Ballycummisk Archaeology

There’s a fine ringfort just over the hill from us – in the townland of Ballycummisk. A definition of a ‘ringfort’ in archaeological terms is given here:

. . . Many people lived in enclosed farmsteads known as ringforts in the Early Christian/Early Medieval period. Second to fulachta fiadh, they are the most common field monument surviving in Ireland with up to 60,000 examples, most dating to between 550-900AD. Ringforts are circular areas, measuring c24-60m in diameter, usually enclosed with one or more earthen banks, often topped with a timber palisade. In the west of Ireland the ringfort was often enclosed by a stone wall, with stone huts in the interior. Traces of iron and bronze working have been recovered suggesting some ringforts had very specific uses while others were multifunctional . . .
Significant Unpublished Irish Archaeological Excavations 1930-1997

A simpler definition comes from the monumental 1200-page Volume 1 of the ‘New History of Ireland’ series published in 2005 and edited by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín: “archaeologists are agreed that the vast bulk of them are the farm enclosures of the well-to-do of early medieval Ireland”.

The upper picture is taken from within the ringfort enclosure; the north bank of the fort can be seen beyond a small stone outcrop which is said to be the site of a souterrain. Time for another definition:

. . . Souterrain: an underground structure consisting of one or more chambers connected by narrow passages or creepways, usually constructed of drystone-walling with a lintelled roof over the passages and a corbelled roof over the chambers. Most souterrains appear to have been built in the early medieval period by ringfort inhabitants (c. 500 – 1000 AD) as a defensive feature and/or for storage . . .

You can see more about souterrains – including some illustrations – in my post from four years ago about Knockdrum Fort, south of Skibbereen.

The Schools Folklore Collection is an important source of local beliefs and traditions – if not exactly historical information. The stories were collected in the 1930s but were remembered through family traditions which could go back through several generations. The example pages above – dating from 1936 – describe the Ballycummisk fort. Here is a transcription of the paragraph:

. . . There is a fort in a place called Ballycummisk. It is near the sea, and was first found about two years ago by people who were ploughing. It is a hole going down through the ground, with four stone walls. You could not see down now, because it was filled in when they got to it. They could only see the walls. They dug down about a yard, and then drove down a ten foot crowbar, but the bottom could not be found. Very small pipes were found and shells This field is sloping to the sea. A stone about a yard long was also found. They thought it to be a handle for some old stone weapon . . .

Schools Folklore Collection
Frank coughlan Ballydehob

Frank Coughlan’s description almost certainly refers to the discovery of a souterrain. It doesn’t quite ring true as he says that “the field is sloping down to the sea”. In fact, the fields containing the ringfort are sloping southwards away from the sea, which is not visible at all from the site.

This aerial view shows parts of the townlands of Ballycummisk and Cappaghglass. The ringfort is marked. Another nearby feature – also shown – is a large standing stone, known as ‘Bishop’s Luck’.

The stone is 1.6m high, 2.05m in length, and 0.45m in width: tall and wide in one direction, and relatively narrow in the other. It is also worth noting that the ‘long’ orientation is exactly North-South. This stone has been in this position for at least 180 years as it appears in the earliest edition of the 6″ Ordnance Survey (1830s), marked as ‘Gallaun’ – and even given a little illustration!

The standing stone is not far from the ringfort: perhaps there is a connection, although standing stones are generally reckoned to date from earlier times than the forts. Here is an extract from a recent article in Archaeology Ireland: Vol 34 No 1 (Spring 2020) pp 26-29, Wordwell Ltd:

. . . The classic standing stone surviving from the Bronze Age in Ireland is a rough-hewn or unshaped pillar, known as a gallaun (from the Irish gallán), generally oblong or oval in cross-section and up to 3m or more in height. Stones presumed to belong within this class vary considerably in height, from as little as 1m to as much as 6-7m in exceptional cases, the majority probably falling in the 1.5-2m range. Seán Ó Nualláin noted many years ago that in his experience the axis is generally aligned north-east/south-west. This is by no means a universal rule. Gallauns are by far the most numerous of all pre-Christian standing stones in Ireland. Approximately 600 are known in Cork and Kerryb alone. Beyond this region, examples are to be found extensively throughout the Irish countryside and many of them have attracted folk explanations . . .

