Author Archives: singersong

About singersong

A lapsed geologist. After 35 years hitting rocks I am setting out on a musical journey through the west of Ireland.

The Raptors at Dromoland, Co Clare.

Dromoland is one of the great castles of Ireland.  Located near Newmarket-on-Fergus in Co Clare, it was for over a thousand years the seat of the O’Brien family. It is now a luxurious hotel with world-class facilities.

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Dromoland Castle, built in the early 19th Century and now a luxury hotel.

It has an amazing history that mirrors that of Ireland.  I could talk here about Donough O’Brien, the first inhabitant of the site in 1014, a son of Brian Boru; or of Murrough O’Brien who gave up his title to Henry VII in 1543 to become the first Baron of Inchiquin; or of Marie Rua, the widow of Conor O’Brien who in 1651 married an officer in the Cromwellian army to keep the castle in O’Brien hands; or of Sir Donough O’Brien, the richest man in Ireland in the 17th century; or of Sir Edward O’Brien who gambled the estate on a racehorse in 1730; or of the construction of the present castle in 1800; or of William Smith O’Brien who fought for the rights of Irish peasant farmers in the famine rebellion of 1848; or of the decline of the Barons of Inchiquin in the early 20th century; or of the saving of the castle from destruction by the IRA in 1921; or of the sale of the castle in 1962 or…

But I won’t.

I want to talk about my walk with the hawks and my visit to the School of Falconry at Dromoland.

My guide on this visit was Damian, flute player, fisherman and, as I found out, expert on all things raptor.  He is one of four falconers at the School.  He introduced me to his charges which included Peregrine falcons, Peregrine-Saker hybrid falcons, Harris hawks and two species of owls, the Irish Barn owl and the Bengal Eagle owl.

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Peregrine falcon

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Peregrine falcon

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Peregrine falcon

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Peregrine falcon

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Peregrine-Saker hybrid falcon

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Peregrine-Saker hybrid falcon

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Damian with a Harris hawk

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Damian with a Barn owl

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The Barn owl.  Wise old man.

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Bengal Eagle owl.  Those incredible piercing orange eyes

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Bengal Eagle owl.  Feeding time.

The Peregrine, on the edge of extinction in Ireland in the 1960s has now recovered and over 400 breeding pairs are known.  A thrill to see them at such close quarters.  The fastest creature on the planet it can fly at 300km/hour as it dives from high above its objective, wings held close, striking and killing its prey, talons ready, with the sheer force of its impact.  On the other hand, the incredibly cute Barn owl is the most widespread bird known, being present on all continents (except Antarctica).  Yet ironically, it is threatened in Ireland as its habitat is progressively destroyed.

Falconry is one of the most ancient activities that man has engaged in, beginning, based on historical records, in ancient Mesopotamia over four and a half thousand years ago; but possibly up to 20,000 years old according to Damian.  Genghis Khan had 10,000 raptors.  One of the Pharaohs of Egypt was buried with 20,000 mummified birds. Falcons were widely depicted in Egyptian art and had profound religious significance. They were also used through medieval times to bring down pigeons, which might be carrying messages to the enemy.  Falconry has survived as a sport to present times and was favoured by the gentry and well-to-do.  Quite a few expressions and words from falconry have found their way into the English language – ‘wrapped round my little finger’,  ‘under the thumb’, ‘bated breath’, ‘hoodwinked’ are examples. Many of these came down to us through Shakespeare.

Such close encounters with these impressive and proud creatures was a special experience.   Damian chose Ophelia, a Harris hawk to accompany us on a walk through the castle grounds.  What a spectacular backdrop as we crossed the manicured lawns, strolled down tree-lined avenues, through ancient woods, past a temple erected to a racehorse, visited a hermit’s grotto and passed the beautiful lily pond.

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Taking Ophelia, a Harris hawk for a walk

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Damian with Ophelia, Harris hawk and the castle as a backdrop

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Ophelia lands talons first

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Take off

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Landing

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Temple of Mercury, erected in the 1700s by Baronet Sir Edward O’Brien. One of Sir Edward’s horses, Sean Buis, is buried underneath.  THe temple is designed so, from a distance, you only see four of the eight legs, so as to resemble a racehorse.

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Damian and Ophelia, outside the Hermit’s Grotto.  This housed a ‘hermit’ employed by the Estate to live there for the entertainment of guests.  They were encouraged to dress like druids and were on display at all times.  One of the ‘worst jobs in history’.

 

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Ohelia investivates the Hermit’s Grotto

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Damian and Ophelia

 

The Hawk Hornpipe?

Sculpture by Carmel Doherty.  Perhaps she is playing the Hawk’s Hornpipe.

Ophelia could wander, if that’s the word, freely in the woods until a whistle would get her attention and she would return to the handler’s gloved fist.  Moving so swiftly, flying inches above the ground and swooping up at the last minute to land, claws outstretched and wings spread wide.  A real challenge for the photographer in me. 

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Hawk-eyed

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Damian let me have a go.  What a thrill to have her swoop in and land so delicately on my fist.    Thanks Damian for capturing me with the raptor so well on my camera. 

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My new friend.  Photo Damian Werner

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Right at home.  Photo Damian Werner

Now through Schools such as at Dromoland all of us can experience birds of prey at close quarters. Highly recommended.

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Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Colorado Rockies 7. America’s Mountain. Pike’s Peak.

Pikes Peak

There are 54 peaks in the Colorado Rockies that are over 14,000 ft (4,267m). Keep in mind that the highest mountain in Australia is 7,228 ft!) There are however only two that you can drive up. Pikes Peak is one of these.  At 14,115 ft it is still only the 53rd highest mountain in North America. Nevertheless it dominates the landscape of this part of the Front Range. If you have read my last post on the Garden of the Gods you would have seen it in the distance in many of the photos.

