Off the M8: Fethard Walled Town

Fethard is nestled snugly in Tipperary’s Golden Vale, famously rich agricultural land, and is nowadays well-known for raising legendary race horses. But it also happens to be the town in Ireland with the most intact set of medieval walls. The map above (taken from Fethard’s Conservation and Management Plan) shows how the town would have looked in the 1850s when George Victor du Noyer came through.

We drive the M8 often and we’re always looking for ways to vary the journey, so this post is part of our ‘Off the M8’ series. Fethard is an easy detour: if you’re heading north, leave the M8 at Exit 10 just after Cahir and re-join it at Horse and Jockey or at Urlingford. You’ll be travelling along lovely quiet roads parallel to the motorway and depending on how much time you spend in Fethard, the whole detour should add a couple of hours (or maybe three) to your journey.

Fethard also happens to have some lovely old shop fronts. This one dates to 1770

We started off at the visitor centre in the old Tholsel, or Town Hall. It’s been nicely restored and features an excellent audio-visual presentation, and upstairs many colourful explanatory panels. The staff was friendly and very informative, with an obvious passion for their town and its history.

From the Tholsel Visitor Centre, you look down over Trinity Church and the walls

The town was founded around 1200, and walled soon after, when Edward I granted the right to raise money through what was known as ‘murage grants’. This continued over the next couple of centuries, in fact most of the walls were built (or rebuilt) in the 15th century. We tend to think of town walls as primarily for defensive purposes, and indeed the town was attacked on more than one occasions. But walls were also important demarcations of commerce. The market was held within the walls and according to Tadhg O’Keefe (in the Irish Historic Towns Atlas):

The walls were a barrier through which those wishing to trade in Fethard had to enter, so they articulated, especially with guarded gateways, the differences of privilege and opportunity between those who lived within and those who entered from without.

There is only one gate left, the North Gate, which we actually didn’t see. But when our old friend Du Noyer came through in the 1850s there was still a gate at the west end of the town (below). It guarded the entrance at the bridge known as Madam’s Bridge and had what O’Keefe describes as a rare type of Gate incorporating a three story fifteenth century tower house.

Despite the walls, the town was attacked and burned on several occasion – but not (unlike so many Irish towns) by Cromwell! In fact, the town surrendered, under terms, and was spared the violent destruction that the Parliamentary army visited on so many other Irish towns. This doesn’t exactly make Cromwell popular in Fethard, in fact there is still a tradition in the town that ‘people will not go out the way that Cromwell came in’ so that funerals, for example, take a circuitous route to the cemetery to avoid retracing his tracks.

Like Youghal, the other Irish town with a significant extent of wall, there were tower houses along the wall, and within the town there were fortified town houses. Some are obvious and some are hidden behind more modern facades. Court Castle is one of the obvious ones, but the house next to it, known as the Watergate House, has a base batter that marks it out as fifteenth century (both images, below).

Within the walls and behind the Tholsel is Trinity Church. Because there is so much going on in and around it, I will quote the Buildings of Ireland summary in full:

Like the Town Hall and the Augustinian Abbey, the medieval parish church is a multi-period building of outstanding architectural, archaeological and historical importance. The church stands at the heart of the medieval walled town and the focus for the extraordinary number of late medieval structures arranged around the sides of the graveyard with rear entrances allowing direct access to the graveyard. The size and design of the church reflect Fethard’s prosperity in the medieval and early modern periods, the different types of windows, from different eras, emphasise the continuity of use. The impressive tower, that is highly visible for a considerable distance, is a particularly important and dramatic example of fifteenth-century craftsmanship, and is especially evocative of the medieval era as it stands picturesquely and appropriately inside the almost entirely intact medieval town wall and close to a impressively rare grouping of late medieval houses and almshouses. The interior has a finely crafted timber screen to the vestibule, and at the east end a stained-glass window with Eucharistic motifs, both highly decorative, and showing care and attention in the design as well as the execution. The recently timber roof to the nave, recently dated to of c.1489, is of exceptional importance as it is one of a small number of medieval roofs surviving in Ireland and is almost entirely intact.

Trinity, the graveyard and medieval church remains on the left and the town walls on the right

Unfortunately, the church itself was closed when we were there. It’s still very much in use, though, and there was some tidying up taking place in the graveyard. I’d like to go back for another poke around sometime.

Down by the Watergate we came across one of Fethard’s two Sheela-na-gigs. (See this post for more about the Sheelas). This one is typical – a female figure displaying her genitalia, but unusual in her emaciated form with ribs clearly shown, staring eyes and a grimace. We didn’t have time to see the other one, which means a) you (yes, you, Dear Reader) have to, and let us know and b) we have to go back.

We also met Fethard’s famous geese down here too, along with their owner. They are pets, he told us, but don’t go too near the male as he is guarding the female carefully at the moment as she is just taking a little break from sitting on eggs.

The walls are extensive, with long stretches very much intact. Edmund’s Castle and a mural tower known as Fethard Castle punctuate the wall on the river side.

I was fascinated by the flowers growing all over the walls. I expected Ivy-leaved Toadflax and Wallflowers, but it was fun to see Fairy Foxglove also: it’s an alpine plant and so it likes high rocky places. The only other place I have seen it here is on the Martello Tower at Illnacullen/Garnish Island, off Glengarriff.

Upper: Fethard Tower, with Trinity Church bell tower behind the wall. Lower: Fairy Foxglove growing high on the wall

Because it also happens to be the end wall of people’s gardens, the wall is breached here and there by entries to residences – not something I was expecting to see, and probably not something that would be allowed nowadays.

The wall is part of a living town, so it has not always been considered untouchable

We rounded out our visit with an excellent lunch at Emily’s Tea Room before resuming our journey. Fethard was a surprise – an amazingly intact slice of medieval history!

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Inish Beg Estate: Ancient Woods and New Discoveries

Craving a woodland walk, we took ourselves to Inish Beg this week – and found a lot more than bluebells!

This is a cillin, down beside the river. There are lots of stories associated with it

Inish Beg abounds in both the wild and the tame. That’s not such an easy balance to maintain and it’s a real tribute to the team on the ground that manages and nurtures the estate. Mostly, of course, it’s down to the vision and hard work of Paul and Georgiana Keane who bought the place in 1997 when it was crumbling and neglected. The house, Georgie told us, was close to collapse and had to be completely re-done – new roof, plumbing, electrics and a complete re-furbishment. It’s hard to believe now, when you see the beautiful place it has become.

Paul and Georgie run it now as a hotel and wedding venue and it is totally set up for it. In fact it must be one of the most romantic venues in Ireland, ideally situated on an island on the Ilen River, accessible by an old stone bridge. It was originally O’Driscoll territory, but owned by the McCarthy family. When James Morrogh inherited it from a McCarthy relative in the 1830s he changed the family name to McCarthy Morragh – such stipulations were not unusual then.

In the 1890s the family built the grand house, and it is this house that is associated with its most famous inhabitant, Kay Summersby. A noted beauty, she was Eisenhower’s secretary in London during the war, and may (or may not) have had an affair with him.

She describes her early life at Inish Beg thus:

Our home, Inish Beg, was a somewhat run-down estate on a small but lovely emerald island in a river in County Cork. Our favourite pastime (I had a brother and three sisters) was to sail down that river four miles, to the Atlantic. There was a succession of governesses, hunts, spatting parents, riding in the fields and along the long avenue fringed with old trees . . . the usual pattern of life in that obsolete world.

The ‘usual pattern’ for some, perhaps – to me it sounds like a life of breathtaking privilege. However, like many such estates, it became difficult to sustain and by time the Keanes took it over it desperately needed their infusion of enthusiasm and capital. And what a magnificent job they have done with not only the house but the grounds as well.

There’s a walled garden (above) that’s full of organic goodies for the estate kitchens, and also features an indoor swimming pool! Tony O’Mahony, the head gardener, practises an organic philosophy and does not feel the need to eliminate wildness from the garden, which results in a delightful mix of plant life.

But we were here mainly for the woodland walks and we were certainly not disappointed. You could spend several hours wandering the trails here and right now the undergrowth is glorious. Bluebells were in abundance along with every wildflower that contributes to that colourful spring carpet that is so dear to our senses.

There are trails for the kids – pirates and a wildlife search are part of the system, as well as little fairy houses here and there.

