Fastnet Trails: Rossbrin Loop, Part 1

A joint post by Robert and Finola

In Robert’s post about the Fastnet Trails, we introduced you to this new trail system, and in particular to one of the delightful walks – the Lisheenacrehig Loop. Today’s post is about another of the walks – the Rossbrin Loop. This walk is all on country boreens, so you can wear your ordinary walking shoes and take the dog if you like but keep him on a leash and stick to the road. You will pass other dogs on the way, as well as fields of livestock.

The high road

You can do this whole walk as laid out in the brochure. It’s just under 12km and will take you at least three hours, but probably more if you like to stop to explore, take pictures, have a chat along the way. Oh, and see where it says ‘easy grade’? Take that with a pinch of salt – this walk will give you a good work out as it takes you from sea level to 70m (230ft) and back again.

Rossbrin Trail 1

But we know that many of you like to take an easier pace and, like us, might find a 12km loop a bit intimidating, so we’ve decided to give you another option. We will lay out a 2-walk option for you, beginning with Walk 1 now, and we will do Walk 2 in a future post. We provide our time estimate for a meander rather than a march. And – a disclaimer: our suggestions depart slightly from the official Fastnet Trail and have not been sanctioned by that group. Where you depart from the marked trail, you walk at your own risk.

Walk 1: Ballydehob, Greenmount, Foilnamuck, Cappaghglass, Ballydehob

Time: 2 to 2.5 hours (with diversion)

Level: Easy but some steep stretches

Take: Binoculars and camera

Twelve Arch Bridge

Park in the Ballydehob car park just east of the river estuary and start by taking the lovely nature walk that takes you over the 12 Arch Bridge. This beautiful structure was once part of the West Carbery Tramway and Light Railway. A train ran across this bridge from 1886 to 1947 – Robert has written about The Flying Snail that traversed West Cork, but for a real flavour of what it was like read Poisson d’Avril in Somerville and Ross’s The Irish R.M. Here’s the first paragraph:

The Irish R.M.The atmosphere of the waiting-room set at naught at a single glance the theory that there can be no smoke without fire. The stationmaster, when remonstrated with, stated, as an incontrovertible fact, that any chimney in the world would smoke in a south-easterly wind, and further, said there wasn’t a poker, and that if you poked the fire the grate would fall out. He was, however, sympathetic, and went on his knees before the smouldering mound of slack, endeavouring to charm it to a smile by subtle prodding with the handle of the ticket-punch. Finally, he took me to his own kitchen fire and talked politics and salmon-fishing, the former with judicial attention to my presumed point of view, and careful suppression of his own, the latter with no less tactful regard for my admission that for three days I had not caught a fish, while the steam rose from my wet boots, in witness of the ten miles of rain through which an outside car had carried me.

Ballydehob Quay saw brisk trade in the days before the Bay silted up. The lovely old Pier House once functioned as a coal warehouse. 

Greenmount Stream

Following the walkway, you emerge by the school and turn left on to the Greenmount Road. This can be a busy stretch, so be careful along here. Once you get to the turquoise shed, turn left. Here you find yourself beside a burbling stream that empties into Ballydehob Bay at a small and picturesque pier. This and others like it were busy piers in the old days, serving the fishing boats as well as the sand boats that worked these waters, dredging sand to be used as fertiliser and building material. Nowadays this little inlet seems hardly navigable and the same blue and white boat has been moored here for a long time.

Greenmount Quay

The road climbs steadily up now past working farms. Looking back towards Ballydehob you can see the Bay and even the 12 Arch Bridge in the distance.

Pastoral

As you round a corner your view changes  and Kilcoe Castle comes into view. Now home to Jeremy Irons, who has restored it beautifully from a complete ruin, it was a classic 15th century tower house owned by the McCarthy Clan. So well was it situated and defended that the inhabitants were able to hold out for two years in the aftermath of the Battle of Kinsale (1601). Situated on a tiny island and glowing a soft amber colour, it is a beloved landmark in these parts.

Kilcoe Castle from Greenmount

Below you is a shallow bay that is a haven for shorebirds and seals. If the tide is out linger a while and use your binoculars to see what you can pick out along the tidal flats below you. If you’re lucky the seals might be out along the rocks, sunning themselves. Once underway again, you’ll pass an old cottage on the left. A recently-dug pond in its garden is already full of water lillies.

