The name Ballinskelligs derives from Baile an Sceilg meaning ‘Place of the craggy rock’ and refers to a coastal village on the Iveragh peninsula in County Kerry. On the western fringe of Europe, this has always been a remote and none-too affluent part of the country, which is likely why early Christian monks, in search of solitude settled on Skellig Michael, one of two islands some miles off the coast, where they lived in bleak isolation: some of their beehive huts and oratories can still be seen by visitors prepared to make the boat journey. Eventually in the late 12th or early 13th century, the monks moved to the mainland and took up residence in Ballinskelligs, where evidence of their buildings remains, along with another historic property.
Ballinskelligs Castle is one of the many tower houses that can be found throughout Ireland. As so often, it is impossible to date the building precisely but the consensus seems to be that it was constructed in the 16th century by the dominant MacCarthy family, ancient Kings of Desmond. The tower stands on an isthmus at the western end of the bay but much of the surrounding land has been eroded over time and it is most easily accessible at low tide. Presumably it was built as an observation post for all vessels coming into this part of the coast and to keep an eye on the arrival of potential pirates. Originally of three storeys, the tower has lost its upper section but corbels to support a floor survive. Following the dissolution of the Kingdom of Desmond at the end of the 16th century, and the loss of the MacCarthys’ authority, the building passed to the Sigerson family but later in the 17th century was reduced to being used as a pilchard-curing station as part of Sir William Petty’s fisheries enterprise.
Ballinskelligs Priory, at the other end of the long beach, was an Augustinian house likely established after the abandonment of Skellig Michael as a religious settlement: certainly the priory retained control of the island until it was in turn shut down during the 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries. The present collection of remains dates from the 15th century and has been extensively – and perhaps rather too rigorously – conserved in recent years: a certain sterility now pervades the site. But, as with Ballinskelligs Castle, the views are outstanding. In the case of the priory, it is better to be inside looking out rather than outside looking in.
In 1809 in an effort to put a stop to marine-based smuggling the British government – then at war with Napoleonic France – established a body called the Preventive Water Guard (otherwise known as the Preventive Boat Service). Operating across these islands, the Waterguard was the sea-based arm of revenue enforcement, its members based in Watch Houses around the coast of Britain and Ireland, with boat crews patrolling the waters at night. While they were primarily concerned with bringing smuggling to an end, they also gave assistance to shipwrecks and indeed kept an eye out for foreign vessels entering national waters. In 1821 a committee of enquiry proposed responsibility for the Preventative Water Guard be transferred from HM Treasury to the Board of Customs. Until then, the Board of Customs and the Board of Excise each had their own long-established preventative forces: shore-based Riding Officers for the former and sea-going Revenue Cruisers for the latter. The committee recommended these services be consolidated and so in January 1822 they were placed under the authority of the Board of Customs and renamed the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard established in 1822 duly inherited existing shore stations and watch houses from the two earlier bodies (as well as a number of coastal vessels) and these provided bases for its operations, with additional properties being constructed as deemed necessary. The first Coast Guard instructions were published in 1829: while still primarily occupied with the prevention of smuggling they also stipulated that when a wreck took place the Coast Guard was responsible for taking all possible action to save lives, taking charge of the vessel and protecting property. By the 1850s, coastal smuggling was no longer so serious a matter and so responsibility for the Coast Guard was transferred from the Board of Customs to the Admiralty. Over the following decades the service began to operate more like a supplementary naval service, although it still was responsible for carrying out rescues and protection of property in the event of a shipwreck.
The Coast Guard service was based in stations right around the island, with fifteen of these in County Kerry. The stations were usually built to a standard design. Typically they comprised a terrace of five or six houses set back from the shore but within easy reach of it. There would also be a watch tower and, by the sea, a boat house and slipway. Each terrace included residences for the chief boatman, his men and their families. Inside would be a sitting room and kitchen (plus scullery) on the ground floor, and bedrooms upstairs. As a rule the entrance to each house was to the rear (away from coastal winds) with just windows on the front looking out to sea. These stations survived until the early 1920s when, like other centres such as army and Royal Irish Constabulary barracks, they were attacked and burnt during the War of Independence and ensuing Civil War to ensure they could not be used by the enemy. Many of them, like this example in Ballinskelligs, County Kerry, now stand empty and ruinous, a largely forgotten aspect of the country’s maritime history.