Another Grand Day Out on the Fastnet Trails

Lowertown, Schull to Toormore: it may seem a rather unadventurous walk: mainly on narrow back roads. But, on a spring day of scudding clouds and clear air, with distant views from the high ground across to the Sheep’s Head and even beyond, into Kerry, there is stimulation a-plenty to be had from an easy afternoon’s ambling and exploring of places which would be passed by in an instant when driving down to the west of West Cork. Although largely on tiny boreens, you are unlikely to encounter any traffic: we didn’t see any vehicles in two hours, apart from those parked in the few houses and farmyards on the way.

Header – our walk is part of the Fastnet Trails network beyond Schull: in this case the Toormore Loop. Upper – undisturbed peace on the quiet boreens; lower – we started out at Lowerton, where you will find a fiddler at the ready beside the old dance platform!

We parked one car beside the church at Lowertown – opposite the site of the old dance platform, celebrated with the sculptures of Susan O’Toole – and the other beside Teampol na mBocht, the little church at Altar, overlooking Toormore Bay. This enabled us to take our time and enjoy every aspect of the route, walking from east to west: in my view always the proper way to walk – following the sun! I should point out that the route we took – around 5 kilometres – is only a part of the full Toormore Loop which is itself one of an excellent comprehensive system of Fastnet Trails which has been put in place in recent years.

From the board at Toormore Trail Head: I have indicated our walk from Lowertown to Altar with the broken red line over on the left. Leaflets showing the full extent of the Fastnet Trail walking routes are available in the tourism information offices in Ballydehob and Schull

The little road climbs up and over hills and down through valleys and glens. I hadn’t expected to find an old burial ground, the site of the original Ballinskea Church which existed in this remote area between 1826 and 1967, when the Church of the Seven Sacrements was built to replace it beside the main road at Lowertown.

The old burial ground at Ballinskea Church: top – a bit of local history, perhaps, in the name stamped on the ironwork at the gate; bottom – the graveyard is well looked after – cowslips are in abundance

We passed a few houses along the way, but many were abandoned: each one tells its own story of lives and livelihoods – but they don’t readily give away their secrets to us.

Some of the signs of former occupation and cultivation which we passed by on our way: the area seems so remote, yet it’s not so far from well-trodden routes

We were taken by surprise at the extent of the views both north and south from the higher ground. At one point we stopped to admire the long vista out over Dunmanus Bay with the Sheep’s Head settlement of Ahakista clearly delineated.

Top – the nature of the walk: I can’t guarantee that you won’t encounter a vehicle along these back roads, but we didn’t! Centre, looking back over rolling fields towards the wild high ground of Mount Gabriel. Bottom – the view towards Ahakista on the Sheep’s Head, with the Beara beyond

After a good hour you will reach a gateway where you will leave the boreens behind and continue across country. Of course, you don’t have to follow the marked trail: the myriad of tiny roadways continues throughout West Cork and is awaiting your further exploration. We did turn off, however, as the footpath beckoned through a leafy glen and looked most inviting. First of all, however, we paused to take a look at the bridge which carries the roadway over a stream that flows along by the path – and runs all the way down to Toormore Bay. The bridge is unusual in that it has a large stone slab lintol rather than an arch. I don’t know its history for sure, but I would guess it dates from the eighteenth century, when the road it carries was established as the main highway from Goleen to Cork!

Top – the footpath diverges from the main road to Cork! Just around the corner it passes over the unusual bridge (centre and below)

Our route is the line of the former Butter Road which ran all the way to the international Butter Market in Cork. In its heyday it would have seen plenty of traffic in the form of packhorses and donkey carts, and some of the now abandoned cottages lining its way would have been welcome ports of call on the long trek. Here’s a post from Finola about a walk we did a few years ago on another part of this highway, which tells a little more about the great butter trading days. You can also have a look at my own post from last week, which talks about the improvements to the roads of West Cork initiated by Richard Griffiths a century later, at which time the importance of our own little trail receded and was bypassed by what is now the main road going from Ballydehob and Schull down to the end of the Mizen. I suppose we therefore have Griffiths to thank for taking all the traffic away from our back roads and giving us these idyllic walking trails.

