Off the M8 – Exploring the Delights of Durrow

Earlier this year, Finola wrote a very popular post entitled Off The M8 and into Medieval Ireland. From the responses, we realised that many travellers welcome the idea of breaking up a long journey by taking a diversion to experience some aspects of Ireland’s wonderful historical heritage. So, I’m taking up the mantle today by suggesting that you go a fair bit out of your way – if travelling the route between Dublin and Cork – to visit the ecclesiastical site of Durrow, County Offaly.

You’ll need a bit of guidance in order to find this little piece of medieval Ireland: hopefully the extract from the National Monuments Service Historic Environment Viewer – an invaluable source for us in our travels – will locate you (above). At the time of writing this, there is no signpost on the N52, but the entrance to the site is through a substantial gateway about 3km south of Kilbeggan – from Junction 5, on the M6 motorway – heading towards Tullamore. From the M50 around Dublin, leave at Junction 7 and it’s a one hour journey to Durrow. From Durrow it’s 40 minutes to connect with the M7 /M8 at Portlaoise. So taking this detour will add between 40 and 50 minutes to your overall journey, depending on traffic. But it will be well worth the extra time if, like us, you are mad about Irish history.

As you can see from the header picture – and the one above – the greatest delight of Durrow is the medieval High Cross, now saved from the elements and safely displayed inside the late 18th century church which is probably built on the site of an Augustian Abbey church founded in the 1140s by Murchadh Ua Maoil Sheachlainn, high king of Midhe, who died at Durrow in 1153. The cross – possibly 10th century – is a really good and clearly legible example of the scriptural type, depicting scenes from the Bible. The OPW has annotated all the panels in excellent information boards.

This is the west facing entrance to St Colmcille’s Church, Durrow, which now houses the High Cross and a number of cross slabs and grave slabs, some of which are medieval. A monastery was founded here by Colmcille in the 6th century; it is possible that the stone head which can just be made out above the entrance, and below the bell tower, could date from the earliest building period on this site and was incorporated into the present church. Perhaps it is St Colmcille himself – looking down over the old graveyard, and the original site of the High Cross. Colmcille famously established the monastery at Iona in Scotland, and over sixty churches in Britain and Ireland claim him as their founder.

Above (left) is a photograph taken in 1890 of the Durrow High Cross at its former site, to the west of the church building which now houses it. To the right is a fragment of one of the grave slabs which were embedded in the churchyard wall enclosure and which have also now been mounted inside the church for safety and conservation. This one is said to date from between the 12th and the 15th centuries: the visible inscription has not been deciphered.

Above is an earlier cross-slab which has been described as …possibly of 9th century date… The inscription probably reads Ór do Chatalan (Pray for Chatalan). This carved stone was also located originally in the wall of the churchyard, and is now in the church.

Through a curious twist, the inscribed stone above, dating from 1665 and commemorating a member of the De Renzi family of Hollow House in the townland of Ballynasrah, has been taken from inside the church and placed against the wall of the 18th century burial enclosure of the Armstrong family located outside in the graveyard. Below is a large ‘early Christian’ cross-slab, also taken from the wall of the graveyard and now resting inside the church below the east window.

Don’t ignore the church itself – and don’t get confused with the thriving Catholic Church of St Colmcille in the small village of Durrow, only about a kilometre away. The one here off the beaten track (which now houses the High Cross and the cross-slabs) is a Church of Ireland site, and is a very well presented example of a simple 18th century interior with box pews, a raised pulpit and a ‘preaching box’. It has been the subject of a conservation project by the Office of Public Works, and is more properly classified as a Heritage Centre rather than a working church, although occasional services, concerts etc are held in the building.

You will remember my fascination with Irish medieval High Crosses from my previous posts – and my concerns for those which remain unprotected from the weather. Here at Durrow the damage which has befallen this High Cross over the centuries is all too visible, although conservation works are in progress and will ultimately return it to good condition. It’s a good example for others to follow.

There is yet more to see at Durrow: follow the path to the Holy Well – on your way you will catch a glimpse of the architecturally significant Durrow Abbey House. Built in the Jacobean Revival style between 1837-43, much of it was severely damaged by fire in the 1920s. Subsequent rebuilding incorporated a Queen Anne style Art Nouveau interior. The house is not open to the public.

