Mizen Mountains 2 – Lisheennacreagh

In this series I’m visiting and recording all the ‘mountains’ on the Mizen Peninsula in West Cork. I’m defining a mountain as any summit over 200m above sea level. If I hear you crying out ‘shame!’ – as a mere 200m peak can’t possibly be a mountain – then I can say our country is defined by its undulations, and here in the far west of Ireland all our outcrops, however modest, are dramatic and offer striking views over the landscape, such as the one above which looks north-west across Dunmanus Bay towards the Sheep’s Head, seen from this week’s climb.

Upper – approaching the ridges from the Schull direction, the three peaks of Corrin (left), Lisheennacreagh (centre) and Derrylahard (right) are set out before us. Lower – a closer view: Lisheennacreagh is on the left: its summit is hidden behind the forestry plantation

Last week we explored at the western end of the peninsula, where Knockatassonig – at a height of 204m – only just crept into our ‘mountain’ category. This week – much further to the east – we are more secure, as my chosen destination comes in at 274.6m. It’s actually higher than it looks as neighbouring Mount Corrin (no doubt about that one!) peaks at 288m, and appears much more of a climb from below. Today’s summit is not named on any map, so I’m probably courting controversy by calling it Lisheennacreagh, after the townland in which, by my calculations, the highest point is located. Have a look at the aerial view below:

The pink shading shows the outline of part of the large townland of Coolcoulaghta, the southern boundary of which takes a sinuous course to include the summit of Mount Corrin. Over in the east, however, our high point is exactly on the boundary between the townlands of Coolcoulaghta and Lisheennacreagh – a boundary which is physically defined at that point by a substantial fence, whose course – part of the Sheep’s Head Way Mt Corrin Loop route – we followed all the way up to this summit from the defined car parking area on the Rathuane to Durrus road. After much on-site pondering, I decided to give the summit to Lisheennacreagh, as Coolcoulaghta townland already claims Corrin!

Upper – Finola is heading out for the high ground: the summit is in the far distance, beside the forestry plantation. Lower – looking back from the ascent, high Mizen summits are set out: Corrin is in front of us and Mount Gabriel is in the distance to the left

According to the place name records surveyed in 1841, Lisheennacreagh (Irish Lisín ne Cré) means Little fort of the preys or plunders – I was hoping I might find some traces of ancient earthworks on this summit, but there is nothing visible: buried deep in the inaccessible forest is a scheduled monument, described as a hachured univallate enclosure with a diameter of 22m. In fact it’s not possible to complete this loop walk at all, as the way to the next high point – Derrylahard, 301.7m – passes through heavy forestry, but access has been blocked by storm damage earlier in the year.

Above – autumnal shades of rough grazing continues all the way over the summit: you can go only as far as the next section of forest. Our companions on the walk were just a few ponies

It may seem a fairly featureless walk, but it was well worth the efforts for the superb views in all directions. We were lucky with the day: the mild weather this year has continued right through September and well into October. The mixture of blue skies and scudding clouds emphasises the contours, shadows and natural features, wherever you look.

Rewarding views from the Lisheennacreagh climb: upper – looking across Roaringwater Bay to Baltimore; lower – Cape Clear in the far distance, with another view of Gabriel, the most dominant feature of our Mizen landscape

I found some entries from the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection, for Durrus School. I could not find anything specific to Lisheennacreagh, but I liked this introduction to ‘My Native Townland’ from Brenda MacCarthy dated May 9th 1938:

I live in the townland of Coolcolaughter away out in the country, far from any stuffy unpleasant town or city, and almost two miles from the village of Durrus. My home is at the foot of the mountain in a quiet peaceful valley where my father tills, and sows, and reaps, from dawn to dark year in year out, happy and prosperous, and thankful to God for health and existence . . .

