The Lusty Month of May

The month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds.  For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May.

–  Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur 

One of our local roads is lined with Ragged Robin

Walking the boreens in May there is a sense of potency, urgency even, in the landscape. We’ve been asleep long enough, the flowers are saying – it’s high time we put in an appearance.

Another one has pignut on both sides. Pignut? Yes, there is such a flower – it’s widespread and the rounded roots which are said to taste like hazlenuts were a food source for pigs, and sometimes for humans too

After a long dry spring, everything is early this year in West Cork this year – and earlier than in the rest of Ireland too, thanks to our southerly location and mild climate. The big flowers are happening – the irises and the foxgloves in all their boldness and drama, as well as the tiny ones that are peeping out along the hedgebanks.

Glimpsed along the way: Yellow Iris is a bold native plant that likes damp places; St Patrick’s Cabbage grows extensively around the Cork and Kerry Peninsulas; this Spotted Orchid was one of several at the Heron Gallery Garden; Red Campion grows just across from my house

The Big Event in May for us was the launch of the Wildflower Trail, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The launch was lovely – it was a great honour to have Zoë Devlin come and declare the trail open, and then lead us in a wildflower walk. The brochure is now in the Tourist Centres and already people are picking it up and wandering the boreens.

Zoë had participants spellbound – she just knows SO much!

For me it was a special opportunity to learn from Zoë when we walked the course before the launch. It was a great experience and I learned very quickly that for Zoë the wildflowers are just one aspect of an interdependent whole that includes butterflies, moths, bees, birds, and flora and fauna of all descriptions.

Clockwise from top left: Green Veined Butterfly; bee in foxglove; Painted Lady Butterfly; Red Admiral

I also learned how dedicated she is to recording all the flowers she sees for the National Biodiversity Centre Database. This is not a difficult thing to do, but it does take a little practice and a little time. I am resolved to up my own game in this regard and start sending in more records.

Our native – and gorgeous – White Water-lily

But mostly I just want to spread the joy – and help people to see the incredible beauty and diversity of wildflowers that we have in West Cork. Our boreens should be celebrated as National Treasures!

This boreen leads out of Ballydehob – it’s alive with an enormous variety of flowers.

Above is Wild Carrot -as its name suggests, this is the wild version of our cultivated carrot. Very young wild carrots are edible, but you must take extreme care as the plant is very similar to Hemlock Water-dropwort (below) which is very poisonous. This one is growing along a stream in Skibbereen – also the location of the Yarrow in my lead image (top of post).

Irish Spurge, above, is an intense yellow green in April. In May it acquires this little yellow spaceship flower heads. You have to get in really close to see them.

Salad Burnet (above) was grown in kitchen gardens from Medieval times as a salad vegetable and herb. The leaves, they say, taste like cucumber. I’ve tried them, and I have to say you’d need a vivid imagination to get a cucumber taste out of them.

Zoë alerted us to Russian Vine (above, wrapping around flowering nettles) down at Rossbrin Cove. Also known as Mile a Minute, it’s an introduced plant that acts like Bindweed (only worse) and is related to Japanese Knotweed, so very difficult to kill. Bad news!

I love the colour combinations you find in the hedgebanks. Wouldn’t this – buttercup and speedwell – make a great dress material?

A baby waterlilly – I was struck by how it looks, as if lit from within.

A final, tiny, flower of the hedges – appropriately name Mouse-ear

A Wildflower Trail for West Cork

Wildflowers are a spectacular part of our environmental heritage in West Cork. Many of us are aware of them in the background, although we couldn’t name more than half a dozen. It’s only when visitors come along and swoon over the abundance of colour in the hedges that we realise what an incredible natural resource we have on our doorstep. We have a little patch of bog beside us, for example, and a few days ago Bog Cotton and Bog Bean (above) were merrily blooming side by side there. I had never realised how attractive they were until I lingered for close observation. 

St Patrick’s Cabbage is part of the Lusitanian Flora we wrote about in our post Into the Woods. It grows abundantly on the North Side of the Mizen.

We at Roaringwater Journal are exceptionally pleased to have been involved with developing West Cork’s first ever Wildflower Trail System – it launches this Tuesday, but it’s been a while in the planning. The Trail System and its associated brochure is an educative tool that helps us appreciate and learn more about the wildflowers that surround us.

These little beauties are called Mexican Fleabane, but also known as Wall Daisies. The opposite of lawn daisies, they go pink as they age, rather than when they emerge. They’re an introduced species but have naturalised widely. These ones are on the wall of the stream that runs through Drimoleague.

