Stab All!

With the West Cork History Festival just around the corner (this coming weekend – July 28 to 30: hurry! – there are still some tickets left for a whole host of compelling events), I thought I would concentrate today on a little piece of very local history which has fascinated me for some time.

Header picture: looking down Staball Hill to the colourful and thriving community of Ballydehob in West Cork; above – Chapel Lane, just on the edge of town: a haven for wildflowers with – lower picture – the intriguing sign Lacha Bhuí

Mounted beside the road on Chapel Hill in Ballydehob is a slate plaque, which is inscribed Lacha Bhuí. I asked Finola to translate the Irish for me: it says Yellow Duck! Intrigued, I asked around to see if anyone knew why there should be such a sign in this place; eventually, I was transported back to 1642…

Reenactment of the 1642 Battle of Stratton, in Cornwall: it’s not Ballydehob, but perhaps it portrays something of the atmosphere of the skirmish that took place here in the same year

My principle informant is Noel Coakley – a local historian and a mine of information. He it was who told me the story of a battle that took place in Ballydehob, on Staball Hill in 1642. He couldn’t remember where he had the information from but this is the account he gave me:

In the days of the old Clan system, the McCarthys and the O’Mahonys held sway in this area and a string of castles bears testimony to their strength and dominance. In 1602, an army, led by Sir George Carew, the English President of Munster, descended on the area and were successful in breaking the power of the gaelic Chieftains.

The arrival of the sixteen hundreds saw an influx of settlers, mainly from England, but a significant number were protestants fleeing persecution from Catholic France.

A powerful family named Swanton, from Norfolk in England, came and succeeded in subjecting much of the area to themselves and even changed the name of the village to “Swantons town”. The last use of this name was in the census of 1821.

As always the natives resisted the dominance of foreigners. In those days before police forces, a garrison of twelve British soldiers attempted to uphold and enforce the law and order in Ballydehob. Robert Swanton the leader of the Swanton group, who had quite a few questionable projects to his name, and had earned for himself the nickname ‘Black-hearted Bob’, enlisted the help of the garrison to take over Ballydehob for himself. A group of six local men, who were trained to arms, issued a challenge to the garrison and Black-hearted Bob and a pitched battle was fought at Staball Hill. The year was 1642…

Top – looking towards Staball Hill, Ballydehob, on a peaceful summer Sunday afternoon; centre – Danno – wrestling Champion of the World (and son of Ballydehob) stands guard at the battle site; lower – Cnoc Staball – Staball Hill

There’s more from Noel:

In 1628, the first Huguenots appeared on the southwest coast, mainly in small boats, to escape detection from the French. They brought with them jewellery and other valuables which they traded with the Irish for plots of land. They were entrepreneurs and set up small industries.

One of their number Pierre Camier noticed the exploitation of the natives and took sides with the Irish defenders in the battle of Staball Hill. Black-hearted Bob took flight from the fray and Pierre Camier pursued him and caught up with him between the present St Bridget’s Church and the Garda station and there he attacked him and killed him. He came back to the fray and shouted “I’ve killed the yellow duck”.

Meanwhile the battle was going well for the Irish band. They killed all the garrison losing just one man of their own. The leader of the Irish band shouted “stab ‘em all” and it is alleged that this was how Staball Hill got its name. The term yellow duck is often applied to a coward in France and to this day the spot where ‘Black-hearted Bob’ was killed is known as ‘Lacha bhuí’ which is the gaelic for ‘yellow duck’…

You’d never know it, but this little patch of West Cork tranquility was the very spot where Black-hearted Bob Swanton met his bloody end, at the hands of Pierre Camier

After some searching I found another account of the battle, in From West Cork Through Time by Kieran McCarthy and Daniel Breen – Amberly Publishing, UK 2013:

…The seventeenth century saw the arrival of a number of settlers, mainly from England, but many were also Protestants (Huguenots) fleeing persecution in Catholic France. The Swantons from Norfolk emerged as the most prominent family in the area and, by the late eighteenth century, they had even changed the name of Ballydehob to Swanton’s Town. A garrison of twelve British soldiers attempted to uphold the law. Robert Swanton, the leader of the group, enlisted the help of the garrison to take over Ballydehob. A group of six local men, who were trained in arms, issued a challenge to the garrison and ‘Black-hearted Bob’, and a pitched battle was fought on Staball Hill. The year was 1642…

In rural Ireland history is never far below the surface. Here in Ballydehob there are still reminders of the Huguenot and English proponents in the ‘Yellow Duck’ affair

