The Storied Way to Beara

You know we love the beauty of West Cork, and we can’t resist the odd foray into all our neighbouring parishes. They are perhaps a bit wilder and higher, with markedly remote open spaces. So here’s a little wander on to the Beara Peninsula and beyond: I have raided our archive of photographs to enthuse us – and, hopefully you – to travel those roads in the coming spring. Firstly, have a look at this:

There’s a house down there, nestled under some spectacularly steep fields! This is to remind you that you have to up the scale a bit if you are stepping across the county boundaries. This Kerry landscape is such a contrast to our own seascapes and islands. We have our hills, of course: Mount Gabriel was in the news this week because of the gorse fires which lit up its summit. Such fires are allowed up until the first of March – by longstanding tradition – to clear the land and improve the grazing. It all seems a bit incongruous, though, when governments are planning to outlaw wood-burning stoves because they lead to poor air quality, and we are being advised by the HSE about the adverse health effects of air polluted by smoke and ash. Fire on Mount Gabriel 26 February 2023 – photo by Magnus Burbankscourtesy Southern Star:

Let’s leave that argument – and the drama – for others to debate, and return to the colour and spectacle of our neighbours. Below are fishing boats tied up in Castletown-Berehaven. You’ll note that ‘Iolair’ is registered in Skibbereen. If this seems strange, remember that our West Cork town on the Ilen River is still the Port Of Registration for all shipping on the south-west coast of Ireland between the jurisdictions of Cork and Limerick. My recent post on the Ilen described Skibbereen as “. . . a settlement served by water . . .” with perhaps up to nine historic quays and a Custom House located within the town in its heyday of commercial vessels working on the river. Present day Shipping registrations are administered by Customs & Excise in Bantry, even though the prefix ‘S’ (for Skibbereen) is still used – a somewhat quirky anomaly: the Custom House in Skibbereen was closed in 1890!

The people of the Beara Peninsula quite likely think of themselves foremost as an entity, rather than a mixture of Corkonians and Kerry people. In Eyries a Seanchaí – or storyteller – is celebrated: Pádraig Ó Murchú. His story is a somewhat sad one, certainly not untypical of many remote areas in Ireland. He was born in Gort Broc (Gortbrack, Co Kerry – north of Kenmare Bay) on 15 February 1873. His parents were Seán Ó Murchú whose wife Máire Harrington. (‘Caobach’) and he had four sisters and two brothers. Five of them, the boys and three of the girls, went to Butte, Montana. Seán died in Gort Broc at the age of 47 when Pádraig himself was a young boy. None of his forebears ever returned home but he would receive a letter every now and then from one of his aunts. Folklorist Martin Verling states that 707 men and 431 women emigrated to Butte from the parish of Aorí between 1870 and 1915. An account of how his great-grandfather, Seán Ó Murchú, settled in Kerry was taken down from Pádraig’s mouth (or Patsy as he was called): Seán was abducted by one of the ‘Cithearnaigh’ (a name given to certain Irish landlords in Beara) in Kerry and sold in France as a slave. When he managed to escape, he landed in Beara.

Commemorating Pádraig Ó Murchú in Eyries

Measles affected Pádraig’s eyesight so badly that he was given a blind pension; ‘flickering’ left him unable to read or write. He spoke English fluently, with Irish his native tongue. Until she died in 1923 his mother lived with him, and it fell to him to tend to her during the decline of old age. He earned his living by farming and fishing and was always in good health, apart from his eyesight. Writer and folklorist Máirtín Verling recorded memories of him from men who were young boys during Pádraig’s old age. Pádraig was part of a culture now vanished, and Verling states “. . . the day Pádraig Ó Murchú was lost as an old man – the habit of storytelling, and the habit of speaking Irish, died together in Béarra . . .”

Map of the Beara Peninsula from the Royal Society of Antiquities of Ireland, T J Westropp 1919. Principal archaeological sites are indicated.

