I spent the first 24 hours at my Kealkill cottage relaxing and recuperating from the long drive. I didn’t really need all that time, but the whole point of the trip was to get rest and rejuvenate after a tiring and holiday-free period at work, so I lay around, watched the chaffinches outside at the feeders, admired the view from my porch, and played video games. Then I realized that I could do all those things at home (though, admittedly, the view is not nearly so spectacular), and I decided that I’d had enough lazing about and was ready to explore. After all, you don’t come to Ireland to not go out and enjoy Irish things.
I decided to start small, with the three points of interest in Kealkill itself: two stone circles and a castle. Kealkill is a very small place and seems pretty quiet most of the time, but it was particularly empty on the Sunday afternoon when I drove in to deposit my car so that I could hike between sites and not have to worry about parking (which, word to the wise, is negligible at most of the sorts of remote heritage spots I was interested in). I left the car outside a preschool, and either that building or one of the others in the vicinity had a high-pitched security alarm that was going off the whole afternoon. The fact that such an alarm could wail for hours on end without any investigation or concern tells you a lot about Kealkill.
My route took me through the outskirts of the residential part of town before bearing left up a winding, narrow country lane. As I walked past one house, a Jack Russell terrier came barrelling across the yard at me, barking furiously; he stopped just short of the split-rail fence that edged the property, glared at me as I made friendly noises at him, and then proceeded out into the road to defend his territory even more emphatically. This wouldn’t have been very interesting except that the owners had erected a mini white picket fence under the larger fence, but it only stretched for a few feet on either side of the corner. The dog could have run around the little fence to access me, but instead he jumped over it. In other words, the owners had installed a completely unnecessary tiny second fence that did not act as a barrier to their short dog, and, even if it had, did not actually stretch the length of their yard in order to achieve this function. So why was it there? Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I’m genuinely curious; I have been wondering if there are other terrier-sized objects throughout the house, paralleling those used by the humans, but in miniature—you know, just to let the dog know that he’s one of the family and he’s not any less important just because he’s short. Anyway, he did not want to make friends, so I moved on.
I was worried that the Kealkill stone circle would be difficult to find, but it—like many other seemingly forgotten but surprisingly well cared-for ancient sites in Ireland—was very helpfully signposted, and there was even an informative placard at the entrance to the field. Most of the sites I visited, and probably most of these sites in general, are located in farmers’ fields; the national government owns the artefacts themselves but the farmers own the land through which you walk to access them. For an American, this is an extremely uncomfortable concept, because we are pretty intense about land rights and privacy in the US; however, having lived in the much more communal UK for quite some time, I now feel less uneasy about trespassing. Upon approaching the entrance to the Kealkill stone circle site, I realized three things. First, I was all alone with the stones, which was pretty awesome. Second, Irish stiles are very different to (and, frankly, much better than) British ones. Third, Kealkill is much closer to the coast than I’d originally realised.
The whole reason I knew to look for the Kealkill stone circle was a delightful guide that I purchased called Antiquities of West Cork, by Jack Roberts. Roberts is an author and jeweller who produces amazing local maps and booklets that he has created himself after extensive research and ground truthing. He is very blunt about how little we understand these ancient structures, and he says fantastically crotchety things like, “the age of destruction has been with us for some time” when bemoaning how much history we have likely lost and will continue to lose as a result of development. (I don’t disagree with him, by the way; I just find his turn of phrase amusing.)
This is what Roberts has to say about Kealkill (original typos fixed by me, because I can’t help myself):
This is the most well-known of the Complex sites in the area. It consists of a 5-Stone Circle, an alignment of two stones and a good example of that most curious type of monument, a Radial Cairn. It was excavated in the 1930’s by Prof O’Riordain, who re-erected the tallest stone of the Alignment and confirmed that it originally stood over 17ft. As we see it now it is worth remembering that it is about 6ft / 2m short of its original height.
Kealkill is no Stonehenge, but it is still pretty darn amazing: ancient, massive stones in a clearly well-thought-out arrangement, perched on a vantage point surrounded by wind-swept craggy mountains and looking out to the bay. I will share with you another of Roberts’ gems: “The circles are part of the landscape and their locations within that landscape are critical and precise.” I am by no means an expert, but I agree wholeheartedly with his suggestion that you cannot fully understand each circle until / unless you have experienced and taken into account the environment in which it is situated. I did some reading about sacred stones so as to better understand what I was encountering in Ireland, and these sources only served to solidify a suspicion that was probably seeded many years ago when I was a young girl first visiting (and falling in love with) pre-history sites: Although we are drawn to these places now because we like to see the ruins and feel the connection with our ancestors, much of the emotional impact of the visits stems from the place itself and from the interaction between the geography and the history; the builders chose those locations because they contained some collection of characteristics that made the spaces feel meaningful, and unless enormous environmental changes have taken place since then, we can often still see and feel the power of the landscape, and would do even in the absence of the artefacts. Or, to put it another way, early humans had a good eye for real estate.
Right around the corner from the Kealkill circle is another one called Breeny More. It is completely unmarked, does not have a handy access gate, and is located a stone’s throw from the house of the farmer whose land it’s on. Even though I technically should have been allowed access given that the circle is open to the public, I just couldn’t bring myself to brazenly hop the fence and traipse through someone else’s pasture. I got as close as I could and stood on my tiptoes to see as much as possible, and that will just have to satisfy me.
I have to admit that I was slightly relieved to have an excuse not to approach Breeny More, since it was in a field that was occupied by cows at the time of my visit. I used to consider cows (other than bulls and wary new mothers, obviously) pretty harmless, but I have had some unsettling experiences during my strolls through the Blackdown Hills; it’s weird enough to have an entire herd staring intently at you in unison, but when they start running towards you and jumping around psychotically, you realize just how large they are and it makes you think twice about casually strolling through their ranks. Maybe I just need to learn more about cow body language.
My final port of call was back down the hill, at a bend in the River Ouvane, along St Finbarr’s Way (a pilgrim path running between Drimoleague and Gougane Barra). This was Carriganass Castle, the name of which derives from the original Irish meaning “castle on the rock of the waterfall”, which, indeed, it is.
The castle was one of many belonging to the O’Sullivan family, and dates to the 16th century. It is now in ruins, which just makes it all the more picturesque. There are tiny slits for windows on the more vulnerable terrestrial sides, but larger gaps facing the water, from which side attackers were less likely to approach. One of the towers had little recesses built in to the top to act as a dovecote, which obviously is a feature that I will now demand in any house I may own in the future. The castle features in the poem “The Revenge of Donal Cam”, which describes how the hero (full name: Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, commander of the Munster forces) avenges his wife’s death at the hands of the Englishman St Leger. Supposedly, Donal Cam disguised himself as a holy man, convinced the increasingly repentant St Leger to confess his guilt, revealed his true identity, and then threw St Leger from the tower into the river below. This probably didn’t happen in real life (though all the characters were actual people), but one should never let reality get in the way of a good piece of literature.
Having walked a few miles and taken in several points of interest, I felt that I’d made a good start on my sightseeing and could be permitted to return home, resume relaxing, and make plans for leaving venturing beyond Kealkill the following day in order to see what else west Cork had to offer.