“God bless the work”

“If a person visited during the [butter] churning, they had to say ‘God bless the work’ and help for even one turn”

The above was stated by John Long and his wife (unnamed) of Rossard, Bunclody, Co. Wexford in conversation with P. T. O’Riain in June 1940. Here now in January 2015 you find yourself visiting this site as I churn out a thesis and hopefully this old custom of support and wishing for divine intervention still survives.

The visitor was also required to help even in a very small way in order to bring the job to fruition. Over the last number of years desk-based and field survey have identified a huge number of features on the ridges, peaks and slopes of the Blackstairs that have previously been unrecorded, which are altering our understanding of this and similar landscapes elsewhere in Ireland. Mountains (and certainly the Blackstairs) are not the product of nature going unchecked and left to its own devices, Instead they are fragile landscapes with thousands of years of human impact which has fluctuated between intensive use and abandonment over time to give us the patchwork landscape we see today. The deep scars left by centuries of turf-cutting, the ruins of former homes and temporary shelters, the network of trackways in various states of visibility and the myriad of field walls across the slopes which enclose areas of dense heather and gorse and have themselves become overgrown with peat are testament to this. Most of these are post-medieval in date and and probably pre-date the Famine period and the ensuing rural depopulation. As these sites are so late in date, there is still a social memory attached to many of them even right down to the names of those who occupied or used them.

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Some of the features you might see in the Blackstairs. Field walls and sheep passes (example Knockroe); standing stones (example Dranagh; Megalithic tombs (example Knockroe Portal Tomb); Hut Sites (example Blackrock Mountain); Cairns (example Knockroe summit); House Structures (example “The Tower” Barracks, Knockymulgurry)

I reiterate my earlier call for assistance with any information on the Blackstairs Mountains in the past that you might have. Themes that have been identified so far include:

– agricultural activity (crops, potatoes, sheep, cattle

– settlement (where houses were located, who lived in them)

– any traces of transhumance/ booleying the seasonal movement of livestock up to the mountain for the summer months where they were tended to by herders who would build shelters for themselves (Documented and recorded in many uplands but unidentified so far in the Blackstairs except in one possible case)

– Quarrying activity

– turf-cutting activity

-movement (and the methods) and the mountains as a facilitator of traffic and communication rather than a barrier

-the Famine, relief schemes and their effects.

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Field walls (red lines) and houses (blue dots) recorded on the First Edition Ordnance Survey Maps overlain on modern satellite imagery in Ballycrystal to the south east of Mount Leinster give an idea of the former extent of settlement and agriculture in the uplands

Similarly the Blackstairs is a landscape which is under constant alteration; in the short term due to sudden events such as fires; the seasonal with vegetational growth patterns; and the long term with forestry management and changes to land use or erosion. These changes both mask and reveal archaeological features and in some cases only for a very short window of time. So if you find yourself in the Blackstairs, keep your eyes peeled for anything that may be of archaeological significance from small artefacts such as clay pipes right up to prehistoric field systems that may appear out of eroding peat.

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Clay pipe stem identified on turf-cutters trackway on the slopes of Knockroe during Carlow Walking Festival 2014

Without recording this information it will either be lost or become confused over time. A huge amount of information and leads have been provided already and I wish to thank all those who have provided these. The people on the ground are the key to understanding the past and without that this project would have hit a dead end a long time ago. Hopefully now you can help see it through to the end.

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The varying modern and historic extents of field systems in the uplands

Bibliography

National Folklore Collection, MS 1063, page 27. Information provided by John Long and his wife of Rossard, Bunclody, Co. Wexford to P. T. O’Riain. June 1940

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Christmas in the Late 19th/ Early 20th Cen. Blackstairs

Wishing everyone a Happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year.

As you settle into the rhythm of the Christmas customs, here are some that were carried out in the Blackstairs region around 100 years ago. Some you might recognise while others you may not.

The following information was submitted to the National Folklore Commission in February 1945 by Cáit Ní Bolgubhair of Rathnure. She notes how some of the customs were still in use at that time but others were not and she got her information on these from Mr. Myles Doyle (85), Ballygibbon, Rathnure and Mrs. Elizabeth (Eliza) Forrestal (87), Grange, Rathnure. It is interesting that some of the traditions she notes as having died out (decorating the outside of the house, Christmas candle in the windows) have been revived today.

