Mizen Megaliths 5: Ratooragh Wedge Tomb

There are twelve wedge tombs on the Mizen, three of which are still on our list to visit. I have written about several of them in many posts, but specifically about the wedge tombs at Cappaghnacallee and Ballydivlin, and at Ballyvogebeg, while Robert has written about the most famous of our prehistoric Mizen Monuments, Altar Wedge Tomb. For a general overview of Wedge Tombs, see Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths.

Today’s choice is a beautiful little example in the townland of Ratooragh, which is on the slopes of Ratooragh Mountain, north of Mount Gabriel. The location is fairly typical – on rising ground with good views in several directions.

And of course, as all well-behaved wedge tombs are, it is oriented to the west. Like Altar and Ballyvogebeg, it has Mizen Peak in its view, despite the fact that it’s a long way away and is not the most obvious point on the horizon. Perhaps, like those, it’s related to the Handsome Bres.

In the National Monuments description this tomb (CO139-024—-) is described thus: 

Chamber (L 2.2m; Wth 1.3m at W end, 0.85m at E) open to SW, covered to E by single roofstone. N and S sides each formed of one slab decreasing in height from W-E; inset backstone at E end, backed to E by parallel slab of equal width and height. Small buttress-stone stands at E end S side; prostrate slab to W of chamber may be displaced roofstone. Traces of mound to N of chamber.

In actuality, the ground is so tufty that it’s not possible to make out any traces of a mound. But the tomb itself is relatively intact, and immediately recognisable, with its sloping roof slab and the sidestones that are taller at the west end. There were two roof slabs, but one has fallen and is in the grass in front of the tomb.

Although off the beaten track, this one was not hard to find in the end, but took a little searching as it’s not exactly where it is shown on the National Monuments map. If you decide to go looking for it yourself, go a bit further than you think you should.

Mizen Megaliths 4: Ballyvogebeg Wedge Tomb

We had, unknowingly, driven past this wedge tomb many times. It’s located on rising ground overlooking the Barley Cove wetlands, in the townland of Ballyvogebeg. The townland name (according to logainm.ie) translates as the Little Place of the O’Buadhaighs, a very scattered clan sometimes translated as Bogue, or Bowe. 

The wedge tomb here was formally recorded by archaeologists de Valera and Ó Nualláin in their Survey of the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland in the early 1980s. They provided the scale drawing, below.

It was next surveyed by the Cork Archaeological Survey Team in the early 90s. Oddly, neither of these reports contain any reference to one of the most striking aspect of this megalithic tomb – the cupmarks on the capstones.

The next person to record it was Jack Roberts for his Antiquities of West Cork series, and his drawing clearly shows the cupmarks. 

If you are new to this series on Mizen Megaliths, or to megaliths in general, you can catch up with a quick read of my post Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths. This wedge tomb, Ballyvogebeg, fits the pattern, although its ruinous state doesn’t allow us to observe much detail. The side stones have collapsed under the weight of the two large capstones, although you can still see them underneath, leaning at a perilous angle.

De Valera and Ó Nualláin noted that there was no indication of a surrounding mound, which seems to be typical of West Cork wedge tombs. It likely dates to the Copper or Bronze Age, making it around 4,000 years old.

Cupmarks are normally found on open air rocks and boulders, not associated with any monuments and are the most frequent element or motif in Rock Art. However, they are found occasionally on Wedge Tombs and Boulder Burials, so while their occurrence on the Ballyvogebeg wedge tombs is uncommon, it is by no means unique. Intriguing, though! If the tomb had been covered by a mound, they would not have been visible, leading to the conclusion that it was the act of carving them that was important.

Like all of our West Cork wedges, it is oriented towards the west and the setting sun – that is the ‘entrance’ or tallest and widest end, faces the west. The most striking feature of the view is the pyramid-shaped Mizen Peak. What gives the Mizen Peak its distinctive point is a small cairn on its summit.

