West Cork Obscura – Finola’s Picks

The popular Atlas Obscura defines itself as the definitive guide to off-the-beaten-track and little known wondrous places. So we’ve captured that idea and, as our Christmas present to our readers, bring you our own carefully-curated, slightly eccentric, Roaringwater Journal Guide to West Cork’s Hidden Wonders. Robert’s selection is here. No well-know tourist spots for these posts! No car parks and visitor centres! You may need wellies for some, a good map for others, and, although all are accessible, some may require permission.Each place I recommend will link to a blog post with more information. As an example, Sailor’s Hill, just outside Schull (above) is an easy walk and look what you get at the top! 

This is the view from Brow Head, looking back towards Crookhaven, and Mount Gabriel in the distance. Brow Head is much less visited than Mizen Head, but just as spectacular

I’m going to start with some archaeology and a couple of spectacular sites. The first is the Kealkill Stone Circle – but this isn’t just a stone circle, it’s a complex of monuments that includes a five-stone circle, a radial cairn (very rare in this part of the world) and two enormous standing stones. The views are immense in every direction, and the site is easy to find.

We all know about Drombeg – and we love it when the sun goes down at the midwinter solstice, and even when it doesn’t. But fewer people know about another stone circle, equally spectacular, with a spring equinox orientation. It’s called Bohonagh and it’s quite a complex. First of all, there’s a boulder burial, with quartz support stones and cupmarks on the boulder. Then there’s a cupmarked stone, partly hidden in the brambles between the boulder burial and the stone circle. Finally, there’s the circle itself, almost complete, with views in all directions.

Equinox sunset at Bohonagh

We were lucky to have a session there one equinox, and another one with Ken Williams of Shadows and Stone. For access, park just off the main road, across from the salmon coloured house 4.5km east of Rosscarbery and walk up the farm road to the barns and from there to the top of the hill. This is a working farm – please close all gates and be respectful of animals!

Maughnasilly Stone Row broods on the hilltop

A stone row to round out the archaeology sites – this one is at Maughnasilly and I chose it because it’s been excavated, so there’s an informative sign, access is easy and it’s a beautiful, atmospheric site, overlooking a small lake. The row has been calculated to have both lunar and solar alignments.

And from the ground…

A couple of churches now, beginning with the Church of Ireland Church of the Ascension in Timoleague. This is one of those places that is dripping with unexpected stories. As soon as you go through the door your jaw will drop – the whole church, floor to ceiling, is covered in mosaic, partly paid for by an Indian Maharajah. Read the story here and here – and look carefully at the stained glass windows, some of them are among the oldest stained glass we have in Ireland. The key used to be at the grocery store on the main street, but I’m not sure where it is now, so you may have to ask around. Let us know if you find out.

The interior of the church, and one of the beautiful Clayton and Bell windows

You may wonder at my next choice – it’s not everyone’s cup of tea – but the modernist church in Drimoleague is the work of Frank Murphy, the architect hailed as Cork’s ‘Unsung Hero of Modernism’.

I love the spare minimalist space, very rare in West Cork, but it’s the stained glass windows that drew my attention. It’s not that they are particularly beautiful or skilfully done: they’re by the Harry Clarke Studios long after Harry himself had died. It’s that they fascinate me as a social document – they are, in fact, a prescription for how to live your life as an Irish Catholic in the 1950s. As such, they will resonate with anyone of my vintage. Research by the brilliant young scholar, Richard Butler, has revealed that the design was practically dictated by Archbishop Lucey, still a name to invoke an image of the all-powerful churchman of the 20th century.

And a final church, but this one strictly for the windows. (No – not St Barrahanes in Castletownsend for the Harry Clarkes – everyone knows about them already, and this is a selection of lesser-known wonders.) Do NOT go through Eyeries, on the Beara Peninsula, without stepping into the little church of St Kentigern. Here is where we were first introduced to the work of the stained glass artist, George Walsh.

The Annunciation and Nativity window

When Robert wrote his original post, we couldn’t find out much information on George Walsh, but now he has become a friend and I have written about his work for the next issue of the Irish Arts Review (due out in March, 2019) and spent many happy hours photographing his windows and his artwork around Ireland. It’s bold, graphic, modern and incredibly colourful, and the windows in Eyeries, along with the religious themes, tell the story of Ireland and the Beara through time.

