Drawn to the Beara

The spectacular landscapes of the Beara Peninsula draw us again and again: have a look at some of our past explorations here and here. There’s no doubt that for fine, distant views, tranquil coastlines and variety in geology, history and archaeology this part of Ireland takes some beating. And, for us, it’s ideal: near enough that we can have a full day out absorbing all these things, yet still being home in time for tea!

This is the weekend when clocks ‘spring forward’ – giving us longer evenings. But also the sun is getting noticeably stronger, colours are getting more intense, and the shadows are hardening. It’s a great time to be out on our travels.

That’s Hungry Hill above – highest peak in the Caha Mountain range, Co Cork – and the background setting for Daphne du Maurier’s 1943 novel of that name. The story is based on the real-life Puxley family who set up and ran Allihies copper mines in the first half of the nineteenth century. Du Maurier weaves the tale to give the name of the hill a symbolic meaning – the mines ‘swallow up’ the lives of those who work them and the plot is charged with tragedy and unhappiness.

We crossed the peninsula on the Healy Pass, one of Ireland’s great road journeys, with breathtaking views towards Bantry Bay in the south and the Kenmare River to the north as you traverse the 334 metre summit. The road, known in Irish as Bealach Scairte, was originally cut as a nineteenth century famine relief project, and improved in the 1930s, when it was named in honour of Tim Michael Healy, a Cork man who served as the first governor general of the Irish Free State.

We had a mission: to visit Dereen Garden, which is open all year round. We were there before the tourist season got going, and we mainly had the beautiful walks and vistas to ourselves. The woodland garden was laid out 150 years ago with sub-tropical plants from around the world and has been improved and added to since then; it is famous for its huge Arboreum rhododendrons. Evidently there is a variety of wildlife to be seen, including red squirrels, sitka deer and hares, but they were all keeping out of the way when we visited.

We were hoping to sample some of the fine eateries which have been set up on the Beara but, again, we were a little too early in the year: an excuse for another trip when they open up. So we reluctantly turned our way back towards the Healy Pass – to get the views from the other direction – and were stopped in our tracks by a sign pointing to ‘stone circles’. This is in a townland named Cashelkeelty and is near Lauragh, Co Kerry. Finola had a look at her archaeological records on the phone and found it was somewhere we had to go! It involved a long, uphill walk through a forest, but was very well worth it. Read Finola’s post to find all the details.

I will show only one picture as a taster (above) – but also to point out the proximity of the high grade overhead powerline which runs right by the ancient stones. Does it add or detract from the monument itself?

There were many more vistas to be taken in on our few hours spent on this dramatic peninsula, where mountains so spectacularly meet the sea. We can never tire of this, our own little part of the world.

Barley Lake

In Ireland February 1st – St Brigid’s Day – is thought of as the first day of Spring: we begin to look out for snowdrops and daffodils, and expect to see a ‘real stretch’ in the evenings. Of course, we also make our St Brigid’s Cross to ensure good luck and fertility to the household. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that the church festival of Candlemas (St Blaise’s Day) falls on the following day: February 2nd. Traditionally, people took candles into the church to be blessed that day, and these were used for the rest of the year.  Surely this is something else connected with the turning of the year and the coming of the light?

Header – a tantalizing glimpse of Barley Lake seen from the N71 road north of Glengarriff. Above – the winding boreen that heads up towards Crossterry Mountain

To make our own celebration of the arrival of Spring we set out on February 2nd on a trip to Crossterry Mountain in County Cork, just north of the road running west to the Beara Peninsula from Glengarriff. This was unexplored territory for us, but we had long planned to visit Barley Lake: if you travel on the spectacular N71 road from Bantry over to Kenmare you get tantalising glimpses of this corrie or tarn away to the west, just before you pass through the first of the tunnels.

Above – a closer view of the mountain crater that contains the lake

If you are into geology, Barley Lake is a classic demonstration of how Ireland’s land mass was moulded by the movement of the great glacier sheets towards the end of the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago. As the melting glacial ice moved south, it carved out and dragged huge boulders, which ‘plucked’ or excavated the land surface, leaving craters which filled with water after the ice melted. These are known as ‘corrie lakes’, ‘ribbon lakes’ or ‘tarns’. Barley Lake is one such crater; another is the lake at Gougane Barra in the Shehy Mountains, also in West Cork.

