Saturday 18 January 2020

Musings and optimism on summer trips south

There is an impression of revitalisation in Kerry, but businesses still depend on tourism to make a living, writes Brendan O’Connor

FEAST FOR THE SENSES: The monastic island, Skellig Michael was founded in the 7th century and is a big tourism draw especially since the filming of Star Wars. Photo: Valerie O’Sullivan
FEAST FOR THE SENSES: The monastic island, Skellig Michael was founded in the 7th century and is a big tourism draw especially since the filming of Star Wars. Photo: Valerie O’Sullivan
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

We have to order before 7.45pm because there’s an 80th birthday on in Dooley’s in Waterville. There’s a huge gang of them, enjoying steaks and seafood, many of them friends since school; there’s even local hero Mick O’Dwyer. It’s looking lively, and a guy is getting set up to play music. Naturally, I am related to some of them. Every second person you meet around here is a cousin of some kind.

The local post office was robbed that morning, and there is much hilarity about why anyone would conduct a robbery in Waterville when your exit strategy is so limited. You are close to the edge of Europe here. As it happened, the robbers chose the worst of the escape routes, out the cliff road, where they nearly collided with a tour bus. The buses loom around corners at you on the tight roads. It felt like there weren’t as many of them circumnavigating the Ring of Kerry as you might see other years, but things certainly feel like they’re booming in Waterville.

They reminded me of the older people I’d been observing in rural Italy recently, as they went about living their lives and chatting away joyfully with each other as they did their daily business. These were older people who were living, not dying. And while Micko is a bit of an institution, none of them seemed ready for an institution. Indeed, Kerry has a lot of similarities with rural Italian life and a lot to learn from how Italians monetise their rural idylls.

The Bay View Hotel has been done up and there’s a new golf course being built on the outskirts of town in conjunction with the redevelopment of the Waterville Lake Hotel. But while there is an impression here of revitalisation and teeming commerce, you’d wonder how many old school friends of the current generation will still be around to celebrate birthdays together in years to come. It is so beautiful here, but of course, the people who have to live in it, as against those of us who just come down in the summer, will tell you that you can’t eat scenery.

In the case of Skelligs Chocolate, though, you kind of can. The factory, out by Finian’s Bay and overlooking the now iconic Star Wars set that is Skellig Michael, does a roaring trade, particularly on rainy days. Charming local women give each family a little tasting session before you find yourself dropping more than you meant to on chocolate in the shop and hot chocolates in the cafe. It is testament to the ingenuity of the Kerry people that it has become part of the family holiday routine for visitors down here to drive to a chocolate factory in the middle of nowhere.

In Italy, the chocolate would doubtless be DOP-protected, but surely it is only a matter of time before the divine Kerry lamb is DOP. We have a lot to learn from the way the Italians have fetishised their rural lifestyle and made it iconic and lucrative, but if any one is good at it, Kerry people are.

O’Flynn’s gourmet sausages in Cork is doing a decent job of building a major artisanal brand out of the basics of life too.

Back in Caherdaniel the day before, I sat looking out at the grey and overcast but still dramatic and beautiful vista listening to Danny Healy-Rae on the radio reprising his thoughts about climate change. Maybe because I was outside the bubble, and the irrational side of my brain was more open, and maybe it was because I was down here near to Healy-Rae ground zero, but he seemed to be making some kind of sense. Apparently, the climate change denial is playing very well locally for Danny. There were even fancy dress entries at the Kilgarvan Show the other weekend based on the theme that “only God controls the wedder”, along with another claiming that Hillary Clinton was secretly in Kilgarvan to get election tips from the Healy-Raes. The Healy-Raes were, of course, centre stage at the show. They know how to run a fiefdom, you’d have to say.

In Kenmare on bank holiday Monday, I’m told it was a mad night the night before, as the Healy-Raes bought drink in pubs all over town to celebrate the engagement of a young Healy-Rae. The cut-out of Jackie still waves you off as you drive out of Kilgarvan to Kenmare, and Kenmare is still as charming as ever, with chi-chi cafes, shops and eating houses to suit everyone.

It’s not all prosperity — there are businesses that were here last year that have since closed, but there is a sense of optimism and fun around this summer, maybe a kind of Kerry madness, and maybe it’s partly to keep the tourists coming — the Yanks, and then the crowd from Cork and D4 who come down here in summer to go native and spend liberally in pubs and restaurants and shops that often have only two months to make the lion’s share of their money for the year. But everywhere you look there are people trying to turn a buck, with farm shops, home baking, knick-knacks and temporary takeaways, what might be called pop-up restaurants in Dublin.

The Kerry crowd aren’t quite on a par with the agriturismo sector in rural Italy, where every second small farmer seems to have dug a pool and turned the old outbuildings into apartments, where everyone is making their own olive oil and selling it as artisan luxury. But there is a similar sense of making the best of what we have.

All of this energy still comes against a background of torpor, though. Property, the single greatest asset that most people down here own, is moving a bit at the cheaper end of the market, but people will tell you that in outlying areas it is still generally worth half or less of what it was. Despite the fact that no more holiday homes will be built in most of the tourist areas due to strict regulation, it hasn’t led to much of a boom or pent-up demand.

In Cork, I’m told there’s big pent-up demand in places such as Blackrock, Douglas and Ballincollig, but once you go farther from town it’s still in the doldrums. There is a bit more of a buzz in the commercial arena with new bars and restaurants seeming to open all the time. Like Kerry, Cork knows how to put its best foot forward, and the English Market as always is teeming with activity, and the Huguenot quarter seems to have finally figured out how to make the most of its narrow little streets. And everywhere little hipstery joints are hopping up with craft beer and artisan foods.

On Friday night, though a lot of the new or done-up joints on the south side of the city seemed a bit empty. But then, apparently Saturday night is still the big night out in Cork. Also, people will tell you that lots of the places on the south side of the city are waiting for the conference centre that is due to open on the old Beamish and Crawford site, Beamish having moved north to be made by Murphy’s.

But after a much-trumpeted sod turning by Enda Kenny in February and a promise that construction would start after Easter, it emerged over the summer that the plans and designs are apparently not finalised, and so it drags on, and people are beginning to wonder if the convention centre will now be built at all by 2018, four years after it was first announced.

Meanwhile, shiny new bars and restaurants wait.

You suspect they are not waiting in Callanan’s bar on George’s Quay in the shadow of the old Beamish brewery where a mix of young and old regulars, the odd tourist and a few hipsters, discuss Cork City football and other matters.

There is no bar menu here, no carvery, and the place certainly hasn’t been done up in anticipation of an influx of convention delegates or folks attending West End musicals. If someone told you the toilets were an actual cave, part of the labyrinth under St Fin Barre’s Cathedral above, you’d believe them. But you wouldn’t mind, as you went back to your €3.30 pint of Beamish.

This may not be Italy, but sometimes you realise in a flash that you can find la dolce vita in Cork too.

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