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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
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A Blackwater Ramble: Exploring Munster's Blackwater Valley

the munster blackwater

The Munster Blackwater at Youghal - photo by author

by Suzanne Barrett

I first saw the River Blackwater in the spring of 1989. Following a walking tour of the seaside town of Youghal (pronounced "Yawl"), I paused at the river's mouth, beguiled by the signposted "Blackwater Drive," but completely unprepared for the sheer beauty of the dusky-colored water, broad and swift-moving in its final journey to Youghal Bay and the sea. Turning left off the N25 by the bridge outside the town, you follow a scenic road that meanders peacefully along tree-lined banks. The view from any angle is spectacular and provides numerous photographic opportunities.

More than the verdant green of moss-covered trees and rippling water awaits. As you journey toward the village of Cappoquin, Molana Abbey's Norman arches rise up eerily from the islet set in the Blackwater estuary. The mainly 13th century ruins include a church and cloisters, recalling the seclusion of the monastic settlements. Built on a the 6th century site of the Abbey of St. Molanfide, the abbey claims the remains of Raymond le Gros , one of the first of the invading Norman knights to come to Ireland, are buried nearby.

A few miles further is Templemichael, a disused cemetery with a ruined tower jutting skyward. I stopped to visit here on a grey New Year's Day in 1992 and found a sort of peace about the place with its tilting gravestones, ivy-covered walls in ruin, one lone arch still intact. From the bumper-to-bumper parked Cars along the lane leading to the cemetery, I discovered Templemichael's popularity as a fishing spot.

Indeed, the Munster Blackwater (so-called to differentiate it from Leinster's Blackwater, which is a tributary of the River Boyne) is famous for the multitude of fish that are taken from its waters. It's one of the best salmon rivers in all of Europe. In season, Cappoquin hosts fisherman from the world over who hunger for the opportunity to catch Blackwater salmon.

About 10 kilometers from Cappoquin is Strancally Castle situated on the riverbank. George Richard Pain designed the castellated mansion in the 1820s, but in an earlier period the castle existed as a Desmond stronghold. Stories abound about the Earl who increased his landholdings by inviting wealthy landowners to dine with him, afterward murdering them. A bit of carelessness one evening left a guest wounded but not dead. He reported the incident, thus ending the greedy Earl's land acquisitions.

Occupying the opposite riverbank lies Dromana Castle, once the home of Katherine, wife of the Earl of Desmond. Legend claims she died at a great age (actual age figures vary) falling from a cherry tree. More impressive is the gate, a Hindu-Gothic construction originally built of papier mâché to greet the owner of Dromana Estate, Henry Villiers-Stuart and his wife, returning from their honeymoon in 1826. They became so enchanted with the gate that they had it constructed of more durable material. In 1971, the Waterford County Council opened a bridge across the Finisk River through the gateway. The estate, now under State ownership, was restored by the Irish Georgian Society in the 1960s.

Towering beeches line the N71 as you enter the market town of Cappoquin. In this pleasantly wooded setting, the Glenshelan River joins the Blackwater at the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains, smooth and vividly green, even in the winter. The river turns west here and now follows a stretch of unparalleled beauty as you head toward Lismore and Fermoy.

Lismore Castle, tall with crennellated towers and battlements, is situated at a bend of the Blackwater. Although first built in 1135, most of the castle building dates from the nineteenth century. Its ancient history has expanded with finds of a fifteenth-century manuscript and a crozier. The Castle is private, but its grounds are open to the public from May until September, excluding Saturdays, and rooms may now be rented upon occasion.

Ballysaggartmore Towers is located on the right as you continue toward fermoy. There's a story behind this folly. Arthur Kiely's wife, jealous of her brother-in-law who owned Strancally Castle, urged her husband to build a better castle. Work began on the long winding avenue, but when the main gateway had been completed, the Kielys' money ran out and the project was never finished. The 1820s gate which remains is of Gothic style. The insignificant house beyond was never finished.

We now arrive at Fermoy, a nineteenth-century planned town, designed by a Scotsman named John Anderson. He bought the lands on which the town is built, leased sites for military barracks to the government, widened the old bridge which dated back to the 1690s, and designed the layout of the streets and squares. Fermoy is a pleasant town with many fine country houses built nearby. At Fermoy, the angling is also excellent, and riverside walks may be enjoyed.

Three km west of Fermoy lies Cregg Castle, actually an eighteenth-century house with two storys over the basement. Nearby is the tower house with its mullioned windows which can be seen from the road. As we continues our westward course toward the river's origin, we pass Ballyhooly, situated on a lovely stretch of the water. The Roche Castle which was largely ruined in the 1641-1652 war was restored as a residence by Lady Listowel in 1862.

The road angles north at Castletownroche and away from the river, meeting it again at the village of Killavullen, associated with Edmund Burke (1729-1797), orator and statesman ,who spent his childhood here. Ballymacmoy House overlooking the bridge is the ancestral home of the Hennessy family of cognac fame. It's a short hop now to Mallow, a large town situated in a rich agricultural region. Thomas Davis who founded Young Ireland was born here. Fashionable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a spa town, it was also the scene of some noteriety caused by the Rakes of Mallow. Mallow Castle stands a ruin in the park surrounding the present house which is partly Elizabethan. It was burnt in 1689 by order of James II.

Though the Blackwater runs on past Millstreet in County Cork and nearly to Killarney, this is where our tour ends. I hope it has been an enjoyable journey.

Do you have a question about Ireland? The Ireland for Visitors Forum is available with many helpful members.

Until next time.

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blackwater at cappoquin

The Blackwater at Cappoquin - photo by author

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