Every now and then if you look out to sea, you may see something which is hard to believe. A large, white bird, hurtling at breakneck speed towards the water. If you have been a lucky witness to this, the bird you have seen is a gannet. These are the largest sea birds in Ireland with a wing span of just under 2m. The gannet species which frequents our shores is the Northern gannet.
Ireland is actually one of the strongholds of this incredible avian, with ¾ of the world’s population breeding in Ireland and the UK. The three largest colonies in the country are at Little Skellig, County Kerry, Great Saltee, Co. Wexford and Bull Rock, Co. Cork. Little Skellig by far has the largest colony with over 26,000 nests. The birds are so proliferate here that the imposing rocks have what looks like a coating of icing. This is actually ‘guano’ or bird waste which scours out the rock due to its acidity.
The birds nest here in large, smelly, noisy colonies. They raise one chick annually with their faithful partners. Gannets reach maturity between the age of 4 and 5 and will pair with another bird for multiple seasons and possibly for life. Chicks are fed semi digested fish when very young and this will change to whole fish as the chicks grow. This baby will not move about or flap its wings as it could fall from its precariously balanced cliff nest. It will leave its parents when it is 75 days old and glide down the cliff to the sea, never to return.
Physically these birds have a dazzling array of features which morph them into torpedoes for their high impact sea entries. They have extremely acute eyesight and can spot a fish from 40m above the water surface. Once their quarry is spotted, they proceed to fold their wings back and pierce the water like an arrow. They can hit the water at 100km/h which could be fatal if wrongly timed. They have very thick skulls which act like crash helmets. Their throat also contains air pouches which inflate and function like an air bag to protect their bodies. They can even chase their fish down another 10m to seal the deal.
Even though gannet may be a byword for gluttony, would you really work that hard for your food?
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.
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!
Baltimore is not just a beautiful village. It hides many secrets, some in the ancient buildings it accomodates, some in the deep blue sea beyond.
It’s history is one of intrigue and drama. In the 17th century it was home to the high kings of Tara and many pirates. All the women of the day were said to be either the wives or mistresses of pirates. In 1631 the village was devastated by the ‘Sack of Baltimore’ where Barbary pirates from Algiers kidnapped over 100 people and sold them into slavery. Only 2 or 3 of these ever saw Ireland again.
Despite its dark history it has thrived in recent times and has become one of the premier spots in Europe to see burgeoning whale and dolphin populations. Minke, fin and humpback whales are seen with increasing regularity. Large pods of common dolphins are also seen frolicking in front of boats, surfing off the bow waves to the delight of all.
Barleycove is a golden sandy beach which is overlooked by Ireland’s most South westerly point, Mizen Head. The dunes around Barleycove were formed in 1755 after an earthquake in Lisbon. Portugal caused a tsunami. The sand that was displaced by this formed Barleycove!
The dunes are listed as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) as they provide habitat and shelter for various vulnerable and interesting plant and animal species. A floating was placed across the river to allow public access to the beach. Walking on it feels like floating mid air.
Blarney is famous for its castle and for its ability to confer the gift of the gab on whomever may kiss its fabled stone. Besides its magic powers its gardens are a gardeners dream with a wide variety of plants from near and far. The poison garden is filled with lethal plants for both man and beast. Other sections have lakes, waterfalls and ruins. On a balmy day the gardens by the waterfall feel like a tropical oasis with their tribal carvings and lush. foreign plants.
Allihies is a stunning coastal village which straddles the Cork-Kerry border. Its unique position nestled beneath imposing rock faces, looking out onto the wild Atlantic ocean. The village is dotted with cheery multicoloured houses and watering holes and eateries. Numerous coastal and hill walks can be found for the outdoor enthusiast.
It was an important mining source in the 18th and 19th century and remnants of its history can be seen in the hillsides above. According to the legend ‘The Children of Lir’, the children are buried in Allihies.
Ahakista is a wooded coastal village on the road to the Sheeps Head peninsula in West Cork. Besides its beauty it is also known for its famous summer resident, Graham Norton. Originally a sleepy fishing village, it has become more prominent as a tourist destination for its fabled walks and history.
One of the loveliest pubs in Ireland, The Tin Pub is located in Ahakista. It has welcomed musicians from all over the world. Its glorious gardens overlook Dunmanus Bay. With music, a pint in hand and breathtaking beauty, where else would you want to be?
Annascaul was home to one of Ireland’s greatest explorers. Tom Crean. His epic voyages of discovery to Antarctica with Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton have left an indelible mark on the psyche of many. Despite risking life and limb on numerous occasions, this brave but private and modest man, bought a wee pub in his home which he called The South Pole Inn.
The dramatic landscape which encompasses Annascaul includes brooding mountains, thunderous waterfalls and pounding coastline. The scenery, sensations and solitude is sure to set your heart beating anew!
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.
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.’
Hiking in the verdant forests of Killarney always brings a lightness of step and joy even with soggy conditions. We headed up the Old Kenmare Road to do one of the beautiful trails and cocooned ourselves from the ever present rain.
We dropped down to a very swollen Torc waterfall before heading in search of vagrant sheep up along Molls Gap. One very accomodating sheep modelled patiently for us before we headed on to Sneem. A triple rainbow did its best to outshine our ruminant friend, momentarily dazzling us.
A trip through the Garden of Senses and a view of the Pyramids illustrated what a gorgeous spot this wee town is.
On to Derrynane to see the house of the famed Daniel O’ Connell. The house was closed but the gardens were open and the breaking waves of the nearby ocean beckoned us forth.
A typical day tour to Killarney National Park. Sneem and Derrynane :).
There’s an irony to living in the modern world. We live in an age where we can connect to people whenever and wherever we want, but on the other side of this, people often find themselves lonelier and more socially isolated due to the fast paced nature of their lives. People wrap themselves up in their devices in bars, restaurants, and buses, yet will look strangely at someone who attempts to initiate conversation. Meetups are a panacea for some of the ills of modern society, using technology to connect rather than to fragment us.
Meetup.com is a social networking site, that was started in New York not long after the September 11th attacks. Co-founder, Scott Heiferman, claimed that the way people related to each other changed after the event. People were yearning for community and meetups were a way for people to connect with each other easily.
The premise of the site is simple. When you first join, you enter your location and you’re given a list of the Meetup groups in your area. Groups are usually started by at least one person, who has a particular interest like kayaking, dancing, meditation, or whatever someone chooses. You can join as many groups as you wish, and you can choose to be as involved as suits your own needs. Most groups create events online and then members can RSVP to the events they would like to attend.
Just over a year ago, due to a series of unexpected events, I ended up living back in Cork after 16 years abroad. I’d spent the previous decade living in New Zealand, so the person I was on my return was quite different to the girl who had left. Most of my friends from Cork no longer lived here, and the ones that did were busy with burgeoning family and work commitments. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to stay. One thing I did know was that I’d need friendship and connection if I was to have any hope of being happy here.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Cork section of Meetup.com had over 50 groups, and there were at least ten that I was interested in joining. I quickly made friends from the groups I joined and started attending various cultural and outdoor events. Coming into the summer, I was mad to get out and about, walking and camping. I found a group called ‘The Sober South’, which was right up my alley. Over the coming weeks, I went on coastal walks with them and even camped on Cape Clear, an island off the south coast of Ireland, for the Storytelling Festival. As the summer wound down, I set up my own group, ‘Cork Coastal Trips’, to satisfy my need to be close to the ocean. This group has allowed me to explore some of the most gorgeous coastline around Cork and the Wild West, and to make more fabulous friends.
The people I’ve met through meetups have transformed my experience of living in Cork. I now see it with fresh eyes, and have a greater appreciation for my home town. Both local and foreign people are part of these groups. Some of the Irish are like me, they left and returned after many moons. Others have lost their core group to marriage and children. Foreigners, who have come to study and work, have been able to integrate more quickly and easily with the friendships forged in our motley crew. We’re all here for the same reason: to make new friends. It’s as simple as that.
So many things have improved in my life as a result of meetups. I wanted to start a guiding company in Ireland, but had neither the finances, nor the support, to make it a reality. Two of the first friends I made, Karen and Eric, came on board to help my company take off. Karen became my website designer and Eric has become my business advisor. I also now work in the same company as Eric, in a position he thought I’d be right for. Another friend, Ben, connected me to a co-working space in Cork. I rented a desk there briefly and made another travel writer friend, Grace, who helped find me a gig as a contributing writer for Green Global Travel.
I cannot recommend meetups highly enough. If you want to improve your life, there is a very simple way to do so. There is no way I could have envisioned all of the wonderful people and circumstances that eventuated from my decision to try something new. It has brought so much wonder, magic, joy and potential into my life. I am truly blessed and happy to be home.