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.

Knockdrum Stone Fort

There is no firm line that denotes where our most south-westerly Irish peninsula begins. Our series, Mizen Magic, has reported on walks, roads, views, history and archaeology which can definitely be defined as belonging to the Mizen (which we tend to think of as being to the west of, and including, its ‘gateway’ – Ballydehob). Perhaps we should start a series titled Magic Beyond The Mizen – in which case this would be the first: a report on a very prominent site about half an hour’s drive along the coast east of where we live: a historic structure – built within the last 2,000 years – but which contains evidence of much older human activity.

Here is an overhead view – the best way to see and understand the layout and construction of Knockdrum Stone Fort, which occupies a superb hilltop location in the townland of Farrandau between Skibbereen and Castletownshend. Thank you, Dennis Horgan – our professional West Cork aerial photographer – for allowing us to use this image: have a look at his website for other examples of his work, and for details of his excellent photographs and books.

The Fort is located on a high ridge (although not on the summit of the ridge) with far-reaching views both inland and to the south, over the sea. The header picture looks from the Fort out to the west over Castlehaven to Galley Head in the far distance; the view in the picture above is due south – looking towards Horse Island, and the stone wall of the Fort is in the foreground. From these breathtaking vistas it’s reasonable to conjecture that Knockdrum Fort has a strategic siting, providing views of anyone approaching from the sea, and able to signal their arrival to dwellers in the ‘interior’ – the lands to the north. We cannot know for sure that stone fort structures had this – or any other – specific purpose: many theories have been advanced. Comparison with other examples is worthwhile. One of the largest stone forts in Ireland is Staigue Fort, near Sneem in County Kerry.

Staigue Fort (above) has a diameter of 27.5 metres, the present wall height is 5.5 metres, and the wall thickness is 4 metres. At Knockdrum the diameter is 22.5 metres, the present wall height is 2 metres and the wall thickness around 3 metres. The Duchas information board at Staigue says:

. . . This is one of the largest and finest stone forts in Ireland and was probably built in the early centuries AD before Christianity came to Ireland. It must have been the home of a very wealthy landowner or chieftain who had a great need for security . . . The fort was the home of the chieftain’s family, guards and servants, and would have been full of houses, out-buildings, and possibly tents or other temporary structures. No buildings survive today . . .

The picture above shows the present interior of Knockdrum Fort: the stone walls are likely to delineate a former building here. In the corner of the inner stone enclosure is the entrance to a ‘souterrain’ – a series of underground passageways. The souterrain is outlined on the following drawing of the Stone Fort which was made in 1930 after a detailed investigation of it by Vice Admiral Henry Boyle Somerville, the younger brother of writer and artist Edith Somerville of Castletownshend. Boyle, his life and his tragic death, is the subject of Finola’s complementary post today.

Finola is also discussing Boyle Somerville’s interest in the alignments of archaeological structures. In Boyle’s paper for The Journal of The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1931 (title page below), he presents the evidence that this Fort is on a solar alignment.

Boyle sets out the case for an alignment based on the Knockdrum Fort:

. . . This conception of the earlier use of the site of the cathair [the stone fort] for purposes which may perhaps be termed “religious,” seems to be borne out by the following fact. At a horizontal distance of about 600 yards to the E.S.E of the cathair, and at 210′ difference of level below it, there is a small rocky ridge standing up from the surrounding grass land. The name of the ridge is “Peakeen Cnoc Dromin,” The little peak of the white-backed hill . . .

The following paragraphs and photos are from the Journal paper:

Finola and I are familiar with the Peakeen Cnoc Dromin from our researches into Rock Art: the uppermost stone (which does appear similar to the capstone of a fallen dolmen) is heavily cupmarked. The photos of the Peakeen (above) were taken before we had any idea that they might form an alignment connected with Knockdrum Stone Fort. We will have to revisit again at Bealltaine. Boyle confirmed his alignment theory by personal observation:

He went on to suggest:

. . . It is one of the clearest instances of intentional orientation between two ancient, and artificially formed monuments that can be imagined . . .

Of course, it can’t be the case that a cupmarked stone dating from anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 years ago was in any way connected with a stone fort that dates from the early part of the first millennium AD. However, I have as yet omitted an important piece of information: at Knockdrum Fort, high up on the hill, are two further ancient cupmarked stones – and significant ones: the larger also exhibits Rock Art. Somerville illustrated them in 1930, and Finola recorded them in detail in 1973.

