The Turning Year in Rossbrin

We are fortunate to live in a rural idyll: our immediate environment is immersed in the natural world. In fact, I suppose it is ‘Nature tamed’ – as we have pasture all around us as well as banks of gorse and rock: even a few trees which manage to cling on to the shallow soil all through the winter gales and (occasional) summer droughts. As the years go by we feel we become more closely entwined with the cycle of everything around us – we get to know personally the fox, pheasants and rabbits that pass by our window, and the myriad of birds that feed here, forage in the Cove or just show themselves to us on memorable occasions – Spioróg the Sparrowhawk is so handsome when she is resting on our terrace wall while on her deadly missions, and our choughs frequently perform wild dances in the air to entertain us. This year was special for me because, for the first time, I saw a hare amble around the house, alert with erect ears, before loping off into the next door field.

I have written about Rossbrin Cove many times before: look at A Moment in Time, Tide’s Out and Words on Roaring Water, for example. That sheltered natural harbour and the old mine road up on the hill above probably give us the most pleasure because we visibly see the year change and turn every time we walk there. Just now the days are rapidly shortening, and the autumnal influx of wading birds is returning. One we keep a particular eye out for is the curlew – a threatened breeding species here in Ireland. We see many on and close to the water, particularly at low tide, but these are probably migrants rather than resident breeders.

The year is turning – from late summer into early autumn, and the colours are changing from rich reds and purples – fuschia and heathers – to the more sombre yet equally attractive yellows and browns of furze and fern. Finola has closely followed the wildflowers right through from the spring – she is still finding and identifying every imaginable species – it’s a complete world of its own!

We have been seeing some exceptionally high and low tides here in Rossbrin. I’m always fascinated to see the mud-flats revealing bits of discarded history, while I am convinced that the huge remnants of dressed stonework on the north-east shore are the vestiges of once-busy quays, dating either from the medieval period, when Sir William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork owned the lands around here and set up thriving fish-processing ‘palaces’, or – at the latest – when the copper mines were active up on our hills and on Horse Island in the nineteenth century.

The real turning point comes at the end of October – Samhain – when the old calendar enters the ‘dark year’ (the ‘light year’ begins on May 1st –  Bealtaine). We know we have long, dark nights to come – time to huddle down by the stove – but there will be bright days as good as any in the year for walking, exploring and breathing in the Atlantic breezes. And the Rossbrin sunsets will be magnificent!

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 baltimoreThe 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 leamconAccording 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