Mizen Magic 17: Delights of Dunmanus

As we often do, we set out on a sparkling day last month to explore a part of the Mizen we aren’t familiar enough with yet. Our plan consisted of pouring over the OS Number 88 map and having an AHA! moment of realising that we haven’t been to a particular spot. This time, the dart landed on an area just northeast of Dunmanus Castle (seen above from Mount Gabriel), where it looked like there was a trail running along the water that would afford magnificent views of Dunmanus Bay and the Sheep’s Head. Things didn’t go quite as planned. . .

Red line: the trail we wanted to walk. Blue line, the trail we actually walked.
Arrows – yellow, Dunmanus Castle; pink, boulder burial; blue, Killhangel Church

We’ve written about this area before – specifically, in Mizen Magic 13 Robert described the promontory immediately to the northwest of the castle, with its ancient stone walls and its spectacular sea arches. This area has recently been re-fenced and isn’t as easy to access as it was.

The Castle and bridge from the promontory

The Castle, of course, is the most prominent landmark in this area. Built by the O’Mahony’s in the 15th century, it is a classic early ‘raised entry’ type of tower house, with complicated internal architecture that allows restricted access to different parts of the building at different levels – including to an oubliette. My post When is a Castle..? has a good description of these kinds of castles, typical of West Cork.

But today we were heading away from the Castle, towards the townland of Knockeens, where, on the map, we could see this promising trail. But you can’t just go right there – a little meandering is always in order when you’re in countryside this beautiful and this interesting.

So we stopped to admire the Dunmanus boulder burial (it’s the rock in the lower left of the photograph above). Boulder burials are Bronze Age monuments, although they may have been used for purposes other than to mark burials. See my post Boulder Burials: a Misnamed Monument? for more about this intriguing group of archaeological sites, more widespread in West Cork than other parts of the country, and often associated with stone circles or standing stones. This one is unusual in that it is low-lying (most are in more commanding positions) and the base gets covered at high tides.

Crossing over an unnamed stream that rises on Mount Gabriel and empties into the sea here, we arrive at the point where we can leave the car and proceed on foot.

A short walk up an old boreen leads us to a clachán – a tiny settlement of houses, now all in ruins. The residents had magnificent views back down to the bay in their day, but as people say around here, you can’t eat scenery and the families who lived here are long gone to a better life elsewhere.

Just beyond the clachán we ran into our roadblock – an enormous puddle extended over the path. It was too deep to walk through and the boreen was fringed with thick gorse bushes we couldn’t push past. Stymied, we decided to climb up above the path and look for a way around. Easier said than done – between stands of gorse, boggy patches to go around (or sink into), sheep paths that went nowhere, we spent an hour or so wandering around the hillside and finally admitted defeat.

It wasn’t wasted time though – it was wonderful to be out in the crisp air, surrounded by all the magnificence of the Mizen, thinking about the generations who had wrested a subsistence out of that unpromising land. When we finally got back to the car we decided to see if we could approach the trail from the other side, and set off in that direction.

Looking across to the Sheep’s Head

Along the way we had a quick stop at the ruined late-medieval Kilheangul Church (Church of the Angels). It’s a special little spot that deserves a post of its own someday, so I won’t say much about it now. This photograph of it was taken in the summer.

By the time we arrived at the other end of the trail, beside a small pier, it was starting to get dark, as befits a January afternoon, so discretion dictated that we leave the rest of the adventure to another day. 

The day started out to be about walking the trail – it ended up being about everything around it. That’s the thing about the Mizen – the journey is the destination. 

 

A Little Adventure

Arderrawiddy a Portal Tomb

Aderrawinny – a Portal Tomb

The landscape of West Cork is so densely populated with archaeology and historical sites that it will be a lifetime’s work to visit every one. Whenever the sun shines – and often when it doesn’t – we are out exploring. A great resource for us is the Archaeological Survey Database, set up by the National Monuments Service of Ireland. This lists and describes every site in the Republic which has been recorded to date – and it is expanding all the time. I have to say that the way it works in practice is slightly clumsy: you have to know which County and which Townland you are searching in, but once you have got your head around it it is fairly straightforward to locate a record. One of the really good things about it is that you can see the position of each record laid over the modern Ordnance Survey mapping of Ireland, or historic 6″ and 25″ maps – and even over satellite views of the terrain: all this makes locating the sites relatively easy, although it doesn’t help overcome bogs, barbed wire fences and seemingly impenetrable undergrowth.

Prehistoric Landscape West of Schull

Prehistoric Landscape West of Schull

We have been researching Megalithic tombs, and there are many of these on the Mizen Peninsula. On Sunday last we compiled a list from the Survey Database, donned our boots, filled up our flasks and went out to tackle the wild unknown…

View from Arderrawiddy

View from Aderrawinny

Our first stop was in the townland of Aderrawinny – a Portal Tomb. The site is shown north of the Schull to Goleen road, up in a rocky hillside. In spite of having looked carefully at the maps it wasn’t easy to locate precisely, but I find you begin to get an instinct about these things and we headed off expectantly across boggy land and through painful patches of gorse and bramble, pausing frequently to examine every outcrop for undiscovered Rock Art. Eventually our travails were rewarded when we crested a low ridge and found ourselves looking down on a lonely construction created perhaps 5,000 years ago. It’s a humbling experience to think of the history which has befallen our ancestors during those millennia: through it all this little monument to humanity has survived with little change, eternally pointing its entrance to the movements of the sun and having always in its sight the distant blue waters of Toormore Bay. The landscape, also, has changed so little, apart from the minor interventions of agriculture. This is what makes the west of Ireland such a special place – for me, at least.

5,000 year old Monument

5,000 year old Monument

We travelled on, passing by the well known and well signposted Altar Tomb, a Wedge Tomb which is constructed so that the setting sun around Samhain (November) is aligned with a holy peak at the far end of the Mizen.

Altar Wedge Tomb: Sacred Orientation

Altar Wedge Tomb: Sacred Orientation

We found another Wedge Tomb near Goleen: this has been ‘domesticated’ because somebody’s garden is built around it: it has to share its presence with chicken runs and a wheelbarrow.

Back Yard Wedge Tomb

Back Yard Wedge Tomb

Lastly, we searched out another type of tomb: a Boulder Burial. This lies almost drowned in a salt marsh near Dunmanus. Since the time of its construction water levels are reckoned to have risen by up to two metres. It reposes like some great amphibian reptile on a watery bed, as dramatic in its own way as any of the other Megaliths.

Drowning Monument: Boulder Burial at Dunmanus

Drowning Monument: Boulder Burial at Dunmanus

These hillsides, mountains and monuments will outlive humankind. Interesting to ponder whether something we have created in our own lifetime could still be around and – for all we know – still performing its original function in 5,000 years’ time…