Mizen Magic 23: Lackavaun and The Meallán

Drawn by the lure of sea-arches, we visited Lackavaun this week. Wild, remote and uninhabited now, but it wasn’t always so. 

We’ve written before about Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes, with illustrations by Thelma Ede. Published in 1999, it’s still available. I am drawing on this book for information about Lackavaun, with gratitude to the authors for all the work that went into this marvellous compendium of Tales, Customs and History

As you can see from the map, the main feature of Lackavain (leaca bhán – white slabs) is a rugged and bare peninsula. Not very promising, you might think. But see that sheltered spot on the south-eastern end – a grand place for a little quay. It was used for many purposes – fishing, of course, but also for getting to Bird Island. And even though there are no houses on the peninsula now, and none on the historic maps, we came across evidence of cultivation, in the form of potato ridges.

The peninsula we explored, with good friends Con and Una, was traditionally known as the Meallán (pronounced mal – awn, meaning a small knoll). It is also labelled Dooneen (Little Fort) on the historic 25inch map, and the harbour Dooneen Coos. This is rendered as Doonleen on the Historic 6inch map, which looks like it might be a misprint, since there isn’t a sensible translation. Northside doesn’t use either of those names.

The photograph above was taken from Mount Gabriel. The peninsula we are visiting, The Meallán, in the townland of Lackavaun, is the land that projects into the sea at the top right. Can you make out the sea-arch?

The Northside of the Mizen says of this place:

The first settlers may well have been those from the Iron Age who developed the dun (promonotory fort) at Meallán in Lacakavun, the remains of which still exist. The name Dunkelly (Ceallach’s Fortress) may have derived from this fort and was the name for the whole of the Northside area in the past.

Looking out in to the Meallán – the knoll is straight ahead

This is intriguing! The name Dunkelly is nowadays reserved for two townlands to the east of Lackavaun. The Cailleach (a more usual spelling, pronounced a bit like Kye-lock) is of course the Old Woman, the Hag, the wise woman prominent in Irish folklore. This area, in fact the whole of the Mizen, is the ancestral territory of the O’Mahonys. Another family associated with this area is the Canty clan. Robert has written about Canty the Pirate and we did visit his Cove and his Pirate Steps on this occasion. 

Finding the pirate steps again after a few years took a bit of searching and wandering around headlands but here they are, in all their slippery treacherous steepness

But Northside of the Mizen has another take on the Cantys:

In the early seventeenth century the Northside was recorded as being Dunkelly (Dunnekilly) and owned by the bardic O’Canty family, who were possibly bards to the O’Mahonys of Dunmanus Castle. The O’Canty’s took part in a rebellion in 1641, when they attacked Crookhaven and as a result their land was confiscated and granted to an Englishman, Sir William Petty.

Northside goes on to enumerate the population of the area – 11 in 1659, 635 in 1841, shrinking again to 291 people after the famine. By 1911 it was down to 169 souls. Very few people live there now – Northside poignantly estimates it at about the same number as three centuries ago – that is, about 11 people. Some of the houses are holiday homes and so the population rises somewhat over the summer.

Looking down on Lackavaun from the high ground to the south, it is obvious how depopulated it is now

As we know, potatoes were the staple food of most people before the Famine, and this continued afterwards, when the crops recovered. We came across clear evidence of this on the Meallán, in the form of long disused lazy beds, the traditional method for cultivating potatoes in the West of Ireland. It’s impossible to know how recently these beds might have been abandoned. They could be pre-Famine but are more likely to be more recent than that. None of the historic maps show any dwellings on the Meallán itself, so this was a patch to which people came specifically for this purpose, probably building up the soil over generations with sand and seaweed.

The parallel ridges are the tell-tale sign of former potato ridges, known as lazy beds even though they were labour-intensive

Northside has much to say about the practices, and the vocabulary, of potato growing, beginning in February with the Ridge of Graf.

In the first week of February you would begin on ‘the Ridge of Graf’ lazy bed system using a dry, sunny and sloping ground to give an early crop of potatoes. The ‘Ridge of Graf’ system, although hard work, would give you up to 3 times more crop than setting potato seed in a drill. A good supply of manure was used and you would use stable manure (horse or donkey) as it was said it had a better ‘heat to it’ then yard (cow) manure. The stable manure was spread on to the grass and the seed potato placed on top. This was then covered with the sods, cut with a grafán to open a trench on each side, of 18 – 20 inches. This gave you a ridge of about three feet. Soil from the trench was then put up on the ridge. This was called ‘the first earth’. The last shovel of earth from the trench was put up against the edge of the ridge, and with a good pat from the back of the shovel the grua (side of the ridge) was made.

Each tool had its own name and function. The potato spade was inserted as deep as the bucán, or foot rest. The seed potatoes, or sprouters, were covered in earth using a farraheen to fill in the holes.

Around this time of year – the start of May – the little quay was put to good use and local boys and men took a trip to Bird Island.

The quay, and an old field wall – impossible to say what period the wall belongs to

This was a tricky island to get on to, there was no landing place and it could only be attempted in calm weather. The first trip was to collect the eggs of the cóbach (the Black-backed Gull). Once ashore, the men attached ropes to iron bars which had been driven into the rock faces, and climbed down the cliffs to gather the eggs. 

With the cóbach going mad, it was a tricky job to pull yourself back up with a hand basket and your pockets full of eggs, and often you would end up in a sticky situation!

I get vertigo just looking at the picture – can you imagine collecting eggs from those cliffs?

The second trip to Bird Island was to take sheep there for summer grazing. This happened once the Scairivín na gCuach was over – the ‘cold wind of the cuckoo’ that lasted a week or two (it’s happening as I write this) and was generally seen as the last gasp of winter. That’s Bird Island below, this time seen from the west.

It was a great day for the young and fit lads, and at least three would have to go. Fifteen sheep were taken from Canty’s Cove at Dunkelly or the pigeonholes (Cuasnacolúr) on the south side of Meallán. Getting off at the island was a different matter and you needed a still day, as to get up onto the island, even with a gentle heave, was anything but a joke without a landing place. Once you had a man up, a rope was used to haul up the sheep. In the passing of four months on Bird Island the sheep would be as fat as pigs and as wild as the sea around them. It was the very devil to get them off again. By the time you had a brehóg of sheep in the boat, you would be sweating buckets!

But what about the reason we went there in the first place – those sea-arches? It’s an indescribably eerie feeling to stand on one and see and feel the sea heaving below you.

Your head knows that the chances it will give way under you are minuscule, but it feels dangerous and thrilling nonetheless.

There’s a small sea arch of more recent vintage on the east end of The Meallán, near the lazy beds – you can see the land has collapsed relatively recently.  And yet a third on the mainland just west of the Meallán – equally as spectacular as the one we crossed over (above, and the lead photograph).  From all points there are amazing views up and down Dunmanus Bay and across to the Sheeps Head. 

But perhaps the most special sight of all was Con’s discovery of a nest with three eggs. Una had spotted what we thought were curlews – they had flown up right in front of her as she rounded a ridge, and we reckoned there were six of them. They’re well disguised in the picture below. But – read on. . .

Ireland has lost over 80% of our curlew population since the 1970s and it felt apt, somehow, on this wild and uninhabited corner of the Mizen that they were trying to hang on. Una reported the sighting, but the expert opinion turned out to be that what we saw was actually the nest of an oystercatcher or whimbrel – much more common and not endangered at all. The ‘curlews’ in the photo above are also more likely to be whimbrels – curlews don’t flock in May but the similar whimbrels do. Disappointing!

The Meallán can’t be more than a few acres – but what a place!

Aughadown – Church on the Ilen

Surely one of the most picturesquely situated in Ireland, the early nineteenth century church at Aughadown on the Ilen is surrounded by a graveyard that tells the story of Irish and local history. Locals, by the way, use the pronunciation Affadown, and for the river, it’s Eye-len.

The church we see now dates from 1814, but there was an even older church on this spot once, of which no trace now remains. The 1814 church was no longer fit for purpose by the 1870s and was replaced in 1872 by the much larger St Matthias church, exactly a mile (1.6km) to the north along what is now the N71.

As the church fell into ruin it gradually accrued the ivy and the general air of dereliction that are the indispensable attributes of the romantic, greatly augmented by its charming siting on the banks of the Ilen river. Oxeye Daisies cover the graves in spring and summer, while Thrift flourishes along the banks. The outlines of the slate-hanging that would have kept the interior dry are still obvious on the outside walls – see the photo above.

Inside, the church looks remarkably small by today’s standards and it’s easy to see how a congregation would have outgrown it over time. There are some unusual design features, such as round-headed arches and windows rather than the more common gothic ogees.

But it’s the graveyard that is the most fascinating part of this site. As the community graveyard of that place, it was used by all – Church of Ireland, Catholic and Dissenter. Plots seem to follow family lines, rather than, as in many West Cork graveyards, separate areas for Catholic and Protestant. As a result, there are some curious juxtapositions.

The graveyard has been surveyed and recorded by a volunteer group coordinated by the Skibbereen Heritage Centre. For a burial place as old and overgrown as this one, with faded or non-existent inscriptions, this was a herculean undertaking! But the good folks at the Skibb Heritage Centre seem to thrive on challenges like this. As they say themselves – they ‘get’ graveyards.

From their own website, here is an account of one of those ‘curious juxtapositions’:

Among those buried at Aughadown is Patrick McCarthy of the 5th Cork Brigade of the IRA. He took part in the Kilmichael Ambush in 1920 and was shot during the Siege of Skibbereen in 1922, aged 22. It was said that a lit cigarette revealed his location to his assassin. A plaque now marks the spot where he was killed on the Windmill Rock in Skibbereen.

Very close to the Patrick McCarthy grave is the tomb is of the Bechers of Aughadown, once major landlords in the area. Buried in this plot is Colonel Thomas Becher who died in 1708 and served as aide-de-camp to King William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690

The Bechers were responsible for the fortified manor house at Aughadown that I reported on in Moving Up in Tudor Times. Descended from Fane Becher, one of the founders of Bandon, they intermarried with all the local families and the name Becher is familiar in other graveyards too – Castletownshend for example.

A detail from a memorial window in St Peter’s Church in Bandon

Here’s a lovely old headstone with a depiction of an angel playing a trumpet, although I can’t make out the inscription

Lionel Fleming is buried here – a man infamous for his conduct during the Famine, but so too is Dr Stephen Sweetnam, a dispensary doctor responsible for saving many lives during that terrible time.

The Tonson tomb in the foreground

The oldest recorded burial (although probably not the earliest) is that of Henry Tonson, about whom I wrote in my post New Court Bridge – a Hidden Wonder. It dates from 1703 and appears to be on slate, with an incised inscription that reads Here Lyes the body of Captn Henry Tonson who departed this life November the twenty fifth and in the thirtyeth seventh year of his age 1703.

A wander around this old church on a sunny day is rewarding. You’ll find yourself marvelling at the wildflower meadow while simultaneously seeking out old headstones and wondering about the lives of those buried here. Perhaps you might even arrive by boat, or kayak, as just outside the gate is a stopping place for the newly developed Ilen River Blueway.

However you arrive, you will leave – and I guarantee this – in a better mood.

 

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