The footpath through the glen is another world – a contrast to the boreen we have been following so far. It is lush and damp underfoot, and there is green everywhere: mossy green boughs of ancient oaks, soft turf and vivid St Patrick’s Cabbage emerging in the newness of the late spring. All too soon we are in sight of our goal, the little church by the bay. But the good experiences of the day are not yet over. The church itself, and its burial ground, deserve exploration.

Teampol na mBocht is said to be the only Church of Ireland church in the country with an Irish name: it means ‘Church of the Poor’, so named by its builder, Rev William Allen Fisher, who was Rector of the Parish. Appalled by the ravages of the Great Famine, he raised money from well-wishers in both Ireland and England: with this he set up soup kitchens and distributed food, medicine, blankets and clothing.  But he wanted to do more than dole out charity. He determined to provide paid work for everyone in the area, regardless of their denomination. In 1847 – at the height of the famine – he commenced the building of this church. The story is told in more detail on the website of the Kilmoe Union of Parishes:

. . . Tradition has it that, in order to employ as many as possible, without benefiting the less impoverished farmers, no carts or horses were to be hired.  The stone was quarried nearby and carried to the site entirely by hand.  As Fisher wrote in a report on the church, ‘the employment was given chiefly by contract, so that the poor were able to work about their cabins, fishing etc. at the same time that they earned a subsistence for themselves.’ . . .

. . . It is a controversial building.  For many Protestants, William Fisher was a saint, a scholarly man happiest at his books, who nevertheless drudged selflessly for forty years in a remote parish, giving all his time and strength to the poor, the hungry and the sick, until he himself died of famine fever.  But for many Catholics, Fisher was a ‘souper’, whose manifold projects on the Mizen Peninsula, including the building of his church, had only one object: to win converts from Catholicism to the Church of Ireland . . .

The church is not always open, so it is best to contact the Parish in advance for a look inside – it’s worth it for the history. This would be the end of the trail but we walked a little further, west of the church, and took the road up to the right. This intersects the Butter Road at a crossroads. We turned left and found ourselves heading for another green track, followed by a ford with stepping stones. Keep going and you meet the main road again: if you are following the route it’s probably best to do as we did and retrace your steps here, rather than walk on the relatively busy main road.

All in all, we had another Grand Day Out! In West Cork you really can’t fail to have a good time: every day can – and should – be a new adventure. Try this one for yourselves…

 

Stoned

It started on Friday in glorious sunshine and the West Cork Stone Symposium ended today in the same magnificent spring skies. All participants appear to be on a high, and that includes me.

A barbecue pit for the community of Ahakista. Look what we built!

Anyone who lives in or has been to Ireland knows we’re all about stone. Stone walls, stone buildings, stone sculpture, stony landscapes…it’s in our DNA. Wicklow granite, Burren limestone, the basalts of the Giant’s Causeway, Connemara marble, the great slate quarries of Clare and the quartzite peaks of Donegal’s Errigal Mountain. And here, in West Cork, the old red sandstone, in use since prehistoric times to build field boundaries, stone circles and portal tombs, to erect standing stones, and to construct everything from the humble cottage to the big house.

Light on Stone – the theme of the photography workshop led by Ben Russell. 

For us, of course, the old red sandstone is the canvas used for the prehistoric rock art we study. But as one of the organisers of the festival said – everyone who came to the Symposium came with their own experience of stone and their own plans for how they wanted to work with it. Thus, the two main events on the program revolved around stone carving and dry stone wall building, but there was lots more on offer too – guided hikes, a photography day, a whiskey-tasting walk around Whiddy Island, an evening with the Cork Astronomy Club talking about stone circles, a presentation on the dry stone walls of Cork, and more.

The photography workshop group, Ben is second from the left (Photograph by Ben Russell). Ben, camera close-ups

Robert and I participated in several ways: we mounted a pop-up version of our Rock Art Exhibition in Bantry, we gave a talk on rock art, and I enrolled in the all-day photography workshop, Light on Stone, with Ben Russell. This was a great learning experience, half in the classroom and half in the field. The morning outdoors session was spent at Dooneen on dramatic cliffs with the Caribbean blue sea below us.

Practising composition: top, rule of thirds. Bottom, leading line

Working with depth of field – and with the first Sea Pinks of the season

In the afternoon Ben led us through taking close-ups and macro shots and then we headed off for the symposium site to photograph whatever we wanted.

Watching and talking to both the carvers and the wall-builders was marvellous. Of all ages and stages, the students were a study in concentration, discovery, and pride in achievement.

The wall-builders had undertaken a long dry-stone wall and a barbecue pit, both of complex and attractive design. Covered in dust, sweat, and broad smiles, they were delighted to talk to me about what they had learned and about their respect for the tutors and their skill.

Rita and her friend had worked on the wall. By the end of day three they were exhausted – but look at those grins!

The carvers were all working on individually chosen pieces – words, animals, geometric designs. Few of them had done anything like this before and all were delighted with what they had accomplished. “I never thought I could actually do something like this” was a common refrain.

I was delighted to run into Cliodhna Ní Lionáin again – last time was at a talk she gave on rock art in Dublin. Here she is carving a deer from a Spanish rock art panel

Today we were back to the Sheep’s Head – the Symposium was centred in Ahakista – to give our talk and watch the erection of the standing stone carved by participants.

Members of the organising committee. Second from the right is Victor Daly, our local stone carver and one of the Symposium’s tutors.

This is the inaugural symposium and it’s been an incredible success. There are plans for it to be annual. Have you ever wanted to carve something? Just want to know more about working with stone? Keep an eye on the website and next year come along and experience it for yourself – it will be one of the most unique and rewarding things you will have ever done.

Cycling the Sheep’s Head

Group at Ahakista

The joy of cycling! The fresh air! The wind in your face! The sun on your back! The sights, the sounds, the smells! Wait – those killer hills! The wobbly legs, the burning lungs! No problem – we have Kalkhoffs!

Is  that enough exclamation marks for any decent blog post? And what on earth is a Kalkhoff?

DSC_0073

Sheeps Head light
Above, a Kalkhoff electric bicycle and below, the Sheep’s Head – the perfect combination

Earlier this year we cycled the length of the Sheep’s Head and back, all of us on electric bicycles, mostly Kalkhoffs. The day was organised by Patrick Murray and Helen Guinan of City View Wheels in Cork, and a masterpiece of organisation it was, featuring stops for coffee, lunch and a pint at the end of the day, followed by a lovely dinner in the Maritime Hotel in Bantry.

stopping for the view

Riding an electric bike has revolutionised cycling for me and for many others. Let’s face it, West Cork is nothing but hills, and huffing and puffing up one of them, pushing a bike, can take the joy out of a day’s adventure. But with some battery-powered help, you can stay on the bike and arrive at your destination still able to breathe.

The Old Creamery at Kilcrohane is a great place for lunch

It’s like having the wind at your back, giving you a gentle push when you need it. It’s still a work-out (you don’t stop peddling) but it just makes the whole venture doable. No, more than doable – pleasurable!

Lighthouse Loop

Sheeps Head LighthouseAbove: This is as far as you can drive or ride on the Sheep’s Head – after this, it’s a goodly walk to the lighthouse (below)

The Sheep’s Head is the perfect destination for a day’s cycling – incredibly scenic, lots of places to stop for refreshment, lots of things to see and do along the way, and relatively flat. Note that word relatively – if you start at Durrus and cycle along the south side to the end of the road and back, you don’t climb over any mountains but you do gain considerable altitude – enough to ensure that you deserve lunch by the time you reach Bernie’s Cupán Tae.

up the last hill

The good news is that it’s mostly downhill all the way back to Durrus.

Leaving Cupán

It  was a congenial bunch and the day was full of chats and laughter. As the ‘locals’ in the group, it was lovely to be able to show off West Cork. We made a detour down to Lake Faranamanagh and told everyone about the Bardic School and the King of Spain’s sons.

sheeps head view

 

Lake Faranamanagh
The Sheep’s Head , Lake Faranamanagh

When you’re cycling with a group you can’t really stop to take photos whenever you want, so the photographs in this post are a mixture. Photos of the day itself were taken either by Patrick (thank you, Patrick!) or by me, while general photographs of the Sheep’s Head come from my own collection and were taken at various times of the year. They will give you a feel for what’s to do and see along the way.

Air India Memorial Site

 

Top: The beautiful and moving Air India Memorial site at Ahakista; bottom: Critters encountered along the way

We were blessed with a lovely day for our bike trip. But then, as you know, the sun always shines in West Cork. And sure, if it doesn’t, you can hole up in a pub and sing, or stay home and cook up some fresh eggs from the happy hens at Faranamanagh.

eggs

If  you love to get out on a bicycle but aren’t the iron-man type, fear not – there is life after lycra!

road into Durrus

And if you just want to explore the Sheep’s Head, bike or no bike, take a look at our post on Walking the Sheep’s Head Way or head on over to Living the Sheep’s Head Way, the website of the Sheep’s Head and Bantry Tourism Co-operative, for lots of information the peninsula and places to stay. Or take a browse through The Sheep’s Head Way for all the walking routes – it’s the website of the voluntary committee that takes responsibility for the way-marked trails.

convoy

rainbow over mizen from Sheep's Head

Wayside Miracles

Ballinspittle Grotto

Ballinspittle, Co Cork: the Marian Grotto became a world news sensation

1954 was a great year for the construction of outdoor shrines and grottoes in Ireland. Pope Pius XII had designated it a special Marian Year to mark the centenary of the ‘dogma of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption’. The Marian Year was an international event, but apparently no other country embraced the idea with greater fervour than Ireland. The notion seemed to capture the imagination of a young republic suffering from serious recession, high unemployment and loss of population through emigration. Hundreds of projects were put in hand and today, on almost every road in the country – and in every community – you will see statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, usually in well tended settings. They add to the colour and character of this green land: like the ancient holy wells, they are venerated and not forgotten.

1954 tablet

Statue maker Maurice O’Donnell recalled that 1954 was a bonanza year for him: “…I was making so many at that time there was no time to dry them out before painting, so lots of statues in the shrines around the country are still unpainted. But that was in the Marian Year. The bottom has dropped out of the statues market since the Vatican Council…” Although many statues of the Virgin were painted later on, you will still see many unpainted (white) examples.

Marian Year shrine added on to the Holy Well at Keallkill, Co Cork

Exactly thirty years ago – on 26 July 1985 – the grotto at Ballinspittle jumped into the news headlines of the world because two local women witnessed the statue there moving while they were praying. The little Cork village suddenly found itself the centre of media attention and – during that summer – thousands of people came in bus loads from all over Ireland, either out of curiosity or anxiety to become part of a phenomenon. Many saw the statue move: a police sergeant (presumably a reliable observer) saw it rise into the air – while cures were claimed by sick people who visited the site.

Ballinspittle 1985

Crowds at Ballinspittle 1985  – Evoke.ie

Strange events were not limited to Ballinspittle. Reports had already appeared elsewhere. Kerry got in first: in February of the same year 30 schoolchildren saw two statues moving in the church at Asdee, while in nearby Ballydesmond something similar happened soon after. Here’s a contemporary extract from RTE News – worth watching for the concise view of rural Ireland in the 1980s.

magill asdee

Over 10,000 people visited the Ballinspittle grotto every night throughout the summer. The Irish Times (6 August 1985) reported: ’…Ballinspittle’s claim to a moving statue was matched in no time at all by reports of similar occurrences in Dunmanway and Courtmacsherry. But too many people, including senior gardai, well-tried sceptics and some who registered what appeared to be genuine shock said they saw the statue move, so Ballinspittle has remained the premier place of pilgrimage…’

white marys

The Catholic Church distanced itself from these happenings. Bishop Michael Murphy of Cork warned that “…common sense would demand that we approach the claims made concerning the grotto in Ballinspittle with prudence and caution…” but he also relished the fact that “…crowds are gathering there in a great spirit of prayer…” A difficult stance, perhaps, as similar occurences from Lourdes and Knock in the 19th century led to the creation of huge religious centres and pilgrimage destinations.

WWL

The visions at Knock, witnessed in 1879

The moving statues was a story big enough to inspire Peter Mulholland of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, to pen a lengthy monograph in 2009, Moving Statues and Concrete Thinking, available in full on line – and a fascinating read. Mulholland makes the point that from the 1950s to the 1980s the western world, including Ireland, was perceived to be under threat from the Cold War, ‘Nuclear Nightmare’ (from weapons and waste), Communism, the ‘permissive society’ – and, more locally, ‘The Troubles’ and increasing unemployment and emigrations; while in 1970 the Bishop of Galway said he thought ‘organized atheism’ was the source of the ‘most serious injury’ being done to the young people of Ireland. All this, says Mullholland, contributed to an underlying feeling of insecurity which created an atmosphere ripe for ‘cults’ (such as observers of moving statues) because of a high level of anxiety in the community. The monograph goes pretty deeply into the realms of psychology, quoting one researcher who “…argued that a certain kind of family structure ‘intensifies Oedipal desires in both sons and daughters, and so promotes Marian devotion’. He held that Marian ‘hallucinations’ are shaped not simply by Oedipal desires but also by other infantile and adult desires…”

Mulholland concludes: “…The moving statues were a modern manifestation of the kind of ‘magical devotionalism’ that sections of the Irish Catholic population have long been prone to resort to during periods of personal or collective distress… They were products of the kind of literalistic, magical-devotionalism that Irish clerics condemned in the 1950s and ‘60s as being ‘anti-intellectual’ and a ‘peasant religion’…”

Knock Shrine

Knock Shrine, early 20th century

Perhaps it’s just coincidence (and I haven’t seen anyone else mention this), but it is worth noting that the Air India Disaster occurred at Ahakista, on the coast of West Cork, less than a month before the first apparitions were seen at Ballinspittle. This terrorist event which killed over 300 innocent souls must have had some effect on the local – if not the national – psyche, and could certainly have enhanced feelings of anxiety and insecurity in a rapidly changing world.

Ahakista

1985 Air Disaster Memorial, Ahakista

Looking back from the 21st century to these events I feel a sense of – well, disappointment – that what comes across now in reports on the phenomenon is mainly disparagement. This is a country which, quite rightly, hangs on to its history and mythologies: as with the wandering bards of older times stories are kept alive at the fireside, in the pubs – wherever people gather. Stories of The Other Crowd, of old battles, of heroes – and of neighbours – are listened to eagerly, and will be repeated just as eagerly. I don’t hear people dismissing them or expressing cynicism about them, as they seem ready to do about moving statues. Such scepticism is understandable in modern Ireland but I will continue to listen with an open mind to all the stories of miraculous happenings that are cherished and passed on, and which underscore the ancient faith of the countryside.