Images above are of the stones recorded at Knockdrum: topmost is Boyle’s drawing from 1930. Below Finola’s drawings are photographs of the large stone lying by the Fort entrance today: it is known that this has been moved, possibly during Somerville’s time. The old photograph immediately above is from the Coghill Family Archive and shows Arthur Townshend beside the stone, which is standing. Arthur was born in 1863: this photograph may record the occasion of the expedition by the young Somervilles and ‘their cousin’ (quite possibly Arthur) to Knockdrum described below, which took place in 1875. It is the presence of Rock Art and cupmarks at the Fort itself which tells us that the site must have had significance in far earlier times (perhaps that’s why the fort was sited in that location – rather than on the summit of the ridge), and Boyle’s reported alignment would have been with the carved rocks (or the important location that they marked) rather than with the comparatively modern stone fort.

The souterrain in the enclosure of Knockdrum Fort (entrance in top photograph – ‘chimney’ in lower photograph) was explored in 1875, as Boyle recounts:

The ‘band of three youthful archaeologists’ are likely to have been Somervilles: Edith (the eldest, then 17), Boyle (then 12 – it was he who was lowered down into the discovered ‘cave’ by his ankles!) and, probably, a cousin. Great adventures, which would undoubtedly raise eyebrows today.

Within the fort enclosure is this cross-marked stone. It was apparently leaning against the wall in Boyle’s days, but has now been embedded close to the entrance. We visit this site often: this time we noted some significant disruption to the upper level of the dry stone walling, possibly caused by the fierce storm winds earlier this year. Compare the detail below with Dennis Horgan’s aerial view above, taken a few years ago.

Some damage has also been suffered to retaining walls on the green boreen leading to the Fort from the main Skibereen – Castletownshend road (a walking route only), and on the stone walls beside the 99 steps which take you from the green path to the top of the hill. These are passable with care, but it is hoped that this monument – which is in State ownership – will be deservedly returned to good order before too long: it is one of the historic wonders of West Cork.

The Significant Rock Art of Clonfinlough

Whenever we stray from our home territory of West Cork, we are always on the lookout for archaeological wonders. When we set our course for Clonmacnoise, in County Offaly, last week (I like the possible translation of the Irish Cluain Muccu Nóis: Meadow of the Pigs of Nós, but there is an alternative Cluain Mhic Nóis: Meadow of the Sons of Nós), we were looking for Ireland’s most important medieval monastic site, but we were diverted only a stone’s throw from our destination by a sign that we couldn’t ignore…

Tucked away to the south east of Clonmacnoise, on a by-road, sits an isolated church in front of which is a well defined and fenced pathway leading past the Priest’s house, through fields, over a stile and into a pasture where cows grazed and barely gave us a glance. There – open to the ravages of weather and cattle – is a large, earthfast slab of limestone bearing a remarkable array of markings.

Header – a detail from the stone’s crowded surface. Upper – the well-defined path leading from St Kieran’s Church to the stone (don’t confuse this St Kieran with the one from Cape Clear). Lower – the limestone slab situated beyond the stile

For Rock Art enthusiasts like us the stone was a wonderful find. The surface is teeming with rings, lines, shapes – and even lettering. In spite of the weathering, everything was deeply defined and easy to see. And the more we looked, the more we did see, and the more perplexed we became. I even noted footprints! Remember my search last week for the footprint left by Archangel Gabriel on his visit to his eponymous mountain in West Cork? Here I counted six, and my size nine feet fitted perfectly in them all.

Upper – two of the ‘footprints’ scattered on the stone’s marked surface. Lower – the stone in its landscape context: ‘footprints’ are also visible

When we returned from our visit to Offaly I was able to research the available information on the Clonfinlough Stone and was delighted to find a very comprehensive study of it written by Finola’s old friend and Rock Art expert from UCC, Elizabeth Shee Twohig. The piece – Context and Chronology of the Carved Stone at Clonfinlough, County Offaly – was published in 2002 in The Journal of The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume 132 pp 99-113. It makes the most enlightening read, outlining the ways in which the stone was regarded and drawn by early antiquarians and then opening up discussion on how much of the stone’s markings might in fact be natural formations, or natural forms which have influenced and been enhanced by ‘artists’ working with motifs which have become familiar to Rock Art researchers today, including cupmarks.

