In the townland of Oughtihery, Rylane stands a prehistoric monument. The location could hardly be more spectacular, on the north-facing slopes of Carrigagour, against the stunning backdrop of Musheramore and the Boggeragh Mountains. Today, this monument is covered in heather and can be easily missed, blending as it does into the hilly terrain, and visited only by sheep. This location was carefully chosen by the builders, for this is a funerary monument, and a ring-barrow. It was built long ago, possibly for ceremonial purposes and/or to house the remains of relations and ancestors.
Ring-barrows are low circular mounds or platforms, enclosed by banks and fosses (ditches). Their diameters are usually between 4 metres/13 feet and 20 metres/66 feet, and heights rarely exceed 1 metre/3 feet. Ring-barrows can be found on their own, or grouped in clusters; they are often associated with other prehistoric monuments; and some continued to be used for burial rituals over an extended period of time.
Evidence from excavated ring-barrows indicates that cremation was the burial rite practised. Burials are usually found in the central mound/platform area, or in the fosse. Occasionally, grave goods accompany remains, such as pins, beads, or fibulae (brooches/clasps). Burial deposits can sometimes be enclosed in a cist (a type of stone box). It is also not unusual to find no evidence of burial following excavation, an example being Leckaneen ring-barrow in Aghabullogue. Perhaps the lack of evidence is due to some ring-barrows having purely ceremonial purposes, or perhaps acidity of the soil has long dissolved any bone remains which once existed.
The origins of ring-barrows appear to lie in the Bronze Age, but extend all the way to the late Iron Age (c. 2400 BC – 400 AD / 2400 BCE – 400 CE). In county Cork there are other types of barrow (such as ditch-barrows and embanked-barrows) but these are rare, and the majority are classed as ring-barrows. In Aghabullogue parish, ten ring-barrows have been recorded. There may have been others, destroyed during land reclamation, or otherwise lost to time.
Officially, 112 ring-barrows are currently recorded in county Cork. The ten Aghabullogue ring-barrows (located within five townlands) make up a substantial number of those found in mid-Cork, and form part, at the south-eastern end, of a large group circling the Boggeragh Mountains. Of the ten, four were located in the townland of Mountrivers; three in Rylane townland; and one each in Glenaglogh South, Leckaneen and Oughtihery townlands respectively.
The four ring-barrows in Mountrivers were clustered close together. This possibly indicates considerable human activity in this immediate area, over an extended period of time. One of the ring-barrows is still in reasonable condition, is circular with a raised platform, and has a diameter of fourteen metres. Nearby and to the north-west are the visible remains of another (which once had a laneway running through it) and of which only the western side survives). Between both of these ring-barrows was another, with an area of its bank still visible as a low rise. A fourth, no longer visible, was located a short distance to the north-west, and is indicated as an arc on the 1840s-surveyed Ordnance Survey map.
A short distance to the east is the townland of Rylane, having three recorded ring-barrows. All that remains to be seen of two of these three is uneven ground at both sites, but we are fortunate to have depictions of them from Ordnance Survey maps, and descriptions of both exist dating to 1939. In that year, P. J. Hartnett conducted his survey of ‘antiquities’ in East Muskerry for an MA Thesis at University College Cork. Included in his survey were ring-barrows in Aghabullogue parish. Hartnett describes these two Rylane ring-barrows as circular raised platforms with seven metre diameters, and external earthen banks. Interestingly, the landowner told Hartnett that ‘gold diggers’ had dug a hole in the centre of the more northerly ring-barrow. Many Irish people would purposely avoid interfering with, or even entering these ancient structures, but obviously these particular individuals had no fear of the inhabitants! The third ring-barrow in Rylane still exists to this day, surrounded by trees. It is again circular with a slightly raised platform, having a diameter of eleven metres, and is enclosed by a fosse. Hartnett during his survey noticed stones protruding from the interior of this ring-barrow, and he speculated these were possibly the remains of a cist-like structure.
To the west is Glenaglogh South townland, with one recorded ring-barrow. This was described as a circular area, with a diameter of 13.5 metres, and enclosed by a low earthen bank of only 0.2 metres. The ring-barrow at Oughtihery is also circular, with a slightly raised platform, having a diameter of about 5 metres, and is enclosed by a fosse and low external bank. Hartnett says Oughtihery was locally known as a ‘lios’ (a name attributed to ringforts, which are essentially medieval enclosed farmsteads). Due to its shape, locals may have long thought that it was a ringfort, but of course the probable age and true purposes of Oughtihery ring-barrow were very different to this.
Finally, to the south we have Leckaneen ring-barrow, near the village of Aghabullogue. In 1990 it was excavated by local archaeologist Jane O’Shaughnessy. Leckaneen is unique, being possibly the only excavated ring-barrow in mid-Cork. This circular area, with a diameter of eleven metres, was defined by a fosse and an outer earthen bank of over one metre. The excavation concentrated on a central part of the interior and the north-eastern quadrant. No evidence of burials or artefacts was found (which is not unusual for excavated ring-barrows). However, under the outer bank was found a circular ‘hearth-like’ feature, with small heat-shattered stones. Charcoal from the hearth-like feature yielded a radiocarbon date of about 1200 BC / 1200 BCE, placing it firmly in the middle of Bronze Age Ireland.
These ring-barrows, and the many other prehistoric monuments to be found, both in Aghabullogue parish and mid-Cork in general, remind us of the vibrant population in this area, extending over thousands of years. One can only imagine members of the local community standing at Oughtihery ring-barrow, possibly in Bronze Age times, for ceremonial purposes and/or to deposit the remains of loved ones or ancestors. This to them was a sacred place, just as churches and graveyards are to us today. Here their attention was drawn to the mountains to the north, which they considered important; possibly even sacred … Musheramore and Mullaghanish to the west. Perhaps here, on the heights of Carrigagour, it was intended that the spirits of the departed, while focusing on these important mountains, could at the same time watch over their descendants and the local prehistoric communities, as they lived in the hills and valleys below.
P. David Sweetman (ed.), Archaeological Inventory of County Cork Volume 3: Mid Cork (Stationery Office, Dublin, 1997)
P. Walsh (ed.), Archaeological Inventory of County Cork Volume 5 (Stationery Office, Dublin, 2009)
Archaeological Survey Database, National Monuments Service website http://webgis.archaeology.ie/historicenvironment/ (accessed 8 May 2018)
P. J. Hartnett, A Survey of the Antiquities in the Barony of East Muskerry (unpublished MA Thesis, UCC, 1939)