Circumnavigation

It’s a hop and a step from down here on the Mizen (Ireland’s most south-westerly point) up to the top of the island: people are doing it all the time, on foot, by bicycle, by boat… We thought we’d do it as a road trip – in fact, why wouldn’t we circumnavigate the whole of Ireland? We did – it took us three weeks.

Header – the Dark Hedges, Ballymoney, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century to enhance their Georgian mansion of Gracehill, it is now much visited as it features in Game of Thrones. It’s good to know that traffic can no longer go through this avenue, as it has suffered damage in recent times. Above, one of the many byroads that we sought out on our journey around the island: this one is the loop road behind Ben Bulben in County Sligo

It was a most fascinating and educational trip, particularly for me: most of the places I had never visited before. Finola was more familiar with her own country, although for her it was a voyage of rediscovery. In many cases she saw how much had changed over years of boom and bust, while elsewhere her memories were reawakened.

A voyage of rediscovery: Finola’s Great Grandparents are buried here in Killough, County Down, Northern Ireland

This is but a short summary of our travels: a taster. Many of the places we visited will feature in future posts here. As you can imagine, Archaeology, Romanesque architecture, stained glass, saintly shrines, pilgrimage sites, holy wells, stunningly beautiful land- and sea-scapes, and social history were prominent in our must-see itinerary. But we found we were also following in the footsteps of Irish poets. And British eccentrics.

Craftworks: we visited the Belleek Pottery, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland – which has been operating continuously since 1884 (upper), and (lower) Glebe Mill, Kilcar, County Donegal – where we could watch traditional handweaving on enormous looms

I prefer to stay off the more heavily trafficked tourist spots, but we made exceptions for Europe’s highest sea cliffs at Slieve League, County Donegal (three times the height of the Cliffs of Moher! Beautiful and very wet) and for the Giant’s Causeway. After all, this features strongly in the stories of Finn McCool. I thought that the inevitable crowds were catered for very well and – if you are prepared to walk away from the main site – you can have the spectacular cliff paths largely to yourselves. In Northern Ireland I was very struck by what an asset the National Trust is, for it preserves and makes accessible so many properties and areas of outstanding beauty. If only the Republic had a similar well funded body…

Top – the cliffs at Slieve League. Lower – Giant’s Causeway on a stormy day, and souvenirs in the National Trust’s Causeway Visitor Centre

It would, perhaps, be unreasonable to pick out a ‘best’ destination that we visited, but I must say that I was probably most impressed by the medieval sites: we took in many. It’s amazing that right off the beaten track you can find stunning ancient carvings and artefacts tucked away and – sometimes – not even signposted.

Upper – the superb High Cross at Durrow has been protected and conserved, but it’s not signposted from the busy road that passes nearby. Centre – the beautiful shrine that holds the relic of the True Cross in St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, County Louth: the same church holds the head and remains of Saint Oliver Plunkett. Lower – 13th century font in St Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, County Clare

Our travels were punctuated with a whole variety of experiences, impossible to summarise in one short post. We took in Derry – the only completely walled city in Ireland and one of the finest examples in Europe: we walked the whole length of the early seventeenth century structure. Belfast was intriguing. We undertook the Titanic Experience, and were duly impressed with the building and the exhibitions. We also toured the whole city in the hop-on-hop-off bus: a full two hour tour of everything with a thoroughly enlightening commentary – a good way to keep out of the rain!

Upper – the Peace Bridge in Derry. Lower – the Titanic Experience, Belfast: the exhibition and the building. The external shot is taken from the enormous slipway which was used to launch the ship

We’ve only just got our breath back from all the travelling (although we always went at a leisurely pace with plenty of stops for investigation and coffee). Between us we took well over 5,000 photographs! You’ll see a good few of them in due course.

Often it’s the simple things that impress the most: just little vignettes of Irish life. We would thoroughly recommend a slow exploration of this land – ambling along the byroads and keeping a weather eye open for new experiences. Have a good time!

We are not averse to the odd selfie! Here we are on Carlingford Lough with the Mountains of Mourne behind us… Today it’s an invisible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic: what does the future hold?

The Significant Rock Art of Clonfinlough

Whenever we stray from our home territory of West Cork, we are always on the lookout for archaeological wonders. When we set our course for Clonmacnoise, in County Offaly, last week (I like the possible translation of the Irish Cluain Muccu Nóis: Meadow of the Pigs of Nós, but there is an alternative Cluain Mhic Nóis: Meadow of the Sons of Nós), we were looking for Ireland’s most important medieval monastic site, but we were diverted only a stone’s throw from our destination by a sign that we couldn’t ignore…

Tucked away to the south east of Clonmacnoise, on a by-road, sits an isolated church in front of which is a well defined and fenced pathway leading past the Priest’s house, through fields, over a stile and into a pasture where cows grazed and barely gave us a glance. There – open to the ravages of weather and cattle – is a large, earthfast slab of limestone bearing a remarkable array of markings.

Header – a detail from the stone’s crowded surface. Upper – the well-defined path leading from St Kieran’s Church to the stone (don’t confuse this St Kieran with the one from Cape Clear). Lower – the limestone slab situated beyond the stile

For Rock Art enthusiasts like us the stone was a wonderful find. The surface is teeming with rings, lines, shapes – and even lettering. In spite of the weathering, everything was deeply defined and easy to see. And the more we looked, the more we did see, and the more perplexed we became. I even noted footprints! Remember my search last week for the footprint left by Archangel Gabriel on his visit to his eponymous mountain in West Cork? Here I counted six, and my size nine feet fitted perfectly in them all.

Upper – two of the ‘footprints’ scattered on the stone’s marked surface. Lower – the stone in its landscape context: ‘footprints’ are also visible

When we returned from our visit to Offaly I was able to research the available information on the Clonfinlough Stone and was delighted to find a very comprehensive study of it written by Finola’s old friend and Rock Art expert from UCC, Elizabeth Shee Twohig. The piece – Context and Chronology of the Carved Stone at Clonfinlough, County Offaly – was published in 2002 in The Journal of The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume 132 pp 99-113. It makes the most enlightening read, outlining the ways in which the stone was regarded and drawn by early antiquarians and then opening up discussion on how much of the stone’s markings might in fact be natural formations, or natural forms which have influenced and been enhanced by ‘artists’ working with motifs which have become familiar to Rock Art researchers today, including cupmarks.

Engravings by George Victor du Noyer illustrating a paper published by James Grave in 1865. Note the emphasis that du Noyer has placed on recognisable ‘Greek’ style lettering (termed phi by Shee Twohig)

Elizabeth Shee Twohig quotes theories by RAS Macalister which evolved between 1921 and 1949, and which include the idea that the phi markings represent ‘…a possible depiction of a battle between the ‘loop men’ and the ‘cross men’ and suggested that the cupmarks …may even indicate the number of severed heads!…’ In his 1928 book The Archaeology of Ireland Macalister (quoted by Shee Twohig) suggests ‘…the carvings as showing a battle or pre-battle scene, the medicine men having prepared for their occult purposes a picture of the consummation desired…’ while in 1949 he saw it as a sign-manual of a hostile expedition from Spain which sailed up the Shannon: ‘…the battlefield, printed with the footmarks of the flying foe, strewn with weapons cast away in their flight and with missile stones…’

These are but brief extracts from the Shee Twohig account and discussions, which are essential reading – not just for possible enlightenment on the markings on this stone, but also for a well defined background on how ideas about Rock Art generally have developed since the time of the earliest antiquarians.

Elizabeth Shee Twohig has amplified her study of the Clonfinlough Stone with the first truly accurate drawing of the markings on it (above). It is certainly interesting to compare this with the 1865 engravings by du Noyer

Elizabeth Shee Twohig brings in to her study the possible significance of the stone’s positioning close to the great monastic centre of Clonmacnoise, which in medieval times was the prime pilgrimage destination in Ireland. There is evidence that one of the paved pilgrim routes passed close by the Clonfinlough Stone. It is plausible, therefore, that at least some of the markings on this limestone slab could have dated from those times: Clonmacnoise was active between the 6th and 12th centuries.

Upper – the many enigmatic markings on the stone: natural limestone solution pits, Bronze Age Rock Art, crosses carved by or for medieval pilgrims? Lower – the stone is within sight of the present day church

A trawl through the folklore records proves fertile. One legend says that at certain times of the year a horseman manifests and gallops around the stone. Another has it that a local boy named Michael used to play at the rock and there met another boy who gave him a silver knife. His mother made him take the knife back and leave it on the stone, for she said the boy was a fairy trying to entice him away. It is also said that another Michael will find the knife, and when he does he will find two big pots of gold under the rocks. Whatever the truth is about the rock and its meaning, I am struck by the path we found coming from the little church which is in sight of the Clonfinlough Stone: could there be something pagan in that stone which required the church to be built there – or is it a mutual guardianship?

