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.

Back to The Bealick

Yesterday we went back to the Bealick – back to the valley of Cooleenlemane that so entranced Robert and me that both of us wrote about the experience last year. I concentrated on the Bealick (pronounced Bay-lick) – the ‘caves’ containing ancient rock scribings and my post was called Witches’ Marks and Lovelorn Shepherds: Inscribed Rock Art in a Remote Valley. Robert wrote about the valley itself, through geological and historical time in his post, Cooleenlemane – A Walk Into History. What more could we have to say about this impossibly beautiful place? Lots, it turns out.

The red house at the bottom right marks our starting off point. In the distance is Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island

We took the walk in the company of our favourite travelling companions, Peter (of the Hikelines Blog) and Amanda (Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry). We had been missing them badly as they had been in New Zealand when the pandemic struck, unable to get home for six months. It felt really good to be out and about with them again.

Amanda fords one of the many streams (it was a wet walk!) and Peter points out some of the scribings in the Bealick

Apart from the jaw-dropping scenery and the sheer pleasure of a hike into a relatively untouched valley, this time I found myself drawn to the evidence of occupation over time, starting in the Bronze Age. At the entrance to the valley and right beside a ford across the river stands what is described in the National Monuments inventory as a ‘Megalithic Structure. . .the exact nature of which is unknown.”

It’s in the middle of a small clearing, with a Hawthorn tree growing out of it – altogether a magical sight. It could be what remains of a wedge tomb – see my post Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths to learn more about this type of monument. 

I wondered how ancient the ford might be. For most of the length of the Cooleenlemane River as it runs down the valley it is easy to cross with the help of a stone or two, but in this spot it widens. Although no longer in use now, this type of crossing place is often of considerable antiquity – indeed one of the most common place names in Ireland contain the word áth (pronounced awe) which means ‘ford.’

Leaving the megalith, we followed the course of the stream up the valley, mostly trying to select higher and slightly dryer ground, and trying not to get too distracted by the oh-so-photographical scenery all around us. Ruins of small stone cottages dotted the landscape, and a tiny cart track runs the length of the valley almost to the Bealick.

The National Monuments inventory also lists a cashel, two enclosures, and two hut sites in the valley. We passed the Cashel half way between Furze Hill and the Bealick, although we actually obtained the best views of it from the Priests Leap Road afterwards.

The upper photograph shows Furze Hill, the dark patch on the left, and the Bealick just above the bend in the river. The cashel is half way between them. The lower photograph is a closer look at the cashel

Cashels are ring forts made of stone rather than earthen banks. They are considered to be the farmhouse enclosures of high-status individuals (you can see an exceptionally good example at Knockdrum – see Robert’s post Knockdrum Stone Fort to understand how they functioned). This one is clear but very ruined, circular in plan, about 17m across.

It probably dates either to the late Iron Age or the Early Medieval Period – anywhere in the first millennium AD. Like other cashels, it has clear sight-lines down the valley and was built to be visible and a statement of status and power.

We didn’t hike up to the enclosures or hut sites further up the valley – a walk for another day. I think Peter (above) is already plotting his course up there. The most southerly of the enclosures sounds interesting, with an entrance marked by upright stones and a levelled interior. There is no way of knowing how old these are, of course, but taken with the megalithic structure and the cashel, they do indicate that this valley has been lived in and worked for thousands of years. 

And then there’s the Bealick itself – the three ‘caves’ formed by massive rocks leaning against each other, two of which contain the rock scribings. In the way of such unique places they become special features of the landscape and take on a mantle of history. In this case, the Bealick was a Mass Rock, a home, a sheep-shelter, and a mysterious repository of enigmatic markings. 

On our walk yesterday we became aware that we were not the only ones in the valley. Along came Mary, with four very well-behaved dogs, on the look-out, she told us, for her brother’s cattle.

From the top: a field enclosed with stone walls runs up the steep slope; lazy beds in an old field; a ruined cottage surrounded by tiny haggards (a haggard is a small enclosure beside a house)

She explained that the land was commonage and that it hadn’t been lived in, in living memory – probably abandoned not long after the Famine, she thought. She pointed out locations of what she called ‘cowlocks’ or small homestead here and there, with their associated potato patches recognisable by the lazy bed ridges still visible in the small fields. She told us the prominent knoll we had passed was called Furze Hill. 

She pointed to a cliff above the Bealick (both images above) and named it as `Carrignasprogue’. A direct transliteration from Irish, this is Carraig na Spioróg, or Rock of the Sparrowhawks. It’s a particularly dangerous place for sheep, she said, as they tend to get trapped at the bottom of the sheer part and have to be rescued. Every field, every bend on the river and every prominent rock would have had its own name, enabling those who lived in the valley to know exactly what part was being referred to. 

Nowadays, several families share the valley, grazing sheep and cattle in it and for the most part leaving them to their own devices. The grazing has kept the valley relatively clear – we saw little evidence of overgrowth of gorse or bracken and none of the rhododendron invasions that plague the Killarney National Park not so far away. One hesitates to use the word pristine nowadays, but the sense I have is of a remote place that hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. Long may it remain so.

We drove home a circuitous route, up over the Priests Leap Road into Kerry and back over the Caha Pass into Cork. We were delighted to find Molly Gallivan’s open and serving tea and scones. There’s a tiny cottage attached, reconstructed in the style of the traditional Irish farmhouse and I was especially struck by this bedroom – it could have been in one of those tiny Cowlocks we passed by in the valley earlier.

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…