Archaeological Remains On Shehy Beg, West Cork

The following article is based on an slide-illustrated lecture given by Tony Miller B.A.(hons), a local archaeologist, to the Daniel Corkery Summer School in July 2011. It is published here with Tony's kind permission.

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As a keen hill-walker I have visited many of the remoter upland areas of West Cork, away from main roads, towns and villages. Today these areas give the impression of being isolated, wild and forgotten by most save for a few hardy sheep farmers.. However, if we look back into history a different picture emerges. These same upland terrains were seen as preferred route ways, as places to live, either permanently or temporarily and as sources of certain raw materials, such as summer grazing, turf, wild food, stone and metal ores,. Furthermore, as these areas have not been affected so much by modern farm improvements it is still possible to see and discover traces of these earlier times.

What I would like to discuss this evening is a selection of new archaeological sites I have recorded in just one town land within the parish of Inchigeelagh- that townland is Shehy Beg. At the time of the Archaeology Survey in the 1980’s it contained only one recorded monument which was a stone pair located to the west of the town land, overlooking Bantry Bay and the Keakill Valley. Since attempting more systematic field walking and by talking with local landowners, I have increased this number with 18 new entries in the Record of Monuments and Places. I am sure there are still more to be found.

 

Fitting in with the theme for this week the majority of these new sites probably date to the early medieval period while a few might belong to later or post medieval times. Without the excavation of every monument it is not possible to accurately date them . Instead we must rely on comparisons with other similar sites and the relatively limited number of excavations carried out elsewhere on upland sites. In recent years as a result of the economic boom, there has been a massive increase in the number of excavations carried out in this country but the majority of these have been in and around towns or along the routes of new roads and motorways. Upland archaeology has largely been the preserve of academic research led excavation.

Shehy Beg is a large, almost uninhabited town land on the southern slopes of Shehy Mountain (Cnoc na Seagha- Hill of the elk or Cnoc na Seithe- hill of the animal hide or Sid na bhFear bhFinn- ‘seat of the fair men’- Shehy Beg. (Bruno O’Donohughe- Parish Histories)) It is 718 acres in extent and is nearly all 1000ft above sea level. Its northern boundary rises steeply to the main summit of Shehy at nearly 1800 feet, while the rest of the area is made up of a plateau of heather clad rocks and rough grazing crossed by streams and bogs.

Crossing the town land from east to west is a modern track which closely follows the route of a Butter Path dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries. At this time butter would have been carried by donkey along this path from as far away as Beara to the butter markets of Cork city. The previously mentioned stone pair, dating to the Bronze Age, could also have been markers for a much earlier route way across this hillside. Such high track ways would have always provided more direct, drier and open routes for long distance travel, before the road network was improved at a much later date. They are once again being used as sections of the increasingly popular long distance walking routes.

The most abundant of theses new sites on Shehy are simple hut circles. At first glance it is not easy to imagine how they could ever have been lived in. All that remains now are simple rings, often incomplete, of tumbled stones protruding above the surrounding turf. On Shehy most of them are located in two groups with a few scattered individual ones. Their locations share the same characteristics of being close to drier, greener patches of grazing, sheltered by a hill or rocks to one side and, finally, close to a water source. On average these hut sites are between 2 and 3.5 m in diameter with the surviving walls no more than half a meter in height. It is often possible to see where the entrances would have been, marked by either a simple gap in the ring or occasionally by flanking upright stones, and these entrances are always positioned to the east or southeast, giving maximum shelter from the prevailing westerly wind. Other features often found with them include small semi-circular additions built onto the back of a few. These could have been for food storage or even possibly to secure young animals at night. Others also have well built enclosures or stockades associated with them probably for keeping animals at night. Wolves would have a threat still at these times. These enclosures are usually circular while some can be D shaped, convenient ridges of bed rock forming the straight side.. One of the hut sites also has a very dramatic look out post next to it where access has been made up onto a large split rock from where clear views over the area can be had. Another associated monument is the large number of stone built field walls which can also be traced emerging from the bog and turf. Again on Beara a similar boundary wall was dated to the late Iron Age while in Mayo many kilometres have been revealed from under the bog dating back 6000 years to the early Neolithic.

Until recently these hut sites were dismissed as being of little interest as they were thought to be only a few hundred years old at the most- remnants of post-medieval ‘booleying’ practice. But now that an increasing number of them have been excavated it is becoming clear that they can cover a considerable span of prehistory. For example a large village of hut sites in Sligo have been shown to be of the same Neolithic date as the nearby Carrowkeel passage tomb cemetery.

On Achill island the field school there has excavated hut sites and shown they date back to the 15th century BC or the middle bronze age. Recent excavations on the Paps on the Kerry border dated two hut circles to the early medieval period c.8th century.

Closer to home, Prof. O’Kelly at UCC excavated a hut site which is included as part of the rounds at St. Gobnaits shrine in Ballyvourney, which had been used for iron working, and Billy O’Brien at UCC, the present Prof. of archaeology, has led excavations on the Beara Peninsular which have also placed hut sites into the early medieval period.

As I said before, without excavation it is not possible to date these sites in Shehy Beg but by their typology I would assume they also belong to early medieval times. The Beara excavations yielded no evidence of how the huts were roofed. My own idea is that the rough circles of stone were first laid out and then stabilised and raised in height with layers of cut sods. Onto this a simple roof of hazel or sally rods- carried up from the valley below- could have been added and thatched with locally available heather or rushes.

