West Cork Finally Gets a History Festival!

For a place that’s dripping in history and archaeology, and with several active historical societies, it’s a wonder this hasn’t happened before.

Tom Barry, bust by Seamus Murphy

The inaugural festival of the West Cork History Festival will take place just outside Skibbereen on the last weekend of July this year. Take a look at their website – it’s a great program, offering sessions from medieval to modern, from pirates and adventurers to soldiers, revolutionaries and poets.

A Letter of Marque gave an individual permission to be a privateer – a form of legalised piracy

Although it’s got West Cork in the title, this is not only West Cork History. The organisers emphasise its eclectic nature and call it a festival of intellectual delights. National dimensions are obvious in discussions on the War of Independence and international ones in sessions on the First World War. West Cork gets a good look-in, though, with a thorough re-examination of Hart’s work on the Bandon Valley Killings (see here for a good summary of the events and the controversies surrounding the scholarship), in the light of the most recent research. Several active and respected local historians will contribute in their area of expertise.

War graves such as this one have been springing up all over Cork in the last few years. For most of the 20th century we maintained a form of collective amnesia about the Irish fighting in the First World War – see my piece Outposts of Empire

National and local topics are happily juxtaposed – tower houses, for example, will be the subject of two sessions, one of which places them in an all-Ireland context and the other in a West Cork context. (For more on tower houses, follow this link.)

Kilcoe Castle – an impressive example of the Irish Tower House, now magnificently restored by Jeremy Irons

I’m very much looking forward to learning more about Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork – a tremendous figure in the history of this area. But the Festival takes it one step further with a talk on the vital roles in Irish history played by the children of the Great Earl. I’m also going to make sure I take in a presentation on the Knights Templar by Dominic Selwood, yet another of the multi-talented speakers on the schedule.

Richard Boyle, Great Earl of Cork (1566-1643)

The opening and closing sessions will be major highlights. Prof Roy Foster will deliver the introductory lecture. How fitting – Roy Foster is surely among the most respected historians of his generation. Author of numerous books and influential articles, including Modern Ireland (1600-19720) and a justly famed two volume Life of W B Yeats. His topic, ”A Fair People”: antagonism and conflict in Irish history, will set the tone for a weekend that will not shy away from controversial and thought-provoking sessions.

Prof Roy Foster, considered by many to be one of Ireland’s greatest contemporary historians

The closing session features the writer (and highly entertaining speaker) Michael Dobbs, creator and author of the House of Cards series of books and TV shows. Titled Life, Lust and Liquor: how House of Cards wrote itself, this should bring things to a close with a bang.

And in between, there’s a host of academics, researchers, film-makers, journalists, writers and editors – and even a couple of ambassadors! It’s an eclectic mix and sure to be provocative and engaging.

The Festival features a screening of the Film Rebel Rossa, made by the great-grandsons of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. A West Cork man, Rossa became famous and infamous for his Fenian activities. See my three-part account of him here.

The Festival is the brainchild of Simon Kingston, who, with his wife Victoria (a professional historian) has a long association with West Cork, which culminated in their settling at Rosebank, the dower house of Liss Ard Estate, just outside Skibbereen. Simon is a graduate of Trinity and of Oxford and describes himself as an historian at heart, although he makes a living in the world of executive recruitment. He’s put together an amazing program, sure to become an ongoing feature of the West Cork heritage landscape for years to come.

I’ve only managed to give you a tiny taste of what’s in store at this Festival – you will have to come and experience the terrific range on offer for yourself. Meanwhile, they’ve set up a Facebook page so you can keep up to date on all the latest news and announcements. Head on over and give it a Like and a Share. And are you a member of the Twitterati? There’s a Twitter feed just for you!

 Right so – on July 28 – see you there?

Beyond the Mizen: Top 14 West Cork Pics of 2015

We were heading home from Hare Island after a Fit Up Theatre Performance, when this happened

We were heading home from Hare Island after a Fit Up Theatre Performance, when this happened

Many of our top Facebook photographs this year were from the Mizen, but not all. You also liked and shared photographs that captured the essence of other parts of West Cork.

