Top Ten West Cork Photographs of 2017

Every year we take a look at the Facebook photographs that you’ve liked or viewed or shared the most, and then edit them down to manageable proportions. Here’s our final selection for this year – we decided to stick to West Cork, and we’re starting off with Bantry, with that wonderful statue of Brendan the Navigator blessing us and inviting us into the town.

The photo this year that was most viewed and exclaimed over was our shot of Dunboy Castle (above), just outside Castletownbere. It’s a dramatic sight and an extraordinary story of the dream to build Ireland’s first six star hotel – a dream that came crashing down with the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy in 2008. Perhaps one day a new team will take it on: meantime it sits forlornly behind barbed wire, a reminder of optimistic times.

We were surprised by the instant appeal of our stained glass St Gobnait. Although a familiar saint her in West Cork, she is not universally known elsewhere. Perhaps it is her association with the bees that resonates with people now that bees everywhere are in danger. The image is of a window in Bantry Catholic church, probably the work of William Dowling.

Kilcoe Castle seems to feature each year as it’s a firm favourite with us in West Cork. We were lucky to capture it at dusk on a hazy evening in March. It has been lovingly and magnificently restored by Jeremy Irons and if you’re curious to see inside, there are some interior images here.

Our friend, and professional wildlife photographer, Sheena Jolley lives in this impossibly romantic old mill just outside of Schull. Her studio occupies the building on the right, while some of the workings of the old mill are still intact and conserved by Sheena. I suspect this photograph was so popular because many of us have a dream to dwell in a piece of living history like this.

Uragh Stone Circle on the Beara Peninsula – I think we can all agree now it’s the stone circle with the best setting in Ireland. But it’s only one of the many feature of Gleninchaquin that makes this remote but accessible valley so richly enjoyable to visit.

Everyone loves driving through the Caha Pass between Glengarriff and Kenmare – the scenery is spectacular and includes several tunnels

This image, of the Barnacleeve Gap above Schull, illustrates well the colours of West Cork in winter, when the bracken turns dark amber and the Purple Moor Grass (not purple at all) earns its Irish name of Fionnán, meaning blonde, while the grasses and mosses keep the lowest growth green.

Another winter view, this time from across Reendonagan Lake, near Ballylickey, to the Sugarloaf Mountain on the Beara Peninsula.

And finally a photograph that manages to capture much of the Mizen Peninsula, taken on Brow Head and looking towards Mount Gabriel in the distance, with the village of Crookhaven and the Rock Island lighthouse on the left. And yes, you’re right – another winter photograph.

Starlight Bliss

Lough Hyne twilight

Lough Hyne twilight

Have you ever had one of those experiences where you float home afterwards, totally blissed out, knowing that something very special just happened to lucky you? Yes, I suppose the day you meet The One would qualify, but here’s another one – kayaking under the stars on a West Cork lake to the strains of baroque music. Let me explain…

Lough Hyne is a unique ecosystem. A partially landlocked seawater lake, it is filled by the incoming tide and then empties twice a day, through a stretch of water called The Rapids. Aquatic marine plants and animals flourish in the warm protected waters – many not found elsewhere in Ireland. It’s also a beautiful and peaceful place, steeped in archaeology and history.

In a kayak for the first time in years!

In a kayak for the first time in years!

Jim Kennedy and his family run Atlantic Sea Kayaking and a couple of times a year, to coincide with local festivals, they offer a special kayaking trip on Lough Hyne called the Starlight Serenade. I was disappointed to have missed the first offering earlier in the summer so as soon as they announced a second one, during the Taste of West Cork Festival, I signed up to go with my friend Sheena Jolley.

We're off!

We’re off!

After a brief introduction to basic paddling techniques we were off, a group of about 20 of us, mostly local. Jim led us first to The Rapids, pointing out the birdlife along the way. It was an unusually high tide and the water was thundering in. We rafted up in a sheltering eddy, trying not to be too intimidated by the tidal surge. Jim explained the ecology of the constant filling and draining of the lake and then he pushed us out into the rushing water. Hanging  on to each other’s kayaks, we swirled giddily in the torrent, gradually swinging back into the calmer waters of the lake.

Loght Hyne with the islands. The Rapids are at the top right. Photo by 'Riekeshieldmaiden' at en.wikipedia

Lough Hyne with the islands. The Rapids are at the top left. (Photo by ‘Riekeshieldmaiden’ at en.wikipedia)

As dusk closed in the next stop was the island, and stories of an O’Driscoll warlord who once ruled supreme in Baltimore but who lived out his final days in this remote place. Then Jim told us to head ‘towards the light’ and pointed to the far shore. As we got closer the ‘light’ began to resolve itself. Several steps led down to a tiny quay and on each step and all over the quay were candles – dozens of them. Then we heard the music. Two violinists were playing Bach. One by one we drifted in, rafted up as silently as we could, and then lay back in the kayak seat and just listened. The Milky Way arced across the sky, the music floated to us from the little quay, we dangled fingers in the warm water and each of us felt in our own way that surely heaven couldn’t hold much better than this.

