The Stone Circles of West Cork: An Introduction

Southwest Munster, and West Cork in particular, is home to the greatest concentration in Ireland of stone circles. There are two main kinds recorded in the National Monuments website, each making up about half the total number of circles – the multiple-stone circle and the five-stone circle. (There are also a small number of enigmatic monuments called ‘four posters’ which share some features with stone circles, but I will write about them some other time.) 

Peter Clarke’s illustration of the Ardgroom Stone Circle on the Beara, from his online journal, Hikelines

The division based on the number of stones is somewhat arbitrary, since both share most other features. Both have uneven numbers of stones – five in the case of the five-stone circle, and seven or more (up to 19) in the multiple-stone circles.

Our old friend Du Noyer loved to illustrate antiquities. We’re  not quite sure which stone circle this one is**

Both types are axial or recumbent stone circles. The name recumbent comes from the lowest stone in the circle, the only stone set on its side, with its long axis parallel to the ground. All the other stones are set upright and they often increase in size from the recumbent to the portal stones. The portals appear to form an entrance into the circles and are sometimes set end-on to the circle. An axis drawn from the point between the portals to the middle of the recumbent bisects the circle – hence the name axial stone circle. All these features can be seen in the photograph of Drombeg Stone Circle (below).

While the multiple-stones circles appear roughly circular, they may have been laid out using more complicated geometry than the string-marking-out-a-circle technique. Some are more elliptical than truly circular. The five-stone circles, given the dominance of the recumbent, are actually D-shaped.

The five-stone circle which is part of the Kealkill complex

Many of our stone circles have disappeared over time, with only folkloric memory indicating that here was once a circle of stones. Some have lost stones over time, while in others uprights have collapsed. Whole monuments have vanished into forests or dense undergrowth. Even where we still have partial circles it can be difficult to make out which are the portals and which the recumbent.

Upper: Labbamolaga – we think this was a stone circle but so few stones remain that it’s hard to be definitive. Lower: This sad little heap of stones is all that remains of the Ahagilla Stone Circle. The recumbent is to the left and a portal to the right.

The circles are constructed from local stone and in some cases it is easy to see where they have been quarried from nearby rock outcrops. There is no evidence of the builders transporting the stones from elsewhere, with the exception, perhaps of the quartz blocks which are found occasionally either as uprights or associated with the circle inside or outside it. Although quartz is found in abundance in West Cork a large block of it may have been especially prized and reserved for such a situation.

This sizeable quartz block lies beside the Lettergorman Five-Stone Circle

The circles were carefully and deliberately constructed: Fahy’s excavations at Drombeg and Reenascreena shows that the ground was levelled.  Stones were, it seems, selected for shape as well as size. The recumbent is usually flat on top, which may indicate the side closest to the parent rock from which it was split. Some may well have been deliberately shaped by knocking or splitting off sections – we often notice, for example, how well certain uprights mirror the landscape behind them, like the one at Ardgroom, below.

Stone circles are often associated with other monuments, most commonly boulder burials and standing stones, and at least two have radial stone cairns beside them. Some of the standing stones appear to function as outliers to the circle, extending alignments towards solar or lunar orientations (more of that next time).

Upper: This boulder burial is part of a complex of monuments at Bohonagh which also includes a stone circle (visible behind the boulder burial), a cupmarked stone and a standing stone which is no longer to be found. Lower: A standing stone pair (one fallen) at Knocknakilla with (behind it) a five-stone circle (recently fallen over) and a  radial stone cairn – of all the elements of this complex only this standing stone is really visible in the landscape

West Cork stone circles, from the sparse excavation evidence, date from the middle to late Bronze Age (about 1500 to 600BC). They are commonly found on elevated ground with a clear and expansive view southwards, but stretching from the northeast to the southwest – that portion of the sky in which both the sun and the moon rise and set.

This tiny monument is a five-stone circle at Inchybegga. When the grass grows tall enough you can’t see it at all

Our stone circles have always fascinated antiquarians, happy to label them ‘druidic temples’ or make outlandish claims about their construction by visiting Egyptians. Some of the older illustration owe more to the imagination than to accurate depictions.

