Looking at Rossbrin

Last week we talked a little about the history of Rossbrin’s medieval castle, and the importance of this natural inlet as a historical centre of fishery, scholarship and European culture. Rossbrin Cove stills serves as an anchorage and refuge for sailing boats on the edge of Roaringwater Bay, but is now a peaceful haven, with only the sounds of the shore birds and slapping masts to lightly disturb an overriding tranquility that gives the place a very particular atmosphere. Our photograph (above) is taken on the boreen going to the castle; on the skyline in the centre is a wind turbine, and just below that is Nead an Iolair (Irish for Eagle’s Nest). The picture below shows the eagles wheeling over our house, with Rossbrin Castle and our view to the Cove beyond.

I have been exploring images of the Cove and its castle – some historic photographs and a few artists’ impressions. As it’s right on our doorstep, we have taken many pictures of Rossbrin during our years here. I am also sifting through a few of these.

Ten years ago, the west of Ireland experienced an exceptional snowfall, and above is a photograph taken by our near neighbour, Julian van Hasselt, before we arrived. Mostly, our weather is relatively mild due to the effects of the gulf stream on the south-western coast. The castle can clearly be seen here, beyond the fields of Castle Farm. This view of our house (below) was also taken in 2010 by our neighbours Dietrich and Hildegard Eckardt:

I showed a couple of early photographs of the castle last week. Here are two more taken before a substantial part of the ruined structure was toppled by a storm in the 1970s:

It’s good to see a bit of context, so here is another winter view of the castle on its rock with Castle Island behind. That island was also part of the O’Mahony territory. It is farmed by its present owner but no-one lives there now. You can make out the ruined castle on the island by the shore, just to the right of centre; it’s one of many that can be seen on, or close to, the shores of the Bay.

Let’s have a look at some of the art works that feature the Cove and the Castle. Jacqueline Stanley was one of many artists who was attracted to the beauty of West Cork. Now in her nineties, she moved from England to Ireland in the mid 1970s and purchased the old School House at Rossbrin as a country retreat: it has only recently changed hands.Here are two of her works, depicting Rossbrin. You can find more on her website.

I particularly like this view (above) which was painted by Jackie from the vantage point above the high road going down to the Cove, close to the remains of the copper mine at Ballycumisk. Last week I showed a painting by Geraldine van Hasselt, Julian’s mother, also from the 1970s. Every painting or photo is a historical document – and important to retain, in view of the fragile nature of the structure today.

Our friend Peter Mabey is an architect and artist. He has lived in West Cork for a long time: he and I were at college together in Kingston, Surrey, and were surprised to meet each other by chance in Skibbereen market a good few years ago now. Above is one of his attractive watercolours looking down towards the Cove. The vantage point looks remarkably like the one chosen by Jackie Stanley. Below is a drawing of Rossbrin from the monumental work The Castles of County Cork by the late James N Healy, published in 1988 by Mercier:

The ruin is a romantic reminder of past times, enhanced by the changing weather moods of Roaringwater Bay. This photograph, by Finola, emphasises the character of the place:

I can’t resist finishing this little two-part foray into the medieval remnants of our historically significant ‘centre of culture and learning’, which now languish on the edge of the waters below us with an artist whose work we admire: Peter Clarke, who writes and illustrates the Hikelines blog. His watercolour sketches are exquisite and always atmospheric. He has kindly allowed me to use his portrayal of Rossbrin Castle as my tailpiece. Thank you, Peter – and thank you to all the other artists who have been inspired by this remote and beautiful part of Ireland.

The Castle of Rossbrin

It was just Raven and I, down at Rossbrin today. We were both inspecting the O’Mahony stronghold which has stood here for, perhaps, 800 years in one form or another. Peter Somerville-Large explored the area and its history in the early 1970s:

Down beside a narrow inlet which empties at low tide stands Rosbrin, the most easterly of the O’Mahony castles. Like the O’Driscolls, the O’Mahonys had a passion for building castles: they built twelve, and six survive, all overlooking or right on the edge of the sea. They shared with the O’Driscolls one of the finest fishing grounds in Europe, controlling the waters and exacting dues from visiting fishing boats in much the same way. ‘None of the fisheries of Munster are so well known,’ wrote an observer in 1688, ‘as those of the promontory of Ivaha, whereto a great fleet of Spaniards and Portuguese go, even in the midst of winter . . .’

The Coast of West Cork, 1972

Neither Raven nor I would be deterred by the winter weather. On a day of hard frost followed by blue skies and sunshine, nowhere could be more beautiful than Rossbrin, and nothing could be more poignant than the quiet remoteness of this western corner of Ireland, once considered ‘the greatest centre of learning in Europe’. I walked in the company of the wisest of the corvids over the vanished ruins of a great university.

Finnin O’Mahony – Taoiseach, or chieftain, of the clan – as he may well have looked in the latter part of the fifteenth century (above): cultured, fashionable, flamboyant even, and powerful. It’s sobering to think that, while Columbus was following in the footsteps of Saint Brendan to rediscover the New World, scholars and scribes were busy on the shores of Roaringwater Bay writing and translating treatises, medical manuscripts and historical accounts of travellers busy in their quests to prove the earth may not be flat after all . . .

The Annals of Ulster tell us that Finghinn Ó Mathúna of Rossbrin Castle who died in 1496 was an acclaimed historian of the then known world. And, the Annals of Connaught lauded him as ‘a great scholar in Irish, Latin and English’. The Annals of the Four Masters referred to Finghinn Ó Mathúna as being unmatched in Munster for hospitality and scholarship. The O’Mahony territory was inclusive of today’s parishes of Dromore and Caheragh and all the lands westwards to Mizen Head. Finghinn made Rossbrin Castle both his residence and a rendezvous for Irish scholars . . . Most writers who laud the scholarship of Finghinn Ó Mathúna lament the loss of many of Rossbrin Castle’s manuscripts . . .

From an article by Alfie O’Mahony in the Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, 2010

Roaringwater Bay – the view to the south, today, from Rossbrin. In the foreground is Horse Island, and beyond is the profile of Cape Clear, also a place of learning to this day: students of the Irish language spend time on the island, one of the Gaeltacht areas where Irish is still the native tongue. One of the reasons for Finghinn being so expert in languages himself was the desire to communicate with the visiting fishermen whose needs provided him and his clansmen with a good living. As well as a celebrated place of learning, Rossbrin Cove would have supplied fish palaces and all the trappings of the industry: barrels and salt for preserving, victuallers, alehouses, brothels . . . It must have been a boisterous and vibrant place.

Peter Somerville-Large gives a commentary on the more recent history of the castle:

One wall of the splintered tower has a crack running down the side. Another was partly blown down by a storm in 1905. If there is another great storm like that one, Rosbrin might well disappear without trace, like the O’Mahony castles at Ballydevlin, Castle Meighan and Crookhaven. It is sited on an area which is very difficult to approach from either land or sea, standing on a rock. Contrary to what might be written in Holy Scripture, buildings on rocks have little in the way of foundation, and when they fall down or are swept away there is nothing left of them except a memory . . .

To the south of the rock on which the castle stands are the vestigial remains of an ancient stone quay (above), still in use as a landing place. The Cove itself – a natural haven – would have been the main harbour area serving the fishing fleets. The castle stands sentinel above the harbour entrance, ensuring that no-one could approach unseen.

I have been looking for older illustrations of the castle, in order to ascertain how much erosion is taking place as the years go by. Here’s a fascinating record of an O’Mahony Clan Gathering, photographed in 1975 by Michael Minihan of Skibbereen. There is a lot more of the building intact at that time. Can you see the spectators high up on the walls and roof?

As most of you will know, we look down on Rossbrin Cove and Castle from our eyrie up at Nead an Iolair. We consider anyone living on or by the Cove a neighbour. One of these is Julian, the first to welcome us when we arrived here many years ago. On my walk today I called in on him – he lives next door to the Castle Farm. I was over the moon when he showed me a portrayal of the Castle which his mother, Geraldine, painted in the 1970s, only a year or so after the gathering above. Clearly, a substantial part of the castle walls has gone in that short time.

