Black and White on the Sheeps Head

Some days, especially in the winter, just feel like black and white days. The sky is grey, the sea is silver, the rocks are black – colour drains from the landscape as atmosphere and mood creep in.

Now that we are allowed a bit more freedom of movement and association, we headed over to the Sheep’s Head yesterday for a walk with Amanda and Peter. We did one of our all time favourites, the Farranamanagh Loop Walk, which takes in Farranamanagh Lake and the O’Daly Bardic School.

We stopped on the way to look at Rossmore Castle, near Durrus. This is a fairly vestigial, probably fifteenth or sixteenth century tower house, probably built by the O’Mahonys but taken over by the McCarthy’s at some point. Not only is there not much left standing, but what is there is covered in ivy, so it’s hard to make out a lot of features. One thing that has survived up to a couple of stories, though, is the stairwell, with a few treads of the original spiral staircase still hanging on. 

Then it was on to our rendezvous with Amanda and Peter and the walk. I’ve provided a map, which comes from the Sheep’s Head Way website. As always, for your companion on any of these walks, we recommend Amanda’s book, Walking the Sheep’s Head Way, now in its second edition. You can buy it in all the local bookshops or get it online.

We started the walk at Dromnea car park (P on the map) and crossed the road to the short walk up to the Well of the Poets (430) (you can read more about the well here, and see what I am writing about in full colour) and on down the old green road. We walked along the road until the spot indicated by the arrow, then down to the shore.

The ‘castle’ marked on this map, by the way, is practically invisible – nothing remains except some rubble. This road leads you past a quirky little small holding that is locally famous for its eggs and jams – and for its alpacas!

Although we saw the alpacas yesterday it was the donkeys that caught my eye. Donkeys, although they are actually not native to Ireland, seem like such iconic Irish animals, beloved of postcard makers, with panniers of turf on either side.

Photographing in black and white like this makes everything seem at once nostalgic and old, as if I had been transported back a hundred years. If you don’t squint too hard at the houses you can imagine them as simple whitewashed cottages with thatched roofs. You can, can’t you?

From 410 you walk along the lake shore to a clapper bridge across the stream that drains the lake into the sea, and then uphill and back towards the Bardic School.

One of the lovely things about this particular walk is that you are looking across at the Mizen Peninsula all the time and on a day like this the impression is of a series of hills receding into ever more misty contours. The effect is ethereal and mysterious – see my top two photos at the start of the post.

The lake itself is home to the sons of the King of Spain in the form of swans. You can read that story in Robert’s post from way back in 2012, Of Kings and Poets. That post will also serve as an introduction to the Bardic School and its most famous poet, Aenghus O’Daly, The Red Poet. He may have made his home in the ruined castle marked on the map – it was an O’Daly castle, their only one in this area, and an indication of the power and prestige that accrued to bards.

The ruins that are nowadays pointed out as the remains of the Bardic School may indeed have been part of it and it was certainly right in this area. The views from them are so magnificent that the poor apprentice poets had to be locked into darkened rooms so they could concentrate on composing their stanzas.

As we write, the vaccination program for Ireland is being put together by an expert panel. We feel hopeful that future Sheeps Head walks can resume their gentle, charming rhythm without the underlying low-level fear that accompanies us at the moment. We are moving from darkness to light.

Of Kings and Poets

We are standing in one of the most beautiful places in the world… Or so it seems to us on this late November day as a cloudless sky casts an azure sheen over the whole sea stretched out between the Sheep’s Head and the Mizen, while the folds of the mountains behind are painted an indescribable autumnal gold by the low sun.

view west

We decided today that our Sheep’s Head walk would be by the water, and chose to start at Dromnea – where we were intrigued by mention of an old Bardic School. This is listed in the guide book, together with the nearby castle of the O’Mahony’s: both are picturesque ruins. In Feudal times, when they flourished, students of the school would serve a seven year apprenticeship which consisted of spending hours in a darkened cell composing poetry which was later read out to and critiqued by the whole company. They carried the traditions and history of families and communities, to be recited on their travels around the countryside, where hospitality for bards and minstrels was obligatory. The Dromnea School was owned and run by the O’Daly family, traditionally bards to the O’Mahony’s. The most famed of the poets was Aenghus O’Daly – also know as the Red Bard – who died in 1617. He is best remembered for his work – Tribes of Ireland: A Satire. As ‘research’ for our walk I read this – an 1852 edition available online: in a hundred or so verses Aenghus tells of his travels around the four provinces seeking hospitality from the ancient families of Ireland, as was the right of his profession. The whole work is a list of complaints as to how lacking the hospitality actually was. For example:

The tribe of O’Kelly—the screws whom I hate

Will give you goats’ milk, mixed with meal, on a plate

This hotch-potch they’ll heat with burnt stones, and how droll some,

Among them will tell you ’tis pleasant and wholesome.

and:

Three reasons there were why I lately withdrew

In a hurry from Bantry: its want of a pantry

Was one; and the dirt of its people was two;

Good Heavens! how they daub and bespatter

Their duds! I forget the third reason. No matter…

or:

Poor little Red Robin, the snow hides the ground.

And a worm, or a grub, is scarce to be found

Still don’t visit the O’Keeffe; rather brave the hard weather –

He’d soon bring your breast and your back-bone together.

Such was the reputation of the Dromnea Bards that the King of Spain sent two of his sons to the School to receive their education. They were both drowned while swimming in the lake by the castle: the story tells that they were turned into swans. We leave the ghosts of the school behind us and reach Lough Farranamanagh – a tranquil stretch of fresh water which flows out to the sea. We look across to the few stones that define the O’Mahony stronghold: sure enough, floating serenely in front of it are two stately swans.

After passing the time of day on the beach with a periwinkle collector (she exports great tubfuls of them to France) we walk for three hours, leaving the coast behind and going up into the the hills where we come across further ruins: this was once a village, and lazy-beds and ancient field systems are visible in the rocky moorland terrain. Finally we descend back to the now defunct old Ahakista – Kilcrohane road: a remote green trackway that has been given a new lease of life as one of the Sheep’s Head Way walking routes. This brings us back foot-weary but satisfied to our starting point after our tour through an intellectual and historical landscape in stunning West Cork.

A Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd

A Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd