Mizen Magic 20: Ballyvonane Headland

Twenty Mizen Magic posts . . . The whole of the Mizen is magic and magnificent – at all times, in all seasons. It doesn’t matter where we go, we will find things to photograph and write about: landscape, history, the remnants of lives lived generation after generation, and new life – art, creativity. We have on our doorstep a cornucopia – an inexhaustible resource.

In late September, close to the autumn equinox, Nature has chosen to be compassionate to the human denizens of West Cork. In these benighted Covid times we are having exceptional long, warm and calm days, inviting us to take to the hills and headlands to shake off the wretchedness of bad news and the miasma of melancholy that it might bring. We in the far west remain free to roam unfettered, for now, and Roaringwater Journal is committed to bringing you the good news of fresh pathways to be trod and fine vistas to be unfolded.

At the beginning of the track is this imposing ruin: we wondered when it had last been occupied

Today we thought we’d finish something we started back in February: Delights of Dunmanus described how we set out to walk a trackway marked on the map going over the headland in the townland of Ballyvonane. In fact we didn’t make it: winter storms had flooded our way near the start of the track and – after getting hopelessly lost trying to go around the flood we had to give up. Finola graphically set out our probable route on that day (in blue – we were aiming to take the red path!)

Today we were determined: we donned boots which would withstand a substantial flood. In the event they were quite unnecessary as the land was dry. We felt secure, though – but hot. After the first few hundred metres – which is the old way leading to a ruined house and now much overgrown – the path became well defined and easy to follow. We passed many signs of human intervention on the landscape: skeletal cottages and field boundaries which looked like rows of standing stones. The fields themselves were empty, however: we saw only one living creature the whole way. That was a wood pigeon that clattered noisily out of the bushes as we passed.

This section of the path was completely flooded when we attempted to follow it in February!

The journey was rewarding because of the wide views out across Dunmanus Bay with the Mizen and the Sheep’s Head flanking either side. There was quite a haze over both peninsulas arising, perhaps, from distant gorse fires.

Passing abandoned cottages which had the aura of ancient temples we rose up to the higher ridge commanding the best views. We could clearly see Carbery Island to the west: this has a lonely modern residence on it. Close by are the other islands in this group: Cold Island, Furze Island and Horse Island. Lusk Island and Scurvygrass Island are some way off to the north.

Each turn in the trackway opened up fresh views, and new dimensions, to the bay below us. Some may consider this landscape featureless, but a moorland scattered with large loose and earthfast rock formations – some resembling megaliths, but clearly natural – is my own favourite. Look at the map above to see how far the rock outcrop extends . . . In my mind’s eye it’s the work of giants.

Unlike many of our journeys into the West Cork landscape, this one had no clear end, there was no destination, no historic or archaeological feature that we had set out to find. There was just a turn in the trackway at the northernmost point of the headland and then the trackway continued on to became a boreen and, finally, a road leading back through Ballgibba North and the R591 (where Kilhangle is sited – see Finola’s post). We could have made a big loop of it, but there wasn’t enough time in the day that was in it. In any case, returning on the same path was no hardship and gave us more time to indulge in the tranquility of a way less trod, and in the sublime peace of an afternoon spent in remote places.

The autumn hasn’t quite come upon us yet, but some signs have started to appear. One is the ‘dandelion clock’ (did you call them that as children?). Finola challenged me to find the ‘perfect’ one, with the promise that, if I did, she would provide the ‘perfect’ photograph. I found perfect, and then perfecter, followed by perfectest. Here’s Finola’s promised rendering:

Mizen Magic 17: Delights of Dunmanus

As we often do, we set out on a sparkling day last month to explore a part of the Mizen we aren’t familiar enough with yet. Our plan consisted of pouring over the OS Number 88 map and having an AHA! moment of realising that we haven’t been to a particular spot. This time, the dart landed on an area just northeast of Dunmanus Castle (seen above from Mount Gabriel), where it looked like there was a trail running along the water that would afford magnificent views of Dunmanus Bay and the Sheep’s Head. Things didn’t go quite as planned. . .

Red line: the trail we wanted to walk. Blue line, the trail we actually walked.
Arrows – yellow, Dunmanus Castle; pink, boulder burial; blue, Killhangel Church

We’ve written about this area before – specifically, in Mizen Magic 13 Robert described the promontory immediately to the northwest of the castle, with its ancient stone walls and its spectacular sea arches. This area has recently been re-fenced and isn’t as easy to access as it was.

