Field Trip – with Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts expounds on holy wells

Jack Roberts expounds on holy wells

Anybody interested in exploring West Cork will have copies of Jack Robert’s books in their libraries. We have several but until this weekend we hadn’t really known the man himself. We were fortunate to be invited along on a field trip organised by old friends of his, on the occasion of one of his visits to West Cork.

Some of Jack's books

Some of Jack’s books

Jack arrived from England in 1975 as a fisherman. As he describes it, he was immediately intrigued with the landscape and the deep sense of history he saw all around him. He worked with Martin Brennan at Newgrange and Loughcrew, learning about the ancient monuments and observing first hand the astronomical alignments of passage graves and stone circles. Eventually returning to West Cork, he started to write guides to the ancient and spiritual sites of the area, illustrating them with his own charming and highly accurate pen and ink drawings. Well researched, delightfully succinct and displaying his vast knowledge of the area, these guides came to be prized possessions of those who purchased them. They’re still available, from Jack’s website, from Whyte Books in Schull and other bookstores, and on Amazon.

Jack lives in Galway now and has branched out. His latest book, The Sun Circles of Ireland, covers the whole country, as does his research into Sheela-na-Gigs. He makes jewellery based on prehistoric, Celtic and Early Christian motifs and has a stall in the Galway market.

Our field trip took us into parts of West Cork unfamiliar to Robert and me, to visit a wide variety of monuments. In Inchigeelagh we stopped to examine a strange stone built into a grotto in the grounds of the Catholic church. Listed under Rock Art in the National Monuments site inventory, it is an anomalous piece of carving that is as mysterious as it is interesting. Of course Robert and I can never resist a peek inside churches, and this one contained some very fine stained glass. Lots of lovely windows but my favourite was this one of St Columbanus, an early Irish missionary who founded monastic houses throughout Europe. One of his miracles was to tame a bear – and somehow he ended up as the patron saint of motorcyclists! 

Saint Columbanus

Saint Columbanus

A couple of holy wells followed, the first dedicated to St Lachtan had two stone bowls and a large concrete cross. The second was the complete opposite – a quiet little spot in a wood with a simple bullaun stone (more about bullaun stones in a future post), white quartz pebbles, and two cups to use for drinking. It was part of an ancient monastic site of which little remains.

We stopped to walk over an old clapper bridge, recently restored, and tramped through a field to where a standing stone loomed over us, standing guard in the landscape, and ended the day with a visit to a cross slab.

Restored clapper bridge

Restored clapper bridge

The next day Jack came to us for lunch followed by a trip to the Derreennaclogh and the Ballybane West rock art sites. At Derreennaclogh Gary, the discoverer of this spectacular site, showed us the lines of ancient field fences he is tracing through the bog. 

While Derreennaclogh was new to Jack, he had visited the Ballybane site many times and had cleared away scrub there, to reveal hitherto hidden carvings. We were particularly interested to hear this, as my drawings of the site, done in the early 70s, were missing some of the motifs that are now obvious and we had long wondered why.

Jack shows us where he cleared away the undergrowth

Jack shows us where he cleared away the undergrowth

It’s always a treat to put a face to a well-known name and with Jack it was a rare privilege. We enjoyed very much continuing our education into the wonders of West Cork, through his eyes. We highly recommend his books to anyone who wants to do the same.

Jack Roberts, author, artist, and one man encyclopedia of West Cork

Jack Roberts, author, artist, and one man encyclopedia of West Cork

Diving for Petroglyphs

Finola unravels the mysteries of Rock Art

Finola unravels the mysteries of Rock Art at Knockdrum

Our friends Chris and Gill from Devon are staying with us at the moment, so we took them on the mandatory Rock Art tour: be warned, anyone who comes to see us…

The Rock of the Rings at Ballybane West

The Rock of the Rings at Ballybane West

Visible signs of newly discovered Rock Art

Visible signs of newly discovered Rock Art: note the building on the right

There have been rumours of a new discovery in the Ballybane West area – not far from the Rock of the Rings and the piece on Danny and Gill’s land (and within spitting distance of the Derreennaclogh find), so we set out to track it down. And discover it we did: a distinct but unexciting single ring, right beside a newly built timber studio in someone’s garden. For me this was all fine and neat and tidy: we measured and photographed it and I was ready to move on to the next location without any loss of dignity. Finola, however, was like a dog with a bone – you’ve heard of Truffle Hounds: Finola is like a Petroglyph Hound with a bone – she won’t let it go. She was convinced there was more of the Rock Art – underneath the building! Of course not, said I, uncomfortably eyeing the very small space between the timber framed walls and the muddy wet rock underneath. But too late! Within seconds all you could see were Finola’s feet sticking out from the foundations and muffled shouts of enthusiasm from some deep and murky place. I gingerly stuck a few fingers in the crevice and quickly realised that I have always suffered badly from claustrophobia. Chris, however,  smartly and snazzily dressed as always in something totally unsuitable for pot-holing was away down there in no time, and we soon heard calls for torches, paper and measuring tape.

