Off the M8 – Knockroe Passage Tomb or ‘Giant’s Grave’

The great passage tombs of the Boyne Valley complex in Co Meath – Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth – have been known and celebrated (although not necessarily understood) by antiquarians over many centuries. Here’s an early survey plan of Newgrange drawn by Thomas Molyneux of Dublin in 1700:

The Boyne Valley monuments are famous for their megalithic art – inscribed stones which are integral to the structures, carved some 5,000 years ago. The drawing above shows the carved stones in the great passage which we now know is aligned to the sunrise at the winter solstice. Although quite crudely depicted, these are the earliest representational images we have of passage tomb art in Ireland. A century and a half later the surveyor and antiquarian George Victor du Noyer worked with the newly established Geological Survey of Ireland and became fascinated with the megalithic art of the Loughcrew Passage Tombs in Co Meath. His recording of this, using watercolour sketches, is remarkably accurate:

Another century on, and archaeology – and the recording of ‘ancient’ art – had increased in sophistication. Finola’s work in the 1970s used a combination of direct tracing and photography, and her opus is still one of the most comprehensive and striking collections of images of Prehistoric Rock Art. These differ from Passage Grave Art both in the motifs and the overall design of panels, but are thought to be of comparable age. Here is one of her images, of rock art at Rathruane More in West Cork:

Today’s post focusses on a site which was first noted in 1905 but not categorised or fully explored until the 1980s, when Professor Muiris O’Sullivan of UCD led a detailed excavation, over many years. The report in states:

. . . Knockroe is one of a small number of decorated sites outside of County Meath, and in the overall context of Irish passage tombs its megalithic art is very important. Only a few of the kerbstones are visible but they bear a profusion of kerb ornament which is matched only at the three great tumuli in the Boyne Valley. One of the decorated stones in the western chamber bears a remarkable likeness to the designs at Gavrinis in Brittany, France . . .

To find this gem (known locally as The Giant’s Grave – Finola’s post today describes another one!), you have to turn off the M8 at Cahir, and follow the N24 and N76 towards Ninemilehouse. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we also followed this route when we visited the Killamery High Cross, but this time turn before Ninemilehouse, at Garranbeg, and cross over the River Linguan, then follow the river to the County border (Tipperary / Kilkenny) where you will see signs to Knockroe Passage Tomb and Knockroe Slate Quarries. After your visit it’s easy to join the M9 at Knocktopher and carry on up to Dublin. It will add a little more than half an hour to the journey (plus the many hours you might want to spend exploring the fascinating passage tomb).

The aerial view might help to orientate you, while the 25″ OS map extract (above) dates from the late 1800s and shows the extent of the nearby Victoria Slate Quarry workings then. Slate was evidently taken from this site as early as the 14th century. In the aerial view it is possible to make out a distinct trackway which passes over the centre of the now identified passage tomb. This is clear to see on the site, and at either end the track continues, and is defined by ancient-seeming hedgebanks and established trees :

Tradition has it that the trackway was provided in the nineteenth century by the owners of the nearby Victoria Quarry to allow cattle to access the river when the quarry workings encroached on previous routes. A plan of the passage tomb is shown on the site notice board, and I have marked on it the laneway. This clearly shows the layout of the Neolithic monument, which would have been covered with an artificial mound, enclosing the two chambers. As with the larger monuments in the Boyne Valley – Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth – stones in the passage chambers and some of the kerbs are decorated, and the chambers themselves have solar alignments, reportedly with sunrise (east) and sunset (west) on the winter solstice.

As yet we have not been to Knockroe at the winter solstice – it’s something we would like to do. We have attended the solstice celebration at our own West Cork site, Drombeg Stone Circle, and that is a great community experience. But Pete Smith has provided this fascinating visual record of the Knockroe Solstice recorded in 2016. Thank you, Pete!

But let’s turn our attention to the art at Knockroe. It’s what makes it so special. It’s not as spectacular as the larger examples in the Boyne Valley or Loughcrew (you might think of Knockroe as a ‘country cousin’) – but it is their equal in its scope and variety. And – what we really liked – you can have the place all to yourself! There is no visitor centre, no queueing or paying – nothing to spoil the ambience. It is always freely accessible, and we didn’t see a soul while we were there. It is, of course, merely a skeleton of what it once was – five thousand years ago – but that doesn’t detract from its allure. It’s a place imbued with things we don’t understand, or can only guess at – left behind for us by our distant ancestors. And, hopefully, we will keep it safe for the future.

Muiris O’Sullivan penned a comprehensive article in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Vol 117, 1987 – The Art of the Passage Tomb at Knockroe, County Kilkenny. This is well illustrated with drawings by Ursula Mattenberger based on rubbings taken directly from the stones. Here is her impression of Stone 8 (numbering from the excavation report), which is directly facing us in the photograph above:

This example is very unusual in the corpus of passage grave art in Ireland. But it bears a resemblance to examples on the island of Gavrinis, in the Gulf of Morbihan, on the southern coast of Brittany, France. This has been noted by several commentators, including Muiris O’Sullivan, and the suggestion has been made that the tomb builders at Knockroe could have been directly influenced by the Gavrinis examples (which are generally thought to be earlier than the Irish parallels). It has even been suggested that passage tomb builders travelled from one site to another (like the medieval cathedral builders), and that this comparison demonstrates this. Have a look at these images from Gavrinis and see what you think (the first is courtesy of Martin Brennan, taken from his The Stars and The Stones, Ancient Art and Astronomy in Ireland, Thames and Hudson 1983):

The excavation of Knockroe involved the removal of earth and debris from the collapsed mound which would have covered the tomb originally. This clearance revealed more of the art and here is an interesting comparison which shows the evolving history of the site. Firstly, our recent photograph of Stone 12, followed by the excavation record of this stone (lower right of the drawing) from the 1980s:

Here is our photograph again, with some of the art from the drawing above superimposed. It’s clear that the full extent of the artwork on Stone 12 was not visible below the red line when the drawing was made: Muiris O’Sullivan notes in his reports that he was aware that some of the art was hidden below what was then ground level.

Ursula Mattenberger’s drawing above also illustrates Rock 5 (upper left) and shows the very distinctive ‘rosette’ motif of six cup-marks. Examples of this motif have been found at rock art sites – including the one on Finola’s drawing of Rathruane More, nearer the top of this post. Here’s a photograph of the Knockroe example:

While making comparisons with rock art (and remembering that passage grave art and rock art are distinctive categories), here’s another decorated slab at Knockroe, not entirely legible in its weathered state. It seems to show a number of incomplete cup-and-ring motifs but in its own right this is known as a horseshoe motif. Below it is another of Finola’s drawings from 1973, perhaps showing something similar at Coomasaharn, Co Kerry:

The Knockroe site is endlessly fascinating. O’Sullivan’s excavations revealed a quantity of smaller quartz boulders which appear to have collapsed from a possible quartz facing reminiscent of Professor O’Kelly’s reconstruction of the Newgrange mound (image below by Tjp Finn via Creative Commons):

Hopefully I have given you enough here to whet your appetite and lead you off the motorway to explore the exceptional remains at Knockroe, Co Kilkenny and, in particular, its remarkable examples of passage grave art.

Cape Clear: The Stone That Moved

along the roadThe enigma begins around 1874, on Cape Clear – the southernmost piece of inhabited soil on the islands of Ireland. Land here is hard won, and the stony fields are laboriously cleared using human power and – most likely – donkey power to improve prospects for grazing and tillage. In this year a narrow field in the townland of Croha West is being improved: the farm belongs to Tom Shipsey. His men – Dónal O Síocháin and Conchúr O Ríogáin – turn up a stone with strange markings on it, reportedly together with ‘shards of old incised pottery’, although these latter have never been traced.

Header: looking towards the townland of Croha West, where Thomas Shipsey and his men discovered the travelling stone. Above left – records from the Shipsey family dating back to the 1800s. Above right – possibly the earliest drawing of the Cape Clear Inscribed Stone, included in Michael J O’Kelly’s article of 1949  in the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society Journal

At this time the Curate on Cape is Revd John O’Leary. We might reasonably assume that he takes an interest in the stone and has it set up somewhere to show off its curious and undoubtedly historic decoration. We do know for sure that, when he leaves Cape Clear in 1877 to take up the curacy of neighbouring Sherkin Island, the stone goes with him and becomes a feature in his garden there. It does not, however, accompany him to Clonakilty whence he is transferred to become Parish Priest and Monsignor in 1881: instead it languishes on Sherkin, benignly fading into the undergrowth. Years later – in 1945 – the stone is ‘accidentally rediscovered’ by the then incumbent, Rev Fr E Lambe. Presumably recognising its probable significance he has it shipped off to University College Cork where it is received by Professor Seán P Ó Ríordáin.

Cork Exhibition

1902 World’s Fair, Cork – now Fitzgerald’s Park and the setting for Cork Public Museum

Close to the University grounds in Cork is a residence built by Charles Beamish in 1845 at the cost of £4,000 on land purchased from the Duke of Devonshire. Beamish has the grounds laid out with a variety of shrubs and trees, and due to their density the grounds become known as The Strawberries and the house as The Shrubbery. In 1901 the house and grounds are taken over by Incorporated Cork International Association and used as the venue for the great World’s Fair of 1902. Following this the grounds – now known as Fitzgerald’s Park – are donated to Cork Corporation for recreational use by the public. Eventually The Shrubbery is converted into Cork’s Public Museum which opens in April 1945, under the auspices of UCC: the first Curator is Michael J O’Kelly. The Cape Clear Inscribed Stone completes its travels (for now) and is on permanent display in the Museum.

View from sea

The highest point on Cape Clear is Quarantine Hill – the trig point can be seen as a ‘pimple’ in this photograph, taken from the north side of the island

There’s a prequel to this story of the travelling stone. We have seen that it was unearthed on Farmer Shipsey’s land in 1874. Apparently this isn’t where it started out. O’Kelly (who became head of the Archaeology Department at UCC in 1946) wrote a monograph on the stone for the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1949 (volume 54 pages 8 – 10):

…The motifs clearly belong to the passage-grave group of carvings and can be paralleled at Newgrange, Bryn Celli Du [Wales], Gavr’ Inis [Brittany] and elsewhere. The stone is therefore an important discovery and because of this, the lack of information about the nature of the site on which it was found is all the more disappointing. At this stage only a few vague traditions concerning its finding could be gleaned in the district. The statement of one old man that ‘a mound of stones was being cleared from a field’ may possibly indicate a cairn and if such were the case, the decorated stone may have formed part of an underlying tomb chamber. There is also some reason to think that fragments of pottery were found, though none has survived. This may be a further hint that the stone was associated with a burial. With reserve, it might therefore be assumed that the structure, whatever its exact nature, was erected by a group of passage-grave folk who either by accident or design came to land on this island off the coast of Cork…

This little narrative sowed the seed that the stone might be connected to a passage grave. If so, this would probably date the carving to some five thousand years ago. But, surely, there should be some trace of the passage grave itself if this is the case? No such traces could be found in the townland of Croha West.

View from PG

looking north
Spectacular views from the prehistoric site on Cape Clear, both looking north towards the mainland

We move forward to 1984 when four archaeologists (Barra O Donnabhain, Mary O’Donnell, Jerry O’Sullivan and Paddy O’Leary) explored the wider area and discovered, on the very summit of the island, the ruins of a prehistoric structure. This site, 533 feet above sea level, is in the townland of Killickaforavane and is known locally as Quarantine Hill. At this time the island was investigating the possibility of producing electricity by wind power: hitherto electricity to some properties was provided by a diesel generating system which had been in place only since 1969. The obvious efficient place for wind generation was the highest point and plans were laid for setting up two SMA Regelsystem Gmbh 33w turbines (which began operation in 1987). In preparation for this installation an archaeological survey of the immediate area was carried out by Prof Peter Woodman and Dr Elizabeth Shee. Paddy O’Leary and Lee Snodgrass were also present at that time. The collective view seemed to indicate that the structure could, indeed, have been a small passage grave.

chamber closer

Probably the chamber of a 5,000 year old passage grave, Killickaforavane, Cape Clear

The wind turbines were sited a little distance from the prehistoric remains and have themselves become archaeology of a more industrial nature. While in use they generated 90% of the island’s demand during favourable winds (force 3+). The corrosive effects of the Atlantic climate – in particular the wild south-westerly gales – rendered the mechanisms beyond repair after some ten years; a submarine cable bringing electricity from the mainland (8 miles away) arrived in about 1995. For a short time the systems operated in tandem and produced sufficient power to feed back to Ireland’s National Grid. According to a letter to the Irish Times by Séamus Ó Drisceoil, who was manager of the island Co-op at the time of the installation …the Cape Clear system is credited with providing the first concrete evidence for the viability of wind energy in Ireland…

Tomorrow’s archaeology: the pioneering – but now defunct – wind generating system on Quarantine Hill, overlooking the passage grave site

Once the concept of the island supporting a five thousand year old passage grave on its summit has been digested, then the question has to be asked – did the Cape Clear stone now in the Cork Public Museum originate at this site? It was found a good half mile away, in a different townland – but this might suggest that an earlier antiquarian (or interested observer) discovered it on the hill and had it moved to Croha West for safekeeping, display, or even because it was thought it might have some value. No-one on the island seems to have any knowledge of this distant event. As O’Kelly says – it’s disappointing that there is no ‘story’: one might almost expect a tale of the person moving one of the ‘old stones’ having met with an unfortunate fate because of interference with the domain of The Other Crowd

the way through

Kerb and passage

Top: looking towards the summit of Quarantine Hill – there is no clear path up there, and the traveller can be waylaid by gorse and brambles… Below: the prehistoric site – we are probably looking at the orthostats of a passage, which has a summer solstice orientation, and a kerbstone. On the right is a modern cairn while to the left in the background is the remains of one of the turbine towers

There is, surely, a strong likelihood that the Cape Clear Inscribed Stone did originate in the hilltop passage tomb, in which case we have completed the tale of its travels, up to the present day. The tomb is in ruins, although enough remains to show its shape and probable orientation. Paddy O’Leary tells the story of his investigations with Lee Snodgrass in an article for Mizen Journal, Volume 2, 1994:

…We were convinced that it was a passage tomb and that it was orientated on the rising sun of the summer solstice… We planned a two night vigil for June 1993 and were buoyed up by a good weather forecast. Saturday afternoon was sunny and we transported our equipment direct to the top of Quarantine Hill from the boat. We set up our cameras and, taking advantage of the sunny weather, took photographs, especially during the late evening, when there was a lovely sky. On Sunday morning June 20th we rose shortly after 4am to prepare for dawn. It was very cold but the sky was clear. A dull grey cloud began to show to the northeast, we set our cameras and waited for the sun. Shortly after 5am it peeped above the horizon, nestling in the gap between Carrigfada and the hill to its north… Gradually it rose in a 40 degree angle, flooding the sky with first light and mirroring its golden red orb in the brightening sea… A perfect sunrise perfectly recorded. The warmth was now penetrating almost numb fingers and feet. The line of the orientation was exactly as expected, directly along the supposed line of the passage, into the centre of the chamber… The most southerly point of Ireland had its passage tomb, with a summer solstice sunrise orientation; a nice counterpoint to the Newgrange winter solstice sunrise…

cairn and view

Quarantine Hill, Killickaforavane townland, Cape Clear. The view looking east – towards the summer solstice sunrise – from the prehistoric site on the summit

If the inscribed stone was, indeed, incorporated into the Cape Clear passage tomb, where might it have been placed? There are parallels in its design with some of the lintel stones at Fourknocks, but also I am drawn to similarities with stone L19 from Claire O’Kelly’s Corpus of decorated stones included in Michael J O’Kelly’s Newgrange – Archaeology, Art and Legend (Thames + Hudson, London 1982). This one is a standing stone – perhaps our well travelled stone was standing also.


Newgrange entrance stone

Iconic passage tomb in Meath, Ireland – one of the greatest monuments to the Neolithic people in the world: the top picture shows the east face of the great mound as reconstructed by Michael O’Kelly using the white quartz stones which were revealed during the excavations (Finola took part in these digs!); the lower picture shows the entrance stone to Newgrange – the Cape Clear inscribed stone must be related to this type of prehistoric art, although situated a very long way away…

Here’s a suggestion – probably considered heretical in some quarters: why don’t we complete the travels of the Cape Clear Inscribed Stone by taking it out of the Cork Public Museum and (with some suitable ceremony) transporting it back across the sea to Cape Clear and setting it back up there for all time? For me, museums – while obviously providing safe keeping – sometimes lack the reality of true context… Alright then, if that is considered as inconceivable an idea as I suspect it would be, let’s make a very good replica and send it up to the top of Quarantine Hill. At the same time we could re-establish a pathway to attract people up there: our own pilgrimage to this very special site involved making heavy way through gorse and brambles.

looking towards west

Below: Newgrange Stone L19 from Claire O’Kelly’s Corpus of decorated stones included in Michael J O’Kelly’s 1982 book on Newgrange

claire stone

With acknowledgements and thanks to those quoted above and the following sources, which have enabled me to pull together the story of this site: Paddy O’Leary and Lee Snodgrass (Mizen Journal Vol 2 1994 and personal communication), Michael J O’Kelly (Cork Historical and Archaeological Society Vol 54 1949), Chuck Kruger (Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal Vol 6 2010)