We are particularly happy to welcome Zoë Devlin to do the honours of launching the trails. When I first got interested in wildflowers our friend Amanda (yes, she of Holy Wells of Cork fame) gave me a copy of Zoë’s book, The Wildflowers of Ireland, and it instantly became my bible. It’s laid out by colour, you see, and then by form (four petals, five petals, round clusters, etc) so it’s easy to navigate and to find what you’re after. The illustrations are clear and there’s lots of information about each plant to help you figure out what you’re looking at.

Better still, there’s Zoë’s website. Because it’s constantly updated, it has even more flower species in it, and more information on each one – including herbal uses, folklore references, and details on whether it is native or alien. And finally, there’s her Facebook page where she posts news, recent finds or currently blooming flowers, using her own superb images.

This is Yarrow. I didn’t recognise it at first because I thought Yarrow was always white, but apparently it can be this colour too. In addition, it’s supposed to like dry ground, but this one was overhanging a stream

The Wildflower Trail builds on the fact that there is already a system of waymarked trails around Ballydehob and the Mizen. Robert wrote about the Fastnet Trails in our post Closer Encounters – Fastnet Trails, and I followed up with a two-part post on the Rossbrin Loop Trail, here and here.

Sea Campion, a native plant adapted to a coastal habitat. It often occurs in drifts.

Using the specially-designed brochure, walkers can identify wildflowers along their chosen trail, then return to the Tourist Office and add their finds to the Master List on the wall. The Tourist Centres at Ballydehob and Schull will have resources available to help them identify any other flowers they have found. If you can’t pick up a brochure, you can find a link to it here.

May belongs to the May Tree – AKA the Hawthorn or Whitethorn. Online forums this year reveal it has been an exceptional year for Hawthorn right across the country

To support the Trails we have started a new Facebook Page – Wildflowers of West Cork – where we will post updates and images of what’s in bloom and what to look out for. If you’re a Facebook user, head over and give us a Like and a Share.

Water Cress, seen on the Colla Road just beyond Schull. Wild Water Cress is edible but you have to be very careful where you gather it as it can be infected with parasites

Everyone is welcome to the Launch – 5PM at the Rossbrin Boatslip on Tuesday the 23rd – and to join Zoë afterwards on a Wildflower Walk. If you can’t make the launch, we hope you’ll go for a stroll along one of the trails soon, brochure in hand, and try your luck at identifying a few wildflowers. Our trails are spectacular right now and will only get better as the summer advances.

Herb Robert – I love those red stems and leaves as much as the little pink flower. Hard to believe there’s enough soil between those rocks to nourish a plant

But you don’t even need to walk a trail – in West Cork the wildflowers are everywhere. Here’s a photo taken right by Fields of Skibbereen – just look over the fence at the stream.

Red Valerian and yellow Monkeyflower. Both are introduced species but obviously right at home on the walls of the Caol Stream in Skibbereen

All the other images were taken in May, all in West Cork, and many of them in unpromising places such as waste ground, urban streams, old walls and rocky shores. Every day, we walk right by a wealth of beauty without really stopping to look.

Mouse-ear Hawkweed and Ivey-leaved Toadflax on the wall containing a stream in Drimoleague. Below in the water is Stream Water-crowfoot

Happy wildflowering! (Start by seeing how many kinds of flowers you can see in the image below – photo taken at Lake Faranamanagh on the Sheep’s Head.)

We Welcome the Hope That They Bring

Sea Campion

The flowers that bloom in the spring, Tra la,

Breathe promise of merry sunshine —

As we merrily dance and we sing, Tra la,

We welcome the hope that they bring, Tra la,

Of a summer of roses and wine,

Of a summer of roses and wine.

And that’s what we mean when we say that a thing

Is welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring.*

We’re officially in spring now. Throughout April (an unusually dry one) our West Cork fields and boreens have been greening and sprouting. Every day on our walks we welcome old friends to the hedgebanks, or discover new ones.

The photographs in this post were all taken in April. Above is Bitter Vetch, and below is a fern unfolding – a particularly fascinating process, almost mathematical.

The quintessential flower that we all look forward to at this time of year is, of course, the bluebell. How it cheers the spirits when you spot the first one, and then begin to see them carpet the floor in shady places or old graveyards, or even climbing up along the hedgebanks, so that you are walking between blue walls.

They mix so beautifully too, with the bright yellows of first the celandine, and then later the buttercup, the white of the wild garlic, or the intense bright green of spurge.

About that wild garlic – in the post for March wildflowers I wrote that what we mostly have around here is the non-native three-cornered garlic. I have been on the hunt for our native species, called Ramsons and I finally spotted a huge patch, growing right along the main road between Skibbereen and Ballydehob, at the gates of New Court (I wrote about New Court in my post about belvederes). Robert pulled over, at great jeopardy to life and limb as it’s a busy corner, and out I leapt with my camera.

But what was this? Every leaf was covered in bird droppings – every single one! I realised that there is a rookery in the trees above: perhaps it is this that provides the fertiliser for the garlic. I certainly didn’t linger to explore further, as I could hear the gregarious cawing overhead. I’m still on the hunt for a clean patch!

It seems to be a very good year for Cuckooflower, also known as Lady’s Smock. Interestingly, the colour of the petals vary from almost white to a delicate purple, depending on the composition of the soil and other aspects of the habitat. Up to this year I had seen isolated examples of Cuckooflower (so called because their arrival coincided with that of the cuckoo) but this year there were Cuckooflower “blooms” in many fields. At first, you’d think they were just daisies, but once your eye was attuned to their shape, they seemed to be everywhere. This is great, as it’s an important larval food source for the Orange-Tip Butterfly – it lays its eggs on the underneath of the petals.

If March belongs to the Blackthorn, in April the Hawthorn (sometimes called Whitethorn around here, and May Tree elsewhere) gradually moves in and takes over. Suddenly the hedges are full of green trees loaded with showy white blossoms (the opposite of the Blackthorn, in which the blossoms come first and are over by the time the trees green up).

I found my first Thrift, or Sea Pinks, last month, but it’s in April that they become commonplace around the coast. I was delighted to find a patch down by the Ilen River at the very beginning of their blooming, and could see the stages they go through on their journey to the delightful pink flowers we all love.

At the very beginning of the month I was fortunate to participate in a walk with Éanna Ní Lámhna, well-known naturalist and a frequent speaker on topics related to wildlife on Irish radio and television. It was a great experience, as she spoke mostly about trees, about which I know little.

In the course of our marvellous walk I also observed several spurges, including this very rare example of a wood spurge. You just never know what you’ll find – this one was right outside a kindergarten!

There’s an exciting announcement about West Cork wildflowers coming soon! Stay tuned to this blog and all shall be revealed… Meanwhile, a few more flowers of April…

I featured Scarlet Pimpernel last month – this is his cousin, Yellow Pimpernel. On the right is Bilberry
Wavy Bittercress, found along the shore, consorting with thrift. On the right is Common Milkwort :it has a tiny white flower emerging from a deep blue one

Stream Water-crowfoot: at first I thought this was a weed choking a stream, but closer inspection revealed these lovely flowers

We’re not the only ones enjoying the bluebells

*OK, I know it dates me. It’s from The Mikado, by Gilbert and Sullivan

Dividing the Day

We were on the trail of Saint Brendan, and the road took us deep into County Kerry. The spring days were blue, and the unparalleled scenery at its best for us. As we made our ways through the high hills and mountain passes we could see across to the coast:

20,000 years ago, ice shaped the Kerry landscape: a huge glacier flowed from here towards the sea. Looking down from An Chonair, the highest mountain pass on the Wild Atlantic Way; the peak in the centre is Mount Brandon, named for Saint Brendan. The header picture shows the burial ground and, beyond, the medieval “Brendan’s House’ at Kilmalkedar, seen through the burgeoning spring growth

Our first call was to the Cathedral in Ardfert, which was built in medieval times over a Christian monastic site founded by the Saint in the sixth century. There’s nothing left of that, but the later buildings, while ruined, are well looked after by the Office of Public Works, and an information centre is open through the summer months – certainly worth a visit.

Seen in Ardfert Cathedral, an image of a woodcut dating from 1479: it shows St Brendan and his monks on their epic voyage in search of Paradise. On the way, they discovered the American continent!

We could not miss a visit to the place of the Saint’s birth in 484 – Fenit, near Tralee – where a monumental bronze sculpture was installed in 2004. It was made by Tighe O Donoghue/Ross of Glenflesk.

It’s hard to do photographic justice to Tighe O Donoghue/Ross of Glenflesk’s sculpture of Saint Brendan in Fenit: he’s depicted as a ‘warrior saint’ (in the same vein as St Fanahan – or St Fionnchú – of Mitchelstown, Co Cork). Certainly he has a heroic character, necessary for someone who embarked on (and returned from) so many adventures

The culmination of our Brendan travels for this trip (there’s so much more yet to be explored) was the medieval site at Kilmalkedar, on the Dingle Peninsula. This monastic settlement is rich in history, and includes St Brendan’s House, and St Brendan’s Oratory. These alone are spectacular monuments, but there are further riches to delight the eye of Irish history enthusiasts. Finola’s post this week concentrates on the wonders of Irish Romanesque architecture, and the ancient stone-roofed church at Kilmalkedar is a prime example.

