Bedraggled Owenahincha - What happened our ‘Vegas’?

In the glory days of the 70s and 80s Owenahincha was a buzzing holiday hotspot. Tommy Barker visits a very different place today, yet there may be signs of a brighter future for this faded beauty

Bedraggled Owenahincha - What happened our ‘Vegas’?

ON most beaches, the tide comes in and goes out on a twice-daily basis. At West Cork’s bedraggled Owenahincha, it appears the spot is washed-up, stuck at low ebb.

But, locals recall “it was like Las Vegas here in the 1970s. There were three hotels, holiday homes and chalets in the dunes, two caravan parks so full you couldn’t get into them, the place was heaving all summer long”.

Hugely popular with families from Cork City, its population swelled from after Easter to October, with the place thronged in June, July and August. Mothers and children and grannies and neighbours decamped to holiday homes, or to the myriad mobile homes, and working fathers either journeyed up and down on a daily basis, or made long weekends out of the setting, an hour from the city, five minutes from Rosscarbery and 15 minutes to Clonakilty, the latter West Cork’s self-styled, but justly deserved, beach and cove capital.

Now, it couldn’t be more different for Owenahincha. Its main hotel has been demolished and left an ugly site; the bones of the two other hotel hulks are left standing but not trading (a section of one, Ocean View, opens summer Sunday nights for music and memories) one of the two caravan parks is vacated; it’s little wonder that some have likened the apparent bombed-out beach abandonment to Beirut, or that writer Peter McCarthy in his famed travelogue McCarthy’s Bar likened it to Kosovo — a comparison that jarred locally, but didn’t prompt any renaissance.

It could, and should, be lovely. It’s got two beaches linked by a spit, home to a lifeguard hut, with shingle and stream one side, sand and dunes and rocky inlets the other. To the east is Galley Head lighthouse, to the west beyond Glandore Bay the Staggs Rock jaggedly punctures the horizon, and Warren Strand, plus the pier serving Rosscarbery and the short Cliff Walk, fill in what is indeed a pretty picture. It can even be sublime (once, like Lot’s wife, you don’t look back; thankfully, its dunes help obscure the inland view).

A Tripadvisor posting earlier this year opined of Owenahincha: “It’s the fault of man, not nature. It’s a pity to see what has become of a beautiful environment, it’s a run-down, sad kind of place. Hope the future brings better things,” it noted optimistically, indeed charitably.

Yet, on a sunny day, the beaches still fill up, bathers, kite surfers and fledgling surfers (the Rebel Wave surf school shares its time between Warren Strand and here) take the plunge, there’s still a natural beauty to the setting — if you look to sea. Owenahincha still has its enviable Blue Flag status for 2013, a sign of pure, clean water.

“The 1970s and 1980s were a glorious era,” recalls Frank O’Sullivan, who worked for 23 years at the now-disappeared Owenahincha Hotel. The hotel had band entertainment seven nights a week, Paddy Connolly’s Strand Hotel alongside also had music and a hall; dinner dances were a huge affair at the Owenahincha Hotel, drawing couples from Skibb to Clon, and some night crowds of 500 and 600 were fed and watered. Cars lined the road along the beach and around the corner, and the bars barely shut ‘til schools re-opened. “It was so busy, the parents sent their children in to hold seats in the bar for them, and the kids would be up the walls,” Frank remembers.

Times changed. Cheap Spanish holidays had a lure, where sunshine could be virtually guaranteed. The simple resort got frayed and rough at the edges. Even though the main hotel was doing okay, and holding up physically if not beautifully, owners the Forde family sold up in 2003. Perhaps the beach hotel renewal that worked so spectacularly at more-scenic Inchydoney, albeit up a traffic-jamming cul de sac nearer to Clonakilty, might be repeated at Owenahincha? Not to be.

Buyer Jerry Donovan knocked and went for planning for — ironically — a Vegas-style hotel, initially with proposed underground car parking and it was to have a tunnel under the road, direct to the beach. A second planning application was less tempting of fate and flood tides, but nothing came of it, bar an ugly fenced-off eyesore site.

After another sale, one of Owenahincha’s two mobile home parks was shut down by local businessman Tossie Hayes, who already owned the beach’s main 140-berth mobile home park by the old stone lodge gates to Castlefreke Castle, and who has portable building and school pre-fab businesses. He has plans to reopen it “in due course” and this summer says he senses the start of a turn-around: “I’ve sold more mobile homes in the last two months than I did in the last two years,” Mr Hayes told the Irish Examiner.

He has also just bought the old Castlefreke Motel above the rabbit warren dunes, a time-warp structure built by a German, owned by Dutch and Irish, but closed for the last 27 years or more.

Tossie Hayes hopes to get it going very soon, and has two sons working with him locally, making for a third generation as his mother (aged 97 now) started with a few caravans in his farmer father’s fields. His parents refused an offer from Butlins to sell their land by the beach for a Munster Mosney, he reveals.

Up in the woods behind Owenahincha, the old seat of the Carbery family is undergoing salvation, where the former, stern castle home of the Freke family amid Coillte forest and by Tidy Towns award-winning village Rathbarry, is being rescued by Stephen Evans-Freke, a US-based descendent. After a spend of millions, and multiples to go, progress has slowed, but at least here the tide is already turning, slowly.

Back down at the beach, second-generation shop and fast-food take-away operator Patrick O’Sullivan notes that Owenahincha has a resident summer catchment of perhaps 1,000, and his kiosk business makes hay (or 99s) when the sun shines.

When we visit, Patrick has just served coffees to two German tourists, Robert Krois and Wolfgang Kuhn from Munich, on day 12 of their anti-clockwise Round Ireland drive by standard-issue Mercedes and just back from a beach walk with camera. Their Owenahincha impression?” We just came across it when we left the main road and we find it beautiful, even as it is. It doesn’t need dancehalls and casinos. We came for nature and the environment, not crowds.”

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