Feature Friday: Blackstairs Cursus No.2

Last April I wrote a short post on the Blackstairs cursus monument on the slopes of the Black Banks in the townland of Coolasnaghta known locally as “The Cailín Slipes“.  It featured in an article by Christiaan Corlett (2014(i)) in the summer edition of Archaeology Ireland in a discussion of upland cursus in Leinster of which there are a few. This feature is dramatically placed at the centre of the natural Coolasnaghta Amphitheatre visible from a great distance (despite the vegetation and peat which overlies it) especially under the right lighting conditions and in snow. One of the best views is from the Corribut Gap looking back towards Mount Leinster where you will see the two parallel banks running down the mountain to the right of the young River Burren channel.

photo (1)

The Coolasnaghta Amphitheatre from the Corribut Gap carpark

Over the summer I met Tipperary native but now Carlow resident Tom Doolan, son in law of well known and respected Myshall primary school principal and local history enthusiast, the late Andy Jordan. Of course the Blackstairs came up in conversation and Tom imparted nuggets of Andy’s valuable knowledge which he had passed on. Amongst these was a discussion about the Cailín Slipes, its location and its folklore. It was then that Tom informed me that Andy spoke of three such features on the mountain, the famous and obvious one but two more which were visible only under certain conditions. This rang a few bells as I had spotted two very subtle parallel lines on the slopes near the summit of Slievebawn.

The search was then on to revisit this site and find the third

On Wednesday I purchased the Autumn edition of Archaeology Ireland to discover that Ivor Kenny has indeed confirmed the existence of a second cursus, located on the slopes of Slievebawn. While the Cailín Slipes does not appear to have anything at its mountain top end, this could be down to preservation or visibility as the area is heavily overlain with peat and vegetation. The Slievebawn summit on the other hand is topped with the base of a large summit cairn which may be a damaged passage tomb (the small cairn sits on the base of this today) as well as a prominent quartz vein outcrop. Its southernmost extent near the mountain summit also forms the townland boundary between Knockendrane and Rathnageeragh suggesting it was once much more obvious than it appears now.


Archaeology Ireland Autumn 2014

With a series of (possible passage tomb) summit cairns (the PhD research subject of Andrea Watters, UCD), at least two and possible a third cursus, close to 10% of all the rock art identified so far in Ireland (Bradley 1997), recently discussed in Christiaan Corlett’s excellent new publication (2014(ii)) a portal tomb, pre-bog field walls, pre-bog hut sites, standing stones and a possible Bronze Age stone row and cairn cemeteries, the significance of the Blackstairs in early prehistory has possibly been underestimated until now.

Coolasnaghta Prehistory

Map of the Coolasnaghta Amphitheatre & some sites

If you are in the area in the next few months keep your eyes peeled especially in low winter sunlight which can be great for highlighting subtle earthworks. An excellent example of the power of local knowledge and a few sets of eyes on the one landscape.


Bradley, R. 1997 Rock art and the prehistory of Atlantic Europe: signing the land. London & New York; Routledge.

Corlett, C. (i) 2014 “Some Cursus Monuments in South Leinster”. Archaeology Ireland 28 (2), 20-25.

Corlett, C. (ii) 2014 Inscribing the landscape: the rock art of South Leinster. Dublin; Wordwell Ltd.

Kenny, I. 2014 “Another cursus comes to light”. Archaeology Ireland 28 (3), 21-25.

If you havn’t done so already make sure you purchase this edition of Archaeology Ireland and the last if you can still get your hands on it for more information especially for Ivor’s detailed discussion on the new cursus.

Feature Friday: Sheep Passes


Fig. 1 Baaaa!