One aspect of Lisheennacreagh is that it is one of the more accessible peaks. There’s a place to park your car (with a fine view looking out to Durrus!), good signage and waymarks. Once the path is repaired beyond this summit, you can go on to Derrylahard (which will be the subject of a future post) and complete the loop by going round Glanlough to Durrus, then back over Corrin – a marathon 17km in all. Choose a good day and you couldn’t hope for a more inspiring hike.

Good accounts of this route and the whole Sheep’s Head system of trails can be found in Amanda and Peter’s book Walking the Sheep’s Head Way – Wildways Press, 2015. Also, have a look at this website.

Watsons of Youghal – Revivalist Masters Part 1

The stained glass firm of J Watson & Co of Youghal not only represented a new type of Irish-based business when it started to operate in the 1880s but developed a uniquely Irish style of stained glass (see above). I introduced this topic in my post Symbols and Stories: Looking at Stained Glass, but I want to develop it properly in this post and provide further illustrations in the next. Watsons was first opened by Michael Buckley, who had Irish connections, as a branch of Cox, Sons, Buckley and Co of London but was eventually bought out by James Watson, a Yorkshire stained glass artisan who had come to work there a decade earlier. Members of the Watson family continued to make windows right up to 2012.

This St Finbarr window in Gougane Barra has been attributed to Michael Buckley. Note the Revivalist elements

Based in Youghal, the firm supplied stained glass all over Ireland, but especially in Munster. They competed with other new firms which had set up church supply and decorating businesses, mostly in Dublin. These included Joshua Clarke (father of Harry), James Pearse (father of Patrick and Willy) and the Earley Brothers, Thomas and John. All of them had learned the trade in Britain and some started as agents for such companies as Mayer of Munich and London or Hardman of Birmingham, but eventually employed their own artists and glaziers.

This is one of many Light of the World windows that Watsons produced, in St Brendan’s of Bantry Church of Ireland. Note the conventional Gothic canopies . This was a universal favourite, especially in Protestant churches and all the stained glass manufacturers had a version

This was a boom period for Irish church building and stained glass windows were, of course, one of the expressions of faith that could enliven and decorate the interiors. They also offered an opportunity for both clerical and lay people to contribute to the church and to commemorate deceased family members (and occasionally to commission an ego-stroking window for themselves).

Catherine O’Brien of An Túr Gloine painted this window for Kilcoe Church of the Most Holy Rosary in West Cork. Note the introduction of some interlacing as a minor element in the design. Patrick and Brigid, as the male and female patron saints of Ireland were always in demand for church windows

The choice of iconography for the window was dictated either by didactic imperatives (e.g. the Holy Family as a model to be emulated by the faithful) or by devotion to a particular saint, international, Biblical or local, or by church politics (e.g. Papal authority).  This was also the period when the Celtic Revival was in full swing and artists of all kinds were busy crowding graveyards with Celtic crosses, stitching Book of Kells symbols onto vestments, and painting illuminated addresses with complicated knotwork. Buying from Irish firms, once they were able to supply the orders, quickly became preferred.

Harry Clarke did not incorporate much interlacing into his windows, but this one, of St Fachtna, in Castletownshend Church of Ireland, shows that he knew well how to do it

Nowadays the term Celtic is suspect: we no longer believe that the evidence exists for an Iron-Age invasion of a tall blonde race from the continent. However, the term Celtic Revival, as shorthand for the domination of a certain decorative style (as well as the re-discovery of a great literary tradition and the craze for antiquarianism) at the end of the nineteenth century and into the Irish Arts and Crafts period, is so well understood that I use the term, and ‘Revivalist’,  here in that spirit.

Contrast the canopies in this window, with its intricate interlacing, with the conventional Gothic canopies of the Light of the World window above. Watson’s executed this one for Charleville Catholic Church

In her in-depth analysis of the Watson Archives, art historian Vera Ryan has demonstrated that orders for stained glass often stipulated that instead of the gothic canopies favoured by the English and German manufactures, windows should contain Celtic (or even ‘Keltic’) artwork. While other firms included some minor elements of interlacing in a design (see the Brigid and Fachtna windows above), no Irish stained glass firm delivered on this request better than Watsons of Youghal – it became one of their hallmarks and a real selling point for Irish clergy of both Catholic and Church of Ireland persuasions.

Models artists could learn from: Upper – a detail from St Manchan’s shrine, a replica of which was housed in the National Museum. Lower – The Christ Enthroned Page from the Book of Kells

This was the most popular style of art at the time for all kinds of objects and it’s not hard to understand why. First of all, the interlacing itself is delightful, quirky and complex and full of tiny surprises. Secondly, the Revivalist motifs were taken from a rich treasury of sacred and secular Medieval objects that formed the nucleus of the displays in the National Museum, which opened its doors in 1877. The Tara Brooch (below), for example, created a sensation when it was found it 1850 and instantly became a viral sensation, with thousands of copies being made.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, here was now a truly indigenous art of which we could be justly proud. In an era of evolving nationalism, images conjuring up a glorious Christian past, replete with our own saints, literature and high art, was a reminder of what we had once been and what we had lost as a nation.

The Shrine of St Patrick’s Bell – not only a beautiful object but a potent symbol of what was seen as a Golden Age in Ireland of learning and piety

While their figurative designs remained conventional – think bearded men in long robes or saintly women in nuns’ habits, all in the style of renaissance paintings – the artists at Watsons had fun developing increasingly elaborate frames and canopies to surround their figures. Added to this was a mastery of Irish lettering styles, deployed to great effect whether the text was in Irish, English or Latin.

The use of interlacing and an Irish lettering style. Two continuous ribbons link the upper and lower surrounds, with the corner interlacing twisting around them. The Irish script was still being taught to us in school in the 1950s and 60s 

The net result was the development, in the hands of the expert and talented designers and painters at the Watson studio, of a hybrid style of stained glass window unique to Ireland – the overlayering of conventional objects of worship with the originally pre-Christian and later Early Christian/Early Medieval decorative style that came to be labelled ‘Celtic Revival’ at the end of the nineteenth century.

St Carthage, from his eponymous Catholic church in Lismore, Co Waterford. Details include the Book of Lismore, the Lismore Crozier (on display at the National Museum) and a whole galaxy of interlace motifs for the clothing and decorative surround

Next week – examples of Watsons’ use of Revivalist motifs and where to go to see them, as well as some original cartoons, now housed in the Crawford Gallery in Cork. I leave you with a detail from one of the windows employing interlace and lettering – but can you spot the signature?

**Much gratitude to Vera Ryan who has generously shared her Watson expertise with me, and to the Crawford Art Gallery for allowing access to the Watson Archive. I recommend Vera Ryan’s article Divine Light: A Century of Stained Glass in the Summer 2015 edition of the Irish Arts Review for those who would like to learn more about Watsons of Youghal.

Barley Cove: A Special Area of Conservation

Did you know that Barley Cove to Ballyrisode is a European Special Area of Conservation (SAC)? SACs are areas designated as particularly interesting or sensitive on account of their flora or fauna. There’s a complex assessment process carried out that looks at the species present in the area, how important or endangered they are, or how representative of a particular habitat. It’s all done by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the report on the Barley Cove area is online.

Barley Cove not only has an established dune system, but also a tidal wetland behind it. Because of the mild climate here, it has both Atlantic and Mediterranean Salt Meadows – that is, communities of plants that thrive in a salty environment on the edge of tidal shores. Some of those plants are quite rare and others are valued because they are diagnostic of a particular environment.

But it’s not isolated or unused – in fact during the summer it is one of the most popular swimming, dog-walking, picnicking, surfing and sea-gazing sites in West Cork. In the off-season, you can often have all this magnificence to yourself!

