When I was a child, people would use the name Ballydehob to conjure up an image of a quintessential small Irish town. I thought it was a made-up name until I was doing my fieldwork in West Cork in the 1970s and realised it was a real place. It was a typical rural town with a dwindling population and few services, but around that time the ‘Blow-ins’ (mostly English, but also German and Dutch) started to settle in the area. They were hippies, looking for freedom in the hills; artists, finding inspiration in the landscape; or refugees from urban culture starting a new life in an unspoiled environment. Here, they found a welcome. As one of the locals said to us, “If we were depending on Irish people around here, nothing would have happened. There just weren’t enough of us.” In the 90’s another influx of Blow-ins arrived: the newly affluent Irish, converting derelict cottages to holiday homes. Ballydehob flourished: according to a 2005 account it was “a patchwork of colourful gables, with antique shops, craft galleries, a bookshop, and many good places to eat and drink.”
Walking down the main street in these recessionary times we pass empty store fronts and boarded-up windows. The galleries and bookshop have gone, there is no longer a fine dining establishment and the only bank has just closed. There are still eight pubs, but not all of them appear to be open every day.
Ballydehob may be down – but it is definitely not out! Amazingly, there is a Social Club run entirely by volunteers who staff a coffee shop and lunch place and who organize classes, film nights and concerts. There is an active community council who maintain an excellent up-to-date website and a community hall that is constantly in use for local events (including the annual buffet supper where we dined and danced the night away in November). There’s a Community Sanctuary established ‘to promote holistic activities and methods, encourage self-awareness, and nourish the human spirit… ‘ It’s where I go for yoga. There is a jazz and a traditional music festival (both of which we will miss, sadly) and of course, our beloved Friday night traditional music sessions, in which Robert plays and Finola is the cheering section.
Today, Ballydehob is cheerfully decorated for Christmas, and a traditional crib occupies pride of place beside Danno, the 1935 world wrestling champion.