Ireland – days 10-13
Apologies for the wait. We’ve had internet access for the whole time we’ve been here, but for the past week it has been so slow that only emailing was possible. Rather than posting a blog, it would have been quicker to hand-write postcards to every reader. Here’s a (not so) quick catch-up of the last two weeks.
Skibbereen (just Skib to the locals) isn’t a pretty town. Like many of the towns around here, there is a lot of building work going on, and the whole town is covered with a patina of grey dust. In the past, Skibbereen has been dealt more than a fair share of suffering. During the Great Famine of the 1840’s, the people around Skib were particularly badly hit. In the graveyard of a local church there are between eight and ten thousand unidentified souls. According to the 1841 census, the population of Ireland was 8.5 million. By 1850, around a million people had died of disease and starvation and a further million had emigrated. There are now more people of Irish descent living outside Ireland than there are in Ireland itself. There is a small exhibition at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre on the outskirts of the town, charting the effects of the famine on the area. It is careful to avoid the details of the cause of the famine, but simply shows how the area was affected through contemporary reports and accounts. Very moving.
If that wasn’t enough for the people of Skibbereen to contend with, Europe’s first Temperance Society was founded here. Happily, the old Temperance Hall is now a fire station, and there are 26 pubs to choose from.
A few miles East of Skib is one of Ireland’s best known stone circles. Drombeg is a (probably) late Bronze Age circle, but dating estimates vary from 870BC to 720AD. Whenever it was built, it remains a striking, well preserved circle. When we visited, there were three young women sitting in the middle of the circle, happily beating away on their drums. Apparently it has something to do with exchanging energies between the drums and the stones. I’m not a believer in that sort of stuff, but it was great to see the stones being used.
We had a quiet couple of days in Skib. It was a bank-holiday weekend, and everywhere was heaving. We did venture out to Lough Hyne; Ireland’s first Marine Nature Reserve. By a strange quirk of nature, the lake (no more than a couple of hundred metres across) is almost cut off from the sea, except for a narrow tidal channel - the tide comes in for four hours a day, and goes out for eight and a half. The unique habitat is home to a huge variety of plants and animals, many of which are not found anywhere else in Ireland (including a sea slug which is only found here and off Portugal).
Further West is the small fishing town of Baltimore. It could have been a pretty place to stop, but there were road and building works everywhere. Just beyond the town is a modern megalith, “the Beacon”, built as a guide for shipping. I saw two jackdaws and a seagull, but no ravens.
Ireland – day 14
We spent a fruitless morning searching for stone circles. There are 234 stone circles in Ireland, and the counties of Cork and its neighbour Kerry share a hundred of those. With such a high concentration of circles, you’d think you’d be falling over them every time you step outside. Even armed with two guidebooks we had no luck. It didn’t help that all the roads have been re-numbered since the guides were written. The Ordnance Survey of Ireland publish a series of 1:50000 maps, but they’re about eight quid each, and we’d have needed seven or eight to cover the region. They also have the habit of labeling everything, whatever its shape, as a Standing Stone. Not a lot of help, really.
So, after a wasted few hours we drove West towards Mizzen Head. Mizzen Head is the most South Westerly point in Ireland, so the guidebooks say, but since there are other places further South and further West, I’m not sure how they work that out. Still, it was an excellent drive passing through a handful of charming little towns, including Schull (pronounced “Skull”) where we stopped and watched a family of swans, for half an hour or so, while the young ones paddled around in the shallows of the harbour, watched over by the proud parents.
A little further along the coast is the little port of Crookhaven. The place oozes wealth, and there was even a helicopter parked on somebody’s front lawn. They also have a fantastic view South to the Fastnet Lighthouse.
Sadly, we had spent so long watching swans and not finding stone circles that the Mizzen Head Experience had closed by the time we got there. It’s worth noting that most visitor attractions we have, er, visited have been open until 6 o’clock. Very civilized. The Mizzen Head experience, however, closed at 5:30, so we missed it.
Ireland – day 15
We skipped Skibbereen and headed North along (need I say) terrible roads to Bantry.
