Rosscarbery | History
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Rosscarbery: Landscape and People

by Anthony Beese


ROSSCARBERY, or ‘Ross’, as it is still sometimes known, is located on a convenient height that overlooks an estuary. Some people think that the settlement is a small town rather than a village, because of its former status as an important ecclesiastical centre. It has a long history, which stretches back to the medieval period. It even has a small cathedral.  As the saying goes:


Rosscarbery, high steeple, small town, proud people!


The town’s character is largely determined by its location within the much-indented coastline of West Cork. The adjacent estuary is north-south trending and relatively narrow, measuring some 2 km long and about 500 m wide.  Two hundred years ago, an elegant causeway was built over the inlet to carry the Post Office road between Cork and Skibbereen; consequently, dividing it into an inner muddy ‘slob’ and an outer sand estuary.  At the mouth of the inlet, there is a sand barrier that comprises some low dunes and the Warren Strand. Behind the town, the topography is typical of the ‘ridge and valley’ topography of southwest Ireland, consisting of upland that is often steep and rocky, and in places, covered by bog. Amazingly, the underlying bedrock comprises sediments that are 370 million years old! These have been consolidated to form sandstone and siltstone, which were then, millions of years later, faulted and folded, before finally, being weathered into the shape of the current landscape.

The Prehistoric Period


At the end of the last glaciation, 11,700 years ago, the sea level began to rise and the tide flooded into the rocky depression that now underlies the estuary. (It’s a sobering thought to realise that we currently live in an interglacial ‘warm’ period and that there have been many glaciations in the past!) To begin with, the uneven landscape was covered with an untidy assemblage of boulders, cobbles and silt that had recently been deposited by a thick layer of ice. Meltwater had also washed in accumulations of sand and gravel here and there. As the sea level rose, the coastline, which at that time reached much further offshore, was gradually flooded. In tandem with this – but over thousands of years – the prevailing wind and tide swept sand, which had already been pushed southward by glacial melt-water, back into the inlet, gradually choking it. This was the landscape that was encountered by the first people that arrived in West Cork.


Several stone monuments survive on ridges around Rosscarbery but are not generally visible in the low-lying areas of the coast.  This is because this part of the early archaeological record has been submerged by the tide – studies of buried sediments have shown, not only, that the sea level rose all along the south coast of Ireland after the last glaciation, but also, that levels continued to increase for thousands of years, smothering low-lying sites that contained records of earlier human and animal activity.


This environmental change may be illustrated by a piece of local history. According to Charles Coughlan, a letter from Lady Carbery to his grandfather, Patrick Sheehan (d 1960), described how the remains of an ‘Irish elk’ were discovered at Rosscarbery. It seems that some labourers uncovered the bones, while excavating peat from the foundations of the Post Office causeway, which, incidentally, was built between about 1809 and 1814.  Although the letter is unfortunately lost, the story is important because it indicates that the organic peat, buried under the blown-sand of the estuary, contains a record of the living landscape that spans thousands of years. The giant Irish deer (Megaloceros giganteus), as ‘the elk’ is more properly called, died out early in the postglacial period, about eleven thousand years ago.  Interestingly, in the mid-nineteenth century, George Du Noyer of the Geological Survey of Ireland observed that people dug ‘peat-bog’ for fuel from under the slob (Jukes and Kinahan 1861).


And there is more evidence for Rosscarbery’s prehistoric environment. A detailed study of peat cores, taken from the foreshore at nearby Tralong (Waitz 2014), has identified a change from low-lying woodland to a reed swamp environment in the time interval stretching from the Neolithic to Bronze Age. Surprisingly, the peat layer there is reported to be 4m thick! Winter storms and low spring tides occasionally reveal woody peat at Warren Strand, and the remains of trees and associated peat have been observed at Red Strand, east of Ross (Tim Feen, personal communication).  Thus, when we walk on the strand, there is evidence for the ancient landscapes of the coast hidden under our feet!


But what about the visible record?  To date, there is no local evidence for the first ‘hunter-gatherers’ that arrived in the Mesolithic period.  It is known, however, that these people travelled along the coast and rivers of Ireland in their primitive boats about nine thousand years ago.  Scientists now think that it is likely that the first immigrants came by sea rather than by land-bridge, bringing with them, many of the species of the animals and plants that we see today.


The oldest surviving monument in the district is a good example of a portal tomb. It is located 2.5 km to the east of Rosscarbery, in Ahaglaslin townland, and is of probable early Neolithic date. This important structure overlooks the small valley of  the Owenahincha River, and is close to the sea. Historic Ordnance Survey maps indicate that the site was known as Calaheencladdig, which I would interpret as Caillichín ‘Cladaigh, meaning perhaps, ‘the little witch of the sea-shore’.  The tomb itself appears to be formed from stone slabs that were taken from the rocky ridge on which it stands, and is thought by archaeologists to represent the first evidence of farmers in the area, some six thousand years ago (4,000 to 3,600 BC). Further evidence of Neolithic settlers in the Rosscarbery district is scarce and confined to rare finds such as a polished stone axe-head discovered at Galley Head.


Several, well-preserved wedge tombs from the early Bronze Age have been found on the Mizen Peninsula, further to the west, but do not exist in the local district. However, many monuments from the later part of the Bronze Age have survived locally, and when taken together, demonstrate a distinctive ritual tradition (see O’Brien 2012).  Most famous is the stone circle at Drombeg.  It appears to be orientated according to the sun, and stands adjacent to a water-boiling trough, which archaeologists believe was a cooking place for meat. Two nearby structures are interpreted as stone huts. Further stone circles of importance survive at Bohonagh and Reenascreena South. The single standing stones, which are also associated with this period, are common throughout West Cork.  One example, located in Burgatia townland, just east of Rosscarbery, is marked with prehistoric rock art in the form of ‘cup’ marks. This standing stone, or gallán, as it is known in Irish, is accessible from the main N71 road, close to where it sweeps down to the main causeway.  Distinctive ‘cup-and-ring’ symbols are well known in West Cork and may be part of a cult of the sun, which, again, is thought to date to the Bronze Age (O’Brien 2012).  Rock art is also found on boulder-burials and on rock outcrops. Towards the end of the prehistoric period, the archaeological evidence for former communities is more abundant, and Rosscarbery district includes well-preserved ring-forts, cashels, and other features that were occupied during the Iron Age and subsequent medieval period…

Drombeg Stone Circle
Rosscarbery from above

The Medieval Period


The town of Rosscarbery began as an Early Christian settlement and went on to become a monastic school that was known throughout Europe. Its former medieval name, Ros Ailithir, is equivalent, perhaps, to ‘wooded headland of the pilgrims’.  If we step back in time more than a thousand years, we can imagine how the first settlement stood on the seaward slopes at the edge of a sheltered harbour. The monks chose a defendable position where they could watch for maritime invaders such as the Vikings, as well as have a place to secure their own boats.


The existing town includes several features of interest. The first of these is St Fachtna’s Cathedral, which is likely to have been built on the site of an early church. Nearby is the Abbey graveyard, within whose walls, the visitor will find not only an ancient burial ground but also the crumbling ruin of St Mary’s Benedictine Priory, which is dated tentatively as thirteenth century.  An extensive system of underground tunnels near the Cathedral is interpreted as a souterrain complex of probable early medieval date (Gill Boazman, personal communication).  One of the chambers was rediscovered recently, when a hole opened during the construction of a housing development to the northwest of the Cathedral. These ‘subterraneous caverns’ are thought to have been excavated by the Early Christian community, and are thought to have been used for storage and security.


A short distance down Abbey Road, towards the estuary, there is a metal trough in the roadside wall below the graveyard.  The trough marks the approximate location of St Cummin’s Well, which was at the edge of the medieval town.  Unfortunately, the original spring was lost during the construction of Abbey Road in the nineteenth century. And so, beware, for the water in the trough is stagnant and has been polluted by discharges from the graveyard. It is, therefore, unsafe to drink!


Small springs, which discharge from joints and faults in the bedrock, would have been much valued because they supplied fresh water.  Consequently, the most reliable sources were revered as holy wells. In this case, the spring was dedicated to Cuimín – Cummin is the Anglicism. Pádraig Ó Riain has kindly given me the following interpretation:  Cuimín is a diminutive form of the name Cuimme. And since both Cuimme and Colmán are pet forms of Colum, who incidentally, was part of a widespread cult in medieval Ireland, it seems reasonable to infer that, although nothing is known about Cuimín, he may have been the same person as Colmán, the pilgrim of Rosscarbery!


© Anthony Beese. All rights reserved.


Further Reading

Beese, Anthony. 2014. Rock, Sand and Sea: the hidden landscapes of Rosscarbery. A walking guide.  Carraigex Press.

Jukes, J.B. and Kinahan, G.H. 1861. Explanations to accompany Sheets 200, 203, 204, 205, and part of 199 of the map of the Geological Survey of Ireland illustrating part of the County of Cork.  Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Ireland.

O’Brien, William. 2012. The Iverni. A prehistory of Cork. The Collins Press, Cork.

Power, Denis. 1992. Archaeological Inventory of County Cork, Vol.1 (West Cork).  Stationary Office, Dublin.

Waitz, Andrea. 2014. Coastal peat deposits, their environmental history and record of human impact, a case study from Tralong Bay, Co. Cork. Irish Quaternary Assocation (IQUA) Newsletter, No. 53.