Mizen Mountains 5 – Knockaphuca

Perhaps one of the most satisfying mountains on the Mizen, the 237m high Knockaphuca provides a well maintained waymarked trail best tackled as it is laid out – in a counter clockwise direction. You will go up the east side and down the steep west face. If you are lucky with the weather, as we were just before the longest day, you will have an experience which is hard to rival in this corner of Ireland. The loop walk is one of the latest sections of the Fastnet Trails which have been established to the west of Schull during 2019. All credit is due to the team which has so successfully organised and laid out these trails: this has involved much behind-the-scenes hard work.

In fact the full Knockaphucka Loop trail starts in Goleen, and is 10km long. We joined it as it leaves the R591 road north of the village (upper picture – the route goes off to the left). The map above has the mountain section (which we followed) superimposed on the Google Earth contour information. The section we walked is 6.6km long, and climbs about 200 metres.

One of the first landmarks on the way is right at the point where the marked track to the mountain leaves the main road: Ballydevlin Old School House (above). There is another ‘Ballydevlin Old School’ nearer to Goleen; presumably one was the National School (established c1831) and the other may have been a denominational Church of Ireland school. This peculiar Irish duality still exists today in many places.

Once on the marked track you are in a paradise! An ancient green road takes you part-way up the mountain, passing through small gorges which must have been cut out long ago: even if you are not a geologist you can’t help being impressed by the rock formations – they could be works of art.

After a while the path turns to the east and follows narrow, grassy glens bordered by majestic, serpent-like outcrops. It’s here that the views begin to open out, particularly to the south. Always you think that there couldn’t be a finer prospect over the Mizen and across the islands of Roaringwater Bay, and always – as you climb higher – you are surprised by the next, which is even better.

Twists and turns take you more steeply across the contours and swing round towards the summit. Only then is the full picture revealed: the whole landscape set out below you – every rift, valley and glacial glen with the higher land beyond culminating in the crests of Gabriel, 407m high, to the east, and the ‘little’ Mizen Peak, 232m high, to the west.

You won’t get lost as you head for the summit: this mountain had a distinctive cross placed at its highest point in the Holy Year of 1950, which reportedly fell in 1968, leaving the inscribed concrete plinth intact. The photo below shows the plinth in 2006 – courtesy Richard Webb. A new cross was installed in 2011 by a community effort led by the local GAA: this is now visible from much of the trail. The plaque mentions ‘…these challenging times…’, referring to the financial crash that hit Ireland so badly around that time. Illumination of the cross today is provided by photo-voltaic cells.

When you get to the top – pause… Now is the opportunity to appreciate the spectacular views in every direction. On our outing the south wind had been building up all day and was at its strongest in the late afternoon, when we gained the summit. It was pretty hard to remain upright! In fact, I wondered if we were being given a message by the resident Púca whose domain this is, after all?

The path down descends quite steeply: make sure you are well shod and vigilant. But you are in for further treats: the marked way passes by some peaty mountain tarns which are exquisite in their pristine beauty. Finola was in her element finding undisturbed native species such as water-lilies and sundews.

The mountain trail section ends on the small boreen running to the west of Knockaphuca, but the waymarkers will lead you back to the starting point, and there are still views up to the summit to enjoy, along with some landscape features on the way to continue to stimulate the senses.

What more could anyone want from a day’s outing in West Cork? Well – a bit of local history, perhaps. I searched for stories about the hill, particularly about the Púca – but only turned up this one told by Jerry McCarthy and included in Northside of the Mizen, the invaluable collection of Tales, Customs and History produced by Patrick McCarthy and Richard Hawkes in 1999:

The Púca of Knocnaphuca

 

The old people would feed the Púca of Knocnaphuca on ‘Snap-apple Night’, or indeed, whenever one had call to travel up the hill. It was the wise person that fed the Púca the night before going up. Milk and cake would be put on a plate and left outside the house and by the next morning the food had always gone!

