Mizen Magic 27: Toor

Tucked away in the north west corner of the Mizen, with access from one meandering boreen, is the townland of Toor. It’s one of our favourite places and we wanted to share it with you, as it was on a visit earlier this week. 

For more on this townland and the surrounding area, see Robert’s post, Mizen Mountains 1 – the Hill of the Foxes. We have borrowed Liam O’Flynn’s transcendent music for this slideshow with gratitude and permission. The Album, The Given Note, is available here. Robert has written about Liam O’Flynn in his post Piper to the End – A Tribute to Liam O’Flynn.

Of course, I can’t resist including some wildflowers, all typical of late August in West Cork. In order, they are Goldenrod and Heather, Montbretia (non-native), Rock Sea-Spurrey, Thrift (no longer blooming), Davil’s-bit Scabious and Knapweed.

Michael Collins Commemoration

It would have been hard to miss the centenary of the death of Michael Collins over this past week. He was killed at Béal na Bláth, West Cork on 22 August 1922, during the Irish Civil War. His passing – and his life – has been the stuff of legend ever since. He’s buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, but the events this week were focussed on the place where his life ended – not far from where we live.

Micheál Martin – Taoiseach and Head of Government in Ireland – (on the left, above) and Leo Varadkar – Tánaiste and Deputy Head of Government – (on the right) presided over the ceremony at Béal na Bláth this week (picture courtesy of The Independent). This was an historic get-together as both men lead different parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael respectively: these are in coalition at the moment, together with the Green Party. The Taoiseach said in his speech that the willingness of those of differing political views to try to find common ground was one of the great strengths of modern Ireland. In Collin’s time, a century ago, such coming together would have seemed extremely implausible.

This bust of Michael Collins is sited at his home place, Woodfield, Sam’s Cross in West Cork. There’s nothing left of the main house now (below): it was burned down during the Irish Civil War. But the original cottage still stands as a shell (it’s behind the trees in the background of the lower photo, to the right of the Public Works signpost). It was there that Collins was born.

We didn’t go to the official ceremony at Béal na Bláth on the 21st: many thousands of people attended. We were interested to visit a bit later in the week, to see how the site has been upgraded to mark the centenary. Previously, the memorial itself was gaunt and severe: here’s a pic from our visit in 2013:

It’s significantly different now: car parking has been rationalised and the commemorative cross is the main focus, with some significant hard landscaping. In our opinion, the works (by Cork County Council) have succeeded in focussing the main elements, and the scale is more human.

The new walling defining the edge of the memorial site is built from huge blocks of slate from Valentia Island Quarry, Co Kerry: “. . . the most westerly quarry in Europe . . .” The material is fittingly monumental. When we visited Valentia back in January 2019, we recorded the fact that this quarry has its very own Marian grotto:

We were interested – and pleased – to see that the upgraded memorial still gives space to ‘popular’ offerings. We maintain that Michael Collins is on his way to beatification, and he is already being treated as more than a fallen warrior (although that status is, in itself, heroic). Amongst the floral tributes are religious symbols, messages, and ‘relics’.

And – of course – the fateful spot (above) where Collins fell is still marked by the simple white stone which has been at this site for generations.

‘The Moment’ at which Collins was shot by an enemy bullet, captured in a dramatic painting (above), now on display in the Michael Collins Centre at Castleview, Clonakilty. No one has ever been held to account for the shooting, which was the only fatality on that day, and some have suggested that Collins was not intentionally targeted, and may have been the victim of an accidental ricochet. It’s most likely that we will never know the true story, but there’s no doubt that popular folklore has stepped in to fill the gaps.

The Michael Collins Centre (above) has been run for over 23 years by members of the Crowley family who are directly related to Collins. Visitors are given a comprehensive presentation on his life and times – and his death. There are many artefacts and memorabilia, including replicas of the vehicles which were in the convoy at Béal na Bláth. It’s also well worth looking out from the Museum grounds to the spectacular view across the Argideen River valley (below). Argidín means Little Silver River, and it flows from Reenascreena to Courtmacsherry.

We are keenly watching the progression of Michael Collin’s journey towards sainthood – or further. During the narrations we attended, we noted the descriptions of some of his followers as ‘apostles’. Also, we can’t ignore the fact that he foretold his own death (after he was sent to England to negotiate and sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty). His sister Mary Collins was nine years old when Michael was born in what she said were ” … miracle conditions, as there was no doctor and no trained nurse … mother and baby were well and comfortable … ” Michael was adored by the family, with his old Uncle Paddy predicting the future upon his birth, saying: “Be careful of this child, for he will be a great and mighty man when we are all forgotten” …

(Above) – a reminder of the ‘glory days’ – Michael Collins addressing huge crowds at a Free State demonstration in Cork City, 13 March 1922 (Wikimedia Commons). (Below) – Collins (behind the driver) leaving the Eldon Hotel, Skibbereen, 22 August 1922: the last known photograph of the hero (Cork Public Museum).

Small Roads

Road repairs in rural Ireland peak in the summer months. Favourable weather is responsible. Always be ready for holdups and diversions. ‘Boreens’ – narrow roads in country areas – are often unable to take the machines required to cut edges, fill potholes and restore surfaces while letting traffic through at the same time. In the worst cases, alternative routes can add many kilometres to a journey. So, when setting out, always leave yourselves plenty of time.

Here’s our Yeti straddling the border between Cork and Kerry on the Priest’s Leap road. That’s one of our favourites: the scenery is outstanding, but there can be problems if you meet someone coming the other way. In fact, that difficulty is present on very many of our local byways: hone your reversing skills!

It’s not always other vehicles you have to watch out for . . .

A rural road can be a challenge: never be in a hurry. You just have to go with the flow, even if that means reversing for half a mile. In that situation, of course, the main difficulty is making the decision as to who will have to reverse: you, or the vehicle coming the other way. If that oncoming vehicle is a large tractor and trailer, you may not have much choice.

Yes, there are still a few roads around in very out-of-the-way places which are not surfaced as you might expect. They fit well into their rural surroundings!

Take care not to get lost . . . Some of these boreens are not even marked on the map!

Give a thought to those who built these byways: quite a lot of engineering has been involved in carving through rocks to create a more or less level route.

Some roads lead to a dead end. I prefer those that fly high – over the mountain passes; the scenery never disappoints.

. . . The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say . . .

from ‘the old Walking Song’ by J R R Tolkein

There’s always a reward to be had for travelling uphill: it’s the view from the top!

Accessible August 

It’s been a very busy week! The best part about it was that my sister, Aoibhinn (pronounced Eeving), is visiting and she and I were able to do lots of things together. That’s her in the coral jacket, above. You see, she has ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and she was really nervous about her ability to participate in the activities I had booked or planned, or stay the course once on them. 

Aoibhinn does really well at managing her condition, but she has to be very careful or she can end up in a major crash. She struggles with tiredness and pain all the time (sore joints, headaches) but finds that sea swimming helps her cope mentally, so she was up for one of the things we planned to do together, our Dawn Swim and Pilgrimage with Gormú. We met Conor and Celine, and two other participants at Castlehaven and started off by walking the short way up to the Holy Well, where we heard of St Barrahane. Readers may remember Conor from the Placenames post.

Next came the swim. While Aoibhinn opted for a short immersion, I surprised myself by swimming all the way to Faill Dic, with encouragement from Conor, and the lovely safety valve of a float if I needed it. Breakfast was so welcome – porridge, fruit and hot tea made by Celine and Conor (below) – while we listened to more stories, all set around the cove we were in. It was a fantastic experience – I highly recommend it!

The Ellen Hutchins Festival and Heritage Week are both in full swing this week, so there are any god’s amount of things to choose from. We concentrated on botany and butterflies during the week and ended with stained glass and history yesterday. 

Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington and Nick Scott led us through the Glengarriff Woods. While this walk involves an uphill section, the pace is easy because it involves lots of stopping to talk about the plants we encounter along the way. We loved Nick’s descriptions of the forest environment, and all the layers that make up the plant life from the canopy down. And we were riveted by Micheline’s focus on the Arbutus (AKA the Strawberry Tree), a rare tree that occurs only here and in the Iberian Peninsula. 

Micheline is investigating her theory that it may have come with the Bronze Age miners who came to exploit the rich copper resources of West Cork and Kerry. Her recent article in Archaeology Ireland sparked my interest and I was thrilled to be able to go along on this walk with her.

The photograph above illustrates the challenges in tracking Arbutus trees – they grow on cliffs and in inaccessible places.

Our Wednesday walk was organised by the Cork Nature Network and was led by my friend Damaris Lysaght, a real local expert in plants and butterflies. And as if that wasn’t enough, it was at Three Castle Head, one of the most beautiful spots in Ireland and a place dripping with history

Once again, although this walk involved picking our way through long grasses and scrambling over rocks, the pace was slow, with frequent stops to ooh and aah over butterflies and hear Damaris talk about their habitats and plant requirements. Some of the plants were so tiny that we had to see them through a hand lens to really appreciate them.

We had a rest day on Thursday, and on Friday it was time for Seaweed and Sealing Wax 2. This was the second production masterminded by Karen Minihan, based on the correspondence between Ellen Hutchins and Dawson Turner. See Robert’s post from last year for an account of Seaweed and Sealing Wax 1. This year, we were joined by the poet, Laura McKenna and the botanical artist Shevaun Doherty. That’s Shevaun surrounded by audience members in the top photo of this post, while Laura is in the photo below.

While Karen and I led the audience through the letters, Laura read a selection of poems that responded to Ellen’s life and work, and Shevaun worked away on painting a piece of seaweed, explaining her process to the audience at one point. 

At the end, Madeline Hutchins, Ellen’s great, great, grandniece, showed us some of Ellen’s books and letters. As with last year, we were under a tent in the grounds of Sea View House Hotel, right next door to where Ellen herself had lived in the opening years of the nineteenth century. 

We finished the week with a trip to Timoleague, where I was booked to give two stained glass talks at the Church of the Ascension Open House. This is part of a huge community effort to save and safeguard the fabulous mosaics in this church and I am always thrilled to be a part of it. Take a look at this video by the Rev Kingsley Sutton, Touching Heritage, to get an excellent overview of the whole project.

The church is truly one of West Corks hidden gems, and the fund-raising effort needs all the help it can get. In between the talks, we were whisked off to lunch at a fabulous private house right on the sea. Nice work if you can get it!

So – it’s been an incredibly busy week of flowers, talks, and butterfly hunting (above) and I am feeling it now. But all of our activities were  accessible to Aoibhinn, with time to rest in between, or go for a lovely dip locally. So – if there’s anybody out there who wonders if you would be able for a botany walk or a dawn swim and ‘pilgrimage’ – no need to be intimidated by a title or a description when the pace is leisurely and, as Aoibhinn found, there’s always a handy rock to sit down on for a while.

Boulders, Books, Boats and Bogs

I bet you can’t wait for more of me banging on about August in West Cork – so let’s get to it! Our week has involved all of the above, and I resisted the urge to add the word Bryophytes to the title. You’re welcome.

The boulders? Shorthand for Boulder Burials, just one of the ancient monuments we visited this week with Konstanza and Christiana, two of the artists in residence with the Crespo Foundation. They are both from Greece and collaborate on documentary and sound-based projects, and Konstanza is also an archaeologist. It was great fun to introduce them to some of our favourite sites on the Mizen, from rock art to wedge tombs, standing stone and boulder burials. 

And then it was time for the Rare Book Fair, the brainchild of Holgar (below) and Nicola, who run, respectively, Inanna Rare Books and the Antiquity Bookshop and Plant-based Cafe. This is the inaugural fair and it took place out at the luscious Inish Beg Estate. 

We love Inish Beg – nothing beats a good wander in the gardens and woods there – but even though we’ve been there several times, we were unprepared for the sheer magic of just getting to the book fair from the car park, all part of the experience.

Of course we couldn’t come away without a few books, but the best part was just chatting to the booksellers – a passionate and knowledgeable group – and sitting outside sipping a cold drink and leafing through our purchases with other like-minded folk. Bliss!

This book fair has the potential to become a very enjoyable permanent part of the West Cork Festival scene and I hope it does. On to Ballydehob and the annual Boat Gathering, or Cruinniú na mBád. Here’s my account of it in 2017 and in 2019 I had the wonderful experience of travelling in one of the boats with my friend Jack. 

This is just a fantastic community event. The whole village gathers on the quay, there’s music and burgers and the crack is mighty. But it’s the sight of the boats, in full sail, coming up the bay on the rising tide, that is the big draw and takes us back to the days when this was a common sight. 

And talking of boats and Ballydehob, we also took part in Inbhear, a sensory experience featuring the pedalos which used to be a common sight in Ballydehob Bay many years ago. Check out Robert’s post for his account of this – it was lovely.

That leaves us with bogs . . . and the first of these was to attend, in the attractive surrounding of Glebe Gardens in Baltimore, a local production of By the Bog of Cats (above), a play by Marina Carr, loosely based on the Greek tragedy of Medea. This is a powerful, multi-layered and haunting story of betrayal, abandonment, longing and revenge. It debuted in the Abbey Theatre in 1998 and has had many international productions (think Broadway and West End) since then. The Director, Terri Leiber, elicited outstanding performances from her cast, and the standing ovation at the end of the evening was well-deserved.

And the second bog? That was today, and although not the first event of the Ellen Hutchins Festival, it was the one that kicked it off for Robert, me and my sister, Aoibhinn, visiting from Dublin. Led by eminent botanist Rory Hodd, and provided with hand lenses, we tramped over the high land above Bantry, on a quest to understand more about heathland and boggy environments.

