Mine Ghost

My name is Thomas – William Thomas. When I’m at the mines they call me Captain Thomas – because I’m in charge! I’m visiting some of my old ‘haunts’, and thought you might join me, to see what a working day was like in ‘ . . . one of the wildest districts in the United Kingdom . . . ‘ – Gortavallig, on Rinn Mhuintir Bháire. I know you call this place The Sheep’s Head now: that amuses me. I’m always trying to pick up on the Irish words – it’s such a poetic language. My grandfather was a natural Cornish speaker, but the language was gone by the time I was born – it’s only used by the Bards nowadays.

That’s my house – above – in the townland of Letter East. That’s where I stayed with my family when I was Captain at Gortavallig. It was rough going when I had to get to the mine – a solid hour’s trek across rough country, and the same back again. As part of the work that we did while developing this mine we built a good ten miles of road, which helped with communications in that untamed north-coast country.

Come with me now on the way that leads down, firstly, to the cove at Bunown in Eskraha townland: there’s a slipway there, and a house where my assistant Superintendent, Mister Bennett, lodges. It was once a coast-guard station. This cove has also been the scene of some tragedies in your own time. There was the writer, James Farrell, who drowned while fishing off the rocks there in 1979. He’s buried beyond by the church of St James in Durrus, looking out forever over Dunmanus Bay. The sea is a dangerous element: I know, because I’ve had to work with it. But it’s your friend, as well as your foe. If it wasn’t for the sea we would have no chance of transporting ore from the remoteness of Gortavallig.

The rocks at Bunown – on a good day! James Gordon Farrell is buried facing the water of Dunmanus Bay at St James’, Durrus

They say that, wherever you are in the world, if there’s a mine – or even a hole in the ground – you’ll find a Cornishman at the bottom of it! That’s because pulling the metal out of the ground – and from the cliffs – and even from under the sea – was our lifeblood in that far western peninsula. But the land was ravaged. This scene (below) is where I grew up and learned my trade: Dolcoath, near Camborne in Cornwall, in its heyday one of the busiest mining areas in the world. My father James was agent there and I enjoyed ‘ . . . a liberal education and had the very great advantage of being taught dialling and the whole routine of the profession by the most eminent miners of the day and worked for several years as a tributer – an admirable practical school . . . ‘

I was pleased to get away from the noise, the grime and the stench of that place when I was called to Ireland with my own family in 1845, firstly to Coosheen on the Mizen – where I revived an ailing venture by successfully rediscovering the copper-bearing lode. After that I came here to the Sheep’s Head where the surveyors, travelling on board small inshore vessels, could see promising ore-bearing strata on the cliff-faces which were being eroded on this coastline. My job was to work those veins – a gargantuan one bearing in mind the uncompromising nature of the landscape and the remoteness of the geography.

Looking back across silver waters as we walk together on the rough pathway to Gortavallig: nature has been tamed by the fields that go down to the coast west of Bunown, whereas the way to the east is across rough, wild country

If you follow this path with me you will have to have good shoes and a steady gait, and the will to clamber upwards and downwards on sometimes steep and rough rock faces. But you will be rewarded by the remarkable vistas and the untamed surroundings. Your only companions will be the choughs: these sleek red-billed birds are a comfort to me as they have always been a symbol of Cornwall, sharing pride of place on that county’s coat-of-arms, together with an image of the Cornish miner! Did you know that the chough is the embodiment of old King Arthur, who is ready to rise again and save our nations in times of trouble?

A chough espied on our walk to Gortavallig, and the Coat-of-Arms of Cornwall which is shared between bird, fisherman and miner

After a vigorous hour’s trekking over the rough terrain we will catch our first glimpse of the mining works at Gortavallig: a row of small stone cottages perched on the cliff-top. This is known today as the Cornish Village, although it wasn’t just Cornish mine-workers who lived here. Good, strong Irishmen came to the place and earned their keep, and everyone here had to pay rent for the single-roomed lodgings. If there had been windows on the seaward side of these dwellings they would have enjoyed magnificent views, but we were more concerned at keeping out the extremes of the weather, and the few small windows only faced inland. There was plenty of ocean to be seen while you were working your hearts out to extract the minerals!