The wonderful Romanesque early Christian church at Kilmalkedar – right – with ‘Brendan’s House’ in the distance. The site is overflowing with medieval history. Below. the setting for the monastic site is stunningly beautiful. Note the large, very ancient cross and the holed ogham stone

A good while ago – in 1845, in fact – our excursion was foreshadowed by Mary Jane Fisher Leadbeater, who writes in her Letters from the Kingdom of Kerry:

…Our object to-day was not entirely to pay homage to Nature, though in the heart of her lovely works, but to visit the ruins of the wonderful church of Kilmelkedar, which we were solemnly assured “was built in one night by holy angels.” One evening, ever so many many ages ago, the sun, when he set in those wilds, saw no place dedicated to the worship of the Creator: he rose the following morning, and smiled upon a perfect chapel, with pillared niche and carved saint, and a holy fount, and massy cross! all ready for the purposes of prayer and sacrifice! A matin-call rang loud and clear over lofty mountain and lonely glen, to summon the devout and arouse the unthinking, where no vesper strain could sound the evening before; all gleamed proud and fair in the glad light, and the heart of man became purified, as the sacred bell called him to prayer! And this was the reward of the unceasing prayers of the holy Saint Brandon! Such is the legend…

St Brendan’s House – behind a locked and barbed gate!

We spent hours at the Kilmalkedar site and didn’t take everything in. We consider ourselves so privileged: we had it completely to ourselves, and the day was perfect. Saint Brendan treated us very kindly – except that his ‘House’ and an associated holy well were not accessible: although an OPW project which has recently undergone significant restoration, the enclosure around it is impenetrable with barbed wire and a firmly locked gate. However, in an adjacent field, a gate and path gave us free access to a large, flat stone which seemed to be covered in giant cup-marks. The National Monuments register describes it as a ‘Ballaun Stone’: it’s very fine, and I was delighted to find that Mary Jane Fisher Leadbeater had unearthed some folklore about it:

…This place contained a colony of monks; and well they knew what they were about when they fixed on this retirement; for, besides its real advantages, it commands a most lovely view of Smerwick Harbour, The Sisters, and Sybil Head. They need not want for fish in the refectory in the days of abstinence. It is situated in a sheltered recess of the mountains, fine springs around, and, another popular legend bearing witness, in the centre of what was once good grazing and tillage ground. A cow is the subject of this legend—a cow of size and breed suited to provide milk for the giant race of those days. We saw the milk vessels, and if she filled them morning and evening, she was indeed a marvellous cow. In a huge flat rock were these milk pans; six large round holes, regular in their distances from each other, and nearly of equal size; they could each contain some gallons of liquid. This said cow gave sufficient milk for one whole parish; and was the property of a widow—her only wealth. Another parish and another clan desired to be possessed of this prize; so a marauder, endued with superior strength and courage, drove her off one moonlight night. The widow followed wailing, and he jeered her and cursed her as he proceeded. The cow suddenly stopped; in vain the thief strove to drive her on; she could neither go on, nor yet return; she stuck fast. At length, aroused by the widow’s cries, her neighbours arrived, and the delinquent endeavoured to escape. In vain—for he too stuck fast in the opposite rock; he was taken and killed. The cow then returned to her own home, and continued to contribute her share towards making the parish like Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” The prints of her hoofs, where the bees made their nests, are still to be seen in one rock ; and those of the marauder’s foot and hand in another, where he was held fast by a stronger bond than that of conscience…

Kilmalkedar’s giant ballaun – the cups were filled every day by the widow’s marvellous cow, providing milk for St Brendan’s community of monks back in the day

One of the special features of the Kilmalkedar site harks back to its medieval monastic associations – a sundial. The ordered lives of the monks were regulated by divisions of the day (and night) – the Canonical Hours, also known as the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. These were the regular periods of prayer: seven daytime Offices of Lauds (at daybreak), Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline (at sunset) and a night Office of Vigils. This was the important work of the monastery, of course: constant and regular prayers. In between it the monks had to fit in all the requirements of daily life: sustenance, growing crops, brewing, beekeeping. And, on top of all that, Brendan and his companions undertook their peregrinatio all around the known world. No wonder a timepiece was necessary!

The Kilmalkedar sundial is a particularly elegant example – it’s probably my favourite item on this site: functional and beautiful, as all things wrought by the human hand should be. In such an evocative environment it certainly helps us to cast our minds back to the life and times of the travelling Saint. The antiquarian George Du Noyer visited the place back in the 1860s, and was also drawn to this particular artefact, accurately recording it for us in one of his exquisite watercolour sketches.

Into the Blue…

In this series on Ireland’s colourful buildings, we started off with purple and pink and proceeded through the colour wheel to the oranges and yellows and now we have arrived back on the cool side of the spectrum – the blues and greens. The Diva Cafe in Ballinspittle (above) has black trim that does nothing to tone down its exuberance, and it marries beautifully with the purple and pinks beside it, which were highlighted in our first post on this series.

We left off the last post with a couple of lime greens, so here’s another, from Kinsale (above) to get us back in the swing of things.

A bright green and a blue green are a great combination beside the sea – this house is at Dunmanus, on The Mizen

Blues and greens are the colours of the sky and the fields, so they don’t pop as much as the pinks and the oranges. In fact they can be quite subtle, when used in tones that blend in with their surroundings.

I love these two farmhouses, the first near Mount Kidd and the second near Coppeen

But in village streets, and especially when combined with the other colours of the streetscape, they can be as cheerful and arresting as the stronger hues around them.

Eyeries (top) and Kenmare (bottom)

There are shades of blue and green that people argue over – one will call it blue and another green.

The fabulous Bridge House in Skibbereen – blue or green?

Those are the teals, ceruleans and turquoises, and St Patrick’s Blue, which is the colour of the Aer Lingus uniforms.

Finn’s Table in Kinsale, La Jolie Brise in Baltimore and a lovely brick and teal combo in North Cork

O’Sullivan’s butcher shop in Ballydehob has been closed for years, but it still retails its welcoming colours and graphics

True blues vary from the strong dark ultramarines and navy blues through the denims, duck eggs, periwinkles, sky blues and on to the paler shades and baby blues.

The first house is in Baltimore, the one underneath it was glimpsed somewhere on our travels

Blue matches well with other colours and is often used in combination. Some of the nicest buildings we’ve seen use blue with another colour to great effect.

Three wonderful buildings that use blue in combination with orange tones – a bank in Youghal, a hardware store in Bantry and our own Budd’s Restaurant in Ballydehob (with Rosies pub for good measure)

Yellow trim is a tried and true favourite
It might be one of the smallest houses I’ve seen, but it stands out when painted in blue
Blues and greens in Kilbrittain 
This one near Castle Donovan uses a strong blue cleverly as both a main and a trim colour

I’ve decided to end this series with this photograph of two side-by-side buildings in Adrigole on the Beara Peninsula.  The juxtaposition of the strong green and the vivid pink proves that when it comes to colour, anything can work!

Wild Atlantic Light – the West Cork Winter Edition

We are a maritime county and that affects our weather. It means that clouds are plentiful at all times of the year and that the weather can be highly variable and unpredictable. But the ocean, and the Gulf Stream it carries all the way from the Gulf of Mexico, also means that we have a slightly milder climate than the rest of Ireland. Beside the sea, the air is full of negative ions. That’s a good thing. Negative ions stimulate our senses and lead to a heightened sense of wellbeing.

Sure, we can have rainy days and bitter winds in the winter, but there are lots of sunny days too. When the sun shines in the winter, it is filtered through those drifting clouds to produce those marvellous effects of light and shade that lend such drama to the landscape.

In winter too, the colours are highly contrasting – the green of the fields change abruptly to the blondes and golds of the higher mountains. The bracken turns the colour of amber and the fionán grasses provide an expansive sea of rippling heath on higher ground. Snow caps the highest ridges, although it rarely descends to us mortals in the valleys.

Under a blue sky the sea in West Cork turns the colour of the Mediterranean or the Caribbean. They tell me that has to do with having a sandy bottom and I am sure there are other scientific explanations, but really, you have to see it yourself to believe it.

Our underlying geology provides the ruggedness, the exposed sandstone ridges, and the deep coastal indentations that characterise the landscape.

The end result of it all – the sunshine, the clouds, the mountains, the sea, the contours and colours of the land – is the kind of light that artists dream of. The sheer clarity of it is startling – you can see from one end of the peninsula to the other in a way that city dwellers have forgotten it’s possible to do. That clarity brings out every hue and allows all the colours to sparkle against each other.

The photographs in this post were all taken in the first three months of 2017 – from the depths of winter to the first glimmerings of spring. We think you’ll agree that our Wild Atlantic Light is pretty special.

Even in the evening…

And especially when there’s a chunk of archaeology from our deep past in the landscape.