The islands of Ireland: Take Ireland's only cable car to Dursey Island

The sign tells you that you are 3,310km from Moscow as such signs sometimes inform the curious geographer, writes Dan MacCarthy

However, you are only metres away from Ireland’s strangest mode of transport (once you discount the rickshaw, shakily appearing in several cities these days).

The Dursey cable car is strung above the Dursey Sound, which is a 150m wide passage between the island and Lamb’s Head at the tip of the Beara Peninsula. It is a
denuded island, austere but captivating.

On a quiet day the channel is notorious for the tidal race that flows at high speed and poses a threat to boats. On a wild day you had better recite the prayer pinned to the inside of the cable car to protect you from the seething sea below as you pitch and roll to sanctuary on the far side.

“Whoever goes to the Lord for safety/ whoever remains under the protection of the Almighty/ can say to him, ‘You are my defender and protector./ You are my God; in you I trust’. He will keep you safe from all hidden dangers”. Looking at the above picture you can see why — of course the cable car doesn’t operate in such conditions.

The cable car was operated up to March this year by Paddy Sheehan who also ran a B&B nearby with his wife, Agnes. Paddy’s death in March robbed the area of a beautiful smiling presence. Riding the cable car without his capable hands at the controls just won’t be the same.

There are plans to upgrade the cable car and to build a second as well to cater for
the upsurge in tourists to the area which have doubled to nearly 17,000. Cork County Council also hopes to build a visitors’ heritage centre which would be highly successful if judging by the numbers visiting say, the Skellig interpretive centre at Portmagee, Co. Kerry.

Dursey was the site of one of the most appalling massacres ever to have taken place in Ireland. In 1602, Sir George Carew, who was clearing up the last pockets of the resistance by Gaelic chieftains after the Battle of Kinsale, laid siege to the island, the fortress home of Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare. In the ensuing battle 300 people of the O’Sullivan clan, other villagers and some people from the mainland were executed on the island’s cliffs. The bodies were thrown in to the sea. O’Sullivan Beare himself was absent and later undertook an almost impossible journey 550km north to Co Leitrim with 1,000 followers. The group
was attacked by rival clans and only 35 survived. O’Sullivan Beare was murdered in Madrid in 1608.

Dursey forms the terminus of the 206km Beara Way walking trail, part of which is
incorporated into the Beara-Breifne walk to commemorate the mammoth trek. However, even if you’re not undertaking that task, Dursey’s 14km of undulating road and ferny hillside will leave all but the most dedicated alpinist sated. There are several shorter routes waypointed along the way for a more leisurely day out. There are no shops or pubs on the island and any provisions you need must be brought with you.

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A mere five souls now inhabit the island, which is five more than many of our other islands, sadly depopulated. The population peaked at 237 in 1861, mainly located in the three villages. The island has several other points of interest: a Napoleonic watchtower which affords splendid views of the Calf, Cow and Bull Rock islands — the latter has a brilliantly remote lighthouse. Dursey, too is a phenomenal birdwatching site.

Dursey, in common with several other Irish islands, demonstrates the range of the Viking incursion. As mentioned previously on this page, the suffix ‘ey’ is the Norse for island, hence Dursey (Bull Island), Saltee, Lambay, and others. Strictly speaking it should not be referred to as Dursey Island at all, as that is effectively saying ‘Dursey Island island’. But who wants to speak strictly. The Vikings used Dursey as a slave centre. When enough were gathered they were shipped to Scandinavia.

  • How to get there: Take the R572 west of Glengarriff, Co Cork. Follow the signs for Dursey Cable Car.
  • Timetable: Accommodation: Discover Dursey, Penelope Durrell,
    Ballinacarriga Books

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