Recalling 2019 – The Roaringwater Journal Review!

The year is drawing to a close. It’s been a roller-coaster twelve months in terms of politics and world problems. But (we believe) things have gone pretty well with Roaringwater Journal. We each continue to publish a post every week: that’s over 100 posts in the whole year. Today we have each chosen five of our favourite 2019 posts, and written a little overview of each, with a live link and a photograph. We hope you might while away a few of those spare moments we all have over the Christmas holidays reminding yourself of what you perhaps enjoyed (like Robert’s piece about Hook Head and The Oldest Lighthouse in the World, above).

Finola’s Selection

When I look back on what I’ve written this year it seems pretty eclectic, but with a definite emphasis on archaeology (like the cupmarked stone Robert discovered at Inish Beg Estate, above) , history, stained glass and wild flowers. Quelle surprise! It’s been a very difficult exercise to pick my five favourites, but here goes…

The post I enjoyed writing most this year was Witches Marks and Lovelorn Shepherds: Inscribed Rock Art in a Remote Valley. When I re-read it it brings me back both to my rock art research when I was twenty-two and travelling the back roads of Cork and Kerry on my brother’s Honda 50, and to a beautiful day in May this year when Robert and I set out to re-find the ‘cave’ (above) with the mysterious rock scribings. Hiking through a remote valley filled with wild flowers and the remains of abandoned settlements, it felt like we were the only people in a lost world. While my own post concentrated on the archaeology, Robert wrote about the walk and the valley in Coolenlemane – a Walk into History.

Regular readers know that I have become a student of stained glass and a huge highlight for me this year was helping to open George Walsh’s exhibition in Dublin – see Celebrating George Walsh. It was a happy occasion for everyone involved and it coincided with the publication of my piece on George’s art in the Irish Arts Review.

Venetian masks by George Walsh, above and detail from the Finola Window, below

Unbeknownst to me, Robert commissioned George to make a stained glass window for our home  The Finola Window (detail below). I look at it every day, and feel all the care and thought and talent that went into this precious gift.

I am planning a multi-part post on the Stone Circles of West Cork, but so far have only written the Introduction. Why? Well, when you write about stone circles it’s important to visit them, so you really start to appreciate their commonalities as well as their unique features, how they sit in their landscapes, what their orientations are and the folklore that sometimes surrounds them. All of this takes time.

Kealkill Five-Stone Circle, one element of a complex site

Planning and going on field trips to stone circles has been great fun, especially when we do it in the company of our buddies, Amanda and Pater Clarke. In return, Amanda includes us in many of her Holy Well adventures, now expanded to Kerry, and Peter shares his wonderful sketches from his Hikelines blog, like the one of the Ardgroom Stone Circle on the Beara (below). So – look out for the rest of the Stone Circles series coming up in 2020.

The Mizen is our beat and we love to write about all its nooks and crannies, valleys, beaches, islands, antiquities. In 2018 we were privileged to spend a day with Aidan Power, who had written a book about Rock Island. The post generated a lot of comment and interest – and amazing connections! This year, my post Cousins Find Each Other – Through Roaringwater Journal! related how the Burchills and their Nicholls and Wilkinson cousins connected through the Rock Island post.

Charles and Elizabeth Nicholls – what a wonderful photograph to have in your family archive

Even after Cousins Find Each Other was published more relatives stumbled on to the page and discovered their common past. What I loved about this story was how deeply the family narratives were embedded in the history of West Cork and the building of the iconic Fastnet Lighthouse.

Finally, I have chosen Barley Cove: A Special Area of Conservation. Barley Cove is not just a popular beach but has a complex set of dunes and wetlands as well (below) which I explored in my post, along with the wildflowers that flourish in that special habitat. 

We are so fortunate in West Cork to still have a relative abundance of wild flowers around us, but even here that is under threat as the relentless conversion of wild land into monoculture fields seems to go on day and night. I run a Facebook Page called Wild Flowers of West Cork with the simple objective of saying – Look what we have here! We need to value and preserve this heritage not because the wild flowers are beautiful, although they are, but because without them and the pollinators who depend on them, we may all be doomed to a difficult future.

The Sand Pansy, found in the dunes of Barley Cove

Robert’s Selection

And now it’s down to me (Robert) to make my choices. One of my favourite pastimes (or is it just a way of life?) is exploring off the well-worn track in West Cork. Early in the year we headed for the hills to the north-east of Bantry, partly because I was attracted by a name on a map. Here is ‘Through the Yellow Gap’. And here is our friend Tim whom we encountered, by chance, on one of his epic cycle rides along this road.

Another name that jumped out from a map was Abhainn na Seangán – which means ‘River of the Ants’. I couldn’t overlook that one so off we went again, in February, and as a result I wrote this post, which takes in archaeology, traditional music and much more of the beautiful scenery which West Cork has to offer. Here’s a sample: looking across the water meadows to the distinctive gaunt ruin of Castle Donovan, fortunately relatively safe as it is in state care.

There’s nothing we like better than unearthing history as we explore the byways of Ireland. In July we set out for the Beara Peninsula (it’s not too far away from Nead an Iolair) specifically to discover more about Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare (1561 – 1618) and his connections with Dunboy Castle, over by Castletown-Bearhaven. It was a fascinating journey and included a visit to a doomed Celtic Tiger project: the building of Ireland’s first 6 star hotel, Puxley Manor, a 21st century incarnation of the huge neo-gothic family mansion which was created by the Puxley family who were largely responsible for running the copper mining industry at Allihies. Daphne du Maurier’s novel Hungry Hill was based on the real-life Puxleys. Here’s the link to the post. And here is our photo of the manor after its destruction by the IRA in the 1920s with, below it, a view of the property today after its cycle of restoration and abandonment.

This year I was pleased to be further involved in the development of the Ballydehob Arts Museum. This – which must be one of Ireland’s smallest museums – celebrates Ballydehob’s place in history as an artists’ colony in the second half of the last century. I assisted the Museum Curator – Brian Lalor – in mounting two new exhibitions on aspects of the artwork, and also put together a dedicated website for BAM. Read all about the exhibitions here, and have a look at the BAM website here. And, in case you are not convinced, here are Ian Wright, Brian Lalor and Pat Connor publicising the work of the Ballydehob artists on the streets of Zurich, Switzerland, in May 1985!

Although it’s a recent post, published at the beginning of December, I think I have to mention The Enigmatic Bullaun, as it has been our most popular article ever published. Bullaun stones are aspects of archaeology which defy explanation – a bit like rock art – although we can make educated guesses as to what their original use might have been. My little review discussed these, and seems to have captured the imagination of our readers. It all goes to show that you can never predict your audience! Here’s a bullaun stone associated with the ecclesiastical site at Maulinward over the hill from Ballydehob, not very far from Durrus. You can see that it has been used – even in recent times – as a receptacle for offerings.

OK, so we cheated a bit and included more than five each – but it’s been a great year! We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did and that it motivated you to come visit us in West Cork, or get out and explore your own part of the world. Thanks so much for all your comments and support in 2019 and here’s to another banner year in 2020!

And just to add – these are our favourites, but we’d love to hear what yours were!

Experimental Archaeology – Oliver’s Cupmark

As a student of rock art I am often asked whether a cupmark, the central motif of all Irish rock art, could be just idle ‘doodling’. In response I have usually asserted that making a cupmark is quite a lot of work and therefore unlikely to be the result of simply whiling away time. But I must admit I based that answer on my own guesswork about of the time and difficulty involved, rather than on solid evidence. Well, no more! The scientific evidence is in – read on to see what we found.

Before he started – Oliver chose a piece of local sandstone and a variety of water-rolled cobbles as picks

First of all, let’s recap what a cupmark actually is. It’s a semi-hemispherical indentation on a rock surface which has been made by a human in the past. In Ireland it’s the most common motif found in prehistoric rock art, often on its own, and also associated with one or more concentric rings, lines extending from the cupmark through the rings, and other lines and grids. It’s usually circular in outline, sometimes perfectly so and sometimes rough and approximate. For a thorough discussion of Irish cupmarked stones, take a look at our post The Complex Cupmark, which has lots of illustrations of cupmarks, both on their own and with cup-and-ring marks. It’s a good introduction to what we are talking about and where they are sited in the Irish landscape.

Oliver found that the first part was the hardest – almost, he said, as if there was a skin you had to break through

Grand so – now you know all about cupmarks except for how, really, they were made. Our friend Oliver Nares became interested in this topic having read our blog posts, and decided that this question should be answered once and for all. In doing so, he has provided a real service to science.

Once through the ‘skin’ things went a little faster and the hammering action raised lots of dust. In some ethnographic studies of cultures that carve cupmarks it appeared that the dust was one of the desired outcomes and played a part in whatever rituals were involved

Believing that he should replicate as closely as possible local conditions, Oliver selected a piece of local sandstone as his base. The technique used to carve is often described as ‘picking’ – that is, repeated taps on the surface of the rock by a stone ‘pick’. No metal was used: the cupmark tradition, although it persisted in time well into the Bronze Age, started in the Neolithic before the invention of metal tools. Copper or bronze would not have been strong enough anyway.

Oliver started with a quartz pick, reasoning that, as one of the hardest local minerals, this would be the ideal stone. However, he soon realised that the quartz stones he could find were not large enough to make a serious impact on the sandstone surface.

He gathered a variety of water-rolled cobbles from a local beach and worked away until they became too chipped, or until they broke. In this way he went through at least a dozen cobbles, perhaps as many as twenty.

On one visit to watch progress I took a turn. What I found hard was maintaining the round shape – as you can see my hammering was turning Oliver’s lovely circle into an egg-shape

A pick is generally a pointed tool – a bit like a hammer but with a pointed tip that allows a geologist, say, to split rock to take samples. Modern picks are made of very hard steel. In practice, it is almost impossible to find a stone that will mirror the pointy-ness and the hardness of a steel pick. Oliver found that hammering or bashing with a cobble was actually the only way he could make headway on carving out the cupmark. Perhaps picking, in fact, is not quite the right was to describe the technique. 

Once the cupmark was as deep and round as he wished, his next step was to smoothen the inside. We have noted this as a feature of cupmarks – when you run your fingers around the inside they do feel more smooth than rough. In fact, a rough surface is often an indication that the ‘cupmark’ is actually a naturally occurring geological anomaly or solution pitting rather than the product of human labour.

At first Oliver used only water to grind away at the surface (above), but soon added beach sand (below) and saw an immediate improvement. His finished product – a cupmark 12cm across and 3.5 com deep – was nice and smooth inside. In terms of size, this cupmark falls well within the normal range of variation in the cupmarks we have seen. 

So, how much time did this actually take, and how much work was it? Oliver estimates that he put between 20 and 25 hours into making this cupmark. Despite being tall and strong, he couldn’t work on it for too long at a stretch because, as is obvious in the videos, repetitive strain and muscle damage was a real hazard.

The other thing that smoothing did was bring out the dark colour of the rock under the surface

What Oliver has shown is that nobody would carve a cupmark unless they were deeply motivated to do so. It must have been an important activity associated with some aspect of the culture that required the kind of labour involved. Perhaps long practice enabled prehistoric carvers to make a cupmark in less than the time that Oliver took but there’s no denying that even for an expert this is a significant undertaking.

Thank you, Oliver, for all that effort! And thank you too for the cupmarked stone itself, now occupying a space outside our door. it looks great – but more than that it is a constant reminder of both your generous donation of your time in the cause of science and the age-old tradition of cupmark carving and the mysteries that lie at its heart.

Copper Craft

I admire workshops. And I admire the creativity that goes on in them. Here’s one that’s not too far away from us in West Cork: it’s just outside Skibbereen, on the road to Lough Hyne. It belongs to Paddy McCormack, who is a metalworker producing functional and decorative items. His preferred material is copper, and that comes with a historical connection that puts him right back with some of the earliest craftspeople who dwelled in this western part of the land thousands of years ago!

