CAPE CLEAR ISLAND, a parish

From A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837

CAPE CLEAR ISLAND, a parish, in the Eastern Division of the barony of WEST CARBERY, county of CORK, and province of MUNSTER, 16 miles (S. by W.) from Skibbereen; containing 1059 inhabitants. This island, called by the Irish Innish Dharnley, and in ecclesiastical records Insula Sanctae Clara, though at a much greater distance from the mainland, may be regarded as the principal of a large cluster of islands in the Atlantic ocean, lying off the coast of Carbery, and situated between Dundedy Head and Brow Head, which latter was the Notium of Ptolemy. It is separated from the mainland by the sound of Gaskenane, in which is always a strong tide, and in high winds a very heavy sea; and having, consequently, less intercourse with it than the islands nearer the coast, the native inhabitants have retained more of their original manners, language, and customs.

The island, which is now the property of Sir William Wrixon Becher, Bart., is three miles in length and one mile and a half in breadth, and comprehends 17 townlands comprising 1400 acres, of which 649 are subdivided into 137 small farms of about 5 acres each, and about 200 acres are arable and the remainder rough pasture land. The soil is shallow and would be unproductive, but for a careful system of cultivation, entirely performed by the women, and wholly with the spade. The chief crops are oats and potatoes; the quantities raised in some seasons are inadequate to the supply of the inhabitants: the manure is sand and seaweed, which the women collect upon the strand, and carry on their backs up the steep and dangerous cliffs that surround the island, which is accessible only by two small harbours by which it is nearly intersected from north to south.

The chief supply of fuel is brought from the mainland, as the island itself affords none, except what is made of a black mud found near the western lake, and baked during the summer; the inhabitants suffer extreme privations in winter from the scarcity of fuel. Flax is grown in some parts and spun into yarn, and coarse woollen cloths are manufactured, for domestic use which, instead of being thickened by mills, are put into pools of water and trampled by the younger and more active females. All the more elevated parts of the island are of the schistus formation, but in several parts, near the level of the sea, good freestone is found in abundance.

The scenery is extremely wild and romantic, particularly on the south side of the island, where it presents to the Atlantic a steep and inaccessible cliff. At the south-west point of the island, overhanging the sea, and accessible only by a narrow and dangerous pathway, not more than three feet in breadth, are the ruins of Dunanore castle, or the "Golden Fort," which, from its distance from all the landing places, would appear to have been built more for the purpose of a safe retreat in case of invasion, than for the defence of the shores: the view from the battlements is very extensive, and embraces a great variety of objects of a bold and imposing character.

In the south-western part are three fresh water lakes, one called Lough Erral, the water of which has a saponaceous and powerfully detersive quality, cleansing in a short time any vessel that may be thrown into it; this water, which is used for washing and for cleaning flax, has been analysed by Dr. Rutty and found to contain a portion of natron, to which he attributes its cleansing properties. There is also a lake near the western coast, remarkable for the number and size of its eels; and there are numerous springs of excellent fresh water in several parts. The men are wholly employed in fishing, for which the. island is admirably adapted: they leave home every Monday or Tuesday morning during the summer season, and return on Friday evening or Saturday morning. Their fishing craft and tackle have been much improved since the establishment of the late Fishery Board: they now go out to sea in hookers, or half-decked vessels, to the distance of 20 or 30 leagues. On their return, the fish are given to the women to cure, and the men generally spend their time in leisure and recreation till the day of their departure next. The fish, when cured, is sold to retail merchants who visit the island for that purpose; and should any remain unsold, it is sent to the Cork market.

The men are expert and resolute seamen, and the best pilots on the coast; they are remarkable for discerning land at a distance in snowy or foggy weather, possess an uncommon sagacity in discovering the approach of bad weather, and are exceedingly skilful in the management of their vessels. The inhabitants seldom leave home unless to sell their fish, or to supply themselves with necessaries from the mainland. The cattle and sheep are very small, and there are only four horses on the island. The wool is exceedingly fine, which is attributable to the pasturage, as sheep brought in from the mainland produce in a short time a fleece of excellent quality. A good harbour has been formed, and a neat pier constructed on the south side of the island, at the joint expense of Sir W. W. Becher, Bart., and the late Fishery Board.

Cape Clear is well known to mariners as a conspicuous landmark. On the south side of the island is a lighthouse, erected by the corporation for improving the port of Dublin; it exhibits a bright revolving light of 21 lamps, of which, seven become visible every two minutes; the lantern has an elevation of 480 feet above the level of the sea, and in clear weather the light may be seen from all points at a distance of 28 nautical miles. Adjoining the lighthouse is the signal tower, erected after the attempt of the French to land at Bantry bay, and purchased by the above corporation. On the north side of the island, and about a quarter of a mile from the shore, vessels may anchor in moderate weather.

About four miles (W.) from Cape Clear is Fastnet rock, famous for the quantities of ling, hake, &c, taken near it. According to the census of 1831, there were 206 houses occupied by 200 families; the houses are mostly built of stone and thatched; and from the unsheltered situation of the island, exposed to every raging blast; the inhabitants are obliged to secure the thatch on the roofs by an interwoven covering of netting or matting kept down by heavy stones. There is a coast-guard station on the island.

It is a vicarage, in the diocese of Ross, and is part of the union of Kilcoe; the rectory is impropriate in Sir W. W. Becher, Bart. The tithes amount to £34, of which one-half is payable to the impropriator, and one-half to the vicar. There is neither church nor glebe-house; divine service is occasionally performed in the tower of the lighthouse. The glebe, on which are the ruins of an ancient church, comprises 25a. 3r. 26p. In the R. C. divisions this island is the head of a union or district, comprising also the island of Innisherkin, and containing in each a chapel, of which the chapel here is a small thatched building. There is a national school, in which are about 40 boys and 20 girls.

Not far from the harbour are the ruins of St. Kiaran’s church; on the shore is an ancient stone with a cross rudely sculptured on it, and at a short distance a holy well. Till about the year 1710, the islanders had a resident king chosen by and from among themselves, and an ancient code of laws handed down by tradition, which it was his duty to administer; and though the king had neither funds for the maintenance of his dignity, nor officers to enforce his authority, the people generally submitted voluntarily to these laws, and were always ready to carry his judgments into execution. The greater number of the laws are become obsolete, but some still remain and are enforced with rigour.

The island was formerly remarkable for a race of men of extraordinary stature and strength, whose feats are the subject of many interesting narratives. The O'Driscolls, several of whom were kings of the island, were the most celebrated; they had large possessions and held five or six castles in different parts of the country, which were all forfeited in the insurrection of 1601, after which they emigrated to Spain, leaving behind them only their dependents, whose posterity have long since mingled with the peasantry.

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