Baltimore Bay and Ringarogy Island

Baltimore Bay and Ringarogy Island

I think the Baltimore Bay one was so popular because the colours are SO west Cork. When you get blue sky and clouds, the sea turns this amazing Caribbean blue and the contrast with the green fields and wilder high ground is gorgeous.

Lighthouse Loop, Sheep's Head

Lighthouse Loop, Sheep’s Head

This photograph of our friend Susan Byron of Ireland’s Hidden Gems is one of my favourites this year because of the impression it creates of sheer wildness.

Occasionally we get lucky with the local wildlife. Ferdia, the fox, used to be a regular around our place but has forsaken us recently for neighbours with higher quality leftovers.

Bantry House in winter

Bantry House

It’s possible to get good shots of Bantry House in winter, when the trees don’t obscure it from view.

Kilcoe Castle

Kilcoe Castle is such an icon on the landscape. This photograph shows the neighbourly way it interacts with the other houses around it.

Bardic School Loop, Sheep's Head

Bardic School Loop Walk, Sheep’s Head

This tiny abandoned cottage may have been part of the 17th Century Bardic School near Lake Faranamanagh on the Sheep’s Head. We’re looking across at the Mizen in this shot.

The Beara, from the Sheep's Head

The Beara, from the Sheep’s Head

And here’s the view from the other side of the Sheep’s Head, across to the Beara Peninsula, with the instantly-recognisable bulk of Hungry Hill to the far right.

Priest's Leap Valley

Priest’s Leap Valley

The long climb up to Priest’s Leap starts near Ballylickey and ends at a high mountain pass that separates Cork and Kerry. The views are spectacular from the top, but this shot of a colourful house and farms in the valley on the way up seemed to express something typical of West Cork.

Farm, Sheep's Head

Farm, Sheep’s Head

This farm appears to be carved out of the mountain land behind it.

Barloge Bay, at the entrance to Lough Hyne

Barloge Bay, at the entrance to Lough Hyne

This was taken in November. I love the contrast of the turquoise water with the autumn colours of the bracken-covered hillside.

F

A final sunset to end this post. This was taken last February from the lay-by overlooking Roaringwater Bay on the N71. The light was extraordinary – a once in a blue moon kind of shot. The mussel beds make the water look like floating ice packs.

A big thanks to Celia Bartlett for helping us improve our photographic skills this year. We loved our workshop with her.

Happy New Year to all our faithful readers!

Fastnet Trails: Rossbrin Loop, Part 1

A joint post by Robert and Finola

In Robert’s post about the Fastnet Trails, we introduced you to this new trail system, and in particular to one of the delightful walks – the Lisheenacrehig Loop. Today’s post is about another of the walks – the Rossbrin Loop. This walk is all on country boreens, so you can wear your ordinary walking shoes and take the dog if you like but keep him on a leash and stick to the road. You will pass other dogs on the way, as well as fields of livestock.

The high road

You can do this whole walk as laid out in the brochure. It’s just under 12km and will take you at least three hours, but probably more if you like to stop to explore, take pictures, have a chat along the way. Oh, and see where it says ‘easy grade’? Take that with a pinch of salt – this walk will give you a good work out as it takes you from sea level to 70m (230ft) and back again.

Rossbrin Trail 1

But we know that many of you like to take an easier pace and, like us, might find a 12km loop a bit intimidating, so we’ve decided to give you another option. We will lay out a 2-walk option for you, beginning with Walk 1 now, and we will do Walk 2 in a future post. We provide our time estimate for a meander rather than a march. And – a disclaimer: our suggestions depart slightly from the official Fastnet Trail and have not been sanctioned by that group. Where you depart from the marked trail, you walk at your own risk.

Walk 1: Ballydehob, Greenmount, Foilnamuck, Cappaghglass, Ballydehob

Time: 2 to 2.5 hours (with diversion)

Level: Easy but some steep stretches

Take: Binoculars and camera

Twelve Arch Bridge

Park in the Ballydehob car park just east of the river estuary and start by taking the lovely nature walk that takes you over the 12 Arch Bridge. This beautiful structure was once part of the West Carbery Tramway and Light Railway. A train ran across this bridge from 1886 to 1947 – Robert has written about The Flying Snail that traversed West Cork, but for a real flavour of what it was like read Poisson d’Avril in Somerville and Ross’s The Irish R.M. Here’s the first paragraph:

The Irish R.M.The atmosphere of the waiting-room set at naught at a single glance the theory that there can be no smoke without fire. The stationmaster, when remonstrated with, stated, as an incontrovertible fact, that any chimney in the world would smoke in a south-easterly wind, and further, said there wasn’t a poker, and that if you poked the fire the grate would fall out. He was, however, sympathetic, and went on his knees before the smouldering mound of slack, endeavouring to charm it to a smile by subtle prodding with the handle of the ticket-punch. Finally, he took me to his own kitchen fire and talked politics and salmon-fishing, the former with judicial attention to my presumed point of view, and careful suppression of his own, the latter with no less tactful regard for my admission that for three days I had not caught a fish, while the steam rose from my wet boots, in witness of the ten miles of rain through which an outside car had carried me.

Ballydehob Quay saw brisk trade in the days before the Bay silted up. The lovely old Pier House once functioned as a coal warehouse. 

Greenmount Stream

Following the walkway, you emerge by the school and turn left on to the Greenmount Road. This can be a busy stretch, so be careful along here. Once you get to the turquoise shed, turn left. Here you find yourself beside a burbling stream that empties into Ballydehob Bay at a small and picturesque pier. This and others like it were busy piers in the old days, serving the fishing boats as well as the sand boats that worked these waters, dredging sand to be used as fertiliser and building material. Nowadays this little inlet seems hardly navigable and the same blue and white boat has been moored here for a long time.

Greenmount Quay

The road climbs steadily up now past working farms. Looking back towards Ballydehob you can see the Bay and even the 12 Arch Bridge in the distance.

Pastoral

As you round a corner your view changes  and Kilcoe Castle comes into view. Now home to Jeremy Irons, who has restored it beautifully from a complete ruin, it was a classic 15th century tower house owned by the McCarthy Clan. So well was it situated and defended that the inhabitants were able to hold out for two years in the aftermath of the Battle of Kinsale (1601). Situated on a tiny island and glowing a soft amber colour, it is a beloved landmark in these parts.

Kilcoe Castle from Greenmount

Below you is a shallow bay that is a haven for shorebirds and seals. If the tide is out linger a while and use your binoculars to see what you can pick out along the tidal flats below you. If you’re lucky the seals might be out along the rocks, sunning themselves. Once underway again, you’ll pass an old cottage on the left. A recently-dug pond in its garden is already full of water lillies.

Water lillies

Continue now along the narrow boreen and brace yourself for the climb to the highest point  of the walk. No longer on leafy lanes, you are now walking on a bare plateau with panoramic views in all directions. The whole of Roaringwater Bay gleams before you. To the east, towards Kilcoe, lie the mussel beds that now dot this part of the Bay. Sherkin Island and Cape Clear are on the horizon, as is the Fastnet Rock. Ahead of you is the looming shape of Mount Gabriel, dominating the skyline as it does in so many parts of West Cork.

Fields of Cappaghglass

If you look carefully here you will see that the gorse and bracken barely conceals the outline of tiny field walls. There was a large population around here once and a thriving industry. Read Robert’s piece, Copper Country, for more about the mining activities of Cappaghglass. There are a few clues left – the stump of a large chimney that once provided a prominent landmark but that was felled by lightning can still be seen.

Rust and heather

Don’t turn left here (as the trail map wants you to) but instead continue straight on and turn right at the T junction and descend to the crossroads. From the crossroads you can go right and follow the road back to Ballydehob. But if you still have the energy and want to prolong the walk a little, there a diversion here that is worth considering. Turn left and climb the hill until the road flattens out. About 500m from the crossroads look up and to your left and you will see the silhouette of a large ring fort. A tiny green lane leads up to it between some houses but it is on private land.  

