West Cork Obscura – Finola’s Picks

The popular Atlas Obscura defines itself as the definitive guide to off-the-beaten-track and little known wondrous places. So we’ve captured that idea and, as our Christmas present to our readers, bring you our own carefully-curated, slightly eccentric, Roaringwater Journal Guide to West Cork’s Hidden Wonders. Robert’s selection is here. No well-know tourist spots for these posts! No car parks and visitor centres! You may need wellies for some, a good map for others, and, although all are accessible, some may require permission.Each place I recommend will link to a blog post with more information. As an example, Sailor’s Hill, just outside Schull (above) is an easy walk and look what you get at the top! 

This is the view from Brow Head, looking back towards Crookhaven, and Mount Gabriel in the distance. Brow Head is much less visited than Mizen Head, but just as spectacular

I’m going to start with some archaeology and a couple of spectacular sites. The first is the Kealkill Stone Circle – but this isn’t just a stone circle, it’s a complex of monuments that includes a five-stone circle, a radial cairn (very rare in this part of the world) and two enormous standing stones. The views are immense in every direction, and the site is easy to find.

We all know about Drombeg – and we love it when the sun goes down at the midwinter solstice, and even when it doesn’t. But fewer people know about another stone circle, equally spectacular, with a spring equinox orientation. It’s called Bohonagh and it’s quite a complex. First of all, there’s a boulder burial, with quartz support stones and cupmarks on the boulder. Then there’s a cupmarked stone, partly hidden in the brambles between the boulder burial and the stone circle. Finally, there’s the circle itself, almost complete, with views in all directions.

Equinox sunset at Bohonagh

We were lucky to have a session there one equinox, and another one with Ken Williams of Shadows and Stone. For access, park just off the main road, across from the salmon coloured house 4.5km east of Rosscarbery and walk up the farm road to the barns and from there to the top of the hill. This is a working farm – please close all gates and be respectful of animals!

Maughnasilly Stone Row broods on the hilltop

A stone row to round out the archaeology sites – this one is at Maughnasilly and I chose it because it’s been excavated, so there’s an informative sign, access is easy and it’s a beautiful, atmospheric site, overlooking a small lake. The row has been calculated to have both lunar and solar alignments.

And from the ground…

A couple of churches now, beginning with the Church of Ireland Church of the Ascension in Timoleague. This is one of those places that is dripping with unexpected stories. As soon as you go through the door your jaw will drop – the whole church, floor to ceiling, is covered in mosaic, partly paid for by an Indian Maharajah. Read the story here and here – and look carefully at the stained glass windows, some of them are among the oldest stained glass we have in Ireland. The key used to be at the grocery store on the main street, but I’m not sure where it is now, so you may have to ask around. Let us know if you find out.

The interior of the church, and one of the beautiful Clayton and Bell windows

You may wonder at my next choice – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea – but the modernist church in Drimoleague is the work of Frank Murphy, the architect hailed as Cork’s ‘Unsung Hero of Modernism’.

I love the spare minimalist space, very rare in West Cork, but it’s the stained glass windows that drew my attention. It’s not that they are particularly beautiful or skilfully done: they’re by the Harry Clarke Studios long after Harry himself had died. It’s that they fascinate me as a social document – they are, in fact, a prescription for how to live your life as an Irish Catholic in the 1950s. As such, they will resonate with anyone of my vintage. Research by the brilliant young scholar, Richard Butler, has revealed that the design was practically dictated by Archbishop Lucey, still a name to invoke an image of the all-powerful churchman of the 20th century.

And a final church, but this one strictly for the windows. (No – not St Barrahanes in Castletownsend for the Harry Clarkes – everyone knows about them already, and this is a selection of lesser-known wonders.) Do NOT go through Eyeries, on the Beara Peninsula, without stepping into the little church of St Kentigern. Here is where we were first introduced to the work of the stained glass artist, George Walsh.

The Annunciation and Nativity window

When Robert wrote his original post, we couldn’t find out much information on George Walsh, but now he has become a friend and I have written about his work for the next issue of the Irish Arts Review (due out in March, 2019) and spent many happy hours photographing his windows and his artwork around Ireland. It’s bold, graphic, modern and incredibly colourful, and the windows in Eyeries, along with the religious themes, tell the story of Ireland and the Beara through time.

