Mizen Magic 8: The Altar

Here’s the Mizen Peninsula shown on a map drawn by Robert for the Bank House tourism centre in Ballydehob and embellished with Peter Clarke‘s exquisite watercolour sketches of just some of the places that should not be missed by visitors to West Cork . . .

. . . And here is another rendering from Peter of one of the ancient sites that everyone goes past when travelling to the far west: possibly one of the most accessible pieces of archaeology on this section of the Wild Atlantic Way. It’s the Altar Wedge Tomb at Toormore Bay.

It’s early February, and Imbolc has passed. That means that Springtime has officially started here in Ireland. Sure enough, we looked out over a sunlit Roaringwater Bay this morning: soon we were heading out towards Goleen, Barley Cove and all points west. We stopped at The Altar and had it all to ourselves. You can see here that it’s orientated towards the Mizen Peak – that sharp little pyramid which is right on the centre of the picture – and lies to the west. For me, there’s a perfectly natural symbolism about placing the dead in a tomb that is aligned on the rising and the setting of the sun: that’s something we still do, several thousand years on!

The upper picture, taken on the Winter Solstice, shows the Mizen stretching away from the heights of Mount Gabriel: the Mizen Peak is the little pointed blip just left of centre. The lower picture looks across the wetlands behind the sand dunes at Barley Cove, and was taken today in the Spring sunlight: the Peak is clearly visible as the highest point. I believe that our forebears attached great importance to high places, as many stone monuments and Rock Art often seem to be placed in the landscape with commanding views towards hilltops. Mike Wilson’s site Mega-What sets out his detailed studies of the orientation of ancient sites within the natural landscape. Here is his analysis of the setting of the Altar Wedge Tomb.

I am always alert for the ways in which our special sites are interpreted for us. I created a bit of a storm a while back when I commended the signage which has been put in place along the Wild Atlantic Way using visually strong corten steel elements (above left) supplemented more recently by (in my opinion) very well designed information boards. The image on the right above is from an earlier OPW board which explains the possible early use of the wedge tomb, while the images below show the new signage, which features the later use of the tomb as a Christian altar during the Penal times (hence the name: The Altar), with a drawing by Sam Hunter. I am struck by the way this monument has been a focal point for differing rituals spanning countless generations.

When writing about archaeological subjects I am always on the lookout for the way that antiquarians saw the sites which we are familiar with today. I had hoped that George Victor du Noyer – the subject of an excellent recent exhibition in Cork’s Crawford Gallery – might have drawn this wedge tomb when he travelled the country for the Ordnance Survey during the early nineteenth century: he may well have done, but the annotation and cataloguing of his vast legacy of work has yet to be completed and I have not found such a record. His drawings below are not of The Altar, but a portal tomb, Ballybrittas in County Wexford. Portal tombs (sometimes known as dolmens) share similarities with wedge tombs, but are earlier, dating from between 3000 BC to 2000 BC, while wedge tombs tend to be associated with the Bronze Age, which followed this period.

Cremated remains were found in Altar Wedge Tomb when it was excavated in 1989 by Dr William O’Brien, now Professor of Archaeology at UCC. We can never know exactly what the significance of these impressive structures was to those who built them. For me, I’m pretty sure that it was connected with their relationships to, and respect of, the landscapes which they inhabited, and which they invested with meaning. They must certainly have paid heed to the passing of the seasons and the continual cycles of nature, and their closeness to all of this must have given them an inherent knowledge of the paths of the sun, moon and stars. Above all, our ancestors had to understand and appreciate the environment around them, and make it work for them. In a practical sense, certainly, but also in terms of the stories they might pass on about the meaning of places.

Above – the magical landscape of the Mizen: we will never tire of it

The tailpiece picture, which is from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Lukeoc88, is a remarkable timeless view of a human construction in the setting of our Universe: Altar Wedge Tomb under the Milky Way.

It’s Been Five Years! Finola’s Favourite Posts

I can hardly believe it – we’ve been doing this for five years now and we’re nowhere near running out of ideas for posts. And have you read Robert’s post? Imagine being called a 21st Century Robert LLoyd Praeger! Thrilled. But in fact as I dip into Praeger again I recognise in us the same impulse he had – to wander the land and discover all that it has to offer.

