Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Winding down...

Monday: We said our goodbyes to everyone who was heading back to England - and then took Granny Rye to Cork airport for her flight home.  She's been pretty amazing, flying solo each way aged 93. 

We went into Cork - such a pretty city!  No wonder the Queen liked it so much and went walkabout.  By a fairly long coincidence, we bumped into Andrew's sister Gillie with her man James inside the English Market, and said goodbye to them all over again, and then went for a gluten-free lunch. Ha!

Our afternoon was spent driving along the tumbling lanes and byways down towards Schull and Crookhaven - and this is where I became a ghost. I spent one remarkable summer holiday there when I was a child - in 1959, in the summer I left my primary school. I have very distinct memories of that fortnight - the landscape, the buildings, the people who were living or working or staying in the village, and what happened. I could tell I might be arriving as the solitary holder of any memories of that time. After all, it was well over 50 years ago. Any of the grown-ups from that summer are more than likely dead.

We reached Schull - so much more prosperous than I remember, with lines of yachts moored up on buoys in the wide harbour and the fantastic rocky islanded scenery stretching out to the Fastnet Lighthouse and beyond providing an almost unbelievable backdrop to the revival of my memories.  Seals came to see us when we walked along the pier.  We lodged for the night at a place called Harbour Command (recommended) - a private b&b right up on the ramparts of the bay, owned by Connie and Betty Griffin, complete with castellated garage, landscaped garden, and unsurpassed views.   We ate at the Black Sheep where the starter (crab claws in a wine and cream sauce) was world class but the main meal was, well, disappointing.  

Back at our lodgings, we took note of the remarkable dead fox sprawled out on the wall facing the bedroom door…  

Outside, in the beautiful  terraced gardens, the fishpond is now replenished following the depredations of mink which emptied it a few years ago.  A small lookout tower or beacon on the headland above the house offers views worthy of Hollywood.  Breakfast was scrambled eggs with salmon. Last night they gave us a taster of their fresh-caught shrimps and told us about how important the salt is in the process.    The shrimp are caught over a day or two in cylindrical nets - maybe 30 or 40 per catch, no more.  They have to be cooked in salty water - more salty than sea water. Then a brine is made up, strong enough to float a potato, and the shrimp are left in that for 20 minutes or so.   If this procedure is not followed, you'd need to dip your shrimp into a little pool of salt, as we did.  The texture is superb, and the flesh sweet - but there is no doubt, the salt brings the brilliance to life.

After breakfast we went back down into Schull where we bought an automaton pianist complete with baby grand, and some cards, and a couple of wild salmon steaks….   And then off down the coast to Goleen, where long ago I taught myself to row, aged 11, in a little wooden dinghy in the harbour. In whose boat, and how this came about, I do not remember, but I had such pride in what I had finally achieved.

Then we set off towards Crookhaven. The long and winding road is still clad in wild fuchsia and montbretia, and there are still one or two abandoned ruined cottages, but in the main this is clearly now millionaire country. There is an Oska Outlet (I spent money).  There are smart villas built facing every view.  We stopped at the Altar Wedge - an ancient Bronze Age monument in a tiny roadside clearing, with flat slabs laid out like a box facing Mizen Head.  When the Irish church was suppressed in the 18thC by the English, the priests used this pagan structure as their place of worship.

The road between Goleen and Crookhaven is closed at the moment for rebuilding part of the sea wall, and we diverted over the back way - a switchback way - so we had the benefit of orgasmically beautiful views down towards the Mizen. We could see headlands and bays, tiny islands and rocks stretching out into the far distance, the sea alternately brilliant blue and a kind of silver-bronze. The landscape is almost Greek in its wild emptiness, with gorse, turf, wildflowers, rocks and bare hillsides.  Here the grass grows so deeply down the middle of the road that the tarmac gangs have to lay new surface in two strips, one on either side of the central greenway.  

As we got down towards Crookhaven, I felt my present self slip away, and my eyes and memory took over, and I became 11 years old again. The light was beckoning, the rocks golden, the plants on either hand were lush and rich.  The sea was still and gentle. 

If you don't know it, Crookhaven is a tiny village sitting inside an arm of rock about a mile long, which reaches out parallel to the main land, offering good harbour facilities and reliable village life to sailors and landlubbers alike. It is the most south-westerly settlement in Ireland. In the 19thC it was a thriving port, and it also had a quarry, and in the mid-20th C a profitable lobster-farming business - though those are both long gone.  Marconi set up his first trans-Atlantic signal from here.   When I stayed here as a child, we were guests of the famous Pat Murphy, staying at his invitation in his cottage (still known as Castle Murphy). The village had (still has) three pubs or whatnot for its population of about 700 - the Welcome Inn, the Crookhaven Inn, and O'Sullivans.  My brother David caught a prodigious conger eel from the end of the pier.  We went to see 'the fillum' in a barn. We went to Barley Cove (the finest beach in Ireland) most days.  And today I met a girl who remembered Pat Murphy, and who took us up the back lane to see Castle Murphy, and who served us a very good open crab sandwich for lunch.  Things haven't changed all that much - apart from the fact that it's now very much a rich man's place.  We passed a big car with a Chinese family who'd stopped to take in the stupendous views. I think, if a family of Chinese tourists had pitched up there in 1959 the county would have come to a standstill. The local papers would have sent a reporter, at the very least.

Andrew - who had refused to buy me a pretty garment at the Oska Outlet - did very sweetly buy me some rock-crystal earrings from the Escallonia Gift Shop - lucky me.

We drove back - via Skibbereen and Clonakilty, calling in to see pretty little Glandore where they filmed 'The War of the Buttons', where we spoke to a gentleman in a speedboat - the engine kept unaccountably stopping despite services - but it turned out the engineer hadn't even taken the top off the carburetor, and in fact the tank was full of dirty fuel.  He'd had to rely on his auxiliary (outboard) more than once… but if a swell came from the south west, you'd never have time to get her round to face the water, and you could be swamped.  He was going to do his own maintenance from now on.   They had a fine jigsaw style floating pontoon there, made in sections by Carberry Plastics.

Then we stopped to see the fascinating Drombeg Circle - a late Bronze Age ring of 17 stones aligned to the winter solstice, complete with human burial right next to a complex of at least two round stone huts with a water-tank which could apparently be heated with hot stones, to cook large amounts of meat, or to dye cloth…. Who knows? It was a very nice place, protected by hills behind and with a view of the sea not far away.  There was also a 20m square thicket of fuchsia filled with bees whose noise could be heard far along the lane. 

We passed south of the beautiful Galty Mountains.  The best sign we saw during our long drive announced: Water Divining, Wells Drilled. 

There were also a run of hand-made signs saying 'Best of luck to John O'Horan', 'Good luck to Devlin O'Connor', and 'Doubt ya!! John O'Horan' - all these were for a bowling competition. 

The sun was warm and unstinting, the sky empty and blue and the roads almost devoid of traffic. It was marvellous.  Back here in Tipperary, we were in the land of generous gateways - each farm and house and cottage with a splendid curving entrance, promising hospitality and stability within.   I managed to photograph a few of the wonderful roadworks signs along the way, which vary according to area, and have dramatic graphics showing what risks drivers face.  

We got back to Dundrum, cooked our wild salmon from Schull, have been wrestling with the washing machine controls.   Everyone else from the wedding party has gone home. We are the last survivors and Ireland has been putting on her best display for us - sun, light, space, greenery, mountains, rivers and history all laid out. What a stunning day it has been.


  1. I am very interested in your mention of Pat Murphy. Did you know him? He was my great uncle. Please email me.

  2. This is great. We took family holidays in Crookhaven in 1961 and 1963, when I was 7 and 9. The first year we stayed as Pat Murphy's guests at Castle Murphy, and the second time, he was there, so we rented a caravan parked in a field. Lots of superb memories.

  3. Spent Holidays in barleycove in 70 ,S and 80,s Met Pat Murphy on several occasions in pub in Crookhaven. Told me story that her had met Rasputin the mad Monk on a number of occasions during his working life. A wonderful gentelman . Invited me to his " castle " one day I drove him up from pub.Tony