Mizen Magic 20: Ballyvonane Headland

Twenty Mizen Magic posts . . . The whole of the Mizen is magic and magnificent – at all times, in all seasons. It doesn’t matter where we go, we will find things to photograph and write about: landscape, history, the remnants of lives lived generation after generation, and new life – art, creativity. We have on our doorstep a cornucopia – an inexhaustible resource.

In late September, close to the autumn equinox, Nature has chosen to be compassionate to the human denizens of West Cork. In these benighted Covid times we are having exceptional long, warm and calm days, inviting us to take to the hills and headlands to shake off the wretchedness of bad news and the miasma of melancholy that it might bring. We in the far west remain free to roam unfettered, for now, and Roaringwater Journal is committed to bringing you the good news of fresh pathways to be trod and fine vistas to be unfolded.

At the beginning of the track is this imposing ruin: we wondered when it had last been occupied

Today we thought we’d finish something we started back in February: Delights of Dunmanus described how we set out to walk a trackway marked on the map going over the headland in the townland of Ballyvonane. In fact we didn’t make it: winter storms had flooded our way near the start of the track and – after getting hopelessly lost trying to go around the flood we had to give up. Finola graphically set out our probable route on that day (in blue – we were aiming to take the red path!)

Today we were determined: we donned boots which would withstand a substantial flood. In the event they were quite unnecessary as the land was dry. We felt secure, though – but hot. After the first few hundred metres – which is the old way leading to a ruined house and now much overgrown – the path became well defined and easy to follow. We passed many signs of human intervention on the landscape: skeletal cottages and field boundaries which looked like rows of standing stones. The fields themselves were empty, however: we saw only one living creature the whole way. That was a wood pigeon that clattered noisily out of the bushes as we passed.

This section of the path was completely flooded when we attempted to follow it in February!

The journey was rewarding because of the wide views out across Dunmanus Bay with the Mizen and the Sheep’s Head flanking either side. There was quite a haze over both peninsulas arising, perhaps, from distant gorse fires.

Passing abandoned cottages which had the aura of ancient temples we rose up to the higher ridge commanding the best views. We could clearly see Carbery Island to the west: this has a lonely modern residence on it. Close by are the other islands in this group: Cold Island, Furze Island and Horse Island. Lusk Island and Scurvygrass Island are some way off to the north.

Each turn in the trackway opened up fresh views, and new dimensions, to the bay below us. Some may consider this landscape featureless, but a moorland scattered with large loose and earthfast rock formations – some resembling megaliths, but clearly natural – is my own favourite. Look at the map above to see how far the rock outcrop extends . . . In my mind’s eye it’s the work of giants.

Unlike many of our journeys into the West Cork landscape, this one had no clear end, there was no destination, no historic or archaeological feature that we had set out to find. There was just a turn in the trackway at the northernmost point of the headland and then the trackway continued on to became a boreen and, finally, a road leading back through Ballgibba North and the R591 (where Kilhangle is sited – see Finola’s post). We could have made a big loop of it, but there wasn’t enough time in the day that was in it. In any case, returning on the same path was no hardship and gave us more time to indulge in the tranquility of a way less trod, and in the sublime peace of an afternoon spent in remote places.

The autumn hasn’t quite come upon us yet, but some signs have started to appear. One is the ‘dandelion clock’ (did you call them that as children?). Finola challenged me to find the ‘perfect’ one, with the promise that, if I did, she would provide the ‘perfect’ photograph. I found perfect, and then perfecter, followed by perfectest. Here’s Finola’s promised rendering:

One Acre – Three Years On

I’ve been documenting all the wildflowers on my acre in West Cork. I started three years ago with the first post, simply called One Acre and then updated it two years ago with One Acre – One Year On.

The only actual gardening I do is to maintain a herb bed. Apart from that, we get the grass cut and the hedges trimmed occasionally, and a great neighbourhood kid comes to do some very select ‘weeding’ where it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t really believe in the whole notion of ‘weeds’ but I reluctantly accept that we have to keep some areas clear.

