. . . A trip down the river Ilen, as it pursues its winding and picturesque course from Mount Owen (the hill of streams) to the harbour of Baltimore, a distance of about fifteen miles, is the most pleasant and interesting excursion during the summer months. Starting from Skibbereen, we can either steam or row, according to our pleasure, or rather as the tide suits, to Baltimore and Sherkin, a distance of eight or nine miles, and then out the harbour’s mouth, and cruise about the islands of Carbery . . .
Sketches in Carbery – Daniel Donovan 1876
The idea of boarding a ‘steamer’ in Skibbereen and voyaging down the Ilen River to its mouth is an attractive one – but not an option for us as we continue our exploration of this waterway in 2021, a year which has started with a frightening escalation of the Covid pandemic which is forcing us to stay ever closer to home. Fortunately, we are not too far from the broad stretches of the tidal Ilen as it nears its destination and meanders through peaceful, sylvan meadows passing by deserted quays, once active with commerce and vitality, now at rest apart from the occasional fisherman or boat mender.
We are fortunate to have a large archive of our photographs taken in West Cork over many years. I am revisiting (below) my pictures of the river at Creagh taken in 2014. This is on the south side of the Ilen, and certainly out of bounds for us at the moment because of distance. Situated at Creagh is a secluded burial ground, the resting place of Canon James Goodman who was Rector of Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen, during the nineteenth century. The three photographs below were taken there. My principal interest in him is the name he made as a collector of traditional music and a player of the uilleann pipes – that most singular of Irish instruments that we have also celebrated elsewhere. When the Canon died in 1896 he asked that his pipes were buried with him at Creagh – and they were. But, not long afterwards, they were dug up again. If you want to know what happened to the pipes and where they are now, read my earlier post about the Canon here.
We can travel to Skibbereen for essential supplies, and the road to that town runs close to the river. Just off the road, down a winding boreen, is another burial ground, Aghadown, beautifully situated beside the water – Finola has written about it here. Here are some views we took a few days ago during a prolonged spell of clear winter sunshine.
. . . The view down the river from near Creagh, on a fine day, is attractive. The Ilen, winding in a serpentine course towards Baltimore harbour, shining and sparkling in the sunlight like a silver thread, and dotted over with a multitude of rocky islets, whose recesses form a safe retreat and favourite feeding ground for flocks of sea fowl during the winter months. Looking backwards, we are chiefly struck by the almost complete absence of wood, and the patchwork of irregular fields, enclosed by earthen banks, and the prominences so much admired by tourists and strangers, most probably on account of the novelty and singularity of the scene . . .
SKETCHES IN CARBERY – DANIEL DONOVAN 1876
The Ilen is a ‘Blueway’ – designated as a recreational activity trail for use by activity enthusiasts – anyone, in fact, who wants to get out and experience some of the best scenery in Ireland on the water itself or, like us, on foot. This would be in normal times, of course. Undoubtedly there are better days ahead. We look forward to an untrammelled future so that we can continue this exploration of a waterway to its source in the mountains ‘. . . where rain clouds perpetually hover about . . .’ and to its outfall towards Carbery’s ‘Hundred islands’. When we can make those expeditions, we will bring you there through the pages of our Journal.
Here’s a bonus today: you can hear an aspect of our recent walk! Donovan mentioned in 1876 that the river was a favourite feeding ground for flocks of sea fowl during the winter months. We can vouch for that, having heard these sounds close to the Glebe burial ground. The loudest voices are – I think – from redshanks:
Last week my post explored a part of the Colla Loop on the Fastnet Trails. That walk passed by a site described on Archaeology Ireland as a possible early Christian settlement: . . . the ancient school of Sancta Maria de Scholia, ‘a place known in early times as a centre of learning’ . . . That information was ascribed to ‘Burke 1914’ but I can find no links to that source anywhere. If anyone can enlighten me, that would be great.
The location of this possible site is in the gorse covered area on the right hand side of the picture above. There is nothing to be seen there today, although such dense scrub could be hiding a lot. That record on the archaeological site is now described as ‘redundant’ – because there is no trace – but is maintained as it does indicate that there has been a tradition of the associations of the place historically. Certainly, if you were a group of wandering monks in medieval times looking for a new home it would have much to commend it – a south facing slope, sweeping views to the ocean below and defensible high ground behind. Not much shelter from the weather, though. The map below shows the possible site on the lower left, but note there are two further candidates, which we will discuss.
