A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 8: Brow Head

It’s surprising that it’s taken us eight episodes of this series to reach Brow Head, as it is one of the nearest to us, and one of the best preserved – albeit a ruin. It’s not far from the last one we explored: Cloghane, on Mizen Head. In fact, at 3.8km apart, these two towers are the closest of any in the whole system of signal towers around much of the coast of Ireland: 81 towers, each one generally in sight of two others.

Above – views north-west across to Cloghane, Mizen Head, from Brow Head. The lower photo is taken with a long lens. Cloghane is 3.8km away from Brow Head: it doesn’t sound very far but, as you can see from the centre picture here, it’s remarkable that telescopes were good enough, in the early 19th century, to make out visual signals in any great detail. Weather conditions were obviously an important factor in this. Below, the tower at Knock, Lowertown, near Schull, is some 19km away to the east. When we visited the vestigial Ballyroon signal tower, on the Sheep’s Head to the north, we could also clearly see across to Brow Head – a distance of about 17km.

Brow Head – the headland itself – has been the subject of a previous post on Roaringwater Journal. It has a remarkably diverse history: not only is it the site of the Napoleonic-era signal tower, but of industrial and scientific activity. There are the substantial remains of a nineteenth century copper mine (photo above): I noted that the Mine Captain here was Hugh Harris from Cornwall – and wondered if he was a relation – until I read that he was dismissed as ...an incompetent authority…! Most interesting, perhaps, are the ruins of a signalling station set up by Guglielmo Marconi – established in 1901.

This photograph was taken in 1914. It shows the Marconi installation still in use: the signal tower is visible in the background, on the left. On the far right is a building which I take to be the electricity generating station, powering the telegraph. During the Emergency (1939 – 1945), a lookout emplacement was built to the south of the Marconi station: many of these were built around the coast, the majority sharing a site with a Napoleonic-era tower. Have a look here for more information on these comparatively recent structures.

For this excellent drone picture of the Brow Head site, taken in 2017, I am most indebted to Jennifer & James Hamilton, mvdirona.com. Jennifer and James are intrepid adventurers, travelling around the world on their Nordhavn52 vessel. It’s well worth going to their website to see what they get up to: it makes our own travels in the West of Ireland seem a little humdrum… On the right of the photo is the 1804 signal tower; on the left is the Marconi station with – just in front of it – all that is left of the 1939-45 lookout post. On the right in the foreground is the generating station shown in the present day photo, below. Note, also, in all these images can be seen the four-block supporting base for the Marconi transmission mast.

What happened to these buildings? Here’s an account I received from a RWJ correspondent (very many thanks, Rachel), after I had published an earlier post on them in 2014 – it is based on contemporary newspaper articles during the Irish War of Independence:

. . . Brow Head was destroyed on the 21st August 1920 at 12:45 – 1am, having been raided less than 2 weeks earlier on the 9th August. All reports mention the use of fire; only some mention the use of bombs. Explosives had, however, been stolen during the earlier raid on Brow Head (they were used for fog-signalling). Due to delays in reporting, some articles suggest different dates for these events but I’m fairly sure the 9th and 21st of August are the correct ones. 9th August: Armed and masked men raid the station and take stores of explosives, ammunition, and rifles. There are conflicting reports over whether any wireless equipment was taken during this raid. 21st August: Reports that all buildings at Brow Head (war signal station, post office, coastguard) destroyed, either by fire, or fire and bombs depending on the article. Some reports say 40 men were involved, some 70, some 150, some 150-200. These men had masks and were armed with revolvers to cover the three or four guards, they were described as young and courteous. The raid is said to have taken 5 hours; all Post Office equipment was taken away, as well as other stores. Other wireless equipment was smashed. The raiders helped the guards move their furniture/belongings out before setting fire to the buildings . . .

Rachel Barrett

So far we haven’t said much about the 1804 signal tower itself. Although ruined, it is a good example, reasonably stable, and has survived two centuries of severe Atlantic gales remarkably well. All the elements are recognisable: projecting bartizans, slate hung external walls for improved weatherproofing, an intact roof and distinct internal features – and a little enigmatic graffitti. Compare all these with the other towers in our series so far (there are links at the end).

If you set out to visit the Brow Head site on a good day, you can’t do better than to park at Galley Cove – at the bottom of the long, steep access road (and beside the Marconi commemoration board and sculpture by Susan O’Toole) – and then walk up. You will enjoy continuously changing spectacular views in all directions, and you will begin to see the signal tower above you as you approach the brow of Brow Head.

West Cork based artist Brian Lalor visited the Brow Head site with the Mizen Field Club in 1984. His sketch of the buildings is an interesting record as it appears to show, on the left, the 1939-45 lookout post intact (below). Very little remains now, 37 years later (lower). I wonder what led to this particular piece of destruction?

I’ll finish off with another sketch view of the Brow Head signal tower: this is by Peter Clarke, who runs the excellent Hikelines site. Many thanks, Peter.

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

Part 6: Dunnycove

Part 7: Cloghane, Mizen Head

Ilen’s End (Sweet Ilen – Part 5)

It rises on a remote mountain-top in the wilds of Mullaghmesha townland and falls 500 metres from there to the Atlantic, over a length of 34 kilometres. I think it’s time to establish exactly where the river ends, and the ocean begins. As you can see from the photo above, the lower reaches are wide and shallow, and the estuarial waters are dotted with islands and islets, some of which are only revealed at the ebb of the tide.

Below Skibbereen, the river is fully tidal – and its character is constantly changing. The history of the waterway has also seen an evolution, from a busy highway carrying lighters filled with cargoes to the wharves in the town (in the 19th century there were five of them – and a Customs House), to the present day where it is a tranquil scene, only busy – in normal times – with the skiffs and light craft based at the Rowing Club (above): that establishment has produced some celebrated champions!

Oldcourt (above) was the transhipment point where laden ships from distant shores would leave their loads into the shallow draft barges that would take them upstream into the town. Today it is still a busy hub where vessels are stored, built and repaired – and also left to decay. The disorder of the place has a picturesque informality, and there is medieval history also: a rickety tower house stump stands guard over the apparent chaos. We have written about the boatyard (and the castle – and a ketch named Ilen) in a previous post.

You can cross a bywater of the Ilen by bridges at Inishbeg (above) and Ringarogy. Exploration of those two islands will reveal a number of view points over the main channel of the river to the north. The marked aerial map below shows the lie of the land, while the photos following show the wide views of the river in both directions from Inishbeg.

(Upper) looking upstream from Inishbeg, and (lower) a close view of The Glebe Burial Ground, also seen from across the main river at Inishbeg.

Downstream from Inishbeg: at the east end of the island we found an unusual large rock which appears to have a worked surface and a possible cup-mark. Below that rock is the lonely ruin of a structure which must have had a remarkable aspect over the whole width of the river. It would be easy to suppose that this ruin could have been part of a defence system, but there is no mention in the archaeological records of this, or of the rock. For now, they remain enigmas – but perhaps there is an alert reader out there who can shed some light?

Ringarogy has fewer accessible viewpoints than Inishbeg, but the long causeway and some prospects from high land indicate how the lower course of the river is punctuated with small, barren landfalls (above).

I have made up my mind that the Ilen proper must ‘end’ at Turk Head – the pier, above, is looking towards the main channel of the river. It is also a small but substantially built harbour – partly hewn out of the low cliffs – which can shelter a few light fishing craft.

But the reality of the downstream ‘end’ of the river seems to be defined on the 6″ OS map above, which dates from the early 19th century and shows the townland names and boundaries as they were recognised at that time. There, a clear line is drawn between the island of Inishleigh to the north, and Spanish Island to the south. To the east of that line, apparently, is the Ilen, while to the west is the edge of Roaringwater bay, which leads into the ocean, but first skirting a myriad of rocks and small islands, only some of which have names.

There may be traditions – unknown to me – that define where the river mouth lies. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. If you are a seafarer carrying goods bound for Skibbereen you will have to negotiate your way safely through a fairly convoluted channel before entering a contrasting world of wide, calm water and rich, smooth meadowlands: Sweet Ilen.

Previous episodes in this series: Sweet Ilen : Sweet Ilen – Part 2 : Sweet Ilen – Part 3 : Sweet Ilen – Part 4

Robáird an Tuairisceoir Fáin

Exciting news! Recent land improvement works around Rossbrin Castle have uncovered the fragments of an old manuscript – tucked away in the crack of a rock probably 530 years ago. We all know about the Scholar Prince of Rossbrin – Finghinn O Mathuna – who was Tánaiste of the great West Cork O’Mahony clan, and who lived in the castle during the second half of the fifteenth century. He gathered around him historians, bards and scribes. Many books were written there and some survive to this day. They are learned treatise, but the new discovery is something different – a piece of pure journalism written by a visitor to the castle, Robáird an Tuairisceoir Fain (Robert the Roving Reporter), for the Rossbrenon News, a worthy forerunner to our own Roaringwater Journal. In the article, Robáird interviews Finghinn, and gives us a unique insight into how life was lived in those far-off days.

Upper – possibly Finghinn O Mathuna, the 15th century Scholar Prince of Rossbrin; lower – John Speed’s 1611 map of Roaringwater Bay, showing the Tánaiste’s territory of ‘Rossbrennon’

The manuscript is written in a mixture of Latin and Irish, and I have done my best to translate. The format is a dialogue between Finghinn and Robáird. You will have to excuse any errors:

RanTF: Tánaiste, thank you for talking to us today, and for entertaining me in this splendid castle solar which looks out over the waters of Roaringwater Bay. It’s such a busy place – the water is crowded with ships: where do they all come from and why are they here?

F O’M: Poiyou, Guyenne, al-Andalus, Castile, Flanders… all the coasts of Oceanus Occidentalis and an Mheánmhuir. They are here because we have the best fishing grounds in the whole of this world! Our warm waters have an abundance of cod, herring, pilchards – enough to feed all the great cities…

RanTF: So all this commerce that’s out there in Roaringwater Bay – it’s just about fish?

F O’M: Well, no. If you’ve got ships coming up here from places like an Mheánmhuir they might as well be bringing you some of their fine wines! Look below us, around the castle: you see all those warehouses? Some are ready with barrels and salt for preserving the fish before their long journey back, but those over there are doing very nicely for the wine trade…

RanTF: Is this an illicit trade?

F O’M: I’m certainly not going to be telling you that if you are going to publish it in that damnable broadsheet of yours. The Customers and Searchers do well enough out of us, but they seldom get down to these parts. If we do see them, we welcome them with open arms, and fill those arms with a good helping of Burgundy! We are seldom troubled by them after that – until they run out, of course.

RanTF: I understand that fish – especially pilchards – have to be preserved very quickly or they go bad?

F O’M: That’s why all those people are working out there. Look at the place – every one of those huts and cabins is occupied by large families, all of whom – women, children and men – are employed every waking moment. They do get a couple of hours off on the Sabbath, so that they can hear the sinners being denounced: that entertainment lasts them the week…

RanTF: Such a dense population must lead to some hygiene problems?

F O’M: There’s certainly an excess of pestilential exhalations – but that’s why I spend most of my time up here in the solar: I’m above all that. Besides, from here I get a very good view of what’s going on all around.

RanTF: So what is it that sets you apart? They do call you ‘The Scholar Prince’…

F O’M: They do – and they say that Rossbrenon is ‘The greatest centre of learning in the world’! That’s what really interests me. You see those houses down there, just below the castle? That’s where the scribes work. We are producing the finest literature, which is going to the most important libraries in Europe : London, Rennes…

RanTF: And what are they writing about?

F O’M: Whatever is in demand – and topical. We produced the standard work on the life of Sir John Mandeville, for example: that contributed considerably to the current debate on what happens when you reach the edge of the world – do you fall off? We have also come up with volumes on state-of-the-art medicines. Invaluabe for when the next plague strikes…

RanTF: Ah yes – very topical. But where does your knowledge come from?

F O’M: I learn a lot from the seafarers: I entertain them royally with their own Burgundy and, in return, I find out what the latest thinking is. D’you know, there’s a young lad from Italia who is coming up with all sorts of ideas: he reckons that, very soon, we humans will be able to fly like birds! We’ll just equip ourselves with wings made from timber struts and skins, climb up the round towers, and jump off the top!

RanTF: Remarkable! What else does he say?

F O’M: He’s absolutely sure that if you keep sailing west, you will one day find yourself coming back from the east… I don’t understand it myself. What’s more, he claims to know exactly how babies are made!

RanTF: He’s obviously a genius, or a charlatan! So, Tánaiste, with all this knowledge you are gaining from your trading partners, what predictions can you make for us. What will this little bit of our Irish Empire look like in – say – five hundred years time?

F O’M: Ha! Well, I think there’s little doubt that the young community we are creating here in this sheltered cove will expand and become a huge city. There will be town walls, a Cathedral of Rossbrenon, a university and palaces to house the princes and the citizens. And, beyond the boundaries, there will be extensive coney warrens, enough to feed everyone, and keep them warm in winter. And – if that young Italian has his way, we’ll all be flying everywhere: who knows – perhaps we can even fly across the world and find where its edge is. As we’ll have wings, we won’t fall over it!

RanTF: Tánaiste, it’s been a privilege to talk to you. You have certainly widened my horizons. I would give anything to be able to see that city of Rossbrenon…

Christopher Columbus set foot in America in 1492 (above). Finghinn O Mathuna died in 1496. Ferdinand Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the earth, in 1522:

Glossary

An Mheánmhuir – The Meditteranean; Oceanus Occidentalis – The Atlantic Ocean; Customers and Searchers – Customs and Excise; Tánaiste – second-in-command of the Clan (the Taoiseach is the Clan leader).

The drawing of ‘Flying Machines’ by Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) is courtesy of the Museo Leonardo da Vinci, Florence. Note the ‘mirror writing’ that he always used in his private notes.

O’Mahony Clan Rally at Rossbrin Castle, 1975. Photo by Michael Minihane

West Cork Rocks

It certainly does! But this post is – literally – about rock: the hard, knobbly kind that is underneath us, surrounds us, and which has historically built our environment. In the picture above, taken on a clear February day during the most severe Covid lockdown, Finola is walking through beautiful West Cork. Beyond her is the great, gaunt outcrop of Mount Gabriel. Beside her is a traditional stone wall: its design unchanged over centuries. In the landscape all around her are rocks – large and small – scattered in the rough pasture.

In the distance, of course, is the coast: there are very few places in West Cork where you cannot, at least, catch a glimpse of the sea – and so many where you can immerse yourself in it, or stand on its shore and admire the infinite textures which those same rocks display. It’s mostly Old Red Sandstone: that’s the correct geological term. It was laid down in the Devonian period – a while ago now: between 400 and 300 million years, in fact. This followed an era during which our mountains were built, known as the Silurian times. Continents were shifting and separating, and what was to become Ireland was a great arid desert – deserted: there was no-one around to see it!

Old Red Sandstone: in fact it varies in colour depending on its local history. Broadly, some of the mountain rocks are purple-grey, while those closer to the sea could be greeny-red, but that is probably far too wide a generalisation. The sheer beauty is in the infinite shapes and colours. What artist needs any finer palette?

In those deserted times, an ‘Old Red Sandstone Continent’ extended over what is now northwest Europe, but it is worth noting that in ‘our’ part of it – the Munster Basin, covering today’s Kerry and Cork – we have one of the densest masses of this rock in the world: at least 6 kilometres thick. And we have to appreciate what it has given to us – high mountain spines sweeping steeply down to an indented shoreline of coves, creeks and inlets, with the myriad mottled islands that we oversee. An unparalleled, unfolded world.

After the ‘desert’ period, but much later – only about a million and a half years ago – came the Pleistocene Epoch. the word is from the Greek polys and cene – meaning ‘most recent’ – and that brings us almost up to date. That was a time of great climate events: deserts were inundated and then covered in ice sheets 3 kilometres thick, while moving glaciers tore up the rock surfaces, advancing and retreating several times. Eventually, what had been desert became arctic tundra. It is supposed that the ancestors of our present day life forms happened along during this epoch, and managed to survive. But we don’t find any traces of them until after the last ice sheet retreated in our part of the world – only about 12,000 years ago. The landscape that was left behind was inundated by rising sea levels, and the very last land bridge (between Cornwall and the eastern tip of Wexford) was washed away after that, but not before the Giant Elk and its mammal relations had got a foothold on the western side. The snakes, however, didn’t make it. And what of the humans?

Well, the humans embraced the rocky landscape. They made their marks on the outcrops; then they moved the rocks about, and made architecture from them. We can still see their efforts, some 5,000 years later.

These Neolithic carved motifs could be the earliest human interventions on the natural Irish landscape: they might date from 3,000 BC. These examples are from West Cork, and were only discovered a few years ago. Finola wrote the definitive thesis on Rock Art when she studied at UCC in the 1970s, and we have staged exhibitions and given talks on the topic.

A couple of thousand years later, Irish people started to build things with the stones they found around them. This wedge tomb under the backdrop textures of Mount Gabriel at Ratooragh has rested here since the Bronze Age. Finola’s post today uncovers the fascinating folklore stories that generations have told about such artefacts. But restlessly working the fabric of the landscape – Old Red Sandstone – into walls, shelters, tower houses, temples and towns has never ceased.

Dean Swift and I

Robert writes:

Our weather has turned grey and damp. Our 5k Covid limited walks to seek inspiration for the posts we write for you every week are less than comfortable, and our photography is suffering. But we are undaunted! Spring is just around the corner (it starts tomorrow, on the first of February – Imbolc – here in Ireland) and we will soon see the emerging wildflowers in our verges. We will notice the days getting longer. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy the stormy prospect from our eyrie:

Roaringwater Bay, January 30 2021. Between the islands the water is always calm but you can see the force of an Atlantic storm stirring things up beyond them

For my post today I’m diving into our archives, but also travelling back in time – in my own life. The topic is an Irish one – and has West Cork connections (you’ll see) – but writer and satirist Jonathan Swift appeared in my view early on, and through a somewhat odd series of events which touch on many things – historical characters, folktales, archaeology, and hauntings. Here is how I came into the company of Dean Swift before I was ten years old!

Jonathan Swift, born in Dublin in 1667: left – in 1682 (when he was fifteen years old) painted by Thomas Pooley; centre – in 1710 (aged 43) by Charles Jervas and right – in 1745 (the year of his death, aged 78) by Rupert Barber (National Portrait Gallery, London)

I was born and brought up in a small country town in southern England – Farnham. A big influence on my young life was my grandmother, Annie – we always called her Granma. But she wasn’t a relation at all: my mother had been orphaned (by the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’) at the age of four, and lived in a children’s home until the age of 16, after which she was fostered by my Granma. In my younger years my mother worked as a shorthand typist. I had no idea, then, what a ‘short hand typist’ was, but I must have formed an image of sorts in my mind. Be that as it may, the consequence was that I spent time with my Granma during my mother’s working hours in school holidays – and, quite often, at weekends.

My Granma – the one picture I have of her, above – was only ever the kindest of ladies. She helped me to learn to read well from the age of four, and embedded in me a huge love of books – and stories. Widowed, she lived alone in 2 Darvill’s Lane, Farnham. And that’s where I have the happiest of my childhood memories. Why? Because it was such a different house from my parents’. It had no electricity, a big black coal range and an outside lavatory – all thoroughly fascinating. The gaslights hissed and spluttered in a friendly way on winter evenings; there were always interesting things sizzling on the range – and blancmange for pudding, and fruit cakes for tea! And, although there wasn’t electricity, there was a large wireless set with a bakelite shell, shiny knobs and a glowing celluloid dial splendidly esconced on its very own table in a corner of the small sitting room. I can still see it in my mind’s eye, although I have no memory of what I might have heard from its gold-meshed speaker as everything seemed obscured and overlayed by intense crackling. A cable descended from the set to a large glass accumulator sitting on the floor beneath. This was similar in size and weight to a car battery today. One of my frequent duties when staying with Granma for an afternoon in the holidays was to help dismantle this accumulator, place it into a wheeled shopping basket and trundle it up into the town where it was exchanged for a freshly charged apparatus of the same design, a task which had to be done weekly (and cost how much? Sixpence…). But, I digress . . . Let’s move on to the subject of this post – Dean Swift: what is his connection with my Granma?

A particularly fine edition of Gulliver’s Travels in two volumes, dating from 1930. A similar one in good condition fetched £6,900 at auction last year. The first edition – also in two volumes – was issued on 28 October 1726, priced at 8 shilings and 6 pence

Gulliver’s Travels was one of the many books I read at my Granma’s house, probably when I was four or five. My version was nothing like the handsome one above: it was the Ladybird Books edition: I wish I still had it. Of course, I now know that practically everything of value historically had been expurgated from this and all other children’s renderings of the book (and plays, films etc) including all the (then) politically outrageous bits and the vividly scatalogical episodes. (If you don’t know these, one of the mildest is Gulliver’s success in putting out a house fire in Lilliput by publicly urinating on it, something for which he was convicted of treason and then sentenced to be blinded!). Nevertheless, at such an innocent age, who would not have been impressed simply by the illustration of a ‘giant’ man tied down to the ground with twine and surrounded by a horde of miniature people?

My world met that of Swift (I never knew him as ‘Dean Swift’ until I came to Ireland) when my Granma and I would walk together out into the countryside. We only ever walked because, in the 1950s, very few people had cars and I had not yet graduated to a bicycle: walking is still, after all, the best way to travel without missing all the details. From Darvill’s Lane we followed a path away from the town which almost immediately became deeply rural. We headed for Moor Park. I was delighted, recently, to find this old postcard of Moor Park Lane which could date from those same days:

With the benefit of Google Maps I have been able to calculate that our walks were around two miles if we only went as far as Moor Park House, but it was much more interesting to go beyond, so sometimes we would have done a round trip of seven or eight miles. ‘Beyond’ there were caves, and a holy well, and the ruins of an old abbey – all of which Granma could tell me stories about. I’m so grateful to my Granma as, today, I can’t resist searching out the likes of caves, holy wells and archaeology, wherever I travel.

An extract from a late 19th century Ordnance Survey map of the country we walked through outside Farnham town, with just a few of the places which I learned ‘stories’ about during my escapades with my Granma!

Moor Park House was always our first port of call. I now know that an early dwelling on this site – known as Compton Hall – dates from 1307, and that this was modified and added to over the generations, most notably by Sir William Temple in the late 17th century. Temple (1628 – 1699) bought the property in the 1680s and renamed it after his own family home in Hertfordshire. He had a career as a noted diplomat under Charles II including, in 1677, helping to arrange the marriage between the King’s niece, Princess Mary and William of Orange: I don’t need to go into their story now. William Temple retired to Farnham and constructed a large formal garden at Moor Park, covering five acres. From 1688 until his death he employed Jonathan Swift as his secretary. My Grandma ensured that I knew about the link between Moor Park and Gulliver’s Travels, and I was impressed! She also told me that the path along which we walked, passing through the gates of Moor Park Lodge, had once been the scene of a great battle when an owner of Moor Park (long after Temple) closed off the right-of-way along that path, or attempted to: I have since learned that it happened in 1897, and a crowd of over a hundred local people armed themselves with cudgels and crowbars and forced the locked gates open. They have been open ever since.

