Countdown to West Cork History Festival 2018!

As last year, Roaringwater Journal is very involved in the marvellous upcoming West Cork History Festival. We are both on the organising committee and this year we are leading field trips and chairing sessions, and I am giving a paper (more on that below). The Festival will be held in Skibbereen this week – 16th to 19th of August.

This is St Barrahane from Castletownshend. During the Thursday Field Trip we will be revealing his secret message

We haven’t had a lot to do with the detailed logistics or with the ultimate lineup of speakers – that is the purview of the Founders, Simon and Victoria Kingston. What a force they are! As you can imagine, organising a festival like this is an enormous amount of work and they do it while working full time, with two young children and a life lived between two countries – all while remaining cheerful, focussed, inventive and energetic. Here are Simon and Professor Roy Foster, our keynote speaker, talking last year about the upcoming festival.

Simon and Victoria are next door neighbours to the wonderful Liss Ard Estate. This place is dear to our heart as it’s where we were married, and they have been incredibly supportive of the festival, providing parking and accommodation.

While many of the speakers are academics and writers on the national scene, local historical societies are attending and volunteering and local experts have been persuaded to share their knowledge. The Skibbereen Heritage Centre is a big part of the festival this year, with both Terri Kearney and Philip O’Regan on the program, and William Casey giving a talk and launching a book.

Philip O’Regan of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre leads a walking tour of the historic town. Here he points out the building where O’Donovan Rossa founded his Phoenix Society, forerunner of the Fenians

We are looking forward to the field trips, a new addition this year and a popular one, given how quickly they booked up. Thursday’s focusses on archaeology and history and Friday’s on the Famine and Art.

Coppinger’s Court – these fortified mansions gradually replaced tower houses in the seventeenth century, during of the series of changes from Irish to Planter land ownership

The Festival aims to cover international, national and local themes and this year will, of course, focus partly on the events of 1918, with talks on WWI, Carson and Redmond, Women’s Suffrage and the great Flu epidemic. The Irish Revolutionary Period is the subject of several talks, by both academics and non-professionals, ranging from the hot topic last year, Protestants in West Cork, to the violence suffered by some women during that period.

Inspired by the Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger exhibition currently running at Uillinn/West Cork Arts Centre, there is also a thread that looks at the intersection of art and history. It will be the main focus of Friday’s field trip, and run through sessions on Margaret Clarke, on Gothic art, on George du Noyer and most pointedly in the talk by Niamh O’Sullivan on the Coming Home Exhibition itself.

Stone Circle by George Victor du Noyer

We’re not forgetting the Medieval and Early Modern periods either. Dr David Edwards from UCC is recognised as an expert on Richard Boyle and on this period and his talk on Gaelic politics in the later Middle Ages should be fascinating. But never mind all that politics – what did people actually do back then, and what did they eat, before the advent of the potato?  Dr Susan Flavin is going to tell us that when she talks about ‘Food, Drink & Society in 16th century Ireland’.

Richard Boyle, Great Earl of Cork

Lots of local history too – on Cillíní (children’s burial grounds), women in the fishing industry, Sam Maguire and his memorial bells in Dunmanway, Pirates and treasure of the Coast of West Cork, and my own talk on Agnes Mary Clerke who grew up in Skibbereen during the famine and went on to become the most successful science-writer of her day, with a moon crater named in her honour.

Agnes Mary Clerke

That’s just a taster of the talks – there are lots more. And if that wasn’t enough, there are also film screenings, a concert by Jessie Kennedy based on the life of Lady Mary Carbery of Castle Freke, and a poetry reading by none other than Jeremy Irons! How can you resist that voice?

So if you don’t have your tickets yet, get them now. Yes, you’ll still be able to get them at the gate, but if you want to secure them now, do it online at this link.

Trading Up in Tudor Times: Fortified Houses in West Cork

Coppinger's Court, Ballyvireeen, near Rosscarbery

Coppinger’s Court, Ballyvireeen, near Rosscarbery

Fortified houses are a distinctly Irish phenomenon. The Tudor period in Britain ushered in a great era of house building with many distinctive features. But England was a peaceful place – the owners of these great houses did not expect to be attacked. Tudor Ireland was a very different environment: life was still dangerous and conflict between the native Irish and the planter class, or between Irish clans, was common.

