Labbacallee

rookery

My strongest memory of our visit to Labacallee wedge tomb, Co Cork, earlier this summer was the rookery above it. Our presence seemed to make this multitude of large black birds restless: there was a constant movement over our heads – a mixing up of flapping feathers, wind in the still bare branches and screeching protests. These are the unpaid guardians of this monument, apparently the largest of its kind in Ireland, with a long documented history and a wealth of folklore.

labbacallee view

Labacallee today: it must once have been an impressive and dominant feature on an open landscape. Now it has been closed in by fields, trees and a byroad running north out of Fermoy. In the foreground is a cairn, possibly made in relatively modern times from material excavated from the monument

Finola has written about wedge tombs. She calls them The Last of the Megaliths: court-tombs, portal-tombs and passage-tombs are slightly earlier constructions, built before c2000 BC, while wedge tombs date from some 500 years after this. According to the Archaeological Inventory of County Cork Volume 1 (Stationery Office Dublin 1992) …The more numerous and widespread wedge-tombs are relatively small and simple constructions, so called because of an increase in height and width from the chamber rear to the entrance front. They generally face in a south-westerly direction, an orientation they share with stone circles and stone rows…

labbacalle back end

The east facing – and narrower – end of the wedge tomb

Labacallee is enormous, especially if you are only familiar with examples such as Altar, west of Goleen (itself sizeable) or our own more domesticated version at Kilbronogue, a neighbouring townland:

kilbronogue-wedge-tomb

A more ‘human scale’ wedge tomb at Kilbronogue, West Cork: many thanks to Stephen Lynch, a near neighbour, for looking after this example and allowing us access

Labbacallee – the name seems to be from the Irish Leaba Caillighe – ‘the bed of the witch’ – measures some 14 metres by 8 metres overall. It has a series of upright stone ‘walls’ supporting three capstones. The largest of these measures 5 metres by 2.5 metres and is a metre in thickness: it must weigh at least 10 tons. These stones house three ‘chamber’ enclosures.

tomb plan

Plan of Labbacallee wedge tomb drawn following the excavation by H G Leask and Liam Price in 1934, from Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Volume 43

The tomb has been recognised as an important site in British and Irish archaeology over a long period. English antiquary John Aubrey, who lived from 1626 to 1697 (and who was incidentally described as “Shiftless, roving and magotie-headed…”) is recognised as one of the first serious recorders of historic sites. He was also a keen collector of folklore and, like me, felt that the stories that local people told about the monuments around them were valuable insights into perceived history.

John Aubrey and a drawing of Labbacalle  he published in 1693. While you can see in the drawing the principle of a chamber constructed of upright stones and roofed with large slabs, there is very little resemblance in the drawing to the structure itself (which was anyway in a ruinous state in Aubrey’s lifetime). It has been suggested that Aubrey obtained the sketch – or a verbal description of the tomb – from a Mr Gethyng who lived close by it
A drawing from the1897 work The Dolmens of Ireland, their Distribution, Structural Characteristics, and Affinities in Other Countries; together with the folk-lore attaching to them and traditions of the Irish people by William Copeland Borlase 1848 -1899. This Cornish antiquary and politician spent part of his life in Ireland so it is likely that he did visit the tomb. Certainly the drawing is more true to life than Aubrey’s. After what has been described as ‘high living’ Borlase died in disgrace, having been involved in scandal and bankruptcy
Artistic interpretations of a subject: views of Labbacallee dating from 1827 (top), 1844 (below left) and 1845 (below right by George Wilkinson)

The first full scientific examination and excavation of the tomb was carried out in 1934 under the supervision of H G Leask, using workers paid one guinea per week as part of a government unemployment relief plan. According to the excavation report, at this time the smallest chamber was filled to the top with rubble, including earth, stones, ash and the bones of animals and humans. When these were cleared a skeleton of a woman was exposed, together with a bone pin which might have fastened a garment or shroud. The woman’s skull was missing but later found upright (as though on display?) in the large main chamber. One of the leg bones of the skeleton was deformed: this led to the speculation that her handicap may have set her apart in life, giving her a status that was either feared or revered: she might have been ‘marked out as a witch’.

