Fastnet Film Festival 2018

How do you run a film festival in a town with no cinema? You use technology! The festival’s motto is Our Village is Our Screen, and it’s totally apt. For the duration of the Festival, you can drop into any venue (pub, cafe, village hall, mobile cinema), order up a coffee or a pint, and enjoy one of the many free short film programs on offer. This distributed intranet is all organised locally (kudos to Digital Forge!).

It’s all run now from the new Film Centre: the old Schull bank building is being converted, thanks to generous endowments from William and Judith Bollinger and others. It will be a tremendous asset for the town and there are Big Plans for the building in the future.

Pauline Cotter – the Chair, and beating heart of the Festival

The marvellous Blue House Gallery organised a show with the theme of “Tribal” that included a series of films along with the art works.

One of the gallery rooms in the Tribal Exhibition: felt idols by Christina Jasmin Roser, ceramics by Etain Hickey and Jim Turner, and sculptures by Eyelet Lalor

Each short film lasts anything from two to eighteen minutes. We are so used to long movies that it comes as a revelation that a complete story can be told in such a format. If you’re not sure that this is actually possible, watch Happy Birthday Timmy. We watched in in the world’s tiniest cinema – only room for three.

It’s called The Closet Cinema

One of the shorts that really hit a chord with us was from Cartoon Saloon, Late Afternoonhere’s the trailer, but it doesn’t really give a complete sense of the colour palette that made this such a special experience. It’s from the celebrated Cartoon Saloon studio and it’s already won awards. We also howled through The Fountain, a fabulous conceit built around the re-disovery of DuChamp’s iconic work of art. The Festival Image this year was from a powerful short called Little Shit, with a moving performance by the young actor, Badger Skelton.

DuChamp’s Fountain, said to have ushered in a new era in modern art

Besides the short films from all over the world, there are feature length movies, along with question and answer sessions with producers, directors, actors, casting specialists, composers, set designers… Aspiring film makers can take a stunt workshop, or have their script critiqued by a laser-sharp expert, or learn how to make a movie using only an iPhone. We had the young star of Song of Granite (an Oscar contender) who gave us an example of his sean nós (old style) singing. Here’s the trailer of that film, which we saw in general release earlier this year and which made a powerful impact on us.

We attended a screening of The War of the Buttons, with the producer, Lord David Puttnam (beloved local), the Casting Director and several of the (not so young any more) actors. It was a joyful occasion. Not only is it a classic and thoroughly enjoyable movie, but it was shot around West Cork, and apparently was one of those movies where everyone felt like family afterwards.

The best movie we saw all weekend, hands down, was the Irish documentary Making the Grade, which believe it or not was all about piano lessons. The header photo for this post is from that movie. The Director, Ken Wardrop, was there to receive our standing ovation and to tell us a little about his technique. Here’s an Irish Times Review that perfectly sums up how we all felt about it.

More difficult to watch was Black 47, a film of the Great Hunger, shot as a kind of Western, with a Connaught Ranger returning from the British Army’s Afghanistan Campaign to find his family dead and the land devastated. It raised complex issues for us and lead to some pretty intense discussions afterwards. Interestingly, it seems to have divided the critics down the middle, earning a 50/50 rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But the Irish Times had a thoughtful review of it that also contains a link to the trailer.

Lance Daly, the impossibly young-looking director of Black 47

And in between the shorts and the big screen events the star of the show was Schull, buzzing with lively interchanges on the streets and in the pubs and cafes, conversations spilling out onto the streets, speedy young volunteers dashing around the venues, banners waving gaily above the crowds. Celebrities, actors, producers, directors, casting experts, script writers happily mixed it up with the locals.

Locals out with the camera – except that’s Chris O’Dell behind the lens and Jim Sheridan (in the white shirt) directing

And the locals themselves featured in several movies, including one (The Wheel) about our friend Sheena’s superbly restored mill-wheel. The hilarious duo of Eileen and Marilyn (aka Terri Lieber and Karen Minihan) played us out tonight with their own take on a local film, made with the help of a great local crew.

Coosheen Mill, home of Sheena Jolley the esteemed wildlife photographer, and the subject of one of the short movies

We didn’t attend the awards ceremony, but it doesn’t matter to us really who won – except for one thing. Over and over we heard people urging us to see The Swimmer, about local resident and marathon swimmer, Steve Redmond. We didn’t get to see it – but we do hope it won a prize as it seems to have riveted everyone who saw it.

THANK YOU to the incredible committee that puts this Festival together every year – what an amazing job you have done, again!

It’s a cake, locally made by a VERY talented baker

Ballyfin – Part 2: Decline and Revival

Last week Roaringwater Journal visited Ballyfin Demesne: I sketched out the early history of the house and Finola looked at the magnificent grounds. Today I’m bringing the story up to date. We got as far as the gracious Victorian and Edwardian days, when the Coote family were in residence, as they had been since 1813. The photo above dates from 1903 and shows a jaunting car waiting at the entrance to the house (Magan Collection): perhaps those days were not quite as settled as the halcyon period when the children of Sir Charles Coote were painted so fancifully in the early nineteenth century (artist: George Hayter – with the addition of a whippet painted by Edwin Lanseer!). The painting (below) is now a centrepiece in the Gold Room at Ballyfin.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were clouds on the horizon for the Anglo Irish families and their big houses, although life at Ballyfin seemed to maintain a continuum up until the commencement of the Great War. Generations of Cootes are remembered as having been good landlords and employers: on Sir Charles’ death in 1864 the most important members of staff were ‘handsomely rewarded’ in his will, while in the early 20th century the 12th Baronet, Sir Algernon Coote, paid the highest wages in the county – and ‘provided a comfortable house’ – to all outside labourers. In 1920, Sir Algernon died and was succeeded by his eldest son, Ralph,  the 13th Baronet. In the atmosphere of the Irish War of Independence, Ralph could no longer see a future in remaining at Ballyfin: ‘ . . . nothing would ever be the same again . . . ‘

A sad picture of Ballyfin – the house now abandoned and awaiting its fate in 1926

Sensibly – and most fortunately for today’s owners, Sir Ralph determined that the demesne should not be broken up and dispersed. He insisted that it should be marketed as one lot:

‘ . . . I have no intention whatever of dividing the demesne, the price is £10,000 . . . The figure is final and you need not bother to waste any time with anyone trying to reduce it. I would let the place fall down first . . . ‘

It was precisely one hundred years after the 9th Baronet had rebuilt Ballyfin to re-establish a permanent residence there.

So it was that, in 1930, Ballyfin set out on a new path in its development – as a school owned and run by the Patrician Brothers – a Roman Catholic teaching brotherhood. The only significant alterations to the house were the creation of a College Chapel in the old Dining Room (above), a dormitory across the north front of the first floor, and improved services. The immediate grounds were retained to provide productive gardens and the yards were filled with livestock.

Reports of life at the school from those who have memories of it are generally very positive, particularly because of the idyllic surroundings and features of the estate.  While the Patricians did their best to ensure that Ballyfin catered for the needs of a large secondary school and also strove to keep the entire demesne intact, in the end economic pressures and decades of slow decline took their toll. The Brothers closed the College in September, 2001, after 74 years of stewardship: once vacated, Ballyfin House was considered  by the Irish Georgian Society to be foremost amongst Ireland’s endangered buildings. It needed a saviour to rescue it. Fortunately, three appeared.

Above – an example of the declining fabric of Ballyfin during the twentieth century: Richard Turner’s iconic iron conservatory seems beyond repair, yet the reincarnation of the estate that commenced in 2004 has magnificently returned this architectural gem to prime condition, along with the rest of the house and Demesne. The conservatory was completely dismantled and – piece by piece – the ironwork was restored, then reassembled. Then a complete reglazing took place (practically every pane is a different size): in the days of the school the boys had found the glass an irresistible target!

