The Territory of South Munster
According to the Marine Institute (Foras na Mara) and based on the Irish National Seabed Survey, the actual land area of Ireland is more than 10 times the size of the land mass that we occupy (see marine.ie The Real Map of Ireland). In attempting to understand the settlement history of the country therefore, it is important to try to understand something of the changes in the shape and the limits of exposed land area available for settlement, since the island appeared above the surface of the sea in the late glacial period circa 15,000 years ago.
Much has been written in recent years about Europe’s Lost World (Gaffney et alia, 2009) and the rediscovery of Doggerland linking the eastern shores of Britain to the continental mainland. As a consequence of the Irish National Seabed Survey it is now possible to consider the rediscovery of what might in a similar vein be called Ireland’s lost worlds.
Such lost Irish worlds are those phases or degrees of sea level inundation which have come to be, since the glaciers of the last Ice Age receded exposing the mountains, river valleys, plains, coastlines, islands; adapting to evolving plant and fauna colonisations through phases of climate change and evolution, bringing the first explorations of migratory humans and the beginnings of nomadic settlements, bringing over time the advent of knowledge to find understanding of the patterns of yield from agricultural working of suitable soils as well as the exploitation of husbandry practices compared with those of hunting and foraging.
Over time exploratory awareness of the geological resources of the landscape – be it the availability of flint nodules in deposits of glacial drift or of the harvest yield both natural and man-made from particular soil areas due to underlying rock type, in the South West the drainage patterns of a ridge and valley geomorphology – human behavioural patterns would lead to the development of places of assembly, be they those of small family groups or larger groups of persons sharing common objectives. Several thousands of years would pass as these human groups, spread and encroached upon the interior spaces of the landscape following rivers within and mountain ridges above an extensive native forest cover.
At the same time the land was slowly, imperceptibly, recovering from the weight of the ice sheets of a glacial timespan; as in tandem sea levels rose in the Atlantic and shorelines gradually encroached upon the land area. Perhaps it is in some accounts for Britain, and in Cork from those of Professor Robert Harkness (QCC) regarding drowned forests by Youghal, that we are allowed a glimpse of those lost landscapes: and, perhaps, their early human visitors such as a flint napping platform by Guileen further along the coast. Evidence of rapid sea level rise consequent of the meltwaters of the last Ice Age is evidenced by drowned forests at Tralong Bay near Rosscarbery in West Cork, the Gearagh beside the River Lee, off Bray and Killiney in Dublin. The Lost Frontiers programme (lostfrontiers.teamapp.com) at the University of Bradford is a promising opportunity to see something of the scale of land area lost through the millennia, before, and as, migratory and more settled settlement patterns of human presence began and developed.
Geomorphological Shape and after the last Ice Age
The geomorphological shape of the land area which became South Munster had already been well formed as the last ice sheets drew back from it. The geological history of the landmass was partly one of mountain building, of a folded peneplain several millennia earlier. As the landmass rose from the sea river systems began to develop across it, its rocks and early vegetational covers gradually forming its soils. Its rocks and their geomorphology created a landmass of distinct geological districts and elevations. Erosion by wind, rain and frost sculpted its peaks, sea erosion its coastlines. When glaciation came it depressed it beneath a weight of ice. As this melted mountain corries lakes came into being, gravel and shale gathered from mountain slopes to be deposited as moraines, drumlins and sea cliffs of boulder clay with traces of outflow stream-beds.
Climate and sea were its sculptors both before and subsequently; an endless process of changing vistas hardly perceptible in the life of a person or community. Into such a landscape came early hunter gatherer groups fishing, hunting, foraging, crafting artefacts from flint nodules deposited by moraines upon the open scapes of beaches and along river valleys. As the ice sheets gradually receded northwards, gradually exposing the landmass to the changing sea levels of those times, the geological plate upon which the exposed landscape was situated gradually began to recover from its weight, both on a south to north plane as well as a west to east one: a tilt both vertical and slightly horizontal.
As the ice receded north it gradually melted as did the heads of glaciers in Munster’s mountain areas. The release of such waters caused a rising sea level which still continues today; the north of the island still rising, the south receiving the increased flooding both along its coastlines and into the valleys of its major rivers; in tandem the headwaters of the rivers responded to changes in annual rainfall levels creating a down surge into the same valleys, depositing silts, muds and other alluvial deposits along its plains. At the estuaries, by the sea, mudflats were created as rivers deposited their loads, along the coastline sandbars formed as the directions of currents change, marshlands came into being and river courses began to embed themselves.
The South Munster’s river systems developed, trellised and dendritic patterns dominated, tributaries flowing from the ridges into the main channels following the west to east ridge and valley configuration of the landscape, breaking through at points of least resistance to flow southwards to the coastline. Some initial river courses changed their directions as changes in sea level impacted, as great inundations (perhaps a tsunami resulting from geological events off the British or European mainland) impacted, as alluvial deposits from forest clearance and general erosion impacted. In attempting to visualise such natural events retrospectively, when gazing at the modern rural landscape, one has also to factor in the impact of human activity in much later time periods; such as land drainage schemes, and forest clearances connected with settlements, mining, quarrying, ship building, smelting, and the creation of agricultural as well as demesne landscapes, both monastic and secular.
The Human Landscape History
It is into this South Munster landscape, its rock scapes, its vegetational biomes and via its natural inland drainage systems, that Neolithic society in conjunction with hunter gatherer groups entered the great forests, natural clearances and beach scapes, fenlands, mountain scapes of peaks, foothills and valleys, boglands and lakelands of South Munster. To it they brought their economies, their imaginations and their place naming, as well as exploitation of the resources they required for the needs and technologies of their early cultures. The gradual revealing of these resources from husbandry to agriculture to mineral discovery and exploitation would form the beginnings of a human geography across South Munster. But to what extent the landscape was cleared of its natural forest cover prior to the presence of Early Christian communities is a mystery. To what extent their community and agricultural clearances dappled across the natural forest cover before the 17th century A.D. is still uncharted scholarship. To try and visualise what the south and southwest coastal world looked like in the centuries prior to the Norman conquest of Ireland, the following is an attempt at a loose sketch.
A Topographical Journey of the Kingdom
The following topographical tour is written using the Irish Ordnance Survey’s Discovery Map series. To follow the coastline tour in details it is advisable to have sheets 70-89 to hand for the south and south west coastlines (including County Wexford which is part of the Province of Leinster, not part of the Kingdom though it is part of the south coastline).
County Kerry is, colloquially, often referred to as the Kingdom. However what I’m referring to in this study is the Kingdom of Desmond as it was in the early 12th century before the Norman invasion and conquest of Ireland. I’m not sure as to the reason why County Kerry came to be called the Kingdom. Perhaps it represents the last vestige of the Kingdom of Desmond as its history unfolded across the years of the second millennium AD. There certainly was movement to the south west of native people groups as the Norman conquest took hold and it may have been the case that other conquests in subsequent centuries equally resulted in further Gaelic people groups moving there. Also, folklore speaks of Gaelic speaking people from the Kinsale area moving for safety to the remote mountainous landscape area of Slieve Luachra in North West Cork (Duhallow region) after the defining Battle of Kinsale in 1601 AD initiated the end of Gaelic civilisation in Ireland; a place noted today for its traditional music heritage and its archaeology.
Part 1: An excursion into the inlets, coves and harbours of South Munster.
The purpose of this section is to give a linear outline of the place names and their relationships to each other; as if one were touring the south coastline. Also included is a flavouring of some of the kinds of local histories which have contributed to what we see and understand there, to what is remembered there, to what has been forgotten there. Apart from the 17th century Down Survey (downsurvey.tcd.ie) there is little in the way of early large scale and comprehensive or detailed topographical cartography for South Munster and the counties thereof; the perspective in much of what exists being either a sea chart perspective, specific military maps, cityscapes maps, land tenure maps, general administrative maps, road network maps etc. It was not until the early 19th century with the Ordnance Survey 6 inches to a mile mapping of Ireland that, in general, in-depth topographical information came to be available in map form. For the purposes of this outline I have extended eastwards beyond the boundaries of the study area simply to cover the whole of the south coastline. I doubt that Wexford’s south coast was seen as distinct from the rest of the south coast in early times. In making the descriptive journeys below I have used the Ordnance Survey of Ireland’s Discovery map series.
Wexford to Waterford Harbour
As now presented to the sea, the south coast of Ireland begins on Ireland’s eastern side at Cransore Point. North of it lies Wexford Harbour (where at Beggerin Island, St. Ibar had his cell). At St.Vogues, by Carnsore Point, lies an early ecclesiastical site. Carnsore Point, once a sacred promontorium. From here two large coastal lakes were formed by the sandbar called the Grogan Burrow. These lakes are Lady’s Island Lake and Tacumshin Lake. Wexford is the southernmost county in the Province of Leinster, but for the purposes of this project it is included in my description of the South Munster Coastline; insofar as it is the eastern extension of that coastline, as well as being strategically situated at the entrance to the Irish Sea which separates Ireland from Wales, the western counties of England and Southern Scotland. Within such places Roman Britannia once governed, the Lord of the Isles once ruled its waters to the north, and southward the kingdom of Dumnonia (Cornwall) on England’s south west shoreline once held sway: Dumnonia, a place of Byzantine artefacts and of Cornish souterrains (fogous). Either en route via the open sea or via a waypoint at Dumnonia, the archaeological and maritime histories of this place speak of an Atlantic Sea Province stretching southwards by the Bay of Biscay to the Pillars of Hercules and entry to the Mediterranean Sea and its lands. Moving westwards from Tacumshin the Saltee Islands rise off the headland of Crossfarnoge and Kilmore Quay (Cé na Cille Móire) before opening into the long sandy stretch of Ballyteige Bay and the slob lands of Duncormick via a narrow inlet. The coastline is then broken by another narrow inlet to Bannow Bay where the Norman invasion of Ireland began with the arrival of the fleet of the Flemings into its large extensive waterscape. From Bannow Bay the coastline stretches southwestward forming a long and narrowing peninsula known as Hook Head which heralds the eastern entry point to Waterford Harbour and the eastern boundary of South Munster. On the western shore of the harbour lies Dunmore East. From there, one is met by a rocky coastline unlike the sandy beaches and coastal lakes of Wexford’s south coast. From Dunmore East to Brownstown Head it is a coastline of small headlands, little inlets and coves.
