Valentia Adventure

At the very end of January – when we should have been in the dark depths of winter – we headed off to Valentia Island in County Kerry, and enjoyed sublime golden sun. This time of the year often gives us the best light: we experienced this on our expedition through the Yellow Gap in West Cork a fortnight ago, and again during these three days in our neighbouring county last week. It’s to do with the low sun: somehow it enriches the amber hues of the landscapes, which are themselves enhanced by backdrops such as the one above. An ancient stone is set against a distant turquoise ocean and dark, snow-capped mountain peaks.

Holy wells were on the agenda (see Finola’s post here), as we were joining our friends Amanda and Peter Clarke from the Sheep’s Head. Amanda has nearly come to the end of her chronicle which records all the Holy Wells in County Cork, and she is now starting to explore those in County Kerry. I’m not going to say too much about the wells we saw, as Amanda will cover them in great detail, but the expedition certainly provided great opportunities for observation and photography, and caused us to wonder – again – at this unique aspect of Ireland’s history and traditions.

All the photographs above are from a remote and atmospheric site on the north west side of Valentia Island: St Brendan’s Holy Well. It’s a long way off the beaten track: desolate, bleak and boggy – but justifies making the effort. There are ancient stone crosses, carved slabs, cures to be had, and history. St Brendan himself journeyed there from Tralee in the fifth century, climbed the cliffs at Culoo, and found two dying pagans at the site: he anointed them and they became Valentia’s first Christian converts.

Above – the way to St Brendan’s Well, Valentia Island, passes by O’Shea’s Pub . . . one of the furthest flung bars in the world, that you can’t—and could never—buy a proper pint at . . . The story is here.

I certainly endorse that sign in the centre, seen on Valentia Island. Hare trapping in South Kerry is illegal – and so it should be! But – how could we not follow a sign that says: Slate Quarry – Grotto?

The Grotto – in this case a statue of the BVM together with Saint Marie-Bernadette Soubirous, the girl who witnessed Mary’s apparition in Lourdes – was installed in the Marian Year of 1954 in a cave high above the entrance to the Valentia Slate Quarry on Geokaun Mountain, at the north end of the Island. The Quarry had been opened in 1816 and supplied slate to the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, London railway stations and many another building project. The quarry excavated a huge cave into the mountainside, and closed after a major rockfall in 1910.

Fr James Enright, who was the PP of Valentia in the Marian Year, saw a golden opportunity in such a setting for a commemorative grotto. Fr Enright decided exactly where the statues were to be positioned, but the burning issue was how were these heavy items going to be put in place and worked upon at over 90 feet from ground level? The answer came in the building of a deal timber ladder.

 

Jackie Clifford , who was a blacksmith based in Gortgower, made the iron to bind and reinforce the ladder and was helped in his forge by Denny Lyne and subsequently aided by other islanders. Having been transported to the quarry in sections, it was assembled there and put in place by the volunteering islanders. The ladder was over 100 feet long, being four feet wide at the bottom narrowing to a foot. and a half on top. The sections of ladder were joined at the various points with a four foot lap. Many island volunteers were enlisted with each townland taking their turns to work. The initial work involved levelling a massive mound in order to form a proper base. This was quite labour intensive, being done with pick and shovel. The ladder was hauled into place by means of a block and tackle pulley system with people at the ends of ropes from above and to the sides in order to control it and put it in place. As one islander succinctly put it “The greatest miracle to happen there was the erection of the ladder”.

 

Subsequent to the ladder being put in place, a number of daring and intrepid islanders had to climb it for the purpose of erecting the statues. The statues were hoisted up by rope with other tools and building materials. The concrete for the base was mixed by shovel above.

(Quote from The Kerryman, January 2015)

The Quarry has recently reopened, and it’s quite surreal to stand in front of the grotto with the sound of heavy machinery reverberating at the huge cave mouth from deep within the mountain.

Have a look again at the signs above: one points to ‘Tetrapod Trackway’. This is surely a must-see for any visitor to Valentia Island as the fossilised Tetropod footprints here, representing the point at which life left the Devonian Seas 370 million years ago to begin to evolve on dry land, are the best examples of only four sites found to date in the world! We hurried to have a look – but the site was closed for repairs. You can see a picture of the tracks here.