I haven’t yet been up to this cairn, although I am hoping to get there one of these days. So I am relying on the generosity of our friend Michael Mitchell, of the Walking to the Stones Facebook Page, for the photograph below. Like us, he has been struck by the fact that Mizen Peak seems to be visible from many sites, saying, It’s obviously a very important hill. It seems to be a focus for various megaliths, even some that are not on the Mizen peninsula itself. Michael points out that the cairn does not have the appearance of being ancient but more like a marker cairn

Curiouser and curiouser, because there is very ancient folklore indeed about this cairn, which, in fact, gives its Irish name to Mizen Head – Carn Uí Néid, or the The Cairn of the Grandson of Néid. Which grandson are we talking about here? Néid had a son, Elathen, who in turn had five sons – the Daghda, Oghma, Bres, Alloth and Delbaeth – all of them figure prominently in Irish Mythology as members of the Thuatha Dé Danann

Bres is the grandson in question, but Bres was his nickname. He was really Eochaid bres – that is Eochaid the Handsome, because everything comely and handsome that is seen in Ireland, ’tis to Bres it is likened. I am getting my information here from a piece written by J. F. L. in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society of 1912 (available online).

The Dinnshenchas of Carn Uí Néid has been translated by Dr Whitley Stokes 

Bres, son of Elathan, died there; ’tis he that in the reign of Nechtan Fairhand. . .King of Munster, demanded from every rooftree in Ireland a hundred men’s drink of a hornless dun cow, or of the milk of a cow of some other single colour. So Munster kine were singed by Nechtan with a fire of fern, and then they were smeared with a porridge of the ashes of flaxseed, so that they became dark brown. . . And they also formed three hundred cows of wood, with dark brown pails on their forks in lieu of the udders. These pails were dipped in bog stuff. Then Bres came to inspect the manner of these cattle, and so that they might be milked in his presence . . . All the bog stuff they had was squeezed out as if it was milk. The Irish were under a geis to come thither at the same time, and Bres was under a geis to drink what should be milked there. So three hundred bucketsful of red bog stuff are milked for him and he drinks it all.

JCHAS Notes and Queries Carn Uí Néid, by J. F. L.
1912, Vol 18, 96, Ps 211-213

Of course it’s a huge and unreliable leap from mythology to a wedge tomb, but I can’t help thinking how great it would be if the Ballyvoguebeg wedge tomb was indeed the tomb of Bres, brother of the Daghda, handsome King of Munster, dead from a surfeit of bog stuff. 

Mizen Megaliths 3: Wedges in Hedges

Wedge Tombs belong to the Bronze Age, starting about 2500BC. Of the 115 examples known in Cork, 12 occur on the Mizen, of which the best known is Altar (below).

All wedge tombs share the same basic wedge shape – broader and taller at the western end, which is assumed to be the entrance. All are oriented towards the western sky. To refresh yourself on the essentials of wedge tombs, take a quick read of my post Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths, and then come back here.

For my series Mizen Megaliths, we are trying to visit all the megaliths of the Mizen Peninsula (like our closest one at Kilbronoge, above), so today, I want to concentrate on two we visited this year, both of which are incorporated into field boundaries, Cappaghnacallee and Ballydivlin.

Cappaghnacallee – the name is interesting, the tillage field of the Cailleach. The Cailleach was the wise woman, the Hag of Irish mythology, the bringer of winter, the veiled one. Many placenames include a reference to her, including the largest and most impressive of the Cork wedge tombs, Labbacallee, the Bed of the Cailleach: here’s Robert’s post on this most impressive monument.

It is possible that the presence of the wedge tomb in this townland is the origin of the place name Cappaghnacallee. But if it was once an important local site, the focus of legend and ritual, it’s not easy to recapture that sense of it now. It’s hard to find, hidden in a field boundary (above), overgrown with brambles and long grass. We visited in 2015 and again this year and it’s more overgrown now.

Once you do find it, it is recognisable as a wedge tomb. Here’s what the National Monuments record says about it, and I couldn’t put it better myself.

The monument, incorporated in a stone field wall, consists of a gallery. . . aligned NE-SW. The W end of the monument has collapsed and is obscured by the roofstone and field-clearance material. The S side forms part of the field wall and is represented by three stones that rise in height to the W. Only the E stone of the N side survives and there is no evidence for a backstone. The roofstone. . . rests on the two opposing sidestones forming the E end of the gallery and slopes downwards to the entrance area where it is covered by field-clearance material. The monument appears to have collapsed in antiquity as there is a layer of peat on top of the roofstone below the field-clearance material.


There are views from the site down to Roaringwater Bay, but also to Mount Gabriel (below). We are constantly amazed when we visit prehistoric sites to find that Mount Gabriel is in view and are more and more convinced that it was a sacred mountain.

The second Mizen wedge tomb I’m including in this post is in Ballydivlin, not far from Goleen. Once again, this is a partially collapsed tomb, perhaps in slightly better shape than Cappaghnacallee, but the similarities of situation are striking. Like Cappaghnacallee, this wedge tomb is incorporated into a field boundary or hedge (although locally it would likely be called a ‘ditch.’ 

Here’s the NM description:

Tomb incorporated in fence; gallery. . . aligned NE-SW. Three erect sidestones on N side; one erect stone, one fallen sidestone on S; backstone visible at E end and another stone closes W end gallery. Stone partly covering W end gallery may be displaced roofstone. No indications of surrounding mound.

This wedge tomb is situated in such a way that it has views of both Mount Gabriel (below) to the east , Mizen Peak (the pyramid-shaped mountain that is the focus of the Altar Wedge orientation) to the west and, in the nearer distance, of Knockaphuca to the north. There are also clear views across the sea to Cape Clear (above). 

Setting out to find these obscure wedge tombs is a great way to spend a day on the Mizen. We did it in the winter, when undergrowth is not so luxurious and the ground is hard underfoot, and were blessed with fine weather each time.

We were also blessed with a fine bull at Ballydivlin – fortunately one field over and more interested in his cows that in us.

Mizen Megaliths 2: Arderrawinny Portal Tomb

The Neolithic started in Ireland in or around 4,000BC. This was the age that ushered in agriculture – people growing their own crops and domesticating and herding animals. All of our evidence for Neolithic activity on the Mizen comes not from settlements, however, but from megalithic tombs. Arderrawinny (and its cousin Ahaglaslin) is likely the oldest of these.

In Iverni: A Prehistory of Cork, William O’Brien says: While numerous examples of Neolithic houses and tombs have been found in Ireland, there is only sparse evidence for settlement in Cork during this period. The adoption of the farming way of life may have been delayed in this region, particularly in coastal areas of the county where marine resources may have remained a more attractive subsistence option.

In Mizen Megaliths 1: The ‘Unclassified’ Gubbeen Tomb and Fionn’s Ridge, I wrote about the evidence for Passage Graves, and argued that they may be more numerous than hitherto recognised. In this post, I look at Portal Tombs – the iconic structures that used to be called dolmens. The word dolmen is still in use as a popular name for some of these tombs, but archaeologists prefer Portal Tomb as a more accurate descriptor.

What is a Portal Tomb? Let’s take the National Monuments definition as a starting point: A single, short chamber formed by two tall portal-stones, two sidestones and a backstone. Sometimes a stone between the portals closes the entry. The chamber is covered by a roofstone, often of enormous size, which slopes down from the front towards the rear. Cremation was the preferred burial rite and these date to the Neolithic from 3800 to 3200 BC.

Portal tombs have a more northerly distribution in Ireland – this map shows how isolated our two examples are in the south west.

