Mizen Magic 19: Church of the Angels

It’s called Cill Cheangail but that doesn’t make a lot of sense as cill is a small church and ceangail means to tie or fasten. But hereabouts people call it Killhangle (sometimes spelled Kilheangul) and now it’s clear – aingeal (pronounced angle) is the Irish word for angels. This is the Church of the Angels, reckoned to be Late Medieval (maybe fifteenth century) in date. For the exact location of this church, see my post Mizen Magic 17: The Delights of Dunmanus.

I am lucky to have Brian Lalor’s Sketchbook – quick records he made of his visits to  sites during field trips with the Mizen Historical and Archaeological Society in the 1980s. This kind of record is invaluable to show changes over time – the bullaun stone that Brian records in his sketch above can no longer be found.

Parish Churches, that is, churches built specifically to serve the people of the neighbourhood, rather than churches in monasteries to serve monks or friars, are a medieval phenomenon in Ireland. Along with the building of these churches came the practice of burial inside the church (for high-status individuals) or outside it (for the rest of us). Many of these burial grounds are in use up to the present day.

The church itself is in a ruinous state but enough remains to see some of typical attributes of a small parish church of this time, such as the one in the illustration (not by Brian) above. It’s a simple rectangular structure, oriented E-W, with the door in the south wall. Several small aumbreys (cupboards) are built into the south and east wall. There’s a window in the east wall which is missing almost all its dressed stone surround but we can surmise that it may have been ogee-headed.

The other window is in the south wall and this is an interesting one – there’s a flat-headed lintel visible from outside and inside the embrasure is splayed unevenly to admit more morning light, especially in winter.

Most of the interior is filling up now with debris and a large holly tree and only one headstone is examinable. The style of this headstone is echoed in others outside, leading to the conclusion that it was the shape and decoration style favoured by a certain local stone carver. It’s quite a striking and elegant form.

Most of the people buried in Killhangle could not afford a carved headstone. Instead, graves were marked with simple field stones. We are told that in times past old people could pick out the grave of a long-gone relative from a memory still held in the family of the size and shape of such field stones.

Inscribed headstones, for those who could afford them, did not become commonplace until the 18th century. Headstones dating to the 1700s are actually fairly unusual in West Cork so when Brian deciphered one in Killhangle, he recorded it (not an easy task – see how much lichen covers the surface now) and wrote up his findings for the Mizen Journal.

Alas, an eagle-eyed editor thought he had made a mistake in his drawing, by including the word ‘who’ twice and took it upon him/herself to eliminate the first ‘who’. This led to a second article titled ‘James Mullins Who Who” in which Brian restored the missing who and explained that Seventeenth and early eighteenth-century English usage on tombstone inscriptions favoured elaborate and often tortuous abbreviations and word arrangements in order to balance the lines of the inscription.

Poor little James was only 10 when he died on the eve of St Patrick’s Day in 1709. He must have been beloved indeed – a headstone all to himself when most people had none.

Another practise seen in Irish gravestones is the carved footstone. Where the footstone is engraved, it is usually with the initial of the person named on the headstone. In the example above and below, James Noonan first buried his beloved wife Mary. When he was laid to rest, his footstone was added, with his initials, J. N.  You can see the footstone at the bottom of my photograph, and Brian has illustrated it below along with another one with the initials J M.

Killhangle is beautifully located, near the coast and with a rippling brook running through it. It is well looked after and several of the graves have flowers and evidence of recent visits.

It is obvious that local people respect and care for the last resting place of their family members. For them, this church truly is the Church of the Angels.

Thank you, Brian Lalor, for allowing me to use your sketches and pick your brains.

Mizen Magic 20: Ballyvonane Headland

Twenty Mizen Magic posts . . . The whole of the Mizen is magic and magnificent – at all times, in all seasons. It doesn’t matter where we go, we will find things to photograph and write about: landscape, history, the remnants of lives lived generation after generation, and new life – art, creativity. We have on our doorstep a cornucopia – an inexhaustible resource.

In late September, close to the autumn equinox, Nature has chosen to be compassionate to the human denizens of West Cork. In these benighted Covid times we are having exceptional long, warm and calm days, inviting us to take to the hills and headlands to shake off the wretchedness of bad news and the miasma of melancholy that it might bring. We in the far west remain free to roam unfettered, for now, and Roaringwater Journal is committed to bringing you the good news of fresh pathways to be trod and fine vistas to be unfolded.

At the beginning of the track is this imposing ruin: we wondered when it had last been occupied

Today we thought we’d finish something we started back in February: Delights of Dunmanus described how we set out to walk a trackway marked on the map going over the headland in the townland of Ballyvonane. In fact we didn’t make it: winter storms had flooded our way near the start of the track and – after getting hopelessly lost trying to go around the flood we had to give up. Finola graphically set out our probable route on that day (in blue – we were aiming to take the red path!)

Today we were determined: we donned boots which would withstand a substantial flood. In the event they were quite unnecessary as the land was dry. We felt secure, though – but hot. After the first few hundred metres – which is the old way leading to a ruined house and now much overgrown – the path became well defined and easy to follow. We passed many signs of human intervention on the landscape: skeletal cottages and field boundaries which looked like rows of standing stones. The fields themselves were empty, however: we saw only one living creature the whole way. That was a wood pigeon that clattered noisily out of the bushes as we passed.

This section of the path was completely flooded when we attempted to follow it in February!

The journey was rewarding because of the wide views out across Dunmanus Bay with the Mizen and the Sheep’s Head flanking either side. There was quite a haze over both peninsulas arising, perhaps, from distant gorse fires.

Passing abandoned cottages which had the aura of ancient temples we rose up to the higher ridge commanding the best views. We could clearly see Carbery Island to the west: this has a lonely modern residence on it. Close by are the other islands in this group: Cold Island, Furze Island and Horse Island. Lusk Island and Scurvygrass Island are some way off to the north.

Each turn in the trackway opened up fresh views, and new dimensions, to the bay below us. Some may consider this landscape featureless, but a moorland scattered with large loose and earthfast rock formations – some resembling megaliths, but clearly natural – is my own favourite. Look at the map above to see how far the rock outcrop extends . . . In my mind’s eye it’s the work of giants.

Unlike many of our journeys into the West Cork landscape, this one had no clear end, there was no destination, no historic or archaeological feature that we had set out to find. There was just a turn in the trackway at the northernmost point of the headland and then the trackway continued on to became a boreen and, finally, a road leading back through Ballgibba North and the R591 (where Kilhangle is sited – see Finola’s post). We could have made a big loop of it, but there wasn’t enough time in the day that was in it. In any case, returning on the same path was no hardship and gave us more time to indulge in the tranquility of a way less trod, and in the sublime peace of an afternoon spent in remote places.

The autumn hasn’t quite come upon us yet, but some signs have started to appear. One is the ‘dandelion clock’ (did you call them that as children?). Finola challenged me to find the ‘perfect’ one, with the promise that, if I did, she would provide the ‘perfect’ photograph. I found perfect, and then perfecter, followed by perfectest. Here’s Finola’s promised rendering:

Off the M8 – Knockroe Passage Tomb or ‘Giant’s Grave’

The great passage tombs of the Boyne Valley complex in Co Meath – Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth – have been known and celebrated (although not necessarily understood) by antiquarians over many centuries. Here’s an early survey plan of Newgrange drawn by Thomas Molyneux of Dublin in 1700:

The Boyne Valley monuments are famous for their megalithic art – inscribed stones which are integral to the structures, carved some 5,000 years ago. The drawing above shows the carved stones in the great passage which we now know is aligned to the sunrise at the winter solstice. Although quite crudely depicted, these are the earliest representational images we have of passage tomb art in Ireland. A century and a half later the surveyor and antiquarian George Victor du Noyer worked with the newly established Geological Survey of Ireland and became fascinated with the megalithic art of the Loughcrew Passage Tombs in Co Meath. His recording of this, using watercolour sketches, is remarkably accurate:

