By Gordon Kingston. Heritage Action’s Ireland correspondent
“Ignorance may excuse the uprooting of Pabell Llynwarch Pen near Bala around 1750 but not the demolition of Lissard and Kilboultreagh, both in Co. Cork, between 1963 and 1970.”
(Burl, A.  A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, Yale, 276. ISBN-13: 978-0300063318).
There’s a stone row that’s set high on the eastern side of a prominent hill in County Cork. The monument itself has no name, or credible folklore attached to it, but the name of the hill translates from the Irish as “Hill of the Great Crowd” or “Gathering”. Once tall, though now broken, it would have emboldened the skyline for a long stretch of the valley below.
While visiting there recently, I met the landowner and in the course of our conversation he dropped the following admission: It seems that, when he was a young man, his father had told him that the row of stones on his land had only been put there some years previously, as scratching posts for the cattle. An improbable and unwieldy arrangement of posts, of course, but this is what he said that he believed. When he took over the farm himself, in the 1980s, he got some contractors in to modernise the fields, taking down fences and so on and, being in the clearing frame of mind, he asked the digger-driver to dig up the row and drop it north into the side of the boundary wall. The driver, being either a sensible or a superstitious man, refused to move it. He told the farmer to look at his fine, big open fields and all the space he now had and suggested that he would be as well off leaving the stones alone.
Just pause a minute here and consider what he was talking about. This is one of only two rows, of three or more stones, in a wide area of the county. Comparable monuments have been tentatively dated to the years around 1500BC.* In praise or in terror, these same stones were raised high into the sky, a vital expression to those who formed it and one that then stood for three and a half thousand years. At which point, only a reluctant digger-driver, one that was courageous enough to go against the man that was paying his wage, was there to stop it being fecked into a ditch. This was less than 30 years ago. The farmer finished our conversation, but not before pointing eastwards towards another hill, the site of a recorded ring fort which was dug up and the ground levelled just a couple of years ago. A rich hobby farmer, who wanted a nice empty field. It would make you sick.
So, this is something that I’ve been musing on for a long time. There must be some simple ways for us, as ordinary people, to engage with landowners, ways to prompt them to look after the monuments on their land. Not a blind bit of use really, if they don’t care and just want their land cleared, but a weapon aimed, with hope as the trigger perhaps, towards these possessors of what they’d call “a few old rocks in the field”. It’s also, of course, specific to my own experience, to Ireland, where there are many thousands of seldom, or never, visited sites and where access to almost every one of them is through private property.
I’ve laid it out here as 4 points:
(1) Outside our control to some degree, but articles, television programmes and any type of discussion about megalithic monuments are helpful. It would be ideal if they were both sensible and responsible, but any mention has to be better than none. It all adds value to the ancient site, to what is a possession in the landowners’ minds.
This example, taken from a report on megalithomania.com concerning the circle at Templebryan, near Clonakilty, County Cork, is a reasonable illustration of what I’m thinking about: “I got talking to the farmer who said that after Grange Lios, in Limerick, was on the news he has studied the circle at sunrise and sunset at the cardinal times of year and seems to think there is an alignment, although he wasn’t too clear on which one it was.” The mid portal-axial declination of – 34.13 is very far, unfortunately, from a sunset at any time of the year and likewise for any sunrise in the opposite direction, but observe how this man’s own circle now seems to be firmly linked, for him, with one that was on nationwide television.**
Templebryan Stone Circle, a view over the internal quartz monolith, towards the axial stone
2) Whatever your views on the ownership of property and unless a site is obviously open access, permission should always be sought to enter private land. From the landowners’ point of view it is their property. They are the persons with the most power over the fate of the monument and must be made to feel part of its existence and examination. People nipping around their fields without leave will, more likely than not, tick them off and make them look to the ‘source’ of the problem.
Once again, from megalithomania.com and concerning the portal tomb at Ahaglaslin http://www.megalithomania.com/show/site/1130/Ahaglaslin.htm near Rosscarbery, County Cork: “A small note about the farmer – The first time I visited here he was really kind and showed me where the site was. This time he seemed to be very aggressive, but eventually let us visit the site. He wasn’t in the kind of mood where I wanted to ask him anything, but I suspect he may be a little annoyed at people visiting the site from the road below and not asking him. Please, whenever possible always ask to visit sites.” Or the following, from themodernantiquarian.com regarding Appletreewick stone circle in Yorkshire: “The TMA Eds have received an email from Miles Johnson, the Countryside Archaeological Adviser for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority. He wishes to remind people that the circle at Fancarl Top is on private land not covered by the CRoW open access Act. The landowner contacted him because people trespassing to get to the circle were damaging the surrounding drystone walls. The landowner was also unhappy that the stones had been ‘inappropriately decorated’ by people accessing the field without asking for his permission. Although Mr Johnson wished us to remove the circle from the website, we would respectfully suggest that it would be better left on here with this note attached, in order that anyone using TMA to identify visitable sites will then know and understand the landowner’s wishes (unfortunately this will not influence the trespassing of people who do not use this website). TMA Ed.”
Notice on the gate at Carrigagrenane SW Stone Circle
(3) If possible, have a quick chat with them. Ask them how many people come to visit the site, or if they know any history about it. Tell them what you know about it and, very important this, roughly how old it is. It’s a good way to make the owners feel proud of their monument, if they realise that other people value it, or discover that it’s of great antiquity. Above all, make sure they know and know that you know that they know that it is not just a few rocks thrown in the middle of the field.
This kind of ‘direct’ engagement is vital. I’ve often encountered farmers, as above, who don’t know, or claim that they don’t know what it is exactly that they have on their land. If they can self-classify a megalithic monument as something piled up only fifty or a hundred years ago, for cattle-scratching or clearance, then it is very simple to bulldoze it, guilt-free, into the fence. On the other hand, it’s impossible to miss the tone in the voice of others, as they tell you of groups that have come to see their stones, or people that have studied them. Again, when they ask you if you need to know anything about them, or about what else may be around locally. Parental, almost like discussing a child that’s done well.
(4) Put simply; visit and make sure that they are aware that you were there. If landowners think that people come regularly to see a monument they may think twice before doing any noticeable damage.
Thanks and enjoy yourselves.
* P70 in O’Brien, W. (1993) Aspects of Wedge Tomb Chronology. In: Shee-Twohig, E. and Ronayne, M. (eds.), Past Perceptions: The Prehistoric Archaeology of South-West Ireland, Cork University Press, 63-74. ISBN 0-902561-89-8
** S52 in Patrick, J. and Freeman, P.R. (1983) Revised Surveys Of Cork-Kerry Stones Circles. In: Archaeoastronomy , No.5, JHA, xiv, 50-56.