There are lovely views (above) across the Ilen to the ruined church at Aughadown – burial place of the Tonsons that I wrote about in New Court Bridge – a Hidden Wonder. Surprisingly, beyond the church, you can see Mount Gabriel. I mention this because of its significance with our next find – a previously unrecorded cupmarked stone!

Regular readers know of our involvement with Prehistoric Rock Art – Neolithic or Bronze Age carvings on open air boulders and outcrops. The cupmark is the basic motif of all Irish Rock Art – a semi-spherical cup-shaped hollow (see more about Rock Art here and here and specifically about cupmarks here). Robert has an amazing eye for slight differences in rock surfaces and has developed a habit of examining every stone we come across for cupmarks. This time he struck gold! At least four cupmarks on the back of a stone along one of the trails.

We like to warn people that rock art can be a little underwhelming. I know these cupmarks don’t look like much, but they were probably carved several thousand years ago as part of a ritual we now know nothing about

The stone has been moved there from somewhere on the estate and the Keanes will try to track down where this was. It’s always important to see a rock like this in its context, of corse, but we are also curious to know if Mount Gabriel was visible from the location, as it is from so many of our West Cork Rock Art sites. We will be returning to do a proper record and see if we can add more information to the story before we send it in to be included in the National Monuments database.

There’s also a boulder burial on the estate, visible as you are leaving. It’s a pretty tumbledown affair, but still recognisable, and we found cupmarks on the capstone too. These may be already recorded, but we will let National Monuments know in case they aren’t.

Fabulous woodland walks, my fill of wildflowers, lovely vistas across the Ilen – and a new archaeological find. Too much excitement for one day!

Bluebell Time in West Cork

What is it about a bluebell wood that re-charges the batteries and lifts the heart? Perhaps it’s that amazing blue carpet that stops us in our tracks: it’s so unlike anything else in our natural world.

Or maybe it’s the fact that it lasts only a little while that makes it special. Like Easter eggs or Christmas carols, we would get tired of them if they were always with us – it’s their brief seasonality that makes us look forward to them (OK, maybe the Christmas carols don’t appeal to everyone in the same way).

Lower: Bluebells and Three-cornered Garlic

Even when it’s bluebell time, as it is right now, it’s not always easy to find a bluebell wood, because we don’t have expansive deciduous forest cover here in West Cork. I love the bluebells that line the boreens in places, growing up the hedgebanks, but it’s not quite the same thing as a woodland carpet.

Bluebells and Celandine growing on the bank on one of my favourite boreens

Let’s start with what a bluebell is – I’m talking here about our native bluebells (Bluebell/Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Or in Irish Coinnle corra, pronounced quinn-la curra). As you probably know, the imported Spanish Bluebell is everywhere now, and to add insult to injury has started to hybridise with our native Bluebell.

A garden near us has a lovely display of blue and pink Bluebells and Three-corned Garlic – unfortunately these are the non-native Spanish Bluebells, or possibly hybrids

Take a look at this excellent video from the Irish Wildlife Trust for a guide to how to distinguish between them.

Fortunately, we still have lots of native bluebells and I was lucky this week to get permission to stroll in my friend, Nick’s, little wood, and also to take a walk with Robert and Gill up the hill behind Long Strand. For more about what we were after, see Robert’s post on the cross today.

Upper: One of the little bridges over the stream. Lower: Bluebells and Irish Spurge

Nick’s little wood is down beside the sea on what was once an old homestead – you pick your way through a heritage orchard to get in there. It felt like an immense privilege to be the only ones there, to wander through the trees and over the tiny bridges.

Upper: one of the way to recognise a native Bluebell is to look at the anthers – they’re white or cream-coloured. Lower: a spontaneous white Bluebell in among the blue ones. It happens

Yesterday, because Robert wanted to see Lady Carbery’s Cross, we walked up Croachna Hill, behind Long Strand, near Rosscarbery. The strand was heaving with swimmers, surfers and loungers, the coffee truck and restaurant were packed and the guy who does the Wild Atlantic Seaweed Baths was out – it all looked so festive and summery.

Primroses and Bluebells

The walk up the hill was awash with wild flowers, besides the ones I’ve illustrated here we saw Common Dog-violet, my first Ragged-Robin of the season, Yellow Pimpernel, Ribwort Plantain, Navelwort, Ground-ivy and Herb-Robert.

I’d never seen that combination of Bluebell and Red-campion before (above). It’s pretty spectacular, and a reminder that colours in nature always harmonise. Together with the yellow of Celandine and Buttercup, and the lovely woodsy smells, it was a sensuous experience.

Upper: Looking back to Long Strand from Croachna Hill. Lower:  Bluebells, Celandine, Buttercup, and a lone Red Campion

Where are your favourite bluebell haunts, dear readers?

 

Drawn to the Beara

The spectacular landscapes of the Beara Peninsula draw us again and again: have a look at some of our past explorations here and here. There’s no doubt that for fine, distant views, tranquil coastlines and variety in geology, history and archaeology this part of Ireland takes some beating. And, for us, it’s ideal: near enough that we can have a full day out absorbing all these things, yet still being home in time for tea!

This is the weekend when clocks ‘spring forward’ – giving us longer evenings. But also the sun is getting noticeably stronger, colours are getting more intense, and the shadows are hardening. It’s a great time to be out on our travels.

That’s Hungry Hill above – highest peak in the Caha Mountain range, Co Cork – and the background setting for Daphne du Maurier’s 1943 novel of that name. The story is based on the real-life Puxley family who set up and ran Allihies copper mines in the first half of the nineteenth century. Du Maurier weaves the tale to give the name of the hill a symbolic meaning – the mines ‘swallow up’ the lives of those who work them and the plot is charged with tragedy and unhappiness.

We crossed the peninsula on the Healy Pass, one of Ireland’s great road journeys, with breathtaking views towards Bantry Bay in the south and the Kenmare River to the north as you traverse the 334 metre summit. The road, known in Irish as Bealach Scairte, was originally cut as a nineteenth century famine relief project, and improved in the 1930s, when it was named in honour of Tim Michael Healy, a Cork man who served as the first governor general of the Irish Free State.

We had a mission: to visit Dereen Garden, which is open all year round. We were there before the tourist season got going, and we mainly had the beautiful walks and vistas to ourselves. The woodland garden was laid out 150 years ago with sub-tropical plants from around the world and has been improved and added to since then; it is famous for its huge Arboreum rhododendrons. Evidently there is a variety of wildlife to be seen, including red squirrels, sitka deer and hares, but they were all keeping out of the way when we visited.

We were hoping to sample some of the fine eateries which have been set up on the Beara but, again, we were a little too early in the year: an excuse for another trip when they open up. So we reluctantly turned our way back towards the Healy Pass – to get the views from the other direction – and were stopped in our tracks by a sign pointing to ‘stone circles’. This is in a townland named Cashelkeelty and is near Lauragh, Co Kerry. Finola had a look at her archaeological records on the phone and found it was somewhere we had to go! It involved a long, uphill walk through a forest, but was very well worth it. Read Finola’s post to find all the details.

I will show only one picture as a taster (above) – but also to point out the proximity of the high grade overhead powerline which runs right by the ancient stones. Does it add or detract from the monument itself?

There were many more vistas to be taken in on our few hours spent on this dramatic peninsula, where mountains so spectacularly meet the sea. We can never tire of this, our own little part of the world.

Barley Lake

In Ireland February 1st – St Brigid’s Day – is thought of as the first day of Spring: we begin to look out for snowdrops and daffodils, and expect to see a ‘real stretch’ in the evenings. Of course, we also make our St Brigid’s Cross to ensure good luck and fertility to the household. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that the church festival of Candlemas (St Blaise’s Day) falls on the following day: February 2nd. Traditionally, people took candles into the church to be blessed that day, and these were used for the rest of the year.  Surely this is something else connected with the turning of the year and the coming of the light?

Header – a tantalizing glimpse of Barley Lake seen from the N71 road north of Glengarriff. Above – the winding boreen that heads up towards Crossterry Mountain

To make our own celebration of the arrival of Spring we set out on February 2nd on a trip to Crossterry Mountain in County Cork, just north of the road running west to the Beara Peninsula from Glengarriff. This was unexplored territory for us, but we had long planned to visit Barley Lake: if you travel on the spectacular N71 road from Bantry over to Kenmare you get tantalising glimpses of this corrie or tarn away to the west, just before you pass through the first of the tunnels.

Above – a closer view of the mountain crater that contains the lake

If you are into geology, Barley Lake is a classic demonstration of how Ireland’s land mass was moulded by the movement of the great glacier sheets towards the end of the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago. As the melting glacial ice moved south, it carved out and dragged huge boulders, which ‘plucked’ or excavated the land surface, leaving craters which filled with water after the ice melted. These are known as ‘corrie lakes’, ‘ribbon lakes’ or ‘tarns’. Barley Lake is one such crater; another is the lake at Gougane Barra in the Shehy Mountains, also in West Cork.

Upper – how ‘corrie lakes’ or ‘tarns’ are formed (DooFi  via Wikipedia). Above – glacial geology clearly delineated by fresh snow on the way to Crossterry Mountain

The road to the lake is remote and picturesque, but we were surprised to find quite a sizeable settlement high up on the mountainy road. We were not quite sure what it is called, but the townland is Crostera West. We enjoyed some of the names we found on the map: Lake Derreenadavodia, Magannagan Stream . . .

Mountain dwellers: Coomarkane townland, Scully’s Cottage and a red-roofed barn becoming part of the landscape

Driving, you approach Barley Lake from the north side. On the extract from OS Map 85, below, you can see the narrow way that winds up to a high point – the 300 metre contour, where there is a place to park, and then proceed on foot. Look carefully at the way the road is drawn here – it’s no exaggeration: there really is a series of hard S bends that have to be negotiated to get up the mountain. We should have photographed them, but I was hanging on tight to the steering wheel, while Finola was hanging on to anything she could – and we found ourselves driving into a blizzard!

Middle photo – a relatively straightforward part of the drive up the mountain, before we reached the S bends! Lower photo – snow coming in as we reached the summit

It was a day of weather contrasts: some of the journey was made in that beautiful low sunlight that we have been experiencing at the start of this year, while at other times the wind whipped suddenly in and threw sleet and ice at us. On the top we found a good covering of snow on the rock-strewn path that we had to take to reach the shores of the lake. We braved the elements, and passed by peat workings that looked to be still in use.

Top – the path to the lake. Above – peat workings

The lake itself felt remote and lonely – and unvisited on our winter day, although I gather many hikers aim to circumnavigate the shores. We didn’t: it takes several hours and the light was beginning to fade with the incoming snow. It would be fair to say that it’s bleak up there, but – as always in Ireland – beautiful. Our only companions were sheep, who seemed to space themselves out neatly on every available ledge.

Robert – finding his own ledge! Thank you to Finola, who took all the photographs on this journey

In spite of some challenging conditions, it was a grand day out. As we wended our way carefully back down the bends, we admired the wonderful distant views, and – as we approached the glens of Glengarriff, fortuitously back in sunlight – paused to examine more geological formations.

We never tire of exploring West Cork, and we will never run out of destinations: as always, our delight is the out-of-the-way side roads – Ireland’s speciality.

Valentia Adventure

At the very end of January – when we should have been in the dark depths of winter – we headed off to Valentia Island in County Kerry, and enjoyed sublime golden sun. This time of the year often gives us the best light: we experienced this on our expedition through the Yellow Gap in West Cork a fortnight ago, and again during these three days in our neighbouring county last week. It’s to do with the low sun: somehow it enriches the amber hues of the landscapes, which are themselves enhanced by backdrops such as the one above. An ancient stone is set against a distant turquoise ocean and dark, snow-capped mountain peaks.

Holy wells were on the agenda (see Finola’s post here), as we were joining our friends Amanda and Peter Clarke from the Sheep’s Head. Amanda has nearly come to the end of her chronicle which records all the Holy Wells in County Cork, and she is now starting to explore those in County Kerry. I’m not going to say too much about the wells we saw, as Amanda will cover them in great detail, but the expedition certainly provided great opportunities for observation and photography, and caused us to wonder – again – at this unique aspect of Ireland’s history and traditions.

All the photographs above are from a remote and atmospheric site on the north west side of Valentia Island: St Brendan’s Holy Well. It’s a long way off the beaten track: desolate, bleak and boggy – but justifies making the effort. There are ancient stone crosses, carved slabs, cures to be had, and history. St Brendan himself journeyed there from Tralee in the fifth century, climbed the cliffs at Culoo, and found two dying pagans at the site: he anointed them and they became Valentia’s first Christian converts.

