The story goes that a blind farmer was offered a patch of suspiciously cheap land here in West Cork. ‘Does it have lots of thistles?’ he asked warily. No thistles at all, he was assured. ‘Lots of nettles?’ Not a single nettle, was the answer. ‘Then keep it yourself,’ growled the farmer, ‘Tis mighty poor land that won’t grow thistles and nettles!’
Farming this windswept corner of Ireland has always been mighty tough, but it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful place for walking, and during the West Cork Walking Festival we hear the talking too. Ireland is a land of stories and raconteurs like Gerald O’Flynn tell us the tales, often funny, more often tragic, that are etched into this landscape.
The West Cork islands and peninsulas jut against the Atlantic swell, pointing towards Canada. They’re a paradise for walkers and birdwatchers, and not yet swamped by tourists. ‘They call Sheep’s Head the undiscovered peninsula,’ local farmer turned track-maker James O’Mahony tells me, but it may not remain undiscovered for long. The 100km Sheep’s Head Way walk James and his co-workers have set up has just won the prestigious European Destination of Excellence award.
It’s a worthy winner. Sheep’s Head is a rocky finger of land with Caher and Rosskerrig Mountains as its knobbly knuckles. Gulls shriek and swirl above the beaches, gannets nest in crevices in rugged cliffs, and whales, dolphins and seals are often seen in the bays below. Except for a small group of enterprising Germans who’ve found their way over from Nuremburg (‘We are coming here three times, it is so beautiful!’), I have it all to myself.
But when the West Cork Walking Festival officially starts, I have plenty of company. At Casey’s Hotel above colourful Baltimore village on the evocatively-named Roaring Water Bay, people are slipping into Goretex and strapping on knee-braces, as organiser Rianne leads stretching exercises.
These walking festivals are held around Ireland at different times of the year. They’re great community events, organised by locals but open to all, and very reasonably priced. Walks range from comfortable family ambles to six hour cross-country adventures, with guides providing stories along the way and convivial company guaranteed.
Rianne hands our limbered-up bodies over to local historian Gerald for a sunset tour of Baltimore. As we walk, Gerald spins yarns of fishermen and sailors, priests and pirates, and the feuding McCarthy and O’Driscoll families. Most remarkable is the tale of a Dutch/Algerian pirate who in 1631 sacked Baltimore and sold 160 inhabitants into slavery in the Middle East. Eventually a new village was founded, this time up the shallow river in Skibbereen, where pirate ships couldn’t follow.
‘Can you pilot me up the river to Skibbereen?’ the visitor asked the local sailor. ‘Indeed I can’. ‘Ah, you know where the rocks are?’ ‘I do not,’ replied the sailor, ‘but I do know where the rocks aint!‘
Skibbereen was later the epicentre of the disastrous 1845-50 famine. In the cemetery, under a green plot the size of a tennis court, more than 9000 lie buried in a mass grave with a poignant headstone inscription: ‘Oh God! That bread should be so dear, and human flesh so cheap.’ There was food enough in West Cork then, but most couldn’t afford it, and even Baltimore fishing rights were savagely controlled.
Next morning I join the Dawn Chorus Walk, an easy (except for starting at dawn) hour’s stroll through the lovely gardens and woodlands of Inish Beg Estate. Proud owners Paul and Georgie show us where the otters play in the estuary – just before dawn.
Then it’s off to the Shibin Inn to chat to fellow walkers over a Full Irish Breakfast of eggs, black pudding and massive hot raisin scones. And I’m sorry, Grandma, your scones were the best but these are…oh, yes thanks, a third one please – I’ll walk it off later.
A ferry takes thirty energetic hikers and guilty scone eaters out to Cape Clear Island, the most southerly point of Ireland. Our guide Seamus leads us on a stiff climb up through the heather to where we can look across cliffs to the distant Fastnet Lighthouse. Cape Clear was for a long time an important communication centre, as ships from the New World dropped off their messages. It was from Cape Clear that the first news of the American Civil War and of Lincoln’s assassination reached Europe.
We tramp on across farmland only accessible by special arrangement with the walking festival. ‘Say hello to Ed as you pass his door,’ says Seamus. ‘He may have some goat ice-cream for sale.’ And indeed at Cleire Goat Farm there’s Ed, grey-bearded and blind, offering concoctions which happily taste more like ice-cream than goat.
As we scoop it up with plastic spoons, Ed unexpectedly bursts into full-throated song. For an unforgettable few minutes he sings us a story of the famine, and the tenant farmer’s wife who got the better of the cruel landlord. Pure, spontaneous, unpretentious magic!
By the end of the weekend I’ve become pally with members of the Mallow Walking Club, with Tim and Wendy from the holiday cottage up the road, Valerie from Brittany, Dominik from Munich who arrived in West Cork a couple of years ago and never wants to leave, and Eric and Madonna from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Back in Baltimore we share a parting pint, and swap more stories.
As they say, there are no strangers in Ireland, only friends you haven’t met yet..
For some other walking festivals coming up, see