Industrial Archaeology in Crookhaven

Roaringwater Journal has featured Crookhaven many times. This far south-western outpost of Ireland has layers of history: thousands of years ago people lived in this area and made marks on the rocky landscape while countless generations of seafarers forged a ‘haven’ from the naturally sheltered ‘crook’ of land upon which the settlement is based. Even into the twentieth century pioneering technological advances were being made in Crookhaven: in the early 1900s Marconi sent some of the world’s earliest radio communications from Brow Head to vessels in the Atlantic shipping lanes.

Header – the ‘old roadstone quarry’ dominates the landscape to the north of Crookhaven Harbour. Above – looking across the harbour from the ‘quarry quay’ towards Brow Head, one of the scenes of operation of Marconi in Ireland

I am fascinated by all traces of industrial history: for me it’s ‘modern archaeology’: some of it might survive long enough to puzzle historians of the far future. I couldn’t ignore, therefore, the huge steel and concrete structures which line the R591 road which approaches Crookhaven when travelling from Goleen. They are built into the hillside above the road, and tie in with a substantial stone quay which has been constructed below it.

The quay which was presumably built to serve the quarry to the north of Crookhaven: the village can be seen across the water

Looking at the construction of this quay, and particularly the wear on the masonry steps leading down to the water, it would be reasonable to assume that the quay predates the concrete and steel structures which abut the road above it – by a long way. You might suppose that such significant edifices would have a history attached to them which would be easy to find, either from local informants, or in written or electronic record. However, I have so far drawn a blank. Well – not quite: there are countless identical references in contemporary accounts of Crookhaven to ‘…the old roadstone quarry on the side of the mountain, which provided metalling for the roads of Wales until 1945…’ I did find one variant, a caption to a general view of the area: ‘…Looking up to the Roadstone Quarry along the north shore of Crookhaven Harbour. The quarry was a source of gravel for Welsh tarred gravel roads until the 1930s…’

The quay below the ‘roadstone quarry’ is a paradise for industrial archaeologists and photographers! It must have had generations of users, up to fairly recent times, all of whom have left behind traces of their presence, but no solid history. I’m hopeful that readers of this post might be stirred to recall stories or memories – or even point me to some documented history to explain the provenance of this little piece of the complex West Cork jigsaw.

I’m borrowing this photograph of the Crookhaven quarry from the log of the MV Dirona, with thanks to Jennifer and James Hamilton, who hail from Victoria, British Columbia and are currently cruising the world in their Nordhaven 5263 vessel. They explored the south west coast of Ireland in June 2017 and, from the water, took this perfect view of the quay, the ‘roadstone quarry’ and the mountain face above it, from which the stone has been extracted. It’s my opinion that the face was worked for construction stone possibly from the 1800s: in September 1846 a road was proposed between Rock island and Crookhaven, and the county surveyor provided an estimate of £1,857. Prior to this, the road which had been built by Richard Griffith, civil engineer for Munster, extended as far as Rock Island, and passage from there to Crookhaven itself could only be made by water. The 1846 road is today the R591 which passes below the quarry. It would be reasonable to suppose that locally available stone suitable for roadmaking would have been used, and the quarry may have had its origins at this time. The construction of the adjacent quay could have been contemporary with this early use of the quarry, but the huge concrete and steel structures we see today are probably an incarnation of the revival of the quarry in the early 20th century. I stand to be corrected.

One of the fascinations of old industrial sites is the way they are taken over by nature if left relatively undisturbed. This one is no exception. There is a monumentality here which is being eroded and softened as time goes by. What does the future hold? Interestingly a -presumably serious – proposal was made in a not-too-long-ago iteration of the Goleen & District Community Council Development Plan:

PROPOSALS

2.24 The old Roadstone quarry-works at Crookhaven Harbour should be developed as an amenity – perhaps a hotel with a restaurant with observation deck at the top…

Hmmm… notions of grandeur there, perhaps – and little regard for practicalities, but it shows the power of imagination! I think it’s far more likely that the area will remain in its present state for many years to come and, perhaps, attract a level of ‘industrial architecture tourism’. Incidentally, it’s not too far away from the site of a fish palace run by William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork in the early seventeenth century: the remains of this are there to see to this day, although almost entirely returned to nature.

Below – a now impassable tunnel under the road connects the quarry workings with the quay; nature entangled with the leftovers of human activity

Endpiece – the old workings and quay are directly opposite the centre of Crookhaven – here’s a view towards the quarry from the village:

Fish Palaces – and How They Worked

Four years ago I wrote about the fishing industry that once flourished on the shores of Roaringwater Bay (and around much of the west coast of Ireland): according to extant records it was active before 1500, and probably had its heyday in the seventeenth century, when it was heavily invested in by the Great Earl of Cork (Richard Boyle, sometimes described as ‘the richest man in the known world’). In those days, pilchards were the main catch: huge shoals of them came to the comparatively warm, sheltered waters of the islands during the summer months, along with other oily fish such as herring and mackerel. Seine boats were commonly used for this enterprise. Today, pilchards are rare: through a combination of overfishing and changing climate, the bountiful shoals no longer appear.

Header – pilchard curing in St Ives, Cornwall c1890: the pilchards are piled up in layers, forming the huge mound in the centre of the photograph. They are salted and weighted down. Above – curing the fish, Valencia Island, Co Kerry, early 20th century (Reddit / Ireland)

Shooting the Seine:

There were two boats per seine net, the seine and the faller. The seine boat was 27 foot long with a beam close to nine foot. The golden rule on the Northside was to never get into a boat whose beam was less than one third its length. The seine boat had five oars of about 17 foot (bow, Béal-tuile, aft, bloc and tiller oars). The crew of seven had to shoot the seine net; one man shooting the trip rope, another to feed out the bunt rope, four men rowing and the huer (master of the seine and captain of the boat) directing the operation. The faller (or bloc) boat was 24 foot long with a crew of five. Its job was stoning and to carry any fish caught. The largest load a faller could carry would be around 5,000 fish. All boats carried a Crucifix and a bottle of Holy Water.

(from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy & Richard Hawkes, 1991)

Twentieth century remains of a seine boat, from Northside of the Mizen

If the fish are gone, remains of the machinery of that industry are still to be seen. In particular, the sites of some of the curing stations – or Fish Palaces – are visible, and are recorded on the National Monuments Archaeological Survey Database. Take a look at the map below: I have drawn green pilchards to show the sites of fish palaces mentioned in the database – eleven in all on this section of the map. Also shown by red pilchards, however, are the sites of another six ‘curing stations’: these are mentioned in a long article by historian Arthur E J Went, Pilchards in the South of Ireland, published in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1949: Volume 51, pages 137 – 157.

Known sites – or historical mention of – fish palaces (curing stations) in the South West of Ireland (information from  National Monuments database and  Arthur E J Went, Pilchards in the South of Ireland 1949)

The active fishing of pilchards on a large scale in Ireland has been discontinued for many years so that, unlike Cornwall, there is little left, apart from published records, to indicate its former importance. There is, however, published information as to the methods of fishing, and a few sites of old curing stations, frequently called pallices, can still be identified.

from Arthur E J Went, Pilchards in the South of Ireland, 1949

Arthur Edward James Went (1910–80), noted fisheries biologist and historian, lived at Sandycove, Co Dublin. In 1936 he was appointed Assistant Inspector of Fisheries in the Department of Agriculture, Dublin, and later was promoted to the position of Scientific Adviser and Chief Inspector of Fisheries

As explorers of all things historic and archaeological – particularly in West Cork – Finola and I couldn’t resist visiting some of the sites of Palaces – or Pallices – documented in these studies. We have always know about the one nearest to Nead an Iolair, in Rossbrin Cove – it’s just down the road: a perfect sheltered harbour, although it does dry out at very low tides. However, there seems to be some debate about exactly where this one is located. It would date from the time of William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork, so how much would be left after 500 years? There is a field on the north shore of the Cove with an old name: The Palleashes which, according to Arthur Went (quoting local tradition), was the site of a curing station for pilchards, operated by the ‘Spaniards’. There seems to be some difference of opinion locally as to which of the many small fields here is the actual site, although it is likely to be close to the large, now modernised quay, as this shows up on the earliest maps.

In the upper picture: the quay at Rossbrin is still used by small fishing boats today. Centre – the field above the present quay may be The Palleashes, and therefore could be the site of the medieval fish palace: there are very overgrown signs of stone walls here. Lower picture – the old 6″ OS map, surveyed around 1840, shows a lane accessing the area above the quay (to the left of the ‘Holy Well’ – that lane is no longer there today) and there are buildings close to the shore which could indicate the palace. In 1840 there was no road running along the north shore of the Cove, but the strand at low tide would have been used as a thoroughfare. Just above the ‘Holy Well’ indicated on the shoreline – and slightly to the right – is a small red dot. This is the area shown by Arthur Went as the possible site of the fish palace (and subsequently marked as such on the Archaeological Database); in my opinion it is more likely to have been directly accessed from the water.

A sure sign of the site of a fish palace is a line of perforations or holes – as can be seen above at Baltimore, where a substantial curing station is recorded (although it may only date from the nineteenth century). Large timbers were inserted horizontally into these holes to form a ‘press beam’ to provide leverage for bucklers to squash out the oil from the salted pilchards, as shown in Arthur Went’s diagram, below:

The ‘Train Oil’ – produced from the compressed pilchards – was a valuable commodity, and was collected to be stored and used for treating leather, and as fuel for lamps. As a by-product of the pilchard industry it was said to be as valuable as the fish themselves.

Palace Strand, in Schull

To continue my researches I went along to Schull, where Arthur Went mentions a ‘Palace House’ on ‘Palace Strand’ – an inlet just to the east of the main harbour. This is right beside the old railway station which was not quite the terminus of the Schull & Skibbereen Railway, as a spur went on from the station to serve the harbour itself. The station buildings and part of the platform are still there – now a private residence. I could not find anything in the area shown on Went’s map at the east end of the strand, but I did find something at the west end.

In the upper picture is a wall on the western boundary of the old station site in Schull. This contains beam holes very similar in size and spacing to those we have seen in fish palaces elsewhere: it’s very tempting to think that this wall – now part of a derelict building – may have had this purpose, as it is well situated close to the shoreline of Palace Strand. If this was a fish palace, it is also likely to date from the nineteenth century, as the early Ordnance Survey maps don’t indicate it. The centre picture shows the old station buildings today, and the lower picture taken at Schull Station in 1939 reminds us of past times: the railway closed in 1947.

This post is a ‘taster’ for a fully illustrated talk I’m giving at Bank House, Ballydehob, on Tuesday 26 February at 8pm: Pilchards & Palaces – 300 years of Fishing in South-West Ireland. It’s part of the Autumn series of Ballydehob’s ‘Talks at the Vaults’

Below – a postcard showing fish curing on Cape Clear in 1906 (from Hely’s, Dublin)

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!

November Dark

November Dark

Dramatic sky over Nead an Iolair on November Dark this year

The month opened with Snap-apple night and tales of pucás and little folk. From the rising of the moon on November Dark the mackerel would make their way to deeper water; it was the end of the seine season. With the crops all in and hill grazing finished, fires were set on the hills and preparations made for the winter. There was little employment for the months ahead… (from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes 1999)

I have mentioned this reference to ‘November Dark’ in previous posts but, apart from the Northside book, I have been unable to find any other allusions to the term – either on the internet (which is usually a sure source of every conceivable fact or fiction) or on our bookshelves (which are overflowing with volumes on Irish culture, traditions and folklore). According to McCarthy and Hawkes it points to the appearance of the November new moon: this year it occurred last Wednesday – the 11th – which was also Martinmas.

bookshelf

gallimaufry on the bookshelves at Nead an Iolair

Once, the day had particular significance: …With the rising of the moon from November Dark the mackerel made their way to deep water; it would be the end of the seining season. Most of the barrels of fish were collected by ships from September onwards. Limerick Steam coasters and ships from England and America anchored offshore, and the barrels would be taken to them. The faller boats took five to eight barrels per trip to the ships. They were hauled up by a derrick, two at a time, into the hold. Often 300 barrels would be loaded onto one ship… Although the barrels of fish were taken throughout the season by the fish buyers, it was on November Dark that the seine crews received their money… (from Northside)

Seining: the huer (top) watched for the arrival of the shoals and then signalled their location to the boats at sea; the lower photograph shows seine netting on the beach at Greystones, Co Wicklow

Historical evidence documents seining in the South West Coast of Ireland from County Waterford, to County Kerry, from the 16th century onwards. This was an important industry with Baltimore, Dunmanus, Schull, Sherkin, Kinsale, Bantry and Whiddy Island as centres, together with outlying curing stations called Fish Palaces or Pallices, of which there were significant numbers along the Southern coast. The fish – usually pilchards – were caught by means of a seine net: two boats, the seine boat and the so-called follower (locally called the ‘faller’) were used. The seiner, a large boat pulled by perhaps a dozen or more oars, carried the net, which was often 300–400 yards long. An experienced fisherman acted as a huer by directing fishing operations from a suitable vantage point ashore. From high land, the huer could see the shoals of pilchards clearly, and he alerted the seine boat, by shouting (the ‘hue and cry’) or making suitable signs as to the location of the shoal. Often the shoals were too far out to be seen from the land, and one of the crew – known as  a spyer – had the job of locating them from on board. On a given signal, the net was shot around the shoal by the seine boat, and in the meantime, the free end of the net was picked up by the faller, with a crew of perhaps five or six, pulling the ends of the net together. The footropes of the net were gradually drawn up until the fish were completely enclosed, and by means of baskets the fish were transferred from the net to the boats.

Tucking

Cornish ‘Tucking’ – gathering in the pilchards from the seine net – by the Newlyn School artist Percy Robert Craft: the original painting is in the Penlee Gallery, Penzance. As the seining season advanced, the Cornish boats followed the shoals to the west coast of Ireland

…After the season’s fishing all the nets were barked in a ceiler (a flat bottomed iron pot) at Dunmanus or Goleen… The ceiler would be full of boiling water and bark (a non-sticky type of tar), and the nets were steeped for a good spell. Barking drove out the salt and would preserve the cotton mesh for the next year’s fishing. The nets, when being repaired, were spread out in a field. In Dunkelly the field was called the Seine Field, and at Gurthdove it was at Willie’s Paircnafarriga. Only the experienced and older men were allowed to repair the nets, as the younger lads rarely had enough care for a job that had to be done so well… (from Northside…)

The Barking Pot at Goleen has been restored as a historic site: sadly the pot is no longer in use

Seining was used to catch pilchard, mackerel, herring and pollock off the Irish coast. A ‘Kerryman’ article by Ted Creedon in the Irish Independent back in 2003 gives a very comprehensive account of the living made in pre-war years – this is a short extract:

…Mike Séamus O’Sullivan of The Glen, St Finan’s Bay, was a member of the crew of the last seine boat to land a catch in South Kerry. Mike began fishing lobsters with his father when he left school aged sixteen.

“That was before the war and lobsters were making four shillings a dozen in those days, but when the war came the fishing really got going in these parts,” Mike told The Kerryman this week.

“We were catching mackerel, pollock, herring and they were cured and boxed at Renard Point before going by train to England. The seine boats were catching all mackerel in the war years and prices were about two shillings per hundred, but one day in 1942 an English buyer arrived at Renard Point and offered £3 a hundred!” Mike recalled.

“There was a fortune made in those days then and the local buyers put their prices up to £4 a hundred for the mackerel to keep the English buyer out!” he said…

mending nets

Mending the nets – in this case in a traditional Irish kitchen: a photograph by Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. The Irish caption to this photo suggests that the net was damaged by a shark

We have been looking back through our archive of the photographs which we’ve taken here on or around ‘November Dark’ in past years. There’s quite a contrast: we have had times of golden sunsets and warm days when we could sit out, while this year has brought a period of wild storms and grey skies.

Mizen Sunset November

November evening

November contrasts: our view a year ago (above) and (below) in the last day or two, brief respite from a period of Atlantic storms

November Dark – have any readers a recollection of this term? We’d like to know – and record – memories of the day and its significance here in West Cork…

sad end for a seine boat

From Northside of the Mizen – the photo is captioned ‘A sad end for a seine boat’

Pilchards and Palaces

Black Castle, Leamcon

Black Castle, Leamcon – also known as ‘The Hound’s Leap’ – William Hull territory

A little while ago I described an outing we undertook exploring some of the archaeological sites on the Mizen Peninsula. We were out again a few days ago checking on some monuments off to the west of us. I had researched the Archaeological Survey Database, and determined to have a look at the ‘Fish Palace’ located in the townland of Leenane, close to Crookhaven – evidently a substantial establishment set up by Sir William Hull and his business partner, Sir Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork, in 1616.

Leenane Fish Palace in 2015

Leenane Fish Palace in 2015

Hull was a notorious character – his family home was Larkbeare, near Exeter in Devon. He had been appointed Deputy Vice Admiral of Munster in 1609 under James I, and settled in Leamcon near Black Castle or ‘The Hound’s Leap’, one of the O’Mahony castles built along the coast of Roaringwater Bay. Set on a promontory into Toormore Bay, Leamcon  is one of the most defensible of these, only being reached by crossing a narrow bridge. Hull’s job was ostensibly to protect the southern Irish coastline against piracy. In fact, the post seemed to encourage collaboration with the pirates, where it would financially benefit both the Admiralty and Hull himself.

You probably want to know what a ‘Fish Palace’ is? I had seen the term on Irish Ordnance Survey maps, and had established that it is a class of monument in the Archaeological Inventory of County Cork 1992, where it is well described:

‘…Fish palaces: The fishing and curing (smoking, pickling and pressing) of pilchards (Sardinia pilchardis) became an important industry in West Cork during the 17th century. This industry suffered from the erratic pattern of pilchard shoals (some years none would appear in Irish waters) and was in serious decline by the middle of the 18th century. Today, all that remains are the ruins of curing stations, called “pallices” along the coast. The word “palace” is of uncertain derivation, but probably originated in the SW of England where it meant a cellar used for storing fish. Usually the “press wall” is the only standing structure, with its horizontal line of lintelled support niches. These held one end of a press beam; at the other end a heavy weight was suspended and in the middle was a wooden press or “buckler”. The buckler was placed over an open barrel of pilchards and the downward force of the press beam pressed the pilchards into the barrel. Also fish or “train” oil was squeezed out through a drain in the base of the barrel; this was valuable as a luminant and was used by the tanning industry…’

All this has been ringing bells with me: firstly, because I know from the map that a Fish Palace once existed down below Nead an Iolair – overlooking Rossbrin Cove and Castle – but no trace is left now, except that the field there is still known as ‘The Palliashes’; but secondly because when I lived in Newlyn in Cornwall I looked out over Mounts Bay, where a pilchard fishery had been active since the 16th century. This was a huge business, whose heyday was the middle of the 19th century. Pilchard quantities are measured in ‘hogsheads’ – one hogshead holding 3,000 fish: in 1847 the exports of pilchards from Cornwall amounted to 40,883 hogsheads or 122 million fish! By good fortune we have a pictorial record of the activities, as two of the Newlyn School of Artists chose seining as the subject matter for two impressive paintings.

'Pilchards' - Charles Napier Hemy 1897 (Tate Gallery)

‘Pilchards’ – Charles Napier Hemy 1897 (Tate Gallery)

'Tucking Pilchards' Percy Craft 1897 - Penlee Gallery

‘Tucking Pilchards’ Percy Craft 1897 (Penlee Gallery)

*

In the good times Mounts Bay was brimming with seine boats. The pilchards were harvested during the summer when the shoals swam in close to the shore. Lookouts known as Huers were posted on the cliffs, from where the shoals could be seen and semaphore signals were sent out to the waiting boats who let out 400 yard long nets to surround and trap them. The nets were kept upright by floats at the surface and weights at the bottom, presenting an impenetrable wall to the pilchards. The pilchards were then removed by smaller tuck nets and loaded into punts and carried ashore. The seine net provided a convenient keep net in which the fish could be kept alive and fresh until they were processed.

Early photographs of seining, and the fishing fleets working out of Penzanace and Newlyn, Cornwall

During my time in Newlyn there was an active pilchard processing plant – now closed down – but I was fortunate enough to visit the works and see the pressing and preserving taking place, using exactly the same methods that William Hull’s workers employed four centuries before. Just as in those earlier times the main markets for the processed fish were in France and Spain.

Pressed Pilchards (Richard Greenwood)

Pressed Pilchards (Richard Greenwood)

As in Ireland, the pilchard shoals severely declined – probably because of overfishing – and the industry followed. Nowadays there is a small amount of pilchard fishing taking place in Cornwall, but it is barely viable.

Mousehole, Mounts Bay - Ernest Watson

Mousehole, Mounts Bay – Ernest Watson

To the casual observer, our little expedition to the Crookhaven Fish Palace might have seemed pointless – a lot of scrambling through bracken and brambles to find a few old stone walls and the crumbling remains of an abandoned quay. Through our eyes, however, we saw the industry and energy of former days: Irish men and women labouring long and hard to put clothes on the back of a Knight and an Earl…

canned pilchards