A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 4: Robert’s Head

I suppose this – our fourth venture into the world of Irish signal towers from the Napoleonic era – has a distinctive resonance with me! Of the 84 signalling sites around Ireland, only five bear a personal name: John’s Point, Co Donegal; Brandon Head (Brendan), Co Kerry, Sybil Head, Co Kerry; Barry’s Head, Co Cork; and this one – Robert’s Head, Co Cork.

As you can see on this aerial view, the headland on which the signal tower stands is named after Robert’s Cove – Cuainín Riobaird – close by. The Cove, a small village, is a popular weekend escape and holiday destination which has two pubs and a former coastguard station, possibly dating from 1863.

Highlights of Robert’s Cove: the old milepost on the top is non-committal about the apostrophe! The former Coastguard Station (now a private residence) is the building on the left in this picture, above

I wondered how this cove got its name, and was rewarded by a search in A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland by Samuel Lewis, 1837:

Ballyfoil, a parish, in the barony of Kinnalea, county of Cork, and province of Munster, 10 miles from Kinsale; containing 1291 inhabitants . . . comprises 1304 statute acres, as applotted under the tithe act. The soil is fertile, and about one-half of the land is under tillage; the remainder is in dairy farms. The system of agriculture is improved; the only manure is sea-sand, which is brought into Rocky Bay and Roberts’ Cove, two small coves in the parish, in large boats, of which several are employed in this trade. At Roberts’ Cove is a valuable slate quarry, belonging to Sir Thomas Roberts, Bart., but it is not worked to any considerable extent. Britfieldstown, the seat of Sir Thomas Roberts, Bart., is pleasantly situated in a secluded spot above Roberts’ Cove . . . The Cove affords a commodious shelter for vessels of 200 tons’ burden, which occasionally arrive laden with coal, and return with cargoes of slate. The coast-guard station here is the most westerly of the eight stations that constitute the district of Cove. A little to the west, on the summit of Roberts’ Head, is a ruined signal tower, from which is an interesting and extensive prospect. It is an impropriate curacy, in the diocese of Cork, and is part of the union of Tracton, where the Protestant inhabitants attend divine worship . . . The tithes amount to £109. 4. 6. . . The church has long been a ruin . . . there is also a hedge school in the parish . . .

In this 1842 Ordnance Survey map of the area, the site of the signal station is marked. Britfieldstown House, the seat of the Roberts family, was situated further to the north. In 1851 the estate was sold on behalf of Sir Thomas Howland Roberts, ‘…an insolvent debtor…’ It became derelict in the 1970s and the only survivals now are remnants of a walled garden and a derelict gate lodge. It’s interesting that the apostrophe has been changed – on this map – to indicate a singular ‘Robert’ rather than the ‘Roberts’ family, whereas the 1837 Topographical Dictionary entry clearly implies the naming as ‘Roberts’. 

A closer aerial view of the signal tower clearly shows the extent of the remaining buildings, although all ruinous

The visible buildings on the signal tower site are extensive, and imply that this station was in use beyond the time of the Napoleonic invasion threat: many of the other stations were stood down around 1810 and became derelict soon after, mainly due to their remote exposed locations and the ravages of the weather. Interestingly they do not generally appear to have suffered from stone ‘robbing’ in the same way that medieval tower houses did.

The complex of buildings on the Robert’s Head site showing (from upper picture) north-west, north-east, south-east and south-west elevations. I think it’s very likely that the highest part of the structure is based on the original signal tower, and contains much of that early structure: the raised entrance (north-east elevation) follows the general pattern, but there are no bartizans or machiolations. These could well have been replaced in later reconstructions, when a pitched roof was added. Clues that much of the original masonry has been retained lie in the back wall – thickened at the centre to incorporate a chimney flue – and remnants of external vertical slate-hanging, a method of weatherproofing evident in many other towers.

I can provide no answers as to why the extensions were added: it has been suggested that these are late 19th or early 20th century works. But the resulting building is substantial – now just a gaunt shell on a windy hill. It’s possible that the station was used as a lookout by the coast-guards based down in Robert’s Cove. Stuart Rathbone (Irish Signal Stations), writing about the Mizen Head station, observes:

The enclosed signal station at Mizen Head, County Cork, features a well preserved three storey building that is now believed to be a replacement for the original signal tower. The building is very similar to the example at Robert’s Head, County Cork. It has tall gabled walls and a large single storey building wrapping around the south east and north east sides . . .

In the early years of the 20th century a fog signal station had been established at Mizen Head, Co Cork, and was probably based on the original signal tower building there; the project also involved building accommodation for the additional crew members required at that time. It is possible that the enlargement of the earlier buildings at Robert’s Head happened in the same period, and for a similar purpose: establishing a signalling and communications base connected to the local coast-guard activities. Those works appear to have included accommodation, office and workshop space, with stores, a toilet and a large concrete water cistern adjacent to the south east wall.

Amenities established in the later reconstruction: a probable outside ‘privvy’ (upper) and ‘shovelling out hatch’ (middle), with large water cistern (lower)

Internal features are difficult to describe definitively, but in likelihood include a hearth / cooking range, living and sleeping quarters with rendered walls providing a level of comfort above that found in the early signal towers. Now, after years of abandonment, the surfaces have been embellished with graffiti and lichen growth, all imparting a compelling visual patina: the place is alive with its own decay. Even the texture of the masonry itself is evolving in a compulsively fascinating way as centuries of abrasive winter gales take their toll.

Access to the site is along farm tracks – don’t forget to seek permission if you intend to visit. With all of the towers we have explored so far, the roadways leading to them have survived intact, and have been well made and metalled – in this case solidly crafted with slate probably quarried in Robert’s Cove.

I feel we have been privileged to explore an actively disintegrating artefact of Ireland’s engineering history. More than most, perhaps, this signal tower has absorbed the lives of those it sheltered, and we can meet them there, in our imaginations. It’s a raw place, and it won’t be there forever. In time it will be no more than the scattered piles of stone that we saw at Ballyroon. But in our brief lifetimes, through tempest and contagion, it will continue its slow decline into the dust of the earth largely unseen and unmourned.

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

A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 3: Old Head of Kinsale

Don’t you wish, sometimes, that you could just walk into history? I have felt that, often, when visiting historic sites: you see the remnants of something – a stone circle, rock art, an ancient dwelling, a battle site – and you just want to be able to go back in time and talk to the people who made them, or who visited them. You want to ask, of course, why the most enigmatic monuments were built – and what was it like to be there in those days?

In my posts of the last two weeks we have visited some 19th century signal tower sites in West Cork. The first example, at Kedge Point near Baltimore, is a shell but there is sufficient of it to see exactly what it looked like, set high up on its lonely perch looking out over the cliffs. Last week we walked towards the westernmost end of the Sheep’s Head Peninsula to find scant ruins of a tower there, but with very fine vistas in all directions.

This time we are looking at another signal tower – on the Old Head of Kinsale – but it’s not a ruin. It has been fully reconstructed so that it is exactly as it was in its heyday. At the Old Head we truly can walk into history!

I think I’m probably safe in saying that there isn’t another museum dedicated to the Irish signal towers anywhere in the whole world! And it’s pretty special that the museum has been created by restoring an existing signal tower. And – when we visited – we were lucky enough to meet JJ who – it can reasonably be said – was the driving force behind the whole project.

James Joseph Hayes at the Old Head of Kinsale signal tower, July 2020

Ten years ago West Cork development Partnership were looking for projects which would benefit the area, encourage economic activity and attract visitors. JJ gained support from enthusiasts locally and proposed establishing a heritage centre at the site of the old signal tower, which was at that time a substantial ruin. As the Old Head is also the closest point to the wreck of the RMS Lusitania, which was sunk by a German torpedo in May 1915, the idea was also advanced that the heritage centre could also encompass the story of that tragedy. The whole idea caught the public imagination and, after five years of hard work, came to fruition. The fully restored building was opened in time to commemorate the centenary of the Lusitania’s sinking.

Evolution of a ruined tower, and the birth of a significant memorial to a WW I tragedy through the celebration of a little known aspect of Irish engineering in the Napoleonic era

JJ Hayes and the team he gathered around him have to be congratulated on their aspirations, and on their tenacity in realising their dreams in such a professional manner. They have brought the signal tower back to life using sound and sustainable construction techniques which are completely appropriate to the building type and will ensure that it will survive long into the future. In this video you can watch a first hand account of the restoration work, narrated by the construction Project Manager, Brandon Duarte:

There are so many creative elements to this project: beyond the building a Lusitania Memorial Garden has been laid out as a contemporary work of art, the centrepiece of which is a 20 metre long bronze sculpture by artists Liam Lavery and Eithne Ring. We featured another example of their work earlier this year. This work contains the names of all the one thousand nine hundred and sixty two passengers and crew who were on board the ship on that fateful day. Twelve hundred perished.

Lusitania Memorial Garden, with Sculpted artwork commemorating the victims of the sinking

The centrepiece of the Memorial Garden is a rigged ship’s mast. This is placed roughly where the original signal mast associated with this tower would have been – the focal point for sending and receiving signals over two hundred years ago. This mast is from the Sail Training Vessel Astrid – a 42 metre long tall ship which started life in the Netherlands in 1918 but sadly ended by foundering just outside Kinsale Harbour on 24 July 2013. Fortunately, in this case, all on board were rescued. It is apposite, perhaps that these many nautical links are brought together at this centre as all the signal towers are believed to have been manned by sailors or retired sailors who relied in their day on good systems of communication – systems which evolved rapidly through history.

From the Old Head of Kinsale Tower, which is number 25 of the 81 that were built around the coast of Ireland you can see tower number 26, which is on the Seven Heads peninsula, 13 kilometres to the south west (above and view from the tower parapet, below). Again, we can only admire the quality of the optical devices used to see and clearly read the flag and ball signals at such a distance. In fact, the whole subject of signalling and communication – particularly in association with these Irish stations – is worthy of a future post of its own. Keep watching out!

The Old Head of Kinsale Signal Tower and Lusitania Museum has opened for the summer season following closure during the Covid19 lockdown. Systems are in place to ensure health and safety and social distancing. Follow the link to this website for full information on opening hours and directions

A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 2: Ballyroon Mountain

Following on from last week’s account of Kedge Point signal tower, our second foray in search of Ireland’s coastal communication stations dating from the early years of the nineteenth century takes us to the Sheep’s Head Peninsula in West Cork. The waymarked trail that passes the now ruined Ballyroon Mountain signal tower is on the Sheep’s Head Way and is fully accessible from the parking area at Fáilte Faill Bheag (if walking from east to west), or from the Cupán Tae tea-room parking area at the very end of the road (if walking from west to east). Although there is very little of this signal tower left standing – it was largely destroyed by a storm in 1990 – the walk itself is a visually stimulating experience, not to be missed! As with the majority of the remaining signal station sites, the location here is on high ground with prominent panoramic views in all directions.

When walking the off-road Sheep’s Head Way trails, please remember that dogs are not allowed: this is one of the conditions that have been agreed with landowners when the trail routes were negotiated, so it must be respected by all users.

These two aerial images show the remote setting of this signal station. The site was developed a little over two hundred years ago, and one of the necessities was providing a firm trackway along which to bring building materials, and also to provide efficient access to and from the signal tower when in use. In the top image, also, you can make out a substantial walled field to the south of the tower: this would have been used to pen ponies or donkeys and – possibly – a goat for milk.

The track that served the signal station in its heyday has become the ‘green road’ that takes you there today. In bad weather it’s a bit wet underfoot in places, but otherwise it is a joy to walk and, on a good clear day, provides spectacular views in all directions. Look out for the other signal towers that can be seen from this site: Cloghane on Mizen Head, Mallavoge on Brow Head, Derrycreeveen on the Beara Peninsula, and Knock, which is an inland site near Lowertown, Schull.

In the upper picture here you are looking back towards the vestigial Ballyroon signal tower from the higher ground on the footpath from the Cupán Tae tea-room, while the lower picture shows the ‘pimple’ on the horizon which is the Cloghane signal tower at Mizen Head seen from Ballyroon.

The upper picture shows the Mallavoge signal tower at Brow Head (more about that site here), while the Knock signal tower is seen in the middle picture, which was taken close to the start of the Ballyroon Mountain trail. Both these photographs have the benefit of a modern zoom camera lens, but imagine how good the optics of the telescopes needed to be for those who manned the towers in the early 1800s. Not only did these silhouettes have to be clearly defined, but the flag and ball signals that were put up on the associated masts had to be readable. The lower picture looks north across Doo Lough towards Bere Island, where there were extensive fortifications in Napoleonic times, including a signal tower. Below is a photo of the Malin Head signal station, Co Donegal, dating from 1902 (National Library of Ireland Collection). There the station was kept in use for strategic purposes long after the Napoleonic era and became the site for one of Marconi’s telegraph stations. While the flags in this picture are not from the earlier times, it gives you some idea of what had to be picked out from a great distance. By eye, put the scale of the tower in this photo to the scale of the distant towers in the images  above: it’s hard to fathom how accuracy was possible yet messages were dispatched and received successfully. It evidently took about four minutes to put up a message on the mast: allowing for reading and deciphering, I would expect a message to be sent from Sheep’s Head to Cork via 11 towers in about an hour, or all the way to Dublin via 33 towers in three hours. This would depend on daylight and good visibility at all times.

The most comprehensive map of Ireland’s signal tower distrIbution that I have found so far is this one drawn for the authoritative book on the subject Billy Pitt had them built: Napoleonic towers in Ireland by Bill Clements, The Holliwell Press 2013. This clearly shows that invasion was expected to come from the west or south, rather than from the more naturally protected north-east coast.

The selection of photographs above shows the state of the ruined tower at Ballyroon Mountain today (2020). Although there’s not much of a structure left it’s still a poignant memorial to those who built and operated this and all the other links in the communication chain that substantially encircles the coastline of Ireland. It’s a legacy well worth celebrating, and we are fortunate in Cork County that we have so many examples of the building type, some of which, like this one, are accessible to visitors. We will be exploring more of them in due course. To neatly finish off this post, here is an exquisite drawing of the Ballyroon tower executed by our friend Peter Clarke who writes the Hikelines series. It’s a lovely sketch which, for me, captures the slightly edgy romanticism of this beguiling location. Thank you, Peter.

Next time: Signal Towers Part 3 – Walking into history!

A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 1: Kedge Point

At first sight this gaunt ruin on the West Cork coastline could be taken for a medieval fortified house or castle, but we can date its construction very precisely – to 1805, and we also know its purpose: long-distance communication. It was only put to use for a few years, and has been derelict at least twenty times as long as it was ever in service. It’s a signal station, one of over eighty similar structures around the whole coastline of Ireland, an initiative which represented a major engineering feat of its time.

This watercolour sketch by surveyor Sir William Smith is invaluable: it dates from 1808 and shows a signal station in use in its heyday. This one is at Malin Head on the Donegal coast, Ulster, and shows the elements which would have been common to all of the stations: a signal mast, a defended tower and a ‘guard house and barrack’ – probably also an equipment store. The signal tower bears a striking resemblance to the Irish ‘tower house’ or castle dating from several hundred years earlier, with its bartizans, machicolation, base wall batter and raised entrance, All these features were practical as the towers were military installations built in the times of the Napoleonic Wars. The cartoon (below) dates from 1805 and encapsulates the fear of invasion that swept over Britain in the early 19th century. Balloons, kites, flotillas of troopships and a channel tunnel were all envisaged as ways in which the French might conquer these islands! Humorous though this may seem, France had already used military balloons in the 1790s, and Bonaparte appointed Madam Blanchard as his ‘air service chief’, though she told him an aerial invasion would probably fail because of adverse winds.

Since Theobald Wolfe Tone and the Society of United Irishmen attempted to rally France behind the Irish cause in the 1790s, Ireland was seen as a possible focus for the feared invasion, and led to the British Admiralty constructing the system of signal stations as observation posts, together with 50 Martello towers, each maintaining a garrison of troops, officers and heavy artillery. The principal purpose of the signal towers was to keep watch on the coasts and to rapidly send signals around the country if unrecognised shipping was seen. Each tower, therefore, had to be within sight of one or more of its neighbours in both directions. The average distance between towers was 13.5km, although here in West Cork the towers at Brow Head and Mizen Head are only 3.8km apart. Ireland’s coastline is about 1,400km long, depending how you measure it.

Various combinations of flags and canvas ‘balls’ could be quickly assembled on the signal masts and, with the use of a code book (above) fairly complex messages might be circulated. Another vital piece of equipment, of course, was a high quality telescope. As the Navy had such essential apparatus – and the experienced personnel to use it – the Irish signal towers were largely manned by active or retired sailors.

We set out to explore some of the signal stations close to us in West Cork. Once we feel free to travel further afield through Ireland I can see the signal towers becoming a long-term project! If those we have visited so far are good examples, they take us to some of the wildest high places with panoramic coastal views: many are utterly remote. And they are all imbued with a sense of history – of duties that demanded long hours of lonely vigilance in harsh conditions. Most are long abandoned and forlorn. But the marks of those who have been there remain inscribed on the decaying walls.

The header illustration and all the photographs above were taken on our recent visit to the signal station at Spain, to the east of Baltimore. There is rugged moorland there and dramatic cliffs overlooking Kedge Island. The site is known as Ballylinchy or Kedge Point. It’s a fair climb off-road but not difficult to reach. It’s always essential to seek permission locally before crossing farmland.

There are uninterrupted views from Ballylinchy towards Kedge Island (upper photo) and across the islands towards the Mizen (lower). Visibility was restricted on the day we visited – and this made us realise how important the weather would be for accurate observations. However, we could clearly see the signal tower on Cape Clear from this vantage point, shown below, with the Fastnet Rock and lighthouse beyond. You can understand from this view – with the camera zoomed in – how powerful the telescopes needed to be to clearly read the flag signals. Finola’s post here includes a section on the Cape Clear installations.

The Google Earth images above and below reveal the setting of this signal station on the highest point of land for miles around. History abounds on this site, with the remains of a World War 2 observation post in close proximity to the 1805 structure, and one of the many EIRE signs set into the cliff, also dating from World War 2 and set up around the coast, reportedly at the behest of the American authorities to help orientate pilots and alert them to Ireland’s neutrality.

The south facing elevation of the Kedge Point signal tower clearly shows its defensive machicolation. On the left is the stump of the LOP (World War 2 lookout post). Below – the rubble of the destroyed LOP and some of the recognisable architectural features of this tower.

Next week I will report on a very different location, which we visited on a much better day – lots of sunlight, blue skies and West Cork magic to look forward to! This time our site will be at the westernmost tip of the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, and you will get a different sense of the relative orientation and intervisibility of these intriguing historic monuments.

Below – the signal tower at Toe Head, about ten kilometres to the east, seen from Kedge Point