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

The Wild Side

Tortoiseshell

Up here in Nead an Iolair, in the townland of Cappaghglass, we luxuriate in the nature all around us. Our house was built in the 1980s on a piece of land which had belonged to the successors of the mining company – the copper mines were active for a few generations in the 19th century both here and on Horse Island, just across the water. The post-industrial landscape which surrounds us is alive: small, stone-enclosed fields are grazed by cattle, ponies and a few goats while in equal measure are large tracts of gorse, heather and rock. Here and there are the remains of the mine workings – a stump of a chimney, fenced-off and walled shafts, quarries, ruined workshops and cottages: the architecture of abandonment.

horse on horizon

Nick's Goat

nead birds

It seems to me that our house interrupts nature, with our lawns, our haggard, stone terrace, hedges and fences, but nature is well able to adapt and cope. Of course, we encourage this: we enthusiastically nurture all the little birds that visit our feeders – and the big ones: rooks, pheasants, magpies: they all get their share. And there are those that don’t come to the feeders but nevertheless forage the land – choughs (which perch on our roof and shout out their names – cheough – cheough… before flying off to give us an endless and entertaining display of dizzying acrobatics), starlings, blackbirds, thrushes and – always on a Sunday – Spiro the sparrowhawk who unsuccessfully dive-bombs the feeder, scattering – but never catching – the small birds. After the effort he rests on one leg on the low terrace wall and stares thoughtfully out to the Cove.

Can YOU see it?

Chough on the post

Spiro

From The Galleries

Michael, whose family has farmed the fields around us for generations, tells us that the land above us is known as The Galleries – possibly because there is such a spectacular view to be had from these fields to Rossbrin below us and to the islands of Roaringwater Bay beyond. The Cove itself is a paradise for the waders, especially at low tide, and for crustaceous life in the rock pools.

Muddy shanks

Curved beak

All around are the hedgerows that, in the spring, summer and autumn, support a wealth of wildflowers. In turn these are the haunt of nectar-seeking insects, especially bees and butterflies.

We are visited by four-legged mammals in all shapes and sizes: I’m pleased to see some of the decimated rabbit population returning after a recurrence of myxomatosis these past couple of years. We don’t get hares in the immediate neighbourhood: they seldom mix with the smaller Leporidae, but we sometimes catch a glimpse of them from the road that goes down to the village. Rats, mice and shrews are never far away, but are kept under control by our larger visitors – feral cats and foxes. Our own Ferdia has gone from us during this past year – he was an ancient fox who had made a pact with the human world: I’ll sit picturesquely on your terrace and entertain you provided you keep the food scraps coming – we did, of course. His descendants make fleeting visits, passing through but, as yet, never pausing to make our acquaintance.

Ferdia's Eyes

Bunny eyes a daisy

When it comes to observation of the natural world there’s never a dull moment here. We are fortunate that some globally threatened species seem to thrive around us – curlews can always be seen by the water, for example. The small birds crowd in, especially when I refill the feeders: sometimes we have to fight our way through the melee when we want to go out. It’s a great way to live, and a great place to live in. Thank you, Mother Nature.

RH and friend

Photographs (from the top down): Tortoiseshell butterfly; Cappaghglass field; Nick’s goat; Nead an Iolair with starlings; greenfinches; chough on our gatepost; Spiro the sparrowhawk; view across Roaringwater Bay from The Galleries; muddy shanks; curlew in the Cove; 2 x bees; Ferdia the fox; rabbit; Nead bird feeder with goldfinches, greenfinch, bluetits and great tit – and pheasant; Robert and friends; heron hairdo. Grateful thanks to Finola for many of these pics

Heron Mullet

Dancing Cappaghglass

Cappaghglass by Emma Jervis 1

When you love the place you live in – really love it, in your bones and your heart, how do you express that? How do you convey to others the feeling of waking to the sun rising over Roaringwater Bay and sinking back into the sea behind Long Island after a day of sparkling colour and rural rhythms? How do you represent the sense of coming home after a lifetime of being an emigrant? How to talk about what persists of the Ireland of your youth and what has changed irrevocably, for better or ill?

Fields of Cappaghglass

The green fields of Cappaghglass in evening winter sunlight

I suppose, like the Bee Gees I would turn to words, but Tara Brandel took on that challenge with Cappaghglass, her final piece of choreography and dance performance at the end of her two year residency at Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre.

Reaching

I’ve written about Tara’s dance performances before – her Bridge two years ago in Ballydehob left us speechless and profoundly moved. She has performed numerous pieces in the meantime as part of her Uillinn residency, sometimes solo and sometimes with her company, Chroí Glan. This dance has been gestating all that time.

Mining area

Mine houses and a fenced-off shaft – echoes of mining heritage

Cappaghglass*, where Tara lives and where we also are currently putting down roots, is undoubtedly beautiful, peaceful, pastoral and scenic. In the past it was also heavily industrial, with 400 tons of copper mined every year, and a population of several hundred people. It had a ‘Big House’ and a hotel: no traces remain of either. It had a dozen farms: now there are two. There are twenty homes in the townland – and another twenty holiday homes that remain empty most of the time.

Cappaghglass by Emma Jervis 2

I gratefully acknowledge Emma Jervis, whose photograph this is, along with the first one in the post

Tara danced it all for us. We watched as she explores her environment as a child, then takes the first tentative steps to leave. Buffeted by the world, she returns to the freedom and the green fields, and always the sea heaves in the background and the Fastnet Light turns on the horizon. She switches effortlessly, with a twitch of a scarf and body movements, from a young, then an old Irish woman to a Syrian refugee, inviting us to consider the experiences of displacement, migration, loss and belonging.

Road through Cappaghglass

The high road through Cappaghglass

Her body speaks to us, but she also uses words and song. She sings – simple repetitive chants – and uses technology to loop the sound so it repeats. Then she records a further piece and then another, and so layers of sound start to build and this provides the music to which she dances.

Gorse Tree

Visual layers are added – projections on the wall of a map, the sea, waving grass, and finally the Fastnet Light.

Fastnet in the sunset

Tara’s dancing is athletic and graceful. Her hands assume critical importance in conveying action and emotion. Clothing is donned and shed in a shorthand for identity.

Clothing is used

In  a final brilliant move she approaches the barre, over which is draped heaps of material. Reaching into the mass of cloth she ties two lengths around her waist and moves towards us. It is then we understand, as the material slowly slides away from the barre and follows her in an enormous train, that this is Cappaghglass – the whole townland spread out behind her, claiming her, rooting her, her home, her place.

townland train

We  walked the townland today in the fading light of late afternoon and we saw it afresh. Like Tara, like so many people, we have experienced migration and displacement. But this is home now and we find it rare and precious.

Ruined ivy-clad houses and the traces of tiny fields hint at families for whom this was home

Only art has the ability to reach down into you and clutch at your soul and make you think and feel in ways you haven’t thought and felt before. Tara did that for us with her dance. We are grateful for her gift.

Cappaghglass sunset*Cappaghglass, in Irish pronounced cappa gloss = the Green Tillage Fields