 

The Púca of Knocnaphuca was half horse and half human. One late Snap-apple Night there was a young lad out walking the road when he heard a strange, sweet music coming from the hill. He went up and saw the Púca playing on a whistle. As soon as the lad had put eyes on it, it stopped playing and caught him. Away the Púca went to the top of the hill, where a crack opened up in the rock. In they went. They were twisting and turning down through tunnels until they entered a chamber full of gold. “Now,” said the Púca, “you are mine!”…

 

The next morning the boy was found on the road by the Long Bog. His hair had turned white and he could not speak a word ever after.

Thank you to our artist friend Hammond Journeaux of Ballydehob for this wonderful drawing of ‘Pooka’, included in The Little People of Ireland by Aine Connor, illustrated by Hammond, The Somerville Press, 2008. Púca in Ireland has counterparts in Cornwall (Bucca), Wales (Pwca), The Channel Islands (Pouque) and Brittany (Pouquelée). A shape-shifter (Flan O’Brien’s character from At Swim-Two-Birds, the Pooka MacPhellimey, changes his appearance by smoking from a magic pipe), the Púca most often appears in Ireland as a fine black stallion with red eyes. If you meet him, you have to mount him and he will take you on a journey far across the sea. It will seem to you as though you had been away for only a few hours, but the world will have moved on several weeks, perhaps months, during your absence. We saw no trace of the creature in June but, perhaps, if we climbed this mountain in the November Dark, we would have more chance of an encounter.

Transcendent Prospects

One of the advantages of the limitations that are placed upon us at the moment is that we have to look more closely at everything. We are seeing – and enjoying – the familiar landscape around us, so I am looking out, now, for the transcendent qualities it has to offer. [Transcendent: adjective – beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience; surpassing the ordinary; exceptional.]

Waterscapes at Ballydehob, Schull and Dereenatra. Header: cloudscape over Cape Clear, Horse Island in the foreground

So, over the last couple of days I have wended my way around the boreens of Cappaghglass, Stouke and Ballydehob – armed only with my iPhone camera – to see what I can record to intrigue and delight you. I have looked, particularly, for the quality of light that the currently ubiquitous sun is casting on to our green fields and hedgerows, our evanescent skyscapes, and the waters of the bays that surround us. In Cornwall – where I spent many years – it was the quality of light that was all important to the artists who came to the little fishing communities of Newlyn and St Ives from the late nineteenth century, and even into the present day. They were searching for something which was and is missing in towns and cities: clear, unpolluted air, constantly infused with tiny droplets of water arising from the sea which surround that western peninsula. We have the same quality on our own Mizen Peninsula: it’s that moisture laden air which captures and refracts the light, enhancing clarity and colour – and our own artists always did and always will respond to that.

We sometimes drive further afield in West Cork, so that we can take our exercise with a change of scene. But all of the photographs here are relatively close to home. The clarity of the light is apparent: the detail of the distant hillsides is picked out even by the phone camera. The colours – all those greens and the blues of skies and water are true to life.

Our favourite views are often dominated by the distinctive profile of Mount Gabriel in the distance. This is the highest point of land on the Mizen, and must have been an important waymark throughout history, central to the orientation of travellers through this area, and probably imbued with significance and ‘stories’. My favourite is the one that says the Archangel had heard of the inherent beauty in the Irish countryside (highly believable to me!) and ‘touched down’ on the top of the mountain, leaving his footprint on the rocks. Here’s a post I wrote about Mount Gabriel – and its associated stories – six years ago.

I don’t want to overdo the West Cork boreens (you can see lots more of them here), but I just can’t resist them! Perhaps it’s what they symbolise – our journey through life, pathways leading us on optimistically into our own futures? When we are exploring overgrown lanes, like the one in the middle picture above, there is a sense of excitement about what we might find through the trees or around the corner: in this case, we were led to an abandoned house. What mysteries are contained there: lives fully lived and now departed. The lower picture is the boreen that leads us home from Stouke to Nead an Iolair: always one of my favourites.

