Real Ireland

Burren Stories #2. Corkscrew Hill.

Corkscrew Hill lies on the road between Ballyvaughan and Lisdoonvarna, which slices through the heart of the Burren. The road climbs the notorious hill with four switchbacks that take you to the viewpoint. This is a great place to get a feel for the character of the Burren. You look north east up a fertile valley, comprised of glacial till, towards Ballyvaughan and over Galway Bay. The bare terraced limestone ridges that frame each side are the signature of The Burren. To the east is Turlough Hill and Slievecarran and to the west Gleninagh Mountain. It is always difficult to capture a panoramic view such as this but I had a go. Do I go wide or zoom in on the mountains? Couldn’t decide so I did both.

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View from Corkscrew Hill towards Ballyvaughan

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Turlough Hill and Slievecarron

As did the travellers who disgorged themselves from their tour bus for a five-minute stop. I chatted to the driver Tom. They had left Galway that morning and were en route to the Cliffs of Moher before heading to Killarney where they would spend the night. That’s a lot to cover in one day, so the Burren was allocated just those five minutes. I asked Tom if they would see anything else, such as Poulnabrone. “Bit out of the way”, he says and lowering his voice to a whisper adds “and I don’t thing any of these guys would be very interested”.

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A short stop on the way to the Clifffs

As the bus continued its way up the hill, I returned to my quiet contemplation of the vista, grateful that circumstances had given me so much more than those five minutes.

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The Beara Peninsula. Stories of children, swans and hags.

I recently visted  the beautiful Beara Peninsula, which straddles Counties Cork and Kerry, a place of extraordinary natural beauty.  But it’s also the stuff of legends. Two of the great Irish myths have a strong connection to the Beara Peninsula.

The Hag of Beara

First there is the ancient and enduring story of An Cailleach Béara, a goddess of sovereignty giving kings the right to rein, she was seen as the harbinger of winter. She is said to have had seven periods of youth so that every man who had lived with her died of old age. The myth is widespread throughout Ireland with other sites also associated with her, such as Hag’s Head at the Cliffs of Moher and the Wailing Woman on Skellig Michael, created where she is said to have dropped stones from her apron (though as with all these legends these sites have alternative explanations).
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The Hag of Beara stares out to sea.

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Hag’s Head in Co Clare

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The Wailing Woman on Skellig Michael

The Hag however did live most of her time near Kilcatherine where she met her fate when she was caught stealing a prayer book of Naomh Caitairiin, a Christian preacher, who she saw as a threat to her powers. He turned her to stone at Ard na Cailli her face now perpetually staring out to sea. The haunting and poignant figure of the Hag of Beara holds a strong place in Irish culture and her memory is revered, with legends and feast days associated with her all over the country. The rock at Kilcatherine is visited by many who leave coins and trinkets to her memory.
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Hag of Beara

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Offerings left on the rock

The Children of Lir

Another myth known all over Ireland is the Children of Lir. A sad tale of love, loss, betrayal it still today inspires many cultural expressions, in song music and dance. It tells of the ancient King of Lir (of the Tuatha de Danaan clan) and his four daughers, who were turned into swans by a jealous stepmother Aoife. The spell lasted 900 years and they were banished for 300 on Lake Derravaragh in County Westmeath, three hundred on Straits of Moyle, between Scotland and Ireland, and three hundred more on Isle of Inishglora, off the coast of Mayo. The spell could only be broken when they heard the ringing of Christian bells with the arrival of St Patrick.
When finally they heard bells being rung by a monk in Allihies they landed and took on human form and rapidly aged. They were christened and buried by this holy man in one grave under some round boulders. This humble site is the only physical manifestation of this enduring legend.
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Burial site of the Children of Lir

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Burren Stories #1. Corcomroe Abbey

I can’t believe that in the five years I’ve lived here I hadn’t come across this place before. It wasn’t until I was chatting to my friend Oliver O’Connell, a man who knows the Burren as well as anyone, that it came up in conversation. When he saw the blank look on my face, he said “let’s forget about our plans. I’ll show it to you”.

It is hard not to be impressed when you first see it. A stunning location in a green valley surrounded by the treeless rocky hills it has towered over the landscape for centuries. A huge symbol of Church and Chieftain power. Surrounded by natural beauty and itself the stuff of legends.

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Corcomroe Abbey in its fertile valley

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Another view of Corcomroe Abbey bathed in sunshine.

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Corcomroe Abbey viewed from the east. Note the repaired roof over the nave

It was founded for the Cistercian monks around 1195 and the church we see today was constructed in the early 13th century. The name is said to have derived from Corcamruadh, cor meaning district; cam, quarrel and ruadh, red. The church was also dedicated, more poetically, to St Mary of the Fertile Rock. It is believed that the building was commissioned by King Conor na Siudane Ua Briain (Conor O’Brien) King of the ancient territory of Thomond and a huge benefactor to the Church.

The continual relationship and support of the ruling families meant for a turbulent history for the monastery and led ultimately to its downfall. Many battles were fought in and around the Abbey and its ownership regularly changed hands. In 1268 Conor O’Brien was killed by Conor Carrach O’Loughlain, though the O’Brien’s maintained control. The monks retrieved his body and interred him in the Abbey. In 1317 yet another battle was fought this time between factions of the O’Briens and the Abbey was used as a barracks. By the end of the 14th century, the O’Cahans (O’Kane or Keane) from Derry took control of the Abbey’s lands. Sometime in the 15th century (though it is unknown how) the Tierney family took control.

