Nature Notebook




The tall rowan at Gallan EIle is heavy with red berries at the moment. It’s Irish name caorthann comes from caor which means both a berry and a blazing flame.

Connected with witchcraft from ancient times the name rowan is said to derive from the norse word runa meaning a charm. The tree was often planted ouside houses and in churchyards to ward off witches.

It’s alternative name of mountain ash is probably because it grows higher up mountain-sides than any other native tree, not infrequently clinging to a rock face after sprouting in a crevice from seed dropped by a bird.

The red rowan berries are made into a jelly that is eaten with game. Rich in vitamin C they were once made into a drink to prevent scurvy. Bird-catchers once used the berries as bait to traps to catch thrushes, red-wings and field fares.

The rowan’s strong, flexible, yellow-grey wood was once widely used for making tool handles and small carved objects, and was sometimes used instead of yew for making long-bows.

At the moment our uplands are at their most colourful with whole strertches of mountain-side cloaked in the royal purple of ling heather in full bloom, as shown here on Mangerton mountain.

The heather is named from the Anglo-Saxon meaning ‘fire’, and remembers the importance of heather as a fuel in earlier times.

The origin of its botanical name Calluna comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to brush’. Stems of heather were tied together to make brushes and brooms. Stems were also woven into baskets, and heather was used for thatching and as a bedding material.

Heather is evergreen and provides food for many wildlife. The tender young shoots are the main food of red grouse. Birds eat their ripe seed, and the flowers provide nectar from which bees much sought after honey.

These days when the ling heather flower is strongest the bell heather blossom is fading. But the bell catches the eye first because of its deeper shade of purple.

Frank Lewis

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In the day of all the sunshine a week ago it was great to jump into Muckross lake at Dundag. There are those who say fresh water is never as good as salt. But Dundag is closer, there are no jelly fish, no danger of being dragged out by currents, here it is sandy underfoot and the water is warm … and where else could you get a setting like that – the mountain amphitheatre, the weather sculpted limestone caves and the rich cloak of woodland.

After following in the footsteps of Pat Moore in Asdee (Nature Notebook 18 7 ‘17) I had promised we would swim on Littor Beach but we went on to Ballybunion. Spectacularly colourful cliffs and great expanses of silver beach. But it was at low tide and the prominent red flags really did mean it was dangerous, the drag of the tide was frightening. Swim in Ballybunion – but not at low tide. And luxuriate in the soothing mineral rich experience of a seawood bath.

In Muckross last Saturday with four and three quarter year old grandaughter Sarah and American nephew Brian of more advanced years. The richness of the blossoms in the rock and water gardens is now at its most luxuriant.

The boat trip from the Dundag boathouse is a special experience. Across one of our deepest lakes under the shadow of Torc mountain. Refreshing soup and sandwich in Dinis and home by the endlessly varied limestone shore that would delight and depress any sculptor. A fuller notebook on all of this in the coming weeks.

Three or four swims at high tide on Banna in recent weeks the exhiliration of being pounded by great waves is always more enjoyable, and safer, if you are well within your own depth.

– Frank Lewis

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In the Footsteps of Pat Moore in Asdee


Last Sunday we spent most of six hours in the footsteps of a special priest, Pat Moore, in his native Asdee on the banks of the Shannon Estuary.   You can  hear the whole story on Radio Kerry – live on next Saturday week (July 29) from 9 to 11am and on podcast ( from the following Tuesday or Wednesday.

We began in a farmyard where the Irish Dail of the modern era had their first meeting.  Then, in the centre of the Jack Walsh Memorial Park, we heard of Asdee’s sporting heroes – in gaelic football, soccer, handball.
How St Eoin’s Well moved because of a horse, St Senan banned all women from Scattery Island and how an Asdee radio set turned up in Birmingham 50 years later.

The grandfather of the famous outlaw Jesse James emigrated from Asdee.  We heard how cursing saved a young Asdee curser and local musicians played Irish airs.  At the Community Centre  we heard of efforts to revitalise Asdee and the Drama Group dramatised a hilarious tale involving the Pension Officer.
At the fairy fort on Pat Moore’s family farm we heard of the Asdee Italian district and the strange goings on of Moloney at the Wake.
On the 6 mile Beale/Littor beach  where in famine time there was food but those with land on the beach were crippled by rates and a poem about the attractions of Caislean Easa Dui/The Castle by the Black Waterfall – that gave Asdee its name.
The huge panorama of the Shannon estuary fron Cnoc an Fhomhair, where Pat Moore celebrated Easter Sunday Dawn masses there was a German arms dump in 1914 and the song says
We know you’ll like the way we live 
In the village of Asdee
– Frank Lewis
Photos by Kerry Lewis
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Nature Notebook 4 July 2017/American Independence Day

– & another for amorous ladies!
The Devil was so furious at the success of the Devil’s bit scabious in curing all sorts of ailments that he bit away part of the root, hoping to put an end to its good works. The legend says this left the plant with the abruptly shortened root it has today.
But the Devil’s bit scabious continued to cure. Nicholas Culpeper, the 17th century herbalist, prescribed a concoction made from the boiled root for snake-bite, swollen throats, wounds and the plague.
In Ireland it was believed that cows that ate a lot of the Devil’s bit scabious produced very creamy milk. It was also believed that it was an important ingredient in a potion to cure the ‘evil eye’ and could be used to cure afflictions caused by magic. A woman was cured of a crooked lip caused by enchantment. The cure involved taking an infusion of nine plants boiled in urine!
Legend tells of the flat white flower-heads of the yarrow flower being used to cure wounds made by iron weapons. In this country it was also used to drive away evil and sickness; to increase physical attractiveness; and protect people from being hurt by the opposite sex.
In an old Irish chant a woman says: ‘I will pick the green yarrow that my figure may be fuller … that my voice will be sweeter … that my lips will be like the juice of the strawberry … I shall wound every man, but no man shall harm me.’
The three main rooms in Killarney House were officially opened yesterday. The formal gardens are at their best now. The endless herbaceous border – the longest in Ireland – the red and blue of the formal beds leading to the great variety of flowers in the round centerpiece. The gardens have matured impressively in twelve months.
In the constant turnover of new growth, in this special year of blossom, the last of the foxgloves, bog cotton and heath orchids can still be seen.
Fitzgerald’s Stadium with Tomies, Shehy and Purple Mountains
Kerry won the Munster gaelic football championship again in a game that lacked edge – but Killarney’s Fitzgerald Stadium’s mountain backdrop compensated. On this American Independence day the 7am ‘Dawn Chorus’ Shire Male Choir singing of the Star–Spangled Banner slipped my mind but there is the great parade around town at 8 and spectacular fireworks after 11.
– Frank Lewis


and the wonders of bog asphodel & honeysuckle

If a father-to-be ate the orchid’s large tuber the child would be a boy. If the mother ate the small tuber it would be a girl. According to Greek and Donegal mythology.

I have never seen so many orchids in bloom on the Mangerton commonage. In one area after getting to two hundred I decided counting was hopeless.

The shape of the orchid – a single erect stem over two round tubers – explains the Irish name Magairlin/male testicles. In Kerry and Cork the tuberous roots were considered a very effective love charm. Young girls made a powder from the roots and gave it to the young man of their fancy so he would marry them.

But please do not pick the orchids. The earliest unprecedented group that I saw this year on top of a ditch disappeared over night. Perhaps picked by little fingers as animals do not appear to eat them. Then the pleasure of these unique flowers was denied to so many others passing up Mangerton Road.

In ‘Hamlet’ Shakespeare included orchids among the ‘fantastic garlands’ draped on the drowned body of Ophelia. Orchids were also said to grow beside the Cross. The spots on its leaves have been explained as drops of blood which fell from Christ when he was crucified.

Record numbers of the star-like, brilliant orangey yellow flowers of the bog asphodel shine out on the boggy commonage at the moment.

In earlier centuries women used the asphodel to dye their hair.

The second part of the plant’s botanical name ‘ossifragum’ means ‘bone-breaking’. It was believed bog asphodel caused brittleness of the bones in sheep that ate it. This has been shown to be untrue. It is probable that the bone weakness is caused by the absence of mineral salts in the soil where the plant grows.

At dusk these evenings at the foot of Mangerton the scent of honeysuckle/woodbine perfumes the air. Samuel Pepys, the 17th century diarist, called it ‘the trumpet flower’ whose bugles ‘blow scent instead of sound’.

Herbalists used its flowers in potions for headaches, lung diseases and asthma.

There is an old superstition that if honeysuckle is brought into the house, a wedding will follow, and that its flowers placed in a girl’s bedroom will bring her dreams of love.

In the coming days I will tell you about the wonders of the Devil’s Bit Scabious, the miracles of Yarrow, black medick that is not black and has nothing to do with medicine and of the last of the record blooming of foxgloves!

– Frank Lewis
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On Sunday and Monday I wandered around the stunning rose garden in Tralee town park,  had a tour of the park’s worldwide tree collection and swam twice in the refreshing waters through rolling breakers on Banna beach.
By the time you have read this I hope to have had another swim on the safe, sandy shore of Muckross Lake at Dundag.   Torc mountain rising sheer to left/south and the Tomies/Glena/Purple ridge to the west.   Here five minutes drive from Gallan Eile is there a swimming setting like it anywhere?
On Sunday we walked around the Rose Garden in Tralee Town Park.  But I was so impressed by the huge selection of roses, in magnificent full bloom at the moment, that early Monday I went back and spent a further hour savouring the sights and scents.
In these weeks before the International Rose of Tralee Festival attracts young women from all over the world to compete for the 2017 title where ‘it was not her beauty alone that won me’.
The words of the song tell the story
The pale moon was rising above the green mountain,
The sun was declining beneath the blue sea;
When I strayed with my love to the pure crystal fountain,
That stands in the beautiful Vale of Tralee.
She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer,
Yet ’twas not her beauty alone that won me;
Oh no, ’twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning,
That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.
The cool shades of evening their mantle were spreading,
And Mary all smiling was listening to me;
The moon through the valley her pale rays was shedding,
When I won the heart of the Rose of Tralee.
Though lovely and fair as the Rose of the summer,
Yet ’twas not her beauty alone that won me;
Oh no, ’twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning,
That made me love Mary the Rose of Tralee.
In the far fields of India, ‘mid war’s dreadful thunders,
Her voice was a solace and comfort to me,
But the chill hand of death has now rent us asunder,
I’m lonely tonight for the Rose of Tralee.
She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer,
Yet ’twas not her beauty alone that won me;
Oh no, ’twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning,
That made me love Mary,The Rose of Tralee [2]
– Frank Lewis
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On Wednesday last (June 7) at lunchtime there were orchids in bloom at every turn of the road on Ross Island, a place that always has some new surprise.

Wild Irish red deer in the garden at Gallan Eile are a mixed blessing. Evidence of a 10,000 year heritage. There on the front lawn at 5.54 on Friday morning. Any advice would be welcome on how to fill and successfully seed the deep holes they left in the banks.

The foxgloves, with Mangerton mountain and a blue sky in the background, looked their most majestic on Saturday morning at 7.30.

Further on up through the woods evidence of the inexorable advance of rhododendron. Magnificent now with their regal, football-size, blossoms but as they advance they threaten all other flora.

Just before 9 the rhododendron purple added to the great panorama over Middle and Lower Lakes.

On the way back the number of dead larch cause pause for thought.

The dozens, maybe hundreds, of orchids in the grassy break in the woods with Torc Mountain in the background.

On Sunday it was overcast but there was no rain as we walked from Gallan Eile through the woods the flow in Torc Waterfall was already easing off. The circuit along lake shore via Muckross House – and lunch – on the original Queen’s drive to Gallan Eile.

– Frank Lewis

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BLOSSOM BONANZA – Spring most rampant

The upland bluebells are still in full vigorous bloom, as here at Gallan Eile between woodland and mountain


Cloud covers the gradually greening Stoompa mountain and Horses Glen … across Mangerton commonage. In the evening late Spring light the green field in the wood glade sparkles

Now nature is at its most active.  Something new is in bloom every day.  And the clarity in the late morning and early evening further highlights this sense of being alive.

The bog cotton first showed its showy white head about a week ago.  In earlier times it was used to stuff pillows and mattresses and was renewed annually.

The Middle Lake, from Dundag to Devil’s Island, with a mountain backdrop of Mangerton, Torc, Crohane and the Paps
Torc mountain falls sheerly into the Middle Lake. It is showing the first of its greening, with the purple blotches of rhododendron blossom
The richness and intensity of the blossoms as big as footballs.  Is it any wonder 19th century plant collectors were so taken by it.  How could they realise how pervasive, even pernicious, it would become?
With its mountain backdrop south and west and wood surround north and east, the safe, gradually deepening, sandy beach at Dundag is the Killarney swimming place. Noah can’t wait to go back and swim there again!

– Frank Lewis

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Nature Notebook 29 May 2017


At the moment 262 foxgloves are in full bloom along the western or lakeside stone boundary at Gallan Eile.  Four years ago Siubhan counted 98

The plant makes a demanding statement. Look at me!

Four and a half year old Sarah also demands attention!

Each stem can have between 20 and 80 flowers.

An avenue of honour or line of protection, or celebration of welcome with individual foxgloves up to two meters tall.

Our boundary is six foot high, with stones gathered from rough land retaining precious soil.

In the 18th century the recently introduced potato flourished in these high mountain paddocks.

