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

Legends of Mount Gabriel: The Bottomless Lake

It’s the most visible and significant feature on the West Cork landscape, so of course there are lots of legends about Mount Gabriel. A surprising number of stories revolve around a tiny pool near the top of the mountain, labelled on the historic OS maps as Poulanenine. The most likely etymology for this is Poul an Oigheann – the Pool of the Cauldron (oigheann also means oven, but cauldron seems a more likely translation).

Reading these stories in Dúchas* and finding the pool on the maps, I knew that we had to see it for ourselves. Fortunately, Mount Gabriel (looming over Schull, above) is within our 5k limit and luckily necessitates no human interaction (as a people person, that’s a phrase I never thought I would write) so we set off yesterday to find it. Yes, your intrepid bloggers stop at nothing to bring you the best of West Cork arts and culture! 

Having made a couple of wrong decisions as to the best way to get there, at one point we found ourselves edging backwards over a slippery cliff, clinging to bits of heather and wondering just how foolish we would look when the Search and Rescue Team had to be called out to save a couple of septuagenarians who claimed to be looking for a fairy tale location.

But we made it – and there it was, a tiny remnant of the Ice Age, the Cauldron Pool! It’s referred to as a lake in the stories and there are several versions of how it was made. Here’s an admirably succinct one: 

There is a little lake on the top of Mount Gabriel called Poll an Oighin. There is a saying that Fionn Mac Cumhail took a handful of rock and threw it out into the Atlantic Ocean where it is now as the Fastnet Rock or Carraig Aonair – leaving the hole of Poll an Oighin. Another saying is that if a stick was thrown into Poll an Oighin it would come out in Schull harbour.

The fact that there is an underground route from the lake to Schull Harbour is born out by this story too:

But not all versions assign the origin of the lake to Finn McCool. 

Long ago the devil was flying over Mount Gabriel and he was flying so low that he hit his wing against a rock. He got so cross that he took a bite out of the rock. When he had gone eight or nine miles from Mount Gabriel, he left the rock fall into the sea. The rock was so large that a part of it remained over the water and it is on that rock the lighthouse is built on now and it is known as the Fastnet Rock. There is a large lake where he took the bite and the water in that lake is of a black colour.

The black water

However, the most charming, and longest story belongs to an entry from Macroom, far away from Mount Gabriel. The school girl, Julia Creedon, got it from Dan O’Sullivan, also of Macroom, although undoubtedly Dan knew the story from his youth so must have been from the area around Schull. I am reproducing it in full, and readers will recognise many elements familiar to such legends everywhere. One of the most striking aspects of this story is its use of familiar names and places to fix the story in this exact locality.

Near the village of Schull, is Mount Gabriel whose peak rises 1,000 feet above sea level. The unspoiled charm of the magnificent view from its summit is unsurpassable.

The Meenvane road leads you out of the village and on to the gap road; which runs between two high cliffs on the east side of the mountain known as “The Gap of Mount Gabriel”, From here you have a view of nature’s splendour: a number of Carberys Hundred Isles scattered over the great expanse of the Atlantic which amply repays you for the stiff climb. It has been compared to a post card album, you study, as it were, one lovely post card, on turning a leaf you get an entirely different, yet, equally beautiful view to gaze upon, but here you simply turn your head.

Facing south you see on the Coosheen hill the ruins of the old white castle once the seat of the O’Mahoneys. Turning north the Hungry Hill can be seen in the distance. The beautiful country of the valley reflecting every mood of nature runs down to Dunbeacon Castle, once the home of Chieftain O’Sullivan, whose ruins now stands at the edge of Dunmanus Bay, beneath the shadow of Mount Gabriel. Sir H. De La Béche** says in his History of Cork “It was as striking of its kind as any he had seen in Switzerland.”

