A Peak at the Past

Steve MacDonogh, author and publisher of Brandon Books, was recuperating from pneumonia in March 1981 when he set out to climb Mount Brandon in search of the Iron Age fort which he suspected was up there somewhere. So it wasn't just the exciteement of the archaeology buff which took his breath away when he broke into a stumbling run on sighting a wall MacDonogh has just written A Visittor's Guide To The Dingle Peninsula (Brandon, £3.50), an aid to the enjoyment of one of the most beautiful and stimulating areas of the country.

A couple of years earlier MacDonogh had identified a previously unrecoggnised small coastal promontory fort near Minard, a few miles east of Dingle. A little later a local archaeologist had identified Bull's Head, near Dingle, as a much larger promontory fort. Both sites had been missed by the Orddnance Survey and by the 19th Cenntury archaeologist of promontory forts, T. 1. Westropp.

Only three examples of Iron Age hilltop promontory forts had been previously identified, one at Caherrconree, at the eastern boundary of the Dingle Peninsula, and the other two in Antrim. MacDonogh believed that the Dingle area had been the scene of a great deal of activity in the period to which such forts are dated, the Iron Age, although very little archaeological attention has been paid to it.

It was folklore archives which led MacDonogh up the slopes of Brandon. Poring over thousands of pages of folkklore material in UCD he came across a reference to "two strong stone walls" at a summit "North West of Slieve Bronach". "We call them the ports, they must have been built there. in time of war."

MacDonogh drove to the foot of Mount Brandon and at the last house in the townland of Faha in the parish of Cloghane enquired about the hill above and was told that there were two walls up there.

Later, 2,500 feet above sea level in an area known as Benagh, he found the fort, close to the summit of Mount Brandon. The first wall was seven feet thick, seven feet high and 350 feet long .. It stood on a knife-edge ridge, one side of a triangular promontory, the other two sides beingysteep cliffs. A simple entrance led into the ennclosure and 150 yards from the wall, and parallel with it, MacDonogh saw the second wall.

Archaeologist Barry Raftery, who has made a special study of the Iron Age and of hill forts in particular, accompanied MacDonogh on a return journey to the fort in 1984 and connfirmed that this was a promontory fort of the same kind as Caherconree.

MacDonogh believes the fort at Benagh may have been a ritual centre in the Iron Age. Of no discern able military use, it may have been a place of inauguration, assembly and ritual. Below the peak of Benagh, in the wall of a ruined church in Cloghane , is a stone head said to· be a pre-Christian representation of Crom Dubh, a pagan deity, which was ritually buried at a hilltop site with the first fruits of harvest.

MacDonogh believes that the disscovery throws new light on the development of early Christian settleements in the South-west. While it is often suggested that the early Christtians chose the area out of a wish to get closer tQ God by getting further from human society, the opposite may be the case. On a major trade route from neolithic times, the region boasted a substantial export trade in halberds and the like in the Bronze Age.

Rather than being an isolated, underpopulated area, it was, in times when the sea provided easier routes of communication and trade than the land, a developed part of the country, full of all kinds of human activity. The early Christian settlements were based on a firm Iron Age foundation.

The spectacular beauty of the area is more than skin deep. •