Any tourist worthy of the name who visits southwestern Ireland drives the Ring of Kerry, a 179-kilometre loop road from Killarney around the Iveragh Peninsula, and carries on to the even more famous Dingle Peninsula immediately to its north. As tourists ourselves Eileen and I could hardly do otherwise, and so the last day of March 2012 found us setting off from Killarney for the long and circuitous drive to Dingle.
The Ring - which is, of course, an invention for tourists but is none the worse for that - takes drivers along some extremely narrow and, at times, steepish roads past magnificent coastal scenery, with nature, history and archaeology thrown in.
I interrupted our drive (while proceeding in the recommended counterclockwise direction) for a bit if coastal botanising. Seaweed collecting was a popular Victorian pastime for young ladies (even the Queen indulged). In his Bab Ballad The Rival Curates, W.S. Gilbert makes fun of the excessively mild-mannered clergyman who "In old maids' albums, too / Sticks seaweed - yes, and names it!"
I choose to collect my seaweed with a camera, and to stick it into this blog instead of an album. I will, however, name it: Bladder Wrack (Fucus vesiculosus).
Mosses and wildflowers dot the cliffs above the sea: this is Common Dog-Violet (Viola riviniana).
This is Thrift (Ameria maritima), a popular garden plant. It is highly salt-tolerant, and in the wild is an habitué of seacoasts (as its Latin name suggests).
Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria) seems a rather unlovely name to bestow on these attractive yellow flowers, but the name refers to its medicinal properties (it is also known as Woundwort, and its specific name "vulneraria" means "wound healer". Presumably a useful plant to have handy around steep and jagged rocks?
The rocks themselves are more likely to carry lichens: here, mats of Yellow Scales (either Xanthoria aureola or X. parietina) surmounted by upright clumps of Ramalina cuspidata.
Ramalina spp. are sometimes, rather evocatively, known as "sea ivory".
From botany to prehistory. A few kilometres west of the rather oddly-named town of Sneem is a highlight of the ring, the late iron-age Staigue stone fort. The fort, which probably dates from the fourth century CE (but may be a few centuries older), is a large and impressive structure, remarkably composed entirely of drystone. There is no mortar holding its stones in place, and the stones have not been dressed to fit together. The ring-shaped wall, six metres high and four metres thick, encloses an area thirty metres across.
It's a handsome place, though perhaps aesthetics could not figure heavily in its design. its purpose was defense: getting into the fort through a narrow entrance like this one was clearly a one-at-a-time proposition. Eileen is not a large person.
Naturally, even at an impressive archaeological site like this one I could not ignore the little things in nature: this is a Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae).
From Staigue we contend our way, westward around the ring, past more magnificent coastal promontories…
… with a detour through the town of Portmagee to the north coast of Valentia Island, the site of one of Ireland's most unusual zoological attractions. Some 385 million years ago, one of the first vertebrates to crawl onto the land left a trail of footprints in soft Devonian mud. The footprints were preserved when the mud turned to stone, to be discovered only in the early 1990s.
Trackways this old made by four-legged vertebrates – tetrapods – are exceedingly rare, and the Tetrapod Trackway on Valentia is one of only four widely-accepted examples (two of the others are in Australia, while the fourth is in Scotland. It is the largest of them all.
As with the vast majority of fossil footprints, we cannot tell for certain what animal made them. This illustration, from one of the display signs at the site, gives something of an idea of what sort of animal trekked its way over the mud. All of the possible candidates from long ago had substantial tails, and the fact that there are no drag marks on the trackway suggests that its maker may have been underwater at the time, or at least in enough water so that the tail could float free. This would match recent studies suggesting that the first tetrapods may not have been land animals at all, or at least that the reason that their fins evolved into legs may not have been connected with any pressing need to crawl out of the water.
Anyway, the trackway was a fascinating thing to see. Perhaps my biggest surprise was its size: the animal that made it must have been fairly substantial, at least a meter or so long and perhaps more. Why I was surprised I am not sure, because I knew that the earliest tetrapods, animals like Ichthyostega and Tulerpeton, were at least that size. Perhaps coming face-to-face with evidence of the living creature brought this home to me in a way that even fossils in a museum could not.
From Valentia, we continued our circuit around the Ring of Kerry and turned north to the Dingle Peninsula, passing the beach made famous in the opening scenes of David Lean's film Ryan's Daughter. After a night in Dingle we headed west again, to the extreme end of this Peninsula…
… and to a distant view of the Blasket Islands, seen from Slea Head over a blooming clump of Thrift.
Here, again, were wild sea cliffs…
...and here, too, I saw my first Northern Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) of the trip, roosting on narrow ledges far below.
Mind you, it pays to be careful when exploring this particular part of Ireland!
The western end of the Dingle Peninsula has its own share of historical/prehistorical sights. The Dunbeg (or Dún Beag) Promontory Fort dates back to about 580 BCE. it, too, is a drystone structure, and if it is less spectacular than the Staigue fort its seaside location makes up for it. That may not have been its builders' intention, of course – there has apparently been a lot of erosion along the coast, and the fort is considerably closer to the sea than it used to be. Parts of it, in fact, have been washed away.
Today, aside from its value as a draw for tourists, Dunbeg seems particularly attractive to the local sheep.
Not far away is a notable cluster of beehive-shaped stone huts, of extremely uncertain date despite what the sign says.
Apparently huts of this type were built from Neolithic times right up to the 20th century. This particular grouping, however, seems to go back to the 12th century at least.
Stone, in this largely treeless landscape, is the most durable and readily available building material. Besides being of use to human beings, stone walls along the coastal road make useful and functional perches for Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus), who in their turn seem to be singularly unafraid of the peculiar species that built them.
This immature gull seems not to have gotten out of the habit of begging from its parent, though in this case – at least as far as we could see – with little success.
More exciting from a purely birding point of view were Red-billed Choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), smallish, glossy black cousins of crows with long, down curved, bright red bills. In the west of Ireland and on the western coasts of Great Britain these are birds of sea cliffs, though in the rest of their range they are more likely to be found high in the mountains. The Dingle Peninsula seemed to me highly suitable place to see them: my favourite writer (and hero) as a child, the late Gerald Durrell, once owned an extremely tame member of the species which he named, appropriately, Dingle.
Not prehistory, but not quite history either: our circuit of the western Dingle Peninsula took us next to one of the most famous buildings in Ireland, the Gallarus Oratory. This is an early Christian stone church - not entirely drystone, as some mortar seems to have been used, but similar enough to the older, wilder drystone monuments to just eke out a place in a natural history blog. It may date from the 8th century CE, but no one is quite sure. Anyway, it's a fascinatingly odd little thing.
Perhaps this old pillar outside the oratory, marked with a cross, recalls the famous St. Brendan, who may have sailed to America (or somewhere), a thousand years before Columbus, not far from this very spot.