ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #10 – Alter Wedge Tomb to Mizenhead
ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #10 – Alter Wedge Tomb to Mizenhead
Map of route for Day 10
Today we ventured out to the southernmost point of the Ireland mainland. We stopped at the Alter Wedge Tomb then went down to the Mizenhead Signal Station via Slea Head Drive along a rugged coast line. On the way back we stopped at Barley Cove Beach and Crookhaven for dinner.
ALONG THE WAY
After leaving Skibbereen for today’s excursion, we headed west on the N71 passing through towns like Abbeystrewry, Church Cross, Aughadown, Ballydehob and Schull. Along the way we meandered through a few short stretches of primal forest but mostly farmland in varying shades of green.
Newbridge Park Bridge near Abbeystrewry (from bus)
Meen Bridge near Ballydehob (from moving bus)
ALTER WEDGE TOMB
Alter Wedge Tomb is located on Toormore Bay on the Mizen Peninsula of Southwest Ireland. It is a small late Stone Age structure originally built 2,000 to 3,000 years ago on a dramatic piece of coastline. The current thinking is that it was the site of ritual practices which continued into the eighteenth century when the tomb was used as a “Mass Rock.” This is one of a dozen similar structures in the Mizen peninsula. The structure is like a little house with 3 walls and a roof all made of large slate like slabs of rock. The open end is oriented to point directly at the cone of Mizen Peak 8 miles (13 kilometers) on the other side of the bay. This thing is 11 ft long (3.5 m) and about 3 to 4 feet high so could have been used like a high table as well as for things inside.
There is no physical evidence that this tomb, or any Irish tomb for that matter, was ever used for human sacrifice, yet the legend persists of “Druidical sacrifice”. When the site was excavated in 1989 archaeologists discovered cremated human bones which were dated to c. 2,000 BCE that just added to the legend of human sacrifice. The tomb may be as much as a thousand years older than that. There is evidence that it was reused in the Bronze Age (c. 1,250 – 550 BCE) with shallow pits dug inside the tomb that may have been where food offerings for the ancestor spirits were deposited. Much later (c. 124 – 224 CE) Celtic peoples dug a pit that was filled with sea shells and bones of other marine creatures, including whales. These may represent a continuation of the much earlier votive practices at the site.
The site was abandoned when Christianity took root in the area. But it was put back to use late in the 17th century, after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 when the English pretty much won out over the Catholics and Catholicism was banned in Ireland. Catholic churches were converted to Protestant (either Church of England or similar Church of Ireland) and having Catholic services was grounds for arrest. Of course the establishment tried various methods to encourage (force?) folks to convert. For example, in some cases the soup kitchens wouldn’t give you soup unless you converted. People who converted just to get soup (or at least said they converted to get soup) were called “Soupers” – meaning they “took the soup”.
But most of the people in Ireland ignored these conversion attempts and stayed with the now banned Catholic Church. However this all now had to be done on the sly. The Catholic priests went incognito and moved from town to town to avoid capture. All over the country places called “Mass Rock’s” sprang up out in the forests and country side and when one of these underground Catholic priests came around, word went out and a service was held at one of these places, out of sight of the English enforcers. This particular one is the only Mass Rock they know of that had used a re-purposed druid site.
Alter Wedge Tomb (Mass Rock)
Alter Wedge Tomb (Mass Rock)
Light and Shadow on inlet near Alter Rock Tomb
Coast line at Alter Rock Tomb
MIZEN HEAD SIGNAL STATION
Mizen Head is located at the tip of the Mizen peninsula in the southwest corner of County Cork and is a major tourist attraction. After passing through a series of picture-perfect villages you enter an area of raw landscape with awe-inspiring ocean panoramas at every turn. The end of the Mizen Peninsula stretches dramatically out into the swirling Atlantic Ocean amidst sea cliffs and crashing waves. Actually the coast line here is very similar to what is found in Northern California between San Simeon and the Oregon Border, but especially the section known as the Big Sur Coast.
In a testament to man’s determination, the Mizen Head Signal Station has stood strong against the forces of nature for over 100 years. The station was built to warn ships at sea of the treacherous rocks that lie close to the shore here.
The tip of the peninsula is almost an island, cut off by a deep chasm - now spanned by a pedestrian bridge which gives access to the old signal station, a weather station, and a lighthouse. The signal station, once permanently manned, is now a museum with displays relating to the site's strategic significance for transatlantic shipping and communications, including the pioneering efforts of Guglielmo Marconi – you know, the dude who invented radio.
Crossing the ravine to get out to the signal station used to be much more difficult. The famous "99 steps" that formed part of the original access, down one side of the ravine and up the other, has been supplemented by a series of paths and viewing platforms along with a pedestrian bridge that makes being a tourist here much easier.
Mizen Head is not the most southerly point on the mainland of Ireland; nearby Brow Head holds that title. Nevertheless, geography books have long measured the length of Ireland "from Fair Head to Mizen Head" or "from Malin Head to Mizen Head”. Even though it barely missed the title of southern most point, it still has the distinction of being, for many seafarers, the first (or last) sight of Europe. This is still the case as one of the main transatlantic shipping routes still passes close by.
Our visit was accompanied by bright sun, no wind and warm temperatures. Our guide mentioned that most times he brings people here it is cloudy with rain being blown sideways in the strong wind which gives it a more typical look. I think I’ll stick with my non typical look.
What’s not here that I could find is anything that looks like a lighthouse. There is no white round tower. There is no round room with windows in all directions and a giant rotating set of Fresnel lenses over a light source of some kind. In fact, after going into every one of the buildings I never did find anything that I would say was capable to emitting a beam of light out over the ocean.
Pedestrian bridge over ravine
A portion of the ravine
Wild coast on a not so wild day
Capturing the scene
Coastline looking east (very reminiscent of the Big Sur coast in California)
Pedestrian bridge from a lower viewing platform
And from an upper viewing platform
The signs at Mizen Head talked about a lighthouse with a very interesting name. As you I call Silicon Valley south of San Francisco home and live surrounded by just about every high tech, Internet and Networking enterprise out there. So, I was quite amused when I saw that the name of the lighthouse was “The FASTNET lighthouse”. In fact in the Mizen Head Visitor Center there was a scale model of – a traditional white round tower sitting on a rock. The only problem was that I couldn’t find it in person. Well, as it turns out it’s not there. It actually on an island 13 miles to the south east called Fastnet Rock which in itself is a few miles off of Cape Clear Island.
With a population of a bit over 100, Cape Clear Island actually is the southernmost inhabited part of Ireland. Officially it is an Irish an speaking area, and most inhabitants speak mostly Irish but know English as well. Fastnet Rock, or simply Fastnet (possibly from Old Norse, meaning "sharp-tooth isle" or "lonely rock" in Irish) is a small islet in the Atlantic Ocean and in turn is the most southerly point of Ireland (but not inhabited). Due to its location, Fastnet is known as "Ireland's Teardrop", because it was the last part of Ireland that 19th century Irish emigrants saw as they sailed to North America. And that is where the missing lighthouse is.
The current lighthouse is the second to be built on the rock and is the highest in Ireland. The first one was completed in 1854 and replaced an older one on Cape Clear Island. It had an oil burning lamp of 38 kilocandelas; in contrast modern lighthouses typically produce 1,300 kilocandelas. In 1883 an explosive fog signal was installed which electrically detonated a small charge of guncotton every five minutes. However, the lighthouse tower proved to be poorly engineered. In high winds typical of the area it shook to the point that crockery was sometimes thrown off tables, and a water cask for the kitchen 133 above high water was washed away. Various steps were taken to strengthen the tower, including fitting a casing around the bottom section up to the second floor and filling it with stone. In 1865 the lower floors were actually filled in with solid material to help keep it from shaking itself apart..
In 1891 the Commissioners resolved that the lighthouse was likely to collapse in a storm and that the light itself was not powerful enough, particularly for the first landfall for many ships crossing the Atlantic. So a much stronger replacement lighthouse was commissioned with a much brighter light. The new lighthouse entered service in 1904 – eight years before the Titanic passed by.
On the new lighthouse, the fog signal was changed to one blast every three minutes in 1934 and from 1965 it was accompanied by a brilliant flash when operated during darkness. Then in 1974 the explosive fog signal was replaced with an electric fog horn producing four blasts every minute at 300 hertz with a nominal range of 3.9 nautical miles (7 km)/ The original vaporized paraffin light was replaced with an electric one in 1969 and in 1989 the lighthouse was converted to automatic operation. It is monitored and controlled using a UHF telemetry link to Mizen Head Signal Station and onwards by landline to the control center at Dún Laoghaire
(Sorry no photos)
Heading back we stopped at Barley Cove Beach which we had passed on the way out to Mizen head. It is said that Barley Cove Beach is one of the better beaches in West Cork, if not Ireland. The area surrounding Barleycove is one of rugged natural beauty and is very popular during the summer months. The beach itself has been designated as a Special Area of Conservation by the European Union due to the variety of wildlife and interesting habitats present in the sand dunes and marshes.
