Part four – Two Heads are better than One
If you look at a map of Ireland you will see that the far South West looks just like the fingers of a left hand. The Dingle Peninsula is the forefinger, the rather fat, perhaps a bit arthritic, middle finger is the Inveragh Peninsula, the Beara Peninsula is the ring finger, whilst the little finger is split in two into Sheep’s Head and Mizzen Head – probably as a result of a fight in a pub over a pint of Beamish. The thumb is somewhere in Clare but let’s not go there just now, shall we?
OK, my imagination may have gotten the better of me as a result of being in the homeland of James Joyce, Brendan Behan and Flann O’Brien (aka Miles na gCopoleen) but my poetic side has to come out somewhere and where better than in Eire. And I’m going to stick with my left hand symbology.
We explored the first and middle fingers back in 2019. The ring finger, Beara, was just too much of a stretch for us to do then so on a rather soggy day this time we drove the Ring of Beara which starts at Glengariff. The route from here takes you along the starboard side of Bantry Bay, backed by the Caher Mountains. Even in the rain and mist it is quite impressive, though not conducive to decent photography!
At Bearhaven you can take a ferry to Bear Island, though I am assured that no bears actually live there. At the very end of the peninsula lies Dursey island which is connected to the mainland by Ireland’s one and only cable car. An exciting prospect for adventurous souls like us. But the gods of H&S have decreed that the cable car is shut for essential maintenance at the moment.
Beara would be worthy of a 22 carat ring in decent weather for there is obviously some good walking to be had in the mountains. Unfortunately, drizzle, low cloud and rain don’t make for great hiking so our visit was restricted to driving around with the occasional short wander during the infrequent dry spells.
So what could that strange little finger of sheep and mizen offer us? Well, quite a lot as it turned out. I don’t know how Sheep’s Head got its name, though it is apparently also called Muntervary and I’m still no clearer for knowing that. And here’s a useless little factoid for you: Sheep’s Head is a central location in David Mitchell’s novel, The Bone Clocks and one of the characters is called Jo Muntervary. So now you know. (Actually, The Bone Clocks is a very good novel if you are looking for something to read).
What I do know is that it is almost as unspoilt a place as we have ever been to. All of the other fingers in this giant Irish hand get a string of cars and coaches travelling around them. Not so Sheep’s Head. The roads are very narrow and precipitous so it’s just as well that fewer people make the journey.
We travelled first along the northern road running along Bantry Bay until we reached the intriguingly named Goat’s Path Road – what else would you expect on Sheep’s Head. The Goat’s Path is presumably named for the way it weaves over and around Caher Mountain. The weather had by now at last settled down. It had actually stopped raining for several hours and you could at last see the tops of the mountains. Goats may be able to walk along a mountain track in atrocious weather but not us so now it had cleared we were able to get our boots on and take a walk. The views were wonderful and although we did not complete the whole circumnavigation of Caher or even reach its summit we did feel that we had achieved something.
Travelling on from the goat we drove down the southern flank of the peninsula through lovely country until we reached Tooreen. From here we could walk the Lighthouse Loop, a 4.5 klm circular walk which takes you down to the aforementioned lighthouse before returning via a slightly more tricky track. The sun shone on us, we had great views of the Beara and Mizen peninsulas and we at last got our boots muddy.
On our way back to our farmhouse we were almost at the end of the peninsula, in a small village called Ahakista, when I spotted an A-board announcing ‘The Tin Pub is Open’. Well, that was intriguing enough to stop and turn round for. And there was a pub with a corrugated tin roof so we just had to go and have a pint to celebrate our two walks.
Inside, the pub was very homely and well decorated and we had a choice of three stouts – the ubiquitous Guinness, Murphy’s, which the barman told us is his favourite, or Beamish, which is what we plumped for. Two glasses of peat black beer with a creamy white top were placed before us and we took our two perfect heads out into the garden.
The Tin Pub is widely considered to have the most scenic pub garden in Ireland and we would not argue with that. Set on the banks of the Dunmanus Bay it has a location for which most hostelries would pay top dollar. It’s no wonder, then, that the pub has a celeb clientele. “Have you heard of Graham Norton?”, asked one local as we left. When we replied of course we had she said “Well this is his local. He lives in that house next door.”
Mr Norton was born not far away in Bandon and it seems that he spends some of his time in this quiet corner, no doubt thinking up those corny jokes he’s always making. I wonder if he’s ever been up the old Goat path?
Mizen head can be accessed from the wonderfully named Ballydehob. Passing through Schull, Altar and Gollen you come to Crookhaven, a small coastal settlement tucked into the side of a narrow neck of land, hence the name – Crooked Haven. It is from this remote, barely visited hamlet, on the adjacent Brow Head, that the world could be said to have entered the modern communication era.
You wouldn’t think it now, but over centuries shipping heading between Europe and America often used Crookhaven as a first or last port of call to stock up on supples etc. It was said that you could cross the harbour by walking on the decks of the ships moored there. Flag signalling and semaphore equipment was set up on Brow Head to communicate with the passing ships.
In 1900 Guglielmo Marconi arrived in Crookhaven. He had already transmitted a radio signal across the Bristol Channel but he wanted to be able to transmit all the way to America so he came to this remote outpost with his equipment and several telegraphic operators to carry out experiments for a radio link between there and liners out at sea. He succeeded and eventually set up a wireless station at Clifden in Co Galway, which we visited in 2019.
Travelling on from Crookhaven you reach the lovely Barley Cove, an expanse of golden beach and a lure for surfers.
Eventually we reached what is regarded as the most south-westerly point in mainland Ireland – Mizen Head. Now a visitor attraction this former lighthouse and signal station is perched high above the Atlantic Ocean on some incredible rock formations. A concrete bridge (which replaced the original wooden one) spans a huge gash in the rock face and enables you to access the old buildings which are now an information centre.
The views from up here are incredible. There’s nothing between you and New York several thousand miles away. Although if you look to the south rather than the west you can make out in the distance the incredible Fastnet Rock lighthouse. The current lighthouse was built over five years from interconnecting granite blocks, precision engineered in Cornwall, and transported to site in a specially adapted ship. There are 2074 blocks weighing between 1.5 and 3 tons each and at 54 mtrs (177 ft) it’s the tallest lighthouse in Britain and Ireland.
The smallest digit of Finnbar the Giant’s hand turned out to be far more fascinating than we expected but our time in the wild west was coming to an end. Time to charge up the car and move on to Clonakilty and the International Guitar Festival. More of that next time.