Ballyrisode – Pirate Connections

Last week, Finola wrote about the discovery of what is probably an intertidal fulacht fia on the beach at Ballyrisode, not too far west of us down the Mizen Peninsula. Following the publication of her post, we received a host of comments and messages, including from our friend Dr Connie Kelleher – an underwater archaeologist and well-known specialist on the history of piracy in West Cork. Connie told us that she and a colleague – Áine Brosnan – had examined the site back in 2012 because they were looking for links to pirate connections!

Header – this really is the colour of the remarkably clear water in Canty’s Cove seen on a recent visit: this is probably due to veins of copper ore. Above – Ballyrisode Strand is notable for its secluded location and its impressive white sand

The mention of pirates took me back to my 2016 post – Cantyclick here now and have a read, then return to this page for more insights. One of my resources when researching for Canty was an article by John Hawke in Volume 5 of the Mizen Journal, published in 1997: Canty’s Cove – Legend and History. I only used snippets in my post then, as I concentrated on Canty’s lair on the Northside. Today I’ll expand on Canty’s exploits to the south and west, including his connections with Ballyrisode. Connie made a very valuable point in her comments to us that Canty was a Gaelic-Irish pirate on the opposite side of the peninsula to William Hull and active at a time when the English pirates were headquartered in Leamcon, Baltimore and Crookhaven; he appears to have remained in control within his own domain to at least 1629 but most probably into the 1640s.

Upper – a photo from ‘Northside of the Mizen’ clearly showing the protected promontory known as ‘Canty’s Garden’ in the twentieth century. It is likely that this is the site of Dunkelly Castle, and was the scene of Canty’s grisly treatment of his visitors. Lower – looking across Canty’s Garden today

The following stories were told to John Hawke in 1995 by James Camier, and were handed down from his father, William Camier of Enaghoughter Townland: they therefore go back a good few generations:

. . . Boats from America and elsewhere came into Dunmanus Bay, the captains were invited into his house by Canty, were dazzled by a special grog, robbed and pushed through the north door over the cliff into the cove to the north. On one occasion Canty wanted to stop an invasion by some outsiders at Ballyrisode. He had a daughter, who did not want him to go and tried to stop him, so he shot her. He then crossed by land to Ballyrisode and by moonlight fought a battle on the first strand, which he won. Gravestones to the dead stood on the shore. One day, the son of a captain previously murdered by Canty, who was also a captain, on returning from America was invited in by Canty. But, knowing more than his father, when Canty asked him to step outside he pushed Canty over the cliff . . . James himself remembers some gravestones, but these have been covered by encroaching sand over recent years . . . Graves existing on the second strand are of drowned sailors . . .

Sailor’s graves – or the site of a pirate battle? The fulacht fia is upper right in this picture

This very categoric piece of information suggests that James Camier (or perhaps his father) attribute the stones on the ‘second strand’ to sailors’ graves. These stones are probably the small upright stones which lie close to the fulacht fia today: they certainly resemble grave markers in size and shape. In the context of a Bronze Age fulacht fia such stones were probably part of a hearth or roasting-pit.

It is illegal to disturb any archaeological site (please note!). Our activities at Ballysrisode were confined to measuring and photography. However, we made a series of probes across the beach to test the depth of the sand (and imagine how many excavations have been made on that beach over the years by eager sandcastle engineers!). Our results show that there seems to be a consistent depth of only 50mm to 200mm over the main beach. Hmmmm… not enough to bury any pirate bones methinks. Also, it’s rather unlikely that any pirates would stay around to firmly fix substantial stone markers over the graves of their dead comrades (or enemies). But I would never want to stand in the way of a good tale.

I know this is slightly ‘off subject’ but it’s worth adding to the whole picture of Canty and pirates another tale from the Camiers:

. . . Canty’s Cove was always seen in the locality as a lonesome place at night and there are various stories of unexplained sightings – old longboats coming in and out, a man walking along the ledge on the far side of the Cove from the pier and suddenly disappearing, and of “white” hands helping the captain to tie up his seine boat . . .

I’m not sure that I’d be up for a visit to Canty’s Cove after sunset (above), but the beautiful white strands at Ballyrisode would be most attractive in the moonlight, and – who knows – it might be a good time to see if there is any ghostly pirate activity in this historically significant place.

In the picture below Rosie the Dog investigates the apparently haunted piers at Canty’s Cove: they were extensively upgraded in the 1940s

The Turning Year in Rossbrin

We are fortunate to live in a rural idyll: our immediate environment is immersed in the natural world. In fact, I suppose it is ‘Nature tamed’ – as we have pasture all around us as well as banks of gorse and rock: even a few trees which manage to cling on to the shallow soil all through the winter gales and (occasional) summer droughts. As the years go by we feel we become more closely entwined with the cycle of everything around us – we get to know personally the fox, pheasants and rabbits that pass by our window, and the myriad of birds that feed here, forage in the Cove or just show themselves to us on memorable occasions – Spioróg the Sparrowhawk is so handsome when she is resting on our terrace wall while on her deadly missions, and our choughs frequently perform wild dances in the air to entertain us. This year was special for me because, for the first time, I saw a hare amble around the house, alert with erect ears, before loping off into the next door field.

I have written about Rossbrin Cove many times before: look at A Moment in Time, Tide’s Out and Words on Roaring Water, for example. That sheltered natural harbour and the old mine road up on the hill above probably give us the most pleasure because we visibly see the year change and turn every time we walk there. Just now the days are rapidly shortening, and the autumnal influx of wading birds is returning. One we keep a particular eye out for is the curlew – a threatened breeding species here in Ireland. We see many on and close to the water, particularly at low tide, but these are probably migrants rather than resident breeders.

The year is turning – from late summer into early autumn, and the colours are changing from rich reds and purples – fuschia and heathers – to the more sombre yet equally attractive yellows and browns of furze and fern. Finola has closely followed the wildflowers right through from the spring – she is still finding and identifying every imaginable species – it’s a complete world of its own!

We have been seeing some exceptionally high and low tides here in Rossbrin. I’m always fascinated to see the mud-flats revealing bits of discarded history, while I am convinced that the huge remnants of dressed stonework on the north-east shore are the vestiges of once-busy quays, dating either from the medieval period, when Sir William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork owned the lands around here and set up thriving fish-processing ‘palaces’, or – at the latest – when the copper mines were active up on our hills and on Horse Island in the nineteenth century.

The real turning point comes at the end of October – Samhain – when the old calendar enters the ‘dark year’ (the ‘light year’ begins on May 1st –  Bealtaine). We know we have long, dark nights to come – time to huddle down by the stove – but there will be bright days as good as any in the year for walking, exploring and breathing in the Atlantic breezes. And the Rossbrin sunsets will be magnificent!