Nov 092020

Well off the famous Ring of Kerry, Ballinskelligs is situated in its own quiet corner of south-west Ireland, hugged by the Atlantic Ocean. My first approach to this out-of-the-way little place was daunting. It was a Sunday afternoon in June and the blackening skies threatened rain. Having already travelled up and down impressive, sometimes terrifying, mountainous roads, I was surprised to find myself in flat empty countryside without another vehicle, house or person anywhere to be seen and unmarked tracks rather than roads. The signposts ran out. With no way of knowing which was the right direction, my ancestral land was feeling strangely alien.

Eventually, a few farmhouses appeared, soon gathering into the small village of Dun Geagan where there were cars and people, and joyfully a sign that said – Cill Rialaig. This was the art gallery that was today’s mission. It was late but a warm welcome was extended to me. Having previously spoken by phone to some of the staff here, I made myself known, was immediately recognised and given hot delicious food and drink. A proper peat fire burned in the grate. Their day had been dedicated to an exhibition of glass works which were all abstract yet accessible because they were visually stunning and emotionally moving. Also, it was the final hour of a glassmaking workshop where participants made their own glasses, followed by cocktails sipped from same. The atmosphere was full of fun. The guest of honour was a retired cocktail waiter from the famous Dublin Horseshoe Bar. He had written a book about the antics of the rich and famous as he had observed them over several decades. Here was a whole community of people whose lives were entwined with the arts. Out of that barren landscape, a rich paradise had materialised.

My next problem was to find accommodation for a few days. Marina, at Cill Rialaig, suggested O’Leary’s ‘just along the road’. Once I found it, I thought, ‘OK, a pub.’ It wasn’t my ideal but it was right on the beach. Making my way inside, I found it packed wall to wall with sport fans all gathered to drink, smoke and watch The hurling on the telly was deafeningly loud just like the crowd themselves, who were all shouting passionately at the screen! What had I walked into? No-one could help me. After struggling to the bar, I was informed that their accommodation did not open until July. Something inside me was relieved but still no bed for the night. Panic returned. After much misdirection from place to place, eventually I found my way to the sweetest B+B imaginable. Only one hundred metres or so up the hill from the gallery!

The ‘Tig An Rince’, with hospitable Jackie and Richard, immediately felt comforting. They were just making a cup of tea for the other guests and ‘would I like to join them?’ ‘Oh yes please,’ a cup of tea was just what I needed. Once ushered into the dining room, introductions were made. These were a friendly couple from Dublin. She was chatty and he was unassuming and funny. After a bit of friendly chit-chat, it emerged that he was the aforementioned cocktail waiter and writer. Over a couple of days, we chatted easily through lengthy breakfasts, and cosy evenings in front of a wood fire sharing our day’s adventures. When they left, before my hour of rising (always late), it was disappointing to have missed them. Nevertheless, the scrumptious breakfast, the most important element of which was the homemade soda bread and Kerry butter, soon compensated. After Richard’s breakfast feast, Jackie came in with a brown paper package. It was the book, signed and dedicated for me. What a lovely generous surprise. His stories were entertaining and, at times, astonishing. It’s amazing what inebriated celebrities can get away with!

The day after arriving, I went out to explore the area and quickly became entranced as if by fairy magic. As I drove around the townland, which did suddenly have its own hills, the sense of my ancestors was strong. The land was mostly steep, and scattered with huge pale rocks. This was a land that must be hard to survive on but the 19th Century potato famine would have made life impossible. How so many did survive is unimaginable. It seemed to me that the only alternative would be to leave the beloved homeland. Of course, so many did just that but thousands more tragically died of starvation.

