You’ll have to look carefully at the photo above. It’s inside the ruined church which stands in St Mary’s graveyard, Colla Road, Schull.
Here’s the church – a view taken a day or two ago, in a spell of clear, cold weather. It has a fascinating history, which you can read here. Go in through the old main entrance, and immediately look to the wall on your right. Scratched into the plaster there is the ship image. But it’s not the only one.
There are more ship images visible on this porch wall; the first – shown in the header – is the most clearly defined. Here are more detailed views of others (I have counted five in total), including further examples on the opposite wall. There may once have been more.
Of course, we would like to know the story of these carvings: who made them? When? And why? As to the ‘when’ we have to sift through the history of the building, although what is known is somewhat fragmentary. One record states that what we see today was built in 1720, but there must have been something there before that, as there is an ogival window in the north-eastern part of the building which is thought to be fifteenth century, and some further architectural features which suggest an even earlier construction:
The north porch – where the ship scribings are – is likely to date from the early eighteenth century, so the ships could not be any older than this. They could have been drawn any time, perhaps, over three hundred years – but are most likely to have been from the earlier part of that period. It has even been suggested that they could have been made by the craftsmen who rendered the walls. Interestingly, ‘graffiti’ which shows ships in churches is not uncommon: there are further instances in Ireland, Britain, and other parts of the Christianised world. The following were traced from St Spas church, Nessebar, Bulgaria. They are possibly the closest examples I have found so far that resemble our main Schull scribing. Interestingly, only one is shown in ‘full sail’. Most examples of this type of graffiti show the vessels without sails, or with the sails furled. Our Schull example is undoubtedly under full sail – and this makes it rare. I attach a further image below the Bulgarian scribings: I have tried to enhance the contrast of the photograph.
What about ‘Who Made Them’? We don’t have an answer to that. We must remember that the Schull examples are a very small part of a very widespread phenomenon and, as I mentioned, there have been suggestions that the ships were a deliberate part of the construction process of the churches: they might have been drawn by the plasterers themselves. Masons left behind their own ‘marks’ on stone walls, ever since medieval times. A British project was started in 2010 to survey all types of ‘informal’ marking on stone and plaster found specifically in Norfolk.
These stone inscribed Masons’ marks are from the Norfolk survey. Below – from the same source – two images of ship graffiti from Cley-on-Sea, Norfolk:
Where do we go from here in our little review of this strange find in Schull? Well, it’s worth noting that these are not the only ‘ships in churches’ image that we find in the corpus of European-wide church architecture. I often remember going into churches and noticing model replicas of ships hanging from the ceiling! I don’t remember seeing such a thing in Ireland, but certainly in Britain and Scandinavia. Here is one from Denmark:
Strangely, I have never looked for an explanation of these. When you start reading about them, it is suggested that they are always in churches which are associated with the sea and with maritime communities, and the church models are seen as prophylactic votive offerings: representing and honouring the ships that the community sail in will prevent them from coming to harm. That begins to make sense, as does the idea that the plaster ship graffiti is also, perhaps, a preventative measure against disaster or ill-fortune.
That theory could be presented as a strong likelihood for finding ship graffiti in churches – but there’s a problem. There are as many examples of ship graffiti in churches which are located far inland as there are on or close by the coast. If you would like my own opinion on this whole quandary, take a look at the photo of Schull church, above. It is built on a mound, perhaps natural but maybe not, with its east wall facing outwards like a ship’s prow. Could there be a far wider symbolism in all this when it comes to the nature of a church building? Is it a stone representation of a vessel, captained by priest or parson, and crewed by the faithful of the community? A final thought on this: when you go into the main body of a church, you enter the Nave. Definition of a nave:
. . . The name of the main public area of the church, the nave, was derived directly from the Latin word navis, meaning ‘ship’ or ‘vessel’, and references dating back to the very earliest days of the Christian church direct that a church should be built ‘long . . . so it will be like a ship’ . . .
MATTHEW CHAMPION – MEDIEVAL SHIP GRAFFITI IN ENGLISH CHURCHES, 2015
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’:
Class: Ringfort – rath
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.
