We’ve been to the Glebe Gardens in Baltimore on numerous occasions, for a delicious lunch in their restaurant, or to attend a concert in their amphitheatre. Until this autumn, however, I had never really been around the gardens themselves. I was fortunate, during the Taste of West Cork Food Festival, to be able to sign up for a tour with Master Gardener Jean Perry. Jean and her husband Peter started and manage the gardens, now with their daughters actively involved as well. It’s been an enormous amount of work over many years but in that time it has become a beloved West Cork institution.
Jean Perry, our tour guide
I had never heard of No Dig Gardening, the philosophy underlying this garden, until I heard about it from Jean. Vegetables are, for the most part, grown in deep beds and the soil is left as undisturbed as possible. When one crop comes out, another goes in. Fertilising and soil rebuilding is accomplished with organic compost, with occasional additions of seaweed pellets. They start the seeds in a protected place and plant them out once they’re big enough. They grow module plants – for example, lettuce in the spring, beetroot in the summer, brassicas in the fall – and get two and sometimes three crops a year. Besides the outdoor crops there are greenhouses loaded with tomatoes, peppers – and grapes!
The vegetables grown here are used in the restaurant. You can tell – everything tastes fresh and homemade. But flowers also make an appearance in this garden. Even though it was late in the year we were treated to a feast of colour in the herbaceous border.
The gardens include a stretch of canal that was once the railway cutting. A winding path leads down over a wooden bridge and eventually to the amphitheatre.
The amphitheatre was an inspired addition to the garden – in a tricky climate it’s always a nerve-wracking watch to see what the weather will do when you’ve scheduled an outdoor concert. The gods have smiled on it, though – very few concerts have been affected by bad weather.
Summer concert at the amphitheatre – the West Cork Ukelele Band
Next it was up to visit the hens and goats – where Robert made a new friend – and then on to the greenhouses to see a truly impressive variety of tomatoes and to sneak a grape or two.
The tour finished with a tomato-tasting session and an impromptu lesson from Jean on which ones were best for what dishes. Robert and I stayed for lunch in the restaurant and a chat with fellow-tourists.
Glebe Gardens open from March to September, and occasionally for special events during the winter. Next time you’re in Baltimore, pop by for lunch.
Vi and Grant and Jan and Brian came to stay last week – good friends from Canada here to see the Real Ireland.
We had some challenges right away. First, the rental car Grant had booked was under repair and the substitute, although it nominally held all six of us, was too cramped and uncomfortable to venture too far afield. Second, muscle wear and tear issues among the group dictated that walks not be too long or arduous.
On the Sheep’s Head
Vi conquers the ridge
No problem! The weather was (mostly) fine, we got in one good hike on the Sheep’s Head, and then set about discovering the delights of flatter terrain, local amenities and cultural events. Robert and I hadn’t toured Bantry House before, although we had been there for concerts. The house will be a future post in itself, but for the moment it’s worth recording that this may be the last summer to see it with its original furniture, as much of it is on the auction block later this year.
Tea on the terrace
Image from Bantry House Website
One day we spent exploring the area south east of Skibbereen. We started with lunch at Glandore overlooking the harbour, then on to the obligatory stop at the Drombeg Stone Circle, one of the better-know recumbent stone circles that dot West Cork. On to Coppinger’s Court (another subject for a full post), a 17th century fortified house and home to one of the fearsome characters in West Cork history. Back then to Castletownshend and dinner in Mary Anne’s, followed by a concert in the little church of St Barrahane’s. This was an evening of Beethoven, Debussy and Rachmaninov with Christopher Marwood of the Vanbrugh Quartet on the cello, and the brilliant young American Alexander Bernstein on the piano. It was truly a world-class performance, eliciting a standing ovation from the appreciative audience.
At Drombeg, Jan and Brian
Concert In St Barrahane’s, Castletownshend
Another day, we wandered around Schull, dipping into the shops and stopping for coffee. Later that evening we attended PlayActing Theatre’s two one-woman shows in the local parish hall. Karen Minihan brought us up to date with her character, Eileen, going through a midlife crisis – it was moving, sad and funny all at once. Then Terri Leiber took us into the experience of eight-year-old Stacey negotiating the dysfunctional lives of the adults around her in 1960s Britain – a tour de force in which she played every role, with a minimalist stage set, a soundtrack from the times, and a beautiful nuanced performance.
