My Journey

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 .

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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.

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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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Sampson Island at Loop Head, Co Clare; You’ve probably never heard of it.

Loop Head is only an hour away from my house near Quilty.  It is one of my favourite places to take visitors no matter what the weather.  So serene and dramatic when it is calm; wild and scary in the wind and rain.  If you have been following this blog you will have seen my earlier posts and photographs. Spectacular cliffs displaying contorted folded sediments, rock arches and caves, a lighthouse, dolphins and in the distance the mountains of Kerry.

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Contorted rocks in the cliffs north of Loop Head

There is a rocky island at the end of the headland which looks like it was sliced off with a giant knife.  It is mad with breeding sea birds through the summer.  The picture below was taken in May and shows just a few early arrivals, taking up prime spots.   A deep and treacherous chasm separates it  from mainland Clare.  As you would imagine, much mystery and legend surrounds this place.

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The island is popularly known by some as Diarmuid and Grainne’s Rock, one of many places in island that reference the famous Irish legend of the love triangle between Fionn Mac Cumhail, his warrior friend Diarmuid and a girl named Gráinne.

The gap to the island is also known as Cú Chulainn’s Leap. And that’s another interesting story in its own right. Here is the short version.

Cú Chulainn was an ancient Gaelic hero warrior gifted with superhuman strength, speed and skill.  He was leader of The Red Branch Knights, who in ancient times would be fighting battles, protecting the folk of Ulster from invaders.  He would, however,  often go travelling.   On one of those trips, he met a ‘cailleach’, translated variously as a wise woman or a ‘hag’. Her name was Mal.  She fancied him and as she had magic powers with which she could ensnare anyone she touched, he took flight.

She chased him all over Ireland eventually following him to this remote promontory in west Clare. He leaped across the channel to the island but she was fairly athletic as well and was able to follow.  Still desperate to avoid her he hopped back to the mainland.  She continued to give chase but she didn’t quite make it slipping on the edge and and ending up in the ocean below. Three days later her head washed up at what became known as Hag’s Head and nine days later her remains came ashore at Quilty. The bay here took the name Mal Bay (hence Miltown Malbay) and the site of the jump became Leap Head or later Loop Head.

All fascinating but I digress.

At the end of April with Spring desperately trying to make an appearance I paid yet another visit. Isn’t it amazing that you can walk past a spot a dozen times and just not realise the significance of what you are seeing?  Well this day I noticed on the cliff edge two metal spikes fixed into the rock and a neat wall and some stone construction above them, including a large stone lined hole.  It all was heavily disguised by the soft spongy grass and the newly budding sea thrift.

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Two Iron spikes fixed into the cliff and a stone wall and hole above.

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Looking from the north to the south

I was intrigued. My first guess was that it was evidence of a former bridge. Perhaps a rope bridge like Carrick-a-Rede, I thought. But why? And in any case, hard as I looked I could see no works on the other side of the island which I would have expected. It remained a mystery but unsatisfied I resorted to Google later that evening.

It didn’t take long to find this truly amazing photo in the archives of the National Library of Ireland.

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Viewing Platform Sampson Island.  c1905

What I was seeing was in fact the remains of the foundation of this viewing platform. The  photo is dated at c1905. and reveals a lot. You can see a sign on the Island that says ‘Sampson Island’ and proffers a date in the 1830s suggesting a landing then.

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Detail of above photo showing sign and shelter.

Did Sampson stake a claim to the island? There is also evidence of a small shelter. Further the people on the lookout are identified by researchers as members of the Sampson family.  But really it is all speculation. Why build this elaborate and hair-raising construction and how did they actually get across to put up the sign?  Why even bother naming it?

Then I saw another image.  God knows how the photographer got this angle

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Crossing to Sampson Island?

That is one very brave woman in that sling. I am not exactly sure what is going on but it is possible that this was how they got across. There’s quite a crowd waiting to try. Perhaps Mal would have been better off to wait for the Sampsons to build this before attempting the crossing.

With Ireland’s long and convoluted history it is common to come across these hidden stories for which only scant evidence remains. Sometimes though you have to look very hard.  Next time you visit Loop Head have a look for it.  It’s close to the edge though so take care lest you end up like poor old Mal.

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Loop Head lighthouse with the sea pink just starting to bloom

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Dursey. An island at the end of Ireland.

Dursey Island lies at the end of the Beara Peninsula in West Cork. It has been inhabited since antiquity and though it lies only 200 m from the mainland it has always been one of the most remote and inhospitable places to live in in the whole country.

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Dursey Island looking towards the mainland.

It had a tortured early existence and was the site of one of the most horrific events in Irish history.  Following the Battle of Kinsale and the defeat of Donal Cam O’Sullivan at Dunboy in early 1602, the English moved to clean up the last of the rebels.  Many of the O’Sullivan Clan’s non-combatants had been sent to  Dursey to keep them out of harm’s way.  An English force attacked the small garrison guarding the island. They butchered the entire population of the island, women, children and the garrison. Three hundred people executed on the cliffs and their bodies (some were still alive) cast into the sea.  O’Sullivan survivors from the whole of the Beara Peninsula, about 1,000 of them, then marched 550 km north to seek shelter from the O’Rourkes of Leitrim, but that’s another story.

As with the rest of the west coast of Ireland, Dursey suffered during the famine with a 30% reduction in its population in the 1840s.  Its subsequent and continuing depopulation reflects that of many other Irish islands but its survival displays the resilience and strength of its people. In 1860 the three villages of Ballynacallagh, Kilmichael and Tilickafinna,  a population of around 240 eked out a lonely life on the treeless but well pastured island.  By 1969 this number was down to 53. A feature of the island now is the large number of abandoned houses from these times.  This eloquently tell the story of a disappearing population, but they also give the island its remarkable character.

