All At Sea

Arklow, Co Wicklow, had a ‘first’ for Ireland: the first offshore wind-farm installation in the country, and the first in the world to employ wind turbines rated over 3 MW. Phase 1 of the project, commissioned in June 2004, consists of seven GE 3.6-megawatt generators. The total output of 25.2MW seemed good at the time but the improvements in technology since it was constructed are considerable. A second phase, currently being planned, aims to achieve an export capacity of up to 800MW.

Going back in time a bit, we can see that Ireland has always been at the forefront of wind technology. Above is a still from an RTE news piece on 23 October 1987. This reports on the installation of two state-of-the-art (then) wind powered generators on Cape Clear Island, in West Cork.

. . . The new technology was funded largely by the Germans and came in at a cost of around £500,000. The two wind-powered generators stand fifty feet above the top of the island and provide 30 kW each from the turning of their 12.5-meter blades. The National Board for Science and Technology claims that this new technology is the first of its type in the world as it integrates wind generation with diesel generators and battery storage creating a complete power supply . . .

RTÉ Archives

(Top) another still from the RTÉ news piece, and (above) aerial view of the site. The masts and turbines are still in place today, although they have been disused since the island was connected to the mainland for electricity supply via a subsea cable in 1996. (Below) we photographed the surviving turbines on the island in 2016.

Wind power goes back a very long way, of course. Here (above) are some very picturesque ancient examples from La Mancha, in Spain. Here’s another (below) – Pitstone Windmill in England: an interesting composition with newer technologies in the background.

Compare technologies old and new (below)!

In West Cork we are no strangers to the more recent developments in this expanding field, although at present all land based. The scale and form of the machinery is, of course, increasing apace. These examples are on the hills close by us:

But it’s the vast resource of our relatively benign coastal waters that offers the most for the country’s still young wind-power industry. There’s a further example being planned in County Wicklow: the Codling Bank Wind Park scheme. Currently in the consultation stages, it is hoped that construction will be completed in late 2028. 73 turbines are planned, to be sited on the shallow Codling Bank, some 20km out in the Irish Sea. This project – the largest so far in this country – has the potential to power 1.2 million homes using natural resources. It will also provide welcome employment for a large work force. And – in my eyes – an elegant contribution to the marine environment. Well done, Ireland!

Photomontage of the Codling Bank Wind Park seen from the shore at Greystones. Thank you to http://www.codlingwindpark.ie for the dynamic illustrations.

The Centre of Ireland

We have written previously about the sacred site reputed to be the “Centre of Ireland”. In other words the midpoint of the country: that’s the whole of the island of course – the division into Ireland and Northern Ireland is an artificial designation barely a century old. It’s a many-centuries-old tradition that the Hill of Uisneach, in Co Meath, is regarded as the geographical centre of this whole island and has been regarded as a major ritual site for the assembly of the ruling families and debate on the lore of the land.

We visited the hill in October 2016, while preparations were being made to celebrate autumn festivities there. In the picture above, you can see the Godess Eriu being decorated. It was she who gave Ireland its name – Eire. Before you read on about Uisneach’s other claim to fame, have a look at my post from six years ago, here. My friend Michael read this post and sent me a fascinating article on the subject of ‘the geographical centre of Ireland‘. Please read it – and, if you understand the technicalities of the process, please let me know!

. . . The calculation to find the exact geographic centre of Ireland was carried out by OSi using the most up-to-date, openly available geospatial data and widely used geographic information system (GIS) technology.  Specifically, OSi used Esri’s Mean Centre Point tool in ArcMap and features data for the Republic of Ireland from its own open-source data set, OSi Admin Areas Ungeneralised, as well as an openly available OSNI Largescale County Boundaries data set from Land & Property Services of Northern Ireland (LPS). The Northern Ireland features were reprojected from an Irish National Grid coordinate system to line up with the OSi features for the republic of Ireland (ITM), enabling the datasets to be processed together.  In just a few short minutes, the coordinates 633015.166477, 744493.046768 were revealed, providing one scientific answer to an age-old question . . .

Ordnance Survey of Ireland Data February 25th 2022

To get to the salient point, the Ordnance Survey of Ireland is rejecting tradition in favour of science! They claim the true centre of this island is a little distance from Uisneach:

. . . According to a new calculation from Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSi), the centre of the island of Ireland actually lies at the Irish Transverse Mercator (ITM) coordinates 633015.166477, 744493.046768, near the community of Castletown Geoghegan, between the towns of Athlone and Mullingar.  This scientifically-calculated centre point is situated, as the crow flies, approximately 31km east of the Hill of Berries, 35km east-south-east of the townland of Carnagh East and a mere 5km south-east of the Hill of Uisneach, Loughnavalley, Co. Westmeath . . .

Ordnance Survey of Ireland Data February 25th 2022

Whilst acknowledging that ” . . . Over time, new data, advancing technologies and new techniques could generate different versions of the truth . . .” the Ordnance Survey throws out a challenge to tradition. I’m throwing that challenge right back!

If I was going to set out to find the geographical centre of Ireland, I would take a large map and pin it up on the wall:

Then I would throw a dart at it – aiming for the middle! I’d get somewhere near, for sure. In fact, there’s a little red dot on this map – just under Mullingar: this is where Uisneach is located. But, if you want something more technical, might you work out a centre based on distances from the extremities? Here are some possibilities:

However, this map does rather show up the inadequacies of this methodology! So, what does Uisneach have to recommend it – and justify the long-held tradition? Well, it does have a large rock, known as ‘The Cat’s Stone’ . . .

This enormous erratic is also known as ‘The Navel’, which is quite a clue as far as I’m concerned. so, how might our ancestors have come to this conclusion – by maps?

This is known as Ptolemy’s Map of Ireland. It is often said to date from 140AD, but is in fact a Greek copy dating from around 1400AD. Ptolemy did produce maps: he didn’t visit the distant locations, but based his projections on information recorded by sailors who explored the corners of the world.

This map of the British Isles has a similar heritage. Again, you could throw a dart at the centre of Ireland on either of these maps and get pretty close to Uisneach!

This map is somewhat later (1325) and is far more accurate. It’s interesting to me that it shows the fabled islands of Brasil and Demar, mentioned in accounts of St Brendan’s sixth century voyage. We can also wonder at the fact that the only place marked on the south western part of Ireland here is Dorsie (Dursey). But none of these early maps – while fascinating – can support the observation that anyone living in those days could calculate the ‘centre’ of Ireland by looking on a map!

Examining the area around Uisneach on the earliest Ordnance Survey maps (above) gives an idea of the earthworks which were considered important to record in the area. I’m wondering what the ‘cave’ is that’s indicated lower right in the top extract?

Interestingly, in the UK, the village of Meriden is traditionally said to mark the centre of England. But the UK Ordnance Survey has also challenged this.

Preparing for the autumn ceremony at Uisneach Hill, above. We can ponder and argue on the claims to be able to locate the centre of an island (and it’s certainly fascinating to do so) but – while thanking my friend Michael for stimulating this thought process – perhaps the UK Ordnance Survey should be given the final word here:

. . . The truth is, that there can be no absolute centre for a three dimensional land mass sitting on the surface of a sphere and surrounded by the ebb and flow of sea water. If you consider the movement of tides on a beach, the shape of the object will change on a constant basis. Another contributing factor is how far you consider the coast to stretch up river estuaries. Different projections, scales and methods of calculation will all produce different results . . .

Ordnance Survey UK 2014

Hell Fire

It’s taken me a while to visit this notorious site which is situated on a summit of the Dublin Mountains. The view across the city from the 390 metre peak is stunning:

It’s the stories and the folklore that attracted me to this place, long known as the Hell Fire Club. In the eighteenth century ‘Speaker’ Connolly built it as a hunting lodge. According to tradition he used the stones from a prehistoric monument that was previously on the hill. It’s now known from recent excavations that at this location was one – or two – passage tombs dating from the Neolithic Period (4500 – 2000 BC). This – or these – were surrounded by a circle of large boulders known as a cairn. Today, some fragmentary traces of the earliest use of the site can be detected. The best information on the neolithic site is found in the Abarta Heritage report, here. An earlier description, dating from 1779 in fact, was written by Austin Cooper, who visited in that year:

. . . Behind the house are still the remains of the cairn, the limits of which were composed of large stones set edgeways which made a sort of wall or boundary about 18 inches high and withinside these were the small stones heaped up. It is 34 yards diameter or 102 yards in circumference. In the very centre is a large stone 9 feet long and 6 feet broad and about 3 feet thick not raised upon large stones but lying low with the stones cleared away from about it. There are several other large stones lying upon the heap . . .

William Connolly (Speaker of the Irish House of Commons) was one of the wealthiest men in Ireland; he had a house in the city and a country estate at Castletown, near Celbridge. It is said that he deliberately used stones from the ancient tomb in the construction of the hunting lodge at Mountpelier. Shortly after it was built the roof, which was originally slated, was blown off in a great storm. Locals attributed this misfortune to the work of the devil, in revenge for the destruction of the cairn. Following this event the lodge gained a reputation as a place where evil prevailed. However, Connolly replaced the slated roof with a stone vault which still exists today, although the building is effectively a ruin.

The Irish Hell Fire Club members were some of the elite of society, and included peers of the realm, high ranking army officers as well as wealthy gentlemen and artists. Here is a portrait of some of them by James Worsdale (himself a Club member); it is in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.

From left to right: Henry Barry 4th Baron of Santry, Colonel Henry Clements, Colonel Henry Ponsonby, Colonel Richard St George, and Simon Luttrell, 1st Earl Carhampton. Biographies of all of them are summarised here – also from the Abarta reports. Their lives in general were debauched and relatively short. Missing from the portrait are father and son Richard Chappell Whaley and Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley, who was to become ‘the most famous Buck of all’. Richard’s nickname was ‘Burn-Chapel’ Whaley because of his hatred of religion and in particular, the Roman Catholic church. He would amuse himself on Sundays by riding around Dublin setting fire to the thatched roofs of Catholic chapels. The Whaleys were related through their ancestry to Oliver Cromwell. Their family residence was Whaley Abbey, Co Wicklow: you can find more on this in Finola’s post today.

Mountpelier is a significant mountain top overlooking Dublin, and is now fully accessible to all. A warning, though – in good weather the Coillte car-park very soon fills up (at all times of the year) and there is nowhere else nearby to leave your vehicle – get there early!

It could be said that the ruin of the lodge is ‘maintained’ in that it is stabilised and unlikely to fall down. If you are exploring, look out for the lintel over the large fireplace, which is supposed to be a standing stone removed from the passage grave site.

The Hell Fire Club is, of course, haunted! Not that we saw anything untoward when we visited on a glorious spring day. But the stories abound. They are probably best told through the accounts in the Schools Folklore Collection:

. . . About six miles from Dublin the Hell Fire Club is on a hill. It is a medium size old castle. When the owner of it died nobody else claimed it. All the men of the district came to play cards in it every night. One night when all the men were playing their nightly game one of the men cheated. The men rushed upon him over-powered him. The bound him hand and foot and put him in a barrel of whiskey. Then they set fire to it burning him alive. That was a cruel thing to do but then men did not care. From that day on that old castle was called the Hell Fire Club . . .


Stewart Somerville, Dundrum School

. . . There is an old ruin called Hell Fire Club on the very top of one of the Dublin Hills. This house was built by a man named Connelly, during the time of the Famine. It was built to give employment to the men. Many men used to got to Hell Fire Club to gamble. It is said that one night they were playing cards and there was much money on the table. One man dropped a card on the floor, and when he stooped down to pick it up he noticed a man with cows feet, and he wore a red cloak. The men were very frightened and they made a great uproar. The man turned into a ball of fire. All the men were burned in the fire. There was one man who had a bunch of medals attached to his coat and he was the only man who escaped from the burning house . . .

Mr Finlay, Rockbrook, Co Dublin

. . . The Hell Fire Club, or the Brass Castle is situated near Rathfarnham in the Co Dublin. My Great-grandfather used to pass by the Brass Castle on his way home from work, (he was a mason) he had a habit of hitting the wall with his trowel to hear the ring of the brass. One night a priest had to go on a sick call. When he was coming home through the mountains he lost his way. Seeing a light he went in that direction. He knocked at the door of the house, which happened to be the Brass Castle – The door was opened by a man who was dressed in black with a black mask on his face. The priest was brought in to a room. Sitting at a large table were twelve men dressed the same as the first one. The men were playing cards. On the table was seated a large black cat. The men defied the priest to put the cat away. The priest ordered the cat down, but it never moved. Again he ordered it down, but the cat did not move. The men laughed at the priest and jeered him. The third time the priest said “Begone Satan”. The cat jumped from the table and disappeared up the chimney with a loud roar. The priest told the men that the cat was the devil. The men were never heard of again. The priest got home safe, and from that time onward the Brass Castle was called the Hell Fire Club. This story is true. It was told to me by mother, because the Brass Castle belonged to her ancestors . . .

Seán Ó Nuamáin, Kilbride, Co Wicklow

The Mountpelier Woods consist of around 5.5 kilometres of forest roads and tracks. The woods offer nature trails and a permanent orienteering course. Lord Massy’s Estate and Mountpelier Hill are also traversed by the Dublin Mountains Way hiking trail that runs between Shankill and Tallaght. It’s an attractive walk at all times of the year, with easy access from Dublin city centre.

A comprehensive application to An Bord Pleanála was submitted in July 2017, seeking permission to establish a Dublin Mountains Visitor Centre with associated works relating to tourism, leisure and recreational activities which would embrace the Hell Fire Club site and the mountain trails. Permission was granted, subject to conditions, on 25 June 2020. Another chapter in the story of this notorious locality unfolds . . .

As a tailpiece, I found this image of a ‘Hell Fire Club Goblet’ dating from c1745. It’s currently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but it must originate from Ireland: James Worsdale, whose name appears on this glass, was appointed Master of the Revels in the Dublin Hell Fire Club in 1741. It was also he who painted the portrait of Club members illustrated in this post: look at their goblets in the painting!

Wicklow by the Sea

If you can’t be in West Cork – what’s the next best place? Why – County Wicklow of course! It’s also full of wonderful scenery and imbued with Irish history. That’s Wicklow Town, above, in Viking times: there had already been a Bronze Age settlement on this site. In the twelfth century the Normans arrived, led by Strongbow, who we have encountered before, and Black Castle was built (below). They were wild times, and the castle was attacked and destroyed completely in 1301 by local chieftains, notably O’Byrnes and O’Tooles. There were several subsequent revivals, and the gaunt remains we see today probably date from the 17th century.

While at this site, have a look down at the inlet on the coast to the south: that’s Travelahawk Beach, the scene of a bit of Wicklow history that’s sure to stick in the mind. It was there that St Patrick first landed in Ireland!

I have to admit that the beach is only one of several sites on the east coast that lays claim to this historic occasion, but I like the associated story of Travelahawk which tells how the local people, suspicious of this stranger, threw rocks at St Patrick and his crew. One of them hit the saint’s companion, and he lost his front teeth. He was known ever after as ‘Gubby’ or ‘Gap-toothed’ which is translated in Irish Mhantáin. Hence the old name for Wicklow is ‘Chill Mhantáin’ – the Church of Gubby. Today’s name for the town, Wicklow, is of Viking origin, and means ‘Bay of the Meadows’.

We popped over to Wicklow on a mild February day for a change of scene – and to absent ourselves from Nead an Iolair while some upgrading works were taking place. I was impressed: I had never explored the town before. Finola, however, was brought up in County Wicklow, and her impressions of the county town today were embellished with memories of times past. There’s much about the place that’s picturesque: I was taken with the number of painted murals about the place. The pier has, appropriately, a whole series of ships on the breakwater wall. There is an example, above . . .

