Mizen Magic 8: The Altar

Here’s the Mizen Peninsula shown on a map drawn by Robert for the Bank House tourism centre in Ballydehob and embellished with Peter Clarke‘s exquisite watercolour sketches of just some of the places that should not be missed by visitors to West Cork . . .

. . . And here is another rendering from Peter of one of the ancient sites that everyone goes past when travelling to the far west: possibly one of the most accessible pieces of archaeology on this section of the Wild Atlantic Way. It’s the Altar Wedge Tomb at Toormore Bay.

It’s early February, and Imbolc has passed. That means that Springtime has officially started here in Ireland. Sure enough, we looked out over a sunlit Roaringwater Bay this morning: soon we were heading out towards Goleen, Barley Cove and all points west. We stopped at The Altar and had it all to ourselves. You can see here that it’s orientated towards the Mizen Peak – that sharp little pyramid which is right on the centre of the picture – and lies to the west. For me, there’s a perfectly natural symbolism about placing the dead in a tomb that is aligned on the rising and the setting of the sun: that’s something we still do, several thousand years on!

The upper picture, taken on the Winter Solstice, shows the Mizen stretching away from the heights of Mount Gabriel: the Mizen Peak is the little pointed blip just left of centre. The lower picture looks across the wetlands behind the sand dunes at Barley Cove, and was taken today in the Spring sunlight: the Peak is clearly visible as the highest point. I believe that our forebears attached great importance to high places, as many stone monuments and Rock Art often seem to be placed in the landscape with commanding views towards hilltops. Mike Wilson’s site Mega-What sets out his detailed studies of the orientation of ancient sites within the natural landscape. Here is his analysis of the setting of the Altar Wedge Tomb.

I am always alert for the ways in which our special sites are interpreted for us. I created a bit of a storm a while back when I commended the signage which has been put in place along the Wild Atlantic Way using visually strong corten steel elements (above left) supplemented more recently by (in my opinion) very well designed information boards. The image on the right above is from an earlier OPW board which explains the possible early use of the wedge tomb, while the images below show the new signage, which features the later use of the tomb as a Christian altar during the Penal times (hence the name: The Altar), with a drawing by Sam Hunter. I am struck by the way this monument has been a focal point for differing rituals spanning countless generations.

When writing about archaeological subjects I am always on the lookout for the way that antiquarians saw the sites which we are familiar with today. I had hoped that George Victor du Noyer – the subject of an excellent recent exhibition in Cork’s Crawford Gallery – might have drawn this wedge tomb when he travelled the country for the Ordnance Survey during the early nineteenth century: he may well have done, but the annotation and cataloguing of his vast legacy of work has yet to be completed and I have not found such a record. His drawings below are not of The Altar, but a portal tomb, Ballybrittas in County Wexford. Portal tombs (sometimes known as dolmens) share similarities with wedge tombs, but are earlier, dating from between 3000 BC to 2000 BC, while wedge tombs tend to be associated with the Bronze Age, which followed this period.

Cremated remains were found in Altar Wedge Tomb when it was excavated in 1989 by Dr William O’Brien, now Professor of Archaeology at UCC. We can never know exactly what the significance of these impressive structures was to those who built them. For me, I’m pretty sure that it was connected with their relationships to, and respect of, the landscapes which they inhabited, and which they invested with meaning. They must certainly have paid heed to the passing of the seasons and the continual cycles of nature, and their closeness to all of this must have given them an inherent knowledge of the paths of the sun, moon and stars. Above all, our ancestors had to understand and appreciate the environment around them, and make it work for them. In a practical sense, certainly, but also in terms of the stories they might pass on about the meaning of places.

Above – the magical landscape of the Mizen: we will never tire of it

The tailpiece picture, which is from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Lukeoc88, is a remarkable timeless view of a human construction in the setting of our Universe: Altar Wedge Tomb under the Milky Way.

Mizen Magic 7: Dunbeacon – History, Prehistory and Questions of Access

A cold and clear January day is just the ticket for a trip to the Northside of the Mizen. While Robert writes about the life of Northsiders, I want to look specifically at the area known as Dunbeacon. On rising ground that ascends to Mount Corrin and overlooks Dunmanus Bay West of Durrus, Dunbeacon offers spectacular views and lots to explore.

Looking across to The Sheep’s Head at the head of Dunmanus Bay, near Durrus

In the last few years the Sheep’s Head Way has expanded into parts of the Mizen Peninsula. This is a very welcome move and the SHW committee is to be commended on taking this initiative. Today we followed part of this new trail through Dunbeacon townland and were rewarded with glimpses of the past, lovely vistas, Caribbean blue seas – and biting cold!

This section of the trail runs along a scenic boreen

Dunbeacon is synonymous with the Stone Circle that carries its name. Robert and I have visited it on a couple of occasions in the past. We have knocked on the farmhouse door for permission to cross the land to get to it and never found anyone home. We proceeded anyway, albeit slightly nervously as it was an obvious trespass on a working farm. The stone circle is sited on a small plateau with views east and south to Mount Corrin and Mount Gabriel, although rising ground to the northwest obscures Dunmanus Bay.

Mount Corrin: a large cairn on top can be seen from many miles away. We have walked up to this cairn – see our account of it here

The circle is incomplete so it is difficult to know exactly how the builders intended its orientation as the portal stones and recumbent are missing. It may have had a central monolith. (For a complete explanation of Stone Circles see our post Ancient Calendars.) However, the clear view to the east and south horizons are design features that link it to sunrise and moonrise at certain times of year.

This photograph of Dunbeacon Stone Circle, and the one that heads up this post, were taken before the access trail (described below) was built 

Intriguingly, Michael Wilson, of the Mega-What Website, says that practically the stone circle is really half a monument: what it takes to complete it for calendrical purposes are two other elements across the valley in Coolcoulaghta, a standing stone (now gone, but its position is known) and a standing stone pair.

The Coolcoulaghta standing stone pair, with Robert for scale. These stones were knocked down in the past but re-erected following a local outcry. Access and parking are now provided

Having studied the area carefully, Mike saysThis site [the standing stone] combines with the Stone Circle 400m away at Dunbeacon to enable observations of the lunar nodal cycle in all four quadrants as well as giving complete all year round solar coverage. It thus seems likely that the Standing Stone was an original outlier to the Stone Circle and that the Stone Pair was added later, probably by a different group of people, in such a way as to make a minor technical improvement.

It’s further than it looks in this picture, but there is a clear view to the stone circle from the standing stone pair. In between is the most annoyingly positioned electricity pole in Ireland

As part of the development of the new walking route, the SHW group has negotiated access to the Stone Circle, and has, in fact, built a fenced trail across the fields and up to the circle. This, of course, is excellent in that it finally provides open access to this wonderful site. There is, however, a problem: the stone circle is now surrounded by a wooden fence on all sides that severely impacts on the appearance and atmosphere of the site. While it will keep cattle away from the stones (cattle can do a lot of damage to sites like this) and provide a safe zone for walkers if there are animals in the field, it has become impossible to relate to the site in the same way as we used to.

The last section of the fenced trail. The fence around the stone circle can be clearly seen now

The author of the Facebook Page Walking to the Stones expressed himself thus when he saw the new enclosure: “The wire fenced avenue turns into a wooden fenced coral. The stones, imprisoned in a begrudgingly small pen. The wildness has gone, the mystery has gone. You might just as well be standing in a sterile museum environment. What have they done?” His comments generated a chorus of agreement.

Indeed, it is hard not to look in dismay at a fence like this. It makes taking photographs of the whole circle well-nigh impossible. It creates an overwhelming visual barrier between the circle and its surroundings. As an erstwhile archaeologist, I also have to wonder what was disturbed as the post holes were dug. And yet, all of this was done with the best of intentions, and it has succeeded in providing public access to the site. I would be interested in our readers’ thoughts.

It is quite difficult now to get a photograph of the entire circle. This one is partial, and shows a clear sightline to Mount Gabriel

Before we leave Dunbeacon, I can’t resist a quick trip down to what’s left of Dunbeacon Castle. One of a string of O’Mahony Castles on the Mizen, this tower house once guarded the head of Dunmanus Bay. Its siting is strategic – no ship was going to penetrate to the head of this bay without being in clear view of this stronghold. The O’Mahonys controlled fishing and trade in this area from the 12th to the 16th centuries and became fabulously wealthy in the process.

What’s left of Dunbeacon Castle

This castle would once have been the dwelling place and administrative centre of a powerful chief. He would have hosted banquets where his poets and musicians entertained the guests with stories and song. Alas, after the Battle of Kinsale all the O’Mahony tower houses in this area were taken by the British and many that were left standing were dealt a final blow by Cromwell’s cannon.

Not much left – but what an incredible position!

The centuries pass. The old Mount Corrin mines are no more. The sizeable population sustained by potatoes was devastated by the Famine. Now the land is grazed by cattle and sheep and a few farm houses dot the landscape. It is a peaceful and beautiful place. Do the walk – you will be in the footsteps of farmers and chieftains, of herders and megalith builders and astronomers, of miners and fisherfolk who have called this place home for thousands of years.

Mizen Magic 6: Schull to Castlepoint

The Mizen is the Peninsula we live on, and of course we think it’s the most beautiful part of West Cork, and of Ireland. In previous Mizen Magic posts I’ve been exploring different aspects and areas, such as the Northside, or Brow Head, or our excellent beaches. This time I’m concentrating on the stretch from Schull to Castlepoint. The map below shows the area, with the village of Schull, our starting point, on the top right. The photograph above was taken from the top of Sailor’s Hill.

A winter view of Long Island Sound – Coney Island, Long Island,  the Calves, Cape Clear and Sherkin, with the entrance to Croagh Bay in the foreground

It’s only a few kilometres, and it would take you about ten minutes to drive straight to Castlepoint from Schull. But where’s the fun in that? No- let’s start by driving (or walking if you’d rather) out to St Mary’s Church on the Colla Road. It’s largely an eighteenth century church, although there are hints of a medieval structure here and there, and it stands in what must be one of the most scenic graveyards in West Cork.

Intriguing depictions of boats are inscribed into the render inside the church. How old are they? Who did them and for what purpose?

From there, I suggest you drive to the lookout on Sailor Hill – the trail arrows for the new extension of the Fastnet Trails will show you the way. We discovered Sailor’s Hill ourselves when I was researching belvederes – the redoubtable Connie Griffin has built his own modern version of a belvedere and there is no better place to get a view of Long Island Sound and the south side of the Mizen. Here’s the viewing house Connie built  – perfect for contemplation.

Back down to the Colla Road, continue to the scenic little Colla Pier, where you can take the ferry to Long Island. Robert and I do this every year as part of the Fastnet Film Festival. The ferry runs every day but you can also book special trips – it is, as they say here, a great day out. Pack a picnic and your camera – there’s lots of birdlife, including these oystercatchers on the rocks at Colla Pier.

The ferry leaves Long Island for the return trip to Colla Pier

From the Pier the road winds across country, overlooking the sea here and there, and always with Mount Gabriel looming in the background. From here you can see tiny Coney Island, privately owned, and with one house which is rented out to holiday makers.

Beyond Coney Island are the Goat Islands – Goat Island and Goat Island Little – probably once one island, but now split into two, with a narrow passage between. There are feral goats on these islands, but not much else. They appear to be completely inaccessible, with craggy shores that are impossible to land on. That, of course, only makes them all the more mysterious. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about the Goat Islands.

The narrow and treacherous channel that divides the Goat Islands, and the beacon on the smaller of the two islands

The road now winds down to Croagh Bay (locally pronounced ‘Crew’), a lovely tidal sheltered inlet with the romantically named Gunpoint at its head. On the higher ground to the right you will see that an enterprising individual has converted one of the old signal stations into a unique residence. It must have the best view – but all those stairs!

We are now in the territory described by Robert in Here Be Pirates and in Pilchards and PalacesCroagh Bay, or more correctly Leamcon House, was the site of William Hull’s house and a hotbed of piratical activity.

Nowadays it’s downright idyllic and the shallow waters of Gunpoint inlet provide sanctuary to wintering birds such as these shelducks.

Our last stop is the little pier at Castlepoint, offering a dramatic view of Black Castle, one of the O’Mahony Tower Houses that dotted the coast of West Cork in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This one is privately owned and the owner has stabilised and largely restored the castle, saving it for future generations from the all-too normal fate of dereliction that befalls West Cork Castles.

Robert looks across to Black Castle in the photograph above. The castle as the owner has stabilised it is shown below – he has done a first-rate job and we should all be grateful for his care of this important monument. The final photograph is of a small inlet by Castlepoint Pier.

Mizen Magic 5: Top 14 Pics of 2015

Crookhaven in winter sunlight

Crookhaven in low winter sunlight

You love the Mizen! That’s all we can conclude when we look at which of our Facebook photographs resonated most with our readers and followers this year.

Cairn on Dunlough Head, looking east along the Mizen and Dunmanus Bay

Cairn on Dunlough Head, looking east along the Mizen and Dunmanus Bay

We post a couple of photographs each week on our Facebook page and we are always delighted when they are liked and shared. The vast majority of these images are from West Cork, and many are from our own Peninsula, the Mizen.

The tiny quay at Greenmount, outside Ballydehob. You pass this on the Rossbrin Loop Trail.

The tiny quay at Greenmount, outside Ballydehob. You pass this on the Rossbrin Loop Trail

So, as we look back over 2015, here are your top picks from the Mizen Peninsula, beginning with the most liked/shared. Next week, we will post the top West Cork (non-Mizen) Facebook photographs.

Near Dunlough Bay, on the way to Three Castle Head

Near Dunlough Bay, on the way to Three Castle Head

Not much text to plough through this week. Consider that your Christmas present from us!

Goleen Village looks so colourful and inviting in the summer

Goleen Village looks so colourful and inviting in the summer

There’s nothing we like better than wandering around West Cork with our cameras – it’s an endless feast. Enjoy – and tell us which is your personal favourite!

The famous 12 Arch Bridge at Ballydehob

The famous 12 Arch Bridge at Ballydehob

The Magnificent Mizen!

The Magnificent Mizen!

The Winding Road...the Cappaghglass high road in autumn

The Winding Road…the Cappaghglass high road in autumn

We saw these Jacob sheep on the slopes of Mount Corrin

We saw these Jacob sheep on the slopes of Mount Corrin

Sun and shadow - the quintessential West Cork lighting conditions

Sun and shadow – the quintessential West Cork lighting conditions

Farmhouses in the shadow of Mount Gabriel

Farmhouses in the shadow of Mount Gabriel

Ballydehob Bay. This one was taken close to the same place as The Winding Road, but facing the opposite direction, towards Foilnamuck

Ballydehob Bay. This one was taken close to the same place as The Winding Road, but facing the opposite direction, towards Foilnamuck

The North Side of the Mizen - so beautiful and so few people

The North Side of the Mizen – so beautiful and so few people

The Three Castles, from the lake

The Three Castles, from the lake. No Mizen post would be complete without at least one view of this iconic place

Mizen Magic 4: The Beaches

Barley Cove Beach from Brow Head

Barley Cove Beach from Brow Head

If you’re not familiar with West Cork, you may be surpised to hear that we have some of the best beaches in Ireland. And no – they are not just to look at, and yes, people do swim here in the summer. In fact a surprising number of the people we know were still swimming well into October. The autumn weather was glorious, and they claimed the sea was still warm enough to be enjoyable. In fact, they raved about how delicious it was to be bobbing around in the stuff. (You know who you are.)

A little further east of us there are good surfing beaches but here on the Mizen our beaches feature the golden sand and the dunes of the classic swimming beaches. The most popular with holiday-makers is the incredible expanse at Barley Cove. These photos were taken in February – so we aren’t swimming, but we have the place almost to ourselves, apart from the horses, and we are loving it!

Around the corner from Barley Cove are the beaches of Galley Cove and the White Strand. When the sun goes down on one, you can just move to the next one.

Ballyrisode

Ballyrisode

A local favourite is the beach at Ballyrisode, near Toormore. We strolled along it on a fine day in September, with nary another soul in sight.

Shelly Beach

Shelly Beach

But of course we have our own little secret beach nearby. Those in the know call it Shelly Beach – for the reasons you might imagine. You can’t drive there – it’s only accessible on foot down boreens and over the fields – and it’s a beautiful, peaceful spot, perfect for that wind-in-the-hair, sun-in-the-face, contemplative experience.

Inchydoney Beach

Inchydoney Beach

The last photo wasn’t taken on the Mizen, but it’s only a few miles to the east, so perhaps it’s not totally cheating to include it here. It was taken on a fabulous sunny day half way through October, and the beach was alive with activity.

Mizen Magic 3: Brow Head

On Brow Head, looking back up the Mizen Peninsula

On Brow Head, looking back up the Mizen Peninsula

Contrary to popular belief, Mizen Head is not the most southerly point on the Irish mainland – that distinction actually belongs to Brow Head, just to the east. Brow Head doesn’t have the same profile as Mizen Head: many people have never heard of it. But it’s magnificent, steeped in history, wonderfully scenic and best of all, totally walkable.

Possible prehistoric field boundary, visible at low tide

Possible prehistoric standing stone and field boundary, visible at low tide

You arrive at Brow Head by driving west from Schull out towards Crookhaven. If the water is low in the Haven you may spy the remains of ancient field boundaries, covered at high tide.

Galley Cove

Galley Cove

The starting point is Galley Cove – a smaller and quieter beach than the popular Barley Cove a little further west, but featuring the same white sand and inviting Caribbean-blue water. You can leave the car here and proceed on foot uphill if you’re feeling in the need of an aerobic workout. Or you can drive up the narrow road, but be warned: if you meet a car coming down you may have to reverse a considerable distance. There is parking for three or four cars at the top of the hill.

Recently-erected standing stones

Recently-erected standing stones

The first thing you’ll notice, in front of the lone house at the top of the hill, is an impressive row of standing stones, aligned to point back down the Mizen Peninsula. These are recent additions to the landscape, testament to the enduring tradition of erecting such stones in this part of the world.

Scramble up through the heather to the remains of the Napoleonic-era signal tower and the Marconi Telegraph Station – see Robert’s post for more about Marconi and early wireless telegraph in West Cork. From here there are panoramic views east to Crookhaven and down the Mizen Peninsula, west to Mizen Head, North to Barley Cove and southeast to the Fastnet Rock.

Follow the path now south west to the tip of the Head. This was a copper mining area in the nineteenth Century and you can still see the ruins of the Mine Captain’s house, miners’ dwellings and fenced off mine shafts. Abandoned cottages litter the north-facing slopes, with small overgrown fields defined by stone walls.

Near the tip of the Head you must cross a narrow causeway with steep cliffs on either side. This part is not for the faint of heart (or small children, perhaps) especially on a windy day. Find a sheltered spot at the end and sit a while. You may see gannets diving here, or dolphins in the waters below, and you will certainly be aware of the power of the pounding waves.

Next parish - America!

Next parish – America!

Before you leave, make sure that you make a wish – after all, this is a special place, and special places in Ireland have their own magic. 

Heron tracks

In the Haven