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

 

Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths

Altar Wedge Tomb on The Mizen Peninsula

Altar Wedge Tomb on The Mizen Peninsula

In Ireland, the tradition of building megalithic (mega=large, lithos=stone) structures that included chambers to house the dead (such as the Boyne Valley Passage Grave complex, or the Court Tomb of Creevykeel) belongs to the Neolithic period, which ended around 2500 BC. About this time, a new style emerged of stone ‘galleries’, oriented towards the setting sun. Their distinctive shape – narrower and shorter at the eastern end – gives them their common name, wedge tombs. This tradition appears to have flourished for about 500 years.

Altar, side view

Altar, side view

In other areas of Ireland wedge tombs were often covered by a mound, but there is little evidence for this in West Cork. The closest parallel to wedge tombs outside of Ireland are in Brittany where allées couvertes date from this period. They are associated in some parts of Ireland (although once again not in West Cork) with Beaker pottery, a distinctive kind of vessel widely distributed across Western Europe. This was a time in which the population was expanding, farming practices were intensifying and a brand new technology was being introduced – it was the dawn of the Copper Age. Thus, we can speculate that wedge tombs mark the confluence of two forces: the new continental technologies of pottery and metalworking and the indigenous tradition of erecting megalithic chambered tombs.

Wedge tombs occur mostly in the western half of Ireland, including many in County Clare such as the Parknabinnia tomb pictured below.

 The largest wedge tomb in Ireland is near Fermoy, north of Cork City. It is typical of many Irish wedge tombs in featuring double walling, evidence of a surrounding cairn, and a sealed end chamber. Interestingly its name, Labbacallee, means the Hag’s Bed – the hag, or wise woman crops up frequently in Irish mythology.

In contrast to Labbacallee, wedge tombs in West Cork are generally smaller and simpler, comprising only one chamber and lacking a covering cairn. However, the distinctive wedge shape is preserved along with one other defining feature: wedge tombs are invariably oriented towards the setting sun. The funerary rite was that of cremation. Votive offerings of white quartz pebbles and small deposits of metal have been found in excavations.

Toormore wedge tomb,  now in someone's garden

Toormore wedge tomb, now in someone’s garden

Prof William O’Brien has excavated wedge tombs in West Cork and studied them, and the culture in which they were built, extensively. Here’s what he has to say, in his book, Iverni, about the society that produced them:

Whereas monuments like Newgrange could only have been built with a large organised input of labour over a long period, the building of wedge tombs was undertaken by small kin groups…This was a small scale society, comprised of local, clan-like groupings…The tomb was a type of shrine, sanctified by an association with ancestors and used for periodic offering and sacrifice to supernatural powers.

A striking aspect of Neolithic, Chalcolithic (Copper Age) and Bronze Age monuments in West Cork is their consistent orientation towards solar events such as sunrise and sunsets on the equinoxes, solstices and cross-quarter days (see our post on Bohonagh stone circle, for example). In this regard, wedge tombs are remarkably consistent in being oriented towards the West. Here’s O’Brien again:

Wedge tombs served as funnel-shaped openings to the Otherworld, facing the descending or setting sun to emphasise the symbolic dualism of light/life and darkness/death.

Toormore, side view

Toormore, side view

Looking for a wedge tomb closer to home, we set out yesterday to find the nearby Kilbronogue site, using the information from the National Monuments Service as a guide. We have found in the past that the mapping of sites is not always accurate and after an hour or two of tramping through a large and very muddy area with a helpful neighbour and his son we had to admit defeat – either the map was wrong, or the monument had disappeared in the recent fieldwork by a digger. Desperately hoping it was the former and not the latter, we found out who owned the land and went to call on him today. Stephen Lynch turned out to be a friendly, cheerful and very knowledgeable organic farmer – he assured us that the tomb would never be damaged in any way and not to worry, he would take us to it. Whew! Half an hour later we were trudging up a path that Stephen had had cut through his ash plantation – on we went and suddenly there it was in front of us – a classic wedge tomb, oriented to the west, built with large slabs that may have been cut from the rock face behind it.

Kilbronogue wedge tomb with its guardian, Stephen Lynch

Kilbronogue wedge tomb with its guardian, Stephen Lynch

Stephen told us the tomb had been used as a mass rock in penal times and that the Protestant farmers who owned all the farms that bordered on the rock had cooperated in allowing the masses to take place – an indication, Stephen said, of the long tradition of friendship between Catholic and Protestant farming families in this area. As with the Altar wedge tomb, also used as a mass rock, we marvelled at how a sacred site, built at least four thousand years ago, would retain its aura of veneration over the millennia, to be used again for religious purposes in the historic period.

Kilbronogue, side view

Kilbronogue, side view

Perhaps the most spectacularly situated wedge tomb we have been to is high on a hill overlooking Bantry. This one is known as Queen Medb’s Tomb and from it there are expansive views of the Beara, Sheep’s Head and Mizen Peninsulas. Climb up to it on a clear day, as the sun is sinking into the sea: in the presence of such awe-inspiring scenery you will find yourself contemplating how the mysteries and the wonders of Irish history and prehistory are written on its landscape.

Queen Medb's Tomb

Queen Medb’s Tomb