Observed mistily above the Sherkin hills from the Beacon at Baltimore, Cape Clear is an enticing island and by far the largest in Roaringwater Bay, writes Dan MacCarthy
At 45 minutes journey by ferry from Baltimore, the ferry trips to its shores is one of the longest to an island in the country — around the same time as the journey to Inismór in Co Galway or Tory Island, Co Donegal.
The distance from the mainland is the main reason that it has survived as a Gaeltacht, running as it does regular summer courses for speakers of all abilities to improve their cúpla focal.
The island once had a population of more than 1,000 people but now at 120 still represents one of our most populated islands.
What to do on Cape? What not to do.
The island has a couple of superb waymarked walking trails. One winds through the eastern part of the island past a wooded area and crosses an old mass path before twisting back towards the pier.
The other brings you to the southern pier and then high above the banks of purple heather before turning back towards the pier.
There are magnificent views out to sea — here a fishing boat surrounded by gulls, there the red-socked choughs wheeling above the cliffs.
It is no accident that there is a bird observatory on the island, as Cape Clear is on the migratory route of hundreds of species and even a few visitors from Siberia and north America occasionally show up.
The observatory runs very popular courses for twitchers.
The island has a smattering of cyclists who bring their bikes across on the ferry.
They must be hardy, for the island’s hills are very tough to climb.
Still, the reward of careering downhill is a good payoff. Kayakers explore its bays and caves. You can even dive to the many wrecks around the island.
All of the above are for the outdoor enthusiast.
For the indoor version there are a few fine pubs and a decent restaurant and the by-now, internationally famous storytelling festival which is foremost in keeping alive this ancient vernacular art.
The ferry from Baltimore or Schull arrives into the north harbour, which recently had a €4m pier and storm wall built to replace the older crumbling structure.
This harbour is not far from the south harbour and at some point in the distant future will eventually cleave through the rock and create two islands.
Cape Clear has been populated for at least 5,000 years and neolithic and bronze age artifacts are on display in the museum.
Further west, a ruined Ó Drisceoil castle from the 14th century hangs on precariously above the waves.
The museum has an impressive archive of the O’Driscoll clan, which has an annual gathering in Baltimore.
It also possesses a superb collection of island artifacts, including old farm implements and even an old dresser with assorted crockery.
An excellent display and film on the history of the Fastnet illustrates the life of the lighthouse keepers.
Linking the past with the present is a display on island placenames gathered by toponymist Eamon Lankford and superbly researched in his book Cape Clear Island: Its People and Landscape. Among the hundreds of placenames he lists are those for cliffs, rocks, headlands: an com, “the hollow”; an cuar, “the bend”; an fhaill, “the toothed cliff”; cuas an uisce, “where a stream drops down to a small inlet”.
This tradition of nomenclature is kept alive by Ed Harper who runs a famous goat farm in the island. He has names for all of his goats including Oileáin, Inis, Eibhir (granite), Carraig, Sgurr (jagged peak).
Harper, who is blind, has been running his goat farm since 1979 and typifies the hardiness of the islanders who are frequently cut off from the mainland in winter by towering seas and severe gales. Milking his goats here with his young German wwoofer Lovis Szymber (willing workers on organic farm) his smile and easy way bespeak a contented man.
From Baltimore and Schull, West Cork. Regular ferry service www.cailinoir.com
Hostel; B&Bs; Airbnbs; www.yurt-holidays-ireland.com
Transport: Paddy’s Wagon tractor-drawn trips. Ask at pier
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved