Castlehaven and Myross Placenames Project

The preservation of placenames has become urgent in Ireland, as the keepers of the memory are getting older, and taking all their knowledge with them to the grave.

One group in Castlehaven and Myross has embarked on a fascinating project to try to rescue their local placenames before it’s too late, and are succeeding magnificently. In their undertaking, they are providing a model to any other community that wants to follow their lead. We met with Conor Buckley and Annette Glanton (above) as well as Vincent O’Neill recently to learn what this project is all about.

Annette showed us her work, which centres on Carrigillihy, near Union Hall. Her main informant was her father, who has an intimate knowledge of every inch of the area. Working with him, she has labelled fields, inlets, islands, cliffs and streams. The result is a detailed map of names – some in English, such as Badger’s Hole, but most in Irish, such as Faill na Cág (pronounced file na cawg – I will give approximate pronunciations in brackets after Irish words from here on), the Cliff of the Jackdaws. I am showing just a small portion of her maps, above. 

Conor then took us on a walk across the heath, to a vantage point where he could point out many of the surrounding features and name them. We crossed two streams on the way, and he told us each one was a townland boundary. We started in Castlehaven townland, crossed a stream into Glasheenaulin, and from there walked to Ballycahane, crossing the Glasheenaulin stream as we did so. Since a ‘glas’ is a rivulet, a glasheen is a small rivulet or stream, and aulin is an anglicised version of álainn, which means beautiful – so, we crossed the beautiful little stream, and indeed it was.

The historic map of the area, above, shows the townland boundaries in red. The middle boundary is marked by the Glasheenaulin, below, being crossed by Vincent and Annette.

From our vantage point Conor pointed down to where the sea came boiling in over the rocks – perhaps because of this effect, this small inlet was called Poll a’ Choire (powl (rhymes with the bird, owl) a Quirrah), or the hole of the cauldron. However, he showed us that within all the roiling water and rocks was another, smaller hole, which filled and emptied with water, and told us that there was a possibility that the name might be Poll na Caora (powl na kay-ra) or Sheep’s Hole, since it may have functioned as a sheep-washing station! Welcome to the intricacies of figuring out Irish placenames!

From the same spot we had a good view of the coast west and east. To the west is the unmistakeable mass of Toe Head – a promontory that has a distinctive rise (see the first and last photos in this post). On the near side is a hill which locals traditionally call Beann tSidháin (which they pronounce Been te Sheedawn), or peak of the fairy mound. A place with a name that included references to the Sí was a place to be treated with respect and caution – the Other Crowd was not always benevolent.

When I asked if it was possible that this might have been séideán (shay-dawn), meaning place of gusty winds, Conor gave me an insight into the depth of research that he and his advisory group undertake. He responded with several references to dictionaries, placename tomes – and a manuscript from the 1660s! I can just imagine the meetings of this group as they ponder of the possible variations and come to a conclusion – as Conor said to me, ‘it’s as much an art as a science.’

A lot of Toe Head itself has had names assigned, and I was intrigued by the name given to the piece of rock that has in the distant past, sliced off from the mainland (above). Locals call it the Sciollán (skull-awn), which means a seed potato – or maybe the piece of a potato that you can plant as long as it has an eye in it. Once you know that, you can’t unsee the nobbly bit of potato.

We will head east now, to the series of tiny inlets that indent the eastern side of Sandy Cove. Each one has a name, beginning with cuas – a cuas (koo-us) is a small inlet or cove although it seems to be used particularly in Cork and Kerry. To name each one makes total sense of course – if you were telling a neighbour which cuas you left pots in, or where you were going to dig sand, you all had a shared knowledge of the store of names.

Going from left to right along the bank you have:

Cuas a Chúir – this might be Inlet of the sea foam (cúr) or inlet of the tower (thúir). There is no tower here now, but Sandycove was once called Torbay, so maybe…

Cuas na Leac – a leac (lack) is a flat stone or flagstone. This cuas has an alternative English name – Nun’s Cove. Apparently it was the one used by nuns from the Skibbereen convent to swim in.

Cuas na gCloch – cloch (cluck) is a rock – hence, rocky inlet.

Sandy Cove – this is a preferred swimming spot for locals and visitors

Cuas na nGabhar. Lots of scope here! A gabhar (gower) is a goat, but apparently it’s also the name for a certain type of pollock, known as a scad. [Just to complicate things, it can also be a little white horse, and therefore white-crested waves. Gabhra Lír, for example, means the little white horses of Lír, who was the king of the world under the sea in Irish mythology. Whew! – But that’s just my own musings]

Cuas an Tairbh – tairbh (tarriv) is the irish word for bull, and the rock just off this point is the Bull Rock. It probably has the shape of a bull from some angles.

Cuas Móire – móire (moy-ra) is an adjective usually applied to a place that experiences great gusts of wind or rolling seas. Apt! But this could also simply be Cuas Mór (more), meaning Big Cuas, since it is the biggest one.

Just before the Cuas Móire theres a significant cliff labeled The Pulley (about where the cattle is in the photo below) and here’s the story about that name. On top of the cliff was a pole with a bar attached – the bar, with a pulley at the end of it, could swing out over the cliff. A long rope threaded through the pulley was controlled by a patient horse which was lead away from and toward the cliff, thus raising and lowering the rope. At the end of the rope was a large basket. A man climbed into the basket and was lowered to the bottom of the cliff at low tide. There he set about harvesting kelp with a tool that cut it off above the roots. As he gathered armfuls, he filled up the basket which was raised up to the field and piled onto a cart. He continued to do this until the tide came up to his neck, whereupon he jumped into the basket and was the last load to be pulled up.

Almost unbelievable, isn’t it? The hardship and courage of that – it was done all year round! Yet, as Vincent and Conor explained to us, sand and seaweed were the only fertilisers available to people and gathering both was an important part of the yearly round of labour needed to grow food. Both were also taxed by local landlords, so they were a commodity over which landowners exercised control. The National Museum has a good piece on seaweed harvesting, with photographs showing how it was done – no cliffs, alas. Another piece on RTE from 1962 shows hand harvesting in Clare.

You will have noted that all of these placenames are now on maps, which I have used in my illustrations. The site is https://www.openstreetmap.org/ and Conor, Vincent and their team are using it to record these names for posterity. Anyone can do this, but, as they pointed out to us, it’s best done in an informed way, since labelling a place with a modern name (e.g. Danny’s fishing cove) can perpetuate new, personal or inaccurate names. The team has annotated many of the placenames with additional information – such as about the possible names for Cuas a’ Chúir, above, and Cuas na Leac, below.

I have only given you a tiny look at what the Castlehaven and Myross Placenames team is doing – their work is extensive and ongoing. And it’s important – these are among the oldest ‘transparent’ placenames in Europe. As Conor explained to me placenames start out as transparent – people name what they see in front of them. But over time, the names become opaque, mostly due to a change in the dominant culture – a new language wreaks havoc with pronunciation of ‘foreign-sounding’ words. However, the names around West Cork, as long as there is someone who still remembers them, are as ancient as it gets. Hydronyms (place names associated with water) survive better than toponyms (land-based) possibly because they were a shared resource.

The team are happy to share their expertise and would love to encourage other groups to undertake similar projects in their own locality. You can get in touch with them by emailing castlehavenhistory@gmail.com or through their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/castlehavenhistory/

Gliding Through Velvet, Fireworks All Around

It was a magical experience – kayaking at night on Castlehaven Inlet!

Wait – what? At night? Yes – of course kayaking in West Cork is wonderful at any time but at night it takes on a special aura, helped out by the silky darkness and the silence. I went with Atlantic Sea Kayaking, the company run by the genial Jim Kennedy. I’d been with him once before, on Lough Hyne – that was way back in 2014 and was one of the highlights of my year. I wrote about that incredible trip in Starlight Bliss. This trip was equally as amazing.

We gathered at 7 at Reen Pier in Castlehaven Inlet. This is a very professional outfit – we were all shapes and sizes but soon everyone was kitted out in waterproof trousers and jackets. Then it was time for a quick lesson on how to hold the paddle and what not to do, reassurance on how stable and safe the kayaks are, and before we knew it there we were gently floating in the gathering gloaming.

Lucky me got to sit in the front of Declan Power’s kayak. He was one of our two guides and has years of experience doing this, but it doesn’t seemed to have dimmed his enjoyment and wonder. If I hadn’t already been excited, I would have been infected by his own contagious enthusiasm. It was still fairly light so we paddled down to Castletownshend, getting used to the paddles and the kayaks and our eyes adjusting to the fading light. Rosie, the other guide, brought up the rear and made sure were were all accounted for.

Declan knows his history and as we rafted up alongside Castletownsend Castle he told us about the area and about the families that had moved here after Cromwell. It’s a very special village, with interesting architecture, famous families, and, crowning glory, Harry Clarke windows in St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland. That’s his St Barrahane, below.

By now it was getting properly dark. Declan and Rosie turned on their helmet lights and we headed back up the inlet. We steered towards the far bank, where overhanging trees blocked out any residual light from the sky. First, Declan encouraged us all to be still and just listen – to the silence. The rooks, noisily cawing earlier, had settled down into their rookery for the evening and there wasn’t a sound. We felt enveloped in peace.

Since I didn’t bring my camera on board I have to rely on photographs of bioluminescence by others. This image is by Joleen Cronin, used with gratitude, from a BBC piece on Bioluminescence near Crosshaven.

Declan broke the silence by asking us to trail our hands in the water and there was a collective intake of breath. Everywhere our hands dipped and splashed sparkles began to skip across the water. It was the bioluminescence that this area is known for! Like fireflies, marine organisms such as plankton emit light when disturbed. The sea is teeming with tiny fish, bacteria, algae, worms, crustaceans. . . all with the chemicals necessary for bioluminescence. And they seem to love West Cork!

This incredible image is by Vincent Hyland of Derrynane, well-known champion of the natural world (Permission to use requested)

So there we were, gliding through the velvet black waters, surrounded by fireworks. There wasn’t much chat – everyone was lost in their own experience of dipping and gently splashing and watching as flashing droplets raced away from our hulls and paddles. 

Declan – thank you for this once-in-a-lifetime experience!

I’ve lived back in West Cork now for almost ten years and we’ve done so much in that time. And yet there are still experiences to be had that leave you in joyful wonderment and asking the Old Gods – how did I get to be living this life?

Another of Vincent Hyland’s incredible captures

Rainforest Path

It’s a magical place, running up from an old graveyard by the sea, past a holy well, through a cool overhead canopy and along a tumbling stream. I’ve never met anyone else along the path, although I know the holy well is visited and the footbridge to it was repaired a couple of years ago.

Moss and Navelwort on an old tree

There’s a big house at the top, with steps leading down to the path. Some of the more exotic plants are clearly imports, but mostly it seems that wildness has simply been encouraged, or not interfered with.

A mixture of native and imported ferns along the stream

I went there twice this week. The first time was with my daughter-in-law, visiting from Canada, and we thought we spotted an unusual flower.  After a night of heavy rain I went there again on Friday equipped this time with my camera. Found it – and it looks as if it’s a Summer Snowflake, which is rare enough that I will report it to the National Biodiversity Date Centre. (Go on, it’s easy, you can do it too.)

The flower I was after – Summer Snowflake. Rare in Ireland but also widely cultivated – so is this a natural occurrence or part of somebody’s planting scheme?

What follows is a photo essay; my homage to a rainforest path on the brilliant morning after a rainy night. I will try to tell the story with my captions.

A friendly dog always accompanies me on this trail. The path is lined with Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage, providing a soft and bright green carpet. I also found it growing on old fallen logs

Lovely to find a large patch of Wood Anemone beside the stream

The Holy Well needs attention. The bridge has slipped and the path is too muddy to access the well. Read about this well in Amanda’s Holy Wells of Cork. The dog found her too.

This is Ivy-leaved Speedwell. The flowers are so tiny that it’s easy to miss, especially when it’s all mixed up with the Saxifrage

I was taken with this Greater Wood-rush growing along the bank

My first bluebells of the season

American Skunk-cabbage. Now classed as ‘potentially invasive’ in Ireland. I only saw one but I knew it immediately because they were so familiar to me in Canada. I’ll be reporting this too.

The path climbs upwards

The sycamore are starting to bud and leaf. The intricacy of the underneath of the leaf!

Everyone loves primroses

Lots of insects buzzing about the Dandelions – a hoverfly (top) and a bee

Take a walk in the woods and tell us what you’ve seen!