It’s an area to the south-east of Clonakilty town in West Cork – Ring. A mix of ‘big sky’ landscapes, with a fresh view of the sea at every turn; quays, harbours, old industry, archaeology – some fabulous hidden coves and small beaches. With our new-found freedom of being able to travel anywhere in our own county (Cork is the largest of Ireland’s counties: 180km from one end to the other), we set out to more closely explore a region which we have somehow always passed by hitherto.
For us, the journey to Ring involves turning off the main N71 in the centre of Clonakilty (above) and following the road that runs beside the water (or sandbanks and mud flats, depending on the state of the tide). As you can see from the aerial view, it’s a pastoral landscape, a big centre for dairy farming; no mountain surprises, but undulating enough to ensure twists and turns through old lanes and new boreens.
Just a few minutes after leaving Clonakilty we come into North Ring, and the first highlight, which is Curraghgrane More Pier. The view over the estuary from here is far-reaching and dramatic: on the western side is Inchydoney Island (not, in fact, an island), while south – and further along our route – is Ring Harbour. The little settlement of North Ring, just inland here, is worth a pause (and features on the header picture).
The way into North Ring passes by an ancient building, which has been conserved as a focal point by the community. It is a stone-built grain store and drying kiln, probably first in use 500 years ago.
The little settlement has been known for its hostelries, and would have been an excellent lunch stop in pre-Covid times: hopefully their fortunes will revive. They certainly provide a most colourful streetscape, and add to an exceptionally attractive hamlet. Even an abandoned house has been given a creative treatment.
We can’t pass on from this vibrant enclave without mentioning the Arundel family who left their mark on the locality and set up the milling industry which brought wealth to the area:
. . . Near the road from Clonakilty to Ring, stands the scanty remnant of a castle (at one time mistaken for a ruined parish church). It was the stronghold of the Anglo-Norman Arundel, called Lord Arundel of the Strand . . . Arundel was anciently a great lord and had an estate of £3,500 a year in the reign of Queen Elizabeth . . . Sir Henry Sidney, in his well-known account of a famous Vice-regal visit to Cork in 1575 notes “There came here the ruined reliques of the ancient English inhabitants of the province” – The Arundels, Rochforts, Barretts, Flemings, Lombards, Terries, etc . . . Henry Smith in his “Report of the State of Munster,” after the breaking out of the Desmond Rising in 1589 remarks inter alia, “Arundel Castle was forsaken by Walter Grant-William Lyon” and the Arundels, who remained loyal to the old faith, were very prominent in the Rising of 1641-1653 . . .
Tim Cowhig, Duchas Folklore Collection, Ballintemple 1938
Before returning to the coast road we head inland to find a historic site with an ancient church ruin, a significant graveyard, and several raths or ring forts which take us back in time well over a millennium. The 6″ Historic OS map extract, above, shows the remarkable distribution of notable sites within the arable landscape just to the north-east of the Arundel settlement. The aerial view, below, focusses on the rectangle marked on the 6″ map, and indicates our way to the Ballintemple site, following a time-worn trackway.
These pictures show the path which leads to the burial ground – which is still in use today. A notable occupant of the graveyard is Tadhg Ó Donnabhain Asna, a hero of the 1798 uprising. A local man, Tadhg led a force of United Irishmen against a British column at The Battle of the Big Cross which occurred on the morning of 19th June 1798, about 4 miles east of Clonakilty. It was the only battle fought in the rebellion in the whole of Munster and over 100 Irish men lost their lives, including Tadhg himself. There is a memorial to him in the centre of Clonakilty town, and the plaque, above, at the entrance to Ballintemple graveyard, marked the bicentenary of the encounter.
The old church within this graveyard is still clear to see, although ruined: note the rectangular ‘font’ or basin, and the holy water stoup. This has been a place of worship since 1169. It is said that a disastrous fire took hold of the church in the mid 17th century, and it has not been used since. In the furthest corner of the burial ground is a poignant little memorial recalling more recent times.
Seen to the east of the burial ground is this ring fort – beyond the dairy herd. The forts in this area are of significant size, and many are the subject of legend. It was once a common belief that underground passages connected many neighbouring forts, and this could be a folk memory relating to ‘souterrains’, often found at these sites.
. . . In olden times some men went to a fort in search of a crock of gold. This fort was in Castle View and about three miles from the town of Clonakilty. To get to this fort you should go to the castle which was about a quarter of a mile from the fort and then go underground and through a long shore. The men took with them a sheave of wheaten straw, a march cock and a blessed candle. Before they started their journey through the shore they lit the candle and all went very well until they nearly came to the end. When they were coming to the end of the shore they saw the crock of gold and with that there came a gust of wind and a terrible noise. There came horses jumping and dogs barking and the men got such a fright that they took their eye off the crock of gold and when they looked again they found to their surprise that the crock of gold was after disappearing. Several other men tried it but this very same thing used to happen at the end of the shore and so the crock of gold remained where it was . . .
