Fionnán: an Autumn Walk

All across West Cork, at higher elevations, autumn heralds the emergence of vast carpets of amber grass. Shading from yellow to red and everything in between, it is the distinctive colour of the uplands. We call it Fionnán (pronounced fyuh-nawn).

Fionnán is a particularly apt name because the root, fionn, means blonde, but fionnadh can mean shaggy animal hair. In English, this is the far less romantic and puzzling Purple Moor Grass. Actually, when it’s young, the first spikes can have a purplish hue, but that colour certainly does not spring to mind in the autumn. In Latin, it’s Molinia caeruleaMolinea after the man who named it, a Chilean naturalist, and caerulea meaning blue. Right – that’s more than you wanted to know about the name.

A Fionnán and Rush pasture is a recognised and important habitat, and should be rich in wildflowers, sedges, and other grasses. But it’s a delicate balance that can be upset by a number of factors – too much or too little drainage, under- or over-grazing, grazing by the wrong animals, and too-frequent burning.

Burning and over-grazing by sheep have affected many of our Fionnán pastures in West Cork. Repeat burning (often done in the belief that it improves grazing and gets rid of gorse) in particular allows the Fionnán and bracken to take over at the expense of other species and in the end degrades the soil.

Birdwatch Ireland says that the answer is sustainable grazing levels to keep certain bog grasses in check, such as Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea). Too little grazing and the grasses can become rank, smothering the important bog mosses, heathers and sedges. This reduces the species diversity and the ability to be an active, peat-forming bog.

On our walk this week it was difficult to assess the health of this particular pasture, since nothing much is still blooming. However, I have walked it before and am happy to report that I have noted many of the species that are indicators of a healthy moor-grass pasture – Meadow Thistle, Heath spotted-orchid,  Lousewort, and Cross-leaved Heath. 

To walk in a Fionnán pasture is a deeply pleasurable experience. There is something about being surrounded by waving expanses of golden grasses – perhaps Sting’s Fields of Gold was influenced by such an experience. The weather has been very variable but we did manage to catch some sun, and evade the inevitable downpour by getting back to the car in the nick of time.

As I said, not a lot was still in bloom – except the gorse because, you know, when gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion. But there is still lots to see and sense. Chamomile grows abundantly along the track and its heady scent drifts upwards as you tramp over it. 

Old fence posts still hang on, with their rusted barbed wire still attached, along with lichens. I was especially delighted to see Devil’s Matchstick lichen on one of the old posts.

This track leads upwards to an intriguing cairn (another of the anomalous structures that I wrote about last week). There’s a memorial bench to a man who used to come here to commune with nature – and you can see why he would. Last time we were there, the bench needed repair but it’s now perfect again – thank you, anonymous fixer!

There are fabulous vistas from the top – on this occasion it afforded us a magnificent view of the squall that was heading our direction, over Mounts Corrin and Gabriel. It was our cue to dash back down again. 

Through the Yellow Gap

The middle of January: you might expect to be battened down here in West Cork with raging gales or bitter north winds, but Saturday dawned with a clear sky to reveal a most beautiful sun-warmed landscape. We had to be out! We adopted exploring mode and headed for the hills to the north-east of Bantry. OS Map 85 entices with a whole swathe of archaeological sites from megalithic tombs to stone rows and circles, but it was a name that drew us: Barrboy – probably from the original Irish barrabhuidhe – which means ‘yellow summit’. As the highest point of the road in that place (pictured below – about 350m above sea level) is a mountain pass, we have chosen to name our journey Through the Yellow Gap.

The ‘Yellow Gap Road’ runs west to east across the centre of this extract from OS Map 85: we turned on to it from the N71 at Lahadane, just north of Bantry, and dropped back on to the main road to Drimoleague south of Coolkellure

The first part of our route followed the Mealagh river and we were intrigued by the boreens that cross it in places over very fine stone arches: these will have to be explored another time – we were aiming for the hills.

