Ilen’s End (Sweet Ilen – Part 5)

It rises on a remote mountain-top in the wilds of Mullaghmesha townland and falls 500 metres from there to the Atlantic, over a length of 34 kilometres. I think it’s time to establish exactly where the river ends, and the ocean begins. As you can see from the photo above, the lower reaches are wide and shallow, and the estuarial waters are dotted with islands and islets, some of which are only revealed at the ebb of the tide.

Below Skibbereen, the river is fully tidal – and its character is constantly changing. The history of the waterway has also seen an evolution, from a busy highway carrying lighters filled with cargoes to the wharves in the town (in the 19th century there were five of them – and a Customs House), to the present day where it is a tranquil scene, only busy – in normal times – with the skiffs and light craft based at the Rowing Club (above): that establishment has produced some celebrated champions!

Oldcourt (above) was the transhipment point where laden ships from distant shores would leave their loads into the shallow draft barges that would take them upstream into the town. Today it is still a busy hub where vessels are stored, built and repaired – and also left to decay. The disorder of the place has a picturesque informality, and there is medieval history also: a rickety tower house stump stands guard over the apparent chaos. We have written about the boatyard (and the castle – and a ketch named Ilen) in a previous post.

You can cross a bywater of the Ilen by bridges at Inishbeg (above) and Ringarogy. Exploration of those two islands will reveal a number of view points over the main channel of the river to the north. The marked aerial map below shows the lie of the land, while the photos following show the wide views of the river in both directions from Inishbeg.

(Upper) looking upstream from Inishbeg, and (lower) a close view of The Glebe Burial Ground, also seen from across the main river at Inishbeg.

Downstream from Inishbeg: at the east end of the island we found an unusual large rock which appears to have a worked surface and a possible cup-mark. Below that rock is the lonely ruin of a structure which must have had a remarkable aspect over the whole width of the river. It would be easy to suppose that this ruin could have been part of a defence system, but there is no mention in the archaeological records of this, or of the rock. For now, they remain enigmas – but perhaps there is an alert reader out there who can shed some light?

Ringarogy has fewer accessible viewpoints than Inishbeg, but the long causeway and some prospects from high land indicate how the lower course of the river is punctuated with small, barren landfalls (above).

I have made up my mind that the Ilen proper must ‘end’ at Turk Head – the pier, above, is looking towards the main channel of the river. It is also a small but substantially built harbour – partly hewn out of the low cliffs – which can shelter a few light fishing craft.

But the reality of the downstream ‘end’ of the river seems to be defined on the 6″ OS map above, which dates from the early 19th century and shows the townland names and boundaries as they were recognised at that time. There, a clear line is drawn between the island of Inishleigh to the north, and Spanish Island to the south. To the east of that line, apparently, is the Ilen, while to the west is the edge of Roaringwater bay, which leads into the ocean, but first skirting a myriad of rocks and small islands, only some of which have names.

There may be traditions – unknown to me – that define where the river mouth lies. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. If you are a seafarer carrying goods bound for Skibbereen you will have to negotiate your way safely through a fairly convoluted channel before entering a contrasting world of wide, calm water and rich, smooth meadowlands: Sweet Ilen.

Previous episodes in this series: Sweet Ilen : Sweet Ilen – Part 2 : Sweet Ilen – Part 3 : Sweet Ilen – Part 4

Sweet Ilen – Part 2

Last week our first exploration of Sweet Ilen – our West Cork river – began in Skibbereen town from whence we travelled north, as far as Ballyhilty Bridge. Today, we return to the town and unearth some further history on the way downstream.

On the aerial view of the Ilen flowing south-west from Skibbereen (above) I have marked some significant locations. Abbey or ‘New’ Bridge is the first crossing point and the limit of navigation for large craft. The Old Quay shown to the north of Deelish House was the offloading point for ships arriving from the south; barges or lighters carried the goods further into the town. The narrow gauge Schull & Skibbereen Tramway (as it was originally named) left Skibbereen Station and followed the Ilen as far as Newcourt Halt, alongside the main road.

The Ilen Valley Railway, which brought the regular gauge railway into Skibbereen from Bandon and Cork, shared its station at Skibbereen from 1886 with the 3ft gauge line going to Schull. This picture (above) of Skibb Station in 1960 (courtesy Roger Joanes) shows the main line on the right and the remains of the narrow gauge terminus on the left.

