Accessible August 

It’s been a very busy week! The best part about it was that my sister, Aoibhinn (pronounced Eeving), is visiting and she and I were able to do lots of things together. That’s her in the coral jacket, above. You see, she has ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and she was really nervous about her ability to participate in the activities I had booked or planned, or stay the course once on them. 

Aoibhinn does really well at managing her condition, but she has to be very careful or she can end up in a major crash. She struggles with tiredness and pain all the time (sore joints, headaches) but finds that sea swimming helps her cope mentally, so she was up for one of the things we planned to do together, our Dawn Swim and Pilgrimage with Gormú. We met Conor and Celine, and two other participants at Castlehaven and started off by walking the short way up to the Holy Well, where we heard of St Barrahane. Readers may remember Conor from the Placenames post.

Next came the swim. While Aoibhinn opted for a short immersion, I surprised myself by swimming all the way to Faill Dic, with encouragement from Conor, and the lovely safety valve of a float if I needed it. Breakfast was so welcome – porridge, fruit and hot tea made by Celine and Conor (below) – while we listened to more stories, all set around the cove we were in. It was a fantastic experience – I highly recommend it!

The Ellen Hutchins Festival and Heritage Week are both in full swing this week, so there are any god’s amount of things to choose from. We concentrated on botany and butterflies during the week and ended with stained glass and history yesterday. 

Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington and Nick Scott led us through the Glengarriff Woods. While this walk involves an uphill section, the pace is easy because it involves lots of stopping to talk about the plants we encounter along the way. We loved Nick’s descriptions of the forest environment, and all the layers that make up the plant life from the canopy down. And we were riveted by Micheline’s focus on the Arbutus (AKA the Strawberry Tree), a rare tree that occurs only here and in the Iberian Peninsula. 

Micheline is investigating her theory that it may have come with the Bronze Age miners who came to exploit the rich copper resources of West Cork and Kerry. Her recent article in Archaeology Ireland sparked my interest and I was thrilled to be able to go along on this walk with her.

The photograph above illustrates the challenges in tracking Arbutus trees – they grow on cliffs and in inaccessible places.

Our Wednesday walk was organised by the Cork Nature Network and was led by my friend Damaris Lysaght, a real local expert in plants and butterflies. And as if that wasn’t enough, it was at Three Castle Head, one of the most beautiful spots in Ireland and a place dripping with history

Once again, although this walk involved picking our way through long grasses and scrambling over rocks, the pace was slow, with frequent stops to ooh and aah over butterflies and hear Damaris talk about their habitats and plant requirements. Some of the plants were so tiny that we had to see them through a hand lens to really appreciate them.

We had a rest day on Thursday, and on Friday it was time for Seaweed and Sealing Wax 2. This was the second production masterminded by Karen Minihan, based on the correspondence between Ellen Hutchins and Dawson Turner. See Robert’s post from last year for an account of Seaweed and Sealing Wax 1. This year, we were joined by the poet, Laura McKenna and the botanical artist Shevaun Doherty. That’s Shevaun surrounded by audience members in the top photo of this post, while Laura is in the photo below.

While Karen and I led the audience through the letters, Laura read a selection of poems that responded to Ellen’s life and work, and Shevaun worked away on painting a piece of seaweed, explaining her process to the audience at one point. 

At the end, Madeline Hutchins, Ellen’s great, great, grandniece, showed us some of Ellen’s books and letters. As with last year, we were under a tent in the grounds of Sea View House Hotel, right next door to where Ellen herself had lived in the opening years of the nineteenth century. 

We finished the week with a trip to Timoleague, where I was booked to give two stained glass talks at the Church of the Ascension Open House. This is part of a huge community effort to save and safeguard the fabulous mosaics in this church and I am always thrilled to be a part of it. Take a look at this video by the Rev Kingsley Sutton, Touching Heritage, to get an excellent overview of the whole project.

The church is truly one of West Corks hidden gems, and the fund-raising effort needs all the help it can get. In between the talks, we were whisked off to lunch at a fabulous private house right on the sea. Nice work if you can get it!

So – it’s been an incredibly busy week of flowers, talks, and butterfly hunting (above) and I am feeling it now. But all of our activities were  accessible to Aoibhinn, with time to rest in between, or go for a lovely dip locally. So – if there’s anybody out there who wonders if you would be able for a botany walk or a dawn swim and ‘pilgrimage’ – no need to be intimidated by a title or a description when the pace is leisurely and, as Aoibhinn found, there’s always a handy rock to sit down on for a while.

Boulders, Books, Boats and Bogs

I bet you can’t wait for more of me banging on about August in West Cork – so let’s get to it! Our week has involved all of the above, and I resisted the urge to add the word Bryophytes to the title. You’re welcome.

The boulders? Shorthand for Boulder Burials, just one of the ancient monuments we visited this week with Konstanza and Christiana, two of the artists in residence with the Crespo Foundation. They are both from Greece and collaborate on documentary and sound-based projects, and Konstanza is also an archaeologist. It was great fun to introduce them to some of our favourite sites on the Mizen, from rock art to wedge tombs, standing stone and boulder burials. 

And then it was time for the Rare Book Fair, the brainchild of Holgar (below) and Nicola, who run, respectively, Inanna Rare Books and the Antiquity Bookshop and Plant-based Cafe. This is the inaugural fair and it took place out at the luscious Inish Beg Estate. 

We love Inish Beg – nothing beats a good wander in the gardens and woods there – but even though we’ve been there several times, we were unprepared for the sheer magic of just getting to the book fair from the car park, all part of the experience.

Of course we couldn’t come away without a few books, but the best part was just chatting to the booksellers – a passionate and knowledgeable group – and sitting outside sipping a cold drink and leafing through our purchases with other like-minded folk. Bliss!

This book fair has the potential to become a very enjoyable permanent part of the West Cork Festival scene and I hope it does. On to Ballydehob and the annual Boat Gathering, or Cruinniú na mBád. Here’s my account of it in 2017 and in 2019 I had the wonderful experience of travelling in one of the boats with my friend Jack. 

This is just a fantastic community event. The whole village gathers on the quay, there’s music and burgers and the crack is mighty. But it’s the sight of the boats, in full sail, coming up the bay on the rising tide, that is the big draw and takes us back to the days when this was a common sight. 

And talking of boats and Ballydehob, we also took part in Inbhear, a sensory experience featuring the pedalos which used to be a common sight in Ballydehob Bay many years ago. Check out Robert’s post for his account of this – it was lovely.

That leaves us with bogs . . . and the first of these was to attend, in the attractive surrounding of Glebe Gardens in Baltimore, a local production of By the Bog of Cats (above), a play by Marina Carr, loosely based on the Greek tragedy of Medea. This is a powerful, multi-layered and haunting story of betrayal, abandonment, longing and revenge. It debuted in the Abbey Theatre in 1998 and has had many international productions (think Broadway and West End) since then. The Director, Terri Leiber, elicited outstanding performances from her cast, and the standing ovation at the end of the evening was well-deserved.

And the second bog? That was today, and although not the first event of the Ellen Hutchins Festival, it was the one that kicked it off for Robert, me and my sister, Aoibhinn, visiting from Dublin. Led by eminent botanist Rory Hodd, and provided with hand lenses, we tramped over the high land above Bantry, on a quest to understand more about heathland and boggy environments.

Rory is an acknowledged expert in this area, and it’s a real privilege to be on a walk with him. He knows everything, but manages to make it all accessible to the layperson. He explained how mosses, bryophytes, lichens, heathers and other plants interact to form the complex ecosystem that make up heathland and bogs.

I now know that ‘sedges have edges’ is not a reliable rule of thumb, and that the Purple Moor-grass that almost defines the winter bog landscape in West Cork (called Fionnán, or blond grass) actually decreases bio-diversity, and that one handful of plants can contain several different species of mosses (including invasive ones from New Zealand!) and liverworts!

