Brian’s Sketchbook: The Signal Towers

Brow Head Buildings

We have received a unique and treasured gift – a sketchbook from the 1980s of prehistoric and historic sites around West Cork. It’s the work of our good friend, and national treasure, Brian Lalor, artist, writer and printmaker. For an overview of his style, check out the retrospective of his work at Graphic Studio Dublin. Or browse the long list of his books, including the magnificent Encyclopaedia of Ireland, which he edited.

Marconi Station, Brow Head

Brow Head: (above and below) on the right is the Napoleonic-era Signal Tower; the other buildings date mainly from the time of the Marconi Telegraph Station, taken from a different angle than the sketch above

Brian has studied both architecture and archaeology and to that adds the keen observant eye of the artist. As a result these sketches, although, as he explained, often hastily done during a brief visit to a site, are accurate, detailed and charming in equal measure. They were made on field trips with the Mizen Archaeological & Historical Society in the 1980s. This was an active society, publishing a well-regarded journal from 1993 to 2004 and leading regular field trips for members.

Brow Head ruined building

The sketches, just over 50 of them, were made for the most part between 1980 and 1987 so besides their intrinsic artistic value, they also constitute an important record of the state of the site 30 years ago, allowing us a comparison with its current condition. My intention is to visit (or re-visit) a lot of the sites, with his sketches in hand and show our readers both how beautifully Brian captured the structures or artefacts at the time and whether there are any changes visible from then to now. I decided to start with the Signal Towers on Cape Clear and Brow Head, and a third tower on Rock Island that may or may not be contemporaneous.

Wolfe Tone front

Theobald Wolfe Tone – detail of the statue in Bantry town square

In 1796 the French navy, partly at the invitation of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, staged an unsuccessful invasion of Ireland, sailing into Bantry Bay. Several raids followed in 1798. Although all were quickly quashed, a panic about the possibility of a French invasion spread throughout Britain and Ireland. A series of Napoleonic-era fortifications and viewing towers were constructed around the coast in locations with panoramic views, and within sight of each other, to spot foreign shipping activity and raise the alarm. On the east coast, these mainly took the form of Martello Towers and were stocked with heavy armaments, but here in the south west defensible Signal Towers were built not to house artillery but as advanced-warning stations. Here and there they were complemented by batteries and other fortifications – but that’s a story for another day.

Cape Clear Signal Tower

The Cape Clear Signal Tower

Signal towers were built around the coast to the same plan – tall square towers with first-floor entrances and machicolations. From a distance, they look like the medieval tower houses I have posted about on several occasions but up close they are shorter and the windows are bigger. Internal staircases and partitions were made of wood, not stone and have generally not survived, so the signal stations are essentially shells. in both the Cape Clear and Brow Head example, the exterior slate cladding has survived remarkably well.

Brow Head Detail - signal tower

Brow Head Signal Tower – detail from Brian’s sketch

In his excellent article for the Irish Times, Nick Hogan describes the towers, how they were staffed, the accommodation provided and how the signalling was done:

The signalling system, referred to as an optical telegraph, required that each signal station be visible to its counterparts on either side. Sending a message involved raising and lowering a large rectangular flag, a smaller blue pendant and four black balls in various combinations along a system centred on a tall wooden mast. The stations also communicated with ships.

Cape Clear Towers

Signal Tower and Original Fastnet lighthouse, Cape ClearTop: Brian’s sketch of the Signal Tower and Lighthouse on Cape Clear Island, done in 1982; Below: how it looked in June, 2016, 34 years later

While many signal stations are lonely and isolated buildings glimpsed on distant headlands, abandoned since the mid-1800s, both the Brow Head and Cape Clear buildings had further phases of use. In Cape Clear a lighthouse was built in 1818 – a forerunner of the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse. It was so often shrouded in fog that it was abandoned in the 1840s. The buildings attached to the signal tower, built of brick and concrete, probably date to this period of occupation. The signal tower is built of stone, using techniques not far removed from medieval construction methods. The lighthouse provides a wonderful contrast, being built of cut granite blocks expertly measured, shaped and fitted. 

Cape Clear Deatil - Lighthouse

Cape Clear Lighthouse, detail from sketch

In June of 2016, when we visited, it looked exactly as it had to Brian and the Mizen field group – an indication, perhaps that somebody is looking after the site and that the few visitors who come (it’s quite a hike to get there) respect the heritage. [Edit: Since I wrote this, Brian has pointed out that in the Cape Clear Signal Tower there is a porch under the machicolation in his drawing that has since disappeared. The outlines of the porch can be clearly seen in the photographs of the signal tower.]

Cape Clear Lighthouse

Brow Head is easier to access, and as a result there is more graffiti in evidence, but the changes to the site since Brian’s sketch are more the result of time and climate than any damage by humans. This is a complex site with multiple periods of occupation. The signal tower is there, of course, looking exactly as it did in the 1980s. Beside it is a network of buildings dating from the the early years of the 20th century: this is what remains of the Marconi Telegraph Station. Read all about this in Robert’s piece on Marconi, In Search of Ghosts. Besides the Marconi Station a Second World War Look Out Post was occupied here in the 1940s – little remains of this small concrete building except the characteristic half-round shape and a section of wall.

Brow Head octagonal?

Finally, on Brow Head there is a mysterious building that Brian labels ’14 – ’18 Gun Emplacement. This building no longer exists, and the ruinous remains that litter the ground seem robust enough to fit this inscription. Or do they? So – a mystery, and obviously  more research needed on our part. If any of our readers can help – let us hear from you!

Brow Head Detail - gun emplacement

The last tower is on Rock Island. It is clearly visible from the Brow Head Signal Tower ( a requirement for the placement of signal towers) but, strangely, it is one of two very similar towers on Rock Island, and while they are similar to each other, they are quite different from the classic signal tower design. However, both the National Monuments site  and the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage listings name them as Napoleonic-era Signal Towers, and perhaps that is indeed what they are.

Rock Island Tower

Brian’s sketch of the Rock Island Signal Tower

However, in discussion with Brian, he pointed out that most of the buildings on Rock Island were developed as part of a major Coast Guard installation around the same time as the Marconi Station, and we wonder if there might be a connection – that is, that these are Coast Guard-related Watch Towers, rather than Napoleonic-era Signal Towers. Once again – more research needed! [Edit: See comment from Navtell in comment section, below.]

Rock Island Signal Station

Rock Island Second TowerThe two towers on Rock Island: similar to each other but quite different from the classic Signal Tower on nearby Brow Head

This is only my first foray into Brian’s Sketchbook. Look out for more posts in the future and in the meantime, join with me in being grateful that a precious resource like this survived numerous moves and that we have the opportunity to learn from it.

Cape Clear Detail - Signal Tower

The Cape Clear Signal Tower

Landscaping – with Trish Punch

Brow Head

Brow Head silhouetted against the setting sun*

In our quest to bring you the best West Cork has to offer, we pepper our posts and our Facebook Page with photographs. After a great day-long course with Celia Bartlett (last year, highly recommended!) I managed to wean myself from the auto mode on my camera and have been taking pictures using the manual setting for more than a year now.

Rock Island

Rock Island and Crookhaven Inlet

And I’m hitting the wall again – knowing my camera is able to deliver so much more and that there’s a lot I need to learn about composition. So I signed up for a one-on-one workshop with Trish Punch and boy, am I glad I did!

Trish 4

This is Trish – she’s a professional landscape photographer who supplies images to Lonely Planet (Lonely Planet!) among other prestigious publishers and travel sites. She specialises in the Wild Atlantic Way and is currently pursuing a project to capture the islands along the Way. Take a look at her website and be prepared to do some serious drooling.

Crescent sky

We started at dawn and watched the light appear over Ballydehob Bay

But Trish is also an inspiring, encouraging, and organised teacher – and a lot of fun to be with. We had a great day together, starting at dawn and ending when the sun set. Throughout the day she encouraged me constantly to slow down, think about my shots, use the principles of good composition, really examine where the eye was being led in the frame and check the light. 

Schull Pier

This was taken on Schull Pier – the mooring bollard takes on a sculptural quality in the right lighting

I’ve been making all the classic mistakes, chief of which is to plonk the main subject right in the middle of the frame. I have also struggled with sharp focus, especially in low light, and Trish insisted on me using my tripod (something I have been reluctant to do – I don’t want to lug it around) and showed me how to use my timer to take the shot, since my camera won’t accommodate a cable or remote shutter release.

Barleycove Wetlands

Watching where the light comes from – these marsh grasses at Barley Cove glow golden in the low evening light

We were fortunate to have a really great day in December, with a long Golden Hour at each end. I’ve been practising what she taught me since then and I feel a little more confident each day. I hope you, our dear readers, will see a difference too, over time.

River Lee near Ballingeary 2

The River Lee near Inchigeelagh

We took a trip to Macroom the other day and I used the opportunity to practise what I learned with Trish. Mostly I just tried to slow down and think more about the composition of the shot. It was another amazing day with clear blue skies – but this time very cold with lots of frost where the sun hadn’t managed to penetrate.

Sunshine and Frost, West Cork

Sunshine and shadow on a frosty day in West Cork

If you’ve been thinking you’d like to improve your photography skills, give Trish a call or drop her an email. You can take one of her planned workshops or she can customise a day, or a weekend, for you no matter what level you’re at.

Coral House

House in the Shehy Mountains

Don’t be intimidated if you’re operating on the automatic settings or if you don’t know the difference between shooting in RAW or JPEG (I didn’t) – you’ll come away knowing a lot more about how to move forward in your skills. And you’ll have time in the open with lots of laughter and surrounded by incredible landscape – now what could be better than that?

Pass of Keimaneigh

Heading up to the Pass of Keimaneigh

*I took the first five photographs above on the day of the workshop (Dec 16) and the next five in the last two weeks.

Atlantic Winter

Dingle Beach

When St Brendan of Clonfert set out to discover America in 512 he and his fellow monks had to face the enormity of the Atlantic Ocean in tiny boats built out of wood and oxhides, sealed with animal fat. Up here in Nead an Iolair our view out to the islands of Roaringwater Bay and beyond is dominated by that same ocean and – sometimes – we feel just as small. This year the winter gales have started early, and spates of fierce westerlies have been throwing the Atlantic straight at our windows. The tiles rattle alarmingly while we are tucked up in bed at night. At these times I think of the Saint and what he had to face. But, like Brendan, we always survive the storms, and often wake up in the morning to a calm, clear day – except that you can hear the constant ‘roaring’ of the open sea out over the bay.

celebrating massOn their way to the New World – Saint Brendan and his companions take advantage of a passing Atlantic denizen to celebrate Mass…

The Atlantic has shaped Ireland. The sea is omnipresent: poets have written about it, storytellers have woven tales around it, and composers have tried to capture its spirit in music. Here’s a small section from the impressive ‘Brendan Voyage’ written by Shaun Davey for orchestra and Uillinn pipes – it’s the haunting second movement, played by Liam O’Flynn with the Irish National Youth Orchestra, at a performance in Cork City Hall. It makes me think of the wonderful sunrise on that calm day after the storm…

Brendan Voyage

Long Island Beacon

Brow Head

Mizen Head

Our own Atlantic: telescopic view of a storm battering Long Island, taken from our garden at Nead an Iolair (top), Brow Head, near Crookhaven (centre), and the impressive land and seascape at Mizen Head – Ireland’s most south-westerly point (lower picture). At the head of this page you can see the huge rollers that come into Dingle Bay, Co Kerry

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L’Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, “A haven,”
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.

