A Dander on The Sheep’s Head

it’s not just for long walks – the Sheep’s Head is also perfect for wandering with intent, having, as my father used to say, a dander. Our trip there this week, in the excellent company of Amanda and Peter, was that sort of day, where we drove around and dropped in and out of interesting places. Amanda and Peter Clarke, our regular readers will know, are the couple behind Walking the Sheep’s Head Way, so who better to have as companions and guides for a day of exploring. Amazingly, given all the time we’ve spent there, only one of our stops was familiar.

Our first stop was a curious stone overlooking Dunmanus Bay. Known as the Giant’s Footprint, the local legend tells a familiar story about two giants throwing rocks at each other. This must have been a mere pebble, because one of the missiles became the Fastnet Rock. Footprint stones are also associated with inauguration sites, where kings were acclaimed in early medieval society. (See the comments section below for a link to an amazing piece of art from our friend, the acclaimed photographer EJ Carr, who used this stone in his fantasy photography piece on the Arthurian legend – follow the link in the comment to view his images.)

Being with Amanda is always a great opportunity to visit a holy well and we had never been to Gouladoo. It also ticked a box for me as I’ve been wanting to visit promontory forts. The holy well first – it’s a Tobar Beannaithe, a Blessed Well, not associated with any particular saints. Amanda’s research revealed that it did have a particular purpose, though – girls would visit to pray for a husband. Read Amanda’s comprehensive account here

Because this is on the Sheep’s Head Way, the route is signposted and maintained. The well itself has a cup thoughtfully provided so you can have a drink if you dare. The path down to it has been carved out of the hillside and roughly paved, indicating that this was a site to which many people once came.

If you turn your back to the holy well, the promontory fort is straight ahead of you.

Where you have a promontory jutting out into the sea it’s easily fortified by building banks and ditches at the neck. Promontories with narrow necks were usually chosen, as being easiest to defend, and archaeological evidence suggests that some were in use as early as the Bronze Age but most evidence of occupation dates to the Early and Later Medieval Period (400 -1500AD). 

As promontory forts go, this is a classic – a narrow neck with evidence of walls across it, steep cliffs on all sides, and a flat and verdant area in the middle for houses and cattle. This one has an added feature – sea arches underneath! The sea arches mean that this may eventually become an island.

The antiquarian Thomas J Westropp set out to visit all the promontory forts along the Beara and Sheep’s Head in or around 1920 and has left us his account, written over three articles in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Gouladoo, as his map shows, was one of his destinations.

Here is his description of the fort as he found it then.

Far to the west of Rinn, in Kilcrohane, is a remarkable fortified headland of dark grey slate, up tilted and separated from the mainland by a gully. This is spanned (like those at Doonagh and Dursey) by a natural arch. The adjoining townland is called Dunoure, but no fort is known to have existed near this, so perhaps that name refers to Gouladoo. The arch is lintelled, like a great Egyptian pylon, and is 15 ft. or 16 ft. wide at the gully. The neck is wider to the landward, and was strongly defended. First we find a trace of a hollow or fosse; then the foundation of a drystone wall 82 ft. long (E. and W.); behind, a natural abrupt ridge forms a banquette over 4 ft. high; the wall is about 12 ft. thick, the terrace 12 ft. to 15 ft. wide. Beyond this the neck was enclosed all round by a fence about 6 ft. thick. The whole work measures about 80 ft. each way. As at Doonagh, I think that the line of debris on the peninsula along the edge of the chasm is a trace of a wall, and that the bare slope behind it was stripped by a landslip. The whole is tufted with luxuriant masses of rich crimson heather.


The Promontory Forts of Beare and Bantry: Part III, Thomas J Westropp
The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1921

It’s quite difficult to see those features now, although there is a piece of the wall remaining, and what must be his ‘terrace.’

There are other compensations to visiting a site like this – those sheer cliffs which provide such an impregnable defence for the fort, also host many gulls in nesting season. The Bluebells and Sea Campion were abundant there too.

Westropp wrote his article, The Promontory Forts of Beare and Bantry, over several issues of the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, and maybe it would be fun to retrace his steps a hundred years later to see what’s on the ground now – what do you think? 