Upper – how ‘corrie lakes’ or ‘tarns’ are formed (DooFi  via Wikipedia). Above – glacial geology clearly delineated by fresh snow on the way to Crossterry Mountain

The road to the lake is remote and picturesque, but we were surprised to find quite a sizeable settlement high up on the mountainy road. We were not quite sure what it is called, but the townland is Crostera West. We enjoyed some of the names we found on the map: Lake Derreenadavodia, Magannagan Stream . . .

Mountain dwellers: Coomarkane townland, Scully’s Cottage and a red-roofed barn becoming part of the landscape

Driving, you approach Barley Lake from the north side. On the extract from OS Map 85, below, you can see the narrow way that winds up to a high point – the 300 metre contour, where there is a place to park, and then proceed on foot. Look carefully at the way the road is drawn here – it’s no exaggeration: there really is a series of hard S bends that have to be negotiated to get up the mountain. We should have photographed them, but I was hanging on tight to the steering wheel, while Finola was hanging on to anything she could – and we found ourselves driving into a blizzard!

Middle photo – a relatively straightforward part of the drive up the mountain, before we reached the S bends! Lower photo – snow coming in as we reached the summit

It was a day of weather contrasts: some of the journey was made in that beautiful low sunlight that we have been experiencing at the start of this year, while at other times the wind whipped suddenly in and threw sleet and ice at us. On the top we found a good covering of snow on the rock-strewn path that we had to take to reach the shores of the lake. We braved the elements, and passed by peat workings that looked to be still in use.

Top – the path to the lake. Above – peat workings

The lake itself felt remote and lonely – and unvisited on our winter day, although I gather many hikers aim to circumnavigate the shores. We didn’t: it takes several hours and the light was beginning to fade with the incoming snow. It would be fair to say that it’s bleak up there, but – as always in Ireland – beautiful. Our only companions were sheep, who seemed to space themselves out neatly on every available ledge.

Robert – finding his own ledge! Thank you to Finola, who took all the photographs on this journey

In spite of some challenging conditions, it was a grand day out. As we wended our way carefully back down the bends, we admired the wonderful distant views, and – as we approached the glens of Glengarriff, fortuitously back in sunlight – paused to examine more geological formations.

We never tire of exploring West Cork, and we will never run out of destinations: as always, our delight is the out-of-the-way side roads – Ireland’s speciality.

Valentia Adventure

At the very end of January – when we should have been in the dark depths of winter – we headed off to Valentia Island in County Kerry, and enjoyed sublime golden sun. This time of the year often gives us the best light: we experienced this on our expedition through the Yellow Gap in West Cork a fortnight ago, and again during these three days in our neighbouring county last week. It’s to do with the low sun: somehow it enriches the amber hues of the landscapes, which are themselves enhanced by backdrops such as the one above. An ancient stone is set against a distant turquoise ocean and dark, snow-capped mountain peaks.

Holy wells were on the agenda (see Finola’s post here), as we were joining our friends Amanda and Peter Clarke from the Sheep’s Head. Amanda has nearly come to the end of her chronicle which records all the Holy Wells in County Cork, and she is now starting to explore those in County Kerry. I’m not going to say too much about the wells we saw, as Amanda will cover them in great detail, but the expedition certainly provided great opportunities for observation and photography, and caused us to wonder – again – at this unique aspect of Ireland’s history and traditions.

All the photographs above are from a remote and atmospheric site on the north west side of Valentia Island: St Brendan’s Holy Well. It’s a long way off the beaten track: desolate, bleak and boggy – but justifies making the effort. There are ancient stone crosses, carved slabs, cures to be had, and history. St Brendan himself journeyed there from Tralee in the fifth century, climbed the cliffs at Culoo, and found two dying pagans at the site: he anointed them and they became Valentia’s first Christian converts.

Above – the way to St Brendan’s Well, Valentia Island, passes by O’Shea’s Pub . . . one of the furthest flung bars in the world, that you can’t—and could never—buy a proper pint at . . . The story is here.

