Conamara Summer School 2016

Conamara Summer School 2016

There is something about a trip out to the west coast islands that is rejuvenating. Maybe it's the bracing winds and sea air on an exposed landscape, but I always come back from the islands a little more ‘awake’, a little invigorated, and usually a little hungover.

Cliodhna and myself on the boat crossing from Cleggan.

Cliodhna and myself on the boat crossing from Cleggan.

I’m just back from my trip to the rugged little island of Inishbofin, where I was a rookie recruit to the Conamara Summer School team — comprised of botanists, marine biologists, geologists, artists, writers, insectologists... all experts in their respective fields, bogs, or water bodies, and all offering different perspectives on this multifaceted island. The week-long course, run by the Conamara Environmental Education and Cultural Centre (CEECC), is an in-depth study of the island’s natural environment and history. Environmentalist and educator Leo Hallissey has been directing the course for over 30 years, and it is only growing in terms of popularity and in contribution to the economy of the island.

A few of the many sheep trotting about the island freely.

A few of the many sheep trotting about the island freely.

For many years, Leo has been working tirelessly and passionately on various initiatives aimed at integrating the arts into education. The Summer School is one such project, aimed mainly at teachers as an inservice program — promoting a more central role to environmental awareness and cultural education in the curriculum. The course is also open to the public.

Anybody who has crossed the dynamic duo that is Leo and Clare will attest to the fact that they are hard-working, creative ‘people people’ and consummate hosts. I’m already growing wistful for Clare’s fluffy blueberry breakfast scones, and trekking home in the evening to Leo’s delicious freshly caught fried mackerel — a real west of Ireland delicacy, sublime in its simplicity.

Stephen waxes lyrical about sphagnum drowned kitten moss.

Stephen waxes lyrical about sphagnum drowned kitten moss.

Inishbofin is special for its epic Atlantic panoramas, but also due to its diverse plant and animal life. The unique natural environment of Bofin is suited to many different inhabitants not often seen on the mainland. The endangered corncrake was omnipresent — its loud territorial call ringing out in the evenings — by all accounts Bofin is one of its favoured hang-outs.

Botanist Sinead Keane in her element.

Botanist Sinead Keane in her element.

Every evening, music and revellers spilled out of Murray’s, where we edged our way in and convened in corners over pints with new acquaintances. Murray’s Hotel is itself a bit of a cultural hub — a place alive with community spirit and long-standing traditions of good music, food, and Guinness.

My tasting workshop played with the theme of foraged cakes/ baking with flowers. I wanted to sew together the ideas of old Irish traditional collectable edibles — frugal, simple, hedgerow bounties — with a more modern style of baking; using grain-free flours, sugar-free sweetening methods, and highly nutritious ingredients.

Cake Samples: Dandelion, Honeysuckle, Rose, Red Clover.

Cake Samples: Dandelion, Honeysuckle, Rose, Red Clover.

My focus was on the interesting flavours and textural dimensions that common flowers lend to baked goods. We sampled a tasting flight of Dandelion Cake, Red Clover Cake, Honeysuckle & Rose Cake, and Elderflower and Rhubarb Cake (made on-site in the little school kitchen). We also tried some shots of my elderflower infusion and a honeysuckle and rose infusion. It went down well with the crowd, and I hope I’ve fuelled some unorthodox baking experiments among the group.

Our botany group braves the elements to get an in-depth look at the island's diverse plant life.

Our botany group braves the elements to get an in-depth look at the island's diverse plant life.

I really enjoyed my trip to Bofin, and will enthusiastically recommend that you head out for a visit. Be prepared to be swept off your feet both figuratively and literally — as high winds, idyllic scenery, and first rate hospitality hit you in in equal measures. For more information about the Summer School, visit: Conamara Summer School.

Boat and battered broga.

Boat and battered broga.