Chough Country

WHERE not a sound is heard
But the white waves, O bird,
And slippery rocks fling back the vanquish’d sea,
Thou soarest in thy pride,
Not heeding storm or tide;
In Freedom’s temple nothing is more free.

‘Tis pleasant by this stone,
Sea-wash’d and weed-o’ergrown,
With Solitude and Silence at my side,
To list the solemn roar
Of ocean on the shore,
And up the beetling cliff to see thee glide.

Though harsh thy earnest cry.
On crag, or shooting high
Above the tumult of this dusty sphere,
Thou tellest of the steep
Where Peace and Quiet sleep,
And noisy man but rarely visits here.

For this I love thee, bird.
And feel my pulses stirr’d
To see thee grandly on the high air ride,
Or float along the land,
Or drop upon the sand,
Or perch within the gully’s frowning side.

Thou bringest the sweet thought
Of some straw-cover’d cot,
On the lone moor beside the bubbling well,
Where cluster wife and child,
And bees hum o’er the wild:
In this seclusion it were joy to dwell.

Will such a quiet bower
Be ever more my dower
In this rough region of perpetual strife?
I like a bird from home
Forward and backward roam;
But there is rest beneath the Tree of Life.

In this dark world of din,
Of selfishness and sin,
Help me, dear Saviour, on Thy love to rest;
That, having cross’d life’s sea,
My shatter’d bark may be
Moor’d safely in the haven of the blest.

The Muse at this sweet hour
Hies with me to my bower
Among the heather of my native hill;
The rude rock-hedges here
And mossy turf, how dear!
What gushing song! how fresh the moors and still!

No spot of earth like thee,
So full of heaven to me,
O hill of rock, piled to the passing cloud!
Good spirits in their flight
Upon thy crags alight,
And leave a glory where they brightly bow’d.

I well remember now,
In boy-days on thy brow,
When first my lyre among thy larks I found,
Stealing from mother’s side
Out on the common wide,
Strange Druid footfalls seem’d to echo round.

Dark Cornish chough, for thee
My shred of minstrelsy
I carol at this meditative hour,
Linking thee with my reed,
Grey moor and grassy mead,
Dear carn and cottage, heathy bank and bower.

I was pleased to find this poem. It was written by a Cornishman – John Harris – who was born in 1820 in Bolenowe. Perhaps he was an ancestor? His father was a miner at Dolcoath Tin Mine where young John also started at the age of 10. He began writing poetry as a child, usually in the open air where he was inspired by nature. After 20 years working in the mine, one of his poems was eventually published in a magazine. It attracted notice, and he was encouraged to produce a collection, which was published in 1853. The Cornish Chough is taken from that collection.

Above – choughs over Rossbrin Cove. The wonderful header picture was kindly given to us to use in a previous piece on the birds by our friend and neighbour Oliver Nares. Oliver and Susie are fortunate to have choughs nesting on their property and keep a good eye out for the welfare of the chough families which are raised there. We don’t have choughs nesting at Nead an Iolair (which means Nest of the Eagle) but we often see and hear them over us: they are the most acrobatic and joyful of birds.

The reason I have returned to choughs today is that they were the subject of an early post which I published on Roaringwater Journal on 6 October 2013 – exactly five years ago! Choughs – Cornwall’s emblematic birds – left that county fifty years ago but returned very recently as migrants from Ireland. We consider ourselves very privileged to be living in abundant chough country.

A Walk on Sherkin Island

You can’t live in West Cork without constantly being aware of the sea – it’s all around us. And the offshore islands are always in our view as we look across Roaringwater Bay. It’s easy to get to the inhabited ones: there are good ferry services that run year round, although they can be hampered by winter storms. In this picture – above – the Cape Clear Ferry is leaving Baltimore, while the Sherkin Ferry is arriving to collect passengers for that island, including us: on a whim we went across on a wonderful warm September afternoon.

It’s a short sea voyage to Sherkin – all of 15 minutes! But it’s always exciting to be on the water. That’s the lighthouse on Sherkin in the picture above: it was built in 1885 of cast-iron construction and is now fully automated, as are all of Ireland’s lighthouses today.

