Chasing Steeples!

I can’t resist a good Irish story . . . I look out for them wherever we go. Our latest adventure was over in the northern part of County Cork, searching out a number of holy wells and anything related to them: we were led by Amanda Clarke: look at her website here. Regular readers will know that we often get together with Amanda and Peter to share our mutual interests in the Irish landscape. On this most recent expedition our path took us through Buttevant, and specifically to St John’s C of I church there, where Finola was keen to inspect the stained glass windows. The present church was built in 1826, and replaced an older one, established in the late 1600s.

As you can see, it has a tower with a fine, elegant spire. I was fascinated to read that the predecassor of this church is credited with the historical significance of having ‘given birth’ to the Steeplechase horse race.

. . . The term ‘steeplechase’ actually originated in a horse race first held in Ireland in the 18th century. As the name might suggest, that very first race took place in 1752 between two steeples in rural county Cork in the south of Ireland. At that time, church steeples were among the tallest buildings in the landscape. On that night, Cornelius O’Callaghan and Edmund Blake were at dinner at Buttevant Castle, having a good time. They made a bet between themselves to race from the steeple of Saint John’s Church in Buttevant to that of Saint Mary’s Church in the town of Doneraile . . .

.europeana.eu

Sadly, the Castle at Buttevant is no longer habitable. It was built around 1200 by Philip and William de Barry, on land seized from the Gaelic O’Donegan’s. The poet Edmund Spenser (1553 – 1599) lived in the nearby castle of Kilcolman for many years, and wrote his poem The Faerie Queene there. He also mentions Buttevant Castle in his writings:

“Old father Mole, (Mole hight that mountain grey
That walls the Northside of Armulla dale)
He had a daughter fresh as floure of May,

VVhich gaue that name vnto that pleasant vale;
Mulla the daughter of old Mole, so hight
The Nimph, which of that water course has charge,
That springing out of Mole, doth run downe right
to Butteuant where spreading forth at large,
It giueth name vnto that auncient Cittie,
VVhich Kilnemullah cleped is of old:
VVhose ragged ruines breed great ruth and pittie,
To travallers, which it from far behold”

Spenser is supposed to have derived the names ‘Mole’ and ‘Armulla’ from Kilnemulla or, more correctly Cell na mullach, an early name for Buttevant. It is possible that the castle here fell victim to the 20th century Irish Civil War, although I cannot find any detailed information on this. Accounts generally suggest that the building was in use until the 1920s and another reference states that there was a significant fire which destroyed the interior in 1936. Today, it is a windowless ruin which is not accessible to the public.

I’m sure you are all anxious to get back to the story of that first Steeplechase – and you want to know who won? When taking in any Irish tale you have to be patient . . . We simple don’t know who won! It’s not recorded anywhere . . . The account continues:

. . .The distance was around 4 miles, crossing countryside and rivers. The winner would be the first to touch the base of the steeple in Doneraile. The prize? More than 600 gallons of port. Sadly, history has not recorded who actually won the race. But that race has gone down in history, with steeplechase races becoming a tradition . . .

.europeana.eu

Obviously, we had to continue our expedition with a visit to Doneraile, to view the finishing post. That’s St Mary’s Church, above. The present building does not have a spire: I would have thought that such a feature would be essential if you were looking out for it from a distance of four miles, even with fairly flat countryside in between. However, I have now learned that the term ‘steeple’ correctly refers either to a simple church tower, or a church tower with a spire on it. Have a look at the terrain from a birds’ eye view:

Here I have copied extracts from the first edition 6″ Ordnance Survey map, showing the terrain in more detail around the start and finish points as it was noted in the early nineteenth century:

On this occasion we didn’t have time to explore the route itself: I wonder if anyone else has? Is it significant that the townland which surrounds Doneraile Church is known as Horseclose?

In the present day, of course, Steeplechasing has an equine life of its own. Supposedly, the very first recognised English National Steeplechase took place in March 1830. In 1839, the British Grand National Race at Aintree was established, a race that is still run today over roughly the same distance of around 4 miles. Here’s a poster for the Irish equivalent – at Fairyhouse – on Easter Monday 1916, a very significant date in the Irish calendar . . .

While on the subject of the Aintree event, we must mention the most famous racehorse of all time (probably) who holds the record for winning the Grand National Steeplechase thrice – in 1973, 1974, and 1977 and coming second in 1975 and 1976: Red Rum.

