Another Gate Post (Vernacular Gates of West Cork 2)

The hand-forged wrought iron farm gate, featured in last week’s post, was once ubiquitous around West Cork, mostly made by local blacksmiths. Perhaps enterprising blacksmiths also mass-produced gates, which were then sold by local shops. In Ballydehob, for example, around 1890, Wolfe’s shop was selling this gate, captured by the photographer Robert French and now part of the Lawrence Collection at the National Library of Ireland (used with their permission).

To understand the technology and skill that went into making and repairing these gates, take a look at this video, the follow-on to last week’s, from Shem Caulfield in Kilkenny. (If you haven’t already seen Part 1, check back on it now for diagrams of what I will be talking about.)

Forge-welding, as illustrated in the video, can be seen in this gate (below), located on the Twelve Arch Bridge in Ballydehob, separating the bridge from what was once the railway station. [Or so I thought – read on to see how mistaken I was.]

The hooped strengthening bars are a very common element in West Cork vernacular gates, but in this case, you can clearly see that the loops have been added by forge-welding. The other thing about this gate is the perfection and uniformity of the twists – a very skilful job indeed. And not a rivet in sight – each joint appears to be forge-welded. [EDIT: I got this SO wrong. This is not an example of forge welding, but “a dodgy repair job with an arc welder” – thanks to Pat O’Driscoll for putting me straight. I think we can take it this is NOT a hand-forged gate but a more recent example – machine made, given the perfection of the twists. I am adding this clarification rather than deleting the photograph and text to show that we are all still learning!]

A more common, and perhaps more traditional approach was to make these looped strengthening bars by bending one continuous length of iron and attaching them to the cross bars with rivets. This beautiful gate (above), still in situ in Ballybane, near Ballydehob, illustrates this.

In this photograph you can see that the cross bars are joined to the slapping stile with a mortice and tenon joint. In the forge the stile is heated until a hole can be punched through it. The end of the bar is inserted into this hole and then hammered flat to fix it in place.

Using the same mortice and tenon technique, a heel is affixed to the top (and sometimes the bottom bar) to further strengthen and hang the gate and prevent sagging. Across the road from this gate is an identical one (below) where only half the original gate remains – how wonderful that it is still kept in place!

Entrance gates performed a different function than a farm or field gate. The height of a field gate accommodated the head of a horse or a cow to look over it. Entrance gates, understandably, were often made to deter anyone from going over them. They were taller and certainly less inviting to a climber. I spotted this lovely red set in Rossmore – you can see all the traits of the hand-forged gate in them.

But entrance gates were also designed to make a more prestigious statement about the people going through them or the house behind them. This beautiful set of gates (below) is on the road up to Brow Head and is definitely made to impress. My favourite part is that there is a discrete pedestrian gate built in to them.

Finally, a couple of garden gates – perfect for leaning across for the chat with the neighbours. This one is next door to me, rescued and re-purposed by my friend Hildegard. I love the way the stiles have been split – such a simple way to create a decorative element.

And how about this one, spotted at Coolkelure? A few simple twists and a couple of scrolls and you’ve got a pretty little gate that will last forever.

Over the course of the twentieth century hand-forged entrance gates gave way to cast-iron gates made in foundries and eventually to mass-produced and imported varieties, bought from a catalogue. Meanwhile, farmers bought the tubular steel gates that are everywhere around us. When you see those gates, remember that they have probably replaced a hand-forged example of the blacksmith’s skill, such as the ones in Brian Lalor’s engraving below, which conjures up for me such a feeling for a lost tradition.

© Brian Lalor, used with permission

A Gate Post (Vernacular Gates of West Cork)

If you look closely, all around the Irish countryside are still scattered old wrought iron gates made by local blacksmiths. These gates, according to Shem Caulfied, “are particular to Ireland. . .  and their design often illustrates a distinctive local style. This local or vernacular style is an important element of our rural heritage.” Shem has produced lovely videos for the Kilkenny Co Council on forged gates – see the first one here as a good introduction to these gates.

I’ve been looking out for farm gates to see if I can identify a local style. So far I haven’t found any of the hooped braces which are the dominant kind in some parts. This illustration (and the others in this post) is from an article in a 1974 Ireland of the Welcomes by Gerald Tyler, designer and architectural historian, who worked with the Kilkenny Design Workshop. The article has given me the vocabulary and some of the knowledge I need to look at these gates. By the way, the gate was assembled ‘out of square’ so that as it naturally sagged it would come into square.

