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)

Saints and Soupers: the Story of Teampall na mBocht (Part 3, The Protestants – Tithes and the Second Reformation)

While the Church of Ireland was the Established Church in Ireland since the time of Henry VIII, it was not the only Protestant group operating in Ireland. Methodists, in particular, had won many converts since the days when John Wesley himself had come preaching (above). However, like Catholics, breakaway and Dissenter communities were disadvantaged in comparison to the Church of Ireland.

Bandon Methodist Church, established in 1821

This privileged position, while it came with all the advantages conferred by reliable revenues, political power and access to education, was also accompanied by the constant awareness of being a minority, often an unwelcome one, and by the decadence and laxity that generations of wealth can confer.

1864 Map of the Church of Ireland Dioceses

Dr Kenneth Milne, writing in The Church of Ireland: An Illustrated History (Published by Booklink, 2013) describes the situation thusly:

. . . plurality and non-residency came to be regarded as endemic. There is evidence that there were many faithful (and often impecunious) Church of Ireland clergy, but their existence has been somewhat masked by the prevalence of ambition and negligence among many others, particularly of the higher rank.

While it was to the bishops that one would have looked to remedy the situation, they themselves were frequently non-resident, at least for long periods, preferring the amenities of Dublin (or sometimes London and Bath, for most of the more remunerative sees were given by the crown to Englishmen as part of that great web of patronage that lay at the heart of government and was the norm). Such episcopal failings were by no means peculiar to the bishops and other dignitaries of the Church of Ireland, and were common throughout Europe, but what made the Irish episcopate more vulnerable to criticism was its remoteness (in more sense than one) from the great majority of the populations, and the fact that it drew it emoluments, often very considerable indeed, from lands to which its entitlement was often in dispute. In addition, it demanded tithes paid by a resentful population who, be they Roman Catholic or Dissenter, were also encumbered with contributing towards the support of the ministry of the Church to which they gave their fealty.

The Tithe Collector – collectors were employed on behalf of the clergy and were called Proctors. They took a cut, so there was a strong incentive to collect

Catholic Emancipation in 1829 was followed by a period of intensified conflict over tithes, known as the Tithe Wars. (Tithes had been a source of great conflict forever – see Robert’s post for La Tocnaye’s observations about tithes in the 1790s.) A large anti-tithe meeting was held in Skibbereen in July 1832 and the speech made by Father Thomas Barry of Bantry was reported in full. Here are some extracts from it, reported by Richard Butler in his paper St Finbarr’s Catholic Church, Bantry: a history for Volume Three of the Journal of the Bantry Historical and Archaeological Society:

The Rev. Thomas Barry, P. P., in seconding [an anti-Tithe] resolution, announced himself as a mountaineer from Bantry, and was received with a cead mille failthe [sic], which was sufficient to affright all the proctors in the kingdom from their propriety. . . .

But (continued the Rev. Gentleman) . . . If to assist the people in their peaceful and constitutional efforts for the removal of grievances to hear the insolence of power in defence of the poor man’s rights, invariably to inculcate on the minds of my flock the most unhesitating obedience to the laws, and at the same time, to raise my voice boldly and fearlessly against injustice and oppression. If these constitute the crime of rebellion, then do I rejoice in acknowledging the justice of the charge. [tremendous cheering.]

. . . Some time since I commenced building a chapel in Bantry, which, owing to the poverty and privation of the people, I have been unable to finish, although thousands are extorted from them for the Parson and the Proctor – the Churchwarden applied to me for Church rates – I desired him to look at the Chapel, and there he would find my answer: he begged of me not to give bad example by refusing to pay, and I told him, that I was well convinced that the example which I gave in this instance was particularly edifying. – (great laughter and much cheering.) – The proctor came next, and threatened me with distraint for the amount of tithes with which he charged me, and which I must do him the justice to say he never previously demanded. I told him to commence as soon as he pleased; and so gratified did I feel at the honour which he intended for me, that I was resolved to make a holyday day for him (laughter and cheers.)

– The Rev. Gentleman sat down amidst the most enthusiastic cheering.

This meeting was but one in a series in West Cork throughout the 1830s. Patrick Hickey, in Famine in West Cork, reports on meetings in Bantry and at the foot of Mount Gabriel – meetings attended by thousands, each parish under the leadership of their priest. In Bantry, the various tradesmen of Bantry marched in procession, each trade with its own banners. On one side of the tailors’ banner was a portrait if Bishop Doyle with the inscription, ‘May our hatred of tithes be as lasting as our love for justice’ and on the other side a portrait of Daniel O’Connell. At the Mount Gabriel meeting a procession of boats came from the islands and the men of Muinter Bheara arrived under the command of Richard O’Donovan of Tullagh and many Protestants (including Methodists and the descendant of Huguenots) attended.

One of the most outspoken of the Church of Ireland community against the anti-tithe movement was Rev Robert Traill, Rector of Schull (above). In doing so he was following the example of his father, the Rev Anthony Traill, who had used a particularly brutal proctor, Joseph Baker, to collect his tithes, while he himself resided in Lisburn. Fearing, of course, the loss of his income, Rev Robert railed against the meetings, declaring that in doing so he waged war against Popery and its thousand forms of wickedness. When cholera broke out after one of the monster meetings he wrote that is was God’s punishment for the agitation stirred by the iniquity of these wicked priests. He had reason to be afraid – the rector of Timoleague had been murdered and throughout the country killings, assaults and riots had occurred. It was a challenging time to be a Church of Ireland rector. (Remember Rev Traill, by the way, and don’t cast him as a villain in this story – he will feature again for his heroic role during the famine – yet another twist in the complex role of the Protestant church in this part of Ireland.)

The battle at Carrickshock, Co Kilkenny (from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England). This confrontation over tithes resulted in several deaths and sent shock waves through the country

Eventually (see Part 2) the Tithe Wars eased, a compromise (if not a solution) was reached and outright protests ceased. Let us turn our attention now to what was happening within the Church of Ireland in matters of doctrine.

An enormous stained glass window in Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Cork is dedicated to Daniel O’Connell, The Liberator, by a grateful people

Latitudinarianism – lovely word, isn’t it? It refers to the live and let live philosophy that was generally adopted by Protestants in the 18th century. Actually a reaction against the Puritan insistence on a single form of Truth, it was sometimes called Broad Church and was a mode of thought that tolerated variations on thought and practise and sought to peacefully co-exist with other forms of worship. However, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, this emphasis on compromise and moderation was gradually being replaced with a new evangelical fervour, leading to a movement known as the Second Reformation.

This movement, it is often said, was kick-started in Ireland by William Magee, Archbishop of Dublin and fervently committed to the Second Reformation. He gave a firebrand sermon upon his inauguration in 1822 in which he accused the Catholics and the Methodists thus:

. . . the one possessing a church without which we can call a religion, and the other possessing a religion without which we can call a church: the one so blindly enslaved as to suppose infallible ecclesiastical authority, as not to seek in the word of God a reason for the faith they possess; the other so confident in the infallibility of their individual judgment as to the reasons of their faith that they deem it their duty to resist all authority in matters of religion. We, my Brethren, are to keep free of both extremes, and holding the Scriptures as our great charge, whilst we maintain the liberty with which Christ has made us free, we are to submit ourselves to the authority to which he has made us subject.

In this sermon, which created a furore at the time, he was essentially giving voice to prevailing Protestant opinion at the time regarding the other churches, and also to the claim of the Church of Ireland to be the only national church. It is important to note here that the Church of Ireland considered then, as it does to this day, that far from being an imported or imposed religion, it was, and remains the only true successor of the original faith of the Irish. This was first argued by James Ussher (portrait below by James Lely) in the seventeenth century.

The Church of Ireland, Ussher said, was not created by Henry VIII, but that St Patrick was Protestant in his theology and that the real problem was the interference of the Pope. (Ussher, by the way, is the same prelate who established that the world is only 6000 years old, another statement that continues to resonate in fundamentalist circles – but that’s another story.) In this origin story, it was important to “rescue” the true Irish church from Rome and restore it to the vision of St Patrick. The current catechism on the St Patrick’s Cathedral website continues this tradition. To the question “Did the Church of Ireland begin at the Reformation?” the answer is “No – the Church of Ireland is that part of the Irish Church which was influenced by the Reformation, and has its origins on the early Celtic Church of St Patrick.”

William Magee bust in Trinity College

Magee’s assertions were sincerely held positions. Although a cultured and erudite man, and tolerant in many respects, he was violently opposed to Catholic Emancipation, seeing the conversion of Romanists to Protestantism as a far better option both for them and for the country. His sermon effectively marked the end of any leftover latitudinarian attitudes in Ireland and heralded the arrival of a new era for the church of Ireland, in which educational, evangelical and proselytising activities were seen as essential. Next week we will see what effect those activities had on the already deepening divide between Ireland’s faith communities in the pre-famine period.

St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin – along with the position of being the Established Church, all the ancient churches became the property of the Church of Ireland, including this one. Magee delivered his famous sermon here

This link will take you to the complete series, Part 1 to Part 7

Art and the Workhouse

Trump was not the first man who thought that separating desperate families applying for asylum provided an additional deterrent – that distinction belonged to the workhouse system in which men, women and children were kept apart once admitted.

Two distinct artistic projects centre on the remains of local workhouses in West Cork in the coming week. Both are associated with the highly anticipated Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger Exhibition at Uillinn.

Robert contemplates the memorial plaque at the famine graveyard in the grounds of the Skibbereen Community Hospital – the former site of the Workhouse. The towering wall remains from that time

How do we address the ghastly system that was The Workhouse? How can we look back on the barbarity of the political and economic philosophies that dreamed up such an institution and perpetrated such depths of misery on starving people? How do we remember without stirring up old hatreds and move instead to a place of compassion and healing, a place of determination not to repeat such atrocities in this country? Perhaps one way is though art. Two distinct artistic approaches have been underway in West Cork for some time and each will culminate this week.

What’s left of the Schull Workhouse. It was destroyed by the IRA during the War of Independence. The dreaded reception area is on the right, and in the initial photograph

Before I talk about the two projects, take a moment here to revisit my 2014 post on the Workhouse. It explains the Workhouse system and has links to more information. You might also, if you haven’t already done so, read what Asenath Nicholson had to say about dire poverty and the Bantry Workhouse.

Jean Leary was one of the 110 Skibbereeen girls – here she is celebrating her 50th wedding anniversay in Australia. Thank you to her great, great……granddaughter Judith Constable for sharing this photograph. Judith will be travelling from Australia to attend the unveiling of the memorial on Friday

Artist Toma McCullim’s project centres on the Skibbereen Workhouse and is called 110 Skibbereen Girls. The Earl Grey Famine Orphan Scheme provided passage to Australia for young women. The young women from Skibbereen left a difficult present for an unknown future, and it is estimated that perhaps 10,000 Australians trace their descent to them. There is an excellent account of the project in the Irish Times and another in the Examiner.

Photograph courtesy of Aoise Tutty

I participated in a Walk and Talk with Toma in the grounds of the former Skibbereen Workhouse, now the Community Hospital. It was a deeply moving experience, as Toma asked us to imagine ourselves in the position of one of the girls, and talked us through the events of their lives. We started at what was once the Women’s Entrance and walked up to the graveyard.

We chose an apple and mine represented Alice Fitzgerald. It was all too easy to slip into the past with Toma, and a very emotional experience. Photograph courtesy of Aoise Tutty

Toma is a gifted educator: her tour immersed us in the lives of the young women in an imaginative and emotive way. The pièce de résistance, however, was when her phone rang, and on the line from Australia was a descendent of one of ‘our’ girls. It was a telling moment, somehow underscoring the resilience and heroism of the girls who had made such a difference in the land of their adoption.

The phone call from Australia

It is at the Women’s Entrance that the commemorative sculpture will be unveiled next Friday (July 20th, 2018) by the Australian Ambassador. All are welcome.

