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!

The Gap of Dunloe

It’s one of Ireland’s, and Kerry’s, premier tourist experiences, but I think it’s at its best when tourist season is over and winter foliage dominates the landscape. Pure winter light mixed with the occasional shower – that combination brings out the the kind of colours that stop me in my tracks. From Killarney, the way to the Gap is west from the town on the N72 to Killorglin – just look for the signs.

From the Wishing Bridge

Driving through the Gap of Dunloe is not recommended at any time except winter, and even then caution is advised. That’s because the traditional way of travelling through the gap is by jaunting car, on horseback, on foot, or by bicycle and cars can be a dangerous and unwanted addition. And those – the on-foot or by horseback options – are the best ways of seeing it. If you have a hankering to experience it for yourself, just Google Gap of Dunloe and all the options will present themselves.

This couple from Germany had walked from the Black Valley

Robert and I have driven it twice now, each time in winter, and each time he has dropped me off to walk at my own pace, camera in hand, and picked me up where he can find a lay-by.  We did it earlier this week, having ascertained that sunshine was a possibility (about the best that can be forecast this time of year), and we hit it lucky.

A river runs through it

The Gap is a deep glaciated valley, running north/south between MacGillycuddy’s Reeks and the Purple Mountain – can’t lose with a description that starts off like that! The road runs along the Loe River, which empties eventually into the Laune and thence into Lough Leane, the largest of the Lakes of Killarney.

Auger Lake

Several lakes lie along the course of the river – Black Lake, Cushvally, Auger Lake and Black Lough. The road switches from the west side of the lakes to the east side as you go along, and then back again. The first bridge you cross is the Wishing Bridge – tradition has it that wishes made on this bridge always come true. My highly scientific testing of this assertion confirms the truth of it.

This is Ireland, of course, so no matter how blue the sky you have to expect that it can rain at any moment. True to form, the top of the valley filled with cloud and before I could blink I, and my camera, were being, er, moisturised. The compensation? A rainbow to the north, spanning the Gap.

Is there a hint of a second rainbow? And oops – drops on the lens

The rain didn’t last long – just enough to ensure the air was filled with lots of droplets and vapour to lend extra luminescence to the air – the colours always seem at their most sparkly after a shower.

Black Lough – no need to wonder how that name was earned

It was a steep walk to the top of the Gap, and it was hard to keep going when every bend brought fresh temptation to stop and take more photographs as the light shifted and shimmered. The photograph at the top of this post was taken from the highest point.

The Black Valley

Once over the top, the Black Valley opens up before you. This is a walker’s paradise, but also a community, with small farms dotted here and there, a church and a school – surely one of the remotest in Ireland. The landscape softens slightly from the craggy steepness of Dunloe to more rounded valleys and mountains.

You have a choice now to carry on West along the interior of the Iveragh Peninsula, but we had to head for home so we joined the N71 at Moll’s Gap where a welcome coffee awaited in the excellent Avoca Cafe.

A road through the Black Valley

Next time, I think we will do this by the traditional horse-drawn method, and return to Killarney by boat from Lord Bandon’s Cottage. Perhaps even in the summer – I wonder how it will look then.

Looking back at the Gap of Dunloe from Moll’s Gap

Mizen Magic 6: Schull to Castlepoint

The Mizen is the Peninsula we live on, and of course we think it’s the most beautiful part of West Cork, and of Ireland. In previous Mizen Magic posts I’ve been exploring different aspects and areas, such as the Northside, or Brow Head, or our excellent beaches. This time I’m concentrating on the stretch from Schull to Castlepoint. The map below shows the area, with the village of Schull, our starting point, on the top right. The photograph above was taken from the top of Sailor’s Hill.

A winter view of Long Island Sound – Coney Island, Long Island,  the Calves, Cape Clear and Sherkin, with the entrance to Croagh Bay in the foreground

It’s only a few kilometres, and it would take you about ten minutes to drive straight to Castlepoint from Schull. But where’s the fun in that? No- let’s start by driving (or walking if you’d rather) out to St Mary’s Church on the Colla Road. It’s largely an eighteenth century church, although there are hints of a medieval structure here and there, and it stands in what must be one of the most scenic graveyards in West Cork.

Intriguing depictions of boats are inscribed into the render inside the church. How old are they? Who did them and for what purpose?

From there, I suggest you drive to the lookout on Sailor Hill – the trail arrows for the new extension of the Fastnet Trails will show you the way. We discovered Sailor’s Hill ourselves when I was researching belvederes – the redoubtable Connie Griffin has built his own modern version of a belvedere and there is no better place to get a view of Long Island Sound and the south side of the Mizen. Here’s the viewing house Connie built  – perfect for contemplation.

Back down to the Colla Road, continue to the scenic little Colla Pier, where you can take the ferry to Long Island. Robert and I do this every year as part of the Fastnet Film Festival. The ferry runs every day but you can also book special trips – it is, as they say here, a great day out. Pack a picnic and your camera – there’s lots of birdlife, including these oystercatchers on the rocks at Colla Pier.

The ferry leaves Long Island for the return trip to Colla Pier

From the Pier the road winds across country, overlooking the sea here and there, and always with Mount Gabriel looming in the background. From here you can see tiny Coney Island, privately owned, and with one house which is rented out to holiday makers.

Beyond Coney Island are the Goat Islands – Goat Island and Goat Island Little – probably once one island, but now split into two, with a narrow passage between. There are feral goats on these islands, but not much else. They appear to be completely inaccessible, with craggy shores that are impossible to land on. That, of course, only makes them all the more mysterious. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about the Goat Islands.

The narrow and treacherous channel that divides the Goat Islands, and the beacon on the smaller of the two islands

The road now winds down to Croagh Bay (locally pronounced ‘Crew’), a lovely tidal sheltered inlet with the romantically named Gunpoint at its head. On the higher ground to the right you will see that an enterprising individual has converted one of the old signal stations into a unique residence. It must have the best view – but all those stairs!

We are now in the territory described by Robert in Here Be Pirates and in Pilchards and PalacesCroagh Bay, or more correctly Leamcon House, was the site of William Hull’s house and a hotbed of piratical activity.

Nowadays it’s downright idyllic and the shallow waters of Gunpoint inlet provide sanctuary to wintering birds such as these shelducks.

Our last stop is the little pier at Castlepoint, offering a dramatic view of Black Castle, one of the O’Mahony Tower Houses that dotted the coast of West Cork in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This one is privately owned and the owner has stabilised and largely restored the castle, saving it for future generations from the all-too normal fate of dereliction that befalls West Cork Castles.

Robert looks across to Black Castle in the photograph above. The castle as the owner has stabilised it is shown below – he has done a first-rate job and we should all be grateful for his care of this important monument. The final photograph is of a small inlet by Castlepoint Pier.

Shay Hunston and the People of the Wild Atlantic Way

It’s the people! Shay Hunston is passionate about his subject. Sure, we have wonderful scenery, and every photographer is out capturing it. But time and again, what visitors tell us is that what makes Ireland special for them is the people they meet, their warmth, humour, empathy, poetic language, and the interest they take in others. So I set out to document those people – to show the faces and the personalities you will meet along the Wild Atlantic Way.

The first photograph above is part of that project – it’s Mike Watkins, the friendly face we pass most days as we drop into Budd’s of Ballydehob. He sits outside, drinking tea and greeting everyone. Here’s what he has to say about life: I have sunshine in my heart and I never, ever, ever get upset about anything. I’m happy every single day and everybody else should be the same, and we should all hug each other and talk to each other. This I have learnt from a lifetime of experience.

Tim Healy – Leap. The best advice I ever received in life was when I came to live in Leap in 1983. I knew of a local lad who had a reputation for liking a bit of a ‘Work Out’, he was well able to look after himself. So I said to him, just to wind him up, would you like to have a go, the two of us for 20 pounds. No, he said, I’ll tell you what, don’t be wasting your money, we’ll fight for pleasure.

So far, Shay’s project has been a Wild Atlantic Success, and he hasn’t even moved beyond Cork yet. He’s been going from community to community along the Wild Atlantic Way, photographing whoever volunteers. Once the prints are made, the town or village mounts an exhibition of his strong black and white images, in shop fronts, on the approaches to town, on walls and railings.

Caroline O’Donnell – Ballydehob. My grandmother once told me that as long as I have music and laughter in my life I would never grow old. I think about her every day and try not to grow old. She also said never marry a man you haven’t seen drunk… I’m still thinking about that advice.

