. . . A trip down the river Ilen, as it pursues its winding and picturesque course from Mount Owen (the hill of streams) to the harbour of Baltimore, a distance of about fifteen miles, is the most pleasant and interesting excursion during the summer months. Starting from Skibbereen, we can either steam or row, according to our pleasure, or rather as the tide suits, to Baltimore and Sherkin, a distance of eight or nine miles, and then out the harbour’s mouth, and cruise about the islands of Carbery . . .
Sketches in Carbery – Daniel Donovan 1876
The idea of boarding a ‘steamer’ in Skibbereen and voyaging down the Ilen River to its mouth is an attractive one – but not an option for us as we continue our exploration of this waterway in 2021, a year which has started with a frightening escalation of the Covid pandemic which is forcing us to stay ever closer to home. Fortunately, we are not too far from the broad stretches of the tidal Ilen as it nears its destination and meanders through peaceful, sylvan meadows passing by deserted quays, once active with commerce and vitality, now at rest apart from the occasional fisherman or boat mender.
We are fortunate to have a large archive of our photographs taken in West Cork over many years. I am revisiting (below) my pictures of the river at Creagh taken in 2014. This is on the south side of the Ilen, and certainly out of bounds for us at the moment because of distance. Situated at Creagh is a secluded burial ground, the resting place of Canon James Goodman who was Rector of Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen, during the nineteenth century. The three photographs below were taken there. My principal interest in him is the name he made as a collector of traditional music and a player of the uilleann pipes – that most singular of Irish instruments that we have also celebrated elsewhere. When the Canon died in 1896 he asked that his pipes were buried with him at Creagh – and they were. But, not long afterwards, they were dug up again. If you want to know what happened to the pipes and where they are now, read my earlier post about the Canon here.
We can travel to Skibbereen for essential supplies, and the road to that town runs close to the river. Just off the road, down a winding boreen, is another burial ground, Aghadown, beautifully situated beside the water – Finola has written about it here. Here are some views we took a few days ago during a prolonged spell of clear winter sunshine.
. . . The view down the river from near Creagh, on a fine day, is attractive. The Ilen, winding in a serpentine course towards Baltimore harbour, shining and sparkling in the sunlight like a silver thread, and dotted over with a multitude of rocky islets, whose recesses form a safe retreat and favourite feeding ground for flocks of sea fowl during the winter months. Looking backwards, we are chiefly struck by the almost complete absence of wood, and the patchwork of irregular fields, enclosed by earthen banks, and the prominences so much admired by tourists and strangers, most probably on account of the novelty and singularity of the scene . . .
SKETCHES IN CARBERY – DANIEL DONOVAN 1876
The Ilen is a ‘Blueway’ – designated as a recreational activity trail for use by activity enthusiasts – anyone, in fact, who wants to get out and experience some of the best scenery in Ireland on the water itself or, like us, on foot. This would be in normal times, of course. Undoubtedly there are better days ahead. We look forward to an untrammelled future so that we can continue this exploration of a waterway to its source in the mountains ‘. . . where rain clouds perpetually hover about . . .’ and to its outfall towards Carbery’s ‘Hundred islands’. When we can make those expeditions, we will bring you there through the pages of our Journal.
Here’s a bonus today: you can hear an aspect of our recent walk! Donovan mentioned in 1876 that the river was a favourite feeding ground for flocks of sea fowl during the winter months. We can vouch for that, having heard these sounds close to the Glebe burial ground. The loudest voices are – I think – from redshanks:
It’s the most visible and significant feature on the West Cork landscape, so of course there are lots of legends about Mount Gabriel. A surprising number of stories revolve around a tiny pool near the top of the mountain, labelled on the historic OS maps as Poulanenine. The most likely etymology for this is Poul an Oigheann – the Pool of the Cauldron (oigheann also means oven, but cauldron seems a more likely translation).
Reading these stories in Dúchas* and finding the pool on the maps, I knew that we had to see it for ourselves. Fortunately, Mount Gabriel (looming over Schull, above) is within our 5k limit and luckily necessitates no human interaction (as a people person, that’s a phrase I never thought I would write) so we set off yesterday to find it. Yes, your intrepid bloggers stop at nothing to bring you the best of West Cork arts and culture!
Having made a couple of wrong decisions as to the best way to get there, at one point we found ourselves edging backwards over a slippery cliff, clinging to bits of heather and wondering just how foolish we would look when the Search and Rescue Team had to be called out to save a couple of septuagenarians who claimed to be looking for a fairy tale location.
But we made it – and there it was, a tiny remnant of the Ice Age, the Cauldron Pool! It’s referred to as a lake in the stories and there are several versions of how it was made. Here’s an admirably succinct one:
There is a little lake on the top of Mount Gabriel called Poll an Oighin. There is a saying that Fionn Mac Cumhail took a handful of rock and threw it out into the Atlantic Ocean where it is now as the Fastnet Rock or Carraig Aonair – leaving the hole of Poll an Oighin. Another saying is that if a stick was thrown into Poll an Oighin it would come out in Schull harbour.
The fact that there is an underground route from the lake to Schull Harbour is born out by this story too:
But not all versions assign the origin of the lake to Finn McCool.
Long ago the devil was flying over Mount Gabriel and he was flying so low that he hit his wing against a rock. He got so cross that he took a bite out of the rock. When he had gone eight or nine miles from Mount Gabriel, he left the rock fall into the sea. The rock was so large that a part of it remained over the water and it is on that rock the lighthouse is built on now and it is known as the Fastnet Rock. There is a large lake where he took the bite and the water in that lake is of a black colour.
The black water
However, the most charming, and longest story belongs to an entry from Macroom, far away from Mount Gabriel. The school girl, Julia Creedon, got it from Dan O’Sullivan, also of Macroom, although undoubtedly Dan knew the story from his youth so must have been from the area around Schull. I am reproducing it in full, and readers will recognise many elements familiar to such legends everywhere. One of the most striking aspects of this story is its use of familiar names and places to fix the story in this exact locality.
Near the village of Schull, is Mount Gabriel whose peak rises 1,000 feet above sea level. The unspoiled charm of the magnificent view from its summit is unsurpassable.
The Meenvane road leads you out of the village and on to the gap road; which runs between two high cliffs on the east side of the mountain known as “The Gap of Mount Gabriel”, From here you have a view of nature’s splendour: a number of Carberys Hundred Isles scattered over the great expanse of the Atlantic which amply repays you for the stiff climb. It has been compared to a post card album, you study, as it were, one lovely post card, on turning a leaf you get an entirely different, yet, equally beautiful view to gaze upon, but here you simply turn your head.
Facing south you see on the Coosheen hill the ruins of the old white castle once the seat of the O’Mahoneys. Turning north the Hungry Hill can be seen in the distance. The beautiful country of the valley reflecting every mood of nature runs down to Dunbeacon Castle, once the home of Chieftain O’Sullivan, whose ruins now stands at the edge of Dunmanus Bay, beneath the shadow of Mount Gabriel. Sir H. De La Béche** says in his History of Cork “It was as striking of its kind as any he had seen in Switzerland.”
Following the road and keeping to the left, you find a patch on the north side of the mountain which leads you to the bottomless lake, situated almost on the top of the mountain. There are many beautiful traditions of this picturesque locality, still amongst the older peasants of the district, one of which is: –
“The Legend of the Bottomless Lake” is as follows: Chieftain O’ Sullivan, of Dunbeacon Castle, had one child, a daughter, Rosaleen. So beautiful and fair was she that the poets described her as “The Rose of the Valley”. She had a lover, one, Owen O’Mahoney, of the White Castle. When O’Sullivan heard of his daughter’s friendship with O’Mahoney he was very angry as Owen could never hope for more than a younger son’s share. Notwithstanding this, the young lovers were ideally happy.
What’s left of Dunbeacon Castle
One evening as Rosaleen returned home after a walk with her lover, she was brought into the presence of her father’s guest, Chieftain O’Driscoll of the Three Head Castle. He was known to Rosaleen, who thoroughly disliked him, as an elderly bachelor, who drank a lot of rich wines, boasted a lot of his castles, of the men he had killed, and the women who loved him. When Rosaleen heard he had come that day, to ask her in marriage, and that her father gave his consent, she was horrified. Outwardly calm, she explained to her father and O’Driscoll that she loved Owen O’Mahoney, and would marry no other. Her love for Owen was far dearer to her than her life. Her father listened not to her pleading; he settled the day for her wedding to O’Driscoll giving “The Rose of the Valley” just one week to get used to the idea and to forget Owen O’Mahoney.
During that week her father saw to it that she was kept a prisoner in his castle. But love finds a way. The beautiful Rosaleen got a letter sent to her lover telling him of her plight.
Three Castle Head
All the notable chieftains for miles round were invited to Dunbeacon Castle. There was great feasting and merry-making on the day preceding the date fixed for the wedding.
The night before the wedding when all were merry and gay Rosaleen received that for which she had being praying, a letter from Owen. Following his instructions she made her escape from the castle, and was met by her lover. Helping her on to his horse, he sprang up behind her, and faced for his father’s castle in Coosheen.
Fearing Rosaleen’s escape would be discovered, they left the road and took the path over the mountains. It was a bright moonlight night. Looking back they saw no trace of pursuit.
Rosaleen saw a little spring well, she dismounted and knelt and drank from the spring. Her face reflected in the water, was so beautiful that the “Good People” in the well, desired to get her for themselves. Rosaleen jumped to her feet when she saw the water, rising round her. She ran towards her lover the water ran after her until a small lake was formed.
Owen seeing her plight, lifted her on to his horse and springing behind her, once more he made his way down the other side of the mountain. The “Good People” seeing they were beaten in their attempt to capture the beautiful “Rose of the Valley” got very angry, and reversed the flow of the spring. Down, down, down went the bottom of the lake until its waters flowed into Schull Harbour.
Some hours after O’Driscoll went in pursuit of his bride and muddled with drink, drove his horse over the mountain. Taking the sheet of water for a flat rock in the moonlight, he drove straight into it and disappeared under the surface of the lake. His men following behind reigned up and waited for their chieftain to re-appear Seeing no trace of him, they rode back with all haste to acquaint O’Sullivan with news of the disaster that had overtaken O’Driscoll. Chieftain O’Sullivan, believing that his daughter had met with the same fate as O’Driscoll, was filled with remorse. He tore his hair in grief for his beautiful lost daughter.
White Castle (Ardintenant Castle) from the sea, Mount Gabriel behind
Great was his joy when he heard that she was safe and well married to Owen O’Mahoney and dwelling at the White Castle.
He rode immediately to Coosheen and asked Owen’s forgiveness. He promised him Dunbeacon Castle and all his estate if only he would bring her back “The Rose of the Valley”.
I can’t help wondering about Julia Creedon. Although she may have faithfully reproduced the essence of the story she heard from Dan O’Sullivan, her own abilities are very evident in this story, as is her immersion in reading other stories in this genre. Did she become a seanachaí (a story teller), or a teacher or a writer? She has two other stories in the Schools Collection as well, including a long one about the River Lee, just as precociously written in the same lovely cursive, with headings underlined in red ink. If she were still alive, she would be in her late 90s now.
The story of this bottomless pool has an even older history than the 1930s. In 1780 Philip Luckombe published his A Tour Through Irelandand tells of the same lake when describing a journey from Bantry. Luckombe was one of our earliest plagiarists – he took his accounts almost verbatim from even earlier books and there is no evidence that he was ever even in Ireland. From our point of view this means that the story predates 1780 so it has an impressive pedigree indeed.
Next time, more about some of the other legends that have accrued to Mount Gabriel.
It’s further than it looks
* Dúchas is the National Folklore Archive and within this is The Schools Collection: “For the duration of the project, [1937-39] more than 50,000 schoolchildren from 5,000 schools in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State were enlisted to collect folklore in their home districts. This included oral history, topographical information, folktales and legends, riddles and proverbs, games and pastimes, trades and crafts. The children recorded this material from their parents, grandparents, and neighbours.” The Collection is online and is searchable at https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes. I have done a little minor editing to the entries above for consistency in punctuation and spelling.
**This is a reference to Sir Henry De la Beche, founder of the Geological Survey of Great Britain and Ireland.
Last week my post explored a part of the Colla Loop on the Fastnet Trails. That walk passed by a site described on Archaeology Ireland as a possible early Christian settlement: . . . the ancient school of Sancta Maria de Scholia, ‘a place known in early times as a centre of learning’ . . . That information was ascribed to ‘Burke 1914’ but I can find no links to that source anywhere. If anyone can enlighten me, that would be great.
The location of this possible site is in the gorse covered area on the right hand side of the picture above. There is nothing to be seen there today, although such dense scrub could be hiding a lot. That record on the archaeological site is now described as ‘redundant’ – because there is no trace – but is maintained as it does indicate that there has been a tradition of the associations of the place historically. Certainly, if you were a group of wandering monks in medieval times looking for a new home it would have much to commend it – a south facing slope, sweeping views to the ocean below and defensible high ground behind. Not much shelter from the weather, though. The map below shows the possible site on the lower left, but note there are two further candidates, which we will discuss.
I found the historical reference to this possible site intriguing, especially in view of the suggestion that it could have been the original ‘school’ (centre of learning) that supposedly gave the settlement of Schull its name. If you want to delve further into the origins of the name ‘Schull’ – which the Ordnance Survey, interestingly, insisted should be spelled Skull right up to modern times: you can see it on the the Archaeology Ireland record extract above – I commend you to John D’Alton’s fascinating and comprehensive article here. John himself is a well-known long term resident of the village; I would love to have a discussion with John (and likely will when times permit) on some of his conclusions, but he certainly lays the foundations for questioning long-held assumptions. He does, however, posit that the name of the place has sounded the same for over a thousand years. For me, it is reasonable to conclude that ‘Schull’ is most likely to derive from the Irish word scoil – school – and that a ‘centre of learning’ did, indeed, exist in the area anciently. There are precedents enough for sites like this in West Cork. Our own Rossbrin Castle was the home of Finnin O’Mahony – Taoiseach of the clan – in the late fifteenth century and he was known to have established what has been described as ‘the greatest centre of learning in Europe’ on these now remote and deserted shores, while the Sheep’s Head peninsula boasts the remains of a great medieval ‘Bardic School’ close to Kilcrohane. My post of (yes!) eight years ago gives a brief outline. But let’s now turn to those other sites shown above.
Here’s St Mary’s Church, the ruin which sits above – and dominates – the large burial ground to the south of Schull today. Tradition has it that it was built in 1720, but there is a fair bit of evidence to suggest that this ecclesiastical site goes back much further than that. I am indebted to Mary Mackey for her article in Mizen Journal – Volume 8, 2000: A Short History of the Ruins of St Mary’s Church, Colla Road, Schull.
The parish church is first recorded in a decretal letter issued in 1199 from Pope Innocent III to the Bishop of Cork listing the parishes in the diocese. The entry reads “scol cum suis pertinentiis” – Schull with its appurtenances. It is this early spelling of ‘scol’ meaning school which goes some way to authenticating the ancient tradition . . . During the reformation (16th century) when all church and monastic benefices and land were confiscated, the detailed rent roll for the Diocese of Cork records Schull with nine ploughlands, and in 1581 in a list of parishes in the diocese, Schull church is called “Saint Maria de Scoll”. This seems to be the first written record of the name of the church and it adds weight to the theory of the ancient monastic school, and to the origin of ‘Scoil Mhuire’ . . .
Mary Mackey – MiZEN Journal Volume 8
The same article notes that in 1653 the church commissioners stated “Upon 9 plowlands of Schull are the walls of a church” and in May 1700 Bishop Dive Downes, visiting the western part of his diocese records: “The church walls are standing and good, made of stone and lime 84′ long and 24′ broad”. Mackey comments that this was a large parish church compared with others in the Mizen area.
The local population will be very familiar with this ruin, and the graveyard which it overlooks. The grave marker (above) is dedicated to the Reverend Robert Traill – Finola has included him in her Saints and Soupers series. Schull graveyard must have one of the finest prospects of any burial place in the west, with its views out towards Long Island Sound and Roaringwater Bay:
In 1936 we find Con O’Leary writing in A Wayfarer in Ireland (published by R M McBride): . . . Schull, named from Scoil Mhuire, the School of Mary, in the sixth century, is picturesquely situated , with Long Island thrown across the mouth of the bay . . . Well, that’s stretching us back a fair bit – but there’s nothing to confirm it. In the ruins of the church, however, there is one element which leads us to think that the architecture is quite ancient – this cut-stone ogival window in the northeast wall (possibly fifteenth century):
Now let’s turn to the third candidate in our search for Schull’s origins as a ‘great centre of learning’ – shown on the map towards the top of this post to the south of St Mary’s Church. Here is the Archaeology Ireland listing and the record note:
Description: In rough grazing, on a S-facing slope overlooking Long Island to the S and Skull Harbour to the E. Recent reclamation work exposed a level earthen platform-like area (c. 35m E-W; c. 17m N-S) faced externally on its curving S side by a roughly constructed drystone revetment (H 0.2m at W to 1.6m at E). According to local information, this is the location of Scoil Mhuire or Sancta Maria de Scala, a medieval church and school that gave its name to this townland and to Skull village . . .
The Archaeological Inventory of County Cork. Volume 5 (Dublin: Stationery Office, 2009)
The prospect of unearthing ancient history sent us out into the field on an idyllic January day, under an almost surreal clear blue sky. We don’t exactly know what we found, but the expedition was rewarding, if only for the joy of walking through a beautiful country and knowing that other generations had walked here before us.
Always we were in sight of water, and the islands of the Bay beyond. We left the metalled boreen and found a narrow green path lined with old walls.
The path led to a sheltered paddock. We could clearly see the ‘level earthen platform-like area’ and the curved retaining wall supporting it: also, in several areas, there were the vestiges of old walls and probable structures. We immediately sensed the zeitgeist of a place which had tales to tell. Could it really be an early Christian settlement? Did the old stone walls echo the chanting of monks from long ago? Could we look through their eyes and see the grove of trees and the spectacular azure cast of the sea receding to the horizon across all the islands as they had?
The Historic 6″ Ordnance Survey map is the earliest record we have of what existed on the site: it dates, at the latest, from around 1840. There are buildings clearly shown. Could they have been simple farm cottages and barns? Might those buildings perhaps have incorporated much earlier structures?
There you have it: a creation tale (myth, perhaps) for Schull. I will give the last word to a pupil from ‘Skull School’, recorded in the 1930s:
The O’Mahony’s had a stronghold in Castle Island, which is known as the Middle Island. It is situated about three miles from the beautiful village of Schull, which lies by the harbour of the same name. Situated amid picturesque and varied scenery, nestling at the foot of Gabriel’s rough defiles, and fronting the wild Atlantic, it is a charming spot. It was anciently called Scoll Muire (B.V. Mary’s School) and in mediaeval documents it is designated “Sancta Maria de Scholia.” This school is said to have been founded by the “Universitie of Rosse, St.Fachtna’s Carbery”. However this may be – I doubt it – the parish is mentioned as Scol in the Papal Letters of Pope Innocent III. (1199 A.D.). Canon O’Mahony says its site has been identified in south Schull. At all events, Ardmanagh (Monks Hill), on which part of Schull is built, attests the presence of cenobites in the district . . .
Brighid Ní Choithir – Skull School – Dúchas Schools Folkore Collection 1937
Please note that the ‘Sancta Maria Scala’ site is on private land, and permission to visit should be sought.
Some days, especially in the winter, just feel like black and white days. The sky is grey, the sea is silver, the rocks are black – colour drains from the landscape as atmosphere and mood creep in.
Now that we are allowed a bit more freedom of movement and association, we headed over to the Sheep’s Head yesterday for a walk with Amanda and Peter. We did one of our all time favourites, the Farranamanagh Loop Walk, which takes in Farranamanagh Lake and the O’Daly Bardic School.
We stopped on the way to look at Rossmore Castle, near Durrus. This is a fairly vestigial, probably fifteenth or sixteenth century tower house, probably built by the O’Mahonys but taken over by the McCarthy’s at some point. Not only is there not much left standing, but what is there is covered in ivy, so it’s hard to make out a lot of features. One thing that has survived up to a couple of stories, though, is the stairwell, with a few treads of the original spiral staircase still hanging on.
We started the walk at Dromnea car park (P on the map) and crossed the road to the short walk up to the Well of the Poets (430) (you can read more about the well here, and see what I am writing about in full colour) and on down the old green road. We walked along the road until the spot indicated by the arrow, then down to the shore.
The ‘castle’ marked on this map, by the way, is practically invisible – nothing remains except some rubble. This road leads you past a quirky little small holding that is locally famous for its eggs and jams – and for its alpacas!
Although we saw the alpacas yesterday it was the donkeys that caught my eye. Donkeys, although they are actually not native to Ireland, seem like such iconic Irish animals, beloved of postcard makers, with panniers of turf on either side.
Photographing in black and white like this makes everything seem at once nostalgic and old, as if I had been transported back a hundred years. If you don’t squint too hard at the houses you can imagine them as simple whitewashed cottages with thatched roofs. You can, can’t you?
From 410 you walk along the lake shore to a clapper bridge across the stream that drains the lake into the sea, and then uphill and back towards the Bardic School.
One of the lovely things about this particular walk is that you are looking across at the Mizen Peninsula all the time and on a day like this the impression is of a series of hills receding into ever more misty contours. The effect is ethereal and mysterious – see my top two photos at the start of the post.
The lake itself is home to the sons of the King of Spain in the form of swans. You can read that story in Robert’s post from way back in 2012, Of Kings and Poets. That post will also serve as an introduction to the Bardic School and its most famous poet, Aenghus O’Daly, The Red Poet. He may have made his home in the ruined castle marked on the map – it was an O’Daly castle, their only one in this area, and an indication of the power and prestige that accrued to bards.
The ruins that are nowadays pointed out as the remains of the Bardic School may indeed have been part of it and it was certainly right in this area. The views from them are so magnificent that the poor apprentice poets had to be locked into darkened rooms so they could concentrate on composing their stanzas.
As we write, the vaccination program for Ireland is being put together by an expert panel. We feel hopeful that future Sheeps Head walks can resume their gentle, charming rhythm without the underlying low-level fear that accompanies us at the moment. We are moving from darkness to light.
Here is the third instalment of our wanderings along the Ilen – one of West Cork’s most significant rivers. Once a commercial highway connecting the merchants of Skibbereen with the coastal ports and scattered islands, it now plies its way from the summit of Mullagmesha Mountain taking a lazy and often secret course through lush valleys and pastures, showing itself to us only at a few crossing points until, boosted by many tributaries, it becomes a wide tidal waterway heading for Baltimore and the wild Atlantic.
Our explorations so far have taken us from Newcourt upstream to Ballyhilty Bridge. We have yet to ‘top and tail’ the river: that will be done, but only when restrictions and conditions permit. I doubt that we will be searching for the source in the mountains until next spring at the earliest, as those high paths are closed for safety at present. But, back in November, we were able to continue north from Hollybrook Demense and Maulbrack townland.
Images from top include the header showing the river at Caheragh with the distant mountains to the north; an anglers’ seat at Ballyhilty; and the broad river just upstream of Ballyhilty Bridge. The river is still wide as we follow it, but becomes shallower and is interrupted by rapids mixing with contemplative, deep pools (above).
Large parts of the river here are lost in the hinterland. We try to follow every small trackway that might take us close to it – and which certainly take us to the back of beyond – and catch the occasional glimpse such as this one (above), which is probably an ancient ford.
We delight in travelling the tiniest of boreens, which invariably open up new vistas for us, and make us feel so happy to be living in such a beautiful part of our world! This little used lane (above) takes us to the next crossing point – romantically named, as far as I can ascertain, Graveyard Bridge.
Two extracts from the OS maps of c1840 (upper) and c1897 (lower) show the site on the border of Ballaghdown South and Caheragh townlands, where an ancient road crosses the Ilen River. Both maps show a ford and stepping stones at this point. Today we found a bridge there dating (we believe) from the early twentieth century. We also found the remains of the old ford: large cobbles providing a trackway down the the waters’ edge: Finola is following the original line of the lane (below).
This river crossing was of significance in Medieval times. ‘Blessed Mary de Caheragh’ was a monastic site, said to be situated on the hilltop commanding the view above the graveyard. It was no doubt founded here because of the proximity of the watercourse.
1317 December 28, Geoffrey Fitz John de Cogan is presented by the King (by mandate to the Bishop of Cork), to the church of the Blessed Mary de Catheragh, in the King’s gift, by reason of his wardship of the lands and heir of John de Cogan
Tuckey’s Cork Remembrancer, from Durrus History
There are certainly earthworks, embankments and (reputedly) a souterrain on the high ground which overlooks the river, the ford site and the adjacent burial ground connected to Caheragh village. The Historic Environment Viewer suggest that this site (shown on both maps above) is a ringfort and makes no mention of an ecclesiastical settlement. I braved fierce cows and barbed wire to make the steep climb: it was well worth the effort (and the risk) for the views across the old fort ramparts which opened up to the distant mountains. There is no sign, today, of anything remotely monastic up there on the hill. There is another ‘ringfort’ a short distance to the south – enigmatically named ‘Bishopland’. Nowhere can I find any records or accounts of the fort or the small settlement to the south of it named Bishops Village: this confirms that there is still so much early history to be unravelled in the Irish landscape.
Caheragh Graveyard is located beside the Ilen here and it is also well worth making the time to explore. The village and present day church at Caheragh (which has some fine stained glass) are some way off to the west. You can see the spire on the skyline in this view from the graveyard itself (below).
The extensive Caheragh graveyard (above) – a view from the ringfort (and possible medieval site) looking across the river. The ford, roadway and later bridge are on the far left of the picture. Burial grounds are always a magnet for us, and we spent significant time exploring. The Skibbereen Heritage Centre has done sterling work researching this and many other West Cork graveyards: you will find information online here, and more in the Centre itself, which merits many visits. One grave which was important for me is that of the parents of Captain Francis O’Neill, the Chicago Police Chief who came from West Cork and collected thousands of Irish traditional dance tunes and songs which he gathered from the many Irish settlers in Chicago and who had kept the tradition alive far away from their birthplaces. I wrote about Chief O’Neill a few years ago. The ‘Celtic Cross’ memorial below was commissioned by Francis during a visit home in 1906.
Erected By Captain Francis O’Neill
Chicago, USA To the Memory of his Parents
John O’Neill of Tralibane
Died Nov 1867 Aged 66 Years
And Catherine O’Mahoney
Died 1900 Aged 88 Years
Requiescant in Pace
inscription in Caheragh Graveyard, West Cork
This aerial view above clearly shows the bridge that has replaced the old ford and stepping stones at this site. You can also see the ‘fort’ on the hilltop above it. The bridge should not be dismissed because it is relatively modern: it’s an example of practical civil engineering in Ireland, possibly in the early years of the Free State, and is functional rather than elegant, serving the purpose of helping to open up some of the remoter regions of the west of Ireland.
Last week our first exploration of Sweet Ilen – our West Cork river – began in Skibbereen town from whence we travelled north, as far as Ballyhilty Bridge. Today, we return to the town and unearth some further history on the way downstream.
On the aerial view of the Ilen flowing south-west from Skibbereen (above) I have marked some significant locations. Abbey or ‘New’ Bridge is the first crossing point and the limit of navigation for large craft. The Old Quay shown to the north of Deelish House was the offloading point for ships arriving from the south; barges or lighters carried the goods further into the town. The narrow gauge Schull & Skibbereen Tramway (as it was originally named) left Skibbereen Station and followed the Ilen as far as Newcourt Halt, alongside the main road.
The Ilen Valley Railway, which brought the regular gauge railway into Skibbereen from Bandon and Cork, shared its station at Skibbereen from 1886 with the 3ft gauge line going to Schull. This picture (above) of Skibb Station in 1960 (courtesy Roger Joanes) shows the main line on the right and the remains of the narrow gauge terminus on the left.
The header picture shows Abbey or ‘New’ Bridge as it is today. The upper picture above, with an enlarged section of it underneath is fascinating for our study: it was taken in around 1893 by Robert French for the Lawrence Collection and is reproduced here with the permission of the National Library of Ireland. It shows the bridge – which was built in 1822 – with the road to Skibbereen running to the left, as it does today. But it also shows the tracks of the tramway on the left hand side of the road. Also in the main picture is a white building below the Abbeystrewery Graveyard. That marks the point at which the entrance to the graveyard adjoins the road, and is in fact a level-crossing keeper’s cottage, now gone.
Marked on this extract from the OS 25″ survey (late nineteenth century) is New Bridge on the right, the Graveyard with its level-crossing and the quay above Deelish House
The first halt on the tramway travelling from Skibbereen was at Newcourt. Here is a ‘sylvan scene’ of a train at that halt in 1939 (courtesy of W A Camwell, taken from the invaluable volume The Schull & Skibbereen Railway by James I C Boyd, published in 1999 following over 40 years of research):
If that doesn’t bring a nostalgic tear to your eye – for those apparently idyllic days of leisurely rural life in Ireland – I don’t know what will. But the little railway had its ups and downs (before vanishing altogether in 1947). Its association with the Ilen River was there at the beginning: the very first locomotive was named ‘Ilen’ and here it is (below), having just pulled a passenger train into Schull Station, probably in the 1880s (photo from the collection of Mrs E McCarthy):
Why is it so strangely shaped? Because the line was conceived as a tramway or ‘light railway’ to comply with the conditions of The Tramways of Ireland Act 1862, which allowed tramways to be built along public roads, thereby reducing costs. Because of this, locomotives were treated in the same way as city trams – where very low slung bodywork supposedly prevented serious injury if they struck pedestrians or animals sharing the roads – something that could be echoed on West Cork’s boreens where donkeys and cows were quite likely to be encountered.
. . . To comply with regulations sheet-steel skirting was taken down to a level approximately 3 inches above the rails; the rolling and pitching of the engine probably produced shrieks of protest as it scraped the rails . . . An impressively tall chimney was surmounted by a ‘chip-pan’ spark-arrester . . .
James I C Boyd 1999
Tram Engine Ilen at Skibbereen in 1906 – photo by H Fayle
It’s a shame, but this unique piece of machinery failed because it lacked sufficient sustained power to climb the relatively steep inclines on the tramway, and its later replacements were more conventional engines (such as the one pictured at Newcourt) fitted with cow-catchers.
OS 25″ survey extract, late nineteenth century. It shows the tramway diverging from the road just north of the entrance gate to Newcourt: there was evidently an ornamental avenue along that stretch of road leading to the gate, with arches over. Also on this map is located Newcourt Post Office (by the tramway halt), Mohanagh Dispensary and various landscape features belonging to the demesne
The Ilen River is broad and magnificent as it passes by Newcourt. You do see large boats on that stretch sometimes, but also many skiffs and small craft from the Skibbereen Rowing Club. The grand house – New Court – is gone now, but the ‘designed landscape’ can be traced through the survival of ruined towers, gazebos and water-gates.
Ilen River frontage on the Newcourt Demense: from upper – the base of an ornamental tower fronts the constructed river wall; Mohanagh Dispensary ruin and another tower; prospect towards Skibbereen from the estate; substantial pillars which were part of a water gate on the south of the site – in the distance is the boatyard at Oldcourt
Finola has written previously about Newcourt, and there tells the story of another ‘water-gate’ which will be seen today by anyone travelling towards Skibbereen from the main road. We now return to Skibbereen ourselves to finish off this second episode of the series. This (below) was the bridge which took the road into the town over the Ilen prior to the present one: built in 1877, it was condemned as unsafe for heavy loads in 1953, but it took another ten years to replace it.
Above is Kennedy Bridge, Skibbereen, that was opened with due ceremony on Monday 15 June 1964 and named in honour of American President John F Kennedy. It has a centre span of 22 metres and two side spans each of 8 metres. First to cross the bridge on that day was Richard Burchill of Tragumna on a horse and cart! Information about these events – and much more – can be seen in the excellent displays in the Skibbereen Heritage Centre: formerly the town’s gasworks buildings and sited appropriately enough alongside the Ilen River!
Look out next time for more adventures exploring the further northern reaches of the Ilen!
Here is the first episode in this series: Sweet Ilen
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