Cycling the Sheep’s Head

Group at Ahakista

The joy of cycling! The fresh air! The wind in your face! The sun on your back! The sights, the sounds, the smells! Wait – those killer hills! The wobbly legs, the burning lungs! No problem – we have Kalkhoffs!

Is  that enough exclamation marks for any decent blog post? And what on earth is a Kalkhoff?

DSC_0073

Sheeps Head light
Above, a Kalkhoff electric bicycle and below, the Sheep’s Head – the perfect combination

Earlier this year we cycled the length of the Sheep’s Head and back, all of us on electric bicycles, mostly Kalkhoffs. The day was organised by Patrick Murray and Helen Guinan of City View Wheels in Cork, and a masterpiece of organisation it was, featuring stops for coffee, lunch and a pint at the end of the day, followed by a lovely dinner in the Maritime Hotel in Bantry.

stopping for the view

Riding an electric bike has revolutionised cycling for me and for many others. Let’s face it, West Cork is nothing but hills, and huffing and puffing up one of them, pushing a bike, can take the joy out of a day’s adventure. But with some battery-powered help, you can stay on the bike and arrive at your destination still able to breathe.

The Old Creamery at Kilcrohane is a great place for lunch

It’s like having the wind at your back, giving you a gentle push when you need it. It’s still a work-out (you don’t stop peddling) but it just makes the whole venture doable. No, more than doable – pleasurable!

Lighthouse Loop

Sheeps Head LighthouseAbove: This is as far as you can drive or ride on the Sheep’s Head – after this, it’s a goodly walk to the lighthouse (below)

The Sheep’s Head is the perfect destination for a day’s cycling – incredibly scenic, lots of places to stop for refreshment, lots of things to see and do along the way, and relatively flat. Note that word relatively – if you start at Durrus and cycle along the south side to the end of the road and back, you don’t climb over any mountains but you do gain considerable altitude – enough to ensure that you deserve lunch by the time you reach Bernie’s Cupán Tae.

up the last hill

The good news is that it’s mostly downhill all the way back to Durrus.

Leaving Cupán

It  was a congenial bunch and the day was full of chats and laughter. As the ‘locals’ in the group, it was lovely to be able to show off West Cork. We made a detour down to Lake Faranamanagh and told everyone about the Bardic School and the King of Spain’s sons.

sheeps head view

 

Lake Faranamanagh
The Sheep’s Head , Lake Faranamanagh

When you’re cycling with a group you can’t really stop to take photos whenever you want, so the photographs in this post are a mixture. Photos of the day itself were taken either by Patrick (thank you, Patrick!) or by me, while general photographs of the Sheep’s Head come from my own collection and were taken at various times of the year. They will give you a feel for what’s to do and see along the way.

Air India Memorial Site

 

Top: The beautiful and moving Air India Memorial site at Ahakista; bottom: Critters encountered along the way

We were blessed with a lovely day for our bike trip. But then, as you know, the sun always shines in West Cork. And sure, if it doesn’t, you can hole up in a pub and sing, or stay home and cook up some fresh eggs from the happy hens at Faranamanagh.

eggs

If  you love to get out on a bicycle but aren’t the iron-man type, fear not – there is life after lycra!

road into Durrus

And if you just want to explore the Sheep’s Head, bike or no bike, take a look at our post on Walking the Sheep’s Head Way or head on over to Living the Sheep’s Head Way, the website of the Sheep’s Head and Bantry Tourism Co-operative, for lots of information the peninsula and places to stay. Or take a browse through The Sheep’s Head Way for all the walking routes – it’s the website of the voluntary committee that takes responsibility for the way-marked trails.

convoy

rainbow over mizen from Sheep's Head

‘Will the Hare’ – and the Mizen Olympics!