Some places to visit now for a good walk or a swim. First, one of my favourite walks is to hike up to Brow Head, at the end of the Mizen Peninsula (you can drive up too, but pray you don’t meet a tractor coming down) and then walk out to the end of the Head (see the second photo on the post for the view from the top of the road). Stop first to explore the ruins of the old Marconi Station – there’s also a Napoleonic-era  signal station and a WW2 Lookout Post. Then wander through the heather and the low-growing gorse until you get to the part where the sea is crashing below, with vertiginous drops off either side. I will leave it to you how far you go from there!

Brow Head showing the signal station and Marconi station silhouetted against the evening sky

Although Barley Cove is well known, Mizen locals love Ballyrisode Beach for a swim or a lounge in the sun. White sand, sheltered bays, and water warmed by running over the shallow bay. The final little beach holds a secret – a Bronze Age Fulacht Fia or Water-Boiling Site, that Robert and I recorded for National Monuments this summer. It was an exciting find, hiding in plain sight. The beach has an association with pirates too!

Ballyrisode Beach – yes, the water really is this colour. The three sided rectangular stone thing is the fulacht fia

The final choice for a walk is Queen Maev’s tomb, a short hike up from Vaughan’s Pass car park, up behind Bantry. For this photograph I am indebted to Peter Clarke, of the wonderful Hikelines blog. He and Amanda (with whom we have explored SO many holy wells)  were our companions that day. When you reach the top there is a small wedge-tomb, but this is one place where the journey is the real story, with the Mizen, the Sheep’s Head and the Beara all spread out before you.

Photograph © Peter Clarke

I leave you with a detail from the George Walsh windows in Eyeries, together with the poem the scene is based on, Pangur Bán, written in the 9th century by an Irish  monk labouring away in a scriptorium in Europe. Here is the poem read, at a memorial service for Seamus Heaney, first in the original Old Irish and then in Heaney’s translation.

Merry Christmas from us! If you live here, get out and about this year to some of our picks, and if you don’t, come see us soon!

Mizen Magic 10: Sailor’s Hill

Fancy a walk? One with just enough elevation to get the heart going and with the reward of spectacular views at the top? It will take about an hour, maybe a bit longer if you stop to chat, or just gaze.

We’ve mentioned Sailor’s Hill before in the course of other posts – this one and this one. But it deserves a post of its own, because it’s a complete experience. Start from Schull and walk out along the Colla Road until you get to the old St Mary’s Church and graveyard. The National Monuments listing tell us that this was originally a medieval structure, although what we see in ruins now is mainly an eighteenth century church, situated in a picturesque burial ground. Turn right at that point.

You will notice the waymark signs. This is one of the newer extensions of the Fastnet Trails, and an initiative of a committed group in Schull. The walk up Sailor Hill is actually part of a larger walk, the Colla Loop – we are planning to do that one soon but only had time for this stretch of it today.

The road meanders gently upwards. Take the first left and then the next left. Views of Schull Harbour start to open out as the road rises. Looking back, you can see how Schull nestles at the foot of Mount Gabriel (see the photograph at the top of this post).

A tiny shrine in a gatepost

Later on, this boreen will be heady with Foxglove and Loosestrife and Oxeye Daisies, and later still the purple heather will dominate, but this is early spring and it’s been a long cold winter. 

Everything is late this year, so I am happy to see the ever-reliable Celandine in profusion.

The willows are starting to bud out too, but apart from that, it seems that dandelions and lawn daisies are the only wildflowers brave enough to flourish along the way. Not that we disdain these humble flowers – they provide early and important nourishment for the insects and the bees. Must feed those pollinators!

Connie and Betty Griffin have built a house with magnificent vistas near the top of the hill. They never stop adding to it, Betty with flowers and Connie with quirky additions, sculptures and walls. This time, he showed us his Sailor Hill Newgrange, a nifty arrangement of standing stones that respond to the rising sun by capturing the morning light in a stone recess.

