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.
Virgin Mary’s Bank: it’s the intriguing name of a smallish rock outcrop that juts out into the sands at Inchydoney, West Cork. Stories abound, of course. Let’s do a bit of exploring…
We first saw the name – Virgin Mary’s Bank (sometimes Virgin Mary’s Point or Virgin Mary’s Rock) – on the map when we were orientating our views across the sands from Ring on our excursion last month (above). There’s such a huge, sandy estuarial strand over on that side, stretching all the way from Ring and beyond Inchydoney island: it must be one of West Cork’s most covetable assets!
The view above – looking east from Inchydoney Island towards Ring Head – shows barely half the extent of the sands – and beautiful, golden sands they are. In the summertime, of course, the area is buzzing with visitors and sun-seekers, but there is plenty of room, and the beaches are never overrun, although car parking can be at a premium – get there early, if you can, in peak season. But why is Inchydoney an island, you might ask, when you look at the aerial view which seems to show it linked to the pastured landscapes to the north west? Here’s the answer:
The top map is an extract from the earliest 6″ Ordnance Survey map, mostly surveyed in the 1840s. There you can see the island, clearly surrounded by water, with a causeway on the northwest side linking it to the nearby mainland. The principle features on the island at that time are Inchidoney House, a ruined church and burial ground. The later Cassini 6″ map (above) shows how causeway dams have been built to enclose areas of reclaimed land, here called ‘intakes’, effectively joining the former island to the adjacent mainland. The causeways are very clear if you approach the island from the west side (below).
The Cassini map was surveyed in the late 19th century, and we know from historical records that the causeway system was constructed by the Congested Districts Board in the 1840s, probably as a famine relief scheme. The roads and retaining boundaries were constructed from limestone quarried on the island. It is recorded that workers were paid a penny a day, and that on the first day of the works nine people died – presumably of malnutrition.
I found an excellent article on Inchidoney Island in a recent edition of Ireland’s Own (October 2019), available to download online, written by Mary Rose McCarthy. She relates how Richard Hungerford, from a Somerset family background, owned a substantial part of the island in 1690 and his descendants were there until the early 1900s. They rebuilt Inchydoney House in the early 1800s: it still stands. The writer ‘Mrs Hungerford’ – Margaret Hamilton of Rosscarbery – married into the Hungerford family and was notorious for an incident in 1905. Here is an extract from a letter sent by her to the Clonakilty Urban District Council on August 16th:
On 10th inst I received a letter from the Town Clerk of Clonakilty who ‘had been directed by the Urban District Council to ask me to receive a deputation with reference to asking me to open my grounds to the public on Sundays’ . . .
The Urban District Council, in proposing this resolution, ‘regretted that I had not followed the example of Mr Bence Jones’ (who had kindly thrown his most lovely garden open to the public every second Sunday) and one member, whom I shall not name but with whom I have had a little business transaction in the past, was of opinion that ‘I should have done so without waiting to be asked’. Now, during the past summer I have permitted every person, and at every hour, who asked leave at the hall door to go through to the strands. The result has been as usual in Ireland, disappointing, Gates were left open and of course my animals strayed away and people had to leave their work to hunt for them and the portion of ‘the public’ who considered asking for leave too much trouble, or perhaps, too derogatory, wandered over the land wherever they choose and papers, bottles etc, etc, littered the place . . .
Miss Hungerford, The Island, Clonakilty 1905
Mary Rose McCarthy, in her Ireland’s Own article, recounts:
. . . Locals felt they had a right to travel to the beach by an old roadway past Inchydoney House. Clonakilty UDC mediated but Miss Hungerford refused all approaches. A group of locals marched from town, tore down the gates, and asserted their right to travel to the beach. This gave rise to a local song – Who broke the island gates?, although the words were never recorded . . .
Mary Rose McCarthy, Ireland’s Own, October 2019
The author also notes that Margaret Hamilton (Miss Hungerford) wrote novels, the most famous of which – Molly Bawn – is mentioned by James Joyce in Ulysses; and also credits her with having coined the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.
The most notable building on the Island today is the Inchodoney Island Lodge & Spa which – with associated apartments – commands a stunning view over the whole south strand. It replaces the earlier Inchydoney Ocean Hotel, built in the 1930s and famous for its ballroom – and the dances and fancy-dress parties held there, which always went on into the early hours of the morning. The postcard below, published by H Rosehill, Cork, shows the hotel in 1940.
The aerial view gives an idea of the extent of the present day building, and also shows how it relates to the principal subject of today’s post: Virgin Mary’s Bank. The legend of this promontory is best told through the pages of the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection:
. . . Situated about two and a half miles south-east of Clonakilty is Inchadoney island. It is now a peninsula of five hundred acres. About half of this is arable and very fertile.
In the southern side of the island there is a bank jutting out into the sea called the Virgin Mary’s bank. It is said that there was a ship coming in there once and the sailors saw a beautiful woman praying on the bank. She was as white as snow and she was kneeling on a knoll which bears the impression of her knees to-day . . .
All the sailors but one began to mock and blaspheme her. Suddenly a great storm arose and the ship was blown to pieces and all her sailors were drowned except the one who took no part in the mockery. When the storm ceased the lady went out and brought the drowning sailor ashore . . .
In olden times there was a flourishing convent on the island and the remains of which are to be seen to-day. Some people say it was one of the nuns of this convent but it is more likely that it was the “Virgin Mary” who saved the man from drowning . . .
Tim Cowhig, Duchas Schools Collection, Clonakilty 1936
If ever doubt was to be cast as to the veracity of this story, there – as clear as day – are the knee-prints on the rock! A tragedy on the strand in 1932 is commemorated by a carving on the flaggy formation, just below Virgin Mary’s Bank. In August 22-year-old Timothy O’Sullivan from Casement Street in Clonakilty and 19-year-old Joseph Santry, a plasterer from Clarke Street Clonakilty, drowned. Charles P Millar from Summerhill, Cork, managed to rescue a third man who was also in difficulty but due to rough sea conditions he was unable to save the others despite his heroic attempts.
A Wild Atlantic Way information board close to Virgin Mary’s Bank tells of another incident, in more recent times.
But note the paragraph They never made it, above. In 1642 around 600 Irish rebels were trapped by the incoming tide and drowned on the sands: a salutary warning, perhaps, for those who come to the beaches here and don’t keep a wary eye on the tide. Because of the wide, flat expanses of open strand it comes in at a great pace.
An all but forgotten Cork poet, Jeremiah Joseph Callanan (1795 – 1829), heard the story of the appearance of the Virgin Mary at Inchydoney and penned some verses which – according to local legend – all Clonakilty primary school children had to learn by rote. I have transcribed it from the Duchas Schools Collection record above, as the dramatic rendition is well worth quoting in full.
The Evening Star rose beauteous above the fading day, As to the lone and silent beach the Virgin came to pray, And hill and dale shone brightly in moonlight’s mellow fall; But the bank of green where Mary knelt was brightest of them all.
Slow moving o’er the waters, a gallant barque appeared, And her joyous crew looked from the deck as to the land she neared; To the calm and sheltered haven she floated like a swan, And her wings of snow o’er the waves below in, pride and beauty shone.
The Master saw Our Lady as he stood upon the prow, And marked the whiteness of her robe – the radiance of her brow; Her arms were folded gracefully upon her stainless breast, And her eyes looked up among the stars, to Him her soul loved best.
He showed her to his sailors, and he hailed her with a cheer, And on the kneeling Virgin they gazed with laugh and jeer; And madly swore, a form so fair they never saw before; And they cursed the faint and lagging breeze that kept them from the shore.
The ocean from its bosom shook off its moonlight sheen, And up its wrathful billows rose to vindicate their Queen, And a cloud came o’er the heavens, and a darkness o’er the land, And the scoffing crew beheld no more the Lady on the strand.
Out burst the pealing thunder, and the lightning leapt about, And rushing with his watery war, the tempest gave a shout; And that vessel from a mountain wave came down with thundering shock, And her timbers flew like mattered spray on Inchadony’s rock.
Then loud from all the guilty crew one shriek rose wild and high; But the angry surge swept over them, and hushed their gurgling cry; And with a hoarse, exulting tone the tempest passed away, And down, still chafing from their strife, the indignant waters lay.
When the calm and, purple morning shone out on high Dunmore, Full many a mangled corpse was seen on Inchadony’s shore; And to this day the fisherman shows where the scoffers sank, And still they call that hillock green “The Virgin Mary’s Bank”.
It’s an area to the south-east of Clonakilty town in West Cork – Ring. A mix of ‘big sky’ landscapes, with a fresh view of the sea at every turn; quays, harbours, old industry, archaeology – some fabulous hidden coves and small beaches. With our new-found freedom of being able to travel anywhere in our own county (Cork is the largest of Ireland’s counties: 180km from one end to the other), we set out to more closely explore a region which we have somehow always passed by hitherto.
For us, the journey to Ring involves turning off the main N71 in the centre of Clonakilty (above) and following the road that runs beside the water (or sandbanks and mud flats, depending on the state of the tide). As you can see from the aerial view, it’s a pastoral landscape, a big centre for dairy farming; no mountain surprises, but undulating enough to ensure twists and turns through old lanes and new boreens.
Just a few minutes after leaving Clonakilty we come into North Ring, and the first highlight, which is Curraghgrane More Pier. The view over the estuary from here is far-reaching and dramatic: on the western side is Inchydoney Island (not, in fact, an island), while south – and further along our route – is Ring Harbour. The little settlement of North Ring, just inland here, is worth a pause (and features on the header picture).
The way into North Ring passes by an ancient building, which has been conserved as a focal point by the community. It is a stone-built grain store and drying kiln, probably first in use 500 years ago.
The little settlement has been known for its hostelries, and would have been an excellent lunch stop in pre-Covid times: hopefully their fortunes will revive. They certainly provide a most colourful streetscape, and add to an exceptionally attractive hamlet. Even an abandoned house has been given a creative treatment.
We can’t pass on from this vibrant enclave without mentioning the Arundel family who left their mark on the locality and set up the milling industry which brought wealth to the area:
. . . Near the road from Clonakilty to Ring, stands the scanty remnant of a castle (at one time mistaken for a ruined parish church). It was the stronghold of the Anglo-Norman Arundel, called Lord Arundel of the Strand . . . Arundel was anciently a great lord and had an estate of £3,500 a year in the reign of Queen Elizabeth . . . Sir Henry Sidney, in his well-known account of a famous Vice-regal visit to Cork in 1575 notes “There came here the ruined reliques of the ancient English inhabitants of the province” – The Arundels, Rochforts, Barretts, Flemings, Lombards, Terries, etc . . . Henry Smith in his “Report of the State of Munster,” after the breaking out of the Desmond Rising in 1589 remarks inter alia, “Arundel Castle was forsaken by Walter Grant-William Lyon” and the Arundels, who remained loyal to the old faith, were very prominent in the Rising of 1641-1653 . . .
Tim Cowhig, Duchas Folklore Collection, Ballintemple 1938
Before returning to the coast road we head inland to find a historic site with an ancient church ruin, a significant graveyard, and several raths or ring forts which take us back in time well over a millennium. The 6″ Historic OS map extract, above, shows the remarkable distribution of notable sites within the arable landscape just to the north-east of the Arundel settlement. The aerial view, below, focusses on the rectangle marked on the 6″ map, and indicates our way to the Ballintemple site, following a time-worn trackway.
These pictures show the path which leads to the burial ground – which is still in use today. A notable occupant of the graveyard is Tadhg Ó Donnabhain Asna, a hero of the 1798 uprising. A local man, Tadhg led a force of United Irishmen against a British column at The Battle of the Big Cross which occurred on the morning of 19th June 1798, about 4 miles east of Clonakilty. It was the only battle fought in the rebellion in the whole of Munster and over 100 Irish men lost their lives, including Tadhg himself. There is a memorial to him in the centre of Clonakilty town, and the plaque, above, at the entrance to Ballintemple graveyard, marked the bicentenary of the encounter.
The old church within this graveyard is still clear to see, although ruined: note the rectangular ‘font’ or basin, and the holy water stoup. This has been a place of worship since 1169. It is said that a disastrous fire took hold of the church in the mid 17th century, and it has not been used since. In the furthest corner of the burial ground is a poignant little memorial recalling more recent times.
Seen to the east of the burial ground is this ring fort – beyond the dairy herd. The forts in this area are of significant size, and many are the subject of legend. It was once a common belief that underground passages connected many neighbouring forts, and this could be a folk memory relating to ‘souterrains’, often found at these sites.
. . . In olden times some men went to a fort in search of a crock of gold. This fort was in Castle View and about three miles from the town of Clonakilty. To get to this fort you should go to the castle which was about a quarter of a mile from the fort and then go underground and through a long shore. The men took with them a sheave of wheaten straw, a march cock and a blessed candle. Before they started their journey through the shore they lit the candle and all went very well until they nearly came to the end. When they were coming to the end of the shore they saw the crock of gold and with that there came a gust of wind and a terrible noise. There came horses jumping and dogs barking and the men got such a fright that they took their eye off the crock of gold and when they looked again they found to their surprise that the crock of gold was after disappearing. Several other men tried it but this very same thing used to happen at the end of the shore and so the crock of gold remained where it was . . .
