Mizen Magic 7: Dunbeacon – History, Prehistory and Questions of Access

A cold and clear January day is just the ticket for a trip to the Northside of the Mizen. While Robert writes about the life of Northsiders, I want to look specifically at the area known as Dunbeacon. On rising ground that ascends to Mount Corrin and overlooks Dunmanus Bay West of Durrus, Dunbeacon offers spectacular views and lots to explore.

Looking across to The Sheep’s Head at the head of Dunmanus Bay, near Durrus

In the last few years the Sheep’s Head Way has expanded into parts of the Mizen Peninsula. This is a very welcome move and the SHW committee is to be commended on taking this initiative. Today we followed part of this new trail through Dunbeacon townland and were rewarded with glimpses of the past, lovely vistas, Caribbean blue seas – and biting cold!

This section of the trail runs along a scenic boreen

Dunbeacon is synonymous with the Stone Circle that carries its name. Robert and I have visited it on a couple of occasions in the past. We have knocked on the farmhouse door for permission to cross the land to get to it and never found anyone home. We proceeded anyway, albeit slightly nervously as it was an obvious trespass on a working farm. The stone circle is sited on a small plateau with views east and south to Mount Corrin and Mount Gabriel, although rising ground to the northwest obscures Dunmanus Bay.

Mount Corrin: a large cairn on top can be seen from many miles away. We have walked up to this cairn – see our account of it here

The circle is incomplete so it is difficult to know exactly how the builders intended its orientation as the portal stones and recumbent are missing. It may have had a central monolith. (For a complete explanation of Stone Circles see our post Ancient Calendars.) However, the clear view to the east and south horizons are design features that link it to sunrise and moonrise at certain times of year.

This photograph of Dunbeacon Stone Circle, and the one that heads up this post, were taken before the access trail (described below) was built 

Intriguingly, Michael Wilson, of the Mega-What Website, says that practically the stone circle is really half a monument: what it takes to complete it for calendrical purposes are two other elements across the valley in Coolcoulaghta, a standing stone (now gone, but its position is known) and a standing stone pair.

The Coolcoulaghta standing stone pair, with Robert for scale. These stones were knocked down in the past but re-erected following a local outcry. Access and parking are now provided

Having studied the area carefully, Mike saysThis site [the standing stone] combines with the Stone Circle 400m away at Dunbeacon to enable observations of the lunar nodal cycle in all four quadrants as well as giving complete all year round solar coverage. It thus seems likely that the Standing Stone was an original outlier to the Stone Circle and that the Stone Pair was added later, probably by a different group of people, in such a way as to make a minor technical improvement.

It’s further than it looks in this picture, but there is a clear view to the stone circle from the standing stone pair. In between is the most annoyingly positioned electricity pole in Ireland

As part of the development of the new walking route, the SHW group has negotiated access to the Stone Circle, and has, in fact, built a fenced trail across the fields and up to the circle. This, of course, is excellent in that it finally provides open access to this wonderful site. There is, however, a problem: the stone circle is now surrounded by a wooden fence on all sides that severely impacts on the appearance and atmosphere of the site. While it will keep cattle away from the stones (cattle can do a lot of damage to sites like this) and provide a safe zone for walkers if there are animals in the field, it has become impossible to relate to the site in the same way as we used to.

The last section of the fenced trail. The fence around the stone circle can be clearly seen now

The author of the Facebook Page Walking to the Stones expressed himself thus when he saw the new enclosure: “The wire fenced avenue turns into a wooden fenced coral. The stones, imprisoned in a begrudgingly small pen. The wildness has gone, the mystery has gone. You might just as well be standing in a sterile museum environment. What have they done?” His comments generated a chorus of agreement.

Indeed, it is hard not to look in dismay at a fence like this. It makes taking photographs of the whole circle well-nigh impossible. It creates an overwhelming visual barrier between the circle and its surroundings. As an erstwhile archaeologist, I also have to wonder what was disturbed as the post holes were dug. And yet, all of this was done with the best of intentions, and it has succeeded in providing public access to the site. I would be interested in our readers’ thoughts.

It is quite difficult now to get a photograph of the entire circle. This one is partial, and shows a clear sightline to Mount Gabriel

Before we leave Dunbeacon, I can’t resist a quick trip down to what’s left of Dunbeacon Castle. One of a string of O’Mahony Castles on the Mizen, this tower house once guarded the head of Dunmanus Bay. Its siting is strategic – no ship was going to penetrate to the head of this bay without being in clear view of this stronghold. The O’Mahonys controlled fishing and trade in this area from the 12th to the 16th centuries and became fabulously wealthy in the process.

What’s left of Dunbeacon Castle

This castle would once have been the dwelling place and administrative centre of a powerful chief. He would have hosted banquets where his poets and musicians entertained the guests with stories and song. Alas, after the Battle of Kinsale all the O’Mahony tower houses in this area were taken by the British and many that were left standing were dealt a final blow by Cromwell’s cannon.

Not much left – but what an incredible position!

The centuries pass. The old Mount Corrin mines are no more. The sizeable population sustained by potatoes was devastated by the Famine. Now the land is grazed by cattle and sheep and a few farm houses dot the landscape. It is a peaceful and beautiful place. Do the walk – you will be in the footsteps of farmers and chieftains, of herders and megalith builders and astronomers, of miners and fisherfolk who have called this place home for thousands of years.

It’s Been Five Years! Finola’s Favourite Posts

I can hardly believe it – we’ve been doing this for five years now and we’re nowhere near running out of ideas for posts. And have you read Robert’s post? Imagine being called a 21st Century Robert LLoyd Praeger! Thrilled. But in fact as I dip into Praeger again I recognise in us the same impulse he had – to wander the land and discover all that it has to offer.

Amazing what you stumble across in the countryside, like this holy well and its offerings

One of the wonderful things about blogging like this is how much you LEARN every day, about Ireland, our neighbours, the ground we walk upon, the history and archaeology to be discovered around every corner, the wisdom of country people, the humour and expressiveness of Irish speech, the breathtaking beauty of the landscape. So where on earth to begin?

Our interest in archaeological sites led us to hike to the highest point on Cape Clear Island to see the sparse remains of a neolithic passage grave – and what a spectacular view there was from it, towards Sherkin Island and all the way down the coast of West Cork

Like many, I sat in churches as a child unaware of the architectural splendours around me. One of the delights of returning as an adult is discovering Irish stained glass, really seeing it for the first time. Harry Clarke, of course, is always a favourite, but I have been thrilled to discover other artists too: Richard King, George Walsh, the artisans of the Tower of Glass. There will be lots more posts about stained glass in the future as I unearth more treasure.

A recent discovery, George Walsh windows in a rural church in West Cork. This is his rendering of the Archangel Michael defeating the devil as a dragon

Going back to my roots as an archaeologist has been an extraordinary journey – so much has changed, so much has not. I started out in archaeology in the 70’s, although life got in the way of that career eventually. It was a small profession then: it exploded in the 80s and 90s with the advent of huge building projects, then contracted again when the recession hit.

I love the quiet little sites you find when you least expect them – this is a wedge tomb in the middle of a field. It has cupmarks all over one of the capstones

I have gone back to researching prehistoric rock art and finding that, while some excellent work has been done in this field over the last 40 years, there is a lot of scope still for an independent researcher to contribute to our appreciation of this little-known aspect of Irish prehistory. Along with our exhibitions, I’ve written several posts (not all of them happy) on this topic, and we are currently working on a paper for the Journal of the Bantry Historical and Archaeological Society on a special group of rock art panels at Ballybane.

Castlemehigan, one of our favourite rock art sites, with views right back over the Mizen Peninsula to Mount Gabriel

When I studied at UCC under Professor O’Kelly the emphasis was firmly on prehistory and we spent little time on medieval structures (or later ones, heaven forbid!). But when you are free to pursue whatever tickles your fancy, you find yourself wandering down a variety of rabbit holes. I became fascinated with Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture and with the tower houses (we just call them castles) that dot the countryside around here and the later iteration of the Big House – fortified manors. Visiting these intriguing ruins all over West Cork (and Ireland) has given me a whole new appreciation for how we lived and what we believed in the past.

This is the ruined romanesque church of Aghadoe in Killarney. It’s got this lovely doorway, but what makes it particularly meaningful for me is that my great-grandparents are buried in the graveyard it stands in

Ross Castle in Killarney against an evening sky

Living in West Cork is great FUN – there is always something to do and a new adventure around the corner. Many of the adventures we’ve had have been shared with our friends and fellow bloggers Amanda and Peter Clarke (Holy Wells of Cork and Hikelines). Visiting holy wells has introduced us to parts of Cork we might never have seen, to obscure saints with fascinating backstories and to folk practices that endure in the deep countryside. Walking the Sheep’s Head (my lead photograph, top of page), in all seasons, reminds us that you don’t have to go far to be immersed in jaw-dropping scenery and reminders of our ancient and more recent history.

The holy well of St Teskin, an East Cork saint

Lest you think that this is all sounding a bit academic, the posts that have been most fun to write were the ones on how we speak around here (and how you, too, can learn the basics of West Cork lingo), the ones in which I lamented my encounters with Irish bureaucracy, especially when it came to my driver’s license!

I still haven’t calmed down about the driver’s license – what they put me through, when I could have been driving THIS!

And I loved doing the posts about the tradition of painting our houses in arresting colours. With the colourful houses series, I feel a bit like a chronicler of a vanishing tradition – each time I look for one of my favourite pink or lime creations it seems to have been repainted a ‘tasteful’ variant on beige. Long live those brilliant colours – we would be poorer without them!

The town of Dingle is proudly keeping alive the tradition of painting each building a vibrant colour. – it’s a feast for the eyes

Finally, one of my greatest joys in the last couple of years has been to go for a walk with my camera and photograph the abundant wildflowers of West Cork. From someone who barely knew a daffodil from a daisy, I have developed a passion for the natural glories I see in the hedges, fields and yes, waste grounds, around me.

Just a typical roadside verge in West Cork

We adore West Cork, but we are also fearful for it as we see the pressures farmers face to make their land more and more productive. Inevitably, this means bringing in a rock breaker and turning the field into a mono-culture grass carpet. What we lose in this process – we humans, the bees and insects we depend on, the birds, and our heritage – is incalculable.

This tiny raised bog is home to some very interesting flowers, including the carnivorous Sundew

Here’s to many more adventures!

With friends like Susan Byron of Ireland’s Hidden Gems, or with my favourite travelling companion and blogging buddy, Robert!

Mizen Magic 6: Schull to Castlepoint

The Mizen is the Peninsula we live on, and of course we think it’s the most beautiful part of West Cork, and of Ireland. In previous Mizen Magic posts I’ve been exploring different aspects and areas, such as the Northside, or Brow Head, or our excellent beaches. This time I’m concentrating on the stretch from Schull to Castlepoint. The map below shows the area, with the village of Schull, our starting point, on the top right. The photograph above was taken from the top of Sailor’s Hill.

A winter view of Long Island Sound – Coney Island, Long Island,  the Calves, Cape Clear and Sherkin, with the entrance to Croagh Bay in the foreground

It’s only a few kilometres, and it would take you about ten minutes to drive straight to Castlepoint from Schull. But where’s the fun in that? No- let’s start by driving (or walking if you’d rather) out to St Mary’s Church on the Colla Road. It’s largely an eighteenth century church, although there are hints of a medieval structure here and there, and it stands in what must be one of the most scenic graveyards in West Cork.

Intriguing depictions of boats are inscribed into the render inside the church. How old are they? Who did them and for what purpose?

From there, I suggest you drive to the lookout on Sailor Hill – the trail arrows for the new extension of the Fastnet Trails will show you the way. We discovered Sailor’s Hill ourselves when I was researching belvederes – the redoubtable Connie Griffin has built his own modern version of a belvedere and there is no better place to get a view of Long Island Sound and the south side of the Mizen. Here’s the viewing house Connie built  – perfect for contemplation.

Back down to the Colla Road, continue to the scenic little Colla Pier, where you can take the ferry to Long Island. Robert and I do this every year as part of the Fastnet Film Festival. The ferry runs every day but you can also book special trips – it is, as they say here, a great day out. Pack a picnic and your camera – there’s lots of birdlife, including these oystercatchers on the rocks at Colla Pier.

The ferry leaves Long Island for the return trip to Colla Pier

From the Pier the road winds across country, overlooking the sea here and there, and always with Mount Gabriel looming in the background. From here you can see tiny Coney Island, privately owned, and with one house which is rented out to holiday makers.

Beyond Coney Island are the Goat Islands – Goat Island and Goat Island Little – probably once one island, but now split into two, with a narrow passage between. There are feral goats on these islands, but not much else. They appear to be completely inaccessible, with craggy shores that are impossible to land on. That, of course, only makes them all the more mysterious. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about the Goat Islands.

The narrow and treacherous channel that divides the Goat Islands, and the beacon on the smaller of the two islands

The road now winds down to Croagh Bay (locally pronounced ‘Crew’), a lovely tidal sheltered inlet with the romantically named Gunpoint at its head. On the higher ground to the right you will see that an enterprising individual has converted one of the old signal stations into a unique residence. It must have the best view – but all those stairs!

We are now in the territory described by Robert in Here Be Pirates and in Pilchards and PalacesCroagh Bay, or more correctly Leamcon House, was the site of William Hull’s house and a hotbed of piratical activity.

Nowadays it’s downright idyllic and the shallow waters of Gunpoint inlet provide sanctuary to wintering birds such as these shelducks.

Our last stop is the little pier at Castlepoint, offering a dramatic view of Black Castle, one of the O’Mahony Tower Houses that dotted the coast of West Cork in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This one is privately owned and the owner has stabilised and largely restored the castle, saving it for future generations from the all-too normal fate of dereliction that befalls West Cork Castles.

Robert looks across to Black Castle in the photograph above. The castle as the owner has stabilised it is shown below – he has done a first-rate job and we should all be grateful for his care of this important monument. The final photograph is of a small inlet by Castlepoint Pier.

The Turning Year in Rossbrin

We are fortunate to live in a rural idyll: our immediate environment is immersed in the natural world. In fact, I suppose it is ‘Nature tamed’ – as we have pasture all around us as well as banks of gorse and rock: even a few trees which manage to cling on to the shallow soil all through the winter gales and (occasional) summer droughts. As the years go by we feel we become more closely entwined with the cycle of everything around us – we get to know personally the fox, pheasants and rabbits that pass by our window, and the myriad of birds that feed here, forage in the Cove or just show themselves to us on memorable occasions – Spioróg the Sparrowhawk is so handsome when she is resting on our terrace wall while on her deadly missions, and our choughs frequently perform wild dances in the air to entertain us. This year was special for me because, for the first time, I saw a hare amble around the house, alert with erect ears, before loping off into the next door field.

I have written about Rossbrin Cove many times before: look at A Moment in Time, Tide’s Out and Words on Roaring Water, for example. That sheltered natural harbour and the old mine road up on the hill above probably give us the most pleasure because we visibly see the year change and turn every time we walk there. Just now the days are rapidly shortening, and the autumnal influx of wading birds is returning. One we keep a particular eye out for is the curlew – a threatened breeding species here in Ireland. We see many on and close to the water, particularly at low tide, but these are probably migrants rather than resident breeders.

The year is turning – from late summer into early autumn, and the colours are changing from rich reds and purples – fuschia and heathers – to the more sombre yet equally attractive yellows and browns of furze and fern. Finola has closely followed the wildflowers right through from the spring – she is still finding and identifying every imaginable species – it’s a complete world of its own!

We have been seeing some exceptionally high and low tides here in Rossbrin. I’m always fascinated to see the mud-flats revealing bits of discarded history, while I am convinced that the huge remnants of dressed stonework on the north-east shore are the vestiges of once-busy quays, dating either from the medieval period, when Sir William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork owned the lands around here and set up thriving fish-processing ‘palaces’, or – at the latest – when the copper mines were active up on our hills and on Horse Island in the nineteenth century.

The real turning point comes at the end of October – Samhain – when the old calendar enters the ‘dark year’ (the ‘light year’ begins on May 1st –  Bealtaine). We know we have long, dark nights to come – time to huddle down by the stove – but there will be bright days as good as any in the year for walking, exploring and breathing in the Atlantic breezes. And the Rossbrin sunsets will be magnificent!

Hikelines – a Blog for the Soul

Our talented friend, Peter Clarke, has a marvellous new blog and you HAVE to see this one. It’s called Hikelines and the subheading tells the story – I hike and I sketch.

Peter has done two long walks in England, sketching as he went along – the Cleveland Way and the Tabular Hills Way. People who know those routes will appreciate how he has captured landscape, villages and landmarks in his signature style. But I want to concentrate on his two West Cork routes – The Beara Way and The Sheep’s Head Way.

Several things mark these routes as different from the English ones: they seem wilder, more remote; archaeology is all over the place; the place names are unpronounceable; they’re not as organised (especially the Beara Way) for the walker so there are directional and accommodation challenges. However, they are as rugged and spectacular as any hiker could wish for.

The Beara is the largest of the West Cork Peninsulas and the farthest from population centres. Peter accomplished it in nine stages, spaced out between the end of May and the beginning of August, starting and ending in Glengarriff and travelling clockwise.

Some parts were very rough going and signage was not always reliable, but Peter takes it all in his, er, stride. He writes beautifully in a clear accessible style – here’s a sample from his first day:

I reach the ladder-stile that marks the start of a hard, steep climb up to 550 metres. The red line of the route looks impossibly steep on the map but on the ground I find a stony track that dog-legs its way up the contours to make the going a little gentler: nevertheless, my lungs and legs are soon in the red zone. I take shorter strides on the rough stony surface, the plodding drumbeat of my boots accompanied by the tip-tap rhythm of my walking poles. At each turn where I stop to look back, the small houses in the valley are even smaller, the distant hills begin to show on the horizon, catching patches of sunlight, and soon I can see above the nearby hills across to Bantry Bay, glassy calm with Whiddy Island casting long reflections in the waters.

He stops to sketch what catches his eye – occasionally doing a whole sketch, sometimes colouring it later, sometimes taking a photograph to sketch from when the hike is over. He includes technical details for those who like to know.

He detours to visit prehistoric and historic sites and often includes these in his sketches. Amanda makes an appearance now and then – she’s on pick-up or drop-off duty and is usually combining this with adventures chronicled in her own blog Holy Wells of Cork. (When I told you about the start of Holy Wells of Cork it was only a year and a half ago – she has now recorded over 200 wells!) She is along as they ride the cable car to Dursey Island but Peter strikes out on his own along the trail.

As I set out alone along the only road, I think about how the past seems somehow embedded in the landscape of places like this. Some might say there are ghosts here and I can understand why. A short detour brings me down to the ruined monastery and burial ground sitting just above the shore. It feels lost and forgotten, even in the sunshine.

I climb back up over soft springy grass onto the road which rises and falls around the smoothly rounded hills that make up the island. Purple foxgloves hang on the cliff edges; the peaks of roofless gable-ends rise from the patchwork of fields running down the lower slopes; sheep and cattle graze below and a kestrel hovers overhead. This road must have seen plenty of traffic at one time and there is even an old bus stop: whether real or not I don’t know.

The weather deteriorates as he traverses Beara – you can feel the discomfort of the sodden gear and the squelching mud and it’s a gut feeling of relief when he reaches colourful Eyeries and can dry out. But it finally improves and the next two days brings the compensations of stunning views and stone circles. The final leg back to Glengariff from Kenmare is largely along a busy road – less enjoyable and more arduous.

The Sheep’s Head Way is familar ground – for Peter and for me as a reader. Peter and Amanda (regular readers will remember) are the couple behind the guidebook Walking the Sheep’s Head Way – we highly recommend it for anyone contemplating walking on the Sheep’s Head. For Peter, then, this is a continuing of his long love affair with this wild and magnificent landscape. He knows it intimately, he’s walked every inch of it before, and he brings all that love of place to his sketches.

 

He’s adding more information now too – distances and links to further information as well as links to detailed route directions. Now is the time to sign up for the blog – it’s easy, just insert your email address in the box in the right margin – and follow along. He’s only done four stages, and there are many more to come.

His last post, at time of writing, was one of my favourite walks, encompassing the route I described in Sheep’s Head: Searching for Cornish Miners. Here’s the start of his walk:

I take the ‘Horseshoe Road’ which is more of a track than a road, and descend into the mist which is thick but too bright to be ‘fog’ perhaps. The filtered light brightens nearby colours and softens shadows and I think how it creates a type of liminality with a veil through which things can only be partially glimpsed.

This is one of those treats you can feel really good about. When the email comes in, telling you there’s a new post, just settle down with a cup of tea and immerse yourself in Hikelines. I have deliberately not captioned the images because I want you to see them for yourself! Now so, enough talk – head on over to Hikelines.

 

The Mountain Road

Over three years ago I wrote a piece about the mountain that’s on our doorstep – Mount Gabriel. This rocky high terrain is always in our view as we travel around West Cork, and we feel it must have had special significance in prehistoric times: it overlooks a majority of the archaeological sites that we have explored locally – perhaps they were placed because of that. Also, there are many stories attached to Mount Gabriel (find them in my previous post), including the fact that the Archangel himself touched down on its summit and left behind a footprint in the stone! Evidently, he was intrigued to hear about Ireland’s verdant beauty and knew that …in time to come, this honest island would never part with the worship and duty it owes to the Mother of God… and so was determined to get a look at the holy place.

Derryconnell Loop Walk on the Fastnet Trails takes in the foothills of Mount Gabriel – seen here in contrasting weather conditions, but only a day apart!

There is a little-known road which runs along the foothills of the mountain which, on a good day, is as beautiful a road as you will find anywhere in Ireland. It begins at the bog of Derreennatra (more of which can be found in Finola’s post today) and you can follow it up and through the Barnacleeve Gap. If you wish, from there you can go all the way up to the summit and get some of the most stunning views all the way over the Mizen, across the Sheep’s Head and even into Kerry.

The climb to the summit of Mount Gabriel is always rewarding, with panoramic views to all points of the compass. Lower Picture: the Air Traffic Control Authority’s installations atop the mountain add an odd drama to the landscape

Part of our Mountain Road has been incorporated in the Derryconnell Loop Walk, one of the new group of the Fastnet Trails based around Schull. The whole of this loop walk is varied and picturesque, but the section from the bog is outstanding as it skirts the mountain – which always dominates the vista – and brings you to the junction with the Barnacleeve road. Keep on going, and take in the mountain itself, or follow the trail down to the old Schull Workhouse. Whichever way you go, you will be struck by the seeming remoteness of the boreens, and you will seldom encounter a vehicle.

In all weathers the Mountain is engaging: you can start out in the mist and finish up in sunshine!

In the latter part of this summer we have explored the road in all weathers, and recorded the many moods of the mountain. Reaching the summit last week, we had a search for the Archangel’s footprint. I’m convinced we found it, but we couldn’t see the lake with its magical islands which – according to the legends ‘…float about up and down, east and north and south; but every Lady-day they come floating to the western point, and there they lie fixed under the crag that holds the track of the Angel’s foot…’ (John Abraham Jagoe, Vicar of Cape Clear – Church of Ireland Magazine 1826)

The peak of Mount Gabriel is strewn with rocks, any of which might contain the Archangel’s footprint. Upper – the view to the islands of Roaringwater Bay. Lower – could this be where he touched down? A definitely footprint shaped impression on this rock – highlighted on the photo in red

In my younger days I was fortunate to hear traditional Irish musicians Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman performing on the streets of Camden Town, London, when I worked in that city. Those streets were a far cry from the home I now have in West Cork, but I recall the duo’s rendering of the tune The Mountain Road: Margaret came from Cork herself, so perhaps our own mountain (or maybe it was Gabriel?) was an inspiration to her.

Descending from the summit, we finished our walk on the Mountain Road at the gauntly atmospheric ruins of Schull Workhouse