Never turn your back on the sea

‘Never turn your back on the sea’ - a phrase that couldn’t be more true than on Inis Meáin, the least inhabited of the Aran islands. The western shore of this rugged island is consistently battered by rolling surf. From the shoreline to the cliff tops, the rocks are pummelled with giant barrels of water.

I had arrived on the island the night before, after the ferry had rolled with the big swell across Galway bay. The next morning while standing on the walls of Dún Chonchúir, a large fort dating back to the Iron Age, I could see the waves lashing the shore far below. I wandered around the stone structure, located strategically on the highest point of the island, before heading off to explore. Heavy clouds settled in as I followed a road across the island, passing through an intricate maze of small fields enclosed by high stone walls. A robin followed me for a while, hopping a few steps ahead. Inside the small fields, cows nursed their young calves while keeping one eye on me. My attention turned to a whirring noise approaching from ahead. A small procession of bullocks appeared with a farmer in tow on an old Yamaha 80 bike, herding them along with a big stick.

Stone walls on Inishmaan

Stone walls on Inishmaan

As I continued past more stone walls, the sound of the sea grew louder and stronger. The road ended and I followed a short path down to the large flat shoreline where the waves were crashing onshore with a brute force. The echoing thud of wave against rock, was beautiful yet served as a strong reminder that nature was in charge that day. I stood for a while, transfixed by the power of the sea. The swell was huge, adding to the drama of the scene. I spotted a blowhole further along the shore. Giant jets of water propelled upwards, 30 ft in the air as rolling barrels of water collided with the rocks. I found a safe spot and set up my tripod in front of some nice rock pools, about 50 ft from the shore. The vibrant green seaweed in the rock pools provided some lovely foreground interest for a shot.


Giant waves of water splashed over the rock edge every few seconds. I tried to count the sets of waves, but it was proving difficult to keep up. A sudden crescendo of surging water took me by surprise. It reminded me of the old Guinness ad where the raging surf is personified as a herd of white horses galloping towards shore. The impact of the wave hitting the shore was an amazing sight. Water flew up into the air before crashing back onshore and rushing up across the rock pools to meet the legs of my tripod. I couldn’t believe how far inshore, the water reached and how fast. I had thought I was a safe distance from the water, but the sea was demonstrating its power that day.


I abandoned the puffing hole and moved on. Further along the west coast of the island, I reached the vertical cliffs. Even though I was high above the water, I still had to watch for sudden waves splashing over the edge. The light was so dull that I couldn’t imagine the sun ever returning that day. However, just as the water was unpredictable, so too was the light. By the time I reached Cathaoir Synge just before sunset, a favourite viewing point of J. M. Synge, the Irish playwright and writer who regularly visited the island in the early 1900’s, a sliver of light appeared. Then the sun dipped below the clouds. lighting up Inis Mór across the bay. The sun set fast and suddenly like a gift from the Gods, the sky lit up in a pink hue. It was a beautiful end to the day. No wonder Synge chose this spot as his favourite.





I woke up during the night and listened for a while. A soft wailing emanated from the beach below the house. I leapt out of bed and grabbed my torch. Outside, I found my way round to the front of the house, where I watched the moving shadows on the beach in the moonlight. These nocturnal stirrings were not the movements of otherworldly spirits, but rather a colony of grey seals clustered together on Trá Bán, the beautiful sandy beach on Great Blasket island. This is the largest grey seal colony in Ireland, after the Inishkea islands in Mayo. Grey seals arrive here in late summer to breed , with some even staying throughout the winter. Back in the day, the islanders who lived here, would have listened to their gentle howling every night. As I sat and watched, I felt privileged to hear that haunting sound for just one brief moment.

Interior of Peig’s cottage

Interior of Peig’s cottage

Great Blasket island has featured in many a book and documentary. However, the island is probably best known for the 1936 autobiography of islander Peig Sayers, depicting the hardships of life on the island. She suffered great tragedy, losing three of her 11 children at birth, one at 18 to measles and another son fell off a cliff in a tragic accident. She wrote about the desolate loneliness when the islanders were cut off from the mainland for weeks at a time during winter storms. Her book was part of the Irish curriculum in schools around Ireland until the 1990’s and induced despair in many an Irish student, including myself, sending a shudder down the spine of many at the mention of her name even today. The islanders were evacuated from the Blaskets in 1953, when many were rehoused on the mainland while others emigrated to the US. I was staying in Peig’s cottage, now renovated and offered as unique accommodation on the island. If anyone had said to me back in school, that I would one day be sleeping alone in her house, I would have laughed. But yet here I was, in the last week of the season, with a new found interest in her story, one I wish I had paid more attention to at school.

