Gunning to live in an artist’s retreat on Bere Island?

Renovated, old master gunner’s house is for sale, says Tommy Barker




The last thing auctioneer Dominic Daly sold at Bere Island sank.

Mr Daly, who sells houses, boats and islands, had the sale of a factory ship, the Bardini Reefer, which was at anchor in Castletownbere, in 1982, while it awaited a move to France. After the sale, the Bardini went on fire, exploded, and sank in 15 metres of water in the stretch of Bantry Bay between Castletownbere and Bere Island.

Now, as the island’s two, regular passenger-and-car ferries pass nearby multiple times every day, and divers explore the wreck, Bardini Reefer is a reminder of the many things that go on under the surface.

There’s the mystery of the sea in a place as special as Bere Island, and it’s also steeped in history. The bay and the strategically-guarding island have played a military and naval role since the 1600s, most notably in Napoleonic times, and then again around World War 1, when the British navy’s invaluable Dreadnought fleet was serviced from Berehaven. It was protected by the island’s heavy fortifications and by two six-inch guns with a 20-mile striking range. It was one of the most heavily fortified ports in the world.

The early-1900s guns are still in situ at the Lonehort Battery, at the island’s eastern end, ringed by a mile-long, 15’ deep and 13’ moat, and the location features on one of Bere’s three Beara Way walking routes. These bring foot-traffic to the island, which is two kilometres off the coast.

With two of the island’s original, four Martello towers still stand on the island’s heights, it’s impossible to ignore the past naval importance of Bere — and now, as Cork-city based estate agent Dominic Daly floats a scenically-set island house on the market, it, too, is uniformly steeped in military links.

Mr Daly has the century-plus old, renovated former master gunner’s house on his books, and has trained his sights on several buying markets.

One target (given the difficulties of getting planning permission for homes here, even for locals,) are visits from existing island residents as keen on the setting as on the house’s aspect, robust build quality and its quirks.

Then, there’s the holiday- home market, and locals reckon well over half the houses on Bere are used as second/holiday homes, swelling the island’s population from its regular head-count of 220, more than doubling it.

However, back before the Famine, the island supported 2,000 inhabitants, with 1,000 working in one island fishery in 1837, according to Samuel Lewis’ survey of that year. At British navy-use peak, 1,000 sailors and repair crew were stationed on Bere.

The island may also catch the eye of someone relocating, who hadn’t thought of buying on Bere until the romance of the idea struck (catch it even on a half-fine day, and you’re hooked, line and sinker) and that’s what happened for this current owner, artist Monica Groves and her husband Bart, who sailed to Bere 20 years ago and quickly dropped a more permanent anchor after falling for its charms when there engine had to be repaired at Bere’s Lawrence Cover marina. In sheer serendipity, Bart is a retired Royal Navy gun officer.

He and London-born painter Monica Groves now live in Wales, and Bere was a much-used second Celtic home for the couple for several decades; Monica’s painted the island in all weathers, seasons and all interpretations. Her works hang in exuberant abundance all around this house, and are on exhibition, and for sale, in the Mill Cove gallery across the 2kms of strait on the mainland.

Buy the master gunner’s house (given the two six-inch guns he controlled, does his title qualify as a double-barrel name?) and you just may get your pick of the paintings as a bonus.

En route to Bere, you’ll pass the sunken scene of Mr Daly’s last Bere sale, the reef-stricken Bardini Reefer, travelling either on Murphy’s ferry service (eight sailings each way daily, or with a similar level of service from C’townbere harbour’s ferry) from Pontoon, a few miles east of bustling fishing port, Castletownbere, to the island’s Lawrence Cove.

Glide up the slipway to neat island roads, rich in ditch-flora and with the only buzz from the bees, with an immediate sense of stepping back a few decades in time, and to an immediately slower pace. There’s something special about islands, even ones as easily reached as this.

Continuing east, past Rerrin village, Mr Daly prices the gunner’s two-storey house, on approximately a half-acre, at €300,000, but is open to sensible offers, and while he says that “it’s in walk-in condition,” it’s as likely a buyer will come for the island’s niche appeal as much as for the renovated building itself.

Ruggedly built, and with pvc double-glazing and oil central heating, it’s going to be a comfortable move/lifestyle change, and the house comes with an adjacent, detached, circa 750 sq ft lofted studio and work-space, with easily convertible visitor/guest use potential after straightforward upgrades.

Back in the slate-roofed main house, there are living rooms at both ground and first-floor levels, one above the other, and the best is the upper one, with triple aspect and access to a balcony for views over the bay to famed Hungry Hill and the towering Caha and Slieve Miskish ranges.

Floors are either tiled or, more warmly, in wide plank maple, furniture’s a mix of retro, contemporary, Ikea and practical, and brightly painted garden seats, like some Adirondack chairs, get a chance to come in out of the weather, thanks to a recently added, double-glazed gable-end sun room.

There’s three bedrooms, one at ground level, and, one of the two other room has an en-suite shower with double shower.

The kitchen’s a simple space, there’s a utility/pantry, ceiling heights are lofty, and joinery, such as the stair newels, are stoutly made in oak. Grounds around are reasonably sheltered, with some hydrangeas for spot colour, as well as other, typical West Cork plants, like fuchsias and then, towards the sea, the land grades in small fields, owned by a neighbouring farmer and by the Irish Defence Forces, who maintain a seasonally used training barracks on Bere, as well as a shooting range. Bere remained controlled by the British military until 1938 as part of the Treaty agreement, and now its varied and busy military past is being repackaged as a tourist interest, in line with Spike and Camden forts in Cork harbour.

Comfortable with its military past, and reversion to ‘civvy street’, it’s easy to see how you could fall for this spot as a home, and the island as a neighbourhood.

It’s just a couple of minutes’ walk to Rerrin village, with its one street, and slips and piers, and picture-pretty Lawrence Cove, which is home to a small, privately owned marina and craft shop, a welcome stopping-off spot by sailors making a way to, or from, Dingle and Kenmare, from spots like Schull, Crookhaven, Baltimore or beyond, in glorious cruising waters.

Marina owner Phil Harrington, and her family, get visitors from all around the Irish coast, as well as from Continental Europe and hardier Atlantic-crossing types, and she’s an advocate for the place’s natural charms.

Bere is well-serviced and proactive, she says, with school, church, bars, shop, GAA club, guesthouses, heritage centre (opened a few years ago by President Mary McAleese) and there’s any number of organisations, associations and groupings, she adds, as well as high employment levels.

There’s history (Sir George Carew put a road across Bere on the way to the Siege of Dunboy in 1602, continuing on to rout the O’Sullivan Bere clan as a result) and heritage, sea arches, cliffs, geology and exposed sandstone millions of years old, and temperate flora, woolly fauna, and views in every compass point direction, dominated by Hungry Hill to the north and the Sheep’s Head peninsula to the south.

There’s rarity value, too: only about 3,000 people live on Ireland’s diverse off-shore islands (800 on Aran’s Inis Mor) and Bere is the most populated of West Cork’s many islands, with its mere 220 souls. West Cork’s islands are banding together to promote themselves and one another, and, despite challenging times, islands are responding to the challenges (see websites like www.oileain.ie, or www.irelandsislands.com). Putting the master gunner’s Bere Island house on the market, niche market estate agent Mr Daly is doing what he does best — selling islands. Even a cursory half-day visit to Bere, and it sells itself.

The low-key, easy-going island is 11 kilometres long and five wide, which the highly-informative Bere Island Experience booklet wryly notes “is about the same size as Manhattan.” Bere Island, Berehaven — so good, they almost named it twice.



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