A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 1: Kedge Point

At first sight this gaunt ruin on the West Cork coastline could be taken for a medieval fortified house or castle, but we can date its construction very precisely – to 1805, and we also know its purpose: long-distance communication. It was only put to use for a few years, and has been derelict at least twenty times as long as it was ever in service. It’s a signal station, one of over eighty similar structures around the whole coastline of Ireland, an initiative which represented a major engineering feat of its time.

This watercolour sketch by surveyor Sir William Smith is invaluable: it dates from 1808 and shows a signal station in use in its heyday. This one is at Malin Head on the Donegal coast, Ulster, and shows the elements which would have been common to all of the stations: a signal mast, a defended tower and a ‘guard house and barrack’ – probably also an equipment store. The signal tower bears a striking resemblance to the Irish ‘tower house’ or castle dating from several hundred years earlier, with its bartizans, machicolation, base wall batter and raised entrance, All these features were practical as the towers were military installations built in the times of the Napoleonic Wars. The cartoon (below) dates from 1805 and encapsulates the fear of invasion that swept over Britain in the early 19th century. Balloons, kites, flotillas of troopships and a channel tunnel were all envisaged as ways in which the French might conquer these islands! Humorous though this may seem, France had already used military balloons in the 1790s, and Bonaparte appointed Madam Blanchard as his ‘air service chief’, though she told him an aerial invasion would probably fail because of adverse winds.

Since Theobald Wolfe Tone and the Society of United Irishmen attempted to rally France behind the Irish cause in the 1790s, Ireland was seen as a possible focus for the feared invasion, and led to the British Admiralty constructing the system of signal stations as observation posts, together with 50 Martello towers, each maintaining a garrison of troops, officers and heavy artillery. The principal purpose of the signal towers was to keep watch on the coasts and to rapidly send signals around the country if unrecognised shipping was seen. Each tower, therefore, had to be within sight of one or more of its neighbours in both directions. The average distance between towers was 13.5km, although here in West Cork the towers at Brow Head and Mizen Head are only 3.8km apart. Ireland’s coastline is about 1,400km long, depending how you measure it.

Various combinations of flags and canvas ‘balls’ could be quickly assembled on the signal masts and, with the use of a code book (above) fairly complex messages might be circulated. Another vital piece of equipment, of course, was a high quality telescope. As the Navy had such essential apparatus – and the experienced personnel to use it – the Irish signal towers were largely manned by active or retired sailors.

We set out to explore some of the signal stations close to us in West Cork. Once we feel free to travel further afield through Ireland I can see the signal towers becoming a long-term project! If those we have visited so far are good examples, they take us to some of the wildest high places with panoramic coastal views: many are utterly remote. And they are all imbued with a sense of history – of duties that demanded long hours of lonely vigilance in harsh conditions. Most are long abandoned and forlorn. But the marks of those who have been there remain inscribed on the decaying walls.

The header illustration and all the photographs above were taken on our recent visit to the signal station at Spain, to the east of Baltimore. There is rugged moorland there and dramatic cliffs overlooking Kedge Island. The site is known as Ballylinchy or Kedge Point. It’s a fair climb off-road but not difficult to reach. It’s always essential to seek permission locally before crossing farmland.

There are uninterrupted views from Ballylinchy towards Kedge Island (upper photo) and across the islands towards the Mizen (lower). Visibility was restricted on the day we visited – and this made us realise how important the weather would be for accurate observations. However, we could clearly see the signal tower on Cape Clear from this vantage point, shown below, with the Fastnet Rock and lighthouse beyond. You can understand from this view – with the camera zoomed in – how powerful the telescopes needed to be to clearly read the flag signals. Finola’s post here includes a section on the Cape Clear installations.

The Google Earth images above and below reveal the setting of this signal station on the highest point of land for miles around. History abounds on this site, with the remains of a World War 2 observation post in close proximity to the 1805 structure, and one of the many EIRE signs set into the cliff, also dating from World War 2 and set up around the coast, reportedly at the behest of the American authorities to help orientate pilots and alert them to Ireland’s neutrality.

