Sunday, 22 May 2016

Going to the ends of the earth …
or to the remote ends of Ireland

Mizen Head …at the south-west tip of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I went to ends of the earth – or at least, to the south-west extremity of Ireland – yesterday [21 May 2016] to visit Mizen Head, one of the extreme points of the island of Ireland and a place with dramatic cliffs and scenery.

Mizen Head is not actually the most southerly point on the mainland of Ireland – the honour goes to nearby Brow Head. But generations of Irish schoolchildren have been taught by generations of geography teachers that the length of Ireland is measured from Fair Head to Mizen Head, or from Mizen Head to Malin Head.

In Ireland, this is the equivalent of Land’s End.

We drove west from Bantry to Mizen Head through the villages of the Mizen Peninsula, including Ballydehob, Schull, Goleen and Crookhaven. At the end of the peninsula, the cliffs of Mizen Head rise high above the Atlantic Ocean, where the currents from the west and south coasts meet and waves from the mid-Atlantic crash into the craggy rocks and headlands.

For many, Mizen Head was their first – or their last sight – of Ireland and of Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Mizen Head was once on one of the main transatlantic shipping routes and for many seafarers this their first – or last – sight of Ireland and of Europe.

A series of paths and viewing platforms lead out to the tip of the peninsula, which is almost like an island, cut off from the tip of Mizen Head by a deep chasm. The deep gap is spanned by a bridge that is breath-taking in its construction and location.

A deep chasm separates the tip of the peninsula from the rest of Mizen Head (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

We crossed over the bridge to the old signal station, the weather station, and the lighthouse at the end of the world – we were told the US is the next stop.

The signal station, once permanently staffed, is now a museum with exhibits on the strategic significance Mizen Head once had for transatlantic shipping and communications, and on the pioneering work of Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937).

The Marconi Radio Room tells the story of radio communications at Mizen Head Signal Station. Marconi was nearby in Crookhaven during his search for a suitable site to send the first transatlantic message. He had masts at Brow Head and put a telegraphic transmitter on the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse. A recent storm took all the sand out of Galley Cove and exposed the huge cables that once connected Fastnet with his radio room in Crookhaven.

In 1931, Mizen Head Signal Station had the first radio Beacon in Ireland – it spanned the whole gorge at the Bridge. This room is dedicated to this fabulous story.

There we could only but imagine the solitude of the keepers who worked here and lived with the fresh salt-laden sea air above the restless Atlantic and the swirl of the ocean currents.

A view under the bridge from the old Derrick platform (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

We walked back down the path to the old Derrick platform to look under the bridge, where we could see seals and their pups in the swell below as we listened for the sound of kittiwakes, gannets and choughs. The Derrick stand was used to supply the station from boats before the first bridge was built in 1909.

Having crossed back over the bridge, we returned by the “99 steps” that once formed part of the original access route to the visitor centre for two double espressos.

Crookhaven … now peaceful, but once a haven for pirates (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Earlier, we had lunch in the village of Crookhaven, which Marconi used as his base when he worked there from 1901 until 1914. The village was an important port of call for shipping between Europe and North America, and in the past many villagers made their living by supplying ships that sheltered in Crookhaven before or after a long voyage.

Crookhaven has three pubs. We had lunch in O’Sullivan’s, which faces the harbour. Its walls are decorated with old bank notes, signed rugby shirts and historical pictures of the village and notes about the area. Outside, the painted gable wall proclaims that the pub serves “the most southerly pint in Ireland.”

O’Sullivan’s pub in Crookhaven claims to serve “the most southerly pint in Ireland” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Welcome Inn or Nottages is only open during the summer. The pub was once owned by a man called Nottage from England who came to the village to work with Marconi. The Crookhaven Inn was once the bottle store for a larger pub and hotel that have since been was converted into apartments.

Crookhaven has a winter population of about 40, but this swells in the summer to about 400 when the families who own holiday homes arrive back in the area.

The earliest record of the area is found in 1199 in the Decretal Letter of Pope Innocent III, where Celmolaggi is listed and this has been identified with Crookhaven. There is also reference to the church being dedicated to Saint Molaggi, who came from Fermoy in the seventh century. He was the Patron Saint of Tegh-Molagga, now Timoleague, between Dunmanway and Bantry. A 15th century O’Mahony castle in Crookhaven was later used as a prison.

By the late 1500s and early 1600s, the village was a base for piracy. But the Dutch attack on the area in 1614 put an end to the activity of pirates.

The village takes its name from the Crooke family, who were granted large estates in West Cork in the early 17th century. Sir Thomas Crooke also founded Baltimore, Co Cork, ca 1610 at the same as Crookhaven. However, the Crooke family’s association with the area ended around 1665 with the death of Sir Thomas Crooke’s son and heir, Sir Samuel Crooke.

Barley Cove, where the best beach in West Cork was formed by a tsunami in Portugal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

On our way from Bantry and Schull to Crookhaven and Mizen Head, we stopped for a while at Barley Cove, which must have one of the best beaches in West Cork – and it challenges Curracloe in Co Wexford for being best beach in Ireland.

The area around Barley Cove is one of natural beauty and is popular throughout the summer months. Because of the variety of wildlife and interesting habitats in the sand dunes, the EU has designated the beach as a Special Area of Conservation.

But the story of Barley Cove and its sand dunes must be one of the most fascinating stories in the annals of Irish environmental and conservation efforts.

Almost two and a half centuries ago, Lisbon was devastated by a catastrophic earthquake on 1 November 1775, and the coast of Portugal was hit by a destructive tsunami. A day later, according to reports in the Cork Journal, 15 ft waves hit the coasts of Co Cork on 2 November 1775. As a side-effect, the sands of Barley Cove were displaced and the dunes and unusual coastal features were formed as a consequence of the tsunami.

The beach is nestled in between two cliffs and is fed by a meandering river coming down from the hinterland. A boardwalk and a floating bridge lead from the car park to the beach, where the large dunes are surrounded on three sides by water.

The Portuguese link with this extremity of Ireland should not have surprised me. It brought back memories of a visit to Cabo de Roca in Portugal, which is the western-most point in Europe, while I was staying in Lisbon about 18 months ago.

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Teampol na mBocht, a church
for the poor, built by the poor

Teampol na mBocht … the Church of the Poor, at Altar or Toormore, west of Schull, Co Cork (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

On the way out to Mizen Head from Bantry on Saturday afternoon [21 May 2016], there was one sandy beach after another, with each golden stretch of sand on this peninsula in West Cork washed by waves of blue and white and basking beneath blue skies.

At Schull we stopped to enjoy the harbour, to stroll through the narrow streets with their brightly painted shops and houses, and to browse in Anna B’s bookshop and mull over coffee as we sat out on the street.

In the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne and Ross in the Church of Ireland, Schull is part of group of parishes that includes the churches of Holy Trinity in Schull, Teampol na mBocht in Altar and Saint Brendan in Crookhaven.

Before reaching Crookhaven in time for lunch, we stopped at Teampol Na mBocht, or the Church of the Poor, in Altar, or Toormore, five miles outside Schull. The name Teampol na mBocht tells much about the origins of this church. During the Great Famine in the 1840s, the Rector of nearby Kilmoe, the Revd William Allen Fisher (1808-1880), set up soup kitchens and distributed aid. Funds donated to him were used to build the church in 1847, providing much needed employment in the area.

Fisher had inherited over 250 acres in Co Cork and 320 acres in Co Waterford, and was one of the principal lessors in Kilmoe parish at the time of Griffith’s Valuation. He was a son of Joseph Devonsher Fisher of Woodmount, Co Waterford. He was a fluent Irish speaker wanted to build the church by subscription, and John Ainsworth donated an initial £125.

In 1847, during ‘Black ’47, the Illustrated London News reported that in the village of Schull an average of 25 men, women and children were dying every day of starvation, dysentery or famine fever. At nearby Cove, the population fell from 254 in 1841 to 53 in 1851.

In Toormore, however, over the same period, the fall was relatively slight – from 370 to 343. Why this was is not known, but some believe that one factor was the relief carried out by Fisher.

As the crisis deepened, Fisher begged for help from well-wishers both in Ireland and England. As the money came in, Fisher set up soup kitchens and distributed food, medicine, blankets and clothing. But he wanted to do more than hand out charity. A man of his time, he firmly believed in the dignity of labour and wanted to provide paid work.

According to his son-in-law, Fisher ‘asked for and obtained the permission of some of those who had made him their almoner’ to use the gifts on a building project. This was originally to have been a new schoolhouse but, as more money came in, Fisher embraced a more ambitious plan that involved building a church for the townlands of Toormore and Altar.

Inside Teampol na mBocht, built in 1847 by the Revd William Allen Fisher (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The building was begun and completed in 1847. Local tradition says that in order to maximise the work and to give as much paid employment as possible to the poorest of the poor, Fisher decided that no horses or carts would be used in building the church.

The stone was quarried nearby and carried to the site by hand alone. As Fisher wrote in a report on the church, “the employment was given chiefly by contract, so that the poor were able to work about their cabins, fishing etc. at the same time that they earned a subsistence for themselves.”

