Gougane Barra is famous for many reasons. The source of the mighty river Lee is found here as you ascend the slopes of its impressive hills. The cool green calm forests here cocoon you in a gentle embrace as the grind of life falls away. It is here that Saint Patrick is said to have banished the snakes from Ireland, one so large it gouged the valley of Gougane itself.
One of the most beautiful, ancient churches in the land sits on the lake not far from where the sinister serpent was banished. It now has a far more benign function, purveying blessings on newlyweds and curious travellers from near and far. The forest here was originally farm land which was purchased by the State in the late 1930’s. It has since been reforested with over 20 different types of trees, predominantly coniferous.
A very famous couple lived in the area in the early to mid part of the 1900’s. The husband, Tim Buckley was known as a great storyteller and tailor. He was 9 years younger than his wife, Ansty. He had a crippled leg from childhood so as they aged, visitors became increasingly important to them. His vivid tales drew people from near and far, including a journalist called Eric Cross who regularly visited the couple in the 1930’s. Unbeknownst to them, Cross wrote a series of articles on their lives which later became a book and a play. The book was banned by the Censorship board in 1942 for supposed indecent subject matter. A huge furore played out over the book and was even brought to Senate!
Gougane Barra also has the auspicious honour of the loveliest latrine in Ireland, and with a thatched roof to boot!
It is no wonder that saints and scholars from all over the world have ventured to this magical place. Nowadays couples exchange vows in its natural splendour.
Many visit Mizen Head down the southerly reaches of Ireland but don’t realise that the nearby headland, Brow Head is 9 m further south! We explored this dramatic headland,wild seas and sky. Its beauty and majesty were filmed earlier this year to be featured in the upcoming Star Wars movie.
This area can easily outclass its rival of Mizen Head which sits across the water from Brow Head. The sheer chasm of cliff and coastline below with the jagged rocks are vertigo inducing, but wildly beautiful.This area was pivotal in the birth of 21st century telecommunication. Marconi came here in 1901 and used the derelict signal tower to experiment with radio communication across the Atlantic. He was successful in his endeavours, sending the first message to St John’s, Newfoundland in Dec 1901.
The area was also manned by British forces from Napoleonic era through to the late 19th century. They had a system of flags and boat signals to communicate with any potential French or Spanish who they deemed as a threat. The views from the headland span from Mizen to Cape Clear and also Fastnet lighthouse, dubbed the ‘Teardrop of Ireland’ as it was often the last place Irish emigrants saw before leaving for America.
Our day was far from done after this epic walk. We sunned ourselves on the glorious Barleycove Beach. This beach was formed after a tidal wave hit the coast in 1755. It was the result of a tsunami caused after an earthquake in Lisbon. The area is also notable for its Special Area of Conservation as the dunes are important habita for nesting birds and insects.
Allihies is a picturesque coastal village nestled in the hills of the Beara peninsula. It’s colourful cottages and characters along with its glorious scenery draws people in like bees to nectar.
Our walk took us from the village along the coast to explore the wild ruggedness of its coastline. We walked towards the hills, past the old copper mines which were very important for the community. The mines are still very much intact and have even heavily influenced the local beach. The spoils from the mine used to run dow the hill to the sea and the crushed remnants now make up the sand on the beach.
Our walk was moderate and will took us approximately 3 hours at a leisurely pace. There is so much stunning scenery, particularly when you reach higher ground. The combination of stark stone, and wild Atlantic below is quite the sight.
The more of Beara you see, the more it imprints itself upon your consciousness. It’s dark and troubled history from the mining times and famine, where people lived sometimes up to 25 in a house. Today it serves as a success story and testament to the enduring people who live here. We at MOPTOG, cannot get enough.
The Sheeps Head in West Cork is one of only a few locations in Ireland which has been designated the European Destination of Excellence. The lighthouse here is on the the tip of the peninsula and this gorgeous loop walk brought us past Lough, farmland and bog, to see stunning views from the lighthouse out onto the Atlantic ocean.
This location is drenched in history and we discovered some of this as we wended our way along. The walk took approx. 2.5 hours and terrain was uneven and a wee bit boggy in parts. The wild beauty and ruggedness was obvious was we ambled along in the glorious sunshine.
The lighthouse stood out like a beacon of hope on its rocky promonotory, overlooking the wild Atlantic ocean. It was built in 1986 to guide the tankers between Bantry and Whiddy Bay terminal. Due to its remote location, all of the equipment and supplies required to build the lighthouse had to be choppered in. It took 250 helicopter trips to bring all of the components necessary to build the lighthouse!
