Coleenlemane – A Walk into History

Finola has written about the destination of our adventures yesterday – the inscribed ‘caves’ at Coleenlemane. Above is a photo of the view from the ‘cave’ entrance, looking back at the glen which we journeyed across. My post today is about that journey on foot through decades of human history and thousands of years of topographical transformation.

Upper – looking back and leaving the world behind: a rough track climbs up from the entrance to the Coleenlemane valley and very soon we were absorbed into the wild emptiness of the mountainsides (lower)

When I looked into the furthest reaches of the glen as we made our way over the rocky track I saw first, in my mind’s eye, the movement of the glacier which shaped it – the splintering, shuddering path it took and the debris it left in its wake: strangely distorted outcrops and huge erratic boulders feigning dice unrestrainedly scattered by a random hand.

Scribings on the rocks in the glen of Coleenlemane: these are made by nature (and the movement of glaciers) long before humans appeared in Ireland. I often wonder whether observation of these marks could have inspired our earliest artists?

Then I couldn’t help the vision that came into my mind of herds of the huge Irish Elk – Megaloceros giganteus – that ruled places such as this in Ireland after the ice receded 10,000 years ago. It was around that time that human habitation came back to these revitalised lands: some say that it was human hunters who wiped out the elk – and the bear – in Ireland using spears, bows and rocks. When you are immersed in these wild places, with no signs of the 21st century around you, it is easy to imagine such scenes from the distant past.

But – lonely and remote as this valley seems today – there is significant evidence of enduring human occupation here. As we journeyed up to the ‘caves’ we were tracing ancient tracks and paths and saw the remains of several settlements: stone walls, enclosures including a cashel, and many haphazard piles of rock that presumably came from rudimentary field clearances. We had the good fortune to meet and talk to Pat Joe O’Leary, who resides in the last house before you enter the glen, and he told us that sixteen families had lived out here.

Some of the many traces that remain of the dwellings which were once occupied by  families eking out their lives in the remoteness of Coleenlemane and (lower image) piles of stones cleared from the lands to provide pastures and potato beds

It’s right to describe the stories that Pat Joe told us as living memories, because he carries them. His own family has lived in the valley for generations so – like the bards of old – he is the keeper of the traditions and lore of the area. One of his tales was about a man from the glen who was the last to be hanged in Cork gaol. His name was Timothy Cadogan, and he was accused of the murder of William Bird, a land agent, at Bantry in 1900. Tim Cadogan was from one of the families who lived in Coleenlemane – who had been evicted by Bird – and Pat Joe assured us that the name T Cadogan is inscribed on a stone beside one of the old buildings in the valley. Unfortunately, we did not hear this until we were returning from our expedition, so missed seeing the stone. Interestingly there is a record in the Schools Folklore Collection – in Irish – describing the same event, more or less in the same words that Pat Joe used. The event occurred in 1900, became recorded as folklore in 1936, and was told to us as oral tradition in 2019!

Contemporary newspaper account of the hanging of Timothy Cadogan – formerly from Coleenamane – on 11 January 1901. Cadogan was tried twice before being sentenced to hang. The ‘Bungled Execution’ is reported as a failure on the part of the executioner, causing the condemned man to suffer a long, slow death by strangulation

Ignorant of such thoughts of the harsh realities of the world – even this far-away corner of it – we reached our destination: the ‘caves’. This is an unusual rock formation where a large outcrop has been split into enormous slabs, probably through glacial action. The rocks lean against each other and form crude shelters, within which are the inscribed surfaces. Finola’s post describes these in detail.

The rocks which form the ‘caves’ have a brooding presence on the landscape. It’s not surprising that they harbour enigmatic symbols with some possible other-worldly connotations

In addition to the sites of old farms and cottages that we passed by and explored on our trail, we clearly saw the imprint of ‘lazy-beds’ – ridge and furrow arable cultivation methods traditionally used in Ireland for planting the potato. These took our minds back to famine times and the harsh reality of having to forge an existence out of minimal resources. Also, we could only wonder at how clearly life – and history – have been etched into these aged and incredibly beautiful landscapes.

The very clear impressions of the potato beds which tell of the subsistence farming practiced for generations in Coleenlemane accompanied our hike

Looking back on our day in the wildness of West Cork, my abiding memories are beauty and poignancy. I have used this term before – achingly beautiful – and I often have to return to it in order to try to sum up my own emotional reaction to such unique places in Ireland. You won’t find these places in tourist guides – getting here is hard work! Nor will you find very much recorded in the archaeological records about Coleenlemane. But everything you see here is Ireland’s real history – deep, deep history; we are fortunate in every step we take into it.

Scratched Stone – Scratched Heads

stone scratches

Aultagh Ogham Stone

One thing always leads to another – that’s something you can be sure of when we are on our archaeological adventures. A case in point was a recent expedition to have a look at Ballynacarriga Castle (not far from Dunmanway, County Cork: 16th century – notable for having a Sheela-na-gig carving built high up into the outer masonry wall, and some unusual carved inscriptions on the internal stonework).