Fisher called it ‘The Church of the Poor’ because it was the poor people who built it. Fisher loved the Irish language and was so fluent that the British Museum often sent him ancient manuscripts for translation. This also explains why Teampol na mBocht is the only church in the Church of Ireland Church that has an Irish name.

For many in the Church of Ireland, William Fisher is a saintly figure, a scholarly man who was happiest with his books, but who worked ceaselessly and selflessly for 40 years in a remote parish, giving all his time and strength to the poor, the hungry and the sick, until he himself died of famine fever in 1880.

But for his detractors, Fisher was a ‘souper,’ whose many projects on the Mizen Peninsula, including building his church, had only one purpose: to win converts from the Roman Catholic Church to the Church of Ireland.

Certainly, Fisher impoverished himself on behalf of his parishioners. The Fisher estates in Co Cork, Co Waterford and King’s County (Offaly) was offered for sale in the Landed Estates Court in November 1865. The Waterford property was advertised again in July 1866 as it had been offered for sale in April that year but the sale had been adjourned for want of bidders.

The three-light Fisher windows in the chancel of Altar Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The walls of the church in Altar are of natural undressed stone bonded with earth. In an unfinished letter, Fisher explained that the church was “built in the pattern of the old Irish churches. The vestry and southern porch give it a cruciform appearance. It has a chancel, the arch entering which is a cyclopic arch, and the tops of the windows are the same. Its nave is 65 foot by 25 foot. Its gable is an equilateral triangle.”

The octagonal font is said to date from the 15th Century and came from Kilkirean Church on Cape Clear Island. It was donated by Tullagh Parish, Baltimore, and installed in 1935. The original font is said to be buried in the church grounds.

The organ was built in 1824 by Flight and Robson of London, and is one of the few remaining organs in Ireland built by that famous company, it was bought in 1918 to replace an old harmonium, and the cost, including installation, was £147.

At the east end, the three stained glass windows in the sanctuary were given by Fisher’s grandson, the Revd RBC Carson. The central window is dedicated to Fisher’s wife, Anna Waggett Fisher. The two outer windows commemorate Elizabeth Carson, Fisher’s daughter and the mother of the donor.

The plaque in Altar Church honouring the Revd William Allen Fisher (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

A marble plaque on the north side of the chancel arch honours the Revd William Fisher. The inscription reads:

Sacred to the memory of
Rev. William Allen Fisher A.B.
Born 14th Nov 1808 Died 7th Aug 1880
For 38 years Rector of Kilmoe
his zeal for the spiritual and temporal
good of his people never abated
Faithfulness to his divine master
and benevolence to the poor of his
flocked ever marked his course.
To his untiring energy are due to the erection
and endownment of this church
“His being dead yet speakth”
Heb[rews] IX.4.

“I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me
write blessed are the dead
which died in the Lord henceforth
yea saith the spirit that they may
rest from their labours
and their works do follow them”
Heb[rews] XIV.13


At the west end of the church, the entrance porch has a stained glass window of Saint Michael the Archangel in the memory of Michael Allen, a parishioner who served in the Indian Mutiny.

Other plaques around the church record other gifts, donations and parishioners. In the vestry are portraits and photographs of the incumbents who have served Teampol na mBocht since it was built almost 170 years ago.

The window at the west end of the church commemorates Michael Allen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Bishops Appeal – Fund-Raising Concert



The following news item, adapted from a blog posting last week, appears in this morning’s edition [22 May 2016] of the Bunclody Union Newsletter in Co Wexford:

Bishops Appeal – Fund-Raising Concert

(By kind permission of Rev’d Patrick Comerford)

What promises to be a fun evening for a good cause has been organised for Christ Church Cathedral next month. The Great American Songbook concert is in aid of Bishops’ Appeal and is taking place in the Cathedral on Tuesday 16 June at 8 pm.

This promises to be a fantastic evening with the Midwest Young Artists Conservatory Orchestra from Chicago, conducted by Allan Dennis, and the Irish tenor, Paul Byrom.

The programme includes an evening of popular classics and show songs from some of the most accomplished young musicians in the US who will showcase the best songs from Broadway musicals, Hollywood films and theatre stages, celebrating works having melodies that have become timeless treasures.

The causes supported by the Bishops’ Appeal include fund-raising effort on behalf of a solar panel for al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza.

The Residential Priest Vicar in Christ Church Cathedral, the Revd Garth Bunting is already committed to raising €10,000 through the cathedral towards installing solar panels at al-Ahli Hospital, and the cathedral board is supporting the venture with a donation from its charitable giving.

Tickets for the concert on 16 June are only €15 each and are available here.