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.

Hiking the Sheep’s Head Way

In my first post I complained about the endless rain. Fact is, in the first two weeks of October we have had some great weather, including several days of glorious sunshine and NO RAIN. We are fortunate to be within half an hour of the Sheep’s Head Way, a world-class system of marked trails with mountain, coastal and valley hikes of varying lengths but uniformly breath-taking scenery. On back-to-back sunny days this week we undertook to hike parts of the ridge trail that runs along the spine of the peninsula.

Our first hike took off north of Durrus at Booltinagh Mountain and ran south along the ridge to a high point and over the top to the Barna Mor, or Big Gap – an old donkey trail across the peninsula. Although the trail is well marked and clear it is soggy: waterproof boots are essential along with layers for taking off and putting back on as you heat up, cool off, or see a shower sweeping in from the south west. Our views were north to Bantry Bay, all the way back to Glengarriff Harbour and over to the Beara Peninsula. On the other side across Dunmanus Bay lay the Mizen, bathed in sunshine. We shared the trail with sheep, but saw no other walkers.

The next day we ventured further west to Kilcrohane, turning north up a steep and winding road to Finn McCool’s seat, a natural saddle on the ridge. This being Ireland, the trailhead is marked by a marble Pieta, perhaps dating to the Marian year of 1954 that saw so many such monuments erected all over Ireland. Once again, we had the mountain to ourselves. Although it was a bright day, a howling wind blew up from the sea below. We leaned into it, and tramped on, to the Peakeen cairn. Along the way we stopped to examine the remains of what may be a Neolithic passage grave, occupying a commanding knoll along the ridge. How important would you have to be to have your tomb in such a place? Perhaps as important to the people who built this monument as the crucifixion images of the Pieta was to the local residents in 1950s West Cork.

The passage grave is on the first knoll on the left
We wondered why this incredible, wild resource that is the Sheep’s Head Way is not a National Park – even a World Heritage Site. Perhaps the answer is that as long as people respect it (and they do – we saw no litter or vandalism) and as long as access is freely given by landowners, there is no need to administer it as a park. The website for the Way indicates that it receives funding from both Ireland and Europe, but that The Sheep’s Head Way committee is a voluntary committee, consisting of landowners/farmers and other representatives from the local community. What a fantastic job they have done!