Umha Aois


There’s a magic to the working of metal: you can pick this up when you are doing it, or when you are watching others do it. It could be the arcane transformation of rough nuggets of ore, first into liquid and then into beautiful solid objects that inspires that impression – or perhaps it’s because the senses are battered by the fierce heat, the molten rivulets, the streaming sparks, the incessant hammering, the sheer excitement… It’s no wonder that our ancestors embraced the emerging technologies hundreds of generation ago, and created spectacular objects which, today, we place in our museums and venerate.


Umha Aois are artists and sculptors working as ‘experimental archaeologists’ who have been in Skibbereen this week as part of the Skibberen Arts Festival. They use Bronze Age metal working techniques to produce replicas of ancient tools, weapons and musical instruments and also contemporary art objects. We went to their workshops set up in the grounds of Liss Ard House and met Holger Lönze – a locally based sculptor – James Hayes from Bray and their colleagues who are researching and using stone and clay moulds, ‘lost wax’ processes and charcoal pit-furnaces.

Robert holding a recently cast bronze bell, while Finola tries out an adze

It’s very appropriate that we should be looking at Bronze Age metalwork in our own corner of West Cork as we are in the shadow of Mount Gabriel, site of substantial copper mine workings probably dating from some three and a half thousand years ago. A number of Bronze Age mines have been found on the Mizen Peninsula: it must have been a significant local activity and source of trade. It has of course continued almost up to the present day; our own townland of Cappaghglass saw considerable copper extraction during the nineteenth century.

copper mountain

Copper Mountain – on Mount Gabriel can be found the sites of 32 separate workings dating from 1700 – 1400 BC, but there is no evidence of smelting or metalworking in the same vicinity: perhaps the ‘magic’ of the process required it to be carried out in more secret places?

Back to the Umha Aois project (it’s pronounced oowah eesh and means Bronze Age): we saw pieces in various stages of production, including axe heads, adze heads and spear heads, cast from stone moulds. They are elegant objects, especially when they have been polished to a gleaming finish.

axe heads

Bronze axe head, showing the mould used to cast it

The group was using pit furnaces which they had constructed on site. These consisted of basin shaped depressions in the ground lined with clay, and pipework of clay running from two sets of bellows. The clay pits were filled with charcoal and fired to a high temperature to convert the ore in the crucibles to a molten state.

empty furnace

Top – the principle components of a Bronze Age pit furnace; below left – crucible being heated; below right – the bellows in action

In another shelter we were also shown the ‘lost wax’ process: small objects were shaped in wax and then encased in clay. The wax was melted, leaving a mould in the clay cavity which was then filled with molten metal. Once hardened, the clay moulds are broken apart; the copper or bronze objects are then finished and polished. Here is a BBC video that demonstrates these techniques. There are incredible examples of this type of worked metal in the National Museum in Dublin, including some in gold – thousands of years old and yet so elegant and sophisticated.

melting out the waxClay moulds used in the ‘lost wax’ process

Holger has also made a Bronze Age musical instrument, which he demonstrated for us. The pattern is based on ‘trumpets’ which have been found in Europe, the finest being the Loughnashade trumpet, discovered during drainage works at the site of a former lake in County Armagh. Holger’s trumpet is a bronze cast: some finds have been made from curved and rivetted sheets of bronze. Here is a link to a recording of the sound made by a similar reconstructed instrument.

Holger Lönze conjuring up ancient music!

By exploring techniques, lifestyles and behaviour of our forebears through practical application, experimental archaeologists such as Umha Aois help us to understand that people who lived in the Bronze Age were not intellectually ‘primitive’ as was once thought; they have passed down to us their own aesthetic appreciation of art, music and their highly developed knowledge of sciences that enabled them to construct the complex megalithic monuments – and enigmatic Rock Art – which are yet beyond our own understanding.

Experimental archaeology in the walled garden at Liss Ard

Our ancestors left behind rugged stone monuments, landscapes which have shaped the pattern of our countryside, and sublimely beautiful objects: magic to our eyes and senses.

This Bronze Age gold disc – now in the National Museum, Dublin – was found at Sparrograda, Ballydehob:

sparrograda disc

Equinox Adventure


September 21st – the Autumn Equinox. Day and night are exactly the same length. This event must have some significance for any society which watches the sky. We can never know for sure, but it does seem possible that the enigmatic stone structures we find out in the remote landscapes of Ireland: megaliths, circles, stone rows and – dear to us – Rock Art, could have been inspired by celestial observations.

the rock

Bronze Age carvings at Derreenaclogh

Finola put up a post on the Spring Equinox at Bohonagh, and we have written about the Spring Cross Quarter (Imbolc). We are fortunate that today’s weather has been idyllic – cloudless and with a clarity of light – so we headed out to Derreenaclogh to watch the sun setting. We have studied this rock in depth, throughout the year and in all conditions. Our work has produced a detailed measured drawing of the intricate markings on the surface, carved by our ancestors perhaps three or four thousand years ago.

During our many visits we have noted – but perhaps neglected – the other carved rock at Derreenaclogh, which is situated only a few metres to the east. This has suffered considerable weathering and surface erosion which the first rock escaped, somehow or other, by being preserved for years – centuries – perhaps millennia – under a covering of soil and furze. Nevertheless, today the very faint markings seemed to be more alive – as if the low sunlight on this evening was exactly right for observation. We could see marks on this surface we had never made out before. Derreenaclogh Number 2 deserves a detailed study of its own – something else to keep us busy for a while!

Heavily weathered motifs on Derreenaclogh 2

Heavily weathered motifs on Derreenaclogh 2

The sun duly sank below a hill – not a particularly significant part of the horizon. Mount Gabriel, meanwhile, further to the south, gathered some rather spectacular clouds around itself: it could be that this landscape profile is a sunset marker at another calendar point. We did see that the ‘ray’ on the large motif with eight concentric circles seemed to be aligned with the setting sun – could that have been important?

It was such a beautiful evening that wherever that sun had landed, or whatever alignments may or may not be visible, we would have been perfectly happy. As we made our way back to Nead an Iolair we said to ourselves – again – that this West Cork scenery is unbeatable: we are so fortunate to be immersed in it.

Mt Gabriel


Copper Country

Sheep's Head Copper Mine: Cornish mineworkers' cottages

Gortavallig Copper Mine, Sheep’s Head: Cornish mineworkers’ cottages

We live in the townland of Cappaghglass. I would love to say that the name derives from the metal that makes up much of its geology – copper, but Finola tells me that way of looking at it comes from my English accent: the Irish word for copper is Copair, while Cappa actually means meadow. Glas or glass means green so – prosaically speaking – we live in ‘Green Meadow’. However, as in so many cases, the history of this little bit of Ireland is writ clearly on the landscape and Cappaghglass is very much ‘copper country’.

Stub of 9th century Irish round tower? - No: 19th century copper mine workings in Cappaghglass. In front is the head of a shaft, behind is the remains of the mine chimney that fell in 2002; to the right are the old mine cottages

Stub of 9th century Irish round tower? – No: 19th century copper mine workings in Cappaghglass. In front is the head of a shaft, behind is the remains of the mine chimney that fell in 2002; to the right are the old mine cottages

Our own house, Nead an Iolair, is built on territory that was once owned by a nineteenth century copper mine, and legend has it that our Calor gas tank is placed over an old mine shaft! We look out to Horse Island – one of Carbery’s Hundred Islands in Roaringwater Bay: it once supported a copper mine of the same period. Look at the photograph of the number of workers employed there at this time. Now there are merely a few holiday homes on the island.

Mineworkers on Horse Island: 19th century

Mineworkers on Horse Island: 19th century

Among the quiet fields and peaceful boreens our townland is strewn with evidence of the industry that once was here: old spoil heaps, barbed-wire protected shafts, supports for overhead ropeways and the base of a famous local landmark: the 20m tall Cappagh Mine chimney which came down in a lightning strike in 2002 which also severely damaged the Mine Captain’s House adjacent to it. Mining here commenced in 1820 and works ceased in 1874. Its best years were the decade 1863 to 1873, when 877 tons of bornite copper ore were produced.


Cappagh Mine: cross section, mine chimney (pre 2002) and our own mine shaft!

Cappagh Mine: cross section, mine chimney (pre 2002) and our own mine shaft!


We went off to the Sheep’s Head last week – in idyllic weather – and were shown the Copper Trail by friends Peter and Amanda. It feels so remote out there, yet the place was a hive of industry when mining was at its height during the Victorian age. I was fascinated by the row of Cornish miners’ cottages there, and the similarity between this site and the cliff-edge setting of some of the mines in West Cornwall, Botallack in particular. When exploring these pieces of industrial archaeology in Cornwall I was always struck by the incongruity of the incredibly beauty of the places – set against the blue background of the Atlantic – with the hardship and danger of the working conditions that must have prevailed. Here in West Cork, as there in Cornwall, shafts and galleries extended out under the sea bed and the men toiled away in cramped and perilous conditions with the sound of the booming waters above them, while on the surface women (bal maidens) and children worked equally hard preparing the ore for crushing and smelting.


