Rossbrin Calendar

We know Rossbrin Cove intimately – more so than any other part of West cork. That’s because it’s right on our doorstep, and there is seldom a day when we don’t walk or drive along the Cove; and, even if we fail to get out, the views from our windows at Nead an Iolair will always be looking down on the Cove and its castle. I conceived the idea of sorting through all our pictures and selecting a ‘calendar’ of Rossbrin, taking us consecutively through the months of the year so that we can follow the seasons and the changes that every day brings. That’s Rossbrin Castle above, a view taken in January – which can often be atmospherically misty. But the picture below was also taken in that month, when we explored an abandoned house in the environs of Rossbrin: just as atmospheric in its own way – and bursting with a story to tell . . . But we’ll never know it.

Low tide at Rossbrin, taken from the pier and looking towards the boatyard – an important aspect of the Cove as the winter laying-up and maintenance of pleasure boats brings all-year-round life to the area and provides a livelihood. The picture above was taken in February, on a good clear day. In the middle distance you can just make out a wrecked boat uncovered by the receding water: this is the ‘Flying Foam’ – still rather enigmatic – which I wrote about a little while ago. We expect our strongest gales in February, and the picture below was taken when storm clouds began to gather.

March can also be a month when the weather is inclement (above), but we had a surprise in 2018 when snow covered the land around us (below) – a climatic event seldom experienced in Roaringwater Bay, which is more usually kept mild by the Gulf Stream. That’s Castle Island beyond the Cove – once inhabited (and with its own castle which you can see in the picture) but now just used to run sheep and cattle.

You can see how quickly the weather changes in West Cork: Rossbrin Castle Farm is enjoying blue sea and skies in April, and the gorse is in bloom, showing that love is in season! In the detail below, at the edge of the Cove and also in April, we can see the new spring growth beginning to overtake last year’s seed-heads.

By the time May arrives, boats are already being taken out of winter storage and are anchored in the Cove. We get fabulous skyscapes perched up here above Rossbrin, and these mares’ tails herald windy weather ahead.

This is one of my favourite pictures – taken by Finola from Nead an Iolair in June. Late evening sun paints the sky and sea in almost implausible colours – although the photo has not been doctored. The whole effect beautifully outlines the Fastnet Rock lighthouse on the horizon with some of Carbery’s Hundred Isles silhouetted as if floating; Rossbrin is in the foreground. By day you can see that wildflowers are abundant this month (below).

The sea in July is at its bluest. Here is Roaringwater Bay out beyond the shelter of Rossbrin on a calm day. There is hardly a ripple on the surface, except for the elegant wake of the yacht motoring in.

Nead an Iolair – our house – taken in August. You can see that Rossbrin Cove is central to our view out over the Islands. The name of the house means ‘Nest of the Eagle’, and the birds have obligingly flapped their way into the photo, courtesy of Photoshop. White-tailed Sea Eagles do survive in Kerry – not too far away – and they have occasionally been seen in West Cork. Once they were common across the west of Ireland. Below is another August picture – a wild apple tree close to the shore of Rossbrin.

I couldn’t resist adding this picture to the August tally (above): it’s an abandoned post box set into the wall of the old Rossbrin School, now closed. The school building survives as a private house and retains some of the architectural features of its previous use.

This magnificent machine is a remote-controlled boat-lift and was photographed on the large slipway which is at the western end of the Cove, last September. The Cove is a natural harbour and has been used as a resource for sheltering fishing boats and providing facilities for fish processing since medieval times. This post outlines how ‘fish palaces’ worked: there was at least one here in Rossbrin.

By October most of the boats have been taken off their moorings (above), and the weather changes again. We sometimes have the first of the winter storms this month, although it can equally be benign. Autumn brings with it dramatic skies and sunsets – and a feeling of melancholy, because the holiday houses down by the water are empty and shuttered for the onset of winter. But the weather can continue to surprise and November sunshine (below) can be as warming as any other time of year. It’s a good time for us to watch out for the wading birds – such as the curlews – who come in close to shore and forage on the mud flats.

And so we come to the end of the year in Rossbrin. This has been a fairly random selection of images, picked out because each was taken in a particular month. We know how fortunate we are to live in this rich and constantly changing environment. Not only are we surrounded by nature, but the immediate history is alive with stories – of Fineen O’Mahony, the Scholar Prince of Rossbrin, who lived at Rossbrin Castle in the 15th century and surrounded himself with a university of monks and scribes and made a fortune out of fishing dues – and of Sir William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork who exploited Rossbrin in the 17th century, also for fish. Now we look down on a sparsely populated townland and the bay beyond it: it’s a most beautiful place to know and to live in. For December I have chosen a classic view of the castle with a wintry sky and late sun creating patterns on the half-tide.

Ballydehob and Boats

Two years ago Finola wrote about the Cruinniú na mBád (Boat Gathering) in Ballydehob. When I saw that Tidy Towns have erected some new information boards down by the quay – one dedicated to the history of the pier and its importance to the town in past times – I thought it was time to revisit the whole subject of Ballydehob and boats. By chance, our friend Jack suggested that Finola might like to travel with him in his Drascombe and sail up to the quay in this year’s gathering, so we have some ‘live’ coverage of the event from our on-board correspondent! I prefer to keep my feet dry, so watched the event from the vantage point of the 12-arch railway bridge.

Header – Finola took this pic from Jack’s Drascombe of one of the fleet heading for Ballydehob this weekend, rounding the point opposite Rincolisky Castle and negotiating the mussel ropes; above – the view from the 12-arch bridge, waiting for the boats to arrive at Ballydehob Quay

Ballydehob Tidy Towns has recently unveiled two new information boards close to the quay: one (below) is all about the railway line that connected Skibbereen, Ballydehob and Schull: I had a hand in that board! The other tells the history of the harbour itself and is full of information, collected by Cormac Levis, whose forebears worked many of the boats that traded into the town. Cormac initiated the Cruinniú na mBád in 2004 and it has been going ever since, barring the occasional cancellation due to atrocious weather conditions (which can happen, even here in serene West Cork).

The new information boards enlighten us on many aspects of Ballydehob history, particularly within the vicinity of the 12-arched bridge and the quay. The view above, from Cormac’s board, shows the harbour in the early 1900s and is reproduced courtesy of the Fergus O’Connor Collection and the National Library of Ireland. Note the higher section of buildings to the right of the main warehouse – they are no longer there; they are said to have once housed seven families

The pier at Ballydehob is often called ‘the sandboat quay’ as one of the main commodities to arrive in the town was sea-sand dredged from beaches nearby and on the islands. This was rich in nitrates and minerals and was valued as a fertilizer. However, sand was only one of the commodities that came to Ballydehob; the following is an extract from an excellent piece that Cormac Levis wrote in the (now sadly defunct) Mizen Archaeological and Historical Journal, back in 1996:

On market day, which was Thursday, a long line of small two-oar and four-oar boats would make their way up the channel, lug sails set if the wind was favourable. One by one they would approach the quay, bringing people from the Skeam Islands, Horse Island and Hare Island to do their marketing. Some would have eggs and butter to sell, some would have a plough or other farm implement for the smith to repair. Wrack timber would be brought to be cut into planks or corn to be milled. During the summer months the Hare Island boats would be occupied by women only, their menfolk having migrated en masse to fish lobsters east along the coast as far as Ballycotton. On the arrival of the first letter bearing the fruits of their husband’s labours, they would set out to buy two pigs at Ballydehob Fair. Quite often, if the wind wasn’t in their favour, they would row the full four miles to Ballydehob . . . The day of a cattle fair would occasionally see the arrival of the 39ft MV Mary Patricia with cattle from Old Court or Sherkin. The 20ft Barker, driven by a 6/7 Kelvin, would visit to load up with provisions for Burke’s shop on Hare Island. A rather melancholic sight that would be seen from time to time, was that of two oarsmen making their sad way down the channel returning to one of the islands with a coffin across the gunnels of their small boat . . .

From the 1996 Mizen Journal article by Cormac Levis: a photograph of one of the sandboats from 1936, and a diagram showing the hessian dredge that was used for collecting the sand

Cormac provides good information on the sandboats – this is a short extract:

When William T Young of Ballydehob purchased the stores and quay from Jane Swanton of Skibbereen in 1899, the property was described as the ‘old stores’ and ‘sand quay’, indicating that the practice of discharging sand there was well established by that time . . . In 1885 John Collins moved to Filenamuck. There in the early 1890s he built two boats for W T Young. These sister boats were the largest of the Ballydehob sand boats, capable of carrying a cargo of 8 tons 5 cwt and were typical of the Collins design. They had a 24ft keel, an overall length of 28ft, a beam of approximately 8ft 3ins and, when fully laden, a draught of approximately 4ft 6ins. They had a very shallow keel and, unladen, they had a draught of approximately 1ft 9ins . . . One of the two boats described above came to be known as the Conqueror and the other simply as Levis’s boat, after her skipper Charlie Levis.

