The Sheeps Head in West Cork is one of only a few locations in Ireland which has been designated the European Destination of Excellence. The lighthouse here is on the the tip of the peninsula and this gorgeous loop walk brought us past Lough, farmland and bog, to see stunning views from the lighthouse out onto the Atlantic ocean.
This location is drenched in history and we discovered some of this as we wended our way along. The walk took approx. 2.5 hours and terrain was uneven and a wee bit boggy in parts. The wild beauty and ruggedness was obvious was we ambled along in the glorious sunshine.
The lighthouse stood out like a beacon of hope on its rocky promonotory, overlooking the wild Atlantic ocean. It was built in 1986 to guide the tankers between Bantry and Whiddy Bay terminal. Due to its remote location, all of the equipment and supplies required to build the lighthouse had to be choppered in. It took 250 helicopter trips to bring all of the components necessary to build the lighthouse!
Walking through the valley we passed blanket bog which harbours the carnivorous plant, Sundew. This plant grows in nitrogen poor soils and it has devised a nifty solution to this conundrum. Its sticky leaves trap the unwitting flies that it seduces and as they struggle, the become more trapped in its sticky hair, which then digest the failing fly.
Sometimes the shy common lizard can be seen basking on the rocks here on a sunny day. We were unable to find it on this occasion, most probably due to the many tourists and hikers that were here today. It is the only reptile in Ireland and only reaches 4-6 inches in length. The chough which is a corvid could be seen sweeping above us. According to legend, when King Arthur died his soul migrated into this bird. Its red beak and legs are supposed to indicate the blood that covered the Kings body when he died in battle. Gannets could also be seen plunge diving offshore. They hurtle into the water at speeds of up to 125km per hour to spear their prey. Their heads are filled with air bubbles like a crash helmet to protect them on their aquatic impact.
A haven for man and beast, heaven on earth!
This lovely walk from the imposing medieval fort of Jamesfort brings us along the lovely estuary to Sandycove. Sandycove is a cute little hamlet with a smattering of human habitation and a beautiful bay which is very popular with serious swimmers.
A gorgeous walk over the cliffs at Sandycove gave us views over the bay and the islands. As we approached the seashore we were greeted with a plethora of enthusiastic swimmers, both human and canine.
We wended our way back to James Fort, passing through the tiny, pretty Dock Beach. A gentle walk over the cliffs brought us to the the old fortification which was heavily influenced by the Battle of Kinsale.
Looking across the harbour we could see the other star fortification at Charlesfort. This is believed to be haunted by the White Lady’ who lost her betrothed on her wedding night. She is said to wander the area and is known as both a benevolent and malicious ghost.
We hired a private charter last Sunday to go whale watching with Cork Whale Watch. We lucked out with incredible weather, warm sun, calm seas and excellent visibility. Within minutes of leaving shore, a huge dark fin was evident in the water, a basking shark, and the first one most of us have ever seen.
These gentle giants can reach up to 40 feet but feed on krill and small fish. They sift the soupy water to extract their food and drink a swimming pools worth of water in a day! Over the next half hour we saw 7 more of these magnificent fish, hard to imagine that they really are. One cruised past the boat and its body kept on going and going, it was larger than our trusty steed. They disappear like submarines, gently lowering themselves down out of sight. Sometimes we could see the gaping chasm of their huge white mouth as they skimmed their dinners with grace.
As we headed to more open water an energetic pod of common dolphins sped towards us. They leaped around the bow and jostled for space at the front to surf the waves our boat provided. All the while gannets dove around us at breakneck speed, hitting the water with the accuracy of a master archer.
Then the minke whales arrived. These are the 2nd smallest baleen whale in the world. They feed on much the same food as their cartilaginous compadre, the basking shark. They are solo travellers generally and are more interested in food than us. We watched them bolt through the water after their quarry and after a time we were definitely surrounded.
Over the course of the charter we saw at least 20 minkes (we even experienced minke breath which has a pretty gnarly stench).
More common dolphins came back to bow ride and all round as far as the eye could see, were hundreds more dolphins, many more whales and birds skimming the ocean. Just glorious.
Our Sunday trip was filled with sun, jaw dropping scenery, epic coastline and some ridiculously cute donkeys to boot! Mizen Head and Barleycove are two spectacular locations down in the most Southerly parts of Ireland. The waters here team with life and in the summer particularly it is not unusual to see whales, basking sharks, seals and a plethora of birds with regularity.
Mizen Head is drenched in history and has played a significant role in the culture, development and pride of the local community.
The Teardrop of Ireland
In 1847 an American liner, the SS Stephen Whitney sank off Crookhaven with the loss of 92 lives. The Irish Lights Board decided to build a lighthouse on Fastnet Rock as the Cape Clear island lighthouse was too far inland. This was the first landfall after America and was called the ‘Teardrop of Ireland’ as it was the last place that Irish emigrants saw when they left Ireland. The first lighthouse was built in 1854 and lasted till 1891 but had to be replaced as it was made of iron and was unable to withstand the merciless fury of the Atlantic ocean.
