Ilen’s End (Sweet Ilen – Part 5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robáird an Tuairisceoir Fáin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RanTF: Is this an illicit trade?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RanTF: And what are they writing about?

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

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

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

RanTF: Remarkable! What else does he say?

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

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

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

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

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

Glossary

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

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

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

West Cork Rocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Castle Island – Facts and Fictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

quoted by ireland byways.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cork County Eagle, march 7th, 1890

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.