With the dissolution of Catholic monasteries due to the English Reformation the Abbey and land was granted to the Baron of Inchiquin and Earl of Thomond, Murrough O’Brien, in 1554 and then in 1702 to Donat O’Brien of Dromoland, whose family retained the abbey until the 1870s when it passed into public hands.

Meanwhile the monks continued to tend the fields and maintain the abbey as circumstances allowed, but the political climate led to continued decline until the last abbott was appointed in 1628.

It is built to a standard Cistercian plan, though with some notable variations and the extreme decoration is unusual. The stonework is of such high quality it is said to have led to the ultimate demise of the five stonemasons involved, who were executed by O’Brien to prevent them repeating their masterpiece somewhere else. Hopefully they got their reward in the next life.

Over the nave there is a roof (repaired very sensitively) with exquisitely carved rib vaulting with herringbones and some floral decoration. It is lit by three lancet windows. Either side of the nave are columns with detailed carvings of human heads and flowers. Including what look like bluebells and fleur-de-lys. What is intriguing to me is the lack of symmetry of these decorated columns. This lack of symmetry is seen elsewhere, for instance in the arch over a niche on the north transept. Was this intended or was it a result of different masons working on different areas or maybe a thumbing of noses to architectural orthodoxy? At the base of the columns are further carvings of flowers (?). One intrigued me. It is unidentifiable, though to me it looks remarkably like a map of Australia which wouldn’t be ‘discovered’ for another 550 years! Such prescience.

There are many other notable features in the nave. A niche tomb on the north wall houses a life size effigy of Conor O’Brien. Beautifully carved it is one of the few examples of a depiction of an Irish chieftain surviving. He is in a serene repose, wearing a robe with pleats and a crown with fleur-de-lys decoration. He once held a sceptre apparently in his left hand (now gone) and his right holds a reliquary suspended round his neck. Love the little touch of his feet resting on a cushion. Love also that we are able to see it in situ, with no guard rails rather than have it relocated to a museum somewhere. Above this is a detailed carving of a bishop. There is an intricate sedilia (where the priests sit during the service) on this same wall.

Where the north and south transepts intersect the presbytery, there are several crossing arches in remarkable condition and set into the floor throughout are grave slabs. I am a lover of gravestones and here are some of the finest I have seen in Ireland, especially those close to the altar (where the rich were allocated space). And some of the oldest, with one I saw dating back to the late 1600s. This I think reflects the patronage by the elite who could afford intricate engraving that has survived.

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Corcomroe Abbey. Archway over niche in north transept. Note again assymetrical carvings with bluebells on left and fleur-de-lye on right.

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Corcomroe Abbey Carved head on right hand column in southern transept

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Corcomroe Abbey. Carved head and flowers on left hand columns in the south transept

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Corcomroe Abbey. Effigy of Conor O’Brien.

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Corcomroe Abbey. Grave slab. Elegant simplicity. Pray for the soul of Martin Burke and Posterity 1775

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Corcomroe Abbey. Oliver O’Connell examines a grave slab

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Corcomroe Abbey. Grave slab for John O’Dally and Marey Flanagane. Dated 1682. The oldest I saw.

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Corcomroe Abbey. Double arch over sedilia on north wall of nave. Different decorative carvings on each column

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Corcomroe Abbey. Beautiful detailed carving of a bishop

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Corcomroe Abbey. Tomb niche of Conor O’Brien underneath carving of a bishop.

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Corcomroe Abbey. Unidentified carving. Map of Australia?

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Corcomroe Abbey. Floral carving at base of columns.

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Corcomroe Abbey. View of the columns supporting the arch over the nave. Note the assymetrical arrangemetn of carvings at the tops of the columns.

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Corcomroe Abbey. Looking towards the nave showing the arches over the north and south transepts

A walk around Corcomroe is almost spiritual. You do feel some sort of presence. And it is not surprising that stories of this abbey are woven into Irish Culture in many ways other than the clinical history of battles and chieftains or its marvellous architecture.

Indeed it is said to be haunted by the ghosts of a poet named Cearbhall O’ Dalaigh and Eibhlin Kavanagh who eloped in the 15th century and wished to be secretly married at midnight on Christmas Eve. If you know the song Eileen Aroon, which is about this episode, then you know that it didn’t end well as Eibhlin’s father caught up with them that night.

You will also feel perhaps, when you walk around, the inspiration that Yeats must have had when he chose to use it as the backdrop for his play on Irish freedom, The Dreaming of Bones.

That feeling stayed with me long after. Thanks, Oliver, for introducing me to this special place. Highly recommend.

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Burren Stories

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View lookin north over Galway Bay from near Ballyvaughan. We can see Irish history that stretches back over 800 years. In the foreground is the ruin of Corcomroe Abbey, which dates from the early 13th Century. In the middle distance is Shanmuckinish Castle built c1450 and in the distance you can just see the Martello tower at Finvarra built in 1810.

As anyone knows who follows my blog I love the Burren.  I have posted on it many times and, honestly, I thought if I posted anymore I’d just be repeating myself.  But the more I discover it the more the exact opposite has happened.  It truly entangles you, drawing you in as if under a spell and you just want to to dig deeper.  A bit like fiddle playing really.  The more you play the more you want to play.  You never get sick of it.

The  Burren seems larger than it really is.  Indeed at 250 square km it occupies less than 10% of Clare and is smaller than the area of the City of Dublin.  But when you are there its scale is deceptive.  It has a majesty that affects everyone and has been inspiring its inhabitants for millenia.  Within this area is a natural endowment and cultural endowment as rich as any place on the planet.

Underneath it all is a simple but unique geology.  Just one rock – limestone, laid down in tropical seas in the Carboniferous Period about 240 million years ago.  Limestone is rich in calcium carbonate.  This simple fact combined with an extensive period of glaciation, then the etching of the land by rain water has resulted in special landscape and one of the best examples of karst topography in the world.  And a superb place to view the effects of glaciation to boot.

This one of a kind combination and its location on the Gulf Stream has moulded its people and the land ever since.  There are so many surprising paradoxes here that are a product of an environment that is both harsh and welcoming to those who can adapt.  This is seen in every facet of the Burren world.

Recently I have visited the Burren again and again.  In this upcoming series of blogs I will tell some of the stories of this personal journey.  I will look closer at its rocky heart and what this geology means,  I will look at the world below ground and on its rocky surface.  I will look at the arrival of man and the incredibly rich built heritage that spans at least five millenia, I will look at the trove of different ecosystems that has resuted in the richest and most diverse plant assemblages in Ireland and  I will look at the human struggle and man’s ongoing battle with the land.

As a geologist I bring my own perspective but I am by no means an expert in any of the things I will talk about here. This as a personal account of what I have found and I will let my camera tell most of the story.  They will be essentially photo essays.  If you want to dig deeper there are plenty of great books and websites that can fill in the gaps.

Most of these ‘Stories’ have already been posted on my Facebook page but I wanted to bring them together here. Here goes.

Proceed to  Burren Story #1

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Ireland’s First Copper Mine.  4,500 years of mining history

I have stumbled onto historical mining in a number of places in Ireland in my travels.  Particularly at Allihies and Mizen in West Cork and along the so-called Copper Coast in Waterford.  However, I had no idea of the significance of copper mining in Killarney, and only came across it by chance recently when exploring Killarney National Park’s other delights.

19th Century mining of copper underpinned many fortunes for its British landowners.  In Castletownbere in West Cork,  it was the Puxley’s and Killarney it was the Earls of Kenmare and then the Herberts, who funded their magnificent home at Muckross from their mining wealth.  Ironically the mansion at Muckross was completed in 1843 as the Famine ravaged Ireland.  But the saga of mining in Killarney goes back much further, deep into Neolithic times.

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Muckross House built by the Herbert family with money from their mining fortune

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Muckross House. Built 1843

When we talk of mining history in Australia, we think back to the first gold rushes in NSW and Victoria, which were in 1851, or Australia’s own copper boom, which started in South Australia in the 1840s. Mining effectively ended Australia’s time as a penal colony and led to an explosion of free immigration.  So it took a bit to wrap my mind around the mining heritage of a country that goes back thousands of years.

Mining has taken place at two locations on the Killarney Lakes, Ross Island and on the Muckross Peninsula.  Mining there reflects human occupancy from the end of the Neolithic Period and the early Bronze Age (2500-1800 BCE) through Christian times (8th Century) to industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ross Island is the earliest known site for copper mining in Ireland.  The activity has been dated by the discovery of Beaker pottery by a team from National University of Ireland Galway in 1992.  The so-called Bell Beaker culture is named after the inverted bell-shaped pottery vessels found scattered throughout Western Europe and dated in Ireland from 2500 BCE to 2200 BCE.  This has been confirmed by radiocarbon dating at the site.

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Beaker vessel characterstic of the style of the Bell Beaker culture, fragments of which were used to date the Ross Island mining site.  Photo credit: http://curiousireland.ie/the-beaker-people-2500-bc-1700-bc/

The true Bronze Age in Ireland (that is when copper was alloyed with tin or arsenic to manufacture weaponry and tools) started around 2000 BCE.  Prior to this was the ‘Copper Age’ and copper from Ross Island would have been used for daggers or axe heads or other copper objects and was traded widely.  Chemical fingerprinting and lead isotope analysis shows that Ross Island was the only source of copper until 2200 BCE in Ireland. Not only this, but two-thirds of artefacts from Britain before this time show the same signature.  And Ross Island copper is found to be present in artefacts found in Netherlands and Brittany.  After this time other mines from southern Ireland became more important.

So, Ross Island saw the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age.  Frankly, to me as a mining geologist, to be able to stand on the place where the mining took place that underpinned this highly significant transition in human development in Ireland was, for me, a special experience.

The early miners exploited a rich band of oxidized copper ore within the limestone through shallow cave-like excavations, tunnels and chambers, most of which were damaged by subsequent mining.  Some of the surface ‘caves’ are visible today behind a rusting iron fence though the view is unfortunately heavily obscured by vegetation, which has been allowed to grow unchecked.

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Bronze Age mining excavation Ross Island

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Bronze Age mining Ross Island

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Probable Bronze Age mining excavation with later 18th Century stone walls.

These openings were made in the days well before explosives, by lighting fires against the rock face to open fractures and then pounding the walls with stone hammers.  The broken rock was then hand sorted and the separated ore was converted to metal by smelting in pit furnaces.

The last of the first phase of mining from this site is dated at 1700 BCE.  Mining lay dormant for centuries then, but in the early Christian period was a Golden Age of metalworking in Ireland, when such treasures as the Tara Brooch were produced.  Killarney was one of the centers of metallurgical and artisanal skills.  Excavations at Ross Island have found small pit furnaces that date from 700 AD suggesting that ores from here were used to produce metals for the production of  such objects.

Another thousand years passed before the final chapter in the exploitation of the wealth of Killarney copper played out.

This last phase of mining commenced in the early 18th century.  The first attempts at extracting lead in 1707 and then again to work the mine in 1726 failed.  In 1754 Thomas Herbert commenced mining under an arrangement with the then landowner, the Earl of Kenmare.  Mining was difficult due to flooding from proximity to the lake edge and for the next fifty years was sporadic.

I must digress for a moment.  In 1793 Thomas Herbert invited a mining consultant Rudolf Raspe to advise on the mines.  Why do I mention this?  Raspe was German and author of The Fabulous Adventures of the Baron von Munchausen (published in 1785). You might have seen the movie or heard of ‘Munchausen Syndrome’ but I grew up with these fantastical stories read to me by my father. Who would have dreamt of a connection between these far-fetched tales and copper mining in the west of Ireland. Anyway the poor fellow didn’t have such a Fabulous ending dying of scarlet fever a few months later and being buried in an unmarked grave near Muckross.

Meanwhile mining on Muckross Peninsula started in 1749 on the Western Mine and by 1754 the company had raised some £30,000 worth of copper ore, which was shipped to Bristol for smelting.  This closed in 1757 and operations commenced on the Eastern Mine opening for short periods in 1785 and again in 1801.  Operations resumed on the Western Mine in 1795 but these failed due apparently to mismanagement.  Little more was heard of this mine and it was considerably less successful than its neighbour.

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Mining spoil at Muckross Mine seen from the lake

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Muckross Peninsula.  18th Century smelter building

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Inside smelter building showing unusual curve flue.  There were at least three smelting furnaces in the structure.

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Muckross Peninsula. Old mine building

But things might have been very different. A dark crystalline mineral was encountered which oxidised to a very bright pink.  It had no copper and so was discarded.  One miner recognised it as the cobalt ore, cobaltite (CoAsS), with its oxidized form, pink erythrite (Co3(AsO4)28H2O).  This man quietly removed twenty tons of this ‘rubbish’ undiscovered.  When the proprietor later realised its value, it was too late.  It had been removed by his helpful employee, or mined as waste and thrown away to expose the copper ore.  Reminds me of the non-recognition of the gold rich Telluride ores in Kalgoorlie in 1893, which for years were used to surface roads, until a way was discovered to extract the gold.  Needless to say, the roads were ripped up.

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Erythrite from Muckross.  Photo credit: Online Mineral Museum

Back to the Ross Mine, which at the beginning of the 19th century had another renaissance. The Ross Island Company obtained a 31 year mining lease from Lord Kenmare in 1804, Work commenced on the Blue Hole on a rich lode of lead and copper. Mining continued until 1810 by which time it had become unprofitable.

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Blue Hole Mine open pit

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Northern pit Blue Hole Mine. Mining completed 1810

The operation was restarted by the Hibernian Mining Company (1825-9).  Both struggled with the perpetual problem of flooding.  One solution suggested was to drain Lough Leane; this did not go down too well as you can imagine, particularly with the local boatmen.  In the end a large coffer dam was built on the shore and water pumped into it from the mine. Part of the dam is still there.  Bigger and bigger pumps were required and ultimately by 1828 they were unable to deal with the water and the mine closed. Most of the Western Mine area is now flooded as the dam walls have been breached

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Eastern coffer dam.

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Part of Western Mines area flooded by breached dam wall on left.

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Ross Island.  A walled off limestone cave with steel door.  My hunch it was used as a magazine.

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Old shaft near Blue Hole mine

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Site of Old Engine House Ross Island Mine

Wandering over the site today does not give a true sense of the scale of mining in the early 19th century.  This map by Thomas Weaver from 1829 shows the fifty or so shafts, underground tunnels and surface buildings from this phase of operations.

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Thomas Weaver map of Ross Island mine workings 1829.  Photo credit NUIG.

But mining grew out of favour and conflicted with the rise of tourism to the area.   No more mine leases were granted after 1829 by the Herberts, who by this time had transitioned from mining entrepreneurs to landowners. The area was carefully landscaped, with the infilling of shafts, flooding of the Blue Hole, the demolition of buildings and the planting of trees. Subsequent forest growth has softened the historic footprint of the mining

Mineral exploration is now prohibited in the National Park so the remarkable 4,500 year history of mining here has come to an end.  Public awareness however of this important site is increasing with the creation of a Mining Trail and explanatory signage at the site.  To me, places like this are as important as Glendalough and Ceidi Fields and their preservation is so important.

I am ashamed to say that after five years in Ireland I only discovered this place by accident.  But find it I did, and I will be back there as soon as I can be.

