Rainforest Path

It’s a magical place, running up from an old graveyard by the sea, past a holy well, through a cool overhead canopy and along a tumbling stream. I’ve never met anyone else along the path, although I know the holy well is visited and the footbridge to it was repaired a couple of years ago.

Moss and Navelwort on an old tree

There’s a big house at the top, with steps leading down to the path. Some of the more exotic plants are clearly imports, but mostly it seems that wildness has simply been encouraged, or not interfered with.

A mixture of native and imported ferns along the stream

I went there twice this week. The first time was with my daughter-in-law, visiting from Canada, and we thought we spotted an unusual flower.  After a night of heavy rain I went there again on Friday equipped this time with my camera. Found it – and it looks as if it’s a Summer Snowflake, which is rare enough that I will report it to the National Biodiversity Date Centre. (Go on, it’s easy, you can do it too.)

The flower I was after – Summer Snowflake. Rare in Ireland but also widely cultivated – so is this a natural occurrence or part of somebody’s planting scheme?

What follows is a photo essay; my homage to a rainforest path on the brilliant morning after a rainy night. I will try to tell the story with my captions.

A friendly dog always accompanies me on this trail. The path is lined with Opposite-leaved Golden-saxifrage, providing a soft and bright green carpet. I also found it growing on old fallen logs

Lovely to find a large patch of Wood Anemone beside the stream

The Holy Well needs attention. The bridge has slipped and the path is too muddy to access the well. Read about this well in Amanda’s Holy Wells of Cork. The dog found her too.

This is Ivy-leaved Speedwell. The flowers are so tiny that it’s easy to miss, especially when it’s all mixed up with the Saxifrage

I was taken with this Greater Wood-rush growing along the bank

My first bluebells of the season

American Skunk-cabbage. Now classed as ‘potentially invasive’ in Ireland. I only saw one but I knew it immediately because they were so familiar to me in Canada. I’ll be reporting this too.

The path climbs upwards

The sycamore are starting to bud and leaf. The intricacy of the underneath of the leaf!

Everyone loves primroses

Lots of insects buzzing about the Dandelions – a hoverfly (top) and a bee

Take a walk in the woods and tell us what you’ve seen!

Mizen Magic 10: Sailor’s Hill

Fancy a walk? One with just enough elevation to get the heart going and with the reward of spectacular views at the top? It will take about an hour, maybe a bit longer if you stop to chat, or just gaze.

We’ve mentioned Sailor’s Hill before in the course of other posts – this one and this one. But it deserves a post of its own, because it’s a complete experience. Start from Schull and walk out along the Colla Road until you get to the old St Mary’s Church and graveyard. The National Monuments listing tell us that this was originally a medieval structure, although what we see in ruins now is mainly an eighteenth century church, situated in a picturesque burial ground. Turn right at that point.

You will notice the waymark signs. This is one of the newer extensions of the Fastnet Trails, and an initiative of a committed group in Schull. The walk up Sailor Hill is actually part of a larger walk, the Colla Loop – we are planning to do that one soon but only had time for this stretch of it today.

The road meanders gently upwards. Take the first left and then the next left. Views of Schull Harbour start to open out as the road rises. Looking back, you can see how Schull nestles at the foot of Mount Gabriel (see the photograph at the top of this post).

A tiny shrine in a gatepost

Later on, this boreen will be heady with Foxglove and Loosestrife and Oxeye Daisies, and later still the purple heather will dominate, but this is early spring and it’s been a long cold winter. 

Everything is late this year, so I am happy to see the ever-reliable Celandine in profusion.

The willows are starting to bud out too, but apart from that, it seems that dandelions and lawn daisies are the only wildflowers brave enough to flourish along the way. Not that we disdain these humble flowers – they provide early and important nourishment for the insects and the bees. Must feed those pollinators!

Connie and Betty Griffin have built a house with magnificent vistas near the top of the hill. They never stop adding to it, Betty with flowers and Connie with quirky additions, sculptures and walls. This time, he showed us his Sailor Hill Newgrange, a nifty arrangement of standing stones that respond to the rising sun by capturing the morning light in a stone recess.

Connie demonstrates his sun calendar to Robert

Up to the top then, and there it is – a breathtaking panorama that encompasses the whole of Roaringwater Bay and Long Island Sound to the south, and Mount Gabriel and its foothills to the north. Cape Clear, the Fastnet, Sherkin Island and all the smaller islands are laid out in front of you.

And there’s a cross and inscriptions, so you begin to realise that this site is about more than those views. Connie, who designed and built it, wants us to think about those who lost their lives at sea. It’s his own personal mark of respect and a reminder to us in the midst of all this grandeur to take a moment to contemplate on the power of the ocean and the fleeting nature of life.

I had to look up The Niña, 1492, and of course it was one of Columbus’ ships. He took the Santa Maria, the Niña and the Pinta on his voyage to the New World, but the Niña was his favourite. To learn why, take a look at this. But why is it here? Well, I’m not sure, but there is a tradition around here that Columbus may have visited West Cork on his way. His last provisioning stop may have been with the hospitable, learned and Spanish-speaking Fineen O’Mahony, Scholar Prince of Rossbrin

Connie has built his own tiny belvedere (he calls it his folly) perched to take maximum advantage of the view. It’s the perfect spot to sit, munch an apple, and enjoy a companionable chat before the walk down again.

A final look out to sea. There’s Long Island and beyond it the Fastnet Rock with its iconic lighthouse.

We paused to admire a Goldfinch in Connie’s garden, as well as his wonderful textural arrangement of sticks, stones and whalebones.

Thank you, Connie and Betty, from two happy walkers.

Mizen Magic 9: Rossbrin to Schull

There’s a main road between Ballydehob and Schull, and then there’s a back road – a road that meanders through farmland and down half-forgotten boreens, a road lined with wildflowers and dotted with the remains of past history, a road that looks over once-inhabited islands. South of this road lies Mizen Magic 9.

Along the back road in early summer

We’ll start at Rossbrin Cove – a place that Robert has written about over and over, like any writer with his own ‘territory.’ This was the home, in the 15th century, of Fineen O’Mahony, the Scholar Prince of Rossbrin.

Looking down now on what’s left of his castle, it’s hard to imagine that this was a place teeming with life and learning – a mini-university where scribes and poets and translators transcribed to vellum (and to paper – a first in Ireland) psalters, medical tracts and even the travels of Sir John Mandeville. The castle has been in ruins since the 1600s, and we live in fear that the next storm will bring the last of it down.

Rossbrin Castle from the sea

The road runs through the townlands of Rossbrin, Ballycummisk, Kilbronogue, Derreennatra and Coosheen. Ballycummisk has a wedge tomb from the Bronze Age and a ring fort from the Early Medieval period – just to remind you that you are far from the first to want to settle in this place. In more recent times, and like Horse Island, it was once the centre of a thriving mining industry, but a spoil heap and stone pillars are all that remain.

Large ring fort, and the remains of mining activity, in Ballycummisk

Two islands dominate the views of Roaringwater Bay along this road. The first is Horse Island, owned now by one family, with its industrial past a distant memory. There have been various plans for Horse Island in recent years – a resort, a distillery – but so far it has resisted development.

Horse Island Miners in 1898 and the ruins of miners’ dwellings

The other is Castle Island, home to yet another vestigial O’Mahony Castle – one of a string along the coastline, all within sight of each other and sited strategically to control the waters of Roaringwater Bay and their abundant resources.

There’s not much left of the castle on Castle Island

The O’Mahonys became fabulously wealthy in their day, charging for access to fishing and fish processing facilities and for supplies and fresh water. They also forged strong alliances with the Spanish and French fishermen and visitors who plied those waters – a friendship that was to cause great concern to the English crown and that was to spell, in part, their eventual downfall.

Ruined farm houses on Castle Island. The photograph was taken from a boat – that’s Mount Gabriel in the background

The closest spot to Castle Island (also uninhabited) is the beautiful little pier at Derreennatra. There is a large house up behind the pier, now inaccessible but once run as a guest house and famous for its hospitality. A curious bridge once gave access to the demesne and it remains a striking landscape feature, with its pillars and giant Macrocarpa tree.

Derreennatra Bridge

Continuing towards Schull we come to the last of the O’Mahony castles and the best preserved in this area. This is Ardintenant (probably Árd an Tinnean – Height of the Beacon – possibly referring a function of the castle to alert others to the presence of foreign vessels) and it was the home of the Taoiseach, or Chief, of this O’Mahony sept.

