Chough Country

WHERE not a sound is heard
But the white waves, O bird,
And slippery rocks fling back the vanquish’d sea,
Thou soarest in thy pride,
Not heeding storm or tide;
In Freedom’s temple nothing is more free.

‘Tis pleasant by this stone,
Sea-wash’d and weed-o’ergrown,
With Solitude and Silence at my side,
To list the solemn roar
Of ocean on the shore,
And up the beetling cliff to see thee glide.

Though harsh thy earnest cry.
On crag, or shooting high
Above the tumult of this dusty sphere,
Thou tellest of the steep
Where Peace and Quiet sleep,
And noisy man but rarely visits here.

For this I love thee, bird.
And feel my pulses stirr’d
To see thee grandly on the high air ride,
Or float along the land,
Or drop upon the sand,
Or perch within the gully’s frowning side.

Thou bringest the sweet thought
Of some straw-cover’d cot,
On the lone moor beside the bubbling well,
Where cluster wife and child,
And bees hum o’er the wild:
In this seclusion it were joy to dwell.

Will such a quiet bower
Be ever more my dower
In this rough region of perpetual strife?
I like a bird from home
Forward and backward roam;
But there is rest beneath the Tree of Life.

In this dark world of din,
Of selfishness and sin,
Help me, dear Saviour, on Thy love to rest;
That, having cross’d life’s sea,
My shatter’d bark may be
Moor’d safely in the haven of the blest.

The Muse at this sweet hour
Hies with me to my bower
Among the heather of my native hill;
The rude rock-hedges here
And mossy turf, how dear!
What gushing song! how fresh the moors and still!

No spot of earth like thee,
So full of heaven to me,
O hill of rock, piled to the passing cloud!
Good spirits in their flight
Upon thy crags alight,
And leave a glory where they brightly bow’d.

I well remember now,
In boy-days on thy brow,
When first my lyre among thy larks I found,
Stealing from mother’s side
Out on the common wide,
Strange Druid footfalls seem’d to echo round.

Dark Cornish chough, for thee
My shred of minstrelsy
I carol at this meditative hour,
Linking thee with my reed,
Grey moor and grassy mead,
Dear carn and cottage, heathy bank and bower.

I was pleased to find this poem. It was written by a Cornishman – John Harris – who was born in 1820 in Bolenowe. Perhaps he was an ancestor? His father was a miner at Dolcoath Tin Mine where young John also started at the age of 10. He began writing poetry as a child, usually in the open air where he was inspired by nature. After 20 years working in the mine, one of his poems was eventually published in a magazine. It attracted notice, and he was encouraged to produce a collection, which was published in 1853. The Cornish Chough is taken from that collection.

Above – choughs over Rossbrin Cove. The wonderful header picture was kindly given to us to use in a previous piece on the birds by our friend and neighbour Oliver Nares. Oliver and Susie are fortunate to have choughs nesting on their property and keep a good eye out for the welfare of the chough families which are raised there. We don’t have choughs nesting at Nead an Iolair (which means Nest of the Eagle) but we often see and hear them over us: they are the most acrobatic and joyful of birds.

The reason I have returned to choughs today is that they were the subject of an early post which I published on Roaringwater Journal on 6 October 2013 – exactly five years ago! Choughs – Cornwall’s emblematic birds – left that county fifty years ago but returned very recently as migrants from Ireland. We consider ourselves very privileged to be living in abundant chough country.

A Hare’s Tale

A country for hares . . . The idyllic landscape that surrounds us is a haven for Nature in all her moods and varieties, including the human intervention of agriculture (above). Regular non-human visitors to our garden at Nead an Iolair which is, after all, just a slightly tamed piece of the natural landscape, provide a constant source of interest and entertainment, as we have demonstrated in previous posts, including this one.

This summer of 2018 has been exceptionally dry – our usually green sward, and the view beyond (above), turned the colour of straw instead of verdant green. When the rains started a couple of weeks ago it didn’t take long for things to get back to normal (below), and the fresh green shoots of grass attracted an unusual, but most welcome, visitor.

Here he is: Berehert the Hare. He’s young, probably about half adult size, but completely independent. Leverets are born fully developed – furred with open eyes, and lead a mainly solitary life. Hares can run faster than any other European land mammal – an amazing 37 body lengths a second. For comparison, Cheetahs can only manage 23 body lengths per second. It’s their speed that can keep them safe: they can easily outrun a single greyhound but, unfortunately, humankind makes the odds most unfair by setting two or more dogs against them in hunting and coursing which, unbelievably, are legal in Ireland, even though the conservation prospects of the Irish Hare are considered ‘very poor’ under the Berne Convention and EU Directive 92/43 Annex V see page 104. There have been attempts to change this bizarre situation – so far unsuccessful: you might like to tackle your own TD next time there’s an election coming up.

Berehert (have a look here to see where his name comes from) stayed around our garden for three days, and this provided an unprecedented opportunity (for me, anyway) to closely observe the animal’s characteristics and behaviour. In the picture above, where he’s looking a little glum on our terrace in the rain, you can see his wonderful russet colouring and his very long legs, particularly the hind ones. These enable him to take great leaps – fully grown he can jump four and a half metres from a standing start in any direction. This is another protection mechanism: if a hare is approached or surrounded by predators – usually dogs – he’ll wait until they close in on him and then jump that distance and run off. The dogs, which rely on scent more than sight, are completely confused and by the time they sort out where he’s gone, he has (hopefully) vanished.

Fortunately, Nead an Iolair’s resident greyhounds (which came with the house) wouldn’t be much use in the chase: they certainly didn’t seem to deter our visiting hare. Young Berehert did everything which was expected of him while I was watching. He allowed me to get quite close to him – and was perfectly aware that I was there, then suddenly he leapt up and was away, a gangly confusion of legs and ears. But he only went as far as the next patch of new green shoots. Here he is, nibbling away . . .

Hares are restless animals: they don’t stay in one place for very long, and it’s quite normal for them to range over 2km at a time when foraging. Berehert is still out there somewhere, and I’m hoping that he will revisit us occasionally. I’d rather not dwell on the fairly short average life span of hares in the wild (four to nine years) and the fact that only one in five leverets survives their first year. For our continuing education in the natural world of wild West Cork we will have to rely on our more regular and stable visitors: Finnbarr the Pheasant’s family and the myriad of small birds who populate our feeders, not to mention the wide variety of insect life and, in these shortening evenings, the colony of Common Pipistrelle Bats who are busily out hunting: if you think you don’t like bats, just bear in mind that each one can eat around 3,500 small insects, such as midges, in one night.

Thank you, Finola, for all those excellent photographs of Berehert: not the easiest of animals to capture on film!

Choughs – and their travels

You’re looking here at a 500 year-old Chough! It’s a carving from a medieval rood screen in an ancient church at Sancreed, on the West Penwith peninsula in Cornwall. There’s no mistaking it: the curved red beak and the red legs make this the most distinctive of all the corvids. This is an accurate representation but, interestingly, on the rood screen it’s in the company of other curioser beasts and beings which we perhaps would not recognise. Were the others around once in Cornwall, but now vanished? You can have a look for yourselves in next week’s post. But first, a little more about our own Choughs.

This wonderful photograph by our neighbour Oliver Nares (thank you, Oliver) shows Choughs in flight, and you can tell they are Choughs rather than any other sort of crow by the distinctive ‘finger’ feathers on the tips of their wings. But also their call is very particular – they tell you their name!

The pattern of their flight makes them stand out. The other day a chatter of twenty Choughs passed over us at Nead an Iolair and swooped down over and around Rossbrin Cove. They were wheeling and turning, performing acrobatics in the sky – even flying upside down! – clearly enjoying every moment of their airborne peregrinations. Why wouldn’t you, with such a beautiful landscape below you?

I have written about Choughs before, but there is a special relevance now, in my series on links between Ireland and Cornwall, sparked off by the West meets West exhibition currently running in the West Cork Arts Centre’s gallery in Skibbereen – Uillinn. The Chough has always been the ‘national bird’ of Cornwall – it has pride of place on the coat-of-arms of the county, alongside the fisherman and the miner:

It was somewhat ominous, therefore, when the Choughs disappeared from Cornwall, back in 1970, after a long period of decline. Attempts were made to reintroduce them artificially, over the following decades, but without success. And then, suddenly, the birds returned! It seems that changes in agricultural methods on the coasts – removing grazing cattle to inland sites – had upset their habitats. Now, following changed grazing patterns, Choughs are re-establishing themselves and – here’s the exciting thing – they have come over from Ireland to do that! It has been found that the entire new breeding stock originates from here, where the birds are plentiful. Just imagine those pioneering birds setting out to cross the Celtic Sea from Cork, Waterford and Wexford… Another gift from Ireland to Cornwall, following in the path of Saint Ciarán from Cape Clear who floated across himself (on a millstone) to convert the Cornish heathens and giving them their own patron saint, known as Piran in their own language.

