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.

Here Be Pirates!

Crough Bay in the townland of Leamcon – one of the sheltered and hidden moorings which became known as a pirates’ nest in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This is a view of part of the former estate of Sir William Hull who, as Vice Admiral of Munster, was charged with routing the pirates but in fact connived with them for his own financial gain

…Ireland may well be called the nursery and storehouse of pirates… wrote Sir Henry Mainwaring in a manuscript now in the British Museum (A Discourse of Pirates, on the suppression of piracy 1618). He had first-hand knowledge: this adventurer who was born in the time of Elizabeth spent most of his life at sea, survived the English Civil War – although on the losing side – and had been privateer, pirate and Royal Naval captain. He died at the age of 66 with his feet on dry land, although in poverty and exile in France.

map of baltimore

The Earl of Cork’s map of Baltimore,1628 –  following well-founded fears of ‘Turk’ raids he petitioned the Admiralty to fortify the coastal settlements. He was ignored and in 1631 the town was sacked and burned by Barbary pirates who carried away over 100 of the residents to the slave markets in Morroco

My possible ancestor Captain James Harris of Bristol died with his feet in the air: he was hanged at Wapping, in the estuary of the Thames, with 16 other pirates in December 1609. They had been captured in Baltimore, in sight of Roaringwater Bay. Why was it that Ireland – and, in particular, this coastline of west Cork was the notorious harbourer of pirates from all over Europe?

behold leamcon

According to Mainwaring, the west of Ireland was enticing because food and men were abundant; fewer naval ships patrolled the coast [than in England]; many of the local inhabitants were willing to trade with the pirates; and there was a …good store of English, Scottish, and Irish wenches which resort unto them… 

1611 John Speed map – Roaringwater

John Speed’s map of 1611 which portrays ‘Ballatimore Bay’ and Carbery’s Hundred Islands – ideal territory for concealing pirates. Note the curious geography, the names of the Irish clans and some of the places we recognise today: Rossbrenon (Rosbrin); Lemcon; Shepes Head and Myssen Head

The coast of west Cork, in particular, was eminently suitable for sheltering ships in need of careening and victualling: bays, coves, inlets and estuaries abound and Carbery’s Hundred Isles (in fact many more than a hundred but it depends on what you count as an island) offer refuges a-plenty. In Captain Harris’s time there was only one naval ship patrolling the whole area from Kinsale around to Bantry and beyond – and this was the Tremontane – an ancient leaky pinnace which could be easily outrun by any respectable pirate crew. All the more unfortunate, then, for my forebear and his band who fell into the hands of the authorities, no doubt through some act of treachery or double-dealing.

Captain Harris’s family paid to retrieve his body from the gallows at Execution Dock (above left) and gave him a Christian burial. It was more usual for the bodies to be immersed by ‘three high tides’ before being disposed of. In particularly notorious cases the corpses were tarred and then hung in gibbets (iron cages – above right) to remain in public view. Captain Kidd was displayed this way for at least forty years after his death in 1701.

pirate ship

…The Irish folk surreptitiously colluded with pirates. When a captain needed supplies, he sent word of his needs. The reply to his note told him where he might find “so many Beeves or other refreshments as he shall need” on a specific night. When he and his men came ashore, they were to fire upon those who tended the herd, which allowed the herders to claim that they had been forced to hand over the cattle. Later on, he secretly landed “the goods or money in exchange, which by custom, they expect must be 2 or 3 times the value” If the pirates desired arms and/or ammunition and the Irish had any, they traded those items, too… (from Pirates and Privateers – The History of Maritime Piracy – an excellent online resource compiled by Cindy Vallar).

If you would like to learn more about Pirates in west Cork (and to listen to some great music) come along to the Fastnet Maritime + Folk Festival in Ballydehob this weekend 17th – 19th June: Robert is giving an illustrated talk on William Hull and the Leamcon Pirates’ Nest on Saturday 18th at 2.30pm in the Old Bank Building