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). 

 

 

 

Waterville Beach Hotel

Two miles north-west of Waterville, County Kerry lies the ruins of the Waterville Beach Hotel (a.k.a. the Reenroe Hotel).

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It was built in the 1970s and closed in the mid-1980s.  On the face of it the closure is difficult to understand – it is situated overlooking the beautiful Ballinskelligs Beach but even that was clearly not sufficient to attract enough customers on an ongoing basis to make it profitable.

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Ballinskelligs Beach

The elements have since taken their toll and the place is now a crumbling ruin.

In the early 2000s, Eccleston International Ltd made plans to demolish the old hotel and build a 13,000 sq ft, 120 bedroom hotel on the site.  The proposal had the backing of the local community who looked forward to the employment that would be created. There was however a single objection from a couple – Eugene and Anne McMahon – who are resident in Canada but who have a holiday home in the area. An Bord Pleanála upheld the objection. That objection was in turn overturned by An Bord Pleanála at the end of 2007 and the green light was given for the development to go ahead.  However, the economic climate had changed dramatically in the meantime and nothing happened. The planning permission has since expired and the site is now for sale with an asking price of €150,000.

I had never heard of the place until I read Susan Cloonan’s blogpost:  http://queenofpots.com/blog/2013/08/25/abandoned-waterville-beach-reenroe-hotel/

My interest piqued, I travelled to West Kerry yesterday to photograph the ruin. There is easy access to the hotel. I didn’t see any signs saying “Keep Out” or “No Trespassers”. I ventured inside with some trepidation in case a slab of masonry or something might fall on me but I emerged unscathed.

I’m not a huge fan of HDR but I decided to use the technique to give the interior shots a hyperreal effect which I think the grotesqueness of the place demanded.

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Photographing the Wreck of The Astrid

On the morning of 24 July 2013 the beautiful Dutch training vessel The Astrid struck rocks off the Cork coast at Ballymacus near Kinsale after suffering engine failure.  All 30 persons on board were rescued.

I was abroad at the time but I read about the drama on the web. Subsequently, I saw some fine artistic photos of the ship from the likes of Baltimore based photographer Rohan Reilly and others online. I was determined to take a trip down there to see what I could capture. I wasn’t exactly sure where it was though so I had to do some detective work using Google Earth to establish the location. I saw from the online photos that there was a pair of rocks in the distance and having located those on the map  (they are known as the Sovereign Rocks) I had the wreck site more or less nailed down. The next problem was that access to the cliffs above the wreck site was through a farm. How would the farmer react to a request for access? Since the ship went aground there have been reports of items being stolen from it and so there might be sensitivities around allowing strangers like me to get near it. Was it actually still there? Maybe it had since been towed away? All those thoughts bothered me as I made my way to Kinsale on 9th August.

My SatNav brought me to the farmhouse I had identified as nearest the wreck. There was a large dog lying outside the door as I walked towards it but he was docile. I knocked and a pleasant young woman – the farmer’s wife – answered. Yes, the ship is still there. Yes of course I could go through the land. Just park my car behind the shed and follow the path through the cornfield.

That was a relief. I got my camera gear together and headed down the path towards the cliffs. At the bottom of the cornfield was the Irish Coast Guard “do not pass” tape that the farmer’s wife had mentioned to look out for. I stepped over it and made my way through some bramble – it was obvious that other people had followed the same route  – until I got to the cliff edge. And there was The Astrid in all her tragic glory. What a sight! Time to get nearer.  A steep grassy slope led to a rocky ledge. I gingerly made my way down but I momentarily lost my grip and slipped a fair few feet with my tripod taking its own independent downwards trajectory in the process.  Apart from a sore thumb we both survived intact.  Phew!

I set up the tripod, mounted my Canon 5D Mk11, fitted the Canon 24-105 L, composed and focused, changed the lens to manual, fitted the Lee 10 Stop ND (“the Big Stopper” ) and a Lee grey-grad.  My plan was to take a series of long exposures to get that smooth glass-like sea effect. I wasn’t interested in reportage, in recording the scene as is. I was after a more artistic approach (if you will excuse the pretension). Trial and error resulted in optimum exposures of around 70 seconds at f/22 at 100 ISO. I switched the 24-105 L for the 17-40L for some of the shots.

I spent about an hour there and then I made my way slowly and very carefully up the steep slope to the cornfield and thence back to the car. I stopped off at the house and handed the farmer’s wife a five-euro note and suggested she buy some sweets for her kids.  I felt it was appropriate to make such a gesture. She had allowed me access her land when she could easily have refused.  I had the privilege of photographing one of the most dramatic scenes I have seen for some time.  It was the least I could do.

(Left click the photos to see them in a larger size) 

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A colour shot and (below) a monochrome version of the same exposure

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These monochrome conversions were done using Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2

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This blue treatment was achieved by changing the White Balance in Adobe’s Camera Raw converter

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Fastnet Lighthouse

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I recently had the opportunity to go on an evening trip around the Fastnet Lighthouse in West Cork.

It is a place that has held a fascination for me for a long time. This wonderful lighthouse stands on a rock 8 miles off the coast in an area notorious for its heavy seas. It was once known as “Ireland’s Teardrop” as it was the last part of the country that Irish emigrants would see as they sailed to America in the 19th century.

Lighthouses are all operated automatically now but it was manned until March 1989 and one can only admire the resolution and bravery of the lighthouse keepers who worked here over the years.

The construction of the present lighthouse was begun in 1897 and was commissioned on 27th June 1904. It replaced an earlier one started in 1853 but which was too weak to cope with the often severe weather. It is comprised of 2,047 dovetailed blocks of Cornish granite. It is 44.5 metres high.

The tower was first built in the Cornish yard of the contractors John Freeman & Sons to make sure that each granite block fitted perfectly. It was then disassembled and each block shipped to Ireland. It is a wonderful feat of construction. When it was completed the vertical variation from the original plan was only 3/16th of an inch. And despite the battering it has got from storms it still looks pristine and I understand the interior is perfect as well.

Every second year the Fastnet Race sees yachts competing in a 608 nautical mile course from Cowes on the Isle of Wight around the Fastnet Rock and finishing at Plymouth. In 1979 a storm with gusts of up to force 11 resulted in the deaths of 15 yachtsmen and 3 rescuers.

The sea was unusually calm on the evening I was there and that, combined with the beautiful light of the setting sun, helped me to take some nice photos of this beautiful lighthouse.

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Croagh Patrick

Another box in my “to do” list was ticked on Thursday – I climbed Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s sacred mountain.

I had intended doing it when I was up in Mayo last year but weather conditions were poor on the day and I didn’t attempt it. I took advantage of the exceptionally good weather this week and, on a whim, I set off for Murrisk – the village at the foot of the mountain – for a three and a half hour drive from East Cork  on Thursday morning.

I arrived at the car park at the base of the mountain around 2pm. I was going to wait until after 6pm before heading up. The average time for the 7km round trip is between 3 and 4 hours and with sunset not due until 10:05pm I had plenty of time before darkness fell. In any case I had my head-torch so the prospect of walking in darkness didn’t worry me. However, after checking into the B&B across the road and after a cool drink in The Tavern I figured I might as well start the climb. I would take it easy as I wanted to be on the summit near sunset. It was now 4pm.

Croagh Patrick is 2,507 feet (762 metres) high – 100 feet lower than Knockmealdown which I climbed a few weeks back. However, it is a much tougher prospect as one has to climb every one of those feet as it starts at sea level.

The Reek as it is known is of course the most climbed mountain in Ireland as it has been a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of years. St. Patrick is supposed to have spent 40 days fasting on the summit after which he banished snakes from Ireland! There is evidence that it was also a place of significance in the pre-Christian era and may have been used for Summer Solstice ceremonies.

The highlight of the modern pilgrimage is Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July when in excess of 15,000 people make their way to the chapel on the summit. It is particularly popular among members of the Travelling Community many of whom do some sections of the walk barefoot. There is a significant macho-man element in the latter, I am told, but whether that is the case or if it is purely penitential I do not know. Regardless of the reason it is astonishing that it is done at all – the ground underfoot is rocky and sharp; it is difficult enough with good footwear – it must be horrendously painful in one’s bare feet.

There is a stall selling walking sticks as you exit the car park towards the start of the walk and it is highly recommended that you purchase one as the upper reaches of the climb are over loose scree and you need all the support you can get. I had my Manfrotto monopod and I used that instead.

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The start of the well-worn track  (left click on photos for larger size)

The path up is, as to be expected, well defined and there is a constant trickle of people negotiating it. It is a straightforward trek up to the saddle with only a few loose rock stretches. As you ascend, the beautiful vista of Clew Bay and its islands open out below you. One of those islands is Dorinish which was once owned by John Lennon but was sold by Yoko Ono after his death.

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Looking back towards Clew Bay

The saddle affords fine views to the south and the path takes an easy level course until the base of the upper cone. The path now veers steeply upwards across loose scree and it is difficult going. The best bet is to keep to the right of the path where there are more firm footholds. This was easy enough to do on the day with few people about; how it must be on Reek Sunday I can only imagine.

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Looking south from the saddle to a well-cultivated peat bog  

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Names and phrases spelled with stones including “Aideen I’m Sorry” – I hope she forgave him

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The upper cone – the path wends its way through loose scree 

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Looking back from half way up the upper cone  

I was relieved to reach the top. It was calm and very hot. The views across all the compass points were magnificent. The chapel itself was closed but a small window showed the basic interior with the centrepiece being a large statue of St Patrick. The gleaming white of the exterior leant the scene a Santorini-like effect especially given the blue sky and the dead heat of the day.

The chapel was built in 1905. Builders lived in huts on the summit for the six-month period of construction. Excavations had uncovered a dry stone oratory – similar to the one at Gallarus in Kerry  and it dated from the period 430AD to 890AD.

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There were a few hours to go until sunset so I relaxed in the shade of the church. Walkers came and went. Some had no more reached the summit when  they turned on their heels and headed back down again, a behaviour that puzzled me – why come all this way and not soak in the scenery for a half hour or so at least?

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One of the three “stations” – I didn’t see anyone doing them

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St Patrick’s Bed

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Looking north across Clew Bay to the Nephin range of North Mayo

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The highest toilet in Ireland –  and in good condition too

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The sun sets towards the Atlantic with Clare Island in the middle distance

The sun began to dim appreciably around 9pm and I took a few photographs as it began to sink towards the Atlantic. A thick blanket of haze soon obscured it well before the actual sunset time of 10:05pm. I headed back down the mountain in the fading light around 9:30pm but I did not need the torch to light the way and I reached the car park at 11pm exactly.

Croagh Patrick is a magnificent mountain and it was a wonderful experience to climb it. That said, I found it very tough going in the 29 degrees heat and in the absence of any wind. I was exhausted at the end of it. My admiration for the people who climb it on Reek Sunday – often in wet and windy conditions – has been considerably increased as a result.

Supermoon

According to Wikipedia: ” A supermoon is the coincidence of a full moon or a new moon with the closest approach the Moon makes to the Earth on its elliptical orbit, resulting in the largest apparent size of the lunar disk as seen from Earth. The most recent occurrence was on June 23, 2013, as the closest and largest full moon of the year and the Moon’s closest encounter with Earth for all of 2013. It will not be so close again until August 10, 2014.”

Curiously, the term comes from astrology and is of relatively recent (1979) coinage – it is not used in the astronomical community which refers to it as a perigee-syzygy or perigee moon. Somehow, I think the astrological name will stick as far as the general public is concerned.

The weather forecast for East Cork of the evening of the 23rd June was good – calm and clear. I wanted to photograph the Moon as it rose in the sky with some landscape in the shot to give a sense of perspective as well as interest. I figured that Ballycotton Island would be a good choice and I checked the Photographer’s Ephemeris application to establish the moonrise direction. It was due to rise at 21:43 and would be directly over the island, viewed from Ballinamona beach, shortly thereafter.

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A screenshot of The Photographer’s Ephemeris page for Ballycotton on the 23rd June. This application is indispensable for landscape photographers. Seehttp://photoephemeris.com/

I arrived at Ballinamona car park around 9pm.  There were a few other people about enjoying the pleasant evening. Three women emerged from a car carrying a beach windbreaker, chairs and bags of material. They set up the windbreaker and chairs in a sheltered spot in the dunes on the beach side of the carpark and the material they were carrying included sticks with which they made a fire. It was fitting that they did so as not only was this the night of the Supermoon, it was also St John’s Eve – a traditional night for bonfires in Ireland. These women were marking it in style  – having a picnic on the beach and waiting for the emergence of the Moon over the ocean – although I suspect their fire was for heat only. It was a nice night but there was still a chill in the air.

I set up my tripod a few yards away and placed my Canon 5D Mark11 and Canon 400mm f/5.6 lens on it and attached a cable release. I set the ISO to 400.  All I had to do now was wait.

I checked my watch as the time  of moonrise came and went – 21:43, 21:50, 21:55  and still no sign of it. Was it hidden behind the island?  And then at 22:00 exactly it became faintly visible a few degrees above the horizon to the left of the island exactly as the Photographer’s Ephemeris had indicated.  Despite the seemingly clear sky a distant cloud obscured most of it.

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At 22:00 the Moon revealed itself albeit faintly

As it slowly rose in the sky however it left the cloud behind and emerged in all its magnificence. I had to politely decline the picnic women’s offers of tea or coffee as I concentrated on the photography.

I waited until it was directly above the lighthouse and then I packed up and left. It was 22:23. When I got home I did a quick edit on what I thought was the best shot of the evening and I posted it on Twitter at 23:06. I should add that it was a straight shot – the moon was not re-positioned using Photoshop in any way.

Immediately people started re-tweeting it and by midnight I was trending in Ireland (Twitter-speak for being very popular  – not to be confused with trendy; I was never that). The image has been re-tweeted 576 times since.

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The BreakingNews.ie Facebook page posted it and they received 2,445 “likes”.

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To date it has been viewed 6,377 times on my Flickr account.

I was contacted by the Irish Examiner for a high resolution copy and they published it on the 25th June.

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The back page of the Irish Examiner on 25th June

I am astonished at the response.  I thought it was a good enough photo but the image is technically deficient in that it is a bit “soft” due to the atmospherics – it is difficult to get things bitingly sharp when you are shooting into late evening haze with a long telephoto lens. I may well have contributed to the softness by not using mirror lock-up when making the exposures. A shutter speed of 1/13 sec didn’t help either. That obviously didn’t matter as far as the public was concerned. They liked it and that was that. Sometimes those of us in the photographic community can get too bogged down in the technicalities of an image to the detriment of recognizing that a photo can have impact and resonance for people without being  “perfect”. Certainly, I have lots of other shots that I would regard as being technically superior but none, so far, has been as popular as this.

Hillwalking in the Knockmealdowns at Night

About twenty years ago I climbed Carrauntoohill, Ireland’s highest mountain, at night in June around the time of the Summer Solstice. It was a beautiful calm night, there was a full Moon, and sitting on the summit as the sun rose all combined to make it a very memorable experience. It was one that I have meant to re-create ever since but for one reason or another – mostly weather related – I was unable to do so.

The good weather over the last few days gave me an opportunity to consider another trip into the mountains to mark Midsummer. This time however I ruled out Carrauntoohill because of a forecast of thick cloud over Kerry on the night of 19th/20th June, my window of opportunity. So I chose someplace nearer home – the Knockmealdown Mountains north of Lismore, County Waterford. The forecast suggested that there would be good clear spells and the Moon was 88% full.

Knockmealdowns-Google

The Knockmealdowns are north of Lismore, County Waterford

I am very familiar with the Knockmealdowns. Knockmealdown, the highest mountain in the range at 794 metres (2,605 feet), was the first mountain I ever climbed and it has a special place in my affections ever since. The standard route is from the carpark at the Vee Gap up to the Sugarloaf Hill and thence via the ridge to Knockmealdown. The remains of a Famine-period wall mark the route so there is no possibility of getting lost even in poor visibility.

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My route

I started the ascent to Sugarloaf around 10:30pm. It was bright enough to negotiate the path without the need to switch on my head-torch. My pair of walking poles helped to give me extra momentum on the climb.

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Just after sunset over the Galtees 

There are a few stone cairns on the summit of Sugarloaf and I rested here for awhile and admired the views – to the North-West the Galtee range, the lush farmland of the Golden Vale in front of me and to the East, Slievenaman and the Comeraghs. It was dark now and the lights of the villages and towns were flickering in the distance – I picked out the ones I recognised: Clogheen, Ardfinnan, Clonmel, Cahir -and North-West of the Galtees, the glow of Limerick City shone into the sky.

And while it was dark there was still a glow of sunlight in the Northern sky and it never disappeared throughout the night. It shifted from the North-West, where the Sun had set, across to the North-East from which direction the Sun rose shortly after 5am.

I then started to make my way down from Sugarloaf to the ridge that would take me to Knockmealown. Even with the almost full Moon shining down on me it wasn’t bright enough to walk without artificial light so I switched on my Petzl head-torch which provided superb illumination. As I walked along, the light reflected off the eyes of the occasional sheep resulting in two bright green orbs staring out of the darkness at me every now and then.

I arrived at the summit of Knockmealdown around 1 am. Conditions were good-  there was only a gentle breeze and the slight chill was remedied by putting on an extra jacket. There was a wonderful silence which was punctuated every now and then by the bleating of a sheep, the barking of a dog in a farm far below or the sound of an occasional car or motorbike making its way over the Vee Pass.

I sat and took in the magnificent view. Due South I could see the lights of Youghal and a little to the West of it the red flashing light of Ballycotton Lighthouse. Further along I could make out the Whitegate Oil Refinery and then the glow in the sky from the lights of Cork City. Directly below me were the lights of Lismore and further East, Cappoquin.

I took some long-exposure photographs (about 3 mins 30 seconds per exposure at 400 ISO) to pass the time and I used my head-torch to illuminate the foreground. The only point of interest in the foreground was the concrete triangulation pillar used by the Ordnance Survey. Knockmealdown is devoid of any stone cairns and is thus well named – the original Irish name was Cnoc Meal Donn: the bald, bare mountain. I was carrying a lightweight tripod with me which was not very sturdy and which did not have much height. I was very restricted therefore in relation to photographic composition. It would have been nice to have had my usual heavy Manfrotto tripod  but there was no way I was going to carry that up the mountains.

I should add that photography was very much secondary in my reasons for doing the trip. My primary purpose was simply to do something out of the ordinary, something suitably eccentric, a piece of Midsummer Madness to mark the Solstice. It is strange that we don’t have any festival in Ireland or Britain to mark Midsummer. One would have thought that there would have been an ancient pagan celebration long since Christianised as is the case with Christmas, Easter and so forth, but no. This then was my attempt to mark such a significant time of the year by stepping out of everyday normality for a few hours. And it is good for us, I think, to do that  every now and then. The sociologist Robert McIver has written that “the healthy being craves an occasional wildness, a jolt from normality, a sharpening of the edge of appetite, his own little festival of Saturnalia, a brief excursion from his way of life”. I certainly felt the better for it as if some ancient pagan impulse had been satisfied.

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The lights on the horizon on the right are Youghal. Next to the trig-point are the lights of Cappoquin.  

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The glow on the left is from the lights of Cork City 

My original intention was to stay on the summit of Knockmealdown until sunrise. That was still several hours away however and I had more or less had enough of the views at this stage. A bivy-bag (a small lightweight shelter) would have been nice to crawl into for a hour or two but I might have fallen asleep and maybe missed the dawn. Increasing cloud from the West also caused me concern. It looked as if it might spread to the East and obscure the rising Sun. All things considered, I decided to head back along the ridge to the Sugarloaf where, if there was a good sunrise, the stone cairns would provide a nicer photographic foreground than the concrete pillar on Knockmealdown.

I left the summit at around 3am. The glow in the sky to the North-East was perceptibly increasing in intensity and one could easily make out the outlines of the nearby mountains. This was what is called Nautical Dawn – when there is just enough light on the horizon to distinguish some objects – as against Civil Dawn – when there is enough light for outdoor activities to commence – which began at 4:24.

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Dawn breaking in the skies over Slievenaman with the lights of Clonmel at its base

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The Comeragh Mountains in the distance 

When I arrived back at the summit of Sugarloaf it was bright enough to dispense with the head-torch. I was glad to see a sliver of clear sky where the Sun was due to rise and I prayed that it would remain cloud-free. I set up the camera in front of a cairn and pointed it towards Slievenaman. And at 5:04 am it rose and shone with magnificent splendour for about a minute and then disappeared into cloud. I felt blessed at having seen it. It was a fitting culmination to a wonderful night.

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Addendum –  22 June 2013

I have since been asked by a couple of people about practical advice regarding venturing into the mountains at night. Probably the best advice is: don’t. Hillwalking can be risky enough in broad daylight; at night the risks are increased. Even with the best torch visibility is decreased and it can be difficult at times to judge the height and distance of rocks and other obstacles. Also, the impact of lack of sleep – even for the most chronic insomniac – while doing strenuous walking and scrambling can result in impaired judgment and the possibility of an accident.

But if you are still really determined to do it make sure you have a good head-torch.  The one I use is manufactured by Petzl and they make the best. An ordinary torch is not recommended because  (a) it might fall out of your hands and break on a rock and (b) your hands should be holding walking poles, another indispensable item of equipment for night walking, in my view. Not only do they provide added momentum on the ascent they help to keep you safe when descending  by maintaining your balance and supporting you if you are in danger of tripping or falling.

Pick a mountain (or mountains) that you are familiar with and a route that you have done several times before. Be prepared for a sudden deterioration in weather (this is Ireland, after all). Would you be able to find your way back if fog or mist came down? Can you navigate your way out of trouble? A hand-held GPS unit is ideal in that you can plot your route with waymarks and then it’s just a matter of  retracing your steps if visibility deteriorates. There are a few smartphone apps that do the same thing but the problem with smartphones is battery life. The very time you might need it the power might be gone.

A portable shelter like a small tent or a bivy-bag would also be very useful not only if bad weather comes down but for whiling away the hours until dawn.  Needless to say, you should carry good warm clothing and an additional layer in your backpack for when you stop for any length of time en-route.

When you have finished the walk and are back at your car the temptation is to get home as quickly as possible in order to catch up with lost sleep. This can be lethal. There is a very real danger of nodding off at the wheel for a second or two. That’s all it takes to get killed. It is far better to snooze in the car for an hour or so before setting off. Drinking a can of Red Bull, I have found, is also beneficial for staying awake. I don’t know if the effect is physiological or psychological but it doesn’t matter – it works for me. I also find that taking off my shoes and driving in my stockinged feed helps me to stay alert (a tip that was given to me by a long-distance lorry driver years ago).

I suppose I should also add you shouldn’t do it alone – all the standard mountain walking advice says you should walk with at least one other person for safety. Maybe so but I think a night walk such as I have described above demands to be done solo in order to savour the full experience, the sense of something like the numinous that being alone at night on a mountain can impart. The chatter of another person – or worse still, other people – can dilute that feeling.  Yes, it is risky going up alone but by God it is worth it!

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Krakow Auschwitz Czeslawa Kwoka

Czeslawa Kwoka (pron: “Ches-wah-vah Kvoh-kah” ) was born in the village of Wólka Złojecka in south-eastern Poland, about 64 km from Lublin, in August 1928. She died in Auschwitz in March 1943.

These photographs of her appear on the wall of Block 6 at the Auschwitz Museum. They were taken by a Polish professional photographer, Wilhelm Brasse, himself a prisoner, probably in late 1942 or early 1943. In 2005, Brasse recalled photographing Czeslawa: “She was so young and so terrified. The girl didn’t understand why she was there and she couldn’t understand what was being said to her. So this woman Kapo (a prisoner overseer) took a stick and beat her about the face. Such a beautiful young girl, so innocent. She cried but she could do nothing. Before the photograph was taken, the girl dried her tears and the blood from the cut on her lip. To tell you the truth, I felt as if I was being hit myself but I couldn’t interfere. It would have been fatal for me.”

Czeslaswa could still be alive today were it not for her being visited by such unspeakable evil. She would now be in her late old age, her long life behind her, comforted and cared for by her family.

Instead, a few months after arriving in Auschwitz, this beautiful girl was dead. It is not known how she died. It may have been starvation, she could have been shot for some misdemeanour, or, when she was no longer fit for the back-breaking work she was forced to do, gassed and her body burned in a crematorium.

She was 14 years old.

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The entrance to the Auschwitz camp with the cynical sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” – “Work Makes You Free” – over the gate. 

The Auschwitz-Birkenau museum is about 60kms west of Krakow. It is one of the two “must-do” trips for anyone visiting the city which is among the most beautiful in Europe. (The other attraction is the Wieliczka Salt Mine, also, like Auschwitz-Birkenau, a UNESCO world heritage site.) This is not to demean the significance of Auschwitz-Birkenau by reducing it to just another sight to see on the tourist itinerary. It is a compelling place, THE symbol of The Holocaust, and you would not be human if you were not affected by what you would see and hear there.

