Merchant, Miller, Smuggler: James O’Sullivan and Roaring Water

If you park your car at Kilcoe Church, at Meen Bridge on the N71 between Skibbereen and Ballydehob, and walk straight south, you arrive at a picturesque pier – a quiet backwater of leafy boreens. This is the outlet for the Roaring Water River (yes, that’s how the river is spelled on the OS maps), which rises on the southern slopes of Mount Kidd, a bare 6km away. Despite the short distance, this little river is a notable torrent by the time it reaches the sea, and it is said that the noise it made as it rushed over the rocks and weirs in its last stretch gave its name not only to the river but also to Roaringwater Bay (and yes, that’s how the Bay is spelled on the OS maps). 

Your walking route from Kilcoe Church to the pier takes you along the river. Here and there are perilous but satisfying opportunities to hop over a wall, hang on to branches and lean out to see over the river. This is a marvellous stretch of road in spring and early summer, with the river full on and hosting a riot of Marsh-marigold, and the banks heady with Whitethorn and Guelder-rose.

Eventually, you arrive at the final bridge – an interesting single span with a high arch – and can walk down to the Pier. You’ll be lucky if you encounter another person here, a dog-walker perhaps, or somebody messing about in a boat. It’s an idyllic spot, with views down the narrow channel to the medieval castle of Rincolisky (or Whitehall) across the water.

But in the first half of the nineteenth century, this was a bustling place indeed, and most of that came down to the the vision and energy of one man, James O’Sullivan. His house is still at the head of the inlet, still lived in and lovingly maintained. The quays he built for his various enterprises have stood the test of time and are as straight and sturdy as they were in their heyday.

No longer here are the industrial buildings that once marked this place as an active centre of industry and commerce. On the 1840s OS maps you can see them – there’s a Tuck Mill (used in wool processing) and a Corn Store. An historic account refers to a large building beside O’Sullivan’s house used to store potatoes until they were ready for export. There’s a slate quarry over to the east and a small village to the west. In addition the Archaeological Survey uncovered a metal working site on the rising east bank beside the quay, and a lime kiln at the edge of the water on the west bank. 

That little ‘village’? You can clearly see it as a cluster of buildings on the old maps, although there’s nothing there now you would call a community. But if you look hard, some traces are still visible. The old Catholic church became unfit for purpose by the end of the nineteenth century and was replaced by the splendid Church of the Most Holy Rosary (where you left your car). But it’s still a place of reverence for local people, having been repurposed as a grotto and a place for quiet contemplation and prayer – new Stations of the Cross were unveiled here as recently as 2018. It’s also a Cillín (pronounced killeen), a place where unbaptised children were buried – see this post for more on that.

There were two schools here, a boys’ and a girls’, and the boys’ school can still be seen in ruins along the road (below). By the 1840s they had both been replaced by a new school up by Meen Bridge – it, or its successor, is still there. There was a shop here once, no longer in use except for storage and partly ruined, and several houses only one of which remains. It is estimated that up to 200 people may have worked here. 

Who was James O’Sullivan? for all the information that follows I am indebted to a piece by Timothy Cadogan in the Seanchas Cairbre (a now-defunct publication) for 1993. Born around 1758, he was from the area and appeared to have engaged, by his own admission, in some lucrative smuggling in his younger days, mostly tobacco but “he could give you a bottle of good cognac”. After a crackdown, he turned to more legitimate businesses, perhaps funded by his earlier nefarious dealings. He was by no means alone in the smuggling trade – many a local gentleman had a hand in it too.

Turning to commerce, he operated both a corn mill and a tuck mill (the latter marked on the OS map). Both were overshot mills (see illustration below), in which the wheel was fed by a mill stream which diverted water from the Roaring Water River. The corn was stored in a large building on the quay (more or less where the small corrugated house is now, see image above) and shipped to Cork and Dublin. He had his own ships for this purpose and a storehouse in both cities.

