The Castles of Ivaha: ‘Fragmentary Remains’

What can you say about a castle where only fragments remain of the original structure? Turns out – a surprising amount!

Fragmentary remains is the phrase used in the National Monuments record to describe the two castles which are the subject of this post – Dunbeacon and Castle Island. In each case only enough is still standing to confirm that it was indeed a medieval tower house. Fortunately, in the case of Dunbeacon, there is also historical evidence. 

Let’s look at Castle Island first, and begin with the name. Samuel, in his thesis on The Tower Houses of West Cork, tells us that it was known locally as Castleduff, or Caisleán Dubh, the Black Castle. However, this was the name more commonly applied to Black Castle/Leamcon, so he says there might be some confusion there. There is no other name in the historical records – no mention, indeed, at all. Perhaps it was too insignificant to merit a mention – a fortified outpost rather than the high-status residence of one of the ruling O’Mahonys. 

We have noted with other of the O’Mahony castles that they were built on the site of a ring fort (Ardintenant) or a promontory fort (Dunlough). The National Monuments records notes a promontory fort at this site, although it is not obvious on the ground any more. There are, in fact several promontory forts noted on Castle Island, perhaps indicating that this was the preferred type of fortified dwelling here, since there are no ringforts.

Like all the O’Mahony castles, it was strategically sited – it was beside the waters that separates the island from the mainland, and within sight of two other castles – Rossbrin and Ardintenant. The three form a triangle that overlooked and guarded the sheltered waters of Castle Island Channel. But also, from the top of the castle, there would have been a clear view south across the low land in the centre of the island, out to Roaringwater Bay.

We know that these waters would have been crowded with Spanish, French, Portuguese and British fishing boats, coming in to salt their catches in the fish palaces along the coast and to replenish their supplies. For all of these services and for permission to fish around Roaringwater Bay they paid hefty fees to the O’Mahonys, who got fabulously wealthy as a result. 

The castle was much smaller than all the others. Samuel says, 

Working on the assumption that Castleduff was an RE tower house [i.e Raised entry], its smallness is striking. The surviving ‘end wall’ makes possible a reasonably accurate estimate of the plan’s original length. It is assumed that like its neighbours, its plan had a length-to-breadth ratio of 3:4 to 4:5; the ratios suggest a length of 7.96-7.46m (measures above the base-batter). The surviving north wall probably represents the full length of the ground-floor chamber.

Mark Wycliffe Samuel
the tower houses of west cork

The only surviving opening is a loop in one wall, and a row of corbels that would have supported the first floor is still visible. There is no trace of anything that might suggest a vault, so it is possible that this small tower was unvaulted – Samuel thinks that the walls are noticeably thinner than the other castles, implying that this was a much simpler and shorter tower.

Samuels concludes his study of this tower by saying:

The jetty is modern, but the beach that it is laid upon was the best natural landing point on the island, well sheltered from the Atlantic swell. The landing clearly determined the siting of the tower house and was an important resource to the family that built the tower house. It is tempting to see a direct continuity between the recent settlement and a settlement around the tower house. Only excavation could determine if this was the case.

Mark Wycliffe Samuel
the tower houses of west cork

Dunbeacon (images below) is even more vestigial than Castle Island, but fortunately we do have some historical evidence for it. The name could mean Fort of Beacan – where Beacan is the name of a chieftain. However, it could also mean The Fort of the Mushrooms – since the Irish word for mushroom is beacán. I like to think of the chieftain and his lady chowing down on a plate of eggs and mushrooms for breakfast.

As with Castle Island, there are signs that the castle was built within a former promontory fort, also underscored with the name Dún, which means fortress. A fosse, or ditch, cut through the rock, is all that remains of the fortifications of that promontory fort.

The majority of the O’Mahony tower houses in Ivagha were built by or for the sons of Conchobar Cabach. Dunbeacon castle was allegedly built by his brother Dohmnall. This seems to be a traditional rather than documented attribution. If it is assumed that Dohmnall was born c. 1400, he may have built the tower house at any date during his adult life (c.1420 to c.1470).

Mark Wycliffe Samuel
the tower houses of west cork

The siting is magnificent. From it, there is a clear view of the whole of Dunmanus Bay, right to the end of the Ivaha (Mizen) and Sheep’s Head Peninsulas. This, of course, also meant that it bore the responsibility, along with Dunmanus, of defending O’Mahony territory from attack or incursion on the north side of Ivaha. The pro-English Owen O’Sullivan of Beara, for example, is known to have conducted cattle raids on the lands surrounding Dunbeacon.

Samuel tells us that the chief of Dunbeacon, Domhnall O’Mahony, forfeited his lands as a result of his participation in the Desmond Rebellion, and it became a ruin – beautifully captured in Brian Lalor’s sketch, above.