There are many Portal Tombs in Ireland and we have visited some of them. Robert wrote about the largest, Brownshill (above), in his post Off the M8 – The Great Dolmen of Kernanstown. Speculating on how it was built leaves you awestruck at the ingenuity of our ancestors.

Perhaps the most iconic, though, is Poulnabrone in Co Clare (above and below). Situated in the stark landscape of the Burren, it is supremely photogenic and has become almost synonymous with an ancient Irish landscape. Poulnabrone is also one of the few Portal Tombs to be excavated, by Anne Lynch – a necessary step in conserving the monument, which receives over a hundred thousand visitors every year.

We visited another Portal Tomb earlier this year – take a look at Robert’s post on The Giant’s Ring in Co Antrim. An incredible site consisting of an enormous circular earthwork, with a Portal Tomb in its interior (below).

One last image of a Portal Tomb – this one in Co Louth at Proleek (below). It’s a fun one to visit, on a Golf course and with a nearby Bronze Age Wedge Tomb to ponder over as well. 

Now let’s get back to our own Mizen Portal Tomb, Arderrawinny. We visited it on a sunny day last year in the company of our favourite fellow archaeology enthusiast, David Myler (of the excellent Walking with Stones Facebook Page) who brought along his two able assistants, Owen and Aoife. We were guided across the fields by old friends Peter and Cathleen Mabey, who had secured permission from the landowner. The walk included a section of the Fastnet Trails, drooping with displays of Meadowsweet and Loosestrife. 

You will see immediately that Arderrawinny has all the attributes that make it instantly recognisable as a Portal Tomb – two tall upright stones mark the entrance (portal) and support the large front roofstone.

The portals are leaning quite perilously, but the whole edifice seems to be pretty well exactly as it was described by de Valera and O’Nualláín in their Survey of the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland conducted in the 70s, almost 50 years ago. (Vol IV, available here.)

Their observations was that The structure is incorporated into a low oval-shaped mound measuring 10.00m by 9.00m and rising to a maximum height of .7m. This ‘mound’ is faintly visible but the surrounding area has been heavily ‘improved’ over the years so that very little impression can be gained of what the context may have been in antiquity. 

Were Portal Tombs always covered by a cairn or mound? In his book The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland, John Waddell says they were, but many have been denuded. He adds, as far as can be judged from rather limited evidence, cairns are of elongated, perhaps subrectangular form, but short oval and round cairns also exist. The excavation at Poulnabrone revealed evidence of a low mound or cairn. Rather than covering the entire structure, this seemed to have functioned to provide lateral support to the orthostats, which sat directly on the bare limestone bedrock, kept in place by the sheer weight of the capstone. Interestingly, the reconstruction drawing for Proleek (below) illustrates an elongated mound/cairn covering the tomb, although no traces of such a mound have been found at that site.

Note that in this drawing, the capstone is still visible, above the cairn material. Others have postulated that Portal Tomb cairns were low, only reaching part way up the supporting orthostats. One scholar has also used lichen growth (lichens can be as 4,000 years old) to support this theory.

De Valera and O’Nualláín describe two overlapping roofstones at Arderrawinny, with the rear stones resting on a small sill which forms the backstone of the chamber. This rear capstone is now almost resting on the ground (above), although it is hard to see inside as stones, possibly from field clearance, have been tossed into the chamber. On our visit, only our junior archaeologists were able to worm their way inside.

What was the burial rite? Here’s what the Poulnabrone excavation revealed: 

The commingled unburnt remains of at least 35 individuals were recovered from the chamber, ranging in date from c. 3800 cal BC to c. 3200 cal BC. The earliest burials are likely to date to the time of the construction of the tomb which would place it at the very beginning of the Irish Neolithic. Successive interment of complete bodies appears to have been the burial rite practised, with subsequent displacement, removal and manipulation of the bones accounting for the disarticulation and jumbled state of the remains. Both male and female and all age groups are represented in the assemblage. A foetus of middle Bronze Age date was recovered from the portico. Analysis of the remains suggested a wholly terrestrial diet with limited consumption of animal protein and, with one exception, all individuals appear to have originated in the carboniferous limestone region of the Burren. A number of animal bones (including cattle, sheep, goat and pig) were intermingled with the human remains.

