The Best of Five

It’s been five years! That’s a long time to have kept up a journal, with original pieces appearing every week – usually two, each of us writing a post. It keeps us busy: 464 posts to date. We thought we should do a review of the posts which have been most popular: viewed by the most people. These are not necessarily the ones we would consider to be our own favourites: we’ll let you know what we feel our ‘finest hour’ has been next week – while you are all preparing the Christmas lunch!

We never quite understood the all-time popularity of Beyond Leap, Beyond the Law, my post which was simply a collection of photos taken at the West Cork village’s 2015 Scarecrow Festival – with a little bit of history about the place added in. It was certainly a wonderful display of the imagination of the people of Leap. Have a look at the post: just one or two photographs don’t do it justice.

Up next is Finola’s piece from 2016 – Outposts of Empire. This was a much more scholarly article, and involved a lot of research. As you must know, we never pass a church or a burial ground without a full investigation: they provide a wealth of local history. Finola became fascinated by the memorials – mainly military – which appear in Protestant churches around the country. This led her down the path of her own ancestors, many of whom served in the Irish regiments of the British forces. She found this wonderful photo from around 1900 of her Brabazon forebears. Her grandmother Marie is in the centre of the back row, while her great grandfather John Edward Brabazon, who had served in India and Afghanistan, wears a military medal. The two younger men are Finola’s great uncles Michael and James, and they are wearing the uniform of the Royal Hibernian Military School.

Finola’s series on ‘how to speak like a West Cork person’ was a winner, the most popular being her fifth episode: How Are You Keeping? Here is a link to all of them. They make amusing reading, but at the same time they give a lot of insights as to how the Irish language has coloured the way English is spoken here. And here is Finola’s great picture from that post: two Skibbereen gentlemen who might well be asking how are you keeping?

Archaeology comes next, with my account of a most eccentric decorated chambered cairn within the Boyne Valley complex: Fourknocks – the Little Giant. I was particularly taken with the adventure of visiting this tomb, from the first moment of having to collect the key from a farm a mile away in order to let ourselves in, to the experience of being inside with the door shut behind us: total darkness at first, but gradually becoming aware of the remarkable 5,000 year-old zigzag carvings on the rock surfaces within.

I’m pleased that the fifth most popular post of all time is also the one I most enjoyed writing: Aweigh in Kerry. This was all about a very unusual piece of architecture which we found while travelling in Kerry – a house shaped like a ship, sitting in the sand dunes on the shoreline of Ballycarnahan townland, facing a most spectacular view across to Derrynane, the home of ‘Ireland’s Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell. I was an architect in a former life, and I would have welcomed a commission such as this. It was built in the early 1950s.

Sixth and last in this little review is a post from Finola (happily, we had three each in this list of the top most popular posts!): Castle Haven. Such an account of a place in magical West Cork – which typically offers everything anyone could want in beautiful landscape, village architecture, archaeology, history, literary heritage, art and the omnipresent Atlantic coastline – is exactly what we aspired to for the foundation stone of Roaringwater Journal when we set out, in 2012 on this happy, continuing journey.

 

Fourknocks – the Little Giant

Interior

For our own Easter Monday celebration – while staying in Dublin – we took a trip out to Fourknocks. This is a decorated chambered cairn within the Boyne Valley complex, but very much a ‘little brother’ to the better known attractions of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.

key

Only in Ireland would you be instructed to travel a mile down the road to pick up the key to a 5,000 year old monument (leaving a 20 Euro deposit for its safe return) and let yourself in by unlocking a heavy steel door that guards the way into the passage… But don’t be put off: it’s so well worth the effort. With luck you will be the only visitors and you will have the place to yourself – apart from the sheep families who share the field with Fourknocks. The name probably means ‘The Cold Hills’ – that’s the translation of the Irish Fuair Cnoc

sheep

Fourknocks was unknown to archaeologists until a chance conversation in 1949, when a woman making a visit to Newgrange mentioned, “there are mounds like this on my uncle’s farm…” The site was then explored and excavated by Archaeologist P J (Paddy) Hartnett in the early 1950s. You can read the full excavation report* online, by signing on to JSTOR. Like all the Boyne Valley Neolithic monuments, the mound had collapsed inwards and the dig involved removing layers of earth and fallen stone, analysing the spoil material and working out how the original structure had been put together. It’s methodical, scientific – and pretty dry reading! However, I couldn’t help being completely entranced as I imagined spectacular carved stones gradually being revealed, unexpected artefacts being turned up, and the unusual dimensions of the central chamber being realised.

excavationdiagram

P J Hartnett’s excavation diagram – from his report published in 1957

This ‘pear shaped’ central chamber measures 41.92 sq metres in area, considerably bigger than those at Newgrange (16.50), Knowth (20.21) and Dowth (15.21). However, the mound itself is relatively small – a ‘pimple’ on the hillside with a diameter of only 19 metres (Newgrange has a diameter of 85 metres). Yet, when you stand on top of Fourknocks, you understand its significance – there are panoramic views in every direction over countryside, ocean and mountains. You might expect to see the other Boyne Valley monuments but in fact they are hidden by a ridge, so this one enjoys splendid isolation in every respect.

