Wild Ireland

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

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

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

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

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Clohy Sea Arches

But I found far more.

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

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

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Panoramic view of Clohy Sea Arches

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The Bristi Sea Stack

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

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Natural bridge formed by erosion of fault fill material

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

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

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

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View in the vicinity of Maghery.  Napoleonic signal tower.

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Napoleonic signal tower

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

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Maghery nestled in the bay

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Practicing show jumping on the beach at Maghery

 

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

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Termon Stone Circle

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

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View across Dungloe Bay to Mt Errigal

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Contorted rocks in the cliffs north of Loop Head

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

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

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

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

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

All fascinating but I digress.

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

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

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Looking from the north to the south

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

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

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Viewing Platform Sampson Island.  c1905

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

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Detail of above photo showing sign and shelter.

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

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

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Crossing to Sampson Island?

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

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

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Loop Head lighthouse with the sea pink just starting to bloom

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Dursey. An island at the end of Ireland.

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

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Dursey Island looking towards the mainland.

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

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

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Abandoned village

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

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

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Approaching the island

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Anticipation. A picture window.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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St Mary’s Abbey

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Cliffs on the southern side of the island

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Dolphins

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

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Native orchids are common

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

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

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Cow Rock and Bull Rock

A lighthouse was established on  Calf Rock in 1866.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But don’t miss it.

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Mutton Island. A Clare Treasure.

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

 

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

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

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Sunset over Mutton Island viewed from Seafield Beach at Quilty.

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

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

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

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

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

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Anthony Murrihy, Quilty fisherman.  Leaving Seafield Pier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Being dive bombed by a gull.

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

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

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A natural arch on the northern coast

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The sculpted coast exposed at low tide.

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Caves and Arches I.  High tide

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Caves and Arches II.  Low tide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gulls take to the air over the Napoleonic Tower

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

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Herring Gulls and their chicks

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A Lesser Black-backed Gull in flight

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

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

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Two Herring Gull chicks.  Ready for their first flight?

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Herring gull chick taking refuge in a burrow

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

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

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

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Sea cliffs with caves and bridges and the Napoleonic Tower

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The western coast of the Island

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

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Napoleonic Watch Tower

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

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Entrance gate and wall surrounding the tower.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The circular wall and much later ruined cottages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is this the the wreck of the Ford Anglia?

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

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Archaeological heritage?  An early emoji.

And then there’s this.  A crop circle?

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A crop circle?

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

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Fields thick with cow parsley.

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Bog cotton

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

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

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

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

This is as it should be.

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

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The ferryman returns to collect me

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Picnicking.

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

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

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

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

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My little picnic

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

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View east along the main channel (arch no 1)

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

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

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

I absolutely loved this place.

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

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

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

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

These days are truly the hidden gems of Ireland.

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You gotta love puffins.

As I say you gotta love puffins.

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

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

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

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

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Defying gravity

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

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Taking flight

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Wheeeeee!

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

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Perfect puffin territory

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Standing guard in front of a burrow

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Or nesting in a cave

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

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

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

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

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

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Leaving the harbour at Portmagee

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The village of Portmagee.  Reflective calm

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

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Little Skellig I

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Little Skellig II

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Little Skellig III.

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

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

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Gannets on Little Skellig

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Did I mention gannets?

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Natural arch at the northern end of Little Skellig

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

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Every surface is occupied by a gannet

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A gannet glides past our boat

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

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As we head to the south Skellig Michael is revealed

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Looking back northwards towards Little Skellig

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Skellig Michael looms.  Approaching from the north

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My first sighting of puffins

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Poser.

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Close Encounters of the Bird Kind.

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

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Guillemots and kittiwakes nesting on the cliff

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Kittiwakes grab their spot wherever they can

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Razorbills

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

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Visitors start the climb

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In the footsteps of the monks

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

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

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Rich archaeological heritage including beehive huts and a high cross

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Inside a beehive hut

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View through the window of the church

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

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Proof I was there

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

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

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A close up of the terraces at the Hermitage site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This will be a lifelong treasured memory for us all.

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Oh no! Not more pictures of the Cliffs of Moher.

With all this fabulous weather in West Clare recently I decided to take the cruise from Doolin to visit the cliffs. I’ve been to the Cliffs of Moher many times but never before have I seen them from the water.  I checked the forecast. Fine for the next couple of days.  Brilliant.  So I booked the late boat for the following day as I dreamed of perfect photos lit by the late evening glow.

The morning dawns and I open the window to the bay at Caherush shrouded in thick fog. I wasn’t worried and smugly congratulated myself at my foresight in booking the late boat. The fog will lift of course by midday and there will be blue skies. My optimism was rewarded as it did lift and by mid afternoon some blue sky appeared. A perfect plan?

So I drive the 40 minutes to Doolin.  Around Lahinch the fog starts to roll back in, getting heavier as I drive across the bog and down the hill to Doolin until by the time I reach the Pier visibility is just a few tens of metres. My heart sunk.  Visions returned of a trip to Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps many years ago.  Up the cog railway in a total wipeout.  I saw nothing of the roof of the world.

We set off nevertheless with, in my case, no real expectation.  So much for all those dramatic photos I was going to take of walls of rock framed by skies of blue.

But for fleeting moments as we approached closer the fog would shift and you would get glimpses of green through the grey.  You got a real sense of the powerful presence of these cliffs though you never saw them in their totality and could only imagine how high they actually were.  The changing  views were tantalising and somehow seductive.  As the boat rocked and shifted, the angles changed and I snapped away but with no real hope of capturing this feeling.

I’ve stopped looking for explanations of the Irish version of the way of the world.  An hour later the fog lifted. But never was the expression ‘go with the flow’ more apposite. Taking advantage of the extended daylight in June I spent the remaining hours exploring the rocky coast north of Doolin, in total thrall of the wonderful rock garden that is the Burren in spring.  I forgot about the the Cliffs.

But when I got home that evening (early next morning I should say, after tunes in Doolin and Ennistymon) and looked at the photos and I was surprised and happy at what I had captured.  I still have a lot to learn about photography but I think the images say just as much or perhaps more than if we were seeing every minute and vivid detail.  Sometimes showing just a little reveals a lot.

Turns out that fog was a lucky break.

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Glengarriff, West Cork. A Blissful Elysium.

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Glengarriff sits on the upper reaches of Bantry Bay in West Cork. I was lucky enough to spend five wonderful days there last week at a Fiddle Retreat and was able to closely observe the various moods of this sublime waterway. I never actually visited the village of Glenngarriff itself, as my accommodation was tucked away on its own private estate behind the golf course; so private and so quiet that in the time I was there encountered not another soul. other than my fellow residents.

Join me on a walk through this blissful elysium.

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Glengarriff waters I

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Glengarriff waters II

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Glengarriff waters III

Bantry Bay is a drowned river valley (like Sydney Harbour), and its quiet, still protected waters are dotted with steep sided rocky islands sometimes capped with remnant, thick sub-tropical vegetation.

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A perched forest I

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A perched forest II

The surrounding forest of magnificent oaks birches and conifers has (where the rhododendron hasn’t taken over) a primeval under-story of forest detritus draped with mosses, lichens and ferns, in places forming a vivid green carpet.  There is a bubbling stream of crystal clear water that snakes its way down the steep slope into the Bay, cascading over the smoothed rocks and falling into occasional, inviting, pellucid pools.

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Moving water

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Still water

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Forest green I

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Forest green II

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Forest green III

Azaleas and camellias add colour.  This is only March and the rhododendrons can’t be far away from joining in.

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Lush sub tropical gardens with flax, azaleas and camelias.

You regularly sight seals cavorting on the shore.

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A cavorting seal I

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A cavorting seal II

The scene was ever-changing. One moment bathed in brilliant sunshine, then heavy cloud.  Frigid weather brought some light flurries of snow flakes drifting to the ground but not settling and then blue skies brought out the singing birds.  A Great Tit in an oak tree near the house harmonising with the sweet sounds of the fiddle coming from inside.

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Sunshine one moment

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Snow the next

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The sun brings out the birds.  The Great Tit.

Another wonderful hidden gem in beautiful West Cork.

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The Big Freeze. March 2018. My Story.

What an extraordinary event.

Gotta say I’m not used to snow.  Not used to the feeling of flakes on your face or the biting wind or the stunning beauty when the sun comes out.  Or the slushy wetness that soaks through your boots and trousers and gets tramped through the house.  Or digging the snow from your front door. Or being stuck in your house. Or the vicissitudes of stupidly taking a remote boreen just as a snow shower starts.  I’ll come back to that last one later.

The snow came from that annoyingly named freak weather condition known as ‘The Beast from the East’ which blasted frigid air across continental Europe and over Ireland. It arrived in West Clare on a Wednesday, the last day of February 2018. But it turned out that that was just an entree to a full three course meal which came Thursday and Friday and continued to Sunday.

But first this ‘Beast’. Where did it come from? And why was it so devastating? As a geologist I make a pretty poor meteorologist but those that do know about these things said the whole thing was triggered by a periodic event called “sudden stratospheric warming”. This involved a huge rise in air temperature of around 50ºC in an area about 30 km above the Arctic (the stratosphere).  The origin of this actually goes back to severe cyclones in January in the Pacific disturbing global weather patterns. A true ripple effect. Anyway, this warming weakened the jet stream and forced cold air from western Russia towards Ireland.  Temperatures on the ground in the Arctic were 20ºC above normal, while Europe experienced lows of -15ºC in many places.  And then to complicate it there was Storm Emma which headed north from Portugal.  When it hit the cold air, blizzards, gales and snow were the result.

Where I could, I tried to record the event with my camera and words. Here is a personal account of how it all unfolded around my little part of West Clare.

Wednesday 28th February 2018

We knew it was coming. Temperatures had been way below normal for days and the web was alive with warnings.  Yet I had no idea exactly what was in store. Just two weeks earlier I was chasing all over Ireland to Louth and Armagh and Kerry and Wicklow and Connemara because of snowfalls there. Now it was here in my front yard.  It was snowing when I awoke and it continued to snow.  I was excited enough to venture out around 9am.  The snow wasn’t heavy; just a few centimetres so I figured there would be no real problems except that is that the weather accompanying this snow was truly living up to the appellation that is the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’.  I headed to Spanish Point Beach, braving snow showers and bitter wind.  I’ve seen this beach battered with giant waves, covered in froth and foam and perfectly still with nary a ripple. Never though with white snow meeting the yellow sand. It was not comfortable as mini blizzards would sweep in between the sunshine. Nevertheless I was totally entranced and happy.  The showers faded during the day and though the temperature hardly went above zero, the snow melted by the late afternoon and the streets of Miltown Malbay returned to relative normality. This turned out to be a temporary reprieve.

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Snowstorm on Spanish Point Beach. Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Spanish Point Beach, Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Bell Bridge House Hotel.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Mouth of the Anagh River.  Looking across to Caherush.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Bridge over the Anagh River.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Spanish Point Beach. The sun shone briefly.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Spanish Point Beach.  Looking from the Armada Hotel.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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The Clogher Road.  Looking towards my cottage.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Caherush.  Low tide. Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Mutton Island.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Caherush looking towards Quilty.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Miltown Malbay  Wednesday 28 February 2018

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Miltown Malbay.  Wednesday 28 February 2018

Thursday 1st March 2018

I woke up reluctantly poking my head above the sheets with the temperature hovering at -4ºC.  A quick look out the window showed a complete white-out. It was a stunning sight. I love how you don’t know it’s happened during the night. So quiet unlike a rain storm pelting on the slate roof and rattling the windows.

The rocks and cliffs of the bay at Caherush were covered with a thick white carpet and it was still snowing with some vigour.  Around 9am it brightened and it stopped snowing.  I rugged up and took a walk up the Clogher Road.  I was joined by the neighbour’s dog, Valdo.  Briefly. This was much too exciting;  he had better things to do and left me to my meandering. The sun broke through the clouds and its rays made the hills gleam.  My neighbour Michael Talty, stopped his car for a chat. He was heading to Kilrush for some tractor parts. A farmer doesn’t stop for a bit of snow.  So of course I didn’t refuse the invitation to join him. I think he quickly regretted it as I had him stop at Quilty where the snow, the water and the sand united to create a magic world. Mutton Island sat like an iceberg off the coast. I had to photograph them.

As we left Quilty and headed south, there was only a light dusting over the fields. This part of West Clare had escaped the heavy falls that we had experienced. Business done, followed by an hearty breakfast in Kilrush we headed back north to Caherush.

We were passing O’Looney’s lovely pub just a few kilometres from Quilty at Molosky. Stop! I exclaimed as I caught a sight, out of the corner of my eye, of the falls at the Annageerah River. They were frozen! Michael waited patiently as I clambered over a gate and headed across a slushy snowy field to photograph the incredible sight of ice sheets draping the rocks and icicles clinging to wherever they could; where normally water flows. So lucky to see it.

Back home to the Clogher Road which by now was starting to thaw.  It was 2 pm and still -1ºC. The temperature never got to zero during the whole day

Encouraged by the condition of the roads on our journey, I cleared the snow from the car and headed north through Spanish Point along the coast towards Lahinch. The air was clean and crisp and the sun was making a good fist of doing its daily job but the thick cloud resisted. Nevertheless the bucolic landscape had become a patchwork of white fields and the coastline was now the White Cliffs of Clare. The views coming into Lahinch were unfamiliar but truly jaw-droppng. Though thick here across Liscannor Bay the fields were green. The snowfalls were obviously quite patchy.

I continued to Ennistymon. I wanted to see the Falls here.  Would they be frozen?  Well no they weren’t and they were quite subdued, as we hadn’t had a lot of rain for a week or so but they were framed with snow on every exposed rock with icicles hanging from branches and protected crags. The Falls Hotel looked like an alpine resort

A few flurries of snow were appearing now. I love that word ‘flurries’. Not one you get to use very often. Time to head home. Why didn’t I just stick to the main road? It had been treated with salt and grit and was perfectly clear. I was lulled I think into a false sense of safety. So with the help of Google, I took a back route to Miltown Malbay, it wasn’t long before I got into serious trouble. It was only a small hill. A narrow single lane boreen. With a hedge on the left and a ditch on the right. I knew I had to use a high gear and travel at a decent clip but I lost traction very quickly and found myself half way up the hill and going nowhere. Under the snow was a layer of ice. With wheels spinning I couldn’t go forward. With no brakes, reversing was pretty scary. I honestly don’t know how I got out of that. Reversing back down the hill and using the gears to slow down, the wheels went wherever they wanted.  One minute I slid into the hedge. Straightening up then I would head towards the ditch. It was probably only 200m of reversing first down the hill then back up another but it took forever until I came to a farm gate. The drama still wasn’t over as it took many goes slipping and sliding all over before I edged the nose of the car into that refuge and was able to turn around and drive home. To my warm fire and a few relieving tunes and a glass of the small.

That was some day but the wires (as we used to call it before the wireless world took over) were full of dire warnings of another storm. Emma was arriving and would collide with the Beast and batter us with wind and massive snowfalls. Code Red all over the country.  Bread and milk had disappeared from the shops. This really was serious.

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Panoramic view of Caherush bay.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Caherush Bay at low tide in the snow.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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My cottage on the shore. Thursday 1 March 2018

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More snow.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Caherush Bay Thursday 1 March 2018

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Mutton Island.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Sugar Island and Quilty. Thursday 1 March 2018

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The sun breaks through. Thursday 1 March 2018

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Joined on my walk by Valdo.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Joy.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Looking down the Clogher Road.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Driving into Quilty.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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The Quilty Shore I.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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The Quilty Shore II.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Quilty Shore III.  With Mutton Island in the distance.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Breakfast at Kilrush.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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The snow falls again at Annagreenagh Falls, near Quilty.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Annageeragh Falls.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Annageerah Falls.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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View towards Cliffs of Moher from Spanish Point.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Near Spanish Point.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Near Lahinch.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Lahinch. Thursday 1 March 2018

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Moy House.  Lahinch, Thursday 1 March 2018

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Cliffs south of Lahinch.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Fenceline and cliffs.  Lahinch. Thursday 1 March 2018

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Lahinch. Thursday 1 March 2018

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The Falls at Ennistymon. Thursday 1 March 2018

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Falls at Ennistymon.Thursday 1 March 2018

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Looking towards the Falls Hotel on the Inagh River at Ennstymon.Thursday 1 March 2018

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Icicles I .  Ennistymon.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Icicles II.  Ennistymon.  Thursday 1 March 2018

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Icicles III.  Ennistymon.Thursday 1 March 2018

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Icicles IV.  Ennistymon.Thursday 1 March 2018

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Icicles V.  Ready to drop.Thursday 1 March 2018

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Frozen grass on the menu today. Lahinch. Thursday 1 March 2018

Friday.  2nd March 2018

It would reek havoc they said.  And they were right about that! Friday morning saw a thick cover of snow over everything with drifts up to a metre. We, in Clare though,  seemed to get off rather lightly. The east and the south of the country were lashed with ferocious snowstorms. Back here in Clare, snow piled up against my door, just like in those movies set in countries where they have real winters.  It was obvious I was going nowhere today, so I settled in with a warm fire to wait it out. Even if I wanted drive anywhere the Clogher Road was not going to cooperate. It continued to snow all day. I ventured out in the late afternoon as the snow eased. The tide had come in and the ocean was tranquil with the bay in front of my house looking surreal with its brilliant white ‘beach’ all the way down to the high tide mark. The car remained in a drift and I went nowhere. No thoughts of a session and in any case most pubs were shut. Marooned. Like millions of others across the Once Green Isle.  Who knows how much fell? I heard a figure of 40cm but I would say much more in some places.  At least it had stopped.

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My cottage.  Marooned.  Friday 2 March 2018

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Going nowhere.  Friday 2 March 2018

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The Clogher Road.  Friday 2 March 2018

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Caherush Bay at high tide.  A surreal calmness.  Friday 2 March 2018

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My front patio.  Friday 2 March 2018

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The ‘beach’ at Caherush.  At my front door.  Low Tide.Friday 2 March 2018

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Caherush. Friday 2 March 2018

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The ‘beach’ at Caherush.  At my front door.  High Tide. Friday 2 March 2018

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The Clogher Road.  Friday 2 March 2018

Saturday. 3rd March 2018

More snow overnight but by the morning all was quiet. Temperatures were up now with a maximum of 2ºC for the day. A veritable heat wave. I was still going nowhere. The predicted rain didn’t arrive but by the afternoon I decided the snow on the roads had started to melt sufficiently to venture out again. Roads had a lot of snow in massive drifts, sometimes two metres high, and in many places were down to one lane. Those roads that were treated were passable but venture off the main roads at your peril. I’d learnt my lesson.  Most residents who live up narrow lanes were were still stuck.  My route again took me to Lahinch and Ennistymon.  The snow was still thick and extensive but the melt had started.  Lahinch golf course was more whites than greens and it was easy to become blaze about the stunning beauty all around.  Snow was still everywhere in Ennistymon, Lahinch and Miltown but the ploughs had been through and it was now more of a hazard to pedestrians.  Businesses were starting to reopen.  Life goes on.

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The Clogher Road is now passable. Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Welcome to Quilty Holiday Cottages.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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The Bell Bridge Hotel and beyond.  Spanish Point.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Caherush.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Behind the Strand.  Clogher Road.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Panoramic view of Surf City Lahinch.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Ennistymon. Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Blake’s Corner. Ennistymon.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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The Inagh River and Ennistymon.   Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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The old Railway Bridge over the Inagh River,  Ennistymon.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Lahinch. Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Snow dunes, Lahinch.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Lahinch Castle.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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The Golf Course at Lahinch..  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Lahinch  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Another view of the Castle.  Lahinch.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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The estuary at Lahinch. Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Snowy hills above Lahinch Golf Course.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

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Miltown Malbay.  Saturday 3rd March, 2018

Sunday.  4th March 2018

No snow last night and finally the real thaw started. It still only got to 2ºC maximum all day but the lure of a music session at lunch time in Ennis was too much for me to resist. The Clogher Road was mostly clear now. Mikey Talty was, like many, shoveling snow off the road in front of his house. I stopped for a chat.  Mikey had been living here for over 80 years. “Have you ever seen anything like this before?” I asked. “Aah yes” he said. “When I lived in the States”. 

