The Mountain Road

Over three years ago I wrote a piece about the mountain that’s on our doorstep – Mount Gabriel. This rocky high terrain is always in our view as we travel around West Cork, and we feel it must have had special significance in prehistoric times: it overlooks a majority of the archaeological sites that we have explored locally – perhaps they were placed because of that. Also, there are many stories attached to Mount Gabriel (find them in my previous post), including the fact that the Archangel himself touched down on its summit and left behind a footprint in the stone! Evidently, he was intrigued to hear about Ireland’s verdant beauty and knew that …in time to come, this honest island would never part with the worship and duty it owes to the Mother of God… and so was determined to get a look at the holy place.

Derryconnell Loop Walk on the Fastnet Trails takes in the foothills of Mount Gabriel – seen here in contrasting weather conditions, but only a day apart!

There is a little-known road which runs along the foothills of the mountain which, on a good day, is as beautiful a road as you will find anywhere in Ireland. It begins at the bog of Derreennatra (more of which can be found in Finola’s post today) and you can follow it up and through the Barnacleeve Gap. If you wish, from there you can go all the way up to the summit and get some of the most stunning views all the way over the Mizen, across the Sheep’s Head and even into Kerry.

The climb to the summit of Mount Gabriel is always rewarding, with panoramic views to all points of the compass. Lower Picture: the Air Traffic Control Authority’s installations atop the mountain add an odd drama to the landscape

Part of our Mountain Road has been incorporated in the Derryconnell Loop Walk, one of the new group of the Fastnet Trails based around Schull. The whole of this loop walk is varied and picturesque, but the section from the bog is outstanding as it skirts the mountain – which always dominates the vista – and brings you to the junction with the Barnacleeve road. Keep on going, and take in the mountain itself, or follow the trail down to the old Schull Workhouse. Whichever way you go, you will be struck by the seeming remoteness of the boreens, and you will seldom encounter a vehicle.

In all weathers the Mountain is engaging: you can start out in the mist and finish up in sunshine!

In the latter part of this summer we have explored the road in all weathers, and recorded the many moods of the mountain. Reaching the summit last week, we had a search for the Archangel’s footprint. I’m convinced we found it, but we couldn’t see the lake with its magical islands which – according to the legends ‘…float about up and down, east and north and south; but every Lady-day they come floating to the western point, and there they lie fixed under the crag that holds the track of the Angel’s foot…’ (John Abraham Jagoe, Vicar of Cape Clear – Church of Ireland Magazine 1826)

The peak of Mount Gabriel is strewn with rocks, any of which might contain the Archangel’s footprint. Upper – the view to the islands of Roaringwater Bay. Lower – could this be where he touched down? A definitely footprint shaped impression on this rock – highlighted on the photo in red

In my younger days I was fortunate to hear traditional Irish musicians Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman performing on the streets of Camden Town, London, when I worked in that city. Those streets were a far cry from the home I now have in West Cork, but I recall the duo’s rendering of the tune The Mountain Road: Margaret came from Cork herself, so perhaps our own mountain (or maybe it was Gabriel?) was an inspiration to her.

Descending from the summit, we finished our walk on the Mountain Road at the gauntly atmospheric ruins of Schull Workhouse

The Old Mine Road

to the castle

Exactly two years ago I wrote a piece for this Journal – A Moment in Time – remarking on the very specific changes that we become aware of at the end of the summer: the holiday homes being closed up and shuttered; the boats being taken off their moorings and stored away in the boatyard; the shorebirds returning to their winter quarters. I finished up by pointing out that our own summers never end: we enjoy living in Cappaghglass just as much in the darker, colder days at the turning of the year as we do when the sun is high in the heavens.

cove gray day

high road gray day

Top – starting point: Rossbrin Cove on a gray day. Bottom – The Old Mine Road wearing its raincoat

It is an idyllic life and we are privileged to have the quiet boreens to ourselves in all weathers. We have talked about Rossbrin Cove so often, in its many seasonal variations: for today’s post I’m taking the upward road through the townland, the route that I call The Old Mine Road. This road – or more accurately this series of lanes and byways – will take the traveller from the Cove into the little town of Ballydehob, and will pass through an old copper mining district which, two hundred years ago, saw heavy industry, intermittent employment, smoke, noise, pollution and desperate human working conditions where now ‘peace comes dropping slow’ with only the crying of the Choughs over an undisturbed backdrop of rock, heather and coarse grasses – and the occasional jumble of stones showing where there were once buildings, shafts and crumbling walls marking the old mine complex.

