Not long ago I reported on some ‘small road’ works close by our home in West Cork. Whenever we travel here in Ireland, we are on the lookout for ‘byways’ … very narrow routes, seldom used, but which often traverse the most scenic landscapes. For some – such as today’s example – you have to be fairly brave, and prepared to travel a long way in reverse if necessary!
We were coming back from a day out in Kenmare, aiming for our West Cork home. There’s a corner of the Beara Peninsula – within Kerry – that we had never explored before so we headed out to revisit the little church at Dawros, Tuosist parish. We have always been fascinated by the stone basin that is in the church grounds, mounted on crude pillars – I have seen it described as a ‘baptismal font’:
From the church we went north, over a mountain road which eventually connected to the main N71 towards West Cork, Glengariff, and home.
It looks straightforward enough on the Google map – and there are no turnings, so you can’t get lost! The winding route from Dawros to the N71 is about 10 kilometres. If you could go in a straight line it would be about half that distance! During our whole journey on that mountain road we didn’t see a single vehicle (but we can’t guarantee that would always be the case).
The early OS map (upper) and aerial view (lower) give an impression of the topography over part of the route. The field boundaries are fascinating – and obviously ancient: sweeping linear enclosures cascading down the slopes. From the early map we can see that the road we travelled (known in part as Gortnabinny Road – marked in green) did not actually reach the main Kenmare to Glengarriff road in those times. It presumably just served remote settlements and lonely holdings.
It couldn’t have been a better day for the drama of sunshine and clouds that outlined the valleys and hills. There is little sign, here, of a drought that is causing problems on farms and in town gardens. When distant views opened up, we were treated to some of the finest vistas in our counties.
Against the drama of the surrounding peaks we felt secure in our little vehicle which progressed steadily along the narrowest of boreens. Our only living companions in this place were sheep, easy to discern because of their brightly dyed coats.
While driving on roads such as this is a richly rewarding experience, you also need to get out and encounter the wildlife close-up.
We are always on the lookout for adventures, and we don’t have to be travelling far away from home in order to find them. In our experience, the ‘small roads of Ireland’ – wherever they are – can take us to unexplored territory.
We are past November Dark – traditionally a ‘low’ time of the year when the effects of the approaching cold months begin to displace autumnal skies and spectacular sunsets: the term traditionally refers to the appearance of the new moon of the month (which happened this year on the 4th), but is probably inspired by the preceding nights when no moon is visible. For us at the moment, on the shores of Roaringwater Bay, the dark time is emphasised by a constant pervading mist which clings and covers everything in films of moisture, especially the myriad cobwebs on the gorse bushes which surround us. Gone – for now – are our fine views out across to the islands, and there is a feeling of being marooned and suspended in a lifeless grey tract which encompasses sea and sky.
November Dark has brought with it tragedy to our garden. In explanation, I should first paint the idyllic picture of what we like to call our ‘peaceable kingdom’. For many years we have considered this domain a haven. Do you remember our fox – Ferdia – who was a constant companion to us in the first few years here at Nead an Iolair? He visited on a daily basis – often waking us by barking outside our bedroom window at dawn, and presided over a mixed community of birds and animals who share our territory – without any conflict.
Ferdia was happy enough to co-exist with the bird and pheasant families, the rats and mice, and the occasional cat that dropped in. I have a memory of fox and cat sitting side by side on our terrace, clearly having a conversation with each other: I would like to have eavesdropped, but whatever mutual language they share was not available to me! Ferdia vanished from our garden a few years back – gone to his happy hunting grounds no doubt; but the pheasants have remained with us through much of the decade we have been here.
In the upper picture Finnbarr and his young wife, Fidelma, patrol our garden some five years ago. The lower picture was taken just before the start of the Pandemic, in March 2019. The couple have been a daily feature of life outside Nead an Iolair. They always appreciated feeding time, when they got a share of the seeds I put out on our patch for the many bird visitors, small and large. The picture below taken during the summer of last year shows a family group: pheasant chicks have been seen but rarely.
