Posts Tagged With: Kerry

You gotta love puffins.

As I say you gotta love puffins.

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

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

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

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

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Defying gravity

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

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Taking flight

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Wheeeeee!

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

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Perfect puffin territory

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Standing guard in front of a burrow

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Or nesting in a cave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Leaving the harbour at Portmagee

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The village of Portmagee.  Reflective calm

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

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Little Skellig I

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Little Skellig II

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Little Skellig III.

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

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

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Gannets on Little Skellig

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Did I mention gannets?

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Natural arch at the northern end of Little Skellig

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

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Every surface is occupied by a gannet

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A gannet glides past our boat

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

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As we head to the south Skellig Michael is revealed

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Looking back northwards towards Little Skellig

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Skellig Michael looms.  Approaching from the north

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My first sighting of puffins

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Poser.

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Close Encounters of the Bird Kind.

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

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Guillemots and kittiwakes nesting on the cliff

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Kittiwakes grab their spot wherever they can

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Razorbills

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

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Visitors start the climb

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In the footsteps of the monks

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

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

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Rich archaeological heritage including beehive huts and a high cross

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Inside a beehive hut

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View through the window of the church

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

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Proof I was there

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

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

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A close up of the terraces at the Hermitage site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This will be a lifelong treasured memory for us all.

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

As I was Going over the Cork and Kerry Mountains. Part 2. The Gap of Dunloe. December 2017

As I was Going over the Cork and Kerry Mountains……

Recently I posted on the spectacular Killarney National Park.  Though the blog only saw the light of day in December it related to a trip completed in June.

Now six months later I had the notion to revisit these mountains.  Storm Caroline had dumped snow all over Ireland so I wanted to see the National Park covered in white.  In this regard I was disappointed.  It seemed the show was restricted to the north and the very highest mountains,.  So I didn’t linger along the road from Killarney to Moll’s Gap, the road I covered in my previous blog (Part 1).  It certainly put on a different face.   Firstly hardly a tourist.  I was the only car at the Ladies View.  Indeed I was almost the only car on the road.  No buses and this time my brakes worked.

Funny how you miss things.  But last time I didn’t see the ruins of the castellated Musgrave Barracks of the Royal Irish Constabulary right on the edge of the road.  The lush green forests I talked about last time were not so welcoming with the now leafless trees.  There was still in many places the carpet of mosses covering the land, that impressed me so much in June.  Sometimes as if a green billiard cloth had been draped over the rocks

I decided to explore the Black Valley and the Gap of Dunloe which runs up the western side of the National Park and maybe head into the higher mountains.  Good decision but unrealistic timewise.  It was bitterly cold and and walking was not particularly inviting but it was truly spectacular even from the roadside and I just kept stopping so I ultimately ran out of light.  Just past Moll’s Gap on the inland road to Sneem (Not the Ring of Kerry) you see a small single lane road to the right.  No sign of any indication where it actually went.  But as it seemed to be the only way to head into the mountains and with no Google, I took it.  The road crosses the broad glacial valley framed to the north with the snow capped ranges of the MacGillycuddy Reeks before heading back east and then cutting sharply back up to the north and over the ridge towards the Gap of Dunloe.

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Killarney Lakes.  view across Muckross Lake

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Killarney National Park.  Ruins of Musgrave Barracks

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Killarney National Park.  Sharing the road.

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Killarney National Park.  A green tablecloth.

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Killarney National Park.  Bare hills and bare trees.

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Ladies View car park

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View from the car park – (December)

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View from the car park (June)

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Killarney Lakes.  View of Looscaunagh Lough

 

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Heading up to Moll’s Gap

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Moll’s Gap

This next series of photos were taken on the Black Valley Road.  Beautiful interplay of light.

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This bridge heading up to the Gap of Dunloe had two passing bays due to inability to see what’s coming!

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This is my kind of country.  Wild, rocky, desolate and seemingly nothing living here except sheep with identifying patches of pink and purple.  The Gap itself is a very impressive break in the sandstone hills caused by a glacial breach.   It has been a famed tourist route since Victorian times. Also easy to see why the area is so popular with rock climbers. We follow along the valley of the River Loe and pass a string of lakes crossed by a number of single arch stone bridges.   The entrance to the largest of the lakes is guarded by by two giant boulders through which the road passes.  This locality known as The Pike seems little changed since the 19th century.

Just the occasional car today but I can well imagine the chaos on this one lane road with the summer tourist traffic, cars, vans, bikes, walkers and pony traps.

Go in Winter!

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The Gap of Dunloe looking north

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Another view of the Gap

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The Pike December 2017

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The Pike 1888

 

 

 

 

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As I was Going over the Cork and Kerry Mountains. Part 1. June 2017. Killarney National Park

As I was Going over the Cork and Kerry Mountains.

Well I didn’t meet Captain Farrell, but I did discover a glorious land of misty mountains, lakes, cascading rivers and verdant mossy forests.  ‘Discover’ is the wrong word, I know, because I had to share it with half of Germany, so I guess the world had already ‘discovered’ it.  Indeed the road I took is from Kenmare to Killarney, two tourist hotspots and on the famous Ring of Kerry.

It was mid June and I was returning from a festival in West Cork;  I had spent the night in Kenmare. As cloud and rain set in I was in two minds to go the ‘scenic’ route or just head straight home to Clare.   Luckily I was talked into going over the mountain but my hopes were not high.  As it turned out my brakes were playing up and when I limped back to Ennis my garage told me that I had done the whole trip with no front discs.  I wondered what that noise of metal on metal was.

So on to Moll’s Gap and then beyond; the rain held off though and occasionally the clouds would part and a startling landscape would be revealed.

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Heading up to Moll’s Gap

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Heading down from Moll’s Gap

I pulled into a lay-by not far from Moll’s Gap to let the stream of buses pass and the cloud lifted long enough to get a glimpse of the valley view. But it quickly closed back in.

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Mist in the valley

Before I decided to head off again, I crossed the road for a pee. I know this is too much information, but, in seeking a bit of privacy, I wandered just 20 metres off the road and I found myself in the middle of a ferny  fairyland (I think I even found a fairy residence!). Moss-covered trees and boulders. It was primitive and primordial.  Vigorous vines embracing trees and consuming them;  epiphytes sharing their world and mosses making their hosts unrecognizable.   Unlike anything I had seen here in Ireland.  I went back and got my camera and spent the next hour attuning myself to this lush, leafy, sylvan Arcadia.

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Hundreds in coaches and cars streamed past headed for the spots marked with brown signs, unaware of what they were missing but no doubt with boxes to tick.

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Having soaked my fill and hopefully capturing a little of the feeling of the place in my photos, I headed on to join the throng at the next brown sign. This was near the ‘Ladies View’. There was room for half a dozen coaches to park.  Sort of.

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Indeed the place was swarmed as dozens disgorged, charged up the hill in the by now ‘soft cloud’, as the Irish call it, pulled out their cameras and recorded the complete white out in front of them.  The perfect selfy with nothing in the background to distract. I too tried to photograph the scenery but found much more interest in those struggling to deal with the reality of touring Ireland.

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Heading down the hill a bit to the real ‘Ladies View’, suddenly the cloud lifted enough to see the valley below. I could now see what impressed Queen Victoria’s ladies so much!

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A lady admiring the view

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But the view is not just for ladies.

Then I heard the skirl of pipes across the valley. Highland pipes not Uillean. I walked back up the hill to where the sound was coming from and found myself back at the coach stop. The crowds were still there but now they had something to see.  And hear.  The highland pipes in their natural environment.  Well almost.  The hills of Killarney are not quite the Scottish Highlands.  Derek said he plays the Uillean pipes too but doesn’t bring them if the weather is bad.   But it was as if the pipes had scared away the clouds and the cameras this time had something to photograph.

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He was very patient with the hordes that wanted a photo record of their moment in the clouds with him.

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It didn’t take long though for another shower to come sweeping in.  Enough this time for the piper to pack up and discreetly retreat along with the bussers.

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The storm approaches 1

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The storm approaches 2

Time to move on.  Further down the mountain I stopped at a lakeside rest. A serene place which the buses had bypassed.  The cloudy, misty atmosphere seemed to add to that wonderful ataraxic feeling.  I wished I had more time.

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Muckross Lake

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Killarney Lakes.  So inviting.

Then I rejoined the multitude at the Torc waterfall. Here again we find ourselves in a stunning forest. Huge trees on steep slopes.  Green and lush.  Chaotic and ordered. It seemed truly ancient and there was this lovely dark light as the sun suddenly had to battle the obstacles of cloud and canopy, in its efforts to break through.

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Tall timber

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Downstream from the waterfall

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Torc Waterfall

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This little taste of the mountain forests and lakes of Killarney national park was a breathtaking tonic. Hugely different to the Ireland I have grown accustomed to – waves, cliffs and buffeting winds are the norm for me in West Clare.  I guess I now understand its popularity.

I will return soon and hopefully the sun will be shining.

 

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Dingleingdinglelingering. Living on the Hedge.

So what’s the word for someone from Dingle? Maybe a Dingleling?  Sorry about that.

And what if someone from Dingle spent a relaxing day touring the Dingle Peninsula? Well that would be Dinglelingdinglelingering wouldn’t it?

Well enough of this silliness.  I am not a Dingleing but I would be quite happy to be.

7th August 2017.  The weather forecast said scattered sunshine and showers. That was like a gold-plated invitation to spend the day outside. So I decided to go Dinglelingering.

The weather forecast however, luckily, was wrong. There was NO rain and lots and lots of sun. So a quick trip around the Peninsula saw me and my very worthy photo assistant for the day, Sophia, from Bavaria, a first time visitor to Ireland, doing a quick tour over Conor Pass to Dingle, Ballyferriter, around the Slea Head Road to Inch and back to Tralee.

The scenery is of course astonishing and a huge contrast to the magical winter wonderland I posted on my blog in March.

Link to dingle-peninsular-the-irish-alps

Here’s a few samples from the most recent visit. Glorious panoramic views from the Conor Pass;  an elevated glacial lake way above the road;  truly spectacular striations on the bare rock caused by glacial action; the coastline along Slea Head, Inch Beach; a busker, lots of tourists.  Tourists yes but thankfully not the stream of buses you get in the Ring of Kerry.  But after all it is August.

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Elevated glacial lake above the waterfall on the Conor Pass

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View from tht top of the Pass.

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colours in the floor of the lake

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Glacial striations on the edge of the lake, caused by movement of ice.

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The water exits the lake by this narrow channel.

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Lakes on the valley floor.

 

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Beehive huts from 2,000 BC

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Detail of a hut wall

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Beehive hut wall and roof.  Corbelled.

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Inch Beach

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Inch Beach

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about in this blog.   I want to focus here on what I think is the highlight of a summer soirée in this part of Ireland.

Living on the Hedge.

I can’t speak for the rest of Ireland but Clare and Kerry are in late July and early August absolutely ablaze with a riot of colour lining the roadside. This is my fourth summer here but I never noticed this intensity of flora before. This year has produced magnificent displays of wild flowers. We had it earlier in the Spring with the Spring Gentian and orchids carpeting the Burren and then the incredible Whitethorn and now this vivid show.

Hedges are a major feature of the Irish roadside if you leave the N’s, particularly if you travel the byways – R’s and L’s. Most of the year you don’t notice them. A drab and featureless tangle of green or in winter, seemingly dead and leafless.  And then the rest of the year, they are vigorous and compete with the tarmac making the roads considerable narrower.   And they can block your unimpeded views of the countryside.  But it’s a different story when they are in flower.

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So here in Dingle I decided to have a closer look. This particular boreen is a part of the Cosán na Naomh or Saints Road, an 18km pilgrimage road to the foot of Mt Brandon.  The magnificent backdrop is of the coast around Ballyferriter with the Three Sisters being prominent.

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The hedge is a layered pastel of orange, red, white, yellow and purple.  I was intrigued and wondered how much of this display was endemic.  I knew fuchsia wasn’t. What about the rest?

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So here is a bit of a rundown of the most obvious plants that make up this display. I’m sure I’ve missed heaps as I am not a botanist but it’s what my eyes and camera were drawn to.

Fuchsia.  Fuchsia loves Ireland. I struggled to grow this back home in Australia. Too dry, too hot, too much sunshine.  But here those issues are not a problem. You don’t see the many exotic varieties just the one purple and blue single bell shaped flowers.  Of course the flowers are exquisite and despite its origin in Chile the bush has been so naturalised that it is the Cork county emblem.

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Fuchsia

Wild Angelica. Standing out against the orange and red are the white many rayed umbels of this tall perennial. A native of Ireland

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Wild Angelica

Brambles/Blackberries   One of the pleasures of Ireland is the gathering of blackberries from the roadside. No worries about spraying as in Oz. This time of the year the brambles are flowering and developing berries.  A taste of what’s to come. You have to look hard among the verdant growth but soon they will dominate.  Native to Ireland but a pest in Australia.

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blackberries

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Blackberries

Wild Carrot  A tall erect plant with a cluster of white flowers. Native.

 

Centaury. Small 5 lobed pinkish red flowers, somewhat overpowered by its neighbours. Native

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Centaury

Tufted Vetch. A splash of purple on long stalked racemes. Not so common here but ver abundant.  Native

 

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Tufted Vetch

Montbretia.   The most startling plant. Long strap like leaves and multiple flower stems with bright orange funnel like flowers. I love the way this plant is described as a Naturalised Garden Escape.  So definitely not a Native.

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Montbretia

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Montbretia

Meadowsweet   Creamy-white scented flowers. 5 petals. Tall erect plant.  Native

Common Knapweed / Hardhead   Flowers are red-purple on erect stems.  Height to 1m.  Native.

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Common Knapweed

Hawksbeard.  Splashes of yellow among the reds oranges and purples.  Clusters of small yellow flowers with erect buds. Grows to about a metre.  Native and very common.

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Hawksbeard

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Hawksbeard

 

So, turns out most of the plants are native. But and here’s the big but. The two dominant plants of the roadside are the Fuchsia and the Montbretia and both these are introduced. The hedges without these two plants would be very different and I’m guessing would be dominated by brambles with the other plants struggling to get a foothold.

If you are visiting Ireland in Summer, do take time to stop the car and have a look.

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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

A Tour through Sliabh Luachra. Russian Collusion?

Anton Zille is from Moscow. He plays the fiddle, is a regular visitor to Ireland and is totally obsessed with Irish music. Not just Irish music but music from Sliabh Luachra. He runs Sliabh Luachra sessions and dances in Moscow and is a fund of knowledge on the genre.

Sliabh Luachra  is an ill defined area in the heart of Munster, straddling the Cork-Kerry border. Here a unique musical and dance tradition evolved, perhaps, due to its isolation. Perhaps also because of this isolation it remains preserved to this day. Numerous dance sets survive with local variations and with local tunes for accompaniment.

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Catherine Mosksovskova and Anton Zille outside Padraig O’Keeffe’s house, Glentaune.

 

Oh yes, Anton.  I had spent the week with him and another visitor from Moscow, harp player Catherine Moskovskova,  at the Scoil Cheoil an Earraigh in Ballyferriter, near Dingle.  This was back in February 2016. When I mentioned to Anton that I knew nothing of Sliabh Luachra, he seized the opportunity. “Oh there’s a session in Newmarket you might like on Monday. Why dont you give me and my friend Catherine, a lift there?” “And I will show you Sliabh Luachra”.

It did cross my mind that there was something ironic about being shown the hidden secrets of an area, that most Irish know nothing about, and having the culture explained to me by a fiddling Muscovite.  Naturally I agreed.

Mea culpa time. I have already admitted I knew nothing about Sliabh Luachra.  Its music, its geography, the culture. Of course I had heard of Padraig O’Keeffe and Johnny O’Leary and Jackie Daly and Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford (I even own a copy of Star Above the Garter on vinyl). But growing up in the Australian trad music scene, such as it was, no one played polkas except beginners and if they did play them they didn’t know how to play them properly. This was reinforced when I moved to Ennis, where it is rare to hear a polka or slide in a session.  When you do, often as not, someone would raise their fingers forming a cross as if to ward off vampires.

But Sliabh Luachra is not just polkas and slides. Reels, hornpipes and jigs get a good look in. There is a wonderful book on Johnny O’Leary’s music by Terry Moylan. His repertoire showed a surprisingly even distribution of polkas, slides, jigs, reels and hornpipes, though slides and polkas together made up nearly 50%.   This pie chart shows this.

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Tune types in Johnny O’Leary’s repertoire.  Data from Johnny O’Leary of Sliabh Luachra by Terry Moylan.

 

In fact the arrival of polkas and slides was probably in the late 19th Century.  Prior to this manuscripts from Sliabh Luachra are devoid of these tunes and dominated by reels, jigs, airs and programme music.

The name Sliabh Luachra. One translation is ‘mountain of rushes’ which would be fairly apt as it is covered by bog and beds of rushes.  Another says the name comes from Ciarraí Luchre,  a pre-celtic god who also gave Kerry its name.   In any case the area was largely uninhabited until the 16th Century and then stayed a remote outpost away from the gaze of the authorities.  It wasn’t until the 19th Century that roads were built and the area became noted for butter production.

Culturally the area has a unique heritage. Famed for it’s literature and poetry as well as its music.

So Monday night in Newmarket found us in Scully’s pub.

 

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Scully’s Bar Newmarket.

 

Behind the simple unpretentious façade is the perfect session pub. The music is in the back room as it has been for over forty years. Large enough to accommodate twenty musicians comfortably. This night there were a dozen.

The pub has been in the Scully family for over nearly 100 years. Sessions started at the behest of Jackie Daly, who lived five minutes away in Kanturk, in the early 70s and have been held every Monday since.

It became THE gathering place with Jackie Daly joined by Johnny Leary, Julia Clifford, Jimmy Crowley and many others. With many of the attendees being taught by Padraig O’Keeffe there was a direct link to the master. It is kept alive today by stalwarts like Timmy O’Connor, who unfortunately wasn’t there this time, and Ray O’Sullivan and John Walsh, who led the session this time.

This was a gathering of musicians who wanted to play together for the sheer fun of it. So of course it was a bit up and down. There were some beginners and they were given quite a bit of scope to start tunes. There was Marie Forrest on the piano; she’s been coming for 36 years. This added a strong rhythmic element and you could just imagine the floor filled with dancers.

Of course there were polkas and slides but there was a good mix of all the old standards. Many of the polkas I didn’t recognise, but many I did.  It certainly helped that I play regularly with Jackie Daly, who now lives in Miltown Malbay in County Clare and plays in Friels Pub every week. What I really loved was the sharing culture of this session. If people didn’t know the tune then it was played again, slower, for people to pick it up. Perhaps this was a hangover from the days when people such as Jackie and Johnny O’Leary were the custodians of the tunes and passed them to the next generation.

The pace was gentler than I expected. Sweeter. Not at all like the West Kerry version with its preponderance of accordions and driving rhythm (Cooney/Begley influence?) .

This seems to be the only regular session in the Sliabh Luachra region which was surprising for an area with such a rich tradition.  A bit like East Clare I suppose where it is hard to find a session outside of Feakle.

Next day Anton, as promised, was my guide on a tour of the area. There were so many familiar town names. Ballydesmond, Scartaglen, Newmarket. All with polkas and slides named after them. Apparently the local set dances had no names and the early collectors identified them by the locality. The tunes attached to these sets were then somewhat arbitrarily named also. Many tune names became attached to towns only as a matter of convenience so not too much can be read into the name.

We had to visit the holy shrine. The birthplace of Padraig O’Keefe. The house where he was born in 1887 is at Glountane Cross. It is still there. Just. He lived there until he died in 1963.

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Padraig O’Keeffe’s house.  Another view.

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Commemorative plaque at Padraig O’Keeffe’s house

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Padraig O’Keeffe’s house.  Beyond repair?

 

His father was the headmaster of the nearby national school and Padraig became a teacher there in 1915.  We visited the school which is also a crumbling ruin.

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National School at Glountane. 

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Interior of National School, Glountane

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Anton Zille at National School Glountane

 

He was not happy in the job and left about 1920 to become and itinerant fiddle teacher.  For the next 40 years he walked up and down the hills of Kerry/Cork sometimes as much as 30 miles a day.

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General view Sliabh Luachra

 

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Padraig O’Keeffe walked these roads for forty years

 

By all accounts he was a good teacher and developed his own style of notation.  A system of 4 spaces between 5 lines to show the strings and the numbers 0 1 2 3 4  to show the fingers.  A number of his manuscripts survive and are housed in the Irish Music Traditional Archive.  These images come from their online copies.

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From a manuscript showing Padraig O’Keeffe’s unique notation.  Courtesy ITMA. 

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Another page from the same manuscript.  Courtesy ITMA

 

He frequently played in Jack Lyon’s Pub in Scartaglen which is still there.

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Lyon’s Bar Scartaglen.

 

Among his pupils were Denis Murphy, Murphy’s sister Julia Clifford and Johnny O’Leary.

Sliabh Luachra is not just Padraig O’Keeffe and the music.  There are a lot of interesting things to see.  It gets quite hilly to the south with the Paps of Anu dominating the landscape to the south.  The name originates from the similarity of the two mountains to the shape of the breasts of the legendary pre-Christian goddess Anu (Danu).  THis is the same Danu that gave her name to the Well known traditional band, the River Danube and Denmark!  You can drive through these mountains though the roads get a bit rough.  We visited Shrona Lake.  Ruggedly spectacular.

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The Cork and Kerry Mountains

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The Paps of Anu

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Walking in the Paps

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Lake Shrona

 

Then there is An Cathair Cubh Dearg.  Also known as The City, this site with the Paps as a backdrop is said to be the first place populated in Ireland and the  oldest centre of continuous worship in the world!  Tuatha De Danann (descendants of Danu) settled here 10,000 years ago.  The ring fort wall dates from this time.  It was later used as a place of Christian worship.

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Ring fort wall at The City.  Paps of Anu in the background.

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An Cathair Cubh Dearg, showing ancient wall and Christian elements. 

 

So that’s it.  Sliabh Luachra.  Great music, heritage, landscape.  And thanks to Russian ‘collusion’ I now understand it better!

Categories: My Journey, Sessions, Stories, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dingle Peninsula. The Irish Alps

I have blogged about Dingle quite a few times and posted many photos. Even the name has a delightful ringle to it.  So what else could I possibly say about it?  But. There’s the thing about Ireland. There are always surprises and you can go back time after time and each time it’s like you’re there for the first time.

It was the end of February and my annual pilgrimage to Ballyferriter was completed (I have written about this Festival in previous years and it delivered yet again). It was time to go home. I’d been up that night until 4am playing tunes with wonderful people whose friendship is renewed every year.  That’s what’s great about Festivals.  It’s not just the music.

Anyway, during my short time in bed I lay awake listening to the wind lashing and the hail thrashing. A wild night.  Next morning it was calm and there were patches of sun, so I decided to head around the Slea Road back to Dingle, one of my favourite drives. I’d had Aidan Connolly in the cd player all weekend so it was time for a change. I stopped to retrieve a new CD and something made me look back towards Mt Brandon. I was stunned by the view. Completely shrouded in snow with Ballyferriter nestled at the bottom. This is what I saw.

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Mt Brandon, the third highest mountain in Ireland looms over Ballyerriter.

A quick change of plans and I headed the other way making the instant decision to return via Conor Pass.

Perhaps a little foolhardy but the weather looked ok and I doubted I would get another opportunity like this. It turned out to be an inspired decision. As I got closer to the pass the patchwork of paddocks gave way to a carpet of white.  The weather came and went in waves as I headed up the hill.   I was greeted at the top by another snowfall. But also enough sun to revel in the alpine glory. I was in the heart of the Kingdom and I had been granted admission to the Palace. I was lost for words and I really can’t describe the feeling I had immersed in this wilderness.

On this occasion I will let the camera talk. And talk it will. Loudly. Driving over the top and down Conor Pass, there were surprises with every turn in the road . I headed to the villages of Cloghane and Brandon and out to Brandon Point and then returned along the coast to Aughacasla. All the time snow clad ranges framed the views.

Please enjoy these photos of an Ireland rarely seen.

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The green fields of Kerry on the road up the Conor Pass, from Dingle, turned progressively whiter,

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and whiter,

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and whiter,

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and whiter.

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The view from the top.

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Heading down the mountain

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Corrie lakes in the glacial valley

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The start of the steep bit! Or the end if you’re coming down.

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And then…..

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It started to snow.

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It’s not easy to photograph snow.

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At the bottom of the pass is this view towards Mt Brandon.

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And the light kept changing.

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This is still Ireland.

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The Irish Alps

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Slieveanea from the base of the Pass

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Approaching Cloghane

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A view of Mt Brandon near Cloghane

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Cloghane with Mt Brandon.

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Mt Brandon looms above Cloghane Church

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Mt Brandon

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The sun shone

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The road from Cloghane to Brandon

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looking across the bay to Beenoskee

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And then it was raining

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Fenced in

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The mountain disappears in the mist

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View from the pier at Brandon

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The pier at Brandon

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Another view across the bay towards Beenoskee

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Incongruity.  Surfers in the bay.

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Colours.

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The village of Brandon

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Cappagh Strand near Brandon village

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View across Brandon Bay and Cappagh Strand

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Cappagh Strand

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View from Cappagh Strand back towards Mt Brandon

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The village of Cloghane

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Cloghane or have I been teleported to Switzerland?

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The hills are alive with the sound of……

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A last view of Mt Brandon.

Categories: My Journey, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Trip to Ballyferriter. Over the Conor Pass.

I had  been to the Dingle Peninsular three times before and each time the weather was so bad I was warned off crossing Conor Pass.  Not this time.  I am off to a music festival in Ballyferriter and as I crossed the water to Kerry via the ferry from Kilimer there was glorious sunshine.  And then there was rain.  And then sunshine.

I could see the Slieve Mish mountains and they were snow-capped and so enticing I decided to risk the Conor Pass.   I pulled into a garage to fuel up and the guy behind the counter in a rich Kerry brogue says,  “So where are you headed?”  “Dingle”.  “Ahh.  You’ll be going over the mountain then.” I could only agree.

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The Pass is the highest in Ireland.  It is a winding,  often single lane road and  buses are banned.  At one point the road climbs continuously for over five kilometres.

It didn’t take long for the cloud to descend and by the time I reached the Pass it was snowing.  Just light wonderful flakes drifting hither (and thither).  Not enough to settle.  My fingers were numb but I clicked away furiously.  It was around 1oC but I was charmed by the beauty.    The landscape had been scoured by glaciers in the most recent Ice Age and all the features I had learnt about at Rock School were there.  U-shaped valleys, tarns (or as they are known here corrie lochs), a string of them in fact (called a paternoster) and moraines and deposits of glacial till.  One corrie sits well above the valley floor in a perched valley (cirque).  There was a perfect glacial pavement with striations caused by the scraping of rocks carried along the bottom of the glacier.   Check the photos. Aside from being a geological wonderland it was a place of extraordinary beauty.  The one lane road crept up the mountain to the top of the pass where to the north I could see Castlegregory and across to the Blaskets and to the south Dingle stretched before me.

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Conor Pass.  Glacial moraine in the foreground.

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Glacial pavement with striations, Conor Pass

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Corrie lakes, U shaped valley, cirques.  Conor Pass

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Top of Conor Pass

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How hard is it to build a straight wall?

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View towards Dingle from the top of the Conor Pass

 

 

On to Ballyferriter and I was greeted by an intense hailstorm .  Just a couple of minutes but enough to create a temporary whiteout.  Four seasons in one day.  Was I in Melbourne?

I will talk about the music festival that took me to Ballyferriter in my next blog.

Categories: My Journey, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

All Ireland Wren Boy Champions!

You don’t have to be in Ireland long to become aware of Kilkenny’s dominance of that uniquely Irish sport, hurling.  They have been All-Ireland Champions eight of the past ten years.  But you may not be aware of the dominance of one West Clare village, in recent times, of another quintessentially Irish pastime – the Wren Boys Competition.  That village is Cooraclare, 10 km from Kilrush on the south western tip of the County and they have just returned from the All Ireland Wren Boys Championship in Listowel, Kerry, where they have been crowned for the fifth year in a row.  OK, there was only one other team competing but this does not diminish the achievement.  You may not even be aware that there was a Wren Boys Competition I wasn’t.  But I am now and my participation in the 2015 team makes me a most unlikely All-Ireland champion.  Might have to rewrite my CV.

I have participated in a Wren Boys event before and I suggest you head to my blog for a bit more of the background.

https://singersongblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/05/st-stephens-day-and-the-wren-boys/

This story though for me started at the Crotty Galvin Festival weekend in August in the village of Moyasta.  I have also blogged on this recently.

https://singersongblog.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/crotty-galvin-weekend-moyasta-2015/

Here I met Grainne, one of the organisers, and she invited me along.  Clearly they were short of numbers to have countenanced such a thing but I never refuse an invitation despite in this case knowing absolutely nothing about it.  I was told to get myself to Cree and a bus will pick me up at 6pm on the Friday night and drop me back at 6am on Saturday morning. She assured me the craic would be mighty and that was all I needed to know.

A couple of weeks later I am sitting next to Joe Joe Marrinan on a bus headed to the Ferry at Kilimer (with forty others)  as he fills me in on some of the history.  The competition had been going in Listowel as part of the Harvest Fair for 57 years.  Cooraclare’s participation started forty years ago when local identitiy Denis Ledane decided it would be a good idea to take a team there.  Interest faded but in 2011 the tradition was revived after 35 years in honour of Joe Joe’s father Marty who died that year.  Joe Joe was installed into the prestigious role of King of the Wren.  In their first visit to Listowel they won and have not lost since and it is easy to see why.

On the surface it looks a bit ridiculous, dressing up in skirts, silly hats and bright colours and tinsel.  (at least there weren’t any bells and sticks a la Morris Dancers) but underneath it is a serious desire to preserve a fading Irish culture.  The competition involves each team putting on a 45 minute show incorporating music, singing, set dancing, step dancing, sean nos, storytelling all presented with humour and passion.  The team marched through the streets of Listowel, with turf fires burning atop hay forks, to a stage in the centre of the town square, to the strains of the Centenary March and from there on it was a celebration of all things West Clare.    Many songs told of West Clare including the eponymous Chapel Gates at Cooraclare (after which the team is named) and this little corner of Kerry certainly knew about the virtues of the Banner County by the end of the night.   A highlight was the finale with a lovely rendition of Feet of a Dancer leading in to a simply outstanding display of set dancing..  There were all ages participating with the dancing dominated by youngsters from villages dotted through West Clare, such as Moyasta, Kilrush, Cree, Mullagh as well as Cooraclare.  Many of them were All Ireland champions from the recent Fleadh in Sligo and it absolutely shone through.  There is no reason not to suppose that Cooraclare will continue to participate in and dominate the Wren Boys competition in the years to come judging by the enthusiasm with which everyone threw themselves into it..

A fantastic session at Foynes in Limerick on the way home and people had to be dragged back to the bus well after 2am.  The music continued on the bus with a rousing singing session and the night finished for most people well after 4am as they were dropped off into the West Clare night by our long suffering bus driver.

Thanks to Grainne and Joe Joe and Tony and everyone else for making me feel so welcome.  I felt privileged to be part of this tradition and I hope these few photos do it justice.

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

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