Bere Island

The author of the Pacata Hibernia and other writers of the period call this island the Great Island. In the map of the Down Survey, which was commenced in the year 1655, and completed in about three years, it is called Beare Island, and the district adjoining the present Castletown, Bearehaven. Speaking correctly, Bearehaven should only apply to the haven, or harbour. English writers have corrupted many of our Irish names of places, and cannot be adduced as of any authority in matters of the kind. It is one of the largest and most important of the islands on the Irish coast. It is seven miles long and two broad, and forms Berehaven Harbour, one of the safest and largest in the world. Forts have been recently constructed at both ends of the island. The naval and military departments have at last recognised its importance, and with the building of the forts, which cost a big sum, have effected other improvements. A rifle range has been laid out, which is used both by sailors and soldiers, also extensive recreation grounds and golf links. Other improvements are likely to follow, and the place is promising to grow.

Vast improvements have taken place here within the past twenty years. All the old cabins were thrown down, and comfortable houses have been built at the expense of the people themselves, without aid from any quarter. Agriculture has been improved and the land is made to yield remunerative crops of wheat, oats, barley, potatoes, and all kinds of vegetables. Fruit trees of all kinds—apple, pear, gooseberry, etc.—have been planted, and every cottier has a plentiful supply of fruit, at least for those of his own household. Several thousand forest trees have also been planted, which after a few years will be of great use and ornament to the island.

The fisheries have declined considerably during the past twenty years owing to the scarcity of the fish, and because the fishermen got good wages on land while the forts and other Government works were going on. In 1840 there were 16 hookers of 12 tons and 90 yawls of 3 or 4 tons each, employing about 1,000 persons. But the population then was nearly double what it is to-day, viz., about 1,000. At present there are only about 30 yawls, employing 120 men, but there are many others who fish occasionally for their own use. The value of the fish taken may be estimated roughly at £2,000 yearly.

The inhabitants in the past were shut out from the rest of the world as there were no commercial facilities. Now they have a pier in the centre of the island, and steamers call and transport and bring in merchandise of all kinds.

It ought to make a favourite tourist resort as the climate is most salubrious and the soil perfect, free from swamps and marshes and such ground as is liable to breed pestilence. From a geological and antiquarian point of view it is interesting. In the remote past volcanic eruption was active, and we find granite and felstone in many parts of the island, both on the surface and forming solid rocks. There are many old pagan remains—a cromlech at the eastern end, one of the most perfect existing; a souteraine, a demolished fort, a curious pillar stone standing in the centre of the island, and some others. The scenery cannot be surpassed, and the views from different points of the island are enchanting. Lumps of solid iron ore are to be found on the surface, and veins of iron running through the rocks. Iron must have been smelted here in the past, for the remains of ore that passed through the fire are plentiful There are also signs of copper.

This formed a portion of the White estate, but in 1853 it was purchased by an Englishman, Lord Charles Pelham Clinton. The tenants owed arrears of rent at the time of the purchase, though Lord Clinton was not aware of it, as he thought he purchased the property free of debt. Mr. John P. Prendergast, the agent of Lord Clinton, had a long correspondence with Lord Bantry on the matter, which was published in pamphlet form. We quote from it as follows:—

“My Lord,—You are already aware that the business that brought me to Berehaven was the seizing of Bere Island by your bailiffs on the morning of the 8th September in execution of near 200 civil bill decrees, obtained by your lordship against your late tenants, the islanders, at the Bantry Quarter Sessions in January last, for sums amounting in the whole to £1,800, found to be due to your lordship for rent and arrears of rent to Michaelmas Day, 1853.”

Lord Clinton and his agent visited their tenants some time after the purchase and were well received by them.

Mr. Prendergast writes:

“On the very day that Lord Clinton was leaving this country for England—a short week afterwards—he received the news that your lordship’s bailiffs were ravaging the island, driving all the cows to the pound, and threatening to carry off everything that was not too hot or too heavy.

“On the night of the 9th of September last, the second day after their descent, a large armed force of police summoned in from the neighbouring outposts, rendevouzed at midnight at a wooded point that juts into the Sound, and embarked hastily for the island. They were, however, unable to overtake a boat that started immediately to apprise the unfortunate islanders of the approach of these ill-timed visitors. This invading military force reached the island almost at the same moment as the friendly warners, but these last being better acquainted with the short cuts to the hamlet had time (and only time) to summon the terrified inhabitants from their beds, when they, for the most part aged and respectable women, fled, half-naked, up the telegraph hill, where, like a frightened herd, they stood at gaze in the shadow of the building, watching the scene below. For seven days and nights they lay out on the hills, often on the point of giving in, through aching bones, swollen faces, and shivering limbs.”

He describes one of the skirmishes which took place in the course of the distraint of the cattle of the poor tenants:—

“One, Thady Harrington’s wife (Thady was at sea), stopped a cow of her husband’s that had been seized by one of your bailiffs in mistake for one belonging to her mother-in-law, decreed to be in debt to your lordship. Her women friends collected around, calling the bailiffs and your lordship ugly names—as women will. No stones were thrown, no blow was struck, but the cow got off. The fact is that the women gathered in a crowd at the cross and barred the way to the pound, leaving open the road leading to the mountain where the cow used to graze—a hint she was not slow to take; for, shaking off her mistress, who had hold of one horn, and your bailiff, who grasped the other, she released herself from the hold of ‘Sooty Denis’ (a wretched creature who acts as spy for your lordship), who was hanging by her tail, and, raising it high in the air out of his ugly clutch, she bolted to the mountain.”

The barbarous practice of impounding and “canting” the cattle is thus pictured:—

“Now let me recall the familiar features of your lawless Irish ‘driving.’ Let us suppose some sudden call on your lordship for money; instantly your drivers scour the country, aided by a flying troop of boys, hired at fourpence to sixpence a day. The boys, wild with delight, beat the cows out of the fields with sticks and stones, over hedges and ditches, down to the pound. The owners follow, i.e., such as can find a friend to bail their beasts out until the cant day; but the poor man’s cow often remains in the pound till nearly dead of hardship.

“On the cant day, towards the hour of canting, the pound becomes choked, and then comes the scene of the strong cows beating down and goring the weak. Often one strong cow will drive the others flying in a whirl round the pound. Meantime the top of the great pound wall is thronged with the owners of the impounded beasts, each watching his own with anxious fear, lest they should suffer damage, and men will often descend among the maddened herd and endeavour to save their cows from the injuries inflicted by the stronger upon the weaker ones on those occasions.”

It is fortunate that scenes like these are things of the past, at least in this district, as the island has been bought by the Estates Commissioners in 1906, the tenants receiving from 7s. 6d. to 8s. in the £ reduction in their rents.

Every point, and nook, and rock in the island has a name. The strand underneath the presbytery is called Tra Ciarane, St. Ciaran’s Strand, though the inhabitants know nothing of St. Ciaran. He must have landed here and preached the Gospel to the inhabitants of that time, and he certainly was the first to preach the Faith in the district.

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