Another century on, and archaeology – and the recording of ‘ancient’ art – had increased in sophistication. Finola’s work in the 1970s used a combination of direct tracing and photography, and her opus is still one of the most comprehensive and striking collections of images of Prehistoric Rock Art. These differ from Passage Grave Art both in the motifs and the overall design of panels, but are thought to be of comparable age. Here is one of her images, of rock art at Rathruane More in West Cork:

Today’s post focusses on a site which was first noted in 1905 but not categorised or fully explored until the 1980s, when Professor Muiris O’Sullivan of UCD led a detailed excavation, over many years. The report in excavations.ie states:

. . . Knockroe is one of a small number of decorated sites outside of County Meath, and in the overall context of Irish passage tombs its megalithic art is very important. Only a few of the kerbstones are visible but they bear a profusion of kerb ornament which is matched only at the three great tumuli in the Boyne Valley. One of the decorated stones in the western chamber bears a remarkable likeness to the designs at Gavrinis in Brittany, France . . .

To find this gem (known locally as The Giant’s Grave – Finola’s post today describes another one!), you have to turn off the M8 at Cahir, and follow the N24 and N76 towards Ninemilehouse. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we also followed this route when we visited the Killamery High Cross, but this time turn before Ninemilehouse, at Garranbeg, and cross over the River Linguan, then follow the river to the County border (Tipperary / Kilkenny) where you will see signs to Knockroe Passage Tomb and Knockroe Slate Quarries. After your visit it’s easy to join the M9 at Knocktopher and carry on up to Dublin. It will add a little more than half an hour to the journey (plus the many hours you might want to spend exploring the fascinating passage tomb).

The aerial view might help to orientate you, while the 25″ OS map extract (above) dates from the late 1800s and shows the extent of the nearby Victoria Slate Quarry workings then. Slate was evidently taken from this site as early as the 14th century. In the aerial view it is possible to make out a distinct trackway which passes over the centre of the now identified passage tomb. This is clear to see on the site, and at either end the track continues, and is defined by ancient-seeming hedgebanks and established trees :

Tradition has it that the trackway was provided in the nineteenth century by the owners of the nearby Victoria Quarry to allow cattle to access the river when the quarry workings encroached on previous routes. A plan of the passage tomb is shown on the site notice board, and I have marked on it the laneway. This clearly shows the layout of the Neolithic monument, which would have been covered with an artificial mound, enclosing the two chambers. As with the larger monuments in the Boyne Valley – Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth – stones in the passage chambers and some of the kerbs are decorated, and the chambers themselves have solar alignments, reportedly with sunrise (east) and sunset (west) on the winter solstice.

As yet we have not been to Knockroe at the winter solstice – it’s something we would like to do. We have attended the solstice celebration at our own West Cork site, Drombeg Stone Circle, and that is a great community experience. But Pete Smith has provided this fascinating visual record of the Knockroe Solstice recorded in 2016. Thank you, Pete!

But let’s turn our attention to the art at Knockroe. It’s what makes it so special. It’s not as spectacular as the larger examples in the Boyne Valley or Loughcrew (you might think of Knockroe as a ‘country cousin’) – but it is their equal in its scope and variety. And – what we really liked – you can have the place all to yourself! There is no visitor centre, no queueing or paying – nothing to spoil the ambience. It is always freely accessible, and we didn’t see a soul while we were there. It is, of course, merely a skeleton of what it once was – five thousand years ago – but that doesn’t detract from its allure. It’s a place imbued with things we don’t understand, or can only guess at – left behind for us by our distant ancestors. And, hopefully, we will keep it safe for the future.

