West Cork Villages and Towns – Skibbereen

It was an ‘odd’ Olympic year – 2021. Firmly etched in my mind is the knowledge that years in which Olympic Games are held – like leap years – are divisible by 4! This one was different, because of Covid. But that didn’t prevent Ireland producing its heroes: gold for rowing and boxing, and bronze, also for rowing and boxing: a total of 8 sports heroes bringing medals home. If you will forgive the pun, the small country of Ireland punched well above its weight! All the rowers trained at the Skibbereen Rowing Club in West Cork, under the expert eye of their coach Dominic Casey. No surprise, then, that the town was in celebratory mood for weeks after the event, as you can see from many of my photographs, taken around the town at the end of August.

The town, from its situation in a wild, unenclosed part of the country, has frequently been the rendezvous of disaffected parties, but it has been much improved of late years, and is now a very flourishing place. It is situated on the southern bank of the river Ilen, and comprises seven streets; that part which extends into the parish of Abbeystrowry is called Bridgetown, and consists of three streets, one of which has been recently formed. The number of houses in the whole town is 1014, many of which, in the eastern part and in the parish of Creagh, are large and well built: the approaches have been much improved by the formation of new lines of road at each extremity . . .

LEWIS TOPOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IRELAND 1837

It’s interesting that Lewis – in 1837 – describes the number of houses as just over a thousand. He also states elsewhere that there were 4,429 inhabitants in 1691: in the 2011 census the town recorded a population of 2,568.

The first edition of the Ordnance Survey 6″ map was produced around 1840, just after the Lewis Topographical Dictionary was published. From the extract above, the layout of the town we know today had been broadly established by then. Compare this to today’s OS map (below) and the annotated aerial view.

There are a few theories as to the earliest origins of the town. Oft quoted is the story of the survivors from the sacking of Baltimore by Barbary Pirates in 1631 having moved upriver to found, or expand, the settlement that is now Skibbereen. It is likely that there was already a community on this part of the river, which was tidal and probably easily navigable up to its sheltered reaches at this point: at one time there were no less than five quays, warehouses and a Customs House within the town – this post will tell you more.

Skibbereen today is defined by its river – as it always has been. The waterside deserves a bit more attention – and is being opened up a little in some of the new civic improvement schemes that have been enabled by major flood relief works in the town. There are many opportunities yet to be explored.

All towns evolve and, hopefully, move into the future: Skibbereen – we’ll be keeping an eye on you! But it’s a great town already: it has the busiest market in West Cork on a Saturday; lively shopping streets; easy (and free) parking – and a very healthy ‘pavement cafe’ culture that has grown up during the pandemic, and is likely to continue to flourish. Let’s walk the streets and see the town as its best in the late summer sunshine . . .

Here at Roaringwater Journal we will always sing the praises of this town, and it has been the subject of a good deal of our historical research and writing. Have a look at our posts on Agnes Clerke, Ireland’s first and foremost female astronomer;  Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, the famed nationalist and Fenian: Uillinn – one of Ireland’s most innovative art galleries – here, here and here. We also must not forget that Skibbereen was at one time an important part of Ireland’s railway network: you could travel to and from Cork and Baltimore, and it was a terminus for the narrow gauge railway that trundled off to Schull, and whose loss is now much mourned.

I hope my post inspires you to explore this prominent West Cork town, if you haven’t already done so. It has historic foundations – too numerous to list in this one, short article. Choose a sunny afternoon – or go there to shelter from the infrequent showers. Whatever the day, make the Skibbereen Heritage Centre your starting point: you will find a wealth of information which will help to guide you on your way. The building itself is a piece of history: it used to be Skibbereen’s gas works!

The town name was familiar to me long before I settled in Ireland a decade ago. I lived in the fishing village of Newlyn, Cornwall, for many years and got to know the history of the artists’ colony in West Penwith, centred on that town and St Ives. One artist – Stanhope Alexander Forbes – was known as ‘The Father of the Newlyn School of Artists’ – he was Irish born, and lived from 1857 to 1947. I vividly remember one of his works, displayed in the Penlee Gallery in Penzance. It shows fishermen leaving Newlyn to follow the shoals of herring and pilchards to the waters of Roaringwater Bay. The title of that picture? Goodbye – Off To Skibbereen!

Previous posts in this series:

Bantry

Schull

Pints and Pipes

Today there is a story to tell, with lots of connections to the West of Ireland – and our own Ballydehob! That’s Levis’s Corner Bar, below, one of the village’s fine hostelries: try them all if you visit. Levis’s is known for its musical events but also for its traditional appearance inside. Look at the photo of the Irish music session (you’ll see me bottom left playing concertina) – that was taken a few years ago, before Covid; we are still waiting for those good times to return. On the wall behind the players you can catch a glimpse of a painting of men with pints and pipes.