Upper – Moor Park House today and, lower – the gatehouse which was the scene of a battle over rights-of-way in 1897

For over a decade Moor Park house figured large in the life of Jonathan Swift. When first there he became the tutor and mentor to a local girl who lived nearby, and whose mother acted as a companion to Temple’s sister. The local girl was Esther Johnson (1681 – 1728). She was nicknamed ‘Stella’ by Swift. My Granma told me that Stella was a close friend of Jonathan Swift, and that he would visit her by following the path we always took through the estate, ending at ‘Stella’s Cottage’ at the far end. My young brain took all this information in, and I carried with me through the years a picture in my mind of Stella’s Cottage at the end of our path. A postcard I came across recently confirms that picture exactly! Stella remained ‘close’ to Swift for the rest of his life. On his death Temple left her some property in Ireland and she moved there in 1702. There were rumours – never confirmed or denied – that she and Swift had married secretly. She died in 1728, and was buried in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Swift was inconsolable at Stella’s death; when he died he was buried beside her at his own request:

Childhood associations: centre – Sir William Temple on the left (painted by John Closterman – courtesy of Beecroft Art Gallery) and Esther Johnson on the right (artist unknown – Crawford Gallery): she was Jonathan Swift’s ‘close friend’. Lower picture – an old postcard showing ‘Stella Cottage’

On the best days our walks continued beyond the Moor Park estate, and included a visit to two caves – ‘Old Mother Ludlam’s cave’ and ‘Father Foote’s’. These provided great stories, and my Granma’s recounting of those stories has been confirmed through my present day researches, although I prefer them the way she told them, rather than the precise history. Mother Ludlam was a witch, but a good one. She had a cauldron which she would lend to anyone, presumably so they could make their own magic potions. The cauldron can still be seen today, in a nearby church. She lived in her cave, which had (and still has) a stream running through it. Every time we looked into the mouth of the cave – through a locked iron gate – my Granma repeated the same story (which I have never seen written down): when she was a young girl it was decided to find out where the stream that ran out of the cave originated, so a raft of ducks (that’s the correct word for a whole lot of ducks) was taken into the cave and shooed away into the darkness up the stream. Then, presumably, the assembled crowd waited to see if and where they might emerge. They didn’t. Except that – according to my Granma – some considerable time later (days or weeks) one lone duck was found coming out of a small culvert on the River Wey in Guildford ten miles away – minus all its feathers! I could never forget such a rare story.

Here (above) is one of my prized possessions: a 1785 print of Mother Ludlam’s Hole, Surry: I found it in a second-hand bookshop in Farnham very many years ago – I think I paid a shilling for it – and I have kept it ever since, if only to remember my Granma and the stories she told. I later came across this fine print in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It shows that Mother Ludlam had some notoriety:

But you very seldom hear about ‘Father Foote’. In fact, I wondered in later life whether he was a personage which my Granma had thought up to explain a second, smaller cave nearby. But no – because if you look at this 1895 map of the area you will see that ‘Foote’s Cave’ is clearly marked (along with St Mary’s Well), but Mother Ludlam’s isn’t.

So – Granma’s tale: Mother Ludlam and Father Foote lived at the same time close to each other. The second cave is quite high up in the rock face, and rather small. They had a baby, which they kept in the smaller cave, One day the baby rolled out of the cave, down the steep hill and into the river below. That’s the story – I’ll leave you to ponder on it.

Generally, the last port of call on our walks was Waverley Abbey – the very first monastery founded in Britain by the Cistercians, constructed in a meadow beside the River Wey in 1128. That’s what remains of the refectory above (photo courtesy of English Heritage). I don’t remember my Granma telling me any ghost stories – she didn’t go in for those; yet she did always say to me I had to look out for the ‘white monks’ when we went past the old abbey ruins. I was interested to see that Waverley Abbey was used as a film set in 2014 for a Disney film about the story of Rapunzel. Here’s a still from that film:

I did promise you a ‘West Cork connection’ to the subject of this post. Well, Dean Swift visited the south west of Ireland in 1723 and stayed in Castletownshend. Finola, in her post on Belvederes in 2016, tells that he used a tower behind the castle there as his refuge, and in it he wrote a long poem in Latin – Carberiae Rupes – which translates as ‘The Crags of Carbery’. Here’s the tower beside Castletownshend Castle, and a short translated extract from the poem. At the end there’s Finola’s photo of me visiting ‘Swift’s Tower’, and closing the loop that began for me more than seventy years ago.

