Aran 1: MV Plassey

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At the end of September I made a pilgrimage to Aran, three rocky islands beyond the wide entrance to Galway Bay which defy the worst of Wild Atlantic weather. For many years past I have wanted to visit these islands, inspired originally by watching Robert Flaherty’s 1934 documentary film, ‘Man of Aran’, and thereafter reading J. M. Synge’s account of his visits there at the beginning of the twentieth century.

To discover what I might find to interest me when I arrived on Inisheer, I re-read Tom Robinson’s, ‘Stones of Aran’ books and watched as many videos about the islands as I could find on ‘You Tube but, when I stepped off the ferry, peculiar novelties of the place surprised me. Passing between the gathering of irregularly aligned buildings which constituted the island’s main town, I savoured the sounds of the island’s inhabitants conversing solely in Irish. I also noticed an extraordinary number of motor vehicles around the place. How did they get there? Where did they go? From where did they get their fuel?

I spent the next few days exploring the island on foot. Nowhere was further than a half hour stroll from my base at the hotel and the narrow, snaking island roads, contained everywhere between high stone walls, were well surfaced making for easy walking.

One of my rambles took me close by the rusting remains of a wrecked ship, high and dry on the shingle. The remains, I learned later, were those of the MV Plassy.

The Plassy, had been launched in 1940 as the ‘Juliet’, a steam trawler. Later she was re-named, converted into a cargo vessel; her steam engine replaced with a diesel. During the spring of 1960, carrying a cargo of Whiskey, yarn and stained glass, she was caught in a storm which drove her onto rocks close to Inisheer. The trapped and imperiled crew were miraculously rescued by islanders who, by means of a rocket fired from the beach, sent to the ship a line along which all eleven men were hauled to safety by Breeches Buoy. Subsequent storms moved the wreck, first from the rock on which it floundered to a beach at Inisheer, then higher up the beach onto the shingle bank where, contorting and decomposing a little more each passing year, it remains. Quite what happened to the cargo is an untold mystery.

 

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Searching

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Poring over a map, an 1811 ‘Grand Jury’ map of the area around the home place, I noticed a symbol indicating a church.  This afternoon I set out to try to find on the ground evidence of this building.  Although no more than a kilometre away, at the place my map suggests a church to have been I have yet, despite regularly travelling past, both on foot and in the car, to be aware of any sign whatsoever of either a church or any other building.

I enjoy searches; they sharpen my awareness of place.  Today, well before I was near to the marked spot, I began to take an extra careful note of my surroundings.  A small, brick-built, three-sided, roofed structure with an iron-gated front attracted me.  A spring?  A well?  A Holy Well?  If the last, may not a church have been nearby?  The bright light of rational thinking quickly faded initial excitement.  Whatever this water-source is or may have been there was no further evidence of there ever having been a church close by.  Further along the road a substantial, rocky eruption of land on my right caught both my eye and my interest.  Steep-sided and rising to all of ten metres above road level, it is the kind of mound often favoured by church builders.  After a few hundred metres this landscape wart drops back to road / field, level.  Here, beside the road, there is a gate which opens onto a promising path running between the foot of the mound and a farm fence but the path peters into a narrow animal track which soon disappears under thick bramble cover.  There is no point in searching further here, besides which I am yet well short of the marked place.  When I arrive there I gaze intently for any sign of anything but can see no more than I saw earlier on Google Earth; unmarked pastures of lush grass.

I move on to the next junction where I turn sharp left and follow the steep and narrow road down to the slipway at Castlehaven.  Here there is a church, or the remains of a church, a church that has been a ruin since the British Routed the Spanish and the old Irish clans here very early in the seventeenth century.  The churchyard though seems to have found plenty of business up until the present; there were, when I looked in today, fresh flowers on more than one of the graves.  The church, sections of its walls and a gable end survive, is yet recognisable.  Less well favoured has been the O’Driscoll castle, of which, at the western end of the strand, there are no visible remains.  The total loss of this ruin must be relatively recent.  I have seen a print of a photograph, taken in 1912 of the ruined castle standing to roof level with a gable end rising above the eastern wall.

Reviewing my map, I noticed no symbol indicating the ruined church on the strand.  I can but conclude that the church symbol printed on the map in a field far above must relate to the ruins of the church on Castlehaven strand.

Keeping The Home Fire Burning

A week has passed since chum Bryn came to take down for us the dead Ash tree at the end of the meadow.   Since then, I have spent several hours sawing the felled tree into logs of a suitable length and to burn on our sitting-room fire and ferrying them home .  The stouter logs Lisi splits into appropriate size segments.  The wood burns easily, bright and hot; I know of no better firewood than well seasoned Ash for warming a room.

15178186_10211346899490811_2534697021520818166_nI like to think of the heat these burning logs release being that of the warm sunshine which fell upon the leaves of the tree during its short life and which it has kept stored for us.

I have no idea what  killed this young tree.  Its trunk has but ninety or so rings.  The average age of a mature Ash tree is reckoned to be around four-hundred years.

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Sandy Cove to Sandy Cove: a Short Stroll

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Late November  afternoons, their light fleeting, are suitable for only short strolls.  Today I drove west along the coast road to park the car at the roadside above Sandy Cove.  From there I began to  stroll, setting off uphill, away from the shore.

A few hundred metres later I could hear, over the hedge on my right, Moorhens chirping.  Peering through a thick hedge I could see, beyond and below the hedge, a large lake; home, I guessed, to the Moorhens.  In the roadside verge I noticed a surprising number of  plants still flowering; Buttercup, Dandelion, Daisy, Ragwort, Coltsfoot, Clover and, brightening the dun browns of dead fern leaves, tiny Geranium flowers. Fuchsia hedges yet flower and a few buds of Pussy Willow are already showing silver-grey and furry.

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Reaching the junction with the coast road I turned right onto it to face directly into a stiff, bitingly-cold breeze deliciously laced with warming whiffs of silage from one of the many small beef and dairy farms hereabouts. After strolling a a few hundred metres, glancing right I could see over the splendid lake I had glimpsed through the hedge earlier.

Eventually I came to Castlehaven Cross, where a large flock of chattering sparrows clung to the bare twigs of an apple tree.  Here I turned right yet again, off the Coast Road, to head towards the shore at Trahata.  Ignoring the track to the beach there, I continued on to my car.  Almost at the end of my circuit I found, high on a bank, several flowering Winter Heliotrope.  On tiptoe, to sniff and enjoy their subtle vanilla scent, I noticed, almost hidden amongst long grass, fresh flowers of one many varieties of Scabious.

Before driving home, I climbed down steep steps onto Sandy Cove Beach to photograph the westering sun.

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Winter fuel

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dsc04286When, over a year ago, I came to this place, a mature Ash tree stood at the far end of the meadow in front of the cottage.  The tree was dead and appeared to have been so for some while; ivy encrusting the tree was also quite dead.  There is no better wood than well-seasoned Ash for burning, it has a high calorific value and burns easily with a good flame.   The tree  in the meadow represented a considerable reservoir of  well seasoned, hot-burning firewood. Recently, I made an attempt to fell the tree but found my chainsaw wanting; too small to cut through the huge bole of the tree.
Yesterday chum Bryn came with his much larger saw and made short work of slicing through the dead tree which is now laying prostrate and broken on the ground, waiting to be cut and split into logs with which to keep the cottage warm and cosy through many winter days to come.

Thank you tree.

Toe Head: A Short stroll

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Five kilometres or so from the home place, along the coast road, Toe Head projects, like a great toe at the end of a foot, into the Atlantic.  Yesterday, the weather was again exceptionally fine, clear and sunny.  At lunchtime, Lisi and I decided to take a short, circular stroll around this stubby peninsular.

We drove off from the coast road to park our car on a grassy patch at the eye of a creek, several hundred metres short of the boreen that makes a loop around the head.  Beyond the rocky beach opposite our parking place a seal was frolicking in the sunlit sea.

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Walking uphill towards the junction with the loop we passed an eclectic assortment of randomly sited buildings (There are no regimented building lines here!), some old and tumble-down, some new,  designed to make the best of impressive locations.  From one well-tended garden a large, cross-legged Buddha gazes north over stone walled meadows, the ocean to the distant Fastnet Rock.  Flocks of Jackdaws avoided our cameras.

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From the junction, the loop follows a deeply crenelated coastline, passing through pastures dotted with ruins; ancient farm houses and agricultural buildings, mnemonics of past times when stress-free lives played out almost entirely locally.  Out of these abandoned buildings have grown soulless behemoths, the likes of Associated British Foods, PepsiCo, Kellogs , Nestlé and others; a tiny number of businesses, they presently control practically everything the majority of the population of the western world, and much of the remainder of it, ingests.  Businesses who have diabolically gathered-in billions of previously free, now Faustian, people to slave for their livings.  Oh, what joy to walk rather than to ride, cocooned in what I am coerced to believe is luxury, and to gaze and  first-hand these revelations of nature, rather than to experience them ‘virtually’ on a sterile, wall-covering plasma screen.

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A short distance beyond the furthest point of the head is a rocky island, in fact a gathering of three rocky islands, slabs of rock which rise from the sea; they are known as ‘The Stags’.

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In 1973 Bibby Line commissioned Swan Hunter to build for them a giant bulk-carrier.  This huge ship, the ‘English Bridge’ displaced nearly 90,000 tons and was almost 300 metres long.  In 1977 Bibby Line sold the ship.  After passing through various owners, each of who changed the vessel’s name, its most recent, and last, owner named it the ‘Kowloon Bridge’.

On 11th November 1986 the ‘Kowloon Bridge’ left Quebec, Canada bound for the Clyde with a cargo of iron ore.  During a rough Atlantic crossing the ship suffered damage to her decks.  On 20th November, she anchored in Bantry Bay for repairs.  There, in heavy weather, the unfortunate vessel parted from its anchor, damaging its steering gear.  At the time, a huge oil tanker was moored in the bay. To prevent the possibility of a collision, the ‘Kowloon Bridge’ was ordered out of the harbour.  At this point, the crew were taken off the ship which was left, engines running, to reverse out of Bantry Bay into the relative safety of the ocean.  The wind rose, turning the unmanned monster until it began to move east.  Near Baltimore she struck rocks which disabled her single propeller, stalling her engines.  She was now completely at the mercy of the sea.  A few miles east of Baltimore, just south of the Stags, she ran aground onto a submerged reef, leaking 1,200 tons of fuel oil into the sea which it heavily polluted, causing considerable damage to local fishing and tourist industries.  The following spring the ship broke up and sank.  The wreck remains, marked by a buoy.

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We viewed the scene of the final drama of the life of the ‘Kowloon Bridge’ from a little above where the down-sloping boreen flattens to snake along level ground to pass through a rather desolate landscape of abandoned farms; neglected land overrun with bramble and bracken.  Here there are more ruins over whose long passed occupiers’ lives I pointlessly ponder.  Abandoned and overgrown it may be but there is still great beauty here.  Under grey skies the winter colour of scrubby wasteland is, predominantly, dull brown.  In yesterday’s low, late-November sunshine, under a deep blue sky, the unkempt land sparkled with kaleidoscopic highlights of red, yellow and gold.  Above the sky was deep blue; the edging sea ultramarine.  Occasional lush green paddocks were occupied by horses. Evergreen copses obviated any possibility of the scenery becoming monotonous.

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The boreen swung sharply to the left for the climb back to the junction where we would eventually regain the boreen back to our car. Along this road someone had sown a wild-flower meadow; a few marguerites, buttercup and ragwort were yet flowering.  Back in the summer this field must have been something glorious.  It caused me try to imagine how much, in my grandparents’ time, of their summer agrarian environments would have been empyrean floral carpets.

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After negotiating a couple of steep hairpin bends we were at the summit of the hill, facing a bitterly cold, brisk north wind from which we had hitherto been sheltered.  On our way back to the car Lisi noticed what looked to her like a flock of curlews in a field.  A friendly farmer, passing by in his tractor stopped to remark on these birds and confirm that they were indeed Curlews.  Curlews on the fields, he told us, were ever a sign of hard weather.

After our delightful stroll we drove on along the coast road towards Tragumna.  At the sharp bend above Murphy’s Cove we stopped to look at what appeared at first to be a fleet of giant ghost yachts not far offshore but were, in fact, Fin whales, a pod of them, blowing vigorously, their fountains caught and made wide by the stiff breeze blowing towards them.

Bureaucracy

Recently, a cheque came to me through the post.  The cheque is drawn, in Euros, on an Irish bank with a Dublin address.  It is the first cheque I have received for several years.  On-line transfers and debit-card payments have almost completely displaced cheques for practically all my banking transactions.

Months ago I enquired at a local bank about opening an account with them. I was told that, providing I could present proof of identity, proof of residence and my PPS number (Personal Public Services number), opening an account would present no problems; it could be dealt with on the spot.  I did not have a PPS number; I was told to apply to the PPS number issuing office in Bantry.  I went, post-haste, to Bantry where I was told that applicants must make an appointment before they can be seen.  I asked for an appointment and was given one some three weeks hence.  I waited patiently.  On the due date at the due time I presented myself for my appointment to be told that opening a bank account was not reason enough to be issued with a PPS number.  Furthermore, the PPS office were not able to tell me what is reason enough.

Lisi, my companion, had a driving licence nearing its expiry date.  Because, to apply for a replacement, she too needed a PPS number it was by accident that we learned of this touchstone of PPS number granting, but it will be a while before I shall need to replace my driving licence and to get my PPS number I have to present to the PPS authorities a completed licence application together with stamped, signed, medical and ophthalmic reports attached. I chose to manage for the time being without either PPS or Irish bank.

More recently I learned that I am eligible for a free bus pass.  As there are no bus stops even remotely near to my home, I am unlikely to be a frequent bus traveller, but I also learned that to be granted a bus pass I must have a PPS number and that an application for a bus pass is reason enough to be granted a PPS.  I down-loaded a bus pass application form only to learn that my birth certificate must be returned with the form.  Mine is long lost. I have applied to the U.K. General Register Office for a copy; this, I am advised, may take several weeks.

Lisi has had her Irish bank account for eight months; she has yet to use it.

She had a bright and generous idea; until I have a PPS number and can apply for my own bank account, I could use her unused account as if it were mine.  Yesterday we presented my cheque to the bank only to be told that, as the cheque was in my name and crossed ‘a/c payee only’, it could only be paid into an account held by me.  I knew this to be the case but hoped there might be some means of depositing this cheque locally.  The alternative is to send it by post to my Greek bank; risky! The pleasant bank person with whom we had been talking was sympathetic with me and, on behalf of the bank, apologetic. As we prepared to leave her we entered into polite conversation in the course of which I mentioned my attempt, earlier in the year, to open account, being forestalled for want of a PPS number.  ‘But’, she told us, ‘you do not need a PPS number to open an account with us’.  We sat again.  Our friendly clerk produced an iPad and within minutes an account had been registered in my name. I have only to wait now for the account to be authorised by the bank after which my cheque can be paid into it.

It could be authorised as soon as today.

Patiently, I wait.