Harvest Time

…The heat of the summer was eased by the cooling breezes from the Atlantic. It was busy on land and sea, with seine fishing by night and fish curing and farming by day, but there was always time for scoriachting, games and dance, sometimes on Carbery Island or across Dunmanus Bay…

(from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy & Richard Hawkes, Mizen Productions, 1999)

This selection of photographs is from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, 1907 – 1967, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. I have chosen his pictures that concentrate on gathering the harvest – and the fairs that are associated with harvest time: the festival of Lúnasa. They are generally not captioned, so we are not aware where these were taken. When I travelled in West Cork during the 1990s I remember seeing traditional stooks in the fields: this method of collecting the corn was practiced by the small farmers then, although now I believe it has completely vanished.

…Most of the people on the Northside had holdings that were so small that they could only grow corn (barley or oats) or wheat, for their own use. The land wasn’t good for corn crops. By the middle of August, the stooks were seen in the fields. As with the bringing in of the hay, the cutting of the corn was a great event with a meitheal to help you if needed. For cutting, a reaping hook or the scythe was used. When buying a scythe it had to be sharp enough to lift a penny off the floor. A man followed the cutter, collecting the corn, a sheaf at a time, and putting it out behind him. This was called ‘taking out’. Two people followed the man ‘taking out’ and bound the corn into sheaves with a bind, making sure that the ears on the bind lay with the rest of the ears. Six sheaves were made into a stook and left for a week, then the small stooks would be made into a stook of twelve sheaves which was left in the field to finish ripening for the rest of the month. The stooks were gathered into the haggard, by donkey or horse and cart, and made into a barrel stack ready for threshing in October… (Northside of the Mizen)

Lúnasa is one of the important turning points in the Irish calendar: harvest time, fruitfulness, and the onset of autumn. The others are Imbolc – 1st of February (the coming of the light and new life, spring), Bealtaine – 1st of May (onset of summer and a time of growth), Samhain – 1st November (winter and darkness). All these points have to be marked and celebrated. Lúnasa, or Lughnasa is probably the most fertile time for celebration, and festivities could last for days or even weeks. There was always a fair: the most well-known one still celebrated is at Killorglin, in the heart of County Kerry, where a great wild Puck goat is crowned and reigns above the crowds.

 

‘Will the Hare’ – and the Mizen Olympics!

street market

…In ancient Ireland the festival of the beginning of the harvest was the first day of Autumn, that is to say, it coincided with 1 August in the Julian calendar. This has continued in recent tradition, insofar as Lúnasa or Lammas-Day was still taken to be the first day of Autumn; the gatherings and celebrations connected with it were, however, transferred to a nearby Sunday, in most parts of Ireland to the last Sunday in July, in some places to the first Sunday in August… The old Lúnasa was, in the main, forgotten as applying to the popular festival and a variety of names substituted in various localities, such as Domhnach Chrom Dubh, Domhnach Deireannach (Last Sunday), Garland Sunday, Hill Sunday and others…

making the stack

All the photographs in this post are from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh who travelled and photographed the west of Ireland during the 1930s, 40s and 50s and is an invaluable documentary of the times in which he lived. Generally, the locations of the photographs are not noted, and very few are likely to be specific to the Mizen: they do however record life as it would have been lived at that time in all the rural areas

Today we celebrate Lúnasa – the festival of the bringing-in of the harvest. Kevin Danaher (The Year in Ireland, Mercier Press 1972) wrote (above) about what he observed in the middle of the last century, when things were already changing and many of the old customs were, as he notes, ‘in the main forgotten’, although still talked about. What changes do we see in Ireland, a few generations on?

seascape

Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes was written in 1999 (Mizen Productions) and is a collection of memories and stories still being told then about traditional life in this westerly part of of the country:

…The heat of the summer was eased by the cooling breezes from the Atlantic. It was busy on land and sea, with seine fishing by night and fish curing and farming by day, but there was always time for scoriachting, games and dance, sometimes on Carbery Island or across Dunmanus Bay…

…Once in the year Carbery Island was the location for a dance and in settled weather the Northsiders could shout across and give the signal to the people of Muintir Bháire to meet at Carbery Island. As many as forty-five people in three boats would cross Dunmanus Bay to the White House, and a good crowd of men and women from Bear Island would also come to the dances. They were great hearty people. Ann Daly from Kilcrohane and Agnes O’Donovan of Dunkelly played the melodeon…

I like the idea of the Northsiders shouting across the water to the residents of the Sheep’s Head, two miles away! I wonder if they would be heard nowadays?

horse race

…There were competitions at Dunmanus for swimming, running, jumping and weight lifting, and you could be sure that the Northsiders were well represented in each of the events. ‘Will the Hare’ (William McCarthy of Dunkelly Middle), was good at the long jump and the running races and would often win and bring great honour to the Northside. It was said that ‘Will the Hare’ got his name by catching a hare on the run! It was also said that when you blew the whistle to gather the men for seining, by the time you had finished, ‘Will the Hare’ would be at Canty’s Cove waiting!

boat race

…Wild John Murphy would take the lads to the Crookhaven Regatta which was held on The Assumption (15th August). It was a long pull around the Mizen but a good time was had by all. The Northsiders were great with the oars, but it was hard to beat the Long Island crews in the boat races…

(Danaher): …In very many localities the chief event of the festival was not so much the festive meal as the festive gathering out of doors. This took the form of an excursion to some traditional site, usually on a hill or mountain top, or beside a lake or river, where large numbers of people from the surrounding area congregated, travelling thither on foot, on horseback or in carts and other equipages… Many of the participants came prepared to ‘make a day of it’ bringing food and drink and musical instruments, and spending the afternoon and evening in eating, drinking and dancing…

picnic

…Another welcome feature of the festive meal was fresh fruit. Those who had currants or gooseberries in their gardens, and this was usual even among small-holders in Munster and South Leinster, made sure that some dish of these appeared on the table. Those who lived near heather hills or woods gathered fraucháin (‘fraughans’, whortleberries, blueberries) which they ate for an ‘aftercourse’ mashed with fresh cream and sugar. Similar treatment was given to wild strawberries and wild raspberries by those lucky ones who lived near the woods where these grow… A number of fairs still held or until recently held at this season bear names like ‘Lammas Fair’, ‘Gooseberry Fair’, ‘Bilberry Fair’…

market in town

One interesting custom was the driving of cattle and horses into the water. This is mentioned in the 1680s by Piers in his Description of the County of West-Meath:On the first Sunday in harvest, viz in August, they will be sure to drive their cattle into some pool or river, and therein swim them; this they observe as inviolable as if it were a point of religion, for they think no beast will live the whole year thro’ unless they be thus drenched; I deny not but that swimming of the cattle, and chiefly in this season of the year, is healthful unto them…

at the fair

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

November Dark

November Dark

Dramatic sky over Nead an Iolair on November Dark this year

The month opened with Snap-apple night and tales of pucás and little folk. From the rising of the moon on November Dark the mackerel would make their way to deeper water; it was the end of the seine season. With the crops all in and hill grazing finished, fires were set on the hills and preparations made for the winter. There was little employment for the months ahead… (from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes 1999)

I have mentioned this reference to ‘November Dark’ in previous posts but, apart from the Northside book, I have been unable to find any other allusions to the term – either on the internet (which is usually a sure source of every conceivable fact or fiction) or on our bookshelves (which are overflowing with volumes on Irish culture, traditions and folklore). According to McCarthy and Hawkes it points to the appearance of the November new moon: this year it occurred last Wednesday – the 11th – which was also Martinmas.

bookshelf

gallimaufry on the bookshelves at Nead an Iolair

Once, the day had particular significance: …With the rising of the moon from November Dark the mackerel made their way to deep water; it would be the end of the seining season. Most of the barrels of fish were collected by ships from September onwards. Limerick Steam coasters and ships from England and America anchored offshore, and the barrels would be taken to them. The faller boats took five to eight barrels per trip to the ships. They were hauled up by a derrick, two at a time, into the hold. Often 300 barrels would be loaded onto one ship… Although the barrels of fish were taken throughout the season by the fish buyers, it was on November Dark that the seine crews received their money… (from Northside)

Seining: the huer (top) watched for the arrival of the shoals and then signalled their location to the boats at sea; the lower photograph shows seine netting on the beach at Greystones, Co Wicklow

Historical evidence documents seining in the South West Coast of Ireland from County Waterford, to County Kerry, from the 16th century onwards. This was an important industry with Baltimore, Dunmanus, Schull, Sherkin, Kinsale, Bantry and Whiddy Island as centres, together with outlying curing stations called Fish Palaces or Pallices, of which there were significant numbers along the Southern coast. The fish – usually pilchards – were caught by means of a seine net: two boats, the seine boat and the so-called follower (locally called the ‘faller’) were used. The seiner, a large boat pulled by perhaps a dozen or more oars, carried the net, which was often 300–400 yards long. An experienced fisherman acted as a huer by directing fishing operations from a suitable vantage point ashore. From high land, the huer could see the shoals of pilchards clearly, and he alerted the seine boat, by shouting (the ‘hue and cry’) or making suitable signs as to the location of the shoal. Often the shoals were too far out to be seen from the land, and one of the crew – known as  a spyer – had the job of locating them from on board. On a given signal, the net was shot around the shoal by the seine boat, and in the meantime, the free end of the net was picked up by the faller, with a crew of perhaps five or six, pulling the ends of the net together. The footropes of the net were gradually drawn up until the fish were completely enclosed, and by means of baskets the fish were transferred from the net to the boats.

Tucking

Cornish ‘Tucking’ – gathering in the pilchards from the seine net – by the Newlyn School artist Percy Robert Craft: the original painting is in the Penlee Gallery, Penzance. As the seining season advanced, the Cornish boats followed the shoals to the west coast of Ireland

…After the season’s fishing all the nets were barked in a ceiler (a flat bottomed iron pot) at Dunmanus or Goleen… The ceiler would be full of boiling water and bark (a non-sticky type of tar), and the nets were steeped for a good spell. Barking drove out the salt and would preserve the cotton mesh for the next year’s fishing. The nets, when being repaired, were spread out in a field. In Dunkelly the field was called the Seine Field, and at Gurthdove it was at Willie’s Paircnafarriga. Only the experienced and older men were allowed to repair the nets, as the younger lads rarely had enough care for a job that had to be done so well… (from Northside…)

The Barking Pot at Goleen has been restored as a historic site: sadly the pot is no longer in use

Seining was used to catch pilchard, mackerel, herring and pollock off the Irish coast. A ‘Kerryman’ article by Ted Creedon in the Irish Independent back in 2003 gives a very comprehensive account of the living made in pre-war years – this is a short extract:

…Mike Séamus O’Sullivan of The Glen, St Finan’s Bay, was a member of the crew of the last seine boat to land a catch in South Kerry. Mike began fishing lobsters with his father when he left school aged sixteen.

“That was before the war and lobsters were making four shillings a dozen in those days, but when the war came the fishing really got going in these parts,” Mike told The Kerryman this week.

“We were catching mackerel, pollock, herring and they were cured and boxed at Renard Point before going by train to England. The seine boats were catching all mackerel in the war years and prices were about two shillings per hundred, but one day in 1942 an English buyer arrived at Renard Point and offered £3 a hundred!” Mike recalled.

“There was a fortune made in those days then and the local buyers put their prices up to £4 a hundred for the mackerel to keep the English buyer out!” he said…

mending nets

Mending the nets – in this case in a traditional Irish kitchen: a photograph by Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. The Irish caption to this photo suggests that the net was damaged by a shark

We have been looking back through our archive of the photographs which we’ve taken here on or around ‘November Dark’ in past years. There’s quite a contrast: we have had times of golden sunsets and warm days when we could sit out, while this year has brought a period of wild storms and grey skies.

Mizen Sunset November

November evening

November contrasts: our view a year ago (above) and (below) in the last day or two, brief respite from a period of Atlantic storms

November Dark – have any readers a recollection of this term? We’d like to know – and record – memories of the day and its significance here in West Cork…

sad end for a seine boat

From Northside of the Mizen – the photo is captioned ‘A sad end for a seine boat’

Snap-Apple Night

November - a time for Fire Festivals

November – a time for Fire Festivals

Hallowe’en is big in Ireland. It has always been celebrated and is, of course, an opportunity for children in wonderful spooky disguises to go out collecting sweets and treats. But this – the ‘Day of the Dead’, and traditionally the beginning of the winter – has generated far more elaborate customs than any I have encountered before. Have a look at this parade which takes place in Shandon, Co Cork.

The origins of Samhain (Oiche Shamhna in Irish) seem to be an old Irish festival marking the first day of winter and the ending of the farming year. All crops had to be in and safely stored – hay, potatoes, turnips, apples – and cattle and sheep were moved from mountain and moorland pastures and brought closer to the farmstead; milking cows were brought inside for the winter and feeding with stored fodder began. Turf and wood for the winter fires must have been gathered and dried. If fires were lit year-round – for cooking – they had to be allowed to go out for the one night and were then lighted again in the morning: this custom still survives in some Irish households.

Fire is an essential element in the festival. The word ‘bonfire’ is supposed to be derived from ‘bone fire’ – the burning of the bones of the animals slaughtered before the onset of winter once the meat had been prepared and preserved to keep the larder full through the cold bleak months to come. It’s no coincidence that in England bonfires are lit in early November to ‘remember’ Guy Fawkes and his plot to blow up the House of Lords in 1605: this was just a continuation of fire festivals that already happened then – and are still happening now. When I lived in Devon I came across (and took part in) traditions of pulling burning barrels through the streets (Hatherleigh) or carrying burning barrels through crowds of spectators (Ottery St Mary). West Country carnivals were common at this time of the year, and many were accompanied by flaming torches and fireworks. It has always seemed necessary to ‘lighten’ and warm the darkening year with fire.

Tar Barrels in Hatherleigh, Devon, 2012

Tar Barrels in Hatherleigh, Devon, 2012

November, from Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes 1999:

‘…The Month opened with Snap-Apple Night and tales of púcas and little folk. From the rising of the moon on November Dark the mackerel would make their way to deeper water; it was the end of the seine season. With the crops all in and hill grazing finished, fires were set on the hills and preparations made for the winter. There was little employment for the months ahead…’

Snap-Apple Night by Irish painter Daniel Maclise, 1833

Snap-Apple Night by Irish painter Daniel Maclise, 1833

Continuing tradition - a modern Snap-Apple, by Coca Cola

Continuing tradition – a modern Snap-Apple, by Coca Cola

‘…The first game of the night was always ‘Snap-apple’ when an apple was hung from a beam in the kitchen and all the children took turns to ‘snap’ the apple. Sometimes the apples were put in a half barrel of water and you had to take one out with just your teeth, with your hands behind your back…’

Two Hallowe’en tales from Northside of the Mizen:

…One fine Halloween, Neddy Hodnett (Gurthdove) was crossing the land on the way back from scoriachting (visiting friends and neighbours), when he came across a Narry the Bog (a heron) at Hodnett’s Sleabh. He caught it and put it under his coat. Neddy knew that Dan Thade Coughlan was out scoriachting and he also knew what route across the fields Dan would take, so he hid in a beillic. It wasn’t long before Dan came from the east, and as he passed the beillic, Neddy knocked a screech out of the Narry. Dan leapt out of his skin with fright and with a roar he leapt over the ditch and away out of sight. Dan didn’t take long to arrive home and he told everyone he had met the devil himself, coming agin him! Dan did not leave the house, day or night, for a week…

The Púca of Knocnaphuca  …The old people would feed the Púca of Knocnaphuca on ‘Snap-apple Night’, or indeed, whenever one had a call to travel up the hill. It was the wise person that fed the Púca the night before going up. Milk and cake would be put on a plate and left outside the house and by the next morning the food had always gone!

The Púca of Knocnaphuca was half horse and half human. One late Snap-apple night there was a young lad out walking the road when he heard a strange, sweet music coming from the hill. He went up and saw the Púca playing on a whistle. As soon as the lad had put eyes on it, it stopped playing and caught him. Away the Púca went to the top of the hill, where a crack opened up in the rock. In they went. They went twisting and turning down through tunnels until the entered a chamber full of gold. “Now,” said the Púca, “you are mine!”…

The next morning the boy was found on the road by the Long Bog. His hair had turned white and he could not speak a word ever after…

I like Finola’s tradition for Samhain: making (and tasting) a Hallowe’en barm brack… Delicious!

barm brack

Mizen Magic 2: The North Side

A pet day on The Mizen

A pet day on The Mizen

We are once again being battered by Atlantic storms, but on a sparkling day earlier this week we drove, on a whim, to Durrus for breakfast. The day was so pure and sunny that it seemed a crime to go home again, so we set out to drive along the north side of the Mizen Peninsula.

Dunbeacon Castle

Dunbeacon Castle

What a day! We rambled down to the shore to investigate the 15th Century Dunbeacon Castle. There’s nothing left except one tall wall, standing sentinel against the wind, facing down the length of Dunmanus Bay. Its commanding position would have given its builders, the O’Mahonys, a strategic advantage in protecting and controlling their territory from adventurers arriving from the Atlantic.

Not much left

Not much left

Further along we explored an abandoned cottage, and found one of the water pumps that were once ubiquitous in the irish countryside. We saw few other cars, but we weren’t alone – our movements were observed from above by interested parties.

Preserved. Observed.

Preserved, Observed

Heading towards Dunmanus Harbour we stopped to pay our respects at the little ruined church and graveyard, beautifully called in Irish Kilheangul – the Little Chuch of the Angel. This was a curious mixture of cillín and modern graveyard: rough unmarked stones stood shoulder to shoulder with more recent granite headstones and lovingly tended graves.

The Little Church of the Angel

The Little Church of the Angel

We headed west along the road that skirts the sea and eventually leads to Barley Cove. We are convinced that this is one of the most breathtaking drives in Ireland – and, in a land as scenic as this, that’s a tall order! To the east we looked back up Dunmanus Bay to the Kerry Mountains in the far distance.

Looking East up Dunmanus Bay

Looking East up Dunmanus Bay

To the north lay the Sheep’s Head and beyond it the looming presence of the Beara Peninsula.

Across to the Sheep's Head and Beara Peninsula

Across to the Sheep’s Head and Beara Peninsula

To the west, Knocknamadree (the Mountain of the Dogs) and the wild Atlantic.

Bird Island and the Atlantic beyond

Bird Island and the Atlantic beyond

Once home to hundreds of families, this is a depopulated area now. There are some small farms, but many of the houses are holiday homes, seldom used. Sobering, that such a wildly beautiful place is no longer economically viable to support a thriving community.

The North Side of the Mizen

Northside of the Mizen

But thanks to the foresight and hard work of local writers, we can have a true appreciation of what life was like here. Northside of the Mizen has its own book! Recorded, edited and written by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkins, and illustrated by Thelma Ede and with old photographs, it’s a charming, quirky compendium of character sketches, folktales, customs and traditions, poems and songs, and descriptions of country life. With chapters organised by month, it’s the kind of book you keep by the bedside and dip into when the spirit moves you. In January, for example, there’s a section on scoriachting, or visiting neighbours. It’s accompanied by a photo of a man and his jennet in somebody’s kitchen, with the caption Michael and Tom McCarthy out scoriachting. Once the neighbours arrived (but not on Saturday night as you would have to get ready for mass early the next morning) the night…

“…would start with games, blackguarding (horseplay) and sometimes dancing, then progress on to songs and poems. Storytelling was the preserve of an evening by the fire. With flames flickering and the wind and rain howling like the Banshee, the imagination of the storyteller and his forebears was let loose on a delighted and spellbound audience of children and adults alike. This, in turn, would lead to stories of a more superstitious nature, into a world of small folk, púcas (sprites), mermaids and of people’s misfortune when they interfered with the fairy ways.”

Look out for future posts about the Mizen – we’re only scratching the surface of this marvellous region of West Cork.

Where once were farms

Where once were farms