Walk of the week: The Maharees Co Kerry
The low-lying landscape of the Maharees, a scimitar of sand edged with long gold beaches, pushed flat and green into the wind-ruffled water of Tralee Bay.
The mountains of the Dingle Peninsula -- the long spine of Slieve Mish inland, the lumpy hills around Mount Brandon away in the west across Brandon Bay -- stood outlined in dove grey and pink against a dark boil of cloud.
The solitary windsurfer cradled in the perfect curve of Scraggane Bay, however, seemed oblivious to the power and glory of his surroundings as he strained every sinew to keep his fluttering little craft leaning upright on the wind.
I stood at the seaward end of Scraggane Pier above red and blue trawlers, thinking of the hungry men who built the breakwater back in 1887 for shillings paid out by the Congested Districts Board. Out to sea the waves broke in spray curtains over the Seven Hogs.
Behind Illaunimmil lay hidden the long sleeping-beast shape of Inishtooskert, northernmost of these Maharee islets. Off Inishtooskert the German supply ship Aud rode for a long, tense day and night during Easter Week 1916, waiting for a signal from the islet to land her cargo of weapons.
But the signal never came, and Aud left the Kerry coast still laden with arms. A day later, her crew were accosted by the Royal Navy off Cobh Haven, and scuttled her.
Grassy boreens led down to the shore, where wild geraniums still showed vivid splashes of blood red across their sulphur-yellow petals. Shaggy-coated horses cropped the meadows behind low stone walls, and the coastal sward was grazed by a herd of beautiful cream-coated cattle led by a most magnificent bull with a dewlap as extravagantly folded as one of Beau Brummel's cravats.
Crisp stars of sea holly, the powder blue of summer leached out of their flowers, trembled in the wind along the pale ribbed sands of Scraggane Bay. Oystercatchers piped. I turned my back on this starkly beautiful scene to seek out the standing stone of Candiha.
"Sure, work away," invited the man of the neighbouring house. "Jump over the wall, now." The stone stood more than twice my height, a purplish slaty monolith with the suggestion of a cowled woman in its bowed shape. Crudely shaped, weathered to a rough grittiness and warm to the touch, it radiated an animal power unsettling and compelling.
What is it about ancient stones that grips us so? On one level the ruined Church of St Senach, turning its weather-beaten back on the brightly painted houses of Kilshannig, is just a broken old barn of a place. On another, its salt-rimed stones, medieval slit of a window and venerable cross slabs speak straight to the heart.
But then, on this blowy afternoon between the Kerry seas and mountains, so did the gleaming strand and the whitened sea, the blood-and-chocolate pebbles in the stony cove under Kilshannig Point and the mounds of glistening kelp heaped along the tide line.
On the way down the eastern blade of the Maharees I met Crazy Dog Benson, a hound with a yodel enthusiastic enough to give the Baskerville model a run for its money. In the puddled lane that crossed the spit a passing horse spattered me with wet sand, snorting shrilly as if at the joke of it.
Everything in nature seemed keyed up to enjoyment of the day, apart from the miserable girl shivering reluctantly in her wetsuit in the dunes. "Go on," urged her instructor with a wave towards the waiting windsurf board. "You'll regret it if you don't."
I seriously doubted that. But looking back along Corralougha Strand a few minutes later I saw two sleek black shapes out in the sea -- the girl, wobbly but upright against her bellying red sail, and a seal, recumbent among the waves as it watched her scud by.