Amazing what you stumble across in the countryside, like this holy well and its offerings

One of the wonderful things about blogging like this is how much you LEARN every day, about Ireland, our neighbours, the ground we walk upon, the history and archaeology to be discovered around every corner, the wisdom of country people, the humour and expressiveness of Irish speech, the breathtaking beauty of the landscape. So where on earth to begin?

Our interest in archaeological sites led us to hike to the highest point on Cape Clear Island to see the sparse remains of a neolithic passage grave – and what a spectacular view there was from it, towards Sherkin Island and all the way down the coast of West Cork

Like many, I sat in churches as a child unaware of the architectural splendours around me. One of the delights of returning as an adult is discovering Irish stained glass, really seeing it for the first time. Harry Clarke, of course, is always a favourite, but I have been thrilled to discover other artists too: Richard King, George Walsh, the artisans of the Tower of Glass. There will be lots more posts about stained glass in the future as I unearth more treasure.

A recent discovery, George Walsh windows in a rural church in West Cork. This is his rendering of the Archangel Michael defeating the devil as a dragon

Going back to my roots as an archaeologist has been an extraordinary journey – so much has changed, so much has not. I started out in archaeology in the 70’s, although life got in the way of that career eventually. It was a small profession then: it exploded in the 80s and 90s with the advent of huge building projects, then contracted again when the recession hit.

I love the quiet little sites you find when you least expect them – this is a wedge tomb in the middle of a field. It has cupmarks all over one of the capstones

I have gone back to researching prehistoric rock art and finding that, while some excellent work has been done in this field over the last 40 years, there is a lot of scope still for an independent researcher to contribute to our appreciation of this little-known aspect of Irish prehistory. Along with our exhibitions, I’ve written several posts (not all of them happy) on this topic, and we are currently working on a paper for the Journal of the Bantry Historical and Archaeological Society on a special group of rock art panels at Ballybane.

Castlemehigan, one of our favourite rock art sites, with views right back over the Mizen Peninsula to Mount Gabriel

When I studied at UCC under Professor O’Kelly the emphasis was firmly on prehistory and we spent little time on medieval structures (or later ones, heaven forbid!). But when you are free to pursue whatever tickles your fancy, you find yourself wandering down a variety of rabbit holes. I became fascinated with Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture and with the tower houses (we just call them castles) that dot the countryside around here and the later iteration of the Big House – fortified manors. Visiting these intriguing ruins all over West Cork (and Ireland) has given me a whole new appreciation for how we lived and what we believed in the past.

This is the ruined romanesque church of Aghadoe in Killarney. It’s got this lovely doorway, but what makes it particularly meaningful for me is that my great-grandparents are buried in the graveyard it stands in

Ross Castle in Killarney against an evening sky

Living in West Cork is great FUN – there is always something to do and a new adventure around the corner. Many of the adventures we’ve had have been shared with our friends and fellow bloggers Amanda and Peter Clarke (Holy Wells of Cork and Hikelines). Visiting holy wells has introduced us to parts of Cork we might never have seen, to obscure saints with fascinating backstories and to folk practices that endure in the deep countryside. Walking the Sheep’s Head (my lead photograph, top of page), in all seasons, reminds us that you don’t have to go far to be immersed in jaw-dropping scenery and reminders of our ancient and more recent history.

The holy well of St Teskin, an East Cork saint

Lest you think that this is all sounding a bit academic, the posts that have been most fun to write were the ones on how we speak around here (and how you, too, can learn the basics of West Cork lingo), the ones in which I lamented my encounters with Irish bureaucracy, especially when it came to my driver’s license!

I still haven’t calmed down about the driver’s license – what they put me through, when I could have been driving THIS!

And I loved doing the posts about the tradition of painting our houses in arresting colours. With the colourful houses series, I feel a bit like a chronicler of a vanishing tradition – each time I look for one of my favourite pink or lime creations it seems to have been repainted a ‘tasteful’ variant on beige. Long live those brilliant colours – we would be poorer without them!

The town of Dingle is proudly keeping alive the tradition of painting each building a vibrant colour. – it’s a feast for the eyes

Finally, one of my greatest joys in the last couple of years has been to go for a walk with my camera and photograph the abundant wildflowers of West Cork. From someone who barely knew a daffodil from a daisy, I have developed a passion for the natural glories I see in the hedges, fields and yes, waste grounds, around me.

Just a typical roadside verge in West Cork

We adore West Cork, but we are also fearful for it as we see the pressures farmers face to make their land more and more productive. Inevitably, this means bringing in a rock breaker and turning the field into a mono-culture grass carpet. What we lose in this process – we humans, the bees and insects we depend on, the birds, and our heritage – is incalculable.

