Falconry Fantasy

I’ve waited a whole life for this – the chance to be a falconer, if only for a moment.

Ever since I read T H White’s The Once and Future King, it’s been a fantasy of mine to interact with one of those magnificent hunting birds that he described so well. A couple of weeks ago, at Adare Manor, Robert and I got a chance to finally live that dream – yes, he read the same book and loved it just as much as I had. T H White was a falconer himself, although not a very successful one. The treat was part of a couple of days stay at Adare Manor – Robert’s post describes this fascinating place in wonderful detail.

This falcon is happier and calmer with his hood on

Our falconer at Adare Manor was Susan Kirwan, one of the team at Adare Country Pursuits. What she doesn’t know about birds would fit on a postcard. She trained her first bird, a jackdaw, at the age of nine, and was hooked. Now she shares her knowledge and her love of birds with those of us who have admired from afar but have never had an opportunity to get up close.

Susan has Saoirse, the American Bald Eagle, show off her wings

She spent the morning with us, handling each bird in turn and giving us an education on each one – habitat, habits, hunting style, personality, peculiarities, nutrition, feathers, weight – it was in-depth and fascinating. There wasn’t a question we asked that she couldn’t answer. She has spent her life studying and living with these birds.

All of the birds wore jesses (ankle leathers) and Susan showed us how to hold our gauntlets and our fingers to secure a bird once on the glove. She encouraged us to speak in a calm voice and not to betray nervousness – birds are excellent at picking up on human emotions.

Tiny, the White Faced Scopes Owl, awaits her turn with us

Some of the birds were trained to fly from perch to perch, attached to a ‘creance’ or long line. Each has a optimal weight for flying and it’s essential to keep it there, so weighing and inspecting is part of the daily routine. Food must be as close as possible to what they would eat in the wild, to preserve the level of roughage and protein. Falconry, especially when you keep several birds, is a full-time job.

Caesar is a Common Buzzard, which is a native species in Ireland

Owls, although excellent hunters for themselves, don’t make the greatest falconry hunters. However, they are often brought to Susan as motherless chicks and she becomes their parent, as they imprint readily on a human. Susan told us that the Harry Potter series started a trend among some young people of capturing owls ‘to train’ but of course this is almost impossible for an amateur, so that is how some birds have come to her aviary.

Noddy, a Dark Breasted Barn Own, has beautiful feathers and colouring

Oscar, a Eurasian Eagle Owl, has a good old ruffle

Raising an imprinted bird involves a particular set of skills and deep knowledge of the species. Susan is a certified falconer and has taken all the courses she can find to develop her skills. It was obvious, in the way she talked to and handled her birds how much she loved them.

Top: I’m obviously a ‘natural’ at this! Bottom: Well, maybe not quite yet

It was a thrill to be so close to a bald eagle. Living in Canada, I had many opportunities to observe these magnificent creatures in the wild, but I had never seen one as close up as I did at Adare. Saoirse is not quite four yet, and it takes a full four years for a bald eagle to mature and to grow both the white head and the white tail. Saoirse’s tail was there, but her head was at the salt-and-pepper stage that women of my age can relate to.

The Harris Hawk – ours was called Felix – is considered the easiest hunting bird to train because of its laid-back attitude to life and its natural ability to interact with humans. The highlight of our session came when Susan let Felix loose to fly to a high perch, and then called him down to land on our glove.

What a feeling! This IS a wild bird – Susan affixed a locator transmitter to its leg before we started so that if Felix took it into his head to fly away she could track him through the woods. She described how a falconer would track a bird before locators were used – it involved standing very still and tuning in to the sounds of the forest. Other birds would react to the sudden appearance of a hawk or falcon and the falconer would follow the sound-clues to his bird.

I learned that Oscar’s tufts aren’t his ears and that they don’t always stand up like this

We were extremely lucky to have Susan and her birds all to ourselves that morning – not sure how often that happens! But if you get a chance, don’t pass up an opportunity like this. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Thank you, Susan – you’ve made some old T H White fans very happy!

See you again, Tiny!

