What The Forest Was Hiding

There are new forests going in all around us here in West Cork. While Ireland desperately need more trees, mostly in this area they seem to be sitka spruce – a species we have come to dislike intensely since it creates an ecological zone which does not appear to support much biodiversity; it covers, hides and damages much of our historical and archaeological heritage; and it creates dense dark patches on the landscape.

Contrast the biodiversity of a forest of sitka spruce with a planting of deciduous trees

At the end of their growing cycle – 30 to 50 years – the forest is clear-felled, creating an ugly and hazardous environment into which new seedlings are planted. Best practice forestry nowadays is supposed to mix in broad-leaves species, leave nurse logs and open spaces, keep streams clear and accommodate natural habitat throughout the planting.

In our recent walk through a clear-felled forest we saw little evidence of best practice – indeed the seedlings were already in place, in serried ranks and all one species (above). 

In this forest, explored last year, a clearing has been left for a ruined cottage

While an identified and recorded national monument is given a clearing (usually inadequate) in a plantation, other parts of our heritage are simply hidden, destroyed or damaged by the heavy equipment. Alerted by a friend (thank you, Lydia!) we took a walk yesterday on a clear-felled stretch of hillside, to see what the forest had been hiding.

The townland is Derryconnell, between Schull and Ballydehob so it’s within our 5K travel limit. We parked by the gate and walked up the well-maintained forestry road, with the clear-felled landscape all around us. It’s hard not be emotionally impacted by how devastated a landscape like this appears. Clear-cutting is highly controversial, with its proponents arguing that it can be done in an environmentally-positive and sustainable way. I have no idea, because I have no expertise in this area, if this particular patch has been cut using good science – perhaps others can comment.

The trees had been cut after 30 years of growth – I counted the tree rings

We soon saw what we were looking for – the end walls of old stone buildings. We walked up to each in turn, marvelling that they were still to be seen where they had once been completely hidden by trees. There was a west building, a middle set of two (below), and an east building.

It’s hard to know when stone structures like this were last lived in or used and it’s tempting to call something like this the remains of a famine village. However, some of them had cement detailing that indicated they may have been abandoned more recently than their ruinous appearance suggested. Lydia had noticed some late nineteenth or early twentieth century delph – in her photograph some bits looked hand-painted and some looked like transfer ware. 

I went back to early OS maps and Griffith’s Valuation to see if I could put a date on what I was looking at. The earliest map, the Historic 6 inch, dates from 1829 to 1841. It clearly shows (above, on the right, near the red townland boundary) the middle two side-by-side buildings, so we can say for certain that whoever was living in the side-by-side set at the time the map was made, lived through the Famine. The house showed signs of later renovation (cement rendering around a window) so it may have been occupied or used into the twentieth century. 

Above: The two buildings, house (closer) and barn, showing the cement rendering outside the window

These two middle buildings formed a smallholding, with a clearly defined haggard outside the right-hand building. Along this haggard and leading to the house was an old green road (below). We’d like to go back sometime and trace how far this goes – it looked very inviting. 

The right-hand building of the two (below) had two doors but no fireplaces and therefore was most likely in use as a barn. It’s a substantial building but with few features except for a ledge along one wall.

The left-hand building (below) was clearly a house, with a fireplace at each end. The larger fireplace had fallen and the collapse indicated that it had been a tall chimney. This was the principal room of the house, where most of the living and all of the cooking took place.

The other room also had a fireplace and this was a curious small affair, with the flue accommodated entirely within the thickness of the end wall.

Top: the end wall with its small fireplace; Middle: the flue within the walls; Bottom: the top of the wall showing the flue exiting

The easternmost building was very broken down and overgrown and it was hard to make out its features, but we did manage to establish that it had the same kind of small in-the-wall fireplace as the previous cottage, as well as some concrete detailing.

This is the latest of the structures, only showing up on the map that dates from the late 1880s to 1913. The map shows a longish building, with two projections at the rear, neither of which have survived. Given that it’s the newest building, it’s perhaps surprising that it hasn’t fared any better than the others.

The east building on the Historic 25″ map, showing that it was constructed after the 1840s but before 1913. On this map you can also make out the green road that runs behind the middle set of buildings

Finally, the westernmost building, which may or may not appear on any of the maps, has two distinct ‘rooms,’ neither of which has a fireplace, although outwardly it bears the appearance of a house/barn combination (below). There’s a small black dot on the earliest map (the Historic 6”) about where this structure is now, but it doesn’t seem substantial enough for what’s on the ground. Therefore, it seems that this building, or most of it, is also later in date and may even post-date the map from the turn of the 20th century.

Who lived on this section of land? To answer this question we can turn to Griffith’s Valuation. This was a survey of Irish land that took place between 1848 and 1864, to establish the value of property for taxation purposes. The results are online and searchable by townland. The map tells us that the land we are looking at was parcel number 2 in the townland of Derryconnell (below). It was occupied by several tenants, despite the fact that only the side-by-side set of houses are on Griffith’s map. Perhaps the other tenancies refer to the renting of fields. 

What Griffith’s Valuation shows for parcel 2 is that William, Michael and Jeremiah Coghlan rented land from Thomas Cave, and in turn rented land (probably single fields) to Patrick Tuohy, Denis Driscoll, Ellen Spillane, Thomas Sheahan and Michael Sheehan. The Coghlans therefore acted as middlemen between Cave and their renters, illustrating one of the problems with the land systems at the time with the poorest having to pay enough so that a middleman (sometimes a series of them) could get their cut. 

We don’t know much about Thomas S Cave, but he owned extensive property around this area much of which had previously been part of Lord Audley’s mining interests. Beside the Derryconnell lands, he also owned plots in Rossbrin, Cappaghglass and Foilnamuck – all areas associated with mining – and he owned and may have lived in Cappagh House, a beautiful period property we featured in our post on the mine chimney that blew down and now lived in by our lovely neighbours Mark and Terri O’Mahoney and their family. Below is an old photograph of that house and the chimney as it stood then.

This has turned to be a little meander though history, geography and ecology and all the more enjoyable as I didn’t expect to be so stimulated when we set out for a simple walk within our 5K limit. Once again, thanks to Lydia, friend and fellow history buff, for the information on where to go, how to get there, and what to look out for.