What better time to visit Schull than during Calves Week? That’s a big sailing festival at the beginning of August every year, and you have to be a sailor to understand the nuances of its title. It’s held at the same time as the UK’s premier sailing event – Cowes Week, ‘…the world’s longest running sailing regatta…’ and is focussed around the three Calf Islands in Roaringwater Bay. So there you have it – Cowes and Calves! What it means, of course, is that the village of Schull is at its busiest and, since Covid has given a boost to outdoor socialising, the streets are crowded with visitors enjoying the shops, pavement cafés and galleries.
In this occasional series on the Towns and villages of West Cork we will take one community and try to discover why and how it has developed through history, and how it fares in the present day. A snapshot of the place will be presented – hopefully – in the best possible light (although this won’t always be on a sunny summer’s day!) From the aerial view above, you can see how Schull has been built up around its connection with the water. Schull Harbour is at the head of a long sheltered inlet, and the pier today is always busy with fishing and pleasure boats, ferries and yachts.
That’s the road to the pier, above, and it’s just a few steps from the village centre. If you are a visitor, you may have no idea that Ireland’s most south-westerly railway line once ran right on to this pier! The narrow gauge Schull, Ballydehob & Skibbereen Tramway and Light Railway was in service between 1886 and 1947, connecting these remoter parts of the county to Skibbereen and then, via the main line, Cork city. Although never considered a commercial success, it was a valuable element of infrastructure enabling local passengers to get to shops and markets, and fishermen to send their catches to distant merchants as hastily as possible (bearing in mind there was a speed limit of 15 miles per hour on most of this rural line). This photograph from the NLI Lawrence Collection (below) dates from the 1890s, and shows barrels of fish stacked up next to the railway track on Schull pier, awaiting despatch. They are likely to contain salted pilchards and herrings.
In all these pictures of the pier and pontoon areas above you can see the lively sailing activity in the background. Below are two extracts from early OS maps, one showing Schull and its location to some of the offshore islands, and the other showing the town centre, probably around 1890. It’s thought-provoking to see on the latter the various facilities which the town offered at that time, as well as the railway: Court House, Constabulary Barrack, Smiths, Schools, Hotel and Dispensary.
Note that on both the maps above, which date from more than a century ago, the settlement’s name is given as Skull: it still is on all OS Ireland maps up to the present time. Mostly today it’s known as Schull, or in Irish An Scoil, which translates as The School. Some of you may remember my posts earlier this year when I looked in to the possible origins of this village name – and the earliest ‘School’: a site described on Archaeology Ireland as a ‘possible early Christian settlement’: . . . the ancient school of Sancta Maria de Scholia, ‘a place known in early times as a centre of learning’ . . . There’s a fair bit of local lore surrounding the subject, and you need to read Schull resident John D’Alton’s article on this to find an alternative view to the perhaps romanticised ideas of an ancient monastic site: I’m sitting on the fence!
Historic village – perhaps with medieval origins – to vibrant sailing centre and colourful streets in the 21st century. Schull has come a long way, and has far to go. Today the resident population numbers around 1,050: this is boosted substantially with the influx of summer visitors. It’s good to see long established names and new businesses on the streets, contributing to the colourful palette of the architecture. Great things are happening in the future: the old bank building (below) is to become a cinema and film centre: a focal point for the acclaimed annual Fastnet Film Festival.
The peak of Derrylahard East is perplexing. It’s on a continuation of the Eastern Mizen Ridge that runs from just west of Mount Corrin (which we visited exactly a year ago), takes in Letterlickey Cairn (ditto) and peters out close to the wind farm at Ballybane West (which we explored last October). At its highest point it overlooks Glanlough (from the Irish Gleann Locha – ‘Glen’ or ‘Meadow’ of the lake). We must not be confused or misled by another Glanlough nearby – on the Sheep’s Head peninsula, nor yet another in Co Kerry.
On the map above I have indicated Glanlough, which is central to our most recent peregrination. It is a mountain lake which has been virtually hidden over the last decades by thick commercial pine forests. Very recently, much of the forest has been felled, and views from the top of the ridge are now revealed: they are magnificent and far-reaching. In fact, from the high point we found we could see the 12 arched bridge at Ballydehob – which means. of course, that we can also see Derrylahard East from our own village.
