Following the Cascades (Sweet Ilen – Part 7)

There’s a walk that goes down from Castledonovan to Drimoleague: it follows an ancient mass path and much of it is right alongside the Ilen River. At its northern end there is a section known as the Deelish Cascades: this is geologically fascinating, and gives us some insights into how our West Cork landscape was formed thousands of years ago.

. . . The oldest rocks exposed in West Cork are of Devonian age (410 – 355 million years ago) . . . These mostly red and green sandstones, siltstones and mudstones were deposited on a continental landmass in a low latitude desert or semi-arid environment. The sediments were deposited from rivers, whose flow was dominated by flash-floods fed by episodic rainfall, which originated predominantly from mountainous areas lying to the north which were were formed during the Caledonian Orogeny (mountain building event) in latest Silurian and early Devonian times. The environment was perhaps similar to the present day Arabian desert. This “Old Red Sandstone” continent extended over what is now northwest Europe. In Cork and Kerry these sediments accumulated in a large subsiding trough (the Munster Basin), resulting in one of the thickest sequences of Old Red Sandstone encountered anywhere in the world (at least 6km thick) . . .

Geology of West Cork, M Pracht and A G Sleeman, geological Survey of Ireland 2002

I have marked on this Geology Map the course of the Ilen River from its source on Mullagmesha Mountain to the tidal estuary which begins at Skibbereen. The map shows the ‘grain’ of the various faults which run SW to NE over the terrain: the river generally flows perpendicular to these faults, and the ‘grain’ is clearly seen in the exposed river bed running over the Deelish Cascades.

Praeger usefully simplifies the geological definition of the landscapes (for more on Praeger see Finola’s complementary post today):

. . . The story which geology tells as to how West Cork and Kerry got its present form is interesting, and I shall try to tell it in non-geological language. Towards the close of Carboniferous times – that is, after the familiar grey limestone which covers so much of Ireland and the beds of sandstone and shale which succeeded it were laid down on an ancient sea-bottom, but long before the beginning of the Mesozoic period, when the New Red Sandstone and white Chalk were formed – the crust of the Earth in Ireland and beyond it was subjected to intense lateral squeezing from a north-south direction. This forced it into a series of great east-west folds, thousands of feet high from base to summit – the Carboniferous beds on top, and below them and following their ridges and hollows the massive strata of Devonian time, and other deeper-buried systems. A series of pieces of corrugated iron laid one over the other will illustrate what happened. The folding was developed particularly conspicuously in the Cork-Kerry area. What we see is the result of this ancient crumpling, now greatly modified by the effect of millions of years’ exposure to sun and frost, rain and rivers . . . The more resistant slates, carved into a wilderness of mountains, still tower up, forming long rugged leathery ridges. A sinking of the land has enhanced the effect by allowing the sea to flow far up the troughs. That the ridges were longer is shown by the high craggy islands that lie off the extremities, and continue their direction out into the Atlantic . . .

The Way That I Went, Robert Lloyd Praeger, Methuen & Co London, 1937

While the upheavals of far-off eras reaching back millions of decades certainly laid the foundations of our landscape, the geological events which actually honed the shaping of the terrain as we see it today are far more recent – the ‘Ice Ages’ which developed only 30,000 years ago and had receded by about 10,000 BC. During that time sea levels fell and then rose again, and the topography and shoreline of the island with which we are familiar today was established. The ice sheets covered most of the land and were up to 1,000 metres thick. As they melted, glaciers fell away from the highest points and carved fissures into the slopes, creating valleys and rivers. One of the most extensive ‘local’ ice-caps was in south-west Munster where a ‘Cork-Kerry’ glaciation, centred on or close to the Kenmare river, developed independent of the general ice sheet. Our own ‘Sweet Ilen’ was a consequence of the ice movement, and the rock formations that we see in the Deelish Cascades are good evidence of these modern geological events.

All the way down the Cascades you will see evidence of the scouring of the rocky river bed, and huge ‘erratic’ boulders that have been carried from the mountain-top on the ice flow, to be deposited randomly – and picturesquely – in the torrent. Of course, you don’t have to know about geology to appreciate the walk: you are free to explore the well kept path and delight in this West Cork experience which has been laid out for us all through the mighty efforts of the Drimoleague Heritage Walkways and the Sheep’s Head Way.

Previous episodes in this series: Sweet Ilen : Sweet Ilen – Part 2 : Sweet Ilen – Part 3 : Sweet Ilen – Part 4 : Sweet Ilen – Part 5 : Sweet Ilen – Part 6

Black and White on the Sheeps Head

Some days, especially in the winter, just feel like black and white days. The sky is grey, the sea is silver, the rocks are black – colour drains from the landscape as atmosphere and mood creep in.

Now that we are allowed a bit more freedom of movement and association, we headed over to the Sheep’s Head yesterday for a walk with Amanda and Peter. We did one of our all time favourites, the Farranamanagh Loop Walk, which takes in Farranamanagh Lake and the O’Daly Bardic School.

We stopped on the way to look at Rossmore Castle, near Durrus. This is a fairly vestigial, probably fifteenth or sixteenth century tower house, probably built by the O’Mahonys but taken over by the McCarthy’s at some point. Not only is there not much left standing, but what is there is covered in ivy, so it’s hard to make out a lot of features. One thing that has survived up to a couple of stories, though, is the stairwell, with a few treads of the original spiral staircase still hanging on. 

Then it was on to our rendezvous with Amanda and Peter and the walk. I’ve provided a map, which comes from the Sheep’s Head Way website. As always, for your companion on any of these walks, we recommend Amanda’s book, Walking the Sheep’s Head Way, now in its second edition. You can buy it in all the local bookshops or get it online.

We started the walk at Dromnea car park (P on the map) and crossed the road to the short walk up to the Well of the Poets (430) (you can read more about the well here, and see what I am writing about in full colour) and on down the old green road. We walked along the road until the spot indicated by the arrow, then down to the shore.

The ‘castle’ marked on this map, by the way, is practically invisible – nothing remains except some rubble. This road leads you past a quirky little small holding that is locally famous for its eggs and jams – and for its alpacas!

Although we saw the alpacas yesterday it was the donkeys that caught my eye. Donkeys, although they are actually not native to Ireland, seem like such iconic Irish animals, beloved of postcard makers, with panniers of turf on either side.

Photographing in black and white like this makes everything seem at once nostalgic and old, as if I had been transported back a hundred years. If you don’t squint too hard at the houses you can imagine them as simple whitewashed cottages with thatched roofs. You can, can’t you?

From 410 you walk along the lake shore to a clapper bridge across the stream that drains the lake into the sea, and then uphill and back towards the Bardic School.

One of the lovely things about this particular walk is that you are looking across at the Mizen Peninsula all the time and on a day like this the impression is of a series of hills receding into ever more misty contours. The effect is ethereal and mysterious – see my top two photos at the start of the post.

The lake itself is home to the sons of the King of Spain in the form of swans. You can read that story in Robert’s post from way back in 2012, Of Kings and Poets. That post will also serve as an introduction to the Bardic School and its most famous poet, Aenghus O’Daly, The Red Poet. He may have made his home in the ruined castle marked on the map – it was an O’Daly castle, their only one in this area, and an indication of the power and prestige that accrued to bards.

The ruins that are nowadays pointed out as the remains of the Bardic School may indeed have been part of it and it was certainly right in this area. The views from them are so magnificent that the poor apprentice poets had to be locked into darkened rooms so they could concentrate on composing their stanzas.

As we write, the vaccination program for Ireland is being put together by an expert panel. We feel hopeful that future Sheeps Head walks can resume their gentle, charming rhythm without the underlying low-level fear that accompanies us at the moment. We are moving from darkness to light.

Through The Big Gap

It’s October: autumn light is playing on the skies and seas as we set out to cross the Sheep’s Head peninsula on a path which is new to us. The path traverses the backbone of this peninsula – a ridge which is virtually continuous from east to west – and runs from Rooska, a settlement beside Bantry Bay on the Northside, heading south for Coomkeen and then Durrus. Before we take to the hills, however, we need to prepare ourselves with some sublime scenery en-route, a little excursion into vernacular architecture, and an encounter with local expertise.

From upper – a Sheep’s Head pastoral, the view over Glanlough towards distant Beara; a perfect composition in tin and stone; a niche for offerings? Looking to the ridge – and The Big Gap – in the distance; Joe O’Driscoll with his architectural egg-box. Unfortunately the hens are not laying at the moment!

We are heading to the start of our climb and find a busy settlement, historically once a mining centre and now home to a major award winning seafood producer, bravely weathering the Covid storms. It’s worth a look at their colourful website! You might not expect to see such a venture on the wild and remote Sheep’s Head Northside, but it’s a great boost to a fragile local economy. We wish them well in surviving the Covid19 crisis. Parking up at Rooska, we get first sight of the zig-zagging route that will take us over towards Durrus, passing through The Big Gap at the summit of the hill.

Upper – looking north across Bantry Bay from the path; middle – from the south, the path descends through The Big Gap; lower – the path can be seen on the right cutting through the hills: the highest point is 200m above sea level

I tried in vain to find a name for the way we followed. I would like to have called this post The Mass Path, which is given to it on a modern guide, and it does seem probable to us that one purpose of the trackway would have been to take Northside dwellers over to the old Catholic church at Chapel Rock in Durrus, a distance of 7 kilometres (or four and a half miles in older times). There and back would have been a taxing walk for a Sunday morning on an empty stomach (you have to fast from midnight before taking communion)! However, we were told locally that our intended way will lead us through The Big Gap, hence my title.

This view over the Northside area of Rooska, above, shows several features and the beginning of the path over the mountain heading south. Notable is Killoveenoge Church, known as a ‘Chapel of Ease’ and said to have been built in the 1860s specifically for the English and Cornish miners who were working in the nearby silver and lead mines at the time. There are scant remains of these mines now, and the Church of Ireland building was closed in 1988 and converted to a studio.

Looking down on Killoveenoge Church from The Big Gap path, with Bantry Bay beyond

The townland name Killoveenoge translates as Church of the Young Women and the only explanation of this I could find suggests that the site was anciently a priory, sacked by the Vikings in 890AD. It is also said that some ruins of this are visible, but we failed to find them – nor any factual historic records. The Schedule of Monuments notes a circular burial ground in the west of the townland with early grave markers, but nothing more. Clearly folk memory transcends recorded history, and that is one of the attractions of Ireland – to us, at least.

Upper – The Sheep’s Head Way trails have a strict code, which benefits all users; middle – the ruins of a cottage almost lost in the furze. The mining records mention a ‘miner’s cottage’ still being visible: could this be it? Lower – gaining height as the path gets steeper: that’s Whiddy Island in the distance

The wider aerial view shows the full length of the old trackway as it crosses the mountain through The Big Gap. Just past the summit when heading south is another landmark, also holding a folk memory. Lough Na Fuilla translates as ‘Lake of the Blood’:

A reed-filled lake suddenly appears; so many different greens, so far from anywhere and the gentle murmuring of the reeds all combine to make a rather unsettling atmosphere . . . Maybe it’s knowing the name of the lough, Loch Na Fuilla, lough of the blood, that plays tricks on the mind. There is a story attached, of course. One extremely hot summer the cattle came down from the mountain in search of water. The lough was empty. Maddened with disappointment and thirst the cattle went berserk and attacked each other and many were killed.

Walking the Sheep’s Head Way – Amanda and peter Clarke – Wildways Press 2015
Lough Na Fuilla, and a nearby tarn on the east side of the trackway. The autumn colours are sublime

Neither the Lake of the Blood nor the nearby tarn are shown on the early OS maps. The few remaining mining records, however, mention that there was some prospecting activity up on the ridge: could this have relevance? And is this another reason for the existence of this path? We are impressed with the views from The Big Gap both north and south. We temporarily divert on to a stony sheep path to get even higher, and to find the best panoramas. From the ridge we also record the contrasting light and shadow effects from a constantly changing sky.

We pause to wonder whether a large rounded outcrop is the Eagle’s Rest which is mentioned by local historian Willie Dwyer, of Rooska:

The gap going through the mountain there, by Loch na Fuilla, the locals always called it, that’s the old people who are dead and gone now, used to call it “Barna Mhór” which means “The Big Gap”, and on the right-hand side (the north-west corner) before you come to the extreme top of the track, there’s a round bald rock which was known as “the Eagle’s Rest”. I don’t know how long the eagles have been gone out of this part of the country, but it must have been a long time ago. This is a tradition now, it has been passed down as tradition, how true or false it is, I can’t prove to you.

Willie Dwyer, Quoted by TOM WHITTY in ‘A guide to the Sheep’s Head way’ 2003

From The Big Gap it’s downhill all the way! As we walk south it’s the Mizen which is always on the horizon, across the waters of Dunmanus Bay.

As we approach the southern end of the trackway crossing the mountain, we look back up towards Barna Mhór – The Big Gap. It has been a most rewarding adventure for us, and one which we intend to repeat at other times of the year so that we can capture the effects of the changing seasons.

Mizen Mountains 2 – Lisheennacreagh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mine Ghost

My name is Thomas – William Thomas. When I’m at the mines they call me Captain Thomas – because I’m in charge! I’m visiting some of my old ‘haunts’, and thought you might join me, to see what a working day was like in ‘ . . . one of the wildest districts in the United Kingdom . . . ‘ – Gortavallig, on Rinn Mhuintir Bháire. I know you call this place The Sheep’s Head now: that amuses me. I’m always trying to pick up on the Irish words – it’s such a poetic language. My grandfather was a natural Cornish speaker, but the language was gone by the time I was born – it’s only used by the Bards nowadays.

That’s my house – above – in the townland of Letter East. That’s where I stayed with my family when I was Captain at Gortavallig. It was rough going when I had to get to the mine – a solid hour’s trek across rough country, and the same back again. As part of the work that we did while developing this mine we built a good ten miles of road, which helped with communications in that untamed north-coast country.

Come with me now on the way that leads down, firstly, to the cove at Bunown in Eskraha townland: there’s a slipway there, and a house where my assistant Superintendent, Mister Bennett, lodges. It was once a coast-guard station. This cove has also been the scene of some tragedies in your own time. There was the writer, James Farrell, who drowned while fishing off the rocks there in 1979. He’s buried beyond by the church of St James in Durrus, looking out forever over Dunmanus Bay. The sea is a dangerous element: I know, because I’ve had to work with it. But it’s your friend, as well as your foe. If it wasn’t for the sea we would have no chance of transporting ore from the remoteness of Gortavallig.

The rocks at Bunown – on a good day! James Gordon Farrell is buried facing the water of Dunmanus Bay at St James’, Durrus

They say that, wherever you are in the world, if there’s a mine – or even a hole in the ground – you’ll find a Cornishman at the bottom of it! That’s because pulling the metal out of the ground – and from the cliffs – and even from under the sea – was our lifeblood in that far western peninsula. But the land was ravaged. This scene (below) is where I grew up and learned my trade: Dolcoath, near Camborne in Cornwall, in its heyday one of the busiest mining areas in the world. My father James was agent there and I enjoyed ‘ . . . a liberal education and had the very great advantage of being taught dialling and the whole routine of the profession by the most eminent miners of the day and worked for several years as a tributer – an admirable practical school . . . ‘

I was pleased to get away from the noise, the grime and the stench of that place when I was called to Ireland with my own family in 1845, firstly to Coosheen on the Mizen – where I revived an ailing venture by successfully rediscovering the copper-bearing lode. After that I came here to the Sheep’s Head where the surveyors, travelling on board small inshore vessels, could see promising ore-bearing strata on the cliff-faces which were being eroded on this coastline. My job was to work those veins – a gargantuan one bearing in mind the uncompromising nature of the landscape and the remoteness of the geography.

Looking back across silver waters as we walk together on the rough pathway to Gortavallig: nature has been tamed by the fields that go down to the coast west of Bunown, whereas the way to the east is across rough, wild country

If you follow this path with me you will have to have good shoes and a steady gait, and the will to clamber upwards and downwards on sometimes steep and rough rock faces. But you will be rewarded by the remarkable vistas and the untamed surroundings. Your only companions will be the choughs: these sleek red-billed birds are a comfort to me as they have always been a symbol of Cornwall, sharing pride of place on that county’s coat-of-arms, together with an image of the Cornish miner! Did you know that the chough is the embodiment of old King Arthur, who is ready to rise again and save our nations in times of trouble?

A chough espied on our walk to Gortavallig, and the Coat-of-Arms of Cornwall which is shared between bird, fisherman and miner

After a vigorous hour’s trekking over the rough terrain we will catch our first glimpse of the mining works at Gortavallig: a row of small stone cottages perched on the cliff-top. This is known today as the Cornish Village, although it wasn’t just Cornish mine-workers who lived here. Good, strong Irishmen came to the place and earned their keep, and everyone here had to pay rent for the single-roomed lodgings. If there had been windows on the seaward side of these dwellings they would have enjoyed magnificent views, but we were more concerned at keeping out the extremes of the weather, and the few small windows only faced inland. There was plenty of ocean to be seen while you were working your hearts out to extract the minerals!

‘Cornish’ cottages close by the mine workings at Gortavallig

Once we have passed by the cottages we find ourselves traversing a sheer cliff edge. Below us the sea roars, but it’s down there that we built two quays, one 73 feet long and 40 feet high, the other 92 feet long and 36 feet high and, at the base of the cliff, a dressing floor 180 feet long and 50 feet wide, while above it we put in a stone dam and sluice so that we could wash the ore. Water was such an important element to us: in Cornwall we used its power to turn wheels and drive machinery such as crushers. We were never short of it here in Ireland.

Hold on to that rope or you might go over the edge!

Now, of course, on an idyllic day of blue sky and sunshine, you couldn’t find a place more picturesque, peaceful and redolent of nature’s beauty, but imagine what it was like in my time when men, women (we called them Bal Maidens in Cornwall) and children laboured long hours to bring out the precious ore and break, dress and prepare it for market: there was always the movement of ropes and machinery as trucks were pushed out of the mine-galleries on the rail-way, and figures constantly toiled up and down the precipitous rough stepways to and from the quays so far below. Although built in as sheltered a position as possible, they were constantly battered by heavy swells and breakers. In fact, they have now disappeared altogether.

Finola braves the cliff edge to get a view of the site of the old quays below, accessed by the rough and steep stone lined path

If we go up to the hillside above the mine workings we can look out over the reservoir, and we can also see the fenced-off openings of shafts. Most of the engineering took place, of course, underground: hard work in restricted spaces. We did our best to ensure safety, but there were accidents.

A lot of people have said that our mine was a ‘failure’, but I wouldn’t necessarily share that view. In May 1847 I presented my first report to the directors of the company:

. . . We have set bounds to the Atlantic waves, for though they lash and foam sometimes over craggy rocks, our works have withstood the furious storms of two severe winters. A complete wilderness and barren cliff, which had been for past ages the undisturbed resort of the Eagle, the Hawk and Wild Sea Bird, has by our labours for the past 16 months been changed into a valley of native industry, giving employment, food, and comfort, to numbers of the hitherto starving, but peacable inhabitants. We have in the course of 16 months, with an average number of 24 miners, whose earnings ranged from 9 shillings to 12 shillings a week, explored 174 fathoms of ground. We have also employed about 26 surface men, at the rate of 10 pence and one shilling a day . . .

In May 1848 the SS William and Thomas collected 88 tons of copper ore from the quay of our mine at Gortavallig. It sold for £269 14s in Swansea. Yes – it was the only shipment that the mine ever exported, but it gave employment and food to families in one of the remotest areas of the West of Ireland during the ‘Great Hunger’. In my time at Rinn Mhuintir Bháire I was able to set up – at my own cost – the Coosheen Fishery Association over on the Mizen, which also helped with food production through those bad years. With my brothers Charles and Henry, and my son John, we helped to bring industry to the remote fastnesses of West Cork and Kerry – including the mine at Dhurode, on the Mizen. I feel satisfaction that our lives have benefited our neighbours here in these far western peninsulas which bear such a similarity to our own native Cornwall . . .  Now you will want to return to civilisation: thank you for your company and mind your step – I think I’ll rest a while here pondering on old times with my pipe and tobacco.

Captain William Thomas possibly in 1843 (left) and right, with one of his daughters in 1852. The latter photograph was taken by Hastings Moore in Ballydehob

From the Skibbereen Eagle, 7 June 1890:

Died, May 22nd at Coosheen, Schull, William Thomas, of Bolleevede, Camborne, Cornwall, aged 82 years, manager of mines in Cork and Kerry for nearly 50 years. He truly believed in Irish men and Irish mines. He wrote and spoke on their behalf to the utmost of his ability . . .

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.