West Cork Rocks

It certainly does! But this post is – literally – about rock: the hard, knobbly kind that is underneath us, surrounds us, and which has historically built our environment. In the picture above, taken on a clear February day during the most severe Covid lockdown, Finola is walking through beautiful West Cork. Beyond her is the great, gaunt outcrop of Mount Gabriel. Beside her is a traditional stone wall: its design unchanged over centuries. In the landscape all around her are rocks – large and small – scattered in the rough pasture.

In the distance, of course, is the coast: there are very few places in West Cork where you cannot, at least, catch a glimpse of the sea – and so many where you can immerse yourself in it, or stand on its shore and admire the infinite textures which those same rocks display. It’s mostly Old Red Sandstone: that’s the correct geological term. It was laid down in the Devonian period – a while ago now: between 400 and 300 million years, in fact. This followed an era during which our mountains were built, known as the Silurian times. Continents were shifting and separating, and what was to become Ireland was a great arid desert – deserted: there was no-one around to see it!

Old Red Sandstone: in fact it varies in colour depending on its local history. Broadly, some of the mountain rocks are purple-grey, while those closer to the sea could be greeny-red, but that is probably far too wide a generalisation. The sheer beauty is in the infinite shapes and colours. What artist needs any finer palette?

In those deserted times, an ‘Old Red Sandstone Continent’ extended over what is now northwest Europe, but it is worth noting that in ‘our’ part of it – the Munster Basin, covering today’s Kerry and Cork – we have one of the densest masses of this rock in the world: at least 6 kilometres thick. And we have to appreciate what it has given to us – high mountain spines sweeping steeply down to an indented shoreline of coves, creeks and inlets, with the myriad mottled islands that we oversee. An unparalleled, unfolded world.

After the ‘desert’ period, but much later – only about a million and a half years ago – came the Pleistocene Epoch. the word is from the Greek polys and cene – meaning ‘most recent’ – and that brings us almost up to date. That was a time of great climate events: deserts were inundated and then covered in ice sheets 3 kilometres thick, while moving glaciers tore up the rock surfaces, advancing and retreating several times. Eventually, what had been desert became arctic tundra. It is supposed that the ancestors of our present day life forms happened along during this epoch, and managed to survive. But we don’t find any traces of them until after the last ice sheet retreated in our part of the world – only about 12,000 years ago. The landscape that was left behind was inundated by rising sea levels, and the very last land bridge (between Cornwall and the eastern tip of Wexford) was washed away after that, but not before the Giant Elk and its mammal relations had got a foothold on the western side. The snakes, however, didn’t make it. And what of the humans?

Well, the humans embraced the rocky landscape. They made their marks on the outcrops; then they moved the rocks about, and made architecture from them. We can still see their efforts, some 5,000 years later.

These Neolithic carved motifs could be the earliest human interventions on the natural Irish landscape: they might date from 3,000 BC. These examples are from West Cork, and were only discovered a few years ago. Finola wrote the definitive thesis on Rock Art when she studied at UCC in the 1970s, and we have staged exhibitions and given talks on the topic.

A couple of thousand years later, Irish people started to build things with the stones they found around them. This wedge tomb under the backdrop textures of Mount Gabriel at Ratooragh has rested here since the Bronze Age. Finola’s post today uncovers the fascinating folklore stories that generations have told about such artefacts. But restlessly working the fabric of the landscape – Old Red Sandstone – into walls, shelters, tower houses, temples and towns has never ceased.

The Irish Elk

Megaloceros seen in Cahir Castle

Megaloceros seen in Cahir Castle

Have you seen an Irish Elk? It’s not something I’ve bumped into…

You’d know it if you had! Megaloceros Giganticus stood over two metres high at the shoulders and had antlers up to four metres wide. It was the largest Deer that ever roamed the Earth.

And it was Irish?

It actually lived all over Europe – and in Russia and China. But the best fossilised examples have been found in Ireland, preserved in the peat bogs.

Giant Elk

Have you seen an Irish Elk?

I certainly have: there are some whole skeletons in the wonderful Natural History Museum in Dublin, but their antlers hang in many a hall – by which I mean a ‘Baronial’ hall or castle. They seem to have been popular trophies to have mounted on the wall along with all the Foxes and Salmons that didn’t get away… And these ‘trophies’ became sought after in the boom years: Christie’s sold a pair of antlers for £52,850 in 2001, and another pair from Powerscourt, Co Wicklow, sold for £77,353 in 2005.


Dublin’s Natural History Museum

Trinity's pair of irish Elks - female and male

Trinity’s pair of Irish Elks – female and male

But trophies means that someone would have hunted them. Surely they were never around at the same time as people?

It’s a good chance they were. The latest dating of Megaloceros is around 5,000 BC, although others assert that they died out several Millennia before that. The first humans are supposed to have settled in Ireland around 8,000 BC – the Mesolithic period.

Lascaux Cave Painting - estimated to be 17,300 years old

Lascaux Cave Painting – estimated to be 17,300 years old

And why did they die out?

There are a few theories: being hunted – not being able to adapt to changing climates and environments – or simply that their antlers were too big…

I like that theory…

Yes. We saw this one at Ballymaloe – but it wasn’t on the menu!

Ballymaloe Trophy

Ballymaloe Trophy

Such a shame that it doesn’t still exist.

True… although it might be a bit scary if you met it on the slopes of Mount Gabriel!

Along with Ireland’s last Wolf?


Closest relation: Canadian Bull Moose (Robert Bateman)

Closest relation alive today: Canadian Bull Moose (Robert Bateman)

But you know…


I read that some scientists believe that if they found a good enough specimen – preserved in the permafrost perhaps – they could extract enough DNA to re-establish the species through cloning. And others, too: Mammoths maybe, and Sabre-Toothed Tigers.

So, one day, our view from Nead an Iolair could be enhanced by a herd of grazing Giant Elks.

Now, there’s a thought…

I’ll give the last word to Seamus Heaney – who found inspiration in Megaloceros:

We have no prairies

To slice a big sun at evening–

Everywhere the eye concedes to

Encrouching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye

Of a tarn. Our unfenced country

Is bog that keeps crusting

Between the sights of the sun.

They’ve taken the skeleton

Of the Great Irish Elk

Out of the peat, set it up

An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under

More than a hundred years

Was recovered salty and white.

The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,

Missing its last definition

By millions of years.

They’ll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks

Of great firs, soft as pulp.

Our pioneers keep striking

Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip

Seems camped on before.

The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.

The wet centre is bottomless.

(Bogland, Seamus Heaney 1969)

meg stamp