James J Lombard, Duchas Folklore Collection, Garryndruig, Co Cork 1936
Compare today’s aerial view of ring forts close to Ballintemple with the 6″ Cassini OS map below it. The map indicates a souterrain in the rampart of the upper fort. Another account from Duchas:
. . . There are four forts, or as they known locally “Liosanna”, in this district. There is one in Kilkerran in the lands of Michael Flavin. It is circular in shape and so are all the rest. The other ones are on the lands of Jermiah O Donovan Carrigroe, John Barry, Newmill and in Castle-Freke Demesne in the Big Island field. These forts are supposed to be Danish fortresses and are built up in very high ground so that you could see one from the other. The fort in Kilkerran is the biggest to be seen around and “lepreacáns” are supposed to live in it. One night a man by the name of Factna O Hea caught a lepreacán near this fort and he asked the lepreacán to grant him a wish. The lepreacán then asked him what wish he wanted and the request the man asked was that he would win every game he played from that day on. The lepreacán granted him his request and he won every game he played from that day on. On the eastern side of this fort is a big stone which is supposed to be an entrance to some underground place. There is a great bank of earth all around the fort. Forts are never ploughed up as it is believed to be unlucky to interfere with them . . .
James Spillane, Duchas Folklore Collection, Kilkerran, Clonakilty 1938
Well, our little tour around Ring seems only just to have begun, but I am going to take a break now and resume this topic in the near future. I will leave you with a few more pictures, including a taster of what is still in store . . .
The word ‘haven’ is said to have a Norse origin: hǫfn. This translates simply as ‘harbour’. Does this mean that the Vikings visited West Cork and gave Castlehaven its name? Dictionary definitions include ‘a safe haven in times of trouble’ – refuge, retreat, shelter, sanctuary, asylum . . . The word conjures up something a little magical, and our exploration last week of the secretive valley that leads inland from Castlehaven – at the southern end of a significant West Cork cove – was certainly an enchanting experience. We traversed it on the greenest of days at the arrival of spring:
The header is a nineteenth century engraving, and shows a possibly idealised view looking across The Haven, towards the open waters of the Atlantic. In the foreground is the castle of Raheen, or Rathin. Castlehaven itself is at the far end, and the old tower house there – now all but vanished into the lush undergrowth – was strategically important, particularly during the Nine Years’ War between Gaelic Irish lords and the English. Spain also took an opportunistic interest in intervening in matters between Ireland and England. There are many accounts of the skirmish that occurred here on 6 December 1601, all of them varying to such a degree that we can have no real idea, even, of who was victorious! I like this version, penned by a contributor to the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection. It’s part of an extensive essay about the history of the area, which we will revisit in due course:
. . . Beside the Cemetery at Castlehaven stood, about ten years ago, the ruins of Castlehaven Castle, described by Don O’Sullivan in connection with the war of O’Neill & O’Donnell. “Porto Castello”, as it is called by O’Sullivan, played a very important part in connection with the Battle of Kinsale. Both O’Sullivan & Carew give accounts of a battle fought in the harbour, and while the former claims that Admiral Levison and his ships were driven off with loss of some vessels at the harbour’s mouth, Carew claims victory for the British fleet. Local tradition says that inside Reen Point, on the eastern side of the harbour lies a Spanish Vessel laden with gold, but that misfortune is sure to follow anyone who seeks the treasure. Castlehaven Castle was fortified by a combined garrison of Spanish and Irish and withstood the assault of Admiral Levison of the British fleet. The ruins of this castle were in a fair state of preservation about fifteen years ago, but the lower portion of the wall showed signs of weakness, and the great pity was, that nothing was done to prevent the collapse of the entire ruin a few years later. It is ‘said’ that stones had been removed for road metalling many years ago and this vandalism could certainly bring about the unfortunate collapse which only left only a confused pile of stones . . .
Seán Ó Donnabháin – Teacher, Baile an Chaisleáin School, Castletownshend 1936
Upper – a view of the now-vanished tower of Glenbarrahane Castle at the entrance to the Haven by Cork antiquarian John Windele, 1801 – 1865 (courtesy National Library of Ireland) and lower – the vestigial stone walls that remain today beside the grey sands of Castlehaven
Among our inherited collection of West Cork books in the library at Nead an Iolair is this volume by Gifford Lewis, published in 1985 by Penguin Viking. Ostensibly relating to the writings of Somerville and Ross, it is illustrated with a well-researched collection of old photographs which include some of the castle at The Haven still standing.