Ballynacarriga Castle (left) with its Sheela-na-gig (right)

Perhaps these various stone scribings turned our minds to the subject of Rock Art (easily done). Our excellent guide on that morning, Margaret Murphy of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, offered to show us an Ogham stone not too far away, in the townland of Aultagh. How could we refuse?

finding the stone

Assistance required in finding the stone!

Our goal was beside an ancient track in Aultagh Wood (Coil an Ailtaigh), approached from a private driveway. Margaret knew the owner who readily gave us permission to have a look. In fact, he provided sterling service after we had searched in vain for the elusive rock – opportunely arriving with a pole to clear the thick undergrowth, and soon revealing this modest boulder to our eager gaze.

stone discovered

Stone uncovered…

The stone lies close to a drainage ditch and has possibly arrived there from another location at some time in its history. In one area the surface of the rock has been damaged, affecting part of the scribings: it may be that it was once standing – now it is prone with carved marks clearly visible on the upper surface.

stone in context

The Aultagh Ogham Stone in context

The last time I wrote a post about ogham (here it is) I gave a very general overview of the subject. Ogham stones are concisely described by the Irish National Monuments Service as:

…upright monoliths or recumbent slabs, onto which ogham script has been incised. Ogham script consists of groups of 1-5 parallel lines and notches cut along the side or across the edge of a stone to represent the sounds of the Irish language. It is usually read up the left angle. The inscription gives a person’s name (usually male) and immediate antecedent/s or tribal ancestor. The stones may have functioned as memorials, grave markers or territorial markers and date from the late 4th to the early 8th century AD.
Fine examples of ogham stones in Ireland

Here’s the entry in the National Monuments Service records for our Aultagh stone:

Description: On a W-facing slope, in Aultagh Wood. Fallen stone (L 1.1m; 0.7m x 0.3m) with inscription on flat face. According to Macalister (1945, 75) ‘fashioned by an illiterate artificer, copying by rote from a wooden model cut for his guidance’ and reading UBEDABO ALTASI.

MacalisterThat’s quite a bald statement from Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister who was Professor of Celtic archaeology at University College Dublin from 1909 to 1943, during which time he compiled and edited the catalogue of all known ogham inscriptions from Britain and Ireland. Macalister’s theories on ogham are generally out of favour today (some commentators have claimed that his interpretations are gibberish) but he seems to accept the Aultagh stone as being within the early medieval ogham tradition. Yet it seems to me very different from many of the other stones we have seen: it is very sharply incised, obviously with a fine-tipped metal tool, whereas a majority of the traditional or ‘classic’ ogham stones are larger and more robustly carved.

Possible ogham stone at Maulinward, West Cork (left) and others from the Stone Corridor at UCC

When you begin to delve into modern literature on ogham you realise how very many varieties of examples there are, and also how many differing interpretations there are of how to ‘read’ the script. This was monumental writing, labour intensive and time consuming to undertake. For this reason it is generally supposed that ogham was ostensibly reserved for marking important graves or places, and that the inscriptions are all names.

Aultagh Inscribed completeAultagh Ogham Stone – ‘classic’, ‘scholastic’ – or ‘fake’?

There are suggestions that ogham inscriptions for more general – and less monumental – usage were once carved on wood, and might have been language primers for the bardic poets. Later inscriptions are sometimes termed ‘scholastic ogham’ deriving from the fact that the inscriptions are believed to have been inspired by manuscript sources, instead of being continuations of the original ‘monument’ tradition. Hallmarks of scholastic ogham are the median line and scribings being on the flat face of a stone (as at Aultagh) rather than on the edge. Ogham was occasionally used for notes in manuscripts down to the 16th century, and the burgeoning interest in all things antiquarian from the 18th century onwards led to  a popular ogham revival. A typical example, from the graveyard in Ahenny, Co Tipperary, has an English inscription dated 1802 and this in ogham: FA AN LIG SO NA LU ATA MARI NI DHIMUSA O MBALLI NA GCRANIBH, interpreted as ‘Under this stone lies Mary Dempsy from Ballycranna’. Macalister takes the view that this inscription, and others like it, were written “with much more zeal than discretion”, while some scholars have suggested that this more modern usage of the scribing should be termed ‘fake ogham’.

Aultagh Incised Stone

My own drawing of the Aultagh inscribed stone – traced from detailed photographs

You may like to have a go at translating the inscription at Aultagh for yourself. Firstly you will need to select your decipherer: a quick internet search will show that there are many, and also a whole lot of inconsistencies. But perhaps this is all part of the head-scratching: and also part of the whole fascination of a historical subject where many of the elements can only be guessed at…

ogham-alphabet