AS we set off left from the pier, our trail head, gulls hang low over the road, riding an up-draught and crying out as if outraged by our arrival. There is no other living thing to be seen. The island population reached three hundred people in the nineteenth century; now, it numbers ten. Long Islanders were a hardy people; the men were fishermen and farmers. Their wives were mighty oars women, rowing fifteen miles to Skibbereen to the mill. In December 1795, a brig en route from Cadiz to Dublin with a cargo of Christmas oranges foundered, and was attacked by the industrious citizens with axes so that “not an atom was left afloat”. Oranges and timber from Long Island were sold all over West Cork.
Soon, the views are magnificent; Clear Island to the south, Sherkin, seen over the low-lying Calf Islands, to the south east, then Baltimore town, with the Napoleonic-era Signal Tower on the hills above. In the sea far to the west, the Fastnet Rock and its lighthouse stand lonely and shining in the sun.
The beacon at the end of Long Island can be seen ahead. In the island peace, cars catching the sunlight as they pass along the Colla road seem like phenomena in another world and another time, and the communication domes shining atop Mount Gabriel are artefacts on another planet. It is easy to forget not just the bistros, bookshops and boutiques of Schull, but the entire island of Ireland.
As we approach the beacon, the road narrows to a lane. Soon, we walk over trackless, open ground above rock platforms. We cross a stream above a sheltered cove, and continue through a stile, onto a field above. Below us, a large, black rock lies offshore across a channel of water as clear as an aquarium, a pristine marine environment with shellfish and anemones, and long, brown eel grass moving in the flow.
Retracing our steps, we pass Midland Pier and turn left for Westerland. The road climbs slightly, passing exposed rock faces which, for a student of lichens, would provide hours of interest. Passing the island school, now a dwelling, we can see Coney Island to the right. Across the sound Mount Gabriel is large against the sky. Four thousand years ago, paths crossed the mountain to reach the workings on its slopes, the first copper mines in Western Europe.
We reach a T-junction, and the land ahead is uncultivated, rock-rent and bockety. What appear to be two low towers are silhouetted against the sea; they are the ruined gables of long-abandoned houses. Around them relics of old potato ridges extend down to the very rocks of the shore. This land offered little sustenance, and that little, hard won. Of food for the spirit, there was a feast, and if the native people could have lived on the scenery, their bellies would have indeed been filled. Here, like the sea or sky, the land is nature’s domain and humans pass but leave little trace of their having been.
We turn right, down to the beach, and Westerland Pier. Looking out over the land, where any trace of fields has long been subsumed by furze and heather, there is not a single human artefact to snare one in time. A few hours walking on Long is like a holiday from the world and its business. One wonders if one ever wants to set foot on the mainland again.
Start point: Long Island is located on the north side of Roaringwater Bay, opposite the townland of Colla, three kilometres south of Schull. The ferry to Long Island leaves from Colla Pier twice a day; the passage takes only ten minutes. See www.longislandferry.org .
Easy going on tarred road, but sections can be boggy — waterproof footwear is advised.
Map: OS Discovery 88
Feb 25: Slish Wood/ Inisfree, easy, 9km, 2.5hrs, meet Carraroe Retail Park (Curry’s end), 10am.
The 5th Annual Táin Walking Festival will be held this weekend on the beautiful Cooley Peninsula in Co Louth. Walks include hikes in the Cooleys, strolls around the shores of Carlingford Lough, and historical walks exploring the myths and legends of the area. Nine walks to choose from, of varying levels, starting with a night walk on Friday. Programme: www.carlingford.ie.
Mar 2: Coomnadiha walk, grade A, meet the square, Kenmare, 9am.
Mar 2: Introductory Hard Hike, from Brockagh mountain to the Glendalough visitor centre, via the Wicklow Gap, 19km, meet corner of Burgh Quay and Hawkins St, 10am or bus stop before roundabout at Loughlinstown, 10.20am.