As a little addendum I can’t resist pointing out that there is a Staball Hill in Castlebar, County Mayo. It has a story, too:

According to folklore, Staball Hill got its name from the ‘Races of Castlebar’ during the Rebellion of 1798. General Humbert, with an army of 1000 French soldiers, landed at Killala and fought his way to Castlebar with the help of some Irish recruits where an army of British soldiers were waiting for him.  After the battle, the British contingent fled so fast that the episode became known as the ‘Races of Castlebar’ and is often described as one of the most ignominious defeats in British military history. During the battle a blockade was erected by the British in one last stand at Bridge Street.  As the Irish soldiers, armed only with pikes, charged the British the residents of the street are said to have shouted ‘Stab them all’. This was shortened to ‘Staball’.  On the Ordnance Survey Map c1900 the hill is called ‘Stab all’ – the words separated…

Staball Hill, Castlebar, County Mayo:

Danny

My best friend Danny passed away this week. He chose St Swithun’s Day to go – perhaps because there is a message in the saint’s story – and Danny was a goldmine for the stories. St Swithun – whose monastic community was in Winchester, Hampshire – died in 862. On his deathbed Swithun begged that he should be buried outside the north wall of his cathedral where pilgrims would pass over his grave and rain from the eaves would drop upon it. This was done, but a number of monks felt that this was too humble a place for their bishop, so they worked hard for a year and built a large and ornate mausoleum, decorated with gold and fine carvings. On the anniversary of his death – 15 July – preparations were made to move Swithun into it, but a mighty storm blew up. It lasted 40 days and everything was flooded for miles around. The stately tomb was washed away, and Swithun – as he wished – has enjoyed his simple and peaceful resting place ever since.

Danny loved his simple life tucked away in the hills of West Cork. I first met him in 1978, when he visited the folklore shop we had just opened in Devon, close by where he lived then. From that day our paths crossed frequently, and I came to know his wife Gillian and their five daughters. At that time Danny kept goats and made bodhrans from them – those are the circular framed drums that are frequently used to accompany Irish traditional music. Danny’s hand-crafted bodhrans were considered outstanding by players, and now examples of his instruments can be found across the world. This one is in my own collection:

For me, Danny was a fount of knowledge about Ireland, Irish life and Irish music and literature. I have probably also heard every story about his own travels, which seemed to start in his birthplace of Limerick and took him to most exotic places, finishing here in West Cork, with many stops along the way. It’s sad to think that his life here has passed, but I’m sure his soul soars over this lush and beautiful landscape – and will continue to do so forever. Goodbye, Danny – and safe home.

 

Saintly Pigs and Curious Carvings

This is the last in the series of West meets West posts, which have been running alongside the exhibition of Cornish artists at the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn.

The painting (above left) by Cornish artist Alex Smirnoff (courtesy of Bryony Harris) wonderfully illustrates the story of Saint Credan who, like Saint Piran before him, travelled from Ireland to convert the heathens in Cornwall to Christianity in the 7th century. Our Saint Credan is looking a little melancholy. That’s because he accidentally killed his own father and therefore spent the rest of his life as a swineherd in penance. As a compensation it has to be said that he raises very fine pigs! Behind him is the ancient parish Church of Sancreed, very accurately portrayed with its huge colony of rooks in the trees behind. In the same picture is one of the five ancient crosses in the churchyard. The church itself dates from the 14th century: the crosses may be much older than that.

Above right is from a fine study of the entrance to Sancreed churchyard – by the Irish-born ‘Father’ of the Newlyn School, Stanhope Alexander Forbes. It is titled ‘October’ and was painted in 1898. Sancreed was the church attended by many of the Newlyn School artists, and the churchyard contains the graves of some of them, including Forbes and his wife Elizabeth Armstrong. In the church is a memorial designed by Forbes to commemorate their only son, Alec, who was killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Close by is a holy well, described by Amanda.

The crowning glories of this church, however, are the unusual carvings on the rood screen inside, which date from the 16th century. Last week I showed you the carving of the Chough – a bird closely linked with Cornwall and Ireland. Today I am illustrating some more of these carvings, and these show very strange beasts indeed! Some of them can be recognised as heraldic; no doubt they all would have carried symbolism when they were placed here five hundred years ago.

A basilisk is hatched by a cockerel from the egg of a toad. Be careful, because it has a lethal glare and poisonous breath. The basilisk carved in Sancreed church (above left) looks fairly personable, while Alex Smirnoff’s version of it (above right – inspired by the Sancreed carving) should be given a wide berth. Look at the shadowy figures – and the ancient cross – hiding in the background of Alex’s painting: typical of his work.