There’s a better view of the painting, above. When I first saw it – very many years ago now – I knew immediately that it was based on a photograph that had been taken by Tómás Ó Muicheartaigh – an Irish cultural hero who spent most of his life documenting traditional life, mainly in the western counties. He lived through the founding of the Irish Free State and was an enthusiastic proponent of the Irish language. This sketch portrait of him is by Seán O’Sullivan, a friend and compatriot:

Way back in the 1970s my then wife and I ran a small bookshop in a Devon market town, specialising in folklore and traditional life. It had a substantial section on Ireland, and Irish culture. We stocked a recently-published volume (1970) celebrating the work of Ó Muicheartaigh, and I very soon had to sell myself a copy, as it is a superb record of mainly rural life in Ireland during the early twentieth century. I have it to this day – of course.

There is the photograph in the book, above. It is captioned Piontí Agus Píopaí – Pints and Pipes, hence the title of this post. Below it is a photograph of two Aran Island fishermen relaxing on the rocks while waiting for the weather to improve before they set out to sea. But there is more – a list of the photographs with some expanded captions at the end of the book. The whole book is written in Irish so I have recruited Finola’s help in providing a transcription for the Pints and Pipes – here it is, in the original and then translated:

Piontí Agus Píopaí

Ceathrar pinsinéirí ag baint spraoi as lá an phinsin le píopa agus le pionta Pórtair. B’fhéidir nach mbeadh pionta go hAoine arís acu. A saol ar fad tugtha ar an bhfarraige acu seo. Féach, cé gur istigh ón ngaoth agus ón aimsir atá an ceathrar go bhfuill an cobhar ar píopa gach duine acu. Is mar chosaint are an ngaoth a bhíodh an cobhar agus chun tobac a spáráil, ach ní bhainfí an cobhar anuas den phíopa instigh ná amuigh

Pints and Pipes

Four pensioners enjoying pension day with pipes and pints of porter. They might not have another pint until Friday. They’ve spent their whole lives on the sea. Look, even though the four of them are inside, away from the wind and the weather, the cover is still on each of their pipes. The covers are to protect the tobacco from the wind and to make it last longer and they aren’t taken off inside nor out

So, a fascinating piece of social history. Apart from conjecturing a date for the photo, I didn’t have much information to add when I first published it on Roaringwater Journal in February 2016. Because of the juxtaposition in the book, I guessed that the picture might have been taken around 1938, when Tómás is known to have visited and photographed the Aran Islands (and would have travelled through Kerry to get there). Here is one of his views of a Curragh being launched on Inis Meáin at this time (Dúchas):

I didn’t expect my story of Pints and Pipes to advance beyond this. But, last week, I received a message from a reader who had seen the photograph in Roaringwater Journal and was able to provide very significant additional information!

. . . My name is Joanne and I live in London. My dad found a photo on your website from a blog dated 14 Feb 2016 entitled Images – it is the Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh photograph of the 4 men drinking in a bar. My great-grandad is the man on the far left. It was great to find the photo as it is much better quality than the copy we have, unfortunately my nan had an original postcard but it was borrowed by a representative of Guinness many years ago and never returned! 

Joanne, September 2021

Joanne has proved to be a wonderful contact, and I am so grateful to her for providing information and allowing me to use it here. In summary:

. . . My great-grandad’s name was Seán Mac Gearailt but he was known as Skip.  He was from Baile Loisce in Kerry.  The photo was taken in a bar which was then called Johnny Frank’s in Baile na nGall (Ballydavid) but I think is now called Tigh TP.  I can see from the photos that have been digitalised Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh took a lot of photographs at Baile na nGall. Pints and Pipes isn’t in that digitalised collection . . .

. . . I gave my dad a call tonight and discussed the extract with him; he lived with his grandparents as a child in the late 1940’s/50’s and visited regularly so knows a lot about Skip. Dad remembers him collecting his pension on a Friday at Ballydavid and having a beer in Johnny Frank’s before going home to hand over the rest of the pension to his wife – so the extract in the book is correct on that. Skip was primarily a farmer but dad says he did go out fishing in a curragh at night. Dad remembers his nan being worried for him when he was out at sea. Dad doesn’t know the name of the other men in the photograph. Skip was friends with two Moriarty brothers (from Gallarus) – so dad thinks maybe the two men in the middle are them but he can’t know that for sure . . .

Joanne, September 2021

Wow! You can imagine how delighted I was to receive that information. But there’s more. I managed to find some early photos of Ballydavid (Baile na nGall in Irish), which is part of the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht area. In fact we have been there – when we took the Irish language immersion course two years ago.

We didn’t photograph the Ballydavid bar, Johnny Frank’s at that time, but here (above) is a view of it from Wiki Commons. Also, to help set the scene, is a little piece online which features the bar, and weaves a tale…

Regular readers will know my interest in the Napoleonic-era signal towers which dot the coast of Ireland, all built in the early years of the 19th century. There was one at Ballydavid Head, drawn (above) by George Victor Du Noyer as he passed by on one of his geological expeditions on 12 June 1856. We didn’t climb the Head when we visited, but we viewed it from a distance (below). The tower is now a ruin.

We have travelled far, far away from Ballydehob where, in some ways, the weaving of this tale began. We had better return. Here’s a reminder of that painted image of the ‘Pints and Pipes’ photograph in Levis’s Corner Bar. Compare it to the header photograph of this post.

It is so obviously based on the Tómás Ó Muicheartaigh portrait, yet there are some differences. The pipes of the two men in the middle are missing! I can’t tell you why this is the case, but I can tell you now who produced the painting, as I was given a valuable link by Joe O’Leary, landlord of Levis’s (which his been in his family for some generations – but that is another story). The painting has a signature:

Paul Klee was, of course, a well known Swiss-born German artist who lived between 1879 and 1940: he had no connection whatsoever with Ireland! Nor did he have anything to do with this painting, which was in fact from the brush of Raymond Klee, born in Barry, South Wales, in 1925 but living out much of his later life in Bantry, West Cork, until his death there in 2013. During the 1950s and 60s he lived in the Montmatre artists’ quarter in Paris, and is said to have been a close friend of Pablo Picasso. There can be no doubt that the Levis’s painting is his work, as I came across a short video, taken late in his life, in his Ballylickey Gallery. I managed to ‘freeze’ the fast-moving film at this point:

There, you can see the artist himself on the left, and over on the right is the partial image of a huge painting propped up: it’s another version of Pints and Pipes… I wonder what became of it? Or, indeed, of much of the large body of work which he left behind in Ballylickey? You will find examples on the internet, including several from the catalogues of art dealers. He doesn’t seem to have exhibited a particularly consistent style and – by repute – ‘churned out’ some of his works very quickly but – it has to be said – to a willing audience. During tours of the United States he would paint large canvases in front of a crowd – perhaps 200 spectators – and produce work which he immediately sold to the highest bidder in the room! I have selected a couple of images of paintings which might be of interest to my audience. The upper painting is titled The Local, while the lower one is Sky Over Inchydoney.

I must end my tale. Here is a little bonus, especially for my correspondent Joanne – and she won’t see this until she reads this post for the first time. We were leafing through the Tómás Ó Muicheartaigh book; it’s hard to put down – over 300 seminal photographs of Irish life. Finola’s eagle eye picked out one which I had never noticed before – and here it is: Seán Mac Gearailt, Joanne’s Great Grandfather, Skip. The caption underneath is apt. Many thanks, Joanne, for setting me on this journey…

GO mBEIRIMID BEO AR AN AM SEO ARÍS . . .

Thanks go to my very good friend Oliver Nares, who worked on the photographs of Pints and Pipes and Skip for me, and greatly improved their quality. Have look at his own site

West Cork Villages and Towns – Bantry

. . . The town is situated at the northern extremity of the bay to which it gives its name, in a small valley encircled by lofty mountains, which attracting the clouds in their passage over the Atlantic, involve it in almost continual rains. The streets are indifferently paved, and not lighted; the inhabitants are supplied with water from numerous springs. The approaches are steep and incommodious, and are lined with cabins of very inferior description. Little improvement has been made in the town, except by the erection of some very extensive stores by Mr O’Connell and Mr Corkery, merchants of the place, and the enlargement of the principal hotel, which now affords ample accommodation to the numerous tourists who, during the summer season, frequent the place on their way to Glengariff and the lakes . . .

Lewis Topographical Dictionary of Ireland 1837

. . . This bay was known to the ancients by the name of Inber Sceine. It is a noble sheet of water, landlocked by beautiful mountains. The scenery is picturesque, bold, and grand, and equals, if it yet not surpass, the best to be found in these kingdoms . . .


Early Irish History and Antiquities and the History of West Cork
W O’Halloran 1916

Bantry . . . a miserable poor place, hardly worth the name of a town, consisting of seven or eight small houses, and some mean little cottages . . .

