Sunday 11th May was a beautiful, almost balmy Sunday evening as we assembled in Coppeen village to pool cars. Then a party of 15 persons travelled eastwards to Knockavilla. There, we parked near the soccer pitch, and Professor Billy O’Brien led us uphill into Cashel Hillfort, pausing at strategic points to explain in great detail the fascinating story of this most impressive archaeological site. In recent years, Billy O’Brien has led a team of archaeologists from UCC in carrying out an extensive survey and excavations on this 3,000 year old hillfort, the oldest known in Ireland. In fact, current carbon dating tests being carried out are expected to establish the exact date of the building of this site, the results of which may be accurate to within 25 years! The fort is surrounded by two defense ditches and banks systems. The inner rampart is approx 50 meters inside the outer one (0.8km in length) This area may have been used for farming purposes. Situated on a hilltop, it is impossible to see all of the structure from any one point (except of course from the air) Billy explained that these banks which were built of earth and were stone faced, were topped with a heavy oak palisade, with horizontal timber wattles in between.
He showed us to a spot where a number of these oak uprights had been put back into place as an example of how the structure may have appeared (based on information acquired through the excavation process). The excavations revealed that about 380 of these oak timbers were located all around the inner bank, and a similar structure protected the outer one. Though the day was hazy, we could still see that this 169-metre high location held commanding views of huge tracts of County Cork. On a clear day Billy explained, one could see the Galtees and the Boggeragh mountains to the east, and the Sheha, Paps and the Reeks to the west and south-west.
According to Prof. O’Brien it could be argued that this site was Cork’s first capital. Whoever held command of this most impressive place possibly held chiefdom over a society whose territories covered huge tracts of land. In 1200BC (during the late Bronze Age) when the fort was built, Ireland was enduring a period of great political turmoil. Intriguingly, the extensive excavations which were carried out over a period of 3 years, revealed just a stone axe head and a sharpening stone.
Why so little evidence of human habitation? One clue to the answer to this question may have been presented by evidence that the inner timber palisade had been completely destroyed by fire. This suggests that shortly after it was built, the fort was attacked, its defense system burned to the ground, and presumably its occupants were routed or killed. It appears that it was never re-built or occupied after its destruction. This hillfort is located in a townland named Clashanimud – the trench of the timber. Could this name have a connection as far as the Bronze Age over 3,000 years ago?
From Knockavilla we headed for Brinny, then on towards Templemartin. Billy led us to Castlelack (Castlenalacht) Stone Row, an impressive row of four standing stones, aligned approx. east-west, with the tallest (eastern end) standing at about 4m. tall, descending in height to the fourth at about 1.5m tall. The function of these structures is somewhat of a mystery, maybe religious / ceremonial, but very likely astrological. From here we walked back to our cars, negotiating two electric fences on our way.
We paused briefly at Crois na Leanamh a burial ground for unbaptised babies in past times. This site has been lovingly and tastefully restored, protected and preserved by Newcestown Development Community.
Then we proceeded to Garranes Ringfort. Billy explained that this was a fine example of a high status ringfort. It measures about 200m in diameter, and it has three banks. Past excavations have produced some very interesting artifacts. These items suggest that this was a center of craftworks. Many types of ornamental glass and pottery were found. This may have been the ruling seat of a branch of the Eoganacht dynasty. It seems certain that somebody of great importance did reside in Garranes. Some people believe that St Finbarr was born here, while others dispute this theory. Regardless of what history’s pages suggest, Garranes Ringfort stands proudly today for all to admire. Billy remarked on the well cared appearance of the site, giving credit to the landowner for his diligence in this respect.
The party left Garranes in Templemartin and headed back to Coppeen, where we rounded off the evening with tea, sandwiches and a great chat. Oh that we could have such invigorating, healthy, informative and sociable activities more often!