Walking West Cork – Half the Colla Loop!

The first post of 2021…

I never expected to live in plague-ridden times, but that’s where we find ourselves – at the start of a new year. And – because of the plague – our travels are restricted once again. On the very last day of 2020, keeping things as local as possible, we hastened to Schull and explored half of the Colla Loop on the Fastnet Trails.

We started at the Trailhead by the pier at Colla (header picture). I have drawn our route as a dotted red line on the aerial view, above: we walked ‘widdershins’ – anti-clockwise. You will find the whole of the Colla Loop on the leaflet here. The full trail from Schull and back is 9km: by my calculation our own version carried us a mere 4km: there was a lot of uphill, though, and it was very satisfying with great views to the south, over Long Island Sound, and then to the west: it’s always good to be following the setting sun.

Colla had been taken over by a swan family, who wished us well on our journey. Their sentiment was echoed by some four-legged friends on the steep way up the hill:

As we left the small boreen, following a green path through a signed gate, we began a climb which opened up a panorama behind us, encompassing Long Island and Cape Clear. The day was perfect, a few scudding clouds giving perspective to a a vivid blue sky which seemed to have been borrowed from the summer:

In fact, the views in every direction get even more rewarding as this walk progresses: we were surprised that we had never ‘discovered’ this little corner of West Cork before! Every rise, and each bend in the track, opens up a new prospect.

A ‘telephoto’ view towards the end of the Mizen (above) reveals the inlet of Croagh Bay in the foreground, with Crookhaven beyond. You can just make out the top of ‘Black Castle’ at Castlepoint in the centre of the picture and a Napoleonic-era signal tower at the summit of the highest ground at Brow Head.

At the highest point of the walk we are back on a partly metalled boreen. I was particularly keen to find the site of . . . the ancient school of Sancta Maria de Scholia, ‘a place known in early times as a centre of learning’. . . which is indicated on the Archaeological Monuments Survey just to the right of the bend in the trackway, above. However, this record has been superseded by another site further to the west (indicated with a question mark on my aerial view) where it is noted:

. . . In rough grazing, on a S-facing slope overlooking Long Island to the S and Skull Harbour to the E. Recent reclamation work exposed a level earthen platform-like area faced externally on its curving S side by a roughly constructed drystone revetment. According to local information, this is the site of Scoil Mhuire or Sancta Maria de Scala, a medieval church and school that gave its name to this townland and to Skull village . . .

National Monuments Record 2009 – CO148-040

I suppose we can make up our own minds as to which of these two sites claiming to have given Schull its name is the most likely candidate. If it’s about having a good view, for me it has to be the first.

As shadows lengthen, a trail marker (above) tells us we have been walking on Coffin Hill. I can find no specific reference to this name and can only assume it was the route used to reach the burial ground just outside Schull village when coming from settlements to the north.

From the high ground we had clear views of Schull set below Mount Gabriel (upper picture); our route turned west along the ridge and followed the sun. We wanted the idyll to go on forever . . .

The road began to descend, and we found ourselves approaching a neighbourhood of scattered houses that heralded the way back to Colla. On our half-a-trail we passed half an abandoned house: the other half still shows signs of occupation:

We could not have celebrated the close of such a momentous year in a better way! We are determined to rise to the challenge of the restrictions we are currently faced with and discover all of our beautiful byways. We are so fortunate to live in this wonderful land, and we look forward to heading out with you on many more voyages during 2021!

Mizen Mountains 5 – Knockaphuca

Perhaps one of the most satisfying mountains on the Mizen, the 237m high Knockaphuca provides a well maintained waymarked trail best tackled as it is laid out – in a counter clockwise direction. You will go up the east side and down the steep west face. If you are lucky with the weather, as we were just before the longest day, you will have an experience which is hard to rival in this corner of Ireland. The loop walk is one of the latest sections of the Fastnet Trails which have been established to the west of Schull during 2019. All credit is due to the team which has so successfully organised and laid out these trails: this has involved much behind-the-scenes hard work.