 

Much of the material for this blog came from the informative website of the National University of Ireland Galway who completed the archaeological study of the historical mining sites in 1992.   http://www.nuigalway.ie/ross_island/.  My thanks and acknowledgement to them.

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The Puck Fair, Co Kerry. A 400-year old tradition.

Some institutions in Ireland die hard.  One is the Puck Fair.  Held annually in Killorglin in Co Kerry in August, it is surely one of the country’s longest running public events.  As with many of these things though, the written record is scant and it is not clear exactly how old it is.  There is a reference in 1613 to a local landlord, Jenkins Conway, collecting a tax from every animal sold at the ‘August Fair’ and even earlier there is a record from 1603 of King James I granting a charter to the existing fair in Killorglin.  So let’s just say it is well over 400 years old.

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The main street of Killorglin is choked for the Puck Fair

Puck derives from the Irish Phoic, meaning He-goat.  Again, when the fair became associated with the goat is also shrouded in mystery.  The story I like tells how in 1808 the British Parliament made it unlawful in Ireland to levy tolls on cattle, horse or sheep fairs.  The landlord of the time lost his income and on the advice of then budding lawyer Daniel O’Connell (yes, that Daniel O’Connor), proclaimed it a ‘goat fair’ and charged his tolls as usual believing it was not covered.  To prove it was indeed a goat fair a Phoic was hoisted on a stage and proclaimed King Puck.

Whatever the truth, a male wild goat is still today crowned King and hoisted in a cage up a tower where he remains for three days before being released back into the wild.  The crowning of the goat though, I have to say, was a disappointment. Conducted on a stage under the tower, with its steel barrier that restricted vision, the goat was held by two burly yellow-coats and surrounded by photographers.  A young schoolgirl, the ‘Queen of the Fair’, placed the crown on its head.  Well, I think that’s what happened.  It was really just set up for the publicity shots, as the audience could see nothing.  Placed in the cage the goat was then hoisted up for all to see, its crown a little shakily slipping below its horns.

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Behind that phalanx there is a goat getting crowned

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The King of the Fair is hoisted up the tower

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King Puck

The fair brings out the crowds for a great day out.  There is a horse fair in a nearby field, with all the usual horse-trading that happens.  I happily spent an hour wandering here clicking away.  There was plenty to keep me enthused and bemused.

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The horse fair is held in a field adjacent to a ruined church and graveyard

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Now that’s style

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Like father like son

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You have been warned.

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The cheapest pee in town.  Just a half a cent!

There are rides, a parade and plenty of characters to fill the pubs and the streets. Every vantage point was taken.  The bright sunshine, when I visited in 2015, provided an opportunity for the colleens  to strut the summer fashions. I love the way traditional music is never far away from an Irish event, with entertainment on stage and in teh nearby pubs, dancing in the street or a brush dance in a pub.

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The long and the short of it.

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A great vantage point

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Even manequins are keen to strut their stuff

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Dancing in the streets

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Well known piper, Brendan McCreanor, from Co Louth entertains the crowd

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Swept away by a brush dance

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A chance to dress up

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A chance to dress up II

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Defying gravity

The Puck Fair is always held on 10, 11 and 12th August so mark it in your calendar.

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Mooghaun. Hill Forts and ‘Fairy Gold’

This story has everything.  It takes place over 3,000 years and is full of intrigue and mystery, the struggle for survival, buried treasure and fairies and avarice.

It started for me with a visit to the National Museum in Dublin in 2014.  I was in a rush and had little time to study the exhibits, but a particular interest was the collection of bronze age gold artefacts, so I took lots of photos to review later.  And then promptly forgot about them.  I rediscovered those photos the other day and was struck by something that I hadn’t noticed at the time.  Some of the exhibits came from County Clare.  In particular from the, so named, Mooghaun Hoard or the Great Clare Find, near Newmarket-on-Fergus.  This hoard dated at 800-700BC was the largest hoard of gold jewellery ever found in Europe.  It is thought to have originally comprised up to 300 pieces and the story surrounding it is fascinating.

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Part of the gold hoard from Mooghaun comprising five collars, seven bracelets two neck rings and a ring.  Replicas of 120 bracelets and two ingots which were also part of the hoard but are now lost. National Museum Dublin.

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Three gold collars.  Mooghaun Find.  National Museum Dublin

The gold was discovered by a number of railway workers clearing land for the Limerick to Ennis railway, on a right of way near Dromoland Estate,  in 1854.  They unearthed a stone box containing twisted metal which, at first, they did not recognize and indeed threw some into the nearby lake.  They soon realized it was however dirt encrusted gold.  With mad haste they ran 1.5 miles  to the town of Newmarket, where some of the gold was quickly melted down by silversmiths keen to profit.

The rush to melt it down may have been driven by thoughts this was ‘fairy gold’. Ancient legends speak of bones and charcoal contained in buried vessels that in reality were golden coin and ornaments belonging to the ‘good people’, or fairies, and that they returned to gold during the night.  But if watched with proper precautions and ceremonies, the fairy gold at daybreak would still remain gold.  Their haste may have been a desire to extract the wealth before it returned to bones and ash. 

Nevertheless it is an irreparable loss to Ireland’s heritage.  It is believed that 34 pieces have survived, the rest melted down for bullion value.   Gilt-bronze casts were made of some of the pieces prior to their destruction.  Three months after the find there was an  exhibition of remaining pieces, which were for sale.  Due to the expense, the Royal Irish Academy acquired only 12 pieces, which included five collars and two neck-rings and The British Museum purchased a collar and thirteen bracelets.  The rest were melted down.

