Caheragh Explorer

I’ll explain at the outset that Caheragh is (more or less) pronounced ‘corer’ (as in coring apples)! It’s a parish in West Cork that we have visited before. Have a look at my article on the Ilen River, here. This locality is brimming over with history and we go exploring as often as possible: there is always more to find. And – with wide views and cloud scapes in all directions from the high ground – it’s an uplifting place, especially when blessed with the August sun.

Here’s a vista to the north-east, from the top of the mound beside the graveyard that might just be a ring-fort, or possibly the site of a monastic centre dating from medieval times – more on that later. In the middle distance is the Ilen River with its wooded banks, heading out towards Castle Donovan and – eventually – to its source on Mullaghmesha (or, perhaps, Nowen Hill – we have yet to determine exactly where it rises. This post from the Sweet Ilen series covers the area). And that Donovan castle itself graces the cover of the latest Skibbereen Historical Journal (Volume 18, 2022), which you can get in bookshops locally, or online here. You will find a summary of some of my research on the Ilen River in this journal, together with many other fascinating and erudite articles.

But, going back to that sunlit vista, you’ll notice Tadhg’s Little Oak Tree is indicated. I can’t resist quoting the story of this feature that appears as a ‘Redundant Record’ in the Historic Environment Viewer:

. . . On E bank of River Ilen. Site of tree, ‘Darriheen Teige’ or ‘Daraichin Teige’ (Tadhg’s little oak tree), where Tadhg O’Donovan, chieftain of Clan Cahill, was slain c 1560 by rival group of O’Donovan’s (O’Donoghue 1986, 55). Nearby is Poll a’ Daraichin (pool of the little oak) . . .

Archaeology.ie Historic Environment Viewer – Record CO132-066

Well, it seems strange that the ‘site of a tree’ is a recorded monument. In fact, if the oak was still flourishing (we couldn’t find it), it would probably be just one of only a few trees included in Ireland’s vast record of archaeological monuments!

For today’s post I am indebted to our historian friend Pat Crowley, who directed us to a clip from The Southern Star newspaper dated January 12, 1929. It was a letter written to the newspaper by Captain Francis O’Neill, retired Chief of Police in Chicago and well-known prolific collector of traditional Irish music. O’Neill (1848-1936) was raised in his family home at Tralibane, in the parish of Caheragh. He has been mentioned in this journal, and I was fascinated to read his letter, which became a protracted discussion on the parish, the old graveyard, historic sites and archaeology in the area.

All this came about because Francis had returned from Chicago to West Cork in 1906 – after a long absence – ostensibly to visit the burial place of his parents, and to order a suitable monument to mark their graves (above).

. . . On my return to Ireland July 1906, after an absence of 41 years, I visited the bleak Caheragh graveyard, in which the remains of my parents, and O’Neill ancestors, were buried. There being nothing visible in the environment to indicate its origin as a cemetery, personal curiosity, abetted by that of the Downings of Tralibane – cousins of McCarthy Downing, MP – led to investigation . . . The result, somewhat disconnected and fragmentary, is herewith submitted for publication . . .

Southern Star 12.01.1929

The O’Neill burial plot at Caheragh. Francis ordered the large cross to mark the graves of his parents. The inscription reads:

Erected By
Captain Daniel 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 (Cianach)
Died 1900 Aged 88 Years
Requiescant In Pace
Amen

Quoting again from Francis O’Neill’s letter to the Southern Star:

. . . All available authorities in my library have been consulted, and I find that references to the parish of Caheragh are both meagre and obscure… The earliest mention of this parish which has come to my notice, is in the report of Dive Downes, Episcopal Bishop of Cork and Ross, who made a trip on horseback to all parishes in his diocese in the years 1699 – 1702. Following is the entry: – “Caheragh Church, about two miles distant from Drommaleage Church to the SW lies close to the Island River (he means Ilen). On the west side of the river are 35.5 lowlands in this parish, of which 20 lie on the west side of the river, and 6.5 lie on the east side of the said river . . . There are about 12 Protestant families in this parish. ’Tis thought there are forty Papists for one Protestant in this parish . . . Will Gureheen, a very old man, is priest of this parish . . . The church is ruinous. The north side is down . . .”

Southern Star 12.01.1929

A vista to the west, from the top of the mound beside the graveyard. The present-day village of Caheragh is distant beyond the green pasture (a long way from this ‘Old Graveyard’ – why…?), identifiable through the spire of the 1963 Holy Family Church. O’Neill continues, now quoting from Samuel Lewis “A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland” published in London in 1837:

“Near Lisangle are the ruins of a strong castle, once the residence of McCarthy, King of Cork. The ruins of the old church also remain, which the people here call the ‘Abbey of Cahir” . . . The absence of ruins at Caheragh, which, by the way, seems to have never attracted the attention of historians or antiquaries, is easily accounted for. The stones, conveniently at hand, were utilised in the building of the walls which encompassed the graveyard . . .

Southern Star 12.01.1929

Above – the western boundary wall of Caheragh Old Graveyard. The small road continues over the Ilen River: the bridge here was built by the Congested Districts Board for Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century, to replace a ford, the stone flag bed of which can still be seen.

. . . The Irish word Cathair, spelled and pronounced in English Caher or Cahir, meant a circular stone fort, and therefore Caheragh, under any form of spelling, signifies the field of the stone fort. But where is the fort? one naturally asks. Remembering the descriptive nature of the Irish place names on my short call at Caheragh in 1906, I looked for something to justify the name and found it. In order to gain a vantage point, to view the country round about, I struggled through the thicket of furze to the top of the hill east of the road and, unexpectedly, to my great delight, found the outlines of the stone foundations of the Cahir, mostly covered with soil and grass, but quite distinct on the flat top. Again was the correctness of Irish topographical names vindicated . . .

Letter from Capt Francis O’Neill, Southern Star 12.01.1929

This feature (the two pictures above) is the hilltop referred to by O’Neill, where he claims to have found the ruins of the ‘Cahir’. Today it is recorded on the National Monuments Record as a ‘ringfort’ or ‘rath’:

CO132-017001-

Class: Ringfort – rath

Townland: CAHERAGH

Description: In pasture, atop hillock broken by rock outcrop. Circular area (36.5m N-S; 37.5m E-W) enclosed by earthen bank (max H 3.8m). Break in bank to NNW (Wth 5m); and WSW (Wth 4m), where triangular feature adjoins inner bank face. Possible souterrain (CO132-017002-) in SW quadrant

Archaeology.IE National Monuments Record

Top: flat-topped mound with circular summit, very much in line with the expectation of a ringfort structure. Centre: stone embankment seen from the top of the ‘fort’. Lower: a defined ‘entrance’ through the ‘fort embankment’ on the summit of the mound. This could be ancient or modern: cattle use the fields in which this feature is located, and some of the topography could be shaped by this usage over centuries.

. . . The builders of Abbeys and Monasteries were wise in their day in the choice of locations for their establishment, and one essential desideratum was near to a plentiful supply of water, such as the banks of lakes and rivers, or adjoining never-failing springs. In this instance the River Ilen met all requirements, and taking everything into consideration, I am led to the conclusion that the graveyard at Caheragh was the site of the “Abbey of Cahir” mentioned by Lewis in the Topographical Dictionary of Ireland . . .

Letter from Capt Francis O’Neill, Southern Star 12.01.1929

Above: evidence of built structures on the summit of the ‘ringfort’ mound at Caheragh. A significant circular foundation is clearly outlined. Perhaps, after all, there is some substance in the Captain’s musings on what occupied this site in earlier times? This account is from The county and city of Cork remembrancer; or, Annals of the county and city of Cork by Francis H Tuckey, Savage and Son, 1837:

. . . 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 . . . ‘Blessed Mary de Caheragh’ was a monastic site, said to be ‘situated on the hilltop commanding the view above the graveyard at Caheragh’ (possibly on the site of the ringfort). It was no doubt founded here because of the proximity of the watercourse . . .

So there – for your consideration – is the suggestion that the hill above Caheragh’s Old Graveyard (which may, in earlier times, have been a ringfort with a souterrain) was the monastic settlement Blessed Mary de Caheragh in medieval times. That’s quite a thought. My own opinion would be that the monastery would have been founded on the level ground close to the river: in fact where the graveyard is today. As the monastery declined, a church might have remained, eventually becoming a ruin. It was common for old churches and their environs to be used for burials and this might account for the comparative remoteness of this site from the village itself. Now – of course – there is no trace of a church ruin. This theory would hold good except for the annals quoted above, which state that a monastic site was situated on the hilltop overlooking what is now the graveyard.

Evidence of stone quarries on the hillside suggest that significant quantities of stone has been used locally. Graveyard wall, field fences, or built structures? But the most challenging feature has to be the ringed foundation, or base, clear to see on the edge of the hill (below). Could it be a souterrain entrance – or, more fanciful, the base of a round tower?

I’ll leave you with that conundrum (and my whimsical daydream below) for now, but we will continue with Francis O’Neill’s musings (which become even more complex) in a future post.

Timoleague Tour

We had a great afternoon yesterday, exploring aspects of the history of Timoleague, in West Cork. Our Finola Finlay (above) was involved in an event organised by the Glass Society of Ireland . . . a professional all-island, non-profit association that opens a window onto the contemporary Irish Glass Community . . . The day’s proceedings were centred around the ecclesiastical buildings in the town, the earliest of which is the Franciscan Friary, now a substantial ruin beside the Argideen River.

This view of the ruined ‘abbey’, above, dates from 1830. It is located on the site of an early Christian monastic settlement founded by Saint Molaga, from whom the town of Timoleague derives its name. A story that I heard for the first time yesterday was told by local historian Donal Whooley: the Saint was trying to found his community back in the sixth century, but everything that he and his followers built fell down the following day. According to legend, it was originally to be built a mile west of Timoleague, but all work done on that site by day would fall down by morning. Interpreting this as God’s wish that the church should be built elsewhere, Molaga fixed a blessed candle on a sheaf of corn, and floated it down the Argideen river, siting his settlement on the spot that it came ashore, on the big bend in the waterway where the Friary ruins can be found today. Here is a view from the great three-light window which looks out to the east over the river. Finola told us that, in its heyday, this window would have been filled with beautiful medieval glass, bringing light and colour into the substantial nave of the church.

That’s Donal, above, leading our group of almost fifty keenly attentive people who shared an interest in the town and its history. To the right (in a blue jacket) is Father Patrick Hickey. He told us of the symbolism of the cockerel you can see on the large headstone in the nave (below), dating from 1821. Evidently some of the disciples were standing together while Christ was being crucified: nearby stood a pot in which a rooster was being boiled for supper. Judas reportedly said: do you think there’s any chance that our Lord will rise again? Mrs Judas retorted: there’s about as much chance of that as there is of that rooster jumping out of the pot and crowing! At which point – of course – the cockerel did just that!

It was the custom to place burials in ruined church buildings. Here’s another fine headstone in Timoleague Abbey, to Michael Deasy, ” . . . who departed this life on the 23 December 1755, aged 33. May he rest in peace. Amen . . . “

Lively discussions ensued on the efficacy of wart wells, and Donal suggested that this repurposed bullaun stone, above could be the oldest human element on the whole site!

Here’s an aerial overview of the geography of Timoleague. The Friary ruin is only one of many historic sites of interest which caught our interest yesterday. It was Finola’s task to introduce us (or those of us who had never seen it) to the little Church of the Ascension.

This building is currently undergoing major improvement works: the lime rendered tower has created a striking landmark in the town. This work has become necessary by water penetration through the stonework leading to deterioration of the fabric. The conservation project is led by a hard-working Parish committee who also served us delicious tea and cakes since the tour was a fund-raiser for their efforts.

You can see Finola addressing us in this little Protestant church in the header picture. Above is one example of the fine early glass here, this one by Clayton and Bell. For a fuller description of this church and its many stories, read our post here.

The early OS map extracts, above, give further context to the town’s history. The top map dates from the 1830s and comparison of the plan forms of the Church and Chapel buildings with those in the lower map, which dates from c1900, and then the present day aerial view (higher up the page) shows the degree of change which has taken place. We finished our town tour in the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Here’s Finola standing outside it, below, prior to giving us an introduction to the history of the building, and its windows.

The fine Harry Clarke Studio window (one panel of which is shown in the upper picture) is a ‘must-see’, as is the mosaic work from the same church. The building work for this Catholic church, replacing an earlier chapel, dates from 1912.

Father Patrick Hickey nicely rounded off our day of Timoleague history by showing us the replica of the ‘Timoleague Chalice’ (above). The replica is kept in this Catholic church. According to Fr Hickey, ‘back in the penal days’ three monks were found floating in an open boat just off the island of Cape Clear. They had with them a box, or trunk. They were brought ashore but two of them died. The other asked that the box be kept on the island – but unopened – until he could return to retrieve it. He never returned, and in later years another visiting Priest said it could be opened. Inside was a gold chalice – blackened with age – and some liturgical vestments. The vestments fell to dust immediately, but the chalice was sent away for inspection, and was confirmed as coming from the Friary at Timoleague, where the replica is now kept.

Here is another ‘souvenir’ of Timoleague – it’s an extract from a poem written in Irish: The Mourner’s Soliloquy in the Ruined Abbey of Timoleague. The poet, Seághan Ó Coileáin, ” . . . was a Gaelic-language poet born in County Cork, in a time of faded Irish glory. He lived as a village schoolmaster, with a large family and no patron . . . “

Abroad one night in loneliness I stroll’d,
Along the wave-worn beach my footpath lay;
Struggling the while with sorrows yet untold,
Yielding to cares that wore my strength away:
On as I mov’d, my wayward musings ran
O’er the strange turns that mark the fleeting life of man.

The little stars shone sweetly in the sky;
Not one faint murmur rose from sea or shore;
The wind with silent wing went slowly by,
As tho’ some secret on its path it bore:
All, all was calm, — tree, flower, and shrub stood still,
And the soft moonlight slept on valley and on hill.

Mythical Isles of the West

The fine map, above, was drawn in 1375 and is attributed to Abraham Cresques (courtesy  Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division). it is known generally as the Atlas Catalan. What interests us is that it depicts two islands off the west and south-west coasts of Ireland (see detail below): Hy-Brasil and Demar. These landfalls are shown on maps since then through the centuries, the last depiction being in 1865.

We look out to the hundred Carbery Islands in Roaringwater bay. The view (above) is always changing as sun, rain and wind stir up the surface of the sea and the sky and clouds create wonderful panoramas. But, generally, the view is predictable: we know that Horse island will be across from us, and Cape Clear will always be on the distant horizon, while the smaller islets break up the surface of the ocean in-between, and help calm down its wildness when the storms come.

But, suppose it wasn’t always predictable? What if those islands changed, moved around or appeared and disappeared? It seems that such things do happen, here in Ireland. At least, they do according to some of the recorded evidence. ‘Mythical Islands’ have been mentioned by mariners and storytellers through the centuries.

Our best source of information for Ireland’s ‘transcendent’ islands is our old friend Thomas Westropp (above, kitted out for an expedition) who was an archaeologist and folklorist living between 1860 and 1922. He was active in Counties Clare and Limerick and wrote a paper for The Royal Academy in 1912 – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic: Their History and Fable. This comprehensive paper includes a list of evanescent islands, a new map drawn by Westropp, and a summary of historic maps which have located them:

Westropp’s exploration of the subject is remarkably comprehensive. Here are some extracts:

. . . Bran son of Febal, sleeping near his fort, hears sweet music, and awakes to seize a magic apple branch. An unknown woman sings of “a glorious island round which sea-horses glisten – a fair course against the white swelling surge.” In it dwells no wailing, treachery, death, or sickness; it glows many-coloured in incomparable haze, with snowy cliff’s and strands of dragon-stones and crystals. She vanishes, and Bran, with twenty-seven followers, embarks. They meet the sea-god Mananann mac Lir in his chariot, visit Magh Mell, the Isle of Laughter, and the Isle of Women, whose queen draws Bran to it by a magic clue. Entranced by love, the visitors do not note the flight of time; in apparently undiminished youth and strength they return to Ireland; it is only when the first to step ashore falls to ashes, as if centuries dead, that they know the truth. The survivors tell their tale without landing, and sail out into the deep, never to be seen again . . .

Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912

Image above courtesy of the Worksop Bestiary.

. . . The Sunken Land. I found no name for this in north Mayo save when it was confused with Manister Ladra. Belief in it prevailed in north Erris and Tirawley from Dunminulla to Downpatrick. In 1839 it was said to extend from near Teelin to the Stags of Broadhaven and thence half way to America. A boatman knew a woman named Lavelle who saw from the shore (when gathering Carrigeen moss) a delightful country of hills and valleys, with sheep browsing on the slopes, cattle in green pastures, and clothes drying on the hedges. A Ballycastle boatman, a native of Co. Sligo, corroborated this, adding that he had seen it twice at intervals of seven years, and if he lived to see it a third time he would be able to disenchant it. He could talk of nothing else, became idle and useless, and died, worn out and miserable, on the very eve of the expected third appearance . . .

Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912

. . . Owen Gallagher, Lieutenant Henri’s servant, heard of one Biddy Took, who, when gathering dillish (seaweed), asked some passing boatmen to put her out to an islet and fetch her back on their return : amused by her talk they brought her fishing, and soon got a ” tremendous bite.” They landed a green, fishy-looking child, quite human in shape, and in their fright let him escape and dive. The man who hooked him died suddenly within a year. Gallagher also said that he had fired at and wounded a seal; soon after, when far out to sea in his currach, he got lost in a fog-bank and reached an unknown island. An old man, moaning, with one eye blinded, stood on the shore and proved to be the seal. With more than human forgiveness, he warned his enemy to fly from the land of the seal men, lest his (the seal’s) sons and friends should avenge the cruelty . . .

Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912

Image Carta Marina (1539) courtesy Bone + Sickle

. . . The Aran people now believe that Brasil is seen only once in seven years. They call it the Great Land. In Clare, I have heard from several fishermen at Kilkee and elsewhere that they had seen it ; they also told legends of people lost when trying to reach it. I myself have seen the illusion some three times in my boyhood, and even made a rough coloured sketch after the last event, in the summer of 1872. It was a clear evening, with a fine golden sunset, when, just as the sun went down, a dark island suddenly appeared far out to sea, but not on the horizon. It had two hills, one wooded ; between these, from a low plain, rose towers and curls of smoke. My mother, brother, Ralph Hugh Westropp, and several friends saw it at the same time; one person cried that he could “see New York ” ! With such realistic appearance (and I have since seen apparent islands in 1887 in Clare, and in 1910 in Mayo), it is not wonderful that the belief should have been so strong, probably from the time when Neolithic man first looked across the Atlantic from our western coast. It coloured Irish thought ; stood for the pagan Elysium and the Christian Paradise of the Saints ; affected the early map-makers ; and sent Columbus over the trackless deep to see wonders greater than Maelduin and Brendan were fabled to have seen, till Antilha, Verde, and Brazil became replaced by real islands and countries ; and the birds, flowers, and fruit of the Imrama by those of the gorgeous forests of the Amazon in the real Brazil. ” Admiration is the first step leading up to knowledge, for he that wondereth shall reign.” . . .

Thomas WESTROPP – Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic, 1912

Above is the view from our house – Nead an Iolair – a day or two ago, when a strong sea mist was coming across from the south-west, enveloping Cape Clear and making it float ethereally like one of the mythical islands. Other writers have tackled the subject of the vanishing lands, including Joseph Jacobs, who put together a collection of stories in 1919. The subject is ‘Wonder Voyages’, and the book (available online here) covers some of Ireland’s adventurers, including Máel Dúin – a predecessor of Brendan the Voyager.

Máel Dúin sets out ‘into the limitless ocean’, suggesting that ‘God will bring the boat where it needs to go’. He and his crew encounter a large number of strange islands, including:

The island of ants, from which the men flee because the ants’ intention is to eat their boat

The island of tame birds

The island of the horse-like beast who pelts the crew with the beach

The island of horses and demons

The island of salmon, where they find an empty house filled with a feast and they all eat, drink, and give thanks to Almighty God.

The island with the branch of an apple tree, where they are fed with apples for 40 nights

The island of the “Revolving Beast”, a creature that would shift its form by manipulating its bones, muscles, and loose skin; it casts stones at the escaping crew and one pierces the keel of the boat

The island where animals bite each other and blood is everywhere

The island of apples, pigs, and birds

The island with the great fort/pillars/cats where one of the foster brothers steals a necklet and is burned to ashes by the cat

The island of black and white sheep, where sheep change colours as they cross the fence; the crewmen do not go aboard this island for fear of changing colour

The island of the swineherd, which contained an acidic river and hornless oxen

The island of the ugly mill and miller, who was “wrinkled, rude, and bareheaded”

The island of lamenting men and wailing sorrows, where they had to retrieve a crewman who entered the island and became one of the lamenting men; they saved him by grabbing him while holding their breath

The island with maidens and intoxicating drink

The island with forts and the crystal bridge, where there is a maiden who is propositioned to sleep with Máel Dúin

The island of colourful birds singing like psalms

The island with the psalm-singing old man with noble monastic words

The island with the golden wall around it

The island of angry smiths

The crew voyaged on and came across a sea like a green crystal. Here, there were no monsters but only rocks. They continued on and came to a sea of clouds with underwater fortresses and monsters.

The island with a woman pelting them with nuts

The island with a river sky that was raining salmon

The island on a pedestal

The island with eternal youth/women (17 maidens)

The island with red fruits that were made as a sleeping elixir

The island with monks of Brendan Birr, where they were blessed

The island with eternal laughter, where they lost a crewman

The island of the fire people

The island of cattle, oxen, and sheep

The most well-known voyager of all – in Irish tradition – is Saint Brendan. The image above is from the Finola Window, which was crafted by George Walsh. We all know that Brendan was a real character, who discovered America back in the sixth century. On the way he also encountered many islands – which we cannot locate today (that doesn’t mean they are not there) – and had hair-raising adventures on them. This post will take you through some of his journeyings.

It’s clear that, in the shared Irish psyche, we are aware of places that we can’t always see, or visit. it’s all part of a folk knowledge that’s largely hidden away, except in the memories of older generations, that relates to the sea, and the idea that there are races of people who live on ‘lost’ islands – or even in the sea. In some of the stories about the islands it is suggested that, when they vanish, it’s because they have submerged under the ocean – perhaps temporarily.

There’s a great collection of stories readily available in a series of podcasts known as Blúiríní Béaloidis / Folklore Fragments. Look out for the one titled Blúiríní Béaloidis 16 – Otherworld Islands In Folk Tradition. I have transcribed one of my favourite pieces from this podcast, and will finish this post with it. It summarises, very neatly, the tradition that other worlds are out there, and – at times – our world and theirs meet, providing solid evidence for there being human life under the sea! The tale was collected by Dr McCarthy of Kerry.

. . . People from Dingle Harbour used to sail to Kilrush in Limerick long ago. There was a boat leaving the harbour to Limerick one day with a load of salt. There were 8 men in the boat. They had prepared the boat. There was no quay in Dingle in those days, just a slipway. A fine, strapping young man approached them carrying a pot and a pot-hook, The pot-hook looked as if it had come straight from the forge. He addressed the boat’s captain. Are you going to Limerick, my good man? I am, said the captain, we are just about to leave. Would you mind terribly, said the young man, taking me some of the way? I don’t mind, said the captain, if you wish to come all of the way. He placed his pot and pot-hook in the boat, and got in himself. They rowed away and raised the sail at the mouth of the harbour. They were halfway when the man with the pot and pot-hook roused himself. I’ll be leaving you now, he said to the captain, and I’m very grateful to you. He took hold of his pot and his pot-hook and he leapt into the sea. They never saw him again . . .


Blúiríní Béaloidis

There’s a rather nice postscript to this story:

. . . Some time later, a man with a line and hook was fishing in the sea in the same place, and a boiled potato came up on his hook . . .

Blúiríní Béaloidis

Dunworley Promontory Fort – A Bit Of A Stunner

We’ve been wanting to visit this site for ages and the opportunity came this week, thanks to the kindness of Diarmuid Kingston and Tim Feen of Dúchas/the Clonakilty Historical Society, and the landowner, Jim Molony. As the Heritage Council said when they posted the photo below on their Twitter account – it’s a bit of a stunner!

Partly, this outing was to kick off a project I have in mind to follow in the footsteps, 100 years later, of Thomas J Westropp, the antiquarian who did so much to modernise Irish Archaeology and whose special interest was forts and fortified headlands. I already wrote about one of the promontory forts that he documented and we visited last year – Gouladoo, on the Sheep’s Head. I suppose that was In the Footsteps of Westropp 1, Part 1, and this is Part 2. 

Let’s review what a promontory fort is. In 2004 Liam Downey laid out the thinking on this type of monument for the Archaeology Ireland/Wordwell Heritage Guide series. He called them ‘enigmatic.’ They are headlands fortified at the narrowest part, or neck, by earth or stone banks, ditches or walls and they vary considerably in the size of the enclosed area and the length of the fortifications. The sea and the cliffs all around the enclosure provide another level of defence, often seemingly impregnable. 

This type of fortification may have been built as early as the Bronze Age, although most are believed to date to the Iron Age (from 500BC) or the Early Medieval Period (from 450AD), but many were obviously also occupied in the medieval period, when additional defences were added, as at Dunworley. 

Why were they built? Downey says this:

Their overtly defensive character and exposed locations, allied to the admittedly scarce excavation evidence, suggest that they might have been built as temporary refuges for use in times of grave danger. On the other hand, assuming that defence was the purpose, the cliff-top location suggests a fight to the death rather than a safe refuge. Assuming that human nature does not change radically from one era to another, one potential explanation for the location is prestige. Several promontory forts are built on a large scale and some are very impressive in appearance, especially those with closely spaced walls or banks. These may have been status sites, visible from a distance and designed to dominate the adjacent countryside. The spectacular locations, unspoiled sea views, occasional associations with royalty, pagan deities or St Patrick, and even the element dún combine to suggest that the social role of these monuments in ancient times may have been quite complex. 

