Extreme Green – Castlehaven

There are many places in West Cork that deserve more than one visit. Our enforced confinement close to home focusses us on that thought. March went out like a lamb and – on the first day of April – we went off to enjoy the stirrings of spring in one of our favourite spots: Castlehaven.

Here’s that spot seen from above. It’s accessed from a boreen that goes nowhere else, and is to the south west of Drishane, just outside Castletownshend. In the view you can see the little cove and an old burial ground which surrounds the ruin of the original church of St Barrahane, probably built on medieval foundations but disused by the 1600s. This benign place has bathed in some momentous historical events but is now forever peaceful and seems far removed from our material world.

The 25″ OS map – dating from the late nineteenth century – marks the main features of Castlehaven: the ‘Grave Yard’, Rectory (based on an older house) and ‘Toberbarahane’ – a holy well. One of our favourite walks begins just to the south of the graveyard and wends its way up to the well, – and beyond – following a small stream which has ferociously gouged a channel through the rock formations in ancient glacial times. Today I can only describe the experience as ‘Extreme Green’ because our eyes are drawn to a riot of spring growth and exotic flora. In fact, Finola described it as a rainforest path when we first visited a few years ago.

The Holy Well is still revered, evidently, especially by sailors who need protection while at sea. The saint was known as Bearchán, and most likely came from the Corca Laoighde family  (the Annals describe the O’Driscolls as kings of the Corca Laoighde in the twelfth century), although we can find very little of his life. According to Pádraig Ó Riain’s A Dictionary of Irish Saints, Bearchán’s pattern day is not known, but Amanda gives it as 3rd December in Holy Wells of Cork & Kerry, something which she must have gleaned from local knowledge.

The Holy Well is easy to find and involves crossing a stout timber bridge to the left of the path. On our previous visit, three years ago, a tree had fallen across the path and the bridge was damaged, but this has now been put right.

Finola is coming back along the holy well path, and the bay of Castlehaven is immediately beyond her. The colour of the sea is stunning azure at this time of the year. Just beyond the gate, and sited right above the strand, is all that is left of Castle Haven, a strategic tower house which saw action on 6 December 1601, during the Nine Years’ War between Gaelic Irish lords and the English. The O’Driscolls, who held the castle then, had welcomed in a small convoy of Spanish munition ships. The commander of the English naval forces based at Kinsale, Admiral Leveson, was ordered to “. . . seeke the Spanish fleete at Castlehaven, to take them if he could, or otherwise to distresse them as much as he might . . .” I’ll leave the rest of this story as a cliff-hanger, to be completed in a future post, but we will return to the castle which gave Castlehaven its name.

The old photograph dates from the late 1800s and is from the Lawrence Collection, courtesy of the National Library of Ireland. My photo shows all that remains of the castle today: a section of stone walling close to the cliff face. Its downfall occurred in 1926 and we know this because:

. . . Edith Somerville recorded that while taking a walk on 26 February 1926 she heard a loud rumble and in looking towards the direction of the old tower found that it had collapsed. Nowadays only a mere stump remains, and that covered with briars and weeds. The castle stood on the side of the harbour of Castlehaven, to the immediate south of the stony grey beach, and the decayed church, graveyard and holy well of St Barrahane, the local patron saint who gives his name to the nearby glen and castle. The castle and haven was known as Cuan-an-Chaisleán to the Irish, as Castlehaven to the English, and El Puerto Castello to the Spanish, but they all mean the same thing . . .

The Castles of County Cork by James N Healey, The Mercier Press, 1988

In the next post I’ll be telling you more about the pivotal sea-battle at Castlehaven between the Irish – Spanish alliance and the English forces; and setting out a case of mistaken identity. We will also be exploring another Castlehaven Castle, and looking into a salacious scandal that led to a beheading or two in 1631. There’s much to look forward to…!