The Penclawdd Cockles of Wales

Feb 28, 2017 by

In Wales, one of the oldest occupations found along the coastline is cockle gathering, a task which archaeological evidence suggests dates back to at least the Roman era.  

Penclawdd (pronounced Pen-clawth),  a seaside village in Swansea, Wales, on the Gower Penninsula, is renowned for its local cockle industry.  The Welsh clams are collected from the extensive sandy flats in the Burry Estuary and then sold worldwide as the famous “Penclawdd [or Gower] cockles.”

Cockles are small saltwater clams widely used in cooking  throughout the world, but are especially popular in Wales. 

  Here’s an unusual bit of trivia to impress your friends: In England and Wales, Magna Carta grants every citizen the right to collect up to eight pounds of cockles from the foreshore; pickers wishing to collect more than eight pounds are deemed to be engaging in commercial fishing and are required to obtain a permit from the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority.   To see what happens when cockle pickers get greedy, read this BBC story.

Though small and humble, cockles have had more than a mere fifteen minutes of fame.  In a popular song that has become the unofficial anthem for Dublin, Ireland,  a tune also covered by U2,  sweet Molly Malone wheels her barrow through the streets of Dublin, crying, “Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!”    If you feel deeply contented by something, that thing (often a good quality whisky or beer) is said  “to warm the cockles” of your heart, although I’m fairly certain there are no cockle valves in the human heart.   

Even gardeners, such as the famously contrary Mistress Mary,  have a history with cockles, sometimes using the ridged shells as edging and soil conditioners in their gardens.

 

Samples of these famous cockles can be purchased at the stalls in Swansea Market and locally in the village itself.  The Penclawdd cockles are also shipped worldwide for fans of this tasty Welsh seafood. 

Penclawdd cockles for sale.

Penclawdd cockles for sale. Image by Scott Dexter

Laverbread made with Penclawdd cockles from Gower.

Laverbread made with Penclawdd cockles from Gower. Image by Smylers.

If you travel to Wales and ask for a full Welsh breakfast, you are likely to get cockles fried in bacon fat alongside your eggs and laverbread cakesCockle pie is a traditional Welsh dish and quite tasty–click HERE for a recipe to try.  

From the mid 19th century up until the 1970s in Wales, the cockles were gathered by women using hand-rakes and riddles (coarse sieves) with the help of donkey carts, often braving very hard conditions.

Some women set up stalls at local markets, while other women sold their harvest door to door. Cockles, boiled and removed from their shells (cocs rhython), were usually carried in a wooden pail, balanced on the vendor’s head, while the untreated variety (cocs cregyn) were carried in a large basket on the arm.

Now they are harvested mostly by men, still by hand, but using tractors or Land Rovers instead of little donkeys. The original small, family-owned factories in Penclawdd have been demolished and cockles are now processed in two large, modern factories in the nearby village of Crofty; the product is largely exported to continental Europe.

Sources:  For more history about the cockle women of Wales, try this wonderful blog post that has many vintage pictures of Welsh women gathering the cockle  harvest.

More stories about harvesting cockles are HERE and HERE, and more info about Penclawdd is available on Wikipedia  and on the Gower website.

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Celtic Halloween Samhain

Oct 31, 2016 by

Have a Happy CELTIC Halloween!

Here are few memes and videos to get you into the spirit this Samhain eve.  Just be careful which spirits you let in the door on Celtic Halloween!

 

Celtic Halloween

Celtic Halloween, when the veil between worlds grows thin…

Celtic halloween witch

Beware the Celtic witch!

 

A history of Halloween in Ireland:

 

 

Make way for zombies from Wales! Welsh band Peasant’s King just released a tribute to the ultimate Halloween video, Michael Jackson’s Thriller–that  Danny has a dang good voice for a zombie:

 

 

 

Castle Ghosts of Ireland, an excellent BBC video, explores the bewitching castles of the Emerald Isle:

More castle ghosts for Celtic Halloween, rising out of Scotland’s bloody history:

Wales has its share of haunted castles, too:

For the ancient Celts, Samhain (sunset on October 31 through sunset on November 1) was a night when then the wall between our world and the Other World thinned, allowing their ancestors to walk among their descendants.