And all of this in the most glorious landscape, with a view down all three peninsulas, the Mizen, Sheep’s Head, and the Beara, with a prehistoric wedge tomb at one of the high points (along with Ireland’s most unsympathetically located electricity pole) just to add some non-botanical interest.

The Ellen Hutchins Festival continues all week, and you can still get tickets to many events. The one I play a part in, as MC, is on Friday. It’s called Seaweed and Sealing Wax 2, and it charts the correspondence between Ellen and Dawson Turner, continuing from Part 1 last year. It’s free but you have to register. Hope to see you there – come and say hello.

Seaweed and Sealing Wax

Finola has been involved in the Ellen Hutchins Festival since it began in 2015 – the 200th anniversary of the death of Ireland’s first female botanist. This year she was asked to help organise and MC an outdoor event, and has had a very busy time – together with her collaborators – leading up to this. On the day – last Friday – I went along to see the culmination of their hard work, and I thought I would share the experience with you.

The weather forecast for that day was atrocious! Heavy rain and thunderstorms were predicted for the duration, and we set out for Ballylickey with some trepidation. However, as is often the case in West Cork, the weather forecasters were confounded. Nevertheless, the Festival team had prepared for all eventualities and we arrived in time to contribute to the setting up of a shelter made from a silk parachute and a number of wooden poles. The transformation of an empty area of lawn in the gardens of Seaview House Hotel into an impressive performance space in a very short time was quite remarkable – and a visual treat – as the swirling mass of silk was tamed by our team, directed by Seán Maskey.

Watching (and, indeed, participating) in this constructional triumph, I was taken back to the days when I lived in Cornwall and followed the escapades of two theatre groups there: Kneehigh Theatre and Footsbarn. Both started out as small troupes of travelling players who took their performance spaces with them and incorporated the action of creating and erecting their transitory auditoria into their shows: all part of the visual entertainment. Both those groups have evolved and travelled far away from their roots, but the evanescent nature of their early shows has stayed with me, to be pleasantly awakened by the happenings at Ballylickey.

To see where Ballylickey fits in to the story of Ellen Hutchins, have a look at Finola’s post from 2015. Ellen was born in 1785 in Ballylickey House and lived much of her short life there. Seaview House – now the Hotel – was built partly in the grounds of the Hutchins family home, so it is a fitting venue for Festival events, as we know that we are following her own footsteps as she became interested in the world of plants and seaweeds which she discovered all around her as she was growing up.

. . . Ellen was a pioneering botanist who specialised in a difficult branch of botany, that of the non-flowering plants or cryptogams. She discovered many plants new to science and made a significant contribution to the understanding of these plants. She was highly respected by her fellow botanists and many named plants after her in recognition of her scientific achievements.In addition to being an outstanding scientist, Ellen was also a talented botanical artist. Botanical drawings serve science in a very important way . . .

Ellenhutchins.com

That’s Finola (above) introducing the subject of the day: the correspondence that passed between Ellen and Dawson Turner of Yarmouth, Norfolk, who had become a recognised authority on botany in early 19th century Britain, even though this was always a leisure pursuit: professionally he worked for his father, who was head of Gurney and Turner’s Yarmouth Bank and took over his role on his death. Dawson wrote numerous books on plants and got to know the leading botanists of the day, including Ellen. Amazingly, one hundred and twenty letters between her and Dawson survive. Those from Dawson Turner to Ellen are held by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and those from Ellen to Turner are at Trinity College Cambridge. Friday’s event was a reading of a selection of these letters. On Finola’s right, above, is Karen Minihan, an actor and drama director who lives in Schull: she read the letters from Ellen. Moreover, it was she who selected and organised the extracts – which were the heart of the performance.

