Cork: Tracing Dursey Island’s history


BEARA is a finger of land reaching far out into the Atlantic and Dursey is at its tip. It is reached via Ireland’s only cable car, a stout box carrying up to six passengers —or two heifers, or four sheep — which crosses the abyss between the mainland and the island on a cable 26m (80ft) above the sea. The old car, replaced in 2009, now rests in a local farmyard, serving as a home for hens, turkey cocks and geese.

Immediately after starting out, the car starts ‘downhill’, seemingly set to nosedive onto the rocks below. In the narrow, cliff-walled channel below, dolphins sometimes disport and, along with basking sharks, are worth watching for.

Dursey is different than the relatively sheltered islands of Roaringwater and Bantry Bay. Spectacular in a bare, ascetic way, in winter, the landscape is brown, the sea grey, the view romantic when soft rain blows like veils across the small green fields and ruined cottages. It is sun-baked in good summers, for there are no trees, and no shade.

It is loveliest in September, when the prickly, ground-hugging Irish dwarf gorse is in flower and Dursey’s hills are dressed in brilliant gold, dramatic against the blue of the sea. There is no hindrance to the rambler on the traffic-less roads and unfenced hills.

The route is simple. We take the straight, empty road that runs from the Trailhead, the Cable Car Station, to the western end. We return via a waymarked path of the Beara Way, parallel to the road on the dorsal ridge above it.

Setting out, we have a bird’s eye view of the monastery and burial ground, once known as St Mary’s Abbey, perched above the sea below us. Descendants of the O’Sullivan chieftains of Beara are buried there. The road is unfenced, with grass growing down the middle. As we pass through the ruined hamlets of Ballynacallagh, Kilmichael and Tilickafinna, we might well be back in the 1940s; little had changed but for the mettaling of the road surfaces and the power line overhead.

The abandoned houses still stand firm, stone-built and unrendered, part of the landscape on the side of the hill. No sounds but those of nature break the silence.

For all its beauty, Dursey has a tragic history. In 1602, after the Irish defeat at Kinsale, its 300 inhabitants, members of the O’Sullivan clan, were massacred, and all of Beara was put to fire and sword. In the freezing winter of that year, the chieftain, Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, led what was left of his people on a long ghost-march to refuge with their O’Rourke kinsmen in far off Leitrim.

Attacked by both English and Irish every mile of the way, of the 1,000 men women and children that set out, only 35 reached their destination.

Arriving at the western headland, we may watch the gannets diving and the white waves breaking in silent animation on black rocks under the Bull Island lighthouse, two miles north. Beyond it, is the Iveragh Peninsula, blue mountains behind blue mountains; to the south, Muntervary, with the Sheep’s Head at the tip.

Returning, we ascend the ridge to the Signal Tower silhouetted on Cnoc Mór. Beara Way markers guide us to the summit (252m). and then downhill to Ballynacallagh. Soon after, we meet the road leading back to the Trailhead.


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