Castle Island – Facts and Fictions

That’s Castle Island, above, beyond Gaelic Lord Finnin O’Mahony’s dilapidated realm at the entrance to Rossbrin Cove, in Roaringwater Bay. In the fifteenth century there would have been a hive of activity at Rossbrin: quays alive with fishing activity, boats being repaired and prepared, houses, stores and cellars – all full. Castle Island itself would also have been inhabited in those days, as were many of Carbery’s Hundred Isles. Skeam West – to the east of Castle, and roughly in the centre of all the islands of Roaringwater Bay, has the remnants of a church said to date from the ninth century (Fahy – Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Volume 67, 1962).

Upper – Castle island with its close neighbours in Roaringwater Bay; lower – the ancient church on nearby Skeam West, drawn by Fahy in 1962 (courtesy Cork Historical and Archaeological Society). Fahy suggested a ninth century date for this structure, although other commentators have suggested an earlier origin, possibly even before St Patrick’s time

We set foot on Castle Island for the first time in August of last year – during a reprieve in the Covid lockdown measures. Those days seem halcyon now, compared to our current scourge and severe restrictions. We have not been able to return, but I am setting out to bring my reporting a bit more up to date, as I have been provided with further information from a range of sources.

Approaching Castle Island in 2020: upper – view of the island from the shore in Rossbrin townland; centre – proceeding to the island from Rossbrin Cove; lower – the quay on Castle Island, reportedly built in the early 20th century by the Congested Districts Board: “…the beach that it is laid upon was the best natural landing point on the island, well sheltered from the Atlantic swell …” (Mark Wycliff Samuel – The Tower House of West Cork, UCL 1998)

The history of the population of Castle Island is enigmatic and somewhat contradictory. Here is a quotation copied from the Ireland Byways site but uncredited and undated; I can find no other link containing the same information, but it must originally have been written when the island was still inhabited:

. . . Castle Island (Meadhon Inis – “middle island”) lies about 2km offshore, east of the mouth of Schull Harbour on the Mizen Peninsula. The island derives its English name from a ruined C14th Tower House, one of 12 built by the powerful O’Mahony clan in the area. The 1837 census recorded 89 people living on the island. At present there are fewer than 30 permanent residents, who make their living from farming . . .

quoted by ireland byways.co.uk

You will find some accounts which suggest that Castle Island was inhabited only up to the 1870s. These are incorrect: there is no doubt that the island was the home to a number of families in the 1890s as they suffered evictions then. It also seems questionable that the expense of constructing a substantial pier could have been justified only for the benefit of those who might run their cattle and sheep on a deserted island (as happens today). It is possible, therefore, that regular population of the island continued into the early years of the 20th century.

The remains of substantial houses exist on Castle island today: some do not seem to be as ruinous as would be expected if they had been unoccupied for well over 100 years

Recently, my attention was drawn to a Land Register folio recording the title for one of the parcels of land comprising Castle Island: ” . . . a burden, dated April 14, 1904, indicates that the property was transferred at that time subject to the right of . . . Jeremiah Regan to be supported clothed and maintained in the dwellinghouse on the said lands . . . ” That would imply, for sure, that there was at least one person who had the right to live on the island in the twentieth century.

Details from the ruined houses at the settlement of Wester, Castle Island: upper – brick and render chimney stack in reasonable condition; centre – elements from timber window frames still in existence; lower – traces of paint on an internal rendered wall

Accounts of the evictions which occurred on Castle Island have been well summarised in a Mizen Journal article by Liam O’Regan in Volume 6, 1998. The article is much too long to be included here, but it’s worth anyone’s while ferreting it out to get a vividly descriptive picture of the island in the 1890s.

