Bad Photos of Irish Properties For Sale

Originally posted on John Finn Photography:

Updated 11th March, 2015

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…

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Carrauntoohill, December 2014

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Carrauntoohill is the large peak on the right

I’ve been hillwalking in the MacGillycuddy Reeks since the 1980s and I’ve probably been up Carrauntoohill, the highest peak in the range at 3,406 feet – and the highest in Ireland – at least once a year over that time.

It was in the news recently when some people carried an angle-grinder to the summit and cut down the steel cross that had stood there since 1976. This was in protest, apparently, at the number of schools run by the Catholic Church in Ireland. The culprits have not been identified nor are they likely to be.

The incident resulted in some debate in the media as to what should be done – should the cross be re-erected or, as Atheist Ireland recommended, should there be a “more inclusive” symbol put in its place – if, indeed, there should be any object put there at all. The need for planning permission was mentioned, something that was not of concern back in 1976.

In the event, one week after the felling, the cross was re-erected by a group of local people and there it stands none the worse for its sudden impact with the stony ground. The culprits unwittingly helped in its swift restoration due to the clean cut at the base and because they did not cut it into pieces and hurl them down the steep northern side of the mountain. I suspect that once they felled it they got out of the area as quickly as they could.

I’m glad it’s back upright. The first sight of the cross as one makes one’s way through the last few hundred feet to the summit is always a relief – finally! I’ve made it! In poor visibility it serves as a useful landmark. I’ve never regarded it as a symbol of Catholic triumphalism – it’s just a simple steel cross that has been there for a long time and the summit would not be the same without it. Leave it be.

The incident prompted me to make another trip to Carrauntoohill last Saturday. The recent cold weather would have the Reeks looking their best with their winter raiment of snow. The forecast was for good sunny spells and the only consideration at this time of the year was the hours of daylight – it would be getting dark shortly after 4pm and the round trip to the summit would take about 6 – 7 hours so an early start was necessary. I left home around 5:45am for the 1.5 hour drive to the starting off point at Cronins’ Farm and I began my trek up the Hag’s Glen at 7:30am. The sky was beginning to brighten but a head torch was necessary for the first 20 minutes or so.

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Sunrise behind the Eastern Reeks

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Sheep crossing my path up the Hag’s Glen  

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The first rays of sunlight hitting the flank of Carrauntoohill 

My route was up the glen and thence the ascent of the Devil’s Ladder – a 500 feet steep gully – on to the saddle (a narrow, level stretch of ground between Carraountoohill and the Eastern Reeks) and thence the remaining relatively easy 1000 feet to the summit. This is the most popular route although there are more interesting options such as via The Bone, The Heavenly Gates or O’Shea’s Gully.

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Ascending the Devil’s Ladder

The snowline began about half way up the Ladder and it was thick on the ground on top. The usual path was not visible due to the snow and so I just followed the footsteps of a climber ahead of me. By the time I got to the summit visibility had significantly worsened. It was obvious that there wasn’t going to be any sunlit vistas of the Reeks anytime soon and it was too cold to linger there for  long. After a bite to eat I set off back down the slope. It was snowing now and the marks of my footsteps on the way up were becoming indistinct. I was soon down below the cloud however and the saddle at the top of the Devil’s Ladder wasn’t too far away.

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Looking towards the summit of Carrauntoohill from the top of the Devil’s Ladder

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The first glimpse of the summit cross in the deteriorating visibility

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I usually try to avoid going down the Devil’s Ladder as it can be awkward to negotiate and there is a lot of loose rocks to contend with. However, my preferred option of descending via the Zig Zag path would have meant climbing Cnoc an Toinne the top of which was above the cloud line and I wasn’t prepared to deal with poor visibility in the snow. I made my way down the Ladder therefore and my walking poles gave me badly needed support.

It was disappointing that despite the good weather forecast the night before there wasn’t a clear sky on top. The views are spectacular when there is and especially so when there is snow on the mountains. Still, seven hours traversing this wonderful part of Ireland is always a pleasure regardless of the weather.

Camino de Santiago – Burgos to León

In September 2013 I walked my first part of the Camino de Francés from Sarria to Santiago and I wrote about it here: https://carrigmanblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/camino-de-santiago-sarria-to-santiago.  Like many others who have walked a section of the Camino, I returned to do another part of it and in September of this year I walked from Burgos to León, a 180 km trek across the Meseta.

This was a different landscape entirely to the Sarria to Santiago section which was through countryside very much reminiscent of parts of Ireland. The Meseta is open and mainly flat with wheat fields stretching as far as the eye can see. Some people hate it for its relative monotony and lack of variety. I loved it. I found the landscape to be quite beautiful and some of the towns and villages were far more picturesque than any I came across in Galicia.

I had timed my trip to coincide with a full moon – something I would recommend to anyone doing a week or two at a time – and it was a wonderful, numinous experience walking a few mornings in the still countryside bathed in bright moonlight a couple of hours before dawn. Even at those early hours there were other peregrinos (pilgrims) on the path. I even heard of people who walked only at night and slept by day- which is a bit extreme.  However. doing at least one very early start – 5am or thereabouts –  when there are clear skies is a must-do.

I have added a section below the photographs containing some practical advice for anyone thinking of doing the Camino either in whole or in part and information on what worked for me.

Here are some photographs that give an idea of what the route is like – click on them to see them in larger size:

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The first day out from Burgos, the outskirts of the city have been left behind, and we are on the Camino proper. 

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The wheatfields are full of stubble now as the wheat has been harvested.

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One of the iconic views of this section  – downhill towards the village of Hornmillos del Camino.  Roman legions would have passed this way.  

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The well dressed peregrino! Note the wide-brimmed Tilley hat to guard against the sun and the Buff neckband – a versatile piece of cloth that can be used as a headband, neckband, etc. Ideal for dunking in a water fountain and putting on one’s head to cool down. Brierley’s book of maps sticking out of the left Craghopper trouser pocket.  The walking poles are not mine – they belonged to the photographer. I didn’t use walking poles but most walkers did.  They’re probably more useful in more hilly terrain than the Meseta.

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A panorama of typical countryside. 

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Just after dawn.

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The ubiquitous yellow directional arrows mean that it is practically impossible to lose your way. The Camino is exceptionally well signposted.  

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Another of the yellow arrows as well as the scallop-shell sign pointing the way. 

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Occasionally the Camino intersects with a public road. The STOP signs are usually adorned with graffiti.  

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Approaching the village of Hontanas. 

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The last few kilometres into Castrojeriz is on a tarred road. Some small sections of the Camino are on such roads. 

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A picturesque row of houses in Castrojeriz.

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An old door and window in a village street.

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A couple of older folks having a chat.  

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The moon reflected in the Rio Pisuerga at Itero de la Vega. 

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The approach to Carrion de los Condes is by the side of a (not very busy) road.

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This is part of the 17km stretch between Carrion de los Condes and Caldadilla de la Cueza – straight as a die as far as the eye can see. It was built by the Roman army – it’s part of the Via Trajana that connected France and Spain. I defy any man to walk this section and not imagine himself marching along in the uniform of a Roman legionnaire. It’s long and monotonous. It helps, if doing it on your own, to listen to some music to while away the time.

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Some weary looking Sunflowers.  

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One of the doors to a Bodega – where wine is stored – at Moratinos. 

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This particular peregrino was carrying not only a substantial load on his back but he had a peculiar looking two-wheeled contraption in which he carried more stuff. He stepped into a harness between the two bars at the front and off he went, flat right tyre and all (he must have forgotton to pack a puncture repair kit). Most peculiar.  He has done the Camino several times, he said, and he needed an extra challenge this time. He didn’t want his photo taken so I have used one that doesn’t reveal his face nor shall I name him. Without doubt, the most extraordinary walker I met. And he’s Irish!

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Occasionally, you come across a memorial to a peregrino who died on the way.

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Stormy skies. There was a thunderstorm between El Burgo Ranero and Mansilla de Las Mullas. Ear-splitting thunder and spectacular lightning. It was a marvelous experience walking along with flashes of lightning all around.   

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On the outskirts of León, the endpoint of my Camino this year.

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The Cathedral of Santa Maria de León. 

 

PRACTICAL ADVICE 

FOOTWEAR: wear good quality walking shoes, not boots. Mine are Merrells:

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Buy a pair one size larger than your normal shoe size. Be sure to have them “run in” at least a few months before you do the Camino. Otherwise, you will increase your chances of getting blisters, the bane of the peregrino. Which brings us to the subject of socks …

SOCKS – I brought “1000 Mile” socks which are “guaranteed to prevent blisters”. I must admit I was sceptical of this guarantee and had put it down to advertising hyperbole. My doubt was unjustified – the socks work: I hadn’t even a hint of a blister over the eight days I was walking and other walkers who had them reported the same happy outcome. They work because of their dual layer construction which eliminates friction between the foot and the shoe. It is this friction that causes blisters. The same result could probably be achieved by wearing two pairs of socks – a thin inner and a thicker outer. Bet that as it may, I am now a true believer in 1000 Mile socks – available at all good Outdoors stores and via Amazon  – and will wear them for all long walking and hiking from now on.  A further piece of advice that was given to me by a seasoned Camino walker whom I meet on the bus from Bilbao airport: don’t change your socks every day – wear them for three or four days at a time –  and have a right sock and a left sock. I did so and it may or may not have contributed to my blister-free bliss. I wasn’t going to take any chances. (Not that I wore those socks all day – when I reached a day’s destination and showered, I changed into a clean pair. But I put back on the other socks when setting out the next morning.)

BACKPACK: buy a good quality one such as those made by Berghaus, North Face, etc. Get it in a dedicated Outdoors store where an assistant will be able to advise you regarding the best fit for you. A 30 to 35 litre bag is more than enough. Do *not* buy a cheap bag in a discount store. I met a man who did just that and he bitterly regretted it.

WHAT TO BRING: as little as possible.  Reducing the weight of your backpack is of paramount importance. Mine weighed 7kgs but I met others who had it down to 5kgs.  Here is what I had in my bag :

1. A spare Craghopper trousers (with removable lower legs to turn them into shorts)
2. A pair of lightweight shoes for relaxing in after the day’s walk was over.
3. Two Tilley briefs (they are quick drying and there are male and female ones)
4. Two pairs of 1000 Mile  socks
5. Tilley hemp hat
6. A lightweight jacket for those cool mornings.
7. Three tee-shirts (could have got by with two)
8. iPod
9. Lightweight rain jacket (did not use)
10. Two-metre length of string and a few safety pins for drying clothes
11. Phone/camera charger and socket adapter
12. Spare 16GB memory card for camera.
13. Sony RX100 compact camera with 16GB memory card
14. Phone
15. Mini-tripod (pocketable) for camera.
16. Pilgrim Passport
17. Small cheap notebook and biro
18. John Brierley’s book of maps.
19. Razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, “King of Shaves” mini-bottle of shaving oil
20. Compeed blister plasters (did not use)
21. Factor 30 sun-screen
22.Boarding passes/passport/money/keys  23. Petzl head-torch  24. Six large (10 inches x 10 inches) zip-lock bags for storing some of the above items 25. Kindle 26. Two bottles of water.

Adopt the mantra: wash one, wear one. Live simply. As a woman said to me, the Camino is one place where no one gives a damn if you are wearing the same outfit for two days in a row. It’s not a fashion parade.

I DON’T WANT TO CARRY A HEAVY BAG – WHAT ARE MY OPTIONS? If you have used a travel agency to organise your trip it will probably have arranged to have your gear brought to your next destination each day. All you need to carry is a light day-pack. You can also avail of this service on your own – check out http://www.jacotrans.com/p/english.html. You will see leaflets advertising their service at most accommodations. It’s a handy service to fall back on if necessary.

WHERE TO STAY: here is where I confess to not being a real peregrino – I have never stayed in an albergue, the dormitory type of hostel accommodation where people sleep next to and over each other. It’s just that I am a very light sleeper and I fear that the nightly noises and comings and goings of my fellow pilgrims would interfere with my much needed sleep. I know I’m missing out on the communal spirit and bonhomie that the albergues engender and the loss is all mine, I’m sure. Still, I prefer my privacy and that’s that. So, I stay in hostals (not to be confused with hostels) which are like our B&Bs – you have a private room to yourself (and your partner, if relevant).  They cost more – about €30 on average – as against €10 or so for an albergue but for me, for the short duration of my Camino, it is worth it. I get my sleep and I don’t have to worry about security (apparently, when taking a shower in an albergue you have to bring your passport, money and other valuables with you in a plastic bag).  I also stayed in hotels when hostals were not available.   Which brings me to how I booked them:

BOOKING  ACCOMMODATION: I used Booking.com which I think is an excellent website. It also has a brilliant smartphone app which synchs perfectly with the website. Alternatively, you can just arrive in a town and check around for a room.  At the very least you’ll end up in an albergue. Don’t worry – you won’t end up sleeping on a bench.

HOW FAR TO WALK EACH DAY? This is where you need one of John Brierley’s books. Brierley’s guides are excellent in that they provide a detailed map for each day’s walk and most walkers carry either his “Pilgrim’s Guide To The Camino de Santiago” or his “Camino de Santiago Maps”. (Available in good bookstores or from Amazon.) I prefer the latter. It is a reduced version of the former and contains the maps and a brief description of the walk. It has none of the spiritual waffle of the bigger book and it is much lighter to carry – always a major consideration. Here is an example of the walk from Carrión de los Condes to Terradillos de Templarios:

 

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You don’t have to stop at Terradillos, of course. You can carry on to the next village, or further again, if you wish. However, Brierley has chosen a daily distance of 26.8kms for this stretch and daily distances of between 20 and 27kms are about right. Yes, you can attempt distances of more if you like but be careful – you can easily cause an injury to yourself by too much daily exertion. Relax after your walk. Chill out. Explore the village or town. Meet fellow walkers for a few drinks. Join them for a meal. That’s what the Camino is about, not trying to set some kind of distance record.