Part of the Overshot Mill at Aberdulais 1786 or 1800 Philip James De Loutherbourg 1740-1812 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Timothy Cadogan points out that O’Sullivan played an active role in the politics of the time, “as might be expected from the most prominent Catholic in Aughadown and Kilcoe”. He chaired, for example, the great Anti-Tithe meeting in Skibbereen in 1832 – you can read more about that movement, and that meeting, in this post. The image below is of a tithe collector, called a Proctor, extracting his dues.

James O’Sullivan died between 1837-39. He had been married twice, first to Ellen Fitzgerald and after her death in 1826 to Ellen Coleman. No record has been left of any children, and indeed his great enterprises failed to survive his death, although copper mining was subsequently carried out in the vicinity with no great success. The building below was a later shop, across from the old church.

Perhaps though, if you linger a while on the Quay and close your eyes, you can hear the shouts of those loading corn, the sheets slapping against the masts in the wind, the rumble of barrels coming down the road to the waiting ships – maybe even make out, in your mind’s eye, a skiff silently slipping into the inlet loaded with an ‘irregular’ cargo to be delivered under cover of darkness.

18 thoughts

  1. Timothy Cadogan wrote an article about Roaring Water House, residence of James O’Sullivan describing him as ‘an enterprising miller’. He married Ellen Fitzgerald of Bandon and described in the marriage notice ‘of Curravooly near Skibbereen’. He married, secondly, Ellen Coleman in 1828.

    The article goes on to mention my 3rd great grandfather Michael Long of the Paddock, Aghadown. James was a witness as to the whereabouts one night of Michael at the Cork Assizes in 1823. His evidence included the admission that he himself had been engaged in smuggling up to 1807. This particular incident involved 10 bales of tobacco on the Strand at Currybeg. on 3 November 1822. James testified that Michael had ‘dined with him at Roaring Water on the night in question and had left near midnight “without the least idea of smuggling tobacco”! The jury failed to agree and he was let off!

    Later, my 3rd great aunt was living in Roaring Water Cottage. She had married her cousin Captain William Long of Greenmount and died at Roaring Water Cottage in 1877. I don’t know the circumstances of her being able to live in Roaring Water House. If anyone can tell me that would be great!

    I have looked at the house on Google but your pictures and article describe it much more to me, so thank you!

    I am also the cousin of the ‘Burchills’ who were mentioned about a year ago on your blog!


    • Thanks, Juliet – I love it when lots more details emerge! I believe we are talking about the same Timothy Cadogan article, unless there is another one I don’t know about. And about that Burchill clan – it seems to be growing.


  2. Hi Finola. My father, Paddy Crowley, Hollyhill, moored his fishing vessels in that inlet from time to time during his fishing days. He is retired now with about 15 years or so. He is originally from Ardralla, and would have begun his fishing life as a young lad with his brothers and neighbours on the river Ilen. He refers to the inlet as the Dull/Dul. I have no idea of how it is spelled or its origins, perhaps an older name than Roaring Water. I have always thought RW to be a relatively recent and anglicised name for the place.


  3. Fascinating tale, Today, who would’ve thought such a quiet stretch would have been so busy. This destination is one of our favourite walks from Skeaghanore East and we have always wondered if the quay/pier has a name. Does it?


  4. I just love this walk, always a pleasure to end up near Roaringwater Pier but so hard to imagine the bustle and busyness there once once have been. The little collection of houses is forlorn but so interesting. A magical walk, you’re making he most of your 5km!


  5. Thank you for this most informative post, it took me back to my first visit to West Cork a couple of years ago. It was a beautiful September day and my son dropped me off at Kilcoe Church about 9am and I thought I’d easily be back in Ballydehob by lunchtime, well I finally arrived about 800 photos later around 5pm! I think I visited every nook, cranny, inlet and outpost on the trail, it was quite beautiful and in places such as in your post, eerily evocative of a bygone era. I only met one other lady on the whole trail – magical!


  6. Lovely to see this landscape brought to life again through records and images – thank you! Old maps can tell us so much – I love looking at them. I wonder where all the descendants of these people are now. Many of them are scattered worldwide, probably!


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