Mythical Isles of the West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image above courtesy of the Worksop Bestiary.

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

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

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

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

Image Carta Marina (1539) courtesy Bone + Sickle

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

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

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

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

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

The island of tame birds

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

The island of horses and demons

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

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

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

The island where animals bite each other and blood is everywhere

The island of apples, pigs, and birds

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

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

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

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

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

The island with maidens and intoxicating drink

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

The island of colourful birds singing like psalms

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

The island with the golden wall around it

The island of angry smiths

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

The island with a woman pelting them with nuts

The island with a river sky that was raining salmon

The island on a pedestal

The island with eternal youth/women (17 maidens)

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

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

The island with eternal laughter, where they lost a crewman

The island of the fire people

The island of cattle, oxen, and sheep

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

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

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

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


Blúiríní Béaloidis

There’s a rather nice postscript to this story:

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

Blúiríní Béaloidis

“Easter” Island!

What better place to spend Easter Day than at the ‘Easter end’ of Long Island? We can see the island – out there in Roaringwater Bay – from our home here at Nead an Iolair. The lighthouse on the end of the island faces us – and winks through the night with the character of 3 quick flashes every 10 seconds. The narrow headland on which it stands bears the name ‘Copper Point’ – and so does the lighthouse.

This aerial view shows Long Island in its context – a part of Roaringwater Bay and its ‘Carbery’s Hundred Islands’. Its neighbours to the east are Castle Island and Horse Island – all in our view – (that’s our view, below).

A closer aerial view of the island, above. It’s accessed by a regular ferry which leaves Colla Pier, a short distance from Schull town. The ferry arrives at Long Island Pier: there it is, on the pier (below).

Our destination on this Easter Sunday was Castaway East – the furthest house on the ‘Easter’ end of the island. We have taken you there before, when we organised a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in July of last year. The hosts there are Tracy and Peter, who served us brilliantly for that occasion, and also for the Wildflower Walks which Finola led last June: the Castaway crew provided a superb picnic for everyone, delivered to us at the island’s western end. This time we decided that we would test Tracy and Peter’s skills by ordering up an Easter Sunday lunch to celebrate a ‘special’ birthday for our good friend, Peter Clarke.

Amanda Clarke, Finola and birthday boy Peter, looking forward to a morning coffee (with delicious Easter treats) after arriving at Castaway East. We had an upstairs room in the Castaway house, with a good view over the island. Before lunch we had an opportunity to explore part of the island we had never been to before, heading down to Copper Point.

Why is it called ‘Copper Point’? Because there was a copper mine close by, one of many such enterprises that were seen in West Cork in the nineteenth century. Explorations on the island were started in the 1840s by the Cornish mining engineer Captain William Thomas: he wrote a Roaringwater Journal post for us a couple of years ago! William sank a trial shaft for 10 fathoms (60 feet) and extended a level south from this shaft for 3 fathoms. No metal bearing lode was found, and the mine was abandoned. Traces of these workings can still be seen not far from the lighthouse. It’s slightly ironic, perhaps, that the name ‘Copper Point’ arrived from somewhere and stuck.

It’s a wild landscape – but very beautiful and imbued with atmosphere. We certainly worked up a good appetite while on our morning walk, and returned to the house with great expectations.

All those expectations were far exceeded when we sat down to our meal. We had a room to ourselves, attractively furnished and comfortable, with a welcome wood-burning stove on the go in one corner. Tracy and Peter have spent considerable time and energy upgrading what was a very run-down cottage, and have used locally available materials with impressive imagination.

Tracy – in charge of the culinary delights – had worked out a menu which was entirely tailored to our various tastes (and dislikes) – and it was brilliant! All the courses were exemplary.

The main was a Sunday roast to make your mouths water… Fillets of pork for the three of us who are not vegetarian, and a miraculous stuffed filo pastry pie for Amanda. The accompanying vegetables were prepared without any meaty elements – so we could all savour them in equal measure.