This photograph (above) is particularly valuable. It is also from the Gifford Lewis book and is captioned as follows:
. . . A very early plate by Sir Joscelyn Coghill (c. 1865) showing the old Castlehaven church and above it the Castle in which the Reverend Robert Morrit lived, and before him the Reverend Thomas Somerville. The Tithe War had its effect. Eventually, the Tithe Commission Act of 1838 moved the burden of supporting the Protestant clergy from the peasants to the landowners. The Catholic/Protestant confrontation in Ireland came with the influx of Elizabethan English, the first after the Reformation of the English Church. Those who came to Ireland as Protestants were much less likely to be assimilated than those who came before the Reformation, like the Martins. The ousting of the topmost layer of native Catholic society by a new Protestant one is audible in the list of Rectors of Castlehaven church from 1403 to 1640: O’Driscoll, O’Callaghan, O’Driscoll, Cormac/Basse, Pratt, Stukely . . .
Gifford lewis, Somerville and Ross – The World of the Irish R.M. 1985
The aerial view shows the inlet of Castle Haven guarded by its O’Driscoll castle at the southern end. In the upper reaches of The Haven is a further castle, properly known as Raheen (or Rathin), sited above the natural spit of The League: the juxtaposition of castle and land-spit was probably deliberate, to create a defensive barrier against any invaders infiltrating the upper waters of The Haven. The mid-19th century 6″ Cassini OS map (above) shows the location in detail. James N Healy (The Castles of County Cork, Mercier Press, 1988) well describes its situation: “. . . It is a remarkable sight, tall and dignified in its quiet isolation . . .” and attributes it to the O’Donovan family, associated with Castle Donovan on the Ilen River – which we visited recently. Raheen was attacked from the water by Cromwell’s army in 1649 and remarkably survives in that breached condition today.
The coloured postcard above is based on a view probably taken around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The viewpoint is identical with that in the header engraving, and The League can be clearly seen in both representations. Because the whole inlet is known as Castlehaven, we have to be careful when reading references or captions, as the two castles – which I always endeavour to refer to by their original names (Glenbarrahane and Rathin) are often both known as Castlehaven Castle. And, of course, we also have the castle at Castletownshend itself to further confuse the issue, although the structure there now is relatively late (the present building dates mainly from the 19th century, although an earlier Bryans Fort on the same site was probably 17th century).
Here is a very fine painted view of Rathin Castle by contemporary West Cork artist Donagh Carey (thank you, Donagh!) You can find his works here: we are pleased to have some of them hanging at Nead at Iolair. I can’t resist including this photograph taken in the 1930s (below) – from the Adrian Healy postcard collection – showing Rathin, with the added bonus of a 1936 Ford 10 in the foreground!
This view (above) is an enigma. It is referred to as ‘Castlehaven Castle’ and is a pen-and-watercolour drawing by Charles Vallancey (1721 – 1812). If the written caption is ‘Castlehaven Mouth’, then it must be Glenbarrahane (although the foreground topography should surely have shown the old church and graveyard?); if it is fact ‘Castlehaven North’, then it would more likely be Rathin – and it is certainly visually closer to this castle. However, then the mouth of the Haven is not in the right place at all. Vallancey was a British military surveyor who had been sent to Ireland in the mid 18th century: he became fascinated with the country and its topography and settled here as a self-styled historian and antiquarian. An extract of his work follows, from a report on West Cork:
. . . There was only one road between Cork and Bantry; you may now proceed by eight carriage roads beside several horse tracks branching off from these great roads; from Bantry the country is mountainous and from the high road has the appearance of being barren and very thinly populated; yet the valleys abound with corn and potatoes and the mountains are covered with black cattle. In 1760, twenty years ago it was so thinly inhabited an army of 10,000 men could not possible have found subsistence between Bantry and Bandon. The face of the country now wears a different aspect: the sides of the hill are under the plough, the verges of the bogs are reclaimed and the southern coast from Skibbereen to Bandon is one continued garden of grain and potatoes except the barren pinnacles of some hills and the boggy hollows between which are preserved for fuel . . .
Charles vallancey – A Report on West Cork, 1778, British Library
Vallancey was noted for obtaining the Great Book of Lecan (Leabhar Mór Leacáin), a medieval manuscript written between 1397 and 1418 in Castle Forbes, Lecan, Co Sligo. He passed it on to the Royal Irish Academy, where it resides today. Sadly, his work apparently only garnered the poorest of appraisals – as an example, here is the 19th century Quarterly Review:
. . . General Vallancey, though a man of learning, wrote more nonsense than any man of his time, and has unfortunately been the occasion of much more than he wrote . . .
The Quarterly review, London, John Murray
In my Extreme Green post I promised a ‘salacious scandal’ associated with Castlehaven. Alas – we have this week run out of time and space . . . Keep watching!
There are many places in West Cork that deserve more than one visit. Our enforced confinement close to home focusses us on that thought. March went out like a lamb and – on the first day of April – we went off to enjoy the stirrings of spring in one of our favourite spots: Castlehaven.
Here’s that spot seen from above. It’s accessed from a boreen that goes nowhere else, and is to the south west of Drishane, just outside Castletownshend. In the view you can see the little cove and an old burial ground which surrounds the ruin of the original church of St Barrahane, probably built on medieval foundations but disused by the 1600s. This benign place has bathed in some momentous historical events but is now forever peaceful and seems far removed from our material world.
The 25″ OS map – dating from the late nineteenth century – marks the main features of Castlehaven: the ‘Grave Yard’, Rectory (based on an older house) and ‘Toberbarahane’ – a holy well. One of our favourite walks begins just to the south of the graveyard and wends its way up to the well, – and beyond – following a small stream which has ferociously gouged a channel through the rock formations in ancient glacial times. Today I can only describe the experience as ‘Extreme Green’ because our eyes are drawn to a riot of spring growth and exotic flora. In fact, Finola described it as a rainforest path when we first visited a few years ago.
The Holy Well is still revered, evidently, especially by sailors who need protection while at sea. The saint was known as Bearchán, and most likely came from the Corca Laoighde family (the Annals describe the O’Driscolls as kings of the Corca Laoighde in the twelfth century), although we can find very little of his life. According to Pádraig Ó Riain’s A Dictionary of Irish Saints, Bearchán’s pattern day is not known, but Amanda gives it as 3rd December in Holy Wells of Cork & Kerry, something which she must have gleaned from local knowledge.
The Holy Well is easy to find and involves crossing a stout timber bridge to the left of the path. On our previous visit, three years ago, a tree had fallen across the path and the bridge was damaged, but this has now been put right.
Finola is coming back along the holy well path, and the bay of Castlehaven is immediately beyond her. The colour of the sea is stunning azure at this time of the year. Just beyond the gate, and sited right above the strand, is all that is left of Castle Haven, a strategic tower house which saw action on 6 December 1601, during the Nine Years’ War between Gaelic Irish lords and the English. The O’Driscolls, who held the castle then, had welcomed in a small convoy of Spanish munition ships. The commander of the English naval forces based at Kinsale, Admiral Leveson, was ordered to “. . . seeke the Spanish fleete at Castlehaven, to take them if he could, or otherwise to distresse them as much as he might . . .” I’ll leave the rest of this story as a cliff-hanger, to be completed in a future post, but we will return to the castle which gave Castlehaven its name.
The old photograph dates from the late 1800s and is from the Lawrence Collection, courtesy of the National Library of Ireland. My photo shows all that remains of the castle today: a section of stone walling close to the cliff face. Its downfall occurred in 1926 and we know this because:
. . . Edith Somerville recorded that while taking a walk on 26 February 1926 she heard a loud rumble and in looking towards the direction of the old tower found that it had collapsed. Nowadays only a mere stump remains, and that covered with briars and weeds. The castle stood on the side of the harbour of Castlehaven, to the immediate south of the stony grey beach, and the decayed church, graveyard and holy well of St Barrahane, the local patron saint who gives his name to the nearby glen and castle. The castle and haven was known as Cuan-an-Chaisleán to the Irish, as Castlehaven to the English, and El Puerto Castello to the Spanish, but they all mean the same thing . . .
The Castles of County Cork by James N Healey, The Mercier Press, 1988
In the next post I’ll be telling you more about the pivotal sea-battle at Castlehaven between the Irish – Spanish alliance and the English forces; and setting out a case of mistaken identity. We will also be exploring another Castlehaven Castle, and looking into a salacious scandal that led to a beheading or two in 1631. There’s much to look forward to…!
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 . . .
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.
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