THE fourth episode of UTV’s travel series Lesser Spotted Journeys tonight puts down anchor in Lough Hyne, Co Cork. It’s Ireland’s only salt-water lake. The sea’s tides have been crashing into its waters through a tunnel for the last 4,000 years.
“It’s probably one of the most studied pieces of water anywhere in the world,” says presenter Joe Mahon, “Because so many professors of biology from universities in Europe and America have cut their teeth there going back to the late 1800s.”
During Mahon’s tour of the marine reserve, he gets to see all manner of striking sea life, including sea squirts, which he’s told are “our nearest relative in the sea”, football-sized sea urchins and scallops the size of a dinner plate.
He also gets an interesting potted history of the lough’s hinterland, which includes the port town Baltimore and Skibbereen. The seas off the southern coast of Ireland were the richest fishing grounds in Europe during medieval times. It was the ruling O’Driscoll clan who reaped the benefits. The ruins of one of the family’s tower houses, Cloghan Castle, lies covered in ivy in the middle of Lough Hyne.
“They were one of the wealthiest families in Ireland,” says Mahon. “They owned Baltimore Castle and the landing rights at the harbour in Baltimore. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the seas were teeming with Spanish and French fishing vessels. They were catching herring and pilchard.
“In one year, 1572, 600 Spanish vessels landed catch in Baltimore to be preserved and barrelled because they couldn’t make the journey home without the fish rotting otherwise. For every single barrel of salted herring, six shillings was paid to the O’Driscolls. You can do the sums.
“The problem was that someone came along and spent it all. Wine and all sorts of exotic products were coming into the port as well. They had the high life, but they made a number of bad choices, taking up the wrong side of defeated armies. The fishing declined. They lost their fortune. The chieftain Sir Fineen O’Driscoll lived out his final days a sad, old man.”
There is a lot of misfortune in the region. The Great Famine devastated the area. “You might have had a thousand people sitting around the banks of Lough Hyne before the 1840s,” says Mahon. “Now that’s reduced to about three families.”
Approximately 3,000 refugees arrived in Skibbereen in the first month of 1847 looking for food and shelter. The ones who were billeted in the workhouse were allocated two square feet each to live in.
The remnants of the famine can still be seen around the town. Part of the wall from the workhouse still stands; it surrounds part of the community hospital. The old steam mill building in the town used to function as a soup kitchen.
The Abbeystrewry graveyard contains an undulating patch of grass that covers a mass burial pit. The bodies of 8,000 to 10,000 people who died during the famine were unceremoniously interred there, including a three-year-old boy who was buried alive.
His name was Tom Guerin. He was discovered alive in the pit, having suffered two broken legs. It’s reckoned blows from a gravedigger’s spade caused them.
He walked with a limp until his death in 1910 aged 65.
In the 1890s when he applied to the Board of Guardians for a new pair of boots he made his plea in verse:
“I rose from the dead/In the Year ’48/When a grave at the abbey/Had near been my fate/Since then for subsistence/I’ve done all my best/Though one shoe points eastward/And the other points west”.
Lesser Spotted Journeys visits Lough Hyne tonight on UTV Ireland at 8pm