Touched by Gaelic chieftains, copper excavation, the Swantons, famine, revolutionaries, the Titanic, world-class athletes and nuclear immunity.
Ballydehob (Irish: Béal Átha an Dá Chab, meaning “mouth of the ford of the two river mouths”) is a microcosm of Irish local history, and legends and folklore abound in the locality.
At the dawn of the Bronze Age (2220-600 BC) copper was mined on Mount Gabriel, just west of the village. About the same time stone circles, wedge and boulder tombs and rock art were constructed in the area. In the early historic period various clans fought for dominance until the eventual emergence of the McCarthys and O’Mahonys as rulers of the region.
A string of castles along the coastline bear testament to their strength, and to the strategic importance of this area. Kilcoe Castle was the McCarthy’s most westerly stronghold and their only coastal foothold, and is probably West Cork’s best preserved castle having been extensively restored in recent years by its present owners, actors Jeremy Irons and his wife Sinéad Cusack.
There is evidence of a settlement where the village of Ballydehob now stands from as early as the fourteenth century. It was known as “Béal Átha an Dá Chab” as the confluence of two rivers, the Bawnakeane and Rathravane, which flow into the estuary a short distance upstream. Before the erection of the existing and still in use 3-Arch Bridge in the early 1800s travelers crossed the estuary at this location – hence the name Átha, meaning ford.
In 1602 soldiers led by Sir George Carew, Lord President of Munster, descended on the area in a successful bid to break the power of the Gaelic chieftains. Their passage through West Cork was described from an invaders point of view in “Pacata Hibernia” by Thomas Stafford, but interestingly, and probably uniquely for the time, a contemporary Irish account can also be found in Historicae Catolicae Iberniae Compenium by Don Philip O’Sullivan.
1642 saw the battle of Staball Hill, a violent and deadly engagement that was to give the hill its name!
In the 17th century an influx of settlers arrived mainly from England, but a significant number were also Protestants (Huguenots) fleeing persecution in Catholic France. The Swantons from Norfolk became the most prominent family in the locality and by the late 18th century they had succeeded in changing the name of Ballydehob to Swanton’s Town. (The last known use of the name Swanton’s Town was in the census of 1821).
In the 1820s copper mining developed again in the region. The Cappagh mine, the most productive of several, was financed by Lord Audley; its 20 metre chimney survived until February 2002, when it was destroyed by a lightning strike. An interesting feature of this mining era was the introduction to Ballydehob of a police constabulary and barracks, some 6 years before the first London police force.
By the 1840s the population of the area had swelled to nearly 20,000. Then disaster struck when the potato crop failed and the Great Irish Famine resulted. This affected Ballydehob and the whole of West Cork in a most devastating way; thousands died and thousands more emigrated. Between 1841 and 1851 the population of the area fell by 42%, a decline which was much higher than the national average.
In the 1880s amid growing agitation over land reform, the Ballydehob branch of the Irish National Land League hosted a visit by Anna Parnell, sister of Charles Stewart Parnell, to address a public meeting on the subject; this was held in the field where St. Brigit’s school now stands, and is commemorated by a plaque.
On 6 September 1886 Ballydehob railway station opened on the narrow gauge Schull and Skibbereen Railway with a huge sports event held in Ballydehob to mark the occasion. At the time there was a 15 mph speed limit on the railway.
The magnificent 12 arch bridge, which dominates the estuary of Ballydehob, was the major engineering achievement of the line. Mounting losses, coal shortages and the arrival of buses and motor cars eventually brought the closure of the line. The last train ran on 27 January 1947 and the station finally closed altogether on 1 June 1953. Ballydehob was the main intermediate station on the railway.
On the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the doomed Titanic the village recalled the amazing story of Ballydehob’s Titanic Three: Bridget Driscoll, Annie Jane Jermyn and Mary Kelly (originally from Co. Westmeath) who all bought tickets for the ill-fated journey from Barry’s Shipping Agency in Ballydehob. They sailed together and fortunately they were saved together when all three made their escape on the last lifeboat, ’Collapsible D’, launched minutes before the liner sank. A plaque behind the Danno Mahony statue tells their story and also remembers Denis O’Brien from nearby Caheragh who wasn’t so fortunate and perished that night in the icy Atlantic
Ballydehob’s most famous son is Danno O’Mahony, world wrestling champion in the 1930′s, who died in a car crash in 1950. He is commemorated by a statue in the main street.
In the 1960s Ballydehob saw an influx of artists, writers and craftspeople, attracted by the village’s peaceful coastal setting. Also for a brief period a number of “Hippy” communes were established in the area. One house / craft shop was decorated with painted flowers, becoming well-known as the “Flower House”.
In 1977, a German magazine ran an article claiming Ballydehob’s coordinates – 51 33 45 N and 9 28 38 W – rendered it immune to nuclear fallout-carrying winds. A year later, the region got a bit of a jolt when the government announced it was going to build a nuclear power plant in county Wexford. Deploying the power of song, the Ballydehob community joined up with Christy Moore and Chris de Burgh and organised two protest concerts at Carnsore Point in 1978 and 1979. The shows were a massive success, the nuclear plans were shelved, and Carnsore Point ultimately became the site of Irelands first wind-generating station!
These days the village, with a resident population of about 300, enjoys a relaxed atmosphere, with its various bars, eating places and community events ensuring a welcoming and enjoyable social scene.
The family of O’Mahony Mór of Derreenlomane, Ballydehob, certainly lived up to the name given to their sept in ancient times by their fellow clansmen. In 1868 ‘Big Dan’, father of the great wrestler was born. He stood 6ft 5½” and weighed 16½ stone of sheer granite make-up. He was a powerful all-round athlete and had no equal for two decades spanning the turn of the century. His name was a household word.
When Jack McGrath the great American Wrestling Promoter discovered the young giant Danno in the Irish army at the Curragh in November 1934 he was already Irish Wrestling Champion. He had broken all existing army records and had created a whole list of new ones, most of which still stand today.
Though almost 3 inches shorter than his father he had the massive build of a wrestler from his early days, and when he was fully mature weighed over 18 stone in fine fighting trim. He was regarded as the strongest man in the world.
Under the able management of Jack McGrath he began his professional career in America on January 4th 1935, and on the 30th of July of the same year he defeated Ed Don George for the Supreme World title. It was his 55th win out of 55 fights in America. In the following 12 months he defended his title successfully 125 times.
On August 1st 1936 he returned as a champion to Ballydehob. His welcome defied all description for its size and warmth as virtually every house over a wide area descended on the village, swelling the throng that had already come from as far away as Dublin to greet their hero.
During his three months at home, and despite a busy schedule including no less than eight successful defenses of his title around the country against opponents from all over the world, he found time to visit his old friends and neighbors. And as the October nights grew longer he sat with them by their firesides and talked of old times with a strange far away look in his steady blue eyes, while Ester his young Irish-American wife of just one year listened with wide eyed interest.
Here in his native environment, and away from the training, wrestling, and the incessant media hounding, she was seeing, probably for the first time, the real man she had married. Danno was now more dear than ever to her, and in the hearts of his people.
Imagine then their grief on that dark day in November 1950 when they followed his coffin to the family plot in Schull Cemetery. He had been killed in a car crash near Portlaoise as he drove from Dublin to Cork. He was only 38 years old. The white marble headstone bears the simple inscription:-
In loving memory of Danno Mahony, Derreenlomane, died November 3rd 1950 R.I.P.
A biography of the famous Danno was published in 1984 and a statue of him has been erected in the centre of Ballydehob by the Ballydehob Danno Memorial Committee.
Too see old photos and memoribilia visit the Irish Whip Bar
Some of the earliest evidence of mining comes from the Bronze Age (1,300 BC) copper mines at Mount Gabriel in Co. Cork. Around twenty six mines were in use on Mt Gabriel during the Bronze Age, the total amount of ore mined being in the region of 623 tonnes.
This natural ore would then have to be smelted, a process which could have reduced the total by almost half, leaving approximately 312 tonnes of pure copper. These figures are all approximations, however they do show how much metal must have been available in prehistoric days.
In 1820 Captain Hall opened the Cappagh Mine about 3km from Ballydehob, its 20 metre tall chimney was a landmark in the local area until it was destroyed by a lightning strike in February 2002. There were two operational shafts at the site, and between 1863-73 the mine produced 877 tons of bornite (Cu5FeS4) copper ore prior to its closure in 1874.
The term ‘Cappagh Brown’ was also derived from this mine – being a natural pigment consisting chiefly of hydrated oxides of manganese and iron, resembling raw umber and having a hue of reddish brown.
The leaflet below is a great companion for any history buff visiting the area. Published by Mizen Gate Tourism, written and compiled by Eugene McSweeny and funded by the Ballydehob Community Council. Also available in local tourism offices.
“It is strange, but true to say, that the first Peelers (County Constabulary) were in Ballydehob six years before a police force appeared in central London. The reason behind their very early appearance here is due to a request from Lord Audley whose mine in Cappagh, south of Ballydehob, was damaged by workers after a new machine was introduced to make the mine more economical…” Excerpt from the Mizen Mining Brochure
Staball Hill (“Stab ‘em all”)
The arrival of the 1600s saw an influx of settlers, mainly from England, but a significant number were protestants fleeing persecution from Catholic France. A powerful family named Swanton, from Norfolk in England, came and succeeded in subjecting much of the area to themselves and even changed the name of the village to ‘Swantons Town’. The last use of this was in the census of 1821.
As always the natives resisted the the dominance of foreigners. In those days before police forces, a garrison of twelve British soldiers attempted to uphold and enforce the law in Ballydehob. Robert Swanton, the leader of the group, and the instigator of quite a few questionable projects earning himself the nickname ‘Black-hearted Bob’, enlisted the help of the garrison to take over Ballydehob. A group of six local men, who were trained to arms, issued a challenge to the garrison and black-hearted Bob and a pitched battle was fought on Staball Hill. The year was 1642.
In 1628, the first Huguenots appeared on the southwest coast, mainly in small boats to escape detection from the French. They bought with them jewelery and other valuables which they traded with the Irish for plots of land. They were entrepreneurs and set up small industries. One of their number Pierre Camier noticed the exploitation of the natives and took side with the Irish defenders on the battle of Staball Hill.
Black-hearted Bob took flight from the fray and Pierre Camier pursued him and caught up with him between the present St. Bridget’s Church and the Garda station and there he attacked and killed him. He came back to the fray and shouted “I’ve killed the yellow duck”.
Meanwhile the battle was going well for the Irish band. They killed all the garrison losing just one man of their own. The leader of the band shouted “stab em all” and it is alleged that it is from that moment that Staball Hill got it’s name. The term yellow duck is often applied to coward in France, and to this day the spot where ‘Black-hearted Bob’ was killed is know as ‘laca bhui’ which is the Irish for ‘yellow duck’.
Let us hasten to add that all the Swanton landlords were not like ‘Black-hearted Bob’!
The first craftsperson to arrive in West Cork, from Germany via London and Northern Ireland, was potter and sculptor Christa Reichel. In 1962 she bought a house for £200 and subsequently opened a craft shop in Ballydehob. With the assistance of her partner and friend Nora Golden, she painted the front of the shop with large multi-coloured flowers and then invited students, friends and artists to ‘The Flower House’ to help with the pottery.
In this way, Ballydehob became the cultural epicentre of West Cork in just a few years.
A catalogue of artists from this era is being compiled here.
Another version of these early days can be read here
As captured by Alison Ospina in her book, West Cork Inspires, we might find it hard to recognise West Cork as it was fifty years ago, when the first artists began to arrive. For decades young people had been moving away from the area, looking for better work and educational opportunities abroad. The1950s had been a difficult decade for Ireland economically and West Cork was then a particularly impoverished part of the country. As the movement of people had generally been away from West Cork, a large number of houses stood empty or derelict, most without electricity, telephone or running water, consequently property prices were low.
At that time, the old traditional crafts such as weaving, basketry and shoe making had all but disappeared. Handmade crafts were becoming fashionable in the more prosperous and urbanised parts of Europe but the studio craft movement had not yet made an impact in Ireland. Consequently young people, many with degrees from Art Colleges and most with very little money saw West Cork as a place where they might thrive and prosper, particularly because there was no competition from indigenous contemporary craft practitioners.
Between 1962 and 2000 a West Cork aesthetic emerged that was inspired by the landscape and created by the artists who settled here. From the earliest days, the movement has been nurtured by the local population who seemed to understand and appreciate it quite instinctively, despite being very different from anything seen here before. Because of that acceptance and recognition, the artistic community has thrived and and prospered in West Cork and excellent, innovative craft has become an important part of the region’s cultural heritage.
A new venture was added to the cultural mix on Main Street by the establishment in 2017 of the Ballydehob Arts Museum / BAM, located in Bank House, opposite the Post Office and the monument to ‘Danno, the Champion of the World’. The purpose off the Museum is to collect examples of the art, craft and writing produced in Ballydehob and locality over the last half century, and to run annual exhibitions, highlighting the remarkable range found among the local creative community, from books by internationally celebrated writers living locally, to paintings and ceramic, sculpture and jewellery, all manner of fascinating work representative of West Cork’s abundant creativity, all to be found in the same building as the Tourist Office.
In 2022, Ballydehob is home to a number of well established art institutions on Main Street; the Ballydehob Arts Museum, the Aisling Gallery above Rosie’s Pub, the highly regarded Working Artists Studios / WAS, with residencies for artists and a splendid gallery space, Patrick Roche, jeweller – and even more in the making!