Cautionary approach urged for developing Clonakilty’s historic Watery Boreen as a greenway

The Watery Boreen in Clonakilty.
The Watery Boreen in Clonakilty, which could be developed as a new greenway (image: 2022, © Irish Heritage News).

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A recent proposal to create a new greenway using the historic Watery Boreen in Clonakilty has been met with enthusiasm while also sparking discussions about maintaining its historic character and selecting appropriate surfacing materials for the project.

On Sunday, 22 October, Christopher O’Sullivan, Fianna Fáil TD for Cork South West, shared his vision in a Facebook post of the potential development of a new “greenway” utilizing an “ancient” roadway called “The Watery Boreen” on the outskirts of Clonakilty.

A grassy trackway in the townland of Cloheen to the south of the town, the Watery Boreen runs for about 1.2km east to west from the western extension of Upper Lamb Street / Clogheen Road to Connor’s Cross in the townland of Carhoo.

Path of the proposed greenway along the Watery Boreen in Clonakilty.
Proposed greenway along the Watery Boreen in Clonakilty (source: Google Maps, imagery ©2023 Airbus, CNES / Airbus, Maxar Technologies, map data ©2023).

The winding boreen offers stunning views of the town and surrounding landscape. Deputy O’Sullivan believes it would make an excellent amenity for walkers and cyclists. This is welcome news for locals, but some concerns have been raised.

Statement by TD Christopher O' Sullivan on developing the Watery Boreen in Clonakilty as a greenway.

The antiquity of the boreen first came to light as a result of research carried out by the preservation committee of Dúchas Clonakilty Heritage in response to concerns that plans for a substantial housing development in the vicinity could impact its historic character. Based on their findings, the committee drew up a set of recommendations detailing conservation measures aimed at safeguarding the integrity of the boreen.

In 2022, they submitted their findings and recommendations to Cork County Council as part of the public consultation process for the County Development Plan, which was then in draft stage.

The Watery Boreen: its history

By analyzing archaeological, historical and cartographic evidence, the preservation committee established that the Watery Boreen was once an important roadway forming part of the old route from Clonakilty to Rosscarbery before the construction of the Cork–Skibbereen coach road in the 1810s and what became the N71.

Historic maps traced the existence of the old Clonakilty–Rosscarbery routeway back nearly 250 years, but historical records hint at an earlier origin for the Watery Boreen.

This is rooted in accounts of a significant battle in Clonakilty in 1642, mentioned in various contemporary reports and subsequent histories. They describe how an Irish force led by Mac Carthy Reagh clashed with English soldiers in the town. The soldiers were forced to retreat westwards “a full mile to an old fort in the highway to Ross”, which they defended. All the descriptions suggest an early medieval ringfort, which research indicates was likely the large bivallate ringfort levelled at Cloheen, less than 40m south of the Watery Boreen.

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The accounts further detail how the English ultimately gained the upper hand, driving 600 Irish combatants towards the sea, likely at Cloheen Strand Intake, where they tragically drowned.

>>> READ MORE: The workhouse cemetery: “Clonakilty, God help us”

The trackway itself – with an average width of 4.5m, expanding to 6m in places and flanked by well-constructed drystone walls – attests to its historical importance as a major thoroughfare in the post-medieval and early modern periods.

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Old stone walls exposed

In his Facebook post, Deputy O’Sullivan noted:

“… over the past few months Irish Water have been replacing water mains there. In doing so they cleared the path, installed drainage pipes and put down a layer of gravel and hardcore. They also exposed some stunning old stone walls.”

It’s not clear if an archaeologist was tasked with supervising this work by Uisce Éireann (formerly Irish Water).

New gravelled surface was laid on the Watery Boreen in Clonakilty.
New gravelled surface was laid on the Watery Boreen in Clonakilty (2023, © Irish Heritage News).

The preservation committee of Dúchas Clonakilty Heritage noted the thick vegetation on the walls in their survey last year and advised limiting its removal following best practice. The sudden exposure of these walls and historic fabric has raised concerns locally that this could have a destabilizing effect. In fact, several recent wall collapses have since been identified.

Wall collapse along the Watery Boreen in Clonakilty.
Recent damage to the walls flanking the Watery Boreen has been identified (2023, © Irish Heritage News).

The walls feature multiple field entrances providing access to the large surrounding fields; while a few are now blocked up, they serve as a reminder of the former existence of the smaller fields depicted on historic maps. A number of the entrances are adorned with square stone pillars and historic wrought iron gates; unfortunately, some of these have sustained damage over the past year.

Field entrance along the Watery Boreen in Clonakilty.
Historic wrought iron gate and pillared field entrance along the Watery Boreen in Clonakilty (2022, © Irish Heritage News). Unfortunately, one of the stone pillars and the gate have since been damaged.

Tarmac rejected

Deputy O’Sullivan, in his Facebook post, said, “All the hard work is done, we just need a tarred surface for cyclists and walkers … and we have another fantastic greenway in Clonakilty”. However, the submission from the local heritage organization emphasizes that using tarmacadam would be ill-advised as it has the potential to jeopardize the boreen’s authentic character:

“With regard to the antiquity and authenticity of the boreen, tarmacadam would not be the most historically appropriate choice: best practice in conservation encourages the use of surface materials that match the historic environment and complement local distinctiveness. All-ability access must be considered as well and this submission suggests looking at other materials that would provide a durable, firm, level surface but would be sustainable and appropriate as well. Crushed stone or resin-based stabilized material are two alternatives that should be considered.”

The “Watery Boreen” placename is also a compelling reminder of its wet nature. A tarred surface, the submission warns, would be relatively impermeable, leading to further drainage issues, which could pose a risk to the boreen’s long-term viability as a trail.

New Clonakilty greenway "The Watery Boreen".
The Watery Boreen in 2022 before works were carried out by Uisce Éireann / Irish Water (© Irish Heritage News).

More potential

The submission also identified the potential for developing another pedestrian/bicycle pathway in Cloheen townland using another historic roadway called the “Rocky Road”, once the main road to Castlefreke and Rathbarry.

The preservation committee of Dúchas Clonakilty Heritage recently succeeded in having the National Monuments Service add the Rocky Road to their Sites and Monuments Record (SMR). It’s one of less than 20 roads/trackways in the county listed in the SMR, and its inclusion not only recognizes its historical and archaeological significance but is a critical step in securing its protection for future generations.

The comprehensive submission from the local heritage group to Cork County Council underscores the importance of prioritizing the long-term preservation of the natural and built heritage associated with these historic roads. This involves safeguarding their old walls, opting for an authentic and suitable track surface, limiting access to pedestrians and cyclists only, and curbing access by machinery, especially during the construction phases of any housing development in the area.

In considering the development of greenways using any historic trackways, the takeaway message here is to tread lightly…

Uisce Éireann has been contacted for comment. The full submission by the preservation committee of Dúchas Clonakilty Heritage to Cork County Council regarding the Watery Boreen can be found here.

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