Thirty-Six Views of Mount Gabriel

Mount Gabriel is, I believe, a rarely regarded topographical prominence on the Mizen. Yet it is impossible to ignore: the summit can be seen from most parts of this western peninsula. And, for those visitors who do notice it – and make the effort to scale its heights, it presents the most spectacular of views over rugged landscapes to the oceans beyond.

Brian Lalor has chosen to make this peak the centrepiece of his new exhibition, which opened in Schull’s Blue House Gallery at the weekend: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Gabriel. You have to see it. The works are for sale, so it will be impossible, probably, to assemble them as one entity ever again. (Unless, perhaps, in a hundred years time – if there is still an intellectual world in existence – Brian’s genius will be fully recognised and appreciated, and an astute curator will raid collections from all over the world in order to put this canon back together as a centenary project).

The works themselves draw attention to some of Brian’s many artistic talents: conté crayon drawings, exquisite watercolour sketches and linocut prints. They make an impressive whole on the walls of Schull’s eccentric gallery, which is a jumble of smallish rooms, a staircase and landing, with a minimalist shop-window frontage. Circumnavigating the spaces is a revealing and stimulating experience.

Returning to the subject matter of the work, Brian – General Editor of Gill & Macmillan’s mammoth 2003 volume The Encyclopaedia of Ireland – and considered a prime authority on Ireland’s art heritage and its place in world culture, is familiar with artists’ legacies from many other domains. He grew up in a household which contained significant pieces of Japanese art and was au fait from a young age with the concept of ukiyo-e – the floating world. His early awareness of the arts of Japan provided the source of inspiration for this exhibition: Katsushika Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, woodblock prints which date from the early 1830s. Here are Fine Wind, Clear Morning (upper) and Inume Pass (lower) from the series:

Fuji is one of Japan’s Holy Mountains. Brian’s juxtaposition is brilliant: our Mount Gabriel has to be a holy place. It is named after an Archangel, who is said to have descended to the mountain top to view the unsurpassed beauty of West Cork’s landscapes, the reputation of which had reached to Heaven even back in those days. In so doing he left behind his footprint, which is still to be seen on the summit.

The Archangel was not the only biblical character to visit Gabriel: Satan himself touched down, but stumbled on a large rock. In a fit of temper he picked up the rock and threw it far off into the sea beyond. This caused such a hazard to shipping that we have had to erect a lighthouse on it. Here is Finola’s photographic view of The Fastnet, taken at sunset. For me, it has a suitably print-like quality . . .

Legends attached to Gabriel include many that attribute Irish heroes to activities on the summit. Finn MacCool, for example, is also credited with throwing large rocks from the mountain, including this fine boulder burial at Rathruane:

Brian’s observation and humour are not missing from this exhibition. He has included a cabinet of ‘artefacts’ distilled from his own explorations on the mountain. These make reference to the ancient history of the site and its connection with copper extraction in the Bronze Age and in medieval times, and also the twentieth century manifestations of air traffic control technology (known as ‘Gabriel’s Balls’) . . .

I am particularly taken with Brian’s linocut series – a limited edition of only ten of each print. They provide the ‘fine detail’ in the overall assemblage, and work so well together on the back wall of the largest room.

The detail print, above, shows Brian’s representation of archaeological finds connected with ancient copper mining which have been found during excavations on the mountain.

As ‘Guest Curator’ of this exhibition I was delighted to introduce it to an eager audience on the opening night in Schull (above). The show only runs until the 3rd of August, so please rush over in order not to miss it. It is (for me) the highlight of West Cork’s summer offerings!

Blue House Gallery, Schull

The gallery also has on show some work by other West Cork artists, well worth exploration, so don’t miss them when you go. I can’t resist finishing with one of them: this work (below) by Keith Payne – Sego Canyon. Keith has always been fascinated by ‘Rock Art’ in all parts of the world, and painted this based on his visit to a collection of petroglyphs on a cliff-face in Utah. It’s very apt, I think, to see this work in the context of the Brian Lalor exhibition. Below it is our own photograph of 5,000 year old Rock Art at Derreenaclough, West Cork – discovered only a few years ago. I am personally of the opinion that the siting of this rock in full view of ‘sacred’ Mount Gabriel is purely intentional!

A fully illustrated catalogue is available to purchase in the gallery

Some useful links:

Rock Art – A Diversion to Wicklow

While writing this Journal over the years, Finola and I have included many examples of Prehistoric Rock Art, mainly on the west side of the country, in Cork and Kerry. Here is just one – you can find others through the search facility in the header. Finola’s UCC thesis from 1973 also concentrated on specimens from the southwest and her own drawings based on tracings direct from the rock surfaces provide a unique record of this form of prehistoric art. They have formed the basis of exhibitions which we have promoted over the years: here’s one from 2015.

Upper: the opening of our Rock Art exhibition at Cork Public Museum , October 2015 and (lower) one of Finola’s drawings from 1973. Another area in Ireland which has a concentration of Rock Art is Wicklow. We have been spending a few days in that county, and decide to go and have a look for some examples there. Finola dug out from her archives a photo which she took in 1972 when she and some college friends visited a Wicklow site:

Could we find that particular rock again? Well, we think we did, but it has been moved in fairly recent times. Here it is in its new setting (we believe) – it’s not very propitious:

The present site is in the townland of Togher More, behind a fence lining a main road. The National Monuments record tells the story, which confirms that Finola’s earlier photograph was taken in the townland of Baltynanima:

. . . Class: Rock art (present location) Townland: TOGHER MORE Description: Found during ploughing c. 1.8m to the SW in Baltynanima and moved here in the mid 1980’s (see W1018-036—- for original location record). An irregular shaped schist boulder (L 1.3m; W 0.9m; T 0.5m) with 16 cup marks and the remains of another where the corner of the boulder appears to have come away. The four largest cups (diameters 10-12cm; depth c. 6cm) are enclosed by circles (max ext. diameter 20cm) formed by incised lines (widths 1.5-2cm; depths 1cm) with the exception of one which has only a semi circle incised line around it. The remaining 13 cups have diameters of 6-8cm and depths of 4-5cm. There are also three incised linear grooves (L 14- 22cm; W 4cm; D 2.5-3.5cm) visible on the stones surface. Described, photographed and drawn by Price on the 29th January 1933 . . .

National Monuments Record WI018-049

It’s not unusual to find that ‘portable’ stones with Rock Art on the surface are moved, usually to protect them if a site is to be developed. Here’s another example we found, in the townland of Knockrahen:

In this case the rock was found while the foundations were being dug for the house. The owner (with whom we spoke) noticed the markings and decided to keep it as a feature in her new garden. The photo below was taken by Chris Corlett for the National Monuments records. Thank you, Chris (and the NM), for allowing us to use this – and the detail on the header pic. Below Chris’s photo is Finola’s, with my hand in the shot to give it scale.

While out in Wicklow we noticed that many of the National Monument records of Rock Art are credited to George Henry Kinihan (1829 – 1908). He was a geologist who also had an interest in archaeology. His home was in Clontarf and he is buried in the Protestant churchyard in Avoca, Co Wicklow. He was involved in his lifetime in engineering works, particular railway construction, but was also a keen Rock Art enthusiast.

Two portraits of Kinihan: he was said to have been of ‘strong and massive build’. He spent some of his early years working under George du Noyer of the Irish Geological Survey – who shared with him an interest in antiquities in the landscape. Here is a du Noyer drawing of cross slabs in Co Wexford:

On du Noyer’s death in 1869, Kinihan was appointed District Surveyor of the Geological Survey, in charge of field work and mapping, and oversaw the completion of the One Inch Geological Map of Ireland. He also became President of The Royal Geological Society of Ireland in 1880. Now, here is a conundrum:

Here is part of the current Historic Monuments Viewer, showing the location of archaeological sites in Ballykean, Co Wicklow. All the yellow-and-red dots are recorded as Rock Art, discovered by Kinihan (there are 14 just in this small area of the townland). In every case, the site is described in detail, with numbers of cupmarks etc recorded. But also – in every case – the description concludes: ‘…The site indicated by Kinahan in 1884 was inspected in 1990, however this stone was not located…’ These are not the only instances in Co Wicklow where Rock Art found by Kinihan can no longer be traced. Does this mean that all these instances have now been destroyed or buried? Is it possible that this experienced archaeological enthusiast could have misinterpreted so many sites? It remains an adventure for us – another day – to go in search of some of these enigmatic examples to see if we re-establish the credibility of this Wicklow giant in this very particular specialism.

Stones Alone

Over the years we have written a lot about stone. That’s not surprising, because our interests in Irish archaeology involve stones: standing stones, stone circles, rock art, gravestones . . . It’s what the surviving history of our earliest dwellers on this island is all about. So I thought it would be a good idea to sift through our Roaringwater Journal photographic library – which goes back a decade – and turn up some pictures and stories which I have never used before: all of them involving stones. That header pic, above, is a boulder burial at Rathruane, just outside our West Cork village of Ballydehob.

Here’s another boulder burial, a long way away in Co Cavan, now surrounded by trees which are probably relatively recent. Finola wrote about this monument type six years ago, and pointed out that they are not well named: when examined archaeologically, very few of these stones have been associated with buried human remains. They are said to have been positioned between 1,500 and 1,000 years BC, a time we refer to as the ‘Bronze Age’. So, by then, humans were already aware of the use of metal for tools, weapons and decorative adornments. But imagine the time before that – when people only had natural materials to hand – wood, vegetation and, of course – if you wanted to create something permanent – stone: we call these times Neolithic – and generally that covers the period of habitation of Ireland from 6,000 BC onwards.

Here is another West Cork site: Breeny More, to the north of Bantry. There’s a whole lot of stones here including, unusually, four ‘boulder burials’ arranged in a square. There are also further stones in this grouping which were once part of a stone circle. The site is magnificently located, with distant views west across to Bantry Bay (below).

We are all familiar with groups of stones arranged in a circle. Here is the ‘stone circle’ at Ardgroom, County Cork: it’s on the Beara Peninsula. As with the Boulder Burials, these monument types are generally thought to date from the Bronze Age.

These modestly sized ‘five stone’ stone circles are also in County Cork. The National monuments Survey of Ireland lists 53 ‘five stone’ circles in the county, while a further 41 ‘multiple stone’ circles are noted. There are also some anomalies which defy definition, such as ‘The Fingers’ at Knockdrum, West Cork, just outside Castletownshend:

This appears to have been, originally, an alignment of five tall standing stones. One has fallen and broken, while the fifth is now missing. It is reasonable to assume, from the number of stone ‘monuments’ all around us in West Cork (and in many other parts of Ireland), that these sites were of great significance to the populations who constructed them. But we don’t know for sure why they are there – although theories abound.

I am fascinated by the number of single standing stones we come across in our travels. It’s impossible to say how many there are in Ireland – probably thousands. And they can range in size from the large stones – above – in West Cork, to individual examples in moorland or fields, or on roadsides – below.

The Irish word ‘carn’ means a heap or pile of stones, Cairn monuments are mounds of stones, often marking the summit of a significant hill or mountain. They may or may not be ancient, and we have seen them change significantly over time. On Mount Corrin, not far from us in West Cork, there were two cairns only a few years ago. Now there is a single, significant cairn (top pic below): this implies a deliberate ‘re-ordering’ of what was there before. Regardless of their history, they can be visually impressive.

The centre pic above is a small cairn on a Sheep’s Head summit, while the enormous one above is in The Burren, County Clare. The Burren is an extraordinary landscape of exposed limestone. The limestone formed as sediments in a tropical sea which covered most of Ireland approximately 350 million years ago. Today, the Burren supports a remarkable assortment of wild flowers: over 70% of Ireland’s species of flowers are found there, among the ubiquitous stone surfaces.

Ever since humans set foot on Irish soil, they have embraced the stones – both for practical uses such as shelter or enclosure, but also as a means of marking and communicating. Readers will be familiar with our particular interests in Prehistoric Rock Art:

This is an important example of Ireland’s Rock Art, from West Cork, perhaps dating from 5,000 years ago: it was discovered in comparatively recent times. The painting is by Keith Payne, and is an interpretation of this same rock outcrop. We have no evidence that the carvings were ever coloured – or pigmented.

Today we are very familiar with the use of stone as a building material: this practice is likely to have been current since very early times. In Ireland we have many examples of ancient – but undateable – stone buildings. The ‘Oratory’ at Gallurus is a good example of a built enclosure (walls and roof) made entirely from stone. A present day view of it, top, shows this remarkably preserved structure; archaeologists and historians have long debated its age and likely use. The print above dates from 1756.

Over the centuries, crafstpeople (like Séamus Murphy – see last week’s post) have used stone as a medium for memorials – the message is likely to survive beyond lifetimes. If only we knew what some of the messages should spell out to us! Our last – striking – image is from Fourknocks – a decorated chambered cairn within the Boyne Valley complex which we visited in 2016. This carved decoration was probably made 5,000 years ago: we can only wonder at its meaning and its authors . . .

Caherlehillan

The Iveragh is the largest of the Atlantic peninsulas of Ireland: it is, perhaps, also the most romantically named. In Irish it is Uíbh Ráthach – ‘descendants of Ráthach‘. But we don’t know who Ráthach might have been: a Gaelic chieftain, a notable family – ancient inhabitants lost even to legend? Certainly this terrain is amongst the wildest and most beautiful in this green island. Today we are focussing on just one Kerry townland which encompasses a deep vein of history stretching back to prehistoric times.

The townland of Caherlehillan is defined by mountains. To the north is Knocknadobar (header and above), to the east Mullaghnarakill, and to the south Caunoge. The Fertha River flows down from Coomacarrea and creates a long, fertile valley floor which opens to Valencia Harbour at Cahersiveen.

It would be reasonable to assume that the river valley would have supported communities in ancient times, and the recorded archaeology of the area confirms this. The earliest antiquities include a Bronze Age stone row and – possibly Neolithic – Rock Art, explored and recorded by Finola fifty years ago: an eager student travelling alone through the wildernesses on a borrowed Honda 50!

Upper picture – stone row in Caherlehillan townland; lower – Finola’s drawing of Rock Art made in 1973 for her UCC thesis. Note the cruciform motif at the southern end of this large sandstone boulder: it is probable that this carving dates from a later period, and may have indicated its use as a Mass Rock in penal times. However, the ‘Patriarchal Cross’ format is unusual in this context, and warrants further study. Since Finola travelled those boreens, many more examples of Rock Art have been revealed in the area and are now identified on the Sites and Monuments records. On our visit to Caherlehillan we searched the hillsides in vain for some of these more recently discovered panels (below).

This further representation of Rock Art (above), also recorded by Finola, lies on the borders of the townlands of Caherlehillan and Gortnagulla: the motifs are quite unusual.

The central feature of Caherlehillan is the Caher (above), which gives the townland its name. The suffix ‘lehillan’ is probably from the Irish Leith-Uilleann, meaning half-angle, or elbow. There is a sharp bend in the Fertha River below the settlement, and it is most likely that this natural feature gave rise to the nomenclature. A Caher (Irish Cathair) is a stone fort, and is distinguished from a typical earthen rath, or ring-fort, by its size and construction. Forts, whether stone or earthen, were the dwelling places and shelters of people who lived in the first millennium in Ireland. Generally, stone-built forts were larger than earthen examples and are likely to have been inhabited by higher status families or communities. They would have been impressive structures and good views over the surrounding landscape was a requisite. Interestingly, the word Cathair is also given the meaning ‘city’ – ‘monastic city and settlement’ – and ‘Paradise’ (Teannglann). All of these could be relevant, as close to this Caher is an early ecclesiastical settlement.

This picture shows the spectacular setting of the Caher; the previous views show the extent of the enclosing stonework. Today it is a desolate place: many of the walls have been partially dismantled for use elsewhere, and the only close habitation is a single farm dwelling just below the fort. In this remote yet beautiful site it is hard to imagine the activity that was focussed here a thousand years ago.

Just to the west of the lone farmhouse is a small enclosure, bounded by stone walls. It would be easy to overlook this, but for one feature which stands out (above). It catches the eye because it is so unusual: a square box structure with stone sides and corner posts, and two upright engraved cross-slabs facing down the valley. Quartz rocks form a raised bed within the square. Around this ‘box’ are a number of low, unshaped stones set in the ground. This was long thought to have been just a children’s burial ground – a Ciilín or Ceallúnach, but we now know that this was a later use. Between 1994 and 2004 the site was substantially investigated and excavated by students from University College Cork’s Department of Archaeology under the direction of John Sheehan, with remarkable results.

. . . Recent excavations at the early medieval ecclesiastical site at Caherlehillan, Co Kerry, have resulted in the discovery of important information on its initial development and structure. The ritual core of the site, consisting of a church, cemetery and shrine (which probably originated as a ‘special’ or founder’s grave), dates to what is probably the formative phase of Christianity in the south-west of Ireland. The picture emerges of a site that was conceived and built as a coherent entity in accordance with a clear conceptual template . . .