“People would be walking from Ballydehob”, our friend told us, “to do the rounds at Stouke Graveyard on St John’s Eve. Everyone in the village would come”
He remembered it well as a boy (he’s now retirement age) – the whole family walking to the graveyard, a festive atmosphere with friend greeting friend, after the day’s work was done. He described how the rounds were done. The focus was the chest tomb in the centre of the graveyard. You would do a decade of the rosary as you walked around, stopping four times. You would leave coins or a small offering, and pray for some special intention. He didn’t remember the Bishop’s Head being part of it, although other accounts state it was. The Bishop’s Head is the name given the bullaun stone (below), based on a legend about a beheaded bishop.
I’ve written about Stouke before (here and here – take a look for the background to this post) – it’s a tiny graveyard full of fascinating history. Looking back at those posts from 2016 also provides a good comparison of the condition of some of the objects in the graveyard between then and now. It is obvious that the small statues, for example, are not being renewed.
The chest tomb, located in the centre and highest point of the graveyard, marks the last resting place of Fr John Barry, and both he and his brother James, also a priest, are memorialised here. They were tremendously compassionate and capable men who worked tirelessly for their parishioners during the Famine. I have read James’ depositions to the Poor Law Commission. He was articulate and devastating in his criticism of the landlord system – full of righteous anger of the truest sort.
The memory of these two brothers lived on locally and over time took on an almost saintly aura. The fact that Fr John is buried here and that the original name of the graveyard is Kilaspick Oen, or Church of Bishop John, may have led to the practice of visiting here on St John’s Eve, June 23rd, as described to me by our friend.
This year I decided to see if the tradition lived on, so I walked up to the graveyard on St John’s Eve (Thursday). I arrived at 7PM and sat in glorious solitude for a long time until I was convinced that nobody was coming. Just as I was about to give up, a car arrived and then another. Tim Cronin and Joan O’Donovan, supported by her son Michael John, had come to do the rounds, as Joan had indeed come for her whole life.
Joan had brought flowers and coins and distributed them among us. She led the prayers as we said the rosary, stopping four times, once at each side of the tomb. We also left flowers and coins at the Bishop’s Head.
The chat was mighty afterwards. I told them what I knew about Fr James and John, and Joan and Tim told me about how busy a place this was in the old days. Joan says she will keep coming as long as she is able – she suffers from a bad back and sciatica and needs two sticks to walk, especially on the uneven ground in the graveyard. She had known a lot of the families buried here and we talked about the many islanders whose final resting place is this lovely, lonely spot.
As I walked home, I wondered how much longer anyone would come to continue this tradition. It seemed sad that it had been lost so profoundly that only Joan and Tim now come, where once it had been such an important event for the whole village. We are not that country any more, and in many ways that’s a very good thing, but I can’t help mourning the loss of the old ways too.
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.
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.
Another post about signs in Ireland: I ‘collect’ them and update them every few months. The slippery banana – above – is a classic and is to be found in the City Hall in Cork. Following it are a whole variety of examples with – hopefully – some touches of humour about them. Others have to be classified as eye-catching curiosities, including this magnificent bright blue cockerel.
Mostly, the signs just speak for themselves…
These cheerful cups can be found at a wayside Holy Well.
The gate above, also from Cork city, shows what architectural gems are waiting to be discovered on the streets. I was pleased – and puzzled – to come across the following:
If you visit Knock (above) you can collect your own holy water. This is my report on the place. Here (below) is a curiosity – not far from our West Cork home: an old signpost marking the distance in miles. You might say it’s one that got away!
Quite right! The orchids at Toormore Church are spectacular, and have to be looked after.
A coded message from another world, perhaps?
Signs can be enigmatic here in Ireland. There’s usually a reasonable explanation for them, though.
There’s plenty more where these came from (in fact they come from all over Ireland). Keep a watch out yourselves!
Many thanks to Sara Nylund for her wonderful reconstruction drawing of an early ecclesiastical site
A couple of years ago, confined to explorations within 5km, Robert wrote about Croagh Bay (pronounced locally as Crew Bay). Recently our friends Donagh and Tamsin enticed us back to take a closer look at the eastern part of the Bay – Croagh Cove (Crew Cove).
What intrigued us about this place and why we were eager to visit (apart from Donagh’s world-class coffee) was a place marked on the map as an ‘ecclesiastical enclosure.’ There aren’t a lot of those on the Mizen, although there may be more early ecclesiastical sites than have been identified and recorded. Kilbrown (see my post Mizen Mud), Cove and Kilbronogue are the only others so far.
What establishes a site as a likely ‘early ecclesiastical enclosure?’
The Irish church was dominated by scattered rural monasteries from the sixth century onwards. These were surrounded by large enclosures (varying in diameter from 40 a.m. to 400 M), often circular or oval in plan, and usually far more extensive than the surviving graveyards. In some cases the original bank, fosse or stone wall survives but more often the line of the monastic enclosure (or vallum) is indicated by curving field boundaries, roadways or a laneways. As well as the church and graveyard, these enclosures contained the dwellings, outhouses and workshops of a community, sometimes approaching the size of a town. Because the buildings were constructed of wood nothing survives above ground today; the graveyard often contains the ruin of a mediaeval church. In some cases the surviving burial ground has no inscribed headstones but was used for the burial of unbaptised children during the last few centuries. Bullaun stones and cross-inscribed stones are often found on early church sites while holy wells may be situated close by and retain the name of the saint anciently associated with the site. Unfortunately little of the history of the early church in West Cork has survived and the earliest reference to many of these sites is as late as the 12th century.
The Archaeological Inventory of County Cork, Vol I, West Cork. P 271
So, as you can see, not much normally survives on the surface but a tell-tale sign is a circular or oval enclosure, or (often) two concentric enclosures, with the barely-discernible signs of buildings inside. (Readers may remember the above illustration from my post on Ardpatrick – no sign of a round tower at Croagh, though!).) The memory of these places as once-sacred seems to be retained locally, and led to their use as Cillíní, or Children’s burial grounds in the past. See my post Unknown Souls for more about Cillíní – ‘the loneliest places on earth.’ Thus – small uninscribed headstones peeking out through the grass is an indication that this may be a cillín, and in turn perhaps something more ancient yet.
The original site may have been carved out of the hillside – the flattening process leaving a sharp-edged bank on the sea-ward side (above and below). This reminded us of the similar bank we found at the possible ‘Scoil Mhuire’ site that Robert reported on in his post Schull – Delving into History.
What would such a site have looked like? They varied enormously in size – for example Glenadalough in Wicklow and Kells in Meath would both have been monastic cities. Most, however, and especially in remote places, would have been small religious foundations in which there would be a central church surrounded by an inner wall, and houses and gardens for the monks surrounded by an outer wall.
Nendrum in Co Down shows what a monastic settlement considerably larger than Croagh might have looked like. The Illustration is from The Modern Traveller to the Early Irish Church by Kathleen Hughes and Ann Hamlin
The word reilig (pronounced rellig) is the Irish word for graveyard and it comes from the word for relic. Early sites like this were assumed to have had a founding saint, who gave his or her name to the site. Kilbrown, for example, would be the church of Brón, and he would have been buried on the site – hence the ‘relic’ association. Kilcoe was named for a saintly nun, St Coch. The echoes of the cult of those saints would have remained alive through the centuries in the names of townlands and holy wells.
Possible remains of church at Croagh
The name Croagh, however, is based not on a saint’s name but on the Irish word for a ‘stack’ and may refer to the gentle hill that rises up from the water. It was, and remains, an almost perfect spot to establish a peaceful settlement based around hard work and prayer. There’s a lovely little beach below, so transport and travel was easy by water. It’s in a sheltered haven protected from storms by Long Island off the cost, and from it there’s a good view out to sea (below) so the monks could see Vikings or other raiders coming.
And right across the Cove there’s a ring fort – a cashel, in fact, since it looks like the walls were made of stone (below). It’s a classic – on elevated ground with commanding views all around, out to sea and to the low hills behind. Puzzlingly, this cashel is not recorded by National Monuments. It’s overgrown by bracken so may not have been obvious at the time of the survey.
This juxtaposition, across the cove from each other, of an early-medieval monastic settlement and a fortified residence, leads to speculation as to the relationship between the two. Was the monastery endowed by the local chief, committing the monks to say prayers for his eternal soul in exchange for land and protection? This is certainly a familiar pattern from the later medieval period.
View of the ecclesiastical site from the cashel
This is just a tiny corner of the Mizen. There is much more of interest in this small townland but for today I wanted to focus on these early-medieval sites. In their ruins lie clues to a distant but vibrant past.
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