Mizen Mountains 6 – Derrylahard East

The peak of Derrylahard East is perplexing. It’s on a continuation of the Eastern Mizen Ridge that runs from just west of Mount Corrin (which we visited exactly a year ago), takes in Letterlickey Cairn (ditto) and peters out close to the wind farm at Ballybane West (which we explored last October). At its highest point it overlooks Glanlough (from the Irish Gleann Locha – ‘Glen’ or ‘Meadow’ of the lake). We must not be confused or misled by another Glanlough nearby – on the Sheep’s Head peninsula, nor yet another in Co Kerry.

On the map above I have indicated Glanlough, which is central to our most recent peregrination. It is a mountain lake which has been virtually hidden over the last decades by thick commercial pine forests. Very recently, much of the forest has been felled, and views from the top of the ridge are now revealed: they are magnificent and far-reaching. In fact, from the high point we found we could see the 12 arched bridge at Ballydehob – which means. of course, that we can also see Derrylahard East from our own village.

The upper picture was taken from the Derrylahard East Peak with a lens stretched well beyond its limit, but you can see the 12 arched bridge and the sandboat quay house just below the centre of the view: Cape Clear is on the horizon. The lower picture was taken a while ago from the 12 arched bridge in Ballydehob, looking north towards the Derrylahard East Peak, which is swathed in cloud to the left of the rainbow.

We started the walk at the western end of the loop: we accessed it from a road that runs through the forestry from Barnageehy down to Durrus. As we gained the higher ground we could see the ridge path that would lead west through to Mount Corrin – currently closed due to storm damage. We turned uphill and kept close to the townland boundary. Below – Finola is correctly negotiating the stile by going backwards down the steps!

We followed the Sheep’s Head Barnageehy Loop Walk in an anti clockwise direction, circling the lake of Glanlough and looking out for the summit, which is known as Derrylahard East Peak, even though it appears to be within the townland of Glanlough. According to the 6″ OS map, which dates from the 1840s, there was once a trig point at this summit: a height of 990ft – 302 metres.

At the peak: Finola looking back towards Gabriel – always dominating the landscapes in West Cork – with the islands and ocean in the distance; Dunmanus Bay and the Sheep’s Head to the west, with the Beara Peninsula visible beyond; the view east encompassing the Ballybane West turbines and Mount Kidd.

Upper map: the 1904 OS showing Glanlough lake in context with the wider topography of West Cork. Above – the Down Survey, made between 1656 and 1658: this section covers the area shown in the OS above it, and is at a comparable scale. The red asterisk shows the position of the lake at Glanlough: I had hoped there might be some notation on the Down Survey that would give some insight into the name of Glanlough, but the old map is fascinating for the fact that very few of the names are familiar to us and barely a scattering of them can be easily equated with place names today.

I said at the outset that the peak of Derrylahard East is perplexing. For one thing, it is clearly in the townland of Glanlough, yet bears the name of the neighbouring townland. Then there is the altitude of the summit: mountainviews.ie shows two figures for the height above sea level: 301m (which I would – almost – agree with), but also the figure of 353.9m, which must be a mistake. Unless, of course, there is something preternatural in this small patch of West Cork territory: I’m thinking of the legend of the ‘floating’ islands in the lake on Mount Gabriel. According to John Abraham Jagoe, Vicar of Cape Clear – from the Church of Ireland Magazine 1826 – they float about up and down, east and north and south; but every Lady-day they come floating to the western point, and there they lie fixed under the crag that holds the track of the Angel’s foot…’ Perhaps our peak fluctuates at will to confuse us? The shape of the summit is also intriguing: we sensed there are traces of a circular platform and a number of loosely scattered stones – could there have been a megalithic structure here?

The views from this peak would justify it being marked out as a special site, and we could expect to find some stories recorded in the folklore archives, but no: the Duchas Schools Collections reveals nothing of the peak, the lake, nor the townland.

As we descended the track we were grateful that the recent forestry removal has opened up the extensive views to the south, over Roaringwater Bay, but we are also reminded of the devastation that this type of monoculture creates. The scarring of the landscape will last for years, until eventually covered by further spruce planting: then the views will vanish again.

As we left behind the havoc of the ravaged hillsides it was good to find some pastoral prospects, reminding us that West Cork always has unfolding delights and juxtapositions, wherever we wander.

Previous posts in this series:

Knockaphuca, Corrin, Letterlicky Cairn, Lisheennacreagh, Knockatassonig

Mizen Mountains 1 – the Hill of the Foxes

The first day of October seemed ripe for starting a new project. It was also a beautiful, rich, blustery autumnal day – ideal for heading to the remotest uplands. I have always been drawn to high places: there’s something romantic about seeing the coastal landscape laid out below your eyes, especially in these western wildernesses where bare rock, gorse and heather intertwine with history: ancient farmsteads, ruined cottages and impossibly isolated forgotten quays, seemingly abandoned along our most rugged shores.

Header – Toor Island just off the mainland close to the west end of the Mizen Peninsula: the high ground beyond is the peak of Knockatassonig. Above – it’s a most remote and wild place for a pier, but Toor Quay is still accessible from a winding, overgrown footpath and 107 concrete steps: today it’s only the occasional haunt of anglers

This project – Mizen Mountains – sets out to explore all the peaks on our westernmost peninsula. Are they mountains? It all depends on the context, and your perspective. Mizen’s loftiest outcrop – Gabriel – is 400 metres above sea level. Quite modest (Kerry’s MacGillycuddy’s Reeks claim the country’s highest summit, Carrauntoohil, at 1,038 metres), yet when you do look down on the spine of our peninsula from above, it’s all rocky crags and ridges pushing upwards towards the heavens, while at the edges the mountains fall precipitously towards the sea. It’s great, dramatic country, calling out for exploration – and there’s nothing we like better than finding new ways to discover this land and all its stories.

The view to the western end of the Mizen Peninsula, seen from the slopes of Mount Gabriel. The Sheep’s Head is across to the right

50 years ago the writer, Peter Somerville Large, set out to travel the western peninsulas of Ireland on a rusty bicycle purchased for the purpose in Skibbereen. I like the introduction he gives to his book The Coast of West Cork, first published in 1972, and still in print – it serves my own project well:

. . . I set out into the country. The sun had filtered through after rain, making the tarmac steam with moisture and sending up towering clouds off the mountains into the sky. Cattle stood motionless in the boggy fields and water dripped from the leafless sycamores . . . I travelled along the coast of West Cork, through Carbery, from Clonakilty to Roaringwater Bay with its fringe of islands and castles, and north to Bantry and the Beare peninsula. Much of the land near the coast consists of bog and mountain with headlands like lines of slanting spears thrust into the Atlantic. But there are parts that are sheltered, with a tropical lushness that is partly ascribed to the benign influence of the Gulf Stream. Ruins are soon covered with thick ivy and it takes only a few trees or slips of fuchsia to make a protective wall. Some valleys and hillsides have pockets of moss-covered oak-trees which are survivors of the ancient forest that covered the country three hundred years ago . . . From Goleen the old road wound high over a ridge before dropping down to Crookhaven. Almost all the land was rocky around Knocknamadree; The quilted shadows of clouds passed along the high ground over to the sea . . .

Satellite view of the rocky landscape towards the western edge of the Mizen: Knockatasonnig is a barren peak

I have set the bar at the 200 metre contour line – anything above that is, for me, a mountain! So I will be traversing the terrain in search of all the eminences above this elevation on the Mizen, looking specifically at topography and any traceable history and folklore specific to these ‘mountains’. But I will also be talking about our journeys to these destinations: you know how fond we are of getting ‘off the beaten track’. Every new exploration is invariably a revelation! This time around, we are going west – almost as far as is possible on this peninsula – to the townland of Knockatassonig, which peaks at 204 metres.

Top – the 25″ Ordnance Survey map, locating Toor Quay and Knockatassonig. Lower – the earlier 6″ map outlining the townlands

Knockatassonig is a curiosity. It’s a townland which doesn’t seem to have any habitation – and possibly never did. The 6″ map, above, was originally surveyed in 1846 and is valuable in outlining the townland boundaries at that time. It may be that in pre-famine times there were dwellings in the area: Ireland was much more heavily populated in those days, even in places like this which seem so remote today. But sometimes the townland names are particularly useful to us because they can tell us something of the history, which would have been passed on aurally through the generations until the maps were made.

Upper – detail from the 25″ map, showing the ‘Boat Slip’ at Toor. The map was presumably surveyed before the present pier was made; the slip has been cut into the solid rock and launching boats there must have been a treacherous business. Lower – today, a steep, narrow boreen can be negotiated as far as the Stop sign! An overgrown footpath goes on down to the sea and quay. The mountains seen over the water are on the Sheep’s Head

So far we haven’t talked much about the ‘Mountain’ of Knockatassonig. This summit is very visible, but virtually inaccessible at this time of the year due to bracken and spiky fences. It can just be seen on the left in the header picture: that’s taken from the footpath which goes down to Toor Quay. Like most of the Mizen peaks, Knockatassonig commands good distant views. It should be more approachable in the winter months. Although it’s hard to get to, it can be seen from several places on the Mizen, including Dunlough. The photo below shows the peak on the horizon beyond the ruins of Three Castle Head:

Here’s a view of Knockatassonig summit seen from the south-west side, taken from the small road that goes down towards Toor.  The view below shows the complex profile of the summit seen from the north

In looking at the peaks of the Mizen I intend to explore and uncover – where possible – any extant memories of stories or local lore relating to them. As far as Knockatassonig goes, I have found nothing recorded, other than the name, which is shared with the townland. So what does it mean? Well, it’s not clear, but the logainm website suggests ‘The hill of the Englishman’, and compares this name to the entry for Corr na Seirseanach in Co Monaghan ‘The round hill of the Englishmen’ or ‘The round hill of the mercenaries or hired soldiers’. Well – that’s a surprise . . . and a bit hard to reconcile with the unpopulated landscape we see today in this part of West Cork. The Monaghan version of the name can be supported by political events dating from the early 1300s: it’s hard to relate these to any activities we are aware of on the Mizen, but Irish history is a complex thing – as are place-names. When Finola heard the name she thought it meant ‘The hill of the foxes’: a direct translation into the Irish of that would be Knock an tSionnaigh. Townland names were often written down in Anglicised form by surveyors whose ears may not have been attuned to the Irish nuances. I’m voting with Finola on this one: there’s sure to be a good few foxes in that landscape!

Here’s an earlier source of information on Irish names: the Down Survey. Undertaken between the years 1656 and1658, the Down Survey of Ireland is the first ever detailed land survey on a national scale anywhere in the world. It sought to measure all the land to be forfeited by the Catholic Irish in order to facilitate its redistribution to merchant adventurers and English soldiers. The extract above details the Parish of Kilmoe at the end of the Peninsula: note Three Castle Head depicted at the far left. The survey does not give modern townland names but we can work out where the Knockatassonig peak would be – in the section labelled Unforfeited Lands belonging to the Earle of Corke and Coghlane protestants  In which case, of course, not only the present day townland of Knockatassonig but all those around it could reasonably be termed ‘ . . . of the Englishman . . .’ Food for thought?

Below – peaks of the Mizen: many will be the subjects of future posts