Two ‘beacons,’ ancient and modern – Ardintenant or White Castle below and above it the signal stations on Mount Gabriel

The castle, or tower house, still has a discernible bawn with stretches of the wall and a corner tower still standing. If you want to learn more about our West Cork tower houses, see the posts When is a Castle..?; Illustrating the Tower House; and Tower House Tutorial, Part 1 and Part 2.

Ardintenant is also known as White Castle, a reference to the fact that it was once lime-washed and stood out (like a beacon!) to be visible for miles around. It appears to have been built on top of an earlier large ring-fort which in its own day was the Taoiseach’s residence before the fashion for tower house building.

Sea Plantain at Coosheen

From Ardintenant we head south to Coosheen, a picturesque pebble beach known only to locals. It’s one of my favourite places to go to look for marine-adapted wildflowers. On a rainy day last August I saw Sea-kale, Sea-holly, Sea Plantain and Thrift, and drove back on a boreen lined with Meadowsweet and Wood Sage and past a standing stone whose purpose has been long-forgotten but that continues its vigil through the centuries.

Our final spot in Coosheen is Sheena Jolley’s mill house, now the gallery of this award-winning wildlife photographer. She has restored it beautifully and the gardens are a work-in-progress that manage to capitalise on, rather than overwhelm, the mill stream and the rocky site. This is also the starting point for the Butter Road walk – but that deserves a new post one of these days, a post in the Mizen Magic series. We have written one but it was a long time ago.

Take a walk, or a drive, down any part of this road – do it in summer when the boreens are heady with wildflowers, or do it in winter when the colours of the countryside are at their most vivid. Heck, do it any time!

 

Become a Citizen Scientist!

The National Biodiversity Data Centre, which is also known as Ireland’s Citizen Science Portal, is asking us to record certain spring flowers that we see. This is not a task, it’s a pleasure! What could be more delightful than wandering down a country boreen, stopping to admire the flowers (like the Cuckooflowers above, seen near Bantry) and in about a minute, sending off a record to the Data Centre?

Common Dog-violets, Greenmount, near Ballydehob

Yes, they have made it that easy, with the most amazing little app. I’ll explain how to use it below, but first – why record spring flowers at all? Here’s what the NBDC says about that:

All recording is valuable as it contributes to furthering plant conservation in Ireland. Most plant recording takes place later in the summer. This project is particularly important as it encourages records of early-flowering species that can otherwise be lacking in data. Many of the spring flowering plants are very distinctive, making it a good way for those new to recording to get involved.

Primroses, Rossbrin

Most (but not all) of the flowers selected for this Spring Flowering Plant Project are common and can be found extensively around West Cork and elsewhere in Ireland. Here’s the list: 1. Bluebell 2. Common Dog-violet 3. Cowslip 4. Cuckooflower 5. Early Dog-violet 6. Early-purple Orchid 7. Lesser Celandine 8. Lords-and-Ladies 9. Primrose 10. Ramsons/Wild garlic 11. Toothwort 12. Winter Heliotrope 13. Wood Anemone 14. Wood-sorrel.

Winter Heliotrope is an invasive species and a common sight along roads and railway tracks. Here it has colonised the Butter Road

The Winter Heliotrope has been blooming since December, and I’ve already seen my first Primrose. But the real spring blooming time is yet to come, in March and April, and into May. That’s when our hedgerows will come alive with Common Dog-violets and Lesser Celandine, and the Cuckooflowers will suddenly appear in the fields.

We saw these beautiful Lesser Celandine consorting with March Violets in the Magic Forest

A venture into the woods will reward you with Wood Sorrel and Wood Anemone, and the ultimate spring experience – a carpet of bluebells. A trip to the Beara Peninsula early last April provided an opportunity to wander up the River Path at Gleninchaquin, surely one of the most picturesque spots in all of Ireland. Not only was it a gorgeous warm spring day, but the path wound its way through clumps of Wood Anemone and Wood Sorrel.

The Wood Sorrel leaves are like large shamrocks, while the flower has a sweet little white head veined with pink

Returning through Kenmare we stopped by an old graveyard just outside the town, to find the entire area covered in bluebells. The other place to look out for bluebells is, perhaps surprisingly, in recently burned patches. It’s the only upside to a lot of the burning that goes on around here. The bulbs, like those of many flowers, are able to lie dormant underground for many years until the right conditions allow them to germinate.

There’s always lots of Wild Garlic around, but the NBDC are asking us to record the native plant, also known as Ramsons, and NOT the ubiquitous Three-cornered Garlic that looks a little like white Bluebells. Ramsons are a little harder to find, although there is a magnificent stand of them near here. Unfortunately, it’s on a bad bend on a busy road, and also under an active rookery. When I finally managed to pull in safely last year, it was to discover that every plant was covered in rook droppings. There went my plans for Wild Garlic Pesto.

The Ramsons stand at New Court – and a close up of the effects of being located under a rookery

While I have lots of photographs of orchids, I have never seen the Early Purple Orchid. However, they have been spotted around Crookhaven, so that’s one of my goals for this year. I want to try to find some Lords-and-Ladies in their spring phase as well – the only photos I have are from the Caol Stream project I did last year, and they already have their green, highly poisonous spikes, which turn red later.

While the Common Dog-violet is, well, common, the Early Dog Violet is rare. I may have spotted one last year on the Sheep’s Head, but I didn’t get good enough photographs of it then to make a positive ID. If you’re unsure, always try to get shots of the leaves, or the basal rosette, and the context (hedgebank? stream bed? grassy field? disturbed ground?) – all this will help you when you download your photographs and look through your resources.

What I think is an Early Dog-violet, found on the Sheep’s Head. I wonder if I can find it again, as I need to verify this by taking better photographs

And speaking of resources – here are my go-to sites and books:

  1. Wildflowers of Ireland: Zöe Devlin’s book is the perfect companion for a walk – small enough to pack around and very easy to use, as it’s organised by colour and number of petals. Her website is likewise excellent and easy to navigate.
  2. Irish Wildflowers – if you can’t find it in Wildflowers of Ireland try this site. The information isn’t as expansive, but it’s good on Cork species and it’s searchable in a variety of ways.
  3. A Beginner’s Guide to Irish Wild Flowers – a handy little reference book that slips in the pocket. It’s published by the wonderful Sherkin Island Marine Station, and is organised by family groups. For such a tiny book it is packed with information (by John Akeroyd) and excellent photographs (by Robbie Murphy). If you can’t find it in a book shop, you can order it through the Marine Station.

Wood Anemone – a delicate beauty

Now – you want to get recording, so here’s what to do. Go to the App Store or Google Play and search for the free app ‘Biodiversity Data Capture.’ You will find a very clean and simple interface which exists for one purpose, to make it incredibly easy to record a sighting. The whole process of recording one flower takes about a minute!

First, find your flower! Make sure your Location Services is ON. Open the app, and in the app take a picture of the flower. While you are doing that, the app is busy establishing your location. From the Species Group, select Vascular Plants (last option). From the Species, select the flower. You can start to type the name and a list of near-spellings should come up. Site – type in the name of the place, for example, a townland or road. Select a habitat – whatever seems closest. Type in any comments you have, add your name and email address, and Save. Once that’s done, go back to My Sightings and hit the Upload button, or wait until you have several (or until you’re on WiFi) and hit Upload All.

Bluebells growing on a recently-burned hillside, where no Bluebells had been before

Don’t worry if you think you made a mistake. A real human checks all the records submitted (that’s why it’s important to include a photograph) and only includes verified records in the final selection. Now so – give it a go and tell me how you get along. And if you do, feel proud, because you will have joined the ranks of the Citizen Scientists of Ireland, all doing their bit to safeguard our precious biodiversity.

It’s Been Five Years! Finola’s Favourite Posts

I can hardly believe it – we’ve been doing this for five years now and we’re nowhere near running out of ideas for posts. And have you read Robert’s post? Imagine being called a 21st Century Robert LLoyd Praeger! Thrilled. But in fact as I dip into Praeger again I recognise in us the same impulse he had – to wander the land and discover all that it has to offer.

Amazing what you stumble across in the countryside, like this holy well and its offerings

One of the wonderful things about blogging like this is how much you LEARN every day, about Ireland, our neighbours, the ground we walk upon, the history and archaeology to be discovered around every corner, the wisdom of country people, the humour and expressiveness of Irish speech, the breathtaking beauty of the landscape. So where on earth to begin?

