The White Hound of Brigown

Fanahan head and half moon

Saint Fanahan is venerated in Mitchelstown, Co Cork. A holy well, a college, a couple of medieval churches and lots of Mitchelstown boys, all bear his name. What’s incontrovertible, then, is that he is the patron saint of Mitchelstown. Or is it? He’s also know as St Fionnchú of Bangor (pronounced Finn Coo, meaning white or fair hound). Same guy. He succeeded the Abbot of Bangor, Comgall, but departed subsequently to end up near Mitchelstown.

Fanahan well from bridge

St Fanahan’s Well

But wait – he is also the patron saint of Blow-Ins! At least, that’s what a local man told us when we visited Fanahan’s holy well. Apparently, Fanahan came from the North of Ireland but eventually settled at Brigown near Mitchelstown in Cork. He wasn’t a local, so why not? We blow-ins deserve a patron saint, don’t we? He’s also probably the most muscular saint I’ve ever come across! He was a warrior-monk, famed for both his holiness and his strength in battle. No gentle, man of peace here!

Book of Lismore

How do we know about these early Irish saints? In Fanahan/Fionnchú’s case, we can rely on a Whitley Stokes bookcomplete Life, recorded in The Book of Lismore, a 15th century collection of hagiographies and histories. Take a look at this video to learn more about The Book of Lismore. We are fortunate that there are translations – the one I am using today was done by Whitley Stokes in 1890 and is available online. Stokes, a distinguished scholar whose work is still vital, uses a kind of high Victorian language that manages to be a noble translation of the original Old Irish. 

You might perhaps want to make a cup of tea at this point – this is going to take a little while – Fanahan/Fionnchú’s is quite a story. Ready now?

Even in the womb, Fionnchú had extraordinary powers, once saving his mother’s life by causing a cloak of darkness to surround her. A great future was prophesied for him that

He will attack the valourous, He will overwhelm the guilty,

He will seek crowned kings, He will be the tree of Tara’s correction,

Who will benefit Liffey, And profit Leinster.

In his youth he was fostered by Comgall, the Abbot of Bangor. Fionnchú performed several miracles while he lived with Comgall: So these are Findchua’s three miracles after he came to Bangor, to wit, making flagstones of the horses of the king of Ulaid; and raising the earth around the king to his knees; and burning his tutor’s cowl by the fury of his anger

Fanahan White Hound

The white hound, Cusson Sculpture in Mitchelstown

Fionnchú then spends seven years as Abbot of Bangor. After spending the seven years Fionnchú is expelled from Bangor and from the whole of Ulaid [Ulster] because of the scarcity of land. Then Findchua comes from Ulaid, from the north, till he came, through the urging of an angel, to the men of Munster and to their king, even to Cathal, son of Aed, to Cashel; and the king gives him a welcome and ordains to him his choice of land in Munster. Said Findchua: Tis not permitted to me to have land save in the place in which my bell will answer me without the help of any man. Said Cathal : Search Munster till thy bell answers thee, and the place in which thou shalt set up, thou shalt have without contention with thee.

Fanahan cross back

After many vicissitudes Fionnchú and his band finally settle down in the place where his bell answers him. His enclosure is arranged, and his houses are covered, and his households are allotted to the nine other townlands which the king of Munster had in residence.

The King of Déise’s son comes to see him and Findchua gave him, as a soul-friend’s jewel, his own place in heaven. So then there came to him seven master-smiths who dwelt near him, and they made for him seven iron sickles whereon he might abide to the end of seven years, so that he might get a place in heaven; for he had given his original place to the king of the Deisi. He blesses the smiths of that place, and left them continually the gift of handiwork, provided that they should perform or begin it in that place, and palm of masters to them. The smiths ask him to give their name to the place in reward of their work, that is, Bri Gobann (Smiths Hill). Fionnchú spends seven years hanging on his sickles, unable to touch the ground.

