Mizen Magic 7: Dunbeacon – History, Prehistory and Questions of Access

A cold and clear January day is just the ticket for a trip to the Northside of the Mizen. While Robert writes about the life of Northsiders, I want to look specifically at the area known as Dunbeacon. On rising ground that ascends to Mount Corrin and overlooks Dunmanus Bay West of Durrus, Dunbeacon offers spectacular views and lots to explore.

Looking across to The Sheep’s Head at the head of Dunmanus Bay, near Durrus

In the last few years the Sheep’s Head Way has expanded into parts of the Mizen Peninsula. This is a very welcome move and the SHW committee is to be commended on taking this initiative. Today we followed part of this new trail through Dunbeacon townland and were rewarded with glimpses of the past, lovely vistas, Caribbean blue seas – and biting cold!

This section of the trail runs along a scenic boreen

Dunbeacon is synonymous with the Stone Circle that carries its name. Robert and I have visited it on a couple of occasions in the past. We have knocked on the farmhouse door for permission to cross the land to get to it and never found anyone home. We proceeded anyway, albeit slightly nervously as it was an obvious trespass on a working farm. The stone circle is sited on a small plateau with views east and south to Mount Corrin and Mount Gabriel, although rising ground to the northwest obscures Dunmanus Bay.

Mount Corrin: a large cairn on top can be seen from many miles away. We have walked up to this cairn – see our account of it here

The circle is incomplete so it is difficult to know exactly how the builders intended its orientation as the portal stones and recumbent are missing. It may have had a central monolith. (For a complete explanation of Stone Circles see our post Ancient Calendars.) However, the clear view to the east and south horizons are design features that link it to sunrise and moonrise at certain times of year.

This photograph of Dunbeacon Stone Circle, and the one that heads up this post, were taken before the access trail (described below) was built 

Intriguingly, Michael Wilson, of the Mega-What Website, says that practically the stone circle is really half a monument: what it takes to complete it for calendrical purposes are two other elements across the valley in Coolcoulaghta, a standing stone (now gone, but its position is known) and a standing stone pair.

The Coolcoulaghta standing stone pair, with Robert for scale. These stones were knocked down in the past but re-erected following a local outcry. Access and parking are now provided

Having studied the area carefully, Mike saysThis site [the standing stone] combines with the Stone Circle 400m away at Dunbeacon to enable observations of the lunar nodal cycle in all four quadrants as well as giving complete all year round solar coverage. It thus seems likely that the Standing Stone was an original outlier to the Stone Circle and that the Stone Pair was added later, probably by a different group of people, in such a way as to make a minor technical improvement.

It’s further than it looks in this picture, but there is a clear view to the stone circle from the standing stone pair. In between is the most annoyingly positioned electricity pole in Ireland

As part of the development of the new walking route, the SHW group has negotiated access to the Stone Circle, and has, in fact, built a fenced trail across the fields and up to the circle. This, of course, is excellent in that it finally provides open access to this wonderful site. There is, however, a problem: the stone circle is now surrounded by a wooden fence on all sides that severely impacts on the appearance and atmosphere of the site. While it will keep cattle away from the stones (cattle can do a lot of damage to sites like this) and provide a safe zone for walkers if there are animals in the field, it has become impossible to relate to the site in the same way as we used to.

The last section of the fenced trail. The fence around the stone circle can be clearly seen now

The author of the Facebook Page Walking to the Stones expressed himself thus when he saw the new enclosure: “The wire fenced avenue turns into a wooden fenced coral. The stones, imprisoned in a begrudgingly small pen. The wildness has gone, the mystery has gone. You might just as well be standing in a sterile museum environment. What have they done?” His comments generated a chorus of agreement.

Indeed, it is hard not to look in dismay at a fence like this. It makes taking photographs of the whole circle well-nigh impossible. It creates an overwhelming visual barrier between the circle and its surroundings. As an erstwhile archaeologist, I also have to wonder what was disturbed as the post holes were dug. And yet, all of this was done with the best of intentions, and it has succeeded in providing public access to the site. I would be interested in our readers’ thoughts.

It is quite difficult now to get a photograph of the entire circle. This one is partial, and shows a clear sightline to Mount Gabriel

Before we leave Dunbeacon, I can’t resist a quick trip down to what’s left of Dunbeacon Castle. One of a string of O’Mahony Castles on the Mizen, this tower house once guarded the head of Dunmanus Bay. Its siting is strategic – no ship was going to penetrate to the head of this bay without being in clear view of this stronghold. The O’Mahonys controlled fishing and trade in this area from the 12th to the 16th centuries and became fabulously wealthy in the process.

