Cape Clear in June

This is an edited version of an account of a trip we took to Cape Clear in June three years ago

An overnighter to Cape Clear Island came mid-week – a birthday treat for Finola. We’ve been to Cape Clear before on day trips, and Robert has written about it – but this was something special. First of all, the weather was amazing the whole time – warm and cloudless. Secondly, our time-frame gave us the opportunity to do some serious exploring. Thirdly, the seas are alive at the moment with whales and basking sharks!

Sherkin Lighthouse

When the weather is fine the ferry takes the outside route around Sherkin Island. Along the way we pass the Sherkin lighthouse and many treacherous rocks, threading our way, in this instance, through shark-infested waters

The ferry to Cape Clear takes about 40 minutes normally. We were a little longer this time because the ferryman slowed and diverted to allow us time to photograph the sharks. Enormous creatures, with wicked dorsal and tail fins, they are actually peaceable fish who swim with open mouths, filtering plankton, and who are harmless to humans. We are not harmless to them, however, as we have hunted them close to extinction and they need protection in many areas.Basking shark en route to Cape Clear

This photograph was taken from the ferry

For such slow and cumbersome creatures, it was an out-of-this-world experience to watch one of them breaching in the South Harbour. It happened when we were in the bus on the way to our accommodation and nobody had their camera at the ready. But we all know what we saw.South harbour with kayaks

Just out there, in the South Harbour, we saw the basking shark leap from the water. An incredible sight!

The bed and breakfast, Ard na Gaoithe, was wonderful. Robert had told Eileen that it was my birthday – and well, would you look at what awaited us! It was the perfect place to stay – just be ready to walk the hill up to it, after a marvellous dinner at Cotter’s!

On day one we followed the way-marked trail that edges along the south side of the island. This involved a visit to the site of a Napoleonic-era signal station and the original Fastnet Lighthouse. This position for the lighthouse proved to be a major mistake, as it was so high that the light was lost in the clouds half the time. The current position, right on the Fastnet Rock, has been much more successful, and remains an iconic sight in West Cork. The remaining stump is beautifully constructed of granite blocks, while the signal tower still clings on to some of its slate covering.Signal Tower and Original Fastnet lighthouse

Our route took us along the cliffs and to a viewing point over the South Harbour. The sharks were ubiquitous, lazily swimming around with those enormous gaping jaws.Shark basking

Stone Wall 2Here and there ancient field fences poked their way out of the heather, while skylarks warned of our approach and standing stones framed a distant view.Standing Stones and Fastnet rock

Looking over the South HarbourOn day 2 we decided to make the climb to the Cape Clear Passage Grave – but I will let Robert tell that story and content myself with saying that I hope he tells you all how arduous the climb was, and how thick the gorse, so you can see how I suffer for science.

The views are immense but equally fascinating are the numerous dry-stone walls and the wild flowers everywhere. There’s still lots to explore on Cape Clear and more trips are clearly in order.Green path

West Cork Islands – they will captivate and hold you. There is no escape.Robert contemplates

Long Island Wildflowers – a Reconnaissance

Robert and I set off on Tuesday for Long Island and enjoyed everything about it. See his post Mizen Magic 15: Long Island for a full account of our day. One of Roaringwater Journal’s New Year Resolutions was to spend more time on the islands and this was an excellent start! I was there mainly to take a look at the wild flowers, with a view to leading a wildflower walk there later in the year. Do let me know if you’d be interested in coming along, in the comments section below.

I’m used to seeing Bird-foot Trefoil in my garden, but here it’s spread to the stony beach and looks wonderful

Wildflowers come and go, so what I saw was a lovely selection of late spring and early summer blooms. I also got a feel for the character of the island and the habitats it hosts.

The maritime habitat was rich with Thrift, Trefoil, Kidney Vetch (also the lower photo) and Sea Campion

It would be lovely to be able to say that the island is pristine and free of invasive species, but alas we did see some Japanese Knotweed along the way. We are left scratching our heads as to how it manages to spread like that.

The uncultivated higher ground was particularly colourful, with Lousewort predominating. In this photograph you can also see the yellow of Tormentil and the pale flowers of Common Milkwort (see below for more on this Milkwort)

I don’t think I have ever seen such a profusion of Lousewort (below) anywhere else and this is one of the things that gives Long Island a particular colour at this time of year. It’s not a pretty name, for what is, in fact a beautiful little plant, but it was so called because it was believed that sheep got lice from eating it. This has never been proven, but the name stuck. Long Island, with its acres of damp moorland, provides the perfect habitat for Lousewort.