Local blacksmiths around this part of West Cork kept the design straightforward and sturdy. Some gates had no bracing at all. The one below is the simplest of all types – three upright stiles and five bars. The stile on the left is the hanging stile and the one on the right, where the latch is, is the ‘slapping’ stile.

But most gates had diagonal braces of one kind or another. Here are a few local examples.

Above is the only example I have seen with parallel diagonal braces.

This gate has an X brace, but an additional half stile was also inserted at some point.

A favourite way to brace was a pair of up-pointing diagonals. This gate is barely hanging in. The spikes on top may have been to deter cattle or horses from leaning over the top bar, or maybe small boys from climbing.

The diagonals could be down-pointing, as in the example above, which is actually a double gate. This gate is made of band iron which was often used (or straightened and re-used from old wheels). In cross section, it’s flat on one side and curved on the other, making it easily recognisable. The curved side was the one in contact with the road when it was used on wheels. Many of our local gates are band iron, or a combination of straight iron and band iron.

Gates often had to be widened to allow for modern machinery.  The gate above and the one in the illustration have been widened by the insertion of extra lengths of iron in the horizontal bars. Often this is so skilfully done that it’s imperceptible.

This gate has been widened by the addition of a new section on the slapping side.

This double gate, which has no cross-bracing, only vertical stiles, has been widened by adding a section in the middle, attached to the left hand side. Did the farmer regret having no easy way to just hop over the gate and take the opportunity to put in a set of steps?

The gate in my lead photograph features mainly half stiles, but was once a lot fancier than it is now. The gate above has both full-height stiles and a diagonal brace and has been paired with a newer steel gate – you see this a lot around here.

Some gates had extra horizontal bars at the bottom to prevent small animals (calves or sheep) from squirming through the openings. Above is a lovely example from a local farmyard.

I have been amazed, and cheered, to see how many wrought iron gates are still to be found around here, although sometimes you have to poke around a bit to find them, as in the example above. . However, they are disappearing, and the vast majority have been replaced by the ubiquitous tubular steel gates. I am planning a further post to explore some of the skills of the blacksmiths to be seen in the details of our local gates. Meanwhile, take a look at how Pat O’Driscoll still works in the time-honoured way in his forge, now located in Durrus.

A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 7: Cloghane, Mizen Head

It’s a long way from West Cork, Ireland, to Sydney, Australia! And I’m not suggesting that signals could travel that far in the early 19th century . . . But I couldn’t resist putting up this engraving when I found it while researching signal towers generally as it is in fact an exemplary view with which to head up this – the seventh of our explorations into a fascinating subject. It has everything: the signal station itself, built on a prominent headland with a lighthouse nearby; a ‘telegraph’ mast and a flag mast for signalling; a man with a telescope looking out for a signal coming in – and a pile of logs with which to make a beacon fire to communicate urgently at night! The only difference, in fact, between the Irish stations and this ‘colonial’ one on the other side of the world is the building material. In Terra Australis (the name used for that continent until 1824, and meaning ‘southern land’) it was timber, whereas in Ireland the towers were of masonry and constructed with elements resembling medieval tower houses.

But it’s fair to say that today’s foray into the story of the Irish Napoleonic-era signal towers also has everything. Perched on Ireland’s most southwesterly point – Mizen Head in the townland of Cloghane – this site is one part of a craggy, indented promontory which is scattered with historical elements.

I have tried to illustrate a history time-line graphically by superimposing some of the significant sites on an aerial view (above – courtesy of mizenhead.ie), although even this does not tell the full story. Apart from an undated promontory fort in the north of the townland the signal towers are the earliest elements, specifically dating from 1804 and part of the network of 81 towers around the whole coast of Ireland which we have been charting in our posts. Interestingly, the two towers shown on the top of this view – at Cloghane and Brow Head – are the closest together of any around the coast, being only 3.8 km apart. The average distance between towers is 13.5 km, while the maximum distance is 36.9 km (between Ballydavid and Kerry Head in Co Kerry): we have not yet explored those sites. Here are two views from Cloghane across to the signal tower at Brow Head:

A feature at Cloghane which doesn’t show up on the aerial view is this Second World War lookout post, built close to the early signal tower around 1942. 83 of these structures were built by the Irish Defence Force to monitor activity at sea, many of them relating to Napoleonic-era sites for obvious reasons: these locations had already been selected for their inter-visibility and the panoramic views which they commanded. We have encountered these ‘Emergency-era’ posts previously at Kedge Point, Baltimore, and Ballyroon Mountain, Sheep’s Head (see the full list of links at the end of this post). We shouldn’t get diverted, but if you want to know more about these here is an excellent creative presentation on them carried out in 2014 by Tim Schmelzer of Vienna – particularly, I recommend that you view the first of the videos: it’s wonderful! The LOPs were designed by Howard Cooke RIBA of the Irish Office of Public Works in 1939 and I was fascinated to see that the design achieved recognition (‘posthumously’) from the National Inventory of Ireland Buildings Archive. The posts were cramped, damp and minimal, but apparently at least equipped with small fireplaces:

Mizen Head has drama: there is no land beyond this place until you reach America. And, if you are approaching Ireland from the south or west, Cloghane will be your first landfall. But it’s a dangerous coastline, particularly in stormy weather or at times of poor visibility. Hardly surprising, then, that a fog signal station was established on the furthest point in the early 20th century, under the jurisdiction of the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse. This was initially only a foghorn, powered by explosives: a light was not placed there until 1959.

That this signal tower is the virtually identical ‘twin’ of the one we explored at Robert’s Head must be significant, as both are unlike the general pattern we have seen elsewhere: a simple ‘defensible’ structure some 6m square with flat roof, parapets, machicolations and bartizans. My conclusion at Robert’s Head was that the tower had been substantially rebuilt to incorporate upgraded accommodation, perhaps for use by the Coast Guard which was formally established in 1822. Comparing it now with the Cloghane structure it seems more likely that these might both have originated as larger, better appointed buildings. I wonder if this could be because of the relative remoteness of both sites, which would not be easy to populate and service from any nearby community. It was a long trek to Cloghane: the original dedicated trackway, some 2.7 km long is still defined on the landscape, and passes under the 232m high Mizen Peak.

The signal tower at Cloghane is in reasonable condition considering its age and the long period of abandonment (many of the towers went out of use after 1812 although some – possibly including this one – were revived and adapted for use by the Coast Guard). Many visitors have left their marks over the years, and some of the graffiti is intriguing! There is also some vestige of the timber casement frame remaining in one of the window openings: surprising considering the level of exposure to severe storms at this remote site.


There’s a conundrum at this site that I want to share with you. A little distance to the south of the signal station building is a grouping of stones which are easy to miss at first glance, Have a closer look:

It’s the base of a circular building, or enclosure – a few metres in diameter. Archaeologists amongst you might think in terms of round towers but we can discount that in this desolate location. It does not seem to relate to the signal station buildings, either in terms of architecture (it gives the impression of being rougher and, perhaps, earlier) or usage. With regard to its age, it shows up as a feature on the early 6″ Ordnance Survey map:

What might it be? A mine chimney? But the Mizen Head Copper Mine was a long way from here (refer to the annotated aerial view). The size and shape resemble a gunpowder magazine which we came across at Dhurode Mine, on the north side of the peninsula. The only reason for having a gunpowder store at a signal station would be for a fog signal operated by explosives, as was the case at the Fog Signal Station lower down the Head, built in the early twentieth century. This is clearly much earlier. The dreamer in me pictures, rather, a hut lived in by a medieval hermit, supported by a local monastic settlement to keep beacons burning on Ireland’s headlands in perpetuity. Like the round towers, these were signals to travellers in ancient times that here might be found a haven. For seafarers, perhaps, this one signalled the gateway to a fertile land of enlightenment.

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

A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 6: Dunnycove

Galley Head, in West Cork, is one of those wild and exposed headlands where you get exceptional views in all directions. In our hunt for Napoleonic-era signal towers on the Irish coast you would fully expect to find one of the towers here – but no! A lighthouse and lightkeepers’ cottages – yes. These date from around 1875 but, in the early years of the nineteenth century, the strategically important signal tower was built inland, in the nearby townland of Dunnycove.