Finola goes underground

Finola goes underground

We will have to go back another time to somehow accurately measure and record this example, but Finola and Chris emerged mud-encrusted but triumphant with some photographs and sketches of another unusual panel containing circles, rectangles and cup-marks. These are very much in the style of the panels at Derreennaclogh and Ballybane West, themselves atypical of the more usual cups and circles which show a pattern of Bronze Age carving extending through the Atlantic seaboard from Scotland, Britain, Ireland to the Iberian coast, and pose so many questions on the culture and communications of those times.

The find: a piece of carving with similarities to motifs seen at Derreennaclogh (below)

The find: a piece of carving with similarities to motifs seen at Derreennaclogh (below)

derreennacloghBut this discovery does highlight the vulnerability of Rock Art – perhaps the ‘poor relation’ of archaeology in Ireland. Examples can go unnoticed (as in this case), can become overgrown, and can be so easily damaged or obliterated by weather or human intervention. They can also be underwhelmingly low key: a few circles or marks faintly visible on a rock surface. Farming practices are changing, and the transformation of rocky rough land into ‘pasture’ through grants which encourage large scale rock-breaking is a great potential threat to examples of petroglyphs which have only a paper protection through being listed on the Archaeological Survey of Ireland. As yet, we are unsure of how we can best look after this heritage: this is clearly an area of discussion for the future.

Trophy: Chris produced a valuable sketch of the 'hidden' motifs

Trophy: Chris produced a valuable sketch of the ‘hidden’ motifs

Here Comes the Sun

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The sun rises across the valley from Ballybane West on Feb 2nd, 2013

Joint Post by Finola and Robert

In Finola’s solstice post, she wrote that archaeologists are aware of the astronomical siting of some Irish megalithic sites, such as at Newgrange, and Loughcrew.

Michael Wilson and his Whole Horizon Analytical Technique (WHAT)

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

We have become intrigued by the work of Michael Wilson, a talented amateur astronomer who is singlehandedly documenting the astronomical siting of many monuments in this area. Recently he has turned his attention to rock art. His website contains an astonishing body of work, meticulously researched and rigorously recorded, along with explanatory notes. His thesis, in a nutshell, is that the builders and carvers of Neolithic and Bronze Age times were keen observers of the day and night skies and were intimately familiar with their surroundings. They situated their megaliths and rock art in places where the contours of the horizon allowed them to mark significant solar and lunar events, such as solstices, equinoxes, lunar settings and risings, and intermediate points. Thus, the sun at the winter solstice might rise at the highest point on a nearby mountain, or set in a deep notch in the hills at the spring equinox. The solar calendar has four quarter days (the solstices and the equinoxes), four cross-quarter days (the half way points between the solstices and the equinoxes) and a further finer division into points half-way between the quarters and cross-quarters: an ancient 16 month calendar.

A few days ago, Michael posted this:

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

We set out for our favourite rock art site, Ballybane West, before dawn on Feb 2nd, feeling incredibly lucky to have a clear sky. As the sky brightened, and the nearby hills started to receive the sun’s rays, the carvings on the rock surface became clearly visible. Then, the sun rose, exactly where Michael’s predictions said it would, at the highest point of a rounded hill on the horizon. As people had been doing 4000 years ago in this exact spot, we marked the cross-quarter day of Imbolc – a time when the land starts to warm up, the first spring flowers appear, and the ewes are visibly pregnant.

The carvings light up in the dawn rays

The Ballybane West carvings light up in the dawn rays

If Michael is correct, we have to think in a whole new way about the rock art. Although there have been indications before that the location of the carved rocks was of some significance (for example: there is often a view of water; some theorists have posited that they are ancient boundary markers), this way of looking at rock art elevates the actual siting of the rock as most important, and allows us to view the carvings themselves as a way to indicate the purpose of the site – a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The motifs, though, will probably remain as enigmatic as ever.


gary, Finola and Furry friend contemplate the Enigma

Gary, Finola and Furry Friend contemplate the Enigma

We went to look at an exciting new Rock Art discovery, in the hills between Ballydehob and Bantry: wild country. The man who uncovered it – Gary Cox – lives close by, and became familiar with the terrain through walking his dogs over the land every day. He noticed in passing a small piece of exposed rock, just a few centimetres square, on which it was possible to make out a couple of curved lines. Intrigued, he began to carefully pull back the moss and gorse to expose a secret which had lain hidden from view for hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years.


