Guerrilla Botany in West Cork

It started in France and has spread (like weeds?) across Europe, as a way of illustrating for casual walkers what we have all around us. All you need is chalk and a good wildflower book. I recommend Zoë Devlin’s The Wildflowers of Ireland – it’s how my love of wildflowers was sparked. If you have good reception on a phone or tablet, you can use her website Wildflowers of Ireland, but if you’re just starting, the book may be easier to search. Another excellent resource is Wildflowers of Ireland, although this one is wholly online.

This lovely little Field Forget-me-not (chalked in the top photo, close-up above) is a metaphor what what we were trying to do in our West Cork villages

The Botany part is easy: it’s incredibly important to know what we have as we are losing species, many through loss of habitat or the use of herbicides. Urban environments are home to many wildflowers (no such thing as weeds!) all of which do important jobs in supporting the great chain of life by providing vital food, shelter and reproduction spaces to an enormous variety of insects.

Cleavers – you might know it as Stickelback or Goose Grass, and one of the Flying Column grew up calling it Robin-run-the-hedge. It has a very efficient way of getting you or your dog to transport its seeds

The Guerrilla part? Well, there is something subversive in writing and sketching what can be seen as graffiti on a footpath or a wall (but don’t worry – the first rainfall and it will be gone). It may even be slightly illegal, so ideally you deploy some level of stealth. However, the merry band in Schull yesterday, let’s call them Flying Column S, was having far too much fun to be deploying anything except their chalk.

Flying Column S (appropriately distancing) clockwise from top right: Karen, Julia, Úna and Con, Ann and Blathnaid

When you name something you give it an identity. That encourages people to look more closely at it and maybe do a little research into it. We are seeing all kinds of Bird’s-foot Trefoil (below, overlooking Schull Harbour, with Red Clover) at the moment, springing up in our lawns and frankly wherever it gets a chance. But did you know that this gorgeous little yellow flower, a member of the Pea Family, is the larval food plant of the Common Blue Butterfly?

Most of the wildflowers we see around us in our towns and villages are native, but there are a few invasive aliens as well and it’s also important to know where they are and how they are reproducing. Japanese Knotweed is the most feared, for how difficult it is to get rid of, how damaging it can be, and for how it takes over vast areas of habitat, choking out native plants.

Buddleia, better known as Butterfly Bush, is beloved of butterflies for its abundance of nectar. But there is a dark side – it can become very invasive, and while butterflies love the nectar it provides it is not a butterfly host plant – that is, one that butterflies can use to deposit their larva, which will then feed on the leaves. In fact, over time, butterfly populations decline where Buddleia is left unchecked. The Buddleia below has not yet come into flower.

But there are other non-natives that are more benign. Mexican Fleabane (below with Greater Plantain) and Ivy-leaved Toadflax (a close-up – another photo is the last one in this post) both arrived here from elsewhere, but do not pose anything like the same level of threat. In fact they have settled in happily as neighbours.

But while they are certainly decorative and attractive to insects, it remains true that it is our native plants to which our native insects are best adapted.

Native, of course, can also be dangerous – several of our native plants are highly poisonous to humans including the beautiful Foxglove that is blooming everywhere right now and the attractive but deadly Woody Nightshade, below. It’s also known as Bittersweet. Children need to be warned to stay away from the inviting red berries of this plant later in the summer.

At first glance, we seem to see lots of dandelions, but most of the dandelions are gone over by now so what we are seeing are Sow-thistles, Nipplewort and most of all in West Cork, Cat’s-ear.

Cat’s-ear in Ballydehob, all mixed up with buttercups, daisies, White Clover, Club-rushed and grasses – an insect heaven

At the shore, marine species abound – take a look at my post on the Ballydehob Estuary – a haven for native wildflowers of all kinds. In Schull we chalked signs for Thrift (or Sea Pinks) and Kidney Vetch while in Ballydehob we pointed to Sea Radish and Sea Aster, the latter a plant that tolerates getting its feet wet in salt water.

Trees, too, deserve our attention. Con was delighted with the number of elm trees around Schull and he pointed out one of our native Ash trees along the way. The Sycamore which springs up everywhere, on the other hand, is not native to Ireland and can grow to provide a powerful canopy under which other seedlings fail to thrive.

Herb-Robert is a perennial favourite but in Schull we found lots of its first cousin, Shining Crane’s-bill. The flower is very similar, although smaller, but the leaves are quite different, being round and glossy compared to Herb-Robert’s hairy fronds. Both turn an interesting red as they age. Bonus point to Karen for pointing out that this was not, in fact, Herb-Robert.

Some plants are so tiny and background-y that they are easily overlooked. A couple below – Procumbent Pearlwort and the charmingly named Mind-your-own-business. The second photo is a close-up of the Procumbent Pearlwort, showing its minuscule white flowers.

Foragers are the experts on what’s edible by humans – if you are interested in this, I highly recommend Forager Fred’s Facebook Page. One plant we did happen across in Schull was Pignut – I haven’t tried it myself, but apparently in the old days kids on their way to school would follow the stem down to the root with their fingers to find the little edible tubers. Any memories of that among our readers?

We identified lots more plants than I have room for here and we hoped that people would stop and take notice as they walk around the village and estuary of of Ballydehob and the Market car park and harbour road in Schull.

What do you think – is Guerrilla Botany a good idea? Why not get out and do some in your own community!

 

Transcendent Prospects

One of the advantages of the limitations that are placed upon us at the moment is that we have to look more closely at everything. We are seeing – and enjoying – the familiar landscape around us, so I am looking out, now, for the transcendent qualities it has to offer. [Transcendent: adjective – beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience; surpassing the ordinary; exceptional.]

Waterscapes at Ballydehob, Schull and Dereenatra. Header: cloudscape over Cape Clear, Horse Island in the foreground

So, over the last couple of days I have wended my way around the boreens of Cappaghglass, Stouke and Ballydehob – armed only with my iPhone camera – to see what I can record to intrigue and delight you. I have looked, particularly, for the quality of light that the currently ubiquitous sun is casting on to our green fields and hedgerows, our evanescent skyscapes, and the waters of the bays that surround us. In Cornwall – where I spent many years – it was the quality of light that was all important to the artists who came to the little fishing communities of Newlyn and St Ives from the late nineteenth century, and even into the present day. They were searching for something which was and is missing in towns and cities: clear, unpolluted air, constantly infused with tiny droplets of water arising from the sea which surround that western peninsula. We have the same quality on our own Mizen Peninsula: it’s that moisture laden air which captures and refracts the light, enhancing clarity and colour – and our own artists always did and always will respond to that.

We sometimes drive further afield in West Cork, so that we can take our exercise with a change of scene. But all of the photographs here are relatively close to home. The clarity of the light is apparent: the detail of the distant hillsides is picked out even by the phone camera. The colours – all those greens and the blues of skies and water are true to life.

Our favourite views are often dominated by the distinctive profile of Mount Gabriel in the distance. This is the highest point of land on the Mizen, and must have been an important waymark throughout history, central to the orientation of travellers through this area, and probably imbued with significance and ‘stories’. My favourite is the one that says the Archangel had heard of the inherent beauty in the Irish countryside (highly believable to me!) and ‘touched down’ on the top of the mountain, leaving his footprint on the rocks. Here’s a post I wrote about Mount Gabriel – and its associated stories – six years ago.

I don’t want to overdo the West Cork boreens (you can see lots more of them here), but I just can’t resist them! Perhaps it’s what they symbolise – our journey through life, pathways leading us on optimistically into our own futures? When we are exploring overgrown lanes, like the one in the middle picture above, there is a sense of excitement about what we might find through the trees or around the corner: in this case, we were led to an abandoned house. What mysteries are contained there: lives fully lived and now departed. The lower picture is the boreen that leads us home from Stouke to Nead an Iolair: always one of my favourites.

Upper – the colourful remains of an old tractor enhance (for me) the views from the Butter Road running out of Schull towards Ballydehob. Lower – this track is a highway leading down to the beach at Coosheen.

We look forward to the Covid19 restrictions being lifted, but it will be a while yet before travel constraints are removed. Even when they are, we will still appreciate what we have around us, and we won’t neglect the transcendent beauty of ‘our’ townlands and the sublime scenes that await us daily just a few steps from home.