Our interest in archaeological sites led us to hike to the highest point on Cape Clear Island to see the sparse remains of a neolithic passage grave – and what a spectacular view there was from it, towards Sherkin Island and all the way down the coast of West Cork

Like many, I sat in churches as a child unaware of the architectural splendours around me. One of the delights of returning as an adult is discovering Irish stained glass, really seeing it for the first time. Harry Clarke, of course, is always a favourite, but I have been thrilled to discover other artists too: Richard King, George Walsh, the artisans of the Tower of Glass. There will be lots more posts about stained glass in the future as I unearth more treasure.

A recent discovery, George Walsh windows in a rural church in West Cork. This is his rendering of the Archangel Michael defeating the devil as a dragon

Going back to my roots as an archaeologist has been an extraordinary journey – so much has changed, so much has not. I started out in archaeology in the 70’s, although life got in the way of that career eventually. It was a small profession then: it exploded in the 80s and 90s with the advent of huge building projects, then contracted again when the recession hit.

I love the quiet little sites you find when you least expect them – this is a wedge tomb in the middle of a field. It has cupmarks all over one of the capstones

I have gone back to researching prehistoric rock art and finding that, while some excellent work has been done in this field over the last 40 years, there is a lot of scope still for an independent researcher to contribute to our appreciation of this little-known aspect of Irish prehistory. Along with our exhibitions, I’ve written several posts (not all of them happy) on this topic, and we are currently working on a paper for the Journal of the Bantry Historical and Archaeological Society on a special group of rock art panels at Ballybane.

Castlemehigan, one of our favourite rock art sites, with views right back over the Mizen Peninsula to Mount Gabriel

When I studied at UCC under Professor O’Kelly the emphasis was firmly on prehistory and we spent little time on medieval structures (or later ones, heaven forbid!). But when you are free to pursue whatever tickles your fancy, you find yourself wandering down a variety of rabbit holes. I became fascinated with Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture and with the tower houses (we just call them castles) that dot the countryside around here and the later iteration of the Big House – fortified manors. Visiting these intriguing ruins all over West Cork (and Ireland) has given me a whole new appreciation for how we lived and what we believed in the past.

This is the ruined romanesque church of Aghadoe in Killarney. It’s got this lovely doorway, but what makes it particularly meaningful for me is that my great-grandparents are buried in the graveyard it stands in

Ross Castle in Killarney against an evening sky

Living in West Cork is great FUN – there is always something to do and a new adventure around the corner. Many of the adventures we’ve had have been shared with our friends and fellow bloggers Amanda and Peter Clarke (Holy Wells of Cork and Hikelines). Visiting holy wells has introduced us to parts of Cork we might never have seen, to obscure saints with fascinating backstories and to folk practices that endure in the deep countryside. Walking the Sheep’s Head (my lead photograph, top of page), in all seasons, reminds us that you don’t have to go far to be immersed in jaw-dropping scenery and reminders of our ancient and more recent history.

The holy well of St Teskin, an East Cork saint

Lest you think that this is all sounding a bit academic, the posts that have been most fun to write were the ones on how we speak around here (and how you, too, can learn the basics of West Cork lingo), the ones in which I lamented my encounters with Irish bureaucracy, especially when it came to my driver’s license!

I still haven’t calmed down about the driver’s license – what they put me through, when I could have been driving THIS!

And I loved doing the posts about the tradition of painting our houses in arresting colours. With the colourful houses series, I feel a bit like a chronicler of a vanishing tradition – each time I look for one of my favourite pink or lime creations it seems to have been repainted a ‘tasteful’ variant on beige. Long live those brilliant colours – we would be poorer without them!

The town of Dingle is proudly keeping alive the tradition of painting each building a vibrant colour. – it’s a feast for the eyes

Finally, one of my greatest joys in the last couple of years has been to go for a walk with my camera and photograph the abundant wildflowers of West Cork. From someone who barely knew a daffodil from a daisy, I have developed a passion for the natural glories I see in the hedges, fields and yes, waste grounds, around me.

Just a typical roadside verge in West Cork

We adore West Cork, but we are also fearful for it as we see the pressures farmers face to make their land more and more productive. Inevitably, this means bringing in a rock breaker and turning the field into a mono-culture grass carpet. What we lose in this process – we humans, the bees and insects we depend on, the birds, and our heritage – is incalculable.

This tiny raised bog is home to some very interesting flowers, including the carnivorous Sundew

Here’s to many more adventures!

With friends like Susan Byron of Ireland’s Hidden Gems, or with my favourite travelling companion and blogging buddy, Robert!

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.