This material is excerpted from “The Dingle Peninsula: History, Folklore, Archaeology” by Steve MacDonough, copyright 1993, published by Brandon Book Publishers, Ltd., Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland. Each of its 260 pages is packed with information on the communities of the Dingle Peninsula, and in its entirety, it makes very interesting reading. The book is widely available for purchase throughout the Peninsula.
Mount Brandon, which dominates the landscape of the Cloghane/Brandon area of the Dingle Peninsula, stands at what was for many centuries the outer edge of the known world. Formed some two hundred million years ago, it is one hundred and seventy million years older than the Himalayas. The millennia of erosion have given its western slopes a gently rounded shape, made softer by the covering of blanket bog; but on the northern side steep cliffs present a high, craggy rampart to the sea, and the eastern face of the mountain falls abruptly to large corries.
By comparison with its physical history the history of human association with the mountain is no more than a moment. But it is an extraordinarily rich and full moment, offering insight into elements of early civilisation which were once comon to all the people of Europe.
High places have been chosen as religious sites throughout the world since the earliest times, and Lughnasa, which was perhaps the most important Celtic festival, was generally celebrated at hilltop sites. The central symbol of the festival was the temporary victory of Lug, a bright, young god of many talents, over the older, darker god, Crom Dubh.
Some time after the advent of Christianity Lug was replaced in most cases by St. Patrick, but here, at Mount Brandon, by St. Brendan. Crom Dubh retained his place in the legend but was reduced to the status of a local pagan chieftain and converted to Christianity with the assistance of a bull. St. Brendan’s background was integrated with the pagan legend by the name given to his father: Findlug, a combination of Lug and one of his alternative names, Find.
The eastern side of the mountain is also the location for the most remarkable hilltop promontory fort in Ireland. This fort stands on a peak at 2,600 feet (800 metres) due west of the cluster of houses at Faha in the parish of Cloghane; marked on the six-inch Ordnance Survey map as Benagh, it is known locally as Binn na Port. It is a peak which is also a promontory, a knife-edge ridge or arête between two corries to its north and south, and it is shaped like the prow of a ship.
The fort consists of two stone ramparts. The first stands at the point of the mountain where it falls steeply to the south and north and is about 100 metres long. The second, 120 metres west of the first, is 30 metres long, and both run north-south. Built of large and medium sized stones laid horizontally, the better preserved sections of the walls are about 2 metres thick and stand up to 2 metres high. There are entrances in both walls.
It occupies a commanding position 2,625 feet (800 metres) high at the western boundary of Lettragh, the area north of the central ridge of the Dingle Peninsula and east of the Brandon range. The walls must once have been a prominent feature of the landscape, for even in their present ruined state they are visible – weather permitting – against the skyline from much of the surrounding countryside. Indeed, from Cloghane it is possible to identify the entrance in the lower wall.
At the eastern extremity of the peninsula stands the similar hilltop promontory fort of Caherconree and the proximity of these two important monuments strongly suggests that this area was a vital and powerful centre of activity in the Iron Age.
From Faha, where the mountain pathway starts, the surfaced road passes through Ballynalacken to Cloonsharragh. Here, up an bóthar dorcha, the dark road, there is a very fine alignment of three standing stones.
A string of small communities lies in a line to the north on the edge of Brandon Bay. On a point jutting into the bay just east of Ballyquin is a caher, or stone fort, some 120 feet (36.5 metres) across. There is a fine beach here, which is red from the coastal erosion of old red sandstone, but it is not safe for bathing.
The pier at Brandon village is quiet enough these days, but a century ago as many as a hundred canoes used to fish from here, in addition to several larger craft, bringing in mackerel which were cured on the quays by women and children. The salted mackerel were sent in large quantities to North America, but it was a trade which suffered a sudden and complete decline. From Brandon, too, butter was sent to Cork by sea and pack horse. The old pier and Coastguard Station were built in 1825 and the present pier in 1896.
Murririgane was once the home of the leading family of the Brandon Bay area, the Geraldine sept of Sliocht (kin of) Edmund. By the 18th Century these Fitzgeralds were smugglers reduced to the economic and social level of their neighbours; but in the 16th Century they had possessed castles at Fermoyle and Cloghane and had been the effective local overlords. Their fortunes tumbled with the fall of Desmond, on whose side they had fought, and in 1583 their lands passed to Sir Walter Raleigh and others, thence to the Earl of Cork, whose tenants they became.
Brandon Point is a fine place for the birdwatcher, and many evenings offer the sight of Manx Shearwaters at the Head.
