Sheep’s Head: Searching for Cornish Miners

 Yesterday we did our favourite walk, along the Cahergal section of the Sheep’s Head Way. We had a goal – the remnants of the Gortavallig Mining Company which operated here briefly in the 1840s. Robert was researching this as part of all the West Cork/Cornwall connections related to the West Meets West Art Exhibition, which opens at Uillinn in Skibbereen next Friday (June 2).

Walking the Sheep’s Head Way, by Amanda Clarke, is our go-to book for everything on the Sheep’s Head. It’s an excellent resource and most of the information in this post comes from it. The stretch of the walk we did is described in two sections (as it’s part of the Way and also part of a loop walk), on pages 27 to 31, and pages 98-99 (Second Edition).

It was a fabulous day, sunny but not too hot – perfect for walking. The wildflowers were out in abundance – a serious hindrance to brisk walking as I cannot resist the temptation to photograph. At one point Robert thought he had lost me, but found me stretched out on the ground trying to get a close up of the tiny, exquisite, Heath Milkwort.

Later on, this hillside with be awash with pink Heather, but now the Foxgloves are everywhere, in all their purple glory, while Tormentil and Lousewort peep out from the among the grasses and heather.

Tormentil, above and Lousewort, below

This was once a populated part of the world and there’s a tiny abandoned settlement known as Crimea. This may be a reference to an ongoing feud between families, or a corruption of an Irish place name. There’s no denying the dramatic scenery, but life must have been very hard indeed. A cluster of houses like this was known as a clachán (kla-hawn) – the land was held in common by the inhabitants, with each family having a potato patch and the rest being for grazing and whatever crops would grow.

The Crimea: Tade Carthy’s cottage in the foreground

One of the houses has been recently partially restored. According to Amanda:

It was done partly to show people what living conditions were like not so long ago, and in part to honour the last surviving occupant of the Crimea, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday. Jerh (Jack Owen) Daly grew up in one of these cabins which were family homes until the late 1940s.

This old house belonged to Tade Carthy’s family and has been sensitively restored, the original flagstones and well discovered whilst working on it, Inside there is no fireplace but an open hearth built against the wall with a hole in the roof to let out the smoke. Doors positioned east and west allowed a through draught to also deal with the smoke. Little oil lamps fitted into niches provided additional lighting and a bed platform gave extra space for sleeping.

The recently re-discovered well

It was from this clachán, and from all over the Sheep’s Head, that local people trekked, during the height of the famine, to the mine. They also built the road, for which they were paid in food, rather than money.

Approaching the 1840s mine – the reservoir is in the foreground and the Cornish Miners cottages on the far side of the cliff

Amanda quotes from the Report of the Gurtvallig Mine, by William Thomas, June 1847:

A complete wilderness and barren cliff, which for the past age has been the undisturbed resort of the Eagle, the Hawk and the Wild Sea Birds, has by our labours for the past 16 months been changed into a valley of native industry, giving reproductive employment, food and a comfort, to numbers of the hitherto starving, but peaceable inhabitants of one of the wildest districts in the United Kingdom. For you can hear now, on our well secured dressing floor (mingled with the roar of the Atlantic) the busy voices of men, women, boys and girls, all engaged in breaking, dressing and preparing the ore for market.

Ten or eleven small houses stood here to house the specialist miners recruited from Cornwall

The mine was an actually an outpost of Cornwall in Ireland. The two Mine Captains, William Thomas and James Bennett, were Cornish, and the miners – 24 of them – had been recruited in Cornwall. A row of houses was built to house them, while the Captains had more comfortable quarters in nearby Cove (a story for another day).

A retaining wall was build to hold the reservoir

It was a busy place during its short life (it close in 1848 after only a year of full operation), with a forge, a carpenters shop, a reservoir, and below, a dressing floor and a quay to transport the ore.

Now the reservoir is home to floating water-lilies, a native plant that was in full bloom yesterday and looking indescribably exotic. The tiny quay has disappeared, but its location can be glimpsed from the rope walk. This part of the hike is not for the faint of heart or vertigo-sufferers: the path is narrow, there’s a rope to hang on to one one side and on the other a yawning cliff falls dramatically away to the wild and roaring Atlantic described by William Thomas.