The tower house and four ploughlands were confiscated, and passed into the possession of an English settler who probably built a timber house to the east. The O’Mahonys did not attempt to reconquer the lost part of their pobol; instead they contented themselves with attacking and burning the tower house, an event recorded in a letter written by an English judge in 1588. The tower house probably remained a ruin.

Mark Wycliffe Samuel
the tower houses of west cork

The O’Mahonys regained possession of their Dunbeacon lands but lost them again when they were granted to an English settler. See my post Planning a Plantation: Jobson’s 1589 Map of Munster Part 1 and Part 2 for how the land was mapped preparatory to the Plantation of Munster. As you can see above, Dunbeacon (or Donbeken) was clearly marked out for colonisation. William Hull came to own it at one point, and even the conniving ‘lawyer’ Walter Coppinger laid claim to it – as he did with much of the O’Mahony and O’Driscoll territory.

Although so little remains, Samuel’s careful analysis indicates that Dunbeacon was probably a typical raised entry tower house, with a vault supporting the third floor which held the principle private chamber. See my posts on Ardintenant  and Black Castle for what it may have looked like.

It’s hard to look at ‘fragmentary remains’ and think of them as vibrant centres of life. Yet, these two castles were once part of the mighty O’Mahony federation – a large network of connected families that ruled Ivaha and the surrounding seas. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Mizen Magic 2: The North Side

A pet day on The Mizen

A pet day on The Mizen

We are once again being battered by Atlantic storms, but on a sparkling day earlier this week we drove, on a whim, to Durrus for breakfast. The day was so pure and sunny that it seemed a crime to go home again, so we set out to drive along the north side of the Mizen Peninsula.

Dunbeacon Castle

Dunbeacon Castle

What a day! We rambled down to the shore to investigate the 15th Century Dunbeacon Castle. There’s nothing left except one tall wall, standing sentinel against the wind, facing down the length of Dunmanus Bay. Its commanding position would have given its builders, the O’Mahonys, a strategic advantage in protecting and controlling their territory from adventurers arriving from the Atlantic.

Not much left

Not much left

Further along we explored an abandoned cottage, and found one of the water pumps that were once ubiquitous in the irish countryside. We saw few other cars, but we weren’t alone – our movements were observed from above by interested parties.

Preserved. Observed.

Preserved, Observed

Heading towards Dunmanus Harbour we stopped to pay our respects at the little ruined church and graveyard, beautifully called in Irish Kilheangul – the Little Chuch of the Angel. This was a curious mixture of cillín and modern graveyard: rough unmarked stones stood shoulder to shoulder with more recent granite headstones and lovingly tended graves.

The Little Church of the Angel

The Little Church of the Angel

We headed west along the road that skirts the sea and eventually leads to Barley Cove. We are convinced that this is one of the most breathtaking drives in Ireland – and, in a land as scenic as this, that’s a tall order! To the east we looked back up Dunmanus Bay to the Kerry Mountains in the far distance.

Looking East up Dunmanus Bay

Looking East up Dunmanus Bay

To the north lay the Sheep’s Head and beyond it the looming presence of the Beara Peninsula.

Across to the Sheep's Head and Beara Peninsula

Across to the Sheep’s Head and Beara Peninsula

To the west, Knocknamadree (the Mountain of the Dogs) and the wild Atlantic.

Bird Island and the Atlantic beyond

Bird Island and the Atlantic beyond

Once home to hundreds of families, this is a depopulated area now. There are some small farms, but many of the houses are holiday homes, seldom used. Sobering, that such a wildly beautiful place is no longer economically viable to support a thriving community.

The North Side of the Mizen

Northside of the Mizen

But thanks to the foresight and hard work of local writers, we can have a true appreciation of what life was like here. Northside of the Mizen has its own book! Recorded, edited and written by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkins, and illustrated by Thelma Ede and with old photographs, it’s a charming, quirky compendium of character sketches, folktales, customs and traditions, poems and songs, and descriptions of country life. With chapters organised by month, it’s the kind of book you keep by the bedside and dip into when the spirit moves you. In January, for example, there’s a section on scoriachting, or visiting neighbours. It’s accompanied by a photo of a man and his jennet in somebody’s kitchen, with the caption Michael and Tom McCarthy out scoriachting. Once the neighbours arrived (but not on Saturday night as you would have to get ready for mass early the next morning) the night…

“…would start with games, blackguarding (horseplay) and sometimes dancing, then progress on to songs and poems. Storytelling was the preserve of an evening by the fire. With flames flickering and the wind and rain howling like the Banshee, the imagination of the storyteller and his forebears was let loose on a delighted and spellbound audience of children and adults alike. This, in turn, would lead to stories of a more superstitious nature, into a world of small folk, púcas (sprites), mermaids and of people’s misfortune when they interfered with the fairy ways.”

Look out for future posts about the Mizen – we’re only scratching the surface of this marvellous region of West Cork.

Where once were farms

Where once were farms