Mizen Magic 24: Lissagriffin Loop (Fastnet Trails)

The energetic Fastnet Trails team is marching westward along the Mizen, developing new trails. They do this on a purely volunteer basis and we are all the beneficiaries – so a huge thank you to them! Work on their website is ongoing, and it should be up and running soon. This week we explored one of their recent additions – the Lissagriffin Loop. I have written a previous LIssagriffin post in the Mizen Magic series (number 14), but that one was mainly about the medieval church and the graveyard around it, as well as the history and archaeology in its vicinity. 

This walk starts and ends in Goleen and is a 10k walk with lots of ups and downs. You’re climbing100m (about 320’) on the first half of the loop and 120m (about 400’) on the second half, so this is a good workout. As with any of these walks, it’s possible to do stretches of them by leaving a car at one point and walking back and forth, or go with friends and leave a car at either end. Wear good shoes and bring water and snacks. It’s all on quiet back roads, so the dog is welcome too, but use the lead if you encounter cattle or sheep (we met both). And there are a couple of surprises along the way.

I’ve included a map (above) to show you where you are on the Mizen Peninsula, and a close-up (below) to show the route you’re following. The pink blob within the green circle at the lower left is Lissagriffin Medieval Church in case you have the inclination for a little side trip.

Walk up to Goleen Catholic Church, take a sharp right and you’re on your way. This first part will involve some huffing and puffing, but you’re on a country boreen fringed with wildflowers (wild garlic at this time of year) and with expansive views back to the sea and across a valley to Knockaphuca Mountain (another brilliant trail!) and to Mount Gabriel beyond.

If you don’t have the time or inclination for a long walk, look out for a sign to the shortcut. It’s the curved green line on the lower of the two maps above. It will bring you back to the village, initially via a well-maintained gravel path (below), and then by road, for a 2km walk in all. 

If you decide to carry on, it’s uphill now for quite a stretch, but the views across to Knocknamadree and to Knockaphuca are worth the effort. Later in the year, the route will be dripping with Fuchsia and Montbretia, but right now the Navelwort is starting to sprout and stitchwort is rampant. 

Once you’re up the hill the road levels out, the going is easy, and the views are now to the sea on your left and towards the distant Mizen Peak. And here’s the first surprise for you – a mass rock. Mass rocks, of course, were used in Penal times, when the saying of mass was outlawed and people met with their priest in faraway locations.

This one still lives in folk memory, and is still visited, by the evidence of various offerings left on the ledge. Some of the coins are so old they are peeling apart, while others look of more recent vintage.

St Patrick’s Cabbage Is just starting to bloom. This is a native plant and part of a curious set known as the Lusitanian Flora which only occur in southwestern and western Ireland and in the Iberian Peninsula.

This one rewards a close look – the flowers are white but the petals have pink and yellow dots and the anthers are a startling deep rose colour. A domestic hybrid known as London Pride is grown in many gardens.

The second surprise is a holy well, just a little further along. It’s not a very impressive sight – looks like a ditch, in fact, although there’s a bit more going on under all that grass and brambles. The location is marked but there are no indications that anyone has visited in many years. No offerings here, no cups or rag trees, no statues or prayer cards. But nothing deters Amanda, and she has written about the well here, including the fact that its name is Tobairin a ‘Bhothair – small well of the road – and that it was once revered.

From the holy well keep going westwards and the reward is an immense view to the end of the Peninsula and the Mizen Peak (below). It’s a gentle downhill all the way until you get close to the main Goleen – Crookhaven road.

At this point, nobody could blame you for retreating to the snug at O’Sullivan’s Bar in Crookhaven for a pint coffee and a crab sandwich, but of course you are only half way through the walk if you want to do the full loop. So turn right and then right again, and start climbing as the road heads back to Goleen over the hills and away from Barley Cove (below)

The views don’t really start until you’re quite high up, but the road is peaceful and rural – a good time for contemplation, perhaps.

Once you’re on the downhill stretch you are facing east and once again have those glorious views across to Knockaphuca, with Mount Gabriel behind.

And when you hit Goleen – go on, you deserve it, have some ice cream!

Mizen Magic 23: Croagh Cove

Many thanks to Sara Nylund for her wonderful reconstruction drawing of an early ecclesiastical site

A couple of years ago, confined to explorations within 5km, Robert wrote about Croagh Bay (pronounced locally as Crew Bay). Recently our friends Donagh and Tamsin enticed us back to take a closer look at the eastern part of the Bay – Croagh Cove (Crew Cove). 

What intrigued us about this place and why we were eager to visit (apart from Donagh’s world-class coffee) was a place marked on the map as an ‘ecclesiastical enclosure.’ There aren’t a lot of those on the Mizen, although there may be more early ecclesiastical sites than have been identified and recorded. Kilbrown (see my post Mizen Mud), Cove and Kilbronogue are the only others so far.

What establishes a site as a likely ‘early ecclesiastical enclosure?’

The Irish church was dominated by scattered rural monasteries from the sixth century onwards. These were surrounded by large enclosures (varying in diameter from 40 a.m. to 400 M), often circular or oval in plan, and usually far more extensive than the surviving graveyards. In some cases the original bank, fosse or stone wall survives but more often the line of the monastic enclosure (or vallum) is indicated by curving field boundaries, roadways or a laneways. As well as the church and graveyard, these enclosures contained the dwellings, outhouses and workshops of a community, sometimes approaching the size of a town. Because the buildings were constructed of wood nothing survives above ground today; the graveyard often contains the ruin of a mediaeval church. In some cases the surviving burial ground has no inscribed headstones but was used for the burial of unbaptised children during the last few centuries. Bullaun stones and cross-inscribed stones are often found on early church sites while holy wells may be situated close by and retain the name of the saint anciently associated with the site. Unfortunately little of the history of the early church in West Cork has survived and the earliest reference to many of these sites is as late as the 12th century.

The Archaeological Inventory of County Cork, Vol I, West Cork. P 271

So, as you can see, not much normally survives on the surface but a tell-tale sign is a circular or oval enclosure, or (often) two concentric enclosures, with the barely-discernible signs of buildings inside. (Readers may remember the above illustration from my post on Ardpatrick – no sign of a round tower at Croagh, though!).) The memory of these places as once-sacred seems to be retained locally, and led to their use as Cillíní, or Children’s burial grounds in the past. See my post Unknown Souls for more about Cillíní – ‘the loneliest places on earth.’ Thus – small uninscribed headstones peeking out through the grass is an indication that this may be a cillín, and in turn perhaps something more ancient yet.

The original site may have been carved out of the hillside – the flattening process leaving a sharp-edged bank on the sea-ward side (above and below). This reminded us of the similar bank we found at the possible ‘Scoil Mhuire’ site that Robert reported on in his post Schull – Delving into History

What would such a site have looked like? They varied enormously in size – for example Glenadalough in Wicklow and Kells in Meath would both have been monastic cities. Most, however, and especially in remote places, would have been small religious foundations in which there would be a central church surrounded by an inner wall, and houses and gardens for the monks surrounded by an outer wall. 

Nendrum in Co Down shows what a monastic settlement considerably larger than Croagh might have looked like. The Illustration is from The Modern Traveller to the Early Irish Church by Kathleen Hughes and Ann Hamlin

The word reilig (pronounced rellig) is the Irish word for graveyard and it comes from the word for relic. Early sites like this were assumed to have had a founding saint, who gave his or her name to the site. Kilbrown, for example, would be the church of Brón, and he would have been buried on the site – hence the ‘relic’ association. Kilcoe was named for a saintly nun, St Coch. The echoes of the cult of those saints would have remained alive through the centuries in the names of townlands and holy wells.

Possible remains of church at Croagh

The name Croagh, however, is based not on a saint’s name but on the Irish word for a ‘stack’ and may refer to the gentle hill that rises up from the water. It was, and remains, an almost perfect spot to establish a peaceful settlement based around hard work and prayer. There’s a lovely little beach below, so transport and travel was easy by water. It’s in a sheltered haven protected from storms by Long Island off the cost, and from it there’s a good view out to sea (below) so the monks could see Vikings or other raiders coming.

And right across the Cove there’s a ring fort – a cashel, in fact, since it looks like the walls were made of stone (below). It’s a classic – on elevated ground with commanding views all around, out to sea and to the low hills behind. Puzzlingly, this cashel is not recorded by National Monuments. It’s overgrown by bracken so may not have been obvious at the time of the survey. 

This juxtaposition, across the cove from each other, of an early-medieval monastic settlement and a fortified residence, leads to speculation as to the relationship between the two. Was the monastery endowed by the local chief, committing the monks to say prayers for his eternal soul in exchange for land and protection? This is certainly a familiar pattern from the later medieval period. 

View of the ecclesiastical site from the cashel

This is just a tiny corner of the Mizen. There is much more of interest in this small townland but for today I wanted to focus on these early-medieval sites. In their ruins lie clues to a distant but vibrant past.

Mizen Magic 22: Crookhaven Harbour

It’s just the day for a Sunday drive, so come along with us as we explore the shore around Crookhaven Harbour. It’s turned cold all of a sudden, so we won’t do too much hiking or climbing today, just some gentle pottering around some spectacular scenery, with a hearty lunch in the middle of it all.

We’ve provided a map but you probably won’t need it as it’s a relatively small area and easy to see where you are at all times.

We’re starting off at Rock Island (1 on the map) – you remember what an interesting day we had there with Aidan Power? You can read that post as you wander around the island, either by car or on foot, and it will help to orient you to where you are. 

Driving off the island we turn left, along the road that hugs the water. We pass several sites along the way that date from various times in Crookhaven’s history. The first is the stone quarry that Robert wrote about in Industrial Archaeology in Crookhaven (2). It’s impossible to miss, looming above the road like an abandoned fortress wall. When he researched it, he drew a blank but one of our readers, John d’Alton from Schull, wrote to tell us of the background to the  Granite Company Lt. 

Once you’ve passed the old quarry workings, keep an eye on some small field coming up on the sea side. You will make out the ruins,(3) much overgrown, of some buildings near the water’s edge. This is all that’s left of a fish palace, originally built in 1616 by Richard Boyle, Great Earl of Cork, and his business partner in this area, the notorious Sir William Hull – read all about it in Robert’s post, Pilchards and Palaces.

The next site is on private land and not really visible from the road so here we are letting you into a little secret. At 4 on the map there’s what seems to be an old quay. There are really only a few rocks left, but one of those rocks is a piece of archaeology – a cupmarked stone. The cupmarks were probably hammered out thousands of years ago and the rock was probably transported here from close by to help build the quay. If you’re not too sure what a cupmarked stone is, take a look at this post, The Complex Cupmark. That’s Robert, below, taking a photo of the cupmarked stone.

We’ve arrived at the long beach at the head of the Harbour and we’re going to leave the car here and, because the tide’s out, walk on the white strand out towards a curious row of stones sticking out of the sand (5).

The Dúchas Folklore Schools Collection tells us these were known locally as The Blacks, and it was believed that some black sailors who drowned at sea were buried there. Indeed they do look like grave markers, but in fact they are part of an ancient field wall system that dates to when the tide was lower. 

There’s an enormous upright stone here too – tempting to think that it may be a standing stone, deliberately erected, but archaeologists think this is a natural feature. In fact, it may have landed in this position after tumbling from the hill above, or perhaps it’s a left-over glacial erratic.

There are wonderful views from here back to Rock Island and across to Crookhaven, but let’s make our way back to the road now and wander down to Galley Cove. If you’ve a mind to, walk or drive up the road to Brow Head a little way (6), just for the incredible views across the whole of the Harbour and all the way to Mount Gabriel. We’ve written about Brow Head before, way back in 2014, and you can take a look at that post now, although it really deserves an update (one of these days).

Back down at the small parking lot at the base of the Head, you’ll find yourself at the beautiful Galley Cove (7). Since it’s December, you’ll have it all to yourself.

