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.

A Sign Post

It’s been a while since I put up a post about ‘signs’ – I’m an avid collector of Irish ones. They have been a regular feature of Roaringwater Journal, but the last was 18 months ago (see it here). Wherever I go, I’m on the lookout: sometimes it’s just the little things that catch the eye – perhaps a spelling mistake – often it’s the sheer exuberance, like the one above guiding you around a corner at Ring.

Very often there is intentional humour; occasionally there’s a poignancy – especially when the sign is faded and you know it has long lost its purpose. But there can also be a sense of history. Here’s one from Ballydehob earlier this year – My Beautiful Launderette, which provided us with clean bedding for a decade (and paint, all manner of screws, hammers and nails), finally closed on the retirement of Kathleen and John: we can only wish them well. The iconic shopfront has just this week been painted over. An institution, now, which is only a good memory.

Most of the following signs speak for themselves. We will be familiar, of course, with the directives called for by the Covid19 pandemic. Here’s a variation, followed by a reminder of hopeful days back in the summer of 2020, and a message.

Most of the signs here come from West Cork; you’ll find others in past posts from all over Ireland. Official directives here have to be in Irish and English, except in Gaeltacht areas (where Irish is the first language). There, things can be quite disconcerting at times.

Even though I have taken some rudimentary lessons in the language, this one (above, in Ballyvourney) had me puzzled. But it’s simply telling you to be careful to lock your car.

I suppose if you missed either of the above signs, it might just be too late! If only you had noticed…

It means ‘Song (or Music) of the Sea’. I couldn’t resist recording this romantic house name, and wonder what view the occupants have? There is no shortage of information on Ireland’s wonderful history – an example below.

I can’t help wondering – why?

That’s not you that’s gone askew – it’s Mary’s kiosk on a bit of a slope! I’m always attracted by Guinness posters (there are plenty of old ones surviving here) – I learned to read from them in my younger days (below).

That’s quite enough for one day. Keep a lookout for yourself – and alert me to any good ones you encounter in your own travels!

Mixed Magic Messages

We first visited Thomas Wiegandt’s Magic Forest exactly five years ago. It’s just round the corner and over the hill from Ballydehob. As time has passed the walk has matured and mellowed: it’s the most picturesque and atmospheric place now – true magic! Thank you, Thomas, for creating this and for allowing anyone to access it (subject to lockdown limitations, of course)…

As a connoisseur of Irish signs and signage (have a look at my previous posts over the years), this walk is for me a delight and an abundant source of tangible examples from the world of human communication. There are explicit and comprehensible signs, enigmatic ones, symbolic messages, and allegories. It doesn’t matter whether we understand them, or even relate to them personally: it’s just all part of the magic of the forest.

Who are the messengers? That’s really up to you to decide. here are some that I can relate to:

Each time we visit the Magic Forest, we come back with a different set of images. It’s just that there is so much here, you take in what appeals to you at a particular time.

A pantheist might find Gods and Goddesses in this forest… Others might see relics of a fading industrial age. It all depends on your point of view.

The forest itself will take over in the end. It’s certainly the case that, through the years, nature is absorbing everything. But, surely, it’s not a battle – just a mutual enhancement. Finola is definitely on the side of the natural world.

A place to think, meditate – or make music!

The whole place is a collaboration between the arts and nature. Enjoy the journey!

Time for Signs

It’s a few months since I took a selection from my ever increasing files of Irish Signs. If you want to see some of the older posts in this series, click here. Otherwise, I’m going to stand back and let the images speak for themselves: there are curiosities and humour: unexpected juxtapositions – and some that might leave you with question marks . . . I hope you will enjoy them all.

Signs of Spring

A curious advertising sign from a disused bicycle shop. Perhaps the ‘springing’ lion is sufficient to justify the title of today’s post . . . It’s been a good few months since I last sampled my ever-growing collection of Irish signs and curiosities. I cannot say why, but these latest examples – and all the previous ones – amused me or attracted me when I saw them, sufficiently enough to put them on record. The humour of some of them is profoundly Irish – but also universal – whereas the ‘curiosities’ are examples of the love of colour, or just eccentricity. Anyway, that’s quite enough commentary from me: the images will, hopefully, speak for themselves.


I think the ‘Floating walkway’ must be a unique sign – purpose-made just for that one location, on the dunes at Barley Cove, here in West Cork. When the tide is in, walking across can be a seasickness-inducing business: you have been warned!

Michael ‘Tea’ Higgins here – Ireland’s President. Honoured, I’m sure, to be thus celebrated as a part of his nation’s tea-drinking ceremonies.

Partly obliterated signs can be intriguing. With some, the intention is easy to guess – with others, one can only contemplate . . .

I couldn’t resist these pics showing Ireland in its best colours. However, if you want to see a lot more of that, have a look at Finola’s posts here.

I could go on . . . but I don’t want to send you to sleep! That’s quite enough for now – look out for more in the future.

Abhainn na Seangán – River of the Ants!

What’s in a name? In Ireland – quite a lot, usually, although the meaning often takes some searching out. Perusing Ordnance Survey Ireland sheet 85 on a late February afternoon when the sun miraculously appeared and lit up a countryside ripe for exploration, my eye was drawn to a river running through the hills to the east of Bantry: Owennashingaun. How could you overlook such a name? And how could you not be intrigued by the Irish place-name which must have preceded it before the surveyors put their anglicisation to it: Abhainn na Seangán? Even better was the discovery of the meaning of this name: River of the Ants!

Our byway heading into the hills

With high expectations we set out, with Finola at the ready with her camera. As with all West Cork locations, Abhainn na Seangán is but a few paces from Nead an Iolair, as the crow flies. Pausing only to pick up our friend Gill in Ballybane West along the way, we were soon heading north for the foothills of Mullaghmesha (Irish: Mullach Méise – Summit of the Altar).

Turning north at the Cullomane Crossroads on the R586 we almost immediately crossed the Owennashingaun River (I’ll use the Anglicised version as that is what usually appears on the map). Here it’s just a gentle, straight watercourse which follows the main road until it picks up the Ahanaclaurshee Stream (Irish: River of the Harp) and then becomes the Ilen River, which flows on through Skibbereen and eventually reaches the sea at Baltimore.

Glens, farms and distant highlands on our road heading for Mullaghmesha

We skirted two smallish peaks – Sprat Hill and Knocknaveagh (Irish:Cnoc na bhFiach, wonderfully ‘The Hill of the Ravens’) – before reaching the townland of Tralibane, an important Irish landmark as it was here that Captain Francis O’Neill was born in 1838. He travelled the world and had a colourful life of many adventures before being elevated to the role of Chief Superintendent of Police in Chicago in 1901. O’Neill came from a musical family in his West Cork childhood and is best known today as one of the most successful collectors of Irish Traditional Music. Here is a post I wrote about The Chief back in 2014.

From Tralibane we travelled north-east on deserted boreens, through a soft, green landscape of glens and standing stones (see the header picture), gradually rising towards more distant highlands, until we encountered again the ‘River of the Ants’. The source of Abhainn na Seangán is on the slopes of Mullaghmesha, whose peak is at 495 metres: we didn’t make it up there to look for the altar: a destination for another day. The name of the river remains enigmatic: I searched the excellent resource www.logainm.ie and found an archive record there dating from 1840 which gives the translation as: ‘river of the pismires’. I then had to look up ‘pismires’, which is evidently from early English:

1350 – 1400: Middle English pissemyre, equivalent to pisse to urinate + obsolete mire ant, perhaps Scandinavian (compare Danish mire, Swedish myra) cognate with Dutch mier; pejorative name from stench of formic acid proper to ants

There was nothing untoward with the smell of the river as we followed it – and we didn’t see any ants! So the mystery remains. Surely there must be a story embedded in local knowledge or folklore which could enlighten us?

Upper – sweeping views began to open up as the road climbed towards Castle Donovan; centre – the iconic ruined castle, which was taken into the care of the State in 2000 and has since received major stabilisation and renovation; lower – a splendid piece of signage at Castle Donovan – every possible disaster has been foreseen!

The ruin of Castle Donovan is as fine as any in West Cork, and is fortunate to be in permanent State care. Set on a plateau with the mountain rising behind it, it is an impressive focal point in the landscape, which can be seen for miles around. We passed by the castle and headed up on a rough, winding way: looking back, the silhouette of the tower house stands out with benign West Cork rolling pasture as a prepossessing backdrop.

The road very quickly becomes a true mountain pass, and an early evening haze seemed to hang over everything as we skirted the east side of Mullaghmesha. We hardly saw a soul on our whole journey, but we were eyed warily by sheep who plainly considered us intruders on their territory.

On the north side of the mountain we entered the Mealagh Valley, and were reminded of our recent adventures travelling through the Yellow Gap. Finding our way down to the lowlands again, we took our last look at the River of the Ants at Dromore, and bid it a fond farewell. In spite of its unfathomable name, it had taken us on a grand exploration. Give it a try for yourselves!

Upper, the distinctive church at Dromore, with its pencil-thin ’round tower’ and, above, our last view of Owennashingaun