The upper picture was taken from the Derrylahard East Peak with a lens stretched well beyond its limit, but you can see the 12 arched bridge and the sandboat quay house just below the centre of the view: Cape Clear is on the horizon. The lower picture was taken a while ago from the 12 arched bridge in Ballydehob, looking north towards the Derrylahard East Peak, which is swathed in cloud to the left of the rainbow.
We started the walk at the western end of the loop: we accessed it from a road that runs through the forestry from Barnageehy down to Durrus. As we gained the higher ground we could see the ridge path that would lead west through to Mount Corrin – currently closed due to storm damage. We turned uphill and kept close to the townland boundary. Below – Finola is correctly negotiating the stile by going backwards down the steps!
We followed the Sheep’s Head Barnageehy Loop Walk in an anti clockwise direction, circling the lake of Glanlough and looking out for the summit, which is known as Derrylahard East Peak, even though it appears to be within the townland of Glanlough. According to the 6″ OS map, which dates from the 1840s, there was once a trig point at this summit: a height of 990ft – 302 metres.
At the peak: Finola looking back towards Gabriel – always dominating the landscapes in West Cork – with the islands and ocean in the distance; Dunmanus Bay and the Sheep’s Head to the west, with the Beara Peninsula visible beyond; the view east encompassing the Ballybane West turbines and Mount Kidd.
Upper map: the 1904 OS showing Glanlough lake in context with the wider topography of West Cork. Above – the Down Survey, made between 1656 and 1658: this section covers the area shown in the OS above it, and is at a comparable scale. The red asterisk shows the position of the lake at Glanlough: I had hoped there might be some notation on the Down Survey that would give some insight into the name of Glanlough, but the old map is fascinating for the fact that very few of the names are familiar to us and barely a scattering of them can be easily equated with place names today.
I said at the outset that the peak of Derrylahard East is perplexing. For one thing, it is clearly in the townland of Glanlough, yet bears the name of the neighbouring townland. Then there is the altitude of the summit: mountainviews.ie shows two figures for the height above sea level: 301m (which I would – almost – agree with), but also the figure of 353.9m, which must be a mistake. Unless, of course, there is something preternatural in this small patch of West Cork territory: I’m thinking of the legend of the ‘floating’ islands in the lake on Mount Gabriel. According to John Abraham Jagoe, Vicar of Cape Clear – from the Church of Ireland Magazine 1826 – they ‘…float about up and down, east and north and south; but every Lady-day they come floating to the western point, and there they lie fixed under the crag that holds the track of the Angel’s foot…’ Perhaps our peak fluctuates at will to confuse us? The shape of the summit is also intriguing: we sensed there are traces of a circular platform and a number of loosely scattered stones – could there have been a megalithic structure here?
The views from this peak would justify it being marked out as a special site, and we could expect to find some stories recorded in the folklore archives, but no: the Duchas Schools Collections reveals nothing of the peak, the lake, nor the townland.
As we descended the track we were grateful that the recent forestry removal has opened up the extensive views to the south, over Roaringwater Bay, but we are also reminded of the devastation that this type of monoculture creates. The scarring of the landscape will last for years, until eventually covered by further spruce planting: then the views will vanish again.
As we left behind the havoc of the ravaged hillsides it was good to find some pastoral prospects, reminding us that West Cork always has unfolding delights and juxtapositions, wherever we wander.
It’s the most visible and significant feature on the West Cork landscape, so of course there are lots of legends about Mount Gabriel. A surprising number of stories revolve around a tiny pool near the top of the mountain, labelled on the historic OS maps as Poulanenine. The most likely etymology for this is Poul an Oigheann – the Pool of the Cauldron (oigheann also means oven, but cauldron seems a more likely translation).
Reading these stories in Dúchas* and finding the pool on the maps, I knew that we had to see it for ourselves. Fortunately, Mount Gabriel (looming over Schull, above) is within our 5k limit and luckily necessitates no human interaction (as a people person, that’s a phrase I never thought I would write) so we set off yesterday to find it. Yes, your intrepid bloggers stop at nothing to bring you the best of West Cork arts and culture!
