Monday, 19 August 2013

Seal's nostrils and other delights

OK, I won't overload you with hundreds more photographs, but here are some from the 2.30 a.m. wander round Puck Fair after a very convivial night's dancing, and some from the Skelligs. The Puck Fair photo-set is here (or see daytime event favourites here) and the full set of Skellig Island photos are here. Or click on these ones to enlarge.

King Puck in glorious neon
This chap insisted I take his photo, in colourful terms. 

Looking down Killorglin Main Street, approximately 2.45 a.m. 
I like this photo for her face and her isolation, for the bright colours, and for the contrast between the street lighting and the van's internal lighting

General revelry, and I like the Keep Killorglin Clean sign amidst the mess. The pubs closed at 4.00 a.m. and the streets were clean again by 7.00 a.m.
Hazel takes advantage of a lull in trade at her catering van
Defocussed coloured lights over the Laune Bridge
I like the cheeriness of food vans, and the lighting works really well here. It's why I virtually never use flash.
Looking up Killorglin's Main Street from the bridge
A rare quiet moment on the Laune Bridge as a solitary reveller weaves his way home. Or somewhere.
One of the absolute highlights of the week was an open-air performance of The Tempest by the St. John's Mill Theatre Company, on the bank of the Laune at Ballykissane where the river becomes the sea. There was no set, and no props beyond a couple of lumps of wood and some costumes borrowed from the Killorglin Pantomime. Stage and seats were on a strip of shore twenty feet wide and a couple of hundred feet long: behind the actors was the estuary and the mountains of the Dingle Peninsula: perfect for a tempest, a shipwreck and a fantasy. It was a great choice of play: it explores the experiences of colonist and colonised, notions of civilisation and barbarism, and therefore had extra resonance in an Ireland multiply invaded by the British (and the IMF).

The performance was superb: clearly influenced by the Globe Theatre's recent version which I saw: that too used a minimal set and sexed-up Miranda as a naive but lusty young innocent. The audience was enlisted too: the 'natural spirits' which entrance and terrify the Milanese nobles were played by us: big laughs ensued as a bearded gentleman was cuddled and admired while Gonzalo notes his 'monstrous shape'. My companion was relieved of her wine-glass (at €4 for terrible plonk, littoral prices are on a par with London's) and other audience members were enlisted in various other ways. Playing out in real-time, the action's three hours covered late afternoon to evening. A few lights appeared on the other peninsula as darkness fell, no traffic or urban sound interrupted the play, bats and gulls flapped overhead, torches lit the final act and a seal swam past intent on raiding the salmon nets. It gazed at us then swam on unimpressed - everybody's a critic. 

I loved the Globe's interpretation of The Tempest, but I wonder if I'll ever see one as evocative as this one. The setting was wildly romantic, the subject matter given real edge by Irish history, the actors largely convincing and the music – performed by unseen musicians concealed behind a bush – keeningly evocative. The 'rough music' which entrances the visitors was in this case Irish-language laments, beautifully played. 

Sorry I haven't any pictures: I thought it would be disruptive and rude, not an instinct which occurred to several other audience members…
After a day's recovery, I achieved a long-held ambition to visit the Skellig Islands, two spiky and inhospitable rocks 12 kilometres of the Kerry Coast. Occupied by unsociable monks for 1000 years until the 1500s, frequently raided by Vikings, host to tens of thousands of gannets, puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes, other seabirds and a lighthouse, it's been a place of folk-lore, illicit marriages, pilgrimage and tourism for aeons. The islands are a spectacular sight, as is the view of the mainland afforded from the rocks. It's remote, but it's not isolated: the monks were carrying on the tradition of withdrawal they'd learned from Anthony and the Syriac monks, while the Annals of Inisfallen from the same period recorded current events from both their immediate surroundings and news from elsewhere, such as a sacking of Rome.

