First Foot

‘…According to local folklore the first foot was planted on Irish soil at Donemark on the shores of Bantry Bay in 2680 BC…’

Ireland's first arrivals passed by this pebble beach on their way to Donemark

Ireland’s first arrivals passed by this pebble beach on their way to Donemark

This statement (from Fuchsia Brand’s leaflet on Heritage) was guaranteed to send me scurrying for my history books. And – yes – I found many references to the event: an event which, to my mind, was surely one of special significance for Ireland: the first human ever to have set foot in this land – it must have deserved commemoration… Surely, there must at the very least be a plaque marking the spot? For a moment I wondered if this could be the long sought explanation for the enigmatic piece of Rock Art that’s on display in Bristol’s Museum & Art Gallery – the carving is about the right age…

Bronze Age Footprints in Bristol's museum

Bronze Age Footprints in Bristol’s museum

So, a similar example of Petrosomatoglyphia is what I was hoping to find on the shores of Bantry Bay, a mere stone’s throw from our home here in Cappaghglass. But – before that expedition – let’s just go back to the history for the moment. Back – in fact – to the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland), which was written down in the 11th century and – allegedly – based on earlier source material. It takes a bit of wading through: I used a commentary edited and translated by R A Stewart Macalister and published by the Irish Texts Society in Dublin in 1938, but it’s well worth the effort. There’s a lot I had never understood before about the earliest history of the people of Ireland.

lebot gabala book frontispiece

It’s a long story… The book is a collection, in five protracted parts, of all the poems and traditions which had been written and learned by the Bards, telling the history of their nation. There’s a lot of repetition: like the Gospels there are several versions of each episode and it’s a bit dizzying to try to get a clear overall picture of events. So, settle down and imagine the visiting Bard you have given hospitality to in your tower house on a winter’s night is regaling you with tales of your ancestors.

A Meeting of Bards (at Boscawen-Un Stone Circle, West Penwith, Cornwall

A Meeting of Bards (at Boscawen-Un Stone Circle, West Penwith, Cornwall)

Everything has to go back to Noah, who was only allowed to take with him on the Ark his own sons and their wives. One of his sons, Bith, had a daughter – Cesaire (or Cessair). As she had to stay behind so also did her father, but they built their own ships, three of them, and set sail with two other men and a large company of women, looking for a land which ‘knew no sin’ because it had never been populated: there they would settle and aim to re-found the human race in a green and fertile place. Their voyaging took them to many parts of the known world and they came eventually to the north of Spain – which we know today as Celtic Galicia. Cesaire knew that this wasn’t the Utopia they were seeking but she climbed to the top of a very tall tower and, in the far distance, she spotted Ériu – ‘…where no evil or sin had been committed, and which was free from the world’s reptiles and monsters…’

Cesaire would have needed a tower like this to catch a glimpse of Ireland from northern Spain...

Cesaire would have needed a tower like this to catch a glimpse of Ireland from northern Spain…

And so it was, forty years before the Great Flood engulfed everything, Cesaire’s expedition sailed up to the mouth of the Mealagh River, passing on the way the most beautiful landscapes they had ever seen – landscapes that we are fortunate to see every time we set out to explore our own new horizons.

Bantry Bay - the landscape today

Bantry Bay – the landscape today

Now it was time to glimpse for ourselves this remarkable site – Dún na mBarc – the place of the boat – (Donemark -Dunnamark Townland) in the parish of Kilmocomogue. We drove up the unremarkable N71 through Bantry town and turned in to its attractively situated golf course, then made our way down to the shore. Disappointingly, that is also unremarkable: it’s got a brooding, although not unattractive atmosphere about it. We came there at low tide and saw mud-flats – alive with foraging birds, including a very fine Old Nog – the huge stones of a disintegrating quay, and distant views to the Sheep’s Head and Beara Peninsulas.

Landing Place? At Donemark

Landing Place? At Donemark

Old Quay at Donemark

Old Quay at Donemark

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Alas, there were no footprints, no plaque, no signification of the very important history of this site: there was only our imagination to fill in the gaps. I could envisage Cesaire’s Bronze Age boat (only one survived the full journey) making its way up the azure waters admiring the emerald green of the landscape and passing by some of Ireland’s most dramatic scenery. They landed on ‘…a Saturday, the fifteenth day of the moon at Dun na mBarc…’

Kerry Mountains

Mountains of West Cork

We did find a single commemoration of this event: in the tranquil gardens of the National Learning Network Centre, which is not far from the mouth of the river. It is a work of art, made in 2013 by the students of the Centre, under the guidance of Michael Ray and the auspices of the West Cork Arts Centre – you may remember both from this recent post. Voyage of Stories’  recalls that pioneering arrival in the form of a boat sculpture made of steel, copper and glass and set up over a pool. The glass tiles tell of invasions and emigrations both ancient and modern in Irish and English. It’s a good way to commemorate the journey and those early settlers, we thought.

'Voyage of Stories' at Donemark

‘Voyage of Stories’ at Donemark

Now, Finola – at my side and wearing her Archaeologist’s hat – is tutting at my unquestioning acceptance of the dating of this milestone in Ireland’s history, bearing in mind that the passage graves at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth appear to be some 5,000 years old and – she says – there were people living in Ireland earlier than that! But my view is that there’s history, and there’s story… Well, perhaps history is always someone else’s story but give me a good tale any day, especially one woven with adventure and romance and told at the fireside.

Family Life (Caleb Bingham 1845)

Family Life (Caleb Bingham 1845) New Orleans Museum of Art

So now you know all about Cesaire, who was the first to step from that frail vessel which had travelled all the way from Egypt in those far off days. But perhaps I should also tell you a little more: the three men on that voyage faced the prospect of serving no less than fifty women between them if they were to populate this new land. The Lebor Gabála Érenn is quite frank about this: ‘… Ladra, the pilot, from whom is Ard Ladrann named he is the first dead man of Ireland before the flood. He died of excess of women, or it is the shaft of the oar that penetrated his buttock. Whatever way it was, however, that Ladra is the first dead man in Ireland…’ while Bith – Cesaire’s father – was already aged before the voyage and also passed away soon after. That left one man – Fionntán – who was so frightened by the prospect of facing all those women alone that he ran away and hid in a cave. There he changed into a Salmon and survived the Flood which, sadly, overcame Cesaire and her companions. The shape-shifting Fionntán went on to live for five and a half thousand years (by my reckoning that means he’s still alive!) and recorded all of Ireland’s history (including at first hand the account of Cesaire’s voyage) – which he then taught to the Bards of Ireland so that it would be taken out into the world…

But all that is for another day!

made harbour

Of Kings and Poets

We are standing in one of the most beautiful places in the world… Or so it seems to us on this late November day as a cloudless sky casts an azure sheen over the whole sea stretched out between the Sheep’s Head and the Mizen, while the folds of the mountains behind are painted an indescribable autumnal gold by the low sun.

view west

We decided today that our Sheep’s Head walk would be by the water, and chose to start at Dromnea – where we were intrigued by mention of an old Bardic School. This is listed in the guide book, together with the nearby castle of the O’Mahony’s: both are picturesque ruins. In Feudal times, when they flourished, students of the school would serve a seven year apprenticeship which consisted of spending hours in a darkened cell composing poetry which was later read out to and critiqued by the whole company. They carried the traditions and history of families and communities, to be recited on their travels around the countryside, where hospitality for bards and minstrels was obligatory. The Dromnea School was owned and run by the O’Daly family, traditionally bards to the O’Mahony’s. The most famed of the poets was Aenghus O’Daly – also know as the Red Bard – who died in 1617. He is best remembered for his work – Tribes of Ireland: A Satire. As ‘research’ for our walk I read this – an 1852 edition available online: in a hundred or so verses Aenghus tells of his travels around the four provinces seeking hospitality from the ancient families of Ireland, as was the right of his profession. The whole work is a list of complaints as to how lacking the hospitality actually was. For example:

The tribe of O’Kelly—the screws whom I hate

Will give you goats’ milk, mixed with meal, on a plate

This hotch-potch they’ll heat with burnt stones, and how droll some,

Among them will tell you ’tis pleasant and wholesome.

and:

Three reasons there were why I lately withdrew

In a hurry from Bantry: its want of a pantry

Was one; and the dirt of its people was two;

Good Heavens! how they daub and bespatter

Their duds! I forget the third reason. No matter…

or:

Poor little Red Robin, the snow hides the ground.

And a worm, or a grub, is scarce to be found

Still don’t visit the O’Keeffe; rather brave the hard weather –

He’d soon bring your breast and your back-bone together.

Such was the reputation of the Dromnea Bards that the King of Spain sent two of his sons to the School to receive their education. They were both drowned while swimming in the lake by the castle: the story tells that they were turned into swans. We leave the ghosts of the school behind us and reach Lough Farranamanagh – a tranquil stretch of fresh water which flows out to the sea. We look across to the few stones that define the O’Mahony stronghold: sure enough, floating serenely in front of it are two stately swans.

After passing the time of day on the beach with a periwinkle collector (she exports great tubfuls of them to France) we walk for three hours, leaving the coast behind and going up into the the hills where we come across further ruins: this was once a village, and lazy-beds and ancient field systems are visible in the rocky moorland terrain. Finally we descend back to the now defunct old Ahakista – Kilcrohane road: a remote green trackway that has been given a new lease of life as one of the Sheep’s Head Way walking routes. This brings us back foot-weary but satisfied to our starting point after our tour through an intellectual and historical landscape in stunning West Cork.

A Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd

A Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd