Mizen Magic 15: Long Island

The summer sun is falling soft on Carbery’s hundred isles— 
The summer sun is gleaming still through Gabriel’s rough defiles—

(from Thomas Osborne Davis The Sack of Baltimore 1844)

Up here in Nead an Iolair (Eagle’s Nest) we look out over the Carbery Islands. There are supposed to be a hundred of them, although some are just little rocky outcrops: the tips of underwater mountains at the margins – and the mercy – of the Atlantic.

Horse Island, Castle Island and Long Island lie along the length of the coast below us. Peter Somerville-Large (The Coast of West Cork 1972) quotes a tradition that they all used to be one island:

In the latter end of March, AD 830, Hugh Domdighe being monarch of Ireland, there happened terrible shocks of thunder and lightning . . . At the same time the sea broke through the banks in a most violent manner, The Island, then called Innisfadda, on the west coast of this country was forced asunder and divided into three parts.

Long Island is still known as Inis Fada in the Irish language: the Anglicised name is a direct translation; header – the long road that winds from East to West on Long Island; second picture – the Wester village seen above the Atlantic breakers on the wild and battered far shore

We had a day’s adventure on the island, walking almost the full length of it; Finola was madly busy identifying all the wildflowers. It’s part of the magic of Long Island that we covered a distance of over 10 kilometres in the day, although the length of the island tip to tip is just over 4k. There is a regular ferry to the island from Colla Pier (not every day of the week), but we chose to travel from Schull pier with Helen of Schull Sea Safari (a whale watching trip with Helen will be a future outing for us). Our mode of transport was Helen’s very fine large RIB, the Kealtra – superbly equipped. With a hard south-easterly wind the waters were very choppy and we had to be fully kitted out for the crossing!

Upper – intrepid travellers kitted out for a choppy crossing on the Kealtra! Lower – skipper Donie taking the RIB out of Schull Harbour

After the heady excitement of a blustery crossing, stepping on to the tranquil world of Long Island is a magical experience. You are immediately aware that the place holds memories – and ghosts – but is still a community in the modern world thriving against the odds.

Everywhere there are signs of the past: abandonment, fading history, but also livings still being forged from the environment. The sadness is the obvious population decline. Looking through the available census records, a melancholic picture emerges: 1841 – population 305; 1911 – population 143; 1951 – population 74; 1991 – population 11; today – population 7 (and that’s an increase of 1 from 2 years ago). There was once a school: the decaying building is now a lonely waymark at the centre of the island’s single boreen.

The Island School – long deserted and gently decomposing

Peter Somerville-Large in conversation with the local residents during his visit half a  century ago:

I talked to Mr McCarthy, who had lived here all his life and could remember when the place had been full of fishermen all speaking a mixture of Irish and English. One by one he had watched them leave. A dozen families still remained, comprising perhaps forty people altogether. The school had shrunk year by year, to four pupils, then two – it closed after that. There was neither electricity, nor any shop – nothing to keep the young from making the short crossing over to the mainland. It would take them fifteen minutes, according to wind and weather. There they disappeared for ever. When the old ones like himself died out the place would become empty.

Contrasts at the west end of Long Island

Although there are many houses that are intact and well looked-after (a number are holiday homes), you would think that the odds were ultimately stacked against the survival of this island. Yet those who do live here full-time have tenacity – and there is fresh energy. Helen and Maurice have built their own new house and run businesses which allow them to be island based, while Castaway East is a ‘Place of New Beginnings’, a venture offering B & B or full board and – if you want – retreat packages to recharge your batteries. Peter and Tracy are also experts in garden landscaping as can be seen from the works they have carried out for themselves.

The East end of the Island: you can walk past Peter and Tracy’s ‘Island Retreat’ to the old copper mine and navigation beacon

We were pleased to find that the island’s well has been maintained and presented in excellent order – mainly by Joe, one of the Islanders. It’s a little haven, not to be missed. The day’s adventure gave us so much photogenic material – I will be returning to this magical place in next week’s post.