Linger to read the plaques that go along with the statue of Marconi (see Robert’s post on him here). There are several statues of Marconi around the world, and this one may be the quirkiest. It’s actually a witty take on the Washington DC statue – a mixture of the head of Marconi and the female figure of electricity  – take a look here to see what I am talking about.

Are you gasping for lunch? Could you, as they say around here, murder a crab sandwich and a pint (or a coffee, since you’re driving)? You are in luck, as you WILL find O’Sullivan’s pub open and they do the best crab sandwiches on the Mizen. On the way, take a look at St Brendan’s Church of Ireland (8), possibly the only old church in the area that still doesn’t have electricity. Nobody quite knows how old it is, but there has been a church on this spot since at least the 1600s. 

Don’t be surprised to find O’Sullivan’s (9) heaving – this is a very popular spot and we have never been there when it’s not busy. If possible, have your lunch sitting outside. In summer, you’ll be fighting for a table and surrounded by folk in sailing gear.

Have a meander around the village and see what else you can find (hint – the goldsmith Jorg Uschkamp’s jewellery is beautiful and would make a wonderful Christmas gift.)

Time to head for home, with one last little detour on the way, through Castlemehegan.  As you drive back the way you came, take a road that angles off to the left at number 4 on the map. It will take you back to Goleen over the hills and you’ll be wowed by the views from up there (10).

Did you have a good day?

Mizen Magic 18: The Prehistoric Landscape of Arduslough

There are parts of West Cork that seem to hold within them all the memories and markers of eons. Such a place is Arduslough, on the high ground across from Crookhaven (below, map and photo) and west of Rock Island (above).

Technically, the places we explored are in three different townlands – Tooreen, Arduslough and Leenane, but mostly they fall within the boundaries of Arduslough. The name has been variously translated – Árd means high place and Lough means lake, both of which seem appropriate, but in fact the placename authority, Logainm, renders it as Árd na Saileach meaning High Place of the Sallies, or Willow Trees. Not much in the way of willows is obvious now, but the lake is certainly central to your view in the townland.

The Lake is the source of drinking water for Crookhaven and is the home, according to a story collected in the late 1930’s, of. . .

. . . an imprisoned demon of the pagan times. He is permitted to come to the surface every seven years on May morning and addresses St. Patrick, who is supposed to have banished him, in the following words “It is a long Monday, Patrick”. The demon does not speak in the English but in the vernacular. The long Monday refers to the day of General Judgement. Having expressed these words his chain is again tightened, and perforce he sinks to the bottom of the lake for another period of seven year His imprisonment will not expire till the last day.

We saw no sign of the demon and the lake looked remarkably untroubled, with its floating islands of water-lilies.

For a relatively small area, Arduslough abounds in archaeological monuments – there are four wedge tombs, three cupmarked stones, a standing stone and a piece described as either an Ogham Stone or Rock Scribings, depending on what you read. The remains of old cabins dot the landscape too, reminding us that this was a much more populous place before famine and emigration decimated the population.

The standing stone, and Robert with Jim and Ciarán O’Meara

Arduslough is the home of esteemed local historian Jim O’Meara, who grew  up in Goleen but spent most of his adult life teaching in Belfast. We met up with Jim and his son Ciarán, who very kindly offered to show us the Ogham stone. It was so well hidden under layers of brambles and bracken, and built into a field fence, we would never have found it on our own.

It is impossible to say if it is real, or even false Ogham, as it is heavily weathered and lichened, but if we turn again to the School’s Folklore Collection, we find this entertaining account of it:

There is a stone in Arduslough, a townland on the hill to the north of Crookhaven, on which are very old characters or ancient writing. It is very difficult to discern these markings now as the centuries during which they were exposed to the weather have obliterated them. The following story explains the origin of them.

In ancient times there lived in Toureen a man named Pilib. He informed on some party of Irish soldiers who were hiding in the heather there. The enemy came on them and burned the heather round them in which the soldiers perished. The stone was erected in this spot and the event was recorded on the stone. Years passed and the language underwent a change. In later years the people did not understand what was recorded on the stone, and went to the Parish priest asking him to interpret it. He translated it as follows – ‘that every sin will be forgiven but the sin of the informer Pilib an Fhraoich [Philip of the Heather].

