The Beehive Huts of South West Kerry
If you ever travel to Dingle in Ireland, and make a trip around the picturesque Slea Head Drive, you might notice some strange round huts made of stone. Some of you may even stop to explore the sites, scratching your head at the mystery of their age.
Some of these huts stand alone, others in close little clusters like a gaggle of old women whispering gossip in each other's ears. In a few places, there is even hint of a larger settlement.
Gossip and rumours indeed seem to be the way in which the casual visitor is educated. Many believe that they are viewing the abodes of the inhabitants of "Stone Age Ireland". Let us cut through the misinformation, and look at what they really are, and why they appear where they do. These amazing little huts deserve to be looked at in detail.
Slea Head, Ireland
World Class Heritage
Beehive huts can be found in great numbers in County Kerry, Ireland. The most well known examples are to be found at the monastic settlement on Skellig Michael (Sceilig Mhichíl). A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this early Christian monastery clings to the steep cliffs of an isolated rocky island situated to the west of the mainland of the Iveragh Peninsula. A visitors centre on Valentia Island (Dairbhre) gives some excellent background on the monastic settlement, its structures, and the men that dwelt in them. From Valentia, the more intrepid explorer may travel by boat to the Skellig Isles and explore Skellig Michael by foot if they dare tackle the hundreds of steep steps leading to the monastery which was believed to have been founded between the 6th and 8th Centuries.
The Skelligs are not the only place that you might find a Clochán. These structures are found in abundance along the Slea Head Drive on the westerly tip of the Dingle Peninsula, particularly around Mount Eagle and Mount Brandon. Of these, the most spectacular example must be the site at Fahan (Glenfahan) where the remains of hundreds of beehive huts and other dry stone structures can be seen in various states of ruin. At one point, over 400 beehive huts were recorded at this site .
The more observant visitor might notice some of these huts dotted around the landscape, which are marked on local maps as Clochán. Along the Slea Head Drive, there are two sites that welcome visitors. The first is probably the most visited, and is well organised for the inquisitive. Caher Conor (Cathair na gConcúireach) is a fine example of these corbelled stone structures. It consists of a small group of five beehive huts, but also an early Christian structure that may have been used as a church. This rectangular structure contains a stone inscribed with a cross, and may have been built in the style of the Gallarus Oratory on the north of the peninsula. This building is now a ruin, but the huts are kept in good condition with regular maintenance carried out by The Office of Public Works.
A leaflet handed out to visitors to Caher Conor describes how the site is named after a structure called a cathair, which is a Gaelic word to describe a ring fort.
The buildings at Caher Conor stand within a thick stone enclosure, which is not uncommon. Many ring forts contain several buildings, which would have protected the inhabitants from raids from foes, and also would serve to protect any livestock when brought in at night. There are several more cathair type ruins in the area, containing what is left of bee hive huts within a circular fort wall.
A short distance around Slea Head brings you to the second site open to visitors. These huts stand on land adjacent to the house of a Gaelic speaking lady, and a knock on the door will grant you access to the wonderful ruins.
The hillside is covered with beehive huts. Some are ruins, whilst others are still whole. It seems their usefulness has kept them from being lost. Some are used as shelters by the sheep, whilst another is used as a shed by the land-owner. This is not unique or unusual. These structures are still built around the peninsula as out-buildings.
It is at this site that one of the more impressive structures can be found. There is a large building made of three beehive huts, joined together by doorways. The building contains a fire pit and what could have been used as a shallow well or basin, with alcoves in the lower inside walls for storing goods. It may be that this was the home of an important family in the settlement.
There are so many huts at Fahan that it has been suggested that this was a city of sorts. It is very hard to date the site though, as the corbelling technique has been used for centuries .
Trying to Date Fahan
There are two main theories behind the Fahan settlement.
The first is that the site was built as a monastic community where early Christianity was practiced . Nearby Mount Brandon was and still is a pilgrimage site. The mountain is named after Saint Brendan who was born in Tralee in around 484 AD. A pioneer of spreading the Christian faith, he is believed to have sailed to the Americas and back. From around the 6th Century, monks came to settle in this rugged part of the Ireland to follow the teachings of this religion and bring themselves closer to God through isolation. It is possible that this "city" was a monastic community, or even a refuge built to cater to the needs of visitors to the area.
The second theory is that the local people were driven to the remote parts of the peninsula following invasions by Vikings and then Normans.
It is widely thought that Fahan was built in the 12th Century when Normans began to settle in Ireland, forcing out local families whose land and livestock was taken . Exploring the adjacent area, there are plenty of signs of trouble. The remains of Norman castles stand watch over the lands they lorded over, whilst even in remote spots up high in the mountains can be found the remains of of more isolated clusters of beehive huts, and even defensive forts on islands within lochs. Clearly the people were driven to extremes by circumstances, and with stone being an abundant material, providing durable waterproof shelter, it proved to be the natural choice of material for such abodes.
Inside one of the Fahan structures
An Enduring Design
Perhaps the fascination with the Clochán is that these structures have withstood the test of time. Used since Neolithic times, these huts continued to be built around the Dingle Peninsula right into the 1950s. With ample stone available, it was a cheap and effective way to build shelter for animals and for storing goods.
Within a beehive hut, one is protected from the biting wind and merciless rains that sweep in from the Atlantic. I could find no information on what was used to cover the doorways though. Perhaps thick woollen curtains or fleeces were used? Later huts are built with wooden doors on hinges, and prior to the felling of the forests in much of Ireland, this too might have been a more common material making it possible for wooden doors to be used in the earlier Clochán structures.
Seeing more recent examples of these buildings, I also wondered whether turf was used for insulation to keep the heat in.
Corbelling can be seen everywhere in this area. From dry stone walls to ancient forts, the technique has been passed down through the generations and this skill is still preserved and put to good use in maintaining these precious sites for generations to come.
 Coach Fellas:Heritage and Tourism in Ireland, Kelli Ann Costa, ISBN 978-1598744071
 Ireland, Catharina Day, ISBN 978-1860110887
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© 2014 Pollyanna Jones