Whiddy Island

Whiddy Island from Sheeps Head

Whiddy Island from Sheep’s Head

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. 

Off to Whiddy Island on a beautiful day in March

Off to Whiddy Island on a beautiful day in March

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.

Whiddy Island Graveyard

Whiddy Island Graveyard

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.

View out to Bantry Bay from the Island high point

View out to Bantry Bay from the Island high point

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.’

Tim shows us the 'hairy rope' used to grow mussels. Mussel beds ring the Island.

Tim shows us the ‘hairy rope’ used to grow mussels. Mussel beds ring the Island.

The land was famous for being fertile and one historical document talks about the earliest potatoes always being grown on Whiddy.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.

The Island can no longer support a school

The Island can no longer support a school

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.

O'Sullivan Beare's stronghold

O’Sullivan Beare’s stronghold

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.

The oil tanks at the west end of the Island

The oil tanks at the west end of the Island

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.

There's nothing like a guided tour with Tim!

There’s nothing like a guided tour with Tim!

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.”

desk

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!

Goats, Bees and Spies on the Sheep’s Head

The Weather Rolls in around Kilcrohane

The Weather Rolls in around Kilcrohane

White GoatsI’ve just finished reading White Goats and Black Bees by Donald Grant. Donald and Mary Grant, a couple of journalists based in New York, impulsively decided to jump off the career treadmill and become farmers in Ireland in the 1960’s. They bought a small acreage on the Sheep’s Head, where they raised goats and ducks, cultivated an enormous vegetable garden, and by degrees and sheer hard work turned themselves into ‘peasants’.

This out-of-print book was drawn to my attention by my friend, Aideen, whose father, while in New York, had encouraged the Grants to consider West Cork. Aideen visited the Grants as a young woman and still has memories of their gorse wine.

As a Back to the Land narrative, this is a classic. Earnest urban professionals consulting Department of Agriculture pamphlets, conducting slug patrols, keenly observing the social structure of their goat herd and duck flock, battling the wild Atlantic storms, making cheese and smoking hams: this is the kind of thing that sent thousands of idealistic young people into communes all over the world, or in the case of Ireland, into the hills behind Ballydehob. The need to be accepted by the locals, a thread that appears in so many Year in Provence-type books, is coupled with the outsider’s puzzlement at the impenetrability of some aspects of local behaviour.

The Sheep's Head, looking across Dunmanus Bay

The Sheep’s Head, looking across Dunmanus Bay

Grant is not a gifted writer when it comes to scenery: …Trees wore their autumn colours. Streams tumbled down rocks, sparkling… Nevertheless he does slowly build up a picture of a man coming to grips with his place in the natural world and his relationship with animals and the elements. Perhaps the strongest sections of the book are those in which he chronicles the hard work and resourcefulness that it takes to sustain life on a smallholding, the setbacks and difficulties he and Mary encounter, and the support of the neighbours and community without which it would be impossible.

Mary the SpyThe story of Donald and Mary took a strange turn for me when I decided to Google around a bit, digging for more information about them. Astonishingly, Mary was convicted in Israel in 1956 of spying for Syria! She spent a year in an Israeli prison, eventually applying for a pardon. According to one account, she had fallen for a Syrian diplomat who persuaded her to take photographs in Israel for the Syrians. She was so unsophisticated a spy that she was captured on her first day. She and Donald met when they shared a desk at the United Nations, where they were both correspondents: he for the St. Louis Post-Dispatcher and she for Look Magazine. Little did the people of Doneen know of the chequered history of the American woman who introduced goat’s cheese to their far-flung parish.

Donald and Mary continued to live on the Sheep’s Head and eventually in Bantry for the rest of their lives. While Donald died in 1983, Mary lived until last year, 2012. Both are buried in their beloved Kilcrohane.

Buckets of Culture

Željko Lučić as Rigoletto. Photo by Metropolitan Opera

Željko Lučić as Rigoletto. Photo by Metropolitan Opera

-What we love about being here – the scenery, the history, the people, the hiking, the markets, the food, the opera…

-What? The opera?

-Yes, and the theatre. And very good cinema too.

-Wait – seriously? I thought you were there to get back to nature?

-Well, er, yes, but…

-But?

-West Cork is also a Mecca for artists of all kinds – musicians, actors, painters, poets, photographers – and part of being here is taking advantage of cultural events. As one local told me last year, “if it’s culture you’re after, we have buckets of it.”

-Oh, OK…tell us all about it, then.

The weekend started with a trip to Cork to stay overnight with my cousin and to go to the Metropolitan Opera Live Broadcast of Rigoletto. This was a stylish production with the action moved to 1960’s Las Vegas and the singers modelling themselves on Rat Pack characters. The Duke of Mantua made a wonderful fist of Old Blue Eyes, and Marilyn Munro made an appearance as Ceprano’s wife. The singing was glorious, with the German soprano Diana Damrau as a transcendent Gilda and Željko Lučić suitably tortured and barrel-voiced as Rigoletto.

