They Called It The Boer War

By Jerry Jack Owen Daly, Local Historian and Storyteller, left the Crimea 1938, aged 17

“The Boer War was finishing at the same time, and there was six or seven tenants here. And Tom Ned over in Gortavallig (he was the sublandlord of this area at the time), this was all called Gortavallig then. And they used to go south (for Tom Ned), one of them would go south when they’d have a calf
trespassing... maybe this land here was belonging to two fellows now, and there was no ditch and my cow would go east to you and here goes to row, and fists and sticks, and one of them would go south and Tom Ned had a cardigan, a great cardigan they said, and he’d catch it, and he had one bad
hand and he couldn’t put his hand into it and it’d be hanging off. And do you see above, the old house there, look, do you see, there’s a bit of a cliff there, look, hanging out and Tom Ned would come there and they’d all come
to him then and he’d say; “Yerra, goddamn and your souls, sure isn’t there enough for all of you”... And they worked it away from there and they’d all go away again and then in maybe two months time the next thing they’d scrap up again. And they called it the Boer War, and the Crimea then, and wasn’t the Boer War fought in the Crimea?”

The Walk then goes over the hill into Gortavallig (“field of the pathway or disused road”) where there are remains of a 19th century copper mine. Although the miners path at the cliff edge and the fenced off shaft holes are clearly marked with warning signs - PLEASE BE VERY CAREFUL.

The Gortavallig Mining Company, later the South-West Mining Company, was the brainchild of William Connell, the Cork businessman. He also had a copper mining in Coosheen, Schull and other places in West Cork, where he used local labour, but the miners were imported from Cornwall, where
mining was an established industry. The houses built on the cliff where for the Cornish miners, and the superintendent, or “captain”, as he was called, was also a Cornish man named William Thomas.

He Had Put On The Other Man’s Trousers

By Will Cotter, Coosheen, from O’Keefe manuscripts, Cork Archives

“Thomas arrived home from work late one night, and undressed in the dark and then found somebody in bed with his wife. Hurriedly he dressed again and slipped out. He then discovered that he had put on the other man’s trousers and that the pockets were full of money. Thus financed he abandoned Cornwall and wound up in Coosheen.”

One Of The Wildest Districts In The United Kingdom

By William Thomas, “Report Of Gurtavallig Mine”, June 1847

“To judge however, of the difficulties with which we had to contend, and to form a correct estimate of the work performed, the place should have been seen as it was, as well as it is now. We have in fact set bounds to the Atlantic waves, although they lash and foam sometimes outside (over craggy rocks), our works have withstood the furious storms of two severe winters. A complete wilderness and barren cliff, which had been for past ages the undisturbed resort of Eagle, the Hawk, and Wild Sea Bird, has by
our labours for the past 16 months, been changed into a valley of active industry, giving reproductive employment, food, and comfort, to numbers ofhitherto starving, but peaceable inhabitants of one of the wildest districts in the United Kingdom. For you can now hear, on our well secured dressing floors, (mingled with the roar of the Atlantic), the busy voices of men, women, boys and girls; all engaged in breaking, dressing, and preparing the ore for market.”

For men of the 19th century with large amounts of wealth, £ 5 or £ 10 was a relatively painless speculation for a copper mine in West Cork. Allihies over on the Beara peninsula provided a shining example of a very profitable copper mine during this time. Expectations were further fuelled by glowing
accounts of mining in West Cork in the English trade magazine, the Mining Journal. While there were “bubble companies”, i.e. fraudulent mining companies that existed solely on paper, at this time in West Cork, Connell and Thomas were genuinely bitten by the mining fever. They were constantly in search of more funds that would enable them to find that lode that existed in the next shaft sunk.... and we would all get rich! West Cork, according to the editor of the Mining Journal, was going to be “The New Eldorado”.

“A neat solution as to how to ship and the ore from this remote region has been devised. If the waste from the cliff face and the adits was deposited into the sea between two purpose-build walls it could provide a docking facility and working platform. Stamps there could be driven by the fall of water from the reservoir on top of the cliffs. The reservoir at the top remains, and along the cliff floor you can see where they dug out pathways for their dock.”

(The Abandoned Mines of West Carbery, page 46.)
“We have in the course of 16 months, with an average number of 24 miners, whose earnings or getting in aggregate, ranged from 9 s. to 12 s. shillings a week; explored 174 fathoms 4 feet eight inches of ground, we have also employed about 26 surface men, at the rate of 10d. and 1s. per day, making a total of fifty men, who (with their families amounting at the lowest calculation to 200 souls), has been afforded the means of earning a livelihood, while their neighbours have perished by thousands
from want of food, or the means of producing it.” William Thomas

Sadly, the Gortavallig mining was not to be another Allihies; it opened in the winter of 1845 and closed in the autumn of 1848, after just one shipment of 88 tons of ore. Thomas and Connell had probably seen outcrops of copper on the cliff face of Gortavallig from the sea; unfortunately, there was no further commercial quantities of copper further down. The caption of one of the mining diagrams says: “back of the lode suddenly cut off”.

The general social conditions of the Famine must have had something to do with closure of Gortavallig mine. Patrick Tobin, a Gortavallig tenant farmer, reported to the Devon Commission in 1844 that a labourer earned 6d. a day, and their diet consisted solely of dried potatoes, with no milk or fish.
Tobin’s annual rent was £20, and he also reported: “The people are very peaceful and put up with their distress”. The population of the Sheep’s Head peninsula in 1844 was 8340; today it is about 1300. It is impossible to know how many thousands from the peninsula died or emigrated because of the famine, but one statistic may sum it up: in 1846 there were 69 marriages and 344 baptisms and in 1847 they were 19 marriages and 56 baptisms.

The different reactions of Thomas and Connell to what was happening about them are noteworthy. Thomas went back to England to buy boats and equipment so that the local people could fish. Connell’s reasoning for the causes of the Famine was:

“... ‘Tis idle to expect Irishmen to do it as they have neither the enterprise nor the energy... The reason is we have a lazy and good for nothing population and those who ought to be an example of industry to the lower classes are the very persons who may be blamed for our present conditions,
but the time is coming when these the drones must and will work or starve.” (Most of what we know about the Gortavallig mine is because one Thomas Hewitt, of the whiskey family, kept all his correspondence, and in it are the many requests for money, reports, etc., Connell sent Hewitt about his mining operations. They are in the Cork Archives.)

As you begin to travel the miner’s path to the houses, look closely on the rock face and to your left and you might see some of the initials carved by local people who worked here. You might also see where they hammered with cold chisels holes into the rock in which they put their charges.

“If the Mineral Districts of West Carbery were explored with common prudence, and a little perseverance, -a comparatively small amount of capital would be sufficient for the purpose, -they would afford ample and remunerative employment for six times the present amount of surplus population, and create a lasting source of wealth to those engaged in their development.” William Thomas

Years later in the 1860s Thomas was still convinced of the potential of the Gortavallig mine.

As you go over the hill from the mines’ houses, please BE CAREFUL, as there are the few cliffs to avoid. After you have come off the hill and are almost at a small inlet of the sea, locally known as “The Cove”, look to your left for a small fenced off area. This is a blow-hole, made around the turn of the century by an enterprising farmer. Noticing that there was a deep channel running up from the sea under his land, he drilled down through the rock to meet that channel. His hope was that the force of the sea could drive the sand, and very good fertiliser, up through the whole and onto his land.

Apparently he didn’t make the blow-hole where the channel ends, so the pressure wasn’t great enough to bring the sand up. Nevertheless, it is some force of air that does come up, so stand well back.

Just before you go over the step-over style by the road, you will see a slipway by the sea. It is from here that the English writer J. G. Farrell, while fishing on the rocks in 1979, was swept into the sea by a freak wave. He is the author of, among other books, “Troubles”, “The Siege of Krishnapur “
(which won the Booker Prize in 1973), and “The Singapore Grip”. Farrell was a regular visitor to Kilcrohane and had just moved here when the accident occurred. His body was later recovered and he is buried by St James Church in Durrus.

The house you pass as you go up the county council road originally belonged to William Thomas of the Gortavallig mine, and is still referred to as “the Captain’s house”.

Alternative Route: Poet’s Way

A walk of approx. 30 minutes connects the northern side of the Sheep’s Head Way at Eskraha with the southern side of the Way east of Laharandota Logh. Go up the small laneway, TURN RIGHT and head west. Just past the bungalow, take a small detour straight south up the hill, and you will come across the Carac Cairn (‘stone burial’), a curious site. Is it a stone circle, or some sort of circular enclosure? It is not on any of the archaeological maps so make up your own mind.

From here to the lighthouse at Sheep’s Head there is some of the most spectacular scenery of the entire Walk, but you do pass a few dangerous cliffs, so BE CAREFUL.

You might be able to spot seals below you, and overlooking the lighthouse, originally built in the late 60’s by Gulf Oil, is a good place from which to spot whales and dolphins. Late summer and early autumn are the best times of the year; watch the water carefully to see them breaking through.

Just before the lighthouse you TURN LEFT, and then your’re heading for the end of the county council road (the “turning table” ) in Tooreen (“little green or sheep-walk”). The lake on your left is Lough Akeen (“lake of the promontory”); if it’s foggy, just follow the ESB poles.

Alternative Route: Torreen Loop

A roughly south-north walk, about 1/2 an hour, connecting the Walk in a Loop around the Sheep’s Head itself. The whole Loop around the Sheep’s Head is approx. 2 1/2 to 3 hours walk, returning to the Car Park at Torreen. Extreme caution should be exercised.