Mizen Magic 21: Croagh Bay

For our latest Mizen Magic post, we look in detail at an area we have skipped through previously: it deserves to be more thoroughly explored as it’s rich in history but is also, literally, a backwater which rests in a time-warp. Whenever we reconnoitre the shores of Croagh Bay, I’m always taken back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and to the pirates, knights and Earls who made their own little empires in this now remote district. I should probably add that I can’t find an origin or meaning for the name Croagh. But I do know that it is pronounced locally as Crew. It’s even spelt Crewe on some maps (but – late edit – have a look at the enlightening comment by ‘Tash’ at the end of this post). The following image shows a clapper bridge – possibly quite ancient: a modern concrete parapet has been placed over the much earlier stonework:

The header image and the one above are both taken at the same place – the head of the tidal section of the Croagh River, in the townland of Lowertown, not too far west of Schull. It’s rewarding to walk on the boreen that follows the north shore of the river. You will admire some very fine residences and come across tiny quays that have doubtless faithfully served many generations of West Cork families, and which are still in use. Behind you the rugged peak of Mount Gabriel will always be in sight – a familiar local landmark.

The Croagh River is only one of the waterways that you will explore today. The boreen comes to an end but the inlet itself continues out to Long Island Sound, Roaringwater Bay and the mighty Atlantic. Before that, however, there is another which demands attention: The Creek – which goes west towards the settlement of Leamcon.

Upper – an overview of the area covered by this post; centre – looking out over the Croagh River towards Long Island with the high ground above Baltimore in the far distance; lower – Croagh Bay is in the centre with Long Island beyond and Cony Island to the left

The aerial view gives a very good idea of why this particular location was so strategically important: the river estuary and the creek are both hidden out of sight of the main seafaring routes of Long Island Sound and beyond. They are, therefore, perfect safe havens for pirates, smugglers, and those who want to profit from such activities. One well-known profiteer we have encountered before in this Journal is William Hull, described in the High Court of Admiralty papers as ‘a notorious harboro of pirates and receavor of theire goodes’ who nevertheless managed to retain an official post as Deputy Vice Admiral of Munster. In cahoots with Richard Boyle – First Earl of Cork – Hull developed links with privateers and pirates, and hosted a whole fleet of vessels within the hidden inlets of Croagh Bay and Leamcon: the shallow waters were ideal for careening vessels and Hull’s empire allegedly included victualling stations, fish palaces, ale houses and brothels. All this was focussed on the townland of Leamcon which Hull leased initially from the O’Mahony Gaelic overlords. Although Hull’s own castle is now long vanished, we can find traces of his endeavours marked on the early OS maps.

The early 6″ map locates ‘Turret’, ‘Old Battery’ and ‘Site of Leamcon Old House’ within the environs of the present Leamcon House, to the north of the furthest limit of The Creek. Interestingly, there is also what looks like a quay on the water directly below the estate: all these potential antiquities could reasonably date from Hull’s time.

The ‘Battery’, the site of an old wharf and an ancient stone gulley may date from the time of William Hull’s occupation of the townland of Leamcon, which came to an end in 1641, when the O’Mahony’s moved to regain their former holdings. Below is Leamcon House today, looking down to the waters of The Creek. The extensive stone wall on the right hand side of the image is said to incorporate the remnants of a fish palace – another enterprise of William Hull and Richard Boyle:

Centre – extract from the 1612 map (see more on this here), showing Leamcon and Croagh Bay; lower – locating the Bay in relation to the islands of West Cork, from a later 6″ OS map

Before we complete our tour of Croagh Bay we have to travel east along the Croagh peninsula, where we find the intriguingly named Gun Point. There is no sign of a gun there today, nor any record of where the name might have originated. It could be, of course, that in Hull’s time the entrance to these important inlets was guarded.

We were pleased to find a briar still in bloom, but were also intrigued by this gate, above, at the very tip of Gun Point. It was singing to us! The wind which, by late afternoon, had become a bit of a gale, was picked up by the hollow metal rails and created for us a Port na bPucai – ‘song of the spirits’. We recorded it as best we could and then handed it over to our musical friend Paul Hadland. He in turn passed it on to his brother Tony – an electronics wizard, who presented us with the following rendition of our Harmonic Gate. Many thanks, Hadlands!

For the technically minded amongst you, here is Tony’s account of how he processed our recording:

. . . I first of all manually edited out the worst of the very short but irritating wind noise elements. I then traced the frequency band where the music was and applied the Apple AU Bandpass filter, centred on 400 HZ. I trimmed off the ragged beginning, faded out the end, and normalised the volume to -10db. To get rid of more of the background noise I then applied the Acon DeNoise 2 adaptive filter, using its default broadband music setting. The result is the attached file Gate Harmonics . . .

Tony Hadland, November 2020