A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 4: Robert’s Head

I suppose this – our fourth venture into the world of Irish signal towers from the Napoleonic era – has a distinctive resonance with me! Of the 84 signalling sites around Ireland, only five bear a personal name: John’s Point, Co Donegal; Brandon Head (Brendan), Co Kerry, Sybil Head, Co Kerry; Barry’s Head, Co Cork; and this one – Robert’s Head, Co Cork.

As you can see on this aerial view, the headland on which the signal tower stands is named after Robert’s Cove – Cuainín Riobaird – close by. The Cove, a small village, is a popular weekend escape and holiday destination which has two pubs and a former coastguard station, possibly dating from 1863.

Highlights of Robert’s Cove: the old milepost on the top is non-committal about the apostrophe! The former Coastguard Station (now a private residence) is the building on the left in this picture, above

I wondered how this cove got its name, and was rewarded by a search in A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland by Samuel Lewis, 1837:

Ballyfoil, a parish, in the barony of Kinnalea, county of Cork, and province of Munster, 10 miles from Kinsale; containing 1291 inhabitants . . . comprises 1304 statute acres, as applotted under the tithe act. The soil is fertile, and about one-half of the land is under tillage; the remainder is in dairy farms. The system of agriculture is improved; the only manure is sea-sand, which is brought into Rocky Bay and Roberts’ Cove, two small coves in the parish, in large boats, of which several are employed in this trade. At Roberts’ Cove is a valuable slate quarry, belonging to Sir Thomas Roberts, Bart., but it is not worked to any considerable extent. Britfieldstown, the seat of Sir Thomas Roberts, Bart., is pleasantly situated in a secluded spot above Roberts’ Cove . . . The Cove affords a commodious shelter for vessels of 200 tons’ burden, which occasionally arrive laden with coal, and return with cargoes of slate. The coast-guard station here is the most westerly of the eight stations that constitute the district of Cove. A little to the west, on the summit of Roberts’ Head, is a ruined signal tower, from which is an interesting and extensive prospect. It is an impropriate curacy, in the diocese of Cork, and is part of the union of Tracton, where the Protestant inhabitants attend divine worship . . . The tithes amount to £109. 4. 6. . . The church has long been a ruin . . . there is also a hedge school in the parish . . .

In this 1842 Ordnance Survey map of the area, the site of the signal station is marked. Britfieldstown House, the seat of the Roberts family, was situated further to the north. In 1851 the estate was sold on behalf of Sir Thomas Howland Roberts, ‘…an insolvent debtor…’ It became derelict in the 1970s and the only survivals now are remnants of a walled garden and a derelict gate lodge. It’s interesting that the apostrophe has been changed – on this map – to indicate a singular ‘Robert’ rather than the ‘Roberts’ family, whereas the 1837 Topographical Dictionary entry clearly implies the naming as ‘Roberts’. 

A closer aerial view of the signal tower clearly shows the extent of the remaining buildings, although all ruinous

The visible buildings on the signal tower site are extensive, and imply that this station was in use beyond the time of the Napoleonic invasion threat: many of the other stations were stood down around 1810 and became derelict soon after, mainly due to their remote exposed locations and the ravages of the weather. Interestingly they do not generally appear to have suffered from stone ‘robbing’ in the same way that medieval tower houses did.

The complex of buildings on the Robert’s Head site showing (from upper picture) north-west, north-east, south-east and south-west elevations. I think it’s very likely that the highest part of the structure is based on the original signal tower, and contains much of that early structure: the raised entrance (north-east elevation) follows the general pattern, but there are no bartizans or machiolations. These could well have been replaced in later reconstructions, when a pitched roof was added. Clues that much of the original masonry has been retained lie in the back wall – thickened at the centre to incorporate a chimney flue – and remnants of external vertical slate-hanging, a method of weatherproofing evident in many other towers.

I can provide no answers as to why the extensions were added: it has been suggested that these are late 19th or early 20th century works. But the resulting building is substantial – now just a gaunt shell on a windy hill. It’s possible that the station was used as a lookout by the coast-guards based down in Robert’s Cove. Stuart Rathbone (Irish Signal Stations), writing about the Mizen Head station, observes:

The enclosed signal station at Mizen Head, County Cork, features a well preserved three storey building that is now believed to be a replacement for the original signal tower. The building is very similar to the example at Robert’s Head, County Cork. It has tall gabled walls and a large single storey building wrapping around the south east and north east sides . . .

In the early years of the 20th century a fog signal station had been established at Mizen Head, Co Cork, and was probably based on the original signal tower building there; the project also involved building accommodation for the additional crew members required at that time. It is possible that the enlargement of the earlier buildings at Robert’s Head happened in the same period, and for a similar purpose: establishing a signalling and communications base connected to the local coast-guard activities. Those works appear to have included accommodation, office and workshop space, with stores, a toilet and a large concrete water cistern adjacent to the south east wall.

Amenities established in the later reconstruction: a probable outside ‘privvy’ (upper) and ‘shovelling out hatch’ (middle), with large water cistern (lower)

Internal features are difficult to describe definitively, but in likelihood include a hearth / cooking range, living and sleeping quarters with rendered walls providing a level of comfort above that found in the early signal towers. Now, after years of abandonment, the surfaces have been embellished with graffiti and lichen growth, all imparting a compelling visual patina: the place is alive with its own decay. Even the texture of the masonry itself is evolving in a compulsively fascinating way as centuries of abrasive winter gales take their toll.

Access to the site is along farm tracks – don’t forget to seek permission if you intend to visit. With all of the towers we have explored so far, the roadways leading to them have survived intact, and have been well made and metalled – in this case solidly crafted with slate probably quarried in Robert’s Cove.

I feel we have been privileged to explore an actively disintegrating artefact of Ireland’s engineering history. More than most, perhaps, this signal tower has absorbed the lives of those it sheltered, and we can meet them there, in our imaginations. It’s a raw place, and it won’t be there forever. In time it will be no more than the scattered piles of stone that we saw at Ballyroon. But in our brief lifetimes, through tempest and contagion, it will continue its slow decline into the dust of the earth largely unseen and unmourned.

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

10 thoughts

  1. Great piece Robert and that last paragraph trying to express your feelings was very moving.
    I have long been fascinated by the two signal towers lines here in England. Both starting at the Admiraly in London, one down to Portsmouth and the other to Yarmouth. There is a preserved tower with working semaphore arms at Chatley Heath in Surrey.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks for the comment, Perran! I wasn’t aware of the English examples (well, perhaps I was vaguely) – that’s great information. I have been looking into the signalling systems here – including semaphore – and will be writing those up in a future post. Certainly interested to hear about the preserved tower…

      Like

  2. Hi Robert My wife and I have walked along the cliff top path from Roberts Cove to the signal tower. There are some old concrete huts along the way which I presume are WW 2 coast watch remains. Near one on the edge of the cliff is a metal disc about 50 cm diameter (if I remember correctly). It has a quote “ Golden Apples of the Sun “ from the poem by Yeats which I assume is a memorial for Hugh Coveney father of Simon. This series of posts is of interest as we have visited a few of the signal towers. Brow Head is one we get to once a year at least.

    Regards John

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

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