Long Island Wildflowers – a Reconnaissance

Robert and I set off on Tuesday for Long Island and enjoyed everything about it. See his post Mizen Magic 15: Long Island for a full account of our day. One of Roaringwater Journal’s New Year Resolutions was to spend more time on the islands and this was an excellent start! I was there mainly to take a look at the wild flowers, with a view to leading a wildflower walk there later in the year. Do let me know if you’d be interested in coming along, in the comments section below.

I’m used to seeing Bird-foot Trefoil in my garden, but here it’s spread to the stony beach and looks wonderful

Wildflowers come and go, so what I saw was a lovely selection of late spring and early summer blooms. I also got a feel for the character of the island and the habitats it hosts.

The maritime habitat was rich with Thrift, Trefoil, Kidney Vetch (also the lower photo) and Sea Campion

It would be lovely to be able to say that the island is pristine and free of invasive species, but alas we did see some Japanese Knotweed along the way. We are left scratching our heads as to how it manages to spread like that.

The uncultivated higher ground was particularly colourful, with Lousewort predominating. In this photograph you can also see the yellow of Tormentil and the pale flowers of Common Milkwort (see below for more on this Milkwort)

I don’t think I have ever seen such a profusion of Lousewort (below) anywhere else and this is one of the things that gives Long Island a particular colour at this time of year. It’s not a pretty name, for what is, in fact a beautiful little plant, but it was so called because it was believed that sheep got lice from eating it. This has never been proven, but the name stuck. Long Island, with its acres of damp moorland, provides the perfect habitat for Lousewort.

It’s also perfect for Tormentil and Common Milkwort (below). This last flower is tiny – you have to get your face up close to the grass to see it and it’s normally a deep purply-blue. However, on Long Island there were lots of very pale Milkwort, almost white. Although I knew that Milkwort came in pink and white, besides dark blue, I had only seen blue before this year. Now I have to find some pink!

The Yellow Iris (below), which most people call Flags, are in abundance in all the marshy areas, creating a colourful swath here and there. Up close, they are very dramatic. Here, it’s native and welcome, but in North America it has become invasive, choking waterways and displacing native plants.

A couple of unusual flowers to end with, beginning with Musk Stork’s-bill (below). I found this little beauty before in a graveyard in Rosscarbery but this is the first time I have seen it near where I live. It’s described as ‘probably introduced’ which means that it’s not native but has been here a long time.

The flowers of the Stork’s-bill look very like a Crane’s-bill, but the leaves are hairy and they have these funny spiky seed pods, both of which help in identification

Finally – who can resist an orchid? There are several kinds of Marsh Orchid, but I think this one (above and below) is the Irish Marsh Orchid. We saw it before on Cape Clear, so it obviously loves islands! I was glad I had my hand lens with me, as this is best viewed close up.

 

Mizen Magic 14: Lissagriffin

Lissagriffin (the fort of Griffin) lies on the south-facing slope on the northern side of the salt marshes behind Barley Cove. It is a sunny spot with panoramic views back to the hills beyond Goleen and across the salt marshes below to the dunes of Barley Cove and the sea beyond.

The Barley Cove salt marshes – sit on the wall and just listen to the breeze in the reeds

Nowadays, it’s a peaceful place of farms and pasture land, but there are clues in the landscape and the old maps and records that there was much more going on here in times past.

The most visible reminder is the ruined church, surrounded by a graveyard. Once, these lands were in the possession of the Rev Fisher  – remember him from my Saints and Soupers saga? They were associated with the Glebe Lands accruing to the Church of Ireland, which means that the rector was also the administrator of the graveyard, to whom you had to apply for permission for burial. The church and graveyard is known as Kilmoe (pronounced kill moo, meaning the the church of Muadh, although I haven’t been able to identify this saint), like the parish of the same name which occupies most of the Mizen west of Schull.