The rope walk and signage. The lowest photograph shows the location of the quay, reached by means of a steep path but no longer accessible

Our walk back, with the sun behind us, was splendid. To the north was Bantry Bay and beyond it is the remote and beautiful Beara Peninsula. I think I can safely say that this will remain our favourite walk – at least until we discover one even more remote, scenic, historic and thrilling. But then, that’s not difficult in West Cork.

Tracking the Trains: Railway Reminiscence

…Like all children, the boys of Ballydehob found the platelayers’ trollies irresistible. A lady in Cambridge, Massachusetts wrote about her father (born in The Skames in 1900). Her father and some small boys recalled a ‘small hand-cart’ which was kept near the station and used by the platelayers. “When Mr Crocker, the station master, was not alert the small boys, led by Connie Sullivan, the acknowledged leader of the group because his father, Jack, worked on the railway, were able to steal off the cart. They would push it by hand towards Schull, getting the cart about one mile above the station. Then the boys would pile in and off they’d go down the hill past the station and up the hill on the far side until, caught by gravity, back would come the cart again at such breathtaking speed that it would rocket across the viaduct, then run back through the station. Mr Crocker would come out to see the speeding cart and sometimes shoot with a gun, always in the air and never to do any harm. He was a good chap, and we took advantage of him at the time…”

Last week I wrote about an exploration we had made of the old railway line that had served Ballydehob until 1947 – exactly 70 years ago. I was delighted – and excited – this week to discover a rare copy of a detailed history of the line in that Aladdin’s Cave of bookshops: The Time Traveller, in Skibbereen. The book The Schull & Skibbereen Railway was published  by The Oakwood Press in 1999, and has long been out of print. Although a modest volume, it is a monumental, detailed work which took half a century to write!

This is a view of Kilcoe Halt, taken in 1953 by the author of The Schull & Skibbereen Railway, James I C Boyd. At this time the line had recently closed, and the track had been taken up. The author’s wife and two daughters are in the photograph

The header picture shows the endpaper of the book – a postcard photo of Ballydehob taken from the east of the station around 1910, when the railway was still in use. The 12 arched viaduct – mentioned in the extract given in the first paragraph – can just be seen to the left: that account doesn’t really make geographic sense, but – remember – it’s a story, told from a distance both in time and place.

It is Chapter 18 of the book, entitled Miscellanea, which has given me the most pleasure to read, although this is not to decry any of the highly informative data and history contained in the rest of it. The book’s author, James I C Boyd, explains the context of the chapter:

…Over the half century during which I have formed close associations with West Cork, there have been many reminiscences, conversations and situations surrounding this subject which were noted down at the time in the hope of further attention. Some were legendary, others biased, a valuable few were personal but all gave me an insight as to the ethos of the local people in relation to their railway. Bearing in mind that during those fifty year the line has closed completely and many of my informants have passed away, their memories have been set down here… Such recollections do not fall neatly into the pattern of the previous pages, so form a chapter entitled Miscellanea…

Left – James Boyd and his family; right – from the 25″ 1901 Ordnance Survey Map: Ballydehob, with the station and the viaduct

Born in 1921, Boyd went to school in Colwall, Herefordshire. There he encountered two influences: the first was W H Auden, who taught him English, and the second was a miniature railway line which was attached to the school: the Downs Light Railway. This venture is the world’s oldest private miniature railway – which can carry human passengers. It has a track gauge of 912” (241 mm). Set up in 1925 for the principal purpose of education, the Downs Light Railway is today the only railway in the world to be operated solely by children aged between 7 and 13 years. These two significant experiences in his life set Boyd on his own track: to become a writer and a specialist in railway history. His opus includes over 20 highly detailed accounts of narrow-gauge lines in Britain, Ireland and The Isle of Man (including this definitive work on The Schull & Skibbereen Railway) and countless articles, photographs and other collected information.

A photograph which Boyd found in a collection by G R Thomson: it shows the ‘naming ceremony’ which took place in 1906 on the Schull Pier extension line of a new locomotive ordered from Peckett & Sons of Bristol. Father John O’Connor, the Parish Priest of Schull, broke a bottle of champagne over the engine and christened it GABRIEL – after the mountain, not the Archangel!

From Mrs P McCarthy of Schull – recorded in Miscellanea:

…You were asking me about the men who worked on the track, and who lived in the crossing houses? There were two sets of men: one between Skibbereen and Ballydehob and the other went from Ballydehob to here. Denis McCarthy (or ‘Foxey Din’ as we called him on account of his red hair), his son Mick (he went on the broad gauge when the S & S closed), and Batty Harrington. Sometimes Paddy O’Donovan would help them… From Ballydehob we had Connie O’Sullivan, Jackie Daly (who was the Foreman for the whole line) and Gerry McCarthy, who was known as ‘Vanderbilt’ from the careful way he had with money. Then at the Skibbereen workshops there was Charlie Murphy the chargehand / fitter and Willie Cottam, the carpenter… I don’t remember about all the gatehouses – Mrs Connor was in Kilcoe and Hollyhill was occupied by two men; they may have been gangers. When the railway closed, the occupants were given the first opportunity to buy…

The Company Offices in Skibbereen, taken by James I C Boyd in the 1950s, after closure

From Miscellanea – an anonymous contributor:

…In the long school holidays, mother used to send us children out with a large tin bath of the sort we used in front of the open fire in winter. On reaching Schull station we, and the bath, would ride the first train, to drop off at the best places and comb the fields for mushrooms, only stopping when the bath was full. Then, dragging the unwilling receptacle behind us, we would bring it to the road alongside the railway, and so back to Schull again on the returning train…

The line at Hollyhill, 1938: ‘Curly’ Hegarty is the driver. Photo by H C Casserly

From John Browne of Creagh:

…The Secretary of the Company [William Goggin] owned a bar at the corner of the main street [of Skibbereen] and that to the station – it was very convenient for those going by train… When the Directors wished to visit Skibbereen they ignored the Railway and used a converted Lancia armoured car, the property of one of their number. On alighting at the Skibbereen office, there would be fussing and genuflection akin to a royal visit…

…The curb-stone margin which divided the Railway from the highway in numerous places, was a considerable barrier. A party of my friends attended the Ballydehob Fair in an open car. On the return journey the driver was ‘very happy’, misjudged a bend and struck the kerb. The damaged vehicle had to be abandoned. The revellers walked back to Skibbereen, leaving the car to block the passage of the first Up train from Schull. However, the combined efforts of all the crew and passengers were needed to drag the wreck back on the road…

…Willie Salter of Castletownsend said that a pony and trap from Skibbereen often reached Ballydehob before the train; it was better that way if you were in a hurry. He would see passengers getting out near Crooked Bridge or Church Cross to give the train a push…

Sad days: James I C Boyd located and photographed this ‘Gloucester’ carriage from the S & S line in a field beside Bantry Bay in 1967. It had been sawn in half before final abandonment; is it still there today?

This post is a short taster of the treasures that this volume holds. A fuller review – and more Miscellanea – will appear in future posts. To finish today, we were delighted to find this photo taken by the author just around the corner from us. Finola’s article, here, tells the story of this Lost Landmark.

Tracking the Trains

Ballydehob’s own railway was known, affectionately, as The Flying Snail. Way back in 2013 I wrote a piece about it. All our past posts are still online and can be found through the search facility on the header: if you want to have a look at this older piece, click here.

Header – this picturesque bridge lies to the west of the viaduct and crosses the small back road which leads down to the Quay; the early postcard above shows a little train negotiating the viaduct, probably fairly early in the life of the line; lower picture – autumn atmospherics, taken in 2016

This morning – a pale and rather cold First of April – I set out to see how much I could find remaining of the old railway line in Ballydehob. As an erstwhile amateur industrial archaeologist I can get very excited about a few stones piled up, or a depression in the ground, as long as I know it marks the last traces of a long-lost canal or railway line. Our little West Cork settlement in fact has a whole lot to interest the transport enthusiast, as I discovered on my walk.

Today’s washed-out view of the Quay with the 12 arched viaduct behind it. This was a lifeline for the town before the railway came, and its commercial use survived the demise of the trains. In its heyday, the Quay was busy with arrivals of sand, seaweed, coal and timber, together with produce from the islands, and – once a week until the 1930s – a visit from the Cork coastal trading boat which brought in supplies of everything else, from sugar to cement. Around the mid 1800s (pre railway era) copper ore from the local West Cork mines was shipped out from here to Swansea

While researching this post I was pleased to find some additional early photos of the line that were not available when I first wrote on the subject, and I am including them on this page, with grateful thanks and acknowledgement to De La Salle Publication via Durrus History, and also to Irish Postcards at WordPress.

Ballydehob has established a public footpath on the line of the railway within the village. Top picture – the track bed to the west of the viaduct: the narrow gauge line from Skibbereen continued from here to Schull. Lower picture – the track bed crossing the viaduct over the river. The railway station was situated beyond this, quite a little way out of town

Sadly, the track-bed footpath only runs for a few hundred yards before petering out, but it is possible by walking over the viaduct to get a feel for what it was like to travel in the rather frail looking rolling stock of the 3ft gauge line, which was technically termed a ‘tramway’. If only enough of the old line had been retained to create a long-distance foot-and-cycling path, we would now have another amenity for locals and visitors to add to the wealth (food, culture, landscape and history) that’s already on offer here in West Cork.

Top left – along the boreen which runs from Ballydehob village centre (turn by Levis’ pub and go past the school) towards Cappaghglass and Schull can be found old railway bridge abutments – top right, while in the fields nearby the railway embankment is clearly visible – lower picture. Artefacts for archaeologists to ponder over a few hundred years hence, perhaps

The last train ran on the line in January 1947, so there must be many people around today who remember it in use. I am always on the lookout for anecdotes about it, so please let me know if you have any yourself, or know of anyone else who might have. There seems to be little recorded about travel on West Cork’s railways at the turn of the 19th / 20th centuries, although the train  journey to ‘Skewbawn’ (Skibbereen) does get mentioned in The Irish RM story Poisson d’Avril by Somerville and Ross. It’s quoted in Finola’s post on the Rossbrin Loop, here.

Above: two views of Ballydehob Station in use. The upper one is dated 1904. The lower one is much later and – because of the bilingual station name board – probably dates from after the 1925 amalgamation of all the smaller lines into The Great Southern Railway

There are many more traces of the line to be found in Ballydehob and beyond: look out for another post coming soon!

Lost Landmark

Photo 97It’s a sad thing to lose an iconic landmark. You know the kind I mean – the one that’s in every photo of the place, the one that helps to define it, the instantly recognisable image. In the case of West Cork, that would include the Mizen Bridge, the Galley Head Lighthouse, Ballydehob’s Twelve Arch Bridge, the castles at Three Castle Head, Bantry House, the Baltimore Beacon and of course the Fastnet Rock.

The morning after the lightening strike

The Cappaghglass Mine Chimney the morning after the lightning strike

But we used to have another one, until it was hit by lightning and came down in 2002, 15 years ago this month. The mine chimney at Cappaghglass stood tall on the crest of the hill, visible for miles around from Mount Gabriel to Cape Clear, from Long Island to Baltimore.

View from magazine

I don’t know the origin of this drawing. It’s a view of both mine captain houses and the chimney, taken from the south near Audley Cove

It was the most visible manifestation of the industrial past that has vanished so completely from this area. When it was built (to replace an even older one) in 1862 it was to vent steam from the engine that powered crushing machinery. Robert has written about the mining industry here – take a look at his post, Copper Country. At its height, hundreds of people were employed, above and below ground in the Cappagh Mine and what is now a lonely stretch of heathery hilltop was once a populous place.

Fastnet Trail sign

The chimney was so conspicuous on the landscape that it was used by the Admiralty to provide a reference point for mariners and by travellers to orient themselves in West Cork.

Admiralty Chart

Admiralty chart showing the ‘Steam Chimney’ as a reference point

As many landmarks are, it was also a favourite spot with locals – a place to walk out to on a fine summer’s evening or to bring your visitors to so they could admire the panoramic views over Roaringwater Bay and listen to tales of a grandfather’s backbreaking labour in the mines.

Jan Clement print

The storm that roared in on the afternoon of February 9 in 2002 came with no warning. It slammed into Cappaghglass with a noise like a jet engine. The first lightning strike killed several cows on an adjacent field, the next brought down the chimney and one after that hit the telephone wires causing a powerful surge to explode into the old Mine Captain’s House, by then the comfortable and modernised home of Terri and Mark O’Mahony and their family. The impact was devastating (we’ve seen the pictures) – the house was ruined and everyone inside was incredibly lucky to escape with relatively minor injuries.