Having made a couple of wrong decisions as to the best way to get there, at one point we found ourselves edging backwards over a slippery cliff, clinging to bits of heather and wondering just how foolish we would look when the Search and Rescue Team had to be called out to save a couple of septuagenarians who claimed to be looking for a fairy tale location.
But we made it – and there it was, a tiny remnant of the Ice Age, the Cauldron Pool! It’s referred to as a lake in the stories and there are several versions of how it was made. Here’s an admirably succinct one:
There is a little lake on the top of Mount Gabriel called Poll an Oighin. There is a saying that Fionn Mac Cumhail took a handful of rock and threw it out into the Atlantic Ocean where it is now as the Fastnet Rock or Carraig Aonair – leaving the hole of Poll an Oighin. Another saying is that if a stick was thrown into Poll an Oighin it would come out in Schull harbour.
The fact that there is an underground route from the lake to Schull Harbour is born out by this story too:
But not all versions assign the origin of the lake to Finn McCool.
Long ago the devil was flying over Mount Gabriel and he was flying so low that he hit his wing against a rock. He got so cross that he took a bite out of the rock. When he had gone eight or nine miles from Mount Gabriel, he left the rock fall into the sea. The rock was so large that a part of it remained over the water and it is on that rock the lighthouse is built on now and it is known as the Fastnet Rock. There is a large lake where he took the bite and the water in that lake is of a black colour.
The black water
However, the most charming, and longest story belongs to an entry from Macroom, far away from Mount Gabriel. The school girl, Julia Creedon, got it from Dan O’Sullivan, also of Macroom, although undoubtedly Dan knew the story from his youth so must have been from the area around Schull. I am reproducing it in full, and readers will recognise many elements familiar to such legends everywhere. One of the most striking aspects of this story is its use of familiar names and places to fix the story in this exact locality.
Near the village of Schull, is Mount Gabriel whose peak rises 1,000 feet above sea level. The unspoiled charm of the magnificent view from its summit is unsurpassable.
The Meenvane road leads you out of the village and on to the gap road; which runs between two high cliffs on the east side of the mountain known as “The Gap of Mount Gabriel”, From here you have a view of nature’s splendour: a number of Carberys Hundred Isles scattered over the great expanse of the Atlantic which amply repays you for the stiff climb. It has been compared to a post card album, you study, as it were, one lovely post card, on turning a leaf you get an entirely different, yet, equally beautiful view to gaze upon, but here you simply turn your head.
Facing south you see on the Coosheen hill the ruins of the old white castle once the seat of the O’Mahoneys. Turning north the Hungry Hill can be seen in the distance. The beautiful country of the valley reflecting every mood of nature runs down to Dunbeacon Castle, once the home of Chieftain O’Sullivan, whose ruins now stands at the edge of Dunmanus Bay, beneath the shadow of Mount Gabriel. Sir H. De La Béche** says in his History of Cork “It was as striking of its kind as any he had seen in Switzerland.”
Following the road and keeping to the left, you find a patch on the north side of the mountain which leads you to the bottomless lake, situated almost on the top of the mountain. There are many beautiful traditions of this picturesque locality, still amongst the older peasants of the district, one of which is: –
“The Legend of the Bottomless Lake” is as follows: Chieftain O’ Sullivan, of Dunbeacon Castle, had one child, a daughter, Rosaleen. So beautiful and fair was she that the poets described her as “The Rose of the Valley”. She had a lover, one, Owen O’Mahoney, of the White Castle. When O’Sullivan heard of his daughter’s friendship with O’Mahoney he was very angry as Owen could never hope for more than a younger son’s share. Notwithstanding this, the young lovers were ideally happy.
What’s left of Dunbeacon Castle
One evening as Rosaleen returned home after a walk with her lover, she was brought into the presence of her father’s guest, Chieftain O’Driscoll of the Three Head Castle. He was known to Rosaleen, who thoroughly disliked him, as an elderly bachelor, who drank a lot of rich wines, boasted a lot of his castles, of the men he had killed, and the women who loved him. When Rosaleen heard he had come that day, to ask her in marriage, and that her father gave his consent, she was horrified. Outwardly calm, she explained to her father and O’Driscoll that she loved Owen O’Mahoney, and would marry no other. Her love for Owen was far dearer to her than her life. Her father listened not to her pleading; he settled the day for her wedding to O’Driscoll giving “The Rose of the Valley” just one week to get used to the idea and to forget Owen O’Mahoney.
