Living in Lockdown!

Main Street, Ballydehob: 4 April 2020. You’ve never seen it like this before on a Saturday morning. We are only out because we have urgent shopping to do. We are permitted to go to the shops, the dispensary and the dump (we live too far out of town to have any waste collections). Oh, and we can exercise within a two kilometre radius of home (here’s Finola’s account of that). It’s a strange life – but we are gratefully alive…

We completed our last ‘long’ walk on Friday 27 March – to the summit of Mount Corrin, for my Mizen Mountains post. On that evening the government announced the ‘lockdown’ and we are now isolated in Cappaghglass for the foreseeable future, although the 2km restriction will allow us to trespass into our adjacent townlands of Stouke, Cappanacallee, Foilnamuck, Rossbrin, Ballycummisk and Kilbronogue, provided we keep our distance from other walkers. We see very few.

When the sun is shining, there’s no better place to be than home – looking out over Roaringwater Bay! We have plenty to occupy us. Not least, keeping up with this journal and my new venture Swantonstown Sessions – compensation for the enforced adjournment of the weekly traditional music meetings in Ballydehob. It’s an online forum for sharing tunes, songs and related ‘chat’. Please join in!

There’s not much activity in Schull, our other centre for essential supplies, either. The main street (upper) and pier (above) are deserted on Saturday morning, when it’s normally buzzing. All the businesses in our villages and towns rely on customers: we hope for their sakes (and ours) that the situation doesn’t last too long, although we do all understand how necessary the restrictions are.

Join us for one of our walks – along to Rossbrin – to look at the water and the always changing scenery as spring gets under way. That’s the boreen leading down to it, above.

Rossbrin Castle, the home of the ‘Scholar Prince’ Finghinn O’Mahony in medieval times, is the local landmark which always draws us towards the Cove. It has stood for centuries, although very gradually returning to nature: parts of it will remain for generations to come, and will intrigue those who chance upon it, as I first did some thirty years ago. It is on private land, remember, but it can be seen from many accessible vantage points.

It’s no hardship to be ‘marooned’ out here in rural Ireland. The one thing we miss above all else is meeting and chatting with friends and neighbours: that’s unnatural. But we will survive it. After our walks there’s always the road home to look forward to (do you see the celandines lining the way?):

Roaringwater Journal wishes to heartily thank all those in our communities who are supporting the rural population through these abnormal times: medical teams, pharmacies, shopkeepers, producers and suppliers . . . All who keep our facilities and utilities going . . . They are helping us to stay healthy and upbeat in times of disquiet. We appreciate all of you.

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.

The Turning Year in Rossbrin

We are fortunate to live in a rural idyll: our immediate environment is immersed in the natural world. In fact, I suppose it is ‘Nature tamed’ – as we have pasture all around us as well as banks of gorse and rock: even a few trees which manage to cling on to the shallow soil all through the winter gales and (occasional) summer droughts. As the years go by we feel we become more closely entwined with the cycle of everything around us – we get to know personally the fox, pheasants and rabbits that pass by our window, and the myriad of birds that feed here, forage in the Cove or just show themselves to us on memorable occasions – Spioróg the Sparrowhawk is so handsome when she is resting on our terrace wall while on her deadly missions, and our choughs frequently perform wild dances in the air to entertain us. This year was special for me because, for the first time, I saw a hare amble around the house, alert with erect ears, before loping off into the next door field.

I have written about Rossbrin Cove many times before: look at A Moment in Time, Tide’s Out and Words on Roaring Water, for example. That sheltered natural harbour and the old mine road up on the hill above probably give us the most pleasure because we visibly see the year change and turn every time we walk there. Just now the days are rapidly shortening, and the autumnal influx of wading birds is returning. One we keep a particular eye out for is the curlew – a threatened breeding species here in Ireland. We see many on and close to the water, particularly at low tide, but these are probably migrants rather than resident breeders.

The year is turning – from late summer into early autumn, and the colours are changing from rich reds and purples – fuschia and heathers – to the more sombre yet equally attractive yellows and browns of furze and fern. Finola has closely followed the wildflowers right through from the spring – she is still finding and identifying every imaginable species – it’s a complete world of its own!

We have been seeing some exceptionally high and low tides here in Rossbrin. I’m always fascinated to see the mud-flats revealing bits of discarded history, while I am convinced that the huge remnants of dressed stonework on the north-east shore are the vestiges of once-busy quays, dating either from the medieval period, when Sir William Hull and the Great Earl of Cork owned the lands around here and set up thriving fish-processing ‘palaces’, or – at the latest – when the copper mines were active up on our hills and on Horse Island in the nineteenth century.

The real turning point comes at the end of October – Samhain – when the old calendar enters the ‘dark year’ (the ‘light year’ begins on May 1st –  Bealtaine). We know we have long, dark nights to come – time to huddle down by the stove – but there will be bright days as good as any in the year for walking, exploring and breathing in the Atlantic breezes. And the Rossbrin sunsets will be magnificent!

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.)

‘Twas Early Early All in the Spring

The world around us is starting to wake up from its winter snooze. We are shooing bees and wasps from our house and every day we see new flowers (like these Wood Anemones, above) peeping out at us from the verges and hedges. It’s estimated that this part of Ireland is about two weeks ahead of the more northerly counties, due to our milder and dryer climate. All of the photographs were taken in March, except for a couple on April 1st. But that’s OK, because the first three days of April are The Borrowed Days, according to Irish folklore, and still really March. 

Primroses – indelibly associated with early spring. Most are yellow (top) but a true wild pink variety (as opposed to a hybrid between wild and cultivated flowers) does exist too.  The little one about to open is growing out of a stone wall.

Although not yet in their full spring splendour, the boreens are sporting a plethora of wildflowers. And not just flowers but flowering trees and shrubs. In fact much of the colour and drama of the boreen come from shrubs at this time of year.

Blackthorn 

I set out to document the wildflowers of a West Cork March and found many old friends already showing themselves, as well as a few new acquaintances. Ready for a ramble? Let’s go.

We’ll start up in Stouke and walk back to Rossbrin by way of Kilbronoge. The first things that hits us of course is that heady combination of Gorse and Blackthorn along each side of the boreen. The Blackthorn flowers come before the leaves and they are beautiful when observed close up.

Blackthorn flowers

This year the Gorse seems especially vibrant – but I think I say that every year.

Gorse (upper) and Berberis (lower)

 At some point in the past, somebody planted Berberis as a decorative hedging, perhaps around the Stouke graveyard. It has spread and is still spreading. Although it was only introduced in the mid-19th century from Chile (by none-other than Charles Darwin!) it thrives here, happily lending its rich orangey tones to ensure you keep looking up.

Flowering currant along the boreen

Further along we came across a long stretch of Flowering Currant. You smell it before you see it – all at once you’ll be sniffing and saying mmmm! Flowering Currant came to Europe about the same time as the Berberis and this one was probably originally planted as a hedge, but now the birds have spread it far and wide and it’s naturalised.

Close up, the flowers are spectacular and they have a strong and pleasant curranty aroma. Thank you to my friend Susan for introducing me to the Berberis and Flowering Currant.

As we make our way down to the water we are stopped in our tracks every so often to admire that quintessential early riot of yellow – Celandine. On its own, or mixed with bright pink Herb Robert or with blue Dog Violets, it’s a cheerful sight.

The Daffodils have gone over now, except for a few hardy souls in sheltered spots. I know Daffodils aren’t really wildflowers, but they grow so freely all over the place here, in the middle of fields, along the grassy verges, and especially in old graveyards, that I simply see them as yet another one of the spring flowers. 

Stitchwort is everywhere too, and little blue Speedwells – you have to be alert for that tiny blue pop of colour or you’ll miss them entirely. The first Common Vetch is just beginning to appear as well.

