Real Ireland

Ireland’s First Copper Mine.  4,500 years of mining history

I have stumbled onto historical mining in a number of places in Ireland in my travels.  Particularly at Allihies and Mizen in West Cork and along the so-called Copper Coast in Waterford.  However, I had no idea of the significance of copper mining in Killarney, and only came across it by chance recently when exploring Killarney National Park’s other delights.

19th Century mining of copper underpinned many fortunes for its British landowners.  In Castletownbere in West Cork,  it was the Puxley’s and Killarney it was the Earls of Kenmare and then the Herberts, who funded their magnificent home at Muckross from their mining wealth.  Ironically the mansion at Muckross was completed in 1843 as the Famine ravaged Ireland.  But the saga of mining in Killarney goes back much further, deep into Neolithic times.

copper-7671

Muckross House built by the Herbert family with money from their mining fortune

copper-7678

Muckross House. Built 1843

When we talk of mining history in Australia, we think back to the first gold rushes in NSW and Victoria, which were in 1851, or Australia’s own copper boom, which started in South Australia in the 1840s. Mining effectively ended Australia’s time as a penal colony and led to an explosion of free immigration.  So it took a bit to wrap my mind around the mining heritage of a country that goes back thousands of years.

Mining has taken place at two locations on the Killarney Lakes, Ross Island and on the Muckross Peninsula.  Mining there reflects human occupancy from the end of the Neolithic Period and the early Bronze Age (2500-1800 BCE) through Christian times (8th Century) to industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ross Island is the earliest known site for copper mining in Ireland.  The activity has been dated by the discovery of Beaker pottery by a team from National University of Ireland Galway in 1992.  The so-called Bell Beaker culture is named after the inverted bell-shaped pottery vessels found scattered throughout Western Europe and dated in Ireland from 2500 BCE to 2200 BCE.  This has been confirmed by radiocarbon dating at the site.

b58b979f73b02d15ca6bcc3d894c151c

beaker

Beaker vessel characterstic of the style of the Bell Beaker culture, fragments of which were used to date the Ross Island mining site.  Photo credit: http://curiousireland.ie/the-beaker-people-2500-bc-1700-bc/

The true Bronze Age in Ireland (that is when copper was alloyed with tin or arsenic to manufacture weaponry and tools) started around 2000 BCE.  Prior to this was the ‘Copper Age’ and copper from Ross Island would have been used for daggers or axe heads or other copper objects and was traded widely.  Chemical fingerprinting and lead isotope analysis shows that Ross Island was the only source of copper until 2200 BCE in Ireland. Not only this, but two-thirds of artefacts from Britain before this time show the same signature.  And Ross Island copper is found to be present in artefacts found in Netherlands and Brittany.  After this time other mines from southern Ireland became more important.

So, Ross Island saw the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age.  Frankly, to me as a mining geologist, to be able to stand on the place where the mining took place that underpinned this highly significant transition in human development in Ireland was, for me, a special experience.

The early miners exploited a rich band of oxidized copper ore within the limestone through shallow cave-like excavations, tunnels and chambers, most of which were damaged by subsequent mining.  Some of the surface ‘caves’ are visible today behind a rusting iron fence though the view is unfortunately heavily obscured by vegetation, which has been allowed to grow unchecked.

copper-7953

Bronze Age mining excavation Ross Island

copper-7956

Bronze Age mining Ross Island

copper-7954

Probable Bronze Age mining excavation with later 18th Century stone walls.

These openings were made in the days well before explosives, by lighting fires against the rock face to open fractures and then pounding the walls with stone hammers.  The broken rock was then hand sorted and the separated ore was converted to metal by smelting in pit furnaces.

The last of the first phase of mining from this site is dated at 1700 BCE.  Mining lay dormant for centuries then, but in the early Christian period was a Golden Age of metalworking in Ireland, when such treasures as the Tara Brooch were produced.  Killarney was one of the centers of metallurgical and artisanal skills.  Excavations at Ross Island have found small pit furnaces that date from 700 AD suggesting that ores from here were used to produce metals for the production of  such objects.

Another thousand years passed before the final chapter in the exploitation of the wealth of Killarney copper played out.

This last phase of mining commenced in the early 18th century.  The first attempts at extracting lead in 1707 and then again to work the mine in 1726 failed.  In 1754 Thomas Herbert commenced mining under an arrangement with the then landowner, the Earl of Kenmare.  Mining was difficult due to flooding from proximity to the lake edge and for the next fifty years was sporadic.

I must digress for a moment.  In 1793 Thomas Herbert invited a mining consultant Rudolf Raspe to advise on the mines.  Why do I mention this?  Raspe was German and author of The Fabulous Adventures of the Baron von Munchausen (published in 1785). You might have seen the movie or heard of ‘Munchausen Syndrome’ but I grew up with these fantastical stories read to me by my father. Who would have dreamt of a connection between these far-fetched tales and copper mining in the west of Ireland. Anyway the poor fellow didn’t have such a Fabulous ending dying of scarlet fever a few months later and being buried in an unmarked grave near Muckross.

Meanwhile mining on Muckross Peninsula started in 1749 on the Western Mine and by 1754 the company had raised some £30,000 worth of copper ore, which was shipped to Bristol for smelting.  This closed in 1757 and operations commenced on the Eastern Mine opening for short periods in 1785 and again in 1801.  Operations resumed on the Western Mine in 1795 but these failed due apparently to mismanagement.  Little more was heard of this mine and it was considerably less successful than its neighbour.

copper-7465

Mining spoil at Muckross Mine seen from the lake

copper-7189

Muckross Peninsula.  18th Century smelter building

copper-7187

Inside smelter building showing unusual curve flue.  There were at least three smelting furnaces in the structure.

copper-7198

Muckross Peninsula. Old mine building

But things might have been very different. A dark crystalline mineral was encountered which oxidised to a very bright pink.  It had no copper and so was discarded.  One miner recognised it as the cobalt ore, cobaltite (CoAsS), with its oxidized form, pink erythrite (Co3(AsO4)28H2O).  This man quietly removed twenty tons of this ‘rubbish’ undiscovered.  When the proprietor later realised its value, it was too late.  It had been removed by his helpful employee, or mined as waste and thrown away to expose the copper ore.  Reminds me of the non-recognition of the gold rich Telluride ores in Kalgoorlie in 1893, which for years were used to surface roads, until a way was discovered to extract the gold.  Needless to say, the roads were ripped up.

58023det

Erythrite from Muckross.  Photo credit: Online Mineral Museum

Back to the Ross Mine, which at the beginning of the 19th century had another renaissance. The Ross Island Company obtained a 31 year mining lease from Lord Kenmare in 1804, Work commenced on the Blue Hole on a rich lode of lead and copper. Mining continued until 1810 by which time it had become unprofitable.

copper-7911

Blue Hole Mine open pit

copper-7916

Northern pit Blue Hole Mine. Mining completed 1810

The operation was restarted by the Hibernian Mining Company (1825-9).  Both struggled with the perpetual problem of flooding.  One solution suggested was to drain Lough Leane; this did not go down too well as you can imagine, particularly with the local boatmen.  In the end a large coffer dam was built on the shore and water pumped into it from the mine. Part of the dam is still there.  Bigger and bigger pumps were required and ultimately by 1828 they were unable to deal with the water and the mine closed. Most of the Western Mine area is now flooded as the dam walls have been breached

copper-7925

Eastern coffer dam.

copper-

Part of Western Mines area flooded by breached dam wall on left.

copper-7866

Ross Island.  A walled off limestone cave with steel door.  My hunch it was used as a magazine.

copper-7928

Old shaft near Blue Hole mine

copper-7932

Site of Old Engine House Ross Island Mine

Wandering over the site today does not give a true sense of the scale of mining in the early 19th century.  This map by Thomas Weaver from 1829 shows the fifty or so shafts, underground tunnels and surface buildings from this phase of operations.

new_pa2

Thomas Weaver map of Ross Island mine workings 1829.  Photo credit NUIG.

But mining grew out of favour and conflicted with the rise of tourism to the area.   No more mine leases were granted after 1829 by the Herberts, who by this time had transitioned from mining entrepreneurs to landowners. The area was carefully landscaped, with the infilling of shafts, flooding of the Blue Hole, the demolition of buildings and the planting of trees. Subsequent forest growth has softened the historic footprint of the mining

Mineral exploration is now prohibited in the National Park so the remarkable 4,500 year history of mining here has come to an end.  Public awareness however of this important site is increasing with the creation of a Mining Trail and explanatory signage at the site.  To me, places like this are as important as Glendalough and Ceidi Fields and their preservation is so important.

I am ashamed to say that after five years in Ireland I only discovered this place by accident.  But find it I did, and I will be back there as soon as I can be.

 

Much of the material for this blog came from the informative website of the National University of Ireland Galway who completed the archaeological study of the historical mining sites in 1992.   http://www.nuigalway.ie/ross_island/.  My thanks and acknowledgement to them.

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

The Puck Fair, Co Kerry. A 400-year old tradition.

Some institutions in Ireland die hard.  One is the Puck Fair.  Held annually in Killorglin in Co Kerry in August, it is surely one of the country’s longest running public events.  As with many of these things though, the written record is scant and it is not clear exactly how old it is.  There is a reference in 1613 to a local landlord, Jenkins Conway, collecting a tax from every animal sold at the ‘August Fair’ and even earlier there is a record from 1603 of King James I granting a charter to the existing fair in Killorglin.  So let’s just say it is well over 400 years old.

puck-6827

The main street of Killorglin is choked for the Puck Fair

Puck derives from the Irish Phoic, meaning He-goat.  Again, when the fair became associated with the goat is also shrouded in mystery.  The story I like tells how in 1808 the British Parliament made it unlawful in Ireland to levy tolls on cattle, horse or sheep fairs.  The landlord of the time lost his income and on the advice of then budding lawyer Daniel O’Connell (yes, that Daniel O’Connor), proclaimed it a ‘goat fair’ and charged his tolls as usual believing it was not covered.  To prove it was indeed a goat fair a Phoic was hoisted on a stage and proclaimed King Puck.

Whatever the truth, a male wild goat is still today crowned King and hoisted in a cage up a tower where he remains for three days before being released back into the wild.  The crowning of the goat though, I have to say, was a disappointment. Conducted on a stage under the tower, with its steel barrier that restricted vision, the goat was held by two burly yellow-coats and surrounded by photographers.  A young schoolgirl, the ‘Queen of the Fair’, placed the crown on its head.  Well, I think that’s what happened.  It was really just set up for the publicity shots, as the audience could see nothing.  Placed in the cage the goat was then hoisted up for all to see, its crown a little shakily slipping below its horns.

puck-7311

Behind that phalanx there is a goat getting crowned

puck-7354

The King of the Fair is hoisted up the tower

puck-7374

King Puck

The fair brings out the crowds for a great day out.  There is a horse fair in a nearby field, with all the usual horse-trading that happens.  I happily spent an hour wandering here clicking away.  There was plenty to keep me enthused and bemused.

puck-6811

The horse fair is held in a field adjacent to a ruined church and graveyard

puck-6774

Now that’s style

puck-6756

puck-6733

Like father like son

puck-6714

You have been warned.

puck-6770

The cheapest pee in town.  Just a half a cent!

There are rides, a parade and plenty of characters to fill the pubs and the streets. Every vantage point was taken.  The bright sunshine, when I visited in 2015, provided an opportunity for the colleens  to strut the summer fashions. I love the way traditional music is never far away from an Irish event, with entertainment on stage and in teh nearby pubs, dancing in the street or a brush dance in a pub.

puck-6866

The long and the short of it.

puck-7227

A great vantage point

puck-6838

Even manequins are keen to strut their stuff

puck-6927

Dancing in the streets

IMG_6852

Well known piper, Brendan McCreanor, from Co Louth entertains the crowd

puck-7032

puck-7084

Swept away by a brush dance

puck-6764

A chance to dress up

puck-7004

A chance to dress up II

puck-7422

Defying gravity

The Puck Fair is always held on 10, 11 and 12th August so mark it in your calendar.

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

Mooghaun. Hill Forts and ‘Fairy Gold’

This story has everything.  It takes place over 3,000 years and is full of intrigue and mystery, the struggle for survival, buried treasure and fairies and avarice.

