Hidden Gems in Kilbrittain Countryside

by Sean Ryan

A chance walk while out visiting family and friends in Kilbrittain near Kinsale in County Cork recently revealed a number of historic gems.

Howes Strand in Kilbrittain looking out onto Courtmacherry Bay is a beautiful if not hidden gem of the West Cork coastline. While there my eye was completely taken by an imposing old, giant ruin across the bay. This I was duly informed was the Howes Strand Coastguard and Telegraph Station which was burnt by the Old IRA in 1920.

The station was built in 1910 when the station officer was a William Kidney, who originally served in England and was then transferred to Ireland. Indeed, it owes its ruin due to repeated attacks during the War of Independence which was twice attacked by the old IRA.

According to the witness statement made to the Irish Bureau of Military History by John O’Driscoll, captain of the Timoleague Company Irish Volunteers, the station was first attacked by Timoleague Volunteers in April 1920. The seven coastguards present surrendered and seven rifles were seized.

Later that year, 18 volunteers from the Bandon Battalion, supported by 24 men blocking the approach roads, attacked the station again. The attacking party was under the command of Charlie Hurley (Bandon Battalion V/C) and Jack Fitzgerald. The 15 coastguards manning the station surrendered after a brief fight. Fifteen rifles and 1,000 rounds of ammunition were captured. The station was burnt and was subsequently abandoned by the Coastguard. The Coast Guard station was finally burnt and destroyed by the IRA.

Just up the road from the ruins of Howes Strand is Coolmain Castle in Co. Cork which is partially hidden amongst the trees. Built by the de Courceys in the 15th century, it was taken over by the MacCarthy Reaghs, and, in the mid-17th century by Oliver Cromwell. In the early 1900s, it was owned by a popular American novelist of the day, Donn Byrne.

Of course it will always be famous for its connection to the animation genius Walt Disney. Roy Disney, nephew of Walt Disney and a director of the famous Disney empire bought it from Hollywood photographer Bob Willoughby in the 1990s, renovated it, created parkland and planted the trees. Indeed, it is thought Disney paid a lot less than the £500,000 price tag, but since then he has lavished millions of dollars on making it a thoroughly modern and ultra-comfortable home, which he visits frequently. He passed away in 2009.

The area is also home of course to Kilbrittain Castle which is the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland. The Castle is said to date from 1035 built by Brodchon, grandson of Brian Boru. It was known to have been in the hands of the Norman family of de Courcey. Kilbrittain Castle was the principal seat of MacCarthy Reagh family, Riabhach (Riabhach meaning dark skinned).

Following the battle of Kinsale it came into the ownership of The Hollow Blade Steel Company and subsequently by the Stawell family who extensively restored and enlarged it. It was then purchased and restored by inventor Russell Winn in 1969. Winn invented a remote control robot vehicle for bomb disposal.

The castle is of course also associated with the historic book of Lismore. The Book of Lismore was compiled in the 15th Century to commemorate the marriage of the Gaelic lord Finghin Mac Cárthaigh Riabhach, of Kilbrittain Castle, to Caitilín, daughter of the Seventh Earl of Desmond. The medieval manuscript contains 166 large vellum folios of material that a learned person of the time would have been expected to know.

It later became known as Leabhar Mhic Cárthaigh Riabhaigh. MacCarthy was patron of the friary at Timoleague, and some of the book’s pages were copied there in 1629 by the scribe Mícheál Ó Cléirigh. During a raid on Kilbrittain in 1642, the book was taken by Lewis, Lord Kinalmeaky, of Lismore who sent it back to his father, with a letter, at Lismore Castle. The book remained there until it was discovered behind a wall at the castle in 1814, during rebuilding works.

Kilbrittain Castle is now in private ownership Cahil O’Brien Family who have opened it to visitors to come and stay and dine (if they wish) in the oldest almost genuine medieval castle in Ireland. As you step into the entrance hall, once the guard room where battles were planned, you can climb the spiral stairs to the gallery and enjoy the feeling of grandeur experienced by the ruling families during the plantation of Ireland.

Annually in August, Kilbrittain hosts a Family Festival which draws large crowds. In 2011, a short film, ‘The Blow-Ins’, was shot in Kilbrittain and Courtmacsherry; the film was released in 2012.

Hidden gems certainly exist in this beautiful West Cork countryside.