A stroll back in time

It was a favourite walk on warm summer days, through prickly yellow gorse and juicy, green fern

It was a favourite walk on warm summer days, through prickly yellow gorse and juicy, green fern. Across springy turf cropped to velvet by browsing sheep. Was there a path we had to follow? Hard to remember but it didn't matter anyway - the grown-ups knew the way: up the back of the Ballycorus lead-mines - where we spent our summers in the granite-built paymaster's cottage - turning left just below the woods and striking out towards Puck's Castle where, it was said, Niall of the Nine Hostages once spent the night. But Niall was just a history-book hero and we were after excitement of a much more tangible nature - the gloriously-named Skull Hole. When we got to it, we looked over its rim, staring down silently at the pile of human bones that filled it.

Once, I skipped home brandishing my trophy - a long, dried yellow bone, its surface honeycombed by time - and wielded it to hack at the nettles that got in my way. I was careless of its rightful owner until a grown-up said, as they always did: "Someone's going to be coming after you on the Day of the Resurrection, looking for their leg." For a brief moment, the hand of God hovered, but I knew I wasn't the only one. My brother here in Dublin admits to taking a bone and my sister in South Africa emails, only last week, to say she did too. In any case, there were more immediate things to think about, like whose turn was it to go to the well for water? Had we enough candles to brighten the gloom cast by night clouds advancing across the sky from the Three Rock Mountain? And was there a good sack of fir cones in to make a fire when the night turned chilly?

The unsolved mystery of the Skull Hole stayed well beyond childhood. Whose were the bones? Was it a secret only Ballycorus people were privy to? Certainly, no one I talked to knew of it. I'd always intended going in search of it, though how I was going to get there I had no idea: no grown-ups to guide me now. And then I saw the schedule for Daonscoil Atha Cliath, the Dublin Folklore School, and found they had a guided walk planned to Ballycorus and its environs. Which is how, a few weeks ago, I found myself in the hummocky old disused graveyard of Rathmichael Church - up the road from Shankill - sitting on the warm stones of the ruined church, feeling the Skull Hole was somewhere near but where? And then I found it, there, in the graveyard: the remains of a round tower, its 9th century base forming a perfect six-foot-high circle among the greenery. Someone gave me a leg up and I looked down, once again, into its unfathomable depths. But there were no bones, just a few papery remnants of flowers tidied up from the subsiding graves.

Eddie Mulkeen, who led the walk, told us the history of the old church, once part of a 6th-century monastic settlement, pointing out the stone-carved circles with their radiating lines, which the Office of Public Works had set into its walls for safe keeping - an indication that the site had possibly once been used by sun-worshippers. It was a phone call to Donald Caird however, that clarified the Skull Hole for me. Once the rector of Rathmichael Church of Ireland church - "and Archbishop of Dublin," he gently reminded me - he is the fount of all knowledge when it comes to the area, though he denies this and says there are others who know a lot more, and who have written books on the subject. Books I should read, he tells me sternly. And indeed I will. But childhood memories have to be laid to rest now, while I'm on the phone to him, so he explains about the Skull Hole.


In the old days - speaking relatively - new coffins weighed heavier than the old ones and so these were dug up, the new ones lowered and the old ones put back on top. And as time and nature did their work, the old coffins disintegrated, exposing their contents to the elements. When bones rose to the surface, therefore, they were put (I can't bring myself to say thrown) into the handiest receptacle there was - the unofficial ossuary of the Round Tower.

And so, the Skull Hole located and lunch consumed among the head-stones, we continued our walk along the Ballycorus Road, past the former National School which I attended briefly, one summer, insisting I go barefoot like the other children so as not to betray my Dublin bourgeois origins. And then on up the hill to where we used to live and where I learned from Eddie about leadmining and the shot tower. This last, while not actually a dolmen round my childhood, was an integral part of it - though I never imagined it had a role to play in military history. What happened was this: the lead was quarried locally. That part that was to be used as shot was heated to a molten state, taken to the top of the tower and then passed through a sieve. Emerging from the sieve, it fell like raindrops 30 metres down the inside of the tower. As it hurtled through space, each circular shape was reinforced. At the bottom of the tower was a vat of water into which the thousands of leaden drops fell like a rainstorm and there they cooled and hardened off, ready to be loaded into the shot gun.

But like the ownership of the bones from the Skull Hole, death by lead shot was not something that impinged on my childhood. Those warm days of summer - when the highlight of the week was a walk, when everyone gathered to sit on the granite steps of the paymaster's house to talk and sing long into the night, when bread was delivered once a week and mushrooms were something you got up early to pick - those days were the best when, irreverently brandishing a human bone, you could hold time in your hand, and keep it at bay.

Daonscoil Atha Cliath has weekly guided visits to places of local interest. Contact number: 01 276 2390. Annual membership: £10. Reading list suggested by the the Rev Doctor A. F. Caird for anyone interested in the Ballycorus/Rathmichael area: If You Seek Monuments, by Kathleen Turner, Stones of Bray by Canon Scott and Between the Mountains and the Sea by Peter Pearson.

Mary Russell can be contacted at Russe14@ibm.net