We did have an aim – to find a piece of Rock Art that may be the earliest physical evidence of human occupation on the island. It’s a cupmarked stone in the townland of Kilmoon, overlooking Kinish Harbour. It was a fair walk to the west, over deserted roads and through fields. After a bit of backtracking we managed to find the stone, well weathered but with its markings still visible. It is situated with panoramic views all the way round, taking in the peaks of Mount Gabriel, Mount Corrin and Mount Kidd on the mainland: surely it must have been placed with those views in mind?

This picture shows the cupmarked stone in its present setting, just inside a private garden (if you go, please make sure you seek permission from the owners of the house!), while the one above shows the panoramic distant view which the stone commands.

Here is the surface of the stone which is heavily blotched with lichen, but it is possible to make out the well defined cupmarks: there are 14 in all. If you want to find out more about cupmarked stones and how they compare with Rock Art in general, we wrote this post a while ago. It sparked off a whole lot of debate (have a look at the comments at the end of that post) – and there is still much to be discovered in a history that may go back 5,000 years.

Our main mission was accomplished, but we couldn’t resist taking in some other historical sites while on the island. Firstly, we had a good look at the Franciscan friary – situated in the townland of Farranacoush – which has a colourful history. Here is a description from the current Irish Franciscans site:

. . . Permission for this foundation was given by Rome to Finighin O’Driscoll in 1449, but it was not until just after 1462 that the Observant friars actually arrived. The friary became the traditional burial place of the O’Driscoll’s. In 1537 the citizens of Waterford burned the building in retaliation for acts of piracy by the O’Driscolls. The great bell of the friary was on display in Waterford as late as 1615. There is no evidence to suggest that the friars were disturbed by the events of the Reformation until the island was garrisoned by the English following the Battle of Kinsale. The friars soon returned and, except at the height of the Cromwellian persecu­tion, were active all during the seventeenth and well into the eighteenth centuries. The last friar, Fr Patrick Hayes, died soon after 1766 . . .

In the picture above – taken from the OPW information board – you can see the attacks of 1537 by ‘the citizens of Waterford’ on both the Friary (in the foreground) and the O’Driscoll stronghold of Dún na Long (beyond). The castle was subsequently partially rebuilt and was garrisoned by a Spanish force in 1601. It was then acquired and restored by the Becher family in 1655 and remained in their ownership until the late nineteenth century. We went to see what remains of the castle today.

Our visit to Sherkin only took an afternoon – albeit a golden one. There’s plenty more to see there – and other islands to be investigated. And an endless exploration of history to be had in the landscapes of West Cork.

A Hare’s Tale

A country for hares . . . The idyllic landscape that surrounds us is a haven for Nature in all her moods and varieties, including the human intervention of agriculture (above). Regular non-human visitors to our garden at Nead an Iolair which is, after all, just a slightly tamed piece of the natural landscape, provide a constant source of interest and entertainment, as we have demonstrated in previous posts, including this one.

This summer of 2018 has been exceptionally dry – our usually green sward, and the view beyond (above), turned the colour of straw instead of verdant green. When the rains started a couple of weeks ago it didn’t take long for things to get back to normal (below), and the fresh green shoots of grass attracted an unusual, but most welcome, visitor.

Here he is: Berehert the Hare. He’s young, probably about half adult size, but completely independent. Leverets are born fully developed – furred with open eyes, and lead a mainly solitary life. Hares can run faster than any other European land mammal – an amazing 37 body lengths a second. For comparison, Cheetahs can only manage 23 body lengths per second. It’s their speed that can keep them safe: they can easily outrun a single greyhound but, unfortunately, humankind makes the odds most unfair by setting two or more dogs against them in hunting and coursing which, unbelievably, are legal in Ireland, even though the conservation prospects of the Irish Hare are considered ‘very poor’ under the Berne Convention and EU Directive 92/43 Annex V see page 104. There have been attempts to change this bizarre situation – so far unsuccessful: you might like to tackle your own TD next time there’s an election coming up.

Berehert (have a look here to see where his name comes from) stayed around our garden for three days, and this provided an unprecedented opportunity (for me, anyway) to closely observe the animal’s characteristics and behaviour. In the picture above, where he’s looking a little glum on our terrace in the rain, you can see his wonderful russet colouring and his very long legs, particularly the hind ones. These enable him to take great leaps – fully grown he can jump four and a half metres from a standing start in any direction. This is another protection mechanism: if a hare is approached or surrounded by predators – usually dogs – he’ll wait until they close in on him and then jump that distance and run off. The dogs, which rely on scent more than sight, are completely confused and by the time they sort out where he’s gone, he has (hopefully) vanished.

Fortunately, Nead an Iolair’s resident greyhounds (which came with the house) wouldn’t be much use in the chase: they certainly didn’t seem to deter our visiting hare. Young Berehert did everything which was expected of him while I was watching. He allowed me to get quite close to him – and was perfectly aware that I was there, then suddenly he leapt up and was away, a gangly confusion of legs and ears. But he only went as far as the next patch of new green shoots. Here he is, nibbling away . . .

Hares are restless animals: they don’t stay in one place for very long, and it’s quite normal for them to range over 2km at a time when foraging. Berehert is still out there somewhere, and I’m hoping that he will revisit us occasionally. I’d rather not dwell on the fairly short average life span of hares in the wild (four to nine years) and the fact that only one in five leverets survives their first year. For our continuing education in the natural world of wild West Cork we will have to rely on our more regular and stable visitors: Finnbarr the Pheasant’s family and the myriad of small birds who populate our feeders, not to mention the wide variety of insect life and, in these shortening evenings, the colony of Common Pipistrelle Bats who are busily out hunting: if you think you don’t like bats, just bear in mind that each one can eat around 3,500 small insects, such as midges, in one night.

Thank you, Finola, for all those excellent photographs of Berehert: not the easiest of animals to capture on film!

Heir Island – a Modern Paradise

You know that term, Island Paradise? Well, this week I went there. It’s called Heir Island, and it’s one of the inhabited islands of Roaringwater Bay. It was the first of many visits, I hope, and it was taken in the good company of Trish Punch and two Islanders, Christine Thery and Sarah Mathews.

This is the view of Heir Island from our own home – the grouping of houses behind the sandy beach is called Paris!

Heir (sometimes rendered as Hare) is Inis Ui’Drisceoil in Irish, and indeed it was very much part of the O’Driscoll territory up to the 1600s. The population has dwindled, along with that of all the islands, until now there are only about 20 permanent residents. But it’s a popular destination in the summer, with an active sailing school, a renowned restaurant (the Island Cottage) and of course the Bread-Making School that Robert and I attended and enjoyed enormously.

It’s got wonderful peaceful boreens, picturesque cottages, panoramic views over Roaringwater Bay and to the other islands, golden beaches – all this and it’s only a four minute ferry ride to the mainland. But shush – don’t tell anyone else or they’ll all want to come.

Trish is doing a long-term photographic project focusing on the islands of the Wild Atlantic Way and was keen to get back to Heir to capture the views. I had been following a Facebook Page called Heir Island Wildlife Project and had contacted Christine and Sarah, two of the admins on that page, to see if they would meet us when we came and tell us a little about their project. They did better than that, walking the length of the Island with us, and answering all our questions. (Not to mention the coffee and those Portuguese buns!)

I had boned up a little on the island plants, with the help of The Wild Plants of Sherkin, Cape Clear and adjacent Islands of West Cork by John Akeroyd et al, a publication of the Sherkin Island Marine Station that we had visited way back. The book outlines the habitats and growing conditions of the islands, and enumerates the “astonishing” richness of plant species that are to be found on them. Heir is second only to Sherkin in the number of Flowers and ferns to be found, several of which are nationally rare.

The islands ‘specialise’ in heathland species, due to the dominance of open ground, the lack of trees and the broken rocky nature of the terrain. As Akeroyd explains, Thin soils dry out during the summer, thus preventing encroachment by more vigorous species and allowing the plants themselves to die down and the seeds to ripen. Most of this group of plants are annuals more characteristic of southern Europe and the Mediterranean region. . . 

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And indeed what I found was an astonishing variety of wildflowers. When I got home I counted that I had taken photographs of 45 different plants! But that was only part of the wildflowers we saw, since I didn’t photograph everything we came across. Several were new to me, including the Amphibious Bistort and the Pond Water-crowfoot that had arrived unbidden in Sarah’s newly-dug pond.

Butterflies, hover flies and bumble bees seemed to be everywhere we looked. The orange-tip butterfly (the one that loves the Cuckooflower) wouldn’t stay still enough for a snap, but a Common Blue Butterfly with its iridescent wings, and a Cinnabar moth with bold stripes both cooperated.