First day of issue

It would be wrong not to finish the story of Ballinspittle. On 31st October (Samhain) 1985, when a group was gathered in prayer at the grotto a car pulled up and three men got out carrying hammers and axes. In front of the dismayed onlookers they smashed the statue of the Virgin and shouted abuse at the worshippers for “…adoring false Gods…” The men, who claimed to belong to an extremist fundamental Christian sect based in California, were later arrested and charged with ‘causing malicious damage in a place of divine worship’. Amazingly, at the trial the Judge stated that he had to be “…particularly zealous in guarding the rights of the three defendants…” and dismissed the case on the grounds that the Ballinspittle grotto is not, in fact, a place of divine worship. In March 1986 the perpetrators appeared on the popular Late Late Show, hosted by Gay Byrne on RTE Television. They cited the fourth and fifth commandments of the Old Testament as giving them divine sanction to smash all religious statues in Ireland, regardless of the rights and views of other people. Reporter Eoghan Corry stated in an article in the Sunday Press, “…there isn’t a safe statue in the country.” Fortunately, following further acts of vandalism they were duly convicted.

Links worth following for more on the Moving Statues:

Finola’s blog post Mary Mary

Radio Documentary from RTE in 1992

RTE TV documentary on Ballinspittle

marian shrine

Hares in Abundance

exhibition poster

“And now, Sir Hare, good-day to you. God guide you to a how-d’ye-do with me…” (from the Middle English poem – Names of the Hare – translation by Seamus Heaney)

You may know that I am a Hare fanatic. Every day as I travel along through West Cork – driving, cycling or walking – I am scouring the fields and hedgerows in the hope of seeing one of these shy and elusive animals: very occasionally my watchfulness is rewarded. Last year I kept a Hare Diary… on the last day of December I counted up: I had seen only six, and two of these were in other parts of Ireland. Yet, when I first visited Ballybane West – just over the hill from here – back in the early 1990s I saw them on most days; one early morning then I looked out of the window and there was a whole luck of Hares running around the field beyond the house – at least ten of them.

felt hares

A luck of Hares by Christina Jasmin Roser, feltmaker

Where have all the Hares gone? I can’t answer that, but I can tell you that there are a whole lot of Hares in the Heron Gallery, Ahakista at the moment: Annabel Langrish and her husband, Klaus have mounted an excellent exhibition of art and craft works based around images of the Hare.

The exhibition brings together the work of several artists from the West of Ireland: paintings, drawings, feltwork, fabrics, papier mache, jewellery and ceramics. The whole makes a really attractive assemblage, but any one of the works on display – all of which are for sale – would be an elegant addition to your own art collection! I would readily bring them all here to Nead an Iolair but – as we already have numerous images of Hares around the house – Finola has put an embargo on further Hare imports (just for the moment).

Robert talking

Yours Truly was asked to say a few words about Hares at the exhibition opening: a wonderful portait of William the Hare by Sylvia Parkinson looks on

All the works in the Heron Gallery show bring out the magical qualities of this special animal. Mostly it is Lepus Timidus Hibernicus which is depicted: the Irish Hare. This belongs to the Mountain Hare species, related to Arctic Hares. Irish Hares don’t turn white in the winter but they do moult to a paler colour, and sometimes they have white patches then. There are also Brown Hares in Ireland: these were imported from Britain to add to the game stock on landlord estates from medieval times onwards.

Three ceramic Hares by Annabel Langrish, from the exhibition

Although the Irish Hare has been ‘legally protected’ since 1930 – and is listed as a protected species under EU legislation – it can be hunted under license, and Hare coursing is still permitted. This seems anomalous to me: those who support Hare coursing claim that the animals do not suffer. They are captured from the wild, caged (usually for several weeks), and released onto a course where they are chased by muzzled Greyhounds. After this they are put back into the wild. As their name would suggest (Lepidus Timidus), Hares are nervous animals and there can be little doubt that they do suffer stress through the ordeal. Many die before being released. Coursing has been banned in the UK since 2005. There have been moves to have Hares fully protected in Ireland.

The Hare’s Revenge: Dean Wolstenholme’s painting of Greyhounds coursing a Hare (right), while in the medieval woodcut (left) a Hare plays a tabor. The tabor is the forerunner of the Irish bodhran: I am reliably informed that the best skin to use for a bodhran is that of the Greyhound!

bugs_bunny_by_nightwing1975The Hare is a most ancient animal. Fossils have been found dating from Pleistocene times showing that the Hare has not changed or developed in three million years: presumably it is just so perfectly integrated to its environment. It also occupies a prime place in our own mythology. Hare is the archetypal Trickster figure in many cultures – helping to create the world, to bring fire to humans, generally being mischevious and getting into hopeless scrapes, but always coming out on top: just like Warner Brothers’ Bugs Bunny in fact – who is, of course, a Hare! Bugs (my favourite cartoon character) is loosely based on the Br’er Rabbit stories by ‘Uncle Remus’ – collected in the 1870s by Joel Chandler Harris from the oral tradition of the plantation slaves in the Southern United States. Br’er Rabbit (in America Hares are known as Jackrabbits) has his origin as a Trickster figure in African folk tradition.

I have gleaned most of my Hare lore from this much thumbed edition of The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson – published by Faber – which I acquired when it first came out in 1972. If you have an evening or three to spare I will happily regale you with tales of Hares gathered from far and wide and recorded in these pages.

pendants

Jewellery by Alison Ibbs

When I lived in Devon, on Dartmoor, I was fortunate to have around me many examples of a symbol known as The Tinners’ Rabbits. Chagford was a Stannary Town – a place where refined tin was assessed, coined, and sold and there was a story that the symbol was a badge of the tin miners. It depicts three Hares (not Rabbits) in a circle: each Hare has two ears, yet there are only three ears in total. A bit of a riddle, perhaps – but one which has been found all over the world, as a project carried out by Chris Chapman reveals. In Chagford’s medieval church (and in several others in Devon and elsewhere) there is a roof boss carved with the image.

There doesn’t seem to be any real evidence to connect the Tinners’ Rabbits symbol to the tin miners – however, there is a surviving superstition in Cornwall and in Ireland that if you meet a Hare while on your way to the mine (or, in some places, when you are going fishing) you turn around and go home!

Some of Annabel’s Hares in the exhibition (left) and (right) our own view of the Hare in the Moon seen from Nead an Iolair last week

Part of the universal folklore of Hares reminds us that it’s the Hare in the Moon we are seeing above us, not the Man in the Moon. And… I know you thought it was an Easter Bunny that brings the chocolate eggs – in fact it’s the Easter Hare! The Saxon spring festival of Ēostre celebrated a hero-Goddess who had a Hare as a companion… Well, that’s one of the many interpretations you will find of this moon-based festival.

Hare eggs and Hare ceramic by Etain Hickey

It’s not Easter now – it’s July – but you can go and see this exhibition on the Sheep’s Head for the rest of this month, and enjoy the beautiful gardens there as well. If, like me, you are a Hare fan, then don’t miss it!

Looking on

Amid Unbearable Tragedy – a Model for the World

Laying the wreath

Some posts are hard to write. In the case of this one, there are such complex emotions – sadness and anger being the dominant two, but overlaid with pride and gratitude. I will explain.

Youngest

In June 23rd, 1985 – 30 years ago this week – a bomb on board Air India Flight 182, exploded when the plane was just off the coast of West Cork. Everyone on board,  329 people, were killed. One in every 4 victims was a child. Eighty percent were Canadians.

Dignified

The bomb was the work of Sikh extremists, operating out of Vancouver. A botched investigation, jurisdictional disputes, and massive incompetence at many levels has meant that no perpetrator of this heinous crime has ever been convicted for it – a travesty of justice that is a dark stain on Canada’s judicial system and that has left the families of the victims with no sense of justice to this day.

Moment of Silence 2

Members of the victims’ families began arriving immediately after the bombing and, deeply affected by their plight and by their own traumatic involvement in the the recovery operation, the people of West Cork opened their hearts and homes to them. Ahakista residents took on the task of petitioning governments for a memorial garden and of arranging a yearly commemoration service. The memorial is beautiful and perfectly maintained year round. Beginning in 1986 the service has been held every year without fail and family members who come are welcomed, supported and fed, in the Irish way. Many friendship have been forged over the years.

