Fota – A rude suggestion for a lovely name!

Fota Island arial

Fota Island from the north east. The main approach road comes from the bottom right and runs along the shore to the south of the island towards Belvelly bridge on the upper left of the picture.  The Cork to Cobh rail line is actually the thin line running across the water at the top of the picutre. It just touches Fota at the extreme western tip of the island. Manning Martello Tower is situated on its own ‘island’ at the top of the picture between Fota and Marino Point on Great Island (upper left). .

Irish placenames usually have some meaning….even if the intervening years have bowdlerised the name and left us all confused. For example, the townland of Ballintotis/Ballintotas just three miles east of Midleton has caused a lot of confusion, and not only in terms of its spelling. When Paul McCotter and Kenneth Nicholls edited the Pipe Roll of Cloyne in 1997 they added detailed explanatory notes which give a very reasonable and plausible explanation of the name Ballintotis/Ballintotas. It is actually Baile an tSátair, a name derived from the Anglo-Norman family called des Autier in French or de Altaribus in Latin. They were the landlords from 1177 to the early/mid-1400s. The surname probably still survives in the area as Waters  or Sawter.

Another local name in East Cork is Fota. This is a mostly flat island located between Carrigtwohill and Great Island. The island consists of two townlands, each in a different civil parish!

A 1002213

Fota House by Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison is situated amidst fine gardens and a celebrated arboretum.

Fota is best known for the lovely Fota House. This was originally a hunting lodge that was rebuilt and extended in the 1820s as a grand Regency-style mansion by Richard Morrison and his son William Vitruvius. The house is now in the care of the Irish Heritage Trust and is open to the public. Attached to the  house are gardens which incorporate Fota’s famous arboretum. The present house was commissioned by John Smith-Barry who also began to develop the gardens and arboretum. He also began the planting of trees around the edge of the demesne which helped to give Fota its famously mild micro-climate.

The other famous feature of Fota is the wildlife park – the first to be established in Ireland. This is the most popular visitor amenity in County Cork. The wildlife park is involved in the conservation of rare and endagered species, particularly cheetahs, red pandas, scimitar horned oryx, Asian lions and, more recently, tigers.


The third element in Fota is the combination of Fota Island Resort and its golf course. The gold course hosted the Murphy’s Irish Open in 2001 and 2003.

One intriguing element of Fota is that it has its own railway halt – as a condition of the sale of the route for the construction of the railway to Queenstown in 1860-62, the Smith-Barrys required that all trains must stop at Fota!

Manning Tower Fota

Manning or Fota Martello Tower is situated on a flat island connected to both Fota and Great Island by the railway embankment. Manning Tower was the only one ever taken by an enemy when the Fenians seized it and stripped it of its arms in December 1867, almost 150 years ago!. 

One claim to fame that Fota has refers to the Martello tower built at the tip of the Island facing the ntrance from the lower harbour. Manning Tower was actually successfully raided in December 1867 by a party of Fenians – the only Martello tower to be successfully attacked by an enemy! Bizarrely this incident led to the official disarming of all Irish Martello towers in 1868.

There is however one oddity about Fota that is worth exploring – it’s name. The official cartographical name of the island is Foaty. And therein lies a clue to the origins of the seemingly Italian name presently used. The older form of the name suggests a Norse or Vicking origin.

Fota Frameyard

Fota’s superbly restored Frameyard is one of the most popular attractions in the gardens.

The British Museum’s website has an intriguing page created as part of its recent Vikings – Life and Legend exhibition. The page looks at Norse (Viking) placenames in Britain and Ireland.  Fota is given two possible meanings. It may be derived from the word fótr, or foot in Norse. This makes sense as the island was indeed a stepping stone, a link, between the mainland to the north and Great Island to the south. However, the other meaning that is offered begs serious questions: fod means female genitalia or anus!  The word -ay or -ey was added, meaning island. Frankly, it is difficult to see where the idea of Fota being derived from female genitalia derives from – it makes no sense in a local context. There’s no doubt that the island has a Norse name….but it may have a very  ordinary origin.

In 1997 the UCC scholar Donnchadh Ó Corráin examined the meaning of the name.Ó Corráin is clear about one thing, and that is the name Fota certainly has nothing to do with female genitalia, despite the success of breeding endangered animals! Indeed Ó Corráin has examined and rejected the possible Irish alternatives, which include fód thige (sod house), fódh teith (warm soil – a pretty good option), feóidhte (decayed/withered). O Corrain has noted that some of the medieval versions of the name have the letter ‘r’ included in the spelling, suggesting that fódr/fodri, or foot, is indeed the actual origin of the name.

Fota Cheetahs

Fota Wildlife Park may be famed for the fertility of its breeding programme for endangered animals, but the origin of the name almost certainly has noting to do with female genitals.

Of course there ARE rude names in East Cork. One is the name surname Cott. This is not derived from the word cott or small fishing boat. It is derived from the Anglo-Norman name Codd, which is still common in County Wexford. Codds are, of course, testicles!

Note: Donnchadh Ó Corráin’s scholarly exploration of the name Fota is found in the journal Peritia, 1997..




A window for every day of the year…..or so it was said.

The entrance front of Ballyedmond House faced due north, allowing the drawing room and dining room to enjoy fine views to the south over Midleton. The staircase was located behind the two windows on the right of the porch. Note the chaste late Georgian style of the central block and the slightly more elaborate decoration of the two wings.

