Slouching Towards Bantry

A journey is a hallucination. -- Flann O'Brien

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

A West Cork State of Mind

The Skellig Islands off the southwest coast of Ireland, once home to a noted 6th-Century monastery, is the furthest spit of Irish soil from Dublin. On the mainland, however, that distinction may very well be the tip of the Beara peninsula not far from Garinish, the townland where I stayed for part of my five-week journey.

In Garinish, as in other areas of West Cork, there are more sheep than people, and both the livestock and their keepers seem quite content with the ratio. Part of the local economy, of course, is dependent on the blow-ins, tourists, who come from Cork City or Dub or the four corners of the world, and therein lies the rub. They are inevitably changing the charcater of the place. Moreover, the natives often don't take too kindly to the absentee landlords who have been building "holiday homes" here of late, not to put roofs over their heads but as a tax shelters.

On the other hand, many of those who live in West Cork come from elsewhere, captivated by the stark, unbridled beauty of a landscape that quickly finds a way into their marrow. This is land's end: a place to which saints and travellers, artists and rebels have gravitated longer than anyone can remember; before the Sheahy, Caha and Slieve Mikish Mountains had names or their peaks -- Sugarloaf, Hungry Hill and Knockgour, Knockoura -- straddled a liguistic divide. Here the weather changes and time stands still, if only for a moment, as life laps against age-old mysteries like the tides meet the shore.

So be it destiny or coincidence, the gent on the cover of the decade-old Irish travel guide I lugged from America just happens to be posing in front of O'Neill's pub in Allihies. When my host in nearby Garinish spied the book on his dining room table, he laughed. The man on the cover, he said, is not an Irishman at all, but a mad English artist who has lived on the peninsula for the last 15 or 20 years. No more than a few hundred people live in Allihies, nonetheless, the Irish musicians who played at that same pub are friends of St. Louis musicians whom I also know. John Prine, the American singer and songwriter, drank here, as well, and not too far from Allihies, film director Neil Jordan keeps a holiday home.

No chamber of commerce is promoting the tourism trade. There are no golf courses, no grand hotels, no theme parks, no beaches worth mentioning. The roads are dangerously narrow, often hemmed by stone walls, and they wind like corkscrews through the mountains. In winter, there are few tourists and rain can fall for days on end. The natives and would-be natives like it this way. They don't want to make the Beara peninsula more accessible. The eccentric poet, who lives down the road a piece, may still traipse into O'Neill's with his retinue of bedazzled blow-ins, but it's more the exception than the rule. During this time of year, the owner of the Lighthouse pub, which is next to O'Neill's, still stokes his fireplace with blocks of turf. Ollie, the village idiot savant, still rolls his meager cigarettes as he babbles to anyone who will listen, his words mostly unintelligable even for those who speak the native dialect. Through a translator, however, Ollie's gibberish can be strikingly insightful. After railing against the government, he summed up his rant by declaring: "The only freedom is found inside a man."

There's nothing really worth seeing on the Beara peninsula unless you're ready to see it. And there are those who will tell you that it's a waste of time to venture any further south than, say, Killarney. A film director I met in Allihies, himself a blow-in from Dublin, likes to say that this is the "arse end of the island." Then again, the first words of advice that my Irish friend Robert Allen told me upon arrival was, "Don't believe anything an Irishman tells you."


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