In Search of Wells and Railway Lines

We are often invited to join our friends Amanda and Peter Clarke on their journeys of exploration into the wild places of West Cork and Kerry. We even stray over into Limerick on occasion! And it’s usually all to do with Holy Wells. Amanda has been writing about them for years, and you can find her accounts of them in Holy Wells of Cork & Kerry, here.

Recently we were at Loo Bridge, near Kilgarvan, Co Kerry. There’s a well there – Tobar na Naomh – All Saint’s Well, and there’s a lively account of it in the Dúchas Schools Folklore Collection. Evidently a ‘band of Saints’ travelling over the mountain to Gougane Barra stopped at this well for refreshment. One of them (St Finnbarr) left his spectacles behind and didn’t realise it until he was a long way up the steep path. Fortunately, there were so many of his companions that he was able to pass a message back down to those who were still starting off from the well and the spectacles were retrieved! But – because they were holy spectacles, they left their imprint on the rock at the well – forever. There it is in the picture above.

There are several crosses etched into the stones around this well by visitors. It’s wonderful to think of the continuity of those pilgrims seeking out the well and keeping its veneration alive – probably through countless generations.

Another well on our agenda involved us walking over a long, muddy trackway. We could see the prints of the feet of other travellers: the top pic looks like bear paws (although perhaps more likely to be badgers), whereas the cloven hoof above is either Satan or a deer. We met none of these on the path that led, eventually, towards the Wells of St Peter and St Paul.

St Peter’s well is clearly defined (above, with Amanda looking on). Beyond it is a weather-worn shrine with a Calvary depiction. It’s quite a surprise to find such a substantial life-sized scene in a remote wood.

A little way to the east of St Peter is St Paul (above). He looks down on his own well. Note the modern mugs, implying that the well is still in use.

Both St Peter and St Paul share their feast day on 29th June. This is the day when these wells should be visited.

The 6″ OS map, above, dates from the late 19th century. St Peter’s well is marked on it, while St Paul’s only gets mentioned as a spring. Not far to the south is a railway line: The Great Southern Railway: Headford Junction to Kenmare. This was opened in 1890 and closed in 1959. While the track itself is long gone, many features can be traced. We stopped at Loo Bridge where the old station remains, as does an adjacent steel river crossing.

I am always saddened to see abandoned railway lines: they could so easily have had a new lease of life in our present environmentally conscious world. Regardless of their potential functionality, ‘heritage railways’ are also highly popular tourist destinations. I’m afraid, however, that the work and costs now required to recover them is unlikely to be invested any time soon, unless there is a big change in attitude and priority.

Lost railways and fading wells: unlikely bedfellows for a day out in Kerry. But our travels are always fulfilling, and diversity is the essence. In Ireland we can never run out of places to visit, or matters to be researched and recorded. Join us again, on our next expedition!

Pevsner’s Cork

Have you heard of the Pevsner Guides? It’s shorthand for a series of books, originally conceived and written in England by Nikolaus Pevsner, about significant buildings. But not just buildings – their context and surroundings, like that of Holy Trinity Church, above.

There’s a Buildings of Ireland series, only half done now – 16 of our 32 counties to date, with more underway and others yet to be started. It’s a monumental achievement and on Saturday we attended the launch of the Cork volume in Nano Nagle Place in Cork.

The Buildings of Ireland, Cork: City and County, was written by Frank Keohane (Above, signing my copy) and it took him ten years. Ten years! Covid restricted his investigations for some of that time, but still. At almost 700 pages, it’s an amazing achievement and we were very glad to be able to attend the symposium to celebrate its publication.

Alistair Rowan, genial author of the first of the Irish series was honoured during the day

The day was full of talks and progress reports on volumes currently underway (Dublin suburbs and country, Leitrim/Sligo/Roscommon and Central Leinster). What I loved about the talks was the descriptions of going out exploring and investigating – it certainly wasn’t all about dry research in dusty archives, although I suppose some of that has to be involved too. The Dublin writers, Brendan and Colm, went around by bike and there was one particularly striking photo of a slavering Rottweiler hot on their heels – or rather, wheels. 