The next day, I climbed up above the village, following a green path to the top. Of the six Blasket islands, only four were ever inhabited. There is evidence of early settlements on some of the islands and written recordings of populations thereafter, however, by 1911, Great Blasket island was the only inhabited island.

View of Beginish island from Great Blasket island

View of Beginish island from Great Blasket island

Beginis or Beginish island, a small flat island in the bay, dominated the view on the hike up the hill above the beach. Mostly used as a fattening island for sheep through the years, this island lacks any shelter from the strong Atlantic winds. Today the island is an important breeding ground for grey seals and arctic terns. Further up the hill, Inis Tuaisceart or Inishtookert, just west of Great Blasket island, came into view. It features in many a sunset picture from the mainland. The silhouette of the island against the golden backdrop, resembles that of a sleeping giant, hence its colloquial name, ‘an fear marbh’ (the dead man). Ancient ruins of a Christian settlement and oratory indicate early habitation, dating back over a thousand years. Dry stone walls also partition small swathes of land nearby. In 1835 one family lived alone on the island. No-one knows why they subjected themselves to such isolation, however, their tragic demise was well documented by geologist, George Du Noyer, who was working on the Geological survey of Ireland in 1849. The story of Tomás Ó Catháin, his wife Peig, and their son ended in awful tragedy during a bout of bad weather. The three lived inside a small stone hut or clochán. Tomás died during a storm and when the bad weather prevailed, Peig was unable to remove his corpse through the doorway in their small home. She was forced to dismember his body and remove him piece by piece. Once the storm died down, neighbouring islanders were finally able to reach Inis Tuaisceart with fresh supplies.

Sun setting over Inis Tuaisceart

Sun setting over Inis Tuaisceart

From the back of Great Blasket island, there are spectacular views across to the most westerly of the other three Blasket islands. On first sight, Inishtearaght or Tearaght appears as one small pyramidical rock, similar in stature to Skellig Michael but on a smaller scale. However, a second shorter peak sits directly behind, hidden from view. It is on this smaller peak that a lighthouse was built in 1870. The towering cliffs of both pinnacles are connected by a thick archway with a natural tunnel underneath the island. From 1881, lighthouse keepers were housed on the island until the light was automated in 1988. The rocky cliffs attract large numbers of manx shearwater, storm petrels and puffins. Islanders from Great Blasket used to come over and hunt the seabirds here. Not only were they a great source of protein, their feathers made ideal bedding material.

View of Tearaght behind Great Blasket island from the mainland

View of Tearaght behind Great Blasket island from the mainland

Inis Mhic Uileáin  or Inishvickillane was inhabited at one time or other. A monastery was founded on the island around 700 AD including a small church, graveyard and clochán or beehive hut, the ruins of which can still be seen today. There is also evidence of an earlier promontory fort. One or two families were recorded as living here after the 19th century. In 1970, Inishvickillane was bought by former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, who built a holiday house on the island. One of his summer guests included former French president, Francois Mitterand. Haughey also introduced a herd of red deer to the island from the mainland. Pairs of antlers can still be sighted today, moving across the slopes of the island.

Inis na Bró or Inishnabro is separated from Inishvickillane by a narrow sound. Access to this smaller island is almost impossible due to the towering cliffs. On the north east point of the island, vertical layers of jagged rock rise from the water like majestic spires. Known as the cathedral rocks, this geological wonder has the appearance of a Gothic church. As the waves lap against these steep sandstone spires, one can almost imagine hearing faint organ music. There is evidence of one man living here during the 19th century, although records do not tell us much about his existence or why he chose to live in such an inhospitable place. Ruins of a large promontory fort also indicate earlier habitation, dating back to the Iron Age.

Grey seal colony on Great Blasket island.

Grey seal colony on Great Blasket island.

