Now that August has drawn to a close and we are in the very late part of summer, it is a very good time to turn attention towards archaeology. Anyone with an interest in history there will undoubtedly have an interest in archaeology too to some extent. Wicklow is one of the most poorly archaeologically explored regions in western Europe. In Wicklow the foliage is beginning to make way for the autumn, farmers are ploughing fields and there is a good chance of seeing and finding ancient artefacts that can remain hidden during summer. You can visit many of the already recognised sites, such as Glendalough, but there are many others where discovery and adventure are very real.
Last Friday I went to Bray Head with my brother Owen, a qualified archaeologist, and local Bray historian Tom ‘Lofty’ Loftus to see what we could discover in the way of ancient or more recent archaeological remains. A good walk to follow is from the Ramada Hotel in the outskirts of Bray. There is a nice fenced path directly on the opposite side of the road to the hotel, near the roundabout that leads up to the big cross on Bray Head.
From the site of the cross there is a great view of the surrounding countryside and in particular Killiney Bay to the north. The rock of Bray Head is a very ancient shale, with areas of red quartz to the north, beneath Bray. In the 1870s extremely ancient fossils of strange, worm-like little sea creatures were discovered in the shale here, dating to Pre-Cambrian times, over 560 millions years ago by current reckonings, and possibly much, much older.
The whole hillside is covered in fallen walls from sructures of varying ages. Many date from the 19th century.
An especially fascinating, and bizarre relic of the mid-20th century is a series of stone steps that led up to a now defunct holiday resort called Eagle’s Nest. The steps were an alternative way up the hillside to the cable car that had been installed, and which can be still seen rusting on the hillside. Both cable car and steps were an expensive financial failure. However, the steps are a wonderful legacy, and they appear to have been built to last.
However, the most striking and interesting remains on Bray Head are the ruins of a church called Raheenaclig. This name is usually translated as “Little Church of the Bell”, but this seves only to cover up a pre-Christian origin. The Literal translation is “little rath of the stones”. A rath was an ancient mound of earth, usually dating to the Bronze Age or even earlier. There are many places with “rath” in their title in Wicklow, and many of them had churches built on them, both hiding them and stealing from their significance simultaneously.
The church is believed to have been built in the 13th or 14th century, but the architecture could easily match up with earlier ones dating to the 8th century. There is a very deep hole in the wall by the doorway, clearly designed to receive a massive sliding bolt of heavy timber or even metal, and obviously to keep people out in times of danger, something more necessary in the early Middle Ages than the late, when sea raiding vikings were a constant threat indigenous Christians. The building is entirely made of hard red quartz, and underwent some degree of restoration work in the 19th century. However, it has been a ruin for many hundreds of years and historically is mostly associated with smugglers in more recent centuries. They were known to bring their contraband ashore at the nearby Naylor’s Cove and then hide it in the church grounds, or the church itself. The church is best reached from Bray promenade. Just follow the promenade as it rises to a car park just above Bray. The church is in a meadow above the carpark and can easily be spotted.
Thanks to Tom we got a guided tour of the various artefacts on the hillside, but a second archaeological field trip to Bray was to prove even more interesting and rewarding…