From there it was off to the Mass Rock at Glanalin, an easy walk down from the Pietà in the pass above Kilcrohane. It’s a particularly lovely walk to this mass rock (above), and in May the spring flowers are everywhere, especially St Patrick’s Cabbage, one of the group of plants known as the Lusitanian Flora, that only grows here and in Iberia.

And finding a lone Heath Spotted Orchid (above) was a real bonus too!

By sheer coincidence we were there on the same day, May 17th, when Mass was celebrated here in 2000 in remembrance of the ancestors who worshipped here.

Our final stop of the day was another site new to us, the Marriage Stone! That’s Peter’s sketch of it above, from his Hikelines Blog. Tradition has it that people would get married here, as described by local farmer Jack Sheehan:

The hole in the stone is narrow on one side and wide at the other. The man had a bigger hand and he put his hand through the big side and the woman put her hand through the narrow side. They made their promises when they put their hands through the stone

Of course we all had to do it!

There was a ring fort nearby –  actually described as an enclosure in the National Monuments records – but over the years it has been disturbed to the point where it is hardly recognisable. Perhaps it is this site that gave its name to the townland, Caherurlagh. A caher is a stone fort and so the townland name means Fort of the Slaughter. Perhaps there are some aspects to the history of this area into which we should not delve too closely.

I highly recommend a day like this on the Sheep’s Head, with Walking the Sheep’s Head Way as your travelling companion, and channeling the spirit of old Thomas Westropp. I will leave you with what he had to say about the views north to the Beara as he journeyed along the north side towards Gouladoo

We pass beneath the beautiful woods of Bantry House and the picturesque old graveyard, where the Franciscan Friary once stood erected by O Sullivan in 1330. We reach the shore out of a maze of low green hills, several with ring forts on their summits, near Dromclough. Thence on past Rinn Point and up the lofty road, often unfenced and narrow, along the edge of cuttings and precipices to Gouladoo and Collack. The sweep of the high mountains in Beare and those inland heights towards Muskerry is magnificent as seen across the great bay. From Black Ball Head and Dunbeg past flat-topped Slieve Miskish and the great domes of Hungry Hill and the Sugarloaf, on to the shapely cone of Mullach Maisha, the stately range extends. 

Back to The Bealick

Yesterday we went back to the Bealick – back to the valley of Cooleenlemane that so entranced Robert and me that both of us wrote about the experience last year. I concentrated on the Bealick (pronounced Bay-lick) – the ‘caves’ containing ancient rock scribings and my post was called Witches’ Marks and Lovelorn Shepherds: Inscribed Rock Art in a Remote Valley. Robert wrote about the valley itself, through geological and historical time in his post, Cooleenlemane – A Walk Into History. What more could we have to say about this impossibly beautiful place? Lots, it turns out.

The red house at the bottom right marks our starting off point. In the distance is Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island

We took the walk in the company of our favourite travelling companions, Peter (of the Hikelines Blog) and Amanda (Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry). We had been missing them badly as they had been in New Zealand when the pandemic struck, unable to get home for six months. It felt really good to be out and about with them again.

Amanda fords one of the many streams (it was a wet walk!) and Peter points out some of the scribings in the Bealick

Apart from the jaw-dropping scenery and the sheer pleasure of a hike into a relatively untouched valley, this time I found myself drawn to the evidence of occupation over time, starting in the Bronze Age. At the entrance to the valley and right beside a ford across the river stands what is described in the National Monuments inventory as a ‘Megalithic Structure. . .the exact nature of which is unknown.”

It’s in the middle of a small clearing, with a Hawthorn tree growing out of it – altogether a magical sight. It could be what remains of a wedge tomb – see my post Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths to learn more about this type of monument. 

I wondered how ancient the ford might be. For most of the length of the Cooleenlemane River as it runs down the valley it is easy to cross with the help of a stone or two, but in this spot it widens. Although no longer in use now, this type of crossing place is often of considerable antiquity – indeed one of the most common place names in Ireland contain the word áth (pronounced awe) which means ‘ford.’

Leaving the megalith, we followed the course of the stream up the valley, mostly trying to select higher and slightly dryer ground, and trying not to get too distracted by the oh-so-photographical scenery all around us. Ruins of small stone cottages dotted the landscape, and a tiny cart track runs the length of the valley almost to the Bealick.

