Ireland is an island – a fairly small one. There’s a lot of water surrounding it (3,500 miles of coastline) and coming out of the sky. This abundance of water has shaped the natural landscape and coloured it emerald green. Not surprisingly, traditional life, history, culture and folklore in this country are imbued with watery references.
Down here in West Cork you are never more than a mile or two from the sea: it has historically provided defence, sustenance, isolation and wealth. When the O’Mahony and O’Driscoll clans ruled here in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it was recorded that more than 500 large fishing boats from France, Spain, and Portugal were constantly harvesting the fish shoals off the Mizen. Each chieftain’s income from the foreign ships surpassed £1,000 annually by way of fishing rights, harbour dues and protection money (that’s about 3,000 cows in trading terms in those days). Today you can still see evidence that the bays, inlets and islands have long provided income and a means of transport to the local communities: there are small piers everywhere. There’s an ancient one – ruined but still visible – just below us at Ard Glas, and an hour’s walk along the water would take in half a dozen others mostly still maintained in good order and regularly used.
When we go up to the market in Bantry on a Friday morning to get our own fish fresh from the local quays we pass by the statue of St Brendan the Navigator. In the sixth century Brendan set out with forty other monks in a little boat to find the Island of Paradise; instead, they discovered America, returning after seven years to tell of their many adventures with sea monsters, miraculous islands and sirens. In the 1970s Tim Severin recreated Brendan’s twin masted boat using Irish ash and oak lashed together with two miles of leather thong and wrapped with 49 traditionally tanned ox hides sealed with wool grease. In this he sailed for a year via the Hebrides and Iceland to reach Newfoundland, thus proving that the legend could have been based on fact.
In 2010 two fishermen found a small canoe in the Boyne River. It’s reckoned to be 5,000 years old and may have carried stone for the building of the great passage tomb at Newgrange (that predates the Pyramids). That boat is only 3 metres long, but another canoe discovered in 1901 in Co Galway is even older and much bigger: 15 metres long, hollowed out from the trunk of a single oak tree that was over 2 metres in diameter: something that couldn’t be found in Ireland today. It probably had outriggers and could have been used to bring tin from Cornwall to mix with the locally mined copper, enabling the Bronze Age to take off. Fascinating.
Every day we look out over the water, and on all our walks we have glorious views over the bays, the Celtic Sea and the Atlantic. That’s a constant in our lives that I don’t think we could ever do without.
Oh – by the way: Uisce Beatha (pronounced Ish-kah Baahaa) – that translates literally as Water of Life – and, in Ireland, also as ‘Whisky’.