street market

…In ancient Ireland the festival of the beginning of the harvest was the first day of Autumn, that is to say, it coincided with 1 August in the Julian calendar. This has continued in recent tradition, insofar as Lúnasa or Lammas-Day was still taken to be the first day of Autumn; the gatherings and celebrations connected with it were, however, transferred to a nearby Sunday, in most parts of Ireland to the last Sunday in July, in some places to the first Sunday in August… The old Lúnasa was, in the main, forgotten as applying to the popular festival and a variety of names substituted in various localities, such as Domhnach Chrom Dubh, Domhnach Deireannach (Last Sunday), Garland Sunday, Hill Sunday and others…

making the stack

All the photographs in this post are from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh who travelled and photographed the west of Ireland during the 1930s, 40s and 50s and is an invaluable documentary of the times in which he lived. Generally, the locations of the photographs are not noted, and very few are likely to be specific to the Mizen: they do however record life as it would have been lived at that time in all the rural areas

Today we celebrate Lúnasa – the festival of the bringing-in of the harvest. Kevin Danaher (The Year in Ireland, Mercier Press 1972) wrote (above) about what he observed in the middle of the last century, when things were already changing and many of the old customs were, as he notes, ‘in the main forgotten’, although still talked about. What changes do we see in Ireland, a few generations on?

seascape

Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes was written in 1999 (Mizen Productions) and is a collection of memories and stories still being told then about traditional life in this westerly part of of the country:

…The heat of the summer was eased by the cooling breezes from the Atlantic. It was busy on land and sea, with seine fishing by night and fish curing and farming by day, but there was always time for scoriachting, games and dance, sometimes on Carbery Island or across Dunmanus Bay…

…Once in the year Carbery Island was the location for a dance and in settled weather the Northsiders could shout across and give the signal to the people of Muintir Bháire to meet at Carbery Island. As many as forty-five people in three boats would cross Dunmanus Bay to the White House, and a good crowd of men and women from Bear Island would also come to the dances. They were great hearty people. Ann Daly from Kilcrohane and Agnes O’Donovan of Dunkelly played the melodeon…

I like the idea of the Northsiders shouting across the water to the residents of the Sheep’s Head, two miles away! I wonder if they would be heard nowadays?

horse race

…There were competitions at Dunmanus for swimming, running, jumping and weight lifting, and you could be sure that the Northsiders were well represented in each of the events. ‘Will the Hare’ (William McCarthy of Dunkelly Middle), was good at the long jump and the running races and would often win and bring great honour to the Northside. It was said that ‘Will the Hare’ got his name by catching a hare on the run! It was also said that when you blew the whistle to gather the men for seining, by the time you had finished, ‘Will the Hare’ would be at Canty’s Cove waiting!

boat race

…Wild John Murphy would take the lads to the Crookhaven Regatta which was held on The Assumption (15th August). It was a long pull around the Mizen but a good time was had by all. The Northsiders were great with the oars, but it was hard to beat the Long Island crews in the boat races…

(Danaher): …In very many localities the chief event of the festival was not so much the festive meal as the festive gathering out of doors. This took the form of an excursion to some traditional site, usually on a hill or mountain top, or beside a lake or river, where large numbers of people from the surrounding area congregated, travelling thither on foot, on horseback or in carts and other equipages… Many of the participants came prepared to ‘make a day of it’ bringing food and drink and musical instruments, and spending the afternoon and evening in eating, drinking and dancing…

picnic

…Another welcome feature of the festive meal was fresh fruit. Those who had currants or gooseberries in their gardens, and this was usual even among small-holders in Munster and South Leinster, made sure that some dish of these appeared on the table. Those who lived near heather hills or woods gathered fraucháin (‘fraughans’, whortleberries, blueberries) which they ate for an ‘aftercourse’ mashed with fresh cream and sugar. Similar treatment was given to wild strawberries and wild raspberries by those lucky ones who lived near the woods where these grow… A number of fairs still held or until recently held at this season bear names like ‘Lammas Fair’, ‘Gooseberry Fair’, ‘Bilberry Fair’…

market in town

One interesting custom was the driving of cattle and horses into the water. This is mentioned in the 1680s by Piers in his Description of the County of West-Meath:On the first Sunday in harvest, viz in August, they will be sure to drive their cattle into some pool or river, and therein swim them; this they observe as inviolable as if it were a point of religion, for they think no beast will live the whole year thro’ unless they be thus drenched; I deny not but that swimming of the cattle, and chiefly in this season of the year, is healthful unto them…

at the fair

Anomalies

The cairn

What’s an archaeological anomaly? When the National Monuments Survey was being undertaken, some stone structures didn’t quite fit the description of a particular class of monument. They may have been ancient – but how ancient, and what exactly were they? The term chosen for such mysterious piles  was ‘anomalous stone group’. Here’s the definition: A group of stones, usually standing, which cannot be classified as any other known archaeological monument type on present evidence. They may be all that remains or is visible of a partially destroyed or obscured archaeological monument which may date to any period from prehistory onwards.

cupmarked rocks?

Just a leaning rock?

But it’s not the only term used for uncertain monuments: enclosure is a vague term that can mean a multitude of things, and an ‘unclassified cairn‘ can be defined simply as a heap or pile of stones. In the last few months our explorations of the Sheep’s Head have turned up several anomalies. The only thing they all have in common is their spectacular siting, leading to an ultra-rewarding field trip.

Heading towards the cairn

Hiking to the cairn

Perhaps the most magnificently situated of all is the unclassified cairn on the mountain ridge above Kilcrohane. It’s right on the way-marked Sheep’s Head Way, so it’s easy to find. While it’s described as a cairn in the National Monuments inventory, it could be as humble an object as a turf storage platform or as wonderful as a passage grave. We’ve been to it several times and always puzzled over it, but on our last visit we were alerted to a new element by Amanda and Peter.

Amanda investigates

The ‘new element’ – you have to really look!

A couple of stones had shifted, possibly in storms, and we could now delve deeper into the pile of rocks and see that one of them had a large circular opening in it. Very strange – I had never seen anything like it – and very intriguing.

Curious ‘holed stone’ at the bottom of the cairn

We noted that the highest point on Cape Clear was visible across the water, the hill on which a ‘real’ passage grave sits. Only excavation is likely to reveal the exact nature of this anomaly.

What's the orientation?

This one is called an ‘anomalous stone group’

Not too far away, in the same townland but on lower ground, is an anomalous stone group. This is a strange one indeed because half of it looks for all the world like a stone circle – identical to the numerous recumbent or axial circles that dot West Cork. The other half? It’s the rock face that the stones obviously came from.

Is it a stone circe?

Could swear that’s a classic recumbent, but where’s the other half of the circle?

It’s like a work in progress. If it is a stone circle, the builders decided that half a one would do the job just fine. Indeed the owner of the land has noted several significant  sunset alignments.

possible alignments

There seem to be several alignments – this one to the Beara Peninsula

But when I asked for comments on an archaeological social network site the general consensus seemed to be that it was unlikely to be a stone circle, since the stone face obscured half the horizon. But that same stone face would have provided shelter, so the speculation in the discussion centred on this being a hut site, with only some of the stones of the outside wall remaining.

radial cairn?

This area of rough ground to the right of Robert, Peter and Amanda is labelled an ‘Enclosure’

The third site we’ve explored is described as an enclosure. The description of the site states: A circular area (diam. 10.5m) is defined by the remains of a stone wall (T 1.3m; H 0.5m) displaying traces of an inner and outer row of large stones with a fill of smaller stones. A stone slab (H 1.15m; L 0.5m; T 0.4m) narrowing as it rises stands on the external perimeter at E. There is also a standing stone a few meters to the south.

inner row?

Difficult to make out what’s here, but it seems like there’s a lot going on

This could be a radial cairn – take a look at the one at Kealkill to see what we mean. But equally, the description hints, it may have to do with field clearance. It’s almost impossible to tell a lot from the general jumble of stones and the furze and brambles that grow all over the site. Once again, however, we were rewarded with panoramic views to the Beara Peninsula. Another one where only an excavation will reveal the truth.

