Moments on Heir

You will often find us visiting the inhabited islands of Roaringwater Bay. They are, after all, in full view of the panorama we see from our perch up here in Nead an Iolair (Eagle’s Nest), and easily accessible by regular ferry services. We like them because – who doesn’t enjoy a boat trip? Also, that little step from the mainland removes you to another world: places where life is lived a little differently, where you can feel slightly remote from the the most pressing issues of life, a little bit ‘on the edge’. Cape Clear, Sherkin, Long island – we have written about them all. And, today’s subject, Hare, or Heir: we have been there before but last week Finola was leading a wildflower walk on the island, and I went along for the ride, and a further exploration.

Colour on Heir: upper – Heir hedgerow, where wildflowers and garden escapees mix happily together; lower – Finola’s band of wildflower enthusiasts get caught up on the minutiae of the beach flora

It was a mixed, breezy day on the island, but dry for the group – two ferry loads and some furry four-footed minders to keep us all in order. Much time was spent poring over a myriad of plant species, some of which flourish on the West Cork islands more prolifically than on the mainland. I was interested in the land- and sea-scapes which changed quite dramatically with the movements of the tides.

Tides in and out: these two pictures near the wester end of Heir Island were taken within four minutes of each other!

A word about the island’s name: often seen on maps and signposts as ‘Hare Island’ (which of course makes my own long ears prick up!) it is supposed to have nothing to do with the animal. Today, the islanders will tell you that it derives from the past ownership of the lands by the O’Driscoll clan, and should be called Inis Uí Drisceoil (O’Driscoll Island) or Inis an Oidhre (Island of the inheritance – ie, of the O’Driscolls – or heir), hence the more usual modern name.

Yes, you can get pizzas and coffee on the island in the summer!

So is this island really a ‘Paradise’, as Finola called it in her earliest post? Undoubtedly! Away from the busy harbour it’s profoundly peaceful: bees, butterflies and wild birds are abundant. But it’s also haunted – as are the other islands of Roaringwater Bay. The past is always around you: reminders of a time when the population was far greater. The first official Irish census of 1841 showed a population of 358. The famine years caused fluctuations but in 1901 there were still 317 people living permanently on the island. Today this number has reduced to around 30 full-time residents, although there are many holiday homes on the island, and the summer population in present times can approach 150. This helps to support a cafe (above) and a restaurant (Island Cottage).

Island history: upper – Field of the Graveyard commemorates the burial of unbaptised children; lower – the Island School closed in 1976, when the resident population was around 50

Artist Christine Thery has been a full-time resident on the island for many years; her husband Gubby Williams helps with the ferry and has designed and built ‘Heir Island Sloops’. Christine is an active environmentalist and keenly involved in ensuring that Heir is sustainable and responsible in caring for its natural habitats; she was instrumental in organising Finola’s Wildflower Walk. Here is some of her work in her studio:

Heir is only a five minute ferry ride from Cunnamore Pier, yet the mainland seems a distant place once you are imbued with the innate atmosphere of island existence. The views from the north side of the island are dominated by Mount Gabriel, (pictures above). Five minutes – yet it seems such a step away from everyday life: long may beautiful Heir continue to support its fragile but tenacious resident population.

Skibbereen Celebrates: Arts and Artists

There’s seldom been as much sunshine in Skibbereen as we are seeing this summer: every day feels like a holiday, and there’s so much for residents and visitors to do – it’s going to be hard to keep up with it all! Coming soon is the launch of the Skibbereen Arts Festival (I love this great graphic!) –

On Friday night we were treated to the ‘Preview’ of the ‘flagship exhibition’ for the Skibb Arts festival, running from now until 6 August at The O’Driscoll Building, Old Quay in the centre of town. It’s titled Elements: West Cork Landscape and features works by 30 artists from the area. In fact, the sunshine and the excitement brought out practically every artist, anyone connected with arts, and a whole lot of West Corkonians and visitors to see what’s on offer.

The exhibition has been put together by Catherine Hammond (above, right, with Finola – standing in front of a Christine Thery canvas) and it’s great to see Catherine curating in Skibbereen again. The art here is strong and looks good on the bare concrete walls of the building, the vacant shell of which is a reminder of Celtic Tiger days, but it always works so well as a gallery.

The work of two artists struck us as soon as we entered the building on Friday: the bold, simple architectural forms of Helena Korpela (two examples above); Helena has connections with West Cork and Helsinki, which emphasises the breadth of art makers working here today.

Personal favourites in this exhibition, for me, are two new pieces by Michael Quane. This Cork born artist now based in Leap is well-known for his large public sculptures, but I like the dynamics of these two smaller works (header picture and above). Roaringwater Journal has reviewed many of the artists currently on show at The Old Quay: have a look at these posts on William Crozier, Terry Searle and Cormac Boydell – and let’s see some examples…

Upper – Crozier; middle – Searle; lower – new ceramics by Boydell. It was also great to see works from elsewhere in Cork: this canvas – by Jill Dennis – is impressive.

It wasn’t just the artists who produced the work that came to the opening: other familiar names in Ireland’s contemporary art world were also well represented. See who you can spot… *

So, everyone is here, everyone is enjoying the summer and Skibbereen is swinging! Art events not to be missed include the opening of Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger exhibition at Uillinn, and the related performance pieces and installaions which Finola is discussing in her post today, and also mentioned in her post last week. But those are only a fraction of the whole Skibbereen Arts Festival this year – we haven’t even started on the music, film, poetry or workshops: get hold of a programme and book up now – while there are still tickets available.

Angela Fewer – Off Heir Island

* John Kelly, Brian Lalor, Penny Dixey, Jim Turner, Keith Payne, Eion McGonigal, Peter Murray…

Heir Island – a Modern Paradise

You know that term, Island Paradise? Well, this week I went there. It’s called Heir Island, and it’s one of the inhabited islands of Roaringwater Bay. It was the first of many visits, I hope, and it was taken in the good company of Trish Punch and two Islanders, Christine Thery and Sarah Mathews.

This is the view of Heir Island from our own home – the grouping of houses behind the sandy beach is called Paris!

Heir (sometimes rendered as Hare) is Inis Ui’Drisceoil in Irish, and indeed it was very much part of the O’Driscoll territory up to the 1600s. The population has dwindled, along with that of all the islands, until now there are only about 20 permanent residents. But it’s a popular destination in the summer, with an active sailing school, a renowned restaurant (the Island Cottage) and of course the Bread-Making School that Robert and I attended and enjoyed enormously.

It’s got wonderful peaceful boreens, picturesque cottages, panoramic views over Roaringwater Bay and to the other islands, golden beaches – all this and it’s only a four minute ferry ride to the mainland. But shush – don’t tell anyone else or they’ll all want to come.

Trish is doing a long-term photographic project focusing on the islands of the Wild Atlantic Way and was keen to get back to Heir to capture the views. I had been following a Facebook Page called Heir Island Wildlife Project and had contacted Christine and Sarah, two of the admins on that page, to see if they would meet us when we came and tell us a little about their project. They did better than that, walking the length of the Island with us, and answering all our questions. (Not to mention the coffee and those Portuguese buns!)

I had boned up a little on the island plants, with the help of The Wild Plants of Sherkin, Cape Clear and adjacent Islands of West Cork by John Akeroyd et al, a publication of the Sherkin Island Marine Station that we had visited way back. The book outlines the habitats and growing conditions of the islands, and enumerates the “astonishing” richness of plant species that are to be found on them. Heir is second only to Sherkin in the number of Flowers and ferns to be found, several of which are nationally rare.

The islands ‘specialise’ in heathland species, due to the dominance of open ground, the lack of trees and the broken rocky nature of the terrain. As Akeroyd explains, Thin soils dry out during the summer, thus preventing encroachment by more vigorous species and allowing the plants themselves to die down and the seeds to ripen. Most of this group of plants are annuals more characteristic of southern Europe and the Mediterranean region. . . 

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And indeed what I found was an astonishing variety of wildflowers. When I got home I counted that I had taken photographs of 45 different plants! But that was only part of the wildflowers we saw, since I didn’t photograph everything we came across. Several were new to me, including the Amphibious Bistort and the Pond Water-crowfoot that had arrived unbidden in Sarah’s newly-dug pond.

Butterflies, hover flies and bumble bees seemed to be everywhere we looked. The orange-tip butterfly (the one that loves the Cuckooflower) wouldn’t stay still enough for a snap, but a Common Blue Butterfly with its iridescent wings, and a Cinnabar moth with bold stripes both cooperated.

At the West end of the Island rugged cliffs provide a perfect breeding ground for European Shags. These birds have been amber-listed in Ireland because breeding populations are very localised. Therefore, it’s important that they have found a suitable nesting site on Heir and it’s wonderful to see that this small colony seems to be successfully hatching their young. Looking quite like a cormorant and similar in size, up close they have a striking green gloss to their feathers.

The headland from which we observed the shags provided a carpet of spring heath on which to loll about and admire the views across the Cape Clear and the Mainland. My eyes were immediately drawn down, however, to the ground beneath me. Orchids, Wild Thyme, Thrift, Lousewort, and a beautiful rose-coloured Kidney Vetch provided swaths of pink and purple, while Milkwort and Dog-violet yielded hint of blue and Scurvygrass (Common, I think) rounded it all out with a mat of white flowers.

I didn’t find (or didn’t recognise) some of the very rare plants that grow on these islands, like Wormwood, Deptford Pinks and Spotted Rockrose. Obviously another expedition is called for!

I worry all the time about habitat loss in West Cork. The sound of the rock breaker is a constant in our lives, carving out new fields where there was heath and hedge, and thereby reducing food and shelter for our pollinators and small mammals. I feel despair when I arrive at my favourite place to see a certain set of wildflowers, only to find that someone has been in there with Roundup and it’s now a brown wasteland. Places like Heir Island have a unique opportunity, perhaps even a responsibility, to stay as pristine as possible, to remain an Island Paradise as long as possible for all our sakes. Fortunately, lots of the local residents think so too and that make me hopeful.

A glimpse into Christine’s studio – her exhibitions are always eagerly anticipated locally

Thank you, Sarah and Christine for a wonderful day, and Trish for your excellent company. Let’s do it again soon!