The idyll abruptly ended yesterday, when a bomb hit the garden – in the form of a small but fierce force of nature: only inches long but terrifying. I glanced out of the window where, minutes before, the two pheasants had been foraging as usual along the stone boundary wall. I was shocked to see Fidelma lying on her back, wings flapping, being dragged along the ground: there was a commotion among the small birds and Finnbarr had vanished. At first I could not see the attacker, but as I rushed outside I caught a glimpse of brown fur with a hint of white and black. My first thought – a rat! – could not have been borne out: we have lived side by side with rat families for years: they only ever appear to share the bird food, and are never aggressive.
You can see the conditions that prevailed on this worst of days from Finola’s picture (top), taken from indoors through the windows. And – below that – the brazen culprit, who danced around the garden at breakneck speed, very ready to threaten me if I made a wrong move! It was our first sighting here on our land of an Irish Stoat. Having now read the books, I know in hindsight what a shocking phenomenon had hit us. Although fearing the worst, I quickly removed Fidelma to an indoor refuge and then watched the rampaging of this fur powerball traversing our territory at lightning speed; leaping from walls, trees and bushes and aiming for any likely food source.
Finola has done her best to clarify the images in the photos she rapidly took through streaming wet glass (above) on this appalling day. The weather did not in any way impede the progress of the animal which circumscribed our whole acre, it seemed, in record time.
. . . The Stoat is often called the Weasel in Ireland, but although the weasel (Mustela nivalis) is very similar in appearance to the stoat, it is not native to Ireland and has never been introduced here. In Ireland the stoat or ‘weasel’ was regarded as a very intelligent animal, but also vengeful. For example, since they were believed to understand human speech, if a stoat was encountered the correct thing to do was to greet them politely. In County Clare the custom was to raise one’s hat in greeting, or even to bow. The person who insulted them, on the other hand, or pelted them with stones, could expect to lose all their chickens before too long. Deliberately killing a stoat was most unwise, since it caused all the deceased animal’s relations to descend on the house of the culprit and attack with great savagery . . .
Ireland’s Animals – Myth legends and Folklore, Niall Mc Coitir, The Collins Press, Cork 2010
The Duchas Schools Folklore Collection – gathered in the 1930s – has numerous entries referring to the stoat. Above is an example from Co Carlow. When I was sifting through these, I was struck by the fact that similar stories about stoats are repeated over and over again, but from different parts of Ireland. I could write a volume based on these accounts, but will choose only a few:
. . . One time there was a girl who was very fond of going to the seaside. One day she went to the seaside and lay down and fell asleep. Ten weasels went down her throat. So she awoke when the last one was going down. She went to the doctor and the doctor said she would need to undergo an operation and then she would die. One day she was going to the shop and her granny knew all about cures. So she went into the granny. Her granny told her to get two pounds of salt and eat all the salt and go to the seaside and drink no water and keep her mouth open and the weasels would have to come out for a drink. So this she did. The weasels came out for a drink. The girl counted them. There were ten in it and the girl came home cured . . .
William O’Donnell, Cabra Glebe, Co Donegal
. . . One day long ago two men went to cut the meadow with scythes. They cut away for a while until they came to a weasel’s nest where there were four young weasels out of the nest and left them near by on the ground. After a while the mother of the weasels came home and found her young on the ground and was very angry, She hesitated for a moment and then understood what the men had done. Now the men had had a can of milk with them for a drink which they left near the weasel’s nest, the old weasel saw the can and went to see what in it. When she saw what was in it she spat into it because a weasel’s spit is poison. When the men saw this they were terrified and put back the young weasels into the nest, and the old weasel was pleased and went back and upset the can and spilt the milk from fear the men would drink of it and be poisoned . . .
James Gormley Senior, Aged 82, Commeen, Co Roscommon
Note that the term ‘Weasels’ is used far more often in these accounts than ‘Stoats’. There can only be the one animal, however, as there have never been true ‘weasels’ in Ireland. The story above, from Co Roscommon, is the most common of all ‘weasel’ tales in Ireland, and variants of it have been recorded from all parts.
