Ireland: Sunday, July 28, 2013
This last Saturday, July 27th I took the early morning bus to Kinvara to meet Anne Korff for a field excursion. The tide was in which made the view during the bus ride more beautiful than usual. Because of my interest in the history of the Burren and its field monuments Anne suggested we go to a particular place called Cragballyconal which is located south of the peak of Aillwee Mountain.
Anne and her Jack Russell, Buddi, were waiting for me when I arrived at the Kinvara bus stop. It was very clear that Buddi was extremely excited about the day’s excursion. Anne drove us south from Kinvara past Corcomroe and Turlough Hill until we came to a place where it would be difficult and unwise to proceed by car. Anne parked her car off to the side of the road and we continued on by foot.
In order to get to Cragballyconal we proceeded to walk up several steep inclines, which I’m not accustom to. Anne was very kind and patience with me when I needed to stop to catch my breath. Anne used each short resting time as an opportunity to give me a lesson about the landscape and its history. I made certain to document our climbing progress by photographing the landscape behind us at each stop.
Soon we were past the uphill part of our walk and onto somewhat level terrain. The sun felt warm and the air clean and fresh with a wonderful soft fragrance of many various wildflowers. We pcontinied our walk on a narrow one lane dirt road – the first monument we came across was the Poulaphuca Wedge Tomb. Anne told me that “phuca” can be translated as “ghost”.
“Most of the tombs in the Burren, over 90% of them, are classified as Wedge Tombs. This is the commonest type of Irish megalithic monument widely distributed in the south-west, west and north of the country, and the Burren group is the densest concentration known. These tombs are so named because they have a wedge-shaped ground plan, that is, they are usually narrower (and lower) towards the rear, eastern end.”
Feehan, John, et el. The Book Of The Burren. Newtownlynch Kinvara Co. Clare, Ireland: Tir Eolas, 1991. (Page 63)
“None of the Burren wedge tombs have been excavated and, therefore, many questions about their date and their builders remain unanswered. Evidence, mainly from the north of Ireland, shows that some of these tomb builders had a knowledge of copper working and the use of these monuments continued well into the early Bronze Age, overlapping with the new burial practices of that period. The time span for wedge tombs as a class (and not necessarily the Burren series) could be a millenium or more, extending from c. 3000 to 2000 B.C.”
Feehan, John, et el. The Book Of The Burren. Newtownlynch Kinvara Co. Clare, Ireland: Tir Eolas, 1991. (Page 64)
In a previous blog posting I mentioned that Anne Korff is known through her work with Tir Eolas (knowledge of the land) a publishing company she founded in 1987. Her illustrations of the archaeology of the Burren and its history led to the publication of a series of guides and maps and the publishing of the book “The Book of the Burren“. This day’s field excursion was to an area that appeared on her map “The Burren: A Ramblers Guide & Map, Ballyvaughan“.
After our visit to Poulaphuca we walked on until we came to a deserted farm house. In a field on our left Anne noticed a ringfort that she did not remember –she suggested that we investigate. There was a gated narrow farm road that led up to the ringfort that we assumed was made by the farmer who owned the land. Anne climbed over the metal gate while she explained to me that you should always climb over these gates near where the gates are hinged and never where that gates are latched. I followed her lead and climbed over the gate and Buddi managed to climb between the gate’s metal horizontal bars. We then walked the farm road up to the ringfort for a closer view.
This ringfort was a dry-stone ringfort and a portion of a second surrounding wall could be seen when standing in its interior. Anne explained that when this ringfort was inhabited the stone walls were much higher and there would have been enclosures in its interior for use as the family’s dwelling place and to shelter their animals. Anne’s “The Burren: A Ramblers Guide & Map, Ballyvaughan says this about ringforts:
“The evidence of Celtic habitation in the Burren is found in the literally hundreds of ring-forts in the area. The term “ringfort” is used as a general name for a protected enclosure where a farmer and his family lived where he may also have kept his domestic animals. Typically a ring-fort consists of a circular enclosure, surrounded either by a dry-stone wall or earthen banks and ditches, possibly surmounted by a timber palisade. Depending on rank and status, a ring-fort might be surrounded by several banks and ditches. A causeway interrupts the banks and provides a way into the enclosure, the entrance being secured by a gate. Within the enclosure there might be one or more buildings, for dwelling purposes and protection of livestock. The great majority of ring-forts in the Burren are constructed from stone, although earthen ring-forts are also much in evidence.”
After exploring the ringfort we found a place nearby to sit and eat a bit and quench our thirst. During our little rest Anne explained that these ringforts were inhabited during the Early Historic Period.
“From the archaeological excavations conducted in the Burren and elsewhere, it appears that the majority of these enclosures [ringforts] were build and occupied within what we know as the Early Historic Period (A.D. 400-1200) in Ireland.”
Feehan, John, et el. The Book Of The Burren. Newtownlynch Kinvara Co. Clare, Ireland: Tir Eolas, 1991. (Page 81)
After our respite we climbed back over the gate and continued on our excursion. We soon came upon a farm road on our right that Anne thought would lead us to a shrine with an ancient stone cross that was marked on her map. Ten years had past since Anne’s last visit to this area. We could see a house before us on this road that may have been built since her last visit –it was clearly inhabited. As we were walking a vehicle past us on the road which stopped and left off a young boy with a shopping bag at this house and then quickly continued on the road. As the vehicle passed us I waved at the driver who did not return the wave. I mentioned this to Anne and wondered if our exploration was not welcomed.