Botallack Tin Mine, West Cornwall - romantic site now, but less benign in earlier days

Botallack Tin Mine, West Cornwall – a romantic site now, but less benign in earlier days

Far longer ago than the nineteenth century, West Cork was being worked for copper ore. On the steep sides of our local Mount Gabriel there is evidence of copper mining dating back 3500 years to the Bronze Age. UCC Professor of Archaeology William O’Brien carried out research and excavations during the 1980s and traced a number of mine workings from this time. The extraction was a well organised process: a supply of  good roundwood had to be stockpiled and fires were lit against the rock face where traces of ore were apparent. A hot fire was kept burning for several hours followed by dousing in cold water (of which a good supply was also needed), causing the rock surface to fracture, and this disturbed face was hacked off with stone mauls allowing the accumulation of small quantities of  malachite. Constant working on good seams led to excavation into the mountain side, and some shafts have been found extending to several metres. Water ingress was a problem and it seems likely that a system of bailing or pumping was necessary. Eventually the drowned shafts were abandoned and, over time, they became filled with a type of blanket bog. This helped to preserve some of the wooden implements used and – presumably – discarded in them: hammer handles, wedges, picks and shovels as well as planks and ladders; also pine chips apparently used for illumination.

Bronze Age industrial landscape

Copper Country: Mount Gabriel – once the haunt of Wolves and miners

There’s a whole lot more to be said – about why metal was so important in the Bronze Age (wealth, in one word) and the whole context of distribution, trade and the technology of bronze itself: bronze production is only possible by combining copper ore with tin, and this was not available locally. In all probability our Cornish and Iberian cousins were making contact with Ireland’s metallurgists thousands of years ago. Interesting that the Rock Art we find in these same hillsides – and which could date from the same period – also has parallels in Britain, Brittany and Iberia.

Bronze Age industrial landscape?

Bronze Age industrial landscape?

Uisce Beatha


Ireland is an island – a fairly small one. There’s a lot of water surrounding it (3,500 miles of coastline) and coming out of the sky. This abundance of water has shaped the natural landscape and coloured it emerald green. Not surprisingly, traditional life, history, culture and folklore in this country are imbued with watery references.

Schull Pier

Schull Pier

Down here in West Cork you are never more than a mile or two from the sea: it has historically provided defence, sustenance, isolation and wealth. When the O’Mahony and O’Driscoll clans ruled here in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it was recorded that more than 500 large fishing boats from France, Spain, and Portugal were constantly harvesting the fish shoals off the Mizen. Each chieftain’s income from the foreign ships surpassed £1,000 annually by way of fishing rights, harbour dues and protection money (that’s about 3,000 cows in trading terms in those days). Today you can still see evidence that the bays, inlets and islands have long provided income and a means of transport to the local communities: there are small piers everywhere. There’s an ancient one – ruined but still visible – just below us at Ard Glas, and an hour’s walk along the water would take in half a dozen others mostly still maintained in good order and regularly used.


Piers at Cunnamore and Roscarberry

When we go up to the market in Bantry on a Friday morning to get our own fish fresh from the local quays we pass by the statue of St Brendan the Navigator. In the sixth century Brendan set out with forty other monks in a little boat to find the Island of Paradise; instead, they discovered America, returning after seven years to tell of their many adventures with sea monsters, miraculous islands and sirens. In the 1970s Tim Severin recreated Brendan’s twin masted boat using Irish ash and oak lashed together with two miles of leather thong and wrapped with 49 traditionally tanned ox hides sealed with wool grease. In this he sailed for a year via the Hebrides and Iceland to reach Newfoundland, thus proving that the legend could have been based on fact.

Colla Pier, Roaringwater Pier and St Brendan

Colla Pier, Roaringwater Pier and St Brendan

The 'lost' pier at Bealaclare

The ‘lost’ pier at Bealaclare

In 2010 two fishermen found a small canoe in the Boyne River. It’s reckoned to be 5,000 years old and may have carried stone for the building of the great passage tomb at Newgrange (that predates the Pyramids). That boat is only 3 metres long, but another canoe discovered in 1901 in Co Galway is even older and much bigger: 15 metres long, hollowed out from the trunk of a single oak tree that was over 2 metres in diameter: something that couldn’t be found in Ireland today. It probably had outriggers and could have been used to bring tin from Cornwall to mix with the locally mined copper, enabling the Bronze Age to take off. Fascinating.

Bronze Age Canoe

Bronze Age Canoe

Every day we look out over the water, and on all our walks we have glorious views over the bays, the Celtic Sea and the Atlantic. That’s a constant in our lives that I don’t think we could ever do without.

Oh – by the way: Uisce Beatha (pronounced Ish-kah Baahaa) – that translates literally as Water of Life – and, in Ireland, also as ‘Whisky’.

Turk Head Pier

Turk Head Pier