We enjoyed all the talks very much, but perhaps our favourite was the keynote by Bishop Paul Colton (above, showing us the dilapidated state of Desertserges church, which houses a significant Túr Gloine window). Titled A Parson’s Dilemma, it was witty and warm and brought us all back to the sense of buildings that provide the backdrop and context for people’s lives, and all the disparate functions that they serve as well as the emotions we attach to them. His talk also served as a stark reminder that many churches and religiously-administered premises are facing severe challenges as congregations decline and buildings begin to face dereliction.

The Cork volume, as is the pattern with the Pevsner Guides, is laid out as a Gazetteer, arranged alphabetically by town, village or district. I will illustrate (with my own photographs) four entries from the thousands the book contains, just as an example of how this volume has already stoked my interest in things we have seen and motivated me to go back and take another look. (And I only got it yesterday!)

Youghal – a town we have visited and marvelled at (see here and here and here), gets 25 pages, a clear indication of its architectural and historical importance. St Mary’s Church is described in detail, the exterior and interior, with informed comment on the ages of the various parts – not something that an amateur like me could figure out on her own. Here is what Frank has to say about Richard Boyle’s monument.

One of the finest expressions of Jacobean architecture and sculpture in the country, retaining richly painted decoration of a later date. Richard Boyle commissioned it in 1617 from Alexander Hylls of Holborn in London, 24 years before he died. Boyle was acutely aware of the power of funerary monuments in extolling dynastic greatness and this one is only one of four that he commissioned.

Coolkelure Lodge is described, along with its gate lodge (below). 

Wonderful three-bay, two-storey gabled lodge in the same vein, [as Coolkelure House which was built in 1874, architect Henry Hill] with elaborate Bath stone carvings, ornate bargeboards, and a three-stage stair tower with pointed roof.

We stumbled upon Clonmeen House when we were on a North Cork Holy Well Expedition with Amanda and Peter, near Banteer. We were staying in a house on the grounds and when out for a walk in the evening got an intriguing glimpse of the house – I have wondered about it ever since, and here it is in the Guide!

Built by Stephen Grehan, first Catholic Governor of the Bank of Ireland, to designs by George C Ashlin – an obvious choice. Keohane states that Stephen Grehan was the first Catholic Governor of the Bank of Ireland. I can find no information on this – but I know who I can ask!

And finally, a tiny detail that is easy to miss, at the Catholic Church at Kilcoe, just down the road from us. The last sentence of the description points out The Iron Rings fixed in the churchyard wall for tethering worshippers’ horses and donkeys are a happy survival.

The Guide is now in the car, where it will live along with the Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass, as our essential companions on our peregrinations.

Mizen Magic 25: Gortduv Loop (Fastnet Trails)

Ready for a longer walk? If yes – this one is 13.5km and has strenuous stretches. If not, don’t worry – there are lots of possibilities for doing parts of the walk, or for going with friends and leaving a car at strategic spots. We didn’t do it all at once, in case you get to thinking we are super-fit hikers. (The sad truth is we can’t be too far from a coffee shop.) As with all the Fastnet walks, keep dogs on leads – we did encounter both cattle and sheep on this walk, right on the road. There is a short stretches of ‘green road’ and although it’s well maintained, it might be muddy after rains, so good shoes are essential.

This loop takes you from Goleen on the south side of the Mizen right across the peninsula to the fabulously scenic north side. It skirts along the edges of the valley that runs between Knocknamaddree (Hill of the Dogs) to the west, and Knockaphuca (Hill of the Pooka, or Mischievous Spirit) to the east, rising to a maximum altitude of 180m (or about 600 feet). Most of the altitude is gained in the first half of the walk – so a packed lunch and water will be both welcome and needed if you’re doing the whole walk.

Set out from the Goleen Community Centre and the first part of the walk is shared with the Lissagriffin Loop – see our recent post on that walk. As you ascend, the views are immense – back to Goleen and across to Knockaphuca and Mount Gabriel beyond it.

You’ll have to dig into your reserves of energy (or maybe have some chocolate) as you continue the climb. You are in true mountainy heathland now – look out for orchids in the spring and early summer, or Cuckooflower (below) in damp ditches.

Watch out also for cattle on the road – we were startled by a line of plodding cattle coming towards us, and even more startled when we realised that one was a mighty fine bull. Fortunately, they turned into a field before we reached that spot, but there was no human around and the gates were open, so we can only assume we were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time as it is very unusual (although not unknown) to see cattle wandering like this.

Coming over the top of the hill you have the whole of Dunmanus Bay in front of you and you can see clear up to the head of the bay, across to the Sheep’s Head, and to the Mountains of the Beara behind that. Have a nice sit down on some convenient boulder here – you deserve it – and just absorb that breathtaking sweep of land and sea.

And talking of sea – you’re heading down now towards it, past picturesque stone farm buildings and beautifully renovated cottages until you arrive at Dooneen Coos (the Cove of the Little Fort). Along the way we rain into a shepherd moving his sheep up into higher ground, with the aid of the marvellously well-trained dogs that attend to their business but also like a good pat.

Dooneen Coos is a good spot for lunch – or even a swim if you’re that way inclined. it’s close to the peninsula we wrote about in our post Mizen Magic 23: Lackavaun and The Meallán so you can always take a side trip there if you wish. This might also be a good spot to leave a car if you’re not doing the whole loop on this occasion.

But if you’re carrying on, you’re now heading towards Dunkelly and the storied inlet known as Canty’s Cove. Read all about it here. Here, because we have been to Canty’s Cove lots, we took the short cut – marked in orange on the map. The compensation is that this stretch contains the remains of old ruined cabins and clacháns (hamlets) along the road, as well as a beautiful pond which, at the time of our visit was full of flowering Bogbean. 

From Dunkelly the road turns back along the slopes of Knockaphuca  and along the way there’s a  bit of a surprise – an old store that once supplied necessities for the population of this area but which has not been viable for many years. No doubt local people have all kinds of memories and stories about this one. I was taken by the keys, still hanging above the door!

By now we were on the stretch of road that this loop shares with the Knockaphuca Walk and that’s a walk you HAVE to do, if you haven’t already. Possibly the jewel in the Fastnet Trails crown. Crossing the main Schull-Goleen road we head down to Ballydivlin. 

We’re at the sea again now, back on the south side of the peninsula, looking across to Castlepoint (and Leamcon Castle) and out to the Fastnet Rock with its iconic lighthouse

It’s been a long haul but So worth it – wouldn’t you agree?

The Fastnet Trails website is coming soon. We will update this post with that link once it’s finalised and active.

Rock Art – A Diversion to Wicklow

While writing this Journal over the years, Finola and I have included many examples of Prehistoric Rock Art, mainly on the west side of the country, in Cork and Kerry. Here is just one – you can find others through the search facility in the header. Finola’s UCC thesis from 1973 also concentrated on specimens from the southwest and her own drawings based on tracings direct from the rock surfaces provide a unique record of this form of prehistoric art. They have formed the basis of exhibitions which we have promoted over the years: here’s one from 2015.

Upper: the opening of our Rock Art exhibition at Cork Public Museum , October 2015 and (lower) one of Finola’s drawings from 1973. Another area in Ireland which has a concentration of Rock Art is Wicklow. We have been spending a few days in that county, and decide to go and have a look for some examples there. Finola dug out from her archives a photo which she took in 1972 when she and some college friends visited a Wicklow site:

Could we find that particular rock again? Well, we think we did, but it has been moved in fairly recent times. Here it is in its new setting (we believe) – it’s not very propitious:

The present site is in the townland of Togher More, behind a fence lining a main road. The National Monuments record tells the story, which confirms that Finola’s earlier photograph was taken in the townland of Baltynanima:

. . . Class: Rock art (present location) Townland: TOGHER MORE Description: Found during ploughing c. 1.8m to the SW in Baltynanima and moved here in the mid 1980’s (see W1018-036—- for original location record). An irregular shaped schist boulder (L 1.3m; W 0.9m; T 0.5m) with 16 cup marks and the remains of another where the corner of the boulder appears to have come away. The four largest cups (diameters 10-12cm; depth c. 6cm) are enclosed by circles (max ext. diameter 20cm) formed by incised lines (widths 1.5-2cm; depths 1cm) with the exception of one which has only a semi circle incised line around it. The remaining 13 cups have diameters of 6-8cm and depths of 4-5cm. There are also three incised linear grooves (L 14- 22cm; W 4cm; D 2.5-3.5cm) visible on the stones surface. Described, photographed and drawn by Price on the 29th January 1933 . . .

National Monuments Record WI018-049

It’s not unusual to find that ‘portable’ stones with Rock Art on the surface are moved, usually to protect them if a site is to be developed. Here’s another example we found, in the townland of Knockrahen:

In this case the rock was found while the foundations were being dug for the house. The owner (with whom we spoke) noticed the markings and decided to keep it as a feature in her new garden. The photo below was taken by Chris Corlett for the National Monuments records. Thank you, Chris (and the NM), for allowing us to use this – and the detail on the header pic. Below Chris’s photo is Finola’s, with my hand in the shot to give it scale.

While out in Wicklow we noticed that many of the National Monument records of Rock Art are credited to George Henry Kinihan (1829 – 1908). He was a geologist who also had an interest in archaeology. His home was in Clontarf and he is buried in the Protestant churchyard in Avoca, Co Wicklow. He was involved in his lifetime in engineering works, particular railway construction, but was also a keen Rock Art enthusiast.

Two portraits of Kinihan: he was said to have been of ‘strong and massive build’. He spent some of his early years working under George du Noyer of the Irish Geological Survey – who shared with him an interest in antiquities in the landscape. Here is a du Noyer drawing of cross slabs in Co Wexford:

On du Noyer’s death in 1869, Kinihan was appointed District Surveyor of the Geological Survey, in charge of field work and mapping, and oversaw the completion of the One Inch Geological Map of Ireland. He also became President of The Royal Geological Society of Ireland in 1880. Now, here is a conundrum:

Here is part of the current Historic Monuments Viewer, showing the location of archaeological sites in Ballykean, Co Wicklow. All the yellow-and-red dots are recorded as Rock Art, discovered by Kinihan (there are 14 just in this small area of the townland). In every case, the site is described in detail, with numbers of cupmarks etc recorded. But also – in every case – the description concludes: ‘…The site indicated by Kinahan in 1884 was inspected in 1990, however this stone was not located…’ These are not the only instances in Co Wicklow where Rock Art found by Kinihan can no longer be traced. Does this mean that all these instances have now been destroyed or buried? Is it possible that this experienced archaeological enthusiast could have misinterpreted so many sites? It remains an adventure for us – another day – to go in search of some of these enigmatic examples to see if we re-establish the credibility of this Wicklow giant in this very particular specialism.

Drawing from Life – Simon Coleman RHA

The Dúchas Collections (duchas.ie) are an invaluable resource for any of us interested in Ireland’s handed-down culture. Encompassing folklore, traditional ways of life, stories and visual images, the material is readily available on-line, and the archives are substantial and perfectly preserved, hopefully for all time. A recent find, for me, is the work of Simon Coleman, who was commissioned by the Irish Folklore Commission to accompany some of its collectors, and to visually record aspects of their work, in the mid twentieth century.

. . . Coleman was commissioned to travel in the company of full time folklore collectors, and to make drawings of local work practices and associated equipment, the traditionally built environments he encountered, as well as the diverse material culture evident in homes and communities of the day . . .

UCD Digital library, national Folklore Collection

The simple studies by Coleman, above – which portray alternative forms of transporting goods – abundantly describe visually a way of life which is vanished today. The Commission also employed photographers (and the Dúchas collections are also rich in these) but – in my view – there is an immediacy in these drawings which make them completely convincing: we are looking directly into Ireland’s past.

Have you ever heard of “Cad”? I hadn’t, until I looked into the work of Simon Coleman. The word in Irish is Caid, and it refers to a game which was played with sticks. There is a suggestion that it was a precursor to Gaelic football, although I am not convinced about this. In the version that Coleman recorded in 1959 in Inishmaan, Co Galway, the object of play was a short piece of stick, chamfered at both ends. This was hit by one of the players with a large, stout stick, making it fly into the air. As it descended the player gave it a hardy whack into a field, and the aim was to shoot it further than anyone else. Coleman’s drawings are accompanied by his notes:

. . . Sticks Game: the game of ‘cad’, Inish Meadhon. The ‘cad’ (short length of stick: approximately 2 1/2”) lying against a stone in the middle of the road; ‘cad’ is tapped with stick and jumps into the air about 4 or 5 feet thus; before it has time to fall to the roadway again, it is hit full-bloodedly into the adjacent fields. Each player has one try; the distance that the cad is hit is measured by the player with a stick approximately 6ft long . . .

Duchas.ie – Photographic collection

Interestingly, i was speaking to an Irish friend today and I mentioned ‘Cad’. He had heard of it through his family, although was not aware of it being played in his lifetime. The game he described was virtually identical to the notes above.

Coleman’s subjects were always wide-ranging. He was employed by the Folklore Commission in 1949 and again in 1959. We might imagine that he chose his own topics provided he fulfilled the brief of making an active record of what he saw. The top picture, above, shows traditional ‘Sunday Attire’, Inishere, Co Galway, and the interior view with bed and turf fire is from Croaghgorm or Blue Stack Mountains, Co Donegal. Also from Donegal is the simple but effective explanation of how ropes are made, below.

Particularly striking for me is the fact that all these images have been made in my own lifetime: This is an Ireland from not so long ago! There are very many more drawings and paintings by Coleman in this Collection, and I will return to them in future posts. Finally, for today, I can’t resist this spectacular rendering of a cottage interior from Clare, Co Galway.

I gratefully acknowledge and credit the Photographic Collection of Dúchas for all the above images (Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann / National Folklore Collection). The header is a group of cottages at Gortahork, Co Donegal

Rare Plants on the Mizen

For a wildflower enthusiast there is nothing better than a day spent with like-minded folk looking for interesting plants under the leadership of a true expert.

At this time of year the buttercups all over the dunes are actually Bulbous Buttercups – if you look under the flower head you will see that the sepals turn down away from the petals

I had the immense privilege of being included in a Rare Plant Monitoring Workshop on Friday the 13th – which also happened to be the day that Biodiversity Week kicked off in Ireland. As you probably all know by now, Nature is in crisis all across the world, and although we may be surrounded by lush hills and boreens in West Cork, there are ominous signs that all is not well with our natural world here as elsewhere. Fewer than ten percent of our native species in Ireland have been assessed for their conservations status – but of those that have been, one fifth (yes – one-fifth!) are at risk of extinction.

Sand Pansy – gorgeous little violas found on the dunes

That’s why counting plants is important – each one is part of the complex web of biodiversity that contribute to the health of our environment and the loss of even one can have knock-on effects on a whole cascade of others. I already monitor two rare plants for the National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC), Vervaine and Calamint, so I have an insight into the kinds of threats rare plants can face, from mowing to herbicides to change of land use – all of those have happened to the small populations I monitor.

The location for this workshop was Barley Cove and Mizen Head. Having rendezvoused with Botanist Paul Green and NBDC Scientist Úna FitzPatrick (above, at Mizen Head) we set out across the dunes. I had met Paul before and so I knew that he is unfailingly generous about sharing his immense knowledge. Throughout the day we stopped frequently to exclaim over a plant that one or another of us spotted (like the Bulbous Buttercup) on the dunes or the rocks, and Paul always took the time to stop and educate us about each one.