. . . Many years ago an old woman lived by herself. There was a nest of weasels under the hearth in the house in which she lived and every day the old woman fed them until they became quite tame. When the young weasels were reared they went off but the old one remained in the hearth. One day the woman was sitting by the fire when the old weasel came out and sat with her. The weasel was continually looking up the chimney and at last the woman said “What the dickens are you looking at?” and at the same time looking up herself. She saw a little bag hanging in the chimney and took it down. To her surprise and joy she found it was full of gold. This was the weasel’s reward for her kindness to her and her family . . .
Mrs L Millett, Fiddaun Lower, Inistioge, Co Kilkenny
. . . The Swarm or Drove of Weasels: the following story or rather fact come from a reliable source to wit a teacher in Ballyshannon. In the end of August or about that time some distance outside Ballyshannon a great whistling was heard as if a number of little birds and a mighty drove of Weasels was seen heading for the mountains. An old man said that he heard that weasels used make for the mountains during the Grouse Season. The Priests housekeeper saw or heard of the same thing in Antrim . . .
J Clarke, Navan, Co Meath
. . . Some time about forty years ago there were children playing on the side of a hill and they saw a few weasels. They started to run and cry. They looked round and saw thousands coming after them. Only they got away the weasels would have devoured them . . .
Written by Kathleen McKenna Bragan, Co Monoghan 25th November 1938
I couldn’t resist that little foray into weasel stories from the Folklore Collection. There are many many more pages full of them! Interestingly, stoats are a fully protected species in Ireland. If stoats are proving a problem, by killing chicks or other domestic animals, you must solve the problem by using good fencing; it is illegal to kill a stoat.
A possible reason for the attention which stoats attract in folklore is the fact that they can change colour, which adds a sense of the supernatural to them. In countries which have harsh winters the coat of the stoat becomes white in those months, offering a level of protection in the open landscape. The fur from the white – or ‘winter’ – stoat we call ermine, and the white fur is considered so precious that only royalty or nobility traditionally wear it. In the drawing above, the white stoat is wearing a cloak on which are printed the symbols of the flag of Brittany (below), which was an independent kingdom in medieval times. The white background represents the ermine fur, and the black markings are said to be based on the black tip of the tail which the animal retains, even in the winter.
Here (above) is another example of the Breton ermine representation: a finely worked silver antique brooch. In Ireland, the species of stoat which has evolved – Mustela erminea hibernica – does not usually turn white in winter, although examples have been noted. The animal is said to have been resident in Ireland from the post-glacial period and, in the present day, the population numbers are unknown: it is not a threatened species.
In spite of our attempts to care for Fidelma, she did not survive. Sadly, I decided to let Nature have her way and laid the body close to a fox-track above the house. Later, I noticed an assembly of corvids gathered in the area. When I returned there in the evening all traces had gone – just a few scattered feathers told the tale.
This morning, Finnbarr was absent from the garden. I did catch a glimpse of him wandering the distant pastures – forlorn and bereft. At least, those are the feelings my human soul projects onto him. He will find another mate, of course, and we hope they will continue to share our little bit of paradise. We will keep a lookout for unwelcome visitors, but we will always have to pay our respects to the ‘weasels’. If our stoat does return we will have to honour him with an Irish name: I am inclining towards Fiáinín – which means Little Wild One.
Lady with an Ermine, painted 1489–1491 by Leonardo da Vinci. The subject is said to be Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Leonardo’s Milanese employer, Ludovico Sforza. The Ermine is symbolic, rather than realistic – in fact it is pictured much larger than in real life. It has been suggested that the ermine in classical literature relates to pregnancy, sometimes as an animal that protected pregnant women. Around the time of the painting’s creation, Cecilia was known to be pregnant with Ludovico’s illegitimate son.
Finola has been involved in the Ellen Hutchins Festival since it began in 2015 – the 200th anniversary of the death of Ireland’s first female botanist. This year she was asked to help organise and MC an outdoor event, and has had a very busy time – together with her collaborators – leading up to this. On the day – last Friday – I went along to see the culmination of their hard work, and I thought I would share the experience with you.