Engravings by George Victor du Noyer illustrating a paper published by James Grave in 1865. Note the emphasis that du Noyer has placed on recognisable ‘Greek’ style lettering (termed phi by Shee Twohig)

Elizabeth Shee Twohig quotes theories by RAS Macalister which evolved between 1921 and 1949, and which include the idea that the phi markings represent ‘…a possible depiction of a battle between the ‘loop men’ and the ‘cross men’ and suggested that the cupmarks …may even indicate the number of severed heads!…’ In his 1928 book The Archaeology of Ireland Macalister (quoted by Shee Twohig) suggests ‘…the carvings as showing a battle or pre-battle scene, the medicine men having prepared for their occult purposes a picture of the consummation desired…’ while in 1949 he saw it as a sign-manual of a hostile expedition from Spain which sailed up the Shannon: ‘…the battlefield, printed with the footmarks of the flying foe, strewn with weapons cast away in their flight and with missile stones…’

These are but brief extracts from the Shee Twohig account and discussions, which are essential reading – not just for possible enlightenment on the markings on this stone, but also for a well defined background on how ideas about Rock Art generally have developed since the time of the earliest antiquarians.

Elizabeth Shee Twohig has amplified her study of the Clonfinlough Stone with the first truly accurate drawing of the markings on it (above). It is certainly interesting to compare this with the 1865 engravings by du Noyer

Elizabeth Shee Twohig brings in to her study the possible significance of the stone’s positioning close to the great monastic centre of Clonmacnoise, which in medieval times was the prime pilgrimage destination in Ireland. There is evidence that one of the paved pilgrim routes passed close by the Clonfinlough Stone. It is plausible, therefore, that at least some of the markings on this limestone slab could have dated from those times: Clonmacnoise was active between the 6th and 12th centuries.

Upper – the many enigmatic markings on the stone: natural limestone solution pits, Bronze Age Rock Art, crosses carved by or for medieval pilgrims? Lower – the stone is within sight of the present day church

A trawl through the folklore records proves fertile. One legend says that at certain times of the year a horseman manifests and gallops around the stone. Another has it that a local boy named Michael used to play at the rock and there met another boy who gave him a silver knife. His mother made him take the knife back and leave it on the stone, for she said the boy was a fairy trying to entice him away. It is also said that another Michael will find the knife, and when he does he will find two big pots of gold under the rocks. Whatever the truth is about the rock and its meaning, I am struck by the path we found coming from the little church which is in sight of the Clonfinlough Stone: could there be something pagan in that stone which required the church to be built there – or is it a mutual guardianship?

PS – since publishing this post, Gearóid Ó Díomasaigh has pointed me to this 3D Sketchfab image of the Clonfinlough Stone available to view online:

In the church at Clonfinlough is a curious series of Stations: this one showing the ’empty tomb’ can be seen as a rock supplanted by a cross…

Looking for Patrick

Patrick lights the Paschal Fire on the Hill of Slane. Richard King window, Church of St Peter and Paul, Athlone

A joint post – text by Robert, images by Finola

Last week we talked about Ireland’s very first saint – Ciarán (or Piran), who was born on Cape Clear. His aim in life was to convert the heathen Irish to Christianity, but they were having none of it: they tied him to a millstone and hoisted him over the edge of a cliff. Fortunately – and miraculously – the wondrous millstone floated him over to Cornwall where he became their Patron Saint and is celebrated with great acclaim on March 5th every year.

A typical representation of Patrick, older and bearded, in bishop’s robe, holding a shamrock in one hand and a crozier on the other. Skibbereen Cathedral

To return the favour of gaining an important saint from Ireland, the British have given Ireland their special saint – Patrick – and he is being celebrated this week in similar fashion. So here’s the story of Saint Patrick, seen through the eyes of an Englishman (albeit one with Cornish connections) and illustrated by Finola with a series of images from her collection.

Still traditional – looking fierce – but this one has beautiful detailing, including the interlacing surrounding the cherubs. St Carthage Cathedral, Lismore

Of course, there’s the real Patrick – the one we know through his own Confessio. The best summary we’ve come across of what can be deduced from the historical documents is the audio book Six Years a Slave, which can be downloaded from Abarta Heritage, and which is highly recommended (be warned – no snakes!). But what you’re going to get from me today is the good old-fashioned Patrick, with all his glamour and colour and centuries of accrued stories – just as he’s shown in Finola’s images.

Six Years a Slave – this Harry Clarke window in the Church of The Assumption, Tullamore, seems to depict Patrick tending sheep during the period of his captivity

Patrick was born and brought up somewhere in the north west of Britain. He was of Romano British descent: his father was a a decurion, one of the ‘long-suffering, overtaxed rural gentry of the provinces’, and his grandfather was a priest – the family was, therefore, Christian. In his own writings Patrick describes himself as rustic, simple and unlearnèd.  When still a boy, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and taken to be a slave in Ireland. He was put to work on a farm somewhere in the west and spent the long, lonely hours out in the fields thinking about the Christian stories and principles he had been taught back home.