I found the historical reference to this possible site intriguing, especially in view of the suggestion that it could have been the original ‘school’ (centre of learning) that supposedly gave the settlement of Schull its name. If you want to delve further into the origins of the name ‘Schull’ – which the Ordnance Survey, interestingly, insisted should be spelled Skull right up to modern times: you can see it on the the Archaeology Ireland record extract above – I commend you to John D’Alton’s fascinating and comprehensive article here. John himself is a well-known long term resident of the village; I would love to have a discussion with John (and likely will when times permit) on some of his conclusions, but he certainly lays the foundations for questioning long-held assumptions. He does, however, posit that the name of the place has sounded the same for over a thousand years. For me, it is reasonable to conclude that ‘Schull’ is most likely to derive from the Irish word scoil – school – and that a ‘centre of learning’ did, indeed, exist in the area anciently. There are precedents enough for sites like this in West Cork. Our own Rossbrin Castle was the home of Finnin O’Mahony – Taoiseach of the clan – in the late fifteenth century and he was known to have established what has been described as ‘the greatest centre of learning in Europe’ on these now remote and deserted shores, while the Sheep’s Head peninsula boasts the remains of a great medieval ‘Bardic School’ close to Kilcrohane. My post of (yes!) eight years ago gives a brief outline. But let’s now turn to those other sites shown above.
Here’s St Mary’s Church, the ruin which sits above – and dominates – the large burial ground to the south of Schull today. Tradition has it that it was built in 1720, but there is a fair bit of evidence to suggest that this ecclesiastical site goes back much further than that. I am indebted to Mary Mackey for her article in Mizen Journal – Volume 8, 2000: A Short History of the Ruins of St Mary’s Church, Colla Road, Schull.
The parish church is first recorded in a decretal letter issued in 1199 from Pope Innocent III to the Bishop of Cork listing the parishes in the diocese. The entry reads “scol cum suis pertinentiis” – Schull with its appurtenances. It is this early spelling of ‘scol’ meaning school which goes some way to authenticating the ancient tradition . . . During the reformation (16th century) when all church and monastic benefices and land were confiscated, the detailed rent roll for the Diocese of Cork records Schull with nine ploughlands, and in 1581 in a list of parishes in the diocese, Schull church is called “Saint Maria de Scoll”. This seems to be the first written record of the name of the church and it adds weight to the theory of the ancient monastic school, and to the origin of ‘Scoil Mhuire’ . . .
Mary Mackey – MiZEN Journal Volume 8
The same article notes that in 1653 the church commissioners stated “Upon 9 plowlands of Schull are the walls of a church” and in May 1700 Bishop Dive Downes, visiting the western part of his diocese records: “The church walls are standing and good, made of stone and lime 84′ long and 24′ broad”. Mackey comments that this was a large parish church compared with others in the Mizen area.
The local population will be very familiar with this ruin, and the graveyard which it overlooks. The grave marker (above) is dedicated to the Reverend Robert Traill – Finola has included him in her Saints and Soupers series. Schull graveyard must have one of the finest prospects of any burial place in the west, with its views out towards Long Island Sound and Roaringwater Bay:
In 1936 we find Con O’Leary writing in A Wayfarer in Ireland (published by R M McBride): . . . Schull, named from Scoil Mhuire, the School of Mary, in the sixth century, is picturesquely situated , with Long Island thrown across the mouth of the bay . . . Well, that’s stretching us back a fair bit – but there’s nothing to confirm it. In the ruins of the church, however, there is one element which leads us to think that the architecture is quite ancient – this cut-stone ogival window in the northeast wall (possibly fifteenth century):
Now let’s turn to the third candidate in our search for Schull’s origins as a ‘great centre of learning’ – shown on the map towards the top of this post to the south of St Mary’s Church. Here is the Archaeology Ireland listing and the record note:
Description: In rough grazing, on a S-facing slope overlooking Long Island to the S and Skull Harbour to the E. Recent reclamation work exposed a level earthen platform-like area (c. 35m E-W; c. 17m N-S) faced externally on its curving S side by a roughly constructed drystone revetment (H 0.2m at W to 1.6m at E). According to local information, this is the location of Scoil Mhuire or Sancta Maria de Scala, a medieval church and school that gave its name to this townland and to Skull village . . .