Ballycummisk Ring Fort

Irish ring forts generally date to the Early Medieval period – this one may be between 1500 and 1000 years old and would have been the enclosure of a farm house. A wooden fence on top of the earthworks would have kept wolves out and animals in. But the prominent position of this one also meant that it would have been a high-status dwelling. There are hints of a fosse (an outer ditch), which was a defensive feature, and reports of a souterrain, or underground passage, situated in the middle. The ridges of lazy beds – the traditional potato-growing grooves – cross the interior of the fort, indicating that this ground was used to feed a family until the area was de-populated in the aftermath of the famine. There is a large standing stone, known locally as Bishop’s Luck, above the ring fort. This could be Bronze Age or even older.

Textures

It’s an easy walk, downhill all the way, back to Ballydehob. You’ll be more than ready for a coffee and cake in Budds or a lovely bowl of soup in the Porcelain Room by the time you get there. Tell them the Roaringwater Journal sent you.

Wall E lurking

See you next time for Walk 2.

A Tale of Four Churches

Kilcoe Medieval Church

Kilcoe Medieval Church

Kilcoe is a magical place. The story of its four churches leads us from the dawn of Christianity in Ireland through turbulent times and many centuries when religious differences and sectarian strife marked all aspects of life in Ireland.

The four churches: 1, Kilcoe Medieval Church  2, Mass Rock 3, Kilcoe 19th Century Church 4, Kilcoe Modern Church of the Most Holy Rosary

The four churches: 1, Kilcoe Medieval Church. 2, Mass Rock. 3, Kilcoe 19th Century Church. 4. Kilcoe Modern Church of the Most Holy Rosary

We love going down to the Medieval church at Kilcoe or wandering the boreens along the Roaringwater River. Those boreens are now part of the Fastnet Trail Network and last weekend, at the Launch, we were treated to a talk about the locality from Fr Patrick Hickey, Parish Priest of Timoleague and a noted scholar of West Cork History. This blog post was inspired by that talk – thank you, Fr Hickey!

Inside the church, showing the ogival windows, the altar, piscina or stoup, and a small recessed cupboard

Inside the church, showing the ogival windows, the altar, piscina or stoup, and a small recessed cupboard

Kilcoe gets its name from St Coch, a nun said to be a colleague of St Ciarán of Cape Clear, who preached Christianity in Ireland before St Patrick, in the 5th Century. It is possible she founded a church here, but what we do know is that one was built in Medieval times – a building that still exists although the ivy is doing its best to take it over.

It’s a beautiful and atmospheric place, on the water, overlooking Roaringwater Bay. Two castles are in view: Kilcoe and Rincolisky, a McCarthy and an O’Driscoll Castle respectively. Each has a fascinating history that deserves a post of its own sometime. Some special features remain in this ruined church – windows with carved ogees, a lovely arched doorway, a piscina (for washing vessels) or stoup (for washing hands), a recess for storing vessels and the remains of a possible altar.

We don’t know exactly when this church was built or by whom, but we do know it was in ruins by 1615. Perhaps it was destroyed by the same forces that laid siege to Kilcoe Castle after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 – a period that marked the end of the Old Gaelic Order in West Cork.

The Medieval church, with Kilcoe Castle in the background.

The Church, with Kilcoe Castle in the background

The rise of the Protestant Ascendancy class in the aftermath of that fateful battle privileged the Church of Ireland (transplanted Anglicanism) over the Catholic faith and a series of new laws, gradually getting harsher, were designed to suppress ‘Romanism’. This culminated in the enactment, in 1695, of the infamous Penal Laws. While attendance at mass was initially tolerated, churches could only be built from wood and away from roads. Eventually, priests were expelled from Ireland and after that mass had to be held in secret, with priests moving from hiding place to hiding place. At Roaringwater Pier Fr Hickey talked of the typical cargo of the smuggling ships that plied their trade from there: each ship to arrive from France would be carrying tobacco, brandy – and a priest!

From this period we find the Mass Rocks scattered around rural Ireland, identified on the basis of local tradition. The one at Ardura Beg is just up from a tiny pier that would have offered possibility of a quick escape. Many stories have come down of lookouts warning of the approach of the ‘red coats’ and the miraculous ways in which priests would make their escape. (See here and here for examples.)

Sheona and Amanda examine the mass rock at Ardura Beg

Sheona and Amanda examine the mass rock at Ardura Beg

Places of worship must be located where they are accessible and the first two are close by the sea, which afforded the easiest travel routes in Ireland for most of its history. However, roads were constructed eventually and the next two churches were located along these new routes. The first one, we’ll call it the Old Church, was built along the new road that led from Skibbereen to the Beara Peninsula. After 1778 the anti-Catholic laws were gradually relaxed, although it was not until 1829 that full Catholic Emancipation was won by Daniel O’Connell. The Old Church was probably built around 1800 and was a simple ‘barn-style’ edifice which served an impoverished and famine-stricken populace for a hundred years.

Left, the Old Church near Roaringwater Pier. Right, an example of a simple ‘barn style’ church in West Cork

By the turn of the 20th Century it was deemed unfit for purpose. Nowadays it is a gentle green space, lovingly tended and in use as a grotto. Children were buried there – it was not a cillín, but a consecrated graveyard – and a memorial remembers them now.

Grotto and Chirdren Memorial. A place for contemplation

Grotto and Children’s Memorial. A place for contemplation

Catholic Emancipation ushered in a long period of church building by the newly-confident Catholic majority. The new road from Skibbereen to Ballydehob was constructed at the end of the 19th century and the New Church was built there in 1905, right beside the bridge over the Roaringwater River.

Kilcoe Church and Bridge

Bridge over Roaringwater River

The two styles of churches common at the time were Neo-Gothic, Influenced by continental cathedrals, and Hiberno-Romanesque which took its inspiration from the Early Medieval Romanesque style of Old Ireland and featured wonderful doorways and round towers. The Kilcoe New Church, the Church of the Most Holy Rosary, was built in the Neo-Gothic style, with a large rose window at the eastern end.

Kilcoe, Church of the Most Holy Rosary

Kilcoe, Church of the Most Holy Rosary

Originally the side-aisles did not have seats – poorer people could stand there for mass, while those who could afford a penny would occupy the pews. As the church fund grew, thought was put into ornamentation and stained glass was commissioned for several windows. The rose window was executed by the Harry Clarke Studios in 1943 and shows scenes from the life of Christ and of Mary.

The Rose Window, by the Harry Clarke Studio

The Rose Window, by the Harry Clarke Studio

The Altar and side windows were the work of Sarah Purser’s Tower of Glass. The choice of stained glass – from Dublin-based Celtic Revival artists rather than the English or Continental firms that supplied most church glass at the time –  was a choice that demonstrates the nationalistic feelings that were rife in West Cork at the time.

Irish History is written large on her landscape. In this one small area – these sites are within a couple of kilometres of each other – we see encapsulated sixteen hundred years of history, starting with St Coch and ending with the latest incarnation of a church at Kilcoe. Their beauty and their peaceful settings have been hard won. They should serve to remind us that peace and tolerance must always be cherished and safeguarded.

Rincolisky Castle from Kilcoe Medieval Church

Rincolisky Castle from Kilcoe Medieval Church

Ah! Sweet Fiddler…

paddysmoke

How did I first become aware of Irish Traditional Music? Probably through this Long Player (remember those?) released by Topic Records in 1968. Paddy in the Smoke was – still is – central to my collection of folk music on vinyl and is available today as a CD or a download.  The recordings were made during the mid 1960s in a London pub, The Favourite, in Holloway. Irish musicians gathered there every Sunday between noon and 2pm (such were the licensing laws of the day!) and those sessions are now legendary, probably representing the epitome of ‘folk music to aspire to’ – certainly that was the case for this wet-behind-the-ears 22 year old attempting to play along with these wonderful tunes on an ancient single-row Hohner melodeon. Here’s a sample of some of the tracks on YouTube: you can hear how the atmosphere of the occasions has been wonderfully captured.

More from my collection of fiddle recordings

Jump forward a few years and in the mid 1970s I was making my first trip to Ireland, visiting Cork, Clare and Longford – looking for The Music: I found it in abundance. By then I was playing an Anglo Concertina, but I was very aware that wherever you went to in Ireland – or whatever you listened to from the Irish tradition – it was above all else the fiddle that seemed to be the king-pin.

Fiddles at the Chief O'Neill's Festival, Tralibane

Fiddles at the Chief O’Neill’s Festival, Tralibane

Now – dare I say it – almost 50 years on from hearing those first notes, here I am living on the shores of Roaringwater Bay and I am more than ever immersed in the music. Still it’s the fiddle that’s ubiquitous, wherever I go and whatever I listen to.

Fiddles to the fore: Friday night session in Ballydehob

I started to learn the ‘violin’ when I was 11 years old. It wasn’t a fruitful venture – I had given it up within the year and moved on to the piano. I suppose I have just always been happiest with an instrument that only requires you to press a key or a button to get exactly the right note. But I am filled with admiration for anyone who plays the fiddle – who is able to perfectly pitch the notes, and then ‘bend’ the music when the mood requires it. You can’t ‘bend’ steel reeds!

The Rakes dance band, founded in 1956 – Reg Hall, Michael Plunkett and Paul Gross. They introduced me to Irish dance music back in the day… They are still going strong! Reg Hall was responsible for the Paddy in the Smoke recordings, together with Bill Leader

A fiddle is a violin – it’s the same instrument. Generally, classical players of the violin call it by either name, but traditional music players invariably call it a fiddle. It’s a beautifully constructed instrument with a feminine, flowing shape – a piece of craftsmanship which has been made the same way for 500 years. A seventh century Irish poem The Fair of Carman describes ‘…Pipes, fiddles, chainmen, Bone-men and tube players…’ but we don’t know what the fiddle was at that time. An excavation in Dublin during the 18th century uncovered a fiddle and bow dating from the 11th century: this is the oldest bow known in Europe – the bow is of dogwood and has an animal head carved on the tip.

workshop

The violin maker’s workshop (www.violinist.com)

Can anyone learn to play the fiddle? Probably – with sufficient patience and perseverance – and a bit of musicality. But it takes very particular skills to put The Music into the instrument. We are immersed in good fiddling around here: we have so many music festivals – Baltimore Fiddle Fair, Masters of Tradition, Chief O’Neill’s, Ballydehob Trad Fest – right on the doorstep. The whole gamut of different regional styles and techniques is here for us to take in. If you have half an hour or so to spare, it’s well worth looking at this YouTube video dating from 2008: firstly, you’ll see Jeremy Irons learning to play traditional Irish fiddle, and you’ll see his mentors, including maestro Martin Hayes. But Jeremy lives in Kilcoe Castle, just over the hill from us – so you can also get a flavour of life down here in Roaringwater Bay – immersed in the sweet fiddle music…

left

 

When is a castle..?

Leamcon Castle

Leamcon Castle (Black Castle)

…not a castle?

Answer: When it’s a Tower House. Maybe.

Harold Leask first published his classic Irish Castles in 1941, and it was subsequently revised and reprinted several times. My own copy was bought in the late 60s and accompanied me to Canada and back. Leask’s book was the first comprehensive work on the subject – a work of erudition but thoroughly readable with charming pen-and-ink illustrations. 

Leask insisted on the use of the term tower houses for small simple castles and described them thus:

They are simple oblongs with four walls, subtly battered, rising sheerly from a bold base-batter, to parapets which are crenellated in the Irish fashion. A small turret, at one corner, generally above the staircase, rises to a greater height than the rest of the building, while within the parapets are the two gables of the roof. Very often a small machicolation projects from the parapet and commands the entrance doorway below…

Ardintenant Castle

Ardintenant Castle (White Castle). It sits on top of an earlier ring fort.

In researching for this post the other main source I consulted was a doctoral thesis by Mark Wycliffe Samuel, The Tower Houses of West Cork. More recent (1998), it concentrated on the castles of this area and is packed with detail about the ones we see around us here in Roaringwater Bay and on the Mizen Peninsula, from Baltimore (Dún na Séad) in the east, to Cape Clear Island (Dún an Óir) to the south and Three Castle Head (Dunlough) to the west.