Upper – the colourful remains of an old tractor enhance (for me) the views from the Butter Road running out of Schull towards Ballydehob. Lower – this track is a highway leading down to the beach at Coosheen.

We look forward to the Covid19 restrictions being lifted, but it will be a while yet before travel constraints are removed. Even when they are, we will still appreciate what we have around us, and we won’t neglect the transcendent beauty of ‘our’ townlands and the sublime scenes that await us daily just a few steps from home.

Back home: (upper) reflections by the once busy quay at Ballydehob with (lower) the road leading into Ballydehob passing over the three-arched bridge, overlooked by higher land to the north

If you want to read more about the artists in Cornwall who were influenced and inspired by the landscapes of that Celtic kingdom, read more here and here.

And for more about the West Cork artists’ community – there’s a website (and a museum) dedicated to their history here.

The Day the Sun Came Out – in Ballydehob!

It always happens: you go through a ferocious winter of gales, floods and bitingly cold winds and then one day – probably not too long after St Brigid’s – you realise that spring is arriving! It happened this week, here in Ballydehob. Suddenly, the sun came out; the sky was deep blue and all the coloured houses, bars and shops lit up and made us remember what a wonderful place we live in.

Ballydehob – that’s the name in Irish, above, on the gable of the community’s Bank House. A literal translation would be Town of the ford at the estuary of two rivers and, indeed, the Bawnakeane and Rathravane streams converge here before flowing out into Ballydehob Bay, once a hive of water-borne commerce with coasters, schooners, sand-boats, and punts and skiffs from the inhabited offshore islands arriving and leaving, while the tiny train puffed and rumbled across the viaduct on its way from Skibbereen to the Schull terminus.

When you feel the spring in the air for the first time, you begin to look anew at your surroundings. Shapes, reflections, the play of images on water: there’s such a difference as the ‘ordinary’ is changed through the quality of the light. That’s the freshness of annual renewal.

There are so many little details in the townscape that we can overlook, or just take for granted. Ballydehob has a long history of creativity, which is reflected in shop signs, decoration, window dressings. Take a stroll in the sunshine and see if you can find anything new!

You don’t have to wander far from home to welcome and experience the joys of a new spring. You will also find yourself looking forward to the seasons still to come, which will bring Ballydehob to life with its visitors, galleries, festivals and gatherings. Not to mention the hostelries which feed the body as well as the soul.

We are looking forward to many sunny days to come as the year warms up. Meanwhile, we can always revisit happy memories of our village life through our photographic archives. Thanks to Judi Whitton for the endpiece watercolour featuring our wonderful Budds, just turned five years old this weekend: congratulations to Jamie and his dedicated team!

Ireland in the 1950s – Through the Lens of Robert Cresswell

This post complements last week’s overview of the work of Dorothea Lange, who spent several weeks in County Clare in 1954, documenting the rural way of life she observed there in over 2,400 monochrome photographs. That’s a monumental collection which can only be fully accessed by visiting the Oakland Museum of California. We are fortunate to have a book of some of her Irish work – Dorothea Lange’s Ireland – published by Eliott & Clark, Washington, 1996 and a current exhibition which includes some of her images at Dublin’s Museum of Decorative Arts & History, Collins Barracks. That same exhibition features the work of two further documentary photographers, one of whom is our subject today: Robert Cresswell (below):

The Paris-based American anthropologist Robert Cresswell (1922-2016) remained on in France after WWII, having served in the US army there for four years. Following the completion of his studies in anthropology in Paris, he arrived in Ireland in 1955 with the ambition of carrying out an anthropological analysis of an Irish rural community. Taking the advice of the Irish Folklore Commission he chose Kinvara, County Galway. The small rural town of Kinvara and its agricultural hinterland would become the base for his study, published in 1969 as ‘Une Communauté Rurale de l’Irlande’ . . .

