Mizen Magic 18: The Prehistoric Landscape of Arduslough

There are parts of West Cork that seem to hold within them all the memories and markers of eons. Such a place is Arduslough, on the high ground across from Crookhaven (below, map and photo) and west of Rock Island (above).

Technically, the places we explored are in three different townlands – Tooreen, Arduslough and Leenane, but mostly they fall within the boundaries of Arduslough. The name has been variously translated – Árd means high place and Lough means lake, both of which seem appropriate, but in fact the placename authority, Logainm, renders it as Árd na Saileach meaning High Place of the Sallies, or Willow Trees. Not much in the way of willows is obvious now, but the lake is certainly central to your view in the townland.

The Lake is the source of drinking water for Crookhaven and is the home, according to a story collected in the late 1930’s, of. . .

. . . an imprisoned demon of the pagan times. He is permitted to come to the surface every seven years on May morning and addresses St. Patrick, who is supposed to have banished him, in the following words “It is a long Monday, Patrick”. The demon does not speak in the English but in the vernacular. The long Monday refers to the day of General Judgement. Having expressed these words his chain is again tightened, and perforce he sinks to the bottom of the lake for another period of seven year His imprisonment will not expire till the last day.

We saw no sign of the demon and the lake looked remarkably untroubled, with its floating islands of water-lilies.

For a relatively small area, Arduslough abounds in archaeological monuments – there are four wedge tombs, three cupmarked stones, a standing stone and a piece described as either an Ogham Stone or Rock Scribings, depending on what you read. The remains of old cabins dot the landscape too, reminding us that this was a much more populous place before famine and emigration decimated the population.

The standing stone, and Robert with Jim and Ciarán O’Meara

Arduslough is the home of esteemed local historian Jim O’Meara, who grew  up in Goleen but spent most of his adult life teaching in Belfast. We met up with Jim and his son Ciarán, who very kindly offered to show us the Ogham stone. It was so well hidden under layers of brambles and bracken, and built into a field fence, we would never have found it on our own.

It is impossible to say if it is real, or even false Ogham, as it is heavily weathered and lichened, but if we turn again to the School’s Folklore Collection, we find this entertaining account of it:

There is a stone in Arduslough, a townland on the hill to the north of Crookhaven, on which are very old characters or ancient writing. It is very difficult to discern these markings now as the centuries during which they were exposed to the weather have obliterated them. The following story explains the origin of them.

In ancient times there lived in Toureen a man named Pilib. He informed on some party of Irish soldiers who were hiding in the heather there. The enemy came on them and burned the heather round them in which the soldiers perished. The stone was erected in this spot and the event was recorded on the stone. Years passed and the language underwent a change. In later years the people did not understand what was recorded on the stone, and went to the Parish priest asking him to interpret it. He translated it as follows – ‘that every sin will be forgiven but the sin of the informer Pilib an Fhraoich [Philip of the Heather].

We had previously located one of the three cup-marked stones, including a visit a couple of days earlier with Aoibheann Lambe of Rock Art Kerry (below). Ciarán thought he might be able to find another one, but extensive searching and bracken-bashing failed to turn it up.

The folklore collection is full of references to mass rocks, druid’s altars, and giant’s graves, as you would expect from the number of Bronze Age wedge tombs recorded in this area. (For more on Wedge Tombs, see my post Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths.) Two of them are situated on the slope above the lake (below) and we left them for another day. A third is hard to spot and indeed we didn’t.

We headed up to the high ground west of the lake to find the one that local people still call the Giant’s Grave. What a spectacular setting this is! First of all, you are now on a plateau with panoramic views in all directions. West lie the two peninsulas of Brow Head and Mizen Head and the boundless sea beyond.

This is heathland, covered in heather and Western Gorse – a colour combination that has the power to stop you in your tracks – and traversed by old stone walls.

From this colourful bed the stones of the Giant’s Grave arose, pillars silhouetted against the sky. It’s actually in the townland of Leenane, just outside the boundary of Arduslough. When Ruaidhrí de Valera and Seán Ó’Núalláin conducted their Megalithic Survey in the 1970s they commented that the tomb was ‘fairly well preserved’ and  ‘commands a broad outlook to the south and east across the sea to Cape Clear and Roaringwater Bay.’ They interpreted what was there as a wedge tomb, although with some uncommon features.

First of all, they said the tomb was ‘incorporated’ within an oval mound. While mounds are known for wedge tombs, they are unusual and most of the Cork examples, included excavated ones, show no trace of a mound. Stones sticking up here and there, protruding from the mound, they interpreted as cairn stones.

Secondly they noted two tall stones on the north side of the tomb – one is still standing and clearly visible (above and below) – whose function was ‘uncertain.’