Later that evening, I returned to the cliffs above the beach and watched the seals. Most slept, invariably snorting and snoring. Others rolled in the sand and twisted their bodies to reach an area that needed scratching. Youngsters played and tussled with each other in awkward, lumbered movements. The adults shuffled about, their heavy frames slow and laboured. In the water, however, these large masses of blubber were like graceful athletes, darting at high speed and diving under the rolling surf. Dark shadows flitted about under the turquoise water as the sun fell below the horizon. Back in Peig’s house, I sat beside the log fire, tired after a day of hiking. With no electricity on the island, I was spending the evening by candlelight, just as the islanders had, albeit for the giant slab of chocolate I had brought with me. As I sat in the flickering light, I imagined the lives of the people who had passed through this very house, the stories told around the hearth and the dark winter nights in stormy weather. In the quiet, their spirits still lingered. Peig might have stressed me out at school but on this evening, I had nothing but admiration for her raising a family on this rugged and wild outpost. Maybe it’s time I read her book once more.

10 tips for photographing woodland

Swapping open landscapes for a cluttered woodland environment can present a challenge in terms of finding the right composition. Here are a few tips for photography in a woodland setting.

Bring a tripod

There is less light under the canopy of trees in woodland so you will need to use longer shutter speeds. As a result, you will need a tripod if these shutter speeds don’t allow you to shoot handheld. Watch out for windy conditions as branches and leaves will shake and no matter how stable your camera is, it is impossible to create pin sharp images while using a slow exposure if your subject is moving around. One bonus of slower exposures is that any moving water in an image will blur and soften, creating movement in your image.


 Use a polariser

A polariser filter helps reduce the glare from the surrounding vegetation, making the colours pop. It will also reduce any reflection in water. With the filter attached, there will be less light entering your lens. As a result, it will slow down the exposure by a few stops.

Shoot in dull weather

The next time you look out the window and decide the weather is not good enough for landscape photography, head to the woods. An overcast day is ideal for woodland photography. On a dull day, the light under the canopy is more even and balanced thus eliminating any harsh shadows.

Use the light

If you do need light in your woodland images, wait until the light is low. Early mornings and late evenings produce beautiful, soft light. Be creative and use it to sidelight or backlight your subject.


Find a strong subject

Declutter your environment. Look for key elements of your surroundings that stand out like an interesting tree, river or bridge. Once you find something, walk around and figure out how to capture the scene. Do you need to capture the entire scene in a wide angle shot or do you need to zoom in and isolate it? Either way, frame your composition taking into consideration how you want to balance it in the scene.

Tip: Isolate one tree and create your composition around it.


 Use paths as lead lines


Use the foreground

Look around for interesting or eye-catching foliage, undergrowth or flowers. Use these as foreground interest, adding depth to your image.


Work the seasons

Be aware of the seasons in a woodland. Take advantage of the flash of colour when bluebells carpet the woodland floor in early May. Photograph the lush green canopy and new growth in Summer. In Autumn, take advantage of the golden explosion of colour while photographing mushrooms on the woodland. Even in winter, trees make beautiful subjects


Look down around your feet

It is not just about what is growing above you, it is also about what lies beneath your feet.


 And finally zoom in from outside and use the woodland as your subject


Dursey island

As I drove down towards Allihies, the black clouds hovered ominously in the distance. Was I mad to be going across to Dursey today? With a long walk ahead of me and a lack of amenities on the island, I'd be stuck there with no shelter if the weather turned. Driving down the narrow winding road to the cable car, the sun peeped out and lit up the scene before me. I decided this was a good sign. As I paid for my ticket across, Paddy Sheehan, the ticket operator informed me that the cable car was now continuous all day up until 7 in the evening as opposed to the old schedule of morning, lunch and dinner. I shared the cable car with an American couple and three Germans. It wobbled as we climbed in. Paddy's voice came over the intercom and asked us to shut the doors. No automatic doors here. A few nervous looks around the group were soon replaced by awe as we crossed over the waves below in the Dursey Sound. The views were amazing and within minutes we were on the other side.

View from the cable car above the Dursey Sound

View from the cable car above the Dursey Sound

Dursey Island is an inhabited island that lies off the Beara peninsula in West Cork. The island is separated from the mainland by a narrow stretch of water called the Dursey Sound. With a seriously strong current and a reef of submerged rocks in the centre of the channel, the island can only be accessed by cable car. Up until recent years, it was not unusual to share this transport with farm animals. The cable car, the only one in Ireland, had been used for years to take cattle and sheep across the treacherous waters of the 374m Dursey Sound, until the county council changed the laws due to health and safety regulations. With so many sheep on the island, mart day must have been a real sight.