In 2002, a Chicago based couple, Fred and Kay Krehbiel, became the new owners of Ballyfin and invited Jim Reynolds – one of Ireland’s leading landscape designers (who incidentally shared an archaeology education with Finola!) – to join them as shareholder and managing director on a project that was ‘ . . . a fundamental desire to recreate, primarily through restoration, the great hospitable tradition. the luxury and the atmosphere of the Irish country house . . . ‘ Ballyfin encompassed everything they had been searching for: ‘ . . . a great endangered house in a beautiful landscape that needed rescuing . . . ‘

The source of much of the history of the demesne recorded here is the impressive volume by Kevin V Mulligan, to which I referred last week. This extract is a good summary of the ethos and achievement of those who drove the project:

‘ . . . The primary aim of the new owners and Jim Reynolds has been to re-establish the integrity of the house and everything within the demesne walls – its historic buildings, gardens and parklands, and by opening the house to guests, to fulfil the hospitable intentions of the Irish country house. Since 2004 an extensive programme of restoration works has brought the house closest to its state following completion almost two centuries ago. It has taken eight years to achieve this, longer in fact than it had taken to complete the house in the first instance . . . ‘

This photo compendium indicates the high quality of the restoration and the attention paid to every detail, including the recovery and hanging of many of the original portraits showing the owners of the estate during its history.

Ballyfin today reflects one piece of the complicated jigsaw puzzle that is the history of Ireland. It paints a picture of way of life now in the past.  In today’s incarnation as a first class, small hotel it offers a distilled and polished experience of the best of contemporary Irish hospitality.

Ballyfin Bliss

If the house at Ballyfin is beyond superb (see Robert’s post this week), the grounds are equally so. Originally based on the design philosophies of Capability Brown, the emphasis is on natural and sweeping vistas, pleasure gardens, mixtures of open lawn and woodlands, tea-houses and follies artfully dotted around, an expansive lake with an island and with lawns leading down to the edge, and of course a long winding driveway that eventually reveals the best view of the house.

Somehow all these landscape features have survived intact at Ballyfin, although some of them needed to be rediscovered or uncovered. What has been added is a masterpiece of both enhancement and restraint, and the genius behind that is Jim Reynolds, the Managing Director of the enterprise that is Ballyfin Demesne. Jim and I share a past in Boyne Valley Archaeology, although we were in different camps (that’s another story) and I visited his famous garden, The Butterstream in Meath, with my mother in the early 90s. That was the last time I saw him until this week. Genial and self-effacing, he gives credit to his marvellous team, while they, to a person, talk about his eye, his vision, his expansive knowledge and his drive.

We spent two days walking, riding (in a horse and carriage) and driving (in a golf cart) around the estate, and we still haven’t seen all of its 640 acres. Entrancing is the word that keeps coming to me. It’s spring still (late this year) and the woods are awash in bluebells, mixed with Ramsons, Herb Robert and Greater Celandine.

The extensive trail system takes you around the lake and into the old-growth woods, where chestnuts and oak trees shelter vast swathes of colourful undergrowth.

The path meanders past the Grotto (every house should have one) which is not your typical Irish Lourdes shrine, but a rustic construction created to convey a sense of ancient ‘druidic’ mystery. Impressing and amusing your guests was important and grottos, temples and such like were a vital element of 18th century pleasure gardens.

When it comes to follies, the jewel in the crown at Ballyfin is the Round Tower. It looks old because it was built that way, as a ruin. They say that from the top you can see 16 counties. It’s a pleasant thing, as a couple of our fellow-guests did, to take a book up to the little room at the top and while away an hour or two before wandering back down to the house for coffee and a scone, mid-morning.

Jim and his team’s commitment to wild flowers and to pollinators is everywhere in evidence. The meadows are only cut once a year and as a result they are alive with the hum of bees and the flash of butterflies. Even the formal and kitchen gardens have areas set aside to attract pollinators.

As seems inevitable in Ireland nowadays, we also saw Japanese Knotweed on the demesne. Robert Pywell, the head gardener, told us that the rock garden was originally hidden under an acre of Knotweed. Only constant spraying/injection can address a Knotweed problem, and the program is ongoing for this invasive and persistent species.

