Back to the Beara

Mizen, Sheep’s Head, Beara, Iveragh and Dingle: these are the five peninsulas which make up the south-western coast of the island of Ireland. We live on the Mizen and, for that reason, we are always trumpeting the qualities of the place, historical and scenic. However – to be fair – the other peninsulas have much to offer. The Sheep’s Head is a mere stone’s throw from us – just over the waters of Dumnanus Bay – and our visits there are frequent. The Beara has been calling us recently: we tend to think of it (unfairly) as somewhere quite distant but we can be on it in less than an hour. In the last two weeks we have taken two day trips out there (with our holy-well hunting friends Amanda and Peter), in contrasting weather conditions, and we can report back that the landscape is stunning whatever the weather, and the visible history is palpable. We have visited before – a while ago now: see our posts here and here.

Header picture – I titled this photograph ‘unbelievable’ in our file: look at the tiny house and the monumental stone walls heading up the mountain above it, dividing up the land into enormous fields. Above – a typical view of mountain, meadow and wild scenery to be found on the Beara

The Beara comprises around 58,000 hectares, or 228 square miles, and covers 330 townlands. The larger, southern portion of the peninsula lies in County Cork, while the northern area is in County Kerry.

We were searching for – and found – some of the Beara’s holy wells. Head over to Amanda’s blog Holy Wells of Cork for more information on these (and hundreds more Cork wells!)

A significant and comprehensive study of the history of the Beara has been carried out by Cornelius J Murphy (more popularly known as Connie Murphy). In all he has examined and documented some twelve hundred archaeological and historical sites, some half of which had been known and recorded previously, but as many had not. Our little expeditions pale into insignificance compared to Connie’s work, but they will inspire us to spend more time ‘on the ground’ in the area, while also simply taking in the spectacular views of the wildly variable topography.

Top – Day 1, in the mist: standing stones can just be made out in the distance. Lower – same stones, different day! On our second trip we were most fortunate with the weather

Tradition has it that, in around 120 AD, Conn Céad Cathach (Con of the hundred battles) fought a fierce battle against Owen Mór, King of Ireland at Cloch Barraige – these are the words of Connie Murphy:

…Owen was badly injured in the battle. Those of his followers who survived took him to Inis Greaghraighe (now known as Bere Island) as a safe place for him to recover. There, the fairy Eadaoin took him to her grianán (bower) where she nursed him back to full health. Nowadays, this place is known as Greenane…

…Owen and his followers then sailed southwards until they reached Spain. There he met and married Beara, daughter of the King of Castille…

…Later Owen, Beara and a large army sailed from Spain and landed in Greenane. Owen took his wife to the highest hill on the island and looking across the harbour he named the island and the whole peninsula Beara in honour of his wife. Rossmacowen, Kilmacowen and Buaile Owen most likely are named after Owen Mór and his son. Owen’s wife, Princess Beara, died and was buried in Ballard Commons in the remote and peaceful valley between Maulin and Knocknagree Mountains….

Top – down by the water, a tiny settlement by the pier, and – lower – Derrenataggart Stone Circle, Day 1

Our first day’s expedition took in the southern side of the peninsula, from Glengariff to Castletownbere. The mist was down and we went off the beaten track to search for holy wells, standing stones and stone circles, and were rewarded with some good finds. I was particularly intrigued by the ‘raised ring fort’ at Teernahillane: I could not trace anything in the archaeological records to describe or explain it. Our conclusion was that it could be a natural phenomenon that has been mistaken for an unusual (and rather unlikely) form of defensible structure. There is no sign of any retaining stonework, although this might have been robbed but, other than being more or less circular, it bears no resemblance to any ring fort we have seen elsewhere. If anyone has any more knowledge or ideas about this site, please let us know.

On our travels this week we were rewarded with brilliant weather which cast a whole different hue over the Beara – and opened up the incredible views which are everywhere, but nowhere more spectacular than the journey over the mountains on the Healey Pass. This road was constructed as a famine relief project in 1847 on the line of an ancient trackway that connected Cork and Kerry and was first known as Bealach Scairt – the way of the sheltered caves. It was renamed after Timothy Michael Healey (who lived from 1855 to 1931) – a Bantry man, deserving of a future blog post, who achieved notoriety in the Irish Parliamentary Party under Charles Stewart Parnell. The two fell out – and came to blows – when Parnell was involved in a sensational divorce case. After the 1916 rising, Tim Healy declared his sympathy with Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin movement, but was opposed to the use of physical violence. Healy returned to prominence in 1922 when he was appointed the first ‘Governor General of the Irish Free State’. In that post he pursued the improvement of the road between the Kerry side and the Cork side of the Beara Peninsula and, shortly after his death in 1931, the restored pass was dedicated to him.

At the top of the Tim Healey Pass we were treated to the most incredible views of our entire journey: our photographs hardly do them justice, but we hope they give you a sufficient taster to inspire you to journey that same way.

Top pictures – Christ looks down, on the summit of the Tim Healy Pass; middle – one of the views from the top: snowy peaks seen on the sunniest of days! Lower – another view from the summit, with the Iveragh Peninsula (and the Kerry mountains) in the distance

Other highlights of our second day trip included the Uragh Stone Circle – surely the most dramatic situation for any megalithic monument? Beyond that site – through serpentine narrow boreens – lie the Gleninchaquin Lakes, Woods and Waterfalls, on a privately owned and run park covering 700 hectares. The very modest entrance fee allows you to freely use all the walking trails, the longest of which – around the perimeter – will take you six hours! We chose a shorter route through unbelievably green meadows, passing the enormous waterfall and being treated to glimpses of newly born lambs, all in hot March sunshine worthy of the middle of summer.

Views of the Uragh Stone Circle in its magnificent mountain and lake setting and – lower picture – looking from the circle back towards the landscape

Ancient cottage in an ancient land; the green glens of Gleninchaquin

All roads lead to home and we found ourselves eventually in Kenmare – where we suppered and visited another rather special holy well – before travelling over the mountains to Bantry on another high road – spectacular also – the Caha Pass – which finds itself tunnelling through the rocks in places.

Saint Finian’s Holy Well, on the shores of the river at Kenmare – still visited, and still effective!

We hope these little descriptions, and the photographs, will stimulate you to explore the Beara. We are looking forward to many more visits there, and to the discovery of yet more of Ireland’s fascinating history.

Into the Woods

Pools

Glengarriff Woods – serene, beautiful and incredibly diverse

The second (now annual) Ellen Hutchins Festival has just concluded in West Cork. We wrote about this exciting new festival last year in the post Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist. This year there were all sorts of events and activities once again but we were able to participate only in one, a guided walk through Glengarriff Woods. Robert and I agree that we learned more about plants in that three hour walk than we had in most of our lives to date!

Teaching 2: Guelder Rose

Padraig pauses in front of the Guelder Rose (see below for more on this species)

Our guide and educator was Dr Padraig Whelan, a former Chief Scientist at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos Islands, and now with the School of Bio, Earth and Env Sciences at UCC. Erudite and encyclopaedic in his understanding of individual species and in the interactions between the living organisms in the woods, Padraig’s talk was riveting. Nothing was above our heads, everything was explained in the simplest terms, but we came away with something approaching a profound appreciation for biodiversity. (Padraig is also camera-shy – I am honouring his request not to use full photographs of him.)

Howard Fox

Dr Howard Fox, the lichen expert

Along on the walk also, and contributing on the way, were Dr Howard Fox of the Office of Public Works, who had earlier given a sold-out two day workshop on Lichens, Algae, Fungi & Bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), as well as Clare Heardman, a Conservation Ranger with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and Madeline Hutchins, great great grandniece and biographer of Ellen.

St Patrick’s Cabbage – there are three varieties of it here

The talk started with an outline of what makes Glengarriff Woods such a special habitat. It’s the rain, of course, combined with a mild climate, that leads to the perfect conditions for a temperate rain forest. We learned that these woods are home to many Lusitanian species that are mysteriously only found here, or on the Iberian Peninsula. One of these is St Patrick’s Cabbage, a member of the Saxifrage family. The attractive flowers had finished, but you can see what they look like here. In Irish they are called Cabáiste an Mhadra Rua, or Fox Cabbage. Nobody yet knows how plants that grow in Spain and Portugal managed to flourish in the south west of Ireland, skipping France and Britain entirely on their traverse, but it’s probable that they arrived after the last ice age.

Strawberry tree

Another Lusitanian tree we encountered was the strawberry tree, which apparently is a member of the heather family, but grows to tree height in our West Cork climate. There was some discussion about the edibility of the fruit – it’s supposed to taste fig-like, but only one person present had tasted it and wasn’t recommending the experience. The examples we saw hadn’t ripened yet – it really does have the hue of a strawberry once fully ripe.

Walkers reflected

Walkers are reflected in the stream that flowed along our route

A second theme of the walk was ‘alien’ species – those non-native plants that have colonised the area as a result of importing activities. In this regard, the Glengarriff Woods are facing a double whammy – the botanic gardens at Garnish, and the arboretum at Ardnagashel, ironically started by the Hutchins family. Padraig pointed us to a young myrtle tree as an example of just such an alien intruder – they belong in Chile and Argentina, not in Ireland.

Myrtle grove

The Myrtle Grove at Ardnagashel

The culprit, of course, is the famous Myrtle Grove at Ardnagashel, which we visited last year and where myrtle trees imported by a Hutchins ancestor flourish. In Glengarriff it was threatening to take over all the available space for trees and measures had to be undertaken to limit them, as they create so much shade that little can grow underneath them. It was painstaking work, but there are now very few growing actively in the Woods and they can be eliminated more easily.

Bog Myrtle

Bog Myrtle

Interestingly, there is a native myrtle – the Bog Myrtle, an aromatic shrub. We passed around crushed leaves to inhale the woodsy scent. According to my favourite wildflower source, Bog Myrtle was used to flavour beer before the advent of hops.

Fuchsia Montbretia and blackberries

Fuchsia and Montbretia (or Crocosmia) flourish in the West Cork Hedgerows, but are actually alien species

Ironically also, the colourful and attractive wayside flowers that we think of as quintessentially West Cork, Fuchsia and Montbretia, are introduced species. Rhododendron was introduced in the 19th century and is considered a terrible threat to native species in Kerry. The same is true for Gunnera (that giant rhubarb disaster that has colonised vast tracts of Connemara), and Griselinia (ubiquitous for hedging). None of them would have been known to Ellen Hutchins. As Clare Heardman pointed out, Ellen recorded over a thousand plants, with no mention of them.

Holly Flowers

Ivy is just on the brink of flowering – we found one open bud after much searching

A third theme was the inter-dependence of species, both floral and faunal. About now, ivy starts to bloom, just as other flowers finish, and the ivy flower becomes an important food source for bees, moths, butterflies and other insects, such as hover flies. Unfortunately, ivy gets a bad rap for its habit of covering and damaging archaeological sites, such as medieval castles and churches and I wouldn’t have been sympathetic to it before our walk. Now I look at it in a whole new light. Pollinators also depend on holly, and the berries can also be a food source for field mice.

Royal Fern

The Royal Fern – an unusual native fern

There are a huge number of native plant species in Glengarriff Wood, and the conservation work that goes on there is of national importance. Padraig pointed out the filmy ferns that grow here and are rarely found in the rest of Ireland. He also showed us the native Royal Fern, which is unusual in that the spores grow not on the underneath of the fronds but on separate stalks.

filmy ferns

Filmy Ferns

Howard introduced us to a macro-lichen that, because the underneath bears a resemblance to lung tissue, was once tried as a cure for breathing ailments. Lichens, of course, are normally microscopically tiny, so an enormous one like this is rare, and exciting to visiting lichen-specialists. Like ivy, I gained a new appreciation for lichens – up to now, my normal emotion in regards to lichen has been frustration, since it functions to obscure rock art and stone carvings.

Large lichens like this one are very unusual, but Glengarriff Woods provide perfect conditions for them

Glengarriff Woods has preserved meadowland as well as woods. Important species use this habitat, such as the hairy wood ant and frog species that may be specifically Irish.

Meadow

The meadow

There was more, much more, but I will mention only one – the Guelder Rose tree. The dense and intensely red berries provide winter food for birds, but the flowers make it an attractive shrub in the early summer. There are some growing wild in the hedgerows just below us here along the Fastnet Trail Rossbrin Loop. I hadn’t been able to identify it until now. Pointing out that it would make a wonderful and ornamental garden plant, Padraig made a plea to us to insist on such native varieties when we develop our own gardens.

Guelder Rose Flower, June

A Guelder Rose tree found near our house in early summer

Throughout the walk, we meandered by the river that runs through these woods. It’s an important factor in the lush growth here, carrying high acidity levels from the bogland above. It’s also beautiful, serene and musical, adding immeasurably to the pleasure afforded by a walk in this woodland national treasure.

Still and Moving stream

Thank you to the Ellen Hutchins team for yet another fascinating botanical adventure!

By the stream

Ewe-nique Experience

Pig in tub

Between Glengariff and Kenmare, amid old-growth forest and tumbling streams, lies an enchanted garden. Hewn from rock, trees, and sheer imagination  – this is The Ewe Experience.

Sheena Wood: artist and ecologist

Sheena Wood: artist and ecologist

Kurt Lyndorf, a former war correspondent, and Sheena Wood, an artist, started the project in Goleen and moved it to this challenging spot several years ago. Their aim was twofold – to beguile and to educate and they have accomplished both in the most delightful way.

First and foremost this is a sculpture garden in which Sheena’s quirky sculptures of animals and spirits are discovered around every turn. Sometimes they are obvious, and sometimes only sharp eyes will pick out a hint of something hidden in the undergrowth. Made from discarded clothing, old tyres, fallen branches, even plastic bags, the figures are more than they seem at first glance – they carry the message of conservation and sustainability that is one of the themes of this garden.

Ghosts among the trees

Ghosts among the trees

The pathways lead up and down and meander beside a sparkling stream.

Stream

Along the way there are places to stop and play games (we spent a long time trying to beat each other at Stixs) or read snippets of verse. Information panels encourage us to think about how we interact with the natural world and how we understand it.

Your move!

Your move!

Fox and RavenChildren will love this place as much as adults. The photos you see here are but a tiny fraction of the ones I took on the day we visited last year, just at the end of their season. It’s open again now, and I know Sheena and Kurt spend the winter planning new installations, so you may or may not see exactly what we saw.

Prepare to be captivated!

Careful on the way out!

Careful on the way out!