How they came to be deposited there is unknown.  They may have been a gift to appease the gods or they may have been hidden to avoid being lost to attacking tribes.  Whatever the reason it seems we will never know.  Then I discovered something really interesting.  The find is less than a kilometer  from the ruins of a massive megalithic structure,  the impressive Mooghaun Hill Fort or ‘Hill of the Three walls’, the largest hill fort in Europe.  Researchers agree that the trove must be connected in some way.

Newmarket-on-Fergus is about 45 minutes drive from my home so I had to have a look and headed out there the very next day.  It was easy enough to find.  The monument is controlled by the OPW.  A car park, well laid paths and lots of helpful signage. The winter weather was kind enough with rain holding off. 

The Fort occupies an entire hill with its three massive concentric ramparts covering an area encompassing 27 acres.  Within the walls would have  would have been a community ruled over by a local king and his community of followers and subjects.  There would have been  housing for a few families, livestock and areas for crops.   It is now covered in a forest of birch, ash and hazel but at the time of construction would have stood dominant, on a 300m high bare limestone hill, as a monumental statement of power and authority.  The king would have controlled an area of 170 square miles with perhaps 9,000 people.  It is estimated that over 2,000 of these would have been engaged in constructing the walls which may have taken up to 20 years to complete.

The walls have degraded significantly, overgrown in places and mostly linear piles of rubble.  In places though signs of the original facing of the walls can be seen

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Wall of the Inner Rampart, Mooghaun Hill Fort

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Inner Rampart showing original (?) facing.

This community may have occupied the site for 1,500 years and while there is no record of the cause of its demise, by about 500AD the abandoned site was occupied by a new community.  They made their homes there, using stones from the original hillfort’s ramparts.  They built a number of circular drystone cashels of which two survive in remarkable condition, having been repaired and adapted over the years.  One was used for picnics by the inhabitants of Dromoland Castle in the 18th century. 

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View of Upper Cashel.  Mooghaun Hill Fort

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Lower Cashel.  Moohaun Hill Fort

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Detail of wall of Upper Cashel

After viewing with wonder the fort and its rubbly remains,  I rambled on through the surrounding woods.  A truly beautiful and peaceful place.  Depite the winter having stripped the trees of foliage it was quite a treat with tall straight birch, ash and hazel projecting skyward from a thick carpet of leaf litter. 

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Many of the trees, boulders  and walls are covered with a lush green assemblage of mosses, ferns and ivy creating intriguing vertical gardens contrasting with the brown forest floor.  In the misty, hazy light it was invitingly beautiful. 

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I wandered on, losing track of time, before reaching the end of the woods, defined by yet another wall, built this time by the Dromoland Estate.  The Estate is surrounded by a wall,  in many places with coping comprising vertical limestone slabs.

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Wall separating Mooghaun Woods from fields in the Dromoland Estate.

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Dromoland Estate boundary wall surrounding Mooghaun Woods

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Boundary wall for Mooghaun Woods.  with coping.

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Coping on boundary wall here has vertical limestone slabs

I met a local, Tommy,  taking a walk through the wood.  We chatted for a while and I asked him if he knew where the gold hoard was found.  As it turned out he lives adjacent to  it and gave me directions as to where it was.  I found the spot which was where the railway passes close to a small lough (this is the lake which figures in the descriptions of the find).  Standing on the railway bridge it was easy to imagine the scene that day in 1854 and the life-changing excitement that the discovery brought to these navvies.  

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Location of the Mooghaun Hoard find.  It is thought the find was roughly at the position where the train is, adjacent to the lake

With my thoughts planted firmly in past millenia and the exigencies of life in ancient times I walked on.  I passed a ruined cottage.  This jolted me back to this century.  The ruin interested me because it was a stone cottage with a corrogutaed iron roof, which in my experience in Ireland was unusual.  It gave the whole building a rusty red appearance.  This had once been a comfortable residence and though overgrown now had lovely views of a large turlough beyond grassy slopes.  A peek through an open window suggested its abandonment but as is the norm here I could only speculate on the back story.

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Abandoned cottage Mooghaun North.

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Inside the abandoned cottage at Mooghaun North

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Oak tree and outbuilding at abadoned cottage

On the way back to my car, though I met Tommy again returning from his walk. I thanked him for helping me find the site  and took the opportunity to ask about the cottage.  He told me it had been occupied by two bachelor brothers,  who died in the mid 90s.  They passed it on to heir niece who was settled elsewhere so declined to move in.  Since then it has lain abandoned and crumbling.  Sadly it is beyond repair now.  Tommy added that it was used as a polling station for elections, a common practice it would seem,  with private houses being used in remote communities where many could not access a booth otherwise. 

So there it is.  That visit to the museum five years ago opened up a story highlighting yet again the fascinating, interwoven connections of Ireland to its people, land, culture and heritage, and the amazing discoveries that I continue to make.  

 

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The Raptors at Dromoland, Co Clare.

Dromoland is one of the great castles of Ireland.  Located near Newmarket-on-Fergus in Co Clare, it was for over a thousand years the seat of the O’Brien family. It is now a luxurious hotel with world-class facilities.