Terri Leiber in May the Force
Shopping at the local markets always makes food preparation easier and fresher and we all took turns.
He’s got a photo of his happy pig on his phone
It was delicious!
Selecting the ingredients
In Baltimore, we walked out to the Beacon, with its marvellous views of Sherkin Island and the faraway mountains of Kerry. We hope it’s a good memory to take away of this special part of Ireland.
At the Baltimore Beacon
Vi and Grant, Jan and Brian – Ferdia has been missing you already!
…or Life Seen Through a Lens… Things found, places visited, mainly in the environs of West Cork, often just a few steps from Nead an Iolair, although one or two are from further afield. We have been away in Tipperary this week, so these posts are ‘ones we have prepared earlier’.
By the way… Dictionary definition of Maunder: to move or act in a dreamy, idle or thoughtful manner. Synonyms: wander, drift, meander, amble, dawdle, potter, straggle… Finola has only ever heard the word used in Ireland.
What on earth will you find to do in the wilds of West Cork? One friend asked me this when I announced my plans to move here. Others may have been too polite to express the thought, but the question hovered. They needn’t have worried, of course. I don’t think I have ever lived anywhere else where there was so much going on and so much to do. If that was true in the winter, it’s more so now. It’s spring and summer’s around the corner, so West Cork Festival Season has gone into high gear. I wrote about the Ballydehob Trad Festival six weeks ago. Since then, there have been two more – a jazz festival in Ballydehob and the Fiddle Fair in Baltimore.
Live jazz in the Irish Whip Bar
The Jazz Festival featured a street market, and jazz sessions in most of the pubs all afternoon and well into the night. The village hall was decked out as a night club one night, with dancing into the wee hours. There were musicians and jazz aficionados from all over Ireland, and the pubs were bursting at the seams and spilling over onto the sidewalks.
Soul Driven and the riveting dancer Ksenia Parkhaskaya
This is the second time we have been here for the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, which has ben going now for over 20 years, under the brilliant direction of Declan McCarthy. World class acts come to play in this tiny village. The audience is diverse too – we met people who had come from Britain, Germany and the USA just for this weekend. We had season tickets, which meant we weren’t asleep before 2 in the morning for four nights in a row – probably earlier than most of the attendees!
A highlight was Eddi Reader, a Scottish singer/songwriter with a larger than life stage presence, a great line in stories, and a soaring voice. Robert loved seeing Aly Bain, one of his musical heroes, in concert and we both appreciated the wide range of music on offer, from Appalachian old time fiddling to Swedish polskas, Scottish and Irish tunes, and an entertaining group call the New Rope String Band who kept us laughing with their slapstick humour. For the readers who have been requesting videos, I recorded one lively number and uploaded it to YouTube – take a look. It’s a tiny taste of what we experienced.
John Sheahan with young fans
One unforgettable afternoon was devoted to a concert by John Sheahan, the sole surviving member of the legendary Dubliners. Accompanied by Eamon Keane on the keyboard, he told stories, read us his poetry, and played his own compositions. He is truly an Irish icon, and it felt like a real privilege to hear him in such an intimate venue. He played a wide variety of music and I recorded this one: St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Of course all these late nights and bouncing around on seats takes a toll on the body, leading to the need for a rejuvenating day at a spa. Fortunately, there is a marvellous one in West Cork, on Inchydoney Island, where my friend Amanda and I repaired for a girly day of pampering. You can read her account of our hedonism here.
The strand at Inchydoney Island
And in case you might feel that the entertainment described above is not highbrow enough, last night we attended a performance of a Haydn mass and Mozart’s Requiem by the West Cork Choral Singers. Accompanied by an excellent small orchestra (we recognised some of the players from our regular Firday night trad sessions: fiddlers turned violinists) and four outstanding soloists, the choir rose to the challenge of an ambitious program magnificently, garnering a well-deserved standing ovation by the appreciative audience.
West Cork Choral Singers present Mozart’s Requiem in Skibbereen
We won’t have much time to recover from all those late night – next weekend is the Fastnet Short Film Festival in Schull as well as a Skibbereen Historical Society trip to Cape Clear, and the one after that is the Ballydehob Country Music Festival (where I may have a small role to play). More on those events in an upcoming post. If I survive it all…It’s a tough life, out here in the wilds!
Baltimore – with Dún na Séad before restoration – painted by Val Byrne
It’s May, and time for the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, still in progress as I write this, and keeping us up well into the nights with world class concerts: music from so many cultures that involves the ubiquitous violin. My post today has been sparked off by the opening event held in the restored Dún na Séad – the name means fort of the jewels, which may be a reference to the building’s role in the collection of taxes levied on foreign vessels entering the harbour. The Anglo-Norman castle was built in the early 13th century, was besieged and sacked many times, became a garrison for Oliver Cromwell in 1649 and fell into ruin until it was rescued and underwent a superb full restoration only completed in 2005. Friday’s candlelit opening concert featured a fiddle master from the Shetlands, Aly Bain, and his long term musical collaborator Ale Möller, a multi instrumentalist from Sweden.
One piece in their programme immediately caught my attention: Hjaltadans – literally translated as ‘lame’ or ‘limping’ dance. It’s also the name of a Bronze Age stone circle near Houbie in the Shetlands. It’s said that the two central stones of that circle are a fiddler and his wife who were entertaining a group of Trowies (trolls) and were interrupted in their music making by the rising sun which turned them all to stone. Trolls are undoubtedly related to The Other Crowd in Ireland, and also inhabit the shadows in Scandinavia.
Here is an extract from the latest album from Bain, Möller and Molsky – Troll Tuning: King Karl’s March –
The Shetland troll dance was followed by a Swedish ‘Troll Tuning Set’. Aly and Ale explained that Troll Tuning is a particular way of setting up a fiddle where the strings are tuned AEAC♯, rather than the more usual GDAE. This tuning is sometimes used in Scandinavia, Shetland and in American old-time music (this probably because there were so many settlers from Sweden in North America). The tuning produces very distinctive, haunting music: ‘…Once you’ve heard a trowie tune you can never forget it…’ Even more interesting is the legend that playing such tunes connects the musicians with magical powers.
The Devil’s Music: Hardanger Fiddle
All this reminded me of traditional stories involving musicians and characters from the Otherworlds: they are pretty universal over many cultures. I also thought about a particular type of fiddle from Norway (regularly seen and heard at the Fiddle Fair) which has ‘magical’ associations: the Hardanger Fiddle or Hardingfele in Norwegian. This traditional instrument is usually magnificently carved and inlaid, and has understrings which are not actually bowed, but are tuned to vibrate when other notes are sounded. The tone and ambience of the instrument is unique and compelling: it is easy to imagine the Trowies or Sióg (pronouced Sheeogue: Irish Fairies) requiring such striking sounds for their festivities. But some have thought the Hardingfele has diabolic connections, and in fact many good players were reputed to have been taught to play by the Devil himself. During the 1800s many fiddles were destroyed or hidden both by fiddlers and laypeople who thought ‘…that it would be best for the soul that the fiddle be burned…’ as it was viewed as ‘… a sinful instrument that encouraged wild dances, drinking and fighting…’
In rural Ireland, boys were sometimes dressed as girls so the Sióg would not steal them away
At this time of the year it’s not just the instruments and the music we have to be wary of: throughout the month of May the Sióg are active. Yeats tells how an old man saw them fight once: ‘…they tore the thatch off a house in the midst of it all. Had anyone else been near they would merely have seen a great wind whirling everything into the air as it passed. When the wind makes the straws and leaves whirl, that is the Fairies, and the peasantry take off their hats and say, God bless them…’
The wind is certainly whirling and tearing at the trees outside as I write this: May has seen the return of strong gales – the trees are bending again and Roaringwater Bay is alive with white breakers. Looking out to the islands I bring to mind a tune from the Blaskets, over on the coast of Kerry. Port na pBucai (Music of the Fairies) is a haunted song if ever there was one. It’s said that the islanders were out fishing in their currachs when a storm broke out. It turned into a gale and they feared for their lives as the canvas hulled craft became swamped. Then, the wind suddenly died and they became aware of music playing somewhere around them – an unearthly music. The island fiddler was amongst the crew; when they got safely back to land he found he could remember the tune they had heard. It has passed into the traditional repertoire and has been played ever since.
My own rendition of Port na bPucai on the concertina –
To close, a verse by Seamus Heaney which was inspired by this story of the Fairy music:
The Given Note
On the most westerly Blasket
In a dry-stone hut
He got this air out of the night.
Strange noises were heard
By others who followed, bits of a tune
Coming in on loud weather
Though nothing like melody.
He blamed their fingers and ear
As unpractised, their fiddling easy
For he had gone alone into the island
And brought back the whole thing.
The house throbbed like his full violin.
So whether he calls it spirit music
Or not, I don’t care. He took it
Out of wind off mid-Atlantic.
Still he maintains, from nowhere.
It comes off the bow gravely,
Rephrases itself into the air.
In the heydays of transport by rail, the south of Ireland was served by a network of lines radiating out from Cork. Most of these were scenically picturesque – the nature of the countryside saw to that – and all were imbued with Stories, still recounted with relish by the local people who remember them, or whose mothers and fathers remembered them. Here’s one of the stories – told about the Chetwynd Viaduct, coming out of Cork on the way to Bandon.
Chetwynd Viaduct today
This structure was designed by Charles Nixon, a pupil of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and built between 1849 and 1851. It’s still in place today, passing over the main N71 road from Skibbereen, and is a scheduled monument. The railway, track and track bed have all gone. For quite a while after its construction it was known as “The Bowlers’ Everest”. Alert followers of these posts will know about Road Bowling already (don’t forget to pronounce it correctly: Road Bowelling) – a very skilful and ancient Irish sport involving hurling a heavy iron ‘bullet’ along a road, and getting it from one place to another in the shortest number of throws. For Bowellers, the viaduct presented an obvious challenge: to throw the ‘bullet’ on to it. This was attempted many times year after year, but it took a mighty man to do it: Mick Barry, widely acknowledged as the greatest bowlplayer ever. My informant was careful to add “…This has been said by many and denied by very few…” The Cork Examiner takes up the tale:
“…Barry conquered the Bowler’s Everest, the Chetwynd Viaduct on the Cork-Bandon Road on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17th, 1955. He lofted the 16oz bowl on to the 100 foot high parapet; an incredible feat which required almost superhuman strength, virtually defying the laws of physics. This feat was witnessed by thousands of spectators…”
Bowlers’ Everest – the viaduct at Chetwynd and a 16oz ‘bullet’
Less commonly cited is another Chetwynd story: on September 8th, 1985, watched by over 10,000 people, Hans Bohllen from West Germany lofted a 28oz bowl clean over the viaduct, clearing the top by ten feet.
Lines from Cork eventually penetrated surprisingly far into the south west extremities of the state: to Kinsale, Bandon, Courtmacsherry, Clonakilty, Bantry, Baltimore, and – on a 3ft gauge narrow line snaking out of Skibbereen – to our two local towns of Ballydehob and Schull. It’s worth mentioning the colourful history of railway track gauges in Ireland: the standard now is 5ft 3in – something shared in the world with only Brazil, Australia and New Zealand – but earlier lines had 4ft 8½ins [UK and Europe standard], 6ft 2ins and 5ft 2ins, and when trams were first introduced to Dublin they had 5ft 2 and a bit.
Local history: plaque on the viaduct at Ballydehob
In 1925 all the railway lines in the new Irish Free State were amalgamated to become the Great Southern Railway, and in 1945 the system was consolidated with road transport concerns and trams to become Córas Iompair Éireann. The logo used by CIÉ until 1964 was affectionately (and, perhaps, cynically) known as The Flying Snail.
‘The Flying Snail’
The line out to us here in West Cork was particularly eccentric and would have been a magnet for present day railway enthusiasts if it had survived. In places the narrow gauge track ran along the main road; it reached speeds of up to 15 miles per hour… But how we all wish it was still possible to catch a little train out of Schull, Ballydehob or Skibbereen and arrive in Cork in a bit. It would be grand!