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 . . .

Levis’s of Ballydehob: Behind the Shop Counter

It’s a storied kinda place – everyone who has ever been to Ballydehob knows it and everyone has something to tell you about that time when . . .

It was run by two sister, the famous Nell and Julia Levis, as a shop and a pub. The shop was on one side and the pub on the other – a familiar layout in rural Ireland.

The shop side is all set up for a music gig in the upper photo

For a wonderful introduction to Levis’s I heartily recommend the documentary Keeping the Doors Open, one of the RTE Docs on One series, this one by Leanne O’Donnell. Made in 2014 it tells the story of the passing of Nell and Julia’s banner to the next generation, Joe and Caroline, who have re-invented it as the unlikeliest of music venues. Unlikely, because it still looks exactly as it did in Nell and Julia’s day. But highly successful – just take a look at its list of awards and browse the upcoming acts.

Sulphur Cake – what on earth . . .?

And those acts take place behind the counter and in front of the old grocery shelves. It’s surprisingly effective – a juxtaposition of old and new, of the domestic and the artistic. Try driving through Ballydehob on the night of a gig, with people spilling out into the street and others arriving in the hopes of somehow squirming into the already packed pub. Amazingly, they usually succeed. 

In the last couple of years the grocery side stars again! Every Wednesday local producers arrive with their vegetables, breads and juices and the place comes alive once more as a mini farmer’s market. You have to get there early!

And of course it’s still very much a village pub, where locals and visitors can go for a drink and the chat of an evening. And occasionally it does a stint as a workshop – see Robert’s post today on making ‘Wran’ hats. Nothing on the shelves in the grocery side is for sale any more. Most of reached its ‘best before’ date over 20 years ago, if not longer.

Joe (Nell and Julia’s grand-nephew) allowed me some time on my own over the last couple of days to take a good look at the shelves on the grocery side and this post is a photo-homage to those shelves. They represent only a section of what’s there, gently resting under layers of dust and memory.

Need some basic groceries? Some cleaning supplies or sewing notions? How about tobacco or sweets? And because Ballydehob was a haven for artists (and we have our own Arts Museum to prove it) you might run out of oils or pastels at the wrong moment.

All that medicinal stuff our mothers used to dose us with – Syrup of Figs, anybody? Looks like that kind of thing was in demand in Ballydehob. And if all else failed, well there was always an appeal to Lourdes.

We all love a bit of nostalgia, don’t we? What do you see that you remember from childhood? What stories do these images conjure up for you?

And when are you coming over for a pint?

 

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!

Mizen Mountains 2 – Lisheennacreagh

In this series I’m visiting and recording all the ‘mountains’ on the Mizen Peninsula in West Cork. I’m defining a mountain as any summit over 200m above sea level. If I hear you crying out ‘shame!’ – as a mere 200m peak can’t possibly be a mountain – then I can say our country is defined by its undulations, and here in the far west of Ireland all our outcrops, however modest, are dramatic and offer striking views over the landscape, such as the one above which looks north-west across Dunmanus Bay towards the Sheep’s Head, seen from this week’s climb.

Upper – approaching the ridges from the Schull direction, the three peaks of Corrin (left), Lisheennacreagh (centre) and Derrylahard (right) are set out before us. Lower – a closer view: Lisheennacreagh is on the left: its summit is hidden behind the forestry plantation

Last week we explored at the western end of the peninsula, where Knockatassonig – at a height of 204m – only just crept into our ‘mountain’ category. This week – much further to the east – we are more secure, as my chosen destination comes in at 274.6m. It’s actually higher than it looks as neighbouring Mount Corrin (no doubt about that one!) peaks at 288m, and appears much more of a climb from below. Today’s summit is not named on any map, so I’m probably courting controversy by calling it Lisheennacreagh, after the townland in which, by my calculations, the highest point is located. Have a look at the aerial view below:

The pink shading shows the outline of part of the large townland of Coolcoulaghta, the southern boundary of which takes a sinuous course to include the summit of Mount Corrin. Over in the east, however, our high point is exactly on the boundary between the townlands of Coolcoulaghta and Lisheennacreagh – a boundary which is physically defined at that point by a substantial fence, whose course – part of the Sheep’s Head Way Mt Corrin Loop route – we followed all the way up to this summit from the designated car parking area on the Rathuane to Durrus road. After much on-site pondering, I decided to give the summit to Lisheennacreagh, as Coolcoulaghta townland already claims Corrin!

Upper – Finola is heading out for the high ground: the summit is in the far distance, beside the forestry plantation. Lower – looking back from the ascent, high Mizen summits are set out: Corrin is in front of us and Mount Gabriel is in the distance to the left

According to the place name records surveyed in 1841, Lisheennacreagh (Irish Lisín ne Cré) means Little fort of the preys or plunders – I was hoping I might find some traces of ancient earthworks on this summit, but there is nothing visible: buried deep in the inaccessible forest is a scheduled monument, described as a hachured univallate enclosure with a diameter of 22m. In fact it’s not possible to complete this loop walk at all, as the way to the next high point – Derrylahard, 301.7m – passes through heavy forestry, but access has been blocked by storm damage earlier in the year.

Above – autumnal shades of rough grazing continues all the way over the summit: you can go only as far as the next section of forest. Our companions on the walk were just a few ponies

It may seem a fairly featureless walk, but it was well worth the efforts for the superb views in all directions. We were lucky with the day: the mild weather this year has continued right through September and well into October. The mixture of blue skies and scudding clouds emphasises the contours, shadows and natural features, wherever you look.

Rewarding views from the Lisheennacreagh climb: upper – looking across Roaringwater Bay to Baltimore; lower – Cape Clear in the far distance, with another view of Gabriel, the most dominant feature of our Mizen landscape

I found some entries from the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection, for Durrus School. I could not find anything specific to Lisheennacreagh, but I liked this introduction to ‘My Native Townland’ from Brenda MacCarthy dated May 9th 1938:

I live in the townland of Coolcolaughter away out in the country, far from any stuffy unpleasant town or city, and almost two miles from the village of Durrus. My home is at the foot of the mountain in a quiet peaceful valley where my father tills, and sows, and reaps, from dawn to dark year in year out, happy and prosperous, and thankful to God for health and existence . . .

One aspect of Lisheennacreagh is that it is one of the more accessible peaks. There’s a place to park your car (with a fine view looking out to Durrus!), good signage and waymarks. Once the path is repaired beyond this summit, you can go on to Derrylahard (which will be the subject of a future post) and complete the loop by going round Glanlough to Durrus, then back over Corrin – a marathon 17km in all. Choose a good day and you couldn’t hope for a more inspiring hike.

Good accounts of this route and the whole Sheep’s Head system of trails can be found in Amanda and Peter’s book Walking the Sheep’s Head Way – Wildways Press, 2015. Also, have a look at this Living the Sheep’s Head Way post.