Walking through the valley we passed blanket bog which harbours the carnivorous plant, Sundew. This plant grows in nitrogen poor soils and it has devised a nifty solution to this conundrum. Its sticky leaves trap the unwitting flies that it seduces and as they struggle, the become more trapped in its sticky hair, which then digest the failing fly.
Sometimes the shy common lizard can be seen basking on the rocks here on a sunny day. We were unable to find it on this occasion, most probably due to the many tourists and hikers that were here today. It is the only reptile in Ireland and only reaches 4-6 inches in length. The chough which is a corvid could be seen sweeping above us. According to legend, when King Arthur died his soul migrated into this bird. Its red beak and legs are supposed to indicate the blood that covered the Kings body when he died in battle. Gannets could also be seen plunge diving offshore. They hurtle into the water at speeds of up to 125km per hour to spear their prey. Their heads are filled with air bubbles like a crash helmet to protect them on their aquatic impact.
A haven for man and beast, heaven on earth!
Glengarriff is quite possibly one of the prettiest villages in Ireland and is surrounded by ocean, lakes, forests and mountains. It’s old world charm, lush greenery and stunning water vistas make it a walkers dream.
Our day trip took us on the loop walk of Seal Harbour to Bocarnagh. The walk brought us along over 3km of stunning seascape. We made our way through the greenery as the sea kept us company to our right side. We made our way to a secluded cove where we basked on rocks like the local seals and ate our lunch in the sun.
The beautiful woodland reserve in Glengarriff was next on our agenda to see this ancient oak forest. One of the last remaining tracts of oak forest is found here and it is a sessile, oceanic forest which makes it even more special. Oak trees support up to 280 different species of insects so are incredibly important to the biodiversity and environmental health of the area.
Much of Glengarriff has been overrun with the encroachment of rhododendron plants which were brought in as ornamental plants in the 1800’s. They have spread at a prodigious rate, smothering out other native plants and wreaking havoc on the landscape. The National Parks and Wildlife Service are eradicating large tracts of this plant with varied success.
We ended our day with a well deserved feed then crossed the road to check out the Blue Pool. Despite visiting Glengarriff on countless occasions I somehow missed out on this gem. It epitomises the effect of halcyon days as the evening sun blazed down on us as we melted into the grass. Children laughed and jumped off the jetty into the dark waters as swans glided passed, eyeing them coolly. I felt like I was in a movie scene of incomparable perfection.
This lovely walk from the imposing medieval fort of Jamesfort brings us along the lovely estuary to Sandycove. Sandycove is a cute little hamlet with a smattering of human habitation and a beautiful bay which is very popular with serious swimmers.
A gorgeous walk over the cliffs at Sandycove gave us views over the bay and the islands. As we approached the seashore we were greeted with a plethora of enthusiastic swimmers, both human and canine.
We wended our way back to James Fort, passing through the tiny, pretty Dock Beach. A gentle walk over the cliffs brought us to the the old fortification which was heavily influenced by the Battle of Kinsale.
Looking across the harbour we could see the other star fortification at Charlesfort. This is believed to be haunted by the White Lady’ who lost her betrothed on her wedding night. She is said to wander the area and is known as both a benevolent and malicious ghost.
We hired a private charter last Sunday to go whale watching with Cork Whale Watch. We lucked out with incredible weather, warm sun, calm seas and excellent visibility. Within minutes of leaving shore, a huge dark fin was evident in the water, a basking shark, and the first one most of us have ever seen.
These gentle giants can reach up to 40 feet but feed on krill and small fish. They sift the soupy water to extract their food and drink a swimming pools worth of water in a day! Over the next half hour we saw 7 more of these magnificent fish, hard to imagine that they really are. One cruised past the boat and its body kept on going and going, it was larger than our trusty steed. They disappear like submarines, gently lowering themselves down out of sight. Sometimes we could see the gaping chasm of their huge white mouth as they skimmed their dinners with grace.
As we headed to more open water an energetic pod of common dolphins sped towards us. They leaped around the bow and jostled for space at the front to surf the waves our boat provided. All the while gannets dove around us at breakneck speed, hitting the water with the accuracy of a master archer.
Then the minke whales arrived. These are the 2nd smallest baleen whale in the world. They feed on much the same food as their cartilaginous compadre, the basking shark. They are solo travellers generally and are more interested in food than us. We watched them bolt through the water after their quarry and after a time we were definitely surrounded.
Over the course of the charter we saw at least 20 minkes (we even experienced minke breath which has a pretty gnarly stench).
More common dolphins came back to bow ride and all round as far as the eye could see, were hundreds more dolphins, many more whales and birds skimming the ocean. Just glorious.
Our Sunday trip was filled with sun, jaw dropping scenery, epic coastline and some ridiculously cute donkeys to boot! Mizen Head and Barleycove are two spectacular locations down in the most Southerly parts of Ireland. The waters here team with life and in the summer particularly it is not unusual to see whales, basking sharks, seals and a plethora of birds with regularity.
Mizen Head is drenched in history and has played a significant role in the culture, development and pride of the local community.
The Teardrop of Ireland
In 1847 an American liner, the SS Stephen Whitney sank off Crookhaven with the loss of 92 lives. The Irish Lights Board decided to build a lighthouse on Fastnet Rock as the Cape Clear island lighthouse was too far inland. This was the first landfall after America and was called the ‘Teardrop of Ireland’ as it was the last place that Irish emigrants saw when they left Ireland. The first lighthouse was built in 1854 and lasted till 1891 but had to be replaced as it was made of iron and was unable to withstand the merciless fury of the Atlantic ocean.
It was rebuilt in 1899 using Cornish granite and was completed in 1903. Each block of granite weighed 3 tonnes and were interlocked for maximum strength and protection.
Six men kept watch at Fastnet Rock, four at a time and two on leave. Reliefs were twice a month when the men were taken off duty. Each man worked 4 weeks on, 2 weeks off. One man had to stay on watch during the day to look out for fog and signal passing ships. As soon as fog was seen, another man was called up to work the fog signal.
When there were so many men at the tower they slept three to a bunk. They were all turned out at 5am and were made to wash themselves thoroughly, turning out all their bedding to air and washing down the barracks. This way the men stayed healthy.
Mizen Head History
In 1906 the Board of Trade along with the Irish Lights Board decided to build a fog signal station on Cloghane Island, Mizen Head. In 1909 the fog signal was established and in bad visual conditions the keepers manually set off a charge of explosives at 3 minute intervals. The arched bridge was built between 1908-1910 to connect the island to the mainland. The design was picked from a competition that was run to create the best bridge. The bridge is 172 feet (54 m) across by 150 feet (50 m) above sea level.
In 1931 a wireless beacon was installed at Mizen Head and in 1959 a light was placed on the rocks at the end of the head at a height of 180 feet (60m) with a range of 13 miles in clear weather. The fog signal was discontinued in the 1970’s when sonar and satellite navigation (GPS) took over. Mizen Head Signal Station has participated in the whole history of radio communication.
The local village of Crookhaven was the first and last port of call for ships going between Northern European ports and America. The ships stocked up on fuel and provisions before tackling the Atlantic ocean. A flurry of small boats would meet the arriving ships, swarming around them to get business. Lots of these boats came from the UK and were commisioned by Reuters and Lloyds agents.
Reuters and Lloyds agents had flag signalling and semaphore equipment up on the nearby headland of Brow Head to communicate with passing ships. At the end of the 19th century there were so many boats in the harbour that you could walk across the decks from one side of the bay to the other. Up to 700 people lived and worked in the village during this period. Currently there are only 29 permanent residents living in Crookhaven.
How Marconi came to Crookhaven
In 1896 the famous Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi went to England to file the worlds first patent for a telegraphy system using Hertzian waves. In 1899 he acquired a premises in Essex and established communication across the English channel. He was desperate to get a signal across the Atlantic and searched for a suitable for his masts. After much research he found the village of Crookhaven. In 1902 he established a telegraphic station here using a coherer receiver. He brought wireless operators from England with him.
Marconi worked with the Irish Lights Board in 1904 to put telegraphic equipment aerials on Fastnet Rock. The station was then moved to Brow Head as there had been a long established tradition of using signal equipment and Brow Head is also the most Southerly tip of Ireland. The telegraphic messages were sent from Fastnet by signalling and then relayed to Brow Head by wireless telegraphy and relayed onto UK and Northern European boat owners and companies.
Initially a few ships started to use telegraphy equipment on board. The signal stations might be in touch with one ship at a time but by 1904 the telegraphers were in touch with at least six. In Crookhaven there were 6 operators initially working in the village. After they were relocated to Brow Head they had to make the lonely trudge up to the exposed headland. They worked on 3 watches: Midnight-8am, 8am-4pm, 4pm-midnight. There always be two operators on each shift.
