Posts Tagged With: Kerry
The Beara Peninsula. Stories of children, swans and hags.
Ireland’s First Copper Mine. 4,500 years of mining history
I have stumbled onto historical mining in a number of places in Ireland in my travels. Particularly at Allihies and Mizen in West Cork and along the so-called Copper Coast in Waterford. However, I had no idea of the significance of copper mining in Killarney, and only came across it by chance recently when exploring Killarney National Park’s other delights.
19th Century mining of copper underpinned many fortunes for its British landowners. In Castletownbere in West Cork, it was the Puxley’s and Killarney it was the Earls of Kenmare and then the Herberts, who funded their magnificent home at Muckross from their mining wealth. Ironically the mansion at Muckross was completed in 1843 as the Famine ravaged Ireland. But the saga of mining in Killarney goes back much further, deep into Neolithic times.
When we talk of mining history in Australia, we think back to the first gold rushes in NSW and Victoria, which were in 1851, or Australia’s own copper boom, which started in South Australia in the 1840s. Mining effectively ended Australia’s time as a penal colony and led to an explosion of free immigration. So it took a bit to wrap my mind around the mining heritage of a country that goes back thousands of years.
Mining has taken place at two locations on the Killarney Lakes, Ross Island and on the Muckross Peninsula. Mining there reflects human occupancy from the end of the Neolithic Period and the early Bronze Age (2500-1800 BCE) through Christian times (8th Century) to industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Ross Island is the earliest known site for copper mining in Ireland. The activity has been dated by the discovery of Beaker pottery by a team from National University of Ireland Galway in 1992. The so-called Bell Beaker culture is named after the inverted bell-shaped pottery vessels found scattered throughout Western Europe and dated in Ireland from 2500 BCE to 2200 BCE. This has been confirmed by radiocarbon dating at the site.
The true Bronze Age in Ireland (that is when copper was alloyed with tin or arsenic to manufacture weaponry and tools) started around 2000 BCE. Prior to this was the ‘Copper Age’ and copper from Ross Island would have been used for daggers or axe heads or other copper objects and was traded widely. Chemical fingerprinting and lead isotope analysis shows that Ross Island was the only source of copper until 2200 BCE in Ireland. Not only this, but two-thirds of artefacts from Britain before this time show the same signature. And Ross Island copper is found to be present in artefacts found in Netherlands and Brittany. After this time other mines from southern Ireland became more important.
So, Ross Island saw the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. Frankly, to me as a mining geologist, to be able to stand on the place where the mining took place that underpinned this highly significant transition in human development in Ireland was, for me, a special experience.
The early miners exploited a rich band of oxidized copper ore within the limestone through shallow cave-like excavations, tunnels and chambers, most of which were damaged by subsequent mining. Some of the surface ‘caves’ are visible today behind a rusting iron fence though the view is unfortunately heavily obscured by vegetation, which has been allowed to grow unchecked.
These openings were made in the days well before explosives, by lighting fires against the rock face to open fractures and then pounding the walls with stone hammers. The broken rock was then hand sorted and the separated ore was converted to metal by smelting in pit furnaces.
The last of the first phase of mining from this site is dated at 1700 BCE. Mining lay dormant for centuries then, but in the early Christian period was a Golden Age of metalworking in Ireland, when such treasures as the Tara Brooch were produced. Killarney was one of the centers of metallurgical and artisanal skills. Excavations at Ross Island have found small pit furnaces that date from 700 AD suggesting that ores from here were used to produce metals for the production of such objects.
Another thousand years passed before the final chapter in the exploitation of the wealth of Killarney copper played out.
This last phase of mining commenced in the early 18th century. The first attempts at extracting lead in 1707 and then again to work the mine in 1726 failed. In 1754 Thomas Herbert commenced mining under an arrangement with the then landowner, the Earl of Kenmare. Mining was difficult due to flooding from proximity to the lake edge and for the next fifty years was sporadic.
I must digress for a moment. In 1793 Thomas Herbert invited a mining consultant Rudolf Raspe to advise on the mines. Why do I mention this? Raspe was German and author of The Fabulous Adventures of the Baron von Munchausen (published in 1785). You might have seen the movie or heard of ‘Munchausen Syndrome’ but I grew up with these fantastical stories read to me by my father. Who would have dreamt of a connection between these far-fetched tales and copper mining in the west of Ireland. Anyway the poor fellow didn’t have such a Fabulous ending dying of scarlet fever a few months later and being buried in an unmarked grave near Muckross.
Meanwhile mining on Muckross Peninsula started in 1749 on the Western Mine and by 1754 the company had raised some £30,000 worth of copper ore, which was shipped to Bristol for smelting. This closed in 1757 and operations commenced on the Eastern Mine opening for short periods in 1785 and again in 1801. Operations resumed on the Western Mine in 1795 but these failed due apparently to mismanagement. Little more was heard of this mine and it was considerably less successful than its neighbour.
But things might have been very different. A dark crystalline mineral was encountered which oxidised to a very bright pink. It had no copper and so was discarded. One miner recognised it as the cobalt ore, cobaltite (CoAsS), with its oxidized form, pink erythrite (Co3(AsO4)28H2O). This man quietly removed twenty tons of this ‘rubbish’ undiscovered. When the proprietor later realised its value, it was too late. It had been removed by his helpful employee, or mined as waste and thrown away to expose the copper ore. Reminds me of the non-recognition of the gold rich Telluride ores in Kalgoorlie in 1893, which for years were used to surface roads, until a way was discovered to extract the gold. Needless to say, the roads were ripped up.
Back to the Ross Mine, which at the beginning of the 19th century had another renaissance. The Ross Island Company obtained a 31 year mining lease from Lord Kenmare in 1804, Work commenced on the Blue Hole on a rich lode of lead and copper. Mining continued until 1810 by which time it had become unprofitable.
The operation was restarted by the Hibernian Mining Company (1825-9). Both struggled with the perpetual problem of flooding. One solution suggested was to drain Lough Leane; this did not go down too well as you can imagine, particularly with the local boatmen. In the end a large coffer dam was built on the shore and water pumped into it from the mine. Part of the dam is still there. Bigger and bigger pumps were required and ultimately by 1828 they were unable to deal with the water and the mine closed. Most of the Western Mine area is now flooded as the dam walls have been breached
Wandering over the site today does not give a true sense of the scale of mining in the early 19th century. This map by Thomas Weaver from 1829 shows the fifty or so shafts, underground tunnels and surface buildings from this phase of operations.
But mining grew out of favour and conflicted with the rise of tourism to the area. No more mine leases were granted after 1829 by the Herberts, who by this time had transitioned from mining entrepreneurs to landowners. The area was carefully landscaped, with the infilling of shafts, flooding of the Blue Hole, the demolition of buildings and the planting of trees. Subsequent forest growth has softened the historic footprint of the mining
Mineral exploration is now prohibited in the National Park so the remarkable 4,500 year history of mining here has come to an end. Public awareness however of this important site is increasing with the creation of a Mining Trail and explanatory signage at the site. To me, places like this are as important as Glendalough and Ceidi Fields and their preservation is so important.
I am ashamed to say that after five years in Ireland I only discovered this place by accident. But find it I did, and I will be back there as soon as I can be.
Much of the material for this blog came from the informative website of the National University of Ireland Galway who completed the archaeological study of the historical mining sites in 1992. http://www.nuigalway.ie/ross_island/. My thanks and acknowledgement to them.
The Puck Fair, Co Kerry. A 400-year old tradition.
Some institutions in Ireland die hard. One is the Puck Fair. Held annually in Killorglin in Co Kerry in August, it is surely one of the country’s longest running public events. As with many of these things though, the written record is scant and it is not clear exactly how old it is. There is a reference in 1613 to a local landlord, Jenkins Conway, collecting a tax from every animal sold at the ‘August Fair’ and even earlier there is a record from 1603 of King James I granting a charter to the existing fair in Killorglin. So let’s just say it is well over 400 years old.
Puck derives from the Irish Phoic, meaning He-goat. Again, when the fair became associated with the goat is also shrouded in mystery. The story I like tells how in 1808 the British Parliament made it unlawful in Ireland to levy tolls on cattle, horse or sheep fairs. The landlord of the time lost his income and on the advice of then budding lawyer Daniel O’Connell (yes, that Daniel O’Connor), proclaimed it a ‘goat fair’ and charged his tolls as usual believing it was not covered. To prove it was indeed a goat fair a Phoic was hoisted on a stage and proclaimed King Puck.
Whatever the truth, a male wild goat is still today crowned King and hoisted in a cage up a tower where he remains for three days before being released back into the wild. The crowning of the goat though, I have to say, was a disappointment. Conducted on a stage under the tower, with its steel barrier that restricted vision, the goat was held by two burly yellow-coats and surrounded by photographers. A young schoolgirl, the ‘Queen of the Fair’, placed the crown on its head. Well, I think that’s what happened. It was really just set up for the publicity shots, as the audience could see nothing. Placed in the cage the goat was then hoisted up for all to see, its crown a little shakily slipping below its horns.
The fair brings out the crowds for a great day out. There is a horse fair in a nearby field, with all the usual horse-trading that happens. I happily spent an hour wandering here clicking away. There was plenty to keep me enthused and bemused.
There are rides, a parade and plenty of characters to fill the pubs and the streets. Every vantage point was taken. The bright sunshine, when I visited in 2015, provided an opportunity for the colleens to strut the summer fashions. I love the way traditional music is never far away from an Irish event, with entertainment on stage and in teh nearby pubs, dancing in the street or a brush dance in a pub.
The Puck Fair is always held on 10, 11 and 12th August so mark it in your calendar.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This next series of photos were taken on the Black Valley Road. Beautiful interplay of light.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
He was very patient with the hordes that wanted a photo record of their moment in the clouds with him.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Wild Angelica. Standing out against the orange and red are the white many rayed umbels of this tall perennial. A native of Ireland
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.
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
Tufted Vetch. A splash of purple on long stalked racemes. Not so common here but ver abundant. Native
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
He frequently played in Jack Lyon’s Pub in Scartaglen which is still there.
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.
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.
So that’s it. Sliabh Luachra. Great music, heritage, landscape. And thanks to Russian ‘collusion’ I now understand it better!