The Lusty Month of May

The month of May was come, when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart that is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds.  For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May.

–  Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur 

One of our local roads is lined with Ragged Robin

Walking the boreens in May there is a sense of potency, urgency even, in the landscape. We’ve been asleep long enough, the flowers are saying – it’s high time we put in an appearance.

Another one has pignut on both sides. Pignut? Yes, there is such a flower – it’s widespread and the rounded roots which are said to taste like hazlenuts were a food source for pigs, and sometimes for humans too

After a long dry spring, everything is early this year in West Cork this year – and earlier than in the rest of Ireland too, thanks to our southerly location and mild climate. The big flowers are happening – the irises and the foxgloves in all their boldness and drama, as well as the tiny ones that are peeping out along the hedgebanks.

Glimpsed along the way: Yellow Iris is a bold native plant that likes damp places; St Patrick’s Cabbage grows extensively around the Cork and Kerry Peninsulas; this Spotted Orchid was one of several at the Heron Gallery Garden; Red Campion grows just across from my house

The Big Event in May for us was the launch of the Wildflower Trail, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The launch was lovely – it was a great honour to have Zoë Devlin come and declare the trail open, and then lead us in a wildflower walk. The brochure is now in the Tourist Centres and already people are picking it up and wandering the boreens.

Zoë had participants spellbound – she just knows SO much!

For me it was a special opportunity to learn from Zoë when we walked the course before the launch. It was a great experience and I learned very quickly that for Zoë the wildflowers are just one aspect of an interdependent whole that includes butterflies, moths, bees, birds, and flora and fauna of all descriptions.

Clockwise from top left: Green Veined Butterfly; bee in foxglove; Painted Lady Butterfly; Red Admiral

I also learned how dedicated she is to recording all the flowers she sees for the National Biodiversity Centre Database. This is not a difficult thing to do, but it does take a little practice and a little time. I am resolved to up my own game in this regard and start sending in more records.

Our native – and gorgeous – White Water-lily

But mostly I just want to spread the joy – and help people to see the incredible beauty and diversity of wildflowers that we have in West Cork. Our boreens should be celebrated as National Treasures!

This boreen leads out of Ballydehob – it’s alive with an enormous variety of flowers.

Above is Wild Carrot -as its name suggests, this is the wild version of our cultivated carrot. Very young wild carrots are edible, but you must take extreme care as the plant is very similar to Hemlock Water-dropwort (below) which is very poisonous. This one is growing along a stream in Skibbereen – also the location of the Yarrow in my lead image (top of post).

Irish Spurge, above, is an intense yellow green in April. In May it acquires this little yellow spaceship flower heads. You have to get in really close to see them.

Salad Burnet (above) was grown in kitchen gardens from Medieval times as a salad vegetable and herb. The leaves, they say, taste like cucumber. I’ve tried them, and I have to say you’d need a vivid imagination to get a cucumber taste out of them.

Zoë alerted us to Russian Vine (above, wrapping around flowering nettles) down at Rossbrin Cove. Also known as Mile a Minute, it’s an introduced plant that acts like Bindweed (only worse) and is related to Japanese Knotweed, so very difficult to kill. Bad news!

I love the colour combinations you find in the hedgebanks. Wouldn’t this – buttercup and speedwell – make a great dress material?

A baby waterlilly – I was struck by how it looks, as if lit from within.

A final, tiny, flower of the hedges – appropriately name Mouse-ear

Artists of the Western Coasts

We look forward to welcoming our guest Cornish artists to Uillinn for the West meets West exhibition which opens this Friday – 2 June at 6pm – and runs through to 8 July. The three artists are excellent representatives of the vibrant arts scene in Cornwall, which was established from the late 19th century in Newlyn and St Ives and has been burgeoning through the late 20th century and into the 21st, especially with the opening of the spectacularly successful Tate St Ives gallery in 1993.

Header: Looking towards The Land’s End – Cornwall’s beautiful scenery has attracted artists and tourists for over a hundred years (photo by Phoebe Harris). Above: Tate St Ives – opened in 1993 – a spectacularly successful venue for cultural art tourism (photo by http://www.artfund.org)

Our artists are all from the West Penwith peninsula – the furthest landfall in the UK’s westernmost county of Cornwall. Phil Booth, Lamorna, will be showing some of his large sculptural relief constructions. Phil is known for these works but is also a talented landscape designer. His has spent many years teaching design and sculpture in Japan: he has intensively researched the form and meaning of traditional Japanese Gardens in Kyoto and is able to provide a high quality design service for anyone who is planning to construct a Japanese garden, or who might want to introduce Japanese elements into their own gardens.

