“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

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: Sheep Passes

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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!

Bibliography

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

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

“The Mountain Rising Blue in the Distance”

“It is not of mountains that the stranger thinks when [they] imagine Ireland; not the hard rock, the driven snow, the dark lake cradled in the lonely corrie; rather of something green and pastoral. Yet for Irish [people themselves] the mountain rising blue in the distance across the level brown of the peat bogs or the green of the undulating fields, form an essential part of [their] picture of [their] country” – D. D. C. Pochin Mould 1976, The Mountains of Ireland. Dublin; Gill & Macmillan Limited, 15

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

 

The Blackstairs Blitz

A Heinkel He111H-6 is loaded before a bombing mission. Image: http://www.wwiivehicles.com/germany/aircraft/bomber/heinkel-he-111-bomber/heinkel-he-111-h6-bomber-01.png

A German Bomber takes off from fortress Europe on the night of the 1st January 1941 as part of a bombing mission over Britain. The Blitz is still ongoing after the Battle of Britain.  Accounts from the night say that on their way to their targets they are intercepted by the RAF who chased them out over the Irish Sea.

Heinkel He111H-6 in flight Image: http://www.wwiivehicles.com/germany/aircraft/bomber/heinkel-he-111-bomber/heinkel-he-111-h6-47-bomber-01.png

Meanwhile an unsuspecting family are winding down for the night in the Scullogue Gap in the shadow of Knockroe Mountain in County Carlow. The Shannon family, John, James and Michael, brothers of the homeowner Patrick Shannon Snr along with their sisters Bridget and Mary Ellen and Patricks nephew Raymond and niece Kathleen after reciting the rosary and sitting by the fire all went to bed like any ordinary night.

Supermarine Spitfire, world famous for its role in the defence of Britain. Image: http://www.raf.mod.uk/history/gallery.cfm

Whether it was intercepted or whether it got lost,  we can only assume the bomber made its way across neutral Ireland in an attempt to return home when at 7 o clock in the morning, as the Nationalist newspaper from the 11th January reported, “The tranquillity and silence of that peaceful valley of Knockroe, reposing ‘neath the towering peaks of Mount Leinster and the lordly Blackstairs on the other, was suddenly disturbed ‘ere day broke on Thursday morning 2nd, by the invasion of an unidentified aircraft which streaked out from the frosty sky to cause a rude awakening and separate the inmates of a happy homestead by dispatching three of them to eternity… For miles around the countryside was shaken and the echo of eight bombs dropped was plainly heard”.

Mount Leinster Image: gsi.ie

One of these eight bombs had struck the home of the Shannon family as they Nationalist reported that after they retired to bed “little did they or anyone else realise that on this fateful night that this fateful family was to be separated forever in this life, that three of this happy household that lay down did so to sleep their last long sleep, which, sad to relate, was the case as was known to all corners of the globe some few hours later”.

The bombs were dropped in more or less a straight line. Two hit the slopes of Mount Leinster, the third was a direct hit on the Shannon house. Two more fell on the laneway to the house, two more hit Blackstairs Mountain on the opposite side of the valley and the last landed in a stream.

Blackstairs Mountain Image: Wikipedia

Mary Ellen Shannon (44), Brigid Shannon (38) and Kathleen Shannon (16) were all killed instantly. James Shannon (45) and Michael Shannon (37) were seriously injured. Miraculously John Shannon (43), his brother Patrick the homeowner (48) and his son Raymond (17) all escaped unhurt and it was John and Raymond who went for help. “Neighbours snatched up lamps and hurried to the pathetic scene along the snow-covered roadway in the half light of the morning. They had to climb the big craters in the laneway from which stones of huge weight were scattered about”. James Shannon was found first beneath 200 kilos of stone and rubble. Michael was found next, first identified only by his bare feet sticking out from a pile of rubble. Bridget Shannon was found next, blown completely clear of the house and landing beside an outhouse. Half an hour later Mary Ellen and Kathleen were found with nothing but fragments left of the beds they slept in.

Only the east gable was left standing and it had been here that Patrick, John and Raymond had slept. John recounted later how he “was awakened by a thunderous crash, and he jumped out of bed and went to the bedroom door. When he opened the door he saw that the whole house had disappeared up to the very edge of the door at which he stood. They made their escape through one of the windows. James and Michael slept next to the kitchen and were so close to the explosion that their beds were found in the adjoining fields.

One of the first rescuers at the scene, Mr. Breen of Knockroe reported how “he was awakened by the drone of an aeroplane in the early morning. He felt his own house vibrating, and jumped out of bed and hastily dressed himself. Taking a flash lamp he rushed out of doors to see what had happened. It was half light at the time, and he saw flashes of light on the Blackstairs Mountain. At first he thought the mountain was ablaze. He saw several quick flashes and heard deafening explosions and saw an aeroplane flying in a south westerly direction towards New Ross”. The Nationalist report goes on to give other accounts from the rescue and continues with the funeral arrangements and the inquest that followed.

The Shannon House Today. Image; http://wexfordhillwalkingclub.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/shannons-house.jpg

The house was rebuilt with local effort after the tragedy and remained in the Shannon family until Raymond died in 1994 and the house was sold. The house is passed on the ascent towards Mount Leinster via Knockroe. A reminder to all those who pass is a simple plaque placed in a wall with the year “1941” inscribed.

The memorial plaque. Image: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/54/Commemorative_Plaque_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1221998.jpg/599px-Commemorative_Plaque_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1221998.jpg

The bombs were probably dropped in an attempt to lose weight and gain altitude as they closed in on the mountains after their plane was damaged following the engagement with the RAF. Perhaps instead they had got lost on their way over the Channel and instead of suffering humiliation on their return, the decided to release their load rather than return fully laden. However, conspiracy theories question that as it was by no means an isolated incident.

 From the 1st– 3rd January 1941 a series of German bombs were dropped over Ireland. The first hit Julianstown and Duleek, Co. Meath on the 1st of January with no injuries. Two were dropped on wasteground on the Fortfield road in Dublin, more were dropped in Wicklow, and high explosive and incendery bombs landed on the Curragh racecourse The following morning 2 bombs levelled a number of homes in Terenure, Dublin, injuring seven, while three were dropped in Ballymurrin, Wexford with no damage. This was then followed by the Knockroe incident. The last happened on the morning of the 3rd January when two houses were hit on the Donore Avenue, Dublin injuring 20. The War Room website reports that:

Following this series of events, suspicion arose in some circles that the bombings might have been deliberate action by one or more of the belligerents in an attempt to draw Ireland into the war. They occurred after a curious incident prior to the New Year when the German Legation requested that extra staff be allowed to join them by flying into Rinneanna [near the Shannon in Clare]. The Irish government refused and the question was put to rest. Others believed that they were captured German weapons dropped from British aircraft again in an attempt to force Ireland into the war. This idea was fueled in recent weeks by German Propaganda radio broadcasts, which suggested that the British might try something such as this.

Whatever the Knockroe case was probably a tragic accident and the house was more than likely not targeted deliberately.

The unsuspecting Blackstairs Mountains were part of national and world affairs for a brief period in the 1940’s. Just one of the many famous incidents to occur on its slopes and hopefully I’ll get time to write a few more in the future.

Blackstairs Mountains from Dranagh Mountain
Bibliography
Murphy, T. Death from the Sky; The Knockroe Tragedy. Carloviana 2001, 10-13.
The War Rooms website; bombings http://www.csn.ul.ie/~dan/war/bombings.html
Aviation crashes in Ireland 1939-45 http://www.csn.ul.ie/~dan/war/crashes.htm
The Nationalist 11/01/1941 (all quotations are from the Nationalist report)