Mizen Magic 23: Lackavaun and The Meallán

Drawn by the lure of sea-arches, we visited Lackavaun this week. Wild, remote and uninhabited now, but it wasn’t always so. 

We’ve written before about Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes, with illustrations by Thelma Ede. Published in 1999, it’s still available. I am drawing on this book for information about Lackavaun, with gratitude to the authors for all the work that went into this marvellous compendium of Tales, Customs and History

As you can see from the map, the main feature of Lackavain (leaca bhán – white slabs) is a rugged and bare peninsula. Not very promising, you might think. But see that sheltered spot on the south-eastern end – a grand place for a little quay. It was used for many purposes – fishing, of course, but also for getting to Bird Island. And even though there are no houses on the peninsula now, and none on the historic maps, we came across evidence of cultivation, in the form of potato ridges.

The peninsula we explored, with good friends Con and Una, was traditionally known as the Meallán (pronounced mal – awn, meaning a small knoll). It is also labelled Dooneen (Little Fort) on the historic 25inch map, and the harbour Dooneen Coos. This is rendered as Doonleen on the Historic 6inch map, which looks like it might be a misprint, since there isn’t a sensible translation. Northside doesn’t use either of those names.

The photograph above was taken from Mount Gabriel. The peninsula we are visiting, The Meallán, in the townland of Lackavaun, is the land that projects into the sea at the top right. Can you make out the sea-arch?

The Northside of the Mizen says of this place:

The first settlers may well have been those from the Iron Age who developed the dun (promonotory fort) at Meallán in Lacakavun, the remains of which still exist. The name Dunkelly (Ceallach’s Fortress) may have derived from this fort and was the name for the whole of the Northside area in the past.

Looking out in to the Meallán – the knoll is straight ahead

This is intriguing! The name Dunkelly is nowadays reserved for two townlands to the east of Lackavaun. The Cailleach (a more usual spelling, pronounced a bit like Kye-lock) is of course the Old Woman, the Hag, the wise woman prominent in Irish folklore. This area, in fact the whole of the Mizen, is the ancestral territory of the O’Mahonys. Another family associated with this area is the Canty clan. Robert has written about Canty the Pirate and we did visit his Cove and his Pirate Steps on this occasion. 

Finding the pirate steps again after a few years took a bit of searching and wandering around headlands but here they are, in all their slippery treacherous steepness

But Northside of the Mizen has another take on the Cantys:

In the early seventeenth century the Northside was recorded as being Dunkelly (Dunnekilly) and owned by the bardic O’Canty family, who were possibly bards to the O’Mahonys of Dunmanus Castle. The O’Canty’s took part in a rebellion in 1641, when they attacked Crookhaven and as a result their land was confiscated and granted to an Englishman, Sir William Petty.

Northside goes on to enumerate the population of the area – 11 in 1659, 635 in 1841, shrinking again to 291 people after the famine. By 1911 it was down to 169 souls. Very few people live there now – Northside poignantly estimates it at about the same number as three centuries ago – that is, about 11 people. Some of the houses are holiday homes and so the population rises somewhat over the summer.

Looking down on Lackavaun from the high ground to the south, it is obvious how depopulated it is now

As we know, potatoes were the staple food of most people before the Famine, and this continued afterwards, when the crops recovered. We came across clear evidence of this on the Meallán, in the form of long disused lazy beds, the traditional method for cultivating potatoes in the West of Ireland. It’s impossible to know how recently these beds might have been abandoned. They could be pre-Famine but are more likely to be more recent than that. None of the historic maps show any dwellings on the Meallán itself, so this was a patch to which people came specifically for this purpose, probably building up the soil over generations with sand and seaweed.

The parallel ridges are the tell-tale sign of former potato ridges, known as lazy beds even though they were labour-intensive

Northside has much to say about the practices, and the vocabulary, of potato growing, beginning in February with the Ridge of Graf.

