Jo Kerrigan picks her absolute favourite five places in West Cork.
What is it about West Cork that draws everyone? That enchantingly irregular coastline, of course, golden beaches made for childhood memories, blue mountains, tiny fields. A magical atmosphere too, more Mediterranean than Atlantic, where tomorrow’s worries can be put off as you enjoy today to the full. But which part, which spot to esteem above the others? Now that’s a difficult one.
Due west of the city, just beyond Macroom, is the strangely compelling Gearagh. A flooded forest, a drowned landscape, a haven for wild birds, An Gaoire, the old Irish name for a wooded river is all of these. A whole community lived in and around the Gearagh for centuries; but then came proposals for a hydro-electric scheme and the flooding of the Lee Valley. Families that had lived there for generations had perforce to leave as the waters slowly rose and drowned their fields, their homes, the paths they knew so well.
It can’t be denied though that where human residents lost out, nature benefited. Today birdwatchers, plant specialists, and nature lovers, as well as walkers, come here all year round to explore its mysteries. The old track running through its heart gives a clue to an earlier time, more domestic uses. Sometimes too, after a particularly dry summer, the network of subsidiary paths and little field systems reveal themselves. For a short while you can imagine that the Gearagh is once again echoing to the shouts of children, the clucking of hens at a cottage door, the creak of a turf cart. At evening, when the setting sun etches the black outlines of ancient tree stumps against the sky, the fluting call of a curlew sounds like a lament for a vanished, simpler world.
Baltimore and the islands
Baltimore, with its lively quayside and cheerful atmosphere, is devoted to all things maritime. As the ferry port for the islands of Sherkin and Cape Clear, it’s always crowded with backpackers and fishermen, birdwatchers and sightseers, as well as islanders returning from a day’s shopping on the mainland. The main industry on Sherkin (no more than 5km x 2.5km, with a resident population of about 100) is a marine station which monitors the flora and fauna of Roaringwater Bay, but in summer it’s popular with families who enjoy the peace and quiet as well as the uncrowded beaches.
Cape Clear, about 8 miles further out, is both our southern-most inhabited and southern-most Gaeltacht island, with a marvellously laid-back approach to life that is also extremely practical — it has to be. The weather can be wild and windy at any time of the year and the traditional stone houses huddle into sheltering bushes. There has been a bird observatory here for over 50 years, and in September the storytelling festival brings participants from all over the world to compete with local seanchaí. To listen to a soft voice telling legends of long ago, while the wind rattles the door, is to step back in time.
Crookhaven and the Mizen
Crookhaven, tucked into a sheltered inlet, is the very epitome of a sleepy fishing village. It looks as though nothing ever has or ever could happen to disturb its peace. Yet its history is as chequered and colourful as the wildest adventure story. Smuggling and shipwrecks, burnings and battles, East India merchantmen and Spanish galleons, lobsters, pilchards, traders, businessmen, miners, soldiers, spies, starving emigrants — it has known them all.
The spectacular golden sands at Barleycove are backed by high sand dunes with a river running through from Lisagriffin Lake. The ruins of a chapel and graveyard look down from the hill above, reminders that the population here was once far larger. All the way out to Mizen, though, are similar reminders of a busier past.
Mizen Head is beautiful at any time, but is at its dramatic best on a wild, blustery day, when the relentless waves far below tear at the cliffs and send yellow foam flying even up over the headland. The lighthouse (or more accurately the fog signal station) with its exhibition of earlier days, is on a separate steep-sided island with a dizzying bridge linking the two. Sit in the cafe, look out to the far Fastnet, and listen to echoes of the past.
Furthest Beara: Dursey, Allihies, and Eyries
Dursey Island is the only place in Ireland where post arrives by cable car. As does everything else. It’s not unusual to share the swinging cabin with a sheepdog and his flock, glass for a broken window, foodstuffs, and of course the postman.
Turning eastwards, brightly coloured Allihies comes into view, its many-hued houses spreading out along the bay under the sheltering hills. Copper mining has been part of life here right back to the Bronze Age. In the 19th century, with the Puxley family of Dunboy in charge, almost 300,000 tonnes of ore was shipped out of West Cork. Today Allihies has a tiny population, the silence unbroken over hillsides that once echoed to the noise of industry.
Next comes Eyeries, another village where every house is painted a different colour. Falling for a Dancer was filmed here, as was the 1977 movie Purple Taxi. There are more ancient monuments in this area than you could discover in a month of Sundays, chief of them being the great grey rock known as The Hag of Beara, An Chailleach Beara. A key matriarchal figure of ancient Irish beliefs, she is still honoured by coins and trinkets placed at her feet.
Inis Irce, to give it its old name, is likely to have been a place of pilgrimage and worship long before Christianity. Any source of a great river was a powerful site in ancient Ireland, while the encircling mountains and dark lake cast their own spell. Today’s visitors tend to come by road, but there is another, older route definitely only for the experienced hiker, which brings you over the shoulder of Conigar mountain from Kerry. In earlier times this was a secret road, used by many an Irish patriot to escape pursuit.
Before afforestation there were many tiny fields here, cottages, winding laneways connecting homes with crops and cattle. Today, as you wander in the green depths of the woods, the dim light slowly reveals the shape of old stone walls, now so covered with moss they seem to have been almost completely absorbed into the natural landscape. Again and again you meet the Lee, still only a gurgling baby at this point, dancing its way down the valley.
Two legendary figures of Gougane Barra in the 1930s and 40s were the Tailor and Ansty. Their tiny cottage which still stands on the narrow road into Gougane itself, was packed every night and the Tailor was in his element as he held forth on ancient traditions, customs, stories and legends, while Ansty bustled about, pausing only to contribute some caustic comment. Now the couple sleep peacefully in the tiny graveyard by the lake “in the townland of Garrynapeaka, in the district of Inchigeela, in the parish of Iveleary, in the barony of West Muskerry, in the county of Cork, in the province of Munster”, as the Tailor, with an eye to an admiring audience, was wont to style their address.
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