The Signal Tower at Seven Heads

The series continues! In my previous posts on Napoleonic Signal Towers around the Irish coast (the posts are listed at the end of this one) I stated that 81 towers were built between 1803 and 1806, of which 20 were situated in the County of Cork. Today’s example is firmly within the chimerical district of West Cork. I use the word ‘chimerical’ in this sense: “. . . existing only as the product of unchecked imagination . . .” as there is actually geographically no such place as West Cork, even though we write about it all the time – and claim to live within it!

Today’s example has various names: Seven Heads (it’s sited on one of them); Leganagh (that’s the immediate locality) and Ballymacredmond, which is the townland name. It is also called Travarra on some maps and by local people: that is the name of a bay which is over a kilometre to the north-east (and refers to the Barry family who lived in the district). From this tower can be seen another to the west (Dunnycove or Galley Head – which I have written about here), and to the east the tower at The Old Head of Kinsale, here, which is in the present day the best standing example as it has been fully restored and is open to visitors as a historic structure.

The first two photographs in this post show the Seven Heads Tower which we visited a few days ago as part of a very full expedition which also took in holy wells, promontory forts, and some impressive medieval structures. We had the local help and expertise of guides Diarmuid Kingston and Tim Feen, and were accompanied by our friends Amanda and Peter Clarke, whom you have met frequently in our writings: Amanda runs the Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry blog. The pic above shows our group walking along the clearly defined old roadway which was built to access this signal tower.

We also had bovine company (above)! This is a constant when you are walking in West Cork. As you can see, our day was mixed, with dark storm clouds and high winds interspersed with good spells of sunshine. The varying light enabled some dramatic photography:

The defined trackway and various well-built stone walls – which I am assuming are contemporary with the tower – show what a significant undertaking this project was in the early years of the nineteenth century. One particular wall to the west of the tower is a noteworthy structure as it is high (between 1.5 and 2.5 metres in places) with some puzzling lintolled openings. The photograph below I have borrowed with thanks from Dominic Creedon as I was unable to get close due to very adverse weather.

You can make out this enigmatic wall on the Google Earth image, above. It is parallel with, and to the west of, the old access road, and forms the western boundary of three rectangular fields. I can find no information on this wall on any history or archaeology sites. I’m tentatively suggesting that it might have been constructed as part of the signal tower works to create a sheltered garden or external storage area: the towers accommodated crews on a rotating basis while in use, and the ‘garden’ – if that is what it was – could have provided a welcome source of fresh produce.

This remote site is also of interest as it has the ruins of two World War 2 Coastal Lookout Posts within a short distance of the Napoleonic-era Signal Tower. I haven’t been able to find out why two were needed here: I can only assume that the first did not prove to give sufficient surveillance. This twentieth century context and link is not unusual, as both lookout posts and signal towers effectively served the same purpose: to keep a watch out for enemy activity, and to alert the appropriate authorities if such activity was spotted. In reality, no such activity was ever reported during either conflict. Written records exist from all the WW2 LOPs (Lookout Posts). Here is an example page from the Seven Heads site, typical of all such records:

Above are various views of the Signal Tower: it is typical of such structures in general design and layout. Note the machicolation incorporated into the upper parapet: this is an echo of the design of medieval tower houses. The Seven Heads building is an open ruin and is slowly deteriorating. It is sure to crumble away over time. The Seven Heads Walking Trail takes you past the site.

Tailpiece: the pic below is taken from the Dunworley promontory fort, looking towards Seven Heads, and the final pic shows the dramatic sky which enhanced our visit.

The previous posts in this series can be found through these links:

Part 1: Kedge Point, Co Cork

Part 2: Ballyroon Mountain, Co Cork

Part 3: Old Head of Kinsale, Co Cork

Part 4: Robert’s Head, Co Cork

Part 5: Downeen, Co Cork

Part 6: Dunnycove

Part 7: Cloghane, Mizen Head

Part 8: Brow Head

Part 9: Glandore Head

Part 10: Toe Head

A Signal Success in Irish Engineering – Part 7: Cloghane, Mizen Head

It’s a long way from West Cork, Ireland, to Sydney, Australia! And I’m not suggesting that signals could travel that far in the early 19th century . . . But I couldn’t resist putting up this engraving when I found it while researching signal towers generally as it is in fact an exemplary view with which to head up this – the seventh of our explorations into a fascinating subject. It has everything: the signal station itself, built on a prominent headland with a lighthouse nearby; a ‘telegraph’ mast and a flag mast for signalling; a man with a telescope looking out for a signal coming in – and a pile of logs with which to make a beacon fire to communicate urgently at night! The only difference, in fact, between the Irish stations and this ‘colonial’ one on the other side of the world is the building material. In Terra Australis (the name used for that continent until 1824, and meaning ‘southern land’) it was timber, whereas in Ireland the towers were of masonry and constructed with elements resembling medieval tower houses.

But it’s fair to say that today’s foray into the story of the Irish Napoleonic-era signal towers also has everything. Perched on Ireland’s most southwesterly point – Mizen Head in the townland of Cloghane – this site is one part of a craggy, indented promontory which is scattered with historical elements.

I have tried to illustrate a history time-line graphically by superimposing some of the significant sites on an aerial view (above – courtesy of mizenhead.ie), although even this does not tell the full story. Apart from an undated promontory fort in the north of the townland the signal towers are the earliest elements, specifically dating from 1804 and part of the network of 81 towers around the whole coast of Ireland which we have been charting in our posts. Interestingly, the two towers shown on the top of this view – at Cloghane and Brow Head – are the closest together of any around the coast, being only 3.8 km apart. The average distance between towers is 13.5 km, while the maximum distance is 36.9 km (between Ballydavid and Kerry Head in Co Kerry): we have not yet explored those sites. Here are two views from Cloghane across to the signal tower at Brow Head:

A feature at Cloghane which doesn’t show up on the aerial view is this Second World War lookout post, built close to the early signal tower around 1942. 83 of these structures were built by the Irish Defence Force to monitor activity at sea, many of them relating to Napoleonic-era sites for obvious reasons: these locations had already been selected for their inter-visibility and the panoramic views which they commanded. We have encountered these ‘Emergency-era’ posts previously at Kedge Point, Baltimore, and Ballyroon Mountain, Sheep’s Head (see the full list of links at the end of this post). We shouldn’t get diverted, but if you want to know more about these here is an excellent creative presentation on them carried out in 2014 by Tim Schmelzer of Vienna – particularly, I recommend that you view the first of the videos: it’s wonderful! The LOPs were designed by Howard Cooke RIBA of the Irish Office of Public Works in 1939 and I was fascinated to see that the design achieved recognition (‘posthumously’) from the National Inventory of Ireland Buildings Archive. The posts were cramped, damp and minimal, but apparently at least equipped with small fireplaces:

Mizen Head has drama: there is no land beyond this place until you reach America. And, if you are approaching Ireland from the south or west, Cloghane will be your first landfall. But it’s a dangerous coastline, particularly in stormy weather or at times of poor visibility. Hardly surprising, then, that a fog signal station was established on the furthest point in the early 20th century, under the jurisdiction of the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse. This was initially only a foghorn, powered by explosives: a light was not placed there until 1959.

That this signal tower is the virtually identical ‘twin’ of the one we explored at Robert’s Head must be significant, as both are unlike the general pattern we have seen elsewhere: a simple ‘defensible’ structure some 6m square with flat roof, parapets, machicolations and bartizans. My conclusion at Robert’s Head was that the tower had been substantially rebuilt to incorporate upgraded accommodation, perhaps for use by the Coast Guard which was formally established in 1822. Comparing it now with the Cloghane structure it seems more likely that these might both have originated as larger, better appointed buildings. I wonder if this could be because of the relative remoteness of both sites, which would not be easy to populate and service from any nearby community. It was a long trek to Cloghane: the original dedicated trackway, some 2.7 km long is still defined on the landscape, and passes under the 232m high Mizen Peak.

The signal tower at Cloghane is in reasonable condition considering its age and the long period of abandonment (many of the towers went out of use after 1812 although some – possibly including this one – were revived and adapted for use by the Coast Guard). Many visitors have left their marks over the years, and some of the graffiti is intriguing! There is also some vestige of the timber casement frame remaining in one of the window openings: surprising considering the level of exposure to severe storms at this remote site.


There’s a conundrum at this site that I want to share with you. A little distance to the south of the signal station building is a grouping of stones which are easy to miss at first glance, Have a closer look:

It’s the base of a circular building, or enclosure – a few metres in diameter. Archaeologists amongst you might think in terms of round towers but we can discount that in this desolate location. It does not seem to relate to the signal station buildings, either in terms of architecture (it gives the impression of being rougher and, perhaps, earlier) or usage. With regard to its age, it shows up as a feature on the early 6″ Ordnance Survey map:

What might it be? A mine chimney? But the Mizen Head Copper Mine was a long way from here (refer to the annotated aerial view). The size and shape resemble a gunpowder magazine which we came across at Dhurode Mine, on the north side of the peninsula. The only reason for having a gunpowder store at a signal station would be for a fog signal operated by explosives, as was the case at the Fog Signal Station lower down the Head, built in the early twentieth century. This is clearly much earlier. The dreamer in me pictures, rather, a hut lived in by a medieval hermit, supported by a local monastic settlement to keep beacons burning on Ireland’s headlands in perpetuity. Like the round towers, these were signals to travellers in ancient times that here might be found a haven. For seafarers, perhaps, this one signalled the gateway to a fertile land of enlightenment.

The previous posts in this series can be found through these links:

Part 1: Kedge Point, Co Cork

Part 2: Ballyroon Mountain, Co Cork

Part 3: Old Head of Kinsale, Co Cork

Part 4: Robert’s Head, Co Cork

Part 5: Downeen, Co Cork

Part 6: Dunnycove