We set out to search for a lake in the hills above Ballybane West: it’s known as Constable Lake. There’s a story, of course – which I found in the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection, collected at Corravoley School in 1937. A whole gamut of stories, in fact, packed into two neatly handwritten pages. I don’t think I have ever found quite so much information on local lore in a single entry. Ammunition for a few more posts, perhaps!
In the district of Kilcoe, at the back of the school which I attend, there is a beautiful little river called the “Leimawaddera”. It means the “Dog’s Leap” because it is so narrow that a dog is considered able to leap across it in some places.
It rises at the foot of Mount Kid in Constable Lake. This lake covers over four acres of land. It is so called because a policeman was drowned in it a very long time ago.
After leaving the lake the Leimawaddera comes winding down through marshy land till it reaches Ballybawn which means the ‘white townland’, because in summer when the hawthorn is in bloom the place looks like a mass of white.
The river next runs through ‘Glounakillena’ which means the “glen of the church”, then on through Rossard near to the old ruin underneath which it is said there was a treasure consisting of gold, silver and brass buried by giants long ago.
The Leimawaddera then wends its way through Lishenacreahig, and then divides Ardura from Corravolley and on it goes till it reaches our school. In summer, at play time, the school children love to run down and paddle in its cool waters.
It next runs under a tramway bridge and after that under the Crooked Bridge and it enters the sea at Poolgorm Bay which means the “Blue Hole”.
Lisheenacreahig means the “fort of the fairy kings”.
This view is cleverly framed to minimise the clues, but several readers gave the correct answer almost immediately. Here’s a more revealing picture:
Constable Lake now lies within the boundaries of Ballybane Wind Farm and the 21 tall turbines can all be seen from its shores. It’s one of several farms in the West Cork area, strategically sited on the wild heathland ridges, working away at their mission of harvesting nature’s resources in order to provide us with electricity without burning fossil fuels.
Upper – on the aerial view I have marked each of the 21 turbines. Lower – from the Ballybane site the turbines at Drinagh and Coomatallin are visible
I find the turbines dynamic and exhilarating. I know there are many readers who will disagree with my opinion, and social media abounds with polarised views about them from all perspectives. It’s hard to home in on hard and fast truths on anything these days but I have read extensively – and scientifically – on the subject and it seems to me that these wind-turned appliances have a life expectancy of around 25 years, and they pay for their installation in less than two years. Of course, carbon emissions are involved in the construction and manufacturing processes but this is heavily outweighed by the carbon savings from running these instead of burning fossil fuels to produce our electricity. Dismantling costs are built in to the permissions, and there is no doubt in my mind that in 25 years time – or less – technology will have advanced towards other solutions.
A simple chart from 2017 (via FactChecking.org) which graphical shows how well onshore wind farms perform against other fuel sources. Only nuclear power is marginally better
Wind turbines have a huge visual impact on the landscape, so their siting is important. In the case of Ballybane they have been constructed on heathland and in an area that was formerly commercial forestry. I personally prefer the elegance of the actively dynamic structures to a dark, impenetrable and seemingly sterile sitka spruce plantation. The scale is aweing: in the following photographs here’s me at the base of one of the 64m high towers (upper picture) and, below that, you can see me again – the very tiny figure to the left of the main turbine.
The machinery of industry has always fascinated me. Windmills go back a long way. The first image, below, is from the 14th century Decretals of Gregory manuscript in the British Museum. This is followed by our photograph of Elphin mill, County Roscommon, which dates from 1730 and is said to be the oldest in Ireland. Next, an exploded view of the nineteenth century flour mill at Chillenden, Kent, UK (courtesy of John Reynolds) and then a comparable view of the workings of the Enercon E-70 Wind Energy Converter, which is the unit in use at Ballybane and has a rotor diameter of 71 metres.
The Ballybane Farm will power about 40,000 homes a year on average. That’s modest compared to the newest developments. Currently the world’s largest installation – the offshore Hornsea One Farm, Yorkshire, UK – powers a million homes, while in the Netherlands a huge Haliade-X offshore turbine is being developed with a height of 260 metres and rotor blades of 220 metres in diameter: it’s said that each sweep of the blade will keep a house powered for a day. But that’s enough of the technical stuff. I enjoyed the experience of being close to these giants, and hearing the significant swish of those blades powering us into a safer, carbon reduced future.
Above you can see the trackway leading us up to Constable Lake and the Ballybane Wind Farm. On the horizon is Roaringwater Bay and the distinct profile of Mount Gabriel. There’s an ancientness about this landscape that balances the surreal – somewhat ‘science-fiction’ – character of the turbines. For me, these elements complement each other, and the sheer scale of the contemporary engineering sets us apart from our slight, human selves – so vulnerable in these times.
It’s October: autumn light is playing on the skies and seas as we set out to cross the Sheep’s Head peninsula on a path which is new to us. The path traverses the backbone of this peninsula – a ridge which is virtually continuous from east to west – and runs from Rooska, a settlement beside Bantry Bay on the Northside, heading south for Coomkeen and then Durrus. Before we take to the hills, however, we need to prepare ourselves with some sublime scenery en-route, a little excursion into vernacular architecture, and an encounter with local expertise.
From upper – a Sheep’s Head pastoral, the view over Glanlough towards distant Beara; a perfect composition in tin and stone; a niche for offerings? Looking to the ridge – and The Big Gap – in the distance; Joe O’Driscoll with his architectural egg-box. Unfortunately the hens are not laying at the moment!
We are heading to the start of our climb and find a busy settlement, historically once a mining centre and now home to a major award winning seafood producer, bravely weathering the Covid storms. It’s worth a look at their colourful website! You might not expect to see such a venture on the wild and remote Sheep’s Head Northside, but it’s a great boost to a fragile local economy. We wish them well in surviving the Covid19 crisis. Parking up at Rooska, we get first sight of the zig-zagging route that will take us over towards Durrus, passing through The Big Gap at the summit of the hill.
Upper – looking north across Bantry Bay from the path; middle – from the south, the path descends through The Big Gap; lower – the path can be seen on the right cutting through the hills: the highest point is 200m above sea level
I tried in vain to find a name for the way we followed. I would like to have called this post The Mass Path, which is given to it on a modern guide, and it does seem probable to us that one purpose of the trackway would have been to take Northside dwellers over to the old Catholic church at Chapel Rock in Durrus, a distance of 7 kilometres (or four and a half miles in older times). There and back would have been a taxing walk for a Sunday morning on an empty stomach (you have to fast from midnight before taking communion)! However, we were told locally that our intended way will lead us through The Big Gap, hence my title.
This view over the Northside area of Rooska, above, shows several features and the beginning of the path over the mountain heading south. Notable is Killoveenoge Church, known as a ‘Chapel of Ease’ and said to have been built in the 1860s specifically for the English and Cornish miners who were working in the nearby silver and lead mines at the time. There are scant remains of these mines now, and the Church of Ireland building was closed in 1988 and converted to a studio.
Looking down on Killoveenoge Church from The Big Gap path, with Bantry Bay beyond
The townland name Killoveenoge translates as Church of the Young Women and the only explanation of this I could find suggests that the site was anciently a priory, sacked by the Vikings in 890AD. It is also said that some ruins of this are visible, but we failed to find them – nor any factual historic records. The Schedule of Monuments notes a circular burial ground in the west of the townland with early grave markers, but nothing more. Clearly folk memory transcends recorded history, and that is one of the attractions of Ireland – to us, at least.
Upper – The Sheep’s Head Way trails have a strict code, which benefits all users; middle – the ruins of a cottage almost lost in the furze. The mining records mention a ‘miner’s cottage’ still being visible: could this be it? Lower – gaining height as the path gets steeper: that’s Whiddy Island in the distance
The wider aerial view shows the full length of the old trackway as it crosses the mountain through The Big Gap. Just past the summit when heading south is another landmark, also holding a folk memory. Lough Na Fuilla translates as ‘Lake of the Blood’:
A reed-filled lake suddenly appears; so many different greens, so far from anywhere and the gentle murmuring of the reeds all combine to make a rather unsettling atmosphere . . . Maybe it’s knowing the name of the lough, Loch Na Fuilla, lough of the blood, that plays tricks on the mind. There is a story attached, of course. One extremely hot summer the cattle came down from the mountain in search of water. The lough was empty. Maddened with disappointment and thirst the cattle went berserk and attacked each other and many were killed.
Walking the Sheep’s Head Way – Amanda and peter Clarke – Wildways Press 2015
Lough Na Fuilla, and a nearby tarn on the east side of the trackway. The autumn colours are sublime
Neither the Lake of the Blood nor the nearby tarn are shown on the early OS maps. The few remaining mining records, however, mention that there was some prospecting activity up on the ridge: could this have relevance? And is this another reason for the existence of this path? We are impressed with the views from The Big Gap both north and south. We temporarily divert on to a stony sheep path to get even higher, and to find the best panoramas. From the ridge we also record the contrasting light and shadow effects from a constantly changing sky.
We pause to wonder whether a large rounded outcrop is the Eagle’s Rest which is mentioned by local historian Willie Dwyer, of Rooska:
The gap going through the mountain there, by Loch na Fuilla, the locals always called it, that’s the old people who are dead and gone now, used to call it “Barna Mhór” which means “The Big Gap”, and on the right-hand side (the north-west corner) before you come to the extreme top of the track, there’s a round bald rock which was known as “the Eagle’s Rest”. I don’t know how long the eagles have been gone out of this part of the country, but it must have been a long time ago. This is a tradition now, it has been passed down as tradition, how true or false it is, I can’t prove to you.
Willie Dwyer, Quoted by TOM WHITTY in ‘A guide to the Sheep’s Head way’ 2003
From The Big Gap it’s downhill all the way! As we walk south it’s the Mizen which is always on the horizon, across the waters of Dunmanus Bay.
As we approach the southern end of the trackway crossing the mountain, we look back up towards Barna Mhór – The Big Gap. It has been a most rewarding adventure for us, and one which we intend to repeat at other times of the year so that we can capture the effects of the changing seasons.
William Henry Bartlett was one of the foremost illustrators of his day, specialising in exotic scenes from all over the world – including Ireland, a favourite destination for Victorian travellers. I gave you an introduction to Bartlett in Scenery and Antiquities – W H Bartlett in Nineteenth Century Ireland. He loved ruins and wild and romantic scenery and wasn’t above enhancing its grandeur and magnificence. What better place for him to come than Gougane Barra? He was there sometime between 1830 and 1840 and he left us two engravings of what he saw – incredibly valuable as evidence of what has changed and what has not.
The writer of this volume of Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland was an Irishman – Joseph Stirling Coyne, born in Birr in 1803. Although he studied for the law, he had such success with his first couple of plays that writing become his full time profession and he eventually moved to London and wrote a string of hit comedies for the stage. He was one of the founders of Punch and contributed many pieces to newspapers and magazines, but Scenery and Antiquities seems to have been his only book. His ear for dialogue, it was said, was particularly good – but you can decide that for yourself as you read the story he tells about St Finbarr and the Serpent (see another version here).
The wild and romantic country around Gougane Barra
Coyne certainly knew how to match Bartlett’s penchant for overblown romanticism with his own hyperbolic language. Why don’t we leave the two of them at it now? Bartlett’s engravings and Coyne’s descriptions (edited for brevity) will carry us through Gougane Barra as it was in the 1830s. I will intersperse a few of my own images to provide some modern contrast and a certain reality check on the ‘precipitous crags’ and the ‘wild and beautiful solitudes.’
Detail from Bartlett’s view of Gougane Barra – he used scale to emphasise the towering nature of the cliffs above Gougane Barra Lake in the romantic style of the period
From Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland, published in 1841
Leaving Inchageela I found myself entering into the deep solitude of the mountain district, where the Lee expands itself into a beautiful sheet of water called Lough Allua (from Lough-a-Laoi, the Lake of the Lee,) about three miles in length, and in some places nearly a mile in breadth. This lake is picturesquely dotted with clusters of islands; but the natural beauty of the scene has been considerably impaired by the destruction of the woods which clothed the islets, and skirted the shores of the lough. The road which has been recently constructed lies on the northern side of the lake, following the indentations of its winding shores, through scenery of the most diversified yet solitary character, which will gratify the warmest expectations of the tourist who has leisure to investigate all its various beauties. After passing the lake, the river contracts itself into a narrow stream, and the traveller approaches, through narrow defiles and deep glens, the sequestered lake of Gougaune Barra, the first pausing place of the infant Lee, which bursts from the deep recesses of a rocky mountain a short distance from this spot.
I’ve done the same thing – foreshortened the view in order to dwarf the oratory under the ‘towering’ cliffs
Antiquarians have assigned different etymologies to the name of this lake; some translate it, the Hermitage or Trifle of St. Barr or St. Barry. Mr. Windele, who is generally accurate in his derivations, says, that Gougaune is taken from the Irish words Geig-abhan, i. e. the gorge of the river. How he could have fallen into such an error is surprising, when it is evident that the name is derived from the artificial causeway, which connects with the shore a small island in the centre of the lake, where St. Fineen Barr lived a recluse life before he founded the Cathedral of Cork. The word gougaune is applied in the south-western districts of Ireland to those rude quays of loose stones jutting into the sea or river, constructed for the purpose of fishing. The lake, which is situated in a deep mountain recess, is enclosed on every side except the east with steep and rocky hills, down whose precipitous sides several mountain-streams pour their bright tributes into the placid waters beneath.
A beautiful scene but a more realistic view of the height of the mountains at the end of the lake
The sanctified character of Gougaune Barra has, according to popular tradition, preserved it from that legendary monster, which, under the form of an enormous eel, infests many of the lakes in Ireland. One of these enchanted worms had in past ages taken up his quarters in this lough, where he remained unmolested until, by an act of daring sacrilege, he provoked the anger of St. Fineen Barr, and caused his own expulsion from the pleasant waters he had so long inhabited. The story was told to me by an old man whom I found fishing in the river, where it issues from the lake; and, as I should only detract from the simplicity of his legend by giving it in other language than his own, I shall, as nearly as possible, repeat it in the manner in which it was told to me.
Richard King’s St Finbarr and the Serpent published in ‘The Capuchin Annual’ (1946-7), used with thanks
”There was wanst upon a time, sir,” said he, “a great saint, called Saint Fineen Barry, who lived all alone on the little island in the lake. There he built an illigant chapel with his own hands, and spent all his time in it day and night, praying, and fasting, and reading his blessed books. So, sir, av coorse, his fame went about far and near, and the people came flocking to the lake from all parts ; but as there was no ways of getting into the island from the shore—barrin’ by an ould boat that hadn’t a sound plank in her carcash—there was a good chance that some of the crathers would be drownded in crassing over. So, bedad, St. Fineen seeing how eager the poor christhens wor for his holy advice, tuck pity upon them, and one fine morning early he gets up, and, afore his breakfast, he made that pathway of big stones over from the land to his own island. After that, the heaps of people that kem to hear mass in his chapel every Sunday was past counting; and small wondher it was, for he was the rale patthern of a saint, and mighty ready he was at all sorts of prayers that ever wor invinted. But I forgot to tell you, sir, that there was living at that time, snug and comfortable, down in the bottom of the lake a tundhering big eel; some said he was a fairy, more that he was a wicked ould inchanther, that the blessed St. Patrick had turned into that shape. Any way, he used to divart himself now and then with a walk upon the green shores of the lake, and those that saw him at these times said, that he had the ears and mane of a horse, and was thicker in the waist than a herring-cask. But with all that, the crather never milisted nobody, till one fine Sunday, after St. Fineen had finished saying mass in his little chapel, and was scatthering the holy water over his congregation, all of a suddent the ould eel popped up out of the lake, and, thrusting his long neck and head into the chapel window, caught hoult of the silver holy wather-cup betune his teeth, and without so much as ‘ by your lave,’ walks off with it into the wather. Of course, there was a terrible pillalieu riz in the chapel when they seen what the blaggard eel was afther doing, and in half a minute every mother’s son had run down to the wather-side pelting him all round the lake. But the plundhering ould rogue only laughed at their endeavours, till St. Fineen himself kem out of the chapel, drest in all his vistmints, ringing the mass-bell as hard as he could. Well, no sooner did the eel hear the first tinkle of the blessed bell than away he swum for the bare life out of the lake into the river, purshued by St. Fineen, till he got to the fall of Loneen, when he dropped the cup out of his mouth. The saint however hadn’t done with him yet, for he kept purshuing him to Lough Allua, where he thought to hide; but the sound of the bell soon forced him to leave that, and swim down the Lee to Rellig Barra, and there St. Fineen killed the oudacious baste with one kick of his blessed fut, and afterwards built a church on the spot; which, as your honour may perhaps have heard tell, is now the cathedral of Cork. At any rate, sir, there has never been another of them big eels seen in the lake from that time to the present.”
Bartlett’s engraving of the cells at Gougane with the wooden cross and pilgrims paying the rounds
The little island to which St. Fineen Barr retired, alluded to in the legend, was, indeed, an admirably chosen place for the enjoyment of undisturbed solitude, and the indulgence of devout meditation. Several aged trees of the most picturesque forms grow upon its shores, and overshadow the ruins of the chapel, the court or cloister, and other buildings appertaining to them, which cover nearly half the area of the island. In the centre of the court stands the shattered remains of a wooden cross, on which are nailed innumerable shreds and patches, the grateful memorials of cures performed on the devotees who have made pilgrimages to this holy retreat, and by whom this sacred relic is held in extraordinary veneration. Around the court are eight small circular cells, in which the penitents are accustomed to spend the night in watching and prayer.
