Posts Tagged With: archaeology

Mutton Island. A Clare Treasure.

This is my longest blog to date.  It is also one I have had the most pleasure writing.  It is about a special place.  Never visited by tourists and only by a handful of locals.  A place where little vignettes of a vanished Ireland can be glimpsed, where nature has done its wonderful work and where you can find peace in solitude.  I hope you find the time to read it and that I can give you a little of this feeling in these words and pictures.  

 

I live on the edge. Of Ireland, that is.

Every morning I pull the curtains and look out my window across Caherush bay. The first thing I see is Mutton Island. It’s the image that begins every day. Sometimes the cloud or mist or the spray from wild waves hides it and sometimes it is like a green jewel floating on a blue calm. I’ve seen it covered in snow and I’ve seen it bathed in the glow of a West Clare sunset.  But in four years I’d never been there.

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Sunset over Mutton Island viewed from Seafield Beach at Quilty.

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Mutton Island during the ‘Beast from the East’ in March 2018. Covered in thick snow.

The island of 185 acres is shrouded in myth and mystery. It’s inaccessibility gives these stories weight.

There is no obvious way to get there for those of us who don’t own a boat or a kayak, but I decided one July Tuesday in the midst of an extraordinary spell of hot, fine weather to try and get there.

My inquiries led me to Anthony Murrihy, a Quilty fisherman, and so 10am Wednesday saw me waiting at the Seafield Pier to be ferried across. Well, after two weeks of blue skies, this morning arrived with low cloud covering Quilty and the island. Mmmm. That’s Ireland. Still there was no rain and it was just a bit cooler than it had been which in the end I was grateful for.

As the little red boat pulled away from the Quilty shore, it somehow seemed appropriate that the island should be shrouded in mist. Why would it give up its secrets so easily?

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Anthony Murrihy, Quilty fisherman.  Leaving Seafield Pier.

In my travels around Ireland, I’ve visited many islands: Tory, Inis Oir, Inis Mor, Cape Clear, Sherkin, Valentia, Achill, Aranmore, Dursey, Scattery, Skellig Michael, Garinish. Most are ‘tourist’ experiences. Ferry terminals, interpretive centres, maps and paths, signs with arrows and glossy brochures.  All were wonderful experiences of course, but nothing is like Mutton Island.

So it was just me, Anthony and a little red dinghy heading across the flat Atlantic.  There is no actual landing point on the island and as Anthony tried to hold the boat against a rock with a gaff (made from a paint roller, a broom handle and some duck tape), I gingerly stepped ashore clinging to my camera bag and my egg mayo sandwich.

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The landing spot.  I had to step ashore off the boat onto that rock……

Then it was just me. Anthony and the little red dinghy disappeared back to the inhabited part of Ireland.

It was the strangest feeling watching the tiny speck disappear into the distance. I just stood there for some time, quite dumbstruck.  I really can’t describe it.  A sense of excitement, of respectful awe, and at the same time a creeping solitude. It is so rare to actually be alone and isolated in this ‘civilised’ world. But here I was the only human being on this little slice of the planet. At least for the next few hours.

The island is elongate east-west fattening to the west. The boat dropped me near the eastern end so it seemed logical to start there and circumnavigate the island. This was my kind of exploration. It reminded me of my early days of geology fieldwork. No preconceptions, only a vague idea what I would find and no guide book to follow.  I think now that’s what attracted me originally to exploration geology. Here was an empty, abandoned world. Everything you see is a surprise, no paved path to follow, no interpretive centres or explanatory signs. Just raw nature, landscape, geology, wildlife and archaeology and only your eyes and feet to unravel it.

My first surprise was that it wasn’t the quiet idyll I expected. Because I wasn’t truly alone. The screeching and squawking of gulls and the persistent piping of oyster catchers was overpowering at times. They were telling me in no uncertain way that I was an intruder. Why would they welcome me? This was their world. One gull took a particular exception to me. I was repeatedly dive bombed. Heading straight for my head and only pulling on the joy stick at the last minute to clear me by inches. This was only a taster though. A more Hitchcock-like experience awaited me on the other side of the island.

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Being dive bombed by a gull.

