Aspects of Baltimore

“…The fish are knocking at our doors but we haven’t a bucket to take them from the water…” – This was Father Charles Davis, Parish Priest of Rath and The Islands, appealing to Queen Victoria shortly after his appointment to the area in the 1860s. He and three Cape Clear fishermen had been granted an audience to explain the near famine conditions that still prevailed in West Cork, and the priest’s proposal to build a fisheries school and establish a new fleet of boats in the town of Baltimore.

Header and above: the huge goods shed and boatbuilding slip that were established in Baltimore following Father Davis’s successful appeal to the Queen

Help came when the Queen directed the appellants to Baroness Burdett-Coutts – the richest woman in Britain: we met her in Flying Foam, my quest to find out as much as I could about the remains of an old fishing boat that lie submerged by the tide in Rossbrin Cove. That quest is ongoing – and has grown in complexity – but today’s little journey takes us to Baltimore, not too far from Rossbrin, especially as the foam flies. We have been to that lively little town many times (not least to enjoy the annual Fiddle Fair – this year’s is coming up at the weekend!), but never before have we taken a close look at the stories surrounding the fishing industry – and the extensive evidence of it which still exists.

I have always been fascinated by Industrial Archaeology, and I’ll search out any remnants of old workings, canals, railways and engineering structures that can be traced in the field, wherever I happen to wander. Baltimore offers a wealth of finds, and most of them can be traced back to Father Davis’s positive influence on the fortunes of the town in the late nineteenth century.

The big slip – where Baltimore’s own fishing fleet was launched and prospered, with the town’s working harbour in the distance: from there boats ply every day to Sherkin and Cape Clear

Prior to the work of Father Charles, Baltimore was a resting place and servicing centre for the large Manx fleet and boats from England and Scotland, all reaping the harvest of the sea on the fringes of the Atlantic. As the century progressed, the priest saw his vision realised: between 1880 and 1926 Baltimore was the largest fishing port in the country and 78 fishing vessels were registered locally. The local economy was also boosted by boatbuilding and net making, as well as providing a hub for the transporting of goods to and from all the inhabited islands of Roaringwater Bay.

Harsh, unpaid work – net making by the boys at the Baltimore Fishery School – later the National School

Father Davis pursued a previously conceived project of establishing a fishing school in Baltimore. A grant of £1,000 was made to this by the  Grand Jury of County Cork, and the Treasury, at the instance of Arthur Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland (and later Prime Minister of Britain) granted £5,500 towards the completion and fitting-up of the school. In 1886 the Fishery School was formally opened by Baroness Burdett-Coutts.

From an encyclopedia illustration: the Burdett-Coutts portrayed with the new Baltimore Fishery School in the 1880s. The picture below is of the medieval castle at Oldcourt, further up the Ilen River

Fr Davis was not yet at the end of his labours in connection with the fishing in Baltimore. He was aware that one of the great disadvantages under which the fishermen of the region laboured was the difficulty of transporting the fish to the English markets. This was ordinarily accomplished by steamers from Baltimore to Milford Haven, Wales. However, there were times when these steamers were not available, and it was necessary to send the fish via Dublin and Holyhead. In these cases the fish had to be carted from Baltimore to Skibbereen, with the result that the fish greatly deteriorated in transit. To remedy this problem, Fr Davis set about getting a railway link between Skibbereen and Baltimore. This project, when first started, seemed to have little promise of success, but Fr Davis was not discouraged. He enlisted on his side the sympathies of a great number of Nationalist members of Parliament and of many who were not of Nationalist politics. He also enlisted the powerful aid of Baroness Burdett-Coutts. In the end his efforts were crowned with success when a bill for the Baltimore railway was passed by Parliament. However, he never lived to see the railway line open on the 2nd May 1893.

(Notes from the Diocese of Cork and Ross)

Baltimore Station – the most southerly railway terminus in Ireland – is still intact today, although now deserted and derelict following a previous incarnation as a sailing school. Good Friday, March 31st, 1961, is a date which will be remembered by many in West Cork as the loss of a lifeline to the outside world. Despite ‘the greatest civil protest since the foundation of the State’, the West Cork railways closed down.

