Walking West Cork – Another of the Fastnet Trails

We’re well into November, yet clear, dry days abound and we are drawn out into the lanes of West Cork. There are so many to choose from, and all are quiet, although we will always find someone to share a chat along the way. Yesterday we donned our boots and followed another of the Fastnet Trails – the Ilen River Loop. In fact, the boots were unnecessary as the whole route is on virtually deserted paved roads. If that sounds unexciting, let me tell you it isn’t: wherever you go in West Cork you won’t be short of sweeping green landscapes, broad views – mostly over mountain or water – and fragments of engrossing history jumping out to meet you.

We started at the Lisheen trail head and covered the 8 kilometers in a bit over two hours. This did include some dawdling and chatting: in Ireland the latter is unavoidable, and applies to everyone you meet. With us were friends Amanda and Peter, and you’ll find Peter’s Hikelines account of the expedition here: his watercolour illustrations can only be described as ‘exquisite’.

Look carefully (above) at the line of sea on the horizon: just visible is the unmistakeable silhouette of the Fastnet Lighthouse, justifying this route as a part of the Fastnet Trails network. It’s a wonderful asset for locals and visitors. You could simply drive along these routes, of course, but you just won’t get to see the details and appreciate the beauty. On foot you can pause at every turn and on every brow to properly take in the delectable countryside. And the network of trails is expanding – new routes are being developed at the west end of the Mizen: here’s another of Peter’s posts.

There are views to the north as well, looking into Ballydehob Bay which Jeremy Irons’ ochre coloured Kilcoe Castle dominates. Above the water can be seen the islands of Roaringwater Bay and the ridges of the Mizen and Sheep’s Head, and even the high peaks of the Beara Peninsula beyond. But we must focus on the subject of this trail, which is the broad estuary of the Ilen River as it winds inland, feeding into the woods and pastures of West Cork, narrowing but remaining tidal right up to Skibbereen: schooners used once to berth on the five quays serving that town.

All along the coastline and river estuaries in West Cork are reminders of how important transport by water once was. Dozens of quays are still here, in good working order – there was a drive to revive and restore the more significant ones some years back. Also there are traces of more ancient ones which are slowly decaying into nature. All were put there to serve the isolated rural communities in the days when boreens were only narrow tracks, often impassable in the winter months. But on these western peninsulas no-one is more than a few miles from navigable water – and those quays were an invaluable asset.

Our route passed right beside the Glebe Quay, where we came across the hull of an old fishing boat and – by chance – one of its former owners! Here we are, ‘at the chat’, above. This became a long ‘chat’ – as I was most intrigued to find out why this large vessel was sitting here in a deteriorating state – but we had to cut it short in the end as we were getting cold standing still! Our informant was Mike Williams, who Finola and I have met before: he lives on the shore of the Ilen River and has been involved in boats and boatbuilding for much of his life. He bought this former herring ring-netter some years ago with the intention of restoring her, but sold the vessel on to another enthusiast. The project did not succeed, however, and now the boat is on its way to the marine scrap yard – a sad but inevitable fate for many retired wooden craft.

I did a bit of internet delving and was pleased to turn up some historical information on this boat, which Mike told us was named Ribhinn Bhan. Ribhinn comes from the old Irish word rhigan meaning ‘maiden’, while bhan in Irish means ‘white’. This vessel started life with the name Ribhinn Donn – ‘brown-haired maiden’, and was built in Scotland by Nobles of Girvan in 1966. She was first registered in Scalpay Isle – Sgalpaigh na Hearadh in Gaelic, one of the Outer Hebrides, close to Harris – and carried the number SY 371. She was renamed in 1973 and reregistered as B23 in 1989. She arrived in Tarbert, Co Kerry, Ireland in 2004, and Mike bought her in 2006. I’m including these two not-so-good quality photos of Ribhinn Bhan, which I traced, for historical interest: the first is the vessel in Tarbert, and the second  follows her to West Cork; she is on the right, here, in the boatyard at Oldcourt, on the Ilen River, in 2007.

Moving on from the Ribhinn Bhan our path followed the line of the estuary, rising up to higher ground before turning back towards the trail head at Lisheen. There were many more sweeping views to be enjoyed, and the delight of being immersed in the simple ambience of rural life in West Cork, with all its unremarkable yet irresistibly attractive details. 

We passed the quite remote but still running Minihan’s Bar – an ideal refreshment point on summer evenings – but not open for us on this November afternoon. The also remote seeming Saint Comghall’s Church, built in 1832, marked the return to the trail head and the end of our walk. It was a most satisfying expedition on a remarkably golden late autumnal day.

Up-to-date information on all the Fastnet Trails – including this one – can be found on this website. Our Roaringwater Journal has also written up a few more of them. Give them a try, if you haven’t already done so . . . Enjoy!

Bloodshed and Fenny Poppers – the Legacy of Martinmas

If the wind is in the south-west at Martinmas (10 November), it keeps there till after Candlemas (2 February) . . .

I’m writing about St Martin again! I’ve already put up posts about this character and his fascinating legacy over the past few years. He can take another – after all, we celebrate St Patrick year after year and that’s ok, because this is Ireland . . . But St Martin never set foot in Ireland (as far as we know) although he is well remembered in many Irish traditions, including that piece of weather-lore above. And here – as elsewhere in Europe – there’s a phenomenon known as St Martin’s Summer, or Martin’s Little Summer, which describes an unseasonable spell of warm weather, sunshine and clear blue skies that occurs around about now, in mid-November. In fact today – Martinmas or St Martin’s eve – has dawned warm and clear.

Header and above – looking across Rossbrin Cove from the garden of Nead an Iolair early this morning – St Martin’s Eve – conforming with the tradition of ‘Little Summer’ associated with the saint

The English poet John Clare (1793 – 1864) – sometimes called the peasants’ poet – wrote a very long poem about  St Martin’s Eve: I’ll quote some verses as we go along. It’s worth noting that Clare was a great champion of traditional rural life, and was known as “. . . the greatest labouring-class poet . . . No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self . . .” That’s according to his biographer Jonathan Bate. Although some of his work was well received in his lifetime, he was unable to make enough to keep him, his wife and seven children – and his alcohol consumption – on an even keel. He suffered from ‘strange delusions’ and spent the last twenty seven years of his life in asylums where, nevertheless, he continued to write.

Now that the year grows wearisome with age 

& days grow short & nights excessive long

No outdoor sports the village hinds engage                                                                                Still is the meadow romp and harvest song                                                                               That wont to echo from each merry throng

At dinner hours beneath high spreading tree

Rude winds hath done the landscape mickle wrong

That nature in her mirth did ill foresee                                                                                       Who clingeth now to hope like shipwrecked folk at sea . . .

 

(John Clare, St Martin’s Eve, 1823)

Here’s St Martin, looking every inch a medieval knight – although in fact he lived in the fourth century. He was St Patrick’s uncle – possibly accounting for his popularity in Ireland. In this Italian representation he is shown cutting his cloak in two and giving half to a beggar: the act that has made him famous. He was a Roman soldier but gave up that calling to be consecrated as Bishop of Caesarodunum (Tours) in 371. Although he lived a long life, he is said to have died a martyr by being thrown into a mill stream where he was crushed by the wheel. He achieved acclaim as the patron saint of soldiers, but also managed to become the patron saint of conscientious objectors!

The Basilica at Tours, France (above). St Martin served as Bishop here from 371 – but reluctantly. It is said that he tried to hide from those who wanted to install him as Bishop, but his hiding place was given away by the cackling of geese – which have been associated with the saint ever since. Other stories tell how the saint destroyed pagan temples and cut down sacred trees: in one instance, the pagans agreed to fell their sacred fir tree, if Martin would stand directly in its path. He did so, and it miraculously missed him. There’s a relic in the St Catherine’s Convent Museum of Religious Art in Ultrecht, the Netherlands, which claims to be a hammer which St Martin used to fell pagan sites including sacred trees.  Archaeological analysis has shown it was probably made in the 13th or 14th century from a late Bronze Age stone axe dating from c 1,000 – 700 BC. The handle contains a Latin text saying Ydola vanurunt Martini cesa securi nemo deos credat qui sic fuerant ruicuri (‘the pagan statues fall down, hit by St Martin’s axe. Let nobody believe that those are gods, who so easily fall down’). Here it is:

Beside the fire large apples lay to roast

& in a high brown pitcher creaming ale

Was warming seasoned with a nutmeg toast

The merry group of gossips to regale

Around her feet the glad cat curled her tail

Listening the crickets song with half shut eyes

While in the chimney top loud roared the gale

Its blustering howl of outdoor symphonies

That round the cottage hearth bade happier moods arise . . .

 

(John Clare, St Martin’s Eve, 1823)

It seems a little incongruous, perhaps, to come from a world of basilicas and silver hammers to ancient folk-customs in rural Ireland, but not so long ago Martinmas was greatly celebrated here. Kevin Danaher quotes Mason’s Parochial Survey:

On the eve of St Martin (who is one of the greatest saints in their calendar) in November every family of a village kills an animal of some kind or other; those who are rich kill a cow or a sheep, others a goose or a turkey; while those who are poor, and cannot procure an animal of greater value, kill a hen or a cock and sprinkle the threshold with the blood, and do the same in the four corners of the house; and this ceremonious performance is done to exclude every kind of evil spirit from the dwelling where this sacrifice is made, till the return of the same day in the following year . . .

Danaher also mentions a writer, Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin, commenting in 1830 from County Kilkenny:

The eleventh day, St Martin’s Day. No miller sets a wheel in motion today, no more than a spinning woman would set a spinning wheel going, nor does the farmer put his plough team to plough . . .

The tradition undoubtedly refers back to St Martin’s death from being ‘ground by a mill wheel’. Significantly, there are numerous entries in the Dúchas Folklore Collection, dating from the 1930s, which show that these customs were still remembered and – on occasion – practised:

One of many examples from the Dúchas Folklore Collections which remember the importance of Martinmas customs

Martin King used kill a fowl every St Martin’s night in honour of St Martin. One year Martin forgot it and when he awoke in the morning the floor from his bedroom to the kitchen was covered with blood. Martin washed out the floor, but when he awoke again the following morning the floor was covered with blood again. This went on for three nights. Martin was very troubled about it so he told his story to an old woman that lived near him. The old woman told him it was because he had not killed something in honour of St Martin. Every year after that till he died Martin killed a hen or something in honour of St Martin . . .

 

(Eileen Donegan, Knockane, Listowel – collected for Dúchas 1935)

Another from Co Kerry:

St Martin’s day is held on the 11th of November. It is held as a feast day in honour of St Martin. The night before St Martin’s day people kill a goose or a chicken or some other kind of fowl, and they draw the blood and dip a piece of flax in it. They keep the piece of flax because it is said to be a cure for a pain in one’s side.

 

St Martin was a saint who was ground in a mill for his faith.

 

In olden times the mills used not work on that day The women in olden times used not work. No one would turn a wheel not even of a car.

 

(Mrs Walsh, aged 90 years – Tullamore, Co Kerry – collected for Dúchas)

The next piece is particularly interesting as it mentions St Martin’s association with a white horse:

It is a custom in Ireland to kill a cock on Saint Martin’s Night.

 

There was a man who emigrated to America. On St Martin’s night he was very sad. He was telling his friends that he would like to be home in Ireland, because if he were home he would kill a cock in honour of St. Martin.

 

He went outside and he went down the street. He met a man on a beautiful white horse. The man asked him would he like to go home. He said he was just wishing to be at home. He told him to get up on the horse. He did so and the next place he found himself was at his own door in Ireland.

 

The man told him to come out at a certain hour. He killed the cock and came out at the hour that he was told to do so. The man was waiting for him at the door. He got up on the horse and rode away. It was said that it was St Martin who brought him home.

 

(Maura Keating, aged 82 years, Passage East, Co Waterford)

St Martin’s Eve celebrations are still observed all over Europe. This is a festival in Italy, where children carrying lanterns watch out for the saint arriving on his white charger

What about Fenny Poppers? I hear you ask . . . Well, we have to go across to Northamptonshire, in England, for this surviving – and most curious – custom. St Martin’s Church, Fenny Stratford is to this day the scene of an event which has no apparent origin, nor any particular purpose. I won’t try to offer you an explanation – just to point out that it happens every Martinmas come hell or high water. Here’s a somewhat eccentric account of the event from a Movietone News snippet c 1950:

That’s probably enough about St Martin and his special day to last you another year. The subject is by no means exhausted!

Casino Marino

It’s a perfect little building: a gem of Irish architecture. It lies in an oasis of parkland on the outskirts of Dublin city – all that’s left of an expansive eighteenth century country house demesne, now all but engulfed by housing estates. But – perhaps in homage to the eccentric conceiver of this environmental idyll – the housing estates which have stood below it since the 1920s are quite out of the ordinary. Have a look at the layout on this contemporary plan of Merino townland, carved out of the larger Donnycarney which was granted to the Corporation of Dublin following the dissolution of The Priory of All Hallows in the reign of King Henry VIII. 

This plan is showing the location of Casino Marino, with the green areas around it being the remnants of a 238 acre demesne. The housing below the surviving Casino was Ireland’s first example, in the newly formed Irish state, of an affordable housing project and was the first local authority housing estate in the country. It was heavily influenced by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement, originating in the UK with the two revolutionary developments at Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City. This Dublin estate of about 1300 houses was built on the site of a planned formal garden for Marino House and the original design was followed when the streets were laid out. This gives the Marino estate its symmetrical layout. When it was first built, purchasers of houses were restricted to large families, while alcohol and dogs without leads were banned from the parks, as were children after dark.

Ebenezer Howard, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform – diagram of the ideal city, dated 1898

Back to the eighteenth century, and the heroes of our piece today: James Caulfeild, 1st Earl of Charlemont (1728 – 1799), and his friend, the architect Sir William Chambers (1723-1796). James (left, below – a portrait by Pompeo Batoni) was a cultivated man who disregarded the conventions of court and openly pursued Irish nationalism, having taken a leading part in the formation of the Irish Volunteers. He was the first President of the Royal Irish Academy and was a member of the Royal Dublin Society. In 1783 he was made a founding Knight of the Order of St Patrick. Like most of the wealthy young gentry of his time he went to Italy on The Grand Tour: he fell in love with that country and classical Roman culture and stayed away for nine years. When he returned he determined to bring the spirit of Italy to Dublin. Acquiring tracts of land by the coast that afforded unrivalled views over the entire bay and city, he poured his energies into creating an ideal landscape: he named his demesne ‘Marino’.

William Chambers (on the right, above – this portrait by Joshua Reynolds is in the Royal Academy) was also a great traveller: he was born in Gothenburg to a Scottish father and visited and studied architecture in China, Paris and Italy – where he met Charlemont. He established a practice in London, where he was appointed architectural tutor to the Prince of Wales, later George III. As the leading classicist of his day, it was unsurprising that Charlemont should turn to him to realise his dream of an Italian arcadia in Dublin. It was a commission that took many years to come to fruition, partly because of the Earl’s seemingly limitless ambitions and his attention to fine detail.

Charlemont’s Marino estate enjoyed fine unrestricted views across Dublin Bay. The culmination of the Earl’s work on his estate (and now the only surviving element) is the Casino, and this is sited on the highest point on the land: the painting above shows the view from the roof of the Casino, which was fully accessible from the building interior. So – what is a casino? It’s simply the Italian for small house, and in this case has been built as a garden room or, perhaps, a gazebo. Ornamental, but eminently functional. From the outside it appears small, but exquisitely detailed on all its elevations. In fact, the simple building houses 16 rooms over three storeys – plus the roof terrace.

Exercises in architectural scale. Upper – an almost contemporary view of the Casino painted by William Ashford (1746-1824), National gallery of Ireland: here the building seen in its landscape context looks like a miniature folly. Centre – a close-up of the roof detailing includes life-size statuary. Lower – Ava and Hugo, willing participants in our expedition to the Casino, help to give an impression of its true size.

The Casino is guarded by four large lions. Originally they were intended to be fountains – as you can see from the original architect’s drawing, above. In this drawing you can also get a good sense of how the designer plays tricks with scale: the doorway is perhaps three times the height of a normal door, and only a small section at the bottom is, in fact, an opening.

Symbolism and hidden messages abound: the architect, Sir William Chambers, left his signature – in the form of a ram – in many parts of the house. Every moulding, coving, frame detail has a meaning in terms of architecture and freemasonry – and also pays homage to the Greek and Roman classical orders – at the behest of the client. The parquet flooring is magnificent – and is at present kept covered by a vinyl replica to protect the original exotic woods.

The detailing of every element has been fully considered. I was impressed with the curved timber doors, which follow the line of circular wall partitions inside. And, particularly unusual, is the use of vertically curved glazing which causes reflections when seen from the outside, meaning that no shutters or blinds are needed at the windows.

Look carefully at these windows: they are crafted with vertically curved glass which make them reflective externally!

Examples of the plasterwork within the Casino include agricultural harvest symbols, every classical moulding motif and Apollo the sun-god. It would take several visits to absorb and catalogue the complete variety of images: every room has a different visual character.

There are hidden elements – and enigmas – to the building. These include ‘secret’ tunnels in the basement: one was used by Michael Collins to test-fire submachine guns during the War of Independence. The picture above shows a reconstruction. The basement of the Casino, including the tunnels, is currently undergoing further restoration and refurbishment and was not accessible during our visit. It is said that there are many other tunnels, including one that linked the Casino to the big demesne house (now demolished) – and some that, according to legend, run to the coast – miles away!

Charlemont was a liberal and believed that everyone should have access to his parklands: there were no gates. He was so protective of his project, however, that he married in middle age, having been a confirmed bachelor. He had overheard his then presumed heir (his brother) talking about how he was going to exploit and commercialise the demesne once he got his hands on it: this prompted Charlemont to ensure he produced an heir that he could have some direct influence over! Evidently, the marriage was a happy one. The image above shows the Casino in a sad state of disrepair around 1900: the estate was broken up by the third Earl in 1876.

The Casino was adopted as a National Monument in the 1930s, and a full restoration was begun in the 1970s. A further phase of this restoration is currently under way, and the property is only open on limited occasions when suitable areas are accessible: we were fortunate to get there on one of those times. If you plan to visit, contact the Office of Public Works to make sure that you will get in. Charles Topham Bowden made the journey in 1791, and recorded it in his journal A Tour Through Ireland: here is an extract:

. . . This is one of the most beautiful and elegant seats in the world, happily situated, and in a demesne improved in the highest taste, comprehending 238 acres, laid out in plantations, lawns, and a delightful park . . . The temple is situated in the park – a monument of his Lordship’s refined taste. The Gothic room is a very curious and beautiful structure. The hermitage is nature itself. Art and nature unite in rendering this a most desirable residence. What obligation are not the citizens of Dublin under to his Lordship for having the gates of this terrestrial paradise opened to them whenever they chuse [sic] to walk through it . . .

Mizen Mountains 1 – the Hill of the Foxes

The first day of October seemed ripe for starting a new project. It was also a beautiful, rich, blustery autumnal day – ideal for heading to the remotest uplands. I have always been drawn to high places: there’s something romantic about seeing the coastal landscape laid out below your eyes, especially in these western wildernesses where bare rock, gorse and heather intertwine with history: ancient farmsteads, ruined cottages and impossibly isolated forgotten quays, seemingly abandoned along our most rugged shores.

Header – Toor Island just off the mainland close to the west end of the Mizen Peninsula: the high ground beyond is the peak of Knockatassonig. Above – it’s a most remote and wild place for a pier, but Toor Quay is still accessible from a winding, overgrown footpath and 107 concrete steps: today it’s only the occasional haunt of anglers

This project – Mizen Mountains – sets out to explore all the peaks on our westernmost peninsula. Are they mountains? It all depends on the context, and your perspective. Mizen’s loftiest outcrop – Gabriel – is 400 metres above sea level. Quite modest (Kerry’s MacGillycuddy’s Reeks claim the country’s highest summit, Carrauntoohil, at 1,038 metres), yet when you do look down on the spine of our peninsula from above, it’s all rocky crags and ridges pushing upwards towards the heavens, while at the edges the mountains fall precipitously towards the sea. It’s great, dramatic country, calling out for exploration – and there’s nothing we like better than finding new ways to discover this land and all its stories.

The view to the western end of the Mizen Peninsula, seen from the slopes of Mount Gabriel. The Sheep’s Head is across to the right

50 years ago the writer, Peter Somerville Large, set out to travel the western peninsulas of Ireland on a rusty bicycle purchased for the purpose in Skibbereen. I like the introduction he gives to his book The Coast of West Cork, first published in 1972, and still in print – it serves my own project well:

. . . I set out into the country. The sun had filtered through after rain, making the tarmac steam with moisture and sending up towering clouds off the mountains into the sky. Cattle stood motionless in the boggy fields and water dripped from the leafless sycamores . . . I travelled along the coast of West Cork, through Carbery, from Clonakilty to Roaringwater Bay with its fringe of islands and castles, and north to Bantry and the Beare peninsula. Much of the land near the coast consists of bog and mountain with headlands like lines of slanting spears thrust into the Atlantic. But there are parts that are sheltered, with a tropical lushness that is partly ascribed to the benign influence of the Gulf Stream. Ruins are soon covered with thick ivy and it takes only a few trees or slips of fuchsia to make a protective wall. Some valleys and hillsides have pockets of moss-covered oak-trees which are survivors of the ancient forest that covered the country three hundred years ago . . . From Goleen the old road wound high over a ridge before dropping down to Crookhaven. Almost all the land was rocky around Knocknamadree; The quilted shadows of clouds passed along the high ground over to the sea . . .

Satellite view of the rocky landscape towards the western edge of the Mizen: Knockatasonnig is a barren peak

I have set the bar at the 200 metre contour line – anything above that is, for me, a mountain! So I will be traversing the terrain in search of all the eminences above this elevation on the Mizen, looking specifically at topography and any traceable history and folklore specific to these ‘mountains’. But I will also be talking about our journeys to these destinations: you know how fond we are of getting ‘off the beaten track’. Every new exploration is invariably a revelation! This time around, we are going west – almost as far as is possible on this peninsula – to the townland of Knockatassonig, which peaks at 204 metres.

Top – the 25″ Ordnance Survey map, locating Toor Quay and Knockatassonig. Lower – the earlier 6″ map outlining the townlands

Knockatassonig is a curiosity. It’s a townland which doesn’t seem to have any habitation – and possibly never did. The 6″ map, above, was originally surveyed in 1846 and is valuable in outlining the townland boundaries at that time. It may be that in pre-famine times there were dwellings in the area: Ireland was much more heavily populated in those days, even in places like this which seem so remote today. But sometimes the townland names are particularly useful to us because they can tell us something of the history, which would have been passed on aurally through the generations until the maps were made.

Upper – detail from the 25″ map, showing the ‘Boat Slip’ at Toor. The map was presumably surveyed before the present pier was made; the slip has been cut into the solid rock and launching boats there must have been a treacherous business. Lower – today, a steep, narrow boreen can be negotiated as far as the Stop sign! An overgrown footpath goes on down to the sea and quay. The mountains seen over the water are on the Sheep’s Head

So far we haven’t talked much about the ‘Mountain’ of Knockatassonig. This summit is very visible, but virtually inaccessible at this time of the year due to bracken and spiky fences. It can just be seen on the left in the header picture: that’s taken from the footpath which goes down to Toor Quay. Like most of the Mizen peaks, Knockatassonig commands good distant views. It should be more approachable in the winter months. Although it’s hard to get to, it can be seen from several places on the Mizen, including Dunlough. The photo below shows the peak on the horizon beyond the ruins of Three Castle Head:

Here’s a view of Knockatassonig summit seen from the south-west side, taken from the small road that goes down towards Toor.  The view below shows the complex profile of the summit seen from the north

In looking at the peaks of the Mizen I intend to explore and uncover – where possible – any extant memories of stories or local lore relating to them. As far as Knockatassonig goes, I have found nothing recorded, other than the name, which is shared with the townland. So what does it mean? Well, it’s not clear, but the logainm website suggests ‘The hill of the Englishman’, and compares this name to the entry for Corr na Seirseanach in Co Monaghan ‘The round hill of the Englishmen’ or ‘The round hill of the mercenaries or hired soldiers’. Well – that’s a surprise . . . and a bit hard to reconcile with the unpopulated landscape we see today in this part of West Cork. The Monaghan version of the name can be supported by political events dating from the early 1300s: it’s hard to relate these to any activities we are aware of on the Mizen, but Irish history is a complex thing – as are place-names. When Finola heard the name she thought it meant ‘The hill of the foxes’: a direct translation into the Irish of that would be Knock an tSionnaigh. Townland names were often written down in Anglicised form by surveyors whose ears may not have been attuned to the Irish nuances. I’m voting with Finola on this one: there’s sure to be a good few foxes in that landscape!

Here’s an earlier source of information on Irish names: the Down Survey. Undertaken between the years 1656 and1658, the Down Survey of Ireland is the first ever detailed land survey on a national scale anywhere in the world. It sought to measure all the land to be forfeited by the Catholic Irish in order to facilitate its redistribution to merchant adventurers and English soldiers. The extract above details the Parish of Kilmoe at the end of the Peninsula: note Three Castle Head depicted at the far left. The survey does not give modern townland names but we can work out where the Knockatassonig peak would be – in the section labelled Unforfeited Lands belonging to the Earle of Corke and Coghlane protestants  In which case, of course, not only the present day townland of Knockatassonig but all those around it could reasonably be termed ‘ . . . of the Englishman . . .’ Food for thought?

Below – peaks of the Mizen: many will be the subjects of future posts

The Marvel of Margaret Barry

When I was in my college years, I lived on the fringes of London. It was the 1960s and – among many other cultural stirrings – there was a burgeoning Irish traditional music scene, in and around Camden Town. The Irish community in the capital had been thriving since the 1950s, when London was being rebuilt following the Blitzes of the recent war. Although not a close follower of Irish music at that time I had taken up the squeeze-box, and, curious enough to hover at the edges of The Music, was fortunate to briefly encounter many singers and players who are now considered legends. One of these is Margaret Barry, seen above in her later years and, below, when she was first becoming established as an Irish traditional music performer.

If you ever saw (and heard) Margaret Barry, you would never forget her. Her voice is unlike anyone else’s. She was born in the City of Cork, and has the distinctive accent of that place, whether she is speaking or singing. I find it completely compelling, but I can understand that it’s not to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, whatever your own views, her story is fascinating – and at the same time a valuable social commentary on aspects of twentieth century Ireland. Margaret was born in 1917 – on New Year’s Day – and died in 1989. She made a living from music – and spanned the spectrum from obscure street performer to lauded professional much in demand on radio and television, performing in venues which included London’s Royal Albert and Festival Halls and New York’s Rockefeller Centre.

