Old Parish - An Sean Phobal

An Sean Phobal - The Oldest Parish in Ireland

Before the famine in the mid-19th century, An Sean Phobal (Old Parish) contained a much larger population than it does today. An Sean Phobal, together with An Rinn (Ring) forms the Waterford Gaeltacht. About 13 km (8 mls) from Dungarvan, An Sean Phobal is a large parish covering about 35 square kilometres (14 sq.mls) with approximately 8 km (5 mls) of coastline. This coastline consists of a dramatic seascape comprising of cliffs (approximately 70 m, 230 ft., high) together with a number of deeply incised stream gullies and small bays. The unimproved grassland along the cliffs attracts a wide variety of seabirds. An Sean Phobal is a paradise for bird-watchers and people interested in nature.

The most prominent man-made feature is the Mine Head Lighthouse. The seas along this stretch of coast are notoriously rough and numerous wrecks are known to lie offshore.

Built some 4,000 years before the lighthouse is another man-made structure - a pre-celtic Megalithic Tomb, the only example of its kind in County Waterford. The spectacular cliff-top location, with stunning views across to the East Waterford and Wexford coastline to the Hook Head Lighthouse and beyond leave no visitor in any doubt as to why this tomb was built in exactly this location with an all overlooking view.

Mine Head Lighthouse

George Halpin Senior designed the major light of Mine Head (navigational location 51° 59.6' N 7° 35.2' W). The red sandstone structure sitting on top of the steep cliffs of Old Parish is higher above sea-level (88 m, 290 ft.) than any other Irish lighthouse.

Local merchants and mariners from Youghal and Cork pressured the Ballast Board to begin a lighthouse tower on Capel Island off Youghal. This building was begun even though George Halpin felt the best place for a light was on Mine Head. The work was well under way when the local people changed their mind and decided that the light should be at Mine Head after all. After much debate, including input from Trinity House and the Admiralty, it was decided to abandon the site on Capel Island and build on Mine Head.

The light was established on 1 June 1851, the same day as Ballycotton lighthouse.
Mine Head has a 22 m (72 ft.) white tower with a black band. It was coverted to electricity in Sept. 1964. The beacon flashes white and red every 2.5 sec. and has a nominal range of 52 km (28 nautical miles) since it sits so high above sea-level. Today the Commissioner of Irish Lights operates the lighthouse, which is not open to the public and is not accessible.

Mine Head Lighthouse

Megalithic Tomb - Carn Chúirte Bhaile Na Moná - Ballynamona Court Cairn

An example of the earliest megalithic tombs in Ireland, commonly known as court tombs, is to be found in the area of the Mine Head Lighthouse. This court-tomb is only one of four known to exist south of a line from Dundalk to Galway. The name comes from the fact that this type of tomb usually has a court yard area found at the entrance to the chambers. A court cairn is situated in Ballinamona Lower, Old Parish. The site is marked 'dolmen' on the Ordnance Survey map, and is known locally as 'Cailleach Bhearra'. It is located about 1.5km (1 mile) north of the lighthouse and about 100m (~100 yards) from the cliff edge.
This lonely ‘monument’ has a great story to tell, dating as it does from around 2000 B.C., but to fully understand its significance it is necessary to start at a much earlier date.

Shortly after the end of the last Ice Age, around 15,000 B. C., primitive man, who lived a nomadic life, hunting large animals with tools of stone and bone and sheltering in caves, was established in Europe. The fine painting in caves such as Altarmira, in Spain and Lascaux, in France are evidence of this. However there are very few proven traces of these people in Ireland.
The Irish landscape after the retreat of the glaciers was predominantly boggy grassland with little vegetation. As the climate got warmer bushes became established and about this time giant deer, mistakenly known as the Great Irish Elk, were common in Ireland. Possibly because of the lack of inhabitants to hunt them the deer, now extinct, became very numerous. Bones of deer, reindeer and bear are reported to have been found at Kilgreany, near Cappagh, Co. Waterford. This era is known as the Palaeolithic Age or Old Stone Age.