Templebryan Stone Circle as it actually is (lower) and as depicted by the antiquarian, Clayton, in 1742 (upper). The illustration for Clayton, done by Ann la Bush, shows the fashionable preoccupation at the time for Egyptian-type obelisks. Nevertheless it is important in that it shows that there were more stones in the circle than there are now. Note the central block of quartz

In more recent times, they have been the subject of a great deal of new-age speculation about long-distance ley lines, mystical ‘energies,’ extra-terrestrial builders, associations with pagan goddess cults and the like. As an archaeologist, I think this is a pity, in the sense that these stone circles are fascinating enough as they are – they embody so much that we need to understand about the scientific knowledge, advanced construction technology, and social organisation of the builders. The belief systems that underlie their reasons for constructing these monuments are equally important and more difficult to discern after the passage of millennia, but should be based on close and serious study of the monuments themselves.

Above is the Derreenataggart Stone Circle on the Beara, and below is a much more romantic and monumental rendering of it from Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Ireland (1790s), illustrated by Daniel Grose. My lead image is also a Daniel Grose illustration, this time of a stone circle that once stood on the slopes of Hungry Hill, but which has since disappeared*

The next post in this series will be about the multiple-stone circles.

*The two illustrations by Daniel Gross are from Daniel Grose (c.1766-1838). The Antiquities of Ireland, a supplement to Francis Grose, by Roger Stalley, Irish Architectural Archive 1991
**I now know that this is almost certainly not a West Cork example but Boleycarrigeen in Wicklow (thanks to Ken Williams for the ID)

Off the M8: Fethard Walled Town

Fethard is nestled snugly in Tipperary’s Golden Vale, famously rich agricultural land, and is nowadays well-known for raising legendary race horses. But it also happens to be the town in Ireland with the most intact set of medieval walls. The map above (taken from Fethard’s Conservation and Management Plan) shows how the town would have looked in the 1850s when George Victor du Noyer came through.

We drive the M8 often and we’re always looking for ways to vary the journey, so this post is part of our ‘Off the M8’ series. Fethard is an easy detour: if you’re heading north, leave the M8 at Exit 10 just after Cahir and re-join it at Horse and Jockey or at Urlingford. You’ll be travelling along lovely quiet roads parallel to the motorway and depending on how much time you spend in Fethard, the whole detour should add a couple of hours (or maybe three) to your journey.

Fethard also happens to have some lovely old shop fronts. This one dates to 1770

We started off at the visitor centre in the old Tholsel, or Town Hall. It’s been nicely restored and features an excellent audio-visual presentation, and upstairs many colourful explanatory panels. The staff was friendly and very informative, with an obvious passion for their town and its history.

From the Tholsel Visitor Centre, you look down over Trinity Church and the walls

The town was founded around 1200, and walled soon after, when Edward I granted the right to raise money through what was known as ‘murage grants’. This continued over the next couple of centuries, in fact most of the walls were built (or rebuilt) in the 15th century. We tend to think of town walls as primarily for defensive purposes, and indeed the town was attacked on more than one occasions. But walls were also important demarcations of commerce. The market was held within the walls and according to Tadhg O’Keefe (in the Irish Historic Towns Atlas):

The walls were a barrier through which those wishing to trade in Fethard had to enter, so they articulated, especially with guarded gateways, the differences of privilege and opportunity between those who lived within and those who entered from without.

There is only one gate left, the North Gate, which we actually didn’t see. But when our old friend Du Noyer came through in the 1850s there was still a gate at the west end of the town (below). It guarded the entrance at the bridge known as Madam’s Bridge and had what O’Keefe describes as a rare type of Gate incorporating a three story fifteenth century tower house.

Despite the walls, the town was attacked and burned on several occasion – but not (unlike so many Irish towns) by Cromwell! In fact, the town surrendered, under terms, and was spared the violent destruction that the Parliamentary army visited on so many other Irish towns. This doesn’t exactly make Cromwell popular in Fethard, in fact there is still a tradition in the town that ‘people will not go out the way that Cromwell came in’ so that funerals, for example, take a circuitous route to the cemetery to avoid retracing his tracks.

Like Youghal, the other Irish town with a significant extent of wall, there were tower houses along the wall, and within the town there were fortified town houses. Some are obvious and some are hidden behind more modern facades. Court Castle is one of the obvious ones, but the house next to it, known as the Watergate House, has a base batter that marks it out as fifteenth century (both images, below).

Within the walls and behind the Tholsel is Trinity Church. Because there is so much going on in and around it, I will quote the Buildings of Ireland summary in full:

Like the Town Hall and the Augustinian Abbey, the medieval parish church is a multi-period building of outstanding architectural, archaeological and historical importance. The church stands at the heart of the medieval walled town and the focus for the extraordinary number of late medieval structures arranged around the sides of the graveyard with rear entrances allowing direct access to the graveyard. The size and design of the church reflect Fethard’s prosperity in the medieval and early modern periods, the different types of windows, from different eras, emphasise the continuity of use. The impressive tower, that is highly visible for a considerable distance, is a particularly important and dramatic example of fifteenth-century craftsmanship, and is especially evocative of the medieval era as it stands picturesquely and appropriately inside the almost entirely intact medieval town wall and close to a impressively rare grouping of late medieval houses and almshouses. The interior has a finely crafted timber screen to the vestibule, and at the east end a stained-glass window with Eucharistic motifs, both highly decorative, and showing care and attention in the design as well as the execution. The recently timber roof to the nave, recently dated to of c.1489, is of exceptional importance as it is one of a small number of medieval roofs surviving in Ireland and is almost entirely intact.

Trinity, the graveyard and medieval church remains on the left and the town walls on the right

Unfortunately, the church itself was closed when we were there. It’s still very much in use, though, and there was some tidying up taking place in the graveyard. I’d like to go back for another poke around sometime.

Down by the Watergate we came across one of Fethard’s two Sheela-na-gigs. (See this post for more about the Sheelas). This one is typical – a female figure displaying her genitalia, but unusual in her emaciated form with ribs clearly shown, staring eyes and a grimace. We didn’t have time to see the other one, which means a) you (yes, you, Dear Reader) have to, and let us know and b) we have to go back.

We also met Fethard’s famous geese down here too, along with their owner. They are pets, he told us, but don’t go too near the male as he is guarding the female carefully at the moment as she is just taking a little break from sitting on eggs.

The walls are extensive, with long stretches very much intact. Edmund’s Castle and a mural tower known as Fethard Castle punctuate the wall on the river side.

I was fascinated by the flowers growing all over the walls. I expected Ivy-leaved Toadflax and Wallflowers, but it was fun to see Fairy Foxglove also: it’s an alpine plant and so it likes high rocky places. The only other place I have seen it here is on the Martello Tower at Illnacullen/Garnish Island, off Glengarriff.

Upper: Fethard Tower, with Trinity Church bell tower behind the wall. Lower: Fairy Foxglove growing high on the wall

Because it also happens to be the end wall of people’s gardens, the wall is breached here and there by entries to residences – not something I was expecting to see, and probably not something that would be allowed nowadays.

The wall is part of a living town, so it has not always been considered untouchable

We rounded out our visit with an excellent lunch at Emily’s Tea Room before resuming our journey. Fethard was a surprise – an amazingly intact slice of medieval history!

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Cormac’s Chapel: The Jewel in the Crown (Part 2)

I said I’d be back in a week and it’s been a year! I’ve been working my way through a series of posts on Irish Romanesque architecture (see the bottom of this post for the list so far) and last October I wrote the first of a two part post on Cormac’s Chapel, the Romanesque jewel on the Hill of Cashel in Co Tipperary. Since this is part 2 (unless you’ve read it before and have an amazing memory) go back there now and read up on the Chapel and its history, as well as my detailed description of the exterior.

Illustration by W H Bartlett from The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland by Joseph Coyne and Nathaniel Willis

Right, done that? Great, then come on inside. I was fortunate to visit Cashel last year, when the Chapel was open and I could spend as long as I liked taking photographs inside. This followed many years when it was closed – a conservation measure necessary to address the dampness which plagues stone-roofed buildings. During this open period it was noted that the number of visitors, all emitting carbon dioxide, was having a detrimental effect on the interior, so now it is only accessible during a guided tour and for a limited stay inside. Hopefully, this post will help you see things that you might miss during a short visit, or even items that those excellent guides might not cover.

The interior, looking towards the chancel

This was a royal chapel, used for high ceremonies and built to enhance the prestige of King Cormac. When we think of such edifices, our mind probably pictures a cathedral, but large churches were still in the future in Ireland in the first half of the twelfth century and Cormac’s chapel, although small by European standards, was not outside the normal dimensions of Irish churches of the period. What was important was not its size, but the extraordinary attention to detail and decoration that went into its construction. Moreover, it had a second storey, under the steeply pitched roof. Although we are not completely sure what the functions were of that upper level, it effectively doubled the space available to its users.

The north wall – note the blind arcading and barrel vaulted celing with parallel ribs, and the ornate door that leads to the second storey

Inside, the chapel is a nave and chancel structure, common among Romanesque churches, the only difference being the altar projection at the end of the chancel. The upstairs is accessed through the two square towers (see Part 1) and an ornate door in the north wall opens to a spiral staircase leading up to that floor (not accessible to the public). The size of this door and its elaborately carved orders speaks to its importance in some ceremonial way – O’Keefe says it tempts us to imagine the enactment inside Cormac’s Chapel of some ritual of procession involving relics.* In contrast, the north and south doors, the main entries to the nave, which are ornate on the outside, are relatively plain on the inside.

The nave is barrel vaulted, with parallel ribs running across the ceiling. The walls have blind arcades up to half their height, topped by a string course and a series of columns to support the ribbing. The blind arcade arches are carved with chevrons (above) while the columns between the arcades have irregular checkerboards of chevrons, lozenges and petals (below). The west wall has three windows on its upper stage, although only the middle one admits light now.

Beneath those three windows is a fragment of a large stone box, often described as a sarcophagus, wonderfully carved in the ‘Urnes’ style – a Scandinavian tradition of intertwined animals. Tradition has it that this is the tomb of Cormac himself, and certainly this carving style, although very different from what is found in the rest of the chapel, is probably contemporaneous with it. It was moved to the chapel from the later, Gothic, cathedral, where it was found. Whatever its use, it is a magnificent artefact, the work of a master craftsman.

At the east end of the nave is the chancel arch with four orders. The archivolts of the first order mainly consist of carved heads, each individual and striking. Some are more time-worn than others, but the features can be clearly discerned in many.

The chancel is also rib-vaulted, like the nave, but this time the ribs intersect at a central point, rather than being parallel. Like the nave, the walls have blind arcading above which are further arches and window-openings. Capitals are decorated with scrolls and scallops.

A final arch spans the projection which held an altar. The arcading in this final section is quite elaborate, and two deeply splayed windows provide light to this area.

Once in the chancel area, which has been well lit, you can start to appreciate the vestiges of paintings that would have enlivened the interior of Cormac’s chapel. A conjectural reconstruction of the artwork is provided in an explanatory panel – the chapel must have looked magnificent and colourful indeed. Preserving these precious fragments has been a tremendous effort.

Finally, stand in the nave and take a careful look around – you will see that the chancel is offset to one side of the nave. While some authors have suggested this as a decision to change dimensions midway through the building process (Dermot Bannon’s nightmare) and others have ruminated about mistakes, O’Keefe demurs. It makes a lot more sense, he says, to interpret Cormac’s Chapel as built to plan, and to suggest that the nave widens on the north side to reflect and accommodate the visual spectacles of procession involving both north-side doorways.

Sketch by Richard Lovett, from his Irish Pictures. The ‘offset chancel is clearly seen in this illustration

There you have it – the glorious high point of Irish Romanesque architecture inside and out. If you haven’t been to Cashel yet, there’s a treat in store. And if you have, well, go again, and make sure to sign up for the guided tour that includes Cormac’s chapel.