cappaghglass

captain's house sun

Top – the landscape of The Old Mine Road: Mount Gabriel dominates the horizon to the west. Bottom – looking from the road towards Roaringwater Bay: in the foreground is the site of old mine workings, now reclaimed by nature, with one of the two Mine Captain’s Houses in the centre and the stump of an old mine chimney on the right

A walk along The Old Mine Road on a benign late September day will be rewarding because of the good air, the distant views to the Mounts Gabriel and Kidd, and with the bays of Roaringwater and Ballydehob below. You will find medieval history in the form of towerhouse castles, modern economy delineated by distinctive lines of mussel ropes spilling over the water and always alongside you the immediate wildness of a natural, undisturbed landscape. Views change as the way winds and dips – always interesting, always different, however many times you follow these routes.

mussel ropes

waving grass

mine buildings

Top – mussel ropes abundant in the Bay. Middle -waves of grass in the wild landscape to the north of the road. Bottom – ruins of old mine buildings can still be seen from the road

Autumn brings with it a certain melancholy. Time passes, our lives move relentlessly forward. We enjoy the changing of the seasons but we want to know that there will be so many more seasons to see. Each one will bring us unique experiences.

blue in the grass

from the road

Top – wildflowers in abundance on the boreens of Cappaghglass. Bottom – signs of old workings in the fields below the road

As I walk the old road, I can’t help trying to picture the scenes there from other times. I wonder what feelings the hard working miners had – did they take in the changing light and the views? Did they see the way the grasses moved with the wind, creating waves on the landscape? Did they have any time to notice nature’s fine details – the incredible variety, colours and designs of the wild flowers? Or was theirs just a drudging commute from cottage to workplace at dawn and dusk?

ballydehob wharf

The end of the road: Ballydehob Wharf, which would have seen great activity (intermittedly) when the mines were in full swing. Cappagh Mine was operating between 1816 and 1873, with its maximum output of about 400 tons of ore being produced in 1827

The poet Seamus Heaney has much to say about the hardship – and order – of a physical working life; his own father had worked the land and the poet was infected with memories of his younger days. This poem – Postscript – has a different emphasis but strikes me as a similar commentary on encounters with the landscape, although it’s concerned with another geography:

…And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open…
wall and heather

Mount Corrin Walk

View from the cairn, Mount Corrin

View from the cairn, Mount Corrin

Walks that get you up to high places with panoramic views are terrific – especially when you don’t have to start at sea level! One such West Cork walk is Mount Corrin. Despite being on The Mizen, it’s part of the Sheep’s Head Walks system, which means it’s accessible and perfectly waymarked.

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The whole Mount Corrin loop walk is a 17km marathon and definitely not for the faint-hearted. But faint-hearted is exactly what we are, so we have chosen an option that can be easily accomplished on a pleasant afternoon – about a 5 km round trip. Some of these photographs are from a spring walk, and some from a fine autumn day.

From the trail - the Sheep's Head

From the trail – looking across at the Sheep’s Head

Wear good boots and bring a camera but leave the dog at home as no dogs are allowed on the Sheep’s Head Way. And if you do want to do the Big Walk, we highly recommend you pick up a copy of Walking the Sheep’s Head Way by Amanda Clarke. She and Peter have brought out a Second Edition that includes all the loop walks and they do a fabulous job of describing the whole route and provide wonderful photographs of what you can expect.

This curious little monument is right beside the parking spot

This curious little monument is right beside the parking spot

Our starting point is at a high point about half way between Durrus and Ballydehob. Drive out of Ballydehob via the road between Antonio’s Restaurant and Vincent Coghlan’s pub – that’s the Rathruane Road. About 3 km along this road you will come to a crossroads – turn right. Take the first turn left on that road and it will bring you up to the top of a hill. Once you cross over the top and start the descent on the other side you will see the waters of Dunmanus Bay ahead and to the left and a pull-out for parking on the right.

One of West Cork's most scenic parking spots

One of West Cork’s most scenic parking spots

This is your starting point – look back and you will see the way marked trail about 50ms back up the hill, running alongside a forestry plantation. It’s also your ending point: our walk will take you up to the summit and back.

