Local Heroes: Ballycommane Gardens – and Bronze Age Site!

This week we were privileged to meet with Andy Stieglitz and Ingolf Jungmann at their home, Ballycommane House, between Durrus and Bantry. We’d been once before, several years ago, when we had met Andy, then busily engaged in renovating one of the sheds. Now the house has been extended and modernised, along with various outbuildings. Andy and Ingolf, both retired and living here full time, are running the house as a bed and breakfast, with an adjacent self-catering cottage, and have opened their garden to the public.

I don’t know the names of most of these flowers, although the one above is from one of their heritage-variety fruit trees

They have taken a few acres of scrubland and pasture – and turned it into a little piece of paradise! Both keen gardeners, they have been working now for fifteen years to develop their arboretum and lay out different areas of the garden connected by meandering paths. Here and there open spaces invite you to lounge and simply take in the sights and the scents.

This Gunnera is, thankfully, the non-invasive variety

Or you can keep strolling and discovering. They specialise in plants from the Azores, where they like to winter, and have discovered that many Azorean species flourish in this mild climate. Of course they have had to learn to deal with the wind, as parts of the site are quite exposed, and with the unpredictable Irish climate.

But Andy and Ingolf value all plants and also celebrate the humble wildflowers that are my special interest. Ingolf has learned to propagate the wild primroses and the colourful borders he has created are a joy.

Wild Primroses are generally pale yellow, but pink varieties also occur. Ingolf tells me the pink ones are a little harder to propagate 

Wild spurges mix with the Azorean ones – the Euphorbia genus is one of the largest and most variable on earth, and while we know it mainly from our wild Spurge varieties they can range from tiny to huge and from colourful (Poinsettias!) to shades of green.

A native Euphorbia (top) is flourishing while below an Azorean import looks very comfortable also. Note the tiny native spurge that has sprung up underneath it – a study in contrasts

Now in March, the garden hasn’t quite come into its own yet. Nevertheless, there is plenty to see and surprising hits of colour here and there. Wherever you look, the eye is caught.

Above: We decided it was an Azorean daisy. Below: I think it’s Green Alkanet, a garden escape that has naturalised widely in Ireland

Ballycommane House is part of the marvellous West Cork Garden Trail and is open from March to October. Andy and Ingolf love to welcome visitors so plan a trip to see this treasure. And when you do, there’s a surprise in store – Ballycommane is also home to a Bronze Age Boulder Burial and Standing Stone Pair!

Andy (left), Ingolf and I contemplate the boulder burial

Regular readers of this blog will know that Robert and I worry about loss of and damage to our ancient monuments due to neglect, lack of knowledge, and occasional wilfulness. That’s why I am calling this post Local Heroes because Andy and Ingolf, quite apart from the enormous work involved in developing their house and garden, have embraced the challenge of celebrating and safeguarding these monuments for all of us.

The Boulder Burial is a large erratic of quartz. Quartz was highly prized in prehistory and was used in various ways. Not surprising, given how it gleams and sparkles in the sun. This one is visible from across the valley

Today was the official unveiling of their Visitor Centre – a converted piggery now in use to display a set of explanatory posters developed by Prof Billy O’Brien and Nick Hogan of UCC. Billy has excavated this site and two other Boulder Burial sites and is more responsible than any other researcher for what we know about the age and possible functions of Boulder Burials. You can read my posts, Boulder Burials: a Misnamed Monument? and Standing Stone Pairs: A Visit to Foherlagh for more about these kinds of monuments.

The standing stone pair is of the local slatey sandstone, chosen to be flat on top – no doubt this served some kind of purpose

Billy was there to do the honours and to give us a talk on the site. When he excavated here in 1989 it rained, he told us, every day of the dig. Although no carbon-datable material turned up he was confident in assigning a mid-to-late Bronze Age date – it’s about 3,000 years old.

Cutting the ribbon to officially open the Visitor Centre

He asked us (there was quite a crowd!) to consider the setting of the boulder burial and standing stone pair in the landscape, and spoke about their use to memorialise high-status individuals and to mark locations from which sunrises and sunsets might be observed at solstices and equinoxes.

Unfortunately tree plantings have obscured the view from the boulder burial, but this is what it looks like. You can see all the way down the Sheep’s Head to Seefin Mountain

Ballycommane is a very special place indeed and we are very fortunate that Andy and Ingolf are committed to being good stewards of the prehistory they have inherited. Thank you, Andy and Ingolf – and for that yummy cake too!

 

 

Standing Stone Pairs: A Visit to Foherlagh

An unexpected delight – a trip on a Sunny October afternoon to visit a very fine standing stone pair in Foherlagh, just north of Kilcoe Church and School on the M71, between Skibbereen and Ballydehob.

The trip was suggested by Amanda who was, of course, looking for a holy well, said to be associated with a mass rock. All of these – the standing stone pair, the holy well and the mass rock – were grouped in one place so we had to undertake this expedition! Thus we found ourselves knocking on the door of the genial farmer, Dennis Minihane, who donned wellies right away and took us up the hill behind his house.

The view from the top of the hill

We had no idea what would greet us, but as we ascended it dawned on us that the views were pretty spectacular. The standing stone pair came into view, and it was obvious they were enormous. When we reached the top we were greeting by a complete 360 degree panorama – south to the islands of Roaringwater Bay, west to Mount Gabriel, east to Baltimore and north to the hinterland. Kilcoe Castle glowed gently in the foreground, while far away we recognised the distinctive pyramid shape of the Mizen peak at the end of the Peninsula.

Looking toward the end of the Mizen Peninsula

Standing stone rows and pairs are a phenomenon of south west Ireland, and this part of West Cork has many examples. While there are about seventy rows of three to five stones (such as the Fingers at Garranes near Castletownsend, or the Maughnasilly row), there are over a hundred stone pairs, of which Foherlagh is a particularly fine example. Invariably their long axis (that is, standing at one end  and looking along the row or pair) is oriented northeast/southwest. Typically the stones are graded in height, with the taller stone (or tallest, in the case of a stone row) at the southwest end.

Garranes stone row, known as The Fingers, near Castletownshend

Sometimes stone pairs are associated with other monuments. We’ve visited, for example, the Kealkill complex, where a stone pair is associated with a five-stone circle and a radial cairn. There’s also the Coolcoulaghta pair, from which the Dunbeacon stone circle is clearly visible.

Upper: The Kealkill complex of monuments; Lower: the Coolcoulaghta standing stone pair (and the most unsympathetically situated electricity pole in Ireland) from which the Dunbeacon stone circle (now sadly coralled by a wooden fence) can be seen

In Foherlagh, however, there are no other prehistoric monuments apart from a single standing stone a few fields away. What there is, is a pointed outcrop which local tradition has identified as a mass rock – see our post Were You at the Rock? for more on this type of monument. The mass rock had a scoop-out in it that may have functioned as a wart well. Amanda was pleased to find this and no doubt will do her usual thorough write-up on Holy Wells of Cork.

The standing stone pair is clearly oriented northeast/southwest. Depending on where you stand, the axis may point to the Mizen Peak (as does the Altar Wedge Tomb further down the Peninsula) or to Mount Gabriel (as do most of the examples of rock art we have examined in this region). Wherever the line points, it is clear that the expansive views are to the south west.

In his examination of stone rows and pairs*, Seán Ó’Nualláin says “The stone rows and pairs then, like the stone circles, are built so that their long axes indicate a general alignment on the sector of the heavens in which the sun roses and sets, and both series tend to group in a position indicating a winter rather than a summer position for the sun.” He might have added that this is also true for the sector in which the moon rises and sets – Maughnasilly row, for example is associated with lunar, rather than solar, orientations.

Maughnasilly stone row on a dramatic day

Ó’Nualláin, based on excavated examples and clear associations, gives a likely Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age date for stone pairs and rows. That would mean they were erected 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Jack Robert’s‘ drawing of the Foherlagh pair, from Exploring West Cork

But what was their function? Perhaps they were yet another element of the calendrical systems that seem to have been a vital part of this early agricultural society. They may also have been used as territory or routeway markers, or as memorial stones for individuals. Some archaeologists have suggested an anthropomorphic element, in that some pairs may represent male and female figures. The pair at Foherlagh were certainly chosen to be very different in shape, although I am left wondering which –  the tall more rounded one or the shorter very square one – might be the more female or masculine figure.

Thank you to Amanda and Peter for suggesting the expedition, Carol for providing the oohs and aahs of a first-time visitor to Ireland, and Dennis for so generously sharing his land and his stories with us.

Amanda and Carol provide scale

Seán Ó’Nualláin, Stone Rows of the South of Ireland, in Proceedings of the Royal Irish AcademyVol. 88C (1988), pp. 179-256. Available on jstor.org