Chough Country

WHERE not a sound is heard
But the white waves, O bird,
And slippery rocks fling back the vanquish’d sea,
Thou soarest in thy pride,
Not heeding storm or tide;
In Freedom’s temple nothing is more free.

‘Tis pleasant by this stone,
Sea-wash’d and weed-o’ergrown,
With Solitude and Silence at my side,
To list the solemn roar
Of ocean on the shore,
And up the beetling cliff to see thee glide.

Though harsh thy earnest cry.
On crag, or shooting high
Above the tumult of this dusty sphere,
Thou tellest of the steep
Where Peace and Quiet sleep,
And noisy man but rarely visits here.

For this I love thee, bird.
And feel my pulses stirr’d
To see thee grandly on the high air ride,
Or float along the land,
Or drop upon the sand,
Or perch within the gully’s frowning side.

Thou bringest the sweet thought
Of some straw-cover’d cot,
On the lone moor beside the bubbling well,
Where cluster wife and child,
And bees hum o’er the wild:
In this seclusion it were joy to dwell.

Will such a quiet bower
Be ever more my dower
In this rough region of perpetual strife?
I like a bird from home
Forward and backward roam;
But there is rest beneath the Tree of Life.

In this dark world of din,
Of selfishness and sin,
Help me, dear Saviour, on Thy love to rest;
That, having cross’d life’s sea,
My shatter’d bark may be
Moor’d safely in the haven of the blest.

The Muse at this sweet hour
Hies with me to my bower
Among the heather of my native hill;
The rude rock-hedges here
And mossy turf, how dear!
What gushing song! how fresh the moors and still!

No spot of earth like thee,
So full of heaven to me,
O hill of rock, piled to the passing cloud!
Good spirits in their flight
Upon thy crags alight,
And leave a glory where they brightly bow’d.

I well remember now,
In boy-days on thy brow,
When first my lyre among thy larks I found,
Stealing from mother’s side
Out on the common wide,
Strange Druid footfalls seem’d to echo round.

Dark Cornish chough, for thee
My shred of minstrelsy
I carol at this meditative hour,
Linking thee with my reed,
Grey moor and grassy mead,
Dear carn and cottage, heathy bank and bower.

I was pleased to find this poem. It was written by a Cornishman – John Harris – who was born in 1820 in Bolenowe. Perhaps he was an ancestor? His father was a miner at Dolcoath Tin Mine where young John also started at the age of 10. He began writing poetry as a child, usually in the open air where he was inspired by nature. After 20 years working in the mine, one of his poems was eventually published in a magazine. It attracted notice, and he was encouraged to produce a collection, which was published in 1853. The Cornish Chough is taken from that collection.

Above – choughs over Rossbrin Cove. The wonderful header picture was kindly given to us to use in a previous piece on the birds by our friend and neighbour Oliver Nares. Oliver and Susie are fortunate to have choughs nesting on their property and keep a good eye out for the welfare of the chough families which are raised there. We don’t have choughs nesting at Nead an Iolair (which means Nest of the Eagle) but we often see and hear them over us: they are the most acrobatic and joyful of birds.

The reason I have returned to choughs today is that they were the subject of an early post which I published on Roaringwater Journal on 6 October 2013 – exactly five years ago! Choughs – Cornwall’s emblematic birds – left that county fifty years ago but returned very recently as migrants from Ireland. We consider ourselves very privileged to be living in abundant chough country.

Tralong Bay, Co Cork – A Prehistoric Drowned Landscape

In West Cork it is possible to examine the remains of trees which were growing several thousand years ago – perhaps in the time of our earliest ancestors. Around the coasts of Ireland and Britain are sites of post-glacial forests which flourished close to an ancient shoreline until inundated by rising sea levels in the Neolithic period. Cycles of change in weather, tides and geology over millennia saw these remains flooded by encroaching seas, then resurfacing, only to be buried under sediment and sand as tides abated. We are living in an age of extremes and recent abnormal climate activity has in places exposed some of these remains which are as old as human activity in Ireland: this is Organic Archaeology!

