Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Waves of Tory

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Magheroarty Beach, where the ferry departs to Tory Island

 

 

Tory Island. Those two words resonate loudly in my ears.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s when I played in Bush Bands in various remote parts of Australia, one of the favourite dances was the Waves of Tory. Well our version of it. With that lovely descriptive name reflecting the motion of the dancers with high potential for total chaos yet at the same time conjuring up romantic notions of a windswept wild wasteland in the North Atlantic.

As far away from the beautiful windswept wild wasteland of the Australian desert as could be.

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Waves of Tory

 

Well now I have ridden the Waves of Tory and the imagined and fanciful has become real. It is wild and it was windy and those waves were something to behold but it was not a wasteland. It is surprisingly different to the other inhabited islands I have visited here such as Achill, the Aran Islands and Sherkin.  It is stunningly beautiful.

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Tory Island as seen from Magheroarty Beach

Tory Island, or just plain Tory, lies about  14km off the coast of Bunbeg in western Donegal. On the day I decided to go the ferry had already left from Bunbeg but I had time to drive to Magheroarty and catch the 11:30am.

 

I picked my day and was lucky. The forecast was spot on with sun predicted all day because I really wanted to photograph it in a clear light. But I forgot to check the ocean conditions and boy was there a mighty swell which made for a very rough trip.

We were warned to be back at the boat by 2pm, much earlier than scheduled,  and if we didn’t get it we would be there for at least four days as storm conditions were expected to prevent the boat sailing for that time. This gave me about 1 ½ hours on the Island . I was disappointed but it is amazing how much I could see in that time, albeit fleetingly.

So back to the Waves Of Tory. We took the smaller of the boats, the romantically named Whispering Dawn, that usually do this run and it was filled with returning residents, with their shopping and all sorts of oddments that can only be got on the mainland. There was plenty of Guinness and whiskey and a massive birthday cake. Well that was what I guessed it was by its shape and the way they were carrying it, and a big bag of helium filled balloons which said 40th.  So many things to plan for with life on a remote outpost. Goods were passed down the steps in a human chain, as they probably were since the boat started sailing there.

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Everyone joins in to load the boat.

 

So the boat was packed finally, though a few late comers forced us to turn around after we had already headed out to sea. Wouldn’t happen with the Manly Ferry! When we finally got going it was rough. we were tossed around like one of those toy boats in a bathtub that Hollywood used to simulate a violent storm.  Except this was real. Waves would swamp the deck as we listed first one way then the other.  The Captain doing a marvellous job to turn the boat into the massive waves to avoid them hitting us broadside. Photography was pretty difficult with salt on the camera and the cameraman, but I got a few. Remarkably I didn’t get sea sick.

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Ploughing through the waves on the way to Tory

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All kinds of passengers

 

The Island loomed into view so slowly. The eastern end looked rugged and mountainous while the western seemed more topographically restrained. We pulled into the wharf with some relief and the passengers disappeared into their little slice of this Island world.

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I knew Tory had a King.  The current king is local artist and musician, Patsy Dan Mac Ruaíri.  Elected by popular vote of the Islanders he has ruled since 1993. I was expecting to be met by him and his accordion.   Every account of a visit to Tory talks about the King. Well not this one, because he just wasn’t there.  Perhaps he was engaged on other official duties.  I can only assume that it was of the gravest urgency to have kept him from meeting the boat and welcoming me.

The Island is fringed with granite boulders and slopes gently up from the seashore with a treeless plain that heads off to the horizon where there are a few rocky knolls.

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There is a cluster of houses which is the main village and in the distance I could see other smaller clusters with only a few scattered houses in between. Much of the land seems barren and empty but you are drawn to explore.

