The Antiquities of Bealad

There’s an area of West Cork bounded on the south by Castleventry and on the north by Ballinvard. In between and round about there’s Bealad, Rossmore and Caherkirky. This is the territory into which we were inducted by Dan O’Leary and Sean O’Donovan, this week. It’s like a fellowship – people who are passionate about local history find each other and it’s only a matter of time before we start talking field trips.

Dan and Sean had organised the whole thing – including the all important coffee and food and bathroom breaks. Our headquarters was the old National School in Bealad, now wonderfully re-purposed as a community hub – a lesson in how to do this for others with such buildings on their hands. We started with an overview of local history and then it was off to Castleventry. 

Amanda is, as you all know by now, the expert on Holy Wells (book will be out soon!) and the first time she and I visited this well, several years ago, we met Sean, who was restoring it. You can read all about that here, and more about the well itself. All are invited to the annual celebration at the well, which takes place on June the 4th at 8pm (after milking).

Just up the road from the well is the Castleventry graveyard and ring fort. An extraordinary site by any standards, this site encompasses an impressive bi-vallate ring fort/cashel, and a ruined ‘something’ within, as well as a graveyard. 

This was obviously the residence of a high-status individual – a chief of a local Clan. The banks and ditches are deep and would have represented a formidable fortification, along with a palisade fence on top of the inner bank. The photo below gives some idea of the depth of the ditch that separates the outer and inner banks. There are commanding views across the country in all directions – nobody seeing it would have been in any doubt as to the importance of the occupier. Souterrains, no longer accessible, were found within – see Robert’s post about Knockdrum Stone Fort for a similar type of fort and souterrain.

But it was the church within that presented an interesting challenge! According to its listing, this is the medieval parish church of Castleventry, already in ruins by 1615.

A screen shot of the relevant page in Clerical and Parochial Records of Cork, Cloyne, and Ross, by W Maziere Brady.

One of the participants on the field trip was our friend Con Manning, a distinguished medievalist and archaeologist, now retired from the National Monuments Service. Con was immediately struck by a couple of things. First, it’s unusual to find a church in a ring fort, and second, it just didn’t look like a church to him – in fact it looked more like a tower of some kind. Not a tower house, but perhaps a small Anglo-Norman keep.

There are no examples in West Cork of such keeps – the Castle at Glanworth, north of Fermoy, would be the closest example to an early Norman masonry tower. When Fineen McCarthy defeated the Anglo-Normans at the Battle of Callan in 1261, it is said he rampaged through West Cork, burning and destroying every structure they had built – which would certainly explain their absence. 

But – what if this one survived, or survived in part? What if it was taken over by the local Irish chief – there are certainly precedents for them building their tower houses inside ring forts, we have only to look at Ardintenant for that. What if, over the centuries, in its ruinous state, people took it that it had been a church? There was a medieval Castleventry church – Brady’s listing shows it clearly – but was this it? Also, Brady calls it Castrumventry and the word Castrum is applied to castles – the closest castle to here is 5kms north at Ballinvard (we’re coming to that). The Irish word for Castleventry, according to the sign at the entrance is Caislean na Gaoithe – Castle of the Winds.

Here we are at this puzzling site: Robert, Sean, Dan, Una, Amanda and Con

So many questions! Con is continuing his investigations, raising even more intriguing possibilities about the site and so we may revisit this one at some time in the future.

From Castleventry we travelled on to Ballinvard Castle, just outside Rossmore, where the owners, Pat and Mary Daly had kindly agreed to meet us and show us the castle, which is in a working farm and not normally open to visit. In the last few years, the ivy has died back due to heavy frosts, and this has allowed a clear view of many of the hitherto-obscured features of the castle. Once again, we were grateful to Con’s expertise as he pointed out various aspects of the building that placed it in the 16th century – a castle of the Hurley (Ó Muirthile) family.

One of those was the workings of the Yett, an iron grill that sat outside the main door and could be closed from inside by way of a hole of the doorway through which a chain was pulled tight from a room inside.

Here’s a illustration of how it works. You can see the same Yett hole at Castle Donovan, which has many features in common with Ballinvard. 

Dan had one surprise for us – he brought us to the townland of Caherkirky, to a double boulder burial with a very tall standing stone. In a previous visit to this site he thought he detected cupmarks – and he was right! There was one on the boulder burial, and several on the standing stone. See Robert’s post today for another example of the same kind of monument. It was a good feeling to be back again with my beloved rock art!

Knowing my penchant for popping into every church I pass, Dan’s final treat for us was the church in Rossmore, but this time, instead of the stained glass, what he wanted me to see were the Stations of the Cross. Obviously Italian, they were painted, and the artist had let his/her imagination take flight on the costumes – more like Spanish grandees than the biblical characters we’re used to. Not like any I had ever seen before and a real surprise.

Thank you, Dan and Sean – it was a great and eclectic day, and who knows what will come out of Con’s close examination of Castleventry – stay tuned!