Ballyrisode – Pirate Connections

Last week, Finola wrote about the discovery of what is probably an intertidal fulacht fia on the beach at Ballyrisode, not too far west of us down the Mizen Peninsula. Following the publication of her post, we received a host of comments and messages, including from our friend Dr Connie Kelleher – an underwater archaeologist and well-known specialist on the history of piracy in West Cork. Connie told us that she and a colleague – Áine Brosnan – had examined the site back in 2012 because they were looking for links to pirate connections!

Header – this really is the colour of the remarkably clear water in Canty’s Cove seen on a recent visit: this is probably due to veins of copper ore. Above – Ballyrisode Strand is notable for its secluded location and its impressive white sand

The mention of pirates took me back to my 2016 post – Cantyclick here now and have a read, then return to this page for more insights. One of my resources when researching for Canty was an article by John Hawke in Volume 5 of the Mizen Journal, published in 1997: Canty’s Cove – Legend and History. I only used snippets in my post then, as I concentrated on Canty’s lair on the Northside. Today I’ll expand on Canty’s exploits to the south and west, including his connections with Ballyrisode. Connie made a very valuable point in her comments to us that Canty was a Gaelic-Irish pirate on the opposite side of the peninsula to William Hull and active at a time when the English pirates were headquartered in Leamcon, Baltimore and Crookhaven; he appears to have remained in control within his own domain to at least 1629 but most probably into the 1640s.

Upper – a photo from ‘Northside of the Mizen’ clearly showing the protected promontory known as ‘Canty’s Garden’ in the twentieth century. It is likely that this is the site of Dunkelly Castle, and was the scene of Canty’s grisly treatment of his visitors. Lower – looking across Canty’s Garden today

The following stories were told to John Hawke in 1995 by James Camier, and were handed down from his father, William Camier of Enaghoughter Townland: they therefore go back a good few generations:

. . . Boats from America and elsewhere came into Dunmanus Bay, the captains were invited into his house by Canty, were dazzled by a special grog, robbed and pushed through the north door over the cliff into the cove to the north. On one occasion Canty wanted to stop an invasion by some outsiders at Ballyrisode. He had a daughter, who did not want him to go and tried to stop him, so he shot her. He then crossed by land to Ballyrisode and by moonlight fought a battle on the first strand, which he won. Gravestones to the dead stood on the shore. One day, the son of a captain previously murdered by Canty, who was also a captain, on returning from America was invited in by Canty. But, knowing more than his father, when Canty asked him to step outside he pushed Canty over the cliff . . . James himself remembers some gravestones, but these have been covered by encroaching sand over recent years . . . Graves existing on the second strand are of drowned sailors . . .

Sailor’s graves – or the site of a pirate battle? The fulacht fia is upper right in this picture

This very categoric piece of information suggests that James Camier (or perhaps his father) attribute the stones on the ‘second strand’ to sailors’ graves. These stones are probably the small upright stones which lie close to the fulacht fia today: they certainly resemble grave markers in size and shape. In the context of a Bronze Age fulacht fia such stones were probably part of a hearth or roasting-pit.

It is illegal to disturb any archaeological site (please note!). Our activities at Ballysrisode were confined to measuring and photography. However, we made a series of probes across the beach to test the depth of the sand (and imagine how many excavations have been made on that beach over the years by eager sandcastle engineers!). Our results show that there seems to be a consistent depth of only 50mm to 200mm over the main beach. Hmmmm… not enough to bury any pirate bones methinks. Also, it’s rather unlikely that any pirates would stay around to firmly fix substantial stone markers over the graves of their dead comrades (or enemies). But I would never want to stand in the way of a good tale.

I know this is slightly ‘off subject’ but it’s worth adding to the whole picture of Canty and pirates another tale from the Camiers:

. . . Canty’s Cove was always seen in the locality as a lonesome place at night and there are various stories of unexplained sightings – old longboats coming in and out, a man walking along the ledge on the far side of the Cove from the pier and suddenly disappearing, and of “white” hands helping the captain to tie up his seine boat . . .

I’m not sure that I’d be up for a visit to Canty’s Cove after sunset (above), but the beautiful white strands at Ballyrisode would be most attractive in the moonlight, and – who knows – it might be a good time to see if there is any ghostly pirate activity in this historically significant place.

In the picture below Rosie the Dog investigates the apparently haunted piers at Canty’s Cove: they were extensively upgraded in the 1940s

Lee Snodgrass and Mizen Archaeology

West Cork lost a friend and champion this week. Lee Snodgrass was involved in many movements, political and environmental, and participated in all kinds of events to do with heritage and meditation and yoga and music and art. But it was as an archaeologist we knew her first and best.

