Merchant, Miller, Smuggler: James O’Sullivan and Roaring Water

If you park your car at Kilcoe Church, at Meen Bridge on the N71 between Skibbereen and Ballydehob, and walk straight south, you arrive at a picturesque pier – a quiet backwater of leafy boreens. This is the outlet for the Roaring Water River (yes, that’s how the river is spelled on the OS maps), which rises on the southern slopes of Mount Kidd, a bare 6km away. Despite the short distance, this little river is a notable torrent by the time it reaches the sea, and it is said that the noise it made as it rushed over the rocks and weirs in its last stretch gave its name not only to the river but also to Roaringwater Bay (and yes, that’s how the Bay is spelled on the OS maps). 

Your walking route from Kilcoe Church to the pier takes you along the river. Here and there are perilous but satisfying opportunities to hop over a wall, hang on to branches and lean out to see over the river. This is a marvellous stretch of road in spring and early summer, with the river full on and hosting a riot of Marsh-marigold, and the banks heady with Whitethorn and Guelder-rose.

Eventually, you arrive at the final bridge – an interesting single span with a high arch – and can walk down to the Pier. You’ll be lucky if you encounter another person here, a dog-walker perhaps, or somebody messing about in a boat. It’s an idyllic spot, with views down the narrow channel to the medieval castle of Rincolisky (or Whitehall) across the water.

But in the first half of the nineteenth century, this was a bustling place indeed, and most of that came down to the the vision and energy of one man, James O’Sullivan. His house is still at the head of the inlet, still lived in and lovingly maintained. The quays he built for his various enterprises have stood the test of time and are as straight and sturdy as they were in their heyday.

No longer here are the industrial buildings that once marked this place as an active centre of industry and commerce. On the 1840s OS maps you can see them – there’s a Tuck Mill (used in wool processing) and a Corn Store. An historic account refers to a large building beside O’Sullivan’s house used to store potatoes until they were ready for export. There’s a slate quarry over to the east and a small village to the west. In addition the Archaeological Survey uncovered a metal working site on the rising east bank beside the quay, and a lime kiln at the edge of the water on the west bank. 

That little ‘village’? You can clearly see it as a cluster of buildings on the old maps, although there’s nothing there now you would call a community. But if you look hard, some traces are still visible. The old Catholic church became unfit for purpose by the end of the nineteenth century and was replaced by the splendid Church of the Most Holy Rosary (where you left your car). But it’s still a place of reverence for local people, having been repurposed as a grotto and a place for quiet contemplation and prayer – new Stations of the Cross were unveiled here as recently as 2018. It’s also a Cillín (pronounced killeen), a place where unbaptised children were buried – see this post for more on that.

There were two schools here, a boys’ and a girls’, and the boys’ school can still be seen in ruins along the road (below). By the 1840s they had both been replaced by a new school up by Meen Bridge – it, or its successor, is still there. There was a shop here once, no longer in use except for storage and partly ruined, and several houses only one of which remains. It is estimated that up to 200 people may have worked here. 

Who was James O’Sullivan? for all the information that follows I am indebted to a piece by Timothy Cadogan in the Seanchas Cairbre (a now-defunct publication) for 1993. Born around 1758, he was from the area and appeared to have engaged, by his own admission, in some lucrative smuggling in his younger days, mostly tobacco but “he could give you a bottle of good cognac”. After a crackdown, he turned to more legitimate businesses, perhaps funded by his earlier nefarious dealings. He was by no means alone in the smuggling trade – many a local gentleman had a hand in it too.

Turning to commerce, he operated both a corn mill and a tuck mill (the latter marked on the OS map). Both were overshot mills (see illustration below), in which the wheel was fed by a mill stream which diverted water from the Roaring Water River. The corn was stored in a large building on the quay (more or less where the small corrugated house is now, see image above) and shipped to Cork and Dublin. He had his own ships for this purpose and a storehouse in both cities.

Part of the Overshot Mill at Aberdulais 1786 or 1800 Philip James De Loutherbourg 1740-1812 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D36368

Timothy Cadogan points out that O’Sullivan played an active role in the politics of the time, “as might be expected from the most prominent Catholic in Aughadown and Kilcoe”. He chaired, for example, the great Anti-Tithe meeting in Skibbereen in 1832 – you can read more about that movement, and that meeting, in this post. The image below is of a tithe collector, called a Proctor, extracting his dues.

James O’Sullivan died between 1837-39. He had been married twice, first to Ellen Fitzgerald and after her death in 1826 to Ellen Coleman. No record has been left of any children, and indeed his great enterprises failed to survive his death, although copper mining was subsequently carried out in the vicinity with no great success. The building below was a later shop, across from the old church.

Perhaps though, if you linger a while on the Quay and close your eyes, you can hear the shouts of those loading corn, the sheets slapping against the masts in the wind, the rumble of barrels coming down the road to the waiting ships – maybe even make out, in your mind’s eye, a skiff silently slipping into the inlet loaded with an ‘irregular’ cargo to be delivered under cover of darkness.

Cooleenlemane – A Walk into History

Finola has written about the destination of our adventures yesterday – the inscribed ‘caves’ at Cooleenlemane. Above is a photo of the view from the ‘cave’ entrance, looking back at the glen which we journeyed across. My post today is about that journey on foot through decades of human history and thousands of years of topographical transformation.

Upper – looking back and leaving the world behind: a rough track climbs up from the entrance to the Cooleenlemane valley and very soon we were absorbed into the wild emptiness of the mountainsides (lower)

When I looked into the furthest reaches of the glen as we made our way over the rocky track I saw first, in my mind’s eye, the movement of the glacier which shaped it – the splintering, shuddering path it took and the debris it left in its wake: strangely distorted outcrops and huge erratic boulders feigning dice unrestrainedly scattered by a random hand.

Scribings on the rocks in the glen of Cooleenlemane: these are made by nature (and the movement of glaciers) long before humans appeared in Ireland. I often wonder whether observation of these marks could have inspired our earliest artists?

Then I couldn’t help the vision that came into my mind of herds of the huge Irish Elk – Megaloceros giganteus – that ruled places such as this in Ireland after the ice receded 10,000 years ago. It was around that time that human habitation came back to these revitalised lands: some say that it was human hunters who wiped out the elk – and the bear – in Ireland using spears, bows and rocks. When you are immersed in these wild places, with no signs of the 21st century around you, it is easy to imagine such scenes from the distant past.

But – lonely and remote as this valley seems today – there is significant evidence of enduring human occupation here. As we journeyed up to the ‘caves’ we were tracing ancient tracks and paths and saw the remains of several settlements: stone walls, enclosures including a cashel, and many haphazard piles of rock that presumably came from rudimentary field clearances. We had the good fortune to meet and talk to Pat Joe O’Leary, who resides in the last house before you enter the glen, and he told us that sixteen families had lived out here.

Some of the many traces that remain of the dwellings which were once occupied by  families eking out their lives in the remoteness of Cooleenlemane and (lower image) piles of stones cleared from the lands to provide pastures and potato beds

It’s right to describe the stories that Pat Joe told us as living memories, because he carries them. His own family has lived in the valley for generations so – like the bards of old – he is the keeper of the traditions and lore of the area. One of his tales was about a man from the glen who was the last to be hanged in Cork gaol. His name was Timothy Cadogan, and he was accused of the murder of William Bird, a land agent, at Bantry in 1900. Tim Cadogan was from one of the families who lived in Cooleenlemane – who had been evicted by Bird – and Pat Joe assured us that the name T Cadogan is inscribed on a stone beside one of the old buildings in the valley. Unfortunately, we did not hear this until we were returning from our expedition, so missed seeing the stone. Interestingly there is a record in the Schools Folklore Collection – in Irish – describing the same event, more or less in the same words that Pat Joe used. The event occurred in 1900, became recorded as folklore in 1936, and was told to us as oral tradition in 2019!

Contemporary newspaper account of the hanging of Timothy Cadogan – formerly from Cooleenamane – on 11 January 1901. Cadogan was tried twice before being sentenced to hang. The ‘Bungled Execution’ is reported as a failure on the part of the executioner, causing the condemned man to suffer a long, slow death by strangulation

Ignorant of such thoughts of the harsh realities of the world – even this far-away corner of it – we reached our destination: the ‘caves’. This is an unusual rock formation where a large outcrop has been split into enormous slabs, probably through glacial action. The rocks lean against each other and form crude shelters, within which are the inscribed surfaces. Finola’s post describes these in detail.

The rocks which form the ‘caves’ have a brooding presence on the landscape. It’s not surprising that they harbour enigmatic symbols with some possible other-worldly connotations

In addition to the sites of old farms and cottages that we passed by and explored on our trail, we clearly saw the imprint of ‘lazy-beds’ – ridge and furrow arable cultivation methods traditionally used in Ireland for planting the potato. These took our minds back to famine times and the harsh reality of having to forge an existence out of minimal resources. Also, we could only wonder at how clearly life – and history – have been etched into these aged and incredibly beautiful landscapes.

The very clear impressions of the potato beds which tell of the subsistence farming practiced for generations in Cooleenlemane accompanied our hike

Looking back on our day in the wildness of West Cork, my abiding memories are beauty and poignancy. I have used this term before – achingly beautiful – and I often have to return to it in order to try to sum up my own emotional reaction to such unique places in Ireland. You won’t find these places in tourist guides – getting here is hard work! Nor will you find very much recorded in the archaeological records about Cooleenlemane. But everything you see here is Ireland’s real history – deep, deep history; we are fortunate in every step we take into it.