Sheep are a common sight across The Blackstairs, both on the open mountain and throughout the fields which enclose the foothills. The tradition of farming sheep is a long standing one in this area stretching back at least into the  mid-nineteenth century (Kennedy 1855). With such a widespread and long term activity it would be expected that some archaeological trace and indicators would be left behind and sure enough there are. In some cases prehistoric or medieval sites were repurposed or altered to suit the needs of sheep farmers. For example according to the late Michael Byrne, Dranagh, Co. Carlow the standing stone on Dranagh Mountain (Fig. 2) on the open mountain was “a great scratching post for sheep in the time before the dip was good”. Indeed a number of standing stones we find across the Irish landscape and often suggest as prehistoric features might well have been erected for this purpose in the more recent past. Purpose built sites were also constructed to pen sheep from time to time rather than having to herd them off the mountain to the farm below and back up again. Known as “sheepfolds” these will form the focus of a future post.

Fig. 2 Dranagh Standing Stone, “A great scratching post”.

Another such purpose built site was a sheep pass. These features were built into the myriad of stone walls across the mountainside. They are found across the Burren, Co. Clare (Fig. 3) where they are known as “puicket’s”. Their purpose was to allow the free passage of sheep and goats between fields while still restricting the movement of cattle. They could be blocked up as needed, either with stone or perhaps wooden gates. These examples of vernacular architecture were often lintelled and lined with stone slabs and then topped with boulders in the same style as the surrounding wall to bring it up to height.

Fig. 3 Blocked up sheep pass on the Burren, Co. Clare. Photo: Burrenlife (http://www.burrenlife.com/Userfiles/bpg_no2_heritage.pdf)

Fig. 3 Blocked up sheep pass on the Burren, Co. Clare. Photo: Burrenlife (http://www.burrenlife.com/Userfiles/bpg_no2_heritage.pdf)

There are only two examples noted so far in the Blackstairs Mountains, one in the townland of Knockroe, Co. Carlow (Fig. 4), the other in the townland of Crannagh. The Knockroe example is located in an east-west aligned field wall approx. 291m OD on the south facing slopes of Knockroe Mountain overlooking the Scullogue Gap. Grazing in this landscape is mixed between cattle and sheep much as it probably would have done at the time of construction since it was for the management of these two species that they were constructed. The walls are approximately 1.6m thick and stand to a height of 1.8m. There is considerable banking of peat on the northern side up to a height of 1m caused by the steep slope on which it stands. While the base of this sheep pass is partially blocked up, it measures approximately 0.54m high and 0.5m wide. Large boulders make up to the two sides of either entrance on top of which the walls are built up and then lintelled and roofed with long granite slabs. There is no evidence of shaping or working stone for the purpose, rather the feature has been shaped by the size of available stone.

Knockroe Sheep Pass

Fig. 4 Knockroe Sheep Pass

The Crannagh example (Fig. 5) is located in a northeast-southwest aligned field wall (175m OD) which is part of an extensive field system now heavily damaged by forestry. The surviving walls are approximately 1.7m high and 1.5m thick. The passage itself is approximately 0.52m high and 0.50m wide. Large boulders make up the sides of the entrance of this feature. The sides of the passage are packed with granite stones much like the rest of the field wall structure. Granite slabs form a lintel to cover the feature. The lintel on the northern side of the wall appears to be cut and shaped for purpose however this is not the case for the southern or internal lintels. It is then topped with further granite stones to bring it to the height of the surrounding wall. Given the erosion in the surrounding vegetation it is clearly used by animals either wild or domestic today.

Fig. 5 Crannagh Sheep Pass

Fig. 5 Crannagh Sheep Pass

The sheer volume of field walls across the slopes of the Blackstairs means it is difficult to identify ever occurrence of these features. Many of them will be blocked up or infilled, however it should still be possible in most cases to identify them from their lintels and sidestones as can be seen in The Burren example. In other cases, alterations to the field walls, the clearance of walls to create larger enclosures or the damage or masking of walls especially by forestry plantation means that many are lost or simply cannot be identified under current conditions due to access.
If anyone knows of other instances of these features please let me know!


Burrenlife 2010 The Agricultural Heritage of The Burren. Ennis; Burrenlife.

Kennedy, P. 1855 Legends of Mount Leinster. Oxford; Oxford University