West Cork: A World Apart

Schull, Mizen Head and Cape Clear have a local feeling and “big country” scenery

By Maeve Tynan

Irish West Coast
Irish West Coast

The environs of Schull, near Ireland’s southwest corner, are a great refuge for the weary brain. Poets, writers, composers and artists have flocked to this area for years to re-charge and wash away the grime of modern life. With rugged, mountainous scenery more reminiscent of the Wild West than the green slopes of Eire, this corner of the west Irish coast still offers a warm, community feeling, in spite of getting a fair number of tourists in the summer months. A recent trip to Schull, nearby Mizen Head and Cape Clear Island revealed a quieter side of Ireland.

Schull town is a pleasant tourist stop that’s kept an element of charm, even though it has been slightly “sanitized” a bit over the years. Once a place that would shut down for the winter months, its off-season population has been boosted by the arrival of people from overseas, who now join Irish people in making their homes there year-round.

Mizen Head Lighthouse
Mizen Head Lighthouse

We arrived at Schull around midnight, after a 5-hour drive from Dublin (it’s about an hour and a half from Cork City, on the N71). The main thoroughfare of the old town was quiet, though we spied a few chinks of light peeping out from behind curtains. Truth be told, we were lost. Inching through the near-impenetrable blackness, our car was our car was approached by a ghostly figure. Happily, this specter was most obliging, and soon set us on the right way to our hotel. On reaching our destination, the members of our gang who’d arrived earlier greeted us with hot food, a roaring fire and a very necessary cup of tea.

Walk on the Wild Side

There wasn’t time to get too cozy, as Cape Clear Island beckoned. We were up at the crack of dawn to catch the ferry from Baltimore out to the island. Cape Clear, or Oilean Chleire, is Ireland’s southernmost inhabited island. It is also a Gaeltacht, which means that the majority of its 140 inhabitants speak Irish. It had been a while since any of us had practiced our “cupla focail,” but we gave it a go. Everyone we met was patient with our mistakes, and seemed glad to talk to us. It’s worth noting, though, that in the summer months the place is flooded with teenagers who come to perfect their Irish for school exams.

Cape Clear is a wild, untamed place with a dramatic, rugged landscape and lots of jagged cliffs. Bird watchers will be in their element, as this is the most popular spot in the country for ornithology. It’s also a place that’s had its share of tragedy. Before the famine of the mid 1800’s, the population was about 1,200, with most families living off sheep herding, fishing and growing flax.

When in West Cork, it’s practically required that you go to Mizen head and lean over the southernmost tip of Ireland. The signal station at Mizen Head was built in 1905 to warn ships of the cliffs in inclement weather. The station is on an island, connected to the mainland by an arched bridge. All along it, visitors take turns doing their best “I’m the king of the world” Titanic impressions over the edge of the rail. The rocky, mountainous scenery here is spectacular, more like Wyoming than what you’d expect to find in Ireland. Mizen Head’s visitor center provides extensive information about what to look out for in the area, including geology, flora and fauna. There’s a good deal of information offered on the area’s history. Also on the peninsula is Three Castle Head, a series of Tower Houses built in the 15th century on the site of a Bronze Age Promontory Fort. Standing beside a cliff-top lake, these buildings are currently unstable, and access to them is unlimited.

While you’re on the peninsula, there’s a lot to do. You might want to stop by one of the quaint little towns like Goleen, Ballydehob or Crookhaven. There are numerous beaches in the area-Barleycove is highly recommended. Archaeology buffs will enjoy the numerous structures from the Neolithic, Bronze and Early Christian periods that dot the beautiful countryside. Golf and sailing are also popular here.

Impromptu Music Nights

Back in Schull, we found the pubs hopping. Hackett’s is a particularly good bar, and often has live music. I took a shine to the Courtyard Bar. It’s one of those great hybrids, typical of rural Ireland, with a specialty shop at the front, a café in the middle and a pub out the back. The staff is friendly and the food is homemade. Needles to say, we stopped in more than once during the weekend. Be aware that music is, in general, spontaneous in Schull – it’s best to keep an eye out for posters in the area announcing sessions for the evening. If you happen to be a student of the Irish language, you might be interested in the “seachtain na Gaelige” (Irish festival).

Local Carol O’Donavan told us “I always felt a part of Schull, perhaps because my parents were both buried here. Before I moved here I would visit, year after year. Every time I had to leave, I left a part of me here. It means that much to me.”