Part 5 – unPlugged and unCorked
Leaving Skibbereen we moved 50 kilometres eastward, away from rocky peninsula and mountains, to a more gentle landscape of hills and green fields, sandy beaches and coves, rivers and estuaries and mud. Now, I appreciate that to the average tourist ‘mud’ isn’t exactly high up on their list of attractions. But that’s because the average tourist doesn’t walk around in walking trousers, dark green Paramo jackets, bulky hiking boots and a pair of binoculars on a harness around their chest.
The thing is, mud, especially riverine and estuarine mud, attracts lots of wading and water birds so for birdwatchers sticky mud is up there with bramble patches, reed beds and sewage plants as prime locations to go and spend several hours getting variously, stung, bitten, hot, cold and wet in pursuit of their hobby.
We were staying not far from the lovely village of Timoleague (for once pronounced as it is spelled) and in this area there was ample opportunity for watching Curlew, Whimbrel, Oystercatcher, Cormorant, Egret, Redshank, Godwit, Plover, all poking about in the mud looking for tasty morsels. Plus there were Gulls and Hooded Crow, Heron and Grebes and we were told by one chap, who was renting a house on the waterfront at a place called Ring, that he had seen a pair and a single Osprey in the local area on several occasions.
We searched diligently in the time we were staying there but failed to spot an Osprey, nor any of the dolphins or whales which frequently pass by. But we did find a rather beautiful butterfly – the Clouded Yellow. Not rare but not abundant either and the only other time we had seen this species was a very far off glimpse in Gloucestershire so it was great to be able to follow this one and get a close up view.
Our AirBnB house in Rathclaren was a tastefully converted 300 year old cottage. It had been decorated to a very high standard, had everything you might need and even boasted a relaxing garden area in which to enjoy the evening sun. The owners, Lucy and Andy, were delightful to talk to and Lucy provided us with fresh produce from the garden. AirBnBs are mostly of good quality but just a few are exceptional and we had landed on our feet in booking this one.
This area of West Cork has a number of interesting places to visit. Inchydoney Island is separated from the mainland proper by two causeways, though I suppose at one time in the past it may actually have been surrounded by water. It features the long and beautiful Inchydoney Beach and has a number of hotels, guest houses and holiday lets so gets very popular, and rightly so.
Timoleague village is brilliant for not only wading birds but the ruins of the Timoleague Franciscan Friary, founded in 1252. It went through a number of ups and downs until being plundered by the English in the 1600s. It has latterly been turned into a graveyard but it is still quite an impressive building, especially in late afternoon.
The Friary sits at the eastern end of Courtmacsherry Bay which was the scene of tragedy in 1915 when the Lusitania was hit by a single torpedo from a German submarine. The Courtmacsherry lifeboat, the first one established in Ireland, attended and had to be rowed out 11.2 nautical miles because the winds were too light to hoist sail. Sadly, nearly 1200 people lost their lives though 764 were saved.
The largest town in the area is Clonakilty, located at the head of Clonakilty Bay. It’s a very pleasant, vibrant town with plenty of cafes and bars, foodshops and artisan shops. Clonakilty is very much associated with Michael Collins who was born nearby.
Collins was a leading figure in the struggle for Irish Independence. He fought in the Easter Rising of 1916 and subsequently became Director of Intelligence in the IRA, which was at that time engaged in fighting for Irish Home Rule. He was a member of the party which negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 but that treaty required allegiance to the British Crown and sparked civil war in Ireland between the Irish Free State under the chairmanship of Collins and those in Sinn Fein who wanted total independence from Britain. Collins was killed by anti-treaty forces in an ambush in 1922.
We all know that there are ongoing tensions in Ireland between the south and the six counties of Ulster but whilst Collins is seen as an appeaser in some areas he is thought highly of in this part of the world thanks to the Michael Collins museum located in the town.
We did have another reason for visiting the town – The Clonakilty International Guitar Festival. When we planned our trip we just thought the area looked a good place to visit. But then a folk musician we follow, Kris Drever, posted on his Facebook page that he would be taking part in the festival. And, for once, we would be in the right place at the right time.
The first gig featured Andy Irvine, an Irish singer songwriter who has been in any number of bands since the 1970s, Molly O’Mahoney a musician who hails from Ballydehob, close to Skibbereen, Kris Drever, a Scottish folk musician who we have been following for years and Marissa Anderson, an American guitar player who mixes folk with bluegrass, blues and jazz. The gig was held in Schoil na mBuachailli and we got chatting to a lovely Irish fella called John. ‘So, what does the name of this place mean, John?’, we asked. ‘Well, it means Boy’s School’. OK. ‘And how is it pronounced’?, we asked. John made some attempt at a pronunciation but admitted it was many decades since he had learned Gaeltacht at school and he couldn’t remember it that well. Rather like me and Welsh then, so we let him off the hook.
The following day we went to Shanleys pub to catch up with Molly who writes some lovely, poignant songs and has a wonderful voice. We were a bit late for the start of her gig and just managed to get into the packed pub. Now, we have been to many a pub with a musician or two playing and it can sometimes be a struggle to hear the music over the noise of people chatting, drinks being poured, meals being served. Not so this time. It was as quiet inside the pub as any concert hall. Packed as we were like sardines, everyone, kids included, were just rapt at the songs Molly was singing and you could have heard a pin drop. It was exquisite.
The reason we knew about this festival in the first place was through Kris Drever so we hot footed it to his gig at DeBarass Folk Club. As usual, he gave a great show but his limelight was stolen somewhat by a little girl who sat on stairs at the side of the stage, seemingly rapt by the music and then placed her two cuddly toys close to where Kris was standing so that they could have a listen as well. Kris had a grin on his face as he was singing and bowed to his audience of stuffed toys and little girl as he finished.
There were music events throughout the whole town that weekend, families welcomed into bars, people thronging the streets. It was a great atmosphere and definitely left you with a warm feeling.
Our house, though peaceful and rural was merely 45 kilometres from Cork so it made for an easy day trip. We went to the park and ride where there was a handy EV charger free and jumped on the bus for the city centre.
Despite being Ireland’s second largest city, Cork is very compact and it’s easy to take in the major tourist sights in a day. You can visit Elizabeth Fort, built in 1601 and from its battlements get an overview of the city, though most of the narrow, medieval streets of the town have been overshadowed by more recent, not so attractive buildings, as in so many towns.
For an apparently even better view you can visit the church of St Annes on the north side. From its famous Shandon Bell tower you can get a 360 degree view, if you brave the 132 steps up the tower. We were going to give it a go but the ticket attendant told us that a large group of very young schoolchildren had just entered the tower and she suggested we wait for half an hour or so before venturing up there. And, sure enough, as we left the church the youngsters started hollering out from the top of the tower. We never did manage to ‘come back later’ for that one.
On the way back into town we passed the Butter Museum. You have to say that devoting a whole museum to one food is a bit of a stretch but it seems that Cork had the largest Butter Market in the world housed in this building at a time when Cork was one of the major trading cities of the Atlantic.
The very centre of Cork is ringed by the waters of the river Lee with numerous bridges and quays dotted about its circumference. It’s easy to imagine the sailing boats of the 1700s tying up at these quays, delivering or taking on produce and people, the sailors making their way through the thronging streets to the taverns and whorehouses, the sound of music playing in the streets.
I was delighted to discover a plaza celebrating the life of Rory Gallagher, a rock and blues musician who I first heard in my early teens and who grew up in Cork. When Jimi Hendrix was asked what’s it like to be the world’s greatest guitarist he answered “I don’t know, go ask Rory Gallagher”. Time to dig out that old cassette I had of Born on the Wrong Side of Time.
Rory Gallagher Place is tucked away in a little visited spot but only a couple of minutes away from the one place in Cork which attracts more visitors than any – the English Market.
According to tourist board flim-flam this is ‘one of the oldest and certainly the best covered markets in Europe’. Well, that’s a bold claim and whilst the building is interesting and the market stalls are vibrant, selling a wide variety items, mostly food, it’s not a particularly large market and I’m not sure it deserves all the hyperbole.
But there is one place which does deserve its place in history. The reason why Cork became so populous and important is largely down to the fact that it has the second deepest harbour in the world. The harbour not in the city itself but further down the Lee River estuary. In the middle of the harbour is the island which was once called Queenstown, after Queen Victoria but is now called Cobh – pronounced Cove.
We took a short river ferry out to Cobh. It was from this port that about 2.5 million people emigrated to the USA between 1848 and 1950. But it was also from Cobh that probably the world’s most famous ship departed on 11 April 1912. The Titanic, on her maiden, ill feted voyage, called into Cork Harbour to pick up supplies for the transatlantic crossing to New York. A few passengers disembarked but a further 123 passengers joined the ship. A couple of hours after docking the ship weighed anchor to the strains of Erin’s Lament. Of the 2,026 souls on board 1,517 would perish when the liner struck an iceberg.
We ourselves travelled home by ferry on another sombre day – that of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral and as we entered the waters of Pembroke Dock spotted a pod of cetaceans in the distance. They were too far away to tell if they were dolphin or porpoise but it was nice to think they were welcoming us home. Then again, given the threats of nuclear war coming out of Russia, perhaps they were just saying, “So long, and thanks for all the fish”.