Machicolations at Coppinger's Court

Machicolations at Coppinger’s Court

Up to the end of the 16th century the castle/tower house was the residence of choice of the powerful – a tall stone keep mainly focussed on defensive features and horribly uncomfortable to live in. (See When is a Castle..? for a complete run-down on tower houses.) These new houses emphasised the horizontal rather than the vertical, and were built with comfort in mind. However, they incorporated some of the defensive features of the tower houses – they were “fashionable but defendable.”

Mullioned windows

Mullioned windows

In Ireland they represented “a public display of power and wealth…[and] a long-term investment in their owner’s regional future and were monuments to an aspiration for an English and Continental house style suited to local Irish conditions. On a basic level  the construction of a fortified house represented the owners desire to modernise and Anglicize.” These quotes and much of the information that follows is taken from The Fortified Houses of County Cork: Origin, Fabric, Form, Function and Social Use of Space, by Joe Nunan, who has generously made it and related material available on his website.

Gun loop at ground floor level, Coppinger's Court

Gun loop at ground floor level, Coppinger’s Court

Fortified houses were built of stone but all internal floors, stairs and partitions were of wood. Defensive features included machicolations, bartizans, wall walks, gun loops, corner towers or wings to provide for flanking fire. They were built starting about 1580 up to about 1650.

Tower and Bartizan, Reeandisert

Tower and Bartizan, Reenadisert

There are four (or five, if you include Baltimore Castle) surviving fortified houses in West Cork. The one that is most accessible (should you wish to visit) is Coppinger’s Court, in Ballyvireen townland near Roscarbery. It is also one of the most magnificent examples of this type of dwelling in Ireland. Some of the mullions remain in upper windows, and a sharp eye will spot gun loops in the outer walls. The machicolations are particularly fine, with impressive cut stone supports. This was the home of the infamous Sir Walter Coppinger, whose plan was to build a complete settlement around him in this lovely spot on the banks of the Roury River. He was a despot who got rich through clever manipulations of mortgage documents and he was said to hang his enemies from a gibbet from one of his windows.

The chimney on top of this wall has fallen - note the pile of stones on the ground.

The chimney on top of this wall has fallen – note the pile of stones on the ground

The house was so awe-inspiring in its time that the legend developed that it had a window for every day of the year, a chimney for every week and a door for every month. The house was eventually attacked and ransacked in 1641 and has sat in ruins ever since. Sadly, one of the magnificent chimneys fell down in the storms of early 2014. Evidence of a bawn wall remains, with possible outdoor cooking areas.

Gearhameen - a U shaped plan

Gearhameen – a U shaped plan

The fortified house at Gearhameen near Durrus, built by the MacCarthy Muclaghs, provides evidence of the comfort that these new ‘castles’ provided. The household work was done on the ground floor – large kitchens contained huge fireplaces, and in this house we can see the main kitchen fireplace had a bread oven to one side and a slop hole for sweeping out leftovers to the pigs, who must have been in an attached pen (the smell!).

Large ground floor fireplace with bread oven

Large ground floor fireplace with bread oven

The first and second floors have large fireplaces, with magnificent herringbone chimneys still intact (and hosting nesting choughs).

Rather than the machicolations we see at Coppinger’s Court, corbels on the outside walls probably supported wooden or stone platforms.

Corbels supported a platform for defenders

Corbels supported a platform for defenders

Like Coppinger’s Court, the outer walls still stand to their full height, but the loss of a keystone above one arch, and the consequent development of a large crack above it, bodes ill for that section of the wall.

Missing keystone

Missing keystone

The house at Reenadisert, near Ballylickey, has been built onto and within over the centuries, serving as a modified dwelling place and as farm buildings. It was the stronghold of an O’Sullivan and has an impressive bartizan on one of the external towers. It is in a very ruinous state inside – the eeriness is enhanced by an enormous crows’ nest that has fallen from inside one of the chimneys to rest on the ground. There is evidence of a basement but this cannot be accessed.

Fallen nest

Fallen nest

The house at Aghadown, home to the Becher family, consists only of one wall with attached towers. Ivy has threatened to take over most of it – I love Leask’s description of ivy – “destructive green mantle beloved of the sentimentalist.” Through it one can make out traces of the slate that once hung on the wall above the ground floor, the outline of corbels at roof level, and a string course between the ground and first floor.

Aghadown Fortified house occupies high ground with a commanding view

Aghadown Fortified house occupies high ground with a commanding view

Interestingly, Dún na Séad Castle in Baltimore, home of the O’Driscolls, is described as a fortified house in the National Monuments Inventory. It possesses aspects of both a tower house and a fortified house – in this photograph you can see the corner bartizan, a gun loop, and the long, rather than tall, shape.

Dún na Séad or Baltimore Castle

Dún na Séad or Baltimore Castle

For a comparison of the two types of edifices, take a look at Leamanagh in Clare – here a 17th century fortified house has been literally tacked on to a 15th century tower house.

Leamanagh, in County Clare

Leamanagh, in County Clare

Joe Nunan provides useful summations of Irish fortified houses. Among other points, he says the following:

The fortified houses built in Co. Cork had a unique Irish architectural quality and a distinct southern English look and feel; the result of contacts built up between both regions, politically through plantation-immigration and economically, through trade with the port and fishing towns of Waterford, Cork, Kinsale, Youghal and Baltimore. The social changes that took place in Tudor England were reflected in architectural form by the elites in that society and it was the latter who spearheaded the Munster plantations. They were noblemen who viewed Munster as another region within a larger England and it was through these individuals that the initial architectural influence of the many gabled, oblong country manors with circular, square, rectangular and hexagonal corner-towers was introduced into Co. Cork.

Reenadisert

Reenadisert

We are lucky to have these fine examples of  fortified houses in West Cork still. However, all of them apart from Baltimore Castle are in a perilous state of dereliction.  Gearhameen’s owner has tried to stabilise the building and stave off collapse but all of them may eventually succumb to the natural ravages of time. That’s a sad thought.

Out and About with Visitors in West Cork

At Coppinger's Court

At Coppinger’s Court

Vi and Grant and Jan and Brian came to stay last week – good friends from Canada here to see the Real Ireland. 

We had some challenges right away. First, the rental car Grant had booked was under repair and the substitute, although it nominally held all six of us, was too cramped and uncomfortable to venture too far afield. Second, muscle wear and tear issues among the group dictated that walks not be too long or arduous. 

No problem! The weather was (mostly) fine, we got in one good hike on the Sheep’s Head, and then set about discovering the delights of flatter terrain, local amenities and cultural events. Robert and I hadn’t toured Bantry House before, although we had been there for concerts. The house will be a future post in itself, but for the moment it’s worth recording that this may be the last summer to see it with its original furniture, as much of it is on the auction block later this year.

One day we spent exploring the area south east of Skibbereen. We started with lunch at Glandore overlooking the harbour, then on to the obligatory stop at the Drombeg Stone Circle, one of the better-know recumbent stone circles that dot West Cork. On to Coppinger’s Court (another subject for a full post), a 17th century fortified house and home to one of the fearsome characters in West Cork history. Back then to Castletownshend and dinner in Mary Anne’s, followed by a concert in the little church of St Barrahane’s. This was an evening of Beethoven, Debussy and Rachmaninov with Christopher Marwood of the Vanbrugh Quartet on the cello, and the brilliant young American Alexander Bernstein on the piano. It was truly a world-class performance, eliciting a standing ovation from the appreciative audience.

At Drombeg, Jan and Brian

At Drombeg, Jan and Brian

Concert In St. Barrahane's, Castletownshend

Concert In St Barrahane’s, Castletownshend

Another day, we wandered around Schull, dipping into the shops and stopping for coffee. Later that evening we attended PlayActing Theatre’s two one-woman shows in the local parish hall. Karen Minihan brought us up to date with her character, Eileen, going through a midlife crisis – it was moving, sad and funny all at once. Then Terri Leiber took us into the experience of eight-year-old Stacey negotiating the dysfunctional lives of the adults around her in 1960s Britain – a tour de force in which she played every role, with a minimalist stage set, a soundtrack from the times, and a beautiful nuanced performance.

Terri Leiber in May the Force

Terri Leiber in May the Force

Shopping at the local markets always makes food preparation easier and fresher and we all took turns. 

In Baltimore, we walked out to the Beacon, with its marvellous views of Sherkin Island and the faraway mountains of Kerry. We hope it’s a good memory to take away of this special part of Ireland. 

At the Baltimore Beacon

At the Baltimore Beacon

Vi and Grant, Jan and Brian – Ferdia has been missing you already!

Ferdia

Ferdia