Fierce Mild

“Fierce mild” my neighbour said when commenting about the weather. While this is an Irish-ism that simply means very mild, it struck me as particularly apt, in that this mildness, while very welcome to us humans in the autumn, can have a fierce effect on our native flora and fauna.

The Spindle Tree comes into its own in October

It’s true that up now we have had a wonderful long, mild autumn. Warm sunny days, perfect for long walks looking for wildflowers, have lured us outdoors and convinced us that this will last forever.

From the top: Corn Spurrey, generally finishes blooming in September; Red Campion – by now we expect to see the empty seed pods, but along with them there are a few flower heads still blooming

And the wildflowers are certainly hanging in. I’ve seen lots that would normally be over by now, but who find a sheltered spot and bloom merrily away for our enjoyment. It’s been lovely, and I can’t help wishing it would last well into November. But the truth is that an unusually mild winter is not good for our plants.

Rose hips – seasonally correct; but look at the branches, are they starting to bud?

The factors that cause winters to be milder than usual are many and complex. Forecasters appear to be conflicted as to whether Ireland can look forward to winters in the coming decades that are shorter and milder than average or longer and colder. Both scenarios pose problems for plants and insects and therefore for those of us who depend on the health of our pollinators. And that, actually, is all of us.

Found on the same south-facing slope; Top: Musk Stork’s-bill – it should have finished flowering in July, but it’s found a sunny spot and is still blooming; Bottom: Red Dead-nettle can bloom well into November 

While it’s impossible to extrapolate from recent weather experiences to talk about long-term trends, a mild autumn can show us what can happen when temperatures vary from the norm. We already know that our springs have come sooner than they used to fifty years ago (two to three weeks earlier!) but we have also seen an increase in average temperatures in the autumn, which can lead to prolonged spells of mild and sunny days, such as we are experiencing at the moment.

Ragged Robin is a spring/summer flower and it’s a little worrying to see it blooming this late

Mild temperatures in the autumn can trick flowers into thinking that it’s spring, and time to wake up and grow. Trouble is, there’s bound to be a cold snap sooner or later and the fragile bloom will freeze and it won’t bloom again when true spring arrives.

This Long-headed Poppy and Common Ramping-fumitory are blooming late, especially the Poppy

Our native and naturalised plants have adapted to our ecosystem, including our climate, and any disruption to that has to be, in turn, adapted to. But this takes time – centuries, millennia even – for many organisms: the rate at which our planet is warming may not give them the time they need to make that adaptation.

Sweet Alison, rare in West Cork, on the same sunny slope as the Musk Stork’s-bill and the Red Dead-nettle

That’s all a bit doomsday, and I’m never inclined to embrace the most alarmist predictions, but whether related to global warming or not, a mild autumn can a problem for wildflowers. Flowers that appear in late summer and normally bloom into September and early October are still nodding away in the fields and hedges this year, and that’s lovely to see.

Common Chickweed – this one blooms all year round!

What’s not so great is that I have seen a few spring/early summer flowers too, long after they should be asleep. I can only conclude that they have sensed that it’s time to produce their one and only set of buds and that the first deep frost will probably kill them.

A lovely lilac-coloured variety of Sea Rocket, still in full flower at Barley Cove

A longer growing season also provides opportunities for insects and fungus that would be kept in check by colder weather to predate on plants. Plants that arrive from warmer climates, whether by accident (hitching a ride on a long-distance freight truck, or hidden in nursery stock) or design (imported for garden use) can start to reproduce once our climate catches up to the conditions they have been bred for. A good example of this is the snowy white egret – it only arrived here 20 years ago!

Little Egret; Russian Vine at Rossbrin Cove, an unwelcome invasive species

A fierce mild autumn is lovely, and we are certainly enjoying getting out and about on our favourite walks and our various explorations. But it’s time to cool down now – for our flowers’ and insects’ sake and ultimately for our own.

I love the colour that the bracken turns at this time of year

The good news is that a north wind arrived yesterday and suddenly it’s chilly. Good news for the wildflowers, that is. Not so great for us – we will miss those sunny walks!

Beautiful West Cork in October

Sun’s Out!