The ‘cells’ probably date from the seventeenth century, repaired and improved in the 1890s
The chapel, that adjoins it, stands east and west; the entrance is through a low doorway at the eastern end. . . . when we consider their height, extent, and the light they enjoyed, we may easily calculate that the life of the successive anchorites who inhabited them, was not one of much comfort or convenience, but much the reverse—of silence, gloom, and mortification. Man elsewhere loves to contend with and emulate nature and the greatness and majesty of her works; but here, as if awed by the sublimity of surrounding objects, and ashamed of his own real littleness, the founder of this desecrated shrine constructed it on a scale peculiarly pigmy and diminutive. Indeed, while contemplating this and many other unworldly recesses in different parts of Ireland, it is impossible to avoid a conviction, that the wild scenery of those solitary islands and untrodden glens must have had considerable effect in nurturing an ascetic tendency in the minds of religious enthusiasts.
The memorial to O’Mahony, the recluse Coyne refers to, below. It’s certainly more modern than 1728. It’s been found and re-erected since Coyne’s visit.
On the shores of the lake, near to the Causeway leading into the island, a few narrow mounds indicate the unpretending burying-place of “the rude forefathers” of this remote district ; and in this solitary spot, the broken remains of an arched recess mark the last resting-place of a religious recluse, named O’Mahony, who terminated his life here sometime about the commencement of the last century. Smith, the historian of Cork, mentions having seen a tombstone with the following inscription ‘Hoc sibi et successoribus suis, in eadem vocatione monumentum imposuit Dominus Doctor Dionisius O’Mahony presbyter licit indignus’. The flag is not to be discovered now, it either has been removed or is buried in the rubbish of the place. Dr. Smith adds, that O’Mahony was buried in the year 1728.
Coyne’s ‘stepping stones’ (below) are probably this wonderful little clapper bridge
A little to the east of the island, the waters issue from the lake, and form the head of the River Lee, which at this point is so shallow that it may be crossed by a few stepping-stones. From thence it pours its irregular course over huge ledges and masses of rock—now sweeping onward headlong, and now pausing in dark eddying pools through the rugged valley, until it reaches Lough Allua, of which I have already given a description.
The Pass of Keimaneigh (above and below) is fairly dramatic, but I am not sure it quite deserves Coyne’s hype nowadays. It would have been wilder and more picturesque before the wide tarred road
Before quitting this neighbourhood I visited the Pass of Keimaneigh, which, for picturesque though gloomy grandeur, I have never seen surpassed, even in this region of romantic glens and mountain defiles. Through this Pass runs the high road from Macroom to Bantry, having the appearance of being excavated between the precipitous crags, that, rising on either hand, assume the resemblance of fantastic piles and antique ruins, clothed with mosses and lichens, with here and there the green holly and ivy, contributing by the richness of their tints to the beauty of the scene.
Having completed my examination of Keimanheigh, I began to retrace my route to Macroom highly gratified with my visit to these romantic scenes; which, had they been thrown in almost any other part of Europe, would have been a favourite pilgrimage for those lovers of the picturesque, who haunt the Rhine and traverse the Alps, in search of nature in her wild and beautiful solitudes.
Yesterday we went back to the Bealick – back to the valley of Cooleenlemane that so entranced Robert and me that both of us wrote about the experience last year. I concentrated on the Bealick (pronounced Bay-lick) – the ‘caves’ containing ancient rock scribings and my post was called Witches’ Marks and Lovelorn Shepherds: Inscribed Rock Art in a Remote Valley. Robert wrote about the valley itself, through geological and historical time in his post, Cooleenlemane – A Walk Into History. What more could we have to say about this impossibly beautiful place? Lots, it turns out.
The red house at the bottom right marks our starting off point. In the distance is Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island
We took the walk in the company of our favourite travelling companions, Peter (of the Hikelines Blog) and Amanda (Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry). We had been missing them badly as they had been in New Zealand when the pandemic struck, unable to get home for six months. It felt really good to be out and about with them again.
Amanda fords one of the many streams (it was a wet walk!) and Peter points out some of the scribings in the Bealick
Apart from the jaw-dropping scenery and the sheer pleasure of a hike into a relatively untouched valley, this time I found myself drawn to the evidence of occupation over time, starting in the Bronze Age. At the entrance to the valley and right beside a ford across the river stands what is described in the National Monuments inventory as a ‘Megalithic Structure. . .the exact nature of which is unknown.”
It’s in the middle of a small clearing, with a Hawthorn tree growing out of it – altogether a magical sight. It could be what remains of a wedge tomb – see my post Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths to learn more about this type of monument.
