Brian’s Sketchbook: The Signal Towers

Brow Head Buildings

We have received a unique and treasured gift – a sketchbook from the 1980s of prehistoric and historic sites around West Cork. It’s the work of our good friend, and national treasure, Brian Lalor, artist, writer and printmaker. For an overview of his style, check out the retrospective of his work at Graphic Studio Dublin. Or browse the long list of his books, including the magnificent Encyclopaedia of Ireland, which he edited.

Marconi Station, Brow Head

Brow Head: (above and below) on the right is the Napoleonic-era Signal Tower; the other buildings date mainly from the time of the Marconi Telegraph Station, taken from a different angle than the sketch above

Brian has studied both architecture and archaeology and to that adds the keen observant eye of the artist. As a result these sketches, although, as he explained, often hastily done during a brief visit to a site, are accurate, detailed and charming in equal measure. They were made on field trips with the Mizen Archaeological & Historical Society in the 1980s. This was an active society, publishing a well-regarded journal from 1993 to 2004 and leading regular field trips for members.

Brow Head ruined building

The sketches, just over 50 of them, were made for the most part between 1980 and 1987 so besides their intrinsic artistic value, they also constitute an important record of the state of the site 30 years ago, allowing us a comparison with its current condition. My intention is to visit (or re-visit) a lot of the sites, with his sketches in hand and show our readers both how beautifully Brian captured the structures or artefacts at the time and whether there are any changes visible from then to now. I decided to start with the Signal Towers on Cape Clear and Brow Head, and a third tower on Rock Island that may or may not be contemporaneous.

Wolfe Tone front

Theobald Wolfe Tone – detail of the statue in Bantry town square

In 1796 the French navy, partly at the invitation of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, staged an unsuccessful invasion of Ireland, sailing into Bantry Bay. Several raids followed in 1798. Although all were quickly quashed, a panic about the possibility of a French invasion spread throughout Britain and Ireland. A series of Napoleonic-era fortifications and viewing towers were constructed around the coast in locations with panoramic views, and within sight of each other, to spot foreign shipping activity and raise the alarm. On the east coast, these mainly took the form of Martello Towers and were stocked with heavy armaments, but here in the south west defensible Signal Towers were built not to house artillery but as advanced-warning stations. Here and there they were complemented by batteries and other fortifications – but that’s a story for another day.

Cape Clear Signal Tower

The Cape Clear Signal Tower

Signal towers were built around the coast to the same plan – tall square towers with first-floor entrances and machicolations. From a distance, they look like the medieval tower houses I have posted about on several occasions but up close they are shorter and the windows are bigger. Internal staircases and partitions were made of wood, not stone and have generally not survived, so the signal stations are essentially shells. in both the Cape Clear and Brow Head example, the exterior slate cladding has survived remarkably well.

Brow Head Detail - signal tower

Brow Head Signal Tower – detail from Brian’s sketch

In his excellent article for the Irish Times, Nick Hogan describes the towers, how they were staffed, the accommodation provided and how the signalling was done:

The signalling system, referred to as an optical telegraph, required that each signal station be visible to its counterparts on either side. Sending a message involved raising and lowering a large rectangular flag, a smaller blue pendant and four black balls in various combinations along a system centred on a tall wooden mast. The stations also communicated with ships.

Cape Clear Towers

Signal Tower and Original Fastnet lighthouse, Cape ClearTop: Brian’s sketch of the Signal Tower and Lighthouse on Cape Clear Island, done in 1982; Below: how it looked in June, 2016, 34 years later

While many signal stations are lonely and isolated buildings glimpsed on distant headlands, abandoned since the mid-1800s, both the Brow Head and Cape Clear buildings had further phases of use. In Cape Clear a lighthouse was built in 1818 – a forerunner of the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse. It was so often shrouded in fog that it was abandoned in the 1840s. The buildings attached to the signal tower, built of brick and concrete, probably date to this period of occupation. The signal tower is built of stone, using techniques not far removed from medieval construction methods. The lighthouse provides a wonderful contrast, being built of cut granite blocks expertly measured, shaped and fitted. 

Cape Clear Deatil - Lighthouse

Cape Clear Lighthouse, detail from sketch

In June of 2016, when we visited, it looked exactly as it had to Brian and the Mizen field group – an indication, perhaps that somebody is looking after the site and that the few visitors who come (it’s quite a hike to get there) respect the heritage. [Edit: Since I wrote this, Brian has pointed out that in the Cape Clear Signal Tower there is a porch under the machicolation in his drawing that has since disappeared. The outlines of the porch can be clearly seen in the photographs of the signal tower.]