It started for me with a visit to the National Museum in Dublin in 2014.  I was in a rush and had little time to study the exhibits, but a particular interest was the collection of bronze age gold artefacts, so I took lots of photos to review later.  And then promptly forgot about them.  I rediscovered those photos the other day and was struck by something that I hadn’t noticed at the time.  Some of the exhibits came from County Clare.  In particular from the, so named, Mooghaun Hoard or the Great Clare Find, near Newmarket-on-Fergus.  This hoard dated at 800-700BC was the largest hoard of gold jewellery ever found in Europe.  It is thought to have originally comprised up to 300 pieces and the story surrounding it is fascinating.

moonaugh-00860

Part of the gold hoard from Mooghaun comprising five collars, seven bracelets two neck rings and a ring.  Replicas of 120 bracelets and two ingots which were also part of the hoard but are now lost. National Museum Dublin.

moonaugh-00862

Three gold collars.  Mooghaun Find.  National Museum Dublin

The gold was discovered by a number of railway workers clearing land for the Limerick to Ennis railway, on a right of way near Dromoland Estate,  in 1854.  They unearthed a stone box containing twisted metal which, at first, they did not recognize and indeed threw some into the nearby lake.  They soon realized it was however dirt encrusted gold.  With mad haste they ran 1.5 miles  to the town of Newmarket, where some of the gold was quickly melted down by silversmiths keen to profit.

The rush to melt it down may have been driven by thoughts this was ‘fairy gold’. Ancient legends speak of bones and charcoal contained in buried vessels that in reality were golden coin and ornaments belonging to the ‘good people’, or fairies, and that they returned to gold during the night.  But if watched with proper precautions and ceremonies, the fairy gold at daybreak would still remain gold.  Their haste may have been a desire to extract the wealth before it returned to bones and ash. 

Nevertheless it is an irreparable loss to Ireland’s heritage.  It is believed that 34 pieces have survived, the rest melted down for bullion value.   Gilt-bronze casts were made of some of the pieces prior to their destruction.  Three months after the find there was an  exhibition of remaining pieces, which were for sale.  Due to the expense, the Royal Irish Academy acquired only 12 pieces, which included five collars and two neck-rings and The British Museum purchased a collar and thirteen bracelets.  The rest were melted down.

How they came to be deposited there is unknown.  They may have been a gift to appease the gods or they may have been hidden to avoid being lost to attacking tribes.  Whatever the reason it seems we will never know.  Then I discovered something really interesting.  The find is less than a kilometer  from the ruins of a massive megalithic structure,  the impressive Mooghaun Hill Fort or ‘Hill of the Three walls’, the largest hill fort in Europe.  Researchers agree that the trove must be connected in some way.

Newmarket-on-Fergus is about 45 minutes drive from my home so I had to have a look and headed out there the very next day.  It was easy enough to find.  The monument is controlled by the OPW.  A car park, well laid paths and lots of helpful signage. The winter weather was kind enough with rain holding off. 

The Fort occupies an entire hill with its three massive concentric ramparts covering an area encompassing 27 acres.  Within the walls would have  would have been a community ruled over by a local king and his community of followers and subjects.  There would have been  housing for a few families, livestock and areas for crops.   It is now covered in a forest of birch, ash and hazel but at the time of construction would have stood dominant, on a 300m high bare limestone hill, as a monumental statement of power and authority.  The king would have controlled an area of 170 square miles with perhaps 9,000 people.  It is estimated that over 2,000 of these would have been engaged in constructing the walls which may have taken up to 20 years to complete.

The walls have degraded significantly, overgrown in places and mostly linear piles of rubble.  In places though signs of the original facing of the walls can be seen

moonaugh-3632

Wall of the Inner Rampart, Mooghaun Hill Fort

moonaugh-3660

Inner Rampart showing original (?) facing.

This community may have occupied the site for 1,500 years and while there is no record of the cause of its demise, by about 500AD the abandoned site was occupied by a new community.  They made their homes there, using stones from the original hillfort’s ramparts.  They built a number of circular drystone cashels of which two survive in remarkable condition, having been repaired and adapted over the years.  One was used for picnics by the inhabitants of Dromoland Castle in the 18th century. 

moonaugh-3496

View of Upper Cashel.  Mooghaun Hill Fort

moonaugh-3753

Lower Cashel.  Moohaun Hill Fort

moonaugh-3538

Detail of wall of Upper Cashel

After viewing with wonder the fort and its rubbly remains,  I rambled on through the surrounding woods.  A truly beautiful and peaceful place.  Depite the winter having stripped the trees of foliage it was quite a treat with tall straight birch, ash and hazel projecting skyward from a thick carpet of leaf litter. 

moonaugh-3414moonaugh-3423moonaugh-4152

Many of the trees, boulders  and walls are covered with a lush green assemblage of mosses, ferns and ivy creating intriguing vertical gardens contrasting with the brown forest floor.  In the misty, hazy light it was invitingly beautiful. 