I certainly endorse that sign in the centre, seen on Valentia Island. Hare trapping in South Kerry is illegal – and so it should be! But – how could we not follow a sign that says: Slate Quarry – Grotto?

The Grotto – in this case a statue of the BVM together with Saint Marie-Bernadette Soubirous, the girl who witnessed Mary’s apparition in Lourdes – was installed in the Marian Year of 1954 in a cave high above the entrance to the Valentia Slate Quarry on Geokaun Mountain, at the north end of the Island. The Quarry had been opened in 1816 and supplied slate to the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, London railway stations and many another building project. The quarry excavated a huge cave into the mountainside, and closed after a major rockfall in 1910.

Fr James Enright, who was the PP of Valentia in the Marian Year, saw a golden opportunity in such a setting for a commemorative grotto. Fr Enright decided exactly where the statues were to be positioned, but the burning issue was how were these heavy items going to be put in place and worked upon at over 90 feet from ground level? The answer came in the building of a deal timber ladder.

 

Jackie Clifford , who was a blacksmith based in Gortgower, made the iron to bind and reinforce the ladder and was helped in his forge by Denny Lyne and subsequently aided by other islanders. Having been transported to the quarry in sections, it was assembled there and put in place by the volunteering islanders. The ladder was over 100 feet long, being four feet wide at the bottom narrowing to a foot. and a half on top. The sections of ladder were joined at the various points with a four foot lap. Many island volunteers were enlisted with each townland taking their turns to work. The initial work involved levelling a massive mound in order to form a proper base. This was quite labour intensive, being done with pick and shovel. The ladder was hauled into place by means of a block and tackle pulley system with people at the ends of ropes from above and to the sides in order to control it and put it in place. As one islander succinctly put it “The greatest miracle to happen there was the erection of the ladder”.

 

Subsequent to the ladder being put in place, a number of daring and intrepid islanders had to climb it for the purpose of erecting the statues. The statues were hoisted up by rope with other tools and building materials. The concrete for the base was mixed by shovel above.

(Quote from The Kerryman, January 2015)

The Quarry has recently reopened, and it’s quite surreal to stand in front of the grotto with the sound of heavy machinery reverberating at the huge cave mouth from deep within the mountain.

Have a look again at the signs above: one points to ‘Tetrapod Trackway’. This is surely a must-see for any visitor to Valentia Island as the fossilised Tetropod footprints here, representing the point at which life left the Devonian Seas 370 million years ago to begin to evolve on dry land, are the best examples of only four sites found to date in the world! We hurried to have a look – but the site was closed for repairs. You can see a picture of the tracks here.

In the winter sunlight, the little village of Portmagee which stands at the threshold of Valentia Island and connects to it by a bridge opened in 1971, looks like a picture postcard. In fact, the bridge was opened twice – once on New Year’s Day, when it was blessed by the Bishop of Kerry – and again at Easter, because there was some debate about whether the first opening had been ‘official’ or not!

Here’s a railway map and photo dating from around 1901 showing ‘Valentia Harbour Station’. In fact, it’s not on the island at all, although Knightstown – the ‘planned village’ designed by Alexander Nimmo for the Knight of Kerry in the 1830s can be seen across the water. The station – the terminus of the most westerly railway in Europe – is on the mainland, to the east of  Valentia Island, which could be reached by a ferry. The Farranfore to Valentia Harbour Railway was 39½ miles long and operated from 1892 to 1960. The photo below shows the Valentia River Viaduct just outside Cahersiveen, now derelict but hopefully to have a new lease of life when a planned cycling greenway is developed along the old railway track.

Valentia Island has a great deal more to offer than I can show in a brief post. It’s well worth making the journey and staying for a little while: there is such varied landscape to be experienced – a microcosm of the West of Ireland, in fact – and much history if you want to delve under the surface.

The tailpiece shows a view from Knightstown looking across to Valentia Harbour on the mainland and the site of the former railway terminus:

Finbarr the Pheasant

Here at Nead an Iolair we have a resident pheasant, Finbarr. He stays around all year, sometimes alone, but more often with a female or two, or even three, in tow.

