Off the M8 – Searching out Péacáin

Once again we followed in the footsteps of our friends Amanda and Peter – she of Holy Wells of Cork and he of Hikelines. They had visited the Glen of Aherlow in County Tipperary and pointed us to St Berrahert’s extraordinary site at Ardane which I described in this post. Not far away is another site, which Amanda reported on fully in her own post, here. It is equally remarkable, and related to St Berrahert’s Kyle in that they were both restored by the Office of Public Works in the 1940s. They are also both very easily accessible in a few minutes from the M8 motorway at Cahir.

We were delighted to be travelling again through the beautiful Glen in the shadow of the Galtee Mountains (above) as we searched out a boreen that led us down to the railway, as directed by Amanda. We parked and crossed at the gate, watching out carefully as this is the Waterford to Limerick Junction line used by two trains a day (except on Sundays!)

Once across, we were in an idyll. It’s a private lane, running alongside a gentle stream, but the Bourke family allow visitors to walk (as they have done for centuries) to the old church, the cell and the holy well of Saint Péacáin. Ancient stone walls line the way, and trees overhang, shading the dappled sunlight in this most exceptional of Irish seasons. We met Bill Bourke, who regaled us with tales of his life spent mostly far away from this, his birthplace – but who returned to rebuild the family home and to enjoy perpetual summer in what is, for him, the most beautiful setting in the world. He also told us of the crowds who used to come to celebrate St Péacáin at Lughnasa – 1st August – paying the rounds and saying the masses.

In her monumental work (it runs to over 700 pages) The Festival of Lughnasa – Oxford University Press 1962 – Máire MacNeill points out the harvest feast day was such an important ancient celebration that it survives as the focus of veneration of many local saints who would otherwise have been known for their own patron day, and she particularly mentions Tobar Phéacáin in this regard: a place well away from any large settlement where the great agricultural festival was so critical to the cycle of rural life.

The rural setting of St Péacáin’s Cell can be seen above, just in front of the trees; the church and the well are nearby. MacNeill provides a description of Tobar Phéacáin and includes some variant names:

. . . Tobar Phéacáin (Peakaun’s Well), Glen of Aherlow, Barony of Clanwilliam, Parish of Killardry, Townland of Toureen . . . On the northern slope of the Galtee Mountain at the entrance to the Glen of Aherlow and about three or four miles north-west of Caher there is a well and ruin of a small church. About a mile beyond Kilmoyler Cross Roads a path leads up to it . . . In 1840 O’Keefe, of the Ordnance Survey team, reported that the old church was called by the people Teampuillin Phéacáin, or just Péacán . . .

. . . The well, which he described as lying a few perches south-east of the church was called Peacan’s Well or Tobar Phéacáin. It was surrounded by a circular ring of stonework. He stated: ‘The pattern-day still observed at this place falls on the 1st of August, which day is, or at least until a few years since, has been kept as a strict holiday.’ Devotions were also, he said, performed there on Good Friday . . .

A hundred years after O’Keefe wrote this, the church ruins were tidied up by the Office of Public Works. As at St Berrihert’s Kyle, it seems there were numerous carved slabs on the site and remnants of high crosses, implying a significant ecclesiastical presence here. All these have been fixed in and around the church ruin for safekeeping, and in an intelligent grouping. It’s wonderful to be able to see such treasures in the place they were (presumably) made for, and to experience them in such a remote and peaceful ambience.

McNeill continues:

. . . Nearby is the shaft of a cross which tradition avers was broken in malice by a mason who was then stricken with an inward pain and died suddenly as a punishment for his sacrilege . . . O’Keefe was told a story of a small stone, 6 or 7 inches long and 4 or 5 in depth, having ten little hollows in it and resting in a hollow of the ‘altar’ of the old church. Christ, or according to others St Péacán, asked a woman, who had been churning, for some butter; she denied having any and when the visitor departed she found the butter had turned into stone which retained the impression of her fingers . . . Nuttall-Smith speaks also of a cave where the saint used to practice austerities . . .