On one April day after a bleak, harsh winter that had gales, hurricanes, blizzards and unceasing bitter east winds thrown at us – the sun came out! We were out too, and headed up to the Beara Peninsula to see if we could remember what sun-soaked landscapes felt like… They felt great!

Header – the glories of Cork and Kerry combine on the spectacular Beara; top photograph – finally, after a long,harsh winter, we see the spring blossoms appearing; middle – a wayside shrine on the road out from Glengariff; bottom – Hungry Hill dominates the views as we head west on the peninsula

You will remember our previous visits to the Beara: there are not enough superlatives for what it has to offer in the way of stunning scenery and colour. None of these photographs have been enhanced – what you see is exactly what we saw on the day – and it’s what you will see, too, if you choose aright (although even on dull days we always find plenty to interest us).

Top photograph – St Kentigern’s Church is in the centre of one of Ireland’s most colourful villages; middle – the sunlight plays games with the beautiful windows by glass artist George Walsh; bottom – light from the windows dances on the pews

We knew where we were going: Finola was keen to revisit the little Catholic church of St Kentigern in Eyeries, which has a fine collection of windows by George Walsh: it’s a gem – and at its best for the quality of the light enhancing it on the day. I wanted to see the settlement itself in the early spring sunlight as it’s one of the most colourful places in the whole of Ireland! Neither of us was disappointed.

Just a taster of the treats in store in Eyeries: on a beautiful spring day there was hardly a soul around, but we were still able to find an ice cream in O’Sullivan’s!

Our second objective was to travel into the hills and find Ardgroom Outward stone circle. The trail involves farm gates, stiles and a lot of mud – but the 9 stone circle (named locally ‘Canfea’) is a fine, almost intact monument with wide vistas to mountain and sea. The impressive outlier stone is 3.2m in height.

The magnificent Ardgroom Outward (or ‘Canfea’) stone circle is accessible via a marked, boggy path: the vistas from the site make the journey worthwhile. Finola is dwarfed by the huge outlier!

It’s barely a skip up to Eyeries from Nead an Iolair, so we had to carry on around the peninsula and take in the almost surreal views of oceans, lakes and mountains before dipping into Kerry and then heading over the top back into Cork county and down the Healy Pass – surely one of Ireland’s most spectacular road trips.

Returning home – with the evening sun setting gloriously over Roaringwater Bay – we reflected that there can’t be many places in the world where a single day can offer such a feast to satisfy all the senses.

 

Northside

It was a perfect start to the year – a crisp, transparent January day when the whole landscape was set out before us in meticulous sunlit detail. We determined that our own Mizen terrain would begin our 2018 posts. Finola reached for her camera; I took down from the bookshelves an old stalwart: Northside of the Mizen by Patrick McCarthy & Richard Hawkes, 1999, and we headed out for Dunbeacon and all points west!

. . . Welcome to the Northside ‘The Northside’ is tucked away in the remote and most south-westerly point of Ireland. It is a place of wild beauty, with hills to the back, overlooking Dunmanus Bay. In the past it offered a harsh living. where man has protected himself from the elements blown in from the Atlantic and where one person often relied on another for survival. It gave a camaraderie that can rarely be found today.

(all quotations are taken from Northside of the Mizen)

. . . January A new year and the cycle of passing months began again. With the weather at its worst, there was little to do on land or sea. Jobs around the home and haggard, or repairs to ditches and gaps on the farm were carried out. The house provided shelter and it was a time to be by the warmth of the turf fire for the long nights, whether at home or out scoriachting.

The heart of the home – Northside kitchens. Lower picture, Bridget McCarthy 1977. All early photos are taken from Northside of the Mizen

. . . Scoriachting Throughout the year, scoriachting (visiting neighbours) at night was the custom and in the winter the warmth of the open fire was the focus for games, songs and stories… Only Saturday night was not a night for calling to friends, as you would have to get ready for Mass early next morning. Different houses in the townlands would be known for their own form of entertainment; for example, the Coughlan’s (the Kit’s) for talk of people and who was related to whom, the Courcey’s and the Scully’s for cards, the Hodnett’s for games and tricks to test your wits and for a bit of harem scarem.