. . . Red Rum was bred at Rossenarra stud in Kells, County Kilkenny, Ireland, by Martyn McEnery. Following a canter at Aintree Racecourse the day before the 1978 Grand National he was retired. The news of Red Rum’s retirement was the lead story on that night’s 9 O’Clock News on the BBC and was also front page news of the following morning’s newspapers. Red Rum had become a national celebrity, opening supermarkets and annually leading the Grand National parade for many further years. His likeness graced playing cards, mugs, posters, models, paintings, plates and jigsaw puzzles. Several books have been written about Red Rum, The horse helped launch the Steeplechase rollercoaster at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in 1977 . . .

Wikipedia

Yes, this is it: the Steeplechase Rollercoaster! You can join in the full experience here. Hopefully my account has enlivened your day: I’m sure there are many of you out there who are familiar with this tale and can, perhaps, add to it? I’ll finish with a view over Buttevant taken on our journey – an atmospheric winter morning.

With thanks to The Guardian for the header pic of the Aintree Grand National

Our Favourite Photos You Never Saw – Robert

At this time we usually do a couple of ‘reviews’: looking back through the year and picking posts and photographs that jump out at us, asking to be shown again. Next week’s offering will be our selection of favourite Roaringwater Journal articles from 2021, but here, following on from Finola, is my choice of photographs that have never been published. We gave ourselves the stipulation that they have to be from West Cork, and they had to be taken this year. We are trying to have a minimum amount of commentary – and hope they will speak for themselves. First up – above – is Ratooragh Wedge Tomb, far down on the Mizen: we discovered it in February, and that exploration resulted in this article.

Baltimore Beacon has a recognisable profile: we can see it in the far distance from our home: Nead an Iolair
Barley Cove is a favourite place for us to walk – far enough away from the madding crowds: there are few of those in West Cork!
A path beside a stream at Caslehaven: there is a lot of history there – and a holy well!
We like to explore the seascapes over by Dunkelly: here is a wonderful natural sea-arch
This view is from Inish Beg Estate, looking across the Ilen River towards the burial ground at Aughadown. In the background is Mount Gabriel
…And here is the view from the upper slopes of Mount Gabriel. Go up there on a good day and you are ensured the most scenic prospect from the top. During the year, Finola walked all the way up and – next – you can see her celebrating her achievement!
I can never resist a good sign! Ireland has plenty, and here’s one I had to put in my collection… For my latest examples, have a look at this post
The strange times that we live in have seen an abundance of food and drink outlets springing up in town and country. I like the look of this one on the Beara
This pyramidical grave marker is one of a few in West Cork: it’s at Myross, and looks out over High Island and Low Island
We explored the area of land and sea to the south of Clonakilty, resulting in this post, titled ‘Round Ring’
The West Cork landscapes offer an always changing mix of water and rock
This is the coastline at Dirk, beyond Ring: it really is that colour under the summer sun!
Our neighbouring town is Schull, which even in these Covid times was busy with seafarers in the summer holidays
We look down on Rossbrin Cove. Here is our view on a clear day in February
I asked Finola to take my picture next to this gentle giant – I couldn’t resist!
This may seem a surprising picture to finish off with, but Yay Burger has become our go-to on a Sunday night after a hard day on the Blog! Yay Burger has been a life-saver for us through the pandemic, and is one of a number of food outlets that have earned Ballydehob the title ‘centre of the culinary universe’

A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 10: Toe Head

Here’s the latest episode in our series about Napoleonic-era signal towers in West Cork. There are links to the earlier posts at the bottom of this one. That’s Toe Head above – in the far distance, and that view is taken from the signal tower site at Kedge Point, Spain, to the east of Baltimore.

Toe Head itself is a spectacular setting in West Cork: the views, above, show the nature of the terrain, the boreens, and the seascape in the area. So far I have written accounts of nine signal towers: this is the tenth. I’d like to tell you how many of these structures are in West Cork, but that would mean that I would have to geographically define ‘West Cork’. I can’t do that, as there is officially no such area: we are all part of County Cork! All I can do is to let you know that there are nineteen signal tower sites located in the whole County. I have another nine to cover, after this one. But I assure you – Toe Head is definitely in our West Cork!!

Here’s the Toe Head tower – in a sea of black bales. If you have followed the series so far, you will have noticed that each tower is fairly basic, and generally offers the appearance of a medieval castle. But they were all built at the very beginning of the nineteenth century, to provide a system of surveillance and signalling around the coast of Ireland, from Malin Head in the north to Pigeon House Fort, Dalkey, on the east coast. Each signal tower is within view of one – or two – others, depending where it lies on the chain. In the first post in the series, here, I explain the logic and geometry of the project.

The 6″ Ordnance Survey map extract in the upper picture dates from 1842. By this time the use of the tower for signalling had ceased – the Napoleonic invasion threat lasted only through the first few years of the century: many towers became disused after this and some have vanished altogether, although many ruins do remain because of their remote locations. In the case of Toe Head, the building was adapted to incorporate a Coast Guard Station. I am assuming that, originally, the tower was a simple square structure , and the extension to the rear was added to provide additional accommodation for the Coast Guard service. The current aerial view shows newer farm buildings and an access road close by.

If you look at previous posts in this series, you will see that the Toe Head tower is architecturally simpler, with no bartizans or other ornamentation – it’s more like a small Anglican church tower than a ‘castle’. Like many others, it’s clear to see that this building was slate-hung: this form of weather-proofing was probably added at a later date – possibly when the Coast Guard service took it over. At the centre of the view from the window above you can see the Stag Rocks which in the 1980s became the graveyard of the 900ft long Kowloon Bridge, a bulk cargo carrier travelling from Quebec. The ship was disabled by a storm and then abandoned, drifting on to the Stags. A detailed account of the event was posted in the Irish Examiner 30 years later.

The abandoned Wreck of the Kowloon Bridge close by the Stags in November, 1986 (centre picture). The lower picture shows the wreck underwater today (courtesy Aquaventures.ie): she drifted out of control towards the rocks before running aground on the reef. The resulting fuel spill spread out over the Irish coastline causing extensive damage to local wildlife, and financial losses for the local fishing fleet. Apparently, no-one was ever held to account for the environmental disaster.

The Stag Rocks can be seen in my picture above, which shows the current incarnation of a World War II Lookout Post that was put in place close by the older signal tower in 1942. You can read more about these lookouts in this post: they were designed by Howard Cooke RIBA of the Irish Office of Public Works at the outbreak of that war (during which Ireland remained neutral). I mentioned in that same previous post an art installation project carried out in 2014 by Tim Schmelzer of Vienna. His work at Toe Head is particularly impressive, and here are some still shots to illustrate the nature of the artworks, which were created on-site using high-powered projection equipment.

The signal tower ruin today is gaunt and desolate. Nevertheless it’s an atmospheric place to visit. On the slopes below the building is an EIRE sign (officially number 28), also dating from the World War II years, when Irish neutrality had to be spelled out to the warring powers flying overhead. I came across an interesting comment from Anne Wilkinson in 2018, giving a slightly different take on the EIRE signs:

. . . These EIRE signs were also to alert German Pilots and crew who were conscientious objectors and who had overflown the UK, to ditch and parachute to safety. Many airmen lived at the Curragh Camp. They were allowed freedom during the day, eg. they often cycled the lanes and roads to enjoy the peace and quiet and then returned to the Curragh Camp for their curfew hour . . .

http://eiremarkings.org/the-map/

And here’s a little enigma to finish off the post (above). It’s graffiti carved on a timber lintel over one of the openings of the signal tower buildings. It’s probably quite recent – dating from ’89 or’99 – but what does it spell out? And why is it here? It’s tempting to say THE GIFT CASTLE but that ‘T‘ after the GIF doesn’t ring true . . . There’s a story there somewhere: perhaps one of our readers can give us a clue! Finally, here’s a distant view of the signal tower, looking across Toe Head.

The previous posts in this series can be found through these links:

Part 1: Kedge Point, Co Cork

Part 2: Ballyroon Mountain, Co Cork

Part 3: Old Head of Kinsale, Co Cork

Part 4: Robert’s Head, Co Cork

Part 5: Downeen, Co Cork

Part 6: Dunnycove

Part 7: Cloghane, Mizen Head

Part 8: Brow Head

Part 9: Glandore Head

The Wild One

We are past November Dark – traditionally a ‘low’ time of the year when the effects of the approaching cold months begin to displace autumnal skies and spectacular sunsets: the term traditionally refers to the appearance of the new moon of the month (which happened this year on the 4th), but is probably inspired by the preceding nights when no moon is visible. For us at the moment, on the shores of Roaringwater Bay, the dark time is emphasised by a constant pervading mist which clings and covers everything in films of moisture, especially the myriad cobwebs on the gorse bushes which surround us. Gone – for now – are our fine views out across to the islands, and there is a feeling of being marooned and suspended in a lifeless grey tract which encompasses sea and sky.