Tramore to Dunabrattin Bay
Like the coastal lands of south Wexford, Tramore Bay now opens, from the viewpoint of the mariner, to reveal a large Back Strand almost cut off from the sea by the Tramore Burrow and Strand sandspit. Emerging from Tramore Bay one is met with a configuration of broken coastline stretching from Great Newtown Head to Dunabrattin Bay. Along the shore of this coastline are many small island inlets and headlands dotted with promontory forts and small beaches. Some of the islands are a result of these promontory forts and headlands being cut away from the coastline by ongoing sea erosion. Some townland names, which cover both a sea stack or set of small islands, as well as portions of land still part of the mainland are indicative of times when such sea stacks and islands were part of it; a fact noted by Rev. Patrick Power in his monumental place-names survey of County Waterford.
Particularly of note is Canon Power’s reference to the Islandkane area, where eroded away from the mainland lies Sheep’s Island, where he describes the existence of clochauns, commenting on the fact that they appear to be an isolated occurrence this far east. They are usually found to the west, being a common feature of early vernacular architecture in the lands of the south west and western coastlines of Ireland; unless an isolated reference to something of that nature once existing at Corkbeg Island, on the eastern side of Cork Harbour, was also of that nature. If so, perhaps it represents a loss of such architectural evidence along the coastal stretch from Tramore to Kenmare for some reason, such as an inundation or gradual sea level rise in earlier times. Perhaps there was something of a whisper of St. Mochuda’s chapels beneath the waves.
To digress slightly, it is interesting to note that clochaun architecture may have taken an underground form in the use of beehive cells in the souterrain architecture which is found in an area of the Blackwater River, an area once the kingdom of the Fir Maige people with a focal point somewhere around the junction of the Funcheon and Blackwater rivers. The Blackwater, South Munster’s major river, flows to the sea dividing the coastlines of Waterford and Cork. This topic is investigated in more depth later.
From Dunabrattin Bay to Youghal Harbour.
Into the eastern side of Dunbrattin Bay flows the Annestown Stream entering the sea close to the promontory fort at Corcoran’s Island. Around and beyond Dunabrattin lies an area of County Waterford’s coastline known as the Copper Coast. It has an outstanding geological park. This was once an area of extensive copper mining, engine towers of the Cornish copper miners and the homes of their community during the 19th century. In earlier times a place of the Déise and Brigantes. Between Dunabrattin Bay and Ballyvoyle Head the coastal pattern of broken shorelines continues, passing Stradbally and on to Clonea. Within this stretch, beyond Dunabrattin Bay, flow the River Mahon to Bunmahon, the Taoi/Tay River to Stradbally Cove, and the Dalligan River to Ballyvoyle from their upland headwaters across low-lying fertile plains to the sea, or to view them in another way their routes provide easy inland access to the mountain foothills of the Monavullagh and Comeragh mountain ranges. Why do so many of the headlands of this coastline have promontory forts, why were they necessary, is still something of a mystery, whether it has to do with an organised defence strategy in terms of marine invasion, piratical assaults, an economy based on trading abroad or along the coast, or simply the common architectural pattern for coastal dwellers and their settlement focal and administrative points, is a matter of curiosity. Whatever the answers might be, what is visible on the Waterford coastline here is also found on some stretches of the coastline further west. One might ask what was it that the history of the Déise people, or Brigantes predecessors, their lands and their origins, might have to say about the importance of this stretch of coastline in a kingdom naturally defined by the Suir River to its north and east, and by the Blackwater River, the Monavullagh and Comeragh Mountains, to it’s west and northwest?
What range of shipping fleets once moored along it’s coastline? For what reason did the Prince of the Déise, or his predecessors, require a fleet and promontory forts of importance to the King of Cashel? To defend a homeland, like in earlier times Caesar’s tales of the Venetii and their fleets in his De Bello Gallico; the Venetii, masters of the Atlantic, strong leather sailed ships, difficult to challenge in their coastal homes, easily slipping on to the waves and away rather than engage? Or trading with Menapi relatives, or the people of Dumnonia and Roman naval commerce from South Wales and the Severn Estuary? Roman coins spreading inland further west of the Déise lands to Buttevant, Ballyphehane, Castlelyons and Cuskinny Bay? The communities of Dumnonia existed in a land of fogous (souterrains) with or without beehive cells. Did it’s merchant ships, or those of it’s trading partners, seemingly cross open water, to and fro, directly to the Atlantic coast of Europe and the coastline of Armorica, to the Bay of Biscay, to the Loire River and Gascony’s Gironde Estuary, as much as did their neighbouring coastal clans westward, such as the Corcú Laoidhe? Is it in any way significant that a son of each of these peoples brought pre-Patrician christianity to the coastlines of South Munster i.e. Declan of the Déise, Ciaráin of the Corcú Laiodhe?
Continuing to follow the coastline from Ballyvoyle Head the strand of Clonea Bay presents itself to the mariner as far as Ballynacourty Point passing by Kilgrovan notable for its cache of souterrain ogham stones now at Mount Melleray Abbey. Dungarvan Harbour, spreading from Ballynacourty Point to Helvick Head of Viking remembrances, is a large harbour area of slobland into which the Colligan River, fed by its tributaries the Araglin and Glendermot Rivers and other streams, flow to the sea. They provide natural highways to the interior lands of West Waterford. From Helvick Head to Ardmore Bay passing by Muggort’s Bay and Mine Head, the coastline is again heavily indented, but with only two promontory forts on record.
The promontory fort just beyond Mine Head is the last to be noted for the Waterford coastline; the coastline from Ardmore Bay to Monatray West (by Youghal Harbour) appears to have none of them. Whether they have such a distribution by accident or design is an interesting question. Ardmore is famous for its monastery founded by Declan, a prince of the Déise people, whose dysert (hermitage), farran (farmland) and holy well – a place of ancient pilgrimage, still survive by the coast in close proximity to the later monastic foundation; which later emerged with its great church, oratory, round tower, ogham stones and preaching bas relief frieze. This locality, known as the Ardmore Peninsula, is bounded on its western side by Whiting Bay. Moving along the coastline from there is Youghal Bay where the great Blackwater River now enters the sea, passing the lands of Monatray with the monastery island of Molana.
According to the Irish Annals this lower part of the Blackwater River did not enter the sea at its present location along the coastline, prior to 822 or 830 A.D. Instead, it is said to have flowed to Whiting Bay which would have placed the Ardmore ecclesiastical settlement on a major inland access route to Lismore, and the ecclesiastical communities at Clondalane/Kilcrumper in the lands of the Fir Maige people. From there one might follow the river back to the ecclesiastical communities of Cullen and Drishane in North West County Cork. If the Blackwater did debouche at Whiting Bay, then was it the Toureg River which originally flowed to Youghal Harbour, perhaps through a dense forest now submerged?
It is from Ardmore that the great ecclesiastical road, in imitation of a Roman road, known as the Rian Bó Phadraig (the routeway of Patrick’s cow) once existed connecting the coastal monastery at Ardmore with the administrative overlordship of Cashel in County Tipperary. It’s route led from Ardmore to Lismore, then to Ardfinnan, connecting with other routes such as that from the west, known as the Cliadh Dubh a branch of which may have followed the north bank of the Blackwater River. It is also noteworthy that the Rian passes through the souterrain lands of North West County Waterford, South West County Tipperary and South East County Limerick. One might also ask if it was the Bride River which once flowed to the sea at Youghal meeting with the Toureg? Was it a process of river capture or a great inundation which brought both the Bride, Toureg and Blackwater rivers together? How might occupants at Maol an Faidh’s monastery during the early 9th century at the monastery island of Darinish (otherwise Molana Abbey) have witnessed this?
Youghal Harbour to the Old Head of Kinsale
Crossing Youghal Bay to the sandy beach by Redbarn and past the sloblands of Pilmore, ‘pil’ being a word for harbour, where the Womanagh River enters the sea – a bronze sword from its banks. The Womanagh flows from the west fed by its tributaries the Uaimneach, Kilta and Dissour. The coastline continues to Knockadoon Head where Capel Island lies offshore. From Knockadoon it stretches west in a rugged fashion passing another Knockadoon by Ballycrenane to the sandy beaches of Ballywilling – and a lost tidal mill, Garryvoe and Ardnahinch, Kilmahon at Shanagarry, passing Ballynamona at Ballycotton Bay. From Ballycotton to Power Head a high cliff shoreline gives way to the sandy beaches of Ballybranagan and Ballycroneen. Within this stretch lies Ballyandreen Bay with promontory forts by Dooneenmacotter. This is a rich area of folklore and ancient resonances. From Inch Bay, and the fishing hamlet of Guileen – microliths from a sea battered boulder clay cliff, to Roche’s Point, the character of the shore line is rugged.
A Digression in search of ancient Cloyne
Looking at the land area northwards and eastwards towards Cloyne from the promontory fort by Lahard (High Quarter) on Power Head, one sees places named with resonances of what may have been the path of an ancient road traceable from the sea: by the beach of Ballyshane (old settlement) to Lugfree (Lugh Sli – Lugh’s way), to Shanahee (old house) to Ballinvoher (Baile an Bhóthar), going towards the monastic city of Cloyne and passing by Farrannamanagh (outfarm of the monks) with Kilteskin (Cell of the house of Seskin?) it’s hermitage and spital by Rostellan, where a scribe is remembered and Carrigacrump, an old dove marble quarry, and Lurrig at Barrykilla – of gold and an ancient festival. Cells also remembered at Kilboy and Kilcrone close by Cloyne (Cluain Uamha, the Cluain of the caves) where folklore says it’s founder St. Colman leaped from it’s round tower to land at Lurrig knocking a great standing stone there to the ground, imprinting his kneecaps and thus christianising an ancient pagan festival site – the triumphs of Christendom!
As Dr. Richard Caulfield once said four ancient roads of Ireland met at the cross-roads of Cloyne. It was a crossroads at the heart of its monastic economy; Cloyne the Cluain, of the limestone lands and speleological headlamps in natural caves, a bedrock to the sea coast at Rostellan.
Returning to the coastline, the rocky beach at Ballyshane forms the western end of a long stretch of sandy beach called Ballybrannigan which opens on its eastern side to Ballycroneen where legend speaks of the sea God Mananán Mac Lir rising from the deep and releasing three cows upon the land, perhaps from a three pronged trident, one cow cutting a routeway east, another west and a third going northwards the Cloyne area, passing the portal dolmen at Castlemary close to Barrykilla and Lurrig. Such a legend might have been recounted at one time, on a stormy night, at farm buildings on a bohereen close to the cliffs at Ballycroneen. These buildings, now overhanging the boulder clay cliff face, once at a distance of somewhere from 100 to 200 feet from the sea when the surveyors of the original Ordnance Survey made their six inches to a mile scale map in the early 1840s. On rising land at the eastern side of Ballycroneen lies Ballyrobin which appears to have a sunken laneway beside one of its fields – antiquarian lore speaks of a moated grange in the townland. Midway along Ballybrannigan Beach, in the cliff face another sunken laneway opens to the beach. The beach is much exposed to winter storms. One wonders, if somewhere in the region of 150 feet of land has been lost here, exposing the underlying rock platform to the sea, over the past 150 years or so? If so, then, with the direction of currents remaining stable, how much land has been lost to the sea here since the year 150 AD. and before? To what extent does such a rate, and degree of erosion reflect on the rock faces and clay faced cliffs of the coastline? To what extent is this scenario replicated elsewhere along the coast of South Munster? To what extent might other, geological or climatic, events have been a factor, in a story of lost lands and forests and ploughed fields beneath the sands, gravels, muds and tidal fluctuations of this coastline?
Returning to the Coastline
On the western side of Power Head lies Inch Beach from were a coastline of boulder clay cliffs gives way to those of rock, to the old fishing hamlet of Guileen and on to the beach and cove at Trabolgan; a place of white monks, a medieval monastery and a legend of ecclesiastical treasures from Europe placed in safe keeping there at a time of great wars.
The mouth of Cork Harbour opens between the promontory of Roches Point from where Poulnacalla beside Kilcolta can be seen on the western shore of the harbour mouth.
A Digression into Cork Harbour : The Great Flood of 822 or 830 AD
It would appear to be the case, seen from the South Wexford coast to the coastline of West Cork, that coastal lakes and drowned river valleys are a frequent feature of South Munster. Might one also include those islands known as Carbery’s 100 Isles by Roaring Water Bay. Why does Ptolemy’s map of circa 150 AD not draw the attention of mariners to what is today regarded as the second largest natural harbour in the world? Writing in the 1740s Charles Smith, informed by Gaelic antiquaries, states that on a night in March of the year 822 AD during a great storm of wind and lightning, the sea broke its banks as far inland as the marshlands which would later underlie the city of Cork.
According to the Irish Annals a great flood occurred along the South Coast of Ireland about this time though some reference the date as closer to 830 AD. It had its effects, it is suggested, on Bantry Bay, on the harbour area of Cork and on the southern course of the Blackwater River.
Where the old Cork city stands are two river channels i.e. the Sabrann and the Lee. They once flowed through the marshlands which existed on the western side of the city. They join again as the Lee to flow south to Cork Harbour. It is difficult to imagine how the courses of these two rivers once looked in the centuries of the first millennium AD, or earlier: the River Lee and the drowned forest at the Gearagh, the back channel at Cobh and the islands of this part of the Harbour, a possible river which may have been called the Veynus beside Rostellan and East Ferry, a wetland place which may have stretched inland from the outer harbour and past Cobh Island towards the marshlands of the old city, a landscape known as Corcú Bascoin – where 1,000 people were drowned on that night circa 822 AD, a large bog at Bishopstown, the Sabrann flood plains of the Curraheen and Maglin Rivers, drowned forests along by Garryvoe and Youghal. One wonders how a tsunami hitting the outer harbour area might have impacted further back along the rivers of this part of Cork.
Close to a century later the Cork antiquarian and folklorist Thomas Crofton Croker would record oyster pearls retrieved from the river Lee at Carrigrohane beyond the city’s marshlands, a point to which the river Lee was believed to be tidal. Smith was a member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries as was the Cornish antiquary William Borlaise. Borlaise theorised about a similar event happening off Cornwall’s Scilly Isles. Smith was informed by Gaelic antiquaries, doubtless those familiar with the Irish Annals and a record of the events there, that on that night the sea burst its banks and flooded the landscape behind them. To what extent might this be accurate or true? Was the event the result of a tsunami and a sequence of waves hitting the protective bank of shoreline perhaps one composed, in its upper reaches, of glacial drift – as elsewhere along the South Coast? Where might the epicentre of this event have been? An eruption off the coast of Lisbon or something else? Did two rivers exit to the sea here, one flowing from the north east, one from the northwest, streaming through a wetland or lakeland as replicated further upriver on the River Lee? Was the Veynus a river flowing through East Ferry and Rathcoursey? If both had flowed for many centuries earlier, the River Lee (Sabrann) exiting to the sea by Poulnacalla where there is a deep channel, the other at Roche’s Point, then what evidence is there for a bank of land in between waiting to be washed away by the sea, waiting to be demolished by a major sea event as tide levels rose to enormous heights and flooded inland washing away the land bank?
As one stands beside the cliff edge at White Bay in Cork Harbour today it is interesting to note the marker buoys for shipping lanes on either side of the entrance to the Harbour, between Poulnacalla and Roche’s Point. Beyond, townwards the port town of Cobh, the outer harbour opens to the inner one between the sentinels of Camden Fort and Carlisle Fort guarding the passage, with Spike Island ahead and a choice following the Lee (Sabrann) Channel to Cork City or alternatively the Veynus Channel around the eastern side of Great Island. In its history tales of fortifications, convicts, tall ships and Napoleonic threats are remembered. Transatlantic liners, yachts and fishing boats, large cargo vessels choose the deeper waters of either channel as they pass in and out, their naval charts displayed on tables, depths noted. As they pass through the harbour entrance the charts reveal a rock landscape beneath the waves. They reveal an underwater feature marked on the charts as Harbour Rock with a deepwater channel on either side.
The inner harbour is a place where river sediments have accumulated over many centuries. Some stretches have been reclaimed in centuries past, such as a cove area which once existed from Blackrock Castle to the Marina, others reclaimed and then abandoned. One also wonders how much archaeology may still lie in the wetlands of Cork Harbour.
The western side of the Harbour stretches from Ringaskiddy, once famous for its traditional fishing fleet and its yawls, to the estuary of the Owenboy River and its cairn topped Curraghbinny to Crosshaven, where once according to legend Sir Francis Drake hid his fleet to avoid the Spanish Armada.
The Harbour coastline then skirts on to Ringabella Creek and Robert’s Cove, all part of a clan-land under the lordship of Fitzmaurice to whose lands Queen Elizabeth I of England introduced a model settlement of colonists. An attack upon them began the Desmond Wars of the late 16th century, something resonating deeply across South Munster and into the memory of national history. In ancient times these were the lands of the peoples of the Ciarraige Corcú (Kerrycurrihy), a name reflecting two tribal peoples i.e. the Ciarraige of North Kerry and northwest Cork, the Corcú and their branches from Dingle to Iveragh and Carberry. It is land of few souterrains and a question mark as to why.
Now moving again along the South Coast, tall rock cliffs span the coastline from Carrigadda Bay beside Robert’s Cove to Reanies Bay, to Barry’s Head where promontory forts again make an appearance with one at Dunbogey. Inter-visible from Barry’s Point are two more promontory forts at Big Doon and Little Doon on the headland of Oysterhaven visible across Newfoundland Bay. Next are the creeks of Ballinchashel and the mouth of the Belgooly River, and on to Preghane Point giving way to the entrance to Kinsale Harbour. Kinsale, its placenames of Scilly and Abbeylands, its burials at Ballinacubby, with the lands of Tisaxon (monastic Saxon House) and Ardcloyne (Ard Cluain, high hermitage) beyond Kinsale, as the Bandon River reaches the sea. At the coast the line stretches southwards to Courtaparteen where a holy well, early medieval church and graveyard overlook a small cove. Why does Courtaparteen (or was it Cúirt an Porteen?) have a tradition of a visit by St. Patrick? Beyond it one comes to the peninsular lands known as the Old Head of Kinsale.
A Digression concerning the lands of the Old Head of Kinsale Peninsula
Known in the geography of Ptolemy of Alexandria, and probably through the informants of Roman writer Tacitus, the peninsula known as the Old Head of Kinsale is a place of many older worlds and narratives, stretching into the sea like a jewel from the necklet of a peninsula, in itself almost and island. Land access to such a jewel was well controlled across a steep sided ridge of land bounded by Holeopen Bay on either side. Access from the landward side across this ridge was controlled by a defensive ditch with a gate tower and curtain wall of Norman times. In essence however it is the next promontory fort on our journey westwards. It is one of great significance and perhaps with much of its story yet to be uncovered, being known to the Roman world, its Gaelic name being Dún Cearmna, thrusting into the Atlantic Sea Province of ancient mariners from Britannia and the European mainland. As a local focal point was the Dún of Cearmna, a residence of great importance in native society? Beside it was Ringagurteen, a gurteen (ploughland) for crops? Was Cearnma a personal name or an adjective? Was it a place connected with a great market of foreigners and traders from abroad? Was it a place of gold and fine raiments for trading? Was it, as an island, an area of land attached by a isthmus to a promontory, a bridgehead from an Empire, a threshold place allowing interaction?
Another name for the Dún of Cearmna is DownmacPatrick. Was the Dún belonging to Patrick’s son also the Dún of Cearmna, and not something of Anglo-Norman genealogies? Who was the son of Patrick if the name is much older? Has the dún name been confused with Domhnach, meaning Sunday gathering place and great church? It would not have been unusual for a lios or dún to have been used as the location for an early oratory or preaching place; such as happened at Kilmichael or Rosscarbery.
Would a domhnach church arise at a Dún settlement especially if it was a major point of contact with the Roman world in Early Christian times? Who was the Patrick of Lispatrick, the St. Patrick whom legend refers to him as visiting Courtaparteen? The northern part of the peninsula is largely composed of the townland of Lispatrick i.e. the ringfort/the Lios, of Patrick. Was this Patrick the same Patrick as at Downmacpatrick?
A roadway exits in the lands of the peninsula crossing the ramparted ridge to the lios lands where two major modern roads are found running northwards one linking to Kinsale Harbour, the other heading northwards towards Kilmore (big monastery) at Ballinspittle (home place of the monastery hospital) which is overlooked by a prominent and highly elevated inland promontory upon which the triple-ramparted, triple souterrain, ringfort of Ballycateen is situated. It is there that the archaeologist Seán P. Ó Ríordáin, in the course of his excavation project in the 1940s, recovered fragments of amphora pottery of types used in France or Roman Britain. What do they say, if anything, about trade, about Kinsale Harbour, about Courtaparteen, about Kilmore and its ‘spital’ and about a Patrick and his son (genetic or spiritual) at the Old Head of Kinsale; the maximum extent east, at one time, of the lands of the Corcú Laoidhe kingdom.
From the Old Head to Kenmare.
On its western side the Old Head opens to Courtmacsherry Bay. From Ballinaspittle the main road west leads to Coolmain Bay and the creek below Kilbrittain (Cill Briotáin, the cell or ‘church’ of Briotáin, or does it refer to someone of Britannia?). In Gaelic Courtmacsherry is translated as the Court of MacShéafraigh. Coolmain Bay opens on its western side into the sloblands of Timoleague Creek where the Argideen River enters the sea. Nearby at Burren townland doors to several ‘caves’ were once visible, begging a question about a monastic enclosure.
At the head of Timoleague creek lies Timoleague Abbey (the house of Saint Molaga, a 6th century saint also present at Labbamolaga in North Cork, giving him both an inland and a coastal connection) was at one time a notable Franciscan monastery built in the 13th century and dedicated to Molaga in memory of his monastery, as was similarly the case at Kilcrea near Macroom in its dedication to St. Ciara. Tigh Molaga where a Cork antiquarian noted a group of youths kicking a leather ball which was in reality a leather bound manuscript found in a hole in the walls of the monastery, Tigh Molaga was the setting for a great poem in the Irish language called Caoineadh ar Mhainistir Thigh Molaige. One muses about French and Spanish merchants, an ancient place of pilgrimage, friars and the wine trade, all lost echoes in the waters of the Argideen River flowing into the bay here.
Monastic activity in the Timoleague (Tigh Molaga) locality had a long history. Visible in the sweep of landscape which stretches from Timoleague Bay to Clonakilty Bay, as shown on the 17th century Downe Survey maps, Aghmanister and Spital townland forms part of the civil parish of Abbeymahon. Aghmanister is the monastery of the ford, with its leper hospital (spital) lands. The monastery subsequently moved to the Abbeymahon site and a coastal location. This is a land area of souterrains.
From the coastal town of Courtmacsherry, one again emerges onto the coastline heading to Seven Heads and Dunworly Point with its promontory fort, souterrain, and a shipwreck perhaps of Barbary pirates, remnants of its eastern cargo scattered on a beach to delight 19th century Rev. Nelligan of Shandon at Cork. Was it a pirate ship, or a perhaps a craft of much older times trading with the Old Head, blown off its moorings, and sunk? From Dunworly Bay one rounds the headland of Turkeyland passing Donaghmore (Domhnach Mór) its cilleen and a promontory fort close by. From Clonakilty Bay, one now comes to the mudflats of Muckross Strand and Clonakilty Harbour, with Inchadonney Island in between. By Clonakilty itself, beside the head of the harbour, a Desert (i.e. a hermitage) lies. There is an interesting ecclesiastical proximity, in having a domhnach near the entrance to the harbour and a desert within it; as well as a clustering of ‘temple’ parish names (e.g. Templebryan, Templequinlan, Templeomalus) converging on the bay.
From Muckross Strand the coastline again spreads along to Dunowen Head with holy well and promontory fort and from there to Dirk Bay. Beyond is Galley Head with a promontory fort and a souterrain at Dundeady, with a monolith at the headland. A monolith, perhaps symbolically a beacon of light, signalling to guide the navigational way into Rosscarbery Bay. Sweeping into the bay, lowering sails, what awaited the medieval mariner: the Long Strand at Castlefreke beside Rathbarry and Kilkeran, a souterrain with a bag of Anglo Saxon coins at Castlefreke, at Little Island a clay tunnelled souterrain, a narrow slob lined creek to a great church and round tower, to the east the holy well of Saint Fachtna, a temple bridge and a Burgatia beside it; Burgatia, burgh a hamlet, tia (of the monastic house). Rosscarbery, the site of a great monastery and school, its round tower a beacon of learning, souterrain reported to Charles Smith as beside its cathedral, its school one of great fame in Medieval Europe, a place for princes to be educated, its one time lector captured by Vikings and ransomed by Brian Ború styled ‘Emperor of the Irish’, a place of trading with Vikings and traders from other lands.
From Rosscarbery the coastline continues along by Tralong Bay (Trá na Loinge meaning ship’s beach perhaps, which in the late 16th century was Shepestrond) with its holy well, and a souterrain at Brulea on it west side with a promontory fort at Siege Cove, to Goat’s Head and the entrance to Glandore Harbour where opposite a ringfort of controversial findings at Carrigillihy with a promontory fort close by. Moving in along the creek one passes Union Hall to the mudflats at Leap and a souterrain at Corran a short distance north of it, towards Kilmacabea (Cell of the Macabee?) and a Kilfadeen to the west (long cell?). Exiting Glandore Harbour another promontory fort lies by Sheela’s Rocks and then passing Rabbit Island to Myross to the promontory fort at Reen Point. Next the entrance to Castlehaven Creek opens leading to Castletownsend by Farrandau and Knockdrum caher (stone fort) on the west bank, a place of souterrains and an early monastic foundation with a Greek cross and a drishane.
From Sandy Cove to Tow Head there are three promontory forts before entering Toehead Bay where folklore of piracy on the high seas, of privateers and pardons, of smugglers and coastal peoples, of the ‘pirate round’ to Barbary, now begins to open doors across the liminal adventuring of 16th and 17th century Atlantic piracy, before that of the Caribbean became infamous. How ancient were its predecessors and their seaways to coastal Europe, and the Mediterranean?