In the winter sunlight, the little village of Portmagee which stands at the threshold of Valentia Island and connects to it by a bridge opened in 1971, looks like a picture postcard. In fact, the bridge was opened twice – once on New Year’s Day, when it was blessed by the Bishop of Kerry – and again at Easter, because there was some debate about whether the first opening had been ‘official’ or not!

Here’s a railway map and photo dating from around 1901 showing ‘Valentia Harbour Station’. In fact, it’s not on the island at all, although Knightstown – the ‘planned village’ designed by Alexander Nimmo for the Knight of Kerry in the 1830s can be seen across the water. The station – the terminus of the most westerly railway in Europe – is on the mainland, to the east of  Valentia Island, which could be reached by a ferry. The Farranfore to Valentia Harbour Railway was 39½ miles long and operated from 1892 to 1960. The photo below shows the Valentia River Viaduct just outside Cahersiveen, now derelict but hopefully to have a new lease of life when a planned cycling greenway is developed along the old railway track.

Valentia Island has a great deal more to offer than I can show in a brief post. It’s well worth making the journey and staying for a little while: there is such varied landscape to be experienced – a microcosm of the West of Ireland, in fact – and much history if you want to delve under the surface.

The tailpiece shows a view from Knightstown looking across to Valentia Harbour on the mainland and the site of the former railway terminus:

Sliding into Kerry

view from the road

My musical acquaintances might think that this post is all about Kerry slides – lively tunes which get aired sometimes at our session: here are some fine examples played by Éamonn O’Riordan, Tony O’Connell, Brian Mooney and Gearóid Ó Duinnín…

But they would be mistaken: this is the tale of a little wintry but sunlit exploration which Finola and I undertook on the eve of St Gobnait’s feast day. It involved crossing the border into Kerry, something which is not lightly done by Corkonians because of traditional rivalries (mainly on the Hurling and Gaelic Football fields). So we had to ‘slide’ over into the Kingdom and hope that none of our friends noticed our temporary absence.

Sheep flock on road

We had things to do in Kenmare (have a look at Finola’s post), but afterwards we took to the byways. We knew there is a remote, lonely and very beautiful road winding up over the mountains, shared only by a few wandering sheep, and determined that would be our way home. We headed off to the tiny settlement of Kilgarvan and there saw a signpost that said Bantry 25: we turned on to the boreen that follows the Roughty and Slaheny Rivers and immediately entered another world.

Macaura's Grave signpost

We hadn’t gone very far along the road before we were intrigued by a brown signpost – beckoning us along an even smaller boreen. Macaura’s Grave: neither of us had any idea who Macaura was, so we had to go and investigate. After about ten minutes of twisting and turning and trying to guess which of the unmarked and unsigned lanes to take whenever we came to a junction, we found ourselves back on the road we had just left! By now we were determined that Macaura was not going to get the better of us, so we flagged down a young lad who was in charge of a fine red tractor. He was very forthcoming, and told us that the grave was well worth a visit, then proceeded to give us a set of instructions that involved turning this way and that – signifying to the air which ways these were. Not a little confused, we drove off again.

View from near grave

It was no hardship to be exploring the magnificent countryside in south Kerry: the views were breathtaking and the variety of colours on the mountains in sunlight and shadow this early spring day was astonishing. A bit more head scratching and a few more twists and turns down a stony trackway and we were there!

Modern sign

Now we knew. Not only had we found the grave of Macaura – that’s the old Irish way of saying McCarthy – but we had come across the site of one of the most significant battles in Irish history! The Irish chieftain, Finín McCarthy (named as the ‘King’ of Kerry – and that’s why Kerry is known as The Kingdom), joined up with the O’Sullivan Beare from West Cork and the O’Donoghues from Ross Castle to rout the Normans, who were led by Sir John Fitzgerald. This battle took place in 1261. 1261! Over eight hundred years ago… This confirms my thesis that you can’t go anywhere in Ireland without stumbling over history. The Anglo-Normans had claimed their stake in Ireland from 1169 when Strongbow (Richard de Clare) arrived with the blessing of Henry II (and the Pope – who saw the Irish church charting its own course and not following Rome!). Reasonably, the Irish chieftains objected to the Norman invaders, hence this confrontation.