It’s not just strange creatures that are depicted at Sancreed (and there are many more of them) – there are figures as well:

Above are two panels with ‘Janus’ figures, male and female and – on the right – is a most curious character who seems to be a musician playing, perhaps, a serpent or a cornett. But he seems to be part bird, or wearing a feathered cloak. Below is a three-headed figure and a representation of an angel, perhaps: could this actually be Saint Credan hiding in his own church?

All this might seem a far cry from the exhibition in Skibbereen, which features three contemporary artists from Cornwall… But it certainly is art from Cornwall – and in a church which was founded by an Irish Saint; and a church, moreover, which had a special meaning for many of the Newlyn School artists, including Irish-born Stanhope Forbes, founding ‘Father’ of that school.

This series consist of twelve posts (including this one). You can link to them individually through this list:

Off to Skibbereen
A Saint’s Day – Ciarán and Piran
West meets West
Connecting with St Ives
A Watery Tale
Ways West
Sheep’s Head: Searching for Cornish Miners
Artists of the Western Coasts
Up and Running!
Forbes – An Irish Artists in Cornwall
Choughs – and their travels
Saintly Pigs and Curious Carvings

There’s still time to visit Skibbereen to see the exhibition of the Cornish artists’ work: West meets West is on until July 8 at Uillinn. Enjoy it!

Choughs – and their travels

You’re looking here at a 500 year-old Chough! It’s a carving from a medieval rood screen in an ancient church at Sancreed, on the West Penwith peninsula in Cornwall. There’s no mistaking it: the curved red beak and the red legs make this the most distinctive of all the corvids. This is an accurate representation but, interestingly, on the rood screen it’s in the company of other curioser beasts and beings which we perhaps would not recognise. Were the others around once in Cornwall, but now vanished? You can have a look for yourselves in next week’s post. But first, a little more about our own Choughs.

This wonderful photograph by our neighbour Oliver Nares (thank you, Oliver) shows Choughs in flight, and you can tell they are Choughs rather than any other sort of crow by the distinctive ‘finger’ feathers on the tips of their wings. But also their call is very particular – they tell you their name!

The pattern of their flight makes them stand out. The other day a chatter of twenty Choughs passed over us at Nead an Iolair and swooped down over and around Rossbrin Cove. They were wheeling and turning, performing acrobatics in the sky – even flying upside down! – clearly enjoying every moment of their airborne peregrinations. Why wouldn’t you, with such a beautiful landscape below you?

I have written about Choughs before, but there is a special relevance now, in my series on links between Ireland and Cornwall, sparked off by the West meets West exhibition currently running in the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn. The Chough has always been the ‘national bird’ of Cornwall – it has pride of place on the coat-of-arms of the county, alongside the fisherman and the miner:

It was somewhat ominous, therefore, when the Choughs disappeared from Cornwall, back in 1970, after a long period of decline. Attempts were made to reintroduce them artificially, over the following decades, but without success. And then, suddenly, the birds returned! It seems that changes in agricultural methods on the coasts – removing grazing cattle to inland sites – had upset their habitats. Now, following changed grazing patterns, Choughs are re-establishing themselves and – here’s the exciting thing – they have come over from Ireland to do that! It has been found that the entire new breeding stock originates from here, where the birds are plentiful. Just imagine those pioneering birds setting out to cross the Celtic Sea from Cork, Waterford and Wexford… Another gift from Ireland to Cornwall, following in the path of Saint Ciarán from Cape Clear who floated across himself (on a millstone) to convert the Cornish heathens and giving them their own patron saint, known as Piran in their own language.

Left – Chough fledglings, photo by Oliver Nares; right – Finola’s study of a bedraggled Chough sitting on our gatepost on a very wet day

In Cornwall, the Chough is said to carry the spirit of King Arthur, the Once and Future King who will return one day. In Ireland, however, Choughs are believed to start fires by carrying lighted sticks on to the roofs of houses. The latin name – Pyrrhocorax – means ‘fire raven’, perhaps because of the bright red bill and legs.

A taster for next week: another – curioser – bird-like creature from the Sancreed rood screen in Cornwall

A Watery Tale

Last year I got myself into trouble by saying how much I admired the new corten steel signs marking significant spots on the Wild Atlantic Way. My post – Showing the Way – produced howls of protest from many readers who had taken a dislike to them. I may well ruffle the same feathers again when I say that I’m impressed with the information boards which have now appeared to supplement those markers.

