Higherland Dan: The American living in West Cork sanctuary for almost 50 years

Higherland Dan: The American living in West Cork sanctuary for almost 50 years
Dan Hummel outside the house he built with his own hands on the Sheep’s Head

Dan Hummel has lived, mostly alone, in his rugged West Cork sanctuary for 46 years. On a recent visit, Brian Keane gets an insight into his life.

“I’ve always been into locations. Places have guided my life more than people, family, or friends,” Dan Hummel’s American accent is as laid-back as the man. 

“Maybe that’s why I find myself in West Cork, mostly alone for 46 years, on this stretch of rock jutting into the Atlantic.”

Once, the raw beauty of the place brought Dan the greatest peace. Now, at 78 years old, it can leave him anxious. 

“One time I was hacking bamboo with a scythe and buried the blade about four inches into my leg. I missed the artery but the blood was spraying everywhere. 

"It was a long crawl to my home where I tied a shirt around it before hobbling the 700m to my bike. Then I cycled 17 miles to the hospital. Don’t think I have that in me anymore. 

"These days my balance isn’t so good. And the paths are slippery. But I guess there’s worse ways to go. At least I’d die here, where I’ve spent more time than anywhere else in the world.

“Can’t think why I ended up in Ireland. My family come from German immigrants in Pennsylvania. And I had lived in many beautiful places: Japan, Taiwan, Bainbridge Island off Seattle, Florida, San Francisco. 

The only connection with Ireland was I came here playing rugby with Dartmouth University in 1962. We played Trinity and UCD, then came south for a match with Gary-owen. I paid a quick visit to Cork but had no idea what lay west of the city.

Dan draws each word out half the day. 

“But I guess a little bit of Ireland stayed in my mind because I came back 10 years later, cycled to Bantry, then kept heading west until I found my place. Had a little cash, so I just bought it there and then.”

HIGHERLAND DAN

Out of the blue I got a call from Dan inviting me to dinner in The Ivory Tower, a quirky fine-dining restaurant in Cork city which Dan helped start 25 years ago alongside celebrity chef Seamus O’Connell. 

On the Sheep’s Head peninsula sometime in the early ’90s, both men got off their bicycles to take a rest on the same hilltop and discovered they were fellow expat Americans.

Seamus was interested in communal living and organic farming so Dan invited him to stay at his remote commune-of-one. 

Soon after, they started the restaurant, and later Dan brought Seamus to Japan to train with top chefs in Nagasaki and Tokyo. Ever since, a subtle Japanese fragrance has radiated from the Tower.

In ’99, the pair set up The Yummy Yucky Club, a milestone on Cork city’s voyage to become a cosmopolitan culinary hub. And later Pai, a hip pizzeria on Washington Street. 

Over the quarter of a century since they have been in business together, Dan has eaten and drank his share whenever he’s forced from his peninsular hermitage up to the Big Smoke.

I hadn’t seen or heard from Dan in 10 years, but his bald red head, with its raging white, foot-long beard, was easy to spot among the Tower’s Saturday night clientele.

The first time I met Dan was in Yunnan Province, west China, way up on the Tibetan Plateau. He’d built a rustic retreat clung to a mountainside 3,000 metres above sea level. 

Overlooking the ancient kingdom of Dali, he’d named it the Higherland Inn, a play on words that in Mandarin reads Ai – Er – Lan, the Chinese characters for Ireland.

Delighted to meet a Corkman in that lost part of the globe, Dan broke out the Jameson. 

Showing me photos of his rugged sanctuary on Sheep’s Head, I swore blind that one day I’d visit.

On that Chinese mountain he was known as Higherland Dan. 

Dan looking out across Bantry Bay to Bere Island
Dan looking out across Bantry Bay to Bere Island

Later, when I opened my own place in Dali, he arrived with a tipi strapped to a couple of donkeys. 

To a bemused audience of local farmers, and a motley crew of Western backpackers, Dan singlehandedly erected the massive white and sky-blue wigwam in my garden without breaking even a hint of sweat. 

For years after, people passing through recognised the grand tipi as belonging to the American with the white beard, but they knew him as Tipi Dan.

