By Philip Watson
(Telegraph Magazine Travel Issue, January 2005)
I’m standing at the top of a sheer cliff peering down at white waves slamming into the rocks below. It’s late afternoon in early November, I’m on Cape Clear, the most southerly inhabited island off the Irish coast, and the west wind is up. As I try to maintain my balance and crouch low on all fours, I can see, on a jagged promontory below, the castle ruin of Dunanore, a 15th-century fortress that has been home to clan chieftains, pirates, buried treasure and a local eight-foot giant.
From this precipitous spot I can also see along the blustery, sculpted coast of this tiny Atlantic island, nine miles from the mainland, and make out the shrouded outline of the Mizen Head peninsula that lies across Roaring Water Bay to the west. Farther out at sea, flickering in and out of view as dark clouds and squally rain scurry landwards, is Fastnet rock and lighthouse, the last outpost, the very “teardrop of Ireland”.
“Now, is this a wild enough spot for you?” asks my companion, Chuck Kruger, rhetorically. Chuck and his wife Nell have been living on Cape Clear for the past 12 years; both are American ex-teachers drawn to the island in their fifties by exactly this kind of “elemental experience”. To be honest, though, the seascapes seem more than just wild. As the muted and mutable light sharpens again, and seagulls eddy playfully just below me, the vertiginous views are dizzying and disorientating. It’s almost as if the ground – and Ireland – has disappeared beneath me and I’ve taken flight.
Wildness and dislocation seem suitably defining characteristics of Cape Clear. Just three miles long and one mile wide, the island is rocky, hilly and almost treeless, the soil shallow and stony, and the wind bites ruthlessly from all directions. Apart from the limited protection provided by the pattern of drystone walls, there is often little respite from the weather. In winter, the gusts, gales and Force 10 winds create stinging rain, sheets of sea spray, and waves the height of houses; slates are often blown off roofs.
You leave your car at Baltimore, on the southwest coast of County Cork, and take the 45-minute ferry ride out to the island, passing through violent and treacherous waters that are infamous for their cross-currents, strong tides and swirling undertows. Maps of the seas around Cape Clear are littered with shipwrecks. “It’s as if the island had been torn savagely from the mainland mass and cast aside by the lunatic fingers of the Atlantic,” Irish writer and broadcaster Francis MacManus once noted, somewhat histrionically. “Cape Clear is the last place God made – the land’s end beyond the land’s end.”
There are no hotels, supermarkets, secondary schools, doctors or police officers – just one shop, three pubs, and 120 very self-reliant and closely-knit people, most of whom have the surname O’Driscoll. Modern life came late to Cape Clear, even by rural Irish standards; cars arrived in the late 1960s, electricity and running water just a few years later. With a falling population, and fishing and farming in decline, it’s hard to make a living here; most on the island have more than one job.
Yet Cape Clear attracts people who see and appreciate the flipside of all this storminess and isolation; they value its peace, freedom and strong sense of community. They value that very connection to nature and people. “Cape Clear makes my life an adventure,” Chuck Kruger has written.
It is also a vastly different place in the summer, when hundreds of children are sent from all over the country to attend special Irish language schools; the harbour is packed with yachts from across Europe; the B&Bs, hostels and campsites are full to capacity; and the pubs are alive with singing, dancing, traditional music, even storytelling.
Although it’s true “the island dream” plays a strong role in our imaginations, and has an important place in the Irish psyche, what attracts visitors to Cape Clear is, I think, much deeper. Islands throw identity into sharp relief, and there is something strongly emotive about the scenery here. Yet it is often hard to establish exactly what that emotion is. By turns, it seems to run a shifting scale from elation and exhilaration to melancholy and loss.
What you feel most out here is a sense of being on the edge of something, and not just geographically and climatically. You feel on the edge of Irish history (St Ciarán is said to have been born on the island in 352 AD and brought Christianity to the country 30 years before St Patrick); on the edge of language (Cape Clear is a “Gaeltacht”, or Irish-speaking area, and Irish is actively and proudly spoken); on the edge of an idea of Irish culture itself. As much as the fiercely independent people who live here want to be (and be treated) like everyone else in the country, it’s as if Ireland is another place, and Cape Clear more Irish than Ireland itself.
Still, if the island is not quite wild enough for you, there are always boats that take the intrepid out to solitary, poignant Fastnet, the rock four miles southwest of Cape Clear, the last light for the transatlantic voyager and emigrant, the distant silhouette that looks like a cathedral beached out at sea. That’s as far as you can go out here at the edge of Europe. The next parish, as I’ve often heard said, is Boston.
Way To Go
Naomh Ciarán II, the Cape Clear ferry (00 353 28 39159; www.capeclearferry.info), sails daily from Baltimore; return fare €11.50. There are two Irish Tourist Board-approved B&Bs on the island: Ard na Gaoithe (00 353 28 39160) and Cluain Mara (00 353 28 39153; B&B from €30 per person. Chuck Kruger (00 353 28 39157; http://indigo.ie/~ckstory) offers guided walks of the island at €18 per hour. For general information on Cape Clear go to www.oilean-chleire.ie.