Water lillies

Continue now along the narrow boreen and brace yourself for the climb to the highest point  of the walk. No longer on leafy lanes, you are now walking on a bare plateau with panoramic views in all directions. The whole of Roaringwater Bay gleams before you. To the east, towards Kilcoe, lie the mussel beds that now dot this part of the Bay. Sherkin Island and Cape Clear are on the horizon, as is the Fastnet Rock. Ahead of you is the looming shape of Mount Gabriel, dominating the skyline as it does in so many parts of West Cork.

Fields of Cappaghglass

If you look carefully here you will see that the gorse and bracken barely conceals the outline of tiny field walls. There was a large population around here once and a thriving industry. Read Robert’s piece, Copper Country, for more about the mining activities of Cappaghglass. There are a few clues left – the stump of a large chimney that once provided a prominent landmark but that was felled by lightning can still be seen.

Rust and heather

Don’t turn left here (as the trail map wants you to) but instead continue straight on and turn right at the T junction and descend to the crossroads. From the crossroads you can go right and follow the road back to Ballydehob. But if you still have the energy and want to prolong the walk a little, there a diversion here that is worth considering. Turn left and climb the hill until the road flattens out. About 500m from the crossroads look up and to your left and you will see the silhouette of a large ring fort. A tiny green lane leads up to it between some houses but it is on private land.  

Ballycummisk Ring Fort

Irish ring forts generally date to the Early Medieval period – this one may be between 1500 and 1000 years old and would have been the enclosure of a farm house. A wooden fence on top of the earthworks would have kept wolves out and animals in. But the prominent position of this one also meant that it would have been a high-status dwelling. There are hints of a fosse (an outer ditch), which was a defensive feature, and reports of a souterrain, or underground passage, situated in the middle. The ridges of lazy beds – the traditional potato-growing grooves – cross the interior of the fort, indicating that this ground was used to feed a family until the area was de-populated in the aftermath of the famine. There is a large standing stone, known locally as Bishop’s Luck, above the ring fort. This could be Bronze Age or even older.

Textures

It’s an easy walk, downhill all the way, back to Ballydehob. You’ll be more than ready for a coffee and cake in Budds or a lovely bowl of soup in the Porcelain Room by the time you get there. Tell them the Roaringwater Journal sent you.

Wall E lurking

See you next time for Walk 2.

Ah! Sweet Fiddler…

paddysmoke

How did I first become aware of Irish Traditional Music? Probably through this Long Player (remember those?) released by Topic Records in 1968. Paddy in the Smoke was – still is – central to my collection of folk music on vinyl and is available today as a CD or a download.  The recordings were made during the mid 1960s in a London pub, The Favourite, in Holloway. Irish musicians gathered there every Sunday between noon and 2pm (such were the licensing laws of the day!) and those sessions are now legendary, probably representing the epitome of ‘folk music to aspire to’ – certainly that was the case for this wet-behind-the-ears 22 year old attempting to play along with these wonderful tunes on an ancient single-row Hohner melodeon. Here’s a sample of some of the tracks on YouTube: you can hear how the atmosphere of the occasions has been wonderfully captured.

More from my collection of fiddle recordings

Jump forward a few years and in the mid 1970s I was making my first trip to Ireland, visiting Cork, Clare and Longford – looking for The Music: I found it in abundance. By then I was playing an Anglo Concertina, but I was very aware that wherever you went to in Ireland – or whatever you listened to from the Irish tradition – it was above all else the fiddle that seemed to be the king-pin.

Fiddles at the Chief O'Neill's Festival, Tralibane

Fiddles at the Chief O’Neill’s Festival, Tralibane

Now – dare I say it – almost 50 years on from hearing those first notes, here I am living on the shores of Roaringwater Bay and I am more than ever immersed in the music. Still it’s the fiddle that’s ubiquitous, wherever I go and whatever I listen to.

Fiddles to the fore: Friday night session in Ballydehob

I started to learn the ‘violin’ when I was 11 years old. It wasn’t a fruitful venture – I had given it up within the year and moved on to the piano. I suppose I have just always been happiest with an instrument that only requires you to press a key or a button to get exactly the right note. But I am filled with admiration for anyone who plays the fiddle – who is able to perfectly pitch the notes, and then ‘bend’ the music when the mood requires it. You can’t ‘bend’ steel reeds!