Dunlough Castle, known as Three Castle Head

Dunlough Castle, at Three Castle Head

These simple towers were quite different from the enormous and elaborate military castles that cemented Anglo-Norman power all over Ireland after the invasion of 1169, such as Trim in County Meath, or Cahir in Tipperary. Tower houses were built in what Leask calls a ‘great building revival’ from about 1440 into the 1600s. In what may be the forerunner of the European Grants system, Leask says many of the earliest ones were built as ‘£10 Castles’. A statute of 1429 offered every liege man of our Lord the King…who chooses to build a castle or tower sufficiently embattled or fortified..to wit twenty feet in length sixteen feet in width and forty feet in height or more, that the Commons of the said counties shall pay to the said person to build the said castle or tower ten pounds by way of subsidy. Although this statute seems to have been applicable only in certain counties (mainly around the Pale) it established a pattern for tower building which was adopted, with variations, all over Ireland.

Dunmanus Castle

Dunmanus Castle

The Roaringwater Bay and Mizen towers fit this pattern very well. They were not, however, built by the Anglo-Normans – West Cork was too remote and beyond their reach. They were built by the great Irish chiefs of the O’Mahoney, the McCarthy and the O’Driscoll clans and probably replaced earlier strongholds such as promontory forts (as at Dunlough), large ring forts (Ardintenant) and stone forts/cashels (such as the one at Knockdrum). These chiefs became wealthy through their control of the fisheries, through piracy, and through tribute exacted from those who occupied their traditional territory. At least one of them (Rossbrin) became famous as a centre of learning and scholarship during this time. Of the ones I will describe in this post, all are situated at the sea. or close to it, with commanding views over their territory and sometimes within sight of each other.

Leamcon, known as Black Castle

Leamcon, known as Black Castle. Notice the base-batter in this picture and the first one below.  The lowest level is the widest (battered) with the walls sloping in above this base

The power of these great Irish households lasted until the 1601 battle of Kinsale when the Irish forces under Hugh O’Donnel and Hugh O’Neill (with Spanish help) were defeated and an enormous re-conquest and re-colonisation began under Elizabeth and continued unabated under the Stuarts and, most disastrously, under Cromwell.

Each tower in this area was built in the same manner, which Samuel refers to as the Raised Entrance type of tower. There were two entrances, one on the ground floor and one on the first floor. The ground floor room was for cattle and the doorway was therefore as wide as would admit a cow.

A glimpse inside the raised entrance at Ardintenant

A glimpse inside the raised entrance at Ardintenant

The raised entrance (directly above it, or staggered to the left or right) was only wide enough to admit one person at a time – a defensive feature. This entrance either led into the first floor room or (since the ground floor room could have a lofty ceiling) onto a landing where a staircase led up to this room and then continued up through the wall (usually the thickest wall of the tower) to the upper floors. The first floor room was mainly used for storage and had either no windows or very small slits.

Dunmanus, with its additional turret. The top windows were always the largest.

Dunmanus, with its base-batter and additional turret. The top windows were always the largest

The second floor room was often the principle chamber, where all the main activities of the family took place – living, eating, meeting, administrating, celebrating (music and poetry were highly prized by these chieftains). If there was a third floor it contained the solar, or private chambers for the women of the household.

Barrel vaulted ground floor room at Dunmanus. Note access to stairwell.

Barrel vaulted ground floor room at Dunmanus. Note access to stairwell.

Construction techniques varied – some were superbly constructed of cut stone while others used a lot of rubble to build up the insides of walls. Putlogs, or holes where scaffolding timbers were insert, are clearly visible in several of the towers. The lowest floors were of course the thickest – the base-batter provided a solid foundation and the walls sloped inwards from it. The top of the tower allowed for thinner walls, and therefore also bigger windows (although none were large).