Jacobite army officer and author John Stevens, 1689

Well, here we have some contrasting descriptions of the town of Bantry, the earliest (above) dating from over 330 years ago! That one is a bit unfair, in truth, as it seems to be almost an ‘aside’ within Stevens’ ill-tempered account of his own involvement in the Williamite War (1689 – 1691). Bantry was a landing place for the Jacobite army which then marched through Cork and engaged in the Battles of the Boyne and Aughrim, and the Siege of Limerick (which is celebrated to this day in a traditional country dance!). None of this needs to detain us further from pursuing our contemporary account of Bantry town.

Bantry in the time of Covid . . . As with our exploration of Schull, the first in this series, we capture a moment in time: all the photographs are taken in one summer’s day, and show the norms of daily life. We deliberately did not choose Market Day (every Friday throughout the year), as on that day the population of the place appears to double in size. This is an average weekday and it is busy enough, with holiday makers swelling the ranks and helping to populate the many outdoor facilities.

Bantry has made its mark in the history of Ireland’s independence. An attempted landing by the French Fleet in Bantry Bay on 22 December 1796 was partly precipitated by Theobald Wolfe Tone – one of the founding members of the United Irishmen. The mission was unsuccessful due to severe gales. A political cartoon of the time (below) satirises the venture:

. . . On the French expedition to Bantry Bay, at the end of 1796: Pitt, Dundas, Grenville, and Windham are the four winds which blow up the storm to destroy the invaders. FFox, as the carved figure at the head of the Revolution, is represented as influencing the United Irishmen. The crew of the jolly-boat are Sheridan, Liberty Hall, Erskine, M A Taylor, and Thelwall, who, it is insinuated, were all approvers, at least, of the Irish rebellion . . .

Historical and Descriptive Account of the Caricatures of James Gillray, 1851

Wolfe Tone’s statue looks down over the square which bears his name in Bantry today: it was sculpted by Jeanne Rynhart in 2000. Close by is an anchor from the ‘French Armada’ found off Whiddy Island. The square was known formerly as Egerton Square – named after a descendant of the Earls of Bantry (have a look at this post). In 1899 the Irish Nationalist MP James Gilhooly oversaw the renaming. Also on the present-day square (much of which is on reclaimed land) is the notable statue of Saint Brendan by Imogen Stuart.

The aerial image, above, shows how the town has evolved along the original river valley. Comparing this view with the earliest 6″ OS map – dating from around 1840 (below – upper) – and the 25″ OS edition c1900 (below, lower), you can see clearly how the Square has encroached on the original natural harbour. You can also see that the terminus of the Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway was carried on an extended pier to the west, enabling goods to be shipped in and out of the town. Interestingly, prior to the railway’s arrival in 1892, and continuing into the early 20th century, there was a regular steamship service from Bantry to Castletownbere on the Beara Peninsula. This also served Glengarriff and Adrigole.

In spite of local opposition the railway was closed on 1 April 1961, and the station building was demolished. We do fortunately still have some vestiges of the line clearly visible in the town.

I have only touched on the briefest aspects of the history of this significant West Cork town. There is considerably more recorded in a recent opus compiled by distinguished historian and international scholar Colum Hourihane, who hales from Bantry. We were recently at the launch of his latest book Bantry Through the Centuries, Bantry Historical Press, 2021 and were treated to an illustrated talk, given by the author. Colum is at pains to point out that this is not a general history of Bantry, but that its core is the streets of the town” . . . It’s an effort to understand how the town developed over the centuries in relation to its people . . . “ The book is a first-class resource: a 490-page review of local lore and garnered knowledge illustrated with almost 140 additional pages of historic photographs. This must surely be the most comprehensive volume ever published on this town.

Let’s finish with some more of the photos taken on our day’s exploration: an attempt to capture the essence of this significant West Cork settlement. I hope it will encourage you to visit, if you don’t already know it.

You can read much more about Bantry in Roaringwater Journal. Here are just a few links:

The Golden Hour

Masters of Tradition Festival

Ireland’s First Inhabitants

Seaweed and Sealing Wax

Finola has been involved in the Ellen Hutchins Festival since it began in 2015 – the 200th anniversary of the death of Ireland’s first female botanist. This year she was asked to help organise and MC an outdoor event, and has had a very busy time – together with her collaborators – leading up to this. On the day – last Friday – I went along to see the culmination of their hard work, and I thought I would share the experience with you.

The weather forecast for that day was atrocious! Heavy rain and thunderstorms were predicted for the duration, and we set out for Ballylickey with some trepidation. However, as is often the case in West Cork, the weather forecasters were confounded. Nevertheless, the Festival team had prepared for all eventualities and we arrived in time to contribute to the setting up of a shelter made from a silk parachute and a number of wooden poles. The transformation of an empty area of lawn in the gardens of Seaview House Hotel into an impressive performance space in a very short time was quite remarkable – and a visual treat – as the swirling mass of silk was tamed by our team, directed by Seán Maskey.

Watching (and, indeed, participating) in this constructional triumph, I was taken back to the days when I lived in Cornwall and followed the escapades of two theatre groups there: Kneehigh Theatre and Footsbarn. Both started out as small troupes of travelling players who took their performance spaces with them and incorporated the action of creating and erecting their transitory auditoria into their shows: all part of the visual entertainment. Both those groups have evolved and travelled far away from their roots, but the evanescent nature of their early shows has stayed with me, to be pleasantly awakened by the happenings at Ballylickey.

To see where Ballylickey fits in to the story of Ellen Hutchins, have a look at Finola’s post from 2015. Ellen was born in 1785 in Ballylickey House and lived much of her short life there. Seaview House – now the Hotel – was built partly in the grounds of the Hutchins family home, so it is a fitting venue for Festival events, as we know that we are following her own footsteps as she became interested in the world of plants and seaweeds which she discovered all around her as she was growing up.

. . . Ellen was a pioneering botanist who specialised in a difficult branch of botany, that of the non-flowering plants or cryptogams. She discovered many plants new to science and made a significant contribution to the understanding of these plants. She was highly respected by her fellow botanists and many named plants after her in recognition of her scientific achievements.In addition to being an outstanding scientist, Ellen was also a talented botanical artist. Botanical drawings serve science in a very important way . . .

Ellenhutchins.com

That’s Finola (above) introducing the subject of the day: the correspondence that passed between Ellen and Dawson Turner of Yarmouth, Norfolk, who had become a recognised authority on botany in early 19th century Britain, even though this was always a leisure pursuit: professionally he worked for his father, who was head of Gurney and Turner’s Yarmouth Bank and took over his role on his death. Dawson wrote numerous books on plants and got to know the leading botanists of the day, including Ellen. Amazingly, one hundred and twenty letters between her and Dawson survive. Those from Dawson Turner to Ellen are held by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and those from Ellen to Turner are at Trinity College Cambridge. Friday’s event was a reading of a selection of these letters. On Finola’s right, above, is Karen Minihan, an actor and drama director who lives in Schull: she read the letters from Ellen. Moreover, it was she who selected and organised the extracts – which were the heart of the performance.

Above are the two other performers: on the right is Mark O’Mahony from Cappaghglass – he is a part-time actor, and here he reads the letters from Dawson. On his right is Carrie O’Flynn. She is a historic re-enactor and researcher: she appeared as Ellen, in authentic period dress, and provided really illuminating interpolations between letter-readings, informing us about the act of letter-writing itself in the early 1800s – the ink and quill pens; the postal service; Ellen’s probable appearance and dress (there are no surviving portraits of her) and the difficulties which Ellen would have had to face in pursuing here chosen interests, especially as she was herself quite frail and was for many years the carer of her own mother. Her achievements in the light of all this are truly remarkable, and Carrie succeeded in bringing this out with her contributions. Below she shows us the brass microscope that Ellen used – an essential item of equipment for her work.

As the reading of the letters progressed it became gradually obvious that a deep friendship was developing between the two botanists, and the language reflected this. Particularly telling (and this was drawn out in the selection of the letters) was the way the missives were framed as time went on. From a simple, almost curt formality in the earliest, we begin to read how their shared interests extended beyond the botanical; they exchange newly discovered poetry; Dawson tells Ellen that he has named his newly-born daughter after her; they imagine how they would like to meet each other and walk their favourite landscapes together. Each sends the other packages containing examples of the plants and seaweeds that preoccupy them, and their greetings at the top and tail of every page become increasingly warmer. We, the audience, open our imaginations as to how a happy fulfilment could ever metamorphose – West Cork and Norfolk are as far apart as any two place could be in early 19th century Britain. Poignantly, we learn that they never met: Ellen – always in poor health – died in 1815 at the age of twenty nine. We can only imagine that Dawson, remote in Norfolk, was desolate.

Important to our day – apart from the presenters and actors – were Madeline Hutchins (above – showing us some of Ellen’s drawings of seaweed), great great grand-niece and a co-founder of the Festival; and – behind the scenes but essential – the team, including Clare Heardman, co-founder of the Festival and a Conservation Ranger at the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Here’s Clare in action setting everything up – and running the Festival shop:

We had a further treat in store for us after the show: we were taken on a guided tour of some of the environments which Ellen would have known and explored during her life at Ballylickey. This felt really special, and brought us close, again, to the extraordinary young woman whose short but productive life we now celebrate here in West Cork.

Please note that Ballylickey House today is private property, and visitors should not seek access. There is plenty of the natural environment that Ellen would have been familiar with around Ballylickey and on the shores of Bantry Bay – well worth an exploration. And this link to the Ellen Hutchins Audio Trail is invaluable, especially to anyone who was not able to be at Friday’s event.

Particular thanks, of course, to all who participated – and attended – the event. It was a great success! Thank you to the weather Gods. And many thanks to Seaview House Hotel for providing the venue

Caherlehillan

The Iveragh is the largest of the Atlantic peninsulas of Ireland: it is, perhaps, also the most romantically named. In Irish it is Uíbh Ráthach – ‘descendants of Ráthach‘. But we don’t know who Ráthach might have been: a Gaelic chieftain, a notable family – ancient inhabitants lost even to legend? Certainly this terrain is amongst the wildest and most beautiful in this green island. Today we are focussing on just one Kerry townland which encompasses a deep vein of history stretching back to prehistoric times.

The townland of Caherlehillan is defined by mountains. To the north is Knocknadobar (header and above), to the east Mullaghnarakill, and to the south Caunoge. The Fertha River flows down from Coomacarrea and creates a long, fertile valley floor which opens to Valencia Harbour at Cahersiveen.

It would be reasonable to assume that the river valley would have supported communities in ancient times, and the recorded archaeology of the area confirms this. The earliest antiquities include a Bronze Age stone row and – possibly Neolithic – Rock Art, explored and recorded by Finola fifty years ago: an eager student travelling alone through the wildernesses on a borrowed Honda 50!

Upper picture – stone row in Caherlehillan townland; lower – Finola’s drawing of Rock Art made in 1973 for her UCC thesis. Note the cruciform motif at the southern end of this large sandstone boulder: it is probable that this carving dates from a later period, and may have indicated its use as a Mass Rock in penal times. However, the ‘Patriarchal Cross’ format is unusual in this context, and warrants further study. Since Finola travelled those boreens, many more examples of Rock Art have been revealed in the area and are now identified on the Sites and Monuments records. On our visit to Caherlehillan we searched the hillsides in vain for some of these more recently discovered panels (below).

This further representation of Rock Art (above), also recorded by Finola, lies on the borders of the townlands of Caherlehillan and Gortnagulla: the motifs are quite unusual.

The central feature of Caherlehillan is the Caher (above), which gives the townland its name. The suffix ‘lehillan’ is probably from the Irish Leith-Uilleann, meaning half-angle, or elbow. There is a sharp bend in the Fertha River below the settlement, and it is most likely that this natural feature gave rise to the nomenclature. A Caher (Irish Cathair) is a stone fort, and is distinguished from a typical earthen rath, or ring-fort, by its size and construction. Forts, whether stone or earthen, were the dwelling places and shelters of people who lived in the first millennium in Ireland. Generally, stone-built forts were larger than earthen examples and are likely to have been inhabited by higher status families or communities. They would have been impressive structures and good views over the surrounding landscape was a requisite. Interestingly, the word Cathair is also given the meaning ‘city’ – ‘monastic city and settlement’ – and ‘Paradise’ (Teannglann). All of these could be relevant, as close to this Caher is an early ecclesiastical settlement.

This picture shows the spectacular setting of the Caher; the previous views show the extent of the enclosing stonework. Today it is a desolate place: many of the walls have been partially dismantled for use elsewhere, and the only close habitation is a single farm dwelling just below the fort. In this remote yet beautiful site it is hard to imagine the activity that was focussed here a thousand years ago.

Just to the west of the lone farmhouse is a small enclosure, bounded by stone walls. It would be easy to overlook this, but for one feature which stands out (above). It catches the eye because it is so unusual: a square box structure with stone sides and corner posts, and two upright engraved cross-slabs facing down the valley. Quartz rocks form a raised bed within the square. Around this ‘box’ are a number of low, unshaped stones set in the ground. This was long thought to have been just a children’s burial ground – a Ciilín or Ceallúnach, but we now know that this was a later use. Between 1994 and 2004 the site was substantially investigated and excavated by students from University College Cork’s Department of Archaeology under the direction of John Sheehan, with remarkable results.