A shift broke its shaft 80m from Crookhaven in 1904. Fitted with Marconi equipment, hundreds of messages streamed back and forth to her as passengers contacted families and friends. Assistance was sent for immediately and she was back on course without any mishap. Marconi’s invention had thus taken much of the fear out of the sea.
After Marconi had achieved transatlantic messaging and more shipping fleets were equipped with his technology, it was unnecessary to be close to shipping and man a station so the station was closed at Brow Head. Crookhaven reverted to a quiet fishing port.
The End of an Era
The signal station at Mizen Head was automated in 1993. The same year with a lease from the Irish Lights Board and with funding from the rural development LEADER programme, the local community of Goleen decided to reopen Mizen Head as a tourist attraction. Murphys, West Cork Bottling, Cork County Council and Ford helped match the funding to open the centre to the public. This attraction is now internationally renowned and has hosted over a million visitors!
The dreamy, beautiful Barleycove beach was formed under auspicious circumstances. The sand dunes there were thrown up by a tidal wave that swept through Europe after an earthquake in Lisbon in 1755. Today the dunes are now partially eroded but the beach and surrounds are designated as a Special Area of Conservation. It is host to a diverse range of habitats and wildlife that preside in and around the sand dunes.
Walking through the undulating dunes, I saw a big furry creature swaddled in the couch grass. The shaggy beast looked a lot like a bear, but we were in the wrong domain for such a creature. I was out leading a tour group in my capacity as a wildlife guide. The location was South Island, New Zealand and the animal that lay before us was the New Zealand Sea Lion, which is genetically related to bears. A thick pelt of fur envelopes their body and the male acquires an impressive mane around his neck as he matures. Like his terrestrial cousin, the New Zealand Sea Lion is a top predator: His quarry tends to be fish, squid, octopus, crabs and the occasional penguin.
On Sea lions, the razor-sharp claws of a bear have been sheathed inside a membranous flipper. This flipper propels them through their watery lair, as well as allowing them to capture prey. The Sea Lion also has a thick layer of blubber, which insulates it from the frigid water as it descends to deeper realms.Much of the population lives on the subantarctic Campbell and Auckland Islands, with a tiny population living on the mainland. The species’ conservation status is listed as ‘’nationally critical’’– the highest threat status given in New Zealand. In short, the New Zealand Sea Lion is one of the most threatened Sea Lions in the world, and quite possibly the rarest.
NEW ZEALAND SEA LION HISTORY
No humans lived in New Zealand until about 1,000 years ago, when Maori tribes arrived from Polynesia and settled around the country, subsisting on various plants and animals. Over time all of the Sea Lions were decimated for food and fur– first by the Maori and later by European settlers. By the 1800s, the Sea Lion was extinct in New Zealand. In 1993, a lone female New Zealand Sea Lion was found by a farmer at Taieri Mouth, on the lower South Island. The farmer contacted the Department of Conservation, confused about the “blonde seal” he found on his property. This female (subsequently called “Mum”) had been tagged by researchers as a pup on the Auckland Islands in 1986. For reasons unknown, she’d traveled 435 miles to settle on New Zealand’s Otago peninsula. She also happened to be pregnant. Females are not known to venture far from where they were born, so Mum’s epic journey was all the more remarkable.
THE POPULATION REBOUNDS
Mum’s solo journey became a beacon of hope for this flagging species. Males from the subantarctic islands had begun populating the Otago peninsula in the early 1980s. With the arrival of Mum and the birth of her daughter, this was the beginning of a small breeding population. Over the next 17 years Mum produced 11 pups, many of which were female. Each pup born on the South Island is very precious, particularly to the New Zealand Sea Lion Trust and the Department of Conservation. These organizations keep a close watch on the New Zealand Sea Lion population, both on the mainland and the islands. Every Sea Lion pup that has been born on the mainland since 1993 has been tagged and named. Mum’s first pup, named Katya, went on to have 10 pups of her own. When new pups are born, every effort is made to keep them safe from potential threats, including dogs.
THE SOUTH ISLAND SEA LION EXPANSION
The South Island population has since grown to approximately 160 Sea Lions, but only a tenth or so are female. This skew in the sexes creates an interesting, sometimes lethal social dynamic. When male/female ratios are more natural, a harem system exists: The strongest mature males (or “bulls”) fight for the right to breed with a number of females. This dominant male, known as the beach master, can preside over up to 25 females. This type of harem is often seen around the Auckland and Campbell Islands, where New Zealand Sea Lions are found in greater numbers. On the South coast beaches of the Otago peninsula and the Catlins, the low numbers of female sea lions has resulted in some confusion. Sexually charged males look– sometimes in vain– for females to corral into a harem of their own. Juvenile males look similar to females, being both lighter in color and smaller than the beach masters. Mature males can weigh from 250-400 kgs, while mature females weigh between 100-160 kgs. As the male develops, his fur turns from a light brown/tan color to dark brown and the thick mane around his neck becomes more impressive. Females are very pale by comparison (almost the color of sand), and blend in exceedingly well with their surroundings.
An amorous male in these areas, having seen a juvenile male approaching his patch, will sometimes approach the young interloper. Their initial exchanges can range from bluff and bluster, to playful interactions, to the older male actually seducing the younger. It’s not unusual along the Otago coast to see a large male surrounded by his “women,” which are actually juvenile or sub-adult males! When a bona fide female is in the area, it can create quite a stir and become a challenging encounter for her. Males sometimes run at her en masse, blocking her path back to the water to escape. She can be particularly vulnerable if she has a young pup with her. In all the excitement, some females have inadvertently been killed from too many males wanting to mate with them. Despite these issues, it’s a positive sign to see New Zealand Sea Lion numbers slowly but surely increasing. Since Mum arrived on the mainland, an unrelated female named Marea settled in the Catlins in 2006 and proceeded to breed there. Their offspring have now established small breeding populations on South Island as well as Stewart Island, a small inhabited island located to the south.
CURRENT CONSERVATION CONCERNS
In the subantarctic islands the numbers of New Zealand Sea Lions has been steadily dropping. The breeding population decreased by 50% between 2000 and 2015, and there are now only around 9,000 remaining. The reasons for the decline are numerous. There’s a large squid fishing industry off Auckland and Campbell Islands, where Sea Lion deaths have been caused by accidental bycatch in fishing nets and trawls. When a female dies, she most likely orphans a pup onshore, who will die without her. She’s also likely to be pregnant with another pup. Two other serious problems are disease and starvation. In 1998 an outbreak of an unknown disease caused the deaths of over 50% of the pups and 20% of the females in the Auckland Islands. In 2002 and 2003 the Sea Lions suffered heavy mortalities due to the bacterial infection Klebsiella pneumoniae. This caused the deaths of 32% of the pups within the first few months of life in 2002 and 21% in 2003.
Reduced prey availability is another major cause of adult and pup mortality. A significant death toll was exerted on the Campbell Island population this year, with 58% of the pups dying within the first month. Studies indicated that starvation was responsible for the deaths of 62% of the dead pups that were necropsied. Unfortunately local fisheries target some of the same species that Sea Lions predominantly feed upon. This competition for resources is an issue, particularly with females whose feeding ranges are restricted while their pups are young. At the current rate of Sea Lion decrease around the Auckland and Campbell Islands, there is genuine concern for the future of this beleaguered population.
When you live far from home for a long time you oft forget the many wonderful places that encompass Ireland. Lough Hyne is a gorgeous lake, fed by sea water near Baltimore. It is the only lake in Ireland to experience this and it has thus created an unusual for aquatic creatures and plants.
It was believed to be a freshwater lake approximately four millenia ago but was flooded as a result of rising sea levels. The Lough now regularly receives Atlantic water streaming in through Barloge creek. The water here is a combination of warm, highly oxygenated water which makes it a very attractive prospect to many plants and aquatic creatures.
It is one of the most studied lakes in the world due to its unique aquatic disposition. The purple sea urchin, Paracentrotus lividus was first discovered here in 1886. It is also the only place in Ireland where a seahorse was found in the 1980’s. It is popular with kayakers and has spectacular phosphoresence which fills the Lough with otherworldly stars in its waters at night.
It was established as the first Marine reserve in Europe in 1981 and University College Cork opened a research station here to study the impressive array of plants and animals that call this Lough home.
The combination of marine magnificence, lush forestry clustered protectively around the Lough and ancient,druidic remains have created a bewitching place for all. Eoghan Harris summed up this magical place wonderfully in his book ‘Lough Hyne – From Prehistory to the Present’:
“Lough Hyne is a sacred place, a natural amphitheatre with perfect acoustics, where we can guess our pre-Christian ancestors gathered to worship the lost gods of the Druids.’