PS – since publishing this post, Gearóid Ó Díomasaigh has pointed me to this 3D Sketchfab image of the Clonfinlough Stone available to view online:

In the church at Clonfinlough is a curious series of Stations: this one showing the ’empty tomb’ can be seen as a rock supplanted by a cross…

The Mountain Road

Over three years ago I wrote a piece about the mountain that’s on our doorstep – Mount Gabriel. This rocky high terrain is always in our view as we travel around West Cork, and we feel it must have had special significance in prehistoric times: it overlooks a majority of the archaeological sites that we have explored locally – perhaps they were placed because of that. Also, there are many stories attached to Mount Gabriel (find them in my previous post), including the fact that the Archangel himself touched down on its summit and left behind a footprint in the stone! Evidently, he was intrigued to hear about Ireland’s verdant beauty and knew that …in time to come, this honest island would never part with the worship and duty it owes to the Mother of God… and so was determined to get a look at the holy place.

Derryconnell Loop Walk on the Fastnet Trails takes in the foothills of Mount Gabriel – seen here in contrasting weather conditions, but only a day apart!

There is a little-known road which runs along the foothills of the mountain which, on a good day, is as beautiful a road as you will find anywhere in Ireland. It begins at the bog of Derreennatra (more of which can be found in Finola’s post today) and you can follow it up and through the Barnacleeve Gap. If you wish, from there you can go all the way up to the summit and get some of the most stunning views all the way over the Mizen, across the Sheep’s Head and even into Kerry.

The climb to the summit of Mount Gabriel is always rewarding, with panoramic views to all points of the compass. Lower Picture: the Air Traffic Control Authority’s installations atop the mountain add an odd drama to the landscape

Part of our Mountain Road has been incorporated in the Derryconnell Loop Walk, one of the new group of the Fastnet Trails based around Schull. The whole of this loop walk is varied and picturesque, but the section from the bog is outstanding as it skirts the mountain – which always dominates the vista – and brings you to the junction with the Barnacleeve road. Keep on going, and take in the mountain itself, or follow the trail down to the old Schull Workhouse. Whichever way you go, you will be struck by the seeming remoteness of the boreens, and you will seldom encounter a vehicle.

In all weathers the Mountain is engaging: you can start out in the mist and finish up in sunshine!

In the latter part of this summer we have explored the road in all weathers, and recorded the many moods of the mountain. Reaching the summit last week, we had a search for the Archangel’s footprint. I’m convinced we found it, but we couldn’t see the lake with its magical islands which – according to the legends ‘…float about up and down, east and north and south; but every Lady-day they come floating to the western point, and there they lie fixed under the crag that holds the track of the Angel’s foot…’ (John Abraham Jagoe, Vicar of Cape Clear – Church of Ireland Magazine 1826)

The peak of Mount Gabriel is strewn with rocks, any of which might contain the Archangel’s footprint. Upper – the view to the islands of Roaringwater Bay. Lower – could this be where he touched down? A definitely footprint shaped impression on this rock – highlighted on the photo in red

In my younger days I was fortunate to hear traditional Irish musicians Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman performing on the streets of Camden Town, London, when I worked in that city. Those streets were a far cry from the home I now have in West Cork, but I recall the duo’s rendering of the tune The Mountain Road: Margaret came from Cork herself, so perhaps our own mountain (or maybe it was Gabriel?) was an inspiration to her.

Descending from the summit, we finished our walk on the Mountain Road at the gauntly atmospheric ruins of Schull Workhouse

Anam Cheoil – The Music’s Soul

The Friday evening concert at this year’s Masters of Tradition Festival in Bantry House was a tour de force: in all, probably the best concert I have heard at this festival in recent times. We went because on the programme were two of our favourite musicians who have come from the Irish tradition: Iarla Ó Lionáird and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. They were both on top form last night, and certainly didn’t disappoint.

Header: ‘Odyssey’ by Barry Linnane  frames beautiful Bantry Bay – host to the Masters of Tradition Festival. Upper – Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (RTE Orchestras) and Lower – Iarla Ó Lionáird (Fractured Air)

Using poetry, music and song, the two performers transfixed us. Both are imbued in the musical and poetic tradition of their country, which comes from deep, deep down. In my explorations of Ireland I am finding how much history is alive and embraced: this applies as much to the history of the culture here as it does to the physical relics of the ancestors in the landscape, whether it’s prehistoric rock art or medieval architecture.

