The Rocky Road to Nowhere

The road from Cork to Crookhaven – one of the most westerly communities in the whole of Europe – ran into the sea here at Rock Island. The picture above shows the remote settlement in the distance across an expanse of water, and the stone steps in the foreground are literally the end of the road that was laid out by Sir Richard John Griffith – Engineer of Public Works in Cork, Kerry and Limerick – between 1822 and 1830.

Upper – map showing Rock Island today: note the R591 road which now goes around the north side of Crookhaven Bay to reach the village. Lower – the Cassini map of c1848, showing Griffith’s Road – the direct route across Rock Island to the Landing Place at the western point: from there you went by water to Crookhaven Quay

Griffith’s brief as Engineer was to lay out many miles of new roads in some of the most inaccessible parts of the three counties. But even in his day travelling through the hinterland of Ireland was risky and uncomfortable: always far better to go by water along the coast – at least the passage was direct and relatively smooth in calm weather, while the byroads of the day were at best circuitous and muddy. Here’s an extract from a report by Griffith dated 1824:

. . . Richard Griffith, Road Engineer, Progress Report, Skibbereen to Crookhaven, Wheeled Carts now Appear, where heretofore Loads were carried on the Backs of Horses, New Entrance to Town Of Bandon, Road From Courtmacsherry to Timoleague, Road from Clonakilty to New Fishery Pier At Ring, New Road Skibbereen to Bantry, Macroom to Killarney, with a Note on The System of Labour Organisation Used . . .

Connections by water: a telephoto view of Crookhaven, taken from above the ‘Landing Place’ at the west end of Rock Island

A few years ago, Finola wrote about the Butter Roads, an eighteenth century venture to serve the hub of Cork – and its international Butter Market – from the wilds of Ireland’s rural hinterland. Griffith and his contemporaries improved on this network during the nineteenth century: what we have today – especially here in West Cork – is an updating of Griffith’s system, with a few improved main roads connecting up with the web of winding boreens which then accessed the scattered townlands and farms – and still do.

An engraving signed W T Green from A History of the City and County of Cork by Mary Cusack, Cork 1875

Born in Dublin in 1784, Richard Griffith exerted a great influence over the whole of Ireland during his lifetime. He was fascinated by the relatively new science of geology and studied in London and Edinburgh. I was particularly interested to see that he spent some time in Cornwall, studying mine engineering and mining techniques. Returning to Ireland in 1808, He was appointed Engineer to the Bog Commissioners and over the following four years wrote detailed accounts of the geology of various parts of the country, including Clare, Cork , Kerry, Leitrim, Mayo, Sligo and Wicklow. He became Professor of Geology and Mining at the Royal Dublin Society in 1812, and Inspector-General of His Majesty’s Royal Mines in Ireland at about the same time. The first edition of his Geological Map of Ireland was published in 1815.This was revised and republished a number of times over the following 40 years, and was the work he considered his major achievement.

Sir Richard Griffith 1784 – 1878: left – plaque at his Dublin birthplace; right – portrait from 1854

You will see from Finola’s post today that we visited Rock Island during the week in the good company of Aidan Power who has written an account of the place. It’s wonderful to get a guided tour with an enthusiastic expert. It was Aidan who sparked my imagination when he pointed out that a mail boat was rowed over from Crookhaven every day to the Landing Place at Rock Island – and was the regular and reliable means of communication between that village and the rest of Cork.

This drawing of Rock island by Brocas is dated 1837, and clearly shows, on the right hand side, Griffith’s Road leading down to the Landing Place, the principal connection with Crookhaven

There’s a lot more of Griffith’s story to be told: particularly his appointment as Boundary Commissioner in 1824, a post he held for 41 years. This resulted in the full recording of all townland boundaries and designations – although these were often anglicised at the time, resulting in the loss of many local traditional names. He died in 1878 at the age of 94. On his grave in Mount Jerome Cemetery is the epitaph . . . Not slothful in business, fervent in spirit, Serving the Lord . . .

Griffith’s Road on Rocky Island is lost to a grassy track (upper picture and on the left in the lower picture) but is still traceable and remains theoretically a public highway! You can at least still follow it on foot to the point where it becomes a series of rocky steps that finish in the sea. You will have quite a wait for the Crookhaven mailboat today, however.

Mizen Magic 11: Rock Island

It was a pleasure and a privilege this week to tour Rock Island with Aidan Power, author of the book Rock Island, Crookhaven, A Coastal Townland’s History Since 1800. Published in 2006*,  this was a huge undertaking for Aidan, an amateur historian, accomplished with a high degree of professionalism and meticulously researched.

This photograph was taken from Brow Head and shows Rock Island’s location in relation to Crookhaven (foreground) and the rest of the Mizen. The furthest peak is Mount Gabriel

Aidan was living on Rock Island at the time and he knows every inch of it and every story that is embedded in the rocky soil. Today, there is only one permanent resident on Rock Island, but at its height it was home to over 100 people and a very busy place indeed. There were two populations – government employees working for the Lighthouses or the Coast Guard, and local people working in the fishing and provisioning industries.

While the lighthouse remains in the care of Irish Lights, the cottage is now in private hands and includes an ultra-modern addition with views to envy

Location was key – Rock Island is situated at the entrance to Crookhaven Harbour, a natural haven conveniently located at the extreme south west tip of Ireland – the last and first post of call for ships on the transatlantic route. As such, a Coast Guard presence was necessary, since smuggling was a way of life and foreign vessels apt to drop in or take refuge. Having sustained a French invasion by sea in 1796, the British government was on high alert for any further signs of foreign-assisted uprisings. Nearby Brow Head had a manned signal station which needed support and housing.

Lighthouse cottages

It was also the most convenient centre to build, maintain and provision two lighthouses: Crookhaven Lighthouse on Rock Island itself, and the famous Fastnet Lighthouse, 12 kms out. The east end of the Island was the centre of lighthouse-related activity. Aidan showed us the keeper cottages, one of which he had lived in but all now in use as holiday cottages. One set of houses was for the Crookhaven Lighthouse and the other for the Fastnet. He showed us where the Fastnet components had been assembled, tested and shipped out to the Fastnet Rock – a feat of engineering still breathtaking in its scope – see more about it in our post An Carraig Aonair: The Fastnet Rock.

Upper: The Fastnet assembly station. Lower: The road to the lighthouse is beautifully constructed – this lovely arch leads to the sea

The Western end was occupied by the Coast Guard end and was also the extent of the original road – see Robert’s companion piece today, The Rocky Road to Nowhere, for more about this road and the engineer who built it. The revenue officers, according to Aidan’s book, were very unpopular as smuggling was endemic on the West Cork Coast. One of the officers was called the Tidewaiter – yes, he waited for the incoming tide so he could board ships. It was a dangerous job – Aidan quotes Pococke’s account from 1752: . . .they have a term of hiding an officer, which is knocking in the head and putting him under a turf. There have been many instances of officers never heard of.

Rock Island as viewed from Crookhaven

The Admiralty started a serious crackdown on smuggling in 1816 and that’s when their lease on the West End of Rock Island began. The Coast Guard eventually became a reserve of the Royal Navy and later was controlled by the Admiralty. Its vicissitudes on Rock Island are chronicled by Aidan, including its less-than-stellar performance during the Famine. His account is exhaustive and provides a detailed picture of a British service that was deeply disliked and where the officers felt constantly under siege, culminating in a series of attacks by the IRA in 1920 and the eventual abandonment of the post that year.

Today the former Coast Guard Station has been beautifully renovated and the houses are used for holidays. They look magnificent in their flashy paint, reminders of both a colonial past and a Celtic Tiger economy.

The easterly tower

I have mentioned the two towers in a previous post, both of which have been incorrectly described in the National Monuments records and the Buildings of Ireland site. They are described as belvederes by National Monuments (see my post on Belvederes for an explanation) and as signal towers by Buildings of Ireland.

Brian Lalor’s sketch of the tower, also incorrectly identified as a Napoleonic-era Signal Tower, based on information from National Monuments

The most likely use for the westerly one, according to Aidan, was as a pilotage tower. Pilotage was a competitive business, and whoever could first see the ship at sea and get to it first with an offer of service, had a distinct advantage over others. The easterly tower was used by the Coast Guard as a look out.

At the north side of the island is a sheltered harbour which from the 1920s to the 1970s was the centre of a lucrative lobster and shellfish industry which created a certain level of prosperity in the area, until the inevitable over-fishing caused a decline in the lobster population. Today the remains of the lobster ponds can still be seen, along with a large building that was used in the 1980s and 90s as a food production facility making, improbably, garlic butter.

Upper: the remains of the quay by the lobster ponds. Lower: Aidan, Amanda, Peter and Robert on our Rock Island tour

I have only given you a flavour of Rock Island – it’s also a place where bird and plant life is abundant and where seals pop up to say hello as you wander around the coast.

Sea Campion

It’s a tranquil place from another time, staggeringly beautiful and seeping history from its pores.

This curious castellated boat shed is one of a pair on the north side

We are currently using this image as our Facebook Page header – you could mistake it for a Greek island on a sunny day

*The book is available on Amazon, or contact us for the author’s email address.

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