We came upon another inhabited house and saw someone driving a tractor –we continued on somewhat expecting to be approached and asked to leave. Anne recognized an area over a stone wall and climbed over, I helped Buddi over and Anne gave me a hand in my effort to get over the wall. Once over the wall we saw that about 15 feet ahead of us was the shrine we were seeking. Above it was a roughly formed cross.
Anne recalled that the last time she visited this shrine there had been articles placed within the shrine. This made me recall the items I have seen within the little altar enclosure at the Well of the Holy Cross (Tobar na Croiche Naofa) at Gleninagh northwest of Ballyvaughan. There I have found a statue of the Virgin Mary, a small portrait of Christ, a burnt candle, rosary beads, prayer cards, and some picked wildflowers. Anne is under the opinion that currently such “offerings” are no longer left by local people but are only being left by tourists that have read about the historical customs of these places. Ever the starry eyed romantic – I secretly wish that she is in error.
Anne pointed out a bullaun stone filled with rain water located in the corner of the interior of the shrine. I have read many a hypothesis regarding the use of bullaun stones but because there is no written history about them no one really knows their purpose. Many such stones have been found on Christian sites and I have seen a very large bullaun stone in the graveyard surrounding the ruins of Rathborney Church (which is located at the southwest foot of Cappanawalla Mountain). Because Rathborney Church was built on the site of an ancient ringfort it’s bullaun stone may predate the church itself.
By this time Anne and I had put on our rain jackets because the wind had picked up a bit and there was a chill in the air. We climbed over another stone wall in order to get into the next field to find a dry stone structure known as a Shepherds Shelter. Anne explained that since ancient times shepherds took shelter in these structures from rain and other bad weather. Fate was on our side that afternoon, for we happened to be in this field standing next to this structure when the sky opened up and a hard rain began to fall. We both climbed in and Buddi followed us in. I wish now that I had taken a photograph of the three of us huddle within this Shepherds Shelter. I stayed quite dry for about 4 minutes and then the rain that had accumulated in tiny puddles on the limestone above me started overflowing and dripping down on me. We laughed because I was having my second shower of the day. I put my hood of my rain jacket over my head. My pants got a bit wet but I knew they would dry off soon enough when the sun came out. It seem that in less than 10 minutes the shower was over and we climbed out of our shelter and continued our exploration of the landscape.
The sun soon came out, we removed our rain jackets and my pants started their process of drying. Over the adjacent stone wall we saw a skylark flying against the wind and could hear the cattle lowing in the distance. The limestone pavement in this field took on its most characteristic feature of being broken up by parallel vertical cracks or joints.
“The most striking aspect of the Burren landscape is the way it is sculpted into flat, bare terraces, criss-crossed by joints, each terrace abruptly separated from the next by a cliff, so that the whole landscape looks like a fantastic , series of stairs, the steps of which you can sometimes follow for miles is you want.”
Feehan, John, et el. The Book Of The Burren. Newtownlynch Kinvara Co. Clare, Ireland: Tir Eolas, 1991. (Page 15)
“These joints are important for many reasons, most obviously because weathering of the rock is concentrated on the joints, which widen out to give the characteristic grykes of the Burren . . .”
Feehan, John, et el. The Book Of The Burren. Newtownlynch Kinvara Co. Clare, Ireland: Tir Eolas, 1991. (Page 16)
Over the next stone wall, but before the cliff edge, Anne spotted something in which she was very interested. She saw a group of mounds that were clearly made by the ancient inhabitants of this landscape. We climbed over the wall to get a closer look. There appeared to be at least three mounds grouped here and Anne suggested that they made be cairns – she also found evidence of a possible fulachta fiadh [fullokth feeah].
“There are a number of prehistoric burial mounds in the Burren. The large round cairns on the summit of Turlough Hill and on Slievecarran are two of the most prominent and striking sites, but there are many smaller examples as well. Dates in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age are probable, but some round mounds with enclosing circular banks could be even later.”
Feehan, John, et el. The Book Of The Burren. Newtownlynch Kinvara Co. Clare, Ireland: Tir Eolas, 1991. (Page 64)
“One of the most characteristic Bronze Age monuments known today was not recognized as such until recently. “Fulacht Fiadh” [fullokth feeah] is the term used to describe a low, usually horseshoe-shaped mound of burnt stones with a pit or trough at the center. Pits were normally dug a the water table so that they would fill naturally with water and avoid leakage. Occasional, however, they seem to have been dug near streams and may have been filled manually. The term was used originally in ninth-century Irish literature to describe open-air cooking places used by roving bands of warriors known as “fianna” [feeanna]. A “fulacht is a cooking place an a “fiadh” may refer to these warrior bands, the deer cooked in the pits or simply the wilderness in which these cooking places are often found. In any event, it is unfortunate that the term has been used to describe this type of monument as the cooking places of “fianna” referred to in the literature post-date by up to 2,000 years the mounds now known as “Fulacht Fiadh””. Archaeologists today tend to use the neutral term “burnt mound” to describe this monuments, and there may be as many as 45,000 in the country. It is by no means certain that they were cooking places, although experiment has demonstrated that large joints of meat can successfully be boiled in the pits. They may have been used as “sweathouses”, for bathing, for dyeing cloth, in the preparation of leather, or simple some other function that has been obscured with the passage of time.”
Carthy, Hugh. Burren Archaeology: A Tour Guide. West Link Park, Doughcloyne Wilton, Co. Cork, Ireland: The Collins Press, 2011. (Pages 13-14)
MORE TO COME . . .