Header – Tralong Beach, between Glandore and Rosscarbery, where the remains of very ancient woodland can be seen. Upper map – the c1850 6″ OS map showing the shape of the coastline at Tralong Bay, and Lower map – a closer aerial view of the beach in modern times: the darker mass shows the partly submerged peat beds

Little has been written about the Tralong site, but another comparable drowned landscape has been revealed in Northumberland UK where archaeologist Clive Waddington, of the company Archaeology Research Services, has found the remains of an ancient forest on the coast of Low Hauxley. He reports:

. . . In 5,000 BC, the sea level rose rapidly and swallowed the earth. The sand dunes were pushed inland, burying the forest, and then the sea receded somewhat. Now, the sea level increases again: it cuts out the sand dunes and exposes the forest . . . During the course of the investigation, the archaeologists found evidence of human presence in the area: traces of adults and children , the analysis of which revealed that they were wearing leather footwear. With human footprints the scientists also found footprints of wild boar and brown bears . . .

Part of the beach at Tralong Bay, Co Cork: the surface of the peat mass, which could be up to 4 metres thick, is interspersed with numerous tree boles, roots and scattered branch and twig debris. At one place I found a perfect complete pine cone, which could have been part of that debris.

The surface of the beach is dotted with these remnants of ancient forest, over a wide area. It seems remarkable that there are also extensive blankets of loose material retained in the bay which must also originate from the forest.

Upper picture – one of the huge blankets of organic material – mainly wood based – which has been washed up to the north end of the bay at Tralong since the extreme storms of 2014. Lower pictures – closer views of the debris showing recognisable material including twigs and branches.

In November 2015 Michael Viney wrote a piece in the Irish Times on drowned forests in Galway Bay:

. . . All summer the quiet tides returned the sand that last winter’s storms had dragged offshore, heaping it even deeper over the old oaken wreck on the strand . . . Perhaps, though I hope not, this winter’s great mill wheels of waves will grind that deeply again. Storms two years ago tore away whole layers of sand and stone west of Spiddal in Galway Bay, uncovering stumps of ancient oak, pine and birch from a 7,000-year-old forest drowned as the sea rose after the end of the Ice Age. The same exceptional seas, on the north coast of Connemara, exposed remnants of human occupation a metre thick in the sand-cliff shore of Omey Island. There were medieval burials among them, and bog at least 6,000 years old . . . Elsewhere along the west coast yet more of the kitchen shell middens of early settlers, back to the late Mesolithic, were stripped away. So the sea reveals the past and then takes it away . . . Glimpses of Ireland’s lost shores and drowned forests are not new. Pinewoods submerged off the Bray coast were described by Robert Lloyd Praeger at the end of the 19th century when construction of Bray harbour changed sediment flows and piles of collapsed trees appeared above the sand . . .

Ancient forests reappeared again in Bray, Co Wicklow, in 2001, and more were revealed recently – in 2017. The Irish Times reported earlier this year on a project to discover “the lost landscapes” of the Irish Sea

Tralong Beach will change again, as the weather patterns vary, and it may not always be possible to experience the drowned landscape here. It’s an unmissable journey into deep history.

With many thanks to Robin Lewando for introducing us to this site, and to Anthony Beese for providing additional material

A Flying Priest, and Rolls of Butter

Last week Finola reported on a journey over the mountains on the ‘Priest’s Leap’ road from Kenmare, Co Kerry to Bantry, in West Cork. We received a fusilade of comments from readers who told us we hadn’t seen half of what there is to be found on this road so, on the very first day of September, we were off again, this time getting a different perspective by travelling the other way. Before we left Bantry we had to find the very spot where the priest – being pursued by soldiers – landed after he and his horse leapt off the highest summit of the road which has been named after him.

It’s great that this stone has been left untouched by the modern roadmakers, so that all can see the hoof marks to this day. I calculated that, 400 years ago, the priest was airborne for a distance of some 12 kilometres as the crow (or horse!) flies – considerably more than some of those early aviators of the 20th century were credited with!

If you are not of a nervous disposition, and don’t mind travelling a narrow, single-track mountain road for some 15 kilometres, probably sharing it only with a few sheep, then to pass over this route is one of Ireland’s most spectacular experiences. Choose your day, though: we were lucky to have hot sun and clear views the whole way. If you survive it to the top, you are right on the Cork – Kerry border: in the photo below, the fence going on up the hill is exactly on that border line (and the point at which the priest and his horse took off is to the right of it at the peak). Stop and look around: the views in every direction are stunning.

After we crossed the border into Kerry we came downhill and stopped again at the remote, picturesque Feaghna burial ground in the townland of Garranes. On our last visit we were completely unaware of the existence of an unusual archaeological site nearby – one which has a number of traditions associated with it.

Popularly known as the ‘Rolls of Butter’ this site is technically a ‘Bullaun Stone’. These are fairly widespread over Ireland, but their original function is not known for sure. Here’s a summary from the National Monuments Service:

. . . The term ‘bullaun’ (from the Irish word ‘bullán’, which means a round hollow in a stone, or a bowl) is applied to boulders of stone or bedrock with hemispherical hollows or basin-like depressions, which may have functioned as mortars. They are frequently associated with ecclesiastical sites and holy wells and so may have been used for religious purposes. Other examples which do not appear to have ecclesiastical associations can be found in bedrock or outcrop in upland contexts, often under blanket bog, and are known as bedrock mortars. They date from the prehistoric period to the early medieval period  . . .

A drawing by the 19th century antiquarian W F Wakeman of a Bullaun Stone at Killinagh in Co Cavan. Here, the stones are known as ‘cursing stones’ – a term also applied by some commentators to the Feaghna site at Garranes. Interestingly, the Cavan site is also referred to as ‘St Brigid’s Stones’, while the Rolls of Butter are associated with the local saint, Fiachna. Beliefs – stories – are, of course, as fascinating as any archaeological evidence, and have to be investigated. Here, they abound – and are best learned from local sources: in this link folklorist Matt Sullivan has put together an entertaining selection of local opinion about the Rolls of Butter.

A few years ago I wrote a post covering some bullauns, ‘cursing stones’ and ‘curing stones’ – but at that time I wasn’t aware of these examples just a mere priest’s leap away from our own home.

There is much more archaeology and history in this mountainous country: here (above) in the townland of Erneen, the view from the road across one of the many remote glens shows up former enclosures and ‘hut sites’, which the National Monuments Service describes thus:

. . . A structure, usually discernible as a low, stone foundation or earthen bank enclosing a circular, oval or subrectangular area, generally less then 5m in maximum dimension. The remains are generally too insubstantial to classify as a house but the majority probably functioned as dwellings. These may date to any period from prehistory (c. 8000 BC – AD 400) to the medieval period (5th-16th centuries AD) . . .

It’s intriguing to think that these beautiful natural landscapes which appear so lonely to us were occupied hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years ago. It’s likely that they have changed very little over all that time: history is clearly set out for us as we travel over this ancient way.

The days are shortening, and we still didn’t have time to explore everything the Priest’s Leap road has to reveal. We’ll be back again before too long – in search of more stories.

Skibbereen Celebrates: Arts and Artists

There’s seldom been as much sunshine in Skibbereen as we are seeing this summer: every day feels like a holiday, and there’s so much for residents and visitors to do – it’s going to be hard to keep up with it all! Coming soon is the launch of the Skibbereen Arts Festival (I love this great graphic!) –

On Friday night we were treated to the ‘Preview’ of the ‘flagship exhibition’ for the Skibb Arts festival, running from now until 6 August at The O’Driscoll Building, Old Quay in the centre of town. It’s titled Elements: West Cork Landscape and features works by 30 artists from the area. In fact, the sunshine and the excitement brought out practically every artist, anyone connected with arts, and a whole lot of West Corkonians and visitors to see what’s on offer.

The exhibition has been put together by Catherine Hammond (above, right, with Finola – standing in front of a Christine Thery canvas) and it’s great to see Catherine curating in Skibbereen again. The art here is strong and looks good on the bare concrete walls of the building, the vacant shell of which is a reminder of Celtic Tiger days, but it always works so well as a gallery.

The work of two artists struck us as soon as we entered the building on Friday: the bold, simple architectural forms of Helena Korpela (two examples above); Helena has connections with West Cork and Helsinki, which emphasises the breadth of art makers working here today.

Personal favourites in this exhibition, for me, are two new pieces by Michael Quane. This Cork born artist now based in Leap is well-known for his large public sculptures, but I like the dynamics of these two smaller works (header picture and above). Roaringwater Journal has reviewed many of the artists currently on show at The Old Quay: have a look at these posts on William Crozier, Terry Searle and Cormac Boydell – and let’s see some examples…

Upper – Crozier; middle – Searle; lower – new ceramics by Boydell. It was also great to see works from elsewhere in Cork: this canvas – by Jill Dennis – is impressive.

It wasn’t just the artists who produced the work that came to the opening: other familiar names in Ireland’s contemporary art world were also well represented. See who you can spot… *

So, everyone is here, everyone is enjoying the summer and Skibbereen is swinging! Art events not to be missed include the opening of Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger exhibition at Uillinn, and the related performance pieces and installaions which Finola is discussing in her post today, and also mentioned in her post last week. But those are only a fraction of the whole Skibbereen Arts Festival this year – we haven’t even started on the music, film, poetry or workshops: get hold of a programme and book up now – while there are still tickets available.

Angela Fewer – Off Heir Island

* John Kelly, Brian Lalor, Penny Dixey, Jim Turner, Keith Payne, Eion McGonigal, Peter Murray…

Some That Got Away!

I have been going through my collection of Quirks – pictures I have taken of Irish oddities, signs and sundry graphic images. For whatever reason, they have missed out in my series on good signs: I think it’s time I gave some of them an airing. They are not all humorous: sometimes they just conjure up a thought or an idea. The one above, for instance, is a really good name for a boat – it makes you think of lazy, sunny days drifting on calm waters. Many, of course, require no explanation at all. Here’s one…

There are those that I’ve retrieved from the reject pile because actually they are arresting enough to make you want to have another look. Some of it is just elaborate graffiti…

In other cases, people have been imaginative in their use of signs…

Then, there are those which just needed to fill an empty space…

Just in case you have to look twice, there’s a message in here somewhere…

Here’s a particularly strange one, on a memorial in Gowran Church, that had me scratching my head…

I’m sure the erudite among you will not have been puzzled – I had to resort to the dictionary, where I found that the term ‘deplored’ has two meanings: the less usual one is ‘lamented’!

But – enough! The rest can just speak for themselves…

And – last, but not least – I couldn’t resist this one from a farm gateway out on the Sheep’s Head…

Uillinn – Surviving and Thriving

Uillinn, Skibereen’s unique contemporary art gallery, is thriving and surviving while apparently ‘under siege’ from the onslaught of the major engineering works engulfing the town centre at the moment. It’s all about making the town and its buildings safe from future flooding: extreme weather conditions – which are likely to get worse as the years go by – are threatening Cork city and many of the low-lying  West Cork communities and works are now in hand to protect these settlements against serious flooding into the foreseeable future. The result is a whole lot of disruption but, as always, imperturbable Cork Rebels are just getting on with life in spite of it all.

Peace and quiet in Skibbereen, before the works commenced. Header picture – the Caol Stream reflected on the canopy of the cantilevered gallery

When the West Cork Arts Centre took the plunge to propose a significant arts gallery in Skibbereen back in the early years of the new Millennium, an architectural competition was held. In 2009, the winning design, by Dublin based Donaghy and Dimond Architects, proposed a dramatic 5-storey high Corten steel-clad box cantilevering over the Caol Stream that runs beside the site, gaining valuable ‘bonus’ space for accommodating the work of the Centre. In fact, the name Uillinn means ‘elbow’, and the gallery is situated on a bend – or elbow – of the stream. Economically – after the collapse of the Tiger years – it was a difficult time for Ireland and numerous projects were being cut or shelved, but work on the gallery went ahead, although not without compromise. Here’s an excellent article from the Irish Times which charts the progress of the building process.