A garderobe (toilet) was a feature of the top two floors, with a chute out to the outer walls. In towers with additional turrets (Kilcoe, Dunmanus, Leamcon) the garderobe and sleeping chambers were sometimes contained in that turret, or the spiral stairs wound up through it. While most towers had stone spiral or straight staircase, some appeared to access each floor by means of ladders – there is no evidence for permanent wooden staircases.

The ground floor room (the byre) was often vaulted and this feature is still clearly visible in the most intact towers. Above that, the floors were of timber, sometimes with trapdoors for lifting up supplies. Presses (cupboards) consisting of niches in the walls may have contained lanterns or have been used to store valuable items.

There were no fireplaces in these towers. Fires were lit on flagstones laid on the wooden floors and the smoke rose to the tall ceilings and escaped out the small windows. In addition to this level of discomfort there is a contemporary account (quoted by Leask) which describe the primitive living arrangements in some of the towers: They have little furniture, and cover their rooms with rushes, of which they make their beds in summer and straw in winter. They put rushes a foot deep on their floors and on their windows [embrasure floors?], and many of them ornament their ceilings with branches.

But not all chieftains lived in a primitive way. Samuel uses the available evidence to construct a picture of life at Togher, one of the towers he studied, and it’s not hard to picture Fineen O’Mahoney, Scholar Prince of Rossbrin, in such a setting.

We can form a picture of the principal chamber in use: Tadhg an dúna or Togher’s principal chamber was probably furnished with imported furniture, pewter plate and cutlery and was panelled with ornately carved timber. His family, his bard, …clerk, lawyer, priest and physician, as well as members of the derbfine [extended clan] such as cavalrymen could eat there. They could sit with the chieftain to one side of the principal salt cellar, while others sat ‘below’ it… Servants prepared food out of sight ‘below stairs’. Bardic musicians, soothsayers, gamblers and others would be admitted as honoured guests, but the household ward and servants ate in the kitchen/ward room.

Although its name means Fort of Gold, today Dún an Óir on Cape Clear Island looks remote and forbidding

Although its name means Fort of Gold, today Dún an Óir on Cape Clear Island looks remote and forbidding

Similarly, Dún na Séad (Fort of the Jewels) Castle in Baltimore, seat of the wealthy O’Driscolls (they also had Dún an Óir (Fort of Gold) on Cape Clear Island), was

a centre of administration for trading activities and collection of taxes from foreign traders frequenting the port. In the middle and later-middle ages therefore, the O’Driscolls enjoyed a prosperous lifestyle. Lavish gatherings took place in the ‘great hall’ of Dún na Séad castle and a well-documented feast in 1413 is said to be one of the earliest records of people dancing in Ireland. This documentary evidence is supported by archaeological finds from recent excavations of the Dún na Séad site, which reveal the presence of late twelfth to fourteenth century pottery from the Saintonge region of France, and reflect the lucrative trade links between Baltimore and Europe at this time.

Dún na Séad Castle, Baltimore

Dún na Séad Castle, Baltimore. Note corner machicolation.

Defensive features were built into all the towers. Besides raised and restricted doorways and hard-to-manoeuvre narrow or spiral staircases, all had a roof ‘wall walk’. Three of the towers (Dún an Oir, Kilcoe and Leamcon) are either inaccessible or accessible by a bridge and there is evidence that connecting ground was deliberately demolished to accomplish this. Windows were small and could be boarded up. Projecting machicolations, especially above entrances or at corners were used, as can be seen at Dún na Séad Castle in Baltimore. Crenellations (notched or serrated ramparts) look like our traditional ideas of battlements. At Kilcoe they may have helped that castle withstand over a year of attack and siege after the Battle of Kinsale.

Kilcoe Castle. Note crenellated battlements and pitched roof.

Kilcoe Castle. Note crenellated battlements and pitched roof

So, should we call them Tower House, or Castles? How about £10 Castles? Archaeologists and historians prefer the more exact phrase tower houses, but castles they are on the maps and in our everyday speech. And if, like us, you are lucky enough to have one in your view, castles they are in our hearts and minds.

Our view to Rossbrin Castle

Our view to Rossbrin Castle