Ballinskelligs, County Kerry
McCarthy’s castle is located to the north of the Abbey sitting on the tip of a narrow promontory of land that juts into the sea. This tower house is probably 16th century in date and associated with the McCarthy’s who were chieftains in Cork and Kerry. The promontory suffers badly from erosion and has changed substantially in living memory, some of this change is often attributed to the 20th century construction of the concrete pier that lies at the end of the Promontory. The castle ruins remain largely intact; however, the southern corner is badly damaged with a breakthrough in the wall in this area. This is partly due to exposure to the sea and the wall being thinner due to the mural stairs located in this corner of the tower house. The land around the castle is impacted by erosion. Excavations were undertaken at the castle in 1988 and 1991 by John Sheehan, University College Cork. Two external lean-to structures with pitched-cobble floors identified during excavation and post-dating the primary period of occupation of the castle are believed to have been a fish curling station. It is recorded that Sir William Petty established a fishery at Ballinskelligs.
The dated tree stump from Inny strand tells how a Bronze Age forest was present in the north of the bay, the continuation of buried peats past the present low water mark indicate the forest covered the area that denotes the intertidal zone today. The basal dates of the peat cores around the Bay inform of the formation dates and phases of the wetlands that now encompass Ballinskelligs Bay. These peat cores will provide further insights into the environmental and climate records for the Bay since the Neolithic Period. The palaeo-environmental evidence when considered in context of the pattern of change recorded due to geological processes around the bay since at least the mid-18th century and in context of predicted climate change impacts due to atmospheric change such as rising sea level indicates a continual loss of the coastal margin into the future as the predominate forces at play continue to enlarge the bay here at Ballinskelligs.
The Crumbling Promontory Fort of Dunbeg
The National Monument of Dunbeg, which translates as the little fort, is a popular tourist attraction in County Kerry with its distinctive rows of defences and spectacular views over Dingle Bay to Valentia Island and the World Heritage Site of Skellig Michael. Unfortunately, the site has been periodically closed to the public for repairs and safety measures as the sea continues to erode the cliffs. This erosion is particularly severe during storms, and storms are predicted to become more severe with climate change.
When you approach the promontory from the road, you walk through four banks, five ditches, and an inner drystone rampart. A central causeway crosses the banks to the rampart but people are encouraged to walk on the eastern side of the fort due to erosion at the entrance. An underground stone-built passage, known as a souterrain, extends for over 16m from the rampart to the third bank. A stone-flagged pathway did lead from the rampart entrance to a circular drystone structure known as a clochán in the interior of the fort
We have a relatively good record of changes at this site as the promontory fort attracted the attention of19th century antiquarians and geologists as well as 20th-century tourists. George Du Noyer’s visited and recorded the site in 1856, and the triangular-shape promontory he drew has been indented up to 35m along its western side which sits on the 30m-high cliffs. This has resulted in the fort becoming more crescent-moon shape in plan today.
Human activity in the 19th century also impacted the fort, with hare hunters overturning stones, and stone being taken for building elsewhere. Drystone field walls that once crossed the fort banks and ditches were removed during Office of Public Works (OPW) restoration in 1892. The OPW also repaired the roof of one of the two guard chambers that sat on either side of the rampart wall entrance. The western guardhouse is no longer extant. The OPW repairs also made a curve at the rampart’s terminals and inserted a boundary wall. Previous plans of the site indicated there had been a straight rampart wall.
In 1897, Thomas Westropp said around 3m of land has fallen on the western side in the last 20 years. Professor R.A.S. MacAlister, later of University College Dublin, records that he visited the site in 1896 and again in 1898 and in that time the western end of the stone rampart had eroded into the sea. Another OPW visit in September 1915 sketches the disappearance of 9.5m of the western side of the rampart since 1897 and ground fissures, a sign of impending instability, were also shown.
In 1977, the OPW and National Monuments Service commissioned an excavation to examine the site, its dating and history of occupation before more features were lost. A view from the inside of the fort looking at the rampart wall shows the cliff erosion from the west had reached the western guardhouse to the side of the covered entrance. Excavation led by Professor Terry Barry from Trinity College Dublin revealed post holes, hearths and stake holes within the clochán and suggested wattle shelters supported by wooden posts and stakes. Analysis of occupation debris indicated a diet of pigs, sheep, goats, cattle, deer, birds and fish. Radiocarbon dates suggest it was inhabited in the 10th or 11th centuries AD. Further excavation at the rampart revealed an earlier shallow ditch radiocarbon dated to the 6th century BC. This indicates a long history of use at the site, though it may not have been continuous.
Within the last 7 years, the cliff has been experiencing another period of instability. In January 2014, a storm resulted in the southern side of the entrance through the rampart collapsing causing a section to fall away close to the passageway through the stone rampart. The CHERISH Project began early in 2017 and has been recording the latest changes with regular drone and laser scanner surveys. In December 2017, the site had to be closed again after flash flooding down Mount Eagle caused stream erosion within the fort causeway, banks and ditches. Then during Storm Eleanor on 3rd January 2018, most of the covered entrance through the rampart and the ground below collapsed into the sea. The last covered area of this entrance had collapsed by our next visit in April 2019.