Above – the way to St Brendan’s Well, Valentia Island, passes by O’Shea’s Pub . . . one of the furthest flung bars in the world, that you can’t—and could never—buy a proper pint at . . . The story is here.

I certainly endorse that sign in the centre, seen on Valentia Island. Hare trapping in South Kerry is illegal – and so it should be! But – how could we not follow a sign that says: Slate Quarry – Grotto?

The Grotto – in this case a statue of the BVM together with Saint Marie-Bernadette Soubirous, the girl who witnessed Mary’s apparition in Lourdes – was installed in the Marian Year of 1954 in a cave high above the entrance to the Valentia Slate Quarry on Geokaun Mountain, at the north end of the Island. The Quarry had been opened in 1816 and supplied slate to the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, London railway stations and many another building project. The quarry excavated a huge cave into the mountainside, and closed after a major rockfall in 1910.

Fr James Enright, who was the PP of Valentia in the Marian Year, saw a golden opportunity in such a setting for a commemorative grotto. Fr Enright decided exactly where the statues were to be positioned, but the burning issue was how were these heavy items going to be put in place and worked upon at over 90 feet from ground level? The answer came in the building of a deal timber ladder.

 

Jackie Clifford , who was a blacksmith based in Gortgower, made the iron to bind and reinforce the ladder and was helped in his forge by Denny Lyne and subsequently aided by other islanders. Having been transported to the quarry in sections, it was assembled there and put in place by the volunteering islanders. The ladder was over 100 feet long, being four feet wide at the bottom narrowing to a foot. and a half on top. The sections of ladder were joined at the various points with a four foot lap. Many island volunteers were enlisted with each townland taking their turns to work. The initial work involved levelling a massive mound in order to form a proper base. This was quite labour intensive, being done with pick and shovel. The ladder was hauled into place by means of a block and tackle pulley system with people at the ends of ropes from above and to the sides in order to control it and put it in place. As one islander succinctly put it “The greatest miracle to happen there was the erection of the ladder”.

 

Subsequent to the ladder being put in place, a number of daring and intrepid islanders had to climb it for the purpose of erecting the statues. The statues were hoisted up by rope with other tools and building materials. The concrete for the base was mixed by shovel above.

(Quote from The Kerryman, January 2015)

The Quarry has recently reopened, and it’s quite surreal to stand in front of the grotto with the sound of heavy machinery reverberating at the huge cave mouth from deep within the mountain.

Have a look again at the signs above: one points to ‘Tetrapod Trackway’. This is surely a must-see for any visitor to Valentia Island as the fossilised Tetropod footprints here, representing the point at which life left the Devonian Seas 370 million years ago to begin to evolve on dry land, are the best examples of only four sites found to date in the world! We hurried to have a look – but the site was closed for repairs. You can see a picture of the tracks here.

In the winter sunlight, the little village of Portmagee which stands at the threshold of Valentia Island and connects to it by a bridge opened in 1971, looks like a picture postcard. In fact, the bridge was opened twice – once on New Year’s Day, when it was blessed by the Bishop of Kerry – and again at Easter, because there was some debate about whether the first opening had been ‘official’ or not!

Here’s a railway map and photo dating from around 1901 showing ‘Valentia Harbour Station’. In fact, it’s not on the island at all, although Knightstown – the ‘planned village’ designed by Alexander Nimmo for the Knight of Kerry in the 1830s can be seen across the water. The station – the terminus of the most westerly railway in Europe – is on the mainland, to the east of  Valentia Island, which could be reached by a ferry. The Farranfore to Valentia Harbour Railway was 39½ miles long and operated from 1892 to 1960. The photo below shows the Valentia River Viaduct just outside Cahersiveen, now derelict but hopefully to have a new lease of life when a planned cycling greenway is developed along the old railway track.

Valentia Island has a great deal more to offer than I can show in a brief post. It’s well worth making the journey and staying for a little while: there is such varied landscape to be experienced – a microcosm of the West of Ireland, in fact – and much history if you want to delve under the surface.

The tailpiece shows a view from Knightstown looking across to Valentia Harbour on the mainland and the site of the former railway terminus: