Bantry via Sheepshead

Horseshoe BayWaking did not come easy. Joleen’s 8:30 breakfast request was something she’d be taking a ribbing about. Mind, we did still had a lot to do and see so an early start would still be useful. Even if we were both wrecked from the partying the night before.

After a lovely breakfast of muesli, locally-made raspberry yoghurt (absolutely delicious) and proper sausages and bacon we donned boots and hiked out towards the lighthouse that sits opposite the Beacon. It was only a short walk from the B&B and we were surprised to find that it actually sits inside someone’s back garden.

As we were prowling around the cliff edge to get some shots, the house’s owner – a chap called Ken – popped out and told us we were more than welcome to come into the garden if we wanted. Although the lighthouse is on his property, he has nothing to do with it. It’s fully maintained and operated (automatically these days) by the council – white light to sea, red light to the harbour.

Shirkin lighthouseKen’s owned the house for around 40 years, though has only settled there in moderately recent history after spending a lot of time travelling with his wife. He’s a real character and knows a load of history about the island, the lighthouse and the surrounding area. We only spent ten minutes or so chatting but you just know he’d be great to sit and talk to for an hour over a beer or a hot chocolate.

Today the weather was gorgeous, but during winter the winds will blow the waters into the cliffs and send waves over the lighthouse – and Ken’s house. Hence this being predominantly a summer abode for them! He had work to do, so we left him to potter as we clambered over the wall and had a better look at the lighthouse then walked back down to the Islander’s Rest to check the ferry times.

Where we found we’d just missed one and had two hours to wait for the next. Ah well. I could think of worse places to be stuck.

We killed time by reading and backing up photos, then marched off to catch the 14:30 boat back to the mainland. Just outside Baltimore we stopped at a hotel for a late lunch, then took a drive out to Sheep’s Head. This is a peninsula with some gorgeous views along its length. There was much stopping and snapping of photographs as we made our way along the rollercoaster-like bends and dips of the single track roads.

Shirkin Island ferry stepsAfter reaching the end, we doubled back and headed for Bantry – again stopping and diverting slightly for photo ops. We found one viewpoint with a handy map of the sights visible from where we were standing. Joleen was astounded to see the Fastnet rock pictured on the map. And even more astounded that it was – on this clear day – very much visible even at a substantial distance.

Bantry is by far the largest place I’d been in for almost three days. A harbour town with some character – and a horrific new hotel complex that looks like a set of white blocks. Whoever gave that monstrosity planning permission needs to be shot.

Our options for the evening has been threefold: go to another session in Schule, stay at a Buddhist retreat, or visit another of Joleen’s friends. We narrowed down on option three and Joleen told me “you’ll love Feargal – he’s one of a kind”. After some of the people I’d met who I already considered quite “individual”, for her to make a point of mentioning this one almost filled me with forboding. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Jelly fishy thingyAnd I’d not have expected what I did find. Feargal’s actually a couchsurfer, though more active as a host than a visitor. He’s also very popular. I can see why. The man’s mad, but in one of those wonderfully endearing ways. Imagine an ecological Wilf Lunn – the guy with the mad moustache who used to build crazy contraptions on children’s TV shows in the 80’s. Feargal’s house shouldn’t just be visited by couchsurfers, it should be a stopping point for tourists. It’s mental. Remember when you were a child and you’d think of these really wild things and wish “wouldn’t it be great if…”? Well, as far as household stuff goes, Feargal’s not let the “if” stop him. Or the “what”, come to think of it. He just “does”.

Feargal himself is small and unassuming. He’s very quiet but passionate about a lot of subjects. Conservation, recycling and so forth are very high up that list. So much stuff in his house is made from recycled junk. From the lamp in the spare room to the framework holding up his recycle collection bags in the kitchen. The soap holder in the bathroom is a large seashell suspended from wire wrapped round a bolt nailed into the wall – all junk found on the beach. The toilet roll holder is made of similar bits of scrap metal.

And the 6-or-so-person hammock suspended over his back yard.

Disrepaired boat and landscapeOh, yes. A huge hammock made from scaffolding poles and fishing net. Which Feargall wriggled his way up to with ease while Joleen and I scrambled up his wood-and-shopping trolley stairway like a pair of paraplegic gymnasts. We sat and chilled for a while then decided to get food. Indian was settled on which meant a short jaunt into town.

Ever ecological, Feargal suggested cycling in – a fine idea. Then I saw the bikes. A rusty girl’s bike with a basket full of driftwood and flotsam, and an ageing tandem. Sorry, not ageing. “Classic”.

It gets better. One of Feargal’s recent couchsurfers had adapted an old radio to run off the dynamo that’s meant to power the front light. With careful use of diodes and rechargeables, when you pedal, the batteries are charged and the radio runs from human power. The tape works if you have the light turned off and direct all your pedalling to the player.

Tape? Ah, yes. Feargal’s still using audio cassettes. I’ve not seen such a huge collection of cassettes in one place since I was in Jordan. And I’ve not even mentioned the tape player in the bathroom that comes on automatically when you switch the light on.

Well, I have now.

Fort and landscapeWhere were we? Ah, yes. Bikes, stereos. Fluorescent jackets. And a stereo playing Ireland’s answer to Classic FM. “Don’t worry”, I was informed, “nobody will know where the music’s coming from.” I was cursing the radio for not playing Ride of the Valkyries when Feargal took off downhill with Joleen in fits of giggles on the back seat of the tandem. I followed, trying to video it before realising I needed both hands to brake, shoved my camera in my mouth, panicked and nearly swallowed the damn thing. Good job it’s waterproof.

The jaunt to the curry house was pretty short and Joleen was grinning like a loon by the time we got there. What struck me as bizarre was how the younger generation ignored us (or pretended to) while the older folk stood and stared at the numpties in bright jackets with the musical bike basket.

We ordered food and had a while to wait, so Feargal announced it was my turn on the back seat. Great. Death by tandem. I could think of better ways to die. But I’ve survived rickshaws, motos and tuk-tuks so I could hardly chicken out.

I’ll tell you, with two people pedalling they go fast. Within a couple of minutes we were at the beach where a chav/ned/whatever-the-Irish-call-them was showing off to his mates on a quad bike, kicking up sand and winding a dog up.

Jolene and Feargal“Now you go in front,” said my Nemesis. I swear this guy was trying to kill me. I admire him for being prepared to wipe himself out in the process. That takes devotion. The thing is, he didn’t reckon with my amazing cycling skills. And sense of self-preservation. We made it back to the curry house in one piece, despite my efforts to slalom between some bollards set about two feet apart earning a squawk from the back seat. That’ll teach him.

I was relegated to the back seat for the cycle back to the house where our mixed bag of veggie Indian deliciousness was accompanied by gorgeous apple and blackberry juice. You know the tetrapaks you get “made from concentrate”? Feargal knows an organic shop that sell the concentrate. Lining the bottom of a glass is enough to mix with a pint of water and still make your teeth auto-dial the dentist. Lovely.

We chatted about all kinds of weird stuff (we now have mathematical proof that gravity doesn’t work at the North Pole) then retired; Feargal pausing only long enough to show me how to hang by your toes from a pull-up bar (he has seriously strong foot muscles). The man’s utterly and completely hatstand. Every country should have one.

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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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