The three photographs above are borrowed from the blog Beneath the Summer Growth – an excellent site which has covered many aspects of Irish industrial archaeology. I could not find a direct acknowledgement for these pictures, which are the best I have found on the Baltimore line. Upper – the railway line at its furthest point, on Baltimore Pier (1961); centre – Baltimore Station when it was still working (1961) – on the left is the large goods shed; bottom – Baltimore Station in 1962, when the trackbed was being taken up

In spite of the loss of its railway, and the decimation of its fishing fleet, Baltimore thrives today as a working town – with its ferry terminals serving the Islands – and a popular West Cork tourist destination.

Baltimore Station and its accoutrements still very much in existence today, although now disused and with no plans for the future

At one stage there were seven trains every day out of Baltimore, all carrying fish for the American market. But the good times didn’t last and in the early 1950s the National School (formerly the Fishery School) closed. You may not want to know the full story of this institution: it has been told – starkly – by Alfred O’Mahony – who was a resident there between 1941 and 1947. The story entails abuses of many kinds: beatings, hunger, harsh conditions – the building was unheated and the boys had to endure the winter of 1947, the coldest on record in Ireland. I will quote a single example – the state of the sanitary facilities:

The outdoor lavatories were wedged between the play hall and the laundry. The ten cubicles there had splintered and rotted half-doors hanging from large rusted hinges. The large roundels in the cubicles had once supported the original giant chamber pots which, on becoming rusted and holed, were sometime in the forgotten past discarded and never replaced. Despite our ignorance about these matters, our outside lavatories were called “The Pots”. At a call of nature we mounted the wooden pot supports to bare our bottoms and let go through the roundels, but when the icy blasts of winter blowing through the roundels caused goose pimples and chattering teeth we used the floor until the underfoot conditions forced us to use the open-air compound behind the cubicles. There was no water supply there from any pipe or stream, and no wipes of any kind were available to us; only the falling rains washed the place. When we left the play hall for a call of nature on a rainy wintry night we had to negotiate through the slurry in the unlit lavatory compound; when we returned with soiled clogs we exuded a mighty stench. Once every fortnight Jer the farm labourer shovelled the human waste into a cart, and as the load was pulled by Ned, the institution’s donkey, through the precincts, the pong forced us all to turn away in disgust. Father McCarthy deemed in 1945 that the appearance of our outside lavatories was an eyesore to visitors and ordered the building of a six-foot-high concrete wall, and in doing so he concealed the perfect conditions for a cholera epidemic that could have wiped us off the face of the earth.

(Alfred O’Mahony, The Way We Were Inspire Books, Skibbereen 2011)

It’s probably a good thing that no part of the former Fishery School and National School remains today: the site has been completely redeveloped (above). There is a memorial, a simple carved granite stone which leaves a whole lot unsaid. What makes me shiver is the fact that this maltreatment happened not in the Victorian era of child labour – grotesque and inhumane conditions such as those which Charles Dickens vehemently campaigned to highlight and eradicate in the middle of the nineteenth century – but in my own lifetime.

The Monster of Red Strand!

Last week we investigated Castlefreke, the tallest High Cross in Ireland,  and the Long Strand. Not far away – and ripe for another day of exploration – is the intriguingly named Red Strand.

Header picture – looking across Red Strand towards Galley Head. Upper – Red Strand beach; lower – red stones are prolific on the beach at Red Strand: it is said the beach ran with blood after the battle between the Barryroe army and John Barry’s army

Tales abound as to how or why that West Cork beach got the name. A good source of such stories is the Schools Folklore Collection – an invaluable resource of memories recorded by local people about their own townlands. Although the collecting project took place in the mid 1930s, the schoolchildren were interviewing members of their own families who might have lived in the same location through several generations, and were probably retelling stories that had in some cases been passed across hundreds of years.

. . . There is an old ruin of a castle in Dundeady which is about eight miles s.w. of Clonakilty. It is about 20 ft high. During the last storm a part of the top was blown off. There are holes in the walls where the guns were kept to shoot from. It was built by an anglo Norman named John Barry. One night they went east to Barryroe and stole cattle from another Norman named “Barry Bán”.

John Barry had a white horse which would not drink water of any well only the well in “Cráig Gaimhne”. Next day he went to the well with his horse and left him grazing in a field near by called “Pairchín Caol” whilst himself fell asleep near the fence.

It was not long until “Barry Bán” and a great army came attacking his castle. The horse ran to the fence where John was sleeping and started to screech into his ear and woke him.

When he saw the Barryroe army attacking his castle he jumped on his horse and off with him over the fields and fences as fast as he could. When he was crossing the “Góilín” he struck the horse with a magic wand. The horse jumped the “Góilín” which is about 15 yds. He struck the horse a second time and the horse fell dead.

The signs of the horses feet are plainly visible on the rock. That day there was a terrible battle fought between the Barryroe army and John Barry’s army and this battle is called the “Battle of the Red Strand”. They fought all the way across the “Red Strand”. They fought and fought across the “Red Strand” and up “Ballira Hill” as far as “Ballira House”. John Barry and his army slew and killed all of Barry Bán’s army nearby. John Barry and his army won the battle that day.

For months after there were bones and pieces of bones throughout the place where the battle was fought . .

Collected from Master Pat Hayes, Donour, by Duchas Schools Folklore Project 1937

Another collected tale also centres around the Lady Well at Dunowen (lower right on the aerial view, above):

. . .There is a well situated in a field belonging  to Michael Feen in the townland of Dunowen not far from the sea coast. It is said that the Blessed Virgin appeared there long ago and was seen by some fishermen when fishing near the coast. She appeared as a big swan and pitched on the edge of the boat. Then she flew eastwards and flew in a circle over the well. Then she knelt down and left the prints of her fingers and knees on the flag, But some 20 years ago  a young boy about 12 years who was blind from birth went to the well with his father, after being taken to the well he left a scream at his father to look at the frog. Then they both thanked god and went home cured . . .

Amanda fully describes and illustrates this well in Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry after her own visit to the area three years ago.

But – what’s this? Marooned on the beach is a strange, dismembered creature… Or, at least, the remains of a creature. I’ve labelled it monster on the aerial view, because I can’t think of a better way to describe it: alien, amorphous, slightly sinuous. It has a mouth, too.

Is it spewing out or sucking in? Will it swallow you or I if we are not careful with the tides? Why is it here, and who made it? Be careful, Robert . . .

It’s enormous! It runs the length of the west end of the beach: you can just make it out in the second picture from the top, lying along the bottom of the cliff face. It’s like a great, marine creature with a fin and blowholes.

But, if that is its mouth facing out to sea, then its tail seems to have exploded. Look at this more detailed aerial view:

This Google Earth image dates from 2009. Ten years later, much of the debris from the exploded part of the monster is disappearing under the shifting sands.

Those huge slabs now scattered over the west end of Red Strand are reinforced with steel girders: whatever has been here in the past was a massive and heavy structure. Is there any record of it? I found only one slightly oblique mention, after searching high and low, written by Noel Baker in the Irish Examiner in February 2014 – following one of the most severe storms ever recorded on the coast of West Cork:

. . . So much of what happens is hidden from plain sight. Take the beautiful beach area of Red Strand near Clonakilty. The recent storms have caused serious damage to counties from Mayo to Wexford and beyond. Sometimes the extent of the damage is obvious, other times not so much. Red Strand, not far from the villages of Rathbarry and Ardfield, has clear evidence of damage. One of the walls alongside the road has been knocked, the sands have been shifted, along with rocks and stones, and the pillar displaying the Red Strand plaque lies knocked on the sand. Local man Cornelius ‘Con’ Scully is a veritable historian of Red Strand. He has photos of the area dating back to the 19th century and knows every nook and cranny.

“The face of the strand has totally changed in a very short time,” he says from his conservatory overlooking the sea.

He remembers back to the 30s when a tunnel, a section of which is still visible to the left of the strand as you look from the road, was laid. “When that was built the high water [mark] was 20 ft further out to sea,” he says. “It’s coming in the whole time” . . .

So there we have it – a tunnel, ‘laid’ in the 1930s.

But we still have an enigma. Why was the tunnel built then? And while the term ‘tunnel’ would adequately describe the remaining long section of the monster, it gives no clue as to its purpose. The ‘exploded’ bit intrigues me the most. From what you can see of the debris today, there must have been some sort of box-sectioned structure running along the higher part of the beach. A number of possibilities spring to mind: a sea-bathing pool, fed from the high tide through the ‘tunnel’? Fish tanks? A sewage system? Settling beds (but for settling what)?

Let’s do a little more detective work by looking back at another aerial photograph from Google Earth. You can see that I have placed the beach – and the monster – in a broader context:

You can trace the snaking line of the monster, starting in the bottom right (ish) and heading up the beach: follow the disintegrated section, which heads for the outlet on to the beach of a stream, which passes under a road bridge. It might be reasonable to assume that whatever passed through the monster’s stomach (the ‘tunnel’) came from that stream.