The reason I’m writing about Margaret Barry today is that she was the subject of a talk given at this year’s Drimoleague Singing Festival: “…A celebration of the human voice in the heart of West Cork…”, now an established annual event held around the feast day of Cork’s patron saint, St Finnbarr, September 25th. It’s great that Ireland’s special saints – who ‘kept alive civilisation’ during the otherwise Dark Ages in pre-medieval Europe – are still living and celebrated in traditional culture, which encompasses literature, art, music and folk tradition. Yesterday’s talk, in a crowded hall, was presented by Jason Murphy and Lisa O’Neill (pictured above mid-talk, with Lisa – Singer in Residence at this year’s Festival – giving her own extraordinary rendering of one of Margaret Barry’s songs). It’s worth watching the following YouTube video of Lisa singing a version of ‘The Galway Shawl’ to give you an idea of Margaret’s characteristic style as interpreted by Lisa, and sealing her own authority on the perpetuation of The Music:

Because Margaret Barry is a legend, it’s inevitable that the life and exploits of this lady from Cork have become imbued with folklore. This can happen very quickly in Ireland! Jason – a radio documentary maker – and Lisa – who has studied Margaret’s work – set out to shed light on the reality of her life, times and travels. The talk is work in progress – look out for a comprehensive programme coming up on RTE Radio soon. The talk in no way diminished Margaret Barry’s status and renown in the folk music world, but it did question some of the hitherto accepted accounts of her life. For example, when I first became interested in her singing over fifty years ago, I gleaned (mainly from notes on the sleeves of LPs) that she was from travelling stock, and that’s something you’ll still find quoted in practically every contemporary account of her life. According to Lisa and Jason, however, she came from musical families in Peter Street, Cork. Her mother’s father – Bob Thompson – was an accomplished uilleann pipe maker and player who was married to a Spanish Guitarist and singer. Living through hard times, Bob had to temporarily pawn his own uilleann pipes but lost them when a fire broke out in the pawnshop: he did not play again for ten years! Margaret’s parents and uncles were street singers and musicians, her father earning a precarious living playing the violin in silent-era cinemas and with dance bands. 

Another invariably quoted story is that she left home at 16 with nothing but a bicycle and a banjo tied to her back with string as she set off to busk her way through the harsh streets of Ireland. It’s an engaging picture, but probably simplifies a complex situation. Margaret’s mother died when she was only twelve years old, and soon afterwards her father married a girl not very much older than she was. It’s likely that she did decide to go off and fend for herself – and during her lifetime she did travel around Ireland, sometimes in a horse-drawn caravan, but she had also become interested in the musical traditions she experienced around her and took every opportunity to learn songs from every source, to teach herself to play the fiddle and banjo – and also to use her own talents to earn money wherever she could, and to survive. Here’s her own account of those times, recorded by American musicologist Alan Lomax in the 1950s:

Alan Lomax left a valuable collection of information on ethnic musical cultures from America, Africa and Europe, which he and a dedicated team collected over many years. Much of the collection is available online in the archive of the Association for Cultural Equity. Amongst the publications of the Association is a CD of Margaret Barry singing and talking about her life, which can currently be purchased as a download.

Margaret succeeded in her chosen life of itinerant song performer and always said that she had enjoyed it, regardless of the often hard times. She certainly achieved notoriety and featured in programmes on TG4 and RTE in her lifetime. She had a long-term relationship and musical partnership with the Sligo musician Michael Gorman, whose fiddle playing features on many of the recordings made of her. It seems appropriate to include here this 1965 recording of Margaret accompanied by Michael, singing ‘Still I Love Him’:

The talk we heard in Drimoleague on Saturday was a tour-de-force by Lisa and Jason, reviving my own interest in Margaret Barry, the ‘street singer’ from Cork (also known as ‘Queen of the Gypsies’, a title she was happy enough to embrace, whatever the true circumstances of her ancestry). To finish this post, here’s one of her songs for which she is, perhaps, best known: ‘She Moved Through the Fair’. Margaret was once asked if this tune had come to her from her traveller background: she is said to have replied that she had learned it from a recording of Count John McCormack…

Mine Ghost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Cornish’ cottages close by the mine workings at Gortavallig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Skibbereen Eagle, 7 June 1890:

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