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

Cape Clear: The Stone That Moved

along the roadThe enigma begins around 1874, on Cape Clear – the southernmost piece of inhabited soil on the islands of Ireland. Land here is hard won, and the stony fields are laboriously cleared using human power and – most likely – donkey power to improve prospects for grazing and tillage. In this year a narrow field in the townland of Croha West is being improved: the farm belongs to Tom Shipsey. His men – Dónal O Síocháin and Conchúr O Ríogáin – turn up a stone with strange markings on it, reportedly together with ‘shards of old incised pottery’, although these latter have never been traced.

Header: looking towards the townland of Croha West, where Thomas Shipsey and his men discovered the travelling stone. Above left – records from the Shipsey family dating back to the 1800s. Above right – possibly the earliest drawing of the Cape Clear Inscribed Stone, included in Michael J O’Kelly’s article of 1949  in the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society Journal

At this time the Curate on Cape is Revd John O’Leary. We might reasonably assume that he takes an interest in the stone and has it set up somewhere to show off its curious and undoubtedly historic decoration. We do know for sure that, when he leaves Cape Clear in 1877 to take up the curacy of neighbouring Sherkin Island, the stone goes with him and becomes a feature in his garden there. It does not, however, accompany him to Clonakilty whence he is transferred to become Parish Priest and Monsignor in 1881: instead it languishes on Sherkin, benignly fading into the undergrowth. Years later – in 1945 – the stone is ‘accidentally rediscovered’ by the then incumbent, Rev Fr E Lambe. Presumably recognising its probable significance he has it shipped off to University College Cork where it is received by Professor Seán P Ó Ríordáin.

Cork Exhibition

1902 World’s Fair, Cork – now Fitzgerald’s Park and the setting for Cork Public Museum

Close to the University grounds in Cork is a residence built by Charles Beamish in 1845 at the cost of £4,000 on land purchased from the Duke of Devonshire. Beamish has the grounds laid out with a variety of shrubs and trees, and due to their density the grounds become known as The Strawberries and the house as The Shrubbery. In 1901 the house and grounds are taken over by Incorporated Cork International Association and used as the venue for the great World’s Fair of 1902. Following this the grounds – now known as Fitzgerald’s Park – are donated to Cork Corporation for recreational use by the public. Eventually The Shrubbery is converted into Cork’s Public Museum which opens in April 1945, under the auspices of UCC: the first Curator is Michael J O’Kelly. The Cape Clear Inscribed Stone completes its travels (for now) and is on permanent display in the Museum.

View from sea

The highest point on Cape Clear is Quarantine Hill – the trig point can be seen as a ‘pimple’ in this photograph, taken from the north side of the island

There’s a prequel to this story of the travelling stone. We have seen that it was unearthed on Farmer Shipsey’s land in 1874. Apparently this isn’t where it started out. O’Kelly (who became head of the Archaeology Department at UCC in 1946) wrote a monograph on the stone for the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1949 (volume 54 pages 8 – 10):

…The motifs clearly belong to the passage-grave group of carvings and can be paralleled at Newgrange, Bryn Celli Du [Wales], Gavr’ Inis [Brittany] and elsewhere. The stone is therefore an important discovery and because of this, the lack of information about the nature of the site on which it was found is all the more disappointing. At this stage only a few vague traditions concerning its finding could be gleaned in the district. The statement of one old man that ‘a mound of stones was being cleared from a field’ may possibly indicate a cairn and if such were the case, the decorated stone may have formed part of an underlying tomb chamber. There is also some reason to think that fragments of pottery were found, though none has survived. This may be a further hint that the stone was associated with a burial. With reserve, it might therefore be assumed that the structure, whatever its exact nature, was erected by a group of passage-grave folk who either by accident or design came to land on this island off the coast of Cork…

This little narrative sowed the seed that the stone might be connected to a passage grave. If so, this would probably date the carving to some five thousand years ago. But, surely, there should be some trace of the passage grave itself if this is the case? No such traces could be found in the townland of Croha West.

View from PG

looking north
Spectacular views from the prehistoric site on Cape Clear, both looking north towards the mainland

We move forward to 1984 when four archaeologists (Barra O Donnabhain, Mary O’Donnell, Jerry O’Sullivan and Paddy O’Leary) explored the wider area and discovered, on the very summit of the island, the ruins of a prehistoric structure. This site, 533 feet above sea level, is in the townland of Killickaforavane and is known locally as Quarantine Hill. At this time the island was investigating the possibility of producing electricity by wind power: hitherto electricity to some properties was provided by a diesel generating system which had been in place only since 1969. The obvious efficient place for wind generation was the highest point and plans were laid for setting up two SMA Regelsystem Gmbh 33w turbines (which began operation in 1987). In preparation for this installation an archaeological survey of the immediate area was carried out by Prof Peter Woodman and Dr Elizabeth Shee. Paddy O’Leary and Lee Snodgrass were also present at that time. The collective view seemed to indicate that the structure could, indeed, have been a small passage grave.

chamber closer

Probably the chamber of a 5,000 year old passage grave, Killickaforavane, Cape Clear

The wind turbines were sited a little distance from the prehistoric remains and have themselves become archaeology of a more industrial nature. While in use they generated 90% of the island’s demand during favourable winds (force 3+). The corrosive effects of the Atlantic climate – in particular the wild south-westerly gales – rendered the mechanisms beyond repair after some ten years; a submarine cable bringing electricity from the mainland (8 miles away) arrived in about 1995. For a short time the systems operated in tandem and produced sufficient power to feed back to Ireland’s National Grid. According to a letter to the Irish Times by Séamus Ó Drisceoil, who was manager of the island Co-op at the time of the installation …the Cape Clear system is credited with providing the first concrete evidence for the viability of wind energy in Ireland…

Tomorrow’s archaeology: the pioneering – but now defunct – wind generating system on Quarantine Hill, overlooking the passage grave site

Once the concept of the island supporting a five thousand year old passage grave on its summit has been digested, then the question has to be asked – did the Cape Clear stone now in the Cork Public Museum originate at this site? It was found a good half mile away, in a different townland – but this might suggest that an earlier antiquarian (or interested observer) discovered it on the hill and had it moved to Croha West for safekeeping, display, or even because it was thought it might have some value. No-one on the island seems to have any knowledge of this distant event. As O’Kelly says – it’s disappointing that there is no ‘story’: one might almost expect a tale of the person moving one of the ‘old stones’ having met with an unfortunate fate because of interference with the domain of The Other Crowd

the way through

Kerb and passage

Top: looking towards the summit of Quarantine Hill – there is no clear path up there, and the traveller can be waylaid by gorse and brambles… Below: the prehistoric site – we are probably looking at the orthostats of a passage, which has a summer solstice orientation, and a kerbstone. On the right is a modern cairn while to the left in the background is the remains of one of the turbine towers

There is, surely, a strong likelihood that the Cape Clear Inscribed Stone did originate in the hilltop passage tomb, in which case we have completed the tale of its travels, up to the present day. The tomb is in ruins, although enough remains to show its shape and probable orientation. Paddy O’Leary tells the story of his investigations with Lee Snodgrass in an article for Mizen Journal, Volume 2, 1994:

…We were convinced that it was a passage tomb and that it was orientated on the rising sun of the summer solstice… We planned a two night vigil for June 1993 and were buoyed up by a good weather forecast. Saturday afternoon was sunny and we transported our equipment direct to the top of Quarantine Hill from the boat. We set up our cameras and, taking advantage of the sunny weather, took photographs, especially during the late evening, when there was a lovely sky. On Sunday morning June 20th we rose shortly after 4am to prepare for dawn. It was very cold but the sky was clear. A dull grey cloud began to show to the northeast, we set our cameras and waited for the sun. Shortly after 5am it peeped above the horizon, nestling in the gap between Carrigfada and the hill to its north… Gradually it rose in a 40 degree angle, flooding the sky with first light and mirroring its golden red orb in the brightening sea… A perfect sunrise perfectly recorded. The warmth was now penetrating almost numb fingers and feet. The line of the orientation was exactly as expected, directly along the supposed line of the passage, into the centre of the chamber… The most southerly point of Ireland had its passage tomb, with a summer solstice sunrise orientation; a nice counterpoint to the Newgrange winter solstice sunrise…

cairn and view

Quarantine Hill, Killickaforavane townland, Cape Clear. The view looking east – towards the summer solstice sunrise – from the prehistoric site on the summit

If the inscribed stone was, indeed, incorporated into the Cape Clear passage tomb, where might it have been placed? There are parallels in its design with some of the lintel stones at Fourknocks, but also I am drawn to similarities with stone L19 from Claire O’Kelly’s Corpus of decorated stones included in Michael J O’Kelly’s Newgrange – Archaeology, Art and Legend (Thames + Hudson, London 1982). This one is a standing stone – perhaps our well travelled stone was standing also.

Newgrange

Newgrange entrance stone

Iconic passage tomb in Meath, Ireland – one of the greatest monuments to the Neolithic people in the world: the top picture shows the east face of the great mound as reconstructed by Michael O’Kelly using the white quartz stones which were revealed during the excavations (Finola took part in these digs!); the lower picture shows the entrance stone to Newgrange – the Cape Clear inscribed stone must be related to this type of prehistoric art, although situated a very long way away…

Here’s a suggestion – probably considered heretical in some quarters: why don’t we complete the travels of the Cape Clear Inscribed Stone by taking it out of the Cork Public Museum and (with some suitable ceremony) transporting it back across the sea to Cape Clear and setting it back up there for all time? For me, museums – while obviously providing safe keeping – sometimes lack the reality of true context… Alright then, if that is considered as inconceivable an idea as I suspect it would be, let’s make a very good replica and send it up to the top of Quarantine Hill. At the same time we could re-establish a pathway to attract people up there: our own pilgrimage to this very special site involved making heavy way through gorse and brambles.

looking towards west

Below: Newgrange Stone L19 from Claire O’Kelly’s Corpus of decorated stones included in Michael J O’Kelly’s 1982 book on Newgrange

claire stone

With acknowledgements and thanks to those quoted above and the following sources, which have enabled me to pull together the story of this site: Paddy O’Leary and Lee Snodgrass (Mizen Journal Vol 2 1994 and personal communication), Michael J O’Kelly (Cork Historical and Archaeological Society Vol 54 1949), Chuck Kruger (Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal Vol 6 2010)

Island Hopping

Long Island Sound

Long Island, with some of Carbery’s 100 Isles 

Carbery’s 100 Isles, they call them, the islands of Roaringwater Bay – and there really are 100, and more, if you count all the islets.  J F Collins, in a paper in the 2015 Journal of the Skibbereen and District Historical Society, has an interesting account of the various ways islands were counted in Roaringwater Bay  – by the Ordnance Survey, by Admiralty charting, and through Griffith’s Evaluations – they all came up with different numbers. Whatever the final count, this week we visited three, each one special and unique.

Long Island Ferry heading back to Colla

The Long Island ferry on its way across Long Island Sound to Colla Pier

The Fastnet Film Festival has just finished – this is the amazing little festival that manages to attract world-class movies in a town with no cinema. We took in several of the events, and watched many of the shorts, but a highlight for us every year is the Long Island Trip. Read about the festival and the Long Island event here, an account from two years ago. To be whisked off to this hidden spot, to be provided with wine and popcorn and invited to go down to the ferryman’s bedroom to watch an hour of excellent cinema – well, who could resist it? Long Island (permanent population: 7) has some interesting ecology and we have promised ourselves a proper trip and wander later this summer.

Cape Clear Ferryman

An overnighter to Cape Clear Island came mid-week – a birthday treat for Finola. We’ve been to Cape Clear before on day trips, and Robert has written about it – but this was something special. First of all, the weather was amazing the whole time – warm and cloudless. Secondly, our time-frame gave us the opportunity to do some serious exploring. Thirdly, the seas are alive at the moment with whales and basking sharks!Sherkin Lighthouse

When the weather is fine the ferry takes the outside route around Sherkin Island. Along the way we pass the Sherkin lighthouse and many treacherous rocks, threading our way, in this instance, through shark-infested waters

The ferry to Cape Clear takes about 40 minutes normally. We were a little longer this time because the ferryman slowed and diverted to allow us time to photograph the sharks. Enormous creatures, with wicked dorsal and tail fins, they are actually peaceable fish who swim with open mouths, filtering plankton, and who are harmless to humans. We are not harmless to them, however, as we have hunted them close to extinction and they need protection in many areas.

Basking shark en route to Cape Clear

This photograph was taken from the ferry

For such slow and cumbersome creatures, it was an out-of-this-world experience to watch one of them breaching in the South Harbour. It happened when we were in the bus on the way to our accommodation and nobody had their camera at the ready. But we all know what we saw.

South harbour with kayaks

Just out there, in the South Harbour, we saw the basking shark leap from the water. An incredible sight!

The bed and breakfast, Ard na Gaoithe, was wonderful. Robert had told Eileen that it was my birthday – and well, would you look at what awaited us! It was the perfect place to stay – just be ready to walk the hill up to it, after a marvellous dinner at Cotter’s!

On day one we followed the way-marked trail that edges along the south side of the island. This involved a visit to the site of a Napoleonic-era signal station and the original Fastnet Lighthouse. This position for the lighthouse proved to be a major mistake, as it was so high that the light was lost in the clouds half the time. The current position, right on the Fastnet Rock, has been much more successful, and remains an iconic sight in West Cork. The remaining stump is beautifully constructed of granite blocks, while the signal tower still clings on to some of its slate covering.

Signal Tower and Original Fastnet lighthouse

Our route took us along the cliffs and to a viewing point over the South Harbour. The sharks were ubiquitous, lazily swimming around with those enormous gaping jaws.

Shark basking

Stone Wall 2

 

Here and there ancient field fences poked their way out of the heather, while skylarks warned of our approach and standing stones framed a distant view.

Standing Stones and Fastnet rock

Looking over the South HarbourOn day 2 we decided to make the climb to the Cape Clear Passage Grave – but I will let Robert tell that story and content myself with saying that I hope he tells you all how arduous the climb was, and how thick the gorse, so you can see how I suffer for science.

Across to the mainland

The views are immense but equally fascinating are the numerous dry-stone walls and the wild flowers everywhere. There’s still lots to explore on Cape Clear and more trips are clearly in order.

Green path

Finally, on Friday, we were invited to lunch with friends on Heir Island. Heir, sometimes called Hare, is the third largest inhabited island after Cape and Sherkin and home to a justly famous restaurant, a sailing school, the wonderful Firehouse Bakery Bread-Making course (we wrote about this in one of our very early blog posts and it’s still going strong but now booked up months in advance), and many artists.

Heir Island Boreen

Strolling along the peaceful boreens of Heir, lingering over Viv and Fran’s fabulous lunch overlooking Roaringwater Bay, and sauntering back to catch the late afternoon ferry – you adjust to island time remarkably quickly.

West Cork Islands – they will captivate and hold you. There is no escape.

Robert contemplates

Words on Roaring Water

from Brow Head

…Anyone who has glanced even cursorily at the map of Ireland, will have noticed how the south-west corner of it has suffered from being the furthest outpost of European resistance to the Atlantic. Winter after winter the fight between sea and rock has raged on, and now, after all these centuries of warfare, the ragged fringe of points and headlands, with long, winding inlets between them, look as though some hungry monster’s sharp teeth had torn the soft, green land away, gnawing it out from between the uncompromising lines of rock that stand firm, indigestible and undefeated…

Naboth’s Vineyard, Somerville and Ross, Spencer Blackett, 1891

hedge and wall

So constantly entranced am I by the character of this remote corner in which we have chosen to settle (in my own experience – admittedly somewhat geographically limited – it is the most beautiful landscape in the world) that I am always excited when I discover that others have shared the same feelings. Consequently I am forever looking out for references to the coastline and country around Roaringwater Bay – particularly descriptive writing – in the wealth of books on West Cork that are harboured by local bookshops, libraries, and our own shelves here at Nead an Iolair: we are most fortunate that some of these books, especially the now out-of-print ones, came with the house! I have sifted through a few of the words: essays, extracts from novels, historical treatise and guidebooks that support my own feelings about the place. All are taken from writers I admire and thoroughly recommend. I present them here for you to take in, together with some hopefully seductive illustrations from the locality, in support of my thesis that there is no better place to be alive.

rosbrin cove days

…I believe that in West Cork water runs uphill. There is a small lake on the very summit of Mount Gabriel, nearly fourteen hundred steep feet above the Atlantic level. Small it is, but so deep that when, once upon a time, a heifer was lost in it, she came out in Schull harbour, on her way to America! (Or that is what the people tell you.)…

 ‘Happy Days!’ – Essays of Sorts, Somerville and Ross, Longmans, green and Co, 1946

stone beach

…There was a line of tables up the middle of the pier, each with its paraffin lamp smoking and flaring in the partial shelter of a fish-box, and each with its wild, Rembrandtish group of women splitting the innumerable mackerel, and rubbing lavish fistfuls of coarse gray salt into each, before it was flung to the men to be packed into barrels. The lamps shone fantastically on the double row of intent faces, on the quickly moving arms of the women, crimsoned to the elbows, on the tables, varnished with the same colour, and on the cold silvery heaps of fish…

Naboth’s Vineyard, Somerville and Ross, Spencer Blackett, 1891

cappacolour

…Think of a wandering road in – let me say West Cork… The way is rough and stony, and (most probably) muddy, but it can claim compensating charms, even though it can hardly fulfil any of the functions proper to respectable roads. And in its favour I would claim the broken varying lines of the hills against the sky. The untidy fences, with their flaming furze bushes, or crimson fuchsia hedges; their throngs of vagabond wild flowers, that can challenge the smug respectability of a well-kept garden. And the inevitable creatures, the donkeys, the pigs, the coupled goats, the geese, that regard the highroad as their lounge and playground. No doubt they exasperate the motorist in a hurry (as are all motorists) but for more tranquil wayfarers they can offer entertainment, almost charm…

‘Happy Days!’ – Essays of Sorts, Somerville and Ross, Longmans, green and Co, 1946

fuschia colour 2(Ireland) …is a land of surprises. She has the gift of unexpectedness, of uncertainty: her people, like her looks, and her weather, can be sometimes charming, often exasperating, but seldom commonplace. Is there another country, reasonably civilised, in which, in the course of a casual idle stroll, records of pre-history can be met with in any field, unconsidered, or found (as I have known) an immense cup-marked stone, built into the wall of a cow-house, ignored by the descendants of those who were once its worshippers? And yet, in characteristic contrariety – as is our way in Eire – in the field next to that cow-house, you can see that the plough has turned aside from its rightful course in respect for a little old deformity of a thorn-tree, which has asserted, for possibly a thousand years, its right to be reverenced and feared…

‘Happy Days!’ – Essays of Sorts, Somerville and Ross, Longmans, green and Co, 1946

sun rays

…In the mirror that memory will sometimes hold for us, I can see Rahyne Glen at four o’clock on a silver autumn morning before the sun has reached it. Opposite, just below the rim of the steep western side of the glen, there is one of the memorials of an older race and its religion. This is a broad slab of pale stone, leaning sideways against the hill, having, somehow slipped off the stones on which it had been supported. The sunlight falls full on it; it catches the eye and holds it. It is a dolmen, and the pale slab was its cap-stone. It marks the grave of a chief. He might have been content with his resting-place, had beauty of scene appealed to him (which seems improbable). Whether contented or no, he has lain there (if the archaeologists may be believed) undisturbed, through all the long centuries. If he were to look out now on those familiar hills he would see no change. His hills have defied civilization. All would look as it might have looked on any fair September morning during past thousands of years. And, I suppose, the pink ling, and the purple heather and the gold of the low-growing autumn furze, would then have spread the same carpet of colour over the hills… The wild stream comes storming through the thorn-bushes of the glen as fiercely as ever it did when the Chieftain and his warriors washed their spears in it… Beyond the glen the country rises, in long swathes of dim green, and purple, and misty blue, to a curving line of hills, and farther and higher still – for the viewpoint is a high one – a narrow flashing line tells of the silver plain below, which is the Western Ocean…

‘Happy Days!’ – Essays of Sorts, Somerville and Ross, Longmans, green and Co, 1946

roaring water

…The indented contours of Raring Water Bay enclose a maze of minute inlets and islands. The name derives from a stream which flows down the side of Mount Kidd amidst a landscape of bracken and boulders. The torrent roars in the narrow gaps and gullies as it rushes towards the sea. The little inlets penetrate the land like miniature fjords and create a sense of safe haven from dangerous seas. Their piers, long abandoned except for the occasional fisherman’s or tourist’s boat, are overgrown and tumbled-down romantic ruins, quiet spots for sighting a lone heron at low tide, grey against grey water. In the narrow defile where the roaring water debouches into the bay nature has done much to reclaim the territory usurped by human purpose. Perhaps, like the closing of a wound, this former embarcation point, which saw many thousands flee a country unable to support them, is being bound in ivy and decorated with wild fuchsia to heal the scar…

West of West – An Artist’s Encounter with West Cork – Brian Lalor, Brandon Book Publishers, 1990

gabriel side

…The islands of the West Cork coast are rather grandly referred to as Carbery’s Hundred Islands, but only Clear Island and Sherkin now sustain a viable population – though, like the other islands off the west coast, there is a steady draining of young people to the cities on the mainland for education and employment. Horse Island off Schull is evocative of the vanished communities of these islands. Silhouetted against the skyline, this piece of low-lying land appears like an old-fashioned, gap-toothed saw; a dark bulk of rock with triangular projections – the gable ends of a row of roofless cottages – biting into the clouds…

West of West – An Artist’s Encounter with West Cork – Brian Lalor, Brandon Book Publishers, 1990

kilcoe days

…Three or more centuries ago, before the landscape of West Cork became bound by a web of roads and fences, its contours would have been best understood when seen from above, from the heights of Mount Kidd or Mount Gabriel. Parallel ribs of rocks and hills, dividing up the pasture land, extended from the base of the mountains to the coast, where long fingers of rocky promontories projected out into the sea. There was a natural order to everything…

West of West – An Artist’s Encounter with West Cork – Brian Lalor, Brandon Book Publishers, 1990

rosbrin shadows

… Beyond Whitehall I rode out to the point at Cunamore where the road ended at a small pier which was the nearest point to Hare Island, also known as Inishdricoll. There was no regular ferry across, but the post boat went over several days a week, and the schoolmistress crossed daily to teach the dozen remaining children. It is a much less dramatic island than Cape or Sherkin, a low-lying slab of land with golden beaches. One road leads to a little village nicknamed Paris – probably a derivation of ‘pallace’ – once the centre of a fleet of lobster boats. Now I listened to an old man lamenting the terrible decline.

   “John has gone and Dennis has died, and we’ll die too, and then the foreigners can have it all.” Already half a dozen of the houses had been bought up by strangers.

   One by one the smaller islands became deserted. It is a long time since they were densely populated, but until quite recently they supported a certain number of families. Only a few years ago I visited Horse Island, just opposite Ballydehob. The last people there, an elderly couple, were living all alone. It was summer, and the old man was sitting in a chair outside his house, his feet in a basin of water. His wife, behind him, fed hens. Next year they were gone. The house, still intact and comfortable, stood empty, the linoleum in place, last year’s calendar on the wall. Down by the pier a plough had been thrown into the water where it looked like a gesture of despair…

The Coast of West Cork – Peter Somerville-Large, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1974

rosbrin cool

…West of Ballydehob the laneways ran into each other like the veins of a leaf. Many of them were untapped; they seemed empty, with little life except for cattle or a white horse browsing in watery fields beside them. Most seemed to end up at the sea, and each little turn had its own alignment to the bay. One looked across the islands with Kilcoe standing squat and menacing on its headland; the next inlet had a view across to Horse Island; another lane climbed to a hill to where one could see the sweep from Baltimore Beacon and the Gascanane to the shattered tower of Rosbrin castle…

The Coast of West Cork – Peter Somerville-Large, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1974

Afternoon in Ballydehob 04.2014

…May Day in Schull was the day for ‘bringing in the green’. But the ancient custom is dying out. Only a few branches of green leaves were tied on doors, and a twig of fuchsia dangled from the handle of a bike. “Old pishoges,” an old man muttered as he carefully arranged sycamore round a drainpipe…

The Coast of West Cork – Peter Somerville-Large, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1974

altar

…Colla harbour and pier is the nearest point to embark for Long Island. Horse Island, Castle Island and Long Island lie in a line just outside Schull harbour. A tradition, quoted by Smith, claims that they were once all one island. “In the latter end of March, AD 830, Hugh Domdighe being monarch of Ireland, there happened . . . terrible shocks of thunder and lightning . . . at the same time the sea broke through the banks in a most violent manner. The island, then called Innisfadda, on the west coast of this country was forced asunder and divided into three parts”…

The Coast of West Cork – Peter Somerville-Large, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1974

december sun over rossbrin

…From the vicinity off Dunanore, we obtain a view of the coast and the surrounding open, which is one of surpassing beauty, when the summer sun is setting in the far west. Towards the south, as far as the eye can reach, the broad expanse of the Atlantic is stretched before our gaze, the distant horizon dotted here and there by some white sail, or the dark hull of one of those leviathan steamers which ply their busy trades between the Old World and the New. Cape Clear is the first land which greets the American tourist or the returning emigrant on his approach to the old country, and the last cherished spot of his ‘own dear isle’ which bids adieu to the Irish peasant, when he parts, perhaps for ever, from his native country…

Sketches in Carbery, County Cork: its antiquities, history, legends, and topography – Daniel Donovan, McGlashan & Gill, 1876

down below

The Seven Whistlers

curlew title

While researching for this post I picked up the excellent book by Niall Mac Coitir, Ireland’s Birds – Myths, Legends and Folklore and got diverted by a section on Eagles: why wouldn’t I, as we live up here in Nead an Iolair, Eagle’s Nest? I was delighted to discover from this book that Adam and Eve are reincarnated as Eagles and live on the island of Inishbofin, at the mouth of Killary Harbour in Galway. This adds to the list of important people of the world who have ended up in Ireland, including St Valentine in Dublin and Santa Claus (St Nicholas) who rests in Jerpoint Abbey. I’m hoping to discover many more…

My real subject today is the Curlew: we have seen a few of them lately below us in Rossbrin Cove. They are winter visitors from Scandinavia. There is a small breeding population in Ireland, mainly centred in Galway and Mayo, but this has declined catastrophically in recent times, and the bird is now red-listed as a globally threatened species, according to Birdwatch Ireland. Every Curlew sighting, therefore, is an important one.

In Irish bird folklore, the Curlew does not come over in a good light. It has a very distinctive and haunting call, and this has probably contributed to associations with the Otherworld.

Mac Coitor says: …The Curlew was famous for its whistling and screeching calls, which were believed to foretell the arrival of rain or stormy weather… while Scottish poet Norman Alexander MacCaig (1910 – 1996) describes the Curlew’s voice:

Trailing bubbles of music over the squelchy hillside… music as desolate, as beautiful as your loved places, mountainy marshes and glistening mudflats by the stealthy sea…

Curlews fly at dusk, sometimes in groups: this has given rise to accounts of The Seven Whistlers in both Britain and Ireland. One of the earliest collectors of folkore in these islands, Jabez Allies (1787 – 1856), wrote:

…I have been informed that the country people used to talk a good deal about the ‘Seven Whistlers’ and the late John Pressdee, who lived at Cuckold’s Knoll, in Suckley, said that oftentimes, at night, when he happened to be upon the hill by his house, heard six out of the ‘Seven Whistlers’ pass over his head, but that no more than six of them were ever heard by him, or by any one else to whistle at one time, and that should the seven whistle together the world would be at an end…

Another account, from William Henderson, Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders:

‘I heard ’em one dark night last winter,’ said an old Folkestone fisherman. ‘They come over our heads all of a sudden, singing “ewe, ewe,” and the men in the boat wanted to go back. It came on to rain and blow soon afterwards, and was an awful night, Sir; and sure enough before morning a boat was upset, and seven poor fellows drowned. I know what makes the noise, Sir; it’s them long-billed curlews, but I never likes to hear them.’

It’s that long, curved bill that makes the Curlew so distinct a figure down on the mud flats at low tide. The slim, pliable beak is used to probe in mud and shallow water for worms, crustaceans, and insects, and for exploring stones and shells. In flight the bird has a wonderful aerodynamism and reminds me of that beautiful aircraft – now extinct – Concorde. In my younger days, growing up in Hampshire, I watched the test flights of that plane at Farnborough, and always admired its drooping ‘Curlew’ nose.

JgxBY6H

Irish poetry has been enriched by images of the Curlew. Seamus Heaney’s From the Republic of Conscience:

When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared…

We can’t leave out W B Yeats – He reproves the Curlew:

O, CURLEW, cry no more in the air,
Or only to the water in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
Passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast:
There is enough evil in the crying of wind.

Four of Yeats’ poems, including Curlew, were set to music by the eccentric English composer Philip Heseltine, who took the name Peter Warlock. The Curlew is a chamber song-cycle setting written for tenor voice, flute, cor anglais and string quartet. Heseltine spent some time in Ireland, including a period on a ‘Gaeltacht island’ (perhaps Cape Clear?) where he sought to learn the Irish language.

Heseltine / Warlock’s The Curlew brings us full circle, as the composer also spent time in Cornwall under the shadow of another Eagle’s Nest – near St Ives – in an area frequented by artists, writers and mystics including D H Lawrence, Aleister Crowley, Virginia Woolf and Patrick Heron. From Eagle’s Nest in West Cork to Eagle’s Nest in West Cornwall… The Curlew is a much-travelled bird… Be careful of the Seven Whistlers!

view from Eagle's Nest

Curlews be here… view of Rossbrin Cove from Eagle’s Nest, West Cork

When is a castle..?

Leamcon Castle

Leamcon Castle (Black Castle)

…not a castle?

Answer: When it’s a Tower House. Maybe.

Harold Leask first published his classic Irish Castles in 1941, and it was subsequently revised and reprinted several times. My own copy was bought in the late 60s and accompanied me to Canada and back. Leask’s book was the first comprehensive work on the subject – a work of erudition but thoroughly readable with charming pen-and-ink illustrations. 

Leask insisted on the use of the term tower houses for small simple castles and described them thus:

They are simple oblongs with four walls, subtly battered, rising sheerly from a bold base-batter, to parapets which are crenellated in the Irish fashion. A small turret, at one corner, generally above the staircase, rises to a greater height than the rest of the building, while within the parapets are the two gables of the roof. Very often a small machicolation projects from the parapet and commands the entrance doorway below…

Ardintenant Castle

Ardintenant Castle (White Castle). It sits on top of an earlier ring fort.

In researching for this post the other main source I consulted was a doctoral thesis by Mark Wycliffe Samuel, The Tower Houses of West Cork. More recent (1998), it concentrated on the castles of this area and is packed with detail about the ones we see around us here in Roaringwater Bay and on the Mizen Peninsula, from Baltimore (Dún na Séad) in the east, to Cape Clear Island (Dún an Óir) to the south and Three Castle Head (Dunlough) to the west.

Dunlough Castle, known as Three Castle Head

Dunlough Castle, at Three Castle Head

These simple towers were quite different from the enormous and elaborate military castles that cemented Anglo-Norman power all over Ireland after the invasion of 1169, such as Trim in County Meath, or Cahir in Tipperary. Tower houses were built in what Leask calls a ‘great building revival’ from about 1440 into the 1600s. In what may be the forerunner of the European Grants system, Leask says many of the earliest ones were built as ‘£10 Castles’. A statute of 1429 offered every liege man of our Lord the King…who chooses to build a castle or tower sufficiently embattled or fortified..to wit twenty feet in length sixteen feet in width and forty feet in height or more, that the Commons of the said counties shall pay to the said person to build the said castle or tower ten pounds by way of subsidy. Although this statute seems to have been applicable only in certain counties (mainly around the Pale) it established a pattern for tower building which was adopted, with variations, all over Ireland.

Dunmanus Castle

Dunmanus Castle

The Roaringwater Bay and Mizen towers fit this pattern very well. They were not, however, built by the Anglo-Normans – West Cork was too remote and beyond their reach. They were built by the great Irish chiefs of the O’Mahoney, the McCarthy and the O’Driscoll clans and probably replaced earlier strongholds such as promontory forts (as at Dunlough), large ring forts (Ardintenant) and stone forts/cashels (such as the one at Knockdrum). These chiefs became wealthy through their control of the fisheries, through piracy, and through tribute exacted from those who occupied their traditional territory. At least one of them (Rossbrin) became famous as a centre of learning and scholarship during this time. Of the ones I will describe in this post, all are situated at the sea. or close to it, with commanding views over their territory and sometimes within sight of each other.

Leamcon, known as Black Castle

Leamcon, known as Black Castle. Notice the base-batter in this picture and the first one below.  The lowest level is the widest (battered) with the walls sloping in above this base

The power of these great Irish households lasted until the 1601 battle of Kinsale when the Irish forces under Hugh O’Donnel and Hugh O’Neill (with Spanish help) were defeated and an enormous re-conquest and re-colonisation began under Elizabeth and continued unabated under the Stuarts and, most disastrously, under Cromwell.

Each tower in this area was built in the same manner, which Samuel refers to as the Raised Entrance type of tower. There were two entrances, one on the ground floor and one on the first floor. The ground floor room was for cattle and the doorway was therefore as wide as would admit a cow.

A glimpse inside the raised entrance at Ardintenant

A glimpse inside the raised entrance at Ardintenant

The raised entrance (directly above it, or staggered to the left or right) was only wide enough to admit one person at a time – a defensive feature. This entrance either led into the first floor room or (since the ground floor room could have a lofty ceiling) onto a landing where a staircase led up to this room and then continued up through the wall (usually the thickest wall of the tower) to the upper floors. The first floor room was mainly used for storage and had either no windows or very small slits.

Dunmanus, with its additional turret. The top windows were always the largest.

Dunmanus, with its base-batter and additional turret. The top windows were always the largest

The second floor room was often the principle chamber, where all the main activities of the family took place – living, eating, meeting, administrating, celebrating (music and poetry were highly prized by these chieftains). If there was a third floor it contained the solar, or private chambers for the women of the household.

Barrel vaulted ground floor room at Dunmanus. Note access to stairwell.

Barrel vaulted ground floor room at Dunmanus. Note access to stairwell.

Construction techniques varied – some were superbly constructed of cut stone while others used a lot of rubble to build up the insides of walls. Putlogs, or holes where scaffolding timbers were insert, are clearly visible in several of the towers. The lowest floors were of course the thickest – the base-batter provided a solid foundation and the walls sloped inwards from it. The top of the tower allowed for thinner walls, and therefore also bigger windows (although none were large).

A garderobe (toilet) was a feature of the top two floors, with a chute out to the outer walls. In towers with additional turrets (Kilcoe, Dunmanus, Leamcon) the garderobe and sleeping chambers were sometimes contained in that turret, or the spiral stairs wound up through it. While most towers had stone spiral or straight staircase, some appeared to access each floor by means of ladders – there is no evidence for permanent wooden staircases.

The ground floor room (the byre) was often vaulted and this feature is still clearly visible in the most intact towers. Above that, the floors were of timber, sometimes with trapdoors for lifting up supplies. Presses (cupboards) consisting of niches in the walls may have contained lanterns or have been used to store valuable items.

There were no fireplaces in these towers. Fires were lit on flagstones laid on the wooden floors and the smoke rose to the tall ceilings and escaped out the small windows. In addition to this level of discomfort there is a contemporary account (quoted by Leask) which describe the primitive living arrangements in some of the towers: They have little furniture, and cover their rooms with rushes, of which they make their beds in summer and straw in winter. They put rushes a foot deep on their floors and on their windows [embrasure floors?], and many of them ornament their ceilings with branches.

But not all chieftains lived in a primitive way. Samuel uses the available evidence to construct a picture of life at Togher, one of the towers he studied, and it’s not hard to picture Fineen O’Mahoney, Scholar Prince of Rossbrin, in such a setting.

We can form a picture of the principal chamber in use: Tadhg an dúna or Togher’s principal chamber was probably furnished with imported furniture, pewter plate and cutlery and was panelled with ornately carved timber. His family, his bard, …clerk, lawyer, priest and physician, as well as members of the derbfine [extended clan] such as cavalrymen could eat there. They could sit with the chieftain to one side of the principal salt cellar, while others sat ‘below’ it… Servants prepared food out of sight ‘below stairs’. Bardic musicians, soothsayers, gamblers and others would be admitted as honoured guests, but the household ward and servants ate in the kitchen/ward room.

Although its name means Fort of Gold, today Dún an Óir on Cape Clear Island looks remote and forbidding

Although its name means Fort of Gold, today Dún an Óir on Cape Clear Island looks remote and forbidding

Similarly, Dún na Séad (Fort of the Jewels) Castle in Baltimore, seat of the wealthy O’Driscolls (they also had Dún an Óir (Fort of Gold) on Cape Clear Island), was

a centre of administration for trading activities and collection of taxes from foreign traders frequenting the port. In the middle and later-middle ages therefore, the O’Driscolls enjoyed a prosperous lifestyle. Lavish gatherings took place in the ‘great hall’ of Dún na Séad castle and a well-documented feast in 1413 is said to be one of the earliest records of people dancing in Ireland. This documentary evidence is supported by archaeological finds from recent excavations of the Dún na Séad site, which reveal the presence of late twelfth to fourteenth century pottery from the Saintonge region of France, and reflect the lucrative trade links between Baltimore and Europe at this time.

Dún na Séad Castle, Baltimore

Dún na Séad Castle, Baltimore. Note corner machicolation.

Defensive features were built into all the towers. Besides raised and restricted doorways and hard-to-manoeuvre narrow or spiral staircases, all had a roof ‘wall walk’. Three of the towers (Dún an Oir, Kilcoe and Leamcon) are either inaccessible or accessible by a bridge and there is evidence that connecting ground was deliberately demolished to accomplish this. Windows were small and could be boarded up. Projecting machicolations, especially above entrances or at corners were used, as can be seen at Dún na Séad Castle in Baltimore. Crenellations (notched or serrated ramparts) look like our traditional ideas of battlements. At Kilcoe they may have helped that castle withstand over a year of attack and siege after the Battle of Kinsale.

Kilcoe Castle. Note crenellated battlements and pitched roof.

Kilcoe Castle. Note crenellated battlements and pitched roof

So, should we call them Tower House, or Castles? How about £10 Castles? Archaeologists and historians prefer the more exact phrase tower houses, but castles they are on the maps and in our everyday speech. And if, like us, you are lucky enough to have one in your view, castles they are in our hearts and minds.

Our view to Rossbrin Castle

Our view to Rossbrin Castle