Glorious Glengarriff and Garinish, the ‘near island’,can indeed be called gems in that they are precious, more precious with every passing year, trenchant survivors of that classical Irish scenery beloved of Victorians, trees and mountains reflected on still brown waters.
Today, in places, it is still without a single house to belie that world where timelessness prevails. The bay islands are the same now as when I first saw them as a child, and in my 20s, and in middle age.
Nothing, from favoured viewpoints, has changed. The scene is silent,captured as in a painting, is as it always was, and was the other Sunday morning when the family and I crossed the still waters to Garinish, and disembarked into a place that, if you like, is magic.
Where else will you find a Japanese garden with flowers and trees one can nowhere else see in our land of cooler weather? To walk the island paths is to be transported into another climate, literally and physically. The paths that morning felt warm, enclosed, almost humid. Even on a lovely August morning, there were no crowds.
The visitors that we met were few and respectful, clearly as intrigued as we were with all around them, and silent as if in a church. One change has been wrought since my childhood visits, the introduction of a pair of white-tailed sea eagles.
They roost on a giant pine tree, statuesque, unafraid and available for viewing from Kevin-Gers’s boat, cruising almost soundlessly on the waters below them, pausing long enough for visitors to enjoy their majesty, so much in keeping with the majesty of the trees, the mist-capped mountains in the distance, the unique island set a unique world.
In channels between islands, bare rocks splashed egg-yolk yellow by lichens stood set in the brown water as if dispensed there to catch the eye, vivid in the soft air. Not even great artists could compose a scene of such romance, such splendour, islands of tall trees, golden rocks, distant mountains, all set as if in aspic, one might say. Or, so said my memory. These were scenes from long ago unchanged, etched in my mind.
We passed low islands where families of seals lolled on rocks, their blubbery bodies comfortable despite the contours. Sometimes, a pup, its baby-down white as egrets’ feathers, would raise its head to watch with soulful eyes as we cruised by. Once, a big, adult lifted its head and tail together, forming a black ring against the silver mirror of the water.
I couldn’t but gawk at every passing work of natural art, the miniatures of guillemot chicks ducking and diving on the mirror surface, the massiveness of forests and mountains. What magnificence had nature created, with what perfect judgement, with what exquisite taste. It’s little wonder,indeed, that ‘divine’ is the adjective holy men reach for. What a fine artist is Nature itself. One can only contemplate its works in awe.
That visitors should call ‘Garinish’ ‘Garnish Island’ is understandable. The three-syllables of ‘Garinish’ don’t roll easily off the tongue. Those who call it Garnish can be forgiven. ‘Garnish’ fits well; after all, it garnishes the bay, further embellishes its ambient beauty.
The Glengarriff eagles moved there from Co Kerry, so we are told by Kevin-Ger, our encyclopaedic guide. Their history is one of tragedy and triumph. Some years they have raised chicks successfully and lost them on others, victims of weather, of mysterious sudden death syndrome. However, a chick was successfully fledged and flew from the big nest in Glengarriff in 2016.
Donal Hickey, my colleague on the Outdoor Page, has comprehensively tracked the progress of the introduced eagles in his articles. In 2007, 15 birds, donated by Norway, were released in Killarney National Park. The last pair to survive in Ireland had bred in Co Mayo in 1912. Then, in 2015, two chicks were hatched in Kerry, one in Killarney and another near Kenmare.
This year, Lough Derg, Co Clare, has two breeding pairs. The first Irish-bred female, herself hatched there, nested and hatched a chick in late April. Although called sea eagles, the species often settle on inland waterways. Before long, our local rivers and lakes may present the sight of an eagle with wingspan of 2.5m, more than 8ft, hunting over the water.
We have 10 or more pairs in the wild, including the Glengarriff pair, and 10 more birds not yet paired. Eagles may become as widespread as they once were. If we have eagles, why not ospreys, also magnificent, also spectacular fish hunters? Why not red kites and goshawks? Bustards have already found their own way here. Clearly, Ireland is welcoming. The poisoning has stopped.
Even as nature continues, everywhere, to be attacked, it is everywhere being revalued.