Castlehaven – The Haven

The word ‘haven’ is said to have a Norse origin: hǫfn. This translates simply as ‘harbour’. Does this mean that the Vikings visited West Cork and gave Castlehaven its name? Dictionary definitions include ‘a safe haven in times of trouble’ – refuge, retreat, shelter, sanctuary, asylum . . . The word conjures up something a little magical, and our exploration last week of the secretive valley that leads inland from Castlehaven – at the southern end of a significant West Cork cove – was certainly an enchanting experience. We traversed it on the greenest of days at the arrival of spring:

The header is a nineteenth century engraving, and shows a possibly idealised view looking across The Haven, towards the open waters of the Atlantic. In the foreground is the castle of Raheen, or Rathin. Castlehaven itself is at the far end, and the old tower house there – now all but vanished into the lush undergrowth – was strategically important, particularly during the Nine Years’ War between Gaelic Irish lords and the English. Spain also took an opportunistic interest in intervening in matters between Ireland and England. There are many accounts of the skirmish that occurred here on 6 December 1601, all of them varying to such a degree that we can have no real idea, even, of who was victorious! I like this version, penned by a contributor to the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection. It’s part of an extensive essay about the history of the area, which we will revisit in due course:

. . . Beside the Cemetery at Castlehaven stood, about ten years ago, the ruins of Castlehaven Castle, described by Don O’Sullivan in connection with the war of O’Neill & O’Donnell. “Porto Castello”, as it is called by O’Sullivan, played a very important part in connection with the Battle of Kinsale. Both O’Sullivan & Carew give accounts of a battle fought in the harbour, and while the former claims that Admiral Levison and his ships were driven off with loss of some vessels at the harbour’s mouth, Carew claims victory for the British fleet. Local tradition says that inside Reen Point, on the eastern side of the harbour lies a Spanish Vessel laden with gold, but that misfortune is sure to follow anyone who seeks the treasure. Castlehaven Castle was fortified by a combined garrison of Spanish and Irish and withstood the assault of Admiral Levison of the British fleet. The ruins of this castle were in a fair state of preservation about fifteen years ago, but the lower portion of the wall showed signs of weakness, and the great pity was, that nothing was done to prevent the collapse of the entire ruin a few years later. It is ‘said’ that stones had been removed for road metalling many years ago and this vandalism could certainly bring about the unfortunate collapse which only left only a confused pile of stones . . .


Seán Ó Donnabháin – Teacher, Baile an Chaisleáin School, Castletownshend 1936
Upper – a view of the now-vanished tower of Glenbarrahane Castle at the entrance to the Haven by Cork antiquarian John Windele, 1801 – 1865 (courtesy National Library of Ireland) and lower – the vestigial stone walls that remain today beside the grey sands of Castlehaven

Among our inherited collection of West Cork books in the library at Nead an Iolair is this volume by Gifford Lewis, published in 1985 by Penguin Viking. Ostensibly relating to the writings of Somerville and Ross, it is illustrated with a well-researched collection of old photographs which include some of the castle at The Haven still standing.

This photograph (above) is particularly valuable. It is also from the Gifford Lewis book and is captioned as follows:

. . . A very early plate by Sir Joscelyn Coghill (c. 1865) showing the old Castlehaven church and above it the Castle in which the Reverend Robert Morrit lived, and before him the Reverend Thomas Somerville. The Tithe War had its effect. Eventually, the Tithe Commission Act of 1838 moved the burden of supporting the Protestant clergy from the peasants to the landowners. The Catholic/Protestant confrontation in Ireland came with the influx of Elizabethan English, the first after the Reformation of the English Church. Those who came to Ireland as Protestants were much less likely to be assimilated than those who came before the Reformation, like the Martins. The ousting of the topmost layer of native Catholic society by a new Protestant one is audible in the list of Rectors of Castlehaven church from 1403 to 1640: O’Driscoll, O’Callaghan, O’Driscoll, Cormac/Basse, Pratt, Stukely . . .

Gifford lewis, Somerville and Ross – The World of the Irish R.M. 1985

The aerial view shows the inlet of Castle Haven guarded by its O’Driscoll castle at the southern end. In the upper reaches of The Haven is a further castle, properly known as Raheen (or Rathin), sited above the natural spit of The League: the juxtaposition of castle and land-spit was probably deliberate, to create a defensive barrier against any invaders infiltrating the upper waters of The Haven. The mid-19th century 6″ Cassini OS map (above) shows the location in detail. James N Healy (The Castles of County Cork, Mercier Press, 1988) well describes its situation: “. . . It is a remarkable sight, tall and dignified in its quiet isolation . . .” and attributes it to the O’Donovan family, associated with Castle Donovan on the Ilen River – which we visited recently. Raheen was attacked from the water by Cromwell’s army in 1649 and remarkably survives in that breached condition today.

The coloured postcard above is based on a view probably taken around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The viewpoint is identical with that in the header engraving, and The League can be clearly seen in both representations. Because the whole inlet is known as Castlehaven, we have to be careful when reading references or captions, as the two castles – which I always endeavour to refer to by their original names (Glenbarrahane and Rathin) are often both known as Castlehaven Castle. And, of course, we also have the castle at Castletownshend itself to further confuse the issue, although the structure there now is relatively late (the present building dates mainly from the 19th century, although an earlier Bryans Fort on the same site was probably 17th century).

Here is a very fine painted view of Rathin Castle by contemporary West Cork artist Donagh Carey (thank you, Donagh!) You can find his works here: we are pleased to have some of them hanging at Nead at Iolair. I can’t resist including this photograph taken in the 1930s (below) – from the Adrian Healy postcard collection – showing Rathin, with the added bonus of a 1936 Ford 10 in the foreground!

This view (above) is an enigma. It is referred to as ‘Castlehaven Castle’ and is a pen-and-watercolour drawing by Charles Vallancey (1721 – 1812). If the written caption is ‘Castlehaven Mouth’, then it must be Glenbarrahane (although the foreground topography should surely have shown the old church and graveyard?); if it is fact ‘Castlehaven North’, then it would more likely be Rathin – and it is certainly visually closer to this castle. However, then the mouth of the Haven is not in the right place at all. Vallancey was a British military surveyor who had been sent to Ireland in the mid 18th century: he became fascinated with the country and its topography and settled here as a self-styled historian and antiquarian. An extract of his work follows, from a report on West Cork:

. . . There was only one road between Cork and Bantry; you may now proceed by eight carriage roads beside several horse tracks branching off from these great roads; from Bantry the country is mountainous and from the high road has the appearance of being barren and very thinly populated; yet the valleys abound with corn and potatoes and the mountains are covered with black cattle. In 1760, twenty years ago it was so thinly inhabited an army of 10,000 men could not possible have found subsistence between Bantry and Bandon. The face of the country now wears a different aspect: the sides of the hill are under the plough, the verges of the bogs are reclaimed and the southern coast from Skibbereen to Bandon is one continued garden of grain and potatoes except the barren pinnacles of some hills and the boggy hollows between which are preserved for fuel . . .

Charles vallancey – A Report on West Cork, 1778, British Library

Vallancey was noted for obtaining the Great Book of Lecan (Leabhar Mór Leacáin), a medieval manuscript written between 1397 and 1418 in Castle Forbes, Lecan, Co Sligo. He passed it on to the Royal Irish Academy, where it resides today. Sadly, his work apparently only garnered the poorest of appraisals – as an example, here is the 19th century Quarterly Review:

. . . General Vallancey, though a man of learning, wrote more nonsense than any man of his time, and has unfortunately been the occasion of much more than he wrote . . .

The Quarterly review, London, John Murray

In my Extreme Green post I promised a ‘salacious scandal’ associated with Castlehaven. Alas – we have this week run out of time and space . . . Keep watching!

Extreme Green – Castlehaven

There are many places in West Cork that deserve more than one visit. Our enforced confinement close to home focusses us on that thought. March went out like a lamb and – on the first day of April – we went off to enjoy the stirrings of spring in one of our favourite spots: Castlehaven.

Here’s that spot seen from above. It’s accessed from a boreen that goes nowhere else, and is to the south west of Drishane, just outside Castletownshend. In the view you can see the little cove and an old burial ground which surrounds the ruin of the original church of St Barrahane, probably built on medieval foundations but disused by the 1600s. This benign place has bathed in some momentous historical events but is now forever peaceful and seems far removed from our material world.

The 25″ OS map – dating from the late nineteenth century – marks the main features of Castlehaven: the ‘Grave Yard’, Rectory (based on an older house) and ‘Toberbarahane’ – a holy well. One of our favourite walks begins just to the south of the graveyard and wends its way up to the well, – and beyond – following a small stream which has ferociously gouged a channel through the rock formations in ancient glacial times. Today I can only describe the experience as ‘Extreme Green’ because our eyes are drawn to a riot of spring growth and exotic flora. In fact, Finola described it as a rainforest path when we first visited a few years ago.

The Holy Well is still revered, evidently, especially by sailors who need protection while at sea. The saint was known as Bearchán, and most likely came from the Corca Laoighde family  (the Annals describe the O’Driscolls as kings of the Corca Laoighde in the twelfth century), although we can find very little of his life. According to Pádraig Ó Riain’s A Dictionary of Irish Saints, Bearchán’s pattern day is not known, but Amanda gives it as 3rd December in Holy Wells of Cork & Kerry, something which she must have gleaned from local knowledge.

The Holy Well is easy to find and involves crossing a stout timber bridge to the left of the path. On our previous visit, three years ago, a tree had fallen across the path and the bridge was damaged, but this has now been put right.

Finola is coming back along the holy well path, and the bay of Castlehaven is immediately beyond her. The colour of the sea is stunning azure at this time of the year. Just beyond the gate, and sited right above the strand, is all that is left of Castle Haven, a strategic tower house which saw action on 6 December 1601, during the Nine Years’ War between Gaelic Irish lords and the English. The O’Driscolls, who held the castle then, had welcomed in a small convoy of Spanish munition ships. The commander of the English naval forces based at Kinsale, Admiral Leveson, was ordered to “. . . seeke the Spanish fleete at Castlehaven, to take them if he could, or otherwise to distresse them as much as he might . . .” I’ll leave the rest of this story as a cliff-hanger, to be completed in a future post, but we will return to the castle which gave Castlehaven its name.

The old photograph dates from the late 1800s and is from the Lawrence Collection, courtesy of the National Library of Ireland. My photo shows all that remains of the castle today: a section of stone walling close to the cliff face. Its downfall occurred in 1926 and we know this because:

. . . Edith Somerville recorded that while taking a walk on 26 February 1926 she heard a loud rumble and in looking towards the direction of the old tower found that it had collapsed. Nowadays only a mere stump remains, and that covered with briars and weeds. The castle stood on the side of the harbour of Castlehaven, to the immediate south of the stony grey beach, and the decayed church, graveyard and holy well of St Barrahane, the local patron saint who gives his name to the nearby glen and castle. The castle and haven was known as Cuan-an-Chaisleán to the Irish, as Castlehaven to the English, and El Puerto Castello to the Spanish, but they all mean the same thing . . .

The Castles of County Cork by James N Healey, The Mercier Press, 1988

In the next post I’ll be telling you more about the pivotal sea-battle at Castlehaven between the Irish – Spanish alliance and the English forces; and setting out a case of mistaken identity. We will also be exploring another Castlehaven Castle, and looking into a salacious scandal that led to a beheading or two in 1631. There’s much to look forward to…!