Come rain or shine - and frequently both on the same day - you will always have a good time and find a warm welcome in the west of County Cork
A Rainy Day
Forbes, an American business magazine, recently listed Ireland among its top 5 retirement countries. However any self respecting American here this morning in early December would be wishing he had chosen Panama instead: horizontal sheets of rain swept in endlessly on an icy wind, 1,300 square miles of Galway were under water and here in West Cork - a popular expat destination - they were still mopping up from the previous week’s record rainfall that had flooded entire towns.
Added to which we were on motorbikes which was beginning to seem like a stupid idea. We retreated to the Speckled Door pub at Garrettstown where we fortified ourselves on delicious bowls of steaming chowder. A coffee later, the sun was out and we felt safe to wander the nearby cliffs of the Old Head of Kinsale. Ireland has a favourable tax regime for artists but I think they come for the light, the challenge of catching one of its many moods as they pile in on the Atlantic winds.
Emerald flashes, but today the overriding tone was muted as the showers returned and sunset was a mere pink blur in a sea of greys. Then brightening skies in the west turned the water in the bay to molten mercury, the stark silhouette of Timoleague Abbey a dramatic backdrop to flocks of rooks coming home to roost across the marshes.
Rapidly discovering that even Ireland on a rainy winter’s day has much to recommend it, we cross at a run the squally stretches seeking cosy bars to await the brighter intervals. We base ourselves in Kinsale for a while: on a previous visit we stayed at the excellent Blue Haven Hotel in Pearse Street (doubles from 70 euros B&B) but this time we try the more intimate Old Bank House Guesthouse a few doors down (doubles from 80 euros B&B). Centrally situated with smart, high ceilinged rooms, chandeliers and big windows it is a good choice. The excellent Café @ No 11 below provides a huge full breakfast and a pleasant spot to enjoy the day’s papers before we venture out again.
We follow the scenic walk round the coast from Kinsale to the 17th century Charles' Fort, past the old Spaniard pub on Scilly Head and onto Summerhaven where we find the wonderfully cosy Bulman pub, nestling in its coat of bright yellow by a little cove (www.toddies.ie). With a choice of two fires and excellent bar food, we linger over their local mussels with smoky bacon before a wander on the fort ramparts reveals dramatic coastlines and distant masts in Kinsale harbour.
Coastal drives and walks
We head westwards along the coastline, finding scenic harbours such as Courtmacsherry with the high Coolum cliffs. On the estuaries the abundance of birdlife is fascinating with an extra 20,000 winter visitors: a pleasant stroll along the old railway line that runs beside the water between Courtmacsherry and Timoleague is a good way to enjoy the busy avian atmosphere.
At Clonakilty we find a riot of traditional colourful shop fronts and Edward Toomey’s butcher shop (16 Pearse Street) with Ireland’s most famous black pudding. They already have the Christmas spiced corned beef in, another local speciality. At Mike Brown’s photography gallery (29 Ashe Street; www.mikebrownphotography.com) we admire his superb photos of the wildlife and landscape of the region, exclaiming at the contrast between the summer flower meadows and our present starker reality. His recent book: Wild Water - Wild Light, Images of the West Cork Coastline, gives us inspiration for future exploring. Nearby, the Courtyard Café (Harte’s Courtyard) provides us with a hearty steak sandwich for lunch.
Another day we park in the pretty square at Rosscarbery and are spoilt for choice with several colourful pubs to choose from. Nolan’s pours a mean pint of Guinness and we share the open fire with a tortoiseshell cat before a tasty ciabatta at Pilgrim’s Rest Coffee House opposite. We seek out the nearby Drombeg stone circle with 17 standing stones that align at sunset on the winter solstice. A scallop shell holds money offerings so there must still be some local superstitions concerning the spot. En route, Coppinger’s Court is an easy-to-spot ruin. A fine Elizabethan manor house is now a lonely ruin in a boggy field, only its delicate chimneys and mullioned windows speaking of its former glory. It is one amongst many such ruins in Ireland, often testifying to rebel times when it was said that ‘the Irish burnt everything British except their coal.’ We drive onto Glandore, a little coastal village and round a pretty bay to the fishing harbour of Union Hall. Out to sea are two rocky islands: Adam and Eve; local fishermen know to ‘avoid Adam and hug Eve’ as they pass to the fishing grounds.
Sunshine and sunsets
Finally we get the cold winter sunshine and suddenly we are no longer wet through whenever we go out, but frozen. Such opportunities must be seized however and on such a day we end our westerly wanderings at Mizen Head, Ireland’s most southwesterly point. Mid-winter, mid-week and the lighthouse path is closed for maintenance. Instead, we find a forbidden gate in the corner of the car park and follow a grassy track leading to a precarious viewpoint above the suspension bridge, which crosses to the little island with the lighthouse. We get a superb view of the beautiful cliffs to the north, sheer and wild and not a bungalow in sight. We are perched high above the tranquil sea, distant gannets diving for fish, surrounded only by perfect peace and the cries of the seagulls.
The landscape of the peninsula is beautiful: rough and rugged with tiny fields scratched out long ago between the rocky hills and meandering bogs. We take a winding road to Durrus that hugs the coastline of Dunmanus Bay, a fiery sunset picking out golden bracken while the waters in the bay display an unusual tranquillity, serene and timeless in the evening light. Days with such a view would pass gently indeed: maybe Ireland would not be such a bad retirement choice after all.