On the north side of the Mizen we found Canty’s Cove. The little road which approaches the Cove from the west has been recently resurfaced, and there have been some major restoration works on the stone jetties and steps there. Don’t try to reach the Cove from the east side: a trackway is shown on the OS map (88), but it is virtually impassable – even on foot – at this time of the year, as the harsh winter storms have waterlogged the ground and submerged parts of it.
Wild coast beyond Canty’s Cove
Our reason for visiting the Cove? We were looking for pirates! Or, at least, for traces of them… We had heard that there are ‘pirate steps’ in the vicinity of the Cove, and we had unearthed some legends of Canty himself: a notable pirate and all-round rogue.
As with many of the ‘secret’ quays hidden away around the rugged and heavily indented coastline of West Cork, Canty’s Cove was used primarily by fishing boats, either working individually for shellfish or, communally, seining for pilchards, mackerel and herring. We have touched on seining in a previous post. It seems to have been brought to Ireland’s west coast by fishermen from Cornwall back in the sixteenth century. The shoals of pilchard, first seen in Mount’s Bay and around Land’s End in the early spring, naturally moved west and the fishing fleet from Cornwall followed them in July or August. Traditionally it was St James’ Day (1 July) that saw the start of the seining season in West Cork. For the next three months the pilchards were …dark, fat and full of oil… With the onset of winter the seine boats were laid up and the nets repaired and hung out in the lofts. The pilchard industry on Ireland’s west coast is said to have been most productive between 1550 and 1750, with millions of pressed and salted pilchards going by the barrel load to Spain, Portugal and France. Seining survived well beyond those days, although mainly then for mackerel. Northside of the Mizen records a very active industry within living memory:
…Both Canty’s Cove and Gurthdove had streams and the waters from them were used in the cleaning of the mackerel. When grading, the fish were sorted into bloaters (big), rags (damaged), medium and small grades, and you were allowed so many of each grade per barrel. The fish were then salted by rubbing coarse salt into them, and this happened twice with the second salt on the tenth day. On the second salt, the fish were packed flat into the barrel, and pickle was poured over the fish until the barrel was full. After the second salting the lid of the barrel was then put down, sealed with an iron hoop and the barrel was branded with the mark of the buyer, along with its weight and number of fish. The barrels were left on their sides and a hole was made three-quarters of an inch in diameter, which was closed with a wooden stopper. Tom Collins of Dunkelly West, as a boy, would earn one shilling a week by topping up the barrels with pickle after school. Salt added to water made a pickle that had to be strong enough to float a medium size potato with a six inch nail through it. The barrels were constantly filled with pickle until they went for export, when the wooden stopper was hammered home and the barrel stood up. One Cash and Tally of 132 fish would sell for five shilling in the nineteen-thirties. There could be up to 1000 barrels lined up in Canty’s Lane until November Dark…
Fish processing on the pier at Canty’s Cove, taken in the 1920s. This photo and the one below are from Northside of the Mizen
On the west coast, the last working seine boat was said to have put out from St Finan’s Bay, Kerry, in 1946. This was remembered by Mike Séamus O’Sullivan and recorded in The Kerryman in 2003:
…the place was alive with fish. We put out the seine and in no time at all it was full. We arrived below at the pier in The Glen with 24,000 mackerel and every man made £24 pounds that night – a fortune in those days…
The fishing community of Dunkelly, late 1920s
But what of the pirates? I hear you all cry… And, is there any buried treasure…? Of course there is! According to an excellent article by John Hawke in the now defunct Mizen Journal, Jeremiah McCarthy of Dunkelly (who died in 1989) recalled how he and his forefathers had dug for gold as a boy – “The old people spoke of ‘Canty’s Gold’ that lay buried seven ridges from one of the walls and many have dug for it – it was great exercise, but we never found it.” Jeremiah told the story of how Canty was a pirate and robbed people who came to buy goods from him and then threw them over the cliff into the sea, from the door of his house in Canty’s Garden. In the Collection of Irish Folklore dating from the 1930s this story was recorded from a Richard Moynihan of Dunbeacon, then aged 59 years:
…Another secret building was situated in Goleen Parish. It was built across the quay leading from a hotel which was owned by a man named Canty. Lodgers often came to the hotel and the man used to take them back to the secret room. Whilst they were talking to him, he shifted a lock in the trap door which was in the room which caused the floor of the room to go to the side and the lodger was thrown down into the tide. He then had a net with which he hauled up the corpse and took whatever money he possessed. Around this place is ever since haunted. Lights were frequently seen there and cries were often heard…
Many other similar stories connected to the Cove have been told or written down over the years. Today, the place still has an otherworldly feel to it: partly it’s to do with remoteness and the barren coastline in this wild place. ‘Canty’s House’ and ‘Canty’s Garden’ can be identified on the cliffs above the Cove: they are marked on old versions of the OS map. All that’s left now are a few stone walls and a steep drop into the sea. It’s not hard to picture Canty himself disposing of his victims over the edge, nor to hear their cries on the wind, wailing across the centuries.
There are Cantys living in West Cork today. We shouldn’t brand them with the reputation of one who was possibly a forebear: after all, many centuries have passed since the time of Canty the Pirate – and we do live in a more civilised age, don’t we? In fact, the Cantys – sometimes O’Cantys (O an Chaintigh) – had a prestigious past: in the age of the castles they were bards, like their O’Daly neighbours across the water on the Sheep’s Head (it’s only four miles away as the seagull flies). Interestingly, I have heard it suggested that Canty’s House is actually the remains of the ‘lost’ O’Mahony castle at Dunkelly: the site is certainly impregnable.
The approach to Canty’s Cove seen from Canty’s Garden. The building on this site may once have been a ‘lost’ O’Mahony castle
Pirates, castles, seining, treasure – there are also the ‘Pirate’s Steps’, although they are very hard to find (and on private land, so seek permission if you go looking) and – evidently – the Buan, or ‘perpetual well’ (which we couldn’t trace): in all, a wealth of history and legend. We have to respect Canty for lingering in folk memory a good few hundred years…