It is also known somewhat cheesily as ‘America’s Mountain’, In 1893, Katherine Lee Bates wrote the song “America the Beautiful” after having admired the view from the top of Pikes Peak.

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The snow dusted Pikes Peak towering over the forest on the climb up the mountain

A 19 mile long toll road takes you off the US24 allowing you to drive to the top. Well not quite to the top this time. They were doing extensive rebuilding of the facilities so the last three miles were in a shuttle bus.  I loved the way you were given the choice to join the bus earlier if you were uncomfortable with the drive. And if you are not used to mountain roads, well it is scary. You shouldn’t underestimate the drive.  It requires a lot of concentration.  It is two lane but there are a lot of switchbacks, steep grades and with no barriers preventing drops of thousands of feet to the valley floor. And for some reason they seem to drive on the wrong side of the road.

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Hairpin bends on the way up the mountain.

The driver of your shuttle will probably point out the spot at Devil’s Playground, where Jeremy Foley went over the edge during the 2012 Pikes Peak Hill Climb (incredibly he and his navigator survived).

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The Devil’s Playground.  Near the top of the mountain.  The bollards are where rally driver Jeremy Foley left the road in 2012.  He survived unharmed.

The $15 toll will take you on an awesomely beautiful journey through different worlds with ever-changing landscapes. Firstly pine and fir forests and the calm waters of the fishing paradise, Crystal Lake.

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A view of the Peak through the forest

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Crystal Lake.  A reservoir for Colorado Springs.

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An idyllic fishing spot

Then through aspen groves just starting to turn and spruce forests and over the tree line to the wildness of the alpine zone and tundra with piles of bare burnt red-brown granite boulders.

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Leaving the Bus Station in the Shuttle near the 16 Mile point

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Above the tree line.  Alpine tundra and granite

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Granite tors covered with the previous night’s snowfall

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And the photo gods were hard at work as we had a snowfall the night before and plenty of blue sky and as we climbed the mountain some low cloud to add texture and interest to the images. I was in heaven.

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It was a tad cold at the top and I have to say not being used to altitude sickness, I felt all the classic symptoms, fatigue, breathlessness and headache. (same symptoms as after an all night trad session! just kidding).   None of this detracted from the thrill of being at the top of the world. At least this little part of it.

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The Summit

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The view from the Summit

That malady disappeared pretty quickly once the oxygen levels returned to normal on the descent. And anyway there were enough distractions as the descent gives another perspective as you slowly edge down the mountain in first or second gear.  In the distance was the Cripple Creek and Victor mines one of the largest gold mines in America.

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A view to the south towards the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mines

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Cripple Creek Mine

I was relieved and very satisfied to reach the bottom after a remarkable drive.  Well worth the $15 toll.  America the Beautiful.

Categories: America, My Journey | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The stunning beauty of Harry Clarke’s windows. St Barrahane’s, Castletownshend, Cork.

Eight kilometers from Skibbereen in West Cork is the village of Castletownshend, the historic seat of the Townshend family.   St Barrahane’s Church, built in 1827, sits on a hill above the village. It is accessed by 52 steps. One for each Sunday of the year. It is an elegant building with many original interesting architectural features and some fine detailing, both internal and external, including timber paneling and an organ gallery.

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St Barrahane’s Church

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The last 13 of the 52 steps to the church

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Simple and elegant interior

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The organ gallery

Of greatest interest though to visitors is the addition in the early 20th century of six magnificent stained glass windows.

Three of these are by Harry Clarke, a book illustrator and Ireland’s most famous stained glass artist, who died in 1931, and three are by Powells of London. It is not hard to pick those by Clarke.  They are characterised by beautiful, finely crafted, elongate figures and his use of deep rich colours. the wall to the right of the altar has three windows with the Clarke window, on the right, being quite distinct and obvious.

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The Harry Clarke window is on the right.

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The Louis and Martin window by Harry Clarke

This window depicts French Saints Louis (who was Louis IX, King of Spain) and Martin and was commissioned in memory of a Colonel Coghill in 1921. A window of two lights, the first light depicting St. Louis who was an ancestor of the Colonel. The figures above his head represent the poor who he often fed at his table. The first of the tracery lights depicts a ship in which King Louis sailed to the east to fight the infidels. The second and third tracery lights depict two angels who offer protection to both saints. The fourth tracery light shows St. Martin’s flaming sword, denoting his patronage of soldiers,  The second light depicts the meeting between Saint Martin of Tours, dressed as a soldier’s garb, and a beggar who asks him for clothing.  Again the imagery is imaginative, stunningly crafted and in glorious deep colours.

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Detail of St Louis

The largest window, known as the The Nativity window, was commissioned in 1917 in memory of the Somerville family.  This window has three lights, with separate depictions of the shepherds paying homage to the Christ child, the holy family and the magi but with linking elements such as Mary’s dress and the crib that create a unified picture. They are exquisitely decorated in shades of blue, pink, green, red, purple, magenta and gold. The tracery lights depicts three saints, Brigid, Fachtna and Barrahan in gorgeous detail.

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The Nativity window

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Detail of the Nativity window

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The three Saints in the Nativity window

When you look at these windows from outside the church, you can have no expectation of how stunning the images are when back lit.

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The Nativity window from the outside

If you a visiting West Cork you really must take a peek. Or look for Clarke windows in Dublin and many other locations in Ireland and England.

He completed over 130 windows.  You can find where they are here  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Clarke

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Colorado Rockies 6. The Garden of the Gods.

Garden of the Gods

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The main entrance to the park with Pike’s Peak in the distance.

The Garden of the Gods.  What an evocative name.

A geological and scenic marvel, this public park and National Monument lies on the edge of the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies surrounded by the communities of Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs.  Indeed it is so much part of the community that the rock formations and houses coexist in many places.

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Houses nestle among rock formations of the Garden of the Gods

Jagged irregular spires of red and white sandstone, some reaching 300 feet high, tower over the forest creating a fantastical landscape. The whole thing framed by a snow capped mountain range containing one of the highest peaks in Colorado.  The first Europeans to see this terrain proclaimed it as “a fit place for the Gods to assemble. We will call it the Garden of the Gods.”  The name stuck.

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Sunrise

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Jagged spires make for a fantastical vista mimicking the pines.

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Mt Cheyenne range glows at sunrise.  Taken from the front yard of my Airbnb overlooking Colorado Springs.

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North Gateway rock with Pike’s Peak

Of course as you can see from these images it is an incredibly beautiful place but the rocks tell a fascinating geological story that spans a billion years, with almost every geological period represented.  Stick with me.  The story begins with 1 billion year old Pikes Peak granite  intruding into the older 1.7b year old gneiss of the so-called Ancestral Rockies .

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Pike’s Peak looms over the Garden of the Gods Park.  A dusting from a snowfall the previous night. The mountin is comprised of the 1 billion year old Pikes Peak Granite.

These mountains wore down progressively and around 250-300 million years ago the resulting sediment fed into a giant sea that ultimately became a  huge sandy desert. Great dunes of red sand accumulated to create the thick sedimentary rock formations known by geologists as ‘red beds’.

25 million yeas later these then flat lying sediments were covered with a great inland sea until the Jurassic, around 150 million years ago, when the climate changed again creating a rich tropical forest grazed by dinosaurs.  About 65 million years ago an intense period of mountain building began; the orogenic upheaval that built the present day Rockies.  Colossal forces created massive fault lines which stood the sediments upright.

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Red sandstones stood on their end by geological tectonism.  A flat lying reverse thrust fault is visible also in this cutting.

Erosion and then glaciation has selectively removed the softer rocks and left the landscape that we see today – a giant  sculpture in sandstone, conglomerate and limestone.

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Pike’s Peak glows as it catches the first rays of the rising sun

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View from the Red Rock Open Space at the Garden of the Gods.

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Differential erosion in the vertical exposed rocks create these stark contrasting outcrops.  Kissing Camels in the distance and White Rock.

The only way to really appreciate this place is to walk through it and around it, to become part of it, taking it in from different angles and in different light.  I was up at sunrise one day when it glowed in the dawn light.  The reds are redder against the bluest of skies.  There are miles of trails to explore and there are many rewards along the way.  Unique formations have names that reflect their morphology.  Kissing Camels, The Sentinel, Cathedral Rock, White Rock.  There are natural holes, arches and the precarious Balanced Rock.

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Cathedral Rock

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A natural hole

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A natural rock arch

Of course the rock formations are its most obvious and spectacular feature but it is also a mighty challenge to the most technical of rock climbers.  Unfortunately I saw evidence that this activity is not always sympathetic to the natural and geological values of the area.  For example at the Sentinel is an excellent  example of ancient ripple marks insensitively defaced by a drill hole for for a climber’s foothold.

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A rare exposure of ripple marks defaced by rdrill holes.

It is also a haven for wildlife.  I saw deer and a variety of birds, including what appeared to be hawks nesting high on a pinnacle.

The special nature of the place was recognised by the early landowners, most notable among them Charles Perkins, whose family, on his death in 1909, gave their land to the City on condition that it would be a free public park.  That promise has been honored for over a hundred years.

We should be grateful for the foresight of these people, who recognised something that needed to be preserved and shared so that today it is one of the most visited parks, and one of the most loved, in America today.

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The Colorado Rockies 5. Fossils at Florissant, a Petrified Forest and the Singer family.

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Take Highway 24 west from Colorado Springs. You pass the majestic Pikes Peak (look out for an upcoming blog on this) on your left and after about 50 km you’ll see a turn off to the Florissant Fossil Beds. That sounded interesting so I took it of course. I soon discovered that this place of which I knew nothing (though I should have) is legendary in the annals of American geology and palaeontology.

Within its shales and mudstones is an extraordinarily abundant assemblage of mainly insects and plants dating to the Eocene Period (34 million years old). A combination of unique circumstances has led to a level of preservation normally unheard of for insect and plant fossils.

It’s worth briefly explaining. A lake environment surrounded by redwood forest is determined as the depositional environment here.  A nearby volcano generated volcanic ash which interacted with tiny creatures known as diatoms living in the lake. This caused regular diatom blooms as well as insect and plant die-offs. Dying diatoms would fall to the bottom of the lake and preserve with unrivaled detail the fossils in the finely layered mud and ash. But that’s not all. The volcano also contributed to the formation of some of the finest petrified stumps you will ever see. I’ll come back to that.

You can’t see the fossil beds. They are off limits but there is an excellent display in the museum on site. Invertebrates dominate with over 1,500 species of spiders and insects alone having been identified. Not possible to photograph them properly in their glass cases, so here are a few images from the published scientific record to give you some idea of the quality and depth of the material.

What most people go to Florissant for though is the petrified forest and this you can see.  I’ve always been fascinated by petrified wood. I had a specimen as a young child and I used to count the rings and look under the lens at the cell structure preserved in stone and I would marvel.  Who knows it may have been responsible for firing an interest that saw me spend a lifetime in geology.

