Ireland 2011: Silent Sentinels of the Beara

By Marcie Miller©

The Beara peninsula, jutting out in the Atlantic on Ireland’s southwest corner, bristles with stone circles, wedge tombs and other megalithic stone monuments left behind thousands of years ago by prehistoric people. Most of them are estimated to be at least 3,000 years old. Many are just a short walk from the road, but the Beara Way walking trail yields many more.

Ballynahowen wedge grave sits in a field on the Beara Peninsula overlooking Bantry Bay. Photo copyright Marcie Miller

Ballynahowen wedge grave sits in a field on the Beara Peninsula overlooking Bantry Bay. Photo copyright Marcie Miller

I had the rare privilege of having an expert on the subject give me a personal tour of  sites that are not marked on maps at all, plus I visited a few that are off the tourist track, but well worth the effort to sleuth out.

Connie Murphy is a retired schoolteacher in Castletownbere, and the chairman of the Beara Historical Society. He knows virtually every one of the more than 900 stone monuments on the peninsula, and has a master’s in archeology based on his research of the area.

In the way of rural Ireland, all I had to do was ask my innkeeper in Allihies, John O’Sullivan, for suggestions on a local tour guide. He suggested Connie and set up a meeting.

Under sunny skies we started with a tour of Dunboy Castle, where he explained the architecture of the castle, and the story of the 1602 battle that signaled its demise. Standing on what is now a grass covered low stone wall, he brought it back to life for me. Like most Irish history, it’s a sad story of battles lost and villagers massacred by the conquering English.

(Note: The newer Puxley Mansion, adjacent to the original Dunboy Castle, is also sometimes called Dunboy Castle.)

From there we drove to just outside Castletownbere, hopped a low wire fence and stepped on grassy hillocks across a swampy field to check out a boulder burial stone. Connie explained that the massive stone was actually perched on four smaller stones, with enough space underneath to hold a cremation urn. He estimated it was in the 3,000 year old range and had never been excavated. Incredible to think there could still be a pottery urn under it.

From there we tromped across a peat bog to visit a holy well, originally used by pre-Christians, but co-opted by the Catholic church to become “St. John’s Well.” Modern stone had been laid around the two natural springs and a small, plastic Madonna lay between the two.

On my own I visited the stone circle, Derrintaggart, just outside Castletownbere, and several sites back on the west coast of Beara.

In a small field on Ballycrovane harbor, near the village of Eyeries, is the tallest ogham stone in the world. In the world! Ballycrovane ogham stone stands 17 feet tall, towering over the hilly countryside. It’s accessed by going through a small gate near a cottage and climbing a winding cow path. No bus parking lot, no visitors’ center or gift shop, no admission booth. Except for the addition of a small metal plaque, it is virtually unchanged from when it was erected during the Bronze Age.

Chop marks along one edge are ogham – ancient writing – which has been interpreted to roughly say “son of Deich descendant of Torainn.” While the stone still stands, there is no written record of Deich, his son or Torainn.

A short ways down the road is the ruined church of Kilcatherine, which has a unique claim to fame. Set in the stone over the arched doorway is a curious, cat-like stone face. It is believed to pre-date the Christian presence, another example of how the Catholic church in Ireland incorporated pagan beliefs in order to convert the locals.

On the wild Beara Peninsula the locals seem just fine living with the ancient, pagan past all around them.

 

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