Rossbrin Castle, painted by Geraldine van Hasselt in the 1970s (above). Best of all, though, is a photograph of Julian – her son – taken at Easter, 1969:

Julian van Hasselt on Rossbrin shore: behind him is a clear view of the castle. You can see the vertical crack which eventually led to the collapse of half the tower.

At this time of the year we get excellent sunsets when the weather is right. Today’s was a good one! I reluctantly said goodbye to Raven, my companion whose constant cronking seemed to follow me as I perambulated this place of deep history. I wonder: was it just Raven? Or might it have been Finghinn himself, speaking to me in yet another of his languages? I think I’ll have to return to Rossbrin to find out!

With many thanks to friends Julian and Raven . . .

Heir Island Bread School – Revisited

A version of this post was originally written way back in 2013 but guess what? Patrick and Laura are still running their bread school on Heir Island, and are about to add a new one in Wicklow too. This is a live-in-the-memory experience and I heartily recommend it to anyone. Makes a great Christmas present! Check out The Firehouse website for more details and to register your interest – these course sell out fast! The bakery/cafe is now based in Delgany, Co Wicklow, and is a superb, and award-winning, spot for coffee or lunch.

What follows now is the post from 2103, but edited and updated. Apologies for the photo quality, these were my pre-proper camera days. But Robert and I, you will not be surprised to hear, don’t look a day older. Right?

January 2013: We got the most incredible Christmas present from Noah, Robert’s son! It was a day of learning to bake bread at the Firehouse Bakery on Heir Island, about a 20 minutes drive from Ard Glas. While Robert had some experience of baking with yeast, I had none, and considered myself yeast-phobic.

Our day started at 10:00AM with the short ferry ride to the  Island. (For more on Heir Island, see our post Heir Island – a Modern Paradise). We were picked up by Laura Moore who drove us back to the house/school/bakery and plied us with coffee and brownies to get us in the mood. The baker/instructor is Patrick Ryan, who ran his own bakery in Bath, England, and has written the inspirational The Bread Revolution with his bakery partner. He plunged us right into the process by introducing his four students to our bowl of sourdough, explaining what is was and how it worked. Patrick is passionate about sourdough and making real bread and feels many wheat and gluten intolerances (other than Coeliac Disease, of course) may be related to modern mass-baking methods.

Then it was all mixing and kneading and scraping until we had a loose ball of dough which was set aside to prove while we got on with the next project – in my case a granary ‘bloomer’ and pull-apart buns and in Robert’s some baguettes.

We moved on from there to muffins, flowerpot bread, orange cake, brownies, cookies and soda bread. I thought I was on more solid ground with whole wheat soda bread but this was soda with a twist – each of us made a different version. We made thyme, mustard and cheddar; apple and cider with caraway; honey, blue cheese and walnuts; and roast butternut squash and cheddar and each version took different shapes, including mini-muffin shapes.

All our bread was baked in Patrick’s custom-built outdoor oven, heated by burning logs inside it. At the end of the day we sat around a table eating Laura’s excellent soup and pasta – she had been cooking away all day as we were baking – with samples of our own bread. We divided all the bread between the four of us and headed back to the ferry. We have a freezer full of bread, a fistful of recipes, directions for sourdough starter, a sense of accomplishment, and memories of a warm and friendly learning atmosphere. What I don’t have? Yeast-phobia!

No Wrens Were Harmed in the Making of this Post!