Between the mid eighteen and nineteenth centuries Ireland’s population doubled forcing cultivation of these marginal areas.

By the mid nineteenth century eighty percent of the people of Kerry lived in one roomed mud cabins and survived on a diet of three meals of potatoes a day.  For the month of July, between potato crops, they lived on cabbage.

When the potato was wiped out by a fungal disease in the mid 19th century Ireland lost up to a quarter of its population.  Over a million people died of starvation and a similar number emigrated to Britain, the US and Australia.

It is unlikely the foxglove got its name from the belief that its bell-shaped flower made suitable gloves for foxes.

It is suggested the name might come from the Anglo-Saxon gliew – a musical instrument with many small bells – and fox could be a corruption of ‘folks’ meaning the ‘little folk’, or fairies. This might explain why I grew up calling foxgloves ‘fairy bells’?

The foxglove is very poisonous. It can be used to produce the drug Digitalis which in very small doses is used to treat heart complaints.

– Frank Lewis

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Is this the oldest yew in Killarney?  It is said yew can ‘grow for a thousand years, mature for a thousand years and is a thousand years dying’ and then it regenerates from its roots.  Earlier generations were very wise in choosing to plant yew in graveyards as a symbol of life.  In a sense it is everlasting, head gardener from Garnish Island, near Sneem, Seamus Galvin, told us.

It was 5.20 last Sunday morning (April 23), an hour before sunrise, as we stood around this witness of past millennia. We were out to hear that very special feature of nature, the dawn chorus, which is at its height an hour before the sun rises. Within minutes the first birds were beginning to sing, perhaps woken by our torches.

On the track over Hyde’s Bay there are several sets of crumbling steps that might have been developed as part of the landscaping of the two great Killarney estates in preparation for the visit of Queen Victoria in 1861.

Now we were beginning to see the ghostly outline of lake, headland, island and mountain. The bird song got stronger and stronger.

Acres and acres and acres of beech woods carpeted with the white wild garlic flower which now is in full bloom. Leaf, flower and root of this indicator of ancient woodland can be eaten.

All morning the birds sang. Story teller and initiator of the Kerry Camino Mikey O’Donnell told of finding old birds’ eggs collections in attics.

Distinctive ‘JG 1940’ and decorative ‘MTM’ carved into the smooth grey bark of big beech trees, remember a time when most boys – and many men – cut out their initials – particularly at a stage in life when they were linked amorously to another.

Killarney Walks guide Michael O’Connor told of the mining that went on on Ross island from 4,500 years ago and at its most extensive in late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Library point is named for the layered rock underneath, that resembles a collapsed line of books. Killaney boatman Donal ‘Ducks’ O’Donoghue swears boatmen see the leaves of the books move in strong wind.

From Library Point 23-acre Innisfallen Island that has the extensive remains of a monastery that was a famous centre of learning, where the oldest contemporary account of the history of Munster was written. The Annals of Innisfallen are now in the Bodlian Library in Oxford. The cone-shaped O’Donoghue’s Prison where it is said that the chieftain of Ross Castle chained his naked prisoners.

Donal remembered with feeling the 28 miles of rowing of earlier years – to get the punch line you will have to listen to Saturday’s radio programme!!

Wild garlic soup and wild garlic pesto bread prepared by James Coffey, the executive chef at the Park Hotel in Kenmare, revived us on Sunday morning under the two great Monkey Puzzle trees at he Earl of Kenmare’s picnic place on Ross Bay. Imagine Cromwellian stories sailing by here 365 years ago. 13 year old Kerrill Healy from the Killarney School of Music on the Killarney whistle played the plaintive ‘Caoine Ui Dhomhnaill’.

Around the corner from Lord Kenmare’s picnic place the most extensive carpets of wild garlic is in full bloom. This extends from Ross Bay to the western shore of the Library Point headland.

Our final stop last Sunday morning was in swamp woodland. Alder and sally are the ideal woods for sluices and other underwater structures. The yellow wild iris will blossom shortly.

After three hours we finished our walk with Killarney School of Music’s Padraig Buckley and 17 year old Fiona Fell on Killarney Whistle with the chirpy ‘Maxwell’s Bonnet’.

Frank Lewis’s dawn chorus walk in wild garlic woods on the Library Point headland on Ross Island in Killarney National Park will be broadcast on Radio Kerry this Saturday morning – April 29, from 9 to 11 – on 97fm, or live on
It will also be available on podcast  ( from May 2 or 3.

– Frank Lewis


In the bluebell woods in Muckross last Sunday afternoon 4 year old Sarah Ryan