It only took a few strides from the rocky beach though until I realised this was a much more varied landscape than I had imagined. The rolling green slopes that you see from the mainland were there, yes, but hidden from view there were rugged cliffs. Sheer drops and a deeply incised coastline, caves, sea arches, channels and stacks revealing a wildness that was breathtaking.

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The beautiful incised coast at the north eastern end of the island.

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A natural arch on the northern coast

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The sculpted coast exposed at low tide.

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Caves and Arches I.  High tide

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Caves and Arches II.  Low tide.

The rocks are all sandstones and shales, as on the mainland, faulted and folded by a disruptive tectonic event nearly 300 million years ago. This alternation of soft and hard layering and extensive faulting has provided many opportunities for selective erosion creating these awesome geological features.

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This cave is formed at a fault boundary where soft shale is in contact with hard sandstone

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A cave in the early stage of development.  Erosion is taking place along a fault and under a sandstone cap.  Come back in a few hundred years and this will be a cave.

Sometimes the roof collapses forming what are known as stacks. There is particularly impressive roof collapse which has formed a cave (known as Poul Tabach, a reference to the contraband dealings that went on there),  It has created a giant sink hole with two entrances one open to the sea.

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A collapsed cave and arch.  Poul Tabach.  Walled off by the early settlers to stop livestock disappearing down the hole.  Said to have been used by smugglers.

On the western side of the island there are many similar caves and arches.  I found a number of natural bridges across steep narrow chasms right at the north western tip – in one case a double bridge, something I had never seen before.

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Arches and bridges over a steep natural chasm.  The bridge in the middle distance is actually a double arch.

As I walked west the sky became thick with those gulls again. I was approaching their breeding grounds. I felt a bit like a cross between David Attenborough and an extra in The Birds, as I skirted around the edge trying as much as possible not to disturb them but at the same time wanting to observe close up this rare experience.

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Gull colony with the cliffs of the north west tip of the island in the distance.

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Gulls take to the air over the Napoleonic Tower

To my untrained eye there seemed to be two species of gull sharing the same nesting sites. I later identified them as Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

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Herring Gulls and their chicks

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A Lesser Black-backed Gull in flight

There were two distinct colonies with thousands in each. One was on exposed rocks with nests on little remnant vegetated patches or just on the bare rock and the other, some distance away with extensive burrows in a field. The dowdy chicks still unable to fly and with their distinctive grey, brown and cream down, scampered across the rocks or hid in their burrows abandoned momentarily by their parents to try and distract me. The more confident ones standing on the cliff edge dreaming of the day they would fly.

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Gull eggs.  Here they are in a nest but often they are laid on the bare rock.

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Two Herring Gull chicks.  Ready for their first flight?

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Herring gull chick taking refuge in a burrow

I was endlessly fascinated watching this seething mass but there was more to see. Not far away was the tell tale silhouette of a Napoleonic signal tower, so I headed there.

Bearing a superficial resemblance to a Tower House, many call these structures ‘castles’. They are not. They are a part of a network of towers built between 1804 and 1806 as a response to the threat of invasion by the French. There were around 80 towers built along the west and south coast from Malin Head all the way to Dublin. Each cost £3,000 to build.

The idea was that they were within sight of each other (theoretically! Irish weather not withstanding) and in this way a message could be transmitted using flags and black balls on a tall wooden mast.  Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the towers fell into disuse. Though solidly constructed many are now crumbling ruins. This one though has many typical architectural features preserved and seems to have been one of the better built ones.

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Sea cliffs with caves and bridges and the Napoleonic Tower

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The western coast of the Island

It is a handsome building with solid mortared stone walls built of local shale and sandstone but with window surrounds of cut and dressed limestone. Other highlights such as the fire places, the elegant window surrounds and the observation platform buttresses were also of this limestone. Some features were also constructed of red brick. The walls were rendered in a cement with a lot of shell grit  The walls were covered inside and out with a mortar of the same material, though only a little remains.   The external walls were covered with overlapping slate tiles of which only those on the north-east wall have partially survived. The limestone, bricks and mortar would have been imported to the island. Internally you can see remnants of  timber lintels and floor joists.  Again presumably imported onto the island. There are many names and dates scratched into the mortar with elegant script and though largely illegible now, most seem to date from the 1800s.

