Merchant, Miller, Smuggler: James O’Sullivan and Roaring Water

If you park your car at Kilcoe Church, at Meen Bridge on the N71 between Skibbereen and Ballydehob, and walk straight south, you arrive at a picturesque pier – a quiet backwater of leafy boreens. This is the outlet for the Roaring Water River (yes, that’s how the river is spelled on the OS maps), which rises on the southern slopes of Mount Kidd, a bare 6km away. Despite the short distance, this little river is a notable torrent by the time it reaches the sea, and it is said that the noise it made as it rushed over the rocks and weirs in its last stretch gave its name not only to the river but also to Roaringwater Bay (and yes, that’s how the Bay is spelled on the OS maps). 

Your walking route from Kilcoe Church to the pier takes you along the river. Here and there are perilous but satisfying opportunities to hop over a wall, hang on to branches and lean out to see over the river. This is a marvellous stretch of road in spring and early summer, with the river full on and hosting a riot of Marsh-marigold, and the banks heady with Whitethorn and Guelder-rose.

Eventually, you arrive at the final bridge – an interesting single span with a high arch – and can walk down to the Pier. You’ll be lucky if you encounter another person here, a dog-walker perhaps, or somebody messing about in a boat. It’s an idyllic spot, with views down the narrow channel to the medieval castle of Rincolisky (or Whitehall) across the water.

But in the first half of the nineteenth century, this was a bustling place indeed, and most of that came down to the the vision and energy of one man, James O’Sullivan. His house is still at the head of the inlet, still lived in and lovingly maintained. The quays he built for his various enterprises have stood the test of time and are as straight and sturdy as they were in their heyday.

No longer here are the industrial buildings that once marked this place as an active centre of industry and commerce. On the 1840s OS maps you can see them – there’s a Tuck Mill (used in wool processing) and a Corn Store. An historic account refers to a large building beside O’Sullivan’s house used to store potatoes until they were ready for export. There’s a slate quarry over to the east and a small village to the west. In addition the Archaeological Survey uncovered a metal working site on the rising east bank beside the quay, and a lime kiln at the edge of the water on the west bank. 

That little ‘village’? You can clearly see it as a cluster of buildings on the old maps, although there’s nothing there now you would call a community. But if you look hard, some traces are still visible. The old Catholic church became unfit for purpose by the end of the nineteenth century and was replaced by the splendid Church of the Most Holy Rosary (where you left your car). But it’s still a place of reverence for local people, having been repurposed as a grotto and a place for quiet contemplation and prayer – new Stations of the Cross were unveiled here as recently as 2018. It’s also a Cillín (pronounced killeen), a place where unbaptised children were buried – see this post for more on that.

There were two schools here, a boys’ and a girls’, and the boys’ school can still be seen in ruins along the road (below). By the 1840s they had both been replaced by a new school up by Meen Bridge – it, or its successor, is still there. There was a shop here once, no longer in use except for storage and partly ruined, and several houses only one of which remains. It is estimated that up to 200 people may have worked here. 

Who was James O’Sullivan? for all the information that follows I am indebted to a piece by Timothy Cadogan in the Seanchas Cairbre (a now-defunct publication) for 1993. Born around 1758, he was from the area and appeared to have engaged, by his own admission, in some lucrative smuggling in his younger days, mostly tobacco but “he could give you a bottle of good cognac”. After a crackdown, he turned to more legitimate businesses, perhaps funded by his earlier nefarious dealings. He was by no means alone in the smuggling trade – many a local gentleman had a hand in it too.

Turning to commerce, he operated both a corn mill and a tuck mill (the latter marked on the OS map). Both were overshot mills (see illustration below), in which the wheel was fed by a mill stream which diverted water from the Roaring Water River. The corn was stored in a large building on the quay (more or less where the small corrugated house is now, see image above) and shipped to Cork and Dublin. He had his own ships for this purpose and a storehouse in both cities.

Part of the Overshot Mill at Aberdulais 1786 or 1800 Philip James De Loutherbourg 1740-1812 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D36368

Timothy Cadogan points out that O’Sullivan played an active role in the politics of the time, “as might be expected from the most prominent Catholic in Aughadown and Kilcoe”. He chaired, for example, the great Anti-Tithe meeting in Skibbereen in 1832 – you can read more about that movement, and that meeting, in this post. The image below is of a tithe collector, called a Proctor, extracting his dues.

James O’Sullivan died between 1837-39. He had been married twice, first to Ellen Fitzgerald and after her death in 1826 to Ellen Coleman. No record has been left of any children, and indeed his great enterprises failed to survive his death, although copper mining was subsequently carried out in the vicinity with no great success. The building below was a later shop, across from the old church.

Perhaps though, if you linger a while on the Quay and close your eyes, you can hear the shouts of those loading corn, the sheets slapping against the masts in the wind, the rumble of barrels coming down the road to the waiting ships – maybe even make out, in your mind’s eye, a skiff silently slipping into the inlet loaded with an ‘irregular’ cargo to be delivered under cover of darkness.