Half a Kerry Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Clonfert

Clonfert is only a couple of counties over from us: we just have to skip through a bit of Cork and Tipperary and there we are in Galway – a tiny corner of it that is shaped by the River Shannon. So, on a Thursday afternoon at the beginning of June, we found ourselves tripping along dead straight boreens – narrow for the most part – taking us through lush dairy lands – on a quest to revisit Clonfert’s medieval Cathedral, and its associations with one of Ireland’s most famous saints: Brendan the Navigator.

As we approached the little settlement of Clonfert, our empty road ahead was interrupted by a small white car, which seemed to travel erratically from one side of the lane to the other, and our arrival made little difference to its progress. As we got near, we realised that there was a wiry Jack Russell ambling along the road in front of the car: it was clear that the terrier was having its daily walk, with the owner driving along protectively behind it, regardless of where its fancy might take it. Ah, sure – we were in no hurry, so we joined the procession and waited as the dog sniffed and shuffled its way back home: eventually, dog, car and owner vanished through a gate, and we had the road to ourselves once again . . . This is life in Ireland, and it’s good!

Clonfert’s grandly styled ‘Cathedral’ is so important historically, yet it could hardly be more remotely situated. From the east (upper picture above) it looks like many another Church of Ireland building, maybe not worth a second glance – unless, like us, you can’t resist examining every unturned stone because there is invariably something unexpected to be found under it. Just turn the corner and have a look at the west entrance door:

That doorway, with its exquisite decoration dating probably from the 12th century, has been described as ‘the supreme expression of Romanesque decoration in Ireland’. The carvings, although suffering from hundreds of years of wear and tear from the Irish elements, still display an extraordinary richness and variety: we can only wonder at the inspiration, skill and knowledge of the carver, who must have been deeply immersed in both lore and craft. Tadhg O’Keeffe, current Professor of Archaeology at University College Dublin, suggests a date of c1180 for this doorway. Records state that the church was burnt during a Viking raid in 1179, the same year in which a synod was held there by St Laurence O’Toole; installation of this imposing entrance may be connected with these events. Finola’s post today also explores Romanesque carvings not too far away, at Clonmacnoise. She has also written on Clonfert’s architecture in her Irish Romanesque series.

St Brendan lived from 484 to 577. We saw his birthplace in Fenit, Co Kerry, a few years ago. He founded many monasteries in Ireland but arranged for his body to be taken secretly to Clonfert Cathedral for burial as he didn’t want his remains to be disinterred by relic hunters. His grave is a stone slab just outside the great west door. On it are said to be the marks of cats’ paws – interestingly linked, according to folklore, with the many carvings of cats’ heads on the doorway arches.

When we first visited Clonfert, many years ago, the cathedral itself was closed and we went away with the impression that we had seen all the wonders that the place had to offer by our explorations of the outside of the building and its setting. We were wrong: on this occasion the door was unlocked and there were unexpected treats hidden for us in the interior.

Further carvings decorate the church walls: they vary in date and style, but all are fascinating. Here is a selection – notice the seemingly random arrangement of heads and animal features on the great 15th century chancel arch, above.

Angels, cross-slabs, a wyvern and, astonishingly, this fine mermaid complete with comb and mirror. I have found very little information to identify why these various carvings are found here in the Cathedral, apart from general legends which suggests links with Saint Brendan.

The carved stone head was found ‘in the ceiling’ when restoration work was carried out in 1985. It is said to date from around 1500, while the ancient and beautiful font is attributed to the thirteenth century. We could linger and feast on further treasures inside the church, but we need to look at the surroundings, which reveal yet more history.

This extract from the 25″ OS map – late nineteenth century – shows the cathedral and some of the landscape features associated with it. We came here a few years ago, when we were researching Ireland’s waterways, following in the footsteps of English writer L T C Rolt. In his book ‘Green & Silver’ we read of his admiration for Saint Brendan, and his determination to find the grave at Clonfert, which he did in 1946. His book is illustrated with photographs taken by his wife Angela, and the one picture from Clonfert which is used in the book is this one of the ‘Yew Walk’ which was laid out as part of the gardens of the Bishop’s Palace, which you can see marked on the map.

Our own photo of the Yew Walk at Clonfert was taken a few days ago. You can see that it survives, although neglected today. Some of the yew trees are said to be up to 500 years old. From the map you can also see that the Yew Walk connected the Cathedral to the 16th century ‘Clonfert Palace’, and was set out as an ornamental cruciform route, suggesting the path that might have been taken by the monks a thousand years ago. When we explored previously, we discovered the ruins of the Palace at the end of the Yew Walk, and wondered why it has been left in this state (since 1954, as we subsequently learned). The answer to that is fascinating, and I urge you to read my full account from that first visit, here. Below is a photo dating from c1950, showing the Palace at that time (with thanks to Dr Christy Cunniffe). My own photos from this week’s visit follow.

Clonfert might have been a very different place today if Queen Elizabeth had been listened to:

 . . . We are desirous that a college should be erected in the nature of a university in some convenient place in Irelande, for instruction and education of youth in learning. And we conceive the town of Clonfert within the province of Connaught to be aptlie seated both for helth and comodity of ryver Shenen running by it . . .

Queen Elizabeth, Letter to the Bishop Of Clonfert, 1579

The Queen’s advice was not taken up, and Trinity College Dublin was established instead – in 1592 – becoming Ireland’s first University.

The site at Clonfert is so interesting – and covers so many periods in Ireland’s history – right up to the 20th century. It was well worth revisiting – and will merit further visits in the future, too. I’ll leave you with one aspect that probably impressed us most this time around. It’s the Bishop’s Throne which is hidden in the shadows of the Cathedral chancel. Carved from oak, most likely in the 19th century, it is a wonderful representation of Saint Brendan himself, surrounded by the Four Evangelists, crafted in the style of the Book of Kells. Look at him, also, on the header. Here is the Irish saint who set sail out on a voyage into the unknown – seeking Paradise – and discovered the World!

Inchydoney – and Virgin Mary’s Bank

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”.

Round Ring

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.

We have mentioned Industrial Schools before in Roaringwater Journal. They are an unhappy chapter of Ireland’s history. I have not delved deeply into the history of St Aloysius Industrial School for Roman Catholic Girls, Clonakilty, and would not like to think of what stories the tucked-away grave at Ballintemple represents. This online article tells us it was opened in 1869 and closed in 1965.

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 . . .

Castlehaven – The Haven

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!

Mizen Mountains 6 – Derrylahard East

The peak of Derrylahard East is perplexing. It’s on a continuation of the Eastern Mizen Ridge that runs from just west of Mount Corrin (which we visited exactly a year ago), takes in Letterlickey Cairn (ditto) and peters out close to the wind farm at Ballybane West (which we explored last October). At its highest point it overlooks Glanlough (from the Irish Gleann Locha – ‘Glen’ or ‘Meadow’ of the lake). We must not be confused or misled by another Glanlough nearby – on the Sheep’s Head peninsula, nor yet another in Co Kerry.

On the map above I have indicated Glanlough, which is central to our most recent peregrination. It is a mountain lake which has been virtually hidden over the last decades by thick commercial pine forests. Very recently, much of the forest has been felled, and views from the top of the ridge are now revealed: they are magnificent and far-reaching. In fact, from the high point we found we could see the 12 arched bridge at Ballydehob – which means. of course, that we can also see Derrylahard East from our own village.

The upper picture was taken from the Derrylahard East Peak with a lens stretched well beyond its limit, but you can see the 12 arched bridge and the sandboat quay house just below the centre of the view: Cape Clear is on the horizon. The lower picture was taken a while ago from the 12 arched bridge in Ballydehob, looking north towards the Derrylahard East Peak, which is swathed in cloud to the left of the rainbow.

We started the walk at the western end of the loop: we accessed it from a road that runs through the forestry from Barnageehy down to Durrus. As we gained the higher ground we could see the ridge path that would lead west through to Mount Corrin – currently closed due to storm damage. We turned uphill and kept close to the townland boundary. Below – Finola is correctly negotiating the stile by going backwards down the steps!

We followed the Sheep’s Head Barnageehy Loop Walk in an anti clockwise direction, circling the lake of Glanlough and looking out for the summit, which is known as Derrylahard East Peak, even though it appears to be within the townland of Glanlough. According to the 6″ OS map, which dates from the 1840s, there was once a trig point at this summit: a height of 990ft – 302 metres.

At the peak: Finola looking back towards Gabriel – always dominating the landscapes in West Cork – with the islands and ocean in the distance; Dunmanus Bay and the Sheep’s Head to the west, with the Beara Peninsula visible beyond; the view east encompassing the Ballybane West turbines and Mount Kidd.

Upper map: the 1904 OS showing Glanlough lake in context with the wider topography of West Cork. Above – the Down Survey, made between 1656 and 1658: this section covers the area shown in the OS above it, and is at a comparable scale. The red asterisk shows the position of the lake at Glanlough: I had hoped there might be some notation on the Down Survey that would give some insight into the name of Glanlough, but the old map is fascinating for the fact that very few of the names are familiar to us and barely a scattering of them can be easily equated with place names today.

I said at the outset that the peak of Derrylahard East is perplexing. For one thing, it is clearly in the townland of Glanlough, yet bears the name of the neighbouring townland. Then there is the altitude of the summit: mountainviews.ie shows two figures for the height above sea level: 301m (which I would – almost – agree with), but also the figure of 353.9m, which must be a mistake. Unless, of course, there is something preternatural in this small patch of West Cork territory: I’m thinking of the legend of the ‘floating’ islands in the lake on Mount Gabriel. According to John Abraham Jagoe, Vicar of Cape Clear – from the Church of Ireland Magazine 1826 – they float about up and down, east and north and south; but every Lady-day they come floating to the western point, and there they lie fixed under the crag that holds the track of the Angel’s foot…’ Perhaps our peak fluctuates at will to confuse us? The shape of the summit is also intriguing: we sensed there are traces of a circular platform and a number of loosely scattered stones – could there have been a megalithic structure here?

The views from this peak would justify it being marked out as a special site, and we could expect to find some stories recorded in the folklore archives, but no: the Duchas Schools Collections reveals nothing of the peak, the lake, nor the townland.

As we descended the track we were grateful that the recent forestry removal has opened up the extensive views to the south, over Roaringwater Bay, but we are also reminded of the devastation that this type of monoculture creates. The scarring of the landscape will last for years, until eventually covered by further spruce planting: then the views will vanish again.

As we left behind the havoc of the ravaged hillsides it was good to find some pastoral prospects, reminding us that West Cork always has unfolding delights and juxtapositions, wherever we wander.

Previous posts in this series:

Knockaphuca, Corrin, Letterlicky Cairn, Lisheennacreagh, Knockatassonig