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Dromoland Castle, built in the early 19th Century and now a luxury hotel.

It has an amazing history that mirrors that of Ireland.  I could talk here about Donough O’Brien, the first inhabitant of the site in 1014, a son of Brian Boru; or of Murrough O’Brien who gave up his title to Henry VII in 1543 to become the first Baron of Inchiquin; or of Marie Rua, the widow of Conor O’Brien who in 1651 married an officer in the Cromwellian army to keep the castle in O’Brien hands; or of Sir Donough O’Brien, the richest man in Ireland in the 17th century; or of Sir Edward O’Brien who gambled the estate on a racehorse in 1730; or of the construction of the present castle in 1800; or of William Smith O’Brien who fought for the rights of Irish peasant farmers in the famine rebellion of 1848; or of the decline of the Barons of Inchiquin in the early 20th century; or of the saving of the castle from destruction by the IRA in 1921; or of the sale of the castle in 1962 or…

But I won’t.

I want to talk about my walk with the hawks and my visit to the School of Falconry at Dromoland.

My guide on this visit was Damian, flute player, fisherman and, as I found out, expert on all things raptor.  He is one of four falconers at the School.  He introduced me to his charges which included Peregrine falcons, Peregrine-Saker hybrid falcons, Harris hawks and two species of owls, the Irish Barn owl and the Bengal Eagle owl.

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Peregrine falcon

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Peregrine falcon

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Peregrine falcon

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Peregrine falcon

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Peregrine-Saker hybrid falcon

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Peregrine-Saker hybrid falcon

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Damian with a Harris hawk

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Damian with a Barn owl

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The Barn owl.  Wise old man.

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Bengal Eagle owl.  Those incredible piercing orange eyes

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Bengal Eagle owl.  Feeding time.

The Peregrine, on the edge of extinction in Ireland in the 1960s has now recovered and over 400 breeding pairs are known.  A thrill to see them at such close quarters.  The fastest creature on the planet it can fly at 300km/hour as it dives from high above its objective, wings held close, striking and killing its prey, talons ready, with the sheer force of its impact.  On the other hand, the incredibly cute Barn owl is the most widespread bird known, being present on all continents (except Antarctica).  Yet ironically, it is threatened in Ireland as its habitat is progressively destroyed.

Falconry is one of the most ancient activities that man has engaged in, beginning, based on historical records, in ancient Mesopotamia over four and a half thousand years ago; but possibly up to 20,000 years old according to Damian.  Genghis Khan had 10,000 raptors.  One of the Pharaohs of Egypt was buried with 20,000 mummified birds. Falcons were widely depicted in Egyptian art and had profound religious significance. They were also used through medieval times to bring down pigeons, which might be carrying messages to the enemy.  Falconry has survived as a sport to present times and was favoured by the gentry and well-to-do.  Quite a few expressions and words from falconry have found their way into the English language – ‘wrapped round my little finger’,  ‘under the thumb’, ‘bated breath’, ‘hoodwinked’ are examples. Many of these came down to us through Shakespeare.

Such close encounters with these impressive and proud creatures was a special experience.   Damian chose Ophelia, a Harris hawk to accompany us on a walk through the castle grounds.  What a spectacular backdrop as we crossed the manicured lawns, strolled down tree-lined avenues, through ancient woods, past a temple erected to a racehorse, visited a hermit’s grotto and passed the beautiful lily pond.

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Taking Ophelia, a Harris hawk for a walk

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Damian with Ophelia, Harris hawk and the castle as a backdrop

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Ophelia lands talons first

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Take off

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Landing

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Temple of Mercury, erected in the 1700s by Baronet Sir Edward O’Brien. One of Sir Edward’s horses, Sean Buis, is buried underneath.  THe temple is designed so, from a distance, you only see four of the eight legs, so as to resemble a racehorse.

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Damian and Ophelia, outside the Hermit’s Grotto.  This housed a ‘hermit’ employed by the Estate to live there for the entertainment of guests.  They were encouraged to dress like druids and were on display at all times.  One of the ‘worst jobs in history’.

 

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Ohelia investivates the Hermit’s Grotto

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Damian and Ophelia

 

The Hawk Hornpipe?

Sculpture by Carmel Doherty.  Perhaps she is playing the Hawk’s Hornpipe.

Ophelia could wander, if that’s the word, freely in the woods until a whistle would get her attention and she would return to the handler’s gloved fist.  Moving so swiftly, flying inches above the ground and swooping up at the last minute to land, claws outstretched and wings spread wide.  A real challenge for the photographer in me. 

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Hawk-eyed

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Damian let me have a go.  What a thrill to have her swoop in and land so delicately on my fist.    Thanks Damian for capturing me with the raptor so well on my camera. 

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My new friend.  Photo Damian Werner

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Right at home.  Photo Damian Werner

Now through Schools such as at Dromoland all of us can experience birds of prey at close quarters. Highly recommended.

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The stunning beauty of Harry Clarke’s windows. St Barrahane’s, Castletownshend, Cork.

Eight kilometers from Skibbereen in West Cork is the village of Castletownshend, the historic seat of the Townshend family.   St Barrahane’s Church, built in 1827, sits on a hill above the village. It is accessed by 52 steps. One for each Sunday of the year. It is an elegant building with many original interesting architectural features and some fine detailing, both internal and external, including timber paneling and an organ gallery.

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St Barrahane’s Church

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The last 13 of the 52 steps to the church

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Simple and elegant interior

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The organ gallery

Of greatest interest though to visitors is the addition in the early 20th century of six magnificent stained glass windows.

Three of these are by Harry Clarke, a book illustrator and Ireland’s most famous stained glass artist, who died in 1931, and three are by Powells of London. It is not hard to pick those by Clarke.  They are characterised by beautiful, finely crafted, elongate figures and his use of deep rich colours. the wall to the right of the altar has three windows with the Clarke window, on the right, being quite distinct and obvious.

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The Harry Clarke window is on the right.

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The Louis and Martin window by Harry Clarke

This window depicts French Saints Louis (who was Louis IX, King of Spain) and Martin and was commissioned in memory of a Colonel Coghill in 1921. A window of two lights, the first light depicting St. Louis who was an ancestor of the Colonel. The figures above his head represent the poor who he often fed at his table. The first of the tracery lights depicts a ship in which King Louis sailed to the east to fight the infidels. The second and third tracery lights depict two angels who offer protection to both saints. The fourth tracery light shows St. Martin’s flaming sword, denoting his patronage of soldiers,  The second light depicts the meeting between Saint Martin of Tours, dressed as a soldier’s garb, and a beggar who asks him for clothing.  Again the imagery is imaginative, stunningly crafted and in glorious deep colours.

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Detail of St Louis

The largest window, known as the The Nativity window, was commissioned in 1917 in memory of the Somerville family.  This window has three lights, with separate depictions of the shepherds paying homage to the Christ child, the holy family and the magi but with linking elements such as Mary’s dress and the crib that create a unified picture. They are exquisitely decorated in shades of blue, pink, green, red, purple, magenta and gold. The tracery lights depicts three saints, Brigid, Fachtna and Barrahan in gorgeous detail.

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The Nativity window

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Detail of the Nativity window

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The three Saints in the Nativity window

When you look at these windows from outside the church, you can have no expectation of how stunning the images are when back lit.

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The Nativity window from the outside

If you a visiting West Cork you really must take a peek. Or look for Clarke windows in Dublin and many other locations in Ireland and England.

He completed over 130 windows.  You can find where they are here  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Clarke

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Of Magic Mushrooms and Ancient Ireland

There are a number of major ancient Royal Sites in Ireland but the four important ones were the seats of the four provinces. These are Cashel for Munster, Navan Fort for Ulster, Dun Ailinne for Leinster and in Co Roscommon, Rathcroghan for Connaught. . There was also Tara with its special status as the seat of the High King.  There is evidence of activity at these sites from deep in the Stone Age, through the Bronze Age to the height of power in the Iron Age and into Medieval Christian times.

I visited Rathcroghan recently. Before the coming of Christianity this was the religious, ceremonial and political heart of the Kingdom of Connaught. There is a wealth of archaeology scattered over 6 square kilometres with 240 sites recorded of which 60 are listed. I visited the ring barrow mound of Rathbeg, probably continuously used over this entire period, the great mound at Rathcrogan, the site of major royal celebrations and the medieval raised ring fort of Rathmore. Not easy to photograph from the ground, where they appear as grassy mounds but their sheer size and concentration are impressive.

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The ring barrow fort at Rathbeg

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The ceremonial mound at Rathcroggan

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The ring fort at Rathmore

But I wanted to talk about something else.

I met a fellow at Rathbeg. I’ll call him Patrick.  I’d watched him slowly walking the fields around the mound, head down searching. Is he looking for stone axes or ancient relics?

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Patrick searching the fields around Rathbeg

We had a chat and the answer was not what I expected. He was searching for psilocybin better known as magic mushrooms. Patrick had a little bag full after an hour of searching. He told me he takes one dried every four days to manage his headaches and migraines and has been doing so for sixteen years. We searched together for a while but the slender bulbous fungi proved elusive.

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A magic mushroom pokes through the grass

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Part of Patrick’s harvest

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Detail of magic mushrooms

Magic mushrooms are among the oldest recreational drugs that human beings have ever used. They are believed to have been used for over 5,000 years down to the pop culture of today.

Hard evidence of its use in ancient Ireland is scant but this is hardly surprising. Indirect evidence however suggests widespread use in neolithic times. The rock art in Knowth and Newgrange is thought by some archaeologists to reflect the psychedelic state of the artist. Many traditional Irish tales seem to disguise the psychedelic experience in metaphor. For example hazelnuts accidentally ingested by Fionn mac Cumhaill, which gave him wisdom and pleasure, are though by some to be liberty cap or amanita muscaria mushrooms. Old stories of St. Brendan, refer to .him finding “fruits” – some poisonous, some euphoric that staved off hunger. Visions of faeries are so strongly associated with mushrooms that the Gaelic slang for faeries and mushrooms is the same: ‘pookies’. A magic mushroom trip has you “away with the faeries.” Or “off with the pixies.”

But what I found really interesting was Patrick’s comment that he has found the best place to find these mushrooms was at Ancient Sites. His idea was that it was the reason the sites were there and that mushrooms formed a fundamental part of their religious, cultural and social fabric.

An intriguing thought.  I left him to his searching.

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