We had previously located one of the three cup-marked stones, including a visit a couple of days earlier with Aoibheann Lambe of Rock Art Kerry (below). Ciarán thought he might be able to find another one, but extensive searching and bracken-bashing failed to turn it up.

The folklore collection is full of references to mass rocks, druid’s altars, and giant’s graves, as you would expect from the number of Bronze Age wedge tombs recorded in this area. (For more on Wedge Tombs, see my post Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths.) Two of them are situated on the slope above the lake (below) and we left them for another day. A third is hard to spot and indeed we didn’t.

We headed up to the high ground west of the lake to find the one that local people still call the Giant’s Grave. What a spectacular setting this is! First of all, you are now on a plateau with panoramic views in all directions. West lie the two peninsulas of Brow Head and Mizen Head and the boundless sea beyond.

This is heathland, covered in heather and Western Gorse – a colour combination that has the power to stop you in your tracks – and traversed by old stone walls.

From this colourful bed the stones of the Giant’s Grave arose, pillars silhouetted against the sky. It’s actually in the townland of Leenane, just outside the boundary of Arduslough. When Ruaidhrí de Valera and Seán Ó’Núalláin conducted their Megalithic Survey in the 1970s they commented that the tomb was ‘fairly well preserved’ and  ‘commands a broad outlook to the south and east across the sea to Cape Clear and Roaringwater Bay.’ They interpreted what was there as a wedge tomb, although with some uncommon features.

First of all, they said the tomb was ‘incorporated’ within an oval mound. While mounds are known for wedge tombs, they are unusual and most of the Cork examples, included excavated ones, show no trace of a mound. Stones sticking up here and there, protruding from the mound, they interpreted as cairn stones.

Secondly they noted two tall stones on the north side of the tomb – one is still standing and clearly visible (above and below) – whose function was ‘uncertain.’

Two tall stones at the south west end (above) seemed like an ‘entrance feature.’ Our own readings at the site indicated that the orientation was to the setting sun at the winter solstice, a highly significant direction to where the sun sets into the sea.

So – an unusual wedge tomb. Elsewhere in their report de Valera and Ó’Núalláin state repeatedly that a hilltop setting and a rounded mound are consistent with passage graves. However, at the time no passage grave had been identified this far south and they were thought to have a more northerly distribution. Since then, two have been identified in County Cork – one at the highest point on Cape Clear, which is visible from this site, and one in an inter-tidal zone between Ringarogy Island and the mainland. Perhaps it is worth considering whether, rather than a wedge tomb, this site may be a passage grave, like the one that Robert writes about this week in Off the M8 – Knockroe Passage Tomb or ‘Giant’s Grave’.

Whatever we label it, this Giant’s Grave is a spectacular site. It’s not hard to imagine, up there, that Neolithic and Bronze Age farmers were just as awe-stricken as we were with the magnificence of the surroundings. Tending their herds, they marked the seasons with the great movements of the sun and moon, and commemorated their dead with enduring stone monuments. More recently, people invested the landscape with myth and stories. Walking the hilltops, you know you are in the footsteps of all who went before.

Another Grand Day Out on the Fastnet Trails

Lowertown, Schull to Toormore: it may seem a rather unadventurous walk: mainly on narrow back roads. But, on a spring day of scudding clouds and clear air, with distant views from the high ground across to the Sheep’s Head and even beyond, into Kerry, there is stimulation a-plenty to be had from an easy afternoon’s ambling and exploring of places which would be passed by in an instant when driving down to the west of West Cork. Although largely on tiny boreens, you are unlikely to encounter any traffic: we didn’t see any vehicles in two hours, apart from those parked in the few houses and farmyards on the way.

Header – our walk is part of the Fastnet Trails network beyond Schull: in this case the Toormore Loop. Upper – undisturbed peace on the quiet boreens; lower – we started out at Lowerton, where you will find a fiddler at the ready beside the old dance platform!

