Aiming High!

There seems to be a thread going through our recent posts: my Mizen Mountains and Signal Tower projects take us to high places, and today Finola reports on her exploration of hilltop crosses dating from the 1950 Holy Year. Our travels have brought us to many peaks and pinnacles in and beyond West Cork. I must say there’s nowhere I would rather be than far away from the crowds up on an Irish eminence which – without fail – provides us with the most spectacular views across the topography of this greenest of all lands.

After lockdown restrictions were eased, we made a little trip up to County Wicklow to see family and friends, and took full advantage of the many trails that cross the granite outcrops between Bray and Greystones. The header picture looks south-west from Bray Head towards the Great Sugar Loaf, part of the Wicklow mountain range which, at 501 metres, is significantly higher than our own Mount Gabriel in West Cork at 404m, but which nevertheless provides this view (above) towards the coast of Roaringwater Bay, and looks out over Carbery’s 100 Isles.

Travellers through Wicklow have, since ancient times, oriented themselves using the high peaks. Pilgrims going to the holy city of Glendalough and keeping to the coastline south out of Dublin might have followed the routes which, today, pass over Bray Head. A modern way of doing it, at least in part, is on the railway line that hugs the cliffs between Greystones and Bray – a feat of engineering laid out by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 1850s and surviving to this day, although it has had to be realigned six times because of erosion and rockfalls. It has even been described as one of the world’s most picturesque train journeys – something of an exaggeration, perhaps, but it’s well worth taking the trip if you are in the area. The photos above show (from upper) the public trail leading from Windgate up to the Bray Head Cross; the railway line seen from the cliff path that runs close to the route – note the abandoned tunnel on the far right; the view from Bray Head looking south to Greystones with Dunbur Head, south of Wicklow town, far beyond.

Back in West Cork we have no end of high places to choose from. Our latest escapade was a climb to the 1950 cross at Dromore, between Bantry and Drimoleague, which provides the two views above and this one, below, from which you can see the high peak of Gabriel in the distant west.

We have shared with you some of our favourite high journeys in our own part of the country, including the remarkable Borlin Valley road, which crosses the County border between Cork and Kerry:

Climbing to the summit of Knockaphuca gave us this striking view over the Mizen village of Goleen and out to the ‘Wild’ Atlantic beyond it:

Heights still to be scaled: in the picture above I’m walking on a very old roadway which leads out to a ruined Napoleonic signal station perched right above Mizen Head. To my left is the distinctive Mizen Peak. Both sites will feature in future posts, and both reveal dramatic views over this western edge of the land.

We couldn’t complete any account of high places in the west of Ireland without mention of one of our favourite destinations: the Beara Peninsula. Above is the view north from the top of the Healey Pass, looking into Kerry. Below is a dizzying view into the heart of the Beara: look at the farmsteads and cottages below the ancient field system, dwarfed by the power of the mountains.

We will continue to share with you our experiencing of the landscapes here, and not just the high places, of course. We have many years of exploring Ireland under our belts, and look forward to lots still to come.

Coomhola Country

As the Coomhola River tumbles from Borlin to the sea, gathering tributaries, it forms many pools amongst the riffles and glides. These pools, in summer, provide leafy shelters for salmon and trout. To anyone who has fished or walked the river, each pool has its own character, and each its own name . . .

 

[From Hidden Gold, History and Folklore of the Coomhola and Borlin Valleys Julia Kemp: Coomhola Borlin Community Development Association 1998]

On the header is the spectacular view from Borlin, looking down the great glen where the Coomhola River finds its way through a country formed by glaciers in the Midlandian period, about 10,000 years ago. The rugged Shehy mountain range (Cnoic na Seithe in Irish, meaning Hills of the Animal Hides) with its peaks of Knockboy, Caoinkeen and Kinkeen provides some of the most dramatic scenery in West Cork, its scarred outcrops clearly showing the downward progress of the ice sheets. The contrast between the barren high land and the lush pastoral meadows laid out below evoke a beauty which is hard to match – anywhere in the world!

The Kilgarvan (Co Kerry) to Ballylickey (Co Cork) road is one of the unsung feats of Irish engineering. Until the middle of the nineteenth century it was no more than a system of ‘nearways’, providing rough, narrow access tracks to remote mountain dwellings and hard-won field systems. A famine improvement project c1846, involving metalling, a tunnel, cuttings and stone retaining walls, transformed it to the ‘through road’ which exists today – although it may seem to us no more than a boreen. It’s there for all to travel on, and will provide a breathtaking experience – but be aware that it could also deliver some hair-raising reversing episodes on the rare occasions when a vehicle is encountered coming the other way. The upper photo shows the road ‘clinging on’ to the face of a mountain outcrop, while the map gives a good idea of the circuitous route that the way takes to keep as far as possible to a level contour on its journey.

This is the country of St Finnbar. If you follow the County border east from the top of the Borlin Glen (off-road) you will very soon come to the site of his sixth century monastic settlement at Gougane Barra. This whole area was loved by the Cork born writer and illustrator Robert Gibbings, whose book Sweet Cork of Thee tells of a seven month sojourn in this mountainous region in 1949, beautifully illustrated by his woodcuts.

Mountain Road by Robert Gibbings, woodcut from Sweet Cork of Thee, published 1951

As we drove along the road beside the Inchigeelagh lakes, we could see moorhens gathering material for their nests among the taselled reeds and swans on islets, piling up dead rushes in readiness for their eggs. A corncrake was calling from a meadow. Celandines and kingcups outshone the gorse.

 

Mick said to me: ‘My father’s sister lived a mile to the north of us here. She married a man by the name of Scanlan. His mother came from Gougane and ’twas one evening when she was travelling west by the lake – there was no road there then, only a little bit of a track – she looked in the lake and what did she see but fields of corn and sheep and every sort of land and crop and stock. She was an old woman at the time and she knew well enough ’twas a kind of enchantment must be on the lake, so she says to herself, if I can keep an eye on it all and throw a bit of iron at it the spell will be broken. So she kept her eyes fixed on the fields and the cattle and the pigs and the hens, and all the time she was thinking where would she get a bit of iron. And the only bit she could think of was in the heel of her shoe. ‘Twould be worth it to throw in the shoe, says she. But when she went to unrip the lace wasn’t it tangled in a knot, and for the glint of a second she took her eye off the land. When she looked again ’twas all disappeared and the lake was there the same as ever.’

 

Our road turned south, through a wilderness of rock and bog and lilied pools . . .

 

[Robert Gibbings Sweet Cork of Thee, J M Dent & Sons 1951]

From the highest rim of Borlin Glen (upper picture), the Comhoola River valley is laid out below. Home to sheep and ravens, the scattered farmsteads emerge from rock and forest and provide a living – as they have for countless generations – to a hardy people.

On the lush valley floor are signs of ancient activity and occupation. A stream flows through a meadow dotted with whitethorn trees (upper), while an old stone clapper bridge has been superseded by the modern boreen taking its way up to the Borlin Valley settlements (centre). Lower – a fascinating stone circle and mass rock site is interrupted by the field fence. Here, too, is a bullaun stone and cupmarked rock (below).

Let us give the last word to Johnny O’Driscoll from Snave, recorded by his grandson Sean O’Driscoll in the 1930s and featured in Julia Kemp’s Hidden Gold:

There is little gold in this area, but there is one place where it is said a crock of gold is buried. It is about a hundred yards from the Glaslough, between Coorycomade and Ardnatrush, about a mile and a half from Coomhola National School.

 

There is a bush growing at the exact location, and beneath the bush is a large stone which covers the hidden treasure. It belongs to a tiny dwarf, and anybody who visits the place at midnight can see this little creature on the bush above the gold.

 

People did go on one occasion in search of the gold, but they were unsuccessful. A little bright light is visible about midnight above the bush. I have seen it myself on several occasions . . .

Brendan in Bronze

Do you know the story of St Brendan? He – ‘The Navigator’ – went to North America long before Columbus. Nearly a thousand years before, in fact: Brendan was born in the fifth century. The story of his voyage, and his remarkable adventures with his fellow monks, has inspired art, music and song ever since then. Here’s the beginning of Christy Moore’s version:

A boat sailed out of Brandon in the year of 501
’twas a damp and dirty mornin’ Brendan’s voyage it began.
Tired of thinnin’ turnips and cuttin’ curley kale
When he got back from the creamery he hoisted up the sail.
He ploughed a lonely furrow to the north, south, east and west
Of all the navigators, St Brendan was the best . . .

We went to Tralee, Co Kerry, to visit the Church of Our Lady and St Brendan: Finola was looking for windows by Murphy Devitt (which are spectacular) and I chanced upon a set of bronze roundels laid into the paving leading up to the main entrance (above). I felt I had to record them here, as they illustrate and tell the whole story of the Saint so wonderfully well. The large medallions were designed and made by Eithne Ring and Liam Lavery, and were installed in 2010. As far as I know this is a unique record of the voyage: well worth a visit – but don’t miss the windows!

St Brendan: part of a huge stained glass installation by Murphy Devitt in this Kerry church

I’m showing the roundels in the order in which you encounter them as you approach the main doors to the church, and giving a very brief description of the subject of each. At the end you will find a commentary provided by the designers, which gives more detail.

1 St Brendan visits St Enda prior to building his boat

2 On a rocky island, Brendan’s crew are led by a hound to a miraculous hall of food

3 The monks find an island inhabited by giant sheep

4 Brendan and his companions land on an island, light a fire and celebrate Mass; they discover that they are on the back of a whale!

5 An island of white birds: one is ringing a bell

6 The monks take meat from a beast that has been slain by a monster

7 On the Island of Grapes the monks witness a battle between a gryphon and a bird: the bird is victorious

8 All the fish in the ocean come to listen to Brendan while he sings

9 Brendan finds a huge crystal pillar rising out of the sea

10 The sea is boiling like an erupting volcano

11 Brendan and his companions meet the unhappy Judas chained to a rocky island

12 The travellers find a hermit who has been fed by an otter for forty years

13 Brendan returns to Ireland to prepare for his death

So now you know the bones of Brendan’s story. Now listen to the music! Saun Davey’s Brendan Voyage, a suite for uillinn pipes and orchestra, is a masterpiece inspired partly by the Saint himself, but also by Tim Severin’s 1976/77 recreation of the journey across the Atlantic in a leather clad boat:

Tim Severin pictured with a model of the boat in which he recreated the Saint’s journey

Let’s give the last words to Christy Moore, and the chorus of his Brendan song (you can find all the lyrics here):

“Is it right or left for Gibraltar?”
“What tack do I take for Mizen Head?”
“I’d love to settle down near Ventry Harbour”,
St Brendan to his albatross he said . . .