Connie demonstrates his sun calendar to Robert

Up to the top then, and there it is – a breathtaking panorama that encompasses the whole of Roaringwater Bay and Long Island Sound to the south, and Mount Gabriel and its foothills to the north. Cape Clear, the Fastnet, Sherkin Island and all the smaller islands are laid out in front of you.

And there’s a cross and inscriptions, so you begin to realise that this site is about more than those views. Connie, who designed and built it, wants us to think about those who lost their lives at sea. It’s his own personal mark of respect and a reminder to us in the midst of all this grandeur to take a moment to contemplate on the power of the ocean and the fleeting nature of life.

I had to look up The Niña, 1492, and of course it was one of Columbus’ ships. He took the Santa Maria, the Niña and the Pinta on his voyage to the New World, but the Niña was his favourite. To learn why, take a look at this. But why is it here? Well, I’m not sure, but there is a tradition around here that Columbus may have visited West Cork on his way. His last provisioning stop may have been with the hospitable, learned and Spanish-speaking Fineen O’Mahony, Scholar Prince of Rossbrin

Connie has built his own tiny belvedere (he calls it his folly) perched to take maximum advantage of the view. It’s the perfect spot to sit, munch an apple, and enjoy a companionable chat before the walk down again.

A final look out to sea. There’s Long Island and beyond it the Fastnet Rock with its iconic lighthouse.

We paused to admire a Goldfinch in Connie’s garden, as well as his wonderful textural arrangement of sticks, stones and whalebones.

Thank you, Connie and Betty, from two happy walkers.

Mizen Magic 6: Schull to Castlepoint

The Mizen is the Peninsula we live on, and of course we think it’s the most beautiful part of West Cork, and of Ireland. In previous Mizen Magic posts I’ve been exploring different aspects and areas, such as the Northside, or Brow Head, or our excellent beaches. This time I’m concentrating on the stretch from Schull to Castlepoint. The map below shows the area, with the village of Schull, our starting point, on the top right. The photograph above was taken from the top of Sailor’s Hill.

A winter view of Long Island Sound – Coney Island, Long Island,  the Calves, Cape Clear and Sherkin, with the entrance to Croagh Bay in the foreground

It’s only a few kilometres, and it would take you about ten minutes to drive straight to Castlepoint from Schull. But where’s the fun in that? No- let’s start by driving (or walking if you’d rather) out to St Mary’s Church on the Colla Road. It’s largely an eighteenth century church, although there are hints of a medieval structure here and there, and it stands in what must be one of the most scenic graveyards in West Cork.

Intriguing depictions of boats are inscribed into the render inside the church. How old are they? Who did them and for what purpose?

From there, I suggest you drive to the lookout on Sailor Hill – the trail arrows for the new extension of the Fastnet Trails will show you the way. We discovered Sailor’s Hill ourselves when I was researching belvederes – the redoubtable Connie Griffin has built his own modern version of a belvedere and there is no better place to get a view of Long Island Sound and the south side of the Mizen. Here’s the viewing house Connie built  – perfect for contemplation.

Back down to the Colla Road, continue to the scenic little Colla Pier, where you can take the ferry to Long Island. Robert and I do this every year as part of the Fastnet Film Festival. The ferry runs every day but you can also book special trips – it is, as they say here, a great day out. Pack a picnic and your camera – there’s lots of birdlife, including these oystercatchers on the rocks at Colla Pier.

The ferry leaves Long Island for the return trip to Colla Pier

From the Pier the road winds across country, overlooking the sea here and there, and always with Mount Gabriel looming in the background. From here you can see tiny Coney Island, privately owned, and with one house which is rented out to holiday makers.

Beyond Coney Island are the Goat Islands – Goat Island and Goat Island Little – probably once one island, but now split into two, with a narrow passage between. There are feral goats on these islands, but not much else. They appear to be completely inaccessible, with craggy shores that are impossible to land on. That, of course, only makes them all the more mysterious. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about the Goat Islands.

The narrow and treacherous channel that divides the Goat Islands, and the beacon on the smaller of the two islands

The road now winds down to Croagh Bay (locally pronounced ‘Crew’), a lovely tidal sheltered inlet with the romantically named Gunpoint at its head. On the higher ground to the right you will see that an enterprising individual has converted one of the old signal stations into a unique residence. It must have the best view – but all those stairs!

We are now in the territory described by Robert in Here Be Pirates and in Pilchards and PalacesCroagh Bay, or more correctly Leamcon House, was the site of William Hull’s house and a hotbed of piratical activity.

Nowadays it’s downright idyllic and the shallow waters of Gunpoint inlet provide sanctuary to wintering birds such as these shelducks.

Our last stop is the little pier at Castlepoint, offering a dramatic view of Black Castle, one of the O’Mahony Tower Houses that dotted the coast of West Cork in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This one is privately owned and the owner has stabilised and largely restored the castle, saving it for future generations from the all-too normal fate of dereliction that befalls West Cork Castles.

Robert looks across to Black Castle in the photograph above. The castle as the owner has stabilised it is shown below – he has done a first-rate job and we should all be grateful for his care of this important monument. The final photograph is of a small inlet by Castlepoint Pier.

Capturing the View: Belvederes in West Cork

Swift's Tower

The 18th century was a time of profound change in garden design in Britain, and by extension in Ireland. In the opening decades of the 1700s great and small estates included formal gardens laid out in the French and Dutch styles that emphasised symmetry and geometry, parterres and avenues of trees. The gardens at Bantry House are a good example of this garden style. Although developed in the first half of the 19th century, they were perhaps influenced heavily by the gardens at Versailles and great European houses visited by the Earl of Bantry on his Grand Tour.

Bantry House 1

Thanks to Dennis Horgan, aerial photographer extraordinaire, for allowing me to use his shot of Bantry House. Note the formal and geometric layout of the gardens and the parterres immediately behind and to the right of the house

However, for the previous century a different style of landscaping had dominated garden design in Britain, pioneered by William Kent and Charles Bridgeman and reaching its peak in the work of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. The effect they strove for was naturalistic (as opposed to natural) – a planned layout that mirrored but enhanced their idea of a ‘wild’ and romantic landscape. Large expanses of grass, strategically placed lakes and ponds, plantings of carefully chosen tree and shrub species, and clever little structures such as temples, summer houses and belvederes all combined to delight the eye, create a romantic mood and, of course, attest to the taste and wealth of the owner.

base of ruined tower belvedere New Court

Nothing remains but the stub of what was once a belvedere in the shape of a round tower on the edge of the River Ilen, on the old New Court demesne.

Echoes of these designed landscapes can be found here and there in West Cork, even where the big houses themselves have disappeared. Lately I have been on the hunt for belvederes and have found several intriguing examples. A belvedere (bel-beautiful, vedere-to see) was an edifice from which to enjoy a view. It could be as simple as a platform at a high point, or as complex as a multi-storey tower, but its most important attribute was its positioning to command a breathtaking vista.

Killiney Hill belvedere

Killiney Hill, just south of Dublin

Perhaps the best known belvedere in Ireland is the one on top of Killiney Hill in Dublin. It was built in 1742 by the then-owner of the hill, John Mapas, to provide an opportunity to admire one of Ireland’s most iconic prospects. The room on the second floor had a little fireplace, windows, and a door to the exterior viewing deck, which was surrounded by wrought-iron railing. It’s no longer in use as a belvedere and many people think of it as some kind of memorial or folly.

View from Killiney Hill

The view from Killiney Hill

In West Cork, the belvedere at Aughadown (known locally as the gazebo) is of the most simple kind, a viewing platform. It was associated with Aughadown House, a fortified mansion built by the Bechers that I wrote about in Trading Up In Tudor Times: Fortified Houses in West Cork.  

Belvedere, Aughadown

Peter Somerville-Large, in The Coast of West Cork, quoting Daniel Donovan*, says: Donovan described it as “a strong castellated mansion, entered by a drawbridge, surrounded by beautiful grounds and having a gazebo on one of the heights behind”. He continues: This gazebo was approached by a ramp along which the quality used to drive their carriages in order to enjoy the magnificent view out over Roaring Water Bay to the islands and the Fastnet in the distance. I found the ramp running above a field of winter wheat.

Aghadown Belvedere and tower house siting

The view from Becher’s ‘gazebo’ across to Roaringwater Bay

On each side of the Ilen River lie belvederes, in the form of towers. Imagine the ladies of the house and their guests, walking or being driven down to the water’s edge. Servants would have arrived earlier and the tea would be ready and a little fire laid against the breezes. They ascend the internal staircase to the second floor or perhaps to the roof and admire the views of the lazy Ilen River as it wends its way to the sea at Roaringwater Bay.

Creagh House Belvedere

The Creagh House belvedere

The belvedere at Creagh House exists now as a picturesque ruin. Octagonal in design, with pointed gothic windows and a small fireplace inside, it rises to three stories. Some sources describe it as the remains of a mill, and the artificial pond beside it as a mill pond, but it has all the hallmarks of a romantic garden structure.

Across the river at New Court there were once three such ornamental towers. One is gone, the second is a mere stump, but the third still stands to its original height and offers lovely views of the river both to the east and the south.

Belvedere, New Court

One of the three original belvederes that once dotted the New Court Estate

At Castletownshend the local gentry were enthusiastic builders of ‘pleasure architecture’. Castletownsend Castle boast two structures of interest. The first is in the walls, an octagonal tower that is made to look like a defensive feature but in fact is purely decorative. Since there is apparently no entrance, this one may have to count as a folly rather than a belvedere.

Castle Townsend Belvedere turret

Behind the castle is the structure known as Swift’s Tower (see the very first photograph for an idea of its placement). Following the death of his beloved Vanessa in 1723, Dean Swift embarked on a long summer trip to the south west. it was in this tower, tradition has it, that he wrote the Latin poem Carberiae Rupes, which translates as The Crags of Carbery.

Swift's Tower 3

Once again we are indebted to Daniel Donovan’s Sketches in Carbery for an account of the poem and even a translation. Donovan did not have a high opinion of the poem (although he says that Dean Swift himself preferred it above other, better poems) and another critic referred to it as “a set of indifferent verses” describing a “bleak and deadly landscape”.

Carberiae Rupes

What do you think – his finest work?

Perhaps the Dean’s depressed state was to blame, or maybe he should have just stuck to prose. Or perhaps the servants hadn’t lit the fire and provided the tea – the tower certainly looks bleak enough now to bring on a fit of the dismals, in spite of the magnificent view.

Swift's Tower, Belvedere

On Horse Island, just outside of Castlehaven Inlet, there is the base of a round tower that may also have been a belvedere. A visit there would have made a wonderful pleasure outing on a fine day, and the views would be stupendous.

Horse Island, Castlehaven, belvedere

You can just make out the remains of a round wall at the top left of Horse Island

There is a whole set of monuments in West Cork that are labelled as Belvederes in the National Monuments Service Inventory, but as Signal Towers in the records maintained by the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.  These contradictory interpretations are fascinating and these towers are worth a post on their own. I will save that for another day, but to show you what I mean, take a look at the two towers on Rock Island, near Crookhaven. Belvederes or Signal Towers – what do you think? (If you’re not sure what signal towers are, take a look at this post from Amanda Clarke of Sheep’s Head Places.)

Crookhaven belvederes

Looking across to Rock Island from Crookhaven. Experts differ about the functions of the two towers

But what about nowadays? Do we still worship the view in West Cork? And do we still build belvederes from which to admire that view? The answer to both those questions can be found at Sailor’s Hill, just west of Schull!

Sailor's Hill 1

Sailor’s Hill Belvedere

Sailor’s Hill is a labour of love by Connie Griffin who has worked on the sea and lived in this area all his life. It’s partly a memorial to those lost at sea and partly a place of contemplation to simply sit and soak up the panoramic views that stretch gloriously before you in ever direction.

Sailor's Hill Memorial 2

Schull Harbour in the background

Sadly now a little overgrown and vandalised, it is still an incredible experience to arrive at Connie’s little round tower and see vast stretches of the Cork coast to the south, while the mountains of the Beara and Kerry rise behind you.

Sailor's Hill Views

It’s a testament to the power that landscape and seascape has over us: the power to move us and uplift us; the power to inspire us to try to capture it in paint and in words. We can’t really, but, like Connie, we keep trying.

Connie Griffin and Robert

Connie Griffin and Robert

*Somerville-Large attributes this information to Sketches in Carbery by Daniel Donovan. However, I have not been able to find the quote and wonder if it’s from another book.