The interior of Cormac’s Chapel sketched by George Victor duNoyer for George Petrie**

Previous posts on Irish Romanesque architecture

Irish Romanesque – an Introduction

Irish Romanesque 2 – Doorways

Cormac’s Chapel: The Jewel in the Crown (Part 1)

*Once again, I relied heavily on Prof Tadhg O’Keefe’s manuscriptRomanesque Ireland: Architecture and Ideology in the Twelfth Century, which he has generously uploaded to Academia.

**George Victor Du Noyer, “Cormac’s Chapel Cashel. Original sketch for Petrie’s engraving in his book on the Round Towers. Geo V Du Noyer. Delt Nov 1840,” Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, accessed October 21, 2018, http://rsai.locloudhosting.net/items/show/22213

Countdown to West Cork History Festival 2018!

As last year, Roaringwater Journal is very involved in the marvellous upcoming West Cork History Festival. We are both on the organising committee and this year we are leading field trips and chairing sessions, and I am giving a paper (more on that below). The Festival will be held in Skibbereen this week – 16th to 19th of August.

This is St Barrahane from Castletownshend. During the Thursday Field Trip we will be revealing his secret message

We haven’t had a lot to do with the detailed logistics or with the ultimate lineup of speakers – that is the purview of the Founders, Simon and Victoria Kingston. What a force they are! As you can imagine, organising a festival like this is an enormous amount of work and they do it while working full time, with two young children and a life lived between two countries – all while remaining cheerful, focussed, inventive and energetic. Here are Simon and Professor Roy Foster, our keynote speaker, talking last year about the upcoming festival.

Simon and Victoria are next door neighbours to the wonderful Liss Ard Estate. This place is dear to our heart as it’s where we were married, and they have been incredibly supportive of the festival, providing parking and accommodation.

While many of the speakers are academics and writers on the national scene, local historical societies are attending and volunteering and local experts have been persuaded to share their knowledge. The Skibbereen Heritage Centre is a big part of the festival this year, with both Terri Kearney and Philip O’Regan on the program, and William Casey giving a talk and launching a book.

Philip O’Regan of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre leads a walking tour of the historic town. Here he points out the building where O’Donovan Rossa founded his Phoenix Society, forerunner of the Fenians

We are looking forward to the field trips, a new addition this year and a popular one, given how quickly they booked up. Thursday’s focusses on archaeology and history and Friday’s on the Famine and Art.

Coppinger’s Court – these fortified mansions gradually replaced tower houses in the seventeenth century, during of the series of changes from Irish to Planter land ownership

The Festival aims to cover international, national and local themes and this year will, of course, focus partly on the events of 1918, with talks on WWI, Carson and Redmond, Women’s Suffrage and the great Flu epidemic. The Irish Revolutionary Period is the subject of several talks, by both academics and non-professionals, ranging from the hot topic last year, Protestants in West Cork, to the violence suffered by some women during that period.

Inspired by the Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger exhibition currently running at Uillinn/West Cork Arts Centre, there is also a thread that looks at the intersection of art and history. It will be the main focus of Friday’s field trip, and run through sessions on Margaret Clarke, on Gothic art, on George du Noyer and most pointedly in the talk by Niamh O’Sullivan on the Coming Home Exhibition itself.

Stone Circle by George Victor du Noyer

We’re not forgetting the Medieval and Early Modern periods either. Dr David Edwards from UCC is recognised as an expert on Richard Boyle and on this period and his talk on Gaelic politics in the later Middle Ages should be fascinating. But never mind all that politics – what did people actually do back then, and what did they eat, before the advent of the potato?  Dr Susan Flavin is going to tell us that when she talks about ‘Food, Drink & Society in 16th century Ireland’.

Richard Boyle, Great Earl of Cork

Lots of local history too – on Cillíní (children’s burial grounds), women in the fishing industry, Sam Maguire and his memorial bells in Dunmanway, Pirates and treasure of the Coast of West Cork, and my own talk on Agnes Mary Clerke who grew up in Skibbereen during the famine and went on to become the most successful science-writer of her day, with a moon crater named in her honour.

