Last updated on March 3rd, 2021
My little nook of Irish paradise is in Castletownshend, West Cork, an hour and a half west of Cork airport and close to the picturesque market town of Skibbereen. It’s a tiny fishing village and it’s been my holiday home for the last 28 years. There are two things of which you can be certain in Ireland: rain and poetry. 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.
What to see and do in Castletownshend and West Cork
The pretty village of Castletownshend
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).
A wander around Castletownshend
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.
Mary Anne’s Pub
I have yet to meet someone in Ireland who doesn’t know Fergus, the pub owner and landlord of award-winning Mary Anne’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
In West Cork, 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.
Visit the Skibbereen Heritage Centre and stop for a bite in the Church restaurant. I also love to visit the Farmer’s Market on a Saturday. The local breads and cheeses are delectably moreish.
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.
Visit Loch Hyne
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. It’s about a 30 minute drive from Castletownshend (and you could stop off at the quaint collage of Ballydehob for lunch on the way).
Trawl yourself over to lunch in O’Connor’s Seafood or at have a light lunch at The Stuffed Olive (their cakes are supreme).
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.
Have you been to Castletownshend? Let me know in the comments below!
Stefan (BerkeleySqB)December 14, 2020 at 3:00 pm
Algerian pirates, palm trees, all those quaint villages, Fergus and his famous friends and lovely seafood… I just put this onto our list. Great post, Scarlet.
ScarlettDecember 29, 2020 at 10:49 am
Thanks so much Stefan! It’s a magical part of the world.
Aynur SmartMarch 25, 2017 at 3:37 pm
What a beautiful memories. It’s wonderful when you read and share the same feelings. Thank you, we loved every bit of it!
DiaryofaLondonessMarch 26, 2017 at 5:13 pm
Thanks Aynur! Scarlett x
Tanja (the Red phone box travels)March 22, 2017 at 5:08 pm
so beautiful! I’d love to visit Ireland
DiaryofaLondonessMarch 26, 2017 at 5:13 pm
You must Tanja! It’s truly magical. Scarlett x
Steve CorradoMarch 20, 2017 at 10:57 pm
Such a wonderful place to visit, your diary !
Congrats and best wishes Scarlett.
DiaryofaLondonessMarch 21, 2017 at 12:44 pm
Thank you so much Steve! Scarlett x
ShelleyMarch 20, 2017 at 10:56 pm
I have no words to discribe what you have sent me shelley, thank you, love to you all – Comment forwarded from Ana de Paoli in Buenos Aires
DiaryofaLondonessMarch 21, 2017 at 12:44 pm
How lovely of Ana!
LouiseMarch 20, 2017 at 6:02 pm
Thanks for a lovely blog post! Now I really want to visit Ireland (never been before)
I was laughing so much of the picture of Mark in the green corner of silliness! Good sport!
Have a great day
Love from Louise
SaloniMarch 18, 2017 at 11:00 am
So very beautiful. My next holiday booked!
DiaryofaLondonessMarch 20, 2017 at 5:40 pm
You’ll have a wonderful time! x
ShelleyMarch 17, 2017 at 10:08 pm
A wonderful description of a secret place where fairies make their homes in green, green fields & where poets may burst out in Irish or English at any minute. Follow the Londoness wherever she takes you!
Miriam - londonkitchendiaries.comMarch 17, 2017 at 10:49 am
Castletownshend looks like a gorgeous place. Have a nice weekend!
DiaryofaLondonessMarch 17, 2017 at 7:17 pm
It is stunning. Happy St Patrick’s Day to you Miriam!