At the West end of the Island rugged cliffs provide a perfect breeding ground for European Shags. These birds have been amber-listed in Ireland because breeding populations are very localised. Therefore, it’s important that they have found a suitable nesting site on Heir and it’s wonderful to see that this small colony seems to be successfully hatching their young. Looking quite like a cormorant and similar in size, up close they have a striking green gloss to their feathers.

The headland from which we observed the shags provided a carpet of spring heath on which to loll about and admire the views across the Cape Clear and the Mainland. My eyes were immediately drawn down, however, to the ground beneath me. Orchids, Wild Thyme, Thrift, Lousewort, and a beautiful rose-coloured Kidney Vetch provided swaths of pink and purple, while Milkwort and Dog-violet yielded hint of blue and Scurvygrass (Common, I think) rounded it all out with a mat of white flowers.

I didn’t find (or didn’t recognise) some of the very rare plants that grow on these islands, like Wormwood, Deptford Pinks and Spotted Rockrose. Obviously another expedition is called for!

I worry all the time about habitat loss in West Cork. The sound of the rock breaker is a constant in our lives, carving out new fields where there was heath and hedge, and thereby reducing food and shelter for our pollinators and small mammals. I feel despair when I arrive at my favourite place to see a certain set of wildflowers, only to find that someone has been in there with Roundup and it’s now a brown wasteland. Places like Heir Island have a unique opportunity, perhaps even a responsibility, to stay as pristine as possible, to remain an Island Paradise as long as possible for all our sakes. Fortunately, lots of the local residents think so too and that make me hopeful.

A glimpse into Christine’s studio – her exhibitions are always eagerly anticipated locally

Thank you, Sarah and Christine for a wonderful day, and Trish for your excellent company. Let’s do it again soon!

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.

A Change to The Fastnet Lighthouse

Way back in 2014 I wrote about An Carraig Aonair: The Fastnet Rock and I have decided to repost that today, but with some updated information and photographs, because of an upcoming change announced by Irish Lights. Depending on the story, this is either a relatively benign but majorly cost-saving switch to LED lighting, or a change we must be vigilant about to make sure the Fastnet is left “intact and unharmed”.

Irish Lights tells us that structural repairs. . .are necessary to ensure the metal lantern room is properly secured to the granite tower and modernisation of the light source to an energy efficient rotating LED lantern. When these works are completed the outward appearance of Fastnet will be unchanged. The work will improve our environmental impact by significantly reducing the need for diesel and generators and by removing all mercury from the station. The range of the light will reduce from 27 to 18 Nautical miles.

This photo was taken from our house, 12 miles (or 10.4 nautical miles) away

While this seems like a sensible and inevitable modernisation, with (according to this letter to the Irish Times) a very significant saving of €100,000 per year, those of us who live around Roaringwater Bay want more information: we want to be sure that the change does not negatively impact on the safety of our sailors and fisherfolk, and does not rob us of the iconic flash that is so much part of our lived experience in West Cork. There will be a meeting on Monday (March 5, 2018) at the Schull Sailing Club to discuss it all.

What follows now is the text of my post from June of 2014, lightly edited and with some newer photographs inserted.

Robert has written about our field trip to Cape Clear Island and I can now reveal that the journey also included a thrilling sail around An Charraig Aonair (Karrig Ane-er, The Lone Rock) better known as the Fastnet Rock; or to thousands of emigrants for whom it was the last sight of their home country, Ireland’s Teardrop.

We had been looking forward with great anticipation to visiting the rock close up. We can see it from our home, a far away mystical crag abounding with lore and legend. We have been awestruck by the waves crashing over the lighthouse in winter storms and wondered at the lives of the lightkeepers who once manned that treacherous outpost. We watched through our telescope as enormous yachts rounded the rock in the biennial Fastnet Race last summer, following the progress of the race on a special iPhone app. I have written elsewhere about the awful tragedy of the 1979 race, in which Gerard Butler and his fellow lightkeepers on the Fastnet played a crucial role in monitoring the participating yachts in the mountainous sea conditions. 

The signal station and the first lighthouse, on Cape Clear Island

The Fastnet was built to avoid such tragedies. Its first iteration was in 1818 as a lighthouse tower on a high point on nearby Cape Clear Island, beside the Napoleonic-era signal tower. However, the light was frequently obscured by fog and after the wreck of the Stephen Whitney in 1847 with 92 souls lost, it became clear that the best place for a lighthouse was on the Fastnet Rock. 

