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

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

P1210637

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, a photograph taken at around the time of  the excavation of Fourknocks, 1950s. Many thanks to his grand-daughter, Dee McMahon, for providing this and further historical information

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

Glen of Ghosts

glen

There are some places in this world that touch you deeply in the soul. Derrynablaha has that affect on me. I first went there a few years ago and immediately felt that it was alive with ghosts. I was in search of Rock Art then, and Finola had told me about her experiences in the early 1970s – an intrepid young student on an old Honda 50 loaded down with sheets of cellophane and measuring rods. She had met the O’Sullivans who dwelt in the single farmstead there – they plied her with tea and directed her to the rocks above the house where treasures awaited. When I drove into that valley 40 years later I found only the ruins of the O’Sullivan cottage. It was a poignant moment – the mountains were empty: in some ways it felt like the loneliest place on earth, yet also one of the most beautiful.

The old O'Sullivan farmstead returning to nature

The old O’Sullivan farmstead returning to nature

What kind of a beauty is that? A mixtures of lives vanished and nature healing the wounds. Sheep still grazing on those rock-strewn fields: men from another valley tending them – O’Sullivans also, but – they claim – no relation to the last generation there.

New life among the old stones...

New life among old stones…

Those lives are recently gone but, as I first climbed the precipitous slopes to the west of the old farm, I felt the presence of other ghosts – from a more ancient time. It’s a long haul up to the iconic carved stone which commands the wide view across to Lough Brin but, each time I make that journey, I feel more strongly drawn to the people who made that place their home – or possibly their temple.

View from the 'very special' carved stone

View from the ‘very special’ carved stone

This expedition must have been my fourth visit to the hillside which commands such a magnificent view over the townlands of Derrynablaha and Derreeny and which takes in the lake on the valley floor – seemingly a mere puddle from that elevation yet  in fact covering several hectares. On each visit I find more evidence of prehistoric occupation: on this occasion it appeared to me that the carved stone is sited on the edge of a circular plateau; I could trace old retaining walls below, some circles which could have been hut walls half lost in the undergrowth and – above this site – a wall of boulders which might have dammed the stream which runs down the mountain here, to create a little reservoir. I also saw the vestiges of a wedge tomb – aligned east to west – and the base of a cairn… All this, of course, is my imagination at work, but it’s a place where the imagination can take wing.

sky pan

Panoramas from the plateau - east and west

Panoramas from the plateau – east and west

I have so many questions… Was there once tree growth at this level? Derrynablaha means ‘little oak wood of the flowers’ – I imagine something like the stunted oak forests on Dartmoor, where the ancient trees are gnarled and twisted from the ravages of a harsh climate, but which cling to the rocky terrain. But possibly the plateau was raised above this – a place where visibility over the whole landscape was important and visitors anticipated in advance. In my dreams I see fires burning up there in the night, figures dancing, songs being sung… Are they really Wolves and Deer I see moving around the fires, or are they my own ancestors wearing grotesque masks?

clouds

Dream clouds?

Why shouldn’t I have these thoughts? After all, technology might have changed over 5,000 years – but our minds haven’t. It’s not so hard to try and understand our forebears: I like to think they appreciated the power of the pristine landscapes which they inhabited – just as we are awed by the magnificence of their old haunts as we see them today.

Wedge tomb on the plateau?

Wedge tomb on the plateau?

Mizen Mission

Tooreen Lake

Tooreen Lake

A joint post by Robert and Finola…

Finola

According to the forecast today could be the last fine day of 2014, so we decided to make the most of it and set off on a mission. And what a day it was! Cold, yes, but with that brilliant light that only happens on crisp winter days.

Looking across Roaringwater Bay

Looking across Roaringwater Bay

Our mission? it was to find a piece of prehistoric rock art I had last visited over 40 years ago in the townland of Castlemehigan, near the end of the Mizen Peninsula. But once in the vicinity of Castlemehigan we couldn’t resist continuing to the end of the tiny road, which climbed up the rocky hills on the northern side of Crook Haven. Parking the car, we climbed to the highest point we could find. We’re used, by now, to the jaw-dropping views around here, but even by Mizen standards, this was something special. 

Crookhaven Village

Crookhaven Village

South of us, across the Haven was the village of Crookhaven nestled in its protective harbour. Looking north we could see across the Sheep’s Head to where the unmistakeable outline of Hungry Hill loomed on the Beara Peninsula. To the west was the White Strand and Brow Head, crowned by the historic Marconi telegraph station and to the east was the whole of Roaringwater Bay: Cape Clear Island, Sherkin, Baltimore, and the ring of hills that run down to the water.

Back in the vicinity of the rock we knocked on the door of a farmhouse to ask directions and permission. Often when we do this we are met with a blank look – not every ancient monument location has survived in the folk memory of the local residents. But this time we hit it lucky, with Florence O’Driscoll – ah yes, he knew it – the mass rock is what we were looking for. I showed him a picture of the rock and he confirmed that was the one, it was on his land and he would take us there.

Castlemehigan Rock

Castlemehigan Rock

My write-up and drawing of the time brought back some memories of an unusual rock with very large depressions, almost more basins than cupmarks. I also had a very clear recollection of being taken to the site by Bernard O’Regan, a local (and well-remembered) amateur archaeologist who was very helpful to me at the time. Because the rock was very overgrown, he had arranged to have it cleaned for me and when we arrived there were two men on top of the rock hacking away the gorse and heather. Nowadays, rock art specialists abide by an ethic of zero surface contact – no clearing or scrubbing allowed!

