Ireland – Castletownsend


NB: The photographs on this page are all from screen captures from digitised 8 mm Cine stock. For some reason, I did not use my still camera on this trip.

During my UK home leave in 1961, Alison Abell introduced me to a former nursing colleague who was at the time working at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London. I was staying in London at the time and saw something of Helen Gillies during my leave.

Returning to the UK in 1964 I found that Helen had taken a year off from nursing and was working as a cook at a small restaurant at Castletownsend in West Cork. With some time on my hands, I flew to Cork and then took a slow country bus to Castletownsend.  When the conductor started with the tickets, I realised that I didn’t have any Irish currency and apologised.  “Sure, what do you have then?” the conductor asked, “Only English money”, I replied, fearing the worst. “Sure, what’s the difference?” he said, holding out his hand.

In Castletownsend I found that the only visitor accommodation was at the Castle.  This was at the end of a narrow descending road and overlooked the inlet.  The owner, Willie Salter-Townsend, an affable individual who, uncharacteristically in south-west Cork, proved to be a Protestant and a descendant of one of Cromwell’s colonels.

Booked in at the castle, I waited until the evening to find MaryAnn’s, an Inn higher up the steep street.  A former traditional grocery and pub, Mary Ann’s consisted of a small room at the front with a bar, a second room at the rear which served as a restaurant.  The pub was popular with the local males many of whom occupied the bench running around the walls opposite the bar.  It was noisy, and occasionally the clientele would burst into song.  I bought a pint of porter and sat in a back corner opposite the bar.

Eventually, Helen emerged and took something from the bar.  I followed her through the door to the restaurant just as she was disappearing into the kitchen.  I took a seat at one of the tables and waited.  Reappearing ready to take my order, she was incredulous and couldn’t believe that I had found her at MaryAnn’s.  I admitted that Alison Abell had filled me in and given me the Castletownsend address.

I learned that the establishment was owned by an Englishwoman, Prudence Sykes, who had converted the rustic grocery into a small bar and restaurant which served only local produce, particularly salmon and pork.

I waited until 10 o’clock when, technically, the bar closed (more on that later).  I found that Helen had a room on the second floor.  After a brief catch up, we arranged to meet before MaryAnn’s opened the following morning.

The following morning, I met Prue Sykes, a formidable lady, who clearly had some reservations about my appearance on her doorstep.  However, after we had explained how I had come to arrive in Castletownsend, having met Helen through a mutual friend, she softened somewhat.  After I explained that I had recently left the Kenya Police on the colony’s independence and was awaiting fresh employment, I sensed that I was accepted. She offered me a summer job!

The job consisted of occasional spells behind the bar and taking out visitors in Prue’s newly acquired “Punt”.  Queried about the punt, it turned out to be a new, beautiful, varnished 16-foot clinker dinghy with a 4 hp Seagull outboard motor.  I was allocated a room at the top of the three-story building.  For this job, I was to pay Prudence £2 a week – this was Ireland after all and a bargain really.

Helen and Prudence Sykes

I found that the idea was that I would take visitors down the inlet on fishing expeditions.  It seemed that the preferred method of fishing was known as “jigging” which consisted of dropping over the side six hooks with feathers and gently jigging them up and down.  The problem turned out to be that once the hooks were dropped over the side, mackerel was so prevalent that the hooks were taken almost as soon as they hit the water.

One morning, taking the punt down to the entrance of the loch for a fishing trip, we were rewarded with the sight of RMS Queen Elizabeth steaming serenely west a few miles out to sea.

Local professional fisherman deployed twelve hooks from which the barbs had been removed and almost instantaneously hauled in the line, hitting their leather aprons as they did so, at which the fish were dislodged and fell into the bottom of the boat.

Tighe the fisherman

Every night, the bar was frequented by local males who after a few pints of porter took to singing.  This usually started when the crowd, well primed, took to urging one Tighe to “Give us a song Tighe”.  At first, Tighe resisted, “Are no, I can’t do dat”. Tighe, who proved to be simple, eventually relented and broke into song. One of Tighes’s favourites was “The forty shades of green”.


As the evening wore on, so the gathering became noisier and eventually – with glances in my direction – turned to some of the old Irish rebel songs.  Legally, the bar was bound to close at 10 pm and with a member of the Garda by the front door, this was strictly enforced.  Patrons obediently filed out of the front door, turned the corner, and re-entered by the back door, closely followed by the Garda himself.  “So, where’s the problem then?”

One morning at 10 am, I opened the front door to be greeted by a prominent local, who was foreman to a gang of Council labourers, they entered and ordered pints.  I said that I thought that they were working on the boat ramp by the castle.  “Sure, we are, but the tide is in”.  Who could argue with that?

I discovered that many of these male citizens of the Irish Republic were retired from branches of the British Armed Forces, particularly the Navy.

A daily noon visitor to Mary Anne’s, was Colonel Ramsden, late of the Rifle Brigade.  Rammer, as he was known, left England when the Labour government was elected and vowed never to return so long as they held power.  He would sit at the bar slowly sipping his glass of wine and expound on issues of the day.  He loved to talk about cricket and often said: “It’s a damn shame you are not interested in cricket Bill”.

Colonel Ramsden and Helen

Bottles and half bottles of selected wines were on display behind the bar and one day the Rammer pointed to ½ bottle and said: “I would like to try that”.  I dutifully drew the cork and poured some into a glass.  He declared it good.  About this time Mrs. Sykes came on the scene, saw what was happening, and exploded.  “Don’t ever serve wine to a customer that has been standing on display, it may be corked”. Rammer protested that the wine was perfectly okay, but Mrs Sykes stood her ground, and I received a roasting.

I never became adept at changing the tap into a new barrel of Guinness.  The metal barrels were pressurised and required a certain skill to perform all the required actions simultaneously.  On one occasion I was rewarded with a jet of beer shooting across the floor of the bar.  Another black mark.

Helen at the helm

Another visitor to Mary Ann’s was Major Joe Wingfield (Edward William Rhys) who appeared to be a friend of Mrs Sykes.  The Wingfields owned a holiday home lower down the street, nearer to the castle, where they customarily spent the summer months.

A few days after we had met, Major Joe appears after closing time and standing at the bottom of the stairs yelled, “copper, come for a nightcap”.  Who could refuse such a command and we walked down the street to the Wingfield’s summer residence.  He introduced me to his wife Norah who announced that she was on her way to bed.

The following morning, I mentioned to Prue Sykes that I had been invited to the Wingfield’s place for a nightcap and had been introduced to his wife, Norah.  Prue corrected me and said in fact, she is Lady Norah.  I learned that Norah was the daughter of Admiral Earl Jellicoe of Jutland fame.  Two of their children, Elizabeth, and Jeremy, were also staying for the summer.

After a couple of weeks, I flew back to London and picked up my VW Beetle from St Ives and after collecting some items from Helen’s home, I returned to Ireland.  Although there was very little traffic on the country roads of West Cork, the roads were often narrow and twisting.  One frequently met Travellers, known as Tinkers in Ireland, in their highly decorated four-wheeled horse-drawn caravans.

Having the VW enabled us to see more of south-west of Ireland.  One of our first trips was to Cape Clear Island just offshore from Baltimore.  We were accompanied by a couple of other visitors, one a newly qualified young doctor.  The cliffs of Cape Clear were traditionally the last sight of Europe for those departing for the New World.  We took a fishing boat from Baltimore for the crossing to the island and then walked over to the sheer cliffs.  We stood on the edge and looked out across the North Atlantic.  The young doctor approached the edge on hands and knees averred that he suffered from acrophobia.  Walking back to the small dock we met a group of schoolboys, all busily chatting away in Irish.  We learned that they knew no English.

The Doctor on the edge

One evening a young man appeared at Maryann’s saying that he had heard that there was a visitor staying who was from Africa.  He introduced himself to me as a lieutenant in the Irish army having recently returned from the Congo, where he served in the UN peacekeeping force.  I do not recall whether he was at the siege of Jadotville, but he was clearly on a high from his experiences which he would talk about at the drop of a hat.  He visited often and on one occasion suggested that we should go together to a dance in Skibbereen.  The dance was held in a large marquee with a wooden floor and was clearly a popular venue.  An interesting feature was that two catholic priests were stationed at the entrance and would not allow male and female dancers to leave the tent together.

