Quest for the Lone Whitethorn

The crowning glory of our West Cork hedgerows, highways and boreens at this time of the year is the May bush – Sceach Gheal – Hawthorn or Whitethorn. The example above is on the way down to Ballydehob, just a few minutes’ walk from Nead an Iolair: we can’t resist stopping every time we pass to admire its brilliance – a shining presence among the abundant greenery of the early summer that’s all around us in these quiet days.

You have to get up close to fully appreciate the wonder of the tiny individual blooms that contribute to the billowing white cloud effects we see wherever there is a May bush in the hedges. We have one right outside of our bedroom window (see Rossbrin Castle in the distant view):

Such a visually striking tree has attracted many traditions and superstitions over the generations – and pisogues like these never really go away. A good account of many surviving beliefs in the British Isles is given in The Hazel Tree Blog.

Of course, the May Bush is a thorn – a spiky tree, seen here before the blossoms come out. Even if those pisogues about it being unlucky to bring it into the house didn’t protect it from being cut, then those thorns would certainly be a goodly deterrent. This great picture, with chaffinch, was taken by Finola, who also provided many of the other photos here. Thank you, Finola! We admire the work of Michael Fortune, who lives in Wexford where, with Aileen Lambert, they have succeeded in re-establishing a May Bush tradition.

It’s been a quest of ours, when on our ‘lockdown’ walks – limited to 5km – to find the iconic ‘lone thorn tree’, out in a field, moor or open country, as this is the one imbued with the legends. So far we have been unsuccessful – the whitethorns around us all seem to be part of a hedgerow. In my English west country days – when I lived in the Celtic regions of Cornwall and Devon – I was aware of many solitary thorn trees, particularly out on the moors. Being in exposed locations they were usually distinctively shaped, bending away from the prevailing winds.

I had to search my archives for this photo of a lone thorn tree ‘bent’ by the wind: it was taken on the Sheep’s Head in June 2015 – after the blooms have faded. Always be careful of the solitary thorn for it guards the entrance to the realm of the Other Crowd. If you fall asleep under that thorn tree you will find yourselves transported into the kingdom of the old ones. It will not be an unpleasant experience – they will offer to satisfy all your thirst and hunger… But, if you accept, you will remain in that kingdom and grow old. One day they will release you, and it will seem as if just a few moments had passed since you left, but your aged body will very soon crumble to dust. This belief was as prevalent in Devon and Cornwall as it still is today in Ireland. Beware!

Close to home again – whitethorns in Ballydehob Bay. Once the blooms have gone, of course, we look forward to the haws, which are said to be edible but bland. They are traditionally used to make jelly and wine.

We could not be without the hawthorn trees which are all around us: they are lighting up our days in these times of anxiety and restriction – and they are reminding us of the continuity of nature and the constant cycle of the seasons. Life will prevail.

Our own May Bush a few years ago – blackthorn and gorse. We keep up the ancient traditions out of respect for the lore of our ancestors. If we don’t, the sun may never rise again!

To Puncture the Mysterious – Finbarr and the Serpent

There are two St Finbarrs, Patron Saint of Cork – the one you read about in academic studies, and the saint of myth and legend. If you’re of a romantic turn of mind, I recommend you avoid the first of these. It will do your heart no good to read the forensic analyses of the origins of his cult and who he might really have been.

The legendary Finbarr: Arriving at Gougane Barra in this window in Caheragh by Murphy Devitt; and being consecrated as a bishop by angels in an Earley window in St Finbarr’s church in Bantry, donated by William Martin Murphy

No – far better to read the hagiographies, which lay out his virtues, for he was godlike and pure of heart and mind, like Abraham; mild and well-doing, like Moses; a psalmist, like David; wise, like Solomon; firm in the faith, like Peter; devoted to the truth, like Paul the Apostle; and full of the Holy Spirit, like John the Baptist. He was a lion of strength, and an orchard full of apples of sweetness.

St Finbarr’s monastic site as reconstructed by Fr Peter Hurley in the 1890s and still a place of pilgrimage. The window is in the Church of St Finbarr and the Holy Angels in Inchigeela and is a flamboyant example of Watsons of Youghal’s Celtic Revival style

He is associated with Cork, of course, but probably most closely with Gougane Barra, that idyllic mountain lake where he is said to have founded his first monastic community. Gougane Barra – the rocky cranny of Finbarr – lies in a cleft in the Shehy Mountains and from it the River Lee flows eastwards across Cork to empty itself into its mighty harbour.

The oratory at Gougane is an in-demand wedding venue and home to stained glass windows by Watsons of Youghal, including this one of Finbarr

Legend has it that when St Finbarr arrived to set up his cell the lake was occupied by an enormous serpent, called Lú (or Louie, in some accounts) who, having had it to himself naturally resented the saint’s arrival and on one occasion arose and tore the chalice from his hands as he was celebrating mass. Finbarr raged and prayed and with the power of God to sustain him he summoned Lú from the depths and banished him forever from the lake.

Lú underfoot, being banished by Finbarr

Lú departed, thrashing his giant tail as he went and such was his anger and strength that he carved a deep valley as he went. The water from the lake flowed into the valley and thus the River Lee (below) was formed.

Our favourite contemporary poet, James Harpur, has re-imagined this story as a classic spiritual struggle. He has given me permission to use his poem, Finbarr and the Serpent of Gougane Barra. This is the perfect answer to the desiccation and disappointment of academic analysis – the power of Finbarr’s legend lies in the timeless battle between good and evil – whether that’s between a saint and a serpent or between a saint and his demons.

Did it exist?

                   For hours I’d scan the surface

Hope for a splash, a shadow in the water,

Anything

               to puncture the mysterious.

At night I’d set the traps with squeaking bait.

But nothing came

                            except a badger and an otter.

Yet still I felt its presence by the lake.

At last, I snapped: I drove the serpent out

With curses, shouts – I exorcised the beast

Along with every slithering scaly thought.

But soon … I could not bear the certainty

Of absence, emptiness.

                                     I headed east

To settle where the plains of marshes lie

And built a trap, a cave-like oratory;

And here I pray for god

                                      to coil around me.

 

Biodiversity Ballydehob

In the same way that strangers are friends you haven’t met yet, weeds are wildflowers you haven’t yet come to know and love. So come with me to the Ballydehob estuary and meet the dazzling array of wildflowers that call it home. That’s me, by the way, with my trusty camera, at the always-scenic Twelve-Arch Bridge. All the photos in this post were taken within 100 metres of the bridge, on the west side of the estuary.

Thrift, or Sea-pinks, is the most visible flower at the moment, in pink drifts along the shore. There’s a lot more than Thrift in this photograph, but before we move on, let’s take a closer look at them.

In Irish Thrift is called Rabhán (pronounced ravawn) and this word means an outburst, as in rabhán gáire, a sudden fit of laughing. Pretty apt, isn’t it, for a flower that is suddenly everywhere at this time of year. By ‘everywhere’ I mean all along the coast, although in Great Britain it is also found in a few mountainy places too.

Ballydehob has some white Thrift too, fairly unusual. According to Niall MacCoitir in his wonderful Ireland’s Wild Plants, Thrift has many alternative folk-names, such as Lady’s Cushion, Sea Daisy, and Sea-July Flower.

As there is everywhere at this time of year, there’s lots of Ribwort Plantain (did you use it to play Soldiers as a kid?) but there’s also Buck’s-horn Plantain (above). The stalk and flower look very Plantain-like, but the leaves of the basal rosette are what give the plant its name – look at all those tines. In Irish the plantains are called Slánlús, which means health plant as they are used liberally in folk medicine. But be careful – in regards to Ribwort Plantain (below, with Oxeye Daisy and Cat’s-ear), Mac Coitir warns us, . . .while it could be used to cure many ailments, there was also a danger that if the wind changed wile you were collecting it, you would lose your mind.

Here’s Buck’s-horn Plantain again (above), along with three different pink flowers – can you make them all out? I’ll talk about each one and then you can go back and look at his photo again and see if you can see them this time.

Here’s the first one, Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill. The dove’s-foot comes from the shape of the leaf, and the crane’s-bill from the shape of the seed-pod – you can see both in this picture.

The flower is tiny and very sweet, deep pink with purple anthers. It’s a member of the Geranium family, and that makes it first-cousin to the next little pink flower, Herb Robert, below.

It’s one of my favourites, not just for its attractive flower, but for the leaves that turn a deep red as the plant matures. Himself, of course, is very pleased to have a plant named after him, although a more boring explanation could be that the Robert comes from the latin ruber, meaning red. It’s got lots of alternate names but my favourite Irish one is Eireaball Rí, means the King’s Tail. It’s another powerful herb, used traditionally to stop bleeding.

The last of the pink flowers is Kidney Vetch, although it also comes in other colours. It’s actually more common in yellow around here, but I have read that it can be orange, purple, or even pure white. In the photograph above it’s mixed in with the Buck’s-horn Plantain, but here it is on its own, below.

Kidney Vetch is a member of the Pea family but the funny thing about it is that each little pink petal is embedded in a tuft of what looks like cotton wool. It’s a bit otherworldly, but it makes it easy to identify. It’s also known as Lady’s-finger (or in Irish as Méara Muire, which translates as The Virgin’s Finger) and as Stanch, which comes from its reputation as being able to staunch blood flow.

Another member of the Pea family is Red Clover, beloved for its nectar by bumble bees, which have longer tongues than honey bees and can get at the goodness.

This is one of those flowers that are so familiar we hardly notice them, but a really close look reveals a beautiful flower indeed. The leaves are the familiar shamrock shape, but much larger and often with pale patches, and another reason to look closely is to see if you can find a four-leaved clover, considered lucky all over the world. In Irish myth and legend the clover is a symbol of prosperity and the fertility of the land. Among Mac Coitir’s many examples is the story of St Brigid who decided to make her home in the Curragh of Kildare because when ‘she saw before her the delightful plain covered in clover blossom, she determined to offer it to the lord’.

Above is Trailing Tormentil. Although this is a widely-distributed plant in Ireland I haven’t seen a lot of it around here. In fact it’s much more common to see its first cousin, simply called Tormentil, especially on heath, among the heathers and gorse. Tormentil has only four petals on its yellow flowers, whereas Trailing Tormentil can have five, as in the patches I found along the estuary. The name seems to relate to its potency as a cure for stomach torments – the root was boiled in milk as a cure for colic. Add in a little wine and it was good for what ailed you. Add in some St John’s wort and it was a sleeping draught. This is reflected in the Irish name Néalfartach: néal has several meanings which can related to depression and to sleep.

A very exciting find for me now (above) as it’s the first time I have seen it. Look how tiny it is – it’s very possible I’ve walked over it many times without noticing, especially as the old eyes aren’t what they used to be. It’s one of the Sea-spurreys (the others are Rock Sea-spurrey, Greater Sea-spurrey and Sand Spurrey, all of which are found in West Cork) but this one is Lesser Sea-spurrey.

It’s very like Greater Sea-spurrey but several factors distinguish it – it’s tiny, the sepals are longer than the petals (see above) and it has far fewer stamens. The distribution of all the Sea-spurreys is coastal, as you would imagine, but strangely Lesser Sea-spurrey is also found all over Britain, inland as well as by the sea. In Ireland, it is only coastal. Is it weird to get this excited over a tiny plant? (Okay, don’t answer that.)

Moving right along, this is Cuckoo-flower – so called because it appears about the same time as the Cuckoo does. It’s also called Lady’s Smock and it can vary from pure white to a mauvey pink and if you look closely at the stems you might see tiny eggs – they are white when laid but turn orange with time. They are laid by the Orange-tip Butterfly and the larva feeds on the stem of the flower.

There’s a little patch of grass jutting out into the estuary and at first I thought it was just covered in daisies. Daisies are important little flowers for our pollinators too, but what caught my eye was smaller so I had to lie down to get close enough to see the little blue ones.

This is Thyme-leaved Speedwell, one of the many Speedwells you can find in West Cork, and one of the smallest ones. Right across the road is another one – much more visible. In fact, if your eye is caught by a flash of blue in the grass in West Cork, this is likely to be what’s causing it.

It’s Germander Speedwell – a closer look below. Speedwell looks a bit like a Forget-me-not but it doesn’t have the yellow centre and only has four petals to a Forget-me-not’s five.

It belongs to a different family too – the Veronica family, which includes the next flower, Ivy-leaved Toadflax, which I found growing all over the bridge pillar.

This is one opportunistic little plant – it will find a crack in a wall and dig right in. In fact, walls are its favourite habitat. Here’s what Zoë Devlin’s Wildflowers of Ireland (my go-to resource) has to say about this adaptable genius: The seed-planting mechanism of this plant is very clever indeed.  The flowers turn their heads to the sun until they have been fertilised at which stage they turn about towards the wall on which they are growing and in this way they plant or push the seeds into any little crevice possible on the wall. They also have very long roots which help them to hang on, like the Ivy for which they are named, and thereby ensure their survival.  This plant was introduced in the seventeenth century from the Mediterranean countries.

As Zoë says, it arrived here from the Mediterranean – but how? During the craze for importing marble from Italy, including marble statues, the plant hitched a ride, jumped ship once it got to Britain, and flourished from then on. Even though it’s not a native plant it’s adapted well to the Irish climate and has proven to be a good neighbour, unlike many other alien species.

Just glancing along the bank, it’s hard to take in how many plants are here, and what a variety there is. I will finish with a couple from across the road. First, the Hawthorn is now in full bloom.

It’s also known here as the Whitethorn and it comes into flower after its leaves have arrived and after the Blackthorn has faded. Beautiful – but considered to be very unlucky. Woe betide anyone cutting a Whitethorn or bringing its flowers or branches into the house – except in the month of May when it was customary on some counties to bring the flowers to the house, or even into it, to honour Mary (it’s the May Tree) or to ward off evil. That’s a bit confusing – it’s May now so should you gather some blossoms? Better to take no chances, I say, and leave it to bloom outside for all our enjoyment.

And what’s this I spy? It’s St Patrick’s Cabbage and you will only find this plant in southern or Western Ireland and in Spain and Portugal. Called the Lusitanian Flora, there is a group of plants who seem to have flown, as if by magic, across the Bay of Biscay, France and Britain, to land in West Cork, and this is one of them.

If you’re a gardener it might look familiar – the popular garden plant, London Pride, is a hybrid of this and another member of the Saxifrage family.

There’s more – lot’s more – but I’d better leave it at that (except I couldn’t resist that image of the Scarlet Pimpernel, above, with the Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill). Here’s what I want you to take away from this post – with the exception of the Ivy-leaved Toadflax, which has been here for hundreds of years, every single one of the plants I have written about here is native. Every. Single. One. Why is that important? Because this is what a wildflower patch looks like and should look like. These are the flowers to which our native insects and pollinators have adapted over millennia and therefore these are the ones which are critical to our ecology here in Ireland.

We’ve been fed images of colourful meadows full of poppies and cornflowers and told that’s what a wildflower meadow looks like – it’s not. THIS is what our pollinators need – a wide variety of native plants left undisturbed. It’s wonderful to see this in Ballydehob, but every village and town in Ireland has areas like this. Let’s make sure they flourish!

 

Wending the Boreens

Only in Ireland can you wend your way along boreens. The Irish word is bóithrín, – a small bóthar (road). We are surrounded by them in our West Cork townlands. In these days of Covid19 restrictions, they are our whole world. With a maximum walk of 5 kilometres allowed, we can only ever be on boreens. But that’s no hardship – mostly they are beautiful (in fact they are all beautiful), and we enjoy every step we can take. So today’s post is simply a celebration of what is around us. But I have also combed the RWJ archives to look for boreens outside of our local area, for a bit of variety and comparison. Rest assured that any illustrations beyond our present limits were taken in other – normal – times!

Of course a ‘boreen’ or small road doesn’t have to be in a rural location, This fine boreen in Eyries, on the Beara Peninsula, is in fact a well used highway through the town, but you can’t deny that it is as atmospheric and picturesque as many of the rural byways shown here. It’s a moment in time captured for all time.

The photo at the top of the page is special for us: it’s the view we get when we turn out of Nead an Iolair, heading down towards Rossbrin Cove. And there (above) is our first glimpse of the sheltered harbour, overlooked by the medieval castle that was the home of Clan Chieftain Fininn O’Mahony in the 15th century. Not only do we have all the wonders of West Cork’s landscape on our doorstep, but we also have deep history as well…

How much closer can you get to nature than this ‘green’ boreen just a short walk up the road from where we live in Cappaghglass? The stone hedge banks have become completely assimilated into the surroundings, and are a haven for so many native species of wildflowers, as Finola will readily point out to us!

And just a few yards from that last green trackway is the boreen that takes us down into our village of Ballydehob. Those are apple trees flourishing as part of the natural hedgerow.

We have very little woodland around us here. This slightly mysterious tree-lined boreen was found on our travels near Glendalough, in County Wicklow, last year.

Close by the little harbour of Glandore (in Irish Cuan D’Ór – Harbour of Gold) in West Cork, we found a secluded boreen which pointed us towards an oddity: a pyramid in a graveyard – well worth a visit. Read about it in this post from two years ago.

Returning to our own neighbourhood these two recent photos, taken only a couple of days ago, show how you can never quite know what you are going to find just around the corner or over the brow of the next hill. That’s Jeremy Irons’ Kilcoe Castle in the upper picture, and Cape Clear Island (on the horizon) in the lower one.

In contrast, here’s a little trackway that takes you up to the summit of the Rock of Dunamase in County Laois. This historic site with a view is associated with momentous events in the history of this country: in the painting by Daniel Maclise that hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland, The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife is depicted as taking place at the now ruined Great Hall on the Rock. You can find the whole story of this most critical juncture in Ireland’s history in Finola’s post here.

Even further afield – in Ballymoney, Co Antrim – is this spectacular avenue of beech trees planted on the entrance driveway leading to an eighteenth century Georgian mansion, Gracehill House. This boreen – open to pedestrians – is known as the Dark Hedges, and we visited it when we explored the North of Ireland three years ago.

Although in normal times we travel a lot – on major roads and motorways, as well as boreens – the places we like the best are near to home. How could we not be impressed by the winding boreen that climbs to the top of Mount Gabriel, the highest point on the Mizen? Look at the spectacular views (above). The preacher Caeser Otway travelling in this area in 1822 wrote:

. . . On my way to Bantry I passed the dark and lofty Mount Gabriel and took my way over a dreary, comfortless tract of country. Let no one say after looking at these moors , studded over with cabins crowded with children, pigs, goats, cocks and hens that an Irishman is not an industrious creature . . . Men, women, boys and girls toiling up the mountainside with seaweed and sea sand in baskets on their backs . . . See them reclaiming from amidst rocks and bogs, patches of ground on which to cultivate their only food, the potato; and no one witnessing this struggle of human industry against nature, but must acknowledge that the Irish are a most industrious race . . .

The 400 year old road that crosses the mountains from Cork into Kerry north of Bantry has to count as a boreen, as it’s single track for much of the way. The Priest’s Leap sign (above) marks the point at which the two counties meet. Although we have travelled all over Ireland in our explorations, this is still one of our favourite routes, and always will be. We so look forward to being able to go there again, when the present ‘lockdown’ is lifted.

Another glimpse of the Priest’s Leap ‘boreen’.

This elegant woodland boreen is a fine example of regency landscaping, being part of the Ballyfin Demesne in Co Laois. Like so many of Ireland’s fine luxury hotels, Ballyfin remains closed until the Covid19 restrictions are lifted.

We’ll finish this post where we started – near to home in West Cork, with happy memories of unrestricted rambles with friends along the quietest and most beautiful of Ireland’s boreens . . .

Schull Sculpture – Anchor, Mermaid and Lunachán

The harbour town of Schull, in West Cork, is wonderfully located on a naturally sheltered inlet looking out to Long Island Bay and ‘Carbery’s Hundred Isles’. From the pier you can take the Foreshore Walk (above) – a significant community asset – and follow a route which encircles the settlement, passing, on the way, another surviving piece of sculpture from the West Cork Arts Centre Living Landscape exhibitions, dating from the 1980s to the 1990s and masterminded by Cóilín Murray. We are indebted to Cóilín for providing an archive of photographs to the Ballydehob Arts Museum, and for being willing to contribute his own memories of the installation of the West Cork Sculpture Trail, which has greatly helped in putting together the story of this venture, over a quarter of a century later.

This is the second in a series of posts being published simultaneously by Roaringwater Journal and the Ballydehob Arts Museum, celebrating an important aspect of art history in West Cork. The first article – Behold, Their Bright Shining Future Rising Before Them – discussed Michael Bulfin’s ‘Pyramid’ sculpture beside the N71 road at Skeaghanore East between Skibbereen and Ballydehob. That work can still be seen, but is in a very overgrown state. The subject today is a piece by Mick O’Sullivan, titled Anchor, Mermaid and Lunachán. This is at present a well preserved surviving work from the Sculpture Trail although, like many others, it has suffered in the past from vandalism.

Upper – this photograph dates from the time of installation of the Anchor sculpture in Schull: it was originally situated close to the water below the Sailing School. Lower – the restored Anchor sculpture (far left of picture) is now sited above the Foreshore Walk, by the top of the slipway

The Anchor has the remarkably realistic texture of a corroded and barnacle-encrusted ancient piece of ironwork which might have rested on the ocean bed for countless years… In reality, it is fabricated from glass-fibre resin and – if dropped into the sea – it would float!

It was, in fact, sent out to sea… Deliberately damaged in the late 1990s, it was broken into two parts and thrown in the water. The two sections ‘sailed’ side by side towards Long Island until they were rescued by one of the Schull fishing boats. Eventually the remains of the artwork arrived in Cóilín’s garden in Skeaghanore, awaiting a saviour.

Upper – Michael O’Sullivan at the launch of his ‘Anchor’ sculpture, together with Christine Choice, board member of WCAC. Lower – a 1982 watercolour by Michael O’Sullivan: St Brendan Discovers the Crystal Pool (IMMA Permanent Collection)

Michael O’Sullivan was born in Dublin in 1945. He gained a Diploma in Sculpture from the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), and was a lecturer there until his retirement. He has been greatly influenced in his life and art by the works of James Joyce, and is a noted scholar and lecturer on Joyce. Cóilín Murray and Michael O’Sullivan remain good friends and when the pieces of the anchor were recovered Michael came back to Schull to help in a restoration project on the sculpture instigated by a staff member at Schull College. The Anchor was reassembled and placed in its present position, where it is hopefully less vulnerable. A plaque there commemorates the 2000 ‘resurrection’ project and gives the names of the students who were closely involved in the reconstruction work.

The restored Anchor is appropriately located in the context of the Schull Sailing Centre

The word Lunachán – referring to the topmost part of the Anchor sculpture – is made up (by Michael)! I asked Cóilín for clarification and here is his response:

The word is an invention of his …Witty? ….
Amadán …in Irish …a bit of a fool …
Luna …the moon …
Lunachán …the reference to the moon and the howling at the full moon etc … Most of Mick’s work has layers and riddles…

Upper – the Lunachán today. Lower – Michael O’Sullivan and Lunachán – shortly after the sculpture was first installed in Schull

It’s good that the community in Schull was sufficiently enthusiastic about the restoration of this sculpture to support its reinstatement in the Millennium year. Twenty years later, perhaps we should consider a revival of the West Cork Sculpture Trail with new artwork to link in to the few surviving pieces? The overall Living Landscapes project – of which this was just one part – helped to give the West Cork Arts Centre its still vigorous identity and national reputation. Surely – when tourists return to the Wild Atlantic Way post-Covid – such a venture could provide a stimulating cooperation between art and landscape?

Schull-Under-The-Mountain, spring 2020

Kilcoe Castle – A Magnificent Reconstruction

Kilcoe Castle has been wonderfully restored and conserved by Jeremy Irons. His work allows us to see what a 15th century castle would have looked like in the landscape and has saved a precious piece of our heritage. This is important as there are so few castles that have been conserved here and lots that have disappeared or are in danger of doing so. Before you read on you might like to refresh your understanding of our West Cork castles, or Tower Houses, by reading When is a Castle?; Tower House Tutorial, Part 1; Tower House Tutorial, Part 2; or Illustrating the Tower House: A Guest Blog (sort of)

First of all, let’s address the issue of the colour of the exterior lime render, since this has been controversial. In fact, the only reason it’s been criticised is that people are not used to seeing castles as they originally stood, since the lime render has long ago disappeared from them, leaving the familiar bare stone walls that people have assumed was how they looked from the start. But all castles were rendered – without that they would have been porous and running with water inside and out.

This is JG O’Donoghue’s reconstruction drawing (used with permission) of what a fifteenth century tower house would have looked like. It was based on Kilcrea Castle. Note the white render and note also that another white castle can be seen in the distance

And the render was coloured! There is evidence of all kinds of additions that would have added colour, including animal fats, blood and hair, flour, shell, sand and stone rubble. The plasterer had his formula and also used what was available locally, materials that would increase cohesion and improve drying time. Irish places names abound in references to coloured castles – just Google the words “castle Ireland” and then put white, black, red, green in front of it and see how many there are. Or look for Irish equivalents, such as Castlederg – for Caisleán Dearg, meaning Red Castle. There’s even a Castleboy in Meath that comes from Caisleán Buí, meaning yellow castle. So the choice of colour was not idiosyncratic or random but well grounded in historical precedents. The render was essential to keep the castle dry and will have to be renewed occasionally as it does eventually wash away – which is why very few examples have survived from the fifteenth century.

The other reason to include colouring elements in the render was to make the castle stand out in the landscape. These were statement residences and the statement was one of power and prestige. They were meant to be seen from a long way off so that nobody could be in any doubt who was the most important person in the neighbourhood. In West Cork, they were also meant to be seen from other castles – those built either by members of the same or another family (the McCarthys, O’Mahonys, O’Driscolls, O’Sullivans or O’Donovans). Kilcoe was a McCarthy castle: the McCarthys were the overlords of all the West Cork clans and this castle was inserted right into the middle of territory controlled by the O’Mahony’s and the O’Driscolls as a constant reminder of the hierarchy. Accordingly, Kilcoe is the largest castle in Roaringwater Bay and has a unique design that incorporates an additional corner tower, distinguishing it from all the other castes around it. There is only one other West Cork castle of the same design – Dunmanus Castle on Dunmanus Bay, a castle of the O’Mahonys.

It was also important that castles could be seen from the water, because control of the fisheries was what gave the great West Cork families their vast wealth. Salted herring and pilchards were staples of the European diet in the Middle Ages because there were so many fasting days on which eating of meat was forbidden and because fresh food wasn’t always readily available in the winter. The O’Mahonys and O’Driscolls catered to the huge fleets of Spanish, French, Portuguese and British fishing boats that plied the waters of Roaringwater Bay, providing, for hefty fees, permission to fish in ‘their’ waters, fish processing facilities and salt in several ‘fish palaces’ along the shore, fresh water, and taverns with fine wines and (sorry) accommodating women. The McCarthy’s must have been involved in this lucrative trade too, but it is also likely that their objective in building Kilcoe was to keep an eye on the the ‘take’ so that they could extract, as befitted those at the top of the food chain, their due share from those who owed them submission and therefore were obligated to yield up hefty donations on a yearly basis.

Castles such as Kilcoe were heavily fortified. Mostly the inhabitants were worried about incursions by other Irish families. It was not until after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 that the forces of the British Crown came to lay siege to Kilcoe. Thanks to its defensive features and siting Kilcoe was able to hold out longer than any other West Cork castle. The McCarthys abandoned it after Kinsale but an O’Driscoll held on until finally surrendering in 1603. What were the features of this castle that allowed it to resist so successfully?

Fist of all, it was sited on a small island. Like a few other West Cork castles, it was connected by a causeway that could be destroyed at will, cutting off access to the castle. It was surrounded by a strong bawn wall, which is clearly visible now as it has been reconstructed. The wall was punctured by arrow loops and had a wall walk at the top where crenellations provided cover for archers. The roof of the tower also had a wall walk and crenellations – in this case they took the form of what became known as Irish Crenellations. These were stepped or ‘toothed’ battlements, with tall parts (merlons) behind which defenders could take cover and shorter parts (crenels) for shooting from. The crenellations have been expertly reconstructed as part of the restoration of the castle.

Heavy ordinance such as cannons were not yet staples of siege warfare in Ireland – it was Cromwell who unleashed their destructive force half a century later. When the castle finally surrendered, it was intact. Over the years, of course, it fell into disrepair and finally into ruin. It was shored up and some work was done by the Samuels family, but when they sold it to Jeremy Irons the restoration program got underway.

What Kilcoe Castle looked like before reconstruction

This is a private home and I have never been inside it. But if you are curious you can see lots of interior photographs here: https://jeremyirons.net/category/kilcoe-castle/. My objective in this post has been to emphasise the importance of the restoration of this magnificent tower house so that it will be a highlight of West Cork heritage for generations to come, as well as to acknowledge the solid research that went into the reconstruction program, resulting in a spectacular structure that is a superb and historically-accurate addition to our West Cork landscape. Thank you, Jeremy Irons and your team, from all of us in West Cork.