Mount Gabriel, the Mizen’s highest outcrop of land, silhouetted against a copper-coloured winter sky (upper picture) is the site of ancient copper mines dating from the Bronze Age. In the lower pic, Finola is standing at the entrance to an old mine adit driven into the side of this mountain. If you want to see the techniques used by the early metalworkers, have a look at this post which I wrote back in 2015. You’ll find that the methods dating from three and a half millennia ago are recognisable today. Here’s Paddy continuing the tradition:

We first came across Paddy at the 7 Hands Exhibition held in London, Dublin, Cork and Ballydehob. In this post written by Finola at the time you’ll see him with one of his unique pieces, a chess set, but it was at another exhibition this year that we became aware of his beautiful, hand-beaten copper bowls. Once seen , never forgotten: we asked Paddy if it would be possible to produce a large bowl for us, more the size of the now much sought-after copper ‘chargers’ produced by the Newlyn artists colony in West Cornwall during the late 19th and early 20th century. I lived in Newlyn before coming here to the west of Ireland and much admired the copper work from that time.

The Young Apprentice a painting by the Irish-born founder of the Newlyn School, Stanhope Alexander Forbes (above). The painting dates from 1908. There is still a copper works in Newlyn today. First established in the fishing village in 1890, copperware production gave us some of the most outstanding work created in the Arts and Crafts tradition of its day. One of the things that impresses us about Paddy’s work is his own way of working the metal surface, creating organic textures and colours which are exquisite.

Paddy presenting us with the large bowl which we commissioned. It is elegant and unique, and we are delighted! The richly textured surface shows the marks of the copper being worked and provides an organic finish which will evolve and change colour over time. Paddy has developed his own design for his bowls, with a double skin and welted rim.

Raw materials and the tools of his trade form Paddy’s working environment. He is comfortable within these surroundings. We felt privileged to meet him in this environment, and could sense his ability to transform his visions into reality through complete mastery of his chosen medium. Examples of his work in the open air show the distinctive patina that develops on copper when exposed to the elements.

Paddy markets his bowls and decorative copper work through craft outlets and fairs. He recently travelled to China with a group of locally based fellow artists and craftspersons. It’s a small world when a master artist / craftsman from rural West Cork is in demand on the other side of the planet!

Ireland’s Santa Claus!

You may remember my excitement when – a few years ago now – I found out that the real St Valentine is interred in the Carmelite Church in Dublin. But here’s a palpable marvel: at Jerpoint, Co Kilkenny,  the bones of St Nicholas are reputed to be buried.  Yes – the Santa Claus St Nicholas! Tradition has it that a band of Irish Norman knights from Kilkenny went to the Holy Land to take part in the Crusades. As they headed home to Ireland, they ‘seized’ St Nicholas’ remains, bringing them back to Jerpoint, where the bones were buried – some say – under the floor of the Abbey (others say they repose nearby at the old church of St Nicholas).

We first visited Jerpoint back in 2015, on a trip that took us to County Meath where we explored the monastic city of Kells (the famed book was written and illustrated there) and also where we found the medieval image of Santa’s reindeer in the header of this post! It is carved on to the base of the town’s Market Cross. We also visited Kells Augustinian Priory – a different Kells but in County Kilkenny  – and Jerpoint Abbey itself, a Cistercian monastery rife with carved figures, some up to 900 years old. Look at the ‘Weepers’, above, carved by members of the O’Tunney family – sculptors from Callan who worked in the 15th and 16th centuries. These four represent saints and show how they were martyred: St Thomas with a lance (left), St Simon with a saw, St Bartholomew holding a skin (he was flayed to death) and St Paul with a sword.

The Book of Kells is worth more than a passing mention, especially as some commentators have likened the medieval carvings at Jerpoint and other contemporary monastic foundations in Ireland to ‘illuminated manuscripts cast in stone’, because of the richness of the characters, the decoration and the detail. The Book (that’s just one example of the incredibly detailed capitals on a single page, above) probably dates from the 8th or 9th centuries and may either have been written in its entirety in Kells, or started by St Columba’s community in Iona and completed in the Scriptorium in Kells. That building still exists! In fact it (or something very like it) is illustrated in the book. It’s known as St Colmcille’s House – we went to have a look at it, and were fortunate to have a tour by its guardian.

