December in Rossbrin

In the past year I have returned to Rossbrin again and again in my posts. That’s not surprising, as it’s just a short and always rewarding walk down our Beautiful boreens:

It’s December, and we can expect anything in the way of weather. This is the mildest corner of Ireland: further north and east of us today, spanning Cavan, Donegal and Wicklow, heavy snow is falling and temperatures are forecast to drop to minus 8 degrees C in the coming hours. The last real bit of snow in West Cork came along seven years ago but we weren’t here, then, to see it (image below of Nead an Iolair in 2010 courtesy of our neighbours Dietrich and Hildegard Eckardt with, below it, today’s view of the Cove seen from the house):

Whatever the weather, our cove has something to offer – and every day is guaranteed to bring a mixture. When the sun is out we can bask in it as if it was the middle of summer, but it’s just as likely that there will be a stiff and invigorating breeze to accompany our bracing walks.

Above – reminders of summer pleasures to come as we wind down to the year’s end in Rossbrin: Andre’s catamaran – Danu – which he built himself, rides out the winter storms on a wet mooring in the Cove. The first of those storms – Ophelia – hit us last month, and there is a fair bit of wind damage still to be seen:

Traffic jam in Rossbrin!

Often, I will start out on the downhill walk with my head buzzing from the inexplicable madness of the outside world: British ethnocentricity, North American absurdity and worldwide chaos. Within minutes these concerns are receding, and when I reach the waterside I am overtaken by the immersive experience of natural things all around me and I find the solace of constancy: not much changes here. This little townland of Rossbrin is above and away from that buzzing, reeking world. It is a far saner place.

Since publishing this post we have received a communication from our good neighbour Julian, who lives down on the Cove, including some excellent photographs of the winter of 2010. Here’s one of them – thank you, Julian…

Cove in the snow 2010

Mizen Magic 6: Schull to Castlepoint

The Mizen is the Peninsula we live on, and of course we think it’s the most beautiful part of West Cork, and of Ireland. In previous Mizen Magic posts I’ve been exploring different aspects and areas, such as the Northside, or Brow Head, or our excellent beaches. This time I’m concentrating on the stretch from Schull to Castlepoint. The map below shows the area, with the village of Schull, our starting point, on the top right. The photograph above was taken from the top of Sailor’s Hill.

A winter view of Long Island Sound – Coney Island, Long Island,  the Calves, Cape Clear and Sherkin, with the entrance to Croagh Bay in the foreground

It’s only a few kilometres, and it would take you about ten minutes to drive straight to Castlepoint from Schull. But where’s the fun in that? No- let’s start by driving (or walking if you’d rather) out to St Mary’s Church on the Colla Road. It’s largely an eighteenth century church, although there are hints of a medieval structure here and there, and it stands in what must be one of the most scenic graveyards in West Cork.

Intriguing depictions of boats are inscribed into the render inside the church. How old are they? Who did them and for what purpose?

From there, I suggest you drive to the lookout on Sailor Hill – the trail arrows for the new extension of the Fastnet Trails will show you the way. We discovered Sailor’s Hill ourselves when I was researching belvederes – the redoubtable Connie Griffin has built his own modern version of a belvedere and there is no better place to get a view of Long Island Sound and the south side of the Mizen. Here’s the viewing house Connie built  – perfect for contemplation.

Back down to the Colla Road, continue to the scenic little Colla Pier, where you can take the ferry to Long Island. Robert and I do this every year as part of the Fastnet Film Festival. The ferry runs every day but you can also book special trips – it is, as they say here, a great day out. Pack a picnic and your camera – there’s lots of birdlife, including these oystercatchers on the rocks at Colla Pier.

The ferry leaves Long Island for the return trip to Colla Pier

From the Pier the road winds across country, overlooking the sea here and there, and always with Mount Gabriel looming in the background. From here you can see tiny Coney Island, privately owned, and with one house which is rented out to holiday makers.

Beyond Coney Island are the Goat Islands – Goat Island and Goat Island Little – probably once one island, but now split into two, with a narrow passage between. There are feral goats on these islands, but not much else. They appear to be completely inaccessible, with craggy shores that are impossible to land on. That, of course, only makes them all the more mysterious. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about the Goat Islands.

The narrow and treacherous channel that divides the Goat Islands, and the beacon on the smaller of the two islands

The road now winds down to Croagh Bay (locally pronounced ‘Crew’), a lovely tidal sheltered inlet with the romantically named Gunpoint at its head. On the higher ground to the right you will see that an enterprising individual has converted one of the old signal stations into a unique residence. It must have the best view – but all those stairs!

We are now in the territory described by Robert in Here Be Pirates and in Pilchards and PalacesCroagh Bay, or more correctly Leamcon House, was the site of William Hull’s house and a hotbed of piratical activity.

Nowadays it’s downright idyllic and the shallow waters of Gunpoint inlet provide sanctuary to wintering birds such as these shelducks.

Our last stop is the little pier at Castlepoint, offering a dramatic view of Black Castle, one of the O’Mahony Tower Houses that dotted the coast of West Cork in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This one is privately owned and the owner has stabilised and largely restored the castle, saving it for future generations from the all-too normal fate of dereliction that befalls West Cork Castles.

Robert looks across to Black Castle in the photograph above. The castle as the owner has stabilised it is shown below – he has done a first-rate job and we should all be grateful for his care of this important monument. The final photograph is of a small inlet by Castlepoint Pier.

Shay Hunston and the People of the Wild Atlantic Way

It’s the people! Shay Hunston is passionate about his subject. Sure, we have wonderful scenery, and every photographer is out capturing it. But time and again, what visitors tell us is that what makes Ireland special for them is the people they meet, their warmth, humour, empathy, poetic language, and the interest they take in others. So I set out to document those people – to show the faces and the personalities you will meet along the Wild Atlantic Way.

The first photograph above is part of that project – it’s Mike Watkins, the friendly face we pass most days as we drop into Budd’s of Ballydehob. He sits outside, drinking tea and greeting everyone. Here’s what he has to say about life: I have sunshine in my heart and I never, ever, ever get upset about anything. I’m happy every single day and everybody else should be the same, and we should all hug each other and talk to each other. This I have learnt from a lifetime of experience.

Tim Healy – Leap. The best advice I ever received in life was when I came to live in Leap in 1983. I knew of a local lad who had a reputation for liking a bit of a ‘Work Out’, he was well able to look after himself. So I said to him, just to wind him up, would you like to have a go, the two of us for 20 pounds. No, he said, I’ll tell you what, don’t be wasting your money, we’ll fight for pleasure.

So far, Shay’s project has been a Wild Atlantic Success, and he hasn’t even moved beyond Cork yet. He’s been going from community to community along the Wild Atlantic Way, photographing whoever volunteers. Once the prints are made, the town or village mounts an exhibition of his strong black and white images, in shop fronts, on the approaches to town, on walls and railings.

Caroline O’Donnell – Ballydehob. My grandmother once told me that as long as I have music and laughter in my life I would never grow old. I think about her every day and try not to grow old. She also said never marry a man you haven’t seen drunk… I’m still thinking about that advice.

We missed the shoot in Ballydehob as we were away, so we participated in Schull. It’s a nervous business, sitting for a portrait, but Shay creates an instantly warm and relaxing environment. He’s good humoured and patient and empathetic and he obviously loves doing this. He was also cool about my photographing him and his process (no pressure like, to be snapping away in the presence of genius!) and doing a blog post.*

Pat Murphy – Castletownbere. I started fishing at 13 years of age in open boats with a crew of three. We fished winter and summer in all kinds of weather. From October to March we fished for scallops, two rowing the boat and the third man looking after the dredge, by God you had muscles from pulling oars for six months…In summer we would fish for lobsters and crabs. To make the pots we would go to the mountains to cut hazel and sally rods. I use to make four pots a day. Besides the fishing we all had a bit of land to grow our own vegetables and potatoes. Come September, those of us who had a pig or a cow would slaughter them, butcher and salt the pieces and put them in a barrel, there they would be left for 6/8 weeks, they would then be hard dried or smoked, we would also salt fish. The best life advice I could give anybody is to be able to negotiate with people, to work together, not against each other.

Shay asks people to write a few words to go with the image. It’s lovely to meander down the street and read what people have said, so I’ve included snippets under each photograph.

Saoirse Canty – Ballydehob. My perfect day would be my friends and I hanging out around Ballydehob. We would do nothing and talk about nothing all day. The reason why that is so perfect to me is because it makes me truly happy and the familiarity of this beautiful town is very comforting. It is one of those things that I could do forever.

You will notice, of course, that this post is (not surprisingly) a little heavy on Ballydehob folk, so as part justification for that, here’s what Shay himself wrote about his experience working in Ballydehob:

Ballydehob is a remarkable place, a multicultural melting pot of creative activity and is home to artists, poets, writers, musicians, sculptors and craftworkers. The local community encourages people to pursue and develop their creative and artistic talents…With the influx of artistic people in the 70’s, Ballydehob became known as the ‘San Francisco of the Mizen’. Ballydehob is an inspiration to all and is a template for how a multicultural community can live in harmony, with sympathy and compassion for each others needs.

