Mizen Magic 15: Long Island

The summer sun is falling soft on Carbery’s hundred isles— 
The summer sun is gleaming still through Gabriel’s rough defiles—

(from Thomas Osborne Davis The Sack of Baltimore 1844)

Up here in Nead an Iolair (Eagle’s Nest) we look out over the Carbery Islands. There are supposed to be a hundred of them, although some are just little rocky outcrops: the tips of underwater mountains at the margins – and the mercy – of the Atlantic.

Horse Island, Castle Island and Long Island lie along the length of the coast below us. Peter Somerville-Large (The Coast of West Cork 1972) quotes a tradition that they all used to be one island:

In the latter end of March, AD 830, Hugh Domdighe being monarch of Ireland, there happened terrible shocks of thunder and lightning . . . At the same time the sea broke through the banks in a most violent manner, The Island, then called Innisfadda, on the west coast of this country was forced asunder and divided into three parts.

Long Island is still known as Inis Fada in the Irish language: the Anglicised name is a direct translation; header – the long road that winds from East to West on Long Island; second picture – the Wester village seen above the Atlantic breakers on the wild and battered far shore

We had a day’s adventure on the island, walking almost the full length of it; Finola was madly busy identifying all the wildflowers. It’s part of the magic of Long Island that we covered a distance of over 10 kilometres in the day, although the length of the island tip to tip is just over 4k. There is a regular ferry to the island from Colla Pier (not every day of the week), but we chose to travel from Schull pier with Helen of Schull Sea Safari (a whale watching trip with Helen will be a future outing for us). Our mode of transport was Helen’s very fine large RIB, the Kealtra – superbly equipped. With a hard south-easterly wind the waters were very choppy and we had to be fully kitted out for the crossing!

Upper – intrepid travellers kitted out for a choppy crossing on the Kealtra! Lower – skipper Donie taking the RIB out of Schull Harbour

After the heady excitement of a blustery crossing, stepping on to the tranquil world of Long Island is a magical experience. You are immediately aware that the place holds memories – and ghosts – but is still a community in the modern world thriving against the odds.

Everywhere there are signs of the past: abandonment, fading history, but also livings still being forged from the environment. The sadness is the obvious population decline. Looking through the available census records, a melancholic picture emerges: 1841 – population 305; 1911 – population 143; 1951 – population 74; 1991 – population 11; today – population 7 (and that’s an increase of 1 from 2 years ago). There was once a school: the decaying building is now a lonely waymark at the centre of the island’s single boreen.

The Island School – long deserted and gently decomposing

Peter Somerville-Large in conversation with the local residents during his visit half a  century ago:

I talked to Mr McCarthy, who had lived here all his life and could remember when the place had been full of fishermen all speaking a mixture of Irish and English. One by one he had watched them leave. A dozen families still remained, comprising perhaps forty people altogether. The school had shrunk year by year, to four pupils, then two – it closed after that. There was neither electricity, nor any shop – nothing to keep the young from making the short crossing over to the mainland. It would take them fifteen minutes, according to wind and weather. There they disappeared for ever. When the old ones like himself died out the place would become empty.

Contrasts at the west end of Long Island

Although there are many houses that are intact and well looked-after (a number are holiday homes), you would think that the odds were ultimately stacked against the survival of this island. Yet those who do live here full-time have tenacity – and there is fresh energy. Helen and Maurice have built their own new house and run businesses which allow them to be island based, while Castaway East is a ‘Place of New Beginnings’, a venture offering B & B or full board and – if you want – retreat packages to recharge your batteries. Peter and Tracy are also experts in garden landscaping as can be seen from the works they have carried out for themselves.

The East end of the Island: you can walk past Peter and Tracy’s ‘Island Retreat’ to the old copper mine and navigation beacon

We were pleased to find that the island’s well has been maintained and presented in excellent order – mainly by Joe, one of the Islanders. It’s a little haven, not to be missed. The day’s adventure gave us so much photogenic material – I will be returning to this magical place in next week’s post.

Mizen Magic 14: Lissagriffin

Lissagriffin (the fort of Griffin) lies on the south-facing slope on the northern side of the salt marshes behind Barley Cove. It is a sunny spot with panoramic views back to the hills beyond Goleen and across the salt marshes below to the dunes of Barley Cove and the sea beyond.

The Barley Cove salt marshes – sit on the wall and just listen to the breeze in the reeds

Nowadays, it’s a peaceful place of farms and pasture land, but there are clues in the landscape and the old maps and records that there was much more going on here in times past.

The most visible reminder is the ruined church, surrounded by a graveyard. Once, these lands were in the possession of the Rev Fisher  – remember him from my Saints and Soupers saga? They were associated with the Glebe Lands accruing to the Church of Ireland, which means that the rector was also the administrator of the graveyard, to whom you had to apply for permission for burial. The church and graveyard is known as Kilmoe (pronounced kill moo, meaning the the church of Muadh, although I haven’t been able to identify this saint), like the parish of the same name which occupies most of the Mizen west of Schull.

The graveyard has headstones going back to the 1700s, although I couldn’t find any from that era on my searches. All the local names are represented here, including the Burchills and the Wilkinsons of my Cousins Find Each Other post. It was in use as a burial plot during the Famine – a memorial plaque on the wall attests to this.

A feature of graveyards from this time was a watch-house, a reminder that bodysnatching was a lucrative trade. During the famine watch-houses also enabled people to be on the look out for dogs – there are accounts of dogs attempting to get at bodies barely covered by soil during this terrible time. There’s a ruined structure just inside the gate at Kilmoe (below), probably a watch-house from this time.

Like all historic graveyards around here there are many plots marked by simple stones, headstones and foot-stones, where people could not afford the services of an engraver. Remarkably, the knowledge of who is buried in some of those unmarked graves still resides somewhere, whether in church records or in the folk memory of local people. You can browse the listings of the graves here.

At the centre of the graveyard is a ruined church. It’s a very interesting structure to me, because I believe it is actually older than its normally-ascribed date. It was occupied, according to Brady’s Clerical and Parochial Records in 1581, when Dermot McCormack McCarthy was the rector and the church belonged to the College at Youghal and was dedicated to St Brendan. The Down Survey described it thus in 1700: Kilmoe : the church is ruinous, the walls that are standing are bad, built with stone and clay. The church stands about a mile from Crookhaven, to the westward near the head of Barlycove bay. 8A. of glebe on the north of the church; good land, set for £20 per an. There are the ruins of a vicaridge house joining to ye church-yard.

There are hints in the structure of the Romanesque style, which would place it in the 12th century. The east window is clearly Romanesque in construction, while the door, with its plain lintel and ‘relieving arch’ also appears so.

I am seeking some confirmation of this and will update this post if or when I get a response. The west end appears to have been two storey – the joist supports are still projecting from the wall, which means that the old ground level was lower than it is today and that the window was in the second storey. That window (below) is ogee-headed – a clearly gothic element, which means (if I am right about the west end) that it was inserted later. The whole church may have been modified many times over the years it was in use.

There is a record of a cross-inscribed stone inside the church – we have looked for this but cannot find it. It may be gone, or it may be partially buried in the long grass. There’s no sign of the vicaridge house joining to ye church-yard.

The unusual ‘buttress’ feature on the north wall

But the landscape around has other elements too – or rather had other elements. There used to be an O’Mahony Castle just to the east of the church, of which no trace remains today. We know of it from Griffiths map of the 1840’s, (below: apologies for the blurriness, it seems to be the best resolution one can get) where it is clearly marked as a ruin. While many of the O’Mahony castles were closer to the shore, this one would have benefited from all-encompassing views of both land and sea, and from proximity to the church, for worship. According to James Healy’s The Castles of County Cork, it was probably tenanted by the O’Meighans, a bardic family associated with the O’Mahony clan. Although there is nothing left, local people told Healy in the 1980s that the site was cursed and that bad luck attached to it.

The view out to sea from the church

Even older still are the numerous standing stones that dot the hillside to the east and north. The photograph below shows one – a rather stumpy example. And probably even older than those are the cupmarks reported on the rock face just to the east of the graveyard. We have searched for these too, but were defeated by the gorse and brambles.

Of unknown vintage is the bullaun across from the graveyard gate. Although bullauns are often carved in free-standing boulders, this one was scooped out of the bedrock: it is known locally as a wart well. Dip your finger in, say the requisite prayers, and your wart will disappear. We even found a small bottle for Lourdes holy water left by it on one of our visits, showing that it is believed to still possess curative powers. Robert agrees! Amanda has included it in her Holy Wells blog.

Next time you’re headed out to Barley Cove on a fine day, take a little detour up to Lissagriffin church. The views alone are worth it, although a little wander around the graveyard will do a lot to soothe your soul. 

 

Mizen Magic 13: Dunmanus Promontory

It’s geologically and archaeologically fascinating – a substantial natural promontory just to the north of Dunmanus Castle: well worth an exploration. But, do be warned – there are cliff edges, exposed fissures, ankle-wrenching undulations and bogs to overcome. Also – it’s private, so please seek permission before crossing the land.

The west side of this shark’s fin-shaped promontory is wildly exposed to the ocean and its gales. You can see from the aerial views, above, how the rock bed is bare and visible, and the vestigial fields which occupy – or once occupied – the east side peter out, and the walls and banks which once formed them fade away altogether over on the left. In fact, these Google Earth images give a better impression of the oddly shaped enclosures than can be seen on the ground.

Three examples of many varied boundary features on the promontory are shown above. Each is differently constructed and they range from a series of vertically-set slabs to rocks-and-rubble and a raised bank reinforced with stones. In the picture below, follow with your eye the boundary as it traverses the scrub and makes a large S-bend on to the ridge facing the distant horizon.

Ireland – especially the west of it – is a huge stone landscape. Wherever people have settled, they have moved the stone and used it. To make fields, or any enclosures, they have had to clear the land. The stone taken from the land is used – sometimes to build shelter, often to build myriad walls to define the holdings. Here’s a striking example from the Aran Islands:

Nothing is recorded on the National Monuments Survey about these land boundaries at Dunmanus – or the significance of the promontory as a whole. Was it once a promontory fort? There are others on this coast. It could easily have been defended along the line of the present road running across the south. However, the land is flat and low, and there is no shelter.

Flat stone surfaces – of old red sandstone – remind us of the Burren landscape in Clare, and we can suppose that the present windswept bog and scrub could once have supported agriculture. But when? In medieval times, perhaps, when the nearby Dunmanus tower house was a thriving centre of occupation and, probably, commerce. In the shelter of the bay the little quay at Dunmanus survives and is still used by small boats searching out shellfish and scallops.

In some places the old walls seem to have a prehistoric feel: the use of slabs embedded vertically like standing stones is quite unusual in West Cork. The presence of large quartz rocks, too, is reminiscent of ancient sites, although they are natural geological occurrences here.

Other natural features on the peninsula include two ‘sea arches’ – bridges formed through erosion of the rocks and chasms by the ocean.

It’s a landscape of vestigial fields, sea – and stones. Nothing more. But I find it a mesmeric place; partly because we can see that it bears the marks of human toil, and we want to know more about who was there and how they lived. It’s a remote piece of Ireland to call ‘home’. Those marks remain after how many years – hundreds, thousands? They intrigue us, and compel us to explore.

West Cork Obscura – Finola’s Picks

The popular Atlas Obscura defines itself as the definitive guide to off-the-beaten-track and little known wondrous places. So we’ve captured that idea and, as our Christmas present to our readers, bring you our own carefully-curated, slightly eccentric, Roaringwater Journal Guide to West Cork’s Hidden Wonders. Robert’s selection is here. No well-know tourist spots for these posts! No car parks and visitor centres! You may need wellies for some, a good map for others, and, although all are accessible, some may require permission.Each place I recommend will link to a blog post with more information. As an example, Sailor’s Hill, just outside Schull (above) is an easy walk and look what you get at the top! 

This is the view from Brow Head, looking back towards Crookhaven, and Mount Gabriel in the distance. Brow Head is much less visited than Mizen Head, but just as spectacular

I’m going to start with some archaeology and a couple of spectacular sites. The first is the Kealkill Stone Circle – but this isn’t just a stone circle, it’s a complex of monuments that includes a five-stone circle, a radial cairn (very rare in this part of the world) and two enormous standing stones. The views are immense in every direction, and the site is easy to find.

We all know about Drombeg – and we love it when the sun goes down at the midwinter solstice, and even when it doesn’t. But fewer people know about another stone circle, equally spectacular, with a spring equinox orientation. It’s called Bohonagh and it’s quite a complex. First of all, there’s a boulder burial, with quartz support stones and cupmarks on the boulder. Then there’s a cupmarked stone, partly hidden in the brambles between the boulder burial and the stone circle. Finally, there’s the circle itself, almost complete, with views in all directions.

Equinox sunset at Bohonagh

We were lucky to have a session there one equinox, and another one with Ken Williams of Shadows and Stone. For access, park just off the main road, across from the salmon coloured house 4.5km east of Rosscarbery and walk up the farm road to the barns and from there to the top of the hill. This is a working farm – please close all gates and be respectful of animals!

Maughnasilly Stone Row broods on the hilltop

A stone row to round out the archaeology sites – this one is at Maughnasilly and I chose it because it’s been excavated, so there’s an informative sign, access is easy and it’s a beautiful, atmospheric site, overlooking a small lake. The row has been calculated to have both lunar and solar alignments.

And from the ground…

A couple of churches now, beginning with the Church of Ireland Church of the Ascension in Timoleague. This is one of those places that is dripping with unexpected stories. As soon as you go through the door your jaw will drop – the whole church, floor to ceiling, is covered in mosaic, partly paid for by an Indian Maharajah. Read the story here and here – and look carefully at the stained glass windows, some of them are among the oldest stained glass we have in Ireland. The key used to be at the grocery store on the main street, but I’m not sure where it is now, so you may have to ask around. Let us know if you find out.

The interior of the church, and one of the beautiful Clayton and Bell windows

You may wonder at my next choice – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea – but the modernist church in Drimoleague is the work of Frank Murphy, the architect hailed as Cork’s ‘Unsung Hero of Modernism’.

I love the spare minimalist space, very rare in West Cork, but it’s the stained glass windows that drew my attention. It’s not that they are particularly beautiful or skilfully done: they’re by the Harry Clarke Studios long after Harry himself had died. It’s that they fascinate me as a social document – they are, in fact, a prescription for how to live your life as an Irish Catholic in the 1950s. As such, they will resonate with anyone of my vintage. Research by the brilliant young scholar, Richard Butler, has revealed that the design was practically dictated by Archbishop Lucey, still a name to invoke an image of the all-powerful churchman of the 20th century.

And a final church, but this one strictly for the windows. (No – not St Barrahanes in Castletownsend for the Harry Clarkes – everyone knows about them already, and this is a selection of lesser-known wonders.) Do NOT go through Eyeries, on the Beara Peninsula, without stepping into the little church of St Kentigern. Here is where we were first introduced to the work of the stained glass artist, George Walsh.

The Annunciation and Nativity window

When Robert wrote his original post, we couldn’t find out much information on George Walsh, but now he has become a friend and I have written about his work for the next issue of the Irish Arts Review (due out in March, 2019) and spent many happy hours photographing his windows and his artwork around Ireland. It’s bold, graphic, modern and incredibly colourful, and the windows in Eyeries, along with the religious themes, tell the story of Ireland and the Beara through time.

Some places to visit now for a good walk or a swim. First, one of my favourite walks is to hike up to Brow Head, at the end of the Mizen Peninsula (you can drive up too, but pray you don’t meet a tractor coming down) and then walk out to the end of the Head (see the second photo on the post for the view from the top of the road). Stop first to explore the ruins of the old Marconi Station – there’s also a Napoleonic-era  signal station and a WW2 Lookout Post. Then wander through the heather and the low-growing gorse until you get to the part where the sea is crashing below, with vertiginous drops off either side. I will leave it to you how far you go from there!

Brow Head showing the signal station and Marconi station silhouetted against the evening sky

Although Barley Cove is well known, Mizen locals love Ballyrisode Beach for a swim or a lounge in the sun. White sand, sheltered bays, and water warmed by running over the shallow bay. The final little beach holds a secret – a Bronze Age Fulacht Fia or Water-Boiling Site, that Robert and I recorded for National Monuments this summer. It was an exciting find, hiding in plain sight. The beach has an association with pirates too!

Ballyrisode Beach – yes, the water really is this colour. The three sided rectangular stone thing is the fulacht fia

The final choice for a walk is Queen Maev’s tomb, a short hike up from Vaughan’s Pass car park, up behind Bantry. For this photograph I am indebted to Peter Clarke, of the wonderful Hikelines blog. He and Amanda (with whom we have explored SO many holy wells)  were our companions that day. When you reach the top there is a small wedge-tomb, but this is one place where the journey is the real story, with the Mizen, the Sheep’s Head and the Beara all spread out before you.

Photograph © Peter Clarke

I leave you with a detail from the George Walsh windows in Eyeries, together with the poem the scene is based on, Pangur Bán, written in the 9th century by an Irish  monk labouring away in a scriptorium in Europe. Here is the poem read, at a memorial service for Seamus Heaney, first in the original Old Irish and then in Heaney’s translation.

Merry Christmas from us! If you live here, get out and about this year to some of our picks, and if you don’t, come see us soon!

Mizen Magic 12: Autumn Colour

It’s not the trees that lend autumnal hues to the Mizen, as they do elsewhere. It’s the whole landscape – that combination of rock, heather, bracken, moor grass, brambles, filtered through the light and shade of our notoriously changeable climate – that creates the special colour palette we associate with autumn. It’s my favourite time of year.

Today, early, we drove up Mount Gabriel and looked over the whole of the Mizen, back to Mount Corrin and Mount Kidd, and across to the Sheep’s Head, the Beara, and away to the mountains of Kerry.

Upper: looking down to Dunmanus Bay from Mount Gabriel; Lower: looking across to Mount Corrin

But every day brings changes. What trees we have are not yet bare. The thorns, blackthorn and whitethorn are loaded with berries. The heather is hanging on here and there, providing a wonderful contrast to the yellow gorse.

Haws, Sloes, Heather and Gorse

The bog asphodel is fading now, but earlier in the month it had reached its peak orange state and looked spectacular consorting with the other bog and mountain flowers that were still blooming.

Upper: Bog Asphodel, Gorse, Scabious; Lower: Cappaghglass Bog

When you get a clear day, like today, there is nothing on earth like a walk on the West Cork hills, drinking in the colours and trying to store them in the memory. Or perhaps, in a blog!

Upper: Toormore; Lower: Derryconnell 

Upper: North Side of the Mizen; Lower: Crough Bay and Long Island

Scarecrow in an abandoned garden – quintessential autumn image!

Rock Island

Ballyrisode Fulacht Fia: Discovering a New Bronze Age Site on The Mizen

Hidden in plain site – that’s how we stumbled across a hitherto unrecorded archaeological site at Ballyrisode Beach. It’s a popular swimming place, often swarming with swimmers, sun-bathers and picnickers in the summer and enjoyed by dog-walkers in the winter. Like many others, we were simply enjoying being at the water on a warm day when Robert drew my attention to an odd grouping of stones.

Three sides of a rectangle were defined by stone slabs laid on their sides in the sand, while two other upright slabs stood close by.

It had all the appearance of a carefully constructed trough, with one side missing, and it immediately reminded us of the cooking site at Drombeg Stone Circle.

Drombeg – besides the famous stone circle there is a hut site and this – a water-boiling trough with associated hearth and well, surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped mound of stone. An interpretive panel illustrates its use.

I took photographs and posted them to an online forum with a request for more information. An answer came back immediately, from a group of archaeologists who had excavated an almost-identical site in Sligo – what we were looking at was indeed an intertidal fulacht fia (full oct fee-ah, pl: fulachtaí fia/full octee fee-ah)).

E M Fahy excavated Drombeg in 1958 and returned the next year to dig the fulacht fia. This is his site drawing of the fulacht fia. You can read his original report here.

What exactly is a fulacht fia? The name translates as a wild cooking place and it was coined to describe this kind of open air kitchen. In Britain they are known as Burnt Mounds. Typically, they consist of a trough, normally lined with stone but occasionally with wood. The water in the trough was brought to a boil by dropping very hot stones into it, and therefore another feature of a fulacht fia is a hearth for heating the stones. Once the stones were used up (after heating and cooling one or more times they cracked and broke) they were tossed aside and over time a horseshoe-shaped mound of these burnt and shattered stones accumulated around the trough.

Another site drawing of a fulacht fia – this one was in Ballyvourney, excavated by Michael J O’Kelly in the 1950’s (report available here). Observe the numerous slabs laid on their sides around the trough – some for the roasting pit and some for the hearth. The two upright slabs at Ballyrisode are likely to have been part of such a related grouping of stones

Fulachtaí fia, in fact, are the most numerous archaeological sites in Cork, with 3,000 recorded sites, although they are known all over Ireland and in Britain and Northern Europe. Prof William O’Brien, in Iverni, refers to them as ‘water-boiling sites’ which is a more accurate description, since we don’t actually have overwhelming evidence that they were used for cooking. Few bones have been found among the burnt stones at some sites, although this is often explained away by reference to acidic soils and poor bone preservation.

Trinity Well, near Newmarket in North Cork, is a Bronze Age fulacht fia that has been re-purposed in modern times as a holy well! Read more about this site in Holy Wells of Cork

So the question remains open as to their purpose or purposes and proposals include their use for tanning and brewing. It is also possible they may have been used for bathing, or incorporated into sweat-house rituals.

From Prof O’Kelly’s report on his excavations come these photographs of his cooking experiments

We do tend to think of them as cooking-places, though, largely because of the experimental work carried out by Prof Michael J O’Kelly in the 50’s. I remember him telling us about it when I was a student in his classes and I can still see the obvious relish with which he described the juicy leg of mutton that emerged from the simmering trough after almost four hours (they used the 20 minutes to the lb and 20 left over formula) and how clean the meat was when unwrapped from its straw casing.

But the brewing argument is compelling too – just take a look at this experiment by two archaeologists making ‘a prehistoric home brew!’

But what about a site like our one, half buried in the sand? It turns out that there’s a similar one in Cork at Lispatrick on Courtmacsherry Bay, that was visible when first discovered at low tide but underwater at high (see note from Jerome Lordan in the comments). Thanks to Alan Hawkes for alerting me to that one. Alan is the author of The Archaeology of Prehistoric Burnt Mounds in Ireland, the most comprehensive study of fulacht fia ever undertaken.

This photograph of the Lispatrick site is taken from Iverni

There’s another one at Creedon in Waterford (below) and that one is made of wood – thanks to Simon Dowling for sending me a 3D image of it (not shown), showing toolmarks on the wood

The wooden trough of the fulacht fia at Creedon Beach in Co Waterford, discovered by local historian Noel MacDonagh (photographer unknown)

Possibly the most helpful site to use as a comparison to Ballyrisode is the inter-tidal fulacht fia from Coney Island in Sligo. We are fortunate that the site was thoroughly analysed by James Bonsall and Marion Dowd of IT Sligo, and the results published in The Journal of Irish Archaeology in 2015 and available through JSTOR. (Thank you for the link, James Bonsall.) Ciarán Davis found the site and also participated in the excavation and he has kindly shared some of his photographs with me. Thank you, Ciarán!*

This and the following two photographs are of the Coney Island (Sligo) sites, kindly shared by Ciarán Davis

Like Ballyrisode, the trough is stone-lined and full of sand from the movement of the tide, which covers it at high tide. It was dated using a charcoal layer beneath the floor slab, to the Late Bronze Age (making it about three thousand years old).

The flat slab at bottom right has been interpreted as a kneeling stone – such stones have been observed elsewhere

The authors point out that it is impossible to tell whether the intertidal location of many such sites is a planned feature, or whether they were originally on dry land and have ended up in the intertidal zone due to erosion or shifting sea levels.  However, at Coney Island it seemed clear that the fulacht fia had been deliberately constructed such that it filled with water at high tide and held that water for several hours afterwards. The presence of a nearby midden indicated that this fulacht fia may indeed have been used to boil fish and shellfish in salt water – an efficient (and delicious!) method of cooking seafood.

So there you have it – an exciting new discovery to add to the archaeology of West Cork! This summer has seen incredible new finds in the Boyne Valley, due to the unusually dry weather and the emerging technology of drone photography. While our find is not in the league of a Dronehenge, it’s always good to know that there is still lots to discover in the wonderful West Cork landscape.

*As you can see with all the thank yous, archaeologists have been very generous in sharing information with me about intertidal fulacht fia. I am grateful for this supportive online community as I try to catch up on the forty years of archaeological research that I missed while in Canada.