The Second Coming of Ballycasheen

“Sometimes one really does have to wonder why some monuments get signposted and some don’t. Of the many spectacular tombs scattered around the Burren this has to be one of the worst!
It is terribly neglected and very overgrown. There is so little of the tomb to see, just a few slabs that were once the chamber”.

Description of Ballycasheen portal tomb by in 2002.


Ballycasheen Portal Tomb


It is December 2017 and I train my binoculars through my kitchen window onto a field a couple of kilometres to the north. I can see for the first time Ballycasheen (Baile Chaisín Caisin’s place) portal tomb. The monument had been covered with blackthorn and bramble for decades. However, all changed on the 25th of November this year when a team of volunteers under the expert guidance of prehistoric archaeologist Ros O’Maolduin cut away the scrub in and around the monument.
The volunteer team is the Burren Conservation Volunteers (B.C.V). B.C.V. were set up in 2010 by the Burrenbeo Trust to answer a need for active conservation in the region. The Trust itself is a landscape charity. The Ballycasheen day was a hugely successful exercise in monument management.
B.CV. thus returned Ballycasheen in part to its former glory. I say “in part” as unfortunately the tomb is in a collapsed state with the two capstones no longer sitting spectacularly on the lateral standing stones. As a result Ballycasheen does not enjoy the “drama” of the sharply-tilted roof of the only other portal tomb in the Burren, Poulnabrone. The father of Burren archaeology, T.J. Westropp, lyrically referred to Poulnabrone as being noteworthy for ”the airy poise of its great top slab”.
 “Archaeology of the Burren. Prehistoric Forts and Dolmens in North Clare”. T.J. Westropp. Clasp Press. 1999.


There are 3 types of megalithic tomb associated with the Early Neolithic period in Ireland (6,000 to 5,000 years ago). They are passage, court and portal tombs. Pioneer farmers reached the Burren and Ireland about 6,000 years ago. They brought with them a new mortuary tradition – interring their special dead in big stone structures. These megaliths are also very loud statements of territory. Perhaps most importantly of all, they served as temples. The living frequented the structures in order to commune with the otherworld. 
The last in the suite of megalithic tombs is the wedge tomb, dating to the Late Neolithic period (5.000 to 4,000 years ago).


Poulnabrone may have been a tribal boundary at the most northerly point of the Burren in Neolithic 
The tomb is located on a limestone pavement plateau in the uplands. Carleton Jones argues that the location may have denoted a frontier point with Ballyvaughan valley and its virgin oak woods below to the north.
In its turn, Ballycasheen may well have been built at a critical southern entry point to the region – situated as it is between the river Fergus and Roughan hill. This gap between the hill and the river seems to have also been a sought-after location of buildings of the élite in later, historical times – the Early Medieval monastic site of Kilnaboy ; the ring fort of Caher Mór which may also date largely from the Early Medieval period and the Late Medieval Leamaneh Castle entrance.
 “The Burren and the Aran Islands Exploring The Archaeology” Carleton Jones. The Collins Press. 2004.
“Temples of Stone. Exploring the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland” Carleton Jones. The Heritage Council. 2007.

Roughan Hill, Sunset

The Burren Uplands


The economic and political power of the Neolithic communities was derived from farming – the most radical ecological experiment known to mankind. The pioneer farmers in the Burren opted to exploit the limestone pavement/thin soil areas (mostly in the uplands) rather than the thick glacial deposits over limestone (largely in the valleys). They chose the former as the tree complex of hazel and Scots pine was easier to cut with the polished stone axe. (The valleys had a dense cover of oak wood). The megalithic tombs are thus concentrated in the prehistoric upland farming landscape. 

The pressure on the upland landscape of slash-and-burn and farming was heightened 3,000 years ago with a change to a wetter and windier climate. The result was a dramatic loss of soil and the exposure of more pavement in the hills. 

The rocky hills were no longer viable for all year round farming due to dearth of soil. Economic activity and human settlement switched to the the oak was removed. The overwhelming concentration of Early Medieval (400 A.D. to 1100 A.D.) monastic sites in the Burren valleys would suggest that by this period at the latest, most of human settlement had moved from uplands to lowlands.
The limestone pavement areas are still farmed to an extent in winter. It a transhumance tradition of uncertain origin whereby some farmers transfer their stock from the valleys on to what is locally known as the “crag land”.
The tradition has been in decline over the last 50 years or so with the inevitable ecological succession of scrub. Scrub is an enemy of archaeology and that is why the BCV opted to remove it in Ballycasheen.


There are just less than 100 megalithic tombs recorded in the Burren and Poulnabrone is one of the few have been excavated. We can surmise to an extent from the Poulnabrone findings what may lie below the earth at the Ballycasheen portal.
It was Ann Lynch and a team of National Monument archaeologists who excavated in 1996-98. They found the remains of 33 individuals. Some of the remains were charred and some unburned. The team also found bones of wild and domestic animals as well as grave goods including stone and bone artefacts and a small polished stone axe.
Ann Lynch concluded from examination of the human bones that the interred had had short, physical and violent lives. The date range of the bones is about 600 years – 3800 B.C. to 3200 B.C. approximately – extremely selective burial of the dead.
“Poulnabrone: An Early Neolithic Portal Tomb in Ireland”. Ann Lynch. Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. 2014.


Ballycasheen Slabs


The sign post on the road refers to the tomb in Gaelic as “Leaba”. There are still a small number of elderly people in the parish of Killinaboy who refer to certain megalithic tombs as “leabas”.
Diarmaid and Gráinne are two parts of a love triangle in a tale from the Fenian Cycle of Mythology. Many Stone Age tombs with flat roofs around Ireland were believed to be used as overnight refuges by the couple in order to hide from the pursuing warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill. These monuments were known as Leaba Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne – Diarmaid and Gráinne’s bed.
W.G. Wood Martin points out that the monuments were also linked with “aphrodisiac customs”. Martin recounts Hely Dutton’s experience related to his search for the Ballycashen monument in 1808. Dutton was visiting the monument as part of his work for the publication “A Statistical Survey of County Clare” commissioned by the R.D.S.
When Dutton asked a couple of local women directions, they indulged in an animated chat together in Gaelic. The younger one eventually undertook to accompany Dutton to the tomb on the understanding that he was a stranger to the area (not local) and that he would give her his name.
Dutton became impatient and rode off. He subsequently told another local woman of his encounter and her comment was ‘No wonder for them, for it was the custom that if she went with a stranger to Diarmaid and Gráinne’s bed, she was certainly to grant him everything he asked.’
The “leabas” were also centres of fertility ritual. Wood Martin comments that “No doubt but that from Pagan times comes the widespread notion that these “beds” were efficacious in cases of barrenness. Hely Dutton remarked that if a woman were infertile, a visit with her husband to Diarmaid and Gráinne’s bed would cure her.
“A Statistical Survey of County Clare” Hely Dutton, 1808.
“Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland ; A Folklore Sketch ; A Handbook of Irish Pre-Christian Traditions” W. G. Wood-Martin, 1902.

Poulnabrone, Sunset

Poulnabrone Portal Tomb


The original structures of Poulnabrone and Ballycasheen each had two capstones. The only capstone surviving on lateral stones now is the one at Poulnabrone.

This massive sloping capstone explains in part why Poulnabrone attracts up to 200,000 visitors per annum (electronic counter on site). The antiquity of the monument and the accessibility of the site are the other main reasons why Poulnabrone is the most visited tourist site in the Burren. (The site is roadside on the R480, a major arterial route through the region).

From my own observations, I would find it hard to imagine Ballycasheen having any more than a couple of hundred visitors per annum. The monument’s tiny visitor numbers are explained in part by its location on a minor road ; its occlusion by scrub for decades ; its collapsed state and the displacement of its tilted roof.


Excavation of archaeological monuments in the Republic of Ireland can only be acted on with an excavation license. Under the National Monuments Acts, ownership of any archaeological object with no known owner is vested in the State. This means in effect that all archaeological findings must be transferred permanently to the National Museum of Ireland after examination. Thus, Poulnabrone is a funerary monument devoid of its dead – an empty tomb.

Only a minority of archaeological finds are actually exhibited in the National Museum’s public site in Kildare St in Dublin. The majority of objects are held in a facility in Swords, North County Dublin. The National Museum of Ireland – Central Resource Collection is in an industrial unit which was formerly the home of a Motorola electronics assembly plant. The 18,000 square metre building is the size of two football fields and houses several million archaeological objects.
There are no plans currently to excavate the Ballycasheen tomb. As only a small fraction of the region’s archaeological monuments has ever been excavated, the fate of our ancestors at Ballycasheen may be to rest in peace in their house of death.


The removed scrub


Ballycasheen is one of only two portal tombs in the Burren. Moreover, it is one of the few Early Neolithic tombs which has been discovered in the region. It is a monument of real cultural significance in the Burren’s prehistoric landscape.
Ballycaseheen has had the good fortune to be “unveiled” again by conservationists. The second coming of the tomb means that a visit to the site is now a gem of a Burren experience. Its luck could hold out as it will never be overwhelmed by visitors and may also elude the excavators.
The turning of the year was an occasion of real spiritual significance to prehistoric farming communities. It marked the start of the journey from darkness in to light. The Ballycasheen site is a very soulful place to be on a sunny mid-winter’s day. Enjoy the holidays and the turning of the year.


Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger

The Invisible Burren

Underground River, Doolin Cave

Underground river at Doolin Cave

One of the main features of limestone is its solubility in water. The strange shape of the Burren landscape is only one consequence of this feature, the real effect goes much deeper. Under the limestone pavements and hills exists another landscape, equally beautiful but even stranger than the one above: Caves.

Cullaun Cave

It’s a bit of a squeeze: Cullaun Cave

Glencurran Cave

Exploring Glencurran Cave

So far some 35 miles of cave passages have been surveyed but the real extend of the Burren caves is thought to be a multitude of that. Most of the caves can only be entered by experienced cavers, potholes and flash floods are only some of the dangers, but there are two caves that can be enjoyed by everybody. Aillwee Cave near Ballyvaughan and Doolin Cave between Doolin and Lisdoonvarna are open to the public and give an insight into the Burren’s underworld. The Doolin Cave or Pol an Ionain  features the Great Stalactite. This massive stalactite measures some 7 meters which makes it the biggest of its kind in the northern hemisphere.

The Great Stalactite

The Great Stalactite, Doolin Cave

Aillwee Cave was first discovered in 1940 by a local farmer but it took until 1977 until the cave had been fully explored and mapped.
Another interesting caves is Poll Na gColm on the east side of Slieve Elva. The cave entrance lies at the bottom of a funnel shaped which is wide enough to host a fully grown ash tree. Inside the cave a muttering stream has shaped narrow passages that open up into wide galleries. In places the river forms deep pools and enchanting side grottos emerge from the main passage.
The cave however is best known for its connection with some of the greatest novels of all times: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The anglicied version of Poll Na gColm is Poll NaGollum and it is thought that the cave lend its name to Gollum, one of the main characters of the story who also lived in a cave.
It is a fact that J.R.R. Tolkien was a regular visitor of the area and there have always been rumours that the Burren has inspired much of the landscape of Middle Earth. Other sources reject this but whatever the truth may be it is a nice thought that the Burren was somewhat involved in the conception of a masterpiece of literature.


Poll Na gColm

Many of the caves date back to a time long before the Burren as we know it today emerged. Radioisotope data collected at Aillwee cave suggest the cave is more than 1 million years old and was already formed long before the last glaciation period which had a major impact on the surface of the Burren.

Lesser Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus hipposiderus)

Lesser Horseshoe Bat

Lesser Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus hipposiderus)

Lesser Horseshe Bats hibernating

Findings like human skeletal remains, pottery, oyster shells and butchered animal bones or the well known skeleton of a brown bear at Ailwee Cave, suggests that these caves have provided shelter for both animals and humans alike for a very long time. Early Christian hermits also took advantage of the Burren caves: According to legend St. Colman Mac Duagh spent seven years in a small cave at the foot of Eagle’s Rock. Even today the Burren caves provide shelter and sanctuary for wildlife, especially for wintering bats including the rare lesser horseshoe bat.

Glencurran Cave Entrance

The view from Mac Duagh’s Cave

Text & images by Carsten Krieger

Limerick, Dublin, Bologna: Tony’s Story

Hill Walking, The Burren

Tony (second from left) in his element.

I was born in Limerick city a few decades ago. I am quite proud of my birth place. My full name is Anthony Gerard Martin John Kirby. My father was extravagant when it came to naming me. His own name was Alf and I remember him being described as a “charismatic insurance salesman” in a book on the life of actor Richard Harris. My father passed away in 1977. My mother did likewise two and a half years ago at the age of 99 .
I studied French and English literature in University College Dublin in the late 1970s. I graduated without distinction but the education did give me an enduring love for words and languages. Whilst in college I happened to sit a civil service exam. I remember meeting the comic genius, the late Dermot Morgan, in the exam hall that day. He was a good friend of my cousin. I got the call to work for the state after I left college. I became a public servant. Morgan didn’t. Sometime later he became Father Ted in the eponymous and wildly successful TV comedy series.
Thankfully my public service did not stretch to licking envelopes or asking people their mothers’ maiden name . However, the job did not enthrall me either.  I finally invoked an escape clause and made good for Italy. A five year long sabbatical. I taught English as a foreign language in the medieval city of Bologna. I also spent one sublime summer in the city of Matera – a world UNESCO heritage site. Five years is the career break limit so I opted for the Irish public service again when the sabbatical expired. I returned to Dublin in 1997. I still miss Italia.
On my return to Ireland, Italian friends would visit on occasion. My visitors were keen to learn of Irish history and heritage and I was glad to guide them around town and share information with them. Therefrom came the idea of guided walking tours of Dublin city on foot in Italiano. My life as a walking tourism operator had begun. Extremely modest beginnings – I took occasional half days from the government job in high season to run the tiny enterprise. However, my love for the life as a cicerone was born. Around 2000 I met a woman called Eimer. We started a story. After a while she proposed a new life in the west of Ireland. I was to take my second and last career break from the public service.

Burren Wall, Autumn Colours
We came to County Clare for the music but we stayed for lots of other reasons as well. I made a slow, uncertain start to life in the west without my permanent, pensionable job. However, I finally drummed up the confidence to launch a small rural business, Heart of Burren Walks. I became a full-time walking tourism operator. Eimer and I spent a month on the Fanore coast when we arrived in Clare. That was followed by a couple of years in the Burren interior, in the hills near the village of Carran. Home for the last nine years has been Kilnaboy. It is situated in the south-east of the Burren. I have the good fortune that the Burren National Park is located in Kilnaboy. It is one of only six National Parks in the Republic of Ireland and is magnificent walking country.
My working year extends largely from April to September. Thankfully May to August are four very busy months. April and September are so called “shoulder months”. A longer working year would be more attractive financially but might drain my energy levels. So I am quite happy with the shorter year as I can give it my very best shot.
The job is quite a privilege. My workplace is the outdoors in the Burren – a region of austere and natural beauty which is exceedingly rich in heritage.  Moreover, I meet people from all over the planet – a truly cosmopolitan job even though there is no foreign travel involved. Finally, the most exciting aspect of the work is the journey for knowledge i.e. learning new things. There is every discipline on the Burren hills from Archaeology to Zoology. It is a library without end, amen. It  is pure exciting any time I learn new things about the landscape. The jigsaw will never be complete but the thrill is joining pieces together from time to time. To paraphrase the outstanding contemporary Irish poet Thomas Kinsella – I read the landscape with what grace I can/Not young, and not renewable, but man.
My main interest in the region is the holy wells, sacred sites and pilgrim paths.  The Burren is a very rich penitential landscape and a lot of the archaeology of pilgrimage remains intact. I have written one book “The Burren and the Aran Islands A Walking Guide” (Collins Press ; 2009). A revised edition reached the shops this August.
Eimer and I have two sons now. They are Seanán Thokozani (7 years) and Oisín Alfonso (3 years). Eimer lived in Malawi for three years. Thokozani means “we thank you” in Chichewa, one of Malawi’s two official languages. Oisín’s second name is Alfonso as form of homage to his grand dad, the charismatic insurance salesman he never met.

1)       Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in the north of Italy. Matera is in the Basilicata region in the south of the country
2)      Italy has 50 UNESCO World Heritage Sites – more than any other country in the world. There are two sites in the Republic of Ireland – Sceilig Mhichíl (Skellig Michael), County Kerry and Brú Na Bóinne (archaeological ensemble on the river Boyne), County Meath
3)     Cicerone – a person who conducts and informs sightseers ; a tour guide. Origin – after Cicero alluding to his eloquence and erudition.
4)     The Republic of Ireland’s five other National Parks are Connemara, Wicklow, Glenveagh (Donegal), Killarney and Ballycroy (Mayo).
5)     Thomas Kinsella, poet, was born in 1928. “The integrity of his remarkable career is confirmed in the two sides of his work, the translations from the Irish language and the significant and singular achievement of his own poetry.” Maurice Harmon, Professor Emeritus, Anglo-Irish Literature, U.C.D. The Collected Poems 1956-1994 by Thomas Kinsella is published in the series Oxford Poets.
6)    Malawi is known as “The Warm Heart of Africa”. Malawian English is the country’s second official language

A Winter Solstice Day in the Burren

Clearing Fog, Mullagh More

Winter Solstice Day 2012

Over the years it had become a tradition for me to spend the winter solstice day in the Burren. The atmosphere on those dark midwinter days is quite special in the Burren. It is almost as if the landscape itself is taking a rest before the days grow longer again and the busy spring time arrives.
Unfortunately I had missed those yearly trips for the past two years so I was determined to make it this year. In addition Tony has lined up a few new stories for this blog, all that is missing are some images.

Eagle's Rock

The cliffs of  Eagle’s Rock

I started the day at Eagle’s Rock. The cliffs were shrouded in mist and fog, it was near calm and the sun tried to make an appearance through the clouds hanging over Turloughmore Mountain to the south-east. The scene was painted in the warm tones of a Burren winter: The yellow of the grasses, the rich brown of the bracken, the brownish grey of the hazel and in between the skeletal figures of lone ash trees and dark grey, almost black, stretches of limestone pavement.

Feral Goats (Capra Hircus)

Feral Goats

Rusty Back Fern (Ceterach officinarum)

Keeping it up during the winter: Rusty Back Fern

As so often I lost track of time between walking, watching and making a few images. I spent quite a while with a group of feral goats, me watching them, them watching me. These goats are descendants of farm animals possibly dating back to neolithic times. Today they are the gardeners of the Burren, keeping shrubs and other vegetation down and so making it possible for the Burren wildflowers to thrive.
The peace unfortunately was broken by people walking their dog. The dog wasn’t on a leash so it wasn’t all that surprising what happened next: Dog chasing the goats. I spare you any of my thoughts on that. All I will say is that I don’t blame the dog.
So I walked on in the footsteps of the goats across the limestone pavement and through the hazel scrub. In the end I got totally sidetracked and by the time I was back at the car it was way past midday.

Eagle's Rock

Eagle’s Rock, hazel scrub and ash tree

Burren National Park

Flooded hazel forest

A perfect midwinter day but unfortunately the images for Tony’s stories have to wait another while (sorry Tony…).

Tony and myself wish you all a very happy Christmas and a good start into the new year. See you on the other side.

Images & text: Carsten Krieger


Burren Forest

The hazel woodland in summer

Orange Route start/finish: Gortlecka Cross Roads, Burren National Park, Kilnaboy.
Description: Way marked trail with orange arrows suitable for most levels of fitness. Highlights include a turlough, mature ash/hazel woodland, flower-rich grasslands and some fine views of the National Park’s iconic hill, Mullaghmore.
Distance 1.3 km (0.8 mile).
Map: The Burren – a two inch map of the uplands of north-west Clare. Folding Landscapes. Scale 1:31680 or Discovery Series Map No 51. Ordnance Survey of Ireland, 1:50 000

Common Twayblade (Listera ovata) and Common Spotted Orchid (Dact

Orchids in the ‘flower-rich grassland’

The first two fields you walk through are very rich and diverse in wildflower species and are defined as flower-rich grasslands. Horses and ponies graze in the fields in winter thus preventing the encroachment of the surrounding hazel woodland. The horses and ponies are an uncommon sight in the hills in winter as it is primarily cattle which are transferred to altitude from November to April each year. Hay may be saved on occasion in these meadows but only after the flowers have gone to seed. The fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) and the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) are two of the most spectacular flowers here in summer with their remarkable exercises in insect mimicry.

On leaving the second field you may notice a quarry – a reminder of the abandoned National Park Visitor Centre and car park project of the 1990s. Proceed along a path through woodland and pass through a metal gate into grasslands. 
If you look north-west here you will get a striking view of the iconic Mullaghmore hill. The great expanses of limestone pavement on the hill have been exposed by glaciation and over-exuberant farming in pre-history. It is ironic that the wealth of geology, flora and archaeology in the region are in part due to ancient “agri-vandalism”. The Burren is a highly paradoxical landscape brilliantly summarized in the cartographer/essayist Tim Robinson’s words “it’s (the Burren’s) austere beauty is the result of millennia of abuse”.

You enter mature hazel/ash woodland which is home to such mammals as badgers, red squirrels and pine martens. There are an estimated 70,000 badgers in Ireland. The animal’s feeding behaviour is very similar to that of the badger in Spain and Italy. Mammalians believe the badger was introduced to Ireland by prehistoric farming communities migrating northwards via the Bay of Biscay. 
The pine marten is Ireland’s most elusive land mammal. It is largely nocturnal. The marten population plummeted during the notorious 17th century deforestation program. However, its numbers are on the rise again in the west of Ireland.

Forest Path, Winter

The path through the hazel woodland in winter

You will reach a clearing in the woodland on your left hand side. In summer it may be recognizable as a dry depression with a very interesting mix of aquatic plants including purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), water mint (Mentha aquatica) and mudwort (Limosella aquatica). The depression fills with water in periods of high rainfall, (mainly winter). Groundwater wells up from below and a temporary lake (Knockaunroe turlough) is formed. Scarce plants nationally such as shrubby cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa) and purgative buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus) prosper at the turlough margins. Dragonflies and damselflies are quite common around turloughs. Ireland is home to 13 dragonfly and 11 damselfly species. Dragonflies are much faster in flight than damselflies.

You soon re-enter the woodland. Almost all the woodland along the trail was coppiced in the past. The long straight shoots of hazel are evidence of the ancient tradition.
 Coppicing is a sustainable method of woodland management which in Ireland’s case dates back to the Neolithic farmers (4000-2400 B.C.). The method exploits the ability of many species of trees to grow new shoots from their stump if cut down. Nearly all broadleaf trees will grow back when coppiced. Ash and hazel grow back very vigorously.

Coppicing was a thriving industry in the Burren in the past – producing slim poles for fencing, charcoal, thatching rods, walking sticks, stakes for hedge laying, firewood and much, much more. It fell out of fashion here in the 20th century because of labour costs and cheaper imports.

Forest Floor, The Burren

Forest floor in early spring

The Burren mosaic of limestone pavement and thin soil is evolving in to woodland because of lack of human pressure i.e. the decline of two traditional economic activities – upland farming in winter and coppicing.

The trail opens out onto species rich-grasslands. Devil’s bit scabious (Succisa pratensis) blooms in great profusion in late summer/early autumn. Its tall, purple flower heads make for a wonderful spectacle. Mullaghmore comes in to view again as you land back at the trailhead.


The orange trail is short and does not feature the region’s iconic limestone pavement. However, it is very rewarding as high points include a rare eco-system in Knockaunroe turlough and an outstanding example of mature, native woodland. Another bonus is that the trail is one of the least trafficked in the region. Happy feet!

Text: Tony Kirby / Images: Carsten Krieger

X-PO Kilnaboy

A X-PO Christmas

Christmas time at the X-PO Kilnaboy

“The most social place of all was the crossroads here outside the Killinaboy (1) post office. There was a huge tree and it was under that big tree people used to meet on a summer evening and we’d play pitch-and-toss (2) and the older people would be talking about farming and local topics or who was getting married, who was born or who was dying. I was only in my teenage years then”. These are the words of the late Vincent Lahiffe. Vincent was a native Killinaboy with a great fondness for remembrance of things past.
The tree at the crossroads has long since been cut down and most of the pitchers and tossers have passed away. Moreover, the other great social hub at the cross, the post office (P.O.), is no more either. It was closed down in 2002.
The Killinaboy P.O. closure is part of a bigger picture of the long, slow death of the rural post office. 310 post offices were closed in the period 2005 -2014. According to an Irish Postmasters’ Union statement this autumn, the government plans to soon close another 400 of the 1,100 post offices still trading.
The decimation of the network is taking place despite the fact that even our political masters accept that the post office is a key national resource – a very valuable social space as well as a centre of commerce. 

With the demise in 2002 of the post office as a commercial and civic space, Killinaboy cross was largely reduced to a junction for passing cars. That was until local artist Deirdre O’Mahony reopened the post office as a community and arts space in 2007. She cleverly christened the “new” space X-PO.

Deirdre O'Mahony / Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark Project

Deirdre O’Mahony and Mattie Rynne

Deirdre also set about archiving as much information as possible about the former postmaster John Martin “Mattie” Rynne. The post office was Rynne’s working and living space but the world was his oyster. At night he would listen to short wave radio and teach himself languages. By all accounts he was a private, sensitive man with a great thirst for knowledge about the big world.

Deirdre made a large wall-drawing of Mattie above the stove in the living room. It was in fact soot from the stove which was used in the drawing of the portrait. Locals say the drawing bears a remarkable likeness to the man himself. Mattie is now a giant at the shoulder of all who walk into his former home.
Since 2008 X-PO has been run by a team from the local community (including Deirdre O’Mahony). The X-PO activists are an interesting mix of long-term locals and “newcomers”. As of autumn 2017, X-PO plays host to a singers’ club on Monday evenings. A mapping group meets in the space every Wednesday. There is a film night once monthly as well as a monthly heritage talk. There are field trips in the spring and the core programme is supplemented by one-off X-PO events.

Singer, Kilnaboy

Singing circle at the X-PO

The mapping group, (Brendan Beakey, John Kelleher, Francis Whelan and Seán Whelan), has been meeting at X-PO on a weekly basis since the space opened in 2007. Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the group thus far is the tracing in map form of the history of human occupancy in the 51 townlands (4) of the parish of Killinaboy over the last 150 years. The group drew on local knowledge and documentary sources to complete the monumental exercise in community mapping. 
The end result was the subject of an exhibition in the Courthouse Gallery in 2012 

The October and November 2017 film evenings feature rare public screenings. The October film was “Tim Robinson: Connemara” (2011), a portrait of the great landscape writer and mapmaker, by Pat Collins of Harvest Films. The film focuses especially on Robinson’s extraordinary Connemara trilogy of books (3). The highly acclaimed British nature writer Robert Macfarlane has called the trilogy ‘one of the most remarkable non-fiction projects undertaken in English’.

 The November screening is “The Revenge of the Mekons” (2013) – a Joe Angio documentary on the genre-defying cult band The Mekons, who have been together almost 40 years. The Corofin-based Lu Edmonds is a member of the group and will present the film on the evening. 
The X-PO is open from October to May each year. John Martin “Mattie” Rynne, former postmaster of Killinaboy and citizen of the world, looks on contentedly. Come and see.

• Killinaboy is the most south-easterly parish in the Burren region. It is home to one of only six national parks in the Republic of Ireland – the Burren National Park.

• Pitch-and-toss is a gambling game in which the player who manages to throw a coin closest to a mark gets to toss all the coins – winning those that land with the head up.

• Tim Robinson’s Connemara trilogy is “Listening to the Wind” (2006), “The Last Pool of Darkness” (2008) and “A Little Gaelic Kingdom” (2011). Publisher is Penguin Ireland.

• A townland is the smallest officially recognized geographical unit in Ireland. It is smaller than a barony, parish or county. There are estimated to be over 60,000 townlands altogether on the island of Ireland. The smallest is less than an acre (2,700 square metres) in size. The largest is more than 7,000 acres (28.3 square kilometres).

Text: Tony Kirby / Images: Carsten Krieger

Holy Wells – Shrines of Redemption

Burren Nature Sanctuary Turlough

The cult of water in Ireland can be traced back to the Bronze Age (c. 2000-600 BC) at least. Many sacrificial deposits have been found in our lakes and rivers dating from that period. This form of religious expression to the gods continued into the Iron Age (c.600 BC – 400 AD). The most spectacular water find from the Iron Age is the Loughnashade trumpets. Four sheet-bronze trumpets were found in Loughnashade lake in County Armagh.

At some point our ancestors began to express public worship at small-scale water shrines known as holy wells. However, their precise origins remain obscure and can be hotly contested. Only a limited number of wells have been excavated and the findings have not shed convincing light on the vexed subject of their origins.

There are more than 3,200 holy wells recorded in Ireland – a staggering total. The eminent folklorist Criostóir Mac Cárthaigh (School of Folklore, University College Dublin) attributes the dense concentration to two factors. The first is the central role of cosmology in Ancient Ireland. Secondly, Mac Cárthaigh points out that the wells were important outposts of religious expression for Roman Catholics during the period of religious suppression in Ireland (late 17th to early 19th century).
Holy wells can have three diagnostic features. They are the divine water, the blessed tree and the stone. The latter may have a functional use in well house construction whereas a single stone may have magical properties defined by its particular shape. The blessed tree can spirit away ailments of the well habitués. However, the diagnostic features of tree and stone do not feature at all wells.

The holy well is a shrine of redemption – both spiritual and physical. People frequent wells for penitential reasons i.e. to seek forgiveness for their sins. Moreover, they visit them to seek healing from various ailments. Individual wells are renowned for cures for specific ailments associated with body and mind including eyes, warts, back, infertility and mental illness.
People also visited wells to socialize. The holy well has been the focus of great outdoor assemblies especially on the feast day of the saint to whom the particular well is dedicated. The dates of these patterns (patrún) most often occur in late July. This period corresponds with the pre-Christian festival of Lughnasa (the god of light) and the celebration of harvest.

The holy well has played a central role in the spiritual and social lives of the Irish for several centuries. The well was an especially important part of agrarian folk tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries. Though well worship is still robust at a small number of sites, the overall picture is one of dramatic decline in the last 150 years or so. Many wells are physically neglected now and the oral lore associated with them is dying with our elders.
One could argue that our ancestors’ instinctive reverence of water is still relevant today as mankind lurches from one water crisis to another.

Text: Tony Kirby / Images: Carsten Krieger