Archive for the ‘Ireland’ Tag

Ireland part 2 – Co Antrim, Co Derry and Co Donegal: 2nd – 7th June 2019   Leave a comment

The previous post covered our journey from Wexford to Belfast. This time our journey continues along the coasts of Co Antrim, Co Derry and Co Donegal.


Up to now the weather on the trip had been a bit indifferent, often overcast and dull but as we headed north out of Belfast the sun shone and we had wonderful views.


Along the coast we saw a few birds typical of rocky shoreline such as this Rock Pipit.


We paused at the village of Glenarm …


… where we were so close to Scotland that the Kintyre peninsula dominated the view.


Some cloud rolling in at times but mostly it was blue skies.


It was just a whim that took us on the scenic Torr coast road but we were very glad we did. The single track road was steep, narrow and winding but the views were superb.


As we turned the corner and drove westwards rather than northwards the Kintyre peninsula fell behind us and Rathlin Island appeared on the horizon. Further in the distance we could see the Scottish island of Islay and the Paps of Jura.


We stayed in the pleasant town of Ballycastle. The following day we took the ferry to Rathlin Island (above).


On arrival we joined a tour bus which climbed out of the village and took us to the far west of the island …


… where in an area of rugged coastline …


where an RSPB reserve protects a major seabird colony.


Kittiwakes built their nests on the precipitous cliffs …


… these delicate gulls have declined drastically due to global warming and over fishing (for fertiliser) affecting their sand eel food supply.


Fulmars, which are relatives of albatrosses and shearwaters rather than gulls, were present in good numbers.


The less steep slopes held good numbers of Razorbills …


… joined by Puffins, which nest in burrows that they dig wherever there is exposed soil.


The turbulent waters far below held enormous numbers of auks and many, like this Guillemot, were seen flying back and forth to the colony.


Around 100,000 seabirds nest on the reserve and Guillemots are by far the most numerous. We also had views of of Northern Ireland’s rarest breeding seabirds, the Great Skua (or Bonxie to give it the name used by most birders) with just one rather distant pair present.


Back at harbour we went for a walk along the shore, seeing good numbers of Grey Seals …


… and Common Eiders. Male Eiders loose their breeding finery in the later spring so we were fortunate to find one in breeding plumage this late in the season.


Under increasingly grey skies we returned to the mainland were it rained for the rest of the day.


The next day the weather had improved but the forecast wasn’t good so we left early and headed to Carrick-a-Rede. Situated on the coast with the western end of Rathlin Island visible in the background, one of the small offshore stacks is connected to the mainland by a narrow rope bridge.


Actually we got there too early, the ticket office was closed and when it did open we found an entire bus of school kids had pre-booked tickets and would be ahead of us. As only four people are allowed on the bridge at once we realised that this would cause us a huge delay.


I had visited the site before in 1991 and Margaret wouldn’t dare cross a chasm like this so we decided to just admire and photograph the bridge from the nearby coast path.


From here we carried on to the Antrim’s coast’s prime attraction, Giant’s Causeway – a World Heritage Site …


… formed by the slow cooling of a underground dome of magna that was extruded at the time when the Atlantic opened up some 60-70 million years ago, the basaltic columns and hexagonal ‘tiles’ are truly a wonder of the world.


The site is of course the same as it was in 1991, but the access is very different. Whereas before you just parked and walked down now there are high charges, big carparks, busses to take you the half mile or so to the site and of course the inevitable enormous visitor centre complete with gift shops, cafés etc.


Our third site of the morning was the so called ‘Dark Hedges’, an avenue of twisted beech trees that line the access road to a private estate. The sight would be worth seeing in its own right, but now of course, has become part of the Games of Thrones locations trail. The spot (which was used as the point on the King’s Road where Arya Stark met the Brotherhood Without Banners) has been closed to traffic but that didn’t stop loads of cars and even coaches stopping by the entrance and causing traffic chaos rather than using the dedicated car park at the nearby hotel.


We headed west towards Londonderry, or just Derry depending on your political and religious convictions and almost immediately the forecasted rain arrived. We arrived mid-afternoon and soon found a hotel (with dedicated underground parking) that overlooked the infamous Bogside. In past times the predominately Protestant inhabitants of the City of Londonderry prevented Catholics from living within the city walls (shown above). As a result they had to live next to marshy ground by the River Foyle. This became known as the Bogside.


Barricaded against the police and military at the start of the Troubles and the scene of the infamous and inexcusable Bloody Sunday massacre, this area was considered a no-go area for tourists during much of the thirty year period of sectarian violence. In 1991 Janet and I parked nearby and walked down to this huge sign however we felt that going any further as risky.


Now 28 years later we strolled through the streets (in heavy rain) looking at the Bloody Sunday memorial, the massive murals on the end of the terraced rows We also tried to visit the Free Derry Museum but it was closing as we arrived.


… and even had a pint in the Bogside Inn, something that wouldn’t have been advisable on our last visit..


Although I cannot condone violence from any organisation, be it Republican or Unionist,  I have always felt that the Catholics of Northern Ireland were made to be second class citizens in their own country. Perhaps the most shocking event of the ‘Troubles’ was the Bloody Sunday massacre on 30th January 1972 when British troops opened fire on protesters killing 14 and wounding a similar number. There were various inquiries into the tragedy but the last in 1998, which took 12 years to report, concluded that that ‘the killings were both “unjustified” and “unjustifiable”. It found that all of those shot were unarmed, that none were posing a serious threat, that no bombs were thrown, and that soldiers “knowingly put forward false accounts” to justify their firing’. It was certainly the case that this event served to stoke the flames and probably escalated the sectarian violence more than any other.


Since the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 peace has returned to Northern Ireland and the Peace Bridge across the River Foyle has been erected to commemorate that.


The following morning we returned to visit the Free Derry museum. Later we crossed back into the Republic and (perhaps surprisingly) headed north. We drove to Malin Head, the northernmost point of Ireland, which in fact is not in Northern Ireland but in ‘Southern’ Ireland (or Eire if you prefer.)


There was hardly anybody about, in spite of it being June it was cold and wet and the roads and glorious beaches were deserted …


… and the coastal path almost so.


Donegal is bisected by a number of long sea loughs …


… some can be crossed at their headwaters by bridges, others require a long detour.


The area is almost entirely Gaelic speaking and in spite of modern navigation aids we had difficulty finding our B&B. However once there the view from our room was wonderful and we were serenaded by a reeling Grasshopper Warbler each evening.


Nearby was the spectacular Glenveagh National Park.


A wild area of mountains, moorland and abandoned villages.


I was interested in seeing the reintroduced Golden Eagles but I found out at the visitor centre that this would involve travelling quite a long way into the park and we really didn’t have the time.


West Donegal is comprised of quiet beaches …


… and quaint villages with tongue twister names …


… with the mountains of Glenveagh National Park as an ever present backdrop.


This impressive peak was photographed from near the village of Magheraorty, the location of the ferry to Tory Island. Today was the day we had allocated for Tory Island but we so nearly missed out. The day before we had checked the departure time and found it to be 1000. We left the B&B about 0815 but stopped a few times on route to take photos. We arrived just on 0900 when Margaret had the good sense to phone the ferry office to check that the boat was going. We found out to our shock that it was departing at 0900 and whilst she was still the phone, the boat cast off and pulled out. I was ready, so I ran down the pier  and to my surprise the boat reversed and pulled back in. Margaret who still had to put her boots on was a little later but they waited for her. Fishermen on the pier made disparaging comments ‘like don’t hurry love, you’ve got plenty of time’ or ‘I’ll take you over there for half price’.


Tory Island is further than Rathlin from the mainland and the crossing took about an hour. You may wonder why the island shares its name with our current ineffectual government and the answer is stranger than you might think. Tory is derived from the Gaelic toraidhe meaning outlaw, robber or brigand. Tory Island must have been home to such in the past. In 1685 during the reign of James II the Conservative Party opposed the ‘exclusion’ of Charles II as his successor (he was to be excluded on the grounds that he had converted to Catholicism). The Whigs who had proposed the ‘exclusion’ nicknamed them Tories and the name stuck. I like the idea of Boris, Rees-Mogg and Gove being named after outlaws.


When we landed on Tory Island it was like a ghost town, there was no-one to be seen. We later found that they all had gone to mass, which would explain the presence of a priest on board the ferry and why the ferry had departed an hour earlier than expected.


Around the harbour were a reasonable number of Common Gulls. These rather cute medium-sized gulls aren’t common at all and probably derive their name from their plain appearance rather than their numerical situation.


A bird I really wanted to see was the Corncrake. Quite a few exist on Tory Island (although they are scarce on the mainland). I heard about half a dozen calling but I totally failed to see anything, not even a twitch in the nettle beds from where they were calling. I took this photo in the Outer Hebrides in 2012 where I had rather more luck.


However if you want to hear what these wonderful creatures sound like then click on this link to the bird sound library of xeno-canto. Recording by Stanislas Wroza from Maine-et-Loire, France


We set off for a walk to the west end of the island. Much of the area was marshy with many ponds and was full of breeding waders.


As well as breeding Redshanks (above) we saw Dunlin, Ringed Plovers, Lapwing and even a ‘drumming’ Snipe, ie one in display flight, something I haven’t heard/seen for years.


After some lunch in the local pub we returned to the harbour of the boat back to Magheraorty. From here we drove south to Sligo where we stayed overnight.


I’ll conclude this post with a photo of some female Eiders and ducklings in the harbour of Tory Island.


The next post will cover Co Sligo, Co Mayo, Co Galway and the Aran Islands, the return to Dublin and the Isle of Man.


Ireland part 1: Wexford to Belfast – 28th May – 2nd June 2019   1 comment

I visited Ireland with my parents in the 60s and again with my late wife Janet in the 90’s, however Margaret had never been and was keen to rectify this. We had planned to visit in June/July 2018 but I had to have an operation so that idea was postponed. So although there were a lot of travel commitments in spring 2019 we managed to fit in a trip to Ireland as well.

Originally we planned to circumnavigate Ireland, but the more we investigated the more places of interest we found, so we decided to cover around two thirds of the coastline and return in another year for the rest. Also on my Mongolia trip 2018 I met a nice couple from the Isle of Man who invited us to look them should we ever visit. So as neither of us had visited the IoM we added that to the itinerary.

We decided to take our own car rather than fly and took the ferry from Pembroke in south Wales to Rosslare in the southeast corner of Ireland.


The ferry left Pembroke in the afternoon, travelling down the enormous Milford Haven to the Irish Sea.


We passed a number of bird rich Islands including Skokholm, famed for its seabirds including a large Manx Shearwater colony …


… and the huge Gannet colony of Grassholm island. The white appearance of the island is produced by tightly packed nesting Gannets and not some light coloured rock.


After landing we stayed in a B&B at nearby Kilrane. The following morning we headed to Our Lady’s Island, a site of pilgrimage for catholics.


However we weren’t here for the ruins or the pilgrimage but to see the birds. Our main target was Roseate Tern, but all the tern colonies along the side of the lake were composed of Sandwich, Common and Arctics and not their rarer cousins.


At the south end the lake is separated from the sea by a shingle bank, hundreds of terns were flying over the bank and heading out to sea to fish.


Eventually we saw half a dozen or so Roseate Terns. Identified by their paler appearance, rosy flush to the breast in breeding season, darker wedge in the outer primaries and black bill with a red base, their population has declined markedly in the UK but there are still around 700 pairs breeding in Ireland. I didn’t manage to photograph these fast moving birds so here is a photo taken from eBird (photographer’s name not given).


We also visited the nearby Tacumshin lake, a site famous for rarities, in particular North American shorebirds in the autumn. Although there were quite a few birds they were all too distant for photos. We had lunch in Wexford at a pub that had converted the ally out back into an elegant covered lounge.


Margaret wanted to visit the Irish National Heritage Centre; we had hoped it would be an exhibition of arts and crafts and maybe music; instead it was a recreation of dwellings from various times in the past, the Mesolithic, Neolithic and early Christian eras with boards explaining what life was like in those periods, which was interesting in its way, but not what we had expected.


We continued northwards to Arklow and stayed by the banks of the Avoca River …


… at the predictably named Bridge Hotel.


We were travelling up the east coast on our way to Dublin. Today we headed into the Wicklow Mountains, but it wasn’t the best mountain experience I’ve ever had. Although the scenery was pretty they were hills rather than true mountains and allthough there were a few good views there was nowhere to park and photograph them.


A quaint village with an old church and an unusual tower was a nice place for lunch.


During the afternoon we drove up the motorway to Dublin. We had thought about finding somewhere to stay in the outskirts and getting the bus in but before we knew it we were in the centre. Finding a hotel was a nightmare as there was nowhere for me to park outside whilst Margaret went in to check rates and availability. All the ones we tried were either 250 Euros a night or over pubs and already full. Eventually we found a hotel that only charged 90 Euros a night but I had to drop Margaret off and then go round the block again and again until she emerged with the details.


Once settled, we found the hotel a very nice place to stay and quite central for sightseeing. That evening we walked to O’Connell Street, photographed the General Post Office (GPO), the site of the famous 1916 Easter Uprising, and the new gleaming spire before having a meal nearby.


From Wikipedia: During the Easter Rising of 1916, the GPO served as the headquarters of the uprising’s leaders. It was from outside this building on the 24th of April 1916, that Patrick Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. The building was destroyed by fire in the course of the rebellion, save for the granite facade, and not rebuilt until 1929, by the Irish Free State government. An original copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was displayed in the museum at the GPO. The museum was closed at the end of May 2015 and replaced by a new visitor centre to commemorate the 1916 Rising, ‘GPO Witness History’, in March 2016. The building has remained a symbol of Irish nationalism.


Out first destination today was Trinity College just the other side of the River Liffey …


… we walked through the pleasant quadrangles …


… pausing to photograph a Mistle Thrush on route.


Of course what we wanted to see was the wonderful Book of Kells, Ireland’s most important and most treasure historical artefact. Hardly surprisingly the actual manuscript is kept in a darkened room in the college library where photography is strictly forbidden but examples of the highly decorated pages can be seen on illuminated panels in the gallery beyond.


For those wanting a detailed description the following is (again) taken from Wikipedia : The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables. It was created in a Columban monastery in either Britain or Ireland and may have had contributions from various Columban institutions from both Britain and Ireland. It is believed to have been created c. 800 AD. The text of the Gospels is largely drawn from the Vulgate, although it also includes several passages drawn from the earlier versions of the Bible known as the Vetus Latina. It is a masterwork of Western calligraphy and represents the pinnacle of Insular illumination. It is also widely regarded as Ireland’s finest national treasure. The illustrations and ornamentation of the Book of Kells surpass that of other Insular Gospel books in extravagance and complexity. The decoration combines traditional Christian iconography with the ornate swirling motifs typical of Insular art. Figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colours, enliven the manuscript’s pages. Many of these minor decorative elements are imbued with Christian symbolism and so further emphasise the themes of the major illustrations. The manuscript today comprises 340 leaves or folios; the recto and verso of each leaf total 680 pages. Since 1953, it has been bound in four volumes. The leaves are high-quality calfvellum; the unprecedentedly elaborate ornamentation that covers them includes ten full-page illustrations and text pages that are vibrant with decorated initials and interlinear miniatures, marking the furthest extension of the anti-classical and energetic qualities of Insular art. TheInsular majuscule script of the text itself appears to be the work of at least three different scribes. The lettering is in iron gall ink, and the colours used were derived from a wide range of substances, some of which were imported from distant lands. The manuscript takes its name from the Abbey of Kells, which was its home for centuries. Today, it is on permanent display at Trinity College Library, Dublin. The Library usually displays two of the current four volumes at a time, one showing a major illustration and the other showing typical text pages. The entire manuscript can be viewed on the Library’s Digital Collections Repository.


We also had the chance to look at the main hall of wonderful college library.


We also wandered along the banks of the Liffey admiring the architecture of the bridges, both and old and new …


… and the City Hall.


Near there was a series of sculptures illustrating the victims of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1849. The near total failure of the potato crop due to blight, caused the death of over a million and forced even more to emigrate. The population of the country fell by 25%. The lack of support from Westminster at the time exacerbated tensions between Ireland and UK, the affects of which can still be felt today.


Later we made our way to the area known as Temple Bar …


… after the eponymous watering hole.


Nearby we had our lunch serenaded by an Irish folk group.


Further along the river we came to Ha’penny bridge, so called because that was the toll to cross it when it was built.


Quite a beautiful structure …


… the nearby inn bears the same name.


Further west we visited the Viking Museum from which you get a good view of the adjacent cathedral …


… which of course was our next port of call.


During the evening we returned to Temple Bar to eat. The area as now much livelier with musicians and competitions of strength to entertain the passers-by. Most of the bars were so crowded that you hardly get in the door so after finding an al-fresco bar we returned to the hotel.


The next morning we left the city via an underground motorway that leads straight from the docks north to motorway to Belfast. Our destination was Ireland’s most important archaeological site, Newgrange. Again it is easier for me to copy and paste from Wikipedia than type the whole lot out. Newgrange is a prehistoric monument in County Meath, Ireland, located 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) west of Drogheda on the north side of the River Boyne. It is an exceptionally grand passage tomb built during the Neolithic period, around 3200 BC, making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. The site consists of a large circular mound with an inner stone passageway and chambers. Human bones and possible grave goods or votive offerings were found in these chambers. The mound has a retaining wall at the front, made mostly of white quartz cobblestones, and it is ringed by engraved kerbstones. Many of the larger stones of Newgrange are covered in megalithic art. The mound is also ringed by a stone circle. Some of the material that makes up the monument came from as far away as the Mournes and Wicklow Mountains. Newgrange consists of approximately 200,000 tonnes of rock and other materials. It is 85 metres wide at its widest point. After its initial use, Newgrange was sealed for several millennia. It continued to feature in Irish mythology and folklore, in which it is said to be a dwelling of the deities, particularly The Dagda and his son Aengus. Antiquarians first began its study in the seventeenth century, and archaeological excavations took place at the site in the years that followed. Archaeologist Michael J. O’Kelly led the most extensive of these and also reconstructed the frontage of the site in the 1970s, a reconstruction that is controversial and disputed. Newgrange is a popular tourist site and, according to the archaeologist Colin Renfrew, is “unhesitatingly regarded by the prehistorian as the great national monument of Ireland” and as one of the most important megalithic structures in Europe.


I can add that the reconstruction of the frontage by O’Keely is controversial because it is claimed that Neolithic people would not have had the technology to construct a wall of that height at such a steep angle. There has been much debate about the meaning of the spirals inscribed on the megalith by the entrance. As those on the left are coiled in a different direction to those on the right it has been suggested that this marks the movement of the sun before and after the winter solstice.


Also from Wikipedia: There is no agreement about what the site was used for, but it is believed that it had religious significance. Its entrance is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice, when sunlight shines through a ‘roofbox’ and floods the inner chamber. Several other passage tombs in Ireland are aligned with solstices and equinoxes, and Cairn G at Carrowkeel has a similar ‘roofbox’. However some claim that although this might have been its original intent, the current positioning of the stones is due to the 1970s reconstruction. To get a ticket to see this wonderful alignment on the shortest day you can enter a lottery and pray, not only that your name will be drawn, but also that dawn on the 21st of December will be cloud free. Photo from the Irish Times taken at the winter solstice..


Nearby was the location of a most significant Irish event. The Battle of the Boyne a battle in 1690 between the forces of the deposed King James II of England and those of the Dutch King William of Orange who, with his wife Queen Mary (his cousin and James’s daughter), had acceded to the British Crown in 1689. The battle took place across the River Boyne close to the town of Drogheda in the Kingdom of Ireland and resulted in a victory for William. This turned the tide in James’s failed attempt to regain the British crown and ultimately aided in ensuring the continued Protestant ascendancy in Ireland and that of a Protestant Monarch in Britain.


We continued north but rather than head straight to Belfast we detoured to cross the border in South Armagh. Anyone who was around in the 70s, 80s and 90s will remember the constant run of bombings and shooting from what was then ‘bandit country’. Now we didn’t even know we had crossed the border until we noticed a sign saying ‘speed limit in miles per hour’. In fact we crossed into Northern Ireland back into the Republic and back into Northern Ireland again with less hassle than it takes to use a pedestrian crossing. The fact the sort of armed border posts that I encountered in my 1991 visit could soon return if we have a no-deal Brexit fills me with apprehension. The is the town of Armagh, famous for having two cathedrals, one Protestant and one Catholic both called St Patrick.


We headed towards the huge Lough Neagh which sits in the centre of Ulster; from the south the northern shore was only visible through my scope. We called in at Oxford Island nature reserve which was far better than I expected …


… with loads of hirundines including a huge House Martin colony …


… and some excellent close views of Barn Swallows …


… Great Crested Grebes with stripy young on their back …


… and Little Grebes, their diminutive cousins …


… plus lots of wildfowl, Tufties, Pochard and this drake Gadwall.


We would have liked to visit the centre of Belfast but we doubted if we had the time, so we headed towards the old docks, the site of the former shipbuilders Harland and Wolff, whose giant gantries Samson and Goliath dominate the city skyline. Once employing 35,000 people, the workforce had shrunk to under 100 in recent years, mainly making turbines for offshore wind farms. Since our visit the company has been sold.


Perhaps the most (in)famous ship ever made at Harland and Wolff was the RMS Titanic, the story of which is so well known that there is no need to repeat it here. We were heading for the Titanic museum, a peculiar shaped building beside the old docks. The museum deals with the history of Belfast at the time of the building of the ill-fated vessel, it’s commissioning, construction, fitting out and eventual demise on its maiden voyage. It was extremely well presented and it took a long time to peruse all the displays.


After a bit of a queue we took a ride on a gondola through the simulated hull of the Titanic whilst under construction, which gave some sort of idea of the heat, noise and unpleasant working conditions that the shipwrights endured for 12 hours a day.


Nearby the SS Nomadic was in dry dock. She was built to transfer passengers and mail to and from RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic, and is the only White Star Line vessel in existence today.


Stopping only to photograph this Pied Wagtail, we headed for the nearby Game of Thrones exhibition.


Like so many others we are fans of this superb fantasy series, much of which was filmed in Northern Ireland, but were a little disappointed by the exhibition. The main displays were the costumes used and a number of props from swords to dragon skulls.


There were a few opportunities to get photos of yourself taken using props from the show against a well-known GoT background, but in most cases these photo-ops failed with the notable exception of Margaret sitting on the Iron Throne. As my friend Fenja has commented, ‘the real Queen of Westeros’.


The next post will cover our journey up the spectacular Antrim coast as far as Londonderry.