This tiny raised bog is home to some very interesting flowers, including the carnivorous Sundew

Here’s to many more adventures!

With friends like Susan Byron of Ireland’s Hidden Gems, or with my favourite travelling companion and blogging buddy, Robert!

The Best of Five

It’s been five years! That’s a long time to have kept up a journal, with original pieces appearing every week – usually two, each of us writing a post. It keeps us busy: 464 posts to date. We thought we should do a review of the posts which have been most popular: viewed by the most people. These are not necessarily the ones we would consider to be our own favourites: we’ll let you know what we feel our ‘finest hour’ has been next week – while you are all preparing the Christmas lunch!

We never quite understood the all-time popularity of Beyond Leap, Beyond the Law, my post which was simply a collection of photos taken at the West Cork village’s 2015 Scarecrow Festival – with a little bit of history about the place added in. It was certainly a wonderful display of the imagination of the people of Leap. Have a look at the post: just one or two photographs don’t do it justice.

Up next is Finola’s piece from 2016 – Outposts of Empire. This was a much more scholarly article, and involved a lot of research. As you must know, we never pass a church or a burial ground without a full investigation: they provide a wealth of local history. Finola became fascinated by the memorials – mainly military – which appear in Protestant churches around the country. This led her down the path of her own ancestors, many of whom served in the Irish regiments of the British forces. She found this wonderful photo from around 1900 of her Brabazon forebears. Her grandmother Marie is in the centre of the back row, while her great grandfather John Edward Brabazon, who had served in India and Afghanistan, wears a military medal. The two younger men are Finola’s great uncles Michael and James, and they are wearing the uniform of the Royal Hibernian Military School.

Finola’s series on ‘how to speak like a West Cork person’ was a winner, the most popular being her fifth episode: How Are You Keeping? Here is a link to all of them. They make amusing reading, but at the same time they give a lot of insights as to how the Irish language has coloured the way English is spoken here. And here is Finola’s great picture from that post: two Skibbereen gentlemen who might well be asking how are you keeping?

Archaeology comes next, with my account of a most eccentric decorated chambered cairn within the Boyne Valley complex: Fourknocks – the Little Giant. I was particularly taken with the adventure of visiting this tomb, from the first moment of having to collect the key from a farm a mile away in order to let ourselves in, to the experience of being inside with the door shut behind us: total darkness at first, but gradually becoming aware of the remarkable 5,000 year-old zigzag carvings on the rock surfaces within.

I’m pleased that the fifth most popular post of all time is also the one I most enjoyed writing: Aweigh in Kerry. This was all about a very unusual piece of architecture which we found while travelling in Kerry – a house shaped like a ship, sitting in the sand dunes on the shoreline of Ballycarnahan townland, facing a most spectacular view across to Derrynane, the home of ‘Ireland’s Liberator’ Daniel O’Connell. I was an architect in a former life, and I would have welcomed a commission such as this. It was built in the early 1950s.

Sixth and last in this little review is a post from Finola (happily, we had three each in this list of the top most popular posts!): Castle Haven. Such an account of a place in magical West Cork – which typically offers everything anyone could want in beautiful landscape, village architecture, archaeology, history, literary heritage, art and the omnipresent Atlantic coastline – is exactly what we aspired to for the foundation stone of Roaringwater Journal when we set out, in 2012 on this happy, continuing journey.

 

Top Ten West Cork Photographs of 2017

Every year we take a look at the Facebook photographs that you’ve liked or viewed or shared the most, and then edit them down to manageable proportions. Here’s our final selection for this year – we decided to stick to West Cork, and we’re starting off with Bantry, with that wonderful statue of Brendan the Navigator blessing us and inviting us into the town.

The photo this year that was most viewed and exclaimed over was our shot of Dunboy Castle (above), just outside Castletownbere. It’s a dramatic sight and an extraordinary story of the dream to build Ireland’s first six star hotel – a dream that came crashing down with the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy in 2008. Perhaps one day a new team will take it on: meantime it sits forlornly behind barbed wire, a reminder of optimistic times.

We were surprised by the instant appeal of our stained glass St Gobnait. Although a familiar saint her in West Cork, she is not universally known elsewhere. Perhaps it is her association with the bees that resonates with people now that bees everywhere are in danger. The image is of a window in Bantry Catholic church, probably the work of William Dowling.

Kilcoe Castle seems to feature each year as it’s a firm favourite with us in West Cork. We were lucky to capture it at dusk on a hazy evening in March. It has been lovingly and magnificently restored by Jeremy Irons and if you’re curious to see inside, there are some interior images here.

Our friend, and professional wildlife photographer, Sheena Jolley lives in this impossibly romantic old mill just outside of Schull. Her studio occupies the building on the right, while some of the workings of the old mill are still intact and conserved by Sheena. I suspect this photograph was so popular because many of us have a dream to dwell in a piece of living history like this.

Uragh Stone Circle on the Beara Peninsula – I think we can all agree now it’s the stone circle with the best setting in Ireland. But it’s only one of the many feature of Gleninchaquin that makes this remote but accessible valley so richly enjoyable to visit.

Everyone loves driving through the Caha Pass between Glengarriff and Kenmare – the scenery is spectacular and includes several tunnels

This image, of the Barnacleeve Gap above Schull, illustrates well the colours of West Cork in winter, when the bracken turns dark amber and the Purple Moor Grass (not purple at all) earns its Irish name of Fionnán, meaning blonde, while the grasses and mosses keep the lowest growth green.

Another winter view, this time from across Reendonagan Lake, near Ballylickey, to the Sugarloaf Mountain on the Beara Peninsula.

And finally a photograph that manages to capture much of the Mizen Peninsula, taken on Brow Head and looking towards Mount Gabriel in the distance, with the village of Crookhaven and the Rock Island lighthouse on the left. And yes, you’re right – another winter photograph.

Own a Piece of Ireland (Best Christmas Present EVER!)

Have you dreamed of owning a little slice of heaven in Ireland? Here’s your chance! Buy a tiny plot on Cape Clear Island for yourself or for someone else and when you do, you’ll know that not only are you giving someone possibly the best Christmas present ever but you’re also doing your part to conserve an important chunk of the natural world.

Dennis Horgan’s incredible photograph of Cape Clear Island from the air showing the whole of the Island, and its relationship to Roaringwater Bay. The land the Trust is purchasing lies on the east (right) side of South Harbor, in the centre of the picture. For more on Dennis’s photography and his latest book, see the end of this post

Chuck Kruger and his wife Nell recently left Cape Clear after half a lifetime there. An iconic figure, he wrote and told stories about the land he adopted and came to love. He founded the marvellous Cape Clear International Story Telling Festival and his leaving to return to the US leaves a huge hole in island life.

The photograph above is, poignantly, of Chuck on his last guided walk on the Island and was taken by Sandra Bottcher. Have a look at Chuck’s website for more about his writing and broadcast work.

One of the ancient stone walls that define the fields along the South Harbour

Chuck and Nell’s farm bordered the South Harbour and the Islanders, rather than let it go into private hands, have formed a trust to purchase it. The plan is to provide open access to all, and to ensure that no future development can intrude upon this pristine area.

The Red Trail leads you around the southeast side of South Harbour – here, last June we viewed wildflowers, immense sea views, a dramatic sea arch and an abundance of Basking Sharks

You can purchase a five square metre piece of Trust land for €50 (currently that’s about $60US, $75CAN, or £45) or a ten square metre plot for €100 ($120US, $150CAN or £90). Just pop along to the Trust Website and choose the SHOP tab. Join Robert and me in making open access to this little patch of paradise in perpetuity a reality – it will be the best money you have ever spent!

Walking the Red Trail

Cape Clear is a very special place – an Irish speaking area (or Gaeltacht) accessible only by ferry, rich in tradition and history, and an important habitat for wild plants and creatures. We’ve written about Cape Clear in this post, and in this one, and we are fortunate indeed to enjoy a view of it from our home.

Above, Cinnabar Moth; Below, Marsh Orchids

It’s also very beautiful. Robert and I have enjoyed our trips there very much: in fact, last year my birthday present from him was a two-night break in Cape Clear. We spent our time exploring and hiking the Island, observing the Basking Sharks, and visiting the remains of the Neolithic Passage Grave, original home of the Cape Clear Stone. One of our walks was along the Red Trail – the very area that is now in the Trust.

