Staycation is the keyword of summer 2020 and whilst the Covid 19 pandemic rages I decided to explore a few places a little closer to home. How much of the world on my doorstep has gone unnoticed, has passed me by? Too much is the short answer.
I began my walk by passing the golf course, which celebrated 125 years in 2019. The mock Tudor clubhouse is now only the entrance to a more modern club house which has stunning views of the area and is home to a welcoming bar and restaurant.
A walk down to the seashore, sheltered by cliffs and rocks, is bracing, but beware as the beach disappears at high tide. Despite the changeable weather there were people out swimming, surfing, and yachting and there are rock pools galore, especially after a heavy downpour.
Looking out across the Atlantic the next stop is America, except for Blackrock Lighthouse, which was constructed in 1835 and is the only lighthouse in Ireland to have an external staircase. Prior to 1934 the lighthouse keeper had to light the burner in the oil lantern and later it was powered by gas, but converted to electricity in 1965.
On my walk I discovered Rosses Point has an intriguing history featuring metal men, smugglers, saints and poets.
Coney Island, across Sligo bay shares a history with its namesake in New York. The Irish word for rabbits is coinini, and it is believed that Captain O’Connor who sailed the ship Arethusa between Sligo and New York in the 1800s named New York’s island after Sligo’s Coney Island because it too was overrun with rabbits. The island also has links with St Patrick and is home to St Patrick’s Well and St Patrick’s Wishing Chair.
In the 1700s it is recorded that smuggling was carried on in an efficient business like manner. Tobacco appears to have been the chief contraband and part of the shore on Coney Island is called Poll a’Tabac, which is Gaelic for Tobacco Hole.
Rumours state a secret tunnel runs from the caves at Bowmore Head all the way back to Elsinore House, which once stood overlooking Oyster Island, just above where the Lifeboat Station is now. It was home to alleged smuggler John Black, but purchased in 1867 by William Middleton, a very successful merchant and ship owner. He was also the granduncle to Sligo’s famous brothers: the poet WB Yeats and the artist Jack Yeats. They stayed in the house in their youth and the poet writes of the smuggling trade in his Reveries Over Childhood and Youth.
“There were great cellars under the house, for it had been a smuggler’s house a hundred years before, and sometimes three loud raps would come upon the drawing room window at sundown, setting all the dogs barking; some dead smuggler giving his accustomed signal.”
Dead Man’s Point is the headland which juts out from Rosses Point village towards Coney Island. It was once a popular landing place for smugglers and legend has it that a ship’s crew, in a hurry to catch the tide, buried a sailor here. Unsure if he was really dead, they buried him with a loaf of bread!
The other island in the bay is Oyster Island, once known for its lucrative oyster fishery. It suffered a significant loss in 1864 when eight boatloads of men stole 25,000 oysters in one night. As the tourist industry in Rosses Point began to thrive in the late 1800s, the oyster fisheries declined.
A small mound called a barrow is located on Oyster Island. This is an ancient burial site c 2400BC – 400 AD, but more visible is Oyster Lighthouse, built in 1932 to replace an older pair of lights. Sailors used this light to navigate their way past the channel between Coney and Oyster Island. The lighthouse keepers lived in cottages on the Oyster Island but it is now solar powered.
Navigating the waters into the port of Sligo proved tricky and throughout the years means were found to unload ships near Rosses Point. Ships too heavily laden to access the port of Sligo had firstly to moor to posts at Oyster Island before their cargo was unloaded onto smaller boats called lighters.
In 1879 two heavy chains were laid across the channel floor. A large metal buoy floated from the middle of each. Ships could moor fore and aft between the buoys making lightering easier. By 1940 lightering was discontinued as better dredging allowed larger ships to follow the navigation lights directly to and from Sligo docks.
The Metal Man Beacon is an unusual feature at Rosses Point. It was originally intended that he would stand where the Blackrock Lighthouse is now located, but local ship owners decided he would be better positioned on Perch Rock in the channel, where he could point seafarers away from the hazardous rocks and into safer waters.
The Metal Man is dressed in the uniform of a Royal Navy Able Seaman. Cast in iron by Thomas Kirke in 1819, another stands on a headland near Tramore Beach in County Waterford. The Metal Man is the only man in Rosses Point never to have told a lie and some have claimed to have seen him come ashore to buy a loaf of bread! He features in a 1912 painting by Jack B. Yeats and Rosses Point itself is depicted in his painting Memory Harbour.
A work of art for all to see in Rosses Point is the sculpture: Waiting on Shore, which reflects the anguish of seafaring people who watched and waited for the safe return of loved ones and is a memorial to all those who were lost at sea from the Rosses Point area.
Just down from this sculpture is Sligo Bay’s RNLI Lifeboat Station, built in 2001. The RNLI is a joint operation covering British and Irish waters and the motto the RNLI’s founder, Sir William Hillary is: ‘With courage, nothing is impossible.’ I hope he is right, as much courage and integrity is needed to rid ourselves of this pandemic.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep exploring locally to see what else I learn and find.