Tag Archives: Heritage Week

The Céide Fields: The World’s oldest known field system

A Pine tree that lived in Mayo 4,300 years ago

A Pine tree that grew in Mayo 4,300 years ago and lay preserved in bogland.

In Ireland we have an annual celebration of our Heritage during National Heritage Week, part of the European-wide ‘European Heritage Days’, that promote every aspect of our wonderful, varied heritage. During this week there are hundreds of events showcasing the richness that we have inherited in our natural surroundings, our landscape our buildings and in our literature, history legends, and culture. This is an excellent time to make new discoveries and to revisit favourite places.

This year I will mark Heritage Week by recalling my visit just a few weeks ago to one of the most unique landscapes anywhere in the world that is to be found in North County Mayo, along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. This place is called The Céide Fields, (pronounced Kay-Ja), a one thousand hectare monument that is the world’s largest dated Stone Age or Neolithic site. 5,500 years ago, a farming community lived, loved and worked here, raised their children, reared cattle, made pottery, grew crops, built homes, made gardens and buried their dead.

Blanket bog protects the site

At first sight, there appears to be very little here on this barren landscape –  all the more bleak on the morning of my visit with strong wind and driving rain! The land that stretches up over the hill seems to be flat and featureless, and will be recognized by Irish people as ‘just bog’. Bog is an emotive type of wetland landscape here in Ireland.  For centuries peat bog has provided fuel for our homes  and in recent times efforts to conserve some of this type of endangered habitat have become politically charged and confrontational. But here near Ballycastle in Mayo, this very landscape has protected a way of life for thousands of years, covering features of times past with metre after metre of protective vegetation.

In Ireland we have two types of peat bogland covering 1/6th of our land mass – smaller scale ‘Raised bogs’ which are the subject of conservation restrictions, and the more ubiquitous ‘blanket bogs’ found in much of the West of Ireland and here at the Céide Fields. These wetlands have evolved over aeons as can be seen in the diagram below demonstrating the evolution of blanket bog from the past, when the land was farmed; bog formed and enveloped the area; then peat removal for fuel resulted in the ground being used for growing again.

image

Peat is formed from dead plants that have not fully decomposed due to the lack of oxygen in very wet soil. Sphagnum which has water retention properties is a key component of bogland as it keeps oxygen levels low and steadily the dead plant matter of the sphagnum accumulates. The bog can grow to many metres in depth as the vegetation keeps building up. Here at the Céide Fields, the blanket bog covered over the remnants of the prehistoric farms to a considerable depth, smothering trees and other vegetation that once grew there.

The bog covered and concealed evidence of early life.

The bog covered, concealed and protected evidence of early life

In this representation of a turf bank below, it can be seen that over the centuries the depth of the bog increase. Today where is 1.5 metres high; 2,000 years ago, at the time of Christ, it was 0.9 metres high; 4,000 years ago at the time of the Egyptian pyramids it was 0.3 metres deep and a thousand years earlier people lived and worked in this fertile area.

A model of a turf bank showing evidence of turf cutting

A model of a turf bank showing evidence of turf cutting

This remarkable landscape was first noticed by a local man in the 1930s when he was cutting turf for his home fire. He noticed piles of stones as he cut deeper into the turfbank and felt that they were so orderly that they must have been placed there deliberately by humans. Years later his son, Séamus Caulfield an archaeologist, conducted  an investigation and discovered the series of walls, houses and tombs deep below the bog. The site has now been extensively explored and excavated to a limited degree, enough to show that the community of farmers who lived here 200 generations ago had reclaimed their ground by clearing vast expanses of pine forest. Seeds and pollen found at the site have been identified and dated and this with other dating methods has enabled scientists to determine the age of the site, the type of crops grown and the implements used.

Reconstruction of a plough used by these ancient farmers

Reconstruction of a plough used by these ancient farmers

There is a splendid award winning interpretive centre here, with guided walks available. There is a wealth of flora and fauna at this site unique to the habitat.  Unfortunately on the day of my visit inclement weather prevented such exploration, but by studying  the excellent exhibits I was able to et a great understanding of the treasure that is here.

Céide Fields Award Winning Interpretive Centre

Céide Fields Award Winning Interpretive Centre

The centre has a viewing platform that on better days than this, affords fabulous 360 degree views of the entire area.

The steps to the viewing platforms.

The steps to the viewing platforms.

In spite of the inclement weather I did venture outside on to the viewing area and was very happy to have a rail to hang on to in the very blustery wind and driving rain!

 

Steps leading to the Heart of the Céide Fields.

Steps leading to the heart of the Céide Fields, from where the guided tours begin.

It was a real thrill to finally visit this incredible site with an extraordinary and unique history. Irish Heritage at its best!

 

References

Home

Irish Peatland Conservation Council. http://www.ipcc.ie/

The graphic on the evolution of bogland is from the website http://www.irelandstory.com, which at time of writing is no longer available.

