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 – Schull

What better time to visit Schull than during Calves Week? That’s a big sailing festival at the beginning of August every year, and you have to be a sailor to understand the nuances of its title. It’s held at the same time as the UK’s premier sailing event – Cowes Week, ‘…the world’s longest running sailing regatta…’ and is focussed around the three Calf Islands in Roaringwater Bay. So there you have it – Cowes and Calves! What it means, of course, is that the village of Schull is at its busiest and, since Covid has given a boost to outdoor socialising, the streets are crowded with visitors enjoying the shops, pavement cafés and galleries.

In this occasional series on the Towns and villages of West Cork we will take one community and try to discover why and how it has developed through history, and how it fares in the present day. A snapshot of the place will be presented – hopefully – in the best possible light (although this won’t always be on a sunny summer’s day!) From the aerial view above, you can see how Schull has been built up around its connection with the water. Schull Harbour is at the head of a long sheltered inlet, and the pier today is always busy with fishing and pleasure boats, ferries and yachts.

That’s the road to the pier, above, and it’s just a few steps from the village centre. If you are a visitor, you may have no idea that Ireland’s most south-westerly railway line once ran right on to this pier! The narrow gauge Schull, Ballydehob & Skibbereen Tramway and Light Railway was in service between 1886 and 1947, connecting these remoter parts of the county to Skibbereen and then, via the main line, Cork city. Although never considered a commercial success, it was a valuable element of infrastructure enabling local passengers to get to shops and markets, and fishermen to send their catches to distant merchants as hastily as possible (bearing in mind there was a speed limit of 15 miles per hour on most of this rural line). This photograph from the NLI Lawrence Collection (below) dates from the 1890s, and shows barrels of fish stacked up next to the railway track on Schull pier, awaiting despatch. They are likely to contain salted pilchards and herrings.

In all these pictures of the pier and pontoon areas above you can see the lively sailing activity in the background. Below are two extracts from early OS maps, one showing Schull and its location to some of the offshore islands, and the other showing the town centre, probably around 1890. It’s thought-provoking to see on the latter the various facilities which the town offered at that time, as well as the railway: Court House, Constabulary Barrack, Smiths, Schools, Hotel and Dispensary.

Note that on both the maps above, which date from more than a century ago, the settlement’s name is given as Skull: it still is on all OS Ireland maps up to the present time. Mostly today it’s known as Schull, or in Irish An Scoil, which translates as The School. Some of you may remember my posts earlier this year when I looked in to the possible origins of this village name – and the earliest ‘School’: a site described on Archaeology Ireland as a ‘possible early Christian settlement’:  . . . the ancient school of Sancta Maria de Scholia, ‘a place known in early times as a centre of learning’ . . . There’s a fair bit of local lore surrounding the subject, and you need to read Schull resident John D’Alton’s article on this to find an alternative view to the perhaps romanticised ideas of an ancient monastic site: I’m sitting on the fence!

Historic village – perhaps with medieval origins – to vibrant sailing centre and colourful streets in the 21st century. Schull has come a long way, and has far to go. Today the resident population numbers around 1,050: this is boosted substantially with the influx of summer visitors. It’s good to see long established names and new businesses on the streets, contributing to the colourful palette of the architecture. Great things are happening in the future: the old bank building (below) is to become a cinema and film centre: a focal point for the acclaimed annual Fastnet Film Festival.

Year round, Schull is worth exploring. Mount Gabriel, the area’s highest point, is above the village and offers superb vistas over the bay and islands. Finola has looked at the many legends associated with this peak and there is ancient history there, too: the remains of Bronze Age copper mines on its slopes. Good walks can be had on the high ground and on the coastal footpaths – see the Explore West Cork website.

The Day the Sun Came Out – in Ballydehob!

It always happens: you go through a ferocious winter of gales, floods and bitingly cold winds and then one day – probably not too long after St Brigid’s – you realise that spring is arriving! It happened this week, here in Ballydehob. Suddenly, the sun came out; the sky was deep blue and all the coloured houses, bars and shops lit up and made us remember what a wonderful place we live in.

Ballydehob – that’s the name in Irish, above, on the gable of the community’s Bank House. A literal translation would be Town of the ford at the estuary of two rivers and, indeed, the Bawnakeane and Rathravane streams converge here before flowing out into Ballydehob Bay, once a hive of water-borne commerce with coasters, schooners, sand-boats, and punts and skiffs from the inhabited offshore islands arriving and leaving, while the tiny train puffed and rumbled across the viaduct on its way from Skibbereen to the Schull terminus.

When you feel the spring in the air for the first time, you begin to look anew at your surroundings. Shapes, reflections, the play of images on water: there’s such a difference as the ‘ordinary’ is changed through the quality of the light. That’s the freshness of annual renewal.

There are so many little details in the townscape that we can overlook, or just take for granted. Ballydehob has a long history of creativity, which is reflected in shop signs, decoration, window dressings. Take a stroll in the sunshine and see if you can find anything new!

You don’t have to wander far from home to welcome and experience the joys of a new spring. You will also find yourself looking forward to the seasons still to come, which will bring Ballydehob to life with its visitors, galleries, festivals and gatherings. Not to mention the hostelries which feed the body as well as the soul.

We are looking forward to many sunny days to come as the year warms up. Meanwhile, we can always revisit happy memories of our village life through our photographic archives. Thanks to Judi Whitton for the endpiece watercolour featuring our wonderful Budds, just turned five years old this weekend: congratulations to Jamie and his dedicated team!

Writing on the Walls!

During our travels around Ireland I have been noticing – and recording – some very striking street art, particularly a number of eyecatching murals, such as the one above in Killorglin. If that place-name sounds familiar, it could be because I have mentioned in the past the town’s great event of the year – Puck Fair – which is taking place right now! But – you might say – that’s all about a goat, so why the honeycomb? I’m afraid I can’t answer that, but I can show you that goat, brilliantly painted on a nearby wall:

The month of August is called Lúnasa in Ireland. In past days, because it heralded the harvest – and, hopefully, a good one – it was an important time for festivals and fairs. On my bookshelf is a large volume (707 pages) all about The Festival of Lughnasa – subtitled: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest, written by Máire MacNeill and published in 1962. It’s one of the most comprehensive works on Irish folklore that I have yet come across. I started reading it two years ago, and haven’t finished yet! But I’m beginning to understand the significance of this season.

This one – half hidden in a passageway in Dalkey – reminds me of the works of Banksy, the elusive street artist in Britain, whose images are always political. I’m not sure if there’s a message behind the portrayal, but it was an unexpected find.

There’s a definite message in the one above, however: also in Killorglin. Some of the murals we have seen have been very arresting – impossible to ignore, in fact. These two (below) were seen in Waterford City – you’d think they are probably related to each other, but I can’t find out who made them (edit – I now know they were made by Smugone – see the comments to this post – many thanks, Dave). Waterford is THE place to see street art, during the Waterford Walls Festival between August 22nd and 25th this year. We might get along to that.

Anyone who was interested in my post of last week, illustrating Finola’s special window, might like to see this mosaic mural inspired by the Children of Lir story – it’s in County Antrim.

These murals are real works of art. Other murals are, perhaps, more decorative – with the purpose of brightening up an otherwise blank wall within a streetscape; or the means to get local information across. For me, all are collectible.

There are murals with connections to local lore and custom. The one below in Dingle has references to the curraghs of the Blasket islanders, while further down are aspects of Ireland’s  traditions and culture: mermaid and musicians.

Not forgetting poetry! Last week we saw the anniversary of the death of poet Francis Ledwidge: he died at Ypres in the Great War, on July 31st 1917 at the age of 29. There is a museum dedicated to him in the house where he was born in Slane, Co Meath, and this mural commemorates him:

Finola has written at length on present-day Ireland’s love of colour in towns and countryside. I’m all for it! Why not be vivid and exuberant, especially in a climate which has been noted for its propensity towards grey days (although I must say Irish weather seems to have take a turn for the brighter recently)? Let’s celebrate – get out the paint!

Signs of Spring

A curious advertising sign from a disused bicycle shop. Perhaps the ‘springing’ lion is sufficient to justify the title of today’s post . . . It’s been a good few months since I last sampled my ever-growing collection of Irish signs and curiosities. I cannot say why, but these latest examples – and all the previous ones – amused me or attracted me when I saw them, sufficiently enough to put them on record. The humour of some of them is profoundly Irish – but also universal – whereas the ‘curiosities’ are examples of the love of colour, or just eccentricity. Anyway, that’s quite enough commentary from me: the images will, hopefully, speak for themselves.


I think the ‘Floating walkway’ must be a unique sign – purpose-made just for that one location, on the dunes at Barley Cove, here in West Cork. When the tide is in, walking across can be a seasickness-inducing business: you have been warned!

Michael ‘Tea’ Higgins here – Ireland’s President. Honoured, I’m sure, to be thus celebrated as a part of his nation’s tea-drinking ceremonies.

Partly obliterated signs can be intriguing. With some, the intention is easy to guess – with others, one can only contemplate . . .

I couldn’t resist these pics showing Ireland in its best colours. However, if you want to see a lot more of that, have a look at Finola’s posts here.

I could go on . . . but I don’t want to send you to sleep! That’s quite enough for now – look out for more in the future.

Favourite Posts of 2018

At this end of the year we reflect with a critical eye on all our 2018 posts – there have been 102 of them – and select just a few which we think stand out in some way. A link is provided for each one, in case you want to have another look yourselves.

Firstly – not just one of our favourites, but the all-time most popular post we have ever published – Ireland’s Newest Stained Glass Window. Finola wrote this in January, and then went on to put together an article in the Irish Arts Review on the same subject later in the year. The window is in St John’s Church in Tralee, a Catholic church, but the project was a joint venture between the Catholic and Anglican congregations. It tells a story of reconciliation, from many angles. The window was designed and made by Tom Denny, one of Britain’s most eminent and respected stained glass artists. Tom is a direct descendant of Sir Edward Denny (1547 to 1599) who was one of the architects and enforcers of the Plantation of Munster. It’s a complex history, and this post is well worth a careful read.

Another post which proved popular was Robert’s detailed account of an archaeological site in West Cork: Knockdrum Stone Fort. This place has everything – a substantial stone structure which probably dates from the first millennium AD; prehistoric Rock Art (one of our favourite subjects – the Knockdrum example is pictured above), likely to be around 5,000 years old; fabulous views (choose a clear day) – and a solar alignment discovered in 1930 by Vice Admiral Henry Boyle Somerville, the younger brother of writer and artist Edith Somerville. In a complementary post, Finola reported on Boyle’s life and tragic death – and gave us insights into the science of archaeoastronomy, expanding on this in a Bealtaine post, following our own experience of Boyle’s discovered alignment at Knockdrum (the sun setting exactly over the fort is pictured below).

Way back in 2017 we started a series of occasional posts bearing the title . . . Off the M8 . . . We do a lot of travelling throughout Ireland (because it’s such a beautiful and historically rich country) and cover the ground between Cork and Dublin quite frequently. The M8 motorway has made this journey quite straightforward, but it has also provided the jumping off point for many an exploration to enhance the journey. One of my own favourite discovered places this year is the magical Glen of Aherlow (pictured above). We thank our good friends and travelling companions Amanda and Peter – she of Holy Wells of Cork and he of Hikelines  – for pointing us to this entrancing valley located between Slievenamuck and the Galtee Mountains in the western part of County Tipperary. We discovered there secret places and stories relating to obscure Irish Saints: have a look at the haunts of St Berrahert and St Péacáin in these posts from Robert.

When I moved from Cornwall to West Cork some years ago I was delighted to find out that our lively adopted village of Ballydehob had a great artistic heritage during the second half of the twentieth century, to rival that of Britain’s westernmost county. West Cork became a cosmopolitan centre for artists, writers, craftspeople and musicians, renowned in its day but never properly celebrated – until this year. I was one of a small group locally who decide to rectify this by establishing the Ballydehob Arts Museum (BAM): our first exhibition . . . Bohemians in Ballydehob . . . using donated artworks, ceramics, storyboards and posters, was staged in Ballydehob’s community building, Bank House, and – presided over by Curator Brian Lalor (one of the surviving Bohemians!) – was the first incarnation of the new Museum, which will be followed up by new exhibitions every year. The picture above (courtesy of Andrew Street) from my post, shows the Flower House which, during the 1960s and 70s, became an iconic focus for the town’s artistic colony.

It was a grand summer altogether, and we were out walking the roads and footpaths of West Cork as much as possible. On a fine day in May we set off to explore the Toormore Loop which is only one of an excellent comprehensive system of trails which has been put in place locally in recent years. This post – Another Grand Day Out on the Fastnet Trails – documents that adventure and, hopefully, will encourage all of you to enjoy this wonderful free resource and immerse yourselves in the nature that’s all around us.

The second most viewed post this year was Finola’s fascinating account of the Rock of Dunamase and the history that it embodies. It’s a place that, for some reason, took us a few years to get to – and it’s Off the M8! But – as you can see from the picture above – climbing the Rock will give you a most rewarding and spectacular view across several counties. The ruin on its summit is inextricably associated with the most turbulent events in Irish History – the coming of the Normans to Ireland in 1169, and the famous marriage of Aiofe (daughter of Diarmuid MacMurrough, King of Leinster) to the Earl of Pembroke, immortalised in the painting by Daniel Maclise (below, courtesy of National Gallery of Ireland). The fortification with its Great Hall on the Rock was a MacMurrough stronghold, and accordingly was part of Aoife’s dowry when she married Strongbow.

Finally (for today, anyway) we look at Finola’s post which comprehensively explores another West Cork treasure: Heir Island – a Modern Paradise (pictured above and below). West Cork has such a diverse landscape, including the inhabited islands of Roaringwater Bay, each one of which is unique. Finola teamed up with her photographer friend Trish Punch and they were shown around the island by islanders Christine Thery and Sarah Mathews, who run the Heir Island Wildlife Project. This post is a great example of how the diversity of life on the island – and here in West Cork generally – brings together so many disciplines and interests: photography, history, wildflowers, wildlife, colourful houses, and art. Everything that Roaringwater Journal tries to encompass, in fact.