It’s also perfect for Tormentil and Common Milkwort (below). This last flower is tiny – you have to get your face up close to the grass to see it and it’s normally a deep purply-blue. However, on Long Island there were lots of very pale Milkwort, almost white. Although I knew that Milkwort came in pink and white, besides dark blue, I had only seen blue before this year. Now I have to find some pink!

The Yellow Iris (below), which most people call Flags, are in abundance in all the marshy areas, creating a colourful swath here and there. Up close, they are very dramatic. Here, it’s native and welcome, but in North America it has become invasive, choking waterways and displacing native plants.

A couple of unusual flowers to end with, beginning with Musk Stork’s-bill (below). I found this little beauty before in a graveyard in Rosscarbery but this is the first time I have seen it near where I live. It’s described as ‘probably introduced’ which means that it’s not native but has been here a long time.

The flowers of the Stork’s-bill look very like a Crane’s-bill, but the leaves are hairy and they have these funny spiky seed pods, both of which help in identification

Finally – who can resist an orchid? There are several kinds of Marsh Orchid, but I think this one (above and below) is the Irish Marsh Orchid. We saw it before on Cape Clear, so it obviously loves islands! I was glad I had my hand lens with me, as this is best viewed close up.

 

Inish Beg Estate: Ancient Woods and New Discoveries

Craving a woodland walk, we took ourselves to Inish Beg this week – and found a lot more than bluebells!

This is a cillin, down beside the river. There are lots of stories associated with it

Inish Beg abounds in both the wild and the tame. That’s not such an easy balance to maintain and it’s a real tribute to the team on the ground that manages and nurtures the estate. Mostly, of course, it’s down to the vision and hard work of Paul and Georgiana Keane who bought the place in 1997 when it was crumbling and neglected. The house, Georgie told us, was close to collapse and had to be completely re-done – new roof, plumbing, electrics and a complete re-furbishment. It’s hard to believe now, when you see the beautiful place it has become.

Paul and Georgie run it now as a hotel and wedding venue and it is totally set up for it. In fact it must be one of the most romantic venues in Ireland, ideally situated on an island on the Ilen River, accessible by an old stone bridge. It was originally O’Driscoll territory, but owned by the McCarthy family. When James Morrogh inherited it from a McCarthy relative in the 1830s he changed the family name to McCarthy Morragh – such stipulations were not unusual then.

In the 1890s the family built the grand house, and it is this house that is associated with its most famous inhabitant, Kay Summersby. A noted beauty, she was Eisenhower’s secretary in London during the war, and may (or may not) have had an affair with him.

She describes her early life at Inish Beg thus:

Our home, Inish Beg, was a somewhat run-down estate on a small but lovely emerald island in a river in County Cork. Our favourite pastime (I had a brother and three sisters) was to sail down that river four miles, to the Atlantic. There was a succession of governesses, hunts, spatting parents, riding in the fields and along the long avenue fringed with old trees . . . the usual pattern of life in that obsolete world.

The ‘usual pattern’ for some, perhaps – to me it sounds like a life of breathtaking privilege. However, like many such estates, it became difficult to sustain and by time the Keanes took it over it desperately needed their infusion of enthusiasm and capital. And what a magnificent job they have done with not only the house but the grounds as well.

There’s a walled garden (above) that’s full of organic goodies for the estate kitchens, and also features an indoor swimming pool! Tony O’Mahony, the head gardener, practises an organic philosophy and does not feel the need to eliminate wildness from the garden, which results in a delightful mix of plant life.

But we were here mainly for the woodland walks and we were certainly not disappointed. You could spend several hours wandering the trails here and right now the undergrowth is glorious. Bluebells were in abundance along with every wildflower that contributes to that colourful spring carpet that is so dear to our senses.

There are trails for the kids – pirates and a wildlife search are part of the system, as well as little fairy houses here and there.

There are lovely views (above) across the Ilen to the ruined church at Aughadown – burial place of the Tonsons that I wrote about in New Court Bridge – a Hidden Wonder. Surprisingly, beyond the church, you can see Mount Gabriel. I mention this because of its significance with our next find – a previously unrecorded cupmarked stone!

Regular readers know of our involvement with Prehistoric Rock Art – Neolithic or Bronze Age carvings on open air boulders and outcrops. The cupmark is the basic motif of all Irish Rock Art – a semi-spherical cup-shaped hollow (see more about Rock Art here and here and specifically about cupmarks here). Robert has an amazing eye for slight differences in rock surfaces and has developed a habit of examining every stone we come across for cupmarks. This time he struck gold! At least four cupmarks on the back of a stone along one of the trails.

We like to warn people that rock art can be a little underwhelming. I know these cupmarks don’t look like much, but they were probably carved several thousand years ago as part of a ritual we now know nothing about

The stone has been moved there from somewhere on the estate and the Keanes will try to track down where this was. It’s always important to see a rock like this in its context, of corse, but we are also curious to know if Mount Gabriel was visible from the location, as it is from so many of our West Cork Rock Art sites. We will be returning to do a proper record and see if we can add more information to the story before we send it in to be included in the National Monuments database.

There’s also a boulder burial on the estate, visible as you are leaving. It’s a pretty tumbledown affair, but still recognisable, and we found cupmarks on the capstone too. These may be already recorded, but we will let National Monuments know in case they aren’t.

Fabulous woodland walks, my fill of wildflowers, lovely vistas across the Ilen – and a new archaeological find. Too much excitement for one day!

Bluebell Time in West Cork

What is it about a bluebell wood that re-charges the batteries and lifts the heart? Perhaps it’s that amazing blue carpet that stops us in our tracks: it’s so unlike anything else in our natural world.

Or maybe it’s the fact that it lasts only a little while that makes it special. Like Easter eggs or Christmas carols, we would get tired of them if they were always with us – it’s their brief seasonality that makes us look forward to them (OK, maybe the Christmas carols don’t appeal to everyone in the same way).

Lower: Bluebells and Three-cornered Garlic

Even when it’s bluebell time, as it is right now, it’s not always easy to find a bluebell wood, because we don’t have expansive deciduous forest cover here in West Cork. I love the bluebells that line the boreens in places, growing up the hedgebanks, but it’s not quite the same thing as a woodland carpet.

Bluebells and Celandine growing on the bank on one of my favourite boreens

Let’s start with what a bluebell is – I’m talking here about our native bluebells (Bluebell/Hyacinthoides non-scripta. Or in Irish Coinnle corra, pronounced quinn-la curra). As you probably know, the imported Spanish Bluebell is everywhere now, and to add insult to injury has started to hybridise with our native Bluebell.

A garden near us has a lovely display of blue and pink Bluebells and Three-corned Garlic – unfortunately these are the non-native Spanish Bluebells, or possibly hybrids

Take a look at this excellent video from the Irish Wildlife Trust for a guide to how to distinguish between them.

Fortunately, we still have lots of native bluebells and I was lucky this week to get permission to stroll in my friend, Nick’s, little wood, and also to take a walk with Robert and Gill up the hill behind Long Strand. For more about what we were after, see Robert’s post on the cross today.

Upper: One of the little bridges over the stream. Lower: Bluebells and Irish Spurge

Nick’s little wood is down beside the sea on what was once an old homestead – you pick your way through a heritage orchard to get in there. It felt like an immense privilege to be the only ones there, to wander through the trees and over the tiny bridges.

Upper: one of the way to recognise a native Bluebell is to look at the anthers – they’re white or cream-coloured. Lower: a spontaneous white Bluebell in among the blue ones. It happens

Yesterday, because Robert wanted to see Lady Carbery’s Cross, we walked up Croachna Hill, behind Long Strand, near Rosscarbery. The strand was heaving with swimmers, surfers and loungers, the coffee truck and restaurant were packed and the guy who does the Wild Atlantic Seaweed Baths was out – it all looked so festive and summery.

Primroses and Bluebells

The walk up the hill was awash with wild flowers, besides the ones I’ve illustrated here we saw Common Dog-violet, my first Ragged-Robin of the season, Yellow Pimpernel, Ribwort Plantain, Navelwort, Ground-ivy and Herb-Robert.

I’d never seen that combination of Bluebell and Red-campion before (above). It’s pretty spectacular, and a reminder that colours in nature always harmonise. Together with the yellow of Celandine and Buttercup, and the lovely woodsy smells, it was a sensuous experience.

Upper: Looking back to Long Strand from Croachna Hill. Lower:  Bluebells, Celandine, Buttercup, and a lone Red Campion

Where are your favourite bluebell haunts, dear readers?

 

Mizen Magic 14: Lissagriffin

Lissagriffin (the fort of Griffin) lies on the south-facing slope on the northern side of the salt marshes behind Barley Cove. It is a sunny spot with panoramic views back to the hills beyond Goleen and across the salt marshes below to the dunes of Barley Cove and the sea beyond.

The Barley Cove salt marshes – sit on the wall and just listen to the breeze in the reeds

Nowadays, it’s a peaceful place of farms and pasture land, but there are clues in the landscape and the old maps and records that there was much more going on here in times past.

The most visible reminder is the ruined church, surrounded by a graveyard. Once, these lands were in the possession of the Rev Fisher  – remember him from my Saints and Soupers saga? They were associated with the Glebe Lands accruing to the Church of Ireland, which means that the rector was also the administrator of the graveyard, to whom you had to apply for permission for burial. The church and graveyard is known as Kilmoe (pronounced kill moo, meaning the the church of Muadh, although I haven’t been able to identify this saint), like the parish of the same name which occupies most of the Mizen west of Schull.

The graveyard has headstones going back to the 1700s, although I couldn’t find any from that era on my searches. All the local names are represented here, including the Burchills and the Wilkinsons of my Cousins Find Each Other post. It was in use as a burial plot during the Famine – a memorial plaque on the wall attests to this.

A feature of graveyards from this time was a watch-house, a reminder that bodysnatching was a lucrative trade. During the famine watch-houses also enabled people to be on the look out for dogs – there are accounts of dogs attempting to get at bodies barely covered by soil during this terrible time. There’s a ruined structure just inside the gate at Kilmoe (below), probably a watch-house from this time.

Like all historic graveyards around here there are many plots marked by simple stones, headstones and foot-stones, where people could not afford the services of an engraver. Remarkably, the knowledge of who is buried in some of those unmarked graves still resides somewhere, whether in church records or in the folk memory of local people. You can browse the listings of the graves here.

At the centre of the graveyard is a ruined church. It’s a very interesting structure to me, because I believe it is actually older than its normally-ascribed date. It was occupied, according to Brady’s Clerical and Parochial Records in 1581, when Dermot McCormack McCarthy was the rector and the church belonged to the College at Youghal and was dedicated to St Brendan. The Down Survey described it thus in 1700: Kilmoe : the church is ruinous, the walls that are standing are bad, built with stone and clay. The church stands about a mile from Crookhaven, to the westward near the head of Barlycove bay. 8A. of glebe on the north of the church; good land, set for £20 per an. There are the ruins of a vicaridge house joining to ye church-yard.

There are hints in the structure of the Romanesque style, which would place it in the 12th century. The east window is clearly Romanesque in construction, while the door, with its plain lintel and ‘relieving arch’ also appears so.

I am seeking some confirmation of this and will update this post if or when I get a response. The west end appears to have been two storey – the joist supports are still projecting from the wall, which means that the old ground level was lower than it is today and that the window was in the second storey. That window (below) is ogee-headed – a clearly gothic element, which means (if I am right about the west end) that it was inserted later. The whole church may have been modified many times over the years it was in use.

There is a record of a cross-inscribed stone inside the church – we have looked for this but cannot find it. It may be gone, or it may be partially buried in the long grass. There’s no sign of the vicaridge house joining to ye church-yard.

The unusual ‘buttress’ feature on the north wall

But the landscape around has other elements too – or rather had other elements. There used to be an O’Mahony Castle just to the east of the church, of which no trace remains today. We know of it from Griffiths map of the 1840’s, (below: apologies for the blurriness, it seems to be the best resolution one can get) where it is clearly marked as a ruin. While many of the O’Mahony castles were closer to the shore, this one would have benefited from all-encompassing views of both land and sea, and from proximity to the church, for worship. According to James Healy’s The Castles of County Cork, it was probably tenanted by the O’Meighans, a bardic family associated with the O’Mahony clan. Although there is nothing left, local people told Healy in the 1980s that the site was cursed and that bad luck attached to it.

The view out to sea from the church

Even older still are the numerous standing stones that dot the hillside to the east and north. The photograph below shows one – a rather stumpy example. And probably even older than those are the cupmarks reported on the rock face just to the east of the graveyard. We have searched for these too, but were defeated by the gorse and brambles.

Of unknown vintage is the bullaun across from the graveyard gate. Although bullauns are often carved in free-standing boulders, this one was scooped out of the bedrock: it is known locally as a wart well. Dip your finger in, say the requisite prayers, and your wart will disappear. We even found a small bottle for Lourdes holy water left by it on one of our visits, showing that it is believed to still possess curative powers. Robert agrees! Amanda has included it in her Holy Wells blog.

Next time you’re headed out to Barley Cove on a fine day, take a little detour up to Lissagriffin church. The views alone are worth it, although a little wander around the graveyard will do a lot to soothe your soul. 

