Today’s blog is the first of two written about a journey I made to the southernmost part of Ireland a few years ago. I was travelling alone.
I didn’t make a conscious choice to become a solo-traveller, it was more that I’d exhausted my options. My soul-mate wasn’t fit for my kind of journeys, my daughters grew up and set off along their own paths, my friends needed too much information.
Now I can’t make up my mind which is best. Both of course. It’s super cool to have a companion as long as you are not responsible for them having a good time. And, with luck, for long years ahead, you’ll have fun reminiscing about the plane you missed, the awful hotel and the food poisoning – for unravelling travel is all about the mishaps.
Yet there is a side to solo travel that hooks you in… It is the closest thing to freedom that I know. Freedom can be a challenge.
At first, I felt Ireland too tame, too close to childhood… the language, the food and gentle, emerald countryside. It was November and there were not many tourists about – they’d gone home, back to their jobs and families. I loitered. My return-ticket to Sydney still open. Not wanting to go forward or to go back.
ALL CLEAR - Part I
I took to Ireland for a month. Content, if I missed one bus, to take another. But wafting doesn’t just happen; the breezes stir from within. Your familiar - child, seeker or pilgrim - scouts out the way. In my case, each time I’m led to the edge, to the shore.
So it was inevitable that I’d reach the shredded coast of southern Cork. Its caves and coves were once the haunt of pirates and smugglers. Where I alighted, the small village of Baltimore, had an added fame. You may not know of the Sack of Baltimore; I confess, neither did I.
The Sack of Baltimore
In 1631, led by a Dutch sea captain who had converted to Islam, Barbary pirates raided Baltimore, capturing white slaves for the markets of Algiers. A crew of Janissaries, an elite militia, disciplined and deadly, crept ashore in the dark and took up position in front of each cottage. At a signal, they fired thatched roofs, hollered obscenities and smashed down doors with metal staves.
For me, walking down to the harbour in the sunshine nearly four centuries later, it was impossible to comprehend the terror of more than a hundred men, women and children herded down the same path under a crescent moon.
A reminder of the most ruinous raid by Islamists ever made on British or Irish soil, swung above my path - the face of a fierce corsair, painted on the sign for The Algiers Inn.
I hurried on to book my ticket to Cape Clear Island, the southernmost inhabited point of Ireland. The Dún-an-Óir ferryboat had a storybook look with a bright orange hull and a jaunty cabin.
Charting Marine Disasters
I had an hour before the morning sailing. I spent it in Bushe’s Pub on the Quay. It smelt of stale beer and the low winter sun slid in and did it no favours. Still it was warm and friendly, filled with marine memorabilia: brass fittings, barometers, lanterns and ships’ clocks, lined the walls. Pride-of-place went to a nautical chart on which, someone, with a steady hand and great care, had recorded every shipwreck thereabouts, each one annotated with name, date, cargo and souls lost. Each tiny ink drawing held a vessel evermore in the moment of calamity: capsizing, upended, breached or overwhelmed by the sea; a Glasgow coaster, yachts, steamships, a Spanish galleon, an American packet ship, local trawlers, French and Spanish too.
When it was nearly time for me to go for the ferry, I asked the barman about staying the night on Cape Clear.
“You’ll not find a bed on Cléire. Everything’s shut. It’s winter!”
The Dún-an-Óir in grand weather
As the Dún-an-Óir plied over the Atlantic swells of Roaringwater Bay under a capricious sky, the sun ran a wand along the sombre mountains of Cork, lighting swathes of bright green, purple and luminous yellow landfall.
I wedged myself by the bridge instead of down below with the old salts, their dogs and their bundles. The skipper chatted amicably while navigating powerful currents, islands, shoals and reefs. He was sorry - no whales or dolphins for me to see but grand weather I must agree.
I asked if he knew anywhere I could stay for the night. He pulled out a battered mobile and punched the keys. Then a brief shouted conversation, before he nodded, wrote ‘Eileen’ on my ferry ticket and said, “You’ll be right.”
Soon afterwards, he pointed ahead. Out to sea, a dramatic rock bore aloft a white minaret, radiant in sunshine. I gasped with astonishment. Was this some parting gift from the pirates? My brain scrambled for a better explanation and remembered the BBC shipping forecasts of my childhood. A litany of names for areas off costal Britain and Ireland: Viking, Forties, Dogger, Trafalgar, Sole, Lundy, Fastnet.