labercalle excavators

Leask’s excavation team in 1934 (top) and (left) his drawing of the headless skeleton as found; (right) the separated skull of the ‘witch’

I am fascinated that ‘folk’ or oral traditions survive through generations, centuries and even millennia. In the case of Labbacallee, we know that the name existed back in Aubrey’s time – over three hundred years ago – and was undoubtedly well established by then. Could it be that the name – ‘bed of the witch (or hag)’ – was the persisting memory of the interment of an important person, perhaps a priestess or shaman, from very ancient times?

hag's bed

The Hag’s Bed – the main chamber in the monument, where the skull was found

While the excavators were exploring Labbacallee they found evidence to suggest that the tomb (or part of it) had been an occupied dwelling at some point during its history. The notion that some historic and prehistoric monuments were (or are still) the dwelling places of the Old Ones, or The Other Crowd – supernatural beings possibly descended from ancient invaders of Ireland – or had in fact been used in some way by practitioners of magic – is not unknown. Borlase’s 1897 work on The Dolmens of Ireland… included this illustration (albeit from the Netherlands) of ‘A ‘White Woman’ (wise woman or witch?) prophesying from a dolmen-mound’. It’s not a big leap to the idea of a witch being buried in a wedge tomb.

whiteWoman borlase

Legends specific to a ‘hag’ of Labbacallee suggest that she was married to a druid, Mogh Ruith, who ‘had an eye’ for the hag’s sister. In a fit of jealously the hag chased the druid towards the River Funchion. He reached the water and started to cross it: the hag threw an enormous boulder which struck the druid, toppling him and pinning him down under the water. As far as we know, he’s there to this day!

labbacallee stones

Stories in stone: Labbacallee landscape

Another story specific to Labbacallee also involves a drowning – and a warning! This version is from theirishplace.com:

…Whatever the provenance and history of the remains found in the Labbacallee Wedge Tomb, there is no doubt that it is a site around which legends abound. One of the most pervasive legends tells that one day, very long ago, four local men went to the tomb in the middle of the night, with the aim of digging for the treasure that they had heard was buried there. As they started to dig, it is said that an enchanted cat appeared, fire bursting from its tail, terrifying the men, who were dazzled by the light emitting from it. Panicking, they ran screaming from the scene, and in the ensuing panic one fell into the nearby river (Funchion) and drowned. The remaining men lived to tell the tale, and their experience stood as a stark warning to others that they should never, under any circumstances, disturb the resting place of the long dead at this most mysterious of megalithic sites…

labbacallee shadows

 

Liscarrol: Cork’s Keepless Castle

Liscarrol walls and towers

As soon as the Normans arrived in Ireland (1169) they set about building enormous fortifications, the like of which had never been seen in this country before. Dublin Castle was typical, but not a lot remains to be seen of the original shape. More accessible is Limerick Castle – a space enclosed by imposing stone walls with corner towers and a strong gatehouse. Few of these very early castles remain. Leask, in his Irish Castles, termed them keepless castles, since they had no central tower houses or keeps. (Regular readers of Roaringwater Journal will recall several earlier posts about castles – these refer almost exclusively to the much smaller tower houses, most of which date to the 15th century and later. See When is Castle…? Tower House Tutorial Part 1 and Part 2, and Illustrating the Tower House.)

Trim Castle with Keep

Trim Castle in Co Meath is one of our best examples of an early Norman castle with a central keep

Alongside the keepless castles, and gradually taking over in popularity, were built those in which a tower, or keep, was the dominant feature located inside those high curtain walls. These great Norman castles were the predominant form during the late 12th and early 13th century. However, in the late 13th century, for some reason, keepless castles experienced a resurgence and several were built around the country. Most of these are in a ruined state and of course some have entirely disappeared or been so altered as to be unrecognisable.