Lone Standing Stones by Muiris O’Sullivan and Liam DowneY
Archaeology Ireland 2020

In these two pictures you can see the striking profile of the Bishop’s Luck standing stone against the skyline which features Mount Gabriel – the highest piece of land in the immediate area. Gabriel was an important place in prehistoric times as the centre of a significant copper mining industry – yet no artefacts have ever been found on the summit. In the lower picture you can see how the western edge of the standing stone ‘echoes’ the distant profile of Gabriel on the horizon. This is a phenomenon that has been noted a few times with regard to stones standing in the landscape. Here is Gabriel seen from the ringfort:

Finola has written comprehensively about standing stones in this Journal: here and here. O’Sullivan and Downey mention (above) that examples have attracted folk explanations. This doesn’t seem to be the case here: no mention is made of the stone in the Schools Folklore Collection. But surely there must be significance in the name: Bishop’s Luck?

But – hang on! There is ‘Bishop’ folklore associated with a site not very far away – in the neighbouring townland of Stouke. Finola recorded this in her 2016 post here. It’s a simple tale: The story goes that during the time of the penal laws a Bishop was confirming children nearby when the redcoats got wind of his activities and came to arrest him. He was beheaded. A bullaun stone in the graveyard at Stouke is supposed to be his head. If our possibly Bronze Age stone in Ballycummisk had anything to do with this, it should surely be known as Bishop’s Bad Luck?

One further place that’s worth a mention here is the top of the hill to the south of the ringfort and standing stone. It doesn’t have a name, but it does have a magnificent view across to Rossbrin Harbour, with Cape Clear on the horizon in the far distance. There is a passage grave on the high point of Cape Clear. There seems to be some evidence for the inter-visibility of ancient sites, which makes me wonder whether there was ever any early structure on this hilltop. There are rocky outcrops there in the present day, and field clearance is evidenced by the presence of large slabs in the nearby field boundaries.

These are just thoughts, but I don’t mind thinking them! West Cork (and most of rural Ireland) must have much to reveal in terms of its ancient history. One point to remember: if you ever go searching yourself for archaeology or old sites, don’t forget that you will probably be entering private land. It is courteous to always seek permission: most owners are agreeable and – perhaps – may have stories to tell themselves.

Monoliths, Mysteries and Marriages

"The Fingers" on the skyline

‘The Fingers’ on the skyline

All across West Cork – in the middle of pastureland, in isolated bogs, on the tops of mountains – you see standing stones. Mostly single but also found in pairs, or rows of three or more, they are as ubiquitous as they are mysterious. A scan of the Ordnance Survey map of the valleys running eastwards from Bantry, just north of us, shows a great proliferation of standing stones, and we have been tempted into the field often to hunt for them. We usually find them, but even when we don’t the search brings us into magnificent countryside.

Standing Stone Country

Standing stone country, east of Bantry Bay

The most numerous are, of course, single standing stones. The practice of erecting monoliths dates from the Neolithic and many of the stones we see may indeed be as old as that, or Bronze Age. Some may be medieval or more recent still – local people occasionally have memories of a grandfather placing a stone to act as a cattle scratching post.

Bishop's Luck Stone - wonder what's under this one?

Bishop’s Luck Stone – wonder what’s under this one?

If the stone has rock art on its surface, as is the case with the Burgatia stone near Rosscarbery, for example, we can safely conclude that it’s probably Bronze Age. Ogham incisions, or an inscribed cross will assist with an Early Medieval date. But the vast majority are unmarked and their functions may have varied. Some excavated examples have yielded evidence of burials at the base, and some seem to mark boundaries or entrances to mountain routeways.

Stone pairs and stone rows often occur in close proximity to other Bronze Age monuments such as stone circles and boulder burials. Some are further away from the monument but clearly visible from it.

Like the stone circles, the pair or row has an alignment – generally northeast/southwest, and a further alignment is formed from the two to the boulder burial or stone circle.

Irish folklore is rife with stories about standing stones. Many were said to have been hurled there from a nearby mountain by Finn McCool. Kevin Dannaher in his book Irish Customs and Beliefs relates several instances of petrification. Here’s an example:

…our early saints are…credited with passing fits of choler during which several miscreants were rendered harmless…When St Fiachna discovered that a dairy woman was stealing his butter he did not hesitate to loose a mighty curse against her, which turned not only herself, but her dairy and all her utensils as well, into stone. In proof of which they are still plain to be seen close to the saint’s church at Teampal Fiachna, a few miles south east of Kenmare.

The Three Fingers at Gurranes, near Castletownshend, probably once a row of five or six stones

The Three Fingers at Gurranes, near Castletownshend, probably once a row of five or six stones

One kind of standing stone is particularly intriguing – the holed stone. Tradition has it that these are marriage stones: the couple would join hands through the hole to exchange vows. 

*Both holed stone photographs are by Amanda Clarke