Cape Clear Lighthouse

Brow Head is easier to access, and as a result there is more graffiti in evidence, but the changes to the site since Brian’s sketch are more the result of time and climate than any damage by humans. This is a complex site with multiple periods of occupation. The signal tower is there, of course, looking exactly as it did in the 1980s. Beside it is a network of buildings dating from the the early years of the 20th century: this is what remains of the Marconi Telegraph Station. Read all about this in Robert’s piece on Marconi, In Search of Ghosts. Besides the Marconi Station a Second World War Look Out Post was occupied here in the 1940s – little remains of this small concrete building except the characteristic half-round shape and a section of wall.

Brow Head octagonal?

Finally, on Brow Head there is a mysterious building that Brian labels ’14 – ’18 Gun Emplacement. This building no longer exists, and the ruinous remains that litter the ground seem robust enough to fit this inscription. Or do they? So – a mystery, and obviously  more research needed on our part. If any of our readers can help – let us hear from you!

Brow Head Detail - gun emplacement

The last tower is on Rock Island. It is clearly visible from the Brow Head Signal Tower ( a requirement for the placement of signal towers) but, strangely, it is one of two very similar towers on Rock Island, and while they are similar to each other, they are quite different from the classic signal tower design. However, both the National Monuments site  and the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage listings name them as Napoleonic-era Signal Towers, and perhaps that is indeed what they are.

Rock Island Tower

Brian’s sketch of the Rock Island Signal Tower

However, in discussion with Brian, he pointed out that most of the buildings on Rock Island were developed as part of a major Coast Guard installation around the same time as the Marconi Station, and we wonder if there might be a connection – that is, that these are Coast Guard-related Watch Towers, rather than Napoleonic-era Signal Towers. Once again – more research needed! [Edit: See comment from Navtell in comment section, below.]

Rock Island Signal Station

Rock Island Second TowerThe two towers on Rock Island: similar to each other but quite different from the classic Signal Tower on nearby Brow Head

This is only my first foray into Brian’s Sketchbook. Look out for more posts in the future and in the meantime, join with me in being grateful that a precious resource like this survived numerous moves and that we have the opportunity to learn from it.

Cape Clear Detail - Signal Tower

The Cape Clear Signal Tower

Your Favourite Posts of 2014

Cape Clear Harbour

Cape Clear Harbour

What were your favourite Roaringwater Journal blog posts of 2014?

Our blogging software provides a running count of visitors to Roaringwater Journal and it’s always fascinating to see which ones receive the most views. Some of them are our own favourites as well, and some can attribute their high numbers to being re-blogged by others, or to being shared on social media. So tell us, Dear Reader – did the software capture it – or do you have a different favourite from our top posts of 2014?

From the Whiddy Island high point

From the Whiddy Island high point

The top two posts of 2014 were the ones we wrote about our trips to Cape Clear and to Whiddy Islands. We loved our time on the islands and intend to go back often – our enthusiasm probably shone through. But it may also be that islands hold a mystique for us that is hard to define – out there in the dawn mist, mysterious and peaceful, whole worlds unto themselves. The islanders of West Cork are worried at the moment by cuts to their development officer funding, and need all the support we can give them. So if you live here, or are planning a trip, include one or more of these beautiful islands in your plans.

Timoleague Friary

Timoleague Friary

Next in popularity was our post on the Timoleague Friary. It’s an iconic piece of West Cork history and architecture – the only sizeable medieval religious ruins we have, perched on a picturesque estuary of the Arigideen River.

I've learned to look carefully for road signs

I’ve learned to look carefully for road signs

Finola’s frustration at the inflexible regulations that treated her like a novice driver, despite forty years of driving experience, must have struck a chord with you. Maybe you dropped by Driving Home the Point to sympathise with her plight, or maybe it was to chuckle over the numerous example of the routine flouting of the Irish rules of the road, or the bemusing driving conditions of many rural roads.

Evans of Bantry

Evans of Bantry

We have enormous nostalgia for the things we remember from our childhood, don’t we? In that vein, it’s not surprising that Shopping for Memories was such a popular post. These lovely old shops evoke a time when a whole variety of shops lined the main streets and our mothers went from the butchers to the greengrocers to the chemists to the haberdashers and, if we were lucky, to the sweet shop on a daily basis.

Carraig Abhainn Gardens

Carraig Abhainn Gardens

But sadly, the numbers of these old-fashioned shops are dwindling. This year we said goodbye to Wiseman’s in Durrus, no longer able to compete against the hardware shops of Bantry. Fortunately, their wonderful Carraig Abhainn Gardens are still open behind the shop – and our description of this hidden gem was one of your favourite posts of the year.

A group of posts on festivals came next. We wrote about the question our friends asked us when we decided to move here, What on earth will you find to DO? We answered in a series of posts describing some of the local events and festivals we have taken in this year – the Ballydehob Jazz Festival and Arts and Culture Festival (which included our own Rock Art Exhibition), traditional music Festivals in Baltimore, Bantry and Ballydehob, and a host of musical and theatrical events. One day all of you retirees out there are going to discover that moving to West Cork is the best decision you can make!

The next group of posts centred on the Mizen – the Mizen Magic posts where we concentrated on aspects of the Mizen Peninsula that delight us – the Beaches, Brow Head, the Butter Road, Mount Gabriel, the Gortnagrough Folk Museum, and the history and archaeology of this beautiful part of Ireland.

How are ye?

How are ye?

In fairness, like, it looks like ye would have enjoyed our take on how to speak like ye’re from West Cork. Those little posteens made you happy out.

Ye must be a fierce active crowd altogether because you really got a kick out of Finola’s description of her day of sailing and (perhaps her personal favourite in the activities department) her moonlight kayaking on Lough Hyne.

Happy New Year from Robert and Finola!

Happy New Year from Robert and Finola!

And our own personal favourite of 2014? Robert’s post on the Sky Garden, of course! If you haven’t read it yet, you’ll have to do so to find out why this was the highlight of our year in West Cork.

Mizen Magic 3: Brow Head

On Brow Head, looking back up the Mizen Peninsula

On Brow Head, looking back up the Mizen Peninsula

Contrary to popular belief, Mizen Head is not the most southerly point on the Irish mainland – that distinction actually belongs to Brow Head, just to the east. Brow Head doesn’t have the same profile as Mizen Head: many people have never heard of it. But it’s magnificent, steeped in history, wonderfully scenic and best of all, totally walkable.

Possible prehistoric field boundary, visible at low tide

Possible prehistoric standing stone and field boundary, visible at low tide

You arrive at Brow Head by driving west from Schull out towards Crookhaven. If the water is low in the Haven you may spy the remains of ancient field boundaries, covered at high tide.

Galley Cove

Galley Cove

The starting point is Galley Cove – a smaller and quieter beach than the popular Barley Cove a little further west, but featuring the same white sand and inviting Caribbean-blue water. You can leave the car here and proceed on foot uphill if you’re feeling in the need of an aerobic workout. Or you can drive up the narrow road, but be warned: if you meet a car coming down you may have to reverse a considerable distance. There is parking for three or four cars at the top of the hill.

Recently-erected standing stones

Recently-erected standing stones

The first thing you’ll notice, in front of the lone house at the top of the hill, is an impressive row of standing stones, aligned to point back down the Mizen Peninsula. These are recent additions to the landscape, testament to the enduring tradition of erecting such stones in this part of the world.

Scramble up through the heather to the remains of the Napoleonic-era signal tower and the Marconi Telegraph Station – see Robert’s post for more about Marconi and early wireless telegraph in West Cork. From here there are panoramic views east to Crookhaven and down the Mizen Peninsula, west to Mizen Head, North to Barley Cove and southeast to the Fastnet Rock.

Follow the path now south west to the tip of the Head. This was a copper mining area in the nineteenth Century and you can still see the ruins of the Mine Captain’s house, miners’ dwellings and fenced off mine shafts. Abandoned cottages litter the north-facing slopes, with small overgrown fields defined by stone walls.

Near the tip of the Head you must cross a narrow causeway with steep cliffs on either side. This part is not for the faint of heart (or small children, perhaps) especially on a windy day. Find a sheltered spot at the end and sit a while. You may see gannets diving here, or dolphins in the waters below, and you will certainly be aware of the power of the pounding waves.

Next parish - America!

Next parish – America!

Before you leave, make sure that you make a wish – after all, this is a special place, and special places in Ireland have their own magic. 

Heron tracks

In the Haven