Castlemehigan rock surface

Castlemehigan rock surface

Although this rock lacks any of the circles, grooves and lines that add interest and appeal to many panels of rock art, it is special in other ways. Several of the cupmarks are unusually large, and one is basin-shaped (that is, with straight sides and a flat bottom).

Oriented to Mount Gabriel to the east

Mount Gabriel clearly visible

Some cupmarks appear to run in rows and the rows run in specific directions – one line of cupmarks run directly east/west pointing at the lake that lies about 100 meters away at the bottom of the field. Another line pointed to Mount Gabriel, about 15 kms away on the distant horizon. The two large basin-like depressions are directly north/south of each other.

row of cupmarks

Row of cupmarks

What could be a standing stone is located a few metres away.

Standing stone?

Standing stone?

In comparing my original drawing, done 42 years ago, there wasn’t much I would change. Some cupmarks appear to have pecked areas between them which conjoin them in a dumb-bell motif. My original decision was that there were two dumb-bells, but perhaps now I would be tempted to say there were three or even four. However, this just illustrates the subjective nature of the recording process. Especially where lichen obscures the surface, decisions like this come down to professional judgement and experience: drawings can differ from one recorder to another, or even from one visit to another when lighting conditions show up more or less of the carving detail.

Original drawing, updated by Robert

Original drawing, updated by Robert

Robert

This earthfast boulder is a beautiful object – not least because of its setting. I love these Mizen landscapes – they have a very particular character. Large areas of rock outcrop are interspersed with the tiniest fields, tracks and bog. Here there are lakes close by – once natural features, they have been turned into reservoirs to serve local communities. The marked rock overlooks one of these – this one supplying nearby Goleen.

Mount Gabriel clearly visible from the Derreennaclogh stones

Mount Gabriel clearly visible from the Derreennaclogh rock

This example reminds me in some ways of the Derreennaclogh rock – it’s of similar size and shape. Also, at Derreennaclogh Mount Gabriel is prominent on the western horizon, and we’ve been told that the setting sun towards the short end of the year appears to ‘roll’ down the slope of the hill at times. At Castlemehigan the rock also looks out to Mount Gabriel – this time to the east. This is a relatively isolated piece of rock art: the nearest recorded example is at Cooradarrigan, on the far side of Schull. It’s tempting to think that the flat, table-like surfaces of both Derreennaclogh and Castlemehigan were considered significant to those ancient people – who made them notable by marking them – because of their settings which relate to unmistakable landscape features. Otherwise, one might question why large areas of flat rock surface in the immediate vicinities – ideal for carving – have apparently been left untouched.

Florence and Finola

Florence and Finola

Florence O’Driscoll, our guide on this expedition, proved to be a fund of information. He had farmed the land which had been his father’s before him. Finola must have met his father when she explored the rocks over forty years ago. Florence carried the stories of the rock from his father’s generation, and probably from generations before that. He told us that the rock had been used as a mass rock in penal times – and that the hill above it was known as Cnocan an Aifreann (the hill of the mass): there is what certainly appears to be a cross carved into the rock surface, close to the large basin (Finola did not record this in her original drawing – she will add it when we update the records). Florence told of the time that the ‘Tans’ (the Black-and-Tans) caught red-handed the Priest celebrating the mass: the Priest threw the crucifix into the lake below the rock (the lake was then smaller than it is now). Ever since then, says Florence, the lake has never run dry – and never will.

Look for the possible cross carving on the right

Look for the possible cross carving on the right

It’s interesting that stories carried through local tradition pay no heed to time or history. They don’t need to: the ‘story’ is a part of the rock, as much as the carvings are. Florence told the tales as if they had happened yesterday. I hope they will continue to be told as long as the rock continues to display its enigmas.

Mass in penal times (Maggie Land Blanck Collection)

Mass in penal times (Maggie Land Blanck Collection)

Our Rock Art Exhibition!

A joint post by Robert and Finola…

Derrynablaha A2.PC9

For all of you who are fortunate enough to live within reach of our beautiful part of West Cork we are pleased to invite you to our exhibition, which is being shown as part of the Ballydehob Art and Culture Weekend, running from 17th to 19th October. The exhibition is being held in the West Cork Gourmet Store (go left at the statue of Danno and it’s just up on the right, behind the Post Office), and it will continue to run there during opening hours for the two weeks after the Art and Culture event.

Finola studied for her Archaeology degree at the University of Cork, and her thesis was written on the Rock Art of Cork and Kerry. For her research – in the early 1970s – she travelled across the two counties on a borrowed Honda 50, visiting every piece of Rock Art known at the time, and recording each piece using a tracing technique which would not be allowed today. The thesis is a unique and valuable archive of the rock carvings, which date back anything from three to five thousand years. We believe that this is the first time a comprehensive exhibition of Irish Rock Art has been shown.

knockdrum detail.PC9

Regular readers of Roaringwater Journal know that we are still working on Rock Art: Robert has recorded some more recently found examples using a ‘non-invasive’ technique, and we are involved with CRAG – the Cork Rock Art Group – under the aegis of the University, where our aim is to produce a website which lists and illustrates all known examples of Rock Art in the west of Ireland. Eventually the work may extend further afield: there are Rock Art sites elsewhere in the Republic. Similar carvings are found on the Atlantic coast, from Scandinavia down to Iberia.

Finola, Gary and companion study the Art

Finola, Gary and companion study the Art

On Saturday 18th October the exhibition will be formally opened at 4pm, and we will be giving a talk on the subject and on our adventures studying it. Some refreshments will be on hand: please come if you can!

Title poster.PC9

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