An Irish Timescape
By Michael Gibbons | Photography by Mark Furniss
‘On a day of bright sky, when the hills are of that intoxicating misty blue that belongs especially to the west, the bogland is a lovely far-reaching expanse of purple and rich brown, and the lakelets take on the quite indescribable colour that comes from clear sky reflected in bog-water, while the sea-inlets glow with an intense but rather greener blue. On such a day the wanderer will thank his lucky star that it has brought him to Connemara’.
— Robert Lloyd Praeger, The Way That I Went
The Connemara Landscape
Ireland’s west coast, one of the finest wilderness areas surviving in Europe today, remains a bastion of traditional landscape and culture. The history of this landscape is ancient, as it has taken over 750 million years to evolve. Its geology is one of the most complex and interesting in Europe. More recently, the landscape has been shaped by a series of ice ages, or glaciations. The last cold period, when the mountains known as the Twelve Bens were topped by sheets of ice, ended only twelve thousand years ago. With the melting of the ice sheets, the area was rapidly colonised by flora and fauna, then finally by man. The sea levels rose rapidly, separating Ireland from Britain and the European continent, and the creation of the Irish Sea prevented the migration of cattle, horses, sheep, deer, and snakes to Ireland, though St Patrick is credited with the banishing of snakes and demons from Ireland.
First Settlers (10,000 Years Ago)
The first to arrive were small bands of nomadic hunter–gatherer groups, who crossed the Irish Sea in large dugout canoes. On arrival, with few mammals to hunt, they instead lived off fish, especially salmon and eel, as well as large flocks of fowl and protein-rich hazelnuts, which were abundant in the largely forested area. These nomadic people left little in the way of surviving remains except for their rubbish dumps (midden sites), which consist of layers of burnt stone, shell, and ash. The winter storms of 2014 that battered the Connemara coast revealed a whole series of these sites, together with numerous stone axes and the remains of ancient forests long buried in peat. One of these sites exposed on a beautiful beach on the Renvyle Peninsula is almost seven thousand years old.
First Farmers and Their Tombs (c.6,000 Years Ago)
The nomadic hunter–gatherers were in time engulfed by more technologically advanced farming communities that cleared the woods and cultivated the land. By 5,800 years ago, they were building a variety of large stone tombs to house their dead. Many are still found throughout north-west Connemara, and some are partially entombed in peat bogs. In local tradition, they are known as the beds of Dermot and Gráinne, mythological figures from the Irish Iron Age, three thousand years after the tombs were built. One of the intact tombs was discovered high up on Tully Mountain, where it commands a huge ocean and mountain panorama. The other four tombs in the area are located on some of the best land and survive today because of the historic reluctance of local people to interfere with them.
From Stone to Metal (c.4,500 Years Ago)
New ideas and ritual practices arrived around 4,500 years ago, and these Bronze Age people left us an equally impressive legacy of monuments consisting of spectacularly sited standing stones. Some of these were constructed as part of an elaborate cult related to events surrounding the changes of the year, and many were erected over the cremated remains of tribal elders. Quantities of gold were mined from the rich ore deposits in the Connemara and Mayo Mountains, and exquisite gold artefacts were fashioned from the raw ore. Soapstone deposits were also exploited along the north Connemara coast and used to make moulds for casting metal cooking utensils and net sinkers. A soapstone mould for bronze axe heads was found in the beautiful townland of Culfin on the north Connemara coast.
The Connemara landscape changed again between 1100 BC and AD 500. Great blanket bogs developed over much of the uplands and squeezed the population into a narrow, fertile strip along the coast. Huge stone and earthen forts were built, some in the most extraordinary cliff-edge locations, like the fort at Caheradoona at the tip of the Renvyle Peninsula.
Early Christian Ireland (c.1,500 Years Ago)
Though Ireland remained pagan and outside the Roman world, it did eventually adopt the new Christian tradition introduced by Patrick the Briton. Numerous pagan Celtic wells, trees, and mountains were absorbed by the seemingly all-powerful Christian faith, including Croagh Patrick, which is visible across the sea from the Renvyle Peninsula. The nearby islands of Caher, Crump, and Inishbofin all have important early monasteries.
Viking Raiders (c.1,200 Years Ago)
These rich monastic islands fell prey to marauding Viking fleets in the ninth and tenth centuries. However, the Vikings were defeated by the people of Connemara. A lone Viking warrior’s grave and armour were discovered after a storm at Eyrephort in west Connemara, a stark reminder of their failed attempts at conquest in the west.
Norman Invasion (c.900 Years Ago)
Though much of Ireland was conquered by the English in 1169, Connemara remained a bastion of Gaelic culture dominated by the powerful O’Flaherty and O’Malley sea lords, with Grace O’Malley being the most famous of these. One of their castles still survives as a dramatic ruin overlooking the sea. In 1588, the castle at Renvyle hosted survivors of the ill-fated Spanish Armada, whose ships had sunk in the rough waters nearby. Most of these men were handed over to the English, who later executed them. (The swarthy good looks of the Connemara people do not come from intermarriage with these particular Spanish visitors.)
Final Destruction of Gaelic Ireland (c.400 Years Ago)
The western islands and mountains were the last strongholds to fall to the English during the Cromwellian Wars. Following their capture, star-shaped forts were built on Inishbofin and on the Aran Islands. The Gaelic lords, defeated and broken by the wars of the 1650s, were evicted from their lands and fled to France in huge numbers, to be replaced by an influx of new landowners from the east in what became known as Cromwell’s policy of ‘To Hell or to Connacht’.
The Great Famine (c.150 Years Ago)
The eighteenth century saw more settled and prosperous times. Smuggling of wool, wine, and tobacco to France and Spain had developed, while the wrecking of ships was also widely practiced. The population increased steadily in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries but collapsed amid the horrors of famine and mass emigration to America, Canada, Britain, and Argentina. Haunting reminders of these times are found in the many deserted farms and potato fields that are scattered throughout the Renvyle Peninsula.