Cork: What a Corker

South-west Ireland has seen many 'blow-ins' of late. But Jonathan Gregson returns to find its beauty and quality of life are intact and stunning as ever
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The Independent Travel

The first time I went to Ireland's wild west coast I was 16 years old, my head filled with the poetry of W B Yeats, the "Grand Old Man of Irish Letters" whose strange mixture of Celtic mythology and mysticism chimed well with the hippie culture of the early 1970s to which I then aspired. An Irish school friend had invited me to join his family on a camping holiday - again a first for me. So, following instructions, I took a coach from Dublin to the nearest market town, and then the local bus.

The driver dropped me off atop a windswept headland, and I was thankful for my duffel jacket as I descended a rough farm track to the shoreline. I could taste the salt tang on my lips as great Atlantic rollers exploded against the rocks. For the final stretch of the journey I had to roll up my trousers and wade, since my friends had set up camp on an islet that became cut off at high tide. It was all a far cry from the suburban South of England which I had left only the day before.

I arrived to find my friend's father sitting cross-legged on a rock, a knife clasped between his teeth, busily cleaning mackerel. He looked positively piratical, though in "real life" I knew he was a Dublin lawyer. "Would you help me finish cleaning all these fish here," he asked, pointing to a mixed bucketful, "so they'll be ready for dinner? I'll show you to your sleeping quarters later."

The tents were antiquated Army surplus, their heavily patched yet still leaky canvas supported by wooden poles which collapsed with alarming frequency. But, apart from waking up most mornings with our feet in a puddle, it was the best kind of Boy's Own holiday. We'd go line fishing off the rocks, or salvage driftwood from deserted strands to feed the campfire, or set off on day-long hikes through a boulder-strewn landscape under ever-changing skies.

Twice a week we'd go up to the nearest farm to fill the milk pail or buy another sack of potatoes. This could take hours, since the old widow in charge was a great talker and keen to pass on her knowledge of local folklore. One story related to a galleon of the Spanish Armada which went down nearby. All aboard her drowned, save a handful who were guided ashore by the sound of pipes and the seals barking. On certain nights, she told us, we might still hear such sounds. It was the ghosts of those drowned Spanish sailors still trying to reach dry land.

To find out whether she herself believed in these ghost stories, we decided to lay on a concert party. I spent all day refining my seal barking technique, while my friend developed a remarkable vocal imitation of the pipes which involved striking the epiglottis forcefully to change notes. Come nightfall, we crept up to the farm and began our ghostly serenade. The response was immediate. The good widow emerged from her porch, wielding a spade and yelling about "little heathen devils". By which she meant us.

Quite apart from ghost stories, there was plenty I found that was strange and disturbing. Back then, rural poverty was still widespread - and especially in those counties furthest from Dublin. I remember seeing children begging in the streets and run-down tinkers' camps on the outskirts of market towns. Thankfully, all that is now history. And if some argue that, through its rapid rise to prosperity, Ireland has lost some of its traditional "charm", they should think of what really went before.

Much had already changed when I next returned, nearly a decade on. By then I had fulfilled my sixth-form aspirations to hippiedom and come out the other side. But some of the old idealism lingered on, including a longing to escape the rat race and raise a family in a pristine environment. Which probably explains why, from the late Seventies onwards, a growing tide of incomers - the locals call them "blow-ins" - moved to the far west of Ireland. Some ex-hippie friends of mine were among them, determined to make a new life for themselves in West Cork.

Whatever their politics, the British incomers tended to keep a low profile. The Troubles in the North, with the H-Block prisoners on hunger strike, saw to that. Republican feelings ran strong, and West Cork gained the reputation for being "where the IRA went on holiday". Men in black balaclavas paraded in Skibbereen's main square. "During the height of the Troubles, people were afraid to come here," recalls one blow-in who is still there 25 years on. "Provided you kept your nose clean and got on with things," added another, "there was no real problem."

Besides the English, there were a lot of blow-ins from Holland and Germany. The Cold War was then at its height, and West Cork is about as far removed (and upwind) from any nuclear conflagration as you can go to in Europe. The wealthiest arrived in Mercs and BMWs - then a rarity on Irish roads - and settled around Glandore's scenic bay, not bothering to integrate very much with the local population. There were former rock stars, like Noel Redding, bass player with The Jimi Hendrix Experience. And there was a huge hippie-dippy element, for whom two of the obvious attractions of West Cork were its mild climate and abundance of isolated fields - a combination well suited to the small-scale cultivation of marijuana.

It was never easy to earn a living in these parts, and those incomers who have managed to stay on needed to show some entrepreneurial flair. Sally Barnes, whose husband ran a fishing boat out of Union Hall, learnt how to smoke the wild salmon, mackerel and herring landed along the coast and still runs the Woodcock Smokery from a farmhouse near Castletownshend. "Very often it was the women who started a new business," she said, "adding on to what their men were doing. That's how a lot of local cheese-making got going."

Others opened shops catering specifically to the incomers' tastes - witness the concentration of organic and health food shops still there in the "hippie capital" of Ballydehob, a brightly painted market town where blow-ins once outnumbered the locals. Most, like my friend, took temporary jobs such as house-painting or signing up on a fishing boat for the herring season. "That wasn't enough to make ends meet," he admits, "so we packed up and came back to England. But it was out there that I first learnt to grow things." Since then he has become a successful landscape gardener.

What drew them to this remote corner of Ireland was the awe-inspiring scenery and the quality of life - especially for young children who could go off on their own. "It was good for them," says Sally, "to have to pick themselves up if they got in any trouble and get back under their own steam." And unlike the English countryside, there was no fear of trespassing. You just asked the farmer's permission. Returning last year, I found the landscape every bit as awesome as I remembered - from the soaring cliffs around Toe Head where my friends once lived, to the gentler estuaries to the east where swans glide upon the still waters. This time I ventured further west, to Mizen Head and the Beara Peninsula. For sheer grandeur, these rocky fingers stretching far into the Atlantic surpassed anything I had seen before, though I could also understand why most blow-ins preferred to choose less windswept corners of south-west Cork. Many things have changed. The tobacco smog that once greeted you on entering a pub is now a thing of the past after Ireland's total ban. Restaurants offer more sophisticated renderings of the local seafood. The main roads are vastly improved thanks to EU funding and market towns like Skibbereen and Clonakilty now have bypasses adorned with superstores.

The landscape is as all-encompassing and spiritual as ever, according to Sally Barnes, whose nearest hilltop is crowned by an ancient ring of upright stones. But she feels that since they came there has been a loss of innocence. Some may put this down to creeping consumerism. Others blame globalisation. But Sally thinks that she can pinpoint the moment when innocence began slipping away. "It was when they they started showing the weekly episodes of Dallas on television. From then on things were never quite the same."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Cork is served by many airlines, including Aer Arann (0800 587 2324; www.aerarann.com), Bmi baby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com), Aer Lingus (0845 084 4444; www.aerlingus.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com).

To reduce impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Cork is 90p. The money funds sustainable energy and reforestation projects. Swansea Cork Ferries (01792 456116; www.swanseacorkferries.com) plies the route between Swansea and Cork.

STAYING THERE

Bantry House, Bantry, Cork (00 353 27 50047; www.bantryhouse.ie). Double rooms starting from €240 (£171) including breakfast.

EATING & DRINKING THERE

Gourmet Store & Fishy Fishy Cafe, Kinsale (00 353 21 477 4453).

MORE INFORMATION

www.westcork.ie

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