South west Ireland enjoys a relatively warm micro climate thanks to the gulf stream. This along with the variety of terrain; coastal cliffs, grassy fields, bogland, wooded areas, rivers, lakes, etc.; gives West Cork the most interesting collection of native flora and fauna. The coastline is dotted with villages rich in history, culture and activity and there are more harbours than any other part of Ireland.
West Cork has many sports, artistic, cultural and heritage attractions to offer visitors all year round. The local restaurants make use of good local produce: seafood, beef, vegetables, cheeses and more. Many pubs have music nightly in the Summer and on weekend the rest of the year.
Last week I promised to continue our journey westward from Clonakilty.
13 km South West of Clonakilty lies the picturesque resort of Rosscarbery, a cathedral town of serene beauty. The nearby enclosed Lagoon is ideal for angling and sheltered water sports. There is a leisure sailing centre here with craft for hire. Rosscarbery was originally a monastic settlement.
Two miles East is Bohonagh Stone Circle, including a displaced stone with cup marks, a low tomb, a well and a portal tomb. Two miles South East is Inch Strand sheltered by Cloghna Head. Cleena’s Rock here is said to be haunted by the goddess Cleena, one of the three magic waves of Irish Mythology. The noise of the sea entering the sea-caves adds drama to this belief.
Castle Salem – This 15th century castle is one of the best preserved castles in Ireland. 70 feet high with massive walls and loopholes, and the usual spiral stairway. The original castle dates from about 1470. There is an interesting old Quaker graveyard here. From Rosscarbery Bay there is a pleasant walk to Castle Freke, where you may enjoy the magnificent cliff scenery or walk through the state-owned Castlefreke Woods.
Glandore and Union Hall are beautifully old world villages overlooking unspoiled Glandore Harbour. Sheltered from the North and West winds, this is an excellent harbour for boating and fishing. The mild winters here encourage Mediterranean shrubs, making possible the commercial cultivation of winter flowers such as violets and anemones. The longest established regatta in West Cork takes place here annually. The two islands you can see in Glandore Harbour are known as Adam and Eve. The advice given to boatmen entering the harbour is “to avoid Adam and hug Eve” – sensible advice!
The long narrow bridge at the head of the inlet leads to the colourfully painted village of Union Hall, which derives its name from the passing of the Act of Union in 1801. Union Hall is a thriving fishing village.
Across the bay is the village of Leap or O’Donovan’s Leap at the head of Glandore Harbour. The name derives from a leap by a legendary bandit Donovan across a deep ravine in the vicinity. This is a “land of unspoiled beauty, heather-clad hills and sheltered valleys, sparkling streams and peaceful lakes, steep cliffs and shingly strands”.
Skibbereen, is a beautiful, lively market town and fishing port, also know as `Skibbereen of the Welcomes’, just 8 miles south of Drimoleague on the coastal route. The Cathedral (1826) is a fine Grecian-style building. The 14th c. ruins of Abbeystrewery Abbey (Cistercian) contain mass graves from the Great Famine, when Skibbereen suffered particularly harshly. The shadow of those days remained over the town for many decades. The West Cork Arts Centre in North Street, displays paintings & sculptures of the local artistic community, very international in its composition
The Romantic Creagh Gardens are based on a number of woodland glades and a serpentine mill-pond inspired by a Douanier Rousseau painting. The walled garden dating from Regency times is divided into orchard and kitchen gardens. The gardens are located 4 miles SW on the road to Baltimore, and are open daily from May to October.
Castletownshend, SE of Skibbereen, is a charming, steeply sloping village and was the home of Edith Somerville (1859- 1949), joint author with Martin Ross of `Experiences of An Irish R.M.’ and `The Real Charlotte’. Their novels formed the basis of the TV Series `An Irish RM’, in which the Resident Magistrate fought a battle of wits with the native Irish.
Less than a mile away is Knockdrum Ringfort, a fine restored ringfort, complete with guard-chamber and rampart, inscribed pillar-stone and 3 souterrains. The `Three Fingers’ (formally five) pillar stones lie nearby – pointing to sunrise on mid-summer day.
Baltimore, is a fishing, sea-angling and famous sailing centre and the port for Sherkin and Clear Islands, with regular ferry sailings from the harbour. It is also well known for its boat building. In 1923 Conor O’Brien circumnavigated the world in the Baltimore-built Saoirse. Baltimore features local traditional music regularly in the pubs, and the village retains its rustic Irish quality. There are romantic cliff walks along this magnificent coastline.
Just over a mile out to sea lies Sherkin Island (3 miles X 2 miles in size) on the fringe of Roaringwater Bay. It is an ideal day trip, with its unspoiled strands, cliffs, bays and views. Sights include a ruined 15th c. castle, a Franciscan Abbey and Marine Station, which has an exhibition hall and aquaria containing sea mammals, fish, starfish, sea anemones and shrimps. There are displays of butterflies, moths, beetles, spiders and a herbarium of plants and seaweeds.