Patrick is visited by a vision – the people of Ireland are calling to him to come back and bring Christianity to him. Richard King window, Church of St Peter and Paul, Athlone.  Read more about Richard King and the Athlone windows in Discovering Richard King

After six years he escaped from his bondage and made his way back to Britain – apparently by hitching a lift on a fishing boat. Because he had thought so much about Christianity during those years away, he decided to become a bishop which, after a few years of application, he did. Although he had hated his enforced capture he was aware that Ireland – as the most westerly outpost of any kind of civilisation – was one of the only places in the known world that remained ‘heathen’, and he was nagged by his conscience to become a missionary there and make it his life’s work to convert every Irish pagan.

Detail from Patrick window by Harry Clarke in Ballinasloe

When you see Patrick depicted in religious imagery he always looks serious and, perhaps, severe. You can’t imagine him playing the fiddle in a session or dancing a wild jig at the crossroads. In fact he was well know for his long sermons: on one occasion he stuck his wooden crozier into the ground while he was preaching and, by the time he had finished, it had taken root and sprouted into a tree!

Patrick with his hand raised in a blessing, accompanied by his symbols of the Paschal Fire and the shamrock. Harry Clarke Studio window, Bantry

Perhaps it was his severity that caused him to be respected: while giving another sermon (at the Rock of Cashel) he accidentally and unwittingly put the point of his crozier through the foot of the King of Munster. The King waited patiently until Patrick had finished sermonising then asked if it could be removed. Patrick was horrified at what he’d done, but the King said he’d assumed it was all part of the initiation ritual!

In Richard King’s enormous Patrick window in Athlone, the saint is depicted as youthful and clean-shaven. Here he is using the shamrock to illustrate the concept of the Trinity

Patrick first landed on the shores of Ireland just before Easter in 432 AD and established himself on the Hill of Slane – close to the residence of the High King. In those days the rule was that only the King himself was to light the Bealtaine Fire to celebrate the spring festival, but Patrick pre-empted this by lighting his own Paschal Fire on the top of the hill, thus establishing his authority over that of the High King (see the first image in this post). Somehow, he got away with it – and the fire has been lit on the top of the Hill of Slane every Easter from that day to this.

Another panel from the Richard King window – Eithne and Fidelma receive communion from Patrick. They were daughters of the King of Connaught; Eithne was fair-haired and Fidelma a redhead, and they were baptized at the Well of Clebach beside Cruachan

St Patrick seems to have been everywhere in Ireland: there are Patrick’s Wells, Patrick’s Chairs (one of which in Co Mayo – the Boheh Stone – displays some fine examples of Rock Art), Patrick’s Beds and – on an island in Lough Dergh – a Patrick’s Cave (or ‘Purgatory’) where Jesus showed the saint a vision of the punishments of hell.

Patrick blesses St Mainchin of Limerick. Detail from the Mainchin window in the Honan Chapel, by Catherine O’Brien for An Túr Gloinne

The place which has the most significant associations with Patrick, perhaps, is Croagh Patrick – the Holy Mountain in County Mayo, on the summit of which the saint spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting and praying, before casting all the snakes out of Ireland from the top of the hill – an impressive feat. To this day, of course, there are no snakes in Ireland – or are there? See my post Snakes Alive for musings on this topic (it includes a most impressive window from Glastonbury!)

Like many Patrick windows, this one, By Harry Clarke in Tullamore, shows Patrick banishing the snakes. This one has all the gorgeous detailing we expect from Clarke, including bejewelled snakes

When Patrick considered that he’d finished his task, and the people of Ireland were successfully and completely converted, he returned to Britain and spent his retirement in the Abbey of Glastonbury – there’s a beautiful little chapel there dedicated to him.

This depiction of Patrick on the wall of his Glastonbury chapel shows him with familiar symbols but also several unusual symbols – an Irish wolfhound, high crosses, and Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain

It’s logical he should have chosen that spot to end his days as it must be the most blessed piece of ground in these islands, having been walked upon by Jesus himself who was taken there as a boy by his tin-trading uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. St Bridget joined Patrick there in retirement and they are both buried in the Abbey grounds, along with the BVM who had preceded them to that place a few centuries earlier.

