Fourknocks – the Little Giant

Interior

For our own Easter Monday celebration – while staying in Dublin – we took a trip out to Fourknocks. This is a decorated chambered cairn within the Boyne Valley complex, but very much a ‘little brother’ to the better known attractions of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.

key

Only in Ireland would you be instructed to travel a mile down the road to pick up the key to a 5,000 year old monument (leaving a 20 Euro deposit for its safe return) and let yourself in by unlocking a heavy steel door that guards the way into the passage… But don’t be put off: it’s so well worth the effort. With luck you will be the only visitors and you will have the place to yourself – apart from the sheep families who share the field with Fourknocks. The name probably means ‘The Cold Hills’ – that’s the translation of the Irish Fuair Cnoc

sheep

Fourknocks was unknown to archaeologists until a chance conversation in 1949, when a woman making a visit to Newgrange mentioned, “there are mounds like this on my uncle’s farm…” The site was then explored and excavated by Archaeologist P J (Paddy) Hartnett in the early 1950s. You can read the full excavation report* online, by signing on to JSTOR. Like all the Boyne Valley Neolithic monuments, the mound had collapsed inwards and the dig involved removing layers of earth and fallen stone, analysing the spoil material and working out how the original structure had been put together. It’s methodical, scientific – and pretty dry reading! However, I couldn’t help being completely entranced as I imagined spectacular carved stones gradually being revealed, unexpected artefacts being turned up, and the unusual dimensions of the central chamber being realised.

excavationdiagram

P J Hartnett’s excavation diagram – from his report published in 1957

This ‘pear shaped’ central chamber measures 41.92 sq metres in area, considerably bigger than those at Newgrange (16.50), Knowth (20.21) and Dowth (15.21). However, the mound itself is relatively small – a ‘pimple’ on the hillside with a diameter of only 19 metres (Newgrange has a diameter of 85 metres). Yet, when you stand on top of Fourknocks, you understand its significance – there are panoramic views in every direction over countryside, ocean and mountains. You might expect to see the other Boyne Valley monuments but in fact they are hidden by a ridge, so this one enjoys splendid isolation in every respect.

Pan 2

Pan 4

Pan 5

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Cardinal Points: panoramic views in all directions from the mound of Fourknocks

Something else that’s unusual about Fourknocks is the way it has been reconstructed. Restoration of Archaeological structures has often been controversial. In Ireland the most notable example is Newgrange itself: Professor Michael J O’Kelly, who was in charge of the works there from 1962 to 1975, imagined that large numbers of white quartz stones which were found in and around the collapsed mound could have been used to face the entrance wall and duly designed the reconstructed passage tomb around this premise. He was (and still is) criticised for this ‘leap of faith’ – but, for me, the result is entirely justified: whether or not the original structure did look like this is perhaps irrelevant, as it has bequeathed to us such a visually iconic and powerful symbol of Neolithic Ireland…

Above and left: the great passage grave of Newgrange before excavation, Right: the iconic face of the restored monument today (image courtesy of Our Irish Heritage)

At Fourknocks the excavations did not prove that the chamber was ever roofed over. Certainly there was stone corbelling to suggest that this might have been attempted, but it is unlikely that the large span of the central court could have been enclosed in this way with the available technology, and the weight of the number of stones. However, complete enclosure is likely to have been a necessity, and a central post hole – which would have accommodated a large timber pillar – was found: Hartnett suggests that the roof covering was completed using light timber rafters and thatch. Rather than simulate this, a solution has been employed which is entirely modern – but, in fact, as imaginative as O’Kelly’s ideas at Newgrange: a reinforced concrete shell roof has been cast completley around and above the excavated structure. So what we see today as the ‘mound’ is a concrete dome which has been turfed over.

Open Door: the entrance to Fourknocks chamber outside and inside

But this 1950s innovation is far cleverer than it might seem. Cast into the new shell are holes and slits which project limited shafts of daylight into the otherwise unlit chamber. Each shaft has been carefully orientated to cast natural light on to one of the spectacular examples of megalithic art which are the showstoppers of this monument.

zaggy

To properly experience the unique adventure of Fourknocks, go inside and – be brave – shut the heavy door behind you. Immediately you are in darkness, and disoriented. But wait: as your eyes adjust, the chamber comes alive.

zigs

The subtle shafts of daylight filtering through the roof perforations focus on their targets and, gradually, you realise that you have entered a gallery of startling images – images made by our ancestors thousands of years ago…

concentric

As Rock Art enthusiasts, our particular interests lie in the cupmarks, concentric circles and other carvings found on outcrops and boulders dispersed over the Irish (and British) landscape: it’s fascinating and intriguing – but should we call it Art? Perhaps those marks have been made as signposts, to define territory, or to provide information to passing visitors – we just don’t know. But, with the carvings at the Boyne Valley monuments there can be no doubt: their purpose is to startle, impress and delight – Art, with a capital A! Fourknocks is such a good example of megalithic or passage grave art, not because of its quantity or complexity (you’ll find far more elsewhere) – but because of the context: the fact that you can stand there on your own and be startled, impressed and delighted – without the intervention of artificial lights, interpretation centres or display boards. It’s just you and the Neolithic mind in there.

Chambers 3

Fourknocks, the Newgrange complex, Loughcrew, Carrowkeel: there is even a passage tomb in our view from Nead an Iolair – over on Cape Clear Island and it produced a fine example of megalithic art, now in the Cork Public Museum. What were they for? In spite of being sometimes called passage graves or passage tombs we can’t assume necessarily that interment was their primary purpose, although significant human remains were found at Fourknocks, including cremations, skulls and bone fragments. Many of these are dated much later than the main structure – Bronze Age rather than Neolithic – suggesting a continuing use of and respect for the monuments over long periods of time. I hope we always retain that respect: the risk of the unsupervised access that we can enjoy at Fourknocks is a vulnerability of the site. Sadly, there is graffiti apparent on some of the stones, although this may be historic.

two sided

I could find no trace of folklore, legends or stories relating to Fourknocks. This is unusual for an ancient site in Ireland. Perhaps it’s because the place was lost to all but very local human memory for so long. Apart from the restored mound there appears to be either two or three other disturbed earthworks close by but not accessible – could this be the origin of ‘four’ cnocs (hills)?

effect 1

not a face

For more excellent photographs of this monument have a look at Ken William’s work in Shadows and Stones. If you are passing this way – as we were – perhaps on your journey to see the marvels of Brú na Bóinne, don’t hesitate to look out this wonder of the megalithic world- it’s a little giant!

Below: P J Hartnett at the excavation of Fourknocks, 1951

P J Hartnett

Excavation of a Passage Grave at Fourknocks, Co Meath: P J Hartnett – Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature Vol 58 (1956/1957), pp 197-277

Cape Clear

Distant Cape Clear - with solar effects

Distant Cape Clear – with solar effects

Always in our view from Nead an Iolair are the many islands of Roaringwater Bay: sometimes they are referred to as ‘Carbery’s Hundred Isles’. The largest of them – and the furthest out into the Atlantic – is Cape Clear. From our vantage point in Cappaghglass it sometimes floats on the horizon like a great seal under brooding skies, yet with the clarity of summer skies every hillside cottage can shine like a white jewel. I visited the island for the first time last weekend, drawn to its isolation and history – and by its own Saint – Ciarán, born on this most southerly point of Ireland and preceding Saint Patrick by some generations as the ‘Apostle of Eirinn’.

ghaeltact

Cape Clear is a place apart. It is one of the Irish Gaeltacht areas – where Irish Gaelic is spoken as the first language. Oileán Chléire is the Island of Ciarán, and one of the first things to be seen after landing is an ancient stone by the quay – said to have been placed there by the Saint himself – and his holy well – while nearby are the ruins of an ancient church and burial ground.

Saint Ciarán’s life has inspired some colourful stories. Before he was conceived Ciarán’s mother (Liadán) had a dream that a star fell into her mouth. She related this dream to the tribal elders who were knowledgeable of such things, and they told her that she would bear a son whose fame and virtues would be known as far as the world’s end. Ciarán’s first disciples included a Boar, a Fox, a Brock and a Wolf: they all became monks and worked together to build the community.

An interesting find: Ciarán as a Celtic God by Astrella

An interesting find: Ciarán as a Celtic god by Astrella

An unusual incarnation of the St Ciaran / Piran legend!

An unusual incarnation of the St Ciaran / Piran legend!

The Saint is also recognised in Cornwall, where he is known as Piran (or Perran) – scholars argue that in some ‘Celtic’ languages the C sound is interchangeable with the P sound. Certainly there is a legend that the Heathen Irish tied St Ciarán to a millstone and dropped him into the sea – and he then floated across to Cornwall where he converted the Heathen Cornish. Whatever the basis of this, both Piran and Ciarán share the same Saints Day: March 5th – which is also my birthday – so that puts me firmly into the picture!

Writers in the past have commented on the island’s particular character:

“…The natives of Cape Clear are distinct in a great measure from the inhabitants of the mainland; they have remained from time immemorial as a separate colony, always intermarrying amongst themselves; so that we must regard them as amongst the most typical specimens at the present day of the old Milesian race. The name of nearly all the islanders is O`Driscoll or Cadogan, the later being only a sobriquet for the former. Baltimore and Cape were originally the stronghold of this family, the principal Chieftain, O`Driscoll Mór, residing in Baltimore. There can be no doubt that they were the aboriginal race residing along the sea-coast of Carbery. The isolated position of the island and its difficulty of approach, have kept the population in a comparatively antique state and distinct condition during the lapse of centuries, so far as nationality and descent. Until the year 1710 Cape was an established monarchy, and an O`Driscoll – the head of the clan- was always styled, “King of the Island”. They had a code of laws handed down from father to son. The general punishment was by fine, unless some grave offence was committed, and then the delinquent was banished forever to the mainland, which was looked upon as a sentence worse than death…’ (from Sketches in Carbery by Daniel Donovan,1876)

Dunanore – engraving by W Willes 1843

Our visit was organised by the Skibbereen and District Historical Society, and was masterminded by past Chairman Brendan McCarthy. He had arranged for the sun to be shining all day, and for the sea to be the calmest that anyone had known for years. A bonus was the presence of Dr Éamon Lankford – a knowledgeable and erudite local historian and toponymist whose projects have included setting up detailed place name archives for Cork County, Kerry, and Cork City. There are now over 200 large volumes of historic place name references and the work is still under way: examples from the city survey include Black Ash, Cáit Shea’s Lane, Murphy’s Farm, the Snotty Bridge, The Shaky Bridge, the Boggy Road, Tinker’s Cross, Skiddy’s home… Éamons unbounded energy has not stopped there – he has gone on to set up and run the Cape Clear Island Museum and Archive and written books on the Island’s people and landscape, on Saint Ciarán, on the Fastnet Rock, on Cape Clear place names- and has set up the Cape Clear Trail… Phew! We walked up the (very) steep hill to the Museum, which is housed in the restored old school building, and no-one could fail to be impressed by the sheer volume of information and artefacts it contains. Volunteers are needed to help run it through the summer months, so anyone fancying a bit of island life please make contact through the website. On our ferry trip from Baltimore and in the Museum Éamon kept us entertained and educated with stories, history and local lore.

I was keen to visit the Museum because I knew it housed a replica of the passage grave art (carved stone) found on Cape Clear and now believed to have once been part of a passage tomb on the highest point of the island – Cill Leire Forabhain. In 1880 the original stone was turned up in a field and taken across to Sherkin by the then curate of that island to ornament his garden. He left Sherkin only a year later, and the stone became overgrown and forgotten. It was rediscovered in 1945 and given to the Cork Public Museum where it is now on display. The carvings on this stone are in the style of the other spectacular decorated stones in the Boyne Valley and at Loughcrew, rather than the simpler Rock Art we are working on in West Cork and Kerry (although this ‘simplicity’ is belied somewhat by the recent discovery at Derreennaclogh). Beside the replica stone in the Museum is a smaller piece of Rock Art, although debatably labelled as being caused by ‘solution pits’.

MV Cape Clear - built in Glasgow in 1939; went down in the Red Sea 1944

MV Cape Clear docked in Vancouver – built in Glasgow in 1939; went down in the Red Sea 1944

There is so much more to say about Cape Clear: it has given its name to a settlement in Victoria, Australia, supposedly named by gold miners from Ireland, and also to a number of ships built in Scotland. Talking of ships, the surroundings of the island have seen many a shipwreck: more than 50 wrecks have been recorded off Cape Clear between 1379 and 1944. This is partly because of the proximity to the notorious Fastnet Rock. FASTNET

We have to revisit Cape Clear again in the not too distant future, when we can devote more time to a full exploration of the island: it comprises 7 sq kilometres and 16 townlands. This time, however, it was down to the harbour for an excellent lunch before embarking on the ferry for the next stage of the trip to…. But that story must wait until another time!

harbour

For me, small island communities have a very particular feel: it’s not just the silence and closeness to nature, but a real awareness of how fragile, yet tenacious, the tenets of human existence / subsistence can be. As I write this, Cape Clear is romantically shrouded in mist out there over the bay: only the highest ridge, the cairn, the watchtower and the old lighthouse visible in grey silhouette. It’s a place that will pull us back across the water very soon.

today

Today’s view of the Cape from Nead an Iolair