The graveyard has headstones going back to the 1700s, although I couldn’t find any from that era on my searches. All the local names are represented here, including the Burchills and the Wilkinsons of my Cousins Find Each Other post. It was in use as a burial plot during the Famine – a memorial plaque on the wall attests to this.

A feature of graveyards from this time was a watch-house, a reminder that bodysnatching was a lucrative trade. During the famine watch-houses also enabled people to be on the look out for dogs – there are accounts of dogs attempting to get at bodies barely covered by soil during this terrible time. There’s a ruined structure just inside the gate at Kilmoe (below), probably a watch-house from this time.

Like all historic graveyards around here there are many plots marked by simple stones, headstones and foot-stones, where people could not afford the services of an engraver. Remarkably, the knowledge of who is buried in some of those unmarked graves still resides somewhere, whether in church records or in the folk memory of local people. You can browse the listings of the graves here.

At the centre of the graveyard is a ruined church. It’s a very interesting structure to me, because I believe it is actually older than its normally-ascribed date. It was occupied, according to Brady’s Clerical and Parochial Records in 1581, when Dermot McCormack McCarthy was the rector and the church belonged to the College at Youghal and was dedicated to St Brendan. The Down Survey described it thus in 1700: Kilmoe : the church is ruinous, the walls that are standing are bad, built with stone and clay. The church stands about a mile from Crookhaven, to the westward near the head of Barlycove bay. 8A. of glebe on the north of the church; good land, set for £20 per an. There are the ruins of a vicaridge house joining to ye church-yard.

There are hints in the structure of the Romanesque style, which would place it in the 12th century. The east window is clearly Romanesque in construction, while the door, with its plain lintel and ‘relieving arch’ also appears so.

I am seeking some confirmation of this and will update this post if or when I get a response. The west end appears to have been two storey – the joist supports are still projecting from the wall, which means that the old ground level was lower than it is today and that the window was in the second storey. That window (below) is ogee-headed – a clearly gothic element, which means (if I am right about the west end) that it was inserted later. The whole church may have been modified many times over the years it was in use.

There is a record of a cross-inscribed stone inside the church – we have looked for this but cannot find it. It may be gone, or it may be partially buried in the long grass. There’s no sign of the vicaridge house joining to ye church-yard.

The unusual ‘buttress’ feature on the north wall

But the landscape around has other elements too – or rather had other elements. There used to be an O’Mahony Castle just to the east of the church, of which no trace remains today. We know of it from Griffiths map of the 1840’s, (below: apologies for the blurriness, it seems to be the best resolution one can get) where it is clearly marked as a ruin. While many of the O’Mahony castles were closer to the shore, this one would have benefited from all-encompassing views of both land and sea, and from proximity to the church, for worship. According to James Healy’s The Castles of County Cork, it was probably tenanted by the O’Meighans, a bardic family associated with the O’Mahony clan. Although there is nothing left, local people told Healy in the 1980s that the site was cursed and that bad luck attached to it.

The view out to sea from the church

Even older still are the numerous standing stones that dot the hillside to the east and north. The photograph below shows one – a rather stumpy example. And probably even older than those are the cupmarks reported on the rock face just to the east of the graveyard. We have searched for these too, but were defeated by the gorse and brambles.

Of unknown vintage is the bullaun across from the graveyard gate. Although bullauns are often carved in free-standing boulders, this one was scooped out of the bedrock: it is known locally as a wart well. Dip your finger in, say the requisite prayers, and your wart will disappear. We even found a small bottle for Lourdes holy water left by it on one of our visits, showing that it is believed to still possess curative powers. Robert agrees! Amanda has included it in her Holy Wells blog.

Next time you’re headed out to Barley Cove on a fine day, take a little detour up to Lissagriffin church. The views alone are worth it, although a little wander around the graveyard will do a lot to soothe your soul. 