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Abandoned village

Up until 1970 the only way to get on and off the island was by boat across the channel.  A channel that could become so treacherous with storms and a tidal surge  that for a month and a half each year the island was completely cut off.  Considering that there was no electricity, TV, doctor, priest, food supplies and no hall or pub, life must have been very bleak indeed.   After much agitation from islanders the Government agreed to build a cable car to provide a lifeline and, while that did save it from the same fate as the Blaskets, which were abandoned in 1953, it did not stop the population drain until, by 2011, there were only three permanent residents.

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Treacherous tides and surges made this channel very dangerous to cross.  Not these days.

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Approaching the island

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Anticipation. A picture window.

But the cable car opened the island to the tourist.  6.5 km in length, there is much of interest.

To walk the island takes at least 4 hours but I spent over 6 hours ambling and rambling, getting lost and finding myself again.  Just absorbing the ambiance and grateful for the glorious sunshine and the warm breeze that accompanied me. It is glorious to walk either along the sometimes paved road (which despite the alarming speed sign is almost devoid of vehicles;  I saw only one) or across the hills but best to stay on the marked paths unlike me.

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There is a marked walking trail across the hills.  Looking across to the mainland.

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If you leave the path walking through thick vegetation and across stone walls can be a challenge.

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I can never understand Irish speed limits.  100 kph!?

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Looking from the western tip of the island back towards the mainland.  A signal tower stands on the highest point.

On your walk you will come across the remains  of St Mary’s Abbey, a Napoleonic signal tower, historic ruins, spectacular views, rocky cliffs, birds galore, native orchids and your best chance  in Ireland to see dolphins and whales.

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St Mary’s Abbey

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Cliffs on the southern side of the island

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Dolphins

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I tracked this pod of dolphins for over half an hour down the coast

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Native orchids are common

At the western end of the island are three small islands.  Well, rocks really.  They are known as Calf Rock, Cow Rock and yes, you guessed it, Bull Rock.

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Looking west across Dursey to the imposing Bull Rock, two miles off shore

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Cow Rock and Bull Rock

A lighthouse was established on  Calf Rock in 1866.

Less than three years later a storm damaged the lighthouse.  This led to another tragic event in the saga of Dursey.  The Keeper, on Dursey, thought he saw distress flags and six boatmen were dispatched.  Those on the island were safe however, on the the return trip, the boat capsized and all six were lost

On 27 November 1881 in another  violent storm the the tower and lantern just snapped off above the steel base and fell into the sea. No one was hurt but it took two weeks to extract the four men stranded on the island. You can still see the base of the tower to this day.

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Calf Rock with the remains of the steel base of the light tower. Wrecked in 1881

To replace this lighthouse one was built on nearby Bull Rock, work commencing in  1882.  The light didn’t open until 1888.  It is worth pondering the challenge of constructing this on an island of precipitous cliffs measuring 230 m by 160 m and rising to 90 m above sea level.

The station consisted of an octagonal lighthouse tower, dwellings for the Keepers, and an oil-gas works.   This was a massive undertaking and the optic was the biggest in Ireland.

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Bull Rock with its lighthouse.  You can also see a gull colony and the entrance to a natural tunnel that goes right through the island.

The light still stands proudly today though it was automated in 1991. The island is swarming with gulls.  Also noteworthy is a natural tunnel that goes right through the island.  You can see the eastern entrance in the picture above.

That’s Dursey.   Take everything you think you’ll need because there are no supplies on the island and not even a toilet. And it won’t always be mild and sunny as it was for me; go prepared for bleak and wild.

But don’t miss it.

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Mutton Island. A Clare Treasure.

This is my longest blog to date.  It is also one I have had the most pleasure writing.  It is about a special place.  Never visited by tourists and only by a handful of locals.  A place where little vignettes of a vanished Ireland can be glimpsed, where nature has done its wonderful work and where you can find peace in solitude.  I hope you find the time to read it and that I can give you a little of this feeling in these words and pictures.  

 

I live on the edge. Of Ireland, that is.

Every morning I pull the curtains and look out my window across Caherush bay. The first thing I see is Mutton Island. It’s the image that begins every day. Sometimes the cloud or mist or the spray from wild waves hides it and sometimes it is like a green jewel floating on a blue calm. I’ve seen it covered in snow and I’ve seen it bathed in the glow of a West Clare sunset.  But in four years I’d never been there.

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Sunset over Mutton Island viewed from Seafield Beach at Quilty.

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Mutton Island during the ‘Beast from the East’ in March 2018. Covered in thick snow.

The island of 185 acres is shrouded in myth and mystery. It’s inaccessibility gives these stories weight.

There is no obvious way to get there for those of us who don’t own a boat or a kayak, but I decided one July Tuesday in the midst of an extraordinary spell of hot, fine weather to try and get there.

My inquiries led me to Anthony Murrihy, a Quilty fisherman, and so 10am Wednesday saw me waiting at the Seafield Pier to be ferried across. Well, after two weeks of blue skies, this morning arrived with low cloud covering Quilty and the island. Mmmm. That’s Ireland. Still there was no rain and it was just a bit cooler than it had been which in the end I was grateful for.

As the little red boat pulled away from the Quilty shore, it somehow seemed appropriate that the island should be shrouded in mist. Why would it give up its secrets so easily?