Here’s a brief summary of the eviction story: the villain is on the left, above – he is Thomas Henry Marmion JP, principle landlord of Castle Island. He lived from 1839 to 1921 and – incidentally – his father (who had the same name) was said to have been responsible for providing the ‘soup kitchen’ at the Steam Mill, Skibbereen during the Great Famine of the 1840s. Notwithstanding this, recorded history does not have much that’s good to say about the Marmions, who in the eighteenth century had been land agents for the Bechers and Townsends. At the beginning of March 1890 (as reported, somewhat floridly, in the Cork County Eagle):

. . . A few days ago, the sheriff’s officer from Skibbereen made his appearance in Schull, surrounded by a force of police, on an evicting expedition. After a short delay, they proceeded to the water’s edge where their galleys were found to await them and the sheriff’s representative having secured himself in one of the crafts, the whole party proceeded to sea for a distance of some three miles when they landed on Castle island. This wild and sea-washed home of a few small farmers and fishermen is the property of Mr Thomas Henry Marmion . . . whose interest in recent years appears more of an incumberance or embarrassment than any advantage as the poor creatures who live in it (misnamed farmers) and on the many islands surrounding it, have to live chiefly on the profits of the sea. The fortification of Jerry Nugent was the first laid siege by the invading army, Jerry’s offence being that he owed a few years’ rent which he found impossible to pay and he was, therefore, sent adrift on the sea-washed rocks where he had a full view of the passing emigrant ships which will probably bear him away to seek out a livelihood in the land of the stranger . . .

Cork County Eagle, march 7th, 1890

There’s much more – and it’s a harrowing story – not untypical, of course, of what was happening all over Ireland during the nineteenth century. In the portrait gallery, above, the figure in the middle is a ‘hero’: he is William O’Brien MP, a founder of the National League who, in September 1890 visited West Cork and held a meeting on Middle Calf island to support the case of tenants evicted from Castle Island and the Calves. On the right is James Gilhooly, MP, Bantry, who was chairman of the ‘All for Ireland League’ and who strongly supported the Castle Island tenants and attended many official meetings on their behalf. Matters rumbled on laboriously into the mid 1890s: eventually, it seems that the introduction of new land purchase acts (benefitting tenants), enabled six tenants to return to, and continue to occupy, Castle Island. As yet I have found no further records to help us establish how long occupation of this sparse rocky outcrop in Roaringwater Bay continued into the twentieth century.

The Mizen Journal, Volume 5 1997, has published a study by Anthony Beese of the place-names on Castle Island. I have been unable to locate this article online, but here is Anthony’s excellent map, above.

When we visited the island on a brooding August day we sensed its many ghosts, perhaps including those who returned over a hundred years ago and, possibly, lived out their working lives there. I have called this post ‘Facts and Fictions’ . . . You have had the facts. After I wrote my first post, last year, I received a communication from a writer: William Wall. I was delighted to learn that he had written a book – Grace’s Day – published in 2018, part of which is set on Castle Island. I obtained the book and read it avidly: it has opened up for me a new dimension in the story of the island – and it’s thoroughly believable.

. . . A long time ago I had two sisters and we lived on an island. There was me and Jeannie and Em. They called me Grace, but I have never had much of that. I was an awkward child. I still am all these years later. Our house had two doors, one to the south, one to the north. Its garden looked towards the setting sun. It was a garden of apple trees and fuchsia and everything in it leaned away from the wind. Dry stone walls encircled it and sheep and children broke them down. My mother lived there with us. Boats came and went bringing food and sometimes sheep, and there were times when we lived by catching fish and rabbits, though we were not so good at either . . .

Grace’s Day – a novel by William Wall, published by new island books 2018

William Wall is familiar with West Cork: he has stayed here many times, and has visited Castle Island. It’s not just the island, but the whole story of 1960s West Cork that has been his inspiration. Readers of this Journal will be aware of my own interest in the days when Ballydehob became the hub of an artists’ community: I have helped to set up the Ballydehob Arts Museum, which has celebrated this era and is now in ‘suspended animation’ due to the Covid outbreak. I also look after a website for the Museum. Grace’s Day is set in this era, and follows the unconventional lives of a family who is ‘getting away from it all’ and trying to survive following the then prevalent bible of self-sufficiency. It’s perfectly feasible that an abandoned island in Roaringwater Bay could be the setting for such a romantic pursuit of ideals. I won’t give away any spoilers, but one more extract could help to persuade you that this book is for you. You should find it in all good bookshops: please support them in these tricky times.

. . . One day on our island my sister Jeannie ran in to say that she had seen a whale in the sound and I ran out after her, my mother calling me: Grace, it’s your day, take Em. But I was too excited. And there were three fin whales making their way into the rising tide. We heard their breathing. It carried perfectly in the still grey air, reflected back at us now by the low cloud. The sea was still and burnished. We ran along the rocks watching for their breaching. We decided it was a mother, a father and a calf. They were in no hurry. When we reached the beacon, a small unlit concrete marker indicating the western edge of the island, we watched them breaching and diving into the distance until we could see them no more. But they left behind their calmness and the unhurried but forceful sound of their blows . . .

GRACE’S DAY – A NOVEL BY WILLIAM WALL, PUBLISHED BY NEW ISLAND BOOKS 2018
Our own view of Castle Island in the distance, surreally shadowed by the full moon’s glimmer, while the Fastnet Lighthouse winks away on the horizon

Favourite Posts of 2020

This has been a banner year for Roaringwater Journal – we passed the milestone of a million views and had our most viewed post ever (see below). Most of all, though, it’s been a year in which we feel privileged to have been able to keep bringing you our weekly blog in the teeth of this global pandemic. We won’t lie, there have been moments when it all seemed too hard, weeks when we couldn’t do the sort of travelling around and photographing that are so essential to our research, and days when the sense of underlying dread and distraction made it hard to concentrate on writing. Through it all, you kept us going, cheering and encouraging us with your likes, your views and your comments. So a huge THANK YOU to you, our dear readers!  We hope that our little efforts have provided to you, in turn, some notes of sunshine in the dark – like our view, above, from Nead an Iolair, taken just before we hit Publish. Herewith, keeping with the tradition of our usual year-end round up, your (and our!) favourite posts of 2020. 

Finola’s Favourites

That most-viewed post of all time? Of course it was Beautiful West Cork in Picture and Song. Colum Cronin’s song – and that voice! – paired with the incredible West Cork Scenery. A perfect fit.  Here it is again, in case you missed it first time around, or just to enjoy it once more.

Amazingly, our second most popular post this year was a recipe! We all got into baking during lockdown, and Roaringwater Journal was no exception. The main attraction with this Savoury Soda Bread is how easy it is – in ten minutes you can have bread in the oven filling your house with the aroma of virtue. It’s also a great base recipe which can be varied to make it more like a tea-time treat to serve with jam.

I’ve been wanting for a long time to do a proper treatment of the prehistoric Stone Circles that dot our West Cork landscape. When you write about archaeology there is no substitute for on-the-ground observation. Only by spending time at each monument do you become more alive to their presence in the landscape, their orientations, their similarities and differences. Travel restrictions this year made field trips more challenging and there are still a few on my list to see, but most of the ones we saw are so isolated and in such spectacular settings that it was a joy to plan and write this series. That’s Glanbrack Stone circle below, with a pair of stone outliers (taken in a big hurry as a slurry tank was heading into the field). You can start with The Stone Circles of West Cork: An Introduction (written in 2019), and move one to Multiple Stone Circles, Five-Stone Circles and finally the Discussion.

Readers will know my stained glass obsessions  and this year I devoted three posts to a group of mid-century artists and craftspeople producing unique and accomplished windows under the name Murphy Devitt Studios (links to all three parts on this page). I confined myself to their Cork windows and a marvellous journey of discovery it was to see how a young and energetic group set out to test how the ancient traditions of stained glass could be influenced by modern movements in art and design.

Finally, a post about a place that totally captured me – Monaincha, The Isle of the Living, in Co Tipperary. This is a site that takes a little effort to find and get to, but once you’ve been, you might agree with my opening statement that There are places on this island that seep into your soul. You come away with a sense of having visited another world, of having passed through a portal and been lucky enough to come back to tell the tale.

It’s been hard to limit myself to five (and as you can see I did cheat a bit) and indeed I could as easily have chosen others. Over to Robert now.

