Monthly Archives: March 2020

A Viral Adventure in Connemara

After days of virally-enforced isolation I looked out my window one Friday morning in March, to a cloudless sky over Quilty.  For the five weeks I had been back such a day had only happened a couple of times.  I wasted no time, grabbed my camera and pointed the car northwards.  Don’t get me wrong; not to get away from Quilty but here was my opportunity to visit Connemara again.  OK, so it was a three-hour drive but I have experienced this place in all its moods and it is unbeatable in the sunshine.  My destination ths time was Roundstone, a little corner of Connemara that I hadn’t properly explored.  To get there you go through Oughterard and Maam and head out on the road to Clifden.

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The view from Pine Island lookout

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Twelve Pines Island

And that is not too shabby a drive.  There’s one spot on this route that I cannot drive past without taking a photo.  Just past Recess is the Pine Island Lookout at the western end of Derryclare Lough.  Not surprisingly it looks out over a pine covered island, named Twelve Pines Island framed in the distance by the mountains of Connemara National Park. Not sure why it is called Twelve Pines, because there are more that 12 but ‘Twelve Pines’, ‘Twelve Pins’, maybe someone is having a little joke.  It certainly is the spot for a that classic Connemara postcard shot.

I met Hugh Sweeney there; a filmmaker from Galway, who was obtaining some drone footage. It was fascinating to watch the process and then to see the result, which he posted the following day.  I have added a link to the finished product. You can even see yours truly at the end of the first shot if you look closely.

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Tracked by a drone at Pine Island Lookout

We chatted, from a distance of course, and he told me about a little hut on the Owenmore River on the way to Roundstone.  which he thought would be a good location for a photo opportunity.

It was on my way; but of course I got distracted.  The road was winding along the shoreline of Ballynahinch Lake and on the left near a bridge just before Ballinafad was a little church and a graveyard behind it.  A simple building painted white and blue and nestled on a little river with those 12 Pins as a backdrop on one side and craggy hills with gravestones poking randomly out of the tussocky grass on the other.

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St Bridget’s Church and Graveyard with the Twelve Pins in the background.

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The graveyard extends for hundreds of metres along the lake shore.

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St Bridget’s Church viewed from the New Cemetery across the Lough.

It is hard to imagine a more peaceful, wild and naturally unkempt cemetery.  I think it’s marvelous that it has been left that way with no new burials.  The graves seem to continue for a considerable distance along the lake shore and beyond that is the New Cemetery visible on the other side of Lough Nacoogarrow.

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The New Cemetery at Ballinafad viewed from the Old cemetery.

I found what I thought was the fishing hut Hugh had told me about on the banks of the Owenmore River. A priceless view and I took some pics.  I had to pinch myself to remind me that I was still in Ireland and not the Canadian Rockies.

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Fishing hut on the Owenmore River

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Fishing hut on the Owenmore River

Driving on a few hundred metres donw the  river was another hut and there I caught up with Hugh again.  So a few more pics of course.

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Hugh Sweeney and Jenny  on the Owenmore River

Heading on to the sparklingly pretty village of Roundstone perched on the shore of Roundstone Bay across which the Twelve Bens can be seen in the distance.  A fishing village still, but well known now for its arts and crafts as well as its incredible natural beauty.  And with all the cafes restaurants and bars shut during the Corronavirus lockdown why were there so many people around I asked myself.

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The village of Roundstone

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View across Roundstone Bay I

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View across Roundstone Bay II

The answer lies a few kilometres further down the road at Gurteen Bay.  Here are two beaches that regularly appear on the lists of Ireland’s Best Beaches.  The two beaches,  Poll na Madrai (Dog’s Bay) and Pol na Feadóige (Plover Bay, although Feadóige also means tin whistle – I think I prefer the alternative name Tin Whistle Beach) are on either side of a spit of sand and grassland with a granite island at the end.  This type of isthmus is known as a Tombola.

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The Tombola near Roundstone. Plover Bay on the left and Don’s Bay on the right.

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Dog’s Bay looking south.

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Another view of Dog’s Bay looking north towards Errisbeg.

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Tin Whistle Beach

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Mad Dogs and Irishmen

White sandy beaches line each of the Bays bays and they are simply stunning 

The white sand is unique.  It is not quartz or coral as I have encountered regularly elsewhere but a mix of foraminifera and shell fragments.  What are foraminifera (forams for short)?  They are single-celled tiny marine organisms, related to amoeba, but with a hard shell  They are abundant, both today and in the fossil record going back to the Cambrian (540 million years).  The shells are made of crystalline CaCO3 and occasionally as at Dog’s Bay and Gurteen accumulate as beach sand.

The fine sand has crept over the granite hills nearby creating what I would like to call pseudo dunes.  But there are ‘real’ dunes however, particularly behind Dog’s Bay and continuing erosion has created moonscape of remnant pinnacles which are remarkable in their own right.

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Sand dunes sculpted into pinnacles at Dog’s Bay

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Remnants of sand dunes at Dog’s Bay.  Looking towards Errisbeg.

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Social distancing at Dog’s Bay

Despite it being a Friday in March and the coronavirus lockdown it was very difficult to find a car park at Dog’s Bay.  The beach is completely undeveloped with no facilities and that adds enormously to its appeal.  I can just imagine what it would be like in summer.

As the clouds rolled in about 4 pm the normal Irish winter-dull greyness reappeared.  But what a wonderful day of discovery I had, and a perfect cure for cottage fever and enforced distancing from society.  I can totally recommend it.  There is nowhere in Connemara you won’t be rewarded with a magic experience.  It never fails to deliver.

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Tiny Tawin Island and its Links to Two Giants of 1916

Ireland has lots of islands.  One compilation I found listed 255.  I’ve visited many and indeed written about them and absolutely love the different character of each, whether inhabited or not.  The other day I visited an island at the eastern end of Galway Bay, which I had never even heard of till then.  That’s Tawin Island just a few kilometres from Oranmore.

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A typical view on Tarwin Island

The island is reached by heading west from the village of Maree.  The approach road skirts the bay and then traverses a connecting bridge at Ballymanagh onto East Tawin.  Then another bridge cum causeway to Tawin itself.   

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The bridge to East Tawin

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The road to Tawin Island

The road narrows to one lane and you do feel you are entering a forgotten world.  At the end of the road is a small settlement and then a cattle grid, beyond which the road disintegrates into a goat track, and just a short distance later disappears entirely under flooded fields.

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The end of the road.

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Flooded road.  The geese love it.

I parked up outside the National School.  It is a simple one room building with a red door and a leadlight window characteristic of the time.  There are two windows, one facing north and another to the west with great views over the bay and to Galway city but both placed high enough above the ground so that children at their desks could not be distracted.

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The Tawin National School. Built 1905

This simple school building and Tawin Island however tell quite a story, linked to events in Ireland’s Republican history and to two giant men of the Struggle of 1916.  It is  worth retelling.

The tiny school was erected in 1905.  This is recorded in the plaque above the door. Before that there was another building which had operated as a school room.  But in 1903 that was closed by the authorities.  The local people had rebelled against the exclusive use of English, requesting that all lessons be in Irish.  In response the school was simply closed with the teacher withdrawn and the building quickly falling into disrepair.  The parents were then told it would not reopen until they paid for the repairs.

The following year the noted nationalist Sir Roger Casement, who was later to be hanged for his involvement in the Rising of 1916,  discovered their plight and became a fierce  advocate of the brave attempts of the islanders to ensure their 30 children did not lose their Irish.  The Tawin cause became central to Casement’s articulation of the formal espousal of Irish, the Gaelic movement and the cause of the Gaeltacht.  He obtained the support of the Gaelic League, which had been working feverishly to preserve the Irish languange and culture since 1895.  They helped raise the sum of £80 (of which Casement himself contributed £20) needed to build a new school.  This was opened in 1905, and the children now had a bilingual schoolmaster and again Irish was spoken in the homes of Tawin.

The building was also used by the Gaelic League for an annual Summer School, which leads to the next significant connection to the events of 1916,  Between 1911 and 1913 Robert de Valera became Driector of the the Summer School. De Valera of course was a commander during the Easter Rising and became head of the Irish government for over 20 years and also its President.  In 1912, during a visit by Casement to check progress of the school he had promoted, he met De Valera for the first time.  What transpired at the meeting is not recorded but it cannot be a coincidence that four years later they were both leading figures in the Rising.

The school remained open until 1992.  It is now incorporated into a residence and used as a holiday home but its integrity remains intact.

A short distance from the school is an ivy-covered ruin, which caught my attention.  I was told by the local landowner who happened to be wandering past, that this was known as the Teacher’s House.  It is in a sad state now but was clearly a fine home two- story home befitting a school mistress.  I met another local out walking and enjoying the intermittent sunshine. She told me she was a student in the school during the 1960s.  The teacher then was a Miss Fennessy and my informant told me what a memorable and  great privilege it was to be invited up to her house. Miss Fennessy never married and remained the teacher until the school closed in 1992.

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The Teacher’s House on Tarwin Island

Not far from the school are perhaps a dozen houses line up along the road.  The ‘village’ has no facilities and indeed never did.  No post office but a green post box from George V remains built into a wall, with an Out of Service sign giving us a tangible link to the past.

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The old post box on Tarwin Island

The island, at first glance, doen’t appear to have that much to offer.  It is low lying and treeless, and after a couple of very high tides and weeks of rain was sodden, so not really suitable for exploring.  But its quiet remoteness gives it a  unique ambience. Watching the storms gather over the Burren hills and sweep across the bay and then the dazzling sparkle when the sun returned made for an ever changing light show that provided some great  challenges  and opportunities for the camera.

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Storms sweep in across the bay with the Burren hills in the distance

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Darkness and light over Galway Bay.

I was surprised at how many people I met out and about (it was Sunday I suppose).  One local man I chatted to for quite a while (from an acceptable distance of course), pointed out a bob of seals on the rocks in the distance. I never would have noticed them and even with my big lens they were hard to spot. [By the way, there are 11 different collective nouns for seals, including bunch, crash, harem, knob, plump, pod and rookery but I’ve gone with ‘bob’ for some reason I can’t quite explain].

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A bob of seals gather on the shore

The island is also home to large flocks (gaggles?) of Light Bellied Brent Geese.  These migratory birds winter almost exclusively in Ireland, heading off to Iceland in April and then spending the summer in Arctic Canada. They were hard to sneak up on.

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Light Bellied Brent Geese wintering on Tawin Island

Anyway that’s Tawin.  I was surprised by what I found there and it proves to me yet again that anywhere in Ireland can provide rich rewards if you dig just a little and search out the back stories that are never that far away.

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A safe refuge for hares.

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