The Archaeological Inventory of County Cork. Volume 5 (Dublin: Stationery Office, 2009)
The prospect of unearthing ancient history sent us out into the field on an idyllic January day, under an almost surreal clear blue sky. We don’t exactly know what we found, but the expedition was rewarding, if only for the joy of walking through a beautiful country and knowing that other generations had walked here before us.
Always we were in sight of water, and the islands of the Bay beyond. We left the metalled boreen and found a narrow green path lined with old walls.
The path led to a sheltered paddock. We could clearly see the ‘level earthen platform-like area’ and the curved retaining wall supporting it: also, in several areas, there were the vestiges of old walls and probable structures. We immediately sensed the zeitgeist of a place which had tales to tell. Could it really be an early Christian settlement? Did the old stone walls echo the chanting of monks from long ago? Could we look through their eyes and see the grove of trees and the spectacular azure cast of the sea receding to the horizon across all the islands as they had?
The Historic 6″ Ordnance Survey map is the earliest record we have of what existed on the site: it dates, at the latest, from around 1840. There are buildings clearly shown. Could they have been simple farm cottages and barns? Might those buildings perhaps have incorporated much earlier structures?
There you have it: a creation tale (myth, perhaps) for Schull. I will give the last word to a pupil from ‘Skull School’, recorded in the 1930s:
The O’Mahony’s had a stronghold in Castle Island, which is known as the Middle Island. It is situated about three miles from the beautiful village of Schull, which lies by the harbour of the same name. Situated amid picturesque and varied scenery, nestling at the foot of Gabriel’s rough defiles, and fronting the wild Atlantic, it is a charming spot. It was anciently called Scoll Muire (B.V. Mary’s School) and in mediaeval documents it is designated “Sancta Maria de Scholia.” This school is said to have been founded by the “Universitie of Rosse, St.Fachtna’s Carbery”. However this may be – I doubt it – the parish is mentioned as Scol in the Papal Letters of Pope Innocent III. (1199 A.D.). Canon O’Mahony says its site has been identified in south Schull. At all events, Ardmanagh (Monks Hill), on which part of Schull is built, attests the presence of cenobites in the district . . .
Brighid Ní Choithir – Skull School – Dúchas Schools Folkore Collection 1937
Please note that the ‘Sancta Maria Scala’ site is on private land, and permission to visit should be sought.
Here is the third instalment of our wanderings along the Ilen – one of West Cork’s most significant rivers. Once a commercial highway connecting the merchants of Skibbereen with the coastal ports and scattered islands, it now plies its way from the summit of Mullagmesha Mountain taking a lazy and often secret course through lush valleys and pastures, showing itself to us only at a few crossing points until, boosted by many tributaries, it becomes a wide tidal waterway heading for Baltimore and the wild Atlantic.
Our explorations so far have taken us from Newcourt upstream to Ballyhilty Bridge. We have yet to ‘top and tail’ the river: that will be done, but only when restrictions and conditions permit. I doubt that we will be searching for the source in the mountains until next spring at the earliest, as those high paths are closed for safety at present. But, back in November, we were able to continue north from Hollybrook Demense and Maulbrack townland.
Images from top include the header showing the river at Caheragh with the distant mountains to the north; an anglers’ seat at Ballyhilty; and the broad river just upstream of Ballyhilty Bridge. The river is still wide as we follow it, but becomes shallower and is interrupted by rapids mixing with contemplative, deep pools (above).
Large parts of the river here are lost in the hinterland. We try to follow every small trackway that might take us close to it – and which certainly take us to the back of beyond – and catch the occasional glimpse such as this one (above), which is probably an ancient ford.
We delight in travelling the tiniest of boreens, which invariably open up new vistas for us, and make us feel so happy to be living in such a beautiful part of our world! This little used lane (above) takes us to the next crossing point – romantically named, as far as I can ascertain, Graveyard Bridge.
Two extracts from the OS maps of c1840 (upper) and c1897 (lower) show the site on the border of Ballaghdown South and Caheragh townlands, where an ancient road crosses the Ilen River. Both maps show a ford and stepping stones at this point. Today we found a bridge there dating (we believe) from the early twentieth century. We also found the remains of the old ford: large cobbles providing a trackway down the the waters’ edge: Finola is following the original line of the lane (below).
This river crossing was of significance in Medieval times. ‘Blessed Mary de Caheragh’ was a monastic site, said to be situated on the hilltop commanding the view above the graveyard. It was no doubt founded here because of the proximity of the watercourse.