View east from the enclosure

And these views of the farms to the east, lit by a shaft of slanting sun

Finally, we trekked out on the Lighthouse Loop Walk at the very end of the peninsula in search of possible cupmarks, discovered by Peter and Amanda’s son.

Lighthouse trail, looking back

On the lighthouse loop trail, looking back

The cupmarks turned out, we’re pretty sure, to be natural solution pits. There were lots of them, of varying sizes, and some could only be viewed by lying on your back.

The pitted boulders

The ‘cupmarks’ are on the underside of the leaning rock

Instructive, though, as we have certainly seen cupmarked stones that don’t look a whole lot different than these ones – there’s a type of shaley sandstone in West Cork that laminates in a very similar manner when carved.

Solution pits

pits all aroundSolution pits – and modern graffiti 

In West Cork, monuments that don’t fit into satisfying categories abound – and it’s just as much fun exploring them as it is the ‘normal’ type!

tough to take

This kind of field trip is tough to take!

Boulder Burials: a Misnamed Monument?

Rathruane Boulder Burial

The term boulder burial was coined in the 1970s by Sean O’Nualláin, an archaeologist with the Ordnance Survey, to describe a class of monument that was quite prevalent in the south west, consisting of a single large boulder sitting on three or four support stones. The support stones lift the boulder off the ground and provide a small chamber-like area under the stone. Previously, this type of monument was known as a dolmen, a boulder dolmen or a cromlech, but O’Nualláin was convinced that the main purpose of these boulders was to mark a burial.

Lisheen Cromlechs by Jack Roberts

Illustrations from Jack Robert’s book Exploring West Cork

He based this belief partly on his extensive experience with other megalithic monuments, but also on the findings of the excavation of the Bohonagh complex, where Fahy found fragments of cremated bone in a pit under the boulder.

Bohonagh Boulder Burial
The Bohonagh complex includes a multiple-stone circle, a boulder burial and a cup-marked stone. A standing stone stood close by but has disappeared. Note the quartz support stone

However, William O’Brien excavated three boulder burials in the late 1980s and found no evidence of burials. In his book, Iverni, he comments in an understated way, “The absence of human remains at Cooradarrigan and Ballycommane does pose some questions as to their use.” His findings dated the sites to the Middle Bronze Age, between 3000 and 3,500 years ago.

Lisheen Lower boulder Burial

A boulder burial from Lisheen Lower

What is unquestioned, though, is that they are predominantly found in the south west, especially in Cork, and that, while most occur alone, they are often found in groups, and/or in association with stone circles or standing stones.

rathruane boulder

This one is at Rathruane More, close to a significant rock art site and with views of Mount Gabriel and Mount Corrin

A boulder burial is a striking and unmistakable sight. Often situated on a high point or ridge it can be seen silhouetted against the sky – a large glacial erratic standing proud in the landscape. There are lots of examples around us here and most of them command extensive and often panoramic views. These are monuments that were built to be seen and to see from.

dunmanus boulder burial

An exception to the high ground location is found at Dunmanus on the north side of the Mizen Peninsula. This boulder-burial is so low-lying, in fact, that one can only reach it at low tide

Ballycommane Bouder Burial quartz

Ballycommane – the boulder is of white quartz

William O’Brien has pointed out that quartz is a feature of West Cork prehistoric sites and this is particularly evident in the case of boulder-burials. At Bohonagh, for example, some of the support stones are of gleaming white quartz, while at Ballycommane, Cooradarrigan and Cullomane the boulder itself is quartz. The sun was low in the sky when we visited Ballycommane and the sight of the quartz boulder gently gleaming was truly memorable.

