Monday 13th July 2009, Bere Haven, at Castletownbere, on the Beara Peninsula
This evening finds us camped on a golf course down beside the sea on one of Ireland's stunning west coast peninsulas. From our window we watched the evening ferry returning from the nearby island of Bere to moor just below the club-house. Behind us, shrouded in the usual Irish mist, mountains loom up black against the evening sky. It is a very peaceful place as the rain smatters on the roof and we gaze out between wind-buffeted palm trees towards the waters of Bantry Bay. Beyond lies the open sea, the Atlantic Ocean.
We left Blarney this morning travelling along waterlogged roads beneath dark clouds heavy with rain. Modestine's wiper blades are suffering repetitive strain injury and several of the spokes in Ian's umbrella have finally collapsed from metal fatigue.
We followed the river Lee up to its source. Ireland has such a green countryside that the trees and hedgerows make us feel we are travelling though an endless green tunnel as the branches on each side interlace overhead. Attractive as the roadsides are, edged with honeysuckle, meadowsweet, ragwort and brambles, there is little to see of the surrounding landscape and by lunch time I was beginning to regret coming to Ireland. We have roads just like this back in Devon. I wanted high ground with wide vistas.
A sign invited us to visit the tin soldier factory, just a few minutes drive down a side road. Twenty minutes later we were lost, deep in the Irish countryside where English had completely disappeared and what few signs we did see were in Gaelic, written in half uncial script! Eventually we found the little factory where, sheltering from the rain, we were shown how the tin and lead are melted and poured into moulds made from old car tyres to create tiny soldiers, chess pieces, nativity scenes, Christmas decorations and magical or mythical figures such as the orcs of Tolkein or fiery dragons. The pieces could then be hand painted. We rather enjoyed our visit. Chess pieces are their main line but they also sell kits for enthusiasts to cast their own little soldiers. Almost everyone in the tiny hamlet must have been employed in the business and we were told they supply enthusiasts for war games, dungeons and dragons, and magic and mystery, world wide.
As we left we saw a sign, probably left from yesterday, warning of road bowling on the narrow lane ahead. This, like hurling, is a quintessentially Irish sport. Both are completely mad and highly dangerous. In Wexford and Kilkenny we saw young hurling enthusiasts smashing the solid ball up and down the high street between parked cars and traffic. Road bowling is a common Sunday sport in rural Ireland where a heavy iron ball, originally a canon ball, is thrown along a quiet public road, the aim being to cover a given distance with as few throws as possible. Of course it's a betting sport, like most things in Ireland.
We really were in deepest west Ireland here. We had no idea where we were so simply followed the road hoping for a sign post. The only one we found was as incomprehensible to us as those Cyrillic ones we found in Bosnia.
Grass grew down the centre of the road, every few kilometres we'd pass an isolated house or a woman pushing a pram in the torrential rain – where was she going? Beside the road were soaking ferns, foxgloves and purple heather. Then the track led us through an Irish peat bog that had once been worked but was now being reclaimed by nature. Impossible to get lost; there were no other tracks anywhere and we never saw another vehicle. Eventually, after a massive meander, we emerged onto a civilised road with no idea which direction to take. We gave Modestine her head and knowing what we'd like, she instinctively led us up to Gougane Barra, a stunningly beautiful lake surrounded by mountains with a little causeway leading to a green island with a tiny chapel. The lake captures the water that falls in long cascades from the mountains and becomes the source of the river Lee which eventually flows all the way down to Cork where we saw its broad waters yesterday. The island was once the home of St. Finbar who lived there as a hermit in the 6th century before following the river down to become the first bishop of Cork. As we arrived the sun came out, shining on the water of the lake and glistening on the wet green leaves and grass. This was Ireland at its best.
To add to our delight we discovered nearby a pretty thatched public toilet proudly displaying a plaque declaring it to have won the award for the best public convenience in Ireland! What more could we wish for?
We do seem to have done an inordinate amount of rural driving today but have at last reached the west coast. Our winding rural drive onto the Beara peninsula took us along the cliffs above the convoluted shoreline of Bantry Bay, rather like a low level Norwegian fjord. The roadside was a mass of orange flowering mombretia and natural low hedges of wild fuchsia, their branches dripping with flowers, like drops of deep red blood. We found the coastal golf course and followed the winding track across the waterlogged greens down to the sea shore, the club-house and the tiny ferry to the island. It's been too wet and cold to be outside but the rain has eased, and as today is Ian's birthday we are now going to watch a dvd with a glass of wine as evening falls across the sea and we discover whether any lights show on the island of Bere or whether it is completely uninhabited.
Tuesday 14th July 2009, Bere Haven, near Castletownbere, on the Beara Peninsula
We woke to the now familiar sound of rain pattering on the roof. The mountains had disappeared beneath a grubby blanket of dark clouds leaving little incentive for us to crawl out from beneath our own, more cheerfully coloured blanket.
It was mid morning before we could even venture out for a blustery wet stroll around the golf course with its magnificent coastal views before returning for lunch and to shelter from the next downpour.
Meanwhile we seem to have taken a couple of semi-drowned Dutch campers under our wing as they huddle in their waterlogged tent with a couple of wet bikes propped up outside. Last night they lost some of their cutlery so we gave them a spare plastic spoon so they could eat their supper together rather than in relays. This morning they ran out of gas so we lent them our thermos filled with boiling water so they could at least drink tea until the rain eased enough for one of them to cycle the 10 kilometres round trip to Castletownbere for a replacement canister. (We did offer to get it for them.) She returned successful but soaked by the next shower of rain. We are so glad we have left our camping days behind and can luxuriate in the comforts Modestine provides.
Around 3pm we drove into Castletownbere in the continuing rain to use the internet and buy some essentials. Despite its tiny size the town is one of Ireland's major fishing ports and the quayside was bustling with boats and fishermen. It still proved impossible though to actually buy any fish in the town that wasn't frozen and we were rather fancying fresh mackerel for supper.
Ian was delighted to discover a couple of leprechaun-hole covers in the pavement. These are like manhole covers but smaller and have Irish triskels on them. They are fitted with a special hole for the leprechauns to spy people coming before they leap out and frighten them. In this respect they are more intellectually developed than the Danish trolls we encountered in Randers during our early travels. But they were shy, hard working and gentle. Irish leprechauns are none of these things being lazy, brash and frequently drunk. They wear silly green hats with shamrocks tucked under the rim and they will steal absolutely anything they can find, be it a Dutch camper's spoon or even one of our email messages to friends!
It stays light until at least 10pm now that we are at the most western parts of Europe and the incoming tide had finally brought some dryer weather with it. So we drove west on a narrow loop road that leads out towards the far end of this beautiful peninsula.
Right at the tip, washed on all sides by the Atlantic Ocean, lies the off-shore island of Dursey. Normally a cable car carries passengers and supplies across the tidal race between the island and the mainland and we were curious to see it. Fortunately there was virtually no traffic as we wound our way between the low stone walls, past isolated houses and rough fields of grazing cattle right to the furthest tip of the mainland. The cable car was in a dreadful state of decay. The cables were rusted and frayed, the gondola lying nearby abandoned and rotten, and the winding mechanism looked ready to collapse. Nobody but a lunatic would dream of using it to cross over the foaming waters below to reach the island. Fortunately they cannot now. A notice warns that services are suspended (unlike the gondola) until further notice. A new gondola is being built and new cabling is to be installed. Meanwhile we presume there must be another way for the few people living on Dursey to reach the mainland, to get supplies across and to deliver fuel for the several cars and tractors we could see as we looked across. Perhaps at certain times of the day the sea is less violent but as we watched the waters were swirling and racing in between the mainland and the island.
Out on the headland we'd left the trees, ferns and wayside flowers behind and there were just low stone walls covered in stunted yellow gorse and bright purple heather. Out to sea was an archipelago of rocky islets, hazy against the silver grey of the sea. Mainland cliffs dropped steeply down to the water's edge while inland the dark rugged mountains lay with their strata thrown up at right-angles, heaved up by subterranean activity back when the landscape was being formed.
We continued our circuit of the peninsula towards Allihies searching for evidence of copper mining. Back in the 19th century, while Irish navvies crossed to England to find work laying railways, digging canals and labouring in the Cornish tin mines, Cornish miners arrived here in Ireland with the expertise to develop the Irish copper mining industry. Already we'd been astonished at the similarity of the landscape here to that of Cornwall. In Allihies all the houses could have come from any village in the far west of Cornwall. There was even a Wesleyan chapel (now a museum) that was no different from hundreds to be found in Cornish villages and the nearby cemetery apparently has several graves of Cornish miners. All around, the fields showed evidence of mining disturbance, there were open mineshafts, winding gear and engine houses identical to those to be seen around Camborne, Redruth and the far tip of England down in West Penwith. What, we wondered, did the passionate, dogmatic Irish Catholics make of the hard-working, generally temperate, self-disciplined and equally passionate Cornish Wesleyans when they arrived?
The rest of the route revealed a landscape very much in the raw, washed by the sea – harsh but stunningly beautiful. Gradually, as we left the stark headland behind and dropped down into the valleys further inland, hawthorns began to appear, then ferns and flowers – masses of orange mombretia clashing with mauve foxgloves, deep pink dog roses, purple fuchsia and even bright bushes of blue hydrangeas. All these simply growing wild!
