Mizen Magic 15: Long Island

The summer sun is falling soft on Carbery’s hundred isles— 
The summer sun is gleaming still through Gabriel’s rough defiles—

(from Thomas Osborne Davis The Sack of Baltimore 1844)

Up here in Nead an Iolair (Eagle’s Nest) we look out over the Carbery Islands. There are supposed to be a hundred of them, although some are just little rocky outcrops: the tips of underwater mountains at the margins – and the mercy – of the Atlantic.

Horse Island, Castle Island and Long Island lie along the length of the coast below us. Peter Somerville-Large (The Coast of West Cork 1972) quotes a tradition that they all used to be one island:

In the latter end of March, AD 830, Hugh Domdighe being monarch of Ireland, there happened terrible shocks of thunder and lightning . . . At the same time the sea broke through the banks in a most violent manner, The Island, then called Innisfadda, on the west coast of this country was forced asunder and divided into three parts.

Long Island is still known as Inis Fada in the Irish language: the Anglicised name is a direct translation; header – the long road that winds from East to West on Long Island; second picture – the Wester village seen above the Atlantic breakers on the wild and battered far shore

We had a day’s adventure on the island, walking almost the full length of it; Finola was madly busy identifying all the wildflowers. It’s part of the magic of Long Island that we covered a distance of over 10 kilometres in the day, although the length of the island tip to tip is just over 4k. There is a regular ferry to the island from Colla Pier (not every day of the week), but we chose to travel from Schull pier with Helen of Schull Sea Safari (a whale watching trip with Helen will be a future outing for us). Our mode of transport was Helen’s very fine large RIB, the Kealtra – superbly equipped. With a hard south-easterly wind the waters were very choppy and we had to be fully kitted out for the crossing!

Upper – intrepid travellers kitted out for a choppy crossing on the Kealtra! Lower – skipper Donie taking the RIB out of Schull Harbour

After the heady excitement of a blustery crossing, stepping on to the tranquil world of Long Island is a magical experience. You are immediately aware that the place holds memories – and ghosts – but is still a community in the modern world thriving against the odds.

Everywhere there are signs of the past: abandonment, fading history, but also livings still being forged from the environment. The sadness is the obvious population decline. Looking through the available census records, a melancholic picture emerges: 1841 – population 305; 1911 – population 143; 1951 – population 74; 1991 – population 11; today – population 7 (and that’s an increase of 1 from 2 years ago). There was once a school: the decaying building is now a lonely waymark at the centre of the island’s single boreen.

The Island School – long deserted and gently decomposing

Peter Somerville-Large in conversation with the local residents during his visit half a  century ago:

I talked to Mr McCarthy, who had lived here all his life and could remember when the place had been full of fishermen all speaking a mixture of Irish and English. One by one he had watched them leave. A dozen families still remained, comprising perhaps forty people altogether. The school had shrunk year by year, to four pupils, then two – it closed after that. There was neither electricity, nor any shop – nothing to keep the young from making the short crossing over to the mainland. It would take them fifteen minutes, according to wind and weather. There they disappeared for ever. When the old ones like himself died out the place would become empty.

Contrasts at the west end of Long Island

Although there are many houses that are intact and well looked-after (a number are holiday homes), you would think that the odds were ultimately stacked against the survival of this island. Yet those who do live here full-time have tenacity – and there is fresh energy. Helen and Maurice have built their own new house and run businesses which allow them to be island based, while Castaway East is a ‘Place of New Beginnings’, a venture offering B & B or full board and – if you want – retreat packages to recharge your batteries. Peter and Tracy are also experts in garden landscaping as can be seen from the works they have carried out for themselves.

The East end of the Island: you can walk past Peter and Tracy’s ‘Island Retreat’ to the old copper mine and navigation beacon

We were pleased to find that the island’s well has been maintained and presented in excellent order – mainly by Joe, one of the Islanders. It’s a little haven, not to be missed. The day’s adventure gave us so much photogenic material – I will be returning to this magical place in next week’s post.

Long Island Wildflowers – a Reconnaissance

Robert and I set off on Tuesday for Long Island and enjoyed everything about it. See his post Mizen Magic 15: Long Island for a full account of our day. One of Roaringwater Journal’s New Year Resolutions was to spend more time on the islands and this was an excellent start! I was there mainly to take a look at the wild flowers, with a view to leading a wildflower walk there later in the year. Do let me know if you’d be interested in coming along, in the comments section below.