Teaching in Japan in the mid-sixties he was Dan Sensei. And before that, in the US Navy he was Lieutenant Dan. 

These days, friends in Ireland call him China Dan, while to most Chinese he’s Ai – Er – Lan Dan. But in West Cork, cycling to Bantry town in every weather for almost half a century, has earned him the name, The Man on the Bike.

At the Tower, over our five courses of Japanese-Irish fusion, Dan invited me down to his place on Sheep’s Head to finally fulfil my promise.

HOT-TUB

West out of Bantry we motor through the tiny villages of Rooska and Glanlough until we run out of road at Glan Roon. But still we move west following a grassy track down to the sea.

At an old wooden box — Dan’s telephone booth before the days of mobiles — the old man slips inside a giant bush. Then we cross a field of tall grass, where buried in a wall of brambles is a rickety wooden gate.

On the far side we emerge onto a wind-shafted expanse of rock and tough grass with the ocean growling to our right, the kind of terrain that firmly establishes you in the west of Ireland.

Half-crippled beneath the awkward weight of Bord na Mona peat briquettes, our bags, and food supplies, we pick our way along a scattering of stones worn smooth by only one man’s feet. 

It dawns on me he must have laid the path with his own hands, finding, carrying, and placing one large, flat stone after another. 

Each slab might have been a day’s work, and we trace them for a winding 700m until a battalion of tall cairns rises from the headland.

The zen stones are stacked higher than my head, and from their midst Dan’s house seems to grow straight out of the ground. 

A squat block of uneven stones spouting from a violent slice of naked rock, the dwelling’s roof a mullet of grass so enmeshed with its craggy environment you’d pass it if you weren’t looking.

One of the many cairns Dan erected on his land
One of the many cairns Dan erected on his land

Established on the cusp of a hillock, the two-roomed outpost surveys a demented finger of rock currently being abused by the Atlantic. 

The big whoosh and crash of the waves juxtaposed against the endless wilderness on the other side affects the most ancient part of me, and the only thought capable of survival in my head is: Why would anyone choose to live here?

Inside, there’s only small evidence we are not in the 19th or earlier centuries. Rather than voice my distress, I suggest tea. 

Dan drops his slab of peat on the bare rock that is his floor, picks up an enamel bucket, and offers to get the water.

All 78 years of him shambles off along a grassy ridge, and though a broad pillar of a man, when he walks it’s like his backside has caved in, giving him the bowlegged gait of a caricature from a western. 

I watch him cross a meadow of tall grass, his whole apparatus moving like a bag of potatoes, until all that remains is a smudge against the colossal landscape dipping a bucket in a stream, and I wish I’d never mentioned tea.

On his eventual return, I put the water on the small stove — only exactly what’s needed — as the big bottle of Calor gas surely arrived here via Dan’s back.

No water. No electricity. And to my bathroom enquiry, Dan points at the rocks extending from his sitting-room window into the livid Atlantic. 

Inside Dan's house
Inside Dan's house

“You’ll see a crevice down there that’s perfect for the job. Everything taken away immediately.” 

Squatting on the headland, June’s breeze carries sea spray to cool my bare arse. I enjoy the novelty. But a premonition of doing it in winter sullies the occasion. 

Knowing Dan has hunkered down here in all weather, in sickness and in health, for 46 years, brings me a new depth of respect for the man.

Back at the house, Dan proposes firing up the hot-tub. Reattaching himself to the metal harness that holds the peat briquettes, he half-hobbles, half-marches off again in the same direction. 

I follow, begging to take the load, Dan ignoring my pleas.

All along the coastal path, we pass piles of stones, some as tall as Dan.

“I collect the rocks the ocean throws up before she reclaims them again,” Dan lobs the comment over his shoulder. 

“Someday I may use them to build another house out along the coast,” he adds, seemingly unaware of the unlikelihood of this.

Three hours later we’re both naked, dunked in steaming water, and looking out towards the saw-toothed fold of rock defending Dan’s land from the Atlantic’s eternal grasp. 

The hazy grey bulge beyond, Dan assures me, is Bere Island.

