Another Grand Day Out on the Fastnet Trails

Lowertown, Schull to Toormore: it may seem a rather unadventurous walk: mainly on narrow back roads. But, on a spring day of scudding clouds and clear air, with distant views from the high ground across to the Sheep’s Head and even beyond, into Kerry, there is stimulation a-plenty to be had from an easy afternoon’s ambling and exploring of places which would be passed by in an instant when driving down to the west of West Cork. Although largely on tiny boreens, you are unlikely to encounter any traffic: we didn’t see any vehicles in two hours, apart from those parked in the few houses and farmyards on the way.

Header – our walk is part of the Fastnet Trails network beyond Schull: in this case the Toormore Loop. Upper – undisturbed peace on the quiet boreens; lower – we started out at Lowerton, where you will find a fiddler at the ready beside the old dance platform!

We parked one car beside the church at Lowertown – opposite the site of the old dance platform, celebrated with the sculptures of Susan O’Toole – and the other beside Teampol na mBocht, the little church at Altar, overlooking Toormore Bay. This enabled us to take our time and enjoy every aspect of the route, walking from east to west: in my view always the proper way to walk – following the sun! I should point out that the route we took – around 5 kilometres – is only a part of the full Toormore Loop which is itself one of an excellent comprehensive system of Fastnet Trails which has been put in place in recent years.

From the board at Toormore Trail Head: I have indicated our walk from Lowertown to Altar with the broken red line over on the left. Leaflets showing the full extent of the Fastnet Trail walking routes are available in the tourism information offices in Ballydehob and Schull

The little road climbs up and over hills and down through valleys and glens. I hadn’t expected to find an old burial ground, the site of the original Ballinskea Church which existed in this remote area between 1826 and 1967, when the Church of the Seven Sacrements was built to replace it beside the main road at Lowertown.

The old burial ground at Ballinskea Church: top – a bit of local history, perhaps, in the name stamped on the ironwork at the gate; bottom – the graveyard is well looked after – cowslips are in abundance

We passed a few houses along the way, but many were abandoned: each one tells its own story of lives and livelihoods – but they don’t readily give away their secrets to us.

Some of the signs of former occupation and cultivation which we passed by on our way: the area seems so remote, yet it’s not so far from well-trodden routes

We were taken by surprise at the extent of the views both north and south from the higher ground. At one point we stopped to admire the long vista out over Dunmanus Bay with the Sheep’s Head settlement of Ahakista clearly delineated.

Top – the nature of the walk: I can’t guarantee that you won’t encounter a vehicle along these back roads, but we didn’t! Centre, looking back over rolling fields towards the wild high ground of Mount Gabriel. Bottom – the view towards Ahakista on the Sheep’s Head, with the Beara beyond

After a good hour you will reach a gateway where you will leave the boreens behind and continue across country. Of course, you don’t have to follow the marked trail: the myriad of tiny roadways continues throughout West Cork and is awaiting your further exploration. We did turn off, however, as the footpath beckoned through a leafy glen and looked most inviting. First of all, however, we paused to take a look at the bridge which carries the roadway over a stream that flows along by the path – and runs all the way down to Toormore Bay. The bridge is unusual in that it has a large stone slab lintol rather than an arch. I don’t know its history for sure, but I would guess it dates from the eighteenth century, when the road it carries was established as the main highway from Goleen to Cork!

Top – the footpath diverges from the main road to Cork! Just around the corner it passes over the unusual bridge (centre and below)

Our route is the line of the former Butter Road which ran all the way to the international Butter Market in Cork. In its heyday it would have seen plenty of traffic in the form of packhorses and donkey carts, and some of the now abandoned cottages lining its way would have been welcome ports of call on the long trek. Here’s a post from Finola about a walk we did a few years ago on another part of this highway, which tells a little more about the great butter trading days. You can also have a look at my own post from last week, which talks about the improvements to the roads of West Cork initiated by Richard Griffiths a century later, at which time the importance of our own little trail receded and was bypassed by what is now the main road going from Ballydehob and Schull down to the end of the Mizen. I suppose we therefore have Griffiths to thank for taking all the traffic away from our back roads and giving us these idyllic walking trails.

The footpath through the glen is another world – a contrast to the boreen we have been following so far. It is lush and damp underfoot, and there is green everywhere: mossy green boughs of ancient oaks, soft turf and vivid St Patrick’s Cabbage emerging in the newness of the late spring. All too soon we are in sight of our goal, the little church by the bay. But the good experiences of the day are not yet over. The church itself, and its burial ground, deserve exploration.

Teampol na mBocht is said to be the only Church of Ireland church in the country with an Irish name: it means ‘Church of the Poor’, so named by its builder, Rev William Allen Fisher, who was Rector of the Parish. Appalled by the ravages of the Great Famine, he raised money from well-wishers in both Ireland and England: with this he set up soup kitchens and distributed food, medicine, blankets and clothing.  But he wanted to do more than dole out charity. He determined to provide paid work for everyone in the area, regardless of their denomination. In 1847 – at the height of the famine – he commenced the building of this church. The story is told in more detail on the website of the Kilmoe Union of Parishes:

. . . Tradition has it that, in order to employ as many as possible, without benefiting the less impoverished farmers, no carts or horses were to be hired.  The stone was quarried nearby and carried to the site entirely by hand.  As Fisher wrote in a report on the church, ‘the employment was given chiefly by contract, so that the poor were able to work about their cabins, fishing etc. at the same time that they earned a subsistence for themselves.’ . . .