From the George Walsh window in Eyeries, Patrick returns to convert the Irish

A depiction of Patrick below comes from St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland in Castletownsend where he is shown alongside St George. The window dates from before Irish independence and is an attempt to show the unity of Britain and Ireland through their respective patron saints. Perhaps meant to represent friendship between the countries, nevertheless nowadays it seems to display a colonial overtone that is an uncomfortable echo of past mores.

The window is by Powells of London and dates to 1906

So let’s leave Patrick doing what he came back to do – a last panel from the Richard King window in Athlone shows him performing his saintly task of converting the Irish – one chieftain at a time.

Saint Oliver

plunkett window close

We revisited Inchigeelagh, in West Cork, as we remembered that the church of Saint Finbarr and All Angels had some fine examples of stained glass: Finola is preparing a talk on that subject and our travels are revealing an unexpected abundance of this art in our little bit of Ireland’s furthest reaches. Our last visit to Inchigeela was to inspect the unusual ‘rock art’ that has been built into the wall of the grotto just by the church door.

rock art inchigeela

We are none the wiser about the meaning of the ‘rock art’: suggestions include a dove of peace flying over mountains – but I have yet to be convinced. However, it was a good day for looking at the windows: the sun was streaming through the south facing glass panels and creating a kaleidoscope of colour on the surrounding walls.

There was plenty to occupy my attention in this church: I had to admire the bear of St Columbanus. This Irish saint spent most of his life on missionary work on the continent and stories about him include taming the bear and yoking it to a plough, and establishing friendships with wolves. I’m not quite sure why, but St Columbanus is the Patron Saint of motorcyclists.

the bear

There was one window I had failed to notice amongst the panoply of saints on my previous visit to Inchigeelagh – tucked away at the back of the church: it’s the one at the top of this page – Saint Oliver Plunkett. In some ways it’s the most extraordinary of the windows as it depicts the gruesome death suffered by this Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland at the hands of turncoats and perjurers – and it’s a far cry from rural West Cork. Plunkett was born in 1625 in Loughcrew, County Meath and died at Tyburn, London: hanged, drawn and quartered, in 1681.

Gallows

He was a victim of the Popish Plot, concocted by Titus Oates, an English clergyman who contrived a story that Plunkett was to lead an uprising involving 20,000 French soldiers. Whichever account you read, it seems that no-one believed the story: a trial was held in Dublin but there was no conviction. Plunkett was then sent to Newgate and put on trial again: again the trial collapsed. A third trial, at which Plunkett had no counsel, found him guilty after the jury had retired for fifteen minutes. That it was a monumental miscarriage of justice became evident very quickly: Plunkett’s accusers were arrested – the day after his execution.

Perhaps the reason why Oliver Plunkett appears in Inchigeelagh is topicality: he was canonised in 1975, thus becoming the first new Irish saint for almost seven hundred years. Above is his shrine in St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, County Louth (his head is on display) and his Canonisation picture. St Oliver is the Patron Saint of Peace and Reconciliation, which in the mid-seventies was timely for Ireland. As ever, it’s timely for the world today. The Oliver Plunkett window was made by Abbey Stained Glass Studios, Dublin in 1992 and the artist was Kevin Kelly.

plunkett-15-stamp

Discovering Carrowmore

stone and sky

At the heart of the Coolrea peninsula in County Sligo lies one of the greatest megalithic complexes of ancient Ireland, An Cheathrú Mhór or Carrowmore as we call it today: the Irish name means ‘The Great Quarter’. Spread over a plateau of some 150 acres and centred on the high point of Listoghil are thirty recognisable tomb sites but it is suggested that there were once at least a hundred monuments here.

Carrowmore 1

The Carrowmore monuments that we know today cover over 150 acres: it’s likely that there is much more to this site which has been lost, or which remains to be recovered

The changing landscape has taken its toll: from the 18th century onwards land clearance and quarrying have damaged and obliterated many of the remains and even as recently as 1983 Sligo County Council sought to place a municipal landfill dump adjacent to the known sites. Fortunately a few alert local residents objected and took the case to the High Court in Dublin. Initially their objections were overruled but in 1989 an appeal to the Supreme Court was successful and the very important landscape context of Carrowmore has been saved, hopefully for all time. In that same year the state commenced purchase of a part of the site and has developed a sensitively planned visitor facility now run by the Office of Public Works. Since then more of the surrounding site has been purchased and is in public ownership.