The rushy glens of the Sliabh Luachra country in the Muscraí Gaeltacht, where the Irish language is still very much alive

Iarla Ó Lionáird was born and raised in the Muscraí Gaeltacht, and imbued in the Irish language from birth. A near neighbour in his younger years was Seán Ó Riada, who lived in Ballvourney, and had established Cór Chúil Aodha, a male voice choir singing mainly in Irish, and which exists today under the leadership of Seán’s son Peadar. Iarla joined the choir as a child and sang with it until his early twenties. He now makes his living through his voice and is still very much involved in the Irish tradition while also exploring new grounds. Listen to this very beautiful rendition by Iarla of Caoineadh na dTrí Muire (the keening of the Three Marys):

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin is best known for his unique expression of traditional Irish music on the piano. He claims that he was an introverted child, and that music was his saving grace. He went to UCC where he was also influenced – and taught – by Seán Ó Riada. Eventually he took over Seán’s job at Cork before founding and heading the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at Limerick University. He wasn’t born into the Irish speaking tradition but came to it later in life. In a recent newspaper interview he gave this memorable quote: ‘…I wouldn’t like to be reborn as someone else, not even for a day, I’m so worn out trying to be myself…’ Here’s an example of Mícheál’s playing:

In the course of the Bantry concert the two musicians spoke of a little-known collector of Irish folk-songs – someone of whom I had not heard. Alexander Martin Freeman was …a retiring English scholar of private means… who travelled in the Muscraí Gaeltacht in 1913 and 1914. He wrote down no less than 84 Irish language songs, and his work has been described as ‘…incomparably the finest collection published in our time of Irish songs noted from oral tradition…’ This is all the more remarkable as Freeman spoke no Irish. He painstakingly wrote the words, exactly as he heard them, in phonetic spelling, based on his own native English. For this reason, the texts were apparently ignored initially by Irish folklorists. But now they are viewed with interest by scholars as they give a great insight into the word-sounds of Irish speakers from those years – apparently the West Cork dialect has been changing with time! Over the years both Seán Ó Riada and Iarla Ó Lionáird have brought the songs back into circulation, and we were treated to some examples. Freeman’s field notebooks from Ballyvourney are held in the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin.

Winter scene in the Muscraí Gaeltacht

In the Library of Bantry House these two performers gave us a very special experience through music, song and poetry. Although I don’t speak or understand Irish, I appreciated the beauty of the sounds of the words – a music itself. We and the audience were transfixed by the whole experience. Walking out on the terrace of Bantry House afterwards, I looked to the west where the sun was dropping behind the mountains over the calm waters of the bay. I felt that we had, through the music, been given a privileged glimpse into the soul of Ireland.

Stab All!

With the West Cork History Festival just around the corner (this coming weekend – July 28 to 30: hurry! – there are still some tickets left for a whole host of compelling events), I thought I would concentrate today on a little piece of very local history which has fascinated me for some time.

Header picture: looking down Staball Hill to the colourful and thriving community of Ballydehob in West Cork; above – Chapel Lane, just on the edge of town: a haven for wildflowers with – lower picture – the intriguing sign Lacha Bhuí

Mounted beside the road on Chapel Hill in Ballydehob is a slate plaque, which is inscribed Lacha Bhuí. I asked Finola to translate the Irish for me: it says Yellow Duck! Intrigued, I asked around to see if anyone knew why there should be such a sign in this place; eventually, I was transported back to 1642…

Reenactment of the 1642 Battle of Stratton, in Cornwall: it’s not Ballydehob, but perhaps it portrays something of the atmosphere of the skirmish that took place here in the same year

My principle informant is Noel Coakley – a local historian and a mine of information. He it was who told me the story of a battle that took place in Ballydehob, on Staball Hill in 1642. He couldn’t remember where he had the information from but this is the account he gave me:

In the days of the old Clan system, the McCarthys and the O’Mahonys held sway in this area and a string of castles bears testimony to their strength and dominance. In 1602, an army, led by Sir George Carew, the English President of Munster, descended on the area and were successful in breaking the power of the gaelic Chieftains.

The arrival of the sixteen hundreds saw an influx of settlers, mainly from England, but a significant number were protestants fleeing persecution from Catholic France.

A powerful family named Swanton, from Norfolk in England, came and succeeded in subjecting much of the area to themselves and even changed the name of the village to “Swantons town”. The last use of this name was in the census of 1821.

As always the natives resisted the dominance of foreigners. In those days before police forces, a garrison of twelve British soldiers attempted to uphold and enforce the law and order in Ballydehob. Robert Swanton the leader of the Swanton group, who had quite a few questionable projects to his name, and had earned for himself the nickname ‘Black-hearted Bob’, enlisted the help of the garrison to take over Ballydehob for himself. A group of six local men, who were trained to arms, issued a challenge to the garrison and Black-hearted Bob and a pitched battle was fought at Staball Hill. The year was 1642…

Top – looking towards Staball Hill, Ballydehob, on a peaceful summer Sunday afternoon; centre – Danno – wrestling Champion of the World (and son of Ballydehob) stands guard at the battle site; lower – Cnoc Staball – Staball Hill

There’s more from Noel:

In 1628, the first Huguenots appeared on the southwest coast, mainly in small boats, to escape detection from the French. They brought with them jewellery and other valuables which they traded with the Irish for plots of land. They were entrepreneurs and set up small industries.

One of their number Pierre Camier noticed the exploitation of the natives and took sides with the Irish defenders in the battle of Staball Hill. Black-hearted Bob took flight from the fray and Pierre Camier pursued him and caught up with him between the present St Bridget’s Church and the Garda station and there he attacked him and killed him. He came back to the fray and shouted “I’ve killed the yellow duck”.

Meanwhile the battle was going well for the Irish band. They killed all the garrison losing just one man of their own. The leader of the Irish band shouted “stab ‘em all” and it is alleged that this was how Staball Hill got its name. The term yellow duck is often applied to a coward in France and to this day the spot where ‘Black-hearted Bob’ was killed is known as ‘Lacha bhuí’ which is the gaelic for ‘yellow duck’…

You’d never know it, but this little patch of West Cork tranquility was the very spot where Black-hearted Bob Swanton met his bloody end, at the hands of Pierre Camier

After some searching I found another account of the battle, in From West Cork Through Time by Kieran McCarthy and Daniel Breen – Amberly Publishing, UK 2013:

…The seventeenth century saw the arrival of a number of settlers, mainly from England, but many were also Protestants (Huguenots) fleeing persecution in Catholic France. The Swantons from Norfolk emerged as the most prominent family in the area and, by the late eighteenth century, they had even changed the name of Ballydehob to Swanton’s Town. A garrison of twelve British soldiers attempted to uphold the law. Robert Swanton, the leader of the group, enlisted the help of the garrison to take over Ballydehob. A group of six local men, who were trained in arms, issued a challenge to the garrison and ‘Black-hearted Bob’, and a pitched battle was fought on Staball Hill. The year was 1642…

In rural Ireland history is never far below the surface. Here in Ballydehob there are still reminders of the Huguenot and English proponents in the ‘Yellow Duck’ affair

As a little addendum I can’t resist pointing out that there is a Staball Hill in Castlebar, County Mayo. It has a story, too:

According to folklore, Staball Hill got its name from the ‘Races of Castlebar’ during the Rebellion of 1798. General Humbert, with an army of 1000 French soldiers, landed at Killala and fought his way to Castlebar with the help of some Irish recruits where an army of British soldiers were waiting for him.  After the battle, the British contingent fled so fast that the episode became known as the ‘Races of Castlebar’ and is often described as one of the most ignominious defeats in British military history. During the battle a blockade was erected by the British in one last stand at Bridge Street.  As the Irish soldiers, armed only with pikes, charged the British the residents of the street are said to have shouted ‘Stab them all’. This was shortened to ‘Staball’.  On the Ordnance Survey Map c1900 the hill is called ‘Stab all’ – the words separated…

Staball Hill, Castlebar, County Mayo:

Danny

My best friend Danny passed away this week. He chose St Swithun’s Day to go – perhaps because there is a message in the saint’s story – and Danny was a goldmine for the stories. St Swithun – whose monastic community was in Winchester, Hampshire – died in 862. On his deathbed Swithun begged that he should be buried outside the north wall of his cathedral where pilgrims would pass over his grave and rain from the eaves would drop upon it. This was done, but a number of monks felt that this was too humble a place for their bishop, so they worked hard for a year and built a large and ornate mausoleum, decorated with gold and fine carvings. On the anniversary of his death – 15 July – preparations were made to move Swithun into it, but a mighty storm blew up. It lasted 40 days and everything was flooded for miles around. The stately tomb was washed away, and Swithun – as he wished – has enjoyed his simple and peaceful resting place ever since.

Danny loved his simple life tucked away in the hills of West Cork. I first met him in 1978, when he visited the folklore shop we had just opened in Devon, close by where he lived then. From that day our paths crossed frequently, and I came to know his wife Gillian and their five daughters. At that time Danny kept goats and made bodhrans from them – those are the circular framed drums that are frequently used to accompany Irish traditional music. Danny’s hand-crafted bodhrans were considered outstanding by players, and now examples of his instruments can be found across the world. This one is in my own collection:

For me, Danny was a fount of knowledge about Ireland, Irish life and Irish music and literature. I have probably also heard every story about his own travels, which seemed to start in his birthplace of Limerick and took him to most exotic places, finishing here in West Cork, with many stops along the way. It’s sad to think that his life here has passed, but I’m sure his soul soars over this lush and beautiful landscape – and will continue to do so forever. Goodbye, Danny – and safe home.