Inchydoney – and Virgin Mary’s Bank

Virgin Mary’s Bank: it’s the intriguing name of a smallish rock outcrop that juts out into the sands at Inchydoney, West Cork. Stories abound, of course. Let’s do a bit of exploring…

We first saw the name – Virgin Mary’s Bank (sometimes Virgin Mary’s Point or Virgin Mary’s Rock) – on the map when we were orientating our views across the sands from Ring on our excursion last month (above). There’s such a huge, sandy estuarial strand over on that side, stretching all the way from Ring and beyond Inchydoney island: it must be one of West Cork’s most covetable assets!

The view above – looking east from Inchydoney Island towards Ring Head – shows barely half the extent of the sands – and beautiful, golden sands they are. In the summertime, of course, the area is buzzing with visitors and sun-seekers, but there is plenty of room, and the beaches are never overrun, although car parking can be at a premium – get there early, if you can, in peak season. But why is Inchydoney an island, you might ask, when you look at the aerial view which seems to show it linked to the pastured landscapes to the north west? Here’s the answer:

The top map is an extract from the earliest 6″ Ordnance Survey map, mostly surveyed in the 1840s. There you can see the island, clearly surrounded by water, with a causeway on the northwest side linking it to the nearby mainland. The principle features on the island at that time are Inchidoney House, a ruined church and burial ground. The later Cassini 6″ map (above) shows how causeway dams have been built to enclose areas of reclaimed land, here called ‘intakes’, effectively joining the former island to the adjacent mainland. The causeways are very clear if you approach the island from the west side (below).

The Cassini map was surveyed in the late 19th century, and we know from historical records that the causeway system was constructed by the Congested Districts Board in the 1840s, probably as a famine relief scheme. The roads and retaining boundaries were constructed from limestone quarried on the island. It is recorded that workers were paid a penny a day, and that on the first day of the works nine people died – presumably of malnutrition.

I found an excellent article on Inchidoney Island in a recent edition of Ireland’s Own (October 2019), available to download online, written by Mary Rose McCarthy. She relates how Richard Hungerford, from a Somerset family background, owned a substantial part of the island in 1690 and his descendants were there until the early 1900s. They rebuilt Inchydoney House in the early 1800s: it still stands. The writer ‘Mrs Hungerford’ – Margaret Hamilton of Rosscarbery – married into the Hungerford family and was notorious for an incident in 1905. Here is an extract from a letter sent by her to the Clonakilty Urban District Council on August 16th:

On 10th inst I received a letter from the Town Clerk of Clonakilty who ‘had been directed by the Urban District Council to ask me to receive a deputation with reference to asking me to open my grounds to the public on Sundays’ . . .

The Urban District Council, in proposing this resolution, ‘regretted that I had not followed the example of Mr Bence Jones’ (who had kindly thrown his most lovely garden open to the public every second Sunday) and one member, whom I shall not name but with whom I have had a little business transaction in the past, was of opinion that ‘I should have done so without waiting to be asked’. Now, during the past summer I have permitted every person, and at every hour, who asked leave at the hall door to go through to the strands. The result has been as usual in Ireland, disappointing, Gates were left open and of course my animals strayed away and people had to leave their work to hunt for them and the portion of ‘the public’ who considered asking for leave too much trouble, or perhaps, too derogatory, wandered over the land wherever they choose and papers, bottles etc, etc, littered the place . . .

Miss Hungerford, The Island, Clonakilty 1905

Mary Rose McCarthy, in her Ireland’s Own article, recounts:

. . . Locals felt they had a right to travel to the beach by an old roadway past Inchydoney House. Clonakilty UDC mediated but Miss Hungerford refused all approaches. A group of locals marched from town, tore down the gates, and asserted their right to travel to the beach. This gave rise to a local song – Who broke the island gates?, although the words were never recorded . . .

Mary Rose McCarthy, Ireland’s Own, October 2019

The author also notes that Margaret Hamilton (Miss Hungerford) wrote novels, the most famous of which – Molly Bawn – is mentioned by James Joyce in Ulysses; and also credits her with having coined the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.

The most notable building on the Island today is the Inchodoney Island Lodge & Spa which – with associated apartments – commands a stunning view over the whole south strand. It replaces the earlier Inchydoney Ocean Hotel, built in the 1930s and famous for its ballroom – and the dances and fancy-dress parties held there, which always went on into the early hours of the morning. The postcard below, published by H Rosehill, Cork, shows the hotel in 1940.

The aerial view gives an idea of the extent of the present day building, and also shows how it relates to the principal subject of today’s post: Virgin Mary’s Bank. The legend of this promontory is best told through the pages of the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection:

. . . Situated about two and a half miles south-east of Clonakilty is Inchadoney island. It is now a peninsula of five hundred acres. About half of this is arable and very fertile.

In the southern side of the island there is a bank jutting out into the sea called the Virgin Mary’s bank. It is said that there was a ship coming in there once and the sailors saw a beautiful woman praying on the bank. She was as white as snow and she was kneeling on a knoll which bears the impression of her knees to-day . . .

All the sailors but one began to mock and blaspheme her. Suddenly a great storm arose and the ship was blown to pieces and all her sailors were drowned except the one who took no part in the mockery. When the storm ceased the lady went out and brought the drowning sailor ashore . . .

In olden times there was a flourishing convent on the island and the remains of which are to be seen to-day. Some people say it was one of the nuns of this convent but it is more likely that it was the “Virgin Mary” who saved the man from drowning . . .

Tim Cowhig, Duchas Schools Collection, Clonakilty 1936

If ever doubt was to be cast as to the veracity of this story, there – as clear as day – are the knee-prints on the rock! A tragedy on the strand in 1932 is commemorated by a carving on the flaggy formation, just below Virgin Mary’s Bank. In August 22-year-old Timothy O’Sullivan from Casement Street in Clonakilty and 19-year-old Joseph Santry, a plasterer from Clarke Street Clonakilty, drowned. Charles P Millar from Summerhill, Cork, managed to rescue a third man who was also in difficulty but due to rough sea conditions he was unable to save the others despite his heroic attempts.

A Wild Atlantic Way information board close to Virgin Mary’s Bank tells of another incident, in more recent times.

But note the paragraph They never made it, above. In 1642 around 600 Irish rebels were trapped by the incoming tide and drowned on the sands: a salutary warning, perhaps, for those who come to the beaches here and don’t keep a wary eye on the tide. Because of the wide, flat expanses of open strand it comes in at a great pace.

An all but forgotten Cork poet, Jeremiah Joseph Callanan (1795 – 1829), heard the story of the appearance of the Virgin Mary at Inchydoney and penned some verses which – according to local legend – all Clonakilty primary school children had to learn by rote. I have transcribed it from the Duchas Schools Collection record above, as the dramatic rendition is well worth quoting in full.

The Evening Star rose beauteous above the fading day,
As to the lone and silent beach the Virgin came to pray,
And hill and dale shone brightly in moonlight’s mellow fall;
But the bank of green where Mary knelt was brightest of them all.

Slow moving o’er the waters, a gallant barque appeared,
And her joyous crew looked from the deck as to the land she neared;
To the calm and sheltered haven she floated like a swan,
And her wings of snow o’er the waves below in, pride and beauty shone.

The Master saw Our Lady as he stood upon the prow,
And marked the whiteness of her robe – the radiance of her brow;
Her arms were folded gracefully upon her stainless breast,
And her eyes looked up among the stars, to Him her soul loved best.

He showed her to his sailors, and he hailed her with a cheer,
And on the kneeling Virgin they gazed with laugh and jeer;
And madly swore, a form so fair they never saw before;
And they cursed the faint and lagging breeze that kept them from the shore.

The ocean from its bosom shook off its moonlight sheen,
And up its wrathful billows rose to vindicate their Queen,
And a cloud came o’er the heavens, and a darkness o’er the land,
And the scoffing crew beheld no more the Lady on the strand.

Out burst the pealing thunder, and the lightning leapt about,
And rushing with his watery war, the tempest gave a shout;
And that vessel from a mountain wave came down with thundering shock,
And her timbers flew like mattered spray on Inchadony’s rock.

Then loud from all the guilty crew one shriek rose wild and high;
But the angry surge swept over them, and hushed their gurgling cry;
And with a hoarse, exulting tone the tempest passed away,
And down, still chafing from their strife, the indignant waters lay.

When the calm and, purple morning shone out on high Dunmore,
Full many a mangled corpse was seen on Inchadony’s shore;
And to this day the fisherman shows where the scoffers sank,
And still they call that hillock green “The Virgin Mary’s Bank”.