stone and skyscape

Carrowmore landscape: this view to the great central cairn on Listoghil shows the nature of the terrain and the context of the monuments which it is so important to preserve

It’s the integrity of the complex that is so special here. The monuments found at Carrowmore are called boulder circles, though several have central dolmens or rudimentary passages. Generally around 12 to 15 metres in diameter, the circles contain 30 to 40 boulders, usually of gneiss, the material of choice for the tombs. Sometimes an inner boulder circle is also present.They are considered to be an early type of chambered cairn, or passage grave, though in fact, they may be the ancestor of a few monument types. This is the view of local man Martin Byrne, historian, artist, musician and our tour guide for the day. He pointed out to us how the passage of each of the boulder groupings is oriented, not towards a solar or calendrical event but to Listoghil, where an enormous cairn encloses a box-like stone chamber with a large capstone.

Monument, mountain and sky

One of the boulder circles at Carrowmore with its central chambered tomb. This view is looking away from Listoghil and towards another significant landscape feature, Knocknarea, which is topped by the cairn known as Queen Maeve’s Tomb, 6 km to the west. There are 6 more mountain-top cairns on the peaks of the Ox Mountains to the south. The central focus of the Carrowmore complex is the cairn on Listoghil, although this is not as dramatically visible as many of the surrounding cairns

The chamber on Listoghil has been given a modern context, with the original cairn covering having been cut away to allow access. This chamber displays the only examples of rock art to be found so far within the Carrowmore complex. This is hard to see in normal lighting conditions, but successive observations have enabled these images to be made:

Listoghil carvings Guillaume Robin 1994

The formerly covered central chamber of the Listoghil cairn: top left is a photograph taken during excavations by Göran Burenhult in 1996-98 – this shows three boulders in front of the tomb which are said to have been an earlier Neolithic monument displaced by the tomb construction. Top right is the OPW interpretation board for the chamber and above are drawings of the rock art on the edge of the roof slab compiled by Guillaume Robin

It’s startling to discover that the Carrowmore complex could be over 6,000 years old: carbon dating from some of the finds has suggested this. If so, then it’s the earliest of the passage grave cemeteries in use in Ireland. Many cremated remains have been found over this site (spread over a long period of time), although unburnt human bones were also recovered in the Listoghil chamber. It could be speculated that the focal point of Listoghil must have been the resting place of a very important person – or dynasty; we will never know for sure. 

‘Accidental’ rock art and rock scribing noticed on monuments at Carrowmore: these boulders have natural markings on them but it is possible that the monument builders were attracted by these marks, which may themselves have inspired carvings

The Carrowmore complex has been visible enough historically to attract the attention of antiquarians – which is useful for later archaeologists, as some parts which are now lost have been historically recorded, albeit using methodology which would nowadays be considered inadequate. Gabriel Beranger, who was born in Rotterdam in 1725, settled in Dublin in 1760 and was a notable illustrator of antiquities in Ireland during a long lifetime; he visited and recorded Carrowmore. A local landlord, Roger Walker, carried out some excavations of the tombs in the 19th century but made no significant records; it is suggested that he was a treasure hunter. George Petrie surveyed the site and numbered the tombs in 1837 but it was another 50 years before archaeologist William Gregory Wood-Martin made the first methodically recorded excavations. William Wakeman produced some exquisite watercolour sketches in 1879. More recently Swedish archaeologist Göran Burenhult undertook detailed studies between 1977-1982 and 1994-1998 and this work included the excavation and subsequent reconstruction of the Listoghil cairn.

Upper Left: the work of Gabriel Beranger who visited the area in the 1700s – this shows Queen Maeve’s Tomb on Knocknarea. Upper right: William Wakeman’s watercolour of Tomb 4 in 1879 (Sligo County Library). Above: Listoghil chamber tomb today

Our guide Martin has studied the complexes at both Carrowmore and Carrowkeel (a future destination for us) for many years and is imbued with the archaeology and the landscape. He gently pointed us to the fact that relationships can perhaps be seen between the profiles of some of the boulders – particularly the capstones of the tombs – and the more distant landscape. I find this fascinating: I have always felt, as an architect, that there should be a conscious designed relationship between any building that is erected by human endeavour and the setting of that building within nature. Could these parallels that we might be seeing at Carrowmore be conscious?

Dolmen and Mountain

Rocks reflecting nature? Were the capstones chosen to specifically echo the landscape context? A debatable – and very subjective – notion…

My day was made when I discovered that Martin was a musician – as is Margaret, and I joined them in their colourful house for a little session!

martin + margaret