Now, the gallery is facing new challenges as the flood relief works are encroaching on the surroundings of the building. The basis of the engineering solution to protect Skibbereen from further floods is to build high, waterproof walls around every watercourse in and around the town. The principal one of these is the River Ilen, which skirts the north side of the town. However, the Caol Stream – a tributary of the river – runs right through the commercial centre, and right by Uillinn. Finola has written about the abundant natural life that was contained in this stream, albeit much of it partly hidden from view. Everything is changing now, as the sides of the waterway are being steel-piled and concrete walls are being built up to a height of 1100mm all the way around it, as you can see in the photographs below. In places, toughened glass sheets will be inserted in perforations in the retaining walls to enhance the structure and allow views to the water.

Of course, a fresh ecosystem will establish itself in the new, concrete-encased channel, although the character of it is sure to change. Uillinn’s problem is that it is bounded by the stream all the way along its east elevation – and the main entrance is via a bridge (now temporarily dismantled) over the waterway.

Close work: the channel of the Caol Stream is being excavated and then lined as it passes beside Uillinn. The bridge providing the main access to the gallery has been removed to allow these works to proceed

In spite of all these works (which, for Skibbereen as a whole, won’t be finished until 2019) Uillinn – and the renowned Kalbo’s Café which it embraces – have to remain open and viable at all times. This is being achieved by constant liaison and close co-operation with the contractors, Jons Civil Engineering, appointed by Cork County Council, as agents of, and in partnership with the Office of Public Works. Although delayed by the ravages of Hurricane Ophelia and other severe winter storms, the contractors have pulled out all the stops in order to restore normality to the centre of the town as soon as possible and have managed to maintain full access to the gallery and cafe, and all premises in the path of the works, although some disruption to businesses in such circumstances is inevitable. On the west side of the Caol Stream, between Uillinn and Skibbereen’s Main Street, a disused single story shop has been purchased and demolished, and its site now provides a new pedestrian access to the gallery – and it’s one which will continue to be used once everything is finished and the bridge is restored. Suitably streetscaped, the overall approach to Uillinn will be much improved as a consequence of all these works.

The ‘old shoe shop’ (top) was an unusual structure, partly cantilevered out over the Caol Stream. Its removal (lower pictures) has enabled an extra pedestrian access to be established from Main Street

As a member of the Board of Uillinn, closely involved with much of the liaison between the gallery personnel and the contractors, I can confirm that relations have at all times been caring, cordial and helpful, and I commend those involved in the physical work for their skills and approachability through all the potential difficulties. I also commend the Director, Anne Davoren, and her dedicated team at the gallery for keeping cheerful and smiling throughout, and always maintaining a smooth efficiency. The staff of Kalbo’s Café have also kept up their impeccable standard of service and remain such an asset to Uillinn.

It’s unlikely that things will be back to normal before the opening of Uillinn’s momentous venture on 20 July this year – Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger

. . . The exhibition of artworks at Uillinn, including work by major Irish and Irish American artists of the past 170 years such as Daniel Macdonald, Paul Henry, Jack B. Yeats, William Crozier, Hughie O’Donoghue, Dorothy Cross and Alanna O’Kelly, will be accompanied by a rich and diverse programme of performances, talks, lectures and events at Uillinn, and off-site in other locations in West Cork. These will resonate with the history and legacy of the Great Hunger and also amplify the contemporary themes explored in the exhibition. The themes include famine, the politics of food, poverty, displacement of peoples, refugees, emigration, identity, memory and loss . . .

We are all looking forward to the launch of this unique event in Skibbereen, and we know our contractors will ensure that everything will be done to prioritise good access and presentation of the gallery through the duration of the exhibition.

Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger runs from 20 July to 13 October at Uillinn, Skibbereen