Thursday, 27 April 2017

Through Seafoam into Spring: Kayaking the Irish Atlantic

Between the last week of March & the last of April, the journey for The Frayed Atlantic Edge took me from N Donegal down to County Cork. These are coastlines with some of the richest histories in the N Atlantic world, Ireland long being pivotal to oceanic geographies reaching from Spain & N Africa to Scandinavia & Canada. And this was a month in which the coastal environment seemed to be transformed, becoming slowly calmer & warmer, showing contrasting aspects of its beauty along the way.  

The journey began with heavy skies & raging seas, in what old Irish monks knew as ‘the  dark half of the year’. The kayaking was the toughest I’ve ever done, involving daily launches & landings through violent surf, often in the cold hour before dawn or after sunset:

At sea, there was the constant prospect of being forced to roll in confused swell. Waiting to try & ride a wave ashore in a spot like this…

…involves a unique kind of guesswork, relying on a timing that it’s impossible to know you’re getting right, and that I frequently got wrong. 

Many of these photos were taken on days when the air was calm & most seas would've lost their violence; but every reef in Donegal was battered by breakers. I paddled behind several of them to take photos of awesome walls of water from relative safety:

There was one surreal & stunning moment when the ferry between Bunbeg & Tory Island suddenly rose on the swell, looking like a miniature vessel tottering on the crest of a wave about to break. 

But it’s when the ocean is most unpredictable that its contrasts become most vivid & its patterns most beautiful. When dark clouds cling to the land, there’s often a wild brightness on the coast…

…which reaches a dazzling intensity a mile or two offshore. Such breathtaking views have an incredible effect in preventing tough conditions ever feeling exausting: 

When that photo was taken I was struggling through rough seas & wondering whether the fisherman in the boat above was finding things challenging too; it was only zooming in on the photos that I discovered he was just casually checking his phone.

I’m aware these photos of unsettled seas can only convey part of the sense of what it’s like to kayak them. So when I was joined for a week by another kayaker (Llinos Owen, who accompanied me from the south of Donegal to Clew Bay) I took the opportunity to get some photos of someone else in these waters. Here’s Llinos launching through surf:

Here she is out at sea, on a day when we rarely caught sight of each other between messy swells...

...and here, after a surf landing, ready for lunch on a beach at the bottom of a cliff face:

But my favourite picture I’ve taken of another kayak was possible when, at the end of a long day’s journey – relieved to get ashore – I climbed some rocks. My kind of kayaking, avoiding violent waters where possible, hadn’t been enough for Llinos. She played for a while among the twisting waves that broke round the stack, and as she (as well as a particularly elegant seal) moved with the water I photographed the foamy carnage:

The rougher the sea, the more likely (but, at first, more surprising) the presence of seals, rising through waves like foam-flecked stallions, and rearing up, mid-gallop, to better see these unexpected humans: 

I don’t think I usually convey on this blog how terrified I often am at sea: even in the easier spells of a rough day’s paddling unease is unshakable, fed by knowledge that the battering of a surf landing might be the only way ashore (day after day, I promise myself that, if I get ashore safely, I'll never get in a boat again).

The wildlife I saw over the first two weeks was that of winter. Barnacle & brent geese were the most constant presence. 

On my third morning I awoke at the top of a Donegal beach, where sand & marram grass gave way to turf, to find myself surrounded by barnacle geese. As I lifted my head, they – one by one – stuttered into flight with all the poise of ancient rusting tractors. Only with distance, as they formed a line in the early blue-gold light, did they gain a little grace. There’s a guilt in disturbing these feathered dinosaurs: with a prehistoric digestive system, they can’t eke nutrition from most of what they eat so have learned to graze at 360 bites per minute. Even with this freakish chewing, they have to eat relentlessly to see out their Irish winter with energy enough for the springtime flight to Greenland or beyond. But what they lack in digestive sophistication is made up for by their aerodynamic sense. Their resilience against Atlantic storms comes from the strange aesthetic instinct that sees them combine their bodies into ergonomic shapes. It’s no wonder the poet Moya Cannon, who grew up beside Donegal’s northerly headlands, calls their appearance over the sea’s rim ‘the original poetry’, defined by ‘an instinct for form and its rhythms/as each took its turn to cut the wind’.