‘Cornish’ cottages close by the mine workings at Gortavallig

Once we have passed by the cottages we find ourselves traversing a sheer cliff edge. Below us the sea roars, but it’s down there that we built two quays, one 73 feet long and 40 feet high, the other 92 feet long and 36 feet high and, at the base of the cliff, a dressing floor 180 feet long and 50 feet wide, while above it we put in a stone dam and sluice so that we could wash the ore. Water was such an important element to us: in Cornwall we used its power to turn wheels and drive machinery such as crushers. We were never short of it here in Ireland.

Hold on to that rope or you might go over the edge!

Now, of course, on an idyllic day of blue sky and sunshine, you couldn’t find a place more picturesque, peaceful and redolent of nature’s beauty, but imagine what it was like in my time when men, women (we called them Bal Maidens in Cornwall) and children laboured long hours to bring out the precious ore and break, dress and prepare it for market: there was always the movement of ropes and machinery as trucks were pushed out of the mine-galleries on the rail-way, and figures constantly toiled up and down the precipitous rough stepways to and from the quays so far below. Although built in as sheltered a position as possible, they were constantly battered by heavy swells and breakers. In fact, they have now disappeared altogether.

Finola braves the cliff edge to get a view of the site of the old quays below, accessed by the rough and steep stone lined path

If we go up to the hillside above the mine workings we can look out over the reservoir, and we can also see the fenced-off openings of shafts. Most of the engineering took place, of course, underground: hard work in restricted spaces. We did our best to ensure safety, but there were accidents.

A lot of people have said that our mine was a ‘failure’, but I wouldn’t necessarily share that view. In May 1847 I presented my first report to the directors of the company:

. . . We have set bounds to the Atlantic waves, for though they lash and foam sometimes over craggy rocks, our works have withstood the furious storms of two severe winters. A complete wilderness and barren cliff, which had been for past ages the undisturbed resort of the Eagle, the Hawk and Wild Sea Bird, has by our labours for the past 16 months been changed into a valley of native industry, giving employment, food, and comfort, to numbers of the hitherto starving, but peacable inhabitants. We have in the course of 16 months, with an average number of 24 miners, whose earnings ranged from 9 shillings to 12 shillings a week, explored 174 fathoms of ground. We have also employed about 26 surface men, at the rate of 10 pence and one shilling a day . . .

In May 1848 the SS William and Thomas collected 88 tons of copper ore from the quay of our mine at Gortavallig. It sold for £269 14s in Swansea. Yes – it was the only shipment that the mine ever exported, but it gave employment and food to families in one of the remotest areas of the West of Ireland during the ‘Great Hunger’. In my time at Rinn Mhuintir Bháire I was able to set up – at my own cost – the Coosheen Fishery Association over on the Mizen, which also helped with food production through those bad years. With my brothers Charles and Henry, and my son John, we helped to bring industry to the remote fastnesses of West Cork and Kerry – including the mine at Dhurode, on the Mizen. I feel satisfaction that our lives have benefited our neighbours here in these far western peninsulas which bear such a similarity to our own native Cornwall . . .  Now you will want to return to civilisation: thank you for your company and mind your step – I think I’ll rest a while here pondering on old times with my pipe and tobacco.

Captain William Thomas possibly in 1843 (left) and right, with one of his daughters in 1852. The latter photograph was taken by Hastings Moore in Ballydehob

From the Skibbereen Eagle, 7 June 1890:

Died, May 22nd at Coosheen, Schull, William Thomas, of Bolleevede, Camborne, Cornwall, aged 82 years, manager of mines in Cork and Kerry for nearly 50 years. He truly believed in Irish men and Irish mines. He wrote and spoke on their behalf to the utmost of his ability . . .