Header – Kinvara on Fair Day, 1955 by Robert Cresswell. Above – Kinvara, Co Galway, streetscape; compare these to Dorothea Lange’s views of Ennis and Tulla, Co Clare (in last week’s post), taken in the same period

While the photographic essays by Dorothea Lange and Robert Cresswell bear close comparison – and how hugely interesting it is for us to see Irish rural life through those lenses nearly 70 years ago – it’s fascinating to consider that both came from very different backgrounds and disciplines, but were equally absorbed by the iconic images each of them was capturing – giving us a visual ‘time capsule’ of Ireland as it was apparent a few generations ago.

Above – examples from the Dublin exhibition showing the work of Cresswell taken from his colour slides

Robert Cresswell was a pioneer in some respects, in that he used Kodachrome film to produce colour slides, in the days when monochrome documentary photography was the norm. Some professional photographers could not cope with the idea of using colour, partly because they considered the images were not realistic. Ansell Adams felt that ‘. . . color could be distracting, and could therefore divert the artist’s attention away from creating a photograph to its full potential . . .’ while Henri Cartier-Bresson famously uttered his opinion that ‘. . . color is bullshit . . .’ – which was all he ever said about it, allegedly! My own (humble) opinion is that there is something about monochrome photographs which seems to draw the eye and enhance the atmosphere, particularly with historic images. I can’t explain this – there is no logic: it’s just a personal response which I am always aware of.

Above – monochrome Kinvara: the Forge, and Corpus Christie procession

Robert Cresswell lived in the Kinvara community for fifteen months between 1955 and 1956, returning for short periods in 1957 and 1958. The quotations in this post are from the exhibition text panels:

Capturing more than five hundred images . . . Cresswell photographed the people of Kinvara, their countryside, their work on sea, shore and land, the daily lives, religious processions, and fairs and markets. Documenting the changes that were occurring in the shift from a traditional farming community to a wider market-led economy, he was motivated to emphasise a community in transition over one operating in the continuity or stagnation of tradition. His photographs generally portray a well-functioning society, but his interpretation of emigration as the ultimate destructive agent in community and country profoundly influenced his understanding of rural life in a small community in 1950s Ireland . . . The population of the parish of Kinvara sustained a net loss of 80% between 1841 and 1956 . . .

Above: a community in transition – contrasting pictures of family life in Kinvara recorded by Cresswell in the mid 1950s

Tempting though it is to show you much more of Cresswell’s work here, I really want you to go and see for yourselves. The exhibition at Collins Barracks, Dublin continues until April this year, and is well worth making the effort to visit. Robert Cresswell lived a long life; in 2010, then aged 88, he donated his entire collection of documentary photographs and cine film of Kinvara to the Irish nation. He waived his own copyright to this unique work in favour of all persons who wish to use any of it for educational or heritage purposes (but not for commercial gain without prior permission). Copyright now rests with Kinvara Community Council, who have published an excellent website here. I have used a small number of images from the collection to supplement those we found at the exhibition, in order to give you a fair cross-section of the entirety of Cresswell’s opus.

In a mirror of present-day events in Ireland, here’s a shot by Cresswell of the Sinn Fein candidate Murchadh Mac Ualtair canvassing in Kinvara for the 1957 General Election with Peggy Linnane. In that election Fianna Fáil, under Éamon de Valera, took 78 seats with 48.3% of first preference votes, and Sinn Féin took 4 seats with 5.3% of first preference votes. In our 2020 election, just passed, Sinn Féin, under Mary-Lou McDonald, took 37 seats with 24.5% of first preference votes in a thoroughly divided result, leaving us all in a bit of a dilemma! But I digress . . .

Another of Cresswell’s colour images, showing the killing of the pig – a family affair

There is one more photographer in this exhibition, who I will feature in a future post – watch this space! One last image from Robert Cresswell, possibly another view of the Corpus Christie parade:

1950s Ireland

1950 happened 70 years ago – obviously. My earliest substantial recollection of the 50s era was a visit to the Festival of Britain, London, in 1951: I was five years old, and the memory has lasted. Incidentally, that year also saw my very first day at school, a traumatic experience from which I have never fully recovered – but that’s a story for another day!