Here is the ancient stone roofed oratory of St Colmcille’s House (above), supposedly the place where the Book of Kells was written – or, perhaps, completed. The upper floor of the building has a small window oriented to focus sunlight on the writing table. St Colmcille’s bed was also kept here – a large and heavy stone slab – until it was stolen in the 1950s! A few hundred years earlier (in 1007)  the Book itself was stolen from Kells and eventually found in a nearby bog. It stayed in Kells until 1654, when it was sent to Dublin for safekeeping: it is now on permanent display in Trinity College.

(Above) another page from the Book of Kells, which may be an illustration of the Scriptorium at Kells, and – perhaps – a self-portrait of the writer: see him sitting in the doorway to the house working away with his quill pens. Back to the medieval feast at Jerpoint: the trio below, from Jerpoint, are St Catherine – with her wheel, Michael the Archangel and St Margaret of Antioch – who is conquering a Dragon.

At Jerpoint it’s not just the tombs and the Weepers which fascinate: there is a 15th century cloister which, in its heyday, displayed a riot of carvings both saintly and secular. Some of these are in situ; some are partially destroyed and others have been recovered during archaeological excavations, and placed on display in a little museum. Among them we identified knights, ladies, animals fantastic and real, and ‘ordinary folk’ – including a man with stomach ache!

‘The Bones of Santa Claus’ (Author Bill Watkins)

Where lie the bones of Santa Claus, to what holy spot each pilgrim draws
Which crypt conceals his pious remains, safe from the wild wind, snows and rains?

It’s not in Rome his body lies, or under Egypt’s azure skies
Constantinople or Madrid, his reliquary and bones are hid.

That saint protector of the child, whose relics pure lie undefiled
His casket safe within its shrine, where the shamrocks grow and rose entwine.

Devout wayfarer, cease your search, for in Kilkenny’s ancient church
Saint Nicholas’ sepulchre is found, enshrined in Ireland’s holy ground.

So traveller rest and pray a while, to the patron saint of orphaned child
Whose bones were brought to Ireland’s shore, safe from the Vandal, Hun and Moor.

Here lie the bones of Santa Claus, secure beneath these marble floors
So gentle pilgrim, hear the call, and may Saint Nicholas bless you all!

I hope this topical little foray into some of our archives demonstrates once more how easy it is to find history (and legend) wherever you go in this special land. In fact, it’s very difficult to travel far here without tripping over the past. It’s often fairly low-key. Most sites are protected as scheduled monuments; some are in the good care of the Office of Public Works and have guides and visitor centres. Many are remote, open to the wind, rain and sunshine and free for us all to visit: very often you will have the history all to yourself.

Fortified Manor Houses in West Cork – a Tudor Status Symbol

Coppinger's Court, Ballyvireeen, near Rosscarbery

Fortified houses are a distinctly Irish phenomenon. The Tudor period in Britain ushered in a great era of manor house building with many distinctive features. But England was a peaceful place – the owners of these great houses did not expect to be attacked. Tudor Ireland was a very different environment: life was still dangerous and conflict between the native Irish and the planter class, or between Irish clans, was common.

Machicolations at Coppinger's Court

Fortifications at Coppinger’s Court – projecting machicolations

Up to the end of the 16th century the castle/tower house was the residence of choice of the powerful – a tall stone keep mainly focused on defensive features and horribly uncomfortable to live in. (See Illustrating the Tower House for a complete run-down on tower houses.) The new manor houses emphasised the horizontal rather than the vertical, and were built with comfort in mind. However, they incorporated some of the defensive features of the tower houses – they were “fashionable but defendable.”