1317 December 28, Geoffrey Fitz John de Cogan is presented by the King (by mandate to the Bishop of Cork), to the church of the Blessed Mary de Catheragh, in the King’s gift, by reason of his wardship of the lands and heir of John de Cogan
Tuckey’s Cork Remembrancer, from Durrus History
There are certainly earthworks, embankments and (reputedly) a souterrain on the high ground which overlooks the river, the ford site and the adjacent burial ground connected to Caheragh village. The Historic Environment Viewer suggest that this site (shown on both maps above) is a ringfort and makes no mention of an ecclesiastical settlement. I braved fierce cows and barbed wire to make the steep climb: it was well worth the effort (and the risk) for the views across the old fort ramparts which opened up to the distant mountains. There is no sign, today, of anything remotely monastic up there on the hill. There is another ‘ringfort’ a short distance to the south – enigmatically named ‘Bishopland’. Nowhere can I find any records or accounts of the fort or the small settlement to the south of it named Bishops Village: this confirms that there is still so much early history to be unravelled in the Irish landscape.
Caheragh Graveyard is located beside the Ilen here and it is also well worth making the time to explore. The village and present day church at Caheragh (which has some fine stained glass) are some way off to the west. You can see the spire on the skyline in this view from the graveyard itself (below).
The extensive Caheragh graveyard (above) – a view from the ringfort (and possible medieval site) looking across the river. The ford, roadway and later bridge are on the far left of the picture. Burial grounds are always a magnet for us, and we spent significant time exploring. The Skibbereen Heritage Centre has done sterling work researching this and many other West Cork graveyards: you will find information online here, and more in the Centre itself, which merits many visits. One grave which was important for me is that of the parents of Captain Francis O’Neill, the Chicago Police Chief who came from West Cork and collected thousands of Irish traditional dance tunes and songs which he gathered from the many Irish settlers in Chicago and who had kept the tradition alive far away from their birthplaces. I wrote about Chief O’Neill a few years ago. The ‘Celtic Cross’ memorial below was commissioned by Francis during a visit home in 1906.
Erected By Captain Francis O’Neill
Chicago, USA To the Memory of his Parents
John O’Neill of Tralibane
Died Nov 1867 Aged 66 Years
And Catherine O’Mahoney
Died 1900 Aged 88 Years
Requiescant in Pace
inscription in Caheragh Graveyard, West Cork
This aerial view above clearly shows the bridge that has replaced the old ford and stepping stones at this site. You can also see the ‘fort’ on the hilltop above it. The bridge should not be dismissed because it is relatively modern: it’s an example of practical civil engineering in Ireland, possibly in the early years of the Free State, and is functional rather than elegant, serving the purpose of helping to open up some of the remoter regions of the west of Ireland.
Last week our first exploration of Sweet Ilen – our West Cork river – began in Skibbereen town from whence we travelled north, as far as Ballyhilty Bridge. Today, we return to the town and unearth some further history on the way downstream.
On the aerial view of the Ilen flowing south-west from Skibbereen (above) I have marked some significant locations. Abbey or ‘New’ Bridge is the first crossing point and the limit of navigation for large craft. The Old Quay shown to the north of Deelish House was the offloading point for ships arriving from the south; barges or lighters carried the goods further into the town. The narrow gauge Schull & Skibbereen Tramway (as it was originally named) left Skibbereen Station and followed the Ilen as far as Newcourt Halt, alongside the main road.
The Ilen Valley Railway, which brought the regular gauge railway into Skibbereen from Bandon and Cork, shared its station at Skibbereen from 1886 with the 3ft gauge line going to Schull. This picture (above) of Skibb Station in 1960 (courtesy Roger Joanes) shows the main line on the right and the remains of the narrow gauge terminus on the left.
The header picture shows Abbey or ‘New’ Bridge as it is today. The upper picture above, with an enlarged section of it underneath is fascinating for our study: it was taken in around 1893 by Robert French for the Lawrence Collection and is reproduced here with the permission of the National Library of Ireland. It shows the bridge – which was built in 1822 – with the road to Skibbereen running to the left, as it does today. But it also shows the tracks of the tramway on the left hand side of the road. Also in the main picture is a white building below the Abbeystrewery Graveyard. That marks the point at which the entrance to the graveyard adjoins the road, and is in fact a level-crossing keeper’s cottage, now gone.