Above left: Philip Booth. Above right: one of his relief constructions which will be shown at Uillinn – Beach Boulder

Matthew Lanyon sadly passed away while preparing work for our Uillinn exhibition. We will be showing many of his larger paintings (some are seven metres long!), but also some tapestry and a laminated glass piece which will be seen for the first time here in Skibbereen. Matthew’s father – Peter Lanyon – was one of the notable members of the St Ives School of Artists in the mid twentieth century. Peter was a painter and a teacher, and had a strong influence on many artists – not only in Cornwall and the UK but in Ireland as well. Matthew’s Cornish heritage, therefore, is very special in the context of West meets West.

The Late Matthew Lanyon with one of his huge paintings – The Listening Sea

Tony Lattimer lives in Penzance and has his studios and kilns on a beautiful wild acreage close to The Land’s End. His ceramic sculpture is large and visually stunning. Like the other exhibiting artists, he is recognised internationally. Tony has won the prestigious Emilia-Romagna Prize at Premio Faenza International Ceramic Art Competition, Italy twice – in 2005 and 2013. The MIC – International Museum of Ceramics in Faenza – is reputed to be the world’s largest ceramics museum and one of the liveliest art institutions in Italy. Tony has also exhibited at the Tate St Ives and many other UK galleries, and we are pleased that he is able to bring a selection of his new works over to Skibbereen.

Above left: Tony Lattimer preparing work for the kiln in his Land’s End studio. Above right: some of Tony Lattimer’s recent smaller works

Phil Booth and Tony Lattimer will be at the opening, and in the gallery at noon on Saturday 3 June to take part in a panel discussion on the artists’ work. Matthew will also be represented at this event. Please come! The following week – on Saturday 10 June, also at noon, I (Robert Harris) will be giving an illustrated talk titled Chasing the Light – Why the Artists Moved West. I will outline the historic connections and remarkable similarities between the two most westerly peninsulas of Britain and Ireland over a three and a half thousand year timespan, and explore the lives and work of artists who settled in both communities.

While this exhibition focusses on contemporary art from Cornwall it is part of a larger project envisaged by Uillinn (the West Cork Arts Centre). It is hoped that artists from West Cork will visit Cornwall to exhibit their work next year, and that this will become part of a regular cultural exchange between Cork and Cornwall in the future. There is a fascinating story to be told about the artists and craftspeople who arrived in West Cork from the late 1950s onwards and helped found a cosmopolitan, creative and free-thinking community here. Ceramicists, textile designers, printmakers, painters and writers all contributed to the mix. Because of that heritage there are many artists and creative people who continue to be attracted to the area today. Believe me, it’s the most stimulating place to live!

Don’t miss – West meets West – the work of contemporary Cornish artists, at Uillinn, Skibbereen, from 3 June to 8 July. Opening at 6pm on Friday 2 June.

Below: stirrings in Ballydehob: in the 1960s potter Christa Reichel and batik artist Nora Golden set up The Flower House as a shop, studio, cafe and haven for artists. “…Word spread that West Cork was a beautiful, creative place waiting to be discovered…” (Alison Ospina – West Cork Inspires) Photo courtesy Andrew Street

A Wildflower Trail for West Cork

Wildflowers are a spectacular part of our environmental heritage in West Cork. Many of us are aware of them in the background, although we couldn’t name more than half a dozen. It’s only when visitors come along and swoon over the abundance of colour in the hedges that we realise what an incredible natural resource we have on our doorstep. We have a little patch of bog beside us, for example, and a few days ago Bog Cotton and Bog Bean (above) were merrily blooming side by side there. I had never realised how attractive they were until I lingered for close observation. 

St Patrick’s Cabbage is part of the Lusitanian Flora we wrote about in our post Into the Woods. It grows abundantly on the North Side of the Mizen.

We at Roaringwater Journal are exceptionally pleased to have been involved with developing West Cork’s first ever Wildflower Trail System – it launches this Tuesday, but it’s been a while in the planning. The Trail System and its associated brochure is an educative tool that helps us appreciate and learn more about the wildflowers that surround us.