He told us about another pest too – Ireland has a mink problem. Originally imported from North America for the purpose of fur farming, several hundred mink were “liberated” by animal rights activists in a nearby county years ago. Others have escaped, or been released by fur farmers over the years. They have no predators in Ireland and they are ferocious killers of ducks, swans, fish, rabbits and small mammals. They have decimated the waterfowl population at Ballyfin. Trapping them is difficult, but it has to be done. Lady Coote would approve – she loved her peacocks and built an aviary for them (above) that was, as our driver said, better than some of the houses round about.

Back to that rock garden (above) – once it was salvaged it turned out to be a glorious addition to the demesne. Built around an old millstream and pond, it hosts some delightful plants. A new one for me was Saxifraga Cymbalaria (sometimes called Celandine Saxifrage), which is not native and only known in a few places in Ireland. It obviously loves the rockery as it is flourishing and providing an attractive yellow ground cover.

Beautiful as this designed landscape was, once fully restored, something was missing and Jim Reynold’s unerring eye for detail knew exactly what was needed. What he did was to build a cascade down the back lawn, from an ornamental temple at the top to a Neptune pond at the bottom. It is the perfect finishing touch and has quickly become an iconic aspect of Ballyfin’s landscaping.

We loved our break at Ballyfin. Special treats such as this don’t come around often in the normal course of life, so we are grateful that we can enjoy the odd sortie such as this now and then. It was such a privilege to be able to appreciate the incredible work that has gone into restoring this house to its former glory and the wonderful staff that looks after it (and looked after us!) so proudly.

Thank you, Ballyfin!

Ireland’s Finest Prospect – The Story of Ballyfin Demesne, Part 1

There are two reasons why Ballyfin, in County Laois, was high on our list of Important Places To See In Ireland. One was the story that the name – An Baile Fionn in Irish – could mean ‘The Place of Fionn’ – and there is a legend that the great warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill was raised here, in the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. Fionn has left behind him so many traces all over Ireland that the place where he was – perhaps – born and grew up deserves pilgrimage status.

A place fit for a legendary Irish hero? Ballyfinn has associations with Fionn Mac Cumhaill. The lake which is central to the prospect from Ballyfin today was constructed by William Pole in the second half of the eighteenth century

An alternative translation of An Baile Fionn is ‘The White Town’, and the location has long had a reputation as a place of great beauty. Emily Fitzgerald, the Countess of Kildare – a remarkable lady who was illegitimately descended from King Charles II and who bore twenty-two children – wrote in 1759: 

. . . Yesterday, I saw a most delightful place indeed, much beyond any place I have seen in Ireland – Ballyfin . . .

The beauty of the Irish Midlands in the eighteenth century: Ballyfinn House can be seen in the centre distance of this pastoral view from 1784: beyond are the Slieve Bloom Mountains (painting by William Ashford)

In medieval times Ballyfin belonged to the O ‘Mordha clan but was lost during the Tudor conquest of Ireland. The process of Plantation (in which areas of the country were to be settled with people from England, who would bring in English language and culture while remaining loyal to the crown) was first implemented in Laois – then known as ‘Queen’s County’ after Queen Mary I – in the mid sixteenth century. It was a complicated and unstable period in British and Irish history, and Ballyfin saw many possessors ascend and fall until in May 1666 the estate of approximately 3,500 acres was conferred on Periam Pole, a recent arrival from Exeter in Devon. Pole and his son William expanded the estate, built a ‘modern’ house and reshaped the entire gardens and demesne. William planted woodlands and constructed the 30 acre artificial lake which is there to this day. The improvements were ‘grand and expensive and their designs were elegant’.

A view of Ballyfin engraved by William Beauford and published in 1794 shows the woodland, landscaped grounds and lake. The house  – which the Poles extended and improved – was described as ‘a rambling Georgian house’ although with no particular architectural merit

In the time of the Poles, Ballyfin began to build its reputation as one of Ireland’s grandest estates. However, it was not until the Poles were succeeded by the Cootes, in 1813, that the significant architectural statement that is Ballyfin today came into being.

Progenitors of Ballyfin: left – William Pole who died in 1781 (artist unknown) and right – Sir Charles Henry Coote who died in 1864 (artist John Hoppner). The legacy of these two families is a house and demense which are acknowledged as outstanding examples of their period – probably the finest in Ireland

Sir Charles Henry Coote already owned substantial estates close to Ballyfin, and it was timely and appropriate that he was able to purchase the demesne. He employed the father and son team of Richard Morrison and William Vitruvius Morrison as architects to rebuild the house, which is widely acknowledged as one of the most important examples of nineteenth-century neo-classical architecture in Ireland and is famed for its elaborate interior design.

A print showing the ‘new’ house designed by the Morrisons in the neo-classical style (1828 British Library). below – views of the house today

The picture above shows the west elevation of the house with the finely-wrought conservatory that was added in around 1855, designed and constructed by ironfounder Richard Turner, who was also responsible for the great Palm Houses at Kew and Belfast Botanic Gardens and the range of glasshouses at the Irish National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin. It’s my favourite part of the architecture – lightweight and elegant: seemingly timeless – it could be a contemporary structure.

Fine though the house is, it would fail without its context. The demesne is so important as a setting for the rather uncompromising architecture of the elevations. Finola has looked at the grounds and the surroundings. But it’s also the interior that sets Ballyfin apart as an icon of its time.

The Library at Ballyfin: upper – in Victorian days (Coote Archive); lower – splendidly restored, today

The Saloon: upper – a sketch from c 1855 by the Marquis de Massigny de la Pierre (Coote Archive); lower (and header picture) – the restored Saloon forms the centrepiece of the house today. Note the magnificent parquet floor

The Entrance Hall incorporates a Roman mosaic pavement: one of the art treasures brought over by Sir Charles Coote from his Grand Tour of 1822. The hall also displays a far more ancient antiquity: the antlers of Megaloceros Giganteus – the Irish Elk, recovered from an Irish bog and some 10,000 years old!
Details from the superbly restored marquetry flooring in the saloon – the most exotic examples to be found anywhere in Ireland

The first part of our story ends with the Cootes: the family owned Ballyfin until the 1920s. But there’s much more to tell about its succeeding time as a school – periods of neglect and decline – and, most remarkably,  its revival and return to distinction through one of the most complete and elaborate architectural restoration projects undertaken in Ireland in the 21st century. Ballyfin is now a first-class 5 star hotel where attention to detail in the service it offers is absolute: it has justifiably won many accolades and awards.

Afternoon tea on the Dining Room terrace at Ballyfin, c 1903 (Magan Collection)

The story of Ballyfin has been expertly and completely documented by Kevin V Mulligan in the volume Ballyfin – The Restoration of an Irish House & Demesne, Churchill House Press 2018. We are indebted to this author and his work. The architectural restoration and the incarnation of the house today is described in Part 2 of this post: Decline and Revival.

The Elemental World of Cormac Boydell

Perched on the very edge of Europe and facing into the Atlantic Ocean, the far west of Ireland is a terrifyingly beautiful place to set down your roots. Our own little spot, overlooking the comparatively calm reaches of Roaringwater Bay, faces into the winter gales and it’s a constant fight to keep the weather out: always a losing battle. But, could we live anywhere else? Certainly not. This week we met up with Cormac Boydell and Rachel Parry – two artists who live just about as far away as it is possible to be in wild West Cork. Like us, they battle with the elements; like us, they couldn’t envisage living anywhere else.

Cormac Boydell (header picture – in his studio) and Rachel Parry live on the edge of Ireland: their cottage and lush gardens feel as if they are carved out of the mountainside to seek maximum shelter from winter storms. They are well off the beaten track close to the end of the Beara Peninsula: the nearest settlement is Allihies (from the Irish Na hAilichí, meaning ‘the cliff fields) which was a centre for copper extraction in the Bronze Age and from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when generations of Cornish Mine Captains came here to manage the mines, providing work for a substantial local population.

Connection with the landscape is something that’s inherent in the make-up of Cormac Boydell. It must be significant that he started out studying and working as a geologist – getting to know the physical fabric of the rocks and the earth around him – before setting out on a more creative path, working with those very elements to produce exuberantly robust ceramic sculptures which are unique and highly sought after.

Cormac’s tools are his hands. He works raw terracotta clay and crafts the shapes of his pieces without wheel or mould. He applies colours and – most importantly – textures into the surface, and firing provides the finishes – not always predictable. For him, this is all part of the living process. But that’s the physical process: into the whole equation, also, are his close observations of the environment around him – the geology, textures and colours of the rock surfaces from the natural and cultivated landscapes. He sees the way rocks break and how they weather – how time is an element in their metamorphoses. Somehow, into all this surveillance and appreciation of nature he also makes stories. He finds inspiration in ancient sagas, particularly those from Ireland, as we saw in the exhilarating work on the walls of his studio.

Cormac Boydell is one of the important group of artists who came and settled in West Cork during the second half of the last century – a group whose lives and work have yet to be properly celebrated. Like many others of this group he has stayed for life and contributed to raising the profile of art produced in Ireland. In a catalogue of work produced by West Cork artists and displayed both in Skibbereen and the Crawford Gallery in Cork 30 years ago – Living Landscape ’87 – he writes this of his own contribution to that exhibition:

. . . Landscape is not the first term I would apply to my work. However I always welcome challenge. Breaking new ground stimulates creativity where repetition kills it. Experimentation, welcoming both failures and success, working out beyond the boundaries of my vision… that’s the excitement of art making. Using rock and fired clay as elements of the landscape, “Earthbone” expresses the spirit from which the landscape is formed . . .

Alison Ospina wrote in 2011 in the introduction to her book West Cork Inspires:

. . . Hidden down the leafy lanes of West Cork I have found artists whose work is of the highest calibre and should be considered of national importance . . . I have selected people working in a variety of media whose work has had an impact on other craftspeople and has been influential in developing West Cork’s reputation for excellence and originality . . .

In her book she writes of Cormac Boydell:

. . . Cormac’s work is organic and elemental, the earth is its source. It resonates across millennia from when the bedrock of this country was being laid down and speaks of torsion and vortices, glacial drift and the alchemy of fire. It taps into the energies of nature, to which it is inextricably linked . . .

One of my favourite new pieces from Cormac Boydell is this large plaque inspired by the story of the Irish Saint Éinne (also known as Saint Enda): the patriarch of Irish monasticism. He is the brother of St Fanchea (see Finola’s post about Irish women saints) and was a warrior until Fanchea persuaded him to lay down his arms. He went to Aran in 484 and founded the first monastery there but the local chieftain Corbanus intervened. Éinne’s response was to banish all of Corbanus’s horses from the islands. This is the scene which Cormac has illustrated and it’s one of a recent series which is based on myths and legends.

You could own a piece by Cormac Boydell! This ceramic – based on a story from the Finn McCool cycle – has been purchased by Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre gallery in Skibbereen, and will be on display there from this week until the end of the Art & The Great Hunger Exhibition which runs from 20 July to 13 October. While the gallery is open you can purchase draw tickets at only 5 Euros each: the prize, which will be drawn on the last day of the exhibition, is the Boydell ceramic. What an opportunity – every ticket stands an equal chance of winning this unique work of art! And all your contributions will be supporting the activities of the Arts Centre.

With grateful thanks to Cormac and Rachel for allowing us a glimpse into their world

Wild Wall

It’s a wall like hundreds of other such walls in the city, an old remnant of some enclosure long forgotten. It’s been heightened in a more recent period, although it’s not clear why.  ‘Round back’ of a plumbing supply place in Cork, people walk and drive by it every day without a second glance. But if you pause and take a close look it rewards with an astonishing variety of plant life.

In their magnificent book The Wild Flowers of Ireland:The Habitat Guide Declan Doogue and Carsten Krieger devote a chapter to Old Walls and Ruins. Here’s how they introduce that chapter: Walls, they say

. . .have over time been colonised by a number of plant species, some of which seldom live elsewhere in Ireland. . . . Buildings are completely artificial structures. Therefore the question arises as to where these colonising species lived before these walls were built. Some species were either deliberately or accidentally introduced by man into the country, usually for medicinal or ornamental reasons, within the past 1000 years and have become established or persist on walls. Another group of genuinely native Irish species made their own way, spreading from natural and usually rocky habitats within the Irish countryside onto the new buildings of the time. In both cases there were enough points of environmental similarity between the plants’ original natural habitats and the buildings of the Irish countryside to make it possible for them to extend their range and find new homes. In a sense an ongoing botanical battle between the native and newcomer was being fought on the fabric of these old buildings. This struggle comes complete with issues such as natural succession, colonisation, displacement, local extermination and sheer opportunism. The conflict continues to this day and can be observed in most older towns and cities.

Walls have other characteristics friendly to certain plants: the stones warm up in the sun and retain their heat into the evening, acting, as Doogue and Krieger put it, as a sort of storage heater. Lime-rich mortar allows lime-adapted plants to flourish even in non-lime areas. Microclimate and soil conditions on top of the wall can be different from those on the sides, or on south-facing versus north-facing walls.

This wall in Cork exemplifies everything Doogue and Krieger describe – native and non-native species growing side by side in an environment where it seems impossible that enough nourishment could be supplied.

Oxford Ragwort

Some of the plants have intriguing histories. Take the humble Oxford Ragwort, the one that looks like a yellow daisy. (This is not to be confused with Common Ragwort, or Buachaláns as they’re known in Ireland, which are on the Noxious Weeds list – although that’s another story.) It was introduced into an Oxford botanic garden in 1690 from Sicily, but soon escaped and was seen all over the walls of Oxford. The University of Bristol takes up the story from there:

During the Industrial Revolution, Oxford became a thriving railway centre and Oxford ragwort found a new habitat in the clinker beds of the railway lines that fanned out of Oxford to all parts of the country. These ‘furnished the plant with a replica of the lava-soils of its native home in Sicily’, said Druce in his Flora of Oxfordshire. Referring to the fruits (achenes) of Oxford ragwort, he said ‘I have seen them enter a railway-carriage window near Oxford and remain suspended in the air in the compartment until they found an exit at Tilehurst’ (near Reading).

Because this species hybridises readily with other Senecio species (other Ragworts and Groundsel), this site adds, the introduction and spread of the promiscuous Sicilian S. squalidus has resulted in a great deal of evolutionary novelty among British Senecio – an amazing example of evolution in action. I love the idea of a promiscuous plant.

Herb-Robert – surely one of our most-loved wildflowers

Herb-Robert is among our most commonly seen (and known) native wildflowers – a dependable spot of brilliant colour almost all year round in a huge variety of environments, with its frondy leaves turning a brilliant red as the season wears on. However, on this wall it was joined by a cousin – Shining-Crane’s-bill.

And this is Shining Crane’s-bill!

In fact, I had to do a double-take, as I had never seen this flower before and at first I thought I was looking at a miniature Herb-Robert. While it might be easy to confuse the flowers, the leaves are totally different, with the Shining Crane’s-bill leaves being smooth and hairless, almost waxy, with a distinctive shape. I wish all similar species were this easy to tell apart upon close inspection!

Shining Crane’s-bill – the flowers are smaller than Herb-Robert and the leaves are totally different

One of my favourite wall species has to be Ivy-leaved Toadflax – not a very pretty name for a truly spectacular flower. This is another Mediterranean plant, and we can blame Oxford for this one too, as it is thought to have hitched a ride on marble sculptures imported from Italy to Oxford in the seventeenth century. Once the flowers are finished, the seed heads bend away from the sun and towards the wall, dropping their seeds into the cracks – thus they are able to grow vertically up the wall.

Ivy-leaved Toadflax – every well-dressed wall should have some

At the bottom of the wall I thought I saw the ubiquitous dandelion, but once I looked closer I saw that the leaves were quite different. I think this is Smooth Sowthistle. Zoe Devlin of Wildflowers of Ireland tells me that the leaves can go this purplish colour in the absence of good soil. There are so many wildflowers that look, more or less, like dandelions – it has been a real journey of discovery to find out more about this large flower family.

Smooth Sowthistle and Ivy-leaved Toadflax in the act of climbing up the wall

Smooth Sowthistle is edible when young and has been used as fodder for animals. According to one authority I read, In Greek mythology Theseus is said to have eaten smooth sow-thistle to gain power before leaving to slay the Minotaur in its Cretan labyrinth, where it dined on human bodies, bull’s heads and young Atheneans.

Rue-leaved Saxifrage. It’s also pictured in the lead photograph at the head of the post, where you can see the basal rosette

Growing from the mossy ridges in the wall was a delicate little white flower with a reddish basal rosette, and this turned out to be Rue-leaved Saxifrage. Although it was new to me, this little native beauty is common in many parts of Ireland. As the season progresses the stem, leaves and rosette become redder – hence ‘rue-leaved.’

Red Valerian sprouting from the wall, with Oxford Ragwort and Ivy-leaved Toadflax. The tiny fern growing in the cracks glories in the name Maidenhair Spleenwort

We all know the plant known as Red Valerian, yet another Mediterranean import. I saw it growing in huge masses in the Burren a couple of years ago, meaning it’s one of those plants that enjoys the lime-rich environment provided by the mortar in the wall.

This is not, by the way, the Valerian that the sleep-aid tea is made from, the one that makes cats go loopy. It can also come in shades of pink and white, all growing side-by-side.

Keel-fruited Cornsalad (above) is also known as Lamb’s Lettuce, although it doesn’t look like the supermarket variety known by the same name. It is, in fact, very edible, with a kind of parsley after-taste and packed with vitamins (although you probably shouldn’t pick it anywhere near dog-height). The tiny blue/purple flowers reward examination through a hand-lens if you have one.

It took me a while to identify one little plant growing close to the pavement (above). It turned out to be Petty Spurge and, although it is not native to Ireland it’s been here a long time and has spread widely. It’s not usually as red-tinged as this when you see it in ID sources. It’s of huge interest to scientists at the moment because of the potential of its sap (a toxic latex substance) to treat common forms of skin cancer. Several rigorous double-blind studies have come to the same conclusion that it is an effective treatment for non-melanoma lesions. It’s a hardy little thing too – seeds found in excavations, dormant for a hundred years, can still germinate.

Finally, up on top of the wall is sprouting a Butterfly-bush (above); many of us know it as Buddleia. It’s well named, as butterflies love it. It was introduced into Europe by missionaries returning from China and it spread quickly as it will grow just about anywhere. What you see on this specimen are the remains of last year’s flowers: by June it will be hosting butterflies. Butterfly Bush may seem benign but like many other introduced species there is a dark side. First of all, as Tony O’Mahony points out in his Wildflowers of Cork City and County, it’s quite invasive and can take over and crowd out native species. The roots can do significant structural damage to the very walls it depends on for survival. More serious is the charge that, while it provides nectar for butterflies it is not a butterfly host plant – that is, one that butterflies can use to deposit their larva, which will then feed on the leaves. According to a spokesperson concerned about the destruction of chalk grasslands at Folkestone Warren in Kent: If left uncontrolled, then buddleia and other shrubs would have engulfed the chalk grassland. Clouds of butterflies used to be seen there, but now only common species can be spotted and even these are in decline, with the rarest ones disappearing altogether. Buddleia was eliminating butterfly habitat by killing off everything else, and while the shrub provided food for adults and larger insects, other plants were needed for butterflies in their larval stages.

So there you have it – it’s just like the human history of Ireland, full of invasions, adaptations, displacements and resurgence. All in a Wild Wall.