The Serenade

The Serenade

The concert continued – some Telemann, a song composed by Jessie (these were two members of the Vespertine Quintet I reported on at the beginning of August), something gentle and minimalistic, more Bach – and then it was ‘follow the light’ again: this time the light was on the helmet of the lead guide. But before we started, Jim asked us to look down into the water and to dip our hands in. Suddenly, the stars were beneath us: bioluminesence shimmered and shook from our fingers. As we paddled back every stroke of the blade struck sparks from the water: flash on the right, flash on the left, flash, flash, flash, flash.

Starlight repast

Starlight repast

It was hard to leave the magic that was happening on the water. Sheena and I walked back to where the cars were parked, breathless with the wonder of what we had just experienced. But wait…here were more candles and luminarias, and a table groaning with wonderful food, and grinning guides handing out cups of tea and glasses of wine, and Maria Kennedy presiding over a homemade feast of organic goodies: smoked salmon, seaweed scones (delicious!), salads from her garden, cheeses and biscuits and cake and chocolates. We sat or stood in the warm night air, munching contentedly, unable to utter much more than superlative heaped on superlative.

luminarios

Words are inadequate tools to fully convey the essence of an evening like this. I can’t tell you. You have to do it too.

Lúnasa

Garlic Sunday at Nead an Iolair

A summer storm approaches Rossbrin Cove

Lúnasa – in Ireland it’s the name for the eighth month, and a festival.

August? So that would relate to Lammas in English – the first of August?

loaf

Yes, Lammas is supposedly from the Anglo-Saxon Hlafmaesse – meaning ‘Festival of the Loaf’. Here it was traditional to bake bread at Lúnasa – a round loaf, which was cut into four and each quarter was then set in the corners of the barn where the grain would be stored, to ensure a good harvest.

So is Lúnasa the harvest festival?

By some accounts, yes. Although the beginning of August is a bit early for harvesting. Having said that – our music session in Ballydehob last night was temporarily disrupted by the sight and sound of a fleet of huge tractors and a combine harvester thundering through the main street in the dark – yellow lights flashing dramatically: after a prolonged period of hot sunny weather there was a big rain storm forecast, so the farmers were working through the night to get in as much of the crop as possible before the deluge.

And did the rain come?

It did – just in time to dampen the Ballydehob Wooden Boat Festival. But it certainly didn’t put a dampener on the spirit of the event.

A damp Boat Festival in Ballydehob

A damp Boat Festival in Ballydehob

Is Lúnasa celebrated in Ireland nowadays?

Well – it’s remembered: you may have heard of Brian Friel’s play Dancing at Lughnasa, turned into a film in 1998. It’s set in rural Donegal in the 1930s and poignantly tells of the lives of five women encapsulated through one summer month. It touches on ritual themes and the mixture of superstition and religion which still characterises life in Ireland today.

Now you’ve spelled it differently…

Well spotted! On the calendar it’s usually Lúnasa. It’s suggested that the word Lughnasa harks back to pagan times: there was a god – Lugh – who in Irish mythology led the Tuatha Dé Danann against the Fomorians. After the victory Lugh finds Bres, the half-Fomorian former king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, alone on the battlefield, and Bres begs for his life. If he is spared, he promises, he will ensure that the cows of Ireland always give milk. The Tuatha Dé Danann refuse the offer. He then promises four harvests a year, but the Tuatha Dé Danann say one harvest a year suits them. But Lugh spares his life on the condition that he teach the Tuatha Dé Danann how and when to plough, sow and reap.

That story rather neatly ties up the connection with the harvest… Any more traditions?

August is the holiday month and there are plenty of things happening in Ireland: my favourite is Puck Fair, held every year in Killorglin, County Kerry. I came across it by accident when I was travelling in Ireland some forty years ago; now it’s notorious.

Why?

King Puck

King Puck (www.abitofireland.com)

Well, the central feature is an enormous Billy Goat, captured in the wilds of the Kerry Mountains. He gets treated royally – literally, as on the first day of the Fair he’s crowned King by a twelve year old girl. He’s then placed in a cage on top of a high platform which looks out over the street fair, which continues for three days.

Puck Fair, Killorglin 1900

Puck Fair, Killorglin 1900

That certainly does sound pagan! What happens to King Puck after the Fair?

He goes back to the mountains. It’s not uncommon to see wild Goats up in Kerry.

Sheena Jolley's superb study of Kerry Goats

Sheena Jolley‘s superb study of Kerry Goats

Is there a story attached to King Puck?

Of course… During St Patrick’s travels he reaches the borders of Kerry. He has with him his herd of Goats which give him food and milk. During the night his goats are stolen and this means he can’t go any further (in fact he supposedly then never set foot in Kerry, which means that Kerry people were never converted from their old pagan ways!). ‘…He resolved to detour a community that was so utterly depraved and lacking in hospitality. However, a chieftain from the Barony of Dunkerran saved the day for Kerry. He presented as a gift for the Saint a magnificent Puck-Goat and a hundred of the finest Goats from his herds on the slopes of Glencar highlands. The Saint came no further west, but instead of a malediction he gave to Kerry that benediction that will live forever in the salutations of the Irish Race – “Go mbeannuigh Dia siar sibh”*. Killorglin being the natural centre of defence of the Barony at that time has ever since held the Puck-Goat in the highest esteem, and elevated him to the place of honour for three days each year…’ (Liam Foley – the Kerryman, 1945)

*May God bless you back

cove

And are you celebrating Lúnasa yourself?

We’re off to the Blessing of the Boats this morning in Schull. Then we’re over to Hare Island later on for an evening meal with friends who’ve sailed down to West Cork for the weekend.

Enjoy it!

Ready for the Harvest

Ready for the Harvest

On the Butter Road

The old Butter Road runs between Schull and Ballydehob

The old Butter Road runs between Schull and Ballydehob

For most of its history, roads were a hit-and-miss affair in Ireland. We didn’t get the great Roman road builders, and anyway, it was easier to get around on the water. Some routeways led to Dublin or Tara in the early medieval period, but a real road system didn’t develop until the 18th Century with the building of turnpike highways between major cities. In the 18th Century, Cork became the largest centre for the butter trade in the world and needed transportation corridors to ensure butter could get from remote rural areas to the Butter Exchange (now a museum) in the city. The Butter Roads were built from the 1740s on, and provided an efficient and speedy (for the time) route to market. Butter was packed in firkins (40 litre barrels), stacked onto carts, and transported from West Cork and Kerry to Cork City to be loaded onto ships for Australia and America.

The Old Mill

The Old Mill

Here and there, traces of the old butter roads remain. One stretch runs between Ballydehob and Schull and in the last few years a project to open it as a walking route has been spearheaded by students of the Schull Community College. It starts at the Old Mill, now open as a gallery by our friend, the esteemed wildlife photographer, Sheena Jolley. Sheena has enhanced the mill stream and stabilised the workings, still intact in her basement. A visit to her gallery is a great way to start or end your walk.

Robert on the stepping stones

Robert on the stepping stones

Setting out from the mill we were immediately on the old green road, soft underfoot, running between hedgerows alive with wildflowers, winding gently uphill. A plaque tells the story of the butter roads and of the current project. Gurgling and murmuring, the mill stream is on your right until you come to cross it. This is accomplished on stepping stones where we found it impossible not to linger and contemplate the gentle water. 

The mill stream

The mill stream

Onward and upward, passing an abandoned farmhouse, and marvelling at the variety of flowers along the route. Having been presented with the superb Zoë Devlin’s The Wildflowers of Ireland (thank you, Amanda!) I can now identify most of them, so here is a selection – captioned, by dint of my new-found knowledge. (Mousing over the pictures will bring up the captions, clicking on them will take you to full size images.)

As the road ascends, we could look back towards Schull and Long Island, or north to Mount Gabriel. The sense of peace, of being in a place of age-old tradition, is palpable. 

Mount Gabriel

Mount Gabriel

Near the top of the hill we met the Newman family, setting out from their farmhouse to walk down to Schull. John and Helen grew up in this house, walking to school in Rossbrin (about 4 km away) every day and John still lives in the house. He has a fascinating collection of old tractors and an obvious interest in farm machinery of every kind. They told us they had the butter road all to themselves in the old days, but now it’s quite popular and they are glad to see it used and enjoyed. A Mr Henry Ford once lived in the farmhouse, related to THE Henry Ford, whose father came from Ballinascarthy, near Clonakilty. 

Three generations of the Newman Family

Three generations of the Newman Family

The Butter Road is an ancient right-of-way, but access depends on the goodwill of those, like John Newman, and like Paddy Hayes whom we met on the way down, whose farms and fields lie along the route. This is a marvellous resource for the people of Schull and Ballydehob and we are grateful to those whose vision and hard work and generosity of spirit have made it a reality. 

If you want to experience the tranquility of the deep countryside, lovely views, and a sense of how the making of a road could connect far-flung communities to the wider world, we recommend an afternoon spent on the Butter Road. 

Walking back down: Long Island comes into view

Walking back down: Long Island comes into view