Rock Art – A Diversion to Wicklow

While writing this Journal over the years, Finola and I have included many examples of Prehistoric Rock Art, mainly on the west side of the country, in Cork and Kerry. Here is just one – you can find others through the search facility in the header. Finola’s UCC thesis from 1973 also concentrated on specimens from the southwest and her own drawings based on tracings direct from the rock surfaces provide a unique record of this form of prehistoric art. They have formed the basis of exhibitions which we have promoted over the years: here’s one from 2015.

Upper: the opening of our Rock Art exhibition at Cork Public Museum , October 2015 and (lower) one of Finola’s drawings from 1973. Another area in Ireland which has a concentration of Rock Art is Wicklow. We have been spending a few days in that county, and decide to go and have a look for some examples there. Finola dug out from her archives a photo which she took in 1972 when she and some college friends visited a Wicklow site:

Could we find that particular rock again? Well, we think we did, but it has been moved in fairly recent times. Here it is in its new setting (we believe) – it’s not very propitious:

The present site is in the townland of Togher More, behind a fence lining a main road. The National Monuments record tells the story, which confirms that Finola’s earlier photograph was taken in the townland of Baltynanima:

. . . Class: Rock art (present location) Townland: TOGHER MORE Description: Found during ploughing c. 1.8m to the SW in Baltynanima and moved here in the mid 1980’s (see W1018-036—- for original location record). An irregular shaped schist boulder (L 1.3m; W 0.9m; T 0.5m) with 16 cup marks and the remains of another where the corner of the boulder appears to have come away. The four largest cups (diameters 10-12cm; depth c. 6cm) are enclosed by circles (max ext. diameter 20cm) formed by incised lines (widths 1.5-2cm; depths 1cm) with the exception of one which has only a semi circle incised line around it. The remaining 13 cups have diameters of 6-8cm and depths of 4-5cm. There are also three incised linear grooves (L 14- 22cm; W 4cm; D 2.5-3.5cm) visible on the stones surface. Described, photographed and drawn by Price on the 29th January 1933 . . .

National Monuments Record WI018-049

It’s not unusual to find that ‘portable’ stones with Rock Art on the surface are moved, usually to protect them if a site is to be developed. Here’s another example we found, in the townland of Knockrahen:

In this case the rock was found while the foundations were being dug for the house. The owner (with whom we spoke) noticed the markings and decided to keep it as a feature in her new garden. The photo below was taken by Chris Corlett for the National Monuments records. Thank you, Chris (and the NM), for allowing us to use this – and the detail on the header pic. Below Chris’s photo is Finola’s, with my hand in the shot to give it scale.

While out in Wicklow we noticed that many of the National Monument records of Rock Art are credited to George Henry Kinihan (1829 – 1908). He was a geologist who also had an interest in archaeology. His home was in Clontarf and he is buried in the Protestant churchyard in Avoca, Co Wicklow. He was involved in his lifetime in engineering works, particular railway construction, but was also a keen Rock Art enthusiast.

Two portraits of Kinihan: he was said to have been of ‘strong and massive build’. He spent some of his early years working under George du Noyer of the Irish Geological Survey – who shared with him an interest in antiquities in the landscape. Here is a du Noyer drawing of cross slabs in Co Wexford:

On du Noyer’s death in 1869, Kinihan was appointed District Surveyor of the Geological Survey, in charge of field work and mapping, and oversaw the completion of the One Inch Geological Map of Ireland. He also became President of The Royal geological Society of Ireland in 1880. Now, here is a conundrum:

Here is part of the current Historic Monuments Viewer, showing the location of archaeological sites in Ballykean, Co Wicklow. All the yellow-and-red dots are recorded as Rock Art, discovered by Kinihan (there are 14 just in this small area of the townland). In every case, the site is described in detail, with numbers of cupmarks etc recorded. But also – in every case – the description concludes: ‘…The site indicated by Kinahan in 1884 was inspected in 1990, however this stone was not located…’ These are not the only instances in Co Wicklow where Rock Art found by Kinihan can no longer be traced. Does this mean that all these instances have now been destroyed or buried? Is it possible that this experienced archaeological enthusiast could have misinterpreted so many sites? It remains an adventure for us – another day – to go in search of some of these enigmatic examples to see if we re-establish the credibility of this Wicklow giant in this very particular specialism.