I suppose that the seeds of an interest in building and engineering structures must have been in me then, because it is the architecture of that Festival that has stayed with me – and which probably influenced me in my own later career. Not that I ever designed a Dome of Discovery, or a Skylon – more’s the pity, but I think I have always related to the throwing off of tradition and the embracing of new and exciting shapes and colours which came out of the Festival. I believe we are overdue a revival of that bravado to lift our spirits once again.

I was pleased to find these contemporary picture postcards of the 1951 Festival of Britain: everything is exactly as I remember!

In the words of the Festival’s Director-General, Gerald Barry, it represented “a tonic to the nation” after twenty years in which Britons had successively endured economic depression, total warfare and acute post-war austerity. However, the Festival of Britain was the product of a left-wing government and it has been said that Churchill (then leader of the opposition) held the view that the whole venture was “three dimensional socialist propaganda”. I’m not sure that this is really true, as he attended the Festival and evidently spent all day riding up and down the escalators – then a novelty – with great delight! I also remember those escalators: we called them moving stairs (I still do – just like I still call the cinema the pictures). Finola clearly remembers riding on Ireland’s first moving stairs, in Roche’s Department Store, Dublin. But that was 1963; today’s post is all about the 1950s, but in rural Ireland.

The Half Door, an image from rural Co Clare by Dorothea Lange

On a recent trip to Dublin we visited Ireland’s Museum of Decorative Arts & History at Collins Barracks. We went specifically to see an exhibition: Ireland in Focus: Photographing Ireland in the 1950s. This features “rare images of forgotten Ireland” by three world renowned documentary photographers, one from France and two from North America. Each of them visited Ireland during the 1950s to record a traditional way of life that was perceived to be vanishing as the twentieth century progressed. For anyone interested in Ireland and its recent history, this is not to be missed: it runs until April. In this post I shall show some examples of the work of one photographer: Dorothea Lange. The others will get a showing in future posts.

Dorothea Lange, a portrait taken by her husband Paul S Taylor on the Texas Plains in 1935

We had already been introduced to Dorothea Lange as my good friend John (also an expert photographer) recently gave us a copy of a book of her Irish photographs. Sponsored by Life Magazine, she visited the western seaboard in 1954, staying for several weeks in County Clare. She took over 2,400 photographs, which are now fortunately archived in the Oakland Museum of California. In the introduction to the book Dorothea Lange’s Ireland Eliott & Clark Publishing, Washington, 1996, Daniel Dixon writes:

. . . Dorothea Lange was not an avid reader. But among the few books which became her favourites was a description of the sort of culture that drew her attention time and again throughout her career, a rural society where customs, beliefs, and the way of life itself were tied to the soil. The book was called The Irish Countryman. Written in 1937 by a young anthropologist from Harvard, Conrad Arensberg, it documented and analyzed the social and economic traditions of Irish rural life and discussed how they were affected by religion and superstition. In it, Arensberg located the family farm at the hub of this complex system and explained how each generation placed an overriding importance on ‘keeping the family name on the land’ . . .

Why is it that we are so drawn to old photographs? Lange’s pictures paint a view of rural life in Ireland that is barely a lifetime away – yet it seems far longer ago. But, living in rural Ireland today, we can so easily relate to those times and – most probably – regret that they have passed. Of course, if we lift the veneer of nostalgia, we know that life was harsh, then and – for all the problems of this world – it is so much easier now. We doubtless have regrets principally for the loss of the people that are portrayed; moments preserved for all time on film, but that can never be recaptured.

Quite apart from the people, we do like to see how places have changed. These images of 1950s Ennis, now a sizeable county town, hark back to simpler times, for sure, in Lange’s work:

You won’t see every one these pictures in the exhibition – I have taken some from the book. They all complement each other. But it’s all only a small part of what Dorothea Lange recorded. What of the several hundred other images? At least they are kept safe, although not available on line. Lange was born in 1895 and succumbed to cancer in her seventieth year, 1965. A few months after her death the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted a retrospective of her work. It was the first one-person retrospective by a female photographer held at MoMA. She is remembered far more for her images of the Great Depression years in the American West than she is for her visit to Ireland, but here we should be grateful for her documentary work that has added to our records of Irish rural life in the last century.

Top – Tulla, Co Clare; above – going to the Creamery, Co Clare, 1954. Below: Dorothea Lange in Ireland

Looking at Rossbrin

Last week we talked a little about the history of Rossbrin’s medieval castle, and the importance of this natural inlet as a historical centre of fishery, scholarship and European culture. Rossbrin Cove stills serves as an anchorage and refuge for sailing boats on the edge of Roaringwater Bay, but is now a peaceful haven, with only the sounds of the shore birds and slapping masts to lightly disturb an overriding tranquility that gives the place a very particular atmosphere. Our photograph (above) is taken on the boreen going to the castle; on the skyline in the centre is a wind turbine, and just below that is Nead an Iolair (Irish for Eagle’s Nest). The picture below shows the eagles wheeling over our house, with Rossbrin Castle and our view to the Cove beyond.

I have been exploring images of the Cove and its castle – some historic photographs and a few artists’ impressions. As it’s right on our doorstep, we have taken many pictures of Rossbrin during our years here. I am also sifting through a few of these.

Ten years ago, the west of Ireland experienced an exceptional snowfall, and above is a photograph taken by our near neighbour, Julian van Hasselt, before we arrived. Mostly, our weather is relatively mild due to the effects of the gulf stream on the south-western coast. The castle can clearly be seen here, beyond the fields of Castle Farm. This view of our house (below) was also taken in 2010 by our neighbours Dietrich and Hildegard Eckardt:

I showed a couple of early photographs of the castle last week. Here are two more taken before a substantial part of the ruined structure was toppled by a storm in the 1970s:

It’s good to see a bit of context, so here is another winter view of the castle on its rock with Castle Island behind. That island was also part of the O’Mahony territory. It is farmed by its present owner but no-one lives there now. You can make out the ruined castle on the island by the shore, just to the right of centre; it’s one of many that can be seen on, or close to, the shores of the Bay.

Let’s have a look at some of the art works that feature the Cove and the Castle. Jacqueline Stanley was one of many artists who was attracted to the beauty of West Cork. Now in her nineties, she moved from England to Ireland in the mid 1970s and purchased the old School House at Rossbrin as a country retreat: it has only recently changed hands.Here are two of her works, depicting Rossbrin. You can find more on her website.

I particularly like this view (above) which was painted by Jackie from the vantage point above the high road going down to the Cove, close to the remains of the copper mine at Ballycumisk. Last week I showed a painting by Geraldine van Hasselt, Julian’s mother, also from the 1970s. Every painting or photo is a historical document – and important to retain, in view of the fragile nature of the structure today.

Our friend Peter Mabey is an architect and artist. He has lived in West Cork for a long time: he and I were at college together in Kingston, Surrey, and were surprised to meet each other by chance in Skibbereen market a good few years ago now. Above is one of his attractive watercolours looking down towards the Cove. The vantage point looks remarkably like the one chosen by Jackie Stanley. Below is a drawing of Rossbrin from the monumental work The Castles of County Cork by the late James N Healy, published in 1988 by Mercier:

The ruin is a romantic reminder of past times, enhanced by the changing weather moods of Roaringwater Bay. This photograph, by Finola, emphasises the character of the place:

I can’t resist finishing this little two-part foray into the medieval remnants of our historically significant ‘centre of culture and learning’, which now languish on the edge of the waters below us with an artist whose work we admire: Peter Clarke, who writes and illustrates the Hikelines blog. His watercolour sketches are exquisite and always atmospheric. He has kindly allowed me to use his portrayal of Rossbrin Castle as my tailpiece. Thank you, Peter – and thank you to all the other artists who have been inspired by this remote and beautiful part of Ireland.