Rainforest Path

It’s a magical place, running up from an old graveyard by the sea, past a holy well, through a cool overhead canopy and along a tumbling stream. I’ve never met anyone else along the path, although I know the holy well is visited and the footbridge to it was repaired a couple of years ago.

Moss and Navelwort on an old tree

There’s a big house at the top, with steps leading down to the path. Some of the more exotic plants are clearly imports, but mostly it seems that wildness has simply been encouraged, or not interfered with.

A mixture of native and imported ferns along the stream

I went there twice this week. The first time was with my daughter-in-law, visiting from Canada, and we thought we spotted an unusual flower.  After a night of heavy rain I went there again on Friday equipped this time with my camera. Found it – and it looks as if it’s a Summer Snowflake, which is rare enough that I will report it to the National Biodiversity Date Centre. (Go on, it’s easy, you can do it too.)

The flower I was after – Summer Snowflake. Rare in Ireland but also widely cultivated – so is this a natural occurrence or part of somebody’s planting scheme?

What follows is a photo essay; my homage to a rainforest path on the brilliant morning after a rainy night. I will try to tell the story with my captions.

A friendly dog always accompanies me on this trail. The path is lined with Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage, providing a soft and bright green carpet. I also found it growing on old fallen logs

Lovely to find a large patch of Wood Anemone beside the stream

The Holy Well needs attention. The bridge has slipped and the path is too muddy to access the well. Read about this well in Amanda’s Holy Wells of Cork. The dog found her too.

This is Ivy-leaved Speedwell. The flowers are so tiny that it’s easy to miss, especially when it’s all mixed up with the Saxifrage

I was taken with this Greater Wood-rush growing along the bank

My first bluebells of the season

American Skunk-cabbage. Now classed as ‘potentially invasive’ in Ireland. I only saw one but I knew it immediately because they were so familiar to me in Canada. I’ll be reporting this too.

The path climbs upwards

The sycamore are starting to bud and leaf. The intricacy of the underneath of the leaf!

Everyone loves primroses

Lots of insects buzzing about the Dandelions – a hoverfly (top) and a bee

Take a walk in the woods and tell us what you’ve seen!

Thaddeus McCarthy: The Bishop Who Never Was

This is the story of a man from West Cork who was appointed a bishop not once but twice, by two different popes, but prevented from assuming his duties by warring clan factions; a man now venerated in two countries.

Thaddeus in his dedicated chapel in St Colmán’s Cathedral in Cobh

I had never heard of Blessed Thaddeus McCarthy until I stumbled upon his curious shrine in Cork’s North Cathedral. It’s a strange and glorious thing – two golden angels holding an ornate, bejewelled casket within which a glass tube contains, of all things, a leg bone. Nearby, a statue and a plaque provide more of the story.

The relic of Thaddeus’s leg bone and a prayer to him, both part of the shrine on the North Cathedral, Cork

Once I had seen the shrine in the North Cathedral, it seemed I met the Blessed Thaddeus everywhere I went, and I came to know about his life over time. It is as much a story of the struggle for supremacy of some of the great Irish houses – the McCarthy Reaghs, the FitzGeralds and the O’Driscolls – during the turbulent fifteenth century, as it is the story of a holy man.

Thaddeus is often depicted wearing the scallop shell – symbol of a pilgrim

Thaddeus was born in 1455 in West Cork into the reigning Munster family of the McCarthy Reaghs, powerful lords who held sway in Carbery and Muskerry at the time and whose principal seat was in Kilbrittain. He studied under the Franciscans, probably at Timoleague Friary, and took holy orders before going off to Rome where he impressed the Pope (Sixtus IV) so much with his saintliness that he appointed Thaddeus Bishop of Ross (Rosscarbery See). Upon his return home, however, he found that an O’Driscoll was already Bishop of Ross (appointed by the same Pope – he had apparently forgotten, oops). The O’Driscolls were certainly not about to give up their hold on the See of Ross, so back went Thaddeus to Rome to ask the Pope to sort it out.

Thaddeus in Italy, dressed as a simple pilgrim, looking resigned and thoroughly saintly

After many inquiries and rumination, another Pope, Innocent VIII, appointed him Bishop of Cork and Cloyne. Once again, when he returned home, it was to find that the FitzGeralds had their own man in the position. Through all these trials Thaddeus bore himself with patience and dignity and encouraged his followers not to engage in violent behaviour on his behalf. His enemies worked to get him excommunicated and so off he went to Rome one more time, where the Pope confirmed his credentials.

A window dedicated to Thaddeus in the Catholic church in Caheragh, near Skibbereen

On his journey back to Ireland he travelled alone in the guise of a simple pilgrim. He was only 37 years old, but worn out by his many travails he died in the night in a hostel near Ivrea in Italy. In the morning a bright light was seen to shine from the room where his body lay and the monks found him bathed in this mysterious glow. When they examined his possessions they realised he was an Irish bishop.

Thaddeus appeals to the Pontiff (detail of the Thaddeus altar, Cobh)

The Rev Patrick Hurley has written a full, two part account of the life of Thaddeus, published in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society for 1896 (here and here). The occasion for the paper was that the Irish, who had essentially forgotten about Thaddeus (although the McCarthy’s held on to a tradition of a saintly ancestor) had recently become aware of his status in Italy. I will let Fr Hurley take up the story of what happened next when Thaddeus died:

On hearing the news people flocked from all parts to see the pilgrim-bishop, who they regarded as a saint, and many sick were here cured and restored to health. Seeing this the bishop ordered the body to be carried to the cathedral, which was accompanied with great solemnity, the chapter, clergy and religious orders all going with a great multitude of people more in the way of a triumph than a funeral.

Depiction of the funeral, based on Fr Hurley’s account  (detail of the Thaddeus altar, Cobh)

Thaddeus was placed under the altar alongside the body of St Eusebius and there he is to this day. Eventually the tombs of both saints were opened and Thaddeus’s remains were re-interred in a reliquary (he was found to have red hair). His feast day is celebrated in October every year in Ivrea and many miracles have been ascribed to him over the centuries.

Blessed Thaddeus’s Reliquary in Ivrea, Italy

There’s even a 15th or 16th century poem, in Latin, about him. Fr Hurley provides a translation. Since he gives no author, it may be his own work, which would not surprise me as this is obviously an erudite and talented scholar. He started his career as the parish priest of Schull, was the priest responsible for the chapel and stations at Gougane Barra and also established the Irish training college at Ballingeary. He was a frequent contributor to the JCHAS.

Fr Hurley had attended a ceremony in honour of Thaddeus in Ivrea ‘recently’ when he wrote his two pieces. He remarks in awe on the majesty of the ceremonial and the great crowds who took part. Above all, he says, the solemn procession when, as if in triumph, the remains of the poor unknown pilgrim were carried through the streets he passed so many years ago, will not be easily forgotten.

Above, the magnificent church in Ivrea, Italy, where Thaddeus lies and below, the equally magnificent side-chapel dedicated to his memory in St Colmán’s Cathedral, Cobh

In more recent times, it was agreed that some relics of the saint could be returned to Ireland – hence the leg bone that caught my attention in the North Cathedral. Ireland, and particularly Cork, had rediscovered their saint and veneration of this fifteenth century holy man spread rapidly. In St Colmán’s Cathedral in Cobh (the subject of Robert’s post this week) one of the side chapels is dedicated to him: this probably happened in a time of great enthusiasm for the revival of his cult following the rediscovery described by Fr Hurley. The design of the altar, the carvings, the mosaics and stained glass show that the artists were familiar with Fr Hurley’s account. 

The death of Thaddeus, St Colmán’s Cathedral, Cobh

In the years that followed, as new churches were built and older ones refurbished, Thaddeus lived on in stained glass and small shrines. I have no doubt that part of this comes down to his surname – we love the idea that the McCarthys, of a proud, ancient and powerful lineage, and the people of Cork, have our own saint.

A shrine to Thaddeus, including a reliquary (not sure what it contains) in the Catholic church in Clonakilty

Mizen Magic 10: Sailor’s Hill

Fancy a walk? One with just enough elevation to get the heart going and with the reward of spectacular views at the top? It will take about an hour, maybe a bit longer if you stop to chat, or just gaze.

We’ve mentioned Sailor’s Hill before in the course of other posts – this one and this one. But it deserves a post of its own, because it’s a complete experience. Start from Schull and walk out along the Colla Road until you get to the old St Mary’s Church and graveyard. The National Monuments listing tell us that this was originally a medieval structure, although what we see in ruins now is mainly an eighteenth century church, situated in a picturesque burial ground. Turn right at that point.

You will notice the waymark signs. This is one of the newer extensions of the Fastnet Trails, and an initiative of a committed group in Schull. The walk up Sailor Hill is actually part of a larger walk, the Colla Loop – we are planning to do that one soon but only had time for this stretch of it today.

The road meanders gently upwards. Take the first left and then the next left. Views of Schull Harbour start to open out as the road rises. Looking back, you can see how Schull nestles at the foot of Mount Gabriel (see the photograph at the top of this post).

A tiny shrine in a gatepost

Later on, this boreen will be heady with Foxglove and Loosestrife and Oxeye Daisies, and later still the purple heather will dominate, but this is early spring and it’s been a long cold winter. 

Everything is late this year, so I am happy to see the ever-reliable Celandine in profusion.

The willows are starting to bud out too, but apart from that, it seems that dandelions and lawn daisies are the only wildflowers brave enough to flourish along the way. Not that we disdain these humble flowers – they provide early and important nourishment for the insects and the bees. Must feed those pollinators!

Connie and Betty Griffin have built a house with magnificent vistas near the top of the hill. They never stop adding to it, Betty with flowers and Connie with quirky additions, sculptures and walls. This time, he showed us his Sailor Hill Newgrange, a nifty arrangement of standing stones that respond to the rising sun by capturing the morning light in a stone recess.

Connie demonstrates his sun calendar to Robert

Up to the top then, and there it is – a breathtaking panorama that encompasses the whole of Roaringwater Bay and Long Island Sound to the south, and Mount Gabriel and its foothills to the north. Cape Clear, the Fastnet, Sherkin Island and all the smaller islands are laid out in front of you.

And there’s a cross and inscriptions, so you begin to realise that this site is about more than those views. Connie, who designed and built it, wants us to think about those who lost their lives at sea. It’s his own personal mark of respect and a reminder to us in the midst of all this grandeur to take a moment to contemplate on the power of the ocean and the fleeting nature of life.

I had to look up The Niña, 1492, and of course it was one of Columbus’ ships. He took the Santa Maria, the Niña and the Pinta on his voyage to the New World, but the Niña was his favourite. To learn why, take a look at this. But why is it here? Well, I’m not sure, but there is a tradition around here that Columbus may have visited West Cork on his way. His last provisioning stop may have been with the hospitable, learned and Spanish-speaking Fineen O’Mahony, Scholar Prince of Rossbrin

Connie has built his own tiny belvedere (he calls it his folly) perched to take maximum advantage of the view. It’s the perfect spot to sit, munch an apple, and enjoy a companionable chat before the walk down again.

A final look out to sea. There’s Long Island and beyond it the Fastnet Rock with its iconic lighthouse.

We paused to admire a Goldfinch in Connie’s garden, as well as his wonderful textural arrangement of sticks, stones and whalebones.

Thank you, Connie and Betty, from two happy walkers.

Knockdrum Stone Fort

There is no firm line that denotes where our most south-westerly Irish peninsula begins. Our series, Mizen Magic, has reported on walks, roads, views, history and archaeology which can definitely be defined as belonging to the Mizen (which we tend to think of as being to the west of, and including, its ‘gateway’ – Ballydehob). Perhaps we should start a series titled Magic Beyond The Mizen – in which case this would be the first: a report on a very prominent site about half an hour’s drive along the coast east of where we live: a historic structure – built within the last 2,000 years – but which contains evidence of much older human activity.

Here is an overhead view – the best way to see and understand the layout and construction of Knockdrum Stone Fort, which occupies a superb hilltop location in the townland of Farrandau between Skibbereen and Castletownshend. Thank you, Dennis Horgan – our professional West Cork aerial photographer – for allowing us to use this image: have a look at his website for other examples of his work, and for details of his excellent photographs and books.

The Fort is located on a high ridge (although not on the summit of the ridge) with far-reaching views both inland and to the south, over the sea. The header picture looks from the Fort out to the west over Castlehaven to Galley Head in the far distance; the view in the picture above is due south – looking towards Horse Island, and the stone wall of the Fort is in the foreground. From these breathtaking vistas it’s reasonable to conjecture that Knockdrum Fort has a strategic siting, providing views of anyone approaching from the sea, and able to signal their arrival to dwellers in the ‘interior’ – the lands to the north. We cannot know for sure that stone fort structures had this – or any other – specific purpose: many theories have been advanced. Comparison with other examples is worthwhile. One of the largest stone forts in Ireland is Staigue Fort, near Sneem in County Kerry.

Staigue Fort (above) has a diameter of 27.5 metres, the present wall height is 5.5 metres, and the wall thickness is 4 metres. At Knockdrum the diameter is 22.5 metres, the present wall height is 2 metres and the wall thickness around 3 metres. The Duchas information board at Staigue says:

. . . This is one of the largest and finest stone forts in Ireland and was probably built in the early centuries AD before Christianity came to Ireland. It must have been the home of a very wealthy landowner or chieftain who had a great need for security . . . The fort was the home of the chieftain’s family, guards and servants, and would have been full of houses, out-buildings, and possibly tents or other temporary structures. No buildings survive today . . .

The picture above shows the present interior of Knockdrum Fort: the stone walls are likely to delineate a former building here. In the corner of the inner stone enclosure is the entrance to a ‘souterrain’ – a series of underground passageways. The souterrain is outlined on the following drawing of the Stone Fort which was made in 1930 after a detailed investigation of it by Vice Admiral Henry Boyle Somerville, the younger brother of writer and artist Edith Somerville of Castletownshend. Boyle, his life and his tragic death, is the subject of Finola’s complementary post today.

Finola is also discussing Boyle Somerville’s interest in the alignments of archaeological structures. In Boyle’s paper for The Journal of The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1931 (title page below), he presents the evidence that this Fort is on a solar alignment.

Boyle sets out the case for an alignment based on the Knockdrum Fort:

. . . This conception of the earlier use of the site of the cathair [the stone fort] for purposes which may perhaps be termed “religious,” seems to be borne out by the following fact. At a horizontal distance of about 600 yards to the E.S.E of the cathair, and at 210′ difference of level below it, there is a small rocky ridge standing up from the surrounding grass land. The name of the ridge is “Peakeen Cnoc Dromin,” The little peak of the white-backed hill . . .

The following paragraphs and photos are from the Journal paper:

Finola and I are familiar with the Peakeen Cnoc Dromin from our researches into Rock Art: the uppermost stone (which does appear similar to the capstone of a fallen dolmen) is heavily cupmarked. The photos of the Peakeen (above) were taken before we had any idea that they might form an alignment connected with Knockdrum Stone Fort. We will have to revisit again at Bealltaine. Boyle confirmed his alignment theory by personal observation:

He went on to suggest:

. . . It is one of the clearest instances of intentional orientation between two ancient, and artificially formed monuments that can be imagined . . .

Of course, it can’t be the case that a cupmarked stone dating from anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 years ago was in any way connected with a stone fort that dates from the early part of the first millennium AD. However, I have as yet omitted an important piece of information: at Knockdrum Fort, high up on the hill, are two further ancient cupmarked stones – and significant ones: the larger also exhibits Rock Art. Somerville illustrated them in 1930, and Finola recorded them in detail in 1973.

Images above are of the stones recorded at Knockdrum: topmost is Boyle’s drawing from 1930. Below Finola’s drawings are photographs of the large stone lying by the Fort entrance today: it is known that this has been moved, possibly during Somerville’s time. The old photograph immediately above is from the Coghill Family Archive and shows Arthur Townshend beside the stone, which is standing. Arthur was born in 1863: this photograph may record the occasion of the expedition by the young Somervilles and ‘their cousin’ (quite possibly Arthur) to Knockdrum described below, which took place in 1875. It is the presence of Rock Art and cupmarks at the Fort itself which tells us that the site must have had significance in far earlier times (perhaps that’s why the fort was sited in that location – rather than on the summit of the ridge), and Boyle’s reported alignment would have been with the carved rocks (or the important location that they marked) rather than with the comparatively modern stone fort.

The souterrain in the enclosure of Knockdrum Fort (entrance in top photograph – ‘chimney’ in lower photograph) was explored in 1875, as Boyle recounts:

The ‘band of three youthful archaeologists’ are likely to have been Somervilles: Edith (the eldest, then 17), Boyle (then 12 – it was he who was lowered down into the discovered ‘cave’ by his ankles!) and, probably, a cousin. Great adventures, which would undoubtedly raise eyebrows today.

Within the fort enclosure is this cross-marked stone. It was apparently leaning against the wall in Boyle’s days, but has now been embedded close to the entrance. We visit this site often: this time we noted some significant disruption to the upper level of the dry stone walling, possibly caused by the fierce storm winds earlier this year. Compare the detail below with Dennis Horgan’s aerial view above, taken a few years ago.

Some damage has also been suffered to retaining walls on the green boreen leading to the Fort from the main Skibereen – Castletownshend road (a walking route only), and on the stone walls beside the 99 steps which take you from the green path to the top of the hill. These are passable with care, but it is hoped that this monument – which is in State ownership – will be deservedly returned to good order before too long: it is one of the historic wonders of West Cork.

Boyle Somerville: Ireland’s First Archaeoastronomer

Henry Boyle Townshend Somerville (1863 – 1936) is mostly know in Ireland now for how he died, murdered by the IRA in 1936. And that’s a tragedy in many ways, not least of which is that the notoriety of his death has obscured his important contributions to Irish archaeology and especially to the once-controversial field of archaeoastronomy, of which he was a distinguished pioneer. [The portrait above is by Walter Stoneman and used with permission from the National Portrait Gallery under a Creative Commons License.]

Boyle was about 30 in this photograph. This illustration is from Somerville and Ross: A Biography by Maurice Collis. The family lived in Drishane House, below, in Castletownshend, West Cork. 

Boyle was one of the famous Castletownshend family of Somervilles that included Edith, the writer with Violet Martin of the Irish RM stories. He was her favourite brother and companion on youthful adventures, including the incursions into the souterrain at Knockdrum Fort, armed only with a poker and a candle. See Robert’s companion piece about this ancient site.

Boyle drew the first proper survey of Drombeg and his observations established the winter solstice orientation. Today, crowds gather to witness this spectacular event

He went off to sea in 1877 at the early age of 13 – seafaring was in the Somerville blood – and rose through the ranks of Commander, Captain and finally Vice-Admiral. Throughout his time in the navy he was engaged in surveying and in hydrographic, intelligence and research projects all over the world. He collected ethnographic materials (now in the Pitt-Rivers Museum) and wrote papers on his experiences.

Another one of Boyle’s stone circle solar events, this one occurs at the autumn equinox at Bohonagh

But it was astronomy that fired his imagination, and specifically the astronomy of ancient sites. Following on the work of astronomer Norman Lockyer, he surveyed monuments in Scotland and Ireland and demonstrated that many of them had significant solar, stellar and lunar orientations. His 1927 paper, simply titled Orientation, in the first issue of Antiquity is a readable and well-argued essay that argues for the acceptance of the importance of calendrical observations to early farming communities.

The Bohonagh complex of monuments as Boyle described them – a stone circle, a cup-marked stone and a boulder burial

It is hard to remember now that the scientific community of the time was dismissive, but even the writer of his obituary in the journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland could not resist a patronising summation:

He was an accomplished surveyor and careful observer, and if the theories as to the orientation of megaliths which he held are not universally accepted, his investigations have resulted in presentations of an accuracy too often absent from the surveys of many writers on those subjects.

Makes him sound like a crank, doesn’t it? But let’s go back to that bit about being an ‘accomplished surveyor and careful observer.’ In paper after paper, he did just that – carefully observed and documented the archaeological monuments of West Cork and elsewhere. It was he who first described the West Cork Stone Circles and coined the term recumbent, providing properly surveyed plans and making careful notes of the way in which they offered sightings to solar events at significant times of the year through the axis provided by the line running from the ‘entrance’ through the ‘recumbent.’ (For an explantation of how this all works, see our post Ancient Calendars.)

Reenascreena Stone Circle with its surrounding shallow fosse

Take a look at a couple of his papers for the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. The first, on Five Stone Circles, is a good example of how he conducted his surveys. The second, titled Prehistorics sets out the case for a proper classification system for megalithic structures. Most of the terms he recommends, such as Standing Stone, Stone Row, Stone Circle, Passage Grave and Cup-Marked Stone are familiar to us and in everyday use now and he probably didn’t coin the terms. However, one of his terms never gained acceptance, and I think that’s a pity. It’s the charmingly named ‘Clochtogle’ and it’s what we now call a Boulder Burial. But in fact Clochtogle is a better term in being simply descriptive rather than assigning a function, since, as he points out in his paper, and as I pointed out in this post, there is precious little evidence that points to these monuments being burial places and they seem singularly unsuited for that function.

The Rathruane Clochtogle

Clochtogle is based on the Irish term cloch tógáil (cluck toe-gawl) which simply means raised up or lifted stone. We have lots of them in West Cork. In looking at the photograph of the Rathruane clochtogle (do you think this term might still catch on?) I am struck by how it seems to mirror the shape of Mount Gabriel in the background. Boyle, in his writings, did point out that not every monument was oriented to quarter or cross-quarter calendrical events: some, he said, may have other traditions reflected in their orientations. In our own investigations of West Cork monuments we are constantly struck by how many encompass views of Mount Gabriel.

Brian Lacey has an excellent paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland* in which he describes Boyle Somerville as an important and distinguished. . .Irish archaeologist. . .and one of the founders of international archaeoastronomy. He details his various contributions to the field, and does not shy away from mentioning his less-than-scientific interest in ley-lines and also in the use of a medium to communicate with the builders of Drombeg. Edith, along with most of their circle (and indeed many of the literati of the time) routinely used mediums and ouija boards. After his death, as her biographer Maurice Collis puts it, Edith ‘lost no time in getting into touch with Boyle.’ But this does not detract from Boyle’s ultimate contributions: Without any doubt, states Lacey, Boyle Somerville was an extremely important and internationally-influential Irish archaeologist for his time. He deserves to be remembered better and celebrated with pride in this country.

Boyle’s death, at the hands of an IRA hit squad, triggered a national outcry. There’s a good account of it here so I won’t repeat the information that is widely available. I will emphasise, though, that the murder horrified the local community and brought together Catholic and Protestant in mourning the death of one who was highly regarded and universally respected in Castletownshend. Edith determined to raise a monument to the memory of her beloved brother and the notion that took was to erect a bench outside the entrance to Drishane House for the use and enjoyment of the village. She asked Seamus Murphy to execute it, one of his first commissions. Next time you come by, linger at this spot and reflect on the life of Vice-Admiral Boyle Somerville. Accomplished, erudite, decorated and distinguished, he is remembered by those who knew him by the simple and deeply moving words Cómharsa Maith – Good Neighbour.

*The Skibbereen and District Historical Journal, Vol 7, 2011, also has a paper by Brian Lacey about Boyle Somerville, substantially similar to the one in the RSAI Journal. It is not available online.

 

A Change to The Fastnet Lighthouse

Way back in 2014 I wrote about An Carraig Aonair: The Fastnet Rock and I have decided to repost that today, but with some updated information and photographs, because of an upcoming change announced by Irish Lights. Depending on the story, this is either a relatively benign but majorly cost-saving switch to LED lighting, or a change we must be vigilant about to make sure the Fastnet is left “intact and unharmed”.

Irish Lights tells us that structural repairs. . .are necessary to ensure the metal lantern room is properly secured to the granite tower and modernisation of the light source to an energy efficient rotating LED lantern. When these works are completed the outward appearance of Fastnet will be unchanged. The work will improve our environmental impact by significantly reducing the need for diesel and generators and by removing all mercury from the station. The range of the light will reduce from 27 to 18 Nautical miles.

This photo was taken from our house, 12 miles (or 10.4 nautical miles) away

While this seems like a sensible and inevitable modernisation, with (according to this letter to the Irish Times) a very significant saving of €100,000 per year, those of us who live around Roaringwater Bay want more information: we want to be sure that the change does not negatively impact on the safety of our sailors and fisherfolk, and does not rob us of the iconic flash that is so much part of our lived experience in West Cork. There will be a meeting on Monday (March 5, 2018) at the Schull Sailing Club to discuss it all.

What follows now is the text of my post from June of 2014, lightly edited and with some newer photographs inserted.

Robert has written about our field trip to Cape Clear Island and I can now reveal that the journey also included a thrilling sail around An Charraig Aonair (Karrig Ane-er, The Lone Rock) better known as the Fastnet Rock; or to thousands of emigrants for whom it was the last sight of their home country, Ireland’s Teardrop.

We had been looking forward with great anticipation to visiting the rock close up. We can see it from our home, a far away mystical crag abounding with lore and legend. We have been awestruck by the waves crashing over the lighthouse in winter storms and wondered at the lives of the lightkeepers who once manned that treacherous outpost. We watched through our telescope as enormous yachts rounded the rock in the biennial Fastnet Race last summer, following the progress of the race on a special iPhone app. I have written elsewhere about the awful tragedy of the 1979 race, in which Gerard Butler and his fellow lightkeepers on the Fastnet played a crucial role in monitoring the participating yachts in the mountainous sea conditions. 

The signal station and the first lighthouse, on Cape Clear Island

The Fastnet was built to avoid such tragedies. Its first iteration was in 1818 as a lighthouse tower on a high point on nearby Cape Clear Island, beside the Napoleonic-era signal tower. However, the light was frequently obscured by fog and after the wreck of the Stephen Whitney in 1847 with 92 souls lost, it became clear that the best place for a lighthouse was on the Fastnet Rock. 

The great era of lighthouse building in Ireland got underway in the mid-nineteenth century. The engineering, design and construction expertise necessary to build lighthouses are impressive enough. Add to this the logistics of building on a tiny and inhospitable rock in a heaving sea on the edge of the Atlantic, and the sheer accomplishment of the objective is  staggering. The first attempt, started in 1849, was of steel and needed constant repair.

The first lighthouse on the rock – it was made of steel and didn’t last

It was decided to replace it with a structure of Cornish granite and the current lighthouse first cast its beam over the waters in 1904. Eamon Lankford in his book Fastnet Rock: An Charraig Aonair describes the building process and provides old photographs illustrating how the granite blocks were ‘floated’ and hoisted on to the islet, having been first assembled and tested in Cornwall. The website Digital Irish Lighthouse Experience by Sandra Michler has an animated sequence showing how this was accomplished. it took eight years.

We were fortunate to have Eamon Lankford as one of our guides on our trip to the Fastnet

One of the best accounts of the building of the lighthouse was in a 2008 article in The Economist called Light on a Lonely Rock. The piece gives fascinating details into the dedications and hardships of the builders and calls the lighthouse “a monument of man’s gift to mankind.” I don’t know who wrote it, but it’s a terrific essay.

According to the Irish Lights website, Fastnet is the tallest and widest rock lighthouse tower in Ireland and Great Britain and was a monumental achievement when completed in 1904. Each of the granite stones of the tower is dovetailed into those around it, bonding the structure into a virtual monolith. This webpage also has several excellent photographs of the lighthouse from the air. What all photographs of the rock also reveal is that the lighthouse is a thing of beauty. Tall, slender and elegant and boasting two balconies, it personifies form and function in the most admirable fashion possible. (Take a look, for example, at Dennis Horgan’s website – he’s an acclaimed aerial photographer and his photograph of the lighthouse is probably the most iconic shot of them all.) Today the Fastnet is fully automated but in The Lightkeeper Gerard Butler describes what it was like to live on the rock in fair weather, when he fished and swam from the steps, and foul, when the seas crashed and roared over the lighthouse as it quivered and shook all night. 

The lighthouse showing the full extent of the Cornish granite and the stub of the old steel tower

One of the stories we heard from Eamon concerned  a daring midnight raid on the lighthouse carried out by an IRA ‘Flying Column’ (experts in guerilla warfare) in 1921 during the Irish War of Independence. They were after the explosives used on the Fastnet to power the foghorn. In researching this story further, I found an article in the 1999 Mizen Journal (no longer in print) by Frank Lannin, based on the eyewitness statement of Sean O’Driscoll.*

The Rock, showing the landing platform, steps and store

Here is part of Lannin’s account:

The breeze had freshened and caused the usual swell around the Rock and there was a rise and fall of several feet. The anchor was let out and the boat moved slowly to the landing place. Positioned on the bow was John O’Regan, a rope tied around his waist, a revolver in his pocket and balancing himself with the rise and fall of the boat. He would have to select the right moment to jump on the Rock and catch the iron ring which was fixed to the Rock. He knew where the ring was fixed, but to grasp it in total darkness was a feat that few would attempt. His vast experience as a seaman was now to be put to the test. As a wave was rising he jumped. It was a tense moment. As the wave covered him he grasped the ring with both hands. (It was an occasion for handclapping, but not tonight.) In seconds he had made the boat fast and the rest of the raiding party were landing on the platform. The huge steel door of the lighthouse was not locked. John was first up the spiral stairway leading to the room where the Lightkeeper was on duty. He put up no resistance and as a precaution the wireless was dismantled. Seventeen boxes of gun cotton and three boxes of detonators and primers were loaded on to the “Maire Cait” by means of the lighthouse derrick. in all, the spoils weighed but one ton. The daring mission was accomplished.

The Third West Cork Flying Column

The fog signal, together with the light, was an important aid to navigation for ocean going vessels. It was only in 2011 that the Fastnet foghorn was permanently discontinued, as modern navigation equipment rendered it unnecessary. All around the world people are missing the haunting sound of foghorns now, a sound so many of us grew up with. But at least we can see the light from Carraig Aonair every night and count its ‘character’ – one two three four FLASH…one two three four FLASH – and know that it’s doing its part to keep our mariners safe on the seas that roll outside Roaringwater Bay.

*See pages 18 to 20 of Sean O’Driscoll’s statement for his dramatic story of the raid.