Peter was delighted with every aspect of his celebratory meal – we all were! The choux bun dessert was unbelievable; not a morsel was left behind. The riches never stopped: for our after-dinner coffee we went outside to the terrace-with-a-view and enjoyed home-made fondants and biscuits.

I think you’ve got the message… Sunday lunch at Castaway East is a very special experience indeed. Combine it with a good walk on a beautiful and atmospheric West Cork island and you will have a day you will always remember. If you want the experience for yourselves give Tracy and Peter a shout: they will be delighted to organise it for you.

Contact Tracy & Peter Collins on +353 872966489 or email simplytracy@icloud.com – They also have a campsite!

Ballycummisk Archaeology

There’s a fine ringfort just over the hill from us – in the townland of Ballycummisk. A definition of a ‘ringfort’ in archaeological terms is given here:

. . . Many people lived in enclosed farmsteads known as ringforts in the Early Christian/Early Medieval period. Second to fulachta fiadh, they are the most common field monument surviving in Ireland with up to 60,000 examples, most dating to between 550-900AD. Ringforts are circular areas, measuring c24-60m in diameter, usually enclosed with one or more earthen banks, often topped with a timber palisade. In the west of Ireland the ringfort was often enclosed by a stone wall, with stone huts in the interior. Traces of iron and bronze working have been recovered suggesting some ringforts had very specific uses while others were multifunctional . . .

HeritageCouncil.ie
Significant Unpublished Irish Archaeological Excavations 1930-1997

A simpler definition comes from the monumental 1200-page Volume 1 of the ‘New History of Ireland’ series published in 2005 and edited by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín: “archaeologists are agreed that the vast bulk of them are the farm enclosures of the well-to-do of early medieval Ireland”.

The upper picture is taken from within the ringfort enclosure; the north bank of the fort can be seen beyond a small stone outcrop which is said to be the site of a souterrain. Time for another definition:

. . . Souterrain: an underground structure consisting of one or more chambers connected by narrow passages or creepways, usually constructed of drystone-walling with a lintelled roof over the passages and a corbelled roof over the chambers. Most souterrains appear to have been built in the early medieval period by ringfort inhabitants (c. 500 – 1000 AD) as a defensive feature and/or for storage . . .

archaeology.ie/HistoricEnvironment

You can see more about souterrains – including some illustrations – in my post from four years ago about Knockdrum Fort, south of Skibbereen.

The Schools Folklore Collection is an important source of local beliefs and traditions – if not exactly historical information. The stories were collected in the 1930s but were remembered through family traditions which could go back through several generations. The example pages above – dating from 1936 – describe the Ballycummisk fort. Here is a transcription of the paragraph:

. . . There is a fort in a place called Ballycummisk. It is near the sea, and was first found about two years ago by people who were ploughing. It is a hole going down through the ground, with four stone walls. You could not see down now, because it was filled in when they got to it. They could only see the walls. They dug down about a yard, and then drove down a ten foot crowbar, but the bottom could not be found. Very small pipes were found and shells This field is sloping to the sea. A stone about a yard long was also found. They thought it to be a handle for some old stone weapon . . .

Schools Folklore Collection
Frank coughlan Ballydehob

Frank Coughlan’s description almost certainly refers to the discovery of a souterrain. It doesn’t quite ring true as he says that “the field is sloping down to the sea”. In fact, the fields containing the ringfort are sloping southwards away from the sea, which is not visible at all from the site.

This aerial view shows parts of the townlands of Ballycummisk and Cappaghglass. The ringfort is marked. Another nearby feature – also shown – is a large standing stone, known as ‘Bishop’s Luck’.

The stone is 1.6m high, 2.05m in length, and 0.45m in width: tall and wide in one direction, and relatively narrow in the other. It is also worth noting that the ‘long’ orientation is exactly North-South. This stone has been in this position for at least 180 years as it appears in the earliest edition of the 6″ Ordnance Survey (1830s), marked as ‘Gallaun’ – and even given a little illustration!