The weather forecast for that day was atrocious! Heavy rain and thunderstorms were predicted for the duration, and we set out for Ballylickey with some trepidation. However, as is often the case in West Cork, the weather forecasters were confounded. Nevertheless, the Festival team had prepared for all eventualities and we arrived in time to contribute to the setting up of a shelter made from a silk parachute and a number of wooden poles. The transformation of an empty area of lawn in the gardens of Seaview House Hotel into an impressive performance space in a very short time was quite remarkable – and a visual treat – as the swirling mass of silk was tamed by our team, directed by Seán Maskey.
Watching (and, indeed, participating) in this constructional triumph, I was taken back to the days when I lived in Cornwall and followed the escapades of two theatre groups there: Kneehigh Theatre and Footsbarn. Both started out as small troupes of travelling players who took their performance spaces with them and incorporated the action of creating and erecting their transitory auditoria into their shows: all part of the visual entertainment. Both those groups have evolved and travelled far away from their roots, but the evanescent nature of their early shows has stayed with me, to be pleasantly awakened by the happenings at Ballylickey.
. . . Ellen was a pioneering botanist who specialised in a difficult branch of botany, that of the non-flowering plants or cryptogams. She discovered many plants new to science and made a significant contribution to the understanding of these plants. She was highly respected by her fellow botanists and many named plants after her in recognition of her scientific achievements.In addition to being an outstanding scientist, Ellen was also a talented botanical artist. Botanical drawings serve science in a very important way . . .
That’s Finola (above) introducing the subject of the day: the correspondence that passed between Ellen and Dawson Turner of Yarmouth, Norfolk, who had become a recognised authority on botany in early 19th century Britain, even though this was always a leisure pursuit: professionally he worked for his father, who was head of Gurney and Turner’s Yarmouth Bank and took over his role on his death. Dawson wrote numerous books on plants and got to know the leading botanists of the day, including Ellen. Amazingly, one hundred and twenty letters between her and Dawson survive. Those from Dawson Turner to Ellen are held by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and those from Ellen to Turner are at Trinity College Cambridge. Friday’s event was a reading of a selection of these letters. On Finola’s right, above, is Karen Minihan, an actor and drama director who lives in Schull: she read the letters from Ellen. Moreover, it was she who selected and organised the extracts – which were the heart of the performance.
Above are the two other performers: on the right is Mark O’Mahony from Cappaghglass – he is a part-time actor, and here he reads the letters from Dawson. On his right is Carrie O’Flynn. She is a historic re-enactor and researcher: she appeared as Ellen, in authentic period dress, and provided really illuminating interpolations between letter-readings, informing us about the act of letter-writing itself in the early 1800s – the ink and quill pens; the postal service; Ellen’s probable appearance and dress (there are no surviving portraits of her) and the difficulties which Ellen would have had to face in pursuing here chosen interests, especially as she was herself quite frail and was for many years the carer of her own mother. Her achievements in the light of all this are truly remarkable, and Carrie succeeded in bringing this out with her contributions. Below she shows us the brass microscope that Ellen used – an essential item of equipment for her work.
As the reading of the letters progressed it became gradually obvious that a deep friendship was developing between the two botanists, and the language reflected this. Particularly telling (and this was drawn out in the selection of the letters) was the way the missives were framed as time went on. From a simple, almost curt formality in the earliest, we begin to read how their shared interests extended beyond the botanical; they exchange newly discovered poetry; Dawson tells Ellen that he has named his newly-born daughter after her; they imagine how they would like to meet each other and walk their favourite landscapes together. Each sends the other packages containing examples of the plants and seaweeds that preoccupy them, and their greetings at the top and tail of every page become increasingly warmer. We, the audience, open our imaginations as to how a happy fulfilment could ever metamorphose – West Cork and Norfolk are as far apart as any two place could be in early 19th century Britain. Poignantly, we learn that they never met: Ellen – always in poor health – died in 1815 at the age of twenty nine. We can only imagine that Dawson, remote in Norfolk, was desolate.