John Sheehan, A Peacock’s Tail: Excavations at Caherlehillan, Ivereagh, 2009

These two illustrations are from the Sheehan / UCC Excavation summary. The photograph is a good representation of the two upright cross-slabs, while the illustration shows two fragments which were found during excavation. Both show the same motif displayed on the smaller slab, yet each representation is to a different scale. This motif therefore occurs three times at this site.

This is the plan that was made at the commencement of excavation, showing the ecclesiastical site at Caherlehillan. The south-eastern boundary is a built-up stone retaining wall (shown on the photograph below), and the indicated embankment above the later roadway implies that this site was originally circular in form (courtesy John Sheehan). Carbon dating of excavated materials suggest a date of mid-5th to early 6th centuries for the earliest activity on the site, while activity appears to have ceased beyond the 8th century. Most importantly, the excavations revealed – to the north-east of the ‘shrine’ – the foundations of a timber church dating from the 5th century – possibly the earliest church remains ever found in Ireland.

The photograph above is from Church Island on Lough Currane, Co Kerry, a site which we visited recently. It shows the shrine of Saint Fionán Cam, who was the founder of that ecclesiastical settlement. The island foundation was set up in the sixth century, and the name of the holy man and his exploits are recorded for us to observe today. Sheehan suggests that the ‘box’ at the Caherlehillan site is also a founder’s shrine, but we have no record of who this ‘saint’ or holy man was. Four hundred years of occupation of the site have, apparently, left him without a name, either through inscription, implication or oral tradition.

The upper picture shows a detail of the carving on the smaller cross slab at Caherlehillan. Sheehan (and others) suggest that the bird representation is in fact a peacock, which features frequently in early Christian art. This is because the wonderful plumage of the bird is entirely renewed every year, through moulting, and this symbolizes the underlying Christian theme of death and resurrection. The relief carving (above) from Northern Italy is dated to the 8th century and shows two confronted peacocks, ” . . .symbols of paradise and immortality in early Christian and Byzantine art . . . “. Sheehan in fact goes further, suggesting that the symbols on the shrine stones at Caherlehillan show a direct link with early Christian influences from the Mediterranean, something that is borne out by ceramic fragments also recovered from his excavations. These are of of ‘Bii type’, a form of pottery of north-eastern Mediterranean origin that may be firmly dated to the period between the late 5th and mid-6th centuries.

So there we have it: a small, remote settlement in a wild Kerry mountainside that has given up its ancient secrets to us. Dwellers there left us enigmatic Rock Art, possibly 5,000 years ago. Their descendants populated the fertile valley, farming the land and building here a prestigious stone fort, while nearby – and contemporary with that fort – was established perhaps the very earliest Christian foundation in Ireland! Today the place is sparse and rugged but, in keeping with Ireland’s spirit, breathing with an almost remembered past.

The researches and writings of John Sheehan, lecturer in Archaeology at University College Cork have been invaluable in formulating this post.

West Cork Rocks

It certainly does! But this post is – literally – about rock: the hard, knobbly kind that is underneath us, surrounds us, and which has historically built our environment. In the picture above, taken on a clear February day during the most severe Covid lockdown, Finola is walking through beautiful West Cork. Beyond her is the great, gaunt outcrop of Mount Gabriel. Beside her is a traditional stone wall: its design unchanged over centuries. In the landscape all around her are rocks – large and small – scattered in the rough pasture.

In the distance, of course, is the coast: there are very few places in West Cork where you cannot, at least, catch a glimpse of the sea – and so many where you can immerse yourself in it, or stand on its shore and admire the infinite textures which those same rocks display. It’s mostly Old Red Sandstone: that’s the correct geological term. It was laid down in the Devonian period – a while ago now: between 400 and 300 million years, in fact. This followed an era during which our mountains were built, known as the Silurian times. Continents were shifting and separating, and what was to become Ireland was a great arid desert – deserted: there was no-one around to see it!

Old Red Sandstone: in fact it varies in colour depending on its local history. Broadly, some of the mountain rocks are purple-grey, while those closer to the sea could be greeny-red, but that is probably far too wide a generalisation. The sheer beauty is in the infinite shapes and colours. What artist needs any finer palette?

