Denise Hall: Pupils learn from the area’s history

Q&A: Marie Murphy: Throughout the long march of their history, the people of West Cork’s Beara peninsula have proved as enduring as their brooding granite mountains.

According to tradition, Berehaven got its name from a Spanish princess, named Beara.

Indeed, there is a small strand just outside Castletownbere named for her, and it is reputed to be the spot where she landed, to begin her new life.

In Irish, it was known as Cuan mBeara, and it was part of the dominion of the O’Driscoll Clan, who ruled most of West Cork up to the 12th century.

But the numerous megalithic monuments, stone circles, and sacred sites indicate that the area was inhabited from earliest times.

There was fresh water, fishing aplenty, hunting in the forests, and small plots of land to be cultivated.

But the quiet life of its inhabitants was suddenly disturbed in the 900s by the arrival of the Norsemen, who plundered the religious settlements and fishing hamlets that proliferated in the enclosed harbour.

Later, to protect his newly acquired territory from the advance of the Anglo-Normans, Diarmuid O’Sullivan began to build stone castles at Oilean Beag, Dunboy, Carriganas, and Reenavarrig in Whiddy Island.

But when Diarmuid was killed, as he experimented with gunpowder, his brother Eoin took over, despite the objections of Diarmuid’s sons, in particular Donal, who was still too young to rule.

After the defeat at the Battle of Kinsale, Donal Cam was nominated leader of the remaining Irish army.

But the English forces under Carew and Mountjoy were already hot on his heels.

Defenders of his castles were hanged in the town square, despite having attempted to surrender.

Donal departed on the epic march to Leitrim with 400 soldiers and 600 resolute followers.

But very few survived to tell the tale of this journey across a changed Ireland.

For the decimated peoples of Beara, it was a question of rebuilding as best they could, and, once again, working to reclaim their ravaged fields.

By the early 1800s, fishing had picked up, with shoals of herring and mackerel, and Cornish cutters arrived to join in the bounty.

Many of these crews settled on Bere Island.

Before the Famine, there were 2,000 souls living there, and about the same number of people living on the mainland.

The terrible effects of the Famine were closely followed by a devastating cholera outbreak, which further decimated the population.

Experienced Cornish copper miners were recruited to the area, and, for some time, the copper industry thrived.

When the War of Independence began, Bere Island became a place of internment for those suspected of being sympathisers.

It wasn’t until the Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement, of April, 1938, that the territory was finally ceded to Ireland.

Now, transition-year students at Beara community school are utilising the rich resources of their ancestors’ stories for a new book, 100 Years of Hope, which is due to be released in May. School chaplain Marie Murphy told me how the book had evolved.

There was an earlier book, last year, called You Are Not Alone?

“Yes, and it’s been a great success. You Are Not Alone gave students information on mental-health issues and outlined the help and support that’s available.

It contains positive and uplifting pieces, and quotes that are motivational and inspirational. All our students were given a copy and one of the responses we’ve had has been that during school hours there’s always someone there to support you. And now, because of the book, there’s always help available.”

How did it come about that the students decided to widen their frame of reference this year?

“Well, when we had our brainstorming session, a decision was made to extend the project and the students began to talk about how tough so many Beara people have had it over the years, when they’ve been faced with life’s problems and how their wisdom and experience could help the present generation.

“We are lucky that we still have the same team together that worked on the last project: myself, Transition Year coordinator, Kathleen Dwyer, and clinical psychologist, Linda Stevens.

“The pupils said that they felt older generations had a better way of coping with difficulties.

“We came up with the idea of preparing questionnaires, as a way of recording their stories and their advice.

“But we decided not to restrict it to any particular age group.”

Who got the questionnaires?

“We gave them out to all the pupils, so they were widely distributed.

“And the response has been phenomenal.

“Students also contacted their neighbours and elders in their community and recorded their stories of resilience, hope and courage.

“Now, we are all busy working on fundraising.

“Pupils are illustrating and designing the book cover themselves, so it’s very much their project.

“I think it’s a remarkable achievement and a template that would work well in other communities, too.

“We are very proud of the work they have done and think 100 Years of Hope not only tells the story of some remarkable Beara residents, but will be inspirational for everyone.”

More information: chaplainbeara@gmail.com 


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