I need a rest: a very long rest. I’m thinking of heading back to the city so that I can relax for a while. You see, my first Christmas in Kilcrohane, in fact my first Christmas outside Cork city, has been just one long list of activities, events and places to go. My usual Christmas routine of sofa, T.V. and food is but a distant memory.
In preparation for my first festive season in rural Ireland, I travelled up to the city last week to get what I call my ‘urban fix’ before I relaxed into the warm blanket of a very special Kilcrohane Christmas. Or so I thought.
I immersed myself in all my favourite places, fearful that they might have changed since I moved to the Peninsula. But no, everything was as I had left it. The Mutton Lane Inn was still warm and welcoming, the English Market was packed with people collecting their turkeys, hams and, of course, the world-famous spiced beef. As I walked along Oliver Plunkett Street, soaking in the atmosphere, I found myself wondering if I would make it back to the Sheep’s Head for the Christmas carol service later that evening or whether there would be a big turnout for the Christmas Day swims in Dunmanus Bay or which of the two St. Stephen’s Day guided walks along the Sheep’s Head Way I would be up for. I suddenly found the city of my birth, the city I love so well, claustrophobic; it was time to head home to the Peninsula.
I made it back to the village in time for the carol service; both the parish priest and the local Church of Ireland clergy gathered with the children of the community and their families at the village church. The festive carols and the candle-lit church soon had all those present singing along, and as one man said when the service ended: ‘Now Christmas can begin’. When we all gathered at the back of the church for mulled wine, mince pies and hot chocolate, it was then that I realised that this wasn’t going to be a traditional Christmas as I have known it back in the city.
On Christmas Eve, the only place to be was in Eileen’s pub where friends and family members gathered to listen to the music and to prepare for the celebrations that were about to begin.
Firstly, let me just start by saying that we (and I mean me, especially) never considered taking a dip in ice-cold water on Christmas Day to be a very, shall we say, sensible, let alone festive, thing to do. But, it appears that the people of the Peninsula like nothing better than to strip off and plunge into Dunmanus Bay before they sit down to their Christmas dinners. And, in case you are wondering, no, I didn’t take part in this madness. Charity fundraisers or not, I haven’t taken a dip off the coast of Ireland in over 25 years and I don’t intend starting now.
As I stood on the piers of Kilcrohane and Ahakista, wrapped in my coat, scarf, hat and gloves, I could only marvel at the men, women and children who bravely jumped, walked and ran into the sea. In fact, most of them didn’t even wrap themselves in towels when they came out of the water after their swim. They all stood around in their swimming trunks, drinking whiskeys and hot chocolate as if they were at a beach party in Barbados. I know this has been a very mild Christmas but come on. I, on the other hand, legged it back to the car as it was raining and I didn’t want to get the camera wet; otherwise I would have stayed, obviously.
As we settled down to our Christmas dinner, my thoughts turned to a lovely fire, a box of chocolates and a glass of something smooth and warming while the next activity for the following day was already being discussed.
You all know about the Sheep’s Head Way by now and at 12 noon on December 26, two guided walks along sections of ‘the Way’ were planned. The first walk would take three hours, the second, an hour and a half; can you guess which one I picked? So, there we were, the wind picking up, rain on its way, about to head off into the wilds of the Peninsula. Both groups set off together, one lot headed for a mountain while we headed for a stone circle and what was promised to be a much ‘easier’ walk.
James O’Mahony, one of the people responsible for developing the Sheep’s Head Way for walkers was on hand to see us off. John and Sally McKenna from the Bridgestone Guides said hello as they left on the three-hour walk and for a second (just a second) I thought maybe we should have gone for that one. However, about 15 minutes into the ‘easy’ walk, I was thinking that the rescue helicopter I was about to call had better get here fast. Don’t get me wrong, for anyone whose idea of exercise is anything other than going to put more coal on the fire, the ‘stroll’ as one walker put it, would be no problem. Indeed, the kids who went skipping by me as I climbed this one section of mountain (for mountain, my wife suggests you insert the words ‘slight rise’) didn’t seem at all shocked at the man in the strange hat who was about to cough up a lung. As we came down the other side of the mountain (slight rise), one of our guides pointed out the local attraction known as the ‘hole in the road’. There in the middle of the road was indeed a hole, about the size of a tennis ball.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘If you’ve seen one pothole, you’ve seen them all’, but this isn’t a pothole. When you look into the hole, you can see movement. It appears that under the road runs a stream and a local past-time is to drop flowers into the hole in the road and then marvel at their reappearance as the stream emerges further down towards Ahakista.
In our group, I was glad to see some seasoned ‘walkers’. David and Elizabeth Ross from West Cork Walking have been on all the routes on the Sheep’s Head and soon had me forgetting about my aches and pains. David and Elizabeth arrange guided walking tours across West Cork from their farm near Drimoleague.
Finally, we made it back to Arundel’s bar in Ahakista for more mulled wine and sandwiches, where two children who were collecting for the ‘Wren’, an Irish tradition on St. Stephen’s day, entertained us. While I am not ruling out following the Sheep’s Head Way (my wife wants to complete the entire route), I may have to increase the distance from the sofa to the coal bucket to the fire before I head for that mountain once again.
Merry Christmas from Kilcrohane.