Stones Alone

Over the years we have written a lot about stone. That’s not surprising, because our interests in Irish archaeology involve stones: standing stones, stone circles, rock art, gravestones . . . It’s what the surviving history of our earliest dwellers on this island is all about. So I thought it would be a good idea to sift through our Roaringwater Journal photographic library – which goes back a decade – and turn up some pictures and stories which I have never used before: all of them involving stones. That header pic, above, is a boulder burial at Rathruane, just outside our West Cork village of Ballydehob.

Here’s another boulder burial, a long way away in Co Cavan, now surrounded by trees which are probably relatively recent. Finola wrote about this monument type six years ago, and pointed out that they are not well named: when examined archaeologically, very few of these stones have been associated with buried human remains. They are said to have been positioned between 1,500 and 1,000 years BC, a time we refer to as the ‘Bronze Age’. So, by then, humans were already aware of the use of metal for tools, weapons and decorative adornments. But imagine the time before that – when people only had natural materials to hand – wood, vegetation and, of course – if you wanted to create something permanent – stone: we call these times Neolithic – and generally that covers the period of habitation of Ireland from 6,000 BC onwards.

Here is another West Cork site: Breeny More, to the north of Bantry. There’s a whole lot of stones here including, unusually, four ‘boulder burials’ arranged in a square. There are also further stones in this grouping which were once part of a stone circle. The site is magnificently located, with distant views west across to Bantry Bay (below).

We are all familiar with groups of stones arranged in a circle. Here is the ‘stone circle’ at Ardgroom, County Cork: it’s on the Beara Peninsula. As with the Boulder Burials, these monument types are generally thought to date from the Bronze Age.

These modestly sized ‘five stone’ stone circles are also in County Cork. The National monuments Survey of Ireland lists 53 ‘five stone’ circles in the county, while a further 41 ‘multiple stone’ circles are noted. There are also some anomalies which defy definition, such as ‘The Fingers’ at Knockdrum, West Cork, just outside Castletownshend:

This appears to have been, originally, an alignment of five tall standing stones. One has fallen and broken, while the fifth is now missing. It is reasonable to assume, from the number of stone ‘monuments’ all around us in West Cork (and in many other parts of Ireland), that these sites were of great significance to the populations who constructed them. But we don’t know for sure why they are there – although theories abound.

I am fascinated by the number of single standing stones we come across in our travels. It’s impossible to say how many there are in Ireland – probably thousands. And they can range in size from the large stones – above – in West Cork, to individual examples in moorland or fields, or on roadsides – below.

The Irish word ‘carn’ means a heap or pile of stones, Cairn monuments are mounds of stones, often marking the summit of a significant hill or mountain. They may or may not be ancient, and we have seen them change significantly over time. On Mount Corrin, not far from us in West Cork, there were two cairns only a few years ago. Now there is a single, significant cairn (top pic below): this implies a deliberate ‘re-ordering’ of what was there before. Regardless of their history, they can be visually impressive.

The centre pic above is a small cairn on a Sheep’s Head summit, while the enormous one above is in The Burren, County Clare. The Burren is an extraordinary landscape of exposed limestone. The limestone formed as sediments in a tropical sea which covered most of Ireland approximately 350 million years ago. Today, the Burren supports a remarkable assortment of wild flowers: over 70% of Ireland’s species of flowers are found there, among the ubiquitous stone surfaces.