The Gap of Dunloe

It’s one of Ireland’s, and Kerry’s, premier tourist experiences, but I think it’s at its best when tourist season is over and winter foliage dominates the landscape. Pure winter light mixed with the occasional shower – that combination brings out the the kind of colours that stop me in my tracks. From Killarney, the way to the Gap is west from the town on the N72 to Killorglin – just look for the signs.

From the Wishing Bridge

Driving through the Gap of Dunloe is not recommended at any time except winter, and even then caution is advised. That’s because the traditional way of travelling through the gap is by jaunting car, on horseback, on foot, or by bicycle and cars can be a dangerous and unwanted addition. And those – the on-foot or by horseback options – are the best ways of seeing it. If you have a hankering to experience it for yourself, just Google Gap of Dunloe and all the options will present themselves.

This couple from Germany had walked from the Black Valley

Robert and I have driven it twice now, each time in winter, and each time he has dropped me off to walk at my own pace, camera in hand, and picked me up where he can find a lay-by.  We did it earlier this week, having ascertained that sunshine was a possibility (about the best that can be forecast this time of year), and we hit it lucky.

A river runs through it

The Gap is a deep glaciated valley, running north/south between MacGillycuddy’s Reeks and the Purple Mountain – can’t lose with a description that starts off like that! The road runs along the Loe River, which empties eventually into the Laune and thence into Lough Leane, the largest of the Lakes of Killarney.

Auger Lake

Several lakes lie along the course of the river – Black Lake, Cushvally, Auger Lake and Black Lough. The road switches from the west side of the lakes to the east side as you go along, and then back again. The first bridge you cross is the Wishing Bridge – tradition has it that wishes made on this bridge always come true. My highly scientific testing of this assertion confirms the truth of it.

This is Ireland, of course, so no matter how blue the sky you have to expect that it can rain at any moment. True to form, the top of the valley filled with cloud and before I could blink I, and my camera, were being, er, moisturised. The compensation? A rainbow to the north, spanning the Gap.

Is there a hint of a second rainbow? And oops – drops on the lens

The rain didn’t last long – just enough to ensure the air was filled with lots of droplets and vapour to lend extra luminescence to the air – the colours always seem at their most sparkly after a shower.

Black Lough – no need to wonder how that name was earned

It was a steep walk to the top of the Gap, and it was hard to keep going when every bend brought fresh temptation to stop and take more photographs as the light shifted and shimmered. The photograph at the top of this post was taken from the highest point.

The Black Valley

Once over the top, the Black Valley opens up before you. This is a walker’s paradise, but also a community, with small farms dotted here and there, a church and a school – surely one of the remotest in Ireland. The landscape softens slightly from the craggy steepness of Dunloe to more rounded valleys and mountains.

You have a choice now to carry on West along the interior of the Iveragh Peninsula, but we had to head for home so we joined the N71 at Moll’s Gap where a welcome coffee awaited in the excellent Avoca Cafe.

A road through the Black Valley

Next time, I think we will do this by the traditional horse-drawn method, and return to Killarney by boat from Lord Bandon’s Cottage. Perhaps even in the summer – I wonder how it will look then.

Looking back at the Gap of Dunloe from Moll’s Gap

Kilcoe Studios – Dedication and Passion

Every year I’ve pounced on the Kilcoe Studios calendars as soon as they come out, and bought their exquisite cards. Recently I met their creator, Sonia Caldwell and discovered that the studio is quite close to me. I told Sonia that I’ve long been an admirer of her work and asked if I could visit her in her studio and talk to her about her inspirations. In the process I discovered a dedicated and hard-working artist and sculptor and a fellow wildflower lover. *

Thrift, or Sea Pinks

Sonia’s botanical artwork is meticulous and yet avoids mere illustration. Her colours are delicate but true and she insists on live models – you just can’t get the detail you need from a photograph, she asserts.

Sea-holly: my own photograph, and a detail from one of Sonia’s paintings

But it’s more than that – she researches each flower, tree, shrub, berry, fruit and provides information on folklore, herbal uses, Irish names and their meanings, and other little titbits of information.

She collaborated with the marvellous Pilgrim’s Restaurant of Rosscarbery for the latest (2018) calendar. We’ve eaten there a couple of times and been blown away by their approach to food – simple, fresh, delicious, and often with foraged ingredients. I’m still living on the memory of their blackberry and meadowsweet sorbet. So with this calendar not only are you getting Sonia’s wonderful botanical prints but recipes from the Pilgrim’s chefs as well.

This is Sea Mayweed and Orache intertwined. Pilgrim’s recommends a one-minute steaming for the Orache, and pairing it with white fish (like hake), new potatoes and a cream sauce. You can also mix it with other “tidal greens” such as rock samphire, sea aster, and sea beet.

The painstaking drawings she lovingly creates for her calendars also go into her cards. That’s great, because they should outlive their ‘year’. The card packaging is a work of art in itself – I’ve given many a set as a gift.

Because I’ve spent so many hours myself photographing wildflowers I know what goes into identifying, researching, and then reproducing each one, but only on a superficial level compared to the kind of attention each one gets from Sonia. Watching her getting the colour of each leaf exactly as she saw it was illuminating, and humbling.

Sonia sells her work in various stores throughout Ireland, but you can also order from her online shop. There’s still time to get those 2018 calendars!

Sea Campion – the front cover illustration for the 2018 calendar

Although I was aware that Sonia was also an accomplished sculptor, I was unprepared for what I found in her studio. She works in stone, on both a small and large scale. She makes beautiful bowls, sundials and plaques as smaller, more affordable pieces, and they are popular buys at the summer markets. 

But her passion is her figurative work. These are large-scale carvings, mostly in Kilkenny limestone, which she polishes to a beautiful finish using finer and finer grades of sandpaper. It’s physically demanding work, but I get the impression that when she’s engaged in it, she’s lost to time, and indeed to everything except what’s under her chisel.

Her work has a quality to it that I can only call ‘questing.’ The eyes look far away, seeking answers to some great question. In one case, they are blindfolded, forcing the quester to look inward. The bodies fold in on themselves, or on one another, or are rigid, as if acting as mere plinths for the imagination or the brain

It’s powerful stuff, and left me wondering why artists such as Sonia face such difficulties in the market place. Sculpture, I now understand, is much harder to sell than paintings. You can see a range of Sonia’s sculpture on her separate artist’s website. She has exhibited widely.

Sonia works with her husband, Eamon Quinn, a master joiner. Take a look at his beautifully-crafted furniture on their website. It’s inspiring to spend time with someone like Sonia, someone so dedicated and talented and committed. The good news is that, even if you don’t happen to live near her, you can still enjoy her art every day of the year.

*All the images of Sonia’s work are used with her permission. Please respect intellectual property issues and copyright for all the artwork in this blog post.

Circumnavigation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Acre

Marsh Thistle

That’s what we have in West Cork – one miraculous acre. We don’t sow potatoes nor barley nor wheat – we just try to let the grass grow and see what happens.

Above: Scented Mayweed along our boreen/right of way. Below: Wildflowers behind the house – Self-heal, Scented Mayweed (the daisy-like flower) and Bog Pimpernel (the tiny pink ones)

This year was my year for leaving part of my acre un-mowed. I’ve been reading Zoe Devlin’s new book, Blooming Marvellous, and as she suggests, I started with the September chapter which happens to be, among other things, about growing a wildflower meadow. I have a better idea now as to what I should have done, and I’ll be able to improve things as I go along, but for a first year, it didn’t work out too badly.

Common Sorrel, A delicate grass called Bent, and Red and White Clover with Plantain

Essentially, I chose one section not to mow at all until a couple of weeks ago. I was pleased with the flowers that appeared in my little ‘meadow,’ as well as the grasses and the plants we commonly call weeds (ragwort and thistles) because they all added to the variety of what was there and provided food for the bugs.

Ragwort (above) is toxic to cattle and horses and is considered a noxious weed. Known in much of Ireland as Buachalláns (boo-ka-lawns) it is also a superb food source for insects. A recent Guardian article spells out the dilemma we face with Ragwort.

Sheep’s-bit rewards getting up close and personal

Thing is, even the parts I hadn’t intended as a wildflower haven flourished as well. Maybe it’s because I have an eye for what’s growing now (and didn’t before), or maybe it was a particularly good year, but whatever the case, I was living this spring and summer on an acre of wildflowers, a feast for the sense, and a joy to walk upon.

