West Cork Villages and Towns – Schull

What better time to visit Schull than during Calves Week? That’s a big sailing festival at the beginning of August every year, and you have to be a sailor to understand the nuances of its title. It’s held at the same time as the UK’s premier sailing event – Cowes Week, ‘…the world’s longest running sailing regatta…’ and is focussed around the three Calf Islands in Roaringwater Bay. So there you have it – Cowes and Calves! What it means, of course, is that the village of Schull is at its busiest and, since Covid has given a boost to outdoor socialising, the streets are crowded with visitors enjoying the shops, pavement cafés and galleries.

In this occasional series on the Towns and villages of West Cork we will take one community and try to discover why and how it has developed through history, and how it fares in the present day. A snapshot of the place will be presented – hopefully – in the best possible light (although this won’t always be on a sunny summer’s day!) From the aerial view above, you can see how Schull has been built up around its connection with the water. Schull Harbour is at the head of a long sheltered inlet, and the pier today is always busy with fishing and pleasure boats, ferries and yachts.

That’s the road to the pier, above, and it’s just a few steps from the village centre. If you are a visitor, you may have no idea that Ireland’s most south-westerly railway line once ran right on to this pier! The narrow gauge Schull, Ballydehob & Skibbereen Tramway and Light Railway was in service between 1886 and 1947, connecting these remoter parts of the county to Skibbereen and then, via the main line, Cork city. Although never considered a commercial success, it was a valuable element of infrastructure enabling local passengers to get to shops and markets, and fishermen to send their catches to distant merchants as hastily as possible (bearing in mind there was a speed limit of 15 miles per hour on most of this rural line). This photograph from the NLI Lawrence Collection (below) dates from the 1890s, and shows barrels of fish stacked up next to the railway track on Schull pier, awaiting despatch. They are likely to contain salted pilchards and herrings.

In all these pictures of the pier and pontoon areas above you can see the lively sailing activity in the background. Below are two extracts from early OS maps, one showing Schull and its location to some of the offshore islands, and the other showing the town centre, probably around 1890. It’s thought-provoking to see on the latter the various facilities which the town offered at that time, as well as the railway: Court House, Constabulary Barrack, Smiths, Schools, Hotel and Dispensary.

Note that on both the maps above, which date from more than a century ago, the settlement’s name is given as Skull: it still is on all OS Ireland maps up to the present time. Mostly today it’s known as Schull, or in Irish An Scoil, which translates as The School. Some of you may remember my posts earlier this year when I looked in to the possible origins of this village name – and the earliest ‘School’: a site described on Archaeology Ireland as a ‘possible early Christian settlement’:  . . . the ancient school of Sancta Maria de Scholia, ‘a place known in early times as a centre of learning’ . . . There’s a fair bit of local lore surrounding the subject, and you need to read Schull resident John D’Alton’s article on this to find an alternative view to the perhaps romanticised ideas of an ancient monastic site: I’m sitting on the fence!

Historic village – perhaps with medieval origins – to vibrant sailing centre and colourful streets in the 21st century. Schull has come a long way, and has far to go. Today the resident population numbers around 1,050: this is boosted substantially with the influx of summer visitors. It’s good to see long established names and new businesses on the streets, contributing to the colourful palette of the architecture. Great things are happening in the future: the old bank building (below) is to become a cinema and film centre: a focal point for the acclaimed annual Fastnet Film Festival.

Year round, Schull is worth exploring. Mount Gabriel, the area’s highest point, is above the village and offers superb vistas over the bay and islands. Finola has looked at the many legends associated with this peak and there is ancient history there, too: the remains of Bronze Age copper mines on its slopes. Good walks can be had on the high ground and on the coastal footpaths – see the Explore West Cork website.

Mizen Mountains 5 – Knockaphuca

Perhaps one of the most satisfying mountains on the Mizen, the 237m high Knockaphuca provides a well maintained waymarked trail best tackled as it is laid out – in a counter clockwise direction. You will go up the east side and down the steep west face. If you are lucky with the weather, as we were just before the longest day, you will have an experience which is hard to rival in this corner of Ireland. The loop walk is one of the latest sections of the Fastnet Trails which have been established to the west of Schull during 2019. All credit is due to the team which has so successfully organised and laid out these trails: this has involved much behind-the-scenes hard work.