The National Monuments inventory also lists a cashel, two enclosures, and two hut sites in the valley. We passed the Cashel half way between Furze Hill and the Bealick, although we actually obtained the best views of it from the Priests Leap Road afterwards.

The upper photograph shows Furze Hill, the dark patch on the left, and the Bealick just above the bend in the river. The cashel is half way between them. The lower photograph is a closer look at the cashel

Cashels are ring forts made of stone rather than earthen banks. They are considered to be the farmhouse enclosures of high-status individuals (you can see an exceptionally good example at Knockdrum – see Robert’s post Knockdrum Stone Fort to understand how they functioned). This one is clear but very ruined, circular in plan, about 17m across.

It probably dates either to the late Iron Age or the Early Medieval Period – anywhere in the first millennium AD. Like other cashels, it has clear sight-lines down the valley and was built to be visible and a statement of status and power.

We didn’t hike up to the enclosures or hut sites further up the valley – a walk for another day. I think Peter (above) is already plotting his course up there. The most southerly of the enclosures sounds interesting, with an entrance marked by upright stones and a levelled interior. There is no way of knowing how old these are, of course, but taken with the megalithic structure and the cashel, they do indicate that this valley has been lived in and worked for thousands of years. 

And then there’s the Bealick itself – the three ‘caves’ formed by massive rocks leaning against each other, two of which contain the rock scribings. In the way of such unique places they become special features of the landscape and take on a mantle of history. In this case, the Bealick was a Mass Rock, a home, a sheep-shelter, and a mysterious repository of enigmatic markings. 

On our walk yesterday we became aware that we were not the only ones in the valley. Along came Mary, with four very well-behaved dogs, on the look-out, she told us, for her brother’s cattle.

From the top: a field enclosed with stone walls runs up the steep slope; lazy beds in an old field; a ruined cottage surrounded by tiny haggards (a haggard is a small enclosure beside a house)

She explained that the land was commonage and that it hadn’t been lived in, in living memory – probably abandoned not long after the Famine, she thought. She pointed out locations of what she called ‘cowlocks’ or small homestead here and there, with their associated potato patches recognisable by the lazy bed ridges still visible in the small fields. She told us the prominent knoll we had passed was called Furze Hill. 

She pointed to a cliff above the Bealick (both images above) and named it as `Carrignasprogue’. A direct transliteration from Irish, this is Carraig na Spioróg, or Rock of the Sparrowhawks. It’s a particularly dangerous place for sheep, she said, as they tend to get trapped at the bottom of the sheer part and have to be rescued. Every field, every bend on the river and every prominent rock would have had its own name, enabling those who lived in the valley to know exactly what part was being referred to. 

Nowadays, several families share the valley, grazing sheep and cattle in it and for the most part leaving them to their own devices. The grazing has kept the valley relatively clear – we saw little evidence of overgrowth of gorse or bracken and none of the rhododendron invasions that plague the Killarney National Park not so far away. One hesitates to use the word pristine nowadays, but the sense I have is of a remote place that hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. Long may it remain so.

We drove home a circuitous route, up over the Priests Leap Road into Kerry and back over the Caha Pass into Cork. We were delighted to find Molly Gallivan’s open and serving tea and scones. There’s a tiny cottage attached, reconstructed in the style of the traditional Irish farmhouse and I was especially struck by this bedroom – it could have been in one of those tiny Cowlocks we passed by in the valley earlier.

The Stone Circles of West Cork: Multiple Stone Circles

West Cork is home to a great concentration of prehistoric stone circles. While all of them share certain characteristics, there is a clear division between those containing only five stones and the multiples stone circles that contain seven or more, such as the Derreenataggart stone circle on the Beara, sketched by Peter Clarke, above. This post is about the multiple stone circles – I am leaving the five stone circles until next time. If you haven’t yet read The Stone Circles of West Cork: An Introduction, you might like to do that now before reading further.

Although we love getting out in the field and visiting ancient monuments, such as this stone circle at Maughnaclea, we have to confess that the sun doesn’t always shine

Although this post covers some of the same ground as the Introduction, my aim here is to concentrate on the larger circles and show you what they actually look like on the ground*. An online search for ‘West Cork Stone Circles’ will bring you to many pages of information about Drombeg but precious little else. Drombeg is a marvellous site and its excavation yielded much-needed information about stone circles, but it’s only one site – the one with the signposts and car park.

How about this one, for example, at Cappanaboule – it’s a bit of a hike and there’s no car park – but what a place!

Multiple stone circles in West Cork all fall under the heading of recumbent or axial circles, in which two portal stones (usually the tallest in the circle) stand opposite a recumbent and the line that passes through the portals and over the recumbent is considered to be the axis of the circles. However, within this predominant design, there are variations in how the builders decided to construct their circles.

A closer look at the Cappanaboule stone circle: ten of the original thirteen stones are still there and there’s a boulder burial in the middle

The most noticeable variation, of course, is the size of the circle and the number of stones it contains, from seven to an estimated nineteen. We don’t know why the builders made these choices, although as with most construction, size can be equated with wealth: building a stone circle was an arduous undertaking necessitating the ability to commandeer a significant labour force. Perhaps also a larger circle with more stones permitted finer gradations of alignments, if this was the purpose of the circle, or more expansive ceremonials within the boundary of the circle.

This is Gorteanish stone circle on the Sheep’s Head, only discovered in the 1990s when the Sheep’s Head Way trail was being cut. It’s hard to see what’s here because it’s so overgrown but it probably included 11 stones, four of which are still standing and two possible boulder burials, one inside and one outside the circle

The portals are normally the tallest stones in the circle but occasionally they are also set radially, or edge-on, to give the impression of a natural entrance.

This is one of the two stone circles in the townland of Knocks. It illustrates well the portal stones being radially set and being the tallest stones in the circle. In my photograph you are looking across the recumbent to the portals and in Peter’s sketch you are doing the opposite

In only three cases an extra pair of stones helps to emphasise the entry point by creating a short passage. One example of this is Carrigagrenane, which is also one of the largest circles at nineteen stones.

Carrigagrenane stone circle has double portals, creating a funnel or passage into the circle. This site is very overgrown and hard to locate so a lot of bracken-bashing was necessary to get this shot. Amanda is standing between the two outer portals

Conversely, the recumbent or axial stone is normally the lowest stone in the circle and the broadest (since it is set with its long axis parallel to the ground) but even here variation occurs. The axial stone at Ardgroom Outward, for example, is a pillar stone. Indeed, it can sometimes be difficult to decide where the axis line of the circle runs, if stones have fallen or are missing.

Ardgroom Outward stone circle, on the Beara is spectacularly sited. The axial stone, along with all the others in the circle, is a pillar stone rather than a recumbent. Note also the large monolith outside the circle to the right. The natural view-lines are to the north

Monoliths (single standing stones or blocks set on the ground) are present at some sites, either inside or outside the circle (as at Ardgroom Outward, above). Where they are inside they are placed off-centre. Where they are outside, they can be close to the circle or some way off but visible from it. These are usually called outliers.

This is the second stone circle in the townland of Knocks, the more southerly of the two. My photograph illustrates the line of sight over the recumbent, across a slightly off-centre monolith, to a radially set portal. Peter’s sketch illustrates the whole circle

Quartz is a stone of choice for some of these monoliths but it is interesting that quartz is never in use as a circle orthostat. 

The stone circle at Maulatanvally includes a large quartz conglomerate block within the circle. I was struck by how it was gleaming on a dull day

Standing stone pairs can also function as outliers to a multiple stone circle. At Dunbeacon this outlier pair is almost half a kilometre from the circle across the valley, but each is clearly visible from the other. Originally a third standing stone also stood within 50 metres of the standing stone pair, but it has now disappeared.

Dunbeacon stone circle, recently corralled inside a wooden fence. The natural view-line from this circle is to Mount Corrin to the east, rather than the south or west. The standing stone pair in Coolcoulaghta are located in front of the furthest house to the left in the photograph.

Another association is with boulder burials, sometimes found outside the circle, as in Bohonagh (see An Introduction) where the boulder burial capstone is quartz and contains cupmarks. At Ballyvacky (below) a boulder burial stands about 50 metres from the circle and a standing stone once stood beside it.

