There is no other landscape in western Europe with the density and variety of archaeological monuments as the Dingle Peninsula. This mountainous finger of land which juts into the Atlantic Ocean has supported various tribes and populations for almost 6,000 years. Because of the peninsula’s remote location, and lack of specialised agriculture, there is a remarkable preservation of over 2,000 monuments.
It is impossible to visit the Dingle Peninsula and not be impressed by its archaeological heritage. When one combines each site’s folklore and mythology, which have been passed orally from generation to generation through the Irish language, one can begin to understand how unique and complex is the history of this peninsula.
THE MESOLITHIC PERIOD
Excavations at Ferriter’s Cove, near Ballyferriter, have revealed evidence of the first settlers, who were hunters and gathers, exploiting the food sources along the coast, and also using locally-found hard stones to make tools. This site was inhabited during what is known as the Mesolithic Period (8000-4000BC). This was a temporary settlement, for seasonal use. It has produced a wide range of food such as hazel nuts, red deer, pig, hare, birds (including the guillemot and gannet). There were 14 different species of fish identified, among them wrasse, conger eel, thornback ray, tope and haddock. The remains of several species of shellfish can still be seen in the sand dunes of the area, where they were deposited 6,000 years ago. One of the most important finds were some cow bones, dating to 5700 BP (Before Present), making them the earliest evidence for cattle in Ireland.
THE STONE AGE
The southwest of Ireland has traditionally been seen as having few Neolithic monuments. The recent discovery of a series of Passage Tombs outside of Tralee has reopened the debate. It is now felt that many of the hilltop cairns and possibly some of the standing stones date to the Neolithic. It is also likely that the cup and circle rock art is Stone Age rather than Bronze Age.
It is during this period that the first farmers appear, living in more permanent structures, and showing a certain skill with the craft of pottery. Stone is the main material used in tool and weapon making. Large stone tombs are built to house the dead, and possibly also for ritual use. Some of the tombs of this period show incredible architectural skill in their orientation on the setting sun during the Winter Solstice.
THE BRONZE AGE
From 2500 BC changes begin to occur. Knowledge of exploiting copper, and later the production of Bronze, appear for the first time. This was to become a time of great change in Ireland, especially in the southwest of the country, where considerable deposits of copper were exploited. It appears that a new population of people from the south arrived at this time, with new technologies and developments.
Stone circles, stone alignments (orientated on the rising and setting sun), stone pairs, standing stones, wedge tombs, ancient eating places (fulachta fiadh), cist graves, and possibly some of the rock art and shell middens are the main monuments associated with the Bronze Age. Unfortunately, it is difficult to identify any of the habitation sites used during this period; but the artifactual evidence certainly makes up for this. Ireland has the second largest collection of gold work in Europe, in the form of lunula, collars of gold, bracelets, earrings, hairlocks, gold balls, and gold boxes. There are hundreds of bronze implements, vessels, and weapons, each type showing their development though the Bronze Age, each one becoming more complex and efficient.
The Loch a’Dúin valley near Cloghane contains the most remarkable series of monuments from the Bronze Age. In this valley of 1,500 acres, there are 90 stone structures dating from 2500 BC up to modern times. Running like a web throughout the landscape are several miles of stone wall, hidden by peat which has accumulated over the past 3,000 years. From archaeological excavations and pollen studies, it has become clear that the Loch a’Dúin Valley was used for intensive agriculture, both pastoral and arable, from 1600 BC to the beginning of the Iron Age. During this time habitation huts, fulachta fiadh, standing stones and enclosures were erected to house both humans and animals. Even earlier are the wedge tomb and the cup and circle rock art (of which there are nine examples), making it the largest concentration on the Dingle Peninsula. The level of preservation is due to the protective cover of the bog which completely covered the landscape. It is during modern turf cutting that the ancient remains are uncovered.
The peat preserves all organic materials to a remarkable degree. Birch wood found during the excavation of a section of pre-bog wall was preserved perfectly. The bog also holds all of the pollen which was released from the vegetation over the past several thousand years, enabling the botanist to discover what grew in the valley in the past. The Loch a’Dúin Valley today has been marked out with a walking route, along with a guide book, and is accessible to walkers of all abilities.
THE IRON AGE
The Iron Age (500 BC – 500 AD) is often associated with the Celtic Period. Some of the archaeological information from this period is sketchy, but hill forts, some ring forts, stone forts, ogham stones, holy wells, and pilgrimages date to this period.
One of the most dramatic sites on the peninsula may also date to this period. Overlooking the Village of Camp, the gateway to the peninsula, one will find Cathair Con Rí, certainly the finest promontory hill fort in the country. Its high wall actually marks the boundary to the barony of Corca Dhuibhne. What was its use? Was it defensive, territorial, or occupied on a more full-time basis? Nobody knows its true purpose; but it is certainly one of the most rewarding walks on the Dingle Peninsula. The Dingle Peninsula has the largest collection of Ogham stones (almost 70). Ogham (pronounced “o-am”) is the earliest form of Irish writing, and the stones may have been used as landmarks, or could also have been linked in with land ownership. The stones carry the name of a male, and also refer to his father and grandfather.
The name of Dovinia or Duibhne (as in Corca Dhuibhne, the seed or tribe of Duibhne), is present on several stones. Duibhne was one of the Celtic Goddesses associated with fertility and protection. One of the finest ogham stones is located in Dun Chaoin, overlooking the Blasket Islands, on the summit of Dún Mór (the big fortress).The strongest evidence for a Celtic presence is the Irish language, which is still spoken on the peninsula.Gaeilge was once spoken all over the country, but now survives only along the west coast and at a few other locations. It is related to Scots Gallic, and Manx (once spoken on the Isle of Man).
THE VIKING & MEDIEVAL PERIODS
By the end of the 9th century development was to be interrupted by the arrival of the fearsome Vikings, who plundered many of the monasteries, but also set up important trade routes and built towns at Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick. No Viking remains survive on the peninsula; but they named the bay near Ballydavid “Smerwick” which translates as “the bay of butter”.In the 12th century the organisation of the church was to change to the diocesan system under the rule of bishops who organised what are now known as the parish churches.
The monastic centres were deserted, later being used as burial grounds for unbaptized children. The 12th century also marked the arrival of the Normans in Ireland, and by the 13th century they were to have had a profound effect on Ireland. They built most of the Irish towns, and structured Irish society on a closer model to the European system. Within a short period of time they integrated very much into Irish society. Many of their tower houses, motte and baileys, and town walls dot the landscape. There are the remains of five tower houses on the peninsula, the most impressive ones being at Minard, Gallarus and Rathinnane.
The Town of Dingle was founded by the Fitzgerald and Rice families, who were to develop the town into the second largest port on the west coast (second only to Galway).
Extensive trade with France and Spain was the main reason for Dingle’s importance, and also the town was a embarkation point for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella to visit the shrine of St. James. It is said that the medieval church in Dingle, dedicated to St. James, was built by the Spanish. Dingle town was granted a charter in 1607 by King James, after his predecessor Queen Elizabeth had sanctioned it in 1585. The town was enclosed by a strong wall, with two gates in what is now Dykegate Lane; the area enclosed was what is now Main Street and parts of John and Goat Streets.
The 16th and 17th centuries in Irish history are marked by rebellion and counter rebellion. In Munster, the Fitzgerald rebellion was unceremoniously crushed. One of the most tragic events took place at Dún an Óir, near Ballyferriter, where the besieged Irish, Spanish and Italians were surrounded by Lord Grey, who was accompanied by Walter Raleigh and the poet Edmund Spenser, author of the “Faerie Queen”. On agreeing terms for surrender, the Italian leader was allowed to walk free; however, all the other 600 were slaughtered in the fort.
Also belonging to this period is the ancient pilgrimage to the summit of Mount Brandon. This was ritualistically done on the last Sunday of July, known locally as Domhnach Chrom Dubh. Initially it was part of a worship to the Celtic God Lughnasa as part of the harvest festival. Later it became Christianised and was dedicated to St. Brendan, a 6th century monk who is said to have sailed to America long before Columbus. The story of his voyage was translated into every European language by the 12th century, and made Brendan famous as a seafaring saint. It was from the summit of Mount Brandon that Brendan had a vision of “the land to the west”. The route of the old pilgrimage is clearly marked to the summit of Ireland’s second highest mountain.
THE 1600s THROUGH MODERN TIMES
Although Oliver Cromwell himself never came to the Dingle Peninsula, his army under Sadler and Le Hunt finally ended any Irish resistance in 1649-50. The final stand was made at Minard Castle, where four gunpowder charges were placed at the castle walls after the occupants had run out of ammunition. The castle was structurally damaged in the blast and all of the occupants killed.
From the mid 17th century until the 1920s, the Dingle Peninsula was controlled by Lord Ventry (Mullen was the family name), who had his family residence at Baile Goilán, later renamed as Burnham Estate. The house is now an Irish-speaking boarding school for girls, Coláiste Íde. There is a collection of ogham stones on the grounds of the estate, along with some exotic and unusual trees and plants, including a plantation of bamboo. The period of Landlordism was generally a turbulent time on the Dingle Peninsula, with evictions and land agitation. One of the most tragic events to occur during this time was the famine of 1845-48. Although there were shorter periods of famine in various parts of Ireland up until 1928, it is the period between 1845 and 1848 which is today referred to as the Great Famine. During this period the potato crop failed, which was the stable diet of the majority of the population.
Poor housing and disease, along with hunger, led to the deaths of 1,500,000 people, and at least the same number again left Ireland, heading mostly for North America. In the 1830s the population of Ireland was just under 8,000,000. By the 1850s it was down to 4,000,000. In the Dingle Poorhouse alone, up to 5,000 people died and were buried in the pauper’s burial ground at the foot of Cnoc a’Chairn, which overlooks Dingle town. No part of the peninsula escaped the ravages of the famine, and despite the coastal nature of the area, fishing was not developed enough to exploit the fish in the deeper waters off the coast. Much has been written in the recent past on the famine as part of its 150th commemoration, but it remains an astounding fact that Ireland was exporting wheat during the bleakest and hungriest years of its history.
After the trauma of the famine, nationalist Ireland was exhausted. Not until the 1870s does the tradition of populist nationalism reassert itself. A campaign to reestablish an Irish Parliament which would control domestic affairs was started in 1870 under the leadership of a protestant barrister named Isaac Butt. Its objective was to achieve home rule for Ireland within the United Kingdom. Butt was later replaced by Charles Stewart Parnell, who is often regarded as the uncrowned King of Ireland. Parnell was a formidable leader who transformed the Home Rulers into the Irish Parliamentary Party. He also became involved with the Irish National Land League, and formed a close working relationship with Michael Davitt, the founder of the Land League. Between them they were to put the issue of home rule firmly on the British agenda. Unfortunately, Parnell was to fall foul of the Irish hierarchy, due to the fact that he was living with a married woman, Kitty O’Shea. His fall was of tragic proportions and it poisoned the life of nationalist Ireland for a generation. He was only 45 when he died.
The fall of Parnell coincided with what is usually called the cultural revival in nationalist Ireland. Just as politics and the land question had quickened in the 1880s, so did the other elements which contributed to the birth of the modern Irish State some 40 years later. Possibly the most defining moment in the formation of the Irish State was the 1916 Easter Rebellion. With seven members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in command, the Fenians planned an armed uprising while Britain was at war. Although a failed insurrection, it further weakened the legitimacy of British rule in nationalist Ireland, especially as all of the leaders, except for de Valera, were executed.
A War of Independence followed, which was finally resolved in “The Treaty”, which was to give the Republic of Ireland 26 of its 32 counties. The remaining six counties remained under the control of England. Almost inevitably a civil war ensued, in which many potential leaders were killed.
of Sciúird Archaeological Tours, Dingle,
for contributing this article
Archeology and History in Kerry
If you are interested in archeology and history then a Sciúird Archaeological Tour comes highly recommended. Many people choose to include this tour while on a rest day in Dingle.