Wednesday 13 December 2017

From fishing to bull runs: the west Cork town on the edge


Flying the flag: Spaniards Esther Ballester Palazon and Paz Vargas Vázquez with Diarmuid Cornelio O'Donovan, honorary vice-consul of Spain in Castletownbere. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Flying the flag: Spaniards Esther Ballester Palazon and Paz Vargas Vázquez with Diarmuid Cornelio O'Donovan, honorary vice-consul of Spain in Castletownbere. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Sláinte: Cian Murphy with Adrienne MacCarthy of MacCarthy's Bar. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Grace and Noel Forde with daughter Emilia in Castletownbere, Co Cork. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Graham Clifford

The kids' feet stamp as they flee the raging bulls.

Through narrow streets past bars with Spanish guitarists in full flow. The occasional high-pitched holler of excitement as flamenco dancers do their thing alerts resting seagulls. On the air is the whiff of the outdoors while Spanish voices drift on the evening breeze intertwined with west Cork tones. This is not Pamplona in July. It's Castletownbere in June and the bulls aren't real.

The inaugural Spanish Fest, organised by the innovative Castletownbere Development Association (CDA), was a celebration of Spanish culture and went down a treat in the hub of the Beara Peninsula.

"They painted the faces of bulls on the front of wheelbarrows and added horns then chased the children through the streets with them, it was brilliant," explains Adrienne MacCarthy of MacCarthy's bar in the town - made famous in Pete McCarthy's writing.

A Spanish accent

Not so long ago the prospect of celebrating Spanish culture here would have been unthinkable. The arrival of Spanish fishermen in these parts created understandable suspicion and angst. Fishing communities along the Irish seaboard saw them as a direct threat to their way of life and their livelihoods.

But as time progressed so too did attitudes.

"We've a Daithí Torres playing for the local Gaelic football team now," says Cian Murphy, chairman of the local CDA. "There are families living in Castletownbere today who are fourth-generation Spanish and altogether we have around 100 Spanish people living in the town. This is their home and we're delighted to have them."

Among them are 25-year-old Paz Vargas Vázquez, the first ever Queen of Spanish Fest (she has a sash and all to prove it) and 29-year-old Esther Ballester Palazon.

Both came to Castletownbere after university.

Paz, from the southern Spanish city of Almería, studied to become a primary school teacher but once graduated decided she wanted a change of lifestyle for a few years at least.

"I love living here and since last August have been working in the fishing co-op's processing and packaging plant. It's a cool town and everyone is so welcoming," she tells me during her lunch break.

Esther, a marketing graduate, initially came to the Beara Peninsula to work as an au pair and fell in love with the area. "Now I have a job in SuperValu in Castletownbere and have already been here three years. The people are very welcoming and there's so much to do. We feel part of the community. We feel at home here."

The town even has its own Spanish honorary consulate above an ice-cream parlour overlooking the pier - with local man Diarmuid Cornelio O'Donovan the honorary vice-consul.

Read more: They don't bat an eyelid, we're just the two lads from the hotel

At the fishing co-op just outside the town (Ireland's largest fishing co-op and processor with an annual turnover of €60m) Donal O'Sullivan, the assistant manager, walks me through the packaging plant.

Workers with white overhauls, blue plastic head protective gear and long, blue gloves pack fish of all kinds into crates.

"This delivery is being prepared for a major Spanish supermarket chain called Mercadona. We send fish all over Europe. You'll still get a lot of fishermen in Ireland who are anti-EU after what happened with our fishing rights over the years but I think we're better to be inside the tent rather than outside," explains Donal over the sound of machinery at work.

And the news last weekend that the British government may pull out of a fisheries pact effectively closing some of its waters to non-British fishing fleets is causing concern locally. The ecosystem for towns such as this is delicately balanced.

The emigrants return

Castletownbere is still a town almost totally dependent on its fishing industry for survival and prosperity. "We're told that 90 cents out of every euro that comes into the town is connected with the fishing industry in one way or another. So many families depend on jobs in the sector. It's vital the fishing industry is protected for those who live and work in places like Castletownbere," says Donal.

Local restaurants depend on the freshest of catches for their business too.

"I can get a text from one of the fishermen out on the boat to tell me they're coming in with my prawns. They couldn't possibly be any fresher," says Mairead O'Driscoll who opened the new Ocean Wild restaurant with her sister Eileen in the west end of the town just six weeks ago.

For 25 years Mairead worked on the east coast of America and completed a culinary diploma in Manhattan. Her father Kieran was one of the founding members of the co-op in Castletownbere and she'd always hoped to return to Ireland full-time to open her own place. And now that life-long dream has become a reality.

Mairead catered for big names such as Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner (he was particularly taken by her chocolate chip cookies), John McEnroe, Paul McCartney and many other A-list celebrities while working in the States.