Pheasants aren’t native to Ireland, or even to the UK, having been introduced as game birds by the Normans there. It’s estimated they have been in Ireland from at least the 1500s, and they are very numerous – certainly not in danger, although they are hunted.

Finbarr is very beautiful. First of all, he’s a big bird, about the size of a small chicken, with sturdy legs and long tail feathers. But it’s his colouring that sets him apart. Overall, he’s a reddish brown colour, but his breast gleams copper and gold in the sun. He has a white neck ring and above it the real drama starts – his neck and the top of his head is an iridescent blue-green, but shades into purple around his cheeks. And then there are the wattles – brilliant scarlet flaps that cover each cheek and hang down either side of his face. Little blue-green crests stick up above the eyes like tiny horns.

Can you see the female?

All that brilliant plumage makes him very attractive to the ladies, apparently. It must be so, because in the course of the spring he usually acquires a harem. We have seen him closely guarding up to three females. He herds them around, keeping them always in sight – sometimes they look quite annoyed at all the attention. The females don’t have the gorgeous plumage, although they have equally long tail feathers, once much prized for decorating hats.

Ruffling up the feathers is part of the courtship ritual

Other males appear occasionally and then there is a tussle for dominance as Finbarr defends his territory and his harem. After much squawking and flying at each other, the interloper backs down and Finbarr resumes his strutting and herding.

They like all the seeds that Robert puts out and wander around pecking away under the bird table.   Finbarr is not above getting up on the bird table, where he looks a little ridiculous. He can’t manage our new feeders, though, as there is nowhere he can perch.

The pheasants get along with all the other birds – the small birds aren’t afraid of them, and the pheasants don’t seem to be bothered by the big black rooks that descend in flocks. I guess they are big enough not be be intimidated. And that even extended to Ferdia! Remember Ferdia, our friendly and much-loved fox? I loved that they seemed content to just hang out in the garden together.

In late spring the females disappear – they’re tending their nests, with no assistance from Finbarr, who continues to strut around like the lord of the manor. I’m not sure how successful they have been at breeding, though: we’ve only seen one brood of chicks over the years. We think the nests aren’t far away, likely on the ground in among the shrubs at the west end of the garden, bordering on the field.

How did we decide on Finbarr as a name? Well, Finbarr is the patron saint of Cork, after all – but take a look at this stained glass image of him. It’s by William Dowling and it’s in the Catholic Church in Bantry. Can you see the resemblance?

Here he is, below, in full courtship mode – all puffed up, colours aglow, crests up, and slightly trailing one wing. He means business!

Long may Finbarr reign as King of the Lawn at Nead an Iolair!

Through the Yellow Gap

The middle of January: you might expect to be battened down here in West Cork with raging gales or bitter north winds, but Saturday dawned with a clear sky to reveal a most beautiful sun-warmed landscape. We had to be out! We adopted exploring mode and headed for the hills to the north-east of Bantry. OS Map 85 entices with a whole swathe of archaeological sites from megalithic tombs to stone rows and circles, but it was a name that drew us: Barrboy – probably from the original Irish barrabhuidhe – which means ‘yellow summit’. As the highest point of the road in that place (pictured below – about 350m above sea level) is a mountain pass, we have chosen to name our journey Through the Yellow Gap.

The ‘Yellow Gap Road’ runs west to east across the centre of this extract from OS Map 85: we turned on to it from the N71 at Lahadane, just north of Bantry, and dropped back on to the main road to Drimoleague south of Coolkellure

The first part of our route followed the Mealagh river and we were intrigued by the boreens that cross it in places over very fine stone arches: these will have to be explored another time – we were aiming for the hills.

Our day offered us a study of light and landscape, which only the combination of January low sun and shadows can give. If anything the yellowness of the uplands with their rocks, mosses and furze is emphasised by this light: Finola is sure that the colour is due to the fionnán (blonde) grass which is so prevalent during the winter months (header picture). We felt we were in a very remote place, known only to those who spend their lives there, but we were in fact barely a hop and a skip from our own home.

