Pirates, pineapples and parties

As you know I live on a peninsula: a thin sliver of land jutting out into the Atlantic ocean with Dunmanus Bay on one side and the world-famous Bantry Bay on the other.

While I am, as I type, looking out at the blue-green waters of Dunmanus Bay, behind me and over the spine of the peninsula, is the much wider and much, much deeper Bantry Bay.

Bantry Bay, looking west towards the Atlantic Ocean

It was here that I witnessed what can only be described as a week-long festival of every feature that makes Ireland such a great place to live.

But first a bit of history for all those who are not aware of Bantry Bay’s incredible place in the nation’s story.

On a cold and stormy December night in 1796, 14,000 veteran French troops huddled in the damp, dark cargo holds of 43 naval vessels. Many were sick; all of them were cold and wet after enduring a storm-filled crossing from their bases on the west coast of France. The French ships suddenly appeared out of the darkness and made their way to their target and landing point, the town of Bantry at the end of the 22-mile long bay.

Bantry Bay looking east towards the town of Bantry and the proposed land site for the French army

The French armada had successfully evaded the Royal Navy, sailed silently up Bantry Bay and were now dropping anchor over-looking the town and its sleeping inhabitants.

Ireland’s back door, so to speak, was wide open. This was better than anyone had expected. The closest English garrison that could have offered some opposition was over 50 miles away in Cork city. While the French troops were eager to get ashore and begin the liberation of Ireland, there was a problem.

The French fleet had broken up into smaller groups out in the Atlantic to avoid the Royal Navy and, while 43 ships had now rejoined in Bantry Bay, a few were missing. One of these missing vessels was the flagship Fraternité, and a very important passenger, the general commanding the French expedition, General Hoche.

With no one to take command, no one to give the order to land and the weather getting worse by the hour, the French army waited, like sitting ducks for all to see. It must have been some sight when the sun came up and there, anchored in the bay, was this easily reached giant target. When General Hoche and the Fraternité finally arrived, he took one look at the conditions (the worsening weather and the lack of any movement by his army) and called the whole invasion off. The French hauled up their anchors and began to make their way back up the bay towards the Atlantic and home to France. Never would Ireland and the English be so unprepared for an invading army again.

As the French fleet broke out into the Atlantic, a long boat known as a ‘Captains Gig’ was dislodged from one of the ships. This boat washed up on Bere Island, a small spec of land at the mouth of Bantry Bay.

The Bantry Bay Longboat, as it quickly became known, was taken to Bantry House where it stayed for over 150 years until it was moved, in the 1940s, to the National Museum in Dublin. This long boat is the oldest surviving vessel in the French navy and has gone on to inspire a festival of seamanship, which involves young people from across the globe. This summer, the Atlantic Challenge, as the festival is called, took place in Bantry Bay.

More than 300 participants representing teams from Indonesia, Canada, Russia, the USA and elsewhere spent a week in Bantry where they competed in various sea trials and generally had a whale of a time.

The parade of nations at the opening of the Bantry Atlantic Challenge 2012

Bantry became a party town for a week; we had the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, on hand to officially launch the 2012 Atlantic Challenge and there was plenty to do both on and off the water.

Some of the competitors meeting the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins

Food, music, sailing, oh and an invasion by hundreds of pirates, all culminated in a spectacular fireworks display as Bantry said goodbye to the visitors at the end of the week.

The Irish team arrives at the launch of the Bantry Atlantic Challenge 2012

And before I continue, when I say that there were hundreds of pirates in Bantry, you must remember that the people of West Cork are no strangers to pirates. In fact the town of Baltimore (the original Baltimore in County Cork) is only too aware of what a menace ‘real’ pirates can be.

Far from the Caribbean sea, these are the pirates of Bantry Bay

More history. Back in 1631, on another dark and stormy night (we get a lot of those around here), the entire coastal town of Baltimore was sacked by pirates who took all the men, women and children to Africa where they were sold into slavery. Of the 108 people captured only three made it back to Ireland alive.

Back in Bantry, during the summer of 2012, the town was overrun with eye patches, wooden legs, muskets and even parrots, