The Rocky Road to Nowhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mizen Magic 11: Rock Island

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

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

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

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

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

Lighthouse cottages

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

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

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

Rock Island as viewed from Crookhaven

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

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

The easterly tower

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sea Campion

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

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

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

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