Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths

Altar Wedge Tomb on The Mizen Peninsula

Altar Wedge Tomb on The Mizen Peninsula

In Ireland, the tradition of building megalithic (mega=large, lithos=stone) structures that included chambers to house the dead (such as the Boyne Valley Passage Grave complex, or the Court Tomb of Creevykeel) belongs to the Neolithic period, which ended around 2500 BC. About this time, a new style emerged of stone ‘galleries’, oriented towards the setting sun. Their distinctive shape – narrower and shorter at the eastern end – gives them their common name, wedge tombs. This tradition appears to have flourished for about 500 years.

Altar, side view

Altar, side view

In other areas of Ireland wedge tombs were often covered by a mound, but there is little evidence for this in West Cork. The closest parallel to wedge tombs outside of Ireland are in Brittany where allées couvertes date from this period. They are associated in some parts of Ireland (although once again not in West Cork) with Beaker pottery, a distinctive kind of vessel widely distributed across Western Europe. This was a time in which the population was expanding, farming practices were intensifying and a brand new technology was being introduced – it was the dawn of the Copper Age. Thus, we can speculate that wedge tombs mark the confluence of two forces: the new continental technologies of pottery and metalworking and the indigenous tradition of erecting megalithic chambered tombs.

Wedge tombs occur mostly in the western half of Ireland, including many in County Clare such as the Parknabinnia tomb pictured below.

 The largest wedge tomb in Ireland is near Fermoy, north of Cork City. It is typical of many Irish wedge tombs in featuring double walling, evidence of a surrounding cairn, and a sealed end chamber. Interestingly its name, Labbacallee, means the Hag’s Bed – the hag, or wise woman crops up frequently in Irish mythology.

In contrast to Labbacallee, wedge tombs in West Cork are generally smaller and simpler, comprising only one chamber and lacking a covering cairn. However, the distinctive wedge shape is preserved along with one other defining feature: wedge tombs are invariably oriented towards the setting sun. The funerary rite was that of cremation. Votive offerings of white quartz pebbles and small deposits of metal have been found in excavations.

Toormore wedge tomb,  now in someone's garden

Toormore wedge tomb, now in someone’s garden

Prof William O’Brien has excavated wedge tombs in West Cork and studied them, and the culture in which they were built, extensively. Here’s what he has to say, in his book, Iverni, about the society that produced them:

Whereas monuments like Newgrange could only have been built with a large organised input of labour over a long period, the building of wedge tombs was undertaken by small kin groups…This was a small scale society, comprised of local, clan-like groupings…The tomb was a type of shrine, sanctified by an association with ancestors and used for periodic offering and sacrifice to supernatural powers.

A striking aspect of Neolithic, Chalcolithic (Copper Age) and Bronze Age monuments in West Cork is their consistent orientation towards solar events such as sunrise and sunsets on the equinoxes, solstices and cross-quarter days (see our post on Bohonagh stone circle, for example). In this regard, wedge tombs are remarkably consistent in being oriented towards the West. Here’s O’Brien again:

Wedge tombs served as funnel-shaped openings to the Otherworld, facing the descending or setting sun to emphasise the symbolic dualism of light/life and darkness/death.

Toormore, side view

Toormore, side view

Looking for a wedge tomb closer to home, we set out yesterday to find the nearby Kilbronogue site, using the information from the National Monuments Service as a guide. We have found in the past that the mapping of sites is not always accurate and after an hour or two of tramping through a large and very muddy area with a helpful neighbour and his son we had to admit defeat – either the map was wrong, or the monument had disappeared in the recent fieldwork by a digger. Desperately hoping it was the former and not the latter, we found out who owned the land and went to call on him today. Stephen Lynch turned out to be a friendly, cheerful and very knowledgeable organic farmer – he assured us that the tomb would never be damaged in any way and not to worry, he would take us to it. Whew! Half an hour later we were trudging up a path that Stephen had had cut through his ash plantation – on we went and suddenly there it was in front of us – a classic wedge tomb, oriented to the west, built with large slabs that may have been cut from the rock face behind it.

Kilbronogue wedge tomb with its guardian, Stephen Lynch

Kilbronogue wedge tomb with its guardian, Stephen Lynch

Stephen told us the tomb had been used as a mass rock in penal times and that the Protestant farmers who owned all the farms that bordered on the rock had cooperated in allowing the masses to take place – an indication, Stephen said, of the long tradition of friendship between Catholic and Protestant farming families in this area. As with the Altar wedge tomb, also used as a mass rock, we marvelled at how a sacred site, built at least four thousand years ago, would retain its aura of veneration over the millennia, to be used again for religious purposes in the historic period.

Kilbronogue, side view

Kilbronogue, side view

Perhaps the most spectacularly situated wedge tomb we have been to is high on a hill overlooking Bantry. This one is known as Queen Medb’s Tomb and from it there are expansive views of the Beara, Sheep’s Head and Mizen Peninsulas. Climb up to it on a clear day, as the sun is sinking into the sea: in the presence of such awe-inspiring scenery you will find yourself contemplating how the mysteries and the wonders of Irish history and prehistory are written on its landscape.

Queen Medb's Tomb

Queen Medb’s Tomb

A Week in Clare

Even on a cloudy day, the Lakes of Killarney are breathtaking

Even on a cloudy day, the Lakes of Killarney are breathtaking

From West Cork, the whole of the southwest of Ireland is within easy reach. Killarney is an hour and half straight north, through magnificent mountain scenery. Another hour brings you to Tarbert, on the banks of the Shannon Estuary. Take the ferry across to Killimer, and you’re in County Clare. For the trip last week, our lodging was a beautiful holiday home in Liscannor, owned by a generous friend. It’s about half way up the County, right beside the famous Cliffs of Moher – an ideal base for exploring Clare.

Anchor Inn, Liscannor. Best food in Clare!

Anchor Inn, Liscannor. Best food in Clare! This is the bar/grocery section.

While Robert attended the annual Noel Hill Concertina School I became a tourist. Clare is an astoundingly fertile area for geography, history, archaeology and culture and a wonderful place to spend time exploring with a map and guide book. I highly recommend The Burren and the Aran Islands: Exploring the Archaeology, by Carleton Jones – one of the best guides of its kind I have ever used. I was also lucky to have met a new friend online recently, Susan Byron, and in Clare I met her in person. The brains behind Ireland’s Hidden Gems, she gave me all kinds of great advice, along with lashings of tea and apple pie, about how to spend my time here.

Burren Landscape

Burren Landscape

For this visit, I confined my travels more or less to the area known as The Burren, which occupies the northern third of the county. It is a striking landscape of bare limestone hills – a karst formation full of caves and limestone ‘pavements’ and home to many species of rare and colourful wildflowers. No flowers yet – it’s still too cold. Too cold for other tourists too, so I had most places to myself. It rained and it hailed and the winds blew mightily, but in between the sun shone enough to imagine it was really spring. And if I got too cold, well, I retreated to the nearest friendly pub with a roaring fire and a pot of tea.

Eugene's Pub in Ennistymon/old ad in Valughan's in Kilfenora

Eugene’s Pub in Ennistymon/old ad in Vaughan’s in Kilfenora

The photographs I have chosen are a small selection of the sites I visited. One of the most iconic of all irish prehistoric sites is Poulnabrone portal tomb (what used to be called a dolmen). I don’t think it’s possible to take a bad photograph of it. Not too far away is Parknabinnia wedge tomb, another example of a neolithic stone monument. In researching this one on the internet I came across a recording on the excellent Voices From the Dawn site of an interview with 88 year old Paul Keane. Mr Keane’s story, familiar to us all over Ireland, illustrates how the beliefs of country people have kept these sites safe from depredation over many centuries.

Poulnabrone and Parknabinnia

Poulnabrone and Parknabinnia

Medieval ruins abound in Clare. I went twice to Corcomroe to admire the stonework, to Dysert O’Dea (one of the most impressive Hiberno-Romanesque doorways I have ever seen, ruined abbey, round tower, an unusual high cross and 15th century castle) and Kilfenora, where the crosses are stored in the ruined church under a glass roof.

Corcomroe Abbey. 13th Century Cistercian Monastery

Corcomroe Abbey, 13th Century Cistercian Monastery

I also took in, although I have not illustrated, a church in Killinaboys with a sheelenagig (more on sheelanagigs in an upcoming post) and one in Noughaval to view the ‘cyclopean’ masonry. I spent a fruitless couple of hours, as the light was fading, trying to find a way to visit a particular stone cashel but had to give up – there’s lots to see but not everything is signposted, close to a road, or down a grassy boreen.

Dysert O'Dea and Kilfenora

Dysert O’Dea and Kilfenora

Robert has written about the incredible music scene we were part of in Clare, something that is also accessible to anyone who visits. The wonders of Ireland- no matter where you go, there’s so much to do and see! If you’re coming, try to fit in some time in Clare.

Finally – a piece of whimsy. Indulge me….

First century BC Chinese head from the Terracotta Warriers; 12th Century Irish head from the Dysert O’Dea Romanesque doorway; 21st Century American head from Wrestlemania.

Just sayin’…

Dysert Fu1