Mizen Head is Ireland’s equivalent of Land’s End in the UK. In other words, it’s almost Ireland’s most southerly point but doesn’t quite manage that. That honour falls to the nearby Brow Head which is probably best known to people who like to point out that particular piece of trivia. Anyway, regardless of which headland you’re heading for, getting there can be a somewhat hair-raising experience. The roads are of the narrower, twistier variety and some of the locals seem to be wannabe Formula 1 drivers. So be on your guard, especially at bends.
A Fog Signal Station was built at the tip of Mizen Head in 1909. It was manned until 1993, after which it became a visitor centre. The original visitor centre was housed in the Lightkeepers’ Quarters until 2001, when the new visitor centre was built. There are still interesting exhibits in these old buildings. These include some of the old equipment used by the Lightkeepers, maps and charts. There is a stunning mural dedicated to the birds of the area in one of the buildings which is pure eye candy. Guglielmo Marconi carried out some of his earliest trans-Atlantic radio transmissions from the nearby village of Crookhaven (you can read more about it here) and there is information and equipment about his work in the radio room.
The best known feature at the Mizen Head Fog Signal Station is the beautiful suspension bridge which spans a gorge between the mainland and the tip of the headland. The original footbridge was constructed in 1909 and was one of the first bridges to use precast elements. It was the largest bridge of its kind at the time, with a span of 50m. In the early 2000s, it reached the end of its lifespan. It was decided to demolish the bridge and replace it with an almost identical replica. The new one is wider but is still built from reinforced concrete. If you want to nerd out and read all about the demolition of the old bridge and the construction of the new one, you can take a look at this
Mostly though, it’s the scenery that takes your breath away. Even though you can see that it was an overcast day when I was there, it did little to diminish the impact of the surroundings. It also made me wish I’d bothered to listen more closely in geography class because all around were spectacular real-life examples of all sorts of things we were told about. It’s largely Devonian sandstone in the area and you can really see evidence of how the landscape was formed
The walk out to the signal station itself is punctuated by various exhibits and viewing platforms. These include a sea arch (revives memories of geography class again) and a replica of a floor from the Fastnet Rock lighthouse which is 15km away, out in the Atlantic Ocean)
The Visitor’s Centre is worth a mention too. It has plenty of information, photographs and models of the area. Kudos too to the gift shop for not having cheesy new-wave Celtic mystic trip playing as you browse. And after doing all that walking and exploring, I couldn’t wait to tuck into the haddock and chips which were on the menu in the visitor centre’s cafe.
The Brownshill Dolmen can be found not too far outside Carlow town. What’s nice about this one is that it’s easy to get to. There’s a car park outside and a fenced-off walkway that leads from there to the dolmen itself. So although you still feel like you’re almost in someone’s field, you’re safe from marauding bulls, crops that behave like Triffids and erm…I’ll stop now.
Anyway, if you’re in search of a good dolmen, you can’t do much better than the Brownshill Dolmen. There are approximately 190 of them in Ireland, though they can also be found in other European countries and in Asia. This one has never been excavated, possibly because its capstone is estimated to weigh 150 tons. How the people who built it roughly 5,000 years ago managed it is sadly lost in the mist of times. It is believed that this one is the largest in Europe.
Dolmens usually consist of 2-3 stones, topped by a large capstone. It is believed that they would have originally been topped by mounds of stones. These have long since vanished, leaving behind a “skeleton”. Although they’re generally described as being tombs, there isn’t any concrete evidence one way or the other to say for sure that they were.
The current home for the tourist office in Kilkenny is an old building with an interesting history. It was built in 1581/2 by Sir Richard Shee, a wealthy local man. Depending on what source you read, he either made a profit from speculating on church property during the Reformation or he bought up a lot of it to keep it out of the hands of reformers. Regardless, he seems to have started to worry about burning in hell (as you do) and established this almshouse to help the poor.
It was built to house 12 people. “6 honest, poor, unmarried men” and “6 widows of 50 years of age or more”. Each resident had their own room (which must have been tiny, judging by the size of the building) but there were some strict regulations they had to abide by. For starters, everyone had to attend 2 hours of prayer every day and would face instant eviction if they got drunk, indulged in hanky panky or refused to attend weekly religious services.
To ensure the men and women in the almshouse didn’t get up to any funny business, the building had two floors which were not connected internally. The ground floor was for women only – this is the more prominent entrance to the building these days because it faces out onto Rose Inn Street. The men lived on the first floor and the entrance to there is on a laneway to the rear of the building. These days there is a staircase which connects the two floors.
The almshouse continued to house the poor until 1830 or so. By that stage it was no longer in the hands of the Shee family – it had been sold in 1752 by Edmund Shee. It then fell into ruin and was renovated in the 1870s by Sir Nicholas Power O’Shee who was a descendant of Richard Shee. As well as being an almshouse, it was used as a Catholic chapel, a hospital and even a shop. In 1978, it was obtained by Kilkenny Corporation who restored it and opened it as the tourist office.
The high cross is an early medieval form of Christian sculpture, unique to the British Isles. From around the 6th century onwards, monastic settlements developed all around Ireland. It is thought that high crosses were a way of marking out the sacred areas in the larger monasteries. The first high crosses are believed to have been made of wood and metal. Of course, none of these have survived to the present day. From around the 9th century onwards, the crosses began to be carved from stone. Interestingly, the earliest crosses appear to be replicas of the original wood and metal crosses, though in time their style evolved. There are almost 300 high crosses in Ireland, in various states of repair. They have become one of the iconic symbols of Ireland, appearing on everything from jewelry to postage stamps.
Let’s get plastered
In the late 19th century/early 20th century, a greater interest and awareness of national identity and archaeology took hold around Europe. Seeing as trying to transport rather ancient, rather heavy stone crosses around was out of the question, they went for the next best option. Faithful copies.
At what turned out to be prohibitively expensive in the end, plaster casts of some of the better known high crosses were painstakingly created. From 1898 to 1910 these casts were made and shipped abroad to the UK, the USA and Australia.
Interestingly, in 2005 the replicas were exhibited in Aichi, Japan where they were seen by over 2 million people.
Completely by accident, in May 2011 I came across an exhibition of these replicas in the Museum of Decorative Arts & History in Dublin. And so, all I have to show for my visit are a couple of dodgy pre-smartphone mobile phone snaps and a nice booklet 🙂 It turned out to be a surprisingly compelling exhibition. I’ve seen loads of these high crosses over the years – it’s hard not to miss them- but I had never noticed how tall and imposing they were. In their normal setting, they’re out in the open air and somehow seem smaller. There’s nothing like standing in a darkened room with these crosses looming over you to concentrate the mind!
It was also a unique opportunity to see how these crosses evolved over time. The South Cross from Ahenny is a very basic cross which replicates its original wood and metal ancestors. The later Muireadach’s Cross is awash with scenes from scripture. Dysert O’Dea has a bishop on it and looks quite different to the others.
Interestingly, the Office of Public Works has gradually been making high-quality replicas of the better known high crosses around Ireland and moving the originals indoors. Following on, after a fashion, in the footsteps of the original plaster casters.
The crosses exhibited in this exhibition were:
The North & South Crosses, Ahenny, Co. Tipperary
These two 9th century crosses I’ve seen “in the wild”. These days, Ahenny is off the beaten track and I had to drive along some alarmingly narrow and twisty country roads to get to it. The two crosses are situated in a quiet cemetery that’s situated in a field close to the village of Ahenny. They’re all that remains of the monastery at Kilclispeen. The interesting thing about these two high crosses is that they appear to replicate the earlier wood/metal crosses and mostly have abstract art on them. There are some figures from scripture on the base of the North cross but they’re not so obvious on my photo. Both crosses are considered to be very fine examples of Hiberno-Saxon art and are just two of a number of high crosses in this style in the area.
Their plaster casts were made in 1906 by an Italian modeller named Sig. Orlandi. The cost of making the moulds for these two crosses ran to £151. The two casts were produced at a cost of £35.
These are two crosses I saw on a geography field trip when I was a student. So not only do I not have photos of them (I am rather ancient, after all) but I barely remember them. I mostly remember our lecturer helpfully pointing out how the ground level in the cemetery was rising because of all the dead people buried there and that even when we died, we’d still have a contribution to make. Anyway, enough of that. What about the crosses?
Muireadach’s Cross is considered to be the finest of the high crosses in Ireland. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that it was the first cross to be moulded, back in 1896. It dates to the 9th century and depicts many scenes from scripture. In recent years, concern has been expressed over the damage the weather is doing to the cross. The Tall Cross lives up to its name, being almost 7 metres in height. The process of making moulds of this cross proved to be tricky because of the condition of the base.
Drumcliffe High Cross, Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo
Now this cross, I have no idea if I’ve ever seen. When I was 14 my family took a holiday in the north-west of Ireland and we visited Drumcliffe. These days it’s mostly known for being the alleged final resting place of W.B. Yeats (there are serious question marks over who’s in that grave) . In olden times, there was a monastery here. There is still a partial round tower remaining. There’s also this cross which I may have seen but not taken any particular notice of. It was cast in 1907 and is from the 11th or 12th century. Along with biblical scenes, it also has animals which is unusual.
St Tola’s Cross, Dysert O’Dea, Co. Clare
This cross is unusual in that it has no ring. It also doesn’t look like most Irish high crosses. It is from the later Romanesque series of crosses and instead of having biblical scenes, has a bishop on the shaft. It was one of the last crosses to be copied, work taking place in 1908. It is thought that this cross may have had wooden additions but of course, these did not survive. In September 2020 I finally got to see this one in person.