The Cunnigar

I wrote this last Monday and hoped that the day out would reset things but I seem to be in an ongoing rough spot. Stress levels up to eleven and people triggering me left right and centre. They (all the people) seem to be acting the maggot. Or perhaps it’s me. I can’t be sure. And, unwisely checking my email last night (don’t do this thing!), I know I am looking down the barrel of another stupid week. Hope you enjoy the walk at least.

On Monday I took a trip to the west of the county. I am very familiar with this road from the time of my MA five years ago – five years!I truly cannot believe it. The past accumulates faster and faster now, and the weight of it is the difference between feeling young and feeling old. Back then ( but it was only yesterday!) I split my year between Waterford and Cork to complete an intense MA in Art & Process. As I passed the petrol station where I used to stop for tea and donuts, I thought of my class mate, Breda, who would break her much longer journey to rural Wexford here. Breda, elegant, always soft spoken but precise and clear with it, was a warm and kind woman. An old school feminist with strong beliefs in women’s rights and solidarity, she could be quite fiery when it was demanded. She wanted to be a painter and she worked hard at it and I had no doubt she would follow it to the end. She was hugely supportive and with her help I was able to muddle my hard of hearing way through the discussions that year. It is to my shame I did not keep in contact. She had withdrawn, as had we all initially, shellshocked by the dismantling of our work over that year. Her husband had been ill too, and it had taken a toll on her. I left her in peace, thinking that one day again we would meet and laugh and talk as we had in the tiny, light-filled kitchen over looking the river in Cork. But Breda passed away a couple of months ago and as I drove the familiar route, I felt again the regret over neglecting her and how it was nothing to the hurt of knowing a light had gone out long before it should have.

I turned off outside Dungarvan onto the narrow rural road into An Rinn, a gaeltacht area. A ‘gaeltacht’ is where everyone speaks in gaelic, or Irish. Most of the other gaeltachts are in the west of Ireland. All the road signs are in gaelic too but thankfully here they have english translations. I was in a Donegal gaeltacht last year and trying to navigate to my B&B was a matter of chance as there were no english translations at all. Which is nuts, because if I, with 13 years of gaelic bet into me in school had trouble, how do the tourists manage? Down another even narrower road I eventually came to a car park at the start of The Cunnigar Spit, a spit of land sticking out into Dungarvan Bay.

The Cunnigar comes from the Irish word An Coinigéar, meaning rabbit warren. Rabbits must like the seaside. The dunes at Tramore beach – also a spit of land – are sometimes called The Burrows rabbits that once lived there and of course there is Coney Island in New York, said to be named after the Dutch word for rabbit – “konijn”.

I had never been there before and it has been on my to-do list for some time. Nearly twelve years ago an unfortunate sperm whale beached and died here. Euthanasia was impossible for something so large, as was refloating and it was likely very ill. People came from all over the country to get a look at the dying creature and the crowds became a problem. A man and his children nearly drowned trying to get to see it. Some of the people who did get near, carved their names in its flesh. It died after 24 hours, suffocated under its own weight. Its jawbone was stolen after its death. Incidentally, Moby Dick with Gregory Peck was filmed in Youghal, a mere 15 miles away from here.

The day was bright and cold, the kind of cold you feel in your own jawbones and knuckles but the beach was was empty and the air was calm. This is a great place for bird watching and as I walked and the tide receded I saw oystercatchers, plover, sandpipers, red shank, green shank, whimbrel and close to shore, turnstones, turning stones. There was a huddle of comorants at the head of the three mile spit, leaning together like old umbrellas. A little egret did a fly past. I saw a heron too. Apparently there are usually a lot more of them here.

The whole beach is covered in shells, cockles, some mussels and whelks, and those tiny pink ones like baby’s toenails, as well as bits of crushed crab. The most obvious shells are oyster shells which are strewn everywhere. They are harvested here. They are an odd mixture of pretty and ugly, the folds and frills striped purple remind me of the gypsy skirts that were in fashion when I was a teenager, but they are gnarled and twisted and chipped by circumstance – some even imprinted with the grid of the harvesting frames – those still with their bottom halves intact, gape and leer like toothless old crones, others protrude from the wet sand, like the ghostly, boney hands of shipwrecked sailors.

It was a gift of a day in the middle of a dark winter. A ‘pet day’ some call it here, but I can’t bring myself to use the phrase as I associate the word ‘pet’ with creepy, salacious old farmers trying it on with young girls. I sat for a while with a flask of tea and some lunch. From the beach you can see across to the edges of Dungavan town and beyond, the foothills of the Comeraghs where my granddad once served as a Garda Sergeant. My dad was born up in those mountains too. Funny how it’s taken so long for me to feel I belong here even a little. Further off I could see the snow dusted tops of the Knockmealdown Mountains on the border of Tipperary. We call them mountains but all our mountains are very small compared to mountains everywhere else. They are the best we have though so they’ll have to do.

Unfortunate Barrel Jelly, one of many.

The cloud cover crept in from the west as I walked back to the car. Driving back out of An Rinn, I skirted Dungarvan by the Ring Road which passes over the bay where, visible from this busy road, a surf board is moored. I had heard that a seal would sometimes sit here and sun itself in view of the traffic but during that year of driving up and down (and up and down) to Cork, though I would try and catch a glimpse, I never once saw it. It was just a nice story. But this day, glancing over by pure force of habit, there it was, cool as you like, lounging on the board in the chill bright evening.

I automatically thought of Breda again and laughed. Being Irish means being lumbered with an almighty urge to look for signs everywhere. Would that she were sending me a sign that everything is OK, that she knows she was valued, but that is not how it is. The dead are dead and we are here and soon we won’t be. I drove on, turning onto the coast road, driving the curving narrow road over the bridges over the rivers that bisect the county, trickling and then flowing from the mountains down to the sea. I pulled up to my whale watch point just before sunset to have a look to see if there were any about. There were no whales, alive or dead, but everywhere I looked, there were dolphins. Little groups of them here and there, big ones and small ones, splashing as their dark fins broke the surface, fishing the scarf, that place where the outgoing tide meets the larger sea. Some of them, the young and the bold, could even be seen in the fading light leaping and bounding out of the water for the sheer joy of it all.

For Breda Stacey. Image Ciara Rodgers.

Coast Diary – January 29th

I was wondering last week how I’d keep a coast diary going, I mean how often can you say

‘I saw the sea today. It was nice.”

But I forgot that things have a habit of…happening. There was the news that Russia is planning military manoeuvers off our southwest coast, which will likely be damaging to the ceteaceans, besides being politically – and in all other ways – dubious. Jokes abounded, mostly about the Healy-Raes luring Russian boats onto the rocks to loot the occupants but it is worrying and worth keeping an eye on.

Last week’s post was about how many dolphins are around and on Sunday a common dolphin washed up on Tramore Beach. I guess there was bound to be some casualties. On my way to the beach, our distinctive red and white SAR helicopter, Rescue 117 out of Waterford airport, passed over going at speed. It was heading out the coast where a body, a human one, had washed up. May they rest in peace. Some days after this, we were relieved to find out that Rescue 117 will remain at Waterford airport after it had appeared that base might be omitted from a new contract. It won’t be the last time the SAR will be threatened by penny-pinching civil servants but they’ll always have a fight on their hands. We revere our SAR, not only on our islands and the coast but inland, on the rivers, up the mountains and even in the cities.

