Posts Tagged With: photography

The Colorado Rockies 1. Twin Lakes. A Classic Photo Opportunity.

Twin Lakes

This is the first of a series of blogs on the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  I visited for a week in mid September 2018.  This spectacular part of the world comprises rugged mountain ranges that tower over the Mile High City of Denver.  There is much to see.  It is a photographer’s paradise.  My early plans had me on an extensive road trip that would take me to the four corners but I soon realised how impractical that was, so my travels on this occasion concentrated on the area west of Denver to Glenwood Springs, south to Cañon City and north to Estes Park.  First up is my visit to the iconic Twin Lakes.

I had read about this location and its reputation for getting those classic Colorado photos if conditions are favourable. It is a half hour drive from Leadville in the Central Rockies  and on the way up the Independence Pass, which I’ll talk about in an upcoming blog. It is a well known fishing, camping and hiking spot and there are, as the name suggests, two lakes are connected by a channel. If there is no wind and the sun is shining, the location provides countless photographic opportunities for symmetrical reflection of the distant mountains in the still waters of the lake. Luckily, such were the conditions on the day I visited. And to top it off I had blue skies and autumn colours and a cooperative fisherman in the mix.  Here are a few of my favourites,

Quintessential Colorado.

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Fall colors.  Twin Lakes

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A mountain stream that flows into Twin Lakes

Categories: America | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Not Before Time. Paráic Mac Donnchadha.

I normally don’t do CD reviews of Irish music. Firstly I am friends with many of the musicians involved so it is an area that is fraught and secondly the vast majority are brilliant expressions of the variety and many nuances and interpretations of Irish music today so reviewing them is pretty pointless.

I do make exceptions though. The recent release by Páraic Mac Donnchadha Not Before Time, is one of these. First I have to declare some conflicts of interest.  Páraic is a friend and has been very supportive and welcoming to me on my own musical journey and I am grateful to him for that, and secondly he has used one of my photographs on the CD. But having said that I love this album. I was lucky enough to be at the first launch concert at the Feakle Festival and got my copy there. More on that concert later.

Páraic’s playing of the banjo is a revelation the first time you hear it, and a wonderful advertisement for the much maligned instrument. The first thing that strikes you is his gentle tonality and the unadorned clarity of his music along with his steady pace where the musicality takes precedence.  There is always a wonderful rhythm and pulse that is hypnotically engaging.    Primarily a session player he surrounds himself with players with a similar musicality. A lover of small sessions where each musical layer can be clearly heard and contributes to the whole and where he explores unusual keys and instrumental pairings. I have had many memorable experiences listening to Páraic.  Who could forget a session with Cormac Begley in A-flat at Ballyferriter, Co Kerry, in 2015 I think, that lasted 11¾ hours? Or in Friels in Miltown Malbay, during Willie Week. There is a generosity in his playing that comes out when he is sharing with like-minded players.

If that feeling was what Páraic was trying to capture in this album then he has been wildly successful. Much of it is recorded in Pepper’s Bar at Feakle and I was lucky enough to be there for one of those recording sessions. For this album Páraic has involved many of his most recent sparring partners. And that’s when his playing shines. Whether it is the sublime fluidity of Claire Egan’s fiddle or viola or the insistent rhythmic pulse of Cormac’s bass concertina or the wonderful ensemble playing of Graham Gueren, Colm Murphy, Noel O’Grady and Libby McCroghan, Páraic’s banjo is there at the heart of it. Crisp, clean and simple. No distractions. It’s all about the tune. He also plays to great effect with his brother Mac Dara and sister Sinéad and in a tribute to his roots, honours his father Séan by revisiting one of his songs. But there are a few tracks where he is on his own, and this is where his mastery comes to the fore.  He plays with just the subtle and supportive bouzouki of talented young Waterford player and instrument maker, Macdara Ó Faoláin or the gentle guitar of Terence O’Reilly.

The tune selection is fantastic. Really, really good.  Many are familiar, some not, but they always come up fresh with Páraic’s playing approach or with his local versions or the unusual key selections.  Sometimes it ensnares you and you just don’t want the track to end.

The CD itself is brilliantly presented with a comprehensive and informative book integrated into the cover. Paraic’s musings on his musical journey and influences reveal a man who writes as well as he plays. And I found the thoughtful and well researched tune notes by Graham Guerin added considerably to my listening enjoyment.

The concert to launch the album was held in the marquee at the back of Pepper’s Pub during the Feakle Festival. Gracing the stage were (almost) all the musicians who played on the album.  With the wonderful bonus of a guest spot from Martin Hayes who spoke eloquently of Paraic’s music and its East Galway roots and the connection with East Clare.  Having all this amazing music served up to us in a venue packed with appreciative fellow musicians, had me salivating!

So on the drive from the concert to my home at Quilty, a drive of well over an hour, I listened to the album.  Such a generous slab of music reflects the man.  Eighteen tracks took me to my front door!. And I listened again the next morning . This time on a good sound system. Just beautiful.  And it hasn’t come off the player since.

How could I fail to love this music.  It has truly captured the spirit that Páraic engenders when he shares his music making with his fellow musicians.  Now he has shared it with us.  We can all sit in.

Not before Time. 

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Macdara Ó Faoláin, Paráic, Claire Egan and Terence O’Reilly

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Paráic Mac Donnchadha

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Macdara Ó Faoláin and Paráic,

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Macdara Ó Faoláin

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Terence O’Reilly

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Macdara Ó Faoláin, Paráic, Mac Dara Mac Donncha and Terence O’Reilly

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Paráic Mac Donnchadha, Mac Dara Mac Donncha

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Paráic and Claire Egan

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Claire Egan

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Claire Egan

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Martin Hayes launches the CD

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Paráic and Martin Hayes

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Martin Hayes

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Martin Hayes

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Martin Hayes

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Noel O’Grady, Paráic, Graham Guerin and Colm Murphy

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Colm Murphy

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Noel O’Grady

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Graham Guerin

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Martin Hayes and Cormac Begley

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Paráic and Cormac Begley

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Cormac Begley

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Cormac Begley

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Libby McCroghan

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Sinéad Nic Dhonncha

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An appreciative audience.

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

Sampson Island at Loop Head, Co Clare; You’ve probably never heard of it.

Loop Head is only an hour away from my house near Quilty.  It is one of my favourite places to take visitors no matter what the weather.  So serene and dramatic when it is calm; wild and scary in the wind and rain.  If you have been following this blog you will have seen my earlier posts and photographs. Spectacular cliffs displaying contorted folded sediments, rock arches and caves, a lighthouse, dolphins and in the distance the mountains of Kerry.

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Contorted rocks in the cliffs north of Loop Head

There is a rocky island at the end of the headland which looks like it was sliced off with a giant knife.  It is mad with breeding sea birds through the summer.  The picture below was taken in May and shows just a few early arrivals, taking up prime spots.   A deep and treacherous chasm separates it  from mainland Clare.  As you would imagine, much mystery and legend surrounds this place.

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The island is popularly known by some as Diarmuid and Grainne’s Rock, one of many places in island that reference the famous Irish legend of the love triangle between Fionn Mac Cumhail, his warrior friend Diarmuid and a girl named Gráinne.

The gap to the island is also known as Cú Chulainn’s Leap. And that’s another interesting story in its own right. Here is the short version.

Cú Chulainn was an ancient Gaelic hero warrior gifted with superhuman strength, speed and skill.  He was leader of The Red Branch Knights, who in ancient times would be fighting battles, protecting the folk of Ulster from invaders.  He would, however,  often go travelling.   On one of those trips, he met a ‘cailleach’, translated variously as a wise woman or a ‘hag’. Her name was Mal.  She fancied him and as she had magic powers with which she could ensnare anyone she touched, he took flight.

She chased him all over Ireland eventually following him to this remote promontory in west Clare. He leaped across the channel to the island but she was fairly athletic as well and was able to follow.  Still desperate to avoid her he hopped back to the mainland.  She continued to give chase but she didn’t quite make it slipping on the edge and and ending up in the ocean below. Three days later her head washed up at what became known as Hag’s Head and nine days later her remains came ashore at Quilty. The bay here took the name Mal Bay (hence Miltown Malbay) and the site of the jump became Leap Head or later Loop Head.

All fascinating but I digress.

At the end of April with Spring desperately trying to make an appearance I paid yet another visit. Isn’t it amazing that you can walk past a spot a dozen times and just not realise the significance of what you are seeing?  Well this day I noticed on the cliff edge two metal spikes fixed into the rock and a neat wall and some stone construction above them, including a large stone lined hole.  It all was heavily disguised by the soft spongy grass and the newly budding sea thrift.

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Two Iron spikes fixed into the cliff and a stone wall and hole above.

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Looking from the north to the south

I was intrigued. My first guess was that it was evidence of a former bridge. Perhaps a rope bridge like Carrick-a-Rede, I thought. But why? And in any case, hard as I looked I could see no works on the other side of the island which I would have expected. It remained a mystery but unsatisfied I resorted to Google later that evening.

It didn’t take long to find this truly amazing photo in the archives of the National Library of Ireland.

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Viewing Platform Sampson Island.  c1905

What I was seeing was in fact the remains of the foundation of this viewing platform. The  photo is dated at c1905. and reveals a lot. You can see a sign on the Island that says ‘Sampson Island’ and proffers a date in the 1830s suggesting a landing then.

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Detail of above photo showing sign and shelter.

Did Sampson stake a claim to the island? There is also evidence of a small shelter. Further the people on the lookout are identified by researchers as members of the Sampson family.  But really it is all speculation. Why build this elaborate and hair-raising construction and how did they actually get across to put up the sign?  Why even bother naming it?

Then I saw another image.  God knows how the photographer got this angle

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Crossing to Sampson Island?

That is one very brave woman in that sling. I am not exactly sure what is going on but it is possible that this was how they got across. There’s quite a crowd waiting to try. Perhaps Mal would have been better off to wait for the Sampsons to build this before attempting the crossing.

With Ireland’s long and convoluted history it is common to come across these hidden stories for which only scant evidence remains. Sometimes though you have to look very hard.  Next time you visit Loop Head have a look for it.  It’s close to the edge though so take care lest you end up like poor old Mal.

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Loop Head lighthouse with the sea pink just starting to bloom

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

Dursey. An island at the end of Ireland.

Dursey Island lies at the end of the Beara Peninsula in West Cork. It has been inhabited since antiquity and though it lies only 200 m from the mainland it has always been one of the most remote and inhospitable places to live in in the whole country.

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Dursey Island looking towards the mainland.

It had a tortured early existence and was the site of one of the most horrific events in Irish history.  Following the Battle of Kinsale and the defeat of Donal Cam O’Sullivan at Dunboy in early 1602, the English moved to clean up the last of the rebels.  Many of the O’Sullivan Clan’s non-combatants had been sent to  Dursey to keep them out of harm’s way.  An English force attacked the small garrison guarding the island. They butchered the entire population of the island, women, children and the garrison. Three hundred people executed on the cliffs and their bodies (some were still alive) cast into the sea.  O’Sullivan survivors from the whole of the Beara Peninsula, about 1,000 of them, then marched 550 km north to seek shelter from the O’Rourkes of Leitrim, but that’s another story.

As with the rest of the west coast of Ireland, Dursey suffered during the famine with a 30% reduction in its population in the 1840s.  Its subsequent and continuing depopulation reflects that of many other Irish islands but its survival displays the resilience and strength of its people. In 1860 the three villages of Ballynacallagh, Kilmichael and Tilickafinna,  a population of around 240 eked out a lonely life on the treeless but well pastured island.  By 1969 this number was down to 53. A feature of the island now is the large number of abandoned houses from these times.  This eloquently tell the story of a disappearing population, but they also give the island its remarkable character.

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Abandoned village

Up until 1970 the only way to get on and off the island was by boat across the channel.  A channel that could become so treacherous with storms and a tidal surge  that for a month and a half each year the island was completely cut off.  Considering that there was no electricity, TV, doctor, priest, food supplies and no hall or pub, life must have been very bleak indeed.   After much agitation from islanders the Government agreed to build a cable car to provide a lifeline and, while that did save it from the same fate as the Blaskets, which were abandoned in 1953, it did not stop the population drain until, by 2011, there were only three permanent residents.

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Treacherous tides and surges made this channel very dangerous to cross.  Not these days.

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Approaching the island

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Anticipation. A picture window.

But the cable car opened the island to the tourist.  6.5 km in length, there is much of interest.

To walk the island takes at least 4 hours but I spent over 6 hours ambling and rambling, getting lost and finding myself again.  Just absorbing the ambiance and grateful for the glorious sunshine and the warm breeze that accompanied me. It is glorious to walk either along the sometimes paved road (which despite the alarming speed sign is almost devoid of vehicles;  I saw only one) or across the hills but best to stay on the marked paths unlike me.

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There is a marked walking trail across the hills.  Looking across to the mainland.

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If you leave the path walking through thick vegetation and across stone walls can be a challenge.

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I can never understand Irish speed limits.  100 kph!?

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Looking from the western tip of the island back towards the mainland.  A signal tower stands on the highest point.

On your walk you will come across the remains  of St Mary’s Abbey, a Napoleonic signal tower, historic ruins, spectacular views, rocky cliffs, birds galore, native orchids and your best chance  in Ireland to see dolphins and whales.

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St Mary’s Abbey

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Cliffs on the southern side of the island

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Dolphins

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I tracked this pod of dolphins for over half an hour down the coast

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Native orchids are common

At the western end of the island are three small islands.  Well, rocks really.  They are known as Calf Rock, Cow Rock and yes, you guessed it, Bull Rock.

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Looking west across Dursey to the imposing Bull Rock, two miles off shore

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Cow Rock and Bull Rock

A lighthouse was established on  Calf Rock in 1866.

Less than three years later a storm damaged the lighthouse.  This led to another tragic event in the saga of Dursey.  The Keeper, on Dursey, thought he saw distress flags and six boatmen were dispatched.  Those on the island were safe however, on the the return trip, the boat capsized and all six were lost

On 27 November 1881 in another  violent storm the the tower and lantern just snapped off above the steel base and fell into the sea. No one was hurt but it took two weeks to extract the four men stranded on the island. You can still see the base of the tower to this day.

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Calf Rock with the remains of the steel base of the light tower. Wrecked in 1881

To replace this lighthouse one was built on nearby Bull Rock, work commencing in  1882.  The light didn’t open until 1888.  It is worth pondering the challenge of constructing this on an island of precipitous cliffs measuring 230 m by 160 m and rising to 90 m above sea level.

The station consisted of an octagonal lighthouse tower, dwellings for the Keepers, and an oil-gas works.   This was a massive undertaking and the optic was the biggest in Ireland.

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Bull Rock with its lighthouse.  You can also see a gull colony and the entrance to a natural tunnel that goes right through the island.

The light still stands proudly today though it was automated in 1991. The island is swarming with gulls.  Also noteworthy is a natural tunnel that goes right through the island.  You can see the eastern entrance in the picture above.

That’s Dursey.   Take everything you think you’ll need because there are no supplies on the island and not even a toilet. And it won’t always be mild and sunny as it was for me; go prepared for bleak and wild.

But don’t miss it.

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

Story time. Of copper at Doonen, arches at Reenroe and a picnic on the bay.

You hear the words ‘hidden gem’ so many times in Ireland but more often than not they are not hidden and nor are they a gem.  I try to avoid the expression especially when it appears on tourists’ must-see lists (hardly hidden then).  But actully they do exist and when you find one part of you wants to scream and shout about it and another part says ‘Shhh! Let’s keep it hidden’

The Arches at Reenroe are one such place. I had been to Allihies on the Beara Peninsula three times but not heard about it.  That’s the downside of my penchant for arriving blind to a place to discover it on my own.

Spectacular as the arches are, I want  first to tell a bit of a story, about how I discovered it and the adventure I had on the way.  Stories such as this so typify, for me travel and living in Ireland and the way things just unfold here. Surprise upon serendipitous surprise. The people, culture and place are interwoven like nowhere else.  These experiences are truly the hidden gems.

Let me start at the beginning. Or even a bit before the beginning.

It was a gorgeous sunny June morning (yes, this is Ireland) and I was visiting the location of the Dooneen Copper Mine.  This is a marked tourist spot on the Wild Atlantic Way a few kilometres from Allihies, so it has the squiggly iron marker to let you know that it is worth stopping. And to a lapsed geologist such as myself that is indeed true. This is the site of the first of Puxley’s copper mines discovered in 1812.  Because of its location on the coast, it struggled both technically and commercially, but the upside of this is that the site is largely intact and we can get a unique insight of how it must have looked before it was exploited.

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A google maps satellite image with the copper lode at Dooneen outlined. Looking north

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The ore zone at Dooneen is a distinctive promontry.  Obvious for its shades of cream, brown and orange representing oxidised rock.

The cliffs here are a series of headlands of Devonian sandstone. One of these promontories is in shades of orange and cream rather than the more normal greys. It is about 80 m long and up to 10 m wide. This unique coloration is due to oxidation of what was essentially a quartz sulphide rock. As you walk along the narrow path you see traces, under your feet and in the walls, of bright green staining. This is malachite, copper carbonate and a telltale sign that deeper down there are copper sulphides.

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Looking east along the ore zone.  Note the patches of green malachite in the cliffs

Walk onto the next headland to the north and look back. Now you see it in it’s full glory. Brilliant green patches tell of a very rich lode. But why is it still there considering it contains such valuable minerals?

At the eastern end at sea level is an adit and there appears to be another in the adjacent cliff at the western end.  These would have been where the miners first chased the copper but constant inundation made it impossible. A shaft was sunk on the land side but again flooding meant more and more sophisticated machinery was needed to keep on top of the pumping.  Eventually the elements won and in the 1870s the mine was abandoned never really making much money.  But this has left us with this magnificent example of a virtually untouched outcropping ore body.

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Looking from the south,  Adit above the high water mark visible at the left.

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As it looked 200 years ago.  Except for the tunnel at the western end.

But I digress. In the car park I met Viv Kelly, visiting from Dublin, with members of her family. She said they were going to look for what they called the Arches and headed off on foot. I was intrigued and headed off in the same general direction. But for me the search proved fruitless and I actually had no idea what I was looking for.

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Viv and some of the Kelly Gang.  Beautiful synclinal fold behind them.

So I continued my explorations, by car, of what is one of my favourite drives, between Allihies and Eyries. The road snakes through sculpted hills, twisted rocks and abandoned houses and at one point the highway (if you can call it that) drives through someone’s yard with the house on one side and the barn on the other. Harking back to the time when living right on the road would have been hugely desirable.  There were panoramic vistas, bicycles and bog cotton.

Satisfied, I headed back to Allihies to join an afternoon session with two legends of Irish music – Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch. I soon forgot about arches and such.

It was now about 6.30 pm the music had ebbed away and I was sitting outside O’Neill’s Pub pondering my next move.  I was approached by a lady who became my immediate best friend after she complimented me on my fiddling.   She mentioned she had been that day to visit some sea arches!  Those same arches that Viv had told me about.  She reached for her phone to show me some pictures.  I politely covered her screen (I hate spoilers) and asked instead for directions after telling her of my earlier vain search.

Basically it appears I was in the right place.  ”Look for a white cottage on the left and opposite you will see a wooden gate with a blue rope and a sign saying ‘please shut the gate'”.  That seemed simple enough so I had another go. At about the spot she indicated I saw a white building, more of a bungalow really and it wasn’t on the left it was on the right and I couldn’t see a gate, so I was confused and drove on. Fruitlessly.  Now the Irish are not great on giving directions so I went back to that bungalow thinking maybe ‘left’ meant ‘right’, and sure enough there was a gate, my view blocked by a beautiful old vintage Mercedes. The gate had a blue rope and a hand written sign saying ‘please shut the gate’. Finally.

I headed along the well worn track, passing a group of picnickers. They had selected an idyllic spot.  Smoke rising from a fire and the smell of cooking chicken. I was just a little jealous but I apologised for intruding and after getting a little sage advice on what I was looking for, I continued my search.

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Picnicking.

Not far ahead I came across the first arch. You don’t actually realise you are on it until you make your way down to the shore and look back. Way grander than I’d imagined.  Tantalisingly the calm water in the chasm disappeared to the left.  You knew there was more.

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Back up to the top and I continued across the fields until I reached a rocky headland. Here there are more arches. Two precarious bridges span a steep sided chasm.  One looks like it is about to collapse into the ocean as one day soon it inevitable will. Real selfie territory.  They have formed by selective erosion of softer rock (probably along a fault) in places leaving the remnant bridges of rock.  I had brought a sandwich and doughnut with me and enjoyed my own little picnic.

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“Can you step back a bit?  Can’t quite get you in the shot”  Arch no 2

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Two bridges span this chasm.  Arches no 2 and 3.

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My little picnic

I felt there had to be more and sure enough I found a number of other narrow steep sided arches and then a perfectly protected and wave free channel passed under another series of bridges. This turned out to be the other end of the channel under the first arch.  I followed it back and observed two land bridges over this channel.

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View east along the main channel (arch no 1)

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View west along the main channel.  (Arch no 6)

In total I saw six arches.  It might make more sense if you look at the google map image. The major channel has essentially created an island with two natural bridge accesses (nos 1 and 6). This has followed a major east west fault.  The other arches (numbered 2 to 5) have formed on softer shaley bands within the sediment sequence so they parallel bedding.

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Google satellite image showing six arches referred to above.  Main channel is marked in red. North to top.

I absolutely loved this place.

That should have been the end of my story but it wasn’t.

I must have been exploring for an hour and a half. Heading back past the picnickers I was surprised at being asked to join them. They plied me with wine, crab claws, chicken, potato and roasted seaweed.  The burgeoning friendship nearly ended though when they offered me a hot rock to sit on!  Brian, from Edinburgh, a scholar in all things gaelic, explained that the picnic was in memory of a time when they ‘cooked’ a salmon in this very fire 20 years ago. Sashimi salmon in the dark was the outcome.  No fish this time though.

I met Cormac Boydell and his partner Rachel, who live next door to that white bungalow overlooking this dramatic bay.  Cormac is a renowned ceramic artist.  I wished I had time to have a closer look at his work.  But what was really interesting was that in a previous life he was a geologist.  Spooky enough but, hey, he worked in Australia during the nickel boom of the 70s and, get this, he worked for CRA, the first company I worked for.  And he was based in Kalgoorlie in western Australia, where I lived for six years.

We talked for ages as darkness descended and until the lure of the music back in Allihies became palpable.  I took my leave, happy that my search for the Arches, initiated by a chance meeting with Viv from Dublin had ended with such a rewarding encounter.

These days are truly the hidden gems of Ireland.

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

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

Oh no! Not more pictures of the Cliffs of Moher.

With all this fabulous weather in West Clare recently I decided to take the cruise from Doolin to visit the cliffs. I’ve been to the Cliffs of Moher many times but never before have I seen them from the water.  I checked the forecast. Fine for the next couple of days.  Brilliant.  So I booked the late boat for the following day as I dreamed of perfect photos lit by the late evening glow.

The morning dawns and I open the window to the bay at Caherush shrouded in thick fog. I wasn’t worried and smugly congratulated myself at my foresight in booking the late boat. The fog will lift of course by midday and there will be blue skies. My optimism was rewarded as it did lift and by mid afternoon some blue sky appeared. A perfect plan?

So I drive the 40 minutes to Doolin.  Around Lahinch the fog starts to roll back in, getting heavier as I drive across the bog and down the hill to Doolin until by the time I reach the Pier visibility is just a few tens of metres. My heart sunk.  Visions returned of a trip to Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps many years ago.  Up the cog railway in a total wipeout.  I saw nothing of the roof of the world.

We set off nevertheless with, in my case, no real expectation.  So much for all those dramatic photos I was going to take of walls of rock framed by skies of blue.

But for fleeting moments as we approached closer the fog would shift and you would get glimpses of green through the grey.  You got a real sense of the powerful presence of these cliffs though you never saw them in their totality and could only imagine how high they actually were.  The changing  views were tantalising and somehow seductive.  As the boat rocked and shifted, the angles changed and I snapped away but with no real hope of capturing this feeling.

I’ve stopped looking for explanations of the Irish version of the way of the world.  An hour later the fog lifted. But never was the expression ‘go with the flow’ more apposite. Taking advantage of the extended daylight in June I spent the remaining hours exploring the rocky coast north of Doolin, in total thrall of the wonderful rock garden that is the Burren in spring.  I forgot about the the Cliffs.

But when I got home that evening (early next morning I should say, after tunes in Doolin and Ennistymon) and looked at the photos and I was surprised and happy at what I had captured.  I still have a lot to learn about photography but I think the images say just as much or perhaps more than if we were seeing every minute and vivid detail.  Sometimes showing just a little reveals a lot.

Turns out that fog was a lucky break.

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The Fergus. Ennis’ Forgotten River.

Many Irish towns are built on a river. This had obvious logistical, transport and strategic benefits and of course is not unique to Ireland.  Ennis’ name pays homage to this and derives from Inis Cluana Rámhfhada, an island formed by two forks of the river.  That river is the Fergus.  It rises west of Corofin and enters the Shannon Estuary after a journey of 60 km.

One dull April day, with spring making a late attempt to burst through, while I waited for my car brakes to be fixed yet again (one of the prices you pay for being shrouded in salt spray on the edge of Ireland), I decided to walk the Fergus River.  This proved to be more difficult than I thought.

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Fergus River looking south to the bridge at Abbey Street

While the river twists its way through the town, for most of its length it is well hidden.  It struck me that maybe Ennis doesn’t regard it as something to utilise or promote,  just an obstacle to be crossed.  Indeed six bridges cross it and the layout of the town is very much controlled by the loops of the river.

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Bridge at Bank Place looking west.

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Footbridge over River Fergus

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Clon Bridge

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Victoria Bridge

Where you can find it, the banks of the river either have a high stone wall that restricts view and access or are hideously overgrown and littered. Yes I know the river floods but surely space could be found for a park or a bit of open space where you can sit. And if there are seats they are facing the other way or you stare at a wall. You can’t even get to the river at the historic Steele;s Rock.

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Steele’s Rock on River Fergus

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Building on the banks

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River edge on New Street

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Riverside seating.  You need eyes in the back of your head.  Converted cornstores in the distance

In the town proper only very short bits of the river can be approached.  The one exception is the River Walk a part of which is a designated Sculpture Trail.  The walk runs from a car park near the town centre (unfortunately much of the river edge is used for car parking) to the Old Mill and then the short distance to Victoria Bridge. There is quite a bit of interest along the way in addition to the sculptures, including apartments converted from old cornstores, sluice gates and the remains of the Old Mill. But it’s all too short.

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Sculpture ‘Fishy Tale’ by Carmel Doherty on the Sculpture Trail

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Sluice Gates on Fergus.

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Sluice Gates.  Another view.

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Remains of the Old Mill.

If you try and follow the river the other way (to the east), you soon lose access.  It is built up all the way to the Clon Bridge.  Beyond this a small walkway runs parallel to a set of rapids but the weed covered banks seem only useful as a repository for abandoned shopping trolleys.

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Walkway on the Fergus near Clon Bridge.

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Cascades on the Fergus near Clon Bridge.

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Weeds and lost trolleys

I couldn’t help but notice one large area of apparent wasteland between St Coulmba’s Church and the river. There is direct river frontage,  and the geese and ducks seem to be the only inhabitants this time of the year. This would make a perfect Riverside Park. I asked a young traveler lad I met along the path why it wasn’t. “Too boggy” he said dismissively.  Maybe; but if there was a will I’m sure it could be overcome.

Unfortunately I found only one spot in Ennis, near Clon Bridge,  which you could loosely call a park and even it was walled off and paved with gravel.   Anyway just saying. It’s what this town needs.

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Suitable for a Riverside Park?

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A wide area of open land

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with direct access to the river… paddle boats?

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and with a beautiful backdrop

 

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Open space on the river edge near Clon Bridge.

Lastly there is hardly anywhere to eat or enjoy a coffee on the river bank except The Rowan Tree which is a wonderful exception and maybe O’Briens Cafe.  But again there is a wall. I hear it everywhere though.  ‘Ah, yes but what about the weather?’  but, hey, when the sun shines where do you go?

C’mon Ennis.  Embrace your river.

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The Rowan Tree Cafe.  Riverside dining.

 

 

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Scattery Island, Co Clare. An Irish Time Capsule.

At the southern end of West Clare, on an island just off the coast near the town of Kilrush, lies one of country’s best kept secrets.  But that’s changing. The word is out. Last year it was awarded a prestigious European Destination of Excellence award for Ireland for offering a ‘tangible cultural experience’ and visitor numbers are dramatically increasing.  In 2016 870 people visited the island.  This year they are expecting up to 6,000 people.

Before 2016 visiting the island was unpredictable.  If there was enough interest then a boat trip was organised.  That changed with the setting up of Scattery Island Tours two years ago.   They have just commissioned a spanking new ferry that comfortably accommodates 70 against the old one, which took 12, and this is certainly helping  but don’t let that put you off.  I spoke to Irene Hamilton, one of the principals of the company, about the her desire to open the island to a larger audience and at the same time preserve what it is that makes it special.  The island has so much to offer and you can tailor the experience to your own needs.  Join a guided tour and have the stories of the island explained or explore on your own.

Irene comes from a line of island residents.  Her father was born on the island and was a sea pilot as was his father.  This link and the remarkable foresight of the people of Kilrush has put the Company at the forefront of placing Scattery  as one of the must-see destinations of Clare.  Her vision is that visitors don’t just zip past on the way to Loop Head but stop overnight in Kilrush and explore the place at leisure.

So why is it special?  There’s actually nothing else like it.  A now uninhabited island with a continuous occupation that started over 1,500 years ago, beautifully preserved, easily accessed and in a spectacular location.

I had been trying on and off for a while to get onto the island but it just never happened. During an unusual warm spell in late May I tried again. The Gods were smiling this time and on a bright blue Thursday I boarded the An Breandàn for the short trip across the channel from Kilrush.  Irene told me that the boat was named for her father and it is no coincidence that Breandàn is also the patron saint of the sea.

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Boarding the ferry to Scattery

Actually the most time consuming part of the journey was in the lock at the entrance to the Marina. It was fascinating to see the water rush in as the gates opened to maintain the level in the Marina

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Water enters the lock

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Irene Hamilton, owner of the ferry company chats to patrons.

Once through the lock you see the island and its signature Round Tower rapidly approach you and in less than 15 minutes you are there. We were well looked after by  the efficient and friendly crew which included Irene’s sister Martina.  Irene was a mavellous host spending much of the time, when she wasn’t performing seafaring duties, chatting with patrons and and answering questions or helping with family photos or making cups of tea.

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Approaching the island.  The Round Tower dominates.

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The view from the pier,   The white cottage on the left is the Visitor Centre, Keane’s Castle is in the centre and the Round Tower can be seen in the distance.

When we arrived we were handed over to  Michael who acted as our guide. The guides are provided by OPW who manage the island.  They also maintain a small visitor centre.  The tour is roughly an hour and you visit all the monastic and archaeological sites with the exception of the lighthouse and the Battery.  This was certainly worth it as Michael has a wealth of background knowledge that fleshed out the story.   Next time however I will explore it on my own but I would certainly recommend the tour as a first time experience.  And anyway it’s included in the price of the ticket.

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The guided tour begins

The story of Scattery starts with the birth of St Senan, in 488AD in Molougha, a townland about 5 km from Kilrush in Co Clare. After a life of religious study including time in Rome he set up a monastery on Inis Cathaig in 532AD.  This is the original Irish name and over time it became anglicised as Scattery.  The name relates to the presence of a monster known as the  “The Cathach” which was said to inhabit the island.  On Senan’s arrival he apparently faced the monster and ordered it, in the name of the Trinity, to depart. Such was Senan’s power that The Cathach obeyed and retreated to Doolough Lake at the foot of Mount Callan.

Little is known of Senan’s life or life under him in the monastery.  Many miracles are attributed to him however and his grave has continued to hold a sacred place among the people of West Clare and beyond. The grave is supposed to be the site of miraculous cures.  Stones from St. Senan’s Bed were regarded as relics and a protection against diseases and especially drowning.  Water from St Senan’s Well had restorative powers.

We do know his rule on the monastery was austere and women were banned from even setting foot on the island.  St Senan died in 544, but it would appear that the monastery continued unimpeded until the arrival of the Vikings in Ireland in 795.  Scattery which lay on their route to Limerick was sacked between 816 and 835, being severely damaged. In 968 the Vikings were expelled from Limerick by Brian Boru and retreated to Scattery. Boru however pursued them and three years later the island was raided with up to 800 people being slaughtered.

In 1057 the Vikings had another go with the Dublin Danes plundering the island. Then again in 1101 Magnus, king of Norway attacked. The Normans arrived in 1176 and this led to an attack by William Howell, not even sparing the churches.  By 1189 the last Bishop of Scattery had died and the Diocese of Scattery was abolished. The English  now took possession of the island.  The end came however following the 1537 introduction of  the Suppression of the Monastries Act by Henry VIII.

Phew! That is some story.  It seems to have been touched by every major historical event that Ireland experienced.  There are many reminders of this tortured time in the ruins that can be seen on Scattery.  Churches that date back as far as the 8th century, the round tower built between 10th and 12th century,  St Senan’s well,  St Senan’s Bed.  I found this all totally absorbing.  Come with me on a virtual tour.

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St Mary’s Cathedral and Oratory.  Built in 8th Century and added to until the 15th century. The Round Tower in the distance.

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The eastern window of the Cathedral.  The carved stone head is said to be St Senan.

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View of the Cathedral from the west.

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Western doorway of the cathedral.  Note the tapered shape of the door under the heavy lintel.  The stone to the left is thought to be a balaun stone.

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A distant view of the Round Tower and the Cathedral.

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The Round Tower built between 8th and 10th Century. Note the unique doorway at ground level

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View from inside the Round Tower

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The Round Tower doorway.  Note the thick walls; over 1 metre.

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St Senan’s Well. During a drought St Senan prayed for water and an angel guided him to this spot.  The Sanit plunged his staff into the ground and water sprung forth.  

 

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Distant view of Cnoc an Aingeal (Hill of the Angel), One of the earliest surviving churches built on the site where Senan set foot on the island.

 

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Remaining early wall of the church on Cnoc an Aingeal.

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St Senan’s Church.  12th Century Romanesque style

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St Senan’s Bed, a small church built over the grave of St Senan.  The iron bar is supposedly designed to keep women from walking in.  Women who entered according to tradition will be cursed

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View of the Round Tower from the entrance to St Senans Church

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A stone table found near St Senans Church.  Thought to be a medieval grave slab carved with a beautiful celtic cross and with an inscription saying Or Do Moenach Aite Mogroin. (Pray to Moenach the teacher of Mogroin).

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Teampall Na Marbh (Church of the Dead). Built 14th and 15th Century.

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View across the graveyard of the Church of the Dead towards Cathedral and Tower

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Modern graves at the Church of the Dead

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The graveyard at the Church of the Dead continues to be used for burials.

But the island’s story did not end with Henry.  Its strategic position meant it was always in the centre of events.  The ruins of Keane’s Castle, a tower house constructed in the late 1500s can be seen at the pier.  The driver at this time was the invasion by the Spanish Armada and the Irish Rebellions which threatened English rule. Remains of gun installations are evident.

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The ruins of Keane’s Castle, a Tower House built in the late 1500s

The next phase of activity on Scattery though did not begin until the end of the 18th century. The French supported the Irish Rebellion in 1798 and in 1814 the impressive Artillery Battery was built by the English as part of the extensive defenses erected on the west coast of Ireland. Unfortunately I did not get to visit this time.  Or the lighthouse which was built later in the 19th Century.

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View of the lighthouse and Arillery Battery from Cnoc an Aingeal

In the early part of the 19th century secular settlement of the island picked up with the construction of a village to house families of river pilots who were based there.  This was when Irene’s descendants came.  The island replaced Kilbaha as the pilots base.  Considerably less rowing of the currachs was required now to reach the ships.

By 1881 the population had reached its maximum of 140 people.  Most of the residents lived in a small area known as ‘The Street’.   Many of these structures still remain and though boarded off  from visitors the closely spaced buildings give us a real feel for what was a comfortable and prosperous community until its eventual demise.

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The Street.  The village that housed pilots and their families from the early 1800s

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The Street.  Another view

Through the 20th century the population continued to decline especially after the pilots were transferred to the mainland in 1954. The last two residents eventually left the island in 1978.  This fact somehow puts the whole story of the island into context.  Its settlement is still in living memory.

There are many reminders of this time aside from the ruins of  The Street and elsewhere.  Many of the gravestones at Tempall Na Marbh, which although being  the youngest of the churches on the island  (14th or 15th century), are beautifully preserved.  Many date from pre-famine time and contain symbolic representations that not only represent religious iconography but tell the story of residents lives.  Though the church ceased to be operative centuries ago many descendants chose to be buried there and they still do today.

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Beautifully engraved gravestone at Church of the Dead.  Dating from 1828

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Engraved symbolic representations on a grave stone including images of a three masted ship and a hooker and perhaps shipwright’s tools.  Presumably the deceased was a mariner.

Following the end of settlement the island lay empty for many years,  This could have been the end of the story as the island eventually passed into the hands of a developer with grand plans for a marina.  Luckily this came to naught and the island was eventually sold to a Belgian group. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to a group of Kilrush residents who pushed hard to regain ownership and ultimately bought the island back.  These residents still own the island and they ceded management to the State.

That is a great outcome.  It is not hard to imagine that in years to come Scattery will become one the essential Irish monastery sites to visit; right up there with Glendalough and Clonmacnoise.

Put it on your agenda for your next visit.

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The Long Room, Trinity College Library. A Bibliophile’s Heaven.

Most of my readers will not be aware that aside from Irish music and photography which I combine in my blog, another of my other passions is old books. That makes me a bibliophile. If you are on the same wavelength as me then you can understand the feeling that you get when you visit the Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin.  It’s like you have been given early access to the Pearly Gates. Even if you aren’t into books it remains one of the most beautiful rooms in the world and you should see it anyway.

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The Long Room, Old Library.

The Trinity College library is huge, located in a number of buildings both on and off campus. The Old Library is located in Thomas Burgh’s architectural masterpiece ,a building which dominates the Trinity landscape.

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The grounds of Trinity College.  The Old Library is on the right.

It was founded along with the University in 1592 and 70 years later was presented by Vice Chancellor and benefactor, Henry Jones, with its most famous accession, the Book of Kells. In 1656 the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, bequeathed his valuable library, comprising several thousand printed books and manuscripts, to the Library.  This forms the core of the remarkable collection of 200,000 of the oldest books now housed in what is known as the Long Room.

This 65 metre long chamber was built between 1712 and 1732. Initially it had a flat ceiling and books on only one level. In 1860 to accommodate the ever expanding collection the roof was raised and a second level of shelving added along with a stunning curved ceiling.

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Up until 1860 there was only one level with a flat ceiling

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The second level and curved ceiling

Rich wood paneling, wrought iron staircases, giant frosted windows providing a gorgeous filtered light that gives the books a golden glow all add to the ambiance of what is a very special place.

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A remarkable space

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Stairway to Upper Level

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Lots of natural light

The books are housed in a series of double sided shelves labelled A to V on the right side and AA to VV on the left. Interestingly J and JJ are missing as this letter was only added to the English alphabet around 1630. The individual shelves are labelled a to o or aa to oo (again j missing) from the ground up and then individual books are numbered from 1 left to right. This gives each book a unique location number for example, DD m 5. A surprisingly effective pre Dewey-system ifor finding a book

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Cataloging system using letters and numbers

The Long Room is lined with marble busts of authors, philosophers and college benefactors. All white men by the way. Fourteen of the busts are by the famous sculptor Peter Scheemakers.

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Busts line the hall

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Of course the Library is best known for the Book of Kells (of which two copies are on display) in the attached museum but other prized acquisitions are on display in the Long Room. There is one of the last remaining copies of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic, read by Patrick Pearse near the General Post Office on 24 April 1916. It was much bigger than I thought.

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A copy of the 1916 Proclamation

The beautiful “Brian Boru harp” is also housed here. This instrument is the oldest of its kind in Ireland dating back to the 15th century. The harp is made out of oak and willow, beautifully carved, and includes 29 brass strings (originally 30).

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The Brian Boru harp

The books themselves are are of course the centerpiece. They are beautifully bound. Mostly of course leather and vellum. Sometimes bindings are works of art themselves. Many are tattered, reflecting years of loving use. Unfortunately you can’t get up close but most books that I could read the titles of are of course in Latin, the language of scholars of the day, and many are apparently religious tracts. But significant proportion I noticed were in English. Shelves full of books on medicine for example caught my attention.

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Books on medicine

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Sometimes a little tape is required

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Ridges characteristic of cord-bound books

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A well used vellum bound set of Works of Andrea Gallandi an Italian scholar who died in 1780

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Bindings of many colours display the bookbinder’s art on this early Bible

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Original editions of works by  Aldrovandus, an Italian naturalist, the father of Natural History, who died in 1605

As a collector, familiar with the value of rare books one can only speculate on the value of such a unique collection and I would suggest that many of the books would be unobtainable. The beauty of them being here and not in a private collection is of course that you could access it if you needed to.  Libraries have adapted to the digital age and surprisingly still remain very popular. The death of the book is wildly exaggerated. Long live the book.

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