Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Beara Peninsula, Co Cork. My New Favourite Place in Ireland.

I hope my blogs on Ireland aren’t getting too boring. Each time I discover or rediscover a new place I can’t stop scraping up the superlatives.  I’ve blogged recently on the magic of Glencolmcille and south west Donegal, on the spirit of Achill Island, on the beauty of Doughmore in West Clare and West Connemara and many places in between. Recently I visited the Beara Peninsula again for the first time in twenty years. And I’m sorry but I have to regale you with more resplendent words yet again.

The Beara Peninula is one of those wonderful headlands that define West Kerry and West Cork, jutting prominently into the Atlantic and adding a whole lot of extra kilometres to the Wild Atlantic Way.  Many have well known and evocative connotations. The Iveragh Peninsula, better known as the Dingle Peninsula,  and the famous Ring of Kerry are the prime destinations for visitors and do not fail to disappoint. Less well known are the Beara Peninsula, Sheep’s Head and the spectacular Mizen Head.

The attractions of the Beara Peninsula are however becoming better known and I am told by the locals that this summer it was crowded with visitors. I chose to visit in late October. The weather was good (in Irish-speak that translates to ‘no rain’) and it has to be the perfect time. At the western end, the roads are almost deserted and you feel you have this magnificent landscape to yourself.

An obvious draw of this place is that it is more compact than the Ring of Kerry but there is so much variety, so much of interest and so much to fill the shortening autumn days that it was hard to leave.

So what does this little treasure offer?  For a start magnificent vistas are around every corner. You can approach from the Northern Road or the Southern Road but my strong recommendation is you find time to do both.

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And sometimes you see something that you know could not be replicated anywhere else in the world.  The patchwork quilt and stone walls that say Ireland, Ireland, Ireland.

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There are a number of mountainous rocky passes. I explored the Caha Pass this time, which links Kenmare with Glengariff. Here there is stunning scenery and four remarkable tunnels (known as Turner’s Rock Tunnels) built in the 1840s when they decided to go through the rock rather than over it. Quite an engineering feat for its day and very unique for road construction as most tunnels in Ireland were built for railways. Indeed the railway construction boom did not start until the 1840s so these tunnels predate any rail tunnel in Ireland.   From this impressive road there are craggy mountains, magnificent pasture and grasslands, and sweeping panoramas. Next time I will do the Healy Pass.

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Elsewhere you will see wild, coastal panoramas, verdant forests, jagged islands or houses perched on grassy knolls with staggering views or nestled into rugged rocky cliffs.

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The drive to the end of the Peninsula and Dursey Island is not to be missed. But be prepared for perhaps a little disappointment. Ireland’s only cable car which links the island to the mainland and at this time of the year only runs between 9.30am and 11am was ‘fully booked’ and not operating for transport of people. It was being used for the day by the local farmers to transport hay across the narrow channel. Where else would tourists be turned away, some mind you who had travelled especially, in favour of bales of hay? Only in Ireland. But somehow it didn’t matter, there was so much else to do and it will be there (possibly) next time. You’ve got to admire the ingenuity of the farmers here. I saw an old ‘retired’ cable car in a yard being used as a chook house. Love it.  And love the little insect houses thoughtfully provided by one farmer.

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Then there is the colourful palette of the charming village of Allihies, which single-handed may be responsible for keeping alive the paint pigment industry in Ireland. Purples, pinks, indigo and every other colour merged harmoniously into the greys, greens and reds of its rocky backdrop.

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And towering over the town is the architectural masterpiece of the Engine House of the Mountain Copper Mine built around 1810. Maybe you think masterpiece too strong a word  but it is at least the equal from a heritage perspective of the megalithic ruins or the monastic abbeys that populate the tourist guide books.   This is the finest example of an historical mine building I have seen in this remarkable condition. It speaks of the confidence and wealth that the mine brought to this remote outpost as it became one of the jewels of European copper mining during its heyday from 1810 to its closure in the 1920s. There are plenty of reminders of the mining period; old shafts and adits, mine workings, two other engine house ruins, stone walls and in places the tell-tale green and blue staining of copper carbonates.

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Mountain Mine engine house

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Chasing the copper

 

There is a museum which gives a very good account of the mining story but unfortunately it is a bit expensive which turns some away. All aspects of the story are covered including the geology, mining technology and social impact.   As a geologist it was of course fascinating. And even more so for me having met the next generation of miner there, young J and his mum Frances, locals who had come to see if they could find any copper. As it happened I had seen some workings with strong copper on the way up the hill, so I offered to show them and took them there. J’s wide eyed fascination and enthusiasm was enough reward.  Maybe I have helped kick start another geologist’s career.

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Still on copper, I stopped at Puxley Manor near Castletownbere. Actually the site of the mansion is right near the ruins of Dunboy Castle but more on that later. It would seem that the location is well cursed having witnessed a number of tragedies over the past 4oo+ years.

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Puxley Manor around 1910

When I first saw the Puxley mansion it was 20 years ago it was a shell of a ruin. It had been the home of the Puxley family since the 1700s. They pretty much owned the copper mining industry here and ended up fabulously wealthy.  As the industry declined so did the Puxley wealth and when his wife died in childbirth Henry Puxley, the last owner, abandoned the castle. Worried that the British Army would take over the abandoned house, the IRA torched it in 1921, destroying it and its contents. The shell was sold at auction in 1927 but remained a forlorn ruin as this photo shows.

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Puxley Manor in the 1990s

This is what it looked like when I saw it in 1996. It was sold to a developer in 1999 and the Celtic Tiger roared. It was to be transformed into a luxury 6-star resort hotel, the only one in Ireland. Massive restoration and conservation work was carried out and all progressed swimmingly with a soft opening in 2007. That was until the money dried up in 2008 with the GFC. By 2010 the project was abandoned and a mesh fence erected. The bats returned but not the visitors.  This is how it appears today. The rotting hull of a large boat sits in the harbour as if to reinforce the tragedy.  Such a grand vision. The restoration did not however extend to the gate house which stands impressively ruinous.

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Puxley Manor.  restored but empty

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Puxley Manor

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Gatehouse.  Puxley Manor

 

I said earlier that Dunboy Castle remains were nearby. This was the ancestral home of Donal Cam O’Sullivan, last of the Gaelic chieftains and a thorn in the side of Elizabeth I during the nine years war which started in 1594.  In 1602 she sent a large battalion of troops to destroy O’Sullivan and the 143 men, who tried to defend the castle, could not withstand the British canon. Surrender was not an option after an emissary sent to discuss terms was hung in full view of the defenders. This ultimate fate awaited all those remaining once the British destroyed it and the castle was never lived in again.

The name O’Sullivan however is everywhere on the peninsula.  You can’t avoid it.

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This little enclave of Cork is truly a gem and you could spend a week here or even a lifetime. There are plenty of stone circles, forts, monuments, holy places (such as the Mass Rock) and extraordinary natural wonders to explore and discover.  Oh, and sheep.  And there’s Dursey Island, if the cable car is running.  And if you’re up for it you can walk it all on the Beara Way.

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Ring fort

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Mass rock

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The black sheep in the flock

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There once was a church

The beauty though is not just in the grand vistas but in a host of other details for me that capture the personality of a place.  Here are a few photos that speak loudly about the struggle for life for both nature and man.

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Abandoned bucket near a well.

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Perfect bonsai tree growing wild.

 

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Window treatment

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Ingenuity

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Maintenance can be a problem

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Fantastically fertile for funghi

 

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Life hangs on

 

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True love

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Faded hope

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Was this to avoid the window tax?

So that’s it.    I’ll be back and very soon.

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Fury. A dog’s tale.

There are many legends and stories in Ireland; the origins of which are often lost in time and who knows whether there is any truth in them or whether there has been serious embellishment over the years.  So, it’s great when one such legend is proved with physical evidence.