Ever since humans set foot on Irish soil, they have embraced the stones – both for practical uses such as shelter or enclosure, but also as a means of marking and communicating. Readers will be familiar with our particular interests in Prehistoric Rock Art:

This is an important example of Ireland’s Rock Art, from West Cork, perhaps dating from 5,000 years ago: it was discovered in comparatively recent times. The painting is by Keith Payne, and is an interpretation of this same rock outcrop. We have no evidence that the carvings were ever coloured – or pigmented.

Today we are very familiar with the use of stone as a building material: this practice is likely to have been current since very early times. In Ireland we have many examples of ancient – but undateable – stone buildings. The ‘Oratory’ at Gallurus is a good example of a built enclosure (walls and roof) made entirely from stone. A present day view of it, top, shows this remarkably preserved structure; archaeologists and historians have long debated its age and likely use. The print above dates from 1756.

Over the centuries, crafstpeople (like Séamus Murphy – see last week’s post) have used stone as a medium for memorials – the message is likely to survive beyond lifetimes. If only we knew what some of the messages should spell out to us! Our last – striking – image is from Fourknocks – a decorated chambered cairn within the Boyne Valley complex which we visited in 2016. This carved decoration was probably made 5,000 years ago: we can only wonder at its meaning and its authors . . .

New Rock Art Find in West Cork

“I’ve found a funny rock carving and a friend told me to ring you” – that’s my favourite type of call to get! It doesn’t always work out: sometimes the marks are machine-made, or a natural geological feature of the rock. But the anticipation is always there that this time it will be the real thing.

And it was! Our caller was John Minihane, a retired harbour master and a Harley enthusiast, living in a beautiful traditional farmhouse near Union Hall, once the home of his grandmother. He had been tidying up the back garden and pulled ivy off what seemed to be just a big rock in a bank separating his property from a neighbours. It turned out to be a standing stone with prehistoric rock art on it.

Not all rock art is spectacular – some of it can be underwhelming, consisting of only a few cupmarks. Take a look at some of our previous posts on rock art (C2 on our Navigation Page) to see some of the examples, from simple to complex, we have written about. The one (below) is possibly one of the most iconic pieces of rock art in Ireland – it’s from Derrynablaha in Kerry.

This photograph (above) shows the rock art panel in its location, high in the Kerry Mountains, overlooking a beautiful valley and lake. The image is by Ken Williams, used with his permission. Ken is Ireland premier photographer of archaeological subjects – read more about him here or better yet visit his amazing website.

The latest thinking about Atlantic Rock Art (it occurs all down the Atlantic Coast, from Portugal to Scotland) is that it is Neolithic – that is, about 5,000 years old. In its elemental, form, the humble cupmark, it persists into the Bronze Age, sometimes occurring on Wedge Tombs and Boulder Burials. So this standing stone, with cupmarks and grooves, might be anywhere from 5,000 to 2,500 years old.

Most rock art is found on bedrock (like Derreennaclogh, above) or earth-fast boulders, but in West Cork, we do have other examples of rock art on standing stones. Two can be found about 9km east near Rosscarbery, both in the townland of Burgatia and both with cupmarks and cup-and-ring marks. Another is located on the townland boundary between Knockanoulty and Barnabah, about 14km to the SW. I’ve shown that one below, both as a photograph and as a drawing.

When I was a student (back in the dawn of time) and recording rock art, the conventional method was to chalk in the carvings, trace it all on to clear film, re-trace it in paper using Indian ink, and then have that photographically reduced. That’s how I produced the drawings above. Robert has used his architectural drafting skills to produce drawings more recently – below is his rendering of the cupmarked stone a local farmer showed us quite near where we live.

Mostly, nowadays, archaeologists favour techniques that do not interfere with the rock surface, and that usually means a photographic technique known as photogrammetry. The idea is to take lots of photos (150 in this case), moving at a steady rate and distance across the surface of the rock, load these into a program that can create a 3D image, and see what comes out.

We are very grateful to Nick Hogan of the University College Cork  Department of Archaeology who used their sophisticated software to create the 3D image. It’s been fun to play with the files he sent us, which are the best way of seeing what’s actually on the rock surface. 

You can set up a grid, or rotating axes, and turn the model so that the light hits it in different ways. This can help you to discern small cupmarks that don’t show up well in photographs. In the case of this rock, the thing that was hard to make out was the exact shape of the groove, and the 3D model shows this up well. If you turn it sideways it looks like an owl – but this is purely a chance occurrence – this art was strictly non-representational (although there’s a chance we might find a  deer or an axe some day, but that’s another story).

It’s always exciting to find a genuine piece of undiscovered archaeology! Thank you, John Minihane, for inviting us over to see your find and allowing us to record it. And thank you, Nick Hogan for the 3D modelling. A most satisfying project all round.

Nine beans rows will I have there, and a piece of prehistoric rock art!

Legends of Mount Gabriel: Wrought by Giants

While references to Fionn MacCumhaill (or Finn McCool) occur in many of the old legends about Mount Gabriel, more often a generic ‘giant’ is identified as having lived on or near Mount Gabriel. Giants were, apparently, given to fighting each other and to hurling rocks through the air. Here’s a good example from Jeremiah Mahony of Crookhaven:

Giants are a familiar motif of folklore – just across the sea many of the same stories are told about the effects the Giant, Bolster, had on the landscape of Cornwall.

The rock that was seized and thrown didn’t always become the Fastnet; prominent rocks on the landscape were also identified, including what we know now as Boulder Burials (for more on this class of archaeological monument see my post Boulder Burials – A Misnamed Monument?). Here is Cornelius Moynihan from Derreenlomane School (long since closed), telling a tale he got from his grandfather of the same name, then aged 75.

In my grandfather’s land in Rathravane there is a stone called “The Giant’s Stone”. A legend says that it was thrown from Mount Gabriel by a giant long ago. Those who believe this point out the print of a knee and prints of three fingers. It looks as if one end was lifted by human agency as it is supported at that end by three stones arranged regularly.

In an unusual piece of cross referencing, Tessie Coughlan from Dunbeacon School, on the other side of Mount Gabriel, tells of the same rock landing in Moynihan’s field (above, and below with Mount Corrin in the background).

The old people of this locality say that two giants once lived at the top of Mount Gabriel near the place where the lake now lies. One of them was much taller than the other but the smaller had two heads and was cleverer and stronger than the other. It is said that they killed any person who cut a tree on the mountain side and then they cast their bodies into the lake.

One day a dispute arose between the two as to which was the stronger and it was agreed upon that they should both lift a stone and throw it as far as they could. The two giants lifted stones of equal weight and threw them over the land together. The small giant threw his stone much farther than the other did and it fell in Rathravane in a field owned by Mr C Moynihan. The other stone fell in Dreenlomane and it is still to be seen.

The stone in Rathravane is oval shaped and it bears the five prints of the giant’s fingers. It rests on a height. The stone in Dreelomane is not shaped like the one in Rathravane but it is the shape of a coffin and bears the print of one of the giant’s fingers. The old people say that it is a real coffin and that a landlord is buried in it or under it. Several people have gone to break the stone, but owing to tradition they never struck it.

Perhaps this (above) is the other rock – it’s not in Derreenlomane but not far, on the slopes of Mount Corrin. Another student from Derreenlomane school, Rita Helen, tells a similar story in her piece titled Local Monuments, and goes on to describe several others.

There is a glacial stone in Mr. Young’s field and another in Mr. Moynihans field. The one in Mr. Moynihan’s field seems to have been lifted up at one end by some persons, as three stones have been placed under this end. People say there is a print of five fingers on the one in Mr. Moynihan’s field and that a giant threw the stone from the top of Mount Gabriel over into the field. 

In this photograph of the Rathruane boulder burial, perhaps you can see the knee imprint and one of the finger holes. That’s Mount Gabriel in the background.

There is a cairn on top of Mount Corrin (Cnoc an Chairn).

There are two pillar stones in the townland called the Gallauns, parish of Schull, W.D.W. Carbery, Co Cork.

In another part of the townland there are six pillar stones forming part of a circle.

The only stone circle in the vicinity is in Dunbeacon, on the slopes of Mount Corrin, but Mount Gabriel is visible from it, as you can see in the photo above. Rita was from Rathruane, although she spells it as it is pronounced locally, Rathravane. It’s interesting that she also says There are no stones in the district with peculiar markings or strokes on them, since there is indeed rock art in Rathruane, quite close to the boulder burial. It’s an excellent example of prehistoric Rock Art, AKA cup-and-ring art.

Hannah Hayes, also from Derreenlomane has her own version of Local Monuments:

There are two large stones in Rathravane :- one in Mr. Young’s field and one in Mr. Moynihan’s field. It is said a giant threw the stone from Mount Gabriel to Mr. Moynihan’s field, and those who believe this say there is the print of five fingers in it. There are pillar stones called Galláin standing in the ground in the townland of Coolcoulachta. There are no ornamented stones in the locality.

Here are the Coolcoulaghta galláns or pillar stones – they constitute a type of monument known as a standing stone pair.

Here’s a piece from an unnamed student at Gloun School. It refers to “a kind of grave” and we wonder if this is the beautiful little wedge tomb in Ratooragh

In the western side of the Glaun hill up east of Timothy Driscoll’s there is a kind of grave. Long ago there was a chieftain living here and people say he was buried there and some treasure buried with him. On top of the clay there is a heap of stones and there is a fairly large stone standing in the centre and there is some writing carved on it.

This writing is nearly blotted out now. It was read by many people in olden times. No one ever tried to find the treasure.

No sign now of any clay or writing but the National Monuments record does reference traces of a mound which may have covered the wedge tomb originally but is impossible to make out now. There are panoramic views from this wedge tomb, not only to Mount Gabriel and Mount Corrin (above), but west to the sea as well (below).

We know you’ll want to be out and about as soon as we all can, doing your own exploring. As an enticement, here’s a story about buried treasure, courtesy of Caitlín Ní Árnéidig of the Convent of Mercy in Skibbereen.

Under a huge stone on the slope of a hill in my father’s farm, there is said to be hidden treasure.

It is said that one day “Athach Mór”, a great giant, was challenged to throw this huge stone (at least one ton and a half weight) from Mount Gabriel to that spot on the hill. First the giant seemed unwilling to try this feat but when he began to lift the stone it seemed of no weight, and he suceeded in landing it exactly on the spot.

Under it there is said to be an unusual thing (a nest containing seven golden eggs each seven inches in diameter and filled with sovereigns).

About four perches due west of this stone is another stone, under which a similar treasure is hidden.

An old man of the vicinity recently revealed that in order to find the treasure one must draw a straight line from one stone to another, then standing near the middle of the line hold a cord in the hand and lift it an eastward direction, so that it will [words missing] the stone and a light will be seen over the spot where the treasure is.

My uncle, having heard the story, decided to prove this, so he set to work at the mysterious stone. Having drawn the line he stood near the centre and cast the string eastward. Then to his astonishment he noticed a ray of light over a small portion of the stone.

He tried to split the stone but failed though still engaged at the work he finds it impossible to do.

All you have to do is figure out the location and , crucially, what the student meant to say where the words are missing. Good luck!

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 excavations.ie 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.

Rock Art: Returning to Derrynablaha

Three years ago Finola and I both wrote posts about a remote valley in the Kerry hills, north of Sneem, where some iconic examples of Irish Rock Art can be found: Derrynablaha Expedition by Finola, and my own Glen of Ghosts. I think it’s time to revisit this hauntingly beautiful place, and its ancient carved stones which could date back 5,000 years, to Neolithic times.