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The village is just a lovely higgledy piggledy jumble. Nothing is straight. The main road snakes around and the houses are built at different angles to each other. One suspects people here over time have just done what they pleased. Many vacant and ruined houses sit next door to beautifully painted and maintained cottages. In the centre of it all is the remains of a round tower, a bell tower from the 7th century and the only remaining part of a Monastry founded by St Columcille as a sort of getaway from the no doubt stressful life of being a saint. Prominent in the town is a generator and you are reminded of what it must be like to live here.  Especially in winter.  Indeed, in 1974 a massive storm cut the island off for two months.  The response of the Government was to attempt to resettle the 130 residents on the mainland, but the islanders resisted and won the right to remain.  A pyrrhic victory as there are virtually no facilities remaining.

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The 6th Century bell tower is the only remains of the original monastery

 

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Boats share the main street with houses

 

It’s maritime connection is never far away. Old boats are scattered through the village most unlikely to see their hull in water again, now part of the permanent streetscape.

They must be a special breed, the people who live here.

I loved the feel of the place. The hand painted signs, the unpretentiousness. The rawness reflecting a life that this particular day’s relatively benign weather temporary masked.

I had less than an hour left and I had no idea what the Island had to offer. I could see a light house in the distance but no time to go there.  I should have done my homework I suppose but I went there on a whim. After walking through the town I kept seeing those knolls and ridges in the distance; so I headed across the bare paddocks.

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A view towards the lighthouse

 

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Wind assisted. When I got there the ground suddenly dropped away into preciptious cliffs. I had to work hard to avoid being blown off into the Atlantic. The view was stunning.

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Land bridge in quartzite cliffs

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Stunning, sublime, arresting, breathtaking.  Substitute any other hyperbolic synonymy and you still won’t be able to describe it adequately. Some of the cliffs were of granite and some were of quartzite. And they were different to each other and to the cliffs of Clare. The granite cliffs were smoother, more rounded and with boulders perched precariously. Those of quartzite which formed the high cliffs of the northern end of the island were jagged and irregular with many offshore stacks and islands and even a land bridge. I continued to walk along the cliff edge and each corner would reveal another spectacular vista of rugged bays and pinnacles.

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A quick look at the time and I had twenty minutes left to make it back to the boat. Got there no problem but disappointingly no sign of King Patsy to say goodbye to me and reluctantly just a handful of us embarked for the mainland.

But the trip back was not very pleasant. We had a bigger boat (Turasmara ) which seemed to handle the waves better but the sensible Islanders remained behind, ensconced in their homes in front of their warm fires while the few of us returning to ‘civilisation’ struggled with effects of the Rolling Waves. Some lost the battle. I fully expected to be a victim but somehow by standing outside in the open and clinging to a door handle with my legs braced against each wave and my eyes fixed on the receding Tory I rode it out

Forty five minutes later with heavy clouds moving in as if on cue, to announce the end of the journey, we were back somewhat unsteadily on land.

With my legs regaining their function I left the Kingdom of Tory behind and it was back to Bunbeg for a warm fire, a settling whiskey and a tune.

Two hours was definitely not enough. Next time I will stay and explore this remarkable place at my leisure. Definitely overnight.

Maybe I’ll even get a royal audience.

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The Torr Road Drive, Co Antrim. Lime Kilns, Game of Thrones and sublime beauty.

Travelling by car along the north coast of Antrim is spectacular to say the least. As seems to be the way of the world the drive has to have a label. So this is the Causeway Coastal Route because it features the Giant’s Causeway. I will blog on this and other places in due course because they warrant attention. But after Ballycastle, if you are heading east, the Causeway Coastal Route turns inland (away from the Coast – go figure!) towards Cushendun and Cushendall.  So most travellers miss a little pocket of Antrim that is staggeringly beautiful. This is the Torr Road which hugs the coast to Cunshendun.  Ireland is noted for its green of course but in many parts that green turns brown and red in winter.  Not here.  In this part of Antrim you seem to get the Forty Shades all year.

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View from the Torr Road, Antrim

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Green and gold.  Just add sunshine.  Torr Road.  Antrim

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Green slopes that run down to the sea.  Torr Road, Antrim. That current looks pretty treacherous.  Scotland is visible on the horizon.

