Horn Head – A Lookout on History

On Saturday Evening on the first day of 2022, the Wild Atlantic Way Point at Horn Head and the two Look-Out Towers on the Horn itself, one dating from Napoleonic Times and the other from WWII, were quiet after the storms of the night before, except for the heather and the sheep and wildlife around them. The Information point overlooks the Horn at Horn Head and the Skate Bay and is a very popular visitor point along the Wild Atlantic Way. Passing the Horn at that time was the Aqua Transporter, operated by the Mowi Fish Farm group and a regular on the route from the Fish Farms on the Mulroy Bay. Looking out on this scene I could not help but wonder about the many different types of boats who have passed ‘The Horn’ as it is known locally. From the Stone Age up, when stone age man set up homes in the caves of Horn Head, there is also evidence in local place names that the Vikings would have passed by and the Normans and the Wherrymen who rowed and sailed their boats from east Anglia to Donegal. The English invaders would also have passed by as well as the Pirates who used to operate off the coast of Ireland and used the Donegal coast as one of their bases.  In the 1800’s the Scottish Fleets used to come and this was to lead to disaster for one group of Scotsmen who were lost in a storm and which was to lead to the Scotswomen’s Curse on Sheephaven.  Over a century later the crew of the Grimsby Trawler Malaga which sank in Sheephaven Bay with the loss of fourteen lives.   The Napoleonic Watchtower was built in 1805 kept watch over the area and was used as a lookout to keep an eye out for invading armies or passing ships and played a vital role in keeping our country safe. During World War 1 there was a gun battle between a Submarine and an armed Trawler just off the Horn which resulted in the loss of both ships. With the outbreak of World War Two a new Lookout Tower was built to watch for any German or British invasions and the watchkeepers recorded many events some of which including the flotilla coming back from the attack on the Bismarck were momentous events in history.  They would also have witnessed the bloody battle of the Atlantic which was to see the loss of hundreds of ships and lives. 

Over the years also for many taking the emigrant ship Horn Head and nearby Tory Island would have been the last land that they would have seen in Ireland on their way to a life in the New World. Some would have bought their ticket in Nixon’s Post Office in Dunfanaghy and then made the hazardous journey by small boat off to jump on a moving transatlantic liner as it passed off Tory to make their way to a new life and many would never see their Donegal homes again.  Often an American Wake or ‘Convoy’ as it was known locally would be held for the departing emigrant.  These would be all night affairs lasting until those leaving would go to catch the boat.    These lookouts have also seen the development of fishing and fishing boats in the local areas from the days of Curraghs, to sail and steam to the more modern fishing boats that we see now and would have seen the fishing industry go from boom to bust and back again.  Nowadays Horn Head and its viewing point is famous the world over in holiday pictures but I wonder if many of these visitors realize that the headland has stood there through occupation, wars, famines and recessions as it keeps a watch on the surrounding area and that it is truly a lookout on history. 

Yule, Newgrange and The Irish Winter Solstice

Ireland has been celebrating the different markers of the year for millian and over time these different festival have evolved to adapt to our changing Climates. Samhain has evolved into Halloween, Ombolc has evolved to St. Bridget’s Day and even the festivals of Lughnasa are believed to have evolved into the village fairs we see across the country. The Winter Solstice is a quieter festival date that marks the shortest day and longest night of the year, but it may be one of the most important dates in the ancient Irish calendar based on our archeology. 

The Winter Solstice or Yule, known as “An Grianstad” in Irish, is a mid-season festival on December 21st that marks the Winter Equinox – the shortest time of the year in which we only have around 9 hours of sunlight. Our ancestors would have recorded this time as having some great significant meaning, from what we can see through archeology, specifically at Newgrange which dates back as far as the Neolithic Period – around 5,000 years ago! 

Newgrange is one of the oldest buildings in the world, and is the second largest of the mounds of Brú na Bóinne, the largest being Knowth. It is approximately 80m in diameter with a 19m long passage tomb running through the mound with a corbelled ceiling which has kept the interior of Newgrange water-tight for millenia. Upon its rediscovery in the early 20th century, bones and cremated remains were found on the flat stones in the chambers of the passage tomb, along with intricate designs and grooves carved into the stone of triskles and spirals that to this day historians are still unsure of their significant meaning. Some believe that Newgrange, and it’s surrounding mounds in Brú na Bóinne, were the burial sites for important figures in society, such as Kings or Bards, and that the Winter Solstice marked a point in the calendar when the first light born after the longest night carried the spirits of the dead, but this is only speculation. 

The entryway of the passage tomb, guarded by an intricate carved kerbstone and a lightbox above the doorway, is perfectly aligned so that at dawn from the 19th to 22nd of December the rising sun [pierces through the lightbox perfectly illuminates the long inner-chamber for 17 minutes. 

There is so much we can learn through monuments like Newgrange on how our ancestors celebrated different markings of the year, and what they may have meant, and even looking at things we still do today says a lot about how our folklore and culture has evolved. Today, the Winter Solstice is synonymous with dark, cold evenings shared with loved ones and roaring fires, and I’m sure not much has managed to change in the past 5.000 years.

The Wreck of The Algores

The top of the mast of the wreck of the Algores is still visible in Dunfanaghy Bar.  The Algores was a cargo boat owned and operated by Samuel Grey, owner of the Grey Line Shipping Company in Belfast. In 1925 she left Clare bound for Anterpt in Belgium with a load of flagstones. Unfortunately neither the ship nor its cargo reached their destination. 

Whilst steaming down the Tory Sound, the Algores sprung a leak. The crew proceeded round the tip of Hornhead where they anchored the Algores on the sinking sands of the Dunfanaghy Bar for repairs before Captain Jones and his crew of nine abandoned the Algores to her fate. The boat quickly became stuck in the sinking sands of the Bar and over the years she began to sink into them, becoming a total wreck. The events were summed up by a local Balladeer who wrote “Whilst coming round the Tory Sound, the boat she sprang a leak and now she lies in Dunfanaghy Bar a total wreck”.  

The wreck of the Algores, coupled with another wreck, the Honora Evelyn, and the silting stands, marked the end of Dunfanaghy as a major trading destination as ships were unable to safely pass through the wreckages. Local fishermen take great care not to hit ‘The Old Boat’ when crossing the Bar. At the time of the sinking, locals risked life and limb but managed to salvage items from the wreck as she remained intact for a long time. In fact, locals on Horn Head at the time described hearing the eerie sound of the cargo doors on her and the Honora Evelyn flapping open and closed during storms. 

Among the items salvaged was the Captain’s Table which went on to be cut in two and graced two houses in Horn Head. Even the Captain’s Chamber Pot was salvaged.  Flagstones from the ship were used as flooring in local houses and then in later years there was more salvage work done on  lifting some of  the  remaining Flagstones which are highly prized in modern houses.