Spring Green

Spring comes early this year – on the 20th of March instead of the 21st. It’s all to do with the precession of the equinoxes. But you might follow the old tradition (and why wouldn’t you?) that Spring begins on St Brigid’s Day – the 1st of February. We have been having many good, clear – and warm – days of sunshine since then, to balance out all the cool and wet ones, and the days are ‘drawing out’.

Ireland’s green landscapes presented using the panorama technology of a phone camera! Top – the two lakes at Dunlough, above Three Castle Head, Mizen Peninsula; centre – view across Roaringwater Bay from the top of Mount Gabriel; lower – Peekeen ridge, Sheep’s Head Peninsula

It’s the abundance of weather – in all its varieties – that makes Ireland’s landscapes so green, and so beautiful: as we are not so far from St Patrick’s Day (last week, when everything turned green!) today’s post is a celebration of the special colour as we find it around us. Finola mentions it today, but in a different context.

…When Erin first rose from the dark swelling flood,
God bless’d the green island and saw it was good;
The em’rald of Europe, it sparkled and shone,
In the ring of the world the most precious stone…

(William Drennan 1754 – 1820)

Where Ireland’s most westerly land mass dips into the Atlantic: looking east from Brow Head towards Crookhaven

…Ireland, it’s the one place on earth that heaven has kissed with melody, mirth, and meadow and mist…
(Old Irish Blessing)

Rossbrin Cove – with its ancient castle lost in the mist – seen from the green fields of Cappaghglass

In our own townland of Cappaghglass we have vivid green pastures but also, up on the old mine road, colours that constantly change with the seasons. It’s too early yet for the abundance of wild blooms that will transform the hedgerows and verges – we’ll watch out for those.

Cappaghglass: upper – a kaleidoscope of colours along the mine road, waiting for the Spring; lower – the colour green proliferates when the wildflowers appear

…When I come out on the road of a morning, when I have had a night’s sleep and perhaps a breakfast, and the sun lights a hill on the distance, a hill I know I shall walk across an hour or two thence, and it is green and silken to my eye, and the clouds have begun their slow, fat rolling journey across the sky, no land in the world can inspire such love in a common man…

(Frank Delaney)

One of Ireland’s spectacular roads makes its way through the Kerry mountains

Her eyes were like two sparkling diamonds
Or the stars of a bright frosty night
Her cheeks were like two blooming roses
And her teeth of the ivory so white
She resembled the Goddess of Freedom
And green was the mantle she wore
Bound round with the shamrock and roses
As she strayed along Erin´s green shore

(Mick Moloney)

Erin’s green shore: upper – our own Roaringwater Bay: Horse Island just off the coast and Cape Clear beyond. Lower – the tide is out below Brow Head, Crookhaven, exposing an ancient stone row which has been drowned by rising sea levels

…The gorse was in bloom, the fuchsia hedges were already budding; wild green hills, mounds of peat; yes, Ireland is green, very green, but its green is not only the green of meadows, it is the green of moss – and moss is the plant of resignation, of forsakenenness. The country is forsaken, it is being slowly but steadily depopulated…

(Heinrich Böll – 1957)

…There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet
As that vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet;
Oh! the last rays of feeling and life must depart,
Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart…

(Thomas Moore)

The meeting of several waters here at Donemark Falls, just north of Bantry

…Sure a little bit of Heaven fell from out the sky one day and it nestled on the ocean in a spot so far away. When the angels found it, sure it looked so sweet and fair, they said, “Suppose we leave it for it looks so peaceful there.”
So they sprinkled it with stardust just to make the shamrocks grow. ‘Tis the only place you’ll find them no matter where you go. Then they dotted it with silver to make its lakes so grand and when they had it finished, sure they called it Ireland…

(Linda Weaver Clarke)

The Lakes of Killarney, Co Kerry

The seas in which Ireland floats are as variegated in colour and texture as the landscape itself. Should our last words on this go to James Joyce…?