The header picture shows what remains of the tower itself today. This has in fact been adapted over the years, and the original building conformed to the square tower pattern that we have investigated elsewhere (a good example is at the old Head of Kinsale). The upper picture (above) shows the lighthouse at Galley Head seen from high ground to the east, while the lower picture is an aerial view of the Dunnycove signal tower site in its wider surroundings. Below is an 1806 map of the ‘. . . Ground occupied by the Signal Tower and Road leading to it at Galley Head . . .’ This tower is often referred to as the Galley Head Tower, even though it is some distance inland from the Head. But it is well placed to command views to the towers in the communication chain immediately to the west (Glandore) and east (Seven Heads).

The curious profile of the site as marked out on this early map shows a segmental shaped area to the south of the tower. It is likely that this was where the signal mast itself was situated. I am intrigued by the descriptions of the surrounding land: ‘good Meadow’, ‘Indifferent Pasture’, ‘Very Good Pasture Ground’ and ‘Arable good Ground’. Also, on the left of the survey drawing appears to be a table of land values, and the statement that ‘The Road is already made to this Tower and has very good ditches on each side of it, and is 312 perches long’. The road is in good condition today, as the site has been developed with a cottage and modern studio:

There’s nothing better than good local knowledge when you are trying to piece together a historic jigsaw puzzle. We were delighted to run into Billy Sheehan working in his neighbouring garden. it didn’t take long to establish that his own family had been involved in the signal tower site for generations, and had been connected to the local Coast Guard which had used the tower as a lookout point after the original building had fallen into disuse. Here’s Billy and myself, below. Under us is an extract from the 25″ Ordnance Survey map, drawn between 1888 and 1913. Note how on this map the signal tower site itself has changed since 1806, with many more buildings, a ‘flagstaff’ and a ‘semaphore’ indicated. These all undoubtedly date from the Coast Guard use of the site – you can also see the Coast Guard Station indicated below the tower: there are just a few masonry pillars left at that location today.

This is the ramp leading down to the water at Ballycusheen Strand, not far from Dunnycove. The pig is a well-known local landmark! I was interested to see the reference to ‘semaphore’ on the OS map, outside the original signal tower enclosure. This word recurs frequently in discussions about signal towers. Theoretically, any visual signalling system is an ‘optical semaphore’, but the term is likely to be more specific here and probably refers to an updated mechanical system rather than the ‘flag and ball’ method generally used in the early 19th century, when the signal stations were run by sailors or retired naval men who were well used to reading flag signals through high quality telescopes. There’s a volume to be written on how long-distance signalling evolved over many centuries – not just in Ireland but across Europe and beyond, beginning, perhaps, with The Scottish Parliament passing an Act in 1455 that said:

One bale, or faggot, shall be warning of the approach of the English. Two bales that they were actually coming and four bales, blazing side by side, shall note that the enemy is in great force.

There is a record of Robert Hooke, ‘curator of experiments’ at the Royal Society, proposing a system that combined a telescope and signalling in 1684. One of the important names that surfaces here in Ireland is Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744 – 1817).  An inventor and writer, Edgeworth was the son of an Anglo-Irish landlord whose family gave their name to the town of Edgeworthstown, Co Longford; he studied at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1767 he placed a bet with his friend, the horse racing gambler Lord March, that he could transmit knowledge of the outcome of a race in just one hour. Using a network of signalling sections erected on high ground, the signal would be observed from one station to the next by means of a telescope. The signal itself consisted of a large pointer that could be placed into eight possible positions in 45 degree increments. A series of two such signals gave a total 64 code elements and a third signal took it up to 512.

Edgeworth (perhaps best known for fathering the writer Maria Edgeworth (1768 – 1849) – one of his 22 children) termed his device a ‘Tellograph’. In November 1794 the most impressive demonstration of his invention used 30-foot-high Tellographs to communicate between Donaghadee, Ireland and Port Patrick, Scotland (about 40 miles). In France at the same time the Chappe brothers succeeded in covering that country with a network of 556 stations stretching a total distance of 4,800 kilometres (3,000 miles). Le système Chappe was used for military and national communications until the 1850s.

Le système Chappe (above). French technology is demonstrated in the 1790s – the very time the First French Republic was threatening the least defensible part of the British Isles – Ireland – and emphasised by the attempts of Wolfe Tone to land a French fleet in Bantry Bay in December 1796. That landing was a failure – due to atrocious weather – but it did, perhaps, wake the British authorities to the wisdom of guarding the Irish coastline. The signal tower system was a hastily devised result of this.

There’s a lot going on at the Dunnycove Signal Station site: the setting remains clearly laid out based on the 1806 plan, and the dominating view is due south. Parts of the original building remain although much has been altered including an external staircase and the surrounding structures.

The upper picture shows a distant view towards the signal station complex: it is on the highest point in the immediate landscape. Next is the view from the present top of the old tower, looking across the segment-shaped land which once held the signal mast and – later – the ‘semaphore’, most likely used to communicate with the Coast Guards below: beyond is the ocean. In 1837 Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland had this to say about the area:

. . . In the R C divisions this parish is the head of a union or district, comprising the parishes of Ardfield and Rathbarry, in each of which is a chapel; that of Ardfield is a low, plain, but commodious edifice, situated on the commons. There are schools in which 140 boys and 170 girls are taught, also a school at Dunny Cove, a Sunday school under the superintendence of the vicar, and one or two hedge schools. The ruins of the old church are situated on the highest point of land in the parish; and near them is a building which during the war was used as a signal tower, but is now the residence of Lieut. Speck, who commands the coast-guard at Dunny Cove. Close to the Cove are the ruins of a castle . . .

It seems to me that this site, in particular, has so many stories to tell us. Not just about the one period in history that caused the building of the original tower, but also about how a community has developed and adapted around that building. After the close of the Napoleonic era, when the threat of invasion receded, the tower retained its significance as a high place from which observations can be made. The Water Guard (which became the Coast Guard) took it over and it has remained a dwelling place for families ever since. Billy Sheehan is testament to this ‘living’ history, and the old stonework survives to tell where meals were cooked – where sleeping, waking and working became the rhythm of life for generations on this West Cork hilltop.

Please note that Dunnycove Signal Station is a private property and permission to access it must be sought from the owner

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

A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 5: Downeen

County Cork is well-endowed with the sites of Napoleonic-era signal towers. By my calculations there are 20 sites in this county, almost a quarter of the generally accepted number of sites around the whole island. For a map of the 81 locations identified by Bill Clements in 2013 have a look at part 2 of this series – Ballyroon Mountain. Today’s subject is Downeen Signal Tower, close to picturesque Mill Cove, a naturally sheltered quay around which a small settlement can be found, most active in the summer months.

The header picture shows all that remains of the buildings of Downeen signal tower today. In the distance you can see Galley Head with its lighthouse. There was no signal station on Galley Head itself, the next in line to the east being at Dunnycove, in the townland of Ballyluck – this will be the subject of a future post. The aerial views above show the Downeen site: note the well-defined access trackway, a feature of all the locations we have visited to date. This signal tower has been changed and extended over the years, as can be seen by comparing the two OS maps below:

The upper map is based on the earliest 6″ survey which the Ordnace Survey carried out between 1829 and 1841. By that time, of course, the signal towers would have become redundant and this map shows a simple building and the trackway, with no label. The lower map is from the Historic 25″ survey, produced between 1888 and 1913. Here we see the site extended and the buildings altered, more in keeping with the present day aerial views. On this OS map the building is labelled as a ‘Lookout Station’ and there is also ‘F.S.’ shown, which I assume to indicate ‘Flag Staff’. This comparison exercise shows us how invaluable the Ordance Survey can be to historians in providing information often not documented elsewhere. Both maps show a ‘Coast Guard Station’ as the main feature of Mill Cove itself and this gives us the clue to the further incarnations of the original signal tower at Downeen. Here is an enlarged section from the 25″ map:

On this extract I have also underlined the two ‘F.S.’ indicators, which I take to mean flagstaffs – one at the Lookout Station, and the other at the ‘Coastguard Station’. Based on this I am putting forward the opinion that the original signal tower was taken over, extended or rebuilt for the use of the Coast Guards. I don’t have any other supporting evidence for this at Downeen, but at other stations I know this has definitely happened (either from written evidence or – more importantly – direct contact with local recollections). It certainly makes sense, as the towers were generally placed at the highest and best vantage points in the landscape – and had good access, verified by the surviving trackways.