These Beara landscapes are typical of the remote grandeur of the territory. Human settlement has encroached upon it – the patchy forestry plantations above are unnatural and uninspiring – but there are sufficient wild prospects remaining to ensure that the all-embracing beauty can never be eroded. Plenty of living history remains in evidence.

Archaeology, colour and community are all part of the local scenes on the Beara. The tourism industry is undoubtedly thriving, bringing fresh life with it.

We hope you will agree that the Beara – whether it’s Cork or Kerry – is deserving of a visit – and a stay: you have to delve deeply into the lifestyle and traditions. Enjoy!

(Above – the work of stained glass artist George Walsh. A visit to the little church in Eyries to take in more of this is a must)

Planning a Plantation: Jobson’s 1589 Map of Munster Part 2

As I said in Part 1, this map was made to provide information for the purposes of plantation – that is, colonisation – of Munster, and in particular of those lands forfeited by the Desmonds after their ill-fated rebellions. Jobson, the cartographer who signed this was, according to Andrews, an enthusiastic map-maker who was unusually determined that his maps would survive. Accordingly, he made copies and presented them to likely future employers – hence this one, inscribed to Lord Burleigh, faithful and long-serving eminence grise to Elizabeth 1. That’s herself, below. (Full citation for the map is at the end of the post.)

Andrews says of Jobson:

He also showed unusual zeal in presenting duplicates to likely patrons: no one was going to deprive posterity of a Jobson map by “borrowing” the only copy. Other features of his complex cartographic persona were more distinctly Irish, such as his deceptively slapdash-looking style and his apparent ignorance of earlier Anglo-Irish cartography.

Colonial Cartography in a European Setting:The Case of Tudor Ireland
J. H. Andrews

Much of the ‘slapdash’ nature of the map can be explained when we realise that this map, in fact, was a reduction to small scale of detailed townlands surveys that he, Jobson, and others had carried out, and that he obviously had not been able to make all his observations ‘on the ground’ for whatever reasons. The map was studied in the late nineteenth century, along with a host of other evidence by W H Hardinge. He starts his paper, read to the Royal Irish Academy in 1891, by giving the background to the maps: 

So soon, however, as the Queen and her Council decided upon establishing, under certain conditions and limitations, a plantation of her English subjects upon these forfeited territories; and for that purpose determined to grant them out to undertakers, in scopes of twelve, ten, eight thousand, and a lesser number of English acres, it became indispensable to the interests of the crown, as well as to equity in the distribution of the lands amongst the undertakers, to have the area of each town accurately measured, ascertained, and laid down upon a plot or map. Accordingly, I find a commission to that end, bearing date the 19th June, in the twenty-sixth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth [1584], accompanied by minute instructions from the ministers and lords of Her Majesty’s Privy Council in England addressed to Sir Henry Wallop, Knt., under-treasurer of Ireland, and to other commissioners there, of whom the auditor-general, and the surveyor and escheator-general were two; authorizing and requiring them to make special inquiry in relation to said forfeitures, to measure the demesnes, and to reduce acres to plow lands, according to the custom of the country, and to value the acres rateably according to perches. The survey was completed in the year 1586, and must have been returned into England, as ” The Plot from England for inhabiting and peopling Munster” was soon afterwards sent to the lord deputy. And, further, a very large proportion of the principal plantation grants were passed under the great seal of England almost simultaneously, based upon that survey, and which could not have been so passed unless the guiding information enabling the distribution had been on the spot.


On Mapped Surveys of Ireland Author(s): W. H. Hardinge and Ths. Ridgeway
Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1836-1869) , 1861 – 1864, Vol. 8 (1861 – 1864), pp. 39-55 Available here

Hardinge then goes on to comment on Jobson’s Map of Munster:

In a long and expressive marginal note, Jobson sets out his services, stating “that he was three years in her majesty’s service, surveying and measuring part of the lands escheated to the crown in Munster ;” and further, “that Arthur Robinson and Lawson were employed on same survey.” The map in question is genuine, and clearly a reduction by Jobson from the townland surveys, made in pursuance of the pre-recited commission, as a gift likely to be acceptable to Lord Burleigh. 