Chimney stump

The chimney stump today

The O’Mahonys have rebuilt the Mine Captain’s House, but all that remains of the chimney is a stump. There was talk of reconstructing it but this never happened. In circumstances like this, all we have are the images that we can gather together to remind us of what an iconic structure this was. Fortunately, there are photographs and works of art extant that bear witness to how it dominated the landscape and that help us understand how it became such a beloved feature of the countryside.

Photo 97 to SW

Among the images that remain is a charming drawing by Brian Lalor (yes, he of Brian’s Sketchbook fame), commissioned by friends to celebrate Mark O’Mahony’s birthday. It shows the chimney and the house and since it was done in 2002 it must have been just before the lightning strike.

Lalor 2002 sketch

But last week a new image emerged – Brian came across a pen and ink drawing he did in 1974 and he has allowed me to use it in this post. Because Brian unites the eye of the artist with the training of the architect and archaeologist, this is an important new piece of documentary evidence, as well as being a work of art. Thus we can see that the lower two-thirds of the chimney were made of stone, with render still clinging to the outside in patches. The top third is brick, separated from the stone by a corbeled course of expertly laid brick – a feature that is repeated at the top of the chimney also.

Lalor Cappaghglass Chimney – closeup

In Brian’s drawing the chimney stands splendidly on the hill like a round tower and its medieval resonance is echoed by the distant castle across the water.

Lalor Cappaglass Coppermine

My thanks to Mark and Terri O’Mahony for allowing me to use their photographs and drawings in this post, and to Brian Lalor for giving me a copy of his sketch. It’s lovely to have this evidence – but of course I can’t help regretting that the chimney is gone forever.

Mining area

Cappaghglass now

End of Navigation

end of navigation

In 1946, the Rolts travelled to the upper limit of the Shannon Navigation in their borrowed boat, Le Coq. In 2016, exactly seventy years later, we followed them and found ourselves in Battlebridge, Co Leitrim. The Rolts’ travels – and our journey retracing their steps – have been the subject of a series of posts on this blog, and there are still a few more to come!

Battlebridge

Battlebridge 2016

Upper picture: Angels Rolt’s photograph of the historic Battlebridge, taken in 1946. Lower picture: we revisited the site in 2016 – very little has changed

Battlebridge is still the ‘end of navigation’ on the Shannon itself. But, interestingly, it is now possible to travel by water much further north – something the Rolts were unable to do.

…It was but a brief journey to Battlebridge where the Shannon becomes a shallow stream brawling over boulder strewn rapids under the arches of the fine old bridge. Here, in the last few yards of deep water, we came about to moor to two trees beside the bank at the tail of the ruined entrance lock of the Lough Allen Canal. It was a delightful mooring, secure, secluded and sheltered, the country round being undulating and well-wooded, for we had now left the level plain for the fringe of the broken, lake-studded country of central Leitrim… (Green and Silver L T C Rolt, George Allen and Unwin 1949)

Ardnacrusha 1925

The huge Ardnacrusha power station – in its day the largest hydroelectric generating scheme in the world – under construction in 1925: it was completed and opened on 22 July 1929 and, by 1935, was producing 80% of all electricity in the Free State

The Lough Allen Canal connected the Shannon Navigation to the Lough: it was first opened in 1817. Boats would trade to quays on the lake with grain and return with sand or with coal from the Arigna mines. The fate of the canal was sealed when Lough Allen became a storage reservoir for the great hydro-electric station at Ardnacrusha. To increase its capacity, the level of the lake was raised by dam to a height above the old canal banks.

…The last trading boat left the Lough Allen Canal in 1927, while the last pleasure craft battled its way through the weeds in 1932. The lock-keeper, young Sean Nangle, still lived in the neat, freshly white-washed cottage beside the ruined entrance lock, but his duties were confined to bank ranging on the reach of the river below. Le Coq was the first craft to visit Battlebridge for seven years, so that our arrival was a minor sensation, and it was with a sense of newly discovered importance that Sean signed his name on our pass… (Green and Silver)

Battlebridge lock

Battlebridge Lock, the first lock on the now restored Lough Allen Canal. The cottage in the distance was the home of ‘young’ Sean Nangle in 1946

One thing that the Rolts might never have anticipated was the revival of the Irish canals which has come about during the seventy years since their adventures, mainly during the economic boom of the decade or so from the mid 1990s. A cross-border authority – Waterways Ireland – is now responsible for a significant network of canal and river navigations within the island, including many that have been re-established. One is the Lough Allen Canal, now providing access from the Shannon to Upper Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.

…That evening Sean accompanied us to the inn which stood by the road side just across the old bridge, and a grand friendly house it proved to be. Nowhere in rural Ireland did we find any lack of kindness, hospitality and friendship, but in these respects this little inn at Battlebridge is particularly memorable. For this, credit must go to the Beirne family, mother, daughter and son. I will not attempt to characterize them; they speak for themselves in their photograph. Leaning against the counter in the bare whitewashed bar we enjoyed the best glass of ‘single’ porter that we found on our travels, while intruding chickens pecked unconcerned about our feet. Through an open doorway a turf fire glowed in a wide open hearth equipped with crane and ratchet hook. Upon the fire reposed a squat, black pot-oven with more smouldering turf upon its lid… Conversation was interrupted when a drove of bullocks passed by with a soft patter of hooves. Everyone crowded to the door to comment and criticize and to speculate where they had come from and whither they were bound, an argument which was settled when the drover himself stepped in for a glass… (Green and Silver)

The Beirne Family

Biernes 2016

Beirnes

Upper picture: Angela Rolt’s photograph of the Beirne family in 1946. Lower pictures: Beirnes Bar is still trading in 2016

The re-opening of the Lough Allen Canal was heralded triumphantly in April 1996. I was pleased to find an archived RTE news report on that event. The official cutting of the tape was carried out by the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht – Michael D Higgins, now our President.

lock gates

Lough Allen

Upper picture: the lock at Battlebridge on the restored canal. Lower picture: Lough Allen today. Below: A mural on the garden terrace of Beirnes Bar

band playing

Brian’s Sketchbook: The Signal Towers

Brow Head Buildings

We have received a unique and treasured gift – a sketchbook from the 1980s of prehistoric and historic sites around West Cork. It’s the work of our good friend, and national treasure, Brian Lalor, artist, writer and printmaker. For an overview of his style, check out the retrospective of his work at Graphic Studio Dublin. Or browse the long list of his books, including the magnificent Encyclopaedia of Ireland, which he edited.

Marconi Station, Brow Head

Brow Head: (above and below) on the right is the Napoleonic-era Signal Tower; the other buildings date mainly from the time of the Marconi Telegraph Station, taken from a different angle than the sketch above

Brian has studied both architecture and archaeology and to that adds the keen observant eye of the artist. As a result these sketches, although, as he explained, often hastily done during a brief visit to a site, are accurate, detailed and charming in equal measure. They were made on field trips with the Mizen Archaeological & Historical Society in the 1980s. This was an active society, publishing a well-regarded journal from 1993 to 2004 and leading regular field trips for members.

Brow Head ruined building

The sketches, just over 50 of them, were made for the most part between 1980 and 1987 so besides their intrinsic artistic value, they also constitute an important record of the state of the site 30 years ago, allowing us a comparison with its current condition. My intention is to visit (or re-visit) a lot of the sites, with his sketches in hand and show our readers both how beautifully Brian captured the structures or artefacts at the time and whether there are any changes visible from then to now. I decided to start with the Signal Towers on Cape Clear and Brow Head, and a third tower on Rock Island that may or may not be contemporaneous.

Wolfe Tone front

Theobald Wolfe Tone – detail of the statue in Bantry town square

In 1796 the French navy, partly at the invitation of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, staged an unsuccessful invasion of Ireland, sailing into Bantry Bay. Several raids followed in 1798. Although all were quickly quashed, a panic about the possibility of a French invasion spread throughout Britain and Ireland. A series of Napoleonic-era fortifications and viewing towers were constructed around the coast in locations with panoramic views, and within sight of each other, to spot foreign shipping activity and raise the alarm. On the east coast, these mainly took the form of Martello Towers and were stocked with heavy armaments, but here in the south west defensible Signal Towers were built not to house artillery but as advanced-warning stations. Here and there they were complemented by batteries and other fortifications – but that’s a story for another day.