Chieftain’s Daughter

Following the road and keeping to the left, you find a patch on the north side of the mountain which leads you to the bottomless lake, situated almost on the top of the mountain. There are many beautiful traditions of this picturesque locality, still amongst the older peasants of the district, one of which is: –

“The Legend of the Bottomless Lake” is as follows: Chieftain O’ Sullivan, of Dunbeacon Castle, had one child, a daughter, Rosaleen. So beautiful and fair was she that the poets described her as “The Rose of the Valley”. She had a lover, one, Owen O’Mahoney, of the White Castle. When O’Sullivan heard of his daughter’s friendship with O’Mahoney he was very angry as Owen could never hope for more than a younger son’s share. Notwithstanding this, the young lovers were ideally happy.

What’s left of Dunbeacon Castle

One evening as Rosaleen returned home after a walk with her lover, she was brought into the presence of her father’s guest, Chieftain O’Driscoll of the Three Head Castle. He was known to Rosaleen, who thoroughly disliked him, as an elderly bachelor, who drank a lot of rich wines, boasted a lot of his castles, of the men he had killed, and the women who loved him. When Rosaleen heard he had come that day, to ask her in marriage, and that her father gave his consent, she was horrified. Outwardly calm, she explained to her father and O’Driscoll that she loved Owen O’Mahoney, and would marry no other. Her love for Owen was far dearer to her than her life. Her father listened not to her pleading; he settled the day for her wedding to O’Driscoll giving “The Rose of the Valley” just one week to get used to the idea and to forget Owen O’Mahoney.

During that week her father saw to it that she was kept a prisoner in his castle. But love finds a way. The beautiful Rosaleen got a letter sent to her lover telling him of her plight.

Three Castle Head

The Escape

All the notable chieftains for miles round were invited to Dunbeacon Castle. There was great feasting and merry-making on the day preceding the date fixed for the wedding.

The night before the wedding when all were merry and gay Rosaleen received that for which she had being praying, a letter from Owen. Following his instructions she made her escape from the castle, and was met by her lover. Helping her on to his horse, he sprang up behind her, and faced for his father’s castle in Coosheen.

Fearing Rosaleen’s escape would be discovered, they left the road and took the path over the mountains. It was a bright moonlight night. Looking back they saw no trace of pursuit.

Rosaleen saw a little spring well, she dismounted and knelt and drank from the spring. Her face reflected in the water, was so beautiful that the “Good People” in the well, desired to get her for themselves. Rosaleen jumped to her feet when she saw the water, rising round her. She ran towards her lover the water ran after her until a small lake was formed.

Owen seeing her plight, lifted her on to his horse and springing behind her, once more he made his way down the other side of the mountain. The “Good People” seeing they were beaten in their attempt to capture the beautiful “Rose of the Valley” got very angry, and reversed the flow of the spring. Down, down, down went the bottom of the lake until its waters flowed into Schull Harbour.

Some hours after O’Driscoll went in pursuit of his bride and muddled with drink, drove his horse over the mountain. Taking the sheet of water for a flat rock in the moonlight, he drove straight into it and disappeared under the surface of the lake. His men following behind reigned up and waited for their chieftain to re-appear Seeing no trace of him, they rode back with all haste to acquaint O’Sullivan with news of the disaster that had overtaken O’Driscoll. Chieftain O’Sullivan, believing that his daughter had met with the same fate as O’Driscoll, was filled with remorse. He tore his hair in grief for his beautiful lost daughter.

White Castle (Ardintenant Castle) from the sea, Mount Gabriel behind

Reconciliation

Great was his joy when he heard that she was safe and well married to Owen O’Mahoney and dwelling at the White Castle.

He rode immediately to Coosheen and asked Owen’s forgiveness. He promised him Dunbeacon Castle and all his estate if only he would bring her back “The Rose of the Valley”.

I can’t help wondering about Julia Creedon. Although she may have faithfully reproduced the essence of the story she heard from Dan O’Sullivan, her own abilities are very evident in this story, as is her immersion in reading other stories in this genre. Did she become a seanachaí (a story teller), or a teacher or a writer? She has two other stories in the Schools Collection as well, including a long one about the River Lee, just as precociously written in the same lovely cursive, with headings underlined in red ink. If she were still alive, she would be in her late 90s now.