James J Lombard, Duchas Folklore Collection, Garryndruig, Co Cork 1936
Compare today’s aerial view of ring forts close to Ballintemple with the 6″ Cassini OS map below it. The map indicates a souterrain in the rampart of the upper fort. Another account from Duchas:
. . . There are four forts, or as they known locally “Liosanna”, in this district. There is one in Kilkerran in the lands of Michael Flavin. It is circular in shape and so are all the rest. The other ones are on the lands of Jermiah O Donovan Carrigroe, John Barry, Newmill and in Castle-Freke Demesne in the Big Island field. These forts are supposed to be Danish fortresses and are built up in very high ground so that you could see one from the other. The fort in Kilkerran is the biggest to be seen around and “lepreacáns” are supposed to live in it. One night a man by the name of Factna O Hea caught a lepreacán near this fort and he asked the lepreacán to grant him a wish. The lepreacán then asked him what wish he wanted and the request the man asked was that he would win every game he played from that day on. The lepreacán granted him his request and he won every game he played from that day on. On the eastern side of this fort is a big stone which is supposed to be an entrance to some underground place. There is a great bank of earth all around the fort. Forts are never ploughed up as it is believed to be unlucky to interfere with them . . .
James Spillane, Duchas Folklore Collection, Kilkerran, Clonakilty 1938
Well, our little tour around Ring seems only just to have begun, but I am going to take a break now and resume this topic in the near future. I will leave you with a few more pictures, including a taster of what is still in store . . .
The word ‘haven’ is said to have a Norse origin: hǫfn. This translates simply as ‘harbour’. Does this mean that the Vikings visited West Cork and gave Castlehaven its name? Dictionary definitions include ‘a safe haven in times of trouble’ – refuge, retreat, shelter, sanctuary, asylum . . . The word conjures up something a little magical, and our exploration last week of the secretive valley that leads inland from Castlehaven – at the southern end of a significant West Cork cove – was certainly an enchanting experience. We traversed it on the greenest of days at the arrival of spring:
The header is a nineteenth century engraving, and shows a possibly idealised view looking across The Haven, towards the open waters of the Atlantic. In the foreground is the castle of Raheen, or Rathin. Castlehaven itself is at the far end, and the old tower house there – now all but vanished into the lush undergrowth – was strategically important, particularly during the Nine Years’ War between Gaelic Irish lords and the English. Spain also took an opportunistic interest in intervening in matters between Ireland and England. There are many accounts of the skirmish that occurred here on 6 December 1601, all of them varying to such a degree that we can have no real idea, even, of who was victorious! I like this version, penned by a contributor to the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection. It’s part of an extensive essay about the history of the area, which we will revisit in due course:
. . . Beside the Cemetery at Castlehaven stood, about ten years ago, the ruins of Castlehaven Castle, described by Don O’Sullivan in connection with the war of O’Neill & O’Donnell. “Porto Castello”, as it is called by O’Sullivan, played a very important part in connection with the Battle of Kinsale. Both O’Sullivan & Carew give accounts of a battle fought in the harbour, and while the former claims that Admiral Levison and his ships were driven off with loss of some vessels at the harbour’s mouth, Carew claims victory for the British fleet. Local tradition says that inside Reen Point, on the eastern side of the harbour lies a Spanish Vessel laden with gold, but that misfortune is sure to follow anyone who seeks the treasure. Castlehaven Castle was fortified by a combined garrison of Spanish and Irish and withstood the assault of Admiral Levison of the British fleet. The ruins of this castle were in a fair state of preservation about fifteen years ago, but the lower portion of the wall showed signs of weakness, and the great pity was, that nothing was done to prevent the collapse of the entire ruin a few years later. It is ‘said’ that stones had been removed for road metalling many years ago and this vandalism could certainly bring about the unfortunate collapse which only left only a confused pile of stones . . .
Seán Ó Donnabháin – Teacher, Baile an Chaisleáin School, Castletownshend 1936
Upper – a view of the now-vanished tower of Glenbarrahane Castle at the entrance to the Haven by Cork antiquarian John Windele, 1801 – 1865 (courtesy National Library of Ireland) and lower – the vestigial stone walls that remain today beside the grey sands of Castlehaven
Among our inherited collection of West Cork books in the library at Nead an Iolair is this volume by Gifford Lewis, published in 1985 by Penguin Viking. Ostensibly relating to the writings of Somerville and Ross, it is illustrated with a well-researched collection of old photographs which include some of the castle at The Haven still standing.
This photograph (above) is particularly valuable. It is also from the Gifford Lewis book and is captioned as follows:
. . . A very early plate by Sir Joscelyn Coghill (c. 1865) showing the old Castlehaven church and above it the Castle in which the Reverend Robert Morrit lived, and before him the Reverend Thomas Somerville. The Tithe War had its effect. Eventually, the Tithe Commission Act of 1838 moved the burden of supporting the Protestant clergy from the peasants to the landowners. The Catholic/Protestant confrontation in Ireland came with the influx of Elizabethan English, the first after the Reformation of the English Church. Those who came to Ireland as Protestants were much less likely to be assimilated than those who came before the Reformation, like the Martins. The ousting of the topmost layer of native Catholic society by a new Protestant one is audible in the list of Rectors of Castlehaven church from 1403 to 1640: O’Driscoll, O’Callaghan, O’Driscoll, Cormac/Basse, Pratt, Stukely . . .