A TYPICAL DAY:  Aim to get on the path at least a half an hour before sunrise. In September, this meant setting out at 7am at the latest. Check for the yellow arrows as you leave the town/village. You will see other walkers already on the trail. There will usually be a village a few kilometres away and you can stop there for breakfast if you haven’t already had one. Be sure you are carrying water, especially for those long stretches where there are no facilities.  Drink plenty of water. After stopping for a coffee and something to eat, set off again. Keep a nice even comfortable pace. This is not a race. If you are walking with another person or persons and they are moving too fast for you, let them off. You can catch up with them at the next stop. Enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside. Talk to other walkers, maybe walk with them for a while. Take a rest when you feel the need. There is no rush.  You will reach you destination for the day between 12 noon and 2 pm usually and if it takes longer, so what? There is plenty of time. Just be careful about the heat of the afternoon – it can be very intense.

When you book in to your accommodation – albergue, hostal or hotel – you can relax, have a shower, do your laundry and then head out and explore your surroundings and maybe have a drink with other walkers. Later, you can meet up for dinner, or stay on your own, or with your partner, whatever. You’ll probably go to bed around 9pm. The Camino is no place for late night carousing. You’d suffer too much the following day.

And that will be the daily routine, more or less, for however long you intend to walk.

IS IT SAFE? Absolutely. There is no question of any threat or menace attaching itself to any aspect of the Camino. For a woman walking on her own therefore there should be no concerns whatsoever. I passed several women solo walkers in the pre-dawn hours. There are always walkers ahead of you and behind you. So, if you were unfortunate enough to suffer an accident you can be sure that within minutes someone will come along to assist.

WHEN TO DO IT?  You can do it at any time of the year but Spring and Autumn are the optimum times. Avoid June, July and August because of the intense heat.

WHY DO IT? A good question. People do the Camino for a variety of reasons. There are bona fide pilgrims who are doing it for traditional religious reasons; people who want the opportunity of a long distance walk to think about Life, The Universe, And Everything; individuals like André from South Africa whose wife died last year and he was doing it in her memory (with a picture of his wife on the back of his rucksack); others (like me) who enjoy the physical and mental challenge and who want to immerse themselves in an environment and in an activity totally different to The Real World back home. There is a very refreshing Zen like quality to the experience. The regular daily routine of putting one foot in front of another, wondering what is around the next corner or over the next hill, the concentration on getting to your destination – all contribute to pushing your normal everyday concerns back home into the background and enabling you to live, to some degree at least, in the Now. You will invariably return not only in better physical shape but mentally as well. And perhaps, as Bernard from Galway said to me, “you have to be a little bit mad to do it”.

There is also the fact that you are taking part in something that stretches back to the 12th century, that the path you are treading has been walked on by hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of people before you and pilgrims will continue to pass this way long after you are gone.  This sense of participation in a great and ancient enterprise is both humbling and empowering. It provides purpose and meaning to what in one sense is just a long walk but ultimately is so much more than that.  It is remarkable that what grew out of a medieval religious worldview, a perspective that is alien both to the modern religious as well as secular mindset, should be growing in popularity every year. The desire for pilgrimage – a journey of spiritual significance regardless of how one interprets “spiritual”, be it the traditional believer’s journey for a saint’s blessing, or the modern man’s quest for mindfulness or whatever- seems to be a powerful one and the Camino satisfies that need regardless of one’s religious or non-religious affiliation.

HOW TO ORGANISE THE TRAVEL ARRANGEMENTS:  There are travel companies that will do all the arrangements for you but it is cheaper and easy to do it yourself. I flew from Dublin to Bilbao with Aer Lingus. If you are starting in St Jean Pied de Port fly Ryanair to Biarritz. If doing the Sarria to Santiago section fly Aer Lingus to Santiago. You can also fly to Madrid and get a train from there. There are many options depending on which section of the Camino you want to do. For rail timetables check out http://www.renfe.com and for buses, http://www.alsa.es. (You can get great online fares – my 5-hour train journey from León to Bilbao cost €12.50!) As ever, Google is you friend. I started planning my trip in May so give yourself plenty of time.

I hope this has been of some help. Please contact me if you have any questions.

 

 

 

 

Ballycotton Island Tour

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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).