The entrance front of Ballyedmond House faced due north, allowing the drawing room and dining room to enjoy fine views to the south over Midleton. The staircase was located behind the two windows on the right of the porch. Note the chaste late Georgian style of the central block and the slightly more elaborate details of the two wings. The wings also housed additional accommodation for the family rather than the kitchen and stable.

Growing up in Midleton, I often heard of a grand country house that once stood on the brow of a hill not two miles north of the town. This was Ballyedmond House which, I was told, had a window for every day of the year. Sadly the house was demolished before I became seriously conscious of it. With three hundred and sixty five windows it must have been huge – and I longed to see a photograph of it. Curiously, Ballyedmond never belonged to the Brodricks, the landlords of Midleton until they sold all their remaining interests in 1966. In fact Ballyedmond’s last owner was a Smith-Barry.

Many years later I had the good fortune to meet somebody who had photos of this famous house (at least it was famous locally!). Some of these photos are reproduced here. Sadly, I don’t have an image of the house from the most public viewpoint – the road to Rathcormac which runs at the bottom of the valley below the site of the house. One thing is pretty clear from the photos – somebody in Midleton couldn’t count! There was simply no way that Ballyedmond House could boast 365 windows – it simply wasn’t big enough.

The Ballyedmond estate was in the civil parish of Templenacarriga, which is in the barony of Barrymore. It was inherited by the Courtenay family through a marriage with the Browne family. It seems that the Courtenays hired the Cork architect Abraham Hargrave the elder, and his son, also called Abraham, to either build the house or to restore it. The photographs show a house with a central block and two wings. However there is a problem – the central block is very clearly a restrained, even chaste, design of circa 1790 to 1820 with no trace of anything older in the structure. The online Dictionary of Irish Architects, run by the Irish Architectural Archive, suggests a date of 1809 to 1811 for the building,which suggests an entirely new house, perhaps on an old site.

The normal approach to Ballyedmond House was by a long winding driveway from the bottom of the hill eventually approaching the house from the east.

The normal approach to Ballyedmond House was by a long winding driveway from the bottom of the hill eventually approaching the house from the east.

The entrance front of the central block faced due north. It was of six bays, with a two bay breakfront topped by a die rather than a pediment. The ground floor windows were set in shallow arches – a feature associated with the work of James Gandon. The entrance was by means of a Doric porch. Within this block, the staircase was located immediately to the right of the entrance hall and the two reception rooms were located on the garden front with splendid views south over the valley towards Midleton and beyond. The drawing room was decorated in the Louis Seize (Louis XVI) style which became quite fashionable in the early 19th century in Britain and Ireland as if to commemorate the executed King of France during the Napoleonic Wars.

The two links were given the appearance of triumphal arches on the entrance front. Complicating everything was the style of the two wings – they were more clearly more early Victorian in character, but with references to the late Georgian or Regency style. The wings presented a windowless front to the visitor. This facade was embellished with a shallow arch in the middle flanked by two niches. The sides of the wings had windows set in architraves – a detail missing from the central block. Also, the roof of each wing had a more elaborate bracketed cornice, whereas the central block had a much plainer cornice.

If the Hargraves simply restored an older house then they did such a thorough job that the evidence of the original house was almost totally subsumed in the restoration To all intents and purposes what the photos show sits perfectly within the 1809-1811 time frame – at least for the central block. It is essentially a new house. The two wings were almost of the same height as the central block and are joined to it by the somewhat more elaborate links. Curiously, the wings were not designed to perform the traditional functions of kitchen wing and stable wing respectively. (The stables and farmyard were located in a separate building further up the hill, and the was in the basement.) The wings were actually additional living quarters for the family and their guests, suggesting that that Ballyedmond was intended to accommodate plenty of house parties.

The house remained in the Courtenay family until 1861 when it passed by inheritance to a relative, Captain Richard Hugh Smith-Barry. He was the fourth son of John Smith- Barry, the builder of nearby Fota House who in 1814 married Eliza-Mary Courtenay, daughter of Robert Courtenay of Ballyedmond. The lack of male heirs on the Courtenay side later in the 19th century meant that Ballyedmond passed to the Smith-Barrys, who appropriately were directly descended from the Barrys, Earls of Barrymore.

The last resident owner was Guy Smith-Barry. He liked to take a telescope onto the roof to spy out any ships coming in to Cork Harbour at Roche’s Point (it was clearly visible from the house!). It is eighteen kilometers from Midleton to Roche’s Point by road, add some tour kilometers from Main Street in Midleton to Ballyedmond, it seems that Guy Smith-Barry was able to view ships some twenty two kilometers away! That’s about thirteen and a half miles, which gives you some idea of the view from the roof of Ballyedmond. If he was expecting guests Guy would dash down to his car and drive to Cork, arriving in time to greet his visitors as they disembarked from the ferry from England.

Sadly, in the 1960s, the cost of maintaining Ballyedmond House became prohibitive, and Guy Smith-Barry was obliged to sell off the house and demesne to a local businessman, who promptly demolished the great house. Not a trace of it remains today except for some of the demesne walls and gate lodges.

Note: Abraham Addison Hargrave (1755 – 1808) ,the elder, came from Horsforth, near Leeds in Yorkshire, and made an architectural career for himself in Cork City and County. He had four sons, three of whom became architects, while another became a civil engineer.