31st January 2021

Castle Island – Facts and Fictions

That’s Castle Island, above, beyond Gaelic Lord Finnin O’Mahony’s dilapidated realm at the entrance to Rossbrin Cove, in Roaringwater Bay. In the fifteenth century there would have been a hive of activity at Rossbrin: quays alive with fishing activity, boats being repaired and prepared, houses, stores and cellars – all full. Castle Island itself would also have been inhabited in those days, as were many of Carbery’s Hundred Isles. Skeam West – to the east of Castle, and roughly in the centre of all the islands of Roaringwater Bay, has the remnants of a church said to date from the ninth century (Fahy – Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Volume 67, 1962).

Upper – Castle island with its close neighbours in Roaringwater Bay; lower – the ancient church on nearby Skeam West, drawn by Fahy in 1962 (courtesy Cork Historical and Archaeological Society). Fahy suggested a ninth century date for this structure, although other commentators have suggested an earlier origin, possibly even before St Patrick’s time

We set foot on Castle Island for the first time in August of last year – during a reprieve in the Covid lockdown measures. Those days seem halcyon now, compared to our current scourge and severe restrictions. We have not been able to return, but I am setting out to bring my reporting a bit more up to date, as I have been provided with further information from a range of sources.

Approaching Castle Island in 2020: upper – view of the island from the shore in Rossbrin townland; centre – proceeding to the island from Rossbrin Cove; lower – the quay on Castle Island, reportedly built in the early 20th century by the Congested Districts Board: “…the beach that it is laid upon was the best natural landing point on the island, well sheltered from the Atlantic swell …” (Mark Wycliff Samuel – The Tower House of West Cork, UCL 1998)

The history of the population of Castle Island is enigmatic and somewhat contradictory. Here is a quotation copied from the Ireland Byways site but uncredited and undated; I can find no other link containing the same information, but it must originally have been written when the island was still inhabited:

. . . Castle Island (Meadhon Inis – “middle island”) lies about 2km offshore, east of the mouth of Schull Harbour on the Mizen Peninsula. The island derives its English name from a ruined C14th Tower House, one of 12 built by the powerful O’Mahony clan in the area. The 1837 census recorded 89 people living on the island. At present there are fewer than 30 permanent residents, who make their living from farming . . .

quoted by ireland byways.co.uk

You will find some accounts which suggest that Castle Island was inhabited only up to the 1870s. These are incorrect: there is no doubt that the island was the home to a number of families in the 1890s as they suffered evictions then. It also seems questionable that the expense of constructing a substantial pier could have been justified only for the benefit of those who might run their cattle and sheep on a deserted island (as happens today). It is possible, therefore, that regular population of the island continued into the early years of the 20th century.

The remains of substantial houses exist on Castle island today: some do not seem to be as ruinous as would be expected if they had been unoccupied for well over 100 years

Recently, my attention was drawn to a Land Register folio recording the title for one of the parcels of land comprising Castle Island: ” . . . a burden, dated April 14, 1904, indicates that the property was transferred at that time subject to the right of . . . Jeremiah Regan to be supported clothed and maintained in the dwellinghouse on the said lands . . . ” That would imply, for sure, that there was at least one person who had the right to live on the island in the twentieth century.

Details from the ruined houses at the settlement of Wester, Castle Island: upper – brick and render chimney stack in reasonable condition; centre – elements from timber window frames still in existence; lower – traces of paint on an internal rendered wall

Accounts of the evictions which occurred on Castle Island have been well summarised in a Mizen Journal article by Liam O’Regan in Volume 6, 1998. The article is much too long to be included here, but it’s worth anyone’s while ferreting it out to get a vividly descriptive picture of the island in the 1890s.

Here’s a brief summary of the eviction story: the villain is on the left, above – he is Thomas Henry Marmion JP, principle landlord of Castle Island. He lived from 1839 to 1921 and – incidentally – his father (who had the same name) was said to have been responsible for providing the ‘soup kitchen’ at the Steam Mill, Skibbereen during the Great Famine of the 1840s. Notwithstanding this, recorded history does not have much that’s good to say about the Marmions, who in the eighteenth century had been land agents for the Bechers and Townsends. At the beginning of March 1890 (as reported, somewhat floridly, in the Cork County Eagle):

