Autumn at Lough Hyne

Wild West Cork: a rugged landscape of mountains, a myriad patchwork of pastures; inlets, coves, spruce plantations and an archipelago of mostly unwooded offshore islands. Where are the deciduous trees? This is what we ask ourselves when autumn comes and we want to see the changing colours; the wistful season of autumn at its best. The answer, for us, is Lough Hyne!

It’s just a skip and a jump to this tucked-away corner of our world. Once there, we are in a unique environment. It is Ireland’s first Marine Nature Reserve – international recognition for the ecology of this special place where not only the (salt) water is important both above and underneath the lake’s surface, but the immediate surroundings are hopefully sacrosanct for all time. These environs include woodlands which are just at this moment on the threshold of turning gold: we know gales are on the way which will tear and disperse them as winter sets in. Here’s a little tour of the paths on the edge of the water, featuring – above all – colour and texture: a feast for our eyes!

While the leaves are our main focus, everything else is worth a pause. The colour of the lake itself, certainly the wildlife it supports, but also the juxtaposition of boats, stone walls, shadows and sky are all brought to life by the early November sun.

I can’t resist quoting William Makepeace Thackeray’s description of his travels through ‘The City of Skibbereen’ to Lough Hyne, which we find in his Irish Sketch Book, published in 1843. Thackeray, the English writer best known for Vanity Fair and Barry Lyndon, spent four months travelling around much of the country and – although he appeared to enjoy himself – he didn’t have many good words to say about Ireland or the Irish . . .

THAT light four-inside, four-horse coach, the “Skibbereen Perseverance,” brought me fifty-two miles to-day, for the sum of three-and-sixpence, through a district which is, as usual, somewhat difficult to describe. A bright road winding up a hill; on it a country cart, with its load, stretching a huge shadow; emerald pastures and silver rivers in the foreground ; a noble sweep of hills rising up from them, and contrasting their magnificent purple with the green; in the extreme distance the clear cold outline of some far-off mountains, and the white clouds tumbled about in the blue sky overhead.

* * *

Of all the wonderful things to be seen in Skibbereen, Dan’s pantry is the most sublime: every article within is a makeshift, and has been ingeniously perverted from its original destination. Here lie bread, blacking, fresh butter, tallow-candles, dirty knives — all in the same cigar-box with snuff, milk, cold bacon, brown-sugar, broken teacups and bits of soap. No pen can describe that establishment, as no imagination could have conceived it. But – lo! – the sky has cleared after a furious fall of rain — and a car is waiting to carry us to Loughine . . .

Thackeray – Irish Sketch Book 1842

ALTHOUGH the description of Loughine can make but a poor figure in a book, the ride thither is well worth the traveller’s short labour. You pass by one of the cabin-streets out of the town into a country which for a mile is rich with grain, though bare of trees; then through a boggy bleak district, from which you enter into a sort of sea of rocks, with patches of herbage here and there. Before the traveller, almost all the way, is a huge pile of purple mountain, on which, as one comes nearer, one perceives numberless waves and breaks, as you see small waves on a billow in the sea; then clambering up a hill, we look down upon a bright green flat of land, with the lake beyond it, girt round by grey melancholy hills. 

* * *

The water may be a mile in extent; a cabin tops the mountain here and there; gentlemen have erected one or two anchorite pleasure-houses on the banks, as cheerful as a summer-house would be on a bleak plain. I felt not sorry to have seen this lonely lake, and still happier to leave it. There it lies with crags all round it, in the midst of desolate flatlands: it escapes somewhere to the sea; its waters are salt: half-a-dozen boats lie here and there upon its banks, and we saw a small crew of boys splashing about and swimming in it, laughing and yelling. It seemed a shame to disturb the silence so . . .

THACKERAY – IRISH SKETCH BOOK 1842

Thackeray’s Irish Sketch book is something we will return to in this journal, as it provides an unusual and, sometimes, surprising perspective on pre-Famine Ireland. But I can’t agree with him on Lough Hyne: grey melancholy hills . . . in the midst of desolate flatlands . . . Clearly, he cannot have visited on an autumnal day, and neither was he favoured by the sun. Perhaps there is a poetic justice there, somehow: we embrace everything that Ireland – and West Cork – has to offer; possibly his acute and carping scrutiny of the detail removes from him the more rewarding overview? For us, Lough Hyne was idyllic!

Our wonderful Skibbereen Heritage Centre has comprehensive information on Lough Hyne – and much more!