Thursday 22 September 2011

42 – East Cork, West Cork and Co. Clare, too!

'An Teach Beg' pub, Clonakilty, Co. Cork  [Photo: RMcC]
21st September, 2011

Well, last week Gerry and I took a much-needed wee break and travelled the length of the country right down to Cork – stopping off in Dublin on the way.  The road is motorway the whole way from Belfast, now – so you can cover the length of Ireland in just a few hours – with a few toll plazas on the way!  We'd a great meal in the centre of Cork City, at a restaurant called, 'The Strasbourg Goose' – don't ask me for directions, but I think it's just off the main Patrick Street.  

Our host, Doug, then took us to a very small pub, upstairs, where they have a great collection of unusual beers – lots of blond beer and a draught stout called, Dark Rocket, which tastes a bit like Murphys, only with a stronger flavour.  If you like stout then Cork City is great place to be, with two locally-brewed varieties – Murphys and Beamish – each quite distinct from Dublin's Guinness.  Ye'll have to make up your own mind as to which ye prefer.  Myself, I like them equally, but it's great to have a bit of variety.

We'd wanted to see West Cork, but we were staying just outside a wee place called Ladysbridge, in East Cork, which has a lovely thatched pub in the middle of it.  The coast in not far from there, so we took a trip the first day from Ballycotton Harbour, with its islands and lighthouse, right around the coast to Whitegate, facing Cobh and Cork Harbour – where we managed to see the QE II liner heading out of the harbour on its way to New York!

East Cork is very reminiscent of Cornwall, another beautiful coastal area, which we visited briefly a few years ago.  The shore is mostly cliffs from Ballycotton on, with small lanes (boreens) leading down to isolated beaches between headlands.  Each of these little beaches is different in character, but exploring them means driving down to the beach, then back up again, to continue along a level country road lined with barley fields above the cliffs.  To get from East to West Cork you have to rejoin the main road to Cork City, bypassing Cobh, which is another beautiful town built on an island in Cork Harbour.  The road now goes through a new tunnel under Cork's two rivers and continues as the South Ring around the city.  Eventually you turn south off this and you're immediately back in the countryside.

West Cork is a part of Ireland I've never been to before – and I was slightly disappointed to discover that there are few small harbours along the coast – in fact, most of the towns are large and slightly inland from the sea.  We only got as far as Clonakilty, that first evening, which has a beautiful, sheltered and still sea inlet, which just touches the outskirts of the town.  There is a  river through the middle of the town, of course, and the narrow streets criss-cross it, as do several buildings.  We were looking for a pub called, 'An Teach Beg,' which means 'the wee house,' boasting Irish music every night but, being September, it was actually closed until the weekend!

Ever resourceful, we managed to find another pub on the main street, De Bearra's, which had a collection of fiddles and other instruments on the wall – a good sign! – and some live acoustic music later on. The next day we were off to the far west, to Glengarriff, on Bantry Bay.  Glengarriff is a great place if you're a tourist wanting to buy stuff – its main attraction being the Italian Gardens out on Garinish, or 'Garden Island,' reached by a small boat.  After a wee nap, we headed on to the fishing port of Castletownbere, on the Bearra Peninsula, which has a small car ferry which will take you out to the large Bear Island.  Castletownbere is the home of the now famous, McCarthy's Bar, just off the Square, and across from where I had a great feed of freshly made chowder – and another pint of Beamish, of course.

Ricky Lynch, in Henchy's, Cork City
By now struggling to keep awake, we negotiated the mountain road to the other side of the Peninsula, joining the Ring of Bearra again. Suddenly you find yourself in Co. Kerry, with Kenmare Bay on your left.  Eventually, we crossed the bridge into Kenmare itself, and back to the City.  We were just on time to meet our friends there, and up to Henchy's Pub at Dillon's Cross, to hear a man called Ricky Lynch.   A bit of early Beatles, Bob Dylan and, when we managed to persuade him, his own material – which was great!  Very Dylan-esque!  You'll find a photo of Ricky on our facebook page, and I hope to play one of his songs as soon as I get the CD.

Our friends were off to Israel on Friday so we were off to Co. Clare, via the old main road to Limerick and then the very impressive new Shannon Tunnel – motorway now the whole way to just outside our destination for the night, Newmarket-on-Fergus.  Our friends there live in Tim's great-grandfather's house, which used to be a grocer's shop – with an old iron safe built into the wall. Up on Saturday morning just in time to see Ireland finish knocking the stuffing out of Australia in the rugby world cup!  They say a change is as good as a rest so, on that basis, we had a very restful week!

Wednesday 7 September 2011

41 'Straang Fjord' and 'the low counthry'

Classic boats on Strangford Lough, near Portaferry, Co. Down
September 6, 2011

You may have noticed that I tend to go on a bit about Co. Down?  That's because it's such a beautiful and varied place.  I haven't even covered the half of it!  I was down near Portaferry the o'rr week, visiting a couple of old friends that we haven't seen for a while.  Amazin' how ye lose touch with people!  If ye noticed the photograph with the podcast of last week's show, they live there, right beside that fantastic view.  Portaferry is just one of the small towns and villages ye'll find on the Ards Peninsula, on the east side of Co. Down.  

The Peninsula – or as locals tend to call it 'the lower Ards', or 'the low country,' is sandwiched between the Irish Sea and Strangford Lough.  It includes the most easterly point in Ireland and is a continuation of the Drumlin country further west, on the other side of the Lough.  That's why it is called the Ards – meaning 'heights' after the small hills.  The Lough was named 'Straang Fjord' by the Viking raiders, (referring to the strong currents in the Strangford Narrows); though the original Irish name was Lough Cuan, which simply means 'lough.' 

After visiting our friends we went into Portaferry and bought a fish supper (that's fish 'n' chips, or French fries, to most of you!) and sat in the car watching the sun setting and the ferry racing across the Narrows with the current.  Strangford Lough is a bit like a spoon – wide and shallow mud flats at the north end – near Newtownards and Comber; but narrow and very deep at the Portaferry/Strangford end, where the Narrows are about 200 feet deep and the tide can run up to eight knots.

Across from us was the village of Strangford, with a stone tower facing the water and Audley's Castle a little further north; while on our side there is another fortified tower, Portaferry Castle, plus an old windmill on top of the hill behind.  In the Lough itself, there are over 300 islands known as 'pladdies', which are really sunken drumlins.  You definitely need a chart before you try to sail a boat in the Lough!  Portaferry's other claims to fame are the Exploris – an aquarium with fresh seawater tanks and displays, plus baby seals, etc.; and a sunken tidal generating turbine, set in the strongest part of the current, and which turns with the tide to generate electricity almost continuously.

Strangford Lough is where St. Patrick returned to as a missionary, after he had left Ireland and slavery behind for several years.  There are many old churches and monastic ruins, both on the shores and on islands in the Lough.  On our way to Portaferry, the o'rr week, we stopped off at Grey Abbey, which is a ruined 12th century Cistercian abbey of the 'Grey Friars', hence the name, 'Grey Abbey.'  It was founded in 1193 AD by Affreca, the daughter of the King of Mann (the Isle of Man, that is) and the Isles.  Acroos the Lough, on Mahee Island, near Comber, there are the ruins of a much older (5th century) monastic settlement called Nendrum.
Another great place we visited recently on the Peninsula, is the old Ballycopeland Windmill, which was restored between 1950 and 1978 to full working order.  I remember taking some Native American friends there for a visit, a few years ago.  Co. Down used to be covered with windmills, for milling the barley, wheat and oats that were grown in the fertile fields.  The drumlins were ideal places to situate a windmill – I guess we were way ahead of our time in Renewable Energy production, back then?

At the south end of the Lough, across from Portaferry, just near the end of The Narrows, you will find hundreds of grey seals basking in the sun.  The Exploris Centre in Portaferry rescue those baby seals that have been abandoned, feed them up, then reease tehem into the wild again. 

The north end of the Lough is where all the Brent geese, from Arctic Canada, fly to spend the winter.  They are protected here, and some years ago they fitted radio transmitters to several geese and followed their journey with the help of a satellite, all the way back to Canada.  One of the geese they tracked down to the fridge of a local Inuk hunter!  Ooops!  I guess the idea of conservation hasn't really hit that part of the Arctic, yet.

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