These little beauties are called Mexican Fleabane, but also known as Wall Daisies. The opposite of lawn daisies, they go pink as they age, rather than when they emerge. They’re an introduced species but have naturalised widely. These ones are on the wall of the stream that runs through Drimoleague.

We are particularly happy to welcome Zoë Devlin to do the honours of launching the trails. When I first got interested in wildflowers our friend Amanda (yes, she of Holy Wells of Cork fame) gave me a copy of Zoë’s book, The Wildflowers of Ireland, and it instantly became my bible. It’s laid out by colour, you see, and then by form (four petals, five petals, round clusters, etc) so it’s easy to navigate and to find what you’re after. The illustrations are clear and there’s lots of information about each plant to help you figure out what you’re looking at.

Better still, there’s Zoë’s website. Because it’s constantly updated, it has even more flower species in it, and more information on each one – including herbal uses, folklore references, and details on whether it is native or alien. And finally, there’s her Facebook page where she posts news, recent finds or currently blooming flowers, using her own superb images.

This is Yarrow. I didn’t recognise it at first because I thought Yarrow was always white, but apparently it can be this colour too. In addition, it’s supposed to like dry ground, but this one was overhanging a stream

The Wildflower Trail builds on the fact that there is already a system of waymarked trails around Ballydehob and the Mizen. Robert wrote about the Fastnet Trails in our post Closer Encounters – Fastnet Trails, and I followed up with a two-part post on the Rossbrin Loop Trail, here and here.

Sea Campion, a native plant adapted to a coastal habitat. It often occurs in drifts.

Using the specially-designed brochure, walkers can identify wildflowers along their chosen trail, then return to the Tourist Office and add their finds to the Master List on the wall. The Tourist Centres at Ballydehob and Schull will have resources available to help them identify any other flowers they have found. If you can’t pick up a brochure, you can find a link to it here.

May belongs to the May Tree – AKA the Hawthorn or Whitethorn. Online forums this year reveal it has been an exceptional year for Hawthorn right across the country

To support the Trails we have started a new Facebook Page – Wildflowers of West Cork – where we will post updates and images of what’s in bloom and what to look out for. If you’re a Facebook user, head over and give us a Like and a Share.

Water Cress, seen on the Colla Road just beyond Schull. Wild Water Cress is edible but you have to be very careful where you gather it as it can be infected with parasites

Everyone is welcome to the Launch – 5PM at the Rossbrin Boatslip on Tuesday the 23rd – and to join Zoë afterwards on a Wildflower Walk. If you can’t make the launch, we hope you’ll go for a stroll along one of the trails soon, brochure in hand, and try your luck at identifying a few wildflowers. Our trails are spectacular right now and will only get better as the summer advances.

Herb Robert – I love those red stems and leaves as much as the little pink flower. Hard to believe there’s enough soil between those rocks to nourish a plant

But you don’t even need to walk a trail – in West Cork the wildflowers are everywhere. Here’s a photo taken right by Fields of Skibbereen – just look over the fence at the stream.

Red Valerian and yellow Monkeyflower. Both are introduced species but obviously right at home on the walls of the Caol Stream in Skibbereen

All the other images were taken in May, all in West Cork, and many of them in unpromising places such as waste ground, urban streams, old walls and rocky shores. Every day, we walk right by a wealth of beauty without really stopping to look.

Mouse-ear Hawkweed and Ivey-leaved Toadflax on the wall containing a stream in Drimoleague. Below in the water is Stream Water-crowfoot

Happy wildflowering! (Start by seeing how many kinds of flowers you can see in the image below – photo taken at Lake Faranamanagh on the Sheep’s Head.)

A Watery Tale

Last year I got myself into trouble by saying how much I admired the new corten steel signs marking significant spots on the Wild Atlantic Way. My post – Showing the Way – produced howls of protest from many readers who had taken a dislike to them. I may well ruffle the same feathers again when I say that I’m impressed with the information boards which have now appeared to supplement those markers.