I was surprised to hear myself say: “Fastnet?” voicing a subliminal knowledge.
“Aye, that’s the rock,” came the reply.
The Fastnet Rock was the last sight of Ireland for thousands of 19th Century Irish emigrants sailing to America.
Ships returning from the New World hove-to as they passed Fastnet, fired a signal and jettisoned a canister packed with news bulletins. Cape Clear Isle’s Telegraph Master waited impatiently for row-boats to recover the floating cache so he could tap out transatlantic tidings that would reach London days before the same ships entered the Thames. The scoop was the idea of a clever German newsman named Reuter.
A break in the rocks and we turned in to shelter
The entrance to Cape Clear’s harbour came suddenly, a narrow break in the rocks that could easily be missed. A few people waited on the pier for bundles of newspapers, mechanical parts and parcels to be thrown ashore and, within moments, everyone had gone, on foot or by banger – an island motor car sustained with bits of wire, tape and plywood panels.
I bid the ferry crew farewell and walked up the path from the harbour. I passed a statue of the Virgin Mary in a grotto, garish in blue and pink. She struck me as incongruous and yet, I mused, only a short time before, an exotic minaret had seemed plausible and sublime.
The only building was a café and general store. A sign said, ‘Back in Five Minutes’. Travelling around Ireland in November, I’d felt the draught of the doors shutting behind me. I knew such a notice could mean, ‘Back in five months.’
Nevertheless I waited and, minutes later, a young woman ushered me in. I asked for directions to Eileen’s. She took my pack for someone to ‘take over’ and gave me coffee at a table littered with leaflets and a guidebook written by an American, an island resident for some twenty years. He said that he wrote every morning and took his binoculars and walked the island every afternoon. A deep cord lurched within me.
A whole island to walk around
The island was only three miles long and I set off to walk it; a seemingly deserted but homely patchwork of cottages and tiny green fields divided by drystone walls running over gentle hills. The road dipped and ended in a slipway where workmen in fluorescent jackets manoeuvered a hefty barge, with two tractors on board. It belched, smelly and noisy, lifting and falling in the swell. I resented the interruption to my meditative amble - the whole sight, a bleak, disagreeable tangle of concrete, hawsers and exhaust fumes.
I waved and then turned back to retrace my steps until a fork in the road where I changed direction. Shortly afterwards I paused when I saw a For Sale sign outside the dearest little house. For a moment, I wanted it with all my heart and soul. Somewhere I too could write all morning and walk all afternoon. Because of the wind, I didn’t hear anyone approach and jumped when a voice behind me said, “Want to buy it?”
“Of course. And live happily ever after”, I said, turning to meet the stranger.
He laughed easily, he was my age, a pair of binoculars slung around his neck.
I said, “With that accent you must be the author”.
He thrust out his hand: “Chuck’s the name”.
Over the next mile or so, Chuck filled my head with tales of the Castle of Gold, a rock called ‘Ship’s Bottom’, Bronze Age standing stones, blow holes and sea caves.
I asked him about the derelict windmills I’d passed on the way to the slipway.
“It was an early experiment with wind power. Incredibly successful until the Government did a deal with a utility company and, despite our protests, put in a subterranean cable.”
Each turn of the road gave us a different topic. Had I seen the memorial to the 1979 Fastnet Yacht Race? I remembered the tragedy well. Fifteen sailors died in the storm of the century. Chuck related the bravery of the Baltimore Lifeboat men who’d put into Cape Clear before being called to take part in the biggest sea rescue since Dunkirk.
When we parted, Chuck directed me up to a Watchtower built by the British to dissuade Napoleon from using Ireland as a backdoor to England. I was up there when, out to sea, the Fastnet Lighthouse began to flash. So chivalrous, so thrilling. My ancestors were lighthouse builders and I indulge myself by revelling in the connection.
In fact, a few hours later, when Eileen gave me tea and cake by the fire, I told her too of my lighthouse genetics. She nodded wisely; I sensed she’d had many a guest bewitched by Fastnet, a lighthouse that weathered monster waves. It struck me she’d seen out many a storm herself. She was round like a smooth grey pebble, tumbled by sea and warmed by the sun; steadfast.
Part 2 of All Clear will be my next blog.
The Sack of Baltimore is well worth further reading. Google it and surprise yourself!