Ten years ago, Wicklow-born couple Sarah and Leonard Donnelly happily landed on West Skeam, in West Cork’s Roaringwater Bay, for a clutch of good reasons, but mostly for their children (and the dogs.)
They’ve Leinster roots, sailing and salt in the blood, and now have West Cork links as long and deep as trawler nets, having spent the last decade plying the inlets of Roaringwater Bay and the Ilen River. Leonard Donnelly had the good fortune, and foresight, to sell a telecoms company very successfully in 1999 before the dot-com crash, and has been entrepreneurially engaged in the sector ever since, both as an ‘angel’ investor and globe-trotting company executive, and he’s also current chairman of the Digital Hub in Dublin. The Donnellys landed on West Skeam after it was put up for sale in 2002 by its then-owner, the pioneer of lateral thinking Edward De Bono for $1 million, and before that it was owned by US artist James Turrell, who got it as part-payment for his work on Lissard House’s heavens-inspired Sky Garden. Former fighter pilot Turrell even put a landing strip on the island’s grassy central core, proving its allure for high-fliers of all hues. Before Turrell, West Skeam had been occupied by generations of the O’Regan family, from the late 19th century to the 1950s, and who farmed it, grazed cattle and fished for lobster, crab and shrimp.
With their main family home at Creagh House and gardens (off the Baltimore- Skibbereen road) already accessible by boat along the Ilen, the chance to put West Skeam under the Donnelly family belts and lifejackets meant being able to travel from their mainland, tidal estuary home to island by boat. That was especially handy when trying to get six dogs (they guard heavenly Skeam like Cerebrus guarded Hades), three boys and a mountain of paraphernalia from one spot to another. The simple expedient of an Orkney motorboat or RIB enabled almost exotic holiday travel with the lowest possible air-miles, weekends away just down the bay, month-long sojourns in solitude (or with guests) as well as memorable winters. The family have made massive and appreciative use of West Skeam, but with children getting older and more world-wise, it’s perhaps time to move on just a bit, and to retain instead the most incredible family memories of their West Skeam decade.
“They really became children here,” Sarah and Leonard explain of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ periods when all the clan were left to their own island imaginations and devices. Devices doesn’t just mean Playstation consoles, Nintendo DS or X-Boxes, although the island does have wi-fi/fast wireless broadband, mobile phone coverage a 22Kv Perkins diesel generator for power, spring well and massive water storage tanks, plus a pier accessible in all stages of the tides. For further-flung future owners, Cork city, airport and ferries are an hour and a half away, and after that, the world’s your oyster, and your island is your pearl.
“At first, you’ve a fear ‘how do I do this?’ and then you begin to realise the logistics of what you’ve to do to make it all work,” explain Leonard and Sarah of their decision to jump ship, or shore, and to take a chance on Skeam; it’s a leap and a place which has reaped them rich, enduring rewards. It enabled, they note with some gratitude, a childhood life of utter simplicity for their boys: swimming, sailing, walking, fishing, nature watching, pirating and defending.
West Skeam’s just off the raggedly intended coastline among Carbery’s 100 Islands, between Skibbereen, Ballydehob and Schull, with Baltimore to the east and Cape Clear and Sherkin islands to the south taking and breaking the worst of Atlantic swells. It’s inside the well-populated Heir Island, close to Horse, Calf and Long islands too, and easiest boat access is from Cunnamore Pier, a mile and half away by boat, while Schull’s about four miles out the peninsuala. Even the picture-postcard pretty road/boreen from the N71 to the upgraded Cunnamore pier holds the promise of boat-borne adventure.
Sibling West and East Skeam islands are close enough to swim from one to the other: East has the better beaches (and a few trees too) while tree-shorn West Skeam has four shingle beaches, four feral goats (hence the failure to grow new trees!) and a sheltering cove in the lee of the island where the Donnellys have made massive improvements to the staggered landing pier for all tides access, as well as putting out stout, concrete-anchored moorings. This horseshoe-shaped harbour cove gets scouring tides at times, so the conservation-minded family have also spent extensively on a 10’ high retaining stone wall on deep foundations to protect the ruins of a 10th century church, on a grassy site with monastic and gnostic roots going back many centuries ever before this old stone church was built. (They recall, with some amused bafflement, how one of the build crew offered to use the stones from the church to build the retaining wall, to preserve the, eh, church!)
They’ve also taken the island’s three main dwellings sensitively in hand. They’re post-Famine, reckoned to date to 1847, and form a three-sided courtyard cluster, huddled long and low from the prevailing winds, looking very much like Scottish crofters’ cottages in outline. The trio of cottages, plus pump/store house, have now been reroofed with easy-on the eye grey-green slates sourced from the US, from the same quarry that supplied slate in the early 1990s for Cobh Cathedral’s re-roofing.
Windows were also replaced with a mix of timber frames, from sashs to casement to top-hinged, albeit all respectfully kept in the traditional small opes. The window are safe-guarded by sturdy shutters, now painted a cheery red: back in Edward de Bono’s time, they were a muddy teak brown.
All of the cottages — the main house, master bedroom suite, and two-bed guest cottage — have had simple and complementary internal overhauls and comfort upgrades, yet there’s no show-boating going on, and decor’s neutral, understated, strong on natural materials. Floors are hardy, wide-plank oak, the kitchen was handmade on site (‘cos wall shapes were so irregular) in painted timber, with hardwood tops and centrepiece is a creamy four-oven Aga that took eight men and a system of rollers to get from pier to kitchen with. It ain’t leaving easily either.
On each side of the Aga are neat casement gable windows, one by the Belfast sink, and each has views back to the pier so the cook has an idea who is coming, or going, and exactly when to put the kettle on. Really cold outside and want to give a very warm to visitor or family? Well, there’s always the modern hot-tub, in the enclosed sheltered private courtyard. Whack up the heat a bit more, and you could probably do a locally-caught lobster or two in it too; forget ‘farm to fork’ philosophy, this could be from rock-pool to Whirlpool for the crustacean set.
Views from this stone-flagged courtyard look towards the Fastnet beacon, inland to Mount Gabriel, and over towards Cape and Sherkin with Heir Island (six ferries a day) in the most proximate view. Heir has a year-round population of several dozen souls, swelling to a couple of hundred in summer, with galleries, a sailing school, the Island Cottage restaurant, Firehouse Bakery and cookery school, and the sound in between is dotted with ribs, dinghies, kayaks, fishing boats and the Heir Island sloop and lobster boats. Bird life is rich and varied (Cape Clear is famed among twitchers) as is marine life, and biologists from the nearby Sherkin Island Marine Research Station often drop by Skeam too for a look-see.
West Skeam hit this summer’s property market with a €1.5 million price tag sought by Skibbereen estate agent Charles P McCarthy. He has had a series of multi-million euro sales in West Cork in the past 18 months and he notes the area’s almost as diverse in millionaires and billionaires as it is in fauna and flora. Mr McCarthy has his net out to catch the slightly more rare island-hopper, and after some interesting touch-downs, he’s hopeful of landing just the right one.
More than a few mansions and castles around the inlets and headlands have been rescued and rehabilitated in recent decades by the committed —and well-heeled actor and sailor Jeremy Irons’ Kilcoe Castle is just one.
Even on a short visit to a place like West Skeam, you come to appreciate just how much rich, and varied, life goes by, and goes on, on a ‘solitary’ island.
West Skeam’s a walk-in, wade-in, boat-in, fly-in and chill-out job.