A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 10: Toe Head

Here’s the latest episode in our series about Napoleonic-era signal towers in West Cork. There are links to the earlier posts at the bottom of this one. That’s Toe Head above – in the far distance, and that view is taken from the signal tower site at Kedge Point, Spain, to the east of Baltimore.

Toe Head itself is a spectacular setting in West Cork: the views, above, show the nature of the terrain, the boreens, and the seascape in the area. So far I have written accounts of nine signal towers: this is the tenth. I’d like to tell you how many of these structures are in West Cork, but that would mean that I would have to geographically define ‘West Cork’. I can’t do that, as there is officially no such area: we are all part of County Cork! All I can do is to let you know that there are nineteen signal tower sites located in the whole County. I have another nine to cover, after this one. But I assure you – Toe Head is definitely in our West Cork!!

Here’s the Toe Head tower – in a sea of black bales. If you have followed the series so far, you will have noticed that each tower is fairly basic, and generally offers the appearance of a medieval castle. But they were all built at the very beginning of the nineteenth century, to provide a system of surveillance and signalling around the coast of Ireland, from Malin Head in the north to Pigeon House Fort, Dalkey, on the east coast. Each signal tower is within view of one – or two – others, depending where it lies on the chain. In the first post in the series, here, I explain the logic and geometry of the project.

The 6″ Ordnance Survey map extract in the upper picture dates from 1842. By this time the use of the tower for signalling had ceased – the Napoleonic invasion threat lasted only through the first few years of the century: many towers became disused after this and some have vanished altogether, although many ruins do remain because of their remote locations. In the case of Toe Head, the building was adapted to incorporate a Coast Guard Station. I am assuming that, originally, the tower was a simple square structure , and the extension to the rear was added to provide additional accommodation for the Coast Guard service. The current aerial view shows newer farm buildings and an access road close by.

If you look at previous posts in this series, you will see that the Toe Head tower is architecturally simpler, with no bartizans or other ornamentation – it’s more like a small Anglican church tower than a ‘castle’. Like many others, it’s clear to see that this building was slate-hung: this form of weather-proofing was probably added at a later date – possibly when the Coast Guard service took it over. At the centre of the view from the window above you can see the Stag Rocks which in the 1980s became the graveyard of the 900ft long Kowloon Bridge, a bulk cargo carrier travelling from Quebec. The ship was disabled by a storm and then abandoned, drifting on to the Stags. A detailed account of the event was posted in the Irish Examiner 30 years later.

The abandoned Wreck of the Kowloon Bridge close by the Stags in November, 1986 (centre picture). The lower picture shows the wreck underwater today (courtesy Aquaventures.ie): she drifted out of control towards the rocks before running aground on the reef. The resulting fuel spill spread out over the Irish coastline causing extensive damage to local wildlife, and financial losses for the local fishing fleet. Apparently, no-one was ever held to account for the environmental disaster.

The Stag Rocks can be seen in my picture above, which shows the current incarnation of a World War II Lookout Post that was put in place close by the older signal tower in 1942. You can read more about these lookouts in this post: they were designed by Howard Cooke RIBA of the Irish Office of Public Works at the outbreak of that war (during which Ireland remained neutral). I mentioned in that same previous post an art installation project carried out in 2014 by Tim Schmelzer of Vienna. His work at Toe Head is particularly impressive, and here are some still shots to illustrate the nature of the artworks, which were created on-site using high-powered projection equipment.