November Dark has brought with it tragedy to our garden. In explanation, I should first paint the idyllic picture of what we like to call our ‘peaceable kingdom’. For many years we have considered this domain a haven. Do you remember our fox – Ferdia – who was a constant companion to us in the first few years here at Nead an Iolair? He visited on a daily basis – often waking us by barking outside our bedroom window at dawn, and presided over a mixed community of birds and animals who share our territory – without any conflict.

Ferdia was happy enough to co-exist with the bird and pheasant families, the rats and mice, and the occasional cat that dropped in. I have a memory of fox and cat sitting side by side on our terrace, clearly having a conversation with each other: I would like to have eavesdropped, but whatever mutual language they share was not available to me! Ferdia vanished from our garden a few years back – gone to his happy hunting grounds no doubt; but the pheasants have remained with us through much of the decade we have been here.

In the upper picture Finnbarr and his young wife, Fidelma, patrol our garden some five years ago. The lower picture was taken just before the start of the Pandemic, in March 2019. The couple have been a daily feature of life outside Nead an Iolair. They always appreciated feeding time, when they got a share of the seeds I put out on our patch for the many bird visitors, small and large. The picture below taken during the summer of last year shows a family group: pheasant chicks have been seen but rarely.

The idyll abruptly ended yesterday, when a bomb hit the garden – in the form of a small but fierce force of nature: only inches long but terrifying. I glanced out of the window where, minutes before, the two pheasants had been foraging as usual along the stone boundary wall. I was shocked to see Fidelma lying on her back, wings flapping, being dragged along the ground: there was a commotion among the small birds and Finnbarr had vanished. At first I could not see the attacker, but as I rushed outside I caught a glimpse of brown fur with a hint of white and black. My first thought – a rat! – could not have been borne out: we have lived side by side with rat families for years: they only ever appear to share the bird food, and are never aggressive.

You can see the conditions that prevailed on this worst of days from Finola’s picture (top), taken from indoors through the windows. And – below that – the brazen culprit, who danced around the garden at breakneck speed, very ready to threaten me if I made a wrong move! It was our first sighting here on our land of an Irish Stoat. Having now read the books, I know in hindsight what a shocking phenomenon had hit us. Although fearing the worst, I quickly removed Fidelma to an indoor refuge and then watched the rampaging of this fur powerball traversing our territory at lightning speed; leaping from walls, trees and bushes and aiming for any likely food source.

Finola has done her best to clarify the images in the photos she rapidly took through streaming wet glass (above) on this appalling day. The weather did not in any way impede the progress of the animal which circumscribed our whole acre, it seemed, in record time.

. . . The Stoat is often called the Weasel in Ireland, but although the weasel (Mustela nivalis) is very similar in appearance to the stoat, it is not native to Ireland and has never been introduced here. In Ireland the stoat or ‘weasel’ was regarded as a very intelligent animal, but also vengeful. For example, since they were believed to understand human speech, if a stoat was encountered the correct thing to do was to greet them politely. In County Clare the custom was to raise one’s hat in greeting, or even to bow. The person who insulted them, on the other hand, or pelted them with stones, could expect to lose all their chickens before too long. Deliberately killing a stoat was most unwise, since it caused all the deceased animal’s relations to descend on the house of the culprit and attack with great savagery . . .

Ireland’s Animals – Myth legends and Folklore, Niall Mc Coitir, The Collins Press, Cork 2010

The Duchas Schools Folklore Collection – gathered in the 1930s – has numerous entries referring to the stoat. Above is an example from Co Carlow. When I was sifting through these, I was struck by the fact that similar stories about stoats are repeated over and over again, but from different parts of Ireland. I could write a volume based on these accounts, but will choose only a few:

. . . One time there was a girl who was very fond of going to the seaside. One day she went to the seaside and lay down and fell asleep. Ten weasels went down her throat. So she awoke when the last one was going down. She went to the doctor and the doctor said she would need to undergo an operation and then she would die. One day she was going to the shop and her granny knew all about cures. So she went into the granny. Her granny told her to get two pounds of salt and eat all the salt and go to the seaside and drink no water and keep her mouth open and the weasels would have to come out for a drink. So this she did. The weasels came out for a drink. The girl counted them. There were ten in it and the girl came home cured . . .

