West Cork Villages and Towns – Bantry

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

Lewis Topographical Dictionary of Ireland 1837

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


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

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

Jacobite army officer and author John Stevens, 1689

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Golden Hour

Masters of Tradition Festival

Ireland’s First Inhabitants

West Cork Villages and Towns – Schull

What better time to visit Schull than during Calves Week? That’s a big sailing festival at the beginning of August every year, and you have to be a sailor to understand the nuances of its title. It’s held at the same time as the UK’s premier sailing event – Cowes Week, ‘…the world’s longest running sailing regatta…’ and is focussed around the three Calf Islands in Roaringwater Bay. So there you have it – Cowes and Calves! What it means, of course, is that the village of Schull is at its busiest and, since Covid has given a boost to outdoor socialising, the streets are crowded with visitors enjoying the shops, pavement cafés and galleries.

In this occasional series on the Towns and villages of West Cork we will take one community and try to discover why and how it has developed through history, and how it fares in the present day. A snapshot of the place will be presented – hopefully – in the best possible light (although this won’t always be on a sunny summer’s day!) From the aerial view above, you can see how Schull has been built up around its connection with the water. Schull Harbour is at the head of a long sheltered inlet, and the pier today is always busy with fishing and pleasure boats, ferries and yachts.

That’s the road to the pier, above, and it’s just a few steps from the village centre. If you are a visitor, you may have no idea that Ireland’s most south-westerly railway line once ran right on to this pier! The narrow gauge Schull, Ballydehob & Skibbereen Tramway and Light Railway was in service between 1886 and 1947, connecting these remoter parts of the county to Skibbereen and then, via the main line, Cork city. Although never considered a commercial success, it was a valuable element of infrastructure enabling local passengers to get to shops and markets, and fishermen to send their catches to distant merchants as hastily as possible (bearing in mind there was a speed limit of 15 miles per hour on most of this rural line). This photograph from the NLI Lawrence Collection (below) dates from the 1890s, and shows barrels of fish stacked up next to the railway track on Schull pier, awaiting despatch. They are likely to contain salted pilchards and herrings.

In all these pictures of the pier and pontoon areas above you can see the lively sailing activity in the background. Below are two extracts from early OS maps, one showing Schull and its location to some of the offshore islands, and the other showing the town centre, probably around 1890. It’s thought-provoking to see on the latter the various facilities which the town offered at that time, as well as the railway: Court House, Constabulary Barrack, Smiths, Schools, Hotel and Dispensary.

Note that on both the maps above, which date from more than a century ago, the settlement’s name is given as Skull: it still is on all OS Ireland maps up to the present time. Mostly today it’s known as Schull, or in Irish An Scoil, which translates as The School. Some of you may remember my posts earlier this year when I looked in to the possible origins of this village name – and the earliest ‘School’: 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’ . . . There’s a fair bit of local lore surrounding the subject, and you need to read Schull resident John D’Alton’s article on this to find an alternative view to the perhaps romanticised ideas of an ancient monastic site: I’m sitting on the fence!

Historic village – perhaps with medieval origins – to vibrant sailing centre and colourful streets in the 21st century. Schull has come a long way, and has far to go. Today the resident population numbers around 1,050: this is boosted substantially with the influx of summer visitors. It’s good to see long established names and new businesses on the streets, contributing to the colourful palette of the architecture. Great things are happening in the future: the old bank building (below) is to become a cinema and film centre: a focal point for the acclaimed annual Fastnet Film Festival.

Year round, Schull is worth exploring. Mount Gabriel, the area’s highest point, is above the village and offers superb vistas over the bay and islands. Finola has looked at the many legends associated with this peak and there is ancient history there, too: the remains of Bronze Age copper mines on its slopes. Good walks can be had on the high ground and on the coastal footpaths – see the Explore West Cork website.

Sweet Ilen – Part 2

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

Walking West Cork – Top of the Rock

When we could still walk within the boundary of our own county – and in company – we went with our friends Peter and Amanda in the footsteps of a saint! The walk from Drimoleague to the Top of The Rock – and beyond – is one which has been on our ‘to do’ list for a long time, not least because the first person to do it was our own Saint Finnbarr, founder (in 606AD) and patron saint of Cork city. The motto of University College, Cork is Ionad Bairre Sgoil na Mumhan which means ‘Where Finbarr taught let Munster learn’.

Finbarr is also famous for establishing a monastic site at Gougane Barra in the sixth century, and today you can follow St Finnbarr’s Way all the way from the Top of The Rock to that magical lake in the mountains where you can find an oratory and chapel dedicated to the saint: the full walk is 37km. Our own walk was a mere 3.5km but rewarding nevertheless.

Our walk started at the former Drimoleague railway station. The line opened in 1877, connecting Dunmanway with Skibbereen, and subsequently extension lines went in all directions: to Cork, Bantry, Bandon, Courtmacsherry and – via our own narrow gauge line – from Skibbereen through Ballydehob to Schull. Sadly, all lines coming south west out of Cork have closed, some of the routes surviving until the 1960s. The picture below, dating from 1898, shows the track at Schull Harbour, the most south westerly point on any railway line in Ireland.

Leaving the old station at Drimoleague the path follows the road going north past the architecturally intriguing All Saint’s church, built in 1956. Finola has written about the building and its unusual stained glass (above) – it’s well worth a look inside. Beyond the modern church is the ruins of an ancient one, surrounded by a burial ground which is full of history (below):

After a steep climb we reached our highest point: Barr na Carraige – which translates literally as Top of the Rock. Evidently the first settlement of Drimoleague was established up here and only moved downhill to be more convenient when the railway arrived. At the ‘Top’ we were fortunate to meet David Ross (below) who owns the farm and ‘Pod Park’ here, and has also masterminded the establishment of these walking routes. Great chat was had, and David suggested our best routes for the day as storms had affected some pathways: work is in hand to restore these. We couldn’t leave the ‘Top’ until we had fully appreciated the long views across to Castle Donovan: our own way then headed downwards and along the Ilen River.

Descending from Top of the Rock we were mainly ‘off-road’ on dedicated footpaths. We first met the Ilen River at Ahanfunsion Bridge, a place which has seen a lot of action historically. The name means ‘Bridge of the Ash Trees’. There was a battle here in ancient times and it is said that the victors planted trees at the ford to commemorate the event. The bridge was built originally in 1830 but was blown up in the War of Independence and subsequently reconstructed. It’s a great spot for a picnic and everyone has a good time crossing the stepping stones, hopefully while keeping their feet dry.

David and his team have worked hard to create and maintain these paths. They have also embellished them with discrete but apposite plaques which include local information and poetry. The work has also involved bridging the river in places to maintain a continuous footpath. We have to commend and appreciate the work they have done and the legacy they are leaving to future generations.

The river walk is truly beautiful, and the wooded valley is quite unusual terrain for West Cork, which is more often high, craggy and dramatic. Wildlife and wildflowers abound, in season. All too soon we came to the boreen which would take us back to our starting point. We are determined to return and follow the network of pathways further when our current restrictions are lifted. We promise we will report back!

The Day the Sun Came Out – in Ballydehob!

It always happens: you go through a ferocious winter of gales, floods and bitingly cold winds and then one day – probably not too long after St Brigid’s – you realise that spring is arriving! It happened this week, here in Ballydehob. Suddenly, the sun came out; the sky was deep blue and all the coloured houses, bars and shops lit up and made us remember what a wonderful place we live in.

Ballydehob – that’s the name in Irish, above, on the gable of the community’s Bank House. A literal translation would be Town of the ford at the estuary of two rivers and, indeed, the Bawnakeane and Rathravane streams converge here before flowing out into Ballydehob Bay, once a hive of water-borne commerce with coasters, schooners, sand-boats, and punts and skiffs from the inhabited offshore islands arriving and leaving, while the tiny train puffed and rumbled across the viaduct on its way from Skibbereen to the Schull terminus.

When you feel the spring in the air for the first time, you begin to look anew at your surroundings. Shapes, reflections, the play of images on water: there’s such a difference as the ‘ordinary’ is changed through the quality of the light. That’s the freshness of annual renewal.

There are so many little details in the townscape that we can overlook, or just take for granted. Ballydehob has a long history of creativity, which is reflected in shop signs, decoration, window dressings. Take a stroll in the sunshine and see if you can find anything new!

You don’t have to wander far from home to welcome and experience the joys of a new spring. You will also find yourself looking forward to the seasons still to come, which will bring Ballydehob to life with its visitors, galleries, festivals and gatherings. Not to mention the hostelries which feed the body as well as the soul.

We are looking forward to many sunny days to come as the year warms up. Meanwhile, we can always revisit happy memories of our village life through our photographic archives. Thanks to Judi Whitton for the endpiece watercolour featuring our wonderful Budds, just turned five years old this weekend: congratulations to Jamie and his dedicated team!

A Medieval High Cross – Out of Place

I was intrigued by this advertisement in the current edition of the Irish Arts Review (March – May 2020). Morgan O’Driscoll is based in Skibbereen, West Cork and specialises in Irish art. Paul Henry (1876 – 1958) fought an uphill battle in his own lifetime to get his work recognised. In 1911 Paul Henry and his wife Grace exhibited in Leinster Hall, Dublin. One critic commented that the Henrys: ‘ . . . seldom rise above the dead level of mediocrity and too often fall below it . . . ‘  In that exhibition was a work, The Potato Diggers: it didn’t sell until the 1930s. In 2013 it was included in a sale by James Adams & Sons, Dublin – and fetched €400,000! Just a decade ago, a Paul Henry might have been expected to sell for a few thousand – now, 40 years after his death, he’s a star!

Paul Henry painted by his wife Grace in 1899

So why am I intrigued by the O’Driscoll advertisement? Take another look – the title of the painting is given as Celtic Cross at Lough Derg. I have taken an interest in Irish medieval High Crosses, and published a few articles on them in this Journal. In particular, this one – The Wonders of Monasterboice. Here’s a couple of photos from that post: the left one is an image of the west face of Muiredach’s Cross taken in the early years of the twentieth century – when the carving appears to be more clearly defined than it is today – and on the right is Finola, giving scale to the same cross just a couple of years ago. This cross – named after Abbot Muiredach mac Domhnaill, who died in 923AD – is one of the finest in the country, standing 5.5 metres tall.

Looking at a detail from the Paul Henry painting (above), there is a remarkable similarity between the ‘Lough Derg’ cross and Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice. So – I hear you suggest – are they twins? Not exactly: in fact, through the medium of painting, one cross can be in two places at once! There is no ‘Celtic Cross’ at Lough Derg, so our artist has taken Muiredach’s Cross and placed it in his picture. Why?

At this point I can’t resist showing you this antiquarian drawing of Muiredach’s Cross (above), probably dating from the eighteenth century, although I haven’t been able to find the author of it. It’s fascinating that all the elements of the cross are portrayed: the central figure in the roundel – presumably Christ – the various figures on the  panels above and below and on either side, and the two cats on the base looking very much like comfortable fireside moggies. But look how all the images have become stylised: medieval has been transported to Georgian neo-classical!

Baccanale – an example of a 1782 copperplate engraving by Marco Carloni, Rome

Before we explain Paul Henry’s stretching of the truth, let’s consider something else: there are a few Lough Dergs in the country, but the most famous – and the one most likely to be depicted by an artist who is showing off Ireland might be Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, which I covered in this post, also from two years ago.

Lough Derg, showing the pilgrimage site of Station island, and the surrounding landscape

It’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination to see the setting of Lough Derg, with its fairly low-lying hills, in the background of Paul Henry’s painting. And where is that little tower house on the spit of land behind the ‘Celtic Cross’? Well – maybe it’s here:

This painting by Paul Henry is known as Grace O’Malley’s Castle: it is picturesquely situated at Kildavnet, in the south-east corner of Achill Island, County Mayo, which Paul and Grace first visited in 1910. So inspired were they by the landscape and the apparently idyllic simple way of life that they remained on Achill for a decade. Here’s another view of the O’Malley castle by Paul Henry:

So the ‘Celtic Cross at Lough Derg’ is, in fact, a medieval high cross from Monasterboice, County Louth, and it is set against the stunning scenery of Achill, County Mayo. We can’t blame Morgan O’Driscoll (or anyone else who can be identified) for giving the painting a misleading name. It seems that originally the work was just titled ‘Celtic Cross’: here are some insights from Paul Henry’s biographer, Brian Kennedy, in the Irish Arts Review Yearbook 1989 / 1990 –

. . . Henry was egocentric and occasionally used artistic licence with historical facts in the same way he might have done in a painted composition . . .

. . . In 1917 the Irish Times thought he was developing a decorative treatment of the landscape whereby his imagery was not realistic but was symbolically Irish . . .

And the following is from Paul Henry: With a Catalogue of the Paintings, Drawings, Illustrations, by S B Kennedy, Paul HenryYale University Press, 2007: it tells us that the painting was clearly known as ‘Celtic Cross’ in 1924, and was in the collection of Seán T O’Kelly, Ireland’s second President (between  June 1945 and June 1959). When sold by Adams in 1984 the painting had acquired the additional wording . . . at Lough Derg . . .

. . . 611 Celtic Cross 1924. Oil on board 24 x 22 (61 x 56). Signed ‘PAUL HENRY’ . . .

Private collection. Prov: Sean T O’Kelly; sale, Adams, Dublin 19 July 1984. Lot 86, as Celtic Cross at Lough Derg, repr. Irish Travel, vol 7, no 10, June 1937 repr. on front cover. Almost certainly a composite composition . . .

As with most artists – who need to earn a living – Paul Henry willingly accepted commissions. He was successful in selling ‘popular’ work to railway companies and the Irish Tourist Association (above – 1920s and 30s).

A “Lough Derg” design is mentioned in the Railway Company’s letter (above). Below is another – for British Railways: this is more likely to be the Lough Derg on the Shannon.

Has this helped to unravel the enigma of Paul Henry’s Celtic Cross at Lough Derg? Whether or not you are convinced, I’m sure you would like to have the painting hanging on your wall – me too! Although it would be so much better if it could go permanently into a public collection The sale is coming up in April . . .