Down on the beach, the unfortunate dolphin was a full grown female common dolphin and fairly fresh. Though I don’t normally notice that the animals differ much, she seemed to me to be especially pretty so I later tried a watercolour of her but it doesn’t quite capture her. It was very busy with walkers and I was dreading recording (taking tissue samples, photos and measurements) but I found to my surprise that, as I used to before Covid, I enjoyed talking to the people that asked about the dolphin. My innate misanthropy had flourished with lockdown. I found it hard to understand how many people couldn’t be bothered about social distancing or just having manners – in supermarkets and out and about, especially on the narrow roads. I literally twisted myself out of shape running around people. And I genuinely find it shocking how many couples (and families) can’t do things individually – like shop, or walk single file – are ye afraid your other half will get away if you can’t keep an eye on them? At least it has made me cherish my independence. Anyway it was nice to feel my mojo return. But it didn’t last long as family groups began crowding around. Some people are very blase about letting their kids pat dead animals and their dogs lick them. It was very cold waiting around for people to move on so I got out of there fairly fast with the result I didn’t take great photos.

The next day, Monday, the IWDG asked me for better pictures of certain marks that suggested by-catch i.e. when a dolphin dies because it is caught up in a net by a trawler, dumped on deck and then thrown back in the water. So I went back to the beach but the Council had already removed her the previous evening. They are usually pretty on the ball about this. They are also always very helpful when I need to record a body that has been removed. This time I was actually escorted a few miles inland to where she was lying next to an enormous seal that had also washed up at the weekend. Biggest seal I have ever seen at around six foot and hefty. Poor chap. I got my photos.

The upshot of all that is that I began an online course to become more familiar with marks resulting from by-catch. But without a post mortem, its hard to determine cause of death. It may be she wasn’t the victim of by-catch, but of other, larger dolphins for, besides the regular rake marks on her skin – common dolphins often have the teeth marks of other common dolphins on their flesh – there were wide-set rake marks, so it is possible she was attacked by the larger, more thuggish bottlenose dolphin.

The rest of the week was all about work: covering for sick people, rushing around installing artworks in various locations, writing an article for a deadline, beginning an online University module as well as the by-catch training. I finally got out on the cliff again one evening when the sun peeked out from under the cloud. There were birds and boats but no dolphins. I did see a couple of whale blows though, about 5km off, just briefly before they travelled further out towards the horizon. It was nice.

Coast Diary – January 22nd

On the cliffs

This week was a busy week mostly spent in the city which meant I did not get out to the sea much but still I saw more than I dreamed I would in a life time as child. Monday a single whale – a couple of tall, spiralling blows and a long, black, rolling back letting me know it was a fin whale. And all week there were dolphins nearly every time I took out the binoculars. When I was growing up beside the sea I never saw dolphins. We were not the most salty of seaside dwellers and I never knew how to look for them or that I was supposed to. I thought if they were around they’d be right in your face. Dolphins were totally technicolour and utterly exotic and as far away as you could get from dreary grey-brown Ireland. Most of my assumptions were of course influenced by the TV show Flipper

“Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning, ever so frightening, King of the Sea!!!!’ Maybe the frightening bit is just me because in fact bottlenose dolphins are thugs and would not think twice about beating you up.

But, as I have since found, there are dolphins galore off the Irish coast, predominantly common dolphins but quite a few bottlenose thugs too. I think January is my favourite time of year for whale and dolphin watching especially days like today which was grey, windless, dry and cool – though, not crisp. It was one of those days that had a muffled quality, the light diffused yet lingering, suggestive of all the light still to come so I went down to the cliffs again for a little bit as the light faded. Sure enough there were dolphins scattered about so I lay next to the cross for the boy who died in a fall here many years ago and watched for a while.

When I came back to the house I opened a parcel from my niece and godchild, the exceptional Charlie, who lives on the other side of the world. It was recently her 16th birthday and typically I have yet to send her a present. I usually get my act together by June. She has obviously decided to take matters into her own hands by sending me in a present instead (I like this development!). When I opened the packet out fell a beautiful charm bracelet and the first charm, cavorting among blue and crystal beads, a tiny silver dolphin.

If you see dolphins or whales be sure to report your sighting to the Irish Whale & Dolphin Group (IWDG) here.