A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 2: Ballyroon Mountain

Following on from last week’s account of Kedge Point signal tower, our second foray in search of Ireland’s coastal communication stations dating from the early years of the nineteenth century takes us to the Sheep’s Head Peninsula in West Cork. The waymarked trail that passes the now ruined Ballyroon Mountain signal tower is on the Sheep’s Head Way and is fully accessible from the parking area at Fáilte Faill Bheag (if walking from east to west), or from the Cupán Tae tea-room parking area at the very end of the road (if walking from west to east). Although there is very little of this signal tower left standing – it was largely destroyed by a storm in 1990 – the walk itself is a visually stimulating experience, not to be missed! As with the majority of the remaining signal station sites, the location here is on high ground with prominent panoramic views in all directions.

When walking the off-road Sheep’s Head Way trails, please remember that dogs are not allowed: this is one of the conditions that have been agreed with landowners when the trail routes were negotiated, so it must be respected by all users.

These two aerial images show the remote setting of this signal station. The site was developed a little over two hundred years ago, and one of the necessities was providing a firm trackway along which to bring building materials, and also to provide efficient access to and from the signal tower when in use. In the top image, also, you can make out a substantial walled field to the south of the tower: this would have been used to pen ponies or donkeys and – possibly – a goat for milk.

The track that served the signal station in its heyday has become the ‘green road’ that takes you there today. In bad weather it’s a bit wet underfoot in places, but otherwise it is a joy to walk and, on a good clear day, provides spectacular views in all directions. Look out for the other signal towers that can be seen from this site: Cloghane on Mizen Head, Mallavoge on Brow Head, Derrycreeveen on the Beara Peninsula, and Knock, which is an inland site near Lowertown, Schull.

In the upper picture here you are looking back towards the vestigial Ballyroon signal tower from the higher ground on the footpath from the Cupán Tae tea-room, while the lower picture shows the ‘pimple’ on the horizon which is the Cloghane signal tower at Mizen Head seen from Ballyroon.

The upper picture shows the Mallavoge signal tower at Brow Head (more about that site here), while the Knock signal tower is seen in the middle picture, which was taken close to the start of the Ballyroon Mountain trail. Both these photographs have the benefit of a modern zoom camera lens, but imagine how good the optics of the telescopes needed to be for those who manned the towers in the early 1800s. Not only did these silhouettes have to be clearly defined, but the flag and ball signals that were put up on the associated masts had to be readable. The lower picture looks north across Doo Lough towards Bere Island, where there were extensive fortifications in Napoleonic times, including a signal tower. Below is a photo of the Malin Head signal station, Co Donegal, dating from 1902 (National Library of Ireland Collection). There the station was kept in use for strategic purposes long after the Napoleonic era and became the site for one of Marconi’s telegraph stations. While the flags in this picture are not from the earlier times, it gives you some idea of what had to be picked out from a great distance. By eye, put the scale of the tower in this photo to the scale of the distant towers in the images  above: it’s hard to fathom how accuracy was possible yet messages were dispatched and received successfully. It evidently took about four minutes to put up a message on the mast: allowing for reading and deciphering, I would expect a message to be sent from Sheep’s Head to Cork via 11 towers in about an hour, or all the way to Dublin via 33 towers in three hours. This would depend on daylight and good visibility at all times.

The most comprehensive map of Ireland’s signal tower distrIbution that I have found so far is this one drawn for the authoritative book on the subject Billy Pitt had them built: Napoleonic towers in Ireland by Bill Clements, The Holliwell Press 2013. This clearly shows that invasion was expected to come from the west or south, rather than from the more naturally protected north-east coast.

The selection of photographs above shows the state of the ruined tower at Ballyroon Mountain today (2020). Although there’s not much of a structure left it’s still a poignant memorial to those who built and operated this and all the other links in the communication chain that substantially encircles the coastline of Ireland. It’s a legacy well worth celebrating, and we are fortunate in Cork County that we have so many examples of the building type, some of which, like this one, are accessible to visitors. We will be exploring more of them in due course. To neatly finish off this post, here is an exquisite drawing of the Ballyroon tower executed by our friend Peter Clarke who writes the Hikelines series. It’s a lovely sketch which, for me, captures the slightly edgy romanticism of this beguiling location. Thank you, Peter.

Next time: Signal Towers Part 3 – Walking into history!