I’m used to seeing Bird-foot Trefoil in my garden, but here it’s spread to the stony beach and looks wonderful

Wildflowers come and go, so what I saw was a lovely selection of late spring and early summer blooms. I also got a feel for the character of the island and the habitats it hosts.

The maritime habitat was rich with Thrift, Trefoil, Kidney Vetch (also the lower photo) and Sea Campion

It would be lovely to be able to say that the island is pristine and free of invasive species, but alas we did see some Japanese Knotweed along the way. We are left scratching our heads as to how it manages to spread like that.

The uncultivated higher ground was particularly colourful, with Lousewort predominating. In this photograph you can also see the yellow of Tormentil and the pale flowers of Common Milkwort (see below for more on this Milkwort)

I don’t think I have ever seen such a profusion of Lousewort (below) anywhere else and this is one of the things that gives Long Island a particular colour at this time of year. It’s not a pretty name, for what is, in fact a beautiful little plant, but it was so called because it was believed that sheep got lice from eating it. This has never been proven, but the name stuck. Long Island, with its acres of damp moorland, provides the perfect habitat for Lousewort.

It’s also perfect for Tormentil and Common Milkwort (below). This last flower is tiny – you have to get your face up close to the grass to see it and it’s normally a deep purply-blue. However, on Long Island there were lots of very pale Milkwort, almost white. Although I knew that Milkwort came in pink and white, besides dark blue, I had only seen blue before this year. Now I have to find some pink!

The Yellow Iris (below), which most people call Flags, are in abundance in all the marshy areas, creating a colourful swath here and there. Up close, they are very dramatic. Here, it’s native and welcome, but in North America it has become invasive, choking waterways and displacing native plants.

A couple of unusual flowers to end with, beginning with Musk Stork’s-bill (below). I found this little beauty before in a graveyard in Rosscarbery but this is the first time I have seen it near where I live. It’s described as ‘probably introduced’ which means that it’s not native but has been here a long time.

The flowers of the Stork’s-bill look very like a Crane’s-bill, but the leaves are hairy and they have these funny spiky seed pods, both of which help in identification

Finally – who can resist an orchid? There are several kinds of Marsh Orchid, but I think this one (above and below) is the Irish Marsh Orchid. We saw it before on Cape Clear, so it obviously loves islands! I was glad I had my hand lens with me, as this is best viewed close up.

 

Witches’ Marks and Lovelorn Shepherds: Inscribed Rock Art in a Remote Valley

One day in the summer of 1972 I set off on my Honda 50, backpack full of recording tools, to find a new and different example of rock art. This was not my usual prehistoric cup-and-ring carving, but inscribed or scratched markings in a ‘cave.’ When I returned yesterday, 47 years later, it was to a place even more remote and wildly beautiful than it had been in my memory. Read Robert’s post for a full account of our walk up the Valley of the Cooleenlemane River.

The site itself is arresting. Huge slabs lean against each other to form three shelters – nowadays harbouring sheep but in times past, perhaps humans. There is an account in the Halls’ Tour of Ireland of an encounter they had with a family living in this area in what looks remarkably like our destination.

The House of Rocks from Ireland, Its Scenery, Character, &c by Mr and Mrs S C Hall, page 149. Drawn by A Nicholl, engraved by Landells

The ‘caves’ are known locally as the Bealick – Pat Joe pronounced it The Bay Lick. Leach (pronounced lack) is the word for a flagstone or slab so this could be a reference to the enormous stones themselves, but baoleach (pronounced bway-lock) is also the Irish word for dangerous, which may refer to beliefs about the power of the place. The townland name, Cooleenlemane, could mean the Little Nook of the Rock Outcrop, or it could mean the Rock Outcrop at the Remote End (of the valley). Either way, it’s apt.

The arrow points to the Bealick: you can see it from a long way away as you walk up the valley

We’ve written many posts about rock art in this blog, but the closest we’ve come previously to dealing with Inscribed markings was Robert’s post on the Aultagh stone, which has been suggested as an Ogham (or fake-Ogham) stone. This one is very different.