William O’Donnell, Cabra Glebe, Co Donegal

. . . One day long ago two men went to cut the meadow with scythes. They cut away for a while until they came to a weasel’s nest where there were four young weasels out of the nest and left them near by on the ground. After a while the mother of the weasels came home and found her young on the ground and was very angry, She hesitated for a moment and then understood what the men had done. Now the men had had a can of milk with them for a drink which they left near the weasel’s nest, the old weasel saw the can and went to see what in it. When she saw what was in it she spat into it because a weasel’s spit is poison. When the men saw this they were terrified and put back the young weasels into the nest, and the old weasel was pleased and went back and upset the can and spilt the milk from fear the men would drink of it and be poisoned . . .

James Gormley Senior, Aged 82, Commeen, Co Roscommon

Note that the term ‘Weasels’ is used far more often in these accounts than ‘Stoats’. There can only be the one animal, however, as there have never been true ‘weasels’ in Ireland. The story above, from Co Roscommon, is the most common of all ‘weasel’ tales in Ireland, and variants of it have been recorded from all parts.

. . . Many years ago an old woman lived by herself. There was a nest of weasels under the hearth in the house in which she lived and every day the old woman fed them until they became quite tame. When the young weasels were reared they went off but the old one remained in the hearth. One day the woman was sitting by the fire when the old weasel came out and sat with her. The weasel was continually looking up the chimney and at last the woman said “What the dickens are you looking at?” and at the same time looking up herself. She saw a little bag hanging in the chimney and took it down. To her surprise and joy she found it was full of gold. This was the weasel’s reward for her kindness to her and her family . . .

Mrs L Millett, Fiddaun Lower, Inistioge, Co Kilkenny

. . . The Swarm or Drove of Weasels: the following story or rather fact come from a reliable source to wit a teacher in Ballyshannon. In the end of August or about that time some distance outside Ballyshannon a great whistling was heard as if a number of little birds and a mighty drove of Weasels was seen heading for the mountains. An old man said that he heard that weasels used make for the mountains during the Grouse Season. The Priests housekeeper saw or heard of the same thing in Antrim . . .

J Clarke, Navan, Co Meath

. . . Some time about forty years ago there were children playing on the side of a hill and they saw a few weasels. They started to run and cry. They looked round and saw thousands coming after them. Only they got away the weasels would have devoured them . . .


Written by Kathleen McKenna Bragan, Co Monoghan 25th November 1938

I couldn’t resist that little foray into weasel stories from the Folklore Collection. There are many many more pages full of them! Interestingly, stoats are a fully protected species in Ireland. If stoats are proving a problem, by killing chicks or other domestic animals, you must solve the problem by using good fencing; it is illegal to kill a stoat.

A possible reason for the attention which stoats attract in folklore is the fact that they can change colour, which adds a sense of the supernatural to them. In countries which have harsh winters the coat of the stoat becomes white in those months, offering a level of protection in the open landscape. The fur from the white – or ‘winter’ – stoat we call ermine, and the white fur is considered so precious that only royalty or nobility traditionally wear it. In the drawing above, the white stoat is wearing a cloak on which are printed the symbols of the flag of Brittany (below), which was an independent kingdom in medieval times. The white background represents the ermine fur, and the black markings are said to be based on the black tip of the tail which the animal retains, even in the winter.

Here (above) is another example of the Breton ermine representation: a finely worked silver antique brooch. In Ireland, the species of stoat which has evolved – Mustela erminea hibernica – does not usually turn white in winter, although examples have been noted. The animal is said to have been resident in Ireland from the post-glacial period and, in the present day, the population numbers are unknown: it is not a threatened species.

In spite of our attempts to care for Fidelma, she did not survive. Sadly, I decided to let Nature have her way and laid the body close to a fox-track above the house. Later, I noticed an assembly of corvids gathered in the area. When I returned there in the evening all traces had gone – just a few scattered feathers told the tale.