From such accumulated evidence, I concluded that there must have been mapped surveys accompanying the inquisitions and books of survey; and that nothing less could satisfy the exigencies of the plantation – a work that was to be guided by a measure of land up to that time unknown in Ireland, and by a scale of crown rent imposition of three-pence per English arable acre. 

In a further note, he cites the cost of the survey as £2,900 – this translates to about £700,000 in today’s money.

This is the frontispiece to Saxton’s Atlas of the Countries of England and Wales. Christopher Saxton was one of the premier Elizabethan cartographers and in this glorious illustration he is showing how indispensable maps and map-makers are to Elizabeth and to the world. Source Wikimedia Commons

Munster in this map refers to the counties of Waterford, Cork, Kerry and Limerick, rather than the present-day province which also includes Tipperary and Clare. Let’s take a closer look now at some more elements of the map, starting with the section on the counties of Cork and Kerry. Two peninsulas (yes – only two!) are clearly delineated, surrounded by galleons. Note the two crests, one with a harp and the other with the English cross of St George, both bearing the regal motto of Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense.

Honing in to take a closer look at the green area (below) labelled the Counte (County) of Desmond we see that the principal families names are Macarte Moor (McCarthy Mór)), who were the overlords of West Cork, and O’Swellivan Bear (O’Sullivan Bear) on the south coast. Below is Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare – the very man named on the map – read more about him in An Excursion to Dunboy.

Bere Island is Illan Moor (Illaun Mór, which is its traditional name – Large Island – as it is, in fact, Ireland’s largest island). Whiddy Island is called Illanfoyde, and is assigned to the O’Sullivans. All around Bantry is assigned to Rogers, a completely unfamiliar name, although one of our commentators last week noted that there is a strand there called Roger’s Strand!

That whole green area is odd, though, isn’t it? In fact, the Beara and Iveragh Peninsulas are shown as one large landmass, with the Beara marked off by an orange line. Here is the surest evidence we have that this map was not drawn on the ground (or by sea) using actual observations and measurements. The coasts and hinterland of both these peninsulas must have presented formidable obstacles to cartography and reminds us that mapping was a dangerous profession in Elizabethan Ireland.

The dangers are starkly revealed in an account by the Attorney General who related that Richard Bartlett, ablest of all the Queen’s Anglo-Irish cartographers, was beheaded in Donegal in 1609 “because they would not have their country discovered”.

And if it wasn’t the natives, then it was the arduous work of surveying these wild lands that challenged the map makers. This was highlighted by the story of Robert Lythe, an English military engineer who almost went blind and lame while serving in Ireland from 1567 to 1571.

how ireland was mapped By Rose Mitchell Map Specialist, The National Archives

Dingle (in red), however, is a different matter – it has assumed outsize proportions, probably an indication of its importance in the Desmond Rebellions. There are many more place names on it than there are on the green mass. Ventry and Smerwick Harbours are indicated since both were important sites of resistance in the Desmond Rebellions – the barbarous massacre of Spanish and Italian allies at Smerwick was one of the decisive acts in the war, and involved such luminaries on the British side as Black Tom Butler, Earl of Ormond (below), Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser. Ventry was where the English troops entered the peninsula.

The Bay of Tralee is noted and the area around it is labelled DENE – this refers to the lands granted to Sir Edward Denny (below). I have written about the extraordinary story of the Dennys and their tenure in Tralee – a story that culminated in Ireland’s Newest Stained Glass Window. And by the way – can you see Sliabh Luacra at the bottom of this section – the home of a distinctive tradition in Irish music.

Whew – better end there for today. As you can see. we have barely scratched the surface of what can be gleaned from this map. Perhaps we will revisit it in a future post – but for now I leave you with the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, slightly expanded from the lead image, so you can try your own hand at making out what an Elizabethan planter might have been vitally interested in.

I am grateful indeed to Michelle Agar, Cataloguer, Digital Collections, at the Library of Trinity College Dublin, who gave permission to feature the map from the Hardiman collection in this blog. Also to the kind office of Dr Áine Madden, Communications and Engagement Coordinator with the Digital Repository of Ireland at the Royal Irish Academy. The complete citation for the map is as follows: Jobson, Francis, & Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin. (2021) The Province of Munster, Digital Repository of Ireland [Distributor], Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin [Depositing Institution], https://doi.org/10.7486/DRI.rb69b272p

The Stone Circles of West Cork: An Introduction

Southwest Munster, and West Cork in particular, is home to the greatest concentration in Ireland of stone circles. There are two main kinds recorded in the National Monuments website, each making up about half the total number of circles – the multiple-stone circle and the five-stone circle. (There are also a small number of enigmatic monuments called ‘four posters’ which share some features with stone circles, but I will write about them some other time.) 

Peter Clarke’s illustration of the Ardgroom Stone Circle on the Beara, from his online journal, Hikelines

The division based on the number of stones is somewhat arbitrary, since both share most other features. Both have uneven numbers of stones – five in the case of the five-stone circle, and seven or more (up to 19) in the multiple-stone circles.

Our old friend Du Noyer loved to illustrate antiquities. We’re  not quite sure which stone circle this one is**

Both types are axial or recumbent stone circles. The name recumbent comes from the lowest stone in the circle, the only stone set on its side, with its long axis parallel to the ground. All the other stones are set upright and they often increase in size from the recumbent to the portal stones. The portals appear to form an entrance into the circles and are sometimes set end-on to the circle. An axis drawn from the point between the portals to the middle of the recumbent bisects the circle – hence the name axial stone circle. All these features can be seen in the photograph of Drombeg Stone Circle (below).

While the multiple-stones circles appear roughly circular, they may have been laid out using more complicated geometry than the string-marking-out-a-circle technique. Some are more elliptical than truly circular. The five-stone circles, given the dominance of the recumbent, are actually D-shaped.

The five-stone circle which is part of the Kealkill complex

Many of our stone circles have disappeared over time, with only folkloric memory indicating that here was once a circle of stones. Some have lost stones over time, while in others uprights have collapsed. Whole monuments have vanished into forests or dense undergrowth. Even where we still have partial circles it can be difficult to make out which are the portals and which the recumbent.

Upper: Labbamolaga – we think this was a stone circle but so few stones remain that it’s hard to be definitive. Lower: This sad little heap of stones is all that remains of the Ahagilla Stone Circle. The recumbent is to the left and a portal to the right.

The circles are constructed from local stone and in some cases it is easy to see where they have been quarried from nearby rock outcrops. There is no evidence of the builders transporting the stones from elsewhere, with the exception, perhaps of the quartz blocks which are found occasionally either as uprights or associated with the circle inside or outside it. Although quartz is found in abundance in West Cork a large block of it may have been especially prized and reserved for such a situation.

This sizeable quartz block lies beside the Lettergorman Five-Stone Circle

The circles were carefully and deliberately constructed: Fahy’s excavations at Drombeg and Reenascreena shows that the ground was levelled.  Stones were, it seems, selected for shape as well as size. The recumbent is usually flat on top, which may indicate the side closest to the parent rock from which it was split. Some may well have been deliberately shaped by knocking or splitting off sections – we often notice, for example, how well certain uprights mirror the landscape behind them, like the one at Ardgroom, below.

Stone circles are often associated with other monuments, most commonly boulder burials and standing stones, and at least two have radial stone cairns beside them. Some of the standing stones appear to function as outliers to the circle, extending alignments towards solar or lunar orientations (more of that next time).

Upper: This boulder burial is part of a complex of monuments at Bohonagh which also includes a stone circle (visible behind the boulder burial), a cupmarked stone and a standing stone which is no longer to be found. Lower: A standing stone pair (one fallen) at Knocknakilla with (behind it) a five-stone circle (recently fallen over) and a  radial stone cairn – of all the elements of this complex only this standing stone is really visible in the landscape

West Cork stone circles, from the sparse excavation evidence, date from the middle to late Bronze Age (about 1500 to 600BC). They are commonly found on elevated ground with a clear and expansive view southwards, but stretching from the northeast to the southwest – that portion of the sky in which both the sun and the moon rise and set.

This tiny monument is a five-stone circle at Inchybegga. When the grass grows tall enough you can’t see it at all

Our stone circles have always fascinated antiquarians, happy to label them ‘druidic temples’ or make outlandish claims about their construction by visiting Egyptians. Some of the older illustration owe more to the imagination than to accurate depictions.

Templebryan Stone Circle as it actually is (lower) and as depicted by the antiquarian, Clayton, in 1742 (upper). The illustration for Clayton, done by Ann la Bush, shows the fashionable preoccupation at the time for Egyptian-type obelisks. Nevertheless it is important in that it shows that there were more stones in the circle than there are now. Note the central block of quartz

In more recent times, they have been the subject of a great deal of new-age speculation about long-distance ley lines, mystical ‘energies,’ extra-terrestrial builders, associations with pagan goddess cults and the like. As an archaeologist, I think this is a pity, in the sense that these stone circles are fascinating enough as they are – they embody so much that we need to understand about the scientific knowledge, advanced construction technology, and social organisation of the builders. The belief systems that underlie their reasons for constructing these monuments are equally important and more difficult to discern after the passage of millennia, but should be based on close and serious study of the monuments themselves.

Above is the Derreenataggart Stone Circle on the Beara, and below is a much more romantic and monumental rendering of it from Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Ireland (1790s), illustrated by Daniel Grose. My lead image is also a Daniel Grose illustration, this time of a stone circle that once stood on the slopes of Hungry Hill, but which has since disappeared*

The next post in this series will be about the multiple-stone circles.

*The two illustrations by Daniel Gross are from Daniel Grose (c.1766-1838). The Antiquities of Ireland, a supplement to Francis Grose, by Roger Stalley, Irish Architectural Archive 1991
**I now know that this is almost certainly not a West Cork example but Boleycarrigeen in Wicklow (thanks to Ken Williams for the ID)

The Elemental World of Cormac Boydell

Perched on the very edge of Europe and facing into the Atlantic Ocean, the far west of Ireland is a terrifyingly beautiful place to set down your roots. Our own little spot, overlooking the comparatively calm reaches of Roaringwater Bay, faces into the winter gales and it’s a constant fight to keep the weather out: always a losing battle. But, could we live anywhere else? Certainly not. This week we met up with Cormac Boydell and Rachel Parry – two artists who live just about as far away as it is possible to be in wild West Cork. Like us, they battle with the elements; like us, they couldn’t envisage living anywhere else.

Cormac Boydell (header picture – in his studio) and Rachel Parry live on the edge of Ireland: their cottage and lush gardens feel as if they are carved out of the mountainside to seek maximum shelter from winter storms. They are well off the beaten track close to the end of the Beara Peninsula: the nearest settlement is Allihies (from the Irish Na hAilichí, meaning ‘the cliff fields) which was a centre for copper extraction in the Bronze Age and from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when generations of Cornish Mine Captains came here to manage the mines, providing work for a substantial local population.

Connection with the landscape is something that’s inherent in the make-up of Cormac Boydell. It must be significant that he started out studying and working as a geologist – getting to know the physical fabric of the rocks and the earth around him – before setting out on a more creative path, working with those very elements to produce exuberantly robust ceramic sculptures which are unique and highly sought after.