However, in other Portal Tombs the preference appears to have been for cremation. Waddell cites several examples of burnt bone from excavated Portal Tombs.

Arderrawinny, then, is probably the oldest archaeological monument on the Mizen. In West Cork there is one other Portal Tomb – at Ahaglaslin. If you have driven east along the N71 from Rosscarbery, you will have seen it – a distinct capstone on the side of the hill. 

This one was visited by Borlase as  far back as the 1890 and he described it in his book The Dolmens of Ireland. His illustration, and that of his another antiquarian, Windele, is given below.

Jack Roberts also illustrated it (below) for his marvellous series of books on West Cork antiquities. Jack always manages to capture the essence of these ancient monuments, clearing away distracting foliage, while still conveying the landscape.

Finally, although I haven’t visited it myself, the redoubtable David Myler has, and allowed me to use his photographs. As you can see, Ahaglaslin is similar to Arderrawinny, with the characteristics of the Portal Tomb clearly to be seen.

Curious features of both Arderawinny and Ahaglaslin are their location and orientation. While Arderawinny has a distant view of the sea to the south west, it is actually oriented – that is, the portals face towards – the cliff directly in front of it. To the north, in fact, with no possibility of any sunset/sunrise (unlike wedge tombs, in which entrances invariably point towards the setting sun). Similarly, although Ahaglaslin is  located only a kilometre to the sea, which is directly south, it is oriented up the slope of the hill, to the east. with no commanding view in that direction. 

We know that Neolithic people were masters of building to take advantage of sunrises and sunsets, and we assume this to be an important part of whatever belief-set they had. Given that, the non-orientation of these two West Cork Portal Tombs is a bit of a head-scratcher.

I will leave the last word on Portal Tombs to Waddell, since he sums it up beautifully. Although the portal tomb is invariably a structure of simple plan, he says, some of these monuments are remarkable examples of megalithic engineering.

Mizen Megaliths 1: The ‘Unclassified’ Gubbeen Tomb and Fionn’s Ridge

Megalithic tombs (from ancient Greek mega – great, lithos – stone) dot the Irish countryside and date from the Neolithic period (4,000 to 2,500BC) and the Bronze Age (2,500 to 500BC). The practise of erecting large stone monuments would have entailed significant command of local resources and therefore indicates either a highly co-operative or a highly stratified society. The megaliths were built to last and indeed many have survived, although only a shadow of their original size. 

I’m going to start this new series with a curious construction labelled by the National Monuments survey as a ‘megalithic tomb- unclassified’. It’s in the townland of Gubbeen, near Schull, but only barely, as it’s almost on the boundary with the townland to the North, called Glan. What marks the townland boundary here is one of the things that makes this site so fascinating.

The boundary, instead of the usual stream or old road, is a striking landscape feature called locally Fionn’s Ridge. Originally, it was known as Ummerafinn, from iomaire, meaning a raised strip of earth, such as that made by a plough, and Finn, a common form of the Irish name Fionn, meaning fair-haired. It is marked thus on the Historic 6” Ordnance Survey map which was made in the 1840s – can you make it out, above?

Fionn’s Ridge runs for half a kilometre from the road up to a rocky prominence that is part of Knocknageeha (Hill of the Winds), which in turn is part of the greater mass of Mount Gabriel. As you would expect from such a conspicuous landscape element, it is the subject of much folklore, some of which I detailed in the post Legends of Mount Gabriel: Fionn, Furrows and Fastnet. That post will tell you, if you don’t already know it, more about the legendary Fionn MacCumhaill.