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Napoleonic Watch Tower

The whole is surrounded by a very solid wall in similar style to the tower and a stone out building. It is perched on the top of a cliff on the highest point on the island and in sight of the Hag’s Head tower to the north and Loop Head (tower now gone) to the south.

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Entrance gate and wall surrounding the tower.

These towers are a reminder of the fear that would have engulfed Britain and its colonies at the time and the incredible effort that nations would go to to protect their borders. It is truly remarkable to think that 80 of these towers were built in a two year period in some of the remotest places you could imagine.

My day was rapidly coming to an end. To get back to the pick up point I had to cross a wide expanse of meadow and in places, bog. But first I headed out to the headland at the southern end of the island.  Something drew me there. I think it was the cormorants at the point but on the way I pondered a rubbly ridge of stone on the landward side of the headland.  Later I discovered this is believed to be the site of an ancient Promontory Fort possibly Bronze Age.  You can clearly see this rocky ridge on the google image.

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Rocky rubble possibly representing the wall of a promontory fort at the southern tip of the island

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Google image of the promontory fort  You can see the break where the rubble in the photo above is.

No one really knows what these were used for.  But they may have been some sort of lookout. This would suggested habitation before the time of Christianity.  St Senan was said to have built a monastery here before going to Scattery.  So we are confident it was lived on in the 7th century.  Records suggest four monks had an oratory here.  It is common for oratories to have a circular wall and there is such a wall at the eastern side of the island.  Was this the site of the oratory, long since gone?

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Google image showing part of  a circular wall which may have been the site of St Senan’s oratory.  The hole to the north of this is Poul Tabach.

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The circular wall and much later ruined cottages.

It would seem the island is getting smaller as Samuel Lewis in his 1837 book on Clare gives it an area of 210 acres, down now to 185 acres. Historically however it may have been much, much bigger. The island is referred to in The Annals of the Four Masters, (a compilation of Irish history up to 1616) as Fitha Island which included the now separate islands of Mutton Island, Inismattle and Roanshee. This source states that Fitha was connected to the mainland until in 804AD “the sea swelled so high that it burst its boundaries, overflowing a large tract of country and drowning over 1,000 persons.” This is now presumed to have been a tidal wave and it is speculated that it may have been responsible for separating the islands from the mainland. Geologically, this would be pretty unlikely if the connection was of sandstones and shales, however it is plausible, given the extensive glacial deposits still on the island, that if these unconsolidated sediments were the connection with the mainland, then such an event may well have removed some of these deposits.  As storm events today still do.

In fact the water between Mutton island and Quilty is very shallow. Anthony, my ferryman, told me that they used to walk cattle across on very low Spring tides. As we returned on the boat he showed me the ‘road’ that lies at the ocean bottom visible in the clear water just couple of metres below.  In these very low tides water will reach your knees suitable for cattle.  A couple of days later I visited the Seafield shore to see whether I could find it. Sure enough there is a ramp of sorts visible at low tide and in the photo below you can see the trace of the submerged roadway, highlighted in the evening light.  It turns out it is in fact clearly visible also on the google satellite image.

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View from Quilty to Mutton Island.  The ramp to the left is the start of the ‘roadway’ and you can see its trace continuing to the eastern end of the island. You can also see it in the first photo of this blog.

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A google image showing the shadow of the roadway at the eastern end.

The island would have had many stories to tell. A ship, the Sao Marcos, from the Spanish Armada, is said to have run aground in 1588 with sailors buried on the island, and it was used extensively by smugglers in later years who took advantage of its many caves. During the days of the Sinn Fein courts, which operated outside the British justice system, it was used as a detention camp.

Further evidence of habitation is in the ruins of some cottages on the south eastern side of the island. It is believed that up to a dozen families lived here in the 19th century, the population peaking in the 1920s.  They fished, harvested seaweed, grew potatoes and vegetables, and as the island’s name suggests kept livestock.  ‘Mutton Island’ is said to derive from the quality of the meat, flavored by the lush grasses and herbs that the sheep dined on.

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Ruins of the village on the island.  A home now for the starlings

People lived on the island seasonally until late in the 20th century.  One resident led a hermit-like existence there until the mid 50s, living summer and winter for four years.  Quite remarkable when you think about it.

As I walked around I saw signs of more recent human activity however. Some fencing. Lobster pots, the remains of a motor vehicle? I had heard a report that one of the residents of the island had built a raft and freighted a Ford Anglia to the island.  Was this it?

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Is this the the wreck of the Ford Anglia?

Mutton island is an island of mystery.  I have talked about the archaeological heritage but what about this?  I found yhis unique figure in the thick grass around the Napoleonic Tower.  Made from the red bricks used in the tower construction.  Is it the oldest example of an iconographic emoticon?  Predating the digital age by two centuries?

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Archaeological heritage?  An early emoji.

And then there’s this.  A crop circle?

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A crop circle?

There is a wide variety of vegetation.  No trees.  That’s a given, but grasslands, bogland and in places thick growth of thistles and cow parsley that comes up to your chest. Not easy to walk through especially given the hidden rabbit holes!

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Fields thick with cow parsley.

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Bog cotton

For now the island is populated by rabbits, rats, seals and reportedly goats (though I didn’t see any, so that population may have died out). Doesn’t sound appealing but all the land mammals were introduced from the mainland and are happy in this people-less place.  Even less appealing perhaps were the colonies of midges.  But, you know, they weren’t interested in me in the least.  They were quite happy to dine out on the sweet nectar of the cow parlsey flower.

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Midges on a cow parlsey flower head.  That’s a normal fly for scale.

The island is privately owned and changed hands many times of late.  At one time it was owned by the DuPont corporation who thought that it would make a perfect terminal for shipping the oil that was discovered west of Aran Islands.  Luckily that plan fell through!  An American bought it then and he had grand plans but couldn’t get permission for a pier.

It is a bird sanctuary now and this gives it protection, to some degree, from such avaricious planning decisions, so hopefully it will be there to be enjoyed by those willing to take the trouble and time to get there and who respect its cultural value to Ireland.

This is as it should be.

Around 5 pm Anthony returned in that little red boat, this time finding a shallow beach to pick me up.  Reluctantly I re boarded, but the memory of that special place will be permanently etched.  Images that will return every time I pull the curtains of my bedroom window to let in the morning light and stare across at that proud rock.

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The ferryman returns to collect me

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An excellent four part radio series about Mutton Island was made by Raidió Corca Baisicinn in 2016   It’s worth listening to.  You can find it at http://rcb.ie/mutton-island/

 

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Scattery Island, Co Clare. An Irish Time Capsule.

At the southern end of West Clare, on an island just off the coast near the town of Kilrush, lies one of country’s best kept secrets.  But that’s changing. The word is out. Last year it was awarded a prestigious European Destination of Excellence award for Ireland for offering a ‘tangible cultural experience’ and visitor numbers are dramatically increasing.  In 2016 870 people visited the island.  This year they are expecting up to 6,000 people.

Before 2016 visiting the island was unpredictable.  If there was enough interest then a boat trip was organised.  That changed with the setting up of Scattery Island Tours two years ago.   They have just commissioned a spanking new ferry that comfortably accommodates 70 against the old one, which took 12, and this is certainly helping  but don’t let that put you off.  I spoke to Irene Hamilton, one of the principals of the company, about the her desire to open the island to a larger audience and at the same time preserve what it is that makes it special.  The island has so much to offer and you can tailor the experience to your own needs.  Join a guided tour and have the stories of the island explained or explore on your own.

Irene comes from a line of island residents.  Her father was born on the island and was a sea pilot as was his father.  This link and the remarkable foresight of the people of Kilrush has put the Company at the forefront of placing Scattery  as one of the must-see destinations of Clare.  Her vision is that visitors don’t just zip past on the way to Loop Head but stop overnight in Kilrush and explore the place at leisure.

So why is it special?  There’s actually nothing else like it.  A now uninhabited island with a continuous occupation that started over 1,500 years ago, beautifully preserved, easily accessed and in a spectacular location.

I had been trying on and off for a while to get onto the island but it just never happened. During an unusual warm spell in late May I tried again. The Gods were smiling this time and on a bright blue Thursday I boarded the An Breandàn for the short trip across the channel from Kilrush.  Irene told me that the boat was named for her father and it is no coincidence that Breandàn is also the patron saint of the sea.

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Boarding the ferry to Scattery

Actually the most time consuming part of the journey was in the lock at the entrance to the Marina. It was fascinating to see the water rush in as the gates opened to maintain the level in the Marina

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Water enters the lock

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Irene Hamilton, owner of the ferry company chats to patrons.

Once through the lock you see the island and its signature Round Tower rapidly approach you and in less than 15 minutes you are there. We were well looked after by  the efficient and friendly crew which included Irene’s sister Martina.  Irene was a mavellous host spending much of the time, when she wasn’t performing seafaring duties, chatting with patrons and and answering questions or helping with family photos or making cups of tea.

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Approaching the island.  The Round Tower dominates.

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The view from the pier,   The white cottage on the left is the Visitor Centre, Keane’s Castle is in the centre and the Round Tower can be seen in the distance.

When we arrived we were handed over to  Michael who acted as our guide. The guides are provided by OPW who manage the island.  They also maintain a small visitor centre.  The tour is roughly an hour and you visit all the monastic and archaeological sites with the exception of the lighthouse and the Battery.  This was certainly worth it as Michael has a wealth of background knowledge that fleshed out the story.   Next time however I will explore it on my own but I would certainly recommend the tour as a first time experience.  And anyway it’s included in the price of the ticket.

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The guided tour begins

The story of Scattery starts with the birth of St Senan, in 488AD in Molougha, a townland about 5 km from Kilrush in Co Clare. After a life of religious study including time in Rome he set up a monastery on Inis Cathaig in 532AD.  This is the original Irish name and over time it became anglicised as Scattery.  The name relates to the presence of a monster known as the  “The Cathach” which was said to inhabit the island.  On Senan’s arrival he apparently faced the monster and ordered it, in the name of the Trinity, to depart. Such was Senan’s power that The Cathach obeyed and retreated to Doolough Lake at the foot of Mount Callan.

Little is known of Senan’s life or life under him in the monastery.  Many miracles are attributed to him however and his grave has continued to hold a sacred place among the people of West Clare and beyond. The grave is supposed to be the site of miraculous cures.  Stones from St. Senan’s Bed were regarded as relics and a protection against diseases and especially drowning.  Water from St Senan’s Well had restorative powers.

We do know his rule on the monastery was austere and women were banned from even setting foot on the island.  St Senan died in 544, but it would appear that the monastery continued unimpeded until the arrival of the Vikings in Ireland in 795.  Scattery which lay on their route to Limerick was sacked between 816 and 835, being severely damaged. In 968 the Vikings were expelled from Limerick by Brian Boru and retreated to Scattery. Boru however pursued them and three years later the island was raided with up to 800 people being slaughtered.

In 1057 the Vikings had another go with the Dublin Danes plundering the island. Then again in 1101 Magnus, king of Norway attacked. The Normans arrived in 1176 and this led to an attack by William Howell, not even sparing the churches.  By 1189 the last Bishop of Scattery had died and the Diocese of Scattery was abolished. The English  now took possession of the island.  The end came however following the 1537 introduction of  the Suppression of the Monastries Act by Henry VIII.

Phew! That is some story.  It seems to have been touched by every major historical event that Ireland experienced.  There are many reminders of this tortured time in the ruins that can be seen on Scattery.  Churches that date back as far as the 8th century, the round tower built between 10th and 12th century,  St Senan’s well,  St Senan’s Bed.  I found this all totally absorbing.  Come with me on a virtual tour.

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St Mary’s Cathedral and Oratory.  Built in 8th Century and added to until the 15th century. The Round Tower in the distance.

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The eastern window of the Cathedral.  The carved stone head is said to be St Senan.

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View of the Cathedral from the west.

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Western doorway of the cathedral.  Note the tapered shape of the door under the heavy lintel.  The stone to the left is thought to be a balaun stone.

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A distant view of the Round Tower and the Cathedral.

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The Round Tower built between 8th and 10th Century. Note the unique doorway at ground level

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View from inside the Round Tower

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The Round Tower doorway.  Note the thick walls; over 1 metre.

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St Senan’s Well. During a drought St Senan prayed for water and an angel guided him to this spot.  The Sanit plunged his staff into the ground and water sprung forth.  

 

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Distant view of Cnoc an Aingeal (Hill of the Angel), One of the earliest surviving churches built on the site where Senan set foot on the island.

