Choughs – and their travels

You’re looking here at a 500 year-old Chough! It’s a carving from a medieval rood screen in an ancient church at Sancreed, on the West Penwith peninsula in Cornwall. There’s no mistaking it: the curved red beak and the red legs make this the most distinctive of all the corvids. This is an accurate representation but, interestingly, on the rood screen it’s in the company of other curioser beasts and beings which we perhaps would not recognise. Were the others around once in Cornwall, but now vanished? You can have a look for yourselves in next week’s post. But first, a little more about our own Choughs.

This wonderful photograph by our neighbour Oliver Nares (thank you, Oliver) shows Choughs in flight, and you can tell they are Choughs rather than any other sort of crow by the distinctive ‘finger’ feathers on the tips of their wings. But also their call is very particular – they tell you their name!

The pattern of their flight makes them stand out. The other day a chatter of twenty Choughs passed over us at Nead an Iolair and swooped down over and around Rossbrin Cove. They were wheeling and turning, performing acrobatics in the sky – even flying upside down! – clearly enjoying every moment of their airborne peregrinations. Why wouldn’t you, with such a beautiful landscape below you?

I have written about Choughs before, but there is a special relevance now, in my series on links between Ireland and Cornwall, sparked off by the West meets West exhibition currently running in the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn. The Chough has always been the ‘national bird’ of Cornwall – it has pride of place on the coat-of-arms of the county, alongside the fisherman and the miner:

It was somewhat ominous, therefore, when the Choughs disappeared from Cornwall, back in 1970, after a long period of decline. Attempts were made to reintroduce them artificially, over the following decades, but without success. And then, suddenly, the birds returned! It seems that changes in agricultural methods on the coasts – removing grazing cattle to inland sites – had upset their habitats. Now, following changed grazing patterns, Choughs are re-establishing themselves and – here’s the exciting thing – they have come over from Ireland to do that! It has been found that the entire new breeding stock originates from here, where the birds are plentiful. Just imagine those pioneering birds setting out to cross the Celtic Sea from Cork, Waterford and Wexford… Another gift from Ireland to Cornwall, following in the path of Saint Ciarán from Cape Clear who floated across himself (on a millstone) to convert the Cornish heathens and giving them their own patron saint, known as Piran in their own language.

Left – Chough fledglings, photo by Oliver Nares; right – Finola’s study of a bedraggled Chough sitting on our gatepost on a very wet day

In Cornwall, the Chough is said to carry the spirit of King Arthur, the Once and Future King who will return one day. In Ireland, however, Choughs are believed to start fires by carrying lighted sticks on to the roofs of houses. The latin name – Pyrrhocorax – means ‘fire raven’, perhaps because of the bright red bill and legs.

A taster for next week: another – curioser – bird-like creature from the Sancreed rood screen in Cornwall

Revealing Rock Art: 150 Years of Images

This week a powerful image from Ken Williams of Shadows and Stone (copyrighted, used with permission) lit up the Irish Rock Art Facebook Page (180,000 people had seen it at last count, and it’s been shared more than 1500 times). The photograph, taken with Ken’s signature blend of natural and artificial light, was of a stone in Kerry often known as the Staigue Bridge Rock Art, although technically it’s in the townland of Liss.

As it turns out, this is one of the best-documented rock art panels in Ireland, with images dating from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present day.

Taken on a recent visit to Liss/Staigue Bridge Rock Art site. This is probably what a casual visitor will see. Can you make out any carvings?

The response to this photograph highlights several important features of Irish rock art. First of all, it seems people are hungry to know more about these enigmatic carvings, and yet rock art is one of the least known aspects of Irish archaeology. Time after time, as Robert and I present exhibitions or give talks, we meet up with a near-universal response of “How come we’ve never heard about this before?”

Another view of the top section of the panel

Secondly, a photograph like this is not normally what you observe in the field. Commonly, rock art (and this one is no exception) is actually difficult to see under most lighting conditions. This rock is just off a popular hiking trail and the vast majority of walkers are unaware of what is a few meters from their path. Even if the route went right alongside it, most walkers would pass by without noticing anything unusual.

This will give you an idea of the extent of the panel

Thirdly, it is no longer possible to record rock art by any of the traditional methods that were in common use up to the 1990s. Nowadays, recording techniques that do not impact in any way with the rock surface are preferred, and that limits us to what can be imaged through photographic and scanning technology.

Aoibheann Lambe’s virtuoso photograph – this is the panel in the second photograph, taken from almost the same angle but under perfect natural lighting conditions. © Aoibheann Lambe

There are currently three ways in common use to photograph rock art so that the carvings will show up. The first is to use the natural low, slanting, shadow-casting, light at sunrise or sunset. Rock Art Kerry, the work of archaeologist Aoibheann Lambe, has an outstanding photograph of the rock surface using only natural light. Given our climate, it is likely that many visits to the rock in all kinds of temperatures, early in the morning or late in the evening, were necessary before the perfect shot was possible. Aoibheann’s Facebook page is the place to be these days for new finds – she is making discoveries at a breathtaking pace!

Another of Aoibheann’s photographs – this one shows the extent of lichen growth on the rock surface, which often functions to obscure carvings. © Aoibheann Lambe

The second is to use flash photography – a technique that Ken Williams has perfected and uses to great effect to show up even faint carvings. We’ve seen Ken working – this isn’t a mater of a simple flash on a camera – multiple flashes are deployed with a skill that comes from long experience, and respond to an electronic trigger on his camera.  If you haven’t already done so, a visit to his site is an absolute must for anyone interested in rock art – or indeed in Irish archaeology.

Finola and Robert from Roaringwater Journal and Ken Williams of Shadows and Stone at Derrynablaha in Kerry

The third technique is that of photogrammetry. In essence, this is the combination of multiple high resolution photographs to construct a 3D image of a rock surface. The Discovery Programme has been sponsoring 3D imaging of various national monuments, including Ogham Stones and Sheela-Na-Gigs, for some time. Under this program, The Dingle Museum (Músaem Chorca Dhuibhne) has produced a series of 3D images, including an excellent one of the Liss/Staigue Bridge rock art panel.

The top panel rendered in 3D – this is a screen capture. © Corca Dhuibhne 3D 2017

It is particularly exciting because it’s unusually clear (rock art 3D images can suffer from lack of clarity for a variety of reason) and also because this technique allows an image of the whole panel, whereas photography can only capture pieces at a time.

These stills have been captured from the 3D images on the Museum site but they do NOT compare with the experience of viewing and manipulating the 3D images on screen. It’s brilliant work, so please go to their page for the real thing. © Corca Dhuibhne 3D 2017

But back to the past, when it was still possible to produce drawings of the carvings. Back, in fact, to the 1850s! There were two Irish antiquarians called the Rev Graves. The better-known one was the Rev James Graves of Kilkenny, but the one we are concerned with here was the Rev Charles Graves, Bishop of Limerick and a noted mathematician, scholar, antiquarian, and President of the Royal Irish Academy. He was fascinated by Ogham and on a trip to view Ogham stones in Kerry he came across other ‘inscribed rocks’ of a type he was unfamiliar with. He wrote up his findings and presented them to the Academy in 1860.

Taken from the Wikipedia article on Charles Graves. Image above by Anonymous – Church Bells (1874–1875)) W. Wells Gardner, Publisher, London, Public Domain

The good Bishop had none of our modern scruples about interfering with the rock surface, or removing the turf to see what else he could fine. He did both: three feet of turf was stripped back to reveal the extent of the carvings and a rubbing was made from the whole surface, which was later converted to a survey-drawing. This, to this day, is the only drawing we have of the complete carving.

When I wrote my thesis on The Rock Art of Cork and Kerry in 1973 I said this about Charles Graves:

The first paper devoted to rock art in Ireland was by Rev. Charles Graves. In 1860 he read a paper to the Royal Irish Academy entitled “On a previously undescribed Class of Monuments”. His paper, mainly concerned with Co. Kerry, is still very valuable and his drawings and observations are often more accurate and more reliable than many later accounts.

My own drawing was done in 1972. The technique I used then was to chalk in the carvings and trace them onto clear plastic film. That tracing was then re-traced on to good quality paper using indian ink and a stipple technique and then photographically reduced by a professional printing firm. It is naturally an imperfect and subjective method, but long practice enabled me to produce surprisingly accurate renditions which stand up well to modern recording techniques.

I confined my drawing to the main area of carving and used Graves’ drawing as an additional illustration

There are few examples of Irish rock art with the pedigree of Staigue Bridge. It is classic cup-and-ring art in its execution but also contains the unusual elements of very large circles surrounding small cupmarks. It is enormous – a fact that would never have been appreciated if Graves had not determined to find the true extent of the carved surface (although of course we do NOT condone this practice now). It has a literature that goes back a century and a half, and was one of the first pieces of Irish rock art to be described and illustrated. It’s a national treasure.

Simply Signs

More sign spotting: always an agreeable pastime. These – which come from far and wide on our travels – add to previous collections of words and images spotted in Ireland: Good Signs, Juxtapositions, March Miscellany, and Impressions.

This is a very subjective survey: I’m showing things that I find intriguing or amusing – others will have different reactions. It just goes to show that, for us, there’s never a dull moment here: long may that continue.

In Skibbereen: look carefully here: -some things are easy to miss!

That’s enough for now! There’s plenty more in the collection – look out for them another day.

Tracking the Trains: Railway Reminiscence

…Like all children, the boys of Ballydehob found the platelayers’ trollies irresistible. A lady in Cambridge, Massachusetts wrote about her father (born in The Skames in 1900). Her father and some small boys recalled a ‘small hand-cart’ which was kept near the station and used by the platelayers. “When Mr Crocker, the station master, was not alert the small boys, led by Connie Sullivan, the acknowledged leader of the group because his father, Jack, worked on the railway, were able to steal off the cart. They would push it by hand towards Schull, getting the cart about one mile above the station. Then the boys would pile in and off they’d go down the hill past the station and up the hill on the far side until, caught by gravity, back would come the cart again at such breathtaking speed that it would rocket across the viaduct, then run back through the station. Mr Crocker would come out to see the speeding cart and sometimes shoot with a gun, always in the air and never to do any harm. He was a good chap, and we took advantage of him at the time…”

Last week I wrote about an exploration we had made of the old railway line that had served Ballydehob until 1947 – exactly 70 years ago. I was delighted – and excited – this week to discover a rare copy of a detailed history of the line in that Aladdin’s Cave of bookshops: The Time Traveller, in Skibbereen. The book The Schull & Skibbereen Railway was published  by The Oakwood Press in 1999, and has long been out of print. Although a modest volume, it is a monumental, detailed work which took half a century to write!

This is a view of Kilcoe Halt, taken in 1953 by the author of The Schull & Skibbereen Railway, James I C Boyd. At this time the line had recently closed, and the track had been taken up. The author’s wife and two daughters are in the photograph

The header picture shows the endpaper of the book – a postcard photo of Ballydehob taken from the east of the station around 1910, when the railway was still in use. The 12 arched viaduct – mentioned in the extract given in the first paragraph – can just be seen to the left: that account doesn’t really make geographic sense, but – remember – it’s a story, told from a distance both in time and place.

It is Chapter 18 of the book, entitled Miscellanea, which has given me the most pleasure to read, although this is not to decry any of the highly informative data and history contained in the rest of it. The book’s author, James I C Boyd, explains the context of the chapter:

…Over the half century during which I have formed close associations with West Cork, there have been many reminiscences, conversations and situations surrounding this subject which were noted down at the time in the hope of further attention. Some were legendary, others biased, a valuable few were personal but all gave me an insight as to the ethos of the local people in relation to their railway. Bearing in mind that during those fifty year the line has closed completely and many of my informants have passed away, their memories have been set down here… Such recollections do not fall neatly into the pattern of the previous pages, so form a chapter entitled Miscellanea…

Left – James Boyd and his family; right – from the 25″ 1901 Ordnance Survey Map: Ballydehob, with the station and the viaduct

Born in 1921, Boyd went to school in Colwall, Herefordshire. There he encountered two influences: the first was W H Auden, who taught him English, and the second was a miniature railway line which was attached to the school: the Downs Light Railway. This venture is the world’s oldest private miniature railway – which can carry human passengers. It has a track gauge of 912” (241 mm). Set up in 1925 for the principal purpose of education, the Downs Light Railway is today the only railway in the world to be operated solely by children aged between 7 and 13 years. These two significant experiences in his life set Boyd on his own track: to become a writer and a specialist in railway history. His opus includes over 20 highly detailed accounts of narrow-gauge lines in Britain, Ireland and The Isle of Man (including this definitive work on The Schull & Skibbereen Railway) and countless articles, photographs and other collected information.

A photograph which Boyd found in a collection by G R Thomson: it shows the ‘naming ceremony’ which took place in 1906 on the Schull Pier extension line of a new locomotive ordered from Peckett & Sons of Bristol. Father John O’Connor, the Parish Priest of Schull, broke a bottle of champagne over the engine and christened it GABRIEL – after the mountain, not the Archangel!

From Mrs P McCarthy of Schull – recorded in Miscellanea:

…You were asking me about the men who worked on the track, and who lived in the crossing houses? There were two sets of men: one between Skibbereen and Ballydehob and the other went from Ballydehob to here. Denis McCarthy (or ‘Foxey Din’ as we called him on account of his red hair), his son Mick (he went on the broad gauge when the S & S closed), and Batty Harrington. Sometimes Paddy O’Donovan would help them… From Ballydehob we had Connie O’Sullivan, Jackie Daly (who was the Foreman for the whole line) and Gerry McCarthy, who was known as ‘Vanderbilt’ from the careful way he had with money. Then at the Skibbereen workshops there was Charlie Murphy the chargehand / fitter and Willie Cottam, the carpenter… I don’t remember about all the gatehouses – Mrs Connor was in Kilcoe and Hollyhill was occupied by two men; they may have been gangers. When the railway closed, the occupants were given the first opportunity to buy…

The Company Offices in Skibbereen, taken by James I C Boyd in the 1950s, after closure

From Miscellanea – an anonymous contributor:

…In the long school holidays, mother used to send us children out with a large tin bath of the sort we used in front of the open fire in winter. On reaching Schull station we, and the bath, would ride the first train, to drop off at the best places and comb the fields for mushrooms, only stopping when the bath was full. Then, dragging the unwilling receptacle behind us, we would bring it to the road alongside the railway, and so back to Schull again on the returning train…

The line at Hollyhill, 1938: ‘Curly’ Hegarty is the driver. Photo by H C Casserly

From John Browne of Creagh:

…The Secretary of the Company [William Goggin] owned a bar at the corner of the main street [of Skibbereen] and that to the station – it was very convenient for those going by train… When the Directors wished to visit Skibbereen they ignored the Railway and used a converted Lancia armoured car, the property of one of their number. On alighting at the Skibbereen office, there would be fussing and genuflection akin to a royal visit…

…The curb-stone margin which divided the Railway from the highway in numerous places, was a considerable barrier. A party of my friends attended the Ballydehob Fair in an open car. On the return journey the driver was ‘very happy’, misjudged a bend and struck the kerb. The damaged vehicle had to be abandoned. The revellers walked back to Skibbereen, leaving the car to block the passage of the first Up train from Schull. However, the combined efforts of all the crew and passengers were needed to drag the wreck back on the road…

…Willie Salter of Castletownsend said that a pony and trap from Skibbereen often reached Ballydehob before the train; it was better that way if you were in a hurry. He would see passengers getting out near Crooked Bridge or Church Cross to give the train a push…

Sad days: James I C Boyd located and photographed this ‘Gloucester’ carriage from the S & S line in a field beside Bantry Bay in 1967. It had been sawn in half before final abandonment; is it still there today?