Muiris O’Sullivan penned a comprehensive article in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Vol 117, 1987 – The Art of the Passage Tomb at Knockroe, County Kilkenny. This is well illustrated with drawings by Ursula Mattenberger based on rubbings taken directly from the stones. Here is her impression of Stone 8 (numbering from the excavation report), which is directly facing us in the photograph above:

This example is very unusual in the corpus of passage grave art in Ireland. But it bears a resemblance to examples on the island of Gavrinis, in the Gulf of Morbihan, on the southern coast of Brittany, France. This has been noted by several commentators, including Muiris O’Sullivan, and the suggestion has been made that the tomb builders at Knockroe could have been directly influenced by the Gavrinis examples (which are generally thought to be earlier than the Irish parallels). It has even been suggested that passage tomb builders travelled from one site to another (like the medieval cathedral builders), and that this comparison demonstrates this. Have a look at these images from Gavrinis and see what you think (the first is courtesy of Martin Brennan, taken from his The Stars and The Stones, Ancient Art and Astronomy in Ireland, Thames and Hudson 1983):

The excavation of Knockroe involved the removal of earth and debris from the collapsed mound which would have covered the tomb originally. This clearance revealed more of the art and here is an interesting comparison which shows the evolving history of the site. Firstly, our recent photograph of Stone 12, followed by the excavation record of this stone (lower right of the drawing) from the 1980s:

Here is our photograph again, with some of the art from the drawing above superimposed. It’s clear that the full extent of the artwork on Stone 12 was not visible below the red line when the drawing was made: Muiris O’Sullivan notes in his reports that he was aware that some of the art was hidden below what was then ground level.

Ursula Mattenberger’s drawing above also illustrates Rock 5 (upper left) and shows the very distinctive ‘rosette’ motif of six cup-marks. Examples of this motif have been found at rock art sites – including the one on Finola’s drawing of Rathruane More, nearer the top of this post. Here’s a photograph of the Knockroe example:

While making comparisons with rock art (and remembering that passage grave art and rock art are distinctive categories), here’s another decorated slab at Knockroe, not entirely legible in its weathered state. It seems to show a number of incomplete cup-and-ring motifs but in its own right this is known as a horseshoe motif. Below it is another of Finola’s drawings from 1973, perhaps showing something similar at Coomasaharn, Co Kerry:

The Knockroe site is endlessly fascinating. O’Sullivan’s excavations revealed a quantity of smaller quartz boulders which appear to have collapsed from a possible quartz facing reminiscent of Professor O’Kelly’s reconstruction of the Newgrange mound (image below by Tjp Finn via Creative Commons):

Hopefully I have given you enough here to whet your appetite and lead you off the motorway to explore the exceptional remains at Knockroe, Co Kilkenny and, in particular, its remarkable examples of passage grave art.

Mizen Magic 18: The Prehistoric Landscape of Arduslough

There are parts of West Cork that seem to hold within them all the memories and markers of eons. Such a place is Arduslough, on the high ground across from Crookhaven (below, map and photo) and west of Rock Island (above).

Technically, the places we explored are in three different townlands – Tooreen, Arduslough and Leenane, but mostly they fall within the boundaries of Arduslough. The name has been variously translated – Árd means high place and Lough means lake, both of which seem appropriate, but in fact the placename authority, Logainm, renders it as Árd na Saileach meaning High Place of the Sallies, or Willow Trees. Not much in the way of willows is obvious now, but the lake is certainly central to your view in the townland.

The Lake is the source of drinking water for Crookhaven and is the home, according to a story collected in the late 1930’s, of. . .

. . . an imprisoned demon of the pagan times. He is permitted to come to the surface every seven years on May morning and addresses St. Patrick, who is supposed to have banished him, in the following words “It is a long Monday, Patrick”. The demon does not speak in the English but in the vernacular. The long Monday refers to the day of General Judgement. Having expressed these words his chain is again tightened, and perforce he sinks to the bottom of the lake for another period of seven year His imprisonment will not expire till the last day.

We saw no sign of the demon and the lake looked remarkably untroubled, with its floating islands of water-lilies.

For a relatively small area, Arduslough abounds in archaeological monuments – there are four wedge tombs, three cupmarked stones, a standing stone and a piece described as either an Ogham Stone or Rock Scribings, depending on what you read. The remains of old cabins dot the landscape too, reminding us that this was a much more populous place before famine and emigration decimated the population.

The standing stone, and Robert with Jim and Ciarán O’Meara

Arduslough is the home of esteemed local historian Jim O’Meara, who grew  up in Goleen but spent most of his adult life teaching in Belfast. We met up with Jim and his son Ciarán, who very kindly offered to show us the Ogham stone. It was so well hidden under layers of brambles and bracken, and built into a field fence, we would never have found it on our own.

It is impossible to say if it is real, or even false Ogham, as it is heavily weathered and lichened, but if we turn again to the School’s Folklore Collection, we find this entertaining account of it:

There is a stone in Arduslough, a townland on the hill to the north of Crookhaven, on which are very old characters or ancient writing. It is very difficult to discern these markings now as the centuries during which they were exposed to the weather have obliterated them. The following story explains the origin of them.

In ancient times there lived in Toureen a man named Pilib. He informed on some party of Irish soldiers who were hiding in the heather there. The enemy came on them and burned the heather round them in which the soldiers perished. The stone was erected in this spot and the event was recorded on the stone. Years passed and the language underwent a change. In later years the people did not understand what was recorded on the stone, and went to the Parish priest asking him to interpret it. He translated it as follows – ‘that every sin will be forgiven but the sin of the informer Pilib an Fhraoich [Philip of the Heather].

We had previously located one of the three cup-marked stones, including a visit a couple of days earlier with Aoibheann Lambe of Rock Art Kerry (below). Ciarán thought he might be able to find another one, but extensive searching and bracken-bashing failed to turn it up.

The folklore collection is full of references to mass rocks, druid’s altars, and giant’s graves, as you would expect from the number of Bronze Age wedge tombs recorded in this area. (For more on Wedge Tombs, see my post Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths.) Two of them are situated on the slope above the lake (below) and we left them for another day. A third is hard to spot and indeed we didn’t.

We headed up to the high ground west of the lake to find the one that local people still call the Giant’s Grave. What a spectacular setting this is! First of all, you are now on a plateau with panoramic views in all directions. West lie the two peninsulas of Brow Head and Mizen Head and the boundless sea beyond.

This is heathland, covered in heather and Western Gorse – a colour combination that has the power to stop you in your tracks – and traversed by old stone walls.

From this colourful bed the stones of the Giant’s Grave arose, pillars silhouetted against the sky. It’s actually in the townland of Leenane, just outside the boundary of Arduslough. When Ruaidhrí de Valera and Seán Ó’Núalláin conducted their Megalithic Survey in the 1970s they commented that the tomb was ‘fairly well preserved’ and  ‘commands a broad outlook to the south and east across the sea to Cape Clear and Roaringwater Bay.’ They interpreted what was there as a wedge tomb, although with some uncommon features.

First of all, they said the tomb was ‘incorporated’ within an oval mound. While mounds are known for wedge tombs, they are unusual and most of the Cork examples, included excavated ones, show no trace of a mound. Stones sticking up here and there, protruding from the mound, they interpreted as cairn stones.

Secondly they noted two tall stones on the north side of the tomb – one is still standing and clearly visible (above and below) – whose function was ‘uncertain.’

Two tall stones at the south west end (above) seemed like an ‘entrance feature.’ Our own readings at the site indicated that the orientation was to the setting sun at the winter solstice, a highly significant direction to where the sun sets into the sea.

So – an unusual wedge tomb. Elsewhere in their report de Valera and Ó’Núalláin state repeatedly that a hilltop setting and a rounded mound are consistent with passage graves. However, at the time no passage grave had been identified this far south and they were thought to have a more northerly distribution. Since then, two have been identified in County Cork – one at the highest point on Cape Clear, which is visible from this site, and one in an inter-tidal zone between Ringarogy Island and the mainland. Perhaps it is worth considering whether, rather than a wedge tomb, this site may be a passage grave, like the one that Robert writes about this week in Off the M8 – Knockroe Passage Tomb or ‘Giant’s Grave’.

Whatever we label it, this Giant’s Grave is a spectacular site. It’s not hard to imagine, up there, that Neolithic and Bronze Age farmers were just as awe-stricken as we were with the magnificence of the surroundings. Tending their herds, they marked the seasons with the great movements of the sun and moon, and commemorated their dead with enduring stone monuments. More recently, people invested the landscape with myth and stories. Walking the hilltops, you know you are in the footsteps of all who went before.

One Acre – Three Years On

I’ve been documenting all the wildflowers on my acre in West Cork. I started three years ago with the first post, simply called One Acre and then updated it two years ago with One Acre – One Year On.

The only actual gardening I do is to maintain a herb bed. Apart from that, we get the grass cut and the hedges trimmed occasionally, and a great neighbourhood kid comes to do some very select ‘weeding’ where it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t really believe in the whole notion of ‘weeds’ but I reluctantly accept that we have to keep some areas clear.

Growing in the lawn, from the top: Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Self-heal, White Clover; Bog Pimpernel and Self-heal; Heath Speedwell; the spectacular male flowers of Sheep’s Sorrel

Apart from that I have two approaches. The first is driven by my desire to keep the place as non-manicured as possible and Robert’s desire to have it looking reasonably tidy, or at least not abandoned. This approach is to cut the grass as seldom as I can get away with, leaving all the lawn flowers to flourish in between the cuts. I also leave the boreen/right of way above the house uncut all summer, as this is where the Chamomile (below) grows most abundantly and as it’s getting rarer in Ireland I feel privileged to have it.

The second approach is to set aside part of the garden as a perennial wildflower meadow (below). In planning and maintaining this meadow I have followed best practise as laid out by various experts in creating pollinator-friendly spaces and I am delighted with the results.

I started with a grassy slope and simply didn’t cut it for the first summer. In the autumn I had it cut and thoroughly raked. This is an important step – if you leave the cutting in the grass it fertilises or enriches it, and what you want is soil that is as impoverished as possible.

Above, from the top: Oxeye Daisy; Field Wood-rush; Cat’s-ear

The following summer I just let it grow and it seemed to flourish with all sorts of grasses coming up, as well as Knapweed, Oxeye Daisies, thistles, Sheep’s-bit, Ribwort Plantain, White and Red Clover, Cat’s-ear, and lots of Bird’s-foot Trefoil.

Above, from the top: Red Clover; White Clover; Bird’s-foot Trefoil; Sheep’s-bit; A Painted Lady Butterfly and a Bumblebee on Knapweed

That autumn I had it cut and raked again but this time I introduced the only intervention that the meadow has received. Once the grass was cut and raked I broadcast Yellow Rattle seeds (bought from wildflowers.ie which guarantees to only sell native Irish seeds). Yellow Rattle (below) is a magical wildflower. It parasitises on the roots of the grasses, thinning them out and creating more bare patches where wild seeds can land and germinate. Although it does grow in the wild in West Cork it would be hard to find and harvest enough seed for my meadow.

We have lots of birds who visit our garden but I had never seen pigeons there until I sowed the Yellow Rattle. It was like a shout went out, and they descended in flocks, pecking away at all my precious seeds, with me inside banging on the windows or racing out to chase them away. I needn’t have worried too much – they left enough seeds to have a really good showing the following spring. They self-sow readily and I have now had two seasons of Yellow Rattle working away to reduce the tough grass roots.

Above: I still have lots of grass, of course – an amazing variety – and a vast extent of Ribwort Plantain

I said above this was the only intervention I have made in the meadow, but now that I think of it I have also dug out some large dock plants as it does tend to take over. I have since read that this may have been the wrong things to do as its almost impossible to get all the roots.

Above, from the top: Navelwort; Lady’s-mantle; Knapweed about to emerge; Common Ramping-fumitory; Common Milkwort

We have a gravel driveway, rock walls, a stone terrace with steps, and a small patch of trees and ivy and all provide habitat for wildflowers (above) that spring up unbidden from time to time, some welcome (like Corn Spurrey and the Sharp-leaved Fluellen which is an endangered species) and some not so welcome (like the Verbena bonariensis that is fast becoming a ‘possibly invasive’ species).