In fact the full Knockaphucka Loop trail starts in Goleen, and is 10km long. We joined it as it leaves the R591 road north of the village (upper picture – the route goes off to the left). The map above has the mountain section (which we followed) superimposed on the Google Earth contour information. The section we walked is 6.6km long, and climbs about 200 metres.

One of the first landmarks on the way is right at the point where the marked track to the mountain leaves the main road: Ballydevlin Old School House (above). There is another ‘Ballydevlin Old School’ nearer to Goleen; presumably one was the National School (established c1831) and the other may have been a denominational Church of Ireland school. This peculiar Irish duality still exists today in many places.

Once on the marked track you are in a paradise! An ancient green road takes you part-way up the mountain, passing through small gorges which must have been cut out long ago: even if you are not a geologist you can’t help being impressed by the rock formations – they could be works of art.

After a while the path turns to the east and follows narrow, grassy glens bordered by majestic, serpent-like outcrops. It’s here that the views begin to open out, particularly to the south. Always you think that there couldn’t be a finer prospect over the Mizen and across the islands of Roaringwater Bay, and always – as you climb higher – you are surprised by the next, which is even better.

Twists and turns take you more steeply across the contours and swing round towards the summit. Only then is the full picture revealed: the whole landscape set out below you – every rift, valley and glacial glen with the higher land beyond culminating in the crests of Gabriel, 407m high, to the east, and the ‘little’ Mizen Peak, 232m high, to the west.

You won’t get lost as you head for the summit: this mountain had a distinctive cross placed at its highest point in the Holy Year of 1950, which reportedly fell in 1968, leaving the inscribed concrete plinth intact. The photo below shows the plinth in 2006 – courtesy Richard Webb. A new cross was installed in 2011 by a community effort led by the local GAA: this is now visible from much of the trail. The plaque mentions ‘…these challenging times…’, referring to the financial crash that hit Ireland so badly around that time. Illumination of the cross today is provided by photo-voltaic cells.

When you get to the top – pause… Now is the opportunity to appreciate the spectacular views in every direction. On our outing the south wind had been building up all day and was at its strongest in the late afternoon, when we gained the summit. It was pretty hard to remain upright! In fact, I wondered if we were being given a message by the resident Púca whose domain this is, after all?

The path down descends quite steeply: make sure you are well shod and vigilant. But you are in for further treats: the marked way passes by some peaty mountain tarns which are exquisite in their pristine beauty. Finola was in her element finding undisturbed native species such as water-lilies and sundews.

The mountain trail section ends on the small boreen running to the west of Knockaphuca, but the waymarkers will lead you back to the starting point, and there are still views up to the summit to enjoy, along with some landscape features on the way to continue to stimulate the senses.

What more could anyone want from a day’s outing in West Cork? Well – a bit of local history, perhaps. I searched for stories about the hill, particularly about the Púca – but only turned up this one told by Jerry McCarthy and included in Northside of the Mizen, the invaluable collection of Tales, Customs and History produced by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes in 1999:

The Púca of Knocnaphuca

 

The old people would feed the Púca of Knocnaphuca on ‘Snap-apple Night’, or indeed, whenever one had call to travel up the hill. It was the wise person that fed the Púca the night before going up. Milk and cake would be put on a plate and left outside the house and by the next morning the food had always gone!

 

The Púca of Knocnaphuca was half horse and half human. One late Snap-apple Night there was a young lad out walking the road when he heard a strange, sweet music coming from the hill. He went up and saw the Púca playing on a whistle. As soon as the lad had put eyes on it, it stopped playing and caught him. Away the Púca went to the top of the hill, where a crack opened up in the rock. In they went. They were twisting and turning down through tunnels until they entered a chamber full of gold. “Now,” said the Púca, “you are mine!”…

 

The next morning the boy was found on the road by the Long Bog. His hair had turned white and he could not speak a word ever after.

