Boyle’s Bealtaine: Rock Art, Ancient Festivals, and Archaeoastronomy

Bealtaine is one of the great ancient festival days, the one that heralds the beginning of the season of fertility in crops and animals. It marks the mid-point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, making it a cross-quarter day, and this year it fell on May the 5th. For the non-Irish speakers out there, it’s not pronounced bell-tane, but byowl (to rhyme with owl, the bird) – tinnuh – Byowltinnuh. If you’re really keen on getting it right, you can listen to it here.

Things did not look promising as we arrived at the Giant’s Grave – cloud and fog

We devoted two posts recently to the subject of Boyle Somerville. The first was a post about his life and his pioneering work on what is now called archaeoastronomy, but which he called the new science of Orientation. The second was about a site that was close to his home in Castletownshend, Knockdrum Fort. In Boyle’s own article on Knockdrum (available online with a JStor subscription), he notes a particular orientation between two fallen galláns (or standing stones) on a slight prominence in the grounds of Drishane House, to Knockdrum Fort itself at sunset on Bealtaine in 1930.

Standing behind the Giant’s Grave, Knockdrum Fort is clearly visible on the horizon

On that day, he states, he stood on the fallen galláns and watched the sun set directly over Knockdrum Fort. Yesterday, we did the same thing. It was a nerve-wracking business as not only cloud cover but a constant drifting fog obscured the hills and we were not hopeful that we would be able to see anything at all. But Boyle was up there, looking down on us, and at the last minute the clouds parted and there was the sun, exactly where he said it would be, angling slowly down to the fort.

The sun lights up the Giant’s Grave, making the cupmarks on its surface more visible

Watching this descent was a real highlight of my life here in West Cork. First of all, it felt really special to be on the same spot as Boyle Somerville, 88 years later to the day, and verifying his sighting by recording the phenomenon with photographs and video. If anyone else has done it in the intervening years, we can find no record of it, but would love to hear about it.

Secondly, this is essentially a rock art story, rather than a stone fort story. As Boyle himself pointed out, the stone fort at Knockdrum is but one piece of evidence of a long and continuous use of this commanding site. There are two carved stones at Knockdrum, one outside the fort with cup-and-ring type carvings, and a cup-marked stone currently lying within it. Look back at Robert’s post to see photographs and drawings of these two stones. These examples of rock art are likely the oldest artefacts on the site, dating to between four and five thousand years ago. There is also a cross-inscribed slab, possibly indicating an Early Medieval use of the site for ecclesiastical purposes. The stone fort itself may have been a relatively recent period of occupation, marking it as the fortified residence of a high-status individual about a thousand years ago. Boyle felt it may even have been used for look-out and defensive purposes in the seventeenth century.

 

Robert’s 2014 drawing of the surface of the Giant’s Grave capstone with 17 cupmarks

But the fallen galláns, known locally as the Giant’s Grave, also have cupmarks, tying them to the rock art tradition. The upper surface of the top slab has 17 cupmarks. Boyle counted 19 and the National Monuments record has it as 12, showing how difficult it can be to accurately identify man-made marks on a rough and heavily-lichened surface.

The Giant’s Grave, or fallen galláns, from the west side

While Boyle described this monument as two fallen galláns, it is unclear whether the placement of the two stones, one on top of the other, is accidental or deliberate. If deliberate, then this may be another type of megalithic structure, perhaps similar to a boulder burial (or clochtogle, as he preferred to call them). The orientation, then, as observed by Boyle in 1930 and by us in 2018, is from this probably Late Neolithic or Bronze Age structure to the place where other other pieces of rock art originally stood. Intervisibility, or the visibility of one piece of rock art from another, is well established in the Irish rock art literature. While we have written before (see here and here) about orientation from a piece of rock art to horizon markers, we have never before recorded a specific orientation, involving a solar event on a calendrical day, between rock art sites. So, this is a first for us, and may be a first for Ireland.

This is the Gortbrack stone, on its stand in the Stone Corridor at University College, Cork (UCC). It came from the townland next to Knockdrum Fort

In fact, it is easy to forget that three other examples of rock art come from adjoining townlands because they are no longer in situ: one is in the grounds of Drishane House and two are in Cork City. Six pieces of rock art less than 3 kilometres apart make for a ‘concentration.’

Above, the rock art currently in the grounds of Drishane House, but originally from Farrandeligeen

The Drishane House stone came from Farrandeligeen, immediately west of Drishane townland. In the field notes kept by Boyle, and discovered by Dr Elizabeth Shee, he notes that the stone was originally built into the wall of an outhouse. . . but was brought to Drishane House by Colonel Somerville in about 1880, for safe keeping.

This is one side of the Bluid Stone (both sides are covered in cupmarks), which is housed at the Cork Public Museum

The other two pieces are from the townlands of Gortbrack, immediately to the west of Farrandau (the townland in which Knockdrum Fort is situated) and Bluid (either East or West) which is to the west of Gortbrack. Gortbrack is in the Stone Corridor at University College Cork, and the Bluid stone (an unusual two-sided example) is at the Cork Public Museum. Both had been in the possession of Boyle Somerville, and were presented to UCC after his death. They had been brought to him by local farmers who knew of his interest in such things. We can only lament that of the six separate examples of rock art known from this immediate vicinity, we can be reasonably confident that only one, the Giant’s Grave, is in its exact original location. Neither of the two pieces at Knockdrum Fort are precisely where they were found, but at least they do not seem to have been moved more than a few metres from their original situations.

There is scope for much more investigation of this intriguing group – we shall call it the ‘Boyle Somerville Rock Art Concentration’. But for now, let us once more raise a toast to Boyle, pioneering archaeoastronomer of West Cork.  His legacy lives on.

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…

 

The Rocky Road to Nowhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sun’s Out!

On one April day after a bleak, harsh winter that had gales, hurricanes, blizzards and unceasing bitter east winds thrown at us – the sun came out! We were out too, and headed up to the Beara Peninsula to see if we could remember what sun-soaked landscapes felt like… They felt great!

Header – the glories of Cork and Kerry combine on the spectacular Beara; top photograph – finally, after a long,harsh winter, we see the spring blossoms appearing; middle – a wayside shrine on the road out from Glengariff; bottom – Hungry Hill dominates the views as we head west on the peninsula

You will remember our previous visits to the Beara: there are not enough superlatives for what it has to offer in the way of stunning scenery and colour. None of these photographs have been enhanced – what you see is exactly what we saw on the day – and it’s what you will see, too, if you choose aright (although even on dull days we always find plenty to interest us).

Top photograph – St Kentigern’s Church is in the centre of one of Ireland’s most colourful villages; middle – the sunlight plays games with the beautiful windows by glass artist George Walsh; bottom – light from the windows dances on the pews

We knew where we were going: Finola was keen to revisit the little Catholic church of St Kentigern in Eyeries, which has a fine collection of windows by George Walsh: it’s a gem – and at its best for the quality of the light enhancing it on the day. I wanted to see the settlement itself in the early spring sunlight as it’s one of the most colourful places in the whole of Ireland! Neither of us was disappointed.

Just a taster of the treats in store in Eyeries: on a beautiful spring day there was hardly a soul around, but we were still able to find an ice cream in O’Sullivan’s!

Our second objective was to travel into the hills and find Ardgroom Outward stone circle. The trail involves farm gates, stiles and a lot of mud – but the 9 stone circle (named locally ‘Canfea’) is a fine, almost intact monument with wide vistas to mountain and sea. The impressive outlier stone is 3.2m in height.

The magnificent Ardgroom Outward (or ‘Canfea’) stone circle is accessible via a marked, boggy path: the vistas from the site make the journey worthwhile. Finola is dwarfed by the huge outlier!

It’s barely a skip up to Eyeries from Nead an Iolair, so we had to carry on around the peninsula and take in the almost surreal views of oceans, lakes and mountains before dipping into Kerry and then heading over the top back into Cork county and down the Healy Pass – surely one of Ireland’s most spectacular road trips.

Returning home – with the evening sun setting gloriously over Roaringwater Bay – we reflected that there can’t be many places in the world where a single day can offer such a feast to satisfy all the senses.

 

Knockdrum Stone Fort

There is no firm line that denotes where our most south-westerly Irish peninsula begins. Our series, Mizen Magic, has reported on walks, roads, views, history and archaeology which can definitely be defined as belonging to the Mizen (which we tend to think of as being to the west of, and including, its ‘gateway’ – Ballydehob). Perhaps we should start a series titled Magic Beyond The Mizen – in which case this would be the first: a report on a very prominent site about half an hour’s drive along the coast east of where we live: a historic structure – built within the last 2,000 years – but which contains evidence of much older human activity.

Here is an overhead view – the best way to see and understand the layout and construction of Knockdrum Stone Fort, which occupies a superb hilltop location in the townland of Farrandau between Skibbereen and Castletownshend. Thank you, Dennis Horgan – our professional West Cork aerial photographer – for allowing us to use this image: have a look at his website for other examples of his work, and for details of his excellent photographs and books.

The Fort is located on a high ridge (although not on the summit of the ridge) with far-reaching views both inland and to the south, over the sea. The header picture looks from the Fort out to the west over Castlehaven to Galley Head in the far distance; the view in the picture above is due south – looking towards Horse Island, and the stone wall of the Fort is in the foreground. From these breathtaking vistas it’s reasonable to conjecture that Knockdrum Fort has a strategic siting, providing views of anyone approaching from the sea, and able to signal their arrival to dwellers in the ‘interior’ – the lands to the north. We cannot know for sure that stone fort structures had this – or any other – specific purpose: many theories have been advanced. Comparison with other examples is worthwhile. One of the largest stone forts in Ireland is Staigue Fort, near Sneem in County Kerry.