However, when I wrote that post, I hadn’t actually identified Fionn’s Ridge properly. Now, I have not only seen it from several angles, but walked up and down it. The folklore says that Fionn MacCumhaill ploughed the furrow with two rams and a wooden plough and indeed what we see now does bear a resemblance, not to a furrow but to the raised rounded spine (on one side of the furrow) which results when a plough cuts and turns over earth.

The ridge leads almost straight up to the megalith. This is unlikely to be a coincidence – Neolithic people were as struck as we are by such strange phenomena in their surroundings. When they decided to build the structure at a spot right at the top of it, they may have been influenced by several factors. They may, for example, have used the ridge as a road or as a ceremonial processional route up to the megalith. It is ideal for such a purpose. Like us, they may have had folklore that spoke of a giant and his plough.

Let us turn now to the megalith. Here’s the National Monuments description: Ruined chamber (L 3.1m; Wth 2.2m at W end, c. 0.6m at E) aligned ENE-WSW, formed of inclined slabs. Structure incorporated in circular cairn. Traces of low dry-stone kerb survive at N, W and S.

The first thing we can say for certain is that is is not a wedge tomb. Take a look at my post Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths for a complete description of this type of monument, which belongs to the Bronze Age. Wedge tombs are the most common megaliths on the Mizen – there are 12 listed. Of these, I have stated my doubts about the Giant’s Grave in Arduslough, based on its hilltop setting and the traces of a mound delineated by kerbstones.

Here we have the same issue – the siting is not typical of wedge tombs, none of which, on the Mizen at least, are on hilltops (apart from Arduslough). Wedge tombs are oriented to the setting sun in the Western sky – that is, the tallest and broadest section, the entrance, is always to the west. In Gubbeen, it is clear that there is no opening to the west – instead what we see is the wall of a roundish chamber. It is impossible to make out exactly where the entrance was for certain, because of piled-up rocks, but it was at the eastern side, with an orientation towards the rising sun, and Mount Gabriel. 

As noted by National Monuments, there are traces of a kerb, although it’s hard to be definitive about this. The collapsed pile of rocks as the eastern end may have been simply piled up there in modern times – but they may also be from a collapsed roof.

Where am I going with this? I posit that this may be, in fact, a passage grave. Several features (hilltop setting, sunrise orientation, internal chamber, kerb) set it more obviously in the passage grave tradition than in the wedge tomb tradition. There may be an archaeological bias against labelling such structures as passage tombs, since it has been considered that passage tomb distribution was in the northern half of the island. 

In fact, it is not unlike the passage tomb on Cape Clear, the position of which is clearly visible from this one – that’s it on the horizon, above. Inter-visibility is a feature of passage graves. There is also a similar anomalous megalithic structure on a high point on Sheep’s Head – also clearly visible. 

The other structure that has been identified as a passage tomb in this area is in The Lag, between Ringarogy Island and the mainland. Elizabeth Shee Twohig identified it, and placed it and Cape Clear within a group of ‘undifferentiated’ passage tombs (by which she means that there is no clear differentiation between the passage and the chamber as there is, for example in Newgrange) known from Waterford and South Tipperary. All except The Lag occupy high ground, although not summits. Above is her plan of the tomb and below is her photograph, both images from her article on The Lag in Archaeology Ireland Vol. 9, No. 4 (Winter, 1995), pp. 7-9, available here for those with a Jstor account.

So – in many ways, Gubbeen fits with what we know about the southern spread of a passage grave tradition. It’s time for a re-evaluation of passage graves in this part of Ireland. They may well turn out to be much more common than we have admitted hitherto.

We have visited this site so you don’t have to. It’s private land and very difficult to access and there is no way onto Fionn’s Ridge from the road, despite the fact that it terminates close to the road. Our trek, taken with the permission of the landowner, who warned us, was quite hazardous – more than once we ended up falling through the bracken or caught on the wrong side of barbed wire.

If we ever find an easy way up, we will amend the post – meanwhile, we don’t recommend trying it yourself.