Elizabethan Map of a Turbulent West Cork

The Elizabethans were map-makers, especially if they needed information for the purpose of wars and conquests. I was first alerted to this extraordinary map of West Cork by a reference in the O’Mahony Journal (subscription needed) and then to a piece written on it for the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1958 by P O’Keeffe who labelled it a Map of Beare and Bantry. Neither of these sources had a good image of the map and so, intrigued, I sent off a request for a digital copy to the British National Archives. It arrived by return email, at no charge. What a service! (Irish national repositories take note.) Here is the complete map.

While it is clear that this map dates to the Elizabethan period, there are many questions about it: who did it, for what purpose, exactly when? For this post I want to go through elements of the map and identify, as far as possible, what it depicts. A subsequent post will deal with what is actually going on – that is, what are the actions that are being chronicled. Let’s start with the fact that the map is quite accurate. It depicts the three peninsulas of West Cork – the Mizen, the Sheep’s Head and the Beara – and the inlets in between them. It is oriented east-west rather than our modern convention of north-south, but the cardinal points are clearly identified. The map is drawn on paper, with the sea coloured in blue and the islands in brown. I have provided maps below of the same area, the first in our typical north-south orientation and the second as it is orientated in the historical map.

The sea is shown teeming with ships – warships and galleys. Taking a closer look at the two north of Bear Island we see two different ships, one light and one dark. Each is in full sail, with men on the riggings and in the look-outs. They have cannons emerging from the hull, a trumpeter aft and a bugler on the bow-spit.

As a reference, here is a painting by Andries van Aervelt showing the kinds of ships that were engaged in The Battle of the Narrow Seas (1585) – both the full-sail warships are shown as well as galleys.

Galleys were also deployed here, shown between Bear Island and the mainland (below). The lead galley has a trumpeter on the bow, while the second galley shows a man blowing a horn in the stern and what looks like a drummer on the bow (like those ramming speed scenes in Ben Hur). The rowers were often convicts and the life of a galley rower was brutal. This map shows a single row of oars. Galleys essentially provided platforms upon which armed soldiers could shoot, and had the advantage of being more stable than sailing ships and often faster, depending on wind and swell. 

Another warship (below) is rounding the tip of the Beara , heading for Dursey Sound. Dursey Island has both a church and a castle on it. There isn’t much trace of this now, but there was an O’Sullivan castle on a small grassy peninsula on Dursey, described as two rectangular buildings with a rectangular enclosure in the National Monuments records. It was destroyed in 1602 (more about that in the next post) along with what was then left of the church, known as Kilmichael, which was already in a ruinous state. At the right, in this section of the map, are two rocky islands, one with a set of steps leading up to a church. Could this be Skellig Michael? The other candidate is Scariff Island, off Lamb’s Head, which had a monastic settlement and hermit’s cell on it.

Let’s take a look now at the area around Bantry (below). The large church is of course the Franciscan Abbey that stood here, where the graveyard is located There is a church shown on the aptly-named Chapel Island between the mainland and Whiddy (no trace if it now remains), and both a church and a castle on Whiddy.

The fragmentary remans of an ecclesiastical enclosure can still be seen at the graveyard on Whiddy, while the O’Sullivan Castle has only one wall still partly standing. That’s it, below.

The hinterland of the Beara is shown with trees and animals. Either this is a hunting scene with dogs chasing a stag, or it is meant to show the wildness of the interior, with wolves and deer. Settlements are indicated by churches surrounded by a cluster of cabins (not that different from Irish villages up until recently), and there is a castle labelled Ardhey and O Sulyvans Ho. This is likely to be the ruined casted of Ardea, which actually stands on the other side of the Kenmare River – the Iveragh side rather than the Beara side.

The final depiction I want to highlight is of the Mizen. Several towers dot the  landscape as well as two substantial castles, one of which is under siege. 

Which castles are these – especially the one being attacked? Tune in next week!

Whiddy Island

Whiddy Island from Sheeps Head

Whiddy Island from Sheep’s Head

On a sunny Sunday in March, we were lucky to find out about a guided tour around Whiddy Island and enthusiastically signed up. Our guide, Tim O’Leary, runs the ferry to the island and its only pub, the Bank House. He is a native Islander and extremely knowledgeable about the island’s history, traditions, stories, flora and fauna. 

Off to Whiddy Island on a beautiful day in March

Off to Whiddy Island on a beautiful day in March

It was a gorgeous day for a tramp – a good thing as it’s a six mile walk – and the weather allowed us to drink in the glorious views and to stand at various spots listening to Tim as he shared stories of life on the island.

Whiddy Island Graveyard

Whiddy Island Graveyard

In the graveyard he told us about the island tradition of burial: a coffin has to be lifted from the boat at a particular quay and laid on a special coffin rock. From there it is shouldered uphill to the burial ground by four men of the same last name as the deceased. Nothing but human power can be used on the long uphill climb, or to dig the grave or conduct any part of the service. “We will carry this tradition on,” he said, “as long as we can.” The burial ground itself is part of an ancient ecclesiastical site and commands views across the island.

View out to Bantry Bay from the Island high point

View out to Bantry Bay from the Island high point

We learned that many island families made a good living in times past from fishing and fish processing, and it still an important part of the economy, although now mussel beds have replaced fishing lines and ‘pilchard palaces.’

Tim shows us the 'hairy rope' used to grow mussels. Mussel beds ring the Island.

Tim shows us the ‘hairy rope’ used to grow mussels. Mussel beds ring the Island.

The land was famous for being fertile and one historical document talks about the earliest potatoes always being grown on Whiddy. All this activity supported up to 800 people but like many places in West Cork the population was decimated by the Great Famine. Now, fewer than 30 people live here year round.

The Island can no longer support a school

The Island can no longer support a school

We walked up to the remains of O’Sullivan Beare’s castle, which functioned more as a prison than a dwelling as it housed those who needed to be ‘encouraged’ to pay the taxes he imposed for fishing rights. We explored the area that had once been a thriving American Air Force base for a brief period at the end of World War I – nothing remains except acres of concrete and memories of the vibrant life that the service personnel brought to this small community. Other defensive structures exist on the island too – several ‘batteries’  with huge guns were built after the French invasion of 1796 but alas they are too unsafe to visit.

O'Sullivan Beare's stronghold

O’Sullivan Beare’s stronghold

The west end of the island contains enormous tanks that now house the Irish national oil reserves. It was built as a Gulf Oil terminal in the late 60s and was the scene of a horrifying accident in 1979 when an explosion sank a French tanker, the Betelgeuse, and 50 people lost their lives. The enormous tanks, behind their barbed wire barriers, loom darkly against the landscape, a permanent reminder of this awful tragedy.

The oil tanks at the west end of the Island

The oil tanks at the west end of the Island

Take the ferry across to Whiddy Island any time and hike around the hills and the beaches. But if you can, catch one of Tim’s guided walks, and finish with a well-deserved pint in the Bank House at the end of the day.

There's nothing like a guided tour with Tim!

There’s nothing like a guided tour with Tim!

One thing, though…when Tim sat in this desk back in the day, his teacher forgot to teach him about distances. So just take it with a grain of salt when he tells you there’s “only another half mile to go.”

desk

A note on the West Cork Speak Competition! Deadline extended to the end of next week. Only one entry so far, so don’t be shy and get those conversations in!