moonaugh-3719

moonaugh-4035

I wandered on, losing track of time, before reaching the end of the woods, defined by yet another wall, built this time by the Dromoland Estate.  The Estate is surrounded by a wall,  in many places with coping comprising vertical limestone slabs.

moonaugh-3839

Wall separating Mooghaun Woods from fields in the Dromoland Estate.

moonaugh-4062

Dromoland Estate boundary wall surrounding Mooghaun Woods

moonaugh-4049

Boundary wall for Mooghaun Woods.  with coping.

moonaugh-4114

Coping on boundary wall here has vertical limestone slabs

I met a local, Tommy,  taking a walk through the wood.  We chatted for a while and I asked him if he knew where the gold hoard was found.  As it turned out he lives adjacent to  it and gave me directions as to where it was.  I found the spot which was where the railway passes close to a small lough (this is the lake which figures in the descriptions of the find).  Standing on the railway bridge it was easy to imagine the scene that day in 1854 and the life-changing excitement that the discovery brought to these navvies.  

moonaugh-3950

Location of the Mooghaun Hoard find.  It is thought the find was roughly at the position where the train is, adjacent to the lake

With my thoughts planted firmly in past millenia and the exigencies of life in ancient times I walked on.  I passed a ruined cottage.  This jolted me back to this century.  The ruin interested me because it was a stone cottage with a corrogutaed iron roof, which in my experience in Ireland was unusual.  It gave the whole building a rusty red appearance.  This had once been a comfortable residence and though overgrown now had lovely views of a large turlough beyond grassy slopes.  A peek through an open window suggested its abandonment but as is the norm here I could only speculate on the back story.

moonaugh-3876

Abandoned cottage Mooghaun North.

moonaugh-3892

Inside the abandoned cottage at Mooghaun North

moonaugh-3907

Oak tree and outbuilding at abadoned cottage

On the way back to my car, though I met Tommy again returning from his walk. I thanked him for helping me find the site  and took the opportunity to ask about the cottage.  He told me it had been occupied by two bachelor brothers,  who died in the mid 90s.  They passed it on to heir niece who was settled elsewhere so declined to move in.  Since then it has lain abandoned and crumbling.  Sadly it is beyond repair now.  Tommy added that it was used as a polling station for elections, a common practice it would seem,  with private houses being used in remote communities where many could not access a booth otherwise. 

So there it is.  That visit to the museum five years ago opened up a story highlighting yet again the fascinating, interwoven connections of Ireland to its people, land, culture and heritage, and the amazing discoveries that I continue to make.  

 

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

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.

raptors-1736

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.

raptors-1824

Peregrine falcon

raptors-1835

Peregrine falcon

raptors-1837

Peregrine falcon

raptors-1842

Peregrine falcon

raptors-1801

Peregrine-Saker hybrid falcon

raptors-1806

Peregrine-Saker hybrid falcon

raptors-1875

Damian with a Harris hawk

raptors-1904

Damian with a Barn owl

raptors-1929

The Barn owl.  Wise old man.

raptors-2034

Bengal Eagle owl.  Those incredible piercing orange eyes

raptors-2006

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.

raptors-2048

Taking Ophelia, a Harris hawk for a walk

raptors-2063

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

raptors-2093

Ophelia lands talons first

raptors-2111

Take off

raptors-2119

Landing

raptors-2216

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.

raptors-2296

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’.

 

raptors-2324

Ohelia investivates the Hermit’s Grotto

raptors-2319

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. 

raptors-2340

Hawk-eyed

raptors-2377

raptors-2481raptors-2488

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. 

raptors-2160

My new friend.  Photo Damian Werner

raptors-2153

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.

raptors-2552

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

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.

IG3C2752

St Barrahane’s Church

IG3C2660

The last 13 of the 52 steps to the church

IG3C2664

Simple and elegant interior

IG3C2722

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.

IG3C2734

The Harry Clarke window is on the right.

IG3C2665

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.

IG3C2668

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.

IG3C2705

The Nativity window

IG3C2709

Detail of the Nativity window

IG3C2713

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.

IG3C2751

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

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.

IG3C5477

The ring barrow fort at Rathbeg

IG3C5541

The ceremonial mound at Rathcroggan

IG3C5553

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?

IG3C5503

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.