But just to show I am not totally biased, here’s Danny Smith, whose day job as a postman in Bantry allows him the space to observe and dream about his next painting. Next time you’re in Kilcrohane, drop into The Old Creamery and see the wonderful results.

Danny Vincent Smith – Bantry. I started painting as long ago as I can remember, this passion for painting started from there. Every hour I would be thinking and looking for some kind of angle for a painting, observing everyday life, watching people’s faces, their expressions, trying to capture movement in the moment, such as an old lady with shopping, old farmers or a fella sitting inside the pub by himself. I try to picture people’s life’s and transfer them to canvas. My environment has a massive influence on my work and I feel like I’m documenting a time and place in rural life from where I live for future generations.

Go visit Shay’s website NOW to see lots more of his people photography, including his project to photograph the people of Dublin’s Temple Bar. Or sign up to follow him on Facebook or on Twitter. The Schull images should be ready in a few weeks – I will let you know.

Callum Donnelly – The Ludgate Hub, Skibbereen. My Perfect Day – A frosty morning, circa 8am, the ground is firm. I wrap up in a coat, scarf, gloves and I bring my springer spaniels for a walk around our local woodland. The air is sharp, and you can take a deep breath, and try to ignore the daily bombardment of emails, messages & calls. To be able to walk in silence, absorb your surroundings is a fantastic way of  balancing your mind in a world where work can often take precedence. Young people feel enormous pressure to succeed, and perform, its good to take some time out in an environment that is a polar opposite to your usual surroundings.

I will leave you with a couple of shots of Shay himself and his session with Robert. If he comes your way, you lucky people of the Wild Atlantic Way, take advantage of this opportunity! And as for everyone else – come and meet us for yourselves.

Shay and Robert

Himself

*Images were downloaded from Shay’s website with his permission. Please always credit the source for any image you download from the internet.

“The Wildest and Richest Gardens” – West Cork Bog Soaks

Henry David Thoreau, philosopher and naturalist, might be called the patron saint of swamps. He was in love with them. I know how he feels. Hope and the future for me he said, are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swampsthe wildest and richest gardens that we have.

Top photo and above: Derreennatra Natural Heritage Area

Thoreau was talking about American swamps, but he could just as easily have been talking about an Irish bog, marsh, or wetland. I have two within easy walking distance of my home in West Cork and I am drawn to them like a magnet. One is tiny – a pond in the middle of a boggy area at the highest point in Foilnamuck townland. The other is more extensive – Derreennatra Bog, between Ballydehob and Schull.

Foilnamuck Bog Soak

A bog is a highly acid environment, and some plants, such as heathers, are specially adapted to deal with this habitat. The mineral-rich pools that form in the bog – technically known as bog soaks – are fed by groundwater and rain. Nutrients are more available in these patches of open water, they provide a less acidic environment and support a variety of plant life different from that of the surrounding bog.

Rare Slender Cottongrass on Derreennatra Bog – one of the reasons for its designation and protected status

Derreennatra Bog has been recognised as a very special habitat of the lowland bog type. It has been designated as a Natural Heritage Area and is under the protection of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. While there are several reasons for its special status, the main one is that it is home to Slender Cottongrass, an extremely rare form of Bog Cotton that only grows in a few places in Ireland and Britain.

Marsh St John’s-wort, above and below, in its watery habitat

Derreennatra Bog has other uncommon species, but they are hard to photograph without a really good long lens. The one I did manage to get close to was Marsh St John’s-wort. I had to go back several times and wait until the flower opened before I could figure out what it was. It was worth the wait – a very beautiful native wildflower.

Another reason to hang out at Derreennatra Bog is that the lovely, native, White Water-lily flourishes here. It’s an exotic beauty that been here, apparently, since soon after the last ice-age.

The soak in the bog at Foilnamuck is far less extensive – just a tiny wet patch – but it’s reliably present all the time, probably because it’s bounded by a natural amphitheatre of slightly elevated rocky ground. Here is where I was able to photograph Bog Bean for the first time, although not without getting my feet wet. It’s a fascinating plant – it sits in the water and holds the flower head well above the surface. The flower heads are pink before they open but inside the petals are pure white and fringed with long hairs.

The “regular” Bog Cotton, more correctly called Common Cottongrass surrounds the little soak and mingles with the Bog Bean.

