The Islands of Ireland: Bullock Island gives up its secrets slowly

The Islands of Ireland: Bullock Island gives up its secrets slowly
Bullock Island, Lough Hyne, Co Cork. Pictures: Dan MacCarthy

Several Irish islands are connected to the mainland by an isthmus as if the shore can’t bear to let them go — an umbilical cord that ties them to the shore till time erodes the link and renders it a ‘true’ island.

One such is Bullock Island at the mouth of Lough Hyne in West Cork, which is linked to the lough by the famous Rapids which permit seawater to enter the lough twice a day, thus rendering it one of Ireland’s three saltwater lakes.

Bullock’s isthmus, known locally as the Coosh, is a stubby, pebble-strewn bar that disappears at high tide.

At first sight, Bullock Island would seem unremarkable. A hilly, unpopulated rock characterised by a thick coniferous plantation and a near impenetrable forest of vegetation.

Ah, but at second sight …

Cut into the rock at sea level are a series of steps which may be further evidence of an elaborate network of pirate activity from the 17th century.

An underwater archaeologist attached to UCC, Connie Kelleher, has been researching piracy in 17th century West Cork and her forthcoming book on the subject promises to reveal more.

She details several such steps in West Cork of piratical origin such as at Crookhaven and around the corner at Castletownshend at Dutchman’s Cove.

They allowed pirates to load and unload booty in an otherwise hostile environment. The steps are usually the width of a human and are worn by the passage of time.

Bullock Island’s steps are draped in ivy and, without archaeological examination, it can’t be stated definitively that that is what they are.

“What I’m finding is that the steps often have multi-uses,” says Connie. “It’s a matter of them being put in there to facilitate a number of users, legal and illegal.

"If you have animals you need to be able to get on and off an island; a fisherman may need access to fresh-water sources. What I’m interested in is if they’re at high, medium, or low-water mark which would tell you what kind of boats they brought up.”

Possible pirate steps cut into the rock.
Possible pirate steps cut into the rock.

They may go back to the time of the O’Driscolls as well,” she says.

This is a reference to the O’Driscoll clan who dominated the seas here in the 17th century and whose clan chief Fineen died on Castle Island Lough Hyne.

What may debunk the Bullock Island theory is the name of the island, which was grazed until the 1920s and these steps, narrow as they are, may have been the animals’ way on and off the island.

Of course, the earlier function may have operated as well as the later.

As Connie relates in her book, West Cork was a hive of pirate activity in the 17th century and coastlines with hidden inlets and harbours were ideal for evading detection by the authorities.

Connie’s reference to “the neglect of the navy by James I compounded by his ineptitude in dealing with corruption by his leading officials … the pirates in Munster were more than capable of out manoeuvring the two or three royal naval vessels sent to patrol the Irish coastline each year.

Piracy, in effect, had carte blanche to flourish, and Bullock Island may have been part of its network.”

A huge point of interest on Bullock Island is its 97m cave on the western side which penetrates over half way beneath. Terri Kearney of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre says it is “one of the most important habitats in the Lough Hyne reserve overall”.

It is popular with kayakers. Terri says a huge part of the local economy up to the 1950s from the late 19th century was sand harvesting east of Bullock Island at a time when commercial fertiliser was not available.

“The heavily-laden sandboats would have to enter the lough via the Rapids, which was only possible on a higher tide,” she writes. The boatmen calculated the time they could enter the Rapids and clear the coosh by means of ‘the coosh stone’ which allowed them estimate how much time they had when its hollowed-out surface filled with water.

How to get there:

Bullock Island is privately owned.

Other:

The Alliance of Pirates: Ireland and Atlantic Piracy in the Early Seventeenth Century, Connie Kelleher, Cork University Press (due in April); Lough Hyne: From Prehistory to the Present, Terri Kearney, Macalla Publishing; www.skibbheritage.com

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