The story of this bottomless pool has an even older history than the 1930s. In 1780 Philip Luckombe published his A Tour Through Ireland and tells of the same lake when describing a journey from Bantry. Luckombe was one of our earliest plagiarists – he took his accounts almost verbatim from even earlier books and there is no evidence that he was ever even in Ireland. From our point of view this means that the story predates 1780 so it has an impressive pedigree indeed. 

Next time, more about some of the other legends that have accrued to Mount Gabriel.

It’s further than it looks

* Dúchas is the National Folklore Archive and within this is The Schools Collection: “For the duration of the project, [1937-39] more than 50,000 schoolchildren from 5,000 schools in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State were enlisted to collect folklore in their home districts. This included oral history, topographical information, folktales and legends, riddles and proverbs, games and pastimes, trades and crafts. The children recorded this material from their parents, grandparents, and neighbours.” The Collection is online and is searchable at https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes. I have done a little minor editing to the entries above for consistency in punctuation and spelling.

**This is a reference to Sir Henry De la Beche, founder of the Geological Survey of Great Britain and Ireland.

Schull – Delving into History

Last week my post explored a part of the Colla Loop on the Fastnet Trails. That walk passed by 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’ . . . That information was ascribed to ‘Burke 1914’ but I can find no links to that source anywhere. If anyone can enlighten me, that would be great.

The location of this possible site is in the gorse covered area on the right hand side of the picture above. There is nothing to be seen there today, although such dense scrub could be hiding a lot. That record on the archaeological site is now described as ‘redundant’ – because there is no trace – but is maintained as it does indicate that there has been a tradition of the associations of the place historically. Certainly, if you were a group of wandering monks in medieval times looking for a new home it would have much to commend it – a south facing slope, sweeping views to the ocean below and defensible high ground behind. Not much shelter from the weather, though. The map below shows the possible site on the lower left, but note there are two further candidates, which we will discuss.

I found the historical reference to this possible site intriguing, especially in view of the suggestion that it could have been the original ‘school’ (centre of learning) that supposedly gave the settlement of Schull its name. If you want to delve further into the origins of the name ‘Schull’ – which the Ordnance Survey, interestingly, insisted should be spelled Skull right up to modern times: you can see it on the the Archaeology Ireland record extract above – I commend you to John D’Alton’s fascinating and comprehensive article here. John himself is a well-known long term resident of the village; I would love to have a discussion with John (and likely will when times permit) on some of his conclusions, but he certainly lays the foundations for questioning long-held assumptions. He does, however, posit that the name of the place has sounded the same for over a thousand years. For me, it is reasonable to conclude that ‘Schull’ is most likely to derive from the Irish word scoil – school – and that a ‘centre of learning’ did, indeed, exist in the area anciently. There are precedents enough for sites like this in West Cork. Our own Rossbrin Castle was the home of Finnin O’Mahony – Taoiseach of the clan – in the late fifteenth century and he was known to have established what has been described as ‘the greatest centre of learning in Europe’ on these now remote and deserted shores, while the Sheep’s Head peninsula boasts the remains of a great medieval ‘Bardic School’ close to Kilcrohane. My post of (yes!) eight years ago gives a brief outline. But let’s now turn to those other sites shown above.

Here’s St Mary’s Church, the ruin which sits above – and dominates – the large burial ground to the south of Schull today. Tradition has it that it was built in 1720, but there is a fair bit of evidence to suggest that this ecclesiastical site goes back much further than that. I am indebted to Mary Mackey for her article in Mizen Journal – Volume 8, 2000: A Short History of the Ruins of St Mary’s Church, Colla Road, Schull.

The parish church is first recorded in a decretal letter issued in 1199 from Pope Innocent III to the Bishop of Cork listing the parishes in the diocese. The entry reads “scol cum suis pertinentiis” – Schull with its appurtenances. It is this early spelling of ‘scol’ meaning school which goes some way to authenticating the ancient tradition . . . During the reformation (16th century) when all church and monastic benefices and land were confiscated, the detailed rent roll for the Diocese of Cork records Schull with nine ploughlands, and in 1581 in a list of parishes in the diocese, Schull church is called “Saint Maria de Scoll”. This seems to be the first written record of the name of the church and it adds weight to the theory of the ancient monastic school, and to the origin of ‘Scoil Mhuire’ . . .

Mary Mackey – MiZEN Journal Volume 8

The same article notes that in 1653 the church commissioners stated “Upon 9 plowlands of Schull are the walls of a church” and in May 1700 Bishop Dive Downes, visiting the western part of his diocese records: “The church walls are standing and good, made of stone and lime 84′ long and 24′ broad”. Mackey comments that this was a large parish church compared with others in the Mizen area.

The local population will be very familiar with this ruin, and the graveyard which it overlooks. The grave marker (above) is dedicated to the Reverend Robert Traill – Finola has included him in her Saints and Soupers series. Schull graveyard must have one of the finest prospects of any burial place in the west, with its views out towards Long Island Sound and Roaringwater Bay:

In 1936 we find Con O’Leary writing in A Wayfarer in Ireland (published by R M McBride): . . . Schull, named from Scoil Mhuire, the School of Mary, in the sixth century, is picturesquely situated , with Long Island thrown across the mouth of the bay . . . Well, that’s stretching us back a fair bit – but there’s nothing to confirm it. In the ruins of the church, however, there is one element which leads us to think that the architecture is quite ancient – this cut-stone ogival window in the northeast wall (possibly fifteenth century):

Now let’s turn to the third candidate in our search for Schull’s origins as a ‘great centre of learning’ – shown on the map towards the top of this post to the south of St Mary’s Church. Here is the Archaeology Ireland listing and the record note:

Description: In rough grazing, on a S-facing slope overlooking Long Island to the S and Skull Harbour to the E. Recent reclamation work exposed a level earthen platform-like area (c. 35m E-W; c. 17m N-S) faced externally on its curving S side by a roughly constructed drystone revetment (H 0.2m at W to 1.6m at E). According to local information, this is the location of Scoil Mhuire or Sancta Maria de Scala, a medieval church and school that gave its name to this townland and to Skull village . . .


The Archaeological Inventory of County Cork. Volume 5 (Dublin: Stationery Office, 2009)

The prospect of unearthing ancient history sent us out into the field on an idyllic January day, under an almost surreal clear blue sky. We don’t exactly know what we found, but the expedition was rewarding, if only for the joy of walking through a beautiful country and knowing that other generations had walked here before us.

Always we were in sight of water, and the islands of the Bay beyond. We left the metalled boreen and found a narrow green path lined with old walls.

The path led to a sheltered paddock. We could clearly see the ‘level earthen platform-like area’ and the curved retaining wall supporting it: also, in several areas, there were the vestiges of old walls and probable structures. We immediately sensed the zeitgeist of a place which had tales to tell. Could it really be an early Christian settlement? Did the old stone walls echo the chanting of monks from long ago? Could we look through their eyes and see the grove of trees and the spectacular azure cast of the sea receding to the horizon across all the islands as they had?

The Historic 6″ Ordnance Survey map is the earliest record we have of what existed on the site: it dates, at the latest, from around 1840. There are buildings clearly shown. Could they have been simple farm cottages and barns? Might those buildings perhaps have incorporated much earlier structures?

There you have it: a creation tale (myth, perhaps) for Schull. I will give the last word to a pupil from ‘Skull School’, recorded in the 1930s:

The O’Mahony’s had a stronghold in Castle Island, which is known as the Middle Island. It is situated about three miles from the beautiful village of Schull, which lies by the harbour of the same name. Situated amid picturesque and varied scenery, nestling at the foot of Gabriel’s rough defiles, and fronting the wild Atlantic, it is a charming spot. It was anciently called Scoll Muire (B.V. Mary’s School) and in mediaeval documents it is designated “Sancta Maria de Scholia.” This school is said to have been founded by the “Universitie of Rosse, St.Fachtna’s Carbery”. However this may be – I doubt it – the parish is mentioned as Scol in the Papal Letters of Pope Innocent III. (1199 A.D.). Canon O’Mahony says its site has been identified in south Schull. At all events, Ardmanagh (Monks Hill), on which part of Schull is built, attests the presence of cenobites in the district . . .

Brighid Ní Choithir – Skull School – Dúchas Schools Folkore Collection 1937

Please note that the ‘Sancta Maria Scala’ site is on private land, and permission to visit should be sought.

Merchant, Miller, Smuggler: James O’Sullivan and Roaring Water

If you park your car at Kilcoe Church, at Meen Bridge on the N71 between Skibbereen and Ballydehob, and walk straight south, you arrive at a picturesque pier – a quiet backwater of leafy boreens. This is the outlet for the Roaring Water River (yes, that’s how the river is spelled on the OS maps), which rises on the southern slopes of Mount Kidd, a bare 6km away. Despite the short distance, this little river is a notable torrent by the time it reaches the sea, and it is said that the noise it made as it rushed over the rocks and weirs in its last stretch gave its name not only to the river but also to Roaringwater Bay (and yes, that’s how the Bay is spelled on the OS maps). 

Your walking route from Kilcoe Church to the pier takes you along the river. Here and there are perilous but satisfying opportunities to hop over a wall, hang on to branches and lean out to see over the river. This is a marvellous stretch of road in spring and early summer, with the river full on and hosting a riot of Marsh-marigold, and the banks heady with Whitethorn and Guelder-rose.

Eventually, you arrive at the final bridge – an interesting single span with a high arch – and can walk down to the Pier. You’ll be lucky if you encounter another person here, a dog-walker perhaps, or somebody messing about in a boat. It’s an idyllic spot, with views down the narrow channel to the medieval castle of Rincolisky (or Whitehall) across the water.

But in the first half of the nineteenth century, this was a bustling place indeed, and most of that came down to the the vision and energy of one man, James O’Sullivan. His house is still at the head of the inlet, still lived in and lovingly maintained. The quays he built for his various enterprises have stood the test of time and are as straight and sturdy as they were in their heyday.

No longer here are the industrial buildings that once marked this place as an active centre of industry and commerce. On the 1840s OS maps you can see them – there’s a Tuck Mill (used in wool processing) and a Corn Store. An historic account refers to a large building beside O’Sullivan’s house used to store potatoes until they were ready for export. There’s a slate quarry over to the east and a small village to the west. In addition the Archaeological Survey uncovered a metal working site on the rising east bank beside the quay, and a lime kiln at the edge of the water on the west bank. 

That little ‘village’? You can clearly see it as a cluster of buildings on the old maps, although there’s nothing there now you would call a community. But if you look hard, some traces are still visible. The old Catholic church became unfit for purpose by the end of the nineteenth century and was replaced by the splendid Church of the Most Holy Rosary (where you left your car). But it’s still a place of reverence for local people, having been repurposed as a grotto and a place for quiet contemplation and prayer – new Stations of the Cross were unveiled here as recently as 2018. It’s also a Cillín (pronounced killeen), a place where unbaptised children were buried – see this post for more on that.

There were two schools here, a boys’ and a girls’, and the boys’ school can still be seen in ruins along the road (below). By the 1840s they had both been replaced by a new school up by Meen Bridge – it, or its successor, is still there. There was a shop here once, no longer in use except for storage and partly ruined, and several houses only one of which remains. It is estimated that up to 200 people may have worked here. 

Who was James O’Sullivan? for all the information that follows I am indebted to a piece by Timothy Cadogan in the Seanchas Cairbre (a now-defunct publication) for 1993. Born around 1758, he was from the area and appeared to have engaged, by his own admission, in some lucrative smuggling in his younger days, mostly tobacco but “he could give you a bottle of good cognac”. After a crackdown, he turned to more legitimate businesses, perhaps funded by his earlier nefarious dealings. He was by no means alone in the smuggling trade – many a local gentleman had a hand in it too.

Turning to commerce, he operated both a corn mill and a tuck mill (the latter marked on the OS map). Both were overshot mills (see illustration below), in which the wheel was fed by a mill stream which diverted water from the Roaring Water River. The corn was stored in a large building on the quay (more or less where the small corrugated house is now, see image above) and shipped to Cork and Dublin. He had his own ships for this purpose and a storehouse in both cities.