This post is a short taster of the treasures that this volume holds. A fuller review – and more Miscellanea – will appear in future posts. To finish today, we were delighted to find this photo taken by the author just around the corner from us. Finola’s article, here, tells the story of this Lost Landmark.

Stoned

It started on Friday in glorious sunshine and the West Cork Stone Symposium ended today in the same magnificent spring skies. All participants appear to be on a high, and that includes me.

A barbecue pit for the community of Ahakista. Look what we built!

Anyone who lives in or has been to Ireland knows we’re all about stone. Stone walls, stone buildings, stone sculpture, stony landscapes…it’s in our DNA. Wicklow granite, Burren limestone, the basalts of the Giant’s Causeway, Connemara marble, the great slate quarries of Clare and the quartzite peaks of Donegal’s Errigal Mountain. And here, in West Cork, the old red sandstone, in use since prehistoric times to build field boundaries, stone circles and portal tombs, to erect standing stones, and to construct everything from the humble cottage to the big house.

Light on Stone – the theme of the photography workshop led by Ben Russell. 

For us, of course, the old red sandstone is the canvas used for the prehistoric rock art we study. But as one of the organisers of the festival said – everyone who came to the Symposium came with their own experience of stone and their own plans for how they wanted to work with it. Thus, the two main events on the program revolved around stone carving and dry stone wall building, but there was lots more on offer too – guided hikes, a photography day, a whiskey-tasting walk around Whiddy Island, an evening with the Cork Astronomy Club talking about stone circles, a presentation on the dry stone walls of Cork, and more.

The photography workshop group, Ben is second from the left (Photograph by Ben Russell). Ben, camera close-ups

Robert and I participated in several ways: we mounted a pop-up version of our Rock Art Exhibition in Bantry, we gave a talk on rock art, and I enrolled in the all-day photography workshop, Light on Stone, with Ben Russell. This was a great learning experience, half in the classroom and half in the field. The morning outdoors session was spent at Dooneen on dramatic cliffs with the Caribbean blue sea below us.

Practising composition: top, rule of thirds. Bottom, leading line

Working with depth of field – and with the first Sea Pinks of the season

In the afternoon Ben led us through taking close-ups and macro shots and then we headed off for the symposium site to photograph whatever we wanted.

Watching and talking to both the carvers and the wall-builders was marvellous. Of all ages and stages, the students were a study in concentration, discovery, and pride in achievement.

The wall-builders had undertaken a long dry-stone wall and a barbecue pit, both of complex and attractive design. Covered in dust, sweat, and broad smiles, they were delighted to talk to me about what they had learned and about their respect for the tutors and their skill.

Rita and her friend had worked on the wall. By the end of day three they were exhausted – but look at those grins!

The carvers were all working on individually chosen pieces – words, animals, geometric designs. Few of them had done anything like this before and all were delighted with what they had accomplished. “I never thought I could actually do something like this” was a common refrain.

I was delighted to run into Cliodhna Ní Lionáin again – last time was at a talk she gave on rock art in Dublin. Here she is carving a deer from a Spanish rock art panel

Today we were back to the Sheep’s Head – the Symposium was centred in Ahakista – to give our talk and watch the erection of the standing stone carved by participants.

Members of the organising committee. Second from the right is Victor Daly, our local stone carver and one of the Symposium’s tutors.

This is the inaugural symposium and it’s been an incredible success. There are plans for it to be annual. Have you ever wanted to carve something? Just want to know more about working with stone? Keep an eye on the website and next year come along and experience it for yourself – it will be one of the most unique and rewarding things you will have ever done.

Spring Green

Spring comes early this year – on the 20th of March instead of the 21st. It’s all to do with the precession of the equinoxes. But you might follow the old tradition (and why wouldn’t you?) that Spring begins on St Brigid’s Day – the 1st of February. We have been having many good, clear – and warm – days of sunshine since then, to balance out all the cool and wet ones, and the days are ‘drawing out’.

