Sunday, 22 May 2016

Going to the ends of the earth …
or to the remote ends of Ireland

Mizen Head …at the south-west tip of Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I went to ends of the earth – or at least, to the south-west extremity of Ireland – yesterday [21 May 2016] to visit Mizen Head, one of the extreme points of the island of Ireland and a place with dramatic cliffs and scenery.

Mizen Head is not actually the most southerly point on the mainland of Ireland – the honour goes to nearby Brow Head. But generations of Irish schoolchildren have been taught by generations of geography teachers that the length of Ireland is measured from Fair Head to Mizen Head, or from Mizen Head to Malin Head.

In Ireland, this is the equivalent of Land’s End.

We drove west from Bantry to Mizen Head through the villages of the Mizen Peninsula, including Ballydehob, Schull, Goleen and Crookhaven. At the end of the peninsula, the cliffs of Mizen Head rise high above the Atlantic Ocean, where the currents from the west and south coasts meet and waves from the mid-Atlantic crash into the craggy rocks and headlands.

For many, Mizen Head was their first – or their last sight – of Ireland and of Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Mizen Head was once on one of the main transatlantic shipping routes and for many seafarers this their first – or last – sight of Ireland and of Europe.

A series of paths and viewing platforms lead out to the tip of the peninsula, which is almost like an island, cut off from the tip of Mizen Head by a deep chasm. The deep gap is spanned by a bridge that is breath-taking in its construction and location.

A deep chasm separates the tip of the peninsula from the rest of Mizen Head (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

We crossed over the bridge to the old signal station, the weather station, and the lighthouse at the end of the world – we were told the US is the next stop.

The signal station, once permanently staffed, is now a museum with exhibits on the strategic significance Mizen Head once had for transatlantic shipping and communications, and on the pioneering work of Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937).

The Marconi Radio Room tells the story of radio communications at Mizen Head Signal Station. Marconi was nearby in Crookhaven during his search for a suitable site to send the first transatlantic message. He had masts at Brow Head and put a telegraphic transmitter on the Fastnet Rock Lighthouse. A recent storm took all the sand out of Galley Cove and exposed the huge cables that once connected Fastnet with his radio room in Crookhaven.

In 1931, Mizen Head Signal Station had the first radio Beacon in Ireland – it spanned the whole gorge at the Bridge. This room is dedicated to this fabulous story.

There we could only but imagine the solitude of the keepers who worked here and lived with the fresh salt-laden sea air above the restless Atlantic and the swirl of the ocean currents.

A view under the bridge from the old Derrick platform (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

We walked back down the path to the old Derrick platform to look under the bridge, where we could see seals and their pups in the swell below as we listened for the sound of kittiwakes, gannets and choughs. The Derrick stand was used to supply the station from boats before the first bridge was built in 1909.

Having crossed back over the bridge, we returned by the “99 steps” that once formed part of the original access route to the visitor centre for two double espressos.

Crookhaven … now peaceful, but once a haven for pirates (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Earlier, we had lunch in the village of Crookhaven, which Marconi used as his base when he worked there from 1901 until 1914. The village was an important port of call for shipping between Europe and North America, and in the past many villagers made their living by supplying ships that sheltered in Crookhaven before or after a long voyage.

Crookhaven has three pubs. We had lunch in O’Sullivan’s, which faces the harbour. Its walls are decorated with old bank notes, signed rugby shirts and historical pictures of the village and notes about the area. Outside, the painted gable wall proclaims that the pub serves “the most southerly pint in Ireland.”

O’Sullivan’s pub in Crookhaven claims to serve “the most southerly pint in Ireland” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Welcome Inn or Nottages is only open during the summer. The pub was once owned by a man called Nottage from England who came to the village to work with Marconi. The Crookhaven Inn was once the bottle store for a larger pub and hotel that have since been was converted into apartments.

Crookhaven has a winter population of about 40, but this swells in the summer to about 400 when the families who own holiday homes arrive back in the area.

The earliest record of the area is found in 1199 in the Decretal Letter of Pope Innocent III, where Celmolaggi is listed and this has been identified with Crookhaven. There is also reference to the church being dedicated to Saint Molaggi, who came from Fermoy in the seventh century. He was the Patron Saint of Tegh-Molagga, now Timoleague, between Dunmanway and Bantry. A 15th century O’Mahony castle in Crookhaven was later used as a prison.

By the late 1500s and early 1600s, the village was a base for piracy. But the Dutch attack on the area in 1614 put an end to the activity of pirates.

The village takes its name from the Crooke family, who were granted large estates in West Cork in the early 17th century. Sir Thomas Crooke also founded Baltimore, Co Cork, ca 1610 at the same as Crookhaven. However, the Crooke family’s association with the area ended around 1665 with the death of Sir Thomas Crooke’s son and heir, Sir Samuel Crooke.

Barley Cove, where the best beach in West Cork was formed by a tsunami in Portugal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

On our way from Bantry and Schull to Crookhaven and Mizen Head, we stopped for a while at Barley Cove, which must have one of the best beaches in West Cork – and it challenges Curracloe in Co Wexford for being best beach in Ireland.

The area around Barley Cove is one of natural beauty and is popular throughout the summer months. Because of the variety of wildlife and interesting habitats in the sand dunes, the EU has designated the beach as a Special Area of Conservation.

But the story of Barley Cove and its sand dunes must be one of the most fascinating stories in the annals of Irish environmental and conservation efforts.

Almost two and a half centuries ago, Lisbon was devastated by a catastrophic earthquake on 1 November 1775, and the coast of Portugal was hit by a destructive tsunami. A day later, according to reports in the Cork Journal, 15 ft waves hit the coasts of Co Cork on 2 November 1775. As a side-effect, the sands of Barley Cove were displaced and the dunes and unusual coastal features were formed as a consequence of the tsunami.

The beach is nestled in between two cliffs and is fed by a meandering river coming down from the hinterland. A boardwalk and a floating bridge lead from the car park to the beach, where the large dunes are surrounded on three sides by water.

The Portuguese link with this extremity of Ireland should not have surprised me. It brought back memories of a visit to Cabo de Roca in Portugal, which is the western-most point in Europe, while I was staying in Lisbon about 18 months ago.

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