“In 1972, with the help of Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary, I started out with 12 acres. Now I have 120,” Dan tells me. 

“I kept buying because it was there. My father bought 10 acres in Pennsylvania and, as the eldest son, he put me to work on it.

Then I saw the Japanese working the land by hand and thought I’d like to try that. While helping a Japanese friend buy land near Seattle I got the opportunity to work a piece of land myself, and to me it just made sense as a way to live.

Our hot-tub is a huge, stainless steel milk container, which Dan has hooked up to a stove. Eyes closed and angled towards a struggling sun, I notice his red head, that was smooth in China, is now coarse and scabby. 

From the sea salt, I guess, like grit in a wind that never seems to fully rest. And I can’t imagine Dan using sunscreen or moisturiser.

“First two years I lived on this very spot in a two-man tent. That big flat rock over there was my dining table.” Dan points to a spot between two small freshwater lakes. 

“I was interested in Japanese hot-tub culture, so I set this up first and built a wooden bathhouse to shield it against the wind. Lived in that bathhouse another two years while I collected the stones to build the house I live in now. 

"Good thing I’d collected those stones too, because I came back from China one spring to find the bathhouse smashed to pieces by a freak wave.

“I had no building experience and couldn’t figure out where to put my house. So, I just kept collecting rocks. One time I got a pile eight-feet tall. Had to stand on a ladder to reach the top. I was proud of that.” 

Dan smiles at the memory, exposing a ruin of teeth, chipped or broken or just long gone. 

“Any supplies I needed I cycled the two hours into Bantry, strapped them to my back, then turned right around. I’d carry everything by hand the final half mile to my place.”

There’s a pride to his voice when he talks about his capacity for hard labour.

“I love just being on this beautiful piece of land, especially on long summer days.” 

To the left the stream that provides Dan’s drinking water gurgles, and on the right a grove of bamboo hugs a lotus pond filled with tall reeds. 

“The pure physicality of it — just moving rocks all day, learning the flow of the terrain, alone, and with no particular goals beyond the basics...”

This sounds like madness to me. But only 150 years ago millions of Irish people lived in one-room homes built with grass sods. 

Dan’s set-up would have been the envy of most. Yet, in only a few generations, his way of life seems insane compared to being a systems analyst for Dell.

“Had that vegetable patch going once.”

Dan points at a green catastrophe hemmed in by a lumpy stone wall. 

When I was more organised that was full of beetroot, pak choi, sea beet, potatoes, Chinese cabbage, and I’d always try to grow enough marijuana for my own purposes. I kept sheep and goats too. And even had trout in my lakes once. That was nice.

"But the sea took most of them. Never did a lot of fishing for some reason, though it was always easy picking, especially when the mackerel were out.” 

He opens his blue eyes, pale as the freshwater lakes, maybe diluted from almost five decades peering at the Atlantic. “But I haven’t the energy to organise this place anymore. Now it takes all I have just to live.”

When it gets too hot I walk naked from the hot-tub to submerge myself in the closest icy lake — Japanese style. 

I do this half a dozen times but Dan doesn’t budge. His days have revolved around the tub since before I was born, soaking himself for several hours daily through summers and winters.

For dinner I cook a stir-fry using fresh vegetables I bought that morning at Bantry market. 

Several famous chefs have cooked here for Dan — Seamus O’Connell, Con O’Loughlin of the Lettercollum Food Project, as well as Irish celebrity chef and television personality, Kevin Thornton. 

But judging from the metal bin Dan uses as a fridge, these days he lives mainly on pasta and tomato sauce from a jar.

By the window, in the only chair — a seat recycled from the passenger side of a comfortable car — Dan oversees the Atlantic with the wind whistling through the gaps where his house doesn’t quite fit together.

Spread over the bumps of his bare stone walls, there are washed out maps of west China. 

I recognise features of Dali Old Town — the region Dan tries to spend his winters — though can’t read Mandarin very well. But Dan can. 

Fluent in spoken and written Japanese means he has a fair grasp of Chinese characters too.

From an academic background, Dan graduated as a geography major from Dartmouth University, one of the Ivy League and among America’s oldest third-level institutions. 