In those deserted times, an ‘Old Red Sandstone Continent’ extended over what is now northwest Europe, but it is worth noting that in ‘our’ part of it – the Munster Basin, covering today’s Kerry and Cork – we have one of the densest masses of this rock in the world: at least 6 kilometres thick. And we have to appreciate what it has given to us – high mountain spines sweeping steeply down to an indented shoreline of coves, creeks and inlets, with the myriad mottled islands that we oversee. An unparalleled, unfolded world.

After the ‘desert’ period, but much later – only about a million and a half years ago – came the Pleistocene Epoch. the word is from the Greek polys and cene – meaning ‘most recent’ – and that brings us almost up to date. That was a time of great climate events: deserts were inundated and then covered in ice sheets 3 kilometres thick, while moving glaciers tore up the rock surfaces, advancing and retreating several times. Eventually, what had been desert became arctic tundra. It is supposed that the ancestors of our present day life forms happened along during this epoch, and managed to survive. But we don’t find any traces of them until after the last ice sheet retreated in our part of the world – only about 12,000 years ago. The landscape that was left behind was inundated by rising sea levels, and the very last land bridge (between Cornwall and the eastern tip of Wexford) was washed away after that, but not before the Giant Elk and its mammal relations had got a foothold on the western side. The snakes, however, didn’t make it. And what of the humans?

Well, the humans embraced the rocky landscape. They made their marks on the outcrops; then they moved the rocks about, and made architecture from them. We can still see their efforts, some 5,000 years later.

These Neolithic carved motifs could be the earliest human interventions on the natural Irish landscape: they might date from 3,000 BC. These examples are from West Cork, and were only discovered a few years ago. Finola wrote the definitive thesis on Rock Art when she studied at UCC in the 1970s, and we have staged exhibitions and given talks on the topic.

A couple of thousand years later, Irish people started to build things with the stones they found around them. This wedge tomb under the backdrop textures of Mount Gabriel at Ratooragh has rested here since the Bronze Age. Finola’s post today uncovers the fascinating folklore stories that generations have told about such artefacts. But restlessly working the fabric of the landscape – Old Red Sandstone – into walls, shelters, tower houses, temples and towns has never ceased.

The Broken Stone – Update

This post was originally written in 2017. I have provided an update at the end.

All the names in this story have been changed. However, it is a true account of how we came to lose one of our ancient monuments – at once a family and a national tragedy.

This is my drawing. It shows an excellent example of Irish rock art, a classic cup-and-ring design, deeply carved – a thing of beauty, antiquity and intrigue. I know it now as The Broken Stone.

The drawing was done in 1972, while I was recording all the known examples of rock art in Cork and Kerry, travelling on a Honda 50 with with my equipment in a backpack. The sun shone every day that summer. Everywhere I went I was received with kindness and friendship, nowhere more so than at the big farm house owned by Tim and Clair Flynn. The stone was in their garden, having been found in a bog a short distance away and brought to the house in Tim’s grandfather’s time.

Tim ran the farm, and Clair looked after everything else, including three small children. They were lovely people – they took me in, fed me, took a great interest in the research. I felt I had made friends. On a second visit I observed Clair giving two of the children antibiotics and asked why. She explained that two of the three, Niamh and Shane, although not the youngest, Ciara, had a genetic disorder called Cystic Fibrosis. I had never heard of it, and Clair explained that both parents had to carry the gene, that it primarily affected the lungs, and that it was eventually life-limiting. In fact, at that time, life expectancy for those with the disease was about 20.

Through 40 years, mostly spent in Canada and in arenas far removed from Irish archaeology, I never forgot the Flynns or their wonderful stone. It was a happy memory, coloured by the sadness of the inevitability of the progression of the children’s’ disease.

When Robert and I re-engaged with rock art again in the last few years, I knew that sooner or later we would work our way from Cork to Kerry and I would have an opportunity to go again to Flynn’s farmhouse. In anticipation of this, I went to the National Monuments record, to remind myself of the details. To my surprise, I found a record that stated: There are no visible remains of any cup-marked stone here. It was set between two rocks in a prominent position in the garden but was subsequently broken. Its present location is not known. This made no sense to me: a stone like that, which could not be mistaken for anything except an ancient and significant artefact, could not just disappear. Perhaps it was simply not located by the surveyors. Perhaps it had been moved for some logical reason – it was less than a metre long and it was moveable. If it had been ‘broken’ that would make it more moveable yet.

