The relative inaccessibility of the uplands has ensured that archaeological features often survive where elsewhere they have been removed or destroyed by centuries of human activity. A stone alignment in the Connemara mountainsThe evidence for this comes from place-names, archaeology, literature, oral traditions and scientific investigations. The settled lifestyle afforded by farming from c. 4000 BC led to the development of religious beliefs, some of which centered on rituals associated with higher ground. The more than fifteen hundred megalithic tombs scattered around the country in upland areas are testament to this.
Pre-historic monuments associated with the uplands include passage tombs, wedge tombs, cairns, court tombs, portal tombs, stone circles, standing stones, stone rows and others. They all had a general similar function in that they are associated with the dead or possibly rituals associated with death. In the case of stone rows and standing stones they may also have been associated with important prominent hilltops, and the rising and setting of the moon. Arriving at any of these monuments during a trek in the hills is a real bonus that can instantly transport you to another time and place and gives you an insight into the people that inhabited this land over 5000 years ago. To put it into some context the passage tombs in the Boyne Valley, on the east coast, and Carrowkeel in County Sligo, on the west coast, are earlier in date than the pyramids of Egypt.
Easily recognizable monuments of the Late Bronze age/Iron Age are the hillforts, promontory forts and hilltop enclosures that occasionally cross our paths. The early Christian period (c. 500-1000AD) saw the introduction of new technologies and a new religious culture. It also saw a diffused power structure with the country divided into over a hundred local kingdoms by the 7th century. This period of history saw woodland clearance and an extension of grasslands and between the 5th and 10th centuries AD saw the construction of thousands of ringforts in the Irish landscape. They are the most widespread and characteristic of monuments in the Irish countryside and generally consist of a circular area, enclosed by one or more banks of earth or stone, or a combination of both. They were often located on sloping ground affording visibility of the surrounding countryside. The construction of ringforts in Ireland dates from the early medieval period (c. 400 AD to 1100 AD) and possibly continued up to the seventeenth century. Rath is the term applied to those ringforts of earthen construction, while cashel refers to those constructed from stone. The function of ringforts was generally as enclosed farmsteads that protected the houses and outbuildings in the interior, but they may also have been used for
social gatherings. Ringforts have gained legendary status over the centuries and their survival in many areas has been attributed to their association with fairy folk and the super-natural. Before they were protected structures farmers would do nothing to disturb these monuments for fear of the bad-luck that would be thrust upon you for such a deed. Indeed the reverence in which these monuments were held is highlighted by their use throughout the country as burial places for unbaptized infants. It is not that long ago that un-baptized newborns were not allowed to be buried in consecrated grounds and it was often to ringforts that their loved ones buried their remains.
A real treat in the hills is to incorporate a visit to a holy well in your day’s trek. A holy well can be described as anywhere that water is used as a focal point of devotion or ritual. While many appear first as Christian monuments much of the tradition associated with them is pre-christian. With some 3000 holy wells in the country they vary in appearance from simple natural springs in the ground to chambers with steps and surrounding walls. Often dedicated to a particular saint they
usually have a pattern on the saint’s day. Votive offerings and specific trees or bushes are sometimes found in association with these monuments while cures for specific aliments are ascribed to individual wells. The well at Mám Éan (Maumeen) in Connemara remind us yet again that the mountains were revered landscapes. Devotedto Saint Patrick the well and pattern associated with it are pre-christian in origin and thought to be associated with the festival of Lughnasa. Saint Patrickreputedly spent the night here as part of his journey through the range. Having reached this spot he blessed the well and spent the night on a rock bed. Tradition hasit that was the limit of his journey as next day he blessed Connemara and turned back. Anybody that has ever arrived at the well as part of the Maumturks challengewill know exactly how he felt.
Skipping a number of centuries to the 17th century we see the privatization of former communal mountainsides that allowed for small farm communities to develop on the
mountain slopes. Between 1770 and 1840 it is recorded that upland rural dwelling increased five times faster than on lowlands. The resulting population surge was
utilized to grow potatoes in the labour intensive lazy beds that are a feature of the upland landscape, particularly in the west of the country. The famines of the
1840’s and the resulting deaths, mass emigration and agrarian revolts meant that many of the structures were abandoned. These symbols of our past survive in ruins on
our mountain slopes today and are a poignant reminder of the rich and often bleak heritage that is Ireland.
Furrow lines where potatoes had been grown up the side of the mountain in the west of Ireland.
Walking in Ireland as a holiday is an experience you will never regret. The rich culture combined with great accommodation choices, good food and off course friendly,
inquisitive natives combines to ensure that Ireland is a place you can return to time and time again.