Transcendent Prospects

One of the advantages of the limitations that are placed upon us at the moment is that we have to look more closely at everything. We are seeing – and enjoying – the familiar landscape around us, so I am looking out, now, for the transcendent qualities it has to offer. [Transcendent: adjective – beyond or above the range of normal or physical human experience; surpassing the ordinary; exceptional.]

Waterscapes at Ballydehob, Schull and Dereenatra. Header: cloudscape over Cape Clear, Horse Island in the foreground

So, over the last couple of days I have wended my way around the boreens of Cappaghglass, Stouke and Ballydehob – armed only with my iPhone camera – to see what I can record to intrigue and delight you. I have looked, particularly, for the quality of light that the currently ubiquitous sun is casting on to our green fields and hedgerows, our evanescent skyscapes, and the waters of the bays that surround us. In Cornwall – where I spent many years – it was the quality of light that was all important to the artists who came to the little fishing communities of Newlyn and St Ives from the late nineteenth century, and even into the present day. They were searching for something which was and is missing in towns and cities: clear, unpolluted air, constantly infused with tiny droplets of water arising from the sea which surround that western peninsula. We have the same quality on our own Mizen Peninsula: it’s that moisture laden air which captures and refracts the light, enhancing clarity and colour – and our own artists always did and always will respond to that.

We sometimes drive further afield in West Cork, so that we can take our exercise with a change of scene. But all of the photographs here are relatively close to home. The clarity of the light is apparent: the detail of the distant hillsides is picked out even by the phone camera. The colours – all those greens and the blues of skies and water are true to life.

Our favourite views are often dominated by the distinctive profile of Mount Gabriel in the distance. This is the highest point of land on the Mizen, and must have been an important waymark throughout history, central to the orientation of travellers through this area, and probably imbued with significance and ‘stories’. My favourite is the one that says the Archangel had heard of the inherent beauty in the Irish countryside (highly believable to me!) and ‘touched down’ on the top of the mountain, leaving his footprint on the rocks. Here’s a post I wrote about Mount Gabriel – and its associated stories – six years ago.

I don’t want to overdo the West Cork boreens (you can see lots more of them here), but I just can’t resist them! Perhaps it’s what they symbolise – our journey through life, pathways leading us on optimistically into our own futures? When we are exploring overgrown lanes, like the one in the middle picture above, there is a sense of excitement about what we might find through the trees or around the corner: in this case, we were led to an abandoned house. What mysteries are contained there: lives fully lived and now departed. The lower picture is the boreen that leads us home from Stouke to Nead an Iolair: always one of my favourites.

Upper – the colourful remains of an old tractor enhance (for me) the views from the Butter Road running out of Schull towards Ballydehob. Lower – this track is a highway leading down to the beach at Coosheen.

We look forward to the Covid19 restrictions being lifted, but it will be a while yet before travel constraints are removed. Even when they are, we will still appreciate what we have around us, and we won’t neglect the transcendent beauty of ‘our’ townlands and the sublime scenes that await us daily just a few steps from home.

Back home: (upper) reflections by the once busy quay at Ballydehob with (lower) the road leading into Ballydehob passing over the three-arched bridge, overlooked by higher land to the north

If you want to read more about the artists in Cornwall who were influenced and inspired by the landscapes of that Celtic kingdom, read more here and here.

And for more about the West Cork artists’ community – there’s a website (and a museum) dedicated to their history here.

The Mountain Road

Over three years ago I wrote a piece about the mountain that’s on our doorstep – Mount Gabriel. This rocky high terrain is always in our view as we travel around West Cork, and we feel it must have had special significance in prehistoric times: it overlooks a majority of the archaeological sites that we have explored locally – perhaps they were placed because of that. Also, there are many stories attached to Mount Gabriel (find them in my previous post), including the fact that the Archangel himself touched down on its summit and left behind a footprint in the stone! Evidently, he was intrigued to hear about Ireland’s verdant beauty and knew that …in time to come, this honest island would never part with the worship and duty it owes to the Mother of God… and so was determined to get a look at the holy place.

Derryconnell Loop Walk on the Fastnet Trails takes in the foothills of Mount Gabriel – seen here in contrasting weather conditions, but only a day apart!

There is a little-known road which runs along the foothills of the mountain which, on a good day, is as beautiful a road as you will find anywhere in Ireland. It begins at the bog of Derreennatra (more of which can be found in Finola’s post today) and you can follow it up and through the Barnacleeve Gap. If you wish, from there you can go all the way up to the summit and get some of the most stunning views all the way over the Mizen, across the Sheep’s Head and even into Kerry.

The climb to the summit of Mount Gabriel is always rewarding, with panoramic views to all points of the compass. Lower Picture: the Air Traffic Control Authority’s installations atop the mountain add an odd drama to the landscape

Part of our Mountain Road has been incorporated in the Derryconnell Loop Walk, one of the new group of the Fastnet Trails based around Schull. The whole of this loop walk is varied and picturesque, but the section from the bog is outstanding as it skirts the mountain – which always dominates the vista – and brings you to the junction with the Barnacleeve road. Keep on going, and take in the mountain itself, or follow the trail down to the old Schull Workhouse. Whichever way you go, you will be struck by the seeming remoteness of the boreens, and you will seldom encounter a vehicle.

In all weathers the Mountain is engaging: you can start out in the mist and finish up in sunshine!

In the latter part of this summer we have explored the road in all weathers, and recorded the many moods of the mountain. Reaching the summit last week, we had a search for the Archangel’s footprint. I’m convinced we found it, but we couldn’t see the lake with its magical islands which – according to the legends ‘…float about up and down, east and north and south; but every Lady-day they come floating to the western point, and there they lie fixed under the crag that holds the track of the Angel’s foot…’ (John Abraham Jagoe, Vicar of Cape Clear – Church of Ireland Magazine 1826)

The peak of Mount Gabriel is strewn with rocks, any of which might contain the Archangel’s footprint. Upper – the view to the islands of Roaringwater Bay. Lower – could this be where he touched down? A definitely footprint shaped impression on this rock – highlighted on the photo in red

In my younger days I was fortunate to hear traditional Irish musicians Margaret Barry and Michael Gorman performing on the streets of Camden Town, London, when I worked in that city. Those streets were a far cry from the home I now have in West Cork, but I recall the duo’s rendering of the tune The Mountain Road: Margaret came from Cork herself, so perhaps our own mountain (or maybe it was Gabriel?) was an inspiration to her.

Descending from the summit, we finished our walk on the Mountain Road at the gauntly atmospheric ruins of Schull Workhouse

Mount Gabriel

Trails over Mount Gabriel

Trails over Mount Gabriel

Only a few kilometres from Nead an Iolair – as the Crow flies – sits Mount Gabriel: at 407m elevation it’s the highest piece of land in West Cork. Cork mountains are dwarfed by those from Kerry: McGillycuddy’s Reeks has the highest peaks in Ireland, at over 1,000 metres. However, our own local mountain is nevertheless impressive and on a good, clear day provides a view not to be missed – to all points of the compass.

Looking west to the Mizen

Looking west to the Mizen

I spent a while researching why a mountain in the west of Ireland should be called Gabriel. There is no received opinion about this. I suppose there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be named after the Archangel himself: after all, we have Croagh Patrick (after St P) and Mount Brandon (after St Brendan) and many others: Ireland’s landscape is alive with place-names having religious connections, although such associations are likely to be fairly young. In Irish the mountain is Cnoc Osta – possibly ‘hill of the encampment’ – so there’s no clue there.

Roaringwater Bay

Roaringwater Bay

I did find this fascinating piece from the Church of Ireland Magazine, dated 1826 – written by John Abraham Jagoe, Vicar of Cape Clear …where I have no protestant parishioners… and Curate of Schull …where interspersed amongst moor and mountain, I have fifteen hundred Protestants, to visit and oversee… It’s well worth a verbatim extract:

‘…amidst these everlasting hills arose, in peculiar prominence, Mount Gabriel. Why, my lads, said I, is yonder mountain called such an outlandish name; one would think it was brought here by Oliver Cromwell, it has such an un-Irish – such a saxon name. O! says Pat, it is a pity that the blockhead is not here to tell the gentleman the story about this, for sure and certain such poor garcoons as the likes of us know little, and care not the tail of a herring for such old stories. And who, said I, is the blockhead? O, says my friend, the blockhead is an old man living up on the mountain, who, from his great memory, his knowledge of cures for cattle, charms against fairy-struck people, experience in bleeding, acquaintance with legends about the good people, the Milesians, and Fin McCoul, is called far and near, the blockhead.

My dear fellow, will you tomorrow bring me to that man; I would pilgrimage over all the hills in Cork and Kerry to get into chat with him: says I to myself, this is just the man that I want. Ah my good friend, do bring me to the blockhead to-morrow. Why yes to be sure, – but stay, can you speak Irish? Not a word, to my sorrow be it spoken. Well then go home first and learn Irish, for Thady Mahony can speak no other language. – Well boys, can none of you (as I cannot get it out of the blockhead) tell me about Mount Gabriel; O! yes, Sir, says Pat Hayes, my Godmother used to tell me it was called after the Angel Gabriel, who came, you know, from Heaven to deliver the happy message of mercy to the Virgin – ever blessed be her name. And so on his return, as he was flying back, he looked down upon Ireland, and as he knew that in time to come, this honest island would never part with the worship and duty it owes to the Mother of God, he resolved to take a peep at the happy land, that St Patrick was to bestow for ever on the Virgin. So down he came, and perched on the western peak of that mountain; the mark, they say, of his standing is there to this day, and his five toes are branded on the rock, as plain as if I clasped my four fingers and thumb upon a sod of drying turf; and just under the blessed mark, is a jewel of a lake, round as a turner’s bowl, alive with trout; and there are islands on it that float about up and down, east and north and south; but every Lady-day they come floating to the western point, and there they lie fixed under the crag that holds the track of the Angel’s foot…’

Hidden Glen Fuschia

Hidden Glen Fuschia

Well, there’s enough in those few lines to keep us going on field trips for some time to come! We did find, on the western slopes, a beautiful hidden valley holding the ruins of a one roomed cottage. I have convinced myself that this must have been the dwelling place of the blockhead Thady Mahony, who may once have been the keeper of all the secrets of the mountain. But we have yet to find the jewel of the lake with its trout and its miraculous floating islands, notwithstanding the Archangel’s footprint…

View from the summit

View from the summit

One other possibility for the name is a corruption of the Old Irish Gobhann – which means smith, as in a metal smith. Remember Saint Gobnaitt? She was the patron saint of ironworkers (blacksmiths) and her name is supposed to be rooted in Gobhann. There is also a Goibhniu in Irish mythology: he was the smith of the Tuatha De Danaan and forged their weapons for battle with the Formorians. So – Gobhann, Goibhniu, Gabriel…? Too much of a leap of faith? But it is known that Mount Gabriel was the site of extensive copper mining a few thousand years ago – remains of pits, shafts and spoil heaps can be seen:  so perhaps there just could be something more ancient inherent in the name.

golf ball

There is mythology attached to the Mountain: the Fastnet Rock was torn from the slopes and thrown into the sea by a giant; once we were searching for a piece of Rock Art within sight of the mountain and the landowner assured us that the carved stone had been thrown there by Finn MacCool (we didn’t find it).

giant stamp

The story about Mount Gabriel that most captures my imagination is the suggestion that the last Wolves in Ireland inhabited the rocky landscape there back in the eighteenth century (although it’s true that several other places make the same claim). Until that time Wolves were commonly seen in the wilder parts of the land and feature in local stories and folklore. Interestingly they were often portrayed in a positive way and were sometimes companions of the saints. There are very few records of Wolves having maimed or killed humans, yet in 1653 the Cromwellian government placed a bounty on them – 5 pounds for a male Wolf, and 6 pounds for a female: worthwhile prize money in those days. This encouraged professional hunters and, coupled with the dwindling forest habitats, the fate of the animal was sealed.

grey wolf

Mount Gabriel today is relatively benign, although it still has its remoter parts. The Irish Aviation Authority has kindly provided a road up to the summit, where sit the distinctive ‘golf ball’ radar domes and aerials of an Air Traffic Control installation. From these heights we can see Rossbrin Cove, Ballydehob, Schull and all the islands of Roaringwater Bay set out in a magnificent panorama – on a clear day.


Aerials and view to the north

Aerials and view to the north

Modern events have affected the mountain: a German plane crashed here in 1942, and in 1982 the Irish National Liberation Army bombed the radar station, believing that it was providing assistance to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, allegedly in violation of Irish neutrality.


For us the mountain is a landmark and, like most of our view, its profile changes with the weather on a daily – perhaps hourly basis. As a repository of archaeology, human history, lore and nature Gabriel provides a rich resource.