Ireland’s green landscapes presented using the panorama technology of a phone camera! Top – the two lakes at Dunlough, above Three Castle Head, Mizen Peninsula; centre – view across Roaringwater Bay from the top of Mount Gabriel; lower – Peekeen ridge, Sheep’s Head Peninsula

It’s the abundance of weather – in all its varieties – that makes Ireland’s landscapes so green, and so beautiful: as we are not so far from St Patrick’s Day (last week, when everything turned green!) today’s post is a celebration of the special colour as we find it around us. Finola mentions it today, but in a different context.

…When Erin first rose from the dark swelling flood,
God bless’d the green island and saw it was good;
The em’rald of Europe, it sparkled and shone,
In the ring of the world the most precious stone…

(William Drennan 1754 – 1820)

Where Ireland’s most westerly land mass dips into the Atlantic: looking east from Brow Head towards Crookhaven

…Ireland, it’s the one place on earth that heaven has kissed with melody, mirth, and meadow and mist…
(Old Irish Blessing)

Rossbrin Cove – with its ancient castle lost in the mist – seen from the green fields of Cappaghglass

In our own townland of Cappaghglass we have vivid green pastures but also, up on the old mine road, colours that constantly change with the seasons. It’s too early yet for the abundance of wild blooms that will transform the hedgerows and verges – we’ll watch out for those.

Cappaghglass: upper – a kaleidoscope of colours along the mine road, waiting for the Spring; lower – the colour green proliferates when the wildflowers appear

…When I come out on the road of a morning, when I have had a night’s sleep and perhaps a breakfast, and the sun lights a hill on the distance, a hill I know I shall walk across an hour or two thence, and it is green and silken to my eye, and the clouds have begun their slow, fat rolling journey across the sky, no land in the world can inspire such love in a common man…

(Frank Delaney)

One of Ireland’s spectacular roads makes its way through the Kerry mountains

Her eyes were like two sparkling diamonds
Or the stars of a bright frosty night
Her cheeks were like two blooming roses
And her teeth of the ivory so white
She resembled the Goddess of Freedom
And green was the mantle she wore
Bound round with the shamrock and roses
As she strayed along Erin´s green shore

(Mick Moloney)

Erin’s green shore: upper – our own Roaringwater Bay: Horse Island just off the coast and Cape Clear beyond. Lower – the tide is out below Brow Head, Crookhaven, exposing an ancient stone row which has been drowned by rising sea levels

…The gorse was in bloom, the fuchsia hedges were already budding; wild green hills, mounds of peat; yes, Ireland is green, very green, but its green is not only the green of meadows, it is the green of moss – and moss is the plant of resignation, of forsakenenness. The country is forsaken, it is being slowly but steadily depopulated…

(Heinrich Böll – 1957)

…There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet
As that vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet;
Oh! the last rays of feeling and life must depart,
Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart…

(Thomas Moore)

The meeting of several waters here at Donemark Falls, just north of Bantry

…Sure a little bit of Heaven fell from out the sky one day and it nestled on the ocean in a spot so far away. When the angels found it, sure it looked so sweet and fair, they said, “Suppose we leave it for it looks so peaceful there.”
So they sprinkled it with stardust just to make the shamrocks grow. ‘Tis the only place you’ll find them no matter where you go. Then they dotted it with silver to make its lakes so grand and when they had it finished, sure they called it Ireland…

(Linda Weaver Clarke)

The Lakes of Killarney, Co Kerry

The seas in which Ireland floats are as variegated in colour and texture as the landscape itself. Should our last words on this go to James Joyce…?

…The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea…

(James Joyce – Ulysees)

Ancient fields on Brow Head, Mizen Peninsula, looking towards Barleycove

All beauty is in the fine detail, we are told. The panoramas, the wide views, the seascapes are unbeatable – but, sometimes, it’s just the simplicity of a gateway that invites you in to explore this verdant island…