Wild Atlantic Way signage at Colla Pier, opposite Long Island

The example above, which we saw today, has appeared at Colla Pier, on the coast road running from Schull round to Crough Bay. The ferry serving Long Island sails from this pier. The board is mounted on a sturdy corten steel frame which should withstand all the elements. The illustration used on the new board (seen in our header picture) is by Sam Hunter and (to my eye, at least) is colourful and attractive. Overall, the panel manages to convey a significant amount of information in a compact design. There is a little Irish lesson (top picture, right-hand corner) and a local ‘story’ pared to the minimum. I was delighted, because I hadn’t come across this tale before. Here it is…

A more detailed version of this story can be read here

So in this short paragraph we find an unusual angle on a very well-known piece of local history: the sacking of Baltimore by Barbary Pirates, which took place 386 years ago, on June 20. Here in West Cork everyone talks about that incident as if it had happened yesterday: it resulted in the decimation of the population of the little fishing village overnight. A hundred and seven people were carried off to slavery in Algeria, and every house was burned.

Upper picture: Long Island Sound, with the white houses of Long Island itself in the middle distance; Cape Clear is beyond. Lower picture: Fineen O’Driscoll’s castle at Baltimore – Dún na Séad (Fort of the Jewels). The clan chieftain was not at home to give help to the beleagured village when the Barbary pirates arrived because he was rowing across from Long Island with the ill-fated treasure stowed on board!

In one version of the story about Fineen O’Driscoll and his pirate treasure, the horde of gold is buried under a house on Long Island – a house where strange lights are seen at night! Presumably it’s still there – or under the sea out in Roaringwater Bay. It’s probably best left wherever it is!

Baltimore at dawn, seen in Finola’s beautiful picture above, reminds me that I have to tell you about another Irish – Cornish link. The village grew around a small settlement of religious dissenters from the west of England established around 1600 and led by Sir Thomas Crooke, a man with Calvanist and Puritan connections. Most of the settlers came from Cornwall and were seeking a haven where they could practice their religion unhindered. It was these people who were stolen away nearly 400 years ago, and ended their days in North Africa. Are you interested in the many historic links between the two westernmost counties of Britain and Ireland – Cornwall and Cork? You can find out much more at the exhibition coming up shortly: West meets West – the work of contemporary Cornish artists, at Uillinn, Skibbereen, from 3 June to 8 July

We Welcome the Hope That They Bring

Sea Campion

The flowers that bloom in the spring, Tra la,

Breathe promise of merry sunshine —

As we merrily dance and we sing, Tra la,

We welcome the hope that they bring, Tra la,

Of a summer of roses and wine,

Of a summer of roses and wine.

And that’s what we mean when we say that a thing

Is welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring.*

We’re officially in spring now. Throughout April (an unusually dry one) our West Cork fields and boreens have been greening and sprouting. Every day on our walks we welcome old friends to the hedgebanks, or discover new ones.

The photographs in this post were all taken in April. Above is Bitter Vetch, and below is a fern unfolding – a particularly fascinating process, almost mathematical.

The quintessential flower that we all look forward to at this time of year is, of course, the bluebell. How it cheers the spirits when you spot the first one, and then begin to see them carpet the floor in shady places or old graveyards, or even climbing up along the hedgebanks, so that you are walking between blue walls.

They mix so beautifully too, with the bright yellows of first the celandine, and then later the buttercup, the white of the wild garlic, or the intense bright green of spurge.

About that wild garlic – in the post for March wildflowers I wrote that what we mostly have around here is the non-native three-cornered garlic. I have been on the hunt for our native species, called Ramsons and I finally spotted a huge patch, growing right along the main road between Skibbereen and Ballydehob, at the gates of New Court (I wrote about New Court in my post about belvederes). Robert pulled over, at great jeopardy to life and limb as it’s a busy corner, and out I leapt with my camera.

But what was this? Every leaf was covered in bird droppings – every single one! I realised that there is a rookery in the trees above: perhaps it is this that provides the fertiliser for the garlic. I certainly didn’t linger to explore further, as I could hear the gregarious cawing overhead. I’m still on the hunt for a clean patch!

It seems to be a very good year for Cuckooflower, also known as Lady’s Smock. Interestingly, the colour of the petals vary from almost white to a delicate purple, depending on the composition of the soil and other aspects of the habitat. Up to this year I had seen isolated examples of Cuckooflower (so called because their arrival coincided with that of the cuckoo) but this year there were Cuckooflower “blooms” in many fields. At first, you’d think they were just daisies, but once your eye was attuned to their shape, they seemed to be everywhere. This is great, as it’s an important larval food source for the Orange-Tip Butterfly – it lays its eggs on the underneath of the petals.