Part of the Overshot Mill at Aberdulais 1786 or 1800 Philip James De Loutherbourg 1740-1812 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D36368

Timothy Cadogan points out that O’Sullivan played an active role in the politics of the time, “as might be expected from the most prominent Catholic in Aughadown and Kilcoe”. He chaired, for example, the great Anti-Tithe meeting in Skibbereen in 1832 – you can read more about that movement, and that meeting, in this post. The image below is of a tithe collector, called a Proctor, extracting his dues.

James O’Sullivan died between 1837-39. He had been married twice, first to Ellen Fitzgerald and after her death in 1826 to Ellen Coleman. No record has been left of any children, and indeed his great enterprises failed to survive his death, although copper mining was subsequently carried out in the vicinity with no great success. The building below was a later shop, across from the old church.

Perhaps though, if you linger a while on the Quay and close your eyes, you can hear the shouts of those loading corn, the sheets slapping against the masts in the wind, the rumble of barrels coming down the road to the waiting ships – maybe even make out, in your mind’s eye, a skiff silently slipping into the inlet loaded with an ‘irregular’ cargo to be delivered under cover of darkness.

Beautiful West Cork in Picture and Song

Missing West Cork? Live here and love it? Always wanted to visit? Colum Cronin sent us this charming song some time ago and this is the perfect time to enjoy his wonderful voice with the images his song evokes. Wherever you are, stay safe and well, and sit back and enjoy.

Roaringwater Bay in 1612

Roaringwater Bay must be so familiar to you, if you are a regular reader of this Journal. It’s a land- and sea-scape of hidden coves, inlets, islands, mountains and castles: a treasure trove for explorers and historians. That’s Black Castle at Castlepoint, Leamcon, above – said to have been built by Connor O’Mahony in the mid fifteenth century. Probably the best place to get an overview of the coastline is to climb to the top of Mount Gabriel (407m) and have a look down. You will see stretched out the archipelago of ‘Carbery’s Hundred Isles’ – seen here in autumnal hue – Cape Clear is the distant remote landfall over on the right:

We always have a sizeable pile of books waiting to be pored over. Currently at the top is this study, The Alliance of Pirates, written by Connie Kelleher and just published (2020) by Cork University Press. We have yet to consume every detail, but we do assure you that it’s full of fascinating historical information – not just about pirates, but about life and culture in the west of Ireland in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Connie is an ‘underwater archaeologist’ and we have followed her over many years, lecturing and presenting original information which she has gathered together on her subject. We couldn’t fail to be hooked on everything she says, illustrates and writes about, as the focus is on our own doorstep. One linchpin of this book is a map which is dated to 1612. This article from Atlas Obscura explains the map and Kelleher’s approach. It’s worth reading: note that you may be required to register on the Atlas Obscura website (it’s free) in order to access it.

The 1612 chart of the “Pirate Harbours” of southwest Munster which became a valuable source of information for Connie Kelleher‘s studies © SUB GÖTTINGEN 4 H BRIT P III, 6 RARA UNIVERSITÄT BIBLIOTHEK GÖTTINGEN LIBRARY ARCHIVES, GERMANY

The purpose of today’s post is to examine the 1612 map in detail and attempt to identify and relate to many of the places which are named and illustrated. Before that, though – let’s consider how such a chart came to be made. Finola has written previously about how West Cork as a whole was being mapped in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries here and here. The thing that sets the 1612 map apart, however, is that it was made in secret, and largely from surveys only carried out at sea. Also, it was specifically intended to enable a Dutch fleet to assail the pirate strongholds which became numerous around the area from Baltimore to Crookhaven, centred on Roaringwater Bay and ideal for forays into the wider Atlantic trade routes.

The sheltered waters of Crook Haven – an important recognised centre for careening and victualling ships operating legitimately on the Atlantic trade routes: ships that would become prime targets for the pirates based in secret ‘nests’ along the same coastline

. . . In 1612, having grown tired of the ongoing pirate harassment, the Dutch government lobbied James I for permission to enter the harbours of southwest Ireland to attack the pirates themselves. James I agreed, but only under the conditions that the pirates would be captured alive and handed over, along with captured goods, to the Kings’ ships to be transported for trial by the Admiralty in England.

