Walking West Cork – Another of the Fastnet Trails

We’re well into November, yet clear, dry days abound and we are drawn out into the lanes of West Cork. There are so many to choose from, and all are quiet, although we will always find someone to share a chat along the way. Yesterday we donned our boots and followed another of the Fastnet Trails – the Ilen River Loop. In fact, the boots were unnecessary as the whole route is on virtually deserted paved roads. If that sounds unexciting, let me tell you it isn’t: wherever you go in West Cork you won’t be short of sweeping green landscapes, broad views – mostly over mountain or water – and fragments of engrossing history jumping out to meet you.

We started at the Lisheen trail head and covered the 8 kilometers in a bit over two hours. This did include some dawdling and chatting: in Ireland the latter is unavoidable, and applies to everyone you meet. With us were friends Amanda and Peter, and you’ll find Peter’s Hikelines account of the expedition here: his watercolour illustrations can only be described as ‘exquisite’.

Look carefully (above) at the line of sea on the horizon: just visible is the unmistakeable silhouette of the Fastnet Lighthouse, justifying this route as a part of the Fastnet Trails network. It’s a wonderful asset for locals and visitors. You could simply drive along these routes, of course, but you just won’t get to see the details and appreciate the beauty. On foot you can pause at every turn and on every brow to properly take in the delectable countryside. And the network of trails is expanding – new routes are being developed at the west end of the Mizen: here’s another of Peter’s posts.

There are views to the north as well, looking into Ballydehob Bay which Jeremy Irons’ ochre coloured Kilcoe Castle dominates. Above the water can be seen the islands of Roaringwater Bay and the ridges of the Mizen and Sheep’s Head, and even the high peaks of the Beara Peninsula beyond. But we must focus on the subject of this trail, which is the broad estuary of the Ilen River as it winds inland, feeding into the woods and pastures of West Cork, narrowing but remaining tidal right up to Skibbereen: schooners used once to berth on the five quays serving that town.

All along the coastline and river estuaries in West Cork are reminders of how important transport by water once was. Dozens of quays are still here, in good working order – there was a drive to revive and restore the more significant ones some years back. Also there are traces of more ancient ones which are slowly decaying into nature. All were put there to serve the isolated rural communities in the days when boreens were only narrow tracks, often impassable in the winter months. But on these western peninsulas no-one is more than a few miles from navigable water – and those quays were an invaluable asset.

Our route passed right beside the Glebe Quay, where we came across the hull of an old fishing boat and – by chance – one of its former owners! Here we are, ‘at the chat’, above. This became a long ‘chat’ – as I was most intrigued to find out why this large vessel was sitting here in a deteriorating state – but we had to cut it short in the end as we were getting cold standing still! Our informant was Mike Williams, who Finola and I have met before: he lives on the shore of the Ilen River and has been involved in boats and boatbuilding for much of his life. He bought this former herring ring-netter some years ago with the intention of restoring her, but sold the vessel on to another enthusiast. The project did not succeed, however, and now the boat is on its way to the marine scrap yard – a sad but inevitable fate for many retired wooden craft.

I did a bit of internet delving and was pleased to turn up some historical information on this boat, which Mike told us was named Ribhinn Bhan. Ribhinn comes from the old Irish word rhigan meaning ‘maiden’, while bhan in Irish means ‘white’. This vessel started life with the name Ribhinn Donn – ‘brown-haired maiden’, and was built in Scotland by Nobles of Girvan in 1966. She was first registered in Scalpay Isle – Sgalpaigh na Hearadh in Gaelic, one of the Outer Hebrides, close to Harris – and carried the number SY 371. She was renamed in 1973 and reregistered as B23 in 1989. She arrived in Tarbert, Co Kerry, Ireland in 2004, and Mike bought her in 2006. I’m including these two not-so-good quality photos of Ribhinn Bhan, which I traced, for historical interest: the first is the vessel in Tarbert, and the second  follows her to West Cork; she is on the right, here, in the boatyard at Oldcourt, on the Ilen River, in 2007.