Two tall stones at the south west end (above) seemed like an ‘entrance feature.’ Our own readings at the site indicated that the orientation was to the setting sun at the winter solstice, a highly significant direction to where the sun sets into the sea.

So – an unusual wedge tomb. Elsewhere in their report de Valera and Ó’Núalláin state repeatedly that a hilltop setting and a rounded mound are consistent with passage graves. However, at the time no passage grave had been identified this far south and they were thought to have a more northerly distribution. Since then, two have been identified in County Cork – one at the highest point on Cape Clear, which is visible from this site, and one in an inter-tidal zone between Ringarogy Island and the mainland. Perhaps it is worth considering whether, rather than a wedge tomb, this site may be a passage grave, like the one that Robert writes about this week in Off the M8 – Knockroe Passage Tomb or ‘Giant’s Grave’.

Whatever we label it, this Giant’s Grave is a spectacular site. It’s not hard to imagine, up there, that Neolithic and Bronze Age farmers were just as awe-stricken as we were with the magnificence of the surroundings. Tending their herds, they marked the seasons with the great movements of the sun and moon, and commemorated their dead with enduring stone monuments. More recently, people invested the landscape with myth and stories. Walking the hilltops, you know you are in the footsteps of all who went before.

Mount Corrin Walk

View from the cairn, Mount Corrin

View from the cairn, Mount Corrin

Walks that get you up to high places with panoramic views are terrific – especially when you don’t have to start at sea level! One such West Cork walk is Mount Corrin. Despite being on The Mizen, it’s part of the Sheep’s Head Walks system, which means it’s accessible and perfectly waymarked.

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The whole Mount Corrin loop walk is a 17km marathon and definitely not for the faint-hearted. But faint-hearted is exactly what we are, so we have chosen an option that can be easily accomplished on a pleasant afternoon – about a 5 km round trip. Some of these photographs are from a spring walk, and some from a fine autumn day.

From the trail - the Sheep's Head

From the trail – looking across at the Sheep’s Head

Wear good boots and bring a camera but leave the dog at home as no dogs are allowed on the Sheep’s Head Way. And if you do want to do the Big Walk, we highly recommend you pick up a copy of Walking the Sheep’s Head Way by Amanda Clarke. She and Peter have brought out a Second Edition that includes all the loop walks and they do a fabulous job of describing the whole route and provide wonderful photographs of what you can expect.

This curious little monument is right beside the parking spot

This curious little monument is right beside the parking spot

Our starting point is at a high point about half way between Durrus and Ballydehob. Drive out of Ballydehob via the road between Antonio’s Restaurant and Vincent Coghlan’s pub – that’s the Rathruane Road. About 3 km along this road you will come to a crossroads – turn right. Take the first turn left on that road and it will bring you up to the top of a hill. Once you cross over the top and start the descent on the other side you will see the waters of Dunmanus Bay ahead and to the left and a pull-out for parking on the right.

One of West Cork's most scenic parking spots

One of West Cork’s most scenic parking spots

This is your starting point – look back and you will see the way marked trail about 50ms back up the hill, running alongside a forestry plantation. It’s also your ending point: our walk will take you up to the summit and back.

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If you’re approaching from Durrus, take the R591 out of the village. Take the first turn left then the first right and follow the road to the summit. These are small country roads – be prepared to pull over or even reverse when you encounter other traffic.

Example of 'other traffic'

Example of ‘other traffic’

Once you set out, the first point of interest is what is described in the National Monuments inventory as a ‘megalithic structure’ and which looks likely to be a wedge tomb, although it is hard to be definitive about it. Whatever it is, it’s man made and intriguing.

A wedge tomb?

A wedge tomb?

You can see the cairn ahead – your destination.

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Before you get to it there is a row of standing stones. These ones are not marked on the NM inventory but it’s difficult to see what they could be other than a stone alignment. A final push now gets you to the cairn and to those panoramic views we mentioned.

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The first thing you’ll notice about the cairns (there are two of them) is the size of the large one and the scatter of stones all around them. The consensus seems to be that there has been a cairn on Mount Corrin since ancient times and that the current cairn, a more modern construction, sits on top of an older one.

The cairn on Mount Corrin is visible from this panel of rock art at Rathruane

The cairn on Mount Corrin is visible from this panel of rock art at Rathruane

We have certainly noted that the top of Mount Corrin, like the top of Mount Gabriel, is visible from several prehistoric sites and a cairn would have enhanced that visibility. The most persistent story about the cairn, though, links it to Lord Bandon.

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The Bernards, Earls of Bandon, are associated with Durrus, having laid out the town in the eighteenth century and having used Durrus Court as a summer residence. They had many interests in the area, including mining, and the always-interesting Durrus History blog gives us this information about Mount Corrin:

Mary Catherine Henrietta Bernard of Castle Bernard daughter of Lord Bandon married Colonel Aldworth on the 30th July 1863 and an address and copy of ‘God’s Holy Word’ was sent by Rev Freke and the tenantry of Durrus to which she returned thanks.  At Dreenlomane Mine (operating until c1920) owned by Lord Bandon, Captain Thomas set tar barrels alight on Mount Corrin which illuminated the sky all night and the 150 miners and their wives were treated to refreshments and similar celebrations were held in Carrigbui.

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The views from the cairn are stupendous, taking in the West Cork Peninsulas and the hinterland across to the Kerry mountains. Take a while to wander around the top – see if you can spot the collapsed walls of ancient hut sites.

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Making your way back, look down towards the farms on the northern slope of the mountain. You can still make out the unmistakeable signs of lazy beds, used to grow potatoes, and the ruins of houses abandoned long ago. It’s a poignant reminder that this land was once densely populated by people whose sole nutrition came from potatoes and who fled this area in the aftermath of the Great Famine.

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There now – that wasn’t gruelling at all, was it? And so rewarding. But still, a bit of effort required so you definitely deserve a coffee and cake at Budd’s, or a pint in Rosie’s. Tell them Roaringwater Journal sent you.

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Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths

Altar Wedge Tomb on The Mizen Peninsula

Altar Wedge Tomb on The Mizen Peninsula

In Ireland, the tradition of building megalithic (mega=large, lithos=stone) structures that included chambers to house the dead (such as the Boyne Valley Passage Grave complex, or the Court Tomb of Creevykeel) belongs to the Neolithic period, which ended around 2500 BC. About this time, a new style emerged of stone ‘galleries’, oriented towards the setting sun. Their distinctive shape – narrower and shorter at the eastern end – gives them their common name, wedge tombs. This tradition appears to have flourished for about 500 years.

Altar, side view

Altar, side view

In other areas of Ireland wedge tombs were often covered by a mound, but there is little evidence for this in West Cork. The closest parallel to wedge tombs outside of Ireland are in Brittany where allées couvertes date from this period. They are associated in some parts of Ireland (although once again not in West Cork) with Beaker pottery, a distinctive kind of vessel widely distributed across Western Europe. This was a time in which the population was expanding, farming practices were intensifying and a brand new technology was being introduced – it was the dawn of the Copper Age. Thus, we can speculate that wedge tombs mark the confluence of two forces: the new continental technologies of pottery and metalworking and the indigenous tradition of erecting megalithic chambered tombs.

Wedge tombs occur mostly in the western half of Ireland, including many in County Clare such as the Parknabinnia tomb pictured below.

 The largest wedge tomb in Ireland is near Fermoy, north of Cork City. It is typical of many Irish wedge tombs in featuring double walling, evidence of a surrounding cairn, and a sealed end chamber. Interestingly its name, Labbacallee, means the Hag’s Bed – the hag, or wise woman crops up frequently in Irish mythology.

In contrast to Labbacallee, wedge tombs in West Cork are generally smaller and simpler, comprising only one chamber and lacking a covering cairn. However, the distinctive wedge shape is preserved along with one other defining feature: wedge tombs are invariably oriented towards the setting sun. The funerary rite was that of cremation. Votive offerings of white quartz pebbles and small deposits of metal have been found in excavations.

Toormore wedge tomb,  now in someone's garden

Toormore wedge tomb, now in someone’s garden

Prof William O’Brien has excavated wedge tombs in West Cork and studied them, and the culture in which they were built, extensively. Here’s what he has to say, in his book, Iverni, about the society that produced them:

Whereas monuments like Newgrange could only have been built with a large organised input of labour over a long period, the building of wedge tombs was undertaken by small kin groups…This was a small scale society, comprised of local, clan-like groupings…The tomb was a type of shrine, sanctified by an association with ancestors and used for periodic offering and sacrifice to supernatural powers.

A striking aspect of Neolithic, Chalcolithic (Copper Age) and Bronze Age monuments in West Cork is their consistent orientation towards solar events such as sunrise and sunsets on the equinoxes, solstices and cross-quarter days (see our post on Bohonagh stone circle, for example). In this regard, wedge tombs are remarkably consistent in being oriented towards the West. Here’s O’Brien again:

Wedge tombs served as funnel-shaped openings to the Otherworld, facing the descending or setting sun to emphasise the symbolic dualism of light/life and darkness/death.

Toormore, side view

Toormore, side view

Looking for a wedge tomb closer to home, we set out yesterday to find the nearby Kilbronogue site, using the information from the National Monuments Service as a guide. We have found in the past that the mapping of sites is not always accurate and after an hour or two of tramping through a large and very muddy area with a helpful neighbour and his son we had to admit defeat – either the map was wrong, or the monument had disappeared in the recent fieldwork by a digger. Desperately hoping it was the former and not the latter, we found out who owned the land and went to call on him today. Stephen Lynch turned out to be a friendly, cheerful and very knowledgeable organic farmer – he assured us that the tomb would never be damaged in any way and not to worry, he would take us to it. Whew! Half an hour later we were trudging up a path that Stephen had had cut through his ash plantation – on we went and suddenly there it was in front of us – a classic wedge tomb, oriented to the west, built with large slabs that may have been cut from the rock face behind it.

