This poem is in memory of Martin Colfer. Skipper of the Rebecca C, who often took me out to search for the whales off the Hook Head in County Wexford. The video was shot at a reading of this in The Troubadour London, during an evening organised by Coffee House Poetry.
Dolphins danced in the harbour that day
in memoriam Martin Colfer, Skipper of the Rebecca C
It’s not often you get a chance to get so close to whales, dolphins or even seals in their natural habitats. Depending on where you live it could be the result of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, or something completely unexpected.
For others it could be relatively common, something almost unnoticed. I posted a poem, “The Tholsel, Kilkenny”, here on that very topic, one person’s exotic being another’s normal.
This was my response to a painting by Paul Henry RHA of the ancient Toll House (Tholsel) in my native Kilkenny City, Ireland. The first time I saw this I was astonished that a sight as familiar to me as a wristwatch could be seen and painted in such a beautiful way by someone from elsewhere. The poem includes the couplet
“So my familiar seems exotic to you,
as my exotic is your familiar too”
Perhaps this is an uncommon call to be prepared for astonishment in a wonderful world.
Searching for ‘whale watching tours’ will direct you to various scattered locations such as Alaska, California, Boston, Hawaii. Perhaps other evocative names appeal to you? How about Madagascar, Newfoundland, Vancouver Madagascar? Ireland will be familiar to some, distant and imagined to others.
Walk down the street where I live and you will come to a busy fishing harbour. Trawlers come and go, fish are offloaded and truck heavily-laden pass through the village carrying the haul to the next destination. Two piers make up the harbour. The outer one is larger and is built in deeper water. The inner pier creates a small harbour generally used by the smaller craft, including charter boats.
‘The Rebecca C’ is a catamaran which is moored in our inner harbour when it is not at sea or berthed in similar ports along the coast. She has a yellow hull, white deck and cabin and is skippered by Martin Colfer. In season ‘The Rebecca C’ is chartered by angling groups who spend time at sea pursuing their passion.
There is another season in Martin’s work. He is also a leading light in the Whale Watching World. Nature enthusiasts, TV crews, photographers, both professional and amateur, pursue their prey with his help, out beyond the Hook Head Lighthouse.
January and February seem to be the best months to catch sight of the migrating whales. Travelling out towards likely viewing sites you can often pass through large pods of dolphins or be watched by curious seals
One trip in 2016 brought us through a pod of dolphins so large we gave up trying to count beyond a hundred. What was particularly touching that day was that they seemed to be clustered in family groups, trios mainly of mother, child and father. Playful animals that they are it is easy watch them race the boat, chase each other towards or sometimes simply showing off. We have even seen individual fish skimming along beside us, escaping from their pursuers.
Without a doubt the most memorable experience to date has been meeting a Humpback Whale in January 2017. We were so close not only could we hear her breathing but even see the droplets of water falling from her body, her flukes, as she disappeared into her other home in the depths below. Gone for now, out of sight, but lingering in our memory for a long time to come.
Two roads lead out of Arthurstown. On my immediate left the R733 leads Northwards towards New Ross. Rejecting that choice I remained true to my own tale and followed the same road Southwards towards my next stop, Duncannon. Staying with the shoreline I came to a sharp left turn and the road turned it’s back on the sea for a while and climbed steeply inland.
Whether it was the time of day or the time of year I couldn’t say but Arthurstown was uncannily quiet on this occasion. Even the smokers’ terrace outside the pub was deserted. Of course it was still relatively early in the day, the sun not yet above the yard arm. Still, not even the morning coffee drinking smokers were out and about. The gardens were all neat and tidy but it was as if invisible hands tended them. The gleaming windows might well have been that modern marvel, the self cleaning glass.
Arthurstown I had to myself. Such traffic as there was came in almost measurable bursts, pulsing past to the rhythm of the ferry’s coming and goings.
This suited me because as I left the village, climbing uphill, I was running out of well defined roadside path. For the walker, the verges of our roads often leave a lot to be desired. It is important to be alert at all times to following traffic. This is especially so where the scope for stepping off the road is limited. Sometimes there can be a lovely grass verge, wide and soft. Other times there might only be an overgrown drain, brambles and thistles further deterrents to usage.
Worst of all is a stone wall with nothing between the the foot of the wall and the edge of the road. Luckily my side of the road had an overgrown grass margin, but thistle free. At the sound of an approaching vehicle I was free to step aside in safety.
The roadside wall that stretched all the way to the summit of the hill was across the road from me. Because of the turn in the road my direction was inland, away from the coast. My aim was to follow the coastline of Wexford as closely as I could. I would use the markers for the Slí Charmain, the long distance trail, as I needed, but my plan was to walk shoreline and cliff top as much as possible. Here I was on the first leg of the journey and already diversions had set in.
The little yellow man with his walking stick and knapsack on the wooden markers indicating the route quite clearly said, “follow the road!” I would have loved to cross the road and climb the wall, seeking for a direct route, as the seagull flies, to the Fort at Duncannon.
Not only did the wall seem too high for me, but my old friend, the Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 map, seemed to suggest that Private Property, in the form of fine Estate Parkland and matching Great House, lay in the way. Tempted as I was to find a way in, to cross the grounds, to somehow come out the other side, I decided not to. I passed on.
There was a small opening, a break, in the Estate Wall and glancing in I saw to my delight a fine row of traditional style cottages. At the entrance to this holiday home development someone had lovingly and thoughtfully preserved and maintained an old style village pump. Between the primary colours in strong gloss paint on the wooden doors and windows and the stark black and white of the pump and it’s horse trough, I was able to take a series of photographs, both coloured and monochrome. Again, the pause left me feeling refreshed and ready to move on.
The R733 then took me the rest of the steep climb to a “T”-Junction where a sharp right turned back parallel to the coast and led on to Duncannon. The gradient of the slope had a different feel on foot compared to zooming uphill in a car with the only effort required being the change of gears. The different sense of the length of the road I was familiar with but this gradient difference I hadn’t thought much about. The end result was a much slower climb than I had anticipated, but what of that? Time was my own and as the old folk used to say, “the man who made Time made plenty of it!”
For me it meant there was time to look through gaps in the hedges on my left, time to admire the horses grazing in the sunshine flooding the fields beyond. I could even take in the freshness of the newly emerging leaves on old mature trees. It was a beautiful day to be out on the road when, as Thomas Hardy put it, “the May month flaps it’s glad green leaves like wings.”
There was a sweet source of strength in the air I breathed and therefore it did not feel long until I had climbed the last few yards. My way now turned south and was thankfully level again.
Leaving the R733 behind my way turned on to one of the Ordnance Survey’s yellow coded roads. These can vary from well surfaced, clearly marked roads to something just above the level of ancient trackways covered over with a sprinkling of tar and chippings.
It hardly seems worthwhile to me to engage in long distance walking without some visual rewards. It doesn’t matter if these are the unexpected hidden gems or the awesome panoramic vistas. All have their charms, above all when given the time to appreciate their charms.
Even as I turned off the R733 I took the time to admire an old Edwardian Post Box set in a wall, almost overgrown with old ivy and young honeysuckle. Painted green, rather than Imperial red, on Independence, such relics of Monarchy are still to be seen and have now acquired the status of historical objects, worthy of conservation in their own right.
The level ground made progress easier and before long the road dipped slightly, trees parted and the wider estuary lay visible again. As always the Hook Lighthouse was the focus of the scene, still distant but becoming sharper now.
I passed by more unexpected pleasures and scenes unnoticed in any previous drive-by. On my left, the inland side of the road, I came across All-Saints Church, a little gem with neatly kept grounds, nestling among old pine trees. I couldn’t recall noticing it before yet here I was, leaning on the old gate and admiring the stone work, the fine carvings, the well-made quoins and the mellow grey of the weathered slates.
A little further on there was a private road on the right hand, seaward side. This led to yet another lighthouse, at Blackhill. Finally I was taking the time to truly consider this beautiful old Eighteenth Century Lighthouse with attached keepers dwelling. Numerous photographs in various styles were calling to me and indulged in. The road proffered different angles and I took advantage of them all.
Another indulgence I allowed myself was to consider, not for the first time, what it would be like to purchase and live in this amazing building with incredible seaward views. Twice in my memory the Lighthouse has been for sale and alas, twice I could not buy, but I could imagine myself in a curved wall room typing these words with a view of the passing ships by way of distraction. Sometimes, we can but dream.
The road levels again and for a time there are only fields between towards the sea. The Council’s Local Area Plan for Duncannon calls for that stretch of road to be held clear of development and the view to remain as it is now. I agree heartily, enjoy and walk on.
Passing by the local school, St. Oliver’s and the Star of the Sea Church I catch glimpses of the day’s destination, the Fort at Duncannon. The shipping channel sweeps in close and in olden times brought all ships passing by within range of the Fort’s guns. Underwater Archaeologists have found the cannon on the sea bed of a Cromwellian ship sunk by fire from the Confederates of Kilkenny when the held the fort in the 1640’s. That seems a neat symmetrical end for a days journey that began in the Confederate Capital and ends at one of their strategic fortifications.
Following the road downhill the pace seems to quicken and before much longer I am sitting on the se wall overlooking the magnificent beach . If ever a community made use of a natural resource it can be seen here. They boast the only St. Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland held on beach. Later in the year there follow in succession a Military Re-enactment, a Sand Sculpture weekend, a Kite Surfing Championship and all the time, lines of cars grace the beach in fine weather.
Taking off my knapsack I read the display board beside and am delighted to have ended this first leg beside a little way-marker with my yellow painted friend pointing in two directions, back the way I had come and onwards, to the next stage of my travels