If March belongs to the Blackthorn, in April the Hawthorn (sometimes called Whitethorn around here, and May Tree elsewhere) gradually moves in and takes over. Suddenly the hedges are full of green trees loaded with showy white blossoms (the opposite of the Blackthorn, in which the blossoms come first and are over by the time the trees green up).

I found my first Thrift, or Sea Pinks, last month, but it’s in April that they become commonplace around the coast. I was delighted to find a patch down by the Ilen River at the very beginning of their blooming, and could see the stages they go through on their journey to the delightful pink flowers we all love.

At the very beginning of the month I was fortunate to participate in a walk with Éanna Ní Lámhna, well-known naturalist and a frequent speaker on topics related to wildlife on Irish radio and television. It was a great experience, as she spoke mostly about trees, about which I know little.

In the course of our marvellous walk I also observed several spurges, including this very rare example of a wood spurge. You just never know what you’ll find – this one was right outside a kindergarten!

There’s an exciting announcement about West Cork wildflowers coming soon! Stay tuned to this blog and all shall be revealed… Meanwhile, a few more flowers of April…

I featured Scarlet Pimpernel last month – this is his cousin, Yellow Pimpernel. On the right is Bilberry
Wavy Bittercress, found along the shore, consorting with thrift. On the right is Common Milkwort :it has a tiny white flower emerging from a deep blue one

Stream Water-crowfoot: at first I thought this was a weed choking a stream, but closer inspection revealed these lovely flowers

We’re not the only ones enjoying the bluebells

*OK, I know it dates me. It’s from The Mikado, by Gilbert and Sullivan

All That Jazz

The Ballydehob Jazz Festival gets better every year! There was a marvellous program this year – eclectic and varied, and our little village was buzzing with locals and out-of-towners.

The great thing about a festival like this is that there’s something for everyone. The Big Acts take place in the “Festival Hall” (AKA Community Hall) where there’s big band sounds and dancing till the wee hours. There are workshops for kids (this year’s line-up featured archery tag and circus skills) and a Sunday Market with a continuous bandstand of acts.

The East Coast Jazz Band are effortlessly cool

But a lot of the action takes place in the intimate venues. The pubs and restaurants all host entertainers so you can have lunch and dinner accompanied by soulful crooners, or crowd into one of the pubs to listen to a piano duo or a swing band or a funk quartet. There’s a good mix of West Cork and come-from-away groups and every venue is packed to the scuppers.

Above: Stephanie Nilles and Thomas Deakin were one of THE acts of the Festival. Their sound (and her lyrics!) left us gasping. Below: The Eileen and Marilyn Experience, perennial favourites in West Cork, and Grace Notes, a new vocal performance group under the direction of Caz Jeffreys 

This year there was a first – a Jazz Mass. Actually it was a Church of Ireland Service, with gospel provided by the choir I (try to) sing with, Acapella Bella. Something tells me this could well become an annual event.

But the highlight of the festival for everyone is the New Orleans-style Jazz Funeral. Ballydehob is a hotbed of creativity at the best of times and the idea of a Jazz Funeral has galvanised the community. This is only the third year we’ve done it and it’s been improved and expanded every year.

Last year the giant puppet, Katrina, made her first appearance, and this time she was joined by a mate. Billed as Mexican Day of the Dead meets Bealtaine, the parade wound its way up the village, stopping along the way so the puppets could wow us with a dance. It was a marvellous spectacle.

Almost, you could forget you were watching dolls and feel the emotion flowing between them and they put their arms around each other and kept time to the music.

A stilt walker, a giant centipede, a pair of gangsters on a penny farthing, and a whole army of children in costume completed the parade of mourners. The weather held off (the Gods of Bealtaine must have been appeased) and the streets were thronged with cheerful festival-goers, all swearing to be back again next year and this time to bring all their friends.

Tara Brandel performed her dance Car at the end of the parade. Finola cosies up to a gangster

The tagline for the Festival is…drum roll, please…THE BOUTIQUE FESTIVAL IN THE BACK OF BEYOND PACKING A BOMBASTIC ARTISTIC PUNCH. Take a look at the program and see for yourself – great descriptor, or what!