One day Helen announced that she had booked two horses at a nearby stable for her day off at the end of the week. I warned her that my equestrian experience was almost non-existent. On the appointed day we drove out to the stable and were greeted by a gentleman suitably attired from head to toe in tweed, including his cap. The horses were already saddled, and he invited me to mount and walk the horse around the yard. Someone had obviously been talking. On completion of my circuit he said that he had a better horse for me and produced another also ready saddled. We had an enjoyable ride through the local countryside, and I managed to stay in the saddle.

No visit to Ireland could be complete without a trip to Blarney Castle. We parked and climbed the stairs to the top of the castle where we found a gentleman of serious mien kneeling beside an opening which was guarded by a steel grill. He advised how we were to perform the sacred compact and held my legs whilst I leaned backwards over the steep drop and kissed the Blarney stone. Helen then performed the same ritual.

Like the Salter-Townsends, the Beecher family had a long history in Castletownsend and lived in a substantial mansion on the outskirts of the village. Brigadier Beecher’s son, a youth of about 20, appeared one day at Mary Ann’s and we saw quite a lot of him. It transpired that he was apprenticed to a firm of furniture designers in High Wycombe and was taking his summer break at home.

Later, we received an invitation to dinner with the Beechers. We arrived at the appointed time to be greeted by the son who ushered us into a reception room where others were gathered for a glass of champagne. The gathering was like something out of an Edwardian drama with appropriately clad servants hovering with silver trays. Seated at a large dining table we were served by maids in black-and-white cap and apron. All very formal. At the end of the meal the ladies left, leaving the gentleman to brandy and cigars.

It was Beecher’s son who told us about a very popular local event, a otter hunt and suggested that we should go together to a hunt one weekend. I was quite surprised at the popularity of this event which it seems was justified by the effect that otters were having on local fisheries. A crowd gathered on the bank whilst the huntsman with a pack of dogs searched the bank for the animals. At one point the dogs found the scent of an otter and the Hunter attacked the riverbank with a pole. It was not long before under this attack the otter was forced to emerge whereat it was savaged by the pack of dogs. One of the huntsman’s assistants seized the animal, carried it to shore where, after displaying it, threw it to the dogs.

Clearly, such a hunt would not be allowed today and I was interested to see that the hunting of otters was banned in Ireland in 2000.

Another popular local event on the summer calendar was the regatta in which major Joe was a prominent organiser. The boat club sailed 16 foot clinker dinghies which were gunter rigged. The club mustered a dozen boats and races were sailed on the inlet. Major Joe manned a a curious device which served as a starting gun.

Joe and the starting gun

The fleet at the start

Living quietly on the outskirts of the village overlooking the inlet was a German lady, the Baroness St Paul, and her teenage daughter. Local gossip had it that she had been a close friend of Unity Mitford during her time in Munich.

All good things come to an end and needing to be back in the UK by mid-September for my sister’s wedding I rang the ferry company at Rosslare to book. No free space until mid-November I was told. So, I was reconciled to leaving my car in Ireland and flying back to England from Cork. Lady Norah heard about my dilemma and asked when I would like to cross on the ferry. She immediately picked up the phone, rang the ferry company, and asked for a booking in her name. No problem!

The Wingfield’s had a flat in London and I saw something of Elizabeth and Jeremy during the autumn. Elizabeth, who worked at the British Museum, invited me to the opening of an art display by the Duchess of Kent.

I saw Helen briefly in Cambridge shortly before I departed to join the British India ship MS Dumra at Mina Salman in Bahrain.

At Bunbury in 1970 I was browsing a copy of the newspaper, The West Australian, when a paragraph caught my eye which reported the death of Jeremy Wingfield at age 25. It mentioned that he had been found unresponsive in a shop doorway on Kings Road, Chelsea and that he later died of an overdose.