The Derreennaclogh panel is one of the finest and most intriguing pieces of Rock Art that we have seen in West Cork. Because the surface has (until now) been largely protected from direct contact with the weather, the carvings are pristinely visible, especially on a good bright day. On the rocks at Ballybane West – just over the hill – the designs are so weathered that you can go there day after day and never make them out, unless the shadows from a low sun are just right.


Details from the Derreenaclogh motifs

Current thinking suggests that all the Rock Art in ireland is Bronze Age – between four and five thousand years old: it’s breathtaking to think that we are looking at such ancient depictions of …. what? There’s the enigma: we have no idea – there are cup marks, circles, lines, even squares and waves on this newly revealed one: very unusual. Theories abound, of course: sun, moon, stars, maps, calendars – I’m sure someone has suggested they are flying saucers! We’ve written more on this in previous posts, and of the prolific appearance of rock carvings on the whole Atlantic facing coast from Scandinavia down through Scotland, Britain, Ireland, Brittany, Spain and Portugal. There are variations but the same symbols or motifs occur over and over. But here – on our doorstep – are some of the most unusual shapes to challenge our imaginations.


I have been extending my researches to petroglyph cultures beyond our own roots. I was intrigued to find some images from New Mexico – strikingly similar to our rock art – and Hawaii. In the latter place there are numerous circular depressions, around 50mm in diameter, interspersed with lines and circles. On our rocks in West Cork cup marks are also widespread – one of the most common images. They are also surrounded by concentric circles: at Derreennaclogh there is one cup mark with eight concentric circles around it – that’s more than we’ve seen on any other site.

Boca Negra Canyon Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs from New Mexico (left) and Hawaii (right)

There is folklore attached to the Hawaiian cup marks: local historians explain that these holes are called ‘Puka’. When a child was born a Puka would be carved in the lava stone. The new baby’s ‘Piko’ – umbilical cord – would be placed in the Puka to wish blessings upon the child for a long and prosperous life. In Hawaii and New Mexico the carvings are reckoned to be between 500 and 1,000 years old – much younger than our Rock Art. But here’s more food for thought: in Irish there’s also a word ‘Púka’ or ‘Pooka’ – sometimes a Fairy, or a shapeshifting spirit which can appear as a Hare or a Horse with dark fur. If a human can jump on the back of the Horse he will be given a wild ride but will probably be thrown off. Legend says that Brian Boru – the High King of Ireland – was the only man who could truly ride the Púka – by using a bridle incorporating three hairs of the Púka’s tail.

The Sun Stands Still

The Entrance Stone at Newgrange.

The Entrance Stone at Newgrange.

That’s what solstice means – the sun’s apparent ability to stand still at the mid-winter point. It rises no further south, hangs around that area for a few days, and then starts on its trek back to the eastern sky. For early farmers, like the ones who built Newgrange in the Boyne Valley in Ireland (and Stonehenge and the Pyramids) and like the ones who carved our rock art, such seasonal markings were critical. At Newgrange, an enormous passage tomb built 5000 years ago, the rising sun illuminates the passage and chamber only during the winter solstice. In West Cork, near here, the Drombeg Stone Circle is designed so that the winter solstice sun sets over the recumbent stone, through the two tall portal stones. Drombeg probably dates to the Bronze Age.

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Ballybane West at sunset

There is a good argument that open air rock art may also relate in some way to equinoxes and solstices and days of seasonal change, such as those that were celebrated in the ancient Celtic festivals. So far, the only rock art that has been putatively identified as having a significant solar orientation is the Boheh Stone in Mayo. We decided to visit our favourite rock art site, Ballybane West, on the evening of the 20th December and again on the morning of December 21, to see if anything interesting showed up at sunset or sunrise. We were rewarded in the evening by the rock art glowing beautifully in the slanting sunlight, although we could observe no particular significance about where the sun was setting.

Enigmatic carvings at Ballybane West

Enigmatic carvings at Ballybane West

The next morning, although the dawn colours were spectacular when we left the house, the clouds rolled in and obscured the sunrise. Still, it was wonderful to be out on the rock at dawn, listening to the birdsong and feeling in communion with the ancient spirits of this special place.

Happy Solstice to all our Family and Friends!

Ard Glas Dawn, Winter Solstice 2012

Ard Glas Dawn, Winter Solstice 2012