Dates and Days

The days leading up to and following Christmas were given titles to mark their importance: “Christmas Eve”, “Christmas Eve Night”, “Christmas Day”, “Christmas Night”, “St. Stephen’s Day”, “The Children’s Christmas” (28th December), “Women’s Christmas/ Little Christmas” (06th January), “Twelve Days of Christmas” (26th Dec-06th Jan).

Most of these are self explanatory and still in use today but Children’s Christmas is not a term in common usage anymore. This day was so called as it was believed that this was the date on which the “Holy Innocents” were massacred by Herod and so they were celebrated, remembered and prayed for. Little Christmas was so called as the feasting ended that day.

Superstitions on Sickness and Death at this time

It was believed that sickness and disease waned on the approach to Christmas due to the power of the feast and the weather. There was an old saying: “A green Christmas makes a fat churchyard. A white Christmas makes a lean churchyard”. It was also believed that anyone who died around Christmas went straight to heaven as it was open to all souls from noon on Christmas Eve to New Years Day.

Decorating the House

People worked until midday on the 24th of December. The remainder of the day was then spent decorating the house both inside and out. The custom of decorating the outside had died out by 1945 beyond whitewashing and cleaning the yards. Inside was cleaned, whitewashed and all the surfaces were scrubbed down. Pictures were cleaned and replaced and then decorated. Holly with berries was put around the pictures and on dresser tops. Ivy was wound around a piece of cord and holly was pushed through this and tied with ribbons. The cord was then fastened to a nail and hung from one corning of the ceiling diagonally to the other. The same was done in the opposite direction making the shape of the cross on the ceiling. Mistletoe was formerly used but its use had died out by 1945. Boys procured the plants and girls made them into decorations. Everything was taken down the day after Little Christmas. Plants were burned and the ribbons were kept for the following year.

Christmas Shopping

People visited the local towns for their Christmas shopping where they bought currants, raisins, flour, apples, beef, ham, tea, sugar, whiskey, wine, biscuits and always asked for their “Christmas Box”. This contained sweet cake and a bottle of either whiskey or wine. Toys were also bought for the children of the household.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve was a fast day at this time when people abstained from meat. In its place butter and eggs were eaten or ling fish.

The man of the house went out and procured a Yule Log on Christmas Eve and put it behind the fire. This was a thick branch or a piece of the trunk of a small tree (no tree in particular was favoured). This was then lit on Christmas Day (see below).

Local men and boys gathered in the pubs on Christmas Eve Night and “got merry”. There was drinking and singing throughout the night and their shouts and laughs could be heard across the countryside as they made their way home.

The women of the house would spend the night at home by the fireside staying up until well past midnight. Men always returned to their own homes rather than neighbours houses as Christmas was a night for home. There was no tradition of a midnight mass in this district as there was in many other areas at this time.

Christmas Candle

Cáit notes that the tradition of lighting a Christmas candle had died out in the Rathnure area by the time of her recordings but that it had been practiced up until 80 years previous (c. 1865). People would make their own candles from mutton fat. They were around 2 foot long and yellow in colour and one was placed in every window of the house. They were then lit by the woman of the house at 11PM on Christmas Eve Night. They were left burning until 3AM Christmas morning Their purpose was to honour the birth of Christ at that time. (I wonder were they also useful to guide the merry boys and men home!)

Animal Traditions

A lamp was formerly lit in stables and cow houses on Christmas Eve Night but this tradition had died out by 1945. The purpose of this lamp was to light the stable for the Holy Family in case they decided to stay for the night. Donkeys were believed to kneel at midnight in honour of the birth of Christ. (It was not in Cáit’s account but we were told as children that cattle speak to one another at midnight and praise the birth). It was lucky to hear a cricket chirping on this night. It was also said that cock’s crow before midnight on Christmas Eve Night. Cáit notes how she herself heard cock’s crow at 8, 9, 10, 11 & 12PM on this night and at other unusual times during the day before 6PM. (check the post on St. Martin’s Day traditions to see the fate of cock’s crowing at unusual hours).

Cards, Presents and Santa Claus

Gifts were given to neighbours on Christmas Eve. These would include butter, eggs, fowl, toys in Christmas stockings and books. Children would hang a stocking at the foot of their beds in the hope that Father Christmas or Santa Clause would pay them a visit.Thankfully he did seem to visit without fail as he still does today bringing sweets, cakes and toys. At that time he came in through the window and left through the chimney.

People used to send cards on Christmas Eve s that they would arrive on Christmas morning but changes in the postage rules brought a stop to this. Instead they began to be sent in the days and weeks before.

Religious Observances

The first mass Christmas morning was at 6AM and then at different times during the day from district to district. In the Rathnure area, people went to first mass which was immediately followed by second mass and then third a few hours later. Each was slightly different. Adeste Fideles and other songs were sung at first mass. The Benediction of the Blessed Sacrements was held after third mass. The sounds and conversations outside churches on this day would not be unfamiliar to us today. Before and after mass, people would greet one another with “Happy Christmas” which was responded to with “And many happy returns”.

Food and Christmas Dinner

Breakfast was eaten after mass and as it was a special time of year it consisted of sweet cakes and tea.

Pig’s head was formerly eaten for Christmas dinner followed by a  bowl of tea for dessert. By 1945 turkey, goose or chicken and plum pudding had become the main menu. Biscuits were eaten as an evening meal during the entertainments (see below).

A cake was made in the days before by the woman of the house with currants and raisins. In some houses a ring was put into the cake and the person who found it would be the first to be married. Poitín was extensively made in the region and every house was sure to have a bottle for Christmas but by 1945 this was replaced by whiskey or wine.

The Yule Log

The Yule Log which had been procured and placed behind the fire on Christmas Eve was taken out and put in the fireplace Christmas morning. Lots of turf was placed around it and a big warm fire was built. It was not allowed to burn away entirely as a piece was kept to light the Christmas log the following year. Cáit notes this as being a very old custom by 1945 and that the log was always lit with a piece from the previous years log. Burning the log was believed to keep evil spirits away from the house for the year. The ashes from a yule log fir were very lucky and they protected the house from lightning or fire. If they were put on crops they would not decay or rot. They were also seen to have curative properties and were rubbed on swollen glands and chilblains.

Entertainments

In a time before televisions and the widespread availability of board games, people had to look to other forms of entertainment to brign their families and neighbours together. Football and hurling were played during the day especially by boys. Games of cards were then played in the evening along with music, singing and dancing in rooms lit by fire and candlelight.

It appears that Christmas Eve was a time for family only while Christmas day was spent with neighbours and friends.

Bibliography

National Folklore Collection, Main Manuscript Collection MS1085, Pages 357-364. Information collected and compiled by Cáit Ní Bolgubhair, Rathnure for the National Folklore Collections Questionnaire on Christmas traditions 1944-45. Based on customs still being carried out at that time. Accounts of earlier traditions were provided by Mr. Myles Doyle (85), Ballygibbon, Rathnure and Mrs. Elizabeth (Eliza) Forrestal (87), Grange, Rathnure.

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Feature Friday: Carloviana 2015

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Carloviana 2015 Front Cover

Last night saw the launch of Carloviana 2015 (No. 63), the journal of the Carlow Historical and Archaeological Society in the Seven Oaks Hotel Carlow by Raghnall Ó Floinn, Director of the National Museum of Ireland. The editor, Martin Nevin and his team have once again brought together a bumper issue with over 208 pages of history, archaeology, folklore, genealogy and photographs of County Carlow and its wider influences.

There’s something in it for everyone but there are a number of articles which might be of particular interest for those who follow this Facebook page & blog.

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Articles 1-11

There is a growing interest in the value of the Blackstairs Mountains in the last number of years and the growing number of articles focusing specifically on the region is higher in this edition than ever before.

  1. “The Flight of the Raven” by Liam O’Neill is a piece of historical fiction based on the early prehistoric remains of the area.
  2. “The Hidden Bridges of the Mountain River and its Tributaries by Francis Coady does exactly what it says on the tin and describes the development and architectural features of the little known and underappreciated Mountain River bridges (sourced in the Blackstairs) with some lovely photographs.
  3. “Improvisations on the Theme of an Irish Wall” by Roger Bennett discusses the design and construction of the Carlow wall artpiece which featured at Dublin Airport which inspired the field walls of County Carlow including those in the Blackstairs
  4. “The Ringfort Society” by Liam O’Neill discusses the early medieval settlement and ringforts around the Drumphea region
  5. “Blackstairs and Mount Leinster” by Barry Dalby describes in detail the meaning and origins of the names of these two mountains and some of their surroundings
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Articles 12-23

For those more interested in archaeology rather than place, the number of articles on this subject has also increased dramatically in the last number of years and this year is no different:

  1. “Ogham Stones and County Carlow” by Dr. Colman Etchingham not only describes and discusses the Carlow examples of these features but also dispels some of the myths which often surround them!
  2. “Dinn Rígh, Co. Carlow, home to the Kings of Leinster” by Dermot Mulligan (curator of Carlow County Museum delves into the origins of the provincial name “Leinster” and its connections with this royal site
  3. “The Ballon Hill Archaeological Project” by Deirdre Kearney and Nial O’Neill introduces the history and archaeology of the hill which appears to have been of major significance in prehistory (and underappreciated until now).
  4. “The Prehistoric Houses of County Carlow” by Nial O’Neill describes and discusses the nine known prehistoric houses from County Carlow revealed through archaeological excavations all of which were found in advance of the M9/M10 motorway construction.
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Articles 24-35

Of course these are just a fraction of the articles and topics featured. With Christmas less than a month away, this would make a fantastic present for anyone with even a remote interest in County Carlow’s past or history/ archaeology/ folklore in general. You can pick up a copy in a number of outlets in the county and towns. If you can’t make it back to Carlow in time, never fear, the modern age allows it to be delivered to your door from the Carlow Historical and Archaeological Society’s website. There’s also an article written by yours truly, co-authored with my namesake Grandfather but you’ll have to buy it to know the title. Move quick there’s only a limited supply!!!

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Back Cover featuring an enlarged drawing of Carlow Town from a Crown Commission report 1563

Feature Friday: Saint Martin’s Day Traditions

While not exactly a physical feature for us to see and visit, the subject of this week’s installation was still an important traditional feature of it’s time and reminds us of the types of small scale activities which leave little visible trace for us today in the landscape. Knowledge of these events can only be accessed through local folklore and the documentary evidence.

The last century has seen Remembrance Day and its commemorative events dominating our attention and news sources on November 11th. The date is longer remembered however as the Feast of Saint Martin of Tours (AD316-397) who left the Roman Army to become a monk. One of his more famous legends is that he cut his cloak in two to give half to a freezing beggar. That night he had a dream where he saw Christ introduce him to angels as the man who clothed him. For this reason he was popular with the poor and his feast was celebrated annually across Europe. Saint Martin was also popular in Ireland where pilgrimages were carried out to holy wells dedicated to him such as the example at Ballynacally Co Clare which will be the subject of an upcoming blog post over on the Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland page. The National Folklore Archive held in UCD contains a wealth of accounts of these events two of which were sourced in the Blackstairs Region. These were gathered as part of a targeted survey on Saint Martin’s Day folklore.

Saint Martin

The Charity of Saint-Martin , oil on canvas by Louis Anselme Longa. Image Source: http://goo.gl/nZ7owq

Observing this Feast was said to bring great luck to the household for the rest of the year. It was also said that no machine wheels should turn on November 11th as Saint Martin had been killed in a mill.

A young cockerel was killed on the eve of the feast day outside the house and the blood collected and sprinkled on the doorway and threshold.  This was left to wear away naturally and was not to be cleaned off as it acted as a safeguard against evil entering the household for the next 12 months. Sacrificing the bird to the Saint was also believed to safe-guard the household’s livestock from harm, disease or ill-fortune for the rest of the year.The cockerel was then eaten on the Feast Day as part of the celebrations either boiled or roast.

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House Site above Rathanna Village facing the Crannagh ridgeline. Photo: Séamus Ó Murchú

If you had a sick cow or sheep on the day, part of its ear was cut off and offered up to Saint Martin. If the animal was cured it couldn’t be sold and had to be kept until it died naturally.

The survey also questioned the use of Martin as a name in the collectors region and the townland of Ballymartin between Corries Cross and Borris in Co. Carlow was noted in these records. The Christian name Martin was identified as being widespread in the area although not associated in particular with any one family. Seán Ó Clúmáin highlighted the extensive use of the name in the Saint Mullins region in 1939 by exhaustively listing all the families which used the name with there being at the time of writing Martin; Doyle, Murphy, Joyce, Lennon, Fenlon, Dwyer, Cushen, Coady, Kelly, Brennan, Dreelan, Ryan, Kinsella, Hennessy, Gahen, SHeehy, Byrne, Purcell, O’Mara, Foley, Quigley, Fogarty, Deegan, Comerford, O’Shea, Walshe, Fitzgerald, O’Connor, Grennan, Corcoran, Drew, Keeffe and King.

As for how to choose which of your cockerel’s to be sacrificed , Walter Furlong, Grange (aged 83 in 1954) had the answer “A cock crowing at unusual hours was unlucky so it was given up and killed”.

I’m not sure if that was unlucky for the household or the bird!

Bibliography

Pernoud, R. 2006 Martin of Tours: Soldier, Bishop and Saint. San Francisco; Ignatius Press.

National Folklore Archive MS 682 (pages 78-80). Information collected by Seán Ó Clumáin, Nás na Rígh 06/12/1939 in Saint Mullins Area from multiple unnamed sources.

National Folklore Archive MS 1344 (pages 152-153). Information collected by J.G. Delaney, Parnell St. Wexford 16/07/1954 from Walter Furlong (farmer), Grange aged 83. Furlong got his information from his mother when he was 23 [c.1894]

http://pilgrimagemedievalireland.com/

Feature Friday: Cairn (“The Height of Stones”) Ballyglisheen

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Summit Cairn, Cloroge More, Co. Wexford

Cairns are by far the most common feature type in the Blackstairs Mountains after field wall systems. This feature type falls into many categories including summit cairns, Bronze Age burial cairns, ring cairns and field clearance cairns. Like many upland sites whose morphological features stretch across multiple periods, dates for these are often impossible to assess without excavation and even this may be fruitless. In some cases, even their function may be difficult to discern. For example a large cairn on a mountain summit may simply be a pile of stones while in other cases they are passage tombs (e.g. Seefin, Co. Wicklow WI006-003) or Bronze Age burials (e.g. Tibradden, Co, Dublin DU025-005). In some cases however local folklore can answer the question of a sites origins and function at least in the more recent past.

06. View of chamber from east

Tibradden Cairn. Heavily reworked in the 19th Century, excavation by the Royal Irish Academy in 1849 revealed a primary burial of cremated bone alongside a food vessel followed by a secondary urn burial (Evans 1966, 111)

A hillwalker climbing up Blackstairs Mountain via Knockymulgurry will follow the Old Gowlin road and eventually join either the Tower or the Wexford Road. These continue upslope and over the Cooliagh Gap (“The Meeting Point”), the site of annual Lughnasa gathering until the mid-20th Century known as “Mountain Sunday” on the last Sunday in July.  The roads were once an important communication artery between the Carlow and Wexford sides of the range as the long ridgeline created an imposing barrier to travel which otherwise needed to be circumnavigated. All are disused and overgrown today but have their own interesting stories to tell which will form the basis of future posts.

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View along the Old Gowlin Road

In a relict field enclosure between the Tower and Old Gowlin Road you will see a large sub-circular central cairn of stones with two enclosing circles of stone. The central cairn is 10m in diameter and stands 1.5m high. The site is relatively flat despite its width while the radiating circles measure 25m and 31m respectively. Hawthorn trees have come to grow out of the cairn structure and it is heavily overgrown for most of the year with ferns suggesting that it may partly be an earthwork overlain with stone. It is however visible in google earth and bing imagery.

The cairn is known locally as “The Height of Stones”. It is said to originate as a memorial to a local man Mr. Cantillon who was killed at that spot by a kick from a stallion. A local tradition obliged any passer-by to add a stone to the cairn in memory of the deceased (Michael Byrne pers. comm.). Given the amount of traffic this roadway would have received both as an important routeway between County Carlow and County Wexford and during the annual gatherings it is easy to see how its size would have grown to what survives today. Similarly the fields to the north are known as “The Rye Stubbles” and it is said that they produced an excellent crop. It is possible that stones brought to the surface during ploughing were cleared onto the cairn.

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Standing stone, Knockymulgurry. Known locally as Price’s Stone. It may have originally served as a route marker before the formal construction of the roads

It is also possible that this is an earlier site which was manipulated to suit a later purpose. There is large standing stone (CW025-005) to the north of the site at the old crossroads. Similarly there is Iron Age activity suggested by the Lughnasa gathering, a legend of the pre-Christian deity Cathair Mor at Caher Roe’s Den which overlooks the site as well as absolute proof in the discovery of a deer trap in a peat hag on Blackstairs Mountain in 2011.

Whatever its original date or purpose, spare a thought for Mr Cantillon next time you pass!

Bibliography

Byrne, Michael, Dranagh, Co. Carlow. Pers. Comm.

Conry, M. 2006 Carlow Granite: Years of History Written in Stone. Carlow; Chapelstown Press

Evans, E. E. 1966 Prehistoric and Early Christian Ireland: A guide. London; B T Batsford Ltd.

http://www.archaeology.ie

Feature Friday: The Cailín Slipes Cursus

Centuries ago a race of giants and witches inhabited the Blackstairs Mountains. Their tables, chairs and footprints can still be found across the landscape today. As in all societies rivalries built up over time and one day this escalated into a full blown feud between a witch who lived on Mount Leinster and her enemy in Wexford/ Wicklow. In her anger she picked up a stone, her fingers crushing its sides and hurled it towards her antagonist. It soared through the air and came crashing down in the townland of Clonee where it remains today. As she threw it, she lost her balance and slid down the mountain, her huge bulk carving a track through the turf leaving two huge banks of earth along her course which can still be seen on the Black Banks. She finally came to rest in the modern day village of Myshall where the impact from her knees was left in a stone now in the graveyard.

 

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Figure 1 The Cailín Slipes, Black Banks, Carlow

That is the folklore, now for the archaeology. The first in the new series of posts called “Feature Friday” is a spectacular site on the slopes of the Black Banks. Overlooking the village of Myshall, this feature can be seen from the North including the Corribut Gap carpark. Known locally as the Cailín Slipes, this feature has been interpreted as a cursus monument. Cursus comes from the Latin racecourse as early antiquarians believed them to be Roman race tracks. Cursus monuments consist of two long banks running parallel to one another which are sometimes joined at one end by a straight or rounded bank. They date to the Neolithic period (c.4000-2500BC) and their function is still a matter of debate. They vary in length with the most famous examples in Ireland being the one next to Newgrange (100m long & 20m wide) and one on the Hill of Tara (250m long & 20m wide) more popularly known as “The Banqueting Hall”. Cursus monuments also occur in Britain such as at Stonehenge. The biggest and most elaborate cursus is Dorset cursus in the sout of England. This has a total length of approximately 10km and it has been estimated that half a million work hours went into its construction. Much of it has been levelled today but it is still visible as cropmarks. The great Rudston monolith (7.6m) in Yorkshire England has three cursus monuments leading up to its hilltop location.

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Figure 2 The Rudston Monolith, Yorkshire

Generally they are found near or leading up to other Neolithic monuments (e.g. beside the Newgrange passage tomb, leading up to the Mound of the Hostages at Tara or Stonehenge). In the case of the Dorset cursus, prehistoric monuments are built all along its course. As well as these lowland examples, cursus monuments have also been identified in the uplands such as the example on Keadeen Mountain, Wicklow (see Ivor Kenny’s blog for a more detailed discussion on that example http://ivorkenny.wordpress.com/tag/cursus/). While the Keadeen example appears to be lead up to a summit cairn, the same cannot be said for the Black Banks although a feature now either destroyed or overlain by peat may have once stood at the summit. Alternatively it could have led to the ridge from where the summit cairn on Mount Leinster could have been accessed. The only prehistoric features in the area are a possible passage tomb/ summit cairn on the summit of Slievebawn and the Nine Stones stone alignment. Climbing up along its course is difficult as the builders appeared to have chosen the steepest part of the mountain!!! Peat growth and vegetation makes it difficult to identify the banks in places while walking along it and the construction of the roadway leading to the Nine Stones carpark has cut through and obliterated all sight of it from this position. From satellite imagery we can see it continuing downslope towards Coolasnaghta however this is impossible to see on the ground.

Whatever its true purpose, function and reason for construction, the local folklore around Myshall and the area has an interesting explanation for its formation as we have seen.  A witch who lived on Mount Leinster got into an argument with another witch in Wexford/ Wicklow. In a fit of rage she picked up a stone and threw it at her enemy but in the process lost her balance and slipped down the mountain. The result was the huge track we see on the mountain today known as The Cailín Slipes or the Witches Slide. The standing stone in Clonee is said to be the stone she threw as evidenced by the grooves left from the mark of her hands. The point where she finally came to rest can be seen in Myshall graveyard as the impact from her knees left a mark in a stone there, we know it today as a medieval double bullaun stone.

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Figure 3 Myshall Double Bullaun Stone/ The Witches knee marks

 

Oiche na Gaoithe

“At 1 o’Clock a most tremendous hurricane commenced, which rocked the house beneath us as if it were a ship! Awfully sublime!” John O’Donovan, Monday 07th January 1839

John O’Donovan. Image: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5a/Odonovan.jpg/220px-Odonovan.jpg

Just one of the accounts of the night of the 06/07th January 175 years ago today when a huge storm hit the country and came to be known in folk memory as “Óiche na Gaoithe” or The Night of the Big Wind and looking out the window today and listening to the sound, it seems that the weather is commemorating the occasion by sending us Hurricane Christine.

Today we can predict and prepare for most weather events but 175 years ago, people did not have the luxury of scientific measurements and weather satellites so when the storm made landfall every community was completely unprepared for the worst battering the country has ever seen (waves broke over the top of the Cliffs of Moher in Clare, 700feet above sea level). What made it worse was the calm and tranquillity in the lead up to the event. Snow had covered the country before the 06th and while most of the country was preparing for Little Christmas or the Feast of the Epiphany, John O’Donovan and Thomas O’Conor of the First Ordnance Survey were caught in a blizzard in the Wicklow Mountains on their way to Glendalough and had to stop on the way and stay in Charley Clarke’s public house which was not up to their standard. Much of folk memory remembers an unusually warm day on Sunday the 06th of January, so warm in fact that the blanket of snow which had covered the country melted away. John O’Donovan wrote of that day’s experience:

“we set out across the same mountain (in which we had been stopped by the Snow). I never felt so tired! Sinking thro’ the half-dissolved masses of snow and occasionally down to the knees in ruts in the road… We were now within five miles of the Glen, but a misty rain, truly annoying, dashed constantly in our faces until we arrived at St. Kevin’s Shrine. Horribly beautiful! And truly romantic, but not sublime!”.

That misty rain was the only veiled warning the island got. By 6pm on the 06th wind speeds were reaching hurricane force and heavy rain was increasing and becoming sleety in places. “In towns and villages, fires flickered and doors slammed. Church bells chimed, dogs whined and cats screeched. Fishermen turned their ears west as a distant, increasingly loud rumble was heard on the frothy horizon” (Bunbury 2014). By 10 o’clock that night the island was subjected to the full force of the worst documented weather event in Irish history until 6 o’clock the following morning. As the wind rocketed through every gap in houses, tearing some to the ground, lifting roofs and knocking chimneys candles and fires would probably have been extinguished leaving families experiencing the full ferocity of nature in total darkness except for the occasional lightning strike. Even the great mansions and better built houses did not escape the destruction many losing their entire roofs or having chimney pots crashing through into the rooms below.

Since the winds had rose to deafening levels at 1 o’clock, O’Donovan could not get back to sleep. At 2’oclock, the storm rose to such a ferocity that he left his bed with the intention of fleeing the building, afraid the roof would come in on top of him. But no sooner was he out of bed

“than the window was dashed in upon the floor! And after it a squall mighty as a thunderbolt. I then, fearing that the roof would be blown off at once, pushed out the shutter and closed it as soon as the direct squall had passed off, and placed myself diagonally against it to prevent the next squall from getting at the roof inside, but the next blast shot me completely out of my position, and forced in the window!”

O’Donovan managed to get the shutter closed a second time and pressed himself against it to keep it closed for an hour while O’Conor who had been roused by the blast which threw O’Donovan ran to get help from the house owner who was himself trying to secure his cattle in a now wrecked out-house. Eventually he returned to secure the window and by morning O’Donovan was sitting by a fire trying to warm up after his freezing ordeal bracing the window. He finished his account of the nights events by frustratingly stating “Pity I have not paper to tell the rest”. He later described the impact of the storm on the landscape as “the entire country had been swept clean by some gigantic broom”.

A number of people were killed that night, mainly by falling masonry and in some cases where fires erupted. Fear spread through Dublin that a great fire might take off like happened to London in 1666. Sheep were swept from hillsides and cattle were reported to have frozen to death in the fields. Canals were blown dry and reputedly the bodies of victims killed during the Battle of the Boyne were exposed on the river banks. Tree were knocked in such large amounts that it was said not an oak tree planted pre-1839 existed in Ireland. A statistic was produced stating that 4,846 chimneys were knocked that night. While Carlow escaped relatively unscathed compared to large parts of the country, the storm still left it’s mark.

Night of the Big Wind in Carlow

Carlow Cathedral today

Carlow town was hit badly through the night and a number of serious injuries were reported. The newly built (1833) Catholic Cathedral, the first built since Catholic Emancipation had been won had a pinnacle knocked from the crown on top of the steeple. It crashed into the roof below, smashing through into the front gallery and shattered it. The last chimney on top of Carlow castle was knocked while houses were deroofed, hay stacks scattered and out-houses levelled. One resident, Thomas C. Butler had just left his bedroom when his ceiling caved in by the weight of the chimneys which had fallen on it. A back window on the Carlow Club House hotel then on Dublin Street was forced in and shattered, brace and all. So powerful was the wind hurtling through the town that it required a number of men to keep the shutters closed while another brace was found.

Carlow Cathedral pinnacles and the front gallery where one crashed through causing considerable damage

Out in the countryside the destruction was no less with serious injury reported but again escaping much of the full onslaught of the hurricane. A mile length of wall which surrounded the estate of Colonel Henry Bruen’s demesne at Oak Park was levelled. It was reported that the roofs and walls of even the best built structures shook as if it were an earthquake.

With so much destruction chaos must have loomed for days afterwards especially amongst livestock farmers. Fences and walls would have either been knocked by the wind or burst by frightened animals. While many farmers would have lost animals either through death, injury or flight, more must have knowingly gained a few head of sheep or cattle in the confusion. One Carlow man was reported as having sold ten shillings worth of slates blown down from houses which he had gone out and gathered. It was said that more people were rendered homeless by that single nights event than were evicted between 1850 and 1880. While the immediate impact was catastrophic there was a silver lining for the younger survivors and eyewitnesses of the event. When the Old Age Pensions Act was introduced in 1909, all those over 70 were made eligible. Since pre 1865 birth records were poor it was decided that anybody who could remember The Night of the Big Wind could claim the pension. One applicant Tim Joyce from Limerick explained “I always thought I was 60 but my friends came to me and told me they were certain I was 70 and as there were three or four of them against me, the evidence was too strong against me. I put in for the pension and got it”.

Bibliography

Bunbury, T. 2014 “The Night of the Big Wind”. In Ireland’s Own 5,427, 4-9.

Carr, P. 1991 The Big Wind; the story of the legendary big wind of 1839, Ireland’s greatest natural disaster. Belfast; White Row.

Letter from John O’Donovan to Thomas A. Larcom 07th January 1839. In Herity, M. (ed) 2013 Ordnance Survey Letters Wicklow and Carlow. Dublin; Fourmasters Press, 71-72.