New Year Resolutions 2019

Note of explanation from Finola and Robert: the Blog has taken on a mind of its own and decided he needs to make some resolutions for 2019.  He has asked us, his slaves faithful staff, to record these, as a means of keeping him accountable. Ours not to question why, ours but to do or die, so here goes, in his own words. . .

The Black Valley, Kerry

1. Spend more time in Kerry

It’s only next door, after all, and it’s in Finola’s blood, since her grandmother came from Killarney and she still has lots of lovely family there. So I’m determined they will take me there on outings a bit more often this year. There’s an ulterior motive too – you, my faithful readers, know that I often cosy up to that cheerful little Bloguette Holy Wells of Cork: she’s running out of wells in Cork but is enthusiastic about the idea that we can go jaunting off together on Kerry adventures.

2. Incorporate more music

I have to let you in on a secret – Robert is forever promising to learn new tunes for me, but then he comes up with all kinds of excuses why he’s not getting on with it. He’s too busy, it’s too hard, it’s not in the right key, blah, blah, blah. He’s finally sort-of learned this one, after weeks. We live in the heart of Irish traditional music – come on, people!

Staff member Robert trying to get it right – it’s called Pearl O’Shaughnessy’s Barn Dance, learned from Clare concertina player Mary MacNamara

3. Get on with that Saints and Soupers story

Honestly, that Finola, she leads us deep into this fascinating study of whether or not that Fisher guy was a saint or a souper, and then she goes off on one of her tangents about stained glass or wildflowers or whatever. I’m dying to know what happens next, so I’m going to have to lean on her to put the nose to the grindstone and get back to all those Protestants and Catholics and the actual famine part.

Michael the Archangel fights the devil – a powerful good versus evil metaphor in Altar Church

4. Get out to the Islands

It’s called Carberry’s Hundred Isles, for goodness sake – we can see them from the house (like Sarah Palin and Russia). Time to travel to more of them and get to know them. 

South Harbour on Cape Clear

I’ve been polishing up my Irish (or Blirish, as we Blogs like to say) and I need the practice, so Cape Clear needs to be on the agenda. I hear they have a good Blirish program out there, so ar aghaigh linn!

Staff member Finola and her sister on Cape Clear this summer

5. Finish the Fastnet Trail walks

This is a bit of a hangover resolution from previous years when I vowed to do all the Fastnet trails, but got a bit distracted with other walks and other projects. Besides, they’re adding to them all the time so if I don’t get off my desk and get out there soon the job will just get bigger and bigger.

Kilcoe Castle can be seen from several of the Fastnet Trails

6. Find more places to have breakfast

My staff loves going out for breakfast and I must say I am very partial to a nice plate of avocado toast and smoked salmon, with a good pot of tea to wash it down (although those two insist on lattés). They took me to the Box of Frogs in Bantry recently, and despite my misgivings about the name (I had a bad experience with a toad once) I had to admit the food was excellent. But, like all the humans I meet recently, I’ve been toying with the idea of eating less meat so I will persuade them to go to Antiquity Bookshop Café in Skibbereen for their tasty vegan food more often. BUT. . . see next resolution

Nicola surrounded by her stock in trade in Antiquity, West Cork’s first vegan café

7. Read the books!

The staff keep bringing more books (especially from Antiquity) into the house and they pile up beside me, making me feel guilty that I’m not keeping up. They built a new set of shelves and they are already filled. Honestly, in this day and age, you’d think someone would have invented some kind of scanner-to-brain technology so that Blogs like me wouldn’t have to work so hard.

Just one shelf – yikes!

I have more, but the experts say not to make too many. Right, friends – a little encouragement and I’m sure I will be fine, despite all the malingering and complaining of my staff. Onwards and upwards into 2019!

A Change to The Fastnet Lighthouse

Way back in 2014 I wrote about An Carraig Aonair: The Fastnet Rock and I have decided to repost that today, but with some updated information and photographs, because of an upcoming change announced by Irish Lights. Depending on the story, this is either a relatively benign but majorly cost-saving switch to LED lighting, or a change we must be vigilant about to make sure the Fastnet is left “intact and unharmed”.

Irish Lights tells us that structural repairs. . .are necessary to ensure the metal lantern room is properly secured to the granite tower and modernisation of the light source to an energy efficient rotating LED lantern. When these works are completed the outward appearance of Fastnet will be unchanged. The work will improve our environmental impact by significantly reducing the need for diesel and generators and by removing all mercury from the station. The range of the light will reduce from 27 to 18 Nautical miles.

This photo was taken from our house, 12 miles (or 10.4 nautical miles) away

While this seems like a sensible and inevitable modernisation, with (according to this letter to the Irish Times) a very significant saving of €100,000 per year, those of us who live around Roaringwater Bay want more information: we want to be sure that the change does not negatively impact on the safety of our sailors and fisherfolk, and does not rob us of the iconic flash that is so much part of our lived experience in West Cork. There will be a meeting on Monday (March 5, 2018) at the Schull Sailing Club to discuss it all.

What follows now is the text of my post from June of 2014, lightly edited and with some newer photographs inserted.

Robert has written about our field trip to Cape Clear Island and I can now reveal that the journey also included a thrilling sail around An Charraig Aonair (Karrig Ane-er, The Lone Rock) better known as the Fastnet Rock; or to thousands of emigrants for whom it was the last sight of their home country, Ireland’s Teardrop.

We had been looking forward with great anticipation to visiting the rock close up. We can see it from our home, a far away mystical crag abounding with lore and legend. We have been awestruck by the waves crashing over the lighthouse in winter storms and wondered at the lives of the lightkeepers who once manned that treacherous outpost. We watched through our telescope as enormous yachts rounded the rock in the biennial Fastnet Race last summer, following the progress of the race on a special iPhone app. I have written elsewhere about the awful tragedy of the 1979 race, in which Gerard Butler and his fellow lightkeepers on the Fastnet played a crucial role in monitoring the participating yachts in the mountainous sea conditions. 

The signal station and the first lighthouse, on Cape Clear Island

The Fastnet was built to avoid such tragedies. Its first iteration was in 1818 as a lighthouse tower on a high point on nearby Cape Clear Island, beside the Napoleonic-era signal tower. However, the light was frequently obscured by fog and after the wreck of the Stephen Whitney in 1847 with 92 souls lost, it became clear that the best place for a lighthouse was on the Fastnet Rock. 

The great era of lighthouse building in Ireland got underway in the mid-nineteenth century. The engineering, design and construction expertise necessary to build lighthouses are impressive enough. Add to this the logistics of building on a tiny and inhospitable rock in a heaving sea on the edge of the Atlantic, and the sheer accomplishment of the objective is  staggering. The first attempt, started in 1849, was of steel and needed constant repair.

The first lighthouse on the rock – it was made of steel and didn’t last

It was decided to replace it with a structure of Cornish granite and the current lighthouse first cast its beam over the waters in 1904. Eamon Lankford in his book Fastnet Rock: An Charraig Aonair describes the building process and provides old photographs illustrating how the granite blocks were ‘floated’ and hoisted on to the islet, having been first assembled and tested in Cornwall. The website Digital Irish Lighthouse Experience by Sandra Michler has an animated sequence showing how this was accomplished. it took eight years.

We were fortunate to have Eamon Lankford as one of our guides on our trip to the Fastnet

One of the best accounts of the building of the lighthouse was in a 2008 article in The Economist called Light on a Lonely Rock. The piece gives fascinating details into the dedications and hardships of the builders and calls the lighthouse “a monument of man’s gift to mankind.” I don’t know who wrote it, but it’s a terrific essay.

According to the Irish Lights website, Fastnet is the tallest and widest rock lighthouse tower in Ireland and Great Britain and was a monumental achievement when completed in 1904. Each of the granite stones of the tower is dovetailed into those around it, bonding the structure into a virtual monolith. This webpage also has several excellent photographs of the lighthouse from the air. What all photographs of the rock also reveal is that the lighthouse is a thing of beauty. Tall, slender and elegant and boasting two balconies, it personifies form and function in the most admirable fashion possible. (Take a look, for example, at Dennis Horgan’s website – he’s an acclaimed aerial photographer and his photograph of the lighthouse is probably the most iconic shot of them all.) Today the Fastnet is fully automated but in The Lightkeeper Gerard Butler describes what it was like to live on the rock in fair weather, when he fished and swam from the steps, and foul, when the seas crashed and roared over the lighthouse as it quivered and shook all night. 

The lighthouse showing the full extent of the Cornish granite and the stub of the old steel tower

One of the stories we heard from Eamon concerned  a daring midnight raid on the lighthouse carried out by an IRA ‘Flying Column’ (experts in guerilla warfare) in 1921 during the Irish War of Independence. They were after the explosives used on the Fastnet to power the foghorn. In researching this story further, I found an article in the 1999 Mizen Journal (no longer in print) by Frank Lannin, based on the eyewitness statement of Sean O’Driscoll.*

The Rock, showing the landing platform, steps and store

Here is part of Lannin’s account:

The breeze had freshened and caused the usual swell around the Rock and there was a rise and fall of several feet. The anchor was let out and the boat moved slowly to the landing place. Positioned on the bow was John O’Regan, a rope tied around his waist, a revolver in his pocket and balancing himself with the rise and fall of the boat. He would have to select the right moment to jump on the Rock and catch the iron ring which was fixed to the Rock. He knew where the ring was fixed, but to grasp it in total darkness was a feat that few would attempt. His vast experience as a seaman was now to be put to the test. As a wave was rising he jumped. It was a tense moment. As the wave covered him he grasped the ring with both hands. (It was an occasion for handclapping, but not tonight.) In seconds he had made the boat fast and the rest of the raiding party were landing on the platform. The huge steel door of the lighthouse was not locked. John was first up the spiral stairway leading to the room where the Lightkeeper was on duty. He put up no resistance and as a precaution the wireless was dismantled. Seventeen boxes of gun cotton and three boxes of detonators and primers were loaded on to the “Maire Cait” by means of the lighthouse derrick. in all, the spoils weighed but one ton. The daring mission was accomplished.

The Third West Cork Flying Column

The fog signal, together with the light, was an important aid to navigation for ocean going vessels. It was only in 2011 that the Fastnet foghorn was permanently discontinued, as modern navigation equipment rendered it unnecessary. All around the world people are missing the haunting sound of foghorns now, a sound so many of us grew up with. But at least we can see the light from Carraig Aonair every night and count its ‘character’ – one two three four FLASH…one two three four FLASH – and know that it’s doing its part to keep our mariners safe on the seas that roll outside Roaringwater Bay.

*See pages 18 to 20 of Sean O’Driscoll’s statement for his dramatic story of the raid.

 

Own a Piece of Ireland (Best Christmas Present EVER!)

Have you dreamed of owning a little slice of heaven in Ireland? Here’s your chance! Buy a tiny plot on Cape Clear Island for yourself or for someone else and when you do, you’ll know that not only are you giving someone possibly the best Christmas present ever but you’re also doing your part to conserve an important chunk of the natural world.

Dennis Horgan’s incredible photograph of Cape Clear Island from the air showing the whole of the Island, and its relationship to Roaringwater Bay. The land the Trust is purchasing lies on the east (right) side of South Harbor, in the centre of the picture. For more on Dennis’s photography and his latest book, see the end of this post

Chuck Kruger and his wife Nell recently left Cape Clear after half a lifetime there. An iconic figure, he wrote and told stories about the land he adopted and came to love. He founded the marvellous Cape Clear International Story Telling Festival and his leaving to return to the US leaves a huge hole in island life.

The photograph above is, poignantly, of Chuck on his last guided walk on the Island and was taken by Sandra Bottcher. Have a look at Chuck’s website for more about his writing and broadcast work.

One of the ancient stone walls that define the fields along the South Harbour

Chuck and Nell’s farm bordered the South Harbour and the Islanders, rather than let it go into private hands, have formed a trust to purchase it. The plan is to provide open access to all, and to ensure that no future development can intrude upon this pristine area.

The Red Trail leads you around the southeast side of South Harbour – here, last June we viewed wildflowers, immense sea views, a dramatic sea arch and an abundance of Basking Sharks

You can purchase a five square metre piece of Trust land for €50 (currently that’s about $60US, $75CAN, or £45) or a ten square metre plot for €100 ($120US, $150CAN or £90). Just pop along to the Trust Website and choose the SHOP tab. Join Robert and me in making open access to this little patch of paradise in perpetuity a reality – it will be the best money you have ever spent!

Walking the Red Trail

Cape Clear is a very special place – an Irish speaking area (or Gaeltacht) accessible only by ferry, rich in tradition and history, and an important habitat for wild plants and creatures. We’ve written about Cape Clear in this post, and in this one, and we are fortunate indeed to enjoy a view of it from our home.

Above, Cinnabar Moth; Below, Marsh Orchids

It’s also very beautiful. Robert and I have enjoyed our trips there very much: in fact, last year my birthday present from him was a two-night break in Cape Clear. We spent our time exploring and hiking the Island, observing the Basking Sharks, and visiting the remains of the Neolithic Passage Grave, original home of the Cape Clear Stone. One of our walks was along the Red Trail – the very area that is now in the Trust.

Sea Campion

If you’re hankering after your own piece of Ireland in other ways too, allow us to highly recommend Cork from the Air by Dennis Horgan. Dennis is one of Ireland’s supremely talented aerial photographers and his latest book captures Cork as you have never seen it. He very kindly permitted me to use his incredible photograph of Cape Clear from the air – thank you, Dennis! The book is available on his website, or if you’re in Ireland already, in all good bookshops.

Go on, head over to the Cape Clear Island Trust website now – you’re just in time for Christmas!

Cape Clear

Distant Cape Clear - with solar effects

Distant Cape Clear – with solar effects

Always in our view from Nead an Iolair are the many islands of Roaringwater Bay: sometimes they are referred to as ‘Carbery’s Hundred Isles’. The largest of them – and the furthest out into the Atlantic – is Cape Clear. From our vantage point in Cappaghglass it sometimes floats on the horizon like a great seal under brooding skies, yet with the clarity of summer skies every hillside cottage can shine like a white jewel. I visited the island for the first time last weekend, drawn to its isolation and history – and by its own Saint – Ciarán, born on this most southerly point of Ireland and preceding Saint Patrick by some generations as the ‘Apostle of Eirinn’.

ghaeltact

Cape Clear is a place apart. It is one of the Irish Gaeltacht areas – where Irish Gaelic is spoken as the first language. Oileán Chléire is the Island of Ciarán, and one of the first things to be seen after landing is an ancient stone by the quay – said to have been placed there by the Saint himself – and his holy well – while nearby are the ruins of an ancient church and burial ground.

Saint Ciarán’s life has inspired some colourful stories. Before he was conceived Ciarán’s mother (Liadán) had a dream that a star fell into her mouth. She related this dream to the tribal elders who were knowledgeable of such things, and they told her that she would bear a son whose fame and virtues would be known as far as the world’s end. Ciarán’s first disciples included a Boar, a Fox, a Brock and a Wolf: they all became monks and worked together to build the community.

An interesting find: Ciarán as a Celtic God by Astrella

An interesting find: Ciarán as a Celtic god by Astrella

An unusual incarnation of the St Ciaran / Piran legend!

An unusual incarnation of the St Ciaran / Piran legend!

The Saint is also recognised in Cornwall, where he is known as Piran (or Perran) – scholars argue that in some ‘Celtic’ languages the C sound is interchangeable with the P sound. Certainly there is a legend that the Heathen Irish tied St Ciarán to a millstone and dropped him into the sea – and he then floated across to Cornwall where he converted the Heathen Cornish. Whatever the basis of this, both Piran and Ciarán share the same Saints Day: March 5th – which is also my birthday – so that puts me firmly into the picture!

Writers in the past have commented on the island’s particular character:

“…The natives of Cape Clear are distinct in a great measure from the inhabitants of the mainland; they have remained from time immemorial as a separate colony, always intermarrying amongst themselves; so that we must regard them as amongst the most typical specimens at the present day of the old Milesian race. The name of nearly all the islanders is O`Driscoll or Cadogan, the later being only a sobriquet for the former. Baltimore and Cape were originally the stronghold of this family, the principal Chieftain, O`Driscoll Mór, residing in Baltimore. There can be no doubt that they were the aboriginal race residing along the sea-coast of Carbery. The isolated position of the island and its difficulty of approach, have kept the population in a comparatively antique state and distinct condition during the lapse of centuries, so far as nationality and descent. Until the year 1710 Cape was an established monarchy, and an O`Driscoll – the head of the clan- was always styled, “King of the Island”. They had a code of laws handed down from father to son. The general punishment was by fine, unless some grave offence was committed, and then the delinquent was banished forever to the mainland, which was looked upon as a sentence worse than death…’ (from Sketches in Carbery by Daniel Donovan,1876)

Dunanore – engraving by W Willes 1843

Our visit was organised by the Skibbereen and District Historical Society, and was masterminded by past Chairman Brendan McCarthy. He had arranged for the sun to be shining all day, and for the sea to be the calmest that anyone had known for years. A bonus was the presence of Dr Éamon Lankford – a knowledgeable and erudite local historian and toponymist whose projects have included setting up detailed place name archives for Cork County, Kerry, and Cork City. There are now over 200 large volumes of historic place name references and the work is still under way: examples from the city survey include Black Ash, Cáit Shea’s Lane, Murphy’s Farm, the Snotty Bridge, The Shaky Bridge, the Boggy Road, Tinker’s Cross, Skiddy’s home… Éamons unbounded energy has not stopped there – he has gone on to set up and run the Cape Clear Island Museum and Archive and written books on the Island’s people and landscape, on Saint Ciarán, on the Fastnet Rock, on Cape Clear place names- and has set up the Cape Clear Trail… Phew! We walked up the (very) steep hill to the Museum, which is housed in the restored old school building, and no-one could fail to be impressed by the sheer volume of information and artefacts it contains. Volunteers are needed to help run it through the summer months, so anyone fancying a bit of island life please make contact through the website. On our ferry trip from Baltimore and in the Museum Éamon kept us entertained and educated with stories, history and local lore.

I was keen to visit the Museum because I knew it housed a replica of the passage grave art (carved stone) found on Cape Clear and now believed to have once been part of a passage tomb on the highest point of the island – Cill Leire Forabhain. In 1880 the original stone was turned up in a field and taken across to Sherkin by the then curate of that island to ornament his garden. He left Sherkin only a year later, and the stone became overgrown and forgotten. It was rediscovered in 1945 and given to the Cork Public Museum where it is now on display. The carvings on this stone are in the style of the other spectacular decorated stones in the Boyne Valley and at Loughcrew, rather than the simpler Rock Art we are working on in West Cork and Kerry (although this ‘simplicity’ is belied somewhat by the recent discovery at Derreennaclogh). Beside the replica stone in the Museum is a smaller piece of Rock Art, although debatably labelled as being caused by ‘solution pits’.

MV Cape Clear - built in Glasgow in 1939; went down in the Red Sea 1944

MV Cape Clear docked in Vancouver – built in Glasgow in 1939; went down in the Red Sea 1944

There is so much more to say about Cape Clear: it has given its name to a settlement in Victoria, Australia, supposedly named by gold miners from Ireland, and also to a number of ships built in Scotland. Talking of ships, the surroundings of the island have seen many a shipwreck: more than 50 wrecks have been recorded off Cape Clear between 1379 and 1944. This is partly because of the proximity to the notorious Fastnet Rock. FASTNET

We have to revisit Cape Clear again in the not too distant future, when we can devote more time to a full exploration of the island: it comprises 7 sq kilometres and 16 townlands. This time, however, it was down to the harbour for an excellent lunch before embarking on the ferry for the next stage of the trip to…. But that story must wait until another time!

harbour

For me, small island communities have a very particular feel: it’s not just the silence and closeness to nature, but a real awareness of how fragile, yet tenacious, the tenets of human existence / subsistence can be. As I write this, Cape Clear is romantically shrouded in mist out there over the bay: only the highest ridge, the cairn, the watchtower and the old lighthouse visible in grey silhouette. It’s a place that will pull us back across the water very soon.

today

Today’s view of the Cape from Nead an Iolair