history and heritage |
Tuesday September 27, 2005 14:34 by Paul Baynes
Storytelling and more on Cape Clear Island in West Cork
Cape Clear Island (or Oileán Cléire) is a small island off the coast of West Cork.
Close by is Mizen Head, the most southerly point of the Irish mainland, and four miles to the southwest is the most southerly point of Ireland: the Fastnet Rock, upon which a lighthouse can be seen flashing its light over the island every seven seconds or so. Cléire itself is the most southerly inhabited point of Ireland.
For the island is still inhabited. Even in this modern, urban age, some people choose to live their lives on this small island. Cléire is 3 miles long, and about a mile and a half wide. Before the famine, Cleire's population had stabilised at over 1,000 inhabitants. Now this population has dwindled to 120, but island life is still surviving.
Storytelling on Cléire
I first visited Cléire a year ago, and always intended to go back. And so it was that on the first weekend of September, I made my way to Cape Clear Island for the 2xth Annual Storytelling Festival to be held on the island.
This is a beautiful festival. It may not be headline news, but the tradition of storytelling is alive and well. You may have thought the seanachaí was a thing of the past, but we were entertained for this weekend on Cléire by four expert practitioners of the art of storytelling. Ireland was represented by Joe Brennan, who came from Wexford via Donegal. Joe was once a teacher, and held a storytelling workshop for children over the weekend. He told stories in the Irish folklore tradition, a Russian folk tale, and others. Christine McMahon and Shonaleigh came from the UK. Christine tells traditional English stories, and has a belief in the therapeutic power of the arts. Shonaleigh is a Drut’syla – an storyteller in the oral Yiddish tradition, and her stories were infused with plenty of humour. Finally, from the USA, and telling stories in the French Canadian tradition, was Michael Parent. His stories were bilingual in French and English, and in the finale he illustrated one of his stories with a great display of juggling and circus tricks.
It is difficult to do justice to the storytellers and their stories: it is impossible to get a sense of them without hearing them. There was great diversity in the tellers, but each had a masterful delivery that was all their own. One was not left so much with a memory of any particular virtuoso performance, but more of a sense of a group of people weaving a magical atmosphere through a combined effort. There was a spirit of generosity about the festival. As well as their original compositions, each teller told many stories that they had heard told elsewhere, and it was as though each teller was merely passing something on to the audience. There was a certain feeling that their performance was not about them, but about a combined effort to keep these stories and the art of their telling alive.
These tellers were joined by musician and singer-songwriter Pól O'Colmáin. Pól played guitar and harmonica, and entertained with a selection of well known songs such as Raglan Road and The House of the Rising Sun (dedicated to the people of New Orleans), and some of his own songs. Some of his 'rants' went down particularly well - including 'Catch a Tiger by the Tail', about some of the social problems that remained when the Celtic Tiger arrived, but were swept under the carpet . Pól was also important from my point of view because he did some speaking and singing in Irish. After all, though it was an international storytelling festival, Cléire is a Gaeltacht area and it was nice to have the Irish language represented. I am sure that even those who do not follow Ireland's mother tongue enjoyed his Irish language Elvis impersonation during his rocking number, 'Siúl Amach an Doras'.
- More info on the festival and the tellers: http://indigo.ie/~stories/
- Recent indymedia story: New narrative arts club for Dublin: http://www.indymedia.ie/newswire.php?story_id=71918
Nature on Cléire
The storytelling weekend also included a guided walk through the island, focussing on the archaeology, history and flora and fauna of the island , culminating with a visit to a passage grave at the highest point of the island. This is by far the furthest south of any passage grave in Ireland, and the grave on Cléire is something of an isolated incidence of the phenomenon in the area. The walking tour was conducted by Diarmuid O’Drisceoil and biologist Geoff Oliver. Most of the information below is courtesy of these two gentlemen, and I also found much of interest in Éamon Lankford's "Cape Clear Island: Its People and Landscape”.
As for flora and fauna, it appears that Cléire has much to offer. Because the island is further south than the rest of Ireland, the conditions are slightly warmer than other parts of the country. Therefore, certain species of plant life are found on Cléire that are particular to areas of the Mediterranean. The old red sandstone of which Cléire is comprised is acidic, which supports the gorse and heather which can be seen flourishing on the island.
Cléire also boasts a bird observatory, which grew out of the island's history as a popular destination for bird spotters and ornithological experts. The Cape Clear Bird Observatory was established in 1959. Cléire seems to attract vagrant birds of many species rarely seen through the rest of Ireland. Recent sightings included the rare warblers, the Bonelli's Warbler and the Melodious Warbler.
The island has a fascinating history. Indeed, it is impressive to think how people could have eked out a year-long existence on any of the islands around Ireland. Cléire was populated mostly by farmers and fishermen. Cléire fishermen were renowned as the most skilled sailors in the area. It was said on the stormiest nights that 'even the men from the Cape wouldn't go out to sea today'.
Cléire seamen have a history of involvement in rescue operations after shipwrecks in the area. Just one example occurred in 1917, when the 6,000 ton Leyland liner Nestorian went ashore in thick fog and severe weather. Con Cadogan of Cléire set out in his fishing boat and reached the scene, but his boat was unable to approach the wreck. So it was that two Cadogans and two Dalys got into a small, frail punt and rowed towards the doomed ship. These brave men repeatedly risked their lives and took one man after another off the liner. 46 out of the entire crew of 47 were saved - one man got caught up in the wreckage and was either killed or drowned.
There are many more examples of disaster and rescue in the seas around Cléire, including during both world wars. On one occasion a crew of fishermen was attacked by a U-boat; on another four men were killed in the explosion of a stray mine. The famous sinking of the Lusitania, in which 1,500 went down with the 32,000 ton liner, also happened near to Cape Clear Island.
The ferry to Cléire sails in to Trá Ciarán, or Ciaran's beach. St. Ciarán was born on the island of Cléire, and it is said that Cléire was the first place in Ireland to have been reached by Christianity. Overlooking the harbour is a small graveyard which includes a ruined church. Before the graveyard was walled off from the beach, tidal erosion meant that bones from the graveyard occasionally made their way onto the shore, giving the beach the nickname "Trá na gCorp", meaning the 'beach of the bodies'.
Also of interest on the island is the old lighthouse and signal tower. This signal tower was first used to send signals by a semaphore system of flags, later to be replaced by a French system of shutters. These signals would be sent from tower to tower to warn of enemy attack. The French were often at war with the British, who were in control of Ireland at the time, and it was largely to warn of French attack that the towers were used. One of the more famous such attacks failed due to foul weather in Bantry Bay in 1796. This signal tower was built of local stone.
The lighthouse was built of Cornish granite, imported onto a pier built especially for the purpose. It turned out that the location was too high above sea level for the lighthouse to be effective: if it was not a clear day the lighthouse would be obscured by fog. This lighthouse was replaced by that on Fastnet Rock in 1854. The Fastnet light was modernised in 1906 and since then the same building and mechanism has been in place.
I originally had photos but I think I've lost them...