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.
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.
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.
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.
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