"I cooked for clients at their homes in the Hamptons as a live-in chef and they were always entertaining. Now, though, I'm happy to be home with my three children and am so excited by what the future holds," she tells me.

Interestingly Mairead has noticed little change in Castletownbere from when she grew up here.

"People kept telling me it had changed so much but actually I think, for the most part, it hasn't changed at all. People are still as friendly as ever and while there are some new faces from other countries I think that's a good thing in a town like this and that sense of community spirit is as strong as ever."

The same is true for Cian Murphy. He studied marine engineering at the maritime college in Ringaskiddy and went away to sea for two years but Castletownbere reeled him in again.

"I returned and set up my Chart Datum business creating individually hand-crafted marine charts from Baltic birch with help and advice from the West Cork Enterprise board. I create commissioned pieces with over 80pc of sales coming via online.

"The huge majority of those I went to school with are now gone. Some are returning as things are gradually picking up. But we stay positive, work on new events, stay active and harness that community spirit to make things happen."

Embracing the Wild Atlantic Way

In August, the Festival of the Sea will result in a doubling of the town's population. The 10-day extravaganza includes everything from regatta racing to outdoor cinemas, a peninsula-wide treasure hunt and even a challenge where competitors engage in pillow fights while trying to reach the end of a telegraph pole laid horizontally out to sea.

The Wild Atlantic Way has been something of a godsend for Castletownbere as the town attempts to diversify its economic base. The restaurants, like Lynch's on the Pier, are buzzing, and the pubs are busy even during traditionally quieter periods.

South African Mark Funston and his partner Grace Delaney run the Berehaven Lodge restaurant. The business opened earlier this year and the stylish venue overlooks the town and pier. It's become a popular wedding venue and Mark has big plans. "The location is amazing and we hope to open an outdoor cooking school next year. We love it and the supply of fresh seafood and meat is unparalleled. We work hard but our downtime is precious. Like every morning, I canoe in the waters here along the coast visiting a seal colony. It's completely peaceful, blissful really."

And that's the feeling you get from everyone you speak to in Castletownbere. When the local economy tips away nicely, the tourists pop in and the locals pull together there's no better place. It's two hours by road to Cork city and six to Dublin so by virtue of its location it has to be somewhat self-sufficient. While it's tempting to oversell itself to the tourist market, locals are wary.

A slow pace of life

"We don't want to be like a Kenmare or a Killarney," explains Adrienne MacCarthy, adding "even if we wanted to we couldn't because the town doesn't have the infrastructure to take the large coaches. And anyway I don't really think it's the Beara way. Part of the charm is the peacefulness and the slower pace of life. It's a fine balancing act between being busy enough while at the same time not being overrun."

There was, of course, a little excitement last weekend when Pippa Middleton, sister of Kate, visited the Beara Peninsula to attend a wedding.

"I think they had a nice time and no one bothered them in Glengarriff. Hopefully she'll come back and visit Castletownbere at some stage. Everyone is welcome."

And that sense of openness and oneness makes Castletownbere a special place in which to grow up. Father-of-one Noel Forde tells me: "I'm a blow-in from west Limerick but I'll tell you something I can't think of a better place in the world in which to raise a family."

His daughter Amelia is "seven and three-quarters" and has just finished first class at Scoil an Chroí Ró-Naofa, the only primary school in the town. "She loves it here especially the beaches, the rock pools, the big open spaces. She knows all the other children in the town," explains her doting father who runs a financial services company, G Mac Property and Finance, with his wife Grace who's a Castletownbere native.

Noel tells me: "It's safe here, friendly, there's no pollution, you can find an empty beach and clear your head or meet friends down at a local pub or at one of our 10 restaurants. The schools are proactive and teachers engaged. There's always something going on and it's normal to see a Filipino, Spanish or west African fishing crew strolling through the town. It's a unique place, remote yet as multicultural as an urban centre. It has everything we need and as parents we're so delighted to have settled in Castletownbere."


Castletownbere Fact box

Population:  1,478 (in town), 4,204 (in rural areas around Castletownbere)

Employers: The Castletownbere Fishermen's Co-operative. The town's fishing fleet employs around 120 onshore and can have up to 360 people at sea

Attractions: The islands off the Beara Peninsula - Bere Island and Garnish Island. Allihies for walks, the Dzogchen Beara Tibetan Buddhist retreat and for climbers, the Hungry Hill mountain

Claim to fame: MacCarthy's in Castletownbere featured in the top-selling book McCarthy's Bar by English author Pete McCarthy

Famous sons and daughters: Dr Aidan MacCarthy (1914-1992) celebrated for his courage and humanity while a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II.

Standish James O'Grady, author, journalist and historian. Played a key role in Celtic Revival (died in 1928).

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