The south facing elevation of the Kedge Point signal tower clearly shows its defensive machicolation. On the left is the stump of the LOP (World War 2 lookout post). Below – the rubble of the destroyed LOP and some of the recognisable architectural features of this tower.

Next week I will report on a very different location, which we visited on a much better day – lots of sunlight, blue skies and West Cork magic to look forward to! This time our site will be at the westernmost tip of the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, and you will get a different sense of the relative orientation and intervisibility of these intriguing historic monuments.

Below – the signal tower at Toe Head, about ten kilometres to the east, seen from Kedge Point

The Picarooner

Question: what’s the connection between these rather lovely donkeys in a little North Devon (UK) village, and our own beautiful Roaringwater Bay (below)?

Answer: a Picarooner! And here is one . . .

Selkie belongs to our friends and neighbours, Oliver and Susie Nares. It has a mooring at Audley Cove – just over the hill from us. It has been out of the water during the winter receiving some refurbishment and a new colour scheme (it’s shown above in last year’s livery). I was pleased to get an invitation to the launch this week, down at Rossbrin Cove.

Oliver and Selkie, getting ready for the launch

A Picarooner is a small fishing boat which has a long history. The name is reportedly the corruption of a Spanish word and means ‘sea chaser’ or ‘sea robber’. These boats are now associated with the North Devon coast and, specifically, the fishing village of Clovelly, where they still bring in catches – mainly of herring – using sustainable methods. But there is a fascinating etiology legend – which they will tell you in the West Country – that they were originally the ‘cockboats’ or shore tenders carried on board the galleons of the Spanish Armada which foundered on the west coast of Ireland and the southwest coast of England in the summer of 1588 while trying to return to Spain by circumnavigating the British Isles and Ireland. These endeavours were confounded by exceptional storms and lack of local knowledge of treacherous coastlines together with the effects of a strong gulf stream pushing them off course. There were many attempted landfalls in Ireland – in County Clare, Kerry, the Blasket Islands and Valentia Island – resulting in numerous wrecks. It is logical that their cockboats, which were stored on deck, would have survived the destructions and taken on lives of their own, wandering the lonely seas until they landed up on strange shores. One such landing was at Clovelly – or so the story goes – and the local fishermen and boatbuilders there were so impressed with the construction of the craft – its size, shape and manoeuvrability – that they established their own fleet of them to seek out the enormous shoals of herring which had arrived off that coastline due to a medieval climate change bringing warmer waters. That same climate change also brought a similar influx of fish to the south west of Ireland and – particularly – to Roaringwater Bay, allowing the Gaelic chiefs here to prosper.

Photo above by Franzfoto, Wiki Commons; header photo  by Adrian Pingstone, Wiki Commons

This is the fishing village of Clovelly, probably little changed from the times of the Armada and the herring bonanza. It is built into the side of a cliff and the one cobbled main street is so narrow and steep that only donkeys and pedestrians can negotiate it. I know it well, as I spent numerous years of my architectural career working on projects in the village, restoring scores of cottages, boating facilities and the two village inns. The village is owned to this day by a descendant of Zachary Hamlyn who, born to a farming family in Higher Clovelly, made his fortune as a lawyer in London and returned to purchase the whole estate for around £9,000 in 1738.

Old Clovelly – romantic views from Alfred William Hunt (upper) and an engraving (lower), both mid nineteenth century

It’s very fitting that the Nares should launch their Picarooner herring boat under the shadow of Rossbrin Castle, as Finnin O’Mahony, who occupied it in the fifteenth century, became fabulously wealthy through the medieval herring and pilchard fishing industry. The O’Mahonys and their fellow Gaelic overlords levied dues on visiting fishermen from Spain, Portugal, France and England and provided victuals, barrels, salt, liquor – and fish palaces for processing the catch.

The Nares family getting their feet wet, and preparing to run back to Audley Cove. Interesting to note that the Picarooner has a ‘cockboat’ of its own!

It’s worth going back to Clovelly before finishing off this post. Here is a gem: the village Harbourmaster, Stephen Perham, giving us a first-hand account of using a Picarooner for its traditional purpose – fishing for herrings. I remember Stephen well from my Devon days.

Oliver and Susie’s boat was built by Martin Heard of Tregatreath, Mylor Bridge in Cornwall. Martin sadly passed away in 2009, but the yard still builds and maintains traditional boats. This is another connection for me as I had cousins living in nearby Perranarworthal, and spent idyllic summer holidays there in my youthful days.

Many thanks to the Nares for inspiring this post and providing some of the material, including the view of Selkie under sail (above)

Mizen Mountains 5 – Knockaphuca

Perhaps one of the most satisfying mountains on the Mizen, the 237m high Knockaphuca provides a well maintained waymarked trail best tackled as it is laid out – in a counter clockwise direction. You will go up the east side and down the steep west face. If you are lucky with the weather, as we were just before the longest day, you will have an experience which is hard to rival in this corner of Ireland. The loop walk is one of the latest sections of the Fastnet Trails which have been established to the west of Schull during 2019. All credit is due to the team which has so successfully organised and laid out these trails: this has involved much behind-the-scenes hard work.

In fact the full Knockaphucka Loop trail starts in Goleen, and is 10km long. We joined it as it leaves the R591 road north of the village (upper picture – the route goes off to the left). The map above has the mountain section (which we followed) superimposed on the Google Earth contour information. The section we walked is 6.6km long, and climbs about 200 metres.

One of the first landmarks on the way is right at the point where the marked track to the mountain leaves the main road: Ballydevlin Old School House (above). There is another ‘Ballydevlin Old School’ nearer to Goleen; presumably one was the National School (established c1831) and the other may have been a denominational Church of Ireland school. This peculiar Irish duality still exists today in many places.

Once on the marked track you are in a paradise! An ancient green road takes you part-way up the mountain, passing through small gorges which must have been cut out long ago: even if you are not a geologist you can’t help being impressed by the rock formations – they could be works of art.

After a while the path turns to the east and follows narrow, grassy glens bordered by majestic, serpent-like outcrops. It’s here that the views begin to open out, particularly to the south. Always you think that there couldn’t be a finer prospect over the Mizen and across the islands of Roaringwater Bay, and always – as you climb higher – you are surprised by the next, which is even better.

Twists and turns take you more steeply across the contours and swing round towards the summit. Only then is the full picture revealed: the whole landscape set out below you – every rift, valley and glacial glen with the higher land beyond culminating in the crests of Gabriel, 407m high, to the east, and the ‘little’ Mizen Peak, 232m high, to the west.

You won’t get lost as you head for the summit: this mountain had a distinctive cross placed at its highest point in the Holy Year of 1950, which reportedly fell in 1968, leaving the inscribed concrete plinth intact. The photo below shows the plinth in 2006 – courtesy Richard Webb. A new cross was installed in 2011 by a community effort led by the local GAA: this is now visible from much of the trail. The plaque mentions ‘…these challenging times…’, referring to the financial crash that hit Ireland so badly around that time. Illumination of the cross today is provided by photo-voltaic cells.

When you get to the top – pause… Now is the opportunity to appreciate the spectacular views in every direction. On our outing the south wind had been building up all day and was at its strongest in the late afternoon, when we gained the summit. It was pretty hard to remain upright! In fact, I wondered if we were being given a message by the resident Púca whose domain this is, after all?

The path down descends quite steeply: make sure you are well shod and vigilant. But you are in for further treats: the marked way passes by some peaty mountain tarns which are exquisite in their pristine beauty. Finola was in her element finding undisturbed native species such as water-lilies and sundews.

The mountain trail section ends on the small boreen running to the west of Knockaphuca, but the waymarkers will lead you back to the starting point, and there are still views up to the summit to enjoy, along with some landscape features on the way to continue to stimulate the senses.

What more could anyone want from a day’s outing in West Cork? Well – a bit of local history, perhaps. I searched for stories about the hill, particularly about the Púca – but only turned up this one told by Jerry McCarthy and included in Northside of the Mizen, the invaluable collection of Tales, Customs and History produced by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes in 1999:

The Púca of Knocnaphuca

 

The old people would feed the Púca of Knocnaphuca on ‘Snap-apple Night’, or indeed, whenever one had call to travel up the hill. It was the wise person that fed the Púca the night before going up. Milk and cake would be put on a plate and left outside the house and by the next morning the food had always gone!

 

The Púca of Knocnaphuca was half horse and half human. One late Snap-apple Night there was a young lad out walking the road when he heard a strange, sweet music coming from the hill. He went up and saw the Púca playing on a whistle. As soon as the lad had put eyes on it, it stopped playing and caught him. Away the Púca went to the top of the hill, where a crack opened up in the rock. In they went. They were twisting and turning down through tunnels until they entered a chamber full of gold. “Now,” said the Púca, “you are mine!”…

 

The next morning the boy was found on the road by the Long Bog. His hair had turned white and he could not speak a word ever after.

Thank you to our artist friend Hammond Journeaux of Ballydehob for this wonderful drawing of ‘Pooka’, included in The Little People of Ireland by Aine Connor, illustrated by Hammond, The Somerville Press, 2008. Púca in Ireland has counterparts in Cornwall (Bucca), Wales (Pwca), The Channel Islands (Pouque) and Brittany (Pouquelée). A shape-shifter (Flan O’Brien’s character from At Swim-Two-Birds, the Pooka MacPhellimey, changes his appearance by smoking from a magic pipe), the Púca most often appears in Ireland as a fine black stallion with red eyes. If you meet him, you have to mount him and he will take you on a journey far across the sea. It will seem to you as though you had been away for only a few hours, but the world will have moved on several weeks, perhaps months, during your absence. We saw no trace of the creature in June but, perhaps, if we climbed this mountain in the November Dark, we would have more chance of an encounter.

Transcendent Prospects

One of the advantages of the limitations that are placed upon us at the moment is that we have to look more closely at everything. We are seeing – and enjoying – the familiar landscape around us, so I am looking out, now, for the transcendent qualities it has to offer. [Transcendent: adjective – beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience; surpassing the ordinary; exceptional.]

Waterscapes at Ballydehob, Schull and Dereenatra. Header: cloudscape over Cape Clear, Horse Island in the foreground

So, over the last couple of days I have wended my way around the boreens of Cappaghglass, Stouke and Ballydehob – armed only with my iPhone camera – to see what I can record to intrigue and delight you. I have looked, particularly, for the quality of light that the currently ubiquitous sun is casting on to our green fields and hedgerows, our evanescent skyscapes, and the waters of the bays that surround us. In Cornwall – where I spent many years – it was the quality of light that was all important to the artists who came to the little fishing communities of Newlyn and St Ives from the late nineteenth century, and even into the present day. They were searching for something which was and is missing in towns and cities: clear, unpolluted air, constantly infused with tiny droplets of water arising from the sea which surround that western peninsula. We have the same quality on our own Mizen Peninsula: it’s that moisture laden air which captures and refracts the light, enhancing clarity and colour – and our own artists always did and always will respond to that.

We sometimes drive further afield in West Cork, so that we can take our exercise with a change of scene. But all of the photographs here are relatively close to home. The clarity of the light is apparent: the detail of the distant hillsides is picked out even by the phone camera. The colours – all those greens and the blues of skies and water are true to life.

Our favourite views are often dominated by the distinctive profile of Mount Gabriel in the distance. This is the highest point of land on the Mizen, and must have been an important waymark throughout history, central to the orientation of travellers through this area, and probably imbued with significance and ‘stories’. My favourite is the one that says the Archangel had heard of the inherent beauty in the Irish countryside (highly believable to me!) and ‘touched down’ on the top of the mountain, leaving his footprint on the rocks. Here’s a post I wrote about Mount Gabriel – and its associated stories – six years ago.

I don’t want to overdo the West Cork boreens (you can see lots more of them here), but I just can’t resist them! Perhaps it’s what they symbolise – our journey through life, pathways leading us on optimistically into our own futures? When we are exploring overgrown lanes, like the one in the middle picture above, there is a sense of excitement about what we might find through the trees or around the corner: in this case, we were led to an abandoned house. What mysteries are contained there: lives fully lived and now departed. The lower picture is the boreen that leads us home from Stouke to Nead an Iolair: always one of my favourites.

Upper – the colourful remains of an old tractor enhance (for me) the views from the Butter Road running out of Schull towards Ballydehob. Lower – this track is a highway leading down to the beach at Coosheen.