Gifford lewis, Somerville and Ross – The World of the Irish R.M. 1985
The aerial view shows the inlet of Castle Haven guarded by its O’Driscoll castle at the southern end. In the upper reaches of The Haven is a further castle, properly known as Raheen (or Rathin), sited above the natural spit of The League: the juxtaposition of castle and land-spit was probably deliberate, to create a defensive barrier against any invaders infiltrating the upper waters of The Haven. The mid-19th century 6″ Cassini OS map (above) shows the location in detail. James N Healy (The Castles of County Cork, Mercier Press, 1988) well describes its situation: “. . . It is a remarkable sight, tall and dignified in its quiet isolation . . .” and attributes it to the O’Donovan family, associated with Castle Donovan on the Ilen River – which we visited recently. Raheen was attacked from the water by Cromwell’s army in 1649 and remarkably survives in that breached condition today.
The coloured postcard above is based on a view probably taken around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The viewpoint is identical with that in the header engraving, and The League can be clearly seen in both representations. Because the whole inlet is known as Castlehaven, we have to be careful when reading references or captions, as the two castles – which I always endeavour to refer to by their original names (Glenbarrahane and Rathin) are often both known as Castlehaven Castle. And, of course, we also have the castle at Castletownshend itself to further confuse the issue, although the structure there now is relatively late (the present building dates mainly from the 19th century, although an earlier Bryans Fort on the same site was probably 17th century).
Here is a very fine painted view of Rathin Castle by contemporary West Cork artist Donagh Carey (thank you, Donagh!) You can find his works here: we are pleased to have some of them hanging at Nead at Iolair. I can’t resist including this photograph taken in the 1930s (below) – from the Adrian Healy postcard collection – showing Rathin, with the added bonus of a 1936 Ford 10 in the foreground!
This view (above) is an enigma. It is referred to as ‘Castlehaven Castle’ and is a pen-and-watercolour drawing by Charles Vallancey (1721 – 1812). If the written caption is ‘Castlehaven Mouth’, then it must be Glenbarrahane (although the foreground topography should surely have shown the old church and graveyard?); if it is fact ‘Castlehaven North’, then it would more likely be Rathin – and it is certainly visually closer to this castle. However, then the mouth of the Haven is not in the right place at all. Vallancey was a British military surveyor who had been sent to Ireland in the mid 18th century: he became fascinated with the country and its topography and settled here as a self-styled historian and antiquarian. An extract of his work follows, from a report on West Cork:
. . . There was only one road between Cork and Bantry; you may now proceed by eight carriage roads beside several horse tracks branching off from these great roads; from Bantry the country is mountainous and from the high road has the appearance of being barren and very thinly populated; yet the valleys abound with corn and potatoes and the mountains are covered with black cattle. In 1760, twenty years ago it was so thinly inhabited an army of 10,000 men could not possible have found subsistence between Bantry and Bandon. The face of the country now wears a different aspect: the sides of the hill are under the plough, the verges of the bogs are reclaimed and the southern coast from Skibbereen to Bandon is one continued garden of grain and potatoes except the barren pinnacles of some hills and the boggy hollows between which are preserved for fuel . . .
Charles vallancey – A Report on West Cork, 1778, British Library
Vallancey was noted for obtaining the Great Book of Lecan (Leabhar Mór Leacáin), a medieval manuscript written between 1397 and 1418 in Castle Forbes, Lecan, Co Sligo. He passed it on to the Royal Irish Academy, where it resides today. Sadly, his work apparently only garnered the poorest of appraisals – as an example, here is the 19th century Quarterly Review:
. . . General Vallancey, though a man of learning, wrote more nonsense than any man of his time, and has unfortunately been the occasion of much more than he wrote . . .
The Quarterly review, London, John Murray
In my Extreme Green post I promised a ‘salacious scandal’ associated with Castlehaven. Alas – we have this week run out of time and space . . . Keep watching!
Exciting news! Recent land improvement works around Rossbrin Castle have uncovered the fragments of an old manuscript – tucked away in the crack of a rock probably 530 years ago. We all know about the Scholar Prince of Rossbrin – Finghinn O Mathuna – who was Tánaiste of the great West Cork O’Mahony clan, and who lived in the castle during the second half of the fifteenth century. He gathered around him historians, bards and scribes. Many books were written there and some survive to this day. They are learned treatise, but the new discovery is something different – a piece of pure journalism written by a visitor to the castle, Robáird an Tuairisceoir Fain (Robert the Roving Reporter), for the Rossbrenon News, a worthy forerunner to our own Roaringwater Journal. In the article, Robáird interviews Finghinn, and gives us a unique insight into how life was lived in those far-off days.
Upper – possibly Finghinn O Mathuna, the 15th century Scholar Prince of Rossbrin; lower – John Speed’s 1611 map of Roaringwater Bay, showing the Tánaiste’s territory of ‘Rossbrennon’
The manuscript is written in a mixture of Latin and Irish, and I have done my best to translate. The format is a dialogue between Finghinn and Robáird. You will have to excuse any errors:
RanTF: Tánaiste, thank you for talking to us today, and for entertaining me in this splendid castle solar which looks out over the waters of Roaringwater Bay. It’s such a busy place – the water is crowded with ships: where do they all come from and why are they here?
F O’M: Poiyou, Guyenne, al-Andalus, Castile, Flanders… all the coasts of Oceanus Occidentalis and an Mheánmhuir. They are here because we have the best fishing grounds in the whole of this world! Our warm waters have an abundance of cod, herring, pilchards – enough to feed all the great cities…
RanTF: So all this commerce that’s out there in Roaringwater Bay – it’s just about fish?
F O’M: Well, no. If you’ve got ships coming up here from places like an Mheánmhuir they might as well be bringing you some of their fine wines! Look below us, around the castle: you see all those warehouses? Some are ready with barrels and salt for preserving the fish before their long journey back, but those over there are doing very nicely for the wine trade…
RanTF: Is this an illicit trade?
F O’M: I’m certainly not going to be telling you that if you are going to publish it in that damnable broadsheet of yours. The Customers and Searchers do well enough out of us, but they seldom get down to these parts. If we do see them, we welcome them with open arms, and fill those arms with a good helping of Burgundy! We are seldom troubled by them after that – until they run out, of course.
RanTF: I understand that fish – especially pilchards – have to be preserved very quickly or they go bad?
F O’M: That’s why all those people are working out there. Look at the place – every one of those huts and cabins is occupied by large families, all of whom – women, children and men – are employed every waking moment. They do get a couple of hours off on the Sabbath, so that they can hear the sinners being denounced: that entertainment lasts them the week…
RanTF: Such a dense population must lead to some hygiene problems?
F O’M: There’s certainly an excess of pestilential exhalations – but that’s why I spend most of my time up here in the solar: I’m above all that. Besides, from here I get a very good view of what’s going on all around.
RanTF: So what is it that sets you apart? They do call you ‘The Scholar Prince’…
F O’M: They do – and they say that Rossbrenon is ‘The greatest centre of learning in the world’! That’s what really interests me. You see those houses down there, just below the castle? That’s where the scribes work. We are producing the finest literature, which is going to the most important libraries in Europe : London, Rennes…
RanTF: And what are they writing about?
F O’M: Whatever is in demand – and topical. We produced the standard work on the life of Sir John Mandeville, for example: that contributed considerably to the current debate on what happens when you reach the edge of the world – do you fall off? We have also come up with volumes on state-of-the-art medicines. Invaluabe for when the next plague strikes…
RanTF: Ah yes – very topical. But where does your knowledge come from?
F O’M: I learn a lot from the seafarers: I entertain them royally with their own Burgundy and, in return, I find out what the latest thinking is. D’you know, there’s a young lad from Italia who is coming up with all sorts of ideas: he reckons that, very soon, we humans will be able to fly like birds! We’ll just equip ourselves with wings made from timber struts and skins, climb up the round towers, and jump off the top!
RanTF: Remarkable! What else does he say?
F O’M: He’s absolutely sure that if you keep sailing west, you will one day find yourself coming back from the east… I don’t understand it myself. What’s more, he claims to know exactly how babies are made!
RanTF: He’s obviously a genius, or a charlatan! So, Tánaiste, with all this knowledge you are gaining from your trading partners, what predictions can you make for us. What will this little bit of our Irish Empire look like in – say – five hundred years time?
F O’M: Ha! Well, I think there’s little doubt that the young community we are creating here in this sheltered cove will expand and become a huge city. There will be town walls, a Cathedral of Rossbrenon, a university and palaces to house the princes and the citizens. And, beyond the boundaries, there will be extensive coney warrens, enough to feed everyone, and keep them warm in winter. And – if that young Italian has his way, we’ll all be flying everywhere: who knows – perhaps we can even fly across the world and find where its edge is. As we’ll have wings, we won’t fall over it!
RanTF: Tánaiste, it’s been a privilege to talk to you. You have certainly widened my horizons. I would give anything to be able to see that city of Rossbrenon…
Christopher Columbus set foot in America in 1492 (above). Finghinn O Mathuna died in 1496. Ferdinand Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the earth, in 1522:
An Mheánmhuir – The Meditteranean; Oceanus Occidentalis – The Atlantic Ocean; Customers and Searchers – Customs and Excise; Tánaiste – second-in-command of the Clan (the Taoiseach is the Clan leader).
The drawing of ‘Flying Machines’ by Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) is courtesy of the Museo Leonardo da Vinci, Florence. Note the ‘mirror writing’ that he always used in his private notes.
O’Mahony Clan Rally at Rossbrin Castle, 1975. Photo by Michael Minihane
The second set of stories about Mount Gabriel (the first set was Legends of Mount Gabriel: The Bottomless Lake) also relate to physical features on the landscape and how they came to be there. Most involve the prowess and deeds of giants, including Fionn MacCumhaill/Finn McCool. Fionn MacCumhaill was the mythical hero/warrior of the Fenian Cycle, a set of stories dating back to the seventh century and added to during the whole of the Early and Later Medieval periods. The stories tell of his boyhood, how he acquired the gift of knowledge, his pursuit of the beautiful Gráinne and her lover Diarmuid, his son Oscar and Oscar’s son, Oisin. Fionn, you must know, is not dead – he merely sleeps and will awake again when somebody sounds his hunting horn, to defend Ireland during her hour of greatest need.
