Brian’s Sketchbook: The Signal Towers

Brow Head Buildings

We have received a unique and treasured gift – a sketchbook from the 1980s of prehistoric and historic sites around West Cork. It’s the work of our good friend, and national treasure, Brian Lalor, artist, writer and printmaker. For an overview of his style, check out the retrospective of his work at Graphic Studio Dublin. Or browse the long list of his books, including the magnificent Encyclopaedia of Ireland, which he edited.

Marconi Station, Brow Head

Brow Head: (above and below) on the right is the Napoleonic-era Signal Tower; the other buildings date mainly from the time of the Marconi Telegraph Station, taken from a different angle than the sketch above

Brian has studied both architecture and archaeology and to that adds the keen observant eye of the artist. As a result these sketches, although, as he explained, often hastily done during a brief visit to a site, are accurate, detailed and charming in equal measure. They were made on field trips with the Mizen Archaeological & Historical Society in the 1980s. This was an active society, publishing a well-regarded journal from 1993 to 2004 and leading regular field trips for members.

Brow Head ruined building

The sketches, just over 50 of them, were made for the most part between 1980 and 1987 so besides their intrinsic artistic value, they also constitute an important record of the state of the site 30 years ago, allowing us a comparison with its current condition. My intention is to visit (or re-visit) a lot of the sites, with his sketches in hand and show our readers both how beautifully Brian captured the structures or artefacts at the time and whether there are any changes visible from then to now. I decided to start with the Signal Towers on Cape Clear and Brow Head, and a third tower on Rock Island that may or may not be contemporaneous.

Wolfe Tone front

Theobald Wolfe Tone – detail of the statue in Bantry town square

In 1796 the French navy, partly at the invitation of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, staged an unsuccessful invasion of Ireland, sailing into Bantry Bay. Several raids followed in 1798. Although all were quickly quashed, a panic about the possibility of a French invasion spread throughout Britain and Ireland. A series of Napoleonic-era fortifications and viewing towers were constructed around the coast in locations with panoramic views, and within sight of each other, to spot foreign shipping activity and raise the alarm. On the east coast, these mainly took the form of Martello Towers and were stocked with heavy armaments, but here in the south west defensible Signal Towers were built not to house artillery but as advanced-warning stations. Here and there they were complemented by batteries and other fortifications – but that’s a story for another day.

Cape Clear Signal Tower

The Cape Clear Signal Tower

Signal towers were built around the coast to the same plan – tall square towers with first-floor entrances and machicolations. From a distance, they look like the medieval tower houses I have posted about on several occasions but up close they are shorter and the windows are bigger. Internal staircases and partitions were made of wood, not stone and have generally not survived, so the signal stations are essentially shells. in both the Cape Clear and Brow Head example, the exterior slate cladding has survived remarkably well.

Brow Head Detail - signal tower

Brow Head Signal Tower – detail from Brian’s sketch

In his excellent article for the Irish Times, Nick Hogan describes the towers, how they were staffed, the accommodation provided and how the signalling was done:

The signalling system, referred to as an optical telegraph, required that each signal station be visible to its counterparts on either side. Sending a message involved raising and lowering a large rectangular flag, a smaller blue pendant and four black balls in various combinations along a system centred on a tall wooden mast. The stations also communicated with ships.

Cape Clear Towers

Signal Tower and Original Fastnet lighthouse, Cape ClearTop: Brian’s sketch of the Signal Tower and Lighthouse on Cape Clear Island, done in 1982; Below: how it looked in June, 2016, 34 years later

While many signal stations are lonely and isolated buildings glimpsed on distant headlands, abandoned since the mid-1800s, both the Brow Head and Cape Clear buildings had further phases of use. In Cape Clear a lighthouse was built in 1818 – a forerunner of the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse. It was so often shrouded in fog that it was abandoned in the 1840s. The buildings attached to the signal tower, built of brick and concrete, probably date to this period of occupation. The signal tower is built of stone, using techniques not far removed from medieval construction methods. The lighthouse provides a wonderful contrast, being built of cut granite blocks expertly measured, shaped and fitted. 

Cape Clear Deatil - Lighthouse

Cape Clear Lighthouse, detail from sketch

In June of 2016, when we visited, it looked exactly as it had to Brian and the Mizen field group – an indication, perhaps that somebody is looking after the site and that the few visitors who come (it’s quite a hike to get there) respect the heritage. [Edit: Since I wrote this, Brian has pointed out that in the Cape Clear Signal Tower there is a porch under the machicolation in his drawing that has since disappeared. The outlines of the porch can be clearly seen in the photographs of the signal tower.]

Cape Clear Lighthouse

Brow Head is easier to access, and as a result there is more graffiti in evidence, but the changes to the site since Brian’s sketch are more the result of time and climate than any damage by humans. This is a complex site with multiple periods of occupation. The signal tower is there, of course, looking exactly as it did in the 1980s. Beside it is a network of buildings dating from the the early years of the 20th century: this is what remains of the Marconi Telegraph Station. Read all about this in Robert’s piece on Marconi, In Search of Ghosts. Besides the Marconi Station a Second World War Look Out Post was occupied here in the 1940s – little remains of this small concrete building except the characteristic half-round shape and a section of wall.

Brow Head octagonal?

Finally, on Brow Head there is a mysterious building that Brian labels ’14 – ’18 Gun Emplacement. This building no longer exists, and the ruinous remains that litter the ground seem robust enough to fit this inscription. Or do they? So – a mystery, and obviously  more research needed on our part. If any of our readers can help – let us hear from you!

Brow Head Detail - gun emplacement

The last tower is on Rock Island. It is clearly visible from the Brow Head Signal Tower ( a requirement for the placement of signal towers) but, strangely, it is one of two very similar towers on Rock Island, and while they are similar to each other, they are quite different from the classic signal tower design. However, both the National Monuments site  and the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage listings name them as Napoleonic-era Signal Towers, and perhaps that is indeed what they are.

Rock Island Tower

Brian’s sketch of the Rock Island Signal Tower

However, in discussion with Brian, he pointed out that most of the buildings on Rock Island were developed as part of a major Coast Guard installation around the same time as the Marconi Station, and we wonder if there might be a connection – that is, that these are Coast Guard-related Watch Towers, rather than Napoleonic-era Signal Towers. Once again – more research needed! [Edit: See comment from Navtell in comment section, below.]

Rock Island Signal Station

Rock Island Second TowerThe two towers on Rock Island: similar to each other but quite different from the classic Signal Tower on nearby Brow Head

This is only my first foray into Brian’s Sketchbook. Look out for more posts in the future and in the meantime, join with me in being grateful that a precious resource like this survived numerous moves and that we have the opportunity to learn from it.

Cape Clear Detail - Signal Tower

The Cape Clear Signal Tower

Mizen Magic 3: Brow Head

On Brow Head, looking back up the Mizen Peninsula

On Brow Head, looking back up the Mizen Peninsula

Contrary to popular belief, Mizen Head is not the most southerly point on the Irish mainland – that distinction actually belongs to Brow Head, just to the east. Brow Head doesn’t have the same profile as Mizen Head: many people have never heard of it. But it’s magnificent, steeped in history, wonderfully scenic and best of all, totally walkable.

Possible prehistoric field boundary, visible at low tide

Possible prehistoric standing stone and field boundary, visible at low tide

You arrive at Brow Head by driving west from Schull out towards Crookhaven. If the water is low in the Haven you may spy the remains of ancient field boundaries, covered at high tide.

Galley Cove

Galley Cove

The starting point is Galley Cove – a smaller and quieter beach than the popular Barley Cove a little further west, but featuring the same white sand and inviting Caribbean-blue water. You can leave the car here and proceed on foot uphill if you’re feeling in the need of an aerobic workout. Or you can drive up the narrow road, but be warned: if you meet a car coming down you may have to reverse a considerable distance. There is parking for three or four cars at the top of the hill.

Recently-erected standing stones

Recently-erected standing stones

The first thing you’ll notice, in front of the lone house at the top of the hill, is an impressive row of standing stones, aligned to point back down the Mizen Peninsula. These are recent additions to the landscape, testament to the enduring tradition of erecting such stones in this part of the world.

Scramble up through the heather to the remains of the Napoleonic-era signal tower and the Marconi Telegraph Station – see Robert’s post for more about Marconi and early wireless telegraph in West Cork. From here there are panoramic views east to Crookhaven and down the Mizen Peninsula, west to Mizen Head, North to Barley Cove and southeast to the Fastnet Rock.

Follow the path now south west to the tip of the Head. This was a copper mining area in the nineteenth Century and you can still see the ruins of the Mine Captain’s house, miners’ dwellings and fenced off mine shafts. Abandoned cottages litter the north-facing slopes, with small overgrown fields defined by stone walls.

Near the tip of the Head you must cross a narrow causeway with steep cliffs on either side. This part is not for the faint of heart (or small children, perhaps) especially on a windy day. Find a sheltered spot at the end and sit a while. You may see gannets diving here, or dolphins in the waters below, and you will certainly be aware of the power of the pounding waves.

Next parish - America!

Next parish – America!

Before you leave, make sure that you make a wish – after all, this is a special place, and special places in Ireland have their own magic. 

Heron tracks

In the Haven

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.)