Lonehort Harbour on Bere Island is an intriguing heritage site that casts light on the maritime history of an island with a key strategic position at the head of Bantry Bay.
The place name Lonehort / Longphort is Norse in origin – it means a fortified ship harbour – and it gives us clues about the site’s long history as a naval stronghold.
The history and character of the harbour were fully investigated in 1985 in an archaeological project carried out jointly by the Department of Archaeology at University College Cork and an underwater survey unit from the Institute of Irish Studies at Queens University Belfast.
A natural harbour fortified by Vikings
The harbour – on the eastern end of the West Cork Island – has many natural features which have given it appeal as a base for ships since Viking times. But its earliest users made their own adjustments to ensure it offered them a safe haven.
Archaeologists noted that an artificial breakwater at the harbour entrance was formed by dumping a large amount of stones on the seabed. These stones were quarried from a nearby headland and acted as a wave deflector at the entrance to the site.
But the practice of creating breakwaters was a Scandinavian one. The investigating teams noted that early medieval document ‘Adam of Bremen’ refers to a similar practice in Scandinavia during the Viking period.
Another Scandinavian feature of Lonehort was suggested when archaeologists found evidence of a Naust on the shoreline. Nausts are artificial shelters used by the Vikings for the repair of boats.
The archaeologists’ report – which dated the harbour to the eary medieval period – concluded that the Bere Island Naust would have accommodated an average-sized coastal boat, probably with a beam of just over 3m.
This was the kind of craft that coastal traders from Scandinavia were using during the Viking period.
Today’s walkers on Bere Island are not, then, the earliest international visitors to Lonehort!
A landing point for Carew and his forces
Centuries later, Lonehort Harbour became the landing point for Sir George Carew and his forces in June 1602 ahead of the Siege of Dunboy.
Carew, who had been appointed President of Munster two years, earlier, was charged with ending the rebellion there. The rebellion formed part of the Nine Years War in which Gaelic chieftans contested English rule in Ireland.
Around 3,000 soldiers marched across Bere island – on a road Carew had built for them – taking up position on its western shoreline immediately opposite Dunboy Castle on the mainland.
Their bloody and successful siege from land and sea ran from 5 June to 18 June 1602. It ended with the flight of Dunboy’s Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare – now commemorated in the Beara-Breifne Way walking route. O’Sullivan Beare’s flight effectively marked the end of the Gaelic order in Ireland.
Carew’s army had stayed on Bere Island for 24 days, but their mission had a profound effect on the nation’s future.
The British Navy at Lonehort
In 1898, the British admiralty issued a compulsory purchase for the eastern end of Bere island. They wanted to equip the area with fortifications that would protect their dreadnoughts when they anchored in Berehaven Harbour.
The British forces constructed seven gun batteries, a signal tower, a barracks, a quay and assorted storage buildings on the island. The battery constructed at Lonehort was the largest and most strategically important of these fortifications.
Bere Island remained under British control, under the terms of the Treaty Port agreement, until 1938. Lonehort Battery is still owned by Ireland’s Department of Defence, which maintains a base on the island. However, there are plans to develop the battery as a tourist attraction over the next few years.
A daring escape
In 1921, Lonehort Harbour was the scene of a daring escape by one of the internees from the Bere Island Internment Camp, where prisoners taken during Ireland’s War of Independence were held.
Mort O’Connell managed to escape from his guards while returning from a swimming parade at the strand in Lonehort Harbour.
O’Connell, from Ballinskelligs, had already had an eventful life, having fought in the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence. He had been interned at Frongoch and served time at Stafford Jail before finding himself prisoner on Bere Island.
After his Bere Island escape, locals whisked him away in a small boat which took him around the southern side of the island, in order to avoid a flotilla of British warships anchored off its northern shores.
On landing on the mainland, O’Connell travelled to Dublin where he took part in the Treaty Negotiations which brokered Irish Independence. He later became Clerk of the Dáil – Ireland’s parliament.
Can I visit Lonehort Harbour?
The harbour can be viewed from the public road which overlooks it and which forms part of the weekly Bere Island parkrun route.
for details on how to access the harbour by boat, see eoceanic. The island’s modern marina is located at Lawrence Cove.