Six miles SW off Baltimore lies Cape Clear Island, (3 miles X 1 miles), the most southernly inhabited Irish island. There is a regular ferry service from Baltimore Pier and a seasonal ferry service from Schull. About 50 families or 140 people live here, many of them Irish speaking. The An Oige Youth Hostel at the South Harbour sleeps 48 people. Cape Clear has a Bird Observatory and a Folk Museum near the harbour. Up the steep narrow lanes you will find a Heritage Centre, an old lighthouse (1818), a Napoleonic signal tower (1848), Neolithic standing stones and the ruins of a 5000 year old passage tomb with a summer solstice sunrise alignment (making it among the oldest astronomical sites in the world). On the western end on a broken away promontory you will see Dun An Oir, the ruins of an O’Driscoll fort. The 13th c. St Kieran’s Church by North Harbour attracts pilgrims on the 15th March (St. Kieran’s day). Whales, dolphins and leathery turtles are spotted from the cliffs. The island has facilities for canoeing, diving and deep-sea angling.
Every summer Cape holds a festive lifeboat day, a canoeing regatta, the Cape Clear Regatta; in early September it hosts an international storytelling festival and over the October bank holiday an arts festival and a storytelling workshop.
7 km from Cape Clear is … Fastnet Rock. Its name in Irish, `Carrig Aonor’ or lonely rock, is a fitting description, but the departing emigrants called it the `Teardrop of Ireland’. Fastnet Rock Lighthouse here is the most important and largest of Irish lighthouses. It took 24 years to build, which is understandable when you consider the fierce oceans of the Atlantic. The original tower of steel (1854) was prompted by the wreck of an American ship the `Stephen Whitney’, with the loss of 100 lives. But the tower was abandoned when storms split the rock underneath. The present lighthouse tower was begun in 1879, completed 24 years later. It is built of 2,074 blocks of Cornwall granite, some of the stones weighing over 5 tons, rising to a height of 176 feet. There are eight floors, including 2 bedrooms. The light is a combination of vaporised paraffin, gas mantles and lenses to give a brilliant dazzling light – a million candle power!
Ballydehob is a patchwork of colourful gables, with antique shops, craft galleries, a bookshop, and many good places to eat and drink. Towards the sea, the imposing 12-arch Railway Viaduct reminds us of the days (1940’s) when Ballydehob was a busy market town with its own railway station. Known to nurturing the Arts it is home to several writers, artists, sculptors, and craftspeople practicing various disciplines.
Ballydehob Annual Jazz Festival and Féile Átha Dá Chab, a Traditional Music, Song, and Dance Festival, are annual events.
Ballydehob is the main gateway to the rugged beauty of the Mizen Peninsula, where the cliffs rise to 700 ft. While Mizen Head the Irish `Land’s End’ is popular with rock climbers, it is better known for its clear waters, its rich flora & fauna, and magnificent views.
Schull Harbour Regatta (since 1884) is a major annual event. There is a Sailing Club which runs weekend races for all classes. The Fastnet International Schools Regatta held in early July attracts young sailors from all over Europe. It is possible to charter a boat for sea angling, and diving trips will take you to some spectacular wrecks and underwater scenery.
A Ferry to Cape Clear Island operates from Schull Harbour 2 or 3 times daily in the summer. The road North from Schull to Bantry will take you through a wild pass on east side of Mount Gabriel (1,339 ft). The two white globes on the summit of Mount Gabriel are aircraft tracking stations. On the hillsides in the valley to the North are Bronze Age Copper Mines. Be careful, as they are unprotected! Spear heads, ornaments and axes discovered here are now housed in the National Museum in Dublin. 7 mls SW is the sleepy village of Goleen. Nearby there are many sheltered, sandy beaches, including Ballyrisode at Toormore, and Barleycove beach is one of the most famous and picturesque beaches in Ireland.
Crookhaven village is located on the safest harbour on the South coast, on the `crook’ of the peninsula. The visitor can relax here by the quayside and watch the yachts or the fishing boats bringing in lobsters for export to France. St Brendan the Navigator is said to have set sail from this harbour. Marconi sent his first message to America from here.
Between Dunmanus Bay and Bantry is Sheeps Head, an unspoiled peninsula untouched by tourism. At Ahakista there is a Memorial Garden & Sundial in memory of the victims of the Air India disaster. The sundial is by Cork sculptor Ken Thompson, and was donated by the people of Canada, India & Ireland.
Walking the length of Sheep’s Head Peninsula along the Caha ridge is popular and the Dooneen headland is a great place to walk with spectacular blow holes, shore walks, rock pools and cliffs. Its a quiet and special place; your only company will be sheep.
