West Cork Villages and Towns – Schull

What better time to visit Schull than during Calves Week? That’s a big sailing festival at the beginning of August every year, and you have to be a sailor to understand the nuances of its title. It’s held at the same time as the UK’s premier sailing event – Cowes Week, ‘…the world’s longest running sailing regatta…’ and is focussed around the three Calf Islands in Roaringwater Bay. So there you have it – Cowes and Calves! What it means, of course, is that the village of Schull is at its busiest and, since Covid has given a boost to outdoor socialising, the streets are crowded with visitors enjoying the shops, pavement cafés and galleries.

In this occasional series on the Towns and villages of West Cork we will take one community and try to discover why and how it has developed through history, and how it fares in the present day. A snapshot of the place will be presented – hopefully – in the best possible light (although this won’t always be on a sunny summer’s day!) From the aerial view above, you can see how Schull has been built up around its connection with the water. Schull Harbour is at the head of a long sheltered inlet, and the pier today is always busy with fishing and pleasure boats, ferries and yachts.

That’s the road to the pier, above, and it’s just a few steps from the village centre. If you are a visitor, you may have no idea that Ireland’s most south-westerly railway line once ran right on to this pier! The narrow gauge Schull, Ballydehob & Skibbereen Tramway and Light Railway was in service between 1886 and 1947, connecting these remoter parts of the county to Skibbereen and then, via the main line, Cork city. Although never considered a commercial success, it was a valuable element of infrastructure enabling local passengers to get to shops and markets, and fishermen to send their catches to distant merchants as hastily as possible (bearing in mind there was a speed limit of 15 miles per hour on most of this rural line). This photograph from the NLI Lawrence Collection (below) dates from the 1890s, and shows barrels of fish stacked up next to the railway track on Schull pier, awaiting despatch. They are likely to contain salted pilchards and herrings.

In all these pictures of the pier and pontoon areas above you can see the lively sailing activity in the background. Below are two extracts from early OS maps, one showing Schull and its location to some of the offshore islands, and the other showing the town centre, probably around 1890. It’s thought-provoking to see on the latter the various facilities which the town offered at that time, as well as the railway: Court House, Constabulary Barrack, Smiths, Schools, Hotel and Dispensary.

Note that on both the maps above, which date from more than a century ago, the settlement’s name is given as Skull: it still is on all OS Ireland maps up to the present time. Mostly today it’s known as Schull, or in Irish An Scoil, which translates as The School. Some of you may remember my posts earlier this year when I looked in to the possible origins of this village name – and the earliest ‘School’: a site described on Archaeology Ireland as a ‘possible early Christian settlement’:  . . . the ancient school of Sancta Maria de Scholia, ‘a place known in early times as a centre of learning’ . . . There’s a fair bit of local lore surrounding the subject, and you need to read Schull resident John D’Alton’s article on this to find an alternative view to the perhaps romanticised ideas of an ancient monastic site: I’m sitting on the fence!

Historic village – perhaps with medieval origins – to vibrant sailing centre and colourful streets in the 21st century. Schull has come a long way, and has far to go. Today the resident population numbers around 1,050: this is boosted substantially with the influx of summer visitors. It’s good to see long established names and new businesses on the streets, contributing to the colourful palette of the architecture. Great things are happening in the future: the old bank building (below) is to become a cinema and film centre: a focal point for the acclaimed annual Fastnet Film Festival.

Year round, Schull is worth exploring. Mount Gabriel, the area’s highest point, is above the village and offers superb vistas over the bay and islands. Finola has looked at the many legends associated with this peak and there is ancient history there, too: the remains of Bronze Age copper mines on its slopes. Good walks can be had on the high ground and on the coastal footpaths – see the Explore West Cork website.

Long Island Wildflower Walk

Tracy and Peter Collins are the charming and enterprising couple behind Castaway Wild Island Camping on Long Island in West Cork. When they asked us if we’d like to help with a collaborative island adventure we jumped at the chance to lead a wildflower walk.

But who knew there would be such a demand? Our first date (yesterday) filled up overnight with a waiting list, so we put on a second and it filled from the waiting list! 