IG3C5497

A magic mushroom pokes through the grass

IG3C5489

Part of Patrick’s harvest

IG3C5493

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.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III1466

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.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III607

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.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III687

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.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III1364

Birr Castle rises from the mist

Canon EOS 5D Mark III1329

Waiting in the frost and mist for the sun to rise

Canon EOS 5D Mark III1340

Autumn reflections

Canon EOS 5D Mark III1505

The sun bursts through the fog

Canon EOS 5D Mark III1503a

A magical misty morning.  More like a Monet painting.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III1354a

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.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III1545Canon EOS 5D Mark III1496Canon EOS 5D Mark III1425Canon EOS 5D Mark III1408Canon EOS 5D Mark III1387Canon EOS 5D Mark III1380

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.

IG3C1801

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.

IG3C1812

Burner being mounted over basket

IG3C1823

legs wrapped in insulating material

IG3C1837

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.

IG3C1843

Balloon is unwrapped and laid out.  Everyone pitches in.

IG3C1866

Balloon is filled with air

 

IG3C1894

Vent flap is secured

Canon EOS 5D Mark III1453

Fan used to fill balloon

IG3C1918

Air is heated once filled

IG3C1930

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.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III513

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.

IG3C1940

Leaving Birr Castle I

IG3C1952

Leaving Birr Castle II

IG3C1943

Leaving Birr Castle III

IG3C1963

Who knows where we will end up?

IG3C1972

Balloons fill the sky

IG3C1988

At all levels

IG3C2003

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

IG3C2013IG3C2037

IG3C2063

Bliss.

IG3C2151

Our pilot Steve holding all the ropes

IG3C2153

Soaring above the swans

IG3C2168

Magic evening light

IG3C2180

The evening sun casts our balloon shadow on the glowing trees

IG3C2205

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.

IG3C2276

Safe landing

IG3C2266

Dylan and the chase crew was there to meet us

IG3C2270

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

IG3C2287

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

IG3C1909

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.

IG3C3538

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.

IG3C3600-Pano

Panoramic view of Clohy Sea Arches

IG3C3616

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.

IG3C3590

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

Bristi-Stack

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.

IG3C3507

View in the vicinity of Maghery.  Napoleonic signal tower.

IG3C3638

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.

IG3C3988

Maghery nestled in the bay

IG3C3813

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.

IG3C4049-Pano

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.

IG3C4012

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.

IG3C4006

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.

IG3C4068

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.

 

Categories: Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

IG3C3006

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.

IG3C2842

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.

IG3C2411

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

IG3C2448

Approaching the island

IG3C2435

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.

IG3C2470

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

IG3C2486

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

IG3C2790

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

IG3C2880

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.

IG3C3170

St Mary’s Abbey

IG3C2623

Cliffs on the southern side of the island

IG3C2647

Dolphins

IG3C2727

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

IG3C2928

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.

IG3C2799

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

IG3C2889

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.

IG3C2897

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.

IG3C2915

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.

IG3C3225

 

 

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

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.

IG3C8074-HDR

Sunset over Mutton Island viewed from Seafield Beach at Quilty.

IG3C3546

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?

IG3C4150

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.

IG3C4190

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.

IG3C4391

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.

IG3C4444

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

IG3C4338

A natural arch on the northern coast

IG3C5467

The sculpted coast exposed at low tide.

IG3C4382

Caves and Arches I.  High tide

IG3C5481

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.

IG3C5436

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

IG3C5456

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.

IG3C4454-Pano

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.

IG3C4731

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.

IG3C4642

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

IG3C4806

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.

IG3C4697

Herring Gulls and their chicks

IG3C4911

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.

IG3C5236

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

IG3C4813

Two Herring Gull chicks.  Ready for their first flight?

IG3C4280

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.

IG3C4762

Sea cliffs with caves and bridges and the Napoleonic Tower

IG3C5125

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.

IG3C4940

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.

IG3C5027

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.

IG3C5179

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

Mutton island prom fort

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?

mutton island circle wall

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.

IG3C4459

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.

IG3C7629-Pano

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.

Mutton island road

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.

IG3C5355

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?

IG3C5424

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?

IG3C5052

Archaeological heritage?  An early emoji.

And then there’s this.  A crop circle?

IG3C5319

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!

IG3C4490

Fields thick with cow parsley.

IG3C5284

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.

IG3C5369

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.

IG3C5516

The ferryman returns to collect me

IG3C7972

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/

 

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

Blog at WordPress.com.