At 6.5 km long by 1.5 km wide, Dursey is an absolute paradise for walkers. There is a loop walk carefully marked out all over the island. Starting from the cable car, the trail runs up over the hills above the road, tracing the spine of the island to reach a signal tower at the highest point. At 252m, there are spectacular 360 degree views of the island itself and the beautiful scenery of the West Cork coastline. The trail descends down the slope towards the 'back of the island' or Dursey Head. From here, there are fantastic views of the Bull and Cow islands just off the coast. The way back follows the island road the whole way to the cable car. Passing farmland and abandoned houses on the slopes running down to the sea, the road begins to climb and the slopes steepen. The road hugs these cliffs for the next 2 kms so walkers are literally walking on the edge of the island, stepping into the grass as the islanders trundle past in their cars. The trail descends slowly down through two villages, Kimichael and Ballynacallagh, before completing the loop by the cable car.


I decided to follow the island road and walk to the end of the island and back. As I approached Kilmichael village, I could hear a strange huffing noise. It was getting louder and louder. Further along the road, I could see a lone bull with his head over a fence. From where I was standing, he was the size of a house. My imagination went into overdrive as I envisioned him stepping over the ditch to pick off lone walkers on the road. I ploughed on regardless even though the huffing had now turned to hissing. I really believed that I was being absolutely calm until my legs took off ahead of my body.  Like a hysterical mad woman, I sprinted up the road, finally coming to a halt at a nearby house. Gasping for breath, I looked back and of course he hadn't moved an inch. Hoping that no one saw my imaginary demise, I turned around to see a couple standing in front of me. There might only be about 10 residents on the island, but unfortunately nothing goes by them. Gerard Murphy, a farmer and resident postman on the island, and his wife were moving cows from the field on one side of the road to the other. He also owned the bull. I watched as Gerard's sheepdog gently herded the cows towards the gate and across the road to the other field. The bull suddenly perked up and followed suit as all his women entered the field beside him. Knowing now that it was absolutely safe, I asked Gerard if I could take a picture of his bull and he told me to go on away up the field behind his house and catch him at the fence. I followed the cows and grabbed one shot as he was distracted by his new neighbours.

Further along the road, a van full of tourists pulled in and the driver asked if I needed a lift. I thanked him and told him I would continue on and enjoy the walk. He even offered to transport my bag to the end of the road but I needed everything in it so I declined. The weather was amazing and I wanted to take it all in. This was the new shuttle service from the cable car to the back of the island which runs all day. It is a brilliant service, perfect for those who are strapped for time and cannot complete a long walk on the island. Visitors can hop on and off where needs be. The driver must have passed me another 15 times that day and each time he would wave or stop for a chat.

Road to the back of the island

Road to the back of the island

As I approached Dursey head, another farmer and his sheep dog were herding sheep down a track to an abandoned farmhouse. Like a well orchestrated dance, the sheep followed instruction and filed one by one into their pen outside the door. A farm hand stepped from inside the empty house and picked one of the sheep up by its horns and lifted it inside to be sheared. The buzzing of the shearing clippers whipped the sheep into a nervous frenzy, only made worse by the sight of their little friend being ejected into a separate pen when finished, looking a lot smaller without his wool. I left them behind and walked on towards the back of the island. Reaching Dursey Head, I sat for a while and surveyed the sea below. As luck would have it, a pod of about 20 dolphins put on an amazing acrobatic show as they slowly made their way round the end of the island.

Walking trail on Dursey island

Walking trail on Dursey island

On the way back, I met James, a resident on the island. We chatted for a while by his house when I noticed a black cat approaching, with cobwebs all over her face. James immediately started talking to her and asking where she had been exploring before cleaning her face. He told me that she had been left behind on the island as a kitten and he started feeding her. James is a fisherman so I can guess why this cat stayed. To say he was mad about her was an understatement. Although an avid hunter in the surrounding fields, she also liked to wander the 4 kilometres down to the back of the island at night. When she wasn't rambling along the road, she was travelling by car with James as they went about their daily business. Just then, James asked her if she wanted some fish and she meowed with delight. This cat might have been abandoned but she had certainly landed on her feet.

Back at the cable car, I met Linda at her coffee dock, another new addition to the island. In a little van at the roadside, she sells an array of hot drinks and chocolate to hungry walkers. Living on the mainland, she comes across each day from June to August to feed the visitors. We chatted for a while and then it was time to leave. I joined a queue for the cable car and was soon back on the mainland. If you want to get away from it all and stretch the legs at the same time, then Dursey is the place. Not only will you work those muscles, the beautiful scenery will recharge your soul.

Bioblitz on Cape Clear

I just love moths. So when I heard that the 'moth man' was opening the moth traps, I just had to be there. The man in question, Eamon O' Donnell, was sitting at his box, removing egg cartons and carefully inspecting the overnight residents. Eamon was one of two moth men on Cape Clear that weekend; his brother Michael was recording moths in another section of the island. It had been a very wet night and the moths were fewer as expected. However, when Eamon lifted what appeared to be a twig from the box, the low quantity did not matter. It was a beautiful buff tip moth. The patterned wings and cylindrical shape camouflaged the moth to appear like piece of wood. I almost squashed the poor creature as I crouched in close with my camera. I tried my best not to sound like an absolute amateur, although my gasps of delight were a dead giveaway. If Eamon noticed, he didn't show it and he was only too happy to show me his fresh captives.

It was the annual Bioblitz event, run by the National Biodiversity centre. Volunteer teams in different habitats around the country compete against each other over a 24 hour period to count as many species as they can find in that area. Originally, the national parks competed against one another to win the famed Bioblitz cup, then the forest parks and other habitats. This was the first year for the islands - Bere island, Cape Clear, Inishmore, Clare island and Tory island. Each island had a team of volunteers, each with their own specialities, walking the length and breadth of their island, to record everything they could find.

Sunset over North harbour on Cape Clear

Sunset over North harbour on Cape Clear

was staying on Cape Clear that weekend. The hostel, run by Ann, sits in one of the most idyllic spots on the island, facing the South Harbour. When I rang her that morning, she told me to leave my bags in the car on the pier, with the broken windscreen wiper and she would bring them up to the hostel. On arrival, I spotted the wiper standing upright like an aerial, guiding me towards it. I left my bags in the boot and headed off. Soon I was climbing the cliff path above the South harbour. The 'Gleann loop', a stunning 7km walking trail, follows these cliffs round the headland towards the old signal station, before diverting inland on a path edged by an old stone wall down to the lighthouse road and then cross country over the old mass trail on the hill before exiting onto the incredibly steep road on the opposite side of the island, which brings you back down to the pier.

As I climbed, the clouds started closing in so I diverted my attention from the views to what lay underfoot. I slipped into the micro world of wild flowers and insects at my feet. When I finished taking pictures, I noticed a thick mist approaching the island. And with that came the rain and the realisation that I had left my raincoat at back on the mainland. I hastily made my way back down to the hostel where I bumped into Ann. She took one look at me and fished a spare raincoat out of a cupboard not before kindly offering to dry my clothes. She couldn't have done more to help me, either that or she felt immense pity for the idiot out hill walking in shorts and a t-shirt.

Hummingbird hawk moth on Cape Clear island.

Hummingbird hawk moth on Cape Clear island.

The rain lingered briefly the next morning but I knew it wouldn't be long before the sun returned. As is often the case, it can be raining on the mainland but the sun is blasting out on Cape Clear. Rain or no rain, it was time to see some moths and birds in action. After Eamon released the moths from their slumber, the bird people set up at a table nearby. This was one of the highlights of the weekend. Birds caught in the nets were collected and brought individually to the table. Here Sam, the bird warden on the island, and his assistant for the weekend, Lorraine, examined each bird to determine their age and sex before weighing them. The final step was the ringing of the bird's leg with a small weightless ring before it was released.

There was great excitement as a reed warbler was produced from the second bag. For once, it wasn't just me gasping with delight. This beautiful bird comes here to breed after spending the winter in Africa. The session continued with a chiff chaff and a swallow. While all the data was recorded, each birds sat comfortably in the warmth of Lorraine's hands. The data is important because it keeps tabs on bird populations and migration routes. Earlier that week, a sedge warbler that had been ringed previously in France, was discovered on Cape Clear. As proceedings drew to a close, a curious robin flew in and nabbed one of the released moths before flying off with his plunder.