Stitchwort (top), Slender Speedwell (lower left) and Common Vetch (lower right)

Down on the water, we’re on the look out for Thrift, or Sea Pinks. There are none in Rossbrin yet, but I did see some on a sunny sea-cliff the other day. I risked life and limb to get a photo!

I was hanging over the cliff – but look at the other photographer in the background. I was concentrating so hard on the Thrift I never noticed until afterwards that somebody else was taking pictures too. She survived it, but it sure looks risky from this angle

When I was photographing the Thrift I noticed something else, further down the cliff face. I had to dangle over the edge to get a good shot and was convinced I had discovered a rare species! But here it is again along the Rossbrin Cove wall – it turns out to be Common Scurvygrass. And yes, it’s packed with Vitamin C and sailors used it in a tea to prevent scurvy. For something with an unattractive name, it’s rather fetching, don’t you think?

Common Scurvygrass

Along by the water several of the houses are fronted by stone walls. On one of them we found a whole world unto itself – a complete ecosystem.

Declan Doogue and Carsten Krieger in their marvellous book The Wild Flowers of Ireland: The Habitat Guide (brilliant – highly recommended!) describe what happens to old stone walls:

…Grit, sand and dust gradually accumulated in in the spaces between the cut stones and a thin soil began to form. The stones themselves functioned as a sort of storage heater, warming up by day and retaining heat well into the evening. These small areas were very much warmer and dryer than the surrounding wooded or grassy countryside… In these relatively favourable conditions, some species were able to spread much further north and west into cooler and wetter areas. At a local level a number of plants were enabled to grow in areas where there was no suitable ground for rock dwelling species.

Ivy-leaved Toadflax (an introduced species) loves old walls

Conditions on the top of the wall can be different (drier, for example) than the crevices, or the face or base of the wall, thereby providing a variety of living conditions for different species of plants.

Ramping Fumitory (don’t you love that name!) has rooted well in the south face of the wall

Abundant and beautiful, Ivy-leaved Toadflax clings to the rock face and cascades down the front of the wall. Ramping Fumitory (which seems to be everywhere) had also found a foothold among the stones, and adds lovely flashes of pink.

Wild Strawberries and a little patch of Dandelions occupy space on top of the wall

This wall is south facing, absorbing the maximum amount of heat the sun can provide in West Cork in March. The top hosts Daisies and Dandelions, some newly emerging Scarlet Pimpernel and some Wild Strawberries (duly noted!).

Common Cornsalad or Lamb’s Lettuce

It took me a while to even spot the tiny white flowers hiding among a particular foliage that was growing from spaces between the stones on the front of the wall. Difficult to photograph, as I don’t have a macro lens, this is Common Cornsalad, or Lamb’s Lettuce. As its name suggests, it’s edible, and a popular salad green in several European countries. If you want to get a better idea how tiny these flowers are, check out Zöe Devlin’s listing on her Wildflowers of Ireland site – click on the ‘see more images’ link.

Scarlet Pimpernel on the top of the wall – it’s one of only a very few native flowers in the orangy-red colour range
Nettles, ferns and Navelwort grow on the wall or at the base

This tiny fern is sprouting, in between the stones

But two of the species we found there speak to the indiscriminate nature in which a microclimate like this provides opportunity for all – both Three-Cornered Garlic and Chilean Iris benefit from this ideal patch of sunlight and warmth.

Three-Cornered Garlic is not our native wild garlic (that’s called Ransoms and is a broad-leaved variety). Tony O’Mahony in his excellent Wildflowers of Cork City and County* refers to it as an ‘ineradicable weed’ and says that ‘it poses a major threat to some West Cork native plant rarities’ (such as the Wild Onion). All parts are edible, and said to taste like a cross between an onion and garlic.

Chilean Iris

Chilean Iris is another invasive species, although not considered high-impact, possibly because it needs a warmer climate to grow. However, it has the potential to invade habitat preferred by our native plants. From Rossbrin we wend our way back to our own little patch of paradise. But something catches our eye on the way – can it be? Yes – our first Bluebells of the season, almost hidden in the brambles.