Mill Little Complex 2

The Mill Little complex

Boulder burials often occur in groups and in association with other monuments. Mill Little is a good example of this: three boulder burials are in a line with a standing stone pair at one end and a five-stone circle at the other. See our post Family-Friendly Archaeology Day for more photos of the Mill Little Complex.

Cullomane boulder burial

This photograph shows the Cullomane boulder burial in the foreground, and a ‘penitential station’, in the background. This ‘station’ was part of a pilgrim round that involved prayer and penance – see Holy Wells of Cork for more detail on this site

At the Cullomane site, east of Bantry, the quartz boulder is surrounded by a variety of other monuments: a small stone circle, an ‘anomolous’ group of stone, a stone row, and standing stones all lie within a few fields of each other. Intriguingly, this site has seen continued ritual use through the millennia – there are also ring forts, burial grounds, a holy well and a ‘penitential station’ within the same small area.

Ballycommane boulder burial and standing stone pair

The Ballycommane boulder is in close proximity to a standing stone pair

Breeny More 4

At Breeny More, near Kealkill, four boulder burials in a square pattern lie inside what remains of a large multiple-stone circle. This is an awe-inspiring site – you feel you are on top of the world with mountains all around and stunning views out to the end of the Beara and Sheep’s Head Peninsulas. See Robert’s post Walking the Past for a sense of what this site offers.

Kenmare Stone Circle and boulder burial

The Kenmare stone circle, above, has a boulder burial in the middle of it, while the Gorteanish stone circle on the Sheep’s Head, below, has at least one and possibly two boulder burials

Gorteanish

So – if they weren’t tombs, or weren’t solely tombs – what was the purpose of these striking boulders? Their association with stone circles and rows provide evidence that they fit the calendrical pattern that we find in so many monuments of this era. Mike Wilson, the archeo-astronomer of the Mega-What site, has surveyed many of the West Cork boulder burials and has this to say: This survey shows that boulder-monuments were functional objects marking astronomically important places in the landscape. They cannot generally define an azimuth as accurately as a stone row or circle but capstone shape and orientation are usually significant, helping to indicate directions of interest.

Breeny More

At Breeny More the square layout of the four boulder burials within the stone circle provide many possible alignments

In several of the boulder burials we have observed, capstone shape and direction certainly seem to be a deliberate feature of the monument.

Rathruane boulder Burial Orientation

Robert checks the orientation of the long axis of the capstone at Rathruane More

But perhaps the best example we have of how a boulder burial can have an orientation was drawn to our attention by local historian Brigid O’Brien – and she even sent us the evidence! If you stand at Bawngare, your attention is immediately drawn to the spectacular views to the west and north west – views that include Mount Gabriel, Mount Corrin and between them, faraway Hungry Hill on the Beara Peninsula, as well as the Sea in Roaringwater Bay. Interestingly, one of the support stones has several small shallow cupmarks (cupmarks are found on the capstones of several boulder burials).

Barngare Boulder Burial and view

The view west from Bawngare boulder burial

However the capstone with its distinctive long furrow holds the real secret, and Brigid’s persistence in braving the cold to visit at exactly the right time has unlocked that secret for us now.

Bawngare boulder burial general

From the other side the long furrow can be seen running the length of the capstone

Brigid visited it last year at the winter solstice and took this photograph of the setting sun. It seems the capstone was deliberately positioned to mark this alignment.

Bawngare boulder burial winter solstice sunset

Brigid’s photograph, taken on December 21st, 2015

Perhaps it’s time to go back to calling them something other than burials – I rather fancy the old term boulder dolmens. What do you think?

Coomkeen, Summer and Winter

Coomkeen Road, winterThe Coomkeen Loop Walk on the Sheep’s Head is one of the most richly satisfying walks in West Cork. And that’s saying something, in this land of jaw-dropping vistas and absorbing heritage.

Start, summer

The start of the trail in June

We walked it in June with our friends Amanda and Peter and again in November with our friend John. We had extraordinary days on both occasions. While the November day was cloudless, the one in June provided enough scattered cloud to supply that variation in light and shade that lends such atmosphere to the West Cork landscape.

