Archaeologist Isabel Bennett on Ogham Stones, Beehive Huts & the 'Way of Beauty' on Ireland's Dingle Peninsula
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Meet Irish archaeologist Isabel Bennett!

Isabel Bennett is an archaeologist and museum curator who has been living and working on the Dingle Peninsula since 1982. She graduated with a B.A. and later a Masters degree in Archaeology from University College Dublin, and also holds a post-graduated Diploma in Museums Practice and Management from the University of Ulster, Coleraine.

Isabel works in the West Kerry Museum, or, in Irish, Músaem Chorca Dhuibhne, which is housed in an old schoolhouse built in 1875 in Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, eight miles west of the fishing port of Dingle (Daingean Uí Chúis), on the Dingle Peninsula, in the beautiful southwest of Ireland. The Museum is located on the Wild Atlantic Way, and the Slea Head Route, both spectacular driving routes. 

Músaem Chorca Dhuibhne collects, safeguards, holds in trust, displays and interprets a variety of objects and data relating to the rich natural and cultural heritage of the Dingle Peninsula, and endeavors to educate visitors about the geology, archaeology, heritage and history of the area.

Isabel is also very involved in the Kerry Archaeological and Historical Society, and was Editor of its annual Journal until recently. It contains learned articles on all aspects of the history and archaeology of County Kerry and its people. She is also on the board of an Díseart Institute of Irish Spirituality and Culture in Dingle, an educational facility on whose board she sits.

Join the conversation!

Meg:  What drives your interest in history, and why do you think an understanding of the past is important to the future?

Isabel: I have always been interested in the past, archaeology more than history, though I did study both to BA level in university, and then did a Master’s Degree in archaeology.  From when I was a little girl, I was fascinated by ancient Egypt, prompted, I think, by being lent an illustrated book on the topic by a friend of my mother’s.  But, would you believe, I still have to visit that country! 

I also grew up in a town with a castle in the middle of it and my parents were very friendly with a man who was involved with setting this up as a museum, so I guess I was never nervous of museums and always had an interest in their collections.

I think, to understand where we have come from, what brought us to the places we live in, why we live there, all of this can be explained by exploring the past.  It has often been quoted that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’  Unfortunately this is very true.  Look at the wars that take place, often in the same ‘theatres’.  A study of history might make those who engage in them a bit more careful about the horrors that can be brought about.  Look at the movement of peoples: Ireland has always been an island, since before the first inhabitants arrived in the Mesolithic period.  Since then, there have been many, many new groups of people coming in-–and also many who have left.  All have brought--or taken--their talents and ideas with them.  We must never forget this, because it is what has made our country what it is today.

 Enniscorthy Castle. Photo credit: Daniel Vorndran (2015) 

Enniscorthy Castle. Photo credit: Daniel Vorndran (2015) 

Meg: I understand you are from Wexford. Can you share a little bit about that part of Ireland, and how you ended up in Dingle?

Isabel: Yes, I am from the town of Enniscorthy, in the middle of the county.  It is very different from where I live now, on the coast, and in a very hilly area!  I grew up in a town, and now live in the country, on a sheep farm.  It is an area full of history, and particularly associated with the 1798 rebellion.  The Vinegar Hill Battlefield is on the outskirts of the town.

I went to university in Dublin, which was the nearest university town to where I lived, and then worked on several archaeological excavations after graduating.  When an opportunity came to work on the Archaeological Survey of the Dingle Peninsula, I took it up and while working on that I met the man who would become my husband.  So once we got married, I guess I was here for life!

Meg: I understand Dingle has been settled for 6,000 years now. For a potential traveler to Dingle, can you give a big picture overview of the human presence there and the types of monuments each era left behind?

Isabel: We have evidence of people living on the Dingle Peninsula for at least 6000 or so years--the late Mesolithic site of Ferriter’s Cove goes back that far.  We don’t actually have any monuments surviving from this period, it was more by chance that the site was discovered and excavated. But it is also likely that people have been here longer than that, we just haven’t found the evidence for them yet.  