I wondered how ancient the ford might be. For most of the length of the Cooleenlemane River as it runs down the valley it is easy to cross with the help of a stone or two, but in this spot it widens. Although no longer in use now, this type of crossing place is often of considerable antiquity – indeed one of the most common place names in Ireland contain the word áth (pronounced awe) which means ‘ford.’
Leaving the megalith, we followed the course of the stream up the valley, mostly trying to select higher and slightly dryer ground, and trying not to get too distracted by the oh-so-photographical scenery all around us. Ruins of small stone cottages dotted the landscape, and a tiny cart track runs the length of the valley almost to the Bealick.
The National Monuments inventory also lists a cashel, two enclosures, and two hut sites in the valley. We passed the Cashel half way between Furze Hill and the Bealick, although we actually obtained the best views of it from the Priests Leap Road afterwards.
The upper photograph shows Furze Hill, the dark patch on the left, and the Bealick just above the bend in the river. The cashel is half way between them. The lower photograph is a closer look at the cashel
Cashels are ring forts made of stone rather than earthen banks. They are considered to be the farmhouse enclosures of high-status individuals (you can see an exceptionally good example at Knockdrum – see Robert’s post Knockdrum Stone Fort to understand how they functioned). This one is clear but very ruined, circular in plan, about 17m across.
It probably dates either to the late Iron Age or the Early Medieval Period – anywhere in the first millennium AD. Like other cashels, it has clear sight-lines down the valley and was built to be visible and a statement of status and power.
We didn’t hike up to the enclosures or hut sites further up the valley – a walk for another day. I think Peter (above) is already plotting his course up there. The most southerly of the enclosures sounds interesting, with an entrance marked by upright stones and a levelled interior. There is no way of knowing how old these are, of course, but taken with the megalithic structure and the cashel, they do indicate that this valley has been lived in and worked for thousands of years.
And then there’s the Bealick itself – the three ‘caves’ formed by massive rocks leaning against each other, two of which contain the rock scribings. In the way of such unique places they become special features of the landscape and take on a mantle of history. In this case, the Bealick was a Mass Rock, a home, a sheep-shelter, and a mysterious repository of enigmatic markings.
On our walk yesterday we became aware that we were not the only ones in the valley. Along came Mary, with four very well-behaved dogs, on the look-out, she told us, for her brother’s cattle.
From the top: a field enclosed with stone walls runs up the steep slope; lazy beds in an old field; a ruined cottage surrounded by tiny haggards (a haggard is a small enclosure beside a house)
She explained that the land was commonage and that it hadn’t been lived in, in living memory – probably abandoned not long after the Famine, she thought. She pointed out locations of what she called ‘cowlocks’ or small homestead here and there, with their associated potato patches recognisable by the lazy bed ridges still visible in the small fields. She told us the prominent knoll we had passed was called Furze Hill.
She pointed to a cliff above the Bealick (both images above) and named it as `Carrignasprogue’. A direct transliteration from Irish, this is Carraig na Spioróg, or Rock of the Sparrowhawks. It’s a particularly dangerous place for sheep, she said, as they tend to get trapped at the bottom of the sheer part and have to be rescued. Every field, every bend on the river and every prominent rock would have had its own name, enabling those who lived in the valley to know exactly what part was being referred to.
Nowadays, several families share the valley, grazing sheep and cattle in it and for the most part leaving them to their own devices. The grazing has kept the valley relatively clear – we saw little evidence of overgrowth of gorse or bracken and none of the rhododendron invasions that plague the Killarney National Park not so far away. One hesitates to use the word pristine nowadays, but the sense I have is of a remote place that hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. Long may it remain so.
We drove home a circuitous route, up over the Priests Leap Road into Kerry and back over the Caha Pass into Cork. We were delighted to find Molly Gallivan’s open and serving tea and scones. There’s a tiny cottage attached, reconstructed in the style of the traditional Irish farmhouse and I was especially struck by this bedroom – it could have been in one of those tiny Cowlocks we passed by in the valley earlier.
It’s a long way from West Cork, Ireland, to Sydney, Australia! And I’m not suggesting that signals could travel that far in the early 19th century . . . But I couldn’t resist putting up this engraving when I found it while researching signal towers generally as it is in fact an exemplary view with which to head up this – the seventh of our explorations into a fascinating subject. It has everything: the signal station itself, built on a prominent headland with a lighthouse nearby; a ‘telegraph’ mast and a flag mast for signalling; a man with a telescope looking out for a signal coming in – and a pile of logs with which to make a beacon fire to communicate urgently at night! The only difference, in fact, between the Irish stations and this ‘colonial’ one on the other side of the world is the building material. In Terra Australis (the name used for that continent until 1824, and meaning ‘southern land’) it was timber, whereas in Ireland the towers were of masonry and constructed with elements resembling medieval tower houses.
But it’s fair to say that today’s foray into the story of the Irish Napoleonic-era signal towers also has everything. Perched on Ireland’s most southwesterly point – Mizen Head in the townland of Cloghane – this site is one part of a craggy, indented promontory which is scattered with historical elements.
I have tried to illustrate a history time-line graphically by superimposing some of the significant sites on an aerial view (above – courtesy of mizenhead.ie), although even this does not tell the full story. Apart from an undated promontory fort in the north of the townland the signal towers are the earliest elements, specifically dating from 1804 and part of the network of 81 towers around the whole coast of Ireland which we have been charting in our posts. Interestingly, the two towers shown on the top of this view – at Cloghane and Brow Head – are the closest together of any around the coast, being only 3.8 km apart. The average distance between towers is 13.5 km, while the maximum distance is 36.9 km (between Ballydavid and Kerry Head in Co Kerry): we have not yet explored those sites. Here are two views from Cloghane across to the signal tower at Brow Head:
A feature at Cloghane which doesn’t show up on the aerial view is this Second World War lookout post, built close to the early signal tower around 1942. 83 of these structures were built by the Irish Defence Force to monitor activity at sea, many of them relating to Napoleonic-era sites for obvious reasons: these locations had already been selected for their inter-visibility and the panoramic views which they commanded. We have encountered these ‘Emergency-era’ posts previously at Kedge Point, Baltimore, and Ballyroon Mountain, Sheep’s Head (see the full list of links at the end of this post). We shouldn’t get diverted, but if you want to know more about these here is an excellent creative presentation on them carried out in 2014 by Tim Schmelzer of Vienna – particularly, I recommend that you view the first of the videos: it’s wonderful! The LOPs were designed by Howard Cooke RIBA of the Irish Office of Public Works in 1939 and I was fascinated to see that the design achieved recognition (‘posthumously’) from the National Inventory of Ireland Buildings Archive. The posts were cramped, damp and minimal, but apparently at least equipped with small fireplaces:
Mizen Head has drama: there is no land beyond this place until you reach America. And, if you are approaching Ireland from the south or west, Cloghane will be your first landfall. But it’s a dangerous coastline, particularly in stormy weather or at times of poor visibility. Hardly surprising, then, that a fog signal station was established on the furthest point in the early 20th century, under the jurisdiction of the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse. This was initially only a foghorn, powered by explosives: a light was not placed there until 1959.
That this signal tower is the virtually identical ‘twin’ of the one we explored at Robert’s Head must be significant, as both are unlike the general pattern we have seen elsewhere: a simple ‘defensible’ structure some 6m square with flat roof, parapets, machicolations and bartizans. My conclusion at Robert’s Head was that the tower had been substantially rebuilt to incorporate upgraded accommodation, perhaps for use by the Coast Guard which was formally established in 1822. Comparing it now with the Cloghane structure it seems more likely that these might both have originated as larger, better appointed buildings. I wonder if this could be because of the relative remoteness of both sites, which would not be easy to populate and service from any nearby community. It was a long trek to Cloghane: the original dedicated trackway, some 2.7 km long is still defined on the landscape, and passes under the 232m high Mizen Peak.
The signal tower at Cloghane is in reasonable condition considering its age and the long period of abandonment (many of the towers went out of use after 1812 although some – possibly including this one – were revived and adapted for use by the Coast Guard). Many visitors have left their marks over the years, and some of the graffiti is intriguing! There is also some vestige of the timber casement frame remaining in one of the window openings: surprising considering the level of exposure to severe storms at this remote site.
There’s a conundrum at this site that I want to share with you. A little distance to the south of the signal station building is a grouping of stones which are easy to miss at first glance, Have a closer look:
It’s the base of a circular building, or enclosure – a few metres in diameter. Archaeologists amongst you might think in terms of round towers but we can discount that in this desolate location. It does not seem to relate to the signal station buildings, either in terms of architecture (it gives the impression of being rougher and, perhaps, earlier) or usage. With regard to its age, it shows up as a feature on the early 6″ Ordnance Survey map:
What might it be? A mine chimney? But the Mizen Head Copper Mine was a long way from here (refer to the annotated aerial view). The size and shape resemble a gunpowder magazine which we came across at Dhurode Mine, on the north side of the peninsula. The only reason for having a gunpowder store at a signal station would be for a fog signal operated by explosives, as was the case at the Fog Signal Station lower down the Head, built in the early twentieth century. This is clearly much earlier. The dreamer in me pictures, rather, a hut lived in by a medieval hermit, supported by a local monastic settlement to keep beacons burning on Ireland’s headlands in perpetuity. Like the round towers, these were signals to travellers in ancient times that here might be found a haven. For seafarers, perhaps, this one signalled the gateway to a fertile land of enlightenment.
The previous posts in this series can be found through these links:
Kloë and Adam, both highly educated gardeners and conservationists, moved onto the property only three years ago and set about finding what was actually under several feet of moss, bracken and brambles. They had a strong suspicion they would find something special, because their neighbour, Jackie Cronin, now in his eighties, had told them stories about Mrs Hardstaff, who lived there in the 40s and who had been inspired by what she saw on nearby Garinish Island.
An Italianate terraced garden was what she had in mind, so Jackie and some friends were dispatched up the mountain to break out suitable rocks for the steps and paths, bringing them down on donkeys and levering them into place with iron bars. It took Adam two weeks of backbreaking digging and clearing to reveal all those stones steps. He also found little trickling ponds and lots of old plantings.
The Terrace, painstakingly constructed from stone slabs: many gardeners would declare war on the ‘weeds’ that pop up between the paving stones, but Kloë and Adam use these spaces to grow herbs. Here’s Kloë pointing to some special Alpine Mint that seems to have adapted well to this micro-environment
These Two Green Shoots, Kloë and Adam, have a philosophy rooted in a dedication to conservation and in their own passionate beliefs about gardening. Everything, they decided, should be edible, to the extent possible. So they have taken the underlying Italianate Terraces and added layers of edible plants. Some of these are familiar to us and some of them definitely aren’t!
From the top: Nasturtiums and a miniature Fuchsia – very pretty but also edible
At the same time, they are conscious of their West Cork location and have tried to preserve as many of the native trees, shrubs and plants as possible, reflecting that sense of place that makes each garden a part of its particular environment. Everything grows so quickly here, says Adam, although getting enough light in can be a challenge.
From the top: Natural tracery filters light through the trees; a trellis constructed from materials to hand in the garden; Adam’s perennial wildflower patches, newly mown and raked as per best practice as described in One Acre – Three Years On
We attended their Open Day yesterday, a fundraiser for the Save Bantry Bay Kelp Forest campaign. Adam led us on a tour of the garden and then Kloë fed and watered us with cakes and muffins featuring botanical ingredients. We wore masks and kept social distancing in mind and there was a limit on numbers, so it all felt quite personalised and there was lots of time to ask questions.
The sheer variety of edible plants is a revelation. Many of them of course, would have been familiar to our ancestors (anyone for nettle soup?) while others would have been used for ornamentation rather than grown for their nourishment value (nasturtiums, for example).
From the top: Comfrey is a familiar edible and medicinal plant, but the Prickly Ash was a surprise, especially when we learned the berries are what we know as Szechuan Peppers – a key ingredient of Chinese cooking
Adam talked us through many of the plants he grows, some for their leaves, some for their flowers and buds (day lilies – who knew!) and some for their berries or seeds. Some, indeed, for all three, like the Chilean Guava that grows in neat little shrubs and make a great topiary plant.
From the top: I’ve forgotten the name of this gorgeous plant but do remember it’s the seeds that are collected. Chilean Guava is one of the new favourites of top chefs – a delicious alternative to blueberries or cranberries
We are all conscious now of the need to feed and preserve our pollinators and Adam spoke frequently about plants in terms of their attractiveness to bees and butterflies. We certainly saw evidence of both – and another little critter as well (below).
One of the surprises of the day was to find out how readily tea grows here – yes, tea, that most beloved of Irish beverages, and as Adam says, your good old Barry’s tea, nothing exotic. It’s a little tricky – apparently it hates being moved and will go off in a huff if you disturb it – but now they have the hang of it, it’s coming along nicely, although it probably won’t grow as tall as it does in Sri Lanka.
The tea is the tall plant with shiny leaves, and the prolific plant on the left is Woodruff
Kloë has her mother’s artistic flair and there are nature-sculptures and special spaces off to the side all over the place. They have developed a B and B business as well, with attractive rooms in the house and a Botanical Tent in the Garden for anyone with a yen for the glamping experience.
The Garden of Reimagination is a work in progress, still very much under development. I look forward to returning many times, since it’s clear there is a long-term vision at work here and all kind of plans for the future. If you get the chance yourself – jump at it!