This morning, Finnbarr was absent from the garden. I did catch a glimpse of him wandering the distant pastures – forlorn and bereft. At least, those are the feelings my human soul projects onto him. He will find another mate, of course, and we hope they will continue to share our little bit of paradise. We will keep a lookout for unwelcome visitors, but we will always have to pay our respects to the ‘weasels’. If our stoat does return we will have to honour him with an Irish name: I am inclining towards Fiáinín – which means Little Wild One.

Lady with an Ermine, painted 1489–1491 by Leonardo da Vinci. The subject is said to be Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Leonardo’s Milanese employer, Ludovico Sforza. The Ermine is symbolic, rather than realistic – in fact it is pictured much larger than in real life. It has been suggested that the ermine in classical literature relates to pregnancy, sometimes as an animal that protected pregnant women. Around the time of the painting’s creation, Cecilia was known to be pregnant with Ludovico’s illegitimate son.

Off the M8 – Ballysaggartmore

This post might also have been called A Monument to Imprudence because of the story which it encompasses. But, first and foremost, it is a bit of an architectural wonder, and certainly worth the deviation from the motorway if you are travelling between Cork County and Dublin. It will add only 20 minutes to your journey – plus however long you decide to spend walking the publicly accessible woodland to discover the nineteenth-century extravagances of Arthur Kiely, Esq. Leaving the M8 motorway at Fermoy, head east towards Lismore on the R666: you will reach a car park and trailhead for Ballysaggartmore on the left within half an hour. After your visit, find the R668 heading north and rejoin the M8 at Cahir.

We felt we were capturing the last of the summer as we embarked on the beautiful sunlit trails on the first day of October in this Covid laden year. We were convinced that a week or so later we would be feeling the first cool winds of autumn and undoubtedly be noticing the changing hues in the ash, beech and oak tracts of the Ballysaggartmore Demense. The name in Irish – Baile na Sagart – means ‘Priests’ Town’. I cannot find out which priest is being remembered here, but – as you will see – there is some local lore which mentions a priest – and also Kiely, the unpopular local landlord.

These extracts from the c1840 first edition 6″ Ordnance Survey maps show parts of the Ballysaggartmore Demense. In the upper plan, a house can be seen, probably newly built at the time of the survey. Nothing remains of it now, but some photographs exist, dating from 1904.

It’s time to piece together what can be found on the history of the place and its people. The first Kiely – John – purchased some 8,500 acres of land here in the late 1700s. He had two sons. On the senior John’s death in 1808 the elder brother – also John – inherited good lands at Strancally, on the Blackwater River, and proceeded to build an imposing castle there. The younger son – Arthur – had to make do with the less propitious lands around Ballysaggartmore, and built the modest house pictured above, but apparently harboured notions to match John Junior’s aspirations, embarking on a grand design to upgrade the property, starting with a splendid carriage drive and gatehouse which survives today near the beginning of our walk in the woods.

. . . Sir, Permit me through the medium of the Dublin Penny Journal an opportunity of giving the public a brief description of the situation and scenery of Ballysaggartmore, the much improved residence of Arthur Keiley, Esq, situate one mile west of Lismore, on the north side of the river Blackwater. The porter’s lodge at the entrance to the avenue is composed of cut mountain granite or free stone, of a whitish colour, variegated with a brownish strata, which gives the whole a rich and pleasing appearance; it consists of a double rectangular building, in the castellated style, flanked by a round tower at either end, through which is a passage and carriage-way of twelve feet in the centre, over which is a perpendicular pointed arch, enriched with crockets and terminated with a finial; the buildings at either side of the gateway, although similar, form a variety in themselves; and the situation is so disposed as not to be seen until very near the approach; the gate is composed of wrought and cast iron; and is, I will venture to assert, the most perfect gothic structure formed principally of wrought iron, in the kingdom. It was executed by a native mechanic, and cost about one hundred and fifty pounds . . .

Dublin Penny Journal, December 1834

The ambitions of Arthur Kiely knew no bounds. Egged on by his wife, jealous of her in-law’s estate at Strancally, he continued the carriage drive (today a further part of the picturesque walking trail) towards a humble stream which had to be crossed in order to reach the vicinity of the house which was to be upgraded to – or replaced by – something of suitable substance. The stream could easily have been culverted but no! Only an ornate neo-Gothic three-arched bridge with gate-houses at either end and surmounted by towers and pinnacles would do: a prelude, presumably, to the architectural magnificence that was being planned beyond.

