Industrial Archaeology in Crookhaven

Roaringwater Journal has featured Crookhaven many times. This far south-western outpost of Ireland has layers of history: thousands of years ago people lived in this area and made marks on the rocky landscape while countless generations of seafarers forged a ‘haven’ from the naturally sheltered ‘crook’ of land upon which the settlement is based. Even into the twentieth century pioneering technological advances were being made in Crookhaven: in the early 1900s Marconi sent some of the world’s earliest radio communications from Brow Head to vessels in the Atlantic shipping lanes.

Header – the ‘old roadstone quarry’ dominates the landscape to the north of Crookhaven Harbour. Above – looking across the harbour from the ‘quarry quay’ towards Brow Head, one of the scenes of operation of Marconi in Ireland

I am fascinated by all traces of industrial history: for me it’s ‘modern archaeology’: some of it might survive long enough to puzzle historians of the far future. I couldn’t ignore, therefore, the huge steel and concrete structures which line the R591 road which approaches Crookhaven when travelling from Goleen. They are built into the hillside above the road, and tie in with a substantial stone quay which has been constructed below it.

The quay which was presumably built to serve the quarry to the north of Crookhaven: the village can be seen across the water

Looking at the construction of this quay, and particularly the wear on the masonry steps leading down to the water, it would be reasonable to assume that the quay predates the concrete and steel structures which abut the road above it – by a long way. You might suppose that such significant edifices would have a history attached to them which would be easy to find, either from local informants, or in written or electronic record. However, I have so far drawn a blank. Well – not quite: there are countless identical references in contemporary accounts of Crookhaven to ‘…the old roadstone quarry on the side of the mountain, which provided metalling for the roads of Wales until 1945…’ I did find one variant, a caption to a general view of the area: ‘…Looking up to the Roadstone Quarry along the north shore of Crookhaven Harbour. The quarry was a source of gravel for Welsh tarred gravel roads until the 1930s…’

The quay below the ‘roadstone quarry’ is a paradise for industrial archaeologists and photographers! It must have had generations of users, up to fairly recent times, all of whom have left behind traces of their presence, but no solid history. I’m hopeful that readers of this post might be stirred to recall stories or memories – or even point me to some documented history to explain the provenance of this little piece of the complex West Cork jigsaw.

I’m borrowing this photograph of the Crookhaven quarry from the log of the MV Dirona, with thanks to Jennifer and James Hamilton, who hail from Victoria, British Columbia and are currently cruising the world in their Nordhaven 5263 vessel. They explored the south west coast of Ireland in June 2017 and, from the water, took this perfect view of the quay, the ‘roadstone quarry’ and the mountain face above it, from which the stone has been extracted. It’s my opinion that the face was worked for construction stone possibly from the 1800s: in September 1846 a road was proposed between Rock island and Crookhaven, and the county surveyor provided an estimate of £1,857. Prior to this, the road which had been built by Richard Griffith, civil engineer for Munster, extended as far as Rock Island, and passage from there to Crookhaven itself could only be made by water. The 1846 road is today the R591 which passes below the quarry. It would be reasonable to suppose that locally available stone suitable for roadmaking would have been used, and the quarry may have had its origins at this time. The construction of the adjacent quay could have been contemporary with this early use of the quarry, but the huge concrete and steel structures we see today are probably an incarnation of the revival of the quarry in the early 20th century. I stand to be corrected.

One of the fascinations of old industrial sites is the way they are taken over by nature if left relatively undisturbed. This one is no exception. There is a monumentality here which is being eroded and softened as time goes by. What does the future hold? Interestingly a -presumably serious – proposal was made in a not-too-long-ago iteration of the Goleen & District Community Council Development Plan:

PROPOSALS

2.24 The old Roadstone quarry-works at Crookhaven Harbour should be developed as an amenity – perhaps a hotel with a restaurant with observation deck at the top…

Hmmm… notions of grandeur there, perhaps – and little regard for practicalities, but it shows the power of imagination! I think it’s far more likely that the area will remain in its present state for many years to come and, perhaps, attract a level of ‘industrial architecture tourism’. Incidentally, it’s not too far away from the site of a fish palace run by William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork in the early seventeenth century: the remains of this are there to see to this day, although almost entirely returned to nature.

Below – a now impassable tunnel under the road connects the quarry workings with the quay; nature entangled with the leftovers of human activity

Endpiece – the old workings and quay are directly opposite the centre of Crookhaven- here’s a view towards the quarry from the village:

In Search of Ghosts

ruin

Lonely and wild – Brow Head is the most southerly point on the mainland of Ireland. There are ghosts here: ghosts of ancient people who created the stone monuments, perhaps 5000 years ago, that are now inundated by every tide in the bay at Ballynaule below this Irish ‘Lands End’; ghosts of early farmers who began to lay out field boundaries criss-crossing this windswept promontory; ghosts of the defenders of an empire who feared a French invasion that never happened; ghosts of the prospectors who sunk two shafts – now barely protected by rusting wire – during the nineteenth century copper mining era; and, lastly, ghosts of the pioneers of our own digital age, represented in the brooding ruins that crown the hilltop here above West Cork’s remotest village, Crookhaven.

Brow Head - haunt of ghosts

Brow Head – haunt of ghosts

Charles Motte

Napoleon setting his sights on the British Empire 1804 (Charles Motte)

Facing up to Napoleon: Brow Head Signal Tower, built in 1804

Facing up to Napoleon: Brow Head Signal Tower, built in 1804 in anticipation of a French invasion

We can be very specific about one ghost: Guglielmo Marconi – born at Bologna, Italy, on April 25, 1874 to Giuseppe Marconi, an Italian country gentleman, and Annie Jameson, daughter of Andrew Jameson of Daphne Castle, Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland. The Jamesons were and are renowned distillers of Irish Whiskey. It’s reasonable to say that Marconi was an ‘Irish Italian’, and that heritage was reinforced when in 1905 he married Beatrice O’Brien, daughter of the 14th Baron Inchiquin. Marconi’s fame is that he pioneered the commercial application of electromagnetic waves – or Radio.

Marconi - wishful thinking!

Marconi – wishful thinking!

At the age of twenty one, Marconi was able to demonstrate to his father how, without any visible physical link (without wires), he could transmit dots and dashes through the rooms of their home in Pontecchio. “…When I started my first experiments with Hertzian waves…” he is quoted as saying, “…I could scarcely believe it is possible that their application to useful purposes could have escaped the notice of eminent scientists…” His parents used their influence to help him travel to England to meet the Engineer-in-Chief of the British Post Office with the result that in 1896 Marconi obtained the first ever patent in wireless telegraphy.

Signal Station at Poldhu, Cornwall, 1914

Signal Station at Poldhu, Cornwall, 1914

Marconi’s ambitions started in a room in Italy: by December 1901 he was able to send messages from Poldhu, Cornwall, to St John’s, Newfoundland, a distance of 2100 miles – an historic achievement. In his attempts to bridge the Atlantic with Radio waves he had explored the west coasts of Britain and Ireland for suitable telegraphic locations. One of his destinations was Crookhaven, which he visited many times – using the Flying Snail en route!

The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Station at Brow Head - exactly 100 years ago

The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Station at Brow Head – exactly 100 years ago

Brow Head was one of a number of transmitting stations set up by Marconi and it got off to a flying start soon after opening in 1901 when, in the presence of Marconi himself, Morse signals were received from Poldhu, 225 miles away. The fact that the Atlantic gap was conquered only a few months after this shows the rapid pace of developments at that time.

Calling America...

Calling America…

The village of Crookhaven had long been the first and last port of call for ships going between Northern European ports and America. Over the centuries ships stocked up here with provisions before tackling the open sea. Because of this, the major shipping lines had agents here. Reuters and Lloyds had flag-signalling and semaphore equipment on Brow Head to communicate with the maritime traffic, superseded by the telegraph station. At the end of the 19th Century it was said that “…you could cross the harbour on the decks of boats…” Up to 700 people are reputed to have lived in the area at that time: now, Crookhaven has a permanent population of no more than 40. An article written by one of the telegraph operators in 1911 summarises:

…As Crookhaven is the first station with which the homeward bound American liners communicate it is naturally a busy station. By the aid of wireless all arrangements are made for the arrival of the ships, the landing and entraining of the passengers and mails, whilst hundreds of private messages to and from passengers are dealt with. Messages are also received from the Fastnet Lighthouse, which is fitted with wireless, reporting the passing of sailing ships and steamers. These messages are sent by vessels not fitted with wireless by means of signals to the Fastnet, thence by wireless to Crookhaven, whence they are forwarded to Lloyds and to the owners of the vessels…

Engraving by Mary Francis Cusack, 1875

Engraving by Mary Francis Cusack, 1875

We have some first hand accounts of the workings of the signal station in its heyday from the handwritten log books of Arthur Nottage – for many years landlord of the Welcome Inn at Crookhaven – who died aged 90 in 1974. In 1904 he arrived in West Cork (from England) to work on a shift basis with one other man as Marconi telegrapher at Brow Head. Until 1914 he operated the Morse code apparatus with a salary – generous for the time – of £1 per week.

Arthur Nottage of Crookhaven

Arthur Nottage of Crookhaven

A hundred years ago telegraphy had advanced to such a stage that it was no longer necessary for stations to operate close to the shipping lanes, and small, isolated sites such as Brow Head were closed down. Legend has it that in 1922 the Irregulars destroyed the buildings during the Civil War.

Becoming Archaeology: the ruins on Brow Head today

Becoming archaeology: the ruins on Brow Head today

Finola and I have both been inspired by the landscape and atmosphere of this Atlantic frontier. It’s a place we will return to. All West Cork landscapes are impressive, but this is a place apart. If you want to feel at the end of the world, walk here: you won’t meet many others, even in the height of the visitor season. Perhaps that’s because it’s haunted – but in the best possible way. Like so much of Ireland the world has come here – a mark has been made – memories have been left behind. Now, you hear the ghosts in the ever-present currents of wind and surf.

Base of Marconi's mast at Brow Head

Base of Marconi’s mast at Brow Head

(I am grateful to Michael Sexton and the Mizen Journal (Number 3 1995) for many fascinating items on the Crookhaven Telegraph Station not recorded elsewhere.)