The thinning of the veil also allowed the fairies and fae to walk in the mortal world, though, so people took precautions to protect themselves. Guizing, or wearing masks to hide your identity, was one way to avoid the fairies.   Lighting bonfires, dancing, offering sacrifices from the harvest, all were ancient Celtic customs that have evolved over the centuries into the night we modern Celts now call Halloween.

As Loreena McKennitt sings, tonight is for fun, but also for remembering our Celtic past:

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Sean-nós Dancing

Nov 14, 2014 by

Sean-nós dancing is a traditional style of solo Irish dance. Outside of Ireland, it is not as well known as stepdancing (popularized by Riverdance). On the Emerald Isle, however, sean-nós dancing is a big crowd pleaser.

In Irish Gaelic, sean-nós (sha[rhymes with Da]-nohs[nohs rhymes with dose]) means “old style” and can be applied to singing as well as dancing.  Some say sean-nós dancing originated in the Connemara region, but as the dance style predates modern records, it’s likely that different regions of Ireland had their own, unique sean-nós dance styles.

 

 Stepdancing is a choreographed Irish dance style, where the costumed dancers hold their arms firmly at their sides and do intricate foot movements and high kicks, using either standard soft ( ghillies) or hard (reel and jig ) shoes.  Sean-nós dancing is almost the direct opposite:  one or two dancers wear casual clothing and street shoes, are free to mover their arms, and impromptu, casual dance steps are the name of the game.  Sean-nós dancers do low to the ground foot movements( as opposed to the high kicks of stepdancers) in rhythm to the music, in style called a battering step, which is similar to tap dancing and Appalachian buck dancing.  Stepdancers move across the entire stage, but sean-nós dancing is meant to be performed on a small, hard surface, such as a table, overturned barrel or a door off its hinges.

Sean-nós dancer Seosamh Ó Neachtain moves to the music of Laoise Kelly’s harp– watch how his steps change to match the tempo of the music:

Sean-nós dancers like to show off their skills by dancing on small surfaces. Click HERE to see All-Ireland sean-nós champion Emma O’Sullivan and Gerard Butler ( no, not THAT Gerard Butler) battering a barrel.

Sure, barrel dancing is tough, but not as tough as sean-nós dancing in a FRYING PAN!

 

Think you’d like to try a bit of sean-nós dancing? You don’t need elaborate costumes or fancy shoes, so anyone can do it. Here’s an easy how-to video to get you started:

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Inishdooey Island An Irish Bargain

Sep 21, 2014 by

Inishdooey Island, three miles off the northern coast of Donegal, shows that you don’t need to be a celebrity to own a private island.

The original asking price for Inishdooey Island (Inis Dhubhnach) was around a million dollars, a bit steep for a location that can only be reached by boat or helicopter, and even then only in good weather.  The owner has now reduced the price to £140, ooo, or about $230,000, depending on exchange rates.  That price is practically a steal in today’s economy, especially when you consider that the island offers 94 acres of beautiful, unspoiled Irish land, the ruins of an ancient monastery and numerous caves to explore.

 

 

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Inishdooey Island, which lies of the coast of Donegal in Ireland. Image: Vladi Private Islands

The island’s name comes from Saint Dubhthach, a 6th century saint who was the ninth Bishop of Armagh and allegedly the driving force behind the monastic settlement built on the island.  Although Dubthach is referred to as saint in the Annals of the Four Masters, a medieval text of Irish history, his feast or veneration day is not noted and there is little information about his life.  All that remains of the monks’ settlement on Inishdooey Island are the ruins of stone walls , a few small huts and a small stone church.

 

 

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The remains of a monastic settlement on Inishdooey Island. Image: PBBase, Roger Curry

 

 

Inishdooey Island is part of a string of four islands called the Donegal Archipelago, which includes Tory Island, Inishboffin and Inishbeg.   Here’s a video tour of Inishdooey Island via kayak–note how clear and blue the water is in some of the caves, almost like a Caribbean or Mediterranean island:

 

 

According to the island’s owner, Mark McClafferty, it will probably cost around $300,000 to build a home on Inishdooey, mostly because all the materials will have to be flown or ferried in to the island. National Parks and Wildlife Service Regional Manager, Dave Duggan, however, told the Donegal News that Inishdooey Island is best suited as a haven for nature conservation:

“From a nature conservation point of view it is a fine island.
“It is designated under a number of habitat directives – SAC, SPA – which would make the chance of getting planning permission to build on the island practically zero.”