Cormac’s tools are his hands. He works raw terracotta clay and crafts the shapes of his pieces without wheel or mould. He applies colours and – most importantly – textures into the surface, and firing provides the finishes – not always predictable. For him, this is all part of the living process. But that’s the physical process: into the whole equation, also, are his close observations of the environment around him – the geology, textures and colours of the rock surfaces from the natural and cultivated landscapes. He sees the way rocks break and how they weather – how time is an element in their metamorphoses. Somehow, into all this surveillance and appreciation of nature he also makes stories. He finds inspiration in ancient sagas, particularly those from Ireland, as we saw in the exhilarating work on the walls of his studio.

Cormac Boydell is one of the important group of artists who came and settled in West Cork during the second half of the last century – a group whose lives and work have yet to be properly celebrated. Like many others of this group he has stayed for life and contributed to raising the profile of art produced in Ireland. In a catalogue of work produced by West Cork artists and displayed both in Skibbereen and the Crawford Gallery in Cork 30 years ago – Living Landscape ’87 – he writes this of his own contribution to that exhibition:

. . . Landscape is not the first term I would apply to my work. However I always welcome challenge. Breaking new ground stimulates creativity where repetition kills it. Experimentation, welcoming both failures and success, working out beyond the boundaries of my vision… that’s the excitement of art making. Using rock and fired clay as elements of the landscape, “Earthbone” expresses the spirit from which the landscape is formed . . .

Alison Ospina wrote in 2011 in the introduction to her book West Cork Inspires:

. . . Hidden down the leafy lanes of West Cork I have found artists whose work is of the highest calibre and should be considered of national importance . . . I have selected people working in a variety of media whose work has had an impact on other craftspeople and has been influential in developing West Cork’s reputation for excellence and originality . . .

In her book she writes of Cormac Boydell:

. . . Cormac’s work is organic and elemental, the earth is its source. It resonates across millennia from when the bedrock of this country was being laid down and speaks of torsion and vortices, glacial drift and the alchemy of fire. It taps into the energies of nature, to which it is inextricably linked . . .

One of my favourite new pieces from Cormac Boydell is this large plaque inspired by the story of the Irish Saint Éinne (also known as Saint Enda): the patriarch of Irish monasticism. He is the brother of St Fanchea (see Finola’s post about Irish women saints) and was a warrior until Fanchea persuaded him to lay down his arms. He went to Aran in 484 and founded the first monastery there but the local chieftain Corbanus intervened. Éinne’s response was to banish all of Corbanus’s horses from the islands. This is the scene which Cormac has illustrated and it’s one of a recent series which is based on myths and legends.

You could own a piece by Cormac Boydell! This ceramic – based on a story from the Finn McCool cycle – has been purchased by Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre gallery in Skibbereen, and will be on display there from this week until the end of the Art & The Great Hunger Exhibition which runs from 20 July to 13 October. While the gallery is open you can purchase draw tickets at only 5 Euros each: the prize, which will be drawn on the last day of the exhibition, is the Boydell ceramic. What an opportunity – every ticket stands an equal chance of winning this unique work of art! And all your contributions will be supporting the activities of the Arts Centre.

With grateful thanks to Cormac and Rachel for allowing us a glimpse into their world

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.

 

The Red Line – Bere Island

As part of the excellent Taste of West Cork food festival, we signed up for the Bere Island Cultural Taste Tour, and on a grey Saturday morning we drove off along the south side of the Beara Peninsula to Castletownbere. The Islands of West Cork are all fascinating to explore, in our experience, and each one is very different. This was my first visit to Bere Island, and I immediately want to go back there: this was, of necessity, a ‘whistlestop tour’, ably led by Ted O’Sullivan, probably a direct descendant of the famed O’Sullivan Bere (who deserves – and will get – a post of his own!) You may remember that the island – and the peninsula – has taken its name from the Spanish wife of Owen Mór, King of Ireland around 120AD.

Bere Island lies off the coast of the Beara Peninsula, which was in constant view as our bus took us to the eastern end on the narrow island roads – towards the ‘Red Line’

While the history of the island takes us back to the Bronze Age and beyond, more recent events have been left behind on the landscape – and in the memories of the islanders.

Upper – ancient history: Ardaragh Bronze Age wedge tomb beside the road to the east of the island with Hungry Hill beyond. In 1926 the tomb collapsed, and this was seen by some islanders as a ‘sign’ that the British might leave the occupied part of the island. Lower – modern history: looking from the island towards the Beara – British warships stationed in the bay circa 1914

Did you know that part of Bere Island remained in British hands well beyond the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921? This was one of the three Treaty Ports that were retained by the United Kingdom following the First World War, when there were fears that there might be a recurring naval threat to the islands of Britain and Ireland. The other two ports were Spike Island, in Cork Harbour, and Lough Swilly in the far north of the Irish state. Relationships between Ireland and Britain remained uneasy for many years but finally, in 1938, it was agreed that these deepwater ports should be handed over to the Irish Republic. Winston Churchill was appalled by the decision, and in an address to Parliament in that year he called it a ‘folly’:

…When the Irish Treaty was being shaped in 1922 I was instructed by the Cabinet to prepare that part of the Agreement which dealt with strategic reservations. I negotiated with Mr Michael Collins, and I was advised by Admiral Beatty who assured me that without the use of these ports it would be very difficult, perhaps almost impossible, to feed this Island in time of war. Queenstown and Berehaven shelter the flotillas which keep clear the approaches to the Bristol and English Channels, and Lough Swilly is the base from which the access to the Mersey and the Clyde is covered… These ports are, in fact, the sentinel towers of the western approaches, by which the 45,000,000 people in this Island so enormously depend on foreign food for their daily bread, and by which they can carry on their trade, which is equally important to their existence…

Until the handover in 1938 the eastern end of the island lay beyond ‘The Red Line’. The position of this line was pointed out to us on the tour, although we couldn’t see a ‘line’. In fact, no physical line did ever exist but there was a point beyond which Irish people could not proceed, and British forces stationed over the ‘line’ could not cross. Ted, our tour guide, recounted some amusing stories of those strange times. With typical Irish inventiveness, there were many instances of how the difficulties created by the ‘line’ were overcome. For a short while there was a prison on the British sector, right beside the ‘line’. It was used to incarcerate mainly political prisoners. Every weekend there would be a party held on the Irish side of the line which always included singing, dancing and drinking, and the prisoners joined in! Many politically important prisoners managed to escape, and the prison was known as a ‘leaky bucket’ because of this. A number of the British governors of the prison were removed during its short life because of their inability to contain their charges.

Lonehort Battery – built in 1899 by the Royal Engineers of the English army – housed two enormous 6-inch guns (still in place but very rusty) and is surrounded by a deep moat. There are plans to re-open the site as a historic monument

Lonehort is a natural harbour, believed to have been used by the Vikings. Archaeological excavations were carried out there in 1995 and confirmed the artificial breakwater as being Norse: there were also signs of a Viking shipyard here.

Lonehort – a Viking harbour and shipyard. The word means ‘Long Phort’, and is used to indicate Norse associations

One of the purposes of our tour was to introduce us to food produced on the island, and we ate in three establishments: The Shop and Cafe in Rerrin for soup, The Hotel for a fishcake lunch, and the Heritage Centre for a dessert and coffee. All provided good, delicious fare.

Our three food destinations. Top – the wonderful Shop at Rerrin; centre – The Hotel, open all year round (it looks as though it has interesting fare!) and lower – the modern Heritage Centre which has a gallery displaying the island’s history and culture as well as a good eatery

All too soon our short tour came to an end: we had to get back to catch the ferry. We missed several things: St Michael’s Holy Well and Church; views from Knockanallig (the highest point) and several standing stones including Gallán, which is exactly in the centre of the island. And it’s a great place for walking! We will return, perhaps for a few days in the winter, and complete our explorations. But many thanks to Ted and the Bere Island Projects Group for giving us such a comprehensive introduction to an intriguing community and its history.

Robert heading home after a grand day out!