Walking West Cork – Half the Colla Loop!

The first post of 2021…

I never expected to live in plague-ridden times, but that’s where we find ourselves – at the start of a new year. And – because of the plague – our travels are restricted once again. On the very last day of 2020, keeping things as local as possible, we hastened to Schull and explored half of the Colla Loop on the Fastnet Trails.

We started at the Trailhead by the pier at Colla (header picture). I have drawn our route as a dotted red line on the aerial view, above: we walked ‘widdershins’ – anti-clockwise. You will find the whole of the Colla Loop on the leaflet here. The full trail from Schull and back is 9km: by my calculation our own version carried us a mere 4km: there was a lot of uphill, though, and it was very satisfying with great views to the south, over Long Island Sound, and then to the west: it’s always good to be following the setting sun.

Colla had been taken over by a swan family, who wished us well on our journey. Their sentiment was echoed by some four-legged friends on the steep way up the hill:

As we left the small boreen, following a green path through a signed gate, we began a climb which opened up a panorama behind us, encompassing Long Island and Cape Clear. The day was perfect, a few scudding clouds giving perspective to a a vivid blue sky which seemed to have been borrowed from the summer:

In fact, the views in every direction get even more rewarding as this walk progresses: we were surprised that we had never ‘discovered’ this little corner of West Cork before! Every rise, and each bend in the track, opens up a new prospect.

A ‘telephoto’ view towards the end of the Mizen (above) reveals the inlet of Croagh Bay in the foreground, with Crookhaven beyond. You can just make out the top of ‘Black Castle’ at Castlepoint in the centre of the picture and a Napoleonic-era signal tower at the summit of the highest ground at Brow Head.

At the highest point of the walk we are back on a partly metalled boreen. I was particularly keen to find the site of . . . the ancient school of Sancta Maria de Scholia, ‘a place known in early times as a centre of learning’. . . which is indicated on the Archaeological Monuments Survey just to the right of the bend in the trackway, above. However, this record has been superseded by another site further to the west (indicated with a question mark on my aerial view) where it is noted:

. . . In rough grazing, on a S-facing slope overlooking Long Island to the S and Skull Harbour to the E. Recent reclamation work exposed a level earthen platform-like area faced externally on its curving S side by a roughly constructed drystone revetment. According to local information, this is the site of Scoil Mhuire or Sancta Maria de Scala, a medieval church and school that gave its name to this townland and to Skull village . . .

National Monuments Record 2009 – CO148-040

I suppose we can make up our own minds as to which of these two sites claiming to have given Schull its name is the most likely candidate. If it’s about having a good view, for me it has to be the first.

As shadows lengthen, a trail marker (above) tells us we have been walking on Coffin Hill. I can find no specific reference to this name and can only assume it was the route used to reach the burial ground just outside Schull village when coming from settlements to the north.

From the high ground we had clear views of Schull set below Mount Gabriel (upper picture); our route turned west along the ridge and followed the sun. We wanted the idyll to go on forever . . .

The road began to descend, and we found ourselves approaching a neighbourhood of scattered houses that heralded the way back to Colla. On our half-a-trail we passed half an abandoned house: the other half still shows signs of occupation:

We could not have celebrated the close of such a momentous year in a better way! We are determined to rise to the challenge of the restrictions we are currently faced with and discover all of our beautiful byways. We are so fortunate to live in this wonderful land, and we look forward to heading out with you on many more voyages during 2021!

Merchant, Miller, Smuggler: James O’Sullivan and Roaring Water

If you park your car at Kilcoe Church, at Meen Bridge on the N71 between Skibbereen and Ballydehob, and walk straight south, you arrive at a picturesque pier – a quiet backwater of leafy boreens. This is the outlet for the Roaring Water River (yes, that’s how the river is spelled on the OS maps), which rises on the southern slopes of Mount Kidd, a bare 6km away. Despite the short distance, this little river is a notable torrent by the time it reaches the sea, and it is said that the noise it made as it rushed over the rocks and weirs in its last stretch gave its name not only to the river but also to Roaringwater Bay (and yes, that’s how the Bay is spelled on the OS maps). 

Your walking route from Kilcoe Church to the pier takes you along the river. Here and there are perilous but satisfying opportunities to hop over a wall, hang on to branches and lean out to see over the river. This is a marvellous stretch of road in spring and early summer, with the river full on and hosting a riot of Marsh-marigold, and the banks heady with Whitethorn and Guelder-rose.

Eventually, you arrive at the final bridge – an interesting single span with a high arch – and can walk down to the Pier. You’ll be lucky if you encounter another person here, a dog-walker perhaps, or somebody messing about in a boat. It’s an idyllic spot, with views down the narrow channel to the medieval castle of Rincolisky (or Whitehall) across the water.

But in the first half of the nineteenth century, this was a bustling place indeed, and most of that came down to the the vision and energy of one man, James O’Sullivan. His house is still at the head of the inlet, still lived in and lovingly maintained. The quays he built for his various enterprises have stood the test of time and are as straight and sturdy as they were in their heyday.

No longer here are the industrial buildings that once marked this place as an active centre of industry and commerce. On the 1840s OS maps you can see them – there’s a Tuck Mill (used in wool processing) and a Corn Store. An historic account refers to a large building beside O’Sullivan’s house used to store potatoes until they were ready for export. There’s a slate quarry over to the east and a small village to the west. In addition the Archaeological Survey uncovered a metal working site on the rising east bank beside the quay, and a lime kiln at the edge of the water on the west bank. 

That little ‘village’? You can clearly see it as a cluster of buildings on the old maps, although there’s nothing there now you would call a community. But if you look hard, some traces are still visible. The old Catholic church became unfit for purpose by the end of the nineteenth century and was replaced by the splendid Church of the Most Holy Rosary (where you left your car). But it’s still a place of reverence for local people, having been repurposed as a grotto and a place for quiet contemplation and prayer – new Stations of the Cross were unveiled here as recently as 2018. It’s also a Cillín (pronounced killeen), a place where unbaptised children were buried – see this post for more on that.

There were two schools here, a boys’ and a girls’, and the boys’ school can still be seen in ruins along the road (below). By the 1840s they had both been replaced by a new school up by Meen Bridge – it, or its successor, is still there. There was a shop here once, no longer in use except for storage and partly ruined, and several houses only one of which remains. It is estimated that up to 200 people may have worked here. 

Who was James O’Sullivan? for all the information that follows I am indebted to a piece by Timothy Cadogan in the Seanchas Cairbre (a now-defunct publication) for 1993. Born around 1758, he was from the area and appeared to have engaged, by his own admission, in some lucrative smuggling in his younger days, mostly tobacco but “he could give you a bottle of good cognac”. After a crackdown, he turned to more legitimate businesses, perhaps funded by his earlier nefarious dealings. He was by no means alone in the smuggling trade – many a local gentleman had a hand in it too.

Turning to commerce, he operated both a corn mill and a tuck mill (the latter marked on the OS map). Both were overshot mills (see illustration below), in which the wheel was fed by a mill stream which diverted water from the Roaring Water River. The corn was stored in a large building on the quay (more or less where the small corrugated house is now, see image above) and shipped to Cork and Dublin. He had his own ships for this purpose and a storehouse in both cities.

Part of the Overshot Mill at Aberdulais 1786 or 1800 Philip James De Loutherbourg 1740-1812 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D36368

Timothy Cadogan points out that O’Sullivan played an active role in the politics of the time, “as might be expected from the most prominent Catholic in Aughadown and Kilcoe”. He chaired, for example, the great Anti-Tithe meeting in Skibbereen in 1832 – you can read more about that movement, and that meeting, in this post. The image below is of a tithe collector, called a Proctor, extracting his dues.

James O’Sullivan died between 1837-39. He had been married twice, first to Ellen Fitzgerald and after her death in 1826 to Ellen Coleman. No record has been left of any children, and indeed his great enterprises failed to survive his death, although copper mining was subsequently carried out in the vicinity with no great success. The building below was a later shop, across from the old church.

Perhaps though, if you linger a while on the Quay and close your eyes, you can hear the shouts of those loading corn, the sheets slapping against the masts in the wind, the rumble of barrels coming down the road to the waiting ships – maybe even make out, in your mind’s eye, a skiff silently slipping into the inlet loaded with an ‘irregular’ cargo to be delivered under cover of darkness.

Favourite West Cork Photographs: 2020 Edition

Roaringwater Journal loves to explore and discover our beautiful West Cork. Here is our 2020 selection of favourite photographs – yours, as measured by Facebook likes, and ours, as measured by Robert and Finola’s own quirky tastes. Remember, these are personal choices – each one represents a memory or a place special to us. Also, they encompass the strange year we have experienced in which we all had to focus on our own stomping grounds. We’ve captioned each one, but no more text, so just enjoy!

Take-out coffee on Sailors Hill’s, near Schull
The North Side of the Mizen
Dark Skies over Rossbrin
Benny, the Barley Cover Bunny
Ballydehob on Wacky Wednesday
Everything on the dresser was made in West Cork
Solstice Shadow-Casting at Drombeg
A back road on the Sheep’s Head
Lough Hyne
Along the Ilen from the Top of the Rock Trail near Drimoleague
View across Roaringwater Bay from a high field known as The Galleries
A mountain stream on The Beara
My Beautiful Launderette in Ballydehob closes its doors
The Cairn, Mount Corrin
Leaning Tree, Lough Hyne
On the Mass Path, looking across to the Beara from Sheep’s Head
Sign of the Times
Bantry Bay
Ballydehob, from the 12 Arch Bridge
Coppinger’s Court
Typhhoon!
Brow Head from Arduslough
Turbine

Looking forward to 2021! Much more Roaringwater Journal coming your way.

Favourite Posts of 2020

This has been a banner year for Roaringwater Journal – we passed the milestone of a million views and had our most viewed post ever (see below). Most of all, though, it’s been a year in which we feel privileged to have been able to keep bringing you our weekly blog in the teeth of this global pandemic. We won’t lie, there have been moments when it all seemed too hard, weeks when we couldn’t do the sort of travelling around and photographing that are so essential to our research, and days when the sense of underlying dread and distraction made it hard to concentrate on writing. Through it all, you kept us going, cheering and encouraging us with your likes, your views and your comments. So a huge THANK YOU to you, our dear readers!  We hope that our little efforts have provided to you, in turn, some notes of sunshine in the dark – like our view, above, from Nead an Iolair, taken just before we hit Publish. Herewith, keeping with the tradition of our usual year-end round up, your (and our!) favourite posts of 2020. 

Finola’s Favourites

That most-viewed post of all time? Of course it was Beautiful West Cork in Picture and Song. Colum Cronin’s song – and that voice! – paired with the incredible West Cork Scenery. A perfect fit.  Here it is again, in case you missed it first time around, or just to enjoy it once more.

Amazingly, our second most popular post this year was a recipe! We all got into baking during lockdown, and Roaringwater Journal was no exception. The main attraction with this Savoury Soda Bread is how easy it is – in ten minutes you can have bread in the oven filling your house with the aroma of virtue. It’s also a great base recipe which can be varied to make it more like a tea-time treat to serve with jam.

I’ve been wanting for a long time to do a proper treatment of the prehistoric Stone Circles that dot our West Cork landscape. When you write about archaeology there is no substitute for on-the-ground observation. Only by spending time at each monument do you become more alive to their presence in the landscape, their orientations, their similarities and differences. Travel restrictions this year made field trips more challenging and there are still a few on my list to see, but most of the ones we saw are so isolated and in such spectacular settings that it was a joy to plan and write this series. That’s Glanbrack Stone circle below, with a pair of stone outliers (taken in a big hurry as a slurry tank was heading into the field). You can start with The Stone Circles of West Cork: An Introduction (written in 2019), and move one to Multiple Stone Circles, Five-Stone Circles and finally the Discussion.

Readers will know my stained glass obsessions  and this year I devoted three posts to a group of mid-century artists and craftspeople producing unique and accomplished windows under the name Murphy Devitt Studios (links to all three parts on this page). I confined myself to their Cork windows and a marvellous journey of discovery it was to see how a young and energetic group set out to test how the ancient traditions of stained glass could be influenced by modern movements in art and design.

Finally, a post about a place that totally captured me – Monaincha, The Isle of the Living, in Co Tipperary. This is a site that takes a little effort to find and get to, but once you’ve been, you might agree with my opening statement that There are places on this island that seep into your soul. You come away with a sense of having visited another world, of having passed through a portal and been lucky enough to come back to tell the tale.

It’s been hard to limit myself to five (and as you can see I did cheat a bit) and indeed I could as easily have chosen others. Over to Robert now.

Robert’s Favourites

As Finola has set out, we are each reviewing favourite posts of this year: 2020. It has been a year unlike any other for both of us – and for everyone else, of course. At times we have been very limited as to where we can travel – no more than 5km from home for weeks at a time, for example. It’s not surprising, therefore, that our immediate environs have come into close focus for us. In one of my posts – from 26 January this year (and before Covid) – our own Rossbrin Cove was my subject, and I saw it partly through the eyes of others, including some local artists. The photo above was taken by our friend and neighbour Julian van Hasselt in 2010 – that’s a year before we arrived. It’s more or less our own view of Rossbrin’s medieval castle. Our winters so far haven’t been so ‘Christmassy’, but – who knows – there may be something waiting for us around the corner. . . The following photo, also from this post, was taken in January this year and shows how contrasting our weather patterns can be.

This beautifully atmospheric view of Rossbrin castle also includes another castle across the water in the distance: that’s the one that gives Castle Island its name. One of the highlights of the year for me was a visit to that island, courtesy of another neighbour: thank you, Dietrich, for giving us a ride out there on your handsome classic fishing boat ‘Barracuda’ (and for bringing us back)! We look out to the island from Nead an Iolair, and it has always had a sense of mystery for us: it has a number of dwellings on it, all now deserted and in ruins (have a look at the picture below). My post Castle Island Explored – Part 1 tells of our exploration but also sets out a little of the history of the place. Since our visit I have discovered more about the island and its story, and I really will get on with the long overdue second instalment in 2021 – that’s a promise!

In March this year, our lives changed: the pandemic was upon us, and I realised that one of my favourite pastimes – playing in the live music sessions in the Ballydehob pubs every Friday evening throughout the year – would not be happening for a while. To compensate, I started a new blog giving our musicians the opportunity to put up recordings of tunes and sings online to try and keep up our spirits as Covid progressed. ‘A while’ became a very long time and, in fact, music sessions have been out of the question ever since. The way things are looking as I write, it’s unlikely that they will start again until well into the coming year. I introduced the Swantonstown Sessions blog with a Roaringwater Journal post. Why ‘Swantonstown’? Because Ballydehob carried that name for a time in its history: many Swantons once lived here, and some still do today. As a musical interlude for this post, here’s me playing a tune by Turlough O’Carolan which I recorded for Swantonstown Sessions on my anglo concertina – Planxty Maggie Brown:

This year I discovered – and wrote about – signal towers in Ireland built at the time of the threat of a Napoleonic invasion in the very early years of the nineteenth century. One post turned into a series of seven posts, as – in spite of travel restrictions – we were able to explore most of the sites of these structures in County Cork, including the restored example at The Old Head of Kinsale (above). All the others are impressive but gaunt ruins dotted around the coastline, each one in sight of two further ones, and signals were passed between them using flags and – sometimes – beacons. If I had opened the series to include the whole Irish coastline there could have been 81 posts! That many were built in a period of just a few years. I called the series A Signal Success in Irish Engineering: you will find them all by following that link. Here’s a picturesque rendering by our friend, Peter Clarke, of the very vestigial tower remains at Ballyroon Mountain on the Sheep’s Head:

Another project which I started towards the end of the year is the exploration of our major West Cork river – the Ilen. That’s Ballyhilty Bridge, above. My series – Sweet Ilen – will continue into next year. There have been three posts to date: here is the most recent – Sweet Ilen Part 3. At the end of that one you will find links to the other two. It’s a magnificent waterway, rising in the summit of Mullagmesha Mountain and taking a lazy, winding course down to meet the Atlantic at Baltimore. I’m really looking forward to getting to that mountain source, when circumstances permit – and to the mouth. In the meantime there is plenty to to keep you busy in these posts, and all the others I have mentioned above. Enjoy your own celebrations and I hope the new year will bring us all renewal. Here is Sweet Ilen close to its tidal limit at Skibbereen:

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.