. . . Recent excavations at the early medieval ecclesiastical site at Caherlehillan, Co Kerry, have resulted in the discovery of important information on its initial development and structure. The ritual core of the site, consisting of a church, cemetery and shrine (which probably originated as a ‘special’ or founder’s grave), dates to what is probably the formative phase of Christianity in the south-west of Ireland. The picture emerges of a site that was conceived and built as a coherent entity in accordance with a clear conceptual template . . .

John Sheehan, A Peacock’s Tail: Excavations at Caherlehillan, Ivereagh, 2009

These two illustrations are from the Sheehan / UCC Excavation summary. The photograph is a good representation of the two upright cross-slabs, while the illustration shows two fragments which were found during excavation. Both show the same motif displayed on the smaller slab, yet each representation is to a different scale. This motif therefore occurs three times at this site.

This is the plan that was made at the commencement of excavation, showing the ecclesiastical site at Caherlehillan. The south-eastern boundary is a built-up stone retaining wall (shown on the photograph below), and the indicated embankment above the later roadway implies that this site was originally circular in form (courtesy John Sheehan). Carbon dating of excavated materials suggest a date of mid-5th to early 6th centuries for the earliest activity on the site, while activity appears to have ceased beyond the 8th century. Most importantly, the excavations revealed – to the north-east of the ‘shrine’ – the foundations of a timber church dating from the 5th century – possibly the earliest church remains ever found in Ireland.

The photograph above is from Church Island on Lough Currane, Co Kerry, a site which we visited recently. It shows the shrine of Saint Fionán Cam, who was the founder of that ecclesiastical settlement. The island foundation was set up in the sixth century, and the name of the holy man and his exploits are recorded for us to observe today. Sheehan suggests that the ‘box’ at the Caherlehillan site is also a founder’s shrine, but we have no record of who this ‘saint’ or holy man was. Four hundred years of occupation of the site have, apparently, left him without a name, either through inscription, implication or oral tradition.

The upper picture shows a detail of the carving on the smaller cross slab at Caherlehillan. Sheehan (and others) suggest that the bird representation is in fact a peacock, which features frequently in early Christian art. This is because the wonderful plumage of the bird is entirely renewed every year, through moulting, and this symbolizes the underlying Christian theme of death and resurrection. The relief carving (above) from Northern Italy is dated to the 8th century and shows two confronted peacocks, ” . . .symbols of paradise and immortality in early Christian and Byzantine art . . . “. Sheehan in fact goes further, suggesting that the symbols on the shrine stones at Caherlehillan show a direct link with early Christian influences from the Mediterranean, something that is borne out by ceramic fragments also recovered from his excavations. These are of of ‘Bii type’, a form of pottery of north-eastern Mediterranean origin that may be firmly dated to the period between the late 5th and mid-6th centuries.

So there we have it: a small, remote settlement in a wild Kerry mountainside that has given up its ancient secrets to us. Dwellers there left us enigmatic Rock Art, possibly 5,000 years ago. Their descendants populated the fertile valley, farming the land and building here a prestigious stone fort, while nearby – and contemporary with that fort – was established perhaps the very earliest Christian foundation in Ireland! Today the place is sparse and rugged but, in keeping with Ireland’s spirit, breathing with an almost remembered past.

The researches and writings of John Sheehan, lecturer in Archaeology at University College Cork have been invaluable in formulating this post.

Back to Clonfert

Clonfert is only a couple of counties over from us: we just have to skip through a bit of Cork and Tipperary and there we are in Galway – a tiny corner of it that is shaped by the River Shannon. So, on a Thursday afternoon at the beginning of June, we found ourselves tripping along dead straight boreens – narrow for the most part – taking us through lush dairy lands – on a quest to revisit Clonfert’s medieval Cathedral, and its associations with one of Ireland’s most famous saints: Brendan the Navigator.

As we approached the little settlement of Clonfert, our empty road ahead was interrupted by a small white car, which seemed to travel erratically from one side of the lane to the other, and our arrival made little difference to its progress. As we got near, we realised that there was a wiry Jack Russell ambling along the road in front of the car: it was clear that the terrier was having its daily walk, with the owner driving along protectively behind it, regardless of where its fancy might take it. Ah, sure – we were in no hurry, so we joined the procession and waited as the dog sniffed and shuffled its way back home: eventually, dog, car and owner vanished through a gate, and we had the road to ourselves once again . . . This is life in Ireland, and it’s good!

