Notes from the Past

We heard – from our correspondent Justin Cremin – about an ancient copper mine somewhere near Skibbereen: possibly prehistoric (like the mines on Mount Gabriel). Supposedly there were rock scribings there (perhaps like those we explored in the Cooleenlemane valley). The Archaeological records proved a little disappointing:

CO150-070

Townland: GORTSHANECRONE

Class: Redundant record

. . . Description: Listed as an ‘ancient copper mine’ in the RMP (1998). Located in rough hill pasture on the W side of a deep wide ravine running N-S across the hill. A natural cave with two E-facing entrances extends c. 35m W into the hill. The height varies from c. 1m to c. 4m and jagged rocks protrude from the roof. Loose stones are scattered on the uneven floor. While there are traces of green malachite copper staining in a few places there is no evidence to indicate prehistoric mining. The material in the spoil mound outside the lower entrance suggests some unsuccessful 19th century exploration for copper may have been carried out here. The evidence is not sufficient to warrant accepting this as the location of an archaeological monument . . .

archaeology.ie
Compiled by: Connie Murphy

This now ‘redundant’ entry in the official records seemed to imply that the ‘ancient’ mine wasn’t there at all – it was just a cave. But the records also make no mention of any sort of inscription on the cave walls: perhaps, if there were scribings, they were considered ‘modern graffiti’ and of no historic interest. We set out to solve the mystery, accompanied by our intrepid friends David Myler and his children. David has written about the site on his own Facebook page.

En route was another – much younger – piece of local history that we had long wanted to visit: an enormous white cross set up on top of Coom Hill to commemorate the Holy Year of 1950. Once visited on Corpus Christie day every year by a procession which started in Skibbereen, it remains an important local landmark and is situated with dramatic views in all directions.

The two screenshots above are from a film taken in the 1960s, showing the procession to the cross. You can watch the full film online here. Below are some of the views which can be seen from the top of the hill.

The cross – and the views – were only tasters for the adventures we had in store. Justin had researched the location of the ‘cave’ and his instructions unerringly led us across country towards a gulley – a substantial gash in the landscape running north to south, where the high land dropped away: tucked in just below us we found our goal.

The cave has two entrances – higher and lower – and the rock faces within certainly look as though they had been worked in places. This could be from the “. . . unsuccessful 19th century exploration for copper. . .” mentioned in the archaeological record. But the exposed stone is covered in scratchings: names, words, dates from all periods – recognisably going back as far as the 1700s. There are also a few images, such as this group of leaves which has been partly obscured by modern-day painted lettering: – and note the harp in the top left of the next pic down:

We had been surprised that we could not find any written description of the graffiti which – although not ‘ancient’ – has to be of interest, as it is a record of marks made by people through many centuries. In our recent census (2022) we have all been asked to contribute to a ‘time capsule’ – our words will be sealed up ready for opening by future generations a hundred years from now. (Some of these words have been published on the internet. My favourite is the simple and poignant: “Is there anybody there…?”). This cave is a comparable ‘time capsule’ but perhaps less embracing of contemporary life.

Centre, above: the copper staining, which is mentioned in the redundant archaeological record. Above is the far end of the cave, with some interesting lighting effects. The pic below gives an impression of the scale of the interior.

Before writing this post I made a few more enquiries, and discovered that the rock scribings had been thoroughly researched and written up in an article in Volume 10 of the Skibbereen & District Historical Society Journal, dating from 2014. The reason I had not previously discovered this was that the writers chose the local name of Lick Hill, rather than Coom Hill or the townland name (Gortshanecrone). Local knowledge is everything!

The excellent article is written by Jasper Ungoed-Thomas (whose ancestors – Wolfes – had carved their names on these walls) and Terri Kearney, who has been the Manager of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre since it opened in 2000. The Journal article is as comprehensive as you could ever need, with a full list of the names inscribed on the cave walls, together with information on those named where it is known. As an example, J Cotter, 1790 has the following entry:

. . . Cork Anglo-Protestant family, dating back to at least seventeenth century. Edward Cotter RIC during War of Independence. A Catholic branch existed by twentieth century. Edward Cotter was section commander of Bantry IRA . . .

Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal , Volume 10 2014

The same Journal article describes well the techniques which have been employed in many of the scribings:

. . . The nature of the rock face, with its hard surface, inevitably influenced the quality of the inscriptions. From the late eighteenth century until the later twentieth century, those who wished to leave a record of their visit had little option but to carve their graffiti. It is quite easy to scratch a name, but the outcome is often difficult, if not impossible, to understand. Results which are usually, but by no mean always, easy to read can be achieved by cutting, probably with a knife. But almost certainly the fairly few very clear inscriptions were done with a sharp chisel. Presumably some visitors came prepared to inscribe their names, since proper carving is not easy; it demands time, application and skill . . .

Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal , Volume 10 2014

Wolfe and Cotter names are seen in the examples above. Having visited the cave we perhaps thought our adventures were over for the day. However, getting back to where we had parked our cars was hazardous, as we opted to follow what seemed to be an easier route (I have to confess it was my suggestion!).

It proved to be a long and tedious trek. The terrain was uncertain and we had to negotiate bogs and steep, uneven surfaces where there were no visible footholds. When we wearily made it to a boreen, we found we still had far to go. A lesson learned: always go back the way you came – you know you will arrive! In spite of the strains, we had a great day out, and broadened our knowledge of local West Cork history. Don’t forget – as always – seek the permission (and advice) of landowners before you embark on any such exploration. And don’t unduly disturb the local residents!

Blasket through the Lens

Great Blasket, one of the islands in the parish of Dún Chaoin (Dunquin) off the west coast of Kerry, was the home and life-blood of a tenacious population of Irish families for many hundred years. One of these families – the Ferriters – claim that they controlled the islands as far back as the 13th century and had established a castle there. Whoever lived there had to be tough: the terrain is wild and there is little shelter. Nevertheless, the islanders clung to their territory, and their numbers expanded in the early 19th century when Lord Ventry of Dingle evicted many of his tenants from their holdings and those who left found island life – hard though it was – preferable to persecution.

We are fortunate that, during the early twentieth century, Great Blasket was visited by curious tourists and anthropologists. Among them was Robin Flower, who became Deputy-Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum from 1929 to 1944. He had many credits to his name, including Member of the Royal Irish Academy, Doctor of Literature of the National University of Ireland and also of Dublin University. Flower became the historian of the Blaskets, which he ‘immortalised’ through his lectures and writings – and many visits. To the people of the Great Blasket he was playfully known as ‘Bláithin’ – Little Flower – which he considered a great honour. I will write more on Robin Flower in a future post, but concentrate here on some of the photographs of island life which were recorded by likeminded researchers in the first half of the twentieth century. After 1954 there was nothing to record: life on the island, three miles from the mainland and involving an often treacherous crossing, became untenable. The whole remaining population was evacuated in that year, leaving their cottages and settlements to the ruinous ravages of the wild Atlantic gales.

The header picture is a wonderful statement of youth and vigour: island children photographed outside their school in 1932 by Thomas Waddicor. I can’t find anything about this man, but a lot of his work appears in the Dúchas Photographic Collection which was established in the 1930s, so I am assuming he was an active collector and researcher himself. The second picture is by our old friend Tomás Ó Muircheartach, who also spent time on the Blaskets in the 1930s. You will find more about him here. It shows the Blasket men in their fishing curraughs below the craggy rocks of the island. The pic above is also by Muircheartach, and shows Cáit Ruiséal and Máire Ruiséal being interviewed by a follklore collector at their fireside in 1942. I am not sure where this interview took place.

This photograph is also by Thomas Waddicor and dates from 1932. The caption given in the Dúchas Photographic Collection is interesting, if not entirely enlightening: Man, Great Blasket Island: Buffer, note stuffed peaked cap – an island custom.

Another from Waddicor, also 1932: Cáit at the Well. I think what strikes me most of all is how real and alive these people are – they certainly don’t seem in any way downtrodden or in danger of extinction: perhaps it’s just because they are ‘posing’ for the camera. But it’s salutary to think that they were only on the island for another generation or so.

These two photographs (above) are also by Thomas Waddicor and also from 1932. The top one is the ‘Wife and child of Séan the King’, and the lower is ‘Children of Séan the King’. We have a bit of a conundrum here as the last ‘King’ of the Blasket Islands passed away in 1929 (according to this Irish Times article). As Waddicor left behind no photograph of the ‘King’ himself, we have to assume that the lady in the upper photograph was a widow.

More ‘family’ photographs: the upper of the three is titled ‘Eilis and Brighid’; the centre is just given as ‘Family’, while the lower is ‘Fiddler and Woman’. All are by Waddicor from 1932.

This wonderful lady is also anonymous: sadly we can only know her by the title – ‘Great Blasket Woman’. Again, Waddicor 1932 – and, once more, she seems so full of life!

This is a picture of the Great Blasket Island School. We have some further information: while the folklorists and recorders were visiting the island in 1932, the older schoolchildren decided to interview each other about local customs and lore to mimic the visitors!

Further unnamed portraits: upper ‘Two Women Great Blasket’ and lower ‘Two Women gathering Heather’. From the Waddicor collection, 1932.

We’ll finish off with a few classics. This is Tomas O Criomhthain and it’s a photo from Muircheartach. Better known to us as Tomas O’Crohan, author of the classic book about the Blaskets:

. . . Tomas O’Crohan was born on the Great Blasket Island in 1865 and died there in 1937, a great master of his native Irish. He shared to the full the perilous life of a primitive community, yet possessed a shrewd and humorous detachment that enabled him to observe and describe the world. His book is a valuable description of a new vanished way of life; his sole purpose in writing it was in his own words, ‘to set down the character of the people about me so that some record of us might live after us, for the like of us will never be again’ . . .

The Islandman Book Review

We can’t discuss the Blaskets without mentioning Peig. That’s her, above, with folklorist Kenneth Jackson, taken by Thomas Waddicor in 1932. Peig Sayers was by all accounts a formidable lady but was also described by folklorist Seán Ó Súilleabháin, archivist for the Irish Folklore Commission, as ‘one of the greatest woman storytellers of recent times’. Peig was born in 1873 and died in 1958. She therefore experienced the abandonment of the island, although she had moved away from it in 1942. She was also not born on the island, but in Dunquin, Kerry, She married Pádraig Ó Guithín, a native islander, in 1892 and had eleven children, six of whom survived into adulthood. Sayers is most famous for her autobiography Peig, but also for folklore and stories which have been collected from her.

Finally, this an image of the Loganim Achive entry for Great Blasket Island, written in 1954.

I am grateful to the National Folklore Collection UCD for the use of the Thomas Waddicor images. It’s an incredible resource: this is just a small selection of the hundreds of images which have been archived

What’s in a Word?

We live in a world full of words. I can’t resist them – particularly when their context shines a humorous – or puzzling – light on them. Not just signs with words on them: sometimes it’s images – shopfronts – posters – that make you stop and have a second look. But then, I probably have a very particular sense of humour. I have every respect and good wish for the residents of Cheekpoint and Faithlegg, for example, but juxtaposed on the Waterford road sign they are eye-catching. Pointe na Síge is the ‘place of the Shee’ (or fairies), while Fáithling was the first parish name to be established following the 12th century Norman conquest: as far as I can make out, it derives from the term for ‘a wooded area’.

A ‘word wall’ signed by its author is from Wicklow (above). But we have encountered many examples of less formal poetry: I won’t call it graffitti . . .

It doesn’t really matter, I suppose, how legible the message is: as long as it has made you stop to take a closer look it’s been effective. Or reflective . . .

Sometimes they are simple, like the one above. I wonder if this next one is a mathematical formula?

Shopfronts have to be eye-catching and arresting, of course, to draw you in. There are witty examples everywhere.

One has to admire the entrepreneurs – of all persuasions.

in my distant youth – when I was learning to read – my go-to’s were the large, colourful, Guinness posters at the bottom of our road. I am pleased to see that many of those images haven’t gone away – even after seventy years!

While all that is, intentionally of course, a stirrer of nostalgia in us – there are many more of our own time worthy of study.

Finally (for now) we just found this old petrol pump hidden around a corner. Who remembers those days when an attendant had to come out and fill you up . . . and it was all done in gallons, shillings and pence?

