This is the second part of an account of my visit to Cape Clear Island - the southernmost inhabited part of Ireland in Co. Cork. Nearby is the iconic Fastnet Lighthouse.
All Clear - Part II
Eileen’s Bed & Breakfast - one of Ireland’s best
I slipped out from Eileen’s just before dawn to walk to the nearby headland. There I paused, held in thrall by the flashes of the Fastnet fading against the lightening sky. After the night’s final sweep of light, the sky lay empty and I felt strangely disconnected and melancholy.
I returned to Eileen’s to warm up by her fire while she prepared me a magnificent and immoderate breakfast. After our good-byes, my day’s walk back to the harbour took me past a small lough and then towards Dun-an-Oir, the Castle of Gold.
A Figment of Gold
Whispered tales sketched sightings of a galleon of gilded alabaster that once sailed the island’s coast. It would hove-to in the lee of the castle rock. Ghostly privateers slipped ashore to scale the cliffs and secrete gold within the castle vaults. The locals stayed away at night, deterred by sounds of spookish merrymaking. By day they could never find the stash.
I would have been happy just to find the castle, for hours later, fighting the wind to keep my balance on all the highest spots, I couldn’t see a trace. Every drystone wall had an electric fence which made me nervous. I could roll under them, but what was I getting myself into? Highland cows are awesome beasts with horns. The weather closed in, seeping into my bones until the cold took my spirit. I gave up and followed the coast back towards the harbour. Had I not turned to watch a shearwater dart past, I would have carried on and spent an idle hour or two in the cafe waiting for the ferry. Yet, just that lifting my head, a curiosity for the flight of a vanished bird, changed all that. For there, behind me, was the castle silhouetted against high cliffs and sea. It vanished time and again before I reached it, by some trickery of coastline concealed.
As Castles Go…
Dun-an-Oir was very small on a scale of castles, more of a stronghold but scored large for impact. It was built in the thirteenth Century by the O’Driscolls, a famous Cork family, loyal to their English overlords until a delinquent lapse saw them side with Irish rebels supported by the Spanish King. Although a close call, the English regained control and, in retaliation, they destroyed the O’Driscoll castles. And that was the end of Dun-an-Oir: in 1601, its top was blown away by English cannon.
Built on a rounded bluff, it was once reached by a bridge of rock, so narrow that one early chronicler wrote, “few persons … will venture to walk over it”.
Winter storms pummelled the causeway and eventually, in 1940, it was swept away and the Castle of Gold was freed forever from the mainland.
I lay flat on the clifftop, staring down at the swirling waters. I clutched handfuls of tussock to steady myself - the wind shafting under my anorak, my brain tumbling with the scudding seagulls below. All around, waves broke on rocky outcrops and in the distance, the sea lay like rolled lead, rattled by showers and scalded by shafts of sunshine.
I drew back from the unsettling edge to sit and imagine how tapestries shivered on the castle walls in the flicker of tallow candles and the comfortable glow of peat fires. I could smell the curls of smoke backing down the chimney in a gale, while down below, the sea bumped endlessly against the rocks.
As my eyes rested on the wider ocean, I saw it was flecked with bobbing black cormorants. I thought of those little black ink drawings on the chart at the pub; of the cargoes of treasure, steel, iron, coal and wool that all went to the bottom with the ships and seamen. And of the stuff of legend, the barrels of whisky that floated free and washed ashore or caught in fishermen’s nets.
Eventually, stiff from the cold, damp ground, I stirred myself and left the Castle of Gold to the wind and waves; the gulls and cormorants.
It was late afternoon when I caught the ferry back. I had kept going through Ireland, travelling by drift and in an uncertain frame of mind, putting off the turning point for my travels, for that point is not necessarily a halfway mark in time or geography. But when I took a last look at Fastnet, soft and grey in the haze, I felt my spirit-spindle move and, as if in acknowledgement, the light started its first sweep of another night’s watch.
I thought of all those who never went home: the victims of the raid on Baltimore, mariners, Spaniards, the crews of Fastnet, the Irish immigrants, the English intruders.
The windswept cottage would need another buyer; the writer in me could make no further excuses. It was not a place I needed, neither was it solitude; it was self-mastery. I was ready for home, for family. Sydney’s summer beckoned.