To prepare their ships for the attacks, Dutch hydrographer Hessel Gerritszoon was tasked with mapping the Irish coastline with a special focus on the “pirate coast” of southwestern Ireland. A large task in front of him, Gerritszoon engaged English cartographer John Hunt to assist. . .

Atlas Obscura

The leeskarte which the hydrographers produced still exists, and has been housed since the mid 1700s in the library at the University of Göttingen in Germany, which acquired it in the mid 1700s. During her researches, Connie Kelleher travelled to Göttingen to examine and document the map, which is a wonderful resource for enlightening us on some aspects of our local history.

. . . It is a type of ‘treasure map’ informing on the heritage within the landscape at the time, which could potentially help us identify other pirate-related locations, including archaeological sites . . .

Connie Kelleher

In this extract from the 1612 map I have focussed on our immediate area – the environs of Roaringwater Bay itself. Many names will ring bells with us (Clere, Baltemor, Rossbren for example); others won’t. For a simple comparison I have chosen a version of the historical 6″ Ordnance Survey map, dating from the late nineteenth century – it’s probably the clearest and best annotated example of what we would recognise around us today in terms of place-names:

Here I have located and labelled our environs, as shown in 1612. It is remarkable that every castle and many significant features are clearly shown. Now, have a look at my red circle around ‘Horse Island + Castle Island’.

There’s an island missing! Opposite ‘Rossbren’ on the mainland is shown a single island: Rosbren. Next to it is Long Island. In fact, there are two islands here – Horse Island and Castle Island. On the 1612 map there is a castle shown on the Rosbren island, but the castle is actually on Castle Island. Somehow, the surveyors have missed this detail: perhaps the visual information which could be got offshore was confusing. What is interesting, though, is that the dotted lines at the east end of Rosbren on the 1612 map seem to mark the line of a causeway, the vestiges of which do appear today at very low tides and the feature exists in local folk memory. That level of detail on a chart, produced in the limited circumstances of its, time is remarkable! You can read more about Castle Island here.

Our view across Rossbrin Cove with its O’Mahony castle and, beyond Rossbrin Castle, Castle Island. On the left of the picture is Horse Island

I want to show you some further details from the 1612 leeskarte. Firstly, here’s a close-up of Crookhaven (Croock haven on the map). Note the scales in Dutch miles and English leagues, and ‘Limcon’ – in fact Leamcon – which was one of the major pirate centres and also the territory of Sir William Hull, a Vice Admiral of Munster from 1609. His job description involved rooting out the plague of pirates in Roaringwater Bay but in fact entailing a lot of profitable collaboration with them. Also of interest here is the depiction of Goat Island – named ‘Cainor’ and a castle – ‘Penar’ which is likely to be Ballydevlin, at the mouth of Goleen harbour; also ‘Don Hog’, which we believe refers to Castlemehigan. There is no trace remaining of either of these two.

Another detail from the map (above) shows Spain Island, Sherkin and ‘Baltemore’. the depiction of galleons in full sail is a fine ornamental ‘illumination’. Also, note the small anchor symbols. In some places on the whole map, anchorage depths are shown: another remarkable factor highlighting the observation skills of the surveyors. Additionally on this detail, note the name ‘Croock’ – Thomas Crook, an Englishman, took a lease on Baltimore Castle in 1605. The ‘Chapl’ below Castlehaven is probably the now ruined church at Myross, detailed in my post here.

Our photograph of old (possibly ancient) steps carved into the rocks at Dereenatra. Connie Kelleher highlights the physical remains that can be found today in many of the former pirate strongholds around the coast of West Cork. Several are in the form of frequently hidden away steps and tying-up points in remote locations. I have included references to ‘pirate steps’ in a previous post. For the full picture, don’t forget to get hold of Connie’s book: it will make an ideal Christmas present for the archaeologists and pirate enthusiasts among you!