Moving on from the Ribhinn Bhan our path followed the line of the estuary, rising up to higher ground before turning back towards the trail head at Lisheen. There were many more sweeping views to be enjoyed, and the delight of being immersed in the simple ambience of rural life in West Cork, with all its unremarkable yet irresistibly attractive details. 

We passed the quite remote but still running Minihan’s Bar – an ideal refreshment point on summer evenings – but not open for us on this November afternoon. The also remote seeming Saint Comghall’s Church, built in 1832, marked the return to the trail head and the end of our walk. It was a most satisfying expedition on a remarkably golden late autumnal day.

Up-to-date information on all the Fastnet Trails – including this one – can be found on this website. Our Roaringwater Journal has also written up a few more of them. Give them a try, if you haven’t already done so . . . Enjoy!

An Excursion to Dunboy

We have often visited the Beara Peninsula: it’s not too far away and makes a good day’s outing for us. Have a look at some recent posts here and here to get the feel of the geography. Yesterday we had a mission – to discover more about Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare (1561 – 1618) and his connections with Dunboy Castle, over by Castletown-Bearhaven – often known as Castletownbere or just Castletown – in the far west of County Cork.

Our first stop was at the bustling harbour of Castletownbere which sits at the foot of the Caha Mountains. …Where land and sea collide, untamed beauty abounds… – that’s the apt heading on the website of the town’s Development Association, and it most certainly seems a lively and flourishing community, a good base from which to explore the wealth of history and archaeology on the Beara. Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Hungry Hill, is set in the area and is a family saga loosely derived from the history of the Irish ancestors of du Maurier’s friend, Christopher Puxley.

We paused only for a much-needed coffee and a quick look in the Sarah Walker Gallery (precariously and picturesquely situated on the end of the town’s slipway – it’s the white building in the picture above) before setting out to find Dunboy. I had read a little of the history of the place, and knew that it had been a centre of rebellion following the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 – 1602, when allied Irish and Spanish forces were defeated at the culmination of the Nine Years War between England and the Gaelic lordships.

At the edge of the Dunboy Demense are traces of a castellated sea-wall and a gatehouse (above).  The territory was a stronghold of the O’Sullivan Beare clan leader, and was built to guard and defend the harbour of Berehaven. Its presence enabled O’Sullivan Beare to control the sea fisheries off the coast and collect taxes from Irish and continental European fishing vessels sheltering in the haven. It was also a centre for trade to and from the continent. In the aftermath of the Battle Of Kinsale Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare’s followers retreated to Dunboy Castle, which was considered an impregnable stronghold.

The 25″ historic Ordnance Survey map (upper picture) shows the location of the O’Sullivan Beare fortress, circled in red. Don’t be confused by the ‘Dunboy Castle’ label: this is a later building added to an existing tower house that stood on the hill above the promontory. The estate came into the hands of the Puxley family who invested significantly in the Allihies copper mines in the 19th century. The development in the centre of the aerial view above is Puxley Manor, and is a 21st century incarnation of the huge neo-gothic family mansion created by the family, which was burnt out by the IRA in the 1920s.

These pictures show the mansion after its destruction and today. In the lower photograph you can see the original tower house in the foreground: the buildings were fully restored as part of a high-profile ‘Celtic Tiger’ project to create a 6-star hotel which could have brought employment and significant economic benefits to the area. Unfortunately the project collapsed before completion, and the future of this decaying leviathan is uncertain.

We could only look in awe at the very evident and lavish quality of the restoration and development, even in its present state, and speculate how its fortunes might have fared in more stable times. But all this was a bit of a diversion, as our goal was a much less audacious – but far more historically important – site: the original ‘Dunboy Castle’. We followed the trackway along the inlet, which looks as though it was artificially constructed to form a quay serving the demesne.

The ruin itself is unassuming: thick stone walls barely a few metres high. However, the ground plan is clear to see – a typical ‘tower house’ design with splayed openings and steps contained in the thickness of the outer walls. Also visible in the surroundings, however, are the clear ‘star’ shapes of an enclosure, complete with salient angles. These outer defences, reminiscent of ‘star-shaped forts’ evidently date from Cromwellian times, constructed after the castle was destroyed.