Staigue Fort (above) has a diameter of 27.5 metres, the present wall height is 5.5 metres, and the wall thickness is 4 metres. At Knockdrum the diameter is 22.5 metres, the present wall height is 2 metres and the wall thickness around 3 metres. The Duchas information board at Staigue says:

. . . This is one of the largest and finest stone forts in Ireland and was probably built in the early centuries AD before Christianity came to Ireland. It must have been the home of a very wealthy landowner or chieftain who had a great need for security . . . The fort was the home of the chieftain’s family, guards and servants, and would have been full of houses, out-buildings, and possibly tents or other temporary structures. No buildings survive today . . .

The picture above shows the present interior of Knockdrum Fort: the stone walls are likely to delineate a former building here. In the corner of the inner stone enclosure is the entrance to a ‘souterrain’ – a series of underground passageways. The souterrain is outlined on the following drawing of the Stone Fort which was made in 1930 after a detailed investigation of it by Vice Admiral Henry Boyle Somerville, the younger brother of writer and artist Edith Somerville of Castletownshend. Boyle, his life and his tragic death, is the subject of Finola’s complementary post today.

Finola is also discussing Boyle Somerville’s interest in the alignments of archaeological structures. In Boyle’s paper for The Journal of The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1931 (title page below), he presents the evidence that this Fort is on a solar alignment.

Boyle sets out the case for an alignment based on the Knockdrum Fort:

. . . This conception of the earlier use of the site of the cathair [the stone fort] for purposes which may perhaps be termed “religious,” seems to be borne out by the following fact. At a horizontal distance of about 600 yards to the E.S.E of the cathair, and at 210′ difference of level below it, there is a small rocky ridge standing up from the surrounding grass land. The name of the ridge is “Peakeen Cnoc Dromin,” The little peak of the white-backed hill . . .

The following paragraphs and photos are from the Journal paper:

Finola and I are familiar with the Peakeen Cnoc Dromin from our researches into Rock Art: the uppermost stone (which does appear similar to the capstone of a fallen dolmen) is heavily cupmarked. The photos of the Peakeen (above) were taken before we had any idea that they might form an alignment connected with Knockdrum Stone Fort. We will have to revisit again at Bealltaine. Boyle confirmed his alignment theory by personal observation:

He went on to suggest:

. . . It is one of the clearest instances of intentional orientation between two ancient, and artificially formed monuments that can be imagined . . .

Of course, it can’t be the case that a cupmarked stone dating from anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 years ago was in any way connected with a stone fort that dates from the early part of the first millennium AD. However, I have as yet omitted an important piece of information: at Knockdrum Fort, high up on the hill, are two further ancient cupmarked stones – and significant ones: the larger also exhibits Rock Art. Somerville illustrated them in 1930, and Finola recorded them in detail in 1973.

Images above are of the stones recorded at Knockdrum: topmost is Boyle’s drawing from 1930. Below Finola’s drawings are photographs of the large stone lying by the Fort entrance today: it is known that this has been moved, possibly during Somerville’s time. The old photograph immediately above is from the Coghill Family Archive and shows Arthur Townshend beside the stone, which is standing. Arthur was born in 1863: this photograph may record the occasion of the expedition by the young Somervilles and ‘their cousin’ (quite possibly Arthur) to Knockdrum described below, which took place in 1875. It is the presence of Rock Art and cupmarks at the Fort itself which tells us that the site must have had significance in far earlier times (perhaps that’s why the fort was sited in that location – rather than on the summit of the ridge), and Boyle’s reported alignment would have been with the carved rocks (or the important location that they marked) rather than with the comparatively modern stone fort.

The souterrain in the enclosure of Knockdrum Fort (entrance in top photograph – ‘chimney’ in lower photograph) was explored in 1875, as Boyle recounts:

The ‘band of three youthful archaeologists’ are likely to have been Somervilles: Edith (the eldest, then 17), Boyle (then 12 – it was he who was lowered down into the discovered ‘cave’ by his ankles!) and, probably, a cousin. Great adventures, which would undoubtedly raise eyebrows today.

Within the fort enclosure is this cross-marked stone. It was apparently leaning against the wall in Boyle’s days, but has now been embedded close to the entrance. We visit this site often: this time we noted some significant disruption to the upper level of the dry stone walling, possibly caused by the fierce storm winds earlier this year. Compare the detail below with Dennis Horgan’s aerial view above, taken a few years ago.

Some damage has also been suffered to retaining walls on the green boreen leading to the Fort from the main Skibereen – Castletownshend road (a walking route only), and on the stone walls beside the 99 steps which take you from the green path to the top of the hill. These are passable with care, but it is hoped that this monument – which is in State ownership – will be deservedly returned to good order before too long: it is one of the historic wonders of West Cork.

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!