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.

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.