What’s left of Dunbeacon Castle

This castle would once have been the dwelling place and administrative centre of a powerful chief. He would have hosted banquets where his poets and musicians entertained the guests with stories and song. Alas, after the Battle of Kinsale all the O’Mahony tower houses in this area were taken by the British and many that were left standing were dealt a final blow by Cromwell’s cannon.

Not much left – but what an incredible position!

The centuries pass. The old Mount Corrin mines are no more. The sizeable population sustained by potatoes was devastated by the Famine. Now the land is grazed by cattle and sheep and a few farm houses dot the landscape. It is a peaceful and beautiful place. Do the walk – you will be in the footsteps of farmers and chieftains, of herders and megalith builders and astronomers, of miners and fisherfolk who have called this place home for thousands of years.

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. Click here to read Amanda Clarke’s account of the Caherurlagh stone, and a curious experience she had there once.

A marriage stone? Wait…I think I might be getting an idea…..

*Both holed stone photographs are by Amanda Clarke

Ancient Calendars

One of West Cork's ancient calendars

One of West Cork’s ancient calendars

We’ve been catching up on our rock art project this week and it’s brought us out into the field. On Saturday the weather was spectacular – crisp, but with a totally blue sky and vibrant colours. See Amanda’s photo of the day here. We spent most of the day just east of Rosscarbery, a picturesque settlement above the water at Rosscarbery Bay, where the birdlife viewing is always a delight.

One of the sites we visited was Bohonagh. Not only does it boast cupmarked stones, but a very fine boulder burial and a stone circle.

Bohonagh Stone Circle

Bohonagh Stone Circle

West Cork is particularly rich in 3000 year old Bronze Age stone circles and most of them are of the ‘axial’ or ‘recumbent’ type. This means that the circle is laid out on an axis that is oriented in a particular direction. On one side of the circle is a stone laid longways – the recumbent stone. Across from the recumbent are the portals: two tall stones that appear to create a doorway into the circle. Sometimes the stones rise in height from the recumbent to the portals, and the portal stones may be set ‘end-on’ to the circle. There are always, therefore, an uneven number of stones – up to 17 have been recorded, although many circles are incomplete, with fallen or missing stones. The purpose of the axis was to provide a line of sight on a sunrise or sunset (and perhaps even moonrise and moonset) at important calendrical points such as solstices and equinoxes.

The portal stones at Bohonagh

The portal stones at Bohonagh

Bohonagh quartz

Quartz at Bohonagh

A feature of these circles is that many of them include quartz rocks: sometimes as one of the circle stones, sometimes as an additional rock in the interior or exterior of the circle, and sometimes on a nearby monument such as a boulder burial. At Bohonagh there were several quartz rocks, including one lying outside the circle and two supporting the boulder burial. In one case, at Ballycommane, we have seen an enormous quartz rock function as the capstone of a boulder burial – quite awe-inspiring in its visual impact. Interestingly, this same phenomenon occurs in a stone circle in Cornwall – Boscawen-Un in the West Penwith Peninsula, not that far from West Cork! As we watched the quartz under the boulder burial glisten in the sun (impossible to capture on a photograph) we knew it had to be seen as a very special stone to the builders of these circles.

Brooding stones at Dunbeacon

Brooding stones at Dunbeacon

Stone circles often command sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. This makes them well worth visiting, even if a goodly hike is involved. Because they are invariably located on private land, it is good practice to try to track down the landowner and request permission, and of course to always close gates and observe good field etiquette on a visit. Don’t be surprised to find that many are no longer intact: the centuries have taken their toll and many of the stones have fallen or disappeared over time. On the upside, this adds to the romantic wildness of the scene.

Gorteanish Stone Circle, re-discovered in the laying out of  the Sheep's Head Way

Gorteanish Stone Circle, re-discovered in the laying out of the Sheep’s Head Way

One of the most famous of the West Cork stone circles is Drombeg, near Glandore. Here, people gather on the winter and summer solstices to witness sunrise and sunset.

Drombeg on a wet day

Drombeg on a wet day

At Bohonagh, the alignment is to the spring equinox sunrise and sunset, due east and west. We plan to be there!