By 6,000 B.C. Ireland had been cut off from the rest of Europe. As the climate continued to get warmer the landscape changed to one of dense woodland and forest. The people, who had by this time come from Scandinavia to Britain and had crossed the narrow strait between Scotland and Antrim, were restricted in their movements by the forests. Their diet consisted mostly of birds and fish as the woodland left no room for the large grazing animals such as deer and wild horse. The middle Stone Age or Mesolithic people left little evidence of their existence. The few surviving indications of their presence are found in their rubbish dumps on lakeshores and riverbanks in Roscommon, Limerick and Carlow. Here were found a limited range of flint implements used for cleaning and skinning birds and fish and a few stones for rubbing and hammering. This hunter-gatherer society was soon to be altered dramatically. Man the hunter, forever at the mercy of nature, now began to learn to control his environment. In the Middle East the first farmers were at work.

By the year 3000 B.C. the expanding population in the Middle East forced these farming people to spread northwestwards into Europe. They brought with them all their newly acquired skills such as cultivation of crops, animal husbandry, basket making, weaving, leather working, pottery, tool making and spinning. These Neolithic or New Stone Age colonisers are thought to be the people who built the first megalithic tombs in Ireland including the one in Old Parish.

Megalithic Tombs, from the Greek words ‘mega meaning great and ‘lithos’ meaning stone, vary greatly in size and shape. The simplest form is the stone tripod with a capstone known as a dolman. Although common in Ireland they are often dramatic such as the one at Browneshill, Co. Carlow, which has a capstone reputed to weigh about 100 tons. The Poulnabrane Dolmen in Co. Clare, set as it is against the limestone landscape of the Burren, is one of the finest examples. The best-known megalithic tomb is Newgrange on the river Boyne in Co. Meath.
In general megalithic tombs belong to two main groups; gallery graves and passage graves. The gallery grave, as the name implies, is characterised by a long narrow chamber in which burials were placed. This group can be further sub-divided, into court cairns, southern wedge-shaped galleries and northern wedge-shaped galleries, Court cairns are so called because the tombs consist generally of a covered gallery for burial with one or more unroofed forecourts for rituals. On present evidence these are the earliest form of megalithic tomb built in Ireland.

The tomb at Ballynamona is a court cairn and is the only example of its kind in the southeast. This type is usually found north of a line between Clew Bay in the west and Dundalk in the east. It would have been constructed by a tribal group and an immense amount of social organisation was required in its building. There would have been many burials in the grave. The bodies were burnt and the cremated bones were placed in the burial chambers sometimes with pottery, beads and stone and bone, and tools for use in the next life.

Ballynamona was excavated in May 1938 by a team lead by T.G.E. Powell, as part of relief of unemployment programme of excavations administered by the office of Public Works in collaboration with the National Museum. Because it had been plundered for fencing material it proved impossible for the excavators to estimate its original size. The chamber deposits had been destroyed by treasure seekers. However, some small fragments of highly decorated pottery were found, as were numerous natural flint flakes some of which showed traces of human working. A small stone disc was also found. It is made of a fine-grained piece of Old Red sandstone. Similar larger discs are known from gallery graves in Brittany, Scotland, Wales and Co. Wicklow. We do not know the beliefs of the builders of the tomb but there is evidence that they were sun worshipers, at least in some parts of Ireland. But whatever their beliefs they were compelling, as similar structures are found all over Europe and in part of Africa and Asia.

Although the Ballynamona Court Cairn is neither spectacular nor large its importance cannot be overlooked. It is known to date from 2000B.C. during the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age. It is clear evidence of the early settlement of Old Parish by a developed, agricultural society. Other evidence of settlement in Co. Waterford from this period are the nearest known megalithic tombs at Gaulstown, Mattewstown and Ballynageeragh in or around the Tramore area, and an important find of an uncommonly fine, polished stone implement at Aglish, Co. Waterford presently in the National Museum.
While this grave was still in use the Late Stone Age was drawing to a close. The Early Bronze Age, in which implements of bronze and copper were manufactured, saw the arrival in Ireland of prospectors and metal workers, who found Co. Waterford rich in the necessary metal deposits. At Bonmahon, copper was mined and there is some evidence that a foundry or factory of bronze implements existed on the edge of Knockmon bog, west of Dungarvan.


A Short History of Waterford and
The Places names of the Decies by Rev. P. Power
The Course of Irish History - edited by T. W. Moody and F. X. Martin
Chapter 2. Prehistoric Ireland by G. F. Mitchell
Antiquitiesof the Irish Countryside by Sean P. O’Riordain
Guide to the National Monuments of Ireland by Peter Harbison
Journal Royal Society of Antiquaries 6811938
Excavation of a megalithic tomb at Ballynamona Lower, Co. Waterford by T. G. E. Powell

Court Cairn
[For enlarged plaque click here]


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