Postscript . . .

681 Days!

Yes – it has been 681 says since Covid-19 hit us and our world changed. From today, 22 January 2022, most restrictions in the state are gone, apart from the continuing need to wear masks in certain public places. Hopefully that West Cork sky over our house this morning, above, is a good omen for us. Today’s paper shows the stark tally:

The population of the Republic of Ireland as I write this is 5,023,337 (no doubt that is changing by the minute). That tells the story: 22.6% of the people here have had the virus. And of course it hasn’t gone away yet… But at least “social and economic life can begin to return to normal” says the Taoiseach. In order to mark the significance of the moment, my post looks back to our experiences over the last 681 days: in particular, how our lives changed at the beginning of the outbreak.

These two images of Ballydehob, taken at the beginning of April, 2020, sum up the shock of empty streets, closed businesses and everyone being advised to isolate. It all seemed very bleak: our movements were initially restricted to 2km from home, then that increased to a radius of 5km. If you lived in rural areas – as we do – you were permitted to travel beyond those distances if you needed to in order to shop or use essential services. We breached those rules on occasion – sometimes to get exercise in the deserted countryside all around us.

As the days went by, an amazing spring emerged, with day after day of beautiful weather. Human activity was curtailed, but the natural world continued along its course as though nothing was awry!

We humans are pretty adaptable. It was amazing to see the ingenuity of folks creating outlets for their energies without having to mix. Food-on-the-go blossomed as a craft industry: here are some examples.

We were very impressed with many of the examples we encountered – and which have survived over the months. Hopefully they will carry on, as casual coffee stalls in the middle of nowhere are welcome to us in our travelling. Pre-pandemic they were probably frowned upon by ‘the authorities’ – and they are certainly regulated – but ‘authority’ would have had to be very hard-hearted to close down these little lifelines. In our experience, every one we encountered was well-run, and spotless. It was an incidental opportunity to have a distanced ‘chat’: always a source of good local information on how others were coping.

We took the opportunity to climb – and descend – Knockaphuka during the pandemic. It’s a mountain a short distance from Nead an Iolair, but a little outside the limit. No-one was watching! I suppose being restricted to our immediate environment for so long – day after day – made us re-assess it, and our lives. Certainly we have got to know the fine detail of the beautiful place we call home.

Here’s a social issue: we couldn’t get a haircut for months! Finola kept me in trim, but it was a relief when salons were once again allowed to operate, albeit with some restrictions.

This is us having coffee on our own terrace, looking out over Roaringwater Bay in the wonderful spring of that first pandemic year. In fact, each of the two last years has been benign – with a few exceptional winter storms. We would have felt less relaxed if we had had persistent rain (which sometimes happens).

A sprig of green appears on a doorstep on May Day, 2020: a sign that we all still want to continue the old (perhaps ancient) traditions… There were ups and downs: things eased as the year went by and then the new variations came in. Numbers went down and we breathed out. Then they soared – especially with the Omicron variant, and everything went haywire again. Let’s hope that the present easing is here to stay. But the future can never be told…

Surfing the Archives

There’s really valuable history to be found on the internet! Here’s an example… the very first post we published after we moved to Nead an Iolair a whole lot of years ago mentioned a concert we attended in Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen which honoured a Rector of that church who was also Professor of Irish in Trinity College Dublin: Canon James Goodman, who lived from 1828 to 1896. He was also an uilleann piper and collector of traditional music. I wrote about him in more detail the following year, Some of you may remember a story I often tell about the Canon’s grave in Creagh Burial Ground, on the way to Baltimore. It was his wish that his pipes be buried with him, and so they were. Finola and I would visit the atmospheric site at Creagh and listen out for the haunting tones of the Canon’s pipes playing away there.

