Winging it (for the first but not last time): Ireland 2017 (Part III)

For my first proper outing, I had decided to visit Whiddy Island, which is located in Bantry Bay about 15 minutes away from Bantry via ferry. It has lovely views and some nice heritage sites and can be circumnavigated in about three hours on foot and therefore is a great place for hiking. Unfortunately, I know this information thanks to the Internet and not because I actually made it to Whiddy myself–though not for lack of trying.

I rose early and high-tailed it into Bantry in order to make the first ferry out to the island, but when I got to the pier I found nothing but a giant construction site. There were no signs indicating an alternative point of departure for the ferry, and I received no response when I called and messaged the ferry operators. This did not put me in the best of moods, because not only would I have loved to have slept in that morning rather than rushing into town, but also I felt it was just generally an inauspicious way to start my explorations. On top of all this, I had been so certain I would be spending the day on Whiddy and only Whiddy, I had left the house without any of my maps and guidebooks.

Whiddy Island: so close, and yet so far

In a grump, I decided to wing it and drive northwest around the bay to Glengarriff, which I remembered reading about and which I had been thinking of visiting the following day. It is only about 20 minutes away from Bantry so I had not yet worked through my grump by the time I pulled in to the Glengarriff Nature Reserve. My grump was exacerbated by the fact that I really needed to wee but was unable to do so (well, using a toilet, at least) at the Reserve because it has no facilities.

I was determined to end this string of bad luck so I headed off towards the overlook by way of a nice private bush. Yet again, as with so many of the places I visited in Ireland, I had the place basically to myself (particularly convenient given my first item of business) and was able to enjoy the spectacular view from the overlook in nice, peaceful solitude—with the exception of a noisy group of jays calling back and forth in a nearby patch of trees.

On the one hand, it was a little infuriating to look out and see Whiddy Island taunting me from the bay—so close and yet so seemingly inaccessible. On the other hand, it is impossible to be surrounded by such loveliness and maintain a bad mood. The Caha range is not the tallest collection of mountains I’ve ever visited (the highest peak is only 685m), but what they lack in height they make up for in character. Because they are bare (except when swathed in fog), you can clearly see all the rumples and juts and crags, as well as some picturesque livestock; it is mesmerising to watch the sunlight slide from peak to peak as the clouds race by in the sky overhead.

View from the overlook (part I)
View from the overlook (part II)

I eventually tore myself away from the hilltop and headed back down to hike the Big Meadow trail, which, unsurprisingly, wound around a large meadow where I got some great views of the sessile oak trees that make the Nature Reserve such an ecologically important habitat. There were a few times when I wasn’t entirely sure where I was going because the signage provided information in one direction only even though the path was a loop (which, in theory, people could walk either clockwise or counterclockwise) that had several junctions with neighbouring roads and trails; at each of these junctions I had to guess which was the Big Meadow trail and which were other paths that were joining it. I had a couple of misadventures but did finally find my way back to the parking lot.

The dramatic branches of a sessile oak
Ireland was in full bloom during my visit–which I enjoyed almost as much as the insects did

Glengarriff itself is a small but pleasant town and I thought I’d have a stroll through so that I could pop into a shop and treat myself to some Irish yarn. Conveniently, there were a ton of available parking spots and, what’s more, they were free. I found this to be the case pretty much everywhere I went in Ireland and it never ceased to impress and amaze me; not only could I find a place to leave my car, but I also didn’t have to pay for the pleasure. For someone used to the exorbitant parking rates of Britain, this was nothing short of a miracle.

On my way to the Nature Reserve, I’d noticed a shrine on the outskirts of town, so I headed there first out of curiosity. There was no information about the shrine, which was set into a hill right beside the road near the Sacred Heart Church. I ascended the steps towards the Virgin Mary statue and tried to muster up some solemnity and awe, but that was difficult because two hitchhikers were standing down on the street below playing loud dance music and guffawing. I’m not entirely sure this was the sort of atmosphere most conducive to reverence and contemplativeness, but perhaps I just need to be more open-minded.