Liscarrol front elevation

In the middle of the village of Liscarrol in North Cork – this!

But there’s one (and only one) in Cork and it has has retained all its magnificent features. On a recent trip to Duhallow (mostly looking for holy wells with Amanda and Peter of Holy Wells of Cork) we rounded a corner on a country road approaching the village of Liscarrol and there it was – as unexpected as it was jaw-dropping!

bawn walls

Note the splayed base batter of the walls, providing a solid foundation

Liscarrol Castle was probably built in the mid-13th century by the De Barry family but eventually passed into the possession of the Percevals in the 17th century. It was besieged by an Irish army of loyalists in 1642, but was eventually subdued and retaken by the parliamentarians under Sir Hardress Waller, whereupon it was again occupied by the Percevals who owned it into recent history.  James N Healy, in his magisterial The Castles of County Cork provides a detailed account of the back-and-forth sieges of the 1640s, as well as a charming sketch of the castle as it was in the early 1980s, when the key could be obtained from a local pub.

Liscarrol by Healy

It was extensively repaired and stabilised by the Office of Public Works (OPW) on several occasions in the 20th century. The sad state of the walls can be seen in a picture from The Illustrated Dublin Journal of 1862.

Liscarrol from Illustrated Dublin Journal

The Illustrated Dublin Journal is available online through the kindness of the University of Illinois

There are several older illustrations of Liscarrol Castle and they show two features that are no longer obvious today. The first is a moat, which must have been drained a long time ago as the ground is dry around the walls.

Liscarrol Castle drawing

The second is an outermost fortification known as a ravelin – a triangular projection that would have been the first line of defence in front of the entry tower.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Both illustrations above are courtesy of the National Library

Rubble Construction

A section through the wall showing the rubble construction between outer facings of worked stone

How did a keepless castle work? Quoting Prof Tadgh O’Keefe of DCU, the description of Roscommon Castle (another of the keepless castles) has this to say:

Earlier on in the 13th century, two Royal castles in Ireland at Dublin and Limerick were built- the first castles in Europe that were built as keepless castles with an encircling wall that included towers. The emphasis in castle design here was on the encircling curtain wall. This wall included large barrel towers used as storage and partly living space, with emphasis on a residential gate house.

postern gate

The enclosure of these castles then contained further buildings, possibly built from wood or mud. The move to a keepless castle design seems meaningless to us today until we start thinking about the difference this would have made in terms of castle defence.

castle behind bars

The interior of this enormous enclosure is now home to some bullocks

In a castle with a keep, the attacker would have stormed and overcome the walls first, and then attacked the keep where all defenders would have withdrawn to now. Defending the keep was dependent on a single gate/ door holding up, and the bawn then had to be re-captured as well. In a keepless castle, defenders withdrew into the super thick walls themselves, supported by food storage and living space in the towers. The walls contained arrow loops facing both sides of the walls, meaning both the bawn AND the outside of the castle could be defended at an advantage. So, in fact, the move to a keepless castle design was an ingenious innovation providing super safe castles.

Entrance tower

The entrance tower would have provided living space for the De Barrys and the Percevals. Note the garderobe chute high on the walls, and the entrance off the battlements

The entrance is one of the most impressive aspects of the castle. Many defensive features were deployed, including murder holes and a portcullis.

Liscarrol entrance

liscarrol signSome modifications to the earlier structure are visible here and there, although on the whole it remains truly a thirteenth century stronghold.

Later window features

Windows were widened, probably in the 15th century – the ogee heads are a dead giveaway

The only problem with Liscarrol Castle is that it is accessible solely on the outside – the inside was occupied by a small herd of young cattle. Given the amount of public money that has been spent on it, this seems an immense pity. Duhallow and its towns and villages are doing a great job at putting together interesting tourist experiences: Liscarrol Castle, unique and awe-inspiring, could be a jewel in its crown.

keepless castle pic

And to finish off in good old Irish tradition – there is, of course, a tune called The Walls of Liscarrol. Have a listen.