This picture is looking over the wetlands that are beyond the road running along the top of Red Strand. In the middle distance are ‘old workings’, seen more closely below: these appear to be in the townland of Ganniv Beg.

Whatever those workings might be – or might have been (extraction of sand, minerals?) – any run-off could have been carried into the stream on the right and then spilled out over the beach. This could have been detrimental to the amenity of the beach, and the ‘monster’ might have been constructed to contain and carry the outfall away at high tide. Pure speculation on my part: I’m happy enough to be proved either right or wrong. I would just like my curiosity to be satisfied. So – who has the story? It’s a recent enough construction to be within living memory . . . Hopefully, this post will stir someone to comment: if they do, I will report back.

Fish Palaces – and How They Worked

Four years ago I wrote about the fishing industry that once flourished on the shores of Roaringwater Bay (and around much of the west coast of Ireland): according to extant records it was active before 1500, and probably had its heyday in the seventeenth century, when it was heavily invested in by the Great Earl of Cork (Richard Boyle, sometimes described as ‘the richest man in the known world’). In those days, pilchards were the main catch: huge shoals of them came to the comparatively warm, sheltered waters of the islands during the summer months, along with other oily fish such as herring and mackerel. Seine boats were commonly used for this enterprise. Today, pilchards are rare: through a combination of overfishing and changing climate, the bountiful shoals no longer appear.

Header – pilchard curing in St Ives, Cornwall c1890: the pilchards are piled up in layers, forming the huge mound in the centre of the photograph. They are salted and weighted down. Above – curing the fish, Valencia Island, Co Kerry, early 20th century (Reddit / Ireland)

Shooting the Seine:

There were two boats per seine net, the seine and the faller. The seine boat was 27 foot long with a beam close to nine foot. The golden rule on the Northside was to never get into a boat whose beam was less than one third its length. The seine boat had five oars of about 17 foot (bow, Béal-tuile, aft, bloc and tiller oars). The crew of seven had to shoot the seine net; one man shooting the trip rope, another to feed out the bunt rope, four men rowing and the huer (master of the seine and captain of the boat) directing the operation. The faller (or bloc) boat was 24 foot long with a crew of five. Its job was stoning and to carry any fish caught. The largest load a faller could carry would be around 5,000 fish. All boats carried a Crucifix and a bottle of Holy Water.

(from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy & Richard Hawkes, 1991)

Twentieth century remains of a seine boat, from Northside of the Mizen

If the fish are gone, remains of the machinery of that industry are still to be seen. In particular, the sites of some of the curing stations – or Fish Palaces – are visible, and are recorded on the National Monuments Archaeological Survey Database. Take a look at the map below: I have drawn green pilchards to show the sites of fish palaces mentioned in the database – eleven in all on this section of the map. Also shown by red pilchards, however, are the sites of another six ‘curing stations’: these are mentioned in a long article by historian Arthur E J Went, Pilchards in the South of Ireland, published in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1949: Volume 51, pages 137 – 157.

Known sites – or historical mention of – fish palaces (curing stations) in the South West of Ireland (information from  National Monuments database and  Arthur E J Went, Pilchards in the South of Ireland 1949)

The active fishing of pilchards on a large scale in Ireland has been discontinued for many years so that, unlike Cornwall, there is little left, apart from published records, to indicate its former importance. There is, however, published information as to the methods of fishing, and a few sites of old curing stations, frequently called pallices, can still be identified.

from Arthur E J Went, Pilchards in the South of Ireland, 1949

Arthur Edward James Went (1910–80), noted fisheries biologist and historian, lived at Sandycove, Co Dublin. In 1936 he was appointed Assistant Inspector of Fisheries in the Department of Agriculture, Dublin, and later was promoted to the position of Scientific Adviser and Chief Inspector of Fisheries

As explorers of all things historic and archaeological – particularly in West Cork – Finola and I couldn’t resist visiting some of the sites of Palaces – or Pallices – documented in these studies. We have always know about the one nearest to Nead an Iolair, in Rossbrin Cove – it’s just down the road: a perfect sheltered harbour, although it does dry out at very low tides. However, there seems to be some debate about exactly where this one is located. It would date from the time of William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork, so how much would be left after 500 years? There is a field on the north shore of the Cove with an old name: The Palleashes which, according to Arthur Went (quoting local tradition), was the site of a curing station for pilchards, operated by the ‘Spaniards’. There seems to be some difference of opinion locally as to which of the many small fields here is the actual site, although it is likely to be close to the large, now modernised quay, as this shows up on the earliest maps.

