Atlantic Winter

Dingle Beach

When St Brendan of Clonfert set out to discover America in 512 he and his fellow monks had to face the enormity of the Atlantic Ocean in tiny boats built out of wood and oxhides, sealed with animal fat. Up here in Nead an Iolair our view out to the islands of Roaringwater Bay and beyond is dominated by that same ocean and – sometimes – we feel just as small. This year the winter gales have started early, and spates of fierce westerlies have been throwing the Atlantic straight at our windows. The tiles rattle alarmingly while we are tucked up in bed at night. At these times I think of the Saint and what he had to face. But, like Brendan, we always survive the storms, and often wake up in the morning to a calm, clear day – except that you can hear the constant ‘roaring’ of the open sea out over the bay.

celebrating massOn their way to the New World – Saint Brendan and his companions take advantage of a passing Atlantic denizen to celebrate Mass…

The Atlantic has shaped Ireland. The sea is omnipresent: poets have written about it, storytellers have woven tales around it, and composers have tried to capture its spirit in music. Here’s a small section from the impressive ‘Brendan Voyage’ written by Shaun Davey for orchestra and Uillinn pipes – it’s the haunting second movement, played by Liam O’Flynn with the Irish National Youth Orchestra, at a performance in Cork City Hall. It makes me think of the wonderful sunrise on that calm day after the storm…

Brendan Voyage

Long Island Beacon

Brow Head

Mizen Head

Our own Atlantic: telescopic view of a storm battering Long Island, taken from our garden at Nead an Iolair (top), Brow Head, near Crookhaven (centre), and the impressive land and seascape at Mizen Head – Ireland’s most south-westerly point (lower picture). At the head of this page you can see the huge rollers that come into Dingle Bay, Co Kerry

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L’Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, “A haven,”
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.

Glanmore Sonnets VII, taken from Field Work by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber and Faber Ltd

Seamus Heaney was deeply affected by the seascape of his native Ireland. Anyone who works on or beside the sea is aware of the resonant names from the Shipping Forecasts, and the poet has used those names here to introduce his word-picture of the elemental Atlantic.

Near Malin Head 2

On the Beara

Donegal Beach

Atlantic contrasts from Mizen to Malin: near Malin Head – Ireland’s most northerly point (top), off the Beara (centre) and a beach in Donegal (lower)

A later traveller over the Atlantic waters was Chistopher Columbus in the 15th century. On the way he looked out for St Brendan’s Isle, a spectral island situated in the North Atlantic somewhere off the coast of Africa. It appeared on numerous maps in Columbus’ time, often referred to as La isla de SamborombónThe first mention of the island was in the ninth-century Latin text Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot), from whence it became firmly implanted into Irish mythology. St Brendan took a little party of monks to the island to say Mass: when they returned after a few days to the rest of the flotilla, they were told that they had been away for a year! The phantom island was seen on and off by mariners for years until in 1723 a priest performed the rite of exorcism towards it during one of its apparitions behind low cloud… You can see St Brendan’s Isle for yourselves, above the wonderful giant fish in the second picture down.

Dingle Peninsula

Coast Road

Dingle peninsula (top), and Coast Road in Donegal (lower)

I was pleased to find this Irish Times video made by Peter Cox when he was fundraising for his book Atlantic Light: spectacular photographs of the coastline on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. The excellent aerial views in this film are all taken by a drone… Look out for places you will have seen in our blogs!

atlantic video

We are privileged that the Atlantic Ocean is the abiding but ever-changing feature in our daily lives. It must affect us in unknown ways: I do know that, wherever I go in this world, I will – like Saint Brendan – always be drawn back here to our wonderful safe haven…



Uisce Beatha


Ireland is an island – a fairly small one. There’s a lot of water surrounding it (3,500 miles of coastline) and coming out of the sky. This abundance of water has shaped the natural landscape and coloured it emerald green. Not surprisingly, traditional life, history, culture and folklore in this country are imbued with watery references.

Schull Pier

Schull Pier

Down here in West Cork you are never more than a mile or two from the sea: it has historically provided defence, sustenance, isolation and wealth. When the O’Mahony and O’Driscoll clans ruled here in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it was recorded that more than 500 large fishing boats from France, Spain, and Portugal were constantly harvesting the fish shoals off the Mizen. Each chieftain’s income from the foreign ships surpassed £1,000 annually by way of fishing rights, harbour dues and protection money (that’s about 3,000 cows in trading terms in those days). Today you can still see evidence that the bays, inlets and islands have long provided income and a means of transport to the local communities: there are small piers everywhere. There’s an ancient one – ruined but still visible – just below us at Ard Glas, and an hour’s walk along the water would take in half a dozen others mostly still maintained in good order and regularly used.


Piers at Cunnamore and Roscarberry

When we go up to the market in Bantry on a Friday morning to get our own fish fresh from the local quays we pass by the statue of St Brendan the Navigator. In the sixth century Brendan set out with forty other monks in a little boat to find the Island of Paradise; instead, they discovered America, returning after seven years to tell of their many adventures with sea monsters, miraculous islands and sirens. In the 1970s Tim Severin recreated Brendan’s twin masted boat using Irish ash and oak lashed together with two miles of leather thong and wrapped with 49 traditionally tanned ox hides sealed with wool grease. In this he sailed for a year via the Hebrides and Iceland to reach Newfoundland, thus proving that the legend could have been based on fact.

Colla Pier, Roaringwater Pier and St Brendan

Colla Pier, Roaringwater Pier and St Brendan

The 'lost' pier at Bealaclare

The ‘lost’ pier at Bealaclare

In 2010 two fishermen found a small canoe in the Boyne River. It’s reckoned to be 5,000 years old and may have carried stone for the building of the great passage tomb at Newgrange (that predates the Pyramids). That boat is only 3 metres long, but another canoe discovered in 1901 in Co Galway is even older and much bigger: 15 metres long, hollowed out from the trunk of a single oak tree that was over 2 metres in diameter: something that couldn’t be found in Ireland today. It probably had outriggers and could have been used to bring tin from Cornwall to mix with the locally mined copper, enabling the Bronze Age to take off. Fascinating.

Bronze Age Canoe

Bronze Age Canoe

Every day we look out over the water, and on all our walks we have glorious views over the bays, the Celtic Sea and the Atlantic. That’s a constant in our lives that I don’t think we could ever do without.

Oh – by the way: Uisce Beatha (pronounced Ish-kah Baahaa) – that translates literally as Water of Life – and, in Ireland, also as ‘Whisky’.

Turk Head Pier

Turk Head Pier