A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 8: Brow Head

It’s surprising that it’s taken us eight episodes of this series to reach Brow Head, as it is one of the nearest to us, and one of the best preserved – albeit a ruin. It’s not far from the last one we explored: Cloghane, on Mizen Head. In fact, at 3.8km apart, these two towers are the closest of any in the whole system of signal towers around much of the coast of Ireland: 81 towers, each one generally in sight of two others.

Above – views north-west across to Cloghane, Mizen Head, from Brow Head. The lower photo is taken with a long lens. Cloghane is 3.8km away from Brow Head: it doesn’t sound very far but, as you can see from the centre picture here, it’s remarkable that telescopes were good enough, in the early 19th century, to make out visual signals in any great detail. Weather conditions were obviously an important factor in this. Below, the tower at Knock, Lowertown, near Schull, is some 19km away to the east. When we visited the vestigial Ballyroon signal tower, on the Sheep’s Head to the north, we could also clearly see across to Brow Head – a distance of about 17km.

Brow Head – the headland itself – has been the subject of a previous post on Roaringwater Journal. It has a remarkably diverse history: not only is it the site of the Napoleonic-era signal tower, but of industrial and scientific activity. There are the substantial remains of a nineteenth century copper mine (photo above): I noted that the Mine Captain here was Hugh Harris from Cornwall – and wondered if he was a relation – until I read that he was dismissed as ...an incompetent authority…! Most interesting, perhaps, are the ruins of a signalling station set up by Guglielmo Marconi – established in 1901.

This photograph was taken in 1914. It shows the Marconi installation still in use: the signal tower is visible in the background, on the left. On the far right is a building which I take to be the electricity generating station, powering the telegraph. During the Emergency (1939 – 1945), a lookout emplacement was built to the south of the Marconi station: many of these were built around the coast, the majority sharing a site with a Napoleonic-era tower. Have a look here for more information on these comparatively recent structures.

For this excellent drone picture of the Brow Head site, taken in 2017, I am most indebted to Jennifer & James Hamilton, mvdirona.com. Jennifer and James are intrepid adventurers, travelling around the world on their Nordhavn52 vessel. It’s well worth going to their website to see what they get up to: it makes our own travels in the West of Ireland seem a little humdrum… On the right of the photo is the 1804 signal tower; on the left is the Marconi station with – just in front of it – all that is left of the 1939-45 lookout post. On the right in the foreground is the generating station shown in the present day photo, below. Note, also, in all these images can be seen the four-block supporting base for the Marconi transmission mast.

What happened to these buildings? Here’s an account I received from a RWJ correspondent (very many thanks, Rachel), after I had published an earlier post on them in 2014 – it is based on contemporary newspaper articles during the Irish War of Independence:

. . . Brow Head was destroyed on the 21st August 1920 at 12:45 – 1am, having been raided less than 2 weeks earlier on the 9th August. All reports mention the use of fire; only some mention the use of bombs. Explosives had, however, been stolen during the earlier raid on Brow Head (they were used for fog-signalling). Due to delays in reporting, some articles suggest different dates for these events but I’m fairly sure the 9th and 21st of August are the correct ones. 9th August: Armed and masked men raid the station and take stores of explosives, ammunition, and rifles. There are conflicting reports over whether any wireless equipment was taken during this raid. 21st August: Reports that all buildings at Brow Head (war signal station, post office, coastguard) destroyed, either by fire, or fire and bombs depending on the article. Some reports say 40 men were involved, some 70, some 150, some 150-200. These men had masks and were armed with revolvers to cover the three or four guards, they were described as young and courteous. The raid is said to have taken 5 hours; all Post Office equipment was taken away, as well as other stores. Other wireless equipment was smashed. The raiders helped the guards move their furniture/belongings out before setting fire to the buildings . . .

Rachel Barrett

So far we haven’t said much about the 1804 signal tower itself. Although ruined, it is a good example, reasonably stable, and has survived two centuries of severe Atlantic gales remarkably well. All the elements are recognisable: projecting bartizans, slate hung external walls for improved weatherproofing, an intact roof and distinct internal features – and a little enigmatic graffitti. Compare all these with the other towers in our series so far (there are links at the end).

If you set out to visit the Brow Head site on a good day, you can’t do better than to park at Galley Cove – at the bottom of the long, steep access road (and beside the Marconi commemoration board and sculpture by Susan O’Toole) – and then walk up. You will enjoy continuously changing spectacular views in all directions, and you will begin to see the signal tower above you as you approach the brow of Brow Head.

West Cork based artist Brian Lalor visited the Brow Head site with the Mizen Field Club in 1984. His sketch of the buildings is an interesting record as it appears to show, on the left, the 1939-45 lookout post intact (below). Very little remains now, 37 years later (lower). I wonder what led to this particular piece of destruction?

I’ll finish off with another sketch view of the Brow Head signal tower: this is by Peter Clarke, who runs the excellent Hikelines site. Many thanks, Peter.

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

Ballyfin – Part 2: Decline and Revival

Last week Roaringwater Journal visited Ballyfin Demesne: I sketched out the early history of the house and Finola looked at the magnificent grounds. Today I’m bringing the story up to date. We got as far as the gracious Victorian and Edwardian days, when the Coote family were in residence, as they had been since 1813. The photo above dates from 1903 and shows a jaunting car waiting at the entrance to the house (Magan Collection): perhaps those days were not quite as settled as the halcyon period when the children of Sir Charles Coote were painted so fancifully in the early nineteenth century (artist: George Hayter – with the addition of a whippet painted by Edwin Lanseer!). The painting (below) is now a centrepiece in the Gold Room at Ballyfin.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were clouds on the horizon for the Anglo Irish families and their big houses, although life at Ballyfin seemed to maintain a continuum up until the commencement of the Great War. Generations of Cootes are remembered as having been good landlords and employers: on Sir Charles’ death in 1864 the most important members of staff were ‘handsomely rewarded’ in his will, while in the early 20th century the 12th Baronet, Sir Algernon Coote, paid the highest wages in the county – and ‘provided a comfortable house’ – to all outside labourers. In 1920, Sir Algernon died and was succeeded by his eldest son, Ralph,  the 13th Baronet. In the atmosphere of the Irish War of Independence, Ralph could no longer see a future in remaining at Ballyfin: ‘ . . . nothing would ever be the same again . . . ‘

A sad picture of Ballyfin – the house now abandoned and awaiting its fate in 1926

Sensibly – and most fortunately for today’s owners, Sir Ralph determined that the demesne should not be broken up and dispersed. He insisted that it should be marketed as one lot:

‘ . . . I have no intention whatever of dividing the demesne, the price is £10,000 . . . The figure is final and you need not bother to waste any time with anyone trying to reduce it. I would let the place fall down first . . . ‘

It was precisely one hundred years after the 9th Baronet had rebuilt Ballyfin to re-establish a permanent residence there.

So it was that, in 1930, Ballyfin set out on a new path in its development – as a school owned and run by the Patrician Brothers – a Roman Catholic teaching brotherhood. The only significant alterations to the house were the creation of a College Chapel in the old Dining Room (above), a dormitory across the north front of the first floor, and improved services. The immediate grounds were retained to provide productive gardens and the yards were filled with livestock.

Reports of life at the school from those who have memories of it are generally very positive, particularly because of the idyllic surroundings and features of the estate.  While the Patricians did their best to ensure that Ballyfin catered for the needs of a large secondary school and also strove to keep the entire demesne intact, in the end economic pressures and decades of slow decline took their toll. The Brothers closed the College in September, 2001, after 74 years of stewardship: once vacated, Ballyfin House was considered  by the Irish Georgian Society to be foremost amongst Ireland’s endangered buildings. It needed a saviour to rescue it. Fortunately, three appeared.

Above – an example of the declining fabric of Ballyfin during the twentieth century: Richard Turner’s iconic iron conservatory seems beyond repair, yet the reincarnation of the estate that commenced in 2004 has magnificently returned this architectural gem to prime condition, along with the rest of the house and Demesne. The conservatory was completely dismantled and – piece by piece – the ironwork was restored, then reassembled. Then a complete reglazing took place (practically every pane is a different size): in the days of the school the boys had found the glass an irresistible target!

In 2002, a Chicago based couple, Fred and Kay Krehbiel, became the new owners of Ballyfin and invited Jim Reynolds – one of Ireland’s leading landscape designers (who incidentally shared an archaeology education with Finola!) – to join them as shareholder and managing director on a project that was ‘ . . . a fundamental desire to recreate, primarily through restoration, the great hospitable tradition. the luxury and the atmosphere of the Irish country house . . . ‘ Ballyfin encompassed everything they had been searching for: ‘ . . . a great endangered house in a beautiful landscape that needed rescuing . . . ‘

The source of much of the history of the demesne recorded here is the impressive volume by Kevin V Mulligan, to which I referred last week. This extract is a good summary of the ethos and achievement of those who drove the project:

‘ . . . The primary aim of the new owners and Jim Reynolds has been to re-establish the integrity of the house and everything within the demesne walls – its historic buildings, gardens and parklands, and by opening the house to guests, to fulfil the hospitable intentions of the Irish country house. Since 2004 an extensive programme of restoration works has brought the house closest to its state following completion almost two centuries ago. It has taken eight years to achieve this, longer in fact than it had taken to complete the house in the first instance . . . ‘

This photo compendium indicates the high quality of the restoration and the attention paid to every detail, including the recovery and hanging of many of the original portraits showing the owners of the estate during its history.

Ballyfin today reflects one piece of the complicated jigsaw puzzle that is the history of Ireland. It paints a picture of way of life now in the past.  In today’s incarnation as a first class, small hotel it offers a distilled and polished experience of the best of contemporary Irish hospitality.