‘Will the Hare’ – and the Mizen Olympics!

street market

…In ancient Ireland the festival of the beginning of the harvest was the first day of Autumn, that is to say, it coincided with 1 August in the Julian calendar. This has continued in recent tradition, insofar as Lúnasa or Lammas-Day was still taken to be the first day of Autumn; the gatherings and celebrations connected with it were, however, transferred to a nearby Sunday, in most parts of Ireland to the last Sunday in July, in some places to the first Sunday in August… The old Lúnasa was, in the main, forgotten as applying to the popular festival and a variety of names substituted in various localities, such as Domhnach Chrom Dubh, Domhnach Deireannach (Last Sunday), Garland Sunday, Hill Sunday and others…

making the stack

All the photographs in this post are from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh who travelled and photographed the west of Ireland during the 1930s, 40s and 50s and is an invaluable documentary of the times in which he lived. Generally, the locations of the photographs are not noted, and very few are likely to be specific to the Mizen: they do however record life as it would have been lived at that time in all the rural areas

Today we celebrate Lúnasa – the festival of the bringing-in of the harvest. Kevin Danaher (The Year in Ireland, Mercier Press 1972) wrote (above) about what he observed in the middle of the last century, when things were already changing and many of the old customs were, as he notes, ‘in the main forgotten’, although still talked about. What changes do we see in Ireland, a few generations on?

seascape

Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes was written in 1999 (Mizen Productions) and is a collection of memories and stories still being told then about traditional life in this westerly part of of the country:

…The heat of the summer was eased by the cooling breezes from the Atlantic. It was busy on land and sea, with seine fishing by night and fish curing and farming by day, but there was always time for scoriachting, games and dance, sometimes on Carbery Island or across Dunmanus Bay…

…Once in the year Carbery Island was the location for a dance and in settled weather the Northsiders could shout across and give the signal to the people of Muintir Bháire to meet at Carbery Island. As many as forty-five people in three boats would cross Dunmanus Bay to the White House, and a good crowd of men and women from Bear Island would also come to the dances. They were great hearty people. Ann Daly from Kilcrohane and Agnes O’Donovan of Dunkelly played the melodeon…

I like the idea of the Northsiders shouting across the water to the residents of the Sheep’s Head, two miles away! I wonder if they would be heard nowadays?

horse race

…There were competitions at Dunmanus for swimming, running, jumping and weight lifting, and you could be sure that the Northsiders were well represented in each of the events. ‘Will the Hare’ (William McCarthy of Dunkelly Middle), was good at the long jump and the running races and would often win and bring great honour to the Northside. It was said that ‘Will the Hare’ got his name by catching a hare on the run! It was also said that when you blew the whistle to gather the men for seining, by the time you had finished, ‘Will the Hare’ would be at Canty’s Cove waiting!

boat race

…Wild John Murphy would take the lads to the Crookhaven Regatta which was held on The Assumption (15th August). It was a long pull around the Mizen but a good time was had by all. The Northsiders were great with the oars, but it was hard to beat the Long Island crews in the boat races…

(Danaher): …In very many localities the chief event of the festival was not so much the festive meal as the festive gathering out of doors. This took the form of an excursion to some traditional site, usually on a hill or mountain top, or beside a lake or river, where large numbers of people from the surrounding area congregated, travelling thither on foot, on horseback or in carts and other equipages… Many of the participants came prepared to ‘make a day of it’ bringing food and drink and musical instruments, and spending the afternoon and evening in eating, drinking and dancing…

picnic

…Another welcome feature of the festive meal was fresh fruit. Those who had currants or gooseberries in their gardens, and this was usual even among small-holders in Munster and South Leinster, made sure that some dish of these appeared on the table. Those who lived near heather hills or woods gathered fraucháin (‘fraughans’, whortleberries, blueberries) which they ate for an ‘aftercourse’ mashed with fresh cream and sugar. Similar treatment was given to wild strawberries and wild raspberries by those lucky ones who lived near the woods where these grow… A number of fairs still held or until recently held at this season bear names like ‘Lammas Fair’, ‘Gooseberry Fair’, ‘Bilberry Fair’…

market in town

One interesting custom was the driving of cattle and horses into the water. This is mentioned in the 1680s by Piers in his Description of the County of West-Meath:On the first Sunday in harvest, viz in August, they will be sure to drive their cattle into some pool or river, and therein swim them; this they observe as inviolable as if it were a point of religion, for they think no beast will live the whole year thro’ unless they be thus drenched; I deny not but that swimming of the cattle, and chiefly in this season of the year, is healthful unto them…

at the fair

Mizen Magic 2: The North Side

A pet day on The Mizen

A pet day on The Mizen

We are once again being battered by Atlantic storms, but on a sparkling day earlier this week we drove, on a whim, to Durrus for breakfast. The day was so pure and sunny that it seemed a crime to go home again, so we set out to drive along the north side of the Mizen Peninsula.