This type of site has been described most comprehensively in Elizabeth Shee Twohig’s paper, An Enduring Tradition, Incised Rock Art in Ireland in the 2014 book From Megaliths to Metal: Essays in Honour of George Eogan. She coins the term COMBS, based on where these kinds of marks occur – Caves, Outcrops, Megaliths and Boulder-Shelters, and gives details on the ones that have been documented to date, including the list I included in my 1973 thesis.

I described and drew three of the sites then – Glanrastel, Kealanine and Cooleenlemane – and I hope to get back to the others also. Of the three, Cooleenlemane has the greatest range of markings. There are three caves here, but markings only in two, which I labelled the East and West Cave. The markings run the full gamut of Shee Twohig’s motif range. There are also initials and words and letters that do not form words but that seem to run together.

The East Cave has the widest range of markings

This is what I wrote in my 1973 thesis about how the carvings were made:

The three sites of Glanrastel, Kealanine and Cooleenlemane share an identical incising technique. The markings have a V-shaped cross-section with smooth faces. In the case of the lighter marks, this effect could have been achieved by scratching with a strong knife, and at Kealanine and Cooleenlemane this technique accounts for many of the initials and letters, and some of the straight strokes. The deeper strokes were probably made by reaming with the end of a pointed tool. This tool need not have been metal. Identical techniques of marking have been identified by Shee. . . from passage-graves, which she suggests were executed with the edge of a stone axe.

The West Cave has more words and letters

At the time, we had no idea how to interpret these kinds of markings. I did say in my thesis they were more likely to be historic rather than prehistoric, and pointed out the Christian nature of the many cross motifs. The initials and words are, of course, fully modern.

But in fact, incised markings such as these are known from many contexts, including prehistoric. They are widely distributed in southern Europe, where they may be associated with figurative carvings also. The 2014 Proceedings of the XVII UISPP World Congress was published as Post-Paleolithic Filiform Rock Art in Western Europe, filiform being the word chosen to describe incised rather than pecked rock art. A chart of what the authors call The Geometric Type (above) contain many motifs that would be at home in Cooleenlemane. Some of these may date from the Bronze Age or the iron Age.

Shee Twohig also points out the long and varied traditions of marks of the COMBS type, including Early Medieval inscribed crosses on rock outcrops, and thirteenth century mason’s marks. You may remember our post about Keith Payne’s exhibition, Early Marks: inspired by Genevieve von Petzinger’s book The First Signs, he depicted many such inscribed markings, including one from Blombos Cave in South Africa, reckoned to be 75,000 years old.

A recent discovery at Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire generated excitement earlier this year and may hold the answer to the puzzle of what at least some of these marks are all about. Dubbed Witches’ Marks, they are believed to have been tokens to ward off evil spirits. According to this BBC piece Protection marks are most commonly found in medieval churches and houses, near the entrance points, particularly doorways, windows and fireplaces. They are also often found in caves and shelters, near the entrance.

I said some of those marks – The initials and words, to my mind are equally important as evidence of our enduring need to leave our, er, mark on the world. How many generations of DKs (Several Dinny Keohanes, apparently, lived around the valley) carved their initials and hoped to be remembered? And was someone in the West Cave, in the time honoured-tradition of the love-struck everywhere, trying to make a declaration while sheltering with his sheep against a spring gale?

In the inevitable way of such special places in Ireland, the Bealick eventually became known as a Mass Rock (see this post for an explanation and examples) and it is described thus in the National Monuments records (Monument number CO091-003). Indeed, it would have made an excellent location for a mass rock, remote and hidden in its lonely valley.

From this angle you can see the three caves. There are no markings in the closest one

Seeing it again after all these years, I was struck by wonder at how my 22 year-old self managed to find it (I suspect I would have applied to the nearest dwelling and been directed there after multiple cups of tea and slices of brown bread) and to draw it. It must have taken hours then, but the 20 minutes I spent stooped inside yesterday trying to get photographs just about crippled me. But mostly what I felt was gratitude – first for the privilege I had been granted all those years ago of doing something so exciting and important for my thesis, and second for the untouched and pristine nature of the Bealick and its setting.

(Thanks, Keith, for the inspiration for this shot)

Coleenlemane – A Walk into History

Finola has written about the destination of our adventures yesterday – the inscribed ‘caves’ at Coleenlemane. Above is a photo of the view from the ‘cave’ entrance, looking back at the glen which we journeyed across. My post today is about that journey on foot through decades of human history and thousands of years of topographical transformation.