Thus, along the way, I was introduced to several plants that were entirely new to me. Despite the fact that I have been to Barley Cove on numerous occasions, many of them spent lying in the grass on the dunes (see this post and the wildflower slideshow within it, for example), I had never seen Common Cornsalad (above) nor Early Forget-me-not (below) before Friday.

As our first rare plant, we were in search of Early Sand-grass, the kind of undistinguished little plant that you would walk over unthinkingly, but which is so rare that it only occurs here and in the Bull Island Nature Reserve in Dublin. That’s the distribution map below, courtesy of the BSBI.

Paul found it and we collectively traced its extent across the dunes. This is an area with much rabbit activity and Paul speculated that the bare patches of sand created by the busy bunnies was what had encourage or allowed the Sand-grass to colonise this area. It’s a complex issue – those Barley Cove Bunnies can be destructive to the dunes in some ways, but here we have an instance where their presence has been beneficial – one of those complex interactions that are so hard to predict.

Our next target was an orchid – the Green-winged Orchid. But, on the way, we found another Orchid – the Irish Marsh Orchid (below). It was beautiful and bold and instantly visible in the short grass on the dunes.

In contrast, we almost tripped over the Green-winged Orchid, which upon first glance looked spindly and unremarkable. This is one you have to get close to – can you see them in the grass, below?

Here’s what Zoe Devlin has to say about this flower:

Surely the most exquisite wild orchid in Ireland. . . Green-winged Orchid is a small, erect plant which grows to about 30cm tall in grassland and meadows where grazing occurs. It bears flowers, well separated, in short spikes and these flowers appear in several colours – from snow-white through pink and magenta to deep purple. The three sepals are purple-veined with strong, green lines and these sepals form a hood over a broad, downward folded lower lip which is three-lobed and heavily spotted at its white centre. There is also a stout, slightly-curved spur. These incredible flowers bloom from mid-April to mid-June. The leaves are shiny green, unspotted with the upper leaves sheathing the stem and the lower leaves forming a rosette. 

Zoe Devlin, Wildflowers of Ireland

Can you see all that in these photos? I’m not sure you can, which is one of the things that makes wildflower identification interesting – especially with a family like the orchids where there are quite a few that look similar until you really examine them. 

There were more plants on the dunes – I was amazed to find Field Madder (above), which I always assumed was a plant of arable ground. One of the things we had to get used to was how tiny many of the plants on the dunes were compared to those that grow in less challenging environments – like miniature versions of themselves.

Then there was one of our target species, the Sea Stork’s-bill (above) – really, a flower that only its mother could love, but very rare in Ireland and therefore one of the plants that enable us to chart the conservation of its habitat.

We drove from Barley Cove around to the Holiday Park but were unable to do a count of the Slender Thistle. The land was being grazed by sheep and every access was blocked (above). So we contented ourselves with noting that currently it appears to be abundant, if very localised. I managed a distant shot of this fine head (below) showing the pink flowers but also how spiny it is.

Our final stop was Mizen Head, one of the very few places in Ireland (see map below and the Broom below that) where you can find Prostrate Broom (try saying that fast). This was another exercise in a different kind of counting, since the plant is on sea cliffs and behind fences at the Visitor Centre, so it has to be identified at a distance and the count is an educated estimate. Add in the fact that there are two other yellow flowers gaily blooming around it (Kidney Vetch and Bird’s-foot Trefoil) and you get an idea of the challenge involved.

I have taken on the task of the Early Sea-Grass count. It may bloom as early as February or March, so I’ve made a calendar note to head out to the Dunes next year at that time. Another one of the participants, Damaris, and I will work together on our counts – it’s always more fun if you have a companion and probably more accurate too.

Thank you, Úna and Paul, for such a profoundly educational experience, that also managed to be great fun.