Sweet Ilen – Part 4

. . . A trip down the river Ilen, as it pursues its winding and picturesque course from Mount Owen (the hill of streams) to the harbour of Baltimore, a distance of about fifteen miles, is the most pleasant and interesting excursion during the summer months. Starting from Skibbereen, we can either steam or row, according to our pleasure, or rather as the tide suits, to Baltimore and Sherkin, a distance of eight or nine miles, and then out the harbour’s mouth, and cruise about the islands of Carbery . . .

Sketches in Carbery – Daniel Donovan 1876

The idea of boarding a ‘steamer’ in Skibbereen and voyaging down the Ilen River to its mouth is an attractive one – but not an option for us as we continue our exploration of this waterway in 2021, a year which has started with a frightening escalation of the Covid pandemic which is forcing us to stay ever closer to home. Fortunately, we are not too far from the broad stretches of the tidal Ilen as it nears its destination and meanders through peaceful, sylvan meadows passing by deserted quays, once active with commerce and vitality, now at rest apart from the occasional fisherman or boat mender.

We are fortunate to have a large archive of our photographs taken in West Cork over many years. I am revisiting (below) my pictures of the river at Creagh taken in 2014. This is on the south side of the Ilen, and certainly out of bounds for us at the moment because of distance. Situated at Creagh is a secluded burial ground, the resting place of Canon James Goodman who was Rector of Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen, during the nineteenth century. The three photographs below were taken there. My principal interest in him is the name he made as a collector of traditional music and a player of the uilleann pipes – that most singular of Irish instruments that we have also celebrated elsewhere. When the Canon died in 1896 he asked that his pipes were buried with him at Creagh – and they were. But, not long afterwards, they were dug up again. If you want to know what happened to the pipes and where they are now, read my earlier post about the Canon here.

We can travel to Skibbereen for essential supplies, and the road to that town runs close to the river. Just off the road, down a winding boreen, is another burial ground, Aghadown, beautifully situated beside the water – Finola has written about it here. Here are some views we took a few days ago during a prolonged spell of clear winter sunshine.

. . . The view down the river from near Creagh, on a fine day, is attractive. The Ilen, winding in a serpentine course towards Baltimore harbour, shining and sparkling in the sunlight like a silver thread, and dotted over with a multitude of rocky islets, whose recesses form a safe retreat and favourite feeding ground for flocks of sea fowl during the winter months. Looking backwards, we are chiefly struck by the almost complete absence of wood, and the patchwork of irregular fields, enclosed by earthen banks, and the prominences so much admired by tourists and strangers, most probably on account of the novelty and singularity of the scene . . .

SKETCHES IN CARBERY – DANIEL DONOVAN 1876

The Ilen is a ‘Blueway’ – designated as a recreational activity trail for use by activity enthusiasts – anyone, in fact, who wants to get out and experience some of the best scenery in Ireland on the water itself or, like us, on foot. This would be in normal times, of course. Undoubtedly there are better days ahead. We look forward to an untrammelled future so that we can continue this exploration of a waterway to its source in the mountains ‘. . . where rain clouds perpetually hover about . . .’ and to its outfall towards Carbery’s ‘Hundred islands’. When we can make those expeditions, we will bring you there through the pages of our Journal.

Here’s a bonus today: you can hear an aspect of our recent walk! Donovan mentioned in 1876 that the river was a favourite feeding ground for flocks of sea fowl during the winter months. We can vouch for that, having heard these sounds close to the Glebe burial ground. The loudest voices are – I think – from redshanks:

Previous episodes in this series: Sweet Ilen : Sweet Ilen – Part 2 : Sweet Ilen – Part 3

Walking West Cork – Half the Colla Loop!

The first post of 2021…

I never expected to live in plague-ridden times, but that’s where we find ourselves – at the start of a new year. And – because of the plague – our travels are restricted once again. On the very last day of 2020, keeping things as local as possible, we hastened to Schull and explored half of the Colla Loop on the Fastnet Trails.

We started at the Trailhead by the pier at Colla (header picture). I have drawn our route as a dotted red line on the aerial view, above: we walked ‘widdershins’ – anti-clockwise. You will find the whole of the Colla Loop on the leaflet here. The full trail from Schull and back is 9km: by my calculation our own version carried us a mere 4km: there was a lot of uphill, though, and it was very satisfying with great views to the south, over Long Island Sound, and then to the west: it’s always good to be following the setting sun.

Colla had been taken over by a swan family, who wished us well on our journey. Their sentiment was echoed by some four-legged friends on the steep way up the hill:

As we left the small boreen, following a green path through a signed gate, we began a climb which opened up a panorama behind us, encompassing Long Island and Cape Clear. The day was perfect, a few scudding clouds giving perspective to a a vivid blue sky which seemed to have been borrowed from the summer:

In fact, the views in every direction get even more rewarding as this walk progresses: we were surprised that we had never ‘discovered’ this little corner of West Cork before! Every rise, and each bend in the track, opens up a new prospect.

A ‘telephoto’ view towards the end of the Mizen (above) reveals the inlet of Croagh Bay in the foreground, with Crookhaven beyond. You can just make out the top of ‘Black Castle’ at Castlepoint in the centre of the picture and a Napoleonic-era signal tower at the summit of the highest ground at Brow Head.

At the highest point of the walk we are back on a partly metalled boreen. I was particularly keen to find the site of . . . the ancient school of Sancta Maria de Scholia, ‘a place known in early times as a centre of learning’. . . which is indicated on the Archaeological Monuments Survey just to the right of the bend in the trackway, above. However, this record has been superseded by another site further to the west (indicated with a question mark on my aerial view) where it is noted:

. . . In rough grazing, on a S-facing slope overlooking Long Island to the S and Skull Harbour to the E. Recent reclamation work exposed a level earthen platform-like area faced externally on its curving S side by a roughly constructed drystone revetment. According to local information, this is the site of Scoil Mhuire or Sancta Maria de Scala, a medieval church and school that gave its name to this townland and to Skull village . . .

National Monuments Record 2009 – CO148-040

I suppose we can make up our own minds as to which of these two sites claiming to have given Schull its name is the most likely candidate. If it’s about having a good view, for me it has to be the first.

As shadows lengthen, a trail marker (above) tells us we have been walking on Coffin Hill. I can find no specific reference to this name and can only assume it was the route used to reach the burial ground just outside Schull village when coming from settlements to the north.

From the high ground we had clear views of Schull set below Mount Gabriel (upper picture); our route turned west along the ridge and followed the sun. We wanted the idyll to go on forever . . .

The road began to descend, and we found ourselves approaching a neighbourhood of scattered houses that heralded the way back to Colla. On our half-a-trail we passed half an abandoned house: the other half still shows signs of occupation:

We could not have celebrated the close of such a momentous year in a better way! We are determined to rise to the challenge of the restrictions we are currently faced with and discover all of our beautiful byways. We are so fortunate to live in this wonderful land, and we look forward to heading out with you on many more voyages during 2021!