We parked one car beside the church at Lowertown – opposite the site of the old dance platform, celebrated with the sculptures of Susan O’Toole – and the other beside Teampol na mBocht, the little church at Altar, overlooking Toormore Bay. This enabled us to take our time and enjoy every aspect of the route, walking from east to west: in my view always the proper way to walk – following the sun! I should point out that the route we took – around 5 kilometres – is only a part of the full Toormore Loop which is itself one of an excellent comprehensive system of Fastnet Trails which has been put in place in recent years.

From the board at Toormore Trail Head: I have indicated our walk from Lowertown to Altar with the broken red line over on the left. Leaflets showing the full extent of the Fastnet Trail walking routes are available in the tourism information offices in Ballydehob and Schull

The little road climbs up and over hills and down through valleys and glens. I hadn’t expected to find an old burial ground, the site of the original Ballinskea Church which existed in this remote area between 1826 and 1967, when the Church of the Seven Sacrements was built to replace it beside the main road at Lowertown.

The old burial ground at Ballinskea Church: top – a bit of local history, perhaps, in the name stamped on the ironwork at the gate; bottom – the graveyard is well looked after – cowslips are in abundance

We passed a few houses along the way, but many were abandoned: each one tells its own story of lives and livelihoods – but they don’t readily give away their secrets to us.

Some of the signs of former occupation and cultivation which we passed by on our way: the area seems so remote, yet it’s not so far from well-trodden routes

We were taken by surprise at the extent of the views both north and south from the higher ground. At one point we stopped to admire the long vista out over Dunmanus Bay with the Sheep’s Head settlement of Ahakista clearly delineated.

Top – the nature of the walk: I can’t guarantee that you won’t encounter a vehicle along these back roads, but we didn’t! Centre, looking back over rolling fields towards the wild high ground of Mount Gabriel. Bottom – the view towards Ahakista on the Sheep’s Head, with the Beara beyond

After a good hour you will reach a gateway where you will leave the boreens behind and continue across country. Of course, you don’t have to follow the marked trail: the myriad of tiny roadways continues throughout West Cork and is awaiting your further exploration. We did turn off, however, as the footpath beckoned through a leafy glen and looked most inviting. First of all, however, we paused to take a look at the bridge which carries the roadway over a stream that flows along by the path – and runs all the way down to Toormore Bay. The bridge is unusual in that it has a large stone slab lintol rather than an arch. I don’t know its history for sure, but I would guess it dates from the eighteenth century, when the road it carries was established as the main highway from Goleen to Cork!

Top – the footpath diverges from the main road to Cork! Just around the corner it passes over the unusual bridge (centre and below)

Our route is the line of the former Butter Road which ran all the way to the international Butter Market in Cork. In its heyday it would have seen plenty of traffic in the form of packhorses and donkey carts, and some of the now abandoned cottages lining its way would have been welcome ports of call on the long trek. Here’s a post from Finola about a walk we did a few years ago on another part of this highway, which tells a little more about the great butter trading days. You can also have a look at my own post from last week, which talks about the improvements to the roads of West Cork initiated by Richard Griffiths a century later, at which time the importance of our own little trail receded and was bypassed by what is now the main road going from Ballydehob and Schull down to the end of the Mizen. I suppose we therefore have Griffiths to thank for taking all the traffic away from our back roads and giving us these idyllic walking trails.

The footpath through the glen is another world – a contrast to the boreen we have been following so far. It is lush and damp underfoot, and there is green everywhere: mossy green boughs of ancient oaks, soft turf and vivid St Patrick’s Cabbage emerging in the newness of the late spring. All too soon we are in sight of our goal, the little church by the bay. But the good experiences of the day are not yet over. The church itself, and its burial ground, deserve exploration.

Teampol na mBocht is said to be the only Church of Ireland church in the country with an Irish name: it means ‘Church of the Poor’, so named by its builder, Rev William Allen Fisher, who was Rector of the Parish. Appalled by the ravages of the Great Famine, he raised money from well-wishers in both Ireland and England: with this he set up soup kitchens and distributed food, medicine, blankets and clothing.  But he wanted to do more than dole out charity. He determined to provide paid work for everyone in the area, regardless of their denomination. In 1847 – at the height of the famine – he commenced the building of this church. The story is told in more detail on the website of the Kilmoe Union of Parishes:

. . . Tradition has it that, in order to employ as many as possible, without benefiting the less impoverished farmers, no carts or horses were to be hired.  The stone was quarried nearby and carried to the site entirely by hand.  As Fisher wrote in a report on the church, ‘the employment was given chiefly by contract, so that the poor were able to work about their cabins, fishing etc. at the same time that they earned a subsistence for themselves.’ . . .

. . . It is a controversial building.  For many Protestants, William Fisher was a saint, a scholarly man happiest at his books, who nevertheless drudged selflessly for forty years in a remote parish, giving all his time and strength to the poor, the hungry and the sick, until he himself died of famine fever.  But for many Catholics, Fisher was a ‘souper’, whose manifold projects on the Mizen Peninsula, including the building of his church, had only one object: to win converts from Catholicism to the Church of Ireland . . .

The church is not always open, so it is best to contact the Parish in advance for a look inside – it’s worth it for the history. This would be the end of the trail but we walked a little further, west of the church, and took the road up to the right. This intersects the Butter Road at a crossroads. We turned left and found ourselves heading for another green track, followed by a ford with stepping stones. Keep going and you meet the main road again: if you are following the route it’s probably best to do as we did and retrace your steps here, rather than walk on the relatively busy main road.

All in all, we had another Grand Day Out! In West Cork you really can’t fail to have a good time: every day can – and should – be a new adventure. Try this one for yourselves…

 

Knockdrum Stone Fort

There is no firm line that denotes where our most south-westerly Irish peninsula begins. Our series, Mizen Magic, has reported on walks, roads, views, history and archaeology which can definitely be defined as belonging to the Mizen (which we tend to think of as being to the west of, and including, its ‘gateway’ – Ballydehob). Perhaps we should start a series titled Magic Beyond The Mizen – in which case this would be the first: a report on a very prominent site about half an hour’s drive along the coast east of where we live: a historic structure – built within the last 2,000 years – but which contains evidence of much older human activity.

Here is an overhead view – the best way to see and understand the layout and construction of Knockdrum Stone Fort, which occupies a superb hilltop location in the townland of Farrandau between Skibbereen and Castletownshend. Thank you, Dennis Horgan – our professional West Cork aerial photographer – for allowing us to use this image: have a look at his website for other examples of his work, and for details of his excellent photographs and books.

The Fort is located on a high ridge (although not on the summit of the ridge) with far-reaching views both inland and to the south, over the sea. The header picture looks from the Fort out to the west over Castlehaven to Galley Head in the far distance; the view in the picture above is due south – looking towards Horse Island, and the stone wall of the Fort is in the foreground. From these breathtaking vistas it’s reasonable to conjecture that Knockdrum Fort has a strategic siting, providing views of anyone approaching from the sea, and able to signal their arrival to dwellers in the ‘interior’ – the lands to the north. We cannot know for sure that stone fort structures had this – or any other – specific purpose: many theories have been advanced. Comparison with other examples is worthwhile. One of the largest stone forts in Ireland is Staigue Fort, near Sneem in County Kerry.

Staigue Fort (above) has a diameter of 27.5 metres, the present wall height is 5.5 metres, and the wall thickness is 4 metres. At Knockdrum the diameter is 22.5 metres, the present wall height is 2 metres and the wall thickness around 3 metres. The Duchas information board at Staigue says:

. . . This is one of the largest and finest stone forts in Ireland and was probably built in the early centuries AD before Christianity came to Ireland. It must have been the home of a very wealthy landowner or chieftain who had a great need for security . . . The fort was the home of the chieftain’s family, guards and servants, and would have been full of houses, out-buildings, and possibly tents or other temporary structures. No buildings survive today . . .

The picture above shows the present interior of Knockdrum Fort: the stone walls are likely to delineate a former building here. In the corner of the inner stone enclosure is the entrance to a ‘souterrain’ – a series of underground passageways. The souterrain is outlined on the following drawing of the Stone Fort which was made in 1930 after a detailed investigation of it by Vice Admiral Henry Boyle Somerville, the younger brother of writer and artist Edith Somerville of Castletownshend. Boyle, his life and his tragic death, is the subject of Finola’s complementary post today.

Finola is also discussing Boyle Somerville’s interest in the alignments of archaeological structures. In Boyle’s paper for The Journal of The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1931 (title page below), he presents the evidence that this Fort is on a solar alignment.

Boyle sets out the case for an alignment based on the Knockdrum Fort:

. . . This conception of the earlier use of the site of the cathair [the stone fort] for purposes which may perhaps be termed “religious,” seems to be borne out by the following fact. At a horizontal distance of about 600 yards to the E.S.E of the cathair, and at 210′ difference of level below it, there is a small rocky ridge standing up from the surrounding grass land. The name of the ridge is “Peakeen Cnoc Dromin,” The little peak of the white-backed hill . . .

The following paragraphs and photos are from the Journal paper:

Finola and I are familiar with the Peakeen Cnoc Dromin from our researches into Rock Art: the uppermost stone (which does appear similar to the capstone of a fallen dolmen) is heavily cupmarked. The photos of the Peakeen (above) were taken before we had any idea that they might form an alignment connected with Knockdrum Stone Fort. We will have to revisit again at Bealltaine. Boyle confirmed his alignment theory by personal observation:

He went on to suggest:

. . . It is one of the clearest instances of intentional orientation between two ancient, and artificially formed monuments that can be imagined . . .

Of course, it can’t be the case that a cupmarked stone dating from anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 years ago was in any way connected with a stone fort that dates from the early part of the first millennium AD. However, I have as yet omitted an important piece of information: at Knockdrum Fort, high up on the hill, are two further ancient cupmarked stones – and significant ones: the larger also exhibits Rock Art. Somerville illustrated them in 1930, and Finola recorded them in detail in 1973.

Images above are of the stones recorded at Knockdrum: topmost is Boyle’s drawing from 1930. Below Finola’s drawings are photographs of the large stone lying by the Fort entrance today: it is known that this has been moved, possibly during Somerville’s time. The old photograph immediately above is from the Coghill Family Archive and shows Arthur Townshend beside the stone, which is standing. Arthur was born in 1863: this photograph may record the occasion of the expedition by the young Somervilles and ‘their cousin’ (quite possibly Arthur) to Knockdrum described below, which took place in 1875. It is the presence of Rock Art and cupmarks at the Fort itself which tells us that the site must have had significance in far earlier times (perhaps that’s why the fort was sited in that location – rather than on the summit of the ridge), and Boyle’s reported alignment would have been with the carved rocks (or the important location that they marked) rather than with the comparatively modern stone fort.

The souterrain in the enclosure of Knockdrum Fort (entrance in top photograph – ‘chimney’ in lower photograph) was explored in 1875, as Boyle recounts:

The ‘band of three youthful archaeologists’ are likely to have been Somervilles: Edith (the eldest, then 17), Boyle (then 12 – it was he who was lowered down into the discovered ‘cave’ by his ankles!) and, probably, a cousin. Great adventures, which would undoubtedly raise eyebrows today.

Within the fort enclosure is this cross-marked stone. It was apparently leaning against the wall in Boyle’s days, but has now been embedded close to the entrance. We visit this site often: this time we noted some significant disruption to the upper level of the dry stone walling, possibly caused by the fierce storm winds earlier this year. Compare the detail below with Dennis Horgan’s aerial view above, taken a few years ago.

Some damage has also been suffered to retaining walls on the green boreen leading to the Fort from the main Skibereen – Castletownshend road (a walking route only), and on the stone walls beside the 99 steps which take you from the green path to the top of the hill. These are passable with care, but it is hoped that this monument – which is in State ownership – will be deservedly returned to good order before too long: it is one of the historic wonders of West Cork.