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Megalith Hunting in Ireland

February 25, 2020

By Monica Barnes, a HARN administrator and the lead editor of Andean Past.

I thought I had exhausted my husband’s patience several years ago during a trip to Wiltshire. Let’s just say that he doesn’t share my enthusiasm for prehistoric monuments and artifacts. So when he volunteered to go megalith hunting with me in Ireland I was surprised and pleased and immediately booked two round trip Newark to Dublin airline tickets.

When we were fledgling archaeologists, the Ordnance Survey of Britain guided our lives. In those days before GPS and Google Earth, we treasured our expensive and awkward paper maps. The large-scale editions gave us a great deal of local detail, even indicating individual buildings, fields, and tracks. Now these are available online and are still a great resource as we struggle with our awkward and even more expensive tablets, laptops, or phones.

On the Emerald Isle, the Ordnance Survey of Ireland and the Archaeological Survey of Ireland are amazing cartographic projects. Begun in 1829, by 1842 the Ordnance Survey had produced one of the first detailed maps of an entire country. This was just before the Great Famine/Hunger hit, and the year that English novelist, journalist, and illustrator William Makepeace Thackeray made his coach tour there, the basis of his Irish Sketch Book. At the time, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, so until the formation of the Republic of Ireland in 1922, the survey of Ireland was part of the survey of Britain and followed the same conventions. Since 1922, work has been carried on independently. After almost two hundred years of sustained effort and developing technology, there is both considerable historical depth and contemporary usefulness. Results are available free of charge on a platform called GeoHive. In addition, an interactive map of Archaeological Survey of Ireland data can be found at: http://webgis.archaeology.ie/historicenvironment/.

For even more information on specific sites, we turned to a print source, Ireland: An Oxford Archaeological Guide by Andy Halpin and Conor Newman. Divided by regions, this book lists and describes important sites, some accessible to visitors, some not. It includes many plans taken from published reports. While useful, follow-up is not made easy. Illustrations are credited as being after Leask, Bradley, Cotter, etc., but there is otherwise no indication of source (date, publication). Although there is a page and a bit of further reading suggestions, surely we could have had a full bibliography in a 556 page book not intended for package tourists.

Armed with these sources of information, plus GPS and two laptops for internet consultations, we set out confidently in September 2019. We intended to drive a circuit around Ireland over the course of two weeks, visiting as many Neolithic and Bronze Age sites as possible, noting how they were presented to the public. It was my first trip, but my husband had been to southwestern Ireland several times as a student. Decades ago I worked in British archaeology, which I knew was somewhat similar to that of Ireland (but with the addition of Roman remains). We both retain vivid memories of a course on the archaeology of Britain that we took at the Institute of Archaeology in London. Irish sites and research were often mentioned for comparative purposes. My husband went on to specialize in the archaeology of Western Asia, and I concentrated on Andean archaeology. We therefore had some preparation for our Ireland trip, but not much.

After recovering from our transatlantic flight in a Dublin airport hotel we set out for Newgrange early on a Sunday morning. Guidebooks warned that tickets should be booked at least three months in advance. Having a few years ago successfully accomplished the similar long-range planning necessary to visit Stonehenge, I would have booked New Grange early last summer–but on-line advanced bookings are temporarily unavailable. The only option at present is to turn up and hope for the best. This we decided to do. The first obstacle was to find the parking lot where admissions are sold. It is across the River Boyne from the site and not well signposted. By the time we figured this out it was obvious that hundreds of people had arrived before us and we would not be seeing Newgrange that day (Figures 1 and 2). Why the confusion? Newgrange, along with its sister sites Knowth and Dowth, is currently being incorporated into an archaeological park, the first in Ireland. During this transition period there is a certain amount of chaos. As there is no visitor center open, we would have had to supply most of our own context. At present we have the worst of mass tourism with restricted admission, but without the facilities that such tourism demands. Things have changed a lot since Michael O’Kelly was excavating Newgrange in the 1960s and he simply gave the key to Knowth to one of our colleagues, telling him to just walk over there and see the interior for himself.

