Today we’d see how the geography of a country no larger than the state of Indiana can change dramatically from old, rolling mountains to stark cliffs towering over jewel-blue seas to pastureland, wetlands, bogs … The terrain constantly reinvents itself, and it was this ever-changing scenery that took my breath away, every day.
Monday, September 15
Kinsale, Co. Cork – Kenmare, Co. Kerry
Our hosts at the Dooneen House B&B had been in Dublin for the hurling match, but we’d heard them return home the previous evening near 11pm … and they were up bright and early to cook us breakfast. Gerry is a sports fanatic, and he smoothed the way wherever we went with intelligent sports “small talk,” as he did that morning. Cork having lost (to Kilkenny), the homeowners were, in their words, shattered.
This was to be an easy day: our final destination, Kenmare, was less than 100 miles away, but we were going to take the scenic route, meandering along the Irish southern coast. We went from Kinsale to Inishannon to Bandon to Timoleague to Clonakilty to Rosscarbery to Leap, where we stopped and bought a paper, the Irish Examiner. We were going to stop in Glandore (“glanDOOR”), or near Glandore, to see the Drombeg stone circle.
I am fascinated by antiquities, always have been, and Ireland is an ancient land. We arrived without a single wrong turn—I was learning to spot the signposts and Gerry had become by this time an excellent navigator—and parked, and hiked in from the road.
The stone circle is a bit out of the way, and we had it, that morning, almost entirely to ourselves. Dating back to 150 BC, this circle of standing stones is thirty feet in diameter; at the winter solstice, the rays of the setting sun fall on the flat altar stone that faces the entrance to the circle.
The site also encompasses a well and water trough that was used to cook meat (by dropping hot rocks into the water!), and the remains of two stone huts, all from the Bronze Age. Wow.
As was always the case, the scenery was majestic, and mind-blowing. We were just on what I’d call back-roads, puttering along, the windows open, listening to talk radio (a conversation with the biographer of Iris Murdoch, a British author whose novels I’ve actually read, in addition to her husband’s lovely biography), and a general feeling of well-being.
We’d pull over in turn-outs and lay-bys to take photos; a turn-out is a wide spot on a road with no shoulder, large enough for one or two cars, while a lay-by is an actual parking lot, maybe five to ten cars, where there is a particularly scenic spot. (This saves people from doing what they would do otherwise, which is pull off onto the hard shoulder, if there is one, or—why not live a little?—pull as much onto the shoulder as is possible, leaving the car half in the road. Other drivers simply drive around it, as if that’s perfectly normal and natural. At first this horrified me, but then I began to do it myself.)
From the stone circle we drove to Skibbereen, where we stopped, shopped, and walked around, just to stretch our legs. On our way out of town, we happened upon a “famine memorial,” so we pulled over. Skibbereen was particularly hard hit by the repeated failure of the potato crop in the 1840s: over 10,000 people died locally. In all Ireland lost a million of its citizens to starvation and disease caused by malnutrition; another one million immigrated to avoid death. This two million souls was half the population of the island at the time, and the Republic has never fully recovered.
Back in the car, the scenery began to change, to a rougher, rocky, almost harsh landscape. We were very near the sea, on the Mizen Peninsula, and we’d catch glimpses of it as the road swung back and forth between coast and hill, through Ballydehob, Schull (pronounced “Skull”), and Toormore. I saw a lay-by there and pulled over to take photos of the sea below.
As we followed the footpath to get closer, we stumbled on a stone altar grave.
Dating from 3000 to 2000BC, the entrance of this tomb directly lines up with Mizen Peak in the far distance (although the little sign posted at the site doesn’t say what the significance of this might be). The altar stone is about waist-high; again, I don’t know what rituals were performed here by the ancients, but they have unearthed burned human bones, pottery and other artifacts on this spot.
The reason it is called an altar tomb is that in the seventeenth century, when Oliver Cromwell turned Catholics out of their churches and forbade them by law to practice their religion (more on this later), the people and priests sought out these ancient, remote holy places, and celebrated mass in the outdoors, using the old graves as altars, since they were just the right height. It was pretty exciting to come upon this so unexpectedly; I was so new to Ireland that I hadn’t yet figured out that these ancient places are everywhere.
We had lunch in Bantry, pub grub served outside on a wooden deck, beside a swiftly flowing creek. We lingered over tea, reading the newspaper … I wish I could adequately describe the feeling of the wind in my hair, the smell of the sea air, the feel of the sun.
The last twenty miles into Kenmare, as we crossed into County Kerry, were, as Gerry had warned me, “exciting”—extremely narrow (what’s the point, I ask myself, of painting a line down the middle of a road that’s only ten feet wide?) and winding, climbing into rocky hills.
There were sheep everywhere. I barely got out of second gear, which was good, actually, because when I say there were sheep everywhere, I mean they were not behind the fences lining the road. Well, ok, some of them were on the pasture side of the fence. And some of them were on the road side of the fence. Some of them were <ahem> in the road. Somehow sheep and drivers manage to avoid mishap.
We arrived in Kenmare (pronounce this “kenMARE”) in midafternoon, and easily found the Brandylochs B&B, which was within walking distance of the town center (this had been advertised for the Kinsale B&B, but was, shall we say, a slight exaggeration). The business was being seen to, that afternoon, by the homeowners’ nineteen-year-old son, while his parents were off on an anniversary trip. This was his last act of filial duty for the season, as he was about to leave for college in Dublin, where he was planning to study law (which he pronounced “lore”) … and I know all this because … well, I do love teen-aged boys, knowing at least one of that species rather well, and consider it my sworn duty to help civilize the ones I meet by engaging them in conversation, whether they want to be thus engaged or not. 🙂
Had dinner that night in Foley’s Bar/Restaurant in town. Next up, the spectacular lakes of County Kerry, so stay tuned!
UPDATE: Brandylochs is no longer a B&B, it seems, but the home can be rented by the week.