Dunmanus Castle 1: The Cliff-Edge Fort

There is a strong local tradition on the Mizen, or Ivaha as I prefer to call it, that Dunmanus Castle is not the original. No – the first site for Donagh Mór O’Mahony’s Castle, the stories say, was in Knockeens, across Dunmanus Harbour from the present site. We set out to investigate.

This is the site, directly across the bay from Dunmanus Castle, and it’s what is labelled in the National Monuments records as a Cliff-Edge Fort. According to their definition that’s A penannular enclosure which utilises a cliff-edge to form one or more sides as an enclosing element. They date from the late Bronze Age up to the medieval period (c. 1800 BC – 16th century AD).

Perhaps the best known cliff-edge fort in Ireland is Dun Aonghasa on the Aran Islands (above) – it’s certainly the most spectacular. (Photo courtesy of Heritage Ireland) There are 20 examples of cliff-edge forts in Cork, of which only 6 are coastal, the rest are on ridges or steep slopes above rivers.

The problem is that some of these may genuinely be a specific type of fortification that uses the cliff-edge as an impregnable barrier – as promontory forts do, for example. Some of them, however, and this may apply to Knockeens, may have been circular ring forts, built on prominent locations to command views of land and sea, but which may have been eroded by sea-action until what is left is clinging on to the edge of a cliff. In the photo above, you can see the obvious erosion at Knockeens. Instead of a circular ring fort, what remains looks D-shaped.

In the 25″ OS map, done in the late 1800s, the site shows ‘Castle in Ruins’

There is plenty of evidence that the Irish clan chieftains built their castles on the sites of their former strongholds – ring forts, cashels and promontory forts (see my post on Three Castle Head, for example). If there was indeed a castle at Knockeens, there is not much evidence of it now, although there are tell-tale signs of some kind of masonry construction.

But whatever Knockeens was – a cliff-edge fort or a ring fort – it’s unusual and impressive. It consists now of a raised platform of earth, probably originally circular, and an outer wall (above). There may have been a radial wall once (see the map below), but it has been ploughed out and is no longer visible on the surface, although it shows up faintly in aerial photographs. There may have been a fosse, or ditch around the outer wall also – slight traces of this also remain.

The raised platform is an imposing spectacle. We approached it from the landward side and were unprepared for how tall it is. The interior sits high above the surrounding land – an extraordinary feat of engineering and one which could only be accomplished by a chieftain with the ability to command the labour of many people. 

If indeed most of it has been swept away by the sea, it is now, of course, only a portion of what it once was. It certainly accomplished several objectives: commanding the entrance to the sheltered harbour, allowing visibility up Dunmanus Bay, and being a dominating force on the landscape – in other words a high-status statement residence and fortification. 

The outer wall appears to have been stone-built or stone-lined (see image below), and it, or the raised platform may have had a palisade around the top – these were common in ring forts. 

Although we could not find a way to get at it from the stony beach below the cliff edge, we could just about make out, from Dunmanus Pier across the bay, a cross-section of stone wall where the platform meets the cliff. In one of the older maps, this is marked as a “Castle in Ruins” although all that is shown is a portion of wall. So there may well be a solid basis for the belief that this was the original site of Dunmanus Castle. 

Michael Healy tells it this way:

It is related locally that before he finally decided on Dunmanus as a site for his castle, Donagh Mór O’Mahony, early in the 15th century, had selected a site on the other side of the inlet and had set his men to work. While they were working a stranger came by and said that they should not build a castle in that place as the sea would come and wash it away. They did not see him again but the project was abandoned and Dunmanus was built on its present site.

The Castles of County Cork,

Michael J Carroll in repeats the assertion that this was intended as the site of the castle but introduces a nuance:

The workmen  noted, however, that the heavy winter seas rose up over the site. The project was abandoned and the stones removed for use in Dunmanus.

The Castles and Fortified Houses of West Cork,

I said at the beginning that there is a ‘strong local tradition’ that this was the original site. What we have learned to do in these cases is go to the Dúchas Folklore Collection, for the stories collected by schoolchildren in the 1930s – and there it was, written by an anonymous students in Kilcomane School (possibly Bridie Kennedy of Lissacaha). Here’s what she wrote:

When O’Mahoney was building his castles he had one for each of his sons. When he was building Dunmanus castle it was in the Knockeen’s side he laid the foundation. There is a part of it still remaining. It goes by the name of the old castle. A half fool one day was passing by and he saw them at work. He told O’Mahoney it was a foolish place to build a castle, that the swells of the ocean and the river from the mountain would eat the foundation from it.

O’Mahoney then asked him where would he build it and the fool showed him a rock at the opposite side of the river called the mount. Then O’Mahoney considered himself and found he had a mistake made, so he took the fool’s advice and built the biggest castle of all the rest on the mount.

https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/4921594/4882831/5147738

The sea stack above shows clear evidence of the amount of erosion that has happened over the centuries as well some kind of stone construction at the top level of the stack.

What are Amanda and Peter looking at? It’s a blow hole! Further evidence of how the sea can rage against this cliff.

So there you go – O’Mahony took the advice and built his castle where we see it today – the subject of a future post.

Please note that this site is on private land, used for cattle, and we were granted access by the kind permission of the owner. Our grateful thanks to him.

The Castles of Ivaha

Ivaha was the name for the West Cork peninsula that was the traditional territory of the O’Mahonys. The modern name for the peninsular – the Mizen – appeared on maps as early as the 17th century but it is unclear how the name change came about. Ivaha (sometimes Ivahagh or Ivagha) is a corruption of Uibh Eachach Múmhan (pronounced Iv Ahok Moo-en), the Clan Eochy of Munster. Eochy Mac Erc was one of the mythical High Kings of Ireland, from whom the clan claimed descent, acquiring the name O’Mahony from Mahon, son of Cian, an eleventh century chieftain.

