Cape Clear and Sherkin Island

Sherkin IslandThe early start wasn’t as early as intended. The sky turned out to be greyer than we were promised by the weather, though it further promised that this wouldn’t last and that things would improve later. Honest.

So we packed for a couple of nights, chucked our bags into Joleen’s little runaround and set off. First stop – Baltimore, about 90 minutes drive along the south coast.

Now, you know, I’ve not really explained why I’m in Ireland. Or why I’m following a girl around who’s taking pictures. Especially when I pretty much stated a month or so ago that my plans were to take a trip through the Baltics.

Well, I mentioned this to Joleen and got the following response:

Look, feck Lithuania…. come on over here. You can be in Finland by the 15th if you want to.

Sure go on, it will be a laugh. So, see ya next week so?

How could I argue with that?

Baltimore from the seaSo, here I was in a small fishing town off the south coast of Ireland in stunning sunshine sipping the closest thing they make to a pint of bitter over here. Our aim for the day was to get around Cape Clear and onto Sherkin Island for the night. We had some time to kill before the ferry to Clear Island, so we drove a little way out of town to the Baltimore Beacon.

This is a huge white structure, kind of gherkin-shaped, with a ball on top. It sounds pointless, but it’s visible from far out at sea and sits at the opposite side of the harbour entrance from the lighthouse on Sherkin Island.

Back near the harbour, we indulged in pizza for lunch from The Jolly Breeze. As can be expected from the area, 75% of the menu was fish and seafood-related so I went for one called a Diavolo which had nothing on it that hadn’t come from a mammal. Very tasty and not to bad for €10 from a touristy place.

Baltimore BeaconThe ferry to Clear Island took about 40 minutes and was accompanied by the occasional burst of trivia from the guide on board. My favourite information was about Clear itself. It’s contains the southernmost point in Ireland and was the first place to get any news from the Americas. Ships passing by would drop waterproof containers off the side which would be retrieved by rowboats from the Island. The news would be read and then transferred to the mainland and then to London and other European capitals. The population of this small island were therefore the first people outside of the Americas to know of the outbreak of the American Civil War (or some war between states – I assumed it was the same thing, but Sean has corrected me in the comments below) and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

It is a small place, about one mile by three. There is a school there where children go for a summer camp to brush up their Irish Gaelic, a compulsory subject in all schools until leaving-age. The tiny shop near the ferry dock stocks about 20 things as the residents get their groceries delivered near-daily (during summer at least) by the ferry. Surprise, despite it’s small size the island still maintains three pubs. As for vehicular transport, I think the average condition of a car in Lagos was better than the ones here.

Currently, cars on Clear Island aren’t subject to road tax or the Irish equivalent of the MOT. The justification is that the island’s tiny and the cars generally don’t leave. They only do a handful of miles a week. This is changing in a year or so, though. The roads do need a little work as they’re so bevelled that the tyres are low down the sides (they’re all single carriage) and the undercarriages scrape on the centre.

This would explain the 4×4 I saw as I set foot off the ferry. The exhaust was snapped just in front of the rear wheels and was held in place with a piece of knotted rope. And I think this was the island taxi.

We started hiking uphill just to get some random shots of the scenery. The sun was high in the sky and beating down as we plodded along the aforementioned single carriage roads. We’d walked a fair distance when a car pulled up containing someone Joleen knew. This happens a fair bit – she seems to know people everywhere!

Clear Island signpostThis did save us quite a bit of time as we managed to see the old lighthouse and the healing lake that we’d otherwise not have had time for. The car was one of those Cape Clear Classics, and burbled uphill with a noise as if it were powered by a 50cc outboard motor. We hiked back down to the harbour and enjoyed some strawberries, while surrounded by children from the college speaking broken Irish. Or at least they were when there were teachers in earshot – they get demerits for using English.

As the afternoon ticked on, we had to catch the ferry back to the mainland before jumping across to another for Sherkin Island. Enough time in Baltimore between them to neck a quick half (of Coke – sugary water better after all that sun than a beer), then all aboard for the very short hop to Sherkin.

From maps, I’d guess Sherkin’s about the same size as Clear though a different shape. The population is around 120. They’re served by a small school building and two pubs. All the other buildings on the island are private properties, though one or two operate as B&Bs when the mood takes them.

Islander’s RestWe met the owner of one of the B&Bs on the ferry – Fiona of the Horseshoe Cottage, so called for it’s position overlooking Horseshoe Bay on the island. Although we’d have had no problems getting accommodation on the island (friends of Joleens were moored up there and there’s a hotel as part of one of the pubs) we decided to try something different and give a local some cash.

Fiona’s English, as is her husband Joe, and they moved to Ireland around 13 years ago, living on the banks of the Shannon and raising their 9 children (nine!) before migrating to Sherkin. Their other guests at the house while we were there were two WWOOFers, one of whom was working on the new extension when we arrived. Certainly earning his room and board!

