West Cork: 5 Key Moments in its History
Updated: Jul 28
West Cork is an area of incredible beauty – a real gem in Ireland’s crown that inspires visitors from the world over each and every year. But its beauty is inextricably tied to its fraught past – hundreds of years of political and social change that have shaped the land, its people, and its culture into the shape they hold today.
Many of the people who travel to rent a house in Skibbereen and the surrounding area are looking to come face-to-face with the history of their own families, and those who live and work in the area work tirelessly to preserve it.
Here are 5 important moments in West Cork’s history.
The Origin of the Blarney Stone – c. 1446
Most people have heard of the Blarney Stone – a single, unassuming stone located in the battlement of Blarney Castle, said to hold the power to bestow upon anyone who kissed it the gift of the gab. The Castle itself is located just outside of Cork, in the town of Blarney.
For decades, people have been crossing oceans and time zones to come kiss the Blarney Stone for themselves. The kiss is not an easy feat. First, you’ll need to navigate more than 100 narrow stairs up the tower; after that, you’ll have to lie on your back and suspend yourself over the parapet’s edge, 85ft above the ground. Thankfully, the drop has now been blocked by railings.
Nobody is sure about how the legend of the Blarney Stone came to be, but many believe the tower’s builder was informed of the stone’s powers by the goddess Clíodhna after he prayed to her for help in an impending lawsuit.
This would age the stone – or, in the very least, knowledge of its supposed powers – to the middle of the 1500s. And, even today, people are still puckering up for it.
The Battle of Kinsale – 1601-1602
Many battles were fought between Ireland and England during the Nine Years’ War as a line of Tudor monarchs attempted to regain control over Ireland. While much of Ireland was technically under the King’s rule as of 1175, Gaelic rule had gradually limited the Crown’s zone of influence to a very small area known as the English Pale.
From Henry VIII (famous for marrying six times in the hope of producing a male heir) to James I, the Irish alliance – aided by the Spanish – fought hard against the return of England’s oppressive rule.
The pivotal moment in this fight against England’s conquest was the Battle of Kinsale in County Cork. After much bloodshed, the Spanish withdrew and sailed back to Spain; alone, the Irish were ill-matched against the English, who had a stronger cavalry, despite having far greater numbers on the battlefield.
As a result, the Gaelic order was conquered, and England reclaimed control over Ireland. Many aristocratic families fled Ireland for Europe, and much of the country’s proud heritage and culture were lost. Over time, some of this culture has been recovered and celebrated again; some has faded into history.
The Sack of Baltimore – 1631
West Cork is easily accessible by sea and, even today, trade routes pass close to the shoreline. For many decades, West Cork was a popular landing place for pirates, who would make berth and trade their wares in Baltimore before returning to the Atlantic. For the most part, these trades could take place in relative peace; stories and goods from distant shores could be brought to locals, and, in return, pirates could set sail with healthy stores of food and drink.
In 1631, however, everything turned sour. Led by a Dutchman called Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, Barbary Pirates attacked the village of Baltimore and abducted locals in their hundreds to live out the rest of their lives as slaves. The records show just three who made it back to Baltimore.
The village was abandoned for many, many years after the pirate raid; the few who remained moved to local villages in a bid to distance themselves from the memory of the sacking.
The Great Irish Famine – 1845-1852
West Cork suffered dreadfully from the famine that gripped much of Ireland in the mid-19th century.
The potato was a staple of Irishmen and women’s diets; it was relied upon to provide vital nutrition, particularly in areas where harsh conditions made maintaining healthy crops proved difficult. It represented a significant part of their caloric intake each day and, in the space of a single century (after the crop introduced to the country in the 18th century), it became indispensable.
That’s why, when a destructive pathogen began spreading through potato crops across Ireland, it was nothing short of a disaster.
The Great Irish Famine had a devastating impact on local families. The population plummeted by as much as 25% in the space of just a few years as many were forced to choose between emigration – with no promises of a better life – or the growing certainty of death.
This is one of the most significant reasons why so many Americans can trace their lineages back to Ireland. Around 1 million people made the perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean – their eyes on the horizon and the promise of a life free from economic and political hardship. The United Kingdom did little to ease the burden on Ireland’s poorest communities, and, even now, the loss of so many families continues to have an impact.
The War of Independence – 1919-1921
Ireland’s independence was long fought for. From long before the Battle of Kinsale right up until the last century, Ireland and its people repeatedly rallied against the rule of the British Empire in an attempt to preserve and restore the country’s unique culture and ways of life.
Between 1919 and 1921, County Cork largely represented the epicentre of much of the rebellion against the British Empire.
In the winter of 1920, the burning of Cork took place. Homes, businesses, and key landmarks including the City Hall and library burned down, and the city faced unprecedented upheaval as many residents lost their homes and livelihoods to the ongoing violence between Ireland and Britain.
This wasn’t an isolated incident during the War of Independence, but its severity and proximity to the end of the war means it stands out