We returned to the same campsite, rather late but with a sense of satisfaction and the feeling that the day has not been spoilt by the weather after all.
Wednesday 15th July 2009, Killarney
The sun has shone all day and the landscape is transformed. All the mountains have been clearly visible and the sunlight has reflected brightly from the lakes and fjords where rows of blue buoys mark the location of mussel beds and lobster pots.
This morning we made our way to the northern side of the Beara Peninsula before turning inland to follow a narrow but awesomely beautiful route up to the highest point at Healy Pass on the borders of Counties Cork and Kerry. The landscape here is magnificent. Mountains of metamorphosed schist, veined with quartz have been thrown upwards, their layers now vertical. Ice erosion has then scoured their sides creating corries and smooth sided valleys with long finger lakes, sometimes several linked together. The convoluted coastline, again due to glacial erosion, brings the salt water of the fjiords so far inland they almost join the freshwater lakes. Much of the landscape is rather similar to England's Lake District and also to parts of coastal Norway, though the vegetation in the valleys is more luxuriant, almost tropical even with azaleas, rhododendrons and bright blue flowering hydrangeas.
From the top of the Healy Pass we could make out the sea to either side of the peninsula. At this height there were huge crags of bare rock scattered amongst waterlogged bog and wiry grass, grazed by wild black-legged sheep. Here there were no trees and the only flower was the tiny, yellow tormentil, hugging the ground to avoid the winds that normally scour the top of the pass. Today the weather was perfect and we prepared a picnic lunch looking down towards the sea to the south. Yesterday it would have been hell with the wind and driving rain.
A couple on holiday from Waterford stopped to chat. The Irish are amazing when they get talking, they must all have season tickets for kissing the Blarney. They were delightful and we now know exactly where we need to travel, what to see and what to avoid. In particular we've been warned off going to Limerick. Apparently it's all drug cartels and Irish mafia and is known as Stab City. We were warned generally not to trust the Irish as they will happily smile in your face while stabbing you in the back! And this from an Irishman!
Irish tourism, so we were told, is this year suffering from the two Rs – Rain and Recession. Apparently Ireland feels the current financial situation is hitting it at least as hard as in Britain, if not more so. Like the British, until the crash they were all spending freely and living on credit. Now so many Irish are in serious debt that there is likely to be another mass exodus as they seek work in America, Canada and Britain. All those economies will surely recover before too long but Ireland stands little chance of doing so, indeed it hasn't yet recovered since the last mass emigration. Back in the 1840s Ireland's population was around eight million. Then, following the potato famine millions emigrated all around the world while millions more died from starvation back home. The country has never recovered and today the population stands at only around 4.5 million.
They couldn't remember when Ireland changed from miles to kilometres but they'd not long changed their car and it now measured in kilometres which they didn't like. Most Irish cannot get used to it and still think in miles. They confirmed our suspicion that many of the older road signs have not yet been replaced so it's impossible to know the distance to a particular town as it may be stated in either miles or kilometres and there is no way of knowing which! This started to dawn on us when we realised that the nearer we got to a place the further away it frequently seemed to be!
Returning down to the north coast we followed the road around countless little bays and fishing coves, the shoreline thick with kelp - a thick, rubbery seaweed gathered for fertiliser. We think it is also edible.
Near the shores of one of the fjords we found an outdoor activity centre with children having the time of their lives with canoes, kayaks, pedal boats and tiny sailing dinghies. It all involved wearing wet suits and jumping overboard rather a lot! Further out from the shore fishermen were casting their lines from small boats and also having a grand time. We watched them, leaning on the rail in the warm sunshine, loath to move on. It really has been a very lazy day.
In Kenmare we parked for a stroll around the centre. It was crowded with holiday visitors, the main street filled with antique shops and tea places. Along with almost all the towns and villages we've seen in the coastal regions, the buildings have all been given a colourful make over with brightly coloured paints. Gone are whites, creams and pale greens. Instead, every house in a terrace may be in a different colour ranging from bright puce pink to vivid turquoise or from deep indigo to vibrant red or orange. Surprisingly though, it is perfectly acceptable once the initial impact wears off.
The nearest affordable campsite was in Killarney so we followed the route recommended to us earlier and reached the town by a pretty road that passed the entrance to the Killarney National Park, descending from the pass at Mol's Gap with its wonderful view over the chain of lakes. Cars are not permitted in the park and visitors are expected to travel in a horse and trap, known as a jaunting car, driven by a jarvey. Today the park was closed, the entrance blocked by jaunting cars and angry jarvies bearing banners protesting about legislation insisting that the horses wear nappies! Yep, this is Ireland all right. Even we couldn't make up a yarn as bizarre as that!