Antiquities of the Mealagh Valley

The Mealagh Valley (locals pronounce it Maylock) runs from Bantry Bay to the Maughanaclea (Maw-na-clay) hills and through this valley the Mealagh River flows from north east to south west. Along the valley are found numerous ancient monuments, evidence of occupation from the earliest times. David Myler, some years ago, with support from other local people, undertook to survey all the archaeological sites in the area and the result was this book. Sorry – it’s out of print and we are glad we managed to pick up a copy several years ago.

David and I have been in virtual touch for quite a while through social media, promising to meet up and explore when we got a chance – and that finally happened on Friday! Along the way we discovered family connections, so it was no wonder I felt an instant kinship when we met – we bonded over archaeology and shared family stories. David, a Dubliner originally, has been living here for decades and in that time has taken courses in archaeology and developed a passion for the heritage of this – his territory.

It was a joy to be taken on a field trip by the man who has, literally, written the book about the archaeology of the Mealagh Valley. It’s only the first of many, I hope, since we really only got to sample a few of the sites this time – although, as you will see, the places he took us were pretty spectacular!

David had secured all the permissions we needed to visit the sites on private land. We started out in the townland of Ardrah (Árd Rath – high fort) with a ring fort (above) commanding panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. A ring fort (also called a rath, lios, dún, or cashel if made of stone) was the dwelling of a high-status individual in early medieval Ireland and examples like this probably date to 500 AD to 1,000 AD. The banks had traces of stone here and there so may well have been faced with stone, and the interior had been levelled.

There would have been a house and perhaps other buildings inside, and a wooden pallisade fence on top of the surrounding bank. There’s a good summary of what we know about ring forts in this engaging website about Irish mythology – I especially enjoy the writer’s comments on the use of ‘fairy fort’ to describe these structures. 

From there we climbed a couple of fences – the first of several fence-climbing incidents during the day and thanks to David for sacrificing his jacket to save us from the barbed wire – and trekked uphill. The monument started to reveal itself as we got higher – at first I thought it was a standing stone.

No – a stone pair?

What, there’s more?

This is the Ardrah stone row, consisting of fours stones aligned ENE/WSW, a common alignment for stone pairs and rows. Take a quick trip over to Standing Stone Pairs: A Visit to Foherlagh for more about this kind of monument. You will see that this one is pretty typical – it has an orientation to the south west, consists of stones that could be interpreted as ‘male’ and ‘female’ and the stones rise in height towards the SW. The southernmost stone is enormous – Robert is providing the scale.

But wait, I hear you say – I see five stones, not four! And you are right. there are five stones, whereas originally there had been only four, and all the records state that this row consists of four stones. The photograph in David’s book, which dates to 1998, clearly shows four.

So – where did the fifth, and smallest, stone come from? It’s a head-scratcher and all we can do is point to the presence of the nearby fairy fort and speculate that the Other Crowd are messing with us.

And then it was on to the piece of prehistory that David discovered in the course of his survey. I should explain here that much of what the Mealagh Valley group was documenting was already known, since the whole county had been surveyed in the 1980s. But what the County Survey lists and what a local group like this looks at, will differ – for example, this group was interested in folklore and local stories about the monuments they visited and about items of interest beyond the remit of the county survey. Moreover, because they are local themselves, they are likely to be contacted if anyone spots an unusual rock or such like, and can be on the spot to examine new ‘finds’. Finally, a project like this generates appreciation and pride in, and a sense of ownership of, one’s heritage, and thus, hopefully, less likelihood of monuments being damaged.

David had been alerted by a farmer to a ‘funny pile of stones’ on the boundaries of the townlands of Ardrah and Gortnacowly (Gort na Camhlaigh – field of the ruins), an area that had been impacted by forestry activity. It’s quite high up and the views are immense. As we walked up, it sent shivers down our spines as David related how he hunted around for what had been described to him, almost giving up, and finally stumbling upon the mangled remains of what he instantly recognised as a Bronze Age wedge tomb.

A digger clearing out a drainage ditch had inflicted damage but most of the stones were still lying around. One side of the tomb, and the back stone, were in situ. That’s probably the capstone, or one of them, on the other side of the fence.

As an archaeologist, it’s actually quite rare in Ireland to discover a previously unrecorded monument – having done so once or twice I know what a thrill it is. David’s wedge tomb is a classic of its type – see my post Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths for more about them. That’s David above, showing us how to make sense of the stones, both those in situ and those which have been disturbed. He was able to ascertain that the workings in the area had turned up quartz pebbles – a feature of several West Cork wedge tombs.

This one was, as expected, oriented towards the setting sun – but that doesn’t begin to describe the incredible sweep of the view from this point – the whole of Bantry Bay lay before us, with the Beara on one side and Sheep’s Head on the other.

Our final visit of the day was to a type of monument I had never seen before – a ‘Four Poster’. That’s it, above, and note that there is a distant view of the sea, ten kilometres away, from it.

Only five four posters have been recorded in Ireland, one in Wexford, one in Kerry and the other four in West Cork. Here’s what the National Monuments site has to say about them: An arrangement of four upright stones standing at the corners of an irregular quadrilateral. The stones are usually graded in height with the tallest stone at either the south-west or north-east corner. Their closest counterparts are to be found in northern England and Scotland. These monuments are closely related to stone circles in date and function though they are much less numerous. These are dated to the Bronze Age (c. 2400-500 BC).

There are, in fact, only three stones remaining here. The largest stone is massive and of course there are all kind of alignment possibilities with arrangements like this. The closest counterpart to these four posters are to be found in Northern England and Scotland. There have been no excavations at four posters in Ireland but those few which have been dug in Britain yielded a Bronze Age range of dates.

We saw some other things along the way – a booley (above), a hedge school, a mass rock – and Robert wants to write in the future about one particular site, so I won’t deal with it here. The day was cold and crisp – but you hardly notice little things like freezing hands with a landscape like this to wander around in.

What a great day! Thank you, David, for being our tour guide and friend and we look forward to returning the favour soon.

Round Ring

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.

We have mentioned Industrial Schools before in Roaringwater Journal. They are an unhappy chapter of Ireland’s history. I have not delved deeply into the history of St Aloysius Industrial School for Roman Catholic Girls, Clonakilty, and would not like to think of what stories the tucked-away grave at Ballintemple represents. This online article tells us it was opened in 1869 and closed in 1965.

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 . . .

Castlehaven – The Haven

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!

Extreme Green – Castlehaven

There are many places in West Cork that deserve more than one visit. Our enforced confinement close to home focusses us on that thought. March went out like a lamb and – on the first day of April – we went off to enjoy the stirrings of spring in one of our favourite spots: Castlehaven.

Here’s that spot seen from above. It’s accessed from a boreen that goes nowhere else, and is to the south west of Drishane, just outside Castletownshend. In the view you can see the little cove and an old burial ground which surrounds the ruin of the original church of St Barrahane, probably built on medieval foundations but disused by the 1600s. This benign place has bathed in some momentous historical events but is now forever peaceful and seems far removed from our material world.

The 25″ OS map – dating from the late nineteenth century – marks the main features of Castlehaven: the ‘Grave Yard’, Rectory (based on an older house) and ‘Toberbarahane’ – a holy well. One of our favourite walks begins just to the south of the graveyard and wends its way up to the well, – and beyond – following a small stream which has ferociously gouged a channel through the rock formations in ancient glacial times. Today I can only describe the experience as ‘Extreme Green’ because our eyes are drawn to a riot of spring growth and exotic flora. In fact, Finola described it as a rainforest path when we first visited a few years ago.

The Holy Well is still revered, evidently, especially by sailors who need protection while at sea. The saint was known as Bearchán, and most likely came from the Corca Laoighde family  (the Annals describe the O’Driscolls as kings of the Corca Laoighde in the twelfth century), although we can find very little of his life. According to Pádraig Ó Riain’s A Dictionary of Irish Saints, Bearchán’s pattern day is not known, but Amanda gives it as 3rd December in Holy Wells of Cork & Kerry, something which she must have gleaned from local knowledge.

The Holy Well is easy to find and involves crossing a stout timber bridge to the left of the path. On our previous visit, three years ago, a tree had fallen across the path and the bridge was damaged, but this has now been put right.

Finola is coming back along the holy well path, and the bay of Castlehaven is immediately beyond her. The colour of the sea is stunning azure at this time of the year. Just beyond the gate, and sited right above the strand, is all that is left of Castle Haven, a strategic tower house which saw action on 6 December 1601, during the Nine Years’ War between Gaelic Irish lords and the English. The O’Driscolls, who held the castle then, had welcomed in a small convoy of Spanish munition ships. The commander of the English naval forces based at Kinsale, Admiral Leveson, was ordered to “. . . seeke the Spanish fleete at Castlehaven, to take them if he could, or otherwise to distresse them as much as he might . . .” I’ll leave the rest of this story as a cliff-hanger, to be completed in a future post, but we will return to the castle which gave Castlehaven its name.

The old photograph dates from the late 1800s and is from the Lawrence Collection, courtesy of the National Library of Ireland. My photo shows all that remains of the castle today: a section of stone walling close to the cliff face. Its downfall occurred in 1926 and we know this because:

. . . Edith Somerville recorded that while taking a walk on 26 February 1926 she heard a loud rumble and in looking towards the direction of the old tower found that it had collapsed. Nowadays only a mere stump remains, and that covered with briars and weeds. The castle stood on the side of the harbour of Castlehaven, to the immediate south of the stony grey beach, and the decayed church, graveyard and holy well of St Barrahane, the local patron saint who gives his name to the nearby glen and castle. The castle and haven was known as Cuan-an-Chaisleán to the Irish, as Castlehaven to the English, and El Puerto Castello to the Spanish, but they all mean the same thing . . .

The Castles of County Cork by James N Healey, The Mercier Press, 1988

In the next post I’ll be telling you more about the pivotal sea-battle at Castlehaven between the Irish – Spanish alliance and the English forces; and setting out a case of mistaken identity. We will also be exploring another Castlehaven Castle, and looking into a salacious scandal that led to a beheading or two in 1631. There’s much to look forward to…!

Following the Cascades (Sweet Ilen – Part 7)

There’s a walk that goes down from Castledonovan to Drimoleague: it follows an ancient mass path and much of it is right alongside the Ilen River. At its northern end there is a section known as the Deelish Cascades: this is geologically fascinating, and gives us some insights into how our West Cork landscape was formed thousands of years ago.

. . . The oldest rocks exposed in West Cork are of Devonian age (410 – 355 million years ago) . . . These mostly red and green sandstones, siltstones and mudstones were deposited on a continental landmass in a low latitude desert or semi-arid environment. The sediments were deposited from rivers, whose flow was dominated by flash-floods fed by episodic rainfall, which originated predominantly from mountainous areas lying to the north which were were formed during the Caledonian Orogeny (mountain building event) in latest Silurian and early Devonian times. The environment was perhaps similar to the present day Arabian desert. This “Old Red Sandstone” continent extended over what is now northwest Europe. In Cork and Kerry these sediments accumulated in a large subsiding trough (the Munster Basin), resulting in one of the thickest sequences of Old Red Sandstone encountered anywhere in the world (at least 6km thick) . . .

Geology of West Cork, M Pracht and A G Sleeman, geological Survey of Ireland 2002

I have marked on this Geology Map the course of the Ilen River from its source on Mullagmesha Mountain to the tidal estuary which begins at Skibbereen. The map shows the ‘grain’ of the various faults which run SW to NE over the terrain: the river generally flows perpendicular to these faults, and the ‘grain’ is clearly seen in the exposed river bed running over the Deelish Cascades.

Praeger usefully simplifies the geological definition of the landscapes (for more on Praeger see Finola’s complementary post today):

. . . The story which geology tells as to how West Cork and Kerry got its present form is interesting, and I shall try to tell it in non-geological language. Towards the close of Carboniferous times – that is, after the familiar grey limestone which covers so much of Ireland and the beds of sandstone and shale which succeeded it were laid down on an ancient sea-bottom, but long before the beginning of the Mesozoic period, when the New Red Sandstone and white Chalk were formed – the crust of the Earth in Ireland and beyond it was subjected to intense lateral squeezing from a north-south direction. This forced it into a series of great east-west folds, thousands of feet high from base to summit – the Carboniferous beds on top, and below them and following their ridges and hollows the massive strata of Devonian time, and other deeper-buried systems. A series of pieces of corrugated iron laid one over the other will illustrate what happened. The folding was developed particularly conspicuously in the Cork-Kerry area. What we see is the result of this ancient crumpling, now greatly modified by the effect of millions of years’ exposure to sun and frost, rain and rivers . . . The more resistant slates, carved into a wilderness of mountains, still tower up, forming long rugged leathery ridges. A sinking of the land has enhanced the effect by allowing the sea to flow far up the troughs. That the ridges were longer is shown by the high craggy islands that lie off the extremities, and continue their direction out into the Atlantic . . .

The Way That I Went, Robert Lloyd Praeger, Methuen & Co London, 1937

While the upheavals of far-off eras reaching back millions of decades certainly laid the foundations of our landscape, the geological events which actually honed the shaping of the terrain as we see it today are far more recent – the ‘Ice Ages’ which developed only 30,000 years ago and had receded by about 10,000 BC. During that time sea levels fell and then rose again, and the topography and shoreline of the island with which we are familiar today was established. The ice sheets covered most of the land and were up to 1,000 metres thick. As they melted, glaciers fell away from the highest points and carved fissures into the slopes, creating valleys and rivers. One of the most extensive ‘local’ ice-caps was in south-west Munster where a ‘Cork-Kerry’ glaciation, centred on or close to the Kenmare river, developed independent of the general ice sheet. Our own ‘Sweet Ilen’ was a consequence of the ice movement, and the rock formations that we see in the Deelish Cascades are good evidence of these modern geological events.

All the way down the Cascades you will see evidence of the scouring of the rocky river bed, and huge ‘erratic’ boulders that have been carried from the mountain-top on the ice flow, to be deposited randomly – and picturesquely – in the torrent. Of course, you don’t have to know about geology to appreciate the walk: you are free to explore the well kept path and delight in this West Cork experience which has been laid out for us all through the mighty efforts of the Drimoleague Heritage Walkways and the Sheep’s Head Way.

Previous episodes in this series: Sweet Ilen : Sweet Ilen – Part 2 : Sweet Ilen – Part 3 : Sweet Ilen – Part 4 : Sweet Ilen – Part 5 : Sweet Ilen – Part 6

Winter Light in West Cork: Lockdown Edition

We’ve both been dipping in to Robert LLoyd Praeger recently – Robert for this week’s post on the Ilen Cascades and me for pleasure. Praeger’s classic book The Way That I Went, was published first in 1937 and has never been out of print (this is the edition we have). My browsing reminded me that I tried a Praeger approach to explaining our West Cork landscape a few years ago, in a post post titled Wild Atlantic Light – the West Cork Winter Edition. I am having another go at it now with edited text and new photographs, all taken in the winter months. Mostly what I was trying to do then and now is to explain the West Cork landscape – what gives it its form and shape and colour and startling beauty. Being in lockdown since Christmas has forced us (even more than usual) to engage with our territory on a deeper level, seeking to understand what makes it the way it is.

Of this area, Praeger says,

At the Southern end of this land of great mountain promontories, in West Cork, you find yourself in a little-known and tourist-free region of much charm. You stay on Sherkin Island . . . or Cape Clear island . . . , at Schull or far out at Crookhaven: and you walk and boat and fish and lounge and bathe, and enjoy the glorious air and sea; towns and trams and telephones seem like bad dreams, or like fugitive glimpses of an earlier and inferior existence. A meandering railway penetrates to Schull, and the roads are as good as you could expect them to be in so lonely a country. All is furzy heath and rocky knolls, little fields and white cottages and illimitable sea, foam-rimmed where it meets the land, its horizon broken only by the fantastic fragment of rock crowned by a tall lighthouse which is the famous Fastnet.

Things have changed quite a bit since the 1930s, of course – how we wish that little railway was still running or that the ‘our’ part of Ireland had remained ‘little-known.’ But while it may seem that Praeger is describing a whole other world, enjoyed in the summer, the fundamentals remain. For example, as Praeger pointed out, West Cork is a maritime area and that affects our weather. It means that clouds are plentiful at all times of the year and that the weather can be highly variable and unpredictable. But the ocean, and the Gulf Stream it carries all the way from the Gulf of Mexico, ensure that we have a slightly milder climate than the rest of Ireland. Beside the sea, the air is full of negative ions. That’s a good thing. Negative ions stimulate our senses and lead to a heightened sense of wellbeing.

Sure, we can have rainy days and bitter winds in the winter, but there are lots of sunny days too. When the sun shines in the winter, it is filtered through those drifting clouds to produce those marvellous effects of light and shade that lend such drama to the landscape.

In winter too, the colours are highly contrasting – the green of the fields change abruptly to the blondes and golds of the higher mountains. The bracken turns the colour of amber and the fionán grasses provide an expansive sea of rippling heath on higher ground.

We don’t get snow very often, but it’s certainly visible on the high points, such as on the Caha Pass between Glengarriff and Kenmare. Praeger loved this dramatic geology with its crags and folds.

Under a blue sky the sea in West Cork turns the colour of the Mediterranean or the Caribbean. and this is particularly striking in the winter, perhaps because it’s so unexpected. They tell me it has to do with having a sandy bottom and I am sure there are other scientific explanations, but really, you have to see it yourself to believe it.

Our underlying geology (see Robert’s post again for Praeger’s explanation) provides the ruggedness, the exposed sandstone ridges, and the deep coastal indentations that characterise the landscape.

The end result of it all – the sunshine, the clouds, the mountains, the sea, the contours and colours of the land – is the kind of light that artists dream of. The sheer clarity of it is startling – you can see from one end of the peninsula to the other in a way that city dwellers have forgotten it’s possible to do. That clarity brings out every hue and allows all the colours to sparkle against each other.

The photographs in this post were all taken from the depths of winter to the first glimmerings of spring. Robert Lloyd Praeger found this area entrancing in the summer – he should have come in the winter! The last light of a winter evening would have set his heart aflutter.