Dunworley Promontory Fort – A Bit Of A Stunner

We’ve been wanting to visit this site for ages and the opportunity came this week, thanks to the kindness of Diarmuid Kingston and Tim Feen of Dúchas/the Clonakilty Historical Society, and the landowner, Jim Molony. As the Heritage Council said when they posted the photo below on their Twitter account – it’s a bit of a stunner!

Partly, this outing was to kick off a project I have in mind to follow in the footsteps, 100 years later, of Thomas J Westropp, the antiquarian who did so much to modernise Irish Archaeology and whose special interest was forts and fortified headlands. I already wrote about one of the promontory forts that he documented and we visited last year – Gouladoo, on the Sheep’s Head. I suppose that was In the Footsteps of Westropp 1, Part 1, and this is Part 2. 

Let’s review what a promontory fort is. In 2004 Liam Downey laid out the thinking on this type of monument for the Archaeology Ireland/Wordwell Heritage Guide series. He called them ‘enigmatic.’ They are headlands fortified at the narrowest part, or neck, by earth or stone banks, ditches or walls and they vary considerably in the size of the enclosed area and the length of the fortifications. The sea and the cliffs all around the enclosure provide another level of defence, often seemingly impregnable. 

This type of fortification may have been built as early as the Bronze Age, although most are believed to date to the Iron Age (from 500BC) or the Early Medieval Period (from 450AD), but many were obviously also occupied in the medieval period, when additional defences were added, as at Dunworley. 

Why were they built? Downey says this:

Their overtly defensive character and exposed locations, allied to the admittedly scarce excavation evidence, suggest that they might have been built as temporary refuges for use in times of grave danger. On the other hand, assuming that defence was the purpose, the cliff-top location suggests a fight to the death rather than a safe refuge. Assuming that human nature does not change radically from one era to another, one potential explanation for the location is prestige. Several promontory forts are built on a large scale and some are very impressive in appearance, especially those with closely spaced walls or banks. These may have been status sites, visible from a distance and designed to dominate the adjacent countryside. The spectacular locations, unspoiled sea views, occasional associations with royalty, pagan deities or St Patrick, and even the element dún combine to suggest that the social role of these monuments in ancient times may have been quite complex. 

In the light of all this, let’s take a look at Dunworley. It’s unusual, in that the narrow neck of the promontory has had an additional feature built on it, in the shape of a small tower house – a gate house, in fact. 

The features of this small tower (our guides called it a wee castle) are pretty typical of fifteenth century tower houses in West Cork (except on a smaller scale), with a base batter (lowest level splayed outwards), rubble construction, and inside one ope with a splayed embrasure (below). The two doors, back and front, are simple affairs and there is no sign of bar holes, eye or spud stones for the doors.

One of the more curious features, noted by Westropp, is that there appears to have been two floors, as evidenced by the corbels upon which the floor joists would have rested (below). However, the corbels are less than a metre apart, so it is hard to imagine how that space would have been used. 

The internal vault, which would have separated the lower floors from the topmost floor and the wallwalk, is not a continuous vault but two arches which are covered by large slatey slabs. Although not as common as the continuous vault (see Dunmanus for an example of this), I have seen this type of vaulting in other West Cork towers – at Dunlough, for example, and less obviously at Dun an Óir on Cape Clear and at Rossbrin – all 15th century tower houses of the West Cork Irish families of O’Mahony and O’Driscoll.

Westropp, in his 1916 paper Fortified Headlands and Castles on the South Coast of Munster. Part I. From Sherkin to Youghal, Co. Cork, gives a complicated genealogy for the fort. He says it was destroyed by Fineen McCarthy after the Battle of Callan in 1260 – and this would imply that whatever original fortification was here, it was built by an Anglo-Norman family, since it was the anglo-Norman castles that Fineen destroyed. It may then have been taken over by the O’Cowhigs, but was definitely held by a branch of the Barrys by 1573. It passed to the Travers, the Hamiltons and back to the Travers. Jim Moloney, the present owner, told me that it has been in his family since his grandfather bought it.

Westropp, in his usual thorough fashion, provides a drawing of the small tower, both its position at the neck of the promontory, and a plan of the building itself – the top left and top centre plans below.

Some accounts mention a house on the promontory, but Westropp saw no sign of one. He did, however, note:

The day of my visit the headland was covered with cattle ; and it was interesting to see them, when called out to water, going in single file, without delay or hustling, through the little doorways, the outer 3 feet 1 inch wide, by 5 feet high ; the inner 2 feet 10 inches wide, and 5 feet 9 inches high. This shows how easily cattle might be brought through the small doors (but usually wider and higher than this gateway) in the dry-stone ring-forts.

This is particularly interesting because the land is considered unsuitable for livestock now, because of the difficulty of getting them on and off the promontory and because there is no source of water on it. In any case, it has been declared an Area of Special Conservation, since the cliffs are home to nesting choughs – a very suitable designation for such an epic place.

The day of our visit was a stormy one – Amanda was actually blown off her feet at one point. It was easy to see how such a place could be defended in times of attack, and act as a refuge. The whole area had such a wild, remote and romantic air that we truly felt privileged to be able to visit it, and to step back in time to imagine it in its heyday.

You can see us below, bracing against the wind. Many thanks to Diarmuid, Tim and Jim for facilitating our visit and answering all our questions. 

An Evanescent Signal Tower – Glandore Head

This is a bit of an epilogue to my Signal Success in Irish Engineering series (although that is not yet complete!). Here is the site of a Napoleonic-era Signal Tower in West Cork – but the tower itself has completely vanished! It’s no 28 on the map which accompanies Bill Clements’ book – Billy Pitt Had Them Built – Napoleonic Towers in Ireland (The Holliwell Press 2013) and it is given the name Glandore Head. We recently visited friends who have a house in the townland of Reenogrena, which is south-east of the village of Glandore and its extensive natural harbour. The topography of the area is soul-stirring – that’s probably an understatement: look at the view of the coastline there, above, and the distant views both west and east, below.

We were fortunate with the day we had. The benign weather gave us a possibly false sense of security as we explored a wild, riven coastline. We could well imagine how exposed we might feel there in one of West Cork’s severe storms: our climate-changing extremes are becoming ever more prevalent. But on this occasion we were confident enough to venture to the very edges of the land, always conscious that humans had settled in these remote places many generations before us.

There is nothing left of the signal tower at Glandore Head, which would have been constructed between 1801 and 1804. The site has now been taken over by a recently built house which enjoys the excellent views in all directions. In the picture below it seems that the tower was located in the area of the earth-sheltered garage. We know more or less where it was because it appears on the earliest Ordnance Survey maps from around 1840. Even by then the structure itself had lost its original function, as the threat of Napoleonic invasion had passed, but it is labelled as a ‘Telegraph’. On the later 25″ map – dating from the late 1800s – the site is marked as ‘Tower in ruins’.

Centre – the earliest 6″ OS map; lower – the later – and far more detailed – 25″ OS map. It’s interesting to compare the two versions. The accuracy of the later map in terms of topographical detail and humanly constructed features – buildings, trackways etc is very noticeable. Below is the contemporary aerial view. 50 years separate the two OS maps, while the satellite image is 100 years later again.

The reason why I like to examine and compare the mapped information is my interest in reading the history of a place through its landscape, and this particular vignette of West Cork is a prime example of the process. Firstly, the signal tower location was chosen because of visibility to other significant places on the coastline which are in view: the towers at Toe Head to the west and Galley Head (Dunnycove) to the east (below).

Next, look at the ‘Coastguard Station’ site. This is marked on the c1840 OS map, but not on the later 25″ map. But that later map does show a number of buildings on that site. As you can see from the aerial view, there are only the remnants of buildings now. Also the older map shows no roadway or track accessing the ‘Coastguard Station’ – it could only be reached by crossing fields. Here’s a closer look at this group of ruined buildings today, followed by some of our photos.

While it is likely that there are old coastguard buildings amongst these ruins, it seemed to us equally possible that we were also looking at the earlier remains of a settlement – cottages and cabins. Records of the area are scant. There’s nothing we found – apart from the OS maps – to give any further light on what we were scrutinising. Surprisingly, very little information is available on the early years of the Irish Coast Guard service, other than its establishment as the Water Guard, or ‘Preventative Boat Service’ in 1809, initially under Navy control but from 1822 part of the Board of Customs. From this we might assume that its purpose was to intercept smuggling operations, rather than to give any assistance to seafarers. Incidentally, it is important to note that in Ireland the name has always been two words: Coast Guard.

It’s easy to see that this hostile coastline – which would not be benign to small fishing boats – would nevertheless attract subversive landings. The only nearby access to the water is Siege Cove, to the east of the Coast Guard site. The upper photo depicts the curiously named Cooscookery inlet – not a good landing point, while the lower is Siege Cove – itself a difficult climb to the fields from sea level. The names of the topographical features would be a good study in themselves – and might reveal some hidden history: Coosnacragaty, Black Hole, Rabbit Cove, and Niladdar. The small burial ground is known as Kilcarrignagat (it means the ‘church at the rock of the cat’). That’s the overgrown trackway leading to it, below. It is of particular interest – partly because you wonder what communities it served, but also because it seems to have been established in a previously existing ring-fort or cashel.

Further yet to the east, and directly above Siege Cove, are the distinct remains of a defensive structure, partly taking in natural outcrops but also built up with stone. This is likely to be indications of the first habitation in this area – perhaps a thousand years ago. There seems to be at least one promontory fort here, and Finola will take up that subject in this locality in future posts (she has already tackled examples elsewhere). It seems to me that this whole coastal region would be worthy of a detailed archaeological study – UCC take note! Meanwhile, we can only express our gratitude to friends Michael and Jane for introducing us to the many wonders of their own territory.

Addendum: After I had published this post I discovered an excellent photograph of Siege Cove and the coastline in this area taken from the sea. I cannot find a contact for the photographer. I do know his name is Tim, and that he publishes an occasional diary of his journeys in a boat (an Ilur based, I believe, In Glandore). I hope he won’t mind me publishing this and including a link to his website.

A Dander on The Sheep’s Head

it’s not just for long walks – the Sheep’s Head is also perfect for wandering with intent, having, as my father used to say, a dander. Our trip there this week, in the excellent company of Amanda and Peter, was that sort of day, where we drove around and dropped in and out of interesting places. Amanda and Peter Clarke, our regular readers will know, are the couple behind Walking the Sheep’s Head Way, so who better to have as companions and guides for a day of exploring. Amazingly, given all the time we’ve spent there, only one of our stops was familiar.

Our first stop was a curious stone overlooking Dunmanus Bay. Known as the Giant’s Footprint, the local legend tells a familiar story about two giants throwing rocks at each other. This must have been a mere pebble, because one of the missiles became the Fastnet Rock. Footprint stones are also associated with inauguration sites, where kings were acclaimed in early medieval society. (See the comments section below for a link to an amazing piece of art from our friend, the acclaimed photographer EJ Carr, who used this stone in his fantasy photography piece on the Arthurian legend – follow the link in the comment to view his images.)

Being with Amanda is always a great opportunity to visit a holy well and we had never been to Gouladoo. It also ticked a box for me as I’ve been wanting to visit promontory forts. The holy well first – it’s a Tobar Beannaithe, a Blessed Well, not associated with any particular saints. Amanda’s research revealed that it did have a particular purpose, though – girls would visit to pray for a husband. Read Amanda’s comprehensive account here

Because this is on the Sheep’s Head Way, the route is signposted and maintained. The well itself has a cup thoughtfully provided so you can have a drink if you dare. The path down to it has been carved out of the hillside and roughly paved, indicating that this was a site to which many people once came.

If you turn your back to the holy well, the promontory fort is straight ahead of you.

Where you have a promontory jutting out into the sea it’s easily fortified by building banks and ditches at the neck. Promontories with narrow necks were usually chosen, as being easiest to defend, and archaeological evidence suggests that some were in use as early as the Bronze Age but most evidence of occupation dates to the Early and Later Medieval Period (400 -1500AD). 

As promontory forts go, this is a classic – a narrow neck with evidence of walls across it, steep cliffs on all sides, and a flat and verdant area in the middle for houses and cattle. This one has an added feature – sea arches underneath! The sea arches mean that this may eventually become an island.

The antiquarian Thomas J Westropp set out to visit all the promontory forts along the Beara and Sheep’s Head in or around 1920 and has left us his account, written over three articles in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Gouladoo, as his map shows, was one of his destinations.

Here is his description of the fort as he found it then.

Far to the west of Rinn, in Kilcrohane, is a remarkable fortified headland of dark grey slate, up tilted and separated from the mainland by a gully. This is spanned (like those at Doonagh and Dursey) by a natural arch. The adjoining townland is called Dunoure, but no fort is known to have existed near this, so perhaps that name refers to Gouladoo. The arch is lintelled, like a great Egyptian pylon, and is 15 ft. or 16 ft. wide at the gully. The neck is wider to the landward, and was strongly defended. First we find a trace of a hollow or fosse; then the foundation of a drystone wall 82 ft. long (E. and W.); behind, a natural abrupt ridge forms a banquette over 4 ft. high; the wall is about 12 ft. thick, the terrace 12 ft. to 15 ft. wide. Beyond this the neck was enclosed all round by a fence about 6 ft. thick. The whole work measures about 80 ft. each way. As at Doonagh, I think that the line of debris on the peninsula along the edge of the chasm is a trace of a wall, and that the bare slope behind it was stripped by a landslip. The whole is tufted with luxuriant masses of rich crimson heather.


The Promontory Forts of Beare and Bantry: Part III, Thomas J Westropp
The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1921

It’s quite difficult to see those features now, although there is a piece of the wall remaining, and what must be his ‘terrace.’

There are other compensations to visiting a site like this – those sheer cliffs which provide such an impregnable defence for the fort, also host many gulls in nesting season. The Bluebells and Sea Campion were abundant there too.

Westropp wrote his article, The Promontory Forts of Beare and Bantry, over several issues of the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, and maybe it would be fun to retrace his steps a hundred years later to see what’s on the ground now – what do you think? 

From there it was off to the Mass Rock at Glanalin, an easy walk down from the Pietà in the pass above Kilcrohane. It’s a particularly lovely walk to this mass rock (above), and in May the spring flowers are everywhere, especially St Patrick’s Cabbage, one of the group of plants known as the Lusitanian Flora, that only grows here and in Iberia.

And finding a lone Heath Spotted Orchid (above) was a real bonus too!

By sheer coincidence we were there on the same day, May 17th, when Mass was celebrated here in 2000 in remembrance of the ancestors who worshipped here.

Our final stop of the day was another site new to us, the Marriage Stone! That’s Peter’s sketch of it above, from his Hikelines Blog. Tradition has it that people would get married here, as described by local farmer Jack Sheehan:

The hole in the stone is narrow on one side and wide at the other. The man had a bigger hand and he put his hand through the big side and the woman put her hand through the narrow side. They made their promises when they put their hands through the stone

Of course we all had to do it!

There was a ring fort nearby –  actually described as an enclosure in the National Monuments records – but over the years it has been disturbed to the point where it is hardly recognisable. Perhaps it is this site that gave its name to the townland, Caherurlagh. A caher is a stone fort and so the townland name means Fort of the Slaughter. Perhaps there are some aspects to the history of this area into which we should not delve too closely.

I highly recommend a day like this on the Sheep’s Head, with Walking the Sheep’s Head Way as your travelling companion, and channeling the spirit of old Thomas Westropp. I will leave you with what he had to say about the views north to the Beara as he journeyed along the north side towards Gouladoo

We pass beneath the beautiful woods of Bantry House and the picturesque old graveyard, where the Franciscan Friary once stood erected by O Sullivan in 1330. We reach the shore out of a maze of low green hills, several with ring forts on their summits, near Dromclough. Thence on past Rinn Point and up the lofty road, often unfenced and narrow, along the edge of cuttings and precipices to Gouladoo and Collack. The sweep of the high mountains in Beare and those inland heights towards Muskerry is magnificent as seen across the great bay. From Black Ball Head and Dunbeg past flat-topped Slieve Miskish and the great domes of Hungry Hill and the Sugarloaf, on to the shapely cone of Mullach Maisha, the stately range extends.