Over fifty years ago, “a team of archaeologists from UCD, [in Ireland], led by Professor Seamus Caulfield, first started to come to the remote north Mayo village of Belderrig, to uncover and study the ancient stone-walled field systems there. [The] link between UCD and Belderrig continues, with teams of student archaeologists [keep returning] to the village to progress the work [that was started by the] local man, Professor Caulfield” (McNulty 2008).
Again in Belderrig
Our team of students reached Belderrig in the very late evening. It was a part of a residential fieldtrip to Mayo, organized by the School of Archaeology, between the 6th and 8th October, 2017. Our destination, Belderrig or rather “Béal Deirg […] is a Gaeltacht village and townland in County Mayo (“Belderrig” 2019), in the north-western Ireland. The journey started at our University in Dublin and took nearly five hours. Factually, “coming to Belderrig is travelling back 1000 million years and more. [As] a rural area located in a region rich in historical and archaeological heritage, […] it is a [gift] to the geologist, archaeologist and the botanist” (Mayo Ireland Ltd. 2020).
Having reached our destination, we were first directed to the local pub to warm up and have dinner. Oh yes, those hearty Irish foods with dark beer are so good, especially on rainy and windy days of autumn, like that one. When we finally finished, the night had already fallen down, and it was completely dark when we finally went to bed in one of the cottages accommodating students.
Next morning, I got up earlier and went out for a short walk. The smell of salt air was overwhelming. Outside, there was waiting “the largely undisturbed openness of the countryside and the closeness of the wild Atlantic that stands in contrast with small cosy [whitewashed] cottages with their fireplaces. […] Once in Belderrig you forget traffic, haste, stress, depression” (Mayo Ireland Ltd. 2020).
After our self-made and quick breakfast, Professor Caulfield guided us to the open fields of the area to examine the site trench with an excavated section of a bog and the lay-out of the ancient walls. It was creepy cold and windy out there. And foggy damp, which is actually typical of wetland, especially in autumn. Most of the area is covered in bogs, turf and wild grasses. The only way to excavate was cutting through the topsoil with a sort of sharp shovel, driven into the ground with enough force to cut through the entire layer. Our experienced teachers showed us how to do it and it was fun for all of us. Still the conditions of archaeological work in Ireland are quite hard: bog water is extremely cold and with the mixture of strong wind the weather gives you an unpleasant feeling of coldness in your body. Waterproof clothes and wellingtons do not mean bog-proof so one can get completely soaked to the skin. Nevertheless, the sites are so beautiful in Mayo, you can easily forget about your wet clothes and just enjoy the field trip.
Archaeological digging is a quite complicated process but it is also a rewarding experience. Also each time it is different as it depends on where you do particular research: in the bogs or in bone dry sand. One time you plunge in water, the other you catch sunburn. Every time, however, it’s very exciting to feel and touch the history. This is one of the reasons I love archaeology.
“When the Celts arrived in Ireland, the island had been inhabited for over 7 000 years. These pre-Celts have left no written records: they were literary pre-historic. But they have left extensive archaeological evidence, of which Newgrange is the most celebrated example”Laurence Flanagan (1999) Ancient Ireland: Life before the Celts.
In July, 2008, an archaeological team “recorded the findings they had uncovered over the weeks, before they prepared to back-fill the site trench. Close to them were the reminders of past digs but, even without excavating the trench, the existence of 6,000-year-old life in the area is clearly evident. […] Over the weeks, the soil which was removed from the site was brought to the nearby Belderrig Research and Study Centre where students painstakingly sifted through the dirt and looked for signs of hazelnut, charcoal, fish bones and other items which could be analysed and dated” (McNulty 2008).
A significant part of the archaeological survey in Belderrig is the study of the ancient stone-walled field systems. “The lack of good agricultural land in the […] region is one of the main reasons why the structures stayed relatively intact under the bog for [the millennia]. The discovery of the walls in Belderrig has allowed archaeologists the opportunity to understand how [they] were constructed and to map out where they appeared on the landscape” (McNulty 2008).
For years, the site has consequently become a subject of one of the most important archaeological “study of the hunter-gatherers and the early farmers who lived in the region [in around 4 000 BC]. The landscape at that time in Belderrig could not have been more different from what it is now, with the area then characterised by light and mixed woodland of pine and hazel. Bog was just being formed and, over time, much of the woodland was eventually cleared by the Neolithic people to make way for their fields” (McNulty 2008).
Archaeological evidence from the coast
We walked slowly along the rough seashore being followed by the sound of the “Atlantic crashing against the windswept landscape close to Belderrig pier” (McNulty 2008).
It is truly “a beautiful sprawling coastal area, scenically located adjacent to the […] Ocean between Ballycastle and Belmullet. [It] offers a magnificent scenery of sea and cliffs capes, and dramatic mountains. […] From [there we had] fine views as far as Porturlin and Portacloy to the north west, [with] the Stags of Broadhaven [rising] majestically in the distance. On a clear day one can see the Sligo coastline and the cliffs of Killybegs and Teelin, [in County Donegal].
The Belderrig Cliffs also contain some of the most spectacular coastal geology [and archaeology] in Ireland” (Mayo Ireland Ltd. 2020): “[the erosion of the sea’s edge reveals evidence of 6,000-year-old fish bones and pieces of quartz, which was the dominant stone used by the Stone Age farmers in making stone tools” (McNulty 2008).
Megalith on the way
Walking across the prehistoric mountainous landscape, we came across a megalithic structure, whose stone elements were protruding out from the ground.
In prehistoric architecture, a MEGALITH is a large, often undressed stone, that has been used in the construction of various types of Neolithic, Chalcolithic or Bronze Age monuments, during the period 4500-1000 BC.Toppr (2019); see Lucie-Smith (2003), p. 136.
This one found in the filed, however, was rather small in size. Accordingly, it was a lesser-type of megalithic graves, known as wedge tombs, commonly found in Ireland. Wedge tombs look like stone boxes of different size with a sloping roof slab (Byrne 2020). “They are somewhat similar in appearance to some portal dolmens. Like the other kinds of monuments, they would have originally been covered with a cairn of stones” (Ibid.).
Between Belderrig and Ballycastle, archaeologists discovered an extensive Neolithic field systems (Jackman 2018: site 68). Following the main Atlantic Way, we were travelling there on our last day of the field trip in County Mayo.
Before we reached the site, we stopped on the cliffs, and like from a viewing platform, we were looking for a while at the rolling bog land of Céide Fields (High Fields) (Fagan, Durrani 2016:281). They were impressive. “During the Neolithic period the climate would have been both drier and warmer than now” (Jackman 2018: site 68). Millennia ago, the Céide Fields were covered in forests of pine, birch, hazel and oak (Ibid.: site 68). Once they were felled by Neolithic farmers, the landscape was used for agriculture (Ibid.: site 68). However, “[over] millennia the climate has changed, and become both colder and wetter, allowing for the development of the blanket bog that has sealed and preserved much of this fascinating ancient landscape” (Ibid.: site 68). It is precisely Neolithic and dated back as far as to around 3 500 BC (Lavin 2011:111; Kelly 2016:119; “Céide Fields” 2020). “Radiocarbon dating for a hearth beside the remains of a house confirms [such a dating of the site, namely], that humans lived [there] a few centuries before [the third millennium BC]” (Lavin 2011:111).
Today, the Céide Fields cover remote coastal area and “[consist] of megalithic burial monuments, dwelling houses and enclosures within an integrated system of stone walls, all of which are spread over 12 square kilometres. […] Many of its features are preserved intact beneath blanket peat that is over 4 metres deep in places. The significance of the site lies in the fact that it is the most extensive Stone Age monument [in Ireland with the oldest known field systems] in the world and the oldest enclosed landscape in Europe” (Kelly 2016:119; see “Céide Fields” 2020). The Céide Fields also provide an actual image of the Irish countryside from five millennia ago, so it is better to understand how the Neolithic agriculture worked (Lavin 2011:111).
Another megalithic tomb
Strong gusts of wind coming from the Atlantic Ocean kept pushing us forward across the Fields. Apart from the remains of the prehistoric past scattered all over, we met a few clusters of sheep looking at us curiously, as if judging our rights of being present in their territory.
There are wooden walkways over the fields to make visitors feel more comfortable while walking and to avoid getting wet. No need to say, we deliberately gave up such facilities to reach real treasures of the site, walking directly through the bog, beyond the tourist track.
One of the most significant landmarks of the Fields was the megalithic monument, known as Behy Court Tomb. It is situated just in the middle of the Céide Fields, still partially buried in the bog peat. As explained by our professors, it was initially described as a passage tomb as it features an entrance passageway leading to the cruciform gallery inside it, which is an important characteristic of this group of Neolithic tombs (Earth is Mysterious 2019-2020). Court tombs usually have neither an entrance passage or a cruciform gallery but an elongated rectangular burial chamber with the exedra or forecourt (Ibid.). As the latter element has been also found at Behy Tomb, it could be simply described as a hybrid variant of court and passage tombs. Still, it is usually defined as a court tomb in the professional literature on the subject.
Before heading off back to Dublin, we were yet planning to visit the nearby site of Downpatrick Head, which is strongly associated with Saint Patrick and his mission of converting Ireland to Christianity.
Saint Patrick is actually believed to have carried his ministry in the north of Ireland, particularly in County Mayo. As some local folklore stories go, one of the pre-Christian gods or pagan priests, Crom Cruach resided on the headland (modern Downpatrick Head) and kept holy fires burning continuously (Makem 1997). “He dominated the whole area and [people] feared him. […] Saint Patrick was travelling in the area and approached the point of the headland. Crom Cruach rose up against him. The saint picked up a rock, carved a cross on it, lifted it with both hands above his head and roaring out a prayer, hurled the rock with great force into the [holy] fire. There was a mighty explosion and a blinding flash. When the smoke and confusion cleared, the point of the headland had split off and was sitting out in the water with Crom Cruach still on it. He was destined to remain there until he died, which [was not] too long afterwards. According to the story, he suffered horribly, being eaten to death by midges” (Ibid.).
Very similar stories about the beginning of Christianity in Ireland, especially saying of the holy fire being extinguished by Saint Patrick, also circulate in County Meath. Similarly, they also refer to Saint Patrick’s fight with ancient priests and pagan gods on the Hill of Slane.
The beautiful legend told in County Mayo additionally offers an explanation for the origins of the sea stack of Dún Briste (Gaelic for Broken Fort) (Makem 1997). It is a single large rock at Downpatrick, protruding out of the ocean at the height of forty-five meters. Once joined to the mainland, now being lashed by foaming ocean, it is one of the most scenic landmarks of County Mayo and Wild Atlantic Way.
“During the Second World War (or ‘the Emergency’, as it was known [there]), a lookout post was constructed [at Downpatrick] to keep watch for shipping or submarines that might stray into Ireland’s neutral waters and a large EIRE sign was created from white stones to warn aircraft away from crossing into Irish airspace” (Jackman 2018: site 70).
Sitting over a cup of coffee inside the visitor centre at Céide Fields, I admitted to Professor Caulfield that I have been strongly interested in the studies on early Christianity in Ireland, once conducted by Françoise Henry (16 June 1902 – 10 February 1982), who was a scholar of early Irish art, archaeologist, and art historian at University College Dublin.
Henry was also a strong supporter of a thesis of Coptic influences on Pre-Romanesque art in Ireland. I knew Henry was studying early Christian symbols on prehistoric slab stones on the island of Inishkea North in County Mayo, where she kept returning between 1937 and 1950. Although the island was too far to get there, Professor Caulfield offered to guide me to another nearby site with cross-slabs, which was also on the way to our next scheduled destination. I enthusiastically agreed and drove to the site together with my guide, while the rest of the group was supposed to wait for us at Downpatrick.
Doonfeeny standing stone
Doonfeeny is a short five-minute drive from Céide Fields. We simply headed west on the road for a little over 2,5 kilometres and then turn right up a narrow road with grass growing in the middle of it (Jackman 2018: site 69). We followed this road for approximately 500 metres till we saw the tall stone pillar in the graveyard on one side and the ruins of a church on the other (Ibid.). We pulled in the car and started climbing up the hill to reach the slender trunk of stone soaring over the landscape.
“The area around Doonfeeny is an important early medieval landscape, with a number of ringforts and archaeological monuments” (Jackman 2018: site 69). Probably the most outstanding is our object of interest, the square-sectioned, leaning pillar “that stands proudly on a green hill overlooking the Atlantic” (Ibid.). The stone is also called a Menhir or Cloch Fada, which means ‘Long Stone’ (Sacred Landscapes 2020).
MENHIR, from the Breton words ‘men’ stone, and ‘hir’ is a long, a single upright stone, often of enormous size, which was deployed either on its own or in connection with a tomb site.Megaliths. Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art (2020).
Although Doonfeeny stone is upright and fixed to the ground on its own, it does not look like a huge boulder as its shape is elongated and slender. “Folklore has it that this stone is on alignments with clefts in neighbouring hills and solar positions” (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020).
What was its original function?
“The Ordnance Survey letters (1838) describe the stone in the following manner: ‘A stone 18’ or 20’high and 9” thick, fixed in the ground and inkling to the East, on the N.W. side of which is cut the form of a cross about 2’ long, with a small cross 10” long and some ornamental incisions under it’” (Sacred Landscapes 2020).
The Doonfeeny stone “was likely to have first been erected in the Bronze Age, perhaps to mark a territorial boundary, or possibly to mark the area as sacred” (Jackman 2018: site 69). The pillar is also called the Ogham stone as it boasts signs of ogham inscriptions. Ogham writing, apparently called after Ogmios, the Celtic God of writing, was the original “Irish alphabet used on monuments from 300 A.D. to 700 A.D.” (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020) (see Pictish Symbol Stones: from Pagan Beast to the Cross). Unfortunately, the ogham inscription incised on the stone are today mostly time-worn and cannot be deciphered (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020).
“There once existed a tradition in parts of the west of Ireland that some of these standing stones were used as ‘Fertility [Objects]’ by women seeking to get pregnant, or alternatively, as a primitive form of contraception, and it is recounted that women were known to prostrate themselves before these stones all the while praying that ‘they might be delivered from the perils of childbirth’” (Sacred Landscapes 2020). “Although we may never know for certain the true intention of those who erected the stone, it still undeniably creates a powerful visual signpost in the landscape. it stands some [five metres] tall, making it [the second highest standing stone] in Ireland” (Jackman 2018: site 69; see Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020).
On the verge of Christianity
As much as other prehistoric sites, Doonfeeny pillar “was appropriated in the early days of Christianity, and two crosses were carved into the stone, a single line Latin cross with forked ends and horizontal base placed over a double-line Maltese type cross with a curved ‘birds-head-design’ line [at its foot]” (Jackman 2018: site 69). Some interpret the symbol of ‘birds-head-design’ as the wheel and sun-burst that possibly would symbolise the Resurrection (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020). “The crosses may date to as early as the sixth century or seven century, or perhaps even earlier” (Jackman 2018: site 69).
Two forts and a killed swine
The site’s information boards says that the church ruins in Doonfeeny Churchyard date back to the seventh century (Sacred Landscapes 2020). Nevertheless, it was overbuilt on the site previously occupied by an ancient church, probably from the sixth century (Ibid.). The Ordnance Survey Letters (1838) and the board also inform that to the south of the church, there is a cemetery surrounded with a fosse in the form of a fort, which is Dún (Fort) giving its name to the parish: Dún Fhíne (Fine’s Fort) (Ibid.).
After the information on the board, north of the parish church there is an earthen work, called ‘The Fairy Fort of Doonfeny’. In fact, these are the remains of Rath Ui Dubhda, standing for ‘O’ Dowd’s Fort (Sacred Landscapes 2020). As a local story goes, the Four Maols, known as the infamous murderers, built the original fort there, which they dedicated by killing a swine (Ibid.). This pagan act was apparently inspired by a pro-Christian tradition, where the animal was a substituted for human sacrifice (Ibid.). The board ads that the Four Maols’ grave can be seen in Ballina, a town in north County Mayo (Ibid.). The grave is well recognizable as it is marked by a dolmen (Ibid.).
Saint Patrick again
From the site we could see Dún Briste at Downpatrick Head (Jackman 2018: site 69).
“It is enticing to consider that the ‘real’ Patrick may have seen this tall stone with his own eyes. It is not a great distance to Foghill, believed to be Foclut, the area that he described in his writings where he was held as a slave as a young man. The stone would have certainly already been standing for thousands of years before [St] Patrick’s time, and may have still been a distinctive marker on the landscape. If a young Patrick did see the stone, did he know what it symbolised? Or was it just another unknowable symbol in the strange pagan land in which he found himself?” (Jackman 2018: site 69).
When we finally caught up with the rest of the group reaching atop the visitor centre at Downpatrick, we were rewarded with “a wonderful view of this ancient and sacred landscape stretching as it does off down by the majestic Céide cliffs and across the foam to historic Downpatrick Head with its awesome, legend-encrusted blow-holes and the mighty storied sea-pillar of Dún Briste” (Sacred Landscapes, “Downpatrick Head” 2020).
Of the growling blow-holes we had already come across in the area of Belderrig, which are called Poille Beaga – ‘Small Holes’, the one on the headland of Downpatrick, Poll na Seantuinne or Poll na Sean Toinne, meaning ‘the Hole of the Old Wave’ (Sacred Landscapes, “Downpatrick Head” 2020) “is by far the largest, most impressive and the one most associated with the history and folklore of the place” (Ibid.). Although they are all carved naturally by thousands of years of marine erosion, there are a few legends ascribing these chasms more supernatural origins (Ibid.).
Such stories are ubiquitous in whole Ireland. They may have appeared when ancient people were looking for a reason of natural phenomena. Nevertheless, in many cases, they may directly refer to historical circumstances or characters who had fired the imagination (Harpur, Westwood 1997:6).
The seed of legend was definitely sown in this region of Ireland, whose ancient past continues to draw tourists, pilgrims and … archaeologists (Ibid.:6).
Featured image: Dun Briste at Downpatrick, Co. Mayo. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland
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