Posts Tagged With: history

The Hunt comes to Cree in County Clare

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

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Horse transports wherever you look

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The main street of Cree and Walsh’s Bar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ready and waiting

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All set

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Quite a handful

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Not long to go

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Anticipation

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

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The horn is sounded

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The dogs set off

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And the riders follow

 

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At quite a trot

 

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

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Dympna with a friend wait for the Hunt to start.

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Masie, ridden by Aoife. Warming up.

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

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

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Gathering at the jump

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The hounds go first

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Separated from the pack?

 

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The end of a long day

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Nearly home Masie

 

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Towards Cree

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

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

 

 

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Árainn Mhór Island. Donegal in a Day.

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

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

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

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The Red Ferry heads out from the port of Burtonport

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Essential supplies for life on a Donegal island

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Can’t tell if it’s coming or going.

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Towards Árainn Mhór

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Approaching Leabgarrow, the ferry terminal at Árainn Mhór

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The weather can’t make up its mind

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Storms arrive on the east coast

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

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Green Island off the west coast of Árainn Mhór

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Looking across towards Errigal

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

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village of Torries at the south of the island

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Quartzite hills

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Bog land and granite

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

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Off for a walk

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

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

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

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The cliffs at Rinrawros Point

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

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

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

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Abandoned fishing boats at Leabgarrow.

 

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

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

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

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Sunset behind cloud

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Clouds aflame I

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Clouds aflame II

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Glowing thunderheads

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

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

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Giant Steps

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

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

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

So what are we talking about here?

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

 

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

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

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View west showing Causeway and Chimney Tops in the distance.

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

 

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

 

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View from the clifftop down onto the Causeway.

 

 

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

 

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The Giant’s Boot

 

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

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

 

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Regular hexagonal columns

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Columns with 4, 5, 6 or 7 sides.

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Columnar jointing

 

 

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Spectacular columns at the Organ Pipes

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

 

 

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Horizontal jointing

 

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

 

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Detail of column surfaces.  water collects on convex surfaces

 

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

 

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Chimney Tops 2017

 

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Chimney Tops 1888

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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Layering in basalt flows

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Interbasaltic laterite

 

 

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Laterite in detail

 

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

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

 

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Giant’s boot.  Glacial erratic

 

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

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Romance and Rocks.  What a combination.

 

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Strokestown Park House. A Living Museum.

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

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

 

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Strokestown Park House

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

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The gateway to Strokestown House in the distance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Drawing Room

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

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Entrance foyer

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The Master’s bedroom

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The Lady’s bedroom

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The Nursery

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The schoolroom

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The toyroom

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The Dining Room

 

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

 

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The old Kitchen with its massive range

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Beautiful original cast iron cooking range

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Original Strokestown jug

 

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

 

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The Library

 

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Original 17th Century wallpaper lines the walls of the Library

 

 

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Rare Irish Chippendale bookcase in the Library

 

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

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

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

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

 

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Portrait of General Edward Packenham hanging in the Foyer

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Servants’ tunnel under the house

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Entrance to the tunnel

 

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

 

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Herbaceous borders line the walls

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There are formal and informal pathways

 

 

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Croquet Lawn and Summer House

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Detail of Summer house with Autumn foliage

 

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Beautiful ornamental lily pond

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Secluded pathways

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Perfectly manicured hedges

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Numerous hidden spaces lie behind hedges

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

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When old chairs become an art installation.

 

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

 

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Ruins and Ruined Dreams. An Abandoned House in Roscommon,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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An Apology to Turlough O’Carolan

Driving through Keadue in the very north of Co Roscommon, as I was on this crisp, clear Autumn day, you are reminded everywhere of Turlough O’Carolan. There is what seems to be a new sculpture in the main street of this spotless town with a harp at the centre and there is a Heritage Park with monuments to the man. A carved coloured stone with the music for Sí Beag Sí Mór sits in a rotunda that looks out over the village to the Arigna Mountains.  And if you come back in August next year you can attend the 40th O’Carolan Harp Festival.  Though born in Co Meath, the blind harpist and composer lived in and around Keardue/Ballyronan so this is definitely O’Carolan Country.

 

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The village of Keadue

 

 

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Tribute to O’Carolan?  newly installed statue in Keadue.

 

And just out of the village, there is the Kilronan Cemetery where he was buried. The elaborate entrance proclaims this with a carved stone mounted over the gate.  His grave lies within the family crypt adjacent to the ruins of the Abbey.

 

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Entrance gate to the Kilronan Cemetery

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Detail of the front gate.

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Kilronan graves

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Kilronan Abbey ruins.

 

The sun was shining when I visited and of course I had to take a ‘selfie’ of me playing Sí Beag, Sí Mór at the grave site. Now I am not a superstitious person but I swear that as I played the last note a black cloud came from nowhere and filled the sky. The heavens dumped for about three minutes as I retreated to the safety of my car.

 

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The headstone of the grave for Turlough O’Carolan. 

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Sí Beag, Sí Mór

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One minute later the heavens dumped.

 

I get the message, Turlough. I have to admit that a friend warned me not to do it. Now seriously, I’m sure it wasn’t the worst you have heard, but I promise never again.

Sorry.

If you’re in that beautiful part of the world. Go visit. Just don’t play Sí Beag, Sí Mór.

Categories: My Journey, Stories, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Route 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Almost.

I know those who follow this blog probably do so because they are interested in my posts on Ireland.  Well I recently had a holiday in the States so I have a few other stories to tell. So I will get back to Ireland but in the meantime I will talk a bit about my visits to San Francisco and then later New York.

I had just spent some time discovering San Francisco.  My plan was to drive south from there to Los Angeles on Highway 1.  Legendary names like Monterey, Big Sur and San Simeon were on the itinerary and I had given myself three days. What I wasn’t really aware of was that this actually wasn’t now possible due to a landslide and storm damage near Big Sur last year and consequent closing of the iconic bridge there amid worries as to its stability.   But as I headed off I didn’t know this.

Leaving San Francisco shrouded in its usual summer fog was not exactly what I would have hoped for but you don’t need crystal clear blue skies to enjoy this place.

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Goodbye to San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in mist.

The geologist in me wanted to find the San Andreas Fault.  This was my first challenge.   The city behind, I followed Freeway 280 and Highway 35 as they traced the line of  the Fault. The fault itself though lay to the west of the highway and was defined by a linear river and lake system known as Crystal Springs and San Andreas Lake. So there wasn’t a lot to see.

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San Andreas Lake, south of San Francisco.  The lake fills the valley which marks the path of the San Andreas Fault.

There were a couple of spots where the rocks in the road cuttings showed strong evidence of shearing and slickensides and where extreme measures were taken to support the crumbling rock in road cuttings.  I assume these are due to splay faulting from the San Andreas.

I looked for a spot where I could cross the fault line on the way to Highway 1 But at the probable location there was nothing to see from the massive bridge over the lake.

I didn’t realise the fault line was so inland.  Next time I will do more research.  Oh well. I headed back to Highway 1 through the rugged hills of the Miramontes Ridge to the coast at Half Moon Bay. Nowhere to stop and take photos on the way!

Half Moon Bay is a pretty spot where you can partake of gourmet food, taste olive oil, visit boutiques or craft shops if that’s your wont.  Or do as I did and have an organic salad and listen to some accoustic music in the garden of San Benito Cafe. That was a pleasant surprise.

Now I was really on Highway 1 so I headed south. I took every opportunity to get off the freeway onto the coast and there were plenty of places to stop and walk down the cliffs to deserted beaches.  At San Gregorio Beach, at Pescadero Beach and then the lighthuse at Pigeon Point Bluffs. And one of the best windsurfing and sail boarding locations in California at Waddell Creek.

On the way there were rugged cliffs, and jagged coasts, banks of fog rolling in with blue sky behind, a lighthouse silhouetted in the mist, pods of pelicans, marsh and bogland with a congregation of egrets, a phallanx of wind surfers and sail boarders taking advantage of a favourable breeze, hardy flora, solitary birds of prey and all the time the Pacific Ocean on my right.

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Coastal scene at San Gregorio Beach

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The coast near Pescadero Beach

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Pigeon Point Bluffs

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A bank of fog rolls in over Pigeon Point

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Egrets at home in the Pescadero Marsh

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An egret takes flight.

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Man takes flight.  At Waddell Creek.

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Waddell Creek Beach

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Waddell Creek Beach

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The food bowl of America.  Growing Vegetables near Monterey

I had intended to visit the boardwalk at Santa Cruz but the crowds and the chaos turned me off.  After all it was just a collection of carousels and rides though the fact it had been there since 1907 was of interest to me.  So I continued on and finished the day in fading light in a classic American motel in the town of Marina, just north of Monterey.

The next day I wanted to take the 17 mile Drive around Pebble Beach south of Monterey.  Renowned for its wildlife and for its scenic beauty I was a tad surprised when I was asked to pay $10 but the fine print on the ticket says I could have my money back if I played a round of golf.  Yeah sure. Read on.

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The Monterey entrance to the 17-mile drive.

Once you drive in the gate the first image you have is of the lush greens of a luxury course where it meets the Pacific Ocean.  There are indeed eight golf courses on the peninsula. Including two that are regularly rated in the top 10 in the world.  Pebble Beach which is open to the public and costs $525 a round (but you get your $10 back) and Cypress Point (which is NOT open to the public and is the most exclusive in the world with only 250 members!).  Non members just cannot play there and members include zillionaires such as Bill Gates but shamefully if your rich but black you can’t be a member.

Many of the courses hug the coast and reach inland to the marshes and forests.  Indeed there are greens and tees located within the beachside rocks dunes and cliffs.  Huge granite boulders and cypress pines are a feature.  Challenging would be one word to describe many of the holes.  The famous Par 3 hole 16 at Cypress Point requires a 230 yard drive over the swirling ocean to reach the tee.

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A glance down to the shore reveals a young seal seemingly unperturbed about being alone.  Just basking.   Lines of pelicans soar overhead making their way north and the rocks are covered with cormorants and gulls including the elegant California Gull with the red dot on the beak and the distinctive grey plumage of the Heermann’s Gull (The head turns white when they are breeding.

 

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A young seal basks on the rocks

 

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A pod of pelicans and a lonely cypress.

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Pelicans in flight

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California Gull

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Adult non breeding Heermann’s Gull

Look hard and you will see the perfectly camouflaged Californian Squirrel.  This is a ground squirrel unlike his tree based cousin perhaps more familiar to those on the east coast or London for that matter.  Darting about in and around the rocks and then standing up like a prairie dog.  Motionless.  Certainly they are cute but they are still considered a pest as they were in 1918 when children were enlisted to poison the rodents which were then apparently threatening the war effort against the Germans (see the squirrel army dressed in Kaiser -type hats in the poster below).

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California Ground Squirrel

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Squirrel on its back legs

 

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Poster from 1918 encouraging children to kill squirrels.  The poison of choice was strychnine.

I mentioned spotting a seal.  Well nothing really prepares you for Bird Rock Island.  I could hear the barking before I saw them.  It lies just off the coast about half way around the drive.  It is literally covered with sea lions and seals.  The sea lions are spread all over the rocks hanging precariously, with some occupying the summit.  Their climbing skills are remarkable.  The rock is shared with cormorants and gulls and the surrounding water is their playground.  The barking is incessant as is the cavorting.  Beats Sea World.

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Bird Rock from the mainland

 

 

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Just nearby was a ‘venue’ of vultures resting on the shore (trust me; It’s a ‘kettle’ if they’re flying and a ‘wake’ if they’re eating!).  At first in my naïveté I thought they were Condors.  But good old Google and no they are Turkey Vultures or that very American appellation Turkey Buzzards.  They are impressive birds and beautiful in flight.  They do have a bad rap though because of course they are carrion eaters and hey, they are not exactly pretty.  The featherless head is said to enable them to burrow into carcasses more easily.

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Just off the coast of Bird Rock lies Carmel Canyon an offshoot of the 10,000 ft deep Monterey Canyon.  During summer cold water wells up from the Canyon and this brings nutrients and feed and is responsible for the rich marine life.  The area was declared a sanctuary in 1992.  This time of the year there is also a variety of coastal flora.  Some familiar some not.  There is what we call ‘pigface’ a perfectly adapted succulent which actually comes from South Africa and heaps of others I have no idea the names of.

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Pigface.

But in truth the most distinctive vegetation is the Monterey Cypress.  They occur in forests or as single or groups.  They are native to the peninsula but have been cultivated widely around the world.  Often bare of leaves except for a canopy they can have twisted trunks and branches or even grow horizontally as they cope with the harsh conditions.

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A Cypress Forest.  Monterey,  The trees love the cooler summers and the constant fog.

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Near Pebble Beach.  Survivors.

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Monterey Cypress.  The road map of a hard journey.

But the area is synonymous with one particular tree.  The Lone Cypress.  It is located between the Pebble Beach and Cypress Point Golf courses and sits exposed to the elements on a granite outcrop as it has for maybe 250 years.  Held up now by wires.  it is seen as a symbol of rugged individualism and struggle.  It is much photographed but on this day my efforts fall way short, due to fog and haze.

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The Lone Cypress

My final stop was at Cypress Point.  The actual point not the golf course.  Of course it is covered with pines but of interest here were some sea otters.  Unfortunately I only caught occasional glimpses as there were a bit reclusive.  And really hard to photograph but they are recognisable.

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The coast at Cypress Point

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Two sea otters at play.  Point Cypress

The Peninsula is a place where conflicting needs seem to coexist.  Luxury homes sit beside extraordinary natural beauty, impressive wildlife and millions of visitors.  Golf and bird watchers inhabit the same space.  It all seemed to be pretty well managed.

 

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Innovative architecture.  Pebble Beach

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Grand houses grand view

 

I spent much of the day here but it was time to move on.  Big Sur was my next destination but I needed gas (as they say over here).  The helpful man at the gas station told me that I was wasting my time as the road had been closed over a year.  So Plan B.  Leave the coast, head inland through Carmel Valley across the hills, and join HIghway 101. Just keep that in mind if you want to drive Highway 1.  You can’t.

Heading inland I took local roads.  It was a very different landscape.  The fog soon lifted.  to reveal steep hills, sometimes forested sometimes bare and sometimes covered with yellow grasses.  IG3C9042IG3C9031

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Carmel Valley itself is a wine growing area and lies in a wide flood plain surrounded by a mountain range. I can’t comment on the wine but the view was special

 

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Carmel Valley

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The second night was spent in King City, A not very remarkable motel in a not very remarkable place.  That left just a short (?) few hours drive left to Los Angeles for the next day.

I stuck to the inland road so my dream of completing Highway 1 was not to be.  But this was my first dose of real US Freeway traffic.  There was one section near Santa Barbara where it took nearly two hours to travel 10 miles  There seems to be an inverse rule that the wider the freeway and the more lanes, the slower it will be.  Still the cd was blaring out Irish tunes and this is the American Dream isn’t it. The road trip?  Crawling along the Freeway.

Ahh no; really there was a lot to see.

The Salinas River Valley is home to the very large San Ardo’s Oilfield.  The Miocene sands here are rich in oil bearing sediments and oil wells with ‘nodding donkey’ pumps are as far as the eye can see.  It is surprising how the simple beam pump used in the mining industry for centuries is still in use as the main method of extraction.

 

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San Ardo oilfield

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A bean pump at San Ardo

 

 

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San Ardo oilfield

 

It’s not generally thought of as a pretty sight but for the geologist in me it’s like looking through a window into a decaying technology extracting a dying product.  Already in many parts of California the acres of nodding donkeys have been replaced by acres of solar panels and windmills.

The drive along Highway 101 takes you in large part through the earliest settled parts of California.  The original settlers (ie invaders) were the Spanish and they set up a string of Missions between 1769 and 1833.  They were set up by the Fransiscans to evangelise the native Americans.  There were 21 of these Missions and they formed the basis of the colony of New Spain known as Alta California and part of the Spanish Empire.  They heavily disrupted native Californian life by forcing them to live in settlements, introduced ranching, fruits, vegetables, horses and technology but left a lasting legacy in terms of modern California with the cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, and San Francisco developing around missions.

Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821 and took Alta California with it and in 1849 ceded it to the United States as a result of losing the Mexican war.  Ironic actually as gold was discovered in California that same year.

 I visited one of these missions at San Miguel.  Built in 1797 close to a Salinas Indian village the aim was to convert these natives to Christianity.  It is still largely in original condition and though not run now as a mission is used for regular church services. You can tour through the building which includes many notable featurs such as a collonade of 12 arches all different sizes and shapes, a plaza with a fountain, a courtyard, an alley through the buildings to allow sheep to enter, original furnishings and art work, a beautifully decorated church and an adjoioning cemetery with the interred remains of 2,250 native Americans.

 

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Plaza and fountain San Miguel Mission

 

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Main gate to the Mission

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Collonade with 12 arches

 

 

 

These buildings are held in high regard and their preservation a priority as they are  a treasured part of Californian history.

The missions were accessed by a road known as the El Camino Real (The Royal Road) going from San Diego to north of San Francisco.  Much of it was just a goat track but in places it was marked by carved crosses in trees.  As you would imagine most haven’t survived but one was discovered near San Miguel and is on display here.  Today Highway 101 pretty much follows the old route and it is marked by bells on poles. Tradition has it however that the padres spread mustard seed along the route creating a golden highway helping the pilgrims to find their way.

So I’d certainly recommend the journey.  Check whether Highway 1 is open and be prepared to travel other routes.  Get off the freeways and take your time.  It’s always rewarding.  But that’s the great thing about travel.  There’s always something else to discover somewhere else.  It just might not be what you expect.

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California grass.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please take note Mr Trump.

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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

Tom Carmody – Home in a box.

I first met Kerry accordion player Danny O’Mahony in Birmingham in 2016 at a Festival, where he surprised with an amazing set in concert with renowned fiddler, Liz Kane. I then heard him again more recently at Ballyferriter in West Kerry. It was here he played his mighty Tom Carmody accordion. It was hard not to notice it. As dazzling as his playing.

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Intrigued, I chatted to him afterwards about this instrument, and my interest was piqued so we agreed to meet at the Rowan Tree Café in Ennis for a chat. I want to write here about the story that unfolded. It is a story of a tradition that spans time and continents. Of happenstance and passion. Of connections and stewardship. And of rescue and revitalisation.

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I have to start somewhere so who was Tom Carmody? Danny explains. Tom is not well known today but he was a master accordion player born in 1893 in Dromlought near Listowel in Kerry and emigrated to New York in 1925. He immediately made an impact and during the Irish recording boom of the 1930s appeared on many 78s with James Morrison.  New York was a melting pot of Irish melodies; and new tunes and new influences made for a vibrant scene. Indeed, Danny says that Tom introduced James to the tune “Stick across the Hob” which was to become the famous ‘Morrison’s Jig’. One can only assume Tom was in much demand as he became the first to play Irish music at the Waldorf Astoria and was employed to organise music there.

Flashy players required a flashy instrument. And Tom had the flashiest. He commissioned an Italian maker in New York, F Iorio, to make this instrument for him. It was loud and brash as was its exterior. Gaudily decorated with the Irish and American flags and detailed inlays in mother of pearl on the fingerboard incorporating a harp and shamrocks. The name TOM CARMODY is boldy emblazoned across the instrument where it will have maximum exposure. It is a work or art. But the story behind it is just as interesting. It was nearly lost.

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Tom returned to Kerry in the 1970s and died in 1986. This was the year Danny started to play the accordion. Danny grew up with no knowledge of this Kerry man, despite the fact he was a distant relative. He is a grand nephew. Growing up, Danny tells, his father was an accordion player with a overriding passion for the instrument. There were three gods in his house. As in most Irish homes silence was demanded for the Angelus when it came on the radio but in the O’Mahony home, silence was also demanded if there was a tune from Joe Burke or Tony McMahon.

Twenty years later Danny discovered the legacy of Tom Carmody and in 2006 he found the location of the Tom Carmody box. Following the death of Tom’s wife in the 90s it had passed to Denis Moran, her nephew. Denis did not play and it lay forgotten in a shed behind his cottage.

Danny approached Dennis to ask if he could borrow it with a view to photographing it. What he discovered was the accordion in its original case in a very sad state. It was all there but held together with binding twine and caked in dust and grime and a home for live insects.

It was almost too late. Its fate was somewhat ironic. From what we know about Tom and from contemporary photos he was a very dapper and meticuluous man, always well presented and his instrument always in immaculate condition. No doubt he would not have been pleased to see it now.

Denis agreed to let Danny take it away. It was cleaned it up and this revealed it to be in marvellous condition externally but totally seized up. Seeing it now Danny, was desperate to get it back to playable condition. Further negotiation ensued and with some trepidation it was agreed to let Danny take it for two weeks to see what he could do. With the help of accordion guru from East Clare, Charlie Harris, they feverishly went to work and brought it back to life, carefully cleaning and tuning the original reeds which were underneath it all in perfect condition. The only part that needed replacing was the left hand leather strap!

It must have been a remarkable experience to hear that box sing again just as it did in the 1930s.

Danny was concerned that it would continue do deteriorate if kept under the same conditions. He broached this with Denis asking him if he, Denis, could keep it in his bedroom with him so it was not subject to extreme temperature variation. The answer was “Oh no, I couldn’t do that”.  But Denis had done his homework and was happy that Danny would be a suitable custodian of the instrument and gave it to his care.

Danny also obtained valuable material on Tom including photos and all his recordings so since then he has researched his legacy and Tom’s tunes on Tom’s box are a feature of some of his concerts. The work of this forgotten box player lives on.

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I love stories like this. But it could have been very different but for Danny’s persistence and a little bit of luck. If you get the chance to hear him, go listen.  You might be lucky and hear him play the Tom Carmody.

Meanwhile you can check out his website at http://www.dannyomahony.com/

 

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

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