Clonfert’s grandly styled ‘Cathedral’ is so important historically, yet it could hardly be more remotely situated. From the east (upper picture above) it looks like many another Church of Ireland building, maybe not worth a second glance – unless, like us, you can’t resist examining every unturned stone because there is invariably something unexpected to be found under it. Just turn the corner and have a look at the west entrance door:

That doorway, with its exquisite decoration dating probably from the 12th century, has been described as ‘the supreme expression of Romanesque decoration in Ireland’. The carvings, although suffering from hundreds of years of wear and tear from the Irish elements, still display an extraordinary richness and variety: we can only wonder at the inspiration, skill and knowledge of the carver, who must have been deeply immersed in both lore and craft. Tadhg O’Keeffe, current Professor of Archaeology at University College Dublin, suggests a date of c1180 for this doorway. Records state that the church was burnt during a Viking raid in 1179, the same year in which a synod was held there by St Laurence O’Toole; installation of this imposing entrance may be connected with these events. Finola’s post today also explores Romanesque carvings not too far away, at Clonmacnoise. She has also written on Clonfert’s architecture in her Irish Romanesque series.

St Brendan lived from 484 to 577. We saw his birthplace in Fenit, Co Kerry, a few years ago. He founded many monasteries in Ireland but arranged for his body to be taken secretly to Clonfert Cathedral for burial as he didn’t want his remains to be disinterred by relic hunters. His grave is a stone slab just outside the great west door. On it are said to be the marks of cats’ paws – interestingly linked, according to folklore, with the many carvings of cats’ heads on the doorway arches.

When we first visited Clonfert, many years ago, the cathedral itself was closed and we went away with the impression that we had seen all the wonders that the place had to offer by our explorations of the outside of the building and its setting. We were wrong: on this occasion the door was unlocked and there were unexpected treats hidden for us in the interior.

Further carvings decorate the church walls: they vary in date and style, but all are fascinating. Here is a selection – notice the seemingly random arrangement of heads and animal features on the great 15th century chancel arch, above.

Angels, cross-slabs, a wyvern and, astonishingly, this fine mermaid complete with comb and mirror. I have found very little information to identify why these various carvings are found here in the Cathedral, apart from general legends which suggests links with Saint Brendan.

The carved stone head was found ‘in the ceiling’ when restoration work was carried out in 1985. It is said to date from around 1500, while the ancient and beautiful font is attributed to the thirteenth century. We could linger and feast on further treasures inside the church, but we need to look at the surroundings, which reveal yet more history.

This extract from the 25″ OS map – late nineteenth century – shows the cathedral and some of the landscape features associated with it. We came here a few years ago, when we were researching Ireland’s waterways, following in the footsteps of English writer L T C Rolt. In his book ‘Green & Silver’ we read of his admiration for Saint Brendan, and his determination to find the grave at Clonfert, which he did in 1946. His book is illustrated with photographs taken by his wife Angela, and the one picture from Clonfert which is used in the book is this one of the ‘Yew Walk’ which was laid out as part of the gardens of the Bishop’s Palace, which you can see marked on the map.

Our own photo of the Yew Walk at Clonfert was taken a few days ago. You can see that it survives, although neglected today. Some of the yew trees are said to be up to 500 years old. From the map you can also see that the Yew Walk connected the Cathedral to the 16th century ‘Clonfert Palace’, and was set out as an ornamental cruciform route, suggesting the path that might have been taken by the monks a thousand years ago. When we explored previously, we discovered the ruins of the Palace at the end of the Yew Walk, and wondered why it has been left in this state (since 1954, as we subsequently learned). The answer to that is fascinating, and I urge you to read my full account from that first visit, here. Below is a photo dating from c1950, showing the Palace at that time (with thanks to Dr Christy Cunniffe). My own photos from this week’s visit follow.

Clonfert might have been a very different place today if Queen Elizabeth had been listened to:

 . . . We are desirous that a college should be erected in the nature of a university in some convenient place in Irelande, for instruction and education of youth in learning. And we conceive the town of Clonfert within the province of Connaught to be aptlie seated both for helth and comodity of ryver Shenen running by it . . .

Queen Elizabeth, Letter to the Bishop Of Clonfert, 1579

The Queen’s advice was not taken up, and Trinity College Dublin was established instead – in 1592 – becoming Ireland’s first University.

The site at Clonfert is so interesting – and covers so many periods in Ireland’s history – right up to the 20th century. It was well worth revisiting – and will merit further visits in the future, too. I’ll leave you with one aspect that probably impressed us most this time around. It’s the Bishop’s Throne which is hidden in the shadows of the Cathedral chancel. Carved from oak, most likely in the 19th century, it is a wonderful representation of Saint Brendan himself, surrounded by the Four Evangelists, crafted in the style of the Book of Kells. Look at him, also, on the header. Here is the Irish saint who set sail out on a voyage into the unknown – seeking Paradise – and discovered the World!