From the colourful village of Eyeries to the starkness of Hungry Hill, the Beara Peninsula in West Cork is a world apart. Donal O'Donoghue walks one of Ireland's classic routes and previews the Eyeries Family Festival.
I was in Eyeries just once and then but briefly. Not surprising, I suppose, as the West Cork village is slightly off the beaten track, over two hours from Cork city on the jagged teeth of the Beara peninsula. But if Eyeries is one of the most remote hamlets in the country it is also one of the most beautiful, a vibrant tumble of houses, each more colourful than the last, overlooking Coulagh Bay. Even now, many moons after that flying visit, the images remain as vivid as a John Hinde postcard and Eyeries retains a mythical, Brigadoon-like place in my memory. Indeed sometimes I wonder was I really there or did I just imagine it?
But there’s no question that I was because Eyeries is memorable for another reason. The village was, more or less, the mid-point of an epic trek along the Beara Way. This nine day circular hike from Glengarriff took me four years to complete. Or rather I did it in two stages: the first effort being a four day hoof to Allihies and then, some three years later, from Allihies back to where it all began. My bible for the journey was Michael Fewer’s invaluable The Way-Marked Trails of Ireland (Gill & MacMillan, 1993) – an entertaining ramble through the way’s flora, fauna and history which I dog-eared to death at the close of each day.
I return to Fewer now, using it to dip into the past and spoon out memories from what is one of the finest walks in Ireland. My recollections were also triggered by the Eyeries Family Festival, a three-day community event that is being resurrected this summer for the first time in a quarter of a century. On the day I passed through, burdened by a rucksack and a deadline to get to Ardgroom before my water supply ran out, the village was sleeping under a haze of summer. It’s unlikely to be so soporific for the festival with the irrepressible Sharon Shannon opening proceedings with an almighty céili in the local hall, a shindig followed by a community of other events (see below for more details).
But if you crave solitude – or a solitude punctuated by the cries of the birds and beasts of the countryside – the Beara Way is the place to be. Through my nine days, I saw very few souls on the trail with other walkers existing as phantoms. Occasionally there would be whispers in hostelries of those who had passed ahead of me and a speck in the distance suggested a pursuing hiker – or else a sheep with a backpack.
One of the busiest days of the whole walk was the departure from Glengarriff, a graceful resort with an air of faded history. That morning I spotted local resident and Hollywood legend, Maureen O’Hara, browsing in a woollen shop. As my (really good!) impersonation of John Wayne didn’t go down so well, I high-tailed it for the looming mass of the Caha Mountains at the far end the town. That evening was stage one, Adrigole, and a fine pub where the total population was barman, three frazzled walkers and an even more frazzled bat that was trying desperately to get out before last orders.
Over the next few days we toiled past the bare and ominous bulk of Hungry Hill and dropped into the fishing village of Castletownbere: a short ferry ride to Bere island and a trawl of the area swallowed up another day before we slogged our way into the first bar we could fiind in the village of Allihies: a place that could rival Eyeries for its palette of colours.
My second time on the Way began in unusual style with a trip to the snout of the peninsula and to Dursey Island where a cable-car swings you the short but scary distance over the sound. According to local legend, livestock have been transported thus but on the day I made the trip the box-like car was full of Italian tourists. A puny hook held the sliding doors shut. The Italians were fascinated by this detail of technology – or maybe they were just trying to keep the door shut – while others took a keen interest in the prayer to St Christopher sello-taped to wall. We survived to hike from Allihies to Ardgroom and then on following day we crossed the county bounds into Kerry and the outpost of Tousist.
The second last stage of the Beara Way takes you into Kenmare, the metropolis of the nine day hike. Stumbling into the town you feel somewhat like the frontiersman, Grizzly Adams, returning to the bustle of civilisation after years in the wilderness.
I never really completed the Beara way. Half way along the final stage, from Kenmare to Glengarriff, I tired of battling with traffic on the busy road that twists over the pass and down to the start/finish point. Following yet another near miss by a homicidal motorist, I just looked at the brother and we packed it in: a pedestrian end to a spectacular hike. Now, years later it seems like it never even happened. But a call about the Eyeries Family Festival brought it all back home. The Beara Way is out there – way out there some might say – but it is well worth the trip.
Photo of Eyeries village by John Eagle. www.johneagleart.com
• The Eyeries Family Festival takes place from July 22 to July 24. It will be launched by Sharon Shannon who will play a gig in the céilí hall in the village. There will also be a short season of Maureen O’Hara films.
More information from: http://eyeriesfestival.blogspot.com
• We have three pairs of tickets for the Sharon Shannon Festival on July 24 to give away. To be in with a chance to win simply answer the following:
What county is Sharon Shannon from?
• Send you entries to [email protected]. The closing date is July 20.