Brandon Point is known in Irish as Srub Brain, and it was here that Bran and his crew came after sailing in the heavenly western isles and spending what they thought was only a year on the Island of Women. Of course, they had been away much longer, and when one of their number set foot on shore at Srub Brain he turned at once into a pile of dust.
The area between Brandon Bay and Masatiompan, apart from the narrow coastal strip with its cluster of houses, is an eerie moorland wilderness bounded to the north by massive cliffs. The experienced hillwalker will find it interesting – such landscape is, after all, very rare – but the casual countryside stroller might be better advised to stick to less tiring ground. The most dramatic coastal feature is Sauce Creek, a large U-shaped inlet with high, steep scree-strewn slopes. The name may seem strange, but as is so often the case the anglicization has made nonsense of it. The Irish word sás means a trap of a kind using a noose, and in this case describes the action of the sea within the creek: as a fisherman remarked, “Anything that goes in there won’t come out no more.”
It is extraordinary to think, looking at the creek, that three families lived there in the last century, and that one of those families remained into the early years of this century. But above Sauce to the east and west lived more families on what seems equally inhospitable land. At Slieve Glass lived 14 families in the 18th Century, though none remained there by the mid-19th Century. And to Arraglen, half a mile west of Sauce, came 13 families who had fought with their neighbours at Baobh an Chnoic, Murrirrigane; ruins of some of the houses, one of which is in relatively good condition, may still be seen. Here they grew wheat and rye and kept livestock; and in the evening light cultivation ridges are still visible beheath the heather.
Cloghane is the main focus of this peaceful and beautiful corner of the peninsula. Until early this century the pattern on Domhnach Crom Dubh, the last Sunday in July, remained the most important day in the local calendar. Emigrants to America, Europe and Britain used to time their visits home to coincide with the festival. People bought new clothes or made them; they painted and cleaned their homes and prepared food. “Pattern pies” were made and sold; fiddlers came and played for their pennies; tinkers converged with their wares; and there were games and dancing and entertainments from the afternoon until early next morning. On the Monday there was a special dance in Brandon.
To the east of Cloghane the small hill is called Drom and near a track here are four galláin, one of which is partly hidden. At Fermoyle, nearby, the two large houses belonged to two branches of the Hickson family, prominent local landowners who came to the peninsula in the 17th Century and married into the Husseys of Dingle.
The area south of Fermoyle and up to the Conor Pass is well worth visiting for a number of features, in particular for the fine examples of corries. Just a few miles south of Cloghane are the corrie lakes of Lough Adoon, Lough Camclaun and Lough Doon, which lies close to the Conor Pass. In few places is the effect of ice action as clearly shown as in these corries and cirques. Indeed, it was at Lough Doon that an imortant breakthrough in understanding glaciation was made when, in 1849, the Alpine mountaineer, John Ball, recognised that this corrie was of the same type as others in Switzerland.
An extensive series of neolithic and Early Bronze Age remains which pre-date the formation of the blanket bog lies on either side of the Scorid river at Ballyhoneen, below Lough Adoon. To the west of the river is a large network of pre-bog walls which once surrounded the fields of the first farmers who settled in this area in the neolithic period. Their existence has been revealed by a combination of turf-cutting and erosion; some are almost completely exposed, some are still partly covered by peat, and others presumably still lie unexposed under uncut sections of the bog here. In the northwestern sector of the pre-bog field system is a large boulder decorated with cup-and-circle rock art, which is probably of the Early Bronze Age. Also on the western side of the river are the sites of several dry-stone huts, but the principal structures lie on the eastern side.
A wedge-tomb stands on a low hillock about 574 feet (175 metres) east of the river, partly buried in the bog, its base filled with water. Three of the stones of the tomb are decorated with rock art. About 213 feet (65 metres) north of it is a standing stone and 279 feet (85 metres) further north another one. Southwest of the tomb are the ruins of two dry-stone huts. Two fulacht fiadh sites lie north of the standing stones. One is on the eastern bank of the river, which has eroded it, while a holly tree has also disturbed this site. But the fragments of burnt stone, the black soil, and the horseshoe-shaped mound are typical of this kind of site. The other fulacht fiadh lies about 574 feet (175 metres) to the northeast.
Taken as a whole, the Ballyhoneen area must be regarded as one of the prime archaeological sites on the peninsula. In places such as this the pre-bog landscape has been quite well preserved, along with the field systems, settlements and graves of the early farmers. The development of blanket bog is thought to have begun by the late 3rd millennium BC, and it continued to develop in new areas as late as the 12th Century AD. At sites such as Ballyhoneen, the fact that rock art, wedge-tombs and standing stones are found within the ancient field systems suggests quite strongly an Early Bronze Age date.