My photograph is taken from the Ballyvacky boulder burial, looking across to the stone circle. Peter’s sketch shows what is still standing – seven of the original nine stones. You can see that the remaining portal is radially set and that the recumbent is the largest stone in the circle

Boulder burials, as we have seen, are also found inside the circle: one of the most spectacular examples of this is at Breeny More (below) where a group of four boulder burial are set in a square within a large circle from which most of the stones are missing.

Finally, occasional stone circles will be surrounded by a fosse or shallow ditch. The most striking example is at Reenascreena, below.

Visiting stone circles, I am struck by features which appear to be similar at all or most of the sites. Many are situated on elevated sites with expansive views to the south and west. While this has been well documented by archaeologists, it’s one thing to read about it and yet another to visit several circles on one day and find yourself expecting a certain set of circumstances as you tune in to patterns in the sites themselves. What the orientation descriptions don’t mention, for example, is that the choice of location often features rising ground behind the circles which obscures the horizon to the north.

The rising ground behind Dunbeacon stone circle cuts off the view of Dunmanus Bay and concentrates the view-lines towards the east and south-east

Occasionally the higher ground obscuring the horizon is not to the north at all, but to the south or south-west – confounding our expectations that the obvious view-lines will be to the south and west. Cappanaboule is strikingly situated thus, as is Ardgroom Outward.

And then we have examples in fairly flat country with no really obvious view-lines. This can be complicated by surrounding forestry, as at Knockaneirk (above) where, if there was an obvious orientation over the recumbent it has long been hidden by tall tree.

Ardgroom Outward stone circle is dramatically silhouetted against the mountains of the Beara peninsula as you walk up the track towards it

Next time I will write about the five stone circles – there are as many of them as there are the multiple stone circles and while they share most of the same features they have their own special character.

*Most of these photographs (like the one of Breeny More, above) were taken last year or in previous year, and many of them in the company of Amanda (Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry) and Peter (Hikelines) Clarke. I am indebted to Peter for the sketches. Not being able to get out into the field to visit and photograph more circles has been frustrated this year by Covid19 travel restrictions, so I have decided to go ahead and use what I have, rather than wait to add to my collection. 

Hikelines – a Blog for the Soul

Our talented friend, Peter Clarke, has a marvellous new blog and you HAVE to see this one. It’s called Hikelines and the subheading tells the story – I hike and I sketch.

Peter has done two long walks in England, sketching as he went along – the Cleveland Way and the Tabular Hills Way. People who know those routes will appreciate how he has captured landscape, villages and landmarks in his signature style. But I want to concentrate on his two West Cork routes – The Beara Way and The Sheep’s Head Way.

Several things mark these routes as different from the English ones: they seem wilder, more remote; archaeology is all over the place; the place names are unpronounceable; they’re not as organised (especially the Beara Way) for the walker so there are directional and accommodation challenges. However, they are as rugged and spectacular as any hiker could wish for.

The Beara is the largest of the West Cork Peninsulas and the farthest from population centres. Peter accomplished it in nine stages, spaced out between the end of May and the beginning of August, starting and ending in Glengarriff and travelling clockwise.

Some parts were very rough going and signage was not always reliable, but Peter takes it all in his, er, stride. He writes beautifully in a clear accessible style – here’s a sample from his first day:

I reach the ladder-stile that marks the start of a hard, steep climb up to 550 metres. The red line of the route looks impossibly steep on the map but on the ground I find a stony track that dog-legs its way up the contours to make the going a little gentler: nevertheless, my lungs and legs are soon in the red zone. I take shorter strides on the rough stony surface, the plodding drumbeat of my boots accompanied by the tip-tap rhythm of my walking poles. At each turn where I stop to look back, the small houses in the valley are even smaller, the distant hills begin to show on the horizon, catching patches of sunlight, and soon I can see above the nearby hills across to Bantry Bay, glassy calm with Whiddy Island casting long reflections in the waters.

He stops to sketch what catches his eye – occasionally doing a whole sketch, sometimes colouring it later, sometimes taking a photograph to sketch from when the hike is over. He includes technical details for those who like to know.

He detours to visit prehistoric and historic sites and often includes these in his sketches. Amanda makes an appearance now and then – she’s on pick-up or drop-off duty and is usually combining this with adventures chronicled in her own blog Holy Wells of Cork. (When I told you about the start of Holy Wells of Cork it was only a year and a half ago – she has now recorded over 200 wells!) She is along as they ride the cable car to Dursey Island but Peter strikes out on his own along the trail.

As I set out alone along the only road, I think about how the past seems somehow embedded in the landscape of places like this. Some might say there are ghosts here and I can understand why. A short detour brings me down to the ruined monastery and burial ground sitting just above the shore. It feels lost and forgotten, even in the sunshine.

I climb back up over soft springy grass onto the road which rises and falls around the smoothly rounded hills that make up the island. Purple foxgloves hang on the cliff edges; the peaks of roofless gable-ends rise from the patchwork of fields running down the lower slopes; sheep and cattle graze below and a kestrel hovers overhead. This road must have seen plenty of traffic at one time and there is even an old bus stop: whether real or not I don’t know.

The weather deteriorates as he traverses Beara – you can feel the discomfort of the sodden gear and the squelching mud and it’s a gut feeling of relief when he reaches colourful Eyeries and can dry out. But it finally improves and the next two days brings the compensations of stunning views and stone circles. The final leg back to Glengariff from Kenmare is largely along a busy road – less enjoyable and more arduous.

The Sheep’s Head Way is familar ground – for Peter and for me as a reader. Peter and Amanda (regular readers will remember) are the couple behind the guidebook Walking the Sheep’s Head Way – we highly recommend it for anyone contemplating walking on the Sheep’s Head. For Peter, then, this is a continuing of his long love affair with this wild and magnificent landscape. He knows it intimately, he’s walked every inch of it before, and he brings all that love of place to his sketches.

 

He’s adding more information now too – distances and links to further information as well as links to detailed route directions. Now is the time to sign up for the blog – it’s easy, just insert your email address in the box in the right margin – and follow along. He’s only done four stages, and there are many more to come.

His last post, at time of writing, was one of my favourite walks, encompassing the route I described in Sheep’s Head: Searching for Cornish Miners. Here’s the start of his walk:

I take the ‘Horseshoe Road’ which is more of a track than a road, and descend into the mist which is thick but too bright to be ‘fog’ perhaps. The filtered light brightens nearby colours and softens shadows and I think how it creates a type of liminality with a veil through which things can only be partially glimpsed.

This is one of those treats you can feel really good about. When the email comes in, telling you there’s a new post, just settle down with a cup of tea and immerse yourself in Hikelines. I have deliberately not captioned the images because I want you to see them for yourself! Now so, enough talk – head on over to Hikelines.

 

Sheep’s Head: Searching for Cornish Miners

 Yesterday we did our favourite walk, along the Cahergal section of the Sheep’s Head Way. We had a goal – the remnants of the Gortavallig Mining Company which operated here briefly in the 1840s. Robert was researching this as part of all the West Cork/Cornwall connections related to the West Meets West Art Exhibition, which opens at Uillinn in Skibbereen next Friday (June 2).

Walking the Sheep’s Head Way, by Amanda Clarke, is our go-to book for everything on the Sheep’s Head. It’s an excellent resource and most of the information in this post comes from it. The stretch of the walk we did is described in two sections (as it’s part of the Way and also part of a loop walk), on pages 27 to 31, and pages 98-99 (Second Edition).

It was a fabulous day, sunny but not too hot – perfect for walking. The wildflowers were out in abundance – a serious hindrance to brisk walking as I cannot resist the temptation to photograph. At one point Robert thought he had lost me, but found me stretched out on the ground trying to get a close up of the tiny, exquisite, Heath Milkwort.

Later on, this hillside with be awash with pink Heather, but now the Foxgloves are everywhere, in all their purple glory, while Tormentil and Lousewort peep out from the among the grasses and heather.

Tormentil, above and Lousewort, below

This was once a populated part of the world and there’s a tiny abandoned settlement known as Crimea. This may be a reference to an ongoing feud between families, or a corruption of an Irish place name. There’s no denying the dramatic scenery, but life must have been very hard indeed. A cluster of houses like this was known as a clachán (kla-hawn) – the land was held in common by the inhabitants, with each family having a potato patch and the rest being for grazing and whatever crops would grow.