This image depicts a man stumbling upon the sleeping Fianna in a Donegal cave. It is by Beatrice Elvery and is one of her illustrations for Heroes of the Dawn by Violet Russell, 1914, available at archive.org
But somehow, in popular folklore Fionn, the mighty hero of the ancient sagas, transformed into the giant, Finn McCool, a genial leviathan capable of feats of prodigious strength. All over Ireland places are named for this enormous figure (e.g. Seefin – Finn’s Seat, is the name of several mountains) and tales are handed down about his effect on the landscape. Perhaps the most well-know story is about the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim, but there is hardly a spot in Ireland that doesn’t have similar stories. Mount Gabriel is no exception.
A distant view of the Fastnet Rock and Lighthouse
We’ve already seen one of those stories in The Bottomless Lake in which Fionn took a handful of rock and threw it out into the Atlantic Ocean where it is now as the Fastnet Rock or Carraig Aonair – leaving the hole of Poll an Oighin. That story was from the pen of an unidentified student in the long-abandoned school of Gloun. The student spells it Glaun, it’s identified as Gleann in the School’s Collection and as Glan on OS maps and it’s usually given locally as Gloun. The school is pictured below as it looks now.
The student had more stories about Fionn, arising from the geological formation of Mount Gabriel.
The name of the townland in which I live, and in the which this school is situated, is Glaun. It is in the parish of Schull about three miles from the village in the county of Cork, in the Barony of West Carbery. It is bounded on the north by the Glaun river, on the east by Mount Gabriel, on the south by “Fionn’s Ridge” and on the west by the Lios a Catha river. . .
Fionn’s Ridge separates Glaun from Gubbeen. It is a ridge of rock with seams resembling the furrows made by a plough and it is said that Fionn Mac Cumhail ploughed it with two rams and a wooden plough. Of course it is only a story as the surface was torn off by masses of ice moving south to the hollow below leaving the rock bare like a ridge.
A variation on this story is given by another student, also unnamed, in Schull.
Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s Ridge
There is a curious formation of rock at the western side of Mount Gabriel. It resembles a furrow ploughed into the rock. It is called Fionn’s Ridge. The people of the locality say that it was Fionn Mac Cumhaill ploughed this furrow with two goats.
When we moved here first we met local electrician and theatre scholar, Ger Minihane. At the time we were trying to track down a cup-marked stone in the townland of Derreennatra and having no luck. But Ger told us where to find it – in his own garden! And he told us the legend of how it got there, thrown from the top of Mount Gabriel by Fionn MacCumhaill, a story passed down through the generations in his family.
Was this the coat hook of the anonymous student at Gloun School?
While many of the stories of rocks hurled from Mount Gabriel (more on those another time) refer generically to the actions of ‘giants’, local people understand that it was Fionn MacCumhaill himself that was doing the hurling and his name has become strongly associated with the mountain. During the Millennium celebrations a group in Schull took on the task of creating colourful street theatre to honour those legends and we are fortunate that a record remains of what must have been the most fun, engaging and dramatic events ever to happen in Schull – including the image used as my lead photograph of Fionn striding through Schull*. This movie documents the planning and effort that went into The Battle of Murrahin, which pitted the O’Mahony clan against their ancient rivals, the O’Driscolls. Towards the end of the video we meet up with Fionn.
The story that is told in this re-enactment is the local one that the Fastnet rock originated when Fionn threw a rock from Mount Gabriel into the sea, where it settled and became An Carraig Aonair, The Lone Rock. However, the group’s research also showed up an old Irish name for it which translates as ‘The Swan of the Jet-black cairn bereft of light in the dark’ and this explains the appearance of the black swan.
Related to the idea of the Fastnet as a swan is this local legend from a Schull student.
There is an old story told among the people about it. It is said that when St Patrick was banishing Paganism out of Ireland the devil was in such a rage that he pulled a piece of rock out of Mount Gabriel and flung it into the Atlantic ocean some miles west of Cape Clear. This lone rock had been many years there and several ships were wrecked on it until close on one hundred years ago a big lighthouse was built on it. This rock was called the Fastnet rock and the lighthouse got the same name. In Irish it is called Carraig Aonair. This lighthouse is situated on one of the greatest trade routes in the world..
It is said that on every May morning the Fastnet Rock leaves its place and sails around Cape Clear and northwards to three rocks called the Bull, Cow and Calf, and returns to the place again before sun-rise.
*Thanks so much to Karen Minihan for providing images and links from SULT Schull, the Millennium projects. Wish I’d been there!
. . . A trip down the river Ilen, as it pursues its winding and picturesque course from Mount Owen (the hill of streams) to the harbour of Baltimore, a distance of about fifteen miles, is the most pleasant and interesting excursion during the summer months. Starting from Skibbereen, we can either steam or row, according to our pleasure, or rather as the tide suits, to Baltimore and Sherkin, a distance of eight or nine miles, and then out the harbour’s mouth, and cruise about the islands of Carbery . . .
Sketches in Carbery – Daniel Donovan 1876
The idea of boarding a ‘steamer’ in Skibbereen and voyaging down the Ilen River to its mouth is an attractive one – but not an option for us as we continue our exploration of this waterway in 2021, a year which has started with a frightening escalation of the Covid pandemic which is forcing us to stay ever closer to home. Fortunately, we are not too far from the broad stretches of the tidal Ilen as it nears its destination and meanders through peaceful, sylvan meadows passing by deserted quays, once active with commerce and vitality, now at rest apart from the occasional fisherman or boat mender.
We are fortunate to have a large archive of our photographs taken in West Cork over many years. I am revisiting (below) my pictures of the river at Creagh taken in 2014. This is on the south side of the Ilen, and certainly out of bounds for us at the moment because of distance. Situated at Creagh is a secluded burial ground, the resting place of Canon James Goodman who was Rector of Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen, during the nineteenth century. The three photographs below were taken there. My principal interest in him is the name he made as a collector of traditional music and a player of the uilleann pipes – that most singular of Irish instruments that we have also celebrated elsewhere. When the Canon died in 1896 he asked that his pipes were buried with him at Creagh – and they were. But, not long afterwards, they were dug up again. If you want to know what happened to the pipes and where they are now, read my earlier post about the Canon here.
We can travel to Skibbereen for essential supplies, and the road to that town runs close to the river. Just off the road, down a winding boreen, is another burial ground, Aghadown, beautifully situated beside the water – Finola has written about it here. Here are some views we took a few days ago during a prolonged spell of clear winter sunshine.
. . . The view down the river from near Creagh, on a fine day, is attractive. The Ilen, winding in a serpentine course towards Baltimore harbour, shining and sparkling in the sunlight like a silver thread, and dotted over with a multitude of rocky islets, whose recesses form a safe retreat and favourite feeding ground for flocks of sea fowl during the winter months. Looking backwards, we are chiefly struck by the almost complete absence of wood, and the patchwork of irregular fields, enclosed by earthen banks, and the prominences so much admired by tourists and strangers, most probably on account of the novelty and singularity of the scene . . .
SKETCHES IN CARBERY – DANIEL DONOVAN 1876
The Ilen is a ‘Blueway’ – designated as a recreational activity trail for use by activity enthusiasts – anyone, in fact, who wants to get out and experience some of the best scenery in Ireland on the water itself or, like us, on foot. This would be in normal times, of course. Undoubtedly there are better days ahead. We look forward to an untrammelled future so that we can continue this exploration of a waterway to its source in the mountains ‘. . . where rain clouds perpetually hover about . . .’ and to its outfall towards Carbery’s ‘Hundred islands’. When we can make those expeditions, we will bring you there through the pages of our Journal.
Here’s a bonus today: you can hear an aspect of our recent walk! Donovan mentioned in 1876 that the river was a favourite feeding ground for flocks of sea fowl during the winter months. We can vouch for that, having heard these sounds close to the Glebe burial ground. The loudest voices are – I think – from redshanks:
Seán O’Sullivan showed me an international folktale known in Irish as ‘Ao Mhic an Bhradáin agus Ó Mhic an Bhradáin’ (‘Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon’) . . .
It was the earliest known folktale, first discovered on Egyptian papyrus 3,250 years before. During my years with the Commission hundreds of variants of that far-flung story were gathered in remote hamlets on the western seaboard of Ireland, in parts of Munster, in northwest Ulster and from a group of travelling people on the borders of Wicklow and Wexford . . .
A full text is available as an audio file, in Irish. It’s here if you want to have a listen:
Since writing that first post I have been trying to find a translation of the story into English, but without success. So – nothing ventured nothing gained – I’m providing you with my own version of the story! I have distilled this from the Irish language (although my knowledge of Irish is but rudimentary), using dictionaries and online translation helpers and then putting the whole thing into a sort of vernacular tongue which seems to suit the subject. I think I have the gist of it right enough, but you’ll just have to go along with my own way of telling it. I have also delved into the Roaringwater Journal archives for a few illustrations to break up the text. For me, it’s a fine story: I hope you enjoy it!
Legend of the Salmon of Knowledge by Charlie Fallon (Saatchiart):
Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon
It came about that there was a poor man whose only means of making a living was catching fish. If he came home with no fish, he wasn’t lucky: he could only do his best. The poor man had a wife, but no child came to them, and the years were on them.
Fisherman on Lough Skeagh 1946 (Irish Folklore Commission):
One day he was out fishing with his rod and took a fine salmon. It was hard work, but he reeled in the fish and was about to kill it when it spoke to him! “Don’t kill me’’ said the salmon, “Let me go and I will tell you a story of good fortune.”
The poor man was amazed to learn that the salmon could speak, but he replied: “I will hear the story and, if I am pleased, I will let you go.”
“Listen now”, said the salmon. “I know you have been upset that you have no children; I am glad to tell you that you will soon have two sons.”
“That is certain to be untrue”, said the fisherman.
“I am not telling you a lie”, said the salmon. “Let me go and you will see that I am telling you the truth.”
The fisherman cut the line and released the salmon. He returned home and told his wife the great news. She was not impressed. “It’s a pity you did not bring the salmon back with you for our supper: it’s clear that he was mocking you!”
Nevertheless, within the year the couple were surprised to have two sons. “Look now”, said the fisherman, “wasn’t it the truth that the salmon told me?”
“By my soul it was”, said the woman, “but what shall we call these two?”
“We will call them É Mhic and Ó Bhradáin” said the fisherman. And so it was. They were known as Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon. You could not put anything between them in looks, manner or speech.
As the boys grew, so did the luck of the fisherman. Every time he went out with his rod his catch increased fourfold, and they became rich enough that each boy could have a hawk, a greyhound and a horse. The boys also had the luck with their hunting.
At twenty years of age Hugh told his brother that he would leave and seek his fortune in the world. “If I am not back in twelve months, then come and find me,” he said.
Hugh took his hawk, his dog and his horse. Also, he did not forget his sword. He tackled the road and had good travels. On a day in winter he got lost in a wood, and stumbled on a fine castle in a clearing. “By the Devil”’ he said, “I’ll go in and wait out the night if no ill will is shown to me.”
Inside was a fair countrywoman and they began to converse until a terrible noise was heard, and the walls of the castle shook. The girl vanished and it wasn’t long before a big, strong, bad-tempered affair jumped into the room. “What kind of a person has the destiny to end his life in my castle?” he shouted.
“It doesn’t matter to you”, said Hugh. “What the heck, now I’m in I will stay here!”
The two laid into each other with their swords and, in the shock of the fight, the giant was turned to dust. In the morning it was raining all over the woods, and Hugh spent the day wandering. As evening fell, what should come to him but a hare? He took his horse and released the hound and the hawk but the hare outran them all and disappeared into a small cottage in the wood. “Why wouldn’t I go in?” said Hugh.
Inside was a fire in the grate and he sat down beside it. Soon the ugliest old woman he had ever seen came through the door. She made no blessing to him at all, only to look badly at him.
“Come in from the door”, says Hugh, “and share the fire with me.”
“I won’t come”, she said, “I would be scared!”
“What would you be scared of?” asks Hugh.
“That hawk, and I don’t trust the greyhound, and I wonder what this horse would do to me?”
“You are in no danger from them”, says Hugh “They are all honest. Come up and sit by the fire.”
“I will not”, she says, “unless they are all leashed.”
“Why don’t I bind them?” says Hugh. “But I have nothing to bind them with.”
“I’ll give you a way to bind them”, says she, and tore three snares of hair off her head. “Here”, she says, “Use these.”
He snapped a hair leash on the hawk – the old lady must have had very strong hair! And he tied the hound with another snare and the horse with the third. When he had done this the old woman produced a sword.
“Take care, my boy”, she said, “I know you were in the castle last night and you killed my son there. He would despise me unless I challenge you now.”
She wielded her sword and they fought a battle inside the cottage. The woman – who was small – had the advantage because Hugh could not properly swing his sword within the confines of the room. The old woman had the head start on him, and he called out to his hawk.
“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman. With that the snare closed on the hawk and it could not stir.
Hugh became angry and tried to get the better of the old lady, but it was no use. Soon he was tight-lipped, and called for the greyhound to come to his aid.
“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman. The snare clipped on the greyhound and she couldn’t move. The fight continued, and Hugh urged the horse to come to his aid.
“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman.
“I can’t help you”, said the horse, “The snare is too tight on me.”
Hugh’s anger intensified and he was about to take a final blow at her when the old woman took out a magic rod. She hit Hugh with the rod, and he turned into a stone in the middle of the floor. She struck another blow for the hawk, the greyhound and the horse, and there were three more stones in the floor.
The Giant’s Fingers, Co Cavan:
“Now”, she said, “I have avenged my son’s death, and these stones will stay here a long time before anyone will take them away!”
After a year Hugh had not returned home, and O said to his mother and father that he was going to look for him. “I fear something bad has happened to him”, he said.
“It will be little help to you or us if he is dead’’ said his father, but he would not be stopped. He seized his hawk, his dog and his horse, and never forgot to take his sword also.
He travelled a long way and a short way and one evening – why, shouldn’t he find himself in the same wood where his brother had been, and across the wood he found the same fine castle.
“I am tired after this day’s ride”, he said. “I’ll stay in this fine castle tonight, unless anyone puts me out of it.”
The first thing he saw was the fair countrywoman, who was surprised, thinking that he was Hugh – for the twin brothers looked exactly the same. “Where have you been?” she asked. Before he could answer a terrible noise and shaking filled the air and the girl disappeared. In bounced a much larger and stronger giant than the one which his brother had faced up to.
“What brought you to my castle uninvited?” he shouted. “And what kind of person are you to have the destiny to end your life here for a second time?”
“I was outside and had no place to go”, said O. “But I have no memory of ending my life here before.”
“Come here and I will make you remember”, said the giant, wielding his sword. It was a long night of fighting, but the eventual ruin of the thing was the despatch of the giant by the brother, who settled down and went to sleep.
Tomorrow morning he got up and searched the castle, but failed to find anyone else alive in it. He raised his horse, his dog and his hawk and went out hunting in the demesne.
As evening fell, what should come to him but a hare? He took his horse and released the hound and the hawk but the hare outran them all and disappeared into a small cottage in the wood. “Why wouldn’t I go in?” said O.
There was no-one inside but a fine red fire in the grate, and he sat down beside it. Soon the ugliest old woman he had ever seen came through the door. She made no blessing to him at all, only to look badly at him.
“Come in from the door”, says O, “and share the fire with me.”
“I won’t come”, she said, “I would be scared!”
“What would you be scared of?” asks O.
“This hawk, and I don’t trust the greyhound, and I wonder what that horse would do to me?”
“You are in no danger from them”, says O, “They are all honest. Come up and sit by the fire.”
“I will not”, she says, “unless they are all leashed.”
“Why don’t I bind them?” says O. “But I have nothing to bind them with.”
“I’ll give you a way to bind them”, says she, and tore three snares of hair off her head. “Here”, she says, “Use these.”
He pretended to bind them, but at the first opportunity he put the three hairs into the fire.
“Take care, you scoundrel”, she said, “there’s no doubt that you killed my son – the best son a woman ever had! You were in the castle last night”, she said,“ and my son is dead there today. You did it, for sure”.
“But what is your satisfaction?” says O, “I wouldn’t have killed him if he hadn’t tried to kill me.”
“I’ll tell you”, she said, “I’ll be happy.” She wielded her sword and they fought a battle inside the cottage. They both laid into the battle, and it was the greatest sword-wielding that any man had ever seen between any two, and they continued on ever and ever until O was in trouble. He saw that he was strained and he called for his hawk to come to his aid.
“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman.
“I can’t move”, said the snare, “because I’m here in the fire”. So the hawk jumped, and that was it for the woman – her eyes were out. This did not stop the battle between them and she very soon had the headache on O once more. He yelled out to the greyhound, “Give me help.”
“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman.
“I can’t help you”, said the snare, “because I’m here in the fire”. So the greyhound jumped in and took a piece out of the old woman’s leg. Yet she still gave her best and O was forced to call out for his horse.
“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman.
The snare spoke and said, “I’m here in the fire”. With that the horse came to his aid and didn’t the old lady explode with both her legs gone.
From then on it was O taking the lead. He raised his sword to strike the final blow: “Here’s an end for you,” he shouted.
“Hold on”, says she, “If you remove my head or my walls of life, your brother and his horse, his dog and his hawk will remain captive forever”.
“How can you bring them back?” he asked.
“There’s a magic wand, stuck under that rack by the fire. Hit these stones with the rod and they will come back as right as they ever have been.”
He made for the rod and the first thing was he had struck the witch and she turned to stone herself! Then he struck the other four stones and his brother, the hawk, the greyhound and the horse were back right as they had always been. There was the great reunion and the sharing of stories, then they were all for going back to the castle. “We have the magic wand now”, they said, “We can do whatever we like – let’s call and see what big lads there might be there now.”
There was the fair countrywoman, and wasn’t she surprised to see the two men standing there as alike as you could ever believe. O grabbed her for fear she would vanish as she had before. “Now”, he said “there’s something strange about you, for you left me before when the ground shook.”
“It’s like this”, she said, “ there are three of us here enchanted. The old woman comes every night and puts the magic on me, then in the days I have to do all the chores in the castle for her two sons. She didn’t come at all last night.”
Enchanted Woods (The Dark Hedges, Co Antrim):
“No”, says O, “and you will never see her again. I ended up with that old girl last night and I took the living breath from her. But tell us how you came to be here?”
“It’s too long to tell”, said the girl. “There were only the two of us, sisters – and the best times were when we were living with our father and mother: strong, rich and important. Our mother fell ill and knew that there was no cure. She called us to her bed and told us that she saw a disaster on the horizon. The old powers would come and put an enchantment on us, and take our castle. Our father asked how long we would stay enchanted, and if there was any cure. There was none, she said, unless the Sons of the Salmon would ever find us. The old powers came to take the castle from us. When we resisted the old woman struck us with a magic wand and we were turned into three stones – my father, my sister and I. Only I was released every day to carry out the chores. That is how we have lived our lives up to now, and if the old woman is dead then perhaps the magic is at an end.”
“She is dead”, said Hugh, “as we have survived the magic. Where are the stones that were made for you and your father?”
She showed them the stones. Hugh beat the magic wand on the stones and there were all three bounced up as well as they ever had been. Then their stories started together, with the father telling all that had taken place. “And now”, he said, “we believed that we would be captured forever unless the Sons of the Salmon lifted the magic. But you cannot be the Sons of the Salmon, yet the magic has been lifted!”
“That doesn’t matter now”, said Hugh. “but we are two brothers and you have these two daughters. Why wouldn’t we be the ones to marry them?”
“So be it”, said the father, “and I will divide my kingdom between you.”
“Perhaps we don’t need a kingdom”, said the brothers, “for our own father is a gentleman too. Now we should return to him to give him the news.”
And so it happened that the families were united. The gentleman who had been a fisherman remembered the story of his meeting with the salmon who could talk, and who had foretold the birth of the two boys. Of course it was these two who were the Sons of the Salmon. It was agreed that they should go and look for the salmon so that he could share the news. The fisherman went back with his line to the pool where he had the adventure in those far off days. What should happen but the salmon reappeared and spoke again! The long of it was that they struck the salmon with the magic wand and he turned into a fine gentleman who told them how he, also, had been put under an enchantment which could only be lifted by his own sons.
The short of it was that they all returned to the castle in the woods. They picked up the stone that was made from the old woman and took it to the pool where the salmon had spoken. “What would we do with her”, said O, “but put her where she put somebody else?”
They threw in the stone, and there was never trouble again in that castle or in that kingdom. The sun has always shone in everlasting summer, and the fields are only green. And the children’s children of those families have spread across the western lands and are the happiest of all peoples in all this world.
Endpiece from Irish writer and illustrator Robert Gibbings’ final book – Till I End My Song (1957):
Salmon of Knowledge by George Walsh:
This story was reworked by Robert, based on a most ancient story, told in Irish
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