Robert’s Favourites

As Finola has set out, we are each reviewing favourite posts of this year: 2020. It has been a year unlike any other for both of us – and for everyone else, of course. At times we have been very limited as to where we can travel – no more than 5km from home for weeks at a time, for example. It’s not surprising, therefore, that our immediate environs have come into close focus for us. In one of my posts – from 26 January this year (and before Covid) – our own Rossbrin Cove was my subject, and I saw it partly through the eyes of others, including some local artists. The photo above was taken by our friend and neighbour Julian van Hasselt in 2010 – that’s a year before we arrived. It’s more or less our own view of Rossbrin’s medieval castle. Our winters so far haven’t been so ‘Christmassy’, but – who knows – there may be something waiting for us around the corner. . . The following photo, also from this post, was taken in January this year and shows how contrasting our weather patterns can be.

This beautifully atmospheric view of Rossbrin castle also includes another castle across the water in the distance: that’s the one that gives Castle Island its name. One of the highlights of the year for me was a visit to that island, courtesy of another neighbour: thank you, Dietrich, for giving us a ride out there on your handsome classic fishing boat ‘Barracuda’ (and for bringing us back)! We look out to the island from Nead an Iolair, and it has always had a sense of mystery for us: it has a number of dwellings on it, all now deserted and in ruins (have a look at the picture below). My post Castle Island Explored – Part 1 tells of our exploration but also sets out a little of the history of the place. Since our visit I have discovered more about the island and its story, and I really will get on with the long overdue second instalment in 2021 – that’s a promise!

In March this year, our lives changed: the pandemic was upon us, and I realised that one of my favourite pastimes – playing in the live music sessions in the Ballydehob pubs every Friday evening throughout the year – would not be happening for a while. To compensate, I started a new blog giving our musicians the opportunity to put up recordings of tunes and sings online to try and keep up our spirits as Covid progressed. ‘A while’ became a very long time and, in fact, music sessions have been out of the question ever since. The way things are looking as I write, it’s unlikely that they will start again until well into the coming year. I introduced the Swantonstown Sessions blog with a Roaringwater Journal post. Why ‘Swantonstown’? Because Ballydehob carried that name for a time in its history: many Swantons once lived here, and some still do today. As a musical interlude for this post, here’s me playing a tune by Turlough O’Carolan which I recorded for Swantonstown Sessions on my anglo concertina – Planxty Maggie Brown:

This year I discovered – and wrote about – signal towers in Ireland built at the time of the threat of a Napoleonic invasion in the very early years of the nineteenth century. One post turned into a series of seven posts, as – in spite of travel restrictions – we were able to explore most of the sites of these structures in County Cork, including the restored example at The Old Head of Kinsale (above). All the others are impressive but gaunt ruins dotted around the coastline, each one in sight of two further ones, and signals were passed between them using flags and – sometimes – beacons. If I had opened the series to include the whole Irish coastline there could have been 81 posts! That many were built in a period of just a few years. I called the series A Signal Success in Irish Engineering: you will find them all by following that link. Here’s a picturesque rendering by our friend, Peter Clarke, of the very vestigial tower remains at Ballyroon Mountain on the Sheep’s Head:

Another project which I started towards the end of the year is the exploration of our major West Cork river – the Ilen. That’s Ballyhilty Bridge, above. My series – Sweet Ilen – will continue into next year. There have been three posts to date: here is the most recent – Sweet Ilen Part 3. At the end of that one you will find links to the other two. It’s a magnificent waterway, rising in the summit of Mullagmesha Mountain and taking a lazy, winding course down to meet the Atlantic at Baltimore. I’m really looking forward to getting to that mountain source, when circumstances permit – and to the mouth. In the meantime there is plenty to to keep you busy in these posts, and all the others I have mentioned above. Enjoy your own celebrations and I hope the new year will bring us all renewal. Here is Sweet Ilen close to its tidal limit at Skibbereen:

Castle Island Explored – Part 1

In this early spring photograph, taken from our Eyrie at Nead an Iolair, you can see Rossbrin Castle in the foreground. Beyond it lies Castle Island, uninhabited and slightly mysterious, but with clear traces of former occupation including a medieval tower house, a substantial quay and several abandoned dwellings. As we look over this island every day, we have long held an ambition to visit it, recently fulfilled when we were offered a lift out there on our good friend and neighbour’s fishing boat.