Then, recently, I met Alison McQueen, tasked with updating the rock art records, and asked her about the stone. Since it had disappeared, it was not on her list to visit, but it turned out that she herself had visited the Flynns years before, although her interest was not in the rock art, but in the trough that was also located on the yard. It was a medieval basin that had been brought, over a hundred years before, from Mount Brandon to be presented to Tim’s Great-Grandfather in recognition for his political work and his support for causes such as Catholic Emancipation and land reform. Alison was able to tell me that the Flynns, ageing, and with Tim no longer able to farm, had sold the house and moved a short distance away, taking the trough with them. Of course! They must have taken the stone too, I realised, and that’s where I would find it.

And so, on a recent trip to Kerry, we travelled to the farm. There was nobody home (and a quick snoop around the garden confirmed there was no stone) so we knocked on a neighbour’s door and were kindly directed to the new house, where we were told, Tim and Clair’s daughter-in-law lived, who would be able to help us.

This is how we met Ciara, the surviving member of the Flynn family, and came to hear the story of the stone. Ciara just happened to be there, that day, spending time with her brother’s children. Her brother, Shane, despite all the health challenges he faced, had defied all predictions and only passed away last year. He was, by her accounts, an adventurous and determined man who lived every moment to the fullest and fought the good fight as long as he could, including undergoing a double-lung transplant. He worked and travelled and married – his two children were bright and curious and charming. His widow was not there when we called.

It has taken Ciara a long time to come to terms with the story of the stone – many many years – but she finally felt ready to tell it. She loved it as a child. She and her brother and sister didn’t know how old it was exactly, or anything about rock art, but they made it the centre of many imaginative games, as children the world over do with special features in their surroundings.

As an adult Ciara moved away in the course of her work. During this time, her sister, Niamh, became a staunch member of a Christian Fellowship church. Gradually, Niamh became convinced that the stone represented something evil. It worked on her mind until she was certain that blood sacrifices had been performed there in pagan rituals, and that it continued to exert some kind of malign influence, and in this she was supported by her church. She determined that it must be destroyed. Her parents were aghast, and refused to countenance this plan. However, by this time, Tim was ill and unable to participate in any real decision-making. Niamh launched a campaign to convince her mother. It was relentless and highly charged and Clair, in desperation, finally gave in.

A neighbour with a large digger agreed to destroy the stone. When I asked Ciara if anything was left, she said, she had never been able to find any remains and had been told by her family that it had been ‘reduced to dust.’

When Ciara returned from a term in Belfast shortly thereafter to discover what had happened, she was heartbroken: so distraught, in fact, that it caused a rift with her family for a time. Over the next few years, however, loss piled upon loss, as she lost her parents, her sister, and finally her brother. (In a typically Irish twist to the story, the neighbour who had crushed the stone was himself killed in an accident.)

In the face of grief the issue of the stone receded to the background but was never forgotten. Ciara has brooded over it in the intervening years and when we knocked on the door that morning, she decided she was finally ready to let go of the secret of what had really happened to the stone. I applaud her grace and courage, and I have immense sympathy for the Flynn family and the difficult path they have travelled.

As far as I know, this drawing is the only record we have of The Broken Stone. One of the questions we face as we study rock art is – Is it safe? The answer is complicated: while most of it has enjoyed a measure of protection due to its remote location and relative anonymity, there are many real threats that can negatively impact on rock art in the field, from weather to overgrowth, land clearance, forestry and outright vandalism. But I could never have written a script like this, or predicted that a fundamentalist form of Christian belief would be responsible for the destruction of a beautiful and iconic piece of rock art.

UPDATE

As regular readers know we bought our house in West Cork in 2012. However, I continued to have a base in Canada and had not fully moved over all my possessions until several years later, after I had written this piece. Among the boxes were a lot of slides (remember those?) dating mostly from my life in Canada. They sat, waiting for me to go through them, in a corner of the study until recently, when I could put the task off no longer (and yes, all you organised people, I can hear you silently judging me).  One of the boxes contained old black and white slides from the early 70 and my heart beat a little more quickly as I realised that it might contain a photograph of the Broken Stone – and it did! I have had the old slide digitised and here it is. The stone may be gone, but at least we have the drawing – and now the photograph.

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