Last week, en route to La Gomera in the Canary Islands, I decide to stop off in Tenerife and take the 1.2km cable car ride to the top of Mount Teide, 3,660m above sea level. Cable cars are invariably an exciting way to travel.
My first ever cable car journey was in or around 1981 to Dursey Island in West Cork. A sheep was getting off the car as I was getting on. The animal wasn’t well and was being brought to the mainland by its owner, presumably to see a vet and to recuperate on the richer pastures of the mainland.
The crossing was an exciting trip, hair-raising for novices. Immediately after setting off, the gondola went ‘downhill’ as if ‘diving’ towards the rocks far below. Seconds later, to the relief of all but my young sons and other thrillseekers, it straightened and pursued a stately, level course to the other side.
Cork County Council replaced the old car in 2009 with a larger, stouter box, transporting six passengers at a height of 26m above the sea. The ‘downhill’ sector was still a thrill and the crossing well worthwhile, with the delights of the island waiting on the other side.
The old car was retired to a local farmyard, where it served as a hen house. A lifesize, fibreglass lamb stood in the doorway, a reminder that that transport of delight had conveyed not only passengers but livestock to the island. Fine turkey cocks and geese shared the hen run, and spectacular peacocks roamed about.
Between mainland and island, in the narrow cliff-walled channel of the Dursey Sound, two currents meet. When one reflects that Dursey is, in fact, the severed fingertip of the Beara Peninsula, it is not surprising that, in rough weather, the waters of vast Kenmare Bay and even vaster Bantry Bay, meeting in the gap, should clash and boil.
The sea is, most often, crystal clear. Dolphins sometimes disport inside the Sound and a friend told me that, once, he saw nine basking sharks, some at least 8m long, cruising languidly in the channel. It must have been an especially calm day, probably in late summer. Basking sharks, as we know, are harmless, their fins like small, black sailing boats cutting the surface as the giants feed on plankton beneath.
On most years, we visited Dursey at least once between spring and autumn. Its spell is different from that of the relatively sheltered islands of Roaring Water and Bantry Bay. Its landscape is spectacular, ascetic, bare. There are no hedgerow-skirted lanes and no wild trees, although among the few occupied cottages some have shelter belts of shrubs, sycamore and low pines.
A high island, the gentle contours offer marvellous walking with no hindrance to the rambler on the trafficless roads and unfenced hills.
From the ridge 250m above the plain, a bird’s eye prospect of the island is laid out. To the north there are middle-distance views of the blue mountains of Kerry over the expanse of the Kenmare River — actually an enormous bay — and to the south, across Bantry Bay, to the finger of hills that is the Sheep’s Head peninsula.
For choughs, a rare species of crow with glossy black plumage and red beaks and legs, Dursey is a stronghold. They tumble and soar in the updrafts of the cliffs and provide spectacular birdwatching. The island’s flora is specialised and interesting, and there are historical sites, some of great antiquity.
For all its beauty, Dursey has a tragic history. In 1602, after the Irish defeat at Kinsale, its 300 inhabitants, all members of the O’Sullivan clan, were massacred by the forces of George Carew and all of Beara put to fire and sword.
Now, in December, the landscape is brown and sere, and the sea grey beneath the steep cliffs and coves. In soft weather, it is romantic when curtains of misty rain blow across the small green fields and ruined cottages.
It is sun-baked in good summers when, for lack of trees, there is no shade. It is, perhaps, loveliest of all in September, when its carpets of heather are in flower and its rolling hills are dressed in gorse, dramatic against the blue of the sea.
Cork County Council has applied to Bord Pleanála for permission to create a visitor centre with parking for 100 cars, a gift shop, café and terraces on the nearby mainland. Estimated visitors would number 80,000 per year, while two new cable cars could transfer 300 passengers per hour back and forth to the island.
The character of Dursey, as it has existed through geological time and human history would, of course, be changed utterly, beyond recognition and forever.