Travel & Tourist Guide to The Dingle Peninsula (Corca Dhuibhne) - Ireland


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Archaeological and Historical Background

dingle ireland history

Introduction

The absence of any recognisable monuments of the Neolithic Period (c. 4000-2000 B.C.) from the Dingle Peninsula, and from much of south-west Ireland in general, has, until recently, given rise to the view that the area remained unsettled until the arrival of the wedge-tomb builders in the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age. However, a new picture is emerging as a result of recent research. It now seems likely that there were extensive Mesolithic communities in the south-west, and also that agriculture was introduced into the area possibly as early as elsewhere in Ireland. Pollen analysis carried out at Cashelkeelty in South Kerry suggests human activity in that area, including some cereal cultivation, during the Neolithic Period between 3895 b.c. and 2965 b.c. (Lynch 1981a), and field-work in the Blackwater valley in Co. Cork indicates that Early Mesolithic hunter/gatherers had penetrated that area before 6000 B.C. (Woodman, Duggan and McCarthy 1984, 9). On the Dingle Peninsula, recent excavations at Ferriter's Cove (5) have revealed evidence of settlement that appears to be essentially Mesolithic in character. Radiocarbon dates from the sites here range from 3670 b.c. to 3240 b.c., and the basic stone tool industry resembles the Later Mesolithic traditional of north-east Ireland, though the tools were manufactured mainly from local rhyolites rather than from flint.

In view of the evidence for agricultural activity elsewhere in Kerry during the Neolithic Period, it is possible that agricultural communities were also present on the Dingle Peninsula at that time. However, no sites of a Neolithic character have as yet been recognised in the area. The date and cultural context of the 8 pre-bog field systems identified during this present survey are not yet known. The association of some with wedge-tombs, standing stones and rock art (24, 25 and 29) may indicate an Early Bronze Age date (c. 2000-1400 B.C.), but it is also possible that some may have an earlier origin. In relation to this, it is interesting to note that a pre-bog field wall at Emlagh, on Valencia Island in south-west Kerry, appears to be older than 2650 b.c. (Mitchell 1985).

In contrast to the as yet meagre evidence for Mesolithic and Neolitic settlement on the Dingle Peninsula, Bronze Age activity is represented by a wealth of monuments of various types. It has already been suggested above that some of the pre-bog sites may represent the farms and settlements of these Bronze Age peoples, and it may be that the fidachta fiadh also relate to settlement of this period. However, the majority of the monuments are ritual or funerary. In Ireland, the Neolithic custom of building great stone tombs to house the dead continued into the Bronze Age. Megalithic tombs of the wedge-tomb class, probably dating to the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age, are particularly numerous in south-west Ireland. Ten have been discovered on the Dingle Peninsula, two of these sited within pre-bog field systems (24 and 25). Who their builders were, and what their relationship was to the earlier inhabitants of the area, is not yet clear. It has been suggested that they came from Brittany, attracted by the potential for copper exploitation in the south-west (0 Ríordáin 1979, 11; Ó Nualláin 1979, 15), but this is by no means certain, and the tombs may be a native Irish development. Equally uncertain is their relationship with those responsible for the other Bronze Age monuments in the area. Until recently, no Bronze Age cist graves were known from Kerry, the distribution of this burial type in Ireland being generally eastern and northern, avoiding in particular the south-west (Waddell 1970b). However, a short cist grave was recently discovered at Pound, on the Iveragh Peninsula (Cleary, forthcoming), and a few possible examples have been noted on the Dingle Peninsula (see Miscellaneous Graves and Burials). The most numerous megalithic monument type in the area is the single standing stone. These were probably erected for a variety of purposes over a long period of time, but it is generally considered that the majority belong to the same megalithic traditional as the stone circles and alignments. Some may mark burials of a Bronze Age date, and the same may be true of the hill-top cairns at Dromavally (221) and Ballynahunt (217). The stone alignment builders were clearly aware of the more obvious events in the solar and lunar cycles and orientated their monuments on these events, though such observance would not have required any detailed scientific knowledge (Lynch 1981b, 23-7). The alignments at Ardamore (50) and Cloonsharragh (52) were orientated respectively on the setting sun at the winter solstice and the rising sun at the summer solstice. The generally south-western orientation of wedge-tomb entrances has also been noted (De Valera and 6 Nualláin 1982, 109). Another important group of monuments usually assigned to the Early Bronze Age consists of the 40 or so stones decorated with rock art motifs, mainly cup-marks and cup-and-circles. The knowledge of metalworking was introduced into Ireland about 2000 B.C.. The earliest metals used were copper, bronze and gold, the transition to the general use of iron occurring only during the last centuries of the 1st millenium B.C.. No copper mines have been located on the Dingle Peninsula, but stray finds of copper, bronze and gold objects have occurred. Amongst those objects which can be assigned to the Bronze Age are 2 flat copper axes from Kilballylahiff (NMI R1922:17) and Doonsheane(NMI P1948:1), 2 socketed bronze axeheads from Ballybowler (NMI 1944:275; see and Lispole (Archaeology Department, UCC), and 2 socketed bronze spearheads from near Anascaul (Archaeology Department, UCC) and from Slieve East (NMI 1966:109). The most spectacular of the Early Bronze Age objects is a gold lunula found at Ballinagroun (NMI IA/L/1964:1), near Inch (Day 1906, 136-8).

The Iron Age (c. 500 B.C. - 400 A.D.) is a particularly obscure period in the history of Corca Dhuibhne. In the absence of excavation, few sites can be definitely assigned to this period. The festival of Lughnasa appears to have been celebrated on the summit of Brandon Mountain by the pagan Celts, prior to the adoption of the site as a centre of Christian pilgrimage. The dramatically-sited inland promontory forts at Caherconree and Benagh may also have been tribal centres of the Early Iron Age, though their often mist-clad locations suggest that occupation may never have been of a permanent nature. It is interesting to note that both forts are located on important tribal boundaries of the early histoyic period. A carved stone head in the wall of the medieval church at Cloghane is considered by some to be comparable to other Irish stone heads of probable pagan Celtic date. Of the general settlement patterns and burial practices little is known. Ring-barrows may yet emerge as a common Iron Age burial type (Raftery 1981, 171-202), but individual examples have been dated as early as the Neolithic period. Some of the promontory forts which dot the coastline, particularly along the south and west sides of the peninsula (Fig. 63), may also have been constructed during the Iron Age.

The paucity of sites which can, with certainty, be assigned to the pre-Christian Iron Age contrasts markedly with the dense concentrations of both secular and ecclesiastical sites which are attributable to the succeeding Early Christian Period (c. 5th-12th century A.D.). Irish society at this time was tribal, rural, hierarchical, and familiar (Binchy 1954, 54). The country was divided into numerous overkingdoms, subkingdoms and minor local kingdoms, the basic political unit being the tuath ruled by the lowest order of king. The present barony of Corca Dhuibhne takes its name from the Corca Dhuibhne, a people who, during the early histoyic period, occupied both sides of Dingle Bay. The name of their eponymous ancestress, Duibhne (Dovinnias), occurs in several of the ogham inscriptions in the Barony. The majority of the 450 or so ringforts in the area represent the defended farmsteads of the strong farmers of the period, and at least some of the unenclosed beehive huts or clochauns may represent the settlements of the lower orders of society.

Christianity was first introduced into the south of Ireland probably in the late 4th century A.D., but it is not clear when it first reached the Dingle Peninsula. It has been suggested that the small enclosed church sites typical of the area may represent the earliest stratum of Irish monasticism, introduced in the 6th and 7th centuries (Fanning 1981, 160; Hamlin 1982, 292-3). The suggestion has also been made that some of the ecclesiastical sites at which ogham stones occur in southern Ireland may relate to the very early diocesan church which preceded the development of monasticism (Hamlin 1982, 285). Whatever their origin, these church sites, with their stone oratories, cross-slabs and dwelling huts, form an important group of monuments in the area, and include such well-known sites as Gallarus, Kilmalkedar and Reask. The majority probably finally went out of use in the 12th century when the church was reorganised and the new diocesan and parochial divisions introduced. A few were adopted as the sites of parish churches, and Kilmalkedar, particularly, developed as an important medieval church site, being the prebend of the Chancellor of Ardfert who may have resided there. The Romanesque church on the site was probably built shortly after 1134 A.D.
The Vikings appear to have had little impact on the archaeological record of the peninsula, though place-name evidence suggests their presence. The 2nd element in the name Smerwick represents the Scandinavian word for a village or hamlet, and An Seabhac (1939, 100) suggests that there may have been a Viking settlement in the townland of that name on the west side of Smerwick Harbour.

Possible Scandinavian origins have also been suggested for other place names in the area (Ó Conchúir 1973, 66-71).

In 1177, after the Norman invasion, the kingdom of Desmond was granted to Robert FitzStephen and Milo de Cogan (Curtis 1981, 61). However, these had not the resources to exploit the territory and it was not until about 1200 that the Anglo-Normans made any real incursions into Kerry. In that year, the Justiciar, Meiler FitzHenry, was granted extensive lands in Kerry, including Uí Fhearba, by King John, and the same king granted Aes Iorruis (the southern part of the peninsula) to Robert de Marisco (0 Conchúir 1973, 76). After the death of FitzHenry, the Munster Geraldines became his heirs and his lands passed to John FitzThomas, grandson of Maurice FitzGerald, one of the original invaders (Curtis, 78-9). In 1229 great estates in Desmond and across Waterford passed to John FitzThomas, laying the foundations for the great Geraldine Earldom of Desmond, of which Corca Dhuibhne formed a part (Dolley 1972, 129). The Knights of Kerry, a junior branch of the FitzGeralds, held extensive land on the Peninsula, under the Earls of Desmond, with Rahinnane (518), near Ventry, as their chief seat.

During the centuries following the arrival of the Normans, Dingle town (1011) became a thriving port, and the only walled town in Kerry, apart from Tralee. The street plan and burgage plots of the medieval town are still evident, but there are no visible remains of any medieval houses or of the 3 castles reputed to have existed there. Examples of medieval architecture can, however, be seen elsewhere on the peninsula. There are standing remains at about 10 of the medieval church sites, including the very fine, though ruined, parish churches at Stradbally and Killiney. The fortified residences or tower houses of the Anglo-Irish gentry of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries are represented by the relatively well-preserved castles at Minard (1009), Gallarus and Rahinnane, the latter located within an impressive earlier rath. Two medieval houses are associated with the ecclesiastical complex at Kilmalkedar . The settlements of the lower grades of society have not been identified, but at least some of the clochauns may date to this period.

The power of the Earls of Desmond was finally broken after the failure of the Desmond Rebellion, in the course of which the siege and massacre at Dún an Óir (1519) took place. After the death of Gearóid, Earl of Desmond, in 1583, his lands were declared forfeit to the crown and plans were drawn up for the Plantation of Munster.

dingle ireland history

This above information was sourced from the Archaeological Survey of the Dingle Peninsula (1986) and provided to dodingle.com courtesy of Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne. Republication of the extract or any part therin, in any form or capacity, is strictly prohibited without the express permission of the publishers. © Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne 1986-2010.

Archaeological survey of the Dingle Peninsula
Copies of the Survey are available in the bookshop of Músaem Chorca Dhuibhne,
Ballyferriter, tel. 066-9156333 (www.westkerrymuseum.com)

or
from Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne, tel. 066-9156100
(www.cfcd.ie/oidhreacht/foilseachain.asp).

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