These ruins conceal an unhappy tale. At Kinsale the clan chiefs had been joined by a large force of troops sent by King Philip III of Spain, who considered that a federation with Ireland would assist his aspirations against Elizabethan England. After the surrender, a number of O’Sullivan followers retreated to Dunboy, where they found the small Spanish force stationed there  preparing to hand the castle over to the queen’s Lord Deputy, Mountjoy. O’Sullivan overpowered and disarmed the Spaniards and later released them to return to Spain, having kept kept all of their arms, ordnance and munitions. Inevitably, an English force under George Carew set out for Dunboy: it is said that this force numbered between 4,000 and 5,000 troops. O’Sullivan Beare established defences at the castle, but set off himself with most of his own army to consolidate in the north of the Beara Peninsula. Only 143 of his men were left behind at Dunboy, together with Friar Dominic Collins to look after their spiritual welfare. The siege of Dunboy began with an artillery bombardment by land and sea. Owen O’Sullivan of Carriganass, a cousin of Donal Cam, had allied himself with the English and informed them of a weak point in the castle walls. The guns were directed to that point, and the walls were eventually breached. After a ten day siege, Dunboy was reduced to the ruin we see today.

Above is a wonderful graphic illustration of the Siege of Dunboy Castle from Pacata Hibernia or A History of the Wars in Ireland during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth first published in 1633. Only 72 of the Irish defenders survived the siege: they were all hanged, including Friar Dominic Collins. Most of the hangings took place in the bustling square of Castletown-Bearhaven, close to where we had enjoyed our coffee at the start of our excursion.

Here I am meeting Donal Cam himself in the ruins of his former stronghold. My account of the Siege of Dunboy is a very condensed version. Much more has been written about the details. As for O’Sullivan Beare, he eventually embarked on a long march to Leitrim with a thousand of his followers – but that’s a further unhappy story, best kept for another day!

Dunboy Castle and its immediate environs are publicly accessible and there is plenty of parking within easy reach. We finished our day on the Beara by following a rural loop walk from the castle ruin back to the gatehouse – about 5 kilometres in idyllic surroundings.

Industrial Archaeology in Crookhaven

Roaringwater Journal has featured Crookhaven many times. This far south-western outpost of Ireland has layers of history: thousands of years ago people lived in this area and made marks on the rocky landscape while countless generations of seafarers forged a ‘haven’ from the naturally sheltered ‘crook’ of land upon which the settlement is based. Even into the twentieth century pioneering technological advances were being made in Crookhaven: in the early 1900s Marconi sent some of the world’s earliest radio communications from Brow Head to vessels in the Atlantic shipping lanes.

Header – the ‘old roadstone quarry’ dominates the landscape to the north of Crookhaven Harbour. Above – looking across the harbour from the ‘quarry quay’ towards Brow Head, one of the scenes of operation of Marconi in Ireland

I am fascinated by all traces of industrial history: for me it’s ‘modern archaeology’: some of it might survive long enough to puzzle historians of the far future. I couldn’t ignore, therefore, the huge steel and concrete structures which line the R591 road which approaches Crookhaven when travelling from Goleen. They are built into the hillside above the road, and tie in with a substantial stone quay which has been constructed below it.

The quay which was presumably built to serve the quarry to the north of Crookhaven: the village can be seen across the water

Looking at the construction of this quay, and particularly the wear on the masonry steps leading down to the water, it would be reasonable to assume that the quay predates the concrete and steel structures which abut the road above it – by a long way. You might suppose that such significant edifices would have a history attached to them which would be easy to find, either from local informants, or in written or electronic record. However, I have so far drawn a blank. Well – not quite: there are countless identical references in contemporary accounts of Crookhaven to ‘…the old roadstone quarry on the side of the mountain, which provided metalling for the roads of Wales until 1945…’ I did find one variant, a caption to a general view of the area: ‘…Looking up to the Roadstone Quarry along the north shore of Crookhaven Harbour. The quarry was a source of gravel for Welsh tarred gravel roads until the 1930s…’

The quay below the ‘roadstone quarry’ is a paradise for industrial archaeologists and photographers! It must have had generations of users, up to fairly recent times, all of whom have left behind traces of their presence, but no solid history. I’m hopeful that readers of this post might be stirred to recall stories or memories – or even point me to some documented history to explain the provenance of this little piece of the complex West Cork jigsaw.

I’m borrowing this photograph of the Crookhaven quarry from the log of the MV Dirona, with thanks to Jennifer and James Hamilton, who hail from Victoria, British Columbia and are currently cruising the world in their Nordhaven 5263 vessel. They explored the south west coast of Ireland in June 2017 and, from the water, took this perfect view of the quay, the ‘roadstone quarry’ and the mountain face above it, from which the stone has been extracted. It’s my opinion that the face was worked for construction stone possibly from the 1800s: in September 1846 a road was proposed between Rock island and Crookhaven, and the county surveyor provided an estimate of £1,857. Prior to this, the road which had been built by Richard Griffith, civil engineer for Munster, extended as far as Rock Island, and passage from there to Crookhaven itself could only be made by water. The 1846 road is today the R591 which passes below the quarry. It would be reasonable to suppose that locally available stone suitable for roadmaking would have been used, and the quarry may have had its origins at this time. The construction of the adjacent quay could have been contemporary with this early use of the quarry, but the huge concrete and steel structures we see today are probably an incarnation of the revival of the quarry in the early 20th century. I stand to be corrected.

One of the fascinations of old industrial sites is the way they are taken over by nature if left relatively undisturbed. This one is no exception. There is a monumentality here which is being eroded and softened as time goes by. What does the future hold? Interestingly a -presumably serious – proposal was made in a not-too-long-ago iteration of the Goleen & District Community Council Development Plan:

PROPOSALS

2.24 The old Roadstone quarry-works at Crookhaven Harbour should be developed as an amenity – perhaps a hotel with a restaurant with observation deck at the top…

Hmmm… notions of grandeur there, perhaps – and little regard for practicalities, but it shows the power of imagination! I think it’s far more likely that the area will remain in its present state for many years to come and, perhaps, attract a level of ‘industrial architecture tourism’. Incidentally, it’s not too far away from the site of a fish palace run by William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork in the early seventeenth century: the remains of this are there to see to this day, although almost entirely returned to nature.

Below – a now impassable tunnel under the road connects the quarry workings with the quay; nature entangled with the leftovers of human activity

Endpiece – the old workings and quay are directly opposite the centre of Crookhaven – here’s a view towards the quarry from the village:

Cape Clear in June

This is an edited version of an account of a trip we took to Cape Clear in June three years ago

An overnighter to Cape Clear Island came mid-week – a birthday treat for Finola. We’ve been to Cape Clear before on day trips, and Robert has written about it – but this was something special. First of all, the weather was amazing the whole time – warm and cloudless. Secondly, our time-frame gave us the opportunity to do some serious exploring. Thirdly, the seas are alive at the moment with whales and basking sharks!

Sherkin Lighthouse

When the weather is fine the ferry takes the outside route around Sherkin Island. Along the way we pass the Sherkin lighthouse and many treacherous rocks, threading our way, in this instance, through shark-infested waters

The ferry to Cape Clear takes about 40 minutes normally. We were a little longer this time because the ferryman slowed and diverted to allow us time to photograph the sharks. Enormous creatures, with wicked dorsal and tail fins, they are actually peaceable fish who swim with open mouths, filtering plankton, and who are harmless to humans. We are not harmless to them, however, as we have hunted them close to extinction and they need protection in many areas.Basking shark en route to Cape Clear

This photograph was taken from the ferry

For such slow and cumbersome creatures, it was an out-of-this-world experience to watch one of them breaching in the South Harbour. It happened when we were in the bus on the way to our accommodation and nobody had their camera at the ready. But we all know what we saw.South harbour with kayaks

Just out there, in the South Harbour, we saw the basking shark leap from the water. An incredible sight!

The bed and breakfast, Ard na Gaoithe, was wonderful. Robert had told Eileen that it was my birthday – and well, would you look at what awaited us! It was the perfect place to stay – just be ready to walk the hill up to it, after a marvellous dinner at Cotter’s!

On day one we followed the way-marked trail that edges along the south side of the island. This involved a visit to the site of a Napoleonic-era signal station and the original Fastnet Lighthouse. This position for the lighthouse proved to be a major mistake, as it was so high that the light was lost in the clouds half the time. The current position, right on the Fastnet Rock, has been much more successful, and remains an iconic sight in West Cork. The remaining stump is beautifully constructed of granite blocks, while the signal tower still clings on to some of its slate covering.Signal Tower and Original Fastnet lighthouse

Our route took us along the cliffs and to a viewing point over the South Harbour. The sharks were ubiquitous, lazily swimming around with those enormous gaping jaws.Shark basking

Stone Wall 2Here and there ancient field fences poked their way out of the heather, while skylarks warned of our approach and standing stones framed a distant view.Standing Stones and Fastnet rock

Looking over the South HarbourOn day 2 we decided to make the climb to the Cape Clear Passage Grave – but I will let Robert tell that story and content myself with saying that I hope he tells you all how arduous the climb was, and how thick the gorse, so you can see how I suffer for science.

The views are immense but equally fascinating are the numerous dry-stone walls and the wild flowers everywhere. There’s still lots to explore on Cape Clear and more trips are clearly in order.Green path

West Cork Islands – they will captivate and hold you. There is no escape.Robert contemplates

Long Island Wildflowers – a Reconnaissance

Robert and I set off on Tuesday for Long Island and enjoyed everything about it. See his post Mizen Magic 15: Long Island for a full account of our day. One of Roaringwater Journal’s New Year Resolutions was to spend more time on the islands and this was an excellent start! I was there mainly to take a look at the wild flowers, with a view to leading a wildflower walk there later in the year. Do let me know if you’d be interested in coming along, in the comments section below.

I’m used to seeing Bird-foot Trefoil in my garden, but here it’s spread to the stony beach and looks wonderful

Wildflowers come and go, so what I saw was a lovely selection of late spring and early summer blooms. I also got a feel for the character of the island and the habitats it hosts.

The maritime habitat was rich with Thrift, Trefoil, Kidney Vetch (also the lower photo) and Sea Campion

It would be lovely to be able to say that the island is pristine and free of invasive species, but alas we did see some Japanese Knotweed along the way. We are left scratching our heads as to how it manages to spread like that.

The uncultivated higher ground was particularly colourful, with Lousewort predominating. In this photograph you can also see the yellow of Tormentil and the pale flowers of Common Milkwort (see below for more on this Milkwort)

I don’t think I have ever seen such a profusion of Lousewort (below) anywhere else and this is one of the things that gives Long Island a particular colour at this time of year. It’s not a pretty name, for what is, in fact a beautiful little plant, but it was so called because it was believed that sheep got lice from eating it. This has never been proven, but the name stuck. Long Island, with its acres of damp moorland, provides the perfect habitat for Lousewort.

It’s also perfect for Tormentil and Common Milkwort (below). This last flower is tiny – you have to get your face up close to the grass to see it and it’s normally a deep purply-blue. However, on Long Island there were lots of very pale Milkwort, almost white. Although I knew that Milkwort came in pink and white, besides dark blue, I had only seen blue before this year. Now I have to find some pink!

The Yellow Iris (below), which most people call Flags, are in abundance in all the marshy areas, creating a colourful swath here and there. Up close, they are very dramatic. Here, it’s native and welcome, but in North America it has become invasive, choking waterways and displacing native plants.

A couple of unusual flowers to end with, beginning with Musk Stork’s-bill (below). I found this little beauty before in a graveyard in Rosscarbery but this is the first time I have seen it near where I live. It’s described as ‘probably introduced’ which means that it’s not native but has been here a long time.

The flowers of the Stork’s-bill look very like a Crane’s-bill, but the leaves are hairy and they have these funny spiky seed pods, both of which help in identification

Finally – who can resist an orchid? There are several kinds of Marsh Orchid, but I think this one (above and below) is the Irish Marsh Orchid. We saw it before on Cape Clear, so it obviously loves islands! I was glad I had my hand lens with me, as this is best viewed close up.

 

Inish Beg Estate: Ancient Woods and New Discoveries

Craving a woodland walk, we took ourselves to Inish Beg this week – and found a lot more than bluebells!

This is a cillin, down beside the river. There are lots of stories associated with it

Inish Beg abounds in both the wild and the tame. That’s not such an easy balance to maintain and it’s a real tribute to the team on the ground that manages and nurtures the estate. Mostly, of course, it’s down to the vision and hard work of Paul and Georgiana Keane who bought the place in 1997 when it was crumbling and neglected. The house, Georgie told us, was close to collapse and had to be completely re-done – new roof, plumbing, electrics and a complete re-furbishment. It’s hard to believe now, when you see the beautiful place it has become.

Paul and Georgie run it now as a hotel and wedding venue and it is totally set up for it. In fact it must be one of the most romantic venues in Ireland, ideally situated on an island on the Ilen River, accessible by an old stone bridge. It was originally O’Driscoll territory, but owned by the McCarthy family. When James Morrogh inherited it from a McCarthy relative in the 1830s he changed the family name to McCarthy Morragh – such stipulations were not unusual then.

In the 1890s the family built the grand house, and it is this house that is associated with its most famous inhabitant, Kay Summersby. A noted beauty, she was Eisenhower’s secretary in London during the war, and may (or may not) have had an affair with him.

She describes her early life at Inish Beg thus:

Our home, Inish Beg, was a somewhat run-down estate on a small but lovely emerald island in a river in County Cork. Our favourite pastime (I had a brother and three sisters) was to sail down that river four miles, to the Atlantic. There was a succession of governesses, hunts, spatting parents, riding in the fields and along the long avenue fringed with old trees . . . the usual pattern of life in that obsolete world.

The ‘usual pattern’ for some, perhaps – to me it sounds like a life of breathtaking privilege. However, like many such estates, it became difficult to sustain and by time the Keanes took it over it desperately needed their infusion of enthusiasm and capital. And what a magnificent job they have done with not only the house but the grounds as well.

There’s a walled garden (above) that’s full of organic goodies for the estate kitchens, and also features an indoor swimming pool! Tony O’Mahony, the head gardener, practises an organic philosophy and does not feel the need to eliminate wildness from the garden, which results in a delightful mix of plant life.

But we were here mainly for the woodland walks and we were certainly not disappointed. You could spend several hours wandering the trails here and right now the undergrowth is glorious. Bluebells were in abundance along with every wildflower that contributes to that colourful spring carpet that is so dear to our senses.

There are trails for the kids – pirates and a wildlife search are part of the system, as well as little fairy houses here and there.

There are lovely views (above) across the Ilen to the ruined church at Aughadown – burial place of the Tonsons that I wrote about in New Court Bridge – a Hidden Wonder. Surprisingly, beyond the church, you can see Mount Gabriel. I mention this because of its significance with our next find – a previously unrecorded cupmarked stone!

Regular readers know of our involvement with Prehistoric Rock Art – Neolithic or Bronze Age carvings on open air boulders and outcrops. The cupmark is the basic motif of all Irish Rock Art – a semi-spherical cup-shaped hollow (see more about Rock Art here and here and specifically about cupmarks here). Robert has an amazing eye for slight differences in rock surfaces and has developed a habit of examining every stone we come across for cupmarks. This time he struck gold! At least four cupmarks on the back of a stone along one of the trails.

We like to warn people that rock art can be a little underwhelming. I know these cupmarks don’t look like much, but they were probably carved several thousand years ago as part of a ritual we now know nothing about

The stone has been moved there from somewhere on the estate and the Keanes will try to track down where this was. It’s always important to see a rock like this in its context, of corse, but we are also curious to know if Mount Gabriel was visible from the location, as it is from so many of our West Cork Rock Art sites. We will be returning to do a proper record and see if we can add more information to the story before we send it in to be included in the National Monuments database.

There’s also a boulder burial on the estate, visible as you are leaving. It’s a pretty tumbledown affair, but still recognisable, and we found cupmarks on the capstone too. These may be already recorded, but we will let National Monuments know in case they aren’t.

Fabulous woodland walks, my fill of wildflowers, lovely vistas across the Ilen – and a new archaeological find. Too much excitement for one day!