The Castle and bridge from the promontory

The Castle, of course, is the most prominent landmark in this area. Built by the O’Mahony’s in the 15th century, it is a classic early ‘raised entry’ type of tower house, with complicated internal architecture that allows restricted access to different parts of the building at different levels – including to an oubliette. My post When is a Castle..? has a good description of these kinds of castles, typical of West Cork.

But today we were heading away from the Castle, towards the townland of Knockeens, where, on the map, we could see this promising trail. But you can’t just go right there – a little meandering is always in order when you’re in countryside this beautiful and this interesting.

So we stopped to admire the Dunmanus boulder burial (it’s the rock in the lower left of the photograph above). Boulder burials are Bronze Age monuments, although they may have been used for purposes other than to mark burials. See my post Boulder Burials: a Misnamed Monument? for more about this intriguing group of archaeological sites, more widespread in West Cork than other parts of the country, and often associated with stone circles or standing stones. This one is unusual in that it is low-lying (most are in more commanding positions) and the base gets covered at high tides.

Crossing over an unnamed stream that rises on Mount Gabriel and empties into the sea here, we arrive at the point where we can leave the car and proceed on foot.

A short walk up an old boreen leads us to a clachán – a tiny settlement of houses, now all in ruins. The residents had magnificent views back down to the bay in their day, but as people say around here, you can’t eat scenery and the families who lived here are long gone to a better life elsewhere.

Just beyond the clachán we ran into our roadblock – an enormous puddle extended over the path. It was too deep to walk through and the boreen was fringed with thick gorse bushes we couldn’t push past. Stymied, we decided to climb up above the path and look for a way around. Easier said than done – between stands of gorse, boggy patches to go around (or sink into), sheep paths that went nowhere, we spent an hour or so wandering around the hillside and finally admitted defeat.

It wasn’t wasted time though – it was wonderful to be out in the crisp air, surrounded by all the magnificence of the Mizen, thinking about the generations who had wrested a subsistence out of that unpromising land. When we finally got back to the car we decided to see if we could approach the trail from the other side, and set off in that direction.

Looking across to the Sheep’s Head

Along the way we had a quick stop at the ruined late-medieval Kilheangul Church (Church of the Angels). It’s a special little spot that deserves a post of its own someday, so I won’t say much about it now. This photograph of it was taken in the summer.

By the time we arrived at the other end of the trail, beside a small pier, it was starting to get dark, as befits a January afternoon, so discretion dictated that we leave the rest of the adventure to another day. 

The day started out to be about walking the trail – it ended up being about everything around it. That’s the thing about the Mizen – the journey is the destination. 

 

Mizen Magic 13: Dunmanus Promontory

It’s geologically and archaeologically fascinating – a substantial natural promontory just to the north of Dunmanus Castle: well worth an exploration. But, do be warned – there are cliff edges, exposed fissures, ankle-wrenching undulations and bogs to overcome. Also – it’s private, so please seek permission before crossing the land.

The west side of this shark’s fin-shaped promontory is wildly exposed to the ocean and its gales. You can see from the aerial views, above, how the rock bed is bare and visible, and the vestigial fields which occupy – or once occupied – the east side peter out, and the walls and banks which once formed them fade away altogether over on the left. In fact, these Google Earth images give a better impression of the oddly shaped enclosures than can be seen on the ground.

Three examples of many varied boundary features on the promontory are shown above. Each is differently constructed and they range from a series of vertically-set slabs to rocks-and-rubble and a raised bank reinforced with stones. In the picture below, follow with your eye the boundary as it traverses the scrub and makes a large S-bend on to the ridge facing the distant horizon.

Ireland – especially the west of it – is a huge stone landscape. Wherever people have settled, they have moved the stone and used it. To make fields, or any enclosures, they have had to clear the land. The stone taken from the land is used – sometimes to build shelter, often to build myriad walls to define the holdings. Here’s a striking example from the Aran Islands:

Nothing is recorded on the National Monuments Survey about these land boundaries at Dunmanus – or the significance of the promontory as a whole. Was it once a promontory fort? There are others on this coast. It could easily have been defended along the line of the present road running across the south. However, the land is flat and low, and there is no shelter.

Flat stone surfaces – of old red sandstone – remind us of the Burren landscape in Clare, and we can suppose that the present windswept bog and scrub could once have supported agriculture. But when? In medieval times, perhaps, when the nearby Dunmanus tower house was a thriving centre of occupation and, probably, commerce. In the shelter of the bay the little quay at Dunmanus survives and is still used by small boats searching out shellfish and scallops.

In some places the old walls seem to have a prehistoric feel: the use of slabs embedded vertically like standing stones is quite unusual in West Cork. The presence of large quartz rocks, too, is reminiscent of ancient sites, although they are natural geological occurrences here.

Other natural features on the peninsula include two ‘sea arches’ – bridges formed through erosion of the rocks and chasms by the ocean.

It’s a landscape of vestigial fields, sea – and stones. Nothing more. But I find it a mesmeric place; partly because we can see that it bears the marks of human toil, and we want to know more about who was there and how they lived. It’s a remote piece of Ireland to call ‘home’. Those marks remain after how many years – hundreds, thousands? They intrigue us, and compel us to explore.

Mizen Magic 7: Dunbeacon – History, Prehistory and Questions of Access

A cold and clear January day is just the ticket for a trip to the Northside of the Mizen. While Robert writes about the life of Northsiders, I want to look specifically at the area known as Dunbeacon. On rising ground that ascends to Mount Corrin and overlooks Dunmanus Bay West of Durrus, Dunbeacon offers spectacular views and lots to explore.

Looking across to The Sheep’s Head at the head of Dunmanus Bay, near Durrus

In the last few years the Sheep’s Head Way has expanded into parts of the Mizen Peninsula. This is a very welcome move and the SHW committee is to be commended on taking this initiative. Today we followed part of this new trail through Dunbeacon townland and were rewarded with glimpses of the past, lovely vistas, Caribbean blue seas – and biting cold!

This section of the trail runs along a scenic boreen

Dunbeacon is synonymous with the Stone Circle that carries its name. Robert and I have visited it on a couple of occasions in the past. We have knocked on the farmhouse door for permission to cross the land to get to it and never found anyone home. We proceeded anyway, albeit slightly nervously as it was an obvious trespass on a working farm. The stone circle is sited on a small plateau with views east and south to Mount Corrin and Mount Gabriel, although rising ground to the northwest obscures Dunmanus Bay.

Mount Corrin: a large cairn on top can be seen from many miles away. We have walked up to this cairn – see our account of it here

The circle is incomplete so it is difficult to know exactly how the builders intended its orientation as the portal stones and recumbent are missing. It may have had a central monolith. (For a complete explanation of Stone Circles see our post Ancient Calendars.) However, the clear view to the east and south horizons are design features that link it to sunrise and moonrise at certain times of year.

This photograph of Dunbeacon Stone Circle, and the one that heads up this post, were taken before the access trail (described below) was built 

Intriguingly, Michael Wilson, of the Mega-What Website, says that practically the stone circle is really half a monument: what it takes to complete it for calendrical purposes are two other elements across the valley in Coolcoulaghta, a standing stone (now gone, but its position is known) and a standing stone pair.

The Coolcoulaghta standing stone pair, with Robert for scale. These stones were knocked down in the past but re-erected following a local outcry. Access and parking are now provided

Having studied the area carefully, Mike saysThis site [the standing stone] combines with the Stone Circle 400m away at Dunbeacon to enable observations of the lunar nodal cycle in all four quadrants as well as giving complete all year round solar coverage. It thus seems likely that the Standing Stone was an original outlier to the Stone Circle and that the Stone Pair was added later, probably by a different group of people, in such a way as to make a minor technical improvement.

It’s further than it looks in this picture, but there is a clear view to the stone circle from the standing stone pair. In between is the most annoyingly positioned electricity pole in Ireland

As part of the development of the new walking route, the SHW group has negotiated access to the Stone Circle, and has, in fact, built a fenced trail across the fields and up to the circle. This, of course, is excellent in that it finally provides open access to this wonderful site. There is, however, a problem: the stone circle is now surrounded by a wooden fence on all sides that severely impacts on the appearance and atmosphere of the site. While it will keep cattle away from the stones (cattle can do a lot of damage to sites like this) and provide a safe zone for walkers if there are animals in the field, it has become impossible to relate to the site in the same way as we used to.

The last section of the fenced trail. The fence around the stone circle can be clearly seen now

The author of the Facebook Page Walking to the Stones expressed himself thus when he saw the new enclosure: “The wire fenced avenue turns into a wooden fenced coral. The stones, imprisoned in a begrudgingly small pen. The wildness has gone, the mystery has gone. You might just as well be standing in a sterile museum environment. What have they done?” His comments generated a chorus of agreement.

Indeed, it is hard not to look in dismay at a fence like this. It makes taking photographs of the whole circle well-nigh impossible. It creates an overwhelming visual barrier between the circle and its surroundings. As an erstwhile archaeologist, I also have to wonder what was disturbed as the post holes were dug. And yet, all of this was done with the best of intentions, and it has succeeded in providing public access to the site. I would be interested in our readers’ thoughts.

It is quite difficult now to get a photograph of the entire circle. This one is partial, and shows a clear sightline to Mount Gabriel

Before we leave Dunbeacon, I can’t resist a quick trip down to what’s left of Dunbeacon Castle. One of a string of O’Mahony Castles on the Mizen, this tower house once guarded the head of Dunmanus Bay. Its siting is strategic – no ship was going to penetrate to the head of this bay without being in clear view of this stronghold. The O’Mahonys controlled fishing and trade in this area from the 12th to the 16th centuries and became fabulously wealthy in the process.

What’s left of Dunbeacon Castle

This castle would once have been the dwelling place and administrative centre of a powerful chief. He would have hosted banquets where his poets and musicians entertained the guests with stories and song. Alas, after the Battle of Kinsale all the O’Mahony tower houses in this area were taken by the British and many that were left standing were dealt a final blow by Cromwell’s cannon.

Not much left – but what an incredible position!

The centuries pass. The old Mount Corrin mines are no more. The sizeable population sustained by potatoes was devastated by the Famine. Now the land is grazed by cattle and sheep and a few farm houses dot the landscape. It is a peaceful and beautiful place. Do the walk – you will be in the footsteps of farmers and chieftains, of herders and megalith builders and astronomers, of miners and fisherfolk who have called this place home for thousands of years.

Into the Blue…

In this series on Ireland’s colourful buildings, we started off with purple and pink and proceeded through the colour wheel to the oranges and yellows and now we have arrived back on the cool side of the spectrum – the blues and greens. The Diva Cafe in Ballinspittle (above) has black trim that does nothing to tone down its exuberance, and it marries beautifully with the purple and pinks beside it, which were highlighted in our first post on this series.

We left off the last post with a couple of lime greens, so here’s another, from Kinsale (above) to get us back in the swing of things.

A bright green and a blue green are a great combination beside the sea – this house is at Dunmanus, on The Mizen

Blues and greens are the colours of the sky and the fields, so they don’t pop as much as the pinks and the oranges. In fact they can be quite subtle, when used in tones that blend in with their surroundings.

I love these two farmhouses, the first near Mount Kidd and the second near Coppeen

But in village streets, and especially when combined with the other colours of the streetscape, they can be as cheerful and arresting as the stronger hues around them.

Eyeries (top) and Kenmare (bottom)

There are shades of blue and green that people argue over – one will call it blue and another green.

The fabulous Bridge House in Skibbereen – blue or green?

Those are the teals, ceruleans and turquoises, and St Patrick’s Blue, which is the colour of the Aer Lingus uniforms.

Finn’s Table in Kinsale, La Jolie Brise in Baltimore and a lovely brick and teal combo in North Cork

O’Sullivan’s butcher shop in Ballydehob has been closed for years, but it still retails its welcoming colours and graphics

True blues vary from the strong dark ultramarines and navy blues through the denims, duck eggs, periwinkles, sky blues and on to the paler shades and baby blues.

The first house is in Baltimore, the one underneath it was glimpsed somewhere on our travels

Blue matches well with other colours and is often used in combination. Some of the nicest buildings we’ve seen use blue with another colour to great effect.

Three wonderful buildings that use blue in combination with orange tones – a bank in Youghal, a hardware store in Bantry and our own Budd’s Restaurant in Ballydehob (with Rosies pub for good measure)

Yellow trim is a tried and true favourite
It might be one of the smallest houses I’ve seen, but it stands out when painted in blue
Blues and greens in Kilbrittain 
This one near Castle Donovan uses a strong blue cleverly as both a main and a trim colour

I’ve decided to end this series with this photograph of two side-by-side buildings in Adrigole on the Beara Peninsula.  The juxtaposition of the strong green and the vivid pink proves that when it comes to colour, anything can work!

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