Upper – looking back and leaving the world behind: a rough track climbs up from the entrance to the Coleenlemane valley and very soon we were absorbed into the wild emptiness of the mountainsides (lower)

When I looked into the furthest reaches of the glen as we made our way over the rocky track I saw first, in my mind’s eye, the movement of the glacier which shaped it – the splintering, shuddering path it took and the debris it left in its wake: strangely distorted outcrops and huge erratic boulders feigning dice unrestrainedly scattered by a random hand.

Scribings on the rocks in the glen of Coleenlemane: these are made by nature (and the movement of glaciers) long before humans appeared in Ireland. I often wonder whether observation of these marks could have inspired our earliest artists?

Then I couldn’t help the vision that came into my mind of herds of the huge Irish Elk – Megaloceros giganteus – that ruled places such as this in Ireland after the ice receded 10,000 years ago. It was around that time that human habitation came back to these revitalised lands: some say that it was human hunters who wiped out the elk – and the bear – in Ireland using spears, bows and rocks. When you are immersed in these wild places, with no signs of the 21st century around you, it is easy to imagine such scenes from the distant past.

But – lonely and remote as this valley seems today – there is significant evidence of enduring human occupation here. As we journeyed up to the ‘caves’ we were tracing ancient tracks and paths and saw the remains of several settlements: stone walls, enclosures including a cashel, and many haphazard piles of rock that presumably came from rudimentary field clearances. We had the good fortune to meet and talk to Pat Joe O’Leary, who resides in the last house before you enter the glen, and he told us that sixteen families had lived out here.

Some of the many traces that remain of the dwellings which were once occupied by  families eking out their lives in the remoteness of Coleenlemane and (lower image) piles of stones cleared from the lands to provide pastures and potato beds

It’s right to describe the stories that Pat Joe told us as living memories, because he carries them. His own family has lived in the valley for generations so – like the bards of old – he is the keeper of the traditions and lore of the area. One of his tales was about a man from the glen who was the last to be hanged in Cork gaol. His name was Timothy Cadogan, and he was accused of the murder of William Bird, a land agent, at Bantry in 1900. Tim Cadogan was from one of the families who lived in Coleenlemane – who had been evicted by Bird – and Pat Joe assured us that the name T Cadogan is inscribed on a stone beside one of the old buildings in the valley. Unfortunately, we did not hear this until we were returning from our expedition, so missed seeing the stone. Interestingly there is a record in the Schools Folklore Collection – in Irish – describing the same event, more or less in the same words that Pat Joe used. The event occurred in 1900, became recorded as folklore in 1936, and was told to us as oral tradition in 2019!

Contemporary newspaper account of the hanging of Timothy Cadogan – formerly from Coleenamane – on 11 January 1901. Cadogan was tried twice before being sentenced to hang. The ‘Bungled Execution’ is reported as a failure on the part of the executioner, causing the condemned man to suffer a long, slow death by strangulation

Ignorant of such thoughts of the harsh realities of the world – even this far-away corner of it – we reached our destination: the ‘caves’. This is an unusual rock formation where a large outcrop has been split into enormous slabs, probably through glacial action. The rocks lean against each other and form crude shelters, within which are the inscribed surfaces. Finola’s post describes these in detail.

The rocks which form the ‘caves’ have a brooding presence on the landscape. It’s not surprising that they harbour enigmatic symbols with some possible other-worldly connotations

In addition to the sites of old farms and cottages that we passed by and explored on our trail, we clearly saw the imprint of ‘lazy-beds’ – ridge and furrow arable cultivation methods traditionally used in Ireland for planting the potato. These took our minds back to famine times and the harsh reality of having to forge an existence out of minimal resources. Also, we could only wonder at how clearly life – and history – have been etched into these aged and incredibly beautiful landscapes.

The very clear impressions of the potato beds which tell of the subsistence farming practiced for generations in Coleenlemane accompanied our hike

Looking back on our day in the wildness of West Cork, my abiding memories are beauty and poignancy. I have used this term before – achingly beautiful – and I often have to return to it in order to try to sum up my own emotional reaction to such unique places in Ireland. You won’t find these places in tourist guides – getting here is hard work! Nor will you find very much recorded in the archaeological records about Coleenlemane. But everything you see here is Ireland’s real history – deep, deep history; we are fortunate in every step we take into it.