Dunbeacon Castle

Dunbeacon Castle

What a day! We rambled down to the shore to investigate the 15th Century Dunbeacon Castle. There’s nothing left except one tall wall, standing sentinel against the wind, facing down the length of Dunmanus Bay. Its commanding position would have given its builders, the O’Mahonys, a strategic advantage in protecting and controlling their territory from adventurers arriving from the Atlantic.

Not much left

Not much left

Further along we explored an abandoned cottage, and found one of the water pumps that were once ubiquitous in the irish countryside. We saw few other cars, but we weren’t alone – our movements were observed from above by interested parties.

Preserved. Observed.

Preserved, Observed

Heading towards Dunmanus Harbour we stopped to pay our respects at the little ruined church and graveyard, beautifully called in Irish Kilheangul – the Little Chuch of the Angel. This was a curious mixture of cillín and modern graveyard: rough unmarked stones stood shoulder to shoulder with more recent granite headstones and lovingly tended graves.

The Little Church of the Angel

The Little Church of the Angel

We headed west along the road that skirts the sea and eventually leads to Barley Cove. We are convinced that this is one of the most breathtaking drives in Ireland – and, in a land as scenic as this, that’s a tall order! To the east we looked back up Dunmanus Bay to the Kerry Mountains in the far distance.

Looking East up Dunmanus Bay

Looking East up Dunmanus Bay

To the north lay the Sheep’s Head and beyond it the looming presence of the Beara Peninsula.

Across to the Sheep's Head and Beara Peninsula

Across to the Sheep’s Head and Beara Peninsula

To the west, Knocknamadree (the Mountain of the Dogs) and the wild Atlantic.

Bird Island and the Atlantic beyond

Bird Island and the Atlantic beyond

Once home to hundreds of families, this is a depopulated area now. There are some small farms, but many of the houses are holiday homes, seldom used. Sobering, that such a wildly beautiful place is no longer economically viable to support a thriving community.

The North Side of the Mizen

Northside of the Mizen

But thanks to the foresight and hard work of local writers, we can have a true appreciation of what life was like here. Northside of the Mizen has its own book! Recorded, edited and written by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkins, and illustrated by Thelma Ede and with old photographs, it’s a charming, quirky compendium of character sketches, folktales, customs and traditions, poems and songs, and descriptions of country life. With chapters organised by month, it’s the kind of book you keep by the bedside and dip into when the spirit moves you. In January, for example, there’s a section on scoriachting, or visiting neighbours. It’s accompanied by a photo of a man and his jennet in somebody’s kitchen, with the caption Michael and Tom McCarthy out scoriachting. Once the neighbours arrived (but not on Saturday night as you would have to get ready for mass early the next morning) the night…

“…would start with games, blackguarding (horseplay) and sometimes dancing, then progress on to songs and poems. Storytelling was the preserve of an evening by the fire. With flames flickering and the wind and rain howling like the Banshee, the imagination of the storyteller and his forebears was let loose on a delighted and spellbound audience of children and adults alike. This, in turn, would lead to stories of a more superstitious nature, into a world of small folk, púcas (sprites), mermaids and of people’s misfortune when they interfered with the fairy ways.”

Look out for future posts about the Mizen – we’re only scratching the surface of this marvellous region of West Cork.

Where once were farms

Where once were farms

The Roaring

Waves crash against the islands in Roaringwater Bay

Waves crash against the islands in Roaringwater Bay

In our early days here I read in a couple of places that Roaringwater Bay got its name from the Roaringwater River, which in turn derived its name from the sound of the water tumbling over the rocks as it neared the sea. Now, I know better. The water in this huge bay, with its multiple islands and rocks, does roar. Not all the time, of course – you could live beside it for weeks, even months and never hear it.

The view past Castle Island, after a storm

The view past Castle Island, after a storm

But after a storm, when the wind has died down, the rain has stopped, and all is calm we fling open the doors to enjoy once more the bright sunshine and balmy air. That’s when it stops us in our tracks: a constant roar, like a distant jet engine, or a working factory just out of sight. The first time we heard it we were viewing a house on a hill about a mile inland and came around to the side facing the sea – and there it was. It took us a while to figure out what we were hearing: it sounded like some kind of foundry or industrial equipment. (Aha! So that’s why they want to sell this place!) It gradually dawned on us that there was nothing like that in this isolated spot and that what we were hearing was coming from much further away – from the sea, in fact.

