Walking West Cork – Top of the Rock

When we could still walk within the boundary of our own county – and in company – we went with our friends Peter and Amanda in the footsteps of a saint! The walk from Drimoleague to the Top of The Rock – and beyond – is one which has been on our ‘to do’ list for a long time, not least because the first person to do it was our own Saint Finnbarr, founder (in 606AD) and patron saint of Cork city. The motto of University College, Cork is Ionad Bairre Sgoil na Mumhan which means ‘Where Finbarr taught let Munster learn’.

Finbarr is also famous for establishing a monastic site at Gougane Barra in the sixth century, and today you can follow St Finnbarr’s Way all the way from the Top of The Rock to that magical lake in the mountains where you can find an oratory and chapel dedicated to the saint: the full walk is 37km. Our own walk was a mere 3.5km but rewarding nevertheless.

Our walk started at the former Drimoleague railway station. The line opened in 1877, connecting Dunmanway with Skibbereen, and subsequently extension lines went in all directions: to Cork, Bantry, Bandon, Courtmacsherry and – via our own narrow gauge line – from Skibbereen through Ballydehob to Schull. Sadly, all lines coming south west out of Cork have closed, some of the routes surviving until the 1960s. The picture below, dating from 1898, shows the track at Schull Harbour, the most south westerly point on any railway line in Ireland.

Leaving the old station at Drimoleague the path follows the road going north past the architecturally intriguing All Saint’s church, built in 1956. Finola has written about the building and its unusual stained glass (above) – it’s well worth a look inside. Beyond the modern church is the ruins of an ancient one, surrounded by a burial ground which is full of history (below):

After a steep climb we reached our highest point: Barr na Carraige – which translates literally as Top of the Rock. Evidently the first settlement of Drimoleague was established up here and only moved downhill to be more convenient when the railway arrived. At the ‘Top’ we were fortunate to meet David Ross (below) who owns the farm and ‘Pod Park’ here, and has also masterminded the establishment of these walking routes. Great chat was had, and David suggested our best routes for the day as storms had affected some pathways: work is in hand to restore these. We couldn’t leave the ‘Top’ until we had fully appreciated the long views across to Castle Donovan: our own way then headed downwards and along the Ilen River.

Descending from Top of the Rock we were mainly ‘off-road’ on dedicated footpaths. We first met the Ilen River at Ahanfunsion Bridge, a place which has seen a lot of action historically. The name means ‘Bridge of the Ash Trees’. There was a battle here in ancient times and it is said that the victors planted trees at the ford to commemorate the event. The bridge was built originally in 1830 but was blown up in the War of Independence and subsequently reconstructed. It’s a great spot for a picnic and everyone has a good time crossing the stepping stones, hopefully while keeping their feet dry.

David and his team have worked hard to create and maintain these paths. They have also embellished them with discrete but apposite plaques which include local information and poetry. The work has also involved bridging the river in places to maintain a continuous footpath. We have to commend and appreciate the work they have done and the legacy they are leaving to future generations.

The river walk is truly beautiful, and the wooded valley is quite unusual terrain for West Cork, which is more often high, craggy and dramatic. Wildlife and wildflowers abound, in season. All too soon we came to the boreen which would take us back to our starting point. We are determined to return and follow the network of pathways further when our current restrictions are lifted. We promise we will report back!

Aughadown – Church on the Ilen

Surely one of the most picturesquely situated in Ireland, the early nineteenth century church at Aughadown on the Ilen is surrounded by a graveyard that tells the story of Irish and local history. Locals, by the way, use the pronunciation Affadown, and for the river, it’s Eye-len.

The church we see now dates from 1814, but there was an even older church on this spot once, of which no trace now remains. The 1814 church was no longer fit for purpose by the 1870s and was replaced in 1872 by the much larger St Matthias church, exactly a mile (1.6km) to the north along what is now the N71.

As the church fell into ruin it gradually accrued the ivy and the general air of dereliction that are the indispensable attributes of the romantic, greatly augmented by its charming siting on the banks of the Ilen river. Oxeye Daisies cover the graves in spring and summer, while Thrift flourishes along the banks. The outlines of the slate-hanging that would have kept the interior dry are still obvious on the outside walls – see the photo above.

Inside, the church looks remarkably small by today’s standards and it’s easy to see how a congregation would have outgrown it over time. There are some unusual design features, such as round-headed arches and windows rather than the more common gothic ogees.

But it’s the graveyard that is the most fascinating part of this site. As the community graveyard of that place, it was used by all – Church of Ireland, Catholic and Dissenter. Plots seem to follow family lines, rather than, as in many West Cork graveyards, separate areas for Catholic and Protestant. As a result, there are some curious juxtapositions.