Fellow alumni include the poet Robert Frost, the children’s writer Dr. Suess, and former US vice president, Nelson Rockefeller.

Robert Frost
Robert Frost

In 1963 military service was still compulsory, so Dan joined the navy with an eye to getting a posting in Japan, a country which had caught his interest. 

Based at an officer training school in San Francisco when Kennedy was shot, Dan was keen to leave as he sailed out on the USS Surfbird.

His quiet Japanese base afforded him many days on his motorbike exploring rural Japan and learning the language. 

Until the USS Surfbird was ordered to take part in Operation Market Time, the US Navy’s effort to stop the flow of troops and weapons by sea from North Vietnam to the South. An uneventful mission but making Dan a Vietnam veteran none-theless.

Holding little faith in the American system, even Dan’s superiors could see his uniform was an awkward fit. 

As soon as his three years’ military service was complete he left the navy and became an English teacher in Nagasaki where the children called him Dan Sensei. 

From there he went on to teach in Taiwan, while across the Strait, Chairman Mao was launching his Cultural Revolution.

GOOD TIMES

Then there was a stint back in the US working for the State Department, while at the same time tending a piece of land for a Japanese friend on Bainbridge Island off Seattle. 

It was here, just before the Summer of Love, that Dan acquired his tipi from hippies experimenting with alternative ways to live.

As a ‘reserve unit’ in the US Navy, Dan was determined to avoid a second tour in Vietnam. So, in 1969, Dan thought this would be a good time to travel the world. 

“I left America just as Nixon was coming in. I could see it was going nowhere good. And I was right. I could have had a decent life there, but it’s just not a nice place to be.”

After dinner, Dan shows me photos of gatherings he used to throw to celebrate the solstice. Thirty or 40 people scattered across the meadow. 

Children playing on the grass mown short by the sheep and goats. The hot-tub full, and a band set up on the flat stone that spent years as Dan’s dinner table. 

Photo taken in 2000
Photo taken in 2000

In one picture, Dan is in the foreground, robust as a mountain, the beard just as white 20 years ago, and standing tall behind him is the tipi he donated to my guesthouse in Dali.

“Those were good times,” Dan says, a rounded stoop to his large shoulders that wasn’t there in China. 

“But I don’t get many visitors anymore. Now it’s mostly just me, and this is no place for an old man.” 

He tells me last month he was scheduled for a heart check-up at Bantry hospital. At dawn he hiked to the edge of his land, then walked a further three miles to the hitchhiking spot. 

He stood there four hours but nobody picked him up. So, having missed his appointment, he hobbled home. 

“With my health, I have four or five years left at best… They’re not going to be much fun.” Dan shrugs.

A life spent alone will most probably mean a death spent alone. “Christy Moore visited here a few times, we had an idea to open a recording studio on the land. But nothing ever came of it.

In another photo, three happy couples are sitting on the grassy roof of his house, Dan’s arm around a young woman. 

“It might have been nice to do the marriage and family thing,” he says. “But my focus was always on this piece of land, and I never really met anyone who was interested in doing that. 

"I think it sounds romantic to the ladies until they actually get here and realise they really have to squat on a rock over the ocean.”

WAY TO LIVE

All day I’ve found myself looking for meaning in Dan’s story. What does Dan do? 

But that’s like asking what does a tree, or a stone, do? Still, as the last light leaks from the day, I ask if his life had any purpose?

Dan tries to shrug the question off, but I insist.

“I just wanted to get people interested in working with a piece of land,” he says. “Out of necessity, most people’s life choices are driven by the need to make money. 

"A few lucky breaks early on, and a little family inheritance, meant I always had just about enough. So that allowed me to shape my life differently. 

"I never orientated this land around a commercial interest. I just wanted to play with it. To enjoy it. To just be here. And offer an example of a different way to live.”

For health reasons Dan must leave his piece of Ireland to live closer to a hospital or move to Japan to die drinking sake. 

His 120 acres of West Cork coastline would ideally suit a rustic tourism venture or retreat, or a community of people wanting to live off the land.

For enquiries please contact Brian Keane at briankeanewriter@gmail.com

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