Aspects of Baltimore

“…The fish are knocking at our doors but we haven’t a bucket to take them from the water…” – This was Father Charles Davis, Parish Priest of Rath and The Islands, appealing to Queen Victoria shortly after his appointment to the area in the 1860s. He and three Cape Clear fishermen had been granted an audience to explain the near famine conditions that still prevailed in West Cork, and the priest’s proposal to build a fisheries school and establish a new fleet of boats in the town of Baltimore.

Header and above: the huge goods shed and boatbuilding slip that were established in Baltimore following Father Davis’s successful appeal to the Queen

Help came when the Queen directed the appellants to Baroness Burdett-Coutts – the richest woman in Britain: we met her in Flying Foam, my quest to find out as much as I could about the remains of an old fishing boat that lie submerged by the tide in Rossbrin Cove. That quest is ongoing – and has grown in complexity – but today’s little journey takes us to Baltimore, not too far from Rossbrin, especially as the foam flies. We have been to that lively little town many times (not least to enjoy the annual Fiddle Fair – this year’s is coming up at the weekend!), but never before have we taken a close look at the stories surrounding the fishing industry – and the extensive evidence of it which still exists.

I have always been fascinated by Industrial Archaeology, and I’ll search out any remnants of old workings, canals, railways and engineering structures that can be traced in the field, wherever I happen to wander. Baltimore offers a wealth of finds, and most of them can be traced back to Father Davis’s positive influence on the fortunes of the town in the late nineteenth century.

The big slip – where Baltimore’s own fishing fleet was launched and prospered, with the town’s working harbour in the distance: from there boats ply every day to Sherkin and Cape Clear

Prior to the work of Father Charles, Baltimore was a resting place and servicing centre for the large Manx fleet and boats from England and Scotland, all reaping the harvest of the sea on the fringes of the Atlantic. As the century progressed, the priest saw his vision realised: between 1880 and 1926 Baltimore was the largest fishing port in the country and 78 fishing vessels were registered locally. The local economy was also boosted by boatbuilding and net making, as well as providing a hub for the transporting of goods to and from all the inhabited islands of Roaringwater Bay.

Harsh, unpaid work – net making by the boys at the Baltimore Fishery School – later the National School

Father Davis pursued a previously conceived project of establishing a fishing school in Baltimore. A grant of £1,000 was made to this by the  Grand Jury of County Cork, and the Treasury, at the instance of Arthur Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland (and later Prime Minister of Britain) granted £5,500 towards the completion and fitting-up of the school. In 1886 the Fishery School was formally opened by Baroness Burdett-Coutts.

From an encyclopedia illustration: the Burdett-Coutts portrayed with the new Baltimore Fishery School in the 1880s. The picture below is of the medieval castle at Oldcourt, further up the Ilen River

Fr Davis was not yet at the end of his labours in connection with the fishing in Baltimore. He was aware that one of the great disadvantages under which the fishermen of the region laboured was the difficulty of transporting the fish to the English markets. This was ordinarily accomplished by steamers from Baltimore to Milford Haven, Wales. However, there were times when these steamers were not available, and it was necessary to send the fish via Dublin and Holyhead. In these cases the fish had to be carted from Baltimore to Skibbereen, with the result that the fish greatly deteriorated in transit. To remedy this problem, Fr Davis set about getting a railway link between Skibbereen and Baltimore. This project, when first started, seemed to have little promise of success, but Fr Davis was not discouraged. He enlisted on his side the sympathies of a great number of Nationalist members of Parliament and of many who were not of Nationalist politics. He also enlisted the powerful aid of Baroness Burdett-Coutts. In the end his efforts were crowned with success when a bill for the Baltimore railway was passed by Parliament. However, he never lived to see the railway line open on the 2nd May 1893.

(Notes from the Diocese of Cork and Ross)

Baltimore Station – the most southerly railway terminus in Ireland – is still intact today, although now deserted and derelict following a previous incarnation as a sailing school. Good Friday, March 31st, 1961, is a date which will be remembered by many in West Cork as the loss of a lifeline to the outside world. Despite ‘the greatest civil protest since the foundation of the State’, the West Cork railways closed down.