Ardintenant Castle was built on/within an existing ringfort

This expansive territory with its complex coastline was defended and controlled by a series of raths (earthen ring-forts), cashels (stone ring forts), cliff-edge and promontory forts until the 15th century, when wealthy chieftains and high-status individuals (such as bards and brehons) adopted the new style of stone fortification which we now call tower houses, or simply castles.

Rossbrin Castle. The arrow points to the location of the remaining wall of the tower house on Castle Island

And the O’Mahonys were certainly wealthy. Control of maritime resources was ensured by castles commanding all harbours and with sight-lines out to sea and to other castles, as well as by fleets of ships. The waters around Ivaha teemed with herring and pilchards, one of the staples of the Medieval European diet, once salted and processed in ‘palaces’ owned by the chieftains. Fishing dues were a lucrative source of income, as were exports of fur and wool and control of vast herds of swine which fed on the mast in the all-surrounding forests.

Several of the castles deserve an individual post (all in good time, although Robert has certainly written often about Rossbrin, see for example here and here) but for this introduction I want to lay out exactly how many O’Mahony Castles there were and how many we can see in the landscape now. Let’s start with the total number, each one underlined in red.

As you can see, there are fourteen locations indicated on the map*. Some of these may be familiar to you from previous posts we have written about the history and archaeology of West Cork, and some of them may look strange.  Dough? I hear you say – Never heard of it! Not to mention Knockeen, or Meighan.

The castles underlined in blue are certainly in O’Mahony territory, but may not have been built, or owned or occupied by O’Mahonys. There is some suggestion, and some local belief, that the tower on Castle Island may have been owned by the O’Driscolls, built for the purpose of keeping an eye on their neighbours. However, on the whole this seems highly implausible, since it is so deep within O’Mahony lands  and indeed within sight and easy reach of both Ardintenant, where the clan chieftain, (or Taoiseach) resided and Rossbrin, where the next-in-line to the chieftaincy, (known as the Táiniste) had his stronghold. 

This is the site of the graveyard and ancient church at Lissagriffin – the castle would have a short distance to the west but with the same commanding view

Lissagriffin, Castlemehigan and Doagh Castle may have been built for or by the Mehigans, the traditional bards to the O’Mahonys. According to John O’Mahony,** A well-endowed hereditary family of Bards was considered to be an indispensable appendage of every considerable Chieftain’s establishment. Canon O’Mahony goes on to say

In process of time, if not from the beginning of the new chieftaincy, the western O’Mahony employed another Bardic family, that of O’Mehigan, and endowed them with some three hundred acres of land in Kilmoe (as appears from the Inquisition of Dermod O’Mehigan taken in 1623), and with the wardership of a castle―Castle Mehigan―built by the Chieftain, as, of course, it could not have been built from their own limited resources.

Other authorities posit that the O’Mehigans had not one but three castles of their own. The arrow below indicates the approximate location of Castle Mehigan.

Finally, there is Dunkelly. This one is traditionally associated with the pirate, Canty, and you can read all about him and his exploits in Robert’s post, Canty.

The view from where Dunkelly Castle was sited, looking up Dunmanus Bay

Some of these castles may be unfamiliar to those of you who already know most of these sites. That’s because there is nothing left of them. Besides the O’Mehigan and Canty castles, which have totally disappeared, there is now no longer any trace of the O’Mahony castes at Knockeen, Ballydivlin and Crookhaven. Knockeen, across the bay from Dunmanus Castle, may never have been completed. According to ‘Finnerty’ writing in the Southern Star in 1935, a ‘wise stranger’ came along as the castle was being built and warned that it would fall into the sea – so all operations were moved across the bay to the current location of Dunmanus Castle.

The two red dots on the north side of Dunmanus Harbour mark the site of Knockeen Castle, which was built (or started) on an existing cliff-edge fort. The red dot on the south side is Dunmanus Castle

Ballydivlin, sometimes called Ballydesmond,  was still standing, according to Healy, until the middle of the nineteenth century when it was demolished and its stones used for road making. Likewise, Bishop Dive Downes, visiting Crookhaven in 1700 described the walls of an old castle in the middle of what is now the village. Both Crookhaven and Ballydivlin (the photograph below shows where it was) followed the pattern of strategic siting to dominate the entrances to harbours.

Of those we have left, Dunbeacon and Castle Island are vestigial – only parts of one or two walls remain. Dunbeacon is my lead photograph – you can see not only how little is left, but also how strategically sited it was, with views right down Dunmanus Bay.

Rossbrin is in a perilous state, having been battered by storms over the years and with cracks and holes in its walls (above). And so we are left with seven of the original fourteen castles – the ones underlined in green, below.

But the final four castles of Ivaha – Ardintenant (White Castle), Dunmanus, Leamcon (Black Castle) and Dunlough (Three Castle Head) are all relatively intact, and Leamcon (below) has been stabilised and preserved by its dedicated owner. 

Future posts will describe the defining characteristics of the Castle of Ivaha and explore what we can learn from those that can still yield information.

Three Castle Head

*map, and information where noted, based on James N Healy’s The Castles of County Cork, Mercier Press, 1988

**A History of the O’Mahony Septs of Kinelmeky and Ivagha, Rev Canon John O’Mahony, Glenville, Crookstown, Journal of the Cork Archaeological and Historical Society, various issues, 1906-10