The upper picture is taken from the Downeen signal station looking west – the sweeping vista is commanding. Two views of the access trackway show that it remains well defined by continuous masonry walls, but overgrown. Our only companions on our exploration regarded us with benign curiosity! Attempts to uncover a comprehensive history of Coast Guards and Coastguard stations here have not been rewarded so far – except to establish that, in Ireland, we should correctly refer to them as Coast Guards – not Coastguards. This information is taken from the Irish Government website (gov.ie):

In 1809  the “Water Guard” was formed. Also known as the Preventative Boat Service. The Waterguard was the sea-based arm of revenue enforcement who patrolled the shore. The Waterguard was initially based in Watch Houses around the coast, and boat crews patrolled the coast each night. It was under Navy control from 1816 to 1822, when it and riding officers were amalgamated under the control of the Board of Customs . . . in 1856 control of the Coast Guard passed to the Admiralty . . . In 1921, after Independence, the Coast Life Saving Service was established in Ireland . . . The duties formerly performed by His Majesty’s Coastguard (HMCG) were taken over by Saorstát Eireann (Irish Free State) and the Coast Lifesaving Service (CLSS) was established . . . In 1925 the UK Coastguard Act passed, formally defining its powers and responsibilities. This inadvertently used the single word ‘Coastguard’ for the first time, and affected all crown dominions . . . In 2000 Ireland re-established the Coast Guard as the original two-word variant . . .

It’s fairly logical that the signal towers built between the 1790s and early 1800s to frustrate a French invasion of Ireland were still intact at the time of the Waterguard, and would have been ideal for the general purpose of watching the coast. (Above) – the ruins of the buildings at Downeen signal tower cum Coastguard lookout station as seen today. They enjoy the conceptual protection of being classified as a scheduled monument, but are unlikely ever to be more than crumbling vestigial stone walls. In their decay they command a poignant respect, and our imaginations can recreate the activities they may have witnessed. Here’s another quote, from the engrossing forum Coastguards of Yesteryear:

Nineteenth-century coastguards must have formed a close-knit group. Mostly ex-naval men, they presumably shared a sense of camaraderie . Often stationed as coastguards in remote spots, moved every few years to prevent them becoming too friendly with the locals, and often viewed with suspicion by those many locals with smuggling sympathies, coastguards were presumably drawn to marrying each others’ daughters. The more generous notion that “every nice girl loves a sailor” was only to develop later in the general population!

Notwithstanding the slight vestiges of its signal tower, Downeen has significantly more to offer in the way of history – worth a mention as it has led to some confusion in the story of this particular site.

We came across these two further ‘towers’ not too far away from the signal station site – also in Downeen. The first (upper) is classified as designed landscape – a belvedere. The second is a most intriguing tower house, a seemingly impossibly surviving clifftop ruin. On the day we visited, we were unable to get really close to either of these structures, but I was able to find a bit more about them on the internet, including a reference to the belvedere on the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, where it is described as a ‘Signal Tower’ dating from between 1780 and 1820! In fact, further research has shown that this is a mis-attribution. Both these structures are connected to Castle Downeen. The tower house is described as possibly an O’Cowhig castle taken by crown forces in 1602 and approached by “a little drawbridge of wood”.

Here is the remarkably poised tower house at Downeen. The upper picture is courtesy of rowler21 via Google, 2020. I was delighted to find this small sketch (lower) by George du Noyer, titled Dooneen Castle, Rosscarbery, Sept 1853. Although almost 170 years have passed since du Noyer visited this part of West Cork – possibly in connection with his work for the Ordnance Survey – not much appears to have changed: perhaps the loss of part of the parapet. The ruin was apparently as precariously balanced then as it is now.

Downeen, with its lush valleys, old stone built settlement, former Coastguard station and this trackway serving a site formerly of great importance in the history of communications in Ireland is worth further exploration. As well as the 16th century tower house there are the abandoned and heavily overgrown remains of an 18th century ‘Country house’. This had a walled garden and the belvedere appears to be part of this. We are always surprised – and delighted – by the sheer volume of history that can be found in these out-of-the-way places, and remember – it is always worth talking to local people if you want to get under the skin of that history!

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

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