Common lizard on Cape Clear island

Common lizard on Cape Clear island

As predicted, the sun reappeared in full force. I attempted the 'Gleann loop' again. Up on the headland, I met Sandra, a Bioblitz volunteer sitting with a telescope and camera. An absolute wealth of knowledge when it came to whales, it wasn't long before she was pointing out a Minke whale to me. This was my first time seeing a whale in Irish waters and it was such a beautiful sight. It was nearly impossible to tear myself away but I ploughed on and finished the walk. Back by the harbour later on, I bumped into Sandra again. She was on an absolute high after seeing a humpback whale breach off the headland. As she raced off to her next vantage point, I watched a basking shark idle his way across the South harbour. Just then, the kids from the Irish school strolled down to the water for a swim, stopping dead in their tracks when they saw 'an shark san uisce'. The basking shark decided to avoid the clatter of noise and swam back across the bay. Deciding it was safe, the kids jumped in and cursed the cold water. After a few minutes, the basking shark re-emerged amid the mass of students. The screaming could be heard on the mainland as the kids scaled the jetty wall to leap out of the water. They had nothing to worry about though. It might be the second largest living fish, but the only thing this large beast is interested in eating, is plankton.

I joined a flower walk in the afternoon guided by island resident Geoff Oliver. While the walk was short, it was overflowing with a wealth of plant species. The island climate and untouched natural habitats in part, allow these beautiful wild flowers to thrive here. One rare specimen found on the trail was the yellow Centaury, a tiny specimen but high on the list of must see flora on the island. Joining us on the walk was Carrie, an expert on lizards. She showed me how to spot these tiny creatures as they bask in the sun on the hedgerows. Within no time, I was spotting them all along the roadside. Geoff guided us slowly along the south harbour, stopping every two steps because there was something new to look at. I do not have a good knowledge of flower names but after seeing so much on this walk, I have definitely been inspired to learn more.

Dún an Óir castle on Cape Clear

Dún an Óir castle on Cape Clear

Cape Clear is 3 miles long by 1 mile wide and every part of it is brimming with wildlife. The volunteers had their work cut out covering every inch of the island. I called into the school where Colette O' Flynn, an invasive species officer from the National Biodiversity centre, was manning the Bioblitz headquarters. This was where all the volunteers dropped in with their recordings which were added to the Cape Clear list. As results from the other islands started flooding in, Inishmore island was leaping ahead in the race. However Colette wasn't worried as she had yet to add Cape's flora species which would boost the ranking. As I left, Bere island, Cape's closest neighbour, was catching up fast.

Many of the recorders had travelled from all over the country to participate. Rosalyn had cycled down from Cork city through heavy rain showers to catch the ferry across from Baltimore. She was an expert on wild flora. Breda, another volunteer, studies ecology and works for Deep Maps Cork, a project exploring the rich history of the West Cork coastline. The bird observatory, recently re-opened after a brief closure, was full to capacity with volunteers like Lorraine, Jim and Alan, whose knowledge on birds and flora were a joy to listen to. The observatory itself, owned by Birdwatch Ireland, offers accommodation for groups, families and individuals. With a resident bird warden on site, there are fantastic opportunities to learn more about birds and see their work in action, or simply take in the beautiful scenery of the island. As the Bioblitz finished at midday on Sunday morning, the final results revealed that Bere island had nabbed the top spot with 1178 species. Cape Clear came third with an impressive 870 species. The loss did not however put a dampener on the weekend as everyone involved had such a fantastic time. Not only is Cape Clear brimming with wildlife, it is a truly beautiful place.

Ballydehob jazz festival

"When I die, that's the way I want to go!" It is the third time I have heard someone say this since I arrived in Ballydehob village today. Each time, the comment is made with resolute happiness; a notion that is not usually associated with death. But then these people are witnessing a funeral event unknown to Irish culture. It is the May weekend and the Ballydehob jazz festival is in full flow. As part of the celebrations, a New Orleans funeral parade passes through the village. A lone man, dressed in a colourful suit with a painted face, leads the march. Behind him, a brightly coloured coffin is carried up the main street by four men in black with painted skeleton faces, followed by a 20 piece brass band and a 10ft 'widow' puppet. The parade begins on a sombre musical note, as everyone hangs their head and marches slowly in step with the music. But once the procession reaches the gathered crowd, the music picks up a beat and they begin to dance. The surrounding crowd joins in and a sea of mobile phones hover in the air, like lighters at a Celine Dion gig, recording the whole event. The atmosphere is electric and in typical west Cork style, everyone is loving it.

Funeral parade at the Ballydehob Jazz festival in West Cork.

Funeral parade at the Ballydehob Jazz festival in West Cork.

Ballydehob is a tiny village on the Wild Atlantic Way in West Cork. The population only hovers around the 300 mark. And yet it seems to have more festivals to enjoy than any other big town or city in Ireland. The jazz festival is a big one and it marks the start of the summer season down west. The funeral parade is a clever add on to this jazz festival, where artists and musicians rock out a memorable performance. No wonder, some of the visitors to this lively festival would like to reorganize their last wishes; this raucous send off would put a smile on anyone's face. But then this is only one of the highlights of this weekend event.


The festival began in 2007 and has grown to become a big national event on the Irish calendar. As its popularity continues, it draws big international names to its doorsteps. A large queue forms outside the town hall on the Saturday night and snakes round the corner towards the main street. Everyone is here to see 'Lake Street Dive', an amazing Boston band that has been doing the rounds on big US talk shows like Stephen Colbert and Conan. On the Sunday night, the festival ends on a crescendo with a moonshine shindig and the delectable tones of 'Meschiya Lake and the Little Horns'. Other music acts like Bean and Irene, Nelson Lunding, the Underscore Orchestra, the East Coast Jazz Band, Sam Clague and Gary Baus, fill the pubs and cafés throughout the village over the weekend. Ballydehob might be small but it is long and the main hub of the action lies on the big bend in the centre of the village, where the pubs burst at their seams. The crowds spill out onto the street where they merge to form one large thronging mass, oblivious to the traffic trying to get through on this main route through West Cork.

In the middle of this bustle sits Levis's corner house,  a beautiful old pub. Walking through its doors is like stepping back in time. The bar and shop combination of old days prevails in memory here. A shop counter sits directly across from the bar and every old brand or ware still sits on display, reminding us of days gone by. Books, tinned soups, jams, washing powder, seashells, biscuits and photos fill the shelves; everything still in its original packaging. The shop counter itself serves as a staging area for the  various music acts to set up and play. This space works so well and is testament to the popularity of Levis's as a popular music venue throughout the year, festival or no festival. Walking through the bar to the back room, is like accidentally wandering into someone's house. An old living room area offers refuge to guests who need a seat or a catch up in a quiet corner. One large table provides the perfect space to meet new people or gossip with old friends. People wander in through the back door and pass through to the bar. It is like a house in the country where the door is always open. Levis's corner house oozes with the true essence of West Cork. Everyone is welcome and you won't want to leave.

Ballydehob jazz festival in West Cork.

Ballydehob jazz festival in West Cork.

Ballydehob is worth a visit on any given day. Visiting is like the funeral parade in some sense. You might start off your visit weary from everyday life but you can be sure that you'll be skipping to a different beat by the time you leave this beautiful village on the Wild Atlantic Way.

Note: This blog was transferred from my old website. Therefore the publishing date is not the original date for this piece. The blog above refers to the Ballydehob jazz festival in 2016.

More images of West Cork can be seen on my website at:


Fair of Muff


“How are you getting on, Owenie?” we asked. It’s a beautiful summer afternoon at the Fair of Muff and the elderly farmer in question, is fresh off the dance floor in the bar. He wipes the sweat from his brow and throws his eyes up to heaven. “Sure, they’d leap across you”, he complains in his thick Cavan accent. While feigning dismay at having to swing his female neighbours around the dance floor, he busily surveys the crowd for his next partner. Zoning in on a group of women by the door of the farm shed; it seems Owenie has already found his next bothersome woman. And before we know it, he is gone, pushing his way through the crowd towards his target. It is my first time in Cavan and it doesn’t disappoint. Ever since I had seen a picture of wild bearded man sitting on a bale of straw at the Fair of Muff a few years previous, I had wanted to see the famous annual event for myself. As luck would have it, a friend of mine was visiting relatives in Kingscourt and she kindly invited me along. Our road trip turns out to be the perfect Irish holiday. Not only do I get to visit the Fair of Muff, but I discover beautiful places in Cavan such as the summit trail of Loughanleagh mountain, where up to 14 counties are visible on a clear day and Dun na Rí forest park on the banks of the river Cabra. There isn’t enough time to explore the rest of Cavan on this visit, however listening to the locals and all of their suggestions for beautiful spots to photograph, it is clear that I’ll be coming back. This trip is all about the Fair of Muff. As we circle back through the bar, we pass Owenie en route, heading back out to the dance floor, with a new woman in tow.


The crowds begin to filter their way down from the crossroads, where the fair takes centre stage. The bar is nothing more than a farm shed without doors, however the interior has all the trappings of any good pub in Ireland.  A “No Smoking” notice, painted in large white letters directly onto the interior brickwork, has the patrons warned. Smokers find sanctuary out the back in a small cave like area, where they are swallowed into darkness, away from the sun. The walls inside the the bar, are lined with all manner of seating; a kitchen chair, an old couch and an antique chaise longue. But it doesn’t matter; this place is not designed to seat people. It’s designed to let them dance. People of all ages jive nimbly to the band music as everyone else looks on, waiting for their turn. The energy in the room is static. With the music in full flow, the locals pair off and swirl round the floor. Numbers swell as more locals arrive after work, filing in for a quick drink, dance, catch up or game of skittles out the back. At one stage a man wearing a cowboy hat sitting on a horse, with a little dog tucked into his leather waistcoat, strides through the bar. No one bats an eyelid.

The field out back is set up with games and entertainment for all ages. The skittles attract the most attention. Money changes hands and each participant steps in front of the eager crowd, ready to throw their stick at the wooden skittles. Technique is everything. This is not a game for fun; the spectators expect a certain level of proficiency. A less than valiant effort generates murmuring disappointment in the onlooking crowd. A young girl shakes her head in disgust, as one contender launches her stick into the crowd.


The Fair of Muff dates back over 400 years, and is said to be the oldest traditional fair in Ireland. It was originally a celtic celebration linked with the Loughanleagh Festival of Lunasa (August). Official records of the fair trace back to 1608, when King James I granted a licence for the three day fair at the start of August. Since the calendar change of 1752, the horse fair is now held on August 12th each year. As it was then, it is now. Each year, vendors, buyers and horses from all over the country, congregate at this narrow crossroads, at the base of Loughanleagh mountain, near Kingscourt town in Cavan. All types of horse stand on display; stallions, mares, foals, geldings, ponies, donkeys, cobs, trotters, hunters, full and half breeds. Some are beautiful while others appear more weathered. However, every character of horse is on display at this fair; feisty, shy, cranky, friendly and even wild.

The Fair of Muff is one of the last fairs where age old traditions still stand. Men haggle and negotiate while trying to iron out a deal. Horses are poked, prodded, inspected or watched from a distance. Some horses stand patiently while others twitch nervously. The game is played as buyers and sellers waltz to and fro. A deal is struck and made official with a spit and handshake. Impatient owners hop on their horses and canter through the crowd to show off their steeds. Visitors are brushed aside swiftly by a trotting horse or the swish of a tail. Others jump sideways to duck kicks from cranky horses.


In olden days, traders and buyers would have arrived by horse drawn caravan, as was the traditional mode of transport. Today, it’s all mobile homes, jeeps and horse boxes. The artery road between the crossroads and the bar is lined with all kinds of offerings on various stalls, such as power tools, mops, paintings, balloons, antiques, jackets, mirrors, clocks, t-shirts, DVDs and carpets, to name but a few.

The vendors at this fair start young. Two pioneering entrepreneurs drag a white goat around the crowd trying to sell it to anyone who will listen. With striking confidence, the two young boys deliver a practiced monotone sales pitch, leaving no gaps for questions or rebuttals. If there is no sign of interest, they quickly move on, often leaving mid conversation, pushing the goat in front of them. A young girl of no more than 6, negotiates with an elderly man over the purchase of five hens. He offers her a discount if she takes all five and asks her what she thinks. With a flick of her hair and an about turn, the negotiation falls flat as she quips “Not at that price!”.


Big burly men line the ditches with smaller horses while the bigger beasts stand on parade in the middle of the crossroads. Three goats chew their way through a bush, disappearing into the undergrowth, as if nibbling their way to freedom. Cages of nervous hens, try to sleep with one eye open. They look physically exhausted. Every sound wakes them and sends them shuffling in rotation to comfort each other as one stays on lookout. The ducks on the other hand are the complete opposite. They are too busy watching everything. No nerves here, just a ‘yeah you……look at me’ attitude.


There’s a reason that this fair has stood the test of time for over 400 years. It is more than just the buying and selling of horses. It is the sheer entertainment and social value of the event. The horses are not the real stars of the show, the people are. And it is these same people who help maintain the tradition and culture of this important social event. Long may it continue.

Note: This blog was transferred from my old website. Therefore the publishing date is not the original date for this piece. The blog above refers to the Fair of Muff in 2015.