The other major periods of Irish Archaeology are the Neolithic, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Early Medieval and the Medieval periods.  We have very few surviving Neolithic monuments in this part of the country, although I have to say that, because this is not a very developed area, with much of the land still used for farming, there haven’t been the same kinds of major excavations that you might get elsewhere, which is probably why we haven’t found much Neolithic evidence yet.  That said, there are monuments surviving which might date from this period, such as pre-bog field boundaries, megalithic tombs and possibly some of the standing stones.

 Aghacarrible rock art. Photo credit: Isabel Bennett

Aghacarrible rock art. Photo credit: Isabel Bennett

From the Bronze Age, you might have Wedge Tombs--a type of megalithic tomb which straddles the later Neolithic/earlier Bronze Age--and again some standing stones and also rock art.  Some of the barrows (burial mounds) might also date to this period, though some may be a bit later.  Again excavation could only prove this.  Fulachtaí fiadh, also known as ‘burnt mounds’, are largely composed of heat-cracked stones and charcoal, normally with an adjacent hearth and trough in which water was heated by inserting hot stones. These were possibly for cooking but also having other uses, and also usually date to the Bronze Age.

We have little visible dating from the Iron Age--again possibly some field boundaries, and a carving known as ‘Crom Dubh’s head’, which was unfortunately stolen, may have dated to this period.  Some of the promontory forts might be of Iron Age date--though some may have origins in the Bronze Age, again one would need to excavate to prove.

It is when we get into the early Medieval period that we have no shortage of sites to visit: ogham stones, holy wells, early ecclesiastical sites, house sites, ringforts, cashels, souterrains, cross-slabs--the list goes on and on!

Similarly in the Medieval period we have tower-house castles, Medieval church sites and graveyards, houses, and many of our modern fields might have origins going back this far.

Meg: I'm intrigued by the Ogham stones. Can you describe what these are and what they tell us, and the period in which they were created?

 Ogham stones. Photo credit: Meg Pier

Ogham stones. Photo credit: Meg Pier

Isabel: Ogham stones are found mainly in the south of Ireland, in the counties of Kerry, Cork and Waterford, but the greatest concentration is here in Corca Dhuibhne, with over 60 known examples.  They are to be found mainly in burial grounds, and are sometimes accompanied by crosses indicating Christian burial, but examples can also be found outside of these areas, and inscriptions were also sometimes carved on galláin or standing stones, much earlier, probably Bronze Age or late Neolithic).  The stones, in these cases, may have been boundary or territorial markers, or marking where someone died, or fell in battle, or indeed was buried.  It is possible that some stones were associated with pilgrimage, or had other functions that we can only guess at.  Some examples were taken from their original locations and re-used in the building of souterrains--underground passages sometimes associated with ringforts--or, more recently, as lintels for doors and windows of vernacular houses.

The letters were carved using a grouping of between one and five notches or strokes usually on the edge of the stone, each group signifying a sound in old Irish, and based on the Latin alphabet which we still use today.  The inscriptions can signify a single name, or a phrase such as ‘X son of Y of the family of Z’, but sometimes even more detail is added. The inscriptions can date from the end of the 4th up to the 8th century AD, and it is possible that inscriptions were also carved or written on other materials, organic and otherwise, which have not survived down to today.

A well-known stone here on the Dingle Peninsula is that in the graveyard at Cill Mhaoilchéadair (Kilmalkedar), in front of the ruined 12th-century church.  Another can be seen at the monastic site of Teampall Mhancháin (also known as Teampall Bán), in the townland of An Baile Riabhach.  Other examples are to be found in the graveyards at An Eaglais (Aglish), Cinn Aird Thoir (Kinard West, 2 stones) and Baile an Bhóthair (Ballinvoher, in An Ráth Dubh {Rathduff}, near Abhainn an Scáil, where there are two stones. Collections of stones can also be found in the enclosure site at Baile an tSagairt (Ballintaggart), near the race course, and in the grounds of Coláiste Íde, where stones from other places have been re-erected.  These last two sites are on private property. Several ogham stones are on display in Músaem Chorca Dhuibhne, Baile an Fheirtéaraigh.  

 Archaeologist Isabel Bennett with a stone inscription. Photo credit: Isabel Bennett

Archaeologist Isabel Bennett with a stone inscription. Photo credit: Isabel Bennett

Meg: Can you share a little bit about Dingle's role in early Christianity?

Isabel: Christianity was probably first introduced into Ireland during the 4th century AD. The earliest church settlements were small communities ruled over by their own bishop, but from the mid-sixth century the monastic system became established, with an abbot at the head of each independent community, and this continued to be the norm for several centuries.

Corca Dhuibhne (an old name for the Dingle Peninsula) may not have had major monasteries on the scale of Clonmacnoise or Armagh, although recent research has shown that Cill Maoilchéadair was an important site, in some part thanks to its connection with the pilgrimage route, Cosán na Naomh (or the Saints’ Path). In general the sites were small, enclosed church sites, serving the local community, with a distribution similar to that of the ringforts. They generally consist of an enclosure of earth or stone, within which can usually be found a selection of the following: church, graveyard, a tomb-shrine or leacht, ogham stone, internal dividing wall, cross-inscribed stone(s), houses and, at one or two sites, a souterrain. Holy wells are sometimes found nearby, and several sites are situated on or near the pilgrimage route of Cosán na Naomh. Cill Maoilchéadair also has a sundial and a stone on which the Latin alphabet is carved.

Everyday life in a monastery would have been similar to that of lay people, but with more emphasis on prayer. The occupants were generally self-sufficient as regards to food production, farming the land immediately surrounding the monastery, which had probably been given to the monks as a gift by the local chieftain.  We know quite a bit about the site at Riasc, thanks to the excavations there in the 1970s.  Gallarus is famous because of the extraordinary survival of the stone-built church there --but not everybody recognizes that it is situated within a monastic site, with enclosure, cross-inscribed stone, leacht and internal dividing wall!

 Gallarus Oratory a chapel believed to have been built in the 11th-12th centuries. Photo credit: Meg Pier

Gallarus Oratory a chapel believed to have been built in the 11th-12th centuries. Photo credit: Meg Pier

The pilgrimage route, Cosán na Naomh (the Saints’ Path), which meanders through Corca Dhuibhne, with the summit of Mount Brandon as its goal, may well have pre-Christian origins. The pilgrimage was certainly very important from Medieval times onwards, and was interlinked with the veneration of St Brendan himself. A focal point on the route was Cill Maoilchéadair (Kilmalkedar), where many of the monuments in the area commemorate St Brendan, even though the site itself was founded by St Maol Chéadair. 

However, there are many other monastic sites on the pilgrimage route of Cosán na Naomh, although some are not so well-known. These include the sites at Corr Áille and Teampall na Cluanach (in Leataoibh Mór), and possibly also sites such as those at An Riasc, Gallarus, Cill na gColmán (Mám an Óraigh) and Teampall Mhancháin (An Baile Riabhach). Although we have a fair idea of the route taken by the Cosán in earlier times, we cannot now be 100% certain about all of it.

Today, thanks to an initiative of the Heritage Council, you can follow much of this path on a modern, marked way, beginning at Ceann Trá (Ventry) and finishing at An Baile Breac, at the foot of Mount Brandon.  The route is marked on the OS Discovery Map, No. 70, and there are information panels situated at the beginning and end of the route.

Society during the Early Medieval period was rural and tribal, with many petty kingdoms.  The economy consisted of a mixture of stock-raising and agriculture.  Much industry was localized, with many craft workers, although there was some international trade, especially for luxury goods.