A walk to the well is rewarding, as the structure itself is in reasonable condition and quite ornate. It is still visited on St Colmcille’s feast day, June 9, when a procession arrives on foot from the Catholic Church in Durrow. We couldn’t complete our visit to the Saint’s special places without leaving an offering!

 

Anomalies

The cairn

What’s an archaeological anomaly? When the National Monuments Survey was being undertaken, some stone structures didn’t quite fit the description of a particular class of monument. They may have been ancient – but how ancient, and what exactly were they? The term chosen for such mysterious piles  was ‘anomalous stone group’. Here’s the definition: A group of stones, usually standing, which cannot be classified as any other known archaeological monument type on present evidence. They may be all that remains or is visible of a partially destroyed or obscured archaeological monument which may date to any period from prehistory onwards.

cupmarked rocks?

Just a leaning rock?

But it’s not the only term used for uncertain monuments: enclosure is a vague term that can mean a multitude of things, and an ‘unclassified cairn‘ can be defined simply as a heap or pile of stones. In the last few months our explorations of the Sheep’s Head have turned up several anomalies. The only thing they all have in common is their spectacular siting, leading to an ultra-rewarding field trip.

Heading towards the cairn

Hiking to the cairn

Perhaps the most magnificently situated of all is the unclassified cairn on the mountain ridge above Kilcrohane. It’s right on the way-marked Sheep’s Head Way, so it’s easy to find. While it’s described as a cairn in the National Monuments inventory, it could be as humble an object as a turf storage platform or as wonderful as a passage grave. We’ve been to it several times and always puzzled over it, but on our last visit we were alerted to a new element by Amanda and Peter.

Amanda investigates

The ‘new element’ – you have to really look!

A couple of stones had shifted, possibly in storms, and we could now delve deeper into the pile of rocks and see that one of them had a large circular opening in it. Very strange – I had never seen anything like it – and very intriguing.

Curious ‘holed stone’ at the bottom of the cairn

We noted that the highest point on Cape Clear was visible across the water, the hill on which a ‘real’ passage grave sits. Only excavation is likely to reveal the exact nature of this anomaly.

What's the orientation?

This one is called an ‘anomalous stone group’

Not too far away, in the same townland but on lower ground, is an anomalous stone group. This is a strange one indeed because half of it looks for all the world like a stone circle – identical to the numerous recumbent or axial circles that dot West Cork. The other half? It’s the rock face that the stones obviously came from.

Is it a stone circe?

Could swear that’s a classic recumbent, but where’s the other half of the circle?

It’s like a work in progress. If it is a stone circle, the builders decided that half a one would do the job just fine. Indeed the owner of the land has noted several significant  sunset alignments.

possible alignments

There seem to be several alignments – this one to the Beara Peninsula

But when I asked for comments on an archaeological social network site the general consensus seemed to be that it was unlikely to be a stone circle, since the stone face obscured half the horizon. But that same stone face would have provided shelter, so the speculation in the discussion centred on this being a hut site, with only some of the stones of the outside wall remaining.

radial cairn?

This area of rough ground to the right of Robert, Peter and Amanda is labelled an ‘Enclosure’

The third site we’ve explored is described as an enclosure. The description of the site states: A circular area (diam. 10.5m) is defined by the remains of a stone wall (T 1.3m; H 0.5m) displaying traces of an inner and outer row of large stones with a fill of smaller stones. A stone slab (H 1.15m; L 0.5m; T 0.4m) narrowing as it rises stands on the external perimeter at E. There is also a standing stone a few meters to the south.

inner row?

Difficult to make out what’s here, but it seems like there’s a lot going on

This could be a radial cairn – take a look at the one at Kealkill to see what we mean. But equally, the description hints, it may have to do with field clearance. It’s almost impossible to tell a lot from the general jumble of stones and the furze and brambles that grow all over the site. Once again, however, we were rewarded with panoramic views to the Beara Peninsula. Another one where only an excavation will reveal the truth.

View east from the enclosure

And these views of the farms to the east, lit by a shaft of slanting sun

Finally, we trekked out on the Lighthouse Loop Walk at the very end of the peninsula in search of possible cupmarks, discovered by Peter and Amanda’s son.

Lighthouse trail, looking back

On the lighthouse loop trail, looking back

The cupmarks turned out, we’re pretty sure, to be natural solution pits. There were lots of them, of varying sizes, and some could only be viewed by lying on your back.

The pitted boulders

The ‘cupmarks’ are on the underside of the leaning rock

Instructive, though, as we have certainly seen cupmarked stones that don’t look a whole lot different than these ones – there’s a type of shaley sandstone in West Cork that laminates in a very similar manner when carved.

Solution pits

pits all aroundSolution pits – and modern graffiti 

In West Cork, monuments that don’t fit into satisfying categories abound – and it’s just as much fun exploring them as it is the ‘normal’ type!

tough to take

This kind of field trip is tough to take!

Walking the Past

Robert taking a picture

How fortunate are we? We are free to spend our days wandering the world’s most beautiful landscapes, here in Ireland: landscapes which have changed relatively little over the last five thousand years. They have changed, of course, but the human hand has had less impact in this country than in many other developed nations, especially in these wilder parts. That is why we relish our explorations: we are walking the past.

breeny landscape

Top picture: Robert taking in the setting of the monuments at the Kealkill complex. Above: the view towards Kealkill village from Breeny More

Every expedition requires a little pre-planning. This week we were keen to catch up with a group of monuments known as ‘boulder burials’. Finola tells me that, when she was first studying archaeology, they were known as ‘boulder dolmens’: I prefer that term – perhaps because it has a touch of the antiquarian about it – and, in any case, the use of the word burials implies a definitive function which has not been universally borne out with the examples that have been excavated. But I will leave Finola to delve into the specifics of that subject in her post Boulder Burials: a Misnamed Monument?

workspace

Blogging in progress: prequel to an expedition…

First, we look to the available information: William O’Brien’s Iverni – A Prehistory of Cork (The Collins Press 2012) is an essential primer on the pre-Christian era in this corner of Ireland since the first human foot was set on its shores. Then there are maps to be consulted: the Ordnance Survey Office was created in 1824 to carry out a survey of the whole island for land taxation purposes. The original survey at a scale of 6 inches to 1 mile was completed in 1846 and Ireland thus became the first country in the world to be entirely mapped at such a detailed scale. From the outset, known historic sites and monuments were recorded and the present Discovery Series at 1:50,000 scale provides a wealth of information to the fingertips of historians and adventurers.

kealkill OS map

One of our bibles: the Discovery Series of the 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey maps – well used and well worn! The monument sites are marked in red

Before setting out we usually consult with the Archaeological Survey Database of the National Monuments Service: this gives us the fine detail on where to find recorded historic sites. Yet in the end the most valuable information often comes from knocking on doors. Farming families here often go back through many generations and local knowledge is always passed down through them. It’s here that you sometimes pick up the ‘stories’ that are associated with ancient sites – for me, these are just as interesting as any formal records.

Breeny More landscape

View to Bantry Bay across the Breeny More archaeological site

This week our travels brought us to the Breeny More and Kealkill complexes, high up in the hills above Bantry, heading towards the wonderfully named Cnoic na Seithe – the Mountains of the Spirits. This was on a perfect spring day: the views all the way down the bay with the Beara on one side and the Sheep’s Head on the other can only be described as spectacular.

kealkill landscape

view west

Two views from the Kealkill complex

It can’t be accidental, surely, that these ancient sites occur in places like this, that make the senses reel? In many cases there are long views in all directions, often taking in prominent horizons, hilltops, the sea, inlets and islands. ‘As far as the eye can see’ is an expression that truly comes into its own: these vistas must have had special meanings to the ancestors who were here in the Neolithic and Bronze ages. Were they trying to define it in some way by building such impressive large-scale structures, most likely for some ceremonial purpose? It was certainly not construction work which could have been undertaken lightly or frivolously. Here’s O’Brien in Sacred Ground, Megalithic Tombs in Coastal South-West Ireland (NUI Galway 1999):

…Antiquarian interest in Ireland dates from the visit of Edward Lhuyd at the end of the 17th century and was encouraged by the discovery of great megalithic centres like the Boyne Valley in Co Meath and Carrowmore in Co Sligo. The early antiquarians were to link these ‘Giants Graves’ to invaders or colonists from the East, to Scandinavian incursions and eventually to the events and characters of early Irish literature…

boulder cluster

The Breeny More complex:  no less than four boulder burials, a multiple stone circle and a (much later) ring fort, all on one superbly located site

