Real Ireland

Connemara Colours. Winter in the Maumturks.

Sometimes you get lucky.

On a Saturday late in November I made a quick trip to Galway to attend a concert in a friend’s house in the heart of Connemara. Now as readers of this blog will know I love the many moods of Connemara and relished the opportunity to spend a little time there. The weather is not always kind however.  You can expect mist on six out of ten days. But if you spend enough time in this surprising country occasionally you are well rewarded.

I had heard reports of snow but had no real expectations. I was not prepared for what awaited me though as I drove a circuitous route in and out of Galway and Mayo between Lough Corrib and Lough Mask.

Near the village of Cong (famous for its association with the Quiet Man, but I will be quiet on that for the moment),  I saw snow on the ranges to the west.  So of course I headed in that direction along the shore of Lough Mask until I reached the village of Finny.   The white shrouded backdrop above the little yellow church were now within reach.  These are part of the Sléibhte Mhám Toirc (or the Maumturks).  Not so well known as the Twelve Bens, which lie on the other side of the Inagh Valley, they are less rugged but with their brilliant white caps reflecting the sizzling sunlight they were no less spectacular.

As the sun and clouds and rain and mist fought for dominance an amazing winter palette was in full display.  Everything contributed.  The sky, the hills, the snow, lakes and rivers, stone walls, pastures and paddocks.   The snow caps would change from grey to dazzling white and then glow golden orange with the descending sun.  The sky was at once black then blue as the storm passed, the hills were orange, brown, red and green.  The country sparkled.

I was lucky and happy.  To be in such a stunningly beautiful place where a world class vista was around each corner.  And so grateful that I could capture some of those fleeting moments with my Canon.

Words are irrelevant.

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The Clare Kitchen Sessions. Radio with pictures.

There is a widespread view that the Pub is the natural home of Irish Music.  And don’t get me wrong, many a wonderful musical moment can be had there. But indeed Irish music can be comfortably at home in the Home.  There’s a long tradition of the ‘kitchen session’ where the dining table is pushed to one side, local musicians gather and the flagstones clatter to the insistent battering of hard shoes.  A story might be told.  There will certainly be some songs, generally of a local flavour and there will be endless cups of tea and sandwiches.  There will be folk of all ages jammed in or listening from outside the door. This is how the tunes were handed down after all.  And if instruments were in short supply a lilter might be called on.  Nothing will stop the dancers.

Now, Irish cottages are not large so one can well imagine that not that many could be crammed in to experience this.

My how times change. As the chill of winter strengthened its grip, late November saw me at a kitchen session in my good friend Oliver O’Connell’s house in the heart of the Burren in County Clare. There were about 60 people there for the evening along with the virtual presence of many thousands of others.  It was broadcast live into homes all over the world through the organisers, ClareFM, and it was streamed live via Facebook.  So everyone could truly be part of this monumental night.  You could make comments in real time from Boston, Berlin or Belfast and hundreds did. Some were even read out on air during the show. Everything that makes this aspect of Irish Culture so unique was there, in a brilliant programme of music, song and dance provided by a gathering of Oliver’s friends from the Tubber-Gort-Crusheen-Kilfenora-Corofin areas of East and North Clare. There were so many wonderful surprises. Three pipers, Blackie (Oliver’s son), Tara Howley, taking time from her commitments with Riverdance and Eugene Lamb, a piping legend. There were recitations from Oliver and an emotional moment as father and son combined for a tune. There were spirited half sets with Oliver in the thick of it as you would expect and cameos from a host of Clare greats – old and young. Names like Richie Dwyer, Des Mulkere, Tony O’Loughlin and up-and-comers like the Clancy family from Tubber. Especially inspiring were two lilters maybe sixty years apart in age showing that core traditions, that are hardly known about outside rural Ireland, are being maintained.

This is radio with Heart from the heartland of Irish music. So well co-ordinated by Paula Carroll on air and Joan Hanrahan marshalling everyone behind the scenes. But it was live radio and yes there were glitches and it was so much better for that. This wasn’t a concert, and it wasn’t in the studio, so the music was energetic, spontaneous, entirely natural and completely in context.

After it was all over some didn’t want to leave. And those who remained watched in awe as four accordions,  Oliver, Clive Earley, Martin Ford, and Tony O’Loughlin joined Des Mulkere on banjo for a rare opportunity to play together.

I will be posting some video, so keep an eye on my You Tube channel. But here are a few photos I managed to sneak in which will give you some flavour of the night.

There will be more of these I am told. In fact ClareFM is promising one every week right through the Winter. I am hopeful of being able to be there for a few to document the occasion.  These will be special events. A different kitchen each week with each person opening their home and sharing their music with world.  Each will be in a different musical context and each will have the personality of the host stamped on it. They will be chalk and cheese but I expect the full depth of musical expression and the soul of Clare will be on display. You can’t apply a formula to Irish Music especially in this county and I am sure these Kitchen Sessions will demonstrate this over the coming weeks. Where ever you are on Sundays – 6pm Irish time, you should be listening to Clare FM.

 

 

 

 

 

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Quilty. On the Edge of Ireland.

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I’ve lived in West Clare for over three years now.  My local village is Quilty.  It occurred to me the other day that I have travelled all over Ireland discovering beauty in places known and unknown but I have never photographed this tiny fishing village in my back yard.

So the other day on a fine day in early November I went for a walk around Quilty.  Quilty truly is on the edge of Ireland and inextricably linked with the sea.  Quaint fisherman’s cottages perched on the cliff above what can be a very stormy Atlantic.  And the Our Lady Star of the Sea Church and its imposing tower is a constant reminder of the heroic rescue of the crew of the Leon XIII in 1907. The stuff of legends.

Here is a collection of images taken that day.  It doesn’t need my words so I will let this photo essay speak for itself.  IG3C1467

 

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The Hunt comes to Cree in County Clare

Cree (or sometimes spelt Creegh) is a small village in West Clare. Not much normally happens in Cree but this sunny Sunday afternoon in late October the place was abuzz. Every parking spot was taken up with horse floats and four wheel drives. Walsh’s Bar filled up quickly and jodhpurs, jackets and boots were de rigeur. It was the first event of the season for the County Clare Hunt and Cree was the proud host.

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Horse transports wherever you look

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The main street of Cree and Walsh’s Bar

Hunting (or Fox Hunting as it is probably more widely known) was banned in Scotland in 2002 and England and Wales in 2005 but remains legal and very popular in Ireland (including Northern Ireland) and many other countries such as Australia, Canada, France and Italy. The fox was in fact introduced into Australia for fox hunting and has become one of the country’s worst pests having quite a preference for native marsupials.

The Clare Hunt is one of close to 50 registered clubs in Ireland, each with their own pack of Foxhounds.

Records of hunting with hounds go back to ancient times and is recorded in myths and legends of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna.  The pursuit was continued by the Norman conquerors and then the Anglo-Irish Protestant gentry. During the Famine in the 19th Century there was bitter resentment and agitation against the landlord elite and the fox hunting became a symbol of British oppression in the eyes of many Irish nationalists. Times change. It is no longer an elite pursuit. Today as many as 300,000 people from all walks of life participate in the activity every year, in some way, in Ireland.

The Hunt at Cree has been the opening event of the season in Clare for the last 20 years. This year 60 horses took part with riders ranging in age from early teens to 70 years. In some recent years as many as 120 have joined.  At least half a dozen have participated in every Cree hunt.  Many riders are well seasoned in all forms of equestrianism and see the hunt as a social activity, a run for the horses and a break away from the stress and discipline of the more formal events such as dressage or three day events. There is no winner and no competitive aspect to it.

I had been told of the event by Grainne, a musician friend with strong connections to this part of Clare. She thought I might like to chronicle and photograph it. I surely would.  And Grainne’s kind invitation set the tone for the day as people could not have been more welcoming.

So from around midday horses and floats began arriving, with their owners and onlookers milling around or grooming their horses in anticipation, until the arrival of the hounds.

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Ready and waiting

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All set

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Quite a handful

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Not long to go

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Anticipation

The hounds are kennelled, managed and trained by the Hunt Master on behalf of the club.  At the appointed time the alert and eager dogs are released from their purpose- built transportation. There is excited pandemonium until the Hunt Master’s horn brings them to heel.  Master and hounds now lead the pack away. The riders fall in behind heading off at a trot not to return to Cree until sunset.

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The horn is sounded

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The dogs set off

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And the riders follow

 

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At quite a trot

 

That could have been it and the end of my day but the unexpected often happens in Ireland and I was lucky enough to bump into Dympna.  She told me that she and husband Paul had a young horse, Masie, running in the event for the first time. As they had passed their riding days she would be ridden by young equestrian enthusiast, Aoife.  You could feel the sense of anticipation as to how she would go.

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Dympna with a friend wait for the Hunt to start.

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Masie, ridden by Aoife. Warming up.

I got talking to Dympna. They had been coming to the Hunt since the beginning and she offered to take me to some vantage points where I could get some photographs. This surprised me as I had the naïve impression that the riders would follow the hounds on some wild chase zigging and zagging across the countryside.  How could you ever predict where they would be at any given time? On the contrary, the hunt is run over a predetermined course with markers showing where fences should be jumped or streams crossed. It has been the same course for many years.  I asked how the dogs know where to go and how they are controlled. As Dympna explained, the hunt is in the total control of a very experienced Hunt Master, Declan Moran, who has particular charge of the hounds. Indeed he knows each by name. He has a hunting horn and they respond to the different sounds of the horn so in this way he can lead them through the course. If they pick up a scent and run off, he can bring them back.  Skill and training.

So Dympna became my companion for the day and sure enough the first place she directed me to was a perfect vantage point to watch the riders traverse the country, sometimes sticking to roads other times riding along fence lines, and then watch them clear a typical Clare stone wall, metres from a crowd of followers.  All the time led by the hounds and the green jacketed Hunt Master.

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Gathering at the jump

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The hounds go first

 

Not being a horsey person, it is nevertheless something to behold to see these elegant animals clear effortlessly and confidently these stone barriers. The Irish horse has a reputation for being sure footed and agile and this was certainly on display.

I wondered whether it was difficult to get approval to gallop across the many farms that are encountered. “Not at all” says Dympna. “Farmers are asked for permission a few weeks in advance. There is no problem getting permission. Actually the farmers seem to have pride in the hunt going through their farm”. Dympna says relations are good and “the Hunt will always thank the farmer when passing through”.  The course is walked the following morning with volunteers fixing any fences that need repairs. Given the controversy in some quarters surrounding fox hunting,  Dympna says there has never been any opposition since it started.

The next stop was actually Dympna and Paul’s own farm where with a cup of tea and biscuits we were joined by other members of the family to watch  the Hunt canter past at close range, clearing another fence,  traversing hillsides, riding across open country and crossing streams. Covered in mud now, the soft ground must in places  be heavy going for the horses. Indeed I was regretting my decision not to wear Wellingtons. IG3C0534 IG3C0555

 

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There was to be a lunch break at Grainne’s family farm, so we drove there to meet up with her and wait for the riders. Food and water was there for the dogs and horses and sandwiches, nibbles and a very welcome hot punch for the participants. All was prepared by members of Grainne’s family; her mum, Marie and Bernie, Claire and Therese were overwhelming with their hospitality.