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Coastal view, Torr Road.

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Fences need repair whatever the weather.  Torr Road, Antrim.

Of course the road leads to Torr Head.  This is the closest point to Scotland and from here you look across to the Mull of Kintyre.  It was very cold this morning, so I resisted the temptation to climb to the top. At the top of the headland is a tower which watches over the Sruth na Maoile (Straits of Moyle), a former haunt for privateers, and acted as a signal tower, passing on messages of ship movements to Lloyds of London.  There is also a now ruined, customs station which was abandoned in 1922. Its stark ruin brings an evocative supernal element to the gorgeous views both along the coast and back towards the hinterland.  Awaiting you, at the end of this drive at Cushendun, is the gateway to the Glens of Antrim, but that’s another story.

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Torr Head.

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Ruined Customs House, Torr Head.  Antrim.

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Ruins of Customs House, Torr Head

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Phone Box looking towards, Torr Head.

On my first drive along this road I went past a turn off to Murlough Bay. It was an inconspicuous sign and nothing drew my attention to it. If it hadn’t been for my B&B hosts that night at Teach an Cheol, just out of Ballycastle then I would have missed this little gem entirely. They insisted I go back there before leaving Antrim. Thank you  Micheál and Catherine.

The single lane road to Murlough Bay snakes off the Torr Road across brilliant green paddocks, and then suddenly drops off the plateau winding both perilously and picturesquely down to the sea. Remarkable views open up.

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Limestone cliffs at Murlough Bay.

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I passed a solid stone structure which intrigued me, so I dragged my eyes away from the view.  It was like nothing I had seen before and I later discovered it was a lime kiln where broken limestone rock was melted to produce quicklime. This was used for mortar or for agriculture. It was a thriving industry wherever limestone and coal (for fuel) was found.

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Lime kiln near Murlough Bay.  Front view.

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Lime Kiln from above.  Showing hole where lime and coal are loaded.

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Limestone cliffs

A little simple chemistry.  Limestone with the application of heat breaks down to lime with the release of carbon dioxide gas as in the following reaction

CaCO3 + heat → CaO + CO2

The reaction requires about 1000 °C. They were extremely common around Ireland and Britain, indeed in the mid 1800s there were believed to be 23,000 in Cork alone. There was plenty of limestone here with the surrounding cliffs. I’m guessing there was also a good supply of coal nearby too. I am always impressed by the beauty and solidity of the industrial architecture I come across here in Ireland. The stone work of the multiple arches over the air intake is stunning.

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So continuing down towards the coast I see a sign reminding me that this area was used to film episodes of Game of Thrones that hugely successful television series, still running. Of course you can see why. Film tourism has always been a big thing in Ireland what with The Quiet Man, Ryan’s Daughter, Father Ted, PS I Love You, and it continues with Game of Thrones and Star Wars.

Murlough bay is a place of singular beauty. You leave the car and walk along the track which follows the coast to a whitewashed cottage with the most perfect location in Ireland. There is a second small abandoned cottage; padlocked but in reasonable condition. A peek in the window and I can see some bottles of disinfectant and cloths suggesting a level of optimism by the owner. What a place for a holiday batch. Nearby there is another lime kiln.

This place is everything that makes Ireland beautiful. Cliffs, washing waves on rocky shores, boulder beaches, jagged headlands, green fields rolling into the sea, craggy islands, little coves. The surprising variety of landscape is a result of a rich geological melange which I might talk more about at another time, but I saw metamorphosed schist and gneisses, basalts, sandstone and conglomerate, limestone and of course the ever-present carpet of bog over it all. A geological history of 600 million years on display in this little bay.  Again a sign tells us a little cove here was used in another episode of GOT.

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Distant view of Murlough Bay

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Murlough Bay looking east.

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Murlough Bay looking west.

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Basalt outcrops forming islands and bays

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Murlough Bay.