Some places to visit now for a good walk or a swim. First, one of my favourite walks is to hike up to Brow Head, at the end of the Mizen Peninsula (you can drive up too, but pray you don’t meet a tractor coming down) and then walk out to the end of the Head (see the second photo on the post for the view from the top of the road). Stop first to explore the ruins of the old Marconi Station – there’s also a Napoleonic-era  signal station and a WW2 Lookout Post. Then wander through the heather and the low-growing gorse until you get to the part where the sea is crashing below, with vertiginous drops off either side. I will leave it to you how far you go from there!

Brow Head showing the signal station and Marconi station silhouetted against the evening sky

Although Barley Cove is well known, Mizen locals love Ballyrisode Beach for a swim or a lounge in the sun. White sand, sheltered bays, and water warmed by running over the shallow bay. The final little beach holds a secret – a Bronze Age Fulacht Fia or Water-Boiling Site, that Robert and I recorded for National Monuments this summer. It was an exciting find, hiding in plain sight. The beach has an association with pirates too!

Ballyrisode Beach – yes, the water really is this colour. The three sided rectangular stone thing is the fulacht fia

The final choice for a walk is Queen Maev’s tomb, a short hike up from Vaughan’s Pass car park, up behind Bantry. For this photograph I am indebted to Peter Clarke, of the wonderful Hikelines blog. He and Amanda (with whom we have explored SO many holy wells)  were our companions that day. When you reach the top there is a small wedge-tomb, but this is one place where the journey is the real story, with the Mizen, the Sheep’s Head and the Beara all spread out before you.

Photograph © Peter Clarke

I leave you with a detail from the George Walsh windows in Eyeries, together with the poem the scene is based on, Pangur Bán, written in the 9th century by an Irish  monk labouring away in a scriptorium in Europe. Here is the poem read, at a memorial service for Seamus Heaney, first in the original Old Irish and then in Heaney’s translation.

Merry Christmas from us! If you live here, get out and about this year to some of our picks, and if you don’t, come see us soon!

Drombeg Solstice Celebration

Setting

At sunset on the winter solstice the sun sets over the recumbent stone at Drombeg Stone Circle, near Glandore in West Cork. That is – if you stand looking between the two portal stones, you will see the sun set in a notch in the opposite hill and over the recumbent stone which is diametrically across from the two portal stones.

approaching 2 RH

For a full explanation of what I’m talking about here and for more about how and why stone circles were constructed, see our post Ancient Calendars. And take a look at Shadows and Stone in Action for our record of the same phenomenon, except at the autumn equinox, down the road at Bohonagh Stone Circle.

Watching

This solstice was the first opportunity Robert and I had to see the Drombeg phenomenon and what an evening we had for it – clear skies and a glowing sun. What’s lovely about this every year is that local people turn out to witness the solstice sunset at a stone circle designed by Bronze Age people perhaps three or four thousand years ago and still functioning the same way millennia later. It’s our West Cork Newgrange.

Meaden 2

Terrence Meaden (above) was there – a physicist and archaeologist, he’s been researching and writing about the calendrical aspects of Drombeg for several years now. Tirelessly visiting at all times of the year, his research compellingly illustrates how the builders planned the placement of the stones to maximise shadow-casting at the eight cardinal points of the calendar – solstices, equinoxes and cross-quarter days. While I don’t agree with a couple of his conclusions, he has done us all a service by encouraging us to look afresh at a monument we thought we knew.

Drummers

There was a lovely, community feeling to the hour we spent at Drombeg. People kept arriving and greeting one another in a sociable way. Kids ran around, a couple of drummers kept up a steady beat, and a group was holding a meditative circle that including some harmonious humming.

Final Moment

Anticipation mounted as the sun sank lower, there was a final good natured jockeying for position to get the best shots, and a collective sigh as the sun finally disappeared into the cleft.

Last Rays

It felt good to be part of something that West Cork people have been coming together to celebrate for thousands of years.

Family-Friendly Archaeology

Dramatic Skies over Maughanasilly Stone Row

Dramatic Skies over Maughanasilly Stone Row

West Cork is crammed with prehistoric monuments but many are not really accessible for all family members because of the terrain. Others are on private land where the landowner is reluctant to grant permission, or where frisky bullocks make traversing a field a bit risky. So we’ve done some homework on easy-to-reach sites and planned a route for you in which you can have a) a Grand Day Out and b) a tour through some of the best West Cork Bronze Age sites and one Medieval Castle.

The Kealkill complex: one of the sites you'll visit today

The Kealkill complex: one of the sites you’ll visit today

Load the kids and Grandma into the car, stick Discovery Map 85 in your pocket (or use the one we’ve provided in this post), wear boots or wellies, and off you go! By the way, we strongly advise leaving the dog at home when on a field trip like this. If you must bring him, please keep him on a leash, since you will be on private farmland at each site except Carriganass.

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Oh – and the frisky cattle? Keep an eye out – they weren’t around when we did our reconnaisance but you never know when that can change. These two photos are by Amanda Clarke, used with permission.

Kealkill Monuments

Our starting point is Ballylicky – here’s your opportunity to pick up a picnic at the marvellous Manning’s Emporium. And if you like your day today, consider signing up for one of their Culture Kitchen tours – an innovative mix of history, prehistory and artisan food that will lead you still further into the prehistoric (and culinary) hinterland of West Cork.

Mill Little Group of Munuments

Mill Little Group of Monuments

1. Mill Little Complex

From Ballylicky, head west along the scenic seaside road towards Glengarriff for a couple of kilometres and take the first turn right at Snave. You’ll be following the Coomhola Rive as it tumbles down between high hills. Once you’ve crossed Snave Bridge continue for about a km, take the second left and then immediately right. One km on, take a left and then the next right. Park along here and the Mill Little complex is in a field on the left.

Stone Pair

Stone Pair

This is a complicated site, comprising a stone pair (don’t be confused by the other stones around the pair, which have been piled here), three boulder burials, and a small five-stone circle. All these monuments probably date from around the same time – the Bronze Age, about three to four thousand years ago. A particular feature of West Cork archaeology is that boulder burials, standing stones (single, in pairs, or in rows) and stone circles are often found together. Stone circles and stone rows are oriented towards significant solar events, such as the rising solstice sun or the setting sun at an equinox. At a site like this, it is possible that all the features formed a large observational arena, with the stone row, boulder burial and stone circle providing multiple alignment possibilities and marking both solar and lunar events.

Boulder burial showing support stones. Five-stone circle in the background

Boulder burial showing support stones. Five-stone circle in the background

The boulder burial nearest the stone circle is the most classic in appearance – a large glacial erratic sitting on top of three support stones. Excavations at boulder burials in West Cork, however, haven’t really yielded evidence of actual burials – perhaps the term is a misnomer!

Three boulder burials at Mill Little

Three boulder burials at Mill Little

2. Carriganass Castle

Retrace your steps back towards Ballylicky and take the road to Kealkill – or try an overland route using the map. At Kealkill take the left fork signposted to Gougane Barra and you will see Carriganass Castle almost right away.

Carriganass Castle

Carriganass is an excellent example of the medieval tower house – take a look at this post for more about these structures in West Cork. There’s easy parking around the back and lots of explanatory signs around the castle. This is a good place for a picnic, or you can wait until after you’ve been to Maughanasilly, since you will come back this way. If it’s a hot day (don’t laugh – it can happen!) the kids will enjoy a dip in the river here. There are also some looped walks starting from here – mark them for a future expore.

3. Maughanasilly Stone Row

Continue past the back of the castle. At the first junction take the left fork and continue until you see a small lake on your left. Shortly after you will come to a cross roads. Turn right and park – the stone row is in the field on your right.

Maughanasilly Stone row. Note the row forms a slight arc

Maughanasilly Stone row. Note the row forms a slight arc

This is a good example of a multiple stone row and occupies a very dramatic setting on a knoll overlooking the lake. Note that, instead of being straight, the stones form a slight arc. This is deliberate, as is the placement of the stone lying flat on the ground. According to one expert, this stone “is placed so that anyone walking up to it and standing with toes touching its edge is looking straight at the equinox.” This stone row also appears to have been an important one for lunar observations. It takes the moon over 18 years to complete its cycle and from this site observations of the lunar maximums (the most extreme northerly and southerly moonrises) were likely made.

The stone row with recumbent stone

The stone row with recumbent stone

Ponder on the sophistication of our Bronze-Age ancestors: much of the knowledge they built up so that they could keep track of time and seasons had to be re-learned by later people.

Maughanasilly Stone row  - a lunar observatory?

Maughanasilly Stone row – a lunar observatory?

4. Kealkill Stone Circle

Back you go to Carriganass (picnic now, if you haven’t done so already) and on to the village of Kealkill – a pretty and well-kept village (and home to a famous St Patrick’s Day parade). The stone circle is signposted from the village – just follow the steep and winding road that runs up from the church. After a sharp bend to the right, take the first left turn. There’s enough room to park at a small pull-out. The walk across the field to the circle is invariably muddy and squelchy so make sure to wear your boots here.

Kealkill standing stone pair, stone circle and radial cairn

Kealkill standing stone pair, stone circle and radial cairn

This is yet another complicated site. There is a standing stone pair, a five-stone circle and a radial cairn. But perhaps the first thing you will notice is the spectacular view. From this spot you can see all the way down the spine of both the Sheep’s Head and the Beara Peninsula to the South-West, and across the valley to the Shehy Range to the North and East.

From the Kealkill Site

From the Kealkill Site

One of the stone pair is over 4m high. But it’s broken – and may originally have stood over 6m high.  Imagine the difficulty of erecting this!

The first thing you notice - that standing stone!

The first thing you notice – that standing stone!

The radial cairn is a mysterious monument – nobody is quite sure of its function – and relatively rare. Once again, these cairns are often found in conjunction with other monuments – stone alignments or stone circles. This one was excavated, but nothing conclusive was found to help determine its function. Note the small upright projecting stones that look like the face of a clock among the cairn stones.

Kealkill radial cairn

Kealkill radial cairn

5. Breeny More Stone Circle and Boulder Burials

This is just a little way up from the Kealkill circle and on the other side of the road. We haven’t had time to visit it properly yet, so my photograph was taken from near the road. There’s a multiple stone circle here, with four boulder burials within it. There’s not much left of the stone circle, but the portal stones and recumbent remain, so the alignment can be discerned. The boulder burials are laid out in square formation in the centre – a very unusual occurrence, since boulder burials are normally outside the circle. The site is on a natural ridge, with similar spectacular views to the Kealkill Stone Circle. One writer has speculated that if trees were removed it would be possible to see the tall standing stone at Kealkill from this site.

Breeny More complex from the road

Breeny More complex from the road

We hope you enjoy your day! Let us know how you got on.

Equinox at Bohonagh

Sunset over the recumbent, Spring Equinox 2014

Sunset over the recumbent, Spring Equinox 2014

We don’t normally post midweek, so this is a special edition, coming to you courtesy of the spring equinox. In my post Ancient Calendars, I explained about the orientation of the stone circles of West Cork. Bohonagh, just outside Rosscarbery, is oriented east-west. On the spring equinox, if you stand behind the recumbent, you will see the sun rise between the portal stones. If you stand behind the portal stones you will see the sun set behind the recumbent.

Around here, there is no guarantee that sunrise or sunset will be visible, due to the variable weather conditions, so you have to watch the forecast carefully. This week, sunshine was forecast only for Tuesday the 18th, so that is the day these photographs were taken. Curiously, this is also the day, according to my calendar, when sunset and sunrise divide the day into two equal halves. The official equinox, however, happens today: March 20th 2014.

Equinoctial sky

Equinoctial sky

The top photograph shows the moment when the sun set across the valley, sinking down directly above the recumbent as seen from between the portal stones. The second photo is taken from further down the hill, after the sun had disappeared. Silhouetted are the stone circle, especially the tall portal stones, and to the left, the boulder burial. Finally, I have included an image showing the east-west oriention.

east-west orientation

east-west orientation

We felt very privileged to be witnessing this event, thousands of years after the builders had planned it. With us earler in the day were Amanda and Peter, and you can see Amanda’s description of the site here.