I am not sure what is going on here, but it looks like there are two Marys praying to each other

Back in the centre of town, I discovered a ferry service to nearby Garinish Island. I had no idea what Garinish Island was and whether it was worth visiting, but I had started the day intending to take a ferry to an island in the bay, and by God I was determined to make it happen, so I bought a ticket and headed down to Blue Pool to wait for my ride. Blue Pool is a picturesque inlet where people can kayak and swim in addition to catching the boat. I had just enough time to take a quick photo before the ferry arrived, and then it had just enough room to fit the entire crowd gathered on the pier. I was beginning to feel the hand of destiny–or perhaps the blessings of Mary?–playing a role in shaping my day.

The Blue Pool Ferry doing some fancy manoeuvring

The trip to Garinish (also called Ilnacullin, for reasons I cannot explain) only took about 15 minutes and allowed us to see the ruins of Glengarriff Castle, along with wildlife such as seals, cormorants, and a lifetime supply of herons (I’m guessing there was a heronry nearby). Garinish itself features extensive gardens and some jarringly Mediterranean garden features that look completely out of place in the Irish landscape. Among other things, there are an Italian garden with a little villa and pool, a Grecian temple, a tower lookout, and a walled garden. The whole time I was there, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was actually on Tresco in the Isles of Scilly; the whole place looked so much like that and other gardens I’ve visited in Cornwall, I had to have a little chuckle about coming all the way to Ireland to do something I could have done back home. Still, it involved a ferry ride out to an island. Box ticked.

In the Italian garden
View from the Grecian temple
The Italian tea house, which, I can tell you from experience, is not a good place for a picnic unless you want to be swarmed by the wasps that have a hive in the roof.
Dahlia (I think?)

Once we returned to the mainland, I swung by Quill’s Woollen Market to look for my yarn. Out of curiosity, I also cast my eyes over the sweaters, and mon dieu was I shocked by the prices. As a needleworker myself, I fully appreciate both the cost of materials and the amount of time that goes into a piece, but holy cow I did not expect to see a €400 cardigan. It was beautiful, but at that price it had better be. I also saw little wool plaid handbags for €130 and hats for €40. I honestly had no idea just how expensive wool goods are, so that was a real eye-opener. I could only bring myself to buy one skein of the €15 yarn, which I plan to use to embellish a Celtic afghan project I am already working on. It is a fetching bright green that will be an excellent reminder of the colour of the Irish landscape.

Having stretched my legs and felt the sea breeze on my face, I felt that I’d successfully salvaged the day and earned the right to head back to my little cabin to watch the chaffinches frolic under the setting sun—and, perhaps more importantly, to plan the next day’s adventures.

Out and about in Kealkill: Ireland 2017 (Part II)

I spent the first 24 hours at my Kealkill cottage relaxing and recuperating from the long drive. I didn’t really need all that time, but the whole point of the trip was to get rest and rejuvenate after a tiring and holiday-free period at work, so I lay around, watched the chaffinches outside at the feeders, admired the view from my porch, and played video games. Then I realized that I could do all those things at home (though, admittedly, the view is not nearly so spectacular), and I decided that I’d had enough lazing about and was ready to explore. After all, you don’t come to Ireland to not go out and enjoy Irish things.

I decided to start small, with the three points of interest in Kealkill itself: two stone circles and a castle. Kealkill is a very small place and seems pretty quiet most of the time, but it was particularly empty on the Sunday afternoon when I drove in to deposit my car so that I could hike between sites and not have to worry about parking (which, word to the wise, is negligible at most of the sorts of remote heritage spots I was interested in). I left the car outside a preschool, and either that building or one of the others in the vicinity had a high-pitched security alarm that was going off the whole afternoon. The fact that such an alarm could wail for hours on end without any investigation or concern tells you a lot about Kealkill.

The view during my walk

My route took me through the outskirts of the residential part of town before bearing left up a winding, narrow country lane. As I walked past one house, a Jack Russell terrier came barrelling across the yard at me, barking furiously; he stopped just short of the split-rail fence that edged the property, glared at me as I made friendly noises at him, and then proceeded out into the road to defend his territory even more emphatically. This wouldn’t have been very interesting except that the owners had erected a mini white picket fence under the larger fence, but it only stretched for a few feet on either side of the corner. The dog could have run around the little fence to access me, but instead he jumped over it. In other words, the owners had installed a completely unnecessary tiny second fence that did not act as a barrier to their short dog, and, even if it had, did not actually stretch the length of their yard in order to achieve this function. So why was it there? Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I’m genuinely curious; I have been wondering if there are other terrier-sized objects throughout the house, paralleling those used by the humans, but in miniature—you know, just to let the dog know that he’s one of the family and he’s not any less important just because he’s short. Anyway, he did not want to make friends, so I moved on.

I was worried that the Kealkill stone circle would be difficult to find, but it—like many other seemingly forgotten but surprisingly well cared-for ancient sites in Ireland—was very helpfully signposted, and there was even an informative placard at the entrance to the field. Most of the sites I visited, and probably most of these sites in general, are located in farmers’ fields; the national government owns the artefacts themselves but the farmers own the land through which you walk to access them. For an American, this is an extremely uncomfortable concept, because we are pretty intense about land rights and privacy in the US; however, having lived in the much more communal UK for quite some time, I now feel less uneasy about trespassing. Upon approaching the entrance to the Kealkill stone circle site, I realized three things. First, I was all alone with the stones, which was pretty awesome. Second, Irish stiles are very different to (and, frankly, much better than) British ones. Third, Kealkill is much closer to the coast than I’d originally realised.

Irish stile: so much less awkward
Looking towards Bantry Bay from the Kealkill stone circle

The whole reason I knew to look for the Kealkill stone circle was a delightful guide that I purchased called Antiquities of West Cork, by Jack Roberts. Roberts is an author and jeweller who produces amazing local maps and booklets that he has created himself after extensive research and ground truthing. He is very blunt about how little we understand these ancient structures, and he says fantastically crotchety things like, “the age of destruction has been with us for some time” when bemoaning how much history we have likely lost and will continue to lose as a result of development. (I don’t disagree with him, by the way; I just find his turn of phrase amusing.)

This is what Roberts has to say about Kealkill (original typos fixed by me, because I can’t help myself):

This is the most well-known of the Complex sites in the area. It consists of a 5-Stone Circle, an alignment of two stones and a good example of that most curious type of monument, a Radial Cairn. It was excavated in the 1930’s by Prof O’Riordain, who re-erected the tallest stone of the Alignment and confirmed that it originally stood over 17ft. As we see it now it is worth remembering that it is about 6ft / 2m short of its original height.

Kealkill stone circle, standing stones, and cairn

Kealkill is no Stonehenge, but it is still pretty darn amazing: ancient, massive stones in a clearly well-thought-out arrangement, perched on a vantage point surrounded by wind-swept craggy mountains and looking out to the bay. I will share with you another of Roberts’ gems: “The circles are part of the landscape and their locations within that landscape are critical and precise.” I am by no means an expert, but I agree wholeheartedly with his suggestion that you cannot fully understand each circle until / unless you have experienced and taken into account the environment in which it is situated. I did some reading about sacred stones so as to better understand what I was encountering in Ireland, and these sources only served to solidify a suspicion that was probably seeded many years ago when I was a young girl first visiting (and falling in love with) pre-history sites: Although we are drawn to these places now because we like to see the ruins and feel the connection with our ancestors, much of the emotional impact of the visits stems from the place itself and from the interaction between the geography and the history; the builders chose those locations because they contained some collection of characteristics that made the spaces feel meaningful, and unless enormous environmental changes have taken place since then, we can often still see and feel the power of the landscape, and would do even in the absence of the artefacts. Or, to put it another way, early humans had a good eye for real estate.

Right around the corner from the Kealkill circle is another one called Breeny More. It is completely unmarked, does not have a handy access gate, and is located a stone’s throw from the house of the farmer whose land it’s on. Even though I technically should have been allowed access given that the circle is open to the public, I just couldn’t bring myself to brazenly hop the fence and traipse through someone else’s pasture. I got as close as I could and stood on my tiptoes to see as much as possible, and that will just have to satisfy me.

