“The town of Kinsale is a large stinking filthy hole… I was glad to leave so vile a place…” So complained the Reverend Richard Allyn in his 1691 journal. Clearly not a fan. Things have somewhat improved in the intervening centuries. In fact Kinsale is the poster girl for West Cork – it’s bigger, brighter, busier and (running out of alliteration) richer than the stiff competition. There are three independent book shops: Bookstór, Write On and Kinsale Bookshop.
Kinsale’s architecture breathes colour. Every other building is brightly painted – no Farrow and Ball Elephant’s Breath here. It’s pointless being subtle against a usually grey sky. Burnt terracotta, highlighter pen pink, ochre yellow, pig’s blood, salmon pink, swamp green, turquoise sea blue, or “Duck egg blue” or “Tuscan yellow” as Mrs O’Driscoll (formerly Mrs Doyle of Father Ted) observes in Graham Norton’s new television detective series Holding set in West Cork. Bruno’s Italian Eatery (with scarlet red doors and window frames) wears its heart on its (unusually white) walls. A Christopher Morley quote “No man is lonely while eating spaghetti; it requires so much attention,” joins one from Sophia Loren, “Everything you see I owe to Spaghetti.” The tiniest dormers imaginable peep out from the slate roof above.
Frank Keohane notes in his 2020 Pevsner series architectural guide The Buildings of Cork City and County, “Kinsale has a large number of high quality houses, many featuring 18th century first floor oriel windows… the medieval street pattern very much survives, with streets creeping along the hillside at different levels.” He comments on one of the most historic buildings in the town, “Market and court house (former). Market Square. Completed by 1707, perhaps to the designs of Edward Bridges, architect and burgess of Kinsale, and possibly incorporating the remains of a market built circa 1610…” ‘Dutch Billy’ gables are hung with Cornish style weather slates.
Another impressive public building is positioned high up overlooking the marina. According to Walter’s Way 2015, “The Municipal Hall was rebuilt in the late 1920s having been burnt during the Civil War in 1922. Prior to that it was The Kinsale Club, the social hub for the British Soldiers stationed in Kinsale. In front is a lovely bowling green, with a magnificent view over the harbour. The Municipal Hall later became the offices of Kinsale Town Council.”
Frank states, “Municipal Hall (formerly Assembly Rooms). The Mall. A pretty affair in pasteboard Gothick, described as ‘recently built’ in 1837. Two storeyed. Four bay front, the outer bays advanced and raised above the centre to give the impression of towers. Big pointed windows look out over the harbour. Coursed rubble sandstone, articulated by string courses and tall shallow arched recesses to the end windows. Burnt in 1922, interior reconstructed in 1928 in a nondescript manner – adjoining bowling green laid out before 1656.” It bears more than a passing resemblance to Hillsborough Fort in County Down.
Founded in the 12th century by Anglo Normans, Kinsale soon became established as an important port trading in wine and salt, a taste (pun) of things to come. It’s now as famous for its restaurants as for being the starting point of the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,500 kilometre touring route of oceanic coastline. Cherry blossom floating down the pavements in the spring breeze, like yesterday’s confetti, adds to the colour of the town. Kinsale is like a snow cooled drink at harvest time – it’s refreshing.
On a peninsula south of Kinsale, high on a hill across the River Bandon, lies Castlelands Graveyard. Collins, Keohane and White are popular surnames on the gravestones. One inscription reads, “Here lyeth the body of Cornelius Raily who departed this life August 15 1801 aged 42 years. God rest his soul.”
Charles Haughey, thrice Taoiseach, and his lover girl Terry Keane were well known patrons of the arts in the closing years of the 20th century. Rather more obscurely, Charlie was once shipwrecked in heavy fog off Mizen Head. “We were sailing our former boat Taurima back to Howth at the end of September 1985 after she had spent most of the summer around the Blaskets. As night fell, a thick dense fog came down reducing visibility to zero. Due to a malfunction of our radar system, Taurima went on to the rocks at Mizen Head… She went down very quickly – in about five minutes – but we had time to send out a May Day and launch the life raft and small dinghy which was kept aboard.”
Things went from the their worst to not so bad. “Our May Day was picked up by the Shannon Marine Rescue and Coordination Centre, Valentia Radio and the lightkeepers in the Mizen Lighthouse. The rescue services went into operation immediately and both the Valentia and Baltimore Lifeboats were launched… I shall always remember the warm friendly atmosphere aboard the lifeboat; her crew were just marvellous. Listening to their good natured banter, repartee and wit, it was difficult to remember that they all have their services voluntarily and had been dragged from their homes or their socialising in the early hours of Sunday morning and put to sea.”
This story is recorded in a 1994 framed copy of the Sunday Independent on the wall of the meteorological lodge at Mizen Head. On the edge of the world, followers of the Shipping Forecast will know Mizen Head falls under Fastnet. The other sea areas around Ireland in an anticlockwise fashion are Shannon, Rockall, Malin and Irish Sea. Frank Keohane opens his 2020 epic book The Buildings of Ireland: Cork City and County, “Cork is the southernmost and largest county in Ireland…” This is the Very Wild Atlantic Way. Marine mammal spotting – for those strong enough to hold onto binoculars in the ever prevailing winds – includes Risso’s Dolphins (March to May), Minke Whales (March to November), Basking Sharks (April to June), Common Dolphins (April to December), Humpback Whales (May to December), Atlantic Sunfish (June to August) and Fin Whales (June to December). Stormzy. Stormby. Stormy.
Sharon Townshend, châtelaine of The Castle at Castletownshend, a few kilometres west of Mizen Head, describes it well, “At Ireland’s most southwesterly point, cross the iconic Mizen Bridge to the signal station and enjoy the spectacular sea views out to the Fastnet Lighthouse. The Mizen Head visitor centre with a café and gift shop is positioned hight on a cliff and exhibits all sorts of maritime paraphernalia, the station keeper’s living quarters as well as an amazing photographic collage of the wildlife and underwater life.”
In England, thanks to Pall Mall the noun “mall” (rhymes with “Al”) conjures up images of grand boulevards lined with majestic buildings. In America, it’s an out of town covered shopping centre (rhymes with “all”). In Ireland, it’s something else altogether. While alumni of University of Ulster may remember The Mall as being the wide corridor linking the main lecture theatres of the Jordanstown campus, it is more recognisable as a street name in town centres.
The Mall in Ballyshannon is definitely at the lower key end of the Irish variety. It begins to the west of Upper Main Street with a variety of late 18th century and early 19th century townhouses and, passing Mall Quay, gradually peters out further to the west into a semirural lane looping round the Erne Estuary. Parallel with The Mall to the north is the even more informal Back Mall. The arched laneway abutting Dorrians Imperial Hotel at the most easterly end of Back Mall is a nerve wrecking few millimetres wider than the average car.
The town is built on a hill rising up from the north bank of the River Erne. A smaller portion of the town lies to the south of the river including a series of distinguished villas backing onto the Erne Estuary. The oldest surviving building is the long low former Barracks dating from 1700. This is a well disguised (being converted into miscellaneous shops) relic of a colonial past. Main Street splits into Upper Main Street and Castle Street to form a loop round the town centre.
One of the most prominent buildings in Ballyshannon, highly visible in long distance views of the town, is the former bank with a clock and bell tower on Main Street. It reaches the equivalent of eight storeys in height: a skyscraper in relative terms for County Donegal. Scottish baronial crow step gables – a little bit of the Highlands on the Wild Atlantic Way – add more drama to its silhouette. Opened in 1878, the building is constructed of rubblestone with cut ashlar details. A single storey wing in a surprisingly neoclassical vein fronts Castle Street. Paired Corinthian columns in front of corresponding pilasters frame entrance doors and support a pediment flanked by an arch headed window on one side and an archway on the other.
When it comes to ecclesiastical buildings Ballyshannon doesn’t do wallflower architecture. This is the bold and proud northwest. It is a strategic location in south Donegal close to Counties Fermanagh and Leitrim and in more recent times the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Church of Ireland is spectacularly positioned to the west of Main Street high above Erne Estuary with far reaching views of Tullan Strand to the west and Ben Bulben Mountain in County Sligo to the southwest. The former Presbyterian Church, now vacant, is lower lying on The Mall. To the east of Main Street, St Patrick’s Catholic Church looks down on the town. All of them grey in hue, St Patrick’s wins the award for architecture as topography. Surely it was hewed and chiselled not designed and built.
“St Patrick. A long stone church set sideways to the ridge of the hill. Primitive Norman detailing. Seven bay two storey. In the middle of the north side is a big square tower and spire, inscribed ‘Dan Campbell, Builder, 1842’. J J McCarthy added the polygonal chancel in 1860.” And finally, “Presbyterian Church. Jumbled Nonconformist Gothic. A three bay hall in stone with Y traceried windows, built for Dr James Murphy about 1840, and extended in a T plan at its west end.”
Camlin Tower is a distractingly striking landmark on a bend on the Belleek road just outside Ballyshannon. It is a battlemented gate tower attached to a grand gated archway which opens onto a lane leading to… a derelict cottage, a barn and a field full of shire horses. Camlin was once the seat of the Trendennick family from Bodwin, Cornwall; they bought the estate from William Connolly in circa 1718. The big house was rebuilt in 1838 to the design of John Benjamin Keane. It was a two storey five bay Tudor Gothic building similar to the same architect’s Castle Irvine in County Fermanagh. The estate was sold to the Land Commission at the turn of last century. The house was erroneously demolished as part of the mid 20th century Ballyshannon Hydroelectric Scheme works. It was thought the house would be submerged by the new reservoir but the water level never did reach the ruins.
A Fantasia in the Icelandic Manner on Irish Themes
The Wild Atlantic Way lives up to its name. Next stop the Faroe Islands (800 kilometres to the north) then Iceland (1,100 kilometres northwest). The only access to its golden strand is down a rocky precipice before crossing a rivulet. The tide dramatically swoops in by dozens of metres every few seconds. Horses majestically gallop through the low waves with a backdrop of the shadowy Wardtown Castle. Raven haired surfers adventurously ride the crashing white waves. High above the beach, fairy bridges and a wishing chair are more than the stuff of legend. The outline of buildings follows the silhouetted mountainous scenery. Everything and everyone are all about wild abandon.
The great poet may have immortalised Ben Bulben Mountain but there’s so much more countryside besides. At Drumcliffe, a tavern, café and shop cater for profane needs and then the spirit is lifted – once the church, grave and round tower have also been visited – by nature at its wildest. It ain’t called the Wild Atlantic Way for nothin’.
Maidin mhaith. Tiree, Stornoway, Lerwick, Wick Automatic, Aberdeen, Leuchars, Boulmer, Bridlington, Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic, Greenwich Light Vessel Automatic, St Catherine’s Point Automatic, Jersey, Channel Light Vessel Automatic, Scilly Automatic, Milford Haven, Aberporth, Valley, Liverpool Crosby, Valentia, Ronaldsway, Malin Head, Machrihanish Automatic. For the uninitiated that’s the pure poetry of Radio 4’s shipping forecast, a rhapsodic melodic episodic late night cruise circumnavigating the coastlines of the British Isles. Gotcha. The penultimate location, Malin Head, is the exposed most northerly point of Ireland teetering on the tip of the Innishowen Peninsula in view of the Aurora Borealis. The ultimate location in this neck of the island is Castle Grove. Unlike windswept Malin Head, next stop Iceland, this timid estate lies huddled off the Wild Atlantic Way in the sheltered mid southwest wiggle of Lough Swilly, the waterspace separating the peninsula from the mainland.
A mile long drive sweeps through 350 acres of bucolic parkland as composed as a Derek Hill landscape; a wave of anticipation rises, then behold, a house kinda four square, an abiding place of great and unsearchable things. Like two faced Clandeboye, the principal elevations stand proud at right angles to one another. Face to avenue, face to sea. Castle Grove isn’t like Edward Lovett Pearce’s poppet of Palladian perfection Bellamont Forest, Ireland’s Mereworth (currently on the market for less than £1 million, 1,000 acres included, the price of a two bed flat in Battersea), designed to be seen from every angle including a drone. Nope, it’s country house front, farmhouse back. The four bay façade with central Tuscan porch qualifies Castle Grove as an older rural cousin of Belvedere House, Drumbo, a “middling sized house” splash in Charlie Brett’s Buildings of North Down. Precious cornerstones, sure foundations.
Subsumed within its solid footprint dwells an older house dating back to 1730 and 1695. A radical makeover brought Castle Grove bang up to date for the swinging 1820s. As the Groves went up in the world, onward marching in the direction of the neoclassical vanguard, so did the height of their windows and ceilings. The resultant idiosyncrasies only add to the house’s charm. Four of the windows on the south facing entrance front are higher outside than in, highlighted when the shutters are pulled and a dark gap appears above them. A shuttered cupboard in the Samuel Beckett Room was once a window on the original east elevation. The shutters are set at a cute acute angle on one side of the dressing room (now en suite) windows of the replacement 1820s east elevation, maintaining symmetry. As do the two blind windows An antique porch astutely fills the vacancy of the central axis on the entrance front. A conservatory, the 19th century equivalent of today’s cinema room, was added to the side. Castle Grove now looks like “a beautiful Regency house” says leading heritage architect John O’Connell. It is a country house repurposed, just, as an airy hotel and restaurant. The eponymous erstwhile owners the Groves are long gone. The hospitable able hosts the Sweeneys are here to stay. Breezily braving the elements alone with nature – and paying guests.
Tráthnóna maith. The eclipse has come and gone; spring equinox is here. Snowdrops have disappeared, daffodils are in full bloom, primroses on their way. It’s time to talk to Mary Sweeney, châtelaine of Castle Grove since 1989. She and her husband Raymond bought the house and estate from Commander Peter Colin Drummond Campbell and his wife Lady Moyra Kathleen Hamilton, the Duke of Abercorn’s sister. Commander C inherited it on the death of Major James Grove. Incidentally (there are always lots of incidents in life) Lady M was one of Queen Elizabeth II’s five Maids of Honour at her Coronation. “The land steward and housekeeper kept Castle Grove in good shape. For the first year we lived in the house and opened it as a B and B. We wanted to develop it but not spoil it. The house, it was a real challenge. We wanted to keep the characteristics, the symmetries. We again looked and looked at it. In the end we pushed the entire house back into part of the rear courtyard. The stable wing was already lofted so we retained its front and added a corridor behind linking it to the main house. We didn’t want guests having to go out in the rain. The bedrooms in this wing are just as big as those in the main house. We reroofed the conservatory. We never demolished a wall in the original house. Instead we adapted windows as doors or indoor mirrors. I feel a great obligation to maintain Castle Grove.” This is not Grand Designs or Changing Rooms. This is heritage. This is history. This is Hibernia.
“When we applied for a dining room addition the planning officers wanted it to be a conservatory. But that part of the house faces northeast and rarely gets direct sunlight! It took a year to resolve, to get our sympathetically designed extension approved. We didn’t want the corner sticking out in views from the driveway so it’s chamfered. We turned the original sideboard recess into double doors under a fanlight. A local carpenter built the doors to match the 1820s double doors between the two main reception rooms. The fanlight is based on the one between the entrance and staircase halls. The original dining room is now the Red Drawing Room and next door is the Yellow Drawing Room. The marble fireplace in the new dining room is a replica from my old home. I jokingly asked Portadown Fireplaces if they could remake it based on a photo and sure enough they did!” The house is filled with modern Irish paintings. Appropriately there are seascapes and mountainscapes aplenty. “Buying paintings from young artists exhibiting their work on the railings of St Stephen’s Green in Dublin in summer stemmed our interest. Artists like Maurice Wilks, Liam Jones, Brendan Timmons. Derek Hill gave us his oil painting Donegal Late Harvest. Derek brought many guests here. Really such a humble man and so friendly.” The house is filled with antiques. “We have some stories to tell about auctions! Newark Antiques Fair is good. So is the Mill at Ballinderry. The bed in the George B Shaw Room came from Seventh Heaven outside Chester. The beds are unbelievable there! That bed was made for Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. When we bought the four poster in the Jonathan Swift Room we used saddle soap and toothbrushes to carefully clean it before using French polish. Beds and food – they’re so important!” As for the chandeliers, Sia would swing from them.
Saol maith. It’s time to talk to Mary’s daughter Irene who is managing reception (the former flower room). “The weather is unpredictable in Donegal or perhaps that should be predictable – it rains a fair bit! Donegal may be right off the Atlantic but we’re very inland here. The house has a warm, loving presence. It’s a very welcoming atmosphere. Whether this is us as a family, or the building, I’m not sure. The Groves were extremely good landlords, especially during the famine when they fed and educated local children in the long barn. Perhaps this generosity and goodwill has over the centuries seeped into the walls. There’s houses before you know the history, they’re chilling…”
If too long to serve undivided saw them in too; cover the open ends with a lump of paste and a cloth floured and tied close. The paste must be removed before being sent to table. Boil 1½ and 2 hours according to size. Put a ruffle of papar round each & serve in a napkin, with very hot toast. The marrow is spread on very hot toast & seasoned with pepper & salt.”
Raisins cleaned & minced 2 lbs. Sugar 3½ lbs. Salt 8 ozs, green ginger 8 ozs red pepper 2 ozs garlic ½ ozs. These with the exception of raisins & sugar to be separately well pounded then mixed. Add to them the raisins & sugar & lastly 1 bottle of vinegar. This quantity will make nearly 4 bottles. Fill & leave them in the sun in India but at home cook for about an hour.”
“White Milk Soup
1 onion. 1 carrot. 1 turnip. 3 cloves stuck in the onion. A little stock made of rabbit vial, fowl or mutton (best of the three first). Put the vegetables in the stock & boil for an hour and a half to two hours. Strain salt through a verry fine hair seive. Then warm 1 pint of new milk and add all these together. Season with pepper and salt. This soup must be made just before using as it will not keep – the vegetables turn the milk sour.”
“To Prevent Bed Sores
10 grains of the nitrate of silver, to 1 oz of water, to be applied by means of a camel hair brush over every part exhibiting the highest appearance of inflammation, 2 or 3 times a day, until the skins has become blackened, afterwards only occassionally [sic].”