Friday, 7 October 2011

Favourite places: Cape Clear Island, County Cork

I love small islands. They often have spectacular scenery, and the ones in the right places get plenty of seabirds and vagrants (mostly birds, but a few dragonflies and humans), but the appeal is deeper than that. The sea is all around. It's easy to walk from one side to the other. You can walk all round the coast and come back to where you started. People are generally friendly and as a stranger, you soon start recognising people. Human-made things often merge into natural things, whether it's a wooden boat slowly sinking into mud or a stone watch-tower becoming yet another weird rock formation.

I still don't feel I've expressed it. Maybe the combination of the very specific and individual (on the island) with the universality, the hint of God and death and rebirth, of the sea?

Cape Clear has all that and more. Most non-Irish people don't know where it is. I ask if they've heard of the Fastnet Rock. They have, even if they didn't realise it was in Ireland. So OK, you're in South-west Ireland. Start at Skibbereen, whose local paper, the Skibbereen Eagle, once sternly warned the Tsar that it had its eye on him over his persecution of minorities. From Skibbereen a narrowing peninsula extends to Baltimore (not that one, the original) a small town or large village with a lot of yachting. From there the line of the sandstone peninsula points straight out to Sherkin Island, then to Cape Clear Island and finally to the Fastnet Rock and its lighthouse. Next stop the Americas.

The boat trip isn't long, but the local people traditionally spoke of going to the mainland as "going to Ireland". Gaelic is spoken, though perhaps not quite as much in reality as for government inspectors. Once in the full main pub I got into a vigorous debate with a fellow-birder from Dublin who objected to his taxes going on supporting the Gaelic language. I argued that the death of a language was a terrible thing. At a pause in the debate we suddenly realised that all other conversation had stopped and everyone was listening to us.

When I first stayed on the island, the population was about 300, but later it increased with prosperous Irish dropouts seeking tranquility and even returners from further: one morning I was heading out to a seabird-watching point by a small track and passed a woman in a long,loose skirt and shawl with a scarf around her head. She was picking blackberries. I wished her good day. She responded in an American accent.

On a small island, the weather becomes immensely important. You check it first thing. Storms on the island are beautiful, and safe enough if you're not at sea since there are no trees to speak of.

The place is changing: Private notices and barbed wire sprang up where there were only drystone walls before: the natives blamed the incomers and others blamed Irish law on landowners' liability for trespassers' injuries. The famous shopkeeper Paddy Burke is dead. Maybe even you can no longer buy cornflakes, petrol and a Guinness in the same place. But the cliffs are the same and O'Driscoll's Tower, perched on a now inaccessible rock, will still be beaten by salt spray.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, lovely article about Cape Clear, thanks. But maybe you could change 'granite' to sandstone, as this is what our area is made of!