And in November

And in November

To reach the start of the Coomkeen trail, drive from Durrus towards Ahakista and turn right at the Church of Ireland (before you get to the pier). Ascend to the top of that road and you will find a parking spot and the clearly marked trailhead. There are various ways you can do this walk. The complete loop is a 7km walk that brings you along the spine of the peninsula before you drop down onto tracks and then the road back up to the parking place. Our own favourite option is to walk until you reach the little lake and then retrace your steps along the ridge. Lough na Fuilla, Lake of Blood, is so called, the story goes, because thirst-crazed cattle found it dry and attacked each other in their frenzy.

Lough na Fuilla

Either way is fairly easy, although the complete loop presents a long steep climb back to the starting point. As with all Sheep’s Head walks, be prepared for any weather, wear good boots, bring a camera and leave the dog at home. If you want more information, consult the section on the Durrus Trailhead in Walking the Sheep’s Head Way.

Winter fields on Bantry Bay

Winter fields on Bantry Bay

Perhaps you think that it sounds fine to go for a mountain hike in June – but November? Yes, it was a little cooler and a lot windier, but the November hike was just as spectacular as the June one had been. Most striking of course, is the change in colour.

In summer the foxgloves are everywhere

In summer the foxgloves are everywhere

Because this is a ridge walk, the views are immense. To the north is Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island with its huge oil tanks. Beyond that are the mountains of the Beara, looking as wild and remote as, in fact, they are. To the south is Dunmanus Bay and the Mizen Peninsula. 

The Summit

The Summit

Amanda and Peter were able to show us an enormous standing stone on our June trip, although we missed it in November.

Rooska East standing stone

But we did visit the same ruin of a small farmhouse on the north side of the ridge. Incredible to think that someone eked out a living so high up. Although only a few broken down walls remain, the poignancy of the site comes from what was once a garden by the house, with thorn trees still bravely clinging on.

Further on are the remains of booleys – small huts used by the young people sent to mind the cattle on the high ground during the summer. Perhaps the little farmhouse was part of that endeavour.

Robert and John inspect the little ruined farmhouse

Robert and John inspect the little ruined farmhouse

Running along the ridge and crisscrossing the mountain are the remains of old stone walls. Impossible to tell how long ago they may have been first built, or how recently they functioned to separate pastures.

Walls, Summer

Walls, winterIn November the dominant colours are the blond of the grasses (called fionán, pronounced fyuh-nawn) and the amber, brown and honey tones of the bracken and heather, interspersed with the greenery of gorse and pasture. Although visually stunning, the predominance of the fionán (properly called Purple Moor Grass) and bracken have a less positive underlying meaning. They take hold where the hillside has been set on fire time and again. The fires that we often see here are supposedly to control the gorse and increase grazing for sheep, but in fact according to Birdwatch Ireland, repeat burning “has led to a loss of cover (protection) for Red Grouse…depletes moorland fauna, and can lead to soil acidification, leaching and thus soil degradation.”

In summer, it’s all green but the wild flowers provide bursts of colour.

In November, the only wild colour to be found came from a yellow brain fungus on a dead gorse trunk. Yes, it’s really called that, and is normally yellow but darkens after dry weather. It’s not feeding on the gorse, apparently, but on other fungus that is feeding on the wood. Charming.

Yellow brain fungus on gorse?

Do the walk, any time of year. Then show the photos to your friends and watch them make plans for a trip to West Cork. Or should we just keep this our secret?

