Tag Archives: history

A Wicklow Coastal Safari

Just for a change I want to tell a story, basically showcasing one afternoon of a photo safari I made from Bray, over the Cliff Walk on the cliffs of Bray Head to Greystones, and then on to Kilcoole on a spectacularly beautiful and sunny day just over a week ago. So please enjoy this story, shown as it happened. So, to start, here’s Bray as seen from the start of the Cliff Walk:

Firstly, this year there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Painted Lady butterflies along the coast, and this one posed beautifully for a photo at the start of the Cliff Walk:

These butterflies have flown from southern Europe and were almost certainly greatly assisted by easterly winds during the continental heatwave in June and July.

Here, a short distance from where the butterfly was photographed, facing south and looking up the cross on Bray Head from the Cliff Walk:

It was on the wall which you can see to the left that I found a very handsome species of Wolf Spider, which I have yet to identify. It as quite small, but boldly patterned.

A lot of the Cliff Walk, especially on the Bray side of Bray Head, is navigable by wheelchair, but, sadly,  wheelchairs can only go so far. I hope this will change in the future. Here is another photo, looking back towards Bray. Along the cliffs there are thousands of Kittiwakes, small gulls which want as little as possible to do with human beings. They don’t enter cities and will never try to take food from you. They are the true “sea gulls” and happily spend their lives at sea. Here are adults at their nesting sites along Bray Head:

Here is what they look like closer, and the handsomely patterned ones are the juveniles. Young kittiwakes have black legs and feet:

Another species I saw was the largest known gull, the gigantic eagle-sized Great Black-backed Gull:

These monsters are so large they can kill and eat rabbits, swallowing them whole. One thing about the cliffs is that they are great places to see birds, but mostly seabirds, of course. Among the most interesting are the famous Cormorants, which do not have water-proof feathers like other seabirds, and spread their wings to dry them as they stand on sunny rocks:

Very similar species are the Shags, which are a dark bottle-green colour and have long, serpentine necks. They look almost like they belong to the age of dinosaurs:

I was very lucky to see all of these birds in such good light, but I was particularly very lucky to see a very beautiful seabird, the Black Guillemot:

Unfortunately it was a long distance from me, but you can make out the bright red feet in the photo.

But black guillemots were not the only creatures at the foot of the cliffs. I watched as a paddle-boarder was pursued by a mischievous seal he had got to close to. The seal, a Grey Seal, seemed almost to be laughing at the man as he paddled away, nervously looking over his shoulder:

The seal then went to sleep!

Summer is the breeding season for Grey Seals and they often come ashore on narrow beaches or flat rocks along the cliffs and away from people. The seal cows have their calves here.

About midway along the Cliff Walk you can see the old railway tunnel, closer to the sea, the track now long since worn away and swallowed up by it. In the mid-19th century the famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel built a roller-coaster like railway line along the cliffs, a feat considered virtually impossible at the time:

The stone fence posts along the Cliff Walk at this point are great habitat for Leaf-cutter Bees, which make nests in the holes the wires are fed through, and they fill these nests with leaves, usually from wild rose species, which somehow stay fresh long enough for their larvae to hatch out and reach a pupal stage. Here you can see a Leaf-cutter Bee stuffing big leaves into one of the wire holes in a post:

From this point onwards the Cliff Walk begins to become more leafy and here I saw quite a few butterfly and moth species, such as this Red Admiral:

On the ivy I found a few Holly Blue butterflies too, and one posed for a photo:

There are lots of plant species to support these lovely insects, and especially impressive was the Red Valerian, which, ironically, can be red, white or pink. It seems to be mostly pink along the Cliff Walk. Thanks to this flower I managed to photograph the only Hummingbird Hawkmoth I’ve seen this year:

Unfortunately they were not the most in-focus shots, and the big moth promptly flew away, as there was no shortage of paparazzo-free Red Valerian to choose from. However, the shot I got shows how it carries its long, beak-like tongue curled up like a butterfly does:

A hot day on the cliffs in summer really does bring out the wildlife. But the flowers are vital for the insects, such as the beautiful Rosebay, one of the willowherbs:

You can also find wild Sweet Pea:

The vegetation begins to become almost jungle-like and the rocky cliffs then give way to huge sand ones, and this seems to suit dense undergrowth:

This is a good area to find grasshoppers in, especially the Yellow Meadow Grasshopper:

There are two in the photo, and one is a male, hiding behind the female. Look for his antennae.

