Off the M8 – The Great Dolmen of Kernanstown

Our ‘Off the M8‘ series is intended to make your journeys across Ireland far more interesting! We travel between Cork and Dublin fairly regularly and, each time, we determine to search out something new. It may be an aspect of medieval history, architecture, stained glass or – as in today’s example – archaeology.

How far you want to stray from the ease and directness of the motorway in your explorations is entirely up to you. This diversion will add about forty minutes to your journey: you will leave the M8 at Junction 3, head across to Carlow on the R430, and then, after Carlow, meet the M9 at Junction 4 and continue up to Dublin. You’ll have to take a little diversion east out of Carlow on to the Hacketstown Road (R726) to find today’s destination: the largest prehistoric portal tomb in Europe, and perhaps in the world!

Robert stands at the east face of the megalithic structure: the orientation suggests a relationship to the rising sun, possibly at significant calendrical events

It’s known variously as the Brownshill Portal Tomb, or the Kernanstown Dolmen (Kernanstown is the name of the Townland, and the word ‘Dolmen’ was formerly used to describe megalithic structures which consist of a large stone slab resting on smaller boulders). The Irish National Monuments Service, in its listing of the Archaeological Survey of Ireland, has set out to regularise the names given to various structures. It does not recognise the once widely-used terms ‘Dolmen’ or ‘Cromlech’, but defines a variety of ‘Megalithic Tomb’ structures, of which the Portal Tomb is one:

. . . A single, short chamber formed by two tall portal-stones, two sidestones and a backstone. Sometimes a stone between the portals closes the entry. The chamber is covered by a roofstone, often of enormous size, which slopes down from the front towards the rear. Cremation was the preferred burial rite and these date to the Neolithic from 3800 to 3200 BC . . .

Finola is giving scale to the portal tomb in the header picture, where the two ‘portal stones’ and central ‘gate stone’ support the east side of the capstone: these features are common to these structures across Ireland, Britain and Europe. Above – the back (west face) of the capstone: Finola is standing at the southern tip

Historically, ‘Dolmen’ was the most common term for these archaeological structures. William Copeland Borlase (1848 – 1899) wrote a lengthy treatise in three volumes on 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 published in 1897. In it, he describes the Brownshill / Kernanstown structure thus:

In the Barony of Carlow, in the Townland of Kernanstown, and Parish of Urghin, two miles E. of Carlow, to the N. of Browne’s Hill, or Browneshill House, also called Mount Browne, are three dolmens. The largest of the three is marked Cromlech in Ord. Surv. Map No. 7.

There are three dolmens on this hill. One is of enormous proportions, the two others are smaller. The former has been described by Ryan, Ledwich, and G. Du Noyer. Of one of the latter there is a drawing and plan in Miss Stokes’s collection of drawings of dolmens. The remaining one is situated a distance of 50 yards to the N. of the latter.

The great dolmen stands in the centre of a large flat field in permanent pasture, and has no trace of a bank or cairn near it. It consists of a splendid block of granite, the longer axis of which is N. and S., raised at an angle of 35 degrees to the horizon, upon four blocks, three of which, pillar-like, support the E. side, at a height of 6 feet above the floor, while one sustains its lower and W. side, at a height of only about 2 feet above ground.

The following are my measurements of the block thus elevated into position: Superficial measurement from N.E. to S.W., 23½ feet; ditto from N.W. to S.E., 22 feet; girth 65 feet; thickness at W. side, 6 feet; at S. side, 5 feet; at E. side, 6 feet; and at N. side, 4 feet.

. . . it is, I believe, the largest block raised from the ground by the dolmen-builders which is known, not only in the British isles, but on the continent of Europe

Two picture postcards of the ‘Brown’s Hill Dolmen’ probably dating from the late 19th or early 20th century

Today, there is only one portal tomb visible at Brownshill, although the National Monuments listing confirms that there were three in the area at one time. I was intrigued to find this engraving:

There is no ‘Brownstown’ in County Carlow, so it is likely that this engraving (above) is another version of ‘Brownshill’. It’s hard to see in this the portal tomb we have been describing, so it is possible it is an image of one of the other ‘lost’ dolmens. There is no further information attached to this illustration.

The two illustrations above show how the portal tomb is today enclosed and made accessible by means of a fenced pathway leading from the road to the east of the structure. This setting is not ideal: the impressive nature of the huge capstone is visually diminished by the fencing – although the provision of good disabled access to the monument is highly commendable. The massive granite stone has been estimated to weigh up to 160 tons, and we can only wonder at the methods used to lift it some 5,000 years ago. Here is an imaginative view (dating from the nineteenth century) of a megalithic tomb being built:

Celtomania is an expression which has been used by some antiquarians to describe the use of megalithic structures by ‘Druids’ and ancient races for ritual purposes. This fanciful scene by Edward King (above) shows ancient warriors, sickle-wielding and harp-playing druids, oak trees and standing stones – and a ‘dolmen’. It is taken from a 1969 book on megalithic structures in Brittany which I purchased in my travels there in the 1970s: Carnac ou les mésaventures de la narration by Denis Roche.

The ‘chamber’ of the Brownshill monument is visible when viewed from the south (top photo, above). This structure has never been excavated so we cannot say for sure that it was used to deposit human remains or cremations; in tombs elsewhere, excavations have revealed such a use in some, but not all. It has been suggested that all such structures were fully or partly covered in earth or stone, as implied in the example from Brittany below:

The structure at Brownshill, County Carlow must surely be one of the wonders of the megalithic world. It’s hard not to think that the sheer immensity of the raised capstone would require it to be seen so that the labour involved in its construction is appreciated. These stone edifices were the earliest architecture in the world of our settled ancestors, and the first examples of engineering prowess: one of the reasons for their existence must have been the demonstration of power and knowledge.

Above – a dolmen in Brittany (where they are still known by that name!) demonstrating a reversal of the principles of construction at Brownshill. In the Irish example, the huge capstone is supported by comparatively slender uprights; in France the capstone, although also substantial and heavy, sits on very large portal stones. The result is visually impressive in a different way.

Here in Ireland there are many more examples of portal tombs waiting to be visited and reported on: they are on our list.

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