Posts Tagged With: Galway

A Viral Adventure in Connemara

After days of virally-enforced isolation I looked out my window one Friday morning in March, to a cloudless sky over Quilty.  For the five weeks I had been back such a day had only happened a couple of times.  I wasted no time, grabbed my camera and pointed the car northwards.  Don’t get me wrong; not to get away from Quilty but here was my opportunity to visit Connemara again.  OK, so it was a three-hour drive but I have experienced this place in all its moods and it is unbeatable in the sunshine.  My destination ths time was Roundstone, a little corner of Connemara that I hadn’t properly explored.  To get there you go through Oughterard and Maam and head out on the road to Clifden.

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The view from Pine Island lookout

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Twelve Pines Island

And that is not too shabby a drive.  There’s one spot on this route that I cannot drive past without taking a photo.  Just past Recess is the Pine Island Lookout at the western end of Derryclare Lough.  Not surprisingly it looks out over a pine covered island, named Twelve Pines Island framed in the distance by the mountains of Connemara National Park. Not sure why it is called Twelve Pines, because there are more that 12 but ‘Twelve Pines’, ‘Twelve Pins’, maybe someone is having a little joke.  It certainly is the spot for a that classic Connemara postcard shot.

I met Hugh Sweeney there; a filmmaker from Galway, who was obtaining some drone footage. It was fascinating to watch the process and then to see the result, which he posted the following day.  I have added a link to the finished product. You can even see yours truly at the end of the first shot if you look closely.

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Tracked by a drone at Pine Island Lookout

We chatted, from a distance of course, and he told me about a little hut on the Owenmore River on the way to Roundstone.  which he thought would be a good location for a photo opportunity.

It was on my way; but of course I got distracted.  The road was winding along the shoreline of Ballynahinch Lake and on the left near a bridge just before Ballinafad was a little church and a graveyard behind it.  A simple building painted white and blue and nestled on a little river with those 12 Pins as a backdrop on one side and craggy hills with gravestones poking randomly out of the tussocky grass on the other.

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St Bridget’s Church and Graveyard with the Twelve Pins in the background.

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The graveyard extends for hundreds of metres along the lake shore.

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St Bridget’s Church viewed from the New Cemetery across the Lough.

It is hard to imagine a more peaceful, wild and naturally unkempt cemetery.  I think it’s marvelous that it has been left that way with no new burials.  The graves seem to continue for a considerable distance along the lake shore and beyond that is the New Cemetery visible on the other side of Lough Nacoogarrow.

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The New Cemetery at Ballinafad viewed from the Old cemetery.

I found what I thought was the fishing hut Hugh had told me about on the banks of the Owenmore River. A priceless view and I took some pics.  I had to pinch myself to remind me that I was still in Ireland and not the Canadian Rockies.

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Fishing hut on the Owenmore River

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Fishing hut on the Owenmore River

Driving on a few hundred metres donw the  river was another hut and there I caught up with Hugh again.  So a few more pics of course.

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Hugh Sweeney and Jenny  on the Owenmore River

Heading on to the sparklingly pretty village of Roundstone perched on the shore of Roundstone Bay across which the Twelve Bens can be seen in the distance.  A fishing village still, but well known now for its arts and crafts as well as its incredible natural beauty.  And with all the cafes restaurants and bars shut during the Corronavirus lockdown why were there so many people around I asked myself.

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The village of Roundstone

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View across Roundstone Bay I

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View across Roundstone Bay II

The answer lies a few kilometres further down the road at Gurteen Bay.  Here are two beaches that regularly appear on the lists of Ireland’s Best Beaches.  The two beaches,  Poll na Madrai (Dog’s Bay) and Pol na Feadóige (Plover Bay, although Feadóige also means tin whistle – I think I prefer the alternative name Tin Whistle Beach) are on either side of a spit of sand and grassland with a granite island at the end.  This type of isthmus is known as a Tombola.

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The Tombola near Roundstone. Plover Bay on the left and Don’s Bay on the right.

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Dog’s Bay looking south.

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Another view of Dog’s Bay looking north towards Errisbeg.

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Tin Whistle Beach

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Mad Dogs and Irishmen

White sandy beaches line each of the Bays bays and they are simply stunning 

The white sand is unique.  It is not quartz or coral as I have encountered regularly elsewhere but a mix of foraminifera and shell fragments.  What are foraminifera (forams for short)?  They are single-celled tiny marine organisms, related to amoeba, but with a hard shell  They are abundant, both today and in the fossil record going back to the Cambrian (540 million years).  The shells are made of crystalline CaCO3 and occasionally as at Dog’s Bay and Gurteen accumulate as beach sand.

The fine sand has crept over the granite hills nearby creating what I would like to call pseudo dunes.  But there are ‘real’ dunes however, particularly behind Dog’s Bay and continuing erosion has created moonscape of remnant pinnacles which are remarkable in their own right.

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Sand dunes sculpted into pinnacles at Dog’s Bay

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Remnants of sand dunes at Dog’s Bay.  Looking towards Errisbeg.

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Social distancing at Dog’s Bay

Despite it being a Friday in March and the coronavirus lockdown it was very difficult to find a car park at Dog’s Bay.  The beach is completely undeveloped with no facilities and that adds enormously to its appeal.  I can just imagine what it would be like in summer.

As the clouds rolled in about 4 pm the normal Irish winter-dull greyness reappeared.  But what a wonderful day of discovery I had, and a perfect cure for cottage fever and enforced distancing from society.  I can totally recommend it.  There is nowhere in Connemara you won’t be rewarded with a magic experience.  It never fails to deliver.

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Tiny Tawin Island and its Links to Two Giants of 1916

Ireland has lots of islands.  One compilation I found listed 255.  I’ve visited many and indeed written about them and absolutely love the different character of each, whether inhabited or not.  The other day I visited an island at the eastern end of Galway Bay, which I had never even heard of till then.  That’s Tawin Island just a few kilometres from Oranmore.

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A typical view on Tarwin Island

The island is reached by heading west from the village of Maree.  The approach road skirts the bay and then traverses a connecting bridge at Ballymanagh onto East Tawin.  Then another bridge cum causeway to Tawin itself.   

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The bridge to East Tawin

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The road to Tawin Island

The road narrows to one lane and you do feel you are entering a forgotten world.  At the end of the road is a small settlement and then a cattle grid, beyond which the road disintegrates into a goat track, and just a short distance later disappears entirely under flooded fields.

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The end of the road.

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Flooded road.  The geese love it.

I parked up outside the National School.  It is a simple one room building with a red door and a leadlight window characteristic of the time.  There are two windows, one facing north and another to the west with great views over the bay and to Galway city but both placed high enough above the ground so that children at their desks could not be distracted.

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The Tawin National School. Built 1905

This simple school building and Tawin Island however tell quite a story, linked to events in Ireland’s Republican history and to two giant men of the Struggle of 1916.  It is  worth retelling.

The tiny school was erected in 1905.  This is recorded in the plaque above the door. Before that there was another building which had operated as a school room.  But in 1903 that was closed by the authorities.  The local people had rebelled against the exclusive use of English, requesting that all lessons be in Irish.  In response the school was simply closed with the teacher withdrawn and the building quickly falling into disrepair.  The parents were then told it would not reopen until they paid for the repairs.

The following year the noted nationalist Sir Roger Casement, who was later to be hanged for his involvement in the Rising of 1916,  discovered their plight and became a fierce  advocate of the brave attempts of the islanders to ensure their 30 children did not lose their Irish.  The Tawin cause became central to Casement’s articulation of the formal espousal of Irish, the Gaelic movement and the cause of the Gaeltacht.  He obtained the support of the Gaelic League, which had been working feverishly to preserve the Irish languange and culture since 1895.  They helped raise the sum of £80 (of which Casement himself contributed £20) needed to build a new school.  This was opened in 1905, and the children now had a bilingual schoolmaster and again Irish was spoken in the homes of Tawin.

The building was also used by the Gaelic League for an annual Summer School, which leads to the next significant connection to the events of 1916,  Between 1911 and 1913 Robert de Valera became Driector of the the Summer School. De Valera of course was a commander during the Easter Rising and became head of the Irish government for over 20 years and also its President.  In 1912, during a visit by Casement to check progress of the school he had promoted, he met De Valera for the first time.  What transpired at the meeting is not recorded but it cannot be a coincidence that four years later they were both leading figures in the Rising.

The school remained open until 1992.  It is now incorporated into a residence and used as a holiday home but its integrity remains intact.

A short distance from the school is an ivy-covered ruin, which caught my attention.  I was told by the local landowner who happened to be wandering past, that this was known as the Teacher’s House.  It is in a sad state now but was clearly a fine home two- story home befitting a school mistress.  I met another local out walking and enjoying the intermittent sunshine. She told me she was a student in the school during the 1960s.  The teacher then was a Miss Fennessy and my informant told me what a memorable and  great privilege it was to be invited up to her house. Miss Fennessy never married and remained the teacher until the school closed in 1992.

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The Teacher’s House on Tarwin Island

Not far from the school are perhaps a dozen houses line up along the road.  The ‘village’ has no facilities and indeed never did.  No post office but a green post box from George V remains built into a wall, with an Out of Service sign giving us a tangible link to the past.

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The old post box on Tarwin Island

The island, at first glance, doen’t appear to have that much to offer.  It is low lying and treeless, and after a couple of very high tides and weeks of rain was sodden, so not really suitable for exploring.  But its quiet remoteness gives it a  unique ambience. Watching the storms gather over the Burren hills and sweep across the bay and then the dazzling sparkle when the sun returned made for an ever changing light show that provided some great  challenges  and opportunities for the camera.

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Storms sweep in across the bay with the Burren hills in the distance

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Darkness and light over Galway Bay.

I was surprised at how many people I met out and about (it was Sunday I suppose).  One local man I chatted to for quite a while (from an acceptable distance of course), pointed out a bob of seals on the rocks in the distance. I never would have noticed them and even with my big lens they were hard to spot. [By the way, there are 11 different collective nouns for seals, including bunch, crash, harem, knob, plump, pod and rookery but I’ve gone with ‘bob’ for some reason I can’t quite explain].

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A bob of seals gather on the shore

The island is also home to large flocks (gaggles?) of Light Bellied Brent Geese.  These migratory birds winter almost exclusively in Ireland, heading off to Iceland in April and then spending the summer in Arctic Canada. They were hard to sneak up on.

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Light Bellied Brent Geese wintering on Tawin Island

Anyway that’s Tawin.  I was surprised by what I found there and it proves to me yet again that anywhere in Ireland can provide rich rewards if you dig just a little and search out the back stories that are never that far away.

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A safe refuge for hares.

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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.

Reflections on the ice. Loch Awalia,.  Handful of stones.

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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Connemara Colours. Winter in the Maumturks.

Sometimes you get lucky.

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

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

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

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

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

Words are irrelevant.

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The Flaggy Shore and Aughinish. Make the time.

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Planar sectional view through a coral colony

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Large fossil coral colonies on the rock platform

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

 

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

 

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Glacial striations on the rock platform at Flaggy Shore

 

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

 

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Starlings I

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Starlings II

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Eyes left

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Eyes right

 

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

 

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The causeway built to access Auginish

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Peace I

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Peace II

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Peace III

 

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

 

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Looking across the inlet from Aughinish to the village of Ballyvelaghan

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

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Lengthening shadows

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Evening serenity I

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Evening serenity II

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

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Vivid red growth on the tidal flats

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

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Collecting seaweed

 

 

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Life on Aughinish

 

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

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A taste of Connemara

In early July I was at a traditional music festival at Spiddal in Co Galway.  I’ve been to this Festival every year and each time I was able to get into the hills and explore bits of Connemara.  Well this time the music kept me pretty busy and the weather was very changeable so no road trips.  But in a way I tasted a lot more of what makes Connemara unique.

The organisers of the festival found me some accommodation in a traditional Connemara cottage on the outskirts of Spiddal, which, due to the owners being away, I had to myself.   It was a time capsule. Made from large blocks of granite, covered in a thick coating of white and with a thatched roof.  It was like a picture postcard.  There was a second thatched cottage linked to the first with a glass walled room creating a rambling, many levelled, mix of old and new.

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The cottage near Spiddal where I stayed

 

In original condition the main cottage had the characteristic low doors, constantly collided with the top of my head. Something I struggled to adjust to.  There was no internet, but somehow this seemed appropriate.  I was told that the traditional design of the cottage was to have the front door aligned with the back so the wind would ventilate the house and blow away the chaff making life easier for the residents and the cohabiting animals.  Both doors were there with the front door though now converted to a window and the back door having wooden half doors and being the current main entrance to the cottage.  It was easy to imagine a house full of people and livestock seeking shelter from the bleak winter.  Life would have been tough.

 

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Original front door, now converted to a window

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Original back door, looking through to front.  

 

The cottage is part of an unplanned scatter of houses, old and new, lining a winding lane twisting through the granite outcrops towards the bare plains above. Very different landscape to what I am familiar with in Clare.  On these slopes there is thick vegetation attempting to reclaim the land. Giant granite boulders probably dropped by glaciers.  Hedges, some well trimmed others not.  Lovely gardens and as usual carefully maintained cottages next to carefully preserved but ignored ruins. My every move was watched by the happiest cows in the world.

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Then I find myself on a narrow boreen,  running through an open treeless bog land covered in bog cotton, piles of carefully stacked turf, granite boulders, the inevitable encroaching windmills and a misty view back over Galway Bay.  The lane draws me on and I pass a man and his dog, a figure that could have walked out of the 1800s.  The rain returns however and I cut my trip short.

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Just a taste this time but I will return soon for the full degustation meal.

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

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

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