 

Introducing the Holy Wells – of Kerry!

Remember the New Year Resolution – spend more time in Kerry? We lost no time in implementing it, and spent three days there this week. Our main purpose was to accompany Amanda and Peter as they started Amanda’s new project – to extend her Holy Wells of Cork recordings into Kerry as well. Of course, Robert and I had a small list of must-see items as well, which will likely appear in future blogs.

Above: Ballinskelligs Bay. Top photo: the mystical Skelligs. The larger one is Sceilg Mhichil (Skellig Michael) and the smaller is Sceilg Beag (Little Skellig). The Skelligs have featured in the Star Wars franchise, but are better known to us here as the home of hermit monks in the Early Christian Period

It’s always great fun to be out and about with Amanda and Peter. We had a few misgivings about the weather forecast, and indeed we had everything thrown at us – snow, hail, sleet, rain, gales – and brilliant sunshine! The sunshine persisted for our main day, to our delight, but the weather gods made up for it that night with a howling gale that knocked out the power to our hotel, the Royal Valentia. Undaunted, they served us up a great breakfast, and figured out how, with no electricity or internet, to charge our credit cards.

Robert’s post is mainly about Valentia Island, so I am concentrating on the holy wells. All of them will be written up in Amanda’s customary detailed style on her blog, so this is just a flavour of what we saw. By the way, if you are new to holy wells, check out her series of “On Wells” posts now. It will get you up and running.

St Crohane’s Holy Well site, with the well in the background, a Marian grove in the centre, and a mass rock in the foreground

Our first well was one that Robert and I had tried to find and failed on a previous trip to Kerry. This time we were with the expert and there it was – St Crohane’s well, behind an old graveyard with not one but two ruined churches and spectacular views across to the Beara. The well was once the centre of a mighty three-day pilgrimage and although that no longer happens, the well is cared for and visited.

The view from St Crohane’s, across to the Beara

I was thrilled to find a Richard King stained glass window in Ballinskelligs (future post) in a church dedicated to St Michael, patron saint of the Skelligs. Below the church is the holy well also dedicated to Michael. This is a curious site (below), almost certainly built on a fulacht fia, like the Trinity Well in Duhallow. This also was the centre of a huge pattern in its day.

We visited two wells dedicated to St Finnan (or Finan or Finian), a monk who is also associated with Lindisfarne and Iona. The first of these was a neglected little well on St Finian’s Bay – the pounding surf was a bit of a distraction (see below and final picture).

The neat little well house is the beehive-shaped structure to Robert’s left

The second was on Valentia Island and took a bit of finding until we stumbled upon the magic path through the woods. A classic well, with everything you needed to have a drink, and surrounded by slabs of slate. Robert had a sip – brave man, and now apparently safe from rheumatism.

Amanda always comes prepared with detailed research and notes, but wells can still be difficult to find

Our other Valentia well was dedicated to St Brendan (in one account, St Finnan was one of his acolytes) and was located at an amazing, windswept site, with crude cross slabs and a possible turas (pilgrim route) through the bog. Robert has more images of this haunting place.

Amanda gazes out across the bog, trying to make out the traces of a pilgrims’ path and possible stations

Two little wayside wells were encountered along the way, one along the road and one in the middle of Caherciveen – this last one, Well of the Holy Cross, a little sad and neglected, as urban wells tend often to be.

Although this was a holy well, dedicated to St John, it appears to have been repurposed as a Marian grotto, with St Bernadette in a small shelter of her own

Our final well was also the most spectacular – St Fursey’s well, located on the slopes of Knocknadobar (cnoc na dtobar – mountain of the well). Once, people climbed to the top of the mountain at Lúnasa for a three day festival. Although the festival is no more, in the 1880s local people erected stations of the cross, 14 of them, going all the way up the mountain to the top. Some of us managed to get to the second station, but saw a hardy soul way above us, well on his way.

Station 2 on the pilgrim trail from St Fursey’s Well to the top of Knockandobar

As ever, organising a trip around holy wells provided us with three days of adventures and experiences in jaw-dropping scenery and the opportunities to do lots of side-trips. The light in January is clear and sparkling and the roads are quiet, unlike at the height of tourist season.

The white dots going up the hill are the Stations

Although many restaurants, hotels and b and b’s close for the winter, enough remain open so that a hearty bowl of soup and a good coffee is never too far away. And three cheers for The Royal Valentia – open all year, great food, friendly staff and good in a crisis!