People are hungry, it seems, for experiences like this – and who can blame anyone for wanting to spend time on Long Island! We’ve been there several times and we know that the place, as my mother used to say, is Falling Down with Wildflowers. And so, yesterday, we met with our first group – and what a lovely and talented bunch of people it turned out to be, including an archaeologist, a fish biologist, an ecologist, a professor of Pharmaceutics, teachers, fellow-blogger Amanda from Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry, and an assortment of Long Island and wildflower lovers.

We started off at East House, home of Castaway Wild Island Camping for coffee and possibly the most delicious biscuits I’ve ever tasted, and then started our walk westward along the spine of the island, stopping as we went to talk about the habitats we were passing through, and the different flowers that had successfully adapted to those habitats. Hedgebank, field margins, stone walls and rock faces, old gardens – all carry their own assortment of plants.

From the top: Cat’s-ear and Sheep’s-bit on a hedgebank; close up of Sheep’s-bit; English Stonecrop, Navelwort and lichen on rock face

I never thought I would be blasé about orchids, but there are so  many at this time of year on Long Island that we soon ceased to stop and exclaim over each new group (below). Mark, the ecologist, was very knowledgeable about plants and pointed out the presence of Yellow Rattle, something that’s quite hard to find in the wild in West Cork but really important for creating good conditions for a wildflower meadow.

An island man, Joe Whooley, lovingly maintains the well at Cuas na Gualainne (the Little Inlet of the Shoulders – a reference, we think, to the shape of the tiny bay) and it was looking even better than the last time we were there. Amanda shared her knowledge of holy wells in general and told us about this one in particular. She’s not sure what the source of the holiness is, but is investigating. Meanwhile, the water was found to be clear and tasty. 

Reaching the Westlands pier, we concentrated on a whole new habitat, one in which marine-adapted plants flourish in what looks like unpromising conditions of shingle and bare rock.

From the top: a colourful patch of Kidney Vetch (pink), Sea Campion (white) and Bird’s-foot Trefoil (yellow); the delicate white flower of Sea Sandwort

And here was one of the prizes – the Yellow Horned-poppy. It’s rare – classed as near threatened in the Red Data List of Vascular Plants – and strikingly beautiful. It’s wonderful to see a flourishing community of this exotic-looking flower on Long Island and I was thrilled to find some blooming already as I thought we might be too early for them.

From the top: Teresa and Amanda with one of the poppies: a poppy close-up

After a while exploring the shingle beach and the sandy beach we were all ravenous and like magic Tracy and Peter appeared with a fabulous lunch box for everyone. Home-made everything, some of it from their own garden (chocolate-dipped strawberries!) and delicious lemonade.

Tracy and Peter and the superb lunch

Mark gave us an impromptu talk on the island environment, reminding us all it was an essentially man-made habitat, and on the importance of this coastal strip of south west Ireland for so much flora and fauna. A possible future national park? That’s a huge YES from us!

From the top: The Royal Fern – the spore-bearing fronds are starting to appear – this species is an indicator of a healthy environment and Mark told us it is getting to be quite rare in some parts of Europe and needs protection; Rock Sea-spurrey – a beautiful and tiny pink flower that likes to grow on rocks by the sea

Well fuelled, we made our way back to the ferry. The chat was mighty along the way, with old friends catching up and new friendships being forged. 

We’ll be doing it again next Saturday – all full up already, so sorry. But why not go on a do-it-yourself wildflower ramble on Long Island any time? Check the ferry schedule, pick up a copy of Zoe Devlin’s The Wildflowers of Ireland (she’s just brought out a new edition – the best and easiest way to teach yourself how to wildflower)  and treat yourself to a day in Paradise! Better still – book in with Castaway Wild Island Camping for a true island adventure.

Ilen’s End (Sweet Ilen – Part 5)

It rises on a remote mountain-top in the wilds of Mullaghmesha townland and falls 500 metres from there to the Atlantic, over a length of 34 kilometres. I think it’s time to establish exactly where the river ends, and the ocean begins. As you can see from the photo above, the lower reaches are wide and shallow, and the estuarial waters are dotted with islands and islets, some of which are only revealed at the ebb of the tide.

Below Skibbereen, the river is fully tidal – and its character is constantly changing. The history of the waterway has also seen an evolution, from a busy highway carrying lighters filled with cargoes to the wharves in the town (in the 19th century there were five of them – and a Customs House), to the present day where it is a tranquil scene, only busy – in normal times – with the skiffs and light craft based at the Rowing Club (above): that establishment has produced some celebrated champions!

Oldcourt (above) was the transhipment point where laden ships from distant shores would leave their loads into the shallow draft barges that would take them upstream into the town. Today it is still a busy hub where vessels are stored, built and repaired – and also left to decay. The disorder of the place has a picturesque informality, and there is medieval history also: a rickety tower house stump stands guard over the apparent chaos. We have written about the boatyard (and the castle – and a ketch named Ilen) in a previous post.

You can cross a bywater of the Ilen by bridges at Inishbeg (above) and Ringarogy. Exploration of those two islands will reveal a number of view points over the main channel of the river to the north. The marked aerial map below shows the lie of the land, while the photos following show the wide views of the river in both directions from Inishbeg.

(Upper) looking upstream from Inishbeg, and (lower) a close view of The Glebe Burial Ground, also seen from across the main river at Inishbeg.

Downstream from Inishbeg: at the east end of the island we found an unusual large rock which appears to have a worked surface and a possible cup-mark. Below that rock is the lonely ruin of a structure which must have had a remarkable aspect over the whole width of the river. It would be easy to suppose that this ruin could have been part of a defence system, but there is no mention in the archaeological records of this, or of the rock. For now, they remain enigmas – but perhaps there is an alert reader out there who can shed some light?

Ringarogy has fewer accessible viewpoints than Inishbeg, but the long causeway and some prospects from high land indicate how the lower course of the river is punctuated with small, barren landfalls (above).

I have made up my mind that the Ilen proper must ‘end’ at Turk Head – the pier, above, is looking towards the main channel of the river. It is also a small but substantially built harbour – partly hewn out of the low cliffs – which can shelter a few light fishing craft.

But the reality of the downstream ‘end’ of the river seems to be defined on the 6″ OS map above, which dates from the early 19th century and shows the townland names and boundaries as they were recognised at that time. There, a clear line is drawn between the island of Inishleigh to the north, and Spanish Island to the south. To the east of that line, apparently, is the Ilen, while to the west is the edge of Roaringwater bay, which leads into the ocean, but first skirting a myriad of rocks and small islands, only some of which have names.

There may be traditions – unknown to me – that define where the river mouth lies. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. If you are a seafarer carrying goods bound for Skibbereen you will have to negotiate your way safely through a fairly convoluted channel before entering a contrasting world of wide, calm water and rich, smooth meadowlands: Sweet Ilen.

Previous episodes in this series: Sweet Ilen : Sweet Ilen – Part 2 : Sweet Ilen – Part 3 : Sweet Ilen – Part 4

Robáird an Tuairisceoir Fáin

Exciting news! Recent land improvement works around Rossbrin Castle have uncovered the fragments of an old manuscript – tucked away in the crack of a rock probably 530 years ago. We all know about the Scholar Prince of Rossbrin – Finghinn O Mathuna – who was Tánaiste of the great West Cork O’Mahony clan, and who lived in the castle during the second half of the fifteenth century. He gathered around him historians, bards and scribes. Many books were written there and some survive to this day. They are learned treatise, but the new discovery is something different – a piece of pure journalism written by a visitor to the castle, Robáird an Tuairisceoir Fain (Robert the Roving Reporter), for the Rossbrenon News, a worthy forerunner to our own Roaringwater Journal. In the article, Robáird interviews Finghinn, and gives us a unique insight into how life was lived in those far-off days.

Upper – possibly Finghinn O Mathuna, the 15th century Scholar Prince of Rossbrin; lower – John Speed’s 1611 map of Roaringwater Bay, showing the Tánaiste’s territory of ‘Rossbrennon’

The manuscript is written in a mixture of Latin and Irish, and I have done my best to translate. The format is a dialogue between Finghinn and Robáird. You will have to excuse any errors:

RanTF: Tánaiste, thank you for talking to us today, and for entertaining me in this splendid castle solar which looks out over the waters of Roaringwater Bay. It’s such a busy place – the water is crowded with ships: where do they all come from and why are they here?

F O’M: Poiyou, Guyenne, al-Andalus, Castile, Flanders… all the coasts of Oceanus Occidentalis and an Mheánmhuir. They are here because we have the best fishing grounds in the whole of this world! Our warm waters have an abundance of cod, herring, pilchards – enough to feed all the great cities…

RanTF: So all this commerce that’s out there in Roaringwater Bay – it’s just about fish?

F O’M: Well, no. If you’ve got ships coming up here from places like an Mheánmhuir they might as well be bringing you some of their fine wines! Look below us, around the castle: you see all those warehouses? Some are ready with barrels and salt for preserving the fish before their long journey back, but those over there are doing very nicely for the wine trade…

RanTF: Is this an illicit trade?

F O’M: I’m certainly not going to be telling you that if you are going to publish it in that damnable broadsheet of yours. The Customers and Searchers do well enough out of us, but they seldom get down to these parts. If we do see them, we welcome them with open arms, and fill those arms with a good helping of Burgundy! We are seldom troubled by them after that – until they run out, of course.

RanTF: I understand that fish – especially pilchards – have to be preserved very quickly or they go bad?

F O’M: That’s why all those people are working out there. Look at the place – every one of those huts and cabins is occupied by large families, all of whom – women, children and men – are employed every waking moment. They do get a couple of hours off on the Sabbath, so that they can hear the sinners being denounced: that entertainment lasts them the week…

RanTF: Such a dense population must lead to some hygiene problems?

F O’M: There’s certainly an excess of pestilential exhalations – but that’s why I spend most of my time up here in the solar: I’m above all that. Besides, from here I get a very good view of what’s going on all around.

RanTF: So what is it that sets you apart? They do call you ‘The Scholar Prince’…

F O’M: They do – and they say that Rossbrenon is ‘The greatest centre of learning in the world’! That’s what really interests me. You see those houses down there, just below the castle? That’s where the scribes work. We are producing the finest literature, which is going to the most important libraries in Europe : London, Rennes…

RanTF: And what are they writing about?

F O’M: Whatever is in demand – and topical. We produced the standard work on the life of Sir John Mandeville, for example: that contributed considerably to the current debate on what happens when you reach the edge of the world – do you fall off? We have also come up with volumes on state-of-the-art medicines. Invaluabe for when the next plague strikes…

RanTF: Ah yes – very topical. But where does your knowledge come from?

F O’M: I learn a lot from the seafarers: I entertain them royally with their own Burgundy and, in return, I find out what the latest thinking is. D’you know, there’s a young lad from Italia who is coming up with all sorts of ideas: he reckons that, very soon, we humans will be able to fly like birds! We’ll just equip ourselves with wings made from timber struts and skins, climb up the round towers, and jump off the top!

RanTF: Remarkable! What else does he say?

F O’M: He’s absolutely sure that if you keep sailing west, you will one day find yourself coming back from the east… I don’t understand it myself. What’s more, he claims to know exactly how babies are made!

RanTF: He’s obviously a genius, or a charlatan! So, Tánaiste, with all this knowledge you are gaining from your trading partners, what predictions can you make for us. What will this little bit of our Irish Empire look like in – say – five hundred years time?

F O’M: Ha! Well, I think there’s little doubt that the young community we are creating here in this sheltered cove will expand and become a huge city. There will be town walls, a Cathedral of Rossbrenon, a university and palaces to house the princes and the citizens. And, beyond the boundaries, there will be extensive coney warrens, enough to feed everyone, and keep them warm in winter. And – if that young Italian has his way, we’ll all be flying everywhere: who knows – perhaps we can even fly across the world and find where its edge is. As we’ll have wings, we won’t fall over it!

RanTF: Tánaiste, it’s been a privilege to talk to you. You have certainly widened my horizons. I would give anything to be able to see that city of Rossbrenon…

Christopher Columbus set foot in America in 1492 (above). Finghinn O Mathuna died in 1496. Ferdinand Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the earth, in 1522:

Glossary

An Mheánmhuir – The Meditteranean; Oceanus Occidentalis – The Atlantic Ocean; Customers and Searchers – Customs and Excise; Tánaiste – second-in-command of the Clan (the Taoiseach is the Clan leader).

The drawing of ‘Flying Machines’ by Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) is courtesy of the Museo Leonardo da Vinci, Florence. Note the ‘mirror writing’ that he always used in his private notes.

O’Mahony Clan Rally at Rossbrin Castle, 1975. Photo by Michael Minihane

West Cork Rocks

It certainly does! But this post is – literally – about rock: the hard, knobbly kind that is underneath us, surrounds us, and which has historically built our environment. In the picture above, taken on a clear February day during the most severe Covid lockdown, Finola is walking through beautiful West Cork. Beyond her is the great, gaunt outcrop of Mount Gabriel. Beside her is a traditional stone wall: its design unchanged over centuries. In the landscape all around her are rocks – large and small – scattered in the rough pasture.

In the distance, of course, is the coast: there are very few places in West Cork where you cannot, at least, catch a glimpse of the sea – and so many where you can immerse yourself in it, or stand on its shore and admire the infinite textures which those same rocks display. It’s mostly Old Red Sandstone: that’s the correct geological term. It was laid down in the Devonian period – a while ago now: between 400 and 300 million years, in fact. This followed an era during which our mountains were built, known as the Silurian times. Continents were shifting and separating, and what was to become Ireland was a great arid desert – deserted: there was no-one around to see it!

Old Red Sandstone: in fact it varies in colour depending on its local history. Broadly, some of the mountain rocks are purple-grey, while those closer to the sea could be greeny-red, but that is probably far too wide a generalisation. The sheer beauty is in the infinite shapes and colours. What artist needs any finer palette?

In those deserted times, an ‘Old Red Sandstone Continent’ extended over what is now northwest Europe, but it is worth noting that in ‘our’ part of it – the Munster Basin, covering today’s Kerry and Cork – we have one of the densest masses of this rock in the world: at least 6 kilometres thick. And we have to appreciate what it has given to us – high mountain spines sweeping steeply down to an indented shoreline of coves, creeks and inlets, with the myriad mottled islands that we oversee. An unparalleled, unfolded world.

After the ‘desert’ period, but much later – only about a million and a half years ago – came the Pleistocene Epoch. the word is from the Greek polys and cene – meaning ‘most recent’ – and that brings us almost up to date. That was a time of great climate events: deserts were inundated and then covered in ice sheets 3 kilometres thick, while moving glaciers tore up the rock surfaces, advancing and retreating several times. Eventually, what had been desert became arctic tundra. It is supposed that the ancestors of our present day life forms happened along during this epoch, and managed to survive. But we don’t find any traces of them until after the last ice sheet retreated in our part of the world – only about 12,000 years ago. The landscape that was left behind was inundated by rising sea levels, and the very last land bridge (between Cornwall and the eastern tip of Wexford) was washed away after that, but not before the Giant Elk and its mammal relations had got a foothold on the western side. The snakes, however, didn’t make it. And what of the humans?

Well, the humans embraced the rocky landscape. They made their marks on the outcrops; then they moved the rocks about, and made architecture from them. We can still see their efforts, some 5,000 years later.

These Neolithic carved motifs could be the earliest human interventions on the natural Irish landscape: they might date from 3,000 BC. These examples are from West Cork, and were only discovered a few years ago. Finola wrote the definitive thesis on Rock Art when she studied at UCC in the 1970s, and we have staged exhibitions and given talks on the topic.

A couple of thousand years later, Irish people started to build things with the stones they found around them. This wedge tomb under the backdrop textures of Mount Gabriel at Ratooragh has rested here since the Bronze Age. Finola’s post today uncovers the fascinating folklore stories that generations have told about such artefacts. But restlessly working the fabric of the landscape – Old Red Sandstone – into walls, shelters, tower houses, temples and towns has never ceased.

Castle Island – Facts and Fictions

That’s Castle Island, above, beyond Gaelic Lord Finnin O’Mahony’s dilapidated realm at the entrance to Rossbrin Cove, in Roaringwater Bay. In the fifteenth century there would have been a hive of activity at Rossbrin: quays alive with fishing activity, boats being repaired and prepared, houses, stores and cellars – all full. Castle Island itself would also have been inhabited in those days, as were many of Carbery’s Hundred Isles. Skeam West – to the east of Castle, and roughly in the centre of all the islands of Roaringwater Bay, has the remnants of a church said to date from the ninth century (Fahy – Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Volume 67, 1962).