. . . And here’s another. In fact, this one is the 50th mural to be painted by Pat Davis, who is the local postman. Each one depicts a vessel which has visited the harbour. It’s a wonderful and colourful record of one aspect of the maritime town’s history.

Here’s Pat at work. The image is courtesy of Ceaneacht O Hoctun, and appeared in the Wicklow People newspaper in 2020. Pat started painting the ships in the 1970s.

This one will be familiar to West Cork folk. It’s the Saoirse, a 42ft ketch built in Baltimore in 1922 for her designer, Conor O’Brien.

. . . This unique sailing ship was also a maritime inspiration for the new Ireland, uncertain of itself in an uncertain world. For this was Conor O’Brien’s characterful 42ft ketch Saoirse, which he designed himself, and with which – between 1923 and 1925 – he pioneered the round the world route south of the Great Capes, an ocean voyaging “first” which was forever written into world sailing history. . .

Afloat.ie

When O’Brien returned from his record-breaking voyage in 1925 he made his first landfall in Ireland in Wicklow Harbour. O’Brien designed a larger version of Saoirse to be the inter-islands communications vessel for the Falkland Islands: this – the Ilen – was also built in Baltimore. Back in 2015 we visited Oldcourt boatyard on the Ilen River to see the restoration of the larger ketch, which was then underway. That work was completed in 2018, and the same team embarked on a complete rebuilding of Saoirse, which had been wrecked in Jamaica in 1979. Our own West Cork photographer, Kevin O’Farrell has beautifully documented these projects at Oldcourt in his book, published in 2020.

The Asgard, above, was famous for gun-running at Howth by Irish Volunteers in 1914. Below is an Irish Navy vessel, LÉ Gráinne – a mine sweeper. Gráinne was a legendary princess who was promised to Fionn Mac Cumhail but ran away with his young follower Diarmuid. The ship was decommissioned in 1987.

We found that the town of Wicklow has so many maritime associations – everywhere you look there are reminders. But also it’s a thriving commercial centre and we were impressed by what is on offer there: great eateries, and a most wonderful bookshop. I think there might be another post in the making . . .

Gardens at Kilquade

Wicklow is the Garden County of Ireland. Whenever we visit, we are impressed by the exuberance of the verdant landscapes and woodlands, and outstanding gardens abound. Do you remember our exploration of the Kilruddery Estate a few weeks ago? Here’s another venue well worth a visit: Kilquade Arboretum, formerly the ‘National Garden Exhibition Centre’. The modest 5.2 acre site is billed as the perfect escape from the stresses of everyday life – and rightly so. Not only can you wander through a collection of inspirational gardens, formal and informal, which were designed by a number of highly experienced horticulturists, but also you can eat and drink in superb outdoor dining settings: everything is well maintained and efficient. And – if you are a gardener yourself – there is a great shop to supply your every need!

As you can see, you never know what might await you as you traverse the grounds, moving from one creative vision to another. At the height of this Irish summer – which is unmatched, so far, in its brilliant weather – you are guaranteed shady nooks and surprises, and plenty of places to rest and contemplate. You will happily spend half a day or more at Kilquade, and come away satisfied in body and mind! Here’s an enigmatic sculpture by Fiona Coffey:

Water is used refreshingly within the gardens – at times you have the feeling of wandering beside a mountain stream; at others you can just find a spot for contemplation by a cool pool.

You can be methodical in your walks through each of the garden areas or you can, like us, wander haphazardly, not taking any particular straight line. If you do this, you are sure to miss something – but that’s good reason for a return visit. We are keen to come back when the autumn is setting in: the colours will be a treat. But we will return before then anyway: the excellent coffee and snacks are calling!

I haven’t mentioned the profuse planting that veers between formal and – as you can see – naturally wild. Finola is particularly pleased to see the latter: she firmly believes that wildflowers have a big part to play, nowadays, in any established garden: have a look at our post on West Cork’s Bantry House Gardens, here. Allowing nature to contribute to established planting schemes will ensure that good habitats evolve to support our pollinators and a balanced eco-system.

One of the things that struck us on our visit to Kilquade was how easy it is to get away from the crowds! We saw others walking through the gardens but we often had each little designed space to ourselves. Possibly the unbelievable (for Ireland) weather (temperatures approaching 30 degrees) meant that many visitors were sweating it out on the beaches. We were calm and cool, and felt safely tucked away from ‘the madding crowd’. All in all, the experience was exceptional.

Glen of the Downs

There’s a very attractive woodland walk near Delgany, County Wicklow, to the south of Dublin. It’s well worth an exploration, but be prepared for the intrusive sound of the main N11 road which runs alongside the path as you set out from the public car park: you will leave it behind – eventually – as you climb up into the trees.

It’s a now rare ancient Irish oak wood, once all part of Bellevue Estate, a 300 acre demesne established by the La Touche family in the mid eighteenth century. Through many generations the Huguenot family was known as an ‘ample benefactor of mankind’ who ‘left a record of noble deeds behind them’. During their heyday the La Touches acquired the lands of Upper and Lower Rathdown on which much of modern Greystones has been built, and their name is familiar in the fabric of that town today.

The beauty of this part of County Wicklow has been celebrated by many artists over the years: here are a couple of examples from the late 1700s showing the Glen of the Downs landscape. Always, one or both of the topographical high-points – the Great and Little Sugar Loaves – are prominently featured.

We have photographic records of the La Touche mansion, Georgian Bellevue House – with its famed hot-houses where many exotic plants were cultivated, before its decline in the 1900s and its eventual demise: the crumbling pile was demolished in 1950 to make way for wheat-fields and a golf course.

Hidden away in the oak wood is a remnant of the once vibrant La Touche estate: today it’s known as ‘The Octagon’ because of its shape. Its purpose originally was a banqueting hall, set high up on a platform looking out over the landscape. It must have been quite an undertaking, bringing food, furnishings and serving staff up from the ‘big house’: there are remains of tunnels said to have been used for this purpose. Most intriguingly . . .

. . . The estate at Ballydonagh comprised 300 acres, with fine views across the Glen of the Downs and towards the Irish Sea. David, the younger La Touche, built his favourite country retreat here between 1754 and 1756, at a cost of £30,000, and called it Bellevue. Beautiful gardens were laid out with winding paths and “extras” built by David and his son, Peter, when he inherited in 1785. Among these was the Octagon, built in 1766, with a panther on springs, which could be made to jump out at unwary visitors. The house was most famous for its huge glasshouse, built between 1783 and 1793, in which many exotic plants were grown . . .


Judith Flannery, The Story of Delgany, 1990

There is no doubt that the building was superbly sited to maximise the good views. Beyond that, it’s hard to fathom how the architecture functioned – and the panther on springs remains a puzzle! Over years of exposure to the elements, and inquisitive visitors, the Octagon has gained a patina of graffiti – which adds, perhaps, to its character and attributes.

The practice of ‘making one’s mark’ seems to have migrated to trees surrounding the site: perhaps some of these can be attributed to people who lived in them once! In 1997 eco-warriors staged a protest campaign when plans were put forward to upgrade and widen the N11 road, involving felling over 1,700 mature beech, oak and ash trees. The protesters ‘occupied’ the trees for over two years (below), ‘climbing down’ eventually when the Courts upheld the highway authority proposals.

The road has since been widened, and the intrusive traffic sound within the Glen of the Downs has accordingly increased manyfold. Interestingly, there are currently proposals under discussion to further improve the N11/M11 route in this same locality – including the possibility of a road tunnel which might even remove traffic altogether. Meanwhile, the trees continue to present us with messages for our own complex times . . .

For all its ups and downs, and possibly mixed messages, the Glen of the Downs woodland walk is beautiful, and well worth a visit. Who knows what – or who – you might encounter among the trees?