West Cork Obscura – Finola’s Picks

The popular Atlas Obscura defines itself as the definitive guide to off-the-beaten-track and little known wondrous places. So we’ve captured that idea and, as our Christmas present to our readers, bring you our own carefully-curated, slightly eccentric, Roaringwater Journal Guide to West Cork’s Hidden Wonders. Robert’s selection is here. No well-know tourist spots for these posts! No car parks and visitor centres! You may need wellies for some, a good map for others, and, although all are accessible, some may require permission.Each place I recommend will link to a blog post with more information. As an example, Sailor’s Hill, just outside Schull (above) is an easy walk and look what you get at the top! 

This is the view from Brow Head, looking back towards Crookhaven, and Mount Gabriel in the distance. Brow Head is much less visited than Mizen Head, but just as spectacular

I’m going to start with some archaeology and a couple of spectacular sites. The first is the Kealkill Stone Circle – but this isn’t just a stone circle, it’s a complex of monuments that includes a five-stone circle, a radial cairn (very rare in this part of the world) and two enormous standing stones. The views are immense in every direction, and the site is easy to find.

We all know about Drombeg – and we love it when the sun goes down at the midwinter solstice, and even when it doesn’t. But fewer people know about another stone circle, equally spectacular, with a spring equinox orientation. It’s called Bohonagh and it’s quite a complex. First of all, there’s a boulder burial, with quartz support stones and cupmarks on the boulder. Then there’s a cupmarked stone, partly hidden in the brambles between the boulder burial and the stone circle. Finally, there’s the circle itself, almost complete, with views in all directions.

Equinox sunset at Bohonagh

We were lucky to have a session there one equinox, and another one with Ken Williams of Shadows and Stone. For access, park just off the main road, across from the salmon coloured house 4.5km east of Rosscarbery and walk up the farm road to the barns and from there to the top of the hill. This is a working farm – please close all gates and be respectful of animals!

Maughnasilly Stone Row broods on the hilltop

A stone row to round out the archaeology sites – this one is at Maughnasilly and I chose it because it’s been excavated, so there’s an informative sign, access is easy and it’s a beautiful, atmospheric site, overlooking a small lake. The row has been calculated to have both lunar and solar alignments.

And from the ground…

A couple of churches now, beginning with the Church of Ireland Church of the Ascension in Timoleague. This is one of those places that is dripping with unexpected stories. As soon as you go through the door your jaw will drop – the whole church, floor to ceiling, is covered in mosaic, partly paid for by an Indian Maharajah. Read the story here and here – and look carefully at the stained glass windows, some of them are among the oldest stained glass we have in Ireland. The key used to be at the grocery store on the main street, but I’m not sure where it is now, so you may have to ask around. Let us know if you find out.

The interior of the church, and one of the beautiful Clayton and Bell windows

You may wonder at my next choice – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea – but the modernist church in Drimoleague is the work of Frank Murphy, the architect hailed as Cork’s ‘Unsung Hero of Modernism’.

I love the spare minimalist space, very rare in West Cork, but it’s the stained glass windows that drew my attention. It’s not that they are particularly beautiful or skilfully done: they’re by the Harry Clarke Studios long after Harry himself had died. It’s that they fascinate me as a social document – they are, in fact, a prescription for how to live your life as an Irish Catholic in the 1950s. As such, they will resonate with anyone of my vintage. Research by the brilliant young scholar, Richard Butler, has revealed that the design was practically dictated by Archbishop Lucey, still a name to invoke an image of the all-powerful churchman of the 20th century.

And a final church, but this one strictly for the windows. (No – not St Barrahanes in Castletownsend for the Harry Clarkes – everyone knows about them already, and this is a selection of lesser-known wonders.) Do NOT go through Eyeries, on the Beara Peninsula, without stepping into the little church of St Kentigern. Here is where we were first introduced to the work of the stained glass artist, George Walsh.

The Annunciation and Nativity window

When Robert wrote his original post, we couldn’t find out much information on George Walsh, but now he has become a friend and I have written about his work for the next issue of the Irish Arts Review (due out in March, 2019) and spent many happy hours photographing his windows and his artwork around Ireland. It’s bold, graphic, modern and incredibly colourful, and the windows in Eyeries, along with the religious themes, tell the story of Ireland and the Beara through time.

Some places to visit now for a good walk or a swim. First, one of my favourite walks is to hike up to Brow Head, at the end of the Mizen Peninsula (you can drive up too, but pray you don’t meet a tractor coming down) and then walk out to the end of the Head (see the second photo on the post for the view from the top of the road). Stop first to explore the ruins of the old Marconi Station – there’s also a Napoleonic-era  signal station and a WW2 Lookout Post. Then wander through the heather and the low-growing gorse until you get to the part where the sea is crashing below, with vertiginous drops off either side. I will leave it to you how far you go from there!

Brow Head showing the signal station and Marconi station silhouetted against the evening sky

Although Barley Cove is well known, Mizen locals love Ballyrisode Beach for a swim or a lounge in the sun. White sand, sheltered bays, and water warmed by running over the shallow bay. The final little beach holds a secret – a Bronze Age Fulacht Fia or Water-Boiling Site, that Robert and I recorded for National Monuments this summer. It was an exciting find, hiding in plain sight. The beach has an association with pirates too!

Ballyrisode Beach – yes, the water really is this colour. The three sided rectangular stone thing is the fulacht fia

The final choice for a walk is Queen Maev’s tomb, a short hike up from Vaughan’s Pass car park, up behind Bantry. For this photograph I am indebted to Peter Clarke, of the wonderful Hikelines blog. He and Amanda (with whom we have explored SO many holy wells)  were our companions that day. When you reach the top there is a small wedge-tomb, but this is one place where the journey is the real story, with the Mizen, the Sheep’s Head and the Beara all spread out before you.

Photograph © Peter Clarke

I leave you with a detail from the George Walsh windows in Eyeries, together with the poem the scene is based on, Pangur Bán, written in the 9th century by an Irish  monk labouring away in a scriptorium in Europe. Here is the poem read, at a memorial service for Seamus Heaney, first in the original Old Irish and then in Heaney’s translation.

Merry Christmas from us! If you live here, get out and about this year to some of our picks, and if you don’t, come see us soon!

Standing Stone Pairs: A Visit to Foherlagh

An unexpected delight – a trip on a Sunny October afternoon to visit a very fine standing stone pair in Foherlagh, just north of Kilcoe Church and School on the M71, between Skibbereen and Ballydehob.

The trip was suggested by Amanda who was, of course, looking for a holy well, said to be associated with a mass rock. All of these – the standing stone pair, the holy well and the mass rock – were grouped in one place so we had to undertake this expedition! Thus we found ourselves knocking on the door of the genial farmer, Dennis Minihane, who donned wellies right away and took us up the hill behind his house.

The view from the top of the hill

We had no idea what would greet us, but as we ascended it dawned on us that the views were pretty spectacular. The standing stone pair came into view, and it was obvious they were enormous. When we reached the top we were greeting by a complete 360 degree panorama – south to the islands of Roaringwater Bay, west to Mount Gabriel, east to Baltimore and north to the hinterland. Kilcoe Castle glowed gently in the foreground, while far away we recognised the distinctive pyramid shape of the Mizen peak at the end of the Peninsula.

Looking toward the end of the Mizen Peninsula

Standing stone rows and pairs are a phenomenon of south west Ireland, and this part of West Cork has many examples. While there are about seventy rows of three to five stones (such as the Fingers at Garranes near Castletownsend, or the Maughnasilly row), there are over a hundred stone pairs, of which Foherlagh is a particularly fine example. Invariably their long axis (that is, standing at one end  and looking along the row or pair) is oriented northeast/southwest. Typically the stones are graded in height, with the taller stone (or tallest, in the case of a stone row) at the southwest end.

Garranes stone row, known as The Fingers, near Castletownshend

Sometimes stone pairs are associated with other monuments. We’ve visited, for example, the Kealkill complex, where a stone pair is associated with a five-stone circle and a radial cairn. There’s also the Coolcoulaghta pair, from which the Dunbeacon stone circle is clearly visible.

Upper: The Kealkill complex of monuments; Lower: the Coolcoulaghta standing stone pair (and the most unsympathetically situated electricity pole in Ireland) from which the Dunbeacon stone circle (now sadly coralled by a wooden fence) can be seen

In Foherlagh, however, there are no other prehistoric monuments apart from a single standing stone a few fields away. What there is, is a pointed outcrop which local tradition has identified as a mass rock – see our post Were You at the Rock? for more on this type of monument. The mass rock had a scoop-out in it that may have functioned as a wart well. Amanda was pleased to find this and no doubt will do her usual thorough write-up on Holy Wells of Cork.

The standing stone pair is clearly oriented northeast/southwest. Depending on where you stand, the axis may point to the Mizen Peak (as does the Altar Wedge Tomb further down the Peninsula) or to Mount Gabriel (as do most of the examples of rock art we have examined in this region). Wherever the line points, it is clear that the expansive views are to the south west.

In his examination of stone rows and pairs*, Seán Ó’Nualláin says “The stone rows and pairs then, like the stone circles, are built so that their long axes indicate a general alignment on the sector of the heavens in which the sun roses and sets, and both series tend to group in a position indicating a winter rather than a summer position for the sun.” He might have added that this is also true for the sector in which the moon rises and sets – Maughnasilly row, for example is associated with lunar, rather than solar, orientations.

Maughnasilly stone row on a dramatic day

Ó’Nualláin, based on excavated examples and clear associations, gives a likely Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age date for stone pairs and rows. That would mean they were erected 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Jack Robert’s‘ drawing of the Foherlagh pair, from Exploring West Cork

But what was their function? Perhaps they were yet another element of the calendrical systems that seem to have been a vital part of this early agricultural society. They may also have been used as territory or routeway markers, or as memorial stones for individuals. Some archaeologists have suggested an anthropomorphic element, in that some pairs may represent male and female figures. The pair at Foherlagh were certainly chosen to be very different in shape, although I am left wondering which –  the tall more rounded one or the shorter very square one – might be the more female or masculine figure.

Thank you to Amanda and Peter for suggesting the expedition, Carol for providing the oohs and aahs of a first-time visitor to Ireland, and Dennis for so generously sharing his land and his stories with us.

Amanda and Carol provide scale

Seán Ó’Nualláin, Stone Rows of the South of Ireland, in Proceedings of the Royal Irish AcademyVol. 88C (1988), pp. 179-256. Available on jstor.org

Family-Friendly Archaeology Day in West Cork (Updated)

This is an update of a post originally published three years ago. I’ve added a holy well (to finish your day off right) and some new photographs, and deleted some out-of-date information. I’ve also provided a list of informative posts about the monuments you’ll be seeing at the end.

West Cork is loaded with prehistoric monuments but many are on private land or inaccessible. So we’ve planned a day for you in which you can have a Grand Day Out and a tour through some of the best West Cork archaeology sites. Load the kids into the car, stick Discovery Map 85 in your pocket (or print out the one we’ve provided in this post), bring boots or wellies, and off you go! By the way, we advise leaving the dog at home when on a field trip like this, since you will be visiting private farm land which will likely have cattle on it.

Our starting point is Ballylicky – here’s your opportunity to pick up a picnic at the marvellous Manning’s Emporium, while you fuel up with a pre-trip latte. Ready now? First stop is Mill Little.

1 Mill Little Complex

From Ballylicky, head west along the scenic seaside road towards Glengarriff for a couple of kilometres and take the first turn right at Snave. You’ll be following the Coomhola Rive as it tumbles down between high hills. Once you’ve crossed Snave Bridge continue for a about a km, take the second left and then immediately right. One km on, take a left and then the next right. Park along here and the Mill Little complex is in a field on the left.

This is a complicated site, comprising a stone pair (don’t be confused by the other stones around the pair, which have been piled here), three boulder burials, and a small five-stone circle. All these monuments probably date from around the same time – the Bronze Age, about three to four thousand years ago. A particular feature of West Cork archaeology is that boulder burials, standing stones (single, in pairs, or in rows) and stone circles are often found together. Stone circles and stone rows are oriented towards significant solar events, such as the rising solstice sun or the setting sun at an equinox. In the Mill Little stone circle the alignment over the recumbent is NE/SW. At a site like this, it is possible that all the features formed a large observational arena, with the stone row, boulder burial and stone circle providing multiple alignment possibilities and marking both solar and lunar events.

The boulder burial nearest the stone circle is the most classic in appearance – a large glacial erratic sitting on top of three support stones. Excavations at boulder burials in West Cork, however, haven’t really yielded evidence of actual burials – perhaps the term is a misnomer!

2 Carriganass Castle

Retrace your steps back towards Ballylicky and take the road to Kealkill – or try an overland route using the map. At Kealkill take the last fork signposted to Gougane Barra and you will see Carriganass Castle almost right away.

Carriganass is an excellent example of the medieval tower house – take a look at the posts linked below (at the end) for more about these structures in West Cork. There’s easy parking around the back and lots of explanatory signs around the castle. This is a good place for a picnic, or you can wait until after you’ve been to Maughanasilly, since you come back this way. If it’s a hot day, such as we’re experiencing right now in West Cork, the kids will enjoy a dip in the river here.

3 Maughanasilly Stone Row

Continue past the back of the castle. At the first junction take the left fork and continue until you see a small lake on your left. Shortly after you will come to a cross roads. Turn right and park – the stone row is in the field on your right.

This is a good example of a multiple stone row: it occupies a very dramatic setting on a knoll overlooking the lake. There’s a helpful explanatory sign.. Note that, instead of being straight, the stones form a slight arc. This is deliberate, as is the placement of the stone lying flat on the ground According to one expert, this stone is placed so that anyone walking up to it and standing with toes touching its edge is looking straight at the equinox. This stone row also appears to have been an important one for lunar observations. It takes the moon over 18 years to complete its cycle and from this site observations of the lunar maximums (the most extreme northerly and southerly moonrises) were likely made.

Ponder on the sophistication of our Bronze-Age ancestors. Much of the knowledge they built up so that they could keep track of time and seasons had to be re-learned by later people.

4 Kealkill Stone Circle

Back you go to Carriganass (picnic now, if you haven’t done so already) and on to the village of Kealkill – a pretty and well-kept village (and home to a famous St. Patrick’s Day parade). The stone circle is signposted from the village – just follow the steep and winding road that runs up from the church. After a sharp bend to the right, take the first left turn. There’s enough room to park at a small pull-out. The walk across the field to the circle is often muddy and squelchy so make sure to wear your boots here.

This is yet another complicated site. There is a standing stone pair, a five-stone circle and a radial cairn. But perhaps the first thing you will notice is the spectacular view. From this spot you can see all the way down the spine of both the Sheep’s Head and the Beara Peninsula to the South-West, and across the valley to the Shehy Range to the North and East.

One of the stone pair is over 4m high. But it’s broken – and may originally have stood over 6m high.  Imagine the difficulty of erecting this!

The radial cairn is a mysterious monument – nobody is quite sure of its function – and relatively rare. Once again, it is often found in conjunction with other monuments – stone alignments or stone circles. This one was excavated, but nothing conclusive was found to help determine its function. Note the small upright projecting stones that look like the face of a clock among the cairn stones.

5 Breeny More Boulder Burials and Stone Circle

This is just a little way up from the Kealkill circle and on the other side of the road. You can see it from the road and you’ll have to tramp over rough ground to get to it. There’s a multiple stone circle here, with four boulder burials within it. There’s not much left of the stone circle, but the portal stones and recumbent remain, so the alignment can be discerned. The boulder burials are laid out in square formation in the centre – a very unusual occurrence, since boulder burials are normally outside the circle.

The site is on a natural ridge, with similar panoramic views to the Kealkill Stone Circle. One writer has speculated that if trees were removed it would be possible to see the tall standing stone at Kealkill from this site.

6 Kealkill Holy Well

What’s a field trip without a holy well? This one is wonderful. Park at the graveyard about a km from Kealkill on the road towards Ballylicky and walk up through it, then follow the path across a small field to the Marian statue. The holy well is behind the shrine. Known locally as Tobairín Mhuire (Mary’s Little Well), mass was traditionally celebrated here on August 15th. If you’d like to learn more about holy wells, or visit some other West Cork examples, have a good browse around Holy Wells of Cork – it’s the go-to website on this subject (see list below).

Here’s more information about the kinds of monuments you’ll be visiting:

Stone Circles: Ancient Calendars

Standing Stones and Rows: Monoliths, Mysteries and Marriages

Holy Wells: Holy Wells of Cork

Boulder Burials: Boulder Burials: A Misnamed Monument?

Castles: Several posts about tower houses

We hope you enjoy your day! Let us know how you get on.