The graveyard has been surveyed and recorded by a volunteer group coordinated by the Skibbereen Heritage Centre. For a burial place as old and overgrown as this one, with faded or non-existent inscriptions, this was a herculean undertaking! But the good folks at the Skibb Heritage Centre seem to thrive on challenges like this. As they say themselves – they ‘get’ graveyards.

From their own website, here is an account of one of those ‘curious juxtapositions’:

Among those buried at Aughadown is Patrick McCarthy of the 5th Cork Brigade of the IRA. He took part in the Kilmichael Ambush in 1920 and was shot during the Siege of Skibbereen in 1922, aged 22. It was said that a lit cigarette revealed his location to his assassin. A plaque now marks the spot where he was killed on the Windmill Rock in Skibbereen.

Very close to the Patrick McCarthy grave is the tomb is of the Bechers of Aughadown, once major landlords in the area. Buried in this plot is Colonel Thomas Becher who died in 1708 and served as aide-de-camp to King William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690

The Bechers were responsible for the fortified manor house at Aughadown that I reported on in Moving Up in Tudor Times. Descended from Fane Becher, one of the founders of Bandon, they intermarried with all the local families and the name Becher is familiar in other graveyards too – Castletownshend for example.

A detail from a memorial window in St Peter’s Church in Bandon

Here’s a lovely old headstone with a depiction of an angel playing a trumpet, although I can’t make out the inscription

Lionel Fleming is buried here – a man infamous for his conduct during the Famine, but so too is Dr Stephen Sweetnam, a dispensary doctor responsible for saving many lives during that terrible time.

The Tonson tomb in the foreground

The oldest recorded burial (although probably not the earliest) is that of Henry Tonson, about whom I wrote in my post New Court Bridge – a Hidden Wonder. It dates from 1703 and appears to be on slate, with an incised inscription that reads Here Lyes the body of Captn Henry Tonson who departed this life November the twenty fifth and in the thirtyeth seventh year of his age 1703.

A wander around this old church on a sunny day is rewarding. You’ll find yourself marvelling at the wildflower meadow while simultaneously seeking out old headstones and wondering about the lives of those buried here. Perhaps you might even arrive by boat, or kayak, as just outside the gate is a stopping place for the newly developed Ilen River Blueway.

However you arrive, you will leave – and I guarantee this – in a better mood.

 

Abhainn na Seangán – River of the Ants!

What’s in a name? In Ireland – quite a lot, usually, although the meaning often takes some searching out. Perusing Ordnance Survey Ireland sheet 85 on a late February afternoon when the sun miraculously appeared and lit up a countryside ripe for exploration, my eye was drawn to a river running through the hills to the east of Bantry: Owennashingaun. How could you overlook such a name? And how could you not be intrigued by the Irish place-name which must have preceded it before the surveyors put their anglicisation to it: Abhainn na Seangán? Even better was the discovery of the meaning of this name: River of the Ants!

Our byway heading into the hills

With high expectations we set out, with Finola at the ready with her camera. As with all West Cork locations, Abhainn na Seangán is but a few paces from Nead an Iolair, as the crow flies. Pausing only to pick up our friend Gill in Ballybane West along the way, we were soon heading north for the foothills of Mullaghmesha (Irish: Mullach Méise – Summit of the Altar).

Turning north at the Cullomane Crossroads on the R586 we almost immediately crossed the Owennashingaun River (I’ll use the Anglicised version as that is what usually appears on the map). Here it’s just a gentle, straight watercourse which follows the main road until it picks up the Ahanaclaurshee Stream (Irish: River of the Harp) and then becomes the Ilen River, which flows on through Skibbereen and eventually reaches the sea at Baltimore.

Glens, farms and distant highlands on our road heading for Mullaghmesha

We skirted two smallish peaks – Sprat Hill and Knocknaveagh (Irish:Cnoc na bhFiach, wonderfully ‘The Hill of the Ravens’) – before reaching the townland of Tralibane, an important Irish landmark as it was here that Captain Francis O’Neill was born in 1838. He travelled the world and had a colourful life of many adventures before being elevated to the role of Chief Superintendent of Police in Chicago in 1901. O’Neill came from a musical family in his West Cork childhood and is best known today as one of the most successful collectors of Irish Traditional Music. Here is a post I wrote about The Chief back in 2014.

From Tralibane we travelled north-east on deserted boreens, through a soft, green landscape of glens and standing stones (see the header picture), gradually rising towards more distant highlands, until we encountered again the ‘River of the Ants’. The source of Abhainn na Seangán is on the slopes of Mullaghmesha, whose peak is at 495 metres: we didn’t make it up there to look for the altar: a destination for another day. The name of the river remains enigmatic: I searched the excellent resource www.logainm.ie and found an archive record there dating from 1840 which gives the translation as: ‘river of the pismires’. I then had to look up ‘pismires’, which is evidently from early English:

1350 – 1400: Middle English pissemyre, equivalent to pisse to urinate + obsolete mire ant, perhaps Scandinavian (compare Danish mire, Swedish myra) cognate with Dutch mier; pejorative name from stench of formic acid proper to ants

There was nothing untoward with the smell of the river as we followed it – and we didn’t see any ants! So the mystery remains. Surely there must be a story embedded in local knowledge or folklore which could enlighten us?

Upper – sweeping views began to open up as the road climbed towards Castle Donovan; centre – the iconic ruined castle, which was taken into the care of the State in 2000 and has since received major stabilisation and renovation; lower – a splendid piece of signage at Castle Donovan – every possible disaster has been foreseen!

The ruin of Castle Donovan is as fine as any in West Cork, and is fortunate to be in permanent State care. Set on a plateau with the mountain rising behind it, it is an impressive focal point in the landscape, which can be seen for miles around. We passed by the castle and headed up on a rough, winding way: looking back, the silhouette of the tower house stands out with benign West Cork rolling pasture as a prepossessing backdrop.

The road very quickly becomes a true mountain pass, and an early evening haze seemed to hang over everything as we skirted the east side of Mullaghmesha. We hardly saw a soul on our whole journey, but we were eyed warily by sheep who plainly considered us intruders on their territory.

On the north side of the mountain we entered the Mealagh Valley, and were reminded of our recent adventures travelling through the Yellow Gap. Finding our way down to the lowlands again, we took our last look at the River of the Ants at Dromore, and bid it a fond farewell. In spite of its unfathomable name, it had taken us on a grand exploration. Give it a try for yourselves!

Upper, the distinctive church at Dromore, with its pencil-thin ’round tower’ and, above, our last view of Owennashingaun

Capturing the View: Belvederes in West Cork

Swift's Tower

The 18th century was a time of profound change in garden design in Britain, and by extension in Ireland. In the opening decades of the 1700s great and small estates included formal gardens laid out in the French and Dutch styles that emphasised symmetry and geometry, parterres and avenues of trees. The gardens at Bantry House are a good example of this garden style. Although developed in the first half of the 19th century, they were perhaps influenced heavily by the gardens at Versailles and great European houses visited by the Earl of Bantry on his Grand Tour.

Bantry House 1

Thanks to Dennis Horgan, aerial photographer extraordinaire, for allowing me to use his shot of Bantry House. Note the formal and geometric layout of the gardens and the parterres immediately behind and to the right of the house

However, for the previous century a different style of landscaping had dominated garden design in Britain, pioneered by William Kent and Charles Bridgeman and reaching its peak in the work of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. The effect they strove for was naturalistic (as opposed to natural) – a planned layout that mirrored but enhanced their idea of a ‘wild’ and romantic landscape. Large expanses of grass, strategically placed lakes and ponds, plantings of carefully chosen tree and shrub species, and clever little structures such as temples, summer houses and belvederes all combined to delight the eye, create a romantic mood and, of course, attest to the taste and wealth of the owner.

base of ruined tower belvedere New Court

Nothing remains but the stub of what was once a belvedere in the shape of a round tower on the edge of the River Ilen, on the old New Court demesne.

Echoes of these designed landscapes can be found here and there in West Cork, even where the big houses themselves have disappeared. Lately I have been on the hunt for belvederes and have found several intriguing examples. A belvedere (bel-beautiful, vedere-to see) was an edifice from which to enjoy a view. It could be as simple as a platform at a high point, or as complex as a multi-storey tower, but its most important attribute was its positioning to command a breathtaking vista.

Killiney Hill belvedere

Killiney Hill, just south of Dublin

Perhaps the best known belvedere in Ireland is the one on top of Killiney Hill in Dublin. It was built in 1742 by the then-owner of the hill, John Mapas, to provide an opportunity to admire one of Ireland’s most iconic prospects. The room on the second floor had a little fireplace, windows, and a door to the exterior viewing deck, which was surrounded by wrought-iron railing. It’s no longer in use as a belvedere and many people think of it as some kind of memorial or folly.

View from Killiney Hill

The view from Killiney Hill

In West Cork, the belvedere at Aughadown (known locally as the gazebo) is of the most simple kind, a viewing platform. It was associated with Aughadown House, a fortified mansion built by the Bechers that I wrote about in Trading Up In Tudor Times: Fortified Houses in West Cork.  

Belvedere, Aughadown

Peter Somerville-Large, in The Coast of West Cork, quoting Daniel Donovan*, says: Donovan described it as “a strong castellated mansion, entered by a drawbridge, surrounded by beautiful grounds and having a gazebo on one of the heights behind”. He continues: This gazebo was approached by a ramp along which the quality used to drive their carriages in order to enjoy the magnificent view out over Roaring Water Bay to the islands and the Fastnet in the distance. I found the ramp running above a field of winter wheat.

Aghadown Belvedere and tower house siting

The view from Becher’s ‘gazebo’ across to Roaringwater Bay

On each side of the Ilen River lie belvederes, in the form of towers. Imagine the ladies of the house and their guests, walking or being driven down to the water’s edge. Servants would have arrived earlier and the tea would be ready and a little fire laid against the breezes. They ascend the internal staircase to the second floor or perhaps to the roof and admire the views of the lazy Ilen River as it wends its way to the sea at Roaringwater Bay.

Creagh House Belvedere

The Creagh House belvedere

The belvedere at Creagh House exists now as a picturesque ruin. Octagonal in design, with pointed gothic windows and a small fireplace inside, it rises to three stories. Some sources describe it as the remains of a mill, and the artificial pond beside it as a mill pond, but it has all the hallmarks of a romantic garden structure.

Across the river at New Court there were once three such ornamental towers. One is gone, the second is a mere stump, but the third still stands to its original height and offers lovely views of the river both to the east and the south.

Belvedere, New Court

One of the three original belvederes that once dotted the New Court Estate

At Castletownshend the local gentry were enthusiastic builders of ‘pleasure architecture’. Castletownsend Castle boast two structures of interest. The first is in the walls, an octagonal tower that is made to look like a defensive feature but in fact is purely decorative. Since there is apparently no entrance, this one may have to count as a folly rather than a belvedere.

Castle Townsend Belvedere turret

Behind the castle is the structure known as Swift’s Tower (see the very first photograph for an idea of its placement). Following the death of his beloved Vanessa in 1723, Dean Swift embarked on a long summer trip to the south west. it was in this tower, tradition has it, that he wrote the Latin poem Carberiae Rupes, which translates as The Crags of Carbery.

Swift's Tower 3

Once again we are indebted to Daniel Donovan’s Sketches in Carbery for an account of the poem and even a translation. Donovan did not have a high opinion of the poem (although he says that Dean Swift himself preferred it above other, better poems) and another critic referred to it as “a set of indifferent verses” describing a “bleak and deadly landscape”.

Carberiae Rupes

What do you think – his finest work?

Perhaps the Dean’s depressed state was to blame, or maybe he should have just stuck to prose. Or perhaps the servants hadn’t lit the fire and provided the tea – the tower certainly looks bleak enough now to bring on a fit of the dismals, in spite of the magnificent view.

Swift's Tower, Belvedere

On Horse Island, just outside of Castlehaven Inlet, there is the base of a round tower that may also have been a belvedere. A visit there would have made a wonderful pleasure outing on a fine day, and the views would be stupendous.

Horse Island, Castlehaven, belvedere

You can just make out the remains of a round wall at the top left of Horse Island

There is a whole set of monuments in West Cork that are labelled as Belvederes in the National Monuments Service Inventory, but as Signal Towers in the records maintained by the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.  These contradictory interpretations are fascinating and these towers are worth a post on their own. I will save that for another day, but to show you what I mean, take a look at the two towers on Rock Island, near Crookhaven. Belvederes or Signal Towers – what do you think? (If you’re not sure what signal towers are, take a look at this post from Amanda Clarke of Sheep’s Head Places.)

Crookhaven belvederes

Looking across to Rock Island from Crookhaven. Experts differ about the functions of the two towers

But what about nowadays? Do we still worship the view in West Cork? And do we still build belvederes from which to admire that view? The answer to both those questions can be found at Sailor’s Hill, just west of Schull!

Sailor's Hill 1

Sailor’s Hill Belvedere

Sailor’s Hill is a labour of love by Connie Griffin who has worked on the sea and lived in this area all his life. It’s partly a memorial to those lost at sea and partly a place of contemplation to simply sit and soak up the panoramic views that stretch gloriously before you in ever direction.

Sailor's Hill Memorial 2

Schull Harbour in the background

Sadly now a little overgrown and vandalised, it is still an incredible experience to arrive at Connie’s little round tower and see vast stretches of the Cork coast to the south, while the mountains of the Beara and Kerry rise behind you.

Sailor's Hill Views

It’s a testament to the power that landscape and seascape has over us: the power to move us and uplift us; the power to inspire us to try to capture it in paint and in words. We can’t really, but, like Connie, we keep trying.

Connie Griffin and Robert

Connie Griffin and Robert

*Somerville-Large attributes this information to Sketches in Carbery by Daniel Donovan. However, I have not been able to find the quote and wonder if it’s from another book.