Pan 2

Pan 4

Pan 5

P1210637

Cardinal Points: panoramic views in all directions from the mound of Fourknocks

Something else that’s unusual about Fourknocks is the way it has been reconstructed. Restoration of Archaeological structures has often been controversial. In Ireland the most notable example is Newgrange itself: Professor Michael J O’Kelly, who was in charge of the works there from 1962 to 1975, imagined that large numbers of white quartz stones which were found in and around the collapsed mound could have been used to face the entrance wall and duly designed the reconstructed passage tomb around this premise. He was (and still is) criticised for this ‘leap of faith’ – but, for me, the result is entirely justified: whether or not the original structure did look like this is perhaps irrelevant, as it has bequeathed to us such a visually iconic and powerful symbol of Neolithic Ireland…

Above and left: the great passage grave of Newgrange before excavation, Right: the iconic face of the restored monument today (image courtesy of Our Irish Heritage)

At Fourknocks the excavations did not prove that the chamber was ever roofed over. Certainly there was stone corbelling to suggest that this might have been attempted, but it is unlikely that the large span of the central court could have been enclosed in this way with the available technology, and the weight of the number of stones. However, complete enclosure is likely to have been a necessity, and a central post hole – which would have accommodated a large timber pillar – was found: Hartnett suggests that the roof covering was completed using light timber rafters and thatch. Rather than simulate this, a solution has been employed which is entirely modern – but, in fact, as imaginative as O’Kelly’s ideas at Newgrange: a reinforced concrete shell roof has been cast completley around and above the excavated structure. So what we see today as the ‘mound’ is a concrete dome which has been turfed over.

Open Door: the entrance to Fourknocks chamber outside and inside

But this 1950s innovation is far cleverer than it might seem. Cast into the new shell are holes and slits which project limited shafts of daylight into the otherwise unlit chamber. Each shaft has been carefully orientated to cast natural light on to one of the spectacular examples of megalithic art which are the showstoppers of this monument.

zaggy

To properly experience the unique adventure of Fourknocks, go inside and – be brave – shut the heavy door behind you. Immediately you are in darkness, and disoriented. But wait: as your eyes adjust, the chamber comes alive.

zigs

The subtle shafts of daylight filtering through the roof perforations focus on their targets and, gradually, you realise that you have entered a gallery of startling images – images made by our ancestors thousands of years ago…

concentric

As Rock Art enthusiasts, our particular interests lie in the cupmarks, concentric circles and other carvings found on outcrops and boulders dispersed over the Irish (and British) landscape: it’s fascinating and intriguing – but should we call it Art? Perhaps those marks have been made as signposts, to define territory, or to provide information to passing visitors – we just don’t know. But, with the carvings at the Boyne Valley monuments there can be no doubt: their purpose is to startle, impress and delight – Art, with a capital A! Fourknocks is such a good example of megalithic or passage grave art, not because of its quantity or complexity (you’ll find far more elsewhere) – but because of the context: the fact that you can stand there on your own and be startled, impressed and delighted – without the intervention of artificial lights, interpretation centres or display boards. It’s just you and the Neolithic mind in there.

Chambers 3

Fourknocks, the Newgrange complex, Loughcrew, Carrowkeel: there is even a passage tomb in our view from Nead an Iolair – over on Cape Clear Island and it produced a fine example of megalithic art, now in the Cork Public Museum. What were they for? In spite of being sometimes called passage graves or passage tombs we can’t assume necessarily that interment was their primary purpose, although significant human remains were found at Fourknocks, including cremations, skulls and bone fragments. Many of these are dated much later than the main structure – Bronze Age rather than Neolithic – suggesting a continuing use of and respect for the monuments over long periods of time. I hope we always retain that respect: the risk of the unsupervised access that we can enjoy at Fourknocks is a vulnerability of the site. Sadly, there is graffiti apparent on some of the stones, although this may be historic.

two sided

I could find no trace of folklore, legends or stories relating to Fourknocks. This is unusual for an ancient site in Ireland. Perhaps it’s because the place was lost to all but very local human memory for so long. Apart from the restored mound there appears to be either two or three other disturbed earthworks close by but not accessible – could this be the origin of ‘four’ cnocs (hills)?

effect 1

not a face

For more excellent photographs of this monument have a look at Ken William’s work in Shadows and Stones. If you are passing this way – as we were – perhaps on your journey to see the marvels of Brú na Bóinne, don’t hesitate to look out this wonder of the megalithic world- it’s a little giant!

Below: P J Hartnett at the excavation of Fourknocks, 1951

P J Hartnett

Excavation of a Passage Grave at Fourknocks, Co Meath: P J Hartnett – Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature Vol 58 (1956/1957), pp 197-277