Agnes Mary Clerke

That’s just a taster of the talks – there are lots more. And if that wasn’t enough, there are also film screenings, a concert by Jessie Kennedy based on the life of Lady Mary Carbery of Castle Freke, and a poetry reading by none other than Jeremy Irons! How can you resist that voice?

So if you don’t have your tickets yet, get them now. Yes, you’ll still be able to get them at the gate, but if you want to secure them now, do it online at this link.

Finn McCool’s Causeway

In a recent post this year I said how much we liked to go off the beaten track and find Ireland’s gems hidden away among the narrow boreens of West Cork and elsewhere. But sometimes it’s also worth going to the better known hotspots around the country – and being prepared to regard them objectively in spite of the sometimes intrusive crowds that you might meet along the way.

Last summer our trip around the coast of Northern Ireland took us past the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim. I had never been there before (Finola had) so I was keen to see what all the fuss is about. After all, I knew the causeway had been built by one of Ireland’s greatest heroes – Finn McCool – and that it once extended all the way to Scotland: the other end of it can be seen at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa (Staffa is a Norse word meaning ‘Pillars’ and is named from the rock formations there): the Gaelic name for the cave is An Uaimh Bhinn, meaning ‘the melodious cave.’ It has been suggested that the name ‘Fingal’  is linked to the name ‘Finn McCool’ possibly after an 18th century Scots poet, James Macpherson, wrote an epic poem loosely based around the Finn story. Later, the composer Felix Mendelssohn visited the cave and celebrated it in his Hebrides Overture. It’s worth looking at this Youtube video of the piece as it is well illustrated with dramatic views of the Scottish end of things:

Before leaving Scotland – and this atmospheric music – I was intrigued to find mention of a tradition that the Staffa cave is fully illuminated by the sun on only one day of the year: on or around the 16th of December (quite close to the winter solstice), and the teller of this tale will point out that it was exactly on that day – 16 December – in 1830 that Mendelssohn completed his overture . . .

Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway has been a popular tourist destination for as long as there has been tourism in Ireland. I hadn’t realised that it had been served by a dedicated tramway since the 1880s (the photo above dates from that time). The line, running from the mainline railway at Bushmills, was the world’s first to be powered by hydro-electricity – fed by a generating station at Walkmill Falls near Bushmills via 104 horsepower 78 kW Alcott water turbines providing 250 volts at 100 amps. Sadly, the line closed down in 1949 but has been revamped over the final 3.2 km of the original tramway during the main tourist season, carrying its first passengers at Easter 2002.

Another modern development is the tourism and visitor centre, which opened in 2012: the previous building was burned down in 2000. As an architect (happily retired!) I always take an interest in large public buildings and their design. This one was very controversial when it was mooted, partly because there was concern about the way it was being commissioned – initially it was to have been privately financed and run. In the end funding was raised from the National Trust (who own the site), the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the UK Heritage Lottery Fund and public donations. I think it is a successful building: it has gravitas while also being quite playful with the references to the hexagonal basalt formations of the Causeway. It has to achieve a difficult job: handling thousands of tourists (in 2016 there were 851,000!)  as efficiently as possible while providing a good informed experience.

Top – the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre has a well designed interactive information area. Above – Fare on offer at the Visitor Centre includes basalt column-shaped chips, and souvenir travel sweets!

The popularity of the causeway has ensured that it has been well recorded by artists, topographers and postcard publishers. Here are a few examples, beginning with one of our favourite antiquarians, George Victor Du Noyer.

Top to bottom – George Victor Du Noyer c1850; Thomas Rowlandson c1812; Susanna Drury, c1740; tourist postcard from 1907

The Giant’s Causeway was supposedly discovered by the Bishop of Derry in 1692, and announced to the world the following year when Sir Richard Bulkeley, a fellow of Trinity College Dublin, presented a paper on it to the Royal Society . . . I wonder if he mentioned Finn McCool? Just in case you don’t know this story yourself, here’s a good version of it, narrated by Tom Purves and beautifully accompanied on the Uillinn pipes:

We went fairly late in the season (October) and on a wet and windy day. It was a worthwhile visit and I do recommend it: the Antrim coastline is spectacular enough to warrant the journey, even if the causeway wasn’t there – but what a legend! It links one of Ireland’s best known heroes with the nearby Scottish coastline, and credits him with the creation of both Lough Neagh (Ireland’s largest inland mass of water) and the Isle of Man. Today it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site – in fact the only one in Northern Ireland.