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If you’re approaching from Durrus, take the R591 out of the village. Take the first turn left then the first right and follow the road to the summit. These are small country roads – be prepared to pull over or even reverse when you encounter other traffic.

Example of 'other traffic'

Example of ‘other traffic’

Once you set out, the first point of interest is what is described in the National Monuments inventory as a ‘megalithic structure’ and which looks likely to be a wedge tomb, although it is hard to be definitive about it. Whatever it is, it’s man made and intriguing.

A wedge tomb?

A wedge tomb?

You can see the cairn ahead – your destination.

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Before you get to it there is a row of standing stones. These ones are not marked on the NM inventory but it’s difficult to see what they could be other than a stone alignment. A final push now gets you to the cairn and to those panoramic views we mentioned.

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The first thing you’ll notice about the cairns (there are two of them) is the size of the large one and the scatter of stones all around them. The consensus seems to be that there has been a cairn on Mount Corrin since ancient times and that the current cairn, a more modern construction, sits on top of an older one.

The cairn on Mount Corrin is visible from this panel of rock art at Rathruane

The cairn on Mount Corrin is visible from this panel of rock art at Rathruane

We have certainly noted that the top of Mount Corrin, like the top of Mount Gabriel, is visible from several prehistoric sites and a cairn would have enhanced that visibility. The most persistent story about the cairn, though, links it to Lord Bandon.

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The Bernards, Earls of Bandon, are associated with Durrus, having laid out the town in the eighteenth century and having used Durrus Court as a summer residence. They had many interests in the area, including mining, and the always-interesting Durrus History blog gives us this information about Mount Corrin:

Mary Catherine Henrietta Bernard of Castle Bernard daughter of Lord Bandon married Colonel Aldworth on the 30th July 1863 and an address and copy of ‘God’s Holy Word’ was sent by Rev Freke and the tenantry of Durrus to which she returned thanks.  At Dreenlomane Mine (operating until c1920) owned by Lord Bandon, Captain Thomas set tar barrels alight on Mount Corrin which illuminated the sky all night and the 150 miners and their wives were treated to refreshments and similar celebrations were held in Carrigbui.

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The views from the cairn are stupendous, taking in the West Cork Peninsulas and the hinterland across to the Kerry mountains. Take a while to wander around the top – see if you can spot the collapsed walls of ancient hut sites.

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Making your way back, look down towards the farms on the northern slope of the mountain. You can still make out the unmistakeable signs of lazy beds, used to grow potatoes, and the ruins of houses abandoned long ago. It’s a poignant reminder that this land was once densely populated by people whose sole nutrition came from potatoes and who fled this area in the aftermath of the Great Famine.

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There now – that wasn’t gruelling at all, was it? And so rewarding. But still, a bit of effort required so you definitely deserve a coffee and cake at Budd’s, or a pint in Rosie’s. Tell them Roaringwater Journal sent you.

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Irish Poldarks

black hole

Derrycarhoon Mine

Schools are back; fields are being cut; the shutters are going down on the holiday houses around the Cove. And – the good weather has arrived! Hot days and red sunsets: West Cork is the place to spend autumn…

Full Sky

Autumn comes to Rossbrin Cove

It was just such a golden autumnal-feeling day when our friend (and Fastnet Trails mastermind) Eugene McSweeney called us to see if we would like a trip out to the old metal mine north of Ballydehob, in the townland of Derrycarhoon. Of course we would! Local farmer William Swanton led the expedition: William’s family had connections with mining – he told us that his grandmother’s father had been a Captain of the mine.

William

William Swanton at the South Shaft, Derrycarhoon

You will know that we live in the townland of Cappaghglass, and this has a mining history, as does the neighbouring townland of Ballycummisk. Also, there are ancient mines on the slopes of Mount Gabriel, not far away, and more mining activity in other parts of the Mizen, Sheep’s Head and Beara Peninsulas.