Robert Kealkill Complex

A cause for wonder: the tall standing stone at the Kealkill complex. A stone circle lies to the west while a radial cairn is behind (to the south of) the stone pair

So, it’s Finn McCool and the Tuatha de Danaan that we have to look to, perhaps, for explanations as to why we find these incursions on our natural landscape standing as solidly and unchangingly as they did a few millennia ago. Perhaps not quite unchangingly, in fact: archaeologists have had a hand in the present day appearance of some of them. In the photo above you can see me wondering at the 4.6 metre high megalith which is part of the Kealkill complex. When the site was explored by Sean P O’Ríordáin in 1938 that stone had broken off and had fallen: O’Ríordáin re-erected the remaining part of the menhir. The original would have been at least a metre higher than what we see today.

kealkill excavation report

kealkill diagram

From O’Ríordáin’s published report of the excavation of the Kealkill complex: top, the taller standing stone being re-erected and, below, a survey diagram of the findings. From the Journal of The Cork Historical Archaeological Society, Volume XLIV ,1939

The Breeny More site and the Kealkill complex are near neighbours. Both contain various artefacts: standing stones, stone circles and boulder burials. Kealkill also has a radial cairn. Both are set against a background of moorland, mountain and bay. Kealkill is easily accessible although boggy.

Most sites are on private land and permission should always be sought to visit, unless it is obvious that access is welcomed, as here at Kealkill

Our second archaeological adventure this week was also boulder burial orientated. This was close to home in the townlands of Rathruane, Lisheen Lower and Bawngare. Again, Finola has detailed the findings in her post, but I was struck at each of these sites that the their settings, too, were on high ground with excellent distant views. In each case, mountains were prominent. I couldn’t help thinking that the boulders could have been placed where they are specifically because of the visibility to the various peaks. Might it even be that territories were marked out by these huge stones? Boundaries have always been important to human strategies: we have been identifying and ‘naming’ the land before records began to be written. Field names, townland names, parishes, baronies… A whole lot more to be researched, visited and recorded. Our long walk through Ireland’s past has barely begun!

Robert at Kealkill

 

Rock Art in Danger

The age-old landscape of Derrynablaha

The age-old landscape of Derrynablaha

Both Robert and I have written about prehistoric rock art several times in this Journal – here and here, here and here. Readers will know that it was the subject of my Master’s thesis in the early 70s, and that it has become a shared passion for us both as well as a retirement project. One aim of this project for me is to assess how rock art has been doing, as a category of ancient monument in Ireland, since I last studied it intensively forty years ago.

Benign neglect - rock art in a cow field

Benign neglect – rock art in a cow field

Within the archaeological community there is discussion about how best to protect rock art sites. The arguments take shape around opposing approaches: the first alternative is to promote and advertise rock art, to make it as well-known as other monuments such as megalithic tombs and medieval friaries; the second is to leave it lie in obscurity. 

Spain has a lot of rock art, and the approach there is to encourage people to come and view it and explore it. There are visitor centres, interpretive signs, rock art trails. While the results have been positive on the whole, raising the profile of this class of site and increasing the understanding and respect of visitors, it has not been without challenges: some damage and vandalism has occurred on carved panels.

Vandalism to rock art in Libya

Vandalism to rock art in Libya

In Ireland we have taken a low profile approach when it comes to promoting rock art. Its very obscurity, the argument goes, is its protection. All known rock art sites are recorded in the database maintained by the National Monuments Service, and anyone planning on building on or developing a piece of property must check plans against this inventory. But apart from that we do not advertise the presence of rock art with signs or centres. A few are marked on the Ordnance Survey maps, but are difficult to find. The folk-beliefs of country people have helped in the past – where any prehistoric site was known it was never interfered with for fear of the bad luck that would follow. 