Eventually Greystones comes into view, and what a view it was for me, contaminated by sky-stealing cranes and half-built apartment complexes where there had once been a beautiful, rustic harbour – long ago, it now seems, but not that long ago. The pink flowers of the rosebay dominated the scene:

Eventually the Cliff Walk comes down to lower ground and meanders through some beautiful fields, which were fields of wheat when I passed through them, and they look beautiful next to the sea:

The sad thing about the Cliff Walk in Greystones is that it currently draws to an end in what is, to all intents and purposes, an  unprepossessing housing estate, still under construction but already partially populated. However, I suppose it has its own kind of beauty, but it’s not really my kind of beauty. Judge for yourself:

However, I couldn’t end a safari like this, so after a lot of cold drink and some food it was time to continue the journey a few miles further along the coast, while taking a look back over my shoulder, for a photo, of the Cliff Walk from the bathing spot that is the South Beach:

As you can see, there were lots of people out in the sunshine and a few in the water. Irish seawater doesn’t get properly warm until the end of August, usually. The path from the South Beach runs parallel to the railway track and has its own unique beauty, but especially so on a hot summer’s day:

It was very dusty, but, as usual, it was an excellent place to get close to nature. Here is a juvenile Starling on the same fence you can see above:

Behind the little bird is Sugarloaf Mountain, which resembles a volcano but is nothing of the sort… however it does look great. In fact, here is some more of the landscape as seen from the coast between Greystones and Kilcoole:

This area of Wicklow is one of the very best to get near Grey Seals and get good photos, as the water is deep close to shore, and I saw a mournful-looking seal only a few yards away:

Seals do find people fascinating.

However, the creature I most wanted to see was an insect, but one which can only usually be seen in late summer along the Wicklow coast, and only in some places. I managed to get a decent shot, after a very long chase – this is the Clouded Yellow butterfly:

I think you’ll agree it’s very beautiful, and almost surreal in its colouring. It likes very rough sandy and gravelly terrain, as you can see here:

At this point, if you pay attention to the landward side, on your right as you face south (the above photo is facing north, by the way) you will see the ruined outbuildings of what was once a massive country estate, Ballygannon House, belonging originally to the powerful Byrne clan. One of the Byrne daughters married a certain sea captain named Scott who ran his ship aground near the shore during the war between James II of England and the invading Dutch Prince William of Orange, who later became King William of England. Captain Scott was kept as a guest in the great house and then married one of the daughters and eventually inherited the entire estate, which comprised Kilcoole village. Ballygannon complex was essentially a village in its own right, and is today known locally as ‘the Lost Village’ to the inhabitants of Kilcoole and its environs.

If that’s an outhouse, just imagine what the actual house was like – it must have been immense. It was inhabited into the 1930 and, sadly,  was leveled in the 1950s .

Not long after this Kilcoole neared, and behind it Wicklow Head was visible. There were quite a few bathers at Kilcoole beach too:

Kilcoole seemed a good place to end the safari. It had been one of the best day’s strolling with my camera that I’ve ever had. However, as enjoyable as the photography was, I also made a video, which you can see here:

 

Autumn Sadness

I don’t like to write downbeat articles but Autumn is always somewhat tinged with sadness. Maybe poignancy is a more accurate term. Summer has ended, yet another summer, and lying ahead of us are days getting progressively shorter and colder, and the usual barrage of head colds and flu viruses. This year in Wicklow it’s a little bit sadder than usual because we have lost Robert Jennings, a champion of local heritage.

Canon Jennings at a showcasing event in Newcastle Community Centre in March 2011.

Canon Robert Jennings, to be exact, was a Church of Ireland clergyman with a profound interest in history, archaeology and the world in which we live. He died almost one month ago but his funeral only took place two weeks ago. He was a very nice man. The reason I’m slow writing about it is I wanted to dig out some photos I had of him, albeit from an event in 2011.

Canon Jennings discussing archaeology remains with my brother in 2011.

Often, over the years, when I would be out walking in the middle of nowhere, looking for wildlife, I would encounter Canon Jennings. He would amble out along a path as if by magic, and he would frequently point out some remarkable artefact which had escaped my notice, or have some profound point of interest to relate. He was always doing something, searching for something from far back in our past – sometimes the remains of a church, sometimes evidence of a Bronze Age site. He also surprised quite a few people a few years ago, including me, by revealing he was a veteran of the Korean War. Remarkably, he died at the ripe old age of 93 most people under the illusion he was far younger than he really was. By all accounts he was still out walking and exploring, although not quite so much as he used to do. He was author of quite a few books and they are worth getting if you can find them:

Two of Robert Jennings extremely interesting guide books.

He also really knew how to showcase archaeology and heritage to maximum effect, as you can see in the following photos:

Canon Jennings will definitely be missed, being not only a respected scholar and clergyman, but I will miss him as a character, as a person who was very much himself part of the landscape.

The Easter Rising, literally and figuratively

My first butterfly of the year, a Small Tortoiseshell, seen and photographed on Good Friday.
My first butterfly of the year, a Small Tortoiseshell, seen and photographed on Good Friday.

Last Friday was Good Friday and it commenced a long weekend of massive commemorations and celebrations of the 1916 Rising, the event one hundred years ago which led to Irish independence, and eventually to the modern Republic of Ireland. Most of the events and incidents relating to the Rising occurred in Dublin, but there were sporadic actions all around the island of Ireland. Ironically, Wicklow had been the centre of many events leading up to, and following after the Rising, but was itself quiet for the duration of Easter Week 1916.

However, Wicklow is strongly connected with a very important but almost forgotten figure who played a significant role in the events of 1916. Robert Monteith was born and raised in Newtown Mount Kennedy in 1878. He had a distinguished career in the British Army, with the Royal Horse Artillery in India and fighting in the Boer War. He retired from the British Army to work in a Civil Service job in Dublin in 1911.

However, it seems he underwent a major shift in political sympathies when one day his wife dropped his lunch off at his work place and, while returning home, was clubbed over the head by one of a number of Dublin Metropolitan Police Officers who were attacking union members on strike.

When the British Army attempted to re-enlist Monteith as head of recruitment in Ireland for the war effort (World War I) he refused and told them his sympathies now lay with Irish Nationalists, with whom he had become involved. His punishment was immediate – Monteith was sacked from his job and expelled from the city, and told he was not to enter the city limits of Dublin ever again.

With no job, Monteith became more deeply involved with Irish nationalism and a secret republican organisation, the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood). He was employed as a drill instructor with the paramilitary Irish Volunteers at the rank of Captain of Volunteers. He was then sent to America, and from America he travelled secretly to Germany to help train an Irish Legion under the command of Sir Roger Casement, who had been first a hero of the British Empire, but joined the Irish nationalist cause.

The Irish Legion failed to materialise, but instead Germany sent a ship-load of guns to Ireland to aid the rebellion, and Monteith accompanied Casement and another Irish agent in a submarine, and they almost drowned while landing in a small launch on the Kerry coast. Due to illness Casement remained near the beach, and was soon arrested by a certain Constable O’Reilly. Monteith and the third man managed to escape to Cork city, where they learned the ship load of guns had been seized by the Royal Navy. Monteith then had to flee Ireland, eventually reaching Liverpool undetected and signing on to the crew of a steamer bound for New York.

After brief imprisonment in the US (he had been technically assisting Germany) Monteith lived a quiet life, and had a number of jobs. He was still notorious in the British Empire, yet successfully sued to have his British Army pension reinstated after it had been stripped from him, and in 1947 he briefly returned to Ireland with his wife, living for some time in a house on the Sea Road, Kilcoole, here in Wicklow, not far from where he had been raised. He returned to the US due to his poor health, exacerbated by Ireland’s damp climate, and died soon afterwards.  He has almost been forgotten in Ireland, although he was almost certainly one of the most important agents of the IRB and Irish Volunteers. The true extent of his involvement and activities will probably never be known.