During that week her father saw to it that she was kept a prisoner in his castle. But love finds a way. The beautiful Rosaleen got a letter sent to her lover telling him of her plight.
Three Castle Head
All the notable chieftains for miles round were invited to Dunbeacon Castle. There was great feasting and merry-making on the day preceding the date fixed for the wedding.
The night before the wedding when all were merry and gay Rosaleen received that for which she had being praying, a letter from Owen. Following his instructions she made her escape from the castle, and was met by her lover. Helping her on to his horse, he sprang up behind her, and faced for his father’s castle in Coosheen.
Fearing Rosaleen’s escape would be discovered, they left the road and took the path over the mountains. It was a bright moonlight night. Looking back they saw no trace of pursuit.
Rosaleen saw a little spring well, she dismounted and knelt and drank from the spring. Her face reflected in the water, was so beautiful that the “Good People” in the well, desired to get her for themselves. Rosaleen jumped to her feet when she saw the water, rising round her. She ran towards her lover the water ran after her until a small lake was formed.
Owen seeing her plight, lifted her on to his horse and springing behind her, once more he made his way down the other side of the mountain. The “Good People” seeing they were beaten in their attempt to capture the beautiful “Rose of the Valley” got very angry, and reversed the flow of the spring. Down, down, down went the bottom of the lake until its waters flowed into Schull Harbour.
Some hours after O’Driscoll went in pursuit of his bride and muddled with drink, drove his horse over the mountain. Taking the sheet of water for a flat rock in the moonlight, he drove straight into it and disappeared under the surface of the lake. His men following behind reigned up and waited for their chieftain to re-appear Seeing no trace of him, they rode back with all haste to acquaint O’Sullivan with news of the disaster that had overtaken O’Driscoll. Chieftain O’Sullivan, believing that his daughter had met with the same fate as O’Driscoll, was filled with remorse. He tore his hair in grief for his beautiful lost daughter.
White Castle (Ardintenant Castle) from the sea, Mount Gabriel behind
Great was his joy when he heard that she was safe and well married to Owen O’Mahoney and dwelling at the White Castle.
He rode immediately to Coosheen and asked Owen’s forgiveness. He promised him Dunbeacon Castle and all his estate if only he would bring her back “The Rose of the Valley”.
I can’t help wondering about Julia Creedon. Although she may have faithfully reproduced the essence of the story she heard from Dan O’Sullivan, her own abilities are very evident in this story, as is her immersion in reading other stories in this genre. Did she become a seanachaí (a story teller), or a teacher or a writer? She has two other stories in the Schools Collection as well, including a long one about the River Lee, just as precociously written in the same lovely cursive, with headings underlined in red ink. If she were still alive, she would be in her late 90s now.
The story of this bottomless pool has an even older history than the 1930s. In 1780 Philip Luckombe published his A Tour Through Irelandand tells of the same lake when describing a journey from Bantry. Luckombe was one of our earliest plagiarists – he took his accounts almost verbatim from even earlier books and there is no evidence that he was ever even in Ireland. From our point of view this means that the story predates 1780 so it has an impressive pedigree indeed.
Next time, more about some of the other legends that have accrued to Mount Gabriel.
It’s further than it looks
* Dúchas is the National Folklore Archive and within this is The Schools Collection: “For the duration of the project, [1937-39] more than 50,000 schoolchildren from 5,000 schools in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State were enlisted to collect folklore in their home districts. This included oral history, topographical information, folktales and legends, riddles and proverbs, games and pastimes, trades and crafts. The children recorded this material from their parents, grandparents, and neighbours.” The Collection is online and is searchable at https://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes. I have done a little minor editing to the entries above for consistency in punctuation and spelling.