We missed the shoot in Ballydehob as we were away, so we participated in Schull. It’s a nervous business, sitting for a portrait, but Shay creates an instantly warm and relaxing environment. He’s good humoured and patient and empathetic and he obviously loves doing this. He was also cool about my photographing him and his process (no pressure like, to be snapping away in the presence of genius!) and doing a blog post.*

Pat Murphy – Castletownbere. I started fishing at 13 years of age in open boats with a crew of three. We fished winter and summer in all kinds of weather. From October to March we fished for scallops, two rowing the boat and the third man looking after the dredge, by God you had muscles from pulling oars for six months…In summer we would fish for lobsters and crabs. To make the pots we would go to the mountains to cut hazel and sally rods. I use to make four pots a day. Besides the fishing we all had a bit of land to grow our own vegetables and potatoes. Come September, those of us who had a pig or a cow would slaughter them, butcher and salt the pieces and put them in a barrel, there they would be left for 6/8 weeks, they would then be hard dried or smoked, we would also salt fish. The best life advice I could give anybody is to be able to negotiate with people, to work together, not against each other.

Shay asks people to write a few words to go with the image. It’s lovely to meander down the street and read what people have said, so I’ve included snippets under each photograph.

Saoirse Canty – Ballydehob. My perfect day would be my friends and I hanging out around Ballydehob. We would do nothing and talk about nothing all day. The reason why that is so perfect to me is because it makes me truly happy and the familiarity of this beautiful town is very comforting. It is one of those things that I could do forever.

You will notice, of course, that this post is (not surprisingly) a little heavy on Ballydehob folk, so as part justification for that, here’s what Shay himself wrote about his experience working in Ballydehob:

Ballydehob is a remarkable place, a multicultural melting pot of creative activity and is home to artists, poets, writers, musicians, sculptors and craftworkers. The local community encourages people to pursue and develop their creative and artistic talents…With the influx of artistic people in the 70’s, Ballydehob became known as the ‘San Francisco of the Mizen’. Ballydehob is an inspiration to all and is a template for how a multicultural community can live in harmony, with sympathy and compassion for each others needs.

But just to show I am not totally biased, here’s Danny Smith, whose day job as a postman in Bantry allows him the space to observe and dream about his next painting. Next time you’re in Kilcrohane, drop into The Old Creamery and see the wonderful results.

Danny Vincent Smith – Bantry. I started painting as long ago as I can remember, this passion for painting started from there. Every hour I would be thinking and looking for some kind of angle for a painting, observing everyday life, watching people’s faces, their expressions, trying to capture movement in the moment, such as an old lady with shopping, old farmers or a fella sitting inside the pub by himself. I try to picture people’s life’s and transfer them to canvas. My environment has a massive influence on my work and I feel like I’m documenting a time and place in rural life from where I live for future generations.

Go visit Shay’s website NOW to see lots more of his people photography, including his project to photograph the people of Dublin’s Temple Bar. Or sign up to follow him on Facebook or on Twitter. The Schull images should be ready in a few weeks – I will let you know.

Callum Donnelly – The Ludgate Hub, Skibbereen. My Perfect Day – A frosty morning, circa 8am, the ground is firm. I wrap up in a coat, scarf, gloves and I bring my springer spaniels for a walk around our local woodland. The air is sharp, and you can take a deep breath, and try to ignore the daily bombardment of emails, messages & calls. To be able to walk in silence, absorb your surroundings is a fantastic way of  balancing your mind in a world where work can often take precedence. Young people feel enormous pressure to succeed, and perform, its good to take some time out in an environment that is a polar opposite to your usual surroundings.

I will leave you with a couple of shots of Shay himself and his session with Robert. If he comes your way, you lucky people of the Wild Atlantic Way, take advantage of this opportunity! And as for everyone else – come and meet us for yourselves.

Shay and Robert

Himself

*Images were downloaded from Shay’s website with his permission. Please always credit the source for any image you download from the internet.

Circumnavigation

It’s a hop and a step from down here on the Mizen (Ireland’s most south-westerly point) up to the top of the island: people are doing it all the time, on foot, by bicycle, by boat… We thought we’d do it as a road trip – in fact, why wouldn’t we circumnavigate the whole of Ireland? We did – it took us three weeks.

Header – the Dark Hedges, Ballymoney, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century to enhance their Georgian mansion of Gracehill, it is now much visited as it features in Game of Thrones. It’s good to know that traffic can no longer go through this avenue, as it has suffered damage in recent times. Above, one of the many byroads that we sought out on our journey around the island: this one is the loop road behind Ben Bulben in County Sligo

It was a most fascinating and educational trip, particularly for me: most of the places I had never visited before. Finola was more familiar with her own country, although for her it was a voyage of rediscovery. In many cases she saw how much had changed over years of boom and bust, while elsewhere her memories were reawakened.

A voyage of rediscovery: Finola’s Great Grandparents are buried here in Killough, County Down, Northern Ireland

This is but a short summary of our travels: a taster. Many of the places we visited will feature in future posts here. As you can imagine, Archaeology, Romanesque architecture, stained glass, saintly shrines, pilgrimage sites, holy wells, stunningly beautiful land- and sea-scapes, and social history were prominent in our must-see itinerary. But we found we were also following in the footsteps of Irish poets. And British eccentrics.

Craftworks: we visited the Belleek Pottery, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland – which has been operating continuously since 1884 (upper), and (lower) Glebe Mill, Kilcar, County Donegal – where we could watch traditional handweaving on enormous looms

I prefer to stay off the more heavily trafficked tourist spots, but we made exceptions for Europe’s highest sea cliffs at Slieve League, County Donegal (three times the height of the Cliffs of Moher! Beautiful and very wet) and for the Giant’s Causeway. After all, this features strongly in the stories of Finn McCool. I thought that the inevitable crowds were catered for very well and – if you are prepared to walk away from the main site – you can have the spectacular cliff paths largely to yourselves. In Northern Ireland I was very struck by what an asset the National Trust is, for it preserves and makes accessible so many properties and areas of outstanding beauty. If only the Republic had a similar well funded body…

Top – the cliffs at Slieve League. Lower – Giant’s Causeway on a stormy day, and souvenirs in the National Trust’s Causeway Visitor Centre

It would, perhaps, be unreasonable to pick out a ‘best’ destination that we visited, but I must say that I was probably most impressed by the medieval sites: we took in many. It’s amazing that right off the beaten track you can find stunning ancient carvings and artefacts tucked away and – sometimes – not even signposted.

Upper – the superb High Cross at Durrow has been protected and conserved, but it’s not signposted from the busy road that passes nearby. Centre – the beautiful shrine that holds the relic of the True Cross in St Peter’s Church, Drogheda, County Louth: the same church holds the head and remains of Saint Oliver Plunkett. Lower – 13th century font in St Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, County Clare

Our travels were punctuated with a whole variety of experiences, impossible to summarise in one short post. We took in Derry – the only completely walled city in Ireland and one of the finest examples in Europe: we walked the whole length of the early seventeenth century structure. Belfast was intriguing. We undertook the Titanic Experience, and were duly impressed with the building and the exhibitions. We also toured the whole city in the hop-on-hop-off bus: a full two hour tour of everything with a thoroughly enlightening commentary – a good way to keep out of the rain!

Upper – the Peace Bridge in Derry. Lower – the Titanic Experience, Belfast: the exhibition and the building. The external shot is taken from the enormous slipway which was used to launch the ship

We’ve only just got our breath back from all the travelling (although we always went at a leisurely pace with plenty of stops for investigation and coffee). Between us we took well over 5,000 photographs! You’ll see a good few of them in due course.

Often it’s the simple things that impress the most: just little vignettes of Irish life. We would thoroughly recommend a slow exploration of this land – ambling along the byroads and keeping a weather eye open for new experiences. Have a good time!

We are not averse to the odd selfie! Here we are on Carlingford Lough with the Mountains of Mourne behind us… Today it’s an invisible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic: what does the future hold?

A Taste of West Cork 2017

Young Ambassadors for Gloun Cross Dairy

We have this incredible food festival down here – A Taste of West Cork. I wrote about it in 2014 in this post and in this one. This year it was bigger and better than ever, with an astounding variety of events to choose from. We signed up for something every day and we are now in recovery.

We started off with a Sunday brunch in Glansallagh Gardens, cooked by Chef Bob, in the tractor loft of our old friend Richard, who supplies fresh and delicious vegetables to many local restaurants. Five courses, long harvest tables, strangers from all over chatting amiably, swapping stories and laughter, and then weaving home past the guard geese to snooze away the rest of Sunday.

We love Durrus Cheese and jumped at the chance to attend a demonstration of how it’s made and a tasting. Everything is local, everything is done by hand, the taste comes from years of making and a passion for quality. It felt like a privilege to glimpse behind the scenes.

Sarah, second-generation cheese maker, explains the different processes that produce the Durrus cheeses

The Chestnut Tree was a beloved Ballydehob pub, but it’s been closed for years. Recently, however, it was revived as an Airbnb and during the Festival was re-purposed once again as a restaurant. It worked wonderfully well as a convivial space.

French chef, Antony Cointre, was a popular choice at the Chestnut Tree

We signed up for a Ramen Bowl menu and were not disappointed. Chef Brian from Belfast makes everything – everything – from scratch and showed us how he makes the noodles. To taste his broth is to truly understand the concept of umami.

Our dining partners were Jack and Julia Zagar. Julia is the genius behind the dynamic e-presence of Discover Schull – website, Facebook Page and Instagram account. Jack generously lends his own images to local initiatives

From the Casual, we graduated to the Gracious: dinner at Drishane House was sumptuous. Drishane is the ancestral home of Edith Somerville, now the residence of Tom and Jane Somerville. Jane is a wonderful cook and Tom a genial host, and our fellow guests were a lovely mix of local and from-away. We dined by candlelight surrounded by portraits of Somervilles, wine and conversation flowed, delicious courses kept appearing (all locally sourced as is the ethic of this Festival), and the port and cheese arrived just as we felt that truly an evening could hold no more enjoyment.

Drishane House in the spring, and a portrait of Edith Somerville in her role of Master of the Fox Hounds

By no means is this Festival only about dinners and chefs. We were attracted into Levis’s pub in the early afternoon by the sound of music and found a lively session in full swing – the end of a walking tour of Ballydehob that promised soup (made from vegetables from that morning’s tiny local market) and music as a restorative after the exertions of the walk. Soup was pressed upon us and we didn’t object.

Bob, Liam and Joe entertain the walkers, while Robert has fun with Johanna

Perhaps the most fun we had was also at Levis’s – it was called Sing for your Supper and the idea was to eat and sing, and whoever was judged to be the best singer would win their supper. It was an absolute hoot, with lots of good sports belting out old favourites (I personally led a version of Satisfaction that would curdle milk) and several excellent singers enthralling us all. The food was superb, prepared by an acknowledged top Irish chef, and local man, Rob Krawczyk

Thanks to Colm Rooney of the wonderful local web design agency Cruthu Creative for the photos of Sing for Your Supper. Ah sure, you can’t belt out the numbers and be snapping at the same time, now can you?

We bonded as a table – there were six of us, and we were thrilled to discover the identity of the youngest member. It was Eoin Warner, and if that name means nothing to you, it will one day. Eoin narrated the Irish version of Wild Ireland, Eire Fhiáin, shown to rapturous acclaim on the Irish TV channel. The photography was extraordinary and opened many of our eyes to the wildlife we have here. Forget David Attenborough and the Amazon Jungles – to see a humpback whale bubble-netting up close is to realise how rich the oceans around Ireland are. Here’s an extract from Eire Fhiáin, with Eoin’s lovely, natural, narration and his deep sense of wonder. And – he has a great voice and won the competition!

The photo is from an Independent article that nicely sums up audience reaction to the program

Yesterday we went on a Cultural Taste Tour of Bere Island. It was our first time and it’s no exaggeration to say that we fell in love with it. I won’t say much about it because Robert’s post will fill you in, but I CAN say that we’re already planning our next trip back there.

One of our favourite stalls in the regular Saturday market had also set up in the Street Market – Olives West Cork is our source for excellent olive oil and the best parmesan cheese, as well as an amazing variety of nibbles

The week finished, as it always does, with the Skibbereen Street Market, and I will leave you with a slideshow of this colourful extravaganza.

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Start planning now for next year! Everything books up quite quickly when the program is announced and if you leave it too late there may be no place to stay and no tables left unclaimed. It will be the among the best few days you’ve ever spent!