Marked on this extract from the OS 25″ survey (late nineteenth century) is New Bridge on the right, the Graveyard with its level-crossing and the quay above Deelish House
The first halt on the tramway travelling from Skibbereen was at Newcourt. Here is a ‘sylvan scene’ of a train at that halt in 1939 (courtesy of W A Camwell, taken from the invaluable volume The Schull & Skibbereen Railway by James I C Boyd, published in 1999 following over 40 years of research):
If that doesn’t bring a nostalgic tear to your eye – for those apparently idyllic days of leisurely rural life in Ireland – I don’t know what will. But the little railway had its ups and downs (before vanishing altogether in 1947). Its association with the Ilen River was there at the beginning: the very first locomotive was named ‘Ilen’ and here it is (below), having just pulled a passenger train into Schull Station, probably in the 1880s (photo from the collection of Mrs E McCarthy):
Why is it so strangely shaped? Because the line was conceived as a tramway or ‘light railway’ to comply with the conditions of The Tramways of Ireland Act 1862, which allowed tramways to be built along public roads, thereby reducing costs. Because of this, locomotives were treated in the same way as city trams – where very low slung bodywork supposedly prevented serious injury if they struck pedestrians or animals sharing the roads – something that could be echoed on West Cork’s boreens where donkeys and cows were quite likely to be encountered.
. . . To comply with regulations sheet-steel skirting was taken down to a level approximately 3 inches above the rails; the rolling and pitching of the engine probably produced shrieks of protest as it scraped the rails . . . An impressively tall chimney was surmounted by a ‘chip-pan’ spark-arrester . . .
James I C Boyd 1999
Tram Engine Ilen at Skibbereen in 1906 – photo by H Fayle
It’s a shame, but this unique piece of machinery failed because it lacked sufficient sustained power to climb the relatively steep inclines on the tramway, and its later replacements were more conventional engines (such as the one pictured at Newcourt) fitted with cow-catchers.
OS 25″ survey extract, late nineteenth century. It shows the tramway diverging from the road just north of the entrance gate to Newcourt: there was evidently an ornamental avenue along that stretch of road leading to the gate, with arches over. Also on this map is located Newcourt Post Office (by the tramway halt), Mohanagh Dispensary and various landscape features belonging to the demesne
The Ilen River is broad and magnificent as it passes by Newcourt. You do see large boats on that stretch sometimes, but also many skiffs and small craft from the Skibbereen Rowing Club. The grand house – New Court – is gone now, but the ‘designed landscape’ can be traced through the survival of ruined towers, gazebos and water-gates.
Ilen River frontage on the Newcourt Demense: from upper – the base of an ornamental tower fronts the constructed river wall; Mohanagh Dispensary ruin and another tower; prospect towards Skibbereen from the estate; substantial pillars which were part of a water gate on the south of the site – in the distance is the boatyard at Oldcourt
Finola has written previously about Newcourt, and there tells the story of another ‘water-gate’ which will be seen today by anyone travelling towards Skibbereen from the main road. We now return to Skibbereen ourselves to finish off this second episode of the series. This (below) was the bridge which took the road into the town over the Ilen prior to the present one: built in 1877, it was condemned as unsafe for heavy loads in 1953, but it took another ten years to replace it.
Above is Kennedy Bridge, Skibbereen, that was opened with due ceremony on Monday 15 June 1964 and named in honour of American President John F Kennedy. It has a centre span of 22 metres and two side spans each of 8 metres. First to cross the bridge on that day was Richard Burchill of Tragumna on a horse and cart! Information about these events – and much more – can be seen in the excellent displays in the Skibbereen Heritage Centre: formerly the town’s gasworks buildings and sited appropriately enough alongside the Ilen River!
Look out next time for more adventures exploring the further northern reaches of the Ilen!
Here is the first episode in this series: Sweet Ilen
It’s just the day for a Sunday drive, so come along with us as we explore the shore around Crookhaven Harbour. It’s turned cold all of a sudden, so we won’t do too much hiking or climbing today, just some gentle pottering around some spectacular scenery, with a hearty lunch in the middle of it all.
We’ve provided a map but you probably won’t need it as it’s a relatively small area and easy to see where you are at all times.
Driving off the island we turn left, along the road that hugs the water. We pass several sites along the way that date from various times in Crookhaven’s history. The first is the stone quarry that Robert wrote about in Industrial Archaeology in Crookhaven(2). It’s impossible to miss, looming above the road like an abandoned fortress wall. When he researched it, he drew a blank but one of our readers, John d’Alton from Schull, wrote to tell us of the background to the Granite Company Lt.
