21 July 2020
Following Sunday afternoon’s visit to Kilrush, two of us decided to avoid Kilkee – fearing, quite rightly, that the beach would be crowded despite advice about Covid-19 social distancing – and decided, for the first time ever, to explore Loop Head and the West Clare peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic.
By accident, we found ourselves by mid-afternoon in the small fishing village and harbour of Kilbaha (Cill Bheathach, ‘Church of the Birches’), close to the south-west end of Loop Head.
Kilbaha is the very last village on the Loop Head peninsula, about 6 km east of Loop Head and about 35 km west of Kilrush. This is a place of outstanding natural beauty, surrounded by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the River Shannon.
Kilbaha Bay is a small open sweep that looks south-east across the mouth of the Shannon Estuary towards Ballybunion in the distance on the north-west coast of Co Kerry. It is far from any major road: the N67 runs 25 km east of the village, and the nearest town is Kilkee.
We were given a table overlooking the harbour and the bay at Keating’s Bar and Restaurant on Pier Road. Keating’s was founded in 1879 and claims to be ‘the nearest bar to New York.’
Keating’s is run by husband and wife team Bernie and Helen Keating, and is known its locally caught, fresh seafood, as well as its warm welcome and traditional, family-friendly, atmosphere.
Sitting over lunch on a sunny, summer’s Sunday afternoon, sipping a glass of cold white wine, and looking out onto the small harbour, with blue seas and blue skies, I imagined myself transported to one of the taverns in Panormos, east of Rethymnon, on a Sunday afternoon in Crete, at the Sunset Taverna below the Fortezza in Rethymnon, or in a bar on the cliffs above the caldera in Santorini, and enjoyed a taste of paradise.
Around the headland from the pier, and visible as you approach the village from the east, is a castellated turret built by the Keane family for Victorian ladies to enjoy the view. The ruins of the Keane home stand nearby on the top of the hill.
The small, picturesque pier was built in the early 19th century to cater for local people making a living from fishing, seaweed gathering and piloting large ships up the Shannon to Limerick docks. It was also used by cargo vessels bringing supplies to Loop Head lighthouse.
Over 100 shipwrecks have been recorded around the peninsula, and the Grave of the Yellow Men is a memorial to a group of sailors who died in Kilbaha Bay in the 19th century.
The names and nationality of these sailors are unknown, and they are referred to locally as the yellow men. Details are sketchy but they remain part of oral tradition in Kilbaha.
The nine or 11 ‘yellow men’ are buried in a mass grave looking over the Atlantic. It was originally thought that they were oriental, possibly from China or Japan – but only because of the phrase ‘yellow men.’
However, when the Spanish Armada landed in Ireland, the Spanish were referred to as ‘Yellow Men’ and local research suggests the men drowned here could have been from Spain or Portugal, or even to Morocco, Tunisia or Egypt would more likely be their point of departure.
The men either drowned or were smashed to pieces on the Kilcloher rocks, 1 km from Kilbaha, in the late 19th century.
The only surviving documentation is a school transcript of oral tradition dating from 1937-1938 and recorded by Stephen Hanrahan. It says that near Kilcloher ‘is the grave of the Yellow Men’ and that they were ‘nine shipwrecked Frenchmen’ who ‘were buried about 60 years ago.’
It was said their ship was in difficulties and they threw a rope ashore by which nine were saved. A local young man, however, cut part of this fine rope, which was considerably too long at first, so that when the ship drifted a little away from the shore, the cut rope was too short to save the others who were drowned.
The local community erected a memorial in July 2010 to commemorate the ‘Yellow Men.’
From there, we decided to head on to Loop Head and the Bridges of Ross. But we resolved that if we fail to get to Greece this summer, we must return to Kilbaha.
I ought to be in Derbyshire this week, at the annual conference of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) in the Hayes Conference Centre at Swanwick.
But Covid-19 travel restrictions have led to the cancellation of the conference, and instead I spent much yesterday (20 July 2020) at a Zoom meeting of the trustees of USPG.
In normal circumstances, I might have expected to spend a day or two before or after the conference staying over in Lichfield, visiting Lichfield Cathedral and the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, and perhaps also visiting Tamworth and Comberford.
But Sunday was an unexpectedly bright sunny, summer’s day, and not to be outdone, after two church services and a select vestry meeting, two of us decided to cross the Shannon estuary from Kerry to Clare, and take the ferry from Tarbert to Killimer … it was my first time on a boat of any type this year.
We stopped first for coffee in Kilrush and a walk around the Vandeleur Walled Gardens, before continuing on the other end of the town, and spending some time at the Marina in Kilrush.
Kilrush is a beautiful, brightly-painted town in Co Clare, and we had what you might call our Sunday afternoon dose of ‘Vitamin Sea’ as we watched children splashing about, learning water skills, and small boats leaving for and returning from Scattery Island.
The marina at Kilrush is also home to the Royal Western Yacht Club of Ireland, a traditional yacht club nestled in the heart of the Wild Atlantic Way. The club was established almost two centuries ago, in 1827, and to this day it continues to run yacht and dinghy sailing and racing events, mainly on the waters of the Shannon Estuary.
The Water Club of the Cork Harbour was established around 1720 and drew up rules for membership. At first, the club was based on Haulbowline Island, organising fortnightly sailing excursions and dinner parties to coincide with the Spring tides. The club went into decline around 1765 but was re-established itself in 1806.
An early member of the Water Club was Colonel John Bateman Fitzgerald, Knight of Glin. When he built Glin Castle on the south shore of the Shannon Estuary, he had the yacht Farmer, a large 18-gun brig, built in 1780 so he could enjoy sailing and cruising along the west coast.
A number of new royal yacht clubs were formed in Cork in the 19th century. The Munster Model Yacht Club was founded in 1872 as a Corinthian or amateur yacht club and eventually became the Royal Munster Yacht Club, based in the clubhouse of the Cork Harbour Motor Yacht Club at Crosshaven.
The Royal Munster merged with the dormant Royal Cork Yacht Club of Cobh which claimed descent from the original Cork Water Club of 1720. The royal charter dates from 1831 and the club organises the world’s biggest regatta bi-annually.
Meanwhile on the Shannon Estuary, with the encouragement of the Knight of Glin, the number of commercial local sailing trading vessels was growing apace, with the establishment of towns and sea-going trade along the Shannon Estuary. Soon, during summer months, interested groups organised regattas at each small port for all the types of craft on the estuary. They included trading brigs, cutters, turf boats, hookers, canoes, canvas currachs and gondolas.
The Royal Western Yacht Club of Ireland was first formed in Kilrush on 6 February 1828. The committee included the Earl of Dunraven (president), George Courtney (commodore), and Stafford O’Brien (vice-commodore), and other committee members included Crofton M Vandeleur and Colonel John Vandeleur of Kilrush, Maurice and John O’Connell, sons of Daniel O’Connell, and the Knight of Glin.
The club had 201 members in 1837 with 82 sailing vessels, although not all members or vessels were based on the Shannon Estuary. The members were drawn from the Shannon Estuary area, including Limerick, Kerry, Cork, Westport in Co Mayo, Galway, Dublin and other places.
The Lords of the Admiralty gave permission on 16 January 1832 for members of the Royal Western Yacht Club of Ireland to fly the a white ensign with a red cross, a crown in the centre surrounded by a wreath of shamrocks, and with the Union Flag at the head of the ensign.
The Royal Western held regattas at Galway, Sligo, Westport and Belfast, which encouraged the establishment of the Royal Northern Yacht Club, which later moved across to the Clyde.
The Royal Western’s considerable resources in the mid-1850s included a club house at 113 Grafton Street, Dublin, and a floating club house based in Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) Harbour.
The Admiralty withdrew the right to fly the defaced white ensign in 1858, putting into force an earlier decision that only naval vessels and members of the Royal Yacht Squadron could fly the white.
The move led to petitions to the admiralty and was raised in Parliament by Irish MPs. A lengthy dispute ensued, but by the beginning of the 1860s the Royal Western Yacht Club had faded away and no order was ever received by the club withdrawing its right to fly the white ensign, and no Act of Parliament has taken away this right.
The Dublin members of the Royal Western had run successful regattas in Dublin in 1854 and 1856. With the decline of the Royal Western, the members reformed as the Kingstown Model Yacht Club in 1857, later the Prince Alfred Yacht Club (1864) and later the Royal Alfred Yacht Club (1870), which claims – through these Royal Western links – it is the oldest amateur yacht racing organisation in the world.
Meanwhile, down in Cobh (Queenstown), the remaining Royal Western members there obtained an Admiralty Warrant in 1862 to fly the Blue Ensign under the title Royal Western Yacht Club of Ireland, based at the Queenstown Yacht Club which had been formed in 1860 but was disbanded and replaced by its new title and distinctions.
A year later, the new Royal Western obtained the Queen’s Cup for yacht racing from Queen Victoria and all the Cork yacht clubs were later amalgamated into the present Royal Cork.
Back on the Shannon Estuary, sailing was being revived slowly, with Tarbert in Co Kerry as the main base. The club was re-established in Kilrush as the Western Yacht Club in 1984, through the efforts of Brendan McMahon, Hugh McKiernan, Dan Beazley, Fintan Keating, Paudie Eustace, Richard Glynn, Gerald Griffin and others.
When Kilrush Marina was built by Shannon Development in 1991 to provide the infrastructure for developing yachting on the west coast and maritime-based tourism. The new development provided secure walk-on, walk-off mooring facilities and the club grew and increased its membership, becoming an active club in the traditions of the Royal Western of Ireland.
The crown on the Royal Western flags today is that of the Prince of Wales and not the monarch’s crown with orbs and crosses symbolising empire and faith. Today, the club is located at Kilrush Marina, a 120-berth marina that has excellent facilities just a five-minute walk from the centre of Kilrush.