Contemplating the route

The Booley

Bucolic

Booleying is an Irish term for transhumance – the agricultural tradition of taking cattle up to the high open lands to graze during the summer months.

booley farm

Booleying territory: on the upland moors of the Sheep’s Head the ruins of a simple cottage in a lonely glen tell of bygone farming practices

The English poet Edmund Spenser went to Ireland in 1580 and was given lands in County Cork that had been confiscated in the Munster Plantation. (His fellow colonialist Sir Walter Raleigh was also granted large areas of land, which he sold to Sir Richard Boyle who later became Earl of Cork and one of the richest men in the British Isles). In 1596 Spenser wrote a pamphlet – A View of the Present State of Ireland – based on his experiences. This piece is highly regarded as a historical source on 16th century Ireland although it refers somewhat inaccurately to booleying: …the Irish country people keep their cattle and live themselves the most part of the year in bollies, pasturing upon the mountains and wild waste plains, and removing to fresh lands as they had depastured the former… 

irish rebellion

16th century Ireland: the Munster Plantation

Our trusted commentator Kevin Danaher devotes a chapter in Irish Customs and Beliefs (Mercier Press 1964) to ‘The Summer Pastures’: …If you could take away the cattle from the fields around the house all during the summer and autumn, you could have more hay and a bit of winter pasture. Therefore you could keep more cattle and were a richer man. But where could you put the cattle in summer and autumn?

peak

Old walls on the Coomkeen ridge tell of early land divisions

(Danaher) …In Ireland there are big areas of the countryside which have some value during the better part of the year but none at all during the winter and spring. These are, of course, the mountains and moor lands. In the cold season they are barren and desolate, but when the milder part of the year comes they provide grazing which may be sparse but is very sweet. Our farming ancestors knew this and a system was worked out which gave the milch-cows the benefit of them. They were away in the mountains or the moors, far from the homestead over bad roads or no roads at all, so that the cattle could not be driven home for milking. Some of the family went and lived with the cows on the mountain. Some sort of dwelling was built there for them, they milked the cows morning and evening and made the butter which could be stored until the men from the home farm came for it once a week…

Varieties of simple shelters – ancient beehive style (left from George Walsh’s window in St Kentigern’s Church, Eyeries, on the Beara Peninsula and – top right – from Dingle, County Kerry – both were used by contemplative hermits but some booley huts were built in similar style) and, bottom right, an example of an Irish cabin

Of the booley houses – or huts – Danaher writes: Most of them were just rough copies of the kind of houses ordinarily used as dwellings, smaller and simpler but made of the same materials and by the same methods. Usually they had only one room, with a simple fireplace, often without any chimney, only a hole in the roof over the hearth… In fine weather their occupants could live out of doors all through the long period of daylight, coming in only to sleep or to cook food and eat it, and the buaile houses were used as sleeping-places only…

booley hut

This structure on the Sheep’s Head is recorded on the National Monuments Record as a Booley Hut

Farming practices have changed in the modern day and I am not aware that any booleying still happens – but the custom lives on in memory and in place names. The Irish word Buaile (pronounced bool-yeh), is translated as a feeding or milking place for cows – so it refers to the dairy as well as the summer pastures. There is a townland near us called Corravolley: that’s the anglicised name. Two roads lead there, and on each road is a signpost:

Do you notice the subtle difference in the Irish rendering of the name on these signs? One reads ‘An Chorrbhaile’ and the other ‘An Chorrbhuaile’. One letter is different in the second sign, but it makes all the difference in the way you might translate its meaning. An Chorrbhaile combines corr – round hill, pointed hill, hollow, pointed, conspicuous with baile – townland, town, homestead, but the alternative suffix buaile means cattle-fold, or summer-pasture. As Corravoley is way up in the hills it is very likely that it was the place of the booleying.

cattle in the wild

Other examples of Irish names which may have derived from the booley include Coill na Buailidh, Kilinaboley, Kilenabooley, Both Théith, Boheagh, Knocknaboley, Buaile h’Anraoi, and Cnoc an tSamhraidh (which actually translates as Summerhill – a place name associated with transhumance in Britain).

