Kilnaruane: Ireland 2017 (Part V)

After my long and tiring adventure around southwestern Cork, I swore I would take it easy and give myself time to recuperate. And, since it was stormy the next morning, I totally did…for, like, half a day, until the weather cleared up and the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, and the alluring Irish countryside seduced me into sallying forth once more.

I’m not a complete masochist, so I didn’t venture very far or have much of an itinerary. I was mainly interested in seeking out Kilnaruane, a site on the outskirts of Bantry that I had originally intended to visit the day before. I was also mildly intrigued by Bantry House and Garden but thought perhaps that might be a stretch given that the atmospheric conditions seemed fairly unstable; when I say that “the sun peeked out”, what I really mean is that it was playing peek-a-boo and frequently hid behind sheets of rain. Also, it was almost painfully blustery and I wasn’t sure I could allow anyone to see what a terrible hair day I was having (serious about the first part, joking about the second…kinda).

During the Whiddy Island disaster earlier in the week (not that I was still bitter or holding any grudges), I had discovered a most convenient and seemingly little-used parking lot in Bantry, so I was easily able to deposit my car and head off in search of Kilnaruane. Because it was close to a well-known town, I was feeling optimistic about finding it. Shockingly, it was as easy as I’d hoped.

Kilnaruane carved pillar stone

Although I almost walked right past it, there was a helpful signpost on the road pointing towards the field in which the monolith stands. There was no more signage inside the field, however, so once I’d entered the gate I had no idea which direction to go. I also have this problem when I go hiking in the UK, and I am beginning to wonder if I am the only person in the British Isles who doesn’t intuitively know whether to cross a pasture along the left edge or the right edge or straight across the centre, etc. If it isn’t just me, then why doesn’t somebody put up some signs to provide this information?

Bullaun at the Kilnaruane site; this one is confirmed, but there is also a second suspected bullaun

Anyway, Kilnaruane. In the 6th Century, there used to be a monastery here. Given the way in which important religious locations seem to have been recycled over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if the area was also important to the pre-Christian faiths of the regions; in fact, the presence of one and possibly two bullauns at the site suggests that possibly it was.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the stones are just random outcroppings in a pasture, but the pillar is pretty clearly something special. It is carved on both sides, though most of the markings are pretty difficult to make out in person because they are so weathered. I imagine that rubbings would be pretty illuminating, but in the absence of tracing paper and crayons, I simply took a digital photo and then cranked up the contrast.

The “front”, or southwest face, of the Kilnaruane pillar stone

There is a small fence around the Kilnaruane stones (presumably to protect them from grazing cows), and the gate is located across from the southwest face of the monolith. I don’t know if that was actually designed to be the “front” of the pillar, but that is certainly the impression that you get when you see it. The dominant feature, towards the middle, is a pretty obvious cross. More difficult to make out were the other three panels: some Celtic-style knot work at the top, a praying man, and then, at the very bottom, Saints Paul and Anthony in the desert.

I am not going to lie to you: I struggled to make out the people, and so I am quoting the experts here when I describe what these images show. That said, if you look at photos taken in better lighting, or if you see hand-drawn sketches of the engravings, it’s much easier to see some definition.

It was even harder to interpret the scene on the opposite face of the stone:

What have we here?

On the northeast side, you’ve got some more Celtic knot work and two pairs of sheep / goats head-butting each other. The largest and most dominant image is that of a boat carrying five people (four rowing, one steering) through a sea of crosses. Obviously. One of my guide books states that this is the earliest Irish image depicting a boat; the specific boat in question is a currach, which consisted of animal skins stretched over a wooden frame.

There are various theories about who is portrayed in this carving, but St Brendan the Navigator is a good bet; he is one of the people thought to have potentially founded the monastery at Kilnaruane, and he was a Cork boy born and bred. A statue of Brendan–who sailed around spreading Christianity to, among other places, an island that is thought to not actually exist (never let details get in the way of a good story)–can be seen down in the main square of Bantry:

St Brendan the Navigator, king of the wooooorld

Interestingly, despite its current prominence on the hilltop, the monolith was not an original feature at the Kilnaruane site; it was likely not erected until the 8th or 9th Century. It may have been the vertical portion of a cross, and some of the other stones nearby may have been used to attach the horizontal arm(s).

A better view of all the various stones comprising the Kilnaruane collection

While I was inspecting the monolith and trying to imagine how the Kilnaruane site must have looked in its better days, the weather rapidly took a dramatic turn for the worse. The already intense wind became even more frenzied and began to blow heavy, dark clouds across the bay and onto the land. I figured that was my signal to high-tail it back to my car.

This photo only captures the beginning of the intense weather that nearly blew my cabin off the mountain later that evening

On my way back through town, I serendipitously discovered a book shop where I was finally able to purchase something I had been looking for since I arrived in Ireland: a good book about its ancient sites. Christine Zucchelli’s Sacred Stones of Ireland was a great find because it provides an introduction to all the different sorts of sites and structures I’d been visiting and planning to visit. Rather than focusing specifically on the history of key places (e.g., Drombeg vs Kilnaruane), it takes a broader view and explores the different categories of sacred stone (for example, ballaun vs monolith) and contemplates the relevance of the different materials, arrangements, locations, and associated practices. It was a really fascinating and illuminating read–the perfect thing to curl up with that evening as the wind and rain raged outside my cabin like an angry pagan god seeking retribution (sorry, the Irish landscape inspires drama). In addition to helping me think about what I had already seen, the book provided some great recommendations for where else I might go later in the week…