Back home: (upper) reflections by the once busy quay at Ballydehob with (lower) the road leading into Ballydehob passing over the three-arched bridge, overlooked by higher land to the north

If you want to read more about the artists in Cornwall who were influenced and inspired by the landscapes of that Celtic kingdom, read more here and here.

And for more about the West Cork artists’ community – there’s a website (and a museum) dedicated to their history here.

Quest for the Lone Whitethorn

The crowning glory of our West Cork hedgerows, highways and boreens at this time of the year is the May bush – Sceach Gheal – Hawthorn or Whitethorn. The example above is on the way down to Ballydehob, just a few minutes’ walk from Nead an Iolair: we can’t resist stopping every time we pass to admire its brilliance – a shining presence among the abundant greenery of the early summer that’s all around us in these quiet days.

You have to get up close to fully appreciate the wonder of the tiny individual blooms that contribute to the billowing white cloud effects we see wherever there is a May bush in the hedges. We have one right outside of our bedroom window (see Rossbrin Castle in the distant view):

Such a visually striking tree has attracted many traditions and superstitions over the generations – and pisogues like these never really go away. A good account of many surviving beliefs in the British Isles is given in The Hazel Tree Blog.

Of course, the May Bush is a thorn – a spiky tree, seen here before the blossoms come out. Even if those pisogues about it being unlucky to bring it into the house didn’t protect it from being cut, then those thorns would certainly be a goodly deterrent. This great picture, with chaffinch, was taken by Finola, who also provided many of the other photos here. Thank you, Finola! We admire the work of Michael Fortune, who lives in Wexford where, with Aileen Lambert, they have succeeded in re-establishing a May Bush tradition.

It’s been a quest of ours, when on our ‘lockdown’ walks – limited to 5km – to find the iconic ‘lone thorn tree’, out in a field, moor or open country, as this is the one imbued with the legends. So far we have been unsuccessful – the whitethorns around us all seem to be part of a hedgerow. In my English west country days – when I lived in the Celtic regions of Cornwall and Devon – I was aware of many solitary thorn trees, particularly out on the moors. Being in exposed locations they were usually distinctively shaped, bending away from the prevailing winds.

I had to search my archives for this photo of a lone thorn tree ‘bent’ by the wind: it was taken on the Sheep’s Head in June 2015 – after the blooms have faded. Always be careful of the solitary thorn for it guards the entrance to the realm of the Other Crowd. If you fall asleep under that thorn tree you will find yourselves transported into the kingdom of the old ones. It will not be an unpleasant experience – they will offer to satisfy all your thirst and hunger… But, if you accept, you will remain in that kingdom and grow old. One day they will release you, and it will seem as if just a few moments had passed since you left, but your aged body will very soon crumble to dust. This belief was as prevalent in Devon and Cornwall as it still is today in Ireland. Beware!

Close to home again – whitethorns in Ballydehob Bay. Once the blooms have gone, of course, we look forward to the haws, which are said to be edible but bland. They are traditionally used to make jelly and wine.

We could not be without the hawthorn trees which are all around us: they are lighting up our days in these times of anxiety and restriction – and they are reminding us of the continuity of nature and the constant cycle of the seasons. Life will prevail.

Our own May Bush a few years ago – blackthorn and gorse. We keep up the ancient traditions out of respect for the lore of our ancestors. If we don’t, the sun may never rise again!

To Puncture the Mysterious – Finbarr and the Serpent

There are two St Finbarrs, Patron Saint of Cork – the one you read about in academic studies, and the saint of myth and legend. If you’re of a romantic turn of mind, I recommend you avoid the first of these. It will do your heart no good to read the forensic analyses of the origins of his cult and who he might really have been.

The legendary Finbarr: Arriving at Gougane Barra in this window in Caheragh by Murphy Devitt; and being consecrated as a bishop by angels in an Earley window in St Finbarr’s church in Bantry, donated by William Martin Murphy

No – far better to read the hagiographies, which lay out his virtues, for he was godlike and pure of heart and mind, like Abraham; mild and well-doing, like Moses; a psalmist, like David; wise, like Solomon; firm in the faith, like Peter; devoted to the truth, like Paul the Apostle; and full of the Holy Spirit, like John the Baptist. He was a lion of strength, and an orchard full of apples of sweetness.

St Finbarr’s monastic site as reconstructed by Fr Peter Hurley in the 1890s and still a place of pilgrimage. The window is in the Church of St Finbarr and the Holy Angels in Inchigeela and is a flamboyant example of Watsons of Youghal’s Celtic Revival style

He is associated with Cork, of course, but probably most closely with Gougane Barra, that idyllic mountain lake where he is said to have founded his first monastic community. Gougane Barra – the rocky cranny of Finbarr – lies in a cleft in the Shehy Mountains and from it the River Lee flows eastwards across Cork to empty itself into its mighty harbour.

The oratory at Gougane is an in-demand wedding venue and home to stained glass windows by Watsons of Youghal, including this one of Finbarr

Legend has it that when St Finbarr arrived to set up his cell the lake was occupied by an enormous serpent, called Lú (or Louie, in some accounts) who, having had it to himself naturally resented the saint’s arrival and on one occasion arose and tore the chalice from his hands as he was celebrating mass. Finbarr raged and prayed and with the power of God to sustain him he summoned Lú from the depths and banished him forever from the lake.

Lú underfoot, being banished by Finbarr

Lú departed, thrashing his giant tail as he went and such was his anger and strength that he carved a deep valley as he went. The water from the lake flowed into the valley and thus the River Lee (below) was formed.

Our favourite contemporary poet, James Harpur, has re-imagined this story as a classic spiritual struggle. He has given me permission to use his poem, Finbarr and the Serpent of Gougane Barra. This is the perfect answer to the desiccation and disappointment of academic analysis – the power of Finbarr’s legend lies in the timeless battle between good and evil – whether that’s between a saint and a serpent or between a saint and his demons.

Did it exist?

                   For hours I’d scan the surface

Hope for a splash, a shadow in the water,

Anything

               to puncture the mysterious.

At night I’d set the traps with squeaking bait.

But nothing came

                            except a badger and an otter.

Yet still I felt its presence by the lake.

At last, I snapped: I drove the serpent out

With curses, shouts – I exorcised the beast

Along with every slithering scaly thought.

But soon … I could not bear the certainty

Of absence, emptiness.

                                     I headed east

To settle where the plains of marshes lie

And built a trap, a cave-like oratory;

And here I pray for god

                                      to coil around me.

 

Biodiversity Ballydehob

In the same way that strangers are friends you haven’t met yet, weeds are wildflowers you haven’t yet come to know and love. So come with me to the Ballydehob estuary and meet the dazzling array of wildflowers that call it home. That’s me, by the way, with my trusty camera, at the always-scenic Twelve-Arch Bridge. All the photos in this post were taken within 100 metres of the bridge, on the west side of the estuary.

Thrift, or Sea-pinks, is the most visible flower at the moment, in pink drifts along the shore. There’s a lot more than Thrift in this photograph, but before we move on, let’s take a closer look at them.

In Irish Thrift is called Rabhán (pronounced ravawn) and this word means an outburst, as in rabhán gáire, a sudden fit of laughing. Pretty apt, isn’t it, for a flower that is suddenly everywhere at this time of year. By ‘everywhere’ I mean all along the coast, although in Great Britain it is also found in a few mountainy places too.

Ballydehob has some white Thrift too, fairly unusual. According to Niall MacCoitir in his wonderful Ireland’s Wild Plants, Thrift has many alternative folk-names, such as Lady’s Cushion, Sea Daisy, and Sea-July Flower.

As there is everywhere at this time of year, there’s lots of Ribwort Plantain (did you use it to play Soldiers as a kid?) but there’s also Buck’s-horn Plantain (above). The stalk and flower look very Plantain-like, but the leaves of the basal rosette are what give the plant its name – look at all those tines. In Irish the plantains are called Slánlús, which means health plant as they are used liberally in folk medicine. But be careful – in regards to Ribwort Plantain (below, with Oxeye Daisy and Cat’s-ear), Mac Coitir warns us, . . .while it could be used to cure many ailments, there was also a danger that if the wind changed wile you were collecting it, you would lose your mind.

Here’s Buck’s-horn Plantain again (above), along with three different pink flowers – can you make them all out? I’ll talk about each one and then you can go back and look at his photo again and see if you can see them this time.

Here’s the first one, Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill. The dove’s-foot comes from the shape of the leaf, and the crane’s-bill from the shape of the seed-pod – you can see both in this picture.

The flower is tiny and very sweet, deep pink with purple anthers. It’s a member of the Geranium family, and that makes it first-cousin to the next little pink flower, Herb Robert, below.

It’s one of my favourites, not just for its attractive flower, but for the leaves that turn a deep red as the plant matures. Himself, of course, is very pleased to have a plant named after him, although a more boring explanation could be that the Robert comes from the latin ruber, meaning red. It’s got lots of alternate names but my favourite Irish one is Eireaball Rí, means the King’s Tail. It’s another powerful herb, used traditionally to stop bleeding.

The last of the pink flowers is Kidney Vetch, although it also comes in other colours. It’s actually more common in yellow around here, but I have read that it can be orange, purple, or even pure white. In the photograph above it’s mixed in with the Buck’s-horn Plantain, but here it is on its own, below.

Kidney Vetch is a member of the Pea family but the funny thing about it is that each little pink petal is embedded in a tuft of what looks like cotton wool. It’s a bit otherworldly, but it makes it easy to identify. It’s also known as Lady’s-finger (or in Irish as Méara Muire, which translates as The Virgin’s Finger) and as Stanch, which comes from its reputation as being able to staunch blood flow.

Another member of the Pea family is Red Clover, beloved for its nectar by bumble bees, which have longer tongues than honey bees and can get at the goodness.

This is one of those flowers that are so familiar we hardly notice them, but a really close look reveals a beautiful flower indeed. The leaves are the familiar shamrock shape, but much larger and often with pale patches, and another reason to look closely is to see if you can find a four-leaved clover, considered lucky all over the world. In Irish myth and legend the clover is a symbol of prosperity and the fertility of the land. Among Mac Coitir’s many examples is the story of St Brigid who decided to make her home in the Curragh of Kildare because when ‘she saw before her the delightful plain covered in clover blossom, she determined to offer it to the lord’.

Above is Trailing Tormentil. Although this is a widely-distributed plant in Ireland I haven’t seen a lot of it around here. In fact it’s much more common to see its first cousin, simply called Tormentil, especially on heath, among the heathers and gorse. Tormentil has only four petals on its yellow flowers, whereas Trailing Tormentil can have five, as in the patches I found along the estuary. The name seems to relate to its potency as a cure for stomach torments – the root was boiled in milk as a cure for colic. Add in a little wine and it was good for what ailed you. Add in some St John’s wort and it was a sleeping draught. This is reflected in the Irish name Néalfartach: néal has several meanings which can related to depression and to sleep.

A very exciting find for me now (above) as it’s the first time I have seen it. Look how tiny it is – it’s very possible I’ve walked over it many times without noticing, especially as the old eyes aren’t what they used to be. It’s one of the Sea-spurreys (the others are Rock Sea-spurrey, Greater Sea-spurrey and Sand Spurrey, all of which are found in West Cork) but this one is Lesser Sea-spurrey.

It’s very like Greater Sea-spurrey but several factors distinguish it – it’s tiny, the sepals are longer than the petals (see above) and it has far fewer stamens. The distribution of all the Sea-spurreys is coastal, as you would imagine, but strangely Lesser Sea-spurrey is also found all over Britain, inland as well as by the sea. In Ireland, it is only coastal. Is it weird to get this excited over a tiny plant? (Okay, don’t answer that.)

Moving right along, this is Cuckoo-flower – so called because it appears about the same time as the Cuckoo does. It’s also called Lady’s Smock and it can vary from pure white to a mauvey pink and if you look closely at the stems you might see tiny eggs – they are white when laid but turn orange with time. They are laid by the Orange-tip Butterfly and the larva feeds on the stem of the flower.

There’s a little patch of grass jutting out into the estuary and at first I thought it was just covered in daisies. Daisies are important little flowers for our pollinators too, but what caught my eye was smaller so I had to lie down to get close enough to see the little blue ones.

This is Thyme-leaved Speedwell, one of the many Speedwells you can find in West Cork, and one of the smallest ones. Right across the road is another one – much more visible. In fact, if your eye is caught by a flash of blue in the grass in West Cork, this is likely to be what’s causing it.

It’s Germander Speedwell – a closer look below. Speedwell looks a bit like a Forget-me-not but it doesn’t have the yellow centre and only has four petals to a Forget-me-not’s five.

It belongs to a different family too – the Veronica family, which includes the next flower, Ivy-leaved Toadflax, which I found growing all over the bridge pillar.

This is one opportunistic little plant – it will find a crack in a wall and dig right in. In fact, walls are its favourite habitat. Here’s what Zoë Devlin’s Wildflowers of Ireland (my go-to resource) has to say about this adaptable genius: The seed-planting mechanism of this plant is very clever indeed.  The flowers turn their heads to the sun until they have been fertilised at which stage they turn about towards the wall on which they are growing and in this way they plant or push the seeds into any little crevice possible on the wall. They also have very long roots which help them to hang on, like the Ivy for which they are named, and thereby ensure their survival.  This plant was introduced in the seventeenth century from the Mediterranean countries.

As Zoë says, it arrived here from the Mediterranean – but how? During the craze for importing marble from Italy, including marble statues, the plant hitched a ride, jumped ship once it got to Britain, and flourished from then on. Even though it’s not a native plant it’s adapted well to the Irish climate and has proven to be a good neighbour, unlike many other alien species.

Just glancing along the bank, it’s hard to take in how many plants are here, and what a variety there is. I will finish with a couple from across the road. First, the Hawthorn is now in full bloom.

It’s also known here as the Whitethorn and it comes into flower after its leaves have arrived and after the Blackthorn has faded. Beautiful – but considered to be very unlucky. Woe betide anyone cutting a Whitethorn or bringing its flowers or branches into the house – except in the month of May when it was customary on some counties to bring the flowers to the house, or even into it, to honour Mary (it’s the May Tree) or to ward off evil. That’s a bit confusing – it’s May now so should you gather some blossoms? Better to take no chances, I say, and leave it to bloom outside for all our enjoyment.

And what’s this I spy? It’s St Patrick’s Cabbage and you will only find this plant in southern or Western Ireland and in Spain and Portugal. Called the Lusitanian Flora, there is a group of plants who seem to have flown, as if by magic, across the Bay of Biscay, France and Britain, to land in West Cork, and this is one of them.

If you’re a gardener it might look familiar – the popular garden plant, London Pride, is a hybrid of this and another member of the Saxifrage family.

There’s more – lot’s more – but I’d better leave it at that (except I couldn’t resist that image of the Scarlet Pimpernel, above, with the Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill). Here’s what I want you to take away from this post – with the exception of the Ivy-leaved Toadflax, which has been here for hundreds of years, every single one of the plants I have written about here is native. Every. Single. One. Why is that important? Because this is what a wildflower patch looks like and should look like. These are the flowers to which our native insects and pollinators have adapted over millennia and therefore these are the ones which are critical to our ecology here in Ireland.

We’ve been fed images of colourful meadows full of poppies and cornflowers and told that’s what a wildflower meadow looks like – it’s not. THIS is what our pollinators need – a wide variety of native plants left undisturbed. It’s wonderful to see this in Ballydehob, but every village and town in Ireland has areas like this. Let’s make sure they flourish!

 

Wending the Boreens

Only in Ireland can you wend your way along boreens. The Irish word is bóithrín, – a small bóthar (road). We are surrounded by them in our West Cork townlands. In these days of Covid19 restrictions, they are our whole world. With a maximum walk of 5 kilometres allowed, we can only ever be on boreens. But that’s no hardship – mostly they are beautiful (in fact they are all beautiful), and we enjoy every step we can take. So today’s post is simply a celebration of what is around us. But I have also combed the RWJ archives to look for boreens outside of our local area, for a bit of variety and comparison. Rest assured that any illustrations beyond our present limits were taken in other – normal – times!

Of course a ‘boreen’ or small road doesn’t have to be in a rural location, This fine boreen in Eyries, on the Beara Peninsula, is in fact a well used highway through the town, but you can’t deny that it is as atmospheric and picturesque as many of the rural byways shown here. It’s a moment in time captured for all time.

The photo at the top of the page is special for us: it’s the view we get when we turn out of Nead an Iolair, heading down towards Rossbrin Cove. And there (above) is our first glimpse of the sheltered harbour, overlooked by the medieval castle that was the home of Clan Chieftain Fininn O’Mahony in the 15th century. Not only do we have all the wonders of West Cork’s landscape on our doorstep, but we also have deep history as well…

How much closer can you get to nature than this ‘green’ boreen just a short walk up the road from where we live in Cappaghglass? The stone hedge banks have become completely assimilated into the surroundings, and are a haven for so many native species of wildflowers, as Finola will readily point out to us!

And just a few yards from that last green trackway is the boreen that takes us down into our village of Ballydehob. Those are apple trees flourishing as part of the natural hedgerow.

We have very little woodland around us here. This slightly mysterious tree-lined boreen was found on our travels near Glendalough, in County Wicklow, last year.

Close by the little harbour of Glandore (in Irish Cuan D’Ór – Harbour of Gold) in West Cork, we found a secluded boreen which pointed us towards an oddity: a pyramid in a graveyard – well worth a visit. Read about it in this post from two years ago.

Returning to our own neighbourhood these two recent photos, taken only a couple of days ago, show how you can never quite know what you are going to find just around the corner or over the brow of the next hill. That’s Jeremy Irons’ Kilcoe Castle in the upper picture, and Cape Clear Island (on the horizon) in the lower one.

In contrast, here’s a little trackway that takes you up to the summit of the Rock of Dunamase in County Laois. This historic site with a view is associated with momentous events in the history of this country: in the painting by Daniel Maclise that hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland, The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife is depicted as taking place at the now ruined Great Hall on the Rock. You can find the whole story of this most critical juncture in Ireland’s history in Finola’s post here.

Even further afield – in Ballymoney, Co Antrim – is this spectacular avenue of beech trees planted on the entrance driveway leading to an eighteenth century Georgian mansion, Gracehill House. This boreen – open to pedestrians – is known as the Dark Hedges, and we visited it when we explored the North of Ireland three years ago.

Although in normal times we travel a lot – on major roads and motorways, as well as boreens – the places we like the best are near to home. How could we not be impressed by the winding boreen that climbs to the top of Mount Gabriel, the highest point on the Mizen? Look at the spectacular views (above). The preacher Caeser Otway travelling in this area in 1822 wrote:

. . . On my way to Bantry I passed the dark and lofty Mount Gabriel and took my way over a dreary, comfortless tract of country. Let no one say after looking at these moors , studded over with cabins crowded with children, pigs, goats, cocks and hens that an Irishman is not an industrious creature . . . Men, women, boys and girls toiling up the mountainside with seaweed and sea sand in baskets on their backs . . . See them reclaiming from amidst rocks and bogs, patches of ground on which to cultivate their only food, the potato; and no one witnessing this struggle of human industry against nature, but must acknowledge that the Irish are a most industrious race . . .

The 400 year old road that crosses the mountains from Cork into Kerry north of Bantry has to count as a boreen, as it’s single track for much of the way. The Priest’s Leap sign (above) marks the point at which the two counties meet. Although we have travelled all over Ireland in our explorations, this is still one of our favourite routes, and always will be. We so look forward to being able to go there again, when the present ‘lockdown’ is lifted.

Another glimpse of the Priest’s Leap ‘boreen’.

This elegant woodland boreen is a fine example of regency landscaping, being part of the Ballyfin Demesne in Co Laois. Like so many of Ireland’s fine luxury hotels, Ballyfin remains closed until the Covid19 restrictions are lifted.

We’ll finish this post where we started – near to home in West Cork, with happy memories of unrestricted rambles with friends along the quietest and most beautiful of Ireland’s boreens . . .