A Day Trip To Clonakilty, West Cork

A few weeks ago my sister and I were spending a long weekend at our parents’. It had been a very long while since my sister had been to Clonakilty, a quaint town in West Cork. We travelled there one very wet Saturday morning just after breakfast, at about 9 am. We had no agenda, just the idea to soak it up! As I’ve previously mentioned in another post my husband and I lived in Courtmacsherry for a number of years, a ten-minute drive from ‘Clon’ – as it is known to locals – so I acted as her personal guide for the day!

In less than two hours we arrived, found a parking space in the local Catholic Church yard. He rain has subsided. We went to the Olive Branch first; a health food shop established in 2004 and a remarkable place for healthy foodies. It also offers a great range of skin care products. The staff is only too delighted to be of service. Check out their website: https://theolivebranch.ie/.

From there we had decided to stroll though the main street, but, as we move to the door a deluge has started. So we wait… and wait… We make a dash for the car which isn’t too far; but far enough when there’s a downpour! We grab two umbrellas from the car and I decide to exchange my canvas footwear – yes I agree a rather impractical move this morning – for ankle rain boots, ah! much better, my feet are grateful for the dry comfort.

Return to the main street, people are dashing in and out of shops. Despite the rain the locals appear to be positively pleasant. By now we are feeling peckish and are enticed into the Arís Café and Wine Bar. The place is bustling with an energetic atmosphere – plenty of locals with a dash of visitors. A young waiter accompanies us to our table upstairs. We sit by the window with view on Asna square. It’s 11h30 so we opt for coffee and scones; we pile on the better and jam mmm! We delight in soaking up the atmosphere that reveals itself as friendly. They have an appealing selection of mouth-watering cakes and pastries as well as an inviting lunch menu. We both encourage you to stop by for a bite – you won’t regret it. Check out the website: https://www.ariscafe.com/.

With our stomachs satisfied we head out into the damp street. Despite the heavy showers is a vibrant feel to the town. We explore the main street; stopping and starting as we go. The Clonakilty Bookstore is a lovely place to while away a small half hour – but don’t forget to buy a book! It shelves some unusual and interesting books about West Cork and Ireland in general. There are two other book shops but we didn’t have the time to pop in there.

There are oodles of restaurants and cafes; craft shops and boutiques dotted about the town. As we are stuck for time we thought a picnic – in the car – was the best option; I wanted to bring my sister to Inchydoney Beach. We went to Lettercollum to get food-to-go with a healthy twist. They have an organic garden in Timoleague – a village located between Clonaklity and Coutmacsherry. We both decide on the roasted vegetable feta savoury tart. There is a small seating area that caters for 3/4 people, already taken! But I’d recommend you trying the food; it’s scrumptious. Visit their website: http://www.lettercollum.ie/. The place is packed so we set off to Inchydoney Beach. It’s about a ten-minute drive from the town.

We find a parking spot overlooking the beach. We indulge on our savoury tarts, ‘oohing and aahing’! The mist is rolling in over the bay from the Atlantic but that does not deter people from taking a walk, surfing or indeed swimming – without any wetsuit in tow!

It’s two o’clock; time to head home to Castletownbere. My sister is enthralled by ‘Clon’. The place is friendly, dynamic and has an altogether positive vibe. There is much more to be discovered so please do check out: https://www.clonakilty.ie/ for more information.

The Regatta: A Cultural and Social Encounter

While I prefer exploring places off-season for their authenticity, summer can have its benefits as it reveals the connection locals establish with visitors. Coastal towns in summer are vibrant. There is always some kind of festival going on; the connection with the sea is significant to developing and enhancing these places and key to attracting tourists.

Regatta… a word that evokes the coast, the sea, sailing boats… In Castletownbere, West Cork, the ‘Regatta’ takes place annually, on the first Monday of August – a Bank Holiday in Ireland. Let me take you on a trip down memory lane… It’s not sure when this event first emerged but many retired locals tell me that it is reminiscent of their childhood. I found newspaper articles referring to the ‘Regatta’ dating back to 1912.

A few people to whom I spoke recall a time when there were gig races only prior to the event becoming part of the wider Festival of the Sea. A lot of fishermen used to be involved; my dad recalls there being a specific fishermen’s gig.  

Back to today’s event… there are both senior and junior, ladies and men’s gig races taking place over the course of the day. At intervals there are pillow fights, swimming races, greasy pole among other fun events. The festival not only attracts tourists but also a large number of the Castletownbere diaspora. The Regatta reveals a sense of ‘togetherness’. Fundamentally, this festival is about these people and for these people − permanent residents and visiting members of the Castletownbere diaspora − as a celebration of their maritime culture. People’s attachment to their heritage is revealed through their regular return visits to their native place.

It is a time and a place for all locals to meet and transmit the local heritage to future generations. As many people do not meet with one another outside of this festival due to professional and personal commitments in addition to geographical circumstances it is through the act of socialising during this festival that heritage and identity of the fishing community in Castletownbere is maintained. The festival is important to fishing culture as an agent that strengthens the ties between an increasingly dispersed ‘community’. It is interesting to observe these events take place. As crowds watch the ‘unfolding’ of different events some gasp in awe at the tenacity of certain competitors. The sheer resolve of the contestants offer a ‘theatrical performance’ to the spectators.

People invest emotionally in these events. Events like these reveal a collective sense of attachment to the pier as a place for social gatherings. When the last gig race is patiently awaited you can sense the excitement mounting. The atmosphere is electric, almost emotional, especially when Castletownbere teams are involved in the final effort to cross the line. So why not come visit us and experience for yourself the Regatta, a day-long celebration of maritime culture which is part and parcel of the wider Festival of the Sea.

Atlantic Irish Mist

For me, a place can never be neutral; landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes…we are shaped by whatever ‘-scape’ surrounds and envelopes us. We come to mirror our environment so to speak.  Have you ever thought about ‘place’ in a profound and philosophical sense?

A rugged terrain appears to characterise its people as tough and hardy; never fearful of getting their hands dirty or their feet muddy.

Coastal in habitants tend to never take for granted the mysterious element that is the sea – calm or chaotic – it will always take its quota of lives.

Lament of a rugged landscape or calamitous sea can be read on the faces and bodies of those working the land or heading out into the vast ocean.

Have you ever felt the scent of the sea waft under your nostrils when you’re journeying through the coast? I’d like to hear about your experiences. ‘Tasting’ a place, literally and metaphorically, is about using our senses to imbue ourselves with the sense of place.

The coast and the sea are important to me. As I sit, I watch the grey clouds travel across ‘an already grey sky’, from the south-west, bringing with them rain from the Atlantic. As they sweep across the sky, Atlantic mist is forming, creating a curtain or rather a blind that closes down on the sea, and thus, shutting out the horizon.

The coast is busy with cargo ships ‘ebbing and flowing’ as the pilot boat transports the local maritime pilots to and from awaiting vessels, each containing specific freight. It’s amusing to guess the size of the boat, from where it came and its onward journey once it leaves the Port of Cork.

The curtain continues to sweep across the bay. I never tire of this view or any sea view for that matter. It is ever-changing; no two days are the same. The curtain draws back, the blind swings up; the clouds are a much lighter shade, yet still no sun in sight, but I don’t mind. That is the beauty of coastal Ireland.

By the way, if you get a chance to view an Irish TV programme called Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland, it is really worth watch. The presenter, John Creedon, explores the true meaning behind some of Ireland’s most unusual and famous place names; each episode is a journey of discovery as John surveys and strides across the island of Ireland for lost meanings in everyday place names. It’s a 3-part series on Sundays at 18h30 for one hour on RTÉ One. You can view it online: http://www.rte.ie/player. Check out my review…

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.

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…