Bloodshed and Fenny Poppers – the Legacy of Martinmas

If the wind is in the south-west at Martinmas (10 November), it keeps there till after Candlemas (2 February) . . .

I’m writing about St Martin again! I’ve already put up posts about this character and his fascinating legacy over the past few years. He can take another – after all, we celebrate St Patrick year after year and that’s ok, because this is Ireland . . . But St Martin never set foot in Ireland (as far as we know) although he is well remembered in many Irish traditions, including that piece of weather-lore above. And here – as elsewhere in Europe – there’s a phenomenon known as St Martin’s Summer, or Martin’s Little Summer, which describes an unseasonable spell of warm weather, sunshine and clear blue skies that occurs around about now, in mid-November. In fact today – Martinmas or St Martin’s eve – has dawned warm and clear.

Header and above – looking across Rossbrin Cove from the garden of Nead an Iolair early this morning – St Martin’s Eve – conforming with the tradition of ‘Little Summer’ associated with the saint

The English poet John Clare (1793 – 1864) – sometimes called the peasants’ poet – wrote a very long poem about  St Martin’s Eve: I’ll quote some verses as we go along. It’s worth noting that Clare was a great champion of traditional rural life, and was known as “. . . the greatest labouring-class poet . . . No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self . . .” That’s according to his biographer Jonathan Bate. Although some of his work was well received in his lifetime, he was unable to make enough to keep him, his wife and seven children – and his alcohol consumption – on an even keel. He suffered from ‘strange delusions’ and spent the last twenty seven years of his life in asylums where, nevertheless, he continued to write.

Now that the year grows wearisome with age 

& days grow short & nights excessive long

No outdoor sports the village hinds engage                                                                                Still is the meadow romp and harvest song                                                                               That wont to echo from each merry throng

At dinner hours beneath high spreading tree

Rude winds hath done the landscape mickle wrong

That nature in her mirth did ill foresee                                                                                       Who clingeth now to hope like shipwrecked folk at sea . . .

 

(John Clare, St Martin’s Eve, 1823)

Here’s St Martin, looking every inch a medieval knight – although in fact he lived in the fourth century. He was St Patrick’s uncle – possibly accounting for his popularity in Ireland. In this Italian representation he is shown cutting his cloak in two and giving half to a beggar: the act that has made him famous. He was a Roman soldier but gave up that calling to be consecrated as Bishop of Caesarodunum (Tours) in 371. Although he lived a long life, he is said to have died a martyr by being thrown into a mill stream where he was crushed by the wheel. He achieved acclaim as the patron saint of soldiers, but also managed to become the patron saint of conscientious objectors!

The Basilica at Tours, France (above). St Martin served as Bishop here from 371 – but reluctantly. It is said that he tried to hide from those who wanted to install him as Bishop, but his hiding place was given away by the cackling of geese – which have been associated with the saint ever since. Other stories tell how the saint destroyed pagan temples and cut down sacred trees: in one instance, the pagans agreed to fell their sacred fir tree, if Martin would stand directly in its path. He did so, and it miraculously missed him. There’s a relic in the St Catherine’s Convent Museum of Religious Art in Ultrecht, the Netherlands, which claims to be a hammer which St Martin used to fell pagan sites including sacred trees.  Archaeological analysis has shown it was probably made in the 13th or 14th century from a late Bronze Age stone axe dating from c 1,000 – 700 BC. The handle contains a Latin text saying Ydola vanurunt Martini cesa securi nemo deos credat qui sic fuerant ruicuri (‘the pagan statues fall down, hit by St Martin’s axe. Let nobody believe that those are gods, who so easily fall down’). Here it is:

Beside the fire large apples lay to roast

& in a high brown pitcher creaming ale

Was warming seasoned with a nutmeg toast

The merry group of gossips to regale

Around her feet the glad cat curled her tail

Listening the crickets song with half shut eyes

While in the chimney top loud roared the gale

Its blustering howl of outdoor symphonies

That round the cottage hearth bade happier moods arise . . .

 

(John Clare, St Martin’s Eve, 1823)

It seems a little incongruous, perhaps, to come from a world of basilicas and silver hammers to ancient folk-customs in rural Ireland, but not so long ago Martinmas was greatly celebrated here. Kevin Danaher quotes Mason’s Parochial Survey:

On the eve of St Martin (who is one of the greatest saints in their calendar) in November every family of a village kills an animal of some kind or other; those who are rich kill a cow or a sheep, others a goose or a turkey; while those who are poor, and cannot procure an animal of greater value, kill a hen or a cock and sprinkle the threshold with the blood, and do the same in the four corners of the house; and this ceremonious performance is done to exclude every kind of evil spirit from the dwelling where this sacrifice is made, till the return of the same day in the following year . . .

Danaher also mentions a writer, Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin, commenting in 1830 from County Kilkenny:

The eleventh day, St Martin’s Day. No miller sets a wheel in motion today, no more than a spinning woman would set a spinning wheel going, nor does the farmer put his plough team to plough . . .

The tradition undoubtedly refers back to St Martin’s death from being ‘ground by a mill wheel’. Significantly, there are numerous entries in the Dúchas Folklore Collection, dating from the 1930s, which show that these customs were still remembered and – on occasion – practised:

One of many examples from the Dúchas Folklore Collections which remember the importance of Martinmas customs

Martin King used kill a fowl every St Martin’s night in honour of St Martin. One year Martin forgot it and when he awoke in the morning the floor from his bedroom to the kitchen was covered with blood. Martin washed out the floor, but when he awoke again the following morning the floor was covered with blood again. This went on for three nights. Martin was very troubled about it so he told his story to an old woman that lived near him. The old woman told him it was because he had not killed something in honour of St Martin. Every year after that till he died Martin killed a hen or something in honour of St Martin . . .

 

(Eileen Donegan, Knockane, Listowel – collected for Dúchas 1935)

Another from Co Kerry:

St Martin’s day is held on the 11th of November. It is held as a feast day in honour of St Martin. The night before St Martin’s day people kill a goose or a chicken or some other kind of fowl, and they draw the blood and dip a piece of flax in it. They keep the piece of flax because it is said to be a cure for a pain in one’s side.

 

St Martin was a saint who was ground in a mill for his faith.

 

In olden times the mills used not work on that day The women in olden times used not work. No one would turn a wheel not even of a car.

 

(Mrs Walsh, aged 90 years – Tullamore, Co Kerry – collected for Dúchas)

The next piece is particularly interesting as it mentions St Martin’s association with a white horse:

It is a custom in Ireland to kill a cock on Saint Martin’s Night.

 

There was a man who emigrated to America. On St Martin’s night he was very sad. He was telling his friends that he would like to be home in Ireland, because if he were home he would kill a cock in honour of St. Martin.

 

He went outside and he went down the street. He met a man on a beautiful white horse. The man asked him would he like to go home. He said he was just wishing to be at home. He told him to get up on the horse. He did so and the next place he found himself was at his own door in Ireland.

 

The man told him to come out at a certain hour. He killed the cock and came out at the hour that he was told to do so. The man was waiting for him at the door. He got up on the horse and rode away. It was said that it was St Martin who brought him home.

 

(Maura Keating, aged 82 years, Passage East, Co Waterford)

St Martin’s Eve celebrations are still observed all over Europe. This is a festival in Italy, where children carrying lanterns watch out for the saint arriving on his white charger

What about Fenny Poppers? I hear you ask . . . Well, we have to go across to Northamptonshire, in England, for this surviving – and most curious – custom. St Martin’s Church, Fenny Stratford is to this day the scene of an event which has no apparent origin, nor any particular purpose. I won’t try to offer you an explanation – just to point out that it happens every Martinmas come hell or high water. Here’s a somewhat eccentric account of the event from a Movietone News snippet c 1950:

That’s probably enough about St Martin and his special day to last you another year. The subject is by no means exhausted!

Rossbrin Calendar

We know Rossbrin Cove intimately – more so than any other part of West cork. That’s because it’s right on our doorstep, and there is seldom a day when we don’t walk or drive along the Cove; and, even if we fail to get out, the views from our windows at Nead an Iolair will always be looking down on the Cove and its castle. I conceived the idea of sorting through all our pictures and selecting a ‘calendar’ of Rossbrin, taking us consecutively through the months of the year so that we can follow the seasons and the changes that every day brings. That’s Rossbrin Castle above, a view taken in January – which can often be atmospherically misty. But the picture below was also taken in that month, when we explored an abandoned house in the environs of Rossbrin: just as atmospheric in its own way – and bursting with a story to tell . . . But we’ll never know it.

Low tide at Rossbrin, taken from the pier and looking towards the boatyard – an important aspect of the Cove as the winter laying-up and maintenance of pleasure boats brings all-year-round life to the area and provides a livelihood. The picture above was taken in February, on a good clear day. In the middle distance you can just make out a wrecked boat uncovered by the receding water: this is the ‘Flying Foam’ – still rather enigmatic – which I wrote about a little while ago. We expect our strongest gales in February, and the picture below was taken when storm clouds began to gather.

March can also be a month when the weather is inclement (above), but we had a surprise in 2018 when snow covered the land around us (below) – a climatic event seldom experienced in Roaringwater Bay, which is more usually kept mild by the Gulf Stream. That’s Castle Island beyond the Cove – once inhabited (and with its own castle which you can see in the picture) but now just used to run sheep and cattle.

You can see how quickly the weather changes in West Cork: Rossbrin Castle Farm is enjoying blue sea and skies in April, and the gorse is in bloom, showing that love is in season! In the detail below, at the edge of the Cove and also in April, we can see the new spring growth beginning to overtake last year’s seed-heads.

By the time May arrives, boats are already being taken out of winter storage and are anchored in the Cove. We get fabulous skyscapes perched up here above Rossbrin, and these mares’ tails herald windy weather ahead.

This is one of my favourite pictures – taken by Finola from Nead an Iolair in June. Late evening sun paints the sky and sea in almost implausible colours – although the photo has not been doctored. The whole effect beautifully outlines the Fastnet Rock lighthouse on the horizon with some of Carbery’s Hundred Isles silhouetted as if floating; Rossbrin is in the foreground. By day you can see that wildflowers are abundant this month (below).

The sea in July is at its bluest. Here is Roaringwater Bay out beyond the shelter of Rossbrin on a calm day. There is hardly a ripple on the surface, except for the elegant wake of the yacht motoring in.

Nead an Iolair – our house – taken in August. You can see that Rossbrin Cove is central to our view out over the Islands. The name of the house means ‘Nest of the Eagle’, and the birds have obligingly flapped their way into the photo, courtesy of Photoshop. White-tailed Sea Eagles do survive in Kerry – not too far away – and they have occasionally been seen in West Cork. Once they were common across the west of Ireland. Below is another August picture – a wild apple tree close to the shore of Rossbrin.

I couldn’t resist adding this picture to the August tally (above): it’s an abandoned post box set into the wall of the old Rossbrin School, now closed. The school building survives as a private house and retains some of the architectural features of its previous use.

This magnificent machine is a remote-controlled boat-lift and was photographed on the large slipway which is at the western end of the Cove, last September. The Cove is a natural harbour and has been used as a resource for sheltering fishing boats and providing facilities for fish processing since medieval times. This post outlines how ‘fish palaces’ worked: there was at least one here in Rossbrin.

By October most of the boats have been taken off their moorings (above), and the weather changes again. We sometimes have the first of the winter storms this month, although it can equally be benign. Autumn brings with it dramatic skies and sunsets – and a feeling of melancholy, because the holiday houses down by the water are empty and shuttered for the onset of winter. But the weather can continue to surprise and November sunshine (below) can be as warming as any other time of year. It’s a good time for us to watch out for the wading birds – such as the curlews – who come in close to shore and forage on the mud flats.