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Anthony Murrihy, Quilty fisherman.  Leaving Seafield Pier.

In my travels around Ireland, I’ve visited many islands: Tory, Inis Oir, Inis Mor, Cape Clear, Sherkin, Valentia, Achill, Aranmore, Dursey, Scattery, Skellig Michael, Garinish. Most are ‘tourist’ experiences. Ferry terminals, interpretive centres, maps and paths, signs with arrows and glossy brochures.  All were wonderful experiences of course, but nothing is like Mutton Island.

So it was just me, Anthony and a little red dinghy heading across the flat Atlantic.  There is no actual landing point on the island and as Anthony tried to hold the boat against a rock with a gaff (made from a paint roller, a broom handle and some duck tape), I gingerly stepped ashore clinging to my camera bag and my egg mayo sandwich.

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The landing spot.  I had to step ashore off the boat onto that rock……

Then it was just me. Anthony and the little red dinghy disappeared back to the inhabited part of Ireland.

It was the strangest feeling watching the tiny speck disappear into the distance. I just stood there for some time, quite dumbstruck.  I really can’t describe it.  A sense of excitement, of respectful awe, and at the same time a creeping solitude. It is so rare to actually be alone and isolated in this ‘civilised’ world. But here I was the only human being on this little slice of the planet. At least for the next few hours.

The island is elongate east-west fattening to the west. The boat dropped me near the eastern end so it seemed logical to start there and circumnavigate the island. This was my kind of exploration. It reminded me of my early days of geology fieldwork. No preconceptions, only a vague idea what I would find and no guide book to follow.  I think now that’s what attracted me originally to exploration geology. Here was an empty, abandoned world. Everything you see is a surprise, no paved path to follow, no interpretive centres or explanatory signs. Just raw nature, landscape, geology, wildlife and archaeology and only your eyes and feet to unravel it.

My first surprise was that it wasn’t the quiet idyll I expected. Because I wasn’t truly alone. The screeching and squawking of gulls and the persistent piping of oyster catchers was overpowering at times. They were telling me in no uncertain way that I was an intruder. Why would they welcome me? This was their world. One gull took a particular exception to me. I was repeatedly dive bombed. Heading straight for my head and only pulling on the joy stick at the last minute to clear me by inches. This was only a taster though. A more Hitchcock-like experience awaited me on the other side of the island.

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Being dive bombed by a gull.

It only took a few strides from the rocky beach though until I realised this was a much more varied landscape than I had imagined. The rolling green slopes that you see from the mainland were there, yes, but hidden from view there were rugged cliffs. Sheer drops and a deeply incised coastline, caves, sea arches, channels and stacks revealing a wildness that was breathtaking.

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The beautiful incised coast at the north eastern end of the island.

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A natural arch on the northern coast

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The sculpted coast exposed at low tide.

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Caves and Arches I.  High tide

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Caves and Arches II.  Low tide.

The rocks are all sandstones and shales, as on the mainland, faulted and folded by a disruptive tectonic event nearly 300 million years ago. This alternation of soft and hard layering and extensive faulting has provided many opportunities for selective erosion creating these awesome geological features.

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This cave is formed at a fault boundary where soft shale is in contact with hard sandstone

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A cave in the early stage of development.  Erosion is taking place along a fault and under a sandstone cap.  Come back in a few hundred years and this will be a cave.

Sometimes the roof collapses forming what are known as stacks. There is particularly impressive roof collapse which has formed a cave (known as Poul Tabach, a reference to the contraband dealings that went on there),  It has created a giant sink hole with two entrances one open to the sea.

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A collapsed cave and arch.  Poul Tabach.  Walled off by the early settlers to stop livestock disappearing down the hole.  Said to have been used by smugglers.

On the western side of the island there are many similar caves and arches.  I found a number of natural bridges across steep narrow chasms right at the north western tip – in one case a double bridge, something I had never seen before.

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Arches and bridges over a steep natural chasm.  The bridge in the middle distance is actually a double arch.

As I walked west the sky became thick with those gulls again. I was approaching their breeding grounds. I felt a bit like a cross between David Attenborough and an extra in The Birds, as I skirted around the edge trying as much as possible not to disturb them but at the same time wanting to observe close up this rare experience.

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Gull colony with the cliffs of the north west tip of the island in the distance.

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Gulls take to the air over the Napoleonic Tower

To my untrained eye there seemed to be two species of gull sharing the same nesting sites. I later identified them as Herring Gulls and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

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Herring Gulls and their chicks

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A Lesser Black-backed Gull in flight

There were two distinct colonies with thousands in each. One was on exposed rocks with nests on little remnant vegetated patches or just on the bare rock and the other, some distance away with extensive burrows in a field. The dowdy chicks still unable to fly and with their distinctive grey, brown and cream down, scampered across the rocks or hid in their burrows abandoned momentarily by their parents to try and distract me. The more confident ones standing on the cliff edge dreaming of the day they would fly.

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Gull eggs.  Here they are in a nest but often they are laid on the bare rock.

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Two Herring Gull chicks.  Ready for their first flight?

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Herring gull chick taking refuge in a burrow

I was endlessly fascinated watching this seething mass but there was more to see. Not far away was the tell tale silhouette of a Napoleonic signal tower, so I headed there.

Bearing a superficial resemblance to a Tower House, many call these structures ‘castles’. They are not. They are a part of a network of towers built between 1804 and 1806 as a response to the threat of invasion by the French. There were around 80 towers built along the west and south coast from Malin Head all the way to Dublin. Each cost £3,000 to build.

The idea was that they were within sight of each other (theoretically! Irish weather not withstanding) and in this way a message could be transmitted using flags and black balls on a tall wooden mast.  Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the towers fell into disuse. Though solidly constructed many are now crumbling ruins. This one though has many typical architectural features preserved and seems to have been one of the better built ones.

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Sea cliffs with caves and bridges and the Napoleonic Tower

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The western coast of the Island

It is a handsome building with solid mortared stone walls built of local shale and sandstone but with window surrounds of cut and dressed limestone. Other highlights such as the fire places, the elegant window surrounds and the observation platform buttresses were also of this limestone. Some features were also constructed of red brick. The walls were rendered in a cement with a lot of shell grit  The walls were covered inside and out with a mortar of the same material, though only a little remains.   The external walls were covered with overlapping slate tiles of which only those on the north-east wall have partially survived. The limestone, bricks and mortar would have been imported to the island. Internally you can see remnants of  timber lintels and floor joists.  Again presumably imported onto the island. There are many names and dates scratched into the mortar with elegant script and though largely illegible now, most seem to date from the 1800s.

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Napoleonic Watch Tower

The whole is surrounded by a very solid wall in similar style to the tower and a stone out building. It is perched on the top of a cliff on the highest point on the island and in sight of the Hag’s Head tower to the north and Loop Head (tower now gone) to the south.

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Entrance gate and wall surrounding the tower.

These towers are a reminder of the fear that would have engulfed Britain and its colonies at the time and the incredible effort that nations would go to to protect their borders. It is truly remarkable to think that 80 of these towers were built in a two year period in some of the remotest places you could imagine.

My day was rapidly coming to an end. To get back to the pick up point I had to cross a wide expanse of meadow and in places, bog. But first I headed out to the headland at the southern end of the island.  Something drew me there. I think it was the cormorants at the point but on the way I pondered a rubbly ridge of stone on the landward side of the headland.  Later I discovered this is believed to be the site of an ancient Promontory Fort possibly Bronze Age.  You can clearly see this rocky ridge on the google image.

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Rocky rubble possibly representing the wall of a promontory fort at the southern tip of the island

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Google image of the promontory fort  You can see the break where the rubble in the photo above is.

No one really knows what these were used for.  But they may have been some sort of lookout. This would suggested habitation before the time of Christianity.  St Senan was said to have built a monastery here before going to Scattery.  So we are confident it was lived on in the 7th century.  Records suggest four monks had an oratory here.  It is common for oratories to have a circular wall and there is such a wall at the eastern side of the island.  Was this the site of the oratory, long since gone?

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Google image showing part of  a circular wall which may have been the site of St Senan’s oratory.  The hole to the north of this is Poul Tabach.

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The circular wall and much later ruined cottages.

It would seem the island is getting smaller as Samuel Lewis in his 1837 book on Clare gives it an area of 210 acres, down now to 185 acres. Historically however it may have been much, much bigger. The island is referred to in The Annals of the Four Masters, (a compilation of Irish history up to 1616) as Fitha Island which included the now separate islands of Mutton Island, Inismattle and Roanshee. This source states that Fitha was connected to the mainland until in 804AD “the sea swelled so high that it burst its boundaries, overflowing a large tract of country and drowning over 1,000 persons.” This is now presumed to have been a tidal wave and it is speculated that it may have been responsible for separating the islands from the mainland. Geologically, this would be pretty unlikely if the connection was of sandstones and shales, however it is plausible, given the extensive glacial deposits still on the island, that if these unconsolidated sediments were the connection with the mainland, then such an event may well have removed some of these deposits.  As storm events today still do.

In fact the water between Mutton island and Quilty is very shallow. Anthony, my ferryman, told me that they used to walk cattle across on very low Spring tides. As we returned on the boat he showed me the ‘road’ that lies at the ocean bottom visible in the clear water just couple of metres below.  In these very low tides water will reach your knees suitable for cattle.  A couple of days later I visited the Seafield shore to see whether I could find it. Sure enough there is a ramp of sorts visible at low tide and in the photo below you can see the trace of the submerged roadway, highlighted in the evening light.  It turns out it is in fact clearly visible also on the google satellite image.

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View from Quilty to Mutton Island.  The ramp to the left is the start of the ‘roadway’ and you can see its trace continuing to the eastern end of the island. You can also see it in the first photo of this blog.

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A google image showing the shadow of the roadway at the eastern end.

The island would have had many stories to tell. A ship, the Sao Marcos, from the Spanish Armada, is said to have run aground in 1588 with sailors buried on the island, and it was used extensively by smugglers in later years who took advantage of its many caves. During the days of the Sinn Fein courts, which operated outside the British justice system, it was used as a detention camp.

Further evidence of habitation is in the ruins of some cottages on the south eastern side of the island. It is believed that up to a dozen families lived here in the 19th century, the population peaking in the 1920s.  They fished, harvested seaweed, grew potatoes and vegetables, and as the island’s name suggests kept livestock.  ‘Mutton Island’ is said to derive from the quality of the meat, flavored by the lush grasses and herbs that the sheep dined on.

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Ruins of the village on the island.  A home now for the starlings

People lived on the island seasonally until late in the 20th century.  One resident led a hermit-like existence there until the mid 50s, living summer and winter for four years.  Quite remarkable when you think about it.

As I walked around I saw signs of more recent human activity however. Some fencing. Lobster pots, the remains of a motor vehicle? I had heard a report that one of the residents of the island had built a raft and freighted a Ford Anglia to the island.  Was this it?

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Is this the the wreck of the Ford Anglia?