 

Mizen Magic 13: Dunmanus Promontory

It’s geologically and archaeologically fascinating – a substantial natural promontory just to the north of Dunmanus Castle: well worth an exploration. But, do be warned – there are cliff edges, exposed fissures, ankle-wrenching undulations and bogs to overcome. Also – it’s private, so please seek permission before crossing the land.

The west side of this shark’s fin-shaped promontory is wildly exposed to the ocean and its gales. You can see from the aerial views, above, how the rock bed is bare and visible, and the vestigial fields which occupy – or once occupied – the east side peter out, and the walls and banks which once formed them fade away altogether over on the left. In fact, these Google Earth images give a better impression of the oddly shaped enclosures than can be seen on the ground.

Three examples of many varied boundary features on the promontory are shown above. Each is differently constructed and they range from a series of vertically-set slabs to rocks-and-rubble and a raised bank reinforced with stones. In the picture below, follow with your eye the boundary as it traverses the scrub and makes a large S-bend on to the ridge facing the distant horizon.

Ireland – especially the west of it – is a huge stone landscape. Wherever people have settled, they have moved the stone and used it. To make fields, or any enclosures, they have had to clear the land. The stone taken from the land is used – sometimes to build shelter, often to build myriad walls to define the holdings. Here’s a striking example from the Aran Islands:

Nothing is recorded on the National Monuments Survey about these land boundaries at Dunmanus – or the significance of the promontory as a whole. Was it once a promontory fort? There are others on this coast. It could easily have been defended along the line of the present road running across the south. However, the land is flat and low, and there is no shelter.

Flat stone surfaces – of old red sandstone – remind us of the Burren landscape in Clare, and we can suppose that the present windswept bog and scrub could once have supported agriculture. But when? In medieval times, perhaps, when the nearby Dunmanus tower house was a thriving centre of occupation and, probably, commerce. In the shelter of the bay the little quay at Dunmanus survives and is still used by small boats searching out shellfish and scallops.

In some places the old walls seem to have a prehistoric feel: the use of slabs embedded vertically like standing stones is quite unusual in West Cork. The presence of large quartz rocks, too, is reminiscent of ancient sites, although they are natural geological occurrences here.

Other natural features on the peninsula include two ‘sea arches’ – bridges formed through erosion of the rocks and chasms by the ocean.

It’s a landscape of vestigial fields, sea – and stones. Nothing more. But I find it a mesmeric place; partly because we can see that it bears the marks of human toil, and we want to know more about who was there and how they lived. It’s a remote piece of Ireland to call ‘home’. Those marks remain after how many years – hundreds, thousands? They intrigue us, and compel us to explore.

Cousins Find Each Other – Through Roaringwater Journal!

I don’t know how to put it in words, but it it means so much to have this connection to our past and our common ancestors.

These are the words of Barbara Baxter, who found her cousin, Sylvia Whitmore-Jones, when they both responded to my post on Rock Island. Their common ancestors were the Burchills of Crookhaven. Here’s the story, as they have each sent it to me, and as I have put it together. It is deeply embedded in the history of this part of West Cork and directly related to the building of that iconic lighthouse, the Fastnet Rock.

Two brothers, Charles and Arthur Nicholls, experienced stonemasons, came from Penzance in Cornwall to help build the Fastnet Lighthouse. According to Aidan Power’s book on Rock Island (Available from the author, we can put you in touch), they were employed by  John Albert Freeman who supplied all the granite for the Fastnet Lighthouse from his quarry at Penryn, Cornwall. Nicholls’ job was to assist in the erection of the tower.

The building of the Fastnet. I’d like to think that the Nicholls brothers are in this picture (Photo courtesy of Irish Lights)

It took five years to build the Lighthouse (read more about the Fastnet here) and during that time all the men were housed locally and it seems integrated well into the local community. So well, in fact, that the Nicholls brothers married two sisters: Charles married Elizabeth Burchill and Arthur married Sarah Burchill. The Burchill sisters’ parents, Michael and Sarah (Hegarty) were Church of Ireland, and lived in Crookhaven.