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Postcards from Moneygall, Ancestral Home of Barack Obama

Barack Obama, President of the United States of America and his wife Michelle,  visited the village of Moneygall, Co. Offaly on a wild, windy day, 23 May 2011, retracing the steps of a relative from 6 generations before him, Fulmouth Kearney, a maternal g.g.g.grandfather, who left this tiny village in 1850 and  headed to U.S.A. Fulmouth Kearney’s father was a shoemaker in the area.  The small house is on the site where his relatives once lived. The President and Mrs  Obama sipped Guinness in Ollie Hayes Pub. I just love the image on the wall by the door of the pub (it’s not really George Bush standing there !)

Moneygall is a pretty little village carefully looked after by the residents – every house had window boxes and flowers in full bloom when I passed through  on Sunday on  my last stop for ‘Heritage Week. A few short years ago, thousands of vehicles passed through this  little village every day as it is situated on the busy main Limerick to Dublin road.  The village is now bypassed,allowing the villagers to reclaim their special place. Here you can stop and relax and enjoy a cup of coffee and catch up on the link with Barack Obama.  Papillion, the winner of the Aintree Grand National in 2000, was bred in this area, and was the most famous Moneygall personality before Barack Obama!

When Obama addressed the crowds in Dublin earlier in the visit,he used the Irish translation from his famous ‘Yes, we can! , which translates to ‘Is feidir linn’.  This can be seen on the  flower tubs in the village.   Well done, Moneygall!  Is feidir linn!

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Heritage Week: The magic and mystery of Lough Gur

Mythology, ancient settlements, magic, folklore – Lough Gur has them all!

Almost in my backyard – about 40 minutes drive – Lough Gur is one of the most important archaeological places  in Ireland, yet I had not been there in decades. On the list of special events for Heritage Week was a complimentary guided  tour of the sites surrounding the lake, so what better to do on a fine Monday morning than to go and find out about this historic place?

DSCF1644Our first stop was at the Grange Stone Circle, – a perfect circle made of 113 standing stones and aligned to the rising sun on the summer solstice. Unfortunately it was not possible to get a single shot of the entire  circle which has a diameter of some 150 feet. The  circular shape is explained by the archaeological discovery of a post hole in the centre, from which the perfect circle was drawn.DSCF1653It is one of the most impressive stone circles in Ireland. In an  adjacent field there are remains of another stone circle, but the main one is quite stunning and intriguing. Rose, our volunteer guide, tells us that locals will not enter this area after dark, although she did not say why they are fearful. Archaeologists have found some human bone fragments, and thousands of pottery shards. This has enabled them to date the structure to about 1800 B.C.  The purpose of the  circle is not known but it is probably ritualistic.

DSCF1647One particularly large stone, weighing 40 tons stands 13 feet high. It is called the Rannach Croim Duibh, named for the Celtic God, Crom Dubh, the Black Crooked One. It is said to give energy to those who rest their foreheads and the palms of their hands on it.

DSCF1657 (2)Our next stop was at the ‘New Church’ which in spite of its name  is in ruins. It is said that Tomas OConnellan a minstrel bard, who died about 1698 is buried here in the adjoining graveyard.

DSCF1666

The church is on the shore of the lake.

Scenically located by the shore of the Lough, at one time the church was used by the Earl of Desmond.  The bored teenager (unrelated to the writer)  dates from the late 20th or early 21st century and sits on a wall which was built some 4 centuries before her arrival.  There are a couple of tombs inside the walls of the church as well as some graves in the churchyard.

DSCF1679Our next stop was the Giant’s Grave which is in fact the remains of a wedge tomb that lies on the slope of a hill, just a short walk from the New Church.  This tomb is  about 4,000 years old and when excavated was found to contain the  remains of  at least 8 adults and 4 children with further human remains discovered outside.  The story is told of how an old woman lived in this tomb for several years at the time of the Famine.  When she died the farmer who owned the land reputedly demolished the tomb to prevent anyone else using it as a shelter.

We processed (in our cars) in a funerial fashion, around the narrow twisting roads to Carraig Aille (Rocks on a cliff?) A stiff  uphill walk with uneven ground (from where a lady had to be airlifted last year, having broken her ankle on the ascent) lead to the remains of  two stone forts.(It was at this point that I regretted not testing the energy giving properties of the large stone at the Stone Circle). These circular enclosures would have been domestic in nature. Archaeological excavations revealed bronze and iron pins, metal implements, combs, jewellery and beads of amber and glass and date the site at about one thousand years ago.

DSCF1685 (2)There is a spectacular view of  the Lough from up here, with a marshy reed filled area far below. This indicates the original level of the lake, for as part of the Poor Law Relief  Schemes, the Lough was drained in Famine times by means of channels, resulting in the level being lowered by 8 feet. It is said that there were dozens of artefacts discovered at this time, but that they were carted away and dumped! Strange stories of hidden treasure protected by the remains of a sacrificed servant, yet to be discovered, abound in this place!