Growing in the lawn, from the top: Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Self-heal, White Clover; Bog Pimpernel and Self-heal; Heath Speedwell; the spectacular male flowers of Sheep’s Sorrel

Apart from that I have two approaches. The first is driven by my desire to keep the place as non-manicured as possible and Robert’s desire to have it looking reasonably tidy, or at least not abandoned. This approach is to cut the grass as seldom as I can get away with, leaving all the lawn flowers to flourish in between the cuts. I also leave the boreen/right of way above the house uncut all summer, as this is where the Chamomile (below) grows most abundantly and as it’s getting rarer in Ireland I feel privileged to have it.

The second approach is to set aside part of the garden as a perennial wildflower meadow (below). In planning and maintaining this meadow I have followed best practise as laid out by various experts in creating pollinator-friendly spaces and I am delighted with the results.

I started with a grassy slope and simply didn’t cut it for the first summer. In the autumn I had it cut and thoroughly raked. This is an important step – if you leave the cutting in the grass it fertilises or enriches it, and what you want is soil that is as impoverished as possible.

Above, from the top: Oxeye Daisy; Field Wood-rush; Cat’s-ear

The following summer I just let it grow and it seemed to flourish with all sorts of grasses coming up, as well as Knapweed, Oxeye Daisies, thistles, Sheep’s-bit, Ribwort Plantain, White and Red Clover, Cat’s-ear, and lots of Bird’s-foot Trefoil.

Above, from the top: Red Clover; White Clover; Bird’s-foot Trefoil; Sheep’s-bit; A Painted Lady Butterfly and a Bumblebee on Knapweed

That autumn I had it cut and raked again but this time I introduced the only intervention that the meadow has received. Once the grass was cut and raked I broadcast Yellow Rattle seeds (bought from wildflowers.ie which guarantees to only sell native Irish seeds). Yellow Rattle (below) is a magical wildflower. It parasitises on the roots of the grasses, thinning them out and creating more bare patches where wild seeds can land and germinate. Although it does grow in the wild in West Cork it would be hard to find and harvest enough seed for my meadow.

We have lots of birds who visit our garden but I had never seen pigeons there until I sowed the Yellow Rattle. It was like a shout went out, and they descended in flocks, pecking away at all my precious seeds, with me inside banging on the windows or racing out to chase them away. I needn’t have worried too much – they left enough seeds to have a really good showing the following spring. They self-sow readily and I have now had two seasons of Yellow Rattle working away to reduce the tough grass roots.

Above: I still have lots of grass, of course – an amazing variety – and a vast extent of Ribwort Plantain

I said above this was the only intervention I have made in the meadow, but now that I think of it I have also dug out some large dock plants as it does tend to take over. I have since read that this may have been the wrong things to do as its almost impossible to get all the roots.

Above, from the top: Navelwort; Lady’s-mantle; Knapweed about to emerge; Common Ramping-fumitory; Common Milkwort

We have a gravel driveway, rock walls, a stone terrace with steps, and a small patch of trees and ivy and all provide habitat for wildflowers (above) that spring up unbidden from time to time, some welcome (like Corn Spurrey and the Sharp-leaved Fluellen which is an endangered species) and some not so welcome (like the Verbena bonariensis that is fast becoming a ‘possibly invasive’ species).

Above, from the top: Sharp-leaved Fluellen; Verbena bonariensis; Corn Spurrey

You’ve probably seen photographs of annual wildflower meadows (as opposed to my perennial meadow) full of brilliantly coloured poppies, cornflowers and corn marigolds. What they don’t tell you about these kinds of meadows is that firstly they are a lot of work and have to be re-done every year and secondly that you have to be really careful where you get the seeds as many companies sell imported mixes (marketed as ‘bee-bombs’, for example) which do not serve our native insects well and which have the potential for introducing invasive species. My friend Jack has done a brilliant job on his annual meadow, sowing only native seeds from Sandro Caffola at Wildflowers.ie and the results are spectacular (below).

It takes a bit of a mindset change to see beauty in a perennial wildflower meadow and an acre of land where wildflowers are prioritised. Accustomed as we are to equating a well-mown lawn with tidiness and good management, it might be difficult to look at an expanse of Daisies, Cat’s-ear and Autumn Hawkbit and Smooth Sowthistle (all of which look more or less like dandelions), Bird’s-foot Trefoil and Self-heal and not see ‘weeds’ and neglect.

Above from the top: English Stonecrop; Self-heal; an uncommon white form of Self-heal

But that shift in our perspective? We all need to make it now, if we want to save our pollinators.

Castle Island Explored – Part 1

In this early spring photograph, taken from our Eyrie at Nead an Iolair, you can see Rossbrin Castle in the foreground. Beyond it lies Castle Island, uninhabited and slightly mysterious, but with clear traces of former occupation including a medieval tower house, a substantial quay and several abandoned dwellings. As we look over this island every day, we have long held an ambition to visit it, recently fulfilled when we were offered a lift out there on our good friend and neighbour’s fishing boat.

This map shows the scale of the island – just under a mile in length, and occupying 123 acres of mixed land. The main settlements – of Wester’ and Easter’ – are shown, as are the Quay and the Castle. It’s interesting to compare the two Ordnance Survey plans (below): the first 6″ edition was drawn up between 1829 and 1841, and the second one is the 25″ edition, drawn between 1888 and 1913. You can clearly see how the fields have changed, with new boundaries created in the later survey. Presumably this was due to an increase in population resulting in more clearances of rough land.

Both these maps show the Castle – said to date from the 15th century and one of the chain of O’Mahony fortresses that are strategically situated around this most south-westerly part of the Mizen. Of that clan we can find the following written by W O’Halloran in 1916:

Dr Smith says – these Mahowns derive their pedigree from Kean Mc Moyle More, who marrid Sarah, daughter to Brian Boru, by whom he had Mahown, the ancestor of all the sept. It is from this Kean the village of Iniskeen, in Carbery, has its name, and from this sept the Bandon is sometimes called Droghid Mahon. Mahon was the ancestor of the Mahonys, or O’Mahonys . . . The O’Mahonys, whose stronghlad was in the neighbourhood of Bandon (Drohid Mahon), were the first to encroach on the territory of the O’Driscolls. This occurred long before the Anglo-Norman invasion. They possessed themselves of the western portion of Corca Laidhe called Ivahah, which comprised the parishes of Kilmoe, Schull, Durrus, Kilcrohane, Kilmacougue, and Caheragh. They had fourteen strongly built castles . . .

 

Early Irish History and Antiquities and the History of West Cork W O’H

The M V Barracuda approaches Castle Island on an atmospherically damp day in late August. The quay itself seems to have been constructed  during the time of the Congested Districts Board from 1892 to 1922. It is a substantial structure and the investment in that time suggests that there was a significant community living and working on the island to justify it. However, a number of sources assert that Castle Island was “. . . home to a community of approximately 15 families who were last resident on the island up to the year 1870 . . .” Our own observations of the abandoned dwellings on the island led us to the conclusion that, although now significantly deteriorating, these habitations must have been in use more recently than this.

Examples of now-ruined houses, barns and boreens on Castle Island. These are not ‘cabins’ or even cottages, but significant homesteads. Some – including the large residence in the upper picture – have the vestigial remnants of timber door and window frames, unlikely to have survived in place in this harsh environment for 150 years.

A community of sheep roams unhampered by fences or boundaries, and Finola absorbed how nature has taken over and populated the landscape in spite of wild winters and lack of shelter: we counted precisely two and a bit trees on the whole island!

The story of this island is somewhat overlooked generally – one of the reasons we were so keen to visit. In our library, however, we are fortunate enough to have some copies of the Journals of the Mizen Archaelogical and Historical Society – now out of print. That Society was active for thirty years between 1979 and 2010, and produced a dozen journals gathering important historical research by mainly local people. Here’s a post we put together when our good friend Lee Snodgrass – a leading light in that organisation – passed away recently.

In that Journal we have found two articles about Castle Island. One – by Anthony Beese – explores the local placenames, and the other – by Liam O’Regan – speaks of The Castle Island Evictions 1889 – 90. This latter clearly shows that the island was inhabited in the late nineteenth century (apparently contrary to current popular thinking). Also, following those evictions, many of the tenants returned later and it seems very possible that some islanders remained in situ into the twentieth century. Both Journal articles have stories which need to be told, and I will attempt to do that in a later Roaringwater Journal post. For now, however, you will have to be content with . . . the story so far . . . which tells of our voyage of discovery to the island on an overcast day in the summer.

Sheep’s Head Oasis – the Heron Gallery

As West Cork slowly opens up again, we welcomed the news that the Heron Gallery in Ahakista was once again serving food in its wonderful garden setting. The only excuse we needed to head over to the Sheep’s Head!

This garden is one of those on the West Cork Garden Trail and most of them are opening now, late this year, of course. According to Trail President, Jean Perry, Like many of us, garden owners have had lots of time on their hands this year and the outcome is that gardens of the West Cork Garden Trail are to an exceptional standard and have never looked better!

I can vouch for the truth of this as regards the Heron Gallery. There is nothing more delightful than to linger over one of their delicious lunches, or just a latte and cake, seated outside by the pond, and then to wander through the garden.

Annabel and Klaus have been working on this garden for about fifteen years. It was just a field when they took it over – that’s hard to imagine now. For Annabel, it is a haven and an inspiration. Take a look at her website and especially at her blog where she writes about the nature all around her and her latest projects. 

The garden is a paean of praise to both the natural and the cultivated. The traditional herbaceous borders are at their most colourful right now and feature clever little inserts of sculptures and objects of metal, pottery and wood.

Wander through the more formal garden and you come to the wildflower meadow – all native plants, most of which have simply volunteered, although Annabel has also carefully introduced harebells and local orchids. I spent most of my time here, observing the mix of flowers and grasses.

By the time we left the cafe was busy with lunch service. This is a garden that adults and kids both love. The piggies are a universal favourite, but sharp little eyes will discover many hidden delights.

The gallery is devoted to Annabel’s art. She works in a staggering variety of media and sells her paintings and products all over Ireland, as well as in her own galleries, here and in Kenmare. 

Many thanks to Annabel Langrish and her team for creating this spectacular little oasis on the Sheep’s Head. It was just what we needed this week and we look forward to more visits over the summer.

Mizen Mountains 5 – Knockaphuca

Perhaps one of the most satisfying mountains on the Mizen, the 237m high Knockaphuca provides a well maintained waymarked trail best tackled as it is laid out – in a counter clockwise direction. You will go up the east side and down the steep west face. If you are lucky with the weather, as we were just before the longest day, you will have an experience which is hard to rival in this corner of Ireland. The loop walk is one of the latest sections of the Fastnet Trails which have been established to the west of Schull during 2019. All credit is due to the team which has so successfully organised and laid out these trails: this has involved much behind-the-scenes hard work.

In fact the full Knockaphucka Loop trail starts in Goleen, and is 10km long. We joined it as it leaves the R591 road north of the village (upper picture – the route goes off to the left). The map above has the mountain section (which we followed) superimposed on the Google Earth contour information. The section we walked is 6.6km long, and climbs about 200 metres.

One of the first landmarks on the way is right at the point where the marked track to the mountain leaves the main road: Ballydevlin Old School House (above). There is another ‘Ballydevlin Old School’ nearer to Goleen; presumably one was the National School (established c1831) and the other may have been a denominational Church of Ireland school. This peculiar Irish duality still exists today in many places.

Once on the marked track you are in a paradise! An ancient green road takes you part-way up the mountain, passing through small gorges which must have been cut out long ago: even if you are not a geologist you can’t help being impressed by the rock formations – they could be works of art.

After a while the path turns to the east and follows narrow, grassy glens bordered by majestic, serpent-like outcrops. It’s here that the views begin to open out, particularly to the south. Always you think that there couldn’t be a finer prospect over the Mizen and across the islands of Roaringwater Bay, and always – as you climb higher – you are surprised by the next, which is even better.

Twists and turns take you more steeply across the contours and swing round towards the summit. Only then is the full picture revealed: the whole landscape set out below you – every rift, valley and glacial glen with the higher land beyond culminating in the crests of Gabriel, 407m high, to the east, and the ‘little’ Mizen Peak, 232m high, to the west.

You won’t get lost as you head for the summit: this mountain had a distinctive cross placed at its highest point in the Holy Year of 1950, which reportedly fell in 1968, leaving the inscribed concrete plinth intact. The photo below shows the plinth in 2006 – courtesy Richard Webb. A new cross was installed in 2011 by a community effort led by the local GAA: this is now visible from much of the trail. The plaque mentions ‘…these challenging times…’, referring to the financial crash that hit Ireland so badly around that time. Illumination of the cross today is provided by photo-voltaic cells.

When you get to the top – pause… Now is the opportunity to appreciate the spectacular views in every direction. On our outing the south wind had been building up all day and was at its strongest in the late afternoon, when we gained the summit. It was pretty hard to remain upright! In fact, I wondered if we were being given a message by the resident Púca whose domain this is, after all?

The path down descends quite steeply: make sure you are well shod and vigilant. But you are in for further treats: the marked way passes by some peaty mountain tarns which are exquisite in their pristine beauty. Finola was in her element finding undisturbed native species such as water-lilies and sundews.

The mountain trail section ends on the small boreen running to the west of Knockaphuca, but the waymarkers will lead you back to the starting point, and there are still views up to the summit to enjoy, along with some landscape features on the way to continue to stimulate the senses.

What more could anyone want from a day’s outing in West Cork? Well – a bit of local history, perhaps. I searched for stories about the hill, particularly about the Púca – but only turned up this one told by Jerry McCarthy and included in Northside of the Mizen, the invaluable collection of Tales, Customs and History produced by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes in 1999:

The Púca of Knocnaphuca

 

The old people would feed the Púca of Knocnaphuca on ‘Snap-apple Night’, or indeed, whenever one had call to travel up the hill. It was the wise person that fed the Púca the night before going up. Milk and cake would be put on a plate and left outside the house and by the next morning the food had always gone!

 

The Púca of Knocnaphuca was half horse and half human. One late Snap-apple Night there was a young lad out walking the road when he heard a strange, sweet music coming from the hill. He went up and saw the Púca playing on a whistle. As soon as the lad had put eyes on it, it stopped playing and caught him. Away the Púca went to the top of the hill, where a crack opened up in the rock. In they went. They were twisting and turning down through tunnels until they entered a chamber full of gold. “Now,” said the Púca, “you are mine!”…

 

The next morning the boy was found on the road by the Long Bog. His hair had turned white and he could not speak a word ever after.

Thank you to our artist friend Hammond Journeaux of Ballydehob for this wonderful drawing of ‘Pooka’, included in The Little People of Ireland by Aine Connor, illustrated by Hammond, The Somerville Press, 2008. Púca in Ireland has counterparts in Cornwall (Bucca), Wales (Pwca), The Channel Islands (Pouque) and Brittany (Pouquelée). A shape-shifter (Flan O’Brien’s character from At Swim-Two-Birds, the Pooka MacPhellimey, changes his appearance by smoking from a magic pipe), the Púca most often appears in Ireland as a fine black stallion with red eyes. If you meet him, you have to mount him and he will take you on a journey far across the sea. It will seem to you as though you had been away for only a few hours, but the world will have moved on several weeks, perhaps months, during your absence. We saw no trace of the creature in June but, perhaps, if we climbed this mountain in the November Dark, we would have more chance of an encounter.