Above, from the top: Sharp-leaved Fluellen; Verbena bonariensis; Corn Spurrey

You’ve probably seen photographs of annual wildflower meadows (as opposed to my perennial meadow) full of brilliantly coloured poppies, cornflowers and corn marigolds. What they don’t tell you about these kinds of meadows is that firstly they are a lot of work and have to be re-done every year and secondly that you have to be really careful where you get the seeds as many companies sell imported mixes (marketed as ‘bee-bombs’, for example) which do not serve our native insects well and which have the potential for introducing invasive species. My friend Jack has done a brilliant job on his annual meadow, sowing only native seeds from Sandro Caffola at Wildflowers.ie and the results are spectacular (below).

It takes a bit of a mindset change to see beauty in a perennial wildflower meadow and an acre of land where wildflowers are prioritised. Accustomed as we are to equating a well-mown lawn with tidiness and good management, it might be difficult to look at an expanse of Daisies, Cat’s-ear and Autumn Hawkbit and Smooth Sowthistle (all of which look more or less like dandelions), Bird’s-foot Trefoil and Self-heal and not see ‘weeds’ and neglect.

Above from the top: English Stonecrop; Self-heal; an uncommon white form of Self-heal

But that shift in our perspective? We all need to make it now, if we want to save our pollinators.

A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 6: Dunnycove

Galley Head, in West Cork, is one of those wild and exposed headlands where you get exceptional views in all directions. In our hunt for Napoleonic-era signal towers on the Irish coast you would fully expect to find one of the towers here – but no! A lighthouse and lightkeepers’ cottages – yes. These date from around 1875 but, in the early years of the nineteenth century, the strategically important signal tower was built inland, in the nearby townland of Dunnycove.

The header picture shows what remains of the tower itself today. This has in fact been adapted over the years, and the original building conformed to the square tower pattern that we have investigated elsewhere (a good example is at the old Head of Kinsale). The upper picture (above) shows the lighthouse at Galley Head seen from high ground to the east, while the lower picture is an aerial view of the Dunnycove signal tower site in its wider surroundings. Below is an 1806 map of the ‘. . . Ground occupied by the Signal Tower and Road leading to it at Galley Head . . .’ This tower is often referred to as the Galley Head Tower, even though it is some distance inland from the Head. But it is well placed to command views to the towers in the communication chain immediately to the west (Glandore) and east (Seven Heads).

The curious profile of the site as marked out on this early map shows a segmental shaped area to the south of the tower. It is likely that this was where the signal mast itself was situated. I am intrigued by the descriptions of the surrounding land: ‘good Meadow’, ‘Indifferent Pasture’, ‘Very Good Pasture Ground’ and ‘Arable good Ground’. Also, on the left of the survey drawing appears to be a table of land values, and the statement that ‘The Road is already made to this Tower and has very good ditches on each side of it, and is 312 perches long’. The road is in good condition today, as the site has been developed with a cottage and modern studio:

There’s nothing better than good local knowledge when you are trying to piece together a historic jigsaw puzzle. We were delighted to run into Billy Sheehan working in his neighbouring garden. it didn’t take long to establish that his own family had been involved in the signal tower site for generations, and had been connected to the local Coast Guard which had used the tower as a lookout point after the original building had fallen into disuse. Here’s Billy and myself, below. Under us is an extract from the 25″ Ordnance Survey map, drawn between 1888 and 1913. Note how on this map the signal tower site itself has changed since 1806, with many more buildings, a ‘flagstaff’ and a ‘semaphore’ indicated. These all undoubtedly date from the Coast Guard use of the site – you can also see the Coast Guard Station indicated below the tower: there are just a few masonry pillars left at that location today.

This is the ramp leading down to the water at Ballycusheen Strand, not far from Dunnycove. The pig is a well-known local landmark! I was interested to see the reference to ‘semaphore’ on the OS map, outside the original signal tower enclosure. This word recurs frequently in discussions about signal towers. Theoretically, any visual signalling system is an ‘optical semaphore’, but the term is likely to be more specific here and probably refers to an updated mechanical system rather than the ‘flag and ball’ method generally used in the early 19th century, when the signal stations were run by sailors or retired naval men who were well used to reading flag signals through high quality telescopes. There’s a volume to be written on how long-distance signalling evolved over many centuries – not just in Ireland but across Europe and beyond, beginning, perhaps, with The Scottish Parliament passing an Act in 1455 that said:

One bale, or faggot, shall be warning of the approach of the English. Two bales that they were actually coming and four bales, blazing side by side, shall note that the enemy is in great force.

