Garrane Mass Rock

Would we like to see a Mass Rock? The question came from Oliver, and the answer was an enthusiastic YES! (The phrase Is the Pope Catholic may have been employed.) This particular mass rock has been re-discovered in recent times, but its origins are a bit of a mystery. It’s not listed on the National Monuments Record of Sites, and some elements are clearly dated to the early 1950s. There is no defined trail and it would be very easy to get lost, so we were very grateful indeed to our guides, Oliver Farrell and Tracey Daly (above), who live close by and use the trails frequently with their sons. Rio the Wonder Dog accompanied us.

Garrane (it’s Garrane on the OS maps, but often spelled Gurrane, especially locally, and it means ‘grove’) is a townland in the area between Ballydehob and Caheragh. The area is managed by Coillte, and starts among tall trees. As you ascend, though, you emerge into rocky scrub territory that was cleared in more recent times, leaving interesting stumps here and there, like stubby totems.

It’s a lovely hike up (although I’m not sure I could find it by myself again) and soon we were enjoying panoramic vistas across the countryside and over to Roaringwater Bay and Cape Clear beyond. Rio led the way, occasionally disappearing into the bushes but always coming back to his humans to make sure we were keeping up.

At this time the hills are covered in Western Gorse and heathers and butterflies were flitting through the shrubs as we ascended, attracted by the blooming Ling.

When Oliver said we’d arrived, I didn’t see anything except what looked like a pile of stones.. The bracken was everywhere, including within the mass rock itself. Oliver set to work and soon it was revealed – a flat, altar-like surface, with a niche in which a small shrine had been placed.

The shrine – a concrete box containing a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was dated 1954. This marks it as having been inserted into the niche during the Marian Year. Most of the grottoes we see in every village and town across Ireland date to 1954 – for more on this see my post Mary Mary. It’s possible, perhaps, that the mass rock itself was refurbished during this time, to make it suitable to contain the shrine.

What exactly is a mass rock, I hear my non-Irish readers ask. Take a look at my post Were you at the Rock, or go to the wonderful Find a Mass Rock, an excellent site maintained by Dr Hilary Bishop of Liverpool University. 

So we had found the mass rock, but there was more. Tracey and Oliver led us higher still to a spot overlooking the mass rock to a concrete cross. Although much battered, it retained much of the original decoration – glass, clear and coloured, and a small crucifix. Exploring this area, their sons had discovered the mass rock a few years earlier – it had likely been hidden for 50 years by forestry.

We wondered if this was erected at the same time as the shrine had been inserted in the mass rock, in 1954, or whether perhaps it had been erected in 1950, the Holy Year. And all around Ireland in 1950 villages and towns erected hilltop crosses – see my post Sanctifying the Landscape for more about the Holy Year and the Vatican directive that sent Irish communities up their local mountains to set up huge (and in this case not so huge) concrete crosses.

So – this spot was obviously the focus of devotional activity on the early 50s, most likely chosen because of the already existing mass rock. The memory of the mass rock was still held in the community, making it the perfect location for the Holy Year and Marian Year memorials. As we often do, we turned to the Schools Folklore Collection to see if we could find references to a mass rock in the record for the old primary school, now long closed, at Garrane. Here’s what we found:

That’s all, and frustratingly opaque, referring to the mass rock being in a ‘field.’ I would be interested in hearing from local people who might know more about the history of this particular mass rock, so that we can get it listed as a National Monument. If you know anything, please comment below, or get in touch via our contact page.

Rio led us back down the mountain, pausing occasionally to do something I had never see a dog do before – eat blackberries right off the brambles. He beat us to some of the best ones too as we headed down to the tall trees.

The Gurrane and Ballybane Trails Development Group is working on a plan for trails in the area, including this one – good news!

Looking Again at Simon Coleman

Back in May I put up a post celebrating our discovery of documentary artist Simon Coleman. There is plenty of material from Coleman that I didn’t use. Today, I’m showcasing more of his work: it’s invaluable to Irish folklore and folklife researchers. We have to be forever grateful to The Dúchas Collections, and their field-workers who spent so much time scouring the rural landscapes of Ireland and its inhabitants, and recording their findings in detail, preserving the rich memories of those times for our benefit.