DSCF1697 (2)And so we arrive back at Lough level and get our first view of  remains of lake-dwellings  that date back to about 500 A.D.  These dwellings, known as Crannógs, were created by laying a circle of boulders in the water, filling in the enclosure with earth , and then a hut type structure was raised on top. In the image above, the Crannóg  was located on the site of the vegetation behind and to the right of the swans and dates from about 500A.D.

DSCF1716The design of the interpretive centre is based on what these lake-dwellings would have  looked like – stone dwellings with straw roof and  timber supports.

There are numerous other sites around Lough Gur that span thousands of years of civilization. Another climb, again without the much needed assistance of energy from Crom Dubh, leads us to Hangman’s Rock from where  there is a great view of the loch.

DSCF1703The Interpretive Centre is so worth a visit, for a small admission fee. There are replicas of some of the major artefacts associated with this area, audio presentations of some of  the folklore and mythology associated with the Lough, costumes for children to dress up in, an area  where they can become  archaeologists and discover treasures!

Lough Gur is a beautifully scenic place with delightful walks along the Lough. The feeling of tranquillity and serenity is palpable, all the more amazing when you realize that this is only 15 minutes away from Limerick City – well worth a visit, and an ideal destination for our visitors from overseas. 5,000 years of  habitation just waiting to be explored!

This is a replica of the stunning bronze Lough Gur Shield  – the original is in the National Museum of Ireland.

DSCF1712References

Illustrated Guide to Lough Gur  Pamphlet by M.J. & C. O’Kelly

Lough Gur Heritage Centre Booklet

My thanks to Kate at the Heritage Centre for her warm welcome and for sharing her knowledge.  A warm welcome is guaranteed to this jewel in our heritage crown!

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Remembering the Great Famine – a dying nation’s groan

Sunday August 26th was the last day of Heritage Week in Ireland and on this day I chose to visit a Famine Settlement high above the  Limerick landscape on Knockfierna, County Limerick.

This hill was once home to hundreds of people.

Knockfierna, the highest point in County Limerick at approximately 950 feet, was common land so anyone could live there. It was  to this place  that many of the dispossessed went to live during the Famine years . Some had been evicted because they could not pay their rent; most  had no place else to go because there was no work.

A Famine Dwelling

Foundations  of scores of primitive  shacks have remained in place on Knockfierna since it was deserted in 1847.  Spread over some 200 acres, there  are remnants of many houses – tiny, at about 8 feet by 8 feet, – with nothing more than walls and clay floors with sod roofs . It is estimated that about 130 families lived here at one time. These houses are now being preserved in memory of those who died in that terrible time.

Another Famine Dwelling

I found it quite difficult to think about many human beings, old people, younger people, children,  huddled , sick and starving to death within these walls.

Outside the remains of their huts, although it is now rather overgrown with scrub,  it is still possible to see their horticultural efforts –  raised beds  where they tried in vain to grow a potato crop to feed their families ; a crop that rotted in the ground for several years as it succumbed to a blight. As potatoes were the mainstay of their diet, there was no alternative , and so they had nothing to eat.

From the desolate hillside they looked down on the village of Ballingarry

The great green lush pastures of the Golden Vale are below where these wretched people ‘lived’. It was to Ballingarry graveyard that their coffinless bodies were transported. From this hill their emaciated bodies were taken to Ballingarry to be deposited into anonymous  pits .

The Famine Memorial on Knockfierna with lush green fields below

The poem on the memorial is by Michael Hogan from Limerick. Although not a great work of literature, it encapsulates the time:

‘The Living Skeleton, A Vision of the Famine Year, 1847’:
‘Twas in ruthless Fortyseven,-
When the plague-fraught air was riven
With the sound which harrowed heaven,
Of a famished people’s cry –
When the famine fiend was formed,
All with tenfold horrors armed,
And our godless rulers, charmed,
Saw their Irish victims die;
While Europe, all alarmed, heard
the wail that tore the sky
A dying Nation’s death-groan, ringing
up to God on high.

Detail Famine Memorial on left

The right side of the memorial  is rather difficult to read and I will post a transcription here when I can find one!

Right side of memorial

It is interesting to note the very lush green fields that can be seen over the top of this image –  the great so called Golden Vale below is one of the lushest agricultural areas in Ireland , yet these unfortunate people starved to death in sight of it .

Famine Memorial overlooking a green and pleasant land

Over a million people  died as  a result of the Great Famine between 1845 and 1849. It is not known how many people who lived on  Knockfierna died.

This hill however preserves their hovels and the relics of their garden plots. On this hill they starved, on this hill they sickened and on this hill they died.  Men, women, children. They are buried in anonymous pits in the lush fields of Ballingarry.

Today I remember them.

Ar dheis De go raibh siad uilig

References

Credit to Knockfierna Heritage & Folklore Group for recognizing the importance of this heritage site and to Pat O’Donovan whose passion for this project has become legendary.

 

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