Drawn to the Beara

The spectacular landscapes of the Beara Peninsula draw us again and again: have a look at some of our past explorations here and here. There’s no doubt that for fine, distant views, tranquil coastlines and variety in geology, history and archaeology this part of Ireland takes some beating. And, for us, it’s ideal: near enough that we can have a full day out absorbing all these things, yet still being home in time for tea!

This is the weekend when clocks ‘spring forward’ – giving us longer evenings. But also the sun is getting noticeably stronger, colours are getting more intense, and the shadows are hardening. It’s a great time to be out on our travels.

That’s Hungry Hill above – highest peak in the Caha Mountain range, Co Cork – and the background setting for Daphne du Maurier’s 1943 novel of that name. The story is based on the real-life Puxley family who set up and ran Allihies copper mines in the first half of the nineteenth century. Du Maurier weaves the tale to give the name of the hill a symbolic meaning – the mines ‘swallow up’ the lives of those who work them and the plot is charged with tragedy and unhappiness.

We crossed the peninsula on the Healy Pass, one of Ireland’s great road journeys, with breathtaking views towards Bantry Bay in the south and the Kenmare River to the north as you traverse the 334 metre summit. The road, known in Irish as Bealach Scairte, was originally cut as a nineteenth century famine relief project, and improved in the 1930s, when it was named in honour of Tim Michael Healy, a Cork man who served as the first governor general of the Irish Free State.

We had a mission: to visit Dereen Garden, which is open all year round. We were there before the tourist season got going, and we mainly had the beautiful walks and vistas to ourselves. The woodland garden was laid out 150 years ago with sub-tropical plants from around the world and has been improved and added to since then; it is famous for its huge Arboreum rhododendrons. Evidently there is a variety of wildlife to be seen, including red squirrels, sitka deer and hares, but they were all keeping out of the way when we visited.

We were hoping to sample some of the fine eateries which have been set up on the Beara but, again, we were a little too early in the year: an excuse for another trip when they open up. So we reluctantly turned our way back towards the Healy Pass – to get the views from the other direction – and were stopped in our tracks by a sign pointing to ‘stone circles’. This is in a townland named Cashelkeelty and is near Lauragh, Co Kerry. Finola had a look at her archaeological records on the phone and found it was somewhere we had to go! It involved a long, uphill walk through a forest, but was very well worth it. Read Finola’s post to find all the details.

I will show only one picture as a taster (above) – but also to point out the proximity of the high grade overhead powerline which runs right by the ancient stones. Does it add or detract from the monument itself?

There were many more vistas to be taken in on our few hours spent on this dramatic peninsula, where mountains so spectacularly meet the sea. We can never tire of this, our own little part of the world.

Cashelkeelty – More Than Meets The Eye

It’s on the wild and remote Beara Peninsula and it’s a bit of a trek to get up to it – but so worth it. We are fortunate that we know quite a lot about Cashelkeelty, which is in the Kerry section of the Beara, not far from Lauragh. There were excavations here in the 70s and 80s led by old friends, John Barber and Anne Lynch. Pollen analysis in the region has added to our understanding of the environment during the Bronze Age.

You can see both the multiple stone circle (the closer set of stones) and the 5-stone circle and stone row from the knoll near the site

But none of this is obvious on the ground and there are no explanatory signs, so I’m going to lay out what we know about this marvellous complex of monuments, so that when you go (Yes, do go!) you’ll know a bit more about what you are looking at. Make it part of a day trip, like the one that Robert is describing this week.

Park in the little car park about 2 km west of the turn off for Derreen Garden. Someone has handily marked it on Google Maps as ‘Parking Place Stone Circle’ and take the path that runs upwards through the woods, turning left (and ever upwards) when you come to another path. It’s a Robert Frost experience – the woods are not only lovely, dark and deep but also mossy and mysterious, with hints of old walls here and there.

When you emerge into open country, you are actually on the Beara Way and this stretch was beautifully described by Peter Clarke in his Hikelines blog.

Peter Clarke’s sketch of the 5-stone circle and stone row ©Peter Clarke/Hikelines

In fact, you are walking now along or beside a medieval road that once ran from Kenmare to Castletownbere. Once you know this, you can pick it out and imagine walking or riding along it in rough woollen garments, or perhaps the  flowing robes of a monk, or the full armour of a knight. But this road is actually one of the newer items in this landscape.

The landscape itself is Bronze Age. People made their living here by growing some cereals (probably barley and emmer wheat) and by herding cattle and sheep. Pollen analysis tells us that forest cover declined – that is, it was cleared by the early agriculturalists – beginning about 1500BC and intensifying around 1100BC. Pre-bog field systems are everywhere here – look for the lines of upright boulders defining walls and small fields as you walk.

According to Billy O’Brien in his Iverni (got your copy yet?) deterioration in the climate and higher rainfall about 1000BC led to increased acidification and the spread of bogs in many areas. So what we are looking at here, in the Mid to Late Bronze Age, is an open pastoral landscape. This is important because the views from here are panoramic and significant, and they would not have been obscured by trees.

Ancient fields

And in this open landscape these early farmers lived in houses of which no traces remain, probably of wood and thatch. What does remain are the monuments they built of stone – they meant them to endure and endure they do. There’s a five-stone circle, and a stone row right beside it, and about 30 metres to the west another set of upright stones.

The stone row was built before the 5-stone circle, possible hundreds of years before. There are three stones now, but the Lynch excavation established that there had been a fourth. Like most of  the stone rows on this part of the world it is oriented ENE/WSW, or towards the morning and evening horizons in summer. As regular readers know, I am always intrigued by the way the shapes of the stones seem to mirror the landscape behind it and this is no exception.

The 5-stone circle now only has three stones, but the sockets for the remaining two were found in the course of the excavations. In the centre, covered by a stone slab, was the cremated remains of a person in his or her 20s. Radio carbon dates (later re-calibrated) established the construction to about 1300 to 700BC, placing it in the Late Bronze Age. Mike Wilson of the Mega-WHAT site has analysed the orientations of both the stone row and the 5-stone circle – you can see the results of that here.

Visitors love to leave little offerings at sites like this. You are looking into the 5-stone circle, towards the recumbent. The slab is more or less where the cremated remains were discovered in the excavation

From here you can clearly see another set of stones to the west. What looks like another stone row is actually the remaining uprights of a multiple stone circle, as Anne Lynch documented in her account of the excavation. There were either 11 or 13 stones originally. The tallest stone now standing must have been one of the portals. The middle stone was originally lying down but was re-erected in the course of the excavation.

Once again, I am struck by how these three stones appear to mirror the horizon behind them. Can this really be a coincidence? If so, it’s a an eerie one. To understand how and why multiple stone circles were built, read my post Ancient Calendars.

To round out the Bronze Age monuments, there’s a Fulacht Fia just south of the 5-stone circle – you can read more about these ancient cooking places in my post Ballyrisode Fulacht Fia.

This little road leads to a stone building, perhaps originally a cottage. It’s the green roof you can see in the second photograph

Cashelkeelty is an amazing site – so many monuments, such evidence of Bronze Age activity from daily living and farming to monument-building. We still have their stone edifices to remind us that these people were sophisticated builders who wanted certain of their practices and rituals to endure for centuries. What we no longer see easy signs of, we can imagine – the forest clearing, the planting and herding, the communal feasting. Take a little while at this site and ask whether our own efforts will endure for thousands of years.