Two Mines Are Better Than One (Mizen Magic 16)

I was actually in search of a nineteenth century Protestant clergyman, not expecting to find this remote and beautiful valley. But Robert is also writing about nineteenth century mining today – hence my title.

Dhurode mine on the far north shore of the Mizen Peninsula was established by the Rev Robert Traill (above) in 1843. I’ve written about Traill in my series on Saints and Soupers. He featured largely in the episode on tithes, and again for his heroism at the height of the Famine. He deserves a post of his own and that will come. Besides everything else, he was obviously an entrepreneur. He joined forces with a navy man, Captain Forster, to establish in 1843 the Consolidated and West Carbery Company.

This is what you can see from the road: the powder house is silhouetted on the horizon. The ruined building in the foregound may relate to the water wheel and stamps

The Metal Mines of West Cork by Diane Hodnett is my chief source of information for a lot of what follows about the mine. It’s an outstanding book of scholarship and a, er, mine of information (sorry). She writes : In June of that year [1843], an adit had been started on the course of the lode, and driven over 180 feet, with a whim shaft sunk down to it. By June the following year, Dhurode Mine had sold 97 tons of copper ore at Swansea, and received £331 4s in payment.

There’s a great description of the mine from April 1846 in Diane Hodnett’s book. The potato blight had first hit the previous autumn, but most people had managed to make it through the winter and the full horror of Famine in the Mizen had still to dawn. A man called St Pierre Foley had visited the mine and this is what he saw:

Dhurode is about four miles NW of Crookhaven. It is situated on Dunmanus Bay, placed amphitheatrically like, and is now well studded with neat slated cottages, built for the use of miners employed in the works. The Manager is Henry Thomas. Ore: yellow copper pyrites and is variable in its assay. There is a good horse whim erected for drawing, water wheel and stamp heads with sufficient water power for crushing etc., the ores, and all the necessary offices, working shops and sheds, built around the mine in a very convenient and picturesque manner.

This is a photograph of a horse-powered whim, used for drawing up materials to the surface. This photo is from the Beamish Museum, County Durham, England, and used under the Creative Commons license

Some cargoes of ore have been shipped from this mine. New roads are being built through the mountainous district, which will assist considerably in facilitating the carriage of the ores to the safe and commodious harbours at and along the Crookhaven coast, beside expediting and ensuring regularity of shipment – a matter depending too much on certain states of weather, as regards the Dunmanus coasts.

The restored 19th century waterwheel and tin stamps at Geevor Tin Mine, Cornwall, England, used under the Creative Commons license

S0 – a promising start to this enterprise but by the autumn of 1846 it was becoming clear that the potato harvest had failed again and that West Cork was heading into a full-blown disaster. Robert Traill, as principal shareholder, could not invest time or money in the mine, being fully occupied with the calamity on his doorstep and his duties to the Schull Relief Committee and his own flock. The manager, Captain Henry Thomas (one of the famous Thomas brothers, Mine Captains all, who managed several mines in Ireland – see Robert’s post, Irish Poldarks) carried on until 1850, but admitted that very little was being done, given the state of the countryside.

The waterfall and the remains of the stamp house below it

There is little indication now of the ‘neat slate cottages’ not even as much as at the Gortavallig Mine about which Robert is writing today. At Gortavallig, they are known as the Cornish Miners’ Cottages, and it is likely that Cornish men were imported to work the Dhurode Mine too, although local people would have filled many of the positions, as they did at Gortavallig, including women and children.

This may have provided sufficient employment for some to enable them to survive the worst of the Great Hunger. It’s interesting to speculate here about those who worked at the Mine – Robert Traill was famously anti-Papist and until 1847 had, by his own confession, never been inside a Catholic house. There was a large population of poor Protestants on the Mizen – Traill had over 2,000 of them within his parish – many descended from linen weavers and flax growers brought in to service an industry that no longer flourished in West Cork. He may have seen a venture like this as not only having the potential to enrich him but also as a way of providing a living for many of his indigent parishioners.

Captain Henry Thomas

The mine revived in the 1850s under the management of yet another Thomas brother, Charles. For a while it seemed to be producing well, but letters flew back and forth (all faithfully recorded in Hodnett’s book) with accusations and counter-accusations of mismanagement and overspending on useless equipment. Things staggered on until 1863. As late as 1862 a report noted that gold had been found as well as copper and that there was on site a water wheel measuring 24 feet in diameter, and 4 feet wide, which was attached to stamps. There were dressing floors, a smith’s forge, a carpenter’s shop and a good residence for the agent, with 10 acres of ground for the mining work.

Upper: The ruins of a substantial house – perhaps the agent’s? Lower: The building remains in the foreground may date from the 1900-1906 phase

One final phase of mining came in 1900 and lasted until 1906. Some of the buildings may date from then, but there are no real records of the activity there during this period. Today, the place is home to a flock of placid sheep. If it was not for the abundant evidence of ruined buildings and cement-capped mine shafts it would be hard to imagine that such a remote, wild and beautiful place could have been the centre of a busy industrial complex.

Upper: one of the cement-capped shafts. Lower: The powder house

The most obvious structure is the round gunpowder magazine. Diane Hodnett reckons it was built to support the initial blasting of the lodes in the original adit, and that it bears a strong resemblance to the powder house at Crookhaven which dates from the 1930s. It was originally castellated, and is square inside, although round outside.

The waterwheel and stamps were powered by a quarried-out waterfall (above), which still provides a burbling backdrop to the walk down to the mine site. Partial walls of the stamp house still stand, covered with ivy. Pushing through the bracken to get to the waterfall was like entering an overgrown fairy glen.

From there we wandered down to the main site and the powder house, and then to the opencast workings. I’m not quite sure which period this belongs to or what they were looking for in this working. The rock face is heavily grained with quartz but also now with lichen, after so many years.

The real surprise for us came when we walked east from the mine site, along the side of a valley running up from the sea. We hadn’t expected the ruggedness, the colour and the contours of what turned out to be a very special, and quite hidden, part of our Mizen Peninsula.

With astounding views across to the Sheep’s Head and beyond to the Beara, and west to the inaccessible Bird Island, this was a very rewarding discovery indeed.

Just when you think you’re getting to know this incredibly peninsula, the Mizen, it will throw up another hidden wonder!

Ballydehob and Boats

Two years ago Finola wrote about the Cruinniú na mBád (Boat Gathering) in Ballydehob. When I saw that Tidy Towns have erected some new information boards down by the quay – one dedicated to the history of the pier and its importance to the town in past times – I thought it was time to revisit the whole subject of Ballydehob and boats. By chance, our friend Jack suggested that Finola might like to travel with him in his Drascombe and sail up to the quay in this year’s gathering, so we have some ‘live’ coverage of the event from our on-board correspondent! I prefer to keep my feet dry, so watched the event from the vantage point of the 12-arch railway bridge.

Header – Finola took this pic from Jack’s Drascombe of one of the fleet heading for Ballydehob this weekend, rounding the point opposite Rincolisky Castle and negotiating the mussel ropes; above – the view from the 12-arch bridge, waiting for the boats to arrive at Ballydehob Quay

Ballydehob Tidy Towns has recently unveiled two new information boards close to the quay: one (below) is all about the railway line that connected Skibbereen, Ballydehob and Schull: I had a hand in that board! The other tells the history of the harbour itself and is full of information, collected by Cormac Levis, whose forebears worked many of the boats that traded into the town. Cormac initiated the Cruinniú na mBád in 2004 and it has been going ever since, barring the occasional cancellation due to atrocious weather conditions (which can happen, even here in serene West Cork).

The new information boards enlighten us on many aspects of Ballydehob history, particularly within the vicinity of the 12-arched bridge and the quay. The view above, from Cormac’s board, shows the harbour in the early 1900s and is reproduced courtesy of the Fergus O’Connor Collection and the National Library of Ireland. Note the higher section of buildings to the right of the main warehouse – they are no longer there; they are said to have once housed seven families

The pier at Ballydehob is often called ‘the sandboat quay’ as one of the main commodities to arrive in the town was sea-sand dredged from beaches nearby and on the islands. This was rich in nitrates and minerals and was valued as a fertilizer. However, sand was only one of the commodities that came to Ballydehob; the following is an extract from an excellent piece that Cormac Levis wrote in the (now sadly defunct) Mizen Archaeological and Historical Journal, back in 1996:

On market day, which was Thursday, a long line of small two-oar and four-oar boats would make their way up the channel, lug sails set if the wind was favourable. One by one they would approach the quay, bringing people from the Skeam Islands, Horse Island and Hare Island to do their marketing. Some would have eggs and butter to sell, some would have a plough or other farm implement for the smith to repair. Wrack timber would be brought to be cut into planks or corn to be milled. During the summer months the Hare Island boats would be occupied by women only, their menfolk having migrated en masse to fish lobsters east along the coast as far as Ballycotton. On the arrival of the first letter bearing the fruits of their husband’s labours, they would set out to buy two pigs at Ballydehob Fair. Quite often, if the wind wasn’t in their favour, they would row the full four miles to Ballydehob . . . The day of a cattle fair would occasionally see the arrival of the 39ft MV Mary Patricia with cattle from Old Court or Sherkin. The 20ft Barker, driven by a 6/7 Kelvin, would visit to load up with provisions for Burke’s shop on Hare Island. A rather melancholic sight that would be seen from time to time, was that of two oarsmen making their sad way down the channel returning to one of the islands with a coffin across the gunnels of their small boat . . .

From the 1996 Mizen Journal article by Cormac Levis: a photograph of one of the sandboats from 1936, and a diagram showing the hessian dredge that was used for collecting the sand

Cormac provides good information on the sandboats – this is a short extract:

When William T Young of Ballydehob purchased the stores and quay from Jane Swanton of Skibbereen in 1899, the property was described as the ‘old stores’ and ‘sand quay’, indicating that the practice of discharging sand there was well established by that time . . . In 1885 John Collins moved to Filenamuck. There in the early 1890s he built two boats for W T Young. These sister boats were the largest of the Ballydehob sand boats, capable of carrying a cargo of 8 tons 5 cwt and were typical of the Collins design. They had a 24ft keel, an overall length of 28ft, a beam of approximately 8ft 3ins and, when fully laden, a draught of approximately 4ft 6ins. They had a very shallow keel and, unladen, they had a draught of approximately 1ft 9ins . . . One of the two boats described above came to be known as the Conqueror and the other simply as Levis’s boat, after her skipper Charlie Levis.

The Sandboat Bar in Ballydehob is still owned and run by the Levis family

Today, the harbour of Ballydehob – while as picturesque as ever – is quiet, and seldom hosts anyone travelling by water. Ballydehob Bay itself is silted up and it’s only on the highest tides of the year – when the moon is full – that boats of any size can make the journey. So we salute the intrepid voyagers who, every year, keep up the memory of a thriving waterfront that was once the heart of the community. If, like me, you are nostalgically inclined – on the day of Cruinniú na mBád, as you stand looking for the flotilla coming in on the rising flood, close your eyes slightly and imagine that you hear the sound of the whistle as a little train clatters over the viaduct behind you . . .

Finola (see her post this week for more on what’s happening here) will assure you that it’s an exhilarating and moving experience approaching Ballydehob by water: I’ll close with some more of her pictures: there was a stiff breeze with high gusts coming in – I’m amazed she managed to keep her horizons horizontal!