Figure 1. New Grange symbol on bus

Figure 1: Newgrange Symbol on a Bus

 

Figure 2. New Grange symbol on bottle

Figure 2: Newgrange Symbol on a Water Bottle

 

The following day, sticking to our schedule, we drove west to Donegal where we consoled ourselves walking around Donegal Castle in the rain (Figure 3) and shopping for tweeds. The Castle is partly a stabilized ruin and partly reconstructed, a good compromise, I think. (Figure 4) Medieval ruins, it turns out, are a lot easier to find than prehistoric ones. From there it was Galway. Not having yet bagged any Megaliths, we thought we could at least see a few prehistoric artifacts. That brought us to the Galway City Museum where there are small displays of worked stone and local pottery. Figure 3. Donegal Castle exterior

Figure 3: Donegal Castle Exterior

 

Figure 4. Donegal Castle interior

Figure 4: Donegal Castle Interior

 

Next stop: Kenmare. Once known for its exquisite lace designed by nuns and worked by local girls and wome, Kenmare is also the site of a stone circle. This one is accessible and easy to find, being right on the edge of town. (Figure 5). It is a Bronze Age circle of 15 stones, a sort of mini-Stonehenge, one of 15 stone circles in County Kerry and 41 in County Cork, or so various tourist brochures relate. In Ireland such circles always consist of an odd number of stones, varying from 5 to 19. These reduce in height from the two portal or entrance stones to a low axial or recumbent stone opposite the portal.

Kenmare Stone Circle center stone resized

Figure 5: Kenmare Stone Circle

 

The monument at Kenmare really should be known as the Kenmare Stone Oval, as it is egg-shaped, but such a designation has little resonance. Probably there was an astronomical alignment. In the center is a boulder burial, that is, a large stone resting on a few smaller ones, perhaps marking a grave (Figure 6).

Figure 6 Sign Kenmare)

Figure 6: Kenmare Sign

 

This monument is on private land. The family who maintain it have recently built an entrance kiosk and request 2 Euros per person to help with landscaping costs. Although some online commentators have criticized this tidiness, I find it rather sweet to have an ancient circle functioning as a sort of town park. Unfortunately, the view of the Finnihy River is obscured by trees, but two of these are hawthorns, associated with fairies and thought in Ireland to bring good luck to their owners and prosperity to the land on which they stand (Figure 7). People attach messages to them, usually wishing for good health for someone else. Thus, in a sense, veneration and invocations still occur at this magical spot. There is parking and the site is accessible to people who use wheelchairs.

Figure 7 Fairy trees Kenmare (1)

Figure 7: Kenmare Fairy Trees

 

Encouraged by our first success, we set off the next day for Bonane Heritage Park about ten kilometers outside Kenmare on the Beara peninsula. Somehow we missed it. I understand the park is still a work in progress. However, it was a beautiful, sunny day, so we decided to drive over the spectacular Healy’s Pass observed by sagacious sheep and avoiding the impressive participants of a bike rally.

Driving through the park, I realized that although much of the landscape looks “natural” at first glance, the entire island of Ireland is a series of (hu)man-managed environments from the moorlands and peat bogs to the fields, meadows, hedgerows, tree plantations, roads, drainages, fish farms, and canalized rivers. The construction and maintenance of all this represents a stupendous collective effort (Figure 8).

Figure 8 Countryside Ireland

Figure 8: View of the Countryside in the West of Ireland

 

Sticking to our goal of making a complete circuit around Ireland, we proceeded to Cork. A few times we spotted the brown and white menhir symbols that indicate proximity to a prehistoric site. Once or twice we tried to follow these signs without success. At one point we rushed past a landscape designated as the Cashel Barrow Field. I could see the mounds from our car windows.

Given that we had visited only one megalithic monument so far, I was getting a tad discouraged. I was also beginning to wonder why two people who had successfully performed archaeological survey in difficult parts of the world prior to the development of GPS and armed with guidebooks, the highly detailed information provided by the Archaeological Survey of Ireland, paper maps, and the directions of locals couldn’t find these places in a well-surveyed country where they are abundant. Later I took comfort in the advice provided by the website The Ring of Kerry. Many monuments are noted as being hard to find even for locals. Unlike most guides that tell you something is X kilometers from somewhere along a particular road, The Ring of Kerry provides directions in terms of easy-to-find places like hotels or holiday camps. I noticed that some very prominent sites like the Kenmare Stone Circle are not mentioned in specialized guidebooks such as the Ireland: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, while the interactive Archaeological Survey of Ireland map is so detailed that it is actually difficult to use. Sometimes we encountered useful information by accident, as with a spread on the Kenmare circle in the South Kerry Advertiser, a give-away publication (Coyne 2019) and a tourist map of the Bonane Heritage Park we found in our hotel. That let us know what monuments are in the park, without actually allowing us to find them. I began opportunistically to collect additional reference material like Christine Zucchelli’s Sacred Stones of Ireland.

In years past my husband had made several visits to County Cork, and from those he remembered the Drombeg Stone Circle, 15 km southwest of Clonakilty, off the R597 (Figure 9). Without his recollections I doubt we would ever have found it. Drombeg is a 17-stone circle excavated in 1957. It is similar in form to other Irish circles and is aligned to the mid-winter solstice. The interior was once covered with a layer of gravel, beneath which were five pits. One contained the cremated remains of an adolescent and a charcoal-encrusted pot that yielded a radiocarbon date somewhere between 1124 and 794 B.C. Several pieces of worked flint were also found. Nearby are the remains of two stone houses and a fulacht fiadh, a place where water was heated for cooking, bathing, and possibly ritual purposes. This part of the site dates to the first millennium B.C. and was probably used for centuries (Figure 10).Figure 9. Drombeg Stone Circle sign (2)

Figure 9: Drombeg Circle

 

Figure 10. Drombeg Stone Circle sign (1)

Figure 10: Drombeg Sign

 

From the circle there is a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside. It is possible to park along the narrow road leading up to the site. Given the crowds and hassles involved in visiting the world-famous and admittedly more spectacular prehistoric sites like Stonehenge and Newgrange, it is refreshing to explore a place where one can just walk in, with or without a dog, and without an admission fee or reservation.

Confidence restored, the next day we set out to find the Island Wedge Tomb, excavated in 1957 by Michael O’Kelly, the excavator of Newgrange. This grave of an elderly woman dates to the second millennium B.C., although the monument may have been in active use for many years. We will have to content ourselves with O’Kelly’s publication, however, because the site is on private land and permission must be sought to see it.

Our Oxford guide did not mention this. The locals were all attending a funeral, so we never did see the Wedge Tomb, although we were very close. On the spur of the moment we decided to visit the nearby Bridgetown Augustinian Priory, a lovely ruin still used as the local graveyard. The recent monuments are very moving. Sometimes they commemorate family members who died almost a century ago. It is, I think, a testimony to increasing prosperity that people are now able to afford this and to the interest in genealogy that the Internet fosters. At this point we were actually staying in a medieval ruin. Well, sort of. We enjoyed a few nights of luxury in the Castlemartyr Resort, which incorporates a medieval castle. The castle has a dark history which includes the forces of Elizabeth I hanging the elderly mother of the seneschal from its walls to force his surrender, but times change. (Figure 11).

Figure 11 Castlemartyr
Figure 11: Castlemartyr

 

By now it was time to return to Dublin, having seen only two megalithic sites, but numerous interesting medieval buildings, imposing Georgian houses, lovely landscapes, and craft centers. Our final archaeological stop had to be the National Museum of Archaeology. It is particularly strong on Irish metalwork, much of it unfortunately decontextualized, and recently discovered bog bodies. The bodies are sensitively displayed so that those who object to viewing human remains can easily avoid them. Unfortunately, many parts of the museum are not accessible to people who use wheelchairs. There is a gift shop where I purchased several books (e.g., Brennan 1994) that may help in a future megalith hunt. For archaeologists and aficionados who want to avoid the same-old, same-old and get off the beaten path, Ireland is a wonderful place. You’ll get used to driving on narrow, one-lane roads.

I thank my husband, David Fleming, for allowing me to post his beautiful photographs and for his driving skills.

All images © David Fleming.

References cited:

Brennan, Martin. 1994. The Stones of Time: Calendars, Sundails, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International (first published in 1983 as The Stars and the Stones: Ancient Art and Astronomy in Ireland).

Coyne, Frank. 2019. Kenmare Stone Circle and Stone Circles Archaeology. South Kerry Advertiser, September, pp. 12–13.

Halpin, Andy and Conor Newman. 2008. Ireland: An Oxford Archaeological Guide to Sites from Earliest Times to AD 1600. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. 2005 [1843]. The Irish Sketchbook of 1842. Dublin: Nonsuch Publishing Limited.

Zucchelli, Christine. 2016. Sacred Stones of Ireland. Cork City: Ireland. The Collins Press (first published in 2007 as Stones of Adoration).

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