Wild Ireland

Connemara. Beautiful.

I visited Connemara at the beginning of February 2019 after an extensive snowall and having mentioned this to a friend, and how beautiful it was, I was surprised at her response.  “What did I mean by beautiful? Was it just the snow?”

I hadn’t really thought about it; it just was.  I could have just quoted the Oxford definition – ‘pleasing the senses or mind aesthetically’ but that would have been too glib. For millenia philosophers and poets have struggled with the notion of beauty so who am I to think I can explain it, but I felt obliged to respond and to try to put my thoughts into words.

So what did I mean by beautiful?

I just love snow so of course that was part of it but it was a lot, lot more.  I’ve been to Connemara many times and each time it has presented a different face.  And each time I have loved it, but it is notorious for its bleak, drab weather; rain and fog has been the norm in my experience.  Never, for me, have the Gods conspired to produce such sheer perfection as this paraticular weekend.  A world that defies description and conditions attuned to capture every nuance of the landscape.  The mountains of Connemara, the Twelve Bens, have a sublime beauty at any time, but when covered in snow they are dizzyingly so.  And this was no ordinary snow.  Locals I talked to said it’s like this perhaps every ten years.  The purest white.  But what was so special was that the weather, the light and the landscape were in perfect harmony.  That’s what I mean by beautiful.

Let me explain a bit more.

On the Friday I travelled from Oughterard through Maam Cross to Letterfrack.  Taking in Lough Inagh and Kylemore Abbey. A continually moving image of the bluest of lakes, snow-covered rocky mountains, treeless bogs with tussocky grass, or rubble-strewn fields of boulder granite and cascading streams.  All illuminated by the low winter sun, with not a trace of haze, giving an extraordinary light, and enabling capture in my photos of every detail against an endless, azure, cloudless sky.  It was cold; the temperature hardly getting above 0°C, but around every corner I had to stop the car, rug up and get just a bit closer.

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Levallinee, Connemara, Co Galway.

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Lough Inagh, Connemara

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A morning stroll

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Lough Inagh

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Monarch of the Glen

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Happy sheep

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May the road rise to meet you.

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Is this really Ireland?

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The bridge between ice and water.

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Sometimes the view is better when you turn around.

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A Connemara winterscape.

And then there was the beautiful Lough Kylemore and Kylemore Abbey.

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Later that day I headed back east on a little travelled road that takes you across the middle of Connemara from Garroman to Inver.  The locals call it ‘The Bog Road’.  A tundra-like land of grassy plains, granite tors, lakes and bulrushes, turf cutting and the mighty Twelve Bens Range ever-present to the north.  A different beautiful.

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Lough Avally iced over. A reflective scene

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Lough Nacoogarrow near Garroman

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The legacy of the turf cutter

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Cottage on the Owengowla River.

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Lougharnillam and the Owengowla River

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One Twelfth of the Bens

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Bog, lake, river and mountain. One of the prettiest views in Ireland?

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Another view of Lougharnillam and the Twelve Bens

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Lough Avally near Derryrush. Walking on thin ice.

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Winter colour.

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Where the plain meets the mountain

As the end of this extraordinary day approached and I took a little time to reflect at Inver on the southern shore of Connemara and watch the sun light up the clouds and the sea. Beautiful.

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Never far from the music I stayed with some friends at nearby Camus.  There is nothing on this planet sweeter than the sound of two fiddles.  More beautiful. Thanks Bridge.

That should have been enough but I was ready for another course of Connemara’s extraordinary visual degustation. Predicted showers saw me resist a return visit to the mountains and, following Bridge’s advice, I headed to the coast for a taste of what she calls the ‘real’ Connemara.  With unfamiliar names like Annaghvaan, Lettermore, Gorumna, Lettermullen, Furnace and Crappagh I travelled this string of rugged, unforgiving rocky islands, linked by causeways; so wild it was left out of the Wild Atlantic Way. I just loved it. Met Éireann was spot on though. Storms rolled in from the north bringing snow, sleet and hail and then just as quickly disappeared over Galway Bay.  The stunning landscape with its sculpted coastline and quiet inlets, ice covered mirror-blue loughs, stone walls, thick bogs, neat cottages and rocky fields creates a frowzled, disorderly wildness. Framed always by the serenity of the snowy mountains to the north. The interplay of black clouds, dappled sunshine and an extraordinary pallete of rich colours made for vistas that would have defied the painter. Truly beautiful.

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The Ring near Camus

View north from Camus Hill.  Storm rollin in

View north from Camus Hill. A storm rolling in

The Twelve Bens completely blacked out.

A Connemara scene. The Twelve Bens completely shrouded in black cloud.

One minute before the snow and rain hit.. South of Camus

One minute before the snow and rain hit.. South of Camus

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A Connemara cottage under a light dusting of snow

Swans fishing through the ice.  Carrowmore West

Swans fishing through the ice. Carrowmore West

The storm has passed

The storm has passed.