**This is a reference to Sir Henry De la Beche, founder of the Geological Survey of Great Britain and Ireland.
One of the advantages of the limitations that are placed upon us at the moment is that we have to look more closely at everything. We are seeing – and enjoying – the familiar landscape around us, so I am looking out, now, for the transcendent qualities it has to offer. [Transcendent: adjective – beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience; surpassing the ordinary; exceptional.]
Waterscapes at Ballydehob, Schull and Dereenatra. Header: cloudscape over Cape Clear, Horse Island in the foreground
So, over the last couple of days I have wended my way around the boreens of Cappaghglass, Stouke and Ballydehob – armed only with my iPhone camera – to see what I can record to intrigue and delight you. I have looked, particularly, for the quality of light that the currently ubiquitous sun is casting on to our green fields and hedgerows, our evanescent skyscapes, and the waters of the bays that surround us. In Cornwall – where I spent many years – it was the quality of light that was all important to the artists who came to the little fishing communities of Newlyn and St Ives from the late nineteenth century, and even into the present day. They were searching for something which was and is missing in towns and cities: clear, unpolluted air, constantly infused with tiny droplets of water arising from the sea which surround that western peninsula. We have the same quality on our own Mizen Peninsula: it’s that moisture laden air which captures and refracts the light, enhancing clarity and colour – and our own artists always did and always will respond to that.
We sometimes drive further afield in West Cork, so that we can take our exercise with a change of scene. But all of the photographs here are relatively close to home. The clarity of the light is apparent: the detail of the distant hillsides is picked out even by the phone camera. The colours – all those greens and the blues of skies and water are true to life.
Our favourite views are often dominated by the distinctive profile of Mount Gabriel in the distance. This is the highest point of land on the Mizen, and must have been an important waymark throughout history, central to the orientation of travellers through this area, and probably imbued with significance and ‘stories’. My favourite is the one that says the Archangel had heard of the inherent beauty in the Irish countryside (highly believable to me!) and ‘touched down’ on the top of the mountain, leaving his footprint on the rocks. Here’s a post I wrote about Mount Gabriel – and its associated stories – six years ago.
I don’t want to overdo the West Cork boreens (you can see lots more of them here), but I just can’t resist them! Perhaps it’s what they symbolise – our journey through life, pathways leading us on optimistically into our own futures? When we are exploring overgrown lanes, like the one in the middle picture above, there is a sense of excitement about what we might find through the trees or around the corner: in this case, we were led to an abandoned house. What mysteries are contained there: lives fully lived and now departed. The lower picture is the boreen that leads us home from Stouke to Nead an Iolair: always one of my favourites.
Upper – the colourful remains of an old tractor enhance (for me) the views from the Butter Road running out of Schull towards Ballydehob. Lower – this track is a highway leading down to the beach at Coosheen.
We look forward to the Covid19 restrictions being lifted, but it will be a while yet before travel constraints are removed. Even when they are, we will still appreciate what we have around us, and we won’t neglect the transcendent beauty of ‘our’ townlands and the sublime scenes that await us daily just a few steps from home.
Back home: (upper) reflections by the once busy quay at Ballydehob with (lower) the road leading into Ballydehob passing over the three-arched bridge, overlooked by higher land to the north
If you want to read more about the artists in Cornwall who were influenced and inspired by the landscapes of that Celtic kingdom, read more here and here.
Over three years ago I wrote a piece about the mountain that’s on our doorstep – Mount Gabriel. This rocky high terrain is always in our view as we travel around West Cork, and we feel it must have had special significance in prehistoric times: it overlooks a majority of the archaeological sites that we have explored locally – perhaps they were placed because of that. Also, there are many stories attached to Mount Gabriel (find them in my previous post), including the fact that the Archangel himself touched down on its summit and left behind a footprint in the stone! Evidently, he was intrigued to hear about Ireland’s verdant beauty and knew that …in time to come, this honest island would never part with the worship and duty it owes to the Mother of God… and so was determined to get a look at the holy place.
Derryconnell Loop Walk on the Fastnet Trails takes in the foothills of Mount Gabriel – seen here in contrasting weather conditions, but only a day apart!
There is a little-known road which runs along the foothills of the mountain which, on a good day, is as beautiful a road as you will find anywhere in Ireland. It begins at the bog of Derreennatra (more of which can be found in Finola’s post today) and you can follow it up and through the Barnacleeve Gap. If you wish, from there you can go all the way up to the summit and get some of the most stunning views all the way over the Mizen, across the Sheep’s Head and even into Kerry.
The climb to the summit of Mount Gabriel is always rewarding, with panoramic views to all points of the compass. Lower Picture: the Air Traffic Control Authority’s installations atop the mountain add an odd drama to the landscape
Part of our Mountain Road has been incorporated in the Derryconnell Loop Walk, one of the new group of the Fastnet Trails based around Schull. The whole of this loop walk is varied and picturesque, but the section from the bog is outstanding as it skirts the mountain – which always dominates the vista – and brings you to the junction with the Barnacleeve road. Keep on going, and take in the mountain itself, or follow the trail down to the old Schull Workhouse. Whichever way you go, you will be struck by the seeming remoteness of the boreens, and you will seldom encounter a vehicle.
In all weathers the Mountain is engaging: you can start out in the mist and finish up in sunshine!
In the latter part of this summer we have explored the road in all weathers, and recorded the many moods of the mountain. Reaching the summit last week, we had a search for the Archangel’s footprint. I’m convinced we found it, but we couldn’t see the lake with its magical islands which – according to the legends ‘…float about up and down, east and north and south; but every Lady-day they come floating to the western point, and there they lie fixed under the crag that holds the track of the Angel’s foot…’ (John Abraham Jagoe, Vicar of Cape Clear – Church of Ireland Magazine 1826)
The peak of Mount Gabriel is strewn with rocks, any of which might contain the Archangel’s footprint. Upper – the view to the islands of Roaringwater Bay. Lower – could this be where he touched down? A definitely footprint shaped impression on this rock – highlighted on the photo in red
In my younger days I was fortunate to hear traditional Irish musicians Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman performing on the streets of Camden Town, London, when I worked in that city. Those streets were a far cry from the home I now have in West Cork, but I recall the duo’s rendering of the tune The Mountain Road: Margaret came from Cork herself, so perhaps our own mountain (or maybe it was Gabriel?) was an inspiration to her.
Descending from the summit, we finished our walk on the Mountain Road at the gauntly atmospheric ruins of Schull Workhouse
Only a few kilometres from Nead an Iolair – as the Crow flies – sits Mount Gabriel: at 407m elevation it’s the highest piece of land in West Cork. Cork mountains are dwarfed by those from Kerry: McGillycuddy’s Reeks has the highest peaks in Ireland, at over 1,000 metres. However, our own local mountain is nevertheless impressive and on a good, clear day provides a view not to be missed – to all points of the compass.
Looking west to the Mizen
I spent a while researching why a mountain in the west of Ireland should be called Gabriel. There is no received opinion about this. I suppose there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be named after the Archangel himself: after all, we have Croagh Patrick (after St P) and Mount Brandon (after St Brendan) and many others: Ireland’s landscape is alive with place-names having religious connections, although such associations are likely to be fairly young. In Irish the mountain is Cnoc Osta – possibly ‘hill of the encampment’ – so there’s no clue there.
I did find this fascinating piece from the Church of Ireland Magazine, dated 1826 – written by John Abraham Jagoe, Vicar of Cape Clear …where I have no protestant parishioners… and Curate of Schull …where interspersed amongst moor and mountain, I have fifteen hundred Protestants, to visit and oversee… It’s well worth a verbatim extract:
‘…amidst these everlasting hills arose, in peculiar prominence, Mount Gabriel. Why, my lads, said I, is yonder mountain called such an outlandish name; one would think it was brought here by Oliver Cromwell, it has such an un-Irish – such a saxon name. O! says Pat, it is a pity that the blockhead is not here to tell the gentleman the story about this, for sure and certain such poor garcoons as the likes of us know little, and care not the tail of a herring for such old stories. And who, said I, is the blockhead? O, says my friend, the blockhead is an old man living up on the mountain, who, from his great memory, his knowledge of cures for cattle, charms against fairy-struck people, experience in bleeding, acquaintance with legends about the good people, the Milesians, and Fin McCoul, is called far and near, the blockhead.
My dear fellow, will you tomorrow bring me to that man; I would pilgrimage over all the hills in Cork and Kerry to get into chat with him: says I to myself, this is just the man that I want. Ah my good friend, do bring me to the blockhead to-morrow. Why yes to be sure, – but stay, can you speak Irish? Not a word, to my sorrow be it spoken. Well then go home first and learn Irish, for Thady Mahony can speak no other language. – Well boys, can none of you (as I cannot get it out of the blockhead) tell me about Mount Gabriel; O! yes, Sir, says Pat Hayes, my Godmother used to tell me it was called after the Angel Gabriel, who came, you know, from Heaven to deliver the happy message of mercy to the Virgin – ever blessed be her name. And so on his return, as he was flying back, he looked down upon Ireland, and as he knew that in time to come, this honest island would never part with the worship and duty it owes to the Mother of God, he resolved to take a peep at the happy land, that St Patrick was to bestow for ever on the Virgin. So down he came, and perched on the western peak of that mountain; the mark, they say, of his standing is there to this day, and his five toes are branded on the rock, as plain as if I clasped my four fingers and thumb upon a sod of drying turf; and just under the blessed mark, is a jewel of a lake, round as a turner’s bowl, alive with trout; and there are islands on it that float about up and down, east and north and south; but every Lady-day they come floating to the western point, and there they lie fixed under the crag that holds the track of the Angel’s foot…’
Hidden Glen Fuschia
Well, there’s enough in those few lines to keep us going on field trips for some time to come! We did find, on the western slopes, a beautiful hidden valley holding the ruins of a one roomed cottage. I have convinced myself that this must have been the dwelling place of the blockhead Thady Mahony, who may once have been the keeper of all the secrets of the mountain. But we have yet to find the jewel of the lake with its trout and its miraculous floating islands, notwithstanding the Archangel’s footprint…
View from the summit
One other possibility for the name is a corruption of the Old Irish Gobhann – which means smith, as in a metal smith. Remember Saint Gobnaitt? She was the patron saint of ironworkers (blacksmiths) and her name is supposed to be rooted in Gobhann. There is also a Goibhniu in Irish mythology: he was the smith of the Tuatha De Danaan and forged their weapons for battle with the Formorians. So – Gobhann, Goibhniu, Gabriel…? Too much of a leap of faith? But it is known that Mount Gabriel was the site of extensive copper mining a few thousand years ago – remains of pits, shafts and spoil heaps can be seen: so perhaps there just could be something more ancient inherent in the name.
There is mythology attached to the Mountain: the Fastnet Rock was torn from the slopes and thrown into the sea by a giant; once we were searching for a piece of Rock Art within sight of the mountain and the landowner assured us that the carved stone had been thrown there by Finn MacCool (we didn’t find it).
The story about Mount Gabriel that most captures my imagination is the suggestion that the last Wolves in Ireland inhabited the rocky landscape there back in the eighteenth century (although it’s true that several other places make the same claim). Until that time Wolves were commonly seen in the wilder parts of the land and feature in local stories and folklore. Interestingly they were often portrayed in a positive way and were sometimes companions of the saints. There are very few records of Wolves having maimed or killed humans, yet in 1653 the Cromwellian government placed a bounty on them – 5 pounds for a male Wolf, and 6 pounds for a female: worthwhile prize money in those days. This encouraged professional hunters and, coupled with the dwindling forest habitats, the fate of the animal was sealed.
Mount Gabriel today is relatively benign, although it still has its remoter parts. The Irish Aviation Authority has kindly provided a road up to the summit, where sit the distinctive ‘golf ball’ radar domes and aerials of an Air Traffic Control installation. From these heights we can see Rossbrin Cove, Ballydehob, Schull and all the islands of Roaringwater Bay set out in a magnificent panorama – on a clear day.
Aerials and view to the north
Modern events have affected the mountain: a German plane crashed here in 1942, and in 1982 the Irish National Liberation Army bombed the radar station, believing that it was providing assistance to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, allegedly in violation of Irish neutrality.
For us the mountain is a landmark and, like most of our view, its profile changes with the weather on a daily – perhaps hourly basis. As a repository of archaeology, human history, lore and nature Gabriel provides a rich resource.
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