Industrial Archaeology in Crookhaven

Roaringwater Journal has featured Crookhaven many times. This far south-western outpost of Ireland has layers of history: thousands of years ago people lived in this area and made marks on the rocky landscape while countless generations of seafarers forged a ‘haven’ from the naturally sheltered ‘crook’ of land upon which the settlement is based. Even into the twentieth century pioneering technological advances were being made in Crookhaven: in the early 1900s Marconi sent some of the world’s earliest radio communications from Brow Head to vessels in the Atlantic shipping lanes.

Header – the ‘old roadstone quarry’ dominates the landscape to the north of Crookhaven Harbour. Above – looking across the harbour from the ‘quarry quay’ towards Brow Head, one of the scenes of operation of Marconi in Ireland

I am fascinated by all traces of industrial history: for me it’s ‘modern archaeology’: some of it might survive long enough to puzzle historians of the far future. I couldn’t ignore, therefore, the huge steel and concrete structures which line the R591 road which approaches Crookhaven when travelling from Goleen. They are built into the hillside above the road, and tie in with a substantial stone quay which has been constructed below it.

The quay which was presumably built to serve the quarry to the north of Crookhaven: the village can be seen across the water

Looking at the construction of this quay, and particularly the wear on the masonry steps leading down to the water, it would be reasonable to assume that the quay predates the concrete and steel structures which abut the road above it – by a long way. You might suppose that such significant edifices would have a history attached to them which would be easy to find, either from local informants, or in written or electronic record. However, I have so far drawn a blank. Well – not quite: there are countless identical references in contemporary accounts of Crookhaven to ‘…the old roadstone quarry on the side of the mountain, which provided metalling for the roads of Wales until 1945…’ I did find one variant, a caption to a general view of the area: ‘…Looking up to the Roadstone Quarry along the north shore of Crookhaven Harbour. The quarry was a source of gravel for Welsh tarred gravel roads until the 1930s…’

The quay below the ‘roadstone quarry’ is a paradise for industrial archaeologists and photographers! It must have had generations of users, up to fairly recent times, all of whom have left behind traces of their presence, but no solid history. I’m hopeful that readers of this post might be stirred to recall stories or memories – or even point me to some documented history to explain the provenance of this little piece of the complex West Cork jigsaw.

I’m borrowing this photograph of the Crookhaven quarry from the log of the MV Dirona, with thanks to Jennifer and James Hamilton, who hail from Victoria, British Columbia and are currently cruising the world in their Nordhaven 5263 vessel. They explored the south west coast of Ireland in June 2017 and, from the water, took this perfect view of the quay, the ‘roadstone quarry’ and the mountain face above it, from which the stone has been extracted. It’s my opinion that the face was worked for construction stone possibly from the 1800s: in September 1846 a road was proposed between Rock island and Crookhaven, and the county surveyor provided an estimate of £1,857. Prior to this, the road which had been built by Richard Griffith, civil engineer for Munster, extended as far as Rock Island, and passage from there to Crookhaven itself could only be made by water. The 1846 road is today the R591 which passes below the quarry. It would be reasonable to suppose that locally available stone suitable for roadmaking would have been used, and the quarry may have had its origins at this time. The construction of the adjacent quay could have been contemporary with this early use of the quarry, but the huge concrete and steel structures we see today are probably an incarnation of the revival of the quarry in the early 20th century. I stand to be corrected.

One of the fascinations of old industrial sites is the way they are taken over by nature if left relatively undisturbed. This one is no exception. There is a monumentality here which is being eroded and softened as time goes by. What does the future hold? Interestingly a -presumably serious – proposal was made in a not-too-long-ago iteration of the Goleen & District Community Council Development Plan:

PROPOSALS

2.24 The old Roadstone quarry-works at Crookhaven Harbour should be developed as an amenity – perhaps a hotel with a restaurant with observation deck at the top…

Hmmm… notions of grandeur there, perhaps – and little regard for practicalities, but it shows the power of imagination! I think it’s far more likely that the area will remain in its present state for many years to come and, perhaps, attract a level of ‘industrial architecture tourism’. Incidentally, it’s not too far away from the site of a fish palace run by William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork in the early seventeenth century: the remains of this are there to see to this day, although almost entirely returned to nature.