We didn’t have long before the Islander’s Rest stopped serving food, so we dropped our bags and legged it to the pub for a hearty burger / set of ribs. Over dinner, we chatted to some of Joleen’s friends who were warming up for their “session” at the Jolly Roger later that evening. Apparently the sunset off the island is something special so we opted to burn off the calories we’d just taken on and walked off to the other side to see it and get some pictures.

Only it was, in Joleen’s words, “crap”. Ah well, not a good night for it. Instead, we strolled up to the Jolly Roger where things were starting to warm up. It was a muggy night, so a pint of Bulmer’s over ice was downed before moving on to the black stuff.

The “session” was a get-together of traditional folk musicians. Michael, the WWOOFer from the B&B was there and played a rather excellent set on the piano. A chap we’d seen on the ferry on the way over was utterly superb on the steel guitar, whacking out a 5-minute segment. An old fellow with the best raggedy white beard I’ve seen outside of the Middle East read a story he’d written some years ago about the changes in drinking culture and lifestyle over the years. Great stuff.

A “session” in the Jolly RogerThe music’s not my kind of thing but I always appreciate talent. And from the lone vocals of Dick Hogan to the pluckings of Jimmy Crowley on the bouzouki, they were all superb. Anyone was welcome to have a shot and one of the women sat to the side gave her tuppence-worth, singing a lilting ballad then holding her head in her hands in embarassment when she was finished. I don’t know why – she was fantastic.

I hope these folk would take it as a compliment if I said, in the spirit of drinking beer, giving it their all and playing music just because they damn well love it – each and every one is truly metal! OK, so I wasn’t waltzing with a piano stool like one loony in the bar to show my appreciation but I had a great time. And thank you to Curly for the Jameson’s. Went down lovely after the Murphy’s!

One thing I have noticed about Irish folk music is that so much of it is about leaving Ireland and then realising how much the writer misses the place. It seems like the only reason for hopping onto a boat overseas is to find out how much you miss the Emerald Isle so that you can return and earn your fortune telling everyone else how crap the rest of the world is. And with craic (see, learning the lingo) like this in so many bars it’s easy to see how they’d miss it. There really is no other pub culture like this, certainly not on this scale, in any other country I’ve visited.

Salty old seadogThere is one thing that gets me, and maybe this is because I’ve not been brought up on it. It’s the random laughs as if there’s been a huge joke that I just don’t get. This happens in a lot of songs, and try as I might (even though they’re in English and I understood the words) I just didn’t get it. Maybe it’s expectation of a punchline at the end of the song or something, which they all know because they’re traditional songs they’ve heard before. Whatever, watching this group – this whole pub – enjoy themselves so much was just great.

We crawled back to the Horseshoe around 1:30 as Joleen had convinced Fiona to rise at 8:30 and sort our breakfast. A decision she now regretted as we could have stayed on for longer. As it turns out, the music went on until nearer 4am. Once these sessions start it often takes a force of nature to stop them.

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5 thoughts on “Cape Clear and Sherkin Island

  1. Pingback: TOCWOC - A Civil War Blog UNITED STATES WordPress

  2. Hi
    The telegraph station in Oilean Chleire was operational from October 1863 onwards. The American WAR BETWEEN THE STATES started in April 1861. Could the author please correct the text? Go raibh maith agat

    • Sean, bear in mind that I’m English and my parents sent me to a public school. As such my education was rather Anglo-centric. In other words, I didn’t learn much so what you see on the blog is what I’ve picked up from talking to people, old copies of Lonely Planet and Wikipedia… Those are the best excuses I have an I’m sticking to them 😉

  3. Dear Mosher
    I just reviewed your post once more after my wife explained the procedure of news transmission again. What really happened was that the stopping of large ships from America which were throwing watertight canisters with news (despatches) overboard to be picked up by rowing boats sent out from the Cape Clear Telegraph Station was established as a result of the existence of the Telegraph Station and did not exist before that. So, as the Cape Clear Telegraph Station only started operating in October 1863 the existence of the Telegraph Station could not have been instrumental in informing the people of Cape Clear of the outbreak of the War (1861). It is unlikely therefore that the people of the Island were the first outside the Americas to hear of this news. I therefore have to agree with my wife that your sources are mistaken. Could I recommend the Book by Eamonn Lankford ( 1999) and page 98, quoting the West Carbery Eagle newspaper of the 24 October 1863 with the article reporting on the successful laying of the submarine cable from Cape Clear to the mainland to make news transmission from the Island possible for the first time and shortening the time of news reaching London by 6 hours. However, the news of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln most probably reached Cape before it reached any other place outside the Americas.
    Kind regards

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