Cape Clear Signal Tower

The Cape Clear Signal Tower

Signal towers were built around the coast to the same plan – tall square towers with first-floor entrances and machicolations. From a distance, they look like the medieval tower houses I have posted about on several occasions but up close they are shorter and the windows are bigger. Internal staircases and partitions were made of wood, not stone and have generally not survived, so the signal stations are essentially shells. in both the Cape Clear and Brow Head example, the exterior slate cladding has survived remarkably well.

Brow Head Detail - signal tower

Brow Head Signal Tower – detail from Brian’s sketch

In his excellent article for the Irish Times, Nick Hogan describes the towers, how they were staffed, the accommodation provided and how the signalling was done:

The signalling system, referred to as an optical telegraph, required that each signal station be visible to its counterparts on either side. Sending a message involved raising and lowering a large rectangular flag, a smaller blue pendant and four black balls in various combinations along a system centred on a tall wooden mast. The stations also communicated with ships.

Cape Clear Towers

Signal Tower and Original Fastnet lighthouse, Cape ClearTop: Brian’s sketch of the Signal Tower and Lighthouse on Cape Clear Island, done in 1982; Below: how it looked in June, 2016, 34 years later

While many signal stations are lonely and isolated buildings glimpsed on distant headlands, abandoned since the mid-1800s, both the Brow Head and Cape Clear buildings had further phases of use. In Cape Clear a lighthouse was built in 1818 – a forerunner of the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse. It was so often shrouded in fog that it was abandoned in the 1840s. The buildings attached to the signal tower, built of brick and concrete, probably date to this period of occupation. The signal tower is built of stone, using techniques not far removed from medieval construction methods. The lighthouse provides a wonderful contrast, being built of cut granite blocks expertly measured, shaped and fitted. 

Cape Clear Deatil - Lighthouse

Cape Clear Lighthouse, detail from sketch

In June of 2016, when we visited, it looked exactly as it had to Brian and the Mizen field group – an indication, perhaps that somebody is looking after the site and that the few visitors who come (it’s quite a hike to get there) respect the heritage. [Edit: Since I wrote this, Brian has pointed out that in the Cape Clear Signal Tower there is a porch under the machicolation in his drawing that has since disappeared. The outlines of the porch can be clearly seen in the photographs of the signal tower.]

Cape Clear Lighthouse

Brow Head is easier to access, and as a result there is more graffiti in evidence, but the changes to the site since Brian’s sketch are more the result of time and climate than any damage by humans. This is a complex site with multiple periods of occupation. The signal tower is there, of course, looking exactly as it did in the 1980s. Beside it is a network of buildings dating from the the early years of the 20th century: this is what remains of the Marconi Telegraph Station. Read all about this in Robert’s piece on Marconi, In Search of Ghosts. Besides the Marconi Station a Second World War Look Out Post was occupied here in the 1940s – little remains of this small concrete building except the characteristic half-round shape and a section of wall.

Brow Head octagonal?

Finally, on Brow Head there is a mysterious building that Brian labels ’14 – ’18 Gun Emplacement. This building no longer exists, and the ruinous remains that litter the ground seem robust enough to fit this inscription. Or do they? So – a mystery, and obviously  more research needed on our part. If any of our readers can help – let us hear from you!

Brow Head Detail - gun emplacement

The last tower is on Rock Island. It is clearly visible from the Brow Head Signal Tower ( a requirement for the placement of signal towers) but, strangely, it is one of two very similar towers on Rock Island, and while they are similar to each other, they are quite different from the classic signal tower design. However, both the National Monuments site  and the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage listings name them as Napoleonic-era Signal Towers, and perhaps that is indeed what they are.

Rock Island Tower

Brian’s sketch of the Rock Island Signal Tower

However, in discussion with Brian, he pointed out that most of the buildings on Rock Island were developed as part of a major Coast Guard installation around the same time as the Marconi Station, and we wonder if there might be a connection – that is, that these are Coast Guard-related Watch Towers, rather than Napoleonic-era Signal Towers. Once again – more research needed! [Edit: See comment from Navtell in comment section, below.]

Rock Island Signal Station

Rock Island Second TowerThe two towers on Rock Island: similar to each other but quite different from the classic Signal Tower on nearby Brow Head

This is only my first foray into Brian’s Sketchbook. Look out for more posts in the future and in the meantime, join with me in being grateful that a precious resource like this survived numerous moves and that we have the opportunity to learn from it.

Cape Clear Detail - Signal Tower

The Cape Clear Signal Tower