Ballycotton Island Tour

Ballycotton-Island

Ballycotton Island from Ballinamona Strand.

[Click on any photo to see a larger version]

I first set foot on Ballycotton Island three years ago when a local fisherman dropped me off there at 6:30am and collected me four hours later. It was highly irregular as visitors were not permitted on the island which is the property of the Commissioners of Irish Lights. Not that it bothered me. I was fulfilling a life-long ambition. I was reared in a cottage along the coast road to Knockadoon and the island, its powerful light and deep booming foghorn were part of my earliest memories. I therefore made the most of the opportunity when the chance to surreptitiously visit it eventually arose and it was a wonderful experience. I was the only person there for the duration. It was like being marooned on a desert island (but in a good way).

There is no need any longer for clandestine visits. Since July of this year there are organised tours of the island with access the the lighthouse itself (something that was not, of course, available to me on my previous visit). Ballycotton Lighthouse Tours is a new company supported by SECAD (South & East Cork Area Development), Ballymaloe Foods and Cronin Millar Engineering and with the cooperation of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.  The driving force behind the initiative is Yasmin Hyde, daughter of Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe House, and owner of the Ballymaloe Country Relish company. It was she who had the vision for public access to the island and it is great to see that it has become a reality.

I took the 90-minute tour last Saturday. A tip to prospective visitors – book in advance. Business is brisk and my granddaughter and I were lucky to get the last two places on the 3pm sailing. Tickets (€20 adult, €10 child) are available at The Inn By the Harbour which is on the right hand side as you drive down the hill to Ballycotton Pier. For more information see: http://www.ballycottonislandlighthousetours.com

The newly acquired boat (appropriately named “Yassy”) is licensed to carry 12 people plus crew. The short crossing  lasts about 10 minutes and so should be bearable by all but the most chronic thallasophobes.  The water was flat calm for our trip.

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 The “Yassy” returning to Ballycotton pier with a group of visitors.  

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Sailing to the island.

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The once shining white walls of the island are now a dirty grey due to not being painted for several years. This is a pity and is something the Commissioners of Irish Lights should address.

Our guide was Eddie Fitzgerald. Eddie is a former lighthouse man who served in Ballycotton Lighthouse as well as in several others around the country. He knowledge of, and obvious love for, all things lighthouse related and his ebullient  personality made for a most entertaining and educational experience. (It was only afterwards I learned that Eddie also has another string to his bow that he didn’t divulge on the day –  he was a member of famed 1970s East Cork pop group Gina, Dale Haze and The Champions.)

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 Guide Eddie Fitzgerald at the start of the tour on the island.

For a detailed history of the background to and the building of the lighthouse and the changes that were made over the years check out the Commissioners of Irish Lights Ballycotton page: http://www.cil.ie/tourism/our-lighthouses/ballycotton.aspx

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Eddie telling us about the lighthouse men’s houses. 

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Ballycotton is one of only a few black lighthouses in the world.  

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The highlight of the tour for me was entering the lighthouse, climbing the granite steps and walking out on the balcony with its fine views.

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    A detail of the consummate workmanship apparent in the granite steps inside the lighthouse.

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 Looking west towards Ballycotton village. 

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Looking East towards Capel Island. The hexagonal structure in the foreground is the remains of a housing for a bell that was used in the 19th century, before the foghorn, to warn mariners they were near the island.

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 “Yassy” returning to the island with another group and to take us back. 

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 The pier on the north side of the island.

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The tour represents a marvelous opportunity to visit one of the landmarks of East Cork and is well worth the price.

Highly recommended.

Dunlough Castle

The first sight of Dunlough Castle invariably elicits the response: “wow!”

After a 20 minute walk first through pleasant meadows and then an easy climb up rocky ground the castle with its three towers, bounded on one side by sheer cliffs and on the other by a lake, comes into view.

“Wow” indeed.

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(Left click on any photo to see it in larger size.)  