Bantry is a very pretty, well tended town with not a single building project in sight. The poverty and mass emigration of the 19th century has been replaced by unexpected prosperity brought about by oil, and the town is looking very smart. Bantry nearly had a big place in the history books in the late 18th century when Theobald Woolfe Tone, a hero of the United Irishmen’s Rebellion, tried to land with a fleet of 43 French ships and 14,000 of Napoleon's soldiers. A bad storm, which lasted several days prevented the landing, and Woolfe Tone was forced to return to France with a severely depleted fleet. Had he landed, the course of Irish history could have been very different.
The Eagle Point campsite just North of Bantry is beautifully positioned, taking up the whole of a small peninsula but, goodness me is it expensive. €30 for a night! That’s twenty four quid. Nearly fifty bucks!
Ireland is expensive. Even accounting for the relative strength of the Euro against the Pound, it is expensive. Campsites are expensive, and since there isn’t the same network of CL’s and CS’s that the UK enjoys, the competition is low and prices high. It’s probably a good job that we can’t stay long. Still, it was a nice view.
Ireland – day 16
We eventually managed to find a stone circle from the instructions in the guidebooks! (and it was signposted). Kealkil turned out to be a little cracker, but only made up of five stones (does that make a circle?) in a 7’ long ellipse. All of the one hundred Cork/Kerry circles have an odd number of stones, and nearly all of them are arranged in a definite astronomical orientation. In nearly all cases there are a pair of Entrance Stones opposite an Alignment Stone. This alignment points at a particular astronomical event, such as Midwinter sunrise, Midsummer Sunset, etc. Kealkil’s orientation is uncertain, but Drombeg (above) points towards the Winter Solstice sunset. Kealkil does, however, have a pair of outlying stones and a small radial cairn, all within a few feet of each other and all on the side of a hill with a view for miles. Terrific.
Happy with finding at least one circle, we set off around the Beara Peninsula, one of Cork & Kerry’s many sticky-out-bits. Along the way, what should we find but a signpost to a pair of Neolithic sites! Seizing the opportunity, we followed the signs to the first one – Ballynahowen Wedge Grave, a tiny little three stone dolmen nearly hidden in the knee-high grass of a meadow. Not a significant find, but a beautiful place to have been buried three thousand years ago.
Sadly, the signs to the second site disappeared. Which is unusual for signs around here. They seem to breed. In the UK, for instance, you see a brown sign and you instantly know that it points to somewhere of historical significance, usually looked after by English Heritage or the National Trust or some body like that. In Ireland, the “Brown Sign” seems to be a free-for-all, advertising anything from a local B&B or hotel, garden centre, osteopath or even a brake-and-clutch shop. Occasionally, we would find one pointing to something old, but there were usually so many other brown signs that there just wasn’t enough time to read them all before we’d driven past.
Towards the end of the peninsula is another (brown signposted!) wedge tomb. Killough West dolmen sat under a telegraph post, sharing a field with gently ruminating beef cattle.
At the Western tip of the Beara Peninsula stands Dursey Island. Dursey Island is about four miles long, one mile wide, is home to ten people and can be reached by Ireland’s only cable-car. The frankly terrifying journey takes fifteen minutes, and livestock take precedence over visitors. Be warned!
We carried on around the peninsula and stopped to enjoy the view and a cup of tea at Margaret’s Café, a little trailer parked by the roadside. She is here from dawn ‘til dusk throughout the season, and has to suffer this view all day long.
She says she never tires of it. I believe her. The road is studded with pretty little villages, painted in all the usual colours and beautiful views of Kerry to the North. We even managed to find (there was a solitary Brown Sign) another circle! Nature is trying to overgrow Ardgroom stone circle, but the stones are standing tall in a stunning landscape. Whatever the ancients built these monuments for, they always enjoyed the view. Ardgroom, by the way, points due South.
Ireland – day 17
Having run out of kidneys to sell in order to fund the Eagle Point caravan park owners’ retirement fund, we set off North for Killarney. There isn’t an easy, short route between Bantry and Killarney, so we just held our breaths and took the narrow, twisting road over Caha Pass.
It felt like the bit at the end of “The Italian Job.” Still, the views were fantastic. Strangely, as soon as we reached the summit and passed into Kerry, the roads got much better. Wider and smoother. Until we hit a bit they were still working on and it felt like we’d hit a dirt track. I had to wash the trailer the next day. We arrived in Killarney on the same day as a Harley Davidson convention. The town was packed with bikers and tourists - a great combination. The bikers were slowly but happily taking turns to ride around the town, while the tourists took turns to step out in front of them.
Ireland – day 19
Killarney itself seems to be a large collection of hotels glued together with gift-shops and pubs. Only Dublin has more accommodation to offer. Not a very pretty town, but it sits on the outskirts of the Killarney National Park, Ireland’s first and a very nice one it is too. There are three lakes sitting in a fantastic limestone landscape, the Torc Waterfall and a whole mountain range.
We took a little tour around the Park and further West, beyond the fabulously named Macgillycuddy’s Reeks mountain range. I’m sure that in Lancashire the name would translate as “Mr. Cuddy’s underpants,” but apparently it means “the pointy hill belonging to the Mac Gilla Muchudas clan”. However it translates, it is a magnificent example of a glacial playground. Pointed summits and sharp ridges plunge to wide, scoop shaped valleys. It looked so inviting that I was tempted to climb it. Would the weather hold?
Ireland – day 20
Whadyaknow, the sun came out. In fact, it was a beautiful day; clear skies with a gentle cooling breeze. Almost perfect hill-walking weather. Reeks! I was going to have to get out there and walk. Most of it would be upwards. The highest mountain in Ireland at 1039 metres (3,408 ft), Carrantuohill sits in the middle of “the Reeks.” Unless you have time (and energy) to tackle the whole range, there is really only one way up; a four kilometre walk along a valley floor followed by a grueling scramble, climbing 300 metres upwards in as many forwards. After that comes another 400 metre climb, trudging up a seemingly endless slope. If I’d known all this before I set off, I might have stayed at home and sat in the sun with a cold beer. But in my ignorance, I set off. Three hours later, I staggered to the summit. If I’d had any breath left in me, the view would have seen it off. There was hardly a cloud in the sky and a subtle haze didn’t stop me seeing forever. No sooner had I got my breath back, when a young, shirtless man came gasping up. “Great,” I thought. “Here’s somebody who’s less fit than me!” “Excellent,” said the fellow. “A new personal best; only an hour and a half.” The lunatic had run up. With his dog.
It turned out he was a hardened veteran, this being his 40th ascent, and while we shared some rations, he pointed out all the highlights of the scenery. It was a smashing 20 minutes, and then he was gone.
I stayed on the summit for another ten minutes and took a few photos, and during that time I had the entire mountain range to myself. It was glorious. If you sat on the top of any of the major peaks in the Lake District, you’d
a) meet three coachloads of tourists with copies of Wainwright in their pockets,
b) see an entire RAF squadron fly past beneath you,
c) drown (have I mentioned that it rains in Cumbria?), or most likely
d) all three.
I’m pleased to say that I made it down in the same time that he took to get up. On another note, and as an example of the mobile network coverage here, if I had bothered to carry my laptop to the top of the mountain, I could have posted an entry from there!
Ireland – day 21
Today, everything, from my eyebrows down, hurts.
We moved on today. Not a long journey, just a quick hop to break up the crossing to Dublin. We stopped off just West of Limerick. Luckily, there was another stone circle to look at, and luckily, there were plenty of brown signs pointing towards it. It turned out to be Ireland’s largest circle.
Grange has 113 stones in a circle of over 150’ radius. They are surrounded by a bank of earth about two feet higher than the area between the stones, which currently plays home to a small band of dairy calves. They seemed very at home there and didn’t stir during our visit.
Just over the fence in the next field, lies another, much smaller circle. This, too, is home to some cows, but these ones were much more interested in me than their little cousins were.
As soon as I entered the circle, they started to converge on me and within a couple of minutes I was surrounded by curious cows. They weren’t aggressive, just nosey. I left them to their stones (more accurately, they escorted me off the premises).
The whole area is littered with history, and there is a visitors centre at the head of Lough Gur, the local lake. Sadly, it seems to be one of the few places that closes at 5:30 rather than 6, so we missed it. Apparently it shows some relics of man's presence here, dating back five thousand years. We’ll have to come back some day.
Ireland – day 22
Moving on again, completing the cross-country trip to Dublin. We arrived by mid-afternoon, and I seem to have spent the rest of the day writing this. I've also uploaded some more photos to the website. Have a look.
Sorry it’s so long, and congratulations to anybody who actually made it this far without nodding off. I promise I’ll try not to leave it so long next time…