Great piece on the landscape history of Downpatrick Head and Dun Briste by renowned archaeologist and Professor Seamas Caulfield, as well as his view on how the Spirit of Place project will enhance the natural and cultural richness of this place:
Dun Briste: the seastack
Poll a’ Sean Tine: the blowhole
Downpatrick Head and Dun Briste.
Dr. Seamas Caulfield.
Every year the postgraduate Archaeology students from National University of Ireland Galway and from University College Dublin terminate their extended field trips to Belderrig Research Centre with a visit to Downpatrick Head. I take these students of Landscape Archaeology to this location because I know of no other place where the concept of ‘landscape’ can be more dramatically demonstrated. In my view, landscape is not absolute, it is perceived individually through the lens of personal memory and also depending on the paradigm through which it is interpreted. On Downpatrick Head there are a number of different landscapes, with the best example being the contrasting landscape of science and landscape of the paranormal, each interpreting differently the identical phenomena.
The landscape of science sees the headland as a classic example of marine erosion replicated thousands of times on every rocky coastline world wide. At the base of the headland is a wavecut platform, there is a sea cave running under the headland, part of which has collapsed in a classic blowhole. Eighty metres off the headland there is a seastack, the last surviving remnant of a more extensive but rapidly eroding headland.
The landscape of the paranormal has a totally different interpretation of these phenomena. St. Patrick came to the headland to confront the pagan chieftain/god Crom Dubh who lived there. Crom Dubh attempted to throw Patrick into an eternal fire on the headland but Patrick scraped a cross on a stone, threw it into the fire which collapsed into the sea and is known as Poll a Sean Tine, the Hole of the Old Fire. Crom Dubh seeing that he had met his match retreated into his fort but Patrick hit the ground with his crozier breaking the ground and leaving the broken fort, Dun Briste isolated from the mainland, where, it is said, Crom Dubh died, eaten to death by midges.
The landscape of placenames is interestingly entirely based on the landscape of the paranormal with placenames such as Downpatrick, Poll a’ Sean Tine, Dun Briste all taking their names from legend rather than science. The link to St. Patrick led to the headland being a place of ritual and pilgrimage on one of the great pre-Christian divisions of the year, the Festival of Lughnasa as it is at Croagh Patrick. The ruin of what may have been a church was associated with the festival held on the last Sunday in July but two Bronze Age barrows from the second millennium BC located on the headland and also used as part of the Christian ceremonials show that the sacred landscape of such ritual is more than twice as old as the Christian one from St. Patrick’s time.
There is a landscape of military archaeological and historical remains on the headland with surprisingly far-flung links abroad. A medieval or post medieval promontory fort on the east side of the headland gave the name Dun Phadraig or Patrick’s fort while Dun Briste the broken fort suggests that another fort existed before being lost to erosion ( or Patrick’s crozier). Poll a’ Sean Tine was the scene of a tragic loss of life of rebels who had joined the French in Killala in 1798 and who were hiding out on ledges at sea level when the English redcoats were rounding up participants after surrender by the French. Military remains from World War 2 are the watchtower and EIRE marker used by our Defence Forces guarding our neutral territory. Except we were ‘neutral on the side of the Allies’ and daily monitored the Allies’ flying boats from Lough Erne as they flew along the Sligo and Mayo coast having taken the shortcut of the Ballyshannon corridor to get more rapidly to the protection duties for the convoys approaching Europe.
There is finally the unusual vertical landscape of the east face of Dun Briste with the organisation of specific nesting ledges as clearly stratified as the rock strata. Year after year despite months away at sea, the birds return to their own ledges; the dominant black backed gull on the grassy top, the common gull on the highest ledges, the fulmar, the kittiwake and the guillemot all returning to the same ledges every year.
The rich beauty and numerous landscapes of Downpatrick Head today has one discordant note: the visually brutal high protective metal fence around Poll a’ Sean Tine, an effective barrier but one that would be more at home enclosing an urban builder’s yard. The proposal to replace it with a more visually appropriate but still equally protective barrier within an encasing earthwork outside a perimeter walkway is to be welcomed. The structure will fit with the character of the headland while providing an opportunity to commemorate and honour the numerous strands of natural and human history with which the headland is so richly endowed. Once disturbance is confined to merely stripping the recently grown top scraw and all soil for the embankment is imported to the site I see the replacement of the present structure by the proposed treatment as enhancing greatly the headland. Sod stripping will require the presence of Local Authority archaeological personnel. The partial or full restoration of the watch tower is an ideal location for observing the nesting east face of Dun Briste.
Poll a’ Sean Tine: the blowhole