Speaking of the sand dunes, On November 1, 1755 there was an earthquake and tsunami recorded in Lisbon. Not a place you think of as having significant earthquakes but it had one anyway. It was reported in the Cork Journal of November 2 that 15ft waves were experienced as a result of that tsunami. A side-effect of that is Barleycove Beach where the sand was all displaced as a result of that tsunami.
Barley Cove is a bay between two peninsulas. The beach – called the Front Beach - is at the head of the bay where a small valley continues inland from the beach. Looking at it from the bay, there is a very wide, pristine, white sand beach spanning the entire width of the bay with grass covered sand dune bluffs behind it. An estuary – or tidal stream as the information sign called it – is on the right side where the stream enters the bay. This stream goes inland a few hundred yards, past the bluffs and then makes a giant “S” curve as it snakes up the valley to a couple of lagoons. I suspect that this Front Beach is the sand pushed up by the tsunami.
The car park is a ways back from the beach in a marsh area closer to the lagoons. To get to Front Beach you have to hike a bit through the marshy area, then cross over the tidal stream on a floating pontoon bridge, scale the bluffs and only then descend to the beach itself – but it’s well worth it. Even though there is a golf course at a wide spot in the bluffs you can’t really see it and the rugged scenery is magnificent.
Barley Cove lagoon area
Floating pontoon bridge over tidal stream
Grass covered bluffs behind Front Beach
Sand patterns at Barley Cove Beach
Crookhaven is a tiny village on a calm bay – the name of which I can’t find (I sure wish Google Maps would provide more details) - and was our dinner stop. This is defiantly a summer town. The winter population is about 40, but in the summer when all the guest cottages are full it goes up to around 400. Crookhaven itself is on a long skinny peninsula with only one road leading in to the village. It’s a lovely and peaceful little spot with a couple of taverns right on the bay. In nice weather, which we had, one can take lunch or dinner at picnic tables by the water’s edge and watch the sun make its way toward the horizon.
The village name is attributed to an association with the Crooke family, and initially with Sir Thomas Crooke, 1st Baronet who also founded Baltimore (the one in Ireland, not the one in Maryland) around 1610. The Crooke family was granted large estates in West Cork in the early 17th century but their association with the area ended around 1665 with the death of Sir Thomas's son and heir Sir Samuel. In the late 1500s and early 1600s the village was used as a base for piracy where not only the local justices (including the vice-admiral of Munster) but the broader population were involved. These activities were unaffected by official discouragement under King James VI, but a Dutch attack on Crookhaven in 1614 did significant damage and English piracy in the region declined thereafter. Actually with this colorful part of its history I had assumed the name came from the other meaning of “Crook” rather than a family surname. But, maybe the family surname came from that other meaning. I think we’ll never know.
The village was an important port of call for shipping between Europe and the United States, and many inhabitants were in the business of supplying the ships as they sheltered in Crookhaven after or before a long voyage. In 1959 Crookhaven was the subject of a film by English film maker James Clarke in his film “Irish Village”. At that time the film records the population of the town and local farms as being 69.
Crookhaven was also used by Guglielmo Marconi as a location for experiments in wireless and ship-to-shore communication. Some of these tests and experiments took place between the Fastnet lighthouse, Crookhaven, and Cape Clear Island since they were so closely connected. The area was useful for these purposes as a fixed telegraph line also connected Crookhaven and Cape Clear Island eight miles away. Marconi worked here from 1901 until 1914, when he sold the rights. The station was ultimately destroyed in 1922.
Crookhaven from across the bay
Dock area at Crookhaven
O’Sullivans Pub at Crookhaven
Crookhaven bay side
Mom & her 3 kids out for a paddle at Crookhaven
Glass of wine, a sitting stone, late afternoon light and a wonderful view
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
This brings us to the end of our 10th day (3nd day on formal tour). Clouds have gone and we’re back to sunny and warm – not quite sure this is actually Ireland as it’s certainly not Irish weather.
Tomorrow we’ll heading north up to the Dingle Peninsula
I hope you enjoyed reading this travel log and will read accounts of future trips.
- Images of this trip will be published on my website in the near future (I’ll let you know when they’re posted), but photos from other adventures are there now.
This Blog can be found online here: escape-to-ireland-10
Thanks for reading -- Dan
Keywords: Alter Wedge Rock, Barley Cove Beach, Blog, Cape Clear Island, Crookhaven, DanTravelBlog, DanTravelBlogIreland, Fastnet Island, Fastnet Lighthouse, Ireland, Mass Rock, Mizen Peninsula, Mizenhead Signal Station, Skibbereen, Slea Head drive, Travel Blog, Travel Log
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