And so we come to the end of the year in Rossbrin. This has been a fairly random selection of images, picked out because each was taken in a particular month. We know how fortunate we are to live in this rich and constantly changing environment. Not only are we surrounded by nature, but the immediate history is alive with stories – of Fineen O’Mahony, the Scholar Prince of Rossbrin, who lived at Rossbrin Castle in the 15th century and surrounded himself with a university of monks and scribes and made a fortune out of fishing dues – and of Sir William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork who exploited Rossbrin in the 17th century, also for fish. Now we look down on a sparsely populated townland and the bay beyond it: it’s a most beautiful place to know and to live in. For December I have chosen a classic view of the castle with a wintry sky and late sun creating patterns on the half-tide.

‘Flying Foam’

A recent post – Fish Palaces and How They Worked – discussed the history of the fishing industry in the south west of Ireland, and focussed on our own Roaringwater Bay. There’s an ‘extra’ story following on from that – well worth the telling, but frustratingly incomplete.

The header picture (courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich) shows a ‘dandy-rigged nobby’, a traditional fishing vessel built on the Isle of Man during the second half of the nineteenth century. The photograph above shows such a boat, also from the Isle of Man. ‘Nobbies’ like these came to form the basis of a fishing fleet centred on Cape Clear and Baltimore, provided by the benefice of ‘the wealthiest lady in Victorian Britain’ – Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts (1814 – 1906). Here she is, below.

Angela Burdett-Coutts was just twenty-three when in 1837 she gained an inheritance of around three million pounds (roughly one hundred and thirty million pounds in today’s money) from her Grandfather, which she immediately directed to good causes. According to the Dictionary of National Biography

In 1862 Father Davis, the parish priest of Rathmore, co. Cork (now Baltimore), appealed to her for aid on behalf of the people of the south-west of Ireland, especially in the district of Skibbereen, Crookhaven, and the Islands of Cape Clear, Sherkin, Hare, and the Calves, which had never recovered from the sufferings of the famine years 1848 and 1849 . . . Her chief work was to revive and extend the fishing industry of the south-west coast. She advanced large sums of money, on a well-devised scheme of repayment out of profits, to provide the fishermen of Baltimore and the Islands with the best fishing-boats that could be built, and fitted them with modern and suitable gear. In the course of five years the new fishing fleet of Baltimore was valued at 50,000 pounds . Much of the capital was in due course repaid; and Father Davis used all his influence to keep his parishioners scrupulously to their engagements. In 1884 she paid her first visit to the district and was everywhere welcomed with enthusiasm. With the assistance of Sir Thomas Brady she soon afterwards helped to inaugurate a fishery training school for 400 boys at Baltimore. The school was opened by her on 16 Aug 1887, when she was received with bonfires on the wild hill-sides, and flags flew from every cottage down the coast from Queenstown to Baltimore.

Fish processing on the quay in Cape Clear, nineteenth century

By 1900 fishing in West Cork was in its heyday, with an annual turnover of £100,000. Between 1880 and 1926 Baltimore was the largest fishing port in Ireland and 78 fishing vessels were registered locally. By 1907, after the North Pier had been built, the fleet was so numerous that you could, it was said, walk to Sherkin across the decks of the boats!

Looking across to Sherkin Island from the Cove, Baltimore, today

A further version of the story appeared in Ireland’s Own Magazine, in September 2018, narrated by Eugene Daly:

My father, Mícheál Ó Dálaigh, was born on Cape Clear in 1910, the eldest of four children. When his father Eugene died in 1920, he quickly had to take over the part of breadwinner and at a young age became a fisherman . . . The people of Clear, often known as Capers, had for many generations always been fishermen. On Cape Clear one is aware of the all-embracing sea. In the 1880s, through the work of Father Charles Davis, a £10,000 loan was granted by the English philanthropist, Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts. With those loans they bought ‘dandies’, 50 to 60 ft long made in the Isle and Man and later in Baltimore Fishery School. By 1920 there were up to forty of these boats fishing out of Trá Chiaráin, the island harbour. Some of the musical names for these boats include Sarah Gale, Guiding Star, Carbery Queen, Jasmine of Downings etc . . .