Allihies19571957 scene at Allihies Mine, Beara Peninsula

hodnett bookWhile many aspects of the 19th century history of the old mine at Derrycarhoon have been well recorded (I am indebted to The Metal Mines of West Cork by Diane Hodnett, The Trevithick Society, 2012), the site itself had for some time been difficult to reach and interpret as it was in a dense forestry plantation established in the 1960s and 70s. Now, however, much of the matured forest has been cleared (albeit leaving a devastated landscape) and it is possible to piece together the layout of the workings. Please remember that the mine is on land managed by Coillte and is subject to Coillte’s policies on access – permission must be sought from the landowner before visiting; also, a guide is essential – there is very rough ground and open and unguarded shafts and trenches.

danger

What is so special about this mine is that it has apparently been exploited firstly in prehistoric times, and then again in historic times – prior to its most recent incarnation in the 19th century. Professor William O’Brien of UCC recognises ‘…the recently-adduced evidence for early medieval operations at this site, which is quite unique in the history of Irish metal mining…’ (A Primitive Mining Complex at Derrycarhoon, County Cork – Journal of Cork Historical and Archaeological Society vol 94). While other mines on the Mizen Peninsula have shown evidence of being worked initially in the Bronze Age and then subsequently in modern times, Derrycarhoon is the only one to date which can confidently claim to have also been in use in between those times.

finola at the shaft

interior

Intrepid Finola inspecting the deep shaft at Derrycarhoon, top, and her photo, below – note the copper staining

We have explored links between West Cork and Cornwall in previous blog posts (here, herehere and here). When it comes to metal mining anywhere in the world there’s usually a Cornishman involved and here is no exception to that rule. The mine agents – whose job it was to prospect and direct operations – were always known as ‘Captains’. A dynasty of Mine Captains was founded by Charles Thomas (1794-1868), a mining agent and share dealer in Camborne, Cornwall – responsible for the very successful development of the Dolcoath Mine in Camborne. Mineral rights here were established in 1588 and copper was being produced in some quantity by 1720. Thomas (who had started work in the seams of Dolcoath at the age of twelve) stepped in as Captain in 1844 after a period of considerable decline in metal production. Charles was a real-life Poldark – insisting that the apparently dwindling seams of copper be followed to the bitter or fruitful end – and his skills saw Dolcoath (known as the Queen of Mines) become the largest, deepest and most productive mine in Cornwall, with its principal shaft eventually reaching a depth of 3,300 feet (1,000 m) below the surface – and incidentally taking the miners between 2 to 3 hours to descend and ascend, significantly reducing their working shifts below ground. Thomas was succeeded at Dolcoath by his son Josiah and then his grandson Arthur, taking the mine well into the twentieth century. (Its successor, the South Crofty Mining Company went into administration in 2013).

Dolcoath 1893

Dolcoath, Cornwall – Queen of Mines – 1893

The point of this digression into Cornish mining history is simply that three more sons of Charles Thomas, Captain of Dolcoath, came to the west of Ireland in the mid nineteenth century and were instrumental in the development of many of the mining activities here, including those on the Mizen. The brothers, Charles, Henry and William arrived by 1841 with their own families – yet more sons – who proceeded to populate, at one period or another, the Captaincies of most of the West Cork activities, including our own Cappaghglass workings and the Derrycarhoon venture.

West Cork Mine Captains: Henry Thomas (left) with his niece and William Thomas (right) with his daughter

The modern age of mining commenced at Derrycarhoon in 1846, under the management of Captain Charles Thomas. Charles discovered no less than six old mines during his preliminary explorations, and recognised similarities between them and the shallow workings of medieval tinners which he knew from his childhood home on the moors of Bolenowe, near Camborne, where such workings were extensive and visible. That’s how we know that this mine had been active in those times. But also, as his brother Captain William records in an article dated 1853:

…In the Derrycarhoon Mountain some excavations have been found, which no doubt were made at a very remote period, as they are invariably designated by the country people ‘Danes’ or ‘Danish Works’, but whether these ancient works were carried on or not by the Danes is not easy to determine: it is, however, an historical fact that the Danes visited Ireland many hundreds of years ago…

1843 drawing danish implements

Nineteenth Century Archaeology: Excavated ‘Danish Implements’, 1843 – in fact these finds are likely to be Bronze Age or Iron Age – have a look at  Umha Aois, a Roaringwater Journal post about early metalworking

(Thomas 1853) …One of these singular excavations at Derrycarhoon was a few years ago cleared of water and rubbish; it was found to be 60 feet deep and about 120 feet in length… the lode or vein appears to have been literally pounded away by stone hammers, a great many of which were found in the old works and which were evidently brought from a considerable distance, there being no rock of the same character within some miles…

