Far and Away: Ireland 2017 (Part IV)

Through the miracle of hindsight, I have realised that I was, perhaps, a little overly ambitious in planning my outings during my time in Ireland. I kept thinking, “It’s a holiday, so I should relax!”, followed by, “…but I’m in this wonderful new place, and I want to explore it!” The latter voice was louder than the former (as per usual), plus I was seduced by the Jack Roberts guides and their long lists of all the fascinating and mysterious sights for me to behold in Counties Cork and Kerry. As a result I had a couple of very long days during which I had some amazing experiences but pushed myself so hard that I couldn’t fully enjoy them. Note to self: You can actually have too much of a good thing.

The first of my unnecessarily intense days was Tuesday, my fourth full day in Ireland. It is probably no coincidence that this day fell after the Whiddy Island debacle; I suspect that I felt driven to overcompensate and therefore went just a tad overboard in putting together my itinerary. I had consulted various pamphlets, maps, guide books, and websites to draw up a shortlist of places that appealed. I hoped to take in the landscape while visiting an array of historical sites that would allow me to see all the different sorts of structures erected by early Irish peoples. Basically, I wanted to see a bunch of rocks arranged in different orientations in picturesque locations.

Some of my proposed destinations were GPS-able, but others were obscure to the point that I was having to rely on instructions posted online by locals who gave descriptions like “take the fourth road to the right, then the fourth left, after which you will come to a fork in the road where you should take the left and then drive until the road dead-ends at a gate” [I wish this were a joke, but those are actual instructions that I attempted to follow]. In some cases I knew the general vicinity of the landmark and just had to hope that when I got to the nearest town or road, I would see some signage to point me on my way, or perhaps find an information map with further instructions. You can probably guess already which of these methods of navigation worked better than the others.

Possibly you are, at this very moment, judging me for this ridiculous plan (or lack thereof). All I will say in my defence is that I knew from the beginning that it was very likely I would experience failure as well as success, and I was okay with this because even if I failed to find every site on my list, I at least would have had an opportunity to explore some very beautiful, and likely often overlooked, parts of the country. It was a high-stakes, large-scale treasure hunt, with the payoff being some excellent photography opportunities and some priceless memories. I was willing to take the risk.

Ballynacarriga, a 16th-century castle that may incorporate even older building work

The first place on my list, Ballynacarriga, was shockingly easy to find–not just because I could find it on Google maps and therefore benefit from satnav guidance, but also because it was very well signposted despite being in the middle of nowhere. I was interested in Ballynacarriga mostly because of its Shiela na Gig, which is one of only a few in the area where I was staying. I did not want to leave Ireland without having seen a Shiela, but I was also intrigued by the other complimentary things my good friend Jack Roberts had to say about the rest of the castle:

This is one of the finest castles in the southwest of Ireland. It is also the only castle that is owned by the National Monuments Commission. Standing on its rock beside the lake it is a fine example of the masterly technique of castle building in the 1500’s. Records show that it was built by Randal Hurley in 1585 but portions of the structure are said to be older. Its vaulted ceiling, the highest in this part of Ireland, supports the main hall which was used as a church.

In case the Sheila is a little too worn for you to see, I will tell you that her pose is rather, um, indelicate
Someone needs to buy a dehumidifier

My next port of call was supposed to be the Cahermore ring fort, which has been described as “particularly impressive” and “well worth searching for”. I’d love to be able to confirm those assessments, but, sadly, I was unable to find the fort. Even Google was not able to find it, so I don’t feel particularly inept. I do actually think I found the hill upon which the fort is located; however, the countryside was blanketed by thick fog, and there were no convenient places to pull over, plus all the land seemed to be privately owned, so I really had no choice but to throw in the towel. I had suspected from the start that Cahermore might not happen, so I hadn’t gotten my hopes up and I wasn’t overly disappointed. Instead, I set my sights on one of the jewels in the crown of Cork antiquities: Drombeg.

Drombeg stone circle in the most evocative and atmospheric conditions possible

Drombeg is (so I have read) considered one of the finest stone circles in Cork, if not the whole of Ireland. It is a recumbent stone circle, which means that there is a horizontally-positioned stone located directly across from the entrance (the two tallest and most central stones in the photo above). Nobody really knows what happened in these circles back in their heyday, and, in particular, there is quite a lot of conjecture about the point of the recumbent stone. Was it a place where you left offerings for the gods? A table where you set stuff you needed to keep close to hand while you were visiting the circle? A spot for sacrificing victims (cremated remains have, in fact, been excavated from the site)? Perhaps all of the above? This particular recumbent stone has two shallow depressions which could be natural or man-made; these are also known as bullauns and they are another sacred stone feature you find all over the country. One of the most famous features of Drombeg is that it is aligned such that, on the winter solstice, the setting sun is positioned right in the middle of the recumbent stone and the (invisible) line, or axis, drawn between it and the portal stones.

In addition to the circle, the Drombeg site also features a fulacht fiadh, or “cooking site”. I put the term in quotation marks because there isn’t actually a lot of evidence–discarded bones, traces of animal fat, etc.–that cooking actually happened at these sites. However, some very thorough and enthusiastic researchers performed some experiments showing both that cooking could have happened, and how it might have happened.

A fulacht fiadh, which historians think was used for boiling meat…or having a hot bath…or perhaps brewing beer. Basically, nobody really knows.

A fulacht fiadh (which, by the way, can seemingly be spelled in about a half dozen ways) is basically just a hole in the ground. It tends to be located near or over a source of water and also a bunch of stones. The current thinking is that the hole would either naturally always be filled with water or could be filled by a group of industrious Bronze Age folk, whose boundless energy would also be turned to hefting some of the aforementioned stones into the middle of a large fire. Once the stones were heated, they would somehow finagle them into the pool of water, which would become really, really hot–a state it would maintain for several hours. At this point, the chefs could lower slabs of meat into the liquid and leave them to cook away for as long as needed. When I said that researchers had explored this possibility both thoroughly and enthusiastically, I was referring to the fact that investigators used this method to prepare meat that they actually ate. Despite their admirable commitment to rigorous methodologies, some colleagues are not convinced and claim that a fulacht fiadh might also be suitable for, say, taking a bath or brewing up some beer–neither of which, to my knowledge, has actually been field tested.

The timing of my visit to Drombeg was pretty perfect because I arrived just as a bunch of tourists left, and departed just as a whole new group was approaching. I didn’t have a long time to stand around and admire the ambiance, but I had just enough opportunity to revel in the blessed stillness of the remote countryside as it rested under its blanket of fog. Before I had a chance to wax too lyrical about the magic of the scene, I was distracted by nearly suffering a heart attack when a young boy climbed up one of the portal stones and was not admonished by his parents for doing so. Let me repeat: A child was romping on a 3000-year-old artefact and nobody but me seemed to find this inappropriate. I would say that I have no words to describe how I feel about this, except that I do and I just don’t want to publish them here because I know my grandma is reading and would disapprove.

During my drive to Drombeg, I’d seen many road signs for Baltimore, to which I spontaneously decided to make a detour. It is located at the tip of a peninsula that curls around towards several islands (most notably Sherkin and Cape Clear) and is, therefore, a popular destination for people who like to hike scenic coastal spots as well as for those who want to catch a ferry to the islands or take a cruise to see the wildlife living in the bay. I had been tempted by a sunset cruise because it is possible to see both whales and sunfish, which I have never managed to see elsewhere. However, the drive between Kealkill and Baltimore is not insignificant when done all in one go, and the idea of doing it in the dark after the cruise returned at 10pm was just not appealing. So, visiting in mid-afternoon when I was practically there already (by which I really mean “as close as my stone-circle-chasing was likely to take me”) seemed like a good compromise.

In driving between Drombeg and Baltimore, I purposefully selected a scenic route that hugged the coast and took me past Glandore and on to Leap before rejoining a major road that would get me to my destination more quickly. It was a pretty spectacular drive that looked out over quaint harbours, craggy overhangs, and mist-covered sheep fields; the views were about as Irish as you could imagine.

One of many lovely harbour views

Based on what I’d read, and on what photos I’d seen online, I had expected Baltimore to be a bit more happening than it was. It was exceptionally small and most of the action seemed to revolve around water-based activities—or would have done if the fog hadn’t been so incredibly thick that nobody was interested in going out. It wasn’t, as I had imagined, a place where I could stroll around and take in the sights; all I had to do was stand in the car park and I could see pretty much everything there was to see.

There were, however, two exceptions, and I investigated both. The first was the ruin of a church (Tullagh) on the outskirts of town. I had been tempted to visit it after seeing a sign on my way in, but I hadn’t read about it anywhere in all of my research on Baltimore and so I thought perhaps it wasn’t worth visiting. It was, however, featured on the info map in town, and so I thought perhaps my instincts had been right to begin with. It was only a ten-minute walk from the car, so I figured there was no harm in investigating.

Tullagh Church is prime real estate; what it lacks in roofing it makes up for in location 

Happily for me, the ruined church was pretty photogenic and, what’s more, offered great views of the waterlogged ship I had seen in the harbour on my drive in. There were a couple of guys working in the graveyard and when I arrived they greeted me—in French. I replied in French, probably while wearing a very strange expression, and they responded by sharing their own strange expressions in return. I hastily wandered off so as to avoid any further awkward discussions, wondering if they were French, or whether they merely thought I was French (there were, indeed, a lot of French tourists around Cork), and whether I had just engaged in a French conversation involving three English-speakers. It is as great a mystery as the purpose of the fulacht fiadh.

I would love to know the story of the half-sunken boat

In retrospect, I probably should have ended my visit to Baltimore there. The day was getting on, the rain was picking up, my energy was flagging, and I still had a long drive home. But I had been sitting in the car for so long and I wanted to stretch my legs and enjoy the fresh (if extremely damp) air and see the last remaining point of interest in Baltimore: the Beacon. It is one of several structures erected along the Irish coastline to prevent shipwrecks, and was built shortly after the 1798 Rebellion. Frankly, I didn’t care about seeing the Beacon itself so much as seeing the views from the promontory where it is located.

Google, which is sometimes my best friend but other times the mouthpiece of Satan, first lied to me and told me the Beacon was a relatively short walk from the cemetery, and next lied to me about the direction in which I should head to get there. For a brief while, its story was corroborated by some signage which, just when I needed it most, completely vanished and left me wondering which path to choose at a fork in the road. It turns out the answer was neither, since the left branch was a dead end (yep, I verified this in person) and the right morphed into a driveway (ditto). I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much, because I did actually get the exercise that I had wanted; I just didn’t manage to get it in the direction of the Beacon.

When I got back to the car park and opened the satnav to set my route home, it occurred to me that perhaps I was having technical difficulties because of the bad weather. Sure enough, when I did another search, I found a whole new route to the Beacon–one that had previously not been an option and, what’s more, one that allowed me to drive there. The words I uttered in response to this discovery were…celebratory. Yes, let’s go with that.

The Beacon, which looks very futuristic for something constructed in the 18th Century

The Beacon itself is not a particularly fascinating structure, though it is interesting to know that it is also called “Lot’s Wife” for obvious aesthetic reasons. Unless you’re a real history or maritime culture buff, I think probably the most appealing thing about visiting the Beacon is seeing the scenery, which is fairly dramatic:

Looking across to Sherkin Island from The Beacon (at approximately 4pm, a good 7 hours before full darkness normally sets in)

The thing is, I found it a little too dramatic. There are some pretty extreme cliffs with long, sharp drops into the rocky and turbulent waters below, but absolutely no safety measures. I’m not saying that there should be a bunch of unsightly fences everywhere, but I am saying that I was strolling along calmly and suddenly found myself close enough to the ledge that I had a bit of a panic. Though I am not afraid of heights, I was nearly frozen with terror and an almost absolute certainty that if I moved I was going to trip and go flying over the edge. I overcame this by crouching down, distracting myself by photographing a small flower at my feet, and then crab-walking backwards until I could no longer see the drop-off. At that point I was still feeling a surge of adrenalin but was able to stand up and walk back down to the car park and the blessed enclosed safety of my car. I was probably never in any real danger, but the experience did make me wonder how a site like that, with absolutely no barriers to the sea far below, could possibly be considered safe–especially in the thick fog that descends so frequently. This is the point at which I realised that I’ve been a British citizen for only two months and am already obsessing over health and safety; the transformation is complete.

That unnerving experience depleted my remaining energy reserves and I properly hit a wall. Unfortunately, I still had a 90-minute drive home along winding roads, in heavy rain, guided by a satnav that kept losing its signal. I had intended to make a couple more stops just outside Bantry as I drove past on my way home, but those plans went out the window because all I could focus on was the promise of a nice cup of tea and a nice soft sofa and a nice warm blanket and, most of all, a nice long break from being behind the wheel. I promised myself–not for the first time, and not for the last–that I would definitely be staying in and relaxing tomorrow. Really. For sure.