The Rakes dance band, founded in 1956 – Reg Hall, Michael Plunkett and Paul Gross. They introduced me to Irish dance music back in the day… They are still going strong! Reg Hall was responsible for the Paddy in the Smoke recordings, together with Bill Leader

A fiddle is a violin – it’s the same instrument. Generally, classical players of the violin call it by either name, but traditional music players invariably call it a fiddle. It’s a beautifully constructed instrument with a feminine, flowing shape – a piece of craftsmanship which has been made the same way for 500 years. A seventh century Irish poem The Fair of Carman describes ‘…Pipes, fiddles, chainmen, Bone-men and tube players…’ but we don’t know what the fiddle was at that time. An excavation in Dublin during the 18th century uncovered a fiddle and bow dating from the 11th century: this is the oldest bow known in Europe – the bow is of dogwood and has an animal head carved on the tip.

workshop

The violin maker’s workshop (www.violinist.com)

Can anyone learn to play the fiddle? Probably – with sufficient patience and perseverance – and a bit of musicality. But it takes very particular skills to put The Music into the instrument. We are immersed in good fiddling around here: we have so many music festivals – Baltimore Fiddle Fair, Masters of Tradition, Chief O’Neill’s, Ballydehob Trad Fest – right on the doorstep. The whole gamut of different regional styles and techniques is here for us to take in. If you have half an hour or so to spare, it’s well worth looking at this YouTube video dating from 2008: firstly, you’ll see Jeremy Irons learning to play traditional Irish fiddle, and you’ll see his mentors, including maestro Martin Hayes. But Jeremy lives in Kilcoe Castle, just over the hill from us – so you can also get a flavour of life down here in Roaringwater Bay – immersed in the sweet fiddle music…

left

 

A Lick of Paint

blue long distance

What does it mean to say that a house is “set well into the landcape?” On the West Coast of Canada, where I used to live, it usually meant that a house was invisible, often made of wood and blending into the trees. But here in rural West Cork, buildings are more assertive – we ARE the landscape, they seem to say, or at least an important part of it. Therefore we should stand out and be seen. Part of being seen, for many houses in the countryside, is choosing a bright colour. Ah sure, they say, all it needs is a lick of paint.

Crookhaven

Crookhaven


I’ve written before about the colourful towns and villages dotted all over Ireland. Coming around a bend in the road and catching sight of a village is a cheering experience: flashes of colour spread in a line across a backdrop of green fields or rugged mountains. But colour isn’t confined to towns – farmhouses in the deep countryside can suddenly demand attention – pops of colour in a predominantly green terrain. 

Blue seems to be a favourite – and we are not talking here about a pale blue or grey blue. No – duck egg or cobalt blues predominate. The blue is weathering and fading a bit in the house below but it still packs a punch in its isolated setting.

Sometimes blue is used on one side of the house only, or on selective aspects – a gate post or a shutter.

One of my favourites is this house, the colour of a ripe apricot. It is visible from a long way off and always seems to be incandescent on its hillside, as if permanently lit by a setting sun. Close up, I found it has jade green trim, making it even more handsome than it appears from a distance.

apricot distant

That colour is also one of the most recognisable in West Cork because it’s the colour of Jeremy Irons’ Kilcoe Castle. When the castle was being rendered, Irons used a lime mortar in order to waterproof the masonry: the mortar has a distinctive peach tone. Although controversial at the time, it is fair to say that West Cork folk have come to enjoy the sight of this wonderful restored 13th Century castle permanently glowing on its tiny island.

Kilcoe Castle

Kilcoe Castle

Pinks range from soft and pastel to the colour of fuchsia.

I particularly like the pink-on-pink trim of the farmhouse below left, and the candy-coloured house with its blue trim.

Yellow shows up well against a green hill. The first house below belongs to our friends the Camiers, who run the marvellous Gortnagrough Folk Museum. The second one is on the Sheep’s Head (photo by Amanda Clarke).

There are shades of salmon and coral that seem to suit old houses very well. Left, below, is the old school house in Rossbrin, now a private residence, and right is the Ballydehob Rectory, particularly attractive with its green trim.

I’ve found red to be reserved mostly for doors, trim and spot colour, but my friend Amanda Clarke found this old farmhouse on the Sheep’s Head. Take a look at her site, Sheep’s Head Places for examples of vernacular farm buildings. 

Old farmhouse, Sheep's Head

Old farmhouse, Sheep’s Head*

Renovations never stop – I did wonder what colour this one would end up. Now I know!

Going through the spectrum

Going through the spectrum

But this one, unless miracles happen, will see no more paint. Then again, it’s right beside a holy well, so maybe…

Generations of colour

Generations of colour

 *Many thanks to Amanda Clarke for the use of the asterisked photographs

Irish History – an Englishman’s Perspective

ardmore

Why do I feel a little ‘guilty’ about being English while dwelling, for the moment, in Ireland?

This morning I shared a car ride with a friend – Irish – so I started off our conversation by voicing this feeling and pointing out my ignorance of Irish History, having learned nothing about it during my education years. The ensuing journey then consisted of me listening to an erudite and most entertaining blow-by-blow account… Remember Aenghus, the Red Bard? It was as though he was sitting in the car with me, recounting the history lessons of his seven year apprenticeship in the Bardic School at Dumnea.

Round towers helped to defend against Danish raids

Round towers helped to defend against Danish raids

My personal induction began with the Danes. I hadn’t understood, before, that there had been a ‘special relationship’ between Ireland and Denmark, based on trade and education. This had started in the so called Dark Ages and flourished until the time of the High King Brian Boru (c941 – 1014). I already knew about him – in connection with a harp: the Brian Boru Harp sits in Trinity College, Dublin, along with the Book of Kells. Oh – and a traditional tune: Brian Boru’s March. The relationship became an invasion, and the Danes were despatched by a rare coming together – under Brian Boru – of tribal kingdoms, who afterwards reverted to their more usual squabbles.

Now we come to the time of the Normans – well established in England by the 12th Century – and the only English Pope: Adrian IV – who in 1155 issued a Papal Bull to Henry II of England giving him authority to invade Ireland in order to rein in the dissident church there, who were not toeing the line with Rome on a number of matters. This coincided with a feud between a petty King of Connacht – Tiernan O’Rourke – and Dermot MacMurrough, the King of Leinster. O’Rourke’s wife Derbforghaill was abducted by MacMurrough (but evidently at her own instigation, and during which, while being carried off, she provided realistic and convincing screams). MacMurrough had to flee to Wales from where he beseeched the English King to mobilise the Bull and invade Ireland. This actually suited Henry’s empire building ambitions quite well and he dispatched Strongbow (no – not the cider but the Earl of Pembroke, Richard de Clare) and the result of all this was that the Normans arrived in Ireland – where their descendants have caused disruption ever since. Of course – it’s by no means that simple, and this strand of the story will have to be amplified in a future post….

kilcoe2Confused? Well – I haven’t even mentioned Cromwell or William of Orange yet! But perhaps that’s better left until another time… And where does West Cork fit into this jigsaw puzzle? It seems that it was so far away from Dublin and Cork that it didn’t feel the ripples of what was going on for a long time, and local politics were largely sorted out between the O’Driscolls and the O’Mahonys (descended directly from Brian Boru) who built a line of castles along the coast and did very nicely out of charging dues from the Spanish and Portuguese fishermen who reaped an abundant harvest from the seas of those days. And – perhaps surprisingly – the clans built up a reputation for scholarship and knowledge of the arts and sciences. Just around the corner from Ard Glas is an actively disintegrating stone ruin, a single teetering wall: this was the home of the famous ‘Scholar Prince’ Finian O’Mahon, Chief of Rosbrin who lived in the late 15th Century and who was described then as one of the most learned men of his time – not just in Ireland but Europe and beyond. Across the water and central to our view is Kilcoe Castle – formerly an O’Driscoll stronghold: some years ago it was superbly restored and is now the home of actor Jeremy Irons. In order to prevent the ingress of damp (which seems to have been an essential feature of castle life in the Middle Ages), he has treated the walls with an external render which glows yellow, orange and gold as the sun moves round. It is visually prominent in the land and seascape, and this was no doubt an essential element of all the castles in those days when Kings and clansmen had to project their status in order to shore up their often precarious positions in society.