Studies in light and landscape: with a different vista at every turn we were treated to outstanding views typical of rural Ireland

As is so often the case with our off-the-beaten-track excursions, we saw hardly anyone in the whole day, but we did chance to bump into our cycling friend Tim who is in training for yet another Everesting event. The rules are straightforward:

. . . The concept of Everesting is fiendishly simple. Pick any hill, anywhere in the world and ride repeats of it in a single activity until you climb 8,848m – the equivalent height of Mt Everest. Complete the challenge, and you’ll find your name in the Hall of Fame, alongside the best climbers in the world . . .

Tim on his way up the Yellow Gap Road (also known as Nowen Hill). He has to do this climb 56 times in one go to achieve the ‘Everest’. In fact, his aim is to do a ‘Double Everest’ on this hill! This will be his third Everesting event in West Cork… Good luck, Tim

Our travels took us through some very attractive ‘deep’ countryside dotted with cottages and small settlements. Humans have been here for a very long time and have left evidence of their occupation in enigmatic standing stones, alignments, circles and tombs. Some can be seen from the roadside, but many involve explorations across fields or into forests. Always, we are left wanting to know who these early settlers were and why they left us these monuments.

Upper pictures – single standing stones which can be seen from the roadside; lower picture – a five-stone circle and a two-stone alignment on high pasture land: all are ancient and mysterious

As the road threaded its way through the gap and began to descend we seemed to re-enter a less wild landscape, and habitations became more frequent. Eventually we found ourselves in a small community – Coolkelure – with a great sense of history. there was a fine C of I church, a school which had been in use until the 1950s, and an avenue leading to a large house which has had a chequered history, There is an entry in Duchas (the Schools Folklore Collection) about this village:

. . . Coolkelure is situated about four miles and a half west of Dunmanway. There is a holy well at the side of the road but it is covered in now with briars and bushes. Its origin is unknown. There are three steps going into it and there are medals, pieces of cloth and pennies up on a stone over the well. About twenty feet in from it there are rocks nearly a thousand feet high. It is said that a giant lived there in olden times. On the other side of the road is a marsh and the giant is supposed to be buried there. There is a huge stone over his grave. Further on is Coolkelure House. This formerly belonged to Shouldhams, now it is the property of Lady Bandon. The avenue looks beautiful in summer and it is hedged with rhododendrons of every hue . . . (Joan Collins, aged 12 years, from Patrick Collins, aged 60 years – c1934)

Upper – Coollkelure Church; centre – the Lodge at the gateway to Coolkelure House; lower – one of many fine gargoyles on the eccentric Lodge

Well, we didn’t see the holy well, the thousand feet high cliff, the giant or his grave. But we did see rhododendrons – large thickets of them – all the way along many of the roads we travelled. They must look very striking when in bloom in the springtime, but they are an invasive species which threatens the true natural hedgerows. In Coolkelure, also, occurred one of the highlights of our day. We met and got into conversation with Donal and Caitriona – a most hospitable couple who own a small house overlooking the lake. They invited us in, we were given coffee and cakes, and the chat was mighty!

Upper – looking back at our way through the mountains; centre – an example of the many stands of invasive rhododendrons that we encountered and lower – the road becomes tamer as we approach a pastured landscape

We left Coolkelure and headed out of the hills, feeling fulfilled by all the events of the day. Our adventures were not quite over, however, as we encountered Daisy and her owner with their ‘road-car’, delighted that we stopped to photograph them (below). In fact, between us we took at least two hundred photographs on our day out and can only include a modest selection on these pages.

Favourite Posts of 2018

At this end of the year we reflect with a critical eye on all our 2018 posts – there have been 102 of them – and select just a few which we think stand out in some way. A link is provided for each one, in case you want to have another look yourselves.

Firstly – not just one of our favourites, but the all-time most popular post we have ever published – Ireland’s Newest Stained Glass Window. Finola wrote this in January, and then went on to put together an article in the Irish Arts Review on the same subject later in the year. The window is in St John’s Church in Tralee, a Catholic church, but the project was a joint venture between the Catholic and Anglican congregations. It tells a story of reconciliation, from many angles. The window was designed and made by Tom Denny, one of Britain’s most eminent and respected stained glass artists. Tom is a direct descendant of Sir Edward Denny (1547 to 1599) who was one of the architects and enforcers of the Plantation of Munster. It’s a complex history, and this post is well worth a careful read.

Another post which proved popular was Robert’s detailed account of an archaeological site in West Cork: Knockdrum Stone Fort. This place has everything – a substantial stone structure which probably dates from the first millennium AD; prehistoric Rock Art (one of our favourite subjects – the Knockdrum example is pictured above), likely to be around 5,000 years old; fabulous views (choose a clear day) – and a solar alignment discovered in 1930 by Vice Admiral Henry Boyle Somerville, the younger brother of writer and artist Edith Somerville. In a complementary post, Finola reported on Boyle’s life and tragic death – and gave us insights into the science of archaeoastronomy, expanding on this in a Bealtaine post, following our own experience of Boyle’s discovered alignment at Knockdrum (the sun setting exactly over the fort is pictured below).

Way back in 2017 we started a series of occasional posts bearing the title . . . Off the M8 . . . We do a lot of travelling throughout Ireland (because it’s such a beautiful and historically rich country) and cover the ground between Cork and Dublin quite frequently. The M8 motorway has made this journey quite straightforward, but it has also provided the jumping off point for many an exploration to enhance the journey. One of my own favourite discovered places this year is the magical Glen of Aherlow (pictured above). We thank our good friends and travelling companions Amanda and Peter – she of Holy Wells of Cork and he of Hikelines  – for pointing us to this entrancing valley located between Slievenamuck and the Galtee Mountains in the western part of County Tipperary. We discovered there secret places and stories relating to obscure Irish Saints: have a look at the haunts of St Berrahert and St Péacáin in these posts from Robert.

When I moved from Cornwall to West Cork some years ago I was delighted to find out that our lively adopted village of Ballydehob had a great artistic heritage during the second half of the twentieth century, to rival that of Britain’s westernmost county. West Cork became a cosmopolitan centre for artists, writers, craftspeople and musicians, renowned in its day but never properly celebrated – until this year. I was one of a small group locally who decide to rectify this by establishing the Ballydehob Arts Museum (BAM): our first exhibition . . . Bohemians in Ballydehob . . . using donated artworks, ceramics, storyboards and posters, was staged in Ballydehob’s community building, Bank House, and – presided over by Curator Brian Lalor (one of the surviving Bohemians!) – was the first incarnation of the new Museum, which will be followed up by new exhibitions every year. The picture above (courtesy of Andrew Street) from my post, shows the Flower House which, during the 1960s and 70s, became an iconic focus for the town’s artistic colony.

It was a grand summer altogether, and we were out walking the roads and footpaths of West Cork as much as possible. On a fine day in May we set off to explore the Toormore Loop which is only one of an excellent comprehensive system of trails which has been put in place locally in recent years. This post – Another Grand Day Out on the Fastnet Trails – documents that adventure and, hopefully, will encourage all of you to enjoy this wonderful free resource and immerse yourselves in the nature that’s all around us.

The second most viewed post this year was Finola’s fascinating account of the Rock of Dunamase and the history that it embodies. It’s a place that, for some reason, took us a few years to get to – and it’s Off the M8! But – as you can see from the picture above – climbing the Rock will give you a most rewarding and spectacular view across several counties. The ruin on its summit is inextricably associated with the most turbulent events in Irish History – the coming of the Normans to Ireland in 1169, and the famous marriage of Aiofe (daughter of Diarmuid MacMurrough, King of Leinster) to the Earl of Pembroke, immortalised in the painting by Daniel Maclise (below, courtesy of National Gallery of Ireland). The fortification with its Great Hall on the Rock was a MacMurrough stronghold, and accordingly was part of Aoife’s dowry when she married Strongbow.

Finally (for today, anyway) we look at Finola’s post which comprehensively explores another West Cork treasure: Heir Island – a Modern Paradise (pictured above and below). West Cork has such a diverse landscape, including the inhabited islands of Roaringwater Bay, each one of which is unique. Finola teamed up with her photographer friend Trish Punch and they were shown around the island by islanders Christine Thery and Sarah Mathews, who run the Heir Island Wildlife Project. This post is a great example of how the diversity of life on the island – and here in West Cork generally – brings together so many disciplines and interests: photography, history, wildflowers, wildlife, colourful houses, and art. Everything that Roaringwater Journal tries to encompass, in fact.