Wran Hunting has featured before in Roaringwater Journal: that’s the way that St Stephen’s Day – 26 December – has been celebrated for generations in ‘Celtic’ parts of western Europe, specifically Ireland and The Isle of Man, but also in Cornwall – where it’s now only a memory – Brittany, Wales and Scotland. ‘The Wran’ is a very strong surviving tradition here, especially on the west side of the country. The Dingle Gaeltacht is the place to go if you want to see all the action (click on the bottom right of the window to turn on the sound):

In our own Ballyedhob community ‘The Wran’ is not forgotten. In fact you can even find a poem written about it in the Duchas folklore records. This was recorded in the 1930s by John Levis, aged 32, who took it down from Jeremiah Driscoll, aged 64 years. Jeremiah had been a Wren Boy in Ballydehob. Here’s the poem:

Come all you ladies and gentlemen,

For tis here we come with our famous wran

With a heart full of cheering for every man

To rise up a booze before the year is gone.

 

Mr O’Leary we came to see,

With our wran so weak and feeble,

The wran is poor and we can’t feed him,

So we hope your honour will relieve him.

 

We’ve hunted our wran three miles and more

We’ve hunted this wran all around Glandore

Through hedges and ditches and fields so green,

And such fine sport was never seen.

 

As we copied our wran again

Which caused our wran-boys for to sing,
She stood erect and wagged her tail,
And swore she’d send our boys to jail.

 

As we went up through Leaca Bhuidhe

We met our wran upon a tree,

Up with a cubit and gave him a fall,

And we’ve brought him here to visit you all.

 

This the wran you may plainly see,

She is well mounted on a holly tree,

With a bunch of ribbons by his side

And the Ballydehob boys to be his guide.

 

The wran, the wran, the king of all birds,

St Stephen’s day he was caught in the furze,

Although he is little, his family is great,

So rise up landlady and fill us a treat.

 

And if you fill it of the best,

We hope in Heaven your soul will rest,

But if you fill it of the small,

It won’t agree with our boys at all.

 

To Mr O’Leary and his wife

We wish them both a happy life,

With their pockets full of money, and their cellars full of beer,
We now wish a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

 

And now, our song is ended, we have no more to say,

We hope you’re not offended for coming here today,

For coming here this morning we think it is not wrong,

So give us our answer and let us all be gone.

By good fortune there’s ‘Mr O’Leary’ above! He’s the landlord of Levis’ Corner House Bar in Ballydehob – which is the subject of Finola’s post today. He’s on the left in the upper picture, looking on at the Wran Workshop which he allowed to take over his pub yesterday. Basically that involved covering the whole place in straw out of which, magically, appeared a whole lot of wonderfully crafted Wran masks. Joe is wearing a fine example in the lower picture.

The afternoon started outside, in Levis’ garden, where we were all given guidance on preparing the straw. We had to strip away the leaves and any heads which had been left behind, and produce bunches suitable to be plaited and then turned into ropes which would form the basis of the  hats or ‘masks’ traditionally worn to disguise the wren hunters.

On the right here you can just catch a glimpse of workshop maestro Sonia Caldwell, inspecting another fine mask. Sonia is determined that Ballydehob will embrace the Wran tradition (vestiges of which have appeared on the streets over the years) and re-energise it in the way that only this West Cork village’s vibrant community knows how. I can just imagine that in a couple of years’ time people will be flocking to see ‘The Wran’ in the same way that they flock to the Jazz Festival and all the other festivals and events that happen annually here.

Finola and I were at the workshop, and there I am with work in progress on the straw mask which we made (upper picture). You’ll notice that I’m wearing ‘tatters’: I’ve had these for years, and I used to don them for our own mumming tradition in Devon which also happened on 26 December (that’s me with the squeezebox mumming in the 1970s! – lower picture). Over there we called St Stephen’s ‘Boxing Day’ because that was when ‘Christmas boxes’ were given to the postman, the milkman and anyone else who provided their services through the year. Interestingly, Kevin Danaher mentions the ‘Wran box’ which was taken around the houses by the wrenners (or Wran Boys) and used to collect money ‘for the Wran’. This illustration of a Wren box from County Galway is from Danaher’s book The Year in Ireland:

The workshop in Levis’ was very well attended, and there is clearly great enthusiasm for reviving this custom. Sonia collected the straw at the annual Thrashing in Ballydehob – which is a traditional harvest celebration. It’s not easy to find the right straw for making the masks nowadays: anything that has been through a combine harvester has been flattened and will not survive the plaiting.

It’s a complex process, but the group coped well in acquiring the new skills under Sonia’s tutelage. You can see for yourself how successful the day had been in the last picture below. The making – every year – has always been part of the tradition where it’s still practised today. Sometimes the straw masks (which are only one part of the ‘disguise’) are destroyed after Stephen’s. In some of the Dingle traditions they are ritually burned on the following St Patrick’s Day.

Sonia is holding a further workshop – also at Levis’ Corner Bar – next Thursday 28 November at 7pm. It’s free to attend: please come and join in: you’ll learn more about the history of The Wran, and there’s likely to be some music too! And then on Stephen’s Day itself it’s out into the boreens and byways of Ballydehob to look for a wren . . . Don’t worry – the days are long gone when our (almost) smallest bird would lose its life: it’s a token hunt, the point of which is the disguising, the visiting around the streets, and the celebrations afterwards, which will extend late into the night!

Many thanks to Pól Ó Colmáin for providing this wonderful photograph of the results of the workshop!

We are on Twitter!

You wouldn’t want to do anything too hastily, like. We’ve only been blogging since 2012 –  beavering away, week after week, to let you all in on the epic stories and fabled landscape of West Cork (that’s Ballydehob Bay above, taken today). That’s seven years, 665 posts, four thousand regular followers, four hundred thousand visitors and about three quarters of a million views. About a third of you come from Ireland, two sizeable chunks of you from the USA and the UK, then Canada and after that it’s the United Nations of Readers. There’s a couple of African countries where we have yet to find a reader – and Greenland. Come on, Greenland!

Our beat – the Mizen Peninsula, from the top of Mount Gabriel

We’ve been called “West Cork’s premier Arts and Culture blog” and “…The wonderful literary and visually rich website . . . is a treasure, a sort of 21st century Robert Lloyd Praeger, online…” We’ve had letters and comments from all over the world, some of which have led us down all kind of interesting avenues for further research. It’s been humbling and exhilarating and we are grateful for all your support.

You can expect lots of archaeology – still working on more posts about stone circles, like this one at Ardgroom on the Beara

In all that time, we’ve operated across two platforms. First our blogging platform, WordPress, and second, Facebook, which we joined in Sept 2014. Both are marvellous, user-friendly (well, most of the time) services that have allowed us to connect to our readers and promote both our blog and West Cork. As a couple of retired professionals with average techie skills, that’s been a godsend.

From the Big Picture to something hard to see with the naked eye – these tiny Pixie Cup lichen are growing in our own garden

And now we are venturing from the Blogosphere to the Twitterverse. We’ve set up a Roaringwater Journal Twitter account, with the handle @RoaringwaterJ. We’ve tweeted a few recent favourite posts just to get us started, and will be tweeting all our new posts as they are published, and maybe the odd photograph or two as well.

We’re planning to look in depth at the wonderful Murphy Devitt stained glass windows in Cork soon. Here’s one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse from a MD window in Newbridge College

Don’t worry, Facebook Friends – we are staying on Facebook too. But if you have a Twitter account, please do drop by @Roaringwaterj and hit that Follow button. It’s taken us 7 years to get here, after all.

Walking West Cork – Another of the Fastnet Trails

We’re well into November, yet clear, dry days abound and we are drawn out into the lanes of West Cork. There are so many to choose from, and all are quiet, although we will always find someone to share a chat along the way. Yesterday we donned our boots and followed another of the Fastnet Trails – the Ilen River Loop. In fact, the boots were unnecessary as the whole route is on virtually deserted paved roads. If that sounds unexciting, let me tell you it isn’t: wherever you go in West Cork you won’t be short of sweeping green landscapes, broad views – mostly over mountain or water – and fragments of engrossing history jumping out to meet you.

We started at the Lisheen trail head and covered the 8 kilometers in a bit over two hours. This did include some dawdling and chatting: in Ireland the latter is unavoidable, and applies to everyone you meet. With us were friends Amanda and Peter, and you’ll find Peter’s Hikelines account of the expedition here: his watercolour illustrations can only be described as ‘exquisite’.