Thank you to our artist friend Hammond Journeaux of Ballydehob for this wonderful drawing of ‘Pooka’, included in The Little People of Ireland by Aine Connor, illustrated by Hammond, The Somerville Press, 2008. Púca in Ireland has counterparts in Cornwall (Bucca), Wales (Pwca), The Channel Islands (Pouque) and Brittany (Pouquelée). A shape-shifter (Flan O’Brien’s character from At Swim-Two-Birds, the Pooka MacPhellimey, changes his appearance by smoking from a magic pipe), the Púca most often appears in Ireland as a fine black stallion with red eyes. If you meet him, you have to mount him and he will take you on a journey far across the sea. It will seem to you as though you had been away for only a few hours, but the world will have moved on several weeks, perhaps months, during your absence. We saw no trace of the creature in June but, perhaps, if we climbed this mountain in the November Dark, we would have more chance of an encounter.

Seeking Calm Now

What a week it’s been in our part of West Cork! Only the gentlest of images will help to bring me back to earth – hence the somewhat random collection of photographs today, some taken along the Toormore Loop Trail or in my own garden.

Along the Toormore Loop Trail

The highlight of the week was the opening of Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger – Robert has given you some sneak peaks into this incredible exhibition in his post. If you do nothing else in West Cork this summer, take in this experience.

Eyebright, along the trail

But that’s not all – we also attended the unveiling of the memorial to the 110 Skibbereen Girls, which I wrote about last week. Most movingly, the ceremony was attended by Judith Constable, the Great, Great Granddaughter (and her daughter) of one of those girls. This is a story of hope, of the bravery of those adventurous girls who accepted the passage to Australia and went on to have full lives in their adopted land. It reminds us that it is possible for individuals to transcend the wretchedness of their circumstances.

Above, Judith Constable – her Great Great Grandmother, Jean Leary, was pictured in my previous post on the occasion of her 50th wedding anniversary. Below, the commemmorative spoons, finally installed, and the block of Australian stone.

And on Saturday night there was the long-anticipated performance of Anáil na Beatha (Breath of Life) at the ruins of the Schull Workhouse. We found ourselves seated outside the former hospital on the Workhouse grounds, listening to the unearthly lament of a chorus of voices, chanting the names of places stricken by famine, and then walking silently in a torchlight (well, lightstick) procession through the place where so many had come to die. It felt cathartic, respectful, important.

There was a memorial for Seamus Hogan too this week. He was one of us blow-ins to Ballydehob, a poet and raconteur and he will be much missed. His portrait was one of Shay Hunston’s finest and is reproduced here from Shay’s Wild Atlantic People series. It’s in a shop window in Ballydehob, across from his favourite hangout, Ina Daly’s pub.

Photo courtesy of Shay Hunston

And in between we had the launch of the marvellous Skibbereen Arts Festival, which goes from strength to strength each year and which will keep us busy from July 27th to Aug 5th. The program includes many concerts, the world premier of the Asenath Nicholson play, poetry, art exhibitions, movie screenings, walking tours.

Finally, today, was the opening of the new Toormore Loop walk. I helped out by leading a wildflower walk around the small looped trail with a happy group of a dozen lovely people. The greatest reward – a mother telling me that even the kids enjoyed it!

I’m wiped! All this stimulation is wearing me out. I need to take up meditation so all together now. . . om. . .om. . .

Another Grand Day Out on the Fastnet Trails

Lowertown, Schull to Toormore: it may seem a rather unadventurous walk: mainly on narrow back roads. But, on a spring day of scudding clouds and clear air, with distant views from the high ground across to the Sheep’s Head and even beyond, into Kerry, there is stimulation a-plenty to be had from an easy afternoon’s ambling and exploring of places which would be passed by in an instant when driving down to the west of West Cork. Although largely on tiny boreens, you are unlikely to encounter any traffic: we didn’t see any vehicles in two hours, apart from those parked in the few houses and farmyards on the way.

Header – our walk is part of the Fastnet Trails network beyond Schull: in this case the Toormore Loop. Upper – undisturbed peace on the quiet boreens; lower – we started out at Lowerton, where you will find a fiddler at the ready beside the old dance platform!

We parked one car beside the church at Lowertown – opposite the site of the old dance platform, celebrated with the sculptures of Susan O’Toole – and the other beside Teampol na mBocht, the little church at Altar, overlooking Toormore Bay. This enabled us to take our time and enjoy every aspect of the route, walking from east to west: in my view always the proper way to walk – following the sun! I should point out that the route we took – around 5 kilometres – is only a part of the full Toormore Loop which is itself one of an excellent comprehensive system of Fastnet Trails which has been put in place in recent years.

From the board at Toormore Trail Head: I have indicated our walk from Lowertown to Altar with the broken red line over on the left. Leaflets showing the full extent of the Fastnet Trail walking routes are available in the tourism information offices in Ballydehob and Schull

The little road climbs up and over hills and down through valleys and glens. I hadn’t expected to find an old burial ground, the site of the original Ballinskea Church which existed in this remote area between 1826 and 1967, when the Church of the Seven Sacrements was built to replace it beside the main road at Lowertown.

The old burial ground at Ballinskea Church: top – a bit of local history, perhaps, in the name stamped on the ironwork at the gate; bottom – the graveyard is well looked after – cowslips are in abundance

We passed a few houses along the way, but many were abandoned: each one tells its own story of lives and livelihoods – but they don’t readily give away their secrets to us.

Some of the signs of former occupation and cultivation which we passed by on our way: the area seems so remote, yet it’s not so far from well-trodden routes

We were taken by surprise at the extent of the views both north and south from the higher ground. At one point we stopped to admire the long vista out over Dunmanus Bay with the Sheep’s Head settlement of Ahakista clearly delineated.

Top – the nature of the walk: I can’t guarantee that you won’t encounter a vehicle along these back roads, but we didn’t! Centre, looking back over rolling fields towards the wild high ground of Mount Gabriel. Bottom – the view towards Ahakista on the Sheep’s Head, with the Beara beyond

After a good hour you will reach a gateway where you will leave the boreens behind and continue across country. Of course, you don’t have to follow the marked trail: the myriad of tiny roadways continues throughout West Cork and is awaiting your further exploration. We did turn off, however, as the footpath beckoned through a leafy glen and looked most inviting. First of all, however, we paused to take a look at the bridge which carries the roadway over a stream that flows along by the path – and runs all the way down to Toormore Bay. The bridge is unusual in that it has a large stone slab lintol rather than an arch. I don’t know its history for sure, but I would guess it dates from the eighteenth century, when the road it carries was established as the main highway from Goleen to Cork!

Top – the footpath diverges from the main road to Cork! Just around the corner it passes over the unusual bridge (centre and below)

Our route is the line of the former Butter Road which ran all the way to the international Butter Market in Cork. In its heyday it would have seen plenty of traffic in the form of packhorses and donkey carts, and some of the now abandoned cottages lining its way would have been welcome ports of call on the long trek. Here’s a post from Finola about a walk we did a few years ago on another part of this highway, which tells a little more about the great butter trading days. You can also have a look at my own post from last week, which talks about the improvements to the roads of West Cork initiated by Richard Griffiths a century later, at which time the importance of our own little trail receded and was bypassed by what is now the main road going from Ballydehob and Schull down to the end of the Mizen. I suppose we therefore have Griffiths to thank for taking all the traffic away from our back roads and giving us these idyllic walking trails.

The footpath through the glen is another world – a contrast to the boreen we have been following so far. It is lush and damp underfoot, and there is green everywhere: mossy green boughs of ancient oaks, soft turf and vivid St Patrick’s Cabbage emerging in the newness of the late spring. All too soon we are in sight of our goal, the little church by the bay. But the good experiences of the day are not yet over. The church itself, and its burial ground, deserve exploration.