Mutton island is an island of mystery.  I have talked about the archaeological heritage but what about this?  I found yhis unique figure in the thick grass around the Napoleonic Tower.  Made from the red bricks used in the tower construction.  Is it the oldest example of an iconographic emoticon?  Predating the digital age by two centuries?

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Archaeological heritage?  An early emoji.

And then there’s this.  A crop circle?

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A crop circle?

There is a wide variety of vegetation.  No trees.  That’s a given, but grasslands, bogland and in places thick growth of thistles and cow parsley that comes up to your chest. Not easy to walk through especially given the hidden rabbit holes!

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Fields thick with cow parsley.

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Bog cotton

For now the island is populated by rabbits, rats, seals and reportedly goats (though I didn’t see any, so that population may have died out). Doesn’t sound appealing but all the land mammals were introduced from the mainland and are happy in this people-less place.  Even less appealing perhaps were the colonies of midges.  But, you know, they weren’t interested in me in the least.  They were quite happy to dine out on the sweet nectar of the cow parlsey flower.

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Midges on a cow parlsey flower head.  That’s a normal fly for scale.

The island is privately owned and changed hands many times of late.  At one time it was owned by the DuPont corporation who thought that it would make a perfect terminal for shipping the oil that was discovered west of Aran Islands.  Luckily that plan fell through!  An American bought it then and he had grand plans but couldn’t get permission for a pier.

It is a bird sanctuary now and this gives it protection, to some degree, from such avaricious planning decisions, so hopefully it will be there to be enjoyed by those willing to take the trouble and time to get there and who respect its cultural value to Ireland.

This is as it should be.

Around 5 pm Anthony returned in that little red boat, this time finding a shallow beach to pick me up.  Reluctantly I re boarded, but the memory of that special place will be permanently etched.  Images that will return every time I pull the curtains of my bedroom window to let in the morning light and stare across at that proud rock.

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The ferryman returns to collect me

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An excellent four part radio series about Mutton Island was made by Raidió Corca Baisicinn in 2016   It’s worth listening to.  You can find it at http://rcb.ie/mutton-island/

 

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Story time. Of copper at Doonen, arches at Reenroe and a picnic on the bay.

You hear the words ‘hidden gem’ so many times in Ireland but more often than not they are not hidden and nor are they a gem.  I try to avoid the expression especially when it appears on tourists’ must-see lists (hardly hidden then).  But actully they do exist and when you find one part of you wants to scream and shout about it and another part says ‘Shhh! Let’s keep it hidden’

The Arches at Reenroe are one such place. I had been to Allihies on the Beara Peninsula three times but not heard about it.  That’s the downside of my penchant for arriving blind to a place to discover it on my own.

Spectacular as the arches are, I want  first to tell a bit of a story, about how I discovered it and the adventure I had on the way.  Stories such as this so typify, for me travel and living in Ireland and the way things just unfold here. Surprise upon serendipitous surprise. The people, culture and place are interwoven like nowhere else.  These experiences are truly the hidden gems.

Let me start at the beginning. Or even a bit before the beginning.

It was a gorgeous sunny June morning (yes, this is Ireland) and I was visiting the location of the Dooneen Copper Mine.  This is a marked tourist spot on the Wild Atlantic Way a few kilometres from Allihies, so it has the squiggly iron marker to let you know that it is worth stopping. And to a lapsed geologist such as myself that is indeed true. This is the site of the first of Puxley’s copper mines discovered in 1812.  Because of its location on the coast, it struggled both technically and commercially, but the upside of this is that the site is largely intact and we can get a unique insight of how it must have looked before it was exploited.

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A google maps satellite image with the copper lode at Dooneen outlined. Looking north

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The ore zone at Dooneen is a distinctive promontry.  Obvious for its shades of cream, brown and orange representing oxidised rock.

The cliffs here are a series of headlands of Devonian sandstone. One of these promontories is in shades of orange and cream rather than the more normal greys. It is about 80 m long and up to 10 m wide. This unique coloration is due to oxidation of what was essentially a quartz sulphide rock. As you walk along the narrow path you see traces, under your feet and in the walls, of bright green staining. This is malachite, copper carbonate and a telltale sign that deeper down there are copper sulphides.

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Looking east along the ore zone.  Note the patches of green malachite in the cliffs

Walk onto the next headland to the north and look back. Now you see it in it’s full glory. Brilliant green patches tell of a very rich lode. But why is it still there considering it contains such valuable minerals?

At the eastern end at sea level is an adit and there appears to be another in the adjacent cliff at the western end.  These would have been where the miners first chased the copper but constant inundation made it impossible. A shaft was sunk on the land side but again flooding meant more and more sophisticated machinery was needed to keep on top of the pumping.  Eventually the elements won and in the 1870s the mine was abandoned never really making much money.  But this has left us with this magnificent example of a virtually untouched outcropping ore body.

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Looking from the south,  Adit above the high water mark visible at the left.

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As it looked 200 years ago.  Except for the tunnel at the western end.

But I digress. In the car park I met Viv Kelly, visiting from Dublin, with members of her family. She said they were going to look for what they called the Arches and headed off on foot. I was intrigued and headed off in the same general direction. But for me the search proved fruitless and I actually had no idea what I was looking for.

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Viv and some of the Kelly Gang.  Beautiful synclinal fold behind them.

So I continued my explorations, by car, of what is one of my favourite drives, between Allihies and Eyries. The road snakes through sculpted hills, twisted rocks and abandoned houses and at one point the highway (if you can call it that) drives through someone’s yard with the house on one side and the barn on the other. Harking back to the time when living right on the road would have been hugely desirable.  There were panoramic vistas, bicycles and bog cotton.