The great era of lighthouse building in Ireland got underway in the mid-nineteenth century. The engineering, design and construction expertise necessary to build lighthouses are impressive enough. Add to this the logistics of building on a tiny and inhospitable rock in a heaving sea on the edge of the Atlantic, and the sheer accomplishment of the objective is  staggering. The first attempt, started in 1849, was of steel and needed constant repair.

The first lighthouse on the rock – it was made of steel and didn’t last

It was decided to replace it with a structure of Cornish granite and the current lighthouse first cast its beam over the waters in 1904. Eamon Lankford in his book Fastnet Rock: An Charraig Aonair describes the building process and provides old photographs illustrating how the granite blocks were ‘floated’ and hoisted on to the islet, having been first assembled and tested in Cornwall. The website Digital Irish Lighthouse Experience by Sandra Michler has an animated sequence showing how this was accomplished. it took eight years.

We were fortunate to have Eamon Lankford as one of our guides on our trip to the Fastnet

One of the best accounts of the building of the lighthouse was in a 2008 article in The Economist called Light on a Lonely Rock. The piece gives fascinating details into the dedications and hardships of the builders and calls the lighthouse “a monument of man’s gift to mankind.” I don’t know who wrote it, but it’s a terrific essay.

According to the Irish Lights website, Fastnet is the tallest and widest rock lighthouse tower in Ireland and Great Britain and was a monumental achievement when completed in 1904. Each of the granite stones of the tower is dovetailed into those around it, bonding the structure into a virtual monolith. This webpage also has several excellent photographs of the lighthouse from the air. What all photographs of the rock also reveal is that the lighthouse is a thing of beauty. Tall, slender and elegant and boasting two balconies, it personifies form and function in the most admirable fashion possible. (Take a look, for example, at Dennis Horgan’s website – he’s an acclaimed aerial photographer and his photograph of the lighthouse is probably the most iconic shot of them all.) Today the Fastnet is fully automated but in The Lightkeeper Gerard Butler describes what it was like to live on the rock in fair weather, when he fished and swam from the steps, and foul, when the seas crashed and roared over the lighthouse as it quivered and shook all night. 

The lighthouse showing the full extent of the Cornish granite and the stub of the old steel tower

One of the stories we heard from Eamon concerned  a daring midnight raid on the lighthouse carried out by an IRA ‘Flying Column’ (experts in guerilla warfare) in 1921 during the Irish War of Independence. They were after the explosives used on the Fastnet to power the foghorn. In researching this story further, I found an article in the 1999 Mizen Journal (no longer in print) by Frank Lannin, based on the eyewitness statement of Sean O’Driscoll.*

The Rock, showing the landing platform, steps and store

Here is part of Lannin’s account:

The breeze had freshened and caused the usual swell around the Rock and there was a rise and fall of several feet. The anchor was let out and the boat moved slowly to the landing place. Positioned on the bow was John O’Regan, a rope tied around his waist, a revolver in his pocket and balancing himself with the rise and fall of the boat. He would have to select the right moment to jump on the Rock and catch the iron ring which was fixed to the Rock. He knew where the ring was fixed, but to grasp it in total darkness was a feat that few would attempt. His vast experience as a seaman was now to be put to the test. As a wave was rising he jumped. It was a tense moment. As the wave covered him he grasped the ring with both hands. (It was an occasion for handclapping, but not tonight.) In seconds he had made the boat fast and the rest of the raiding party were landing on the platform. The huge steel door of the lighthouse was not locked. John was first up the spiral stairway leading to the room where the Lightkeeper was on duty. He put up no resistance and as a precaution the wireless was dismantled. Seventeen boxes of gun cotton and three boxes of detonators and primers were loaded on to the “Maire Cait” by means of the lighthouse derrick. in all, the spoils weighed but one ton. The daring mission was accomplished.

The Third West Cork Flying Column

The fog signal, together with the light, was an important aid to navigation for ocean going vessels. It was only in 2011 that the Fastnet foghorn was permanently discontinued, as modern navigation equipment rendered it unnecessary. All around the world people are missing the haunting sound of foghorns now, a sound so many of us grew up with. But at least we can see the light from Carraig Aonair every night and count its ‘character’ – one two three four FLASH…one two three four FLASH – and know that it’s doing its part to keep our mariners safe on the seas that roll outside Roaringwater Bay.

*See pages 18 to 20 of Sean O’Driscoll’s statement for his dramatic story of the raid.