Once you’ve passed the old quarry workings, keep an eye on some small field coming up on the sea side. You will make out the ruins,(3) much overgrown, of some buildings near the water’s edge. This is all that’s left of a fish palace, originally built in 1616 by Richard Boyle, Great Earl of Cork, and his business partner in this area, the notorious Sir William Hull – read all about it in Robert’s post, Pilchards and Palaces.
The next site is on private land and not really visible from the road so here we are letting you into a little secret. At 4 on the map there’s what seems to be an old quay. There are really only a few rocks left, but one of those rocks is a piece of archaeology – a cupmarked stone. The cupmarks were probably hammered out thousands of years ago and the rock was probably transported here from close by to help build the quay. If you’re not too sure what a cupmarked stone is, take a look at this post, The Complex Cupmark. That’s Robert, below, taking a photo of the cupmarked stone.
We’ve arrived at the long beach at the head of the Harbour and we’re going to leave the car here and, because the tide’s out, walk on the white strand out towards a curious row of stones sticking out of the sand (5).
The Dúchas Folklore Schools Collection tells us these were known locally as The Blacks, and it was believed that some black sailors who drowned at sea were buried there. Indeed they do look like grave markers, but in fact they are part of an ancient field wall system that dates to when the tide was lower.
There’s an enormous upright stone here too – tempting to think that it may be a standing stone, deliberately erected, but archaeologists think this is a natural feature. In fact, it may have landed in this position after tumbling from the hill above, or perhaps it’s a left-over glacial erratic.
There are wonderful views from here back to Rock Island and across to Crookhaven, but let’s make our way back to the road now and wander down to Galley Cove. If you’ve a mind to, walk or drive up the road to Brow Head a little way (6), just for the incredible views across the whole of the Harbour and all the way to Mount Gabriel. We’ve written about Brow Head before, way back in 2014, and you can take a look at that post now, although it really deserves an update (one of these days).
Back down at the small parking lot at the base of the Head, you’ll find yourself at the beautiful Galley Cove (7). Since it’s December, you’ll have it all to yourself.
Are you gasping for lunch? Could you, as they say around here, murder a crab sandwich and a pint (or a coffee, since you’re driving)? You are in luck, as you WILL find O’Sullivan’s pub open and they do the best crab sandwiches on the Mizen. On the way, take a look at St Brendan’s Church of Ireland (8), possibly the only old church in the area that still doesn’t have electricity. Nobody quite knows how old it is, but there has been a church on this spot since at least the 1600s.
Don’t be surprised to find O’Sullivan’s (9) heaving – this is a very popular spot and we have never been there when it’s not busy. If possible, have your lunch sitting outside. In summer, you’ll be fighting for a table and surrounded by folk in sailing gear.
Time to head for home, with one last little detour on the way, through Castlemehegan. As you drive back the way you came, take a road that angles off to the left at number 4 on the map. It will take you back to Goleen over the hills and you’ll be wowed by the views from up there (10).
I wanted to explore the Ilen River: that’s pronounced eye-len, and it comes from the Gaelic An Aighlinn. ‘Aighlinn’ is an Irish name, the equivalent of Eileen in English, but it is also said to have a meaning when it relates to water: ‘the way that moonlight reflects on water . . .‘ We’ll keep a lookout for the moonlight, but our first expedition was carried out on a glorious late November day, absolutely calm and with clear, deep blue skies: the morning reflections were perfect.
The header and the picture above are both taken in Skibbereen, as good a place as any to begin our wanderings. The town is built on the river and was once a water transport hub: in the early 19th century boats of up to 200 tons could navigate to Oldcourt, within two miles of the town centre. From there goods were transferred into ‘lighters’ (unpowered barges) and then brought into the town where there were no less than five quays, warehouses and a Customs House. Unfortunately, low bridges now prevent navigation.
This aerial photograph dates from a few years ago, but it’s useful to show how Skibbereen has developed along the south bank of the river. At the Town Wharf, or Levis’ Quay, you can still see old stone steps leading down to the water’s edge, once a hive of activity with lighters loading and unloading. The nineteenth century brought engineering advances, with railway connection to Dunmanway, Bandon and Cork. The station – marked above as the ‘Ilen Valley Railway Terminus’ opened in 1877. Later, the Baltimore Extension Line continued south over a smart new steel bridge, built in 1892.
From Skibbereen there is plenty of the river to explore both south (to the estuary) and north. It’s our ambition – when travel restrictions ease – to find the source of the river on Mullaghmesha Mountain, which we could see in the far distance beyond Castle Donovan on our walk last week. That might have to wait anyway, as climbing that mountain is not recommended in the winter months because of rough conditions underfoot, but keep watching – we will get there!
The dancing of a mountain stream may be as entrancing as a ballet, but the quiet of an age-old river is like the slow turning of pages in a well-loved book . . .
Robert Gibbings – TILL I END MY SONG
One of our great heroes is Cork-born writer and illustrator Robert Gibbings. He was an explorer of rivers, making books of Cork’s River Lee, the Welsh Wye and – most famously – Sweet Thames Run Softly. In homage to him I’m calling these posts Sweet Ilen: I don’t think he will mind. Sadly, I haven’t his artistic talents but I’ll do my best with words and photographs.
The upper picture looks from the West Cork Hotel upstream towards the town: the Town Wharf is just around the corner; the steps in the foreground mark the beginning of the Ilen River Blueway – you will embark here if you take a kayak trip down to Baltimore. Leaving Skibbereen behind, we soon realised that the Ilen is a secretive waterway: much of its course is hidden away and runs in quiet backwaters distant from habitation and modern life. It’s only at the crossing points like the one above, near Hollybrook, that the river briefly reveals itself to us, although anglers have private pathways known only to themselves: we caught tantalising glimpses of their occupancy through the tree cover on some remoter banks.
A well-placed seat with a view (upper picture) on the angler’s path below Ballyhilty Bridge. Close by (lower picture) is a small farm accommodation bridge which is also giving anglers access to the further bank. Ballyhilty bridge itself is a real discovery. It’s easy to drive over it without realising the substantial structure which carries the road:
The only description I could find of this substantial structure is a record in the Archaeology Ireland National Monuments site which describes it as ‘a hump back three-arch road bridge over the Ilen River in the townland of Gortnamucklagh’. The parallel entry in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage describes it as ‘bridge 1760 – 1800’, and says no more. But I think it worthy of detailed consideration: it’s a massive, dressed stone structure which has been reinforced with iron plates. The central opening is raised to a height which would almost lead us to think that it was once a navigation arch, although there are no records to support this. On the west side are some flood relief culverts of unusual construction:
The form of these remind me of a bridge we encountered on the Fastnet Trails close to Toormore in 2018: here’s the post. At that time I pondered on how old the Toormore structure was likely to be. I’m asking myself the same question on this one. The early OS map might give us a clue:
This is from the late 19th century 25″ map: you can see the railway line on the west heading out of Skibbereen towards Drimoleague, where it met with the Cork, Bandon and Bantry lines. But on the east side of the river is a very large estate: Hollybrook, in the townland of Maulbrack. Hollybrook House has a long history, encompassing families such as The O’Donovan, Bechers and Townsends. Nowhere can I find a date for the original house (now replaced), but I have found this:
At the time of Griffith’s Valuation, John Beecher held two substantial properties in fee at Maulbrack. They were purchased in 1703 by Henry Beecher from the trustees for forfeited estates . . .
NUI GALWAY – CONNACHT AND MUNSTER LANDED ESTATES DATABASE
These properties were therefore in existence before 1703: it would be reasonable to assume their date could be well before this. I would suggest that the bridge at Ballyhilty was built in the 1600s, to ensure good access to the estate at Maulbrack. This would make it a truly historic structure, worthy of prominent commentary and protection.
On such idyllic days for exploration it’s not always easy to remind ourselves of the power of this river: it’s no humble stream. Here’s a screenshot of a drone video by Garry Minihane Photography which shows this same stretch – at Ballyhilty – in full flood: the adjacent roads are set just high enough to be clear of all but the fiercest of deluges! Skibbereen is in the distance.
I’m thinking that the journey so far is sufficient for this week’s post; next time we will travel further north, penetrating even more into the uplands of the Ilen as we set our path towards the source. It’s not a huge river, only 34 km in total. It’s instructive for us that our West Cork terrain is quite small scale: within that 30-odd kilometres we have the contrast of a mountain stream falling from the high places and gathering enough tributaries to feed the tidal reaches which we also have yet to discover on our coasts.
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