Important to our day – apart from the presenters and actors – were Madeline Hutchins (above – showing us some of Ellen’s drawings of seaweed), great great grand-niece and a co-founder of the Festival; and – behind the scenes but essential – the team, including Clare Heardman, co-founder of the Festival and a Conservation Ranger at the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Here’s Clare in action setting everything up – and running the Festival shop:
We had a further treat in store for us after the show: we were taken on a guided tour of some of the environments which Ellen would have known and explored during her life at Ballylickey. This felt really special, and brought us close, again, to the extraordinary young woman whose short but productive life we now celebrate here in West Cork.
Please note that Ballylickey House today is private property, and visitors should not seek access. There is plenty of the natural environment that Ellen would have been familiar with around Ballylickey and on the shores of Bantry Bay – well worth an exploration. And this link to the Ellen Hutchins Audio Trail is invaluable, especially to anyone who was not able to be at Friday’s event.
Particular thanks, of course, to all who participated – and attended – the event. It was a great success! Thank you to the weather Gods. And many thanks to Seaview House Hotel for providing the venue
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.
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.
Every so often I have to come up with a post about hares – they are an obsession with me, and have been for as long as I can remember. So, when I looked out of the window this morning and saw a real, live Irish Hare foraging in our garden at Nead an Iolair I knew the time had arrived to pen another paean to this most beautiful and elusive of animals. Lepus timidus hibernicus is Ireland’s only native lagomorph; the other two are the Brown Hare and the Rabbit – both have come from elsewhere. But the Irish Hare has been here at least since the Pleistocene: that’s getting on for three million years ago, implying that the species is totally attuned to its habitat.
Here is the hare that arrived on our doorstep today. We know that this is an Irish Hare because of his ears – shorter than the length of his head: the Brown Hare species has ears which are longer than the head.
Before I came to live permanently in Ireland I frequently visited West Cork, and a hare sighting in the wild could be virtually guaranteed each time. Also, when we first came here in 2011, we would encounter a hare or hares once every few weeks. In the last couple of years, however, hares seemed to have disappeared completely, apart from a notable day in August 2018: it was the most soaking of wet Irish August days, and we found that we had the most bedraggled of Irish hares sitting forlornly on our terrace.
As you can see, it was a mere youth – no more than a slightly matured leveret. We invited him indoors for a dry off, but he wasn’t having any of that; however, he did hang around for three days, allowing us to get a few more pictures.
We named this little hare Berehert, after an Irish saint we were researching at the time, and wrote a post about him here. In fact, hares seldom stay in one place for very long – it’s part of their self-protection mechanism to be always on the move. And they do move: they are our fastest mammal and can outrun everything else. Since Berehert departed I always harboured a little fantasy (should we say conviction?) that he would one day call in again to let us know how he was getting on… Very nicely, thank you, would seem to be the order of the day if it is, indeed, Berehert who has come along to test out our lawn – this animal appears to be in fine condition.
But maybe there’s another reason why this handsome hare has decided to honour us with his presence: could it be the new sculpture which has appeared in the garden? It is temporarily lodged down by the hedge (header picture) but it has been expertly laser cut from stainless steel (by Pre-Met Fabrications of Cork City) to grace our recently built stone gatepost at our entrance. My design for this hare incorporates the moon, because in folklore all around the world the hare is associated with the moon; it’s artistic licence that I have exaggerated the length of the ears (thereby making this a Brown Hare rather than an Irish one!) but the ears of hares are such defining features that they ought always to be fully celebrated.
Finola is giving you the scale of the new gatepost hare, above, and trying him out at his final location. The sculpture was a special birthday treat from Finola – an indulgence for which I am most grateful: she long ago banned me from bringing any more hare inspired accoutrements into the house, which currently harbours scores of them. I’m afraid that’s par for the course if you marry a hare fanatic!
The very fine parchment scroll (above) which was made and presented to us by our neighbours Hildegard and Dietrich to celebrate our wedding has a little hare at the end of ‘Robert’!
You may remember that Finola’s stained glass window that was crafted for us by George Walsh incorporates a wonderful golden hare (at my request), flanked by my own concertina – playing the magical music of the Children of Lir – and a piece of rock art recorded by Finola in her days of yore.
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