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If you visit Portumna Castle in County Galway you will of course be blown away by the splendour of the building, which in its time was the grandest castle in Ireland, outshining all others. Built around 1610, it is notable as the first building in the Renaissance style in Ireland and cost a massive £10,000. It was abandoned in 1826 after a fire and has been largely rebuilt. I don’t want to talk about the Castle and everything there is to see, the guidebooks and guided tours will show you all of these things, but the highlight for me was the display of the remains of Fury.

Fury was by some accounts an Irish Wolfhound, by others something else. The story was widely told that in April 1797, Fury was asleep on the grass underneath one of the windows of the castle when a young lady of the house, while watching the dog below, fell from the window. She landed on the dog breaking its back which resulted in poor Fury’s death. This though  saved her life by breaking her fall and in gratitude the family placed a plaque on Fury’s grave. Part of the inscription read

Alas! poor Fury.
She was a Dog, Take her for All in All
Eye shall not look upon her like again.

Excavation in 1997 indeed discovered bones of a dog and the skeleton was reconstructed. Analysis of the remains suggested the dog was a Whippet though this could not be conclusive.  A number of vertebrae were missing in the middle of its back and this supported the legend that  the likely cause of death was of a broken back. The presence of nails in each corner of the gravesite indicated that she was buried in a coffin.

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Sad it is of course, but also quite wonderful that 200 years after the tragic event archaeology confirmed the legend and that Fury’s deed is remembered.

Fury is on permanent display at the Castle. It’s worth a visit.

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A Visit to Ralahine, Co Clare. A Failed Experiment.

Ireland was a troubled country in the early part of the 19th century. Under the firm rule of the Crown, most Irish land at this time was owned by absentee landlords either in Britain or Dublin. The farms became a hotbed of discontent with tenants living in misery. This prompted organised groups such as the Ribbonmen, who launched deadly attacks on landlords and their tithes. Rural Ireland was not a happy place.

One man decided to try to change this. He believed he could bring peace to the land with a cooperative farm where he would rent the land to the labourers and they would work it under their own authority. This man was wealthy landowner John Vandeleur and a man of considerable influence in Clare.  He had been High Sherriff in 1823.  He found an estate of 638 acres at Ralahine near Newmarket-on-Fergus in County Clare and with socialist backer Englishman Edward Craig running it, started the colony with 40 farmers and their families. They had a school, a laundry and a pooled kitchen. All the capital (buildings, stock etc) was provided by Vandeleur and was communal property. There was no private ownership.  All 4 legged animals, even dogs, were the property of the group.  He charged rent in the form of farm produce.

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Ralahine Estate as shown in the 1842 Survey map.  The location of buildings still standing is marked,

There were strict rules governing the running of the farm. It was no socialist Utopia. New members could only be admitted by ballot. Work was 12 hours per day. There was no gambling and no drinking.  There was however enshrined freedom of expression and religion.  If there was a proposed marriage to someone outside the colony, and the members did not approve, then both were excluded. There was no money. Labour was paid for in Labour Notes which could be exchanged for provisions.

It all seemed to work and the colony expanded after one year to 81. People came from all over the world to see the contented colonists. Then it all came crashing down.

Mr Vandeleur’s wealth was gone. He had lost his fortune, ironically through gambling and drinking. He fled from Ralahine. The arrangement with the members had no legal basis and all the assets were seized and the bold experiment came to an end after two years.

I wanted to see how much of Ralahine was left. It was easy to find; just a short drive out of Newmarket-on-Fergus. I met local farmer Niamh, who pointed out some of the original buildings from 1830 which are still standing. There is the old mill, very much intact and a long whitewashed building, which at first I thought was stables, was the old working mans’ cottages. Each “house” has a single room with a fireplace,  Probably very comfortable for its day. .

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Rear view of the Old Mill

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Front view of the Old Mill

 

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Workmans’ Cottages

 

There are a number of other buildings and many walls which also appear to date from the same time but these mostly seem to now be used for storage. And of course looming over it all is the Rathlahine Castle, a previous home of one of the MacNamaras,  possibly looking a little worse for wear now than it did then.

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Ralahine.  View to Rathlahine Castle.

 

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Rathlahine Castle

 

The original house, the residence of Vandeleur,  was apparently demolished in the 1940s. Niamh said it was due to the windows tax, but this sounds a little fanciful as the window tax ended in the 1850s.

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Ralahine.  The site of the original Rathlahine House.  Nothing remains. 

 

I found a few very old apple trees near the mill, laden with fruit and it would be nice to think that these date back to the days of the colony.  So maybe John Vandleleur, if he is looking down on his life’s work from his vantage point above, may take some solace in the fact that among the crumbling ruins of his dream apple trees, his farmers planted 185 years ago, are still bearing fruit.

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Doughmore Beach, Co Clare. Walls, Donald Trump, drowned forests and a Man o’ War.

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It was Saturday and I was going to stay home and practice fiddle but  when I looked out the window I saw blue sky. And you have to take advantage of every such day with the Winter SADS not far away.  With Donald Trump on my mind after reading some anlysis of the debate (why do I do this to myself?) I thought I would go and have another look at where he wants to build his new Irish wall.

Doughmore is the location of Donald Trumps Doonbeg Golf resort, It is about tem minutes drive south of my little cottage near Quilty. So you see it’s pretty much my backyard.  You follow the signs with the blue squiggly line because the Wild Atlantic Way actually diverts to the beach.

Trump bought the impressive resort and golf course at a knockdown price of $12 million when the then owners were in difficulty.  An astute purchase?  Of course.

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Doonbeg Resort.  Golf course tucked behind the dunes

 

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Doonbeg resort complex

 

For those who are not aware, he now wants to tip 200,000 tonnes of rock along nearly 3 km of the beach (that’s a public beach mind you) to build a massive wall up to 4.5m high to stop erosion of the dunes to protect his golf links.   A little bit of science.  Erosion of dunes during a storm surge is a natural event. The event that scared Mr Trump happened in February 2014 and the dunes were cut back around 10m. This was a once in a lifetime happening that caused millions of euros of damage all along the Clare, Kerry and Cork coasts. But hey, erosion of dunes is essential for the replenishment of the sand to the beach. It is temporary as the sand returns to the dunes through wind. That’s how the dunes got there in the first place.  The Dutch understand this and monitor the normal movement of dunes as a natural barrier to inundation of the lowlands. A rock wall will destroy this continuum. Trump proposes to spend millions to save a couple of greens. Well stiff I say. Spend the euros on new greens and fairways. Leave the beach alone.

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Doughmore Beach.  Eroded sand dunes.  Note rapid partial regeneration.

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Doughmore Beach.  200,000 tonnes of rock planned to be tipped against these dunes.

 

So my visit this day is to see what’s at stake. And see it before it disappeared under a pile of rock.

Oh, and did I say that these dunes are classified as a Special Area of Conservation by the EU.

I was struck immediately by the relatively unspoilt nature of the beach. At the southern end where the resort complex is located is a rock platform, unusual because the shales are steeply dipping unlike most of the Clare coast where the strata is flat lying.  From here a beautiful sandy beach stretches around the bay for about 3 km. In the bright sunshine it is stunning.  The resort stands proud of course but the golf links is tucked away out of sight.  The impression is of pristine wilderness.   I found plenty of reasons to leave the beach as it is.

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Doughmore Beach.  Wide sandy beach at low tide.

 

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Doughmore Beach.  View towards the north.

 

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Doughmore Beach.  Another view.

 

It is very wide and predominantly sandy with only a narrow zone of boulders at the base of the dunes as distinct from many beaches in the part of the world which are boulder rich. This day there were many using the beach but paradoxically it seemed empty.  Most were just Irish families not people from the resort. I  spoke to quite a few. There was a family walking their Labrador, which, by the way, was having the time of his life. Another family, home from Australia, building a sand castle, people walking, jogging and just sitting and staring towards the Cliffs of Moher, visible as clear as a bell in the distance.

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Doughmore Beach.  Enjoy.

 

There was plenty of bird life. I saw a pair of Oyster Catchers going about their business along the shoreline, there was a Grey Heron and a flock of Mute Swans, really a surprise to see them on the ocean. Could have watched them for hours. A bit of Tchaikovsky would have been perfect.  Perfect synchronicity from one pair as they performed a pas de duex for me.

 

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Doughmore Beach.  A pair of Oyster Catchers.  Looking towards Liscannor and the Cliffs of Moher.

 

 

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Doughmore Beach.  A Grey Heron with the Cliffs in the distance.

 

 

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Doughmore Beach.  Part of a flock of Mute Swans.

 

Some kind folk pointed out to me a Portuguese Man o’ War washed up on the beach. Alive mind you.  A very rare occurrence as they are usually found in warm water in open ocean. A few have been spotted recently along the west coast of Ireland. So there is a bit of an alert out for them. They are related to the famous Australian blue bottle which though not as deadly as the Man o War, stings upwards of 10,000 people on Australian beaches every year. They are a beautiful and fascinating creature. Not actually a jellyfish, they are a colony made up of a number of different specialised individual animals (called zooids or polyps). They are attached to each other and to a bladder which is inflatable. The bladder, which is filled with gas, has intricate patterns etched in pink and the polyps and tentacle are shades of purple and cobalt blue. They have extremely long and venomous tentacles which is for gathering food and defending itself. They are at the mercy of the ocean currents and travel in schools of over 1,000. So keep a lookout. And don’t touch.

I noticed a small patch of peat exposed on the beach. This part of the beach is littered with old timber and tree stumps and roots. Part of an ancient drowned forest such as was revealed near Spiddal after the February 2014 storms. I’ve seen this before also at Caherush, though that one is now covered over again. Here there is very little of the peat exposed and it is is very narrow (less than a foot thick) and is clearly eroding fast.  It sits on a bed of quite soft mudstone which was the original forest soil layer. The stumps with roots attached many in situ and upright with the roots extending into the substrata. Chances are this represents an old forest from around 4-5,000 years ago, most likely inhabited. Most of the stumps appear to have met with a natural end, but I did notice one which had a definite saw cut – evidence of timber harvesting? This is amazing; they had saws back then? I can think of no other explanation.  This is a remarkable and unheralded window into the past.  Unfortunately it won’t be around long I’m guessing.  Not Trump’s fault this one, just the forces of nature.

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Doughmore Beach.  Part of submerged forest and remains of peat layer.  Grey rock underneath the peat is original soil layer of the forest. 

 

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Large stump, showing roots.

 

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Doughmore Beach.  Ancient tree stump and roots.  Peat all washed away. 

 

I have to go back to that accursed wall. This is not his first attempt. Trump began to dump boulders along the beach soon after purchasing it, without any permits, before Clare County Council intervened and forced him to stop the work. Then he came up with a relatively benign solution which had the support of environmental groups. No this was too namby-pamby. He changed his mind, sacked the very experienced consultant and hired another who would support his now much more drastic proposal. It is currently before Council. Trump firstly applied to bypass the council and declare it a project of national importance (the nerve!). This failed and Clare Council to its credit has initially rejected the application and is seeking more information on 51 questions. This will take many months. Trump’s bullying tactics have so far not helped. We will watch with interest.

I urge everyone who reads this to go visit Doughmore and see for themselves. If you live overseas and intend to visit Ireland, it is a short drive from the Cliffs of Moher and is on the way to the Kilkee cliffs and Loop Head anyway (which should be on your list of must-see places). Hopefully it will all still be there when you come.

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Intricate flow patterns of sea grass on an exposed rock platform

 

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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