In the upper picture: the quay at Rossbrin is still used by small fishing boats today. Centre – the field above the present quay may be The Palleashes, and therefore could be the site of the medieval fish palace: there are very overgrown signs of stone walls here. Lower picture – the old 6″ OS map, surveyed around 1840, shows a lane accessing the area above the quay (to the left of the ‘Holy Well’ – that lane is no longer there today) and there are buildings close to the shore which could indicate the palace. In 1840 there was no road running along the north shore of the Cove, but the strand at low tide would have been used as a thoroughfare. Just above the ‘Holy Well’ indicated on the shoreline – and slightly to the right – is a small red dot. This is the area shown by Arthur Went as the possible site of the fish palace (and subsequently marked as such on the Archaeological Database); in my opinion it is more likely to have been directly accessed from the water.

A sure sign of the site of a fish palace is a line of perforations or holes – as can be seen above at Baltimore, where a substantial curing station is recorded (although it may only date from the nineteenth century). Large timbers were inserted horizontally into these holes to form a ‘press beam’ to provide leverage for bucklers to squash out the oil from the salted pilchards, as shown in Arthur Went’s diagram, below:

The ‘Train Oil’ – produced from the compressed pilchards – was a valuable commodity, and was collected to be stored and used for treating leather, and as fuel for lamps. As a by-product of the pilchard industry it was said to be as valuable as the fish themselves.

Palace Strand, in Schull

To continue my researches I went along to Schull, where Arthur Went mentions a ‘Palace House’ on ‘Palace Strand’ – an inlet just to the east of the main harbour. This is right beside the old railway station which was not quite the terminus of the Schull & Skibbereen Railway, as a spur went on from the station to serve the harbour itself. The station buildings and part of the platform are still there – now a private residence. I could not find anything in the area shown on Went’s map at the east end of the strand, but I did find something at the west end.

In the upper picture is a wall on the western boundary of the old station site in Schull. This contains beam holes very similar in size and spacing to those we have seen in fish palaces elsewhere: it’s very tempting to think that this wall – now part of a derelict building – may have had this purpose, as it is well situated close to the shoreline of Palace Strand. If this was a fish palace, it is also likely to date from the nineteenth century, as the early Ordnance Survey maps don’t indicate it. The centre picture shows the old station buildings today, and the lower picture taken at Schull Station in 1939 reminds us of past times: the railway closed in 1947.

This post is a ‘taster’ for a fully illustrated talk I’m giving at Bank House, Ballydehob, on Tuesday 26 February at 8pm: Pilchards & Palaces – 300 years of Fishing in South-West Ireland. It’s part of the Autumn series of Ballydehob’s ‘Talks at the Vaults’

Below – a postcard showing fish curing on Cape Clear in 1906 (from Hely’s, Dublin)

Valentia Adventure

At the very end of January – when we should have been in the dark depths of winter – we headed off to Valentia Island in County Kerry, and enjoyed sublime golden sun. This time of the year often gives us the best light: we experienced this on our expedition through the Yellow Gap in West Cork a fortnight ago, and again during these three days in our neighbouring county last week. It’s to do with the low sun: somehow it enriches the amber hues of the landscapes, which are themselves enhanced by backdrops such as the one above. An ancient stone is set against a distant turquoise ocean and dark, snow-capped mountain peaks.

Holy wells were on the agenda (see Finola’s post here), as we were joining our friends Amanda and Peter Clarke from the Sheep’s Head. Amanda has nearly come to the end of her chronicle which records all the Holy Wells in County Cork, and she is now starting to explore those in County Kerry. I’m not going to say too much about the wells we saw, as Amanda will cover them in great detail, but the expedition certainly provided great opportunities for observation and photography, and caused us to wonder – again – at this unique aspect of Ireland’s history and traditions.

All the photographs above are from a remote and atmospheric site on the north west side of Valentia Island: St Brendan’s Holy Well. It’s a long way off the beaten track: desolate, bleak and boggy – but justifies making the effort. There are ancient stone crosses, carved slabs, cures to be had, and history. St Brendan himself journeyed there from Tralee in the fifth century, climbed the cliffs at Culoo, and found two dying pagans at the site: he anointed them and they became Valentia’s first Christian converts.

Above – the way to St Brendan’s Well, Valentia Island, passes by O’Shea’s Pub . . . one of the furthest flung bars in the world, that you can’t—and could never—buy a proper pint at . . . The story is here.

I certainly endorse that sign in the centre, seen on Valentia Island. Hare trapping in South Kerry is illegal – and so it should be! But – how could we not follow a sign that says: Slate Quarry – Grotto?

The Grotto – in this case a statue of the BVM together with Saint Marie-Bernadette Soubirous, the girl who witnessed Mary’s apparition in Lourdes – was installed in the Marian Year of 1954 in a cave high above the entrance to the Valentia Slate Quarry on Geokaun Mountain, at the north end of the Island. The Quarry had been opened in 1816 and supplied slate to the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, London railway stations and many another building project. The quarry excavated a huge cave into the mountainside, and closed after a major rockfall in 1910.

Fr James Enright, who was the PP of Valentia in the Marian Year, saw a golden opportunity in such a setting for a commemorative grotto. Fr Enright decided exactly where the statues were to be positioned, but the burning issue was how were these heavy items going to be put in place and worked upon at over 90 feet from ground level? The answer came in the building of a deal timber ladder.

 

Jackie Clifford , who was a blacksmith based in Gortgower, made the iron to bind and reinforce the ladder and was helped in his forge by Denny Lyne and subsequently aided by other islanders. Having been transported to the quarry in sections, it was assembled there and put in place by the volunteering islanders. The ladder was over 100 feet long, being four feet wide at the bottom narrowing to a foot. and a half on top. The sections of ladder were joined at the various points with a four foot lap. Many island volunteers were enlisted with each townland taking their turns to work. The initial work involved levelling a massive mound in order to form a proper base. This was quite labour intensive, being done with pick and shovel. The ladder was hauled into place by means of a block and tackle pulley system with people at the ends of ropes from above and to the sides in order to control it and put it in place. As one islander succinctly put it “The greatest miracle to happen there was the erection of the ladder”.

 

Subsequent to the ladder being put in place, a number of daring and intrepid islanders had to climb it for the purpose of erecting the statues. The statues were hoisted up by rope with other tools and building materials. The concrete for the base was mixed by shovel above.

(Quote from The Kerryman, January 2015)

The Quarry has recently reopened, and it’s quite surreal to stand in front of the grotto with the sound of heavy machinery reverberating at the huge cave mouth from deep within the mountain.

Have a look again at the signs above: one points to ‘Tetrapod Trackway’. This is surely a must-see for any visitor to Valentia Island as the fossilised Tetropod footprints here, representing the point at which life left the Devonian Seas 370 million years ago to begin to evolve on dry land, are the best examples of only four sites found to date in the world! We hurried to have a look – but the site was closed for repairs. You can see a picture of the tracks here.

In the winter sunlight, the little village of Portmagee which stands at the threshold of Valentia Island and connects to it by a bridge opened in 1971, looks like a picture postcard. In fact, the bridge was opened twice – once on New Year’s Day, when it was blessed by the Bishop of Kerry – and again at Easter, because there was some debate about whether the first opening had been ‘official’ or not!

Here’s a railway map and photo dating from around 1901 showing ‘Valentia Harbour Station’. In fact, it’s not on the island at all, although Knightstown – the ‘planned village’ designed by Alexander Nimmo for the Knight of Kerry in the 1830s can be seen across the water. The station – the terminus of the most westerly railway in Europe – is on the mainland, to the east of  Valentia Island, which could be reached by a ferry. The Farranfore to Valentia Harbour Railway was 39½ miles long and operated from 1892 to 1960. The photo below shows the Valentia River Viaduct just outside Cahersiveen, now derelict but hopefully to have a new lease of life when a planned cycling greenway is developed along the old railway track.

Valentia Island has a great deal more to offer than I can show in a brief post. It’s well worth making the journey and staying for a little while: there is such varied landscape to be experienced – a microcosm of the West of Ireland, in fact – and much history if you want to delve under the surface.

The tailpiece shows a view from Knightstown looking across to Valentia Harbour on the mainland and the site of the former railway terminus:

The Rocky Road to Nowhere

The road from Cork to Crookhaven – one of the most westerly communities in the whole of Europe – ran into the sea here at Rock Island. The picture above shows the remote settlement in the distance across an expanse of water, and the stone steps in the foreground are literally the end of the road that was laid out by Sir Richard John Griffith – Engineer of Public Works in Cork, Kerry and Limerick – between 1822 and 1830.

Upper – map showing Rock Island today: note the R591 road which now goes around the north side of Crookhaven Bay to reach the village. Lower – the Cassini map of c1848, showing Griffith’s Road – the direct route across Rock Island to the Landing Place at the western point: from there you went by water to Crookhaven Quay

Griffith’s brief as Engineer was to lay out many miles of new roads in some of the most inaccessible parts of the three counties. But even in his day travelling through the hinterland of Ireland was risky and uncomfortable: always far better to go by water along the coast – at least the passage was direct and relatively smooth in calm weather, while the byroads of the day were at best circuitous and muddy. Here’s an extract from a report by Griffith dated 1824:

. . . Richard Griffith, Road Engineer, Progress Report, Skibbereen to Crookhaven, Wheeled Carts now Appear, where heretofore Loads were carried on the Backs of Horses, New Entrance to Town Of Bandon, Road From Courtmacsherry to Timoleague, Road from Clonakilty to New Fishery Pier At Ring, New Road Skibbereen to Bantry, Macroom to Killarney, with a Note on The System of Labour Organisation Used . . .

Connections by water: a telephoto view of Crookhaven, taken from above the ‘Landing Place’ at the west end of Rock Island

A few years ago, Finola wrote about the Butter Roads, an eighteenth century venture to serve the hub of Cork – and its international Butter Market – from the wilds of Ireland’s rural hinterland. Griffith and his contemporaries improved on this network during the nineteenth century: what we have today – especially here in West Cork – is an updating of Griffith’s system, with a few improved main roads connecting up with the web of winding boreens which then accessed the scattered townlands and farms – and still do.

An engraving signed W T Green from A History of the City and County of Cork by Mary Cusack, Cork 1875

Born in Dublin in 1784, Richard Griffith exerted a great influence over the whole of Ireland during his lifetime. He was fascinated by the relatively new science of geology and studied in London and Edinburgh. I was particularly interested to see that he spent some time in Cornwall, studying mine engineering and mining techniques. Returning to Ireland in 1808, He was appointed Engineer to the Bog Commissioners and over the following four years wrote detailed accounts of the geology of various parts of the country, including Clare, Cork , Kerry, Leitrim, Mayo, Sligo and Wicklow. He became Professor of Geology and Mining at the Royal Dublin Society in 1812, and Inspector-General of His Majesty’s Royal Mines in Ireland at about the same time. The first edition of his Geological Map of Ireland was published in 1815.This was revised and republished a number of times over the following 40 years, and was the work he considered his major achievement.

Sir Richard Griffith 1784 – 1878: left – plaque at his Dublin birthplace; right – portrait from 1854

You will see from Finola’s post today that we visited Rock Island during the week in the good company of Aidan Power who has written an account of the place. It’s wonderful to get a guided tour with an enthusiastic expert. It was Aidan who sparked my imagination when he pointed out that a mail boat was rowed over from Crookhaven every day to the Landing Place at Rock Island – and was the regular and reliable means of communication between that village and the rest of Cork.

This drawing of Rock island by Brocas is dated 1837, and clearly shows, on the right hand side, Griffith’s Road leading down to the Landing Place, the principal connection with Crookhaven

There’s a lot more of Griffith’s story to be told: particularly his appointment as Boundary Commissioner in 1824, a post he held for 41 years. This resulted in the full recording of all townland boundaries and designations – although these were often anglicised at the time, resulting in the loss of many local traditional names. He died in 1878 at the age of 94. On his grave in Mount Jerome Cemetery is the epitaph . . . Not slothful in business, fervent in spirit, Serving the Lord . . .

Griffith’s Road on Rocky Island is lost to a grassy track (upper picture and on the left in the lower picture) but is still traceable and remains theoretically a public highway! You can at least still follow it on foot to the point where it becomes a series of rocky steps that finish in the sea. You will have quite a wait for the Crookhaven mailboat today, however.

Mizen Magic 11: Rock Island

It was a pleasure and a privilege this week to tour Rock Island with Aidan Power, author of the book Rock Island, Crookhaven, A Coastal Townland’s History Since 1800. Published in 2006*,  this was a huge undertaking for Aidan, an amateur historian, accomplished with a high degree of professionalism and meticulously researched.

This photograph was taken from Brow Head and shows Rock Island’s location in relation to Crookhaven (foreground) and the rest of the Mizen. The furthest peak is Mount Gabriel

Aidan was living on Rock Island at the time and he knows every inch of it and every story that is embedded in the rocky soil. Today, there is only one permanent resident on Rock Island, but at its height it was home to over 100 people and a very busy place indeed. There were two populations – government employees working for the Lighthouses or the Coast Guard, and local people working in the fishing and provisioning industries.

While the lighthouse remains in the care of Irish Lights, the cottage is now in private hands and includes an ultra-modern addition with views to envy

Location was key – Rock Island is situated at the entrance to Crookhaven Harbour, a natural haven conveniently located at the extreme south west tip of Ireland – the last and first post of call for ships on the transatlantic route. As such, a Coast Guard presence was necessary, since smuggling was a way of life and foreign vessels apt to drop in or take refuge. Having sustained a French invasion by sea in 1796, the British government was on high alert for any further signs of foreign-assisted uprisings. Nearby Brow Head had a manned signal station which needed support and housing.

Lighthouse cottages

It was also the most convenient centre to build, maintain and provision two lighthouses: Crookhaven Lighthouse on Rock Island itself, and the famous Fastnet Lighthouse, 12 kms out. The east end of the Island was the centre of lighthouse-related activity. Aidan showed us the keeper cottages, one of which he had lived in but all now in use as holiday cottages. One set of houses was for the Crookhaven Lighthouse and the other for the Fastnet. He showed us where the Fastnet components had been assembled, tested and shipped out to the Fastnet Rock – a feat of engineering still breathtaking in its scope – see more about it in our post An Carraig Aonair: The Fastnet Rock.

Upper: The Fastnet assembly station. Lower: The road to the lighthouse is beautifully constructed – this lovely arch leads to the sea

The Western end was occupied by the Coast Guard end and was also the extent of the original road – see Robert’s companion piece today, The Rocky Road to Nowhere, for more about this road and the engineer who built it. The revenue officers, according to Aidan’s book, were very unpopular as smuggling was endemic on the West Cork Coast. One of the officers was called the Tidewaiter – yes, he waited for the incoming tide so he could board ships. It was a dangerous job – Aidan quotes Pococke’s account from 1752: . . .they have a term of hiding an officer, which is knocking in the head and putting him under a turf. There have been many instances of officers never heard of.

Rock Island as viewed from Crookhaven

The Admiralty started a serious crackdown on smuggling in 1816 and that’s when their lease on the West End of Rock Island began. The Coast Guard eventually became a reserve of the Royal Navy and later was controlled by the Admiralty. Its vicissitudes on Rock Island are chronicled by Aidan, including its less-than-stellar performance during the Famine. His account is exhaustive and provides a detailed picture of a British service that was deeply disliked and where the officers felt constantly under siege, culminating in a series of attacks by the IRA in 1920 and the eventual abandonment of the post that year.

Today the former Coast Guard Station has been beautifully renovated and the houses are used for holidays. They look magnificent in their flashy paint, reminders of both a colonial past and a Celtic Tiger economy.

The easterly tower

I have mentioned the two towers in a previous post, both of which have been incorrectly described in the National Monuments records and the Buildings of Ireland site. They are described as belvederes by National Monuments (see my post on Belvederes for an explanation) and as signal towers by Buildings of Ireland.

Brian Lalor’s sketch of the tower, also incorrectly identified as a Napoleonic-era Signal Tower, based on information from National Monuments

The most likely use for the westerly one, according to Aidan, was as a pilotage tower. Pilotage was a competitive business, and whoever could first see the ship at sea and get to it first with an offer of service, had a distinct advantage over others. The easterly tower was used by the Coast Guard as a look out.

At the north side of the island is a sheltered harbour which from the 1920s to the 1970s was the centre of a lucrative lobster and shellfish industry which created a certain level of prosperity in the area, until the inevitable over-fishing caused a decline in the lobster population. Today the remains of the lobster ponds can still be seen, along with a large building that was used in the 1980s and 90s as a food production facility making, improbably, garlic butter.

Upper: the remains of the quay by the lobster ponds. Lower: Aidan, Amanda, Peter and Robert on our Rock Island tour

I have only given you a flavour of Rock Island – it’s also a place where bird and plant life is abundant and where seals pop up to say hello as you wander around the coast.

Sea Campion

It’s a tranquil place from another time, staggeringly beautiful and seeping history from its pores.

This curious castellated boat shed is one of a pair on the north side

We are currently using this image as our Facebook Page header – you could mistake it for a Greek island on a sunny day

*The book is available on Amazon, or contact us for the author’s email address.