It was rebuilt in 1899 using Cornish granite and was completed in 1903. Each block of granite weighed 3 tonnes and were interlocked for maximum strength and protection.
Six men kept watch at Fastnet Rock, four at a time and two on leave. Reliefs were twice a month when the men were taken off duty. Each man worked 4 weeks on, 2 weeks off. One man had to stay on watch during the day to look out for fog and signal passing ships. As soon as fog was seen, another man was called up to work the fog signal.
When there were so many men at the tower they slept three to a bunk. They were all turned out at 5am and were made to wash themselves thoroughly, turning out all their bedding to air and washing down the barracks. This way the men stayed healthy.
Mizen Head History
In 1906 the Board of Trade along with the Irish Lights Board decided to build a fog signal station on Cloghane Island, Mizen Head. In 1909 the fog signal was established and in bad visual conditions the keepers manually set off a charge of explosives at 3 minute intervals. The arched bridge was built between 1908-1910 to connect the island to the mainland. The design was picked from a competition that was run to create the best bridge. The bridge is 172 feet (54 m) across by 150 feet (50 m) above sea level.
In 1931 a wireless beacon was installed at Mizen Head and in 1959 a light was placed on the rocks at the end of the head at a height of 180 feet (60m) with a range of 13 miles in clear weather. The fog signal was discontinued in the 1970’s when sonar and satellite navigation (GPS) took over. Mizen Head Signal Station has participated in the whole history of radio communication.
The local village of Crookhaven was the first and last port of call for ships going between Northern European ports and America. The ships stocked up on fuel and provisions before tackling the Atlantic ocean. A flurry of small boats would meet the arriving ships, swarming around them to get business. Lots of these boats came from the UK and were commisioned by Reuters and Lloyds agents.
Reuters and Lloyds agents had flag signalling and semaphore equipment up on the nearby headland of Brow Head to communicate with passing ships. At the end of the 19th century there were so many boats in the harbour that you could walk across the decks from one side of the bay to the other. Up to 700 people lived and worked in the village during this period. Currently there are only 29 permanent residents living in Crookhaven.
How Marconi came to Crookhaven
In 1896 the famous Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi went to England to file the worlds first patent for a telegraphy system using Hertzian waves. In 1899 he acquired a premises in Essex and established communication across the English channel. He was desperate to get a signal across the Atlantic and searched for a suitable for his masts. After much research he found the village of Crookhaven. In 1902 he established a telegraphic station here using a coherer receiver. He brought wireless operators from England with him.
Marconi worked with the Irish Lights Board in 1904 to put telegraphic equipment aerials on Fastnet Rock. The station was then moved to Brow Head as there had been a long established tradition of using signal equipment and Brow Head is also the most Southerly tip of Ireland. The telegraphic messages were sent from Fastnet by signalling and then relayed to Brow Head by wireless telegraphy and relayed onto UK and Northern European boat owners and companies.
Initially a few ships started to use telegraphy equipment on board. The signal stations might be in touch with one ship at a time but by 1904 the telegraphers were in touch with at least six. In Crookhaven there were 6 operators initially working in the village. After they were relocated to Brow Head they had to make the lonely trudge up to the exposed headland. They worked on 3 watches: Midnight-8am, 8am-4pm, 4pm-midnight. There always be two operators on each shift.
A shift broke its shaft 80m from Crookhaven in 1904. Fitted with Marconi equipment, hundreds of messages streamed back and forth to her as passengers contacted families and friends. Assistance was sent for immediately and she was back on course without any mishap. Marconi’s invention had thus taken much of the fear out of the sea.
After Marconi had achieved transatlantic messaging and more shipping fleets were equipped with his technology, it was unnecessary to be close to shipping and man a station so the station was closed at Brow Head. Crookhaven reverted to a quiet fishing port.
The End of an Era
The signal station at Mizen Head was automated in 1993. The same year with a lease from the Irish Lights Board and with funding from the rural development LEADER programme, the local community of Goleen decided to reopen Mizen Head as a tourist attraction. Murphys, West Cork Bottling, Cork County Council and Ford helped match the funding to open the centre to the public. This attraction is now internationally renowned and has hosted over a million visitors!
The dreamy, beautiful Barleycove beach was formed under auspicious circumstances. The sand dunes there were thrown up by a tidal wave that swept through Europe after an earthquake in Lisbon in 1755. Today the dunes are now partially eroded but the beach and surrounds are designated as a Special Area of Conservation. It is host to a diverse range of habitats and wildlife that preside in and around the sand dunes.
When you live far from home for a long time you oft forget the many wonderful places that encompass Ireland. Lough Hyne is a gorgeous lake, fed by sea water near Baltimore. It is the only lake in Ireland to experience this and it has thus created an unusual for aquatic creatures and plants.
It was believed to be a freshwater lake approximately four millenia ago but was flooded as a result of rising sea levels. The Lough now regularly receives Atlantic water streaming in through Barloge creek. The water here is a combination of warm, highly oxygenated water which makes it a very attractive prospect to many plants and aquatic creatures.
It is one of the most studied lakes in the world due to its unique aquatic disposition. The purple sea urchin, Paracentrotus lividus was first discovered here in 1886. It is also the only place in Ireland where a seahorse was found in the 1980’s. It is popular with kayakers and has spectacular phosphoresence which fills the Lough with otherworldly stars in its waters at night.
It was established as the first Marine reserve in Europe in 1981 and University College Cork opened a research station here to study the impressive array of plants and animals that call this Lough home.
The combination of marine magnificence, lush forestry clustered protectively around the Lough and ancient,druidic remains have created a bewitching place for all. Eoghan Harris summed up this magical place wonderfully in his book ‘Lough Hyne – From Prehistory to the Present’:
“Lough Hyne is a sacred place, a natural amphitheatre with perfect acoustics, where we can guess our pre-Christian ancestors gathered to worship the lost gods of the Druids.’
There’s an irony to living in the modern world. We live in an age where we can connect to people whenever and wherever we want, but on the other side of this, people often find themselves lonelier and more socially isolated due to the fast paced nature of their lives. People wrap themselves up in their devices in bars, restaurants, and buses, yet will look strangely at someone who attempts to initiate conversation. Meetups are a panacea for some of the ills of modern society, using technology to connect rather than to fragment us.
Meetup.com is a social networking site, that was started in New York not long after the September 11th attacks. Co-founder, Scott Heiferman, claimed that the way people related to each other changed after the event. People were yearning for community and meetups were a way for people to connect with each other easily.
The premise of the site is simple. When you first join, you enter your location and you’re given a list of the Meetup groups in your area. Groups are usually started by at least one person, who has a particular interest like kayaking, dancing, meditation, or whatever someone chooses. You can join as many groups as you wish, and you can choose to be as involved as suits your own needs. Most groups create events online and then members can RSVP to the events they would like to attend.
Just over a year ago, due to a series of unexpected events, I ended up living back in Cork after 16 years abroad. I’d spent the previous decade living in New Zealand, so the person I was on my return was quite different to the girl who had left. Most of my friends from Cork no longer lived here, and the ones that did were busy with burgeoning family and work commitments. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to stay. One thing I did know was that I’d need friendship and connection if I was to have any hope of being happy here.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Cork section of Meetup.com had over 50 groups, and there were at least ten that I was interested in joining. I quickly made friends from the groups I joined and started attending various cultural and outdoor events. Coming into the summer, I was mad to get out and about, walking and camping. I found a group called ‘The Sober South’, which was right up my alley. Over the coming weeks, I went on coastal walks with them and even camped on Cape Clear, an island off the south coast of Ireland, for the Storytelling Festival. As the summer wound down, I set up my own group, ‘Cork Coastal Trips’, to satisfy my need to be close to the ocean. This group has allowed me to explore some of the most gorgeous coastline around Cork and the Wild West, and to make more fabulous friends.
The people I’ve met through meetups have transformed my experience of living in Cork. I now see it with fresh eyes, and have a greater appreciation for my home town. Both local and foreign people are part of these groups. Some of the Irish are like me, they left and returned after many moons. Others have lost their core group to marriage and children. Foreigners, who have come to study and work, have been able to integrate more quickly and easily with the friendships forged in our motley crew. We’re all here for the same reason: to make new friends. It’s as simple as that.
So many things have improved in my life as a result of meetups. I wanted to start a guiding company in Ireland, but had neither the finances, nor the support, to make it a reality. Two of the first friends I made, Karen and Eric, came on board to help my company take off. Karen became my website designer and Eric has become my business advisor. I also now work in the same company as Eric, in a position he thought I’d be right for. Another friend, Ben, connected me to a co-working space in Cork. I rented a desk there briefly and made another travel writer friend, Grace, who helped find me a gig as a contributing writer for Green Global Travel.
I cannot recommend meetups highly enough. If you want to improve your life, there is a very simple way to do so. There is no way I could have envisioned all of the wonderful people and circumstances that eventuated from my decision to try something new. It has brought so much wonder, magic, joy and potential into my life. I am truly blessed and happy to be home.
The storms of last Saturday left a much flooded Ireland and some surging seas. Our trip was booked for the following day and we were mad excited to get out there and see what was about.
We lucked out with calm descending on Sunday and giving us a much welcome reprieve from the maelstrom.
The sea had been amply churned out by torrential rains and was murky and foamy, yet incredibly beautiful. The sun was valiantly trying to show itself and kept on peering at us from behind the clouds.
Our charter for the day was the Holly Joe, skippered by the excellent Colin Barnes of Cork Whale Watch. He steered us through the waves with ease and grace and guided us towards the rocky promonotories to see the seals and ancient ruins.
A few porpoises snuck past us but they eluded most of us by the time we realised. On our way back to port a lone dolphin cruised by. We watched it as it sped through the water.