The signal tower ruin today is gaunt and desolate. Nevertheless it’s an atmospheric place to visit. On the slopes below the building is an EIRE sign (officially number 28), also dating from the World War II years, when Irish neutrality had to be spelled out to the warring powers flying overhead. I came across an interesting comment from Anne Wilkinson in 2018, giving a slightly different take on the EIRE signs:

. . . These EIRE signs were also to alert German Pilots and crew who were conscientious objectors and who had overflown the UK, to ditch and parachute to safety. Many airmen lived at the Curragh Camp. They were allowed freedom during the day, eg. they often cycled the lanes and roads to enjoy the peace and quiet and then returned to the Curragh Camp for their curfew hour . . .

http://eiremarkings.org/the-map/

And here’s a little enigma to finish off the post (above). It’s graffiti carved on a timber lintel over one of the openings of the signal tower buildings. It’s probably quite recent – dating from ’89 or’99 – but what does it spell out? And why is it here? It’s tempting to say THE GIFT CASTLE but that ‘T‘ after the GIF doesn’t ring true . . . There’s a story there somewhere: perhaps one of our readers can give us a clue! Finally, here’s a distant view of the signal tower, looking across Toe Head.

The previous posts in this series can be found through these links:

Part 1: Kedge Point, Co Cork

Part 2: Ballyroon Mountain, Co Cork

Part 3: Old Head of Kinsale, Co Cork

Part 4: Robert’s Head, Co Cork

Part 5: Downeen, Co Cork

Part 6: Dunnycove

Part 7: Cloghane, Mizen Head

Part 8: Brow Head

Part 9: Glandore Head

Planning a Plantation: Jobson’s 1589 Map of Munster Part 1

The sixteenth century was a desperate time in Munster. Two successive Desmond Rebellions (read about them here and here) had resulted in a devastated countryside where, according to the Annals of the Four Masters the lowing of a cow, or the whistle of the ploughboy, could scarcely be heard from Dunquinn to Cashel in Munster. The power of the FitzGeralds, Lords of Desmond, and their allies among the Gaelic chieftains, had been broken.

The Tudor government determined that what was needed was a complete colonising effort, that would bring the benefits of English civilisation to the lawless Irish. William Cecil, Lord Burleigh, set about planning the Plantation of Munster. 

In June 1584, a commission surveyed southwest Munster, mapping out the lands belonging to a swathe of Irish lords associated with the rebellion, which were then granted to a small group of wealthy English Undertakers.

John Dorney: The Munster Plantation and the MacCarthys, 1583-1597
Jobson’s dedication – to the Right Honourable the Lord Burleigh, Lord High Treasurer of England

What a project like this needed, of course, was an accurate map and they were hard to come by in medieval Ireland. Francis Jobson, a free-lance cartographer, set himself the task of producing such a map, and in 1589 he inscribed this one, The Province of Munster Map (the subject of this post), to Cecil. The original is in the library of Trinity College and I have been given permission to use it in our blog (see end of post for complete citation.)

Jobson’s signature

George Carew, one of the primary planters, the first President of Munster, was a man who asserted he had an ancestral claim to large chunks of Munster. To back up his various claims, he collected papers and maps in support of the colonising efforts, and these maps later found their way to Trinity College in Dublin, to form part of a collection called the Hardiman Atlas, after the nineteenth century librarian who recognised what they were and bound them together.

The Province of Munster Map is but one of this collection, now digitised and available for viewing in the Digital Repository of Ireland. And an excellent job they have done of it – the high-resolution image is so clear that it allows us to zoom in and see lots of detail. Here is the complete map.

The first thing that strikes the modern viewer is that Ireland is on its back – that is, instead of north being at the top, west is. This wasn’t unusual for the time. JH Andrews, one of Ireland’s foremost cartographic historians explains it thus, With east at the bottom, Dublin, the Englishman’s point of entry to Ireland, is the point on the map nearest him. To provide a more normal orientation, I have turned the map sideways, below, so you can assess how accurate it is.

The task facing Jobson was to provide as clear information as possible for the colonising effort. Any kinds of fortifications, where the Irish could defend their territory, were important, as were transportation corridors, by sea, river or land, as well as barriers to movement, such as mountains or dense forests. Control of the fisheries had generated great wealth for the Irish chieftains so it was important to have details of coastal areas. 

Speaking of Jobson’s Map of Ulster, Annaleigh Margey says

His maps are crucial to our understanding of England’s changing relationship with Ulster at the end of the sixteenth century. As the Nine Years’ War began, Jobson provided representations of the Gaelic lordships in Ulster, but also imposed England’s vision for the creation of a new county system onto the provincial landscape. In Jobson’s 1598 map, now at Trinity College, Dublin (p. 42), this framing of the new political geography is obvious. Throughout Ulster, the various Gaelic lordships are denoted by the lord’s name and a line defining their boundary. Settlements such as castles and churches that could be integrated into English settlement plans are displayed by small replicas in red across the map.

Annaleigh Margey: Visualising the Plantation:mapping the changing face of Ulster
History Ireland, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2009), Volume 17

She could well have been speaking of the Map of Munster. The principal families and their territories are all presented, as well as their main castles. While West Cork is not rendered accurately, we can see what Jobson felt was important to include. The O’Mahonys (Mahound) are there and the castles shown for them are Dunbeacon, Rossbrin and Ardintenant, which is labelled C o mahoun, as befits the castle of the Chief (see my post on Ardintenant here). The whole of Ivaha (now the Mizen Peninsula) is assigned to Mohon (spelling was approximate in these maps) and Crookhaven is indicated, probably because it is an excellent harbour.

The O’Driscolls are shown at Baltymore, with Castles also on Sherkin (Ineseyrkan) and Cape Clere. The Ilen River is shown as the Ellyn ff (ff or flu is often found on old maps to designate a river). Interestingly, the whole of the Sheep’s Head has no detail on it and only one word – Rymers. The O’Dalys were the traditional bards of several Irish families and they had their bardic school near Kilcrohane – they are The Rymers! The Abbey in Bantry is noted (in fact it was a Franciscan Friary) – and even Priest’s Leap is on this map. Once the only land route between Bantry and Kenmare, it is now a steep, treacherous and extremely scenic back road.

We have only just started looking at this map. The next post will continue the journey. Meanwhile – have a look yourself and see what you can see. I have lots of questions about it – for example, about the scale that Jobson uses (above) – I am hoping our readers might have some answers!

I am grateful indeed to Michelle Agar, Cataloguer, Digital Collections, at the Library of Trinity College Dublin, who gave permission to feature the map from the Hardiman collection in this blog. Also to the kind office of Dr Áine Madden, Communications and Engagement Coordinator with the Digital Repository of Ireland at the Royal Irish Academy. The complete citation for the map is as follows: Jobson, Francis, & Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin. (2021) The Province of Munster, Digital Repository of Ireland [Distributor], Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin [Depositing Institution], https://doi.org/10.7486/DRI.rb69b272p

Revisiting BAM

BAM is the Ballydehob Arts Museum, and regular readers will know that this is a project which has involved us over the past few years. The Museum was curated to collect, conserve and celebrate the work of artists who came to West Cork and – particularly – Ballydehob during the second half of the twentieth century, some of them settling in the hills around the village and living a Bohemian lifestyle based around the principles of John Seymour’s seminal work Self Sufficiency published in 1973. At that time I was involved in running an eccentric small bookshop in rural Devon, and that book was our all-time best-seller!

That’s John Seymour and his family in 1973, when the book was first published (upper picture) while the lower picture is a John Hinde postcard from around the same period showing Ballydehob. It looks a thriving, lively place with its coloured houses and shops, and I think those ‘Bohemians’ who are still with us today – and still have their homes in the village – would agree that it was in those days the centre of a very special world – of artists and craftspeople making a living and producing some exceptional work. Work that is being recognised, now, for its quality and unique character.

This is a wonderful photograph from the Museum archives: here you see four of the ‘Bohemians’ who were crucial to the Ballydehob project. On the left is John Verling – he and his wife Noelle produced the two plates on the header, Tree of Life and Jellyfish, and were central to the community, establishing their pottery at Gurteenakilla just outside Ballydehob in the early 1970s. John died in 2009, but Noelle still thrives in the area. Next is Pat Connor, still living and working – as an award winning ceramicist and sculptor – in West Cork. Beside him is Brian Lalor who, since those Bohemian days – has established a formidable reputation in Ireland as print-maker, artist and writer. Also, very relevant to this post, he is a co-founder and Curator of the Ballydehob Arts Museum! Fourth in line in the photo is watercolourist, David Chechovich, no longer with us. Here’s a photo from a couple of years ago showing Brian (left) with Leda May, another early arrival in Ballydehob and living and working right in the village to this day; also Pat Connor, and Carol James, who came over from England in 1974 and stayed on. They haven’t changed a bit, have they?

The Museum has a permanent home in Bank House, right in the centre of the village. As you might expect, it was once the local bank but – after closure – it was bought by the community and is currently finding fresh uses. This montage (above) is by Brian Lalor: he and I are imagining the building being livened up by a mural from Brian’s brush. Unfortunately, Covid has put a check on the Museum’s development over the last couple of years. But we are looking forward to getting things going again with a new exhibition for 2022. The photo below shows the Museum interior set up for the 2019 show.

Here is an article – well worth reading – on the West Cork artists and our Museum (thank you, Peter , for pointing me to this). Mentioned in the article are the subjects of our next proposed exhibition, to be held in 2022, if all is well. They are Ian and Lynne Wright. They arrived in West Cork in 1973 and established their home, ceramics studio and an environmentally sound habitat at Kilnaclasha, Skibbereen. They are still there, although Ian spends much of his time on another environmental project in Tobago. Using the name Cors’ it’s Ceramics they experimented with body casting slipware and began to produce specialised one-off bathroom fittings – humorous and often erotic. They were hugely successful. Here’s a pictorial review of some of their work to give you a taster:

Ian and Lynne (above, from one of their bathroom product catalogues) gave up their ‘cheeky’ ceramics in 2002 but both are still producing; Lynne with large, colourful bowls and Ian with body casts (pics below). BAM hopes to show a significant selection of examples from their lifetime of work. It promises to be a spectacular exhibition: Roaringwater Journal will keep you up-to-date with progress.

You can find out more about the Ballydehob Arts Museum on the dedicated website, here

The Wild One

We are past November Dark – traditionally a ‘low’ time of the year when the effects of the approaching cold months begin to displace autumnal skies and spectacular sunsets: the term traditionally refers to the appearance of the new moon of the month (which happened this year on the 4th), but is probably inspired by the preceding nights when no moon is visible. For us at the moment, on the shores of Roaringwater Bay, the dark time is emphasised by a constant pervading mist which clings and covers everything in films of moisture, especially the myriad cobwebs on the gorse bushes which surround us. Gone – for now – are our fine views out across to the islands, and there is a feeling of being marooned and suspended in a lifeless grey tract which encompasses sea and sky.

November Dark has brought with it tragedy to our garden. In explanation, I should first paint the idyllic picture of what we like to call our ‘peaceable kingdom’. For many years we have considered this domain a haven. Do you remember our fox – Ferdia – who was a constant companion to us in the first few years here at Nead an Iolair? He visited on a daily basis – often waking us by barking outside our bedroom window at dawn, and presided over a mixed community of birds and animals who share our territory – without any conflict.

Ferdia was happy enough to co-exist with the bird and pheasant families, the rats and mice, and the occasional cat that dropped in. I have a memory of fox and cat sitting side by side on our terrace, clearly having a conversation with each other: I would like to have eavesdropped, but whatever mutual language they share was not available to me! Ferdia vanished from our garden a few years back – gone to his happy hunting grounds no doubt; but the pheasants have remained with us through much of the decade we have been here.

In the upper picture Finnbarr and his young wife, Fidelma, patrol our garden some five years ago. The lower picture was taken just before the start of the Pandemic, in March 2019. The couple have been a daily feature of life outside Nead an Iolair. They always appreciated feeding time, when they got a share of the seeds I put out on our patch for the many bird visitors, small and large. The picture below taken during the summer of last year shows a family group: pheasant chicks have been seen but rarely.

The idyll abruptly ended yesterday, when a bomb hit the garden – in the form of a small but fierce force of nature: only inches long but terrifying. I glanced out of the window where, minutes before, the two pheasants had been foraging as usual along the stone boundary wall. I was shocked to see Fidelma lying on her back, wings flapping, being dragged along the ground: there was a commotion among the small birds and Finnbarr had vanished. At first I could not see the attacker, but as I rushed outside I caught a glimpse of brown fur with a hint of white and black. My first thought – a rat! – could not have been borne out: we have lived side by side with rat families for years: they only ever appear to share the bird food, and are never aggressive.

You can see the conditions that prevailed on this worst of days from Finola’s picture (top), taken from indoors through the windows. And – below that – the brazen culprit, who danced around the garden at breakneck speed, very ready to threaten me if I made a wrong move! It was our first sighting here on our land of an Irish Stoat. Having now read the books, I know in hindsight what a shocking phenomenon had hit us. Although fearing the worst, I quickly removed Fidelma to an indoor refuge and then watched the rampaging of this fur powerball traversing our territory at lightning speed; leaping from walls, trees and bushes and aiming for any likely food source.

Finola has done her best to clarify the images in the photos she rapidly took through streaming wet glass (above) on this appalling day. The weather did not in any way impede the progress of the animal which circumscribed our whole acre, it seemed, in record time.

. . . The Stoat is often called the Weasel in Ireland, but although the weasel (Mustela nivalis) is very similar in appearance to the stoat, it is not native to Ireland and has never been introduced here. In Ireland the stoat or ‘weasel’ was regarded as a very intelligent animal, but also vengeful. For example, since they were believed to understand human speech, if a stoat was encountered the correct thing to do was to greet them politely. In County Clare the custom was to raise one’s hat in greeting, or even to bow. The person who insulted them, on the other hand, or pelted them with stones, could expect to lose all their chickens before too long. Deliberately killing a stoat was most unwise, since it caused all the deceased animal’s relations to descend on the house of the culprit and attack with great savagery . . .

Ireland’s Animals – Myth legends and Folklore, Niall Mc Coitir, The Collins Press, Cork 2010

The Duchas Schools Folklore Collection – gathered in the 1930s – has numerous entries referring to the stoat. Above is an example from Co Carlow. When I was sifting through these, I was struck by the fact that similar stories about stoats are repeated over and over again, but from different parts of Ireland. I could write a volume based on these accounts, but will choose only a few:

. . . One time there was a girl who was very fond of going to the seaside. One day she went to the seaside and lay down and fell asleep. Ten weasels went down her throat. So she awoke when the last one was going down. She went to the doctor and the doctor said she would need to undergo an operation and then she would die. One day she was going to the shop and her granny knew all about cures. So she went into the granny. Her granny told her to get two pounds of salt and eat all the salt and go to the seaside and drink no water and keep her mouth open and the weasels would have to come out for a drink. So this she did. The weasels came out for a drink. The girl counted them. There were ten in it and the girl came home cured . . .

William O’Donnell, Cabra Glebe, Co Donegal

. . . One day long ago two men went to cut the meadow with scythes. They cut away for a while until they came to a weasel’s nest where there were four young weasels out of the nest and left them near by on the ground. After a while the mother of the weasels came home and found her young on the ground and was very angry, She hesitated for a moment and then understood what the men had done. Now the men had had a can of milk with them for a drink which they left near the weasel’s nest, the old weasel saw the can and went to see what in it. When she saw what was in it she spat into it because a weasel’s spit is poison. When the men saw this they were terrified and put back the young weasels into the nest, and the old weasel was pleased and went back and upset the can and spilt the milk from fear the men would drink of it and be poisoned . . .

James Gormley Senior, Aged 82, Commeen, Co Roscommon

Note that the term ‘Weasels’ is used far more often in these accounts than ‘Stoats’. There can only be the one animal, however, as there have never been true ‘weasels’ in Ireland. The story above, from Co Roscommon, is the most common of all ‘weasel’ tales in Ireland, and variants of it have been recorded from all parts.

. . . Many years ago an old woman lived by herself. There was a nest of weasels under the hearth in the house in which she lived and every day the old woman fed them until they became quite tame. When the young weasels were reared they went off but the old one remained in the hearth. One day the woman was sitting by the fire when the old weasel came out and sat with her. The weasel was continually looking up the chimney and at last the woman said “What the dickens are you looking at?” and at the same time looking up herself. She saw a little bag hanging in the chimney and took it down. To her surprise and joy she found it was full of gold. This was the weasel’s reward for her kindness to her and her family . . .

Mrs L Millett, Fiddaun Lower, Inistioge, Co Kilkenny

. . . The Swarm or Drove of Weasels: the following story or rather fact come from a reliable source to wit a teacher in Ballyshannon. In the end of August or about that time some distance outside Ballyshannon a great whistling was heard as if a number of little birds and a mighty drove of Weasels was seen heading for the mountains. An old man said that he heard that weasels used make for the mountains during the Grouse Season. The Priests housekeeper saw or heard of the same thing in Antrim . . .

J Clarke, Navan, Co Meath

. . . Some time about forty years ago there were children playing on the side of a hill and they saw a few weasels. They started to run and cry. They looked round and saw thousands coming after them. Only they got away the weasels would have devoured them . . .


Written by Kathleen McKenna Bragan, Co Monoghan 25th November 1938

I couldn’t resist that little foray into weasel stories from the Folklore Collection. There are many many more pages full of them! Interestingly, stoats are a fully protected species in Ireland. If stoats are proving a problem, by killing chicks or other domestic animals, you must solve the problem by using good fencing; it is illegal to kill a stoat.

A possible reason for the attention which stoats attract in folklore is the fact that they can change colour, which adds a sense of the supernatural to them. In countries which have harsh winters the coat of the stoat becomes white in those months, offering a level of protection in the open landscape. The fur from the white – or ‘winter’ – stoat we call ermine, and the white fur is considered so precious that only royalty or nobility traditionally wear it. In the drawing above, the white stoat is wearing a cloak on which are printed the symbols of the flag of Brittany (below), which was an independent kingdom in medieval times. The white background represents the ermine fur, and the black markings are said to be based on the black tip of the tail which the animal retains, even in the winter.

Here (above) is another example of the Breton ermine representation: a finely worked silver antique brooch. In Ireland, the species of stoat which has evolved – Mustela erminea hibernica – does not usually turn white in winter, although examples have been noted. The animal is said to have been resident in Ireland from the post-glacial period and, in the present day, the population numbers are unknown: it is not a threatened species.

In spite of our attempts to care for Fidelma, she did not survive. Sadly, I decided to let Nature have her way and laid the body close to a fox-track above the house. Later, I noticed an assembly of corvids gathered in the area. When I returned there in the evening all traces had gone – just a few scattered feathers told the tale.

This morning, Finnbarr was absent from the garden. I did catch a glimpse of him wandering the distant pastures – forlorn and bereft. At least, those are the feelings my human soul projects onto him. He will find another mate, of course, and we hope they will continue to share our little bit of paradise. We will keep a lookout for unwelcome visitors, but we will always have to pay our respects to the ‘weasels’. If our stoat does return we will have to honour him with an Irish name: I am inclining towards Fiáinín – which means Little Wild One.

Lady with an Ermine, painted 1489–1491 by Leonardo da Vinci. The subject is said to be Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Leonardo’s Milanese employer, Ludovico Sforza. The Ermine is symbolic, rather than realistic – in fact it is pictured much larger than in real life. It has been suggested that the ermine in classical literature relates to pregnancy, sometimes as an animal that protected pregnant women. Around the time of the painting’s creation, Cecilia was known to be pregnant with Ludovico’s illegitimate son.

West Cork Villages and Towns – Skibbereen

It was an ‘odd’ Olympic year – 2021. Firmly etched in my mind is the knowledge that years in which Olympic Games are held – like leap years – are divisible by 4! This one was different, because of Covid. But that didn’t prevent Ireland producing its heroes: gold for rowing and boxing, and bronze, also for rowing and boxing: a total of 8 sports heroes bringing medals home. If you will forgive the pun, the small country of Ireland punched well above its weight! All the rowers trained at the Skibbereen Rowing Club in West Cork, under the expert eye of their coach Dominic Casey. No surprise, then, that the town was in celebratory mood for weeks after the event, as you can see from many of my photographs, taken around the town at the end of August.