Above are the two other performers: on the right is Mark O’Mahony from Cappaghglass – he is a part-time actor, and here he reads the letters from Dawson. On his right is Carrie O’Flynn. She is a historic re-enactor and researcher: she appeared as Ellen, in authentic period dress, and provided really illuminating interpolations between letter-readings, informing us about the act of letter-writing itself in the early 1800s – the ink and quill pens; the postal service; Ellen’s probable appearance and dress (there are no surviving portraits of her) and the difficulties which Ellen would have had to face in pursuing here chosen interests, especially as she was herself quite frail and was for many years the carer of her own mother. Her achievements in the light of all this are truly remarkable, and Carrie succeeded in bringing this out with her contributions. Below she shows us the brass microscope that Ellen used – an essential item of equipment for her work.

As the reading of the letters progressed it became gradually obvious that a deep friendship was developing between the two botanists, and the language reflected this. Particularly telling (and this was drawn out in the selection of the letters) was the way the missives were framed as time went on. From a simple, almost curt formality in the earliest, we begin to read how their shared interests extended beyond the botanical; they exchange newly discovered poetry; Dawson tells Ellen that he has named his newly-born daughter after her; they imagine how they would like to meet each other and walk their favourite landscapes together. Each sends the other packages containing examples of the plants and seaweeds that preoccupy them, and their greetings at the top and tail of every page become increasingly warmer. We, the audience, open our imaginations as to how a happy fulfilment could ever metamorphose – West Cork and Norfolk are as far apart as any two place could be in early 19th century Britain. Poignantly, we learn that they never met: Ellen – always in poor health – died in 1815 at the age of twenty nine. We can only imagine that Dawson, remote in Norfolk, was desolate.

Important to our day – apart from the presenters and actors – were Madeline Hutchins (above – showing us some of Ellen’s drawings of seaweed), great great grand-niece and a co-founder of the Festival; and – behind the scenes but essential – the team, including Clare Heardman, co-founder of the Festival and a Conservation Ranger at the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Here’s Clare in action setting everything up – and running the Festival shop:

We had a further treat in store for us after the show: we were taken on a guided tour of some of the environments which Ellen would have known and explored during her life at Ballylickey. This felt really special, and brought us close, again, to the extraordinary young woman whose short but productive life we now celebrate here in West Cork.

Please note that Ballylickey House today is private property, and visitors should not seek access. There is plenty of the natural environment that Ellen would have been familiar with around Ballylickey and on the shores of Bantry Bay – well worth an exploration. And this link to the Ellen Hutchins Audio Trail is invaluable, especially to anyone who was not able to be at Friday’s event.

Particular thanks, of course, to all who participated – and attended – the event. It was a great success! Thank you to the weather Gods. And many thanks to Seaview House Hotel for providing the venue

Lichens and Little Things in the Woods

The wonderful Ellen Hutchins Festival for 2019 has just finished – now in its fifth year and going from strength to strength in celebrating all the aspects of botany that Ellen practised. You can read about Ellen in my post Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist. We participated again in 2016 and I wrote about our fascinating walk Into the Woods with Pádraig Whelan and Howard Fox.

This year there was the same wide variety of botany-related activities, including an impressive array of events for children. We attended (above) a talk by Madeline Hutchins (Ellen’s GGG-Niece) about her life, with an emphasis on her letters and a talk on letter writing of the period by Carrie O’Flynn and then, last weekend, a Lichen Walk in beautiful Glengarriff Woods (first photograph, top).  Been there yet? If not, you’re missing a real treat.

The focus of the walk was lichen of course (apparently it is acceptable to say lyken or litchen so take your pick) with Paul Whelan (above). Paul has a website at Lichens of Ireland which seems to be down for maintenance, but there’s another one, Irish Lichens, run by Jenny Seawright, which I’ve been using and finding easy to follow, especially for a neophyte like me. But even though the subject was lichens, once you enter the woods it’s easy to get distracted by other things, so for me the day was as much about the insects and flowers that we saw (sorry, Paul) on our short, but incredibly rich, walk.

What are these people doing? This is how close you have to get, with a hand lens, to see the tiny patches of lichen on the rocks of the bridge

So what is a lichen? It’s a fungus, but one that works with another organism (usually green algae but sometimes a cyanobacteria) to produce something neither can do on their own. Since lichens can’t photosynthesise, they depend on the other organism to do that. The fungus contributes by consuming dead matter and this mutually beneficial and necessary relationship is called symbiotic.

And this is what we were seeing

The lichen body is called a thallus, and it produces spores (which is how it reproduces) through an apothecium (which looks like a tiny cup) or a perithecium (which looks like a tiny volcano). We saw mostly lichen with perithecia on our walk, some of which were just tiny black dots.

We also saw some foliose lichens – leaf like things such as the one immediately above, although you had to get very close with a hand lens to even see the leafy structures of some of them. Others were bigger and more obvious – these Usnea lichens (below) are like tiny bonsai leafless trees and attach to rocks and trees by a single contact point.

I had already written (in my post Miniature World) about the Cladonia Lichen such as the Devil’s Matchstick, and now that I know a bit more about lichens I’ve been browsing around our own garden and I found some on a rock wall (below) – not only Devil’s Matchsticks but the ones called Pixie Cups as well.

And the ‘other things’ on the walk? Clare Heardman from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, who seems to know about the whole gamut of wild organisms, was excited to see a fly land on Robert’s back. No ordinary fly, it turns out, but a Dark Giant Horse Fly (Tabanus sudeticus) – the largest and heaviest fly in Europe! We know it’s a female by the space between her eyes (males have no space) and it’s the female that bites and sucks your blood. One source I consulted says: Unlike insects which surreptitiously puncture the skin with needle-like organs, horse flies have mandibles like tiny serrated scimitars, which they use to rip and slice flesh apart. Charming, but fortunately she flew away before inflicting that on Robert.

Nearby, another fly was feeding on some Ling Heather, this time a hoverfly. Trying to identify hoverflies is a head wreck, there are so many different types, but I think this one is called parasyrphus lineola, one of the little forest hoverflies that like a conifer environment. Hoverflies are next to bees in importance as pollinators – it’s not that they carry as much pollen, but they are so busy and make so many visits to flowers that they do a sterling job. They also keep aphid populations under control.

You can see the dusting of pollen on this hoverfly

When we arrived at the pond Paul showed us the Usnea lichens – one tree over the water was entirely decorated with them, although they also like to grow on rocks as well. They belong to the Fruticose Lichens and on his website he describes them thus: Fruticose lichen appear tufted and shrubby and are usually erect or pendant and attached to the substrate at a single point. Filamentous lichen are soft and hair-like and some form felt-like mats comprised of very fine filaments.

The pond itself was alive with water striders, amazing little creatures that walk on water. A little Googling led me to this short video about how exactly they accomplish this, and what they live on (don’t watch if you’re squeamish).

As I was watching them, my eye was caught by a flash of brilliant blue and down came a damselfly to rest on one of the long reeds overhanging the pond. It was the aptly named Beautiful Demoiselle and a male, which has the striking metallic blue colour. This reed was its perch, from which it guarded its territory and kept an eye on passing edible insects, leaving it to chase them and then return. (There’s a good Wikipedia page on them.)

It was a great walk, all in all, and we can’t now go anywhere without checking out our surroundings for lichen. On a walk on Long Island yesterday I was attracted to the patches of bright orange and white lichen on the rocks. Here’s what I saw, at a distance and close up:

I was also delighted to see heather and lichen growing on one rock surface, and very attractive it looked together. The lichen might be one of the Cladonias, but please correct me if I’m wrong.

My previous feelings for lichen were all negative, since they obscure rock art and headstones, but now – have we caught the lichen bug? I hope not, since it already takes me an hour to walk around the block, stopping to look at flowers. What do you think, Dear Reader – is there any hope for us?

 

West Cork in High Summer – Festival Central!

West Cork has festivals all year long, but right now we are gearing up for some of our favourites and they are looking terrific!

We’re planning the field trips. for the History Festival. Top photograph is of last year’s tour of Reen Farm, John Kelly’s Sculpture Garden and above is the Bronze Age Altar Wedge tomb, which this year’s Mizen field trip will visit

For us, the most significant is the West Cork History Festival, because we are very involved. Have you ever thought you might like to go along on one of our field days?  Well, here’s your chance as we will be leading two field trips on Aug 8 and 9 and Carina Jeisy of Beara Baoi Tours is leading another. All the details are here and you can buy tickets there too – if you hurry.

Dev, by Seamus Murphy. Seamus’s daughter, Orla Murphy, will be at the Festival to speak about her father and his legacy. Dev? Well, he’s part of the reason Irish history will never be uncontested

The Festival is now in its third year and this year’s line-up of speakers and events is looking particularly engaging. From former Taoiseach John Bruton, to current Ambassador to the USA Dan Mulhall, to professors from many of the major institutions, to TV and news media presenters, online ‘public’ historians and local experts – there’s sure to be lots of food for thought and discussion. If the two past festivals are anything to go by, some controversy is sure to arise, since not everyone has the same take on historical events – especially in the hotly contested fields of Irish history!

The closing speaker will be Daisy Goodwin, the writer of the hit TV series, Victoria. Daisy also happens to be the great-great-great-granddaughter of Robert Traill, who gave his life trying to feed the hungry around Schull during the famine. He was a complex character: see this post and this one in my series Saints and Soupers. Daisy gave him an active role in the episode in which Victoria finally finds out about the full horrors of the Famine. It was an episode that shocked British people, who had never been taught about the Famine and Daisy will talk about that, writing Victoria and her West Cork connections.

Esteemed local historian Gerald Butler, in conversation with one of last year’s speakers, William Casey, will talk about Daniel O’Connell’s Skibbereen Monster Meeting

This being West Cork, there’ll be lots of food on offer over the whole weekend and music too – I’m really looking forward to the Saturday night concert, exploring the music of Canon Goodman (who is also the subject of one of the talks). Wander over to the website and take a browse through the programme. If you enjoy our blog, you will love this Festival.

Taking us up to the History Festival is the superb Skibbereen Arts Festival. I have rhapsodised about this tour de force of culture and variety in previous posts (see this one and this one) and I feel the same way about the offerings this year.

We have tickets to several events and we know we will be dropping in to some of the exhibitions, galleries and shows that are running all over town. I am looking forward to Manchán Magan’s Aran agus Ím (below)- billed as a show that celebrates the Irish language in an engaging, accessible bilingual way, through sourdough bread and home-churned butter and that takes place in a Bakery.

For some time Skibbereen has hosted the Speakeasy Sessions once a month, and there’s a special edition during the Festival. It’s part of a significant Spoken Word programme at the Festival this year. Speakeasy is hosting a Story Slam Competition where 12 people will compete for a prize. One of the judges is our own Cormac Lally, popular local poet: here he is with his Ninja Baby Moves Number 214.

And for something totally different, at the end of the month is the Ellen Hutchins Festival with a brilliant program of events focussed on the natural world of flowers, seaweed and lichens and with lots of stuff for kids. If you’ve never heard of Ellen Hutchins, take a look at my post Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist. I wrote it four years ago and in that time the Festival has turned into an annual affair and there have been major exhibitions on Ellen’s life.

Botanist Rory Hodd on an Ellen Hutchins field trip

At about the same time in Bantry is the annual Masters of Tradition Festival, with formal and informal concerts, talks and sessions, many in the wonderful setting of Bantry House. With Martin Hayes as the Artistic Director, this annual festival is always a treat. Here he is playing the Sailor’s Bonnet.

This is actually just a drop on the bucket of all the things going on in West Cork from now until the end of August. I’m seriously going to need a holiday in September! No – wait – that’s the Taste of West Cork Food Festival! I’d better go into training. . . 

A taste of the History Festival