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.

For more on the topic of Irish Rock Art, see our Navigation Page, Section C2

Imbolc – How Our Ancestors Welcomed Spring

February 1 – we celebrate it as St Brigid’s day now, and support the call for making it a national holiday. But we have celebrated it in Ireland forever as Imbolc, the calendar marker that heralds the arrival of spring.

St Brigid by Harry Clarke in St Barrahane’s Church, Castletownshend

What follows was originally a Joint Post by Finola and Robert, written way back in 2013. We have edited it to update the links and added some new photographs and are republishing it now.

Archaeologists have long been aware of the astronomical siting of some Irish megalithic sites, such as at Newgrange, and Loughcrew Passage Graves in Co Meath and Drombeg Stone Circle in West Cork.

Inside Cairn T at Loughcrew

We have become intrigued by the work of Michael Wilson, a talented amateur astronomer who is singlehandedly documenting the astronomical siting of many monuments in this area. Recently he has turned his attention to prehistoric rock art. Mike’s website contains an astonishing body of work, meticulously researched and rigorously recorded, along with explanatory notes.

Michael Wilson and his Whole Horizon Analytical Technique (WHAT)

Michael Wilson carries out his Whole Horizon Analytical Technique (WHAT)

His thesis, in a nutshell, is that the builders and carvers of Neolithic and Bronze Age times were keen observers of the day and night skies and were intimately familiar with their surroundings. They situated their megaliths and rock art in places where the contours of the horizon allowed them to mark significant solar and lunar events, such as solstices, equinoxes, lunar settings and risings, and intermediate points. Thus, the sun at the winter solstice might rise at the highest point on a nearby mountain, or set in a deep notch in the hills at the spring equinox.

At Drombeg Stone Circle people gather on the winter solstice to watch the sun set over the recumbent stone

The solar calendar has four quarter days (the solstices and the equinoxes), four cross-quarter days (the half way points between the solstices and the equinoxes) and a further finer division into points half-way between the quarters and cross-quarters: an ancient 16 month calendar.

A few days ago [in 2013], Michael posted this:

Imbolc, the spring cross-quarter, is almost upon us. It will be on Feb 1st by the Gregorian calendar, where it is commonly known as St Bridget’s Day or Candlemas, but this is not the correct day. By day-count, the times to celebrate will be sunset on the 3rd and sunrise on the 4th. Astronomically, the sun will be exactly half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox at about 16:13 GMT on Feb 3rd, while Feb 2nd is the day to see the sun rise and set at the prehistoric positions for marking this festival.

We set out for our favourite rock art site, Ballybane West, before dawn on Feb 2nd, feeling incredibly lucky to have a clear sky. As the sky brightened, and the nearby hills started to receive the sun’s rays, the carvings on the rock surface became clearly visible.

The sun is already hitting the high ground across the valley

Then, the sun rose, exactly where Michael’s predictions said it would, at the highest point of a rounded hill on the horizon. As people had been doing 4000 years ago in this exact spot, we marked the cross-quarter day of Imbolc – a time when the land starts to warm up, the first spring flowers appear, and the ewes are visibly pregnant.

The carvings light up in the dawn rays

The slanting rays of the rising sun provide perfect lighting for seeing rock art, which is often difficult to observe at other times

If Michael is correct, we have to incorporate a new possibility into our thinking about rock art. There have been indications before that the location of the carved rocks was significant. For example, there is often a view of water or of a significant mountain, some theorists have posited that they are ancient boundary markers, and some rock art sites are inter-visible with each other.

But this way of looking at rock art elevates the actual siting of the rock as most important, and allows us to view the carvings themselves as a way to indicate the purpose of the site – a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The motifs, though, will probably remain as enigmatic as ever.

 

The Finola Window

You will all know about Finola’s interest in stained glass, and in particular her admiration of the work of artist George Walsh: she wrote an article about him in the Irish Arts Review this year. So I hatched a plan, together with George, to give her a window of her very own! Here it is, just installed in our house, Nead an Iolair. Not so long ago, Finola wrote another Irish Arts Review piece about Ireland’s newest stained glass window, and there’s a Roaringwater Journal post about it here. I think it’s safe to say – as of today – we have in our house Ireland’s new ‘newest stained glass window’! It’s an artwork with a story – several stories, in fact. I’ll tell you some of them.

