Geographies of Coastal Heritage

Bordeaux and its link to Ireland

My husband and I visited Bordeaux back in end of August 2018. Although I lived in France for over a decade during the 90s, I must admit that I had never visited this port city. I was aware of its many links with Ireland which heightened my feelings towards the place; I wanted to find out more… So our trip was one of discovery for me. I wanted to immerse myself in the city’s maritime heritage.

Bordeaux is geographically located on the bend of the River Garonne; its proximity to the Atlantic seaboard influenced its historical and contemporary trade links. However, despite it having been one of the greatest ports in Europe, the city turned its back on the sea towards the end of the 20th century; however, this has changed in recent years. This makes me think of Ireland’s maritime past. Prior to the 19th century, Ireland was influenced by the increasing number of foreign fleets around its coastal waters and, thus, fostered the development of shipbuilding in a number of coastal towns. Two decades into the 20th century coastal communities around Ireland became marginalised.

Back to Bordeaux! Finding myself in this port city conjured up images of merchant ships steering their course up the River Garonne during Medieval times through to the Early Modern Period. I imagined labourers unloading various commodities, exchanges occurring between merchants from diverse places… Links between Ireland and Bordeaux date back to the end of the 17th century when Ireland was fraught with conflict. Irish families fled Ireland and sought exile in France; they would become known as “The Wild Geese”. Irish families played an important role in developing viticulture in Bordeaux. Some of the region’s most prestigious ‘chateaux’ still bear Irish names.

An interesting little place, for me at least, is the Musée du Vin et du Négoce – Museum of the Wine Trade – 41 rue Borie. The visit takes about one hour followed by wine tasting.  The actual building was built around 1720 for Francis Burke, an Irish wine merchant; this element gave the visit a different perspective.  

Another must is the Cité du Vin – City of Wine. If you appreciate contemporary architecture as well as wine then this is the place to be. It is fascinating; however, give yourself plenty of time to delve into the history of wine and this region that is synonymous with fine wine.

There are many landmarks dotted around Bordeaux with Irish connections. The Chapelle des Irlandais – Irish Chapel – is located at number 17, place Pey Berland and the Collège des Irlandais – Irish College – is housed at 3 bis, rue du Hâ. Street names such as, rue Mac Carthy, rue O’Reilly are woven into the fabric of this splendid port city that is Bordeaux. These place names are a constant reminder of the legacy left there by the Irish.

There is plenty to see and do in Bordeaux. In addition to some great wines, there is an abundance of quirky restaurants and cafés. So why not indulge in a visit to this port city next time you’re planning a holiday…

Celtic Cousins

While I am quite at home anywhere in coastal France, I must admit that Brittany holds a special place in my heart. From early adolescence, my native Castletownbere began twinning with Locmiquelic, a coastal town in the Morbihan, south Brittany. Morbihan (Mor Bihan) means ‘Petite Mer’ – ‘Little Sea’ in Breton. Every other year a delegation from Locmiquelic would visit our native West Cork fishing port. For over twenty years our family greeted between two to four guests for one week. When it was our turn to set sail for Brittany, the people of Locmiquelic would play host to their Irish guests. It was then that I felt a strong connection with France and especially with Brittany. There was an air of familiarity – Celtic Cousins so to speak. Since then, I’ve always felt comfortable in this north-westerly part of the Hexagone – a moniker the French give to their country.

In the summer of 2014 I immersed myself in the fishing port of Le Guilvinec, Finistère (south Brittany) for the purpose of my research. It was my first time visiting this coastal community and I must say that there is ‘something’ about coastal Brittany that makes me feel right at home. What strikes me is the winding coast road that meanders from the auction hall to the beach. It is delightful for any swimmer to have such a splendid beach just at the edge of the town. I frequently walked the coast road; there is something so enthralling about the sea. Whether calm or calamitous, the sea has the ability to ‘draw’ you in to its world. I admire the houses that stand tall along this road with their spectacular views. It’s my favourite part of the town. The sound of the sea is so soothing.

Going to the boulangerie, most mornings, for the baguette; getting to know local residents though various associations and participating in various events, meeting people in the streets, having the banter… There’s a sort of mutual understanding between people from Celtic regions; a Celtic language, musical traditions, and in a way being rather similar in manner. Our perspectives, our ways of seeing and being in the world as Celts, intertwining traditions and modernity.

Brittany was an independent duchy; however, there were many turbulent years during which the Breton Duchy defended its territory against the Romans, Vikings, English and the French. The Duchy came to an end upon the death of Francis II in 1488. His daughter Anne inherited the Duchy. In addition to ‘keeping the peace’, a lack of political stability and financial resources engendered the marriage between Anne de Bretagne and the King of France, Charles VIII. The Ducal crown became united with the French crown in 1532. Following the French Revolution, and as a result of the various republican forms of French government since 1792, the duchy was replaced by the French system of departments. Of course its history is a lot more complicated but that tale is for another day… 

While centuries have passed, Bretons continue to defend their Celtic roots; never giving up the ‘battle’ – which at first was political especially during the mid-twentieth century but has, in recent decades, become a cultural one. I have observed, during my many trips there, and having lived there for three years in the early 2000s, contemporary Bretons are at ease and confident with their Breton identity – with who they are. Bretons are recognised for their force de caractère – strength of character. A Breton fisher once told me that “Le fait d’être Breton est ancré en nous, c’est régional, je me sens enraciné dans l’héritage Celtique” – “The fact of being Breton is anchored within us, it is regional, I feel rooted to the Celtic heritage”. There is a sense of belonging to a collective. During my fieldwork, I become conscious that Bretons tend to experience a stronger affiliation with people from other Celtic regions, such as Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Galicia, among others rather than those from other French areas. Identity is complex. Everyone experiences it differently and constructs rather distinct meanings to how sense of identity is to them.

Sherkin Island: The Ancestral Home of the O’Driscoll Clan

Sherkin Island – Inis Ascain in Irish – just a ten minute ferry journey from the charming coastal village of Baltimore. Sherkin Island is where my father and his siblings grew up. Although my grandparents came from the mainland they moved to the island in to rear their family. Unfortunately I don’t get to visit Sherkin as often as I would like to but when I do it’s a day-long cultural and historical trip.

When my husband and I were living in Courtmacsherry, a quaint seaside village just ten minutes from Clonakilty, West Cork, we set off early one Saturday morning to Sherkin Island. The drive there is delightful; feeling the warmth of the morning sun through the windscreen is heavenly. Less than an hour later we arrive in Baltimore. With ample parking in the village we have no problem parking the car. As we stroll over to the pier the excitement is mounting, I shall be my spouse’s personal tour guide for the day; it’s his first time visiting the island, the ancestral home of the O’Driscoll clan. Backpack full of goodies in case we, or should I say I get hungry! And especially water, I’m never without a bottle of water in my bag!

The ferry is quickly filled, engine roaring, the course is steered across Roaring Water Bay… Ten minutes of seaspray on my face, I can feel the taste of the salt. There’s a sense of being ‘homeward bound’, a return to the source so to speak.

We arrive at the slipway, we disembark, the ruins of the Franciscan Friary , the ‘Abbey’ as it is known locally, is on the left as we commence our journey around the island. The Friary was established in 1460 by Fineen O’Driscoll, chieftain of the area at the time. There is a lot of history surrounding the O’Driscoll Clan and Dunalong Castle – Dún na Long – which is located on the east side of the island, overlooking the entrance to Baltimore Harbour. If you’d like more information I’d encourage you to visit https://sherkinisland.ie/.  

The Franciscan Friary, known as ‘The Abbey’

For those of you who prefer to travel by ‘taxi’ there’s usually a local with a tractor and trailer, which on a wet day is very welcoming indeed, direct transport to the Jolly Roger traditional Irish pub and restaurant, forget about the scenic route! We are indeed very fortunate with the weather; the sun gleams upon us. The day is off to a great start.

The island is home to many artists, from painters and photographers to writers and craft makers working with a myriad of materials such as silk and wood. Their work can be purchased at the Island Crafts Shop that is situated on Baltimore pier. Sherkin Island offers an interesting and unique experience through its BA in Visual Art programme (BAVA) http://bavasherkin.com/. It is a four-year honours degree course proposing a dynamic and creative education in an exceptional location; an opportunity – and what an opportunity – that combines studio practice workshops on the island with a range of online distance education technologies. The principal aim of the programme is to provide students with an advanced knowledge of the nature, role and potential of contemporary art. This BA programme is jointly developed with TU Dublin; for more information please click on the link hereafter: http://www.dit.ie/studyatdit/undergraduate/programmescourses/allcourses/visualartsherkinislanddt589.html

We happen upon Silver Strand on the north-west side of the island, splendid views of Cape Clear Island – Oileán Chléire in Irish – and the Atlantic Ocean; a perfect place for a swim followed by a picnic. This is a spectacular ‘playground’ for the islanders; it was the playground of my father’s and his siblings and what a playground! I close my eyes; I can hear their shrieks of laughter.

The ‘Playground’ of my father’s and his siblings

After a morning of walking, taking in the theatrical views, we head back to the east coast for a well-deserved bite to eat and a drink at the Jolly Roger. We have a couple of hours to spend peacefully before returning to the mainland. We have worked up an appetite! We sit facing the village and harbour of Baltimore; splendid views… come see for yourself.

We observe the arrival of the ferry and so we make our way towards the pier. It is early evening and we bid farewell to my ancestral home. What a day; we’ll return soon…

Map of Sherkin Island