Glanmore Sonnets VII, taken from Field Work by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber and Faber Ltd

Seamus Heaney was deeply affected by the seascape of his native Ireland. Anyone who works on or beside the sea is aware of the resonant names from the Shipping Forecasts, and the poet has used those names here to introduce his word-picture of the elemental Atlantic.

Near Malin Head 2

On the Beara

Donegal Beach

Atlantic contrasts from Mizen to Malin: near Malin Head – Ireland’s most northerly point (top), off the Beara (centre) and a beach in Donegal (lower)

A later traveller over the Atlantic waters was Chistopher Columbus in the 15th century. On the way he looked out for St Brendan’s Isle, a spectral island situated in the North Atlantic somewhere off the coast of Africa. It appeared on numerous maps in Columbus’ time, often referred to as La isla de SamborombónThe first mention of the island was in the ninth-century Latin text Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot), from whence it became firmly implanted into Irish mythology. St Brendan took a little party of monks to the island to say Mass: when they returned after a few days to the rest of the flotilla, they were told that they had been away for a year! The phantom island was seen on and off by mariners for years until in 1723 a priest performed the rite of exorcism towards it during one of its apparitions behind low cloud… You can see St Brendan’s Isle for yourselves, above the wonderful giant fish in the second picture down.

Dingle Peninsula

Coast Road

Dingle peninsula (top), and Coast Road in Donegal (lower)

I was pleased to find this Irish Times video made by Peter Cox when he was fundraising for his book Atlantic Light: spectacular photographs of the coastline on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. The excellent aerial views in this film are all taken by a drone… Look out for places you will have seen in our blogs!

atlantic video

We are privileged that the Atlantic Ocean is the abiding but ever-changing feature in our daily lives. It must affect us in unknown ways: I do know that, wherever I go in this world, I will – like Saint Brendan – always be drawn back here to our wonderful safe haven…

St-Brendan-Coin1

 

Irish Roads

Heading towards the light

Driving the Gap of Dunloe in Kerry – it can only be done in winter.

To give you a flavour of what it’s like to drive in Ireland, I’ve put together a few of my favourite photographs of the roads we’ve travelled. Sometimes I wonder if we will get to the point where we take for granted the spectacular scenery which is such an everyday occurrence for us, but then we find ourselves pulling over once again to wonder at the wild landscape, the grandeur of the mountains, the way the sea cuts deeply into the sandstone cliffs, the old castles and ruins that dot the fields – and we know that we will never tire of Irish roads.

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I’ve chosen only photographs that have roads in them, so you can get the feel of travelling in Ireland. And yes, it does rain in Ireland and the clouds come down and cover everything and then driving isn’t as much fun. Find a pub to hole up in, wait a while, and try a prayer to St Medard

Dingle

Of course some  of you, dear readers, do this every day, like we do, so tell us your own favourite Irish roads – or share a photograph on our Roaringwater Journal Facebook page if you like.

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Obstacles are common – so don’t drive too fast along the rural roads as you never know what might be around the bend.

Tractor pace

And there’s no point in being in a big hurry…
Only room for one at a timeThere’s only room for one at a time

We do have freeways/motorways in Ireland, and tolled highways, and congested city streets with honking traffic. Our advice is to get off the highways and out of the cities as soon as possible. Get on this road, for example, that runs through the Black Valley in Kerry, and see where it takes you.

Black Valley, Kerry

Happy driving in Ireland!

By the lighthouse

Mizen Mission

Tooreen Lake

Tooreen Lake

A joint post by Robert and Finola…

Finola

According to the forecast today could be the last fine day of 2014, so we decided to make the most of it and set off on a mission. And what a day it was! Cold, yes, but with that brilliant light that only happens on crisp winter days.

Looking across Roaringwater Bay

Looking across Roaringwater Bay

Our mission? it was to find a piece of prehistoric rock art I had last visited over 40 years ago in the townland of Castlemehigan, near the end of the Mizen Peninsula. But once in the vicinity of Castlemehigan we couldn’t resist continuing to the end of the tiny road, which climbed up the rocky hills on the northern side of Crook Haven. Parking the car, we climbed to the highest point we could find. We’re used, by now, to the jaw-dropping views around here, but even by Mizen standards, this was something special. 

Crookhaven Village

Crookhaven Village

South of us, across the Haven was the village of Crookhaven nestled in its protective harbour. Looking north we could see across the Sheep’s Head to where the unmistakeable outline of Hungry Hill loomed on the Beara Peninsula. To the west was the White Strand and Brow Head, crowned by the historic Marconi telegraph station and to the east was the whole of Roaringwater Bay: Cape Clear Island, Sherkin, Baltimore, and the ring of hills that run down to the water.

Back in the vicinity of the rock we knocked on the door of a farmhouse to ask directions and permission. Often when we do this we are met with a blank look – not every ancient monument location has survived in the folk memory of the local residents. But this time we hit it lucky, with Florence O’Driscoll – ah yes, he knew it – the mass rock is what we were looking for. I showed him a picture of the rock and he confirmed that was the one, it was on his land and he would take us there.

Castlemehigan Rock

Castlemehigan Rock

My write-up and drawing of the time brought back some memories of an unusual rock with very large depressions, almost more basins than cupmarks. I also had a very clear recollection of being taken to the site by Bernard O’Regan, a local (and well-remembered) amateur archaeologist who was very helpful to me at the time. Because the rock was very overgrown, he had arranged to have it cleaned for me and when we arrived there were two men on top of the rock hacking away the gorse and heather. Nowadays, rock art specialists abide by an ethic of zero surface contact – no clearing or scrubbing allowed!

Castlemehigan rock surface

Castlemehigan rock surface

Although this rock lacks any of the circles, grooves and lines that add interest and appeal to many panels of rock art, it is special in other ways. Several of the cupmarks are unusually large, and one is basin-shaped (that is, with straight sides and a flat bottom).

Oriented to Mount Gabriel to the east

Mount Gabriel clearly visible

Some cupmarks appear to run in rows and the rows run in specific directions – one line of cupmarks run directly east/west pointing at the lake that lies about 100 meters away at the bottom of the field. Another line pointed to Mount Gabriel, about 15 kms away on the distant horizon. The two large basin-like depressions are directly north/south of each other.

row of cupmarks

Row of cupmarks

What could be a standing stone is located a few metres away.

Standing stone?

Standing stone?

In comparing my original drawing, done 42 years ago, there wasn’t much I would change. Some cupmarks appear to have pecked areas between them which conjoin them in a dumb-bell motif. My original decision was that there were two dumb-bells, but perhaps now I would be tempted to say there were three or even four. However, this just illustrates the subjective nature of the recording process. Especially where lichen obscures the surface, decisions like this come down to professional judgement and experience: drawings can differ from one recorder to another, or even from one visit to another when lighting conditions show up more or less of the carving detail.

Original drawing, updated by Robert

Original drawing, updated by Robert

Robert

This earthfast boulder is a beautiful object – not least because of its setting. I love these Mizen landscapes – they have a very particular character. Large areas of rock outcrop are interspersed with the tiniest fields, tracks and bog. Here there are lakes close by – once natural features, they have been turned into reservoirs to serve local communities. The marked rock overlooks one of these – this one supplying nearby Goleen.

Mount Gabriel clearly visible from the Derreennaclogh stones

Mount Gabriel clearly visible from the Derreennaclogh rock

This example reminds me in some ways of the Derreennaclogh rock – it’s of similar size and shape. Also, at Derreennaclogh Mount Gabriel is prominent on the western horizon, and we’ve been told that the setting sun towards the short end of the year appears to ‘roll’ down the slope of the hill at times. At Castlemehigan the rock also looks out to Mount Gabriel – this time to the east. This is a relatively isolated piece of rock art: the nearest recorded example is at Cooradarrigan, on the far side of Schull. It’s tempting to think that the flat, table-like surfaces of both Derreennaclogh and Castlemehigan were considered significant to those ancient people – who made them notable by marking them – because of their settings which relate to unmistakable landscape features. Otherwise, one might question why large areas of flat rock surface in the immediate vicinities – ideal for carving – have apparently been left untouched.

Florence and Finola

Florence and Finola

Florence O’Driscoll, our guide on this expedition, proved to be a fund of information. He had farmed the land which had been his father’s before him. Finola must have met his father when she explored the rocks over forty years ago. Florence carried the stories of the rock from his father’s generation, and probably from generations before that. He told us that the rock had been used as a mass rock in penal times – and that the hill above it was known as Cnocan an Aifreann (the hill of the mass): there is what certainly appears to be a cross carved into the rock surface, close to the large basin (Finola did not record this in her original drawing – she will add it when we update the records). Florence told of the time that the ‘Tans’ (the Black-and-Tans) caught red-handed the Priest celebrating the mass: the Priest threw the crucifix into the lake below the rock (the lake was then smaller than it is now). Ever since then, says Florence, the lake has never run dry – and never will.

Look for the possible cross carving on the right

Look for the possible cross carving on the right

It’s interesting that stories carried through local tradition pay no heed to time or history. They don’t need to: the ‘story’ is a part of the rock, as much as the carvings are. Florence told the tales as if they had happened yesterday. I hope they will continue to be told as long as the rock continues to display its enigmas.

Mass in penal times (Maggie Land Blanck Collection)

Mass in penal times (Maggie Land Blanck Collection)

Mizen Magic 3: Brow Head

On Brow Head, looking back up the Mizen Peninsula

On Brow Head, looking back up the Mizen Peninsula

Contrary to popular belief, Mizen Head is not the most southerly point on the Irish mainland – that distinction actually belongs to Brow Head, just to the east. Brow Head doesn’t have the same profile as Mizen Head: many people have never heard of it. But it’s magnificent, steeped in history, wonderfully scenic and best of all, totally walkable.

Possible prehistoric field boundary, visible at low tide

Possible prehistoric standing stone and field boundary, visible at low tide

You arrive at Brow Head by driving west from Schull out towards Crookhaven. If the water is low in the Haven you may spy the remains of ancient field boundaries, covered at high tide.

Galley Cove

Galley Cove

The starting point is Galley Cove – a smaller and quieter beach than the popular Barley Cove a little further west, but featuring the same white sand and inviting Caribbean-blue water. You can leave the car here and proceed on foot uphill if you’re feeling in the need of an aerobic workout. Or you can drive up the narrow road, but be warned: if you meet a car coming down you may have to reverse a considerable distance. There is parking for three or four cars at the top of the hill.

Recently-erected standing stones

Recently-erected standing stones

The first thing you’ll notice, in front of the lone house at the top of the hill, is an impressive row of standing stones, aligned to point back down the Mizen Peninsula. These are recent additions to the landscape, testament to the enduring tradition of erecting such stones in this part of the world.

Scramble up through the heather to the remains of the Napoleonic-era signal tower and the Marconi Telegraph Station – see Robert’s post for more about Marconi and early wireless telegraph in West Cork. From here there are panoramic views east to Crookhaven and down the Mizen Peninsula, west to Mizen Head, North to Barley Cove and southeast to the Fastnet Rock.

Follow the path now south west to the tip of the Head. This was a copper mining area in the nineteenth Century and you can still see the ruins of the Mine Captain’s house, miners’ dwellings and fenced off mine shafts. Abandoned cottages litter the north-facing slopes, with small overgrown fields defined by stone walls.

Near the tip of the Head you must cross a narrow causeway with steep cliffs on either side. This part is not for the faint of heart (or small children, perhaps) especially on a windy day. Find a sheltered spot at the end and sit a while. You may see gannets diving here, or dolphins in the waters below, and you will certainly be aware of the power of the pounding waves.

Next parish - America!

Next parish – America!

Before you leave, make sure that you make a wish – after all, this is a special place, and special places in Ireland have their own magic. 

Heron tracks

In the Haven