Fanahan head

Fanahan, from the Ken Thompson Sculpture at the holy well

He did get one break when he marched off to battle to save the armies of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who were being attacked by marauders. In Fionnchú’s rage sparks of blazing fire burst forth out of his teeth destroying all before him. Returning to Brigown, Fionnchú resumes hanging from his sickles. He also spends the first night with any new corpse brought to be buried at Brigown, emerging in the morning, and allows his body to be eaten by beetles. All these mortifications of the flesh cause his fame for holiness to spread far and wide.

Fanahan Garda Station

The Fanahan sculpture in Mitchelstown is by renowned artist Cliodhna Cussons

He performs various other miracles, including breast feeding a baby, Finntan, the son of Nuada, King of Leinster. Eventually, he goes off to battle for that king too. After that, the King of Ulster invades Munster (his wife wants the Munster kingship for her sons, and was not to be gainsaid, apparently) and the King of Munster, Cathal, sent for Fionnchú (no rest for the wicked!) because he promised me that, whenever stress of war should be on me, he would come with me to battle to help me, having with him the Cennchathach, even his own crozier.

Head at Fanahan well

This head has been inserted into a wall at the holy well. He looks like a victim of the Head Battler

The Cennchathach (head battler) was duly deployed in a great battle. The Ulster men roared and bellowed like stags in heat, and charge from the top of the hill. The cleric seeks the slope beyond them and leaves the hill to them. The Ulaid bent down eagerly to deliver the battle. When Findchua perceived that, he took them in that position and allowed them not to rise up beyond their knees, and breaks the battle upon them against the height. Therefore Findchua left the Munstermen, from that time forward till Doomsday, to defeat foreigners and every host besides when charging down a height; and verily this is fulfilled. [Note to self – must let the Munster Rugby team know this vital information.]

Brigown Church

The old abbey at Brigown is associated with Fanahan. A round tower once stood here but eventually burned down

Having performed several miracles, and been merciful to the remaining Ulster men, Fionnchú returned once more to Brigown. However, his peace was short lived as, you guessed it, ‘foreigners’ started to make life very difficult in Connaught, so of course, they sent for Fionnchú. Then through the mighty powers of the cleric a terrible heat seizes the foreigners there, in the midst of their camp, from the iron posts that stood all around the camp, so that on the morrow there was found of them nought save their bones and their remains amidst their camp, and showers of their weapons near them. Wherefore Cuil Cnamrois (Recess of Bone-wood) is the name of the place from that to this.

Well fund

Although the tributes were supposed to last forever, nowadays a polite sign asks for donation for the upkeep of the well

After each of these battles, Fionnchú receives tributes and rewards (milch cows crop up a lot, as do boars and cattle), so that the wealth of his settlement grew. Several other battles are recounted. During one, …the howling and rending of a hound possessed him in his valour on that day. Although no heroes save himself alone were fighting the battle, the foes would have been routed before him, for he cut off the foreigners equally with his weapons and his teeth. Wherefore the name Findchu clave to him, that is, like a cú (hound) on that day was he.

Finally, weary of warfare, he undertakes a pilgrimage to Rome where he spent a year doing penance. We are told nothing further about his life, except that it is recorded elsewhere that he died about 660AD.

eel

The eel, Cusson’s sculpture

A note at the end of this account of his life says The friar O Buagachain wrote this Life out of the Book of Monasterboice. A further note elsewhere says it was actually written in the Friary at Timoleague.

Fanahan's Causeway

A unique 700m dead straight, raised causeway leads to the holy well. This unusual feature may be medieval in date.

Many legends grew up about Fionnchú in time, while the name itself transformed into Fanahan, still a popular boy’s name in this area. His feast day is November 25, and it is marked by a Novena (nine days of prayer) before and after that day, when pilgrims visit the well and do the rounds. Because this is a dark time of year, and people come after work, a benefactor has installed lights along the causeway which get turned on for this period. Besides the story of the eel, the well is associated with cures – at one point there were crutches hanging beside the well. The Dúchas Schools Project has recorded some details of the well from the 1930s – even a photograph.

Dúchas photo Fanahan well

Some writers have pointed out the similarities of Fionnchú’s deeds to those of Cúchulainn, the great hero of the early Irish sagas. Like Fionnchú, Cúchulainn is named for a hound, and like him he performs legendary feats of strength in battle. Some have even pointed out the crucifixion analogy of his time hanging from the sickles, not to mention the implications of his nights in the otherworld with the corpses and his return from the dead.

Fanahan cross

Ken Thompson is the same sculpture who carved the marvellous Air India memorial on the Sheep’s Head

I think the sculptors capture him differently. Ken Thompson emphasises the holy man of the well, with the eel (sighting an eel is a common feature of holy wells – great good luck attends it) at his feet and his crozier held as any bishop would hold it. But he also suspends him on a cross and gives him a sword. He places (the surprisingly soviet-looking) sickle on the back of the sculpture, along with the bell that rang when he finally came to Brigown. Coming over the little bridge into the glade of the holy well, it’s a beautiful but interestingly ambiguous image that presents itself.

Fanahan front

Cusson’s piece is all warrior and places him at the end of his life, perhaps contemplating in sorrow all the mayhem he has been part of. His crozier is between both hands, looking more like the Head Battler than a symbolic crook. It’s modelled on the medieval croziers in the National Museum, such as the one from Lismore. The White Hound (Fionn Cú) is one one side, the eel on the other. The figure is massive and solid, the gaze is faraway, the features grim. Every inch a warrior-monk.

When is a castle..?

Leamcon Castle

Leamcon Castle (Black Castle)

…not a castle?

Answer: When it’s a Tower House. Maybe.

Harold Leask first published his classic Irish Castles in 1941, and it was subsequently revised and reprinted several times. My own copy was bought in the late 60s and accompanied me to Canada and back. Leask’s book was the first comprehensive work on the subject – a work of erudition but thoroughly readable with charming pen-and-ink illustrations. 

Leask insisted on the use of the term tower houses for small simple castles and described them thus:

They are simple oblongs with four walls, subtly battered, rising sheerly from a bold base-batter, to parapets which are crenellated in the Irish fashion. A small turret, at one corner, generally above the staircase, rises to a greater height than the rest of the building, while within the parapets are the two gables of the roof. Very often a small machicolation projects from the parapet and commands the entrance doorway below…

Ardintenant Castle

Ardintenant Castle (White Castle). It sits on top of an earlier ring fort.

In researching for this post the other main source I consulted was a doctoral thesis by Mark Wycliffe Samuel, The Tower Houses of West Cork. More recent (1998), it concentrated on the castles of this area and is packed with detail about the ones we see around us here in Roaringwater Bay and on the Mizen Peninsula, from Baltimore (Dún na Séad) in the east, to Cape Clear Island (Dún an Óir) to the south and Three Castle Head (Dunlough) to the west.

Dunlough Castle, known as Three Castle Head

Dunlough Castle, at Three Castle Head

These simple towers were quite different from the enormous and elaborate military castles that cemented Anglo-Norman power all over Ireland after the invasion of 1169, such as Trim in County Meath, or Cahir in Tipperary. Tower houses were built in what Leask calls a ‘great building revival’ from about 1440 into the 1600s. In what may be the forerunner of the European Grants system, Leask says many of the earliest ones were built as ‘£10 Castles’. A statute of 1429 offered every liege man of our Lord the King…who chooses to build a castle or tower sufficiently embattled or fortified..to wit twenty feet in length sixteen feet in width and forty feet in height or more, that the Commons of the said counties shall pay to the said person to build the said castle or tower ten pounds by way of subsidy. Although this statute seems to have been applicable only in certain counties (mainly around the Pale) it established a pattern for tower building which was adopted, with variations, all over Ireland.

