If you check out lists of Ireland’s top attractions on-line, the Ring of Kerry will always feature highly; whether it is the number 1 destination depends on the interests of the writer. The ‘Ring’ generally refers to a vaguely oval shaped road that runs from Killarney down the north side of the Iveragh Peninsula to Waterville and then returns up the southern side of the peninsula via Sneem back to Killarney. In general, the Ring of Kerry is promoted for its mountainous beauty and its gorgeous views over islands and ocean. For example, here is an extract from some promotional material for driving the ‘Ring’…
‘Here, the idealized view of Ireland as a land of rural greenery and natural beauty springs to reality. Tourists come to Kerry to experience this rare dip into a lifestyle foreign in pace, philosophy, and spirit. Each twist and turn on a drive around the Ring of Kerry reveals new sights – windswept cliffs, breathtaking scenery, spectacular lakes, rich flora and fauna, green and yellow checkered hills and unspoiled beaches.’ (IrishCentral.com). On the map of the Ring of Kerry below, it would seem that the most prominent symbols are for hikers and bike riders. Whilst this peninsula is a beautiful place and my fellow travellers loved the villages and the scenic views, I was more interested in the traces of a Celtic past that seemed to be scattered everywhere along our itinerary.
We were staying just outside of Kenmare on a residential estate attached to a golf course. Whether Kenmare is on the official map of the Ring of Kerry depends on which map you read. Whether it was an official part of the ‘Ring’ didn’t matter to us. At the end of each day we could have a quick round of golf and then off down the road to a restaurant in Kenmare to be serenaded by what many visitors consider the best of Ireland, their live music. The modern town of Kenmare was developed in the late 17th century when the land was awarded to an English scientist by Oliver Cromwell for mapping Ireland. However like most of south-west Ireland, there are signs of human habitation all the way back to the bronze age (2200-500 BCE). There is an ancient Stone Circle in Kenmare, situated in gardens (The Shrubberies) not far from the centre of town. It is a fifteen stone circle with a ‘boulder-dolmen in the centre. Like all other bronze age stone circles, archaeologists have to deduce its function without written records; it is presumed it was used for ritual or ceremonial purposes and perhaps it might also have once been a grave marker of a significant leader of the time. The Vikings also visited the area in the ninth century.
On one of our days in Kerry, we decided to head west from Kenmare down the coast of the Iveragh peninsula. Our first stop was Sneem, a lovely town with views over the ocean and a river that is ferocious as it courses through the rocky countryside. We strolled the centre of Sneem and had a quick look at the centre of town followed by morning tea and scones plus a look at the Church of St Michaels.
Continuing along the coast, we stopped at the various waterways that marked the area around Castlecove. A right turn off the main Ring of Kerry road and 3 kms up into the hills took us to our main destination for the morning, Staigue Fort.
Estimates as to the age of this fort range from it being built by bronze age locals or possibly later in the common era around 300-400 as a defensive stronghold for a local lord and his family.
As can be seen from the image above, Staigue Fort is built at the end of a valley that looks south to Kenmare Bay. Its first line of defence is an 8m wide ditch that has received a lot of fill since it finished being an effective deterrent to enemy raiders. The ‘artist’ image of the fort above comes from the information sign at the fort. It shows two distinct ditches separated by a small palisade before the attackers would hit the walls. The walls currently reach at their highest point about 5.5m but would have originally been higher. Staigue Fort is an impressive piece of ‘stone-wall’ engineering as it was put together from local undressed stone without the use of mortar. The image below shows the X-shaped stairways that were built into the internal walls to enable defenders to reach any part of the top of the ramparts.
The image above left showing the inside walls of Staigue Fort illustrates that some tourists interpret the local sign asking visitors to “keep off the wall tops” fairly legalistically; he claimed, “I’m not really on the ‘top’ of the wall!” On the right above, the doorway of the fort shows that the designers wanted a narrow entry point to make it easily defensible. It faces directly south and this fact has given rise to theories that the fort may have been used for astronomical or cultic purposes.
From Staigue Fort it is not far down to the wild sea country of Ballinskelligs Bay and Valentia Island. Not far from the shoreline is another stone fort called Lohar Cashel and it has been suggested that it was built on this spot because of its great view of Skellig Michael, the green mountain rising from the bay. If you are a mountain climber interested in old Gaelic Monasteries (6-8th century), this is the place for you.
Lohar stone fort is thought to have been built around the ninth century and so may have had sightings of the Vikings as their longships cruised into Kenmare bay. This stone fort fits the definition of a defensible farmhouse where cattle could be taken inside the ring for protection from passing raiders. There were wooden buildings inside the ring at some point but these were replaced by small ‘houses’ made from the local rocks. Archaeologists have found evidence here of underground galleries called ‘souterrains’; there was also evidence of these storage facilities/hiding places at Staigue Fort. The image below of Lohar Cashel shows it to be almost in pristine condition and it looks like history has been very kind to it. Alas no, it was reconstructed a few years back.