The fact that it’s so well used presents some challenges in conserving the habitat. Once, for example, there was quite an industrial level of sand removal at the Dunes, but that was stopped when it was realised how much damage it was doing. By and large, it’s encouraging that people do seem to respect the dunes – there is little evidence of litter.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges to the dunes is the enormous rabbit population. Rabbits burrow into the sand, creating extensive warrens which undermine the stability of the dunes. The evidence of the rabbits is everywhere – warren entrances and pellets – but the rabbits themselves are only glimpsed at night. Perhaps the dog walkers have encouraged them in their strictly nocturnal habits. But we do like the idea that the rabbits have a home here too.

Coastal heath surrounds Barley Cove. Characteristic of West Cork, it supports a wide variety of plant life, dominated by heathers and gorse, and lends our peninsula its background and ever-changing colours. There’s an artificial lake, Lissagriffin Lake, which is classed as a ‘brackish lagoon’ and which hosts a large expanse of rushes.

The whole thing is beautiful as well as special. Walking on the dunes is one of our favourite past-times, always with the camera in hand. The sheer variety of what grows here is a wonder, changing with the seasons. On a warm day you can just lie in one of the tiny dune amphitheatres and let your eye tune in to the multitude of flowers around you. Here’s a slideshow of some of what I have seen there.

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If you like music with your slideshows, start the audio below. It’s the Wild Rose of the Mountain and The Gentle Maiden by Eugene O’Donnell & James MacCafferty.

Next time you go to Barley Cove wander in from the beach and take a stroll through the dunes. Better still, sit for a while and see if you can see some of the flowers in the slideshow. Let us know how you did.

 

Mizen Mountains 1 – the Hill of the Foxes

The first day of October seemed ripe for starting a new project. It was also a beautiful, rich, blustery autumnal day – ideal for heading to the remotest uplands. I have always been drawn to high places: there’s something romantic about seeing the coastal landscape laid out below your eyes, especially in these western wildernesses where bare rock, gorse and heather intertwine with history: ancient farmsteads, ruined cottages and impossibly isolated forgotten quays, seemingly abandoned along our most rugged shores.

Header – Toor Island just off the mainland close to the west end of the Mizen Peninsula: the high ground beyond is the peak of Knockatassonig. Above – it’s a most remote and wild place for a pier, but Toor Quay is still accessible from a winding, overgrown footpath and 107 concrete steps: today it’s only the occasional haunt of anglers

This project – Mizen Mountains – sets out to explore all the peaks on our westernmost peninsula. Are they mountains? It all depends on the context, and your perspective. Mizen’s loftiest outcrop – Gabriel – is 400 metres above sea level. Quite modest (Kerry’s MacGillycuddy’s Reeks claim the country’s highest summit, Carrauntoohil, at 1,038 metres), yet when you do look down on the spine of our peninsula from above, it’s all rocky crags and ridges pushing upwards towards the heavens, while at the edges the mountains fall precipitously towards the sea. It’s great, dramatic country, calling out for exploration – and there’s nothing we like better than finding new ways to discover this land and all its stories.

The view to the western end of the Mizen Peninsula, seen from the slopes of Mount Gabriel. The Sheep’s Head is across to the right

50 years ago the writer, Peter Somerville Large, set out to travel the western peninsulas of Ireland on a rusty bicycle purchased for the purpose in Skibbereen. I like the introduction he gives to his book The Coast of West Cork, first published in 1972, and still in print – it serves my own project well:

. . . I set out into the country. The sun had filtered through after rain, making the tarmac steam with moisture and sending up towering clouds off the mountains into the sky. Cattle stood motionless in the boggy fields and water dripped from the leafless sycamores . . . I travelled along the coast of West Cork, through Carbery, from Clonakilty to Roaringwater Bay with its fringe of islands and castles, and north to Bantry and the Beare peninsula. Much of the land near the coast consists of bog and mountain with headlands like lines of slanting spears thrust into the Atlantic. But there are parts that are sheltered, with a tropical lushness that is partly ascribed to the benign influence of the Gulf Stream. Ruins are soon covered with thick ivy and it takes only a few trees or slips of fuchsia to make a protective wall. Some valleys and hillsides have pockets of moss-covered oak-trees which are survivors of the ancient forest that covered the country three hundred years ago . . . From Goleen the old road wound high over a ridge before dropping down to Crookhaven. Almost all the land was rocky around Knocknamadree; The quilted shadows of clouds passed along the high ground over to the sea . . .

Satellite view of the rocky landscape towards the western edge of the Mizen: Knockatasonnig is a barren peak

I have set the bar at the 200 metre contour line – anything above that is, for me, a mountain! So I will be traversing the terrain in search of all the eminences above this elevation on the Mizen, looking specifically at topography and any traceable history and folklore specific to these ‘mountains’. But I will also be talking about our journeys to these destinations: you know how fond we are of getting ‘off the beaten track’. Every new exploration is invariably a revelation! This time around, we are going west – almost as far as is possible on this peninsula – to the townland of Knockatassonig, which peaks at 204 metres.

Top – the 25″ Ordnance Survey map, locating Toor Quay and Knockatassonig. Lower – the earlier 6″ map outlining the townlands

Knockatassonig is a curiosity. It’s a townland which doesn’t seem to have any habitation – and possibly never did. The 6″ map, above, was originally surveyed in 1846 and is valuable in outlining the townland boundaries at that time. It may be that in pre-famine times there were dwellings in the area: Ireland was much more heavily populated in those days, even in places like this which seem so remote today. But sometimes the townland names are particularly useful to us because they can tell us something of the history, which would have been passed on aurally through the generations until the maps were made.

Upper – detail from the 25″ map, showing the ‘Boat Slip’ at Toor. The map was presumably surveyed before the present pier was made; the slip has been cut into the solid rock and launching boats there must have been a treacherous business. Lower – today, a steep, narrow boreen can be negotiated as far as the Stop sign! An overgrown footpath goes on down to the sea and quay. The mountains seen over the water are on the Sheep’s Head

So far we haven’t talked much about the ‘Mountain’ of Knockatassonig. This summit is very visible, but virtually inaccessible at this time of the year due to bracken and spiky fences. It can just be seen on the left in the header picture: that’s taken from the footpath which goes down to Toor Quay. Like most of the Mizen peaks, Knockatassonig commands good distant views. It should be more approachable in the winter months. Although it’s hard to get to, it can be seen from several places on the Mizen, including Dunlough. The photo below shows the peak on the horizon beyond the ruins of Three Castle Head:

Here’s a view of Knockatassonig summit seen from the south-west side, taken from the small road that goes down towards Toor.  The view below shows the complex profile of the summit seen from the north

In looking at the peaks of the Mizen I intend to explore and uncover – where possible – any extant memories of stories or local lore relating to them. As far as Knockatassonig goes, I have found nothing recorded, other than the name, which is shared with the townland. So what does it mean? Well, it’s not clear, but the logainm website suggests ‘The hill of the Englishman’, and compares this name to the entry for Corr na Seirseanach in Co Monaghan ‘The round hill of the Englishmen’ or ‘The round hill of the mercenaries or hired soldiers’. Well – that’s a surprise . . . and a bit hard to reconcile with the unpopulated landscape we see today in this part of West Cork. The Monaghan version of the name can be supported by political events dating from the early 1300s: it’s hard to relate these to any activities we are aware of on the Mizen, but Irish history is a complex thing – as are place-names. When Finola heard the name she thought it meant ‘The hill of the foxes’: a direct translation into the Irish of that would be Knock an tSionnaigh. Townland names were often written down in Anglicised form by surveyors whose ears may not have been attuned to the Irish nuances. I’m voting with Finola on this one: there’s sure to be a good few foxes in that landscape!

Here’s an earlier source of information on Irish names: the Down Survey. Undertaken between the years 1656 and1658, the Down Survey of Ireland is the first ever detailed land survey on a national scale anywhere in the world. It sought to measure all the land to be forfeited by the Catholic Irish in order to facilitate its redistribution to merchant adventurers and English soldiers. The extract above details the Parish of Kilmoe at the end of the Peninsula: note Three Castle Head depicted at the far left. The survey does not give modern townland names but we can work out where the Knockatassonig peak would be – in the section labelled Unforfeited Lands belonging to the Earle of Corke and Coghlane protestants  In which case, of course, not only the present day townland of Knockatassonig but all those around it could reasonably be termed ‘ . . . of the Englishman . . .’ Food for thought?

Below – peaks of the Mizen: many will be the subjects of future posts

The Marvel of Margaret Barry

When I was in my college years, I lived on the fringes of London. It was the 1960s and – among many other cultural stirrings – there was a burgeoning Irish traditional music scene, in and around Camden Town. The Irish community in the capital had been thriving since the 1950s, when London was being rebuilt following the Blitzes of the recent war. Although not a close follower of Irish music at that time I had taken up the squeeze-box, and, curious enough to hover at the edges of The Music, was fortunate to briefly encounter many singers and players who are now considered legends. One of these is Margaret Barry, seen above in her later years and, below, when she was first becoming established as an Irish traditional music performer.

If you ever saw (and heard) Margaret Barry, you would never forget her. Her voice is unlike anyone else’s. She was born in the City of Cork, and has the distinctive accent of that place, whether she is speaking or singing. I find it completely compelling, but I can understand that it’s not to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, whatever your own views, her story is fascinating – and at the same time a valuable social commentary on aspects of twentieth century Ireland. Margaret was born in 1917 – on New Year’s Day – and died in 1989. She made a living from music – and spanned the spectrum from obscure street performer to lauded professional much in demand on radio and television, performing in venues which included London’s Royal Albert and Festival Halls and New York’s Rockefeller Centre.

The reason I’m writing about Margaret Barry today is that she was the subject of a talk given at this year’s Drimoleague Singing Festival: “…A celebration of the human voice in the heart of West Cork…”, now an established annual event held around the feast day of Cork’s patron saint, St Finnbarr, September 25th. It’s great that Ireland’s special saints – who ‘kept alive civilisation’ during the otherwise Dark Ages in pre-medieval Europe – are still living and celebrated in traditional culture, which encompasses literature, art, music and folk tradition. Yesterday’s talk, in a crowded hall, was presented by Jason Murphy and Lisa O’Neill (pictured above mid-talk, with Lisa – Singer in Residence at this year’s Festival – giving her own extraordinary rendering of one of Margaret Barry’s songs). It’s worth watching the following YouTube video of Lisa singing a version of ‘The Galway Shawl’ to give you an idea of Margaret’s characteristic style as interpreted by Lisa, and sealing her own authority on the perpetuation of The Music:

Because Margaret Barry is a legend, it’s inevitable that the life and exploits of this lady from Cork have become imbued with folklore. This can happen very quickly in Ireland! Jason – a radio documentary maker – and Lisa – who has studied Margaret’s work – set out to shed light on the reality of her life, times and travels. The talk is work in progress – look out for a comprehensive programme coming up on RTE Radio soon. The talk in no way diminished Margaret Barry’s status and renown in the folk music world, but it did question some of the hitherto accepted accounts of her life. For example, when I first became interested in her singing over fifty years ago, I gleaned (mainly from notes on the sleeves of LPs) that she was from travelling stock, and that’s something you’ll still find quoted in practically every contemporary account of her life. According to Lisa and Jason, however, she came from musical families in Peter Street, Cork. Her mother’s father – Bob Thompson – was an accomplished uilleann pipe maker and player who was married to a Spanish Guitarist and singer. Living through hard times, Bob had to temporarily pawn his own uilleann pipes but lost them when a fire broke out in the pawnshop: he did not play again for ten years! Margaret’s parents and uncles were street singers and musicians, her father earning a precarious living playing the violin in silent-era cinemas and with dance bands. 

Another invariably quoted story is that she left home at 16 with nothing but a bicycle and a banjo tied to her back with string as she set off to busk her way through the harsh streets of Ireland. It’s an engaging picture, but probably simplifies a complex situation. Margaret’s mother died when she was only twelve years old, and soon afterwards her father married a girl not very much older than she was. It’s likely that she did decide to go off and fend for herself – and during her lifetime she did travel around Ireland, sometimes in a horse-drawn caravan, but she had also become interested in the musical traditions she experienced around her and took every opportunity to learn songs from every source, to teach herself to play the fiddle and banjo – and also to use her own talents to earn money wherever she could, and to survive. Here’s her own account of those times, recorded by American musicologist Alan Lomax in the 1950s:

Alan Lomax left a valuable collection of information on ethnic musical cultures from America, Africa and Europe, which he and a dedicated team collected over many years. Much of the collection is available online in the archive of the Association for Cultural Equity. Amongst the publications of the Association is a CD of Margaret Barry singing and talking about her life, which can currently be purchased as a download.

Margaret succeeded in her chosen life of itinerant song performer and always said that she had enjoyed it, regardless of the often hard times. She certainly achieved notoriety and featured in programmes on TG4 and RTE in her lifetime. She had a long-term relationship and musical partnership with the Sligo musician Michael Gorman, whose fiddle playing features on many of the recordings made of her. It seems appropriate to include here this 1965 recording of Margaret accompanied by Michael, singing ‘Still I Love Him’:

The talk we heard in Drimoleague on Saturday was a tour-de-force by Lisa and Jason, reviving my own interest in Margaret Barry, the ‘street singer’ from Cork (also known as ‘Queen of the Gypsies’, a title she was happy enough to embrace, whatever the true circumstances of her ancestry). To finish this post, here’s one of her songs for which she is, perhaps, best known: ‘She Moved Through the Fair’. Margaret was once asked if this tune had come to her from her traveller background: she is said to have replied that she had learned it from a recording of Count John McCormack…

The Stone Circles of West Cork: An Introduction

Southwest Munster, and West Cork in particular, is home to the greatest concentration in Ireland of stone circles. There are two main kinds recorded in the National Monuments website, each making up about half the total number of circles – the multiple-stone circle and the five-stone circle. (There are also a small number of enigmatic monuments called ‘four posters’ which share some features with stone circles, but I will write about them some other time.) 

Peter Clarke’s illustration of the Ardgroom Stone Circle on the Beara, from his online journal, Hikelines

The division based on the number of stones is somewhat arbitrary, since both share most other features. Both have uneven numbers of stones – five in the case of the five-stone circle, and seven or more (up to 19) in the multiple-stone circles.

Our old friend Du Noyer loved to illustrate antiquities. We’re  not quite sure which stone circle this one is**

Both types are axial or recumbent stone circles. The name recumbent comes from the lowest stone in the circle, the only stone set on its side, with its long axis parallel to the ground. All the other stones are set upright and they often increase in size from the recumbent to the portal stones. The portals appear to form an entrance into the circles and are sometimes set end-on to the circle. An axis drawn from the point between the portals to the middle of the recumbent bisects the circle – hence the name axial stone circle. All these features can be seen in the photograph of Drombeg Stone Circle (below).

While the multiple-stones circles appear roughly circular, they may have been laid out using more complicated geometry than the string-marking-out-a-circle technique. Some are more elliptical than truly circular. The five-stone circles, given the dominance of the recumbent, are actually D-shaped.

The five-stone circle which is part of the Kealkill complex

Many of our stone circles have disappeared over time, with only folkloric memory indicating that here was once a circle of stones. Some have lost stones over time, while in others uprights have collapsed. Whole monuments have vanished into forests or dense undergrowth. Even where we still have partial circles it can be difficult to make out which are the portals and which the recumbent.

Upper: Labbamolaga – we think this was a stone circle but so few stones remain that it’s hard to be definitive. Lower: This sad little heap of stones is all that remains of the Ahagilla Stone Circle. The recumbent is to the left and a portal to the right.

The circles are constructed from local stone and in some cases it is easy to see where they have been quarried from nearby rock outcrops. There is no evidence of the builders transporting the stones from elsewhere, with the exception, perhaps of the quartz blocks which are found occasionally either as uprights or associated with the circle inside or outside it. Although quartz is found in abundance in West Cork a large block of it may have been especially prized and reserved for such a situation.

This sizeable quartz block lies beside the Lettergorman Five-Stone Circle

The circles were carefully and deliberately constructed: Fahy’s excavations at Drombeg and Reenascreena shows that the ground was levelled.  Stones were, it seems, selected for shape as well as size. The recumbent is usually flat on top, which may indicate the side closest to the parent rock from which it was split. Some may well have been deliberately shaped by knocking or splitting off sections – we often notice, for example, how well certain uprights mirror the landscape behind them, like the one at Ardgroom, below.

Stone circles are often associated with other monuments, most commonly boulder burials and standing stones, and at least two have radial stone cairns beside them. Some of the standing stones appear to function as outliers to the circle, extending alignments towards solar or lunar orientations (more of that next time).

Upper: This boulder burial is part of a complex of monuments at Bohonagh which also includes a stone circle (visible behind the boulder burial), a cupmarked stone and a standing stone which is no longer to be found. Lower: A standing stone pair (one fallen) at Knocknakilla with (behind it) a five-stone circle (recently fallen over) and a  radial stone cairn – of all the elements of this complex only this standing stone is really visible in the landscape

West Cork stone circles, from the sparse excavation evidence, date from the middle to late Bronze Age (about 1500 to 600BC). They are commonly found on elevated ground with a clear and expansive view southwards, but stretching from the northeast to the southwest – that portion of the sky in which both the sun and the moon rise and set.

This tiny monument is a five-stone circle at Inchybegga. When the grass grows tall enough you can’t see it at all

Our stone circles have always fascinated antiquarians, happy to label them ‘druidic temples’ or make outlandish claims about their construction by visiting Egyptians. Some of the older illustration owe more to the imagination than to accurate depictions.

Templebryan Stone Circle as it actually is (lower) and as depicted by the antiquarian, Clayton, in 1742 (upper). The illustration for Clayton, done by Ann la Bush, shows the fashionable preoccupation at the time for Egyptian-type obelisks. Nevertheless it is important in that it shows that there were more stones in the circle than there are now. Note the central block of quartz

In more recent times, they have been the subject of a great deal of new-age speculation about long-distance ley lines, mystical ‘energies,’ extra-terrestrial builders, associations with pagan goddess cults and the like. As an archaeologist, I think this is a pity, in the sense that these stone circles are fascinating enough as they are – they embody so much that we need to understand about the scientific knowledge, advanced construction technology, and social organisation of the builders. The belief systems that underlie their reasons for constructing these monuments are equally important and more difficult to discern after the passage of millennia, but should be based on close and serious study of the monuments themselves.

Above is the Derreenataggart Stone Circle on the Beara, and below is a much more romantic and monumental rendering of it from Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Ireland (1790s), illustrated by Daniel Grose. My lead image is also a Daniel Grose illustration, this time of a stone circle that once stood on the slopes of Hungry Hill, but which has since disappeared*

The next post in this series will be about the multiple-stone circles.

*The two illustrations by Daniel Gross are from Daniel Grose (c.1766-1838). The Antiquities of Ireland, a supplement to Francis Grose, by Roger Stalley, Irish Architectural Archive 1991
**I now know that this is almost certainly not a West Cork example but Boleycarrigeen in Wicklow (thanks to Ken Williams for the ID)