Or so I'm told. My visit was a more authentically Irish experience. As well as being lost in the mists of time, the Skelligs were lost in a far less metaphorical mist. Of which more anon. 

We got there by boarding Des Lavelle's boat on Valentia Island. There was none of this 'here's a lifejacket, emergency drill as follows' nonsense. 12 of us piled onto the open deck of this very boat, a 20-foot fishing vessel. The captain had a cabin. We very much didn't. 

And off we went, lurching and bouncing through tempestuous seas: even the captain described conditions as 'monstrous'. I narrowly avoided meeting my breakfast again on the way up, but it was a close-run thing. Occasionally the fog would momentarily lift to afford us the sight of a flight of gannets or other shipping, but I took very few pictures, so intent was I on not drowning. It was a sobering thought to imagine generations of monks heading out in all weathers in a rowing boat made of skins stretched over wood. I idly wondered how many of them actually made it over there…

After an hour or so of this, we finally got a foreboding glimpse of our destination:

Skellig Mhichíl (Skellig Michael or Great Skellig)
Getting on to the island was no picnic, even with the 19th-century quay and paths with low walls built for the lighthouse crews. 

Once on land, we met the (very impressively informed) Office Of Public Works staff. They pointed us all to the signs warning anyone suffering from vertigo, unfitness, heart failure, sea-sickness and a range of other complaints to stay at the bottom: between heart attacks and simply falling off, deaths are rather common. The island is a Unesco World heritage site and there are no amenities, whether toilets or intensive care units. We were told that 'the birds are angry' and warned not to eat up at the top: a determined gull will steal your lunch and drive you off the cliffs if it doesn't think much of your sandwiches. 

Was it steep? This gull thought so:

Sadly, not all deaths on the Skelligs are accidental. It's a notorious hotspot for bunny suicides, as this picture taken under a cliff shows:

Sorry. Here's a cute picture of a robin taking a bath to cheer you up. 

But back to the Skelligs. We started the climb up the 600 steps hewn out of the limestone by monks over the centuries, up to the narrow patch of almost-level ground on which they founded their monastery. 

At times the fog was quite useful: it was so dense that you couldn't see the immense drop from the steep paths into the sea or onto the rocks. 

Plus it was all very atmospheric: sidling up the wet stone or hunching in a damp stone hut gave a real sense of what it might have been like to live there, year in, year out. Except of course that we weren't starving, maddened by hunger (on tonight's menu: gannet feet served on a bed of weeds), fear, religious mania and superstition. 

Up at the top, you enter a stone enclosure marked by this cross engraved on an upright:

to find a range of these beautiful bee-hive huts for living and praying in. They're dark, cold and strong: well over a thousand years old and still solid. There's so little flat space and soil that even the graveyard is man-made - it's a small raised bed labouriously built in the middle of the settlement. 

The graveyard through a window in a bee-hive hut

Large cross in the monastery enclosure

A window in one of the huts.
After a while it was time to clamber down in the fog. 

Thankfully, some of the signage kept us on the right track:

And then we got back on the boat and headed off to Sceilig Bheag (Little Skellig), which as the world's second-largest gannet colony, is closed to landings. It also hosts thousands of puffins but they migrate in early August… a week before we got there. I saw one lonely puffin flapping forlornly out to sea. Whales and dolphins played around the islands the day before too, but we did see one dolphin crest a wave on the way back. 

 Little Skellig is amazing. The white encrustation isn't guano or rock: it's birds. Thousands of angry, squawking birds.
Sceilig Bheag

 Not just birds, either. Look closely and you'll see a pair of seal's nostrils:

Even better, a couple of seals had dragged themselves onto the rocks and were lounging around. One of them bothered to lift its head as our boat got close, but couldn't be bothered to panic and soon flopped back down again. After two weeks of big dinners, I knew exactly how it felt. 

And so endeth the holiday. Now I'm spending most of the next couple of weeks doing Clearing: basically being God with a database. Tremble before me, O Supplicant Students!

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