Left – Chough fledglings, photo by Oliver Nares; right – Finola’s study of a bedraggled Chough sitting on our gatepost on a very wet day

In Cornwall, the Chough is said to carry the spirit of King Arthur, the Once and Future King who will return one day. In Ireland, however, Choughs are believed to start fires by carrying lighted sticks on to the roofs of houses. The latin name – Pyrrhocorax – means ‘fire raven’, perhaps because of the bright red bill and legs.

A taster for next week: another – curioser – bird-like creature from the Sancreed rood screen in Cornwall

Spring Green

Spring comes early this year – on the 20th of March instead of the 21st. It’s all to do with the precession of the equinoxes. But you might follow the old tradition (and why wouldn’t you?) that Spring begins on St Brigid’s Day – the 1st of February. We have been having many good, clear – and warm – days of sunshine since then, to balance out all the cool and wet ones, and the days are ‘drawing out’.

Ireland’s green landscapes presented using the panorama technology of a phone camera! Top – the two lakes at Dunlough, above Three Castle Head, Mizen Peninsula; centre – view across Roaringwater Bay from the top of Mount Gabriel; lower – Peekeen ridge, Sheep’s Head Peninsula

It’s the abundance of weather – in all its varieties – that makes Ireland’s landscapes so green, and so beautiful: as we are not so far from St Patrick’s Day (last week, when everything turned green!) today’s post is a celebration of the special colour as we find it around us. Finola mentions it today, but in a different context.

…When Erin first rose from the dark swelling flood,
God bless’d the green island and saw it was good;
The em’rald of Europe, it sparkled and shone,
In the ring of the world the most precious stone…

(William Drennan 1754 – 1820)

Where Ireland’s most westerly land mass dips into the Atlantic: looking east from Brow Head towards Crookhaven

…Ireland, it’s the one place on earth that heaven has kissed with melody, mirth, and meadow and mist…
(Old Irish Blessing)

Rossbrin Cove – with its ancient castle lost in the mist – seen from the green fields of Cappaghglass

In our own townland of Cappaghglass we have vivid green pastures but also, up on the old mine road, colours that constantly change with the seasons. It’s too early yet for the abundance of wild blooms that will transform the hedgerows and verges – we’ll watch out for those.

Cappaghglass: upper – a kaleidoscope of colours along the mine road, waiting for the Spring; lower – the colour green proliferates when the wildflowers appear

…When I come out on the road of a morning, when I have had a night’s sleep and perhaps a breakfast, and the sun lights a hill on the distance, a hill I know I shall walk across an hour or two thence, and it is green and silken to my eye, and the clouds have begun their slow, fat rolling journey across the sky, no land in the world can inspire such love in a common man…

(Frank Delaney)

One of Ireland’s spectacular roads makes its way through the Kerry mountains

Her eyes were like two sparkling diamonds
Or the stars of a bright frosty night
Her cheeks were like two blooming roses
And her teeth of the ivory so white
She resembled the Goddess of Freedom
And green was the mantle she wore
Bound round with the shamrock and roses
As she strayed along Erin´s green shore

(Mick Moloney)

Erin’s green shore: upper – our own Roaringwater Bay: Horse Island just off the coast and Cape Clear beyond. Lower – the tide is out below Brow Head, Crookhaven, exposing an ancient stone row which has been drowned by rising sea levels

…The gorse was in bloom, the fuchsia hedges were already budding; wild green hills, mounds of peat; yes, Ireland is green, very green, but its green is not only the green of meadows, it is the green of moss – and moss is the plant of resignation, of forsakenenness. The country is forsaken, it is being slowly but steadily depopulated…

(Heinrich Böll – 1957)

…There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet
As that vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet;
Oh! the last rays of feeling and life must depart,
Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart…

(Thomas Moore)

The meeting of several waters here at Donemark Falls, just north of Bantry

…Sure a little bit of Heaven fell from out the sky one day and it nestled on the ocean in a spot so far away. When the angels found it, sure it looked so sweet and fair, they said, “Suppose we leave it for it looks so peaceful there.”
So they sprinkled it with stardust just to make the shamrocks grow. ‘Tis the only place you’ll find them no matter where you go. Then they dotted it with silver to make its lakes so grand and when they had it finished, sure they called it Ireland…

(Linda Weaver Clarke)

The Lakes of Killarney, Co Kerry

The seas in which Ireland floats are as variegated in colour and texture as the landscape itself. Should our last words on this go to James Joyce…?

…The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea…

(James Joyce – Ulysees)

Ancient fields on Brow Head, Mizen Peninsula, looking towards Barleycove

All beauty is in the fine detail, we are told. The panoramas, the wide views, the seascapes are unbeatable – but, sometimes, it’s just the simplicity of a gateway that invites you in to explore this verdant island…

Lost Landmark

Photo 97It’s a sad thing to lose an iconic landmark. You know the kind I mean – the one that’s in every photo of the place, the one that helps to define it, the instantly recognisable image. In the case of West Cork, that would include the Mizen Bridge, the Galley Head Lighthouse, Ballydehob’s Twelve Arch Bridge, the castles at Three Castle Head, Bantry House, the Baltimore Beacon and of course the Fastnet Rock.

The morning after the lightening strike

The Cappaghglass Mine Chimney the morning after the lightning strike

But we used to have another one, until it was hit by lightning and came down in 2002, 15 years ago this month. The mine chimney at Cappaghglass stood tall on the crest of the hill, visible for miles around from Mount Gabriel to Cape Clear, from Long Island to Baltimore.

View from magazine

I don’t know the origin of this drawing. It’s a view of both mine captain houses and the chimney, taken from the south near Audley Cove

It was the most visible manifestation of the industrial past that has vanished so completely from this area. When it was built (to replace an even older one) in 1862 it was to vent steam from the engine that powered crushing machinery. Robert has written about the mining industry here – take a look at his post, Copper Country. At its height, hundreds of people were employed, above and below ground in the Cappagh Mine and what is now a lonely stretch of heathery hilltop was once a populous place.

Fastnet Trail sign

The chimney was so conspicuous on the landscape that it was used by the Admiralty to provide a reference point for mariners and by travellers to orient themselves in West Cork.

Admiralty Chart

Admiralty chart showing the ‘Steam Chimney’ as a reference point

As many landmarks are, it was also a favourite spot with locals – a place to walk out to on a fine summer’s evening or to bring your visitors to so they could admire the panoramic views over Roaringwater Bay and listen to tales of a grandfather’s backbreaking labour in the mines.

Jan Clement print

The storm that roared in on the afternoon of February 9 in 2002 came with no warning. It slammed into Cappaghglass with a noise like a jet engine. The first lightning strike killed several cows on an adjacent field, the next brought down the chimney and one after that hit the telephone wires causing a powerful surge to explode into the old Mine Captain’s House, by then the comfortable and modernised home of Terri and Mark O’Mahony and their family. The impact was devastating (we’ve seen the pictures) – the house was ruined and everyone inside was incredibly lucky to escape with relatively minor injuries.

Chimney stump

The chimney stump today

The O’Mahonys have rebuilt the Mine Captain’s House, but all that remains of the chimney is a stump. There was talk of reconstructing it but this never happened. In circumstances like this, all we have are the images that we can gather together to remind us of what an iconic structure this was. Fortunately, there are photographs and works of art extant that bear witness to how it dominated the landscape and that help us understand how it became such a beloved feature of the countryside.

Photo 97 to SW

Among the images that remain is a charming drawing by Brian Lalor (yes, he of Brian’s Sketchbook fame), commissioned by friends to celebrate Mark O’Mahony’s birthday. It shows the chimney and the house and since it was done in 2002 it must have been just before the lightning strike.

Lalor 2002 sketch

But last week a new image emerged – Brian came across a pen and ink drawing he did in 1974 and he has allowed me to use it in this post. Because Brian unites the eye of the artist with the training of the architect and archaeologist, this is an important new piece of documentary evidence, as well as being a work of art. Thus we can see that the lower two-thirds of the chimney were made of stone, with render still clinging to the outside in patches. The top third is brick, separated from the stone by a corbeled course of expertly laid brick – a feature that is repeated at the top of the chimney also.

Lalor Cappaghglass Chimney – closeup

In Brian’s drawing the chimney stands splendidly on the hill like a round tower and its medieval resonance is echoed by the distant castle across the water.

Lalor Cappaglass Coppermine

My thanks to Mark and Terri O’Mahony for allowing me to use their photographs and drawings in this post, and to Brian Lalor for giving me a copy of his sketch. It’s lovely to have this evidence – but of course I can’t help regretting that the chimney is gone forever.

Mining area

Cappaghglass now

Nest of the Eagle

eagles over nead

Nead an Iolair – that is the house we live in, here in the townland of Cappaghglass, West Cork. That’s it, in the picture above, with a pair of eagles flying overhead… We don’t see them very often. Well, in truth, we haven’t seen them at all – this is a bit of photographic magic – and wishful thinking. Nead an Iolair – our Irish readers will know that this means Nest of the Eagles – is a perfect name for the site, suspended way up above Rossbrin Cove – a good lookout with higher ground behind: exactly the right environment for the big birds. There were undoubtedly eagles here once – and in various other parts of Ireland – but when and how many? As with most things nowadays, someone has carried out the research and there’s a study available online. It’s worth a read, but I can summarise the main points: analysis of place-names and documentary evidence from the last 1500 years enabled the following diagrams to be drawn up:

eagles data

Data from The history of eagles in Britain and Ireland: an ecological review of placename and documentary evidence from the last 1500 years – Evans, O’Toole and Whitfield, RSPB Scotland 2012. Diagram (a) is 500AD and diagram (b) is 1800AD. The dots show Golden Eagle locations in dark grey, White-tailed Eagle locations in light grey and overlapping of both species in black

The diagram shows that White-tailed Eagles have lived here on the Mizen Peninsula 1500 years ago, and both species have been located a little further up the west coast as recently as 200 years ago. In 2001 fifty young golden eagles were released in Glenveagh National Park, Donegal, in an attempt to reintroduce the bird to Ireland. In a similar project to reintroduce white-tailed eagles,  one hundred of the birds were brought from Norway to the Killarney National Park between 2007 and 2011, and up to September 2016 thirteen chicks have survived. The aim is to get at least ten chicks flying from their nests each year. Six white-tailed eagle chicks have flown from their nests in Ireland in 2016, making it the most successful year yet; one of these chicks was born near Glengariff, which is only just over the hill from us in terms of an eagle’s range. So we remain ever hopeful that the white-tailed eagles (sometimes known as white-tailed sea eagles) will soon make their way down here to Nead an Iolair – attracted, perhaps, by the name. We’d be very pleased to see them circling overhead – they are the largest birds on Ireland’s shores. Already our bird feeders attract avians of all shapes and sizes, and they generally get along fine with each other, although the smaller birds do make themselves scarce when Spioróg turns up!

White-tailed sea eagle

A superb photograph of Haliaeetus albicilla – the white-tailed eagle or white-tailed sea-eagle, by Yathin S Krishnappa (via Wikipedia Commons). This was taken in Svolvaer, Norway – geographical source of the birds that were reintroduced into Killarney National Park within the last decade

Whenever we are on our travels we look out for the word Iolair (eagle) in place-names. We found one in Duhallow, a Barony in Cork County, just north of the wonderfully named Boggeragh Mountains. In fact we were alerted by signposts directing us to Nad or Nadd (nest) and found ourselves in a tiny settlement which was determined to point out its links with the eagles.

nad road sign

eagle on post 2

large eagle's nest sign

The village of Nead an Iolair in Duhallow, North Cork makes its associations with eagles very clear. The pub is named The Eagle’s Nest, and there is a fine sculpture of the bird sitting Nelson-like on a column beside it

Besides these features the village has a poignant memorial dating from the struggle for independence: a reminder of harsh realities still within living memory. The words that stand out are May God Free Ireland.

Back to the eagles and – in an interesting diversion into semantics – we noticed that the name over the door of the pub is in old Irish script and has introduced an additional character to the word Iolair – it looks like an ‘f’. Finola tells me that the use of the accent over that ‘f’ – which is known as a búilte – serves to silence the letter. In modern script it would be converted to ‘fh’: so fhiolair would still be pronounced ‘uller’. But we can’t find any precedent for using the word in this form. Perhaps an expert in Irish language can help us here…?

nead an fiolair

Regular readers will be aware that I am always on the lookout for links between Cornwall and the West of Ireland (and there are many). Interestingly, Nead an Iolair is one of them. Just outside St Ives, on the north coast of Cornwall, is a superb house, also called Eagle’s Nest. It was the family home of Patrick Heron, one of the influential St Ives School artists. When I lived in Cornwall I frequently passed by the house and was always impressed with its location – like us now, it is high up above the coast with a commanding view over the myriad small fields and out to the ocean. I always thought I would like to live there, because of that view… Now I have my own Eagle’s Nest – and I couldn’t be more content.

eagles Nest cornwall

Looking across the Cornish moorlands near Zennor, towards Eagle’s Nest – photographed by the artist Patrick Heron, whose home this was