Cill Rialaig consists of more than just the art gallery – there is also a tiny village high, high above the pounding ocean. This had been a ‘famine village’, where the entire population had died 150 years earlier. It was set for re-development risking the historic stone cottages. However, a wonderful feisty woman named Noelle, outraged at this idea, raised enough funds to purchase the little village for an artist’s residency and retreat. Artists from Ireland and the world over now came to stay and work in these restored stone cottages. One would not want to sleep walk though, as the cliff edge was very near. The road, or rather track, up to this place hugged the edge of the coast with a hair-raising view hundreds of feet down to the blue-green-purple swelling sea which seemed to be reaching up for me. How impoverished people must have been to reside here before any modern appliances and connections had been invented. Barely warm peat fires for heating, light and cooking, and wind that could blow a person over. Perhaps a few woolly sheep and some potatoes would keep a soul alive as nothing else could possibly grow there. Nevertheless, despite that sorrowful history, Ballinskelligs felt like ‘home’ and a sense of completeness filled my spirit.

Not only did Ireland’s past tug at me, but many other aspects besides. Following the road through Dun Geagan, along another very steep climb, was a high ridge where it was possible to see down across softened green fields ending in a distant haze to the right and the Skellig Islands to the left. It was a vast outlook that took my breath away – not only metaphorically but literally – despite the sun shining brightly in the sky, that wind was violent. I jumped back into the car smartly, admiring from within, but even the car was a little unsteady. Nature’s force was palpable here. This was on my way to Port Magee, a route that took me past Finian’s Bay. Down again at sea level and close to the beach, to my delight there unexpectedly appeared a chocolate factory. This was not to be resisted so it was a lovely surprise to find that it was also a cafe. Its panorama wall of glass enabled a direct view of the Skellig Islands just eight miles out to sea, and dear little Puffin Island to the right of the bay. It was the perfect place to sip delicious hot chocolate and daydream.

The Skellig Islands had been inhabited by Christian monks for six centuries until in the thirteenth century when they decided to escape the cold (and the Vikings!) and moved to Ballinskelligs on the mainland. However, their new abbey, the ruins of which still stand, is so close to the water that I wonder how it was much safer or warmer. Certainly, it wasn’t warm enough for me and so wild that my drawing paper kept blowing away from me – somewhere there are small half-finished grey-lead masterpieces floating around Ireland in those gusts! The long walk home was a battle against fierce, freezing wind which sneaked in under my warm scarf and cold weather gear, in this early Irish summer. But this road was happily laced with hedgerows of fuchsias all in full bud and no-one to stop me from popping them, bringing fun and colour to my journey.

There were many more enchanting surprises in the direction beyond the chocolate factory but the one that stays with me the most is the vertiginous hillsides in varying shades of greens and pinks – fields, all individually surrounded by yellow gorse hedges. And far off in the valleys below lay smatterings of pristine, white houses.

Port Magee was delightful. It’s a fishing town with a lively wharf filled with boats, fishermen and good cheer. Along the street of the port are houses in a stunning array of colours – pinks, yellows, blues, purples, reds, greens. It was like a sudden switch to the Mediterranean where this might be expected but not here in Ireland. It all looked happy, brimming with energy and life and it shook me from my reveries, bringing me back into the present and the sheer joy of being there.

The nearest town to Dun Geagan was Waterville, a narrow, whitewashed tumble of streets situated at sea level between two bodies of water – the Atlantic and Lough Currane. This was the nearest place in which to find cafes and small eateries. Finding my favourite ‘An Corcan’, I remained faithful, each evening enjoying a different meal. The food was all home-cooked, properly Irish and delicious. And yes, there were potatoes. This sweet little restaurant seated perhaps twenty people at a push.

Lough Currane was large and surrounded by more of those steep hillsides and small farms but the land was lusher than the slopes of Ballinskelligs. More verbiage grew and there were even dairy cows. Driving the entire circumference of the lake one slow afternoon, I took many photographs of its beauty. In my dreams of being super-rich (looking unlikely now), Lough Currane is one of the several places in Ireland where I would like to own a house. At its most inland end, for the views.

Waterville is best known for Charlie Chaplin who with his family spent a month here every summer. Happily, I have been able to return to Ballinskelligs a couple of times and it would be my choice right now if not here in Antipodean lockdown.