Southern comfort in West Cork for all the family
To bring your children to the Beara during a heatwave is to give them memories to treasure forever – even the one with the scary cable car
Have you ever seen the video for The Cure’s song ‘Close to Me’ where the band are locked inside a wardrobe and then flung over a cliff? The cable car to Dursey Island on the edge of the Beara Peninsula seems a bit like that to me.
But not to my two kids.
We were in a little wooden box, on wires, high above the ocean. My three-year-old son and six-year-old daughter were entranced, gazing down at the sea crashing on the jagged rocks below. I was terrified.
Still, the journey didn’t take long – eight minutes tops – and it was worth my terror when we arrived, alive, to explore by bus this isolated and magical island off the southwest coast of Ireland.
Dursey Island is 6.5km long and 1.5km wide and has just two residents. We saw sheep feeding high up on the cliffs, and abandoned houses, their roofs long gone, dotted around the hillside. It was a scene from another time.
I felt that timelessness again when I told the bus driver I had no cash on me to pay for a tour of Dursey. He said to leave it in O’Neill’s pub in Allihies – 11km away and possibly the most remote village in the land. Literally, the next parish is America.
When we dropped the bus fares into the pub that evening, we discovered a small sacred site dedicated to the Children of Lír just outside the village.
I remembered the legend from school: the four children of Lír, who were transformed into swans to wander for 900 years. One night they heard a bell, rung by a monk living in Allihies, and were returned to human form. Not long after, they died and were buried beneath the large white boulders. There is also talk of the Hag of Beara who they say lived seven lifetimes before being turned to stone on the hill.
We were staying in a self-catering cottage on the northern coast of the peninsula in Coulagh Bay, 8km from Allihies. Now 8km doesn’t sound much, but when you are driving mountain roads that seem to hang out over the Atlantic, it can take a while to get anywhere.
But it is such a gob-smackingly beautiful, if bleak, part of the world that you want to take it slowly – the rugged scenery can look like the surface of the Moon. And in places, this part of Beara can appear just as cut off.
One night we sat in our back garden in Coulagh Bay with a picnic, and watched as the sun sank into the sea. The mountains of Slieve Miskish were behind us, and Kerry’s peak of Carrauntoohil poked up in the distance in front of us.
The quiet was all encompassing, just the pop of a cork as my wife opened a bottle of wine – the sort of sound that travels a long way. It is a place so remote that I couldn’t help but switch off, helped by the fact that there is little or no internet coverage. You can’t but stay in the moment.
It became part of our routine to go for a swim at Ballydonegan Beach, 9km further west, each morning before we set off exploring for the day.
One day we drove the hour to Glengarriff in Bantry Bay and took the ferry past the seals to Garnish Island, a 37-acre horticultural wonder, with a gorgeous Italian garden that would make the heart soar.
Another day we went the 10km to Castletownbere, stopping off for cake and lemonade at the Buddhist retreat centre, Dzogchen Beara (dzogchenbeara.org). It has the most spectacular views over the sea, and I felt more like I was on a Greek island than in Cork, as the white walls of the retreat gleamed in the sunshine.
On the way back to our cottage, we drove on roads barely big enough for a single car. In the surprise heatwave we had a cooling night swim in the crystal-clear waters of Ballydonegan. And I had a pint in O’Neill’s.
It was a wrench to leave, but after a week on the Beara, we drove back to Cork city. I’d forgotten how wonderful the second capital was. We took a lunchtime stroll through the UCC campus and took in the beauty of the neo-gothic architecture of the Quadrangle.
In the afternoon, we visited Rumley’s open farm (rumleysfarm.ie) in Waterfall, just outside Bishopstown. The children loved petting the ponies and the lambs, the tractor-drawn trailer ride, and the JCB digger ride, where they got to dig up and move earth. My wife and I had a game of table tennis, but were interrupted by a lamb and his mammy coming into our space to push us gently out with their noses. An experience straight out of a Disney movie.
As it was another roasting day, it was a blessing that we were all able to cool off in the pool at our hotel, the Kingsley, followed by a drink on the terrace overlooking the River Lee, where people were swimming and kayaking.
The following day we drove the short distance to Blarney Castle (blarneycastle.ie), where we took off our shoes and socks and walked along the riverbank. The kids fed nearby horses handfuls of grass, and we fed ourselves with a delicious picnic of local produce.
The children played hide-and-seek in and out of the old trees before we climbed the castle walls where my wife kissed the famous stone (in 1314, Robert the Bruce of Scotland gave the Stone of Destiny to the King of Munster as a reward for the 5,000 soldiers who helped him defeat King Edward II at Bannockburn).
We explored the castle gardens and marvelled at their Poison Garden, planted with flowers that are so toxic they could kill you.
The next day the plan was to go to Cobh to visit the Titanic Experience, but the kids nixed that idea. It was one of the hottest days of the heatwave. So instead of sightseeing, we lolled about in Kinsale, made sandcastles and swam all morning at the Dock Beach – a lovely spot on one side of the Bandon river – before treating ourselves to an al fresco lunch at The Blue Haven.
We needed to carb up the kids, as they were visiting Kinsale Equestrian Centre (kinsale-equestrian.ie). They had a two-hour outing, and so much fun that there was talk of them going to a camp there next summer. My son was mesmerised by the state-of-the-art digger picking up giant bales of hay. He watched the performance as spellbound as if it were a Broadway show. Afterwards we all boarded the Kinsale Harbour Cruise (kinsaleharbourcruises.com). It was more a magical mystery tour into history than a mere boat trip.
On our last day, we drove to the beach in Myrtleville for a swim – but the sea was full of seaweed and it felt as if we were wading in cabbage soup.
Our final evening was in nearby Crosshaven at a funfair, and it was impossible to keep the kids off the bouncy castle. It was just as impossible to stop them – and their mum and dad – from jumping into the river for a dip at the end of the night. It had to be done.
If this long hot summer had a title, it would be: “Come in, the water’s lovely.”
Barry was a guest of The Kingsley Hotel, Sundays Well, Cork, 021 480 0500; thekingsley.ie