Family Friends

In contrast, it took the Canadian Government a long time to acknowledge that this terrorist attack, in the words of Prime Minister Harper’s official apology ‘…was not an act of foreign violence. This atrocity was conceived in Canada, executed in Canada, by Canadian citizens, and its victims were themselves mostly citizens of Canada.’ This speech was made in 2010. The first Canadian memorial to the victims was erected in 2006 and there are now four. There are no memorials in India.

Renée Sarojini Saklikar

Renée Sarojini Saklikar

Because this was the 30th anniversary this year’s ceremony was a large one, with dignitaries from Canada, India and Ireland in attendance and about twenty family members. For us, it started the night before, with a poetry reading in the West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen. Renée Sarojini Saklikar is a Canadian poet who lost an aunt and uncle in the disaster. She read from her book Children of Air India, and also some new pieces. Deeply influenced by the opacity of official documents, by memory and loss, her poems carried a quiet power that seeped into our souls almost without our noticing. She elicited our participation in one poem – a piece made up entirely of acronyms – and she spoke to us about the process of writing poetry from trauma and invited our stories and comments. It was a deeply emotive experience – a good preparation for the following day’s ceremony of remembrance.

The Irish Navy ship and Coast Guard Fly Past

The Irish Navy ship and Coast Guard Fly Past

The ceremony timing mirrors the events of the original June morning when the bomb exploded in the plane, with a minute’s silence at 8:12AM, broken by chanting by family members. The Irish Navy were on hand to signal the moment with a siren blast, and a Coast Guard helicopter performed a formal fly past. A choir of children of the local National School sang and there were speeches and wreath-layings. I was pleased to see Canada’s Minister for Justice, Peter McKay, in attendance as well as the Canadian Ambassador to Ireland.

Dignitaries

Speaking to the family members brought home to me as nothing else could do the enormity of the tragedy and the still-raw emotions at the core of this event. Saroj lost her father, a teacher. “He was  a proud Canadian,” she said. “He loved Canada and taught Canadian children in Newfoundland. He cared so much for his new country, but when he died, suddenly in the eyes of Canada he was no longer a Canadian but an Indian.” Saroj had sat through many days of the Vancouver trial of the accused bombers (who were eventually acquitted) and still could not get her head around the outcome when the evidence was so clear.

Dr. Padmini Turlapati was the spokesperson for the families. She lost her two sons. They had just finished school and were going to India for the summer to see their grandparents. She showed me their photograph – two merry kids, laughing and carefree. Because they were visiting their grandparents they had taken with them their albums of mementoes and photographs – Padmini had to piece together a few photos from their school and friends. Sanjay’s body was recovered, but Deepak is still out there, and so she comes back every year to the place which has become a focus for her grief. In her speech she encompassed all the emotions that the families still feel – unspeakable sadness, anger and – gratitude.

Over and over speakers spoke about the warmth, the generosity and the support of the West Cork people who had been there for them in their despair when it seemed that their governments had abandoned them. Several used the same phrase.  Addressing themselves to the people of Ahakista, to the fisherman and coast guard volunteers, to those who built and maintain the memorial and who organise each year’s ceremony. “You”, they said, “are a model for the world.”

As a Canadian who listened nightly to the reports of the Vancouver trials I can have an inkling of the unfathomable well of loss and anger that these families feel. As an Irish person who is now living in West Cork I am proud of how our neighbours and friends stepped in to support and comfort these devastated families.
Children Sing

Perhaps the best way to end is with one of Renée’s poems. I will try to reproduce it faithfully on the page.

In the home-house, in the basement, there is the mother — she is singing a sweet song.

It is before —

June                       1984

                                Of her name, there are redactions.

                                Of her mother tongue, there is no record —

                                                       this is the life of a woman, made in India,

                                                                                living in Canada.

In the home-house, in the basement, there is the mother

                   And she is absent, sister

Memorial in Winter