Fall in love with west Cork and you’re in for a long, tricky marriage
The Going Coastal series continues with a kayaking and walking trip along the shores of west Cork from Union Hall to Ring
Hilary Fannin with Jim Kennedy of Atlantic Sea Kayaking taking part in a twilight trip at Reen Pier, Union Hall. Photograph: Emma Jervis
Hilary Fannin with Jim Kennedy of Atlantic Sea Kayaking taking part in a twilight sea kayaking trip. Photograph: Emma Jervis
The stretch of coastline from the fishing village of Union Hall, on the west side of Glandore Harbour in Co Cork, to Ring Head, overlooking Clonakilty Bay, spills into the Atlantic Ocean like an ink blot. As the crow flies the distance is not much more than 20km, but the dull trajectory of a crow has little bearing on this enthralling, menacing and breathtakingly magnificent shoreline.
It is hedged by red fuchsia, wild pink roses, yellow gorse, purple hydrangeas, and rose hips the size of small apples, and its winding cliff paths overlook the Atlantic. A traveller on this route prior to 1755 would have walked an entirely different terrain: ancient maps of the area show the sea running up to Rosscarbery Castle, but an earthquake in Lisbon that year caused a tsunami, which hit the southern coast of Ireland, depositing vast amounts of sand and shale, and now the coast unravels itself over marshes and flats and long stretches of yellow beaches.
Fall in love with west Cork and you’re in for a long, tricky marriage. Alluringly beautiful, she has known more than one admirer. In the 1960s the Dutch and the Germans came, with their long blond plaits and pottery wheels and lofty (if prescient) notions of sustainability. They were followed by a rattlebag of alternative types, among them American occultists looking for a gateway to the fourth dimension and, attracted by Charlie Haughey’s abolition of tax liability for artists, a plethora of novelists, poets, and folk sporting beards and rhyming couplets.
There are still plenty of painters, potters, healers and scribes scattered about the low green hills. But this is a busy community and, during my visit on a hot weekend, combine harvesters work the fields, saving the hay, until midnight, and fat black cows graze on Inchydoney Island, destined for the butcher shops of Clonakilty.
In good hands
I have two guides for my journey from Union Hall to Ring: local artist and Clonakilty native Geraldine O’Sullivan, whose own history is entwined in the landscape she paints, and the energetic, erudite and deeply knowledgeable Jim Kennedy, proprietor of Atlantic Sea Kayaking.
We begin our trip by kayak, paddling out from Squince Harbour on a sun-drenched morning. Our plan is to kayak as much of the route as possible, a trip that in fair weather would take about two days. But the ocean has no tolerance for deadlines, and, although inland, you could fry eggs on stone, the sea has her own ideas.
From Squince you can almost reach out to touch Rabbit Island and, just beyond, at the mouth of Union Hall, Adam and Eve islands, where the trawler Tit Bonhomme perished in January 2012, with the loss of five lives. The boat was just two kilometres short of the harbour. On a bright, apparently benign morning, it is almost impossible to believe that tragedy could happen so close to the shore.
We paddle out of the cove through a labyrinthine corridor of black rocks, reaching open water as the sea begins to twist. We wait, watch the fetch of the water where the wind hits the waves. Jim Kennedy is a level-five kayaking instructor, and safety is his creed, so we turn back. The wind has blown up to a force-five in minutes.
The waters darken
“Avoid Adam, hug Eve” goes the local advice about the islands where the Tit Bonhomme went down. As we pull the boats up over the shale, we talk about the disaster, the vigil on the pier at Union Hall, solidarity and grief and respect, and about a community that pulled together at a time of heartbreak. Behind us, the waters darken.