A third sister, Anne, married William Wilkinson (more on her below). If I am understanding the history correctly, her aunt, Michael’s sister, also called Anne, had herself married a George Wilkinson. That Wilkinson family had a farm at Gortnacarriga, just outside Goleen. The photo below is of Barbara Baxter on a visit to that Wilkinson farm a couple of years ago. 

Let’s start with Charles and Elizabeth – they are the couple in the photograph at the beginning of the post. The 1901 census has them in House number 8 on Rock Island, with a baby daughter, Annie, who is just one. When the Fastnet project was finally over, in 1904, Charles and Elizabeth went to live in Wales where they had at least one more child, a son, in 1911. Sadly, Charles, who had served in the First World War, died in the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1919 (echoes of my own family history here – same thing happened to my grandfather).

The Rock Island lighthouse and housing, seen from Crookhaven. Charles and Elizabeth lived in one of these houses

Charles and Elizabeth’s son eventually moved to Southhampton, and worked as a draughtsman in Thornycroft’s shipbuilding firm, married and had four children. The eldest of these was Sylvia Whitmore-Jones, an active and youthful 78 year-old. Here she is.

But let’s go back to Charles and Elizabeth, living in the Fastnet housing on Rock Island in 1901. Did you notice they had a daughter named Annie? I think she was so named after yet another of Elizabeth’s sisters – Anne Burchill. Anne married William Wilkinson (I think they were cousins – not uncommon in those days), an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary.

They had a daughter, Sarah Anne. They were great at keeping names in the family – no doubt Sarah Anne was called after her aunt, the Sarah Burchill who married Charles’ brother, Arthur, as well as the numerous Annes in the family. Sarah Anne Wilkinson must have been close to her Aunt Elizabeth Nichols because eventually, as a young married woman, she and her husband, John Miller, from Bantry, moved to Wales.

Sarah Anne Miller, nee Wilkinson, with her children

This photo (above) must have been taken then, when Sarah Anne and John had two children. Sarah Anne is Barbara Baxter’s great-grandmother and her grandmother is the little girl in the photo. Perhaps this was during the time when John was away in the war – he was apparently decorated three times for his service as a bombardier.

Eventually the family emigrated to America, finally settling in Connecticut, which is where Barbara Baxter grew up. Barbara is now 57 and lives in Virginia. She has led an active life filled with animals, especially horses. She wonders if her love of horses might be connected to John Miller – apparently before he left for Wales with Sarah Anne he worked with horses at Drombrow House, near Bantry. Drombrow, not surprisingly, was owned by the Wilkinson family.

Graveyard attached to the Church of Ireland (no longer in use as a church) in Goleen – Babara said in one of her emails: ‘I am related to all of the Wilkinsons and Burchills buried at the Goleen Church’ 

Sylvia and Barbara had been independently interested in their family history but had never known of each other or met (at least virtually) until both of them contacted us at Roaringwater Journal when they each saw our Rock Island post.

On her trip to West Cork in 2017, Barbara visited Three Castle Head. The Wilkinson farm is close by

I am beyond pleased that Roaringwater Journal has been the cause of bringing these two cousins together, but there’s another reason for my interest. My own dear cousin, Shauna, is also a Burchill! Although she has lived in the United States most of her adult life she is Irish and her father grew up in Bandon as a Prebyterian. She is likely to be connected to Sylvia and Barbara at some point way back in the family tree – the Burchills first came to West Cork in the 1620s as part of the Plantation of Munster. It’s a tenuous connection, but it adds an additional frisson for me – we are all connected somehow.

Shauna (right) and I, on one of her visits to Ireland

Thank you to Sylvia and Barbara for generously sharing their family stories, and to Aidan Power, whose book on Rock Island was the ultimate catalyst for all of this. It’s been a privilege to be a tiny part of it. If I have made mistakes in my relating of their stories, I hope they will weigh in with the corrected version. 

Now all we need is for the descendants of Arthur Nicholls and Sarah Burchill to join the party. C’mon – we know you’re out there.