Snow on ice. lake at Carrowroe West.

Snow settles on the ice over this lake at Carrowroe West.

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Home sweet home. Near Carrowmore West.

Looking from Lettermore to Annaghvaan

Looking across the estuary from Lettermore to Annaghvaan

The estuary at Lettermore

The estuary at Lettermore

A cottage near The Hooker Bar on Annaghvaan Island

A cottage near The Hooker Bar on Annaghvaan Island

Cottage on teh island of Furnace.

Cottage, walls and a boreen on the island of Furnace.

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A small iced lake at Derrynea, near Carraroe. Completely frozen over at 3:30 pm still.

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Lough Awilla on the island of Gorumna. [sounds like a kingdom in Game of Thrones] The ice is thawing. Twelve Bens in the distance.

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Lough Awalia, Gorumna Island. Bulrushes poke throught the ice.

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Reflections on the ice. Loch Awalia,. The handful of stones I threw rest on top of the ice.

Breaking the ice.

Breaking the ice.

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A Connemara granite wall incorporates existing granite boulders.

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The island of Lettermullen. Glowing in the afternoon sun

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Lettermullen from Crappagh as the rain sweeps by

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White cottages occupy the hills between the bogs. Lettermullen.

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A study in dark and light. Lettermullen.

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Connemara walls take everything in their stride.

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A thundercloud develops over the hills of Connemara

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…..and letterboxes.

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The prettiest golf course in Ireland? Connemara Isles Golf Club on Annaghvaan Island.

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The view from the Third Tee at Connemara Isles Golf Club

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As I sorted through my images from those two days, I felt so grateful that I was able to be there, and to experience this release from the endless drabness of the Irish winter.  I got more images in those two days than a photographer should reasonably expect in a year.

That’s what I meant by beautiful.

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Mooghaun. Hill Forts and ‘Fairy Gold’

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

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

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

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Three gold collars.  Mooghaun Find.  National Museum Dublin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wall of the Inner Rampart, Mooghaun Hill Fort

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Inner Rampart showing original (?) facing.

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

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View of Upper Cashel.  Mooghaun Hill Fort

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Lower Cashel.  Moohaun Hill Fort

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Detail of wall of Upper Cashel

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

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

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

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Wall separating Mooghaun Woods from fields in the Dromoland Estate.

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Dromoland Estate boundary wall surrounding Mooghaun Woods

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Boundary wall for Mooghaun Woods.  with coping.

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Coping on boundary wall here has vertical limestone slabs

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

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

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

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Abandoned cottage Mooghaun North.

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Inside the abandoned cottage at Mooghaun North

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Oak tree and outbuilding at abadoned cottage

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

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

 

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The Raptors at Dromoland, Co Clare.

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

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

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

But I won’t.

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

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

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Peregrine falcon

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Peregrine falcon

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Peregrine falcon

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Peregrine falcon

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Peregrine-Saker hybrid falcon

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Peregrine-Saker hybrid falcon

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Damian with a Harris hawk

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Damian with a Barn owl

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The Barn owl.  Wise old man.

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Bengal Eagle owl.  Those incredible piercing orange eyes

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Bengal Eagle owl.  Feeding time.

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

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

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

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Taking Ophelia, a Harris hawk for a walk

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

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Ophelia lands talons first

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Take off

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Landing

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

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

 

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Ohelia investivates the Hermit’s Grotto

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Damian and Ophelia

 

The Hawk Hornpipe?

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

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

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Hawk-eyed

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

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My new friend.  Photo Damian Werner

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Right at home.  Photo Damian Werner

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

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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.

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

You gotta love puffins.

As I say you gotta love puffins.

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

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

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

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

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Defying gravity

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

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Taking flight

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Wheeeeee!

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

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Perfect puffin territory

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Standing guard in front of a burrow

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Or nesting in a cave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Leaving the harbour at Portmagee

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The village of Portmagee.  Reflective calm

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

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Little Skellig I

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Little Skellig II

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Little Skellig III.

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

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

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Gannets on Little Skellig

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Did I mention gannets?

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Natural arch at the northern end of Little Skellig

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

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Every surface is occupied by a gannet

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A gannet glides past our boat

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

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As we head to the south Skellig Michael is revealed

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Looking back northwards towards Little Skellig

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Skellig Michael looms.  Approaching from the north

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My first sighting of puffins

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Poser.

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Close Encounters of the Bird Kind.

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

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Guillemots and kittiwakes nesting on the cliff

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Kittiwakes grab their spot wherever they can

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Razorbills

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

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Visitors start the climb

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In the footsteps of the monks

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

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

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Rich archaeological heritage including beehive huts and a high cross

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Inside a beehive hut

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View through the window of the church

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

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Proof I was there

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

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

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A close up of the terraces at the Hermitage site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This will be a lifelong treasured memory for us all.

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

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