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 CoganTuckey’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
Ameninscription 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.