We look forward to the Covid19 restrictions being lifted, but it will be a while yet before travel constraints are removed. Even when they are, we will still appreciate what we have around us, and we won’t neglect the transcendent beauty of ‘our’ townlands and the sublime scenes that await us daily just a few steps from home.

Back home: (upper) reflections by the once busy quay at Ballydehob with (lower) the road leading into Ballydehob passing over the three-arched bridge, overlooked by higher land to the north

If you want to read more about the artists in Cornwall who were influenced and inspired by the landscapes of that Celtic kingdom, read more here and here.

And for more about the West Cork artists’ community – there’s a website (and a museum) dedicated to their history here.

Quest for the Lone Whitethorn

The crowning glory of our West Cork hedgerows, highways and boreens at this time of the year is the May bush – Sceach Gheal – Hawthorn or Whitethorn. The example above is on the way down to Ballydehob, just a few minutes’ walk from Nead an Iolair: we can’t resist stopping every time we pass to admire its brilliance – a shining presence among the abundant greenery of the early summer that’s all around us in these quiet days.

You have to get up close to fully appreciate the wonder of the tiny individual blooms that contribute to the billowing white cloud effects we see wherever there is a May bush in the hedges. We have one right outside of our bedroom window (see Rossbrin Castle in the distant view):

Such a visually striking tree has attracted many traditions and superstitions over the generations – and pisogues like these never really go away. A good account of many surviving beliefs in the British Isles is given in The Hazel Tree Blog.

Of course, the May Bush is a thorn – a spiky tree, seen here before the blossoms come out. Even if those pisogues about it being unlucky to bring it into the house didn’t protect it from being cut, then those thorns would certainly be a goodly deterrent. This great picture, with chaffinch, was taken by Finola, who also provided many of the other photos here. Thank you, Finola! We admire the work of Michael Fortune, who lives in Wexford where, with Aileen Lambert, they have succeeded in re-establishing a May Bush tradition.

It’s been a quest of ours, when on our ‘lockdown’ walks – limited to 5km – to find the iconic ‘lone thorn tree’, out in a field, moor or open country, as this is the one imbued with the legends. So far we have been unsuccessful – the whitethorns around us all seem to be part of a hedgerow. In my English west country days – when I lived in the Celtic regions of Cornwall and Devon – I was aware of many solitary thorn trees, particularly out on the moors. Being in exposed locations they were usually distinctively shaped, bending away from the prevailing winds.

I had to search my archives for this photo of a lone thorn tree ‘bent’ by the wind: it was taken on the Sheep’s Head in June 2015 – after the blooms have faded. Always be careful of the solitary thorn for it guards the entrance to the realm of the Other Crowd. If you fall asleep under that thorn tree you will find yourselves transported into the kingdom of the old ones. It will not be an unpleasant experience – they will offer to satisfy all your thirst and hunger… But, if you accept, you will remain in that kingdom and grow old. One day they will release you, and it will seem as if just a few moments had passed since you left, but your aged body will very soon crumble to dust. This belief was as prevalent in Devon and Cornwall as it still is today in Ireland. Beware!

Close to home again – whitethorns in Ballydehob Bay. Once the blooms have gone, of course, we look forward to the haws, which are said to be edible but bland. They are traditionally used to make jelly and wine.

We could not be without the hawthorn trees which are all around us: they are lighting up our days in these times of anxiety and restriction – and they are reminding us of the continuity of nature and the constant cycle of the seasons. Life will prevail.

Our own May Bush a few years ago – blackthorn and gorse. We keep up the ancient traditions out of respect for the lore of our ancestors. If we don’t, the sun may never rise again!

Wending the Boreens

Only in Ireland can you wend your way along boreens. The Irish word is bóithrín, – a small bóthar (road). We are surrounded by them in our West Cork townlands. In these days of Covid19 restrictions, they are our whole world. With a maximum walk of 5 kilometres allowed, we can only ever be on boreens. But that’s no hardship – mostly they are beautiful (in fact they are all beautiful), and we enjoy every step we can take. So today’s post is simply a celebration of what is around us. But I have also combed the RWJ archives to look for boreens outside of our local area, for a bit of variety and comparison. Rest assured that any illustrations beyond our present limits were taken in other – normal – times!

Of course a ‘boreen’ or small road doesn’t have to be in a rural location, This fine boreen in Eyries, on the Beara Peninsula, is in fact a well used highway through the town, but you can’t deny that it is as atmospheric and picturesque as many of the rural byways shown here. It’s a moment in time captured for all time.

The photo at the top of the page is special for us: it’s the view we get when we turn out of Nead an Iolair, heading down towards Rossbrin Cove. And there (above) is our first glimpse of the sheltered harbour, overlooked by the medieval castle that was the home of Clan Chieftain Fininn O’Mahony in the 15th century. Not only do we have all the wonders of West Cork’s landscape on our doorstep, but we also have deep history as well…

How much closer can you get to nature than this ‘green’ boreen just a short walk up the road from where we live in Cappaghglass? The stone hedge banks have become completely assimilated into the surroundings, and are a haven for so many native species of wildflowers, as Finola will readily point out to us!

And just a few yards from that last green trackway is the boreen that takes us down into our village of Ballydehob. Those are apple trees flourishing as part of the natural hedgerow.

We have very little woodland around us here. This slightly mysterious tree-lined boreen was found on our travels near Glendalough, in County Wicklow, last year.

Close by the little harbour of Glandore (in Irish Cuan D’Ór – Harbour of Gold) in West Cork, we found a secluded boreen which pointed us towards an oddity: a pyramid in a graveyard – well worth a visit. Read about it in this post from two years ago.

Returning to our own neighbourhood these two recent photos, taken only a couple of days ago, show how you can never quite know what you are going to find just around the corner or over the brow of the next hill. That’s Jeremy Irons’ Kilcoe Castle in the upper picture, and Cape Clear Island (on the horizon) in the lower one.

In contrast, here’s a little trackway that takes you up to the summit of the Rock of Dunamase in County Laois. This historic site with a view is associated with momentous events in the history of this country: in the painting by Daniel Maclise that hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland, The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife is depicted as taking place at the now ruined Great Hall on the Rock. You can find the whole story of this most critical juncture in Ireland’s history in Finola’s post here.

Even further afield – in Ballymoney, Co Antrim – is this spectacular avenue of beech trees planted on the entrance driveway leading to an eighteenth century Georgian mansion, Gracehill House. This boreen – open to pedestrians – is known as the Dark Hedges, and we visited it when we explored the North of Ireland three years ago.

Although in normal times we travel a lot – on major roads and motorways, as well as boreens – the places we like the best are near to home. How could we not be impressed by the winding boreen that climbs to the top of Mount Gabriel, the highest point on the Mizen? Look at the spectacular views (above). The preacher Caeser Otway travelling in this area in 1822 wrote:

. . . On my way to Bantry I passed the dark and lofty Mount Gabriel and took my way over a dreary, comfortless tract of country. Let no one say after looking at these moors , studded over with cabins crowded with children, pigs, goats, cocks and hens that an Irishman is not an industrious creature . . . Men, women, boys and girls toiling up the mountainside with seaweed and sea sand in baskets on their backs . . . See them reclaiming from amidst rocks and bogs, patches of ground on which to cultivate their only food, the potato; and no one witnessing this struggle of human industry against nature, but must acknowledge that the Irish are a most industrious race . . .

The 400 year old road that crosses the mountains from Cork into Kerry north of Bantry has to count as a boreen, as it’s single track for much of the way. The Priest’s Leap sign (above) marks the point at which the two counties meet. Although we have travelled all over Ireland in our explorations, this is still one of our favourite routes, and always will be. We so look forward to being able to go there again, when the present ‘lockdown’ is lifted.

Another glimpse of the Priest’s Leap ‘boreen’.

This elegant woodland boreen is a fine example of regency landscaping, being part of the Ballyfin Demesne in Co Laois. Like so many of Ireland’s fine luxury hotels, Ballyfin remains closed until the Covid19 restrictions are lifted.

We’ll finish this post where we started – near to home in West Cork, with happy memories of unrestricted rambles with friends along the quietest and most beautiful of Ireland’s boreens . . .