Lee and her partner, Paddy O’Leary, along with Bernard O’Regan, first launched the idea of the Schull Field Club in 1979. The aim of the club was to preserve, protect and record local monuments and to note the archaeology, history, flora and fauna of the Mizen.*

Ardintenant (White) Castle, sketch by Brian Lalor, done on a Mizen Field Club outing

It was very successful and soon there were monthly meetings, field trips and eventually, from 1993 to 2004 a highly regarded Journal, the copies of which are now jealously guarded by those fortunate enough to have them. The Field Club became the Mizen Peninsula Archaeology and History Society. Paddy and Lee were at the heart of all those efforts, although the real strength of the club was how many people got involved, led trips, gave talks and contributed to the Journal.

The Early Medieval site of Kilbrown on the Mizen. See our post Mizen Mud for photographs of this enigmatic (and very muddy) place

At Lee’s memorial service people talked about her elegance and style, her wayward sense of time, the tinge of glamour she brought to every occasion, the utter devotion with which she nursed Paddy through his long final illness.

The Cape Clear Passage Grave, spectacularly sited on the highest point of Cape Clear Island

Brian Lalor, a member of the Field Club, paid tribute to Lee as a ‘generative’ person – she got things done! She and Paddy were Mizen archaeology – the go-to people when new discoveries were made or when a monument was in danger. When the Cape Clear Passage Grave was discovered, they camped overnight on the mountain to confirm the orientation of the solstice sunrise. When a piece of rock art was discovered in the garden of a house in Schull, Lee wrote a full description of it that is still the only complete record. She was an excellent photographer and used her skills to record many monuments and artefacts.

Cooradarrigan rock art, discovered by accident on the garden of a new house

They explored and mapped the souterrain at Liss Ard, agitated successfully for the restoration of the stone row at Coolcoulaghta, helped to survey old graveyards – in short did their part and more to preserve and celebrate the heritage of the Mizen. Paddy is remembered and talked about still, and Lee will join him now when the stories are told of the couple who did so much for this area.

Dunbeacon Castle – there isn’t much left, but what a strategic siting, with a clear view all down Dunmanus Bay

We’ve known Lee only for the last five years, but like everyone else who knew her we liked and admired her. We picked her brains often on aspects of Mizen archaeology and she turned to us to record a new rock art find when she could no longer undertake it. We met her everywhere – lectures, gallery openings, festivals, concerts – always looking wonderful and always supportive of  local efforts.

Variously known as St Coleman’s Grave and a ‘penitential station’, this is one of a complex of monuments that includes a holy well and a boulder burial

I’ve chosen to illustrate this tribute to Lee with photographs and drawings of sites on and near the Mizen visited over the years by the Field Club. The drawings are all by Brian Lalor, from the sketchbook he has entrusted to me and which I have written about before in the post Brian’s Sketchbook: The Signal Towers. They were all done on trips with the Field Club.

Lee made a difference in West Cork. Isn’t that, in the end, what we all hope to do with our lives?

*Information based on the Introduction to the boxed set of the Mizen Journal, written by Deirdre Collins

Canty

slipway 2

On the north side of the Mizen we found Canty’s Cove. The little road which approaches the Cove from the west has been recently resurfaced, and there have been some major restoration works on the stone jetties and steps there. Don’t try to reach the Cove from the east side: a trackway is shown on the OS map (88), but it is virtually impassable – even on foot – at this time of the year, as the harsh winter storms have waterlogged the ground and submerged parts of it.

wild water

Wild coast beyond Canty’s Cove

Our reason for visiting the Cove? We were looking for pirates! Or, at least, for traces of them… We had heard that there are ‘pirate steps’ in the vicinity of the Cove, and we had unearthed some legends of Canty himself: a notable pirate and all-round rogue.

windlass

As with many of the ‘secret’ quays hidden away around the rugged and heavily indented coastline of West Cork, Canty’s Cove was used primarily by fishing boats, either working individually for shellfish or, communally, seining for pilchards, mackerel and herring. We have touched on seining in a previous post. It seems to have been brought to Ireland’s west coast by fishermen from Cornwall back in the sixteenth century. The shoals of pilchard, first seen in Mount’s Bay and around Land’s End in the early spring, naturally moved west and the fishing fleet from Cornwall followed them in July or August. Traditionally it was St James’ Day (1 July) that saw the start of the seining season in West Cork. For the next three months the pilchards were …dark, fat and full of oil… With the onset of winter the seine boats were laid up and the nets repaired and hung out in the lofts. The pilchard industry on Ireland’s west coast is said to have been most productive between 1550 and 1750, with millions of pressed and salted pilchards going by the barrel load to Spain, Portugal and France. Seining survived well beyond those days, although mainly then for mackerel. Northside of the Mizen records a very active industry within living memory:

…Both Canty’s Cove and Gurthdove had streams and the waters from them were used in the cleaning of the mackerel. When grading, the fish were sorted into bloaters (big), rags (damaged), medium and small grades, and you were allowed so many of each grade per barrel. The fish were then salted by rubbing coarse salt into them, and this happened twice with the second salt on the tenth day. On the second salt, the fish were packed flat into the barrel, and pickle was poured over the fish until the barrel was full. After the second salting the lid of the barrel was then put down, sealed with an iron hoop and the barrel was branded with the mark of the buyer, along with its weight and number of fish. The barrels were left on their sides and a hole was made three-quarters of an inch in diameter, which was closed with a wooden stopper. Tom Collins of Dunkelly West, as a boy, would earn one shilling a week by topping up the barrels with pickle after school. Salt added to water made a pickle that had to be strong enough to float a medium size potato with a six inch nail through it. The barrels were constantly filled with pickle until they went for export, when the wooden stopper was hammered home and the barrel stood up. One Cash and Tally of 132 fish would sell for five shilling in the nineteen-thirties. There could be up to 1000 barrels lined up in Canty’s Lane until November Dark…

fish table

Fish processing on the pier at Canty’s Cove, taken in the 1920s. This photo and the one below are from Northside of the Mizen

On the west coast, the last working seine boat was said to have put out from St Finan’s Bay, Kerry, in 1946. This was remembered by Mike Séamus O’Sullivan and recorded in The Kerryman in 2003:

…the place was alive with fish. We put out the seine and in no time at all it was full. We arrived below at the pier in The Glen with 24,000 mackerel and every man made £24 pounds that night – a fortune in those days…

dunkelly fishers

The fishing community of Dunkelly, late 1920s

But what of the pirates? I hear you all cry… And, is there any buried treasure…? Of course there is! According to an excellent article by John Hawke in the now defunct Mizen Journal, Jeremiah McCarthy of Dunkelly (who died in 1989) recalled how he and his forefathers had dug for gold as a boy – “The old people spoke of ‘Canty’s Gold’ that lay buried seven ridges from one of the walls and many have dug for it – it was great exercise, but we never found it.” Jeremiah told the story of how Canty was a pirate and robbed people who came to buy goods from him and then threw them over the cliff into the sea, from the door of his house in Canty’s Garden. In the Collection of Irish Folklore dating from the 1930s this story was recorded from a Richard Moynihan of Dunbeacon, then aged 59 years:

…Another secret building was situated in Goleen Parish. It was built across the quay leading from a hotel which was owned by a man named Canty. Lodgers often came to the hotel and the man used to take them back to the secret room. Whilst they were talking to him, he shifted a lock in the trap door which was in the room which caused the floor of the room to go to the side and the lodger was thrown down into the tide. He then had a net with which he hauled up the corpse and took whatever money he possessed. Around this place is ever since haunted. Lights were frequently seen there and cries were often heard…

Many other similar stories connected to the Cove have been told or written down over the years. Today, the place still has an otherworldly feel to it: partly it’s to do with remoteness and the barren coastline in this wild place. ‘Canty’s House’ and ‘Canty’s Garden’ can be identified on the cliffs above the Cove: they are marked on old versions of the OS map. All that’s left now are a few stone walls and a steep drop into the sea. It’s not hard to picture Canty himself disposing of his victims over the edge, nor to hear their cries on the wind, wailing across the centuries.

Canty's Cove

There are Cantys living in West Cork today. We shouldn’t brand them with the reputation of one who was possibly a forebear: after all, many centuries have passed since the time of Canty the Pirate – and we do live in a more civilised age, don’t we? In fact, the Cantys – sometimes O’Cantys (O an Chaintigh) – had a prestigious past: in the age of the castles they were bards, like their O’Daly neighbours across the water on the Sheep’s Head (it’s only four miles away as the seagull flies). Interestingly, I have heard it suggested that Canty’s House is actually the remains of the ‘lost’ O’Mahony castle at Dunkelly: the site is certainly impregnable.

Canty's Garden

The approach to Canty’s Cove seen from Canty’s Garden. The building on this site may once have been a ‘lost’ O’Mahony castle

Pirates, castles, seining, treasure – there are also the ‘Pirate’s Steps’, although they are very hard to find (and on private land, so seek permission if you go looking) and – evidently – the Buan, or ‘perpetual well’ (which we couldn’t trace): in all, a wealth of history and legend. We have to respect Canty for lingering in folk memory a good few hundred years…

For this research I am indebted to Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes, Mizen Productions, 1999, Canty’s Cove – Legend and History by John Hawke, The Mizen Journal No 5, 1997, and also local memories, still alive. The fine view of the Pirate Steps (below) was taken by Peter Clarke, at great risk to life and limb…

Pirate Steps Canty's