In the light of all this, let’s take a look at Dunworley. It’s unusual, in that the narrow neck of the promontory has had an additional feature built on it, in the shape of a small tower house – a gate house, in fact. 

The features of this small tower (our guides called it a wee castle) are pretty typical of fifteenth century tower houses in West Cork (except on a smaller scale), with a base batter (lowest level splayed outwards), rubble construction, and inside one ope with a splayed embrasure (below). The two doors, back and front, are simple affairs and there is no sign of bar holes, eye or spud stones for the doors.

One of the more curious features, noted by Westropp, is that there appears to have been two floors, as evidenced by the corbels upon which the floor joists would have rested (below). However, the corbels are less than a metre apart, so it is hard to imagine how that space would have been used. 

The internal vault, which would have separated the lower floors from the topmost floor and the wallwalk, is not a continuous vault but two arches which are covered by large slatey slabs. Although not as common as the continuous vault (see Dunmanus for an example of this), I have seen this type of vaulting in other West Cork towers – at Dunlough, for example, and less obviously at Dun an Óir on Cape Clear and at Rossbrin – all 15th century tower houses of the West Cork Irish families of O’Mahony and O’Driscoll.

Westropp, in his 1916 paper Fortified Headlands and Castles on the South Coast of Munster. Part I. From Sherkin to Youghal, Co. Cork, gives a complicated genealogy for the fort. He says it was destroyed by Fineen McCarthy after the Battle of Callan in 1260 – and this would imply that whatever original fortification was here, it was built by an Anglo-Norman family, since it was the anglo-Norman castles that Fineen destroyed. It may then have been taken over by the O’Cowhigs, but was definitely held by a branch of the Barrys by 1573. It passed to the Travers, the Hamiltons and back to the Travers. Jim Moloney, the present owner, told me that it has been in his family since his grandfather bought it.

Westropp, in his usual thorough fashion, provides a drawing of the small tower, both its position at the neck of the promontory, and a plan of the building itself – the top left and top centre plans below.

Some accounts mention a house on the promontory, but Westropp saw no sign of one. He did, however, note:

The day of my visit the headland was covered with cattle ; and it was interesting to see them, when called out to water, going in single file, without delay or hustling, through the little doorways, the outer 3 feet 1 inch wide, by 5 feet high ; the inner 2 feet 10 inches wide, and 5 feet 9 inches high. This shows how easily cattle might be brought through the small doors (but usually wider and higher than this gateway) in the dry-stone ring-forts.

This is particularly interesting because the land is considered unsuitable for livestock now, because of the difficulty of getting them on and off the promontory and because there is no source of water on it. In any case, it has been declared an Area of Special Conservation, since the cliffs are home to nesting choughs – a very suitable designation for such an epic place.

The day of our visit was a stormy one – Amanda was actually blown off her feet at one point. It was easy to see how such a place could be defended in times of attack, and act as a refuge. The whole area had such a wild, remote and romantic air that we truly felt privileged to be able to visit it, and to step back in time to imagine it in its heyday.

You can see us below, bracing against the wind. Many thanks to Diarmuid, Tim and Jim for facilitating our visit and answering all our questions. 

The Castles of Ivaha: ‘Fragmentary Remains’

What can you say about a castle where only fragments remain of the original structure? Turns out – a surprising amount!

Fragmentary remains is the phrase used in the National Monuments record to describe the two castles which are the subject of this post – Dunbeacon and Castle Island. In each case only enough is still standing to confirm that it was indeed a medieval tower house. Fortunately, in the case of Dunbeacon, there is also historical evidence. 

Let’s look at Castle Island first, and begin with the name. Samuel, in his thesis on The Tower Houses of West Cork, tells us that it was known locally as Castleduff, or Caisleán Dubh, the Black Castle. However, this was the name more commonly applied to Black Castle/Leamcon, so he says there might be some confusion there. There is no other name in the historical records – no mention, indeed, at all. Perhaps it was too insignificant to merit a mention – a fortified outpost rather than the high-status residence of one of the ruling O’Mahonys. 

We have noted with other of the O’Mahony castles that they were built on the site of a ring fort (Ardintenant) or a promontory fort (Dunlough). The National Monuments records notes a promontory fort at this site, although it is not obvious on the ground any more. There are, in fact several promontory forts noted on Castle Island, perhaps indicating that this was the preferred type of fortified dwelling here, since there are no ringforts.

Like all the O’Mahony castles, it was strategically sited – it was beside the waters that separates the island from the mainland, and within sight of two other castles – Rossbrin and Ardintenant. The three form a triangle that overlooked and guarded the sheltered waters of Castle Island Channel. But also, from the top of the castle, there would have been a clear view south across the low land in the centre of the island, out to Roaringwater Bay.

We know that these waters would have been crowded with Spanish, French, Portuguese and British fishing boats, coming in to salt their catches in the fish palaces along the coast and to replenish their supplies. For all of these services and for permission to fish around Roaringwater Bay they paid hefty fees to the O’Mahonys, who got fabulously wealthy as a result. 

The castle was much smaller than all the others. Samuel says, 

Working on the assumption that Castleduff was an RE tower house [i.e Raised entry], its smallness is striking. The surviving ‘end wall’ makes possible a reasonably accurate estimate of the plan’s original length. It is assumed that like its neighbours, its plan had a length-to-breadth ratio of 3:4 to 4:5; the ratios suggest a length of 7.96-7.46m (measures above the base-batter). The surviving north wall probably represents the full length of the ground-floor chamber.

Mark Wycliffe Samuel
the tower houses of west cork

The only surviving opening is a loop in one wall, and a row of corbels that would have supported the first floor is still visible. There is no trace of anything that might suggest a vault, so it is possible that this small tower was unvaulted – Samuel thinks that the walls are noticeably thinner than the other castles, implying that this was a much simpler and shorter tower.

Samuels concludes his study of this tower by saying:

The jetty is modern, but the beach that it is laid upon was the best natural landing point on the island, well sheltered from the Atlantic swell. The landing clearly determined the siting of the tower house and was an important resource to the family that built the tower house. It is tempting to see a direct continuity between the recent settlement and a settlement around the tower house. Only excavation could determine if this was the case.

Mark Wycliffe Samuel
the tower houses of west cork

Dunbeacon (images below) is even more vestigial than Castle Island, but fortunately we do have some historical evidence for it. The name could mean Fort of Beacan – where Beacan is the name of a chieftain. However, it could also mean The Fort of the Mushrooms – since the Irish word for mushroom is beacán. I like to think of the chieftain and his lady chowing down on a plate of eggs and mushrooms for breakfast.

As with Castle Island, there are signs that the castle was built within a former promontory fort, also underscored with the name Dún, which means fortress. A fosse, or ditch, cut through the rock, is all that remains of the fortifications of that promontory fort.

The majority of the O’Mahony tower houses in Ivagha were built by or for the sons of Conchobar Cabach. Dunbeacon castle was allegedly built by his brother Dohmnall. This seems to be a traditional rather than documented attribution. If it is assumed that Dohmnall was born c. 1400, he may have built the tower house at any date during his adult life (c.1420 to c.1470).

Mark Wycliffe Samuel
the tower houses of west cork

The siting is magnificent. From it, there is a clear view of the whole of Dunmanus Bay, right to the end of the Ivaha (Mizen) and Sheep’s Head Peninsulas. This, of course, also meant that it bore the responsibility, along with Dunmanus, of defending O’Mahony territory from attack or incursion on the north side of Ivaha. The pro-English Owen O’Sullivan of Beara, for example, is known to have conducted cattle raids on the lands surrounding Dunbeacon.

Samuel tells us that the chief of Dunbeacon, Domhnall O’Mahony, forfeited his lands as a result of his participation in the Desmond Rebellion, and it became a ruin – beautifully captured in Brian Lalor’s sketch, above.

The tower house and four ploughlands were confiscated, and passed into the possession of an English settler who probably built a timber house to the east. The O’Mahonys did not attempt to reconquer the lost part of their pobol; instead they contented themselves with attacking and burning the tower house, an event recorded in a letter written by an English judge in 1588. The tower house probably remained a ruin.

Mark Wycliffe Samuel
the tower houses of west cork

The O’Mahonys regained possession of their Dunbeacon lands but lost them again when they were granted to an English settler. See my post Planning a Plantation: Jobson’s 1589 Map of Munster Part 1 and Part 2 for how the land was mapped preparatory to the Plantation of Munster. As you can see above, Dunbeacon (or Donbeken) was clearly marked out for colonisation. William Hull came to own it at one point, and even the conniving ‘lawyer’ Walter Coppinger laid claim to it – as he did with much of the O’Mahony and O’Driscoll territory.

Although so little remains, Samuel’s careful analysis indicates that Dunbeacon was probably a typical raised entry tower house, with a vault supporting the third floor which held the principle private chamber. See my posts on Ardintenant  and Black Castle for what it may have looked like.

It’s hard to look at ‘fragmentary remains’ and think of them as vibrant centres of life. Yet, these two castles were once part of the mighty O’Mahony federation – a large network of connected families that ruled Ivaha and the surrounding seas. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Black Castle, or Leamcon

This is the fourth castle in my series The Castles of Ivaha, and the final one which is intact enough to be able to describe in detail (although I may have more to say about those which are more vestigial). Not just intact, though – Black Castle has been superbly stabilised and saved for future generations by its owner, Niall Hyde. 

Niall, by the way, thinks the the term Black Castle is more historically accurate. He points out that there is, in fact, in the townland of Leamcon, about 2km to the northeast, another ‘turret’ marked on the old OS maps, which is the remains of a castle built by the notorious Sir William Hull. Black Castle is in the townland of Castlepoint, and its name neatly distinguishes it from White Castle, AKA Ardintenant. Both were built by the O’Mahonys.

James Healy’s drawing of Black Castle from his wonderful book The Castles of County Cork, Mercier Press, 1988

As I said in my post on Ardintenant Conor Cabaicc succeeded his father in 1427 and remained Taoiseach for 46 years, embarking on an ambitious program of construction to provide castles for his sons and brothers. This included Black Castle, which he built for his second son, Finín Caol (pronounced Fineen Kale), or Finín the Slender. This means that Black Castle was built in the period before Conor Cabaicc (Conor the Talkative) died, in 1473. This accords well with its architectural details, which place it among the fifteenth century ‘raised entry’ castles, similar to Ardintenant, Dunmanus and Dunlough

The best source material for all the castles of Ivaha is the thesis The Tower Houses of West Cork by Mark Samuel. Here’s what Samuel says about the location of Black Castle, which he refers to throughout as Leamcon. Leamcon, by the way, means Hound’s Leap, which Samuel suggests may refer to a legend about the gully across which you must pass to get to the castle.

The western part of the Ivagha peninsula, the territory of O’Mahony Fionn, is now sparsely populated. Away from the formidable Mizen Head, the ice-sculpted land meets the sea with low, rocky cliffs. In this part of the Survey region, the strike of the rock is almost south-west/northeast, the layers being tipped close to the vertical, the shore tends to be sculpted into long peninsulas and islands running along the strike. Exposed to the Atlantic, it is a wild treeless shore. The fields once densely fanned prior to the famine, are now mostly given over to pasture. The tower house stands far from any road at the west end of a long narrow peninsula. Erosion has nearly severed the tip of the peninsula; only a precarious natural bridge, now reinforced with concrete, joins it to the mainland. The island is large, the ruins cover only a small fraction of its area. The tower house stands towards the island’s east end at its highest point. The promontory is for the most part gentle in relief, being covered by grass-grown ‘drift’ deposits.

THE TOWER HOUSES OF WEST CORK
MARK WYCLIFFE SAMUEL, 1998

When Niall bought the property the bridge consisted of a few planks. It must have been a hairy business getting across to it until he built the concrete walkway you see today. Niall and his family spent their summers at the castle – can you imagine, as a child, what it must have been like to have your own castle to play and live in? Magical! Although I do think about what it must have been like for Dorothy, who spent the weeks there with the children while Niall worked in Dublin. How did she manage to feed them and keep them safe? A heroine, indeed.

Like the others I have described in detail, Leamcon is a raised entry castle. To recap – the ground floor entry gave access to the ground floor, and possibly by means of a ladder to the second floor and mezzanine. The raised entry gave access to the second floor, and then, by means of a strait mural staircase, the the floors above the vault. Take a look at the cut-away diagram in Illustrating the Tower House: A Guest Blog to see what I am talking about here. Thus, the upper floors could only be accessed by one staircase, a defence feature, and being above the vault provided security from fire in the lower floors. Given that there were no fireplaces, and that braziers were lit in the middle of the floor, with smoke escaping however it could, this was probably a good idea.

Another defensive feature was the small opes, or windows, through which no attacker could climb and little light could penetrate

As regards defence, the castle was attacked by Carew’s forces after the Siege of Dunboy in 1602. According to Samuel:

Sir George Carew reported, on 13th July 1602, that his lieutenant, Captain Roger Harvy, had taken several castles strongly seated on rocks and necks of land. All were so ‘neere unto the sea where ships may safely ride, and fit places for an enemy to hold as, namely Leamcon, Donnegall’ and others. The decision was taken to burn these tower houses. Conor, the head of the sept, received quarter with his men and migrated to Spain immediately afterwards. He was subsequently pardoned but seems never to have returned.

THE TOWER HOUSES OF WEST CORK
MARK WYCLIFFE SAMUEL, 1998

Black Castle wasn’t burned and it subsequently was reclaimed for a time by the O’Mahonys, although the clan forfeited all or most of their lands after the rebellions of the 1640s, and the castle was abandoned from at least the 1690s. Such was the state of it when the O’Mahony Reunion took place here in 65 or 66.

All those years of neglect had resulted in a castle in a perilous state of dereliction and Niall and his builders set about stabilising it before they could make it habitable. The base batter – the broad foundation that give the walls a strong base – had first to be repaired. This called for great skill and the results are impressive. Niall has left a band of membrane to indicate where the old and new stone work meets.

The castle was built to align with the strike of the rock, a feature of most of the Ivaha tower houses. The strike is the compass direction in which the rock bed is running and for West Cork that is mainly in a northeast to south west direction. The builders chose a prominent and solid rocky platform, still easily discernible, and probably prepared it by digging away any soil and loose rock and may have laid down a layer of mortar to help bind the lowest slabs to the rock surface. 

At Black Castle, the quality of the masonry varies, leading me to think that not all stone masons were as skilled, or perhaps as careful, as others. See the variation in the image below. The quoins (corner stones) were made of fine-grained sandstone that can be freely dressed in any direction (called Freestone), while the stones used to dress the outer layer were carefully chosen (or deliberately shaped) to be smooth and even, lending a pleasingly sheer surface to the castle exterior, sometimes called  an “ashlar finish.”

The raised entry, in the case of Black Castle, is directly about the ground-level entry, similar to Ardintenant, but unlike Dunmanus where the entries are staggered. The entrance to the upper door would have been by means of a wooden staircase, possible from the small rocky knoll across from the entrance.

In his conversion of the castle to provide habitable space, Niall concentrated on the upper floors. There is a living room, kitchen dining area and bedrooms, along with a toilet and shower which are situated in the original garderobe space. 

By roofing and waterproofing the building, Niall has kept further deterioration at bay. It is a joyous thing to sit and look over the countryside with a cup of tea on hand, or to climb up to the wall walk and gaze over the wild and rugged peninsula, imagining Carew’s forces advancing across the sea.

Niall Hyde has managed, on a limited budget, to salvage Black Castle and indeed turn it into a space that his family enjoyed. We should all be grateful to him, and to others who have taken on such tasks with vision and courage. Without the Niall Hydes of this world, we would all be the poorer.