Harem Scarem? Upper – ‘Agnes O’Donovan at her fireside, 1969’ and lower – ‘Michael and Tom McCarthy out scoriachting’

. . . If you were a pipe smoker and you walked into a house where a man was smoking, he would offer you the pipe for a few pulls. When handing the pipe back you’d say, “The Lord have mercy on the dead.” Women would occasionally smoke a pipe but preferred snuff. Often the night’s scoriachting would start with the Rosary and two candles would be lit. One Sunday night in the nineteen-thirties, at the O’Donovans in Dunkelly a lad pegged (threw) a cap at one of the candles and quenched it. Danny O’Donovan said that it was a queer thing to happen in the house of God, to which the reply came, – “There’s a great deal of difference between you and God!” That was the end of the Rosary that night!

. . . A night would start with games, blackguarding (horseplay) and sometimes dancing, then progress on to songs and poems. Storytelling was the preserve of an evening by the fire. With the flames flickering and the wind and rain howling like the Banshee, the imagination of the storyteller and his forebears was let loose on a delighted and spellbound audience of children and adults alike. this, in turn, would lead to stories of a more superstitious nature, into a world of small folk, púcas (sprites), mermaids and of people’s misfortune when they interfered with the fairy ways.

. . . If the night was black as you made your way home and you couldn’t see where you were going, it was a good idea to call on the little people to help you. To do this you took a piece of clothing off, turned it inside out and put it back on. That gave you the sight back and you would find your way. It was also wise to carry a twig of hazel as it would protect you from the not-so-good little folk and get you back home safely!

. . . The last job of the night was to build the fire up and cover it with ash, so as to keep it red for the next morning. It was bad luck to let a fire go out, and it was said that many of the hearths had the same fire for generations.

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

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.

Back to the Beara

Mizen, Sheep’s Head, Beara, Iveragh and Dingle: these are the five peninsulas which make up the south-western coast of the island of Ireland. We live on the Mizen and, for that reason, we are always trumpeting the qualities of the place, historical and scenic. However – to be fair – the other peninsulas have much to offer. The Sheep’s Head is a mere stone’s throw from us – just over the waters of Dumnanus Bay – and our visits there are frequent. The Beara has been calling us recently: we tend to think of it (unfairly) as somewhere quite distant but we can be on it in less than an hour. In the last two weeks we have taken two day trips out there (with our holy-well hunting friends Amanda and Peter), in contrasting weather conditions, and we can report back that the landscape is stunning whatever the weather, and the visible history is palpable. We have visited before – a while ago now: see our posts here and here.

Header picture – I titled this photograph ‘unbelievable’ in our file: look at the tiny house and the monumental stone walls heading up the mountain above it, dividing up the land into enormous fields. Above – a typical view of mountain, meadow and wild scenery to be found on the Beara

The Beara comprises around 58,000 hectares, or 228 square miles, and covers 330 townlands. The larger, southern portion of the peninsula lies in County Cork, while the northern area is in County Kerry.

We were searching for – and found – some of the Beara’s holy wells. Head over to Amanda’s blog Holy Wells of Cork for more information on these (and hundreds more Cork wells!)

A significant and comprehensive study of the history of the Beara has been carried out by Cornelius J Murphy (more popularly known as Connie Murphy). In all he has examined and documented some twelve hundred archaeological and historical sites, some half of which had been known and recorded previously, but as many had not. Our little expeditions pale into insignificance compared to Connie’s work, but they will inspire us to spend more time ‘on the ground’ in the area, while also simply taking in the spectacular views of the wildly variable topography.