The Mass Rock – revisited

This post was originally published way back in 2014 but I have updated it with a few new photographs and edited the text slightly.

An raibh tú ag an gCarraig? / Were You at the Rock?

nó a’ bhfaca tú féin mó grá / Or did you yourself see my love,

nó a’ bhfaca tú gile, / Or did you see a brightness,

finne agus scéimh na mná? / The fairness and the beauty of the woman?

This beautiful song speaks to a revered tradition in Irish history and folk custom – the mass rock. During the period of the Penal Laws (late 17th and first half of 18th Century) when the practice of Catholicism was outlawed, parishioners would gather at a secret location to attend mass. The priest travelled from community to community in disguise, a lookout was posted, and mass was celebrated on a lonely rock far from the reach of the law. The song encodes the message that the people still find ways to attend mass, despite the harsh prohibition against it.

Mass rocks are often in remote locations, such as this one in Kerry, or the lead image on the Beara

Dr. Hilary Bishop, in her excellent website Find a Mass Rock says, As locations of a distinctively Catholic faith, Mass Rocks are important religious and historical monuments that provide a tangible and experiential link to Irish heritage and tradition. She also points out that, because of the imperative for secrecy, mass rocks are difficult to find.

This stained glass window shows mass at a mass rock, with a lookout posted to keep an eye out for the redcoats

We certainly experienced this when we set out for a day of mass rock hunting. Working from a list generated from the National Monuments Service database we spent a day on the Sheep’s Head and the Mizen and had trouble finding all the rocks on the list. One, if it was still there, had disappeared under impenetrable layers of gorse. A second rock was last recorded in the 1980s: residents were no longer familiar with it.

One of our favourite holy wells, at Beach on the Sheep’s Head, also incorporates a mass rock. Mass is celebrated here every August

Knowledge of mass rocks has passed down from generation to generation. In the deep countryside, the sites maintain a mystique and a sense of the sacred. We’ve written about the mass rock and holy well at Beach, where Mary conjured up a blanket of fog to confuse the English soldiers and allow the priest to escape. At Beach and at our first stop, the mass rock at Glanalin on the Sheep’s Head Way, mass is still celebrated.

The Glanalin rock (above), and the one we visited on the Beara Peninsula, are good examples of the remote locations typical of many mass rocks, high on a hillside or hidden in an isolated valley. You can picture the procession of worshippers, in ones and twos, slipping silently through the bracken, pausing to make sure they are not being watched, climbing higher, following an overgrown trail, arriving at the meeting place where the hushed crowd awaits the arrival of the priest.

One of the rocks we found (above) looked for all the world like a fallen standing stone – and that’s probably what it was. (I wonder if I should go to confession, though – I’m sure that sitting on a mass rock would qualify as at least a venial sin.)

A mass rock that is easily visited is the one at Cononagh Village (above), right at the side of the main road into West Cork, the N71. This site is beautifully maintained – Cononagh is obviously proud of its heritage: signage and flowers invite the passerby to take a closer look.

The mass rock we visited last year, at Foherlagh, has a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. This one even had a small scoop-out in the rock, identified as a holy well

Another easily accessible site is Altar, at Toormore. This is a wedge tomb, probably over 4,000 years old and excavated in 1989. It remained in use through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age. Dr. William O’Brien, in Iverni, says of this site: …over time this tomb came to be regarded as a sacred place, housing important ancestral remains in what was a type of community shrine. How fitting, then, that the flat capstone of the Altar wedge tomb became, in the Penal Days, a mass rock. And how intriguing to think of the continuation of this sacred space over the course of thousands of years.

But perhaps our favourite of all the mass rocks we have visited is the one at Castlemehigan. We wrote about it here. It started out life as a cupmarked stone perhaps in the Neolithic, then probably got converted into a bullaun stone in the Early Medieval period, before finally serving as a mass rock – and it has all the stories to go with its long history.