This map shows the scale of the island – just under a mile in length, and occupying 123 acres of mixed land. The main settlements – of Wester’ and Easter’ – are shown, as are the Quay and the Castle. It’s interesting to compare the two Ordnance Survey plans (below): the first 6″ edition was drawn up between 1829 and 1841, and the second one is the 25″ edition, drawn between 1888 and 1913. You can clearly see how the fields have changed, with new boundaries created in the later survey. Presumably this was due to an increase in population resulting in more clearances of rough land.

Both these maps show the Castle – said to date from the 15th century and one of the chain of O’Mahony fortresses that are strategically situated around this most south-westerly part of the Mizen. Of that clan we can find the following written by W O’Halloran in 1916:

Dr Smith says – these Mahowns derive their pedigree from Kean Mc Moyle More, who marrid Sarah, daughter to Brian Boru, by whom he had Mahown, the ancestor of all the sept. It is from this Kean the village of Iniskeen, in Carbery, has its name, and from this sept the Bandon is sometimes called Droghid Mahon. Mahon was the ancestor of the Mahonys, or O’Mahonys . . . The O’Mahonys, whose stronghlad was in the neighbourhood of Bandon (Drohid Mahon), were the first to encroach on the territory of the O’Driscolls. This occurred long before the Anglo-Norman invasion. They possessed themselves of the western portion of Corca Laidhe called Ivahah, which comprised the parishes of Kilmoe, Schull, Durrus, Kilcrohane, Kilmacougue, and Caheragh. They had fourteen strongly built castles . . .

Early Irish History and Antiquities and the History of West Cork, W O’Halloran

The M V Barracuda approaches Castle Island on an atmospherically damp day in late August. The quay itself seems to have been constructed  during the time of the Congested Districts Board from 1892 to 1922. It is a substantial structure and the investment in that time suggests that there was a significant community living and working on the island to justify it. However, a number of sources assert that Castle Island was “. . . home to a community of approximately 15 families who were last resident on the island up to the year 1870 . . .” Our own observations of the abandoned dwellings on the island led us to the conclusion that, although now significantly deteriorating, these habitations must have been in use more recently than this.

Examples of now-ruined houses, barns and boreens on Castle Island. These are not ‘cabins’ or even cottages, but significant homesteads. Some – including the large residence in the upper picture – have the vestigial remnants of timber door and window frames, unlikely to have survived in place in this harsh environment for 150 years.

A community of sheep roams unhampered by fences or boundaries, and Finola absorbed how nature has taken over and populated the landscape in spite of wild winters and lack of shelter: we counted precisely two and a bit trees on the whole island!

The story of this island is somewhat overlooked generally – one of the reasons we were so keen to visit. In our library, however, we are fortunate enough to have some copies of the Journals of the Mizen Archaelogical and Historical Society – now out of print. That Society was active for thirty years between 1979 and 2010, and produced a dozen journals gathering important historical research by mainly local people. Here’s a post we put together when our good friend Lee Snodgrass – a leading light in that organisation – passed away recently.

In that Journal we have found two articles about Castle Island. One – by Anthony Beese – explores the local placenames, and the other – by Liam O’Regan – speaks of The Castle Island Evictions 1889 – 90. This latter clearly shows that the island was inhabited in the late nineteenth century (apparently contrary to current popular thinking). Also, following those evictions, many of the tenants returned later and it seems very possible that some islanders remained in situ into the twentieth century. Both Journal articles have stories which need to be told, and I will attempt to do that in a later Roaringwater Journal post. For now, however, you will have to be content with . . . the story so far . . . which tells of our voyage of discovery to the island on an overcast day in the summer.

Mizen Magic 9: Rossbrin to Schull

There’s a main road between Ballydehob and Schull, and then there’s a back road – a road that meanders through farmland and down half-forgotten boreens, a road lined with wildflowers and dotted with the remains of past history, a road that looks over once-inhabited islands. South of this road lies Mizen Magic 9.

Along the back road in early summer

We’ll start at Rossbrin Cove – a place that Robert has written about over and over, like any writer with his own ‘territory.’ This was the home, in the 15th century, of Fineen O’Mahony, the Scholar Prince of Rossbrin.

Looking down now on what’s left of his castle, it’s hard to imagine that this was a place teeming with life and learning – a mini-university where scribes and poets and translators transcribed to vellum (and to paper – a first in Ireland) psalters, medical tracts and even the travels of Sir John Mandeville. The castle has been in ruins since the 1600s, and we live in fear that the next storm will bring the last of it down.

Rossbrin Castle from the sea

The road runs through the townlands of Rossbrin, Ballycummisk, Kilbronogue, Derreennatra and Coosheen. Ballycummisk has a wedge tomb from the Bronze Age and a ring fort from the Early Medieval period – just to remind you that you are far from the first to want to settle in this place. In more recent times, and like Horse Island, it was once the centre of a thriving mining industry, but a spoil heap and stone pillars are all that remain.

Large ring fort, and the remains of mining activity, in Ballycummisk

Two islands dominate the views of Roaringwater Bay along this road. The first is Horse Island, owned now by one family, with its industrial past a distant memory. There have been various plans for Horse Island in recent years – a resort, a distillery – but so far it has resisted development.

Horse Island Miners in 1898 and the ruins of miners’ dwellings

The other is Castle Island, home to yet another vestigial O’Mahony Castle – one of a string along the coastline, all within sight of each other and sited strategically to control the waters of Roaringwater Bay and their abundant resources.

There’s not much left of the castle on Castle Island

The O’Mahonys became fabulously wealthy in their day, charging for access to fishing and fish processing facilities and for supplies and fresh water. They also forged strong alliances with the Spanish and French fishermen and visitors who plied those waters – a friendship that was to cause great concern to the English crown and that was to spell, in part, their eventual downfall.

Ruined farm houses on Castle Island. The photograph was taken from a boat – that’s Mount Gabriel in the background

The closest spot to Castle Island (also uninhabited) is the beautiful little pier at Derreennatra. There is a large house up behind the pier, now inaccessible but once run as a guest house and famous for its hospitality. A curious bridge once gave access to the demesne and it remains a striking landscape feature, with its pillars and giant Macrocarpa tree.

Derreennatra Bridge

Continuing towards Schull we come to the last of the O’Mahony castles and the best preserved in this area. This is Ardintenant (probably Árd an Tinnean – Height of the Beacon – possibly referring to a function of the castle to alert others to the presence of foreign vessels) and it was the home of the Taoiseach, or Chief, of this O’Mahony sept.

Two ‘beacons,’ ancient and modern – Ardintenant or White Castle below and above it the signal stations on Mount Gabriel

The castle, or tower house, still has a discernible bawn with stretches of the wall and a corner tower still standing. If you want to learn more about our West Cork tower houses, see the posts When is a Castle..?; Illustrating the Tower House; and Tower House Tutorial, Part 1 and Part 2.

Ardintenant is also known as White Castle, a reference to the fact that it was once lime-washed and stood out (like a beacon!) to be visible for miles around. It appears to have been built on top of an earlier large ring-fort which in its own day was the Taoiseach’s residence before the fashion for tower house building.

Sea Plantain at Coosheen

From Ardintenant we head south to Coosheen, a picturesque pebble beach known only to locals. It’s one of my favourite places to go to look for marine-adapted wildflowers. On a rainy day last August I saw Sea-kale, Sea-holly, Sea Plantain and Thrift, and drove back on a boreen lined with Meadowsweet and Wood Sage and past a standing stone whose purpose has been long-forgotten but that continues its vigil through the centuries.

Our final spot in Coosheen is Sheena Jolley’s mill house, now the gallery of this award-winning wildlife photographer. She has restored it beautifully and the gardens are a work-in-progress that manage to capitalise on, rather than overwhelm, the mill stream and the rocky site. This is also the starting point for the Butter Road walk – but that deserves a new post one of these days, a post in the Mizen Magic series. We have written one but it was a long time ago.

Take a walk, or a drive, down any part of this road – do it in summer when the boreens are heady with wildflowers, or do it in winter when the colours of the countryside are at their most vivid. Heck, do it any time!