What is of interest to us is that – according to local tradition – there is the remains of one of the ‘nobbies’ or ‘dandies’ in Rossbrin Cove, just below where we live in Nead an Iolair. You’ll have to look at low tide: you can just make out the scuttled boat in the picture above, on the right in the middle distance. In the view below the wreckage is clear.

It was our near neighbour, Michael John, who told us that this was one of the Burdett-Coutts boats, and that it was named ‘Flying Foam’. He also remembered hearing a poem or recitation about the boat and its fate at some time in the past but – in spite of many enquiries locally – I can as yet glean no further information. Frustratingly, this is where the story is left hanging in the air . . . Perhaps a reader of this journal might have the memory and can enlighten us? We would love to find the poem!

Fish Palaces – and How They Worked

Four years ago I wrote about the fishing industry that once flourished on the shores of Roaringwater Bay (and around much of the west coast of Ireland): according to extant records it was active before 1500, and probably had its heyday in the seventeenth century, when it was heavily invested in by the Great Earl of Cork (Richard Boyle, sometimes described as ‘the richest man in the known world’). In those days, pilchards were the main catch: huge shoals of them came to the comparatively warm, sheltered waters of the islands during the summer months, along with other oily fish such as herring and mackerel. Seine boats were commonly used for this enterprise. Today, pilchards are rare: through a combination of overfishing and changing climate, the bountiful shoals no longer appear.

Header – pilchard curing in St Ives, Cornwall c1890: the pilchards are piled up in layers, forming the huge mound in the centre of the photograph. They are salted and weighted down. Above – curing the fish, Valencia Island, Co Kerry, early 20th century (Reddit / Ireland)

Shooting the Seine:

There were two boats per seine net, the seine and the faller. The seine boat was 27 foot long with a beam close to nine foot. The golden rule on the Northside was to never get into a boat whose beam was less than one third its length. The seine boat had five oars of about 17 foot (bow, Béal-tuile, aft, bloc and tiller oars). The crew of seven had to shoot the seine net; one man shooting the trip rope, another to feed out the bunt rope, four men rowing and the huer (master of the seine and captain of the boat) directing the operation. The faller (or bloc) boat was 24 foot long with a crew of five. Its job was stoning and to carry any fish caught. The largest load a faller could carry would be around 5,000 fish. All boats carried a Crucifix and a bottle of Holy Water.

(from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy & Richard Hawkes, 1991)

Twentieth century remains of a seine boat, from Northside of the Mizen

If the fish are gone, remains of the machinery of that industry are still to be seen. In particular, the sites of some of the curing stations – or Fish Palaces – are visible, and are recorded on the National Monuments Archaeological Survey Database. Take a look at the map below: I have drawn green pilchards to show the sites of fish palaces mentioned in the database – eleven in all on this section of the map. Also shown by red pilchards, however, are the sites of another six ‘curing stations’: these are mentioned in a long article by historian Arthur E J Went, Pilchards in the South of Ireland, published in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1949: Volume 51, pages 137 – 157.

Known sites – or historical mention of – fish palaces (curing stations) in the South West of Ireland (information from  National Monuments database and  Arthur E J Went, Pilchards in the South of Ireland 1949)

The active fishing of pilchards on a large scale in Ireland has been discontinued for many years so that, unlike Cornwall, there is little left, apart from published records, to indicate its former importance. There is, however, published information as to the methods of fishing, and a few sites of old curing stations, frequently called pallices, can still be identified.

from Arthur E J Went, Pilchards in the South of Ireland, 1949

Arthur Edward James Went (1910–80), noted fisheries biologist and historian, lived at Sandycove, Co Dublin. In 1936 he was appointed Assistant Inspector of Fisheries in the Department of Agriculture, Dublin, and later was promoted to the position of Scientific Adviser and Chief Inspector of Fisheries

As explorers of all things historic and archaeological – particularly in West Cork – Finola and I couldn’t resist visiting some of the sites of Palaces – or Pallices – documented in these studies. We have always know about the one nearest to Nead an Iolair, in Rossbrin Cove – it’s just down the road: a perfect sheltered harbour, although it does dry out at very low tides. However, there seems to be some debate about exactly where this one is located. It would date from the time of William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork, so how much would be left after 500 years? There is a field on the north shore of the Cove with an old name: The Palleashes which, according to Arthur Went (quoting local tradition), was the site of a curing station for pilchards, operated by the ‘Spaniards’. There seems to be some difference of opinion locally as to which of the many small fields here is the actual site, although it is likely to be close to the large, now modernised quay, as this shows up on the earliest maps.

In the upper picture: the quay at Rossbrin is still used by small fishing boats today. Centre – the field above the present quay may be The Palleashes, and therefore could be the site of the medieval fish palace: there are very overgrown signs of stone walls here. Lower picture – the old 6″ OS map, surveyed around 1840, shows a lane accessing the area above the quay (to the left of the ‘Holy Well’ – that lane is no longer there today) and there are buildings close to the shore which could indicate the palace. In 1840 there was no road running along the north shore of the Cove, but the strand at low tide would have been used as a thoroughfare. Just above the ‘Holy Well’ indicated on the shoreline – and slightly to the right – is a small red dot. This is the area shown by Arthur Went as the possible site of the fish palace (and subsequently marked as such on the Archaeological Database); in my opinion it is more likely to have been directly accessed from the water.

A sure sign of the site of a fish palace is a line of perforations or holes – as can be seen above at Baltimore, where a substantial curing station is recorded (although it may only date from the nineteenth century). Large timbers were inserted horizontally into these holes to form a ‘press beam’ to provide leverage for bucklers to squash out the oil from the salted pilchards, as shown in Arthur Went’s diagram, below:

The ‘Train Oil’ – produced from the compressed pilchards – was a valuable commodity, and was collected to be stored and used for treating leather, and as fuel for lamps. As a by-product of the pilchard industry it was said to be as valuable as the fish themselves.

Palace Strand, in Schull

To continue my researches I went along to Schull, where Arthur Went mentions a ‘Palace House’ on ‘Palace Strand’ – an inlet just to the east of the main harbour. This is right beside the old railway station which was not quite the terminus of the Schull & Skibbereen Railway, as a spur went on from the station to serve the harbour itself. The station buildings and part of the platform are still there – now a private residence. I could not find anything in the area shown on Went’s map at the east end of the strand, but I did find something at the west end.

In the upper picture is a wall on the western boundary of the old station site in Schull. This contains beam holes very similar in size and spacing to those we have seen in fish palaces elsewhere: it’s very tempting to think that this wall – now part of a derelict building – may have had this purpose, as it is well situated close to the shoreline of Palace Strand. If this was a fish palace, it is also likely to date from the nineteenth century, as the early Ordnance Survey maps don’t indicate it. The centre picture shows the old station buildings today, and the lower picture taken at Schull Station in 1939 reminds us of past times: the railway closed in 1947.

This post is a ‘taster’ for a fully illustrated talk I’m giving at Bank House, Ballydehob, on Tuesday 26 February at 8pm: Pilchards & Palaces – 300 years of Fishing in South-West Ireland. It’s part of the Autumn series of Ballydehob’s ‘Talks at the Vaults’

Below – a postcard showing fish curing on Cape Clear in 1906 (from Hely’s, Dublin)

Chough Country

WHERE not a sound is heard
But the white waves, O bird,
And slippery rocks fling back the vanquish’d sea,
Thou soarest in thy pride,
Not heeding storm or tide;
In Freedom’s temple nothing is more free.

‘Tis pleasant by this stone,
Sea-wash’d and weed-o’ergrown,
With Solitude and Silence at my side,
To list the solemn roar
Of ocean on the shore,
And up the beetling cliff to see thee glide.

Though harsh thy earnest cry.
On crag, or shooting high
Above the tumult of this dusty sphere,
Thou tellest of the steep
Where Peace and Quiet sleep,
And noisy man but rarely visits here.

For this I love thee, bird.
And feel my pulses stirr’d
To see thee grandly on the high air ride,
Or float along the land,
Or drop upon the sand,
Or perch within the gully’s frowning side.

Thou bringest the sweet thought
Of some straw-cover’d cot,
On the lone moor beside the bubbling well,
Where cluster wife and child,
And bees hum o’er the wild:
In this seclusion it were joy to dwell.

Will such a quiet bower
Be ever more my dower
In this rough region of perpetual strife?
I like a bird from home
Forward and backward roam;
But there is rest beneath the Tree of Life.

In this dark world of din,
Of selfishness and sin,
Help me, dear Saviour, on Thy love to rest;
That, having cross’d life’s sea,
My shatter’d bark may be
Moor’d safely in the haven of the blest.

The Muse at this sweet hour
Hies with me to my bower
Among the heather of my native hill;
The rude rock-hedges here
And mossy turf, how dear!
What gushing song! how fresh the moors and still!

No spot of earth like thee,
So full of heaven to me,
O hill of rock, piled to the passing cloud!
Good spirits in their flight
Upon thy crags alight,
And leave a glory where they brightly bow’d.

I well remember now,
In boy-days on thy brow,
When first my lyre among thy larks I found,
Stealing from mother’s side
Out on the common wide,
Strange Druid footfalls seem’d to echo round.

Dark Cornish chough, for thee
My shred of minstrelsy
I carol at this meditative hour,
Linking thee with my reed,
Grey moor and grassy mead,
Dear carn and cottage, heathy bank and bower.

I was pleased to find this poem. It was written by a Cornishman – John Harris – who was born in 1820 in Bolenowe. Perhaps he was an ancestor? His father was a miner at Dolcoath Tin Mine where young John also started at the age of 10. He began writing poetry as a child, usually in the open air where he was inspired by nature. After 20 years working in the mine, one of his poems was eventually published in a magazine. It attracted notice, and he was encouraged to produce a collection, which was published in 1853. The Cornish Chough is taken from that collection.

Above – choughs over Rossbrin Cove. The wonderful header picture was kindly given to us to use in a previous piece on the birds by our friend and neighbour Oliver Nares. Oliver and Susie are fortunate to have choughs nesting on their property and keep a good eye out for the welfare of the chough families which are raised there. We don’t have choughs nesting at Nead an Iolair (which means Nest of the Eagle) but we often see and hear them over us: they are the most acrobatic and joyful of birds.

The reason I have returned to choughs today is that they were the subject of an early post which I published on Roaringwater Journal on 6 October 2013 – exactly five years ago! Choughs – Cornwall’s emblematic birds – left that county fifty years ago but returned very recently as migrants from Ireland. We consider ourselves very privileged to be living in abundant chough country.

Mizen Magic 9: Rossbrin to Schull

There’s a main road between Ballydehob and Schull, and then there’s a back road – a road that meanders through farmland and down half-forgotten boreens, a road lined with wildflowers and dotted with the remains of past history, a road that looks over once-inhabited islands. South of this road lies Mizen Magic 9.

Along the back road in early summer

We’ll start at Rossbrin Cove – a place that Robert has written about over and over, like any writer with his own ‘territory.’ This was the home, in the 15th century, of Fineen O’Mahony, the Scholar Prince of Rossbrin.

Looking down now on what’s left of his castle, it’s hard to imagine that this was a place teeming with life and learning – a mini-university where scribes and poets and translators transcribed to vellum (and to paper – a first in Ireland) psalters, medical tracts and even the travels of Sir John Mandeville. The castle has been in ruins since the 1600s, and we live in fear that the next storm will bring the last of it down.

Rossbrin Castle from the sea

The road runs through the townlands of Rossbrin, Ballycummisk, Kilbronogue, Derreennatra and Coosheen. Ballycummisk has a wedge tomb from the Bronze Age and a ring fort from the Early Medieval period – just to remind you that you are far from the first to want to settle in this place. In more recent times, and like Horse Island, it was once the centre of a thriving mining industry, but a spoil heap and stone pillars are all that remain.

Large ring fort, and the remains of mining activity, in Ballycummisk

Two islands dominate the views of Roaringwater Bay along this road. The first is Horse Island, owned now by one family, with its industrial past a distant memory. There have been various plans for Horse Island in recent years – a resort, a distillery – but so far it has resisted development.

Horse Island Miners in 1898 and the ruins of miners’ dwellings

The other is Castle Island, home to yet another vestigial O’Mahony Castle – one of a string along the coastline, all within sight of each other and sited strategically to control the waters of Roaringwater Bay and their abundant resources.

There’s not much left of the castle on Castle Island

The O’Mahonys became fabulously wealthy in their day, charging for access to fishing and fish processing facilities and for supplies and fresh water. They also forged strong alliances with the Spanish and French fishermen and visitors who plied those waters – a friendship that was to cause great concern to the English crown and that was to spell, in part, their eventual downfall.

Ruined farm houses on Castle Island. The photograph was taken from a boat – that’s Mount Gabriel in the background

The closest spot to Castle Island (also uninhabited) is the beautiful little pier at Derreennatra. There is a large house up behind the pier, now inaccessible but once run as a guest house and famous for its hospitality. A curious bridge once gave access to the demesne and it remains a striking landscape feature, with its pillars and giant Macrocarpa tree.

Derreennatra Bridge

Continuing towards Schull we come to the last of the O’Mahony castles and the best preserved in this area. This is Ardintenant (probably Árd an Tinnean – Height of the Beacon – possibly referring to a function of the castle to alert others to the presence of foreign vessels) and it was the home of the Taoiseach, or Chief, of this O’Mahony sept.

Two ‘beacons,’ ancient and modern – Ardintenant or White Castle below and above it the signal stations on Mount Gabriel

The castle, or tower house, still has a discernible bawn with stretches of the wall and a corner tower still standing. If you want to learn more about our West Cork tower houses, see the posts When is a Castle..?; Illustrating the Tower House; and Tower House Tutorial, Part 1 and Part 2.

Ardintenant is also known as White Castle, a reference to the fact that it was once lime-washed and stood out (like a beacon!) to be visible for miles around. It appears to have been built on top of an earlier large ring-fort which in its own day was the Taoiseach’s residence before the fashion for tower house building.

Sea Plantain at Coosheen

From Ardintenant we head south to Coosheen, a picturesque pebble beach known only to locals. It’s one of my favourite places to go to look for marine-adapted wildflowers. On a rainy day last August I saw Sea-kale, Sea-holly, Sea Plantain and Thrift, and drove back on a boreen lined with Meadowsweet and Wood Sage and past a standing stone whose purpose has been long-forgotten but that continues its vigil through the centuries.

Our final spot in Coosheen is Sheena Jolley’s mill house, now the gallery of this award-winning wildlife photographer. She has restored it beautifully and the gardens are a work-in-progress that manage to capitalise on, rather than overwhelm, the mill stream and the rocky site. This is also the starting point for the Butter Road walk – but that deserves a new post one of these days, a post in the Mizen Magic series. We have written one but it was a long time ago.

Take a walk, or a drive, down any part of this road – do it in summer when the boreens are heady with wildflowers, or do it in winter when the colours of the countryside are at their most vivid. Heck, do it any time!