A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 10: Toe Head

Here’s the latest episode in our series about Napoleonic-era signal towers in West Cork. There are links to the earlier posts at the bottom of this one. That’s Toe Head above – in the far distance, and that view is taken from the signal tower site at Kedge Point, Spain, to the east of Baltimore.

Toe Head itself is a spectacular setting in West Cork: the views, above, show the nature of the terrain, the boreens, and the seascape in the area. So far I have written accounts of nine signal towers: this is the tenth. I’d like to tell you how many of these structures are in West Cork, but that would mean that I would have to geographically define ‘West Cork’. I can’t do that, as there is officially no such area: we are all part of County Cork! All I can do is to let you know that there are nineteen signal tower sites located in the whole County. I have another nine to cover, after this one. But I assure you – Toe Head is definitely in our West Cork!!

Here’s the Toe Head tower – in a sea of black bales. If you have followed the series so far, you will have noticed that each tower is fairly basic, and generally offers the appearance of a medieval castle. But they were all built at the very beginning of the nineteenth century, to provide a system of surveillance and signalling around the coast of Ireland, from Malin Head in the north to Pigeon House Fort, Dalkey, on the east coast. Each signal tower is within view of one – or two – others, depending where it lies on the chain. In the first post in the series, here, I explain the logic and geometry of the project.

The 6″ Ordnance Survey map extract in the upper picture dates from 1842. By this time the use of the tower for signalling had ceased – the Napoleonic invasion threat lasted only through the first few years of the century: many towers became disused after this and some have vanished altogether, although many ruins do remain because of their remote locations. In the case of Toe Head, the building was adapted to incorporate a Coast Guard Station. I am assuming that, originally, the tower was a simple square structure , and the extension to the rear was added to provide additional accommodation for the Coast Guard service. The current aerial view shows newer farm buildings and an access road close by.

If you look at previous posts in this series, you will see that the Toe Head tower is architecturally simpler, with no bartizans or other ornamentation – it’s more like a small Anglican church tower than a ‘castle’. Like many others, it’s clear to see that this building was slate-hung: this form of weather-proofing was probably added at a later date – possibly when the Coast Guard service took it over. At the centre of the view from the window above you can see the Stag Rocks which in the 1980s became the graveyard of the 900ft long Kowloon Bridge, a bulk cargo carrier travelling from Quebec. The ship was disabled by a storm and then abandoned, drifting on to the Stags. A detailed account of the event was posted in the Irish Examiner 30 years later.

The abandoned Wreck of the Kowloon Bridge close by the Stags in November, 1986 (centre picture). The lower picture shows the wreck underwater today (courtesy Aquaventures.ie): she drifted out of control towards the rocks before running aground on the reef. The resulting fuel spill spread out over the Irish coastline causing extensive damage to local wildlife, and financial losses for the local fishing fleet. Apparently, no-one was ever held to account for the environmental disaster.

The Stag Rocks can be seen in my picture above, which shows the current incarnation of a World War II Lookout Post that was put in place close by the older signal tower in 1942. You can read more about these lookouts in this post: they were designed by Howard Cooke RIBA of the Irish Office of Public Works at the outbreak of that war (during which Ireland remained neutral). I mentioned in that same previous post an art installation project carried out in 2014 by Tim Schmelzer of Vienna. His work at Toe Head is particularly impressive, and here are some still shots to illustrate the nature of the artworks, which were created on-site using high-powered projection equipment.

The signal tower ruin today is gaunt and desolate. Nevertheless it’s an atmospheric place to visit. On the slopes below the building is an EIRE sign (officially number 28), also dating from the World War II years, when Irish neutrality had to be spelled out to the warring powers flying overhead. I came across an interesting comment from Anne Wilkinson in 2018, giving a slightly different take on the EIRE signs:

. . . These EIRE signs were also to alert German Pilots and crew who were conscientious objectors and who had overflown the UK, to ditch and parachute to safety. Many airmen lived at the Curragh Camp. They were allowed freedom during the day, eg. they often cycled the lanes and roads to enjoy the peace and quiet and then returned to the Curragh Camp for their curfew hour . . .


And here’s a little enigma to finish off the post (above). It’s graffiti carved on a timber lintel over one of the openings of the signal tower buildings. It’s probably quite recent – dating from ’89 or’99 – but what does it spell out? And why is it here? It’s tempting to say THE GIFT CASTLE but that ‘T‘ after the GIF doesn’t ring true . . . There’s a story there somewhere: perhaps one of our readers can give us a clue! Finally, here’s a distant view of the signal tower, looking across Toe Head.

The previous posts in this series can be found through these links:

Part 1: Kedge Point, Co Cork

Part 2: Ballyroon Mountain, Co Cork

Part 3: Old Head of Kinsale, Co Cork

Part 4: Robert’s Head, Co Cork

Part 5: Downeen, Co Cork

Part 6: Dunnycove

Part 7: Cloghane, Mizen Head

Part 8: Brow Head

Part 9: Glandore Head

An Evanescent Signal Tower – Glandore Head

This is a bit of an epilogue to my Signal Success in Irish Engineering series (although that is not yet complete!). Here is the site of a Napoleonic-era Signal Tower in West Cork – but the tower itself has completely vanished! It’s no 28 on the map which accompanies Bill Clements’ book – Billy Pitt Had Them Built – Napoleonic Towers in Ireland (The Holliwell Press 2013) and it is given the name Glandore Head. We recently visited friends who have a house in the townland of Reenogrena, which is south-east of the village of Glandore and its extensive natural harbour. The topography of the area is soul-stirring – that’s probably an understatement: look at the view of the coastline there, above, and the distant views both west and east, below.

We were fortunate with the day we had. The benign weather gave us a possibly false sense of security as we explored a wild, riven coastline. We could well imagine how exposed we might feel there in one of West Cork’s severe storms: our climate-changing extremes are becoming ever more prevalent. But on this occasion we were confident enough to venture to the very edges of the land, always conscious that humans had settled in these remote places many generations before us.

There is nothing left of the signal tower at Glandore Head, which would have been constructed between 1801 and 1804. The site has now been taken over by a recently built house which enjoys the excellent views in all directions. In the picture below it seems that the tower was located in the area of the earth-sheltered garage. We know more or less where it was because it appears on the earliest Ordnance Survey maps from around 1840. Even by then the structure itself had lost its original function, as the threat of Napoleonic invasion had passed, but it is labelled as a ‘Telegraph’. On the later 25″ map – dating from the late 1800s – the site is marked as ‘Tower in ruins’.

Centre – the earliest 6″ OS map; lower – the later – and far more detailed – 25″ OS map. It’s interesting to compare the two versions. The accuracy of the later map in terms of topographical detail and humanly constructed features – buildings, trackways etc is very noticeable. Below is the contemporary aerial view. 50 years separate the two OS maps, while the satellite image is 100 years later again.

The reason why I like to examine and compare the mapped information is my interest in reading the history of a place through its landscape, and this particular vignette of West Cork is a prime example of the process. Firstly, the signal tower location was chosen because of visibility to other significant places on the coastline which are in view: the towers at Toe Head to the west and Galley Head (Dunnycove) to the east (below).

Next, look at the ‘Coastguard Station’ site. This is marked on the c1840 OS map, but not on the later 25″ map. But that later map does show a number of buildings on that site. As you can see from the aerial view, there are only the remnants of buildings now. Also the older map shows no roadway or track accessing the ‘Coastguard Station’ – it could only be reached by crossing fields. Here’s a closer look at this group of ruined buildings today, followed by some of our photos.

While it is likely that there are old coastguard buildings amongst these ruins, it seemed to us equally possible that we were also looking at the earlier remains of a settlement – cottages and cabins. Records of the area are scant. There’s nothing we found – apart from the OS maps – to give any further light on what we were scrutinising. Surprisingly, very little information is available on the early years of the Irish Coast Guard service, other than its establishment as the Water Guard, or ‘Preventative Boat Service’ in 1809, initially under Navy control but from 1822 part of the Board of Customs. From this we might assume that its purpose was to intercept smuggling operations, rather than to give any assistance to seafarers. Incidentally, it is important to note that in Ireland the name has always been two words: Coast Guard.

It’s easy to see that this hostile coastline – which would not be benign to small fishing boats – would nevertheless attract subversive landings. The only nearby access to the water is Siege Cove, to the east of the Coast Guard site. The upper photo depicts the curiously named Cooscookery inlet – not a good landing point, while the lower is Siege Cove – itself a difficult climb to the fields from sea level. The names of the topographical features would be a good study in themselves – and might reveal some hidden history: Coosnacragaty, Black Hole, Rabbit Cove, and Niladdar. The small burial ground is known as Kilcarrignagat (it means the ‘church at the rock of the cat’). That’s the overgrown trackway leading to it, below. It is of particular interest – partly because you wonder what communities it served, but also because it seems to have been established in a previously existing ring-fort or cashel.

Further yet to the east, and directly above Siege Cove, are the distinct remains of a defensive structure, partly taking in natural outcrops but also built up with stone. This is likely to be indications of the first habitation in this area – perhaps a thousand years ago. There seems to be at least one promontory fort here, and Finola will take up that subject in this locality in future posts (she has already tackled examples elsewhere). It seems to me that this whole coastal region would be worthy of a detailed archaeological study – UCC take note! Meanwhile, we can only express our gratitude to friends Michael and Jane for introducing us to the many wonders of their own territory.

Addendum: After I had published this post I discovered an excellent photograph of Siege Cove and the coastline in this area taken from the sea. I cannot find a contact for the photographer. I do know his name is Tim, and that he publishes an occasional diary of his journeys in a boat (an Ilur based, I believe, In Glandore). I hope he won’t mind me publishing this and including a link to his website.

A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 6: Dunnycove

Galley Head, in West Cork, is one of those wild and exposed headlands where you get exceptional views in all directions. In our hunt for Napoleonic-era signal towers on the Irish coast you would fully expect to find one of the towers here – but no! A lighthouse and lightkeepers’ cottages – yes. These date from around 1875 but, in the early years of the nineteenth century, the strategically important signal tower was built inland, in the nearby townland of Dunnycove.

The header picture shows what remains of the tower itself today. This has in fact been adapted over the years, and the original building conformed to the square tower pattern that we have investigated elsewhere (a good example is at the old Head of Kinsale). The upper picture (above) shows the lighthouse at Galley Head seen from high ground to the east, while the lower picture is an aerial view of the Dunnycove signal tower site in its wider surroundings. Below is an 1806 map of the ‘. . . Ground occupied by the Signal Tower and Road leading to it at Galley Head . . .’ This tower is often referred to as the Galley Head Tower, even though it is some distance inland from the Head. But it is well placed to command views to the towers in the communication chain immediately to the west (Glandore) and east (Seven Heads).

The curious profile of the site as marked out on this early map shows a segmental shaped area to the south of the tower. It is likely that this was where the signal mast itself was situated. I am intrigued by the descriptions of the surrounding land: ‘good Meadow’, ‘Indifferent Pasture’, ‘Very Good Pasture Ground’ and ‘Arable good Ground’. Also, on the left of the survey drawing appears to be a table of land values, and the statement that ‘The Road is already made to this Tower and has very good ditches on each side of it, and is 312 perches long’. The road is in good condition today, as the site has been developed with a cottage and modern studio:

There’s nothing better than good local knowledge when you are trying to piece together a historic jigsaw puzzle. We were delighted to run into Billy Sheehan working in his neighbouring garden. it didn’t take long to establish that his own family had been involved in the signal tower site for generations, and had been connected to the local Coast Guard which had used the tower as a lookout point after the original building had fallen into disuse. Here’s Billy and myself, below. Under us is an extract from the 25″ Ordnance Survey map, drawn between 1888 and 1913. Note how on this map the signal tower site itself has changed since 1806, with many more buildings, a ‘flagstaff’ and a ‘semaphore’ indicated. These all undoubtedly date from the Coast Guard use of the site – you can also see the Coast Guard Station indicated below the tower: there are just a few masonry pillars left at that location today.

This is the ramp leading down to the water at Ballycusheen Strand, not far from Dunnycove. The pig is a well-known local landmark! I was interested to see the reference to ‘semaphore’ on the OS map, outside the original signal tower enclosure. This word recurs frequently in discussions about signal towers. Theoretically, any visual signalling system is an ‘optical semaphore’, but the term is likely to be more specific here and probably refers to an updated mechanical system rather than the ‘flag and ball’ method generally used in the early 19th century, when the signal stations were run by sailors or retired naval men who were well used to reading flag signals through high quality telescopes. There’s a volume to be written on how long-distance signalling evolved over many centuries – not just in Ireland but across Europe and beyond, beginning, perhaps, with The Scottish Parliament passing an Act in 1455 that said:

One bale, or faggot, shall be warning of the approach of the English. Two bales that they were actually coming and four bales, blazing side by side, shall note that the enemy is in great force.

There is a record of Robert Hooke, ‘curator of experiments’ at the Royal Society, proposing a system that combined a telescope and signalling in 1684. One of the important names that surfaces here in Ireland is Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744 – 1817).  An inventor and writer, Edgeworth was the son of an Anglo-Irish landlord whose family gave their name to the town of Edgeworthstown, Co Longford; he studied at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1767 he placed a bet with his friend, the horse racing gambler Lord March, that he could transmit knowledge of the outcome of a race in just one hour. Using a network of signalling sections erected on high ground, the signal would be observed from one station to the next by means of a telescope. The signal itself consisted of a large pointer that could be placed into eight possible positions in 45 degree increments. A series of two such signals gave a total 64 code elements and a third signal took it up to 512.

Edgeworth (perhaps best known for fathering the writer Maria Edgeworth (1768 – 1849) – one of his 22 children) termed his device a ‘Tellograph’. In November 1794 the most impressive demonstration of his invention used 30-foot-high Tellographs to communicate between Donaghadee, Ireland and Port Patrick, Scotland (about 40 miles). In France at the same time the Chappe brothers succeeded in covering that country with a network of 556 stations stretching a total distance of 4,800 kilometres (3,000 miles). Le système Chappe was used for military and national communications until the 1850s.

Le système Chappe (above). French technology is demonstrated in the 1790s – the very time the First French Republic was threatening the least defensible part of the British Isles – Ireland – and emphasised by the attempts of Wolfe Tone to land a French fleet in Bantry Bay in December 1796. That landing was a failure – due to atrocious weather – but it did, perhaps, wake the British authorities to the wisdom of guarding the Irish coastline. The signal tower system was a hastily devised result of this.

There’s a lot going on at the Dunnycove Signal Station site: the setting remains clearly laid out based on the 1806 plan, and the dominating view is due south. Parts of the original building remain although much has been altered including an external staircase and the surrounding structures.

The upper picture shows a distant view towards the signal station complex: it is on the highest point in the immediate landscape. Next is the view from the present top of the old tower, looking across the segment-shaped land which once held the signal mast and – later – the ‘semaphore’, most likely used to communicate with the Coast Guards below: beyond is the ocean. In 1837 Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland had this to say about the area:

. . . In the R C divisions this parish is the head of a union or district, comprising the parishes of Ardfield and Rathbarry, in each of which is a chapel; that of Ardfield is a low, plain, but commodious edifice, situated on the commons. There are schools in which 140 boys and 170 girls are taught, also a school at Dunny Cove, a Sunday school under the superintendence of the vicar, and one or two hedge schools. The ruins of the old church are situated on the highest point of land in the parish; and near them is a building which during the war was used as a signal tower, but is now the residence of Lieut. Speck, who commands the coast-guard at Dunny Cove. Close to the Cove are the ruins of a castle . . .

It seems to me that this site, in particular, has so many stories to tell us. Not just about the one period in history that caused the building of the original tower, but also about how a community has developed and adapted around that building. After the close of the Napoleonic era, when the threat of invasion receded, the tower retained its significance as a high place from which observations can be made. The Water Guard (which became the Coast Guard) took it over and it has remained a dwelling place for families ever since. Billy Sheehan is testament to this ‘living’ history, and the old stonework survives to tell where meals were cooked – where sleeping, waking and working became the rhythm of life for generations on this West Cork hilltop.

Please note that Dunnycove Signal Station is a private property and permission to access it must be sought from the owner

The previous posts in this series can be found through these links:

Part 1: Kedge Point, Co Cork

Part 2: Ballyroon Mountain, Co Cork

Part 3: Old Head of Kinsale, Co Cork

Part 4: Robert’s Head, Co Cork

Part 5: Downeen, Co Cork