Our day offered us a study of light and landscape, which only the combination of January low sun and shadows can give. If anything the yellowness of the uplands with their rocks, mosses and furze is emphasised by this light: Finola is sure that the colour is due to the fionnán (blonde) grass which is so prevalent during the winter months (header picture). We felt we were in a very remote place, known only to those who spend their lives there, but we were in fact barely a hop and a skip from our own home.

Studies in light and landscape: with a different vista at every turn we were treated to outstanding views typical of rural Ireland

As is so often the case with our off-the-beaten-track excursions, we saw hardly anyone in the whole day, but we did chance to bump into our cycling friend Tim who is in training for yet another Everesting event. The rules are straightforward:

. . . The concept of Everesting is fiendishly simple. Pick any hill, anywhere in the world and ride repeats of it in a single activity until you climb 8,848m – the equivalent height of Mt Everest. Complete the challenge, and you’ll find your name in the Hall of Fame, alongside the best climbers in the world . . .

Tim on his way up the Yellow Gap Road (also known as Nowen Hill). He has to do this climb 56 times in one go to achieve the ‘Everest’. In fact, his aim is to do a ‘Double Everest’ on this hill! This will be his third Everesting event in West Cork… Good luck, Tim

Our travels took us through some very attractive ‘deep’ countryside dotted with cottages and small settlements. Humans have been here for a very long time and have left evidence of their occupation in enigmatic standing stones, alignments, circles and tombs. Some can be seen from the roadside, but many involve explorations across fields or into forests. Always, we are left wanting to know who these early settlers were and why they left us these monuments.

Upper pictures – single standing stones which can be seen from the roadside; lower picture – a five-stone circle and a two-stone alignment on high pasture land: all are ancient and mysterious

As the road threaded its way through the gap and began to descend we seemed to re-enter a less wild landscape, and habitations became more frequent. Eventually we found ourselves in a small community – Coolkelure – with a great sense of history. there was a fine C of I church, a school which had been in use until the 1950s, and an avenue leading to a large house which has had a chequered history, There is an entry in Duchas (the Schools Folklore Collection) about this village:

. . . Coolkelure is situated about four miles and a half west of Dunmanway. There is a holy well at the side of the road but it is covered in now with briars and bushes. Its origin is unknown. There are three steps going into it and there are medals, pieces of cloth and pennies up on a stone over the well. About twenty feet in from it there are rocks nearly a thousand feet high. It is said that a giant lived there in olden times. On the other side of the road is a marsh and the giant is supposed to be buried there. There is a huge stone over his grave. Further on is Coolkelure House. This formerly belonged to Shouldhams, now it is the property of Lady Bandon. The avenue looks beautiful in summer and it is hedged with rhododendrons of every hue . . . (Joan Collins, aged 12 years, from Patrick Collins, aged 60 years – c1934)

Upper – Coollkelure Church; centre – the Lodge at the gateway to Coolkelure House; lower – one of many fine gargoyles on the eccentric Lodge

Well, we didn’t see the holy well, the thousand feet high cliff, the giant or his grave. But we did see rhododendrons – large thickets of them – all the way along many of the roads we travelled. They must look very striking when in bloom in the springtime, but they are an invasive species which threatens the true natural hedgerows. In Coolkelure, also, occurred one of the highlights of our day. We met and got into conversation with Donal and Caitriona – a most hospitable couple who own a small house overlooking the lake. They invited us in, we were given coffee and cakes, and the chat was mighty!

Upper – looking back at our way through the mountains; centre – an example of the many stands of invasive rhododendrons that we encountered and lower – the road becomes tamer as we approach a pastured landscape

We left Coolkelure and headed out of the hills, feeling fulfilled by all the events of the day. Our adventures were not quite over, however, as we encountered Daisy and her owner with their ‘road-car’, delighted that we stopped to photograph them (below). In fact, between us we took at least two hundred photographs on our day out and can only include a modest selection on these pages.