The town, from its situation in a wild, unenclosed part of the country, has frequently been the rendezvous of disaffected parties, but it has been much improved of late years, and is now a very flourishing place. It is situated on the southern bank of the river Ilen, and comprises seven streets; that part which extends into the parish of Abbeystrowry is called Bridgetown, and consists of three streets, one of which has been recently formed. The number of houses in the whole town is 1014, many of which, in the eastern part and in the parish of Creagh, are large and well built: the approaches have been much improved by the formation of new lines of road at each extremity . . .

LEWIS TOPOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IRELAND 1837

It’s interesting that Lewis – in 1837 – describes the number of houses as just over a thousand. He also states elsewhere that there were 4,429 inhabitants in 1691: in the 2011 census the town recorded a population of 2,568.

The first edition of the Ordnance Survey 6″ map was produced around 1840, just after the Lewis Topographical Dictionary was published. From the extract above, the layout of the town we know today had been broadly established by then. Compare this to today’s OS map (below) and the annotated aerial view.

There are a few theories as to the earliest origins of the town. Oft quoted is the story of the survivors from the sacking of Baltimore by Barbary Pirates in 1631 having moved upriver to found, or expand, the settlement that is now Skibbereen. It is likely that there was already a community on this part of the river, which was tidal and probably easily navigable up to its sheltered reaches at this point: at one time there were no less than five quays, warehouses and a Customs House within the town – this post will tell you more.

Skibbereen today is defined by its river – as it always has been. The waterside deserves a bit more attention – and is being opened up a little in some of the new civic improvement schemes that have been enabled by major flood relief works in the town. There are many opportunities yet to be explored.

All towns evolve and, hopefully, move into the future: Skibbereen – we’ll be keeping an eye on you! But it’s a great town already: it has the busiest market in West Cork on a Saturday; lively shopping streets; easy (and free) parking – and a very healthy ‘pavement cafe’ culture that has grown up during the pandemic, and is likely to continue to flourish. Let’s walk the streets and see the town as its best in the late summer sunshine . . .

Here at Roaringwater Journal we will always sing the praises of this town, and it has been the subject of a good deal of our historical research and writing. Have a look at our posts on Agnes Clerke, Ireland’s first and foremost female astronomer;  Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, the famed nationalist and Fenian: Uillinn – one of Ireland’s most innovative art galleries – here, here and here. We also must not forget that Skibbereen was at one time an important part of Ireland’s railway network: you could travel to and from Cork and Baltimore, and it was a terminus for the narrow gauge railway that trundled off to Schull, and whose loss is now much mourned.

I hope my post inspires you to explore this prominent West Cork town, if you haven’t already done so. It has historic foundations – too numerous to list in this one, short article. Choose a sunny afternoon – or go there to shelter from the infrequent showers. Whatever the day, make the Skibbereen Heritage Centre your starting point: you will find a wealth of information which will help to guide you on your way. The building itself is a piece of history: it used to be Skibbereen’s gas works!

The town name was familiar to me long before I settled in Ireland a decade ago. I lived in the fishing village of Newlyn, Cornwall, for many years and got to know the history of the artists’ colony in West Penwith, centred on that town and St Ives. One artist – Stanhope Alexander Forbes – was known as ‘The Father of the Newlyn School of Artists’ – he was Irish born, and lived from 1857 to 1947. I vividly remember one of his works, displayed in the Penlee Gallery in Penzance. It shows fishermen leaving Newlyn to follow the shoals of herring and pilchards to the waters of Roaringwater Bay. The title of that picture? Goodbye – Off To Skibbereen!

Previous posts in this series:

Bantry

Schull

Dzogchen Beara

There is a centre of Buddhism on the Beara Peninsula: we visited it for the first time during the week. It is very beautifully situated on the coast south of Allihies. You only have to look at the photograph above, taken at the centre, to realise that the location is a very important aspect of the whole project.

Sa Che or Tibetan Geomancy is the analysis of the earth — including water, space, air, light, trees, garden and home. The principles of Sa Che are to bring harmony and equilibrium, both in the natural environment and within the being, affording good health, wealth and enjoyment. These benefits flow on to our relationships and lifestyle

Pure Land Farms, California

I am using the aerial view, above, courtesy of Dzogchen Beara Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Centre. All the buildings in the lower part of the picture are within the centre, which was founded by Sogyal Rinpoche in 1987. On the lower right is The Spiritual Care Centre – opened by Ireland’s President, Mary McAleese in 2007 – which provides a safe and supportive environment for people living with a life-altering illness, recovering from treatment, facing the end of their life or experiencing bereavement, as well as their families, loved ones and others who care for them. It’s a special, culturally significant place – and you can see how its siting takes the fullest advantage of the impressive scenery.

That’s a Tibetan geomancy chart, above (courtesy of The Wellcome Foundation). It is traditionally used to work out how and where you should build your house – or any important structure: as you can see there is a Zodiac at its heart. As an architectural student back in the 1960s I was fascinated by this concept – then popularly termed Feng Shui – we all were. Throughout my working life I was always seeking to justify my clients’ demands to build in a certain place or in a certain way; I wince, today, when I see the building processes we have here in Ireland – our countryside is ravaged, in my view, by the excavator and the rock-breaker carving out great flat platforms whereon are placed ‘anywhere style’ bungalows or houses, rather than structures which try to flow and blend into the uneven natural landscapes. But I’d better get off my high horse, I suppose. This Buddhist centre on the Beara is an excellent example of buildings ‘fitting in’ to their surroundings.

Anyone can visit the centre: it has an excellent cafe which enjoys the unparalleled views, for a start, but there are gardens and grounds to wander around, and many events which everyone can attend: keep an eye on the website.

This shows one of the meditation rooms (courtesy of Dzogchen Beara Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Centre), with Pi Jun Taiwa in meditative posture. Below is a satellite image of the site showing its proximity to the coast and, below that, an extract from the 1840 OS map. I was intrigued to know what the buildings are that are shown occupying the site in those times. I have been unable to find the answer but wonder if they were connected to mining: the great copper-mining centre of Allihies is situated inland from here, but there are said to be ore-bearing lodes at Dooneen point, south-west of the new Centre.

An exciting venture happening at Dzogchen Beara right now is the construction of the first Buddhist temple in Ireland! It’s a relatively long-term project – with progress held up by the Covid crisis. But we saw it under way and it promises to be an impressive modern building based in Tibetan tradition.

The site of the temple was consecrated in 2010 with a sacred fire ceremony. I was intrigued to read that the curving overhanging roofs are to be constructed from ‘Nordic Royal Copper’, a specially developed alloy containing zinc and aluminium: this should ensure that the copper retains its shining colour through all weathers: a traditional copper roof would become dulled and turn green after a few years. Instead, the roofs of this temple will shine like the ‘Beacon of Wisdom and Compassion’ that the architect imagined. At present, the building works are still very much in their unadorned basic form, but moving forward (below).

The Centre grounds already display a traditional ‘Stupa’. Originally, stupas stared out as sacred mounds or domes which were used to house the relics of the Buddha. Now they are symbolic structures which give special significance to their location, as here. They are always decorated with colourful prayer flags which serve to bless the surroundings. I can’t help seeing these flags in the same light as ‘rag trees’ often found by holy wells in Ireland. The processional way to the stupa is lined with tall prayer banners. And the whole stupa site also enjoys the wonderful views to the ocean.

The year continues to pour down on us glorious golden days – and we embrace them. Our journey to the Beara was memorable, and I have no doubt that we will be calling into the Dzogchen Centre on many future occasions: I certainly want to keep an architectural eye on the progress of the temple. By the way, an apt translation of Dzogchen is “great perfection”.