. . . It is a controversial building.  For many Protestants, William Fisher was a saint, a scholarly man happiest at his books, who nevertheless drudged selflessly for forty years in a remote parish, giving all his time and strength to the poor, the hungry and the sick, until he himself died of famine fever.  But for many Catholics, Fisher was a ‘souper’, whose manifold projects on the Mizen Peninsula, including the building of his church, had only one object: to win converts from Catholicism to the Church of Ireland . . .

The church is not always open, so it is best to contact the Parish in advance for a look inside – it’s worth it for the history. This would be the end of the trail but we walked a little further, west of the church, and took the road up to the right. This intersects the Butter Road at a crossroads. We turned left and found ourselves heading for another green track, followed by a ford with stepping stones. Keep going and you meet the main road again: if you are following the route it’s probably best to do as we did and retrace your steps here, rather than walk on the relatively busy main road.

All in all, we had another Grand Day Out! In West Cork you really can’t fail to have a good time: every day can – and should – be a new adventure. Try this one for yourselves…

 

The Rocky Road to Nowhere

The road from Cork to Crookhaven – one of the most westerly communities in the whole of Europe – ran into the sea here at Rock Island. The picture above shows the remote settlement in the distance across an expanse of water, and the stone steps in the foreground are literally the end of the road that was laid out by Sir Richard John Griffith – Engineer of Public Works in Cork, Kerry and Limerick – between 1822 and 1830.

Upper – map showing Rock Island today: note the R591 road which now goes around the north side of Crookhaven Bay to reach the village. Lower – the Cassini map of c1848, showing Griffith’s Road – the direct route across Rock Island to the Landing Place at the western point: from there you went by water to Crookhaven Quay

Griffith’s brief as Engineer was to lay out many miles of new roads in some of the most inaccessible parts of the three counties. But even in his day travelling through the hinterland of Ireland was risky and uncomfortable: always far better to go by water along the coast – at least the passage was direct and relatively smooth in calm weather, while the byroads of the day were at best circuitous and muddy. Here’s an extract from a report by Griffith dated 1824:

. . . Richard Griffith, Road Engineer, Progress Report, Skibbereen to Crookhaven, Wheeled Carts now Appear, where heretofore Loads were carried on the Backs of Horses, New Entrance to Town Of Bandon, Road From Courtmacsherry to Timoleague, Road from Clonakilty to New Fishery Pier At Ring, New Road Skibbereen to Bantry, Macroom to Killarney, with a Note on The System of Labour Organisation Used . . .

Connections by water: a telephoto view of Crookhaven, taken from above the ‘Landing Place’ at the west end of Rock Island

A few years ago, Finola wrote about the Butter Roads, an eighteenth century venture to serve the hub of Cork – and its international Butter Market – from the wilds of Ireland’s rural hinterland. Griffith and his contemporaries improved on this network during the nineteenth century: what we have today – especially here in West Cork – is an updating of Griffith’s system, with a few improved main roads connecting up with the web of winding boreens which then accessed the scattered townlands and farms – and still do.

An engraving signed W T Green from A History of the City and County of Cork by Mary Cusack, Cork 1875

Born in Dublin in 1784, Richard Griffith exerted a great influence over the whole of Ireland during his lifetime. He was fascinated by the relatively new science of geology and studied in London and Edinburgh. I was particularly interested to see that he spent some time in Cornwall, studying mine engineering and mining techniques. Returning to Ireland in 1808, He was appointed Engineer to the Bog Commissioners and over the following four years wrote detailed accounts of the geology of various parts of the country, including Clare, Cork , Kerry, Leitrim, Mayo, Sligo and Wicklow. He became Professor of Geology and Mining at the Royal Dublin Society in 1812, and Inspector-General of His Majesty’s Royal Mines in Ireland at about the same time. The first edition of his Geological Map of Ireland was published in 1815.This was revised and republished a number of times over the following 40 years, and was the work he considered his major achievement.

Sir Richard Griffith 1784 – 1878: left – plaque at his Dublin birthplace; right – portrait from 1854

You will see from Finola’s post today that we visited Rock Island during the week in the good company of Aidan Power who has written an account of the place. It’s wonderful to get a guided tour with an enthusiastic expert. It was Aidan who sparked my imagination when he pointed out that a mail boat was rowed over from Crookhaven every day to the Landing Place at Rock Island – and was the regular and reliable means of communication between that village and the rest of Cork.

This drawing of Rock island by Brocas is dated 1837, and clearly shows, on the right hand side, Griffith’s Road leading down to the Landing Place, the principal connection with Crookhaven

There’s a lot more of Griffith’s story to be told: particularly his appointment as Boundary Commissioner in 1824, a post he held for 41 years. This resulted in the full recording of all townland boundaries and designations – although these were often anglicised at the time, resulting in the loss of many local traditional names. He died in 1878 at the age of 94. On his grave in Mount Jerome Cemetery is the epitaph . . . Not slothful in business, fervent in spirit, Serving the Lord . . .

Griffith’s Road on Rocky Island is lost to a grassy track (upper picture and on the left in the lower picture) but is still traceable and remains theoretically a public highway! You can at least still follow it on foot to the point where it becomes a series of rocky steps that finish in the sea. You will have quite a wait for the Crookhaven mailboat today, however.