Below – a now impassable tunnel under the road connects the quarry workings with the quay; nature entangled with the leftovers of human activity

Endpiece – the old workings and quay are directly opposite the centre of Crookhaven – here’s a view towards the quarry from the village:

Oldest Lighthouse in the World!

It’s a bit off the beaten track, but we had to make the journey to visit the oldest working lighthouse in the world! It’s right at the southern tip of the Hook Peninsula, in County Wexford. Maybe it’s an extravagant claim that it is the ‘oldest in the world’: there is another ‘oldest’ lighthouse – The Tower of Hercules – in Galicia, northern Spain, which is said to have been built in the 2nd century. However, the Tower of Hercules was given a major restoration at the end of the 18th century, including a new neoclassical facade, with the original Roman structure retained behind this. Wexford’s assertion that the main visible structure of the Hook Lighthouse – both inside and out – is exactly what was built in the 13th century, perhaps gives it the edge. I was delighted to find, incidentally, that the Tower of Hercules has an Irish connection: it is mentioned in the 11th century Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Invasions of Ireland). If you recall my account of the story of Cesaire – the first person ever to set foot on Irish soil – you will remember that on her travels away from Egypt in the years before the Great Flood Cesaire stopped off in Spain and climbed to the top of a very tall tower from which she could see, in the distance, Ireland’s wonderful green land, and from there she travelled on to arrive on Ireland’s shores in Bantry Bay. Well, according to tradition, it was the Tower of Hercules which she climbed!

Header – the bulky main structure of the tower dates from the 13th century – its walls are four metres thick. The chambers within the tower are stone vaulted (above)

The lowest tier of the tower consists of three storeys, and has a base diameter of 13 metres. Each storey has a vaulted stone ceiling. Above this is the narrower section – 6 metres in diameter – which would have supported the original brazier, kept burning at all times to warn ships of the rocky ‘Hook’ of land at the entrance to the channel leading up to the port of New Ross – the most important in Ireland in the 13th century.

Upper – an exploded view of the structure of the lighthouse, one of the exhibits on the guided tour; centre – the whole tower: the topmost section, housing the electric lighting system, is relatively modern; lower – the treacherous rocks around the shore of the Hook 

But there was, in fact, a light burning on this headland for hundreds of years before the construction we see today: this was a beacon fire established by Saint Dubhán, a monk from Wales, in the 5th century. Dubhán came to Ireland as a missionary, and built his monastic settlement a little way inland: this is marked today by the medieval ruins of a church and burial ground.

Dubhán’s monastic site not far from Hook Head. It was the saint who set up the first beacon light on this peninsula

The lighthouse we see today was built by Strongbow’s son-in-law William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke (1147 – 1219). He constructed it and made sure that the light was maintained in perpetuity to fulfil a promise he made when he was threatened with shipwreck off the Hook while trying to get into the port of New Ross. Marshall is one of the medieval hero-warriors: known as ‘The Greatest Knight’ he is at the centre of many legends. Turtle Bunbury gives a good account of him here.

William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke is very much in evidence at Hook Head: you can even hear him telling his own story when you are in the lighthouse (above)!

If you find your way to Hook Head Lighthouse today you are in for many treats. Firstly, it’s good to know that it is open to visitors all the year round, and guided tours are always available (you can only go inside the tower with a guide). Also there is a welcome heritage centre on site with a shop and cafe – and a fine pirate-themed children’s playground.

Saint Dubhán and his followers are remembered through the displays in Hook Head Lighthouse: the mural above shows the first beacon established by the 5th century saint

It’s a grand day out, if you happen to be within reach of the Wexford coast. There are so many strands of Ireland’s multi-facetted history to be traced here: the earliest missionary monks, Norman Knights, sea-travel through the ages, connections with the medieval world – and a wonderful piece of early Irish architecture still serving its original function.

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.