Thursday 22 February 2018

West Cork: Let me take you to the islands

Cape Clear, Co Cork
Cape Clear, Co Cork
Cape Clear, Co Cork
Islander's Rest, Sherkin Island, Co Cork


FIFTY years ago, as a raw 15-year-old, I escaped to West Cork, on my own, on a hitch-hiking holiday that took me to its two largest inhabited islands, Cape Clear and Sherkin. I have been going there ever since.

I remember a big Viking-like American in the dining-room of the An Oige hostel in Cork city who enthralled us all with exotic, but uncheckable, stories of running arms into Cuba for Castro (this was just two months after the Bay of Pigs fiasco). More important for me was a fellow from Phoenix, Arizona, who was loud in complaint that he could not get a cup of iced tea in Skibbereen. But he was wistful when he told of a wonderful island he had visited called Cape Clear. Within days, I was on the ferry from Baltimore to Cape and about to have my first island landfall. Later, I would make another landfall in nearby Sherkin where, now I am retired, I spend as much time as I can.

Island landfall is the moment of stepping ashore after a sea crossing. No matter how short the journey, or how large or small the island, the sensation of arrival, of leaving behind the known, and of stepping from moving deck to a new unknown, is always magical. Island magic is both physical and spiritual. Everything is mediated by the beauty, calm and rage of the sea. The landscape condenses rural Ireland to a scale of a pleasant day's walk: at each turn a shop, a farm, a pub, a home, a flower, a rock, a hillside, a ruin. Nature is the sun-warmed sand, the rocky headland, the gorse on the mountain; sometimes the rain, but always the sea. The island is patient and understanding of your psychic need in a way that the mainland is not. Whether you are alone, a couple, a family, or a group, the island will pause and wait as your soul orders its place in the world and beyond.

An enduring attraction of Sherkin is its beautiful and unspoiled Silver Strand. The beach looks west across the bay to Cape Clear. On a hot afternoon it could be a Cuban beach, or Phuket, or whatever is your version of holiday nirvana. It's a safe place for everybody: the Atlantic rollers are well subdued before they reach its sands, but big enough to ride and dive; and the Strand's open sweep means parents can easily keep their children in view at all times. Now that so many people have wetsuits, it takes the sting out of the old Irish joke that the perfect Irish holiday is the one on which "we got the two good days".

In the early 1960s on Cape Clear, many of the luxuries of modern life had not yet arrived. There were no cars, and a single tractor was the only motor vehicle. Homes had no electricity, and few had running water. For me, this did not intrude on the serious business of chatting up foreign girls in the hostel or along the south pier, with a nice flagon of cider cooling in the waters of the harbour to wash down the bags and bags of Tayto crisps. At night, there was Paddy Burke's pub with guitars and folk singers, old fishermen in their uniform of dark serge jacket and blue sweater, sometimes a local Royal Navy veteran in Panama hat and a white linen suit tailored for him in far-off Hong Kong. Commanding it all was the hostel warden, Dan Donovan, ready with his very fine tenor version of The Lark in the Clear Air and a 2am reprimand that we should all be back in our dorms.

Nowadays, ferry services run several times a day to the islands from Baltimore. A roll-on-roll-off ferry has taken the hardship of getting heavy goods in and livestock out, and there are bus services and cars. New homes are modern and bright. Fishermen look like yachties in their Helly Hanson and Musto. My pint in the Jolly Roger or Islander's Rest on Sherkin may be served by a local wearing some cool linen gear bought in Shanghai where she is studying in university. The singer at the bar piano has a great take on Bob Marley's No Woman, No Cry. And the young couples staying in the yurt-tent facility on Cape know nothing of reprimands or dorms.

Islands cannot be islands without their waters, and the waters around Sherkin and Cape are where we have had such perfect days sailing with our children, and now also with their children, seeking out those little intimate spaces on the hidden beaches and abandoned piers of the many other tiny, now uninhabited islands of Baltimore Bay, Long Island Bay, and the wonderful-sounding Roaring Water Bay. In the busy months of July and August, getting to the best spots can be a competitive business, but the worst that can happen is that you make new acquaintances, or, better still, meet friends from other years. These are the places to enjoy the picnic bag, the cool beer or glass of wine and the lazy, hazy barbecue sizzling the mackerel caught with feathers along the way. But, for me, the best enjoyment of all is being together having fun, being happy and making memories.

Baltimore harbour will have queues of people waiting for the ferries going "in" to Sherkin and Cape for their perfect day. Many of them will be young families with parents whose own parents brought them there as children and for whom the magic never faded.

Youngsters with their tents and guitars want something a bit more liberated and wild, but in a few years time they will be the young parents heading up the hills from the island harbours pushing their buggies, bringing the island magic to another generation. And with luck, they will all get "the two good days".

Sunday Indo Living

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