Top – Day 1, in the mist: standing stones can just be made out in the distance. Lower – same stones, different day! On our second trip we were most fortunate with the weather

Tradition has it that, in around 120 AD, Conn Céad Cathach (Con of the hundred battles) fought a fierce battle against Owen Mór, King of Ireland at Cloch Barraige – these are the words of Connie Murphy:

…Owen was badly injured in the battle. Those of his followers who survived took him to Inis Greaghraighe (now known as Bere Island) as a safe place for him to recover. There, the fairy Eadaoin took him to her grianán (bower) where she nursed him back to full health. Nowadays, this place is known as Greenane…

…Owen and his followers then sailed southwards until they reached Spain. There he met and married Beara, daughter of the King of Castille…

…Later Owen, Beara and a large army sailed from Spain and landed in Greenane. Owen took his wife to the highest hill on the island and looking across the harbour he named the island and the whole peninsula Beara in honour of his wife. Rossmacowen, Kilmacowen and Buaile Owen most likely are named after Owen Mór and his son. Owen’s wife, Princess Beara, died and was buried in Ballard Commons in the remote and peaceful valley between Maulin and Knocknagree Mountains….

Top – down by the water, a tiny settlement by the pier, and – lower – Derrenataggart Stone Circle, Day 1

Our first day’s expedition took in the southern side of the peninsula, from Glengariff to Castletownbere. The mist was down and we went off the beaten track to search for holy wells, standing stones and stone circles, and were rewarded with some good finds. I was particularly intrigued by the ‘raised ring fort’ at Teernahillane: I could not trace anything in the archaeological records to describe or explain it. Our conclusion was that it could be a natural phenomenon that has been mistaken for an unusual (and rather unlikely) form of defensible structure. There is no sign of any retaining stonework, although this might have been robbed but, other than being more or less circular, it bears no resemblance to any ring fort we have seen elsewhere. If anyone has any more knowledge or ideas about this site, please let us know.

On our travels this week we were rewarded with brilliant weather which cast a whole different hue over the Beara – and opened up the incredible views which are everywhere, but nowhere more spectacular than the journey over the mountains on the Healey Pass. This road was constructed as a famine relief project in 1847 on the line of an ancient trackway that connected Cork and Kerry and was first known as Bealach Scairt – the way of the sheltered caves. It was renamed after Timothy Michael Healey (who lived from 1855 to 1931) – a Bantry man, deserving of a future blog post, who achieved notoriety in the Irish Parliamentary Party under Charles Stewart Parnell. The two fell out – and came to blows – when Parnell was involved in a sensational divorce case. After the 1916 rising, Tim Healy declared his sympathy with Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin movement, but was opposed to the use of physical violence. Healy returned to prominence in 1922 when he was appointed the first ‘Governor General of the Irish Free State’. In that post he pursued the improvement of the road between the Kerry side and the Cork side of the Beara Peninsula and, shortly after his death in 1931, the restored pass was dedicated to him.

At the top of the Tim Healey Pass we were treated to the most incredible views of our entire journey: our photographs hardly do them justice, but we hope they give you a sufficient taster to inspire you to journey that same way.

Top pictures – Christ looks down, on the summit of the Tim Healy Pass; middle – one of the views from the top: snowy peaks seen on the sunniest of days! Lower – another view from the summit, with the Iveragh Peninsula (and the Kerry mountains) in the distance

Other highlights of our second day trip included the Uragh Stone Circle – surely the most dramatic situation for any megalithic monument? Beyond that site – through serpentine narrow boreens – lie the Gleninchaquin Lakes, Woods and Waterfalls, on a privately owned and run park covering 700 hectares. The very modest entrance fee allows you to freely use all the walking trails, the longest of which – around the perimeter – will take you six hours! We chose a shorter route through unbelievably green meadows, passing the enormous waterfall and being treated to glimpses of newly born lambs, all in hot March sunshine worthy of the middle of summer.

Views of the Uragh Stone Circle in its magnificent mountain and lake setting and – lower picture – looking from the circle back towards the landscape

Ancient cottage in an ancient land; the green glens of Gleninchaquin

All roads lead to home and we found ourselves eventually in Kenmare – where we suppered and visited another rather special holy well – before travelling over the mountains to Bantry on another high road – spectacular also – the Caha Pass – which finds itself tunnelling through the rocks in places.

Saint Finian’s Holy Well, on the shores of the river at Kenmare – still visited, and still effective!

We hope these little descriptions, and the photographs, will stimulate you to explore the Beara. We are looking forward to many more visits there, and to the discovery of yet more of Ireland’s fascinating history.