There are two things of which you can be certain in Ireland: rain and poetry. My little nook of Irish paradise is in Castletownshend, West Cork, an hour and a half west of Cork airport (or Corcaigh in Irish). It’s a tiny fishing village and it’s been my holiday home for the last 28 years. It can be wet, and there are bards-a-plenty in my village, especially with the help of a pint or two. But then again, there’s an Oscar, a James, a Shaw and a Yeats in every nook and cranny of the Wild Atlantic Way.
I first dropped anchor into Castletownshend in 1991, and stayed in The Castle at the bottom of vertiginous Main Street for a week. It was as cold as an ice box in the village château, but we were happy wandering from room to room in the company of Townshend ghosts and huddling by the coal fires. My parents promptly decided to move here and found a pretty cottage at the top of the village. We followed suit with a red brick Victorian house a few years later.
The descendants of Richard Townsend and his Castle still live in the village, albeit with the addition of an “h” to the family name. So do the Somervilles, descendants of the author Edith Somerville, whose ancestral home Drishane is at the top of Main Street. Castletownshend is sleepy, friendly, pretty as a picture and has Ireland’s best pub (we locals certainly think so).
The village, like much of West Cork, is blessed with its own micro-climate thanks to the warm Gulf Stream which meets the Atlantic Ocean. When it rains it pours and the storms are spectacular, but moments later it can feel quite tropical. It’s a haven for palm trees, blue hydrangeas, pink azaleas and bright fuschias. The landscapes are a canvas of every conceivable shade of green.
Wander a bit further down Main Street and you arrive at The Castle, seat of the Townshend family for 11 generations and now a bed and breakfast. The pretty café serves cake and Irish scones, and if it’s history you’re after, tours are available during the summer months.
The best pub in the land
I have yet to meet someone in Ireland who doesn’t know Fergus, the pub owner and landlord of award-winning Mary Ann’s in Castletownshend. The Irish pub is run by Fergus together with his wife Patricia, but it has been pulling pints since 1846. There’s an art gallery upstairs and plenty of seating outside for balmier days. The soda bread is to die for (seriously), and I recommend the crab and avocado bake as a starter. If you have room for afters, then try the sticky toffee pudding. Fergus has an excellent wine cellar, and his creamy Guinness tastes like it has just come straight out of the brewery. Mary Ann’s Pub
Irish fairies are real
Yes, you read that right, Irish fairies do exist, and even the odd Leprechaun and Banshee. How else can you explain the whimsical and enchanting fairy houses that magically appear overnight throughout Rineen Wood in West Cork?
Touch the Sky in Liss Ard
Yes, this really is the Emerald Isle, and it’s greener than green in Liss Ard’s Sky Garden. Designed by American land artist James Turrell, the man-made crater is based on the concept of a birthing tunnel (as you walk from the dark access tunnel into the light). There’s a plinth in the centre from which couples can lie head to head and gaze upwards. The name says it all: you’ll think you can just touch the sky, and for me, lying in the Sky Garden was a religious experience.
Think of Skibbereen (or Skib as it’s referred to locally) as the Fruit Pastille town. It’s a colour explosion of pretty shops, houses and restaurants, and it’s my market town. Skib is one of the most important historical sites associated with the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s. It’s worth paying a visit to the Heritage Centre to see just how. During the summer, the town gets down and arty with the Arts Festival, a collective orgy of art, music, film, theatre, literature and poetry.
Mona Best runs the Bridge B & B in Skibbereen. She is as eccentric as the interiors of “Ireland’s Most Unusual B & B.” You’re in for a treat if you stay here, but if you have a doll phobia, you might want to find somewhere else to rest your weary head!
My favourite Skibbereen tidbit: Michael Collins ate his last meal in the Eldon Hotel before he was shot in 1922.
About 8km outside of Skibbereen is Lough Hyne, a unique salt-water marine lake fed by The Rapids tide channel. This famous Loch has no Nessie monster, but it has one of the most important marine habitats in Europe. It’s also a popular place for swimming and kayaking. Overlooking the Loch is Knockamagh Hill, and if you have stamina, I highly recommend that you walk along the nature trail to the peak. You’ll be forgiven for thinking that you’re in Lord of the Rings as you wind your way through ancient tree roots to the top of the hill. It’s worth every breathless step.
Pirates of Baltimore
Back in 1631, Algerian pirates sacked Baltimore and abducted over 100 poor souls, most of whom were never seen again. It’s a cheerful place today, and it’s the go-to destination for the numerous day ferries that head out to Cape Clear and Sherkin Island.
Grab an open-crab sandwich at Bushes Bar in Baltimore and visit the Beacon.
Pack a picnic and take a boat trip to idyllic Sherkin Island, a ten-minute ferry ride from Baltimore. The island is only 3 miles long and 1 mile wide. Spanish gold coins thought to be from the Spanish Armada were found buried in the sand here, so you might try your luck and have a scavenge!
If you’re Irish, the song Bantry Bay will tug at your heart strings. But Bantry isn’t just known for its ballads. Like Skibbereen, it’s a colourful market town with an abundance of shops and restaurants. Bantry also hosts the Literary Festival and the Chamber Music Festival every summer, held in the local Bantry House.
Want More of West Cork?
There’s so much more to see in West Cork. There’s the quaint town of Kinsale and its world-famous Old Head golf course. There’s also Glandore, Clonakilty, Ballydehob and Schull. A trip to West Cork should also include a visit to the Fastnet Lighthouse, the last slice of Irish land the emigrants would see as they departed for the New World.
And finally, there’s Mizen Head, the most southwesterly point of the Emerald Isle. It’s perfect for a pint in the company of their hairy locals.
Happy St Patrick’s Day to all you fairies and leprechauns out there!
Irish or not, you may want to hear Irish tenor Finbar Wright singing Bantry Bay: