Rock Art: Returning to Derrynablaha

Three years ago Finola and I both wrote posts about a remote valley in the Kerry hills, north of Sneem, where some iconic examples of Irish Rock Art can be found: Derrynablaha Expedition by Finola, and my own Glen of Ghosts. I think it’s time to revisit this hauntingly beautiful place, and its ancient carved stones which could date back 5,000 years, to Neolithic times.

All the examples of Rock Art illustrated in this post can be found in the townlands of Derrynablaha and Derreeny, Co Kerry

When Finola visited the valley in 1972 and 1973 she explored and recorded 23 marked stones, all within the townland of Derrynablaha: these were illustrated in her UCC thesis The Rock Art of Cork and Kerry. Between 1986 and 1996 The Iveragh Peninsula Archaeological Survey undertook further detailed research, resulting in a comprehensive volume published by Cork University Press: this contains a 30 page section on Rock Art and includes many of Finola’s drawings. The book lists 26 known examples, now, in Derrynablaha with a further 7 stones in the adjacent townland of Derreeny.

Cork University Press volume (left) which includes many of Finola’s drawings (sample page,right)

My introduction to prehistoric Irish Rock Art came in the early 1990s when I first visited West Cork to look at a piece of land which my friends Danny and Gill had purchased, with a view to building themselves a house: I was to be the designer. We walked the 5 acre site at Ballybane West and discovered a large, flat outcrop of rock some 30 metres long by 10 metres wide, the surface of which was covered with strange carved motifs. These intrigued and occupied me for many years. Eventually I made contact with the Department of Archaeology at University College Cork and unearthed Finola’s thesis. Finola had visited ‘Danny’s Rock’ during her explorations: she and I have just completed a comprehensive article on Rock Art in the environs of Ballybane West for a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Bantry Historical Society, due to be launched on 10 May.

Because of the number of pieces of Rock Art at Derrynablaha, as recorded by Finola, I set out to visit the site and was fortunate, I think, to locate several of the pieces there: they are hard to find. My most significant impression of the place was its isolation and loneliness: when Finola was there decades before, the O’Sullivan house was occupied – a family home and working farm – now it was a ruin returning to nature. No one lives in that valley today: it is home to sheep and eagles.

The most iconic piece of Rock Art in Derrynablaha is high up on the slopes of a mountain: there is no path, and the trek is across bogs, boulders and streams. Also remember that all the land is private – farmed now by another O’Sullivan from a neighbouring valley – and permission has to be sought in advance of any attempt to visit. Strict rules apply, understandably, to the use of gates and fences and no dogs will be permitted. The iconic piece is probably Ireland’s most important. When you stand up there, on a good day, you can see to distant horizons and take in outstanding views: time for reflection, perhaps, on what inspired our forebears to create such panels in these places – was it where they lived? Or did they assemble there for celebrations? The mountainside seems to present a natural platform here, with the carved rocks a central focal point. The work involved in carving these motifs would have been significant and time-consuming – they had only stone tools.

When we give talks about Rock Art we ask a question: Is it art? Some of it is certainly pleasing to the eye – the iconic Derrynablaha carvings are. But they also appear random, as though new carvings have been squeezed in amongst older ones: maybe the proliferation of motifs – or the number of carvers involved – was more important than any particular visual effect or relationship. We don’t ever try to answer that question, nor guess meanings for things we can never know. It’s enough – for me, at least – to experience these ‘footprints’ of former souls in such wild places.

We go far out of our way to look for Rock Art. It would take more than a lifetime to see every piece in Ireland. Some would argue that such a pursuit would be pointless – seen one, seen them all. It is true that the motifs are similar, although variable, across Rock Art panels, not only in Ireland, but in Britain and on continental Europe. That in itself is remarkable: 5,000 years ago humankind was making identical marks on rock surfaces all over its world. For me, however, it’s not really the motifs – spectacular though many of them are. It’s the places that they mark which are meaningful. Rock Art took me to the mountainside in that lonely Kerry glen and showed me a most incredible view across townlands and counties: I see it as inspiration, relevant as much in the 21st century of this struggling world as it was, perhaps, thousands of years ago, when the same world was a little bit newer.

The Headstones of Ferns

Ferns, in Co Wexford, is an historic town that boasts many fine heritage attractions including an Anglo-Norman Castle, an Augustinian Abbey and other medieval ruins, high crosses and associations with the McMurroughs and the Marshalls. Not least among its delights is the Cathedral graveyard, which has one of the best collections of eighteenth century headstones I have ever seen.

Look at the headstone above and the one below. The elements used in the carving are identical except that the central image in the first is a crucifixion scene and in the second it’s an IHS in a sunburst. Note the J Byrne signature under the carving to the left above and the Pat Byrne signature below. How were J and Pat related? Does the difference demonstrate anything other than the preference of the person who commissioned the headstone? I’m tempted to see the gradual replacement of the crucifixion image with slightly less ‘popish’ symbols, but I’m probably overthinking this

In our post Memento Mori, I introduced you to Irish headstones and the practice, which really only dates back to the 18th century, of routinely placing headstones on graves. Even then, only those who had the means to pay for a carved headstone were memorialised in this way – most still lay in graves with simple field stones at their head (and sometimes feet).

In Headstones or Folk Carvings? we visited Kilcoole graveyard to Co Wicklow, home to many fine headstones including one by Dennis Cullen, an acknowledged master carver. In Ferns we found many of the headstones had been carved by J Byrne (or J: Byrne, as he styled it) and although his technique does not quite have the refinement of Dennis Cullen, his carvings have a charm and energy that make them recognisable even where the headstone is not signed.

See the ‘J: Byrne’ signature just below the carvings to the right. There is no date on this headstone for William Lea (or Leacey? See the tiny superscript above the ‘Lea’). The detail on the angels is very fine and I love the little arrow in the centre of the sunburst, just below the IHS

The most common image is, of course, the IHS. Known as a Christogram, IHS is shorthand for the name of Jesus. It is often surrounded by a sunburst, or surmounted by a cross. Interestingly, the earlier and later headstones are more likely to feature the IHS as their main element.

Two early headstone, from 1758 and 1773, starting with Here Lieth. Mogue is a local name, for Saint Mogue of Ferns, whose well lies across the road. Note that the final Y of Mercy doesn’t quite fit on the line so a superscript is used

Many of the most interesting headstones date from the 1790s and where they have a signature it is that of J Byrne. There must have been a vogue for crucifixion scenes at the time, because they appear here and there throughout the graveyard and date to this period.

The J: Byrne signature is almost obscured by lichen. This is a typical J Byrne carving, with a crucifixion scene: Jesus on the cross, Mary and possibly John on either side, all three with halos. Sun and moon round out the carving

Jesus is on the cross at the centre of the tableau, with Mary on one side and John on the other. Occasionally other figures appear – Roman soldiers, a man on horseback, angels.

The dress, as is common with carvings of this period, reflects eighteenth century styles – observe the soldier in the frock coat in the Moses Breen scene (above) and the angel in the seamed jacket on John Kehoe’s stone (below).

There are a couple of headstone with horses in the crucifixion scene, but it’s unusual

The most frequent other symbols are the sun and moon, often with faces. The sun/moon symbols can be the main elements or can be wedged into available spaces on either side of crucifixion scenes.

The lettering styles vary, although generally they become tidier over time. Occasionally, the lines incised to keep the carver straight can be discerned. Words that don’t fit are either carried over, or a tiny superscript finishes them so they can stay on the same line.

The lightly incised ‘stay between the lines’ can be seen in Mogue Doyle’s headstone from 1775

This 1792 headstone is for Catherine Murphy. But it is also for her husband. However, none of the husband’s details appear. I can understand that he would have been added to the headstone at the time of her death, for efficiency perhaps, with his dates to be added later – but the fact that his name is missing gives rise to all kinds of speculation!

One mysterious element of several of the gravestones in Ferns is that at some point in the past someone has drilled holes in some of the headstones (see the two examples, below). If anyone can tell us the significance of this, we would be grateful to know it.

We highly recommend a visit to Ferns. Give yourself a day to take in all that’s there, but don’t forget to have a good wander around the old graveyard. Morning is best, as the light goes behind the headstones in the afternoon.

I love the primitive quality of this 1780 stone for Mary O”Danioley – Jesus on the cross with the soldier piercing his side with a spear

Rainforest Path

It’s a magical place, running up from an old graveyard by the sea, past a holy well, through a cool overhead canopy and along a tumbling stream. I’ve never met anyone else along the path, although I know the holy well is visited and the footbridge to it was repaired a couple of years ago.

Moss and Navelwort on an old tree

There’s a big house at the top, with steps leading down to the path. Some of the more exotic plants are clearly imports, but mostly it seems that wildness has simply been encouraged, or not interfered with.

A mixture of native and imported ferns along the stream

I went there twice this week. The first time was with my daughter-in-law, visiting from Canada, and we thought we spotted an unusual flower.  After a night of heavy rain I went there again on Friday equipped this time with my camera. Found it – and it looks as if it’s a Summer Snowflake, which is rare enough that I will report it to the National Biodiversity Date Centre. (Go on, it’s easy, you can do it too.)

The flower I was after – Summer Snowflake. Rare in Ireland but also widely cultivated – so is this a natural occurrence or part of somebody’s planting scheme?

What follows is a photo essay; my homage to a rainforest path on the brilliant morning after a rainy night. I will try to tell the story with my captions.

A friendly dog always accompanies me on this trail. The path is lined with Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage, providing a soft and bright green carpet. I also found it growing on old fallen logs

Lovely to find a large patch of Wood Anemone beside the stream

The Holy Well needs attention. The bridge has slipped and the path is too muddy to access the well. Read about this well in Amanda’s Holy Wells of Cork. The dog found her too.

This is Ivy-leaved Speedwell. The flowers are so tiny that it’s easy to miss, especially when it’s all mixed up with the Saxifrage

I was taken with this Greater Wood-rush growing along the bank

My first bluebells of the season

American Skunk-cabbage. Now classed as ‘potentially invasive’ in Ireland. I only saw one but I knew it immediately because they were so familiar to me in Canada. I’ll be reporting this too.

The path climbs upwards

The sycamore are starting to bud and leaf. The intricacy of the underneath of the leaf!

Everyone loves primroses

Lots of insects buzzing about the Dandelions – a hoverfly (top) and a bee

Take a walk in the woods and tell us what you’ve seen!

Signs and Times

Some signs make no sense – others don’t mean what they say. There are those that attract the attention because they are, simply, picturesque. Always, context – or lack of it – is important. Here is a new selection, to add to those that you may have seen already. As usual, I don’t feel that there’s any need for a commentary. If it all leaves you puzzled, just put it down to my own quirky sense of perception!

Gothic Revival – With Bells

A month ago I wrote of our first visit to Cobh, in County Cork, and told how impressed we were with the town and its architecture. I promised that Roaringwater Journal would revisit Cobh, and today I will concentrate on the splendour of the Cathedral, which dominates the skyline and looks across to the Lee Estuary. All shipping using the port, or passing up to Cork, will be aware of this spectacular building.

St Colmán’s Cathedral was conceived in the mid-Victorian era, when the Gothic revival style of architecture was in full swing. Popularity of the style was, perhaps, generated as a reaction to the society and machinery of the Industrial Revolution – all noise, smoke and progress – and harked back to a perception of medieval life when all seemed sylvan and pastoral and when everyone, from lords to artisans, knew their place: Medievalism meant a concentration on the trappings of chivalry, craftsmanship and decoration, particularly in religious buildings – although private houses for the very wealthy also explored the idiom: have a look at our post on Adare Manor.

Construction work on the Cathedral began in 1867. The designers were Edward Welby Pugin (son of Augustus Welby Pugin – probably the greatest of the British Victorian architects) and Irish-born George Coppinger Ashlin who was responsible for over 100 new churches in Ireland including those in Clonakilty and Skibbereen, here in West Cork. St Colmán’s was not completed, however, until 1915. The tower – 90 metres high – was the last element to be finished – old photographs above (emptyseas) and below left (National Archives of Ireland) show the Cathedral in use without it in the 1890s while the picture (below right – from the Michael O’Leary Private Collection) shows the tower under construction in 1914.

The Cathedral is dedicated to St Colmán of Cloyne, who founded the Diocese in the year 560. This saint is known as ‘The Poet Saint’ as he trained to be a bard for twelve years and entered the court of Aodh Caomh, High King of Munster, at Cashel. Influenced by St Brendan and St Ita, Colmán became a priest and then set up a monastery on the shores of the Lee, where Cobh now stands.  Our friend Amanda has told the story of this saint, and includes a piece from the Schools Folklore Collection, written by Padraigh Ua hAodha in the 1930s:

. . . When St Coleman was building the round tower in Cloyne a woman asked him what he was doing so high up. When he heard her speak he got such a shock he jumped from there to Kilva where the print of his feet are still to be seen on a stone. He jumped from there to Glen Iris Wood. When he landed he prayed to god to send him some water and immediately water sprang up at his feet. When he had drunk some he sprang from here to Cove  where there is a cathedral built called Saint Coleman’s. The spring that sprung up at his feet is now known as St Coleman’s Well . . .

The Cathedral contains an inscribed list of all the bishops of the Diocese, from St Colmán to the present day. This list includes Thaddeus McCarthy, bishop from 1490 to 1492 – Finola is telling his story today. The richness of the building is as evident inside as it is without. It’s an homage to fine detailing and craftsmanship and there is no corner free from it: unfortunately I could not find the names of the the artists, masons and carvers in any records. At least their skills are celebrated in their works.

Something you may not discover from a visit to St Colmán’s is the carillon which was built in to the new tower in 1916. A carillon is a giant musical instrument which, using a large mechanical keyboard and pedals, sounds a whole series of cast bells. In this cathedral there are 49 bells – making it the largest carillon in Ireland and Britain: the heaviest bell weighs 3.6 tons, and is named Colmán! Please watch this fascinating seven minute film about the carillon, and the man who plays it: his title is Carillonneur. Through the summer recitals are given and can, of course, be heard not only in the Cathedral, but over the whole town.

Visiting Cobh is itself a great experience, but allowing sufficient time to explore and appreciate the Neo-Gothic gem which is St Colmán’s Cathedral has to be the icing on the cake. Although only completed a hundred years ago, remember the long tradition of the saints who set up their foundations here in Ireland, keeping civilisation alive . . . while the Dark Ages settled on Europe . . .

Thaddeus McCarthy: The Bishop Who Never Was

This is the story of a man from West Cork who was appointed a bishop not once but twice, by two different popes, but prevented from assuming his duties by warring clan factions; a man now venerated in two countries.

Thaddeus in his dedicated chapel in St Colmán’s Cathedral in Cobh

I had never heard of Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy until I stumbled upon his curious shrine in Cork’s North Cathedral. It’s a strange and glorious thing – two golden angels holding an ornate, bejewelled casket within which a glass tube contains, of all things, a leg bone. Nearby, a statue and a plaque provide more of the story.

The relic of Thaddeus’s leg bone and a prayer to him, both part of the shrine on the North Cathedral, Cork

Once I had seen the shrine in the North Cathedral, it seemed I met the Blessed Thaddeus everywhere I went, and I came to know about his life over time. It is as much a story of the struggle for supremacy of some of the great Irish houses – the McCarthy Reaghs, the FitzGeralds and the O’Driscolls – during the turbulent fifteenth century, as it is the story of a holy man.

Thaddeus is often depicted wearing the scallop shell – symbol of a pilgrim

Thaddeus was born in 1455 in West Cork into the reigning Munster family of the McCarthy Reaghs, powerful lords who held sway in Carbery and Muskerry at the time and whose principal seat was in Kilbrittain. He studied under the Franciscans, probably at Timoleague Friary, and took holy orders before going off to Rome where he impressed the Pope (Sixtus IV) so much with his saintliness that he appointed Thaddeus Bishop of Ross (Rosscarbery See). Upon his return home, however, he found that an O’Driscoll was already Bishop of Ross (appointed by the same Pope – he had apparently forgotten, oops). The O’Driscolls were certainly not about to give up their hold on the See of Ross, so back went Thaddeus to Rome to ask the Pope to sort it out.

Thaddeus in Italy, dressed as a simple pilgrim, looking resigned and thoroughly saintly

After many inquiries and rumination, another Pope, Innocent VIII, appointed him Bishop of Cork and Cloyne. Once again, when he returned home, it was to find that the FitzGeralds had their own man in the position. Through all these trials Thaddeus bore himself with patience and dignity and encouraged his followers not to engage in violent behaviour on his behalf. His enemies worked to get him excommunicated and so off he went to Rome one more time, where the Pope confirmed his credentials.

A window dedicated to Thaddeus in the Catholic church in Caheragh, near Skibbereen

On his journey back to Ireland he travelled alone in the guise of a simple pilgrim. He was only 37 years old, but worn out by his many travails he died in the night in a hostel near Ivrea in Italy. In the morning a bright light was seen to shine from the room where his body lay and the monks found him bathed in this mysterious glow. When they examined his possessions they realised he was an Irish bishop.

Thaddeus appeals to the Pontiff (detail of the Thaddeus altar, Cobh)

The Rev Patrick Hurley has written a full, two part account of the life of Thaddeus, published in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society for 1896 (here and here). The occasion for the paper was that the Irish, who had essentially forgotten about Thaddeus (although the McCarthy’s held on to a tradition of a saintly ancestor) had recently become aware of his status in Italy. I will let Fr Hurley take up the story of what happened next when Thaddeus died:

On hearing the news people flocked from all parts to see the pilgrim-bishop, who they regarded as a saint, and many sick were here cured and restored to health. Seeing this the bishop ordered the body to be carried to the cathedral, which was accompanied with great solemnity, the chapter, clergy and religious orders all going with a great multitude of people more in the way of a triumph than a funeral.

Depiction of the funeral, based on Fr Hurley’s account  (detail of the Thaddeus altar, Cobh)

Thaddeus was placed under the altar alongside the body of St Eusebius and there he is to this day. Eventually the tombs of both saints were opened and Thaddeus’s remains were re-interred in a reliquary (he was found to have red hair). His feast day is celebrated in October every year in Ivrea and many miracles have been ascribed to him over the centuries.

Blessed Thaddeus’s Reliquary in Ivrea, Italy

There’s even a 15th or 16th century poem, in Latin, about him. Fr Hurley provides a translation. Since he gives no author, it may be his own work, which would not surprise me as this is obviously an erudite and talented scholar. He started his career as the parish priest of Schull, was the priest responsible for the chapel and stations at Gougane Barra and also established the Irish training college at Ballingeary. He was a frequent contributor to the JCHAS.

Fr Hurley had attended a ceremony in honour of Thaddeus in Ivrea ‘recently’ when he wrote his two pieces. He remarks in awe on the majesty of the ceremonial and the great crowds who took part. Above all, he says, the solemn procession when, as if in triumph, the remains of the poor unknown pilgrim were carried through the streets he passed so many years ago, will not be easily forgotten.

Above, the magnificent church in Ivrea, Italy, where Thaddeus lies and below, the equally magnificent side-chapel dedicated to his memory in St Colmán’s Cathedral, Cobh

In more recent times, it was agreed that some relics of the saint could be returned to Ireland – hence the leg bone that caught my attention in the North Cathedral. Ireland, and particularly Cork, had rediscovered their saint and veneration of this fifteenth century holy man spread rapidly. In St Colmán’s Cathedral in Cobh (the subject of Robert’s post this week) one of the side chapels is dedicated to him: this probably happened in a time of great enthusiasm for the revival of his cult following the rediscovery described by Fr Hurley. The design of the altar, the carvings, the mosaics and stained glass show that the artists were familiar with Fr Hurley’s account. 

The death of Thaddeus, St Colmán’s Cathedral, Cobh

In the years that followed, as new churches were built and older ones refurbished, Thaddeus lived on in stained glass and small shrines. I have no doubt that part of this comes down to his surname – we love the idea that the McCarthys, of a proud, ancient and powerful lineage, and the people of Cork, have our own saint.

A shrine to Thaddeus, including a reliquary (not sure what it contains) in the Catholic church in Clonakilty