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.

Ireland’s Finest Prospect – The Story of Ballyfin Demesne, Part 1

There are two reasons why Ballyfin, in County Laois, was high on our list of Important Places To See In Ireland. One was the story that the name – An Baile Fionn in Irish – could mean ‘The Place of Fionn’ – and there is a legend that the great warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill was raised here, in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. Fionn has left behind him so many traces all over Ireland that the place where he was – perhaps – born and grew up deserves pilgrimage status.

A place fit for a legendary Irish hero? Ballyfinn has associations with Fionn Mac Cumhaill. The lake which is central to the prospect from Ballyfin today was constructed by William Pole in the second half of the eighteenth century

An alternative translation of An Baile Fionn is ‘The White Town’, and the location has long had a reputation as a place of great beauty. Emily Fitzgerald, the Countess of Kildare – a remarkable lady who was illegitimately descended from King Charles II and who bore twenty-two children – wrote in 1759: 

. . . Yesterday, I saw a most delightful place indeed, much beyond any place I have seen in Ireland – Ballyfin . . .

The beauty of the Irish Midlands in the eighteenth century: Ballyfinn House can be seen in the centre distance of this pastoral view from 1784: beyond are the Slieve Bloom Mountains (painting by William Ashford)

In medieval times Ballyfin belonged to the O ‘Mordha clan but was lost during the Tudor conquest of Ireland. The process of Plantation (in which areas of the country were to be settled with people from England, who would bring in English language and culture while remaining loyal to the crown) was first implemented in Laois – then known as ‘Queen’s County’ after Queen Mary I – in the mid sixteenth century. It was a complicated and unstable period in British and Irish history, and Ballyfin saw many possessors ascend and fall until in May 1666 the estate of approximately 3,500 acres was conferred on Periam Pole, a recent arrival from Exeter in Devon. Pole and his son William expanded the estate, built a ‘modern’ house and reshaped the entire gardens and demesne. William planted woodlands and constructed the 30 acre artificial lake which is there to this day. The improvements were ‘grand and expensive and their designs were elegant’.

A view of Ballyfin engraved by William Beauford and published in 1794 shows the woodland, landscaped grounds and lake. The house  – which the Poles extended and improved – was described as ‘a rambling Georgian house’ although with no particular architectural merit

In the time of the Poles, Ballyfin began to build its reputation as one of Ireland’s grandest estates. However, it was not until the Poles were succeeded by the Cootes, in 1813, that the significant architectural statement that is Ballyfin today came into being.

Progenitors of Ballyfin: left – William Pole who died in 1781 (artist unknown) and right – Sir Charles Henry Coote who died in 1864 (artist John Hoppner). The legacy of these two families is a house and demense which are acknowledged as outstanding examples of their period – probably the finest in Ireland

Sir Charles Henry Coote already owned substantial estates close to Ballyfin, and it was timely and appropriate that he was able to purchase the demesne. He employed the father and son team of Richard Morrison and William Vitruvius Morrison as architects to rebuild the house, which is widely acknowledged as one of the most important examples of nineteenth-century neo-classical architecture in Ireland and is famed for its elaborate interior design.

A print showing the ‘new’ house designed by the Morrisons in the neo-classical style (1828 British Library). below – views of the house today

The picture above shows the west elevation of the house with the finely-wrought conservatory that was added in around 1855, designed and constructed by ironfounder Richard Turner, who was also responsible for the great Palm Houses at Kew and Belfast Botanic Gardens and the range of glasshouses at the Irish National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin. It’s my favourite part of the architecture – lightweight and elegant: seemingly timeless – it could be a contemporary structure.

Fine though the house is, it would fail without its context. The demesne is so important as a setting for the rather uncompromising architecture of the elevations. Finola has looked at the grounds and the surroundings. But it’s also the interior that sets Ballyfin apart as an icon of its time.

The Library at Ballyfin: upper – in Victorian days (Coote Archive); lower – splendidly restored, today

The Saloon: upper – a sketch from c 1855 by the Marquis de Massigny de la Pierre (Coote Archive); lower (and header picture) – the restored Saloon forms the centrepiece of the house today. Note the magnificent parquet floor

The Entrance Hall incorporates a Roman mosaic pavement: one of the art treasures brought over by Sir Charles Coote from his Grand Tour of 1822. The hall also displays a far more ancient antiquity: the antlers of Megaloceros Giganteus – the Irish Elk, recovered from an Irish bog and some 10,000 years old!
Details from the superbly restored marquetry flooring in the saloon – the most exotic examples to be found anywhere in Ireland

The first part of our story ends with the Cootes: the family owned Ballyfin until the 1920s. But there’s much more to tell about its succeeding time as a school – periods of neglect and decline – and, most remarkably,  its revival and return to distinction through one of the most complete and elaborate architectural restoration projects undertaken in Ireland in the 21st century. Ballyfin is now a first-class 5 star hotel where attention to detail in the service it offers is absolute: it has justifiably won many accolades and awards.

Afternoon tea on the Dining Room terrace at Ballyfin, c 1903 (Magan Collection)

The story of Ballyfin has been expertly and completely documented by Kevin V Mulligan in the volume Ballyfin – The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne, Churchill House Press 2018. We are indebted to this author and his work. The architectural restoration and the incarnation of the house today is described in Part 2 of this post: Decline and Revival.

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.

largeelk

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?

Exactly.

Closest relation: Canadian Bull Moose (Robert Bateman)

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

But you know…

Yes?

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