All the examples of Rock Art illustrated in this post can be found in the townlands of Derrynablaha and Derreeny, Co Kerry

When Finola visited the valley in 1972 and 1973 she explored and recorded 23 marked stones, all within the townland of Derrynablaha: these were illustrated in her UCC thesis The Rock Art of Cork and Kerry. Between 1986 and 1996 The Iveragh Peninsula Archaeological Survey undertook further detailed research, resulting in a comprehensive volume published by Cork University Press: this contains a 30 page section on Rock Art and includes many of Finola’s drawings. The book lists 26 known examples, now, in Derrynablaha with a further 7 stones in the adjacent townland of Derreeny.

Cork University Press volume (left) which includes many of Finola’s drawings (sample page,right)

My introduction to prehistoric Irish Rock Art came in the early 1990s when I first visited West Cork to look at a piece of land which my friends Danny and Gill had purchased, with a view to building themselves a house: I was to be the designer. We walked the 5 acre site at Ballybane West and discovered a large, flat outcrop of rock some 30 metres long by 10 metres wide, the surface of which was covered with strange carved motifs. These intrigued and occupied me for many years. Eventually I made contact with the Department of Archaeology at University College Cork and unearthed Finola’s thesis. Finola had visited ‘Danny’s Rock’ during her explorations: she and I have just completed a comprehensive article on Rock Art in the environs of Ballybane West for a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Bantry Historical Society, due to be launched on 10 May.

Because of the number of pieces of Rock Art at Derrynablaha, as recorded by Finola, I set out to visit the site and was fortunate, I think, to locate several of the pieces there: they are hard to find. My most significant impression of the place was its isolation and loneliness: when Finola was there decades before, the O’Sullivan house was occupied – a family home and working farm – now it was a ruin returning to nature. No one lives in that valley today: it is home to sheep and eagles.

The most iconic piece of Rock Art in Derrynablaha is high up on the slopes of a mountain: there is no path, and the trek is across bogs, boulders and streams. Also remember that all the land is private – farmed now by another O’Sullivan from a neighbouring valley – and permission has to be sought in advance of any attempt to visit. Strict rules apply, understandably, to the use of gates and fences and no dogs will be permitted. The iconic piece is probably Ireland’s most important. When you stand up there, on a good day, you can see to distant horizons and take in outstanding views: time for reflection, perhaps, on what inspired our forebears to create such panels in these places – was it where they lived? Or did they assemble there for celebrations? The mountainside seems to present a natural platform here, with the carved rocks a central focal point. The work involved in carving these motifs would have been significant and time-consuming – they had only stone tools.

When we give talks about Rock Art we ask a question: Is it art? Some of it is certainly pleasing to the eye – the iconic Derrynablaha carvings are. But they also appear random, as though new carvings have been squeezed in amongst older ones: maybe the proliferation of motifs – or the number of carvers involved – was more important than any particular visual effect or relationship. We don’t ever try to answer that question, nor guess meanings for things we can never know. It’s enough – for me, at least – to experience these ‘footprints’ of former souls in such wild places.

We go far out of our way to look for Rock Art. It would take more than a lifetime to see every piece in Ireland. Some would argue that such a pursuit would be pointless – seen one, seen them all. It is true that the motifs are similar, although variable, across Rock Art panels, not only in Ireland, but in Britain and on continental Europe. That in itself is remarkable: 5,000 years ago humankind was making identical marks on rock surfaces all over its world. For me, however, it’s not really the motifs – spectacular though many of them are. It’s the places that they mark which are meaningful. Rock Art took me to the mountainside in that lonely Kerry glen and showed me a most incredible view across townlands and counties: I see it as inspiration, relevant as much in the 21st century of this struggling world as it was, perhaps, thousands of years ago, when the same world was a little bit newer.