The Ghosts Among Us

We watched him once or twice a week on the hill high above us as we walked by the old woman’s cottage. The man maneuvered the digger up and down the slope, scraping away gorse and brush and weeds to make a new field for his sheep. Slow work on such a steep hill.

And then one day, the digger was parked, still and unmoving.

“He must have other jobs to do on the farm. I’m sure he’ll be back at it in a day or two,” I said to Sara, and thought nothing of it. We turned back down the lane.

But days went by and the digger didn’t move.

Weeks later, there were headlines in the local and national papers:

“Ancient tomb discovered by farmer on Dingle Peninsula,” said The Irish Times.

“Ancient ‘untouched’ tomb discovered on Dingle Peninsula,” chimed in RTE.

“Farmer discovers ancient Bronze-Age tomb in Dingle,” The Kerryman noted.

Even some foreign papers and journals picked up the story, including The New York Times and The Smithsonian Magazine.

The stories were similar: A tomb, possibly dating back to the Bronze Age, between 2,500 and 4,500 years ago, had been uncovered when a farmer doing land reclamation work had pulled up a large stone slab. He immediately stopped work and notified the National Museum of Ireland. Archeologists discovered a multi-chambered structure with ritual carvings and stones and what appeared to be human bone fragments. The tomb was oriented to look directly south to the Skellig islands and directly west to the Blasket islands. All of the stories emphasized that the location was being kept secret to protect the site.

Hmmm, I wonder, I thought.

We live with ghosts in West Kerry. 

They are with us when we go to Easter morning Mass at the oratory on the hill behind Toos’ house. Or when we stop at the holy well to bless ourselves on the walk home. They are beside us when we run our hands over the Druid Stone at the top of Goat Street in town. Or when we walk through an abandoned village that is just a stone’s throw from our house. They stand next to us when we reach out to touch the ancient alphabet on an ogham stone.

Most hilltops have a cairn, most headlands have a promontory fort, and most pathways have been walked for thousands of years.

We are always among ghosts.

When visitors come to see us here, l love to take them on a tour around the peninsula. The scenery is magnificent. Sea views and mountains and green fields enclosed by stone walls. It’s breathtaking. But it’s the hidden corners that I most like to take them to.

Just beyond Ventry, and before we get to Fahan with its ford across a small stream, there is a small promontory fort called Dunbeg on a cliff-edge 100 meters above the Atlantic. It dates from the Iron Age—500 BC to 400 AD—and consists of a series of earthen embankments and a drystone rampart about 3 meters high and up to six meters wide. Inside the rampart are a number of stone dwellings called clochán. People would have sheltered here in difficult times well into the eighth or ninth century. 

A bit further along, a series of clocháns or beehive huts dot the hillside. They are in small groups enclosed by circular stone walls. They are not as ancient as Dunbeg, dating from the early Christian period. The most prominent theory about their purpose was that they served as shelters—early B&Bs of a sort— for the pilgrims making the western maritime pilgrimage from Spain along the coast of France and then to this point on the southwest coast of Ireland. The pilgrims would then cross over the peninsula for a stop at Mount Brandon. From there, they would continue up the coast of Ireland and onto Iona in Scotland.

We stop at Coumeenole Beach, a quiet secluded strand surrounded by cliffs, and I point out the remains of a promontory fort and an ogham stone on Dunmore Head, the westernmost point in Europe.

As we round the tip of the peninsula, near Dunquín, there are overlooks with clear views of the abandoned village on the Great Blasket, a few kilometers across the Blasket Sound. On a clear, calm day, the sound looks almost serene, but on a stormy day it is one of the most treacherous waters in the world. Numerous ships rest on its bottom, including the San Juan de Ragusa and the Santa Maria de la Rose from the Spanish Armada, lost in 1588.

The Great Blasket was inhabited for millennia by people who relied on a sustenance economy. There is a poem called Pity the Islanders by David Quin with the line:

for they dwelt on a rock in the sea and not a shining metropolis

and lived off the pick of the strand, the hunt of the hill, the fish of the sea,

the wool of the sheep, and packets of dollars ….

The dollars were sent from émigrés from the island, most living in Springfield, Massachusetts. 

It was a hard life. The population dwindled, islanders emigrated, life was not sustainable, and the island was abandoned in 1953. 

A few miles further along the road, down a hidden lane, is a monastic settlement called An Riasc or Reask, that was occupied from the fifth to seventh centuries. Parts of it were later used as a cemetery for unbaptized children. There are intertwined clocháin, inscribed pillar stones, a goodly number of ogham stones, and a magnificent carved slab nearly two meters tall decorated with spiral designs and a Greek cross. A jeweler in Dingle town will gladly replicate this stone for you on a gold pendant for a mere 500 Euros.

From Reask it’s a short drive back to town, for a restorative pint and some time to reflect about the people who have lived here for centuries before us.

A few weeks after the articles about the tomb appeared in the papers, we were in a shop in town. If I want to know what is going on in the area, I always ask this shop keeper.

“Do you know where the tomb that farmer discovered is located?” I asked.

“I do, of course. It’s quite near to you, on a hill just down your lane and across the long road,” she answered. “The tomb has been marked and covered over so the poor souls won’t be disturbed.”

So, it was confirmed.

The next time we walked down the lane, the farmer on his digger was back at work, moving up and down the hill clearing the brush. His sheep grazed in a nearby field, eyeing the spot where they would find new grass in the spring. We paused for a few minutes and watched him work, then turned and retraced our steps to home, glancing over our shoulders as we walked.