“A hidden gem” is an over-used travel cliché but it is appropriate in this instance. The castle, on the north-western point of the Mizen Peninsula in West Cork, is hidden from the public road and is not touted in any brochure as a popular destination. It is on private property, is not sign-posted in any way, and visitors are not so much encouraged as tolerated. It is well worth seeking out, however.

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The lake was man-made. A legend persists that if one sees the spectral Lady Of The Lake one’s death will follow soon. 

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It was built in 1207 by Donagh O’Mahony who was driven west to this extremity by the invading Normans and their Irish allies. The O’Mahony clan lived peacefully here and in other castles in the area for the next 400 years and earned a living primarily from fishing related activities. Their fortunes declined after the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 and by 1627 the castle had passed into loyalist hands. It was probably abandoned soon afterwards.

The dry-stone construction nature of the building has meant that many of the stones have fallen over the centuries. Still, for a castle that is over 800 years old, and given its location in one of the wildest parts of Ireland, it is in remarkably good condition. Visitors should note that there is a risk in getting too close to it (although it is impossible to resist) as one never knows if the next falling stone could be on one’s head!

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Detail showing the dry-stone (no mortar) construction and some of the fallen stones.

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An interior view of one of the towers. 

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Note the sheer drop into the sea.

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On the ground above the castle is this memorial to Andy Brubaker who died on 24th March, 1996. I would welcome any information on him.

Where it is.

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How to get there.

If you have a SatNav dial in these co-ordinates: 51.478, -9.815.

This will bring you to the small car parking area at the edge of Dunlough Bay.

If not, keep on the road for Mizen Head. When you come to the junction with a sign showing Mizen Head 3kms to the left continue on straight, turn right at the next junction and keep on the narrow road until you reach the car park.

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The car parking area is next to the magnificent Dunlough Bay.  

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The land is private property and is owned by the famous French/German writer and illustrator Tomi Ungererer whose  house is in the distance. From here, you walk. You are *not* allowed to drive up that road.  

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The route is roughly as shown on this map.

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Veer left as shown before you come to the house. Do *not* approach it!

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I would suggest €2 as an appropriate donation.

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The route is through verdant meadows and (in the distance) steeper rocky ground.

When you get back it is worth staying awhile to drink in the beauty of Dunlough Bay. I was there on a beautiful day in mid-Summer. It must be a wild place indeed during a winter storm.

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Dunlough Bay from next to the car parking area.  

 

(Thanks to Noel Lane of Cork City who told me about this magical place.)

 

 

 

Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located about 12 kilometres off the coast of County Kerry. I have been going there once a year for several years now and the trip never fails to lift the spirit. It is Ireland’s Machu Picchu.

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Boats leave for the island from the village of Portmagee between April and September, weather permitting. It is necessary to book at least a day beforehand as demand for places can be quite brisk. The following are some contact numbers:

  • Pat Joe Murphy  – 087 2342168
  • Joe Roddy – 087 1209924
  • Casey’s  – 066 2371017

Others may be found by doing a Google search. In all, about 10 boats with a capacity for 12 persons each make the trip. They leave at 10am and the journey takes about 50 minutes each way. You are given a maximum of 2½ hours on the island. Expect to pay upwards of €50 a head. Believe me, it’s worth it.

Be aware that the crossing can be very rough. My single most scary boat-trip ever was to Skellig Michael a few years ago. The sea was flat calm in the inner harbour at Portmagee but once we hit the open sea it became a white-knuckle ride. It was like being on a roller coaster with someone throwing a bucket of water at you every 30 seconds or so. Amazingly, none of the 12 passengers, all clinging on for dear life on the open deck, got sea-sick. We should have expected the worst, I suppose, when the skipper insisted on us all donning yellow oilskin jackets and trousers before we embarked.

Be aware also that there are no facilities on the island – not even a rock you can go behind – so be sure to visit the public toilet at the entrance to Portmagee before you set out.

Neither is it a place to visit if you don’t like heights and/or are prone to vertigo. There have been fatalities among visitors, most recently in 2009 when 2 American tourists died – on separate occasions – from falling from a ledge near the beginning of the stone stairway. There are 700 steps up to the remains of the monastic settlement on the top of the island and it can be very challenging for anyone who is unfit.

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The route that visitors are confined to is outlined in red. After disembarking from the boat, the route follows a gentle incline along the Lighthouse Road.

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Blind Man’s Cove – where the boats drop off and collect visitors. Getting on and off the boats can be tricky when the water is choppy – you have to carefully time your jump from the boat to the pier and vice versa.      

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The Lighthouse Road

It is only when one comes to the South Steps that the challenging part begins – the steep climb to the top. Some people, realising that it is beyond their capabilities, are content not to wander beyond this point and are happy to relax in the sunshine and watch the birds instead.  On my last visit (5th June 2014) there was a guide at the bottom of the steps who gave a safety lecture to everyone before allowing them to go further.

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The start of the South Steps. The most dangerous part is where the lady on the right is walking. To her left is the 20 foot drop where the recent fatalities occurred. A chain has since been inserted in the rock as a safety measure.  

       

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The dangerous ledge with safety chain.

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Notice the absence of handrails. There had been demands for them in the aftermath of the recent deaths but, wisely, the Office of Public Works (which looks after the island) refused to countenance them as they would detract from the character of the place.  It is a wilderness area and it is important that it remains so. 

Excavation and restoration work has been ongoing every summer since 1978 in order to learn more about the monastic settlement and to preserve it for future generations. It is not known exactly when the first monks came here but it is probable that it was in the 6th Century. The earliest written record of a monastery was in 824 AD when there was a Norse raid on the island. By the 11th Century the island had been dedicated to St Michael and probably became a place of pilgrimage around this time too. Monks continued to live here until the late 13th Century when, due to climate change resulting in colder winters and stormier seas, and changes in Irish ecclesiastical structures, they left for the mainland and settled in Ballinskelligs.  It is likely though that some monks returned for the summer months for a long time after that.

The island continued to be owned by the Augustinians until 1578 when, in the aftermath of the Desmond Rebellion, Queen Elizabeth 1 dissolved certain monasteries that had been under the Earl of Desmond’s protection. Skellig Michael was given to the (secular) Butler family and it remained with the family until 1820 when it was purchased by the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin – the predecessor of the Commissioners of Irish Lights – which wanted to build 2 lighthouses on it.

The building of the lighthouses was completed in 1826. During the construction period the workers occupied the ancient beehive cells in the old monastery.

In 1880 the Office of Public Works took over responsibility for the monastery and this has continued to the present day.  Apart from the heliport and the lighthouses (only one of which is still operational) –  the property of the Commissioners of Irish Lights – the island is owned by the Government of Ireland. It is a National Monument by reason of its historical, architectural and archaeological importance.

It 1996 it attained UNESCO World Heritage status due to its “outstanding universal significance”.

 

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The beehive huts, so-called because of their resemblance to beehives, which housed the monks.

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The monks graveyard. 

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Looking across to Little Skellig and the Kerry Coast from the monastery. 

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The Romanesque window in St Michael’s Chapel before the restoration work of the last two years. 

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The window as it is now. 

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A wider view of the newly restored chapel. 

I have to say I got an unpleasant shock when I saw the newly restored chapel. I appreciate that the Office of Public Works’ archaeologists and architects must know best as far as restoration work is concerned but I think they have gone overboard in their use of cement mortar. It looks ugly and out of character with the rest of the settlement.  Perhaps the light grey look will darken with weathering over time.

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The South Peak from the high ground above the monastery.   

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The South Peak from the top of the steps.   

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Christ’s Saddle from the base of the South Peak.  Note the final section of steps leading up to the monastery (not in the picture).

For a few weeks in late May and early June each year Skellig Michael is home to hundreds (if not thousands) of Atlantic Puffins. They nest in burrows many of which are alongside the steps so the birds are often literally within arms length of visitors. I doubt if there is anywhere else in Britain or Ireland where it is possible to be in such close proximity to them. I have photographed Puffins on the Great Saltee Island off County Wexford but it is an achievement in itself some years to see any there, let alone photograph them. It is an extraordinary sensation, by contrast, to see them so plentiful on the Skellig.

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All these were photographed with a Canon 400mm lens with an extension tube attached so as to facilitate a closer focusing distance than the 3.5 metres allowed by the lens such was the nearness of the birds to the camera.

The 2½ hours on the island is just enough to visit the monastery and spend some time admiring the spectacular scenery and perhaps photographing the birds.  Most of the island is out of bounds to visitors primarily because of the danger from the precipitous peaks and cliffs. Visitor numbers also need to be managed because of the possible deleterious impact of too much footfall on the ancient remains. The weather helps in this regard as there are often days during the summer when it is not possible for the boats to set out because of heavy seas or driving rain (visitors are not allowed if it’s raining as the wet steps would be too dangerous).

I would strongly recommend more Irish people to visit this national treasure. I’m always struck by how few Irish there are on the boats. Many people tell me that, yes, it’s on their bucket list and they’ll get around to it someday.

Forget “someday”.

Do it now.

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 Heading home from Skellig Michael.  

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The boats usually sail by Little Skellig – home to 20,000 Gannets – on the way back.

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Looking back at Little Skellig (left) and Skellig Michael (right). 

 

 

 

Bad Photos of Irish Properties For Sale

Daft.ie is Ireland’s biggest property site and it’s a valuable resource for anyone thinking of buying or renting property. You can browse through images of houses, apartments and commercial premises from all around the country, images that have been uploaded by auctioneers and estate agents.

I would love to say that the photographs have all been well-taken – properly lit, in focus and well composed – but, alas, that is not so in a frighteningly large number of cases (if a quick browse through a random sample of properties is anything to go by).

Which prompts the question: why, if you are an auctioneer/estate agent, do you not ensure that properties are presented in the best possible way so as to entice prospective buyers/renters?

It is not good enough to use a 10-year-old compact camera to fire off a few out-of-focus shots and hope for the best. Get a proper photographer to do the premises justice. He/she will know how to expose properly for even the darkest of rooms, will be able to use artificial lighting to best effect, and will compose both interior and exterior shots so that the final images will enhance and flatter. Of course, many acutioneers/estate agents do just that, as their photographs show. But as for others ….

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Badly lit and taken at a resolution totally unsuitable for uploading at this size. It may have looked OK (ish) on that cheap 2MP compact you bought 15 years ago but really, what *were* you thinking when you published this?

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Nice white van. I presume though that you meant to show the room?

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Aimed at buyers with chronic myopia, perhaps? It will look just like this in reality to them.

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Ugh. Another tiny resolution image enlarged far beyond its limits. And having a vehicle in the drive is a big no-no –  people are interested in buying the house, not the car.

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This might be a winner in a photo competition for dark, moody interiors. As a photo designed to sell a house it’s crap.

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Oh dear. This will never feature in The House Beautiful magazine. If the owner/renter couldn’t be arsed to tidy the place up before you arrived get him/her to do it before you take a photo. Or, tidy the damn place yourself. Don’t show this kind of thing to the nation.

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Did you even stop to think that maybe, just maybe, the inclusion of the ironing board might not have been the best compositional idea? Re-positioning the stools should also have been a no-brainer. Pity too about the dark spot in the foreground which the built-in flash couldn’t illuminate.

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The unmade-bed-and-untidy-room is not a good look.

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The occupiers clearly didn’t give a damn about how the place looked. Your job is to make it look somehow half-decent for the camera.

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Did you not have your rubber gloves with you to pick up the dirty towel? An essential item in any property photographer’s arsenal. There’s a lot more wrong with this shot but the towel grabs our attention.  

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Ireland’s answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

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Poorly lit and the toilet seats in property photos should *never* be up.

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Another out-of-focus disaster.

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This property should be of interest to those keen to investigate psychic phenomena – that bright spot on the lower right may be evidence of an apparition.

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Ah, look – Compo and Nora Batty on the telly! Tip: switch off TVs when photographing rooms.

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Cast A Giant Shadow was a good 1966 film starring Kirk Douglas and Senta Berger. This is a bad photograph.

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Not a bad self-portrait, dude. What’s it doing on a property website?

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Shower units are usually presented in the vertical position.  And is that a reflection of your hand holding the camera?

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This might have been a contender were it not for the lack of sharp focus, the uneven lighting and the blue car outside the window.

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Another photographer-in-the-picture situation.

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From the  black-hole-of-Calcutta school of property photography. Ain’t never going to be a success.

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I presume you inadvertently clicked the shutter while looking at something else.  There can be not other explanation. But why post it?

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Too many toilet rolls.

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Would it have killed you to remove the clothes from the banisters before taking the photo?

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Not a great photo but it would have been significantly improved had you removed the bucket and brush.

Sadly, these kind of photos are not uncommon on property websites. Apparently there’s a lot worse out there. A Twitter contact of mine says he saw a photo of a room with a guy sitting watching telly!  I would love to see such examples so if you come across any please drop me a line: carrigman@gmail.com.

Is It A Bird? Is It A ..?

Visitors emerging on to the N27 from Cork Airport must be puzzled by an odd-looking shrub in the centre of the roundabout.

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What is it meant to be, exactly?

Form one angle it looks like some lumbering dinosaur. But why? Is Cork such a centre of paleontology that a dinosaur needs to be represented at one of the major visitor entrances to the city? And why at the airport?

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From another angle it looks more like a large tortoise. Again, the connection with the city is not obvious. Perhaps it’s meant to say something about the slow pace of life in the city?

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If you look closely at the “head”, you will be able to see a remnant of a strip of fake windows.

I’m sure it even has many locals confused as well, especially those that are too young to remember that it was, once, a representation of … an aircraft. A rather fat and not very airworthy-looking aircraft, granted, but a recognisable flying-machine nonetheless. It even had rows of fake windows down each side.

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Sadly it has fallen into neglect and it no longer looks like anything. Now it’s just an overgrown, unkempt bush that is crying out for the loving attention of a good topiarist to restore it to its former glory. Failing that, the best thing the authorities could do is cut it down and save us all the embarrassment of having to explain to bemused visitors what it is supposed to be.

Obtaining my ARPS

In March 2012 I achieved my Licentiateship of the Royal Photographic Society, the LRPS.

The next distinction to be aimed for was the Associateship which, according to the RPS, requires “images of exceptional standard and a written Statement of Intent (what you hoped to achieve with the work). This is a significant step up from the LRPS. At this stage a creative ability and a personal style (what makes your work unique to you), along with complete control of the technical aspects of photography must be evident.”

The problem I faced was fixing on a subject. I do mostly landscape photography and seascapes feature a lot given my proximity to the coastline of East Cork. I considered a panel of seascapes but I wasn’t confident that I could bring a personal style to bear. Long exposures taken by the coast is a technique that I like but it can hardly be described as a personal style. I’m sure the RPS judges have seen it done far better. I needed something a bit different. But what?

Then, one afternoon last November, I was walking by the River Lee in Cork City. There was a high tide and the reflections from North Mall looked beautiful in the calm waters of the river. I had my little pocket camera with me – a Sony RX100 – and I took some pictures.

When I processed them I decided to invert the images so that they appeared the wrong way up as if you were looking at the buildings straight on rather than at reflections. They looked more like paintings than photographs. I realised then that I had an Associateship subject. I booked my place for the Distinctions sittings in Birmingham in March.

Throughout November and December and part of January I made numerous visits to the city to photograph reflections, timing my trips to coincide with the high tides. I took hundreds of exposures. I used the Sony RX100 throughout – it was far less conspicuous than one of my Canon DSLRs and was thus ideal when traversing the city. Besides, I knew its capabilities and I was confident that I could produce 15×10 prints from it without compromising on quality.