Grave Inscription

In the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1961, Volume 66, there is a comprehensive – but not entirely enlightening – article by Diarmud Ó Murchadha on The Battle of Callan:

…Finghin Mac Carthy had learned much from his opponents during his years of conflict, while he had the added advantage of knowing intimately the territory over which he fought. At Callann he chose his battleground, at a spot where a mountainy river called the Slaheny joins the Ruachtach, close by the castle of Ardtully. No doubt he reckoned that here the heavily-armoured cavalry of the invader could be used to the least advantage. Battle was then joined and Finghin mac Domhnaill mic Charthaigh emerged victorious… Unfortunately no details of the conflict – apart from the names of those slain – are available. Incidentally, the fullest account of the battle is given, not by the Munster annals, but by the Annals of Loch Ce and Annals of Connacht:

AD 1261 – A great war was waged, and numerous injuries were committed in this year by Finghin, son of Domhnall Mac Carthaigh, and his brothers, against the foreigners.There was a great hosting by the Geraldines into Desmond, to attack Mac Carthy, but it was Mac Carthy attacked them, and defeated them…

The Annals go on to record the fact that Finghin followed up his victory at Callan by attacking and destroying every Norman castle and stronghold in Munster. As the sign over Macaura’s Grave tells us: …he liberated the Kingdom of South Munster from Norman domination forever…

battle-of-callan-site

But who is it that the Macaura Grave celebrates? ‘Donal, Chieftain of the McCarthy Fineens’… Presumably this is not the Finghin, who, according to the Annals, went on after the battle to rout the Normans out of Munster: the Finghin who is known as mac Domhnaill mic Charthaigh – ‘son of Domhnaill MacCarthy’. Could it be his father (Donal is an Anglicisation of Domhnaill)? In which case it was the clan chieftain who died in the battle and his son who went on to clear the Normans out of Kerry. There are a few accounts of the battle, but none of them clarify this. It all happened a long time ago, of course, and memories fade. In fact this site was all but lost: an article in The Kerryman takes up the story, illustrated by this photograph:

1981-clearing-the-site-of-the-grave

…The men of Kilgarvan were busy in November 1981 – making a road fit for a king! The king in question is Finín McCarthy who died in 1261 after being the first Irish king to defeat the Normans, thus giving Kerry the name of the Kingdom… Legend has it that after the battle, McCarthy stood on a ditch to survey the battlefield, when a dying Norman killed him with an arrow. McCarthy was buried on the spot, and a large slab was used as a headstone. The grave now lies on a narrow little road in Callan beside Tom Healy’s farm. When retired Dublin civil servant Frank Shanley spent a recent holiday in Kilgarvan he went looking for the grave, which was buried by shrubs and bushes… He decided to organise a meeting of the local men to try and get them to improve the grave and access to it…. It was Dan O’Sullivan, Down, Tom O’Donoghue and Michael Teehan, who were slaving away widening the roadway from eight feet wide to 16 feet, when he visited in November 1981… Apart from the narrow roadway and the briars and trees, there was also a steady stream of water running over the grave, but the men got the pipes to divert the water in another direction. There was no actual inscription on the grave that the men could read, but there were a series of lines and crosses on it, which they hope will be examined by an expert…. They hope that when they have the roadway to the grave cleared, they can erect signposts to the grave, and notices around the grave telling the history of McCarthy’s death in the battle of Callan…

Macaura's Grave

So we have the ‘men of Kilgarvan’ – back in the 80s – to thank for leading us to this now tranquil but historically turmoiled and fascinating spot. There is still the puzzle of which McCarthy is commemorated: perhaps we’ll never know for sure. But it’s not bad to have access to a story which has survived for the best part of nine hundred years – just about within living memory by Irish standards! After this excitement we continued our journey over the spectacular Coomhola road through the mountains towards Ballylickey and gently slid back into West Cork. If you can cope with very narrow roads (it’s not so bad – we only saw two other vehicles, both local farmers, in the whole 25 kilometres!) it’s one of the great road trips of Ireland – with the added bonus of a history lesson to be taken in.

Beyond the tunnel

Sheep on the edge

The Winding Road