From Toe Head to Lough Hyne, from a scattering of cilleens to a holy well above and beyond the Lough, and from thence to Baltimore, Roaringwater Bay opens the place of Carbery’s 100 Isles; a drowned landscape of peaks and valleys, Long Island with Castle Island and Horse Island being a single strip of land, some would contend, prior to the great inundation of 822 AD or 830AD. Perhaps similarly for the many other isles there. On the eastern side of the Bay are the large islands of Clear Island and Sherkin Island, each with its own separate community history. Clear Island was once known as Insula Sanctae Clarae, an imperium to itself, by the Gascanane Sound. Were these islands also part of the mainland once? Opposite Sherkin Island is Hare Island to the east of which the estuary of the Ilen River meets the sea. The Ilen River flows through Skibbereen, a place of small boats to its deepwater quay at Oldcourt. By the head of the estuary the large civil parish area of Aghadown and nearby the site of Abbeystrowry monastery: famine graves remembered. From Paddock townland in Aghadown there are several souterrains, one a tig faoi talaimh with two Bronze Age axes in it. One is mindful of the bronze axehead from Carrigillihy at Glandore. At Oldcourt townland, in Creagh civil parish, a clay tunnelled souterrain in a ringfort contained a moss covered handbell deposited beneath a slab on the floor of its a chamber comes to mind. On the western side of Roaringwater Bay lies the Ballydehob Bay and Skull Harbour (Skull from An Scoil meaning the school). To the north of Skull Harbour lie the ancient copper mine workings of Mount Gabriel (Cnoc Osta), megalithic monuments in its wider hinterlands. Then returning to Skull Harbour one follows the coastline to Brow Head beside Crookhaven as one begins to round the Mizen. The Mizen, once Notium Promontorium, in Gaelic the Carn of the Uí Néid people, Ireland’s most southerly headland, facing into the Celtic Sea, towards the Cantabrian Sea, to Iberia’s sacred promontorium, to Africa’s north coast, and entry to the Mediterranean Sea.
A Digression for Ciarán
It is at Clear Island that legend says, the mother of St. Ciarán of Saighir (or was it Seighir, so tunefully resonant of the Syrian Chalcis desert), that the first native born of the Irish saints belonged. Was it here, on his return from training abroad, that he founded his first church among the peoples of the Corcú Laoidhe, one of whose kings became the first Christian king in Ireland according to tradition. Was it here that he began his early mission, before establishing his own Saighir in the lands of his father, a nobleman of the Osraige people in County Offaly?
Rounding the Mizen
Westwards along from Mizen Head the coastline enters Dunlough Bay and from there passes by Three Castle Head, with its promontory fort. Moving northwards towards the head of Dunmanus Bay one passes the promontory fort at Dooneen, Reilg Chill Aingeal (graveyard of the cell of the Angel) off in the distance. From thense to a Drishane (thorny) landscape at Dunbeacon, and there a burial ground with a complex souterrain built of stone before one continues toward Durrus at the head of the bay.
From Durrus the needle-like peninsula of Sheep’s Head pierces the Atlantic, its eastern side more heavily indented and settled than that of its western shoreline. It is dominated by the civil parish of Kilcrohane, a parish dedication also found further west along the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula by the Kenmare estuary. From Durrus, to the southwest one follows the eastern side of the Sheep’s Head Peninsula through the large civil parish of Kilcrohane and to the tip of this peninsula named for its people Muintir Bháire (the people of Báire). As one travels one encounters place names of musicality, mystic meanings and memory presented to the sea. At the headland one hears of an old story from the 19th century about French lobster fishermen arriving annually off the coast of the peninsula and waving to local maidens.
Rounding the headland, one enters the great open stretch of water which is Bantry Bay; old tidings of a French fleet and a lost national rebellion in 1798 AD, old tidings of the legendary Eoghan Mór, Milesian sails on the morning horizon, a currach of monks from Kilnaruane to Whiddy Island’s killeen, perhaps! Humanity’s motions and mobilities across the centuries still in sway.
Entering a channel between Whiddy Island and Bantry Harbour beyond the placename called Abbey lies Kilnarane and further beyond Sheskin. Kilnaruane is a place which some local historians interpret to mean the cell of the Romans implying the Roman Church faction at the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD in dispute with the Hibernian (Celtic) Church. The stone shaft of a cross standing at the site has decorated and carved panels, showing scenes from early Christian literature, including one which shows several figures in a currach. The panel is decorated with crosses. From there Whiddy Island can be seen where a Kilmore (big cell) once existed.
Following the coast northwards from Bantry one passes by the land locked Lough at Reendonagan and from thence to Ballylicky were the Owvane river enters the sea, having made its way from the pass of Céim an Fhia at Doughill mountain in the Shehy mountain range, the pass opening northwards to Gougane Barra lake and the early hermitage of St. Finbarr with the Owngal river flowing from close to the Coosane Gap meeting it near Kealkil. Ringed to the north, east and west by the Shehy Mountains with Bantry Bay to the south this large valley-scape is a natural and well watered enclosed land space, somewhat suggestive of a natural fortress for a clan or tribal people to control. Similar observations could be made for other locations nearby as much for those in the Iveragh Peninsula as for the lands of the Déise in Waterford; if the political rationale of using natural boundaries to delineate distinct territories for distinct people groups is kept in mind.
A Digression for Finbarr and Mocomoge
Access to the Gougane Barra lake, the headwaters of the River Lee and its lakeland at Lough Allua is achieved from Bantry Bay via the Pass of Céim an Fhia. Access to the headwaters of the Bandon River is achieved from Bantry via the Coosane Gap, this river then flowing by the civil parishes of Fanlobbus and Kinneigh eastwards towards the sea at Kinsale. From Gougane Barra the Lee flows to the sea at Cork Harbour. The Bandon and the Lee are two of the four great riverine highways of South Munster, the others being the Suir and the Blackwater. The civil parish area which dominates Bantry Bay is the large parish of Kilmocomoge (cell of St Mocomoge) who is also associated with the foundation of a monastery at Kinneigh north of the Bandon River. Between lies Fanlobbus parish, perhaps the place of the wandering (ar fán) miscreant (Hebrew lobbus, though ‘said with affection’).
Returning to the Coast
Again following the coastline from Ballylicky one arrives at Dromkeal where the Coomhola River enters the sea. The Cooleenlomane, a tributary from Coomhola Mountain, joins it after passing a stone circle and megalithic tomb beyond Farranfadda (long farm) which flows through the Kealkil valley. From Dromkeal the coastline is again very rugged and indented spreading to Glengarriff Harbour and Garnish Island. Similar to a site recorded at Little Island beside Rosscarbery and similar to two sites recorded for Sherkin Island, Garnish Island had a 6 chambered souterrain at one time. How many more, one wonders, may as yet await discovery between Rosscarbery and Glengarrif? What patterns might emerge from their distribution?
From Glengarriff the coastline and its many little islands spreads down to Adrigole Harbour where one is now on the landscape of the Beara Peninsula, its northern portion dominated by the Caha Mountains and its southern part by the Slieve Miskish Mountains. Offshore from the port of Castletown-Bearhaven lies Bear Island. A narrow channel passing between Bear Island and the mainland has a desert (hermitage) by Fair Head. From there one journeys to Black Ball Head reminiscent of the Black Ball shipping line, passing the rock-cut souterrain at Brackcloon (bright or speckled hermitage). Beyond at White Ball Head a promontory fort makes an appearance, promontory forts and dún headlands having become very infrequent since those further east along the South Munster coastline. At the tip of the Beara Peninsula lies Dursey Island, once a place of Vikings, and its hamlet of Kilmichael, the sound between the island and the mainland being difficult to cross, accessed now by cablecar.
Rounding the Beara Peninsula, and Dursey Island, a heavily broken coastline of inlets and little islands appears, as one passes by the once copper mining community of 19th century Allihies and coming to Cod’s Head; reminiscent of 16th century sailing trips of fishing vessels to the Newfoundland Banks before cod exportation began there. From Cod’s Head the coastal pattern continues passing by Coulagh Bay with Eyeries close by and the quay at ‘Faunkill and the Woods’, to Ardgroom Harbour. This is a rich landscape of souterrains. From Ardgroom to Kilmakilloge (cell of my young cell) Harbour, a Lauragh place name is to be found; suggestive of a Laura monastery or gathering place.
That part of the Beara Peninsula which lies from Ardgroom east to to Castletownbear-haven and south to Dursey Island, is a large civil parish called Kilnamanagh (cell of the monks). It is of interest that there is a scarcity of temple named parishes the further west along the coast one goes from Clonakility; while at the same time Cill names continue to be very frequent.
Next the great estuary of the Kenmare River is then entered; a drowned valley, a ria.
The Kenmare River estuary is a place of visual majesty, its hill-scape on one side an envisioning of nature’s pyramids. Heading northwards from Kilmakilloge Harbour one passes by the vicinity of the string of glacial lakes connected with Inchiquin Waterfall and by this point one has passed from the administrative boundary of County Cork into that of County Kerry. At the head of the estuary lies Kenmare (Neidín). To its north, via Moll’s Gap, passing the Black Valley, fronting the Macgillcuddy Reeks, one comes to the lands of the lakes of Killarney; all a rich landscape for souterrain hunters. In Gaelic the Kenmare estuary is Inbhear Scéine and it is said that it is there the Milesians (Celts) landed in Ireland. In the past some scholars have suggested that it is in this locality that a settlement of the Iverni people once existed. This locality, of Kenmare and the Beara Peninsula, is one where the wife of Eoghan Mór, tradition says, gave her name to Beara to the Bear Peninsula, and the wife of Amergin, his poet, her name Scéine to Inbhear Scéine (anglicised as the Kenmare Estuary). Beara, some have said, was a princess of Castille, in northern Spain.
From Kenmare to the Dingle Peninsula – Iveragh
At Kenmare one is in the peninsula of Iveragh, the southern lands of County Kerry begin to open to the journeyer. The Archaeological Survey of the Iveragh Peninsula has shown it to be a place of many souterrains stretching densely along its coastline. The inland area is largely dominated by mountains, their valleys and foothills. Travelling southwards to Iveragh from Tralee a vista unfolds reminiscent of a great geologically created fortress, a mystical land of mountain kings and legends.
