Sheep’s Head: Searching for Cornish Miners

 Yesterday we did our favourite walk, along the Cahergal section of the Sheep’s Head Way. We had a goal – the remnants of the Gortavallig Mining Company which operated here briefly in the 1840s. Robert was researching this as part of all the West Cork/Cornwall connections related to the West Meets West Art Exhibition, which opens at Uillinn in Skibbereen next Friday (June 2).

Walking the Sheep’s Head Way, by Amanda Clarke, is our go-to book for everything on the Sheep’s Head. It’s an excellent resource and most of the information in this post comes from it. The stretch of the walk we did is described in two sections (as it’s part of the Way and also part of a loop walk), on pages 27 to 31, and pages 98-99 (Second Edition).

It was a fabulous day, sunny but not too hot – perfect for walking. The wildflowers were out in abundance – a serious hindrance to brisk walking as I cannot resist the temptation to photograph. At one point Robert thought he had lost me, but found me stretched out on the ground trying to get a close up of the tiny, exquisite, Heath Milkwort.

Later on, this hillside with be awash with pink Heather, but now the Foxgloves are everywhere, in all their purple glory, while Tormentil and Lousewort peep out from the among the grasses and heather.

Tormentil, above and Lousewort, below

This was once a populated part of the world and there’s a tiny abandoned settlement known as Crimea. This may be a reference to an ongoing feud between families, or a corruption of an Irish place name. There’s no denying the dramatic scenery, but life must have been very hard indeed. A cluster of houses like this was known as a clachán (kla-hawn) – the land was held in common by the inhabitants, with each family having a potato patch and the rest being for grazing and whatever crops would grow.

The Crimea: Tade Carthy’s cottage in the foreground

One of the houses has been recently partially restored. According to Amanda:

It was done partly to show people what living conditions were like not so long ago, and in part to honour the last surviving occupant of the Crimea, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday. Jerh (Jack Owen) Daly grew up in one of these cabins which were family homes until the late 1940s.

This old house belonged to Tade Carthy’s family and has been sensitively restored, the original flagstones and well discovered whilst working on it, Inside there is no fireplace but an open hearth built against the wall with a hole in the roof to let out the smoke. Doors positioned east and west allowed a through draught to also deal with the smoke. Little oil lamps fitted into niches provided additional lighting and a bed platform gave extra space for sleeping.

The recently re-discovered well

It was from this clachán, and from all over the Sheep’s Head, that local people trekked, during the height of the famine, to the mine. They also built the road, for which they were paid in food, rather than money.

Approaching the 1840s mine – the reservoir is in the foreground and the Cornish Miners cottages on the far side of the cliff

Amanda quotes from the Report of the Gurtvallig Mine, by William Thomas, June 1847:

A complete wilderness and barren cliff, which for the past age has been the undisturbed resort of the Eagle, the Hawk and the Wild Sea Birds, has by our labours for the past 16 months been changed into a valley of native industry, giving reproductive employment, food and a comfort, to numbers of the hitherto starving, but peaceable inhabitants of one of the wildest districts in the United Kingdom. For you can hear now, on our well secured dressing floor (mingled with the roar of the Atlantic) the busy voices of men, women, boys and girls, all engaged in breaking, dressing and preparing the ore for market.

Ten or eleven small houses stood here to house the specialist miners recruited from Cornwall

The mine was an actually an outpost of Cornwall in Ireland. The two Mine Captains, William Thomas and James Bennett, were Cornish, and the miners – 24 of them – had been recruited in Cornwall. A row of houses was built to house them, while the Captains had more comfortable quarters in nearby Cove (a story for another day).

A retaining wall was build to hold the reservoir

It was a busy place during its short life (it close in 1848 after only a year of full operation), with a forge, a carpenters shop, a reservoir, and below, a dressing floor and a quay to transport the ore.

Now the reservoir is home to floating water-lilies, a native plant that was in full bloom yesterday and looking indescribably exotic. The tiny quay has disappeared, but its location can be glimpsed from the rope walk. This part of the hike is not for the faint of heart or vertigo-sufferers: the path is narrow, there’s a rope to hang on to one one side and on the other a yawning cliff falls dramatically away to the wild and roaring Atlantic described by William Thomas.

The rope walk and signage. The lowest photograph shows the location of the quay, reached by means of a steep path but no longer accessible

Our walk back, with the sun behind us, was splendid. To the north was Bantry Bay and beyond it is the remote and beautiful Beara Peninsula. I think I can safely say that this will remain our favourite walk – at least until we discover one even more remote, scenic, historic and thrilling. But then, that’s not difficult in West Cork.

9 thoughts

  1. Yes, one of my favourite walks too and it was looking especially beautiful yesterday. Hard to imagine all the activity that would have been going on at Gortnavallig in its heyday. Great pix too. And thanks for the plug.

    Like

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