In the first week of February you would begin on ‘the Ridge of Graf’ lazy bed system using a dry, sunny and sloping ground to give an early crop of potatoes. The ‘Ridge of Graf’ system, although hard work, would give you up to 3 times more crop than setting potato seed in a drill. A good supply of manure was used and you would use stable manure (horse or donkey) as it was said it had a better ‘heat to it’ then yard (cow) manure. The stable manure was spread on to the grass and the seed potato placed on top. This was then covered with the sods, cut with a grafán to open a trench on each side, of 18 – 20 inches. This gave you a ridge of about three feet. Soil from the trench was then put up on the ridge. This was called ‘the first earth’. The last shovel of earth from the trench was put up against the edge of the ridge, and with a good pat from the back of the shovel the grua (side of the ridge) was made.

Each tool had its own name and function. The potato spade was inserted as deep as the bucán, or foot rest. The seed potatoes, or sprouters, were covered in earth using a farraheen to fill in the holes.

Around this time of year – the start of May – the little quay was put to good use and local boys and men took a trip to Bird Island.

The quay, and an old field wall – impossible to say what period the wall belongs to

This was a tricky island to get on to, there was no landing place and it could only be attempted in calm weather. The first trip was to collect the eggs of the cóbach (the Black-backed Gull). Once ashore, the men attached ropes to iron bars which had been driven into the rock faces, and climbed down the cliffs to gather the eggs. 

With the cóbach going mad, it was a tricky job to pull yourself back up with a hand basket and your pockets full of eggs, and often you would end up in a sticky situation!

I get vertigo just looking at the picture – can you imagine collecting eggs from those cliffs?

The second trip to Bird Island was to take sheep there for summer grazing. This happened once the Scairivín na gCuach was over – the ‘cold wind of the cuckoo’ that lasted a week or two (it’s happening as I write this) and was generally seen as the last gasp of winter. That’s Bird Island below, this time seen from the west.

It was a great day for the young and fit lads, and at least three would have to go. Fifteen sheep were taken from Canty’s Cove at Dunkelly or the pigeonholes (Cuasnacolúr) on the south side of Meallán. Getting off at the island was a different matter and you needed a still day, as to get up onto the island, even with a gentle heave, was anything but a joke without a landing place. Once you had a man up, a rope was used to haul up the sheep. In the passing of four months on Bird Island the sheep would be as fat as pigs and as wild as the sea around them. It was the very devil to get them off again. By the time you had a brehóg of sheep in the boat, you would be sweating buckets!

But what about the reason we went there in the first place – those sea-arches? It’s an indescribably eerie feeling to stand on one and see and feel the sea heaving below you.

Your head knows that the chances it will give way under you are minuscule, but it feels dangerous and thrilling nonetheless.

There’s a small sea arch of more recent vintage on the east end of The Meallán, near the lazy beds – you can see the land has collapsed relatively recently.  And yet a third on the mainland just west of the Meallán – equally as spectacular as the one we crossed over (above, and the lead photograph).  From all points there are amazing views up and down Dunmanus Bay and across to the Sheeps Head. 

But perhaps the most special sight of all was Con’s discovery of a nest with three eggs. Una had spotted curlews – they had flown up right in front of her as she rounded a ridge, and we reckoned there were six of them. They’re well disguised in the picture below.

Ireland has lost over 80% of our curlew population since the 1970s and it felt apt, somehow, on this wild and uninhabited corner of the Mizen that they were trying to hang on. Una reported the sighting, but the expert opinion turned out to be that what we saw was actually the nest of an oystercatcher – much more common and not endangered at all.

The Meallán can’t be more than a few acres – but what a place!

Cooleenlemane – A Walk into History

Finola has written about the destination of our adventures yesterday – the inscribed ‘caves’ at Cooleenlemane. Above is a photo of the view from the ‘cave’ entrance, looking back at the glen which we journeyed across. My post today is about that journey on foot through decades of human history and thousands of years of topographical transformation.

Upper – looking back and leaving the world behind: a rough track climbs up from the entrance to the Cooleenlemane valley and very soon we were absorbed into the wild emptiness of the mountainsides (lower)

When I looked into the furthest reaches of the glen as we made our way over the rocky track I saw first, in my mind’s eye, the movement of the glacier which shaped it – the splintering, shuddering path it took and the debris it left in its wake: strangely distorted outcrops and huge erratic boulders feigning dice unrestrainedly scattered by a random hand.

Scribings on the rocks in the glen of Cooleenlemane: these are made by nature (and the movement of glaciers) long before humans appeared in Ireland. I often wonder whether observation of these marks could have inspired our earliest artists?

Then I couldn’t help the vision that came into my mind of herds of the huge Irish Elk – Megaloceros giganteus – that ruled places such as this in Ireland after the ice receded 10,000 years ago. It was around that time that human habitation came back to these revitalised lands: some say that it was human hunters who wiped out the elk – and the bear – in Ireland using spears, bows and rocks. When you are immersed in these wild places, with no signs of the 21st century around you, it is easy to imagine such scenes from the distant past.

But – lonely and remote as this valley seems today – there is significant evidence of enduring human occupation here. As we journeyed up to the ‘caves’ we were tracing ancient tracks and paths and saw the remains of several settlements: stone walls, enclosures including a cashel, and many haphazard piles of rock that presumably came from rudimentary field clearances. We had the good fortune to meet and talk to Pat Joe O’Leary, who resides in the last house before you enter the glen, and he told us that sixteen families had lived out here.

Some of the many traces that remain of the dwellings which were once occupied by  families eking out their lives in the remoteness of Cooleenlemane and (lower image) piles of stones cleared from the lands to provide pastures and potato beds

It’s right to describe the stories that Pat Joe told us as living memories, because he carries them. His own family has lived in the valley for generations so – like the bards of old – he is the keeper of the traditions and lore of the area. One of his tales was about a man from the glen who was the last to be hanged in Cork gaol. His name was Timothy Cadogan, and he was accused of the murder of William Bird, a land agent, at Bantry in 1900. Tim Cadogan was from one of the families who lived in Cooleenlemane – who had been evicted by Bird – and Pat Joe assured us that the name T Cadogan is inscribed on a stone beside one of the old buildings in the valley. Unfortunately, we did not hear this until we were returning from our expedition, so missed seeing the stone. Interestingly there is a record in the Schools Folklore Collection – in Irish – describing the same event, more or less in the same words that Pat Joe used. The event occurred in 1900, became recorded as folklore in 1936, and was told to us as oral tradition in 2019!

Contemporary newspaper account of the hanging of Timothy Cadogan – formerly from Cooleenamane – on 11 January 1901. Cadogan was tried twice before being sentenced to hang. The ‘Bungled Execution’ is reported as a failure on the part of the executioner, causing the condemned man to suffer a long, slow death by strangulation

Ignorant of such thoughts of the harsh realities of the world – even this far-away corner of it – we reached our destination: the ‘caves’. This is an unusual rock formation where a large outcrop has been split into enormous slabs, probably through glacial action. The rocks lean against each other and form crude shelters, within which are the inscribed surfaces. Finola’s post describes these in detail.

The rocks which form the ‘caves’ have a brooding presence on the landscape. It’s not surprising that they harbour enigmatic symbols with some possible other-worldly connotations

In addition to the sites of old farms and cottages that we passed by and explored on our trail, we clearly saw the imprint of ‘lazy-beds’ – ridge and furrow arable cultivation methods traditionally used in Ireland for planting the potato. These took our minds back to famine times and the harsh reality of having to forge an existence out of minimal resources. Also, we could only wonder at how clearly life – and history – have been etched into these aged and incredibly beautiful landscapes.

The very clear impressions of the potato beds which tell of the subsistence farming practiced for generations in Cooleenlemane accompanied our hike

Looking back on our day in the wildness of West Cork, my abiding memories are beauty and poignancy. I have used this term before – achingly beautiful – and I often have to return to it in order to try to sum up my own emotional reaction to such unique places in Ireland. You won’t find these places in tourist guides – getting here is hard work! Nor will you find very much recorded in the archaeological records about Cooleenlemane. But everything you see here is Ireland’s real history – deep, deep history; we are fortunate in every step we take into it.