I whittled down the images to about sixty from which I would make a panel. I made individual 6×4 prints and began the hard work of deciding on the final fifteen.

This is a tortuous process. It’s not a matter of just producing fifteen good prints – they must work together as a panel which must have a logic and a coherence and which must reflect the Statement of Intent. I began by laying out fifteen prospective photos in three panels of five (I had opted for the five/five/five layout). This became a daily ritual for weeks – shuffling the 6x4s, removing some, adding others. Each time I had what I thought was a finished panel I would return to it the next day and re-arrange it once again. Eventually I arrived at a final decision – I had a panel that I was satisfied with.

I began printing 15x10s on Ilford Galerie Smooth Pearl paper (now discontinued) on my Epson R3000. Some prints worked first time out of the printer, others required two or more attempts before I was satisfied. This is where home-printing has a huge advantage over labs: you can keep at it until you get the results you require. I dry-mounted them on adhesive backing board and placed them in white A3 mounts.

This process was completed two weeks before the distinctions sitting date, March 3rd. In the meantime I was wracked with doubt. Was I kidding myself? Was the panel up to standard? Would the prints be eviscerated by the judges on the day? Why did I subject myself to this ordeal?

The day of decision started out well. I was on the 6:45am flight out of Cork to Birmingham, the panel in a secure and well-padded case in the hold. The flight was due to land at 8am. Shortly after the pilot began the descent however he began to fly in a holding pattern. The airport was shrouded in fog and no flights were landing. He would circle and wait for it to lift. This continued for about fifteen minutes whereupon he announced that he was diverting to Manchester as there was no sign of the fog disappearing. This was a bad omen for the rest of the day. Would I be able to get to the RPS venue at all?

When we landed in Manchester about twenty minutes later I phoned the RPS HQ and told them what happened and asked them to advise their representative in Birmingham that I hoped to get there sometime later in the morning.

I arrived at 11:50am following a two-hour coach trip from Manchester. Was I too late? Would I have to re-schedule the application to another sitting? I needn’t have worried. I was assured that they would be able to fit in my panel before lunch. After grabbing a much-needed coffee I returned to the auditorium to await my fate.

There were two panels judged before mine. There was an excellent black and white one which I came in on at the very end and which the judges praised highly. The next was a series of colour still-lifes of food which was technically very accomplished. However, the Statement of Intent by the photographer did not match the photographs and this was probably the main reason for the panel failing. (The judges had some compositional criticisms as well.) It cannot be emphasised enough: the Statement of Intent is crucial.

Next up was my panel.

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I was glad at least to see the prints were placed exactly as I had indicated in my hanging plan. One of the judges read out my Statement of Intent:

I want to show in these inverted reflections how a river is like a multi-faceted artist, by turns – realist, impressionist, and modernist, taking the mundane aspects of the city, its buildings, trees and bridges, and transforming them into a variety of shimmering, evanescent images.

It is not a pleasant experience to sit there while the judges are reviewing your work. They sit and consider the panel first from a distance of a few feet. Then they stand and review the prints close-up, taking down some of them from the stand the better to examine them in detail. They were discussing them among themselves for awhile – to me it seemed like an age – and then they sat down. This was it: the verdict. Oh God, please let this torture be over soon.

The chairperson of the judges asked one of them to comment. He stood and faced the audience. “I think this is a stunning panel” he said. He found the concept of inverted images “very clever” and had not seen it before. I could hardly believe my ears. Another judge commented on how her favourite print looked like a water-colour painting. Yet another told the audience that the prints contained a wealth of detail that would not be apparent from where they were sitting. The chairperson asked the judges to vote and then announced that I was to be recommended for the Associateship (which was formally ratified by the RPS Council on 13th March).  I stood to acknowlege the applause. It was an incredible feeling – a mixture of overwhelming relief and joy. I hardly needed an aircraft to return to Cork later that day – I think I could easily have floated home.

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