The header picture shows Abbey or ‘New’ Bridge as it is today. The upper picture above, with an enlarged section of it underneath is fascinating for our study: it was taken in around 1893 by Robert French for the Lawrence Collection and is reproduced here with the permission of the National Library of Ireland. It shows the bridge – which was built in 1822 – with the road to Skibbereen running to the left, as it does today. But it also shows the tracks of the tramway on the left hand side of the road. Also in the main picture is a white building below the Abbeystrewery Graveyard. That marks the point at which the entrance to the graveyard adjoins the road, and is in fact a level-crossing keeper’s cottage, now gone.

Marked on this extract from the OS 25″ survey (late nineteenth century) is New Bridge on the right, the Graveyard with its level-crossing and the quay above Deelish House

The first halt on the tramway travelling from Skibbereen was at Newcourt. Here is a ‘sylvan scene’ of a train at that halt in 1939 (courtesy of W A Camwell, taken from the invaluable volume The Schull & Skibbereen Railway by James I C Boyd, published in 1999 following over 40 years of research):

If that doesn’t bring a nostalgic tear to your eye – for those apparently idyllic days of leisurely rural life in Ireland – I don’t know what will. But the little railway had its ups and downs (before vanishing altogether in 1947). Its association with the Ilen River was there at the beginning: the very first locomotive was named ‘Ilen’ and here it is (below), having just pulled a passenger train into Schull Station, probably in the 1880s (photo from the collection of Mrs E McCarthy):

Why is it so strangely shaped? Because the line was conceived as a tramway or ‘light railway’ to comply with the conditions of The Tramways of Ireland Act 1862, which allowed tramways to be built along public roads, thereby reducing costs. Because of this, locomotives were treated in the same way as city trams – where very low slung bodywork supposedly prevented serious injury if they struck pedestrians or animals sharing the roads – something that could be echoed on West Cork’s boreens where donkeys and cows were quite likely to be encountered.

. . . To comply with regulations sheet-steel skirting was taken down to a level approximately 3 inches above the rails; the rolling and pitching of the engine probably produced shrieks of protest as it scraped the rails . . . An impressively tall chimney was surmounted by a ‘chip-pan’ spark-arrester . . .

James I C Boyd 1999
Tram Engine Ilen at Skibbereen in 1906 – photo by H Fayle

It’s a shame, but this unique piece of machinery failed because it lacked sufficient sustained power to climb the relatively steep inclines on the tramway, and its later replacements were more conventional engines (such as the one pictured at Newcourt) fitted with cow-catchers.

OS 25″ survey extract, late nineteenth century. It shows the tramway diverging from the road just north of the entrance gate to Newcourt: there was evidently an ornamental avenue along that stretch of road leading to the gate, with arches over. Also on this map is located Newcourt Post Office (by the tramway halt), Mohanagh Dispensary and various landscape features belonging to the demesne

The Ilen River is broad and magnificent as it passes by Newcourt. You do see large boats on that stretch sometimes, but also many skiffs and small craft from the Skibbereen Rowing Club. The grand house – New Court – is gone now, but the ‘designed landscape’ can be traced through the survival of ruined towers, gazebos and water-gates.

Ilen River frontage on the Newcourt Demense: from upper – the base of an ornamental tower fronts the constructed river wall; Mohanagh Dispensary ruin and another tower; prospect towards Skibbereen from the estate; substantial pillars which were part of a water gate on the south of the site – in the distance is the boatyard at Oldcourt

Finola has written previously about Newcourt, and there tells the story of another ‘water-gate’ which will be seen today by anyone travelling towards Skibbereen from the main road. We now return to Skibbereen ourselves to finish off this second episode of the series. This (below) was the bridge which took the road into the town over the Ilen prior to the present one: built in 1877, it was condemned as unsafe for heavy loads in 1953, but it took another ten years to replace it.

Above is Kennedy Bridge, Skibbereen, that was opened with due ceremony on Monday 15 June 1964 and named in honour of American President John F Kennedy. It has a centre span of 22 metres and two side spans each of 8 metres. First to cross the bridge on that day was Richard Burchill of Tragumna on a horse and cart! Information about these events – and much more – can be seen in the excellent displays in the Skibbereen Heritage Centre: formerly the town’s gasworks buildings and sited appropriately enough alongside the Ilen River!

Look out next time for more adventures exploring the further northern reaches of the Ilen!

Here is the first episode in this series: Sweet Ilen

Oldcourt

red hull

…At Oldcourt a boat-building yard flourished within the walls of an old O’Driscoll castle overlooking the pier and river. Schooners and steamships used to anchor at this spot, the highest point they could travel up the river. Here their cargoes of coal and other supplies were unloaded and placed on specially built lighters with a small draught that would be poled along a further sluggish turn or two upstream to the pier at Skibbereen. In this way cargoes of cattle were brought up by islanders to be sold at the market… (description of the townland of Oldcourt from The Coast of West Cork by Peter Somerville-Large 1974)

gentle Ilen

The tidal River Ilen making its lazy way out to Roaringwater Bay on a late summer evening has a melancholy beauty: it is wide and slow and – mid tide – is a perfect mirror to the sky. The sounds of Oystercatchers and Curlews coming over the water always bring thoughts of autumn: the harvest is ready to cut, the verges are brilliantly orange with the montbretia and the hedges purple-red and weighed down with fuscia.

Montbretia

wide river

We went down to Oldcourt to seek out history and atmosphere. We knew that it had once been a transport hub for the transhipments of goods and we wanted to see what might be visible from those earlier times. It was the river Ilen (pronounced eye-len) that gave birth to Skibbereen following a pirate raid on Baltimore in 1631. According to Skibbereen historian Gerald O’Brien …in the wake of the shock of that – the most daring pirate raid mounted against Britain or Ireland – a small number of survivors rowed upstream to resettle in the safety of the Ilen Valley. The role of this river-borne migration from Baltimore [was] a factor in the foundation of Skibbereen… (Journal of the Skibbereen and District Historical Society, Vol 7, p 91).

reflections

beyond the bridge

rust

We found atmosphere a-plenty. On the upstream side of the wide inlet where the transhipment quays were sited is a streamlined modern boatyard where sleek yachts are wintered and serviced while, opposite and downstream, is a far more eclectic establishment surrounding and embracing the remains of the medieval castle and bawn: this is Hegarty’s‘…one of Ireland’s last surviving traditional boatyards…’

birdie in circle

Our aim was to search for the old quay and the medieval buildings which had been part of the castle demesne, but we were fascinated to pick our way through boats of all kinds – classic, sailing, fishing, ferrying – and boat paraphernalia: here an old decapitated wheelhouse, there a collection of masts, everywhere ropes and tackle…

green ropes

Oldcourt Castle is a tower house standing four storeys high but originally at least one storey higher, once surrounded by a bawn, some ruins of which remain. It was an O’Driscoll clan castle, probably dating from the 15th century, and was captured by English forces after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601.

Old Court Castle

Ilen and Castle

Part of the castle bawn was used as a grain store up to comparatively modern times: now it houses a fascinating boat restoration. The story begins with Connor O’Brien (1880-1952) whose ketch, the Saoirse, took him on a circumnavigation of the world between 1923 and 1925. On this journey he stopped off at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. The islanders were so impressed at the way the Saoirse rode the waves that they asked O’Brien to arrange the building of a similar boat. This was the Ilen, named after the river and estuary and registered at the port of Skibbereen in February 1926. She was 56 feet in length overall with a beam of 14 feet and a displacement of 45 tonnes. Connor set sail in August 1926 from Cape Clear, arriving at Port Stanley in January 1927 where he handed it over to the new owners, The Falkland Islands Company, in exchange for £1,500. There she remained until the early 1990s, carrying cargoes of stores, mail, passengers and sheep. Limerick man Gary McMahon found it abandoned on one of the islands and determined that it should return to its homeland for restoration. There was great excitement when he sailed the ketch back into Baltimore in 1998.  The refitting of this eighty-two year old vessel in the old bawn at Hegarty’s, Oldcourt, is now the centre of an educational project allowing people to experience first-hand the ancient skills of wooden boat building.grain store

ilenframesThe old grain store – formerly part of the Castle bawn – now houses the restoration project of the AK Ilen (above – courtesy of Roeboats)

Such a hive of activity at OIdcourt today… Echoes of busy days gone by when the schooners were arriving with their cargoes bound for the growing town of Skibbereen.

Ilen postage stamp