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I was revived by a hot bowl of soup before we headed off for one more stop where the hunt re-joined the road not far from the finish. By now it was getting late and the dogs had been packed up and driven back to Cree (except for one who seemed to be a bit lost)  and, as colour came into the night sky, the remaining riders were happy just to ride two or three abreast walking home at a very leisurely pace.

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Separated from the pack?

 

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The end of a long day

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Nearly home Masie

 

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Towards Cree

It was then I took my leave, dropping Dympna back to Cree and heading off to play some music at nearby Doonbeg.  I later found out that there was more food waiting for them at Cree before the riders washed down their horses, took them home and then headed back to Walsh’s Bar to party the night away.

Many thanks to Dympna, Paul and Grainne and family for their hospitality and for giving me some insight into this perhaps, lesser known part of rural Irish life.  And for somehow organising sunshine for the whole day.

 

 

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Árainn Mhór Island. Donegal in a Day.

Arguably among the most beautiful counties in Ireland is Donegal. It is a different reality to the postcard bucolic scenery of Kerry or the treeless wilderness of West Clare but it is no less arresting. Visitors come to Donegal for a different experience. For me its the rolling russet-red hilly boglands, granite strewn boulder fields, jagged and sparkling quartzite hills, deep-blue loughs, whitewashed cottages, steep cliffs disappearing into the windswept spray, empty beaches, its fishing villages and maritime heritage, the language, its raw climate and its welcoming people. But Donegal is a big county and it can be hard to get around especially with the limited time many visitors allow in their rush to see everything. But I’ve found somewhere that has all of that and more wrapped up in a 22 square kilometre package that sits just a 15 minute ferry ride off the coast.

This is Árainn Mhór (Arranmore). Donegal’s largest inhabited island it was a complete unknown to me until I got a message from my friend Pauline suggesting we meet there for a day’s exploring.  Just one of those whims that makes Ireland so unpredictably delicious.   She lives on another special island, Achill in Co Mayo, and was looking for a break and, in the fashion of all true island residents, where better to go than another island? So I instantly agreed of course and made the trek from Co Clare arriving on a wet cold morning at the ferry terminal at Burtonport at the appointed time. Well, as is often the way with things in this country, Pauline’s car died so she never made it.  Having lost my guide and companion I headed over anyway with only the vicissitudes of the weather and the narrow winding boreens to lead me on my discovery.

I was captivated from the moment the ferry left Burtonport.  There are two ferries run by two companies.  Known to everyone as the Red or the Blue.  I took the Red. The port was busy enough but only with those who eke a living along the Donegal coast.  Children on the way to school, a delivery of Guinness and a little dinghy loaded with some of life’s other essentials presumably  headed to one of the remote islands.  We picked our way between these small rocky islands dotting the narrow channel.  Many of these islands have houses which I guess for the most part are holiday retreats.  It is only 5 km before we head into the Ferry port at Leabgarrow.  just as the Blue ferry in uncharacteristically, for Ireland, perfect time made space for us at the wharf.

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The Red Ferry heads out from the port of Burtonport

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Essential supplies for life on a Donegal island

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Can’t tell if it’s coming or going.

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Towards Árainn Mhór

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Approaching Leabgarrow, the ferry terminal at Árainn Mhór

I love this bit. Arriving at a place you’ve never been and know nothing about. Do I turn left or right?  Well I drove off the ferry and headed south and as I did the rain miraculously stopped, the sun burst through and the island glowed. This would be repeated all afternoon. Dazzling sunshine and stormy showers with even a bit of hail and of course wind. I shouldn’t go on about the weather because this is Ireland after all but as I was dead keen to try and capture the island with my camera I was concerned about the light and the rain and my freezing cold hands.  The south coast provides winding roads which snake through the hills giving views of seascapes across to the mainland and passing though hamlets  clinging to the hillsides and strung along the roadway.  Stone-walled paddocks flow down to the rocky shore.

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As it turned out the island put on quite a light show. With the sun coming and going, the light changed every few minutes. You couldn’t plan; you just had to be ready to catch those fleeting moments.

The dominatingly dark greyscape would disappear and the sea would be lit by a fan of radiating beams streaming under the clouds.

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When the sun shone for those brief moments it would dazzle.  The real colours of the Donegal palette were displayed and intensified. The red and brown grass, deep blue lakes, sparkling rocky outcrops, sinuous black roads,  green paddocks and white cottages. IG3C0522IG3C0531

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Then the wind would be so strong it would blow the mist back over the land or even reverse the flow of rivulets making their way to the sea.

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And the rain sweeping in across the ocean would provide interplay with light and dark, waiting for the hand of a skilled painter. The weather was so confused that at one point we had just a beautiful hint of rainbow and an approaching rainstorm juxtaposed.

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The weather can’t make up its mind

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Storms arrive on the east coast

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Storms arrive on the west coast.  Mainland visible in the distance

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Green Island off the west coast of Árainn Mhór

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Looking across towards Errigal

The south coast provides winding roads which snake throught the hill giving views of seascapes across to the mainland and passing though hamlets  clinging to the side of the hill and strung along the roadway.  Stone-walled paddocks flow down to the rocky shore. Then the road turns north and with a few hairpin bends rises to take you to an elevated bog land underlain by granite. That soon changes to quartzite hills – jagged and chaotic. The one lane road meanders across this magic land and you feel anything could happen. And it does.

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village of Torries at the south of the island

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Quartzite hills

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Bog land and granite

I see a figure in the distance walking in my direction. Due to our respective speeds it takes some time for me to reach him. He is wearing a reflective bright yellow jacket and dark glasses. And carrying a stick. Of course that is not unusual in Ireland but a closer look showed him waving the white stick in front of him. He was blind. This was kilometres from anywhere mind you. He stopped as he heard my car approaching and pulled to the edge of the road. I stopped and greeted him. “Lovely day isn’t it?”  he said. In his defence the sun was shining at that time. “Sure is”. A few more words about the weather and the chance of more rain and then quick as a flash he came back “Where are you from?”. I gave him the potted version and we had chatted briefly. It was clear then that he had had his fill of this outsider and wanted to continue his walk.  I watched him steadily and confidently stride away musing on the inner strength that many have to carry on a normal life especially, or perhaps because of, living in such a remote place.  A truly unexpected encounter.

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Off for a walk

The ‘ring road’ as it is known continues past the island reservoir which has a monumental sculpture immersed in the water and topped by two flags, one of which is the US stars and stripes and the other appears to be an Irish flag but missing the orange. It just looks like someone has cut the orange off.  But if any of my readers know more I’d be grateful to know.    The memorial remembers the terrible hardship of the Hunger in this part of Ireland and how many who were evicted escaped to Beaver Island, of similar size on Lake Michigan in the US. There have historically been strong links continued to this day.

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Memorial to the victims of the Famine and links to Beaver Island.

Every island worth its salt has a lighthouse. The elegant white and red structure was built in 1859 to replace a light first erected in 1798. It is still operational but not attended.  Indeed the former keeper’s residence is now a Bed & Breakfast.  In summer.

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The cliffs at Rinrawros Point

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The light and its exposed location at Rinrawros Point, atop jagged cliffs, reminded me of the precarious maritime history of this island. There is a plaque in the ruins of the RNLI building (Royal National Lifeguards Institution) on the south side of the island which chronicles the sea tragedies of the island and it is truly sobering.  From the death of Tom O’Donnell in 1839 and subsequent tragedies, many of which involved multiple loss it has been a rough existence for the Arranmore islanders. And how hard it must have hit some families as names such as Gallagher and O’Donnell which names regularly appear. Worst of all was the Arranmore Disaster when 19 lost their lives in a small boat trying to make it through the passage from Burtonport before the encroaching dark.  As I write this I suddenly realise it was 52 years to the day since this devastating event 9th November 1935. Most of those lost were Gallaghers, many form the one family, with 15 of them returning from working in Scotland.

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A poignant photo of the funeral for the victims of the Arranmore Disaster

 The fishing industry has been the backbone of life on Árainn Mhór. Which makes it all the sadder to see the abundant evidence everywhere of the decline in its fortunes and the ripple effect this has had on the island.  Just near the ferry port two fishing boats stand by the roadside, decaying reminders of the current circumstances.

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Abandoned fishing boats at Leabgarrow.

 

Alleged overfishing by island fishermen, paradoxically while EU super-trawlers vacuum up the sea floor beyond the 12 mile limit, Euro intervention and a ban on salmon fishing.  There are now only four fishing boats operating out of the island.  Previously I mentioned the RNLI building, which I thought initially was a church. Closer inspection revealed its real use.   Surrounding it is a sea of stacked lobster pots eerily reminiscent of a graveyard, which it clearly is, and piles of gossamer like netting resting against its walls. On the nearby jetty sits another decaying fishing boat leaning against the pier for support, in one last attempt to stay afloat.  It is very sad to see and testament to a forlorn hope that perhaps there will be better days .

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With the permanent population continuing to decline to around 500 since its peak in the 1940s (around 1,400), tourism has become the main ‘industry’.  But tourism is seasonal. When I visited in the first week of November there were no hotels open. One large Guest House was for sale.   Early’s Pub, the only restaurant on the island,  only opens on the weekend. The other pub served only toasties (though they were delicious). BnB’s have virtually shut up shop. I was the ONLY overnight visitor on the Island. I am pretty sure of that.  And if it wasn’t for the help of a local resident who was able to contact Annie who kindly opened her BNB for me, I would not have been able to stay on the island.  It is hard to see three months of summer visitors being a viable alternative industry.  If you are going in the off season and I recommend staying at least one night, just arrange accommodation first.

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I’ve spoken of the changing light so I was in high hopes of a classic sunset. While inconveniently placed clouds thwarted me nevertheless the backlighting of orange light provided some remarkable cloudscapes. At time it was like the clouds were alight flames flaring upwards into the night sky and rays of orange directed down to the earth.

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Sunset behind cloud

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Clouds aflame I

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Clouds aflame II

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Glowing thunderheads

And fourteen hours later the display was repeated when I was rewarded for getting up early (7:45 am) with a spectacular sunrise before the clouds descended and killed the show. And then as if to say “Ok.   You’ve had your fun”, rain descended.

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In all I only spent 24 hours on the island. Enough? Not really. I ‘saw’ everything I suppose but I only got just a little taste of the true feeling of the place.  Pauline, any time you want to try again. I’m up for it.

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Giant Steps

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The Giant’s Causeway is on every visitor’s must see list on the island of Ireland. For lots of different reasons. It’s a beautiful place on a beautiful coast, It has mystery and mystique. It is intriguing and enigmatic. That’s why over a million people a year visit.

It is located in Northern Ireland in a part of Antrim known as The Causeway Coast.  I have been there twice in the past year – in January 2017 in the depth of winter and in September. Both times I was gifted with marvellous weather.

For me as a geologist it was like worshipping at a holy shrine. So I thought I would put together a few of my observations from the two trips.  Apologies if this is too dry for you but you can skip the words and just look at the pictures.

So what are we talking about here?

The Causeway is part of an extensive coastline exposing thick basalt flows.  The scenery is nothing short of spectacular with sweeping bays and jagged cliffs stretching as far as the eye can see.

 

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The Causeway Coast looking west with Giant’s Causeway in the foreground.  

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The coastal path from the Causeway to the Chimney Tops past the Organ Pipes

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View west showing Causeway and Chimney Tops in the distance.

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Giant’s Causeway is on the right and the Camel Rock on the left.

 

The Giant’s Causeway is most famous for the spectacular columns, or more correctly ‘columnar jointing’ in the basalt. The origin of the columns has historically caused all sorts of consternation. Our forebears did not believe such regular shapes could be created naturally. So if it wasn’t the work of the Almighty then it must have been Finn McCool. Hence the legend of the Irish Giant constructing the causeway to engage with his counterpart in Scotland, Fin Gall.

 

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View from the clifftop down onto the Causeway.

 

 

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And he left evidence didn’t he? In his haste to get back to Ireland and escape from his giant nemesis, Finn McCool lost a boot which remains to this day adjacent to the Causeway. There is a more prosaic explanation and I’ll return to this later.

 

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The Giant’s Boot

 

The Causeway came to the attention of Science however in the late 17th century and right through the 18th century it was the focus of intense debate as to its origin. Geological science was then in its infancy. Two intensely opposed schools of thought developed. The Vulcanists, who believed the columns were basalt solidified from lava and the Neptunists who said that all rocks including basalt were sedimentary and formed in a great ocean. The Giants Causeway was at the centre of this debate. So it is one of the most significant places in the history of the geological sciences. That debate has long since been resolved in favour of the Vulcanists

We now know, however, that the columns are caused by cooling cracks that developed at the bottom of a lava flow where it was in contact with the cooler rock beneath. As the lava continued to cool these cracks slowly propagated up creating regular, generally six-sided (though they can have from three to seven sides), columns. These regular columns are called colonnades. The hexagonal shapes are caused by the joints tending to be at 120º to each other. At the exposed tops of the flows cooling was more rapid where there was contact with air and water, so the jointing was irregular and blocky. This type of jointing is called entablature. You can see this very clearly in many places especially at the, so called, Organ Pipes

 

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Regular hexagonal columns

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Columns with 4, 5, 6 or 7 sides.

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Columnar jointing

 

 

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Spectacular columns at the Organ Pipes

If you look closer at the columns you will see that in addition to the regular vertical joints that create the columns there is also another set of sub horizontal joints which slices each column into regular segments. These were created by the release of stress during contraction within the columns.

 

 

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Horizontal jointing

 

The really intriguing thing is that when these columns break along thee horizontal joints to form the rock platforms they are in fact ont horizontal.  Usually they are either  beautifully concave or convex and the segments fit perfectly together in a ball and socket arrangement. The concave joints are easily spotted on the rock platform as they retain pools of water.

 

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Detail of column surfaces.  water collects on convex surfaces

 

The columns make an impressive display whether on the rock platforms or in the cliffs.  There is a formation at the eastern end known as the Chimney Tops. If the illustration attached from an 1888 book is accurate, then the chimneys are considerably smaller than they were in the 19th century.   I suggest you go and see them before they disappear.

 

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Chimney Tops 2017

 

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Chimney Tops 1888

 

 

 

 

 

It is easy to see how the Neptunists thought the basalts were of sedimentary origin.  There is a distinct layering which could be mistaken for sedimentary banding. Of course it represents different lava flows.  particularly confusing is a distinctive orange red layer in the middle of the cliff.  It is known as an Interbasaltic Formation; a laterite horizon, and is caused by the basalts below it being exposed to weathering for a considerable time before the upper series of basalt flows were deposited. It also suggest a warmer climate at the time as laterites require tropical conditions to develop. It is composed mainly of clays and is rich in iron and aluminium (most other elements were leached out) and has been mined for these ores elsewhere in Antrim.

 

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Layering in basalt flows

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Interbasaltic laterite

 

 

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Laterite in detail

 

Within this laterite hori\on you can see relicts of the original basalt as paler partially weathered rock. There are also some excellent examples of preserved circular structures representing earlier spheroidal weathering within the normal basalt. This is caused by water percolating down vertical and horizontal cracks eventually creating rounded blocks. It is also known as ‘onion skin’ weathering.

Oh I forgot.  Finn’s boot.  It’s actually a glacial erratic, deposited by a retreating glacier at the end of the last Ice Age (about 10,000 years ago). Much more boring explanation.

 

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Giant’s boot.  Glacial erratic

 

I know I’ve gone on about the rocks but the spirit of the place is palpable.  The only word I can think of is Romance,.

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Romance and Rocks.  What a combination.

 

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Strokestown Park House. A Living Museum.

I love when I visit a place for one reason (usually music) and discover something totally unexpected. Such was the case with Strokestown in Co Roscommon. I had no reason to expect anything other than long days and nights in one or many of the quaint pubs playing music and sampling the odd Jamesons.

It turns out Strokestown, a planned town, has a pivotal and fascinating history. In the centre of the town is Strokestown Park House, the ancestral home of the Mahon family.

 

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Strokestown Park House

You can’t help but notice the wide avenue that leads to the narrow gate to the grounds.  Aside from O’Connell Street in Dublin, it is the widest street in Ireland. One gets the impression that lined as it is with imposing buildings and Georgian terraces it was meant to create an aura of wealth and prosperity befitting the status of the British landowner; so as they drove the carriage down the avenue his friends would be suitably impressed.  The true state  of the people hidden in the side streets.

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The gateway to Strokestown House in the distance.

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Public buildings.  There’s room to park a bus rear to kerb.

But the family and the name Strokestown has a darker side.  It is now mostly remembered for its connection to the Famine, evictions and land clearances.  That story is told in the Famine Museum attached to the house (which is itself now a museum)  and is an extraordinary one.

The house is a time capsule. The Georgian Palladian style of its architecture reflects the obsession with symmetry at the time and the desire to make the house look bigger than it was. The two wings were largely cosmetic with stables and storage and services. All the living areas were in the main two story house.

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Georgian Palladian architecture.  The central building is the main residence.  To the left are the kitchen and storerooms and to the right the stables.

Built in 1660 the original owner, Captain Nicholas Mahon, was given lands as reward for his exploits with the forces of Cromwell in taking Ireland. The family did well and by the 1840s had an estate of 11,000 acres. An arranged marriage to another prominent British family, the Pakenhams, led to a combined land holding of 30,000 acres spread through Roscommon,.

During the 1700s and into the 1800s Strokestown prospered.  However in the1840s when the potato blight and the consequent famine struck hard in Roscommon, the then owner Denis Mahon implemented a programme of large scale evictions.

In one year alone (1847) he evicted 3,000 people. Though the excuse for the land clearance was the inability of the Irish tenants to pay rent it seemed to be part of a grander scheme.  Immediate steps were taken to advertise the land thus made available in places like Scotland, where presumably Protestant tenants would be more reliable. The clearances were accomplished largely by “assisted emigration” in particular to Canada. As many as 50% of the passengers died amid extraordinary cruelty on these Famine ships mostly through cholera and typhoid and this prompted outrage.  It climaxed in the murder of Denis Mahon at the end of 1847.  The culprits, presumed to be disaffected tenants weren’t identified, but it led to swift retribution against any family that might have had a remote connection as a conspirator.   Much material that relates to this period is on display in the Museum.  In particular there are many original letters and documents which illustrate the plight of the people and the heartlessness of the landlords.

 

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A list of tenants recommended for relief work, 1846.  The notes in blue provide comments as to whether the person had made an effort to pay their rent.  They were favoured.

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A petition from Kilbeg tenants to the owners requesting whether they will be given assisted immigration.  Tenants were keen to go to foreign lands but many never made it.

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A Notice to Quit on Widow Mary Campbell requesting her to vacate the premises.

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A Civil Bill used where rent was over twelve months in arrears.  The tenants’ annual rent was £11 5s and their arrears were £16.  They were to appear in court to be evicted.

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A receipt for £2 to Margaret Brice on surrendering her house, land and manure upon eviction.  Note signed with her mark, an x

Following the joining with the Pakenhams their money enabled the family to survive and prosper into the twentieth century. The last remaining resident however  was Olive Pakenham-Mahon who lived in the house until 1981.

She decided in 1979 to move to a nursing home and sold the house and lands to local businessman Jim Callelly.  He just wanted the land but one day he visited the basement of his newly acquired house and discovered a treasure trove of historical documents that spelt out in intimate detail the story of the house and the evictions. This prompted him to retain the house, restore it and set up a museum based on this archive. And thank God he did.

The house now is furnished exactly as Olive left it. Many of the original furniture and artefacts remain but a lot were sold off to enable her to survive. Olive lived in one room by the end (the Drawing Room) and the rest of the house was essentially abandoned.

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The Drawing Room

Visitors are now able to tour the house. What I enjoyed is that lived-in feel. Peeling wallpaper, organised clutter. Pictures exactly where she had left them. Monogramed personal items lying around.  A toy room with original toys used by her children.  A nursery with original clothes hanging behind the door.  A classroom.  A massive and elegant dining room.

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Entrance foyer

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The Master’s bedroom

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The Lady’s bedroom

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The Nursery

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The schoolroom

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The toyroom

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The Dining Room

 

There is an amazing kitchen with original stoves, furniture and kitchenware. Our guide related the story that Olive had decided the kitchen was too large and wanted it demolished and a smaller modern kitchen built.  The architect was very reticent and came up with a scheme with false walls and ceilings and modern appliances.  The original kitchen was preserved behind these walls.  Jim Callelly had heard a rumor of this and dismantled it to reveal a treasure frozen in time.  Everything was in place and untouched.

 

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The old Kitchen with its massive range

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Beautiful original cast iron cooking range

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Original Strokestown jug

 

The library is also impressive. A chippendale bookcase said to be one of the best in Ireland. A pecctacular Grandfather clock. Beautiful globes. Certaily a life style very different to that outside these walls.  A classic retreat for the males in the house as was the custom.

 

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The Library

 

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Original 17th Century wallpaper lines the walls of the Library

 

 

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Rare Irish Chippendale bookcase in the Library

 

Many magnificent paintings adorn the walls.  One is of  an ancestral relative, General Pakenham who led the British Army in the Famous Battle of New Orleans. We all remember the history as told by Johnny Horton in his 1959 song

In 1814 we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And caught the British running in the town on New Orleans……..

We fired our guns and the British kept a comin’ …..

You know the rest.  The poor General did not survive but was regarded as a bit of a hero back home.

 

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Portrait of General Edward Packenham hanging in the Foyer

 

Unfortunately as was the case with many Anglo-Irish families when they came upon hard times many paintings and treasures had to be sold.  We are reminded of this when we see the faded areas of the original 17th century wallpaper where these paintings used to hang.

 

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Walls of the Dining Room showing faded areas outlining where original pictures hung.

 

One such painting was a priceless portrait by Bernardi Strozzi of the acclaimed Cremona composer Monteverdi.  The portrait was painted in c1630 and was sold by Olive for £2,000.  A somewhat amateurish copy hangs now in the Drawing Room in its placewhile the original was returned to Venice.

 

An intriguing feature of the house is the Servant’s tunnel.  Entered from behind the stables it heads under the house exiting at the back door of he kitchen.  Built to ensure deliveries and movement of servants took place with no interaction with the house, it is easily accessed today.

