Rossbrin Calendar

We know Rossbrin Cove intimately – more so than any other part of West cork. That’s because it’s right on our doorstep, and there is seldom a day when we don’t walk or drive along the Cove; and, even if we fail to get out, the views from our windows at Nead an Iolair will always be looking down on the Cove and its castle. I conceived the idea of sorting through all our pictures and selecting a ‘calendar’ of Rossbrin, taking us consecutively through the months of the year so that we can follow the seasons and the changes that every day brings. That’s Rossbrin Castle above, a view taken in January – which can often be atmospherically misty. But the picture below was also taken in that month, when we explored an abandoned house in the environs of Rossbrin: just as atmospheric in its own way – and bursting with a story to tell . . . But we’ll never know it.

Low tide at Rossbrin, taken from the pier and looking towards the boatyard – an important aspect of the Cove as the winter laying-up and maintenance of pleasure boats brings all-year-round life to the area and provides a livelihood. The picture above was taken in February, on a good clear day. In the middle distance you can just make out a wrecked boat uncovered by the receding water: this is the ‘Flying Foam’ – still rather enigmatic – which I wrote about a little while ago. We expect our strongest gales in February, and the picture below was taken when storm clouds began to gather.

March can also be a month when the weather is inclement (above), but we had a surprise in 2018 when snow covered the land around us (below) – a climatic event seldom experienced in Roaringwater Bay, which is more usually kept mild by the Gulf Stream. That’s Castle Island beyond the Cove – once inhabited (and with its own castle which you can see in the picture) but now just used to run sheep and cattle.

You can see how quickly the weather changes in West Cork: Rossbrin Castle Farm is enjoying blue sea and skies in April, and the gorse is in bloom, showing that love is in season! In the detail below, at the edge of the Cove and also in April, we can see the new spring growth beginning to overtake last year’s seed-heads.

By the time May arrives, boats are already being taken out of winter storage and are anchored in the Cove. We get fabulous skyscapes perched up here above Rossbrin, and these mares’ tails herald windy weather ahead.

This is one of my favourite pictures – taken by Finola from Nead an Iolair in June. Late evening sun paints the sky and sea in almost implausible colours – although the photo has not been doctored. The whole effect beautifully outlines the Fastnet Rock lighthouse on the horizon with some of Carbery’s Hundred Isles silhouetted as if floating; Rossbrin is in the foreground. By day you can see that wildflowers are abundant this month (below).

The sea in July is at its bluest. Here is Roaringwater Bay out beyond the shelter of Rossbrin on a calm day. There is hardly a ripple on the surface, except for the elegant wake of the yacht motoring in.

Nead an Iolair – our house – taken in August. You can see that Rossbrin Cove is central to our view out over the Islands. The name of the house means ‘Nest of the Eagle’, and the birds have obligingly flapped their way into the photo, courtesy of Photoshop. White-tailed Sea Eagles do survive in Kerry – not too far away – and they have occasionally been seen in West Cork. Once they were common across the west of Ireland. Below is another August picture – a wild apple tree close to the shore of Rossbrin.

I couldn’t resist adding this picture to the August tally (above): it’s an abandoned post box set into the wall of the old Rossbrin School, now closed. The school building survives as a private house and retains some of the architectural features of its previous use.

This magnificent machine is a remote-controlled boat-lift and was photographed on the large slipway which is at the western end of the Cove, last September. The Cove is a natural harbour and has been used as a resource for sheltering fishing boats and providing facilities for fish processing since medieval times. This post outlines how ‘fish palaces’ worked: there was at least one here in Rossbrin.

By October most of the boats have been taken off their moorings (above), and the weather changes again. We sometimes have the first of the winter storms this month, although it can equally be benign. Autumn brings with it dramatic skies and sunsets – and a feeling of melancholy, because the holiday houses down by the water are empty and shuttered for the onset of winter. But the weather can continue to surprise and November sunshine (below) can be as warming as any other time of year. It’s a good time for us to watch out for the wading birds – such as the curlews – who come in close to shore and forage on the mud flats.

And so we come to the end of the year in Rossbrin. This has been a fairly random selection of images, picked out because each was taken in a particular month. We know how fortunate we are to live in this rich and constantly changing environment. Not only are we surrounded by nature, but the immediate history is alive with stories – of Fineen O’Mahony, the Scholar Prince of Rossbrin, who lived at Rossbrin Castle in the 15th century and surrounded himself with a university of monks and scribes and made a fortune out of fishing dues – and of Sir William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork who exploited Rossbrin in the 17th century, also for fish. Now we look down on a sparsely populated townland and the bay beyond it: it’s a most beautiful place to know and to live in. For December I have chosen a classic view of the castle with a wintry sky and late sun creating patterns on the half-tide.

Rossbrin Walk

Out of the blue, we have a day of brilliant sunshine, with no rain in the forecast (although the forecast has a tendency to change hourly) so we decide to take advantage of the day and get out for a good walk.

We have bought West Cork Walks by Damien Enright, the Schull and Ballydehob edition, and decide on a walk that takes Rossbrin Cove, only a couple of miles away, as its starting point. The book is well laid out, almost step-by-step. This proves to be a little distracting in places, with constant references to spring-blooming flowers and wildlife seen on one evening in April; however it pays off in the level of detail offered, without which we would undoubtedly have missed small features and background facts which enhanced our enjoyment of the walk.

Rossbrin is a sheltered harbour, greatly used in the past by the islanders from Cape Clear, Horse Island, Hare Island, Castle Island and others that we can see once we reach the higher points. The most dominant feature of the cove is the O’Mahoney castle, an impossibly romantic tower house that rises from the western side of the inlet and that was, in the sixteenth century, the centre of a learned court led by Finghin O’Mahoney, the ‘scholar prince of Rossbrin’. Now, the cove is lined with houses, all of which have great views of the harbour, but many of which appear to be uninhabited. This is one of the legacies of the Celtic Tiger years, when the local economy was fuelled by a building boom of ‘holiday homes’ and Ballydehob was a thriving town with bookstores, galleries and prize-winning eateries.
Leaving the cove behind we climb the steep hill behind the houses and are rewarded by expansive views across to the Baltimore Beacon and Sherkin Island. A mile or so along a pleasant country lane we come to Stouke Burial Ground. Among the gravestones, many for islanders, we find a bullaun stone, with two jars full of coins on top. A bullaun is a rock with a bowl-like depression in which water collects and that water is supposed to have curative powers. Robert dipped his finger in the Clonmacnoise bullaun and his wart was gone in a couple of weeks, although I tried it too and my wart still adorns my thumb. I give it another go, and we both add coins to the jars, a little in awe that in this remote place jars of money can remain untouched. Folk customs like this probably pre-date Christianity. A defining characteristic of Irish Christianity was that it blended the old pagan beliefs with the new religion in a seamless mosaic of customs and mythology. St. Brigid was probably a pre-Christian goddess; the old celebrations based on the solar calendar became saints’ days; the bullaun made an easy transition from the magical to the miraculous.
Carrying on, we come across two roadside stands and once again marvel that money can remain untouched as we deposit our coins into jars for honey and for apple chutney. We start on the downhill path back to the cove with the magnificent vista of Roaringwater Bay and its islands spread before us. Back at the cove we have time to sit on an upturned boat in the sun, munching on an apple and cheese, adding yet another waterfowl (a tufted duck) to the list of those we have seen since we arrived in West Cork, and contemplating the good fortune that has allowed us to fetch up in this extraordinary place.