Header picture – a bronze statue at the entrance to Abbeystrewery Church in Skibbereen shows Canon Goodman playing his uilleann pipes. Above – Creagh Burial Ground and the Canon’s grave

I’m sorry to disappoint, but there’s an update to the story about the Canon and his buried pipes. I have been surfing the archives of Ireland’s principle media outlet, Raidió Teilifís Éireann, and it’s a wonderful resource! When you click on the links, you may find that some of the material is preceded by short advertisements: sorry, they are built in to the archive site – to help fund it no doubt. That’s a worthwhile cause, anyway. Now, have a look at this:

Mícheál Ó Riabhaigh being interviewed on RTE in 1966. He became the owner of Canon Goodman’s pipes and they have since passed to his son, Eoin O Riabhaig, player and pipemaker from Cork city

. . . When Canon Goodman died he wished for his pipes to be buried with him and his good friend Alderman Phair made sure that this happened. However, Alderman Phair thought it a pity that such a set of pipes would just lie in a grave so just days after Goodman’s burial the pipes were taken out of his grave. The pipes remained in Alderman Phair’s possession for six or seven years before being passed on to Mícheál Ó Riabhaigh. The pipes were made by master craftsman Willie Taylor . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1966)

Before leaving that subject behind for today, here’s a YouTube video of Mícheál playing the Canon’s Taylor pipes; it dates from 1963:

Remembering my recent post on the Irish drum, or Bodhran, I was delighted to find some ‘old footage’ on the RTE Archives on the instrument:

This link is also footage from 1966:

. . . Sonny Canavan tells Ted Nealon about taking part in the Wren Boy activities and as Captain not being able to have a drink.  79 year old John (Jack) Duggan talks about his plans to go out with the Wren Boys this forthcoming Saint Stephen’s Day. Jack has been involved with the Wren Boys since he was twelve and played the concertina.  John is also a bodhrán maker and describes in detail how to go about it using a sieve from a barrel for the rim and the skin of a goat . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1966)

Sonny Canavan is interviewed again in 1977 (above):

. . . Sonny Canavan raises goats to provide the skin for his instruments and he gave this particular man a goat so he too could make a bodhrán. The man explains that after he shot and skinned the goat, the skin was buried for nine days it was then dug up and putting in on the bodhrán rim . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1977)

And this piece is of additional interest because it shows Listowel playwright and writer John B Keane visiting Sonny to talk about bodhráns. J B Keane wrote The Bodhran Makers, which was published in 1986. The writer died in 2002.

Here’s another RTE piece showing concertina maestro Noel Hill, from Clare. I wrote about that instrument in The Clare Trumpet.

. . . Iarla Ó Lionáird introduces Noel Hill who plays a concertina made in the 1860′s. Noel Hill describes this concertina as having a special tone and an unusual key. From Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in Monkstown, Co. Dublin, Noel Hill performs two reels, ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ and ‘Trip to Durrow’. . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1988)

We have never written about traditional Irish dancing – there’s a good subject! A post for another day, perhaps: it’s certainly thriving in Ireland. It enjoyed a great revival of popularity with the River Dance shows, but that was professional and polished (and impressive!) – but I like to see the raw version: people young and old dancing for personal enjoyment and entertainment in their kitchens or at the scoriachts. So, to finish for today (although I haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s on offer in the RTE archives), here are two pieces: The Fastest Reel in the West, from 1972, and Door Dancing, from 1981.

. . . Gay Byrne introduces John Conneely from Knock, Kilshamuck, Co. Mayo, who performs a reel in his own unique style to the music of ‘George White’s Favourite’ performed by John Cleary. The remarkable thing about this is that John had previously been hospitalised for months following a fall on a building site in England which left him with a broken back. Ciaran MacMathuna who is sitting in the audience describes John’s unique dance as “the fastest reel in the west”. . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1972)

. . . In Ireland long ago it was customary when groups of people worked together, as a ‘Meitheal’ to dig potatoes or save hay, that they would gather after a day’s work to relax and have a dance. These gatherings took place in traditional Irish cottages with mud floors and flagstones. A door was taken off its hinges to provide a flat surface for dancing. Solo set dancers were asked to dance on the doors as the skill of the dancer is best shown by how well they can produce the variety of steps within the narrow confines of the dance surface. In order to gauge the best dancer amongst a group of solo dancers, they placed four glasses on the corners of the door to help determine the most skilled dancer. The person to spill the least amount of water was the winner of the competition . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1981)

Tailpiece – from the RTE Stills Library – The Oranmore Céilí Band, 1985: