Belderrig Valley is located midway along the spectacular North Mayo landscape that stretches from Benwee Head to the west to Downpatrick Head to the east.
A billion years of earth’s history is visible in its rocks, one hundred thousand years of Ice Age activity is visible in its soils, seven thousand years of human history is visible in its archaeological remains, past climate change can be seen in its heather covered bogs. For over a century, Belderrig valley has attracted the attention of geologists, Ice Age experts, archaeologists and palaeobotanists from Ireland and abroad to study the world-status remains preserved in this region. Local knowledge and observation has always also played a part in telling the many stories of Belderrig’s past. In 1934, local schoolteacher Patrick Caulfield informed the National Museum of the occurrence of prehistoric farms underlying the bog where he cut turf in his native Belderrig. His son Seamas has spent over fifty years researching these early farms, mainly at the site discovered by him five miles east of Belderrig at Céide Fields. Now with his son Declan, who farms in Belderrig, they offer the Belderrig Valley Experience, an opportunity to experience some of the excitement of discovery by being shown through the informed eye, a selection of dramatic examples of archaeological and other subjects. The experience involves not just having the various elements pointed out, but in hearing the back story of their discovery and in participating in the methods used to reconstruct that story. To take just one example. The research over ther last half century which has led to the recognition of the oldest dairy farms known anywhere in the world originated from people including Patrick Caulfield cutting their bogs for fuel.. The Belderrig Valley Experience involves been shown how to cut turf with an exact replica of Patrick Caulfield’s original turfspade. Every sod of turf cut contains as many as a billion grains of ancient pollen, take one of your cut sods back to the laboratory and see under the microscope some of these five thousand year old plant remains, as distinctive as the plants which produced them. Under the expert eye of the palaeobotanist and months of identifying and quantifying the pollen of local plants we learn of the contrasts in farming between the earliest farmers who concentrated on animal husbandry and Bronze Age farmers two thousand years later who relied on wheat and barley growing.
Without having to look down a microscope, you can experience walking among the remains of an ancient forest from five thousand years ago, see the results of ancient storms in the fallen trees and the evidence of calamitous forest fires in the charred remains of some of the trees and stumps. Back in the laboratory, compare the ages of the individual trees by counting the tree rings and see the fluctuations in weather patterns over the years by the changes in the growth rings from year to year.
The ancient forest marks a dramatic interlude in the prehistory of food production in Belderrig Valley, coming after the first dairy farmers of the Stone Age and before the coming of the Bronze Age tillage farmers who grew wheat and barley on the still surviving cultivation ridges. In the lab, grind wheat and barley on the ancient form of milling stones, the saddle quern and contrast the work and output with the more modern rotary quern in use from two thousand years ago.
All of the above is available within a 500 metre radius of the specially built Research and Study Centre in Belderrig. Alternatively, one may wish for a less intensive concentration within the valley and opt for a sampling of the wider area by confining the Belderrig element to two hours followed by a personal tour of Céide Fields and ending with an extended visit to Downpatrick Head, an intriguing remnant of a much more extensive landscape of ritual, military defences, conflict and structures from the Second World War.
By Professor Seamas Caulfield
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webstevid from Declan Caulfield on Vimeo.