By the time I left Donegal behind, the geese had gone too. And I was soon reminded that I wasn’t in Scotland anymore. At sea level, there were wildflowers I’d never expect to see. The most surprising of all were gentians in full bloom…

…lighting up the grass just feet above broiling water:

I had enough internet to look up a D.H. Lawrence poem, ‘Bavarian Gentians’, that has stuck in my head ever since I saw Geoffrey Hill read it as an interlude among his own Mercian Hymns. Lawrence’s gentians are autumn flowering, and he wrote ‘Bavarian Gentians’ while isolated in the mountains, suffering with the illness he knew would bring his death. In the room where Lawrence convalesced was a vase of gentians, so the poem depicts Persephone using these flowers as a torch to light her way into the realm of Pluto, her gentian-lit walk from earth to Hades marking the turn of summer to winter.

    Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
    let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
    down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness

Lawrence also associated his illness with the ocean. Alongside ‘Bavarian Gentians’ he wrote ‘The Ship of Death’ which includes the lines

    Already the dark and endless ocean of the end
    is washing in through the breaches of our wounds,
    already the flood is upon us.

    Oh build your ship of death, your little ark
    and furnish it with food, with little cakes, and wine
    for the dark flight down oblivion.

And there was a great deal of death around the places I was haunting, from washed-up goose barnacles to monkfish discards: 

Sleeping among Gentians & death, knowing I’d descend into the deeper blue of the roaring Atlantic next morning, was a recipe for the strangest dreams.

But these spring gentians were an augur of life ignited not extinguished. By the end of March, the puffins were back – nearly a month before I usually expect to find them. And I woke most mornings to beautiful choruses of waders, including the most magical sounds of all, curlew, ringed plover & the cackling of great northern divers:

The early mornings were often characterised by a stunning mixture of glistening water & thin mists:

The tiniest crevices in granite cliffs were soon erupting with the bright white flowers of scurvy grass:

And every coastal fencepost sprouted a hare, chough, bunting, skylark or stonechat:

At one point, sitting on a small island, I was joined by an extremely relaxed lone lamb:

And on another morning, waking beneath trees where a stream met the sea, the mixture of shore, moorland & woodland birds, all in spring song, was particularly glorious:


Day by day, the waves, as well as skies, filled with birds. First came the fulmars & gannets:

One gannet flexed & dived right by the kayak: here's the moment its course changed from flight to fall:

Then there were terns, newly arrived from S America or W Africa, in fine fettle & dressed for breeding:

Soon there were a handfull of guillemots & razorbills:

As the sun began to appear more often & the winds lowered, currachs & other small boats appeared on the water...

...and birds of sea & shore increased in confidence, flying close to the kayak, often with rich catches:

There were soon hundreds of Manx shearwaters – more than I’ve ever seen before.

These are wonderful birds to watch in flight, clinging to the sea’s surface as they use the contours of waves for uplift. 

And with their ghostly wailing when ashore, they add even more atmosphere to a night on the coastline than do gentians.

But the avian highlights of the journey came a little later. Suddenly, in mid-April, the scattered seabirds began their spring rituals. Consumed by courtship, these birds seemed oblivious to the kayak. Tides could draw me slowly, silently past with no need to raise a paddle, and the boat became the most perfect of hides. I’d turn a coastal corner & only slowly become aware of gurgling, cooing sounds all round. Only slowly would I note the pairs of razorbills swimming between the seas, clacking their bills, preening each other & making the gentlest, most comical of noises. 

This was something I’ve never witnessed before & the bill clacking rituals in particular are something I’ll never forget.

But the greatest surprise of all in this rapid switch to summer was the appearance of extraordinary numbers of cetaceans. I didn’t do well at photographing them, but at one point, off Kerry, there were five species – common, bottlenose & Risso’s dolphins, minke whales & porpoise – in three days. I managed a few pictures of common dolphins, porpoise & bottlenose as they rose like torpedos from the deep:

The minke whale activity was amazing, so it's particularly bad that I failed to get more than a couple of dreadful pics of fins (my excuse is that they always lurk in the most unsettled tidal waters):

The Risso’s dolphins & a minke both investigated the boat very close. A momentary view of a whale snout, eye & throat pleats - its face raised to scrutinise me - was a highlight of the month. At one point, a wildlife watching boat passed just as, beneath a cloud of circling gannets, a Risso’s dolphin leapt to investigate the boat. The footage is quite distant (as well as being a real ‘blink & you’ll miss it' moment) and will probably need to be viewed full screen (edit: just tried watching it - it seems the upload has completely destroyed the quality too!):

So the wildlife was amazing. And it’ll play a huge role in the Ireland chapters of the book, because creatures like the porpoise (the Muc Mhara - sea pig), have rich roles in Irish history both as cultural symbols & resources. Oil from basking sharks caught off Ireland was even used in the Apollo space missions, demonstrating clearly that the contrasts frequently drawn between ‘traditional coastal custom’ and urban high-tech industries are imaginary. 

But the main themes of the Irish chapters will be focused on the formation & adaptation of human communities to these coastlines, and the things I was looking out for were traces of historic uses of the coast. Ireland is the only European nation whose population density is lower today than it was in 1840, and the W in particular suffered massive depopulation after that date (remarkably, a quarter of the modern Irish population lives in Dublin – a city that is itself remarkable for its low population density). So there are multitudes of stories about the fates of communities that no longer work the coasts they used to, some of which have been recorded in great detail. The Blaskets, for instance, are among the best known examples of the extinction of an island culture in the world:

Many of those stories relate directly to British policies, and the actions of British leaders in Ireland – not just after 1840, but from Henry VIII and Elizabeth I to Charles I, Cromwell & beyond – offer powerful illustration of the ways in which the British (more specifically the English) are among the nations of the world most in denial about their own past. It’s still remarkable how little the fanatical, even genocidal actions of those leaders in Ireland colour their general reputation in Britain, or shape the way British history is told & taught.

But these coasts are very far from depopulated. Indeed, there are many ways in which a visitor here is forced to rethink assumptions about settlement. Large homes & single track roads line headlands that'd otherwise feel remote – places that in Scotland would be much less likely to host houses. Travelling the wild coasts of Donegal, it’s extremely rare not to be in sight of houses. Almost imperceptibly at first, buildings thicken towards village centres. Amidst this flux of varied populousness, there’s no logic to the idea of a contrast between ‘urban’ and ‘rural’. In ways that at first feel surreal to a visitor, tiny islands like Inishcoo host the grandest of eighteenth-century townhouses with deadly tide-races feet below their doors & cattle swimming between islands at slack tide: 

Further south, in Connemara for instance, shops are found in spots without passing cars but from which webs of well-used waterways sweep out (although the ideal shop was a building like the Corn Store in Killybegs, Donegal, with a frontage on both road & water). I frequently found myself cruising into small harbours with inviting pubs & restaurants by the water. 

It’s only those who travel western Ireland inland who could ever imagine it characterised by lonely loughs & desolate hillsides. This is a region whose histories feel more interlocked with the Atlantic than any I’d travelled so far.

I spent many evenings on this journey talking to people, particularly about the Gaelic language, cultural differences between the Irish islands, Atlantic links between Irish/Scottish or Irish/North American coasts & the roles that history plays in both identity & tourism on different stretches of the coast. Some such meetings I’d arranged in advance, but the small islands, in particular, provided lots of serendipitous encounters. 

Tory Island was one example. Tory is nine miles offshore across some of the fiercest seas in Ireland (its cliffs, as seen from the mainland - or 'the continent' as many islanders habitually refer to Ireland - are in the background here): 

It’s a spectacular ocean rock, said to have been the stronghold of a warlike iron-age race, the Fomorians, banished from 'the continent' early in Ireland’s history. Their leader, Balor, is said to have made his fortified home on the island’s cliffs. So separate is Tory from the mainland that major factors in Irish history, such as potato blight, never touched its shores (in the aftermath of the great famine, when Donegal’s population was reduced by 42%, Tory’s decreased by only 16%). Although less well-known than islands such as the Blaskets or Arans, Tory has a large literature including rich ethnographical work by Robin Fox & an excellent song study by Lillis O'Laoire; one of the greatest pleasures of this journey has been discovering such books. I spent the night high on a cliff-bound promontory, known as Dun Balor, where the dread king is said to have held court & where, it’s rumoured, he buried nine tons of gold.  This was my view from the sleeping bag:

Sure enough, four ranks of ancient fortification are evident in the earth, with hut circles behind them: Balor & his wealth might be mythic, but a stupendous crag-bound stronghold attests to Tory’s iron-age might. The red granite cliffs of the island’s N lean into overhangs, protrude into towering stacks & promontories, and recede into spume filled caves & arches. 

Behind these cliffs, the island sweeps gently S to small low fields which were for many centuries extensively farmed. When great storms approach from the N it’s said the sea spills over ‘the cliff edge of Europe’ and pours in torrents down the island incline, washing away crops & even livestock. The nurturing S, as opposed to the treacherous cliffs, is where the island's small towns nestle, places associated not with pagan Balor but with St Columba (the tall structure in this picture is the bell tower of his sixth-century monastery; the rest of the building was destroyed by Cromwell's stormtroopers):

I’d just set up camp among the fulmars when the island nurse wandered across the clifftops, stopped to comment on the exceptionally early arrival of the puffins, and took me to meet the island's king. This title is said to have been established by Columba & conferred on a man named Duggan who was the first pagan islander the saint converted. The current king is the artist Patsy Dan Mac Ruari whose role is to represent Tory interests to institutions beyond the island. 

Much later, I stumbled back from the island social club to my clifftop roost, having talked of Tory life, and heard the barman sing island songs, till about 3am. Behind the social club bar were framed newspaper cuttings commemorating the island’s notoriously fierce independence. The rock has been owned by landlords from Glasgow, Manchester & Birmingham, yet all the wealthy men who sank vast sums in its purchase found their plans & profits unravelled by island spirit. The women of Tory gained a particular reputation for vigorous defence of island lifeways (they had most to lose from the loss of their culture since Tory women, not just eldest sons as in the rest of Ireland, inherited land & wealth). 

Between 1872 & 1903 not a penny in rent was paid to Tory’s owner, and the courts in Liverpool, who ruled repeatedly against the islanders, flapped in consternation when they found themselves powerless to inflict censure. One cutting behind the bar recorded the views of the landlord’s agent, Colonel Irvine, in 1895 that ‘the island was in a state of absolute lawlessness, and the life of anyone going to collect rents was in the utmost peril’. He had, The Londonderry Sentinel noted,

endeavoured to get there under the cover of a picnic party, but the natives, learning that he was on board, absolutely refused to allow them to land. A tax-collector who went there was set upon, shipped, and set adrift in a boat, and another was assaulted, and returned much less of a man than he went there. The inhabitants were principally women, and they were very lawless.  

(...there's something wonderful going on when the pub turns out to be an archive...). The conversations in Donegal quickly convinced me that I needed to alter the structure of the book. Links with Scotland have been strong here, and places like Tory have much in common with the islands of Argyll. Irish islanders habitually referred to the Scottish language as Scots Irish; one Islay-born ex-fisherman I met in Donegal said that the islanders on each side of the border look across at each other & think ‘we’re you, really, or we’d have been you with one more defeat, or one defeat less’; many people I met here expressed great puzzlement that more Scots hadn’t embraced the opportunity for independence in 2014. In some periods of history, formations such as Dalriada have straddled these sea zones, while even the name of Argyll, usually glossed as the borderland of the Gaels, might be interpreted not in terms of division but as the bridge binding Gaeldom. Later, labour from the Irish islands moved eastwards to collect the Argyll or Ayrshire harvest or undertake construction projects in Glasgow. And in a twenty-first century equivalent, teenagers from Islay hitch lifts on fishing boats to party in Donegal & Belfast. So chapter 7 of the book now covers the Argyll islands, Rathlin in Northern Ireland, and the Donegal isles. Chapter 8 is then clear to tackle Connacht, while chapter 9 moves down through Munster.

One common theme throughout the three chapters will be the vast geographies that the Irish Atlantic has been part of for millennia. Like all these coastlines it reveals the ways in which our modern political formations – whether Northern Ireland, Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Britain or the United Kingdom – are moving through these islands only a little slower, in the grand scheme of things, than a kayak; it shows how perspectives from Atlantic coastlines (always part of different networks of trade & power than distant capitals like Dublin or Edinburgh) can help us understand the limits to our usual habits of geographical division.
The sea geese that attest to links between Ireland & the NW Atlantic are mirrored by Irish speaking populations on W Atlantic coasts. And, looking S instead of W, Spain & Ireland have played profound roles in each other’s histories. That this isn't a mere confection of human history, but a product of deeply interlocked geographies is evident in flora & fauna. Some of the heather species here, as well as the saxifrage known as ‘St Patrick’s cabbage’ and creatures such as the spotted slug aren't native to the British & Irish archipelago, but belong on the Spanish coast or in the Pyrenees. Geese & saxifrage prove that it’s not only through large ports, global politics & heavy industry that a coastline gains its global links.

The stories of the discovery of this interconnected Atlantic history are intriguing in themselves. The pioneering naturalist who did much to reveal the staggering diversity of the Irish coast’s natural history, Robert Lloyd Praeger, undertook a long, N-S, journey recording flora from Donegal to Kerry. Praeger was one of the few naturalists of his era to recognise the importance of coast, caves, skerries & sea; the most vivid image he recorded in his memoir of the journey, The Way that I Went (1937), saw him swim into a sea-cave in search of rare plants, with just a candle mounted in his hat to light the way. Born in 1865, Praeger was a classic Victorian polymath (a ‘geologist, zoologist, archaeologist, Irish naturalist Optimus Omnium’ in the words of David Bellamy). Searching for flowers, he discovered the Carrowkeel passage tombs in Sligo & crawled into millennia of untouched history. More significantly, he recognised that the key to explaining such mysteries as the ‘startling mixture’ of flora on the coast of County Clare (the place where I slept among the gentians) was to reconstitute a deep history stretching back to the retreat of glacial ice: his contributions to botany came from thinking like an archaeologist, and from conceptualising this coastline as part of an Atlantic world through which everything, from climate to creatures, circulated.

But some of the most powerful demonstrations of this coastline’s place in vast historical geographies are the many monastic sites amidst the host of islands. This is a coastline defined not just by rich & stupendously beautiful heath or machair islands… 

…but also by innumerable scabs of Atlantic scar tissue. The rocky drama of kayaking here is unrivalled by any other coast I know (Shetland being the only possible exception). 

There are offshore rocks with holes beaten through them by the oceanic onslaught…

…or split, by the same forces, into multiple sea-hills:

There are others where lighthouses have been precariously mounted to help ships navigate skerry slaloms…

…elsewhere, crumbs of cliffs lie at the bottom of high precipices…   

...while headlands protrude far into otherwise open water...

…or fast tidal channels are formed, to speed kayakers on their way, when peninsulas calve like icebergs:

It seems paradoxical that little chunks of rock hold some of the most historically significant sites in Europe, but the importance of Irish monasticism to the early-medieval world is such that the names of these skerries echo through the ages. Ideas from Egypt, N Africa & Spain defined the culture of early Ireland, at the same time as Irish monks spread far afield – populating Iceland, taking Irish learning around northern Europe, and – thanks to the Donegal monks St Columba & Adomnan – spreading Irish culture to Scottish sites from Iona to Orkney. When most of Europe was an irrelevant backwater, China, Egypt, Byzantium & Ireland made history.

I’d visited a host of monastic islets – Tory, Inishmurray, Inishglora, the Inishkeas, Church Island – before I reached the most renowned. Skellig Michael is the kind of site that’s so famous & mythologised that, in the midst of excitement about the chance of kayaking there, I was preparing myself to be underwhelmed. But I needn’t have worried: this was among the most awe-inspiring days I’ve had at sea (unfortunately, the shutter-release button on my camera had become stuck down with salt, so I only got a fraction of the photos I otherwise would've done). The water was always alive with cetaceans & seabirds. Despite a small swell, its surface was like silvered mirror glass, making the long paddle there & back feel utterly ethereal. 

By the time I reached the islands…

…I was surrounded by clouds of gannets, and looking up at their extraordinary colony on the smaller Skellig: 

The light became increasingly bright white & dazzling in its reflection off the water. The effect was soon an otherworldly scene in which the islands seemed to float in a different reality from everything around them. 

These were perfect conditions for imagining the lives of the holy men who maintained this skerry, for six centuries before the twelfth, as the most austere site in western monasticism: the very pinnacle of holiness. Dwelling in six small beehive huts at the top of three long staircases these monks lived largely off the products of a small garden – onions, celery, vetch, peas, carrots – as well as the hauls of their nets. They sought purity, simplicity & proximity to their God as well as a place on the frontline in the battle between good & evil in which the Atlantic was both 'the spiritual sea' and the source of the demons of the endtimes. All stone cutting would’ve been the work of monks who arrived in small ox-hide boats with iron hammers, chisels & crowbars, leather bags, ropes & pulleys. Looking up at the steep, rocky shores, it was easy to imagine the first monk leaping from the boat, flax rope slung around his shoulders, and clinging to the nearest barnacle in hope more than expectation of survival. Little can be said for certain of monkish subsistence, though the midden of the monastery on nearby Church Island has been excavated, yielding seashells & bones of gannet, shag, duck & goose as well as seal, ox, pig, sheep, goat & horse. One thing's for certain: if similar things were eaten on the Skellig, none would've been cooked; the idea of making food palatable by cooking was seen as a corrupting luxury too far. 

Much more is known of the daily routines & observances of the monks: the ideas of the Celtic church are elaborated in the famous works of John Cassian & others, and their religion was communicated to the present through their scriptoria which created such wonders as the Book of Durrow & the Book of Kells (the latter full of oceanic imagery, including a fish-catching otter on the famous Chi-Rho page). And many such texts were made from the products of the ocean: fish oil or the whites of seabird eggs bound colours to the page, and liquids from the common dogwhelk provided hues of green & purple. Other colours came from across the sea rather than beneath it: coastal trading networks reaching China & Egypt had been established by the year 0.  

By this time in the journey, razorbills, gannets & shearwaters were all engaged in their own rituals of spring. There was something magical about imagining long-defunct human rituals which had taken place in a region now wholly given over to equally ritualistic performances of wildlife. While I was in Ireland, the BBC ran a wonderful series featuring these coastlines – Wild Ireland: the Edge of the World. This was as visually spectacular as any such show can be. I’d increasingly come to think, however, of this coastline as the centre of Atlantic geographies – a capital of the historic & natural Atlantic world – rather than the periphery of landlocked ones (the ‘Edge’ in my own title is going to need some substantial undercutting). But the hard work in making sense of these coastlines begins now - in as many more conversations as I can muster, and in (my increasingly soggy) books:


  1. Your writing is wonderful, as always; your photos are stunning, as always. I appreciate the mention of being "terrified" while kayaking - my gut lurches when I see some of the pics you take and think about what it must be like to be in the middle of it all! Do you ever find that taking photos (or notes?) helps you deal with the fear of a particular situation?

  2. Directed to your blog by Jonathan. Wonderfully captured both in the written word and visually. Some absolutely stunning photographs.

  3. Your writing is wonderful, I Really Like Your Post & I always follow to read for your comment!
    Thanks for your many tutorials!


  4. Hi,

    I absolutely love your style.
    relaxing for an hour or so,
    there is always plenty to see;
    lambs in the adjacent fields,
    pink cherry blossom,
    yellow primroses and
    even a few remaining daffodils.
    At the bird feeders
    a wagtail and a robin
    compliment the usual
    finch and blue tit visitors.
    Beneath them, a small family of
    voles darts in and out of
    the stone wall to
    eat some left over seeds.
    Really this post is
    useful for us.

    Thanking you,
    Mikel Jonee

  5. Wonderfully captured both in the written word and visually.

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