The carved fragments are quite remarkable and are in all likelihood well over a thousand years old. I have yet to see anywhere in Ireland – outside of museums – which has such an extensive collection of fascinating medieval antiquities as these sites in the Glen of Aherlow. Here you can also see cross slabs and a sundial said to date from the eighth century.

Nuttall-Smith’s ‘cave’ – quoted by MacNeill above – is likely to be St Péacáin’s Cell, set in a field on the far side of the river. This was probably a clochán, or beehive-hut, of the type once used by anchorites. It is protected by a whitethorn tree, but was quite heavily overgrown on the day of our visit. We could make out the ballaun stones inside, said to be the knee prints of the Saint who made his constant devotions there. Amanda – in her post on the holy well – reports that Péacáin would also stand daily with arms outstretched against a stone cross, chanting the psalter.

McNeill discusses the significance of weather at the August celebrations:

. . . Paradoxically for a day of outing so fondly remembered, no tradition of the Lughnasa festival is stronger than that which says that it is nearly always rainy. No doubt this has been only too often experienced. Saint Patrick’s words to the Dési: ‘Bid frossaig far ndála co bráth’ (Your meetings shall always be showery) must be as well proved a prophecy as was ever made. Still there must be more significance in the weather beliefs than dampened observation. Certainly it was expected that rain should fall on that day, and sayings vary as to whether that was a good or bad sign . . . There are a few interesting beliefs about thunder, which was also expected on that day: the loud noise heard at Tristia when the woman made rounds there to have her jealous husband’s affection restored; the prophecy that no-one would be injured by lightning at Doonfeeny, a promise also made by St Péacán . . .

The holy well is tucked away in a stone-walled enclosure hidden under the trees on the edge of the field which contains the Saint’s cell. It’s also a tranquil place, obviously still much visited: the water is crystal clear, refreshing and will ensure protection from burns and drowning.  This is a magical setting to complete the day’s travels in the beautiful Glen of Aherlow.

Off the M8 – A Secret in The Glen of Aherlow

The Glen of Aherlow, County Tipperary: I had never heard of it. However, as you can see from the view, above, the place deserves to be explored: it’s about 20 minutes from junctions 10 and 11 near Cahir. That’s not too much of a diversion. From the spot where this photo was taken – on our travels this week – you can look out across to the Galtee Mountains, a prospect enjoyed for eternity by this imposing statue of Christ the King, whose hand is raised . . . in blessing the Glen, its people and all those who pass by . . . The statue was originally placed here by volunteers in the Holy year of 1950, and recreated in 1975. It has become the symbol of the Glen.

We were passing on our way to search out a secret which the Glen holds: somewhere in the townland of Ardane, we knew that there is a very ancient site where treasures have been hidden away for centuries. The first edition of the Ordnance Survey map has it marked:

I was intrigued, because a ‘Stone Cross’ indicated in this way often implies a High Cross, and a monastic settlement, so I was anxious to investigate. You will remember previous posts I have written on the many magnificent examples of these medieval treasures which Ireland holds. We had been alerted to this site by our friends Amanda and Peter, who have recently visited, and Amanda has given a comprehensive account of St Berrahert’s Well (also shown on the map) in Holy Wells of Cork. Like Amanda, I am unsure if there is a ‘correct’ spelling of St Berrahert: he is also known as Berrihert, Berehert, Bernihardt, Bericheart, and Bernard! Not a lot is known about him, other than that he came to the Glen after the Synod of Whitby in AD 664 and died on 6 December 839 – one of the saints who, like St Ciarán . . . the first Saint of Ireland . . . had a remarkably long life and who has left his name behind in the heart of Tipperary.

The place is generally known as St Berrahert’s Kyle (from the Irish word cill, ‘church’). It’s hard to find. We enlisted the help of Jimmy Martin, a local resident, who regaled us most entertainingly – and at great length – about hooded monks, crows and strange characters he had personally encountered at the site, and cures which he had witnessed at the well. Following his instructions we crossed fields, passed somnolent cows, and saw before us the remarkable ‘Kyle’.