Such a temporary construction would fit in with seasonal use as a shelter for herdsman grazing their animals on the high grounds in the summer months and also explain the lack of evidence for structural supports found during excavation.. This practice of transhumance would have relieved grazing pressure in the lowlands and protected the growing of cereals and other crops near the main settlements from the animals. The early medieval period was a time of an improvement in agriculture leading to a population expansion. There was a greater emphasis on dairying the growing of oats and barley and keeping of cattle and sheep. Further advances were made with the introduction of horizontal watermills and cereal drying kilns.

The hut sites would have been contemporary with the more familiar ringforts of which there quite a few around the base of Shehy especially in Shanacrane, Derragh and Glounneycarney. Ringforts, also known as lisses or raths, are amongst the most abundant archaeological monuments in Ireland. They were the enclosed farmsteads of their time- built during the second half of the first millennium- containing dwellings, workshops and animal quarters. At a time that was strictly hierarchical the ringforts appear to reflect these different levels of status. The higher status ones would be multi-vallate, stone built, known as Cashels and, finally crannogs of which Inchigeela has the best preserved example in the county.

One final piece of evidence pointing to an early medieval date for these hut sites and enclosures, is, for me , the most striking find I have made on Shehy Beg. It was made by my young daughter when we were walking on the mountain during a dry spell. She ran ahead at one point and began splashing in a puddle, calling us over to have a look. It was a small rock with a single bullaun cut into its upper surface, lying immediately next to a relict field boundary and possible hut circle.

Bullaun in Irish simply means a bowl or round hollow in a stone and the word is used to describe any such man-made bowl in a boulder, portable stone, such as this example, or an outcrop of bed rock. It is not clear what their exact use was though it was most likely to involve crushing or grinding raw materials, either foodstuffs or possibly for other processes such as dyeing. They would not have been used for grinding cereals as more efficient quern stones or even watermills would have been available.

There are only 87 bullaun stones listed in the RMP for county Cork and the majority are connected in some way with early ecclesiastical sites and occasionally with ringforts. They are sometimes known as Holy Wells and attributed with curative powers. It is a common belief that they never run dry and can help with eye problems or cure warts. In 1863, Brady wrote about a bullaun at Kilcaskin on Beara ‘in the hollow of this stone…. The country people bathe their eyes when sore… at each round they throw in a bit of rush formed into a cross and afterwards suspend a piece of rag on a bush over the stone’

The bullaun on Shehy is a simple rectangular block of local sandstone with a basin measuring roughly 30 cm in diameter and a bit over 10cm in depth. As I said before it is just to the north of a collapsed heather clad field boundary with a narrow gap in it directly next to the stone. To the south of that gap is the possible outline of a barely visible hut site. This particular bullaun is of interest because they are rarely found in a domestic context and at such a height, at over 1000ft. It would also appear to be still in its original position which is not that common as elsewhere they were moved and brought in to church sites. Here their religious connections ensure they become an important part of penitential stations, such as St Gobnaits or St. Abbans, added to the church structure such as Reenaree , part of shrines such as Borlin, or simply kept within graveyards such as Kilgobnet near Clondrohid or Macloneigh, just outside Macroom. The most impressive and unusual of all the bullauns I have visited is the one just west of the medieval church at Garranes, near Bonane on the north side of the Priests Leap.

Finally I would like to show you two more sites I have recorded one of which at least is post-medieval in date. This is a large flat topped rock, 2m in length, which from a distance looks remarkably like a wedge tomb. However, it is known locally as a Mass Rock dating back to the penal times of the early 18th century when Catholic worship was outlawed and the movement of priests restricted, A similar one can be found just outside the village on the south lake road in Curraheen, which you will all probably know. This one on Shehy is in an isolated and very bleak site. However, at the same time it ensured the privacy of the worship and made it accessible from a few directions- from Coolmountain and the Keakil valley via the Butter Path and from Togher and Derrinacaregh via other still extant track ways. There also seems to be the remains of a small shelter built against its eastern side.

The second of these other sites is a group of three small quarries strung out along the base of the steep summit of Shehy. The rock here is exposed and is a fine mudstone, part of the ORS sequence. It is highly fractured, presumably by the ice sheets of the last ice age, and breaks easily into small pieces. These quarries were pointed out to me by the landowner, Finbarr Kearney, who said his farther would always use a stone from Shehy to sharpen his shears each year before shearing. From the amount of waste material below these quarries they must have been used for a long period and many sharpening stones taken away. Known as whet or hone stones, these tools are a common feature of early medieval sites and are often found on excavations, including small perforated ones that could be hung on a cord and carried around.

To bring us even closer to present day, Shehy Beg also contains the remains of farmsteads and cabins dating back to the last great population expansion of the late 18th century. This ended with the great calamity of the famine and these uplands have been left almost untouched since then.

In conclusion we are lucky in this country to have so many visible archaeological monuments and I believe that there are still many to be found and recorded. After many years of being in the background, the uplands are once again becoming the focus of attention with the expansion of wind farms and forestry. Archaeological monuments here are well protected by the National Monuments legislation and by the Planning Process but unless any new sites are recognised or recorded then they can not be protected and another piece of the Irelands rich cultural heritage could be lost.

I would also like to recommend the National Monuments website at www.archaeology.ie This has been recently improved and it is possible to access the inventory descriptions for each site and aerial photographs. There are five volumes printed for County Cork but no more will be printed. New sites will only be available on this website in the future.