At the same time as directing the building project, Arthur decided that a change of name would be advantageous. Something double-barrelled was called for, and he chose to add Ussher, a family name derived from ancestors on his mother’s side. Arthur Kiely-Ussher certainly has a ring to it. Arthur’s ambitious wife was born Elizabeth Martin of Ross House, Co Galway. Always on the look-out for a West Cork connection, I can tell you that the author Violet Martin was a great-niece of Elizabeth. Violet lived in Castletownshend and famously collaborated with Edith Somerville.

The gate-lodge and ‘Towers’ of Ballysaggartmore are remarkable survivors, and represent the sum total of Arthur’s striving to equal his brother’s show of opulence. After the extraordinary towered bridge the carriage drive peters out, and one assumes the money also dissipated. Kiely-Ussher attempted to revive the fortunes of his estate but this centred on evicting tenants in time of scarcity, which only resulted in the lands becoming less productive. The family lived through the famine but were considered notoriously bad landlords. In the 1850s Ballysaggartmore Demense was virtually bankrupt: the house was sold in 1861 and Arthur himself died shortly afterwards.

Like many another bad landlord, Arthur Kiely-Ussher has entered into folklore. It’s worth reading this lengthy entry from the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection – a superb tale of just retribution being visited on the memory of – not one – but three ghastly incarnations of a man who probably wished to be well remembered, but failed catastrophically.

. , . In Ballysagart there lived three landlords named Ussher Kiely. The three of them were brothers and they were all called Ussher. They were terrible tyrants and they evicted people every time they got the chance, and allowed no one near their land. Of the many stories told about their cruelty here is one: On Ussher’s land there is a Spring well. A very old, goodliving woman lived near the place. One day she had no water. The nearest place she could get water was the well, which was in a field behind her house, but Ussher allowed no one near the land. The neighbours always brought her a churn of water from the Blackwater, but this day she had no one to get it for her. As the Blackwater (which was two miles away) was too far for her to walk, she thought there would be no harm in going to the well for once. When she was bending down to fill her gallon in the well she heard a shout behind her; “Get away from that well and get off my land you cursed wretch. How dare a dying old hag like you interfere with my water or dirty my land with those rotten feet of yours”. It was the eldest Ussher and he made her throw back the water and he threatened to beat her if she did not get off his land immediately. She obeyed and when she was out of his sight she knelt down and cursed him saying “O God, may the brothers of this man, Ussher, who hunted me away without a drop of water, be at his funeral before the year is out, and may he grow silly and his tongue hang out of his head so that he cannot offend you again”. Another woman cursed him saying “May you die in agony, you tyrant”. Before the year was out he grew silly, and he had to be sent to a home where he died in terrible agony. His body is still to be seen in Ballysaggart where his body is embalmed in glass. His mouth is to be seen wide open and his tongue is hanging out and is as black as soot. Another of the Ussher Kielys saw a man crossing his land. He brought out his gun and threatened to blow the man’s legs from under him. The man who was only going home said “Ussher Kiely, I was walking on this land before you and I’ll be walking on it after you, so why don’t you shoot me”. Ussher put away the gun and never used it again. A few days later he complained of pains and only lived two hours. He was embalmed in glass and laid by his elder brothers side. The third Ussher Kiely was worse than the others. Every night a man used to bring cattle on Ussher’s land to graze. Ussher heard of this and one night he lay in wait and without warning shot the man. When the people heard of the shooting they piled curses on Ussher. A few days passed since the shooting when a priest was walking on Usshers land. He was reading his ‘Office’ when he met Ussher. Ussher cursed him and called him every name he could think of as well as ordering him off the land. “All right”, said the priest, “I’ll go off the land, but mark my words, tyrants like you never live a long life”. Two hours later the last of the Kielys dropped dead. The three brothers are to be seen, embalmed in glass lying side by side in a small graveyard in Ballysagart . . . Mr Tom O’Donnel told me these stories – Tom Conway


Duchas Schools Folklore Collection, Volume 0637

If you would like to read in greater detail the fortunes and fall of Arthur Kiely-Ussher I commend you to the excellent account by The Irish Aesthete. The ‘modest’ house at Ballysaggartmore was burned down during the Irish Civil War, obliterating its physical history and committing its memories to fascinating folk recollection. We are fortunate, nevertheless, that we may freely wander a trail and reminisce on misfortune. And justice.

Dzogchen Beara

There is a centre of Buddhism on the Beara Peninsula: we visited it for the first time during the week. It is very beautifully situated on the coast south of Allihies. You only have to look at the photograph above, taken at the centre, to realise that the location is a very important aspect of the whole project.

Sa Che or Tibetan Geomancy is the analysis of the earth — including water, space, air, light, trees, garden and home. The principles of Sa Che are to bring harmony and equilibrium, both in the natural environment and within the being, affording good health, wealth and enjoyment. These benefits flow on to our relationships and lifestyle

Pure Land Farms, California

I am using the aerial view, above, courtesy of Dzogchen Beara Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Centre. All the buildings in the lower part of the picture are within the centre, which was founded by Sogyal Rinpoche in 1987. On the lower right is The Spiritual Care Centre – opened by Ireland’s President, Mary McAleese in 2007 – which provides a safe and supportive environment for people living with a life-altering illness, recovering from treatment, facing the end of their life or experiencing bereavement, as well as their families, loved ones and others who care for them. It’s a special, culturally significant place – and you can see how its siting takes the fullest advantage of the impressive scenery.

That’s a Tibetan geomancy chart, above (courtesy of The Wellcome Foundation). It is traditionally used to work out how and where you should build your house – or any important structure: as you can see there is a Zodiac at its heart. As an architectural student back in the 1960s I was fascinated by this concept – then popularly termed Feng Shui – we all were. Throughout my working life I was always seeking to justify my clients’ demands to build in a certain place or in a certain way; I wince, today, when I see the building processes we have here in Ireland – our countryside is ravaged, in my view, by the excavator and the rock-breaker carving out great flat platforms whereon are placed ‘anywhere style’ bungalows or houses, rather than structures which try to flow and blend into the uneven natural landscapes. But I’d better get off my high horse, I suppose. This Buddhist centre on the Beara is an excellent example of buildings ‘fitting in’ to their surroundings.

Anyone can visit the centre: it has an excellent cafe which enjoys the unparalleled views, for a start, but there are gardens and grounds to wander around, and many events which everyone can attend: keep an eye on the website.

This shows one of the meditation rooms (courtesy of Dzogchen Beara Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Centre), with Pi Jun Taiwa in meditative posture. Below is a satellite image of the site showing its proximity to the coast and, below that, an extract from the 1840 OS map. I was intrigued to know what the buildings are that are shown occupying the site in those times. I have been unable to find the answer but wonder if they were connected to mining: the great copper-mining centre of Allihies is situated inland from here, but there are said to be ore-bearing lodes at Dooneen point, south-west of the new Centre.

An exciting venture happening at Dzogchen Beara right now is the construction of the first Buddhist temple in Ireland! It’s a relatively long-term project – with progress held up by the Covid crisis. But we saw it under way and it promises to be an impressive modern building based in Tibetan tradition.

The site of the temple was consecrated in 2010 with a sacred fire ceremony. I was intrigued to read that the curving overhanging roofs are to be constructed from ‘Nordic Royal Copper’, a specially developed alloy containing zinc and aluminium: this should ensure that the copper retains its shining colour through all weathers: a traditional copper roof would become dulled and turn green after a few years. Instead, the roofs of this temple will shine like the ‘Beacon of Wisdom and Compassion’ that the architect imagined. At present, the building works are still very much in their unadorned basic form, but moving forward (below).

The Centre grounds already display a traditional ‘Stupa’. Originally, stupas stared out as sacred mounds or domes which were used to house the relics of the Buddha. Now they are symbolic structures which give special significance to their location, as here. They are always decorated with colourful prayer flags which serve to bless the surroundings. I can’t help seeing these flags in the same light as ‘rag trees’ often found by holy wells in Ireland. The processional way to the stupa is lined with tall prayer banners. And the whole stupa site also enjoys the wonderful views to the ocean.

The year continues to pour down on us glorious golden days – and we embrace them. Our journey to the Beara was memorable, and I have no doubt that we will be calling into the Dzogchen Centre on many future occasions: I certainly want to keep an architectural eye on the progress of the temple. By the way, an apt translation of Dzogchen is “great perfection”.