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. 

Dancing Sun

Dancing Sun, Roaringwater Bay

Dancing Sun, Rossbrin Cove

“Where does that road lead?” said I, pointing to a road on the left of the one we were pursuing. “The road is it?” said the man with the cloak, “why, then, what road should it be, but the road to Sunday’s Well, a fine well it is, and a blessed place, for sure they say, though myself never seen it, that if one was to go there at peep of day on an Easter Sunday, they’d see the sun dancing a jig on the rim of the sky for joy; and I suppose that’s the reason they calls it Sunday’s Well” [Thomas Crofton Croker, Legends of the Lakes: or Sayings and Doings at Killarney, 1829]

When I lived in Devon I was told that the sun danced on Easter morning, but also that the ancient stone at the crossroads above the house where I lived could be seen to move at dawn on that day. I never caught the dawn when I lived there but here’s evidence that the sun does, indeed, dance at Roaringwater Bay. According to Kevin Danaher children in Ireland were shown the sun on Easter morning reflected in water – perhaps in the sea or a well – and this ensured that it would be seen to dance.

Gathering Bia Tragha at Rossbrin: the house on the skyline is Nead an Iolair

Gathering Bia Tragha at Rossbrin: the house on the skyline is Nead an Iolair

There are so many Easter customs: Finola is writing about the bia tragha – the custom of gathering shellfish and seaweed on Good Friday, the culmination of the austerity of Lent. Down in the Cove we joined several families collecting mussels. When I asked them why people in Ireland carry out this Good Friday tradition I always got the same answer – ‘…because we have always done it…’

Good Friday - and the Tabernacle in Ballydehob Church is empty

Good Friday – and the Tabernacle in Ballydehob Church is empty

There is a lot of respect for the observance of Good Friday here. No alcohol is consumed: the pubs close at midnight sharp on Thursday evening (it’s not unusual on a normal day for them to stay open until two or three in the morning – especially if there is a session going on) and don’t reopen until Saturday. Ireland is probably the only Catholic country in the world where this tradition is still kept up. Not so long ago no work was done on the land, and ‘…no blood should be shed, thus no animal or bird could be slaughtered, no wood should be worked or burned and no nail should be driven on the day on which the Saviour was crucified…’ (Danaher)

Burning the Mountain on Good Friday

Burning the Mountain on Good Friday

Bearing this in mind we were surprised to encounter a ‘controlled burning’ of the gorse on the Sheep’s Head when travelling back from visiting friends on Good Friday evening. It was spectacular: the whole mountainside seemed to be engulfed.

On the Mizen – according to McCarthy + Hawkes ‘…Early on Easter Sunday morning all the lads from the townlands would go around in a big group, blowing a trumpet made from a cow horn. The women of the houses visited would give them boiled hen’s eggs to eat, sometimes coloured yellow from boiling with furze petals or onion skins. After Easter Mass everyone went home for a quiet day of rest and a good feed after Lent. The night would bring a ball with much drink and dance…’


We are observing some of our own traditions today: we’ll be eating the Simnel Cake which I have made – more of an English tradition than an Irish one: the eleven marzipan balls represent the twelve Apostles (minus Judas) – and then we’re off to the Ballydehob Road Trotting races. Oh – and there are some eggs involved.

A scene in Provence? No - a sunny corner in Ballydehob on Easter Saturday

A scene in Provence? No – a sunny corner in Ballydehob on Easter Saturday