Stone walls and large trees completely encircle an oval shaped enclosure, and the only way in is by steps going over the wall. You are unlikely to be fully prepared for what you find inside. I had hoped for a High Cross – or the fragments of one: we did find a High Cross (perhaps two), but we also found around 70 other stone crosses! Somehow, the Kyle has become a repository for them, but hardly anything is known of their history. After our visit I looked into the stories and found that the enclosure itself – which feels timeless – is probably only as old as I am…

This photograph was taken in 1907. It shows that, for whatever reason, by that time a collection of stone crosses was assembled here. Suggestions have been made that an ancient church on this site was robbed of good building stone, but ‘sacred’ marked stones were left behind out of respect (or from fear of divine retribution). But records do show that the stone enclosure was built in 1946 by the Office of Public Works. What we see today, therefore, is (like me) 72 years old, although of course the stones themselves must have been carved long ago.

The whole collection of stone cross slabs, cross wheels and decorated pillar stones has been put together into an aesthetically pleasing composition which is exciting and – relatively – in safe keeping. To my mind it’s a far better way of displaying these enigmatic pieces than being tucked away in a museum. On a day when the harsh sunlight and perfect blue sky cast deep shadows and outlined the carvings so clearly the place was absolutely magical: the outside world seemed so very far away. The two largest crosses are set close to each other, built into the wall itself. The first is – to my mind – undoubtedly a High Cross in the medieval tradition; it is likely to have originated here, in St Berrahert’s holy place. As to the others, their stories will probably remain untold. But I wish them all well, and hope that future generations appreciate that what has been put together here has a life of its own and should remain an open secret, to be revealed to anyone who makes the effort to search it out.

A pilgrim path – set out with ‘stations’ – encircles the enclosure (photos below). Would this be part of the 1946 construction? From here, the way to the well is marked across more fields, and requires negotiating a boardwalk. It’s a trip that has to be made, though, as the well itself – continuously bubbling up from the sandy bed – is just as magical as the Kyle.

A Day on Cape Clear: Guest Post by Hugo Caron, 11

On Tuesday 12th June my Mum, my Aunt, Finola, and I went to Cape Clear. We left the house at about 10 o’clock. We went to a coffee shop before we went to Cape Clear. I had a hot chocolate (which I would later throw up over the side of the boat).

When we got to the boat I started taking photos of the other boats.

It took about an hour to get to Cape Clear.

My Mum bought an ice-cream for me when we got there . After we had the ice-creams, we walked up a mountain on Cape Clear.

We got on the boat to Fastnet Rock.

We got back to Cape Clear, and waited for the boat back to Schull.

When we got back to my Aunt’s house, I cropped all my photos (there was 172). I had great day.

Note from the Aunt: Hugo took (and processed) all the photos except one (last one, above, of Hugo and his mum), and wrote the text for this post. The reason I took the last one is that he was feeling queasy (see paragraph 1). 

Heir Island – a Modern Paradise

You know that term, Island Paradise? Well, this week I went there. It’s called Heir Island, and it’s one of the inhabited islands of Roaringwater Bay. It was the first of many visits, I hope, and it was taken in the good company of Trish Punch and two Islanders, Christine Thery and Sarah Mathews.

This is the view of Heir Island from our own home – the grouping of houses behind the sandy beach is called Paris!

Heir (sometimes rendered as Hare) is Inis Ui’Drisceoil in Irish, and indeed it was very much part of the O’Driscoll territory up to the 1600s. The population has dwindled, along with that of all the islands, until now there are only about 20 permanent residents. But it’s a popular destination in the summer, with an active sailing school, a renowned restaurant (the Island Cottage) and of course the Bread-Making School that Robert and I attended and enjoyed enormously.

It’s got wonderful peaceful boreens, picturesque cottages, panoramic views over Roaringwater Bay and to the other islands, golden beaches – all this and it’s only a four minute ferry ride to the mainland. But shush – don’t tell anyone else or they’ll all want to come.

Trish is doing a long-term photographic project focusing on the islands of the Wild Atlantic Way and was keen to get back to Heir to capture the views. I had been following a Facebook Page called Heir Island Wildlife Project and had contacted Christine and Sarah, two of the admins on that page, to see if they would meet us when we came and tell us a little about their project. They did better than that, walking the length of the Island with us, and answering all our questions. (Not to mention the coffee and those Portuguese buns!)