This is George Walsh. He apprenticed in the world of stained glass under his father – also George – who apprenticed under Harry Clarke, so he has an eminent lineage. He worked with his father in the United States and Ireland, and eventually set up his own Dublin studio, where he has been prolific. Finola is currently visiting and cataloguing every one of his publicly accessible projects which can be seen on the island of Ireland: it takes us to some far-off and fascinating places. To date her list includes 61 buildings which have George Walsh windows, and it’s certainly not complete.  While most of George’s work can be found in churches, he has also produced a secular opus and our window has now added to that. George says that he enjoyed this commission because it was very different from so much of his work, but I guess that he always enjoys his work – you can tell by the exuberance, dynamism and sumptuous colouring of his pieces.

The Finola Window tells the story of our Finola, but is also about a famous Finola (or Fionnghuala – fair-shouldered) in Irish mythology: she is the heroine of The Children of Lir, one of Ireland’s most well-known ancient wonder-tales. Fionnghuala (above, being transformed into a swan) is the eldest of the four children of King Lir – the others are Aodh and twins Fiachra and Conn. Their mother, Aobh, died when they were young and the King remarried. Unfortunately, this is where the story turns into a wicked stepmother tale, as the King’s new wife, Aoife, becomes jealous of the children, and casts a magic spell on them. I hope you are keeping up with these names! Our Finola – a stepmother herself – has always been sensitive about negative portrayals of that position, so I asked George to play down the role of Aoife and in fact he has left her out of the window altogether. I’ll just let you know, however, that she received full punishment for her malice by being turned into a Demon of the Air – and she still hangs around on dark, haunted nights. Watch out!

All four children were turned into swans by Aoife, and their fate was to spend three hundred years on Loch Dairbhreach (a lake in Co Westmeath), followed by three hundred years on Sruth na Maoilé (the stormy Straits of Moyle between Ireland and Scotland), and a further three hundred on Inis Gluairé (an Atlantic island in Erris, Co Mayo). The swans kept their human voices and they spent much of their exile singing beautiful songs which became all the traditional music of Ireland.

George has skilfully woven into this window many elements of our Finola’s life: in the details above you can see Newgrange – where Finola dug as a student; Irish rock art – which was Finola’s main area of study as an archaeologist; my hands playing my concertina (all the musical notes are descending from the swans); eagles flying over Nead an Iolair; the Scholar and his Cat Pangur Bán (the Irish medieval poem is one of Finola’s favourites); St Brendan’s voyage (Finola is  a great teller of the tales of Irish Saints) and – of course (at my specific request) a golden hare! George Walsh has always been a master of detail, something we have particularly admired in his work. We feel he has excelled himself here. These images are some of the resources given to George while he was making the window:

Image gallery for George – top: Finola’s 1973 drawing of a piece of Kerry rock art; centre – the flight of the eagles over Nead an Iolair; lower – my hands playing music from the swans through my concertina!

I was privileged to see some of the work in progress in George’s studio earlier in the year. He showed me how he uses ‘flashed glass’ where a thin layer of coloured glass is melted on to clear glass. Acid etching is used to take off the coloured surface leaving a design. You can see where the etched piece (below) is being prepared to fit in the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ of glass shapes that will be joined by leading to form the final window.

Above – George’s ‘cartoon’ design sketch together with his explanation of the subject matter: these now hang close to the completed window in our house

The culmination of the Children of Lir story comes when St Patrick’s bell is first heard on the shores of Ireland (detail below), and Fionnghuala and her brothers are released from the spell. As they regain human form their bodies are aged and they have time only to receive baptism into Christianity before they crumble to dust.

Decorative borders, details and motifs abound in George’s windows and ours is no exception. It’s a bit like the marginalia in a medieval illuminated manuscript: your eye is constantly drawn to all the minutiae. We will never tire of looking at it. The panel is mounted in a west facing window in our study: when the sun comes around to that side in the evenings the whole room becomes alive with flowing colour.

Thank you, George, for so wonderfully fulfilling my vision of a window especially for Finola. I couldn’t imagine anything more fitting and she is – of course – over the moon! Here we are in George’s studio on the day of the ‘reveal’.

Inspired by Stone

One of the many archaeological excitements in Ireland last summer was the discovery of a hitherto unknown passage grave with significant carvings beside Dowth Hall in the Bru na Boinne area of County Meath. These carvings are likely to date from around 5,500 years ago. In the picture above (courtesy of agriland.ie) from left to right are Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan; agri-technology company Devenish’s lead archaeologist Dr Cliodhna Ni Lionain; Devenish’s executive chairman Owen Brennan; and Professor Alice Stanton.

As you know, we are Rock Art addicts, so this week went along to this year’s Stone Symposium in Durrus, West Cork, to hear Cliodhna, above, give a fascinating illustrated talk on the finds at Dowth. Have a look at this post on the inaugural Stone Symposium from 2017. It’s great that the event is thriving and attracting interest and participants from far and wide.

Our attendance at the Symposium set me thinking about the whole subject of stone. It’s the most basic of creative materials, as relevant today in construction and art as it was to our Neolithic ancestors. Proleek Dolmen in County Louth (above) is an example of the early use of stone to create a structure which made a huge impact on the landscape. It’s a portal tomb over 3 metres high, and the supporting stones are around 2 metres high: the capstone is estimated to weigh 35 tons. It’s probably a more visually impressive structure today – in its ‘naked’ state – than it was when completed, as it is likely to have been covered over with a mound of earth and / or stones. There is folklore attached to this monument: it is known locally as the Giant’s Load, having been  carried to Ireland by a Scottish giant named Parrah Boug McShagean, who is said to be buried in the tomb or nearby.

Here’s another portal tomb – the largest in Europe – which I discussed in this post from last year. It’s known as Brownshill Dolmen, and is in County Carlow. Finola is in the picture to give the scale. This capstone is said to weigh 103 tons. The portal tombs demonstrate the use of stone in its rawest and most spectacular state: they are examples of Ireland’s earliest architecture, and we don’t really know what they were for. Perhaps it’s to do with status, either of the builders or of the chiefs or priests who might have been buried in them. They certainly make mighty marks on the landscape…

…As do all the other stone monuments which celebrate their makers – although perhaps they remain enigmatic to us today. Bronze Age stone circles have always fascinated, and at least we know that they have orientations which must have been significant. Drombeg in West Cork (above) is much visited at the winter solstice, when the path of the setting sun falls over the recumbent stone when observed through the two portal stones at the east side of the circle.

While the earliest dwellings of the inhabitants of Ireland thousands of years ago were probably constructed from organic materials  – earth, sticks and furze – stone began to play a part in architectural construction in Christian times. The remarkable Gallarus Oratory (above) on the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, was long thought to have dated from around the 8th century, although an early commentator – antiquarian George Petrie, writing in 1845 – suggested:

I am strongly inclined to believe that it may be even more ancient than the period assigned for the conversion of the Irish generally by their great apostle Patrick . . .

It’s a fascinating discussion to follow – Peter Harbison sets it out in detail here, and concludes that the Oratory could have been built as late as the 12th century, even after the great Romanesque flowering which included the building of monastic settlements and round towers.

The 12th century cathedral and (possibly earlier) round tower at Ardmore, County Waterford (above), should be a Mecca for stone enthusiasts because of its monumental architecture and carvings: St Declan founded the site in the 5th century, and his monastic cell survives. The Romanesque period in Ireland has many other examples of stone craftsmanship to show, proving that working with stone had become a high art in those medieval times. The examples below are from Killaloe Cathedral in County Clare.

One of the finest Romanesque sites is the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary. Finola has written in detail on this architectural gem here and here. Suffice it for me to illustrate only one of its treasures – Cormac’s tomb, a sarcophagus beautifully carved in the ‘Urnes’ style – a Scandinavian tradition of intertwined animals.

For centuries, stone has also been a ubiquitous utilitarian building material all over Ireland. ‘Castles’ or – more properly ‘Tower Houses’ – date from roughly 1400 to around 1650, and many remain in a ruined condition, particularly on the coastline of West Cork: we can see five of them from Nead an Iolair. Some have been restored in modern times, including Jeremy Irons’ Kilcoe Castle. The example below is from Conna, East Cork.

Ireland’s landscape is sculpted from stone. Drystone walling is an ancient tradition still practiced for dividing up land, and varies considerably in style regionally, reflecting the differing geology across the island. Two examples from the Beara Peninsula (below) show the essential geometry of field patterns which stone wall building has created over the centuries.

Stone has also long been a medium for communication. We have commemorated our ancestors for centuries with grave markers, often with elegantly carved lettering. Of the two examples below, the first is from Clonmacnoise, and is likely to be early medieval, while the second is an inscription from 1791.

This is just a brief history of our use of stone, dating over thousands of years: I have chosen many examples – almost at random – but hope that I have demonstrated how important it is to continue this ancient craft. The West Cork Stone Symposium is doing sterling work in promoting it today: long may this continue!