 

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Remaining early wall of the church on Cnoc an Aingeal.

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St Senan’s Church.  12th Century Romanesque style

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St Senan’s Bed, a small church built over the grave of St Senan.  The iron bar is supposedly designed to keep women from walking in.  Women who entered according to tradition will be cursed

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View of the Round Tower from the entrance to St Senans Church

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A stone table found near St Senans Church.  Thought to be a medieval grave slab carved with a beautiful celtic cross and with an inscription saying Or Do Moenach Aite Mogroin. (Pray to Moenach the teacher of Mogroin).

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Teampall Na Marbh (Church of the Dead). Built 14th and 15th Century.

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View across the graveyard of the Church of the Dead towards Cathedral and Tower

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Modern graves at the Church of the Dead

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The graveyard at the Church of the Dead continues to be used for burials.

But the island’s story did not end with Henry.  Its strategic position meant it was always in the centre of events.  The ruins of Keane’s Castle, a tower house constructed in the late 1500s can be seen at the pier.  The driver at this time was the invasion by the Spanish Armada and the Irish Rebellions which threatened English rule. Remains of gun installations are evident.

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The ruins of Keane’s Castle, a Tower House built in the late 1500s

The next phase of activity on Scattery though did not begin until the end of the 18th century. The French supported the Irish Rebellion in 1798 and in 1814 the impressive Artillery Battery was built by the English as part of the extensive defenses erected on the west coast of Ireland. Unfortunately I did not get to visit this time.  Or the lighthouse which was built later in the 19th Century.

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View of the lighthouse and Arillery Battery from Cnoc an Aingeal

In the early part of the 19th century secular settlement of the island picked up with the construction of a village to house families of river pilots who were based there.  This was when Irene’s descendants came.  The island replaced Kilbaha as the pilots base.  Considerably less rowing of the currachs was required now to reach the ships.

By 1881 the population had reached its maximum of 140 people.  Most of the residents lived in a small area known as ‘The Street’.   Many of these structures still remain and though boarded off  from visitors the closely spaced buildings give us a real feel for what was a comfortable and prosperous community until its eventual demise.

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The Street.  The village that housed pilots and their families from the early 1800s

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The Street.  Another view

Through the 20th century the population continued to decline especially after the pilots were transferred to the mainland in 1954. The last two residents eventually left the island in 1978.  This fact somehow puts the whole story of the island into context.  Its settlement is still in living memory.

There are many reminders of this time aside from the ruins of  The Street and elsewhere.  Many of the gravestones at Tempall Na Marbh, which although being  the youngest of the churches on the island  (14th or 15th century), are beautifully preserved.  Many date from pre-famine time and contain symbolic representations that not only represent religious iconography but tell the story of residents lives.  Though the church ceased to be operative centuries ago many descendants chose to be buried there and they still do today.

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Beautifully engraved gravestone at Church of the Dead.  Dating from 1828

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Engraved symbolic representations on a grave stone including images of a three masted ship and a hooker and perhaps shipwright’s tools.  Presumably the deceased was a mariner.

Following the end of settlement the island lay empty for many years,  This could have been the end of the story as the island eventually passed into the hands of a developer with grand plans for a marina.  Luckily this came to naught and the island was eventually sold to a Belgian group. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to a group of Kilrush residents who pushed hard to regain ownership and ultimately bought the island back.  These residents still own the island and they ceded management to the State.

That is a great outcome.  It is not hard to imagine that in years to come Scattery will become one the essential Irish monastery sites to visit; right up there with Glendalough and Clonmacnoise.

Put it on your agenda for your next visit.

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Backyard archaeology. Right under our feet. Caherush, Co Clare.

I have spent a lot of my time traipsing around the country exploring archaeological treasures. Ring forts, portal tombs, standing stones, castles, sile-na-gigs, you name it.   I have photographed them and blogged about them. In all that time though I completely forgot to document the archaeology of my own back yard. And I mean literally my own backyard.

In January 2014 Clare, along with much of the west coast of Ireland, was struck with a number of ferocious storm that destroyed beaches and did massive damage to seaside communities. This happened four months before I arrived but the effects can still be seen today.   Hardest hit were places like Lahinch, White Strand, Spanish Point, Quilty, Seafield Pier, Doonbeg, Kilkeee, Kilbaha and Carrigaholt.