Look carefully (above) at the line of sea on the horizon: just visible is the unmistakeable silhouette of the Fastnet Lighthouse, justifying this route as a part of the Fastnet Trails network. It’s a wonderful asset for locals and visitors. You could simply drive along these routes, of course, but you just won’t get to see the details and appreciate the beauty. On foot you can pause at every turn and on every brow to properly take in the delectable countryside. And the network of trails is expanding – new routes are being developed at the west end of the Mizen: here’s another of Peter’s posts.

There are views to the north as well, looking into Ballydehob Bay which Jeremy Irons’ ochre coloured Kilcoe Castle dominates. Above the water can be seen the islands of Roaringwater Bay and the ridges of the Mizen and Sheep’s Head, and even the high peaks of the Beara Peninsula beyond. But we must focus on the subject of this trail, which is the broad estuary of the Ilen River as it winds inland, feeding into the woods and pastures of West Cork, narrowing but remaining tidal right up to Skibbereen: schooners used once to berth on the five quays serving that town.

All along the coastline and river estuaries in West Cork are reminders of how important transport by water once was. Dozens of quays are still here, in good working order – there was a drive to revive and restore the more significant ones some years back. Also there are traces of more ancient ones which are slowly decaying into nature. All were put there to serve the isolated rural communities in the days when boreens were only narrow tracks, often impassable in the winter months. But on these western peninsulas no-one is more than a few miles from navigable water – and those quays were an invaluable asset.

Our route passed right beside the Glebe Quay, where we came across the hull of an old fishing boat and – by chance – one of its former owners! Here we are, ‘at the chat’, above. This became a long ‘chat’ – as I was most intrigued to find out why this large vessel was sitting here in a deteriorating state – but we had to cut it short in the end as we were getting cold standing still! Our informant was Mike Williams, who Finola and I have met before: he lives on the shore of the Ilen River and has been involved in boats and boatbuilding for much of his life. He bought this former herring ring-netter some years ago with the intention of restoring her, but sold the vessel on to another enthusiast. The project did not succeed, however, and now the boat is on its way to the marine scrap yard – a sad but inevitable fate for many retired wooden craft.

I did a bit of internet delving and was pleased to turn up some historical information on this boat, which Mike told us was named Ribhinn Bhan. Ribhinn comes from the old Irish word rhigan meaning ‘maiden’, while bhan in Irish means ‘white’. This vessel started life with the name Ribhinn Donn – ‘brown-haired maiden’, and was built in Scotland by Nobles of Girvan in 1966. She was first registered in Scalpay Isle – Sgalpaigh na Hearadh in Gaelic, one of the Outer Hebrides, close to Harris – and carried the number SY 371. She was renamed in 1973 and reregistered as B23 in 1989. She arrived in Tarbert, Co Kerry, Ireland in 2004, and Mike bought her in 2006. I’m including these two not-so-good quality photos of Ribhinn Bhan, which I traced, for historical interest: the first is the vessel in Tarbert, and the second  follows her to West Cork; she is on the right, here, in the boatyard at Oldcourt, on the Ilen River, in 2007.

Moving on from the Ribhinn Bhan our path followed the line of the estuary, rising up to higher ground before turning back towards the trail head at Lisheen. There were many more sweeping views to be enjoyed, and the delight of being immersed in the simple ambience of rural life in West Cork, with all its unremarkable yet irresistibly attractive details. 

We passed the quite remote but still running Minihan’s Bar – an ideal refreshment point on summer evenings – but not open for us on this November afternoon. The also remote seeming Saint Comghall’s Church, built in 1832, marked the return to the trail head and the end of our walk. It was a most satisfying expedition on a remarkably golden late autumnal day.

Up-to-date information on all the Fastnet Trails – including this one – can be found on this website. Our Roaringwater Journal has also written up a few more of them. Give them a try, if you haven’t already done so . . . Enjoy!