Rory is an acknowledged expert in this area, and it’s a real privilege to be on a walk with him. He knows everything, but manages to make it all accessible to the layperson. He explained how mosses, bryophytes, lichens, heathers and other plants interact to form the complex ecosystem that make up heathland and bogs.

I now know that ‘sedges have edges’ is not a reliable rule of thumb, and that the Purple Moor-grass that almost defines the winter bog landscape in West Cork (called Fionnán, or blond grass) actually decreases bio-diversity, and that one handful of plants can contain several different species of mosses (including invasive ones from New Zealand!) and liverworts!

And all of this in the most glorious landscape, with a view down all three peninsulas, the Mizen, Sheep’s Head, and the Beara, with a prehistoric wedge tomb at one of the high points (along with Ireland’s most unsympathetically located electricity pole) just to add some non-botanical interest.

The Ellen Hutchins Festival continues all week, and you can still get tickets to many events. The one I play a part in, as MC, is on Friday. It’s called Seaweed and Sealing Wax 2, and it charts the correspondence between Ellen and Dawson Turner, continuing from Part 1 last year. It’s free but you have to register. Hope to see you there – come and say hello.

Art in the Bay

You’ll all know that Ballydehob is the true centre of art in West Cork. Our posts about the Ballydehob Arts Museum (BAM) set out the history of the community from the 1950s onwards. Artists settled in the environs – some camping out in the hills, and many of them remain connected with the area to this day. Local residents were at first amused – or bemused – by this ‘invasion’, but it soon became an accepted part of the character of the village.

Right at this moment, an innovative installation is in place on the water in Ballydehob, just above the 12 arch viaduct and by the road bridge that comes into the town from the east. This is where the two rivers meet, the Bawnknockane and Rathraune, giving the town its name: Béal Átha an Dá Chab, which literally means Mouth of the Two River Fords.

In summary, this art installation by Muireann Levis offers you a close experience of the water accompanied by a sensory soundtrack which is projected into the bay through a series of loudspeakers. The name of the project is Inbhear, which translates simply as Estuary. The way you experience the water is by climbing on board one of the ‘pedalo’ boats that were a common scene on the water here in Ballydehob back in the late 20th century. I remember seeing them on the estuary when I visited West Cork in that time, but they have not been in active use since then, so we were delighted to be among the first to experience their revival, a couple of days ago.

The pedalos have been kept safe and required only a little maintenance before coming back into service. Wouldn’t it be great to think that they might be brought out again on occasion? They are colourful and brimming with character. Have a look at these further examples from the historical archives of ‘pedal powered boats’; the first dates from 1930 in Stockholm, and the second is in Michigan, dated 1963.

Interestingly, the pedalos which we are seeing today were actually assembled in Ballydehob. They were made as part of a government employment scheme, and some were destined to be used in Barley Cove, with a small ‘fleet’ being set up in Ballydehob Bay. The latter deteriorated, but the Barley Cove boats have been stored well, and were recovered for this installation. So it’s a remote deja vu for these craft.

The meeting of the Bawnknockane and Rathraune rivers (above) creates an inner tidal pool – between the three-arched road bridge and the old railway viaduct, and this is where the installation has been set up.

. . . Working with field, hydro-phonic and electromagnetic recordings of the rivers and their many tributaries, Muireann invites us in to a relearning of her childhood environment, creating a piece that draws us closer to the everyday presence of water and elevates its endless subtleties . . . Inbhear, the Irish for “estuary”, finds meaning in its Old Irish roots where it translates to “a carrying in”. It offers a focal point for the carrying in and meeting of old and new identities, both social and environmental . . .

Inbhear event publicity

Finola shot these two videos while we were out on the water experiencing the event, and the soundtracks give an impression of what we could hear while we were afloat:

It may be too late for you to book this event: it’s only happening for a few days. Let’s hope that there’s a demand for a re-run in the near future: it’s such a celebration of so many aspects of Ballydehob, not least as a centre of pedalo boat production back in the day: who knew?

It’s very apt that I should be writing the post on this weekend, as we have just celebrated another Ballydehob event: the annual Cruinniú Bád (boat gathering) which happens at the quay around the highest tide of the summer:

With many thanks to Muireann Levis for inspiring the installation, and to Cormac Levis and William Swanton for information on the history of Ballydehob’s pedalo boats. We should also acknowledge the tireless endeavours of Eleanor Regan and the late Kevin Heaps who operated the pedalos getting on for forty years ago. William told me that Ballydehob Community Council has long been petitioning for the ‘Slob’ below the historic quay to be dredged to allow more boats to use that quay through the year. The sight of boats, small or large, on the water as visitors enter the village from the west would undoubtedly encourage enhanced footfall to the shops and hostelries of this remarkable community