Standing Stone Pairs: A Visit to Foherlagh

An unexpected delight – a trip on a Sunny October afternoon to visit a very fine standing stone pair in Foherlagh, just north of Kilcoe Church and School on the M71, between Skibbereen and Ballydehob.

The trip was suggested by Amanda who was, of course, looking for a holy well, said to be associated with a mass rock. All of these – the standing stone pair, the holy well and the mass rock – were grouped in one place so we had to undertake this expedition! Thus we found ourselves knocking on the door of the genial farmer, Dennis Minihane, who donned wellies right away and took us up the hill behind his house.

The view from the top of the hill

We had no idea what would greet us, but as we ascended it dawned on us that the views were pretty spectacular. The standing stone pair came into view, and it was obvious they were enormous. When we reached the top we were greeting by a complete 360 degree panorama – south to the islands of Roaringwater Bay, west to Mount Gabriel, east to Baltimore and north to the hinterland. Kilcoe Castle glowed gently in the foreground, while far away we recognised the distinctive pyramid shape of the Mizen peak at the end of the Peninsula.

Looking toward the end of the Mizen Peninsula

Standing stone rows and pairs are a phenomenon of south west Ireland, and this part of West Cork has many examples. While there are about seventy rows of three to five stones (such as the Fingers at Garranes near Castletownsend, or the Maughnasilly row), there are over a hundred stone pairs, of which Foherlagh is a particularly fine example. Invariably their long axis (that is, standing at one end  and looking along the row or pair) is oriented northeast/southwest. Typically the stones are graded in height, with the taller stone (or tallest, in the case of a stone row) at the southwest end.

Garranes stone row, known as The Fingers, near Castletownshend

Sometimes stone pairs are associated with other monuments. We’ve visited, for example, the Kealkill complex, where a stone pair is associated with a five-stone circle and a radial cairn. There’s also the Coolcoulaghta pair, from which the Dunbeacon stone circle is clearly visible.

Upper: The Kealkill complex of monuments; Lower: the Coolcoulaghta standing stone pair (and the most unsympathetically situated electricity pole in Ireland) from which the Dunbeacon stone circle (now sadly coralled by a wooden fence) can be seen

In Foherlagh, however, there are no other prehistoric monuments apart from a single standing stone a few fields away. What there is, is a pointed outcrop which local tradition has identified as a mass rock – see our post Were You at the Rock? for more on this type of monument. The mass rock had a scoop-out in it that may have functioned as a wart well. Amanda was pleased to find this and no doubt will do her usual thorough write-up on Holy Wells of Cork.

The standing stone pair is clearly oriented northeast/southwest. Depending on where you stand, the axis may point to the Mizen Peak (as does the Altar Wedge Tomb further down the Peninsula) or to Mount Gabriel (as do most of the examples of rock art we have examined in this region). Wherever the line points, it is clear that the expansive views are to the south west.

In his examination of stone rows and pairs*, Seán Ó’Nualláin says “The stone rows and pairs then, like the stone circles, are built so that their long axes indicate a general alignment on the sector of the heavens in which the sun roses and sets, and both series tend to group in a position indicating a winter rather than a summer position for the sun.” He might have added that this is also true for the sector in which the moon rises and sets – Maughnasilly row, for example is associated with lunar, rather than solar, orientations.

Maughnasilly stone row on a dramatic day

Ó’Nualláin, based on excavated examples and clear associations, gives a likely Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age date for stone pairs and rows. That would mean they were erected 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Jack Robert’s‘ drawing of the Foherlagh pair, from Exploring West Cork

But what was their function? Perhaps they were yet another element of the calendrical systems that seem to have been a vital part of this early agricultural society. They may also have been used as territory or routeway markers, or as memorial stones for individuals. Some archaeologists have suggested an anthropomorphic element, in that some pairs may represent male and female figures. The pair at Foherlagh were certainly chosen to be very different in shape, although I am left wondering which –  the tall more rounded one or the shorter very square one – might be the more female or masculine figure.

Thank you to Amanda and Peter for suggesting the expedition, Carol for providing the oohs and aahs of a first-time visitor to Ireland, and Dennis for so generously sharing his land and his stories with us.

Amanda and Carol provide scale

Seán Ó’Nualláin, Stone Rows of the South of Ireland, in Proceedings of the Royal Irish AcademyVol. 88C (1988), pp. 179-256. Available on

Future Archaeologists at Work

Kilcoe National School Fourth Class - archaeologists of the future!

Kilcoe National School Fourth Class – archaeologists of the future!

A joint post by Robert and Finola, with additional photographs by Kilcoe National School.

Out of the blue this week came a message though the Roaringwater Journal Facebook page: The pupils of 4th class in Kilcoe NS have completed a history project for Discover Cork: Schools Heritage Project, on Archaeology in their local area. Their model and project book are on display tomorrow Tuesday January 20th from 2-3pm in the school hall. They invite you to come and see their work as you already do so much wonderful research on the area.

Delighted, we headed off to the school and were quite bowled over by what we saw. The students had been on field trips to several different types of monuments – a standing stone, a stone pair, a holy well, a cairn, a fulacht fia, a cillín and a ringfort. They had recorded their visits, their questions, and what they learned about each site. The formal archaeology was of interest to them, but also the stories and traditions about each site. They interviewed elderly community members and landowners and looked up the records for their area from the National Folklore Commission.

Once they had gathered all their notes and photographs they constructed a model showing each of the sites, a scrapbook of their records and drawings, another one showing what they had learned about the prehistoric way of life in West Cork, and a large photograph album charting their progress through the whole project.

Impressive as the work was that the children had put into this project, even more striking was their bubbling enthusiasm for what they had done and learned. Each table was manned by one or more of the students, ready to chat with us, show us the model or the photos, and explain everything. And how articulate and open and bright they were! Smiling and cheerful, but also earnest about their subject and falling over each other to add bits of information. It was totally captivating.

They had hiked up to a cairn – a large and mysterious feature on top of a prominent hill. It was said that you could see 15 churches from it. However, the cairn is now surrounded by tall trees as a result of a forestry plantation and therefore there is no longer any view from it. Local people had protested the plantation at the time, concerned that this cairn and its views should be preserved intact, but had lost the battle. In this write-up, I was touched to see a a photograph of my old friend, Bernard O’Regan, the local amateur archaeologist who, 40 years ago, had taken me to see several of the rock art panels in West Cork.

Visiting the Holy Well

Visiting the Holy Well

What a great project these children undertook – hats off to their teacher and the supportive community. The future for conservation and archaeology in West Cork is in safe hands! A huge thank you to Kilcoe National School for the invitation, and to their official photographer for sharing with us the superb photographs of the field trips.