The three photographs above are borrowed from the blog Beneath the Summer Growth – an excellent site which has covered many aspects of Irish industrial archaeology. I could not find a direct acknowledgement for these pictures, which are the best I have found on the Baltimore line. Upper – the railway line at its furthest point, on Baltimore Pier (1961); centre – Baltimore Station when it was still working (1961) – on the left is the large goods shed; bottom – Baltimore Station in 1962, when the trackbed was being taken up

In spite of the loss of its railway, and the decimation of its fishing fleet, Baltimore thrives today as a working town – with its ferry terminals serving the Islands – and a popular West Cork tourist destination.

Baltimore Station and its accoutrements still very much in existence today, although now disused and with no plans for the future

At one stage there were seven trains every day out of Baltimore, all carrying fish for the American market. But the good times didn’t last and in the early 1950s the National School (formerly the Fishery School) closed. You may not want to know the full story of this institution: it has been told – starkly – by Alfred O’Mahony – who was a resident there between 1941 and 1947. The story entails abuses of many kinds: beatings, hunger, harsh conditions – the building was unheated and the boys had to endure the winter of 1947, the coldest on record in Ireland. I will quote a single example – the state of the sanitary facilities:

The outdoor lavatories were wedged between the play hall and the laundry. The ten cubicles there had splintered and rotted half-doors hanging from large rusted hinges. The large roundels in the cubicles had once supported the original giant chamber pots which, on becoming rusted and holed, were sometime in the forgotten past discarded and never replaced. Despite our ignorance about these matters, our outside lavatories were called “The Pots”. At a call of nature we mounted the wooden pot supports to bare our bottoms and let go through the roundels, but when the icy blasts of winter blowing through the roundels caused goose pimples and chattering teeth we used the floor until the underfoot conditions forced us to use the open-air compound behind the cubicles. There was no water supply there from any pipe or stream, and no wipes of any kind were available to us; only the falling rains washed the place. When we left the play hall for a call of nature on a rainy wintry night we had to negotiate through the slurry in the unlit lavatory compound; when we returned with soiled clogs we exuded a mighty stench. Once every fortnight Jer the farm labourer shovelled the human waste into a cart, and as the load was pulled by Ned, the institution’s donkey, through the precincts, the pong forced us all to turn away in disgust. Father McCarthy deemed in 1945 that the appearance of our outside lavatories was an eyesore to visitors and ordered the building of a six-foot-high concrete wall, and in doing so he concealed the perfect conditions for a cholera epidemic that could have wiped us off the face of the earth.

(Alfred O’Mahony, The Way We Were Inspire Books, Skibbereen 2011)

It’s probably a good thing that no part of the former Fishery School and National School remains today: the site has been completely redeveloped (above). There is a memorial, a simple carved granite stone which leaves a whole lot unsaid. What makes me shiver is the fact that this maltreatment happened not in the Victorian era of child labour – grotesque and inhumane conditions such as those which Charles Dickens vehemently campaigned to highlight and eradicate in the middle of the nineteenth century – but in my own lifetime.

Off the M8: Fethard Walled Town

Fethard is nestled snugly in Tipperary’s Golden Vale, famously rich agricultural land, and is nowadays well-known for raising legendary race horses. But it also happens to be the town in Ireland with the most intact set of medieval walls. The map above (taken from Fethard’s Conservation and Management Plan) shows how the town would have looked in the 1850s when George Victor du Noyer came through.

We drive the M8 often and we’re always looking for ways to vary the journey, so this post is part of our ‘Off the M8’ series. Fethard is an easy detour: if you’re heading north, leave the M8 at Exit 10 just after Cahir and re-join it at Horse and Jockey or at Urlingford. You’ll be travelling along lovely quiet roads parallel to the motorway and depending on how much time you spend in Fethard, the whole detour should add a couple of hours (or maybe three) to your journey.

Fethard also happens to have some lovely old shop fronts. This one dates to 1770

We started off at the visitor centre in the old Tholsel, or Town Hall. It’s been nicely restored and features an excellent audio-visual presentation, and upstairs many colourful explanatory panels. The staff was friendly and very informative, with an obvious passion for their town and its history.

From the Tholsel Visitor Centre, you look down over Trinity Church and the walls

The town was founded around 1200, and walled soon after, when Edward I granted the right to raise money through what was known as ‘murage grants’. This continued over the next couple of centuries, in fact most of the walls were built (or rebuilt) in the 15th century. We tend to think of town walls as primarily for defensive purposes, and indeed the town was attacked on more than one occasions. But walls were also important demarcations of commerce. The market was held within the walls and according to Tadhg O’Keefe (in the Irish Historic Towns Atlas):

The walls were a barrier through which those wishing to trade in Fethard had to enter, so they articulated, especially with guarded gateways, the differences of privilege and opportunity between those who lived within and those who entered from without.

There is only one gate left, the North Gate, which we actually didn’t see. But when our old friend Du Noyer came through in the 1850s there was still a gate at the west end of the town (below). It guarded the entrance at the bridge known as Madam’s Bridge and had what O’Keefe describes as a rare type of Gate incorporating a three story fifteenth century tower house.

Despite the walls, the town was attacked and burned on several occasion – but not (unlike so many Irish towns) by Cromwell! In fact, the town surrendered, under terms, and was spared the violent destruction that the Parliamentary army visited on so many other Irish towns. This doesn’t exactly make Cromwell popular in Fethard, in fact there is still a tradition in the town that ‘people will not go out the way that Cromwell came in’ so that funerals, for example, take a circuitous route to the cemetery to avoid retracing his tracks.

Like Youghal, the other Irish town with a significant extent of wall, there were tower houses along the wall, and within the town there were fortified town houses. Some are obvious and some are hidden behind more modern facades. Court Castle is one of the obvious ones, but the house next to it, known as the Watergate House, has a base batter that marks it out as fifteenth century (both images, below).

Within the walls and behind the Tholsel is Trinity Church. Because there is so much going on in and around it, I will quote the Buildings of Ireland summary in full:

Like the Town Hall and the Augustinian Abbey, the medieval parish church is a multi-period building of outstanding architectural, archaeological and historical importance. The church stands at the heart of the medieval walled town and the focus for the extraordinary number of late medieval structures arranged around the sides of the graveyard with rear entrances allowing direct access to the graveyard. The size and design of the church reflect Fethard’s prosperity in the medieval and early modern periods, the different types of windows, from different eras, emphasise the continuity of use. The impressive tower, that is highly visible for a considerable distance, is a particularly important and dramatic example of fifteenth-century craftsmanship, and is especially evocative of the medieval era as it stands picturesquely and appropriately inside the almost entirely intact medieval town wall and close to a impressively rare grouping of late medieval houses and almshouses. The interior has a finely crafted timber screen to the vestibule, and at the east end a stained-glass window with Eucharistic motifs, both highly decorative, and showing care and attention in the design as well as the execution. The recently timber roof to the nave, recently dated to of c.1489, is of exceptional importance as it is one of a small number of medieval roofs surviving in Ireland and is almost entirely intact.

Trinity, the graveyard and medieval church remains on the left and the town walls on the right

Unfortunately, the church itself was closed when we were there. It’s still very much in use, though, and there was some tidying up taking place in the graveyard. I’d like to go back for another poke around sometime.

Down by the Watergate we came across one of Fethard’s two Sheela-na-gigs. (See this post for more about the Sheelas). This one is typical – a female figure displaying her genitalia, but unusual in her emaciated form with ribs clearly shown, staring eyes and a grimace. We didn’t have time to see the other one, which means a) you (yes, you, Dear Reader) have to, and let us know and b) we have to go back.

We also met Fethard’s famous geese down here too, along with their owner. They are pets, he told us, but don’t go too near the male as he is guarding the female carefully at the moment as she is just taking a little break from sitting on eggs.

The walls are extensive, with long stretches very much intact. Edmund’s Castle and a mural tower known as Fethard Castle punctuate the wall on the river side.

I was fascinated by the flowers growing all over the walls. I expected Ivy-leaved Toadflax and Wallflowers, but it was fun to see Fairy Foxglove also: it’s an alpine plant and so it likes high rocky places. The only other place I have seen it here is on the Martello Tower at Illnacullen/Garnish Island, off Glengarriff.

Upper: Fethard Tower, with Trinity Church bell tower behind the wall. Lower: Fairy Foxglove growing high on the wall

Because it also happens to be the end wall of people’s gardens, the wall is breached here and there by entries to residences – not something I was expecting to see, and probably not something that would be allowed nowadays.

The wall is part of a living town, so it has not always been considered untouchable

We rounded out our visit with an excellent lunch at Emily’s Tea Room before resuming our journey. Fethard was a surprise – an amazingly intact slice of medieval history!

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