Dunmanus Castle

Dunmanus Castle

The Roaringwater Bay and Mizen towers fit this pattern very well. They were not, however, built by the Anglo-Normans – West Cork was too remote and beyond their reach. They were built by the great Irish chiefs of the O’Mahoney, the McCarthy and the O’Driscoll clans and probably replaced earlier strongholds such as promontory forts (as at Dunlough), large ring forts (Ardintenant) and stone forts/cashels (such as the one at Knockdrum). These chiefs became wealthy through their control of the fisheries, through piracy, and through tribute exacted from those who occupied their traditional territory. At least one of them (Rossbrin) became famous as a centre of learning and scholarship during this time. Of the ones I will describe in this post, all are situated at the sea. or close to it, with commanding views over their territory and sometimes within sight of each other.

Leamcon, known as Black Castle

Leamcon, known as Black Castle. Notice the base-batter in this picture and the first one below.  The lowest level is the widest (battered) with the walls sloping in above this base

The power of these great Irish households lasted until the 1601 battle of Kinsale when the Irish forces under Hugh O’Donnel and Hugh O’Neill (with Spanish help) were defeated and an enormous re-conquest and re-colonisation began under Elizabeth and continued unabated under the Stuarts and, most disastrously, under Cromwell.

Each tower in this area was built in the same manner, which Samuel refers to as the Raised Entrance type of tower. There were two entrances, one on the ground floor and one on the first floor. The ground floor room was for cattle and the doorway was therefore as wide as would admit a cow.

A glimpse inside the raised entrance at Ardintenant

A glimpse inside the raised entrance at Ardintenant

The raised entrance (directly above it, or staggered to the left or right) was only wide enough to admit one person at a time – a defensive feature. This entrance either led into the first floor room or (since the ground floor room could have a lofty ceiling) onto a landing where a staircase led up to this room and then continued up through the wall (usually the thickest wall of the tower) to the upper floors. The first floor room was mainly used for storage and had either no windows or very small slits.

Dunmanus, with its additional turret. The top windows were always the largest.

Dunmanus, with its base-batter and additional turret. The top windows were always the largest

The second floor room was often the principle chamber, where all the main activities of the family took place – living, eating, meeting, administrating, celebrating (music and poetry were highly prized by these chieftains). If there was a third floor it contained the solar, or private chambers for the women of the household.

Barrel vaulted ground floor room at Dunmanus. Note access to stairwell.

Barrel vaulted ground floor room at Dunmanus. Note access to stairwell.

Construction techniques varied – some were superbly constructed of cut stone while others used a lot of rubble to build up the insides of walls. Putlogs, or holes where scaffolding timbers were insert, are clearly visible in several of the towers. The lowest floors were of course the thickest – the base-batter provided a solid foundation and the walls sloped inwards from it. The top of the tower allowed for thinner walls, and therefore also bigger windows (although none were large).

A garderobe (toilet) was a feature of the top two floors, with a chute out to the outer walls. In towers with additional turrets (Kilcoe, Dunmanus, Leamcon) the garderobe and sleeping chambers were sometimes contained in that turret, or the spiral stairs wound up through it. While most towers had stone spiral or straight staircase, some appeared to access each floor by means of ladders – there is no evidence for permanent wooden staircases.

The ground floor room (the byre) was often vaulted and this feature is still clearly visible in the most intact towers. Above that, the floors were of timber, sometimes with trapdoors for lifting up supplies. Presses (cupboards) consisting of niches in the walls may have contained lanterns or have been used to store valuable items.

There were no fireplaces in these towers. Fires were lit on flagstones laid on the wooden floors and the smoke rose to the tall ceilings and escaped out the small windows. In addition to this level of discomfort there is a contemporary account (quoted by Leask) which describe the primitive living arrangements in some of the towers: They have little furniture, and cover their rooms with rushes, of which they make their beds in summer and straw in winter. They put rushes a foot deep on their floors and on their windows [embrasure floors?], and many of them ornament their ceilings with branches.

But not all chieftains lived in a primitive way. Samuel uses the available evidence to construct a picture of life at Togher, one of the towers he studied, and it’s not hard to picture Fineen O’Mahoney, Scholar Prince of Rossbrin, in such a setting.

We can form a picture of the principal chamber in use: Tadhg an dúna or Togher’s principal chamber was probably furnished with imported furniture, pewter plate and cutlery and was panelled with ornately carved timber. His family, his bard, …clerk, lawyer, priest and physician, as well as members of the derbfine [extended clan] such as cavalrymen could eat there. They could sit with the chieftain to one side of the principal salt cellar, while others sat ‘below’ it… Servants prepared food out of sight ‘below stairs’. Bardic musicians, soothsayers, gamblers and others would be admitted as honoured guests, but the household ward and servants ate in the kitchen/ward room.

Although its name means Fort of Gold, today Dún an Óir on Cape Clear Island looks remote and forbidding

Although its name means Fort of Gold, today Dún an Óir on Cape Clear Island looks remote and forbidding

Similarly, Dún na Séad (Fort of the Jewels) Castle in Baltimore, seat of the wealthy O’Driscolls (they also had Dún an Óir (Fort of Gold) on Cape Clear Island), was

a centre of administration for trading activities and collection of taxes from foreign traders frequenting the port. In the middle and later-middle ages therefore, the O’Driscolls enjoyed a prosperous lifestyle. Lavish gatherings took place in the ‘great hall’ of Dún na Séad castle and a well-documented feast in 1413 is said to be one of the earliest records of people dancing in Ireland. This documentary evidence is supported by archaeological finds from recent excavations of the Dún na Séad site, which reveal the presence of late twelfth to fourteenth century pottery from the Saintonge region of France, and reflect the lucrative trade links between Baltimore and Europe at this time.

Dún na Séad Castle, Baltimore

Dún na Séad Castle, Baltimore. Note corner machicolation.

Defensive features were built into all the towers. Besides raised and restricted doorways and hard-to-manoeuvre narrow or spiral staircases, all had a roof ‘wall walk’. Three of the towers (Dún an Oir, Kilcoe and Leamcon) are either inaccessible or accessible by a bridge and there is evidence that connecting ground was deliberately demolished to accomplish this. Windows were small and could be boarded up. Projecting machicolations, especially above entrances or at corners were used, as can be seen at Dún na Séad Castle in Baltimore. Crenellations (notched or serrated ramparts) look like our traditional ideas of battlements. At Kilcoe they may have helped that castle withstand over a year of attack and siege after the Battle of Kinsale.

Kilcoe Castle. Note crenellated battlements and pitched roof.

Kilcoe Castle. Note crenellated battlements and pitched roof

So, should we call them Tower House, or Castles? How about £10 Castles? Archaeologists and historians prefer the more exact phrase tower houses, but castles they are on the maps and in our everyday speech. And if, like us, you are lucky enough to have one in your view, castles they are in our hearts and minds.

Our view to Rossbrin Castle

Our view to Rossbrin Castle

The Music

This is written from the perspective of one who sits in on music sessions (or ‘Seshunes’) and attempts to find some commonality in repertoire with the other musicians. Usually, there is no commonality: every session has its own pool of tunes with which the regulars are familiar – I hide in a corner and play along, very approximately and as quietly as possible until I achieve a semblance of the relevant melody, by which time the moment has passed and the tune has changed to something else. It’s a struggle, but the experience of making music with a whole crowd of enthusiasts is a good one.

We first sat in at Levis’s (local opinion seems to differ as to whether this is pronounced as Leeviss or Levviss – or even Leevies) and admired the aesthetic: 1950’s decor and accoutrements. The bar was very much one room of a private house – and a trip to the loo meant going into the domestic quarters of that house. About ten musicians sat around in a circle and took up most of the available space; some bar stools provided a little room for spectators.