The header shows one of Coleman’s attractive watercolours which record the landscapes he traversed during his folklife researches. His sketch-pads, however, are filled with drawn details showing the basics of rural life, such as this one (above) recording baskets which were carried on the back or which were made as panniers for donkeys, mules and horses. Such methodical records are invaluable to our understanding of the paraphernalia of ordinary life, now virtually vanished. More technology for lifting and carrying loads is shown below.

The drawing above shows in typically fine detail the process of ‘turfing’ a roof using clods of earth with grass attached. the grass is on the outer surface. Also shown is the use of ‘ling’ – or heather – as a roof covering.

Straightforward hand implements used on farms (upper) are complemented by very fine watercolour sketches, such as the one above, recording the wagon – an essential element of life in the country.

Coleman was also an accomplished painter, as is evidenced by this portrait in oils of Anna Nic A’Luain, one of the most gifted storytellers encountered by the renowned Donegal folklore collector, Seán Ó Heochaidh. Anna was from Croaghubbrid, in the Blue Stack Mountains, Co Donegal, and lived from 1884 to 1953. The painting dates to 1949.

Cois Fharraige, above, another work in oils by Coleman.

Doolin, Co Clare – Old stone bridge, Lough Agraffard, 1959 – Doughty Ford: all from Coleman’s sketch books. A valuable record stored in the Folklore Commission Archives. Slightly unusual, perhaps, is this house (below) which Coleman sketched in Galway city.

Midsummer Music

Here’s a little burst from our traditional session in Rosie’s, Ballydehob, last Friday, with a great crowd of players and singers filling the pub with Irish music, as they do every week through the year. Sometimes the session takes place at a different venue in the village, but you will soon find it, between seven and nine on a Friday evening. The music is to remind us that the The 9th Fastnet Maritime and Folk Festival will be held from the 17th – 19th June this year, after an enforced ‘Covid’ break. Hopefully it will be ‘just like old times’. There is a great programme to look forward to – don’t miss it! To get you into the spirit here’s Festival regular Matt Cranitch leading a rendering of the beautiful air Sliabh na mBan.

There’s a tale attached to all good songs, and Sliabh na mBan is no exception. This is from the Dúchas Schools Folklore Collection 1936 . . .

. . . Finn mac Cumail, having come of age, took upon himself the task of choosing a wife. A public man like him had to cater to the popular expectations and he was in sore straits fearing to give hurt to any of the noble families wishing to link their daughter with Finn in the bonds of Holy Matrimony. Having tasted of the Salmon of Knowledge, he was all wise, so he hit upon a good plan. A race would decide who to wed him. He sat on the top of Slievenamon, (Sliabh na mBan – Mountain of the Women). All the ladies were to race from the Anner and the first up was to become his wife. Then the gathering began – old, young, fair, dark, ugly, beautiful, sprightly and lame all came to try and become Finn’s wife. “They’re off!” – what a view as all the maidens of Munster set off on the race. The beautiful girls began well, but soon got tired and as some old hag would limp past them she’d sneer “Fair and go easy goes far in a day”. On they went, the latter tripping the former – three remained to do the east climb – two beautiful girls and a worn, old hag: up, still up – who’ll win what? Wait! the fair girl has fallen, now just a dark-haired caílin and the old woman. Oh look, she’s down – the girl hurts her ankle and tries to creep along, but faints. Now the old hag has an open field. Finn must marry her – But no, up the slope comes a lovely girl and reaches Finn first and like all nice stories, they were married and lived happily ever afterwards. (Nobody knew that Finn had instructed his lady love to run over to Boherbee where the mountain is low and go along the gradual slope, instead of trying to climb the steep precipitous mountain face) . . .

Schools Folklore Collection – Miss H Noonan Aged 70 – Cloneen, Co Tipperary

A reminder of pre-Covid days (above, in Levis’ Bar) – folk legend Martin McCarthy (now aged 81) was a regular at the Ballydehob Festival. There’s some good ‘new blood’ there this year, and the launch of an album of the best Sliabh Luachra music from Pat Fleming with Maria Cotter, Tim Browne, Gary O’Brien and Timmy O’Connor. A special event will take place in Bank House in the main street at 7.15 on Thursday 16th June: festival organiser Dick Miles will give a talk on the ‘folk revival’ – (A musical journey from England to Ireland). There will be plenty of opportunities for all musicians to participate over the weekend, starting with the regular Friday folk session in Rosie’s at 5pm (note the earlier-than-usual time) on the 17th.

There are plenty of good food opportunities in Ballydehob: all will be available over the Festival weekend: the wonderful Yay Burger (top), Budds (above) and Bally Bia (below). Don’t forget Antonio’s and – if you want Michelin Star (why wouldn’t you?) there’s the Chestnut.

But the festival is – first and foremost – all about the music. We hope to see you there over this coming weekend. We’ll finish with more Sliabh Luachra tunes from Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch, who will be there to serenade us. Enjoy!

The Wild One

We are past November Dark – traditionally a ‘low’ time of the year when the effects of the approaching cold months begin to displace autumnal skies and spectacular sunsets: the term traditionally refers to the appearance of the new moon of the month (which happened this year on the 4th), but is probably inspired by the preceding nights when no moon is visible. For us at the moment, on the shores of Roaringwater Bay, the dark time is emphasised by a constant pervading mist which clings and covers everything in films of moisture, especially the myriad cobwebs on the gorse bushes which surround us. Gone – for now – are our fine views out across to the islands, and there is a feeling of being marooned and suspended in a lifeless grey tract which encompasses sea and sky.

November Dark has brought with it tragedy to our garden. In explanation, I should first paint the idyllic picture of what we like to call our ‘peaceable kingdom’. For many years we have considered this domain a haven. Do you remember our fox – Ferdia – who was a constant companion to us in the first few years here at Nead an Iolair? He visited on a daily basis – often waking us by barking outside our bedroom window at dawn, and presided over a mixed community of birds and animals who share our territory – without any conflict.

Ferdia was happy enough to co-exist with the bird and pheasant families, the rats and mice, and the occasional cat that dropped in. I have a memory of fox and cat sitting side by side on our terrace, clearly having a conversation with each other: I would like to have eavesdropped, but whatever mutual language they share was not available to me! Ferdia vanished from our garden a few years back – gone to his happy hunting grounds no doubt; but the pheasants have remained with us through much of the decade we have been here.

In the upper picture Finnbarr and his young wife, Fidelma, patrol our garden some five years ago. The lower picture was taken just before the start of the Pandemic, in March 2019. The couple have been a daily feature of life outside Nead an Iolair. They always appreciated feeding time, when they got a share of the seeds I put out on our patch for the many bird visitors, small and large. The picture below taken during the summer of last year shows a family group: pheasant chicks have been seen but rarely.

The idyll abruptly ended yesterday, when a bomb hit the garden – in the form of a small but fierce force of nature: only inches long but terrifying. I glanced out of the window where, minutes before, the two pheasants had been foraging as usual along the stone boundary wall. I was shocked to see Fidelma lying on her back, wings flapping, being dragged along the ground: there was a commotion among the small birds and Finnbarr had vanished. At first I could not see the attacker, but as I rushed outside I caught a glimpse of brown fur with a hint of white and black. My first thought – a rat! – could not have been borne out: we have lived side by side with rat families for years: they only ever appear to share the bird food, and are never aggressive.

You can see the conditions that prevailed on this worst of days from Finola’s picture (top), taken from indoors through the windows. And – below that – the brazen culprit, who danced around the garden at breakneck speed, very ready to threaten me if I made a wrong move! It was our first sighting here on our land of an Irish Stoat. Having now read the books, I know in hindsight what a shocking phenomenon had hit us. Although fearing the worst, I quickly removed Fidelma to an indoor refuge and then watched the rampaging of this fur powerball traversing our territory at lightning speed; leaping from walls, trees and bushes and aiming for any likely food source.

Finola has done her best to clarify the images in the photos she rapidly took through streaming wet glass (above) on this appalling day. The weather did not in any way impede the progress of the animal which circumscribed our whole acre, it seemed, in record time.

. . . The Stoat is often called the Weasel in Ireland, but although the weasel (Mustela nivalis) is very similar in appearance to the stoat, it is not native to Ireland and has never been introduced here. In Ireland the stoat or ‘weasel’ was regarded as a very intelligent animal, but also vengeful. For example, since they were believed to understand human speech, if a stoat was encountered the correct thing to do was to greet them politely. In County Clare the custom was to raise one’s hat in greeting, or even to bow. The person who insulted them, on the other hand, or pelted them with stones, could expect to lose all their chickens before too long. Deliberately killing a stoat was most unwise, since it caused all the deceased animal’s relations to descend on the house of the culprit and attack with great savagery . . .

Ireland’s Animals – Myth legends and Folklore, Niall Mc Coitir, The Collins Press, Cork 2010

The Duchas Schools Folklore Collection – gathered in the 1930s – has numerous entries referring to the stoat. Above is an example from Co Carlow. When I was sifting through these, I was struck by the fact that similar stories about stoats are repeated over and over again, but from different parts of Ireland. I could write a volume based on these accounts, but will choose only a few:

. . . One time there was a girl who was very fond of going to the seaside. One day she went to the seaside and lay down and fell asleep. Ten weasels went down her throat. So she awoke when the last one was going down. She went to the doctor and the doctor said she would need to undergo an operation and then she would die. One day she was going to the shop and her granny knew all about cures. So she went into the granny. Her granny told her to get two pounds of salt and eat all the salt and go to the seaside and drink no water and keep her mouth open and the weasels would have to come out for a drink. So this she did. The weasels came out for a drink. The girl counted them. There were ten in it and the girl came home cured . . .

William O’Donnell, Cabra Glebe, Co Donegal

. . . One day long ago two men went to cut the meadow with scythes. They cut away for a while until they came to a weasel’s nest where there were four young weasels out of the nest and left them near by on the ground. After a while the mother of the weasels came home and found her young on the ground and was very angry, She hesitated for a moment and then understood what the men had done. Now the men had had a can of milk with them for a drink which they left near the weasel’s nest, the old weasel saw the can and went to see what in it. When she saw what was in it she spat into it because a weasel’s spit is poison. When the men saw this they were terrified and put back the young weasels into the nest, and the old weasel was pleased and went back and upset the can and spilt the milk from fear the men would drink of it and be poisoned . . .

James Gormley Senior, Aged 82, Commeen, Co Roscommon

Note that the term ‘Weasels’ is used far more often in these accounts than ‘Stoats’. There can only be the one animal, however, as there have never been true ‘weasels’ in Ireland. The story above, from Co Roscommon, is the most common of all ‘weasel’ tales in Ireland, and variants of it have been recorded from all parts.

. . . Many years ago an old woman lived by herself. There was a nest of weasels under the hearth in the house in which she lived and every day the old woman fed them until they became quite tame. When the young weasels were reared they went off but the old one remained in the hearth. One day the woman was sitting by the fire when the old weasel came out and sat with her. The weasel was continually looking up the chimney and at last the woman said “What the dickens are you looking at?” and at the same time looking up herself. She saw a little bag hanging in the chimney and took it down. To her surprise and joy she found it was full of gold. This was the weasel’s reward for her kindness to her and her family . . .

Mrs L Millett, Fiddaun Lower, Inistioge, Co Kilkenny

. . . The Swarm or Drove of Weasels: the following story or rather fact come from a reliable source to wit a teacher in Ballyshannon. In the end of August or about that time some distance outside Ballyshannon a great whistling was heard as if a number of little birds and a mighty drove of Weasels was seen heading for the mountains. An old man said that he heard that weasels used make for the mountains during the Grouse Season. The Priests housekeeper saw or heard of the same thing in Antrim . . .

J Clarke, Navan, Co Meath

. . . Some time about forty years ago there were children playing on the side of a hill and they saw a few weasels. They started to run and cry. They looked round and saw thousands coming after them. Only they got away the weasels would have devoured them . . .


Written by Kathleen McKenna Bragan, Co Monoghan 25th November 1938

I couldn’t resist that little foray into weasel stories from the Folklore Collection. There are many many more pages full of them! Interestingly, stoats are a fully protected species in Ireland. If stoats are proving a problem, by killing chicks or other domestic animals, you must solve the problem by using good fencing; it is illegal to kill a stoat.

A possible reason for the attention which stoats attract in folklore is the fact that they can change colour, which adds a sense of the supernatural to them. In countries which have harsh winters the coat of the stoat becomes white in those months, offering a level of protection in the open landscape. The fur from the white – or ‘winter’ – stoat we call ermine, and the white fur is considered so precious that only royalty or nobility traditionally wear it. In the drawing above, the white stoat is wearing a cloak on which are printed the symbols of the flag of Brittany (below), which was an independent kingdom in medieval times. The white background represents the ermine fur, and the black markings are said to be based on the black tip of the tail which the animal retains, even in the winter.

Here (above) is another example of the Breton ermine representation: a finely worked silver antique brooch. In Ireland, the species of stoat which has evolved – Mustela erminea hibernica – does not usually turn white in winter, although examples have been noted. The animal is said to have been resident in Ireland from the post-glacial period and, in the present day, the population numbers are unknown: it is not a threatened species.

In spite of our attempts to care for Fidelma, she did not survive. Sadly, I decided to let Nature have her way and laid the body close to a fox-track above the house. Later, I noticed an assembly of corvids gathered in the area. When I returned there in the evening all traces had gone – just a few scattered feathers told the tale.

This morning, Finnbarr was absent from the garden. I did catch a glimpse of him wandering the distant pastures – forlorn and bereft. At least, those are the feelings my human soul projects onto him. He will find another mate, of course, and we hope they will continue to share our little bit of paradise. We will keep a lookout for unwelcome visitors, but we will always have to pay our respects to the ‘weasels’. If our stoat does return we will have to honour him with an Irish name: I am inclining towards Fiáinín – which means Little Wild One.

Lady with an Ermine, painted 1489–1491 by Leonardo da Vinci. The subject is said to be Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Leonardo’s Milanese employer, Ludovico Sforza. The Ermine is symbolic, rather than realistic – in fact it is pictured much larger than in real life. It has been suggested that the ermine in classical literature relates to pregnancy, sometimes as an animal that protected pregnant women. Around the time of the painting’s creation, Cecilia was known to be pregnant with Ludovico’s illegitimate son.

Castleruddery Stone Circle

Our travels are always attuned towards our particular interests, be they history, stained glass, art or – as in this case – archaeology. We go out of our way to take in sites we have never seen before – and there are so many. When we were ‘holidaying’ in Wicklow last week we searched out this stone circle in the townland of Castleruddery Lower. It was well worth the journey.

. . . Neglected, knee-high in grass and surrounded by round-crowned hawthorns whose May blossom speckles the bank, it is difficult to appreciate how important Castleruddery must have been early in the Bronze Age when Beaker copper prospectors and the Wicklow mountain goldminers passed by its brilliant entrance. It is not properly a stone circle but a henge, with a stone-lined interior. It was constructed on the summit of a hill just east of the valley into which the Little Slaney flows. Six miles north is the lovely Athgreany stone circle and only two miles to the south is the Boleycarrigeen ring, its stones embedded in a low earthen bank . . .

Aubrey Burl, Rings of Stone, France Lincoln Publishers, 1979

The aerial view, and the extract from the 25″ Ordnance Survey map (above) show the monument in the context of the surrounding landscape. Nearby is a medieval ‘Motte’, very much younger than the ‘Druidical Circle’ – thus named on many early maps. The local Irish name – Chaisleán an Ridire – translates as Knight’s Castle, which might make you think that there is some medieval connection between the circle and the Motte, but in fact Castleruddery stone circle is likely to date from the late Neolithic, around 2,500 BC, marking it as one of the earliest of this monument type in Ireland.

We noted this little figurine by the entrance gate to the circle: it made me wonder what folklore or traditions might be associated with the site today. I could find only one reference to Castleruddery in the Duchas Schools Folklore collection, dating from 1936:

The informer here was Michael Murphy, aged 68 – a ‘labourer’ from Colliga, Co Wicklow. The School collector was from Baile Dháithí, Dunlavin, Davidstown, Co Wicklow. There was no doubt in Mr Murphy’s mind that the stones could only have been placed there by supernatural powers!

The two quartz portal stones at the east side of the circle are remarkable: deliberately chosen, no doubt, to emphasise the importance of the orientation. The circle has 29 significant stones still standing today, but there were probably more. There is evidence of attempts to break up and remove some of the stones, which would have made good building or fencing material for someone who did not share respect for the integrity of the circle.

The two views above show iron ‘drill’ markings: these were made to try and separate sections of stone to be taken away for re-use. In the upper picture one section has been removed, but the operation was unsuccessful for the remainder of the boulder. One has to wonder whether otherworldy forces intervened – and meted out some form of ‘bad luck’ to the perpetrators.

In the present day it’s territory for sheep, and they seem to be unconcerned about any ancient associations or supernatural influences interrupting their tranquil grazing. The archaeologists tell us that this is more of a ‘henge’ monument than the type of stone circle we are familiar with in West Cork. It’s certainly larger, and crop marks have shown that the 29 stones surmount an earthen ring, approximately 30 metres in diameter, and there is a further ring which was once supported or reinforced by timber. Comparisons are made with a henge circle at Grange, close to Lough Gur, Co Limerick, which we visited in 2016. There the ring of at least 113 stones has an internal diameter of 46 metres. We took the two photos below at Grange.

The Grange circle was excavated in 1939 by professor S P Ó Riordáin, and the Duchas board at the site states:

. . . The excavation indicated that the enclosure was constructed purely for sacred or ritual purposes. The bank may have provided a stand where an audience could observe ceremonies within the enclosure . . . One of the stones is known as Rannach Cruim Duibh. This suggests that the circle became associated with the festival of Lughnasa, traditionally the first Sunday in August, and a celebration of the harvest. Crom Dubh, meaning the Dark Bent One, was credited with bringing the first sheaf of corn to Ireland . . .

Duchas, Grange Circle

There must surely be connections, and common purposes, between the many similar circle monuments all over Ireland. We always want to know What was it for…? probably, we never will, but it’s part of the whole romance of archaeology to wonder about such places. We must be grateful that so much remains for us to explore.

Off the M8 – Ballysaggartmore

This post might also have been called A Monument to Imprudence because of the story which it encompasses. But, first and foremost, it is a bit of an architectural wonder, and certainly worth the deviation from the motorway if you are travelling between Cork County and Dublin. It will add only 20 minutes to your journey – plus however long you decide to spend walking the publicly accessible woodland to discover the nineteenth-century extravagances of Arthur Kiely, Esq. Leaving the M8 motorway at Fermoy, head east towards Lismore on the R666: you will reach a car park and trailhead for Ballysaggartmore on the left within half an hour. After your visit, find the R668 heading north and rejoin the M8 at Cahir.

We felt we were capturing the last of the summer as we embarked on the beautiful sunlit trails on the first day of October in this Covid laden year. We were convinced that a week or so later we would be feeling the first cool winds of autumn and undoubtedly be noticing the changing hues in the ash, beech and oak tracts of the Ballysaggartmore Demense. The name in Irish – Baile na Sagart – means ‘Priests’ Town’. I cannot find out which priest is being remembered here, but – as you will see – there is some local lore which mentions a priest – and also Kiely, the unpopular local landlord.

These extracts from the c1840 first edition 6″ Ordnance Survey maps show parts of the Ballysaggartmore Demense. In the upper plan, a house can be seen, probably newly built at the time of the survey. Nothing remains of it now, but some photographs exist, dating from 1904.

It’s time to piece together what can be found on the history of the place and its people. The first Kiely – John – purchased some 8,500 acres of land here in the late 1700s. He had two sons. On the senior John’s death in 1808 the elder brother – also John – inherited good lands at Strancally, on the Blackwater River, and proceeded to build an imposing castle there. The younger son – Arthur – had to make do with the less propitious lands around Ballysaggartmore, and built the modest house pictured above, but apparently harboured notions to match John Junior’s aspirations, embarking on a grand design to upgrade the property, starting with a splendid carriage drive and gatehouse which survives today near the beginning of our walk in the woods.

. . . Sir, Permit me through the medium of the Dublin Penny Journal an opportunity of giving the public a brief description of the situation and scenery of Ballysaggartmore, the much improved residence of Arthur Keiley, Esq, situate one mile west of Lismore, on the north side of the river Blackwater. The porter’s lodge at the entrance to the avenue is composed of cut mountain granite or free stone, of a whitish colour, variegated with a brownish strata, which gives the whole a rich and pleasing appearance; it consists of a double rectangular building, in the castellated style, flanked by a round tower at either end, through which is a passage and carriage-way of twelve feet in the centre, over which is a perpendicular pointed arch, enriched with crockets and terminated with a finial; the buildings at either side of the gateway, although similar, form a variety in themselves; and the situation is so disposed as not to be seen until very near the approach; the gate is composed of wrought and cast iron; and is, I will venture to assert, the most perfect gothic structure formed principally of wrought iron, in the kingdom. It was executed by a native mechanic, and cost about one hundred and fifty pounds . . .

Dublin Penny Journal, December 1834

The ambitions of Arthur Kiely knew no bounds. Egged on by his wife, jealous of her in-law’s estate at Strancally, he continued the carriage drive (today a further part of the picturesque walking trail) towards a humble stream which had to be crossed in order to reach the vicinity of the house which was to be upgraded to – or replaced by – something of suitable substance. The stream could easily have been culverted but no! Only an ornate neo-Gothic three-arched bridge with gate-houses at either end and surmounted by towers and pinnacles would do: a prelude, presumably, to the architectural magnificence that was being planned beyond.

At the same time as directing the building project, Arthur decided that a change of name would be advantageous. Something double-barrelled was called for, and he chose to add Ussher, a family name derived from ancestors on his mother’s side. Arthur Kiely-Ussher certainly has a ring to it. Arthur’s ambitious wife was born Elizabeth Martin of Ross House, Co Galway. Always on the look-out for a West Cork connection, I can tell you that the author Violet Martin was a great-niece of Elizabeth. Violet lived in Castletownshend and famously collaborated with Edith Somerville.

The gate-lodge and ‘Towers’ of Ballysaggartmore are remarkable survivors, and represent the sum total of Arthur’s striving to equal his brother’s show of opulence. After the extraordinary towered bridge the carriage drive peters out, and one assumes the money also dissipated. Kiely-Ussher attempted to revive the fortunes of his estate but this centred on evicting tenants in time of scarcity, which only resulted in the lands becoming less productive. The family lived through the famine but were considered notoriously bad landlords. In the 1850s Ballysaggartmore Demense was virtually bankrupt: the house was sold in 1861 and Arthur himself died shortly afterwards.

Like many another bad landlord, Arthur Kiely-Ussher has entered into folklore. It’s worth reading this lengthy entry from the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection – a superb tale of just retribution being visited on the memory of – not one – but three ghastly incarnations of a man who probably wished to be well remembered, but failed catastrophically.

. , . In Ballysagart there lived three landlords named Ussher Kiely. The three of them were brothers and they were all called Ussher. They were terrible tyrants and they evicted people every time they got the chance, and allowed no one near their land. Of the many stories told about their cruelty here is one: On Ussher’s land there is a Spring well. A very old, goodliving woman lived near the place. One day she had no water. The nearest place she could get water was the well, which was in a field behind her house, but Ussher allowed no one near the land. The neighbours always brought her a churn of water from the Blackwater, but this day she had no one to get it for her. As the Blackwater (which was two miles away) was too far for her to walk, she thought there would be no harm in going to the well for once. When she was bending down to fill her gallon in the well she heard a shout behind her; “Get away from that well and get off my land you cursed wretch. How dare a dying old hag like you interfere with my water or dirty my land with those rotten feet of yours”. It was the eldest Ussher and he made her throw back the water and he threatened to beat her if she did not get off his land immediately. She obeyed and when she was out of his sight she knelt down and cursed him saying “O God, may the brothers of this man, Ussher, who hunted me away without a drop of water, be at his funeral before the year is out, and may he grow silly and his tongue hang out of his head so that he cannot offend you again”. Another woman cursed him saying “May you die in agony, you tyrant”. Before the year was out he grew silly, and he had to be sent to a home where he died in terrible agony. His body is still to be seen in Ballysaggart where his body is embalmed in glass. His mouth is to be seen wide open and his tongue is hanging out and is as black as soot. Another of the Ussher Kielys saw a man crossing his land. He brought out his gun and threatened to blow the man’s legs from under him. The man who was only going home said “Ussher Kiely, I was walking on this land before you and I’ll be walking on it after you, so why don’t you shoot me”. Ussher put away the gun and never used it again. A few days later he complained of pains and only lived two hours. He was embalmed in glass and laid by his elder brothers side. The third Ussher Kiely was worse than the others. Every night a man used to bring cattle on Ussher’s land to graze. Ussher heard of this and one night he lay in wait and without warning shot the man. When the people heard of the shooting they piled curses on Ussher. A few days passed since the shooting when a priest was walking on Usshers land. He was reading his ‘Office’ when he met Ussher. Ussher cursed him and called him every name he could think of as well as ordering him off the land. “All right”, said the priest, “I’ll go off the land, but mark my words, tyrants like you never live a long life”. Two hours later the last of the Kielys dropped dead. The three brothers are to be seen, embalmed in glass lying side by side in a small graveyard in Ballysagart . . . Mr Tom O’Donnel told me these stories – Tom Conway


Duchas Schools Folklore Collection, Volume 0637

If you would like to read in greater detail the fortunes and fall of Arthur Kiely-Ussher I commend you to the excellent account by The Irish Aesthete. The ‘modest’ house at Ballysaggartmore was burned down during the Irish Civil War, obliterating its physical history and committing its memories to fascinating folk recollection. We are fortunate, nevertheless, that we may freely wander a trail and reminisce on misfortune. And justice.