We’ve decided to leave part of our lawn unmowed this year, as an experiment in whether or not a wildflower meadow will develop. We have to be careful, as some areas are already full of Montbretia corms, which will be only too delighted to proliferate if left unchecked.

But we’ve identified an area as having potential. It’s south facing and relatively sheltered – and it’s already a haven for little Common Dog Violets, mixing with the Dandelions and Daisies to provide a colourful carpet. We’ll let you know how things progress.

All this early spring wildflower exploration has made me look closer at the humble ones we take for granted – the Lawn Daisies and those pesky Dandelions. How did I never see before how utterly perfect they both are?

I will leave you with one final image – we found more Berberis down on the water, where it was clinging to a stone wall over the water. An astounding testament to the resourcefulness and strength of such a pretty and delicate-looking stem of flowers.

For more wildflower posts, click here.

*The book is out of print and quite hard to get, but worth the hunt.

Tide’s Further Out!

cove gray day“Donn Fírinne was in the clouds last evening – today would be bad…” Donn Fírinne was a Munster fairy-king always connected with weather omens: …the people said that Donn collected the clouds on his hill (Cnoc Fírinne, Co Limerick) and held them there for a short while to warn of approaching rain, and from the reliability of this sign came his name, Donn of Truth… (from The Festival of Lughnasa, Máire MacNeill, University College Dublin 2008)

Only a month ago I wrote a post about a very low tide: I hadn’t realised that we were heading for an exceptional event, the lowest tide of the century! So I felt that our readers deserved to have this circumstance recorded as well, even though it involved braving what was probably the least hospitable weather that the spring has come up with so far! I should have taken notice of the omens from Donn, but instead I went out into the cold, pervading rain.

high road gray day

Out into the weather: the high road at Cappaghglass at its wettest

The day was last Thursday, 7th April, and the tide prediction was a low of 0.00, just after noon. 0.00! You can’t get much lower than that. But we have to remember that  tide predictions are just that – predictions. It’s a bit like weather forecasting – there are so many factors which can affect the outcome. Tides can vary from the predictions because of winds, atmospheric pressure, even the salinity and temperature of the sea, evidently. However, although I can’t vouch for the 0.00 (wouldn’t that mean that the sea was empty?) I can confidently state that the shoreline had receded further than I’ve ever seen it before.

ballydehob bay gray day

12 arch low tide 2

Top: Ballydehob Bay just a mud flat – Bottom: the 12-arched bridge has lost its river

I followed the coastline all the way from Ballydehob Bay to our own Rossbrin Cove. Sure enough, whenever you could glimpse the sea, it wasn’t to be seen! But that might have had something to do with the all encompassing fog that had descended.

Sunken wreck

Is it a wreck? Or some debris discarded in the Cove?

The modern quay in Rossbrin Cove seemed stranded and pointless, but Fineen O’Mahony’s tower house still managed to catch a reflection as the tide began to turn.

the quay gray day

Rossbring through rain

Rossbrin Castle – Fineen O’Mahony’s tower house – seen through a spotted lens

Of course, what goes down has to come up and – in the evening – I ventured out again to see the ‘high’ of 3.30.

high tide 12 arched bridge

rosbrin pier high tide
Evening high water in Ballydehob (top) and at the quay in Rossbrin (below) – note the improvement in the weather!

This is Ireland, so the day that was in it had changed completely with the tide: now we enjoyed clear blue skies and (watery) sunshine. Walking the shoreline was a pleasure! To be honest, you have to find your pleasure here from taking to the trails whatever the weather (as many of our occasionally bedraggled visitors might testify). It’s fine, as long as you have a good fire in the hearth to come home to…

the road to julian's house

Above – when the tide goes up, the road to Julian’s house goes under! Below – a hot fire to come home to…

hot fire