Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Edge of Europe: A Day in the Blasket Islands, County Kerry, Ireland

We arrive at Ventry Pier, Co. Kerry, on an overcast and breezy September morning with a distinct autumnal chill in the air. We are about to embark on a trip to three of the hauntingly beautiful Blaskets, an archipelago in the far western reaches of Europe. Inis na Bró and Inis Tuaisceart are seldom visited; the famous An Blascoad Mór is the best known of the three. This island, the abandoned home-place of several acclaimed Gaelic writers, a place replete with history and memory, was perceived as untainted by modernisation and Anglicisation. Like an exotic flower, it inevitably attracted swarms of linguists and anthropologists, and, as in all ‘end of the world places’, those who eventually make peace with themselves when there is nowhere left to run. An Blascoad Mór, a place where the prosaic and the profound gently collide.

The glassy light of the rising sun streams down in great shafts from behind a bank of cloud, framing the dusky grey silhouettes of the Reeks and illuminating the foaming crests of waves. Our boat, the Blasket Princess, pitches and rolls her way through the swell towards Inis na Bró, the little dinghy that will transport us to each island bobbing behind in the foaming wake, attached as an infant on an umbilical cord. We pass through the narrow sound between Inis na Bró and Inishvickillane, once the holiday home of the late and controversial Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey. Our boat feels very small beneath the formidable buttresses of Cathedral Rocks, a tightly clustered mass of teeth-like pinnacles with mysterious cleft-like sea caves. It looks impossible to land on Inis na Bró, but it is through one of these half hidden clefts that we are transported ashore.


With barely enough room for our dinghy, we pitch and roll over sucking petrol blue waters through a dank sea cave encrusted with barnacles, muscles and limpets, to pass into a secret cove like something straight out of a James Bond movie. Here it is surprisingly calm and every ripple on the patterned sands of the crystal clear deep water are etched in intricate detail. Pale pink sea urchins with delicate tentacles wave in the slight swell, startled fish flee to avoid the shadow of the dinghy and salmon-coloured star fish stud the sandy bottom.

A clamber over boulders and a steep scramble up a richly vegetated and slippery cliff face brings us onto the cliff top. Here, the undisturbed vegetation is an ankle breaking psychedelic spongy mat of lurid green cushions of sea pinks and moss interspersed with mustard yellow flowers and bright pink heather and undermined by the countless burrows of Manx Shearwater and Atlantic Puffins that have now migrated far out to sea. Care is needed to negotiate this treacherous terrain and progress to the summit is slow. Once conquered, the true majesty of ‘The Kingdom’ lies before us: myriad islands and spiny rocks float amid sea and sky; an impossibly rugged and ragged coastline stretches before us and, in the far distance, the inky blue peaks of the Reeks, huge patches of sunlight turning the rolling sea below to liquid mercury.

The keyhole carefully re-negotiated and safely aboard the Blasket Princess, we set course for Inis Tuaisceart past the pyramidal hulk of An Tearacht, which rises from the Atlantic like a broken canine tooth, decayed and holed in its centre by the action of the relentless ocean. A thin thread of whitewashed buildings above treacherous vertical cliffs ringed by foaming rocks and a seething ocean betray signs of past human habitation in connection with its lighthouse.

Landing on Inis Tuaisceart is challenging, the swell isn’t large, but the sea sucking greedily at a series of slippery slabs makes jumping ashore tricky. We time our leaps well and arrive on shore with dry feet. A short scramble up the cliffs to a sheep fold and we are on our way to the summit, past the shattered stone walls of settlements, St Brendan’s Oratory and the ghostly ridges of lazy beds. If those mute stones could only speak, what stories they would tell of life in this remotest corner of Europe! Of a woman whose husband, a shepherd, died during a ferocious storm that lasted many days, and she, alone and too weak to lift his bloated, rotting corpse, was forced to hack it to pieces and carry it out of their cottage, limb by limb.

Uninhabited now, the island harbours a large colony of Storm Petrels and is the summer breeding ground of Atlantic Puffin and Manx Shearwater whose malodorous carcasses litter the ground, the remains of a savage summer-feast by Great Black-Headed Gulls that do not leave our shores, but circle nosily in the salt laden air, eyeing all. The island seems to have been upended; a steep grassy slope leads to vertiginous sea cliffs on the north western side, the sea so far below, the waves crashing onto the rocks are silent. The words of playwright, J.M. Synge, who wrote about the utter desolation that was everywhere mixed in with the supreme beauty of this part of Ireland enter my mind. There is indeed something almost appalling in the loneliness of this place.

Back on the boat we head for An Blascoad Mór, rising from the depth of the ocean like the top of a drowned mountain. The stone shells of rustic cottages dotting the landscape drift into view as we approach. The haunting cadence of Gaelic seems to be whispered in the very wind, fragments of poems, prose and plaintive songs that tell of the ebb and flow of life here, of the wakes and the weddings of those who doggedly coaxed a living by farming and fishing on this island. The literary legacy all too often recounts and seems to dwell on the misery of life on the island and the death, misfortunes and countless calamities that befell its inhabitants. For although the island is only three miles from the mainland, during Atlantic storms you might as well be hundreds of miles away, as it is often impossible to see the mainland let alone negotiate the narrow but treacherous sound, the currents of which have upended many a nayvogue and sent its occupants to a watery grave. The boat speeds on towards a small pier past An Traigh Bhan, a strand of pearl white sand bathed by turquoise waters favoured by grey seals. Above the beach lie the stone walled fields once fertilised by seaweed to grow potatoes and oats that kept the famine from these shores. Pleasure boats to the island now disgorge hordes of curious day-trippers seeking the mystique of a ‘place outside of time’, and the tell tale whitewashed and restored cottages betray the presence of holiday homes.


Above the old village, abandoned since the last islander closed his door in 1953, two tracks on opposite sides of the island circle Tur Comhartha, joining at the saddle below Slievedonagh. The south track has impressive views of the ragged coastline of the mainland and, on the horizon, Skellig Michael bursting through the ocean like a grey spear tip. Atop Slievedonagh the track narrows as it traverses the spine of the island, slopes blushed pink with heather. An Cro Mór now comes into view. One last push uphill and the summit is surmounted. This is the point where Europe ends and before lies the mighty Atlantic, restless, relentless. And somewhere over the horizon is North America. Atop this peak, the eyes of countless islanders surely stared out across the watery void to dream of new beginnings…

The evening crowns the day as the Blasket Princess slips quietly away from the island leaving the lonely stone cottages once more to the gulls. Tired from the day’s exertions, I soon succumb to the gentle rolling of the boat as she rides the waves towards Ventry, landscape and seascape bathed in the warm apricot glow of the sinking sun. As I begin to daydream, drifting in and out of consciousness, on the wind, I swear I hear a whisper from across the void of time: ‘there will not be those like us again’.

Bird Paradise: Exploring Puffin and Scariff Islands, County Kerry, Ireland

The islands off Kerry’s coast are bathed by the Gulf Stream that bestows a warmer yet fickle climate that is often tempestuous, but utterly seductive. An extraordinary light plays on them; their forms change continuously in response to the kaleidoscopic weather patterns. Some are easily accessible, others not so. Puffin and Scariff islands, both uninhabited, are seldom visited. The first is an important nature reserve as a breeding ground for sea birds and access is restricted by BirdWatch Ireland. It is estimated that Puffin Island is home to between 5,000 and 10,000 Atlantic Puffins and up to 20,000 Storm Petrels, not to mention its populations of Manx Shearwaters, Gannets, Guillemots, Kittiwakes, and Razorbills. Scariff, remoter still, is a world away. Here, feral goats roam the tangled vegetation and abandoned buildings stare forlornly across restless seas as the only reminders of past habitation.

On a calm but murky day, our rib boat slips out of the old smuggling village of Portmagee. Aboard are a group of hillwalkers and birdwatchers. The distinctive whale back shape of Puffin Island with its black, rugged cliffs soon looms out of the mist, its cliff-face vantage points home to noisy colonies of Razorbills, Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Herring Gulls; their raucous calls fill the air. The island looks impossible to land on, the sea sucking greedily at slimy rocks as the rib pulls into a rocky inlet. Care is needed to scramble ashore over rocks slick with algae, followed by a steep climb up a cliff gully.

Atop the cliff, the vivid emerald ground of spongy moss and wiry grass interspersed with brilliant patches of pink and yellow flowers, is literally honeycombed with the burrows of rabbits, Puffins and Manx Shearwaters. You need to pay careful attention as you plant your feet, for a broken ankle is a real possibility! Along with predation from Great Black-Headed Gulls, the Puffin and Manx Shearwater populations are under threat from the invasion of mink which have swum across from the mainland. They are exterminating the helpless chicks in their burrows, decimating the numbers of these protected species. We spot one of the metal cages that has been set to try and trap these unwelcome predators. Unfortunately, it’s empty. 

We climb to the highest point of the island which offers fine views and a sense of glorious isolation. A silvery luminescence periodically swallows the smooth emerald contours of the mainland which shimmers in and out of the mist, revealing a ragged coastline of cliffs and zawns gouged out by the merciless Atlantic. The wind bears the rhythmic chugging of fishing boat engines emanating from far below in the mist. Opposite, the lesser peak rises dramatically from a deep, narrow inlet that almost bisects the island, the near vertical black cliffs on either side glisten in the feeble sunlight. 

Near here we spot hundreds of puffins and we sit transfixed just feet away, amused by the antics of the clown faced birds with cartoonishly large, colourful triangular bills. Constantly jostling for space as they waddle about on a rock shelf on their seemingly oversized webbed feet, they stare quizzically at us, totally unperturbed by our presence. Others swoop low over our heads in a whirl of black and white feathers, flashing their gaudy beaks as they come into land.

Atlantic puffins spend months at sea, no one is quite sure where, and only return to land in mid-spring to mate, laying one white egg in May. Both parents take turns incubating the egg, and after about six weeks a fluffy black puffin chick, or ‘puffling’, hatches. These birds are famous for loading their colourful beaks with a dozen or more fish and winging to their burrow to feed their solitary, ravenous chick. It’s incredible to think that they often fly over 20 kilometres out to sea to catch the choicest fish for their pufflings. It’s now late July and very soon the young puffins will waddle down the steep slopes of the island and take to air and ocean to face the long Atlantic winter far out to sea on their own.

The rib boat thumps over the restless waves towards Scariff, scattering sea birds that protest nosily. Eventually we hear the sound of waves washing onto rocks and the island begins to emerge through the mist. As the rib slows, the acrid smell of guano mingles with the sharp smell of sea salt and seaweed. The eerie shrieks and wails of seabirds rend the air as we glide beneath towering cliffs bathed by seas of petrol blue. Huge strands of seaweed sway in the swell and we spot sea urchins, jellyfish and seals in the crystal clear water. Scarrif means ‘rough place’ in the Irish language and it is almost encircled by jagged, steep and inaccessible cliffs, home to gulls, terns and gannets that nestle on every conceivable rock ledge and pinnacle. Their combined chorus is tremendous. We startle a couple of gannets who perform a lumbering dance across the water as they beat their ragged wings to become airborne and a group of juvenile puffins who scurry away, their wings beating the surface of the water in vain, before they relent and dive quickly out of sight. Atop one of the cliffs, a Billy goat bearing an impressive set of curved horns is silhouetted against the grey sky. He watches our boat slip by and imperviously stands his ground as if to announce that the island is his realm. No human has lived here in almost a century and the utter desolation of the place seems to be carved into a flight of old stone steps leading ashore up a narrow cliff face gully.

We begin our ascent of the island, wet grass, ferns and heather wrapping itself around our ankles and slapping at our shins. A group of feral goats pass in and out of the mist and shadow us for the 1.6 kilometre climb to the summit. I find their presence quite unnerving and am relieved when they finally lose interest and melt away into the mist. The summit is wrapped in cloud and the mist is cold and clammy when we stop, so we head down slope past the vestiges of an ancient hermitage covered by a mound of earth and rocks, and old stone walled fields now overgrown with bracken and brambles. The forlorn shells of an abandoned homestead finally take shape in the gloom. We enter an unroofed cottage and stare through a window still sporting a crumbling wooden frame, towards Deenish Island and ponder the life of the family that once lived in this place so cut off from civilisation. 

It was probably the island’s isolation that attracted a colony of medieval monks who built an oratory on the eastern side of the island. The ruins of this and a burial-ground may still be seen. The constant low moaning of the sea engenders a sense of sadness, and I marvel at the self sufficiency and ability to ride out storms that lasted sometimes weeks on end, of those who have made this island their home over the centuries. The lichen covered stones of the buildings and field boundaries are now home to birds, and we are fortunate to catch the strange electronic ‘purring’ sound of a Storm Petrel concealed deep within a crevice of a field wall. We make our way back to the stone steps leading to the shelf of rock below which bobs our bright orange rib boat. And with our departure, this Atlantic outcast is once more swallowed by the mist to return to its eternal loneliness.

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Sunday, 25 May 2014

A Wild camp at Lough Dan, Wicklow Mountains, Ireland

There can be nothing more delightful than the Wicklow Mountains in early spring. The black bogs replete with the sweet odour of wet earth; the hedgerows snowy with blackthorn blossom; in the valleys, the first fragile green leaves bursting forth from winter weary boughs, and beneath, nestling amid carpets of emerald moss, patches of shy spring flowers: celandines, violets, primrose and wood sorrel.

A call to the wild beckons, a rough camp on the crescent of golden sand fringed with willow and alder, the place where the serpentine coils of the Inchavore River greet Lough Dan. Following the Wicklow Way, we climb Ballinafunshoge, which can only be described as a tree graveyard, eerie, dank and miserable, and Sleamaine, which only has views towards Lough Tay to commend it. We then head down the remote Cloghoge Valley, crossing the river at a series of stepping stones by a lonely whitewashed cottage shaded by a sycamore of Tolkienesque proportions, standing sentinel close to where the river discharges into the lake.

The sun is setting as we pitch our tent beneath twisted branches of alder on the sandy shore of Lough Dan. Across the lake, the ghostly ridges of lazy beds are momentarily brought back to life in the shafts of sinking sunlight; the lake, mirror flat, slowly turns a mysterious indigo and bats begin to flit about in the darkening sky. Our campfire crackles and bursts into life, sending a volley of sparks heavenward towards a hazy crescent moon that casts a feeble silvery glow over the indistinct shapes of the surrounding hills and the mysterious lake. Instant comfort emanates from its flaming embers, embracing us in warmth and a sense of security.

Belly full, I retire to our tent; cocooned and toasty inside my sleeping bag, I listen to the faint murmur of the lake lapping at the nearby shore and the cries of the creatures of the night: the shriek of a critter falling victim to a fox; away in the heather, the constant churring of a nightjar filling the air with tremulous cadence, and across the valley, deer trading strange yelps and squeals. And amid it all, I think I hear ghostly voices carried on the wind from a group of shattered stone cottages upstream.

A riotous dawn chorus heralds the coming of day. I emerge from our tent to see the sunrise casting an almost supernatural golden radiance across the deep purple lough. I sit transfixed on the cold sand, watching fish periodically breaking the surface of this liquid landscape, creating languid concentric circles. I am being watched by a herd of deer, nervously nibbling the grass on a nearby rocky slope. As I set out across the beach admiring the reflection of the surrounding mountains on the still surface of the lough, the deer melt away into the landscape of russet vegetation and grey granite. A startled heron takes off clumsily from the ragged reeds at the edge of the water, while the sun’s rays illuminate dew covered, gossamer threads of spiders’ webs strung out like silvery nets on the grass and gorse at the back of the beach.

A cheeky chaffinch, half hidden by plump pussy willows, chirps loudly in the tree above our tent. Bumble bees float heavily through the still morning air as our kettle burbles into life. The sun is rising rapidly now and the air has become stuffy and heavy with the fragrance of gorse. As we leave the tree-shaded beach, the silence is so profound, our footsteps crunching on the sandy gravel seem to fill the whole valley with sound. And for one moment, the sense of being the only two people in the world has no equal.