In fact the house at Caherush, that was to become mine, was hit hard and inundated, with the then occupants having to be evacuated.

The massive high tides and waves, while doing such obvious damage also uncovered some really interesting things that were previously unknown. For example near Spiddal a ‘petrified’ forest of ancient bog oak was laid bare and, closer to home, a peat layer now covered again was exposed in the bay at Caherush.

This blog is about what was found in the backyard of my cottage after the gravel was stripped away by the waves.  Evidence of long since gone farm buildings was uncovered. A number of different types of paving in close proximity were revealed and these appear to represent the floors of old farm buildings. The site covers 10m x 4m.

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Paving of old farm buildings in the backyard of the cottage at Caherush.

There are cobblestones, setts and flagging, each belonging to a building with a different function.  The original buildings would have been aligned north south. At the southern end an area of cobblestone paving was revealed.

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Cobblestone floor of an old stable.

Cobblestones are one of the earliest forms of paving, the term first being used for roadways in the 15th century in England. The use of cobbles though actually started with the Romans around 250AD. True cobblestones, are small, natural stones with edges smoothed by water, either by the ocean or rivers.  These undressed stones, or cobbles, are often of a flattened egg-shape and were used in their natural state without being worked in any way.  The stones are carefully selected and laid in sand pointy end down and were packed tightly together to provide a relatively smooth and durable surface. This construction has excellent drainage and so they were much longer lasting than the alternative of the time which was dirt. They would also have been used frequently in stables which it is believed was the case here.  A lot of thought went into selecting stones of similar size and shape and in aligning them. It is amazing that it has survived.

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Detail view of the cobblestone paving

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Typical cobblestones selected to be of similar shape and dimensions

Cobblestones went out of favour in the early 1700s and were replaced with setts which are worked into rectangular shapes but still laid the same way. These are actually what people would be most likely to refer to as cobblestone paving now.

So, there is no way of knowing how old this floor is as the tradition of using cobbles may have continued on farms much longer than their use in roadways, especially near the sea. But it could conceivably be pre 18th century,

Next to the cobbles is an area of large irregular slate flagging probably much more recent and representing an access way between the stable and the building to the north. Adjacent to this slate is a beautifully preserved shallow drainage trough made from sandstone setts aligned east west in the direction of drainage. Immediately north of this is a level area of setts in the same rock type and apparently of the same vintage, aligned north south. This area is believed to have housed cattle who would have stood on the level area facing north, which would have enabled the trough to catch their effluent and drain it away. Clever really.

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Cattle shed floor looking from the west.  The drainage trough is in the centre and the area where the cattle stood on the left

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View of cattle shed site from the east.

And then north of this is an area of large flags of Liscannor stone. Mikey Talty who was born in the cottage 80-odd years ago remembers this as a piggery, though he had no recollection of other structures where the cobbles and setts are. The north wall of the piggery had a doorway and this can be seen now filled in in the same style as the surrounding stone wall beneath a lovely stone lintel.

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Piggery floor.  Infilled doorway can be seen.

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Close up of infilled doorway

So there was continued usage of this site to house animals with evidence suggesting the possibility that it may go back over three hundred years.

I think that’s cool. And in my back yard too.

Disclaimer: These conclusions are my own and based on my own observations as well as the recollections of the Talty family. I am not an archaeologist but if anyone out there has specific knowledge of the use of cobbles in farm buildings and their age I would love to hear from you.

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Fury. A dog’s tale.

There are many legends and stories in Ireland; the origins of which are often lost in time and who knows whether there is any truth in them or whether there has been serious embellishment over the years.  So, it’s great when one such legend is proved with physical evidence.

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If you visit Portumna Castle in County Galway you will of course be blown away by the splendour of the building, which in its time was the grandest castle in Ireland, outshining all others. Built around 1610, it is notable as the first building in the Renaissance style in Ireland and cost a massive £10,000. It was abandoned in 1826 after a fire and has been largely rebuilt. I don’t want to talk about the Castle and everything there is to see, the guidebooks and guided tours will show you all of these things, but the highlight for me was the display of the remains of Fury.