Hand-held stone maul used at Derrycarhoon in prehistoric times

We found evidence at Derrycarhoon of these stone tools, generally known as ‘cobble stone hammers’ and probably originating on the beaches below us: their presence almost certainly confirms that the earliest workings here were Bronze Age, as confirmed by Timberlake and Craddock in a paper of 2013: …The distribution of known occurrences of this type of cobble stone hammer at or near to mining sites in the British Isles correlates with some (but not all) of the areas of near-surface copper deposits, particularly along the west coast of Britain… Recent fieldwork suggests good survival of tools at mine sites, even where these have become dispersed as a result of redeposition by later mining… Hammer stones, or fragments of hammer stones, are more or less indestructible, surviving any amount of later reworking. In most cases the fragments of these tools never disperse far from source, even when redeposited several times. Experience has shown that if a range of these can be found, then the approximate site(s) of prehistoric mining can usually be identified…

derrycarhoon trumpet

Further intriguing finds were made at Derrycarhoon in the nineteenth century, including a ‘notched pole’, a ladder and a trumpet-like wooden tube 75cm in length. Whether these artefacts were medieval or earlier we do not know but, remarkably, the tube still exists and is kept in the spectacular Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford (why not here in Ireland?). I could only find a poor quality early photograph of this.

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK

Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford – where the Derrycarhoon Trumpet (above) is stored

The topography at Derrycarhoon – which is reappearing now that the forestry plantation has been cleared – is very similar to the Bronze Age mining sites on Mount Gabriel: long, shallow trenches interspersed with pits and shafts. However, the superimposition of medieval and modern interventions clouds the issue. William Swanton pointed out to us a drainage adit driven horizontally for some distance through the bedrock. We assume this is probably the work of the Victorian speculators.

three figures

portal

Mine explorers (top) and portal (below)

Captain Charles Thomas evidently raised some 30 to 40 tons of ‘rich grey copper ore’ after the ‘old workings’ had been cleared during the 1850s. Derrycarhoon Mine was listed from 1862 to 1873 under the ownership of Swanton and Company but there is no record of any production at this time nor afterwards, although prospecting trials were made in 1912 by a John McArthur of Glasgow and again in 1965 by the Toronto Mining Company. We found part of a core sample on site, presumably dating from that trial. Then the trees took over…

Landscape of spoil: copper traces in the discarded rubble; baryte – and views west to other Mizen mining sites, Mount Gabriel and Mount Corrin

Today, the rough landscape is marked only by green-stained spoil heaps, earthwork undulations and a few recognisable pits and shafts. The litter includes traces of barytes, sometimes a by-product of copper production. If you are not interested in mines or the history of them you will be pretty unimpressed. But, as a microcosm of our own local history, we were fascinated by our exploration of Derrycarhoon and are very grateful to William and his ancestors (were they the Thomases – our own Irish Poldarks?).

Cornish Miners Window

Umha Aois

spearhead

There’s a magic to the working of metal: you can pick this up when you are doing it, or when you are watching others do it. It could be the arcane transformation of rough nuggets of ore, first into liquid and then into beautiful solid objects that inspires that impression – or perhaps it’s because the senses are battered by the fierce heat, the molten rivulets, the streaming sparks, the incessant hammering, the sheer excitement… It’s no wonder that our ancestors embraced the emerging technologies hundreds of generation ago, and created spectacular objects which, today, we place in our museums and venerate.

sparking

Umha Aois are artists and sculptors working as ‘experimental archaeologists’ who have been in Skibbereen this week as part of the Skibberen Arts Festival. They use Bronze Age metal working techniques to produce replicas of ancient tools, weapons and musical instruments and also contemporary art objects. We went to their workshops set up in the grounds of Liss Ard House and met Holger Lönze – a locally based sculptor – James Hayes from Bray and their colleagues who are researching and using stone and clay moulds, ‘lost wax’ processes and charcoal pit-furnaces.

Robert holding a recently cast bronze bell, while Finola tries out an adze

It’s very appropriate that we should be looking at Bronze Age metalwork in our own corner of West Cork as we are in the shadow of Mount Gabriel, site of substantial copper mine workings probably dating from some three and a half thousand years ago. A number of Bronze Age mines have been found on the Mizen Peninsula: it must have been a significant local activity and source of trade. It has of course continued almost up to the present day; our own townland of Cappaghglass saw considerable copper extraction during the nineteenth century.

copper mountain

Copper Mountain – on Mount Gabriel can be found the sites of 32 separate workings dating from 1700 – 1400 BC, but there is no evidence of smelting or metalworking in the same vicinity: perhaps the ‘magic’ of the process required it to be carried out in more secret places?

Back to the Umha Aois project (it’s pronounced oowah eesh and means Bronze Age): we saw pieces in various stages of production, including axe heads, adze heads and spear heads, cast from stone moulds. They are elegant objects, especially when they have been polished to a gleaming finish.

axe heads

Bronze axe head, showing the mould used to cast it

The group was using pit furnaces which they had constructed on site. These consisted of basin shaped depressions in the ground lined with clay, and pipework of clay running from two sets of bellows. The clay pits were filled with charcoal and fired to a high temperature to convert the ore in the crucibles to a molten state.

empty furnace

Top – the principle components of a Bronze Age pit furnace; below left – crucible being heated; below right – the bellows in action

In another shelter we were also shown the ‘lost wax’ process: small objects were shaped in wax and then encased in clay. The wax was melted, leaving a mould in the clay cavity which was then filled with molten metal. Once hardened, the clay moulds are broken apart; the copper or bronze objects are then finished and polished. Here is a BBC video that demonstrates these techniques. There are incredible examples of this type of worked metal in the National Museum in Dublin, including some in gold – thousands of years old and yet so elegant and sophisticated.

melting out the waxClay moulds used in the ‘lost wax’ process

Holger has also made a Bronze Age musical instrument, which he demonstrated for us. The pattern is based on ‘trumpets’ which have been found in Europe, the finest being the Loughnashade trumpet, discovered during drainage works at the site of a former lake in County Armagh. Holger’s trumpet is a bronze cast: some finds have been made from curved and rivetted sheets of bronze. Here is a link to a recording of the sound made by a similar reconstructed instrument.

Holger Lönze conjuring up ancient music!

By exploring techniques, lifestyles and behaviour of our forebears through practical application, experimental archaeologists such as Umha Aois help us to understand that people who lived in the Bronze Age were not intellectually ‘primitive’ as was once thought; they have passed down to us their own aesthetic appreciation of art, music and their highly developed knowledge of sciences that enabled them to construct the complex megalithic monuments – and enigmatic Rock Art – which are yet beyond our own understanding.

Experimental archaeology in the walled garden at Liss Ard

Our ancestors left behind rugged stone monuments, landscapes which have shaped the pattern of our countryside, and sublimely beautiful objects: magic to our eyes and senses.

This Bronze Age gold disc – now in the National Museum, Dublin – was found at Sparrograda, Ballydehob:

sparrograda disc

The Complex Cupmark

Rathruane More: the view from the rock art site includes a knoll with a row of cupmarks on its upper surface, and Mount Gabriel on the horizon

Rathruane More: the view from the rock art site includes a knoll with a row of cupmarks on its upper surface, and Mount Gabriel on the horizon

QUESTION: Is there a real difference between rock art and cupmarked stones?

A joint post by Finola and Robert
Distribution of 'rock art' (left) and 'cupmarked stones' (right) in Ireland

Distribution of ‘rock art’ (left) and ‘cupmarked stones’ (right) in Ireland, according to the National Monuments classification scheme

In recording the rock art of County Cork so far we have concentrated mainly on those examples described in the National Monuments Records as rock art. In the course of planning the Cork survey, years ago, a decision was made to distinguish between rock art and cupmarked stones and so they are listed separately. However, other counties appear to lump them together, or use the generic term rock art to include stones bearing only cupmarks. In addition, some monuments are classified using their most distinctive feature: a wedge tomb or a standing stone, for example, may well bear cupmarks on a surface, but do not therefore show up as examples of either rock art or cupmarked stones on the records.  

Drishane Cupmarked Stone. In other counties, this would be recorded as Rock art

Drishane Cupmarked Stone. In other counties, this would be recorded as Rock art

This is how the National Monuments Website describes cupmarked stones: A stone or rock outcrop, found in isolation, bearing one or more small, roughly hemispherical depressions, generally created by chipping or pecking. There are a total of 99 examples listed in Ireland, of which 64 are in Cork. However, as we have seen above, this is an arbitrary and misleading classification and varies from county to county. The number of cupmarked stones that fit the NM description is likely to be much larger. The question is – should we preserve this distinction between stones labelled rock art and those labelled cupmarked stones? Is it useful or merely confusing?

