“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.

Ballycrystal 1839

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

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: 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.

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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

 

Happy New Year!

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Blackstairs ridge from outside Saint Mullins, December 2010

Just a quick message to wish all my followers a prosperous, successful and happy 2014. The New Years Resolution is to make use of this blog so I promise lots more archaeology to come and certainly an improvement on 2013 🙂

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Sunset over Kilmashogue Mountain, February 2013

And for all the walkers out there stay safe on the hills!

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Slieve Donard (with the top of the Mourner Wall just about visible) January 2013

The Tower, Knockmulgurry

The Tower, Knockmulgurry

Another aerial photograph taken using a kite, this time over a site known as “The Tower” above Knockmulgurry and on the slopes beneath Caher Roe’s Den. The site is located on the side of a disused roadway known as the Tower Road. Above this is the Wexford Road, both of which meet at a site known as “The Meeting Point” where a Lughnasa festival was held at the end of July until recently.
The site is in a ruinous state today but consisted of a two storey rectangular structure aligned North-South with the southern gable still standing. There is a window on the top floor of this wall. There is an additional rectangular room or outhouse on the east side and a the base of a circular tower on the south-western corner. The steep slope was cut away and levelled out to make way for the construction of this structure. The site is situated in an area surrounded by field systems in various states of use. Some of these were used for the cultivation of rye.
It is marked as a roofed structure on the first edition Ordnance Survey maps (1839) but only consists of the main structure and the circular tower. It appears as a ruin on the 25″ series (1890’s) although the circular tower is still shown as being roofed and the eastern room or outhouse has been added in the meantime.

Jack Ryan’s Walls

Jack Ryan's Walls

Kite Aerial Photograph taken in November of a site known as Jack Ryan’s Walls on the eastern slopes of Knockroe Mountain. The site is east of Shannon’s New Fields. Nearby enclosures show signs of ridge and furrow indicating former cultivation, Ruin of this site marked on the first edition 25″ maps (1890’s) but not on first edition 6″ maps (1839). It consists of two structures. There is no sign of a formal fireplace in it’s current state.  The green grassy patch in the small outside enclosure indicates a higher soil fertility possibly from keeping an animal such as a pig on the site.