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A large petrified stump near the entrance to the park

The Big  Stump.230 feet tall 750 yrs old when covered by volcanic mud

The famous ‘Big Stump’

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The celebrated Trio of redwood stumps

The petrified trees here are among the largest surviving in the world. They have been identified as similar to modern sequoias.  They were killed by a giant lahar (volcanic mud flow) from that volcano we were talking about earlier, flowing through the forest and cutting off the oxygen to the roots. Circulating water containing a lot of silica then percolated through, replacing the organic material in a process known as permineralisation.  The trees were as tall as 60 metres and up to 700 years old when they died.

But I always look for the story behind the story. There is quite a saga here with the discovery, development and preservation of this national treasure; not least because it was owned by an entrepreneurial family, the Singers. I felt personally obliged to investigate this connection further.

But let’s start a little before this, back in the mid 1870s.  Charlotte Hill and husband Adam, acquired and built a homestead near Florissant in 1874 under the Homestead Act. This remarkable woman discovered the fossil beds and collected hundreds of specimens which she brought to the attention of the scientific community. Included in her collection were dozens of previously unrecognised species. Most famous is the spectacular Persephone Butterfly (illustrated above). This led to scientific expeditions but also alerted the world and brought tourists and collectors. Charlotte facilitated this as a guide and joined the many who became collectors and traders in fossils. The Florissant beds were heavily exploited during this time and immense damage done. Thousands of specimens were lost. There was even an attempt to saw up the Big Stump and transport it west; you can still see evidence of this today.

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Saw blades lodged in the “Big Stump’.  An attempt to slice up the tree for specimens.

Then came the railway and thousands of tourists and the pressure only grew.  OK now back to the Singers.  Hill sold her land and homestead and it was eventually bought by the Singer family who set up a tourist attraction around the ‘Big Stump’ Another adjacent landowner opened a second Forest Park with the main attraction being a trio of stumps. They became bitter rivals.

As early as 1915 it had been proposed as a National Park. Some of the owners supported this but the Government was not keen After many false starts, it took 50 years and some torrid court battles for this to become a reality with Singers and the other landowners eventually selling to the Government in the 1960s and the park opening in 1969.

I visited a log cabin nearby. This was the original homestead built by Charlotte and Adam Hill in 1874 and which became the family home of my namesakes, the Singers in the 1920s.  A comfortable cottage giving us a revealing insight into homestead life in the mid west. The walls are lined with layers of newspaper and wallpaper covering many decades. Near the roof line you can see exactly how thick this layering became. Outside the elegant cabin has v-joints and caulking to keep out the icy winds. A central stove heats the whole house.  There is a small kitchen and living areas downstairs and a large bedroom and more sleeping accommodation within the roof upstairs.

It felt just a little bit weird walking through this house that may have been lived in by distant relatives.

The homestead is part of the Fossil Park and well preserved and can be visited if someone happens to be around to unlock it for you.

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The homestead built by Charlotte Hill and later the Singer family home.

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Inside the Hill homestead

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Roof shingles on the Charlotte Hill homestead

The geologist in me wanted to see the fossils in situ but of course that was impossible; but seeing those massive petrified trunks was remarkable enough and the Colorado Rockies delivered yet another amazing experience.

And finding another group of Singers with links into the geological world! Now I wonder if any of them played the fiddle .

Categories: America, My Journey | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Colorado Rockies 4. Independence – a Ghost Town.

Independence ghost town

In my last blog on my road trip through the Colorado Rockies, I talked about Independence Pass and its close connection with the discovery of gold. Gold in this part of Colorado was discovered on 4th July 1879 at Roaring Fork River about four miles from the top of the Independence Pass and a town soon sprung upon the banks of the river and in the shadow of Mt Independence. It started as a tent city and one year later there were 300 people living in the camp.  The following year a single company, Farwell Mining Company, had acquired the leading mines such as Independence No 1, 2 and 3, Last Dollar, Legal Tender, Mammoth, Mount Hope, Champion, Sheba, Friday, and Dolly Varden.

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The ghost town of Independence at the foot of Mt Independence in the valley of the Roaring Fork River

Various competing interests battled over the name of the town.  During its short life it was variously known as Belden, Chipeta, Sidney, Farwell, Sparkhill and in its fading days optimistically Mammoth City and Mount Hope.  Ironically though and for obvious reasons, it was widely known as Independence though there was never a post office of that name.

By summer of 1881 there were 500 people and many permanent buildings including grocery stores, boarding houses and three saloons. It reached its peak in 1882 when there were 90 buildings containing 40 businesses and a population of 1,500.

As with most mining booms, the bust followed quickly when the gold ran out and by 1888 there were only 100 citizens eking out an existence at an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet and under a blanket of snow from October to the end of May.  The worst storm in Colorado’s history hit in 1899 and those residents still there were completely cut off for months. Running out of food, they dismantled their houses to make skis and 75 residents skied their way to Aspen. Only one resident remained after this. Jack Williams was caretaker of the stamper battery and treatment plant.  In 1912 Jack finally left and that was the end of the town of Belden-Independence-Chipeta-Sidney-Farewell-Sparkhill-Mammoth City-Mount Hope.

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A restored miner’s cabin now used as a summer residence.

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Incredibly a number of buildings have survived to varying degrees in this spectacular location. Some remain relatively intact and have been restored and some are piles of timber or just depressions in the ground. Ted Ackerman’s Hotel was one of five during its hey-day. Little remains of this establishment where miners could find a room for $2 a day.

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Ruins of Ted Ackerman’s Hotel

A general store stands proud, restored in the 1980s and a remarkable testament to the courage of these men (and a few women) and the lure of gold.

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Restored general store

As a geologist with a strong interest in the company history and social history of gold mining in my home country I have seen many Australian ‘ghost towns’ from the gold rush days. They were much more transient and rarely does any structure survive as here. Australians built with hessian and stone and corrugated iron, rather than timber, which is so abundant here, and material was transported to the next town following abandonment.  You’d have to say that heat was more of a problem than cold generally.  Its hard not to be impressed though by the simplicity of construction of the log cabin and its durability.  140 years later the v-notch joints still hold the structures together.

 

Just downstream from the town is the timber framework of a large stamper battery and on the slopes above there is a bit more mine infrastructure, the head of a mine shaft and a patch of Aspen covering what was obviously a spoil dump.  I would love to have had time to explore more.

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Remains of a  large stamper battery.  The treatment plant would have been on the flat area below.

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An old mine site.  The mound in the distance was the head of a shaft and the patch of aspen covers a spoil dump.

Preservation of these sites is essential.  They are one of the few tangible links to a hugely important part of the development of countries such as USA and Australia.  As in Australia, mining was responsible for opening up large tracts of the country and for the beginnings of many towns, some gone like Independence, some still surviving like Aspen, Leadville or Cañon City.  I’ll come back to this in a later blog.

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Of Magic Mushrooms and Ancient Ireland

There are a number of major ancient Royal Sites in Ireland but the four important ones were the seats of the four provinces. These are Cashel for Munster, Navan Fort for Ulster, Dun Ailinne for Leinster and in Co Roscommon, Rathcroghan for Connaught. . There was also Tara with its special status as the seat of the High King.  There is evidence of activity at these sites from deep in the Stone Age, through the Bronze Age to the height of power in the Iron Age and into Medieval Christian times.

I visited Rathcroghan recently. Before the coming of Christianity this was the religious, ceremonial and political heart of the Kingdom of Connaught. There is a wealth of archaeology scattered over 6 square kilometres with 240 sites recorded of which 60 are listed. I visited the ring barrow mound of Rathbeg, probably continuously used over this entire period, the great mound at Rathcrogan, the site of major royal celebrations and the medieval raised ring fort of Rathmore. Not easy to photograph from the ground, where they appear as grassy mounds but their sheer size and concentration are impressive.

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The ring barrow fort at Rathbeg

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The ceremonial mound at Rathcroggan

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The ring fort at Rathmore

But I wanted to talk about something else.

I met a fellow at Rathbeg. I’ll call him Patrick.  I’d watched him slowly walking the fields around the mound, head down searching. Is he looking for stone axes or ancient relics?

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Patrick searching the fields around Rathbeg

We had a chat and the answer was not what I expected. He was searching for psilocybin better known as magic mushrooms. Patrick had a little bag full after an hour of searching. He told me he takes one dried every four days to manage his headaches and migraines and has been doing so for sixteen years. We searched together for a while but the slender bulbous fungi proved elusive.

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A magic mushroom pokes through the grass

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Part of Patrick’s harvest

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Detail of magic mushrooms

Magic mushrooms are among the oldest recreational drugs that human beings have ever used. They are believed to have been used for over 5,000 years down to the pop culture of today.

Hard evidence of its use in ancient Ireland is scant but this is hardly surprising. Indirect evidence however suggests widespread use in neolithic times. The rock art in Knowth and Newgrange is thought by some archaeologists to reflect the psychedelic state of the artist. Many traditional Irish tales seem to disguise the psychedelic experience in metaphor. For example hazelnuts accidentally ingested by Fionn mac Cumhaill, which gave him wisdom and pleasure, are though by some to be liberty cap or amanita muscaria mushrooms. Old stories of St. Brendan, refer to .him finding “fruits” – some poisonous, some euphoric that staved off hunger. Visions of faeries are so strongly associated with mushrooms that the Gaelic slang for faeries and mushrooms is the same: ‘pookies’. A magic mushroom trip has you “away with the faeries.” Or “off with the pixies.”

But what I found really interesting was Patrick’s comment that he has found the best place to find these mushrooms was at Ancient Sites. His idea was that it was the reason the sites were there and that mushrooms formed a fundamental part of their religious, cultural and social fabric.

An intriguing thought.  I left him to his searching.

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

More than just Hot Air. My First Balloon Flight.

Invitations like this don’t come around very often. Certainly not for me and certainly not in Ireland.  Friends, Jeanne and Natasha from Albuquerque in New Mexico (in fact you can read about how we met here) were visiting again, this time for the The Irish National Hot Air Balloon Championships in County Offaly.  Held annually since 1971, this is the longest running national ballooning event in the world and the biggest in Ireland.  Invitation only, up to 40 balloons from around the world, fly each year in what promised to be an incredible spectacle. It was held over the week of September 24 to 28th.

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Jeanne Page and Natasha Coffing.  My hosts.

There was a chance I could crew.   Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?  But I ummed and ahed.  I was still recovering from three weeks in the US.  On Tuesday it was still just a thought. By Wednesday I had the kind offer of a bed from a musician friend at her magnificent BnB in Kinnitty, Ardmore Country House.  House. That sealed it  for me.  A night or two in quite possibly one of the best BnB’s in Ireland and some fiddle tunes was the extra incentive I needed.

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Ardmore Country House BnB in Kinnitty.  My home for the duration.

It was only a couple of hours drive and in dull weather I arrived at the launching place, which was the dramatic gardens surrounding Birr Caste and Demesne. Preparations were well underway for the late afternoon flight.  I couldn’t find my friends from Albuquerque so I watched with great interest the activities feverishly underway, as crews readied their balloons.

Balloons were being unfurled, baskets were being loaded, flames were being thrown and one by one the giant multicoloured bubbles stood upright and drifted slowly into the hazy evening.  I started to put some pieces of the jigsaw together but I really had little idea of what I was watching.  As the last balloon drifted over the castle I came to the realization that my friends were in the air and  that they probably had to land somewhere.  So I asked someone, who seemed to know, who said they were heading to Kinnitty, about 10 km to the east.  Well, turned out she didn’t actually have much more of an idea than me, or perhaps the wind didn’t cooperate but, in my haste to get to Kinnitty, I failed to notice they were actually heading northeast  rather than east.

I caught up later that evening with Jeanne and Natasha at Dempsey’s Bar in the charming village of Cadamstown, 10 minutes north of Kinnitty where a regular  trad session was being held. The word had got out and the pub was crammed with musicians and with ballooning people. They were lucky. It was  terrific music led by local box and banjo legends, the Kinsella brothers, and at least twenty other musicians with a high energy mix of tunes and songs. Jeanne and Natasha had bought their harps with them from the States and treated us to some lovely duets.

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Traditional music session in Cadamstown.  Natasha and Jeanne join in on their harps.

In among the tunes we discussed the possibility of a flight the next morning.  My education in ballooning continued. A decision on whether flying was possible would be made at the Pilots’ Briefing at 6:30 am.  Weather conditions, in particular wind speed and direction, were the primary factors. Then the teams will move to the launch site and each pilot will make the decision as to whether they will fly.  I couldn’t be guaranteed a spot in the basket but if that didn’t happen I could join the chase crew. They are charged with following the balloon to be there wherever it lands, get permission from the local farmer and collect and transport the crew and the balloon back to Birr. It looked promising.

So next morning I was there. The wind was good and the weather  was fine and the decision was a Go.  There was a problem though. Patchy thick fog had descended and there were worries about visibility.  So the crews made their way to the site for individual pilots to make their own call. It had been a cold night and frost was still covering the ground, the wetness soaking through my waterproof  boots to my toes.

A few set up and started inflating their balloons but most pilots waited. The mist had created an eerie atmosphere and while the delay was disappointing it was a hugely appealing light and plenty of opportunities for the photographer in me to experiment.

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Birr Castle rises from the mist

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Waiting in the frost and mist for the sun to rise

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Autumn reflections

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The sun bursts through the fog

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A magical misty morning.  More like a Monet painting.

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Island in the mist

As the sun rose the feeling was that the fog would burn away and a few started to take to the air. Our pilot Steve Coffing (who just happened to be Natasha’s uncle), though remained cautious. It seemed obvious but the primary requirement was that you need to see the ground.  There was still doubt about whether the fog had lifted sufficiently to give this required visibility. We waited.

Most balloons were now in the sky, but then the fog came back in and a number of the last to lift off returned to the ground.  Finally Steve decided when it became clear that we had run out of time and called off the morning flight.  I was actually not particularly upset as I felt happy that despite my frozen fingers, I had captured some great images. I’ll leave it to you to judge.

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We adjourned for breakfast at a local cafe. Steve was confident the weather would be good in the evening and renewed my invitation to fly.  He suggested  I be at the afternoon briefing at 4.30 pm.

Once the fog lifted it turned into a cracker of a day.  Perfect to explore the nearby Sieve Bloom. These low mountains straddle Offaly and Laois and are a wonderful mix of thick forests of spruce and pine, ancient oak and beech forests, open bog land, lakes and mountain streams cascading through mossy glens. It is a hiker’s’ paradise, so that’s what I did.  But my mind was elsewhere.

On tenterhooks I attended the 4.30 pm briefing.  It was a Go decision for the evening flight. But things had changed a little and the balloon that I had planned to fly in was needed for a check flight to maintain the owner’s licence.  Steve managed to get a piloting spot on another balloon but I was told that balloon was full.  Then fate stepped in.  Nikki and Dylan, an Aussie couple I had met the previous night at the session in Cadamstown, came to my rescue. Friends of the owner of the balloon Steve was flying. they had already flown a couple of times earlier in the week. To my eternal gratitude they gave up their spot and it was Up Up and Away [Oh dear, I never thought I could be so cheesy as to use that line!]

I now joined the readying of the balloon for flight. Like me, most of my readers will not have flown in a balloon before. Well I became an instant expert. The physics is simple really. The nylon or dacron ‘envelope’ is filled with air using a large fan and this is heated until the balloon is upright.  A basket is suspended underneath which carries up to four passengers, the pilot and a heat source. The heat source is an open flame fueled by propane, carried in tanks on the basket. The heated air reduces the density of the air inside the envelope compared with the colder air outside causing it to rise. The skill of the pilot comes in knowing how much heat to apply to make it rise or fall. Rapid descent can be achieved by opening the vent at the top with a rope causing the hot air to escape quickly.  There is limited ability to change direction and reading the wind, which can change dramatically at different heights, is part of the skill of flying.

Simple really. A great achievement though for the Montgolfier brothers who built the first manned balloon in 1783. Love the way when they were testing it for manned flight, they proposed that convicted prisoners should be used for the first pilots. Dispensable.

So I watched the preparations with keen interest. The equipment is actually quite compact and is carried in a customized trailer.

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Basket being removed from trailer

First the basket is prepared. The burner is then mounted over the four corners of the basket and the legs wrapped with a protective insulation.

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Burner being mounted over basket

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legs wrapped in insulating material

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Burner is tested.

The propane is connected to the burner and the burner tested. The balloon is then unwrapped and laid out next to the basket which is now on its side. Inflation begins with a large fan. As the balloon expands the burner is turned on sporadically to heat the air. This process takes only a few minutes and when the balloon is full and the pilot is ready the heating is increased which pulls the basket to vertical.

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Balloon is unwrapped and laid out.  Everyone pitches in.

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Balloon is filled with air

 

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Vent flap is secured

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Fan used to fill balloon

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Air is heated once filled

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Heating continues until balloon stands vertically

IT is now ready for take off. Passengers board. Joining Steve and myself was John Kelly, a local publican, with a deep knowledge of the surrounding landscape. We had a briefing. There were only a few simple rules. Keep an eye out for other balloons and livestock and power lines and communicate this with the pilot.  And oh, Don’t get out of the basket. My total agreement with that one.  I was definitely ‘crew’ now.  We were ready to go.

There was a roar from the burner shooting flames into the balloon above and we rose effortlessly.  There was no real sensation of take off. The ground just seemed to move away from us. In between the bursts of noise of the burner it was deathly quiet. Just this wonderful relaxing calm.

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Lift off

Most balloons were ahead of us but as we rose, I could see them spread out before us. Some stayed low. Others were thousands of feet above us.  Birr Castle and its magnificent grounds disappeared from view.  Steve took us up to 2,000 ft just to show us what it felt like. Sometimes balloons go to 5,000 ft particularly if they have passengers who are sky diving.   Oh my god. The thought of throwing yourself off this little basket from this height totally freaked me out.  Fair play to those who can happily do this and actually much prefer it to jumping from a light plane as they have no forward velocity.

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Leaving Birr Castle I

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Leaving Birr Castle II

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Leaving Birr Castle III

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Who knows where we will end up?

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Balloons fill the sky

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At all levels

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The balloon ‘Twister’ flying low.  This was the balloon I was originally to fly in.

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Bliss.

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Our pilot Steve holding all the ropes

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Soaring above the swans

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Magic evening light

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The evening sun casts our balloon shadow on the glowing trees

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Looking for a landing spot

 

We drifted effortlessly with only occasional use of the burner for minor adjustments to our flight while I just breathed in the late evening light and dealt with the challenge of capturing the feeling as best I could with the camera.  It wasn’t a point and shoot exercise. I found I needed to make constant adjustments to the exposure to compensate for how much sky there was or where the sun was. I was learning quickly. We were up there for nearly an hour. One wonderful hour.  I know I would do a better job next time.

We made preparations to land. Steve was in constant radio contact with the ground support team. He had to consider a lot in deciding where to land. An open field with no trees, no power lines, no livestock, not under cultivation, not a bog and easy access. Lots to consider. Once he has decided the ground crew tries to determine the owner and seeks permission Normally the pilot would wait for clearance. In this case the landowner was thrilled we were landing in her paddock.

You have to admire the skill of the descent. It was controlled and steady with Steve adjusting both the horizontal ground speed and the descent speed. He jokingly told stories of a tradition in some places of leaf grabbing as pilots scrape the tops of trees.

But not this time. We touched the ground bounced a couple of times, dragged a little and then stopped . Remaining vertical all the time. A quick exit and the retrieval crew including Nikki and Dylan, who were waiting a short distance away stepped in to manage the deflation and unhooking of the basket.

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Safe landing

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Dylan and the chase crew was there to meet us

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Pilot Steve Coffing and my fellow passenger John Kelly pose for the family album.

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Nikki at the end of her tether

There was a celebratory atmosphere with the crew participating equally in the thrill that us virgin flyers so obviously had had. Of course once the balloon was packed and loaded there was just one thing to do. A few quiet ales and some songs (I had my guitar in the car) back in John Kelly’s pub in Birr. Perfect end to the day.

I had an amazing three days. So many people to thank for making this all possible. Jeanne Page and Natasha Coffing for thinking of me, Christina Byrne for sharing her house and her music, Steve Coffing for piloting with skill and aplomb and for making us feel comfortable and relaxed, Nikki and Dylan for giving up their spot in the basket and for making me a little homesick for a Home Among the Gum Trees, the owners  Graeme and Judy Scaife for sharing their balloon with so many people in and outside of the ballooning community, to my fellow passenger John Kelly for helping me understand the landscape we were flying over and to Shane Page for sharing some tips for photographing balloons.  The organizers need to be complimented also for there effortless coordination of a lovely relaxed few days of ‘competition’.

I think I might do that again.

Balloons come in all shapes and colours

Balloons come in all shapes and colours

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

An Ancient Coast and 5,000 years of Irish history. Maghery in Beautiful Donegal.

One of the things I love about touring in Ireland is that you find so much to enjoy in the most unheralded and remote corner of of the country.  You don’t need to join the throngs of visitors kissing stones, ticking boxes and visiting interpretive centres to enjoy the ‘real’ Ireland.

Take the village of Maghery in the the area know as The Rosses near Dungloe in west Donegal.

What drew me there was a sunny Donegal Saturdayin late autumn and a vague knowledge of some sea arches at nearby Crohy Point, a spot favoured by photographers.

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Clohy Sea Arches

But I found far more.

Yes there was the Bristi Stack and the Clohy Sea Arches. Unique land forms such as these are found dotted up and down the Irish coastline. It was easy enough to find the location along a scary single lane cliff road. And I mean scary; you have no choice but to rely on the other driver to be doing the right thing.

The Clohy Sea Arches are marked on GoogleMaps but not on the ground. Clearly they don’t want people stopping. There is space for two cars to park on the verge and you can’t actually see the rock formations from the road. Feeling that sense of welcome provided by a locked farm gate you climb it and follow a track that leads toward the coast and down the hill where you get your first look at the unusual triangular arch.

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Panoramic view of Clohy Sea Arches

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The Bristi Sea Stack

Nestled in a small bay it is accompanied by a number of pinnacles which are the remains of similar collapsed arches. There is another quite different arch attached to the mainland at the other end of the bay where the rocks are dragged into near vertical by a fault which has since eroded out.

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Natural bridge formed by erosion of fault fill material

The Bristi stack was first climbed by professional sea stack climber Iain Miller in 2011. If you are contemplating it you need ropes, a dinghy to get there, amazing skill and a whole lot of heart.  Not for me but have a look at this video on climbing Bristi Sea Stack

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That’s Iain Miller stands on Bristi Sea Stack.  Unknown photographer. Unknown date

For more sedate pleasures I drove back to the village. Past the 1804 Signal Tower, like many others that dot dozens of remote headlands and islands along the west coast of Ireland. Built to give warning of an impending invasion by Napoleon.  This one looks to be in excellent condition. I wasn’t up to the hill walk to get there this day. Thanks be to long lenses.

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View in the vicinity of Maghery.  Napoleonic signal tower.

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Napoleonic signal tower

The village itself lies adjacent to a beautiful wide sandy strand. This Saturday it was empty except for the local equestrian group practicing their show jumping in this idyllic location. Happy horses indeed.

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Maghery nestled in the bay

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Practicing show jumping on the beach at Maghery

 

Hand painted signs on slate placed by the roadside led me to other points of interest. There is an impressive stone circle just north of the village.  Again you are left to your own devices; there is no marker on the ground and no directions as to how to get there.  Twenty metres in diameter and a bit overgrown but some diligent searching found this 4-5,000 year old monument. These circles are very rare in west Donegal, I believe.

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Termon Stone Circle

From here you get a sense of that Donegal wildness as you look to the north east across Dungloe Bay towards Mt Errigal 23 km away on the horizon.

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View across Dungloe Bay to Mt Errigal

Nearby is Termon House built in late 18th century and once owned by the local clergy sits on its own glorious beach. It is available as a luxury holiday rental.

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Adjacent to the house are some impressive walls built as work relief for those affected by the famine of 1847.  Hence ‘Famine Walls’.  Apparently the government refused to support the then landowner who ended up footing the £1,500 cost of paying his labourers 1d a day to build the wall. Beautifully constructed though they remain standing 170 years later.

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The afternoon was closing in and I could hear  the ringing sounds of twenty fiddles filling my head with mazurkas and schottisches so it was time to return to Glenties.  I was well satisfied with this little village that delivered a slice of Donegal’s wild coastal scenery and its human history of over 5,000 years.

 

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The Colorado Rockies 3. Independence Pass.

Independence Pass

This is the third in a series of blogs on the Colorado Rockies following my visit during September 2018.  In an earlier blog I looked at Twin Lakes.  If you continue driving west from here along Highway 82 towards Aspen you cross the Independence Pass.  That’s where we will go today.

Independence Pass is the highest paved crossing of the Continental Divide in the USA.  The Divide runs like a spine through North and South America from the Beering Straits to the Straits of Magellan and marks the hydrological divide between rivers that drain into the Atlantic to the east and the Pacific to the west.  Independence Pass reaches an elevation of 12,095 feet (3,687m) in the Sawatch Range.  It is closed for much of the year, from October, due to extreme snowfalls.  But this September day, clear blue skies greeted me and not a trace of snow.

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An incredible drive up, switchbacks snake through forests of pine, spruce, fir and aspen and past lakes surrounded by soaring peaks many reaching as high as 14,000 feet (14ers as they call them in Colorado), luckily with a few pull-offs to admire and photograph the views.

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A typical Colorado mountain scene on the way up Independence Pass

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A huge switchback takes you from the valley floor to the top.

Near the top though there is a dramatic change as you enter the treeless alpine tundra environment of open grassland, low shrubbery, bare exposed rock and ephemeral pools.

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Wild landscape at the top of Independence Pass

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This ephemeral lake has dried up during the summer

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The car park under an ‘exploding hill’ at the top of Independence Pass

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arctic tundra

Everywhere you look you see the results of glacial action, the land being smoothed out during the last ice age about 12,000 years ago.  The rocks of course are much older and comprise gneiss dating back 1,700 million years and younger intrusive granites.

The Pass has an interesting history.  Spotted by Zebulon Pike in 1806, during his mapping of the southern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase, it wasn’t fully surveyed until 1873.  It was the limit of European settlement at the time.  West, the land was reserved for the Ute people and travel was prohibited but prospectors defied this and on July 4th 1879 discovered gold 4 miles from the pass on the Roaring Fork River, at a place which naturally became known as Independence.  Eventually the mountain, lake and pass itself were given that name.  Independence started a massive gold and silver rush and is now a fascinating ghost town.  I will have more to say in an upcoming blog.

The original path over the pass was suitable only for horses but as Independence became a more permanent settlement, in 1881 the pass was improved so that stagecoaches could cross. A toll was charged and this paid for a team of men who shoveled snow through the winter to keep the road open.  They were successful at doing this for five years but on occasions sleighs had to be used. A typical voyage over the pass required 10–25 hours and five changes of horses. A new road was built in 1927 and the current paved road in 1967.  I took a little time to ponder the different obstacles and tribulations that the prospectors of Colorado had to deal with, compared with those in the Australian gold rushes.  all incredibly hardy folk.

From the viewpoint at the top which looks east you can see a number of peaks including from left to right 1 Casco Peak (13,908 ft, which hides the highest mountain in Colorado, Mt Elbert at 14,433 ft),  2 Lackawanna Peak (13,661 ft). 3 Rinker Peak  (13,783 ft), 4 La Plata (14,343 ft), 5 Star Mountain (12,941 ft) and 6 Ouray Peak (12,947 ft).

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View looking east from Independence Pass showing major peaks.

An awesome feeling standing at the top of the world.  Imagine the scene before me draped in snow.  I didn’t want to leave, but when I did the view from the western side on the way down towards Aspen was just as good.

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Over the pass and down the western side.  A classic glacial valley.

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Heading back beneath the tree line towards Aspen

 

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