I have had a lifelong interest in photography; first picking up a camera [my dad’s] as a schoolboy and taking it on fishing trips to record the catch. I still have some black & white prints of those unfortunate fish. Cycling the lanes of Derbyshire looking for new places to fish or explore, my friends and I acquired an interest in the countryside in all its glory, flora and fauna – a passion that I still have today, never to be lost.
Interestingly, I don’t have any landscape pictures taken at that time, our pictures were all of fish… as using and developing film at Hart’s the chemist in town was expensive!
Later as an engineering apprentice I bought my first SLR camera, a 35mm Canon FTbn, along with a 50mm lens. It cost me a month’s wages! A great camera that I used for years, and still own. I travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles with it, on various motorcycles…I only wish I still had them.
These days I am still using Canon cameras, both full frame and APS-C, and my subject matter is much varied. My favourite subjects are Irish sea and landscapes, however I am interested in everything from weeds to weddings. I do prefer inspiring locations and original subjects to the contemporary, often clichéd images that we see. As well as here, my work can be seen at the Cill Rialaig International Art Gallery, Co. Kerry & Draiocht Art, Adare, Co. Limerick.
Most of the photography here you will notice is Irish based, south west Kerry in particular.
I am lucky enough to have had a long association with Kerry, having returned to Valentia Island on a regular basis for nearly thirty years. Each year I now spend more and more time in the area.
Kerry is the perfect county if you are interested in landscapes and seascapes. With the continually changing Atlantic light, you will never see the same scene twice. Those familiar with the West Coast of the British Isles will understand this. If you are not familiar with it, do visit to experience the extraordinary light first hand.
My favourite times of the year for good light conditions are spring and autumn, when Atlantic showers start to blow in… bringing dark clouds contrasting with low, clean sunlight, which illuminates the landscape, and has to be seen to be believed. It is possible to see more rainbows in a single morning than in a whole year on the UK mainland.
Spring is a great time for photographing flora. The infamous Kerry rain that keeps the countryside so green also provides for an abundance of colour – from the iconic Bog Cotton and Sea Thrift to the mile upon mile of Fuchsia and Montbretia that line the lanes in summer. The variety and sheer number of flowers has to be seen to be believed. This time of year is great for wildlife.
Summer also offers plenty of opportunities to capture a good photograph.
There are numerous festivals, regattas, horse fairs, shows, etc. These events are all packed with numerous photo opportunities. The most famous is probably the Killorglin Puck Fair, which is held in mid-August each year. As with all events in Kerry, it is packed with colourful characters. Landscape photography in summer is better early in the day, particularly around daybreak and the following couple of hours. However, because Kerry is further west, dawn comes half an hour or so later than in the UK. This can make all the difference when you are trying to drag yourself out of bed after the odd Guinness the night before! Correspondingly, sunset is also later; allowing more time for a ‘sundowner’
…and another sunset picture…does the world need any more sunset pictures? I hope so!
Winter time presents its own photographic opportunities; with low light all day, picking out the landscape in fine detail; the usually quiet beaches now completely empty. Huge Atlantic rollers come crashing in, offering some great pictures. Cold weather puts white hats of snow on the mountain tops – these mountains really do look spectacular; the golden hues of the dead dried grasses and heathers look wonderful against a cold blue sky. It is often asked: “How many shades of green are there in Ireland?” I would also like to know how many shades of gold there are on a Kerry mountainside in winter.
Often referred to as Ireland’s best kept secret, the Skelligs are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a trip here is desirable for all Kerry visitors. For photographers it is an absolute must. Projecting high into the Atlantic sky off the South West coast of Ireland, these huge, jagged, torn-teeth like rocks are a truly impressive sight. Anyone with a sense of wonder or imagination is drawn to them, although the trip is not for the faint-hearted or those who suffer from vertigo. Please be warned, you do need to be fit and able to trek to the summit of Skellig Michael, but the rewards are worth it. The stone stairway to the monastery at the top of the island, (where the beehive huts are located) is very hard going and extremely steep. If you have the slightest doubt about your ability to climb them, then do not attempt to do so.
You will see thousands of seabirds including gannets, kittiwakes, guillemots, and razorbills as well as, of course, the famous Skellig Puffins. It is quite common on the way out to see dolphins, the occasional basking shark or even from time to time a whale. I have also seen a sunfish making its ungainly way; flip flopping along the surface, and silvery salmon darting out of one side of the swell and disappearing into the other. It happens so fast the first time you see it that you think you have imagined it.
After the long, and for some slightly concerning climb, the view from the top of Skellig Michael, the largest of the Skellig rocks, is quite simply incredible. If you are not a religious person you could soon become one. The monks settled here in an attempt find a place for uninterrupted prayer and meditation and to get nearer to God. They were successful for six centuries in rocky isolation enduring severe deprivations, wild weather and repeated Viking raids, eventually establishing a new monastery in nearby Ballinskelligs. Why they did so is unclear, it is suggested that climate change is one possibility and within the church another.
I first travelled out to the Skelligs nearly thirty years ago with local boatman Dan McCrohan on board his famous wooden boat ‘Christmas Eve’. I have returned many times since, however that first trip, on a beautiful blue day in June left an impression on me never to be forgotten. Just over a 100 years ago the great Irish writer George Bernard Shaw had a similar experience and wrote to a friend:
Parknasilla Hotel, Sneem, 18th September 1910.
My Dear Jackson,
…Yesterday I left the Kerry coast in an open boat, 33 feet long, propelled by ten men on five oars. These men started on 49 strokes a minute, a rate which I did not believe they could keep up for five minutes. They kept it without slackening half a second for two hours, at the end of which they landed me on the most fantastic and impossible rock in the world: Skellig Michael, or the Great Skellig, where in south west gales the spray knocks stones out of the lighthouse keeper’s house, 160 feet above calm sea level. There is a little Skellig covered with gannets — white with them (and their guano) — covered with screaming crowds of them. The Bass rock is a mere lump in comparison: both the Skelligs are pinnacled, crocketed, spired, arched, caverned, minaretted; and these gothic extravagances are not curiosities of the islands: they are the islands: there is nothing else.
The rest of the cathedral may be under the sea for all I know: there are 90 fathoms by the chart, out of which the Great Skellig rushes up 700 feet so suddenly that you have to go straight up stairs to the top — over 600 steps. And at the top amazing beehives of flat rubble stones, each overlapping the one below until the circle meets in a dome — cells, oratories, churches, and outside them cemeteries, wells, crosses, all clustering like shells on a prodigious rock pinnacle, with precipices sheer down on every hand, and lodged on the projecting stones overhanging the deep huge stone coffins made apparently by giants, and dropped there God knows how.
An incredible, impossible, mad place, which still tempts devotees to make “stations” of every stair landing, and to creep through “Needle’s eyes” at impossible altitudes, and kiss “stones of pain” jutting out 700 feet above the Atlantic.
Most incredible of all, the lighthouse keeper will not take a tip, but sits proud, melancholy and haunted in his kitchen after placing all his pantry at your disposal — will also accompany you down to the desperate little harbour to squeeze the last word out of you before you abandon him, and gives you letters to post like the Flying Dutchman — also his strange address to send newspapers and literature to; for these he will accept.
I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world. And you talk of your Hindhead! Skellig Michael, sir, is the Forehead.
Then back in the dark, without compass, and the moon invisible in the mist, 49 strokes to the minute striking patines of white fire from the Atlantic, spurting across threatening currents, and furious tide races, pursued by terrors, ghosts from Michael, possibilities of the sea rising making every fresh breeze a fresh fright, impossibilities of being quite sure whither we were heading, two hours and a half before us at best, all the rowers wildly imaginative, superstitious, excitable, and apparently super-human in energy and endurance, two women sitting with the impenetrable dignity and quiet comeliness of Italian saints and Irish peasant women silent in their shawls with their hands on the quietest part of the oars (next to the gunwale) like spirit rappers, keeping the pride of the men at the utmost tension, so that every interval of dogged exhaustion and drooping into sleep (the stroke never slackening, though) would be broken by an explosion of “up-up-upkeep her up!” “Up Kerry!”; and the captain of the stroke oar — a stranger imported by ourselves, and possessed by ten devils each with a formidable second wind, would respond with a spurt in which he would, with short yelps of “Double it — double it — double it” almost succeed in doubling it, and send the boat charging through the swell.
Three pound ten, my dear Jackson — six shillings a man — including interest on the price of the boat and wear and tear of ten oars, was what they demanded. They had thrown down their farming implements (they don’t fish on Saturdays) to take to the sea for us at that figure. I hardly feel real again yet.
It does indeed take time to feel ‘real again’ after the sensory overload that is a “trip to the Skelligs”
Some trippers retire immediately to the nearest pub on disembarking from their boat, to try and recount and make sense of what they have just experienced…to take it all in. Others unlucky enough to have chosen a bad weather day, may wish they had not gone out. The wet rough misery of it all.
Do choose a nice day if you can.
These days the oarsmen described by Shaw have been replaced by diesel engines. The boats are now fiberglass, although there are still a couple of wooden classics. The crossing now takes about an hour, and you will not be returning in the dark, like Shaw. You will be impressed like him by the expertise, knowledge and sheer skill of the boatmen who take you out. Do listen to and heed their advice. If you do so, you will be fine.