West Cork Villages and Towns – Schull

What better time to visit Schull than during Calves Week? That’s a big sailing festival at the beginning of August every year, and you have to be a sailor to understand the nuances of its title. It’s held at the same time as the UK’s premier sailing event – Cowes Week, ‘…the world’s longest running sailing regatta…’ and is focussed around the three Calf Islands in Roaringwater Bay. So there you have it – Cowes and Calves! What it means, of course, is that the village of Schull is at its busiest and, since Covid has given a boost to outdoor socialising, the streets are crowded with visitors enjoying the shops, pavement cafés and galleries.

In this occasional series on the Towns and villages of West Cork we will take one community and try to discover why and how it has developed through history, and how it fares in the present day. A snapshot of the place will be presented – hopefully – in the best possible light (although this won’t always be on a sunny summer’s day!) From the aerial view above, you can see how Schull has been built up around its connection with the water. Schull Harbour is at the head of a long sheltered inlet, and the pier today is always busy with fishing and pleasure boats, ferries and yachts.

That’s the road to the pier, above, and it’s just a few steps from the village centre. If you are a visitor, you may have no idea that Ireland’s most south-westerly railway line once ran right on to this pier! The narrow gauge Schull, Ballydehob & Skibbereen Tramway and Light Railway was in service between 1886 and 1947, connecting these remoter parts of the county to Skibbereen and then, via the main line, Cork city. Although never considered a commercial success, it was a valuable element of infrastructure enabling local passengers to get to shops and markets, and fishermen to send their catches to distant merchants as hastily as possible (bearing in mind there was a speed limit of 15 miles per hour on most of this rural line). This photograph from the NLI Lawrence Collection (below) dates from the 1890s, and shows barrels of fish stacked up next to the railway track on Schull pier, awaiting despatch. They are likely to contain salted pilchards and herrings.

In all these pictures of the pier and pontoon areas above you can see the lively sailing activity in the background. Below are two extracts from early OS maps, one showing Schull and its location to some of the offshore islands, and the other showing the town centre, probably around 1890. It’s thought-provoking to see on the latter the various facilities which the town offered at that time, as well as the railway: Court House, Constabulary Barrack, Smiths, Schools, Hotel and Dispensary.

Note that on both the maps above, which date from more than a century ago, the settlement’s name is given as Skull: it still is on all OS Ireland maps up to the present time. Mostly today it’s known as Schull, or in Irish An Scoil, which translates as The School. Some of you may remember my posts earlier this year when I looked in to the possible origins of this village name – and the earliest ‘School’: a site described on Archaeology Ireland as a ‘possible early Christian settlement’:  . . . the ancient school of Sancta Maria de Scholia, ‘a place known in early times as a centre of learning’ . . . There’s a fair bit of local lore surrounding the subject, and you need to read Schull resident John D’Alton’s article on this to find an alternative view to the perhaps romanticised ideas of an ancient monastic site: I’m sitting on the fence!

Historic village – perhaps with medieval origins – to vibrant sailing centre and colourful streets in the 21st century. Schull has come a long way, and has far to go. Today the resident population numbers around 1,050: this is boosted substantially with the influx of summer visitors. It’s good to see long established names and new businesses on the streets, contributing to the colourful palette of the architecture. Great things are happening in the future: the old bank building (below) is to become a cinema and film centre: a focal point for the acclaimed annual Fastnet Film Festival.

Year round, Schull is worth exploring. Mount Gabriel, the area’s highest point, is above the village and offers superb vistas over the bay and islands. Finola has looked at the many legends associated with this peak and there is ancient history there, too: the remains of Bronze Age copper mines on its slopes. Good walks can be had on the high ground and on the coastal footpaths – see the Explore West Cork website.

Fastnet Film Festival 2018

How do you run a film festival in a town with no cinema? You use technology! The festival’s motto is Our Village is Our Screen, and it’s totally apt. For the duration of the Festival, you can drop into any venue (pub, cafe, village hall, mobile cinema), order up a coffee or a pint, and enjoy one of the many free short film programs on offer. This distributed intranet is all organised locally (kudos to Digital Forge!).

It’s all run now from the new Film Centre: the old Schull bank building is being converted, thanks to generous endowments from William and Judith Bollinger and others. It will be a tremendous asset for the town and there are Big Plans for the building in the future.

Pauline Cotter – the Chair, and beating heart of the Festival

The marvellous Blue House Gallery organised a show with the theme of “Tribal” that included a series of films along with the art works.

One of the gallery rooms in the Tribal Exhibition: felt idols by Christina Jasmin Roser, ceramics by Etain Hickey and Jim Turner, and sculptures by Eyelet Lalor

Each short film lasts anything from two to eighteen minutes. We are so used to long movies that it comes as a revelation that a complete story can be told in such a format. If you’re not sure that this is actually possible, watch Happy Birthday Timmy. We watched in in the world’s tiniest cinema – only room for three.

It’s called The Closet Cinema

One of the shorts that really hit a chord with us was from Cartoon Saloon, Late Afternoonhere’s the trailer, but it doesn’t really give a complete sense of the colour palette that made this such a special experience. It’s from the celebrated Cartoon Saloon studio and it’s already won awards. We also howled through The Fountain, a fabulous conceit built around the re-disovery of DuChamp’s iconic work of art. The Festival Image this year was from a powerful short called Little Shit, with a moving performance by the young actor, Badger Skelton.

DuChamp’s Fountain, said to have ushered in a new era in modern art

Besides the short films from all over the world, there are feature length movies, along with question and answer sessions with producers, directors, actors, casting specialists, composers, set designers… Aspiring film makers can take a stunt workshop, or have their script critiqued by a laser-sharp expert, or learn how to make a movie using only an iPhone. We had the young star of Song of Granite (an Oscar contender) who gave us an example of his sean nós (old style) singing. Here’s the trailer of that film, which we saw in general release earlier this year and which made a powerful impact on us.

We attended a screening of The War of the Buttons, with the producer, Lord David Puttnam (beloved local), the Casting Director and several of the (not so young any more) actors. It was a joyful occasion. Not only is it a classic and thoroughly enjoyable movie, but it was shot around West Cork, and apparently was one of those movies where everyone felt like family afterwards.

The best movie we saw all weekend, hands down, was the Irish documentary Making the Grade, which believe it or not was all about piano lessons. The header photo for this post is from that movie. The Director, Ken Wardrop, was there to receive our standing ovation and to tell us a little about his technique. Here’s an Irish Times Review that perfectly sums up how we all felt about it.

More difficult to watch was Black 47, a film of the Great Hunger, shot as a kind of Western, with a Connaught Ranger returning from the British Army’s Afghanistan Campaign to find his family dead and the land devastated. It raised complex issues for us and lead to some pretty intense discussions afterwards. Interestingly, it seems to have divided the critics down the middle, earning a 50/50 rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But the Irish Times had a thoughtful review of it that also contains a link to the trailer.

Lance Daly, the impossibly young-looking director of Black 47

And in between the shorts and the big screen events the star of the show was Schull, buzzing with lively interchanges on the streets and in the pubs and cafes, conversations spilling out onto the streets, speedy young volunteers dashing around the venues, banners waving gaily above the crowds. Celebrities, actors, producers, directors, casting experts, script writers happily mixed it up with the locals.

Locals out with the camera – except that’s Chris O’Dell behind the lens and Jim Sheridan (in the white shirt) directing

And the locals themselves featured in several movies, including one (The Wheel) about our friend Sheena’s superbly restored mill-wheel. The hilarious duo of Eileen and Marilyn (aka Terri Lieber and Karen Minihan) played us out tonight with their own take on a local film, made with the help of a great local crew.

Coosheen Mill, home of Sheena Jolley the esteemed wildlife photographer, and the subject of one of the short movies

We didn’t attend the awards ceremony, but it doesn’t matter to us really who won – except for one thing. Over and over we heard people urging us to see The Swimmer, about local resident and marathon swimmer, Steve Redmond. We didn’t get to see it – but we do hope it won a prize as it seems to have riveted everyone who saw it.

THANK YOU to the incredible committee that puts this Festival together every year – what an amazing job you have done, again!

It’s a cake, locally made by a VERY talented baker

Island Hopping

Long Island Sound

Long Island, with some of Carbery’s 100 Isles 

Carbery’s 100 Isles, they call them, the islands of Roaringwater Bay – and there really are 100, and more, if you count all the islets.  J F Collins, in a paper in the 2015 Journal of the Skibbereen and District Historical Society, has an interesting account of the various ways islands were counted in Roaringwater Bay  – by the Ordnance Survey, by Admiralty charting, and through Griffith’s Evaluations – they all came up with different numbers. Whatever the final count, this week we visited three, each one special and unique.

Long Island Ferry heading back to Colla

The Long Island ferry on its way across Long Island Sound to Colla Pier

The Fastnet Film Festival has just finished – this is the amazing little festival that manages to attract world-class movies in a town with no cinema. We took in several of the events, and watched many of the shorts, but a highlight for us every year is the Long Island Trip. Read about the festival and the Long Island event here, an account from two years ago. To be whisked off to this hidden spot, to be provided with wine and popcorn and invited to go down to the ferryman’s bedroom to watch an hour of excellent cinema – well, who could resist it? Long Island (permanent population: 7) has some interesting ecology and we have promised ourselves a proper trip and wander later this summer.

Cape Clear Ferryman

An overnighter to Cape Clear Island came mid-week – a birthday treat for Finola. We’ve been to Cape Clear before on day trips, and Robert has written about it – but this was something special. First of all, the weather was amazing the whole time – warm and cloudless. Secondly, our time-frame gave us the opportunity to do some serious exploring. Thirdly, the seas are alive at the moment with whales and basking sharks!Sherkin Lighthouse

When the weather is fine the ferry takes the outside route around Sherkin Island. Along the way we pass the Sherkin lighthouse and many treacherous rocks, threading our way, in this instance, through shark-infested waters

The ferry to Cape Clear takes about 40 minutes normally. We were a little longer this time because the ferryman slowed and diverted to allow us time to photograph the sharks. Enormous creatures, with wicked dorsal and tail fins, they are actually peaceable fish who swim with open mouths, filtering plankton, and who are harmless to humans. We are not harmless to them, however, as we have hunted them close to extinction and they need protection in many areas.

Basking shark en route to Cape Clear

This photograph was taken from the ferry

For such slow and cumbersome creatures, it was an out-of-this-world experience to watch one of them breaching in the South Harbour. It happened when we were in the bus on the way to our accommodation and nobody had their camera at the ready. But we all know what we saw.

South harbour with kayaks

Just out there, in the South Harbour, we saw the basking shark leap from the water. An incredible sight!

The bed and breakfast, Ard na Gaoithe, was wonderful. Robert had told Eileen that it was my birthday – and well, would you look at what awaited us! It was the perfect place to stay – just be ready to walk the hill up to it, after a marvellous dinner at Cotter’s!

On day one we followed the way-marked trail that edges along the south side of the island. This involved a visit to the site of a Napoleonic-era signal station and the original Fastnet Lighthouse. This position for the lighthouse proved to be a major mistake, as it was so high that the light was lost in the clouds half the time. The current position, right on the Fastnet Rock, has been much more successful, and remains an iconic sight in West Cork. The remaining stump is beautifully constructed of granite blocks, while the signal tower still clings on to some of its slate covering.

Signal Tower and Original Fastnet lighthouse

Our route took us along the cliffs and to a viewing point over the South Harbour. The sharks were ubiquitous, lazily swimming around with those enormous gaping jaws.

Shark basking

Stone Wall 2

 

Here and there ancient field fences poked their way out of the heather, while skylarks warned of our approach and standing stones framed a distant view.

Standing Stones and Fastnet rock

Looking over the South HarbourOn day 2 we decided to make the climb to the Cape Clear Passage Grave – but I will let Robert tell that story and content myself with saying that I hope he tells you all how arduous the climb was, and how thick the gorse, so you can see how I suffer for science.

Across to the mainland

The views are immense but equally fascinating are the numerous dry-stone walls and the wild flowers everywhere. There’s still lots to explore on Cape Clear and more trips are clearly in order.

Green path

Finally, on Friday, we were invited to lunch with friends on Heir Island. Heir, sometimes called Hare, is the third largest inhabited island after Cape and Sherkin and home to a justly famous restaurant, a sailing school, the wonderful Firehouse Bakery Bread-Making course (we wrote about this in one of our very early blog posts and it’s still going strong but now booked up months in advance), and many artists.

Heir Island Boreen

Strolling along the peaceful boreens of Heir, lingering over Viv and Fran’s fabulous lunch overlooking Roaringwater Bay, and sauntering back to catch the late afternoon ferry – you adjust to island time remarkably quickly.

West Cork Islands – they will captivate and hold you. There is no escape.

Robert contemplates