An Irishwoman's Diary

 

HAD Gollum himself been sitting on his island of rock in the middle of the water, we couldn’t have been more transfixed. Stomping southeastwards recently up a sodden slope in the Comeraghs, we had just rounded a small hillock when it opened out before us – inky-bleak as that “cold lake far from the light” in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

It could have been that creature’s haunt somewhere in the Misty Mountains, or the “sullen surface” of the lake near the Walls of Moria where “neither sky nor sunset was reflected”. However, it was in fact the first of the two Sgilloge loughs, named Com Sciollóg or “hollow of the cut-off halves” in Waterford’s wondrous Nire Valley.

Framed in its basin shape by the shadowed ridges rising above it, the Ice Age souvenir was just as writer Declan McGrath had described it, gouged out from the range’s old red sandstone rock. Wolves once roamed here, ravens still do, and McGrath has recounted how one Daniel Abbott was paid £250 for nine wolfskins in 1655 – multiples of the price fetched at the time for surrender of a “popish” priest.

McGrath’s comprehensive Guide to the Comeragh Mountainshad lured us all the way from the west, and his new project threatens to make it a repeat experience. The Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) lecturer, who has already published guides with Heritage Council support on wildlife in Waterford city and the bay, dunes and backstrand of Tramore, has just completed a 343-page encyclopaedia of his county coastline.

Illustrated with his own photography and maps, the work is by a man who, as colleague Michael Viney noted recently in this newspaper, “knows every step and each attendant bird, hawkmoth and wildflower”. There’s a hypnotic quality – the “sedation of the incantation”, as playwright Brian Friel put it – to McGrath’s descriptions of cock’s foot, creeping bent, Yorkshire fog, red fescue, goosander, merganser and great-crested grebe.

The 170km-long corner of this island’s 7, 800km rim is “reasonably linear”, but with sufficient high cliffs, offshore stacks, large estuaries and wetlands to attract a very diverse birdlife, he notes. Curiously, up to 1,000 pairs of puffins can breed on Wexford’s Saltee Islands, but the bird is rarely seen across the county border.

There is evidence that they may have once bred there, with an 1882 record at Helvick. Traces of its relative, the extinct great auk, have been found in middens in Tramore sand dunes; the last known of these birds in all Ireland was caught in the east of the county in May 1834 by a “fisherman named Kirby”.

Kept alive for four months, it was donated after death to Trinity College, Dublin (TCD) by a Waterford city resident, Dr Robert Burkitt. Mc Grath notes that he was subsequently presented with a “great auk pension” of £50 as a “token of gratitude” by TCD.

PUFFINS, along with Robert the Bruce, Richard Branson and Marconi, are synonymous with that L-shaped outcrop up the other end of this island, across the Sea of Moyle. Rathlin is home to guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes and razorbills, but it’s the fragile population of the tiny sea parrots that draws so many visitors over each spring.

It took some concentrated focusing of telescopes for us to spot them during a recent visit to the island’s birdlife centre in the company of walking guide Paul Quinn. Now on the “amber” endangered species list for Ireland, the puffins are under threat from declining seafood sources, from rats preying on chicks and eggs and, in the case of south-west colonies such as the Great Blasket, from predatory mink. The Rathlin colony faces another challenge, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) last month, if prospecting for oil and gas off the island proves successful.

However, there’s much more to the island, and to the turbulent waters which separate it from Antrim and nearby Scotland. There are more than 60 documented shipwrecks in these waters, but Rathlin’s Church Bay is also graveyard to the largest ship ever lost in Irish inshore waters. It was a sinking laced with “chilling irony”, according to a new account by maritime historian Ian Wilson. Sir Francis Drake had assisted Elizabethan soldier and adventurer Sir John Norris in a massacre of the islanders, and centuries later a British navy cruiser bearing his name was consigned by German torpedo to the sea floor.

This “crack cruiser” among British forces had already sailed most of the world’s oceans, Wilson writes. It flew an admiral’s flag in Australia, a prince’s flag around the Mediterranean, and across the Atlantic. King Edward VII once spent a night aboard, and the ship undertook many diplomatic missions, being anchored in the Bay of Naples when Vesuvius lost its head.

On the night of September 24th, 1917, Rathlin islanders were quenching oil lamps, unaware that one Kapitanleutnant Otto Rohrbeck, commander of a German U79 submarine, was slinking silently by. Several days later, a light westerly breeze was “lifting early morning mist over calm waters” when he saw a cruiser ship through his periscope. He was just 600 metres from the Drake’s starboard side when he gave orders to fire . . . Find out more in HMS Drake: Rathlin Island Shipwreckby Ian Wilson, published by Rathlin Island Books and available on website rathlinislandbooks.com.

For live and lively insights into the island’s environment, Paul Quinn is on the website rathlinwalkingtours.com, and Declan McGrath’s A Guide to the Waterford Coastis available in south-east bookshops at €20, or direct from him at: 10 The Estuary, King’s Channel, Waterford at €25 (extra €5 for post and packing).