Walking West Cork – Half the Colla Loop!

The first post of 2021…

I never expected to live in plague-ridden times, but that’s where we find ourselves – at the start of a new year. And – because of the plague – our travels are restricted once again. On the very last day of 2020, keeping things as local as possible, we hastened to Schull and explored half of the Colla Loop on the Fastnet Trails.

We started at the Trailhead by the pier at Colla (header picture). I have drawn our route as a dotted red line on the aerial view, above: we walked ‘widdershins’ – anti-clockwise. You will find the whole of the Colla Loop on the leaflet here. The full trail from Schull and back is 9km: by my calculation our own version carried us a mere 4km: there was a lot of uphill, though, and it was very satisfying with great views to the south, over Long Island Sound, and then to the west: it’s always good to be following the setting sun.

Colla had been taken over by a swan family, who wished us well on our journey. Their sentiment was echoed by some four-legged friends on the steep way up the hill:

As we left the small boreen, following a green path through a signed gate, we began a climb which opened up a panorama behind us, encompassing Long Island and Cape Clear. The day was perfect, a few scudding clouds giving perspective to a a vivid blue sky which seemed to have been borrowed from the summer:

In fact, the views in every direction get even more rewarding as this walk progresses: we were surprised that we had never ‘discovered’ this little corner of West Cork before! Every rise, and each bend in the track, opens up a new prospect.

A ‘telephoto’ view towards the end of the Mizen (above) reveals the inlet of Croagh Bay in the foreground, with Crookhaven beyond. You can just make out the top of ‘Black Castle’ at Castlepoint in the centre of the picture and a Napoleonic-era signal tower at the summit of the highest ground at Brow Head.

At the highest point of the walk we are back on a partly metalled boreen. I was particularly keen to find the site of . . . the ancient school of Sancta Maria de Scholia, ‘a place known in early times as a centre of learning’. . . which is indicated on the Archaeological Monuments Survey just to the right of the bend in the trackway, above. However, this record has been superseded by another site further to the west (indicated with a question mark on my aerial view) where it is noted:

. . . In rough grazing, on a S-facing slope overlooking Long Island to the S and Skull Harbour to the E. Recent reclamation work exposed a level earthen platform-like area faced externally on its curving S side by a roughly constructed drystone revetment. According to local information, this is the site of Scoil Mhuire or Sancta Maria de Scala, a medieval church and school that gave its name to this townland and to Skull village . . .

National Monuments Record 2009 – CO148-040

I suppose we can make up our own minds as to which of these two sites claiming to have given Schull its name is the most likely candidate. If it’s about having a good view, for me it has to be the first.

As shadows lengthen, a trail marker (above) tells us we have been walking on Coffin Hill. I can find no specific reference to this name and can only assume it was the route used to reach the burial ground just outside Schull village when coming from settlements to the north.

From the high ground we had clear views of Schull set below Mount Gabriel (upper picture); our route turned west along the ridge and followed the sun. We wanted the idyll to go on forever . . .

The road began to descend, and we found ourselves approaching a neighbourhood of scattered houses that heralded the way back to Colla. On our half-a-trail we passed half an abandoned house: the other half still shows signs of occupation:

We could not have celebrated the close of such a momentous year in a better way! We are determined to rise to the challenge of the restrictions we are currently faced with and discover all of our beautiful byways. We are so fortunate to live in this wonderful land, and we look forward to heading out with you on many more voyages during 2021!