Bantry, at the head of the bay, is a busy market town and fishing port. It lies at the heart of a very ancient region which carries the remains of the greatest concentration of Megalithic and Neolithic monuments in Europe, pre-dating the Pyramids and ancient Greece. Visit Bantry Museum to get a picture of this rich history. According to the ancient Book of Invasions, the first people to come to Ireland are said to have landed at nearby Donemark, Dun na mBarc or Fort of the Ships (between Bantry and Ballylickey). Local folklore recounts the invasion of foreign peoples – the early Cesair, the Tuatha-da-Donan from Greece and the Milesians from the Nile Delta. The Celts arrived after 500 BC.
There is an abundance of award winning restaurants in the town centre. There are numerous activities available including 2 golf courses, walking, cycling, fishing, sailing and water sports.
Bantry House, is one of Ireland’s most attractive Great Houses, full of treasures collected by various generations of Earls of Bantry from all parts of the world. In the courtyard, The French Armada Exhibition Centre has been developed. This features the ill-fated French Armada invasion of December, 1796.
Near Ballylickey are the ruins of Reendesert Court, the fortified house/castle of the O’Sullivans destroyed at the time of Cromwell. An escape tunnel ran from the cellar under the road to the sea-front. Beyond Ballylickey and across from Snave Bay you can see the Whiddy Island Tank Farm and the jetty where the oil-tanker The Betelgeuse exploded in 1979 with the loss of 50 lives.
Glengarriff, opening to an inlet of Bantry Bay, is unique. This deep, secluded valley in the Caha Mountains is a National State Forest, offering the visitor a variety of natural walks and retreats, craggy wooded glens, tangled pathways and secret beauty spots. The mild climate and sheltered location encourages luxuriant foliage, tropical shrubs and flowering plants that seem native to the place. Here you may find some of the last remaining vestiges of primeval native Irish Oak Forest. On every side there are elms, pines, arbutus, yew and holly trees against a backdrop of majestic and irregular mountain tops.
The celebrated Garnish Island or Ilnacullin, in Glengarriff Harbour is a wonderful island paradise where once was only bare rock, holly and scrub. In 1910-13 it was planted by Harold Peto for John Bryce, who later willed it to the nation. It is noted for its magnolias, camelias, rhododendrons, azaleas, cultivars, climbing shrubs, herbacious perennials and rare conifers. The centrepiece is the Italian Garden, with its formal collanaded terraces and pools. Seals lolling on the seashore evidently find it paradise too! The gardens are open from March to October. Licensed boats operating from Glengarriff will take you across.
The Beara Peninsula is the wildest, most romantic and isolated of the peninsulas of the SW. There is a feeling of being on an island. This is a world apart, offering solitude and tranquility, as well as incredible views over Kenmare Bay, Coulach Bay, Ballydonegan Bay, Bantry Bay, etc. Nature is master here, where you’ll find golden beach and rugged cliff, bog and moor with rare heathland flowers and birds. The Caha Mountains form its backbone, with the Cork /Kerry border lying along the summit ridge.
The mythical figure of An Caileach Beara – or The Old Hag of Beara has its roots in pre-history. The Caileach was variously identified with the Great Mother and Corn Goddess, a personification of the forces of wild nature. She is still alive in local tradition, which holds that she changed herself into a large stone which now sits looking out to sea in Coola Bay, near Kilcatherin on the north side of the peninsula. This still attracts many visitors to the area.
Adrigole village is the gateway to the Ring of Beara. The highest waterfall in Ireland is located on this side of Hungry Hill. Like the `Ring of Kerry’, The Ring of Beara Drive is a popular, well signposted route which, if starting at Bantry, takes in the following: Ballylickey – Glengarriff – Adrigole – Castletownbere – Dursey Island (Cable Car) – Ballydonegan – Allihies – Eyeries – Ardgroom harbour – The Healy Pass – Adrigole – and back again to Bantry. (150km approx). This wild, scenic route takes in the Healy Pass in Caha Mountains, named after Tim Healy, the 1st Governor General of the Irish Free State. From this height, you can look down on Glenmore Lake and Woodland, an area that has been compared to the lake district of England. The Beara Walk is a well-signposted walk which may be taken anywhere from Castletownbere to Eyeries.
Dursey Island at the end of the Beara Peninsula is accessible by cable car across a wild ocean sound- an exhilarating trip, if you have the courage! Bere Island is 7 miles long with a population of 200. The old fortifications and a Martello Tower remind us that this was once a British Naval Base. Glenans Sailing School is located here. There are two ferries operating all year.
The village and community of Allihies near Ballydonegan Bay at the foothills of the Slieve Miskish Mountains was once a thriving mining location, all that remains today are the old and crumbling chimneys and the precarious mine shafts, which are dramatic, but dangerous to approach. Eyeries is an unspoilt picturesque traditional Irish village and is the centre for a small farming community and some talented crafts-people living locally. There are beautiful beaches, coastal walks and a fishing harbour.
This take us to the Kerry border and that we shall cross next week!