Castle Island – Facts and Fictions

That’s Castle Island, above, beyond Gaelic Lord Finnin O’Mahony’s dilapidated realm at the entrance to Rossbrin Cove, in Roaringwater Bay. In the fifteenth century there would have been a hive of activity at Rossbrin: quays alive with fishing activity, boats being repaired and prepared, houses, stores and cellars – all full. Castle Island itself would also have been inhabited in those days, as were many of Carbery’s Hundred Isles. Skeam West – to the east of Castle, and roughly in the centre of all the islands of Roaringwater Bay, has the remnants of a church said to date from the ninth century (Fahy – Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, Volume 67, 1962).

Upper – Castle island with its close neighbours in Roaringwater Bay; lower – the ancient church on nearby Skeam West, drawn by Fahy in 1962 (courtesy Cork Historical and Archaeological Society). Fahy suggested a ninth century date for this structure, although other commentators have suggested an earlier origin, possibly even before St Patrick’s time

We set foot on Castle Island for the first time in August of last year – during a reprieve in the Covid lockdown measures. Those days seem halcyon now, compared to our current scourge and severe restrictions. We have not been able to return, but I am setting out to bring my reporting a bit more up to date, as I have been provided with further information from a range of sources.

Approaching Castle Island in 2020: upper – view of the island from the shore in Rossbrin townland; centre – proceeding to the island from Rossbrin Cove; lower – the quay on Castle Island, reportedly built in the early 20th century by the Congested Districts Board: “…the beach that it is laid upon was the best natural landing point on the island, well sheltered from the Atlantic swell …” (Mark Wycliff Samuel – The Tower House of West Cork, UCL 1998)

The history of the population of Castle Island is enigmatic and somewhat contradictory. Here is a quotation copied from the Ireland Byways site but uncredited and undated; I can find no other link containing the same information, but it must originally have been written when the island was still inhabited:

. . . Castle Island (Meadhon Inis – “middle island”) lies about 2km offshore, east of the mouth of Schull Harbour on the Mizen Peninsula. The island derives its English name from a ruined C14th Tower House, one of 12 built by the powerful O’Mahony clan in the area. The 1837 census recorded 89 people living on the island. At present there are fewer than 30 permanent residents, who make their living from farming . . .

quoted by ireland byways.co.uk

You will find some accounts which suggest that Castle Island was inhabited only up to the 1870s. These are incorrect: there is no doubt that the island was the home to a number of families in the 1890s as they suffered evictions then. It also seems questionable that the expense of constructing a substantial pier could have been justified only for the benefit of those who might run their cattle and sheep on a deserted island (as happens today). It is possible, therefore, that regular population of the island continued into the early years of the 20th century.

The remains of substantial houses exist on Castle island today: some do not seem to be as ruinous as would be expected if they had been unoccupied for well over 100 years

Recently, my attention was drawn to a Land Register folio recording the title for one of the parcels of land comprising Castle Island: ” . . . a burden, dated April 14, 1904, indicates that the property was transferred at that time subject to the right of . . . Jeremiah Regan to be supported clothed and maintained in the dwellinghouse on the said lands . . . ” That would imply, for sure, that there was at least one person who had the right to live on the island in the twentieth century.

Details from the ruined houses at the settlement of Wester, Castle Island: upper – brick and render chimney stack in reasonable condition; centre – elements from timber window frames still in existence; lower – traces of paint on an internal rendered wall

Accounts of the evictions which occurred on Castle Island have been well summarised in a Mizen Journal article by Liam O’Regan in Volume 6, 1998. The article is much too long to be included here, but it’s worth anyone’s while ferreting it out to get a vividly descriptive picture of the island in the 1890s.

Here’s a brief summary of the eviction story: the villain is on the left, above – he is Thomas Henry Marmion JP, principle landlord of Castle Island. He lived from 1839 to 1921 and – incidentally – his father (who had the same name) was said to have been responsible for providing the ‘soup kitchen’ at the Steam Mill, Skibbereen during the Great Famine of the 1840s. Notwithstanding this, recorded history does not have much that’s good to say about the Marmions, who in the eighteenth century had been land agents for the Bechers and Townsends. At the beginning of March 1890 (as reported, somewhat floridly, in the Cork County Eagle):

. . . A few days ago, the sheriff’s officer from Skibbereen made his appearance in Schull, surrounded by a force of police, on an evicting expedition. After a short delay, they proceeded to the water’s edge where their galleys were found to await them and the sheriff’s representative having secured himself in one of the crafts, the whole party proceeded to sea for a distance of some three miles when they landed on Castle island. This wild and sea-washed home of a few small farmers and fishermen is the property of Mr Thomas Henry Marmion . . . whose interest in recent years appears more of an incumberance or embarrassment than any advantage as the poor creatures who live in it (misnamed farmers) and on the many islands surrounding it, have to live chiefly on the profits of the sea. The fortification of Jerry Nugent was the first laid siege by the invading army, Jerry’s offence being that he owed a few years’ rent which he found impossible to pay and he was, therefore, sent adrift on the sea-washed rocks where he had a full view of the passing emigrant ships which will probably bear him away to seek out a livelihood in the land of the stranger . . .

Cork County Eagle, march 7th, 1890

There’s much more – and it’s a harrowing story – not untypical, of course, of what was happening all over Ireland during the nineteenth century. In the portrait gallery, above, the figure in the middle is a ‘hero’: he is William O’Brien MP, a founder of the National League who, in September 1890 visited West Cork and held a meeting on Middle Calf island to support the case of tenants evicted from Castle Island and the Calves. On the right is James Gilhooly, MP, Bantry, who was chairman of the ‘All for Ireland League’ and who strongly supported the Castle Island tenants and attended many official meetings on their behalf. Matters rumbled on laboriously into the mid 1890s: eventually, it seems that the introduction of new land purchase acts (benefitting tenants), enabled six tenants to return to, and continue to occupy, Castle Island. As yet I have found no further records to help us establish how long occupation of this sparse rocky outcrop in Roaringwater Bay continued into the twentieth century.

The Mizen Journal, Volume 5 1997, has published a study by Anthony Beese of the place-names on Castle Island. I have been unable to locate this article online, but here is Anthony’s excellent map, above.

When we visited the island on a brooding August day we sensed its many ghosts, perhaps including those who returned over a hundred years ago and, possibly, lived out their working lives there. I have called this post ‘Facts and Fictions’ . . . You have had the facts. After I wrote my first post, last year, I received a communication from a writer: William Wall. I was delighted to learn that he had written a book – Grace’s Day – published in 2018, part of which is set on Castle Island. I obtained the book and read it avidly: it has opened up for me a new dimension in the story of the island – and it’s thoroughly believable.

. . . A long time ago I had two sisters and we lived on an island. There was me and Jeannie and Em. They called me Grace, but I have never had much of that. I was an awkward child. I still am all these years later. Our house had two doors, one to the south, one to the north. Its garden looked towards the setting sun. It was a garden of apple trees and fuchsia and everything in it leaned away from the wind. Dry stone walls encircled it and sheep and children broke them down. My mother lived there with us. Boats came and went bringing food and sometimes sheep, and there were times when we lived by catching fish and rabbits, though we were not so good at either . . .

Grace’s Day – a novel by William Wall, published by new island books 2018

William Wall is familiar with West Cork: he has stayed here many times, and has visited Castle Island. It’s not just the island, but the whole story of 1960s West Cork that has been his inspiration. Readers of this Journal will be aware of my own interest in the days when Ballydehob became the hub of an artists’ community: I have helped to set up the Ballydehob Arts Museum, which has celebrated this era and is now in ‘suspended animation’ due to the Covid outbreak. I also look after a website for the Museum. Grace’s Day is set in this era, and follows the unconventional lives of a family who is ‘getting away from it all’ and trying to survive following the then prevalent bible of self-sufficiency. It’s perfectly feasible that an abandoned island in Roaringwater Bay could be the setting for such a romantic pursuit of ideals. I won’t give away any spoilers, but one more extract could help to persuade you that this book is for you. You should find it in all good bookshops: please support them in these tricky times.

. . . One day on our island my sister Jeannie ran in to say that she had seen a whale in the sound and I ran out after her, my mother calling me: Grace, it’s your day, take Em. But I was too excited. And there were three fin whales making their way into the rising tide. We heard their breathing. It carried perfectly in the still grey air, reflected back at us now by the low cloud. The sea was still and burnished. We ran along the rocks watching for their breaching. We decided it was a mother, a father and a calf. They were in no hurry. When we reached the beacon, a small unlit concrete marker indicating the western edge of the island, we watched them breaching and diving into the distance until we could see them no more. But they left behind their calmness and the unhurried but forceful sound of their blows . . .

GRACE’S DAY – A NOVEL BY WILLIAM WALL, PUBLISHED BY NEW ISLAND BOOKS 2018
Our own view of Castle Island in the distance, surreally shadowed by the full moon’s glimmer, while the Fastnet Lighthouse winks away on the horizon

Forgotten Hero – Michael Davitt

Straide, Co Mayo - Michael Davitt's statue outside the museum dedicated to him

Straide, Co Mayo – Michael Davitt’s statue outside the museum dedicated to him

On our recent travels in Mayo we chanced upon a little museum in a rural situation. I was fascinated by the setting: housed in an old church adjoining the ruins of a 13th century abbey (which itself has some fine medieval carvings). The church has been restored specifically to accommodate the museum, which tells the story of Michael Davitt – who was born close to the site of the museum in 1846, and was buried right behind it in 1906.

Sixty years: a relatively short life – but years filled with remarkable achievement pursuing the causes of basic human rights and of freedom for Ireland. Years filled, also, with considerable hardships.

eviction

Eviction

The village of Straide, in County Mayo, was hard hit by the famine – The Great Hunger – when Michael was born: a disaster that led to starvation and forced emigration for millions of Irish people. The Davitts were no exception to this. When he was only four years old Michael witnessed his own family being evicted from their cottage because they were unable to pay the rent to the landlord. He watched while their few possessions were piled on to the lane and their home was flattened.

Michael Davitt Museum exhibits

Evicted families had little choice: starvation, the workhouse or emigration. The Davitts took the latter course, arriving in Liverpool in November 1850. From there they travelled on foot to Haslingden in Lancashire and settled in the closed world of a poor, Irish immigrant community with strong nationalist feelings and a deep hatred of ‘landlordism’.

At the age of ten, Michael was sent to work in a local cotton mill. At the age of eleven his right arm was entangled in the machinery of a spinning machine and had to be amputated. There was no compensation for accidents suffered by child labourers in the Victorian world, nor – indeed – very much concern or compassion for the conditions suffered by the working classes generally in the British Empire at that time.

Lancashire cotton mill c1900

Lancashire cotton mill c1900

Michael was fortunate as his plight was noticed by a local benefactor, John Dean, who helped him to gain an education in a Wesleyan school. When he left the school at fifteen, Michael Davitt secured a job in a post office and learned to become a typesetter. He also started night classes at the local Mechanics Institute and used its library, where he read extensively about Irish history, contemporary Irish life and radicalist views on land nationalisation and Irish independence.

One of Michael Davitt's campaigning newspapers

One of Michael Davitt’s campaigning newspapers

In 1865 Michael joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Two years later he left his job to devote himself full-time to the IRB, as secretary for Northern England and Scotland, organising covert arms smuggling to Ireland. He was arrested in London in 1870, convicted of treason and sentenced to 15 years of penal servitude in Dartmoor Prison.

Dartmoor Prison - hard labour

Dartmoor Prison – hard labour! (Harper’s Encyclopaedia)

While imprisoned he came to the conclusion, recorded in his Leaves from a Prison Diary, that violence was self defeating and he became an advocate of agitation through non-violence: years later  Mahatma Gandhi cited Davitt as a major influence in the creation of his own peaceful resistance movement.

Ghandi visiting a cotton mill in Lancashire, 1931

Gandhi visiting a cotton mill in Lancashire, 1931

Eventually in Westminster the Irish Parliamentary Party began to campaign against cruelty inflicted on political prisoners and pressed for an amnesty for detained Irish nationalists. Partially due to public furore over their treatment, Davitt and other prisoners were released in 1877 on a ticket of leave: Michael had served seven and a half years. He and the other prisoners were given a hero’s welcome when they returned to Ireland.

'Licence to be at large'

‘Licence to be at large’

For the rest of his life Michael Davitt was devoted to the causes he believed in. In Ireland the Land League became a reality and eventually Irish tenant farmers were enabled to buy their freeholds with UK government loans through the Land Commission. County Councils in Ireland were also able to build over 40,000 new rural cottages, each on an acre of land. By 1914, 75% of occupiers were buying out their landlords. In all, over 316,000 tenants purchased their holdings, amounting to 15 million acres out of a total of 20 million acres in the country. This set the pattern of small owner-occupied farms that we see all around us today in rural Ireland – a system that has long struggled to be economically efficient, but which allows independence and self-pride, which the landlord system certainly did not.

Independent Ireland

Independent Ireland

Michael Davitt was not able to see the realisation of his vision for Ireland, but he played an important part in the movements that enabled it: many historians say that his role was central to it. Such were his energies and beliefs that he involved himself in universal human rights movements, and advocated for more than just the oppressed Irish. He said women should have the right to vote; he spoke out for labour unions and helped found the British Labour Party. He served in Parliament, wrote numerous books, founded newspapers and travelled the world speaking for the underprivileged everywhere. He spoke out against anti-Semitism and supported the Boer fight for freedom in Africa.

I had never heard of Michael Davitt (Finola had): it seems his name was erased from Irish history for a while because of disagreements with other campaigners. Fortunately, that wrong has now been righted, and we have this museum in his memory – celebrating his life and work and open seven days a week all through the year. There is a life-sized bronze statue outside it. Recently a new bridge in Mayo has been named after him. As a man he didn’t seek personal acclaim: he wanted his funeral to be unassuming, yet over 20,000 people filed past his coffin. At Davitt’s grave a Celtic Cross in his memory bears the words Blessed is he that hungers and thirsts after justice, for he shall receive it.

The new Michael Davitt Bridge, connecting Achill Island with the mainland - courtesy Polranny Pirates

The new Michael Davitt Bridge, connecting Achill Island with the mainland – courtesy Polranny Pirates

Davit wrote in his will: To all my friends I leave kind thoughts, to my enemies the fullest possible forgiveness and to Ireland an undying prayer for the absolute freedom and independence which it was my life’s ambition to try and obtain for her…

MichaelDavittStampHR

For his group, Patrick Street, musician Andy Irvine penned a song about Michael Davitt: his memory lives on…

O Forgotten Hero in peace may you rest

Your heart was always with the poor and the oppressed

A prison cell could never quell the courage you possessed