Mullioned windows

While tower house windows were notoriously tiny, they became much larger in the new manor houses

In Ireland they represented

a public display of power and wealth…[and] a long-term investment in their owner’s regional future and were monuments to an aspiration for an English and Continental house style suited to local Irish conditions. On a basic level the construction of a fortified house represented the owners’ desire to modernise and Anglicize.

This quote and much of the information that follows are taken from The Fortified Houses of County Cork: Origin, Fabric, Form, Function and Social Use of Space, by Joe Nunan, who has generously made it and related material available on his website.

Gun loop at ground floor level, Coppinger's Court

At Coppinger’s Court, a small gun loop in the wall among the large windows

Fortified houses were built of stone but unlike tower houses all internal floors, stairs and partitions were of wood. Defensive features included machicolations, bartizans, wall walks, gun loops, corner towers or wings to provide for flanking fire. They were built starting about 1580 up to about 1650, in a style generally known as Elizabethan.

Coppinger’s Court marooned among the fields and modern houses, near Rosscarbery. Walter Coppinger had a vision of a large settlement along the Roury River here, but it never came to fruition

There are four surviving fortified houses in West Cork (although Joe Nunan would include Baltimore Castle as well). The most impressive is Coppinger’s Court, in Ballyvireen townland near Roscarbery: indeed it is one of the most magnificent examples of this type of dwelling in Ireland. Some of the mullions remain in upper windows, and a sharp eye will spot gun loops in the outer walls. The machicolations are particularly fine, with impressive cut stone supports. This was the home of the infamous Sir Walter Coppinger, whose plan was to build a complete settlement around him in this lovely spot on the banks of the Roury River. He was a despot who got rich through clever manipulations of mortgage documents and he was said to hang his enemies from one of his windows.

The chimney on top of this wall has fallen - note the pile of stones on the ground.

The pile of stones in the foreground is the remains of a fallen chimney

The house was so awe-inspiring in its time that the legend developed that it had a window for every day of the year, a chimney for every week and a door for every month. The house was eventually attacked and ransacked in 1641 and has sat in ruins ever since. Sadly, one of the magnificent chimneys fell down in the storms of early 2014. Evidence of a bawn wall remains, with possible outdoor cooking areas.

Gearhameen - a U shaped plan

Geerhameen Fortified House, also known as Coolnalong. This view shows the U-shape design

The fortified house at Gearhameen near Durrus, built by the MacCarthy Muclaghs, provides evidence of the comfort that these new ‘castles’ provided. The household work was done on the ground floor – large kitchens contained huge fireplaces, and in this house we can see the main kitchen fireplace had a bread oven to one side and a slop hole for sweeping out leftovers to the pigs (see below), who must have been in an attached pen (the smell!).

Large ground floor fireplace with bread oven

The first and second floors have large fireplaces, with magnificent herringbone chimneys still intact (and hosting nesting choughs).

Rather than the machicolations we see at Coppinger’s Court, corbels on the outside walls probably supported wooden or stone platforms.

Corbels supported a platform for defenders

Like Coppinger’s Court, the outer walls still stand to their full height, but the loss of a keystone above one arch, and the consequent development of a large crack above it (below), bodes ill for that section of the wall.

Missing keystone

The house at Reenadisert, near Ballylickey, (below) has been built onto and within over the centuries, serving as a modified dwelling place and as farm buildings. It was the stronghold of an O’Sullivan.

It is in a very ruinous state inside – the eeriness is enhanced by an enormous crows’ nest that has fallen from inside one of the chimneys to rest on the ground. There is evidence of a basement but this cannot be accessed.

Fallen nest

A corner tower sports an impressive bartizan (corner machicolation).

That this house is still standing is something of a miracle. It is on the same land as a ruined hotel and Celtic Tiger-era abandoned housing project and I cannot find out any information about its ownership or future.

The final house (below) is at Aghadown, once home to the Becher family, and consists only of one wall with attached towers. Ivy has threatened to take over most of it – I love Leask’s description of ivy – “destructive green mantle beloved of the sentimentalist.” The house occupies high ground and once had a commanding view. Nearby are the remains of a belvedere and pleasure garden that once formed part of the demesne. Have a look at Capturing the View: Belvederes in West Cork for more on this feature of Aughadown House

Aghadown Fortified house occupies high ground with a commanding view

Through all that ivy one can make out traces of the slate that once hung on the wall above the ground floor, the outline of corbels at roof level, and a string course between the ground and first floor.

One of the Fastnet Trails goes past Aughadown House now, and there is a neat little plaque giving more information about the house and the Bechers.

Joe Nunan provides useful summations of Irish fortified houses. Among other points, he says the following:

The fortified houses built in Co. Cork had a unique Irish architectural quality and a distinct southern English look and feel; the result of contacts built up between both regions, politically through plantation-immigration and economically, through trade with the port and fishing towns of Waterford, Cork, Kinsale, Youghal and Baltimore. The social changes that took place in Tudor England were reflected in architectural form by the elites in that society and it was the latter who spearheaded the Munster plantations. They were noblemen who viewed Munster as another region within a larger England and it was through these individuals that the initial architectural influence of the many gabled, oblong country manors with circular, square, rectangular and hexagonal corner-towers was introduced into Co. Cork.

We are lucky to have these fine examples of  fortified houses in West Cork still. However, all of them  are in a perilous state of dereliction. Gearhameen’s owner has tried to stabilise the building and stave off collapse but all of them may eventually succumb to the natural ravages of time. That’s a sad thought.

An earlier version of this post was written in 2015, now edited and updated.

Heir Island Bread School – Revisited

A version of this post was originally written way back in 2013 but guess what? Patrick and Laura are still running their bread school on Heir Island, and are about to add a new one in Wicklow too. This is a live-in-the-memory experience and I heartily recommend it to anyone. Makes a great Christmas present! Check out The Firehouse website for more details and to register your interest – these course sell out fast! The bakery/cafe is now based in Delgany, Co Wicklow, and is a superb, and award-winning, spot for coffee or lunch.

What follows now is the post from 2103, but edited and updated. Apologies for the photo quality, these were my pre-proper camera days. But Robert and I, you will not be surprised to hear, don’t look a day older. Right?

January 2013: We got the most incredible Christmas present from Noah, Robert’s son! It was a day of learning to bake bread at the Firehouse Bakery on Heir Island, about a 20 minutes drive from Ard Glas. While Robert had some experience of baking with yeast, I had none, and considered myself yeast-phobic.

Our day started at 10:00AM with the short ferry ride to the  Island. (For more on Heir Island, see our post Heir Island – a Modern Paradise). We were picked up by Laura Moore who drove us back to the house/school/bakery and plied us with coffee and brownies to get us in the mood. The baker/instructor is Patrick Ryan, who ran his own bakery in Bath, England, and has written the inspirational The Bread Revolution with his bakery partner. He plunged us right into the process by introducing his four students to our bowl of sourdough, explaining what is was and how it worked. Patrick is passionate about sourdough and making real bread and feels many wheat and gluten intolerances (other than Coeliac Disease, of course) may be related to modern mass-baking methods.

Then it was all mixing and kneading and scraping until we had a loose ball of dough which was set aside to prove while we got on with the next project – in my case a granary ‘bloomer’ and pull-apart buns and in Robert’s some baguettes.

We moved on from there to muffins, flowerpot bread, orange cake, brownies, cookies and soda bread. I thought I was on more solid ground with whole wheat soda bread but this was soda with a twist – each of us made a different version. We made thyme, mustard and cheddar; apple and cider with caraway; honey, blue cheese and walnuts; and roast butternut squash and cheddar and each version took different shapes, including mini-muffin shapes.

All our bread was baked in Patrick’s custom-built outdoor oven, heated by burning logs inside it. At the end of the day we sat around a table eating Laura’s excellent soup and pasta – she had been cooking away all day as we were baking – with samples of our own bread. We divided all the bread between the four of us and headed back to the ferry. We have a freezer full of bread, a fistful of recipes, directions for sourdough starter, a sense of accomplishment, and memories of a warm and friendly learning atmosphere. What I don’t have? Yeast-phobia!