Upper – Castle island with its close neighbours in Roaringwater Bay; lower – the ancient church on nearby Skeam West, drawn by Fahy in 1962 (courtesy Cork Historical and Archaeological Society). Fahy suggested a ninth century date for this structure, although other commentators have suggested an earlier origin, possibly even before St Patrick’s time

We set foot on Castle Island for the first time in August of last year – during a reprieve in the Covid lockdown measures. Those days seem halcyon now, compared to our current scourge and severe restrictions. We have not been able to return, but I am setting out to bring my reporting a bit more up to date, as I have been provided with further information from a range of sources.

Approaching Castle Island in 2020: upper – view of the island from the shore in Rossbrin townland; centre – proceeding to the island from Rossbrin Cove; lower – the quay on Castle Island, reportedly built in the early 20th century by the Congested Districts Board: “…the beach that it is laid upon was the best natural landing point on the island, well sheltered from the Atlantic swell …” (Mark Wycliff Samuel – The Tower House of West Cork, UCL 1998)

The history of the population of Castle Island is enigmatic and somewhat contradictory. Here is a quotation copied from the Ireland Byways site but uncredited and undated; I can find no other link containing the same information, but it must originally have been written when the island was still inhabited:

. . . Castle Island (Meadhon Inis – “middle island”) lies about 2km offshore, east of the mouth of Schull Harbour on the Mizen Peninsula. The island derives its English name from a ruined C14th Tower House, one of 12 built by the powerful O’Mahony clan in the area. The 1837 census recorded 89 people living on the island. At present there are fewer than 30 permanent residents, who make their living from farming . . .

quoted by ireland byways.co.uk

You will find some accounts which suggest that Castle Island was inhabited only up to the 1870s. These are incorrect: there is no doubt that the island was the home to a number of families in the 1890s as they suffered evictions then. It also seems questionable that the expense of constructing a substantial pier could have been justified only for the benefit of those who might run their cattle and sheep on a deserted island (as happens today). It is possible, therefore, that regular population of the island continued into the early years of the 20th century.

The remains of substantial houses exist on Castle island today: some do not seem to be as ruinous as would be expected if they had been unoccupied for well over 100 years

Recently, my attention was drawn to a Land Register folio recording the title for one of the parcels of land comprising Castle Island: ” . . . a burden, dated April 14, 1904, indicates that the property was transferred at that time subject to the right of . . . Jeremiah Regan to be supported clothed and maintained in the dwellinghouse on the said lands . . . ” That would imply, for sure, that there was at least one person who had the right to live on the island in the twentieth century.

Details from the ruined houses at the settlement of Wester, Castle Island: upper – brick and render chimney stack in reasonable condition; centre – elements from timber window frames still in existence; lower – traces of paint on an internal rendered wall

Accounts of the evictions which occurred on Castle Island have been well summarised in a Mizen Journal article by Liam O’Regan in Volume 6, 1998. The article is much too long to be included here, but it’s worth anyone’s while ferreting it out to get a vividly descriptive picture of the island in the 1890s.

Here’s a brief summary of the eviction story: the villain is on the left, above – he is Thomas Henry Marmion JP, principle landlord of Castle Island. He lived from 1839 to 1921 and – incidentally – his father (who had the same name) was said to have been responsible for providing the ‘soup kitchen’ at the Steam Mill, Skibbereen during the Great Famine of the 1840s. Notwithstanding this, recorded history does not have much that’s good to say about the Marmions, who in the eighteenth century had been land agents for the Bechers and Townsends. At the beginning of March 1890 (as reported, somewhat floridly, in the Cork County Eagle):

. . . A few days ago, the sheriff’s officer from Skibbereen made his appearance in Schull, surrounded by a force of police, on an evicting expedition. After a short delay, they proceeded to the water’s edge where their galleys were found to await them and the sheriff’s representative having secured himself in one of the crafts, the whole party proceeded to sea for a distance of some three miles when they landed on Castle island. This wild and sea-washed home of a few small farmers and fishermen is the property of Mr Thomas Henry Marmion . . . whose interest in recent years appears more of an incumberance or embarrassment than any advantage as the poor creatures who live in it (misnamed farmers) and on the many islands surrounding it, have to live chiefly on the profits of the sea. The fortification of Jerry Nugent was the first laid siege by the invading army, Jerry’s offence being that he owed a few years’ rent which he found impossible to pay and he was, therefore, sent adrift on the sea-washed rocks where he had a full view of the passing emigrant ships which will probably bear him away to seek out a livelihood in the land of the stranger . . .

Cork County Eagle, march 7th, 1890

There’s much more – and it’s a harrowing story – not untypical, of course, of what was happening all over Ireland during the nineteenth century. In the portrait gallery, above, the figure in the middle is a ‘hero’: he is William O’Brien MP, a founder of the National League who, in September 1890 visited West Cork and held a meeting on Middle Calf island to support the case of tenants evicted from Castle Island and the Calves. On the right is James Gilhooly, MP, Bantry, who was chairman of the ‘All for Ireland League’ and who strongly supported the Castle Island tenants and attended many official meetings on their behalf. Matters rumbled on laboriously into the mid 1890s: eventually, it seems that the introduction of new land purchase acts (benefitting tenants), enabled six tenants to return to, and continue to occupy, Castle Island. As yet I have found no further records to help us establish how long occupation of this sparse rocky outcrop in Roaringwater Bay continued into the twentieth century.

The Mizen Journal, Volume 5 1997, has published a study by Anthony Beese of the place-names on Castle Island. I have been unable to locate this article online, but here is Anthony’s excellent map, above.

When we visited the island on a brooding August day we sensed its many ghosts, perhaps including those who returned over a hundred years ago and, possibly, lived out their working lives there. I have called this post ‘Facts and Fictions’ . . . You have had the facts. After I wrote my first post, last year, I received a communication from a writer: William Wall. I was delighted to learn that he had written a book – Grace’s Day – published in 2018, part of which is set on Castle Island. I obtained the book and read it avidly: it has opened up for me a new dimension in the story of the island – and it’s thoroughly believable.

. . . A long time ago I had two sisters and we lived on an island. There was me and Jeannie and Em. They called me Grace, but I have never had much of that. I was an awkward child. I still am all these years later. Our house had two doors, one to the south, one to the north. Its garden looked towards the setting sun. It was a garden of apple trees and fuchsia and everything in it leaned away from the wind. Dry stone walls encircled it and sheep and children broke them down. My mother lived there with us. Boats came and went bringing food and sometimes sheep, and there were times when we lived by catching fish and rabbits, though we were not so good at either . . .

Grace’s Day – a novel by William Wall, published by new island books 2018

William Wall is familiar with West Cork: he has stayed here many times, and has visited Castle Island. It’s not just the island, but the whole story of 1960s West Cork that has been his inspiration. Readers of this Journal will be aware of my own interest in the days when Ballydehob became the hub of an artists’ community: I have helped to set up the Ballydehob Arts Museum, which has celebrated this era and is now in ‘suspended animation’ due to the Covid outbreak. I also look after a website for the Museum. Grace’s Day is set in this era, and follows the unconventional lives of a family who is ‘getting away from it all’ and trying to survive following the then prevalent bible of self-sufficiency. It’s perfectly feasible that an abandoned island in Roaringwater Bay could be the setting for such a romantic pursuit of ideals. I won’t give away any spoilers, but one more extract could help to persuade you that this book is for you. You should find it in all good bookshops: please support them in these tricky times.

. . . One day on our island my sister Jeannie ran in to say that she had seen a whale in the sound and I ran out after her, my mother calling me: Grace, it’s your day, take Em. But I was too excited. And there were three fin whales making their way into the rising tide. We heard their breathing. It carried perfectly in the still grey air, reflected back at us now by the low cloud. The sea was still and burnished. We ran along the rocks watching for their breaching. We decided it was a mother, a father and a calf. They were in no hurry. When we reached the beacon, a small unlit concrete marker indicating the western edge of the island, we watched them breaching and diving into the distance until we could see them no more. But they left behind their calmness and the unhurried but forceful sound of their blows . . .

GRACE’S DAY – A NOVEL BY WILLIAM WALL, PUBLISHED BY NEW ISLAND BOOKS 2018
Our own view of Castle Island in the distance, surreally shadowed by the full moon’s glimmer, while the Fastnet Lighthouse winks away on the horizon