On a sunny Sunday in March, we were lucky to find out about a guided tour around Whiddy Island and enthusiastically signed up. Our guide, Tim O’Leary, runs the ferry to the island and its only pub, the Bank House. He is a native Islander and extremely knowledgeable about the island’s history, traditions, stories, flora and fauna.
It was a gorgeous day for a tramp – a good thing as it’s a six mile walk – and the weather allowed us to drink in the glorious views and to stand at various spots listening to Tim as he shared stories of life on the island.
In the graveyard he told us about the island tradition of burial: a coffin has to be lifted from the boat at a particular quay and laid on a special coffin rock. From there it is shouldered uphill to the burial ground by four men of the same last name as the deceased. Nothing but human power can be used on the long uphill climb, or to dig the grave or conduct any part of the service. “We will carry this tradition on,” he said, “as long as we can.” The burial ground itself is part of an ancient ecclesiastical site and commands views across the island.
We learned that many island families made a good living in times past from fishing and fish processing, and it still an important part of the economy, although now mussel beds have replaced fishing lines and ‘pilchard palaces.’
The land was famous for being fertile and one historical document talks about the earliest potatoes always being grown on Whiddy. All this activity supported up to 800 people but like many places in West Cork the population was decimated by the Great Famine. Now, fewer than 30 people live here year round.
We walked up to the remains of O’Sullivan Beare’s castle, which functioned more as a prison than a dwelling as it housed those who needed to be ‘encouraged’ to pay the taxes he imposed for fishing rights. We explored the area that had once been a thriving American Air Force base for a brief period at the end of World War I – nothing remains except acres of concrete and memories of the vibrant life that the service personnel brought to this small community. Other defensive structures exist on the island too – several ‘batteries’ with huge guns were built after the French invasion of 1796 but alas they are too unsafe to visit.
The west end of the island contains enormous tanks that now house the Irish national oil reserves. It was built as a Gulf Oil terminal in the late 60s and was the scene of a horrifying accident in 1979 when an explosion sank a French tanker, the Betelgeuse, and 50 people lost their lives. The enormous tanks, behind their barbed wire barriers, loom darkly against the landscape, a permanent reminder of this awful tragedy.
Take the ferry across to Whiddy Island any time and hike around the hills and the beaches. But if you can, catch one of Tim’s guided walks, and finish with a well-deserved pint in the Bank House at the end of the day.
One thing, though…when Tim sat in this desk back in the day, his teacher forgot to teach him about distances. So just take it with a grain of salt when he tells you there’s “only another half mile to go.”
A note on the West Cork Speak Competition! Deadline extended to the end of next week. Only one entry so far, so don’t be shy and get those conversations in!