In fact the full Knockaphucka Loop trail starts in Goleen, and is 10km long. We joined it as it leaves the R591 road north of the village (upper picture – the route goes off to the left). The map above has the mountain section (which we followed) superimposed on the Google Earth contour information. The section we walked is 6.6km long, and climbs about 200 metres.

One of the first landmarks on the way is right at the point where the marked track to the mountain leaves the main road: Ballydevlin Old School House (above). There is another ‘Ballydevlin Old School’ nearer to Goleen; presumably one was the National School (established c1831) and the other may have been a denominational Church of Ireland school. This peculiar Irish duality still exists today in many places.

Once on the marked track you are in a paradise! An ancient green road takes you part-way up the mountain, passing through small gorges which must have been cut out long ago: even if you are not a geologist you can’t help being impressed by the rock formations – they could be works of art.

After a while the path turns to the east and follows narrow, grassy glens bordered by majestic, serpent-like outcrops. It’s here that the views begin to open out, particularly to the south. Always you think that there couldn’t be a finer prospect over the Mizen and across the islands of Roaringwater Bay, and always – as you climb higher – you are surprised by the next, which is even better.

Twists and turns take you more steeply across the contours and swing round towards the summit. Only then is the full picture revealed: the whole landscape set out below you – every rift, valley and glacial glen with the higher land beyond culminating in the crests of Gabriel, 407m high, to the east, and the ‘little’ Mizen Peak, 232m high, to the west.

You won’t get lost as you head for the summit: this mountain had a distinctive cross placed at its highest point in the Holy Year of 1950, which reportedly fell in 1968, leaving the inscribed concrete plinth intact. The photo below shows the plinth in 2006 – courtesy Richard Webb. A new cross was installed in 2011 by a community effort led by the local GAA: this is now visible from much of the trail. The plaque mentions ‘…these challenging times…’, referring to the financial crash that hit Ireland so badly around that time. Illumination of the cross today is provided by photo-voltaic cells.

When you get to the top – pause… Now is the opportunity to appreciate the spectacular views in every direction. On our outing the south wind had been building up all day and was at its strongest in the late afternoon, when we gained the summit. It was pretty hard to remain upright! In fact, I wondered if we were being given a message by the resident Púca whose domain this is, after all?

The path down descends quite steeply: make sure you are well shod and vigilant. But you are in for further treats: the marked way passes by some peaty mountain tarns which are exquisite in their pristine beauty. Finola was in her element finding undisturbed native species such as water-lilies and sundews.

The mountain trail section ends on the small boreen running to the west of Knockaphuca, but the waymarkers will lead you back to the starting point, and there are still views up to the summit to enjoy, along with some landscape features on the way to continue to stimulate the senses.

What more could anyone want from a day’s outing in West Cork? Well – a bit of local history, perhaps. I searched for stories about the hill, particularly about the Púca – but only turned up this one told by Jerry McCarthy and included in Northside of the Mizen, the invaluable collection of Tales, Customs and History produced by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes in 1999:

The Púca of Knocnaphuca

 

The old people would feed the Púca of Knocnaphuca on ‘Snap-apple Night’, or indeed, whenever one had call to travel up the hill. It was the wise person that fed the Púca the night before going up. Milk and cake would be put on a plate and left outside the house and by the next morning the food had always gone!

 

The Púca of Knocnaphuca was half horse and half human. One late Snap-apple Night there was a young lad out walking the road when he heard a strange, sweet music coming from the hill. He went up and saw the Púca playing on a whistle. As soon as the lad had put eyes on it, it stopped playing and caught him. Away the Púca went to the top of the hill, where a crack opened up in the rock. In they went. They were twisting and turning down through tunnels until they entered a chamber full of gold. “Now,” said the Púca, “you are mine!”…

 

The next morning the boy was found on the road by the Long Bog. His hair had turned white and he could not speak a word ever after.

Thank you to our artist friend Hammond Journeaux of Ballydehob for this wonderful drawing of ‘Pooka’, included in The Little People of Ireland by Aine Connor, illustrated by Hammond, The Somerville Press, 2008. Púca in Ireland has counterparts in Cornwall (Bucca), Wales (Pwca), The Channel Islands (Pouque) and Brittany (Pouquelée). A shape-shifter (Flan O’Brien’s character from At Swim-Two-Birds, the Pooka MacPhellimey, changes his appearance by smoking from a magic pipe), the Púca most often appears in Ireland as a fine black stallion with red eyes. If you meet him, you have to mount him and he will take you on a journey far across the sea. It will seem to you as though you had been away for only a few hours, but the world will have moved on several weeks, perhaps months, during your absence. We saw no trace of the creature in June but, perhaps, if we climbed this mountain in the November Dark, we would have more chance of an encounter.

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!

New Year Resolutions 2019

Note of explanation from Finola and Robert: the Blog has taken on a mind of its own and decided he needs to make some resolutions for 2019.  He has asked us, his slaves faithful staff, to record these, as a means of keeping him accountable. Ours not to question why, ours but to do or die, so here goes, in his own words. . .

The Black Valley, Kerry

1. Spend more time in Kerry

It’s only next door, after all, and it’s in Finola’s blood, since her grandmother came from Killarney and she still has lots of lovely family there. So I’m determined they will take me there on outings a bit more often this year. There’s an ulterior motive too – you, my faithful readers, know that I often cosy up to that cheerful little Bloguette Holy Wells of Cork: she’s running out of wells in Cork but is enthusiastic about the idea that we can go jaunting off together on Kerry adventures.

2. Incorporate more music

I have to let you in on a secret – Robert is forever promising to learn new tunes for me, but then he comes up with all kinds of excuses why he’s not getting on with it. He’s too busy, it’s too hard, it’s not in the right key, blah, blah, blah. He’s finally sort-of learned this one, after weeks. We live in the heart of Irish traditional music – come on, people!

Staff member Robert trying to get it right – it’s called Pearl O’Shaughnessy’s Barn Dance, learned from Clare concertina player Mary MacNamara

3. Get on with that Saints and Soupers story

Honestly, that Finola, she leads us deep into this fascinating study of whether or not that Fisher guy was a saint or a souper, and then she goes off on one of her tangents about stained glass or wildflowers or whatever. I’m dying to know what happens next, so I’m going to have to lean on her to put the nose to the grindstone and get back to all those Protestants and Catholics and the actual famine part.

Michael the Archangel fights the devil – a powerful good versus evil metaphor in Altar Church

4. Get out to the Islands

It’s called Carberry’s Hundred Isles, for goodness sake – we can see them from the house (like Sarah Palin and Russia). Time to travel to more of them and get to know them. 

South Harbour on Cape Clear

I’ve been polishing up my Irish (or Blirish, as we Blogs like to say) and I need the practice, so Cape Clear needs to be on the agenda. I hear they have a good Blirish program out there, so ar aghaigh linn!

Staff member Finola and her sister on Cape Clear this summer

5. Finish the Fastnet Trail walks

This is a bit of a hangover resolution from previous years when I vowed to do all the Fastnet trails, but got a bit distracted with other walks and other projects. Besides, they’re adding to them all the time so if I don’t get off my desk and get out there soon the job will just get bigger and bigger.

Kilcoe Castle can be seen from several of the Fastnet Trails

6. Find more places to have breakfast

My staff loves going out for breakfast and I must say I am very partial to a nice plate of avocado toast and smoked salmon, with a good pot of tea to wash it down (although those two insist on lattés). They took me to the Box of Frogs in Bantry recently, and despite my misgivings about the name (I had a bad experience with a toad once) I had to admit the food was excellent. But, like all the humans I meet recently, I’ve been toying with the idea of eating less meat so I will persuade them to go to Antiquity Bookshop Café in Skibbereen for their tasty vegan food more often. BUT. . . see next resolution

Nicola surrounded by her stock in trade in Antiquity, West Cork’s first vegan café

7. Read the books!

The staff keep bringing more books (especially from Antiquity) into the house and they pile up beside me, making me feel guilty that I’m not keeping up. They built a new set of shelves and they are already filled. Honestly, in this day and age, you’d think someone would have invented some kind of scanner-to-brain technology so that Blogs like me wouldn’t have to work so hard.

Just one shelf – yikes!

I have more, but the experts say not to make too many. Right, friends – a little encouragement and I’m sure I will be fine, despite all the malingering and complaining of my staff. Onwards and upwards into 2019!

Favourite Posts of 2018

At this end of the year we reflect with a critical eye on all our 2018 posts – there have been 102 of them – and select just a few which we think stand out in some way. A link is provided for each one, in case you want to have another look yourselves.

Firstly – not just one of our favourites, but the all-time most popular post we have ever published – Ireland’s Newest Stained Glass Window. Finola wrote this in January, and then went on to put together an article in the Irish Arts Review on the same subject later in the year. The window is in St John’s Church in Tralee, a Catholic church, but the project was a joint venture between the Catholic and Anglican congregations. It tells a story of reconciliation, from many angles. The window was designed and made by Tom Denny, one of Britain’s most eminent and respected stained glass artists. Tom is a direct descendant of Sir Edward Denny (1547 to 1599) who was one of the architects and enforcers of the Plantation of Munster. It’s a complex history, and this post is well worth a careful read.

Another post which proved popular was Robert’s detailed account of an archaeological site in West Cork: Knockdrum Stone Fort. This place has everything – a substantial stone structure which probably dates from the first millennium AD; prehistoric Rock Art (one of our favourite subjects – the Knockdrum example is pictured above), likely to be around 5,000 years old; fabulous views (choose a clear day) – and a solar alignment discovered in 1930 by Vice Admiral Henry Boyle Somerville, the younger brother of writer and artist Edith Somerville. In a complementary post, Finola reported on Boyle’s life and tragic death – and gave us insights into the science of archaeoastronomy, expanding on this in a Bealtaine post, following our own experience of Boyle’s discovered alignment at Knockdrum (the sun setting exactly over the fort is pictured below).

Way back in 2017 we started a series of occasional posts bearing the title . . . Off the M8 . . . We do a lot of travelling throughout Ireland (because it’s such a beautiful and historically rich country) and cover the ground between Cork and Dublin quite frequently. The M8 motorway has made this journey quite straightforward, but it has also provided the jumping off point for many an exploration to enhance the journey. One of my own favourite discovered places this year is the magical Glen of Aherlow (pictured above). We thank our good friends and travelling companions Amanda and Peter – she of Holy Wells of Cork and he of Hikelines  – for pointing us to this entrancing valley located between Slievenamuck and the Galtee Mountains in the western part of County Tipperary. We discovered there secret places and stories relating to obscure Irish Saints: have a look at the haunts of St Berrahert and St Péacáin in these posts from Robert.

When I moved from Cornwall to West Cork some years ago I was delighted to find out that our lively adopted village of Ballydehob had a great artistic heritage during the second half of the twentieth century, to rival that of Britain’s westernmost county. West Cork became a cosmopolitan centre for artists, writers, craftspeople and musicians, renowned in its day but never properly celebrated – until this year. I was one of a small group locally who decide to rectify this by establishing the Ballydehob Arts Museum (BAM): our first exhibition . . . Bohemians in Ballydehob . . . using donated artworks, ceramics, storyboards and posters, was staged in Ballydehob’s community building, Bank House, and – presided over by Curator Brian Lalor (one of the surviving Bohemians!) – was the first incarnation of the new Museum, which will be followed up by new exhibitions every year. The picture above (courtesy of Andrew Street) from my post, shows the Flower House which, during the 1960s and 70s, became an iconic focus for the town’s artistic colony.

It was a grand summer altogether, and we were out walking the roads and footpaths of West Cork as much as possible. On a fine day in May we set off to explore the Toormore Loop which is only one of an excellent comprehensive system of trails which has been put in place locally in recent years. This post – Another Grand Day Out on the Fastnet Trails – documents that adventure and, hopefully, will encourage all of you to enjoy this wonderful free resource and immerse yourselves in the nature that’s all around us.

The second most viewed post this year was Finola’s fascinating account of the Rock of Dunamase and the history that it embodies. It’s a place that, for some reason, took us a few years to get to – and it’s Off the M8! But – as you can see from the picture above – climbing the Rock will give you a most rewarding and spectacular view across several counties. The ruin on its summit is inextricably associated with the most turbulent events in Irish History – the coming of the Normans to Ireland in 1169, and the famous marriage of Aiofe (daughter of Diarmuid MacMurrough, King of Leinster) to the Earl of Pembroke, immortalised in the painting by Daniel Maclise (below, courtesy of National Gallery of Ireland). The fortification with its Great Hall on the Rock was a MacMurrough stronghold, and accordingly was part of Aoife’s dowry when she married Strongbow.

Finally (for today, anyway) we look at Finola’s post which comprehensively explores another West Cork treasure: Heir Island – a Modern Paradise (pictured above and below). West Cork has such a diverse landscape, including the inhabited islands of Roaringwater Bay, each one of which is unique. Finola teamed up with her photographer friend Trish Punch and they were shown around the island by islanders Christine Thery and Sarah Mathews, who run the Heir Island Wildlife Project. This post is a great example of how the diversity of life on the island – and here in West Cork generally – brings together so many disciplines and interests: photography, history, wildflowers, wildlife, colourful houses, and art. Everything that Roaringwater Journal tries to encompass, in fact.

Seeking Calm Now

What a week it’s been in our part of West Cork! Only the gentlest of images will help to bring me back to earth – hence the somewhat random collection of photographs today, some taken along the Toormore Loop Trail or in my own garden.

Along the Toormore Loop Trail

The highlight of the week was the opening of Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger – Robert has given you some sneak peaks into this incredible exhibition in his post. If you do nothing else in West Cork this summer, take in this experience.

Eyebright, along the trail

But that’s not all – we also attended the unveiling of the memorial to the 110 Skibbereen Girls, which I wrote about last week. Most movingly, the ceremony was attended by Judith Constable, the Great, Great Granddaughter (and her daughter) of one of those girls. This is a story of hope, of the bravery of those adventurous girls who accepted the passage to Australia and went on to have full lives in their adopted land. It reminds us that it is possible for individuals to transcend the wretchedness of their circumstances.

Above, Judith Constable – her Great Great Grandmother, Jean Leary, was pictured in my previous post on the occasion of her 50th wedding anniversary. Below, the commemmorative spoons, finally installed, and the block of Australian stone.

And on Saturday night there was the long-anticipated performance of Anáil na Beatha (Breath of Life) at the ruins of the Schull Workhouse. We found ourselves seated outside the former hospital on the Workhouse grounds, listening to the unearthly lament of a chorus of voices, chanting the names of places stricken by famine, and then walking silently in a torchlight (well, lightstick) procession through the place where so many had come to die. It felt cathartic, respectful, important.

There was a memorial for Seamus Hogan too this week. He was one of us blow-ins to Ballydehob, a poet and raconteur and he will be much missed. His portrait was one of Shay Hunston’s finest and is reproduced here from Shay’s Wild Atlantic People series. It’s in a shop window in Ballydehob, across from his favourite hangout, Ina Daly’s pub.

Photo courtesy of Shay Hunston

And in between we had the launch of the marvellous Skibbereen Arts Festival, which goes from strength to strength each year and which will keep us busy from July 27th to Aug 5th. The program includes many concerts, the world premier of the Asenath Nicholson play, poetry, art exhibitions, movie screenings, walking tours.

Finally, today, was the opening of the new Toormore Loop walk. I helped out by leading a wildflower walk around the small looped trail with a happy group of a dozen lovely people. The greatest reward – a mother telling me that even the kids enjoyed it!

I’m wiped! All this stimulation is wearing me out. I need to take up meditation so all together now. . . om. . .om. . .