Is there a prevailing wind here?

Is there a prevailing wind here?

Once back home we got out the spotting scope and could clearly see the waves crashing against the islands. In the aftermath of the storm the water was still turbulent, with giant waves pounding against the rocky shores and breaking right over the rocky islets. The cliffs at the western end of Cape Clear were covered in sheets of salt spray. We have a clear view of the Fastnet Rock (more about this in a future post) and in particularly wild conditions we can see waves breaking over it, reaching up to the trunk of the enormous lighthouse.

Near Ahakista: The calm after the storm

Near Ahakista: The calm after the storm

Our recent storms have been, as we say in West Cork, mighty. A particularly vicious series of gale, storm and hurricane force winds (9, 10, 11 and 12 on the Beaufort Scale) has wreaked havoc along the coast. Yesterday we went to Ahakista on the Sheep’s Head. The damage there has been recorded by Amanda – click here to see her photos and account. We had a respite from the winds today – a perfect opportunity to listen to the roaring water.

Earth Winds. Jan 05, 2014

Earth Winds. Jan 05, 2014

Tonight we are expecting another onslaught, like the one on St. Stephen’s night that Robert reported on in his last post. I have discovered the Earth Winds Map – one of the coolest sites on the internet. Updated every three hours, it shows how the winds are flowing around the earth. This screen capture shows the Atlantic storm that is heading for us and packing winds of 109km per hour. That’s classified as “Violent Storm” and just a few km/h short of a hurricane. Met Ireland has issued a warning, especially for areas affected  by high tides, of storm surges and potential flooding. We will hunker down and keep our fingers crossed for ourselves and our neighbours here in West Cork. And when it’s all over, we will listen for the roaring of the waters.

Goats, Bees and Spies on the Sheep’s Head

The Weather Rolls in around Kilcrohane

The Weather Rolls in around Kilcrohane

White GoatsI’ve just finished reading White Goats and Black Bees by Donald Grant. Donald and Mary Grant, a couple of journalists based in New York, impulsively decided to jump off the career treadmill and become farmers in Ireland in the 1960’s. They bought a small acreage on the Sheep’s Head, where they raised goats and ducks, cultivated an enormous vegetable garden, and by degrees and sheer hard work turned themselves into ‘peasants’.

This out-of-print book was drawn to my attention by my friend, Aideen, whose father, while in New York, had encouraged the Grants to consider West Cork. Aideen visited the Grants as a young woman and still has memories of their gorse wine.

As a Back to the Land narrative, this is a classic. Earnest urban professionals consulting Department of Agriculture pamphlets, conducting slug patrols, keenly observing the social structure of their goat herd and duck flock, battling the wild Atlantic storms, making cheese and smoking hams: this is the kind of thing that sent thousands of idealistic young people into communes all over the world, or in the case of Ireland, into the hills behind Ballydehob. The need to be accepted by the locals, a thread that appears in so many Year in Provence-type books, is coupled with the outsider’s puzzlement at the impenetrability of some aspects of local behaviour.

The Sheep's Head, looking across Dunmanus Bay

The Sheep’s Head, looking across Dunmanus Bay

Grant is not a gifted writer when it comes to scenery: …Trees wore their autumn colours. Streams tumbled down rocks, sparkling… Nevertheless he does slowly build up a picture of a man coming to grips with his place in the natural world and his relationship with animals and the elements. Perhaps the strongest sections of the book are those in which he chronicles the hard work and resourcefulness that it takes to sustain life on a smallholding, the setbacks and difficulties he and Mary encounter, and the support of the neighbours and community without which it would be impossible.

Mary the SpyThe story of Donald and Mary took a strange turn for me when I decided to Google around a bit, digging for more information about them. Astonishingly, Mary was convicted in Israel in 1956 of spying for Syria! She spent a year in an Israeli prison, eventually applying for a pardon. According to one account, she had fallen for a Syrian diplomat who persuaded her to take photographs in Israel for the Syrians. She was so unsophisticated a spy that she was captured on her first day. She and Donald met when they shared a desk at the United Nations, where they were both correspondents: he for the St. Louis Post-Dispatcher and she for Look Magazine. Little did the people of Doneen know of the chequered history of the American woman who introduced goat’s cheese to their far-flung parish.

Donald and Mary continued to live on the Sheep’s Head and eventually in Bantry for the rest of their lives. While Donald died in 1983, Mary lived until last year, 2012. Both are buried in their beloved Kilcrohane.