There were a few ageing and fascinating paintings and photographs on the back wall – many with political connections – and a little grocery section to the side where, in the daytime, one could purchase cornflakes and other necessities of life. The bar was manned by a niece of the two Miss Levis’s who had presided over the establishment well into their nineties. The Music itself was traditional, and mainly Irish. Instruments spotted included fiddles, guitars, flutes and whistles. The pace was fast and the hour late. Proceedings commenced at a theoretical 9.30pm – actually closer to ten. We were not there for the finish: we had a bed to go to.

Last night I played my first note at the Ballydehob Seshunes. The venue was Vincent Coughlan’s – a more robust setting with ample space and a roaring stove. Also a television set, which remained on throughout the due process, although the sound was muted while The Music was played. This time there were more players and banjos and squeeze boxes added to the melee – including my own melodeon and concertina. I produced many wrong notes, but I coped. I have always felt shy and reticent about playing Irish traditional music in Ireland, as I am not Irish. But perhaps I needn’t worry: a brief headcount showed that of the musicians there last night eight percent (one person) were Irish, another eight percent were German, and the remaining majority was English! But music is after all a universal language – and we are all Europeans….

Rossbrin Walk


Out of the blue, we have a day of brilliant sunshine, with no rain in the forecast (although the forecast has a tendency to change hourly) so we decide to take advantage of the day and get out for a good walk.

We have bought West Cork Walks by Damien Enright, the Schull and Ballydehob edition, and decide on a walk that takes Rossbrin Cove, only a couple of miles away, as its starting point. The book is well laid out, almost step-by-step. This proves to be a little distracting in places, with constant references to spring-blooming flowers and wildlife seen on one evening in April; however it pays off in the level of detail offered, without which we would undoubtedly have missed small features and background facts which enhanced our enjoyment of the walk.

Rossbrin is a sheltered harbour, greatly used in the past by the islanders from Cape Clear, Horse Island, Hare Island, Castle Island and others that we can see once we reach the higher points. The most dominant feature of the cove is the O’Mahoney castle, an impossibly romantic tower house that rises from the western side of the inlet and that was, in the sixteenth century, the centre of a learned court led by Finghin O’Mahoney, the ‘scholar prince of Rossbrin’. Now, the cove is lined with houses, all of which have great views of the harbour, but many of which appear to be uninhabited. This is one of the legacies of the Celtic Tiger years, when the local economy was fuelled by a building boom of ‘holiday homes’ and Ballydehob was a thriving town with bookstores, galleries and prize-winning eateries.
Leaving the cove behind we climb the steep hill behind the houses and are rewarded by expansive views across to the Baltimore Beacon and Sherkin Island. A mile or so along a pleasant country lane we come to Stouke Burial Ground. Among the gravestones, many for islanders, we find a bullaun stone, with two jars full of coins on top. A bullaun is a rock with a bowl-like depression in which water collects and that water is supposed to have curative powers. Robert dipped his finger in the Clonmacnoise bullaun and his wart was gone in a couple of weeks, although I tried it too and my wart still adorns my thumb. I give it another go, and we both add coins to the jars, a little in awe that in this remote place jars of money can remain untouched. Folk customs like this probably pre-date Christianity. A defining characteristic of Irish Christianity was that it blended the old pagan beliefs with the new religion in a seamless mosaic of customs and mythology. St. Brigid was probably a pre-Christian goddess; the old celebrations based on the solar calendar became saints’ days; the bullaun made an easy transition from the magical to the miraculous.
Carrying on, we come across two roadside stands and once again marvel that money can remain untouched as we deposit our coins into jars for honey and for apple chutney. We start on the downhill path back to the cove with the magnificent vista of Roaringwater Bay and its islands spread before us. Back at the cove we have time to sit on an upturned boat in the sun, munching on an apple and cheese, adding yet another waterfowl (a tufted duck) to the list of those we have seen since we arrived in West Cork, and contemplating the good fortune that has allowed us to fetch up in this extraordinary place.