Antiquities of the Mealagh Valley

The Mealagh Valley (locals pronounce it Maylock) runs from Bantry Bay to the Maughanaclea (Maw-na-clay) hills and through this valley the Mealagh River flows from north east to south west. Along the valley are found numerous ancient monuments, evidence of occupation from the earliest times. David Myler, some years ago, with support from other local people, undertook to survey all the archaeological sites in the area and the result was this book. Sorry – it’s out of print and we are glad we managed to pick up a copy several years ago.

David and I have been in virtual touch for quite a while through social media, promising to meet up and explore when we got a chance – and that finally happened on Friday! Along the way we discovered family connections, so it was no wonder I felt an instant kinship when we met – we bonded over archaeology and shared family stories. David, a Dubliner originally, has been living here for decades and in that time has taken courses in archaeology and developed a passion for the heritage of this – his territory.

It was a joy to be taken on a field trip by the man who has, literally, written the book about the archaeology of the Mealagh Valley. It’s only the first of many, I hope, since we really only got to sample a few of the sites this time – although, as you will see, the places he took us were pretty spectacular!

David had secured all the permissions we needed to visit the sites on private land. We started out in the townland of Ardrah (Árd Rath – high fort) with a ring fort (above) commanding panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. A ring fort (also called a rath, lios, dún, or cashel if made of stone) was the dwelling of a high-status individual in early medieval Ireland and examples like this probably date to 500 AD to 1,000 AD. The banks had traces of stone here and there so may well have been faced with stone, and the interior had been levelled.

There would have been a house and perhaps other buildings inside, and a wooden pallisade fence on top of the surrounding bank. There’s a good summary of what we know about ring forts in this engaging website about Irish mythology – I especially enjoy the writer’s comments on the use of ‘fairy fort’ to describe these structures. 

From there we climbed a couple of fences – the first of several fence-climbing incidents during the day and thanks to David for sacrificing his jacket to save us from the barbed wire – and trekked uphill. The monument started to reveal itself as we got higher – at first I thought it was a standing stone.

No – a stone pair?

What, there’s more?

This is the Ardrah stone row, consisting of fours stones aligned ENE/WSW, a common alignment for stone pairs and rows. Take a quick trip over to Standing Stone Pairs: A Visit to Foherlagh for more about this kind of monument. You will see that this one is pretty typical – it has an orientation to the south west, consists of stones that could be interpreted as ‘male’ and ‘female’ and the stones rise in height towards the SW. The southernmost stone is enormous – Robert is providing the scale.

But wait, I hear you say – I see five stones, not four! And you are right. there are five stones, whereas originally there had been only four, and all the records state that this row consists of four stones. The photograph in David’s book, which dates to 1998, clearly shows four.

So – where did the fifth, and smallest, stone come from? It’s a head-scratcher and all we can do is point to the presence of the nearby fairy fort and speculate that the Other Crowd are messing with us.

And then it was on to the piece of prehistory that David discovered in the course of his survey. I should explain here that much of what the Mealagh Valley group was documenting was already known, since the whole county had been surveyed in the 1980s. But what the County Survey lists and what a local group like this looks at, will differ – for example, this group was interested in folklore and local stories about the monuments they visited and about items of interest beyond the remit of the county survey. Moreover, because they are local themselves, they are likely to be contacted if anyone spots an unusual rock or such like, and can be on the spot to examine new ‘finds’. Finally, a project like this generates appreciation and pride in, and a sense of ownership of, one’s heritage, and thus, hopefully, less likelihood of monuments being damaged.

David had been alerted by a farmer to a ‘funny pile of stones’ on the boundaries of the townlands of Ardrah and Gortnacowly (Gort na Camhlaigh – field of the ruins), an area that had been impacted by forestry activity. It’s quite high up and the views are immense. As we walked up, it sent shivers down our spines as David related how he hunted around for what had been described to him, almost giving up, and finally stumbling upon the mangled remains of what he instantly recognised as a Bronze Age wedge tomb.

A digger clearing out a drainage ditch had inflicted damage but most of the stones were still lying around. One side of the tomb, and the back stone, were in situ. That’s probably the capstone, or one of them, on the other side of the fence.

As an archaeologist, it’s actually quite rare in Ireland to discover a previously unrecorded monument – having done so once or twice I know what a thrill it is. David’s wedge tomb is a classic of its type – see my post Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths for more about them. That’s David above, showing us how to make sense of the stones, both those in situ and those which have been disturbed. He was able to ascertain that the workings in the area had turned up quartz pebbles – a feature of several West Cork wedge tombs.

This one was, as expected, oriented towards the setting sun – but that doesn’t begin to describe the incredible sweep of the view from this point – the whole of Bantry Bay lay before us, with the Beara on one side and Sheep’s Head on the other.

Our final visit of the day was to a type of monument I had never seen before – a ‘Four Poster’. That’s it, above, and note that there is a distant view of the sea, ten kilometres away, from it.

Only five four posters have been recorded in Ireland, one in Wexford, one in Kerry and the other four in West Cork. Here’s what the National Monuments site has to say about them: An arrangement of four upright stones standing at the corners of an irregular quadrilateral. The stones are usually graded in height with the tallest stone at either the south-west or north-east corner. Their closest counterparts are to be found in northern England and Scotland. These monuments are closely related to stone circles in date and function though they are much less numerous. These are dated to the Bronze Age (c. 2400-500 BC).

There are, in fact, only three stones remaining here. The largest stone is massive and of course there are all kind of alignment possibilities with arrangements like this. The closest counterpart to these four posters are to be found in Northern England and Scotland. There have been no excavations at four posters in Ireland but those few which have been dug in Britain yielded a Bronze Age range of dates.

We saw some other things along the way – a booley (above), a hedge school, a mass rock – and Robert wants to write in the future about one particular site, so I won’t deal with it here. The day was cold and crisp – but you hardly notice little things like freezing hands with a landscape like this to wander around in.

What a great day! Thank you, David, for being our tour guide and friend and we look forward to returning the favour soon.

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