Toe head is dramatic and scenic – but romantic? Let me explain.
Conor Buckley – the dynamo behind Gormú eco tours – was offering a Romantic Sunset Walk on Toe Head in honour of St Valentines weekend. Who could resist? That’s Toe Head in the distance, above.
To us, in the past, Toe Head has been synonymous with the Signal Station – Robert has written about it here. But we’ve always known there’s a lot more to Toe Head than that and have been wanting to make a return trip, especially in the company of someone with lots of local knowledge. The black arrow above shows our starting point and the red arrow our destination.
We met at the Lifeboat Station – it was Kathleen, John, Robert and I – and Conor started us off with an introduction to the story of Diarmuid and Gráinne, which he used as the organising theme for the whole walk. A Seanachie (pronounced shanakee) – an Irish story-teller – had told, about 100 years ago, of Diarmuid and Gráinne’s travels in West Cork. The star-crossed lovers are responsible for landmarks all over Ireland. They ran away together, escaping from the aged Fionn McCuamhaill (FinnMcCool), Gráinne’s intended husband, and rested in many places along the way. The dolmens or wedge tombs where they slept are often known locally as Diarmuid and Gráinne’s bed. I won’t recount the whole story here, as there are lots of accounts online: this is a good version.
Our walk took us along quiet country roads and out to An Móin Rua – the Red Bog. Not really a bog, but a heath, and in the summer alive with colourful heathers and Irish Gorse, and the home of swooping and calling choughs.
As we reached the place traditionally thought to be the leaba – bed – of Diarmuid and Gráinne, a sheltered spot with a natural clearing, Conor, in honour of the day that was in it, produced champagne, strawberries and chocolates.
We continued on, with a new part of the story every now and then, interspersed with lots of place name lore, and snippets about our surroundings and the ecology of Toe Head. The little crag below is called An Srón (pronounced shrone), which means The Nose. Not hard to guess why.
The next stop was at the EIRE sign, painstakingly restored now by a group of local volunteers.
These signs, spelled out in whitewashed stones, were placed all along the coast during WWII to alert German Bombers that they had overshot Britain and were approaching neutral Ireland.
Our last point of interest was a wonderful Promontory Fort, Dooneendermotmore – or Big Dermot’s Little Fort. I’ll be returning to this one in the future, as I am planning to retrace the footsteps of Westropp, who was the first to describe these coastal forts. As it happens, I will also be following in the wake of my old Professor of Archaeology at UCC, Michael J O’Kelly, as he excavated this site in the early 1950s.
It was getting dark as we made our way back. Before we broke up, Conor told us the story of the Death of Diarmuid. The whole sad saga was originally translated by Lady Gregory. Above is an extract from her Gods and Fighting Men.*
The illustrations I’ve chosen above (and the one of Diarmuid and Gráinne at the start of this post) are both from Andrew Lang’s Book of Romance,* and are by Henry Justice Ford. Anyone else remember being entranced by Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tale books, with their wonderful illustrations, as a child?
I will leave you with an image of the leaba – the bed – of the lovers. Not a comfortable place to spend the night, but when you are being chased by Fionn MacCumhaill, you can’t be picky.
It’s December 3rd (yesterday) – St Barrahane’s feast day, that is. He’s one of our local saints and not a lot is known about him. There are other St Barrahanes – or St Bearchán as it’s more commonly spelled – a whole raft of them, in fact from around the country. But this one belongs to Castlehaven.
Now, I am not normally given to honouring saints’ feast days, but there are exceptions. St Patrick’s, after all, is a national holiday, and St Brigid’s soon will be, so it would be rude not to. St John’s Eve is big in Cork and this year I did the rounds in my local graveyard – see this post for my lovely experience. That’s Castlehaven graveyard, below, right on the sea – the sea that Amanda and I are bobbing around in, in the lead photograph.
You remember Conor Buckley and his adventure and outdoors company, Gormú? To jog your memory, take a look at Castlehaven and Myross Placenames Project and Accessible August. He’s an all-round dynamo, whose idea of fun is to take people swimming at dawn in the middle of winter. But on this occasion, there was heritage to back him up – a local custom of going to St Barrahane’s well to get water on Dec 3rd, as a cure, but also as a talisman against any kind of accident at sea. Important, in this maritime location.
We gathered at the top of the road at dawn and walked down to the sea. Conor invited us to go barefoot as the original pilgrims would have done, and there were actually a few takers.
Then up to the holy well – about 20 of us. Conor told us about the traditions associated with this particular well, and asked Amanda to speak about wells in general. Declaring that she “has done more for holy wells than anyone else in Ireland” he then invited her to be first to the well – being first was also particularly auspicious in the local folklore.
The well contains a sacred eel (to see it brought good luck forever) and a cure for fevers that lasted all year. People would visit at any time, but particularly on Dec 3rd to collect water and take a bottle home with them. By the 1930s, when this account (below, in Irish) from Dooneen School was given in the Dúchas Schools Collection, only a few people were still coming. The onus on the pilgrim was relatively light – just a few Hail Mary’s and the Sign of the Cross and then you could drink the water. Some people left rags or a coin.
After the student’s writing is a Nóta, written by the headmaster, R Ó’Motharua.
There is mention of Bearrcháin or “Berchin” in a Papal letter in 1199 (Innocent III). In the manuscript “Onomastecan Gaedilicum” one sees Berchan – son of Máine of the Race of Lúghdach Maidhe (Page 440). In the book Celtic Miscellany (page 46-51) one sees the name of Bearcháin with Fachtna – the founder of Rosscarbery – he was reading with him an oration that was given after the death of the Abbot O’Gillamichil who was the patron of Teampall Bearcháin [St Bearcháin’s Church] in this parish. They called Gillamichil “Open Purse” – because of his generosity. His name is still in the parish in the townland of Farranagilla [meaning Gilla’s Land].
Farranagilla, by the way, is a townland halfway between Castletownshend and Skibbereen. This accords with other information I have from James Burke about St Barrahane. In a letter to Edith Somerville of February 1917 he says:
Whenwecome to Saint Barrahane (Irish Bearćán) we arein more shadowy ground.
There was a great St Bearchan a noted prophet of Cluain Sosta in Hy Failghe of whom there is much (exhaustive) knowledge but I have elsewhere tried to prove that the patron of Castlehaven parish was a native of West Cork and is identified with the Bearchan mentioned in the genealogy of Corca Laidhe but he is only a name. He certainly was the patron of Castlehaven which as early as 1199 and no doubt much earlier was called Glenbarrahane.
From a letter in the Somerville archives, Drishane House. Quoted with permission**
James Burke had originally set out this information in his paper for the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society of 1905 on Castlehaven and its Neighbourhood, pointing out that the original name for Castlehaven Parish was Glenbarrahane, after its patron saint. In his magisterial work, A Dictionary of Irish Saints (Four Courts Press, 2011, p96), Pádraig O’Ríain agrees with the notion that the saint belonged to the Corca Laighde family, despite some misgivings. He also adds local tradition maintains that Bearchán came from Spain.
Why was James Burke writing about St Barrahane to Edith Somerville? She was researching appropriate saints for the window she and her family had commissioned from Harry Clarke (of which more in a future post). A lack of information didn’t stop Harry Clarke from imagining what Bearchán might have looked like. In his Nativity window in St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland, he gives full reign to his imaginative vision and depicts him as a monk.
He gets the full Harry treatment – large eyes, a face full of wisdom and compassion, long tapered fingers. He is writing on an extended scroll – and the scroll hides a surprise, only visible in close-up and upside down.
The well itself is a little beauty – half hidden in the undergrowth and accessed by a wooden bridge. It is festooned with fishing floats – fisherman left them here to protect them at sea – rags, and rosaries. The water is fresh and clear.
In fact, the water from this well is used to baptise infants in both the Catholic and Protestant churches of Castlehaven Parish!
So there you have it – what we know about St Barrahane and the traditions that surround him. We collected a jug of the water from the well for anyone who wanted to fill a bottle. As Joey in Friends used to say – Could I be wearing any more clothes?
But, this being Gormú, there was more to the day – the visit to the Holy Well was to be followed by a swim! Yikes! Amanda and I egged each other on during the week (I will if you will)) and finally decided it had to be done. And guess what – it wasn’t that bad! In fact, the water felt if anything slightly warmer than the surrounding air. In case anyone thinks I am virtue-signalling here (Look at me, swimming in December!) we didn’t stay in long, and there was a lot of shrieking involved. Some of the real swimmers emerged half an hour later.
There was an immense sense of camaraderie as we chowed down on our hot porridge and tea afterwards. Vincent O’Neill presented Amanda and me with the latest issue of the Castlehaven & Myross History Society Journal.
It is a great thing that Conor and other local historians have taken on the task of re-activating this pilgrimage and it felt wonderful to be a part of it.
*For more on James Burke, see A Tale of Two Editors: the Lives and Words of James Burke and Patrick Sheehy, in the Skibbereen Historical Journal, Vol 16, 2020, by Alan McCarthy
**With thanks to The Somerville Archives and Tom Somerville for permission to quote from the James Burke letter.
It’s been a very busy week! The best part about it was that my sister, Aoibhinn (pronounced Eeving), is visiting and she and I were able to do lots of things together. That’s her in the coral jacket, above. You see, she has ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and she was really nervous about her ability to participate in the activities I had booked or planned, or stay the course once on them.
Aoibhinn does really well at managing her condition, but she has to be very careful or she can end up in a major crash. She struggles with tiredness and pain all the time (sore joints, headaches) but finds that sea swimming helps her cope mentally, so she was up for one of the things we planned to do together, our Dawn Swim and Pilgrimage with Gormú. We met Conor and Celine, and two other participants at Castlehaven and started off by walking the short way up to the Holy Well, where we heard of St Barrahane. Readers may remember Conor from the Placenames post.
Next came the swim. While Aoibhinn opted for a short immersion, I surprised myself by swimming all the way to Faill Dic, with encouragement from Conor, and the lovely safety valve of a float if I needed it. Breakfast was so welcome – porridge, fruit and hot tea made by Celine and Conor (below) – while we listened to more stories, all set around the cove we were in. It was a fantastic experience – I highly recommend it!
The Ellen Hutchins Festival andHeritage Week are both in full swing this week, so there are any god’s amount of things to choose from. We concentrated on botany and butterflies during the week and ended with stained glass and history yesterday.
Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington and Nick Scott led us through the Glengarriff Woods. While this walk involves an uphill section, the pace is easy because it involves lots of stopping to talk about the plants we encounter along the way. We loved Nick’s descriptions of the forest environment, and all the layers that make up the plant life from the canopy down. And we were riveted by Micheline’s focus on the Arbutus (AKA the Strawberry Tree), a rare tree that occurs only here and in the Iberian Peninsula.
Micheline is investigating her theory that it may have come with the Bronze Age miners who came to exploit the rich copper resources of West Cork and Kerry. Her recent article in Archaeology Ireland sparked my interest and I was thrilled to be able to go along on this walk with her.
The photograph above illustrates the challenges in tracking Arbutus trees – they grow on cliffs and in inaccessible places.
Once again, although this walk involved picking our way through long grasses and scrambling over rocks, the pace was slow, with frequent stops to ooh and aah over butterflies and hear Damaris talk about their habitats and plant requirements. Some of the plants were so tiny that we had to see them through a hand lens to really appreciate them.
We had a rest day on Thursday, and on Friday it was time for Seaweed and Sealing Wax 2. This was the second production masterminded by Karen Minihan, based on the correspondence between Ellen Hutchins and Dawson Turner. See Robert’s post from last year for an account of Seaweed and Sealing Wax 1. This year, we were joined by the poet, Laura McKenna and the botanical artist Shevaun Doherty. That’s Shevaun surrounded by audience members in the top photo of this post, while Laura is in the photo below.
While Karen and I led the audience through the letters, Laura read a selection of poems that responded to Ellen’s life and work, and Shevaun worked away on painting a piece of seaweed, explaining her process to the audience at one point.
At the end, Madeline Hutchins, Ellen’s great, great, grandniece, showed us some of Ellen’s books and letters. As with last year, we were under a tent in the grounds of Sea View House Hotel, right next door to where Ellen herself had lived in the opening years of the nineteenth century.
We finished the week with a trip to Timoleague, where I was booked to give two stained glass talks at the Church of the Ascension Open House. This is part of a huge community effort to save and safeguard the fabulous mosaics in this church and I am always thrilled to be a part of it. Take a look at this video by the Rev Kingsley Sutton, Touching Heritage, to get an excellent overview of the whole project.
The church is truly one of West Corks hidden gems, and the fund-raising effort needs all the help it can get. In between the talks, we were whisked off to lunch at a fabulous private house right on the sea. Nice work if you can get it!
So – it’s been an incredibly busy week of flowers, talks, and butterfly hunting (above) and I am feeling it now. But all of our activities were accessible to Aoibhinn, with time to rest in between, or go for a lovely dip locally. So – if there’s anybody out there who wonders if you would be able for a botany walk or a dawn swim and ‘pilgrimage’ – no need to be intimidated by a title or a description when the pace is leisurely and, as Aoibhinn found, there’s always a handy rock to sit down on for a while.
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.
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.
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