The flowers I found on my own acre are a testament to what happens when you try not to mow too often or too short. Lying in the grass on a warm summer morning you become intensely aware of the activity all around you – bees, bumble bees, hoverflies, butterflies and bugs of all sizes and description are busily flitting from flower to flower, alighting on the Clover, the Cat’s-ear or the Mayweed, investigating the Bindweed and the Bramble flowers, and then buzzing off again.

Slender St John’s-wort and Bramble (blackberry) flowers

And it wasn’t just the lawn – random flowers started to poke out of the gravel driveway, as if sensing friendly territory, and all sorts of stuff popped up in my herb patch (the only actual gardening I do). I let the herbs go fairly wild too, once I saw how the insects loved them. 

From the top: Common Ramping Fumitory among my Tarragon; this Field Woundwort just appeared in the gravel one day; Wood Sage growing on the boundary wall, a soldier beetle on Parsley flower

The rock walls hosted Foxglove and Stonecrop and Wood Sage and around the periphery Heathers and Vetches fought the Gorse for space.

Common Vetch

I’ve just chosen a selection of wildflowers from my acre for this post, to give you a flavour of what will grow if you let it. 

Above: Heath Speedwell; Below: Common Mouse-ear

There were more and I don’t know that I can identify them all, especially all those yellow members of the Asteraceae family – the ones that I always used to think were just Dandelions but now I know that this family has enormous variety of flowers. One of my goals for next year is to advance my knowledge in this area so I am comfortable with distinguishing more of them.

There are fewer bright blooms now that it’s well into autumn. But, like the sweet little Scarlet Pimpernel about to open, below, it’s amazing what’s still flowering sturdily on – on our one acre.

The Turning Year in Rossbrin

We are fortunate to live in a rural idyll: our immediate environment is immersed in the natural world. In fact, I suppose it is ‘Nature tamed’ – as we have pasture all around us as well as banks of gorse and rock: even a few trees which manage to cling on to the shallow soil all through the winter gales and (occasional) summer droughts. As the years go by we feel we become more closely entwined with the cycle of everything around us – we get to know personally the fox, pheasants and rabbits that pass by our window, and the myriad of birds that feed here, forage in the Cove or just show themselves to us on memorable occasions – Spioróg the Sparrowhawk is so handsome when she is resting on our terrace wall while on her deadly missions, and our choughs frequently perform wild dances in the air to entertain us. This year was special for me because, for the first time, I saw a hare amble around the house, alert with erect ears, before loping off into the next door field.

I have written about Rossbrin Cove many times before: look at A Moment in Time, Tide’s Out and Words on Roaring Water, for example. That sheltered natural harbour and the old mine road up on the hill above probably give us the most pleasure because we visibly see the year change and turn every time we walk there. Just now the days are rapidly shortening, and the autumnal influx of wading birds is returning. One we keep a particular eye out for is the curlew – a threatened breeding species here in Ireland. We see many on and close to the water, particularly at low tide, but these are probably migrants rather than resident breeders.

The year is turning – from late summer into early autumn, and the colours are changing from rich reds and purples – fuschia and heathers – to the more sombre yet equally attractive yellows and browns of furze and fern. Finola has closely followed the wildflowers right through from the spring – she is still finding and identifying every imaginable species – it’s a complete world of its own!

We have been seeing some exceptionally high and low tides here in Rossbrin. I’m always fascinated to see the mud-flats revealing bits of discarded history, while I am convinced that the huge remnants of dressed stonework on the north-east shore are the vestiges of once-busy quays, dating either from the medieval period, when Sir William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork owned the lands around here and set up thriving fish-processing ‘palaces’, or – at the latest – when the copper mines were active up on our hills and on Horse Island in the nineteenth century.

The real turning point comes at the end of October – Samhain – when the old calendar enters the ‘dark year’ (the ‘light year’ begins on May 1st –  Bealtaine). We know we have long, dark nights to come – time to huddle down by the stove – but there will be bright days as good as any in the year for walking, exploring and breathing in the Atlantic breezes. And the Rossbrin sunsets will be magnificent!