Teampol na mBocht is said to be the only Church of Ireland church in the country with an Irish name: it means ‘Church of the Poor’, so named by its builder, Rev William Allen Fisher, who was Rector of the Parish. Appalled by the ravages of the Great Famine, he raised money from well-wishers in both Ireland and England: with this he set up soup kitchens and distributed food, medicine, blankets and clothing.  But he wanted to do more than dole out charity. He determined to provide paid work for everyone in the area, regardless of their denomination. In 1847 – at the height of the famine – he commenced the building of this church. The story is told in more detail on the website of the Kilmoe Union of Parishes:

. . . Tradition has it that, in order to employ as many as possible, without benefiting the less impoverished farmers, no carts or horses were to be hired.  The stone was quarried nearby and carried to the site entirely by hand.  As Fisher wrote in a report on the church, ‘the employment was given chiefly by contract, so that the poor were able to work about their cabins, fishing etc. at the same time that they earned a subsistence for themselves.’ . . .

. . . It is a controversial building.  For many Protestants, William Fisher was a saint, a scholarly man happiest at his books, who nevertheless drudged selflessly for forty years in a remote parish, giving all his time and strength to the poor, the hungry and the sick, until he himself died of famine fever.  But for many Catholics, Fisher was a ‘souper’, whose manifold projects on the Mizen Peninsula, including the building of his church, had only one object: to win converts from Catholicism to the Church of Ireland . . .

The church is not always open, so it is best to contact the Parish in advance for a look inside – it’s worth it for the history. This would be the end of the trail but we walked a little further, west of the church, and took the road up to the right. This intersects the Butter Road at a crossroads. We turned left and found ourselves heading for another green track, followed by a ford with stepping stones. Keep going and you meet the main road again: if you are following the route it’s probably best to do as we did and retrace your steps here, rather than walk on the relatively busy main road.

All in all, we had another Grand Day Out! In West Cork you really can’t fail to have a good time: every day can – and should – be a new adventure. Try this one for yourselves…

 

Late Bloomers: Invasive, Naturalised and Native

Creeper on white cottage wall

This is my last wildflower post! You must be getting tired of my wildflower obsession by now. So, no more after this one. (Well, at least not in 2016.) The thing is, I had assumed that there was nothing left to see at this point. We are in October after all, and autumn is coming early this year after a cool and misty summer. But a walk today put flight to that notion.

Bee on Ivy Flower

Bracken undergrowthThe ivy flowers are alive with bees right now (above) and the bracken is putting on its winter coat

The predominant colour of the countryside is changing now as the brackens take on their winter amber-brown. The ivy is in full flower. Stand near a patch and you will be instantly aware of the hum. Our little black Irish bees are gathering while they still can and depend on this late flowering and ubiquitous plant for the last remaining nectar. Ivy honey is darker in colour and can smell a little rank, but it has a great reputation as a soothing cure for coughs and colds (especially if mixed with a little whiskey).

Bee on Ivy 2

Red Admiral on IvyThe bees and the Red Admiral Butterflies depend on this late flowering ivy

The trees haven’t quite started to turn yet, but brambles and creepers are in brilliant autumn reds. On our walk today this white cottage wall with its scarlet creeper caught my eye.

Creeper on cottage wall

A couple of surprises awaited us today. The first one was to come across a stand of Indian Balsam. This alas, is an invasive species, introduced as far back at 200 years ago from the Himalayas. The distribution map at the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland does not show it in West Cork, but I guess I can now say it’s here. In fact, I submitted a report to Invasive Species Ireland – anyone can do this via their Alien Watch Program. Although it is certainly beautiful, it’s a divil – read all about its negative impacts on the Invasive Species Ireland website. Among its other attributes, it has a explosive seedpod that can throw seed up to six metres!

Indian Balsam

Indian Balsam – Invasive Species Ireland lists it with Rhododendron, Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed as the most damaging invasive species

So  what’s the difference between non-native plants that are labelled invasive versus this that are called simply naturalised? Although it can be a matter of debate and perception, in the main we use the term invasive for those non-native plants that spread to such a degree as to exclude native species from the habitat they favour, or cause damage to the environment or the economy. Happily, the only invasive species we encountered on our walk was the Indian Balsam. However, we did come across lots of non-native, naturalised flowers too.

Greater Periwinkle

The Greater Periwinkle – seen a few days ago on The Mizen

The first one (actually seen a few days ago) is this beautiful Greater Periwinkle. It’s not a native plant but has been here a long time. It’s supposed to have great medicinal properties, especially as a laxative and, in an ointment it’s good for, er, piles. According to Zoe Devlin’s Wildflowers of Ireland (my go-to guide) The 17th century herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper wrote ‘that the leaves eaten by man and wife together, cause love between them. Ooh – think I might head back to where I saw it…

Ivy-leaved Toadflax

Ivy-leaved Toadflax

Another non-native species is the Ivy-Leaved Toadflax – not an attractive name for a very pretty little creeper found commonly on rock walls. During the 1600s, wealthy Brits started to import Italian marble into England in the form of building material and statuary. The Toadflax came along for the ride and is now so completely naturalised that few people realise it’s not a native plant. They look wonderful on rock walls but it’s not usually necessary to plant them yourself. According to one source I read, seeds, complete with a starter-pack of organic growing medium, are usually delivered by birds.

Pink Sorrel

Pink Sorrel

The final non-native flower we saw today was the pink sorrel. I thought at first it was Herb Robert, which is a native plant that grows everywhere and is still blooming, but closer examination revealed  a deeper pink, a more massed growth pattern and very different foliage. It’s a garden escape, now naturalised across the south and south east of Ireland.

Fuchsia on bare branches

Actually, I suppose I also have to add the fuchsia to the naturalised non-native list, even though we think of it as the quintessential West Cork flowering shrub. It’s still hanging in there, even though most of the leaves have dropped already.

Creeping Buttercup

Tormentil

The native plants still bravely blooming to delight us tended to be tiny, but bright enough among the grasses, brambles and bracken to immediately catch the eye. We saw Herb Robert, Prickly Sowthistle, Tormentil and patches of what might be Sea Radish (or perhaps not). 

Prickly Sowthistle

Prickly Sowthistle

Herb Robert is such a hardy little flower – it seems to peep out and last longer than almost everything else in the hedgerows. Birds love the seeds of the Prickly Sowthistle – it has guaranteed its survival by appealing to them and providing food when other sources are fading.

Herb Robert

Sea Radish

Herb Robert (top) and possibly Sea Radish

As  a member of the cabbage family, the leaves of the Sea Radish are edible, if a little peppery. Interestingly, it normally finishes flowering in July, so the ones we found today must be in a particularly sheltered spot. But this also raises the possibility that this is a different plant. Can anyone help identify it?

Tormentil Patch

And finally the strangely named Tormentil – it sounds like it may cause pain but in fact it’s the opposite. There are all kinds of medicinal uses for this little flower and its parts, some of which relieve the ‘torment’ of pain. It also, according to this website,  imparts nourishment and support to the bowels and the fresh root, bruised, and applied to the throat and jaws was held to heal the King’s Evil. You heard it here first!

Ballycummisk Coppermine and Gabrial

Our walk today, along one of the Fastnet Trails, took us past the old Ballycummisk mine site and gave us distant views of Mount Gabriel

Irish Poldarks

black hole

Derrycarhoon Mine

Schools are back; fields are being cut; the shutters are going down on the holiday houses around the Cove. And – the good weather has arrived! Hot days and red sunsets: West Cork is the place to spend autumn…

Full Sky

Autumn comes to Rossbrin Cove

It was just such a golden autumnal-feeling day when our friend (and Fastnet Trails mastermind) Eugene McSweeney called us to see if we would like a trip out to the old metal mine north of Ballydehob, in the townland of Derrycarhoon. Of course we would! Local farmer William Swanton led the expedition: William’s family had connections with mining – he told us that his grandmother’s father had been a Captain of the mine.

William

William Swanton at the South Shaft, Derrycarhoon

You will know that we live in the townland of Cappaghglass, and this has a mining history, as does the neighbouring townland of Ballycummisk. Also, there are ancient mines on the slopes of Mount Gabriel, not far away, and more mining activity in other parts of the Mizen, Sheep’s Head and Beara Peninsulas.

Allihies19571957 scene at Allihies Mine, Beara Peninsula

hodnett bookWhile many aspects of the 19th century history of the old mine at Derrycarhoon have been well recorded (I am indebted to The Metal Mines of West Cork by Diane Hodnett, The Trevithick Society, 2012), the site itself had for some time been difficult to reach and interpret as it was in a dense forestry plantation established in the 1960s and 70s. Now, however, much of the matured forest has been cleared (albeit leaving a devastated landscape) and it is possible to piece together the layout of the workings. Please remember that the mine is on land managed by Coillte and is subject to Coillte’s policies on access – permission must be sought from the landowner before visiting; also, a guide is essential – there is very rough ground and open and unguarded shafts and trenches.

danger

What is so special about this mine is that it has apparently been exploited firstly in prehistoric times, and then again in historic times – prior to its most recent incarnation in the 19th century. Professor William O’Brien of UCC recognises ‘…the recently-adduced evidence for early medieval operations at this site, which is quite unique in the history of Irish metal mining…’ (A Primitive Mining Complex at Derrycarhoon, County Cork – Journal of Cork Historical and Archaeological Society vol 94). While other mines on the Mizen Peninsula have shown evidence of being worked initially in the Bronze Age and then subsequently in modern times, Derrycarhoon is the only one to date which can confidently claim to have also been in use in between those times.

finola at the shaft

interior

Intrepid Finola inspecting the deep shaft at Derrycarhoon, top, and her photo, below – note the copper staining

We have explored links between West Cork and Cornwall in previous blog posts (here, herehere and here). When it comes to metal mining anywhere in the world there’s usually a Cornishman involved and here is no exception to that rule. The mine agents – whose job it was to prospect and direct operations – were always known as ‘Captains’. A dynasty of Mine Captains was founded by Charles Thomas (1794-1868), a mining agent and share dealer in Camborne, Cornwall – responsible for the very successful development of the Dolcoath Mine in Camborne. Mineral rights here were established in 1588 and copper was being produced in some quantity by 1720. Thomas (who had started work in the seams of Dolcoath at the age of twelve) stepped in as Captain in 1844 after a period of considerable decline in metal production. Charles was a real-life Poldark – insisting that the apparently dwindling seams of copper be followed to the bitter or fruitful end – and his skills saw Dolcoath (known as the Queen of Mines) become the largest, deepest and most productive mine in Cornwall, with its principal shaft eventually reaching a depth of 3,300 feet (1,000 m) below the surface – and incidentally taking the miners between 2 to 3 hours to descend and ascend, significantly reducing their working shifts below ground. Thomas was succeeded at Dolcoath by his son Josiah and then his grandson Arthur, taking the mine well into the twentieth century. (Its successor, the South Crofty Mining Company went into administration in 2013).

Dolcoath 1893

Dolcoath, Cornwall – Queen of Mines – 1893

The point of this digression into Cornish mining history is simply that three more sons of Charles Thomas, Captain of Dolcoath, came to the west of Ireland in the mid nineteenth century and were instrumental in the development of many of the mining activities here, including those on the Mizen. The brothers, Charles, Henry and William arrived by 1841 with their own families – yet more sons – who proceeded to populate, at one period or another, the Captaincies of most of the West Cork activities, including our own Cappaghglass workings and the Derrycarhoon venture.

West Cork Mine Captains: Henry Thomas (left) with his niece and William Thomas (right) with his daughter

The modern age of mining commenced at Derrycarhoon in 1846, under the management of Captain Charles Thomas. Charles discovered no less than six old mines during his preliminary explorations, and recognised similarities between them and the shallow workings of medieval tinners which he knew from his childhood home on the moors of Bolenowe, near Camborne, where such workings were extensive and visible. That’s how we know that this mine had been active in those times. But also, as his brother Captain William records in an article dated 1853:

…In the Derrycarhoon Mountain some excavations have been found, which no doubt were made at a very remote period, as they are invariably designated by the country people ‘Danes’ or ‘Danish Works’, but whether these ancient works were carried on or not by the Danes is not easy to determine: it is, however, an historical fact that the Danes visited Ireland many hundreds of years ago…

1843 drawing danish implements

Nineteenth Century Archaeology: Excavated ‘Danish Implements’, 1843 – in fact these finds are likely to be Bronze Age or Iron Age – have a look at  Umha Aois, a Roaringwater Journal post about early metalworking

(Thomas 1853) …One of these singular excavations at Derrycarhoon was a few years ago cleared of water and rubbish; it was found to be 60 feet deep and about 120 feet in length… the lode or vein appears to have been literally pounded away by stone hammers, a great many of which were found in the old works and which were evidently brought from a considerable distance, there being no rock of the same character within some miles…

Hand-held stone maul used at Derrycarhoon in prehistoric times

We found evidence at Derrycarhoon of these stone tools, generally known as ‘cobble stone hammers’ and probably originating on the beaches below us: their presence almost certainly confirms that the earliest workings here were Bronze Age, as confirmed by Timberlake and Craddock in a paper of 2013: …The distribution of known occurrences of this type of cobble stone hammer at or near to mining sites in the British Isles correlates with some (but not all) of the areas of near-surface copper deposits, particularly along the west coast of Britain… Recent fieldwork suggests good survival of tools at mine sites, even where these have become dispersed as a result of redeposition by later mining… Hammer stones, or fragments of hammer stones, are more or less indestructible, surviving any amount of later reworking. In most cases the fragments of these tools never disperse far from source, even when redeposited several times. Experience has shown that if a range of these can be found, then the approximate site(s) of prehistoric mining can usually be identified…

derrycarhoon trumpet

Further intriguing finds were made at Derrycarhoon in the nineteenth century, including a ‘notched pole’, a ladder and a trumpet-like wooden tube 75cm in length. Whether these artefacts were medieval or earlier we do not know but, remarkably, the tube still exists and is kept in the spectacular Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford (why not here in Ireland?). I could only find a poor quality early photograph of this.

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK

Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford – where the Derrycarhoon Trumpet (above) is stored

The topography at Derrycarhoon – which is reappearing now that the forestry plantation has been cleared – is very similar to the Bronze Age mining sites on Mount Gabriel: long, shallow trenches interspersed with pits and shafts. However, the superimposition of medieval and modern interventions clouds the issue. William Swanton pointed out to us a drainage adit driven horizontally for some distance through the bedrock. We assume this is probably the work of the Victorian speculators.

three figures

portal

Mine explorers (top) and portal (below)

Captain Charles Thomas evidently raised some 30 to 40 tons of ‘rich grey copper ore’ after the ‘old workings’ had been cleared during the 1850s. Derrycarhoon Mine was listed from 1862 to 1873 under the ownership of Swanton and Company but there is no record of any production at this time nor afterwards, although prospecting trials were made in 1912 by a John McArthur of Glasgow and again in 1965 by the Toronto Mining Company. We found part of a core sample on site, presumably dating from that trial. Then the trees took over…

Landscape of spoil: copper traces in the discarded rubble; baryte – and views west to other Mizen mining sites, Mount Gabriel and Mount Corrin

Today, the rough landscape is marked only by green-stained spoil heaps, earthwork undulations and a few recognisable pits and shafts. The litter includes traces of barytes, sometimes a by-product of copper production. If you are not interested in mines or the history of them you will be pretty unimpressed. But, as a microcosm of our own local history, we were fascinated by our exploration of Derrycarhoon and are very grateful to William and his ancestors (were they the Thomases – our own Irish Poldarks?).

Cornish Miners Window