Sea Campion

If you’re hankering after your own piece of Ireland in other ways too, allow us to highly recommend Cork from the Air by Dennis Horgan. Dennis is one of Ireland’s supremely talented aerial photographers and his latest book captures Cork as you have never seen it. He very kindly permitted me to use his incredible photograph of Cape Clear from the air – thank you, Dennis! The book is available on his website, or if you’re in Ireland already, in all good bookshops.

Go on, head over to the Cape Clear Island Trust website now – you’re just in time for Christmas!

Falconry Fantasy

I’ve waited a whole life for this – the chance to be a falconer, if only for a moment.

Ever since I read T H White’s The Once and Future King, it’s been a fantasy of mine to interact with one of those magnificent hunting birds that he described so well. A couple of weeks ago, at Adare Manor, Robert and I got a chance to finally live that dream – yes, he read the same book and loved it just as much as I had. T H White was a falconer himself, although not a very successful one. The treat was part of a couple of days stay at Adare Manor – Robert’s post describes this fascinating place in wonderful detail.

This falcon is happier and calmer with his hood on

Our falconer at Adare Manor was Susan Kirwan, one of the team at Adare Country Pursuits. What she doesn’t know about birds would fit on a postcard. She trained her first bird, a jackdaw, at the age of nine, and was hooked. Now she shares her knowledge and her love of birds with those of us who have admired from afar but have never had an opportunity to get up close.

Susan has Saoirse, the American Bald Eagle, show off her wings

She spent the morning with us, handling each bird in turn and giving us an education on each one – habitat, habits, hunting style, personality, peculiarities, nutrition, feathers, weight – it was in-depth and fascinating. There wasn’t a question we asked that she couldn’t answer. She has spent her life studying and living with these birds.

All of the birds wore jesses (ankle leathers) and Susan showed us how to hold our gauntlets and our fingers to secure a bird once on the glove. She encouraged us to speak in a calm voice and not to betray nervousness – birds are excellent at picking up on human emotions.

Tiny, the White Faced Scopes Owl, awaits her turn with us

Some of the birds were trained to fly from perch to perch, attached to a ‘creance’ or long line. Each has a optimal weight for flying and it’s essential to keep it there, so weighing and inspecting is part of the daily routine. Food must be as close as possible to what they would eat in the wild, to preserve the level of roughage and protein. Falconry, especially when you keep several birds, is a full-time job.

Caesar is a Common Buzzard, which is a native species in Ireland

Owls, although excellent hunters for themselves, don’t make the greatest falconry hunters. However, they are often brought to Susan as motherless chicks and she becomes their parent, as they imprint readily on a human. Susan told us that the Harry Potter series started a trend among some young people of capturing owls ‘to train’ but of course this is almost impossible for an amateur, so that is how some birds have come to her aviary.

Noddy, a Dark Breasted Barn Own, has beautiful feathers and colouring

Oscar, a Eurasian Eagle Owl, has a good old ruffle

Raising an imprinted bird involves a particular set of skills and deep knowledge of the species. Susan is a certified falconer and has taken all the courses she can find to develop her skills. It was obvious, in the way she talked to and handled her birds how much she loved them.

Top: I’m obviously a ‘natural’ at this! Bottom: Well, maybe not quite yet

It was a thrill to be so close to a bald eagle. Living in Canada, I had many opportunities to observe these magnificent creatures in the wild, but I had never seen one as close up as I did at Adare. Saoirse is not quite four yet, and it takes a full four years for a bald eagle to mature and to grow both the white head and the white tail. Saoirse’s tail was there, but her head was at the salt-and-pepper stage that women of my age can relate to.

The Harris Hawk – ours was called Felix – is considered the easiest hunting bird to train because of its laid-back attitude to life and its natural ability to interact with humans. The highlight of our session came when Susan let Felix loose to fly to a high perch, and then called him down to land on our glove.

What a feeling! This IS a wild bird – Susan affixed a locator transmitter to its leg before we started so that if Felix took it into his head to fly away she could track him through the woods. She described how a falconer would track a bird before locators were used – it involved standing very still and tuning in to the sounds of the forest. Other birds would react to the sudden appearance of a hawk or falcon and the falconer would follow the sound-clues to his bird.

I learned that Oscar’s tufts aren’t his ears and that they don’t always stand up like this

We were extremely lucky to have Susan and her birds all to ourselves that morning – not sure how often that happens! But if you get a chance, don’t pass up an opportunity like this. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Thank you, Susan – you’ve made some old T H White fans very happy!

See you again, Tiny!