Back on the Loop

13th June 2015
I’ve made my annual summer migration, again finding myself northwest of the ancestral homeland, on the Loop Head Peninsula for the next few months. I didn’t think I’d be back this year, but as 2015 came around and winter receded the thought of staying in Cork city became more and more daft. Admittedly this seasonal relocation interrupts other work but it’s too good a thing to give up. It would have taken something really really special to keep me away from something really special.

Summer in Rinevella. Really special.

It might seem like being in the same place a lot of the time isn’t very productive for landscape photography; and there’s no question that unknown areas can bring an excitement with their fresh vistas, just as seemingly well-known areas can become stale and uninspiring. But how well can one know an area? Even an acre of the right land can regularly reveal new secrets to an observer. Put that land near the sea, in four different seasons, with all the weathers and wildlife those different times of year bring, and there is a lifetime’s worth of knowing for anybody. Learn a little of the history to gain another perspective. Expand an acre to a peninsula and you’ve an inexhaustible supply of learning potential if you keep looking.

I had an idea for a photograph in mind recently, under the west facing cliffs of Castle Point. (Or, as it’s become under the guise of the Wild Atlantic Way, Kilkee Cliffs. A big sign welcomes you to a place that seems to have been renamed by an office in Dublin, totally eradicating the placename history of the area. Appearing as Doonlicka on some maps and Castle Point on the latest OS version, this headland was once known as Dún Leice (Fort of the Flagstones), after the castle that once stood above the slanting slabs of sandstone tilted towards the sea. I don’t know what prompted the decision to rename the headland and deny visitors the history of the area. Surely a fitting information board could have been installed, giving an account of the castle and its stories, adding another layer of interest to the WAW. Instead there’s a meaningless placename sign and a car park with painted spaces (is this an urban shopping centre?) and a rubbish-filled earthen bank built around it. Anyway, that’s another story...)

Unusually wild summer weather at Castle Point (not Kilkee Cliffs)

So I had an idea in mind but it wasn’t working on this particular bluebird evening. Landscape photography tends to be a bit boring on empty sky summer days. So I packed up the camera bag and went exploring around the coast, hoping to find a few boulders or a little crag worthy of rock climbing. A short section of cliff caught my eye so I went about finding my way to the bottom, hopping over sea-gurgling gaps where the cliff end had broken off and jumping between enormous boulders. Conscious of the tide and the sea state I paused at the last obstacle, making sure I’d be able to climb back up if I needed to make a quick escape, or any escape at all for that matter. Happy I wasn’t being stupid, I made the last scramble down to sea level. The cliff didn’t turn out to be of climbing quality. But I did find a nice cave.

Caves, especially ones at the sea, spook me. When you’re older the things that scare you tend to be rather boring. The monsters of a youthful mind are replaced by tangible but less fanciful worries like car insurance, job security and pension funds. Rational, adult fear is a far cry from the panic that grips you as a child. It’s real but it’s boring. I remember being unable to go down stairs at night because I couldn’t turn the lights on from above. And lying in bed sweating over an unexplained noise in the dark. Sea caves bring out a similar reaction in me at times, and it’s interesting how my adult mind, knowing the irrationality of my thoughts, still can’t totally block out that instinctive impulse. I’ve been kayaking in caves on sunny, calm evenings but not been able to go all the way into the dark recesses of them. Even in the calmest seas most caves murmur and burp when the swell compresses in their gloomy depths. Seals aren’t averse to hanging out in dark, deep gullies and rock doves, with their heart-stopping, explosive take-offs from hidden cliff ledges, regularly nest in sea caverns. It’s not that either creature is worth worrying about. It’s the fear of the unknown in a dark place where humans really aren’t in their element that brings on the butterflies.

Given the involved access situation I was already on alert when I started making my way into this water-worn cavity. The fact that I had to crouch only added to the claustrophobia. I tried imagining the unimaginable weight of rock above me, the tilted bed already leaning towards the sea, waiting for time to detach it from the rest of the cliffs. The blackness in the back of the cavern took awhile to adjust to, though I wasn’t too keen on staring for long enough to adjust, fearful of what lies in the back of damp, dark places. A few lost buoys is all it seems. The floor was studded with barnacles. Meaning the tide must come in most of the way. An unnerving thought in a low, shadowy space. Everything was greasy to the touch, and even the air was of a rare kind. I was spooked!

It wasn’t long to sunset and the sun was streaming in at the western end of the cave. Here the ceiling was higher, or more correctly, the floor was lower. At the threshold of the opening the sea had carved out a double bowl rock pool, beautifully curved and probably smooth under the barnacles. The sea was spilling into the pool. A line of light lit the ground and a small portion of the back wall, a sole strip of brightness in the dark of the underground, often undersea world I’d entered. I rushed back out to get my camera.

Room with a view

The more time I spent in the cave the more comfortable I became. The bigger swells weren’t yet reaching inside and the rotting bodies and lurking monsters in my mind were dissolving with every minute. I shot excitedly, too quickly most of the time, unable to compose myself or a frame. It’s the danger of photographing a new exciting place in good conditions that you (or I at least) can lose the run of yourself. It was near impossible keeping lens flare down when pointing at the sun, and tricky too to balance the exposure correctly. All the same, I was happy and knew there’d be other evenings. I left after sundown, buzzing. I don’t think I’m the first person to have ever been in there but I can’t imagine it’s well known. I’d love to know of any information on the place, like a name or story if it has any.

Selfie in the sun

I was back in 48 hours. With company and a lower tide I had different conditions to work with. Yet again excitement got the better of me, and looking back on the images now I see little but mistakes and a wasted opportunity for the “perfect” image. Nonetheless it was more learning, and still a fantastic evening. Massive thanks to Jasmine for putting up with me in photographer mode! We floated around in the pool for a bit and watched the shafts of light creep across the floor of the cave until all that was left was a few glowing red marks on the back wall where the sun’s rays snuck in between the outer boulders. It was another great evening.

I couldn't ask for much more!

Not 100% happy with this but it's work in progress

It’s really exciting to find such dramatic, atmospheric locations to bring a camera to. With photography so accessible now it’s harder and harder to find really striking views that haven’t been overdone. In the past year I’ve photographed three caves in particular that I’ve found very rewarding (first this one last summer, then this one in February). It’s a fresh angle on the Irish landscape, and I hope to revisit all these places as well as find more. These are barely known worlds around our coasts that have an ambiance and beauty found nowhere else.

So for the third year running the Loop Head Peninsula still inspires and excites me. And I’ve a few months to go yet.


I thought after my first visit that there was only one way down to the cave, involving a short step of rock climbing to get back out. I've since returned on a lower tide and it turns out it's not too tricky to just walk around the boulders that sit at the outside of the cave. Nonetheless, it's not a place to get stuck with an incoming tide so anybody thinking of going should have their wits about them!

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