The following day we visited a friend in his beautiful and very modern house in Kinsale, ate a huge Sunday lunch and then got into The Music, with Alastair on the fiddle and Robert on his melodeon.

about EllyThe Cinemax in Bantry has all the latest releases and comfortable seating. They run an Arthouse Tuesday and this week we saw ‘About Elly’ by the Iranian Director, Asghar Farhadi. I had seen his movie ‘A Separation’ and was struck then, as I was now, by how much these films challenge our stereotypes of Iran. This one featured an ensemble cast of outstanding actors as young professionals from Tehran. The plot revolves around the disappearance of one of the group during an outing to the Caspian Sea, and the disintegration of cohesion as white lies and deceptions are compounded and revealed. The exploration of the dynamics of man-woman relationships was particularly riveting in what is apparently a time of transition between traditional and modern notions of gender roles.

Photo from Schull Drama Group Facebook Page

Photo from Schull Drama Group Facebook Page

On Friday night we attended the Schull Drama Group’s production of The God of Carnage, a play by French actor and playwright, Yazmina Reza. This is the same company of players that was responsible for the broad comedy and slapstick of the traditional pantomime we had seen in January and this comedy/drama was a testament to the depth of their talent. Two couples, Veronique and Michel and Annette and Alain, meet to discuss a contretemps between their sons. Their plan to do this in a civilized manner, over coffee and clafoutis, quickly descends into chaos, as accusation and counter-accusation reveal the fault lines of each marriage and the assumptions and veneers of middle-class privilege.

Amanda and Peter on our Rock Art Day

Amanda and Peter on our Rock Art Day

Finally, Saturday saw us in the company of two new friends, Amanda and Peter Clarke on a Rock Art Day of tramping through the countryside. Peter and Amanda are the talented couple behind two websites: Sheep’s Head Routes and Sheep’s Head Places, both invaluable resources for exploring this part of West Cork. Amanda is also a keen photographer with a wonderful eye. You can read her description of our day, and view more of her beautiful photography at her Blipfoto site.

Half-Term Break

2013-02-14 14.11.07

This being their half-term, my sister arrived for a few days’ visit with her two children – Ava, 8, and Hugo, 6.  But half-term is not scheduled this week in all parts of the country – and particularly, it is not scheduled for here. This means that organised activities for children are not up and running, and local amenities suitable for children are all shut for the winter. But no problem! All you need is a dram of sunshine, a beach, a market, a stream, and a couple of imaginative youngsters.

In the garden at Ard Glas.

In the garden at Ard Glas

Barleycove Beach, mid-February.

Barleycove Beach, mid-February

Bantry Market and Never Too Early to introduce them to archaeology.

Bantry Market and Never Too Early to introduce them to archaeology

They went back to Dublin yesterday and we miss them already!

To Market, To Market

2012-11-02 11.36.59

This…

2012-11-25 17.55.05

…becomes this

2012-11-24 14.38.49

Lunch at Ard Glas

2012-11-10 10.49.58

West Cork Pies

We are fortunate to have two excellent farmers’ markets on our doorstep: the Bantry Market on Fridays and the Skibbereen Market on Saturdays. We go, just to wander, not really needing anything – but we always emerge with a bag full. We love to buy carrots and parsnips covered in this morning’s earth, and scrub them up under the outside tap back at Ard Glas. The fish stall ladies will fillet a whole fish for you in a trice, and give you hints on the best way to cook it. The numerous homemade bread and cake stalls have started to load up their tables with mince pies and Christmas puddings. A new stall, West Cork Pies, sells the world’s yummiest Steak in Murphy’s Pie (Murphy’s is the Cork Guinness), Chicken and Leek Pie, and a variety of pasties. I am putting in an order for Christmas, to take up to Dublin. Our lunch often consists of cheese from the Bantry cheese stall, with Courgette and Ginger Chutney picked up in Skibb, and (I know I shouldn’t) a slice of chocolate biscuit cake from one of the baking stalls.

2012-10-20 11.06.45I love to chat to the stall owners and ask about their produce. Trouble is, it’s hard to walk away without buying something, so now I have two packets of nutritious seaweed from the charming seaweed man, and I’m not quite sure what to do with them. Fortunately, Robert rescued me after a long conversation with the wood carver before I felt I had to buy a headboard.

At Bantry there’s even a Fight for Irish Freedom stall, selling books and images and with rebel music blaring out from speakers. I stop here to wonder what all the English people who call West Cork home make of it all. We move on to the chickens, the colourful kilims, oh…and there’s the guy with the lovely French soap!

kilimsFreedom Stall