 Cahernavenooragh stone ringfort. Photo credit: Isabel Bennett

Cahernavenooragh stone ringfort. Photo credit: Isabel Bennett

The well-to-do farmers and their families lived within enclosures which archaeologists term ‘ringforts’, which were either made of earth (lios or rath) or stone (cathair).  The earthen forts may have had a palisade fence on top of the bank, and have between one and three enclosing banks with external ditches or fosses, depending on the status of the inhabitants.  Inside were the houses, usually consisting of one or more round rooms, and were made of stone in this area, although other building materials were also used.  Rectangular houses were also built, but these are not so common in Corca Dhuibhne.  Most of these sites would date from the 6th to the 10th centuries AD.  Some sites have a souterrain or underground passage within them.  These features may have been used for storage and also possibly for refuge. 

People of lesser status lived in unenclosed settlements, such as the clocháin (‘beehive huts’) found scattered throughout the peninsula.  Other dwellings constructed of more organic materials (timber and mud) will leave no above-ground traces today.

Excavations in Corca Dhuibhne of sites of this period include those at Cathair na bhFionnúrach stone fort, in Baile na bhFionnúrach, and also an Dún Beag promontory fort, in Fán (although there was also some earlier activity at this site).  We are very rich in Early Medieval remains here, with hardly a townland without a ringfort or cashel, indicating the great density of population that must have been in this area at that time.

Meg: Can you give an overview of the influence of the Vikings and Normans on Dingle and any legacy they left?

Isabel: Although we know the Vikings were active in areas close to Corca Dhuibhne, we have no definite evidence of raids in this area or of settlement on the peninsula, although it is very likely that they did come here.  The next group of settlers to the area were of Norman origin, coming into Kerry from the beginning of the 13th century, although we have few secular remains, if any, of that early period.  The Knights of Kerry, a junior branch of the FitzGeralds, held extensive lands on the peninsula, under the Earls of Desmond, with Rahinnane, near Ventry, as their chief seat.  Other important families of this time would have been the Ferriters, the Trants, the Rices and Husseys.

 Gallarus Castle. Photo credit: Nigel Cox (2006)

Gallarus Castle. Photo credit: Nigel Cox (2006)

Most of the ‘castles’ in the area, more correctly referred to as ‘tower-houses’, date from the 15th and 16th centuries, and only five survive as standing remains, the other 12 having disappeared, although their locations are known.  Tower-houses generally consist of rectangular towers of 3-5 stories, with narrow windows and crenellated battlements. These were built as the fortified residences of the Anglo-Irish and Irish gentry alike.  The remains at Rahinnane, Minard and Gallarus, and possibly Moorestown, are all of FitzGerald castles, and they would also have had others in the area, including at Dingle town.  

In religious matters, from the later 12th century onward, the diocesan and parochial system, on which the church in Medieval and post-Medieval Ireland was organized, began to fully take shape.  Nineteen parishes were established in Corca Dhuibhne, many of which would have been associated with particular families who held sway in the area at the time.  Although some of the new churches were on the sites of Early Medieval foundations, many were on new sites, with the conquering Anglo-Normans distancing themselves from the native Irish.  The Medieval diocesan cathedral was at Ardfert, and there are very interesting remains still at that site, which was founded by St Brendan.

There are standing remains at 12 of the Medieval parish church sites on the peninsula and, apart from the magnificent 12th-century Romanesque church at Cill Mhaoilchéadair, they are all simple rectangular gabled buildings, with no apparent division between nave and chancel, and with little ornamentation.  It is likely that many foundations date from the 13th century, but some of the buildings might be of later date, or were modified later.  Among the best preserved examples are Stradbally, Killiney and Kilshannig (near Castlegregory), Baile Uí Bhaoithín (near Baile an Fheirtéaraigh) and Cloghane.  Other remains can be seen at Dún Chaoin and Inch. 

Excavations took place in Dún Urlann church and cemetery, in Na Gorta Dubha near Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, in 1991.  This site is associated with the Ferriter family who held extensive land in this area from the end of the 13th century.  A small portion of the ruined Ferriter’s Castle, a tower-house of the later 15th or 16th century, which was the stronghold of this family at that time, is still to be seen on the nearby Dún an Fheirtéaraigh promontory in Baile Uachtarach Thiar.  St James’ Church in Dingle, an early 19th-century building, is on the site of the Medieval parish church, which had connections with the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in Spain, Dingle being one of the ports from which pilgrims set sail.

 Dún Urlann Church remains. Photo credit: Isabel Bennett

Dún Urlann Church remains. Photo credit: Isabel Bennett

Meg: My ancestors left the Ardfert area during the Great Famine. Can you explain the legacy of this period of time on the Dingle Peninsula?

Isabel: There are books written and to be written about this period, and, as an archaeologist rather than a historian, I am not really competent to talk about it.  Basically Ireland was a densely populated country at this time (1840s), with most people being very poor, living in rural areas on rented land.  The potato, very nutritious and easy to grow, was their staple.  When blight hit the potato, their basic foodstuff was lost, and they hadn’t the wherewithal to buy other nutritious food, so many died from hunger and disease, and many emigrated.  Here in Dingle part of the legacy is the graveyard, situated on Cnoc a’Chairn, behind the old Dingle Hospital.  This was the cemetery used for the deceased inmates of Dingle Workhouse, which was the first use of the building, which subsequently became St Elizabeth’s Hospital, and which is now lying idle, although there are plans to develop it. 

Dingle Workhouse was opened in 1852, in response to the many needy families seeking assistance in the area from the time of the Great Famine, so it is safe to assume that it was sometime after this date that the graveyard was first used for burial. The workhouse was built initially to accommodate 700 people, but we can only imagine how many hundreds, if not thousands of people were buried in this small cemetery, particularly so as the workhouse was also used as a hospital for much of its early working life, as well as in its more recent history.  There would have been many deaths here from various epidemics over the years, as well as the unfortunates who died from malnutrition  or general old age.

There are no formal inscribed grave markers in the cemetery, as one would expect from a place where only the very poor and destitute were interred, but a stone commemorating all who were buried there was erected in more recent times.  There have been no burials in this graveyard for many years.

 Irish coastline. Photo credit: Meg Pier

Irish coastline. Photo credit: Meg Pier

Meg: You are active in Díseart of Irish Spirituality and Culture, which has a special interest in beauty and art from the point of view of spirituality. It stresses what is now known as the sixth way via pulchritudinis, the way of beauty.  I love this! Where did this concept come from, and how does Diseart approach this?

Isabel: An Díseart was set up by the late Mons. Pádraig Ó Fiannachta several years ago.  He had huge energy and we miss him, and his inspiration, greatly.  He was a great believer in this concept, ‘the way of beauty’, and seeing God’s work in beautiful things, especially through works of art, music, poetry and literature.  He was a great patron of artists, encouraging, over the years, different ‘artists in residence’ in the Díseart, and also supporting and encouraging Eleanor Yates, who has created some amazing artworks within the building.  We are also greatly blessed to have in the chapel six two-light windows made by the Irish stained-glass artist Harry Clarke, dating from earlier in the 20th century.  These were perhaps the initial encouragement for using the building for something special, for the local community, when the Presentation Sisters first left.  This chapel is a real jewel, and it would have been dreadful if those windows had to be removed from the place for which they were made, should the building have been sold, and perhaps used for a more secular purpose.

Meg: Ireland's "Wild Atlantic Way" is a 1600-mile touring route that stretches along the west coast of Ireland and is divided into 14 stages. The Dingle Peninsula leg of the route takes travelers from Tralee to Castlemaine, and includes the incredible Slea Head Drive, which is where I understand you live on a sheep farm! Could you recommend must-see archaeological sites to visit along the Dingle section of the route? 

IsabelYes, the Wild Atlantic Way has been an amazingly successful development, and I hope that all areas along the route are benefiting from it as much as we are doing here on the peninsula.  If anything, particularly along some of the more narrow parts of the road (which are generally in the more spectacular areas) traffic can become a little congested at the height of the summer, especially July and August, so I would recommend visiting outside of those two months.  As our Irish weather is always changing, that should never be a factor in a decision with regard to when to visit!

Where I live myself is probably one of the most spectacular parts, with wonderful views across Dingle Bay south over the Iveragh Peninsula, the Skellig Islands, and some of the Blasket Islands.  There are several ‘beehive’ huts near us, i.e. corbel-built stone structures, dwelling houses, many dating back from early Medieval times. The more recent ones, built in the late 19th century), are still roofed, and would have been used as sheds for the adjacent farms. 

There are so many archaeological sites along the route, I think the first thing I would say to anyone considering visiting this area is not to consider it as a ‘leg’ of the route, but rather a destination in its own right.  The Dingle Peninsula deserves at least two nights, but preferably a lot more, as there is so much to do--walking, water sports, visiting the Blaskets, enjoying traditional music, swimming on our beautiful sandy beaches, visiting archaeological sites, cycling some of our quieter roads, taking a trip to see Fungie, our dolphin, or going on an eco-tour by boat.  There is a distillery you can tour (Dingle Whiskey, Gin, Vodka), three micro-breweries, and then there are the crafts and artwork! It amazes me that people think they can stay in Tralee or Killarney and ‘do’ all of Dingle in a day trip! No way!

 Ireland cliffs. Photo credit: Meg Pier

Ireland cliffs. Photo credit: Meg Pier

Isabel's 'must see' archaeological sites along the Dingle Route of the Wild Atlantic Way!

I will only mention those along the main route, but there are many, many more, also open to the public, which you can visit perhaps with the assistance of a local guide, of which there are many:

Leaving Dingle, having crossed the bridge at Milltown (passing the distillery), you will shortly come to a standing stone on your right in the garden of a B&B--but this has been here for over 4000 years! Further along, just after Kilvicadownig school about six miles west of Dingle, you will see signs for a ‘Fairy Fort’. This is an Early Medieval ringfort, probably dating from the 7th/8th centuries AD, and would have been the enclosure within which a farming family of status would have lived. Dunbeg Promotory Fort is next along the route, but currently is not open to the public. You then pass a couple of places inviting you to see ‘Prehistoric Beehive Huts’ and ‘Celtic Settlement’.  In both places these are Early Medieval stone fort or cashel, the equivalent in stone of the ringforts. There will be a charge to visit any of these sites. The next place, where there is a large car park with a ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ sign, is a farm with several round houses--also known as beehive huts--and you will also have the opportunity to hold, or even feed, a baby lamb.

Continuing on past the Crucifix on Slea Head, and driving a few miles until you come to Dún Chaoin (Dunquin), here, beside the modern 19th-century Catholic church, is the graveyard with the ruins of the Medieval parish church for the area, probably 13th century in date. Heading on towards Ballyferriter, you could take a detour just before reaching the village to see the promontory fort of Dún an Óir, where a terrible massacre took place in 1580. This was an episode in the Second Desmond Rebellion, fought against Queen Elizabeth of England.  Irish troops, supported by Spaniard and Italians, were besieged by English forces at this site. They surrendered, and were mostly all massacred.Beyond the village, I would recommend visiting the excavated monastic site at An Riasc (down a side road from the microbrewery at Bric’s pub). After that, you'll come to Gallarus oratory, also within an Early Medieval monastic site--a must see. Finally, for this little tour, the 12th century Romanesque Church at Kilmalkedar, which has several other interesting features in the graveyard, cannot be missed.

The Dingle Peninsula is an area rich in archaeological remains from many different periods.  You will probably find the greatest density of monuments here per square mile than most other parts of Ireland--a lot to do with the fact that so many were built from stone, and also because this area is still mainly a farming area, so there was less destruction than you might have in more built-up areas.  The majority of visible remains are from the Bronze Age, the Early Medieval and Medieval periods, but we have evidence of people living here from the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age.  As an archaeologist, for me this makes this area a wonderful place in which to live.  Some of our sites, such as Gallarus oratory are just stunning--I never tire of visiting them, and get great pleasure from bringing friends and guests to see them--the icing on the cake is that each location is also so visually stunning!  These monuments, and their locations, never disappoint.  But there are also new discoveries to be made, and different interpretations, so it is always exciting to be continuously learning and exploring, and the Dingle Peninsula is the perfect place to live to experience all this.  How lucky am I?