. . . A few days ago, the sheriff’s officer from Skibbereen made his appearance in Schull, surrounded by a force of police, on an evicting expedition. After a short delay, they proceeded to the water’s edge where their galleys were found to await them and the sheriff’s representative having secured himself in one of the crafts, the whole party proceeded to sea for a distance of some three miles when they landed on Castle island. This wild and sea-washed home of a few small farmers and fishermen is the property of Mr Thomas Henry Marmion . . . whose interest in recent years appears more of an incumberance or embarrassment than any advantage as the poor creatures who live in it (misnamed farmers) and on the many islands surrounding it, have to live chiefly on the profits of the sea. The fortification of Jerry Nugent was the first laid siege by the invading army, Jerry’s offence being that he owed a few years’ rent which he found impossible to pay and he was, therefore, sent adrift on the sea-washed rocks where he had a full view of the passing emigrant ships which will probably bear him away to seek out a livelihood in the land of the stranger . . .

Cork County Eagle, march 7th, 1890

There’s much more – and it’s a harrowing story – not untypical, of course, of what was happening all over Ireland during the nineteenth century. In the portrait gallery, above, the figure in the middle is a ‘hero’: he is William O’Brien MP, a founder of the National League who, in September 1890 visited West Cork and held a meeting on Middle Calf island to support the case of tenants evicted from Castle Island and the Calves. On the right is James Gilhooly, MP, Bantry, who was chairman of the ‘All for Ireland League’ and who strongly supported the Castle Island tenants and attended many official meetings on their behalf. Matters rumbled on laboriously into the mid 1890s: eventually, it seems that the introduction of new land purchase acts (benefitting tenants), enabled six tenants to return to, and continue to occupy, Castle Island. As yet I have found no further records to help us establish how long occupation of this sparse rocky outcrop in Roaringwater Bay continued into the twentieth century.

The Mizen Journal, Volume 5 1997, has published a study by Anthony Beese of the place-names on Castle Island. I have been unable to locate this article online, but here is Anthony’s excellent map, above.

When we visited the island on a brooding August day we sensed its many ghosts, perhaps including those who returned over a hundred years ago and, possibly, lived out their working lives there. I have called this post ‘Facts and Fictions’ . . . You have had the facts. After I wrote my first post, last year, I received a communication from a writer: William Wall. I was delighted to learn that he had written a book – Grace’s Day – published in 2018, part of which is set on Castle Island. I obtained the book and read it avidly: it has opened up for me a new dimension in the story of the island – and it’s thoroughly believable.

. . . A long time ago I had two sisters and we lived on an island. There was me and Jeannie and Em. They called me Grace, but I have never had much of that. I was an awkward child. I still am all these years later. Our house had two doors, one to the south, one to the north. Its garden looked towards the setting sun. It was a garden of apple trees and fuchsia and everything in it leaned away from the wind. Dry stone walls encircled it and sheep and children broke them down. My mother lived there with us. Boats came and went bringing food and sometimes sheep, and there were times when we lived by catching fish and rabbits, though we were not so good at either . . .

Grace’s Day – a novel by William Wall, published by new island books 2018

William Wall is familiar with West Cork: he has stayed here many times, and has visited Castle Island. It’s not just the island, but the whole story of 1960s West Cork that has been his inspiration. Readers of this Journal will be aware of my own interest in the days when Ballydehob became the hub of an artists’ community: I have helped to set up the Ballydehob Arts Museum, which has celebrated this era and is now in ‘suspended animation’ due to the Covid outbreak. I also look after a website for the Museum. Grace’s Day is set in this era, and follows the unconventional lives of a family who is ‘getting away from it all’ and trying to survive following the then prevalent bible of self-sufficiency. It’s perfectly feasible that an abandoned island in Roaringwater Bay could be the setting for such a romantic pursuit of ideals. I won’t give away any spoilers, but one more extract could help to persuade you that this book is for you. You should find it in all good bookshops: please support them in these tricky times.

. . . One day on our island my sister Jeannie ran in to say that she had seen a whale in the sound and I ran out after her, my mother calling me: Grace, it’s your day, take Em. But I was too excited. And there were three fin whales making their way into the rising tide. We heard their breathing. It carried perfectly in the still grey air, reflected back at us now by the low cloud. The sea was still and burnished. We ran along the rocks watching for their breaching. We decided it was a mother, a father and a calf. They were in no hurry. When we reached the beacon, a small unlit concrete marker indicating the western edge of the island, we watched them breaching and diving into the distance until we could see them no more. But they left behind their calmness and the unhurried but forceful sound of their blows . . .

GRACE’S DAY – A NOVEL BY WILLIAM WALL, PUBLISHED BY NEW ISLAND BOOKS 2018
Our own view of Castle Island in the distance, surreally shadowed by the full moon’s glimmer, while the Fastnet Lighthouse winks away on the horizon