The other plant that loves the environment of this little soak is the Round-leaved Sundew. Sundews are carnivorous – the sticky liquid on its hairy round leaves trap unwary insects, which are then digested by the plant. It’s a marvellous adaptation to the lack of soil nutrients in its habitat.

The spikes carry the flowers, not yet open in this shot, but it’s the leaves that do all the work in this plant

The other flowers of the bog – the heathers and asphodels, the mosses and mints – are equally beautiful and interesting, but I will leave them for another day.

Trish Punch – remember the workshop day I spent with her? She’s gone from teacher to friend and she’s into the wildflowers, just like I am! 

Now so, why don’t you wander on over to your local bog/swamp/fen/marsh soak and see what you can see! Just don’t fall in!

 

The Mountain Road

Over three years ago I wrote a piece about the mountain that’s on our doorstep – Mount Gabriel. This rocky high terrain is always in our view as we travel around West Cork, and we feel it must have had special significance in prehistoric times: it overlooks a majority of the archaeological sites that we have explored locally – perhaps they were placed because of that. Also, there are many stories attached to Mount Gabriel (find them in my previous post), including the fact that the Archangel himself touched down on its summit and left behind a footprint in the stone! Evidently, he was intrigued to hear about Ireland’s verdant beauty and knew that …in time to come, this honest island would never part with the worship and duty it owes to the Mother of God… and so was determined to get a look at the holy place.

Derryconnell Loop Walk on the Fastnet Trails takes in the foothills of Mount Gabriel – seen here in contrasting weather conditions, but only a day apart!

There is a little-known road which runs along the foothills of the mountain which, on a good day, is as beautiful a road as you will find anywhere in Ireland. It begins at the bog of Derreennatra (more of which can be found in Finola’s post today) and you can follow it up and through the Barnacleeve Gap. If you wish, from there you can go all the way up to the summit and get some of the most stunning views all the way over the Mizen, across the Sheep’s Head and even into Kerry.

The climb to the summit of Mount Gabriel is always rewarding, with panoramic views to all points of the compass. Lower Picture: the Air Traffic Control Authority’s installations atop the mountain add an odd drama to the landscape

Part of our Mountain Road has been incorporated in the Derryconnell Loop Walk, one of the new group of the Fastnet Trails based around Schull. The whole of this loop walk is varied and picturesque, but the section from the bog is outstanding as it skirts the mountain – which always dominates the vista – and brings you to the junction with the Barnacleeve road. Keep on going, and take in the mountain itself, or follow the trail down to the old Schull Workhouse. Whichever way you go, you will be struck by the seeming remoteness of the boreens, and you will seldom encounter a vehicle.

In all weathers the Mountain is engaging: you can start out in the mist and finish up in sunshine!

In the latter part of this summer we have explored the road in all weathers, and recorded the many moods of the mountain. Reaching the summit last week, we had a search for the Archangel’s footprint. I’m convinced we found it, but we couldn’t see the lake with its magical islands which – according to the legends ‘…float about up and down, east and north and south; but every Lady-day they come floating to the western point, and there they lie fixed under the crag that holds the track of the Angel’s foot…’ (John Abraham Jagoe, Vicar of Cape Clear – Church of Ireland Magazine 1826)

The peak of Mount Gabriel is strewn with rocks, any of which might contain the Archangel’s footprint. Upper – the view to the islands of Roaringwater Bay. Lower – could this be where he touched down? A definitely footprint shaped impression on this rock – highlighted on the photo in red

In my younger days I was fortunate to hear traditional Irish musicians Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman performing on the streets of Camden Town, London, when I worked in that city. Those streets were a far cry from the home I now have in West Cork, but I recall the duo’s rendering of the tune The Mountain Road: Margaret came from Cork herself, so perhaps our own mountain (or maybe it was Gabriel?) was an inspiration to her.

Descending from the summit, we finished our walk on the Mountain Road at the gauntly atmospheric ruins of Schull Workhouse

Terry Searle – A West Cork Artist

It’s all happening in West Cork at the moment! In particular, there’s a lot going on in Skibb: the fabulous Skibbereen Arts Festival continues to run all through the week and we have already enjoyed some memorable events. The first West Cork History Festival has been a resounding success – and a learning experience: look forward to great things in the future. But don’t leave Skibbereen without visiting the O’Driscoll Building at Levis Quay, in the town centre. Opening at 1pm on Saturday 5 August and running through to 2 September is an important exhibition of the work of two artists: Terry Searle and Ian McNinch. I’m concentrating today on the life and work of Terry – one of the ‘West Cork Artists’ Group’ who built up a reputation during the latter part of the 20th century, and the story of which has still to be written. Finola and I were privileged to meet with Terry and his wife Penny Dixey recently, and thoroughly enjoyed their accounts of the somewhat Bohemian life and times of artists in West Cork.

Penny (left, with Ted) and Terry (right) at home in Schull

The exhibition is a retrospective of Terry’s work. His great grandfather was from Dublin: he was born in 1936 and brought up in the East End of London. Like many of his contemporaries he was evacuated to the countryside during the war and spent six years away from his home. It’s hard to imagine how that experience might have affected a young, evolving mind: his positive take is that it imbued in him a permanent love for nature and this has been reflected in his life work.

Terry is a painter. At the end of the war Terry was called up for National Service, where he rubbed shoulders with would-be actors, artists and musicians: their outlooks attracted him and, when he moved back to London, he started evening classes at St Martin’s School of Art and then signed on for a full-time course at Goldsmith’s College of Art. Although life was hard – there were no grants available and he had to fund his studies through a variety of jobs occupying all hours – he never looked back. As he says “…life in the coffee shops in Soho was enjoyable, with a lively social scene…”

Terry’s influences were many – particularly the large, colour-full abstracts of Rothko and Joan Mitchell – but his life-long hero is JMW Turner. London’s Tate Britain has the world’s largest collection of Turner on exhibition, so Terry had the opportunity to study his hero at first hand. Turner challenged the art traditions of his time (first half of the 19th century) and his techniques appear very ‘modern’ to our eyes. Terry is no slave to Turner’s style, but has a very particular way of viewing his subjects. I think Terry’s work is vibrant – colourful – approachable – very attractive yet with a powerful individuality. I can see some parallels with William Crozier, whose work is currently being shown at Uillinn. By chance, Terry Searle and Crozier once lived in the same road in London but were only on nodding acquaintance. As their lives and work progressed, both found their way to West Cork.

Terry Searle at work, probably around 1986

Terry first visited West Cork when travelling with a group of friends in the 1970s. A number of visits followed and he found himself “enchanted” by the natural beauty of the place, and the civilised pace of life here. He must also have been aware of the strong artistic movement which focussed around Ballydehob and Skibbereen at the time. When he made the permanent relocation to the west of Ireland in 1981 he quickly became active in that movement, and was one of the founders of the West Cork Arts Centre. He contributed to the 1985 exhibition of West Cork artists in Zurich, and in 1987 was part of the important Living Landscape ‘87 Exhibition, which showed in the Crawford Gallery, Cork, as well as in the West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen. This extract from the introduction of the exhibition catalogue is enlightening on the spirit of the time:

…Skibbereen is a small town in the South West of the country with a population of 2,000 people. Ten years ago, because of the number of artists living in the area, a small interested group started an art society and held an annual members exhibition which ran for two weeks every July in a local hall. The demand from artists and local people increased over the years and due to the hard work of a dedicated committee, they realised a dream come true – an Arts Centre for West Cork; and with the essential practical help from the Vocational Education Committee in the provision of the building, we became the proud ‘owners’ of a thriving Arts Centre. We run exhibitions monthly, organise musical and theatrical evenings, and provide classes for all, covering a full range of artistic interests in our newly reconstructed classroom. Today, we are very proud to be hosting the first ‘Living Landscape’ exhibition by the top 25 landscape artists working in this country. Our intention to make this a prestigious annual event is ambitious, but then all our plans are ambitious…!

The Living Landscape exhibition shown at The Crawford and in Skibbereen: Terry is third from the right

I wonder how many of those involved in those times could have foreseen just where those ambitions would lead? With Uillinn in Skibbereen, the West Cork Arts Centre now has the foremost public gallery west of Cork city, and it is pushing the boundaries with major exhibitions of contemporary work. Readers will be aware of the recent West meets West exhibition – which heralds a regular exchange of art between West Cork and Cornwall – and the gallery, currently, is hosting a collaborative exhibition with IMMA on the opus of William Crozier.

It’s so good that Terry Searle is being appreciated with this show: he has never been a self-publicist, and it is high time his work received full and proper recognition. He celebrates his eightieth birthday this year. A few years ago he was diagnosed with a degenerative neuromuscular disease and has now been forced to stop painting altogether. It is painful to imagine what a loss that must be to a creative ethos such as his. This exhibition is a very special one – be sure to see it!

Robert is lining up further posts on the stories of the West Cork Artists group dating from the 1960s (and still thriving!) and would be delighted to hear from anyone who has personal accounts, reflections or memories from those days…