Rathruane - included in the list of rock art because, besdies cupmarks, it also has cup-and-ring marks, a rosette, and curved lines.

Rathruane – included in the list of rock art because, besides numerous cupmarks, it also has cup-and-ring marks, a rosette, and lines. The first photograph in this post was taken from this surface

The cupmark is the most basic and numerous element or motif of rock art in Ireland and elsewhere. In the examples labelled rock art in County Cork, they occur with other motifs, principally concentric rings, sometimes with radial grooves, and a variety of curved or straight lines. They can be incorporated within a motif (as in cup-and-ring marks, rosettes, or where enclosed by lines) or they may be scattered, seemingly randomly, over the surface of the rock, between and among the other motifs.

The two images above are from the shores of Lough Hyne. Two cupmarked stones lie on the beach, having probably fallen from the stone wall above. The right hand image is Robert’s drawing of the stone with 12 cupmarks

Since we have almost finished our recording of the rock art examples, we have moved on to focusing on those labelled cupmarked stones. As we spend time in the field recently with this class of monument we have begun to appreciate their differences from and similarities with rock art.

This simple cupmarked stone was placed many years ago within Knockdrum Fort, near Castletownshend, in the townland of Farrandau. It was brought to Vice-Admiral Boyle Sommerville by a local farmer

Let’s start with what differentiates them from rock art, apart from the obvious fact that the cupmark is the single motif employed in the carving.

  • Where a stone is smaller and moveable, it is more likely to bear only cupmarks. This also makes them more vulnerable to loss and to incorporation into field walls and other structures. While there are examples elsewhere, here in Cork we have found no examples of cup-and-ring carvings on small, easily moveable, stones.
  • We have found cupmarks on boulder burials here – Bohonagh is a good example, and Derreennatra (currently hidden under a mound of compost) may be another.
  • In general standing stones, where they have carvings, are more likely to have only cupmarks (we have three exceptions to this in West Cork).
  • The Bluid stone has cupmarks on both sides – there are no Cork examples with rock art on both sides.
The Bluid Stone is in Cork Public Museum but comes from near Castletownshend. It is a rare example of a stone with cupmarks on both sides, quite portable. Note the semi-circular patterns of the cupmarks

The Bluid Stone is in Cork Public Museum but comes from near Castletownshend. It is a rare example of a stone with cupmarks on both sides, quite portable. Note the semi-circular patterns of the cupmarks

Now – what’s the same?

  • Location: Most cupmark-only carvings are found in the open countryside, on large earthfast boulders or rock outcrops.
  • Clusters: as with rock art, cupmarked stones are often found within a kilometre or two of other examples or are within sight of each other or within site of rock art (intervisibility).
  • Carving technique: where it can be discerned, it appears to be the same as for rock art – pecking with a harder stone. In the case of some of the shaley sandstone that laminates easily, it is impossible to tell how the cupmarked was formed – it may have been simply bashed out.
  • Siting: where the cupmarks are found in situ, their siting is equally spectacular to rock art. In particular, many of them are found on rising ground with strongly marked horizons that include views, even quite distant views, of Mount Gabriel, Mount Kidd, or other prominent horizon features. The sea, or water in the form of a lake, stream or river, is often a feature of the vista from the rock. We have not worked with enough of them yet to form any opinion on whether they are sited at what may have been routes through a landscape or territorial boundaries.       
  • Patterns: as with more complex rock art, often the cupmarks appear to be scattered randomly over the surface of the rock. However, patterns of straight lines, or of rough circles or semi-circles, can be made out in several of the stones we have recorded to date.
Robert points to two outcrops in Kilcoe. The lower one has one cupmark, the upper one has 13 cupmarks arranged in a rough circular patter. The sea and Mount Gabriel are visible from this location, as well as some rock art

Robert points to two outcrops in Kilcoe. The lower one has one cupmark, the upper one has 13 cupmarks arranged in a rough circular patter. The sea and Mount Gabriel are visible from this location, as well as some rock art

In researching this piece we have been influenced by Christiaan Corlett’s book Inscribed Landscape: The Rock Art of South Leinster. Christiaan is an archaeologist with the Dept of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and specialises in the archaeology of Leinster, and especially Wicklow. His book has been the first to catalogue the extensive body of rock art in the South Leinster area (indeed the first published work on rock art in Ireland) and in his corpus he includes both cup-and-ring art and cupmark-only stones without undue distinction. He notes many of the same things about rock art that we have observed. For example, he was struck, as we were, by the dominance of high mountains (in his case, Mount Leinster, the Blackstairs, or Brandon Hill) in the horizon views from the rocks he studied, and by the intervisibility of stones from each other.

The newly-discovered Kilbronoge cupmarked stone. From it you can see Roaringwater Bay and a wedge tomb to the SE, and Mount Gabriel diametrically opposite in the NW

The newly-discovered Kilbronoge cupmarked stone. From it you can see Roaringwater Bay and a wedge tomb to the SE, and Mount Gabriel diametrically opposite in the NW

Robert's drawing of the Kilbronoge Cupmarked Stone, done on CAD using architectural drawing tehniques

Robert’s drawing of the Kilbronoge Cupmarked Stone, made using architectural survey and CAD techniques

His work is a strong argument for the inclusion of all cupmarked-based prehistoric carving under one rubric – rock art. First of all, he argues that it is all likely to be of a similar early origin. Recent thinking is that rock art may predate megalithic art and belong to the Early Neolithic (at least 5,000 years old). In fact, the cup-and-ring art may already have been dying out during the great flowering of megalithic art that we see at Newgrange, Knowth and Loughcrew. Cupmarks on their own may have persisted longer, as they are found in association with Bronze Age monuments such as wedge tombs and boulder burials. Here’s what he has to say about our search for meaning, vis-a-vis the humble cupmarked stone (p.78):

Arguably, it is only within the context of the overall composition that we may come close to some comprehension of the motifs found in rock art. Even the meaning of a completed composition, however, may only have been understood by the person(s) responsible for it. Perhaps the symbols represent a complex message of family history or a personal spiritual journey associated with an initiation ceremony or rite of passage, or perhaps they simply served to delineate family, tribal or sacred boundaries… [There is] a natural temptation to focus on the more elaborate designs and compositions found in rock art, as if they are more important because they are more accomplished. Yet the frequency of compositions consisting solely of plain and unelaborated cup-marks should not devalue their significance. Clearly their commonness would strongly suggest that these examples were just as important as, or maybe even more important than, the most elaborate examples of rock art found in the region. Given the intrinsic simplicity of a composition consisting entirely of cup-marks, however, it is arguably impossible to decipher or decode the specific meaning of the symbols themselves. That is not to say, of course, that we cannot attempt to understand the broader message of rock art, particularly where a complex of sites can be analysed. In such cases it may be the context of these sites that will provide the key to unlocking the meaning of rock art, in terms of the position and relationships within a given landscape, and the relationship with other examples of rock art on the vicinity.

The Kilcoe Cupmarked stone. The original record described three cupmarks - in fact there are 13, arranged in a rough circle.

The Kilcoe Cupmarked stone. The original record described three cupmarks – in fact there are 13, arranged in a rough circle

Christiaan deals with the similarity of cupmarks to the bowl-shaped depressions known as bullauns, assumed to be Early Medieval. But that’s a topic for another day. Suffice it to say here that one of our favourite stones, Castlemehigan, may have both cupmarks and bullauns on its surface, as well as a cross indicating its later use as a mass rock. In its extraordinary mix of seemingly-randomly-scattered but also possibly-linear-arrangement of cupmarks; large bowl and basin-shaped elements; a spectacular siting that includes views to a distant Mount Gabriel and a closer view of the sea; a nearby cluster of other cupmarked stones; and the folklore that surrounds it – this very special cupmarked stone embodies all that is wonderful about this class of ancient monument.

Castlemehigan cupmarked stone

Castlemehigan cupmarked stone

To come back to the question we posed at the beginning – should we preserve or abandon the notion that we are dealing with two classes of monument – rock art versus cupmarked stones? Our answer is that we’re not sure.  What do YOU think?

The Giant's Grave, Drishane. It bears numerous cupmarks on the upper surface of the 'capstone'

The Giant’s Grave, Drishane. It bears numerous cupmarks on the upper surface of the ‘capstone’

For those interested in more of our posts on rock art, go to Derrynablaha Expedition and scroll to the end for a list.