Wild Atlantic Way signage at Colla Pier, opposite Long Island

The example above, which we saw today, has appeared at Colla Pier, on the coast road running from Schull round to Crough Bay. The ferry serving Long Island sails from this pier. The board is mounted on a sturdy corten steel frame which should withstand all the elements. The illustration used on the new board (seen in our header picture) is by Sam Hunter and (to my eye, at least) is colourful and attractive. Overall, the panel manages to convey a significant amount of information in a compact design. There is a little Irish lesson (top picture, right-hand corner) and a local ‘story’ pared to the minimum. I was delighted, because I hadn’t come across this tale before. Here it is…

A more detailed version of this story can be read here

So in this short paragraph we find an unusual angle on a very well-known piece of local history: the sacking of Baltimore by Barbary Pirates, which took place 386 years ago, on June 20. Here in West Cork everyone talks about that incident as if it had happened yesterday: it resulted in the decimation of the population of the little fishing village overnight. A hundred and seven people were carried off to slavery in Algeria, and every house was burned.

Upper picture: Long Island Sound, with the white houses of Long Island itself in the middle distance; Cape Clear is beyond. Lower picture: Fineen O’Driscoll’s castle at Baltimore – Dún na Séad (Fort of the Jewels). The clan chieftain was not at home to give help to the beleagured village when the Barbary pirates arrived because he was rowing across from Long Island with the ill-fated treasure stowed on board!

In one version of the story about Fineen O’Driscoll and his pirate treasure, the horde of gold is buried under a house on Long Island – a house where strange lights are seen at night! Presumably it’s still there – or under the sea out in Roaringwater Bay. It’s probably best left wherever it is!

Baltimore at dawn, seen in Finola’s beautiful picture above, reminds me that I have to tell you about another Irish – Cornish link. The village grew around a small settlement of religious dissenters from the west of England established around 1600 and led by Sir Thomas Crooke, a man with Calvanist and Puritan connections. Most of the settlers came from Cornwall and were seeking a haven where they could practice their religion unhindered. It was these people who were stolen away nearly 400 years ago, and ended their days in North Africa. Are you interested in the many historic links between the two westernmost counties of Britain and Ireland – Cornwall and Cork? You can find out much more at the exhibition coming up shortly: West meets West – the work of contemporary Cornish artists, at Uillinn, Skibbereen, from 3 June to 8 July

Dividing the Day

We were on the trail of Saint Brendan, and the road took us deep into County Kerry. The spring days were blue, and the unparalleled scenery at its best for us. As we made our ways through the high hills and mountain passes we could see across to the coast:

20,000 years ago, ice shaped the Kerry landscape: a huge glacier flowed from here towards the sea. Looking down from An Chonair, the highest mountain pass on the Wild Atlantic Way; the peak in the centre is Mount Brandon, named for Saint Brendan. The header picture shows the burial ground and, beyond, the medieval “Brendan’s House’ at Kilmalkedar, seen through the burgeoning spring growth

Our first call was to the Cathedral in Ardfert, which was built in medieval times over a Christian monastic site founded by the Saint in the sixth century. There’s nothing left of that, but the later buildings, while ruined, are well looked after by the Office of Public Works, and an information centre is open through the summer months – certainly worth a visit.

Seen in Ardfert Cathedral, an image of a woodcut dating from 1479: it shows St Brendan and his monks on their epic voyage in search of Paradise. On the way, they discovered the American continent!

We could not miss a visit to the place of the Saint’s birth in 484 – Fenit, near Tralee – where a monumental bronze sculpture was installed in 2004. It was made by Tighe O Donoghue/Ross of Glenflesk.

It’s hard to do photographic justice to Tighe O Donoghue/Ross of Glenflesk’s sculpture of Saint Brendan in Fenit: he’s depicted as a ‘warrior saint’ (in the same vein as St Fanahan – or St Fionnchú – of Mitchelstown, Co Cork). Certainly he has a heroic character, necessary for someone who embarked on (and returned from) so many adventures

The culmination of our Brendan travels for this trip (there’s so much more yet to be explored) was the medieval site at Kilmalkedar, on the Dingle Peninsula. This monastic settlement is rich in history, and includes St Brendan’s House, and St Brendan’s Oratory. These alone are spectacular monuments, but there are further riches to delight the eye of Irish history enthusiasts. Finola’s post this week concentrates on the wonders of Irish Romanesque architecture, and the ancient stone-roofed church at Kilmalkedar is a prime example.

The wonderful Romanesque early Christian church at Kilmalkedar – right – with ‘Brendan’s House’ in the distance. The site is overflowing with medieval history. Below. the setting for the monastic site is stunningly beautiful. Note the large, very ancient cross and the holed ogham stone

A good while ago – in 1845, in fact – our excursion was foreshadowed by Mary Jane Fisher Leadbeater, who writes in her Letters from the Kingdom of Kerry:

…Our object to-day was not entirely to pay homage to Nature, though in the heart of her lovely works, but to visit the ruins of the wonderful church of Kilmelkedar, which we were solemnly assured “was built in one night by holy angels.” One evening, ever so many many ages ago, the sun, when he set in those wilds, saw no place dedicated to the worship of the Creator: he rose the following morning, and smiled upon a perfect chapel, with pillared niche and carved saint, and a holy fount, and massy cross! all ready for the purposes of prayer and sacrifice! A matin-call rang loud and clear over lofty mountain and lonely glen, to summon the devout and arouse the unthinking, where no vesper strain could sound the evening before; all gleamed proud and fair in the glad light, and the heart of man became purified, as the sacred bell called him to prayer! And this was the reward of the unceasing prayers of the holy Saint Brandon! Such is the legend…

St Brendan’s House – behind a locked and barbed gate!

We spent hours at the Kilmalkedar site and didn’t take everything in. We consider ourselves so privileged: we had it completely to ourselves, and the day was perfect. Saint Brendan treated us very kindly – except that his ‘House’ and an associated holy well were not accessible: although an OPW project which has recently undergone significant restoration, the enclosure around it is impenetrable with barbed wire and a firmly locked gate. However, in an adjacent field, a gate and path gave us free access to a large, flat stone which seemed to be covered in giant cup-marks. The National Monuments register describes it as a ‘Ballaun Stone’: it’s very fine, and I was delighted to find that Mary Jane Fisher Leadbeater had unearthed some folklore about it:

…This place contained a colony of monks; and well they knew what they were about when they fixed on this retirement; for, besides its real advantages, it commands a most lovely view of Smerwick Harbour, The Sisters, and Sybil Head. They need not want for fish in the refectory in the days of abstinence. It is situated in a sheltered recess of the mountains, fine springs around, and, another popular legend bearing witness, in the centre of what was once good grazing and tillage ground. A cow is the subject of this legend—a cow of size and breed suited to provide milk for the giant race of those days. We saw the milk vessels, and if she filled them morning and evening, she was indeed a marvellous cow. In a huge flat rock were these milk pans; six large round holes, regular in their distances from each other, and nearly of equal size; they could each contain some gallons of liquid. This said cow gave sufficient milk for one whole parish; and was the property of a widow—her only wealth. Another parish and another clan desired to be possessed of this prize; so a marauder, endued with superior strength and courage, drove her off one moonlight night. The widow followed wailing, and he jeered her and cursed her as he proceeded. The cow suddenly stopped; in vain the thief strove to drive her on; she could neither go on, nor yet return; she stuck fast. At length, aroused by the widow’s cries, her neighbours arrived, and the delinquent endeavoured to escape. In vain—for he too stuck fast in the opposite rock; he was taken and killed. The cow then returned to her own home, and continued to contribute her share towards making the parish like Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” The prints of her hoofs, where the bees made their nests, are still to be seen in one rock ; and those of the marauder’s foot and hand in another, where he was held fast by a stronger bond than that of conscience…

Kilmalkedar’s giant ballaun – the cups were filled every day by the widow’s marvellous cow, providing milk for St Brendan’s community of monks back in the day

One of the special features of the Kilmalkedar site harks back to its medieval monastic associations – a sundial. The ordered lives of the monks were regulated by divisions of the day (and night) – the Canonical Hours, also known as the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. These were the regular periods of prayer: seven daytime Offices of Lauds (at daybreak), Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline (at sunset) and a night Office of Vigils. This was the important work of the monastery, of course: constant and regular prayers. In between it the monks had to fit in all the requirements of daily life: sustenance, growing crops, brewing, beekeeping. And, on top of all that, Brendan and his companions undertook their peregrinatio all around the known world. No wonder a timepiece was necessary!

The Kilmalkedar sundial is a particularly elegant example – it’s probably my favourite item on this site: functional and beautiful, as all things wrought by the human hand should be. In such an evocative environment it certainly helps us to cast our minds back to the life and times of the travelling Saint. The antiquarian George Du Noyer visited the place back in the 1860s, and was also drawn to this particular artefact, accurately recording it for us in one of his exquisite watercolour sketches.