Portobello

We have been spending a little time over on the east side of the country, not too far from Dublin. We like exploring, and the built-up areas have much to offer in terms of history so I’m returning – for a brief moment – to one of my favourite subjects: the canals of Ireland. You may remember my forays back in 2016 to seek out the journeys taken by L T C Rolt seventy years before that, and recorded in his classic book Green & Silver. You can find all those posts here. Earlier this year I added a further post to the series, examining in greater detail the meeting of the waters of Grand and Royal Canals, within Dublin. Today I’m simply concentrating mainly on one place, to the south of the city: Portobello.

This wonderfully drawn map (the two extracts above) dates from 1797, and was complied by William Faden (1749-1836) and Samuel John Neele (1758-1824): it was published in London and Dublin. You can see from it that the Grand Canal at that time virtually created the southern boundary of the city, with the canal basin at Portobello being a significant location to serve the growing conurbation south of the River Liffey.

This extract from the 6″ first edition of the Ordnance Survey shows Portobello Harbour with its significant warehouses, the ‘City Basin’ and a lock and bridge – known as La Touche Bridge. We have encountered the La Touche family in an earlier post – Glen of the Downs – and learned there that the family had built a big house – ‘Bellevue’ – on their estates near Greystones and Delgany.

The bridge (photo courtesy of excellentstreetimages.com) was named after William Digges La Touche (1747–1803), a director of the Grand Canal Company. The waterway was, of course, an important business venture in its heyday, contributing to the prosperity of the city merchants. Prior to its construction the area was farmland, and the name Portobello is said (curiously) to have come from the Irish Cuan Aoibhinn, meaning ‘beautiful harbour’. Note the ‘City Basin’ marked on the OS map: this was used from 1812 to provide a drinking water reservoir for the south side of the city. In the 1860s the water was found to contain a high concentration of sulphuric acid, and this source was eventually superseded by the new reservoir at Dartry, in Co Wicklow.

This is a fine early print of the Harbour, showing the Grand Canal Hotel designed by James Colbourne and opened in 1797. In the foreground is a passenger or ‘packet’ boat. We might forget how important the transport of people was in the early days of canal transport, before the advent of railways (see Trollope’s account in my post here): roads were often in a poor state and the boats provided a smooth – if not exactly speedy – way of getting about.

…the company’s hotels were simply the posting houses of this water-road …There was considerable interchange of passenger as well as goods traffic at Shannon Harbour. Travellers changed here from the Dublin passage boats into Bianconi’s ‘long cars’ which operated between Birr, Shannon Harbour and Athlone in connection with the boats. Alternatively they might board the paddle steamers The Lady Lansdowne or The Lady Burgoyne which plied between Killaloe pier head and Athlone, calling at a jetty on the river near the mouth of the canal. Smaller craft sailed from Killaloe pier head to the transatlantic port of Limerick, and so the Grand Canal became a link in the route between Dublin and America…

L T C ROLT, Green & Silver, 1949

The hotel at Portobello was one of five constructed along the length of the Grand Canal: all were fine buildings – probably state-of-the-art in terms of accommodation for travellers by water. You will find a post which I wrote about them here. On the header picture is a view of a packet boat at Harcourt Lock, and you can see a stage-coach there waiting to transfer passengers. The Portobello hotel closed in 1835 but the building has survived to the present day through many incarnations.

This is a great photo if you are a transport history enthusiast! It must date from the 1940s, as the Dublin tram system declined at that time, the last one in the city being phased out on 9 July 1949. The bridge and former canal hotel are clearly seen.

Portobello House – the canal hotel in the 1960s. Some fine classic cars in this picture! At this time it was a nursing home: one of its elderly residents was Jack B Yeats, the celebrated Irish painter who currently has a major exhibition in the National Gallery.

The former canal hotel was completely refurbished in 1972 (the photograph above dates from that year) and survives today – in good order – as a private educational establishment. Here it is again (below), as you’ve never seen it before – through the eagle-eye of Google Earth!

I can’t resist finishing with this plate from from The Graphic, a British weekly newspaper set up to rival the popular Illustrated London News. Published on May 13, 1882, this shows “. . . the lighting of tar-barrels in Portobello Harbour, on the Grand Canal in Dublin, to celebrate the release from prison of Charles Stewart Parnell and two colleagues . . .”

West Cork Villages and Towns – Skibbereen

It was an ‘odd’ Olympic year – 2021. Firmly etched in my mind is the knowledge that years in which Olympic Games are held – like leap years – are divisible by 4! This one was different, because of Covid. But that didn’t prevent Ireland producing its heroes: gold for rowing and boxing, and bronze, also for rowing and boxing: a total of 8 sports heroes bringing medals home. If you will forgive the pun, the small country of Ireland punched well above its weight! All the rowers trained at the Skibbereen Rowing Club in West Cork, under the expert eye of their coach Dominic Casey. No surprise, then, that the town was in celebratory mood for weeks after the event, as you can see from many of my photographs, taken around the town at the end of August.

The town, from its situation in a wild, unenclosed part of the country, has frequently been the rendezvous of disaffected parties, but it has been much improved of late years, and is now a very flourishing place. It is situated on the southern bank of the river Ilen, and comprises seven streets; that part which extends into the parish of Abbeystrowry is called Bridgetown, and consists of three streets, one of which has been recently formed. The number of houses in the whole town is 1014, many of which, in the eastern part and in the parish of Creagh, are large and well built: the approaches have been much improved by the formation of new lines of road at each extremity . . .

LEWIS TOPOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IRELAND 1837

It’s interesting that Lewis – in 1837 – describes the number of houses as just over a thousand. He also states elsewhere that there were 4,429 inhabitants in 1691: in the 2011 census the town recorded a population of 2,568.

The first edition of the Ordnance Survey 6″ map was produced around 1840, just after the Lewis Topographical Dictionary was published. From the extract above, the layout of the town we know today had been broadly established by then. Compare this to today’s OS map (below) and the annotated aerial view.

There are a few theories as to the earliest origins of the town. Oft quoted is the story of the survivors from the sacking of Baltimore by Barbary Pirates in 1631 having moved upriver to found, or expand, the settlement that is now Skibbereen. It is likely that there was already a community on this part of the river, which was tidal and probably easily navigable up to its sheltered reaches at this point: at one time there were no less than five quays, warehouses and a Customs House within the town – this post will tell you more.

Skibbereen today is defined by its river – as it always has been. The waterside deserves a bit more attention – and is being opened up a little in some of the new civic improvement schemes that have been enabled by major flood relief works in the town. There are many opportunities yet to be explored.

All towns evolve and, hopefully, move into the future: Skibbereen – we’ll be keeping an eye on you! But it’s a great town already: it has the busiest market in West Cork on a Saturday; lively shopping streets; easy (and free) parking – and a very healthy ‘pavement cafe’ culture that has grown up during the pandemic, and is likely to continue to flourish. Let’s walk the streets and see the town as its best in the late summer sunshine . . .

Here at Roaringwater Journal we will always sing the praises of this town, and it has been the subject of a good deal of our historical research and writing. Have a look at our posts on Agnes Clerke, Ireland’s first and foremost female astronomer;  Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, the famed nationalist and Fenian: Uillinn – one of Ireland’s most innovative art galleries – here, here and here. We also must not forget that Skibbereen was at one time an important part of Ireland’s railway network: you could travel to and from Cork and Baltimore, and it was a terminus for the narrow gauge railway that trundled off to Schull, and whose loss is now much mourned.

I hope my post inspires you to explore this prominent West Cork town, if you haven’t already done so. It has historic foundations – too numerous to list in this one, short article. Choose a sunny afternoon – or go there to shelter from the infrequent showers. Whatever the day, make the Skibbereen Heritage Centre your starting point: you will find a wealth of information which will help to guide you on your way. The building itself is a piece of history: it used to be Skibbereen’s gas works!

The town name was familiar to me long before I settled in Ireland a decade ago. I lived in the fishing village of Newlyn, Cornwall, for many years and got to know the history of the artists’ colony in West Penwith, centred on that town and St Ives. One artist – Stanhope Alexander Forbes – was known as ‘The Father of the Newlyn School of Artists’ – he was Irish born, and lived from 1857 to 1947. I vividly remember one of his works, displayed in the Penlee Gallery in Penzance. It shows fishermen leaving Newlyn to follow the shoals of herring and pilchards to the waters of Roaringwater Bay. The title of that picture? Goodbye – Off To Skibbereen!

Previous posts in this series:

Bantry

Schull

West Cork Villages and Towns – Bantry

. . . The town is situated at the northern extremity of the bay to which it gives its name, in a small valley encircled by lofty mountains, which attracting the clouds in their passage over the Atlantic, involve it in almost continual rains. The streets are indifferently paved, and not lighted; the inhabitants are supplied with water from numerous springs. The approaches are steep and incommodious, and are lined with cabins of very inferior description. Little improvement has been made in the town, except by the erection of some very extensive stores by Mr O’Connell and Mr Corkery, merchants of the place, and the enlargement of the principal hotel, which now affords ample accommodation to the numerous tourists who, during the summer season, frequent the place on their way to Glengariff and the lakes . . .

Lewis Topographical Dictionary of Ireland 1837

. . . This bay was known to the ancients by the name of Inber Sceine. It is a noble sheet of water, landlocked by beautiful mountains. The scenery is picturesque, bold, and grand, and equals, if it yet not surpass, the best to be found in these kingdoms . . .


Early Irish History and Antiquities and the History of West Cork
W O’Halloran 1916

Bantry . . . a miserable poor place, hardly worth the name of a town, consisting of seven or eight small houses, and some mean little cottages . . .

Jacobite army officer and author John Stevens, 1689

Well, here we have some contrasting descriptions of the town of Bantry, the earliest (above) dating from over 330 years ago! That one is a bit unfair, in truth, as it seems to be almost an ‘aside’ within Stevens’ ill-tempered account of his own involvement in the Williamite War (1689 – 1691). Bantry was a landing place for the Jacobite army which then marched through Cork and engaged in the Battles of the Boyne and Aughrim, and the Siege of Limerick (which is celebrated to this day in a traditional country dance!). None of this needs to detain us further from pursuing our contemporary account of Bantry town.

Bantry in the time of Covid . . . As with our exploration of Schull, the first in this series, we capture a moment in time: all the photographs are taken in one summer’s day, and show the norms of daily life. We deliberately did not choose Market Day (every Friday throughout the year), as on that day the population of the place appears to double in size. This is an average weekday and it is busy enough, with holiday makers swelling the ranks and helping to populate the many outdoor facilities.

Bantry has made its mark in the history of Ireland’s independence. An attempted landing by the French Fleet in Bantry Bay on 22 December 1796 was partly precipitated by Theobald Wolfe Tone – one of the founding members of the United Irishmen. The mission was unsuccessful due to severe gales. A political cartoon of the time (below) satirises the venture:

. . . On the French expedition to Bantry Bay, at the end of 1796: Pitt, Dundas, Grenville, and Windham are the four winds which blow up the storm to destroy the invaders. FFox, as the carved figure at the head of the Revolution, is represented as influencing the United Irishmen. The crew of the jolly-boat are Sheridan, Liberty Hall, Erskine, M A Taylor, and Thelwall, who, it is insinuated, were all approvers, at least, of the Irish rebellion . . .

Historical and Descriptive Account of the Caricatures of James Gillray, 1851

Wolfe Tone’s statue looks down over the square which bears his name in Bantry today: it was sculpted by Jeanne Rynhart in 2000. Close by is an anchor from the ‘French Armada’ found off Whiddy Island. The square was known formerly as Egerton Square – named after a descendant of the Earls of Bantry (have a look at this post). In 1899 the Irish Nationalist MP James Gilhooly oversaw the renaming. Also on the present-day square (much of which is on reclaimed land) is the notable statue of Saint Brendan by Imogen Stuart.

The aerial image, above, shows how the town has evolved along the original river valley. Comparing this view with the earliest 6″ OS map – dating from around 1840 (below – upper) – and the 25″ OS edition c1900 (below, lower), you can see clearly how the Square has encroached on the original natural harbour. You can also see that the terminus of the Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway was carried on an extended pier to the west, enabling goods to be shipped in and out of the town. Interestingly, prior to the railway’s arrival in 1892, and continuing into the early 20th century, there was a regular steamship service from Bantry to Castletownbere on the Beara Peninsula. This also served Glengarriff and Adrigole.

In spite of local opposition the railway was closed on 1 April 1961, and the station building was demolished. We do fortunately still have some vestiges of the line clearly visible in the town.

I have only touched on the briefest aspects of the history of this significant West Cork town. There is considerably more recorded in a recent opus compiled by distinguished historian and international scholar Colum Hourihane, who hales from Bantry. We were recently at the launch of his latest book Bantry Through the Centuries, Bantry Historical Press, 2021 and were treated to an illustrated talk, given by the author. Colum is at pains to point out that this is not a general history of Bantry, but that its core is the streets of the town” . . . It’s an effort to understand how the town developed over the centuries in relation to its people . . . “ The book is a first-class resource: a 490-page review of local lore and garnered knowledge illustrated with almost 140 additional pages of historic photographs. This must surely be the most comprehensive volume ever published on this town.

Let’s finish with some more of the photos taken on our day’s exploration: an attempt to capture the essence of this significant West Cork settlement. I hope it will encourage you to visit, if you don’t already know it.

You can read much more about Bantry in Roaringwater Journal. Here are just a few links:

The Golden Hour

Masters of Tradition Festival

Ireland’s First Inhabitants

Kerry Leftovers

We spent a couple of days in Kerry a week before midsummer, and gave you some account of our discoveries on Church Island, Lough Currane, and up in the hills at Caherlehillan – both memorable Early Christian sites. Our adventures did not end there: we managed to take in, also, some other ancient treasures, a couple of Kerry characters, and some stunning scenery – hard to match – as we travelled back to West Cork along the Ring of Kerry road (above).

Firstly, here are Charlie Chaplin and Michael Collins (above), both familiar figures in Waterville. The Hollywood star spent his summer holidays in the coastal town for many years with his family and is commemorated by a bronze statue, while Michael can be found on most days in this much photographed location, always ready to entertain with Kerry polkas and slides on his accordion.

Here’s a much earlier Kerry musician: he’s known as ‘The Fiddler’, and is an unusual medieval representation of an instrumentalist found in the romanesque ruin on Church Island, Lough Currane. I was pleased to find this photograph in the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Notes from 1908 by P J Lynch as it shows the carving as it was found by the OPW when they took over the site. Now the original, which had suffered accelerated weathering, is kept protected in a museum while a well-worn replica is in place on the site. I believe the carving is a good representation of a medieval bowed lyre, an instrument with six strings which survives today in some cultures, although Lynch gave the following commentary:

. . . The interest in this stone centres in the musical instrument. The examples of ancient carving in Ireland representing stringed instruments are few, and confined to harpers. The photograph illustrates this instrument very clearly. It is the ancient cruit or fidil, said to be the parent of the violin. There are six strings indicated by sunken lines in the stone. The figure appears to wear a kind of tight-fitting tunic. Dr O’Sullivan states that the word fidil being a teutonic version of the original name vièle, it may be concluded that the original instrument was introduced through the Anglo-Saxons, and not through the Normans. He adds that up to the eleventh century it consisted of a conical body, and after that it became oval. If this be a portion of the twelfth-century instrument, the older pattern must have survived. The Kerry people were probably as unwilling to change in those days as they are at present . . .

P J Lynch – Some notes on church island – RSAI 1908

Our trip out to Church Island (above) was accompanied by moody weather, but we were fortunate with other expeditions which included the discovery of ancient sites in the townland of Srugreana (Srúbh Gréine in Irish, which is translated variously as sunny stream, gravelly stream or – my favourite – snout of the sun: Kerry certainly offers some tricky pronunciations for those unfamiliar with the area, or the language!).

This extract from the 6″ OS map, dating from the mid-1800s, shows one area we explored on our Kerry day. It throws up some enigmas: Killinane Church (the church of Saint Lonan or Lonáin) is often referred to as Srugreana Abbey, but this is a separate site indicated further to the north-west on the early plan.

The church site at Srugreana is remarkable in many ways. A 2012 survey commissioned by Kerry County Council Heritage Office found there are at least 1,290 unhewn, uninscribed gravemarkers around the medieval church, and a significant number of ‘house type’ tombs, some of which are ‘two-storey’, like the one above. The concentration of graves – many of which cannot be dated – suggests how populous this now remote area was at one time.

The main purpose of our visit to Srugreana was to search out a holy well dedicated to Saint Gobnait (above). The expedition was led by Amanda, who runs the Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry website. You need to read her comprehensive article on this particular saint here. Interestingly, while we were visiting the well we met the new owner of the land on which it sits. She had no idea that there was a holy well here, and also was unaware of its apparently recent renovation! Note the crosses carved on the stones by visiting pilgrims, above.

From the above accounts, and our two previous posts, you can tell that we had a most productive time exploring just one small area in the ‘Kingdom’ of Kerry. I am rounding off this entry with some more photographs of our journey back along the coast. The weather gave of its best for this county which is our neighbour, and we will continue to explore it and look for more archaeological gems. Keep reading!

The Luxuriant Gardens of Bantry House

Pandemic days can be well spent in West Cork. Visit Bantry House: for a small fee you can walk around the extensive gardens all day, pausing en route to partake of more-ish refreshments from the Tea Kitchen. There’s ample room to socially distance; panoramic views out to the Bay – and plenty of history to absorb.

On 11 May 1689, the Battle of Bantry Bay was fought between the French and British forces (above). It was inconclusive, but considerable damage was suffered by both fleets.

Originally a farmhouse known as Blackrock, the property was built by Samuel Hutchinson in 1710; it was purchased by Captain Richard White of Whiddy Island in the 1760s. His grandson – also Richard – renamed the house Seafield, and witnessed an engagement between the French and British forces in the Bay in 1796. He became the first Earl of Bantry and his eldest son – another Richard – extended the house and laid out the grounds more or less as we see them today (here is a post from Finola narrating a visit to the house in pre-pandemic days). The idyllic view above dates from 1840, around the time of the renovation and landscaping work.

More naval activity in Bantry Bay can be seen in the background of the above photograph, dating from the first decade of the twentieth century.

. . . For eight days past, the mammoth battle ships Bellerophon, Lord Nelson, and Agamemnon have been manoeuvring in Bantry Bay, between the Roancarrig Light and Whiddy Island. The thunder of the big 12-inch guns can be heard at immense distances, and electric and searchlight displays may be witnessed at night from places far inland . . .

Southern Star, 27 March 1909

The fortunes of Bantry House have varied during the last hundred years, but it remains in the ownership of the descendants of the Whites, and has been opened to the public since 1946. Now a very significant tourist attraction, the property has eased itself into the 21st century and can be seen today pursuing a laudable philosophy of encouraging the grounds to support informal wildflower spread and natural habitats within the previous strict formality of the terraced gardens laid out by the second Earl. In our view, this approach is highly successful and in fact softens, complements and enhances the mature house and its setting of terraces, steps, courtyards, paths and woodlands. It also provides excellent habitats for pollinators and contributes to a more sustainable world.

Every part of the grounds is worthy of exploration. There are two former stable blocks: both are time capsules. The activities of generations of gardeners, groundsmen, grooms, and farriers can be imagined from the surviving evidence.

I was fascinated by the plaque, above, and added it to my collection of classic signs. I then set about trying to find photographic evidence of this squadron, sadly without success. But I did find an equivalent from Suffolk, England, dating from 1910, which is worth a share:

I hope you will follow in our footsteps and visit the gardens at Bantry House. This is a great time of the year to experience the burgeoning growth of the wilder elements, and, if you have the happy fortune to hit a good spot of sunshine (or even if you don’t), there is no better place in West Cork to while away the constraints of this pandemic.

Half a Kerry Day

Kerry is an Irish county rich in history and archaeology. Our day was spent in the company of the ‘Saints’ – a term given to devout men and women who set themselves apart, leading small communities in the remotest of places, dedicated to order, prayer, knowledge, and the contemplation of humanity. Traces of these medieval ecclesiastical sites abound in Ireland, (sometimes described as The Land of Saints and Scholars), and we are always eager to search them out.

The header and the picture above are from Church Island, formerly known as Inis Uasal (meaning Island of the nobles), on Lough Currane near Waterville. The Lough – also known as Loch Luioch or Leeagh – is a substantial body of water, about 1,000 hectares in area. It is fed by the Cumneragh River in the north, Isknagahiny in the east, and drains to Ballinskelligs Bay at its south-western end. This Aerial view (below) shows the Lough in context, while the 6″ OS map extract dates from the 1840s.

We were fortunate to be taken to the island by Tom O’Shea. He is the owner of the island today, and a mine of information on its history and traditions associated with it. He is also a Ghillie – anciently the attendant of a Gaelic chief, whose job it was to carry the chief across a river or lake – but in the present day an organiser of fishing or hunting expeditions: Lough Currane is one of Ireland’s premier sea trout fisheries. We hired Tom to carry us across the water to this ancient sanctuary which had been occupied by saints and monks for over a thousand years!

That’s Tom ferrying us across the lake in the upper picture – only two at a time due to Covid restrictions. Above is my picture of the rest of our group on the island, with Tom in the centre explaining the geography and history of this remarkable place. The day was organised by our good friends Amanda and Peter Clarke, and we had along with us friends from Kerry – David and Janet, all of us discovering this gem for the first time.

The monastic foundation on Church Island was set up by Saint Fionán Cam in the sixth century. Cam means ‘bent’ or ‘squint-eyed’, and it is significant that the name already gives us a picture of the man – a picture which has survived in local tradition for more than fifteen hundred years. One of the most impressive aspects of this island is that some of the historic structures date from the time of the saint – the one above is known as his oratory, or ‘cell’. This is a ‘gallurus’ type of oratory, and would have been roofed completely in corbelled stone: the upper part of the roof has fallen. Archaeologists do not agree over the dating of the structure, but local tradition is clear that it was built by the saint himself, and his community. At its eastern end is a low doorway with two roof boxes above, while opposite is a small, rectangular ‘squint’. It has been noted that the opes of this oratory align with the sunrise at midsummer. As that is almost upon us as I write, it is appropriate that we should have visited at this time of the year. The old photograph is courtesy of the National Library of Ireland Lawrence Collection, dating from the late 1800s. Below is the same view today: the ivy and creeper growth has been removed, revealing the roof box ‘slots’.

Fionán Cam was an important figure in Kerry: he is regarded as one of the three coinnle – or ‘candles’ of the Múscraighe, and descended from Conaire Cóem, High King of Munster. His birth was miraculous, his mother Beagnad – a virgin – having conceived while swimming in Killarney Lake, with a salmon. There are numerous dedications to this Fionán in the west of Ireland, but most traditions link him to Lough Currane and he is reputed to be buried beneath one of the three Leachta – or shrines – on the island, within the enclosure of the Romanesque church at its eastern end.

The OPW took over the archaeology of the island in 1880 and this illustration (above) from the Duchas information board shows pilgrims paying their devotions at the Leachta in 1000 AD. Nearly a century and a half on, the OPW has not yet completed their work on the island! There were plans to restore the west doorway of the twelfth century church (below), but this has not happened.

One of the Leachta (shrines) in the church enclosure. This probably marks the burial place of a later saint (or holy man) – Anmchad Ua Dúnchada – described as ‘anchorite of God’ in the Annals of Inisfallen, which states that he was buried here in 1058. Close by this shrine, and shown in the photograph above, is an inscribed slab on which can still be read the inscription to him:

The eleven stone slabs – mentioned on the Duchas information board – are beautiful examples of this medieval craft: some are displayed now within the church building, although still open to the elements. Nevertheless they are surviving reasonably well.

One carved stone from Church Island is very unusual, being a rare representation of a musician. Known as ‘the fiddler’ the figure is clearly playing a stringed instrument with a bow. It is thought to be a lyre, an instrument which came to Europe in the eleventh century. This is the only known early representation of a lyre found in Ireland. In fact, the stone that we saw is a replica (on the left, below), which has become very weathered: the original (right) is being conserved in museum conditions.

There are other early buildings on the island, including the base of a ‘beehive hut’, said to have been the home of the early saint.

Some quite fine examples of graffiti by visitors to the island, on the Romanesque church walls: some of it dates from the nineteenth century.

Our visit to Church Island only occupied half of our Kerry day. We had more treats from medieval times – and earlier – in our explorations later on. These will have to wait for another post, but here are some tasters: