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Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 1°C
Culture Night

This Kerry peninsula shows how the Irish have communicated for thousands of years

An expert talks us through how it all works.

THIS FRIDAY – 16 September – Culture Night takes place across the island of Ireland. 

There will be a wealth of events taking place across towns, villages and cities, from gallery openings to talks. This week, we’ll be highlighting some of the more unusual happenings. Aoibheann Lambe will be giving a talk on Communications on Iveragh­ from the Present to the Stone Age on Friday. She’ll be talking about everything from rock art inscriptions to transatlantic cables. Here’s a flavour of what to expect. 

Rock Art reported by Lambe copy

Wildly beautiful and strategically located, the Iveragh Peninsula in Co Kerry has been a hub of communications for millennia.

Right up to the 1960s, the cable stations at Valentia and Waterville were operational,­ a third station at Ballinskelligs having closed in 1923.

A telegraphic cable, which was the precursor of the internet, radio and television, was used to send the first ever transatlantic cable message on 5 August 1858.

It was sent from Iveragh’s Valentia Island to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland, Canada.

Whereas the quickest a message could be received in Newfoundland before this point was only as quick as the fastest ship, the cable message would be received almost immediately.

But speed came at a price -­ each letter in a message cost $1, payable in gold.

Look Out Posts

Identical small flat­roofed huts, 9 feet by 13 feet, built from 137 interlocking pre­cast blocks of concrete, with a six angled window at sea­ward side were a familiar sight on Irish headlands.

These were Look Out Posts (LOPs) and 83 of them were constructed 8­10 miles apart along the coast from Dublin to Malin between the years 1939 and 1942, during WWII, ‘the Emergency’.

Close to the huts, the word EIRE and the identifying number assigned to the particular LOP were spelled out in stones painted white and in large enough to be visible from a plane, so they could provide a navigational aid.

They were manned around the clock by members of the Local Defence Forces. The training the watchers received included signalling and morse code.

These small buildings had a fireplace and were well equipped, with a telescope, binoculars, signal flags, lamps and bicycles. By mid1940, most LOPs also had phones and  served not only to watch out for ships and submarines, but provided a means of communication for the local community in the case of more personal emergencies.

The Iveragh LOPs were at Lambs Head, Bolus Head, Bray Head (in the old signal tower) and at Foileye near Kells.

Signal stations

Bolus Barracks


The French Revolution started in 1789 and by 1796, the First French Republic had made an unsuccessful attempt to assist the outlawed Society of United Irishmen in ousting the British at Bantry. This was followed by rebellions in Ireland, one in 1798 led by Wolfe Tone, leader of the United Irishmen and one in 1803, by Robert Emmet.

In the early 1800s, in response to the ongoing threat of a French invasion, the British Admiralty erected 81 signal stations along the coast of Ireland. Communication was with ships offshore and between adjacent signal stations along the coast.

Signalling was done from a 15m mast on the seaward side of the signal tower where one large rectangular flag and a smaller flag (a pennant) and four balls would be hoisted.

With good visibility, these signals could be seen by each adjacent station.

The Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo and the stations became obsolete and were abandoned. The signal station at Bray was re­used as a LOP during WWII.

Viking homes

Writing communicates on many levels beyond the literal meaning of the words. The language and alphabet used, the material on which the inscription is made and where it is located, all this and more can provide information and clues regarding many subjects including identity, population movement and belief systems.

In the 1950s, a Runic inscription, which was a rarity in Ireland, was found on a lintel stone on Beginish Island in Valentia Harbour.

The introduction of rabbits to the island in the 1920s caused erosion which led to the appearance 30 years later of a number of medieval houses which had been concealed beneath the sand.

Three of the houses on the island are listed as Viking/Hiberno­Norse, with two of them dating from the 10th and one from the 11th centuries. Viking artefacts were found there, including a soapstone bowl of 10th century Scandinavian type and a style of ringed pin you would not expect to find outside Viking Dublin.

The floor of the 11th century house is below ground level, and built in a style known as Grubenhaus, or sunken floor, construction. Employed in various parts of the world including Scandinavia, this style was not used in Irish construction.

Inside the entrance passage to this house was a Runic inscription, which is interpreted as reading: Uir erected this stone; Munulfr carved (the) runes.

Was there a particular significance attached to the physical act of carving Runes? A cross is also engraved on the stone suggesting that the Hiberno­Norse settlers had become Christian.

Ogham script

Signal Station Bray Head

The ogham script, dating from the 4th to the 8th centuries AD, is an alphabet based on the Roman one. It is composed of from one to five parallel lines or notches, placed on, to either side of, or diagonally across a stem­line called a flesc which is usually formed by the angle of a pillar stone.

Those placed on the line represent vowels while the remainder represent consonants. It is normally read from the bottom up.

Ogham is the earliest recorded form of the Irish language. There are 578 records of Ogham stones in Ireland, with the highest concentrations in the South, particularly in Co Kerry, including Iveragh.

However, Ogham stones are also found in Britain, particularly in Wales and Scotland, suggesting a movement of people from Ireland to these regions. An insight into the society that made them can be gleaned from the inscription, which normally comprises the name of a person followed by the name of the father, which is introduced by the word MAQI, meaning ‘son of’.

A much earlier form of communication is a form of engraving, once thought to date to the Bronze Age but increasingly believed to date from over four thousand years ago, to the Stone Age.

Rock art

liss rock art no watermark

Rather misleadingly referred to as ‘rock art’, it is composed of abstract geometric symbols on stone, often engraved on rocky outcrops located on mountain pasture.

Iveragh has the highest concentration of rock art sites in Ireland, with well over 200 examples of these enigmatic carvings ­- many new finds having been made by the author.

With such a wealth of rock art, Iveragh must have been an important destination. While history does not provide us with an explanation regarding the meaning and purpose of rock art, the same style of motifs that are found in Iveragh are found beyond Ireland in Spain, Portugal, Scotland, England, Wales, Switzerland and farther afield in Hawaii, Nevada, Namibia and many other countries.

While the motifs are highlighted by the slanting rays of the setting sun, they are spectacular by torch light.

The information on the Signal Towers, Look Out Posts and the Transatlantic Cable Station was kindly provided by Tom Horgan of Heritage Iveragh. The Iveragh Peninsula, An Archaeological Survey of South Kerry and The Iveragh Peninsula, A Cultural Atlas of the Ring of Kerry were valuable source materials for the other topics. Aoibheann Lambe is currently doing a research masters at UCC on the Rock Art of
Cork and Kerry. All photos: Aoibheann Lambe.

Communications on Iveragh from the Stone Age to the Present takes place at the Tech Amergin Community Arts and Education Centre in Waterville, Co Kerry, from 8.30 – 10.30pm. For more details, see here.

Read: Culture Night is back for its 11th year – and it just won’t stop growing>

Aoibheann Lambe
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