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Wildflowers and blue waters on Inishdooey Island  Image: Vladi Private Islands

Well, even if you can’t build on Inishdooey Island, you would have the satisfaction of knowing that your purchase was a positive step in preserving wild Ireland.

Plus, you could always lead nature tours of your very own Irish island!

 

 

 

For more photos of Inishdooey Island, see Roger Curry’s gallery of the island HERE.

More videos of the island are available HERE and HERE.

 

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Lough Na Fooey, Galway’s Glacial Gem

Sep 14, 2014 by

Lough Na Fooey is a beautiful glacial lake that lies along the border between Galway and Mayo in Ireland.

Known as Loch na Fuaiche in Irish Gaelic, this small lough is set between the rugged Galway Mountains to the south and Mayo’s Partry Mountains ( Sliabh Phartraí ) to the north.

 

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Western end of Lough Na Fooey, with the Partry Mountains on the right and the Galway Mountains on the left.

The lough is in the heart of Joyce Country (Dúiche Sheoighe), a region of Galway and Mayo that takes its name from a Welsh family who settled in the region during the 13th century. We discovered this pristine lough when we drove to Finny from Westport in Mayo to see a sheep herding demonstration at Joyce Country Sheepdogs, which lies right beside Lough Na Fooey.

 

Lough Na Fooey donkeys

The donkeys of Joyce Country Sheepdogs graze on hillside overlooking Lough Na Fooey

Lough Na Fooey is fed by numerous mountain streams, as well as the River Fooey, Abhainn na Fuaiche.  Not nearly as large as nearby Lough Mask, Lough Na Fooey is just half a mile wide and about 2.5 miles long. It has a soft, sandy beach on the western end which is ideal for a family picnic, boating or fishing for trout and pike in the cold waters.

 

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Sunlight falls through the clouds near the sandy beach of Lough NaFooey.

The Joyce Country area was hit hard by the Great Famine (an Gorta Mór), and you’ll see several abandoned stone cottages near Lough Na Fooey. The harsh terrain of the mountains made travel difficult in the mid 1800s, but those who could leave probably tried to do so, to save themselves and their families. I can only hope that some lived and simply decided to make do in another part of Ireland rather than return to their farms at Lough Na Fooey.

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Abandoned farmstead on the banks of Lough Na Fooey, County Galway, Ireland.

If you plan to travel through Mayo and Galway, making a stop along Lough Na Fooey is well worth the slight detour off the main road. Have a picnic on the beach or hike up one of the surrounding mountains for a better view of this remote, beautiful area of Ireland.

 

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The blue waters of Lough Na Fooey, a glacial gem in the Joyce Country of Ireland.

 

Just remember to slow down and watch for the many Scottish Blackface sheep (a tough breed ideal for hilly areas) inhabiting the nearby farms–they tend to pop up quite unexpectedly!

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Scottish Blackface sheep guarding the mountains around Lough Na Fooey.

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The Uragh Stone Circle of Kerry

Aug 10, 2014 by

Today we visited the Uragh Stone Circle on the Beara Peninsula in County Kerry, in Tuosist. The location is a bit remote and requires a bumpy ride to get there, but the views are spectacular and worth every pothole, dip and hairpin turn we passed through on our way. Of all the megalithic monuments on the Beara Peninsula, the Uragh stone circle is the one you absolutely must see, especially if your time in Kerry is limited.

 

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The ancient Uragh stone circle on the Beara Peninsula, County Kerry, Ireland.

The Uragh stone circle is close to the bustling market town of Kenmare,  or An Neidín, “little nest”, as it is known in Irish.  Take R571 west out of town, towards Ardgroom; about 14 kilometers down the road, you’ll take a left at sign pointing you towards Uragh. It is on private property, but accessible for a small fee.  Follow the road til it ends at gate, open that gate ( and shut it after you get inside), and drive across the narrow bridge down to the parking area. The bridge crosses a lovely stream flowing down to Lough Cloonee Upper, one of the two lakes near Uragh.

Once you reach the parking spot, you’ll meet meet a nice older gentleman farmer, who grew up on the Uragh land which his son now farms. He charges two Euro for entrance–a pittance for access to this magical place– and is a joy to talk to, willingly answering all your questions about the site, the weather and Ireland in general.

 

Uragh stone circle site with stream

Water flowing down to Lough Cloonee Upper at Uragh stone circle site.

There is a short hike up to the Uragh stone circle, but the path is well maintained and the incline is manageable. As I mentioned earlier, the stone circle sits on private farm land, so don’t be surprised if you have a close encounter with the farm’s hardy sheep.

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Sheep are unimpressed by visitors to the Uragh stone circle.

The stone circle is just over the crest of a hill, rising up against the backdrop of the stunning Kerry mountains and lovely Lough Gleninchaquin ( aka Inchiquin, the second lake in the Uragh nature reserve surrounding the circle)). There are five stones in the small circle, but the most impressive is the huge outlying monolith that is almost 10 feet tall. This stone is aligned radially with the circle on the NE-SW axis.

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Monolith stone at Uragh stone circle is aligned on NE-SW axis of the circle.

The stones in the circle are in good shape for their age (several thousand years), although one of the two portal stones directly across from the monolith is starting to lean.  Numerous smaller stones surround the circle and may have been part of the original design.   There is a shallow sunken spot in the center; I’m not sure if something has been removed from that area or if it is a naturally occurring depression.

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The Uragh stone circle is an important piece of ancient Irish history.

There are many wonderful sights to see any where you go in Ireland, but if you want to immerse yourself in the wild Irish landscape and reach back to ancient Ireland and its peoples, then you must go to the Uragh stone circle in Kerry. Stand next to the stones and watch cloud shadows race across the mountains, feel the strong winds buffet you and whip the waters of the lake, and just let the moment sink into your soul. There’s no souvenir stand at the Uragh stone circle, but you will take away a memory of Ireland that will be with you always, as a touchstone for all your future journeys, physical and spiritual.

For more info on the Uragh stone circle and the surrounding area, click on any of these links:

Megalithic Ireland–has exact coordinates for Uragh, plus a wealth of info on other sites in Ireland

Megalithics.com–info on Irish sites, and ancient sites throughout Britain

Kenmare.ie--official site for the town of Kenmare, with info on local sites

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The Altar Wedge Tomb of Toormore Bay

Aug 7, 2014 by

On our second day in County Cork, we drove down to Mizen Head, and stopped along the way to see the Altar wedge tomb. This late Stone Age tomb is easily accessible from R592, about seven km west of Schull–just pull off into the well-marked parking area, walk a few feet and there it sits, facing out towards Ireland’s lovely Toormore Bay.

Altar wedge tomb

Altar Wedge Tomb on the Mizen Peninsula

The location of the tomb, facing southwest towards Mizen Peak, seems a bit like a Disney exhibit to some visitors because of the tomb’s carefully mown verge, its close proximity to a busy road and its endless stream of visitors. It is very much an ancient sacred site, however, with evidence showing it was used by Stone Age, Bronze Age and early Celtic peoples as a ritual site. Archaeological work in the mid-1990’s found burnt human remains dating back 2000-3000 years ago. Between 1250 and 500 BC, shallow pits were dug inside, probably to hold food offerings, and ancient Iron Age Celts filled a pit inside the tomb with seashells and whale bones, some time between 124 and 224 AD.

 

Altar Wedge tomb

Entrance to Altar Wedge Tomb, on Ireland’s Mizen Peninsula

The rise of Christianity in Ireland brought an end to the ritual use of the Altar wedge tomb site. In the 18th century, the tomb was used as a Mass altar by local priests who had been forbidden by English authorities from conducting Mass in a church, giving rise to the stone structure being called the Altar Tomb.

Altar Wedge Tomb view

View to Mizen Peak and Toormore Bay from the Altar Wedge Tomb in Ireland

If you’re in west Cork, you should consider a trip down to Mizen Head to see the Altar wedge tomb. It’s easy to find, easy to access and the views out to the bay are phenomenal– a marvelously megalithic moment in Irish history, preserved in stone for the ages.

 

For more info on the Altar wedge tomb and other ancient sites in Ireland, try Megalithic Ireland’s website HERE.

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