The Sandboat Bar in Ballydehob is still owned and run by the Levis family

Today, the harbour of Ballydehob – while as picturesque as ever – is quiet, and seldom hosts anyone travelling by water. Ballydehob Bay itself is silted up and it’s only on the highest tides of the year – when the moon is full – that boats of any size can make the journey. So we salute the intrepid voyagers who, every year, keep up the memory of a thriving waterfront that was once the heart of the community. If, like me, you are nostalgically inclined – on the day of Cruinniú na mBád, as you stand looking for the flotilla coming in on the rising flood, close your eyes slightly and imagine that you hear the sound of the whistle as a little train clatters over the viaduct behind you . . .

Finola (see her post this week for more on what’s happening here) will assure you that it’s an exhilarating and moving experience approaching Ballydehob by water: I’ll close with some more of her pictures: there was a stiff breeze with high gusts coming in – I’m amazed she managed to keep her horizons horizontal!

Moments on Heir

You will often find us visiting the inhabited islands of Roaringwater Bay. They are, after all, in full view of the panorama we see from our perch up here in Nead an Iolair (Eagle’s Nest), and easily accessible by regular ferry services. We like them because – who doesn’t enjoy a boat trip? Also, that little step from the mainland removes you to another world: places where life is lived a little differently, where you can feel slightly remote from the the most pressing issues of life, a little bit ‘on the edge’. Cape Clear, Sherkin, Long island – we have written about them all. And, today’s subject, Hare, or Heir: we have been there before but last week Finola was leading a wildflower walk on the island, and I went along for the ride, and a further exploration.

Colour on Heir: upper – Heir hedgerow, where wildflowers and garden escapees mix happily together; lower – Finola’s band of wildflower enthusiasts get caught up on the minutiae of the beach flora

It was a mixed, breezy day on the island, but dry for the group – two ferry loads and some furry four-footed minders to keep us all in order. Much time was spent poring over a myriad of plant species, some of which flourish on the West Cork islands more prolifically than on the mainland. I was interested in the land- and sea-scapes which changed quite dramatically with the movements of the tides.

Tides in and out: these two pictures near the wester end of Heir Island were taken within four minutes of each other!

A word about the island’s name: often seen on maps and signposts as ‘Hare Island’ (which of course makes my own long ears prick up!) it is supposed to have nothing to do with the animal. Today, the islanders will tell you that it derives from the past ownership of the lands by the O’Driscoll clan, and should be called Inis Uí Drisceoil (O’Driscoll Island) or Inis an Oidhre (Island of the inheritance – ie, of the O’Driscolls – or heir), hence the more usual modern name.

Yes, you can get pizzas and coffee on the island in the summer!

So is this island really a ‘Paradise’, as Finola called it in her earliest post? Undoubtedly! Away from the busy harbour it’s profoundly peaceful: bees, butterflies and wild birds are abundant. But it’s also haunted – as are the other islands of Roaringwater Bay. The past is always around you: reminders of a time when the population was far greater. The first official Irish census of 1841 showed a population of 358. The famine years caused fluctuations but in 1901 there were still 317 people living permanently on the island. Today this number has reduced to around 30 full-time residents, although there are many holiday homes on the island, and the summer population in present times can approach 150. This helps to support a cafe (above) and a restaurant (Island Cottage).

Island history: upper – Field of the Graveyard commemorates the burial of unbaptised children; lower – the Island School closed in 1976, when the resident population was around 50

Artist Christine Thery has been a full-time resident on the island for many years; her husband Gubby Williams helps with the ferry and has designed and built ‘Heir Island Sloops’. Christine is an active environmentalist and keenly involved in ensuring that Heir is sustainable and responsible in caring for its natural habitats; she was instrumental in organising Finola’s Wildflower Walk. Here is some of her work in her studio:

Heir is only a five minute ferry ride from Cunnamore Pier, yet the mainland seems a distant place once you are imbued with the innate atmosphere of island existence. The views from the north side of the island are dominated by Mount Gabriel, (pictures above). Five minutes – yet it seems such a step away from everyday life: long may beautiful Heir continue to support its fragile but tenacious resident population.