Following the coastline from Kenmare to Sneem, one of harbours, coves, inlets and islands, one enters the Kerry civil parish of Kilcrohane for which Charles Smith recorded the memory of a rock-cut souterrain associated with Saint Crohan. Of note in this regard is the rock-cut souterrain at Brackcloon in Kilnamanagh Parish on the Beara Peninsula which looks across Bantry Bay towards Cork’s Kilcrohane Parish on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula. Brackcloon is also a rock cut souterrain. How frequent, one wonders, was this tradition among early Irish saints and hermits of the South West.
Beyond Sneem and as far as Cove Harbour is another very broken coastline of islands and small inlets from whence one rounds the headland Lamb’s Head opening into Darrynane Bay off which lies Abbey Island. It is of interest that in the Byzantine church tradition Dar is the word for a monastery. Caherdaniel is nearby, notable in Irish national history as the ancestral home of Daniel O’Connell and of his uncle Hunting Cap; some say a smuggler with close connections to France. Offshore, beyond Abbey Island, and further out to sea, are the islands of Deenish and Scariff. From Darrynane Bay to Hog’s Head the pattern of coastline is similar to that already described but then softens as one comes to the narrow inlet to Lough Currane, the place of a medieval island monastery. At Waterville and beyond lie the fen lands of the Inny River Estuary. One is now within Ballinskellig’s Bay, a community linked for centuries to the island of Skellig Michael and its laura monastic community where Easter was celebrated according to an older calendar and the Skellig Lists of those to be married during Lent circulated among the community: a memory of old pilgrimages by sea. Beyond the bay lies Bolus Head, a headland of steep mountain foothills and little grassland and from there Saint Finan’s Bay opens with an indented coastline on its eastern side rounding to Puffin Island to the West; though not now an area of dense settlement it is an area rich in souterrains, one where the presence of early monasticism is also noted, something even more striking as one looks along the road from Keel (an Chill) to Killabuania where an early Christian site is noted. Two promontory forts face onto the bay.
Moving from Puffin Island to the Portmagee Channel which separates the mainland from Valencia Island one comes to two islands near the entrance to the estuary of the Valencia River named Beginish and Church Island. Beginish has a Viking settlement and a medieval ecclesiastical site. Church Island close by also has an early ecclesiastical site excavated by Professor M.J. O’Kelly in the 1950s, in the course of which several early monastic buildings and artefacts were revealed.
On the mainland to the north and across the Valencia Estuary to Cahersiveen are the ‘stone forts’ i.e. cahers in Gaelic, of Cahergal and Leacanabuile. Leacanabuile, like at Knockdrum (Farrandau) at Castlehaven in West Cork, has a souterrain entered from a structure built within the caher. At Leacahabuile the structure is round built in dry masonry while at Knockdrum it is rectangular. Excavations in the 1930s at Leacanabuile revealed evidence of early Christian activity. Resonant, at Knockdrum is an upright slab with a Greek cross, a holy sentinel, by its entrance. Beyond Leacanabuile and Cahergal is Doulus Head. Next an indented coastline skirts along the western side of Iveragh passing Knocknadobar, Drunghill with little on the map in the way of antiquities. It then comes to the area of Rosbehy Point and Inch Point through which one enters Castlemaine Harbour.
and following the coastline from there one enters Dingle Bay.
The Dingle Peninsula
Like a great arm reaching out into the Atlantic Sea, from Castlemaine Harbour, the next parish being America, the Dingle Peninsula is a wonderland of geological and cultural marvels. It is also a place of dense clusters and distribution patterns for souterrains which follow shorelines and through a pass between its mountain ranges. Fertile patches of land exist along the peninsula’s southern shores, from Anascaul to Dingle Harbour. One follows the coast beyond this to Ventry Harbour and Dún Chaoin; overlooking Blasket Sound with the Great Blasket and Inis Tuaisceart and many small islands in the distance. Along the coast road by the southern slopes of Mount Eagle is the extensive settlement of beehive huts (clochauns) at Fahan (Fán), with an enticing view of the Skellig Islands across open water southwards. There is a dense spread of promontory forts along this southern coastline of the peninsula. From Slea Head to Sybil Point the coastline is rugged but spectacular. At Ferriter’s Cove some of the earliest evidence for human occupation in Ireland has been found. Ballyferriter to Muiríoch, overlooking Smerwick Harbour, is where a rich cluster of early Christian activity is focused, with sites such as Kilmalkedar Church, the caher at Riasc with its leacht and clochauns, and Gallarus Oratory.
Following north by Mount Brandon and Más an Tiompáin overlooking the sea, one comes to Brandon Bay and to the northern coastline of the peninsula where traces of promontory forts and early Christian settlement appear to have thinned away: Brandon Bay, a place of rock giants in battle upon the sea. From Brandon Bay, its mudflats by Cloghane along its extensive sandy beach with Lough Gill stretching behind is a great sand spit running northwards to Scraggane Bay. Off this are the Seven Hogs, or Magharee Islands. Rounding the point by Kilshannig (old Cell) Point one enters Tralee Bay passing Fenit and Derrymore Strand before entering the mudflats of the Kerry’s River Lee at Blennerville.
Two great mountain ranges dominate the Dingle Peninsula. They are separated by a routeway running across the peninsula from Anascaul on the south, to the village of Camp on the north. This routeway has many souterrains associated with it. To the east lie the Slieve Mish Mountains stretching to an area south of Tralee town at Knockawaddra. To the west lie the interlinking mountains of Stradbally and Slieve Mhacha Ré, to Ballysitteragh to Mount Brandon and Más an Tiompáin. They encircle a lowland valley area drained by the Owenmore River, and others, all flowing into Brandon Bay; suitable for a landlocked tribe-land if such was one’s desire. Of the Slieve Mish mountain range, in a confusion of legends, sometimes, one accepts, that it was there that invading Pharoah’s daughter, Scotia, fell in battle; or was it at Slieve Miskish by Bantry Bay and Inbhear Scéine that she came with her Milesian hero? Does she represent an earlier invasion, earlier than that of the Milesian and the Miles Espaigne, earlier than that of the people of Eoghan Mór? Sometimes, one wonders about invasions, about Greek coins of Macedonia, and Syrian coins of Persia, about Anu the Persian god of bonfires and the Paps of Anu, about copper miners, and about the telescoping of long range memories for the purposes of preserving fragmentary, relict, facts as tradition.
This completes my description, gapped and generalised though it may be, of the coastline of South Munster. It is a coastline of varied nature with much evidence of many phases of human activity connected with it. At the same time there is a continuity of use of its liminal land areas, by the sea as well as beneath the mountains. Its maritime heritage is an important factor in attempting to understand the souterrain landscapes which follow it’s coastline and stretch inland from there along rivers and streams. Currachs upon a beach on a windy day like ancient mariners crouching, one thinks of a cinematic strip running backwards in time, a coastline revealing barnacled fleets of ships tugging at moorings with others in the motion of sailing towards the horizon, a typography of centuries of sailing history, one of travelling and trading, pirating and fishing, of mariners’ cultures, of their coastal hamlets and beacons, generations of lives at one time present their significance and stories now largely lost to memory.
Part 2 : An Excursion across the Mountains and Lowlands.
The objective in this chapter includes saying something about the mountains and rivers of the South Munster landscape; albeit an overview. Aspects of the geological history which gave shape to the landscape are briefly described as are the soils and subsoils. This is necessary insofar as it helps to set the stage for human activity and its progress in exploiting the natural resources available; be they agricultural, mineral or marine. It is in the remnants of the long tailed transitioning from natural landscapes to human ones that the history and archaeology, the culture, folklife and lore, as well as the geographical orientations within that landscape, can come to be understood for what the ingenuity of human communities living there have made of it through the centuries.
Beginning with the end of the Slieve Mish Mountains at Knockawaddra and moving eastwards, the northern boundary of South Munster can be revealed; its mountain ranges north to south, east to west, their valleys and ridges, highlands and lowlands, which constitute the territory and its geological configuration.The landscape of South Munster is composed largely of sandstone, limestone, slate and shale.
From Dingle to Dungarvan, the physical topography is largely one of east to west synclines and anticlines derived from a geological thrust about 300 million years ago resulting in what is usually described as a ridge and valley topography. To quote Michael Viney (2003,18),
Near the end of Carboniferous time, about 300 million years age, came another major phase of mountain-building. Tectonic collision between the European and African plates thrust up the Hartz Mountains in central Germany and sent a surge of crustal pressure toward Ireland. As it approached what is now the south of the country, it squeezed and crumpled up the sea-floor sediments against the resistant backbone of older rocks to the north. The mountain range formed in this way (known as the Hercynides) was so high that it drew down the moisture from the prevailing south winds and made desert of the land in its lee. Today this ridge has been eroded down to stumps, surviving in Ireland as gentle hills of Old Red Sandstone, folded east to west through Counties Waterford, Cork and Kerry.
Because of a rise in sea level in later times some of these valleys in the South West became flooded resulting in the rias or drowned river valleys of West Cork leaving their ridges as the peninsulas of that locality i.e. Beara, Sheep’s Head, Mizen Head. Fracturing and weathering of the limestone on the ridges gradually led to then being eroded down leaving the underlying Old Red Sandstone exposed on the ridges, the valleys retaining their limestone cover. Major rivers in South Munster such as the Blackwater, Lee and Bandon, flow west to east through such valleys before entering the sea along the south coast. Into these great river valleys headwaters from mountain foothills, corrie lakes, streams and lesser tributary rivers flowed down from ridge tops to join these rivers spreading into their basins and flood plains. The drainage patterns i.e. dendritic and trellised, of South Munster developed in this way. In later times viewed from a human perspective, these patterns became routeways of exploration and communication, a means of penetrating the interior of a once densely forested territory of deciduous woodland and unexpected places of natural clearances.
As viewed from west to east South Munster could be described as having three major bands of mountain ranges one of which stretches from the western end of the Dingle peninsula at Mount Brandon and Mount Eagle to the Slieve Mish Mountains; then, after a lowland gap, the Stack Mountains spread to the Glanruddery Mountains, then to the Mullaghareirk Mountains (spreading into South West Limerick, East Kerry and North West Cork). Next follows a second gap opening from Tullylease eastwards to the Ballyhoura Mountains in Cork. The Ballyhouras stretch eastwards and northeast toward Slievereagh by Kilfinnane in South East Limerick. From there one heads eastwards toward the Galtee Mountains majestically overlooking the Golden Vale and the Glen of Aherlow. This stretch of mountains ends in proximity to the town of Caher, County Tipperary. Following the Suir River northwards from Caher, one passes by the town of Cashel, once the administrative and ecclesiastical centre of South Munster. It is of note that the second and third gaps i.e between the Mullaghareirk Mountains and the Ballyhoura Mountains and between the Ballyhoura Mountains and the Galtee Mountains, have an association with early Christian saints and their foundations i.e. Berihert at Tullylease and Molagga at Labbamolagga. Also of considerable note are the monastic remains at Ardpatrick, Cush by Slievereagh, the Teamhair Erainn (Tara of the Erainn), Raheennamaddra, Knockainy (Cnoc Áine) in the distance, the Harps of Cliu by Galteemore with the Glen of Aherlow on its northern side where St. Berihert’s Kyle is found.
The second major band of mountains in South Munster runs, on its northern side, approximately from Teermoyle Mountain running south east to Mullagh an Attin and from there to the Macgillycuddy Reeks to Tomies Mountain to Mangerton Mountain which overlook Lough Leane at Killarney. From Mangerton Mountain by Crohane one enters the Derrynasaggart Mountains which spread southwards to join the Shehy Mountains which in turn link to the Caha Mountains of the Beara Peninsula. On their northern side lie the Paps of Anu and Caherbarnagh. From there one passes to the Boggeragh Mountains after which a wide gap appears to the south of Mallow town and this gap is bounded to the east by the Nagle Mountains. This gap stretches southwards from Mallow, on the great Blackwater River, along the foothills on the Boggeraghs to what was once Muskerry Mittine on the north side of the River Lee and eastward toward Blarney. It contains the lands of Mourne Abbey as well as the parishes of Donoughmore, Aghabulloge and Inniscarra notable in the medieval ecclesiastical history of Cork.
A third band, begins to the north east of Fermoy town, also on the Blackwater River, taking in the Kilworth Mountains and linking into the Knockmealdown Mountains from where one passing a gap where the Nire River flows towards the Suir River from its source in the Monavullagh/Comeragh Mountains.
Linking the Knockmealdowns to the Monavullagh and Comeragh Mountains and gazing upon the vista northwards, one begins vaguely to observe in the distance – and from the maps, what could be described as a ring of mountain ranges, surrounding a very large lowland plain focused on Cashel of the Kings. The other mountain ranges which complete the ring are Slievenamon to the southeast, Slieveardagh to the northeast, and Knockalough to Slieve Felim to the northwest. Standing on the the Rock of Cashel, this encircling vista reminds one of writings about rents once received from surrounding lands and peoples: the bathos of memory.
Travelling south from Cashel, following the Suir River one comes to a cluster of souterrains at Ardfinnan to the west of Clonmel. The river has now turned eastwards on its journey to Waterford Harbour. Above its north bank a cluster of souterrains is found which appears to be connected with the southern stretch of a large group of souterrains running from north of Kilkenny town south to Waterford City. This concentration of souterrains may be connected on its west side with another Blackwater River which is a tributary of the Suir River. It may also be connected with the course of the Nore River which flows into the Barrow above New Ross in Wexford. From New Ross the River Barrow flows south to meet the Suir before it enters Waterford Harbour. These three rivers are known as The Three Sisters.
Along the southern bank of the Suir from Clonmel to Waterford City is a further area of souterrains, perhaps part of that which occurs on the northern bank. Wexford has very few souterrains some examples of which exist from an area around Arklow to Gorey and a small scatter across the southern part of the county. It is worth bearing in mind that in Medieval and earlier times the counties did not exist and that the land areas we now associated with them may not have had the same relationships with each other in earlier times. To what tribe or clan lands did they belong? If identified what explanations for these souterrain distributions might there be? This is a topic which invites future research; perhaps it is one associated with monasteries, hermitages and their topographies. The lands which constitute counties Kilkenny and Wexford are part of the province of Leinster and are outside the boundaries of the study area. Kilkenny was in the lands of the Osraige people, lands which stretched northwards towards Offaly, a prince of whom was St. Ciarán’s father and within whose kingdom Ciarán founded his Saighir monastery, the Osraige being at one time under the control of the Corcú Laoidhe and part of Munster. The mother of Ciarán is said to have been of the Corcú Laoidhe, as was the first Christian king in Ireland. What differences existed in their cultural consciousnesses, origins and traditions?
I have not been able to establish exactly where the boundary between South Munster and the kingdom of the Osraige was. For the purposes of this study I have imagined a boundary line between South Munster and the Osraige as stretching from Cashel to Kilkenny’s western boundary, then down to the northern bank of the Suir.
This completes my journey around the coastline and, briefly, across the mountain areas and the northern boundary of South Munster. As I explore the souterrain heritage within the territory, in the chapters to follow, I will explore in more detail its rivers and physical topography.
A Matter of Soils
Soils play an important part in the settlement patterns of agricultural communities, their nature determining the vernacular types of economies which emerge across a landscape; particularly it’s inland spaces in contrast with those of the seascapes and major inland river courses. Using the Irish National Soil Map the following are the soil types for the South Munster terrain. I have attempted to describe these in a very generalised way. As a rule of thumb it is important to bear in mind that brown soils are rich and fertile, gleys are waterlogged and best for rough grazing of sheep and goats, peats are wet and poor for crops as well as being a source of turf.
A predominance of Brown Earths can represent lands of high quality for cattle grazing and arable crop growth, while gleys associated with mountains and hills may favour a predominantly sheep and goat based economy. Peats in mountain and hill territories are less favourable and consequently the least settled and poorest regions. Alluvial and loamy soils in the flood plains of river basins are excellent soils for crops and cattle explaining the frequency of town settlements on the major river banks. Where soils are poor and land mountainous or hilly beside marine scapes, trade and fishing will dictate the rise of settlement centres especially at places where pockets of lowland with reasonably fertile soils for cereals and root crops occur. This is the macro picture. At local level specific field groups either natural or man-made e.g. using seaweed, will help to make portions of farmlands sufficiently fertile for the use of small communities.
To the east of a line from Tramore Bay to the top of Waterford Harbour there are Brown Podzolics and Gleys with limestone and shale till. To the west of this line are Acid Brown Earths with granite in the glacial till stretching to the locality of Stradbally and northwards towards Kilmacthomas. The Comeragh and Monavullagh Mountain ranges have Blanket Peat and Peaty Podzols, surrounded by Brown Podzolics. This grouping of soils follows the mountain ranges, intermittently, westward towards the Kilworth Mountains in Cork, with Brown Podzolics on the foothills.
The limestone belt from Dungarvan to Lismore and following the Blackwater River to Fermoy and Mallow, then northwards towards Mitchelstown, is composed of Acid Brown Earths with sandstone and limestone glacial till. Another strip of this soil formation to the south, runs from West Waterford via Tallow to Rathcormack in Cork. Surrounding it and to the south of it, lie Brown Podzolics with sandstone and shale glacial till. Scattered on the higher reaches are Brown Podzolics which stretch west towards the Boggeragh Mountains. South again are a band of Acid Brown Earths stretching from Youghal Bay to Midleton, across Cork Harbour and westwards following the western Bride River towards Crookstown, (the second such river of this name in Cork and a tributary of the River Lee, the other being a tributary of the Blackwater). They are also found north of Youghal and stretching to Ardmore Bay.
South again of this line, a stretch of Acid Brown Earths runs from Ballycotton Bay to Ballinacurra and beyond to Carrigaline and Crosshaven. South of a line from Knockadoon Head near Ballycotton, through Great Island and westward to Crookstown and Enniskeane, Brown Podzolics dominate the landscape, running southwards to the sea coast and stretching to localities as far as Bantry Bay. The Brown Podzolics continue north of Crookstown towards Macroom and the Boggeragh Mountains and then eastwards going north of Blarney and east again towards Watergrasshill and Dungourney.
In the peninsular lands from Mizen Head to the Dingle Peninsula the soils range from coastal pockets of Brown Podzolics to a predominance of Peaty Podzols, also with a presence of Blanket Peat. In North West Cork/North Kerry are rolling lowlands of Gleys. North of a line from Castlemaine Harbour to Kilorglin to Killarney to Kanturk the dominant soil type is Gleys with shale glacial till and some Blanket Peat. Surrounding Cashel for a considerable distance are Grey Brown Podzolics with limestone glacial till. The most striking characteristic of the Soil Map, south of a line from Tralee to Waterford Harbour, is the distinction there between the extent of the Brown Podzolics – which lie east of a line from Bantry to Banteer and what lies to the west of it where Peaty Podzolics dominate. Looking back into earlier histories the implications of such soil differences are interesting to consider in terms of the wealth of great cattle lands on the eastern side of the line compared with sheep farming and maritime traditions to the west of it.
Perhaps it is in the fertility and productivity of these soil types, as in the landscape forms they occupy, that topics such as settlement patterns, conquests, population movements and interplays of cultural perspective can best be understood; as they evolved through the centuries since settlement of the lands of South Munster first began, and as its places came to have identities and names. It is within the subsoils of boulder clay and other glacial tills, which underlie the soil patterns, that choices regarding the creation and use of underground (souterrain) spaces could be made – be they predominantly masonry constructed, as in the eastern lands of the territory, or tunnelled in subsoil and rock as seen more commonly in the west.
The distribution patterns for souterrains in South Munster appear, in general, to follow the Brown Podzolics; from rolling lowlands in those areas of Cork where such are found, to pockets of that soil type on the peninsular lands of the west, to the Déise lands of West Waterford. For East Waterford, eastwards of a rough line approximately from Stradbally to Kilsheelin (Tipperary) souterrains occupy lands of Acid Brown Earths, with a pocket of Gleys stretching northwards from Tramore Bay.
There is no clear division between masonry constructed souterrains and tunnelled ones due to soil types, as best I can determine at present. To what extent a site’s structural form may have been chosen because of depth and spread of suitable underlying till material is difficult to say, without adequate local information for each example of clay tunnelled souterrain on record. In some cases there was more than adequate depth and spread of subsoil to create the dimensional requirements for a usable underground space. In others it was necessary to cut floors and lower wall parts into the upper rock surface to create sufficient ceiling height in an otherwise clay tunnelled site. This practice varied according to how accurate the use of test-pits/ construction shafts were in indicating the depth of subsoil for a proposed site.
A Matter of Rocks
To try to understand the types of rocks of which South Munster is made one might begin with a roughly defined major line from Glenbeigh on the South West coast of County Kerry to Lough Leane beside Killarney to Millsteet, Banteer, Mallow, Fermoy and to Helvick Head at Dungarvan. One could imagine, within the mists of geological time, the landscape to the south of this line as being composed of Old Red Sandstone, Siltstone and Mudstone which still predominate to this day. But within this landscape there are bands of limestone overlying the predominant rock type. These bands represent the valleys derived from the geological folding of South Munster’s landscape area. They are traceable from the Kenmare Estuary to a patch south of Macroom, from Crookstown east to Youghal Bay, and from Ringaskiddy to Ballycotton Bay. A further strip runs from Rathcormack to Aglish, County Waterford.
North east of the major line lies another large area of Red Sandstone stretching from Dungarvan Harbour to beyond Kilworth, north towards Mitchelstown, towards Clonmel and down towards Kilmacthomas. Stretching from Mallow a large Limestone belt sweeps towards Mitchelstown to Clonmel and north beyond Cashel. By Doneraile another band of this material sweeps north towards Charleville and north west towards Ardagh and the Shannon Estuary. It also sweeps to the south east through Tipperary town to Cashel.
To the west of a line from Charleville to Mallow Sandstone and Shale predominate in an area of landscape which stretches north to the Shannon Estuary. On the western side of this stretch of rock there is a band of Limestone running from Ballybunion to Tralee. This band continues, sweeping southward around the eastern side of Slieve Mish, then by Castlemaine Harbour and finally from Kilorglin to Killarney.
The Dingle Peninsula is essentially a Sandstone peninsula which is divided by two mountain ranges. Between them is a low lying strip of land which stretches from Lispole to Camp on the north.
West Waterford is largely Sandstone. West of a line from Stradbally going north to Kilsheelan, Co Tipperary, the rocks of East Waterford are composed of pockets of Slate, Shale, Mudstone, Limestone, and some Basalt. To what extent these rock types influenced choices, forms and patterns of souterrain construction in East Waterford is worth considering at a future date. On the northern bank of the River Suir a limestone band stretches from Slieveroe through Carrick-an-Suir to Clonmel. North of it lies Slievenamon.
This completes of my ramble across South Munster’s soils and bedrocks. They are a place of many altitudinal variations, from its highest mountain peak at Carrauntoohil in the MacGilllacuddy Reeks (Na Cruacha Dubha) standing at over 1,000m OD to its lowest beaches beside the sea.
Of Prospects and Vistas
The contours of the territory and its landscape areas can be visualised in terms of the Ordnance Survey’s use of graded colour bands; stretching from sea level to the peaks of its highest mountains, their sweeping views, vista and prospects proclaiming physical topographies of soft grandeur, of ruggedness, of great sweeps of low lying hilly lands or valleys and plains spreading, undulating to indented sea coasts as seen from corrie lakes, cooms and jagged pinnacles on days of blazing sunshine, on days of misty rainfall; sweeping panoramas of fern and heather bog-lands, fertile lands, forests, hedgerows, farm landscapes and urban scapes, fields of grain and cattle pastures to the rocky rough grazing lands of sheep and mountain farmers, marinas and piers and boats of many shapes and sizes, coming and going with the seasons and the tides. One sometimes wonders, as if walking back in time, how much or how little such prospects of human behaviour and creativity have come and gone, have changed or have left remnants somewhat unchanged, by style, culture and technologies, since time frames of transition from Mesolithic to Neolithic, from Bronze Age to Iron Age, began.
Within such prospects and vistas there are many variations in colour, the colours of the built landscape, the colours of the man-made vegetational landscape and the remnants of the colours dictated by nature since time immemorial. Beneath the patchwork quilt, which is the surface of the landscapes of soil types and vegetational growth, another element of human presence and heritage lies buried in the shape of souterrain structures. Some are tunnelled in the glacial tills distributed across the land by the Ice Age and glacial activity, some were tunnelled into the cracked mantle layers of sandstones and shales, some were constructed of dry masonry in trenches and then closed over. The inland settlement patterns, the rationales for them, their proximities to and distances from souterrains, appear to have been dictated, to an extent, by the economic advantages or disadvantages of the soils. Settlement patterns on such soils may have been dictated by the crop growing and pasturage potentials of the soils, as much as by the mineral resources which could be exploited from prehistoric to early modern times. In such local worlds, local communities came to know and exploited the natural resources of the clan and tribe-lands they held within whatever physical boundaries their land areas were set.
Understanding settlement patterns, be they secular or ecclesiastical, is as much dictated by the natural resources potential of such land areas as by political and cultural issues; landscape areas, not suited to one form of economy, may not be disadvantageous to another if a people’s knowledge base, customary thinking and skills are more suited to it, if where they come from is akin to what is on offer.
This is a question to be asked as one looks across the colour graduations of the Discovery series of Ordnance Survey maps for South Munster, from densely clustered contour lines of high ground to widely spaced ones of low ground. The cartography tells a human story. It is as much a story of associations with the world of the hunter, forager and farmer, as of associations with chieftains or monastic abbots, as with a world of botanical heritages, of nature’s record, as much as humanities exploitations and additions to it.
The Climate in South Munster
South Munster’s climate is mild, moist and changeable but without extremes. It receives an abundance of rainfall. Its summers are usually cool, its winters not severe. Its prevailing winds are from the South West. It has pockets of warmer micro climates along the South West shoreline which faces southwards towards the Atlantic edge of the European landmass. It is warmed by the North Atlantic current all year round.
It is not my purpose in this study to consider climate changes in earlier times, how it might have affected the behaviour of those living across the lands of South Munster, whether or not it was warmer or cooler in Bronze Age to Iron Age times or later into Medieval times. Whether or not any such changes impacted on the degree of construction or use of souterrains is a topic for future research.
Other Aspects of South Munster
There are several other aspects to gaining an understanding of the South Munster landscape which are not covered within the study frame used here. These range from
the histories of its flora and fauna – the latter being of interest when remnants of animal bones (domesticated or otherwise) are discovered in souterrains, the accessibility and nature of minerals and their rock types, the impact of glaciation on the shaping of the landscape’s terrain and the nature of subsoils deposited. Apart from the relevance of understanding glacial deposits and rock types to understanding tunnelled souterrain construction and form, and apart from any relevance to quarrying for the construction of masonry souterrains, I have not carried these areas of enquiry any further. I don’t doubt that modern environmental archaeological techniques and investigations will in time produce useful information to help with more closely contextualising the topographical settings for souterrains and their clustering patterns within the South Munster landscape.
This chapter’s objective has been to attempt an introduction to the landscape area which lay within the Kingdom of South Munster in 1118 AD. The intention, no matter how vaguely defined, is to identify and describe a landscape platform upon which to set something of the drama of human activity, and behavioural characteristics, performed during the period in which its souterrains were created and used. Its purpose is to define the chosen Study Area for this monument type; a monument type ubiquitous in certain parts of South Munster. Going back in time, it is the social and ecclesiastical histories which took place upon this landscape that created its souterrain heritage. The next chapter attempts to understand the nature of the ethnic identities – and something of their origins, occupying the landscape before, and during, the introduction of early Christianity. This will form a backdrop to the following two chapters which try to chart a little of the early ecclesiastical history in the Eastern Mediterranean, its gradual and various arrivals in South Munster and their overlay of the existing and developing human landscape there. The objectives are aspirational but they will, I hope, set the stage for how and when the various souterrain types began to appear, how they were created and used, and what their histories may have been before becoming a forgotten element of the landscape’s heritage, before becoming sources of surprise and mystery in later times.