bullocks

In Scandinavia, transhumance is still practiced: there the common mountain or forest pasture used for transhumance in summer is called seter or bod / bua. The same term refers to a mountain cabin, which is used as a summer residence. In summer (usually late June), livestock is moved to a mountain farm, often quite distant from a home farm, in order to preserve meadows in valleys for producing hay. Livestock is typically tended for summer by girls and younger women, who also milk and make cheese. As autumn approaches and grazing becomes in short supply, livestock is returned to the home farm. Note the Norse word būð which sounds like ‘both’ as in ‘bothy’, and the use of that word in Scotland to mean a basic shelter on the high moors, unlocked and available for anyone to use free of charge.

from the uplands

There is physical evidence of the booleying in Ireland. On the Coomkeen route of the Sheep’s Head Way we found a little glen high up on the mountain, a setting for a ruined small stone house which could well have been used by those herding the cattle on the summer pasturage in bygone days. It’s a beautiful sheltered site, guarded by two ancient thorn trees, and we could easily imagine – through our romantic 21st century vision – the hard but simple lifestyle invoked there.

booley thorns

Guardians of the Booley – two ancient thorn trees stand by the abandoned cottage

I feel particularly close connections to that way of life as my Dartmoor ancestors were transhumers. They kept a remote farm out on the moor uplands, well away from the nearest centre of civilisation. The enclosure had been established towards the end of the 18th century and involved the building of miles of stone boundary walls (which caused dissent among the commoners) and my forebears who lived there for a few generations were paid to run cattle from other farms on the pastures during the summer months. By the early 1900s the farm had been abandoned and nature has gradually taken over and created an attractive antiquity which I loved to wander over and recreate in my mind’s eye the scenes of family life: my maternal great-grandmother was one of fourteen children born on the farm in one generation.

teignhead today

Family home: Teignhead Farm on Dartmoor – used as a summer run for cattle, although it was  a permanent residence way off the beaten track for the large family of my forebears – an early 19th century print (top left), a photograph dated 1889 (top right) and the ruins of the house today (below)

Novelist Philip Robinson writes:

…The ghostly footprints of ancient sod walls still mark the sites where families once moved with their cattle up to uplands in county Antrim during the summer months (from May to October). They built temporary ‘booley’ huts to live in, usually beside a water burn or spring… The families that took their cattle to booley places on the Commons like Ardboley (High Booley), Carnbilly (Booley Cairn) or Milky Knowes had their home farms down on lower ground in clusters or villages called ‘clachans’. The arable land around each clachan was shared out between the group in a jigsaw of tiny plots and strips each year, and when the cattle returned before the 1st November, the field markers were torn down and the land around the clachans returned to common winter grazing. The homecoming to the clachan at harvest time was another great time of celebration and seasonal customs, closely tied up with Halloween bonfires and gatherings on 31st October.

on the move

On the move – Kerry cattle (believed to be Ireland’s most ancient breed) from the collection of photographer Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s

We know that Booleying was an ancient practice as it is mentioned in the Brehon Laws – which takes it back at least to the time of St Patrick. Later, under the 14th century Statute of Kilkenny the Irish ...were forbidden to booley or pasture on those of the march lands belonging to the English; if they did so the English owner of the lands might impound the cattle as a distress for damage; but in doing so he was to keep the cattle together, so that they might be delivered up whole and uninjured to the Irish owner if he came to pay the damages… The historian, John O’Donovan (1806-1861) noted (in his Ordnance Survey Letters of 1838) that the people owned houses in two townlands, one of which was a booley. …It is a great habit among the people of the island to have two townlands and houses built on each where they remove occasionally with their cattle. The townlands are held under one lease and one of these farms is called a Bouley…

booley house

In Ireland The Booley is relegated to the tune books but there are those alive today who remember the tradition in their own families. Danaher relates: …old people tell of the buaile as a very happy place, full of song and laughter. On Sunday evenings the girls from several buailes would come together and the young men came up from the farms to be with them, and there was music and dancing and gaiety on hillsides that now hear only the bleat of the sheep and the cry of the grouse and the curlew…

boley fair poster