07 October 2017

Patrick Comerford goes Blackberry picking

Ripening blackberries above the rectory garden walls in Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

This full-page feature is published in the October 2017 edition of Newslink, the magazine of the Church of Ireland United Dioceses of Limerik, Killaloe and Ardfert (p. 18). It is based on an earlier posting published on this blog on 18 September 2017:

Patrick Comerford goes Blackberry picking

The blackberries are ripening in the fields in the glebe land behind and beside the Rectory in Askeaton. Sunday afternoon [17 September 2017] was almost like a summer’s day, with warm, bright sunshine and blue skies. After two church services – in Saint Mary’s, Askeaton, and Saint Brendan’s, Kilnaughtin – two of us went picking blackberries in the warm autumn sunshine. They are growing high on the other sides of the walls of the rectory garden, and many of them are now in full fruit, plump, juicy and ready for eating.

I was surprised earlier this summer when I was at High Leigh in Hoddesdon for the USPG conference, and noticed during my walks in the countryside that the blackberries were already ripening at that early stage on the laneways and by the roadside in East Anglia. But as we were picking the blackberries yesterday, I was reminded of childhood days at this time of the year in the 1950s or the 1960s, picking blackberries in the laneways and narrow roads close to my grandmother’s farm outside Cappoquin, Co Waterford, and the childhood joys that stayed with me as an adult in more recent years picking blackberrries before Michaelmas and the end of the blackberry-picking season in Kilcoole or Greystones in Co Wicklow, or along Cross in Hand Lane in Lichfield.

I was reminded too of the poem ‘Blackberry-Picking’, written in the 1960s by the late Seamus Heaney for Philip Hobsbaum.

by Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Source: Death of a Naturalist (1966)

How far west is the most
westerly point in Europe?

The Cross at Slea Head, Co Kerry … but is this the most westerly place in Europe? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

When I was a teenager and spending a summer in Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry, I was told that the Skelligs Rocks off the Kerry coast formed the most westerly point in Europe and that it was the next stop before America.

Later, when we spent many summer weekends and weeks on Achill Island, Co Mayo, we heard the islanders boast that Achill was not only Ireland’s largest offshore island but also the most westerly point in Ireland and the next parish to America.

Mayo and Kerry are good at setting up contests like this. After all, John Millington Synge set his play, The Playboy of the Western World (1907) in Co Mayo, but he wrote it after visiting the Blasket Islands, and the movie was filmed in 1962 on the Dingle Peninsula.

Then, as we headed west along the Dingle Peninsula in a family group two weeks ago, we were told that Dingle was the westerly town in Europe, and that a point on Slea Head, facing the Blasket Islands was the most westerly point in Europe.

Most of the tourists on the bus risked life and limb as they hopped off at a blind twist on the road to be photographed beneath a wayside crucifix, willing apparently to risk their own deaths to be photographed at the point the bus guide told them was Europe’s most westerly point.

Where was my certificate to prove I was here?

Google Maps were telling me there were a few places further one that jutted out a little further into the Atlantic, albeit by a metre, or a kilometre, or a fraction of something.

Is Cabo de Roca at the most westerly end of Europe? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Is the territory of Saint Pierre and Miquelon part of Europe? It is, after all, part of French sovereign territory. The Overseas Collectivity of Saint Pierre and Miquelon is in the north-west Atlantic, near the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, but uses the Euro as its currency.

Guadeloupe is an insular region of France in the Leeward Islands, part of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean. Administratively, it is an overseas region consisting of a single overseas department, and the largest and most populous EU territory in North America. It too uses the Euro.

But Iceland is also European, even though it is not a member of the European Union, while Greenland, which may be part of the North American continental land mass, is still technically part of Denmark.

Is Greenland in Europe or in North America?

The other claimants to the status of the most westerly extreme of the European continent include Monchique Islet in the Azores Islands, which is part of Portugal, and could be considered part of Europe, although it sits on the North American Plate. The Capelinhos Volcano on Faial Island is also in the Azores Islands, but claims to be the westernmost point of the Eurasian Plate above sea level.

I suppose it all depends on how you define the European continent.

It must be a peculiar part of speech in both England and Ireland to speak of the ‘Continent’ or ‘Continental Europe’ as a landmass that includes all of Europe apart from the islands of Britain and Ireland, but including islands that are part of Spain, Italy, Greece and the Swedish archipelago, while excluding the Azores and French islands in places far flung and beyond – and with some additional questions about Cyprus, if only because geographically it lies off the coast of Turkey … as, indeed, do many Greek islands I have visited, including Rhodes, Kos, Kalymnos, Pserimos, and especially Kastellorizo.

Which leaves me without any proper definition of Europe or the Continent, and most certainly still without a clear definition of either Europe or a way of defining the limits of the European Continent.

Cabo de Roca is the western-most point in Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I suppose I am going to have to settle for Cabo da Roca in Portugal as the western-most point on European landmass. This cape forms the westernmost extent of mainland Portugal and continental Europe, and, by definition, the Eurasian landmass. The cape is in the Portuguese municipality of Sintra, west of Lisbon, and forms the western-most extent of the Serra de Sintra.

And I have the certificate to show I was there three years ago, without risking life and limb crossing a narrow, twisting road overlooking the Blasket Islands and looking out to Skellings.

But, just to be clear, the westernmost point on the island of Ireland is Dunmore Head, at the tip of the Dingle Peninsula in Co Kerry but north-west of that wayside crucifix at Slea Head, and the most westerly point in Irish sovereign territory is the Foze Rocks, also in Co Kerry, but out in the Atlantic Ocean, 17.1km to the west-south-west of Dunmore Head, marking the westernmost point in Ireland as a whole.

An unusual certificate in a remote outpost of Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)