I had boned up a little on the island plants, with the help of The Wild Plants of Sherkin, Cape Clear and adjacent Islands of West Cork by John Akeroyd et al, a publication of the Sherkin Island Marine Station that we had visited way back. The book outlines the habitats and growing conditions of the islands, and enumerates the “astonishing” richness of plant species that are to be found on them. Heir is second only to Sherkin in the number of Flowers and ferns to be found, several of which are nationally rare.

The islands ‘specialise’ in heathland species, due to the dominance of open ground, the lack of trees and the broken rocky nature of the terrain. As Akeroyd explains, Thin soils dry out during the summer, thus preventing encroachment by more vigorous species and allowing the plants themselves to die down and the seeds to ripen. Most of this group of plants are annuals more characteristic of southern Europe and the Mediterranean region. . . 

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And indeed what I found was an astonishing variety of wildflowers. When I got home I counted that I had taken photographs of 45 different plants! But that was only part of the wildflowers we saw, since I didn’t photograph everything we came across. Several were new to me, including the Amphibious Bistort and the Pond Water-crowfoot that had arrived unbidden in Sarah’s newly-dug pond.

Butterflies, hover flies and bumble bees seemed to be everywhere we looked. The orange-tip butterfly (the one that loves the Cuckooflower) wouldn’t stay still enough for a snap, but a Common Blue Butterfly with its iridescent wings, and a Cinnabar moth with bold stripes both cooperated.

At the West end of the Island rugged cliffs provide a perfect breeding ground for European Shags. These birds have been amber-listed in Ireland because breeding populations are very localised. Therefore, it’s important that they have found a suitable nesting site on Heir and it’s wonderful to see that this small colony seems to be successfully hatching their young. Looking quite like a cormorant and similar in size, up close they have a striking green gloss to their feathers.

The headland from which we observed the shags provided a carpet of spring heath on which to loll about and admire the views across the Cape Clear and the Mainland. My eyes were immediately drawn down, however, to the ground beneath me. Orchids, Wild Thyme, Thrift, Lousewort, and a beautiful rose-coloured Kidney Vetch provided swaths of pink and purple, while Milkwort and Dog-violet yielded hint of blue and Scurvygrass (Common, I think) rounded it all out with a mat of white flowers.

I didn’t find (or didn’t recognise) some of the very rare plants that grow on these islands, like Wormwood, Deptford Pinks and Spotted Rockrose. Obviously another expedition is called for!

I worry all the time about habitat loss in West Cork. The sound of the rock breaker is a constant in our lives, carving out new fields where there was heath and hedge, and thereby reducing food and shelter for our pollinators and small mammals. I feel despair when I arrive at my favourite place to see a certain set of wildflowers, only to find that someone has been in there with Roundup and it’s now a brown wasteland. Places like Heir Island have a unique opportunity, perhaps even a responsibility, to stay as pristine as possible, to remain an Island Paradise as long as possible for all our sakes. Fortunately, lots of the local residents think so too and that make me hopeful.

A glimpse into Christine’s studio – her exhibitions are always eagerly anticipated locally

Thank you, Sarah and Christine for a wonderful day, and Trish for your excellent company. Let’s do it again soon!

Ballyfin – Part 2: Decline and Revival

Last week Roaringwater Journal visited Ballyfin Demesne: I sketched out the early history of the house and Finola looked at the magnificent grounds. Today I’m bringing the story up to date. We got as far as the gracious Victorian and Edwardian days, when the Coote family were in residence, as they had been since 1813. The photo above dates from 1903 and shows a jaunting car waiting at the entrance to the house (Magan Collection): perhaps those days were not quite as settled as the halcyon period when the children of Sir Charles Coote were painted so fancifully in the early nineteenth century (artist: George Hayter – with the addition of a whippet painted by Edwin Lanseer!). The painting (below) is now a centrepiece in the Gold Room at Ballyfin.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were clouds on the horizon for the Anglo Irish families and their big houses, although life at Ballyfin seemed to maintain a continuum up until the commencement of the Great War. Generations of Cootes are remembered as having been good landlords and employers: on Sir Charles’ death in 1864 the most important members of staff were ‘handsomely rewarded’ in his will, while in the early 20th century the 12th Baronet, Sir Algernon Coote, paid the highest wages in the county – and ‘provided a comfortable house’ – to all outside labourers. In 1920, Sir Algernon died and was succeeded by his eldest son, Ralph,  the 13th Baronet. In the atmosphere of the Irish War of Independence, Ralph could no longer see a future in remaining at Ballyfin: ‘ . . . nothing would ever be the same again . . . ‘