The Crimea: Tade Carthy’s cottage in the foreground

One of the houses has been recently partially restored. According to Amanda:

It was done partly to show people what living conditions were like not so long ago, and in part to honour the last surviving occupant of the Crimea, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday. Jerh (Jack Owen) Daly grew up in one of these cabins which were family homes until the late 1940s.

This old house belonged to Tade Carthy’s family and has been sensitively restored, the original flagstones and well discovered whilst working on it, Inside there is no fireplace but an open hearth built against the wall with a hole in the roof to let out the smoke. Doors positioned east and west allowed a through draught to also deal with the smoke. Little oil lamps fitted into niches provided additional lighting and a bed platform gave extra space for sleeping.

The recently re-discovered well

It was from this clachán, and from all over the Sheep’s Head, that local people trekked, during the height of the famine, to the mine. They also built the road, for which they were paid in food, rather than money.

Approaching the 1840s mine – the reservoir is in the foreground and the Cornish Miners cottages on the far side of the cliff

Amanda quotes from the Report of the Gurtvallig Mine, by William Thomas, June 1847:

A complete wilderness and barren cliff, which for the past age has been the undisturbed resort of the Eagle, the Hawk and the Wild Sea Birds, has by our labours for the past 16 months been changed into a valley of native industry, giving reproductive employment, food and a comfort, to numbers of the hitherto starving, but peaceable inhabitants of one of the wildest districts in the United Kingdom. For you can hear now, on our well secured dressing floor (mingled with the roar of the Atlantic) the busy voices of men, women, boys and girls, all engaged in breaking, dressing and preparing the ore for market.

Ten or eleven small houses stood here to house the specialist miners recruited from Cornwall

The mine was an actually an outpost of Cornwall in Ireland. The two Mine Captains, William Thomas and James Bennett, were Cornish, and the miners – 24 of them – had been recruited in Cornwall. A row of houses was built to house them, while the Captains had more comfortable quarters in nearby Cove (a story for another day).

A retaining wall was build to hold the reservoir

It was a busy place during its short life (it close in 1848 after only a year of full operation), with a forge, a carpenters shop, a reservoir, and below, a dressing floor and a quay to transport the ore.

Now the reservoir is home to floating water-lilies, a native plant that was in full bloom yesterday and looking indescribably exotic. The tiny quay has disappeared, but its location can be glimpsed from the rope walk. This part of the hike is not for the faint of heart or vertigo-sufferers: the path is narrow, there’s a rope to hang on to one one side and on the other a yawning cliff falls dramatically away to the wild and roaring Atlantic described by William Thomas.

The rope walk and signage. The lowest photograph shows the location of the quay, reached by means of a steep path but no longer accessible

Our walk back, with the sun behind us, was splendid. To the north was Bantry Bay and beyond it is the remote and beautiful Beara Peninsula. I think I can safely say that this will remain our favourite walk – at least until we discover one even more remote, scenic, historic and thrilling. But then, that’s not difficult in West Cork.

Good Well Hunting: Duhallow

St John's Well 1

Amanda started her blog, Holy Wells of Cork, in February and oh my goodness she already has over 100 wells documented. Not just documented – recorded, photographed, mapped, described, researched and written up in a charming cheerful style that’s a hoot and a pleasure to read.

AB 1 Laitiaran

Standard Amanda shot as she checks out St Laitiaran’s Well  

Robert and I go along on her well-finding trips every now and then. Between accompanying Amanda, and wells we’ve gone to ourselves, we’ve visited about half the wells in her gazetteer. The sheer variety is astonishing, as also is the varying state of preservation. From muddy holes in the ground to gleaming and designed surrounds – holy wells come in all shapes, all sizes, and all conditions.

duhalloworiginal

Duhallow – isn’t that a lovely word? It’s a lovely place too – a barony (part of Ireland’s old land division system) that occupies the northwest corner of the county of Cork. It’s mostly rolling hills and farmland, drained by the headwaters of the Blackwater River, with the Derrynasaggart and Boggeragh mountains to the south and the rich agricultural lands of Limerick to the north, while the Kingdom of Kerry lies just over the county border to the west.