The standing stone is not far from the ringfort: perhaps there is a connection, although standing stones are generally reckoned to date from earlier times than the forts. Here is an extract from a recent article in Archaeology Ireland: Vol 34 No 1 (Spring 2020) pp 26-29, Wordwell Ltd:

. . . The classic standing stone surviving from the Bronze Age in Ireland is a rough-hewn or unshaped pillar, known as a gallaun (from the Irish gallán), generally oblong or oval in cross-section and up to 3m or more in height. Stones presumed to belong within this class vary considerably in height, from as little as 1m to as much as 6-7m in exceptional cases, the majority probably falling in the 1.5-2m range. Seán Ó Nualláin noted many years ago that in his experience the axis is generally aligned north-east/south-west. This is by no means a universal rule. Gallauns are by far the most numerous of all pre-Christian standing stones in Ireland. Approximately 600 are known in Cork and Kerryb alone. Beyond this region, examples are to be found extensively throughout the Irish countryside and many of them have attracted folk explanations . . .



Lone Standing Stones by Muiris O’Sullivan and Liam DowneY
Archaeology Ireland 2020

In these two pictures you can see the striking profile of the Bishop’s Luck standing stone against the skyline which features Mount Gabriel – the highest piece of land in the immediate area. Gabriel was an important place in prehistoric times as the centre of a significant copper mining industry – yet no artefacts have ever been found on the summit. In the lower picture you can see how the western edge of the standing stone ‘echoes’ the distant profile of Gabriel on the horizon. This is a phenomenon that has been noted a few times with regard to stones standing in the landscape. Here is Gabriel seen from the ringfort:

Finola has written comprehensively about standing stones in this Journal: here and here. O’Sullivan and Downey mention (above) that examples have attracted folk explanations. This doesn’t seem to be the case here: no mention is made of the stone in the Schools Folklore Collection. But surely there must be significance in the name: Bishop’s Luck?

But – hang on! There is ‘Bishop’ folklore associated with a site not very far away – in the neighbouring townland of Stouke. Finola recorded this in her 2016 post here. It’s a simple tale: The story goes that during the time of the penal laws a Bishop was confirming children nearby when the redcoats got wind of his activities and came to arrest him. He was beheaded. A bullaun stone in the graveyard at Stouke is supposed to be his head. If our possibly Bronze Age stone in Ballycummisk had anything to do with this, it should surely be known as Bishop’s Bad Luck?

One further place that’s worth a mention here is the top of the hill to the south of the ringfort and standing stone. It doesn’t have a name, but it does have a magnificent view across to Rossbrin Harbour, with Cape Clear on the horizon in the far distance. There is a passage grave on the high point of Cape Clear. There seems to be some evidence for the inter-visibility of ancient sites, which makes me wonder whether there was ever any early structure on this hilltop. There are rocky outcrops there in the present day, and field clearance is evidenced by the presence of large slabs in the nearby field boundaries.

These are just thoughts, but I don’t mind thinking them! West Cork (and most of rural Ireland) must have much to reveal in terms of its ancient history. One point to remember: if you ever go searching yourself for archaeology or old sites, don’t forget that you will probably be entering private land. It is courteous to always seek permission: most owners are agreeable and – perhaps – may have stories to tell themselves.

Two Years On…

This pic – I’m sitting on our deck at Nead an Iolair – was taken almost exactly two years ago. Very little different to the way it might look today. But – back then – the world was upset: Covid had hit us! Have a look at this post: my first reaction to how we were feeling at that time

We thought ourselves fortunate to have come through those years unscathed. But the Covid has caught up with us both! Two years later, when we thought we could stop worrying: quite suddenly we felt strange – and gave ourselves Covid tests, which showed up positive! Of course, we are both fully vaccinated, and perhaps took too much for granted. We continued to be careful and wore masks in crowds (not that we encountered many of those). Perhaps there’s an inevitability that most people will succumb to it. But we are fortunate that it has seemed like no more than a severe cold. We are almost at the end of our isolation period, and look forward to setting foot on the boreens again.

That’s our local tramping ground: Rossbrin Cove, yesterday. We couldn’t want for a better place to enjoy the lengthening warm days of this new spring which, so far, is proving exceptional for weather. Hopefully, by next week we will be back to normal, with new posts to interest and entertain you!

A pic of the Saturday market at Skibbereen just three weeks ago.

The Castles of Ivaha: ‘Fragmentary Remains’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Wycliffe Samuel
the tower houses of west cork

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

Samuels concludes his study of this tower by saying:

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

Mark Wycliffe Samuel
the tower houses of west cork

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

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

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

Mark Wycliffe Samuel
the tower houses of west cork

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

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

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

Mark Wycliffe Samuel
the tower houses of west cork

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

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

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

681 Days!

Yes – it has been 681 says since Covid-19 hit us and our world changed. From today, 22 January 2022, most restrictions in the state are gone, apart from the continuing need to wear masks in certain public places. Hopefully that West Cork sky over our house this morning, above, is a good omen for us. Today’s paper shows the stark tally:

The population of the Republic of Ireland as I write this is 5,023,337 (no doubt that is changing by the minute). That tells the story: 22.6% of the people here have had the virus. And of course it hasn’t gone away yet… But at least “social and economic life can begin to return to normal” says the Taoiseach. In order to mark the significance of the moment, my post looks back to our experiences over the last 681 days: in particular, how our lives changed at the beginning of the outbreak.

These two images of Ballydehob, taken at the beginning of April, 2020, sum up the shock of empty streets, closed businesses and everyone being advised to isolate. It all seemed very bleak: our movements were initially restricted to 2km from home, then that increased to a radius of 5km. If you lived in rural areas – as we do – you were permitted to travel beyond those distances if you needed to in order to shop or use essential services. We breached those rules on occasion – sometimes to get exercise in the deserted countryside all around us.

As the days went by, an amazing spring emerged, with day after day of beautiful weather. Human activity was curtailed, but the natural world continued along its course as though nothing was awry!

We humans are pretty adaptable. It was amazing to see the ingenuity of folks creating outlets for their energies without having to mix. Food-on-the-go blossomed as a craft industry: here are some examples.

We were very impressed with many of the examples we encountered – and which have survived over the months. Hopefully they will carry on, as casual coffee stalls in the middle of nowhere are welcome to us in our travelling. Pre-pandemic they were probably frowned upon by ‘the authorities’ – and they are certainly regulated – but ‘authority’ would have had to be very hard-hearted to close down these little lifelines. In our experience, every one we encountered was well-run, and spotless. It was an incidental opportunity to have a distanced ‘chat’: always a source of good local information on how others were coping.

We took the opportunity to climb – and descend – Knockaphuka during the pandemic. It’s a mountain a short distance from Nead an Iolair, but a little outside the limit. No-one was watching! I suppose being restricted to our immediate environment for so long – day after day – made us re-assess it, and our lives. Certainly we have got to know the fine detail of the beautiful place we call home.

Here’s a social issue: we couldn’t get a haircut for months! Finola kept me in trim, but it was a relief when salons were once again allowed to operate, albeit with some restrictions.

This is us having coffee on our own terrace, looking out over Roaringwater Bay in the wonderful spring of that first pandemic year. In fact, each of the two last years has been benign – with a few exceptional winter storms. We would have felt less relaxed if we had had persistent rain (which sometimes happens).

A sprig of green appears on a doorstep on May Day, 2020: a sign that we all still want to continue the old (perhaps ancient) traditions… There were ups and downs: things eased as the year went by and then the new variations came in. Numbers went down and we breathed out. Then they soared – especially with the Omicron variant, and everything went haywire again. Let’s hope that the present easing is here to stay. But the future can never be told…