I had been to Auschwitz-Birkenau 35 years ago and I was wondering how it had changed in the meantime. There have been reports of conservation and funding problems and I seemed to recall suggestions that it was actually sinking into the ground on which it was built. None of this was apparent on my recent visit. The buildings in Auschwitz looked as substantial as ever while the Birkenau part of the complex, a 5 minute drive away, was as I remembered it. There are relatively few extant buildings in Birkenau as most of them, unlike as in Auschwitz, were built of wood and were burned by the Germans before The Liberation. The foundations and brick and concrete parts are still extant for the most part.

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You can only visit with the accompaniment of a guide. You are supplied with a headset and receiver – an innovation from my last visit – which allows the guide to speak in a low voice and yet everyone in the group is able to hear. This helps to maintain the overall hushed tone which, given the content of the narration, the exhibits, the pictures and the photographs is entirely appropriate.

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Zyklon-B pellets, a cyanide pesticide, used to gas prisoners.

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Empty Zyklon-B canisters.

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Shoes taken from prisoners on arrival. 

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Prisoners’ suitcases.

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Photos of some of the women prisoners. The Germans stopped photographing prisoners after 1942 as they were unrecognisable due to starvation after a few months. Note that their hair was shorn on arrival. It was used to make “hair-cloth” which was used for various purposes including the lining of German Army coats.  

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A chamber where the bodies of gassed prisoners were kept before burning. 

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The crematorium at Auschwitz. 

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The gallows where Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz, was hanged in April 1947.

After the Auschwitz part of the visit is completed visitors are bussed to the Birkenau complex which is about 5 minutes away. This is where most of the killing was done, where prisoners were sorted into two groups when they disembarked from the cattle wagons that brought them to this dreadful place – one group comprising those who were fit to work, the other – children, pregnant women, old and infirm people. The former were sent to the wooden barracks while the latter were immediately marched to the gas chambers.

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The Administration Block at Birkenau. 

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The final destination of prisoners  – the rail head at Birkenau.

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A cattle wagon of the type used to transport prisoners from around Europe. There were no sanitary facilities and prisoners, 150 to a wagon, could only breathe through the tiny airholes. They were kept locked in for the duration of the journey which could take up to 8 days in some cases.

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Typical sleeping compartment in one of the Birkenau barracks. 

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Communal toilets. The waste had to be cleaned out by prisoners. This was considered a choice job as it was indoors and out of the bitter winter weather.

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The remnants of one of the Birkenau crematoria blown up by the Germans a few months before The Liberation.

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The memorial at Birkenau to those who died. 

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“FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE

Rest In Peace Czeslawa Kwoka and all the people who died here.

Drumluska Cottage

At the western end of the Black Valley in Killarney is a ruined cottage generally described as Drumluska Cottage after the townland it is in or, according to the local people, Kissane’s Cottage after, presumably, the last inhabitants. It has long been one of the “must photograph” places for Irish landscape photographers. I think I have a few Kodachrome 64 slides of it in my long-neglected slide collection, photos that I took back in the 1970s.

And it is easy to see why it is so popular: it is in a stunningly beautiful location and the combination of a ruined building fronted by a winding pathway and set off by a majestic mountain backdrop is too much to resist. You just *have* to shoot it even though you know as you you do so that your photographs will end up looking just like thousands of other photos taken over the years.

Veteran Waterford photographer Seán O’Brien told me an amusing story that illustrates that point: sometime in the 70s a fellow Waterford Camera Club member won first prize at the Southern Association of Camera Clubs inter-club competition with a colour print of the scene. At the time he shot it his wife photographed it using slide film and in the following year’s competition she entered it and won the colour slide section. This caused some rumblings of discontent from other competitors who suggested that the same original photograph was used for both competitions. The upshot of it all was that the Committee of the SACC ruled that the cottage could never again be entered in competition by the Waterford Camera Club!

This is my version taken back in February when there was still some snow on the upper slopes of the Reeks:

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It’s pretty in a chocolate- box-cover kind of way, I suppose. However, for me, it has that indelible mark of cliché all over it. It’s just too familiar. So, for a bit of fun, I decided to replace the cottage with a modern residence and added a friendly looking woman to the scene:

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I think that’s a definite improvement!

Still, I shouldn’t mock it. It’s probably only a matter of time before some modern building will indeed be built on the site. In fact, I’m amazed it hasn’t happened already.

I doubt though if visitors will ever be met by such a fine looking resident.