Caheragh Explorer

I’ll explain at the outset that Caheragh is (more or less) pronounced ‘corer’ (as in coring apples)! It’s a parish in West Cork that we have visited before. Have a look at my article on the Ilen River, here. This locality is brimming over with history and we go exploring as often as possible: there is always more to find. And – with wide views and cloud scapes in all directions from the high ground – it’s an uplifting place, especially when blessed with the August sun.

Here’s a vista to the north-east, from the top of the mound beside the graveyard that might just be a ring-fort, or possibly the site of a monastic centre dating from medieval times – more on that later. In the middle distance is the Ilen River with its wooded banks, heading out towards Castle Donovan and – eventually – to its source on Mullaghmesha (or, perhaps, Nowen Hill – we have yet to determine exactly where it rises. This post from the Sweet Ilen series covers the area). And that Donovan castle itself graces the cover of the latest Skibbereen Historical Journal (Volume 18, 2022), which you can get in bookshops locally, or online here. You will find a summary of some of my research on the Ilen River in this journal, together with many other fascinating and erudite articles.

But, going back to that sunlit vista, you’ll notice Tadhg’s Little Oak Tree is indicated. I can’t resist quoting the story of this feature that appears as a ‘Redundant Record’ in the Historic Environment Viewer:

. . . On E bank of River Ilen. Site of tree, ‘Darriheen Teige’ or ‘Daraichin Teige’ (Tadhg’s little oak tree), where Tadhg O’Donovan, chieftain of Clan Cahill, was slain c 1560 by rival group of O’Donovan’s (O’Donoghue 1986, 55). Nearby is Poll a’ Daraichin (pool of the little oak) . . .

Archaeology.ie Historic Environment Viewer – Record CO132-066

Well, it seems strange that the ‘site of a tree’ is a recorded monument. In fact, if the oak was still flourishing (we couldn’t find it), it would probably be just one of only a few trees included in Ireland’s vast record of archaeological monuments!

For today’s post I am indebted to our historian friend Pat Crowley, who directed us to a clip from The Southern Star newspaper dated January 12, 1929. It was a letter written to the newspaper by Captain Francis O’Neill, retired Chief of Police in Chicago and well-known prolific collector of traditional Irish music. O’Neill (1848-1936) was raised in his family home at Tralibane, in the parish of Caheragh. He has been mentioned in this journal, and I was fascinated to read his letter, which became a protracted discussion on the parish, the old graveyard, historic sites and archaeology in the area.

All this came about because Francis had returned from Chicago to West Cork in 1906 – after a long absence – ostensibly to visit the burial place of his parents, and to order a suitable monument to mark their graves (above).

. . . On my return to Ireland July 1906, after an absence of 41 years, I visited the bleak Caheragh graveyard, in which the remains of my parents, and O’Neill ancestors, were buried. There being nothing visible in the environment to indicate its origin as a cemetery, personal curiosity, abetted by that of the Downings of Tralibane – cousins of McCarthy Downing, MP – led to investigation . . . The result, somewhat disconnected and fragmentary, is herewith submitted for publication . . .

Southern Star 12.01.1929

The O’Neill burial plot at Caheragh. Francis ordered the large cross to mark the graves of his parents. The inscription reads:

Erected By
Captain Daniel Francis O’Neill
Chicago USA
To the Memory of his Parents
John O’Neill of Tralibane
Died Nov 1867 Aged 66 Years
And
Catherine O’Mahoney (Cianach)
Died 1900 Aged 88 Years
Requiescant In Pace
Amen

Quoting again from Francis O’Neill’s letter to the Southern Star:

. . . All available authorities in my library have been consulted, and I find that references to the parish of Caheragh are both meagre and obscure… The earliest mention of this parish which has come to my notice, is in the report of Dive Downes, Episcopal Bishop of Cork and Ross, who made a trip on horseback to all parishes in his diocese in the years 1699 – 1702. Following is the entry: – “Caheragh Church, about two miles distant from Drommaleage Church to the SW lies close to the Island River (he means Ilen). On the west side of the river are 35.5 lowlands in this parish, of which 20 lie on the west side of the river, and 6.5 lie on the east side of the said river . . . There are about 12 Protestant families in this parish. ’Tis thought there are forty Papists for one Protestant in this parish . . . Will Gureheen, a very old man, is priest of this parish . . . The church is ruinous. The north side is down . . .”

Southern Star 12.01.1929

A vista to the west, from the top of the mound beside the graveyard. The present-day village of Caheragh is distant beyond the green pasture (a long way from this ‘Old Graveyard’ – why…?), identifiable through the spire of the 1963 Holy Family Church. O’Neill continues, now quoting from Samuel Lewis “A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland” published in London in 1837:

“Near Lisangle are the ruins of a strong castle, once the residence of McCarthy, King of Cork. The ruins of the old church also remain, which the people here call the ‘Abbey of Cahir” . . . The absence of ruins at Caheragh, which, by the way, seems to have never attracted the attention of historians or antiquaries, is easily accounted for. The stones, conveniently at hand, were utilised in the building of the walls which encompassed the graveyard . . .

Southern Star 12.01.1929

Above – the western boundary wall of Caheragh Old Graveyard. The small road continues over the Ilen River: the bridge here was built by the Congested Districts Board for Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century, to replace a ford, the stone flag bed of which can still be seen.

. . . The Irish word Cathair, spelled and pronounced in English Caher or Cahir, meant a circular stone fort, and therefore Caheragh, under any form of spelling, signifies the field of the stone fort. But where is the fort? one naturally asks. Remembering the descriptive nature of the Irish place names on my short call at Caheragh in 1906, I looked for something to justify the name and found it. In order to gain a vantage point, to view the country round about, I struggled through the thicket of furze to the top of the hill east of the road and, unexpectedly, to my great delight, found the outlines of the stone foundations of the Cahir, mostly covered with soil and grass, but quite distinct on the flat top. Again was the correctness of Irish topographical names vindicated . . .

Letter from Capt Francis O’Neill, Southern Star 12.01.1929

This feature (the two pictures above) is the hilltop referred to by O’Neill, where he claims to have found the ruins of the ‘Cahir’. Today it is recorded on the National Monuments Record as a ‘ringfort’ or ‘rath’:

CO132-017001-

Class: Ringfort – rath

Townland: CAHERAGH

Description: In pasture, atop hillock broken by rock outcrop. Circular area (36.5m N-S; 37.5m E-W) enclosed by earthen bank (max H 3.8m). Break in bank to NNW (Wth 5m); and WSW (Wth 4m), where triangular feature adjoins inner bank face. Possible souterrain (CO132-017002-) in SW quadrant

Archaeology.IE National Monuments Record

Top: flat-topped mound with circular summit, very much in line with the expectation of a ringfort structure. Centre: stone embankment seen from the top of the ‘fort’. Lower: a defined ‘entrance’ through the ‘fort embankment’ on the summit of the mound. This could be ancient or modern: cattle use the fields in which this feature is located, and some of the topography could be shaped by this usage over centuries.

. . . The builders of Abbeys and Monasteries were wise in their day in the choice of locations for their establishment, and one essential desideratum was near to a plentiful supply of water, such as the banks of lakes and rivers, or adjoining never-failing springs. In this instance the River Ilen met all requirements, and taking everything into consideration, I am led to the conclusion that the graveyard at Caheragh was the site of the “Abbey of Cahir” mentioned by Lewis in the Topographical Dictionary of Ireland . . .

Letter from Capt Francis O’Neill, Southern Star 12.01.1929

Above: evidence of built structures on the summit of the ‘ringfort’ mound at Caheragh. A significant circular foundation is clearly outlined. Perhaps, after all, there is some substance in the Captain’s musings on what occupied this site in earlier times? This account is from The county and city of Cork remembrancer; or, Annals of the county and city of Cork by Francis H Tuckey, Savage and Son, 1837:

. . . 1317 December 28, Geoffrey Fitz John de Cogan is presented by the King (by mandate to the Bishop of Cork), to the church of the Blessed Mary de Catheragh, in the King’s gift, by reason of his wardship of the lands and heir of John de Cogan . . . ‘Blessed Mary de Caheragh’ was a monastic site, said to be ‘situated on the hilltop commanding the view above the graveyard at Caheragh’ (possibly on the site of the ringfort). It was no doubt founded here because of the proximity of the watercourse . . .

So there – for your consideration – is the suggestion that the hill above Caheragh’s Old Graveyard (which may, in earlier times, have been a ringfort with a souterrain) was the monastic settlement Blessed Mary de Caheragh in medieval times. That’s quite a thought. My own opinion would be that the monastery would have been founded on the level ground close to the river: in fact where the graveyard is today. As the monastery declined, a church might have remained, eventually becoming a ruin. It was common for old churches and their environs to be used for burials and this might account for the comparative remoteness of this site from the village itself. Now – of course – there is no trace of a church ruin. This theory would hold good except for the annals quoted above, which state that a monastic site was situated on the hilltop overlooking what is now the graveyard.

Evidence of stone quarries on the hillside suggest that significant quantities of stone has been used locally. Graveyard wall, field fences, or built structures? But the most challenging feature has to be the ringed foundation, or base, clear to see on the edge of the hill (below). Could it be a souterrain entrance – or, more fanciful, the base of a round tower?

I’ll leave you with that conundrum (and my whimsical daydream below) for now, but we will continue with Francis O’Neill’s musings (which become even more complex) in a future post.

‘This is Our History’: The Abbey Graveyard Project in Bantry

All over Ireland there are local history heroes working to recover the heritage represented in the numerous historic graveyards that dot the country. Few groups have taken on as daunting or as important a task as the Abbey Graveyard Project Team in Bantry.

Team members Dorann Cafaro, Teresa Moran, Geraldine Mullins, Bernard O’Leary and Seamus O’Shea

First of all, this graveyard is enormous, stretching over several acres, and secondly, the ‘old’ section has been largely untended over the centuries and so is characterised by long grass, lichen growth and tumble-down headstones. While this is understandable, as the families of those buried here have themselves passed or moved away, it makes for a very challenging environment. It also provides a startling contrast to the ‘new’ sections, where all is order and neatness, for the most part. In the image below the ‘old’ section is at the back.

The team, however, is undaunted! If anything, they seem energised by the task ahead of them. After all, as Teresa Moran said in the Zoom presentation on the projectthis is our history. 

More recent history – this is the moving and beautiful memorial to those who died in the Whiddy Island Disaster of 1979

I was privileged to spend some time with them recently, on the invitation of the project team. Besides an extraordinary level of commitment, the group has a wide variety of skills between them, something that is key to a project like this – historians, computer folk, genealogy experts, keen-eyed decipherers of faint inscriptions. 

In the background is Pat Crowley, the indefatigable researcher behind the Durrus History/West Cork History website – following up on clues and names and records in his own inimitable way.

This is a project that is being done properly – that is, using best practice as developed by Eachtra, an archaeological consulting company that provides training on this type of survey and which maintains the site Historic Graves.

An example of a recording sheet

On this website, take a look, for example at Grave 31 from the Abbey Graveyard – photographed, numbered, geo-located on the map. It’s the headstone of Cornelius Leary Senior, who died in 1797 aged 88. The script is beautifully incised – the work of a master carver. Such a headstone is a real treasure, both for the information it contains and as evidence of the craftsmanship that went into a memorial like this for those who could afford it.

In this still from the Zoom presentation, Jacinta shows how a Drone Survey, using geo-tagging technology, can assist in providing a super-accurate map of a graveyard. Drone surveys are expensive, but the Bantry Team successfully raised the funds to commission one.

Sadly, many of those buried in the Abbey Graveyard, and in similar graveyards across the country, lie under stones with no inscription. But that does not mean that that is always impossible to identify them. Amazingly, in some areas, the knowledge of who lies under what stone is held by the elders of the area, who remember the size and shape of a field stone, especially chosen for a burial plot. That’s one of the reasons this kind of project is so vital to undertake before those memories disappear forever.

Dorann Cafaro takes the recording exercise  one step further and uploads all the records into the massive international website Find a Grave. This is particularly helpful for the descendants of emigrants who are searching for family and cannot access the information any other way. So many people now are becoming expert in genealogy and this is one of the major tools that the advent of the internet has provided for them. It’s an enormous undertaking though, to upload all those records – we are all grateful for people like Dorann!

This chest tomb is the grave of Honoria O’Sullivan, sister of Daniel O’Connell

The Abbey Graveyard, as its name suggests, began as a burial ground surrounding a Franciscan Abbey, built in 1460 by Dermot O’Sullivan and demolished in 1602 by his descendant, the tragic Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, in order to prevent the Earl of Thomond from taking it over. Only a few random stone remain, now incorporated into an altar.

This area was one of the epicentres of the Famine – a period rigorously researched and chronicled by Geraldine Powell in her new book A Want of Inhabitants. Bodies from the workhouse – 3,000 in all, most of whom died of infectious diseases between 1847 and 1850 – lie buried in the Famine Pits, and were unmarked until Tim Healy caused a Celtic Cross to be erected in 1899 (below). However, as one of the team members, Bernard O’Leary reminds us, there were other horrendous period when large numbers of people died – of cholera in the 1820s, yet another mini-famine on the 1880s, and of TB, which was still killing thousands of people every year in Ireland up to the 1950s.

Paddy O’Keefe, noted Bantry historian, conducted the first survey of the graveyard in the 1950s and the project team has mined the database he created. This has been particularly useful, since it was done 70 years ago and some headstones that have since eroded were readable then.

Paddy also wrote about the early map of Bantry and Beare (see my post Elizabethan Map of a Turbulant West Cork and Elizabethan Map of a Turbulent West Cork 2: The Story) on which the Franciscan Friary is clearly shown (below).

Deciphering a headstone can be a real head-scratcher, especially if it’s badly weathered or covered in lichen. Geraldine Mullins showed me several where she had figured out the inscription – she has been developing a real eye for it. Lighting becomes important – strong slanting sunlight does wonders, or a bright torch shining from the side. One particular example only became clear under tinfoil! As with best archaeological practice, the team do not advocate the use of rubbing, chalking or cleaning with stiff brushes or chemicals, all of which can promote further deterioration of a headstone in the long run.

One of the exciting finds has been that of a headstone with an inscription in Irish – highly unusual! This might seem strange, since Irish was the language of most of the people buried in this graveyard, but it has to be viewed within the context of the colonial administration. Headstones were considered an official record, and the official language, under British rule, was English. After the foundation of the State, of course, Irish inscription became much more common. Geraldine has sent me the text and translation and I append it at the end of this post. As you can see (below) it took real study to make out this inscription!

Have a look at the Zoom Seminar on the Bantry Historical Society’s website, and browse what’s been uploaded so far to the Historic Graves website. It’s very much a work in progress. And if you have any information at all that might help the committee, do get in touch with them through the Bantry Historical Society contact page.

Headstone of Owen O’Sullivan, who died in 1822 has a carved top section featuring a crucifixion, two winged heads and an angel blowing a trumpet

Or better yet, take a wander through the graveyard itself and see what you can find.

Many thanks to Geraldine Mullins for sharing resources used in this post, and to all the committee members for so graciously spending time with me and answering questions.

Text and Translation of Irish Inscription

Gac naon do calam liocht /  

cathuil ui neill is cuimhine d/  

leifis an rann so g[e above]arrtha an /  

gaoghalge caoin le cheile an tathair /  

an mac 7 an naomh spriod /  

[g]uidheach do rai[.]h Dia trochurac /  

air anom do bhi ansa corp so /  

ata fan liag Amen 

Everyone of the noble, warlike line of Ó Néill and Conn, who will read this verse inscribed in beautiful Irish, pray to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit together, that God may be merciful to the soul that was in the body that is beneath this stone. Amen.