My new friend was a little shy

I have to admit that I was slightly relieved to have an excuse not to approach Breeny More, since it was in a field that was occupied by cows at the time of my visit. I used to consider cows (other than bulls and wary new mothers, obviously) pretty harmless, but I have had some unsettling experiences during my strolls through the Blackdown Hills; it’s weird enough to have an entire herd staring intently at you in unison, but when they start running towards you and jumping around psychotically, you realize just how large they are and it makes you think twice about casually strolling through their ranks. Maybe I just need to learn more about cow body language.

My final port of call was back down the hill, at a bend in the River Ouvane, along St Finbarr’s Way (a pilgrim path running between Drimoleague and Gougane Barra). This was Carriganass Castle, the name of which derives from the original Irish meaning “castle on the rock of the waterfall”, which, indeed, it is.

Carriganass Castle, which is a bit of a fixer-upper

The castle was one of many belonging to the O’Sullivan family, and dates to the 16th century. It is now in ruins, which just makes it all the more picturesque. There are tiny slits for windows on the more vulnerable terrestrial sides, but larger gaps facing the water, from which side attackers were less likely to approach. One of the towers had little recesses built in to the top to act as a dovecote, which obviously is a feature that I will now demand in any house I may own in the future. The castle features in the poem “The Revenge of Donal Cam”, which describes how the hero (full name: Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, commander of the Munster forces) avenges his wife’s death at the hands of the Englishman St Leger. Supposedly, Donal Cam disguised himself as a holy man, convinced the increasingly repentant St Leger to confess his guilt, revealed his true identity, and then threw St Leger from the tower into the river below. This probably didn’t happen in real life (though all the characters were actual people), but one should never let reality get in the way of a good piece of literature.

Another view of Carriganass

Having walked a few miles and taken in several points of interest, I felt that I’d made a good start on my sightseeing and could be permitted to return home, resume relaxing, and make plans for leaving venturing beyond Kealkill the following day in order to see what else west Cork had to offer.

Heading to greener pastures: Ireland 2017 (Part I)

If you look at a map, Ireland looks so close to England. Yet, depending on how you travel and where you’re coming from, it can be a long old haul to get there. Still, it’s Ireland: “a timeless land of enchantment and mystery, breathtaking scenery, peace and tranquillity”, as the brochure says. I was also promised “uncrowded roads and lazy rivers, rugged mountains and crumbling castles and…mild Gulf Stream air”, which would “combine to make [my trip] an unforgettable experience”. Nature, ruins, and scarcity of people? As far as I’m concerned, those are definitely worth the journey, no matter how arduous.

I’d set my heart on Ireland because I wanted to go on a proper retreat in a destination that was not near home but also not too far away (travel time and money being critical factors). I wanted a place that was beautiful and relaxing and inspiring in its own right, but also that provided access to hiking and sites of historical interest. Also, green; I wanted to be surrounded by green. And where else but Ireland do you think of when you think “green”?

Quintessential Ireland

As I poked around online, I was spoiled for choice. There were spots near lakes and rivers, others on the coast and halfway up mountains; places near interesting towns and cities and others so remote I worried I might become Jack Torrance (a particularly troubling vision given that I’d pictured myself doing some writing during the trip). It was difficult to find the perfect balance between solitude and access, a decent journey time at the start of the trip and ability to take short day trips throughout, scenery that was gorgeous to look at and habitat that could actually be interacted with and enjoyed. I settled on the southwest of Ireland because it seemed to have it all: access to beautiful and dramatic terrain, trees and bodies of water, ruins and gardens. It was only a few hours’ drive from the ferry dock in Rosslare, which itself was a mere four-hour crossing from Pembroke, which was but 3.5 hours from Exeter. A negligible trip, really. Only 10 hours, at night, at the end of a long work week. The perfect way to start any vacation.

I am joking, of course, because that sounds awful and sometimes I do ponder my sanity when I pause for a moment of reflection. Despite appearances, I did actually conduct research and consider the itinerary carefully. I investigated flying and renting a car versus hopping the ferry to Dublin versus taking the ferry to Rosslare, and no matter how I looked at it, the most logical option in terms of timing and cost was the one I selected. And it worked out! It was a bit of an adventure, but that just made it exciting and interesting, and, by god, if I ever get to the point where I am not willing to try something new, then I do not deserve to be alive.

