Posts Tagged With: Galway

The Stone Walls of Aran. A Triumph of Adaptability.

 

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The Aran Islands are one of the harshest environments in Ireland. Hardly a tree, little natural soil, plenty of rock, no surface water.   But it does have, for Ireland, a relatively benign climate and its greatest resource – a resilient and enterprising people.  It once supported 3,500 people in the 1840s but how has around 1,300.

The islands (Inis Mór, Inis Meáin, Inis Oírr)  are stunningly beautiful but the feature of the landscape that strikes you most when you visit the islands. are the walls and the limestone pavements so typical of the Burren. The two go hand in hand.  There are over 2,000 km of stone walls on the Aran Islands. This is mind boggling considering the total area of the islands is only 46 square kilometres.  I doubt that there is such a concentration of stone walls anywhere else in the world.

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A typical Aran scene.  Narrow walled roads and houses on a treeless landscape.  

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Lush paddocks surrounded by Aran walls.

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In fact at ground level staring out over the paddocks often all you can see is stone walls forming a continuous covering of the landscape.

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Walls form a continuous blanket over the landscape

 

Most of the walls were probably built in modern times (since the 1820s). They are made of limestone gathered from the adjacent fields, Of course in our mindset we tend to think of these walls as boundaries of land holdings. Most are not.

 

But first. The oldest surviving walls on the Aran Islands are those associated with the famous ring forts. At Dún Aonghasa,  one of the most impressive forts in Europe,  the earliest of the walls appear to date from 1100 to 1000 BC, that is Late Bronze age though considerable additions and modifications were made in medieval times (c800AD). Extensive further additions and repairs were made in the nineteenth century in the name of conservation. Clear differences in the masonry or these three periods are apparent. Especially obvious are the buttresses which were controversially added in the 1800s to ensure stability of the earlier walls. The stone for the walls here was quarried nearby, as revealed by the regular shapes. The quality of the stonework is amazing, especially the oldest parts of the wall,  and much of it has been in place for 3,000 years.

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Dun Aonghasa.  Ancient wall from 1000BC

 

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But back to the other stone walls.  Up until the 1840s there was a system of shared common land ownership in the west of Ireland, known as the Rundale System. So there was no great need for farm boundaries. However following the abandonment of this system, stone wall, ditches and hedges were used to define land boundaries.

 

However the farm walls on Aran, as I have already aluded to, are largely not the boundaries to land holdings. The paddocks are too small and irregular. They appear to be a method of handling waste rock gathered from the fields to improve the quality of the pasture and to enable soil improvement by the use of seaweed and to allow the growing of potatos. They define manageable parcels of land and protect the soil from being blown away by the wind. Quite brilliant really.

 

They are always built without mortar – the ‘dry stone’ technique and require constant maintenance. A number of styles are apparent and these may be a response to the availability of source rock, the type or shape of the source rock, the needs of the site or the skills of the craftsmen.

 

For me the most striking and beautiful are the Lace Walls. They are essentially see-through and come with lot of variations presumably at the whim of the builder. Some have large gaps and some are tight.  All are so called single walls unlike the double walls more characteristic of other parts of Ireland.   By the way, there have never been professional stone masons on the islands.  The walls are all built by residents who acquire the skills as a normal part of their farming tool kit.

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Open lace wall using regular vertical ‘mother’ stones

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Open Lace wall in very slabby terrain.

 

 

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Closer packed lace wall with some larger and more regular stones

 

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Tight lace wall with even sized stones.  

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Tight lace wall.  Very few gaps.

 

Feiden Walls (from the Irish for ‘family’) are characteristic of Aran and the west of Ireland. They are built with a ‘family’ of stacked stones. Often there will be vertical slabs (mother stones) which act as a frame within which smaller stones (children) are stacked.  There are countless variations.

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Feiden wall

 

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Two stage wall with Feiden wall at base and tight lace wall at top.

 

Between the fields are narrow roads know as róidín but access is usually across fields rather than around them. This seems strange as there are very few gates. This didn’t really hit me at first but most fields appear to have no access. A closer look however reveals “phantom gates”. A ‘gap’ roughly filled with stone. These are called bearna, or “Aran gaps”.   Many are filled with rounded stones as they are easier to dismantle and roll away. There are many variations and again, they appear to be unique to the west of Ireland.

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Note the narrow walled roads between the fields.

 

 

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A bearna.  Stones in ‘gate’ were removed to gain access and then replaced after.

 

Each time you visit these islands you see more.  It’s like reading a book over and over and seeing something different each time. Initially the sheer scale and quantity of the walls is a little overwhelming. But they are a aesthetic and functional marvel and a wonderful example of man’s ingenuity in adapting to his/her environment.

Stone, earth, land, climate, food; all intricately woven together, driven by remoteness, resilience and the need for self sufficiency has created something truly unique.

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Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Fury. A dog’s tale.

There are many legends and stories in Ireland; the origins of which are often lost in time and who knows whether there is any truth in them or whether there has been serious embellishment over the years.  So, it’s great when one such legend is proved with physical evidence.

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If you visit Portumna Castle in County Galway you will of course be blown away by the splendour of the building, which in its time was the grandest castle in Ireland, outshining all others. Built around 1610, it is notable as the first building in the Renaissance style in Ireland and cost a massive £10,000. It was abandoned in 1826 after a fire and has been largely rebuilt. I don’t want to talk about the Castle and everything there is to see, the guidebooks and guided tours will show you all of these things, but the highlight for me was the display of the remains of Fury.

Fury was by some accounts an Irish Wolfhound, by others something else. The story was widely told that in April 1797, Fury was asleep on the grass underneath one of the windows of the castle when a young lady of the house, while watching the dog below, fell from the window. She landed on the dog breaking its back which resulted in poor Fury’s death. This though  saved her life by breaking her fall and in gratitude the family placed a plaque on Fury’s grave. Part of the inscription read

Alas! poor Fury.
She was a Dog, Take her for All in All
Eye shall not look upon her like again.

Excavation in 1997 indeed discovered bones of a dog and the skeleton was reconstructed. Analysis of the remains suggested the dog was a Whippet though this could not be conclusive.  A number of vertebrae were missing in the middle of its back and this supported the legend that  the likely cause of death was of a broken back. The presence of nails in each corner of the gravesite indicated that she was buried in a coffin.

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Sad it is of course, but also quite wonderful that 200 years after the tragic event archaeology confirmed the legend and that Fury’s deed is remembered.

Fury is on permanent display at the Castle. It’s worth a visit.

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Traid Phicnic Spiddal 2015

I know it’s a while ago now but I have been on the go ever since; so before I forget I want to say a few words about the Traid Phicnic held in Spiddal on the weeked before Willie Clancy Week back in early July.  I spent two days there this year instead of the three as I had to rush off to Miltown for the chance to meet Tommy Peoples…….

This festival is on the verge of something big.  This is my second year there and it seemed to have grown this year with great crowds.  An wonderful relaxed family atmosphere exhibiting the real spirit of the Gaeltacht. Blessed this time with sunshine taking full advantage of the spectacular location looking towards the spiritual home of Irish music across Galway Bay to Clare (ha ha).

The festival has a lot going for it.  It is a great concept where you can relax on the grass, mingle with musicians, experience wonderful acts and attend amazing sessions in the evenings.  There is a wide demographic with families, young and old, locals and people from ‘away’.  Bridge Barker and her team have really hit on something here.  This Festival will continue to gain momentum.  There were three film crews from Irish TV and BBC making documentaries so this can only help.  The donation ethos is unique.  Pay what you can afford.  I haven’t seen this anywhere else but despite Bridge telling me that people were generous, I know how hard she and the committee worked to cover costs.

In addition to the music there are circus acts, workshops, craft activities and it is hard to see where improvements can be made.  Also a special mention of the food.  A small selection but real quality.  I wasn’t going to review this festival but I guess I sort of have.

Anyway it was great to catch up and meet with so many wonderful friendly people, I think more than any other festival what makes this one is the way the musicians mingle with the punters.  There is no green room other than the surrounding lawns.  You could bump into Steve Cooney, Liam O’Brien, Brid Harper, Charlie Lennon, Tola Custy,  Laoise Kelly, Jessie Smith and they will make you feel comfortable.  And their was participation at all levels both on and off the stage.  Fair play to you Bridge.

 

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Categories: Concerts, Festivals, Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Super Sunday

What a Sunday.

After a very late night at the Cuckoo Fleadh in Kinvara in Galway I was slow to get started but discovered the perfect antidote at Byrnes Restaurant in Ennistymon. Yvonne Casey and Jon O’Connell.  This was as close to pure as you could hope for.  It was a sublime combination of music and place. Outside after the night’s heavy rain the Ennistymon falls were gushing.  Inside a fiddle and guitar melted together in the hands of two world class players. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t all Irish. At times the small but appreciative audience were mesmerised. I came away enervated but and itching to play.

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So off to Kinvara again for the Cuckoo Fleadh. There were sessions everywhere by the time I arrived. The highlight for the day was a session with Brid Harper and eight fiddles. At least until the noise from the local lads became too much. Hope I dont offend anyone but I am a fiddler, and for a change to hear eight of them with only a whistle, flute and concertina was heaven.  Great to catch up for tunes with with Moya and Sandra in the back bar of Connollys and with Bridge and Siofra.  On top of 11 hours of music the previous day (including a madcap session with Andrew MacNamara and Eileen O’Brien and meeting and playing with Eilish O’Connor again, after 33 years!) I was well satisfied

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Then off for a session at the Blacksticks Pub at O’Callaghan’s Mills. It lies somewhere between Feakle and Tulla and is one of those rare gems of pubs. It only has music on holiday Sundays and the session in the kitchen, led by Pat O’Connor and John Canny and attended by locals from Feakle and Tulla was a real little window into East Clare. I will talk more about this in another place but I got home at 3.30am, after pretty much circumnavigating Clare, tired and satisfied.

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Categories: Festivals, Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Man of Aran

What is it about islands? Why do they have such appeal to us? All around the world they are treasured as special. Sometimes the residents are fiercely protective. In Australia we have many that hold a singular place and I was lucky enough to live on one such of these – Magnetic Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. There are others though; Rottnest Island, where you can’t live but it is still very dear to the heart of Perth people, or Kangaroo Island off South Australia, or the beautiful Lord Howe Island among them. Ireland has a few too, such as Tory, Achill, Skellig and of course the Aran Islands.

Mention the Aran Islands and you immediately have my attention. The place has a mysterious lure. Despite knowing little about it (except that it is where the Clancy Brothers got their jumpers from and one of the most omnipresent tunes in sessions around the world is named after one of the Islands) it was a place I felt I must visit. I have been on two separate occasions. First, on a freezing summer’s day in July 2014, to Inisheer for an overnight stay; and more recently over three glorious sunny, warm days in April 2015. That’s Irish weather for you – freezing in Summer and hot in Spring!

The Islands are accessed either from Galway or Doolin, in my case for both trips I took the boat from Doolin, half an hour from my home in Caherush. My first visit was a spontaneous decision based on the fact there was blue sky in the morning. Of course by the time the boat left the weather had turned and the squally rain and howling wind off the Atlantic made for a very rough half hour crossing which took over an hour as we were buffeted by giant waves. At one point we stopped in the middle of the ocean in a futile attempt to retrieve a feral buoy. This was in contrast to my trip to Inis Mór when the sea was mirror calm with not a ripple. So I saw the islands in its various moods.

Ferry to Inisheer.  Rough seas with Cliffs of Moher in the background Arriving Inis Mor

Inisheer SunriseHarbour at Kilronan.  Inis Mor

Inisheer Inisheer.  Early morning sky

Technically the islands are part of Galway, but geographically, geologically and culturally they belong to Clare as the three Aran Islands are an extension of the Burren.  They all have that wild inspiring landscape that I found so enriching in north Clare and that I have blogged about before. https://singersongblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/20/the-burren/

https://singersongblog.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/the-burren-again/

All the features of the Burren are there. Sometimes better exposed than on the mainland: clints, grykes, rillenkarren, dolines, kamenitzas, glacial erratics, fossil shells and corals, limestone pavements, but with the ever present Atlantic around almost every corner.

So back to my first question. With the Aran Islands, is it that inconvenience mixed with expectation that getting there involves that makes it attractive to visitors? Or that feeling that once there you are completely cut off (well maybe not now with smartphones).   Or the slower pace? How would it be to actually live there?

Of course many do and Melissa and Johnny Gillan and their five children are among them.  Melissa is from Maine and married an Irishman from Aran who after their second child convinced her to leave the States and start a new life on Inis Mór. Melissa tells the story way better than I could on her blog (which is how we met) http://thearanartisan.com/2014/11/08/i-live-in-aran/.  I have never seen anyone happier. She now has five kids and an enviable lifestyle where she has created a paradise – a garden that sustains her family within this harsh environment and is moving towards her dream of starting a business based on this. The whole family is involved, with the kids nurturing the garden and animals with a sense of pride. Her philosophy is captured by the layout of the garden beds which spell the word LOVE and which was revealed with delight by her kids after an enthusiastic guided tour. I was invited to dinner there one night, which comprised razor clams gathered on the shore, a tuna steak from a fish caught by Johnny’s brother off the coast, potatoes, carrots, kale, rhubarb crumble and a parsnip cake. All from the garden and made with skill and affection. The kids embrace the lifestyle. I was reminded a little of the zest for living my own kids had on Magnetic Island for the three years we lived there. Melissa and Johnny may not be your typical Aran family, I don’t know, but I also met Cóil and Grainne, both young islanders who gave up their day to show me around their island with an obvious pride. I was greeted with nothing but warmth and hospitality.

Melissa Gillan's grarden Inis MorThe Gillan family.  Inis Mor

Both the Islands I visited seem to have somewhat different characters. Inis Mór (the Big Island) has sweeping landscapes with hardly a tree; massive limestone pavements and steep cliffs. It doesn’t seem heavily populated but there are about 900 people spread across the entire island. Inis Oírr is smaller with about a third of that but the houses are more concentrated around the main settlement of Inveragh and the fields as defined by the stone walls seem smaller. Both have the same sparse pasture, lush in places barren in others.  Inis Mór has more tourists and a lot more bicycles but it is easy to avoid the day trippers by starting early. The evenings everywhere are gloriously empty of people except for the inevitable craic behind the walls of Ti Whatty or Rory’s.

Inisheer.  Stone fields

Inisheer. Stone walls and fields

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Inisheer. Drystone walls and one room cottage

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Inisheer in the morning light

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Inisheer.  Off to fiddle lesson?

Inis Mor. Coping with the elements

Inis Mor. Coping with the elements

Inis Mor.

Inis Mor.

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Inis Mor.

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Inis Mor

There is plenty for the tourist. On Inis Mór, bike hire is popular and the circuit to the Dún Aonghasa fort is a well-worn trail. But off the beaten track are some amazing sites such as the Black Fort, the Seven Churches and Teampull Bheanáin, reputedly the smallest church in the world measuring around 3m x 2m.  This unusual church can be seen from all around the island and was the best location I found for viewing the unique Burren flora.  Then there is the spectacular Worm Hole or Poll na bPeist. It is a hole in the rock platform that looks like it has been sliced out by the hand of Fin McCool himself. There is a more prosaic explanation that relates to erosion along mutually orthogonal jointing but let’s stick with Fin McCool, I think! Connected with this is a blow hole where the back pressure from the hole causes the sea to shoot up periodically  higher than the cliff.  This is an awe-inspiring place that has been put on the tourist map by the Red Bull people who have filmed one of their diving videos here.

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

The Islands, and in particular Inis Mór is well known for the excellent preservation of their megalithic circle forts. Dún Aonghasa gets the most attention, but others such as Black Fort are just as interesting and much quieter. These forts are fascinating and here on Aran occupy a coastal positon where the cliffs are used as one line of defence and a semicircular stone rampart as the other enclosing a headland within which was a settlement. There were also a number of outer walls in some cases and unique and spectacularly well preserved examples of chevaux de frise. These are fields of sharp limestone lugged into place and designed to make cavalry or foot progress difficult and retreat impossible. They were placed about 30m away from the wall as this was the range of hand thrown projectiles of the time. The original structures at Dún Aonghasa appear to date from around 1000 BC which places them near the end of the Bronze Age. The famous portal tomb at Poulnabrone on the mainland is much older (3,800BC) as are other tombs on Aran which date to 1850 BC.  This first period of settlement at Dún Aonghasa ended about 700BC but then the site was added to and inhabited during medieval times and later. I spent hours at these forts mesmerised by the ambience and the anicientness (if that is a word!)

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort. Cheval de frise

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort. Cheval de frise

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor.  Rock platform Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Rock platform Dun Aengus fort

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Inis Mor. Inside the inner wall Dun Aengas

Inis Mor. Inner wall. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Inner wall. Dun Aengus fort, showing remarkable stone work

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort. Stone was quarried from the steep face near the wall.  Note the crack!

Inis Mor.  Black Fort. Cheval de frise with glacial erratic

Inis Mor. Black Fort. Cheval de frise with glacial erratic

Inis Mor.  Black Fort showing walls of medieval houses

Inis Mor. Black Fort showing walls of medieval houses

Inis Mor.  Black Fort

Inis Mor. Black Fort from inside the enclosure

Inis Mor.  Black Fort and cheval de frise

Inis Mor. Black Fort and cheval de fries

The landscape helps make this a unique world. I have talked here and elsewhere about the typical Burren landforms, but I should mention the widespread glacial erratics, dropped by melting glaciers. Well that is the scientific explanation. Local legend has it that they were left by giants who were throwing stones at each other (Fin McCool again!) Doesn’t this make sense? How else could boulders of granite from Connemara get onto the Aran Islands? The Burren is known world wide for its flora with its rare combination of alpine and Mediterranean plants.  Spring is the best time to see it and in the three days I was on Inis Mor I witnessed an explosion of life with the spring gentians and orchids bursting into flower. The wildlife does not disappoint either with seals, water birds, birds of prey and dolphins all on show at various times.

Inis Mor.  Glacial erratics near Black Fort

Inis Mor. Glacial erratics near Black Fort

Limeston Pavement Inis Mor

Limestone Pavement Inis Mor

Inis Mor.  Burren landscape

Inis Mor. Burren landscape

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Inis Mor. Typical Burren stone wall. How does it stay up?

Inis Mor.  Near Black Fort

Inis Mor. Near Black Fort. Crumbling coastline

Beach near Kilronan.  Inis Mor

Beach near Kilronan. Inis Mor

Inis Mor Inis Mor. View from Black Fort Inis Mor. Burren landscape.

Inisheer.  The Burren limestone Inis Mor. Inis Mor. Inis Mor. Seal colony Inis Mor. Seal colony Inis Mor. Wild duck's nest Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin.  Spring gentian Inis Mor.  Spring in the Burren

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On each of my visits to Aran I was resigned to having nights without music but on each occasion I discovered the craic. On Inis Oírr I met Mícheál O’hÁlmháin, the leading musical identity on the Island and members of his family and we played in the hotel until the small hours and on Inis Mór I met three French guys, Alex, Mathieu and Victor who turned out to be amazing guitarists and with Michelle, Lea and Rom from Switzerland we had two nights of Celtic meets Gypsy Jazz meets 70s rock meets Europop!  On Inis Oírr I also stumbled onto an Irish language summer camp. It was held in the hall and I was drawn by the distinctive sound of irish dancing. The front door was open but what I saw was not what I expected. It was full with teenagers maybe 150 of them having the time of their lives. They were playing a game of musical statues to the recorded music of a ceili band. I stayed and watched as they threw themselves into a succession of musical and dance numbers including a country and western song about Connemara in Irish, some updated versions of set dances, line dancing and some pop songs. I was impressed that here was a camp dedicated to preserving the Irish language and culture but prepared to do it in a modern way that was relevant to today’s youth but still respectful of the heritage.  And then to top all that while on Inis Mór  and thanks to an invitation from Melissa I played with the local Island kids at the regular Comhaltas gathering with Galway Bay as a backdrop.

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Inis Mor.  A regular gathering of the local Comhaltas group.

There is a lot more I could say about these Islands but by now I think I have probably lost all my readers (If you have read this far please let me know – it would be nice to know if anyone reads beyond the first paragraph!), so I will let the pictures talk from here.  Just a few more images that give a taste of these islands that I am sure I will return to regularly.

Inisheer.  Fisherman returns escorted by dolphin

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Inisheer Inisheer.  Wreck of the Plassey Inisheer.  Wreck of the Plassey Abandoned house InisheerInis Mor.  Atlantic on a calm day Rusted bikes, Inisheer Inisheer Inisheer.  Fining pots Inisheer.  Limestone outcrops glowing in the morning sun Inisheer.  Curragh and ruins Inis Mor. Goat farm Inis Mor. Goat farm Inis Mor. Abandoned house

Inis Mor.  Site where Curragh was re-tarred

Inis Mor.  Stairway to Heaven?

Inis Mor. Stairway to Heaven?

Categories: Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Wild Connemara

My last post was on my musical journey through Connemara and Galway. In this post I want to concentrate on the spectacular physical beauty of this part of Ireland.

Connemara is an ill-defined area in the west of Galway incorporating mountains, seascapes and bogs. It is hard not to talk about it without resorting to clichés – wild, rugged, unspoilt; but this is a part of Ireland that almost defies description, it is so beautiful. So I have tried to capture its beauty with the lens. A tall order.

I have visited it three times – just driving through, but on each occasion I was lucky enough to be blessed with patches of sunshine which displays the hills and lakes at their glorious best. Sometimes achingly so.

My first visit was in June in the height of summer, then again in August and most recently in December. As the mood changes with the arrival of the sun, so it changes with the seasons. In summer shades of green and grey predominate as the lush grass covers the slopes. In winter it turns to stark reds and browns but is no less beautiful. These photos (I know there’s a lot but it was hard to leave any out) I hope capture the things that make Connemara special to me – the rugged landscapes, the birds, the ponies, the placid lakes, mist, snow, rocks, bogs, turf and the built landscape, from stone walls and shepherd’s huts to Abbeys. But they also serve as a warning that we must do what we can to preserve such treasures. I was shocked to see the encroachment of wind farms into this wilderness.

I will return to Connemara.

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Categories: Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Connemara Hills are alive with the Sound of Music (and Galway too)

Last weekend I headed for Galway and Connemara. I had had a previous brief visit to Connemara when I attended the TraidPhicnic in Spiddal, but never Galway and I have to say I loved it.

The immediate reason was to attend a Master Class and House Concert by Maurice Lennon at Bridge Barker’s house deep in the wilds of remote Connemara. A great initiative from Bridge to open her house for this – hopefully the first of many.

The trip up from Clare was treacherous with my first experience of driving in sub-zero temperatures and on slippery roads. There was definitely no hurrying. I collected Maurice in Glaway on the way and became so engrossed in the conversation that we managed to end up on a detour along the shores of Lough Corib, that meant the trip took an extra hour. Once we got there the weather was kind enough, so that while Maurice took the kids’ class, I went for a short walk with Vince, Bridge’s partner. They live with their family in a stone cottage that, chameleon-like, blends into the rocky Connemara landscape. Bridge tells me it has been in her family for generations. They have turned a traditional stone cottage into a wonderfully warm and welcoming family home. Adjacent is an abandoned cottage, apparently formerly that of a tailor. It seems to have been empty for decades but still stands remarkably intact as a reminder of the hardship that must have been life in these parts. There was no road and customers would have to ride up the rocky ridges to be fitted. The house has a central room with a large fire place and a door on either side. One can imagine this was the kitchen and the centre of family life. Maybe even where music was played. On either side of this is what would have been the bedrooms each with a smaller fire. Relics of a tough existence are everywhere including bottles and empty containers, an old Singer sewing machine stand and empty and derelict hand crafted furniture. The roof is made of timbers nailed together and filled with bog material and then presumably covered in thatch but now corrugated iron. The windows small anyway are almost completely blocked with stone allowing only a tiny opening to minimise the ingress of rain and wind but making the house very dark. There were no windows on the western and southern sides speaking eloquently as to where the weather comes from. A marvellous window into a past world but not too far distant from the reality of living here now.

Nearby in the rocky bog-covered landscape was a delightful creek with water cascading over granite boulders and flowing through the brown tufts of grass, dotted with patches of bright green where richer glacial tills have provided more fertile ground. Numerous walled fields provide evidence of a much more intensive agriculture on the slopes of the barren hills.

This area was a renowned location for the manufacture of poteen, the famed liquor made traditionally from malted barley but later from corn or potatos. Poteen manufacture was and is of course illegal and so it prospered in remote areas like Connemara where unwelcome visitors could be seen coming for miles. It is said that from the top of the hill behind the house you could see someone coming from Oughterard, 20km away as the crow flies. Vince showed me an old still, one of four in the immediate area. These are used to build a turf fire and heat the wash for several days while guards stood watch ready to respond to anyone attracted by the smoke. The quality of the poteen was highly variable and it needed a fair bit of skill. A bad batch is said to cause blindness. I was given a taste by a fiddler friend when I visited Cork City recently, and I have to say it was terrific. Sure packed a punch though.

As the misty rain set in and hid the snow-capped hills in the distance we returned in time for me to join Maurice for the workshop. There were seven of us and it was a delight. Plenty of good advice on how to hold the bow and how to get a better sound and we learned a couple of Maurice’s own tunes in an intensive hour and a half. Then a quick trip to the nearest pub (about 20 minutes away) for a cleansing ale and some fresh air with Maurice. I don’t want to offend anyone who may come from this part of the world but you could hardly say we were welcomed, or if we were it was with suspicion. There was no small talk as the half dozen or so punters went about their business as If we weren’t there. Slightly uncomfortable.

Returning for some tunes and some curry we then settled in for a concert in the front room of Bridge’s house, in front of a roaring fire, comprising a couple of hours of solo fiddle and viola from Maurice. There was some inspired playing.  We all joined in for a couple of sets at the end. Really a special night with the stone walls reflecting a brilliant sound. Those who travelled into the Connemara wilderness were well rewarded.

I was very kindly put up by Bridge and even before the scrambled eggs were put on the stove next morning I joined Bridge and her talented daughter Siofra in some tunes around the kitchen table. When Maurice arrived back from his lodgings he joined in. A true ‘kitchen session’.

I had decided to spend a couple of extra days in Galway and catch some of the sessions of which so many people had raved. So dragging ourselves away at lunch time I returned with Maurice who was also staying in Galway. There was a slight detour as I stopped every now and then for some photos and a further delay as we caught the second half of the Manchester United – Liverpool game (won by Man U) in a pub in Oughterrard.

Arriving late in the afternoon I went on a search for music. I ended up meeting fellow Aussie friend , Alice at Taaffe’s Bar where there is a 5:30 session every day. So civilised. Why don’t they do this in Ennis? This was the first of three sessions I attended that night and over the three days I was there I went to eight. There was a memorable session late on Sunday at the Old Forge where we were entertained among other things by a Santa-clad mini-skirted drag queen doing an Irish step dance with a packet of Tayto’s in one hand. Brilliant. It was great craic everywhere and hopefully the pictures give some idea of it. I met some wonderful people with as much passion for the music as I see in Ennis. Plenty of blow-ins who have made Galway home. As well as Alice from Oz, there is Ana from Brazil, Brandon from England, Anders from Netherlands, Patrick and Sean from San Francisco, and others from Spain, Germany and the odd Irishman. Lots of interaction too between the musicians and the punters, many of them tourists hearing Irish music for the first time and having a fabulous time. I was kindly invited to a great house session on Tuesday, led by Sean Flanagan, a box player, designed for intermediate players to learn and share tunes. Brilliant idea. I returned to Ennis renewed and inspired and vowing to visit Galway again soon. Thanks to everyone who made me feel so welcome.

The sun shone briefly on Monday and I took the opportunity to go for a drive through the magnificent Connemara hills to Clifden. Glorious. I will post some photos from these travels soon in another blog. The photos here are all from near Bridge’s house or in Galway City.

Distant snow, Connemara

Distant snow, Connemara

Tailor's cottage, Connemara

Tailor’s cottage, Connemara

Tailor's Cottage, Connemara

Tailor’s Cottage, Connemara

Inside Tailor's Cottage, Connemara

Inside Tailor’s Cottage, Connemara

Poteen still, Connemara

Poteen still, Connemara

Cascade, Connemara

Cascade, Connemara

Barn, Connemara

Barn, Connemara

Maurice Lennon, Fiddle Master Class, Connemara

Maurice Lennon, Fiddle Master Class, Connemara

Maurice Lennon Fiddle  Master Class, Connemara

Maurice Lennon Fiddle Master Class, Connemara

Maurice Lennon Fiddle  Master Class, Connemara

Maurice Lennon Fiddle Master Class, Connemara

Maurice Lennon Fiddle  Master Class, Connemara

Maurice Lennon Fiddle Master Class, Connemara

Maurice Lennon, Adult Fiddle  Master Class, Connemara

Maurice Lennon, Adult Fiddle Master Class, Connemara

Maurice Lennon, Adult  Fiddle  Master Class, Connemara

Maurice Lennon, Adult Fiddle Master Class, Connemara

Maurice Lennon, Adult students Fiddle  Master Class, Connemara

Maurice Lennon, Adult students Fiddle Master Class, Connemara

Maurice Lennon, Kitchen session at Bridge Barker's, Connemara

Maurice Lennon, Kitchen session at Bridge Barker’s, Connemara

Maurice Lennon, Bridge Barker.  Kitchen Session

Maurice Lennon, Bridge Barker. Kitchen Session

Hungry sheep, Connemara

Hungry sheep, Connemara

Session, Taaffe's Pub, Galway

Session, Taaffe’s Pub, Galway

Session, Taaffe's Pub, Galway

Session, Taaffe’s Pub, Galway

Session, Taaffe's Pub, Galway.  Sandra

Session, Taaffe’s Pub, Galway. Sandra

Session, Taaffe's Pub, Galway. Alice

Session, Taaffe’s Pub, Galway. Alice

Session, Taaffe's Pub, Galway.  Happy listeners

Session, Taaffe’s Pub, Galway. Happy listeners

Session, Taaffe's Pub, Galway

Session, Taaffe’s Pub, Galway

Session. Tig Coili, Galway

Session. Tig Coili, Galway

Session, Taaffe's Pub, Galway.  Maurice Lennon

Session, Tig Coili, Galway. Maurice Lennon

Session, Tig Coili, Galway

Session, Tig Coili, Galway

Session, Old Forge Pub, Galway

Session, Old Forge Pub, Galway

Session, Old Forge Pub, Galway

Session, Old Forge Pub, Galway

Session, Old Forge Pub, Galway.  Dancing Santa

Session, Old Forge Pub, Galway. Dancing Santa

Session, Garvey's Pub Galway

Session, Garvey’s Pub Galway

Session, Garvey's Pub, Galway

Session, Garvey’s Pub, Galway

Visitors from Germany, Garvey's Pub Galway

Visitors from Germany, Garvey’s Pub Galway

House Session, Galway

House Session, Galway

Another session at Taaffe's Galway

Another session at Taaffe’s Galway

Categories: Sessions, Stories, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Joe Cooley and Willie Keane Weekends

This is why I am in Ireland!

But I did have a dilemma this last  weekend . It was October Bank Holiday weekend and there were two Festivals within striking distance. Solution – go to both.

So Saturday I headed off to the Joe Cooley Weekend at Gort about an hour’s drive from Caherush. Gort is just over the border in Co Galway and a pretty town it is. There is a magnificent monastic ruin just down the road and the home of Lady Gregory nearby. The streets are unusually wide and it is situated around a spacious square with a number of pubs, all within a quick jog of each other. Necessary to avoid the wind and the rain!  A perfect place for a Festival.

Where do you start when you arrive at 1:00 pm? Well you park the car and you wind the window down and listen and within moments you hear the strain of fiddles and accordions coming from inside O’Donnell’s Pub. So with my travelling companions, Danny and Nicolle, we headed in and immediately the circle widened to accommodate us. This doesn’t always happen and when it does you know you are in for a good session. It was led by box player Jim, who I am sure is the happiest man in Ireland, smiling and whooping his way through tune after tune and engaging all and sundry in continuous banter, and there were some older players and a good smattering of the next generation. So the music was a great mix and at a good pace. Plates of toasted ham cheese and tomato sandwiches kept arriving and even a special ‘order’ for vegetarian, Nicolle!

Around 3:00 we headed off to Sullivan’s Hotel for the highlight of the programme. This was the attempt on the Guinness World Record for the Largest Irish Band. The record is something around 270 held by nearby Kilfenora in Clare and only set earlier this year. There was palpable excitement as scores of musicians gathered outside the ballroom with their whistles, fiddles, banjos and pipes. Even a cahone (does that count?). Fevered last minute run-throughs of the chosen tunes created a somehow engaging dissonance, much as the expectation created by an orchestra tuning up. There was sheet music for those unsure of how the polkas went.

We all filed in shepherded by hi-vis vested marshals who almost outnumbered us, to take our places in rows of seats laid out for us. It looked like they were expecting around 300. There were cameras and videos including Irish TV there to record the event. Initially there was optimism but as the queues diminished and only half the seats were filled it became apparent to all that this was not to be the day. The scheduled start time of 4.00 pm went, perhaps in an attempt to scour the pubs for more musicians, and finally, it was after 4.30 when an excited announcer surprisingly proclaimed over the microphone “Congratulations! You have broken the record!”  Looking at the empty seats I was a bit confused.  “The largest Irish band in Connacht!”. There was excited applause as the crowd basked in the glory of being an ‘almost-Guiness World Record’ holder. To confirm the record we of course had to play and after a run through off we went launching into Maggie in the Woods. The sound was fantastic and it was actually quite thrilling to play with such a large ensemble, roughly in time and close enough to being in tune. There was genuine enthusiasm in the playing and in the reception from the assembled crowd, many of them proud parents. Then there were more tunes (not rehearsed!) and even a set dance. Was this the world  record for the biggest Ceili Band playing to a set dance?  Perhaps just in Connacht! Anyway it was all great crack and we queued up again on the way out to get a certificate to record the Attempt. There’s always next year!

The search resumed for the ‘killer’ session. So back to O’Donnelly’s where there was a new crowd of musicians but equally welcoming and then to Johnny Ward’s. This session was in a separate room with no bar and was as close to a house session as you could get. It was unfortunately marred by an extremely drunk bodhran player, with a Walton’s instrument and while it had a lovely celtic design the music did not match as he proceeded to beat it  mercilessly and a whistle player who certainly made his presence felt. I watched as this man, already finding it hard to stand up demolished his next Guinness in two swigs. Despite these ‘distractions’ which contributed to a sometimes messy sound there were moments of absolute magic in the music. Concertina player, Patrick and a couple of box players and a banjo drove the session and I provided the only fiddle – an unusual event. Tunes were played fast but with a real skip which gave the music a lovely rhythmic lift. It was absolutely fantastic to play along with. After this session fizzled and a plate of Taco Chips from Supermac’s there was another great session at Sullivan’s populated mainly by Galway  musicians and three hours went so quickly as we cycled through a familiar array of reels and jigs.  Bed was very welcome at 3:00am after close to 12 hours of playing.

Sunday morning arrived, with all good intentions to head to the Willie Keane Weekend at Doonbeg (about ten minutes drive to the south of Caherush) in time for the Trad Breakfast, I have to admit the late night proved too much of a barrier and I didn’t get there until 2pm! There was music in four pubs on the main street of the village, famous more for the Donald Trump Resort a couple of kilometres out of town than anything else. But this weekend it was all about the music. Some of the best music you will hear and most of it coming from the unsung and the unheralded. Highlights for me included:

A wonderful set from Tony Linanne and Padraig Mac Doncha (in an Eb session) at Madigan’s, the brilliance of Andrew MacNamara and Mark Donnelly, the surprise packet that was Scaradaragh (a group of Sliabh Luachra musicians from North Cork), just so much fun to play with – bring on those polkas!, the brilliance of the young musicians from Tulla and Kilmaley (Amy & Gearoid McNamara and Yvonne & Pamela Queally, joined by friends including the Murphy sisters from Dublin) and then a great exhibition of sean nos dancing to wind up Sunday night.

On my way home after a fabulous day, I popped into the bar at Tubridy’s to the sight of a table of well primed revellers enjoying the music of Roisin & Conor Broderick and Deirdre Winrow. One of them saw me come in with my fiddle on my back and yelled. “Here he is. I have been reading about you” Taken off guard I asked what she meant. “In the brochure – you’re the fiddler!” They then engaged me in a random conversation in which it became apparent they were down from London for a weekend of golf at the Trump Resort. Luckily they didn’t stay long and on her way out I asked the girl what she meant. She explained that it was me in the programme as a “fiddler’ from 10pm and they were waiting for me. I looked to the corner where Dierdre was quite expertly pumping out a reel on her fiddle and pointed out “but there’s already a fiddler here.” “No” she said in all seriousness “that’s a violinist!” And she retreated with her companions to their five star room in the Lodge at Trumps…..

One other quick anecdote. Sitting, engrossed in my playing at the Igoe Inn (great name!) I felt a hand on my shoulder and a whisper in my ear. “Kevin Crawford” was all she said. I looked around to see a middle aged lady standing over me. “What about him?” I whispered back.  [Kevin, of course, is the well know flute player from Lunasa]. “Is he here?” she said seriously. “I haven’t seen him”, was all I could think to say and apparently satisfied she wandered off. I later found out she had done this with every musician in the place! He should be very pleased he has such a devoted fan.

Anyway, home by 1.00 am after another ten hours of almost continuous sessioning on top of the previous day. So I think I put in a good shift. A quiet couple of weeks now but really looking forward to the Ennis Festival coming up. Stay tuned.

Here are some pictures from the weekend. …….

Registering for the World Record Attempt

Registering for the World Record Attempt

Toasted Cheese and Tomato Sandwich

Toasted Cheese and Tomato Sandwich

Danny and Nicolle lead a session

Danny and Nicolle lead a session

IMG_7242 IMG_7250

Optimism

Optimism

Last Minute Practice

Last Minute Practice

Filling up

Filling up

Expectancy

Expectancy

The biggest Irish Band in Connaught!

The biggest Irish Band in Connaught!

Mick Minogue on his ancient goatskin

Mick Minogue on his ancient goatskin

Session at Johnny Walsh's Gort

Session at Johnny Walsh’s Gort

Session at Sullivan's in Gort

Session at Sullivan’s in Gort

Alice from Galway via Australia

Alice from Galway via Australia

Danny from Australia

Danny from Australia

fingers

fingers

I was there!

I was there!

Tony Linanne and friends, Doonbeg

Tony Linanne and friends, Doonbeg

Session at Igoe Inn, Doonbeg

Session at Igoe Inn, Doonbeg

Sliabh Luhraca comes to Clare.

Sliabh Luhraca comes to Clare.

Andrew MacNamara and friends, Doonbeg

Andrew MacNamara and friends, Doonbeg

Igoe Inn

Igoe Inn

Igoe Inn

Igoe Inn

Great craic

Great craic

IMG_7617 IMG_7641 IMG_7653 IMG_7662

Categories: Festivals, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A New Home?

It’s been so long since I blogged and so much has happened. The really big news for me which I got today is that I have approval to stay in Ireland for the next 12 months. The journey which I started three months ago is not over. I can now plan for the future. Buy a car and rent a house for starters. And see if Ireland is really for me. Everyone (and I mean everyone!) tells me I won’t be able to handle the winter. We’ll see.

In the last six weeks I have been on the Festival trail. A journey that has taken me through Clare (Willie Week, Tulla and Feakle Festivals and the Clare Fleadh at Kilaloe) to Galway (TradPhicnic at Spiddal), Sligo (Fleadh Cheoil and Tubercurry), Leitrim (Drumshanbo) and Mayo (Achill Island summer school). I have attended concerts, lectures, workshops, recitals and of course sessioned relentlessly. Indeed every day for the past 97 days! Is there a Guinness record for that?

It has been a wonderful experience but the festival season has come to an end. I haven’t dared look until I knew what my visa status was but I am sure there will be some fantastic events ahead of me. Perhaps more space in between them now!

It just occurred to me that the reason I have come here is to learn fiddle and while I have played fiddle every day, sometimes for 10 hours in a day I have not done any ‘practice’. Playing in sessions is not practice. I have hundreds of hours of recordings of workshops, sessions and concerts to sort. Great material for new tunes.

Of course I ’learnt’ heaps of new tunes at the Schools, from James Kelly, Paddy Ryan, John Daly, Liam O’Connor, Tola Custy, Siobhan Peoples, Martin Hayes, Eileen O’Brien and Yvonne Kane, but am having trouble recalling any of them. So there’s a lot of work there for me. Likewise I have literally thousands of photos to sort from the Festivals and from my travels through Mayo and Connemarra as well as here in Clare.

I have met some wonderful people and have some great stories to tell, so bear with me and I will start posting again when I can.

A quick thankyou to everyone who has supported me and encouraged me in what I am doing over here. I won’t name you all but you know who you are. I have been warmly accepted into the musical and broader community here in Clare and am really looking forward to the year(s) ahead.

In the meantime with my mind firmly on where I might live for the next year I have identified a few likely properties. The views can’t be faulted!

Stay Tuned…..

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Castle near Mullaghmore, Sligo

 

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House on Inishbiggle, Achill. Co Mayo

 

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House in Connemarra

 

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Benbulben, Sligo

 

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Connemarra, Co Glaway

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IMG_1371

Keel, Achill Island. Co Mayo

 

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Achill Island Co Mayo

 

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Achill Island. Co Mayo

 

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Co Sligo

 

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Innisheer, Co Galway

 

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Cottage, Connemarra, Co Galway

 

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Connemarra, Co Mayo

 

 

Categories: My Journey | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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