Kilbronogue wedge tomb with its guardian, Stephen Lynch

Kilbronogue wedge tomb with its guardian, Stephen Lynch

Stephen told us the tomb had been used as a mass rock in penal times and that the Protestant farmers who owned all the farms that bordered on the rock had cooperated in allowing the masses to take place – an indication, Stephen said, of the long tradition of friendship between Catholic and Protestant farming families in this area. As with the Altar wedge tomb, also used as a mass rock, we marvelled at how a sacred site, built at least four thousand years ago, would retain its aura of veneration over the millennia, to be used again for religious purposes in the historic period.

Kilbronogue, side view

Kilbronogue, side view

Perhaps the most spectacularly situated wedge tomb we have been to is high on a hill overlooking Bantry. This one is known as Queen Medb’s Tomb and from it there are expansive views of the Beara, Sheep’s Head and Mizen Peninsulas. Climb up to it on a clear day, as the sun is sinking into the sea: in the presence of such awe-inspiring scenery you will find yourself contemplating how the mysteries and the wonders of Irish history and prehistory are written on its landscape.

Queen Medb's Tomb

Queen Medb’s Tomb

A Little Adventure

Arderrawiddy a Portal Tomb

Aderrawinny – a Portal Tomb

The landscape of West Cork is so densely populated with archaeology and historical sites that it will be a lifetime’s work to visit every one. Whenever the sun shines – and often when it doesn’t – we are out exploring. A great resource for us is the Archaeological Survey Database, set up by the National Monuments Service of Ireland. This lists and describes every site in the Republic which has been recorded to date – and it is expanding all the time. I have to say that the way it works in practice is slightly clumsy: you have to know which County and which Townland you are searching in, but once you have got your head around it it is fairly straightforward to locate a record. One of the really good things about it is that you can see the position of each record laid over the modern Ordnance Survey mapping of Ireland, or historic 6″ and 25″ maps – and even over satellite views of the terrain: all this makes locating the sites relatively easy, although it doesn’t help overcome bogs, barbed wire fences and seemingly impenetrable undergrowth.

Prehistoric Landscape West of Schull

Prehistoric Landscape West of Schull

We have been researching Megalithic tombs, and there are many of these on the Mizen Peninsula. On Sunday last we compiled a list from the Survey Database, donned our boots, filled up our flasks and went out to tackle the wild unknown…

View from Arderrawiddy

View from Aderrawinny

Our first stop was in the townland of Aderrawinny – a Portal Tomb. The site is shown north of the Schull to Goleen road, up in a rocky hillside. In spite of having looked carefully at the maps it wasn’t easy to locate precisely, but I find you begin to get an instinct about these things and we headed off expectantly across boggy land and through painful patches of gorse and bramble, pausing frequently to examine every outcrop for undiscovered Rock Art. Eventually our travails were rewarded when we crested a low ridge and found ourselves looking down on a lonely construction created perhaps 5,000 years ago. It’s a humbling experience to think of the history which has befallen our ancestors during those millennia: through it all this little monument to humanity has survived with little change, eternally pointing its entrance to the movements of the sun and having always in its sight the distant blue waters of Toormore Bay. The landscape, also, has changed so little, apart from the minor interventions of agriculture. This is what makes the west of Ireland such a special place – for me, at least.

5,000 year old Monument

5,000 year old Monument

We travelled on, passing by the well known and well signposted Altar Tomb, a Wedge Tomb which is constructed so that the setting sun around Samhain (November) is aligned with a holy peak at the far end of the Mizen.

Altar Wedge Tomb: Sacred Orientation

Altar Wedge Tomb: Sacred Orientation

We found another Wedge Tomb near Goleen: this has been ‘domesticated’ because somebody’s garden is built around it: it has to share its presence with chicken runs and a wheelbarrow.

Back Yard Wedge Tomb

Back Yard Wedge Tomb

Lastly, we searched out another type of tomb: a Boulder Burial. This lies almost drowned in a salt marsh near Dunmanus. Since the time of its construction water levels are reckoned to have risen by up to two metres. It reposes like some great amphibian reptile on a watery bed, as dramatic in its own way as any of the other Megaliths.

Drowning Monument: Boulder Burial at Dunmanus

Drowning Monument: Boulder Burial at Dunmanus

These hillsides, mountains and monuments will outlive humankind. Interesting to ponder whether something we have created in our own lifetime could still be around and – for all we know – still performing its original function in 5,000 years’ time…