Mizen Magic 21: Croagh Bay

For our latest Mizen Magic post, we look in detail at an area we have skipped through previously: it deserves to be more thoroughly explored as it’s rich in history but is also, literally, a backwater which rests in a time-warp. Whenever we reconnoitre the shores of Croagh Bay, I’m always taken back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and to the pirates, knights and Earls who made their own little empires in this now remote district. I should probably add that I can’t find an origin or meaning for the name Croagh. But I do know that it is pronounced locally as Crew. It’s even spelt Crewe on some maps (but – late edit – have a look at the enlightening comment by ‘Tash’ at the end of this post). The following image shows a clapper bridge – possibly quite ancient: a modern concrete parapet has been placed over the much earlier stonework:

The header image and the one above are both taken at the same place – the head of the tidal section of the Croagh River, in the townland of Lowertown, not too far west of Schull. It’s rewarding to walk on the boreen that follows the north shore of the river. You will admire some very fine residences and come across tiny quays that have doubtless faithfully served many generations of West Cork families, and which are still in use. Behind you the rugged peak of Mount Gabriel will always be in sight – a familiar local landmark.

The Croagh River is only one of the waterways that you will explore today. The boreen comes to an end but the inlet itself continues out to Long Island Sound, Roaringwater Bay and the mighty Atlantic. Before that, however, there is another which demands attention: The Creek – which goes west towards the settlement of Leamcon.

Upper – an overview of the area covered by this post; centre – looking out over the Croagh River towards Long Island with the high ground above Baltimore in the far distance; lower – Croagh Bay is in the centre with Long Island beyond and Cony Island to the left

The aerial view gives a very good idea of why this particular location was so strategically important: the river estuary and the creek are both hidden out of sight of the main seafaring routes of Long Island Sound and beyond. They are, therefore, perfect safe havens for pirates, smugglers, and those who want to profit from such activities. One well-known profiteer we have encountered before in this Journal is William Hull, described in the High Court of Admiralty papers as ‘a notorious harboro of pirates and receavor of theire goodes’ who nevertheless managed to retain an official post as Deputy Vice Admiral of Munster. In cahoots with Richard Boyle – First Earl of Cork – Hull developed links with privateers and pirates, and hosted a whole fleet of vessels within the hidden inlets of Croagh Bay and Leamcon: the shallow waters were ideal for careening vessels and Hull’s empire allegedly included victualling stations, fish palaces, ale houses and brothels. All this was focussed on the townland of Leamcon which Hull leased initially from the O’Mahony Gaelic overlords. Although Hull’s own castle is now long vanished, we can find traces of his endeavours marked on the early OS maps.

The early 6″ map locates ‘Turret’, ‘Old Battery’ and ‘Site of Leamcon Old House’ within the environs of the present Leamcon House, to the north of the furthest limit of The Creek. Interestingly, there is also what looks like a quay on the water directly below the estate: all these potential antiquities could reasonably date from Hull’s time.

The ‘Battery’, the site of an old wharf and an ancient stone gulley may date from the time of William Hull’s occupation of the townland of Leamcon, which came to an end in 1641, when the O’Mahony’s moved to regain their former holdings. Below is Leamcon House today, looking down to the waters of The Creek. The extensive stone wall on the right hand side of the image is said to incorporate the remnants of a fish palace – another enterprise of William Hull and Richard Boyle:

Centre – extract from the 1612 map (see more on this here), showing Leamcon and Croagh Bay; lower – locating the Bay in relation to the islands of West Cork, from a later 6″ OS map

Before we complete our tour of Croagh Bay we have to travel east along the Croagh peninsula, where we find the intriguingly named Gun Point. There is no sign of a gun there today, nor any record of where the name might have originated. It could be, of course, that in Hull’s time the entrance to these important inlets was guarded.

We were pleased to find a briar still in bloom, but were also intrigued by this gate, above, at the very tip of Gun Point. It was singing to us! The wind which, by late afternoon, had become a bit of a gale, was picked up by the hollow metal rails and created for us a Port na bPucai – ‘song of the spirits’. We recorded it as best we could and then handed it over to our musical friend Paul Hadland. He in turn passed it on to his brother Tony – an electronics wizard, who presented us with the following rendition of our Harmonic Gate. Many thanks, Hadlands!

For the technically minded amongst you, here is Tony’s account of how he processed our recording:

. . . I first of all manually edited out the worst of the very short but irritating wind noise elements. I then traced the frequency band where the music was and applied the Apple AU Bandpass filter, centred on 400 HZ. I trimmed off the ragged beginning, faded out the end, and normalised the volume to -10db. To get rid of more of the background noise I then applied the Acon DeNoise 2 adaptive filter, using its default broadband music setting. The result is the attached file Gate Harmonics . . .

Tony Hadland, November 2020

Mizen Magic 6: Schull to Castlepoint

The Mizen is the Peninsula we live on, and of course we think it’s the most beautiful part of West Cork, and of Ireland. In previous Mizen Magic posts I’ve been exploring different aspects and areas, such as the Northside, or Brow Head, or our excellent beaches. This time I’m concentrating on the stretch from Schull to Castlepoint. The map below shows the area, with the village of Schull, our starting point, on the top right. The photograph above was taken from the top of Sailor’s Hill.

A winter view of Long Island Sound – Coney Island, Long Island,  the Calves, Cape Clear and Sherkin, with the entrance to Croagh Bay in the foreground

It’s only a few kilometres, and it would take you about ten minutes to drive straight to Castlepoint from Schull. But where’s the fun in that? No- let’s start by driving (or walking if you’d rather) out to St Mary’s Church on the Colla Road. It’s largely an eighteenth century church, although there are hints of a medieval structure here and there, and it stands in what must be one of the most scenic graveyards in West Cork.

Intriguing depictions of boats are inscribed into the render inside the church. How old are they? Who did them and for what purpose?

From there, I suggest you drive to the lookout on Sailor Hill – the trail arrows for the new extension of the Fastnet Trails will show you the way. We discovered Sailor’s Hill ourselves when I was researching belvederes – the redoubtable Connie Griffin has built his own modern version of a belvedere and there is no better place to get a view of Long Island Sound and the south side of the Mizen. Here’s the viewing house Connie built  – perfect for contemplation.

Back down to the Colla Road, continue to the scenic little Colla Pier, where you can take the ferry to Long Island. Robert and I do this every year as part of the Fastnet Film Festival. The ferry runs every day but you can also book special trips – it is, as they say here, a great day out. Pack a picnic and your camera – there’s lots of birdlife, including these oystercatchers on the rocks at Colla Pier.

The ferry leaves Long Island for the return trip to Colla Pier

From the Pier the road winds across country, overlooking the sea here and there, and always with Mount Gabriel looming in the background. From here you can see tiny Coney Island, privately owned, and with one house which is rented out to holiday makers.

Beyond Coney Island are the Goat Islands – Goat Island and Goat Island Little – probably once one island, but now split into two, with a narrow passage between. There are feral goats on these islands, but not much else. They appear to be completely inaccessible, with craggy shores that are impossible to land on. That, of course, only makes them all the more mysterious. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about the Goat Islands.

The narrow and treacherous channel that divides the Goat Islands, and the beacon on the smaller of the two islands

The road now winds down to Croagh Bay (locally pronounced ‘Crew’), a lovely tidal sheltered inlet with the romantically named Gunpoint at its head. On the higher ground to the right you will see that an enterprising individual has converted one of the old signal stations into a unique residence. It must have the best view – but all those stairs!

We are now in the territory described by Robert in Here Be Pirates and in Pilchards and PalacesCroagh Bay, or more correctly Leamcon House, was the site of William Hull’s house and a hotbed of piratical activity.

Nowadays it’s downright idyllic and the shallow waters of Gunpoint inlet provide sanctuary to wintering birds such as these shelducks.

Our last stop is the little pier at Castlepoint, offering a dramatic view of Black Castle, one of the O’Mahony Tower Houses that dotted the coast of West Cork in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This one is privately owned and the owner has stabilised and largely restored the castle, saving it for future generations from the all-too normal fate of dereliction that befalls West Cork Castles.

Robert looks across to Black Castle in the photograph above. The castle as the owner has stabilised it is shown below – he has done a first-rate job and we should all be grateful for his care of this important monument. The final photograph is of a small inlet by Castlepoint Pier.