Installation underway

The following day (Saturday, July 21, 2018) we have another workhouse-based art project. It’s called Anáil na Beatha (Breath of Life) and it’s a multi-media performance by Alanna O’Kelly. Here’s the description:

The audience will proceed into the ruins of Schull Workhouse, where they will be immersed by fragmented sounds, layered imagery and light, surrounded by the silence and vastness of the countryside, and the stories of the thousands who were silenced by the Great Hunger. The performance will run as a series of vignettes that will reference some of the stories of the Great Hunger in West Cork, both historic and contemporary.

The only current inhabitants of the Schull Workhouse

Some friends are participating in the performance and, based on their experience in rehearsal, are urging everyone to go to what promises to be a deeply moving and artistically striking event. Robert and I have our tickets (they are available on Eventbrite).

Schull Workhouse ‘Mortuary Hospital’

I never thought I would get to attend something like this at the Schull Workhouse. In my Workhouse post I described the ‘aura of decay and sadness’ that resonates there, an echo of the misery that was visited upon the inmates. I am looking forward very much to seeing how Alanna uses the site in her performance piece, as expressed here:

She has a deep interest in place, people, community, our past and its effect on our present, the shaping of our culture, our identity and relationship to the world community and she is drawn to the particularities of place and context.

Workhouses stand out in Irish history as the most hated, feared and despised buildings in the land. The gaunt remnants that dot the countryside act as a constant reminder of a dark time in our collective memory. Perhaps through art we can begin to focus on a more hopeful and healing integration of that period: both a rejection of those values and compassion for those who suffered. We need, in Ireland, that kind of negotiation with our past.

Fastnet Film Festival 2018

How do you run a film festival in a town with no cinema? You use technology! The festival’s motto is Our Village is Our Screen, and it’s totally apt. For the duration of the Festival, you can drop into any venue (pub, cafe, village hall, mobile cinema), order up a coffee or a pint, and enjoy one of the many free short film programs on offer. This distributed intranet is all organised locally (kudos to Digital Forge!).

It’s all run now from the new Film Centre: the old Schull bank building is being converted, thanks to generous endowments from William and Judith Bollinger and others. It will be a tremendous asset for the town and there are Big Plans for the building in the future.

Pauline Cotter – the Chair, and beating heart of the Festival

The marvellous Blue House Gallery organised a show with the theme of “Tribal” that included a series of films along with the art works.

One of the gallery rooms in the Tribal Exhibition: felt idols by Christina Jasmin Roser, ceramics by Etain Hickey and Jim Turner, and sculptures by Eyelet Lalor

Each short film lasts anything from two to eighteen minutes. We are so used to long movies that it comes as a revelation that a complete story can be told in such a format. If you’re not sure that this is actually possible, watch Happy Birthday Timmy. We watched in in the world’s tiniest cinema – only room for three.

It’s called The Closet Cinema

One of the shorts that really hit a chord with us was from Cartoon Saloon, Late Afternoonhere’s the trailer, but it doesn’t really give a complete sense of the colour palette that made this such a special experience. It’s from the celebrated Cartoon Saloon studio and it’s already won awards. We also howled through The Fountain, a fabulous conceit built around the re-disovery of DuChamp’s iconic work of art. The Festival Image this year was from a powerful short called Little Shit, with a moving performance by the young actor, Badger Skelton.

DuChamp’s Fountain, said to have ushered in a new era in modern art

Besides the short films from all over the world, there are feature length movies, along with question and answer sessions with producers, directors, actors, casting specialists, composers, set designers… Aspiring film makers can take a stunt workshop, or have their script critiqued by a laser-sharp expert, or learn how to make a movie using only an iPhone. We had the young star of Song of Granite (an Oscar contender) who gave us an example of his sean nós (old style) singing. Here’s the trailer of that film, which we saw in general release earlier this year and which made a powerful impact on us.

We attended a screening of The War of the Buttons, with the producer, Lord David Puttnam (beloved local), the Casting Director and several of the (not so young any more) actors. It was a joyful occasion. Not only is it a classic and thoroughly enjoyable movie, but it was shot around West Cork, and apparently was one of those movies where everyone felt like family afterwards.

The best movie we saw all weekend, hands down, was the Irish documentary Making the Grade, which believe it or not was all about piano lessons. The header photo for this post is from that movie. The Director, Ken Wardrop, was there to receive our standing ovation and to tell us a little about his technique. Here’s an Irish Times Review that perfectly sums up how we all felt about it.

More difficult to watch was Black 47, a film of the Great Hunger, shot as a kind of Western, with a Connaught Ranger returning from the British Army’s Afghanistan Campaign to find his family dead and the land devastated. It raised complex issues for us and lead to some pretty intense discussions afterwards. Interestingly, it seems to have divided the critics down the middle, earning a 50/50 rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But the Irish Times had a thoughtful review of it that also contains a link to the trailer.

Lance Daly, the impossibly young-looking director of Black 47

And in between the shorts and the big screen events the star of the show was Schull, buzzing with lively interchanges on the streets and in the pubs and cafes, conversations spilling out onto the streets, speedy young volunteers dashing around the venues, banners waving gaily above the crowds. Celebrities, actors, producers, directors, casting experts, script writers happily mixed it up with the locals.

Locals out with the camera – except that’s Chris O’Dell behind the lens and Jim Sheridan (in the white shirt) directing

And the locals themselves featured in several movies, including one (The Wheel) about our friend Sheena’s superbly restored mill-wheel. The hilarious duo of Eileen and Marilyn (aka Terri Lieber and Karen Minihan) played us out tonight with their own take on a local film, made with the help of a great local crew.

Coosheen Mill, home of Sheena Jolley the esteemed wildlife photographer, and the subject of one of the short movies

We didn’t attend the awards ceremony, but it doesn’t matter to us really who won – except for one thing. Over and over we heard people urging us to see The Swimmer, about local resident and marathon swimmer, Steve Redmond. We didn’t get to see it – but we do hope it won a prize as it seems to have riveted everyone who saw it.

THANK YOU to the incredible committee that puts this Festival together every year – what an amazing job you have done, again!

It’s a cake, locally made by a VERY talented baker

Another Grand Day Out on the Fastnet Trails

Lowertown, Schull to Toormore: it may seem a rather unadventurous walk: mainly on narrow back roads. But, on a spring day of scudding clouds and clear air, with distant views from the high ground across to the Sheep’s Head and even beyond, into Kerry, there is stimulation a-plenty to be had from an easy afternoon’s ambling and exploring of places which would be passed by in an instant when driving down to the west of West Cork. Although largely on tiny boreens, you are unlikely to encounter any traffic: we didn’t see any vehicles in two hours, apart from those parked in the few houses and farmyards on the way.

Header – our walk is part of the Fastnet Trails network beyond Schull: in this case the Toormore Loop. Upper – undisturbed peace on the quiet boreens; lower – we started out at Lowerton, where you will find a fiddler at the ready beside the old dance platform!

We parked one car beside the church at Lowertown – opposite the site of the old dance platform, celebrated with the sculptures of Susan O’Toole – and the other beside Teampol na mBocht, the little church at Altar, overlooking Toormore Bay. This enabled us to take our time and enjoy every aspect of the route, walking from east to west: in my view always the proper way to walk – following the sun! I should point out that the route we took – around 5 kilometres – is only a part of the full Toormore Loop which is itself one of an excellent comprehensive system of Fastnet Trails which has been put in place in recent years.

From the board at Toormore Trail Head: I have indicated our walk from Lowertown to Altar with the broken red line over on the left. Leaflets showing the full extent of the Fastnet Trail walking routes are available in the tourism information offices in Ballydehob and Schull

The little road climbs up and over hills and down through valleys and glens. I hadn’t expected to find an old burial ground, the site of the original Ballinskea Church which existed in this remote area between 1826 and 1967, when the Church of the Seven Sacrements was built to replace it beside the main road at Lowertown.

The old burial ground at Ballinskea Church: top – a bit of local history, perhaps, in the name stamped on the ironwork at the gate; bottom – the graveyard is well looked after – cowslips are in abundance

We passed a few houses along the way, but many were abandoned: each one tells its own story of lives and livelihoods – but they don’t readily give away their secrets to us.

Some of the signs of former occupation and cultivation which we passed by on our way: the area seems so remote, yet it’s not so far from well-trodden routes

We were taken by surprise at the extent of the views both north and south from the higher ground. At one point we stopped to admire the long vista out over Dunmanus Bay with the Sheep’s Head settlement of Ahakista clearly delineated.

Top – the nature of the walk: I can’t guarantee that you won’t encounter a vehicle along these back roads, but we didn’t! Centre, looking back over rolling fields towards the wild high ground of Mount Gabriel. Bottom – the view towards Ahakista on the Sheep’s Head, with the Beara beyond

After a good hour you will reach a gateway where you will leave the boreens behind and continue across country. Of course, you don’t have to follow the marked trail: the myriad of tiny roadways continues throughout West Cork and is awaiting your further exploration. We did turn off, however, as the footpath beckoned through a leafy glen and looked most inviting. First of all, however, we paused to take a look at the bridge which carries the roadway over a stream that flows along by the path – and runs all the way down to Toormore Bay. The bridge is unusual in that it has a large stone slab lintol rather than an arch. I don’t know its history for sure, but I would guess it dates from the eighteenth century, when the road it carries was established as the main highway from Goleen to Cork!

Top – the footpath diverges from the main road to Cork! Just around the corner it passes over the unusual bridge (centre and below)

Our route is the line of the former Butter Road which ran all the way to the international Butter Market in Cork. In its heyday it would have seen plenty of traffic in the form of packhorses and donkey carts, and some of the now abandoned cottages lining its way would have been welcome ports of call on the long trek. Here’s a post from Finola about a walk we did a few years ago on another part of this highway, which tells a little more about the great butter trading days. You can also have a look at my own post from last week, which talks about the improvements to the roads of West Cork initiated by Richard Griffiths a century later, at which time the importance of our own little trail receded and was bypassed by what is now the main road going from Ballydehob and Schull down to the end of the Mizen. I suppose we therefore have Griffiths to thank for taking all the traffic away from our back roads and giving us these idyllic walking trails.

The footpath through the glen is another world – a contrast to the boreen we have been following so far. It is lush and damp underfoot, and there is green everywhere: mossy green boughs of ancient oaks, soft turf and vivid St Patrick’s Cabbage emerging in the newness of the late spring. All too soon we are in sight of our goal, the little church by the bay. But the good experiences of the day are not yet over. The church itself, and its burial ground, deserve exploration.

Teampol na mBocht is said to be the only Church of Ireland church in the country with an Irish name: it means ‘Church of the Poor’, so named by its builder, Rev William Allen Fisher, who was Rector of the Parish. Appalled by the ravages of the Great Famine, he raised money from well-wishers in both Ireland and England: with this he set up soup kitchens and distributed food, medicine, blankets and clothing.  But he wanted to do more than dole out charity. He determined to provide paid work for everyone in the area, regardless of their denomination. In 1847 – at the height of the famine – he commenced the building of this church. The story is told in more detail on the website of the Kilmoe Union of Parishes:

. . . Tradition has it that, in order to employ as many as possible, without benefiting the less impoverished farmers, no carts or horses were to be hired.  The stone was quarried nearby and carried to the site entirely by hand.  As Fisher wrote in a report on the church, ‘the employment was given chiefly by contract, so that the poor were able to work about their cabins, fishing etc. at the same time that they earned a subsistence for themselves.’ . . .

. . . It is a controversial building.  For many Protestants, William Fisher was a saint, a scholarly man happiest at his books, who nevertheless drudged selflessly for forty years in a remote parish, giving all his time and strength to the poor, the hungry and the sick, until he himself died of famine fever.  But for many Catholics, Fisher was a ‘souper’, whose manifold projects on the Mizen Peninsula, including the building of his church, had only one object: to win converts from Catholicism to the Church of Ireland . . .

The church is not always open, so it is best to contact the Parish in advance for a look inside – it’s worth it for the history. This would be the end of the trail but we walked a little further, west of the church, and took the road up to the right. This intersects the Butter Road at a crossroads. We turned left and found ourselves heading for another green track, followed by a ford with stepping stones. Keep going and you meet the main road again: if you are following the route it’s probably best to do as we did and retrace your steps here, rather than walk on the relatively busy main road.

All in all, we had another Grand Day Out! In West Cork you really can’t fail to have a good time: every day can – and should – be a new adventure. Try this one for yourselves…

 

Mizen Magic 10: Sailor’s Hill

Fancy a walk? One with just enough elevation to get the heart going and with the reward of spectacular views at the top? It will take about an hour, maybe a bit longer if you stop to chat, or just gaze.

We’ve mentioned Sailor’s Hill before in the course of other posts – this one and this one. But it deserves a post of its own, because it’s a complete experience. Start from Schull and walk out along the Colla Road until you get to the old St Mary’s Church and graveyard. The National Monuments listing tell us that this was originally a medieval structure, although what we see in ruins now is mainly an eighteenth century church, situated in a picturesque burial ground. Turn right at that point.

You will notice the waymark signs. This is one of the newer extensions of the Fastnet Trails, and an initiative of a committed group in Schull. The walk up Sailor Hill is actually part of a larger walk, the Colla Loop – we are planning to do that one soon but only had time for this stretch of it today.

The road meanders gently upwards. Take the first left and then the next left. Views of Schull Harbour start to open out as the road rises. Looking back, you can see how Schull nestles at the foot of Mount Gabriel (see the photograph at the top of this post).

A tiny shrine in a gatepost

Later on, this boreen will be heady with Foxglove and Loosestrife and Oxeye Daisies, and later still the purple heather will dominate, but this is early spring and it’s been a long cold winter. 

Everything is late this year, so I am happy to see the ever-reliable Celandine in profusion.

The willows are starting to bud out too, but apart from that, it seems that dandelions and lawn daisies are the only wildflowers brave enough to flourish along the way. Not that we disdain these humble flowers – they provide early and important nourishment for the insects and the bees. Must feed those pollinators!

Connie and Betty Griffin have built a house with magnificent vistas near the top of the hill. They never stop adding to it, Betty with flowers and Connie with quirky additions, sculptures and walls. This time, he showed us his Sailor Hill Newgrange, a nifty arrangement of standing stones that respond to the rising sun by capturing the morning light in a stone recess.

Connie demonstrates his sun calendar to Robert

Up to the top then, and there it is – a breathtaking panorama that encompasses the whole of Roaringwater Bay and Long Island Sound to the south, and Mount Gabriel and its foothills to the north. Cape Clear, the Fastnet, Sherkin Island and all the smaller islands are laid out in front of you.

And there’s a cross and inscriptions, so you begin to realise that this site is about more than those views. Connie, who designed and built it, wants us to think about those who lost their lives at sea. It’s his own personal mark of respect and a reminder to us in the midst of all this grandeur to take a moment to contemplate on the power of the ocean and the fleeting nature of life.

I had to look up The Niña, 1492, and of course it was one of Columbus’ ships. He took the Santa Maria, the Niña and the Pinta on his voyage to the New World, but the Niña was his favourite. To learn why, take a look at this. But why is it here? Well, I’m not sure, but there is a tradition around here that Columbus may have visited West Cork on his way. His last provisioning stop may have been with the hospitable, learned and Spanish-speaking Fineen O’Mahony, Scholar Prince of Rossbrin

Connie has built his own tiny belvedere (he calls it his folly) perched to take maximum advantage of the view. It’s the perfect spot to sit, munch an apple, and enjoy a companionable chat before the walk down again.

A final look out to sea. There’s Long Island and beyond it the Fastnet Rock with its iconic lighthouse.

We paused to admire a Goldfinch in Connie’s garden, as well as his wonderful textural arrangement of sticks, stones and whalebones.

Thank you, Connie and Betty, from two happy walkers.