Under all that lichen lie many cupmarks

Under all that lichen lie many cupmarks

Weathering and lichen growth are not kind to carved surfaces over time and rock art in Ireland has not been protected from such natural occurences. On the  whole, however, the  fact that rock art is little known has indeed functioned to ensure that carved panels remain in place and my own sympathies would have lain therefore with the second argument.  However, times are a-changing in Ireland and I have become alarmed at the prospects for the conservation of this important prehistoric resource. I have come to believe that the more people who know about rock art, who know the locations of the rocks and can keep an eye on them, the better. 

Robert and I have spent a year now, in West Cork, visiting rock art sites and re-recording them. I have begun to understand in that time that there are two main dangers to rock art in the Irish landscape: ignorance and the economy. 

If only we'd known, we would never have built it on top of the rock art!

If only we’d known, we would never have built it on top of the rock art!

First: lack of awareness. By this I mean that in general people simply do not know that there is a class of ancient monument known as rock art. They don’t know what it looks like and don’t recognise it when they walk over it. This is not their fault – rock art can be almost impossible to see on the surface of a weathered rock on a grey day, even when you know it’s there. We have described how in one case a building was erected on top of rock art. In another case we are aware of, a piece of rock art was unrecognised and probably damaged when a homeowner erected an ornamental stone circle beside it. In both cases the homeowners would have protected the rock art had they known it was there, or understood the extent of it.

The shadows are from a newly built stone circle

The shadows are from a newly built stone circle

Second: the economy. Here, two huge threats to rock art exist. The first is in the rapid growth of forestry plantations in Ireland – a practice that is altering the landscape and obscuring what lies underneath in many areas of the country. We have experienced this first hand: rock art in a nearby townland can no longer be located in a young forestry plantation. 

The second is even more serious – the threat lies in the encouragement to farmers to improve and bring into production previously marginal land. All around us in West Cork the sound of the rock breaker is as common as the lowing of cattle. Vast stretches of rocky land, suitable only for a few sheep, are being levelled, drained and seeded. Green fields are appearing where once only scrubby grass and bog could grow.

The excavator is at the top left of the photograph

The excavator is at the top left of the photograph

We saw first hand what this could mean on a recent trip to Kerry. In the mountains above Sneem, on the Iveragh Peninsula, lies the lonely valley of Derrynablaha. It is spectacularly beautiful, but wild and remote. Forty years ago the one house in the valley was occupied by the farmer who ran his sheep on the mountain slope. That house is now in ruins: a new owner until recently simply carried on the use of the land for sheep. Imagine our surprise and concern, therefore, when, on a recent trip to Derrynablaha, we observed an enormous excavator working in the fields above the house. It had been there for some time. The ground had been levelled, all rocks and old field boundaries had been cleared away, and the land is now ready to be seeded and made into an enormous and pristine green field.

So what’s the problem with this? It’s alarming because Derrynablaha, and the neighbouring townland of Derreeny, contain the largest and most significant concentration of rock art in Ireland. Forty examples have been found and recorded so far. Some of them lie right beside the new field. An assessment by the National Monuments Service took place immediately and they will monitor closely now that they know this is happening. However, damage has already been done. Rock art does not exist in a vacuum – it is part of a prehistoric landscape and nowhere is this more so than in Derrynablaha, where the land has been lightly lived on over the centuries and where prehistoric and historic features lie just beneath the boggy turf. 

It's hard to see, isn't it? But tjis is one of the most iconic pieces of Irish rock art

It’s hard to see, isn’t it? But this boulder at Derrynablaha is one of the most iconic pieces of Irish rock art

The farmer, of course, is just doing his job. With the encouragement of the grants system he is improving his land, trying to be more competitive and hoping to pass on a viable farm to his son, so the young man won’t have to emigrate like many of his contemporaries. He is aware of the rock art and is avoiding direct contact with any pieces he knows. He needs no planning permission (a process that would have involved and alerted the County Archaeologist) to do what he’s doing.

Just part of the surface of the Derrynablaha rock above

Just part of the surface of the Derrynablaha rock above

In both these scenarios – lack of awareness and the economy – the intentions of everyone concerned were honourable. But honourable intentions won’t save rock art from damage and destruction. Our only hope lies in a Save the Whales approach: the more people who know about and appreciate rock art and who are committed to helping to preserve this precious resource, the better its chances of survival will be. 

Derrynablaha - current landscape at that rock

Derrynablaha – current landscape at that rock