Mizen Magic 8: The Altar

Here’s the Mizen Peninsula shown on a map drawn by Robert for the Bank House tourism centre in Ballydehob and embellished with Peter Clarke‘s exquisite watercolour sketches of just some of the places that should not be missed by visitors to West Cork . . .

. . . And here is another rendering from Peter of one of the ancient sites that everyone goes past when travelling to the far west: possibly one of the most accessible pieces of archaeology on this section of the Wild Atlantic Way. It’s the Altar Wedge Tomb at Toormore Bay.

It’s early February, and Imbolc has passed. That means that Springtime has officially started here in Ireland. Sure enough, we looked out over a sunlit Roaringwater Bay this morning: soon we were heading out towards Goleen, Barley Cove and all points west. We stopped at The Altar and had it all to ourselves. You can see here that it’s orientated towards the Mizen Peak – that sharp little pyramid which is right on the centre of the picture – and lies to the west. For me, there’s a perfectly natural symbolism about placing the dead in a tomb that is aligned on the rising and the setting of the sun: that’s something we still do, several thousand years on!

The upper picture, taken on the Winter Solstice, shows the Mizen stretching away from the heights of Mount Gabriel: the Mizen Peak is the little pointed blip just left of centre. The lower picture looks across the wetlands behind the sand dunes at Barley Cove, and was taken today in the Spring sunlight: the Peak is clearly visible as the highest point. I believe that our forebears attached great importance to high places, as many stone monuments and Rock Art often seem to be placed in the landscape with commanding views towards hilltops. Mike Wilson’s site Mega-What sets out his detailed studies of the orientation of ancient sites within the natural landscape. Here is his analysis of the setting of the Altar Wedge Tomb.

I am always alert for the ways in which our special sites are interpreted for us. I created a bit of a storm a while back when I commended the signage which has been put in place along the Wild Atlantic Way using visually strong corten steel elements (above left) supplemented more recently by (in my opinion) very well designed information boards. The image on the right above is from an earlier OPW board which explains the possible early use of the wedge tomb, while the images below show the new signage, which features the later use of the tomb as a Christian altar during the Penal times (hence the name: The Altar), with a drawing by Sam Hunter. I am struck by the way this monument has been a focal point for differing rituals spanning countless generations.

When writing about archaeological subjects I am always on the lookout for the way that antiquarians saw the sites which we are familiar with today. I had hoped that George Victor du Noyer – the subject of an excellent recent exhibition in Cork’s Crawford Gallery – might have drawn this wedge tomb when he travelled the country for the Ordnance Survey during the early nineteenth century: he may well have done, but the annotation and cataloguing of his vast legacy of work has yet to be completed and I have not found such a record. His drawings below are not of The Altar, but a portal tomb, Ballybrittas in County Wexford. Portal tombs (sometimes known as dolmens) share similarities with wedge tombs, but are earlier, dating from between 3000 BC to 2000 BC, while wedge tombs tend to be associated with the Bronze Age, which followed this period.

Cremated remains were found in Altar Wedge Tomb when it was excavated in 1989 by Dr William O’Brien, now Professor of Archaeology at UCC. We can never know exactly what the significance of these impressive structures was to those who built them. For me, I’m pretty sure that it was connected with their relationships to, and respect of, the landscapes which they inhabited, and which they invested with meaning. They must certainly have paid heed to the passing of the seasons and the continual cycles of nature, and their closeness to all of this must have given them an inherent knowledge of the paths of the sun, moon and stars. Above all, our ancestors had to understand and appreciate the environment around them, and make it work for them. In a practical sense, certainly, but also in terms of the stories they might pass on about the meaning of places.

Above – the magical landscape of the Mizen: we will never tire of it

The tailpiece picture, which is from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Lukeoc88, is a remarkable timeless view of a human construction in the setting of our Universe: Altar Wedge Tomb under the Milky Way.