Friday, October 14, 2011

On the Beara peninsula

The nearest to Coomhola of the several peninsulas that reach out from West Cork into the Atlantic is the Beara peninsula around which runs a route labeled the ‘Ring of Beara’.  The ‘Ring of Beara’, although less in terms of scale, has as much scenically to offer as that of Kerry but without the razzmatazz.  Yesterday I drove out on the road that skirts the south coast of Beara.  Near Adrigole, a village at the head of a sea inlet, I watched several otters swimming across the sea in front of me.  Later, at the agreeable small town/ large village of Castletown Bearhaven, I rested and sheltered from the rain in the Copper Kettle café where I chose, from an excellent display of irresistible home-cooked cakes and pastries, a generously cream-topped slice of multi-berry crumble to accompany an equally good coffee.  The peninsular terminates at Dursley Head, the western tip of Dursley Island to which what must be  a unique cable car runs above the narrow channel separating the island from the mainland.  Beara was far from free of tourists, I doubt that anywhere in Ireland is that, but they were few and, on the whole, seemed to be like myself, un-organized folk who, rather than travelling from one pre-ordained site to another, travel rather blindly trusting to stumble serendipitously on something or other interesting and worthy of further investigation; folk who prefer to make their own guide books rather than read the often spurious opinions of others.  Here in the Beara I felt able to connect with the spirit of place; a sensation that had eluded me on the ‘Ring of Kerry’.

Turning my back on Dursley Island I took the road that runs along the north shore of Beara where copper mining flourished during the nineteenth century.  Near to the colourful village of Allihies, traces of the copper mining industry, derelict chimneys and buildings, remain and green stains, evidence of copper ore, are clearly visible in the cliffs that edge the sea.   At  O’Neill’s Bar in Allihies I stopped for lunch; my now almost regular daily pint of Guinness and the second excellent, overfull crab sandwich of my trip.

Red-billed Choughs aerobated from cliffs above me somewhere between Allihies and Lauragh, where the road turned to take me over the Healy Pass and back to the south coast of the peninsula.  The narrow, poorly surfaced road climbs up through apparently magnificent mountain scenery, sight of much of which was denied me by prevailing inclement conditions.  The weather had been far from pleasant all day.  As the afternoon wore on, it was rapidly deteriorating.  However, as I descended from the summit of the pass the sun almost broke through the cloud to produce some truly amazing skyscapes above an equally amazing landscape.

Should, before I leave next week,  the west of Ireland be favoured with anything approaching clear weather, I shall return to Beara to see some of what I missed yesterday, to enjoy another of the Copper Kettle’s pastries and, perhaps, to feast on yet another crab sandwich in O’Neill’s Pub.  


On Wednesday, I had cause to visit Killarney, an attractive enough west of Ireland town.  In common with most Irish towns I have visited, Killarney’s streets are lined with a great variety of small, gaily-painted, flower bedecked, independent shops, pubs and cafés.  The people with whom I had dealings in Killarney, shop assistants, bar staff, taxi drivers, together with many total strangers, whose paths I merely crossed on the streets, were typically helpful, warm and friendly, but something about Killarney did not quite click with me; it is not a place to which I have any great desire to return.  Maybe the gloomy, drizzly weather had something to do with my attitude; it was the fifth day in succession during which the sun had hardly found a single break in the cloud.

On my journey back from Killarney to Coomhola the clouds lifted and thinned to reveal stunning views of the eastern end of ‘The Ring of Kerry’, views that had earlier been largely hidden in mist.  That the scenery here is beautiful, exceptionally so, can not be denied. However, intense commercial exploitation of relatively small areas of natural beauty, beauty spots, tourist attractions, both here in Ireland and elsewhere, in some queer way, seems to prevent my full engagement with the soul of a place.  Inasmuch as ‘The Ring of Kerry’ is so very well road-signed, way-marked, served with lay-bys, view-points, catering facilities and souvenir shops, it is something of a tourist honey-pot which, even in mid-October attracts comparatively huge numbers of visitors. 

However many coaches may be parked alongside my car in the lay-by  however many shutter-happy fellow tourists may be recording the view with me; however many snack-bars and tourist gift shops may be cluttering the place, the view, the picture, the craggy mountains, waterfalls, rivered valleys lined with autumn-tinted trees reflected in mirror flat surfaces of myriad lakes can not be other than its reality; inviolably beautiful.  It can not, I try to reason, be other, but however much I try to reason the stupidity of my irritation, to isolate myself from my immediate environment, to transport myself into, to be at one with the view before me, I can not.  Crowds and commercial clutter seem to steal from me my personal place in this view; rather than its reality, I feel as if I am looking at something more like a huge reproduction of the scene before me; something artificial, something manufactured in Hollywood solely for public entertainment.

Back at The Giant’s Causeway, where I had been expecting to find a rocky sea-washed wilderness over which I would be free to wander alone and at will, I was so much disappointed to find the place more or less restricted and totally controlled by The National Trust who seem to have managed to artificialize, to ‘Disneyfy’, a whole natural landscape. I vowed to avoid in future all tourist attractions.  The Giant’s Causeway is, I have no doubt, a huge commercial success.  Builders are presently at work there on a huge new ‘visitor complex’, improved facilities for the Giant’s Causeway; what hubris!

The idea of an attraction the size of the ‘Ring of Kerry’ ever becoming similarly publicly privatized is, probably, nonsensical but when, along with many others, a coach-load of voluble spanish tourists among them, I made my snapshot records of beautiful Kerry at a well organised lay-by, the uneasy emotions I felt at the Giant’s Causeway’ echoed loud and clear.

Bantry and Baltimore

The drive, last Saturday, from The Burren, County Clare, to Coomhola near Bantry, West Cork, was largely through mist and cloud, the base of which was, as often as not, at or near ground level; consequently, although I knew I was driving through some of Europe’s finest scenery, I saw very little of it.  These madid conditions which, I understand, are typical here throughout the year, persisted until late on Wednesday afternoon when a low westering sun cleared the obscuring mist and cloud to reveal and illuminate views of awe-inspiring beauty.

Although a pretty enough small port at the head of the bay that takes the town’s name, I did not find much to inspire interest at Bantry but, in mitigation of it, few places are, when visited on gloomy, drizzly days, at their most inspiring.

On another day, under slightly better conditions, I explored the peninsular that stretches west of Baltimore, a village a little to the south of my temporary home here at Coomhola, into the Atlantic at Mizzen Head.  The peninsular is a delightful succession of sandy bays between rocky, weed-draped headlands and and pretty polychrome villages.

Unlike its American namesake, Baltimore in West Cork is yet but a small village, an ancient anchorage that has expanded around an attractive fishing-boat harbour overlooked by a Norman castle.  For me Baltimore will remain, above all else, memorable for the crab sandwich I enjoyed at Bushe’s Pub above the harbour.

Baltimore; site of the Barbary Pirate raid 
Baltimore got onto my itinerary because of the chance purchase, in Scotland, of a book; “The Stolen Village”, by Des Ekin.  This book tells the true story of the 1631 sack of Baltimore when Barbary Coast pirates kidnapped practically the entire english population of Baltimore, 107 souls, and sold them into slavery in Algiers.  The author’s research brings the story to the amazing conclusion that the raid was the denouement of a complex plot led by a local landowner to get atonement for wrongs suffered by him.  An extraordinary conclusion for which Ekin presents convincing evidence.

Monday, October 10, 2011


Burren Cottage, Carran, County Clare

Saturday was moving day.  I left my home of nine days, Burren Cottage, and I am now comfortably settled in a delightful, tiny cottage, hidden between a lane and a river, at Coomhola Bridge neat Bantry, County Cork.  Yesterday, alone in the cottage, on a peacefully still, overcast Sunday morning, I had time to reflect on my journey thus far.
Nothing is yet much altered with me.  I have written a few blog posts but these have been wrought more by discipline than inspiration; the inspiration I hoped this trip would engender yet eludes me which is hardly surprising, I have done little thus far to advance my cause.  During the first part of my trip, the journey to Ireland, I allowed myself no time to ‘stand and stare’ and since being here I have played the part of a full-time, sight-seeing tourist.  Inasmuch as I have missed more of the sights on my original agenda than I have seen, I have also failed the tourist test.  But I have learned that being in a place alters preconceptions; since being at the Giant’s Causeway, where I witnessed the effect large numbers of visitors have on the soul of a place, I have largely scratched from my list all popular ‘tourist attractions’.  I have no objection to tourists.  Am I not one? However, when their number engenders control and commercial opportunity on what is to me an unacceptable scale, and my imagination falls short  of being able to ignore all but the place I have come to see, I can but choose to be absent from such places.  The Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands both fell foul of my mental review.  The islands, not so much through tourist blight but largely because, when within sight of the islands, I doubted that any worth-while tour of them could be made in less than a week: a day trip allowing a few hours ashore, on foot, would allow for little more than a rather pointless ticking of the box to say I had been there.
Here at Coomhola I am hoping to slow down.  The cottage affords plenty of opportunity to do so.  There is a T.V. In the cottage but the owner warned me that reception is, at best, poor.  When I turned the set on I found that the owner was quite right, reception was intermittent and such signals as did make it through to the set were subject to a great deal of distortion, snow and multiple image which, although a probable improvement on the programmes it effectively masked, was something in front of which I did not care to spend time.  This rather pleased me.  It eliminated any temptation I may have had to idly settle down and watch it.  I have no radio. I considered buying a small portable then realized that it would probably be as useful here as the T.V. And the internet router. Here, for much of the next two weeks I want to do little more than walk, read, write and sketch.

The cottage at Coomhola Bridge

I feel very comfortable and at ease here in Ireland and wonder if this has something to do with my finding so many apparent similarities between Ireland and Greece, my adopted home.  Almost universally people with whom I have had cause to deal have been welcoming, warm and friendly; roads are largely empty; uniformed police are few and far between - society here seems to be largely self-regulating; shops in the towns are mostly small and independent; as it is at home, corporatism seems to be slow taking hold here; cafés, bars and restaurants are happy to serve lunches well into the afternoon; musicianship, traditional music and dancing, are taken for granted and I have discovered,  ‘Lyric Radio’ a national radio programme with content, largely european classical music with occasional injections of other ‘special interest’ material, which is almost identical to Greece’s National Radio 3, my constant companion when I am at home.

The Burren

Friday, 7th October was the last full day of this trip I would spend in the hundred and fifty or so square kilometres of limestone plateau south of Galway Bay known as the Burren.  I had decided to spend the day, which had dawned exceptionally clear and sunny, exploring nearby.  Hitherto, during the eight days I had spent there, I had but hurried through much of the Burren on my way to places further afield.  I could comfortably have spent every day and more of my stay just strolling around the Burren but preferred, on this my first visit to Ireland, to get something of a  broader-brush idea of the country.  Consequently I had to compromise; to make sacrifices to time.

At least five thousand years of history have been written, much of it tantilisingly enigmatically, in the stones of the Burren.  Deforested for agriculture as early as Neolithic times, the topsoil of the area has long since blown and eroded away.  Nonetheless sparse populations have continued to survive, farm and leave built evidence of their presence in this rather bleak environment.  My first impression of the Burren was one of a wasteland of bare, wind-swept rock, littered with large boulders and latticed with dry-stone walls.  The Burren is far from this.   Glacial action and subsequent rainwater erosion has engraved the limestone surface with deep fissures in which grasses and other plants flourish to provide nutritious fodder for grazing animals. 
P. J. Kavanagh wrote of the Burren as, “ . . . a desert which is not a desert - cattle fatten on its limy grasses, and in spring Arctic flowers jostle with Mediterranean ones, sheltered in the cracks of its limestone slab”, while Cromwell’s surveyor reported to his master, in typically grim Cromwellian language, that it was, “a savage land, yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor a tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury”.

Poulnabrone dolmen is the structural remnant of a 2,500 year old burial chamber, one of a great number of dolmens, stone rings and standing stones dotted around the Burren that provide evidence of the area being occupied during Neolithic times.  Many of the Burren’s extensive stretches of dry stone wall are also believed to be of Neolithic origin.  The Burren is also rich in ruins and sites of several early Christian and mediaeval churches, abbeys, monasteries as well as many castles, intact, ruined and restored dating, from the 11th to 17th centuries.  

Site of church dedicated to St Columba, 6th century. 

Founded, early in 7th Century, by St Colman Mac Duach, the visible remains of the monastery at Kilmacduagh are largely mediaeval.  The leaning round tower, which dates from the 12th century, is the highest in Ireland.