The ferry was scheduled to depart Pembroke at 2:45am, so my original plan was to leave Exeter around 8pm in order to leave plenty of time for the drive itself and for any emergencies that might crop up along the way (including the possibility that I would need to pull over and take a brief nap). However, as the week went on I began to get nervous about this because I was feeling particularly tired and worried that all the caffeine in the world wouldn’t be enough to keep me awake that late at night. I decided to leave right after dinner instead so I could get to the dock while maximally alert and then nap or read while waiting until departure. On the evening of my trip, however, the motorway suffered extreme congestion and portions of it were briefly closed, so Plan B went out the window and I reverted to Plan A so I could avoid the traffic jams. I drank two cups of tea and packed a third in a travel mug before hitting the road. Two mice dashing cross the road in front of me, and one fox lounging on the shoulder later, and I arrived in Pembroke.

I’d been worried about what sort of situation I’d find at the dock because, really, what woman traveling alone wants to go to a dock after midnight? I’d read all the Irish Ferry FAQs and even exchanged emails with friendly but unhelpful staff, and I still couldn’t visualise what I would find when I arrived; in particular, I couldn’t figure out where I would wait, how I would queue, when queuing would begin, and, most importantly, whether there would be facilities where I could use the toilet and buy another dose of caffeine.

I just had to trust that it would all make sense when I got there and, of course, it did; the company has been making this journey back and forth for years, and they know what they are doing. I pulled in around 12:00am and there were already several dozen cars lined up in rows outside the gate; those were the folks desperate to exit the ferry first on the other end, but they must have arrived at least an hour before I did and only bought themselves maybe 15 minutes at Rosslare, so I’m not sure the sacrifice was worth it. Once I had parked, I could run into the terminal, which looked just like a small airport and had toilets, a café, and plenty of seating. The entire area was lit by floodlights, so even though I kind of felt like I was in the middle of an emergency military operation, I also felt much safer than I’d imagined.

Enjoying the delightful weather at Pembroke Dock

People with vehicles could check in at 12:15am; this involved driving up to a kiosk, getting boarding passes, then going through a gated checkpoint into another parking lot where we again lined up in rows. This is where we would sit until 2am, when we would drive onto the ferry. I had anticipated setting my alarm and dozing until boarding, but I hadn’t counted on getting hungry again. Nobody packs snacks as diligently as I do, but somehow it hadn’t even occurred to me that I would of course be hungry five hours after my last meal; it’s just not a thing you really associate with a time of day when ordinarily you would be asleep. After I’d visited the café and eaten, I only had time for a quick power nap before it was time for the next phase. Oh well; who needs sleep?

Boarding itself was pretty easy, though the official did have to stop me and ask me to turn on my headlights. That had happened also as I was passing through the earlier checkpoint, and it surprised me both times. The entire area was so well lit that I didn’t need headlights to see, plus I assumed that the ferry staff would prefer not to be blinded by the beams; I guess they just want to be extra careful about safety. Once the official waved me up the ramp onto the ship, there were no more staff until I was actually on the ferry, which freaked me out a little because there were no signs and about eight lanes and I suddenly had this feeling that I’d meandered off course (which would be practically impossible to do in the 200 or so meters that I had to cover, but give me a thing to do and I will worry whether I am doing it right). I was eventually waved down the far left-hand lane and was the very first car in line. You can’t stay in, or visit, your car during the journey, so I grabbed the essentials—which included a pillow and blanket—and headed upstairs to the passenger area.

Driving onto the ferry (full disclosure: this is actually the return trip)
Entering the parking deck of the ferry (full disclosure: also the return trip)

I am not sure what I was expecting of the ferry, but it was definitely not what I found when I alighted at the entrance / welcome area of the boat. It looked like a cross between a hotel check-in, a small casino, and a cruise ship. I guess I have spent so much time on more stripped-down vessels like Scillonian III and the little ferries that run between Falmouth and St Mawe’s, I had forgotten that a boat journey might be somewhat more posh. I hadn’t been able to get a berth for the trip, so I poked around the public seating area until I found a nice corner where I could curl up on a cushioned bench and try to get some sleep.  It feels a little weird to just bed down and nap in public, but when everyone else is doing the same thing, you just go with it. I woke up a couple times but was otherwise able to get pretty decent sleep (all things considered) until dawn. Just before 6am, a couple of boys ran by to look out a nearby window and one of them whined, “The sun’s coming up but we still have a whole hour to go!” I am not sure why (delirium from lack of proper sleep?) but that struck me funny.

Passenger deck on the ferry; this is the return trip but the guy in the right corner is sitting where I slept on the trip out

I rose shortly afterwards because my circadian rhythms refuse to allow any change in routine, no matter how tired I might be. I took the opportunity to stroll around a little and investigate the ferry. I wandered down to the restaurant for some tea and immediately noticed how much more you could feel the movement of the sea, and the ship, there at the prow; I grabbed a to-go cup and retreated to the safety of my original seat, which was positioned close to the centre where things felt much steadier and less sickening.

Once the ferry had pulled into the dock, we were given the all-clear to return to our cars, where we had to sit with our engines off until waved forward by the staff. I was at the front of the second-to-last row to leave, so I got a good view of proceedings while I waited. While looking in my rear view mirror, I saw a local bus approaching and had a little chuckle to myself thinking about a bus journey that also involved a ferry ride. I assumed it was just being delivered from the factory after a repair or something but, no, as it drove past I saw actual passengers sitting on it like it was the most normal thing in the world to hop on a bus in one country, drive onto a ferry, and then disembark in another country several hours later. Maybe that is normal, but it seemed a little surreal to me.

Waiting to leave the ferry after the crossing

After I’d been greenlighted, all I had to do was clear immigration and I was free to begin my cross-country journey to Cork. The guard asked my nationality and, for the first time ever in an official capacity, I declared myself as a British citizen. He waved me right through and I hit the road, which was extremely empty at that time of day. I briefly was stuck behind the world’s slowest tractor but otherwise had no issues thanks to the fact that I was getting a strong GPS signal and had useful directions to follow. I noticed that all the other drivers were extremely careful about driving exactly the speed limit, so I felt compelled to also be a very diligent driver.

Maybe it was the excitement of the adventure, maybe it was my amazing selection of music, maybe it was the lovely countryside, but the drive was very relaxed and enjoyable; it didn’t feel like a long and painful slog despite how little rest I’d had. I stopped briefly in Waterford for some breakfast, which I ate at the Granville Hotel because a) it was an obvious choice right across the street from the car park, and b) it reminded me of the Granville I used to visit in Ohio with my parents. Appropriately enough, this one was packed with an American tour group gearing up to visit the Waterford crystal factory that morning. I did not dally for any sightseeing, but hit the road again so I could make it to my cottage by lunch.

I stopped again outside Cork so that I could purchase groceries at a decent-sized supermarket with lots of options. I was shocked at some of the prices (€5 for a punnet of grapes??) and was glad I had packed all my own pantry items in order to save money; a full stock-up might have bankrupted me. My checkout guy was a true performance artist who scanned and handed things over with extreme flair and panache, all while maintaining a very stern demeanour; I had a hard time keeping a straight face while packing my food.

Not long after I hit the road again, I finally diverted onto the smaller routes that wound in through the hills to deliver you to secluded places like my cottage. Although the scenery had always been pleasant, it became much more so at this point; there were lots of rolling green hills with big jutting boulders, and stone walls dividing sheep fields, and, occasionally, glimpses of the coastline. The speed limit was generally 100 km/h (60 mph), which was absolutely insane given how curvy the roads were; even if you knew the route well and felt safe driving that fast, you would not have a comfortable journey if you did so. I opted to take the slow and steady approach, which not only avoided whiplash but also allowed me to appreciate the views.

I had worried that my cabin would be difficult to find, but actually it wasn’t—though the owner had given me directions from the opposite approach, so I had to drive past to the nearest town and then retrace my footsteps so that I could follow her instructions. From Kealkill, I drove approximately 3 miles, found the big white farmhouse, took the next right, and drove about a mile up a narrow, winding track until I arrived at my home away from home for the next week.

Home sweet home
The view from my cabin window. Not bad.
One of three species of tit that visited the feeders outside my cabin
Many chaffinches kept me company at the cabin

Stay tuned for the next post to find out more about my Irish adventures…