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Murlough Bay.  Sandstone rock platform with narrow bands of conglomerate.

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Murlough Bay.  This view has sandstone, basalt, gneiss and limestone.  A geological melange.

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Murlough Bay.  Abandoned cottage on the shore.

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Another lime kiln on the beach at Murlough Bay.

Again a sign tells us a little cove here was used in another episode of GOT.

It is hard not to use clichés in describing this spot. I was the only one there and it was so quiet and so still. the only activity was a fishing boat, way out in the channel and the only noise was the ripples lapping the shore and the occasional squawk of a gull. There was an undisturbed equanimity and you could feel tension disappearing with the tide. Just me and my thoughts. I didn’t want to leave. I have been to so many beautiful places in Ireland, but not felt this way before. Surrounded by natural beauty, yet somehow otherworldly.

Extraordinary.

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Categories: My Journey, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Glenties and the Blue Stack Mountains; The beating heart of Donegal fiddle music.

I hadn’t planned on going to Glenties. Don’t get me wrong it’s a delightful place in the west of Donegal set in mountainous country and its lovely leafy village setting is a surprising contrast to the treeless wild of this part of the world.

I had just spent a wonderful week of music at the Scoil Gheimhridh Ghaoth Dobhair (a winter school for traditional music at Gweedore) and was ready to go home. It was the last night and the final session was coming to a natural exhausted conclusion. I was saying my goodbyes when Sile Friel of the renowned Glasgow/Donegal based Friel Sisters asked if I was interested in attending a session the next night. This is how the conversation went.

Sile        “I’m trying to organise a session with a few of us and the Campbells at Glenties”

Me         “Um. Who are the Campbells?”

Sile        “You’ve never heard of them? Jimmy and Vince are fiddling royalty up here”

I felt embarrassed by my ignorance. But my interest was of course piqued and my travel plans instantly changed.

Next morning I headed south taking a detour to the Glengesh Pass (between Glencolmcille and Ardara), which ironically I had visited earlier in the year on a miserable summer day in stark contrast to this glorious winter’s day. Well worth the detour.

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Glengesh Pass.  On a sunny day in the middle of winter.  January 2017

 

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Glengesh Pass.  The same view on a foggy day in the middle of summer. August 2016

 

But my main objective was a little pub a few kilometres from Glenties in the middle of the Blue Stack Mountains.

I spent the afternoon discovering the Blue Stacks, also known as The Croaghgorms. It is the most significant mountain range in Donegal, separating the north from the south. Typical bare, rounded hills with the characteristic remote wilderness feel to it that makes Donegal so appealing. The special winter russet colour which takes on a red tinge when the sun shines.  And not a tree, except the occasional pine forest.  I took random roads, which turned into random lanes and then random boreens. It was beautiful but scary. The roads were so narrow that there was no chance for two cars to pass and there was bog on either side. And being so remote there were few houses and fewer laybys. I drove in fear of meeting someone and having my reversing skills challenged over distances measured in hundreds of metres.  This world though is well off the commuter trail and the major road traffic was of the four footed kind.

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I arrived at the Glen Tavern (everyone calls it Dinny’s despite that name not appearing anywhere on the building) a respectable period before the nominated time of 7 pm. Of course I should have known better.

I had plenty of time to get to know the owners, Annie and Mary because it was at least an hour before the first patron arrived let alone musician. And then some. Of course, I was made to feel very welcome. I guess an Aussie fiddler tuning up was a bit unusual.  Or maybe it wasn’t.

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Mary and Annie.  Mine hosts at Dinny’s

 

The first surprise is that you enter the pub through a little shop. Just your basics mind you, but a shop nonetheless.

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Open for business.

 

As well as a shop and a bar it is also a residence. A door to the right took me into the now empty bar. Cosy and inviting with those corner lounges so typical in Ireland just waiting to be filled with musicians. This looked like a great place for music. But not right now.

I settled down for a chat with Mary and Annie and a glass of Jamieson and heard the stories of this place and its music. In my ignorance I had not realised that these mountains and this pub were at the beating heart of Donegal fiddle music.

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A bar with an house fiddle is my kind of pub.

 

The legendary itinerant master tinsmith and fiddler Johnny Doherty lived in these parts and played here and the Campbells (who Sile had mentioned) are a direct link to that legacy. Vince and Jimmy learnt their music from their father who played with him. Johnny had stayed with the Campbells as he had in many houses across the mountains.  I had inadvertently walked into this time capsule.

Gradually people arrived. Peter Campbell, Jimmy’s son, also a fiddler and Condy Campbell; not sure where he fitted in but he took up what looked like his regular spot in the corner and settled in for the night.

Two hours now and the musicians who were coming from Gweedore had yet to arrive. Occasional texts from the Friels advised they were ‘on their way’. But this is Ireland. Turns out they called in to visit Danny Meehan, another legend of Donegal fiddling and he wouldn’t let them go. I’m sure there’s a great story there.

So it was well after 9.00 pm when they finally arrived and then another half hour before the tunes began.

The place had gradually filled (I’m sure there were a few more Campbells among the crowd) as the pipes and fiddles took over. Joining Sile Friels on pipes and sister Clare on fiddle were brothers Fionnán and Iarlaith Mac Gabhann, from Dublin, on pipes and flute.

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Peter Campbell, Fionnan Mac Gabhann, Clare Friel, Sile Friel and Iarlaith Mac Gabhann at Dinny’s

 

The music was sensational. We were in full flight with, of course, a heavy smattering of highlands, mazurkas, flings and a waltz or two, which , for the most part, I had to sit out. We even played Donegal’s only polka. Well that was what I was told. We got the story of that tune from Condy but I have to be honest, I can’t tell you any of it because with his thick, but delightful, brogue, I didn’t get a word.

The musical visitors had decided to move on so about 11 they started to pack up ready to go. Then Jimmy Campbell arrived. That changed everything. “Just one for the road”.  Jimmy insisted that they keep playing and he just sat and listened. In that peculiarly endearing Irish way he would interject with “lovely”, “lovely”, which is surely the ultimate accolade. And it was meant.

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Jimmy Campbell watches and listens.

 

He was persuaded eventually to grab a fiddle. “I can’t play” he said wryly. “I can’t play like that”.

But he did and he could! No one joined. It was our turn to admire and just listen. He played solo and he played with son Peter.  The boys from Dublin had never been to Donegal before and I could see the reverence and joy writ all over their faces at hearing this music. I felt the same. Here was a whole world of playing I knew nothing about.

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Father and son.

 

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A good tune followed by a good laugh.

 

Of course no one left and the musical conversation continued until 1:30 am. Even the goodbyes took an hour.

I had the chance to sit and chat to Jimmy. A nicer gentleman would be hard to find. Nearly 80. He had left Donegal and lived in London much of his life but was now back home. His son Peter, born in England, followed him back. He is full of tales. A session with Jimmy is an experience. It is beyond now. Every tune has its moment. Often there are no sets. Just a single tune. We hear about where he learnt the tune or who wrote it or the story behind it or where the name came from. The tune is a window into a social history. With his words it ties us to people, time and place.

It was a special evening. Two worlds meet with both embracing each other. Music was just a facilitator for people to connect at completely different levels. A good session is more than just playing tunes together. This was a good session.

The beauty is though that I can take something away with me. On the wall is a framed musical notation of a tune, The Jack in the Tavern, written by Jimmy. It’s on my to-learn list now.

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To think that but for a chance conversation with Sile I would have missed this. That’s how it is in Ireland.

Happenstance and serendipity.

There is a music weekend every year in the Glen Tavern in September and I have marked it in my calendar already. Try and keep me away.

Hopefully I will have learnt Jimmy’s tune and a few more highlands and mazurkas by then.

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Categories: Sessions, Stories, The Fiddle, Trad Irish Music, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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