In the steps of Walter Hunkin

A visit to the north-west of County Clare allows one to look further into Walter Hunkin’s narrative. As one might expect of a former ship’s captain, he turns out to be precise in his measurements which reinforces the belief that his is a fair account of his past.

His journal gives us a few hints about his life ashore, following his arrival in County Clare in 1906. He mentions that he was initially responsible for four stations ‘one having been recently closed – and one war signal station not manned in peacetime’. From what follows, we can identify Liscannor, Seafield and Kilkee. The fourth and the closed station are not named.

Later, he refers to Loop Head as being the ‘War Signal Station’ and its prominence in his account increases once WWI gets under way: the Coastguards’ priorities had clearly changed with the arrival of war.

Spanish Point

It seems that a house was provided for him at Spanish Point, ‘a rocky stretch of coast where a landing was never attempted’. He was unimpressed, describing the house as ‘a rambling old property belonging to the Admiralty that had been enlarged from time to time.’ There were at Spanish Point ‘a few houses, closed in the winter and opened up for the use of visitors during the summer.’

Enquiring about the location of the Coastguard Station was he told ‘The station is beyond, at Seafield Point’ as the driver pointed ‘to the station buildings, visible across the bay three miles distant.’

Today (2019), ‘Spanish Point’ is a sweeping bay of sand, inland from the point itself, with a series of typical seaside houses, apartment blocks and a hotel lining the head of the beach. No doubt many of them still fulfil Walter’s description of being closed in winter and open for the use of visitors in summer. Few of them look old enough to have existed in Walter’s day although there are some small, traditional-looking bungalows of a typical four room Irish model.

The red house on Spanish Point. 2019 Could this be the house offered to Walter Hunkin?

The house closest to the point itself is a large red house which looks of the right period to be the house he was offered. A back extension suggests that it could fit his description as having been ‘extended’. Importantly, it is the only large house which has clear sight of Seafield Point which is indeed 3.3 miles (5.3km) across the bay. It therefore seems a good candidate for the house he spurned.

Seafield Point

Seafield Point is a remote spot at the end of a long curving beach approached from the village of Quilty. Walter describes it as being ‘2 miles from Quilty railway station bordering on a road leading along the shore’ and ‘sixteen from Kilkee’ (it is indeed sixteen).

Seafield Point jetty 2019

At the Point, a low headland of rock and grass-covered dunes, is a small historic jetty built of stone which has been recently enlarged with a new concrete wharf. The original jetty would have provided a degree of shelter for half a dozen small boats which would have been aground at low tide.

Walter describes ‘buildings erected at the time of the Fenian movement [which] were very well and strongly built with a view to resisting attack during any possible raid on the station. At one end of the buildings there was a strongly built tower protected with heavy iron shutters at the windows and loopholes – very like the castles of old – for rifle sniping of any persons leading an assault on the station. In each house there were iron communication doors leading from house to house, by which means the crews, with their wives and children could, if necessary, reach the strong room in the tower, close the communication doors and await events.’

Seafield Point 2019: is this the defensive structure Walter Hunkin refers to?

This is difficult to identify on the ground. Today, there is the ruins of a long low building which appears to be built of blocks and looks military in nature but is more like a barrack block than the defensive building he describes. Certainly, there is no sign of a tower.

Seafield Point 2019: was this once the Coastguard station?

Alongside this block is a small ruined stone building which is clearly of an earlier date and could well have been in use during Walter’s time. It seems about the right size and layout to have been a small Coastguard office with a main building flanked by stores or offices. However, we cannot discount the possibility that they original Coastguard building was swept away when the block was built.

Seafield Point 2019: is this the remains of a series of Coastguard cottages or the defensive structure referred to by Walter Hunkin?

Tantalisingly, he also refers to the station ‘bordering on a road leading along the shore’. Halfway between the point and Quilty, bordering the road is the remains of a stone-built building which bear all the hallmarks of being a row of Coastguard cottages with individual doors and windows. A block at one end might possibly have been a small tower. Could this be the ‘buildings erected at the time of the Fenian movement’ to which he refers. More research is required.

Liscannor

Walter also mentions the Coastguard station of Liscannor which, he says, is ‘thirty miles distant’: presumably from his home at Kilkee. It is in fact 28 miles by road today.

‘Arriving at Lahinch railway station …’ which is no more ‘… one drove around Liscannor Bay, past Lahinch golf course, a long stretch of sand hills said to be the best golf course in the country …’ The golf course still exists – indeed there are now two – and still consists of sand hills. It hosted the All-Ireland Golf championship in 2019.

It is slightly surprising that Walter does not mention the ruin of Dough castle which sits in the middle of one of the golf courses.

‘… passing the ruins of an old chapel which probably fell into disuse during the penal days.’ Entering Liscannor, one passes the ruins of Kilmacrehy church.

Liscannor harbour 2019

A short distance further on is the small harbour of Liscannor which is an altogether better refuge for small boats than Seafield Point 10 miles further down the coast.

Liscannor harbour 2019: the ‘Old Coastguard Boat House’

At the head of the slipway is a small stone building called ‘The Old Coastguard Boat House’. This is of a design which is very similar to that of Newlyn in Cornwall built shortly after 1902.

He goes on ‘Within the grounds of Liscannor station there stood the ruins of a very fine commodious old castle’ which, from his description, sounded intact.

Liscannor castle/tower house 2019

There is no such structure today and certainly nothing close to the Boat House. About 500m away stands the ruin of a castle/tower house and it must be this structure to which Walter is referring. There is no sign of a Coastguard house or lookout close to the castle itself, a site which would not be ideal for watching the coast except from a height.

Other features

St Brigid’s Well 2019: the entrance to the well

Walter mentions St Brigid’s Well, which he spells as ‘St Bridget’s’, ‘about a mile from the village of Liscannor.’ It is just over 1.5 miles as the crow flies and still exists as a shrine.

He also mentions the Cliffs of Moher ‘for which the Liscannor Coastguard Station was responsible’ … ‘the approach to which was over a very rough road with a steep uphill climb to the top of the cliffs 700 to 800 feet above sea level. These remarkable cliffs, well-known to all tourists of the county of Clare, are unsurpassable in their majestic grandeur, their wild and natural beauty.’ He goes on to mention the ‘teeming seabird life resting and nesting in the inaccessible ledges and crannies’ and reports on the visit of a friend.

The cliffs of Moher 2019

Today, the cliffs of Moher are reckoned to be Ireland’s ‘favourite tourist attraction’ with a visitor centre and thousands of people visit the new visitor centre each year. The seabirds still nest on the ledges and the 700 foot drop is still awe-inspiring. Thankfully the very rough road has been improved.

Interestingly, he does not mention the small village of Doolin which stands at the eastern end of the cliffs. Here there is a small pier from which vessels take trippers out to the nearby Aran Islands and it might have been natural to include it in his command given his responsibility for the cliffs.

JG/July 2019