 

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Servants’ tunnel under the house

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Entrance to the tunnel

 

Adjacent to the house is a restored walled garden. A large walled garden of around 4 acres.  After a ten year restoration it was opened to the public in 1997 and many of the original features of this pleasure garden have been retained.  There is a croquet lawn and a Summer House, a Lawn Tennis court, a beautiful lily pond, impressive herbaceous borders (the longest in Ireland), a formal rose garden, beautiful manicured hedges and a pergola. lawns and wildflower areas.  I loved it.  But as with the Vandeleur Garden in Clare which I wrote about in a previous blog, the cruel history of the famine sits uneasily with the beauty and bucolic pleasures of this garden.

 

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Herbaceous borders line the walls

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There are formal and informal pathways

 

 

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Croquet Lawn and Summer House

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Detail of Summer house with Autumn foliage

 

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Beautiful ornamental lily pond

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Secluded pathways

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Perfectly manicured hedges

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Numerous hidden spaces lie behind hedges

Another treasure of the estate is the Woodland.  There is a circular walk through this leafy mossy retreat with huge oak and beech trees and thick undergrowth.   It was first planted in the early 1700’s by Thomas Mahon and some of the original trees still exist. During the 1800’s, to increase the pleasure of the shoot, laurels were planted creating a thick undergrowth.  Eventually it took over but it was sensitively restored in 2011.  The fairies have gone a little overboard though and seem to have occupied nearly every tree.

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When old chairs become an art installation.

 

Truly the house, the museum, the garden and the woodland will keep you occupied for four or five hours.  They will be four or five hours well spent.

 

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The Flaggy Shore and Aughinish. Make the time.

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Just a short distance off the N67 which tracks the northern coast of Clare as part of the Wild Atlantic Way is the Flaggy Shore. This is the perfect spot to see the Burren meet the Bay, in this case Galway Bay.  A sweeping stony shoreline with a backdrop of the bare purple hills and the lush green fields beneath.

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Look north across the bay, now calm and peaceful and you see the villages of Galway clinging to the coast and beyond this the misty silhouette of Connemara and the Twelve Pins.

 

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Cliffs of Aughinish in the foreground and the Twelve Pins on the horizon

 

The place has a permanent spot in Ireland’s psyche thanks to one of Seamus Heaney’s most celebrated poems, Postscript.

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other ……

Heaney in describing how the poem came to him said:   “I had this quick sidelong glimpse of something flying past; before I knew where I was, I went after it”.

He has said it beautifully of course so I won’t try and improve on those words.  All I can do is attempt to give that feeling in pictures…

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There is no beach, as such, at Flaggy Shore. Just boulders, pebbles and rocky outcrops. But a walk on the strand will well reward. You can stroll along the roadway or explore the limestone platform in the littoral zone.

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This is the best place in the whole of Clare to observe the coral fossils that make up such a large part of the 350 million year old layers. Huge colonies of branching corals (fasciculate lithostrotionids) are sliced at various angles revealing themselves from all perspectives.  Their true branching form can be seen often in section on the rock face. Sometimes the colonies seem completely intact and measure over a metre across. If you have been to the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland it is easy to imagine the warm shallow sea that was once home to these corals and the teeming life that surrounded them.

 

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Planar sectional view through a coral colony

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Large fossil coral colonies on the rock platform

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Excellent view of coral colony showing branching and dendritic form. About a metre across.

 

If you look hard you will see long straight grooves etched into the rock. These are called striations and are caused by the movement of a glacier which smoothed this landscape around 10,000 years ago. Rocks trapped in the ice were dragged along the bottom scouring these cracks. We are able to measure the direction of movement of the ice sheet using this evidence.

 

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Glacial striations on the rock platform at Flaggy Shore

 

If you like watching sea birds, you are in the right place.  As well as gulls, this time of the year starlings gather in flocks and search for food on the sea shore. These murmurations can number thousands of birds and when performing their acrobatic gyrations they make one of the truly spectacular sights in nature. They swoop and soar and flit and glide in perfect concert. It’s only when you freeze this motion with the camera that you see how perfectly aligned is the movement of each individual bird. I could watch them for hours.

 

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Starlings I

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Starlings II

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Eyes left

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Eyes right

 

Aughinish Island, just a few hundred metres across the calm water, is comprised of glacial deposits left behind by the retreating ice as the continent warmed. The Island was originally part of the mainland but a devastating tsunami caused by an earthquake in Portugal in 1755 separated it. The British built a causeway in 1811 to service the troops manning the Martello Tower (built to protect Ireland from Napoleon). It is still the only access to the Island.  The one lane causeway actually connects Aughinsh to County Galway which paradoxically means the fifty residents on the island and the occasional vistor who stumbles on this place must travel through Galway to get access to this part of Clare.

 

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The causeway built to access Auginish

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Peace I

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Peace II

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Peace III

 

For the ‘tourist’ looking for a quick fix there is not much to take you to Aughinish.  But it is a place to walk and breathe.  Where the quiet ambience is tangible.  It has a feeling of calm so unusual for the Atlantic Coast.  You will be unlikely to meet anyone except a farmer attending to his boggy field or another collecting seaweed blown in by Hurricane Ophelia.  But you will get stunning views across the inlet and if you are lucky enough to see the sun disappear behind Black Head you may not want to leave.

 

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Looking across the inlet from Aughinish to the village of Ballyvelaghan

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A Martello Tower built in 1811 to defend the Irish coast from the French.

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Lengthening shadows

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Evening serenity I

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Evening serenity II

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The shoreline on Aughinish.  The softest most comfortable grass you will ever find.

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Vivid red growth on the tidal flats

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The high tide mark left by Hurricane Ophelia which exploded the previous day. 

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Collecting seaweed

 

 

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Life on Aughinish

 

As usual I will let my camera have the last word.

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Ruins and Ruined Dreams. An Abandoned House in Roscommon,

I have talked about abandoned houses in the Irish landscape many times. They are so characteristic, they are part of the DNA imprint of the countryside. Ruins appear to date from many times and reflect the struggles of the Irish as they deal with famine, invaders and economic and social dislocation. Naturally the iconic image is of the castle ruin or the grand manor house, but cottages and farm houses are so much more abundant. I often wonder about the stories behind these buildings. Ruined lives and ruined dreams; or did they find a better life somewhere else.

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This is one such house. It lies on the edge of the Kilronan Mountain Bog near Ballyfarnon in north Roscommon. A remote place.  It is close to the Arigna coal mine and perhaps the family living here derived its income from there.  The ruin is intact but blackened walls at the entrance suggest maybe some fire damage at some stage. It is not an old house and the front door is missing a panel so curiosity got the better of me. I walked into a time capsule.  IG3C3115_1

The house is a mess. Largely empty with years of accumulated debris covering the floors. Sheep have been regular visitors.   The rooms are spacious and well suited to a family.  The walls are bare save for a small crucifix over the living room door.  The walls were generally neutral colours but through the peeling paint are bright greens and pinks reflecting changing fashions. The kitchen was bright blue with pink trim.  Scrape away the sediment on the floor  and it reveals a very 60s brightly coloured lino in the main living room.  Definitely not to everyone’s taste but an individual statement.   No personal possessions remain.  Nothing that would give us a sense of who lived here.  Items too large to take though have been left behind.  A television, some chairs, a fridge and stove. All now beyond use.

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Stairs lead to a mezzanine level with two rooms, shelves and some decaying mattresses.  Everything is still there in the bathroom, even the shower curtain and taps.

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I got the sense of a comfortable home. There is central heating and fireplaces in every room; there was insulation in the ceilings and to me it would seem they had the trappings of a good life.

What went wrong and when? Where did they end up? Fortunately we can answer as to when?  A newspaper among the papers strewn on the floor dates from July 1997.  My eyes fell on an article with a headline: “Anna Spices up Wimbledon”.  A sixteen year old Anna Kournikova was at the beginning of her rollercoaster ride in the world of tennis while this Roscommon family grappled with a very uncertain future.

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My original thought that the breadwinner worked at the Coal Mine makes sense except that it closed in 1990.  Perhaps they struggled on for another 7 years before finally giving up.

We will never know what makes a family walk away and leave their house.  Leave fridges and stoves and furniture.  Leave curtains.   And head somewhere for a better life.  Unfortunately it has been a huge part of the Irish narrative for nearly two hundred years.

No doubt such events happen in other countries but what is different here is the scale of the dispossession and that the evidence remains for decades perhaps even centuries with these dwellings lying empty and untouched; as if interfering with the ruin would somehow be disrespectful.

So many pages of the Irish Story lie open to us in this way.  However the writing is indistinct and many times illegible and impossible to decipher.

These ruins for me are always a time to pause and think.

 

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Here today, gone tomorrow? The reappearing beach at Dooagh, Achill.

Achill, Acaill, Ecaill, Eccuill, Akill, Akle, The Aukilles.

These are some of the names recorded historically for Achill Island in West Mayo. The original meaning of the name however is unknown.  This is perhaps fitting as the Island itself is somewhat enigmatic.  I am constantly surprised, as I was on my most recent visit in July 2017.

Dooagh is one of a number of pretty villages on the island.  It has variously prospered and faded over recent centuries.  It became a hub when it received villagers who abandoned their homes in Slievemore during the mid 19th century.   The village is nestled on the Atlantic shore and its wellbeing has always been connected with the sea.  Fishing, seaweed and the hotels and guest houses that lined its sandy beach.  Then in 1984 the sand disappeared.  A wild storm stripped it away to the bare rock.  The decades passed and Dooagh had resigned itself to its beach’s fate until in April 2017 the sand returned.

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The world went just a little mad, but this is a  perfectly natural event and has apparently occurred many times before.  John O’Shea, who has lived in a house on the beach for 46 years explained “When the wind is up north the sand builds up, when the wind’s sou’ west the sand goes out.”  It happens with Keel, Dooagh and Keem Bay, he said, and it happens regularly.  But this time seems to be different. The story has gone global.   John has had phone calls from Texas, Netherlands, New Zealand asking what’s going on.  A group of Chinese came – they didn’t want to see the Cliffs of Moher they wanted to see the New Beach!  Irish Times reported it and since then the story has spread.  Al Jaziera, The Times and more recently the Guardian did a six page spread.

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A particularly high tide and favourable marine conditions along with the northerly winds has brought back the sand and boulders that had been waiting below the low tide mark.  The world has taken notice and the tourists have come.

Beaches are a dynamic environment.  Man’s desire to live close to the beach creates conflicts that are often resolved by serious intervention in the natural process.  Huge quantities of rock are sometimes dumped to protect buildings or infrastructure and prevent erosion of the land and sometimes sand is ‘shifted’ from elsewhere to maintain  a ‘beach’.

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What has happened in Dooagh however shows that if we just leave things alone, Nature will find a way to restore equilibrium.  Beaches disappear.  And they come back.  We should celebrate with the people of Achill the return of  its sixth beach and hope that it lasts a long time.  But if it doesn’t last and the tides and winds sweep it away, we should celebrate that too.  These natural rhythms are on a planetary time scale and rarely on a human one.

Please take note Mr Trump.

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