To get to the last group of Stone Ring-forts accessible from the Ring of Kerry, the drive takes you along the N70 road through Waterville and on past Cahersiveen to Cahergall Cashel. Cahergal fort is 3 km from Cahersiveen and the bonus is that just up the path are the remnants of another Ring Fort, Leacanabuaile. If things needed to get better, this complex landscape provides a view down to the Atlantic Ocean where the ruins of a medieval castle, Ballycarbery, looks out over the sea towards Dingle Harbour.
Cahergall Cashel is the oldest of these ancient stone structures, probably having been built in the seventh century CE. It has a number of similarities to Staigue Fort such as the seven crossed staircases going up the internals walls of this cashel (note image above). The walls are about 5m thick at their base but their height is not quite to the 5 metres of Staigue Fort’s walls. There is a stone bee-hive structure inside that most likely replaced earlier wooden storage buildings.
From Cahergall it is a three kilomentre walk by path across the fields to another stone ring-fort, Leacanabuaile. It was built around the 9th century CE as a defendable farmstead; the name translated means “hillside of the milking-place”. It was excavated in 1939-40 and household objects (knives, pins combs) from the 10th century were discovered.
Leacanabuaile Cashel is 70 metres in diameter with walls up to 3 metres thick. It has similarities with other farming community stone forts with steps on the inside of the walls leading up to long gone parapets as well as the remains of stone shelters in the centre of the enclosure. Like other forts we visited, Leacanabuaile has shallow tunnels leading from these small buildings to chambers in the walls of the fort that were used for storage, and in desperate circumstances, hiding places. The diagram below from 1941 illustrates these features and the layout of the fort. Leacanabuaile has been partly reconstructed.
From this fort built into the hill side, the visitor can get a clear view down to the sea and the beautiful ruin that is Ballycarbery Cashel. This castle dates from a much later period in Irish History than its neighbouring ringforts. It was built in the sixteenth century and suffered the indignity of being shelled by the parliamentary forces of the ‘Lord Protector’ Oliver Cromwell sometime around 1652.
The story of this castle illustrates one advantage of the ring forts up in the hills of this peninsula. If you are a castle on the shoreline, with the invention of gun powder and canons, you are a sitting duck if your enemies arrive fully equipped with artillery. If you are built into the landscape up in the hills, getting canons up to blast your walls is far more difficult. The painting to the left of Ballycarbery Castle by Daniel Grose from 1792 (Courtesy:Irish Architectural Archive) looks beautiful in an idyllic landscape, but it was still a ruin of an Ireland that still hadn’t fallen completely under the sway of English colonial rule; its downfall was another sign of a new era where the locals had little control of their governance.
We had travelled from Dublin to spend three days in Kenmare as part of our family trip to Ireland to get in touch with the land of our forefathers. It was as beautiful as expected but this blog illustrates that it opened up an interest in the prehistory and early Christian era of Ireland that I wasn’t expecting. The Irish history passed on to me by my parents’ families was that of the Irish diaspora of the 19th century (my great, great grandfather left for Australia from Cork on the 21st September 1828) and the yearnings for the homeland contained in the songs we sang at our parish dances. The Irish history I discovered was far older and far more complex than I had expected, as illustrated in one last detail set out in Appendix 1 below.
APPENDIX 1: OGHAM STONES
The term ‘Ogham’ refers to a written Language that can be found inscribed on stone markers throughout Ireland, Wales and Britain. As can be seen by the dots on the map below (Courtesy Wikipedia), the majority of the locations are in Southern Ireland (Munster) and the most significant number are on the Dingle and the Iveragh Peninsula (Ring of Kerry). The Ogham markings consist of “lines and strokes along the edge of a stone representing an early form of the Irish Language. The stones seem to commemorate a person who has died or possibly to mark their grave.” (from sign at site of Ballintaggart Ogham Stones.) The image on the left shows an Ogham Stone at the Kildreenagh monastic site on Valentia Island at the end of the Iveragh peninsula.
The earliest Ogham inscriptions have been dated to the 4th century CE but archaeologists believe Ogham may have been developed much earlier in the 1st century CE at the time of the Roman occupation of Britain. Many scholars believe it was developed by Celtic people outside the rule of the Romans and they used Latin as the template for this script. Perhaps it was developed as a language to keep secret Irish ‘communications’ from a people who threatened to invade their homeland. Whatever its original purpose, the Ogham script was in use up until the 9th century. There have been 330 Ogham Stones recorded throughout Island.
The image to the right is of an enclosure near the Dingle Racecourse that is believed to be originally the site of a church and a burial ground. There are nine Ogham stones collected here from various locations from the area and were carved in the 5th/6th centuries as grave markers.
Ogham Stones are remnants of the complex, curious history of Island that give only hints of the hidden stories of Ireland’s rich Celtic past and heritage.