Off the M8 – The Great Dolmen of Kernanstown

Our ‘Off the M8‘ series is intended to make your journeys across Ireland far more interesting! We travel between Cork and Dublin fairly regularly and, each time, we determine to search out something new. It may be an aspect of medieval history, architecture, stained glass or – as in today’s example – archaeology.

How far you want to stray from the ease and directness of the motorway in your explorations is entirely up to you. This diversion will add about forty minutes to your journey: you will leave the M8 at Junction 3, head across to Carlow on the R430, and then, after Carlow, meet the M9 at Junction 4 and continue up to Dublin. You’ll have to take a little diversion east out of Carlow on to the Hacketstown Road (R726) to find today’s destination: the largest prehistoric portal tomb in Europe, and perhaps in the world!

Robert stands at the east face of the megalithic structure: the orientation suggests a relationship to the rising sun, possibly at significant calendrical events

It’s known variously as the Brownshill Portal Tomb, or the Kernanstown Dolmen (Kernanstown is the name of the Townland, and the word ‘Dolmen’ was formerly used to describe megalithic structures which consist of a large stone slab resting on smaller boulders). The Irish National Monuments Service, in its listing of the Archaeological Survey of Ireland, has set out to regularise the names given to various structures. It does not recognise the once widely-used terms ‘Dolmen’ or ‘Cromlech’, but defines a variety of ‘Megalithic Tomb’ structures, of which the Portal Tomb is one:

. . . A single, short chamber formed by two tall portal-stones, two sidestones and a backstone. Sometimes a stone between the portals closes the entry. The chamber is covered by a roofstone, often of enormous size, which slopes down from the front towards the rear. Cremation was the preferred burial rite and these date to the Neolithic from 3800 to 3200 BC . . .

Finola is giving scale to the portal tomb in the header picture, where the two ‘portal stones’ and central ‘gate stone’ support the east side of the capstone: these features are common to these structures across Ireland, Britain and Europe. Above – the back (west face) of the capstone: Finola is standing at the southern tip

Historically, ‘Dolmen’ was the most common term for these archaeological structures. William Copeland Borlase (1848 – 1899) wrote a lengthy treatise in three volumes on The Dolmens of Ireland, their Distribution, Structural Characteristics, and Affinities in Other Countries; together with the folk-lore attaching to them and traditions of the Irish people published in 1897. In it, he describes the Brownshill / Kernanstown structure thus:

In the Barony of Carlow, in the Townland of Kernanstown, and Parish of Urghin, two miles E. of Carlow, to the N. of Browne’s Hill, or Browneshill House, also called Mount Browne, are three dolmens. The largest of the three is marked Cromlech in Ord. Surv. Map No. 7.

There are three dolmens on this hill. One is of enormous proportions, the two others are smaller. The former has been described by Ryan, Ledwich, and G. Du Noyer. Of one of the latter there is a drawing and plan in Miss Stokes’s collection of drawings of dolmens. The remaining one is situated a distance of 50 yards to the N. of the latter.

The great dolmen stands in the centre of a large flat field in permanent pasture, and has no trace of a bank or cairn near it. It consists of a splendid block of granite, the longer axis of which is N. and S., raised at an angle of 35 degrees to the horizon, upon four blocks, three of which, pillar-like, support the E. side, at a height of 6 feet above the floor, while one sustains its lower and W. side, at a height of only about 2 feet above ground.

The following are my measurements of the block thus elevated into position: Superficial measurement from N.E. to S.W., 23½ feet; ditto from N.W. to S.E., 22 feet; girth 65 feet; thickness at W. side, 6 feet; at S. side, 5 feet; at E. side, 6 feet; and at N. side, 4 feet.

. . . it is, I believe, the largest block raised from the ground by the dolmen-builders which is known, not only in the British isles, but on the continent of Europe

Two picture postcards of the ‘Brown’s Hill Dolmen’ probably dating from the late 19th or early 20th century

Today, there is only one portal tomb visible at Brownshill, although the National Monuments listing confirms that there were three in the area at one time. I was intrigued to find this engraving:

There is no ‘Brownstown’ in County Carlow, so it is likely that this engraving (above) is another version of ‘Brownshill’. It’s hard to see in this the portal tomb we have been describing, so it is possible it is an image of one of the other ‘lost’ dolmens. There is no further information attached to this illustration.

The two illustrations above show how the portal tomb is today enclosed and made accessible by means of a fenced pathway leading from the road to the east of the structure. This setting is not ideal: the impressive nature of the huge capstone is visually diminished by the fencing – although the provision of good disabled access to the monument is highly commendable. The massive granite stone has been estimated to weigh up to 160 tons, and we can only wonder at the methods used to lift it some 5,000 years ago. Here is an imaginative view (dating from the nineteenth century) of a megalithic tomb being built:

Celtomania is an expression which has been used by some antiquarians to describe the use of megalithic structures by ‘Druids’ and ancient races for ritual purposes. This fanciful scene by Edward King (above) shows ancient warriors, sickle-wielding and harp-playing druids, oak trees and standing stones – and a ‘dolmen’. It is taken from a 1969 book on megalithic structures in Brittany which I purchased in my travels there in the 1970s: Carnac ou les mésaventures de la narration by Denis Roche.

The ‘chamber’ of the Brownshill monument is visible when viewed from the south (top photo, above). This structure has never been excavated so we cannot say for sure that it was used to deposit human remains or cremations; in tombs elsewhere, excavations have revealed such a use in some, but not all. It has been suggested that all such structures were fully or partly covered in earth or stone, as implied in the example from Brittany below:

The structure at Brownshill, County Carlow must surely be one of the wonders of the megalithic world. It’s hard not to think that the sheer immensity of the raised capstone would require it to be seen so that the labour involved in its construction is appreciated. These stone edifices were the earliest architecture in the world of our settled ancestors, and the first examples of engineering prowess: one of the reasons for their existence must have been the demonstration of power and knowledge.

Above – a dolmen in Brittany (where they are still known by that name!) demonstrating a reversal of the principles of construction at Brownshill. In the Irish example, the huge capstone is supported by comparatively slender uprights; in France the capstone, although also substantial and heavy, sits on very large portal stones. The result is visually impressive in a different way.

Here in Ireland there are many more examples of portal tombs waiting to be visited and reported on: they are on our list.

Labbacallee

rookery

My strongest memory of our visit to Labacallee wedge tomb, Co Cork, earlier this summer was the rookery above it. Our presence seemed to make this multitude of large black birds restless: there was a constant movement over our heads – a mixing up of flapping feathers, wind in the still bare branches and screeching protests. These are the unpaid guardians of this monument, apparently the largest of its kind in Ireland, with a long documented history and a wealth of folklore.

labbacallee view

Labacallee today: it must once have been an impressive and dominant feature on an open landscape. Now it has been closed in by fields, trees and a byroad running north out of Fermoy. In the foreground is a cairn, possibly made in relatively modern times from material excavated from the monument

Finola has written about wedge tombs. She calls them The Last of the Megaliths: court-tombs, portal-tombs and passage-tombs are slightly earlier constructions, built before c2000 BC, while wedge tombs date from some 500 years after this. According to the Archaeological Inventory of County Cork Volume 1 (Stationery Office Dublin 1992) …The more numerous and widespread wedge-tombs are relatively small and simple constructions, so called because of an increase in height and width from the chamber rear to the entrance front. They generally face in a south-westerly direction, an orientation they share with stone circles and stone rows…

labbacalle back end

The east facing – and narrower – end of the wedge tomb

Labacallee is enormous, especially if you are only familiar with examples such as Altar, west of Goleen (itself sizeable) or our own more domesticated version at Kilbronogue, a neighbouring townland:

kilbronogue-wedge-tomb

A more ‘human scale’ wedge tomb at Kilbronogue, West Cork: many thanks to Stephen Lynch, a near neighbour, for looking after this example and allowing us access

Labbacallee – the name seems to be from the Irish Leaba Caillighe – ‘the bed of the witch’ – measures some 14 metres by 8 metres overall. It has a series of upright stone ‘walls’ supporting three capstones. The largest of these measures 5 metres by 2.5 metres and is a metre in thickness: it must weigh at least 10 tons. These stones house three ‘chamber’ enclosures.

tomb plan

Plan of Labbacallee wedge tomb drawn following the excavation by H G Leask and Liam Price in 1934, from Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Volume 43

The tomb has been recognised as an important site in British and Irish archaeology over a long period. English antiquary John Aubrey, who lived from 1626 to 1697 (and who was incidentally described as “Shiftless, roving and magotie-headed…”) is recognised as one of the first serious recorders of historic sites. He was also a keen collector of folklore and, like me, felt that the stories that local people told about the monuments around them were valuable insights into perceived history.

John Aubrey and a drawing of Labbacalle  he published in 1693. While you can see in the drawing the principle of a chamber constructed of upright stones and roofed with large slabs, there is very little resemblance in the drawing to the structure itself (which was anyway in a ruinous state in Aubrey’s lifetime). It has been suggested that Aubrey obtained the sketch – or a verbal description of the tomb – from a Mr Gethyng who lived close by it
A drawing from the1897 work The Dolmens of Ireland, their Distribution, Structural Characteristics, and Affinities in Other Countries; together with the folk-lore attaching to them and traditions of the Irish people by William Copeland Borlase 1848 -1899. This Cornish antiquary and politician spent part of his life in Ireland so it is likely that he did visit the tomb. Certainly the drawing is more true to life than Aubrey’s. After what has been described as ‘high living’ Borlase died in disgrace, having been involved in scandal and bankruptcy
Artistic interpretations of a subject: views of Labbacallee dating from 1827 (top), 1844 (below left) and 1845 (below right by George Wilkinson)

The first full scientific examination and excavation of the tomb was carried out in 1934 under the supervision of H G Leask, using workers paid one guinea per week as part of a government unemployment relief plan. According to the excavation report, at this time the smallest chamber was filled to the top with rubble, including earth, stones, ash and the bones of animals and humans. When these were cleared a skeleton of a woman was exposed, together with a bone pin which might have fastened a garment or shroud. The woman’s skull was missing but later found upright (as though on display?) in the large main chamber. One of the leg bones of the skeleton was deformed: this led to the speculation that her handicap may have set her apart in life, giving her a status that was either feared or revered: she might have been ‘marked out as a witch’.

labercalle excavators

Leask’s excavation team in 1934 (top) and (left) his drawing of the headless skeleton as found; (right) the separated skull of the ‘witch’

I am fascinated that ‘folk’ or oral traditions survive through generations, centuries and even millennia. In the case of Labbacallee, we know that the name existed back in Aubrey’s time – over three hundred years ago – and was undoubtedly well established by then. Could it be that the name – ‘bed of the witch (or hag)’ – was the persisting memory of the interment of an important person, perhaps a priestess or shaman, from very ancient times?

hag's bed

The Hag’s Bed – the main chamber in the monument, where the skull was found

While the excavators were exploring Labbacallee they found evidence to suggest that the tomb (or part of it) had been an occupied dwelling at some point during its history. The notion that some historic and prehistoric monuments were (or are still) the dwelling places of the Old Ones, or The Other Crowd – supernatural beings possibly descended from ancient invaders of Ireland – or had in fact been used in some way by practitioners of magic – is not unknown. Borlase’s 1897 work on The Dolmens of Ireland… included this illustration (albeit from the Netherlands) of ‘A ‘White Woman’ (wise woman or witch?) prophesying from a dolmen-mound’. It’s not a big leap to the idea of a witch being buried in a wedge tomb.

whiteWoman borlase

Legends specific to a ‘hag’ of Labbacallee suggest that she was married to a druid, Mogh Ruith, who ‘had an eye’ for the hag’s sister. In a fit of jealously the hag chased the druid towards the River Funchion. He reached the water and started to cross it: the hag threw an enormous boulder which struck the druid, toppling him and pinning him down under the water. As far as we know, he’s there to this day!

labbacallee stones

Stories in stone: Labbacallee landscape

Another story specific to Labbacallee also involves a drowning – and a warning! This version is from theirishplace.com:

…Whatever the provenance and history of the remains found in the Labbacallee Wedge Tomb, there is no doubt that it is a site around which legends abound. One of the most pervasive legends tells that one day, very long ago, four local men went to the tomb in the middle of the night, with the aim of digging for the treasure that they had heard was buried there. As they started to dig, it is said that an enchanted cat appeared, fire bursting from its tail, terrifying the men, who were dazzled by the light emitting from it. Panicking, they ran screaming from the scene, and in the ensuing panic one fell into the nearby river (Funchion) and drowned. The remaining men lived to tell the tale, and their experience stood as a stark warning to others that they should never, under any circumstances, disturb the resting place of the long dead at this most mysterious of megalithic sites…

labbacallee shadows