeed in Irish archaeology.

Finola and Robert from Roaringwater Journal and Ken Williams of Shadows and Stone at Derrynablaha in Kerry

The third technique is that of photogrammetry. In essence, this is the combination of multiple high resolution photographs to construct a 3D image of a rock surface. The Discovery Programme has been sponsoring 3D imaging of various national monuments, including Ogham Stones and Sheela-Na-Gigs, for some time. Under this program, The Dingle Museum (Músaem Chorca Dhuibhne) has produced a series of 3D images, including an excellent one of the Liss/Staigue Bridge rock art panel.

The top panel rendered in 3D – this is a screen capture. © Corca Dhuibhne 3D 2017

It is particularly exciting because it’s unusually clear (rock art 3D images can suffer from lack of clarity for a variety of reason) and also because this technique allows an image of the whole panel, whereas photography can only capture pieces at a time.

These stills have been captured from the 3D images on the Museum site but they do NOT compare with the experience of viewing and manipulating the 3D images on screen. It’s brilliant work, so please go to their page for the real thing. © Corca Dhuibhne 3D 2017

But back to the past, when it was still possible to produce drawings of the carvings. Back, in fact, to the 1850s! There were two Irish antiquarians called the Rev Graves. The better-known one was the Rev James Graves of Kilkenny, but the one we are concerned with here was the Rev Charles Graves, Bishop of Limerick and a noted mathematician, scholar, antiquarian, and President of the Royal Irish Academy. He was fascinated by Ogham and on a trip to view Ogham stones in Kerry he came across other ‘inscribed rocks’ of a type he was unfamiliar with. He wrote up his findings and presented them to the Academy in 1860.

Taken from the Wikipedia article on Charles Graves. Image above by Anonymous – Church Bells (1874–1875)) W. Wells Gardner, Publisher, London, Public Domain

The good Bishop had none of our modern scruples about interfering with the rock surface, or removing the turf to see what else he could fine. He did both: three feet of turf was stripped back to reveal the extent of the carvings and a rubbing was made from the whole surface, which was later converted to a survey-drawing. This, to this day, is the only drawing we have of the complete carving.

When I wrote my thesis on The Rock Art of Cork and Kerry in 1973 I said this about Charles Graves:

The first paper devoted to rock art in Ireland was by Rev. Charles Graves. In 1860 he read a paper to the Royal Irish Academy entitled “On a previously undescribed Class of Monuments”. His paper, mainly concerned with Co. Kerry, is still very valuable and his drawings and observations are often more accurate and more reliable than many later accounts.

My own drawing was done in 1972. The technique I used then was to chalk in the carvings and trace them onto clear plastic film. That tracing was then re-traced on to good quality paper using indian ink and a stipple technique and then photographically reduced by a professional printing firm. It is naturally an imperfect and subjective method, but long practice enabled me to produce surprisingly accurate renditions which stand up well to modern recording techniques.

I confined my drawing to the main area of carving and used Graves’ drawing as an additional illustration

There are few examples of Irish rock art with the pedigree of Staigue Bridge. It is classic cup-and-ring art in its execution but also contains the unusual elements of very large circles surrounding small cupmarks. It is enormous – a fact that would never have been appreciated if Graves had not determined to find the true extent of the carved surface (although of course we do NOT condone this practice now). It has a literature that goes back a century and a half, and was one of the first pieces of Irish rock art to be described and illustrated. It’s a national treasure.