…The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea…

(James Joyce – Ulysees)

Ancient fields on Brow Head, Mizen Peninsula, looking towards Barleycove

All beauty is in the fine detail, we are told. The panoramas, the wide views, the seascapes are unbeatable – but, sometimes, it’s just the simplicity of a gateway that invites you in to explore this verdant island…

The Wild Side

Tortoiseshell

Up here in Nead an Iolair, in the townland of Cappaghglass, we luxuriate in the nature all around us. Our house was built in the 1980s on a piece of land which had belonged to the successors of the mining company – the copper mines were active for a few generations in the 19th century both here and on Horse Island, just across the water. The post-industrial landscape which surrounds us is alive: small, stone-enclosed fields are grazed by cattle, ponies and a few goats while in equal measure are large tracts of gorse, heather and rock. Here and there are the remains of the mine workings – a stump of a chimney, fenced-off and walled shafts, quarries, ruined workshops and cottages: the architecture of abandonment.

horse on horizon

Nick's Goat

nead birds

It seems to me that our house interrupts nature, with our lawns, our haggard, stone terrace, hedges and fences, but nature is well able to adapt and cope. Of course, we encourage this: we enthusiastically nurture all the little birds that visit our feeders – and the big ones: rooks, pheasants, magpies: they all get their share. And there are those that don’t come to the feeders but nevertheless forage the land – choughs (which perch on our roof and shout out their names – cheough – cheough… before flying off to give us an endless and entertaining display of dizzying acrobatics), starlings, blackbirds, thrushes and – always on a Sunday – Spiro the sparrowhawk who unsuccessfully dive-bombs the feeder, scattering – but never catching – the small birds. After the effort he rests on one leg on the low terrace wall and stares thoughtfully out to the Cove.

Can YOU see it?

Chough on the post

Spiro

From The Galleries

Michael, whose family has farmed the fields around us for generations, tells us that the land above us is known as The Galleries – possibly because there is such a spectacular view to be had from these fields to Rossbrin below us and to the islands of Roaringwater Bay beyond. The Cove itself is a paradise for the waders, especially at low tide, and for crustaceous life in the rock pools.

Muddy shanks

Curved beak

All around are the hedgerows that, in the spring, summer and autumn, support a wealth of wildflowers. In turn these are the haunt of nectar-seeking insects, especially bees and butterflies.

We are visited by four-legged mammals in all shapes and sizes: I’m pleased to see some of the decimated rabbit population returning after a recurrence of myxomatosis these past couple of years. We don’t get hares in the immediate neighbourhood: they seldom mix with the smaller Leporidae, but we sometimes catch a glimpse of them from the road that goes down to the village. Rats, mice and shrews are never far away, but are kept under control by our larger visitors – feral cats and foxes. Our own Ferdia has gone from us during this past year – he was an ancient fox who had made a pact with the human world: I’ll sit picturesquely on your terrace and entertain you provided you keep the food scraps coming – we did, of course. His descendants make fleeting visits, passing through but, as yet, never pausing to make our acquaintance.

Ferdia's Eyes

Bunny eyes a daisy

When it comes to observation of the natural world there’s never a dull moment here. We are fortunate that some globally threatened species seem to thrive around us – curlews can always be seen by the water, for example. The small birds crowd in, especially when I refill the feeders: sometimes we have to fight our way through the melee when we want to go out. It’s a great way to live, and a great place to live in. Thank you, Mother Nature.

RH and friend

Photographs (from the top down): Tortoiseshell butterfly; Cappaghglass field; Nick’s goat; Nead an Iolair with starlings; greenfinches; chough on our gatepost; Spiro the sparrowhawk; view across Roaringwater Bay from The Galleries; muddy shanks; curlew in the Cove; 2 x bees; Ferdia the fox; rabbit; Nead bird feeder with goldfinches, greenfinch, bluetits and great tit – and pheasant; Robert and friends; heron hairdo. Grateful thanks to Finola for many of these pics

Heron Mullet

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

Priests and Poets, Part 2

BVM

Last week we concentrated on Father James Barry and the poetry he could well have inspired. But there’s a lot more to Stouke graveyard and this post will cover some of the other history revealed  by a wander round this atmospheric place.

IMG_0988

This graveyard is the traditional burial site of many from the islands of Roaringwater Bay. There’s a poignancy to the place names on the headstones – many of these islands are now uninhabited, so these are the last headstones that will bear such inscriptions. As with many West Cork graveyards, much of the ground is scattered with rough, uninscribed, stones, while other graves have modern memorials with full inscriptions. It is customary to visit graves on anniversaries, or at certain times of the year, and always you will find that a few graves still have fresh flowers or other evidence of recent visits.

IMG_0987

The old Irish name for this place is Cillín Stuaice, or Little Church of the HeightThere is a suggestion that somewhere in the graveyard is the site of an early church, but if it is here, there is no evidence of it. Except for one thing – a bullaun stone. Robert has written before about the folklore and beliefs associated with bullaun stones, but what exactly are they? Bullaun is an Irish word for bowl – these are bowl shaped depressions in rocks, sometimes portable, sometimes carved into rock outcrops. Although some may date to prehistoric times, many are believed to have originated in the medieval period for the purpose of grinding (acorns, for example) or for crushing ore. Whatever their origin, they are often found in association with medieval churches or other sacred sites such as holy wells, and have assumed their own sacred mantle of meaning. The water that collects in them is often believed to be curative.

P1110096

The bullaun stone in Stouke graveyard is known, according to the Historic Graves account, as the Bishop’s Head. The informative plaque erected by the Fastnet Trails folk tells us that an older name for the townland is Kilaspick Oen, meaning Church of Bishop John. Perhaps this was the Bishop for whom the bullaun stone is named. The story goes that during the time of the penal laws the Bishop was confirming children nearby when the redcoats got wind of his activities and came to arrest him. He was beheaded. The bullaun stone commemorates this act and has been a focus of devotion locally, with people leaving coins and tokens to pay respect and perhaps ask for consideration for special intentions. Additionally, rounds were performed here on St John’s Night – although I am not sure if this tradition has persisted.

Money jars

But last week I promised you more poetry! Inside the gate is a grave of the McGrath family, including the ashes of Liam McGrath who emigrated to Australia but never forgot growing up in Skeaghanore, near Ballydehob.

Although he was active on a number of fronts, his delight was to remember the old times and to capture his memories in verse. He was a true ‘folk poet’ – recalling the past with nostalgia and trying to capture what he saw as the golden scenes of his young life in rural West Cork. Over the years, several of his poems were published in the Southern Star. Local historian Teresa Hickey generously shared with me those she has collected over the years – a real treasure since they are not available online.

Teresa Hickey and poems

Liam McGrath cuttingsTeresa’s personal favourite is Three Bells. It describes the sound of the bells on Sunday morning from Ballydehob’s three churches – Catholic, Church of Ireland and Methodist. Sounds, of course, trigger deep memories, and this poem captures Liam’s recollections of traditional Sunday mornings in the village. Sadly, the Methodist Church has fallen into ruin, so those bells will never again peal over Ballydehob.

Ballydehob showing church on hill

 

St Matthias CoI Ballydehob

Above: The Catholic Church dominates the skyline of Ballydehob. Middle: St Matthias Church of Ireland. Below: The Ballydehob Methodist Church, gradually falling into dereliction

The one I’ve decided to reproduce here is called One more Score and it’s about the unique West Cork pastime of Road Bowling (rhyme bow with cow). For Liam, it was a precious memory, made all the sweeter by a recitation of the roads and locations where the game was played. 

McGrath Poem Just One More Score

The sport of Road Bowling – the object is to get the bowl down the road to the target in as few throws as possible

No doubt I will drop by Stouke Graveyard many more times in the future. I wonder what further history lessons will be revealed…

Copper Country

Sheep's Head Copper Mine: Cornish mineworkers' cottages

Gortavallig Copper Mine, Sheep’s Head: Cornish mineworkers’ cottages

We live in the townland of Cappaghglass. I would love to say that the name derives from the metal that makes up much of its geology – copper, but Finola tells me that way of looking at it comes from my English accent: the Irish word for copper is Copair, while Cappa actually means meadow. Glas or glass means green so – prosaically speaking – we live in ‘Green Meadow’. However, as in so many cases, the history of this little bit of Ireland is writ clearly on the landscape and Cappaghglass is very much ‘copper country’.

Stub of 9th century Irish round tower? - No: 19th century copper mine workings in Cappaghglass. In front is the head of a shaft, behind is the remains of the mine chimney that fell in 2002; to the right are the old mine cottages

Stub of 9th century Irish round tower? – No: 19th century copper mine workings in Cappaghglass. In front is the head of a shaft, behind is the remains of the mine chimney that fell in 2002; to the right are the old mine cottages

Our own house, Nead an Iolair, is built on territory that was once owned by a nineteenth century copper mine, and legend has it that our Calor gas tank is placed over an old mine shaft! We look out to Horse Island – one of Carbery’s Hundred Islands in Roaringwater Bay: it once supported a copper mine of the same period. Look at the photograph of the number of workers employed there at this time. Now there are merely a few holiday homes on the island.

Mineworkers on Horse Island: 19th century

Mineworkers on Horse Island: 19th century

Among the quiet fields and peaceful boreens our townland is strewn with evidence of the industry that once was here: old spoil heaps, barbed-wire protected shafts, supports for overhead ropeways and the base of a famous local landmark: the 20m tall Cappagh Mine chimney which came down in a lightning strike in 2002 which also severely damaged the Mine Captain’s House adjacent to it. Mining here commenced in 1820 and works ceased in 1874. Its best years were the decade 1863 to 1873, when 877 tons of bornite copper ore were produced.

cappamap2

Cappagh Mine: cross section, mine chimney (pre 2002) and our own mine shaft!

Cappagh Mine: cross section, mine chimney (pre 2002) and our own mine shaft!

***

We went off to the Sheep’s Head last week – in idyllic weather – and were shown the Copper Trail by friends Peter and Amanda. It feels so remote out there, yet the place was a hive of industry when mining was at its height during the Victorian age. I was fascinated by the row of Cornish miners’ cottages there, and the similarity between this site and the cliff-edge setting of some of the mines in West Cornwall, Botallack in particular. When exploring these pieces of industrial archaeology in Cornwall I was always struck by the incongruity of the incredibly beauty of the places – set against the blue background of the Atlantic – with the hardship and danger of the working conditions that must have prevailed. Here in West Cork, as there in Cornwall, shafts and galleries extended out under the sea bed and the men toiled away in cramped and perilous conditions with the sound of the booming waters above them, while on the surface women (bal maidens) and children worked equally hard preparing the ore for crushing and smelting.

botallack

Botallack Tin Mine, West Cornwall - romantic site now, but less benign in earlier days

Botallack Tin Mine, West Cornwall – a romantic site now, but less benign in earlier days

Far longer ago than the nineteenth century, West Cork was being worked for copper ore. On the steep sides of our local Mount Gabriel there is evidence of copper mining dating back 3500 years to the Bronze Age. UCC Professor of Archaeology William O’Brien carried out research and excavations during the 1980s and traced a number of mine workings from this time. The extraction was a well organised process: a supply of  good roundwood had to be stockpiled and fires were lit against the rock face where traces of ore were apparent. A hot fire was kept burning for several hours followed by dousing in cold water (of which a good supply was also needed), causing the rock surface to fracture, and this disturbed face was hacked off with stone mauls allowing the accumulation of small quantities of  malachite. Constant working on good seams led to excavation into the mountain side, and some shafts have been found extending to several metres. Water ingress was a problem and it seems likely that a system of bailing or pumping was necessary. Eventually the drowned shafts were abandoned and, over time, they became filled with a type of blanket bog. This helped to preserve some of the wooden implements used and – presumably – discarded in them: hammer handles, wedges, picks and shovels as well as planks and ladders; also pine chips apparently used for illumination.

Bronze Age industrial landscape

Copper Country: Mount Gabriel – once the haunt of Wolves and miners

There’s a whole lot more to be said – about why metal was so important in the Bronze Age (wealth, in one word) and the whole context of distribution, trade and the technology of bronze itself: bronze production is only possible by combining copper ore with tin, and this was not available locally. In all probability our Cornish and Iberian cousins were making contact with Ireland’s metallurgists thousands of years ago. Interesting that the Rock Art we find in these same hillsides – and which could date from the same period – also has parallels in Britain, Brittany and Iberia.

Bronze Age industrial landscape?

Bronze Age industrial landscape?