A sad picture of Ballyfin – the house now abandoned and awaiting its fate in 1926

Sensibly – and most fortunately for today’s owners, Sir Ralph determined that the demesne should not be broken up and dispersed. He insisted that it should be marketed as one lot:

‘ . . . I have no intention whatever of dividing the demesne, the price is £10,000 . . . The figure is final and you need not bother to waste any time with anyone trying to reduce it. I would let the place fall down first . . . ‘

It was precisely one hundred years after the 9th Baronet had rebuilt Ballyfin to re-establish a permanent residence there.

So it was that, in 1930, Ballyfin set out on a new path in its development – as a school owned and run by the Patrician Brothers – a Roman Catholic teaching brotherhood. The only significant alterations to the house were the creation of a College Chapel in the old Dining Room (above), a dormitory across the north front of the first floor, and improved services. The immediate grounds were retained to provide productive gardens and the yards were filled with livestock.

Reports of life at the school from those who have memories of it are generally very positive, particularly because of the idyllic surroundings and features of the estate.  While the Patricians did their best to ensure that Ballyfin catered for the needs of a large secondary school and also strove to keep the entire demesne intact, in the end economic pressures and decades of slow decline took their toll. The Brothers closed the College in September, 2001, after 74 years of stewardship: once vacated, Ballyfin House was considered  by the Irish Georgian Society to be foremost amongst Ireland’s endangered buildings. It needed a saviour to rescue it. Fortunately, three appeared.

Above – an example of the declining fabric of Ballyfin during the twentieth century: Richard Turner’s iconic iron conservatory seems beyond repair, yet the reincarnation of the estate that commenced in 2004 has magnificently returned this architectural gem to prime condition, along with the rest of the house and Demesne. The conservatory was completely dismantled and – piece by piece – the ironwork was restored, then reassembled. Then a complete reglazing took place (practically every pane is a different size): in the days of the school the boys had found the glass an irresistible target!

In 2002, a Chicago based couple, Fred and Kay Krehbiel, became the new owners of Ballyfin and invited Jim Reynolds – one of Ireland’s leading landscape designers (who incidentally shared an archaeology education with Finola!) – to join them as shareholder and managing director on a project that was ‘ . . . a fundamental desire to recreate, primarily through restoration, the great hospitable tradition. the luxury and the atmosphere of the Irish country house . . . ‘ Ballyfin encompassed everything they had been searching for: ‘ . . . a great endangered house in a beautiful landscape that needed rescuing . . . ‘

The source of much of the history of the demesne recorded here is the impressive volume by Kevin V Mulligan, to which I referred last week. This extract is a good summary of the ethos and achievement of those who drove the project:

‘ . . . The primary aim of the new owners and Jim Reynolds has been to re-establish the integrity of the house and everything within the demesne walls – its historic buildings, gardens and parklands, and by opening the house to guests, to fulfil the hospitable intentions of the Irish country house. Since 2004 an extensive programme of restoration works has brought the house closest to its state following completion almost two centuries ago. It has taken eight years to achieve this, longer in fact than it had taken to complete the house in the first instance . . . ‘

This photo compendium indicates the high quality of the restoration and the attention paid to every detail, including the recovery and hanging of many of the original portraits showing the owners of the estate during its history.

Ballyfin today reflects one piece of the complicated jigsaw puzzle that is the history of Ireland. It paints a picture of way of life now in the past.  In today’s incarnation as a first class, small hotel it offers a distilled and polished experience of the best of contemporary Irish hospitality.

Ballyfin Bliss

If the house at Ballyfin is beyond superb (see Robert’s post this week), the grounds are equally so. Originally based on the design philosophies of Capability Brown, the emphasis is on natural and sweeping vistas, pleasure gardens, mixtures of open lawn and woodlands, tea-houses and follies artfully dotted around, an expansive lake with an island and with lawns leading down to the edge, and of course a long winding driveway that eventually reveals the best view of the house.

Somehow all these landscape features have survived intact at Ballyfin, although some of them needed to be rediscovered or uncovered. What has been added is a masterpiece of both enhancement and restraint, and the genius behind that is Jim Reynolds, the Managing Director of the enterprise that is Ballyfin Demesne. Jim and I share a past in Boyne Valley Archaeology, although we were in different camps (that’s another story) and I visited his famous garden, The Butterstream in Meath, with my mother in the early 90s. That was the last time I saw him until this week. Genial and self-effacing, he gives credit to his marvellous team, while they, to a person, talk about his eye, his vision, his expansive knowledge and his drive.

We spent two days walking, riding (in a horse and carriage) and driving (in a golf cart) around the estate, and we still haven’t seen all of its 640 acres. Entrancing is the word that keeps coming to me. It’s spring still (late this year) and the woods are awash in bluebells, mixed with Ramsons, Herb Robert and Greater Celandine.

The extensive trail system takes you around the lake and into the old-growth woods, where chestnuts and oak trees shelter vast swathes of colourful undergrowth.

The path meanders past the Grotto (every house should have one) which is not your typical Irish Lourdes shrine, but a rustic construction created to convey a sense of ancient ‘druidic’ mystery. Impressing and amusing your guests was important and grottos, temples and such like were a vital element of 18th century pleasure gardens.

When it comes to follies, the jewel in the crown at Ballyfin is the Round Tower. It looks old because it was built that way, as a ruin. They say that from the top you can see 16 counties. It’s a pleasant thing, as a couple of our fellow-guests did, to take a book up to the little room at the top and while away an hour or two before wandering back down to the house for coffee and a scone, mid-morning.

Jim and his team’s commitment to wild flowers and to pollinators is everywhere in evidence. The meadows are only cut once a year and as a result they are alive with the hum of bees and the flash of butterflies. Even the formal and kitchen gardens have areas set aside to attract pollinators.

As seems inevitable in Ireland nowadays, we also saw Japanese Knotweed on the demesne. Robert Pywell, the head gardener, told us that the rock garden was originally hidden under an acre of Knotweed. Only constant spraying/injection can address a Knotweed problem, and the program is ongoing for this invasive and persistent species.

He told us about another pest too – Ireland has a mink problem. Originally imported from North America for the purpose of fur farming, several hundred mink were “liberated” by animal rights activists in a nearby county years ago. Others have escaped, or been released by fur farmers over the years. They have no predators in Ireland and they are ferocious killers of ducks, swans, fish, rabbits and small mammals. They have decimated the waterfowl population at Ballyfin. Trapping them is difficult, but it has to be done. Lady Coote would approve – she loved her peacocks and built an aviary for them (above) that was, as our driver said, better than some of the houses round about.

Back to that rock garden (above) – once it was salvaged it turned out to be a glorious addition to the demesne. Built around an old millstream and pond, it hosts some delightful plants. A new one for me was Saxifraga Cymbalaria (sometimes called Celandine Saxifrage), which is not native and only known in a few places in Ireland. It obviously loves the rockery as it is flourishing and providing an attractive yellow ground cover.

Beautiful as this designed landscape was, once fully restored, something was missing and Jim Reynold’s unerring eye for detail knew exactly what was needed. What he did was to build a cascade down the back lawn, from an ornamental temple at the top to a Neptune pond at the bottom. It is the perfect finishing touch and has quickly become an iconic aspect of Ballyfin’s landscaping.

We loved our break at Ballyfin. Special treats such as this don’t come around often in the normal course of life, so we are grateful that we can enjoy the odd sortie such as this now and then. It was such a privilege to be able to appreciate the incredible work that has gone into restoring this house to its former glory and the wonderful staff that looks after it (and looked after us!) so proudly.

Thank you, Ballyfin!