Mapping West Cork, Part 1

Old maps are magical places to get lost in. Pouring over them, trying to identify what I know now, attempting to look at the territory with a seventeenth or eighteenth century mindset – well, several hours have gone by and I realise it’s dinner time. I’m going to share some of my favourites with you in a couple of posts. Mostly, the maps I am using are from the marvellous David Rumsey Map Collection where the maps are free to use for non-commercial use under the Creative Commons license. We are very grateful to you, David Rumsey – what a service to mankind!

The first map here is by the famous Gerhard Mercator (1512-1594) and Iodocus Hondius (1563 to 1612) and it was published in an Atlas in 1607, after Mercator’s death. The map, therefore, predates the Atlas and was probably done in the late 1500s. The notes that go with the map tell us about Mercator:

Gerardus Mercator can confidently be called the greatest cartographer of the sixteenth century, he helped to establish Amsterdam as the leading center of 16th Century cartography. Gerard Mercator originally a student of philosophy, became an expert in land surveying and cartography, as well as a skilled engraver. His first maps were published in 1537 (Palestine), and 1538 (a map of the world). His most famous contribution to science is a technique of rendering the globe on a flat surface. In 1569 he published his masterpiece, the twenty-one-sheet map of the world, still known as “Mercator’s projection.

We can recognise some things in this map and not others. Croke is Crookhaven, Doun Logh is Dunlough or Three Castle Head and Doun boy is Dunboy Castle home of the O’Sullivan Beares. We can also see Roße – this is Rosscarbery, with the symbol of a church. But after that I am stumped – I am sure our clever readers will be able to identify much more.

The second map is from 1655 and it’s from Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Major. Blaeu, a Dutch cartographer, lived from 1596 to 1673 and this map is from his Atlas Maior of 1665, considered one of the greatest achievements ever in Atlas publishing. The first thing we notice, of course, is that it’s in colour. I’m not sure if this was original, added when the Atlas was created, or added later. If original, each one must have been hand-coloured.

There is much more detail now, and more recognisable elements. It’s a wonderful record of what the major sites were then – sites which nowadays hardly exist, or exist as ruins. Artenay, for example, is Ardintenant Castle, now one of the ruins of what was once a string of O’Mahony Castles. Ardintenant was the home of the Taoiseach, or clan chief, which is why it would be marked on the map. Other O’Mahony Castles are Dunmanus (Donemay) and Dunlough (Dow lough). The chief residence of the O’Driscoll clan is marked as C Perles – to this day, Baltimore is named in Irish Dún na Séad, Fort of the Jewels. Territories of the McCarthy’s, the O’Donovans, Sir Peter Carew and O’Mahonys are given, but also an O’Coner clan, about whom I have no knowledge.

What else do you recognise?

There are many more maps to explore but not all are free to download. One of the most intriguing is Jobson’s map of Munster, done for Lord Burleigh in 1589 and collected by George Carew. Although I can’t reproduce it here, you can view the complete map in the Trinity Digital collection. I can show you here a small section that I came across elsewhere – I like this because it shows the Sheep’s Head with the word ‘Rymers” across it. This, of course, is a reference to the O’Daly family, hereditary bards to the O’Mahonys and other families, and who had a Bardic School on the Sheep’s Head.

Next time, the maps get more detailed still…

Mapping West Cork, Part 2: John Speed

Return to Long Island

The very distinct, treeless landscape of Long Island seen across the water from Colla Pier, from whence a ferry service will take you over: look here for the times. Alternatively, you can contact Helen of Schull Sea Safari and travel there on her large RIB, the Kealtra – we went with her from Schull Pier: my recent post told some of our adventures.

The seven permanent human residents on the island (in 2019) are supplemented by a good few four-legged inhabitants: we met most of the latter. Once there were enough people living here to support a school. That building now stands gaunt and empty right at the centre of a single road serving the two and a half mile long strip of land that lies at the very edge of the Atlantic.

Upper – the eastern end of the road that runs the length of the island is a trackway which served the old copper mine and the navigation beacon; above – the former school still stands, but is unused and decaying

One fascination of Long Island is a sense of fragility: even though it’s only a short sea crossing from the mainland it’s a completely different world. And you inevitably wonder about its future. In 2014 – just a few years ago – Helen Selka made a film about the island. It is well worth finding and watching: at least have a look at this trailer, remembering that there have been changes since then, although much also is unchanging. The film’s title is perfect: Bleak Paradise.

Fragile lives: in the centre picture is Finnbar, one of the permanent residents of Long Island. He appears in the trailer to ‘Bleak Paradise’

The island also has the distinction of being notable in the world of philately! On 24 April 1973 four postage stamps were issued by the ‘Long Island Local Carriage Service Ltd’. This local initiative was set up to improve the postal service then provided to and from the island. It was a private concern, and disapproved of by the Department of Posts and Telegraphs of Ireland, who made it clear that:

The Irish Post Office has not, at any time, approved the establishment of a privately owned and operated carriage service by the Long Island Local Carriage Service Ltd, and that company was not given permission to issue stamps and charge rates for the carriage of mail . . .

A little piece of very local history: Long Island’s attempt to set up its own postal service, dating from 1973. It created waves with the official postal service, and provided some good fodder for collectors of ‘first editions’!

We spent a day exploring this special place, and determined to return. We will choose a different time of the year, to gain a new perspective on this tiny, inhabited landfall on the edge of Roaringwater Bay. We recommend anyone to make a visit and take in the alternative lifestyle that is governed by a minimal population and a hidden and sequestered location.

 

Cape Clear in June

This is an edited version of an account of a trip we took to Cape Clear in June three years ago

An overnighter to Cape Clear Island came mid-week – a birthday treat for Finola. We’ve been to Cape Clear before on day trips, and Robert has written about it – but this was something special. First of all, the weather was amazing the whole time – warm and cloudless. Secondly, our time-frame gave us the opportunity to do some serious exploring. Thirdly, the seas are alive at the moment with whales and basking sharks!

Sherkin Lighthouse

When the weather is fine the ferry takes the outside route around Sherkin Island. Along the way we pass the Sherkin lighthouse and many treacherous rocks, threading our way, in this instance, through shark-infested waters

The ferry to Cape Clear takes about 40 minutes normally. We were a little longer this time because the ferryman slowed and diverted to allow us time to photograph the sharks. Enormous creatures, with wicked dorsal and tail fins, they are actually peaceable fish who swim with open mouths, filtering plankton, and who are harmless to humans. We are not harmless to them, however, as we have hunted them close to extinction and they need protection in many areas.Basking shark en route to Cape Clear

This photograph was taken from the ferry

For such slow and cumbersome creatures, it was an out-of-this-world experience to watch one of them breaching in the South Harbour. It happened when we were in the bus on the way to our accommodation and nobody had their camera at the ready. But we all know what we saw.South harbour with kayaks

Just out there, in the South Harbour, we saw the basking shark leap from the water. An incredible sight!

The bed and breakfast, Ard na Gaoithe, was wonderful. Robert had told Eileen that it was my birthday – and well, would you look at what awaited us! It was the perfect place to stay – just be ready to walk the hill up to it, after a marvellous dinner at Cotter’s!

On day one we followed the way-marked trail that edges along the south side of the island. This involved a visit to the site of a Napoleonic-era signal station and the original Fastnet Lighthouse. This position for the lighthouse proved to be a major mistake, as it was so high that the light was lost in the clouds half the time. The current position, right on the Fastnet Rock, has been much more successful, and remains an iconic sight in West Cork. The remaining stump is beautifully constructed of granite blocks, while the signal tower still clings on to some of its slate covering.Signal Tower and Original Fastnet lighthouse

Our route took us along the cliffs and to a viewing point over the South Harbour. The sharks were ubiquitous, lazily swimming around with those enormous gaping jaws.Shark basking

Stone Wall 2Here and there ancient field fences poked their way out of the heather, while skylarks warned of our approach and standing stones framed a distant view.Standing Stones and Fastnet rock

Looking over the South HarbourOn day 2 we decided to make the climb to the Cape Clear Passage Grave – but I will let Robert tell that story and content myself with saying that I hope he tells you all how arduous the climb was, and how thick the gorse, so you can see how I suffer for science.

The views are immense but equally fascinating are the numerous dry-stone walls and the wild flowers everywhere. There’s still lots to explore on Cape Clear and more trips are clearly in order.Green path

West Cork Islands – they will captivate and hold you. There is no escape.Robert contemplates