What first enabled the bog to grow in this region is debatable. Some believe that it was a change in climate or high amount of rainfall that eroded the soil's nutrients enabling the growth of bog-forming plants which require minimum sustenance and thrive in saturated conditions. Others feel it was the human impact on the forested environment that permitted the necessary conditions for the bog. It is likely that a combination of both climate and human intervention caused the optimal environment for the blanket bog to develop.
Although the origins of the bog are debated, it was certainly because of the bog that the Céide Fields became unsustainable. The fertility of the soil deteriorated, forcing the population to leave. It was a relatively slow decline, possibly occurring over centuries.
The lands around Ballycastle and to the east, along Killala Bay, were not affected by the rising bog, and it is likely that many of the Céide Fields' inhabitants relocated not far from the area.
Today, the Céide Fields is much more than an archaeological site. In 1989, Dr. Seamus Caulfield and Professor Martin Downes began the project for the Céide Fields Visitor Centre. The Office of Public Works (OPW) of Ireland designed the award-winning center and it was opened in 1993. Interestingly, the Mayo 5,000, celebrating the 5,000 years of the Céide Fields existence and the center's grand opening, featured a fledgling performer by the name of Michael Flatley. It was this festival that catapulted him into the spotlight and it was all because of the Céide Fields.
The center cuts an imposing outline rising as a pyramid from the landscape of the bog. The building is almost seamlessly built into the sensitive environment. According to the OPW, the building and all of its aspects are a "metaphor for the layers of history of man and the landscape in time, which is the subject matter of the exhibition."
The architects stipulated the use of natural durable materials for its construction. The interior of the building is composed of oak, sandstone and glass, with the materials becoming lighter in color as one approaches the glass-peaked observation tower. The center blends so well into its landscape that when approached from a distance the building is easily mistaken as another summit in the nearby island grouping, the Stags of Broadhaven.
The center houses exhibits on not only the site's human history but also its rich geological and botanical records. The focal point is the 4,300-year-old Scots Pine tree trunk that preserved by the bog.
The geology of the area adds to the site's beauty. The Céide Cliffs (on which the Céide Fields rest) are over 300 million years old and rise up to 370 feet above sea level. These horizontal limestone and shale cliffs, although not quite as large as the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, are certainly as awe-inspiring with much less of a crowd.
The Céide Fields staff is impressive. I arrived in the midst of the winter holidays, the most inconvenient time of the year to be given a personal tour, as the visitor center is closed during this season. Gretta Byrne, a Céide Fields archaeologist, took time out of her holiday to brave the roads from Dublin and meet me there. It was Ms. Byrne who brought the Céide Fields' history to life. She patiently answered all questions and was enthusiastic about the field's archaeology and preservation.
At the Céide Fields, there is something of interest for everyone, be it history, botany, geology, award-winning architecture, or the center's tearoom. It is a great experience in a wonderful setting.
And if you go in the summer there are beautiful wildflowers and I hear a bit of sunshine.
The Céide Fields is located 8km west of Ballycastle, Mayo. The site is open from mid-March to May 17, June 1 to September 18, and from October 1 to November 17. The price of admission is 3.50 euros for adults, 2.50 euros for seniors and groups and 1.25 for students and children.
For more information contact the Céide Fields' Visitor Center:
Tel: 011 353 96 43325
Fax: 011 353 96 43261