Shags, walks and Cape in ship shape

SHAGS, despite their prejudicial name, are elegant birds, much more attractive than their cousins, the cormorants.

A fishing party – a float of shags? – some 30 strong bobbed on the swells as we approached Cape Clear Island in Roaringwater Bay, off the west Cork coast, on the Friday morning of the May Holiday weekend. Their plumage shone glossy black, with a bottle-green iridescence in the sunlight, and their top-knots, like crewcuts coaxed over their foreheads, gave them a rakish look. A gorgeous gannet (and I say that not for the onomatopoeia but because no other word could adequately describe this bird) floated so close to the ferry, the Dún Áengus from Baltimore, that we could see the dark blue ring around the yellow eye set in its bright orange head. And then it rose, cruised 50 feet above us and, of a sudden, rocketed down into the sea.

For the folk that find intimations of the divine in west Cork’s rugged beauty, Cape Clear Island, over the May weekend, was as near to heaven as they might hope to experience on earth. The programme arranged for the island festival, with guided walks, talks, poetry and sean nós evenings filled every waking hour with interest and romance. Few could fail to be awed by the beauty of the island, its empty spaces, its quiet roads, its bright blue bays. Westward, far out in the Atlantic, black and alone, the Fastnet light floats on a shimmering sea. To the the east, the other islands of Roaringwater Bay – the Calfs, Heir, Sherkin; too many to name – lie between us and the ‘blue remembered hills’ of Ireland, ‘remembered’ because a few weeks before we had walked the slopes of Mount Gabriel and looked out at Cape from on high.

Beyond the islands and the Sheep’s Head, the mountains of Beara stand sharp in the sunlight, the shadows of high clouds mottling the slopes of Hungry Hill. The sheer emptiness is awe-inspiring. Further still, the mountains of Kerry stand hazed by distance as the morning grew warmer. Everywhere, gorse blooms in mad profusion, and confections of pink sea thrift and yellow trefoil drape the bare cliffs where fulmar and herrings gulls sit in sun-warmed, sheltered nests.

Great walking routes are being opened on Cape, awesome routes, as good as any on the magnificent Beara and Sheeps Head Way (recently joined – and what a bonus that is, for native and visiting walkers alike). Now, many Cape landowners, in the spirit of hospitality for which the island is widely known, have come together and, at the suggestions of Micheál O Ceadagáin and Eileen Leonard, have agreed to allow walks across their land. Fáilte Ireland has rowed in, providing financial support and signage. By giving permission for a waymarked trail, the landowner is not creating a right-of-way but once a walk is approved, insurance automatically follows. We enjoyed a long section with spectacular cliff-top scenery on land owned by Cape’s resident American poet and writer, Chuck Kruger.

On that walk, we numbered 28; some weekenders had come from Dublin. Cape is Ireland as it used to be. Was Ireland better then? Clearly the generation brought up to discos and strobe lights enjoy it too. With rucksacks and sleeping-bags they came off the boat, heading for the campsite. They sang old ballads in the island clubhouse. As Wordsworth said, the Youth “still is Nature’s Priest/ And by the vision splendid/ Is on his way attended...” Every bit as much as ourselves, they enjoyed Cape’s clear nights with the stars laid out across the dark blue sky – and (like our ancestors) savoured them nonetheless enthusiastically for a medium intoxication of who-knows-what, alcohol, herbal concoction, love and romance or the movements of the stars themselves. Far from the rat-trap world of 21st-century city living, a weekend in island isolation is rejuvenation for the soul.

On our first morning home, we watched three fully-fledged mistle thrushes, from the nest high on the beech across our stream, stand out onto the branches, whirr their wings wildly for practice and, at last, launch themselves earthwards. For a day or two their parent will feed them; then they will see them no more. In the space of an hour, the home is abandoned and the family broken up. The parents have replicated themselves 150% – great success. Now, we must watch out for cats!

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