There is a record of Robert Hooke, ‘curator of experiments’ at the Royal Society, proposing a system that combined a telescope and signalling in 1684. One of the important names that surfaces here in Ireland is Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744 – 1817).  An inventor and writer, Edgeworth was the son of an Anglo-Irish landlord whose family gave their name to the town of Edgeworthstown, Co Longford; he studied at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1767 he placed a bet with his friend, the horse racing gambler Lord March, that he could transmit knowledge of the outcome of a race in just one hour. Using a network of signalling sections erected on high ground, the signal would be observed from one station to the next by means of a telescope. The signal itself consisted of a large pointer that could be placed into eight possible positions in 45 degree increments. A series of two such signals gave a total 64 code elements and a third signal took it up to 512.

Edgeworth (perhaps best known for fathering the writer Maria Edgeworth (1768 – 1849) – one of his 22 children) termed his device a ‘Tellograph’. In November 1794 the most impressive demonstration of his invention used 30-foot-high Tellographs to communicate between Donaghadee, Ireland and Port Patrick, Scotland (about 40 miles). In France at the same time the Chappe brothers succeeded in covering that country with a network of 556 stations stretching a total distance of 4,800 kilometres (3,000 miles). Le système Chappe was used for military and national communications until the 1850s.

Le système Chappe (above). French technology is demonstrated in the 1790s – the very time the First French Republic was threatening the least defensible part of the British Isles – Ireland – and emphasised by the attempts of Wolfe Tone to land a French fleet in Bantry Bay in December 1796. That landing was a failure – due to atrocious weather – but it did, perhaps, wake the British authorities to the wisdom of guarding the Irish coastline. The signal tower system was a hastily devised result of this.

There’s a lot going on at the Dunnycove Signal Station site: the setting remains clearly laid out based on the 1806 plan, and the dominating view is due south. Parts of the original building remain although much has been altered including an external staircase and the surrounding structures.

The upper picture shows a distant view towards the signal station complex: it is on the highest point in the immediate landscape. Next is the view from the present top of the old tower, looking across the segment-shaped land which once held the signal mast and – later – the ‘semaphore’, most likely used to communicate with the Coast Guards below: beyond is the ocean. In 1837 Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland had this to say about the area:

. . . In the R C divisions this parish is the head of a union or district, comprising the parishes of Ardfield and Rathbarry, in each of which is a chapel; that of Ardfield is a low, plain, but commodious edifice, situated on the commons. There are schools in which 140 boys and 170 girls are taught, also a school at Dunny Cove, a Sunday school under the superintendence of the vicar, and one or two hedge schools. The ruins of the old church are situated on the highest point of land in the parish; and near them is a building which during the war was used as a signal tower, but is now the residence of Lieut. Speck, who commands the coast-guard at Dunny Cove. Close to the Cove are the ruins of a castle . . .

It seems to me that this site, in particular, has so many stories to tell us. Not just about the one period in history that caused the building of the original tower, but also about how a community has developed and adapted around that building. After the close of the Napoleonic era, when the threat of invasion receded, the tower retained its significance as a high place from which observations can be made. The Water Guard (which became the Coast Guard) took it over and it has remained a dwelling place for families ever since. Billy Sheehan is testament to this ‘living’ history, and the old stonework survives to tell where meals were cooked – where sleeping, waking and working became the rhythm of life for generations on this West Cork hilltop.

Please note that Dunnycove Signal Station is a private property and permission to access it must be sought from the owner

The previous posts in this series can be found through these links:

Part 1: Kedge Point, Co Cork

Part 2: Ballyroon Mountain, Co Cork

Part 3: Old Head of Kinsale, Co Cork

Part 4: Robert’s Head, Co Cork

Part 5: Downeen, Co Cork