Satisfied, I headed back to Allihies to join an afternoon session with two legends of Irish music – Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch. I soon forgot about arches and such.

It was now about 6.30 pm the music had ebbed away and I was sitting outside O’Neill’s Pub pondering my next move.  I was approached by a lady who became my immediate best friend after she complimented me on my fiddling.   She mentioned she had been that day to visit some sea arches!  Those same arches that Viv had told me about.  She reached for her phone to show me some pictures.  I politely covered her screen (I hate spoilers) and asked instead for directions after telling her of my earlier vain search.

Basically it appears I was in the right place.  ”Look for a white cottage on the left and opposite you will see a wooden gate with a blue rope and a sign saying ‘please shut the gate'”.  That seemed simple enough so I had another go. At about the spot she indicated I saw a white building, more of a bungalow really and it wasn’t on the left it was on the right and I couldn’t see a gate, so I was confused and drove on. Fruitlessly.  Now the Irish are not great on giving directions so I went back to that bungalow thinking maybe ‘left’ meant ‘right’, and sure enough there was a gate, my view blocked by a beautiful old vintage Mercedes. The gate had a blue rope and a hand written sign saying ‘please shut the gate’. Finally.

I headed along the well worn track, passing a group of picnickers. They had selected an idyllic spot.  Smoke rising from a fire and the smell of cooking chicken. I was just a little jealous but I apologised for intruding and after getting a little sage advice on what I was looking for, I continued my search.

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Picnicking.

Not far ahead I came across the first arch. You don’t actually realise you are on it until you make your way down to the shore and look back. Way grander than I’d imagined.  Tantalisingly the calm water in the chasm disappeared to the left.  You knew there was more.

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Back up to the top and I continued across the fields until I reached a rocky headland. Here there are more arches. Two precarious bridges span a steep sided chasm.  One looks like it is about to collapse into the ocean as one day soon it inevitable will. Real selfie territory.  They have formed by selective erosion of softer rock (probably along a fault) in places leaving the remnant bridges of rock.  I had brought a sandwich and doughnut with me and enjoyed my own little picnic.

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“Can you step back a bit?  Can’t quite get you in the shot”  Arch no 2

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Two bridges span this chasm.  Arches no 2 and 3.

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My little picnic

I felt there had to be more and sure enough I found a number of other narrow steep sided arches and then a perfectly protected and wave free channel passed under another series of bridges. This turned out to be the other end of the channel under the first arch.  I followed it back and observed two land bridges over this channel.

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View east along the main channel (arch no 1)

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View west along the main channel.  (Arch no 6)

In total I saw six arches.  It might make more sense if you look at the google map image. The major channel has essentially created an island with two natural bridge accesses (nos 1 and 6). This has followed a major east west fault.  The other arches (numbered 2 to 5) have formed on softer shaley bands within the sediment sequence so they parallel bedding.

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Google satellite image showing six arches referred to above.  Main channel is marked in red. North to top.

I absolutely loved this place.

That should have been the end of my story but it wasn’t.

I must have been exploring for an hour and a half. Heading back past the picnickers I was surprised at being asked to join them. They plied me with wine, crab claws, chicken, potato and roasted seaweed.  The burgeoning friendship nearly ended though when they offered me a hot rock to sit on!  Brian, from Edinburgh, a scholar in all things gaelic, explained that the picnic was in memory of a time when they ‘cooked’ a salmon in this very fire 20 years ago. Sashimi salmon in the dark was the outcome.  No fish this time though.

I met Cormac Boydell and his partner Rachel, who live next door to that white bungalow overlooking this dramatic bay.  Cormac is a renowned ceramic artist.  I wished I had time to have a closer look at his work.  But what was really interesting was that in a previous life he was a geologist.  Spooky enough but, hey, he worked in Australia during the nickel boom of the 70s and, get this, he worked for CRA, the first company I worked for.  And he was based in Kalgoorlie in western Australia, where I lived for six years.

We talked for ages as darkness descended and until the lure of the music back in Allihies became palpable.  I took my leave, happy that my search for the Arches, initiated by a chance meeting with Viv from Dublin had ended with such a rewarding encounter.

These days are truly the hidden gems of Ireland.

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Spancil Hill is……

I’ve been going to Spancil Hill Fair in Co Clare for five years now.

The Fair has been going for 300 years.  I’ve blogged on two previous occasions (2014.   2015)     So I thought I would do something a little different this time.

 

Spancil Hill is a spectacle. A melange.
Folk from Ireland and beyond
Travellers and settled; families and bachelors
Horses and donkeys, ironmongery and saddles
Buggies and carts, burgers and fries

Spancil Hill is sticks.
Of blackthorn, hazel, fibreglass or ash
Sticks in earnest conversation
or just to lean on
or to sit on.

There’s a man selling sticks. I bought one.

Spancil Hill is a toddler eye to eye with a pony

Spancil Hill is a runaway pony,
Scared.
Horses rearing.
Until it is cornered and held safely and lovingly in a boys arms.

Spancil Hill is the Irish Cob
How do they see?
Full-maned and feathered, by buyers prodded and stroked.
Mouth pulled open and poked (I’m sure there’s a reason).
Or another pulling a buggy,
or cantering imperiously.

Spancil Hill is John Sheridan sealing the deal on a pied cob.
Slapping hands with the seller.
His family posing proudly for the camera.

Spancil Hill is Sean O’Leary standing with his pony.
Waiting all day for a buyer.
Is it the smallest in Ireland?
For this tiny equine there are many who are keen.
But will they meet his price?

Spancil Hill is a man in a beige suit,
Another without a shirt.

Spancil Hill is lorries loaded with horses.
Headed for Europe.

Spancil Hill is a giant spade.

Spancil Hill is ice creams.

Spancil Hill is John Dooley, a Feakle man sitting in his chair
Since 1946 he’s been there.
It’s his 72nd Fair
The stories he could tell.

Spancil Hill is Aisling and Paddy leading home the newest member of their family

Spancil Hill is Albert and his family selling buggy wheels.

Spancil Hill is Ireland then and Ireland now.

An apposite anachronism.

I love it. 

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Spancil Hill is Sticks.  In earnest conversation

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Or to lean on

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Or to sit on

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Spancil Hill is a giant spade

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Mouth pulled open and poked.  I’m sure there’s a reason

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Spancil Hill is a toddler, eye to eye with a pony.

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How do they see?

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There’s a man selling sticks.  I bought one.

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Spancil Hill is ice creams

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Or cantering imperiously I

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Or cantering imperiously II

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Spancil Hill is John Dooley.

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Since 1946 he’s been there.  The stories he could tell.

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Spancil Hill is a runaway pony

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Until held safely and lovingly in a boy’s arms

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Spancil Hill is a beige suit

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But will they meet his price

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Spancil Hill is Sean O’Leary.  Is it the smallest in Ireland?

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Spancil Hill is Albert and his family selling buggy wheels

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Spancil Hill is John Sheridan. Slapping hands….

Aisling and Paddy and the pony they bought

Spancil Hill is Aisling and Paddy.

 

 

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You gotta love puffins.

As I say you gotta love puffins.

Well they are cute and because they breed on offshore islands the difficulty of getting to see them adds to the mystique.   They are truly an aquatic beast, rarely seen on land spending most of their time in the water far out to sea when no breeding.  Ireland though is a great place to get close and personal.

You would think it would be easy.  After all the global population is over 10,000,000 which sounds healthy but in many places it is declining and considered vulnerable. But here are only a few places they can be seen.

I saw them during my visit to Skellig Michael in June (click here). While they breed at the Cliffs of Moher near my home base in Clare, it is hard to get a good viewing point so after four years I still hadn’t seen any.  Skellig Michael though is a different matter. You can’t avoid them at this time of the year.

A small black and white bird, about 30 cm in length, a member of the Auk family which includes guillemots, razorbills and auks themselves. But the puffin fascinates because evolution has dealt it so many attractive features. A very distinctive beak which from the side is broad and triangular and becomes brightly patterned in orange and yellow during the breeding season, orange webbed feet and eye ornaments to match. Their upright stance and waddling gait is endearing.

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Defying gravity

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Their short wings seem to be more designed for moving in water than air and watching them in flight is hilarious. A running take off, madly flapping and you are sure they will crash into the cliff but a quick change of direction at the last minute saves them.  Landing is just as problematic and a crash landing is the rule.

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Taking flight

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Wheeeeee!

During the breeding season they live in burrows or in crevices and caves in the rocks and patrol during the day interacting with neighbours.  I could have watched them for hours.  Once the chicks (pufflings they are called) are hatched they head to the sea and don’t return to land for several years. They start breeding at about 5 years of age and then live til about 30.

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Perfect puffin territory

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Standing guard in front of a burrow

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Or nesting in a cave

I could ramble on about them for ever but there are plenty of sites that can tell you everything if you are interested in learning more so I would direct you there.

For the moment I will just let my pictures do the talking and use them to express my gratitude at having such a close encounter.

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Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Skellig Michael. Forget ‘Star Wars’. It’s more like ‘Close Encounters of the Bird Kind’.

Finally I got onto Skellig Michael after three tries over two years. The island is 12 km off the Kerry coast and to get there you need quite a bit of persistence and a lot of luck. Fortunately the monks were smiling on an unseasonably warm day in early June. In fact we were in the third week of a sunny spell like no one could remember. Day after day over 20 degrees.

I really was excited as 12 of us boarded the first ferry of the day out of Portmagee, one of 15 that have permits, Twelve of the lucky 12,000 a year to visit.  Leaving the calm, blue harbour of pretty Portmagee, its painted cottages reflected as if by a mirror, we headed towards the mystical island.

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Leaving the harbour at Portmagee

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The village of Portmagee.  Reflective calm

But first we sailed past the nearby Little Skellig, Skellig Michael’s twin rock. George Bernard Shaw said of Skelllig Michael following a visit in 1910, it was the most fantastic and impossible rock in the world”.  Like its big brother, Little Skellig is if anything more jagged and more precipitous and more impossible. As we sailed around the island constantly changing our view different faces were revealed.

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Little Skellig I

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Little Skellig II

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Little Skellig III.

These islands defy geological truth. The Devonian sandstone protrusions shouldn’t be there. It is easy to see how the ancients would have believed they got there by the hand of God. Jagged needles of stone, rocky barbs, thrown into the sea by an angry deity.  Piled one on the other. I can see little vegetative life. Useful to no man.

But useful to birds they are.  Little Skellig is painted white with birds and their droppings. Gannets, gannets and gannets.  Some say 50,000 of them. I can’t not think though of Monty Python and the Bookshop Sketch.  ‘Do you have Olsen’s Standard Book of British Birds? The Expurgated version. The one without the gannet.’

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Gannets on Little Skellig

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Did I mention gannets?

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Natural arch at the northern end of Little Skellig

This is the second largest such colony in the world. There doesn’t seem to be room for anything else as every rock ledge is crowded. A majestic sea bird, second in size only to the albatross, the sky is filled with their gliding forms as some soar effortlessly around our boat.

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Every surface is occupied by a gannet

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A gannet glides past our boat

We head to the Big Skellig.  In much more comfort I should say than the monks who arrived in their curraghs in the 7th Century, or even George Bernard Shaw who in 1904 was rowed by 10 oarsmen who took 2½ hours for the trip. As the island loomed, its jagged peaks towering over us,  to me it seemed softer than the never-occupied Little. There were patches of seductive vivid green on its slopes.

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As we head to the south Skellig Michael is revealed

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Looking back northwards towards Little Skellig

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Skellig Michael looms.  Approaching from the north

We tied up temporarily against a set of concrete steps and you had to time your leap with the rising and sinking of the boat. They warned us about the steps to the monastery but no mention of this.  It would be impossible to land in any kind of swell. I have heard stories of visitors getting to the island but not being able to disembark.

This was not the first place the monks landed but one of three used over the centuries and the only one used today.  This choice  historically provided the opportunity to get ashore regardless of wind direction.  Above us winds a set of steps of stone heading straight up the mountain. This path is not now used.

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Steps rise to the monastery from the north landing place.  Currently not used.

Instead we follow a path that snakes south, clinging to the cliff edge past nesting sea birds on sheer cliffs to the start of another set of steps that is the current route up.

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The access road along the eastern face of the island.  The main steps to the monastery rise up the saddle between the two peaks.

But then I see my first puffin and then another and then they are everywhere. These cute and protected birds are the stuff of legend and a reason alone to ensure your visit is in late Spring or early Summer. We all of us turn into expert wildlife photographers producing copy fit for National Geographic. It is impossible not to take a great photo.

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My first sighting of puffins

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Poser.

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Close Encounters of the Bird Kind.

But I am going to pass on the puffins for the moment. I will have more to say about them in another place. It’s not just puffins though. They share the rocks and crevices with many others. Guillemots clustered together with a similar upright stance on the narrowest of ledges, looking for all the world like penguins. Kittiwakes with specially designed claws that enable them to cling on to their precarious piece of rock. Razorbills with their distinctive white streaks to the eyes. Gulls, terns and others such as shearwaters that I didn’t see. An aquatic avian paradise.

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Guillemots and kittiwakes nesting on the cliff

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Kittiwakes grab their spot wherever they can

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Razorbills

The main purpose of any visit to this place though is to see the monastery. Not tackling the 611 steps to the stone structures atop the northern peak would be like visiting the Guinness factory and not having a pint. The journey up is spectacular but so is the reward.

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Visitors start the climb

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In the footsteps of the monks

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The final leg heads up from Christ’s Saddle, the area between the two peaks

It is considered the best example of an early monastery in Ireland and is of world significance. Developed between the sixth and eighth centuries it is truly remarkable for its preservation.  A series of terraces contains six ‘clochán’-type beehive cells, two oratories, stone crosses, slabs and a later medieval church.   The cells and oratories are all of dry-built corbel construction. This unique method of overlapping stones giving an igloo shape to the outer wall but more regularly rectangular inside is very efficient at keeping out wind and water and have been doing so for 1,500 years.  Other terraces housed gardens. Vegetables were believed to have been grown but their main source of food was fish, birds and eggs. The monks led a simple life of foraging and prayer and sought out remote places such as this, as the hardship and sacrifice proved their devotion, until the island was abandoned in the 12th or 13th century.

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Rich archaeological heritage including beehive huts and a high cross

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Inside a beehive hut

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View through the window of the church

While regaining our breath, one of the OPW guides Catherine, who has been doing this for 18 years gave us the benefit of her wisdom. And cheerfully took my photo as I and countless others posed for the de rigeur ‘selfie’ shot with Little Skellig in the background. Funny how small Ireland is.  I had met Catherine at a music festival, two years ago.

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Proof I was there

For some monks sharing this isolation with other monks was still not enough. On the higher south peak there is an hermitage, where a monk is believed to have led a solitary life. You can’t reach it now but just getting there involve huge risk and athleticism, No steps in places just toe holds cut into the rock face. And squeezing through the notorious Eye of the Needle. In the accompanying photo you can just see the terraces across the valley near the very top of the South Peak.

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The South Peak.  You can just see the stone walls of the Hermitage near the peak.

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A close up of the terraces at the Hermitage site.

I can but wonder at the devotion and sacrifice of these people. Their zeal to be closer to God seemed almost to have given them super powers.

Our time at the top though was all too short. Conscious all the time of getting back to the boat I returned down the mountain gingerly negotiating the steps to the bottom. Just a little quicker I have to say than the way up. I surprised myself actually at how doable the climb was and though I saw many struggling I saw no one give up.

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The southern shore of the island.  One lighthouse is visible on the right

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view of the south peak and the road to the second lighthouse

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The main landing spot for the monks with the ancient steps up the valley

You can’t get everywhere on the island though.  The road to the lighthouses (there are two of them) is closed and they can only be seen from the ocean.  In fact on the way home our helpful skipper from Casey’s took us around the southern shore where aside from the lighthouse you can see the other landing points I mentioned.

I met Christina, a fellow Aussie, who was lucky enough to get onto the boat during her short visit to Ireland.  It was impossible not to be infected by simply being on this ‘impossible rock’.  The joy on her face was real as it was on the faces of the others that were privileged enough to get there on such a warm sunny day.

This will be a lifelong treasured memory for us all.

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Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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