Fury was by some accounts an Irish Wolfhound, by others something else. The story was widely told that in April 1797, Fury was asleep on the grass underneath one of the windows of the castle when a young lady of the house, while watching the dog below, fell from the window. She landed on the dog breaking its back which resulted in poor Fury’s death. This though  saved her life by breaking her fall and in gratitude the family placed a plaque on Fury’s grave. Part of the inscription read

Alas! poor Fury.
She was a Dog, Take her for All in All
Eye shall not look upon her like again.

Excavation in 1997 indeed discovered bones of a dog and the skeleton was reconstructed. Analysis of the remains suggested the dog was a Whippet though this could not be conclusive.  A number of vertebrae were missing in the middle of its back and this supported the legend that  the likely cause of death was of a broken back. The presence of nails in each corner of the gravesite indicated that she was buried in a coffin.

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Sad it is of course, but also quite wonderful that 200 years after the tragic event archaeology confirmed the legend and that Fury’s deed is remembered.

Fury is on permanent display at the Castle. It’s worth a visit.

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A Visit to Ralahine, Co Clare. A Failed Experiment.

Ireland was a troubled country in the early part of the 19th century. Under the firm rule of the Crown, most Irish land at this time was owned by absentee landlords either in Britain or Dublin. The farms became a hotbed of discontent with tenants living in misery. This prompted organised groups such as the Ribbonmen, who launched deadly attacks on landlords and their tithes. Rural Ireland was not a happy place.

One man decided to try to change this. He believed he could bring peace to the land with a cooperative farm where he would rent the land to the labourers and they would work it under their own authority. This man was wealthy landowner John Vandeleur and a man of considerable influence in Clare.  He had been High Sherriff in 1823.  He found an estate of 638 acres at Ralahine near Newmarket-on-Fergus in County Clare and with socialist backer Englishman Edward Craig running it, started the colony with 40 farmers and their families. They had a school, a laundry and a pooled kitchen. All the capital (buildings, stock etc) was provided by Vandeleur and was communal property. There was no private ownership.  All 4 legged animals, even dogs, were the property of the group.  He charged rent in the form of farm produce.

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Ralahine Estate as shown in the 1842 Survey map.  The location of buildings still standing is marked,

There were strict rules governing the running of the farm. It was no socialist Utopia. New members could only be admitted by ballot. Work was 12 hours per day. There was no gambling and no drinking.  There was however enshrined freedom of expression and religion.  If there was a proposed marriage to someone outside the colony, and the members did not approve, then both were excluded. There was no money. Labour was paid for in Labour Notes which could be exchanged for provisions.

It all seemed to work and the colony expanded after one year to 81. People came from all over the world to see the contented colonists. Then it all came crashing down.

Mr Vandeleur’s wealth was gone. He had lost his fortune, ironically through gambling and drinking. He fled from Ralahine. The arrangement with the members had no legal basis and all the assets were seized and the bold experiment came to an end after two years.

I wanted to see how much of Ralahine was left. It was easy to find; just a short drive out of Newmarket-on-Fergus. I met local farmer Niamh, who pointed out some of the original buildings from 1830 which are still standing. There is the old mill, very much intact and a long whitewashed building, which at first I thought was stables, was the old working mans’ cottages. Each “house” has a single room with a fireplace,  Probably very comfortable for its day. .

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Rear view of the Old Mill

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Front view of the Old Mill

 

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Workmans’ Cottages

 

There are a number of other buildings and many walls which also appear to date from the same time but these mostly seem to now be used for storage. And of course looming over it all is the Rathlahine Castle, a previous home of one of the MacNamaras,  possibly looking a little worse for wear now than it did then.

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Ralahine.  View to Rathlahine Castle.

 

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Rathlahine Castle

 

The original house, the residence of Vandeleur,  was apparently demolished in the 1940s. Niamh said it was due to the windows tax, but this sounds a little fanciful as the window tax ended in the 1850s.

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Ralahine.  The site of the original Rathlahine House.  Nothing remains. 

 

I found a few very old apple trees near the mill, laden with fruit and it would be nice to think that these date back to the days of the colony.  So maybe John Vandleleur, if he is looking down on his life’s work from his vantage point above, may take some solace in the fact that among the crumbling ruins of his dream apple trees, his farmers planted 185 years ago, are still bearing fruit.

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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