We live in Ireland’s Lake District near two enormous bodies of water – Lough Mask and Lough Corrib. There is also Lough Coolin a short hike from our house up Mount Gable. The mountain itself is a soggy giant covered in bell heather and bog. There is so much fresh water around, above and below and so little land to absorb it it seems.
But even though we are literally surrounded by water, there are days when I long to see the Ocean, the craggy and dramatic Atlantic coast.
Yesterday we went to my favourite village of Roundstone. It’s one of those places that has the best of everything. My favourite pub, O’Dowd’s, serves the best lobster and mussels I’ve ever tried. These come fresh from the tiny cute harbour opposite, which itself is a treat for the eye with its colourful nets, ropes, lobster pots, and electric pink sea boyes.
Errisbeg hill towers above the village and stunning beaches of Gorteen and Dog’s Bay.
The beaches are pure white sand punctuated by turquoise ocean on one side and muirbheach or machair, a smooth carpet of grass kept trimmed by grazing, based on densely compacted sand, on the other.
As you walk on the beach you are unaware that you are strolling the length of a vast necropolis of dead organisms. Tim Robinson in Connemara describes that the sand at Gorteen and Dog’s Bay consists of shards of mollusc shells and exoskeletons of the single-celled sea-creatures called foraminifera.
Foraminifera, or forams, when alive build a unique shell and under the microscope they look just amazing. Of course forams are only visible under a microscope, but each one would have had its own life-history, defined by its DNA.
West of Ireland has so many types of sand. A few weeks ago we went to Corral beach near a small settlement of An Cheathrú Rua to the west of Galway city. Here the beach was covered in tiny multicoloured coral fragments. When picked up they felt like bones or something entirely edible like a crunchy breakfast cereal.
The wind-swept Gorteen beach was dramatic and wild. The waves made amazing patterns in the sand that looked like stepping stones above tiny rivers that hurried back to the ocean.
There were some unexpected finds too.
After our walk we ate scones with butter and drank orange juice at a picnic table in the carpark. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but later I recalled reading in Connemara about “soot blackened ‘soil horizons’” in the sand banks above the beach. What Tim Robinson refers to are blackish layers of coal and shell middens – periwinkles, dogwhelks, mussels and limpets in the dunes above the beach. These are remains of meals from Neolithic people who gathered here to enjoy fruits of the sea together, a veritable “kitchen refuse” as he calls it in the book.
It really is amazing, I think, that there we were sitting, eating our scones enjoying the views, unaware that thousand of years ago humans just like us did exactly the same, only their lunches were more interesting, something Bear Grylls would have loved to sample.
These layers in the dunes above Gorteen beach have sadly eroded from winter storms and constant stream of beach goers like myself, but I still remember them being visible during our last visit in the summer of 2015.
Tim Robinson also writes that there is evidence that in Ireland dogwhelk (Nucella lapillus) were used as a source of dye similar to the way Murex shell was a source of famous Tyrian purple in the past. Large concentrations of dogwhelk shell found in dune systems in the west of Ireland may suggest a whole dogwhelk dye industry in the early Christian times. This is what the tiny things look like:
Of course it would be unimaginable to sacrifice thousands of dogwhelks for a drop of dye these days. But molluscs are not the only source of colour on the coast. There is also colourful plastic items and some blend in rather well, they almost look beautiful.
Groteen is anglicised for Irish Goirtín, meaning ‘small field’, which perhaps refers to the original use of machair near the ocean as grazing commonage and for growing potatoes. You can still see potato ridges from pre-famine Ireland.
As I walked on the beach it was easy to forget the past, all these thousands of years of human impact on this short stretch of coast were buried or will be buried eventually under the sand. Rain swept across sandunes and wind drove tiny sanderlings away from water, the whole scene felt untamed and unaffected by our presence. This is probably why I love coming here – to clear my head and to refocus my attention on what is under my feet.