Clodagh Finn: It’s a race against the tide to rescue our coastal heritage

Erosion — exacerbated by climate change — is gnawing away at a coastal heritage that is, quite literally, falling into the sea
Clodagh Finn: It’s a race against the tide to rescue our coastal heritage

A view of Ferriter's Castle near Ballyferriter on the Dingle Peninsula where archaeologists are working to retrieve valuable evidence before it falls into the sea. Picture: Cherish Project

It is easy to be blown away at Doon Point, a narrow strip of headland that juts out into the Atlantic just beyond Ballyferriter on the Dingle peninsula in Co Kerry. 

In a literal sense, the wind can lash like a whip, even on a good day, but I’m speaking more in the metaphorical sense.

It might be glib to say that we don’t realise the value of what we have until it’s gone but that is particularly true of this singular place where erosion is gnawing away at a coastal heritage that is, quite literally, falling into the sea.

If you want to see climate change in action, it doesn’t get more clear-cut than this. 

This year, there have been more rockfalls than before and it’s getting worse, according to landowner and farmer Dennis Curran who has lost about a half-acre of the headland over the last two decades.

“It’s got far worse in the last 20 years or so,” he says. “Before that, nothing had fallen. There is a lot of rain too and the sea is rising." 

I know the rocks — they are covered by high tide now, but they weren’t before.

The 15th-century castle, the ancestral home of the Ferriters that stands on this endangered promontory fort, was already in ruins after a storm event in 1845, according to written sources, but now the many associated archaeological features are at risk too.

The ongoing battering of this valuable site underlines the urgency of last month’s excavations which were carried out by the Cherish Project, an EU-funded Ireland-Wales programme dedicated to understanding the past, present and near-future effect of climate change and extreme weather events on the rich cultural heritage of our sea and coast.

Cherish is an acronym: It stands for climate, heritage and environments of reefs, islands and headlands. 

It’s a bit of a mouthful but it also the perfect choice of word as it reminds us of the need to value and safeguard our fragile coastal areas.

And there is so much to cherish and protect here.

Star Wars fans might recall nearby Sybil Head, or Ceann Sibéal, as the spectacular location of Luke Skywalker’s secret refuge Ahch-To, but the stories of this neighbouring headland rival any that have made it to the big screen.

The oral tradition tells of a local superhero, heroic battles, magic a-plenty and the wonderful tale of an enormous barrel of wine that broke open and sent wine gushing down through Ballyferriter leaving the dogs of the village drunk for a week.

Now, the hard evidence of what really happened here is starting to emerge as archaeologists work to retrieve as much of it as possible before it falls into the churning sea below.

They are extremely grateful to local farmer Dennis Curran who has not only granted them access to his land but also fleshed out the lore and tradition of the area.

Another magnificent local storyteller is TG4 and RTÉ video journalist Seán Mac an tSíthigh. 

He is a font of placename knowledge that animates this landscape with its sweeping views of the Blasket Islands in one direction and Brandon mountain in the other. 

As he puts it: “I know all the names of the rocks and it just breathes life into the landscape so you are not looking at rock and fields any more, you are looking at people and history and stories and colour and soul. It’s enriching.”

It certainly is and Linda Shine, outreach officer at the Discovery Programme, is recording those names and their stories as part of the overall attempt to garner as much information from as many sources as possible. 

You never know when a nugget or detail retained in the oral tradition might throw a bit of light on the archaeological evidence.

The ‘superhero’ character is based on the real 17th century chieftain and poet Piaras Feiritéar. He was of Norman descent and sided with the Catholic Confederacy in the rebellion of 1641. 

He was wounded in an attack on Tralee castle and later seized while on his way to agree surrender terms. He was hanged publicly in 1653.

The Ferriters were in Kerry by the 13th century at least and by 1641 they were, to use that hackneyed old phrase, “as Irish as the Irish themselves”.

Piaras assumed legendary status as the centuries wore on and was embellished in the oral tradition, explains Mac an tSíthigh who lists his many qualities: 

“He was seen as a warrior, a chieftain, very handsome, a bit of a lady’s man, writing poetry for the women, enticing them, a great harpist, a great swordsman and a great sailor.”

Little wonder that a man like that would also have an enchanted drawbridge.

“When Piaras was fighting battles and he was under pressure, he would retreat and lure his intruders on to the bridge,” Mac an tSíthigh recounts.

"He would drop his sword and clap his hands and the bridge would start spinning wildly and it would send men, hurtling left and right, into the sea below.

It’s tantalising, then, to consider that the site of such a mythical bridge, adjacent to the castle ruin, is now under archaeological investigation. 

Indeed, there is reason to believe that it may even have once been a bridge. 

While the castle is little more than a sad stub, drone mapping and geophysical and resistivity surveys by the Cherish team have revealed lots of features worthy of further investigation.

One of them is the defensive ditch where Edward Pollard, maritime archaeologist with the Discovery Programme, is drawing a cross-section and pointing out the circular post hole which may once have been part of a bridge.

The trench has yielded some datable charcoal and it’s possible, even likely, the results will show people built a fort here during the Iron Age, over 2,000 years ago.

Further down the headland, Sandra Henry, lead research archaeologist on the project, explains that a series of huts have been studied and one is being excavated in full. 

Flagstones lining an entrance are already visible, giving us a hint of the living quarters of a community that called this place home centuries ago.

It’s not possible to say yet if that was hundreds, or thousands, of years ago but, says Henry, work on the 10-day dig will yield important information about promontory forts, little-excavated structures that are under severe threat from coastal erosion. 

There are 95 in Kerry and 508 around the Irish coastline, but only about 10 have been excavated.

What promises to emerge, then, are the buried secrets of a headland that most likely played a vital role in the maritime control of trade networks in West Kerry.

Back at the farmhouse, Dennis Curran is waiting to hear of buried treasure. “They would have to share the gold with me,” he jokes. 

The real gold, though, is the exceptional heritage on our coastline. The challenge now is to focus resources to protect those areas most in danger.

  • A full report on the dig at Ferriter’s Castle in Dingle will feature in the Forum section of Saturday'sIrish Examiner.

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