Grinning I went on my way. Ireland does get heavy snow every few years. But not so often in these low lying coastal areas such as West Clare. The road to Ennis goes over Slieve Callan and the snow was thick in the hills and again there were drifts, metres high, meaning it was a slow trip. The music at Cruises Pub in Ennis was fantastic, with a huge crowd, desperate for a circuit breaker from the travails of the last few days. I returned about 5pm and it was still felt more like a journey through the alps rather than rural Ireland. I wasn’t ready to go home and called in at Hillery’s, for the regular Sunday evening session.  Life goes on.

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Mikey Talty, resident on the Clogher Road for 82 years clears away snow.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Snow drifts on the road to Inagh.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Heavy cover of snow remains.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Even the windmills stopped turning.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Lonely cottage at the food to Slieve Callan.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Switzerland? or Ireland?  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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The boreens were starting to clear.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Looking forward, looking back.  Mt Callan.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Enjoying the craic at Cruises Pub in Ennis.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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The snow melts in the fields on the Clogher Road.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Caherush.  The rocky bay is returning to normal  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

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Almost gone.  Sunday, 4th March, 2018

Monday, 5th March 2018.  

It wasn’t quite over yet. Still the predicted rain never arrived and most of the snow on the lower ground had retreated but I knew it was still lying in the uplands.  Maybe the Burren would be worth a visit.  I wanted to see it.   Temperature was still around 2ºC in the morning as I set out but by the end of the day it had risen to 5ºC.  So I drove to Poulnabroun and then to Ballyvaughan and back through Carran.   It took all day.  It was cloudy and misty so not ideal but walking in the stillness of a snowy Burren was something truly special.  So quiet with hardly a soul on the road and those that were seemed to be heading somewhere else. A privilege to see it like this. I encountered a few busloads of tourists and they like me were the lucky ones.   The dolmen at Poulnabourn was looking resplendent and I viewed the wonderful stone walls literally in a different light as they stood out framed by the whiteness of the snow and the sky.  See if you agree with me.  The hills actually had a lot more snow than was apparent from a distance with the clints and grykes retaining the snow where it had melted elsewhere.  The Turlough at Carran, a wondrous geological feature  had plenty of water, though much of it appeared to be covered with ice. I imagine a couple of day earlier you might have been able to walk across it. By the way turlough, along with drumlin and esker are the only three words of Irish origin that I know that are  used worldwide as geological terms.  Thick snow was still on some of the Lanes but the snow ploughs were out and about so I imagined most would be passable.

The event that had dominated Irish lives, closed schools, airports highways and even pubs, isolated people for days and created timeless memories was over.

And that seems a good place to end this story.

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Plenty of snow on the way to the Burren.  Monday, 5th March 2018.  

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Poulnabroun Dolmen.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Poulnabroun Dolmen.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Near Poulnabroun Dolmen.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Burren scene.     Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Burren.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Burren.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Burren.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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The tourists still come.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Burren. Monday, 5th March 2018.

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On the way to Carron. Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Still heavy snowdrifts.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

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Carran Turlough.Monday, 5th March 2018.

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The Turlough. Much of it is still frozen.  Monday, 5th March 2018.

Here are some pictures of those wonderful stone walls:

Tuesday 6th March 2018

I thought I had finished this blog but it was much brighter this morning and by the afternoon the sun was returning.  The temperature soared up to 7ºC.  Out my kitchen window the paddocks were pretty much free of snow.  Not Mt Callan.  It looked glorious (despite those windmills) with patches of sun glistening off it.  I had to go up and take a closer look.  There was plenty of snow so, sorry, a few more pictures.

Almost a week.  A week I won’t forget.

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Mt Callan.  The view from my kitchen window. Tuesday 6th March 2018

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Ruined cottage.  Road to Mt Callan.  Tuesday 6th March 2018

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Behind Miltown Malbay.  Tuesday 6th March 2018

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Mt Callan. Tuesday 6th March 2018

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The Summit.  As close as I could get.  Tuesday 6th March 2018

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Abandoned barn.  Mt Callan. Tuesday 6th March 2018

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The roof of the world.  Tuesday 6th March 2018

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Situation normal.  The gulls have returned to Caherush.

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A bird’s eye view.  Tuesday 6th March 2018

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