Duhallow Sign

Duhallow has its act together when it comes to holy wells – the local development committee has developed a Holy Well Trail. A brochure leads you around the trail and at each well is a detailed history of the well, the saints associated with it, the cures attributed to it, and the rounds and prayers to be undertaken.

Tubrid Well Millstreet

Robert makes his markTubrid Well, Millstreet. Robert adds his mark to the cross inscribed by hundreds of pilgrims

At  many of these sites mass is still said once a year and cups and bottles are provided so that you can drink, or take away, some of the water. The Tubrid Well outside Millstreeet is the largest and most active. While we were there people came and went and fresh flowers and candles were in evidence. This is a well that even has its own Facebook page!

Inghne Buidhe rag tree

A rag tree at the well of Inghne Bhuidhe

The well devoted to Inghne Bhuidhe (Inyeh Bwee, daughter of Buidhe, the Yellow-Haired) provided a complete contrast – out in the middle of corn fields, surrounded by a low wall and with a rag-festooned thorn tree looming over it. This one had a remote and tranquil vibe, suitable for contemplation.

Tasting the water, Inghne Bhuidhe

My  personal favourite was the Trinity Well near Newmarket, mainly because it was built inside a fulacht fiadh (pronounced full okt feeah) – that’s an ancient (possibly as far back as the Late Bronze Age) cooking place where stones were heated and then rolled into a trough of water. Over time, the used stones built up into a horseshoe-shaped mound that surround the trough – now re-purposed as a holy well. It was a marvellous testament to the timeless character of special places in the deep countryside. 

Trinity Well in Fulacht Fiadh

Trinity Well, formed from an ancient fulacht fiadh

One of Duhallow’s wells is high in the Mushera Hills and dedicated to St John. The first photo in this post shows the location and extent of it. Back when the veneration of holy wells was at its peak, this one was the site of an enormous pilgrimage on St John’s Eve, June 23rd, every year. As with many such events the prayers and devotions of the daytime gave way to the partying of the night time and eventually the church acted to curb what they saw as the excessive debauchery of the occasion. Read Amanda’s account of the goings-on at Gougane Barra for an insight into the aprés-penance hooleys.

St John's Well 2

Tullylease had three wells, one devoted to Mary and another to St Beirechert (a saint whose name is spelled in a bewildering number of ways). The third well turned out to be something different – see below. The Marian well is thoughtfully stocked with holy water. Some of it is now in our bathroom to see if a few drops added to the bathwater will fend off the rheumatiz. So far, so good.

Holy Water

St  Beirechert’s church has several interesting carvings: St Beirechert himself in an unlikely swallow-tailed coat and tricorn hat, several fragments and a wonderfully worked cross slab with interlace design.

Bericheart in swallowtail coat

We  were intrigued to learn recently that this very cross was used as a model for the design of leather and fabric pieces for UCC’s Honan Chapel, an Arts and Crafts masterpiece, when it was being built a hundred years ago. I can’t show you a picture of that, as it’s undergoing painstaking conservation, but click here to see a modern use of the design!

Tullylease cross slab

The final well we saw at Tullylease  wasn’t really a well at all but a bullaun stone – a big one. It’s supposed to cure headaches if you rub your forehead all around the rim, so here is Amanda, about to give it a try.

Amanda headache well

Our last stop was at a well for St Brigid. This one had a kind of cupboard containing a book in which visitors can write their prayers and ‘intentions’. It was fairly up to date, indicating recent visits.

Brigid's Well, prayer

St Brigid Pray for usIn  this post I have concentrated on the Duhallow wells, as examples of how one community has embraced this aspect of its heritage and created a wonderful experience for its residence and for visitors. For a detailed description of each of the ones I’ve mentioned here, browse through the North Cork section of Amanda’s Gazetteer.

Brigids well cups

But following a brochure and a map to wells that are tidy and well signed is not a fair representation of how you find holy wells in the field! In my next Good Well Hunting post I will invite you to come with us as we fight brambles, mud and neglect, as well as discover little gems still intact and visited in the deep countryside.