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From Drombeg to the Hag

Wednesday, 4th December, 2019 5:21pm

My new book, ‘50 Gems of West Cork’ (Amberley Publishing, 2019) book explores 50 well-known gems of that beautiful region. Below is an abstract from two of my favourite archaeological sites – Drombeg Stone circle and The Hag of Beara.

Gem 10: A Compass in the Landscape – Drombeg Stone Circle

Drombeg is one of Ireland’s most famous stone circles and is also part of suite of circles and standing stones in West Cork. It is also one of the most publicly accessible.

On the winter solstice on 21 December each year, the sun sets over the recumbent stone on the stone circle. If you stand looking between the two portal stones, you will view the sun set in a notch in the opposite hill and over the recumbent stone which is diametrically across from the two portal stones.

Drombeg was one of the earliest ancient sites protected by National Monument Act, 1930. It was added to list of protected structures by the State in 1938. However, a glance through the Archaeological Inventory of West Cork reveals a myriad of ancient standing stones, stone circles and fulacht fia (ancient cooking sites) – all very much present in the heritage DNA of the region.

The Drombeg Stone Circle complex is located on natural rock terrace on the southern slope of a low hill. The circle was excavated 1957 and the nearby fulacht fiadh and hut site was excavated in 1958. The circle comprises seventeen stones; two missing and one fallen.

Five pits were uncovered within the circle, sealed beneath compacted gravel floor; one pit contained deposit of cremated human bone, fragments of shale and numerous sherds of coarse fabric pot. Other finds from circle included seven pieces of flint and small convex scraper.

The excavator of the site and archaeologist Edward Fahy literally put Drombeg on the map as the findings drew much media attention and were published in the eminent Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society.

It was one of Edward’s first excavations. Up to then he had been a student at the Cork School of Art. He worked with Michael J O’Kelly, the curator of Cork Public Museum in Fitzgerald’s Park especially in designing the cases for display when the museum officially opened on 4 April 1945.

The building up of the museum’s collections and displays was a continuing effort and while engaged in that work, he studied for and was awarded with distinction the Diploma of the Museums Association. This required the writing of a dissertation coupled with specialised courses and examinations in England.

Subsequently Edward Fahy pursued a BA degree, which he obtained with first class honours in archaeology and geography. He took part in many of Michael J O’Kelly’s excavations at this time and built up his experience in fieldwork and excavation techniques.

Gem 40: The Shaper of the Land - The Hag of Beara

Indented by an exposed coastline and defined by the Slieve Mikish and Caha Mountains, the Beara Peninsula is some 45 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide at its widest point. The principal point in the Caha Range, Hungry Hill stands 2,251 feet and is well known to tourists not only for its mountain lakes and lofty waterfall, but also for the superb view which it affords.

Prehistoric settlers were attracted to the area as evidenced by standing stones, stone circles, and wedge tombs. Rich folklore embedded into the local landscape survives of giants, Spanish princesses and witch-like creatures.

The geomorphology of Coulagh Bay is attributed to a pair of fighting giants called the formorians.

According to folklore, the name Beara is that of a Spanish princess, the wife of Eoghan Mór (the mythical second century BC king of Munster). Later Christian tradition pitches the presence of a Celtic Goddess of Harvest, Shaper and Protectoress of the Land – An Chaileach Bhearra or translated as the Hag of Beara.

In truth, she represents many cultural meanings such as mother and fertility goddess and divine hag. She was deemed a goddess of sovereignty, who gave the kings the right to rule their lands.

According to the local information sign, the Hag of Beara is associated with Kilcatherine in the northern part of the Peninsula, north of Eyeries, overlooking Coulagh Bay. According to myth, the Hag lived for seven periods of youth one after another – so that every man who co-habited with her came to die of old age.

Her grandsons and great grandsons were so many that they were made up of entire tribes and races – hence her legend is woven into folklore across several parts of Ireland and across the west coast of Scotland.

The advent of the arrival of Saint Caitiarin and Christianity was deemed a threat to her powers. Local folklore has it that one day after collecting seawood along the shore of Whiddy Island, the Hag on her return encountered the priest asleep on a local hillock.

She drew near to him and quietly took his prayer book and ran off. A cripple who lived nearby, on seeing what happened, shouted at the saint who awoke startled and saw the hag running off. The saint caught up with her, re-acquired the prayer book and turned her into a grey pillar stone with her back to the hill and her face to the sea. Visiting the pillar stone today, the visitor can see offerings of coins and pebbles. The first extant written mention of the hag is in the twelfth century ‘Vision of Mac Conglinne’, in which she is named as the ‘White Nun of Beare’.

The myth of the Hag is harnessed as a construct in forging a national and cultural identity in the early twentieth century. She is mentioned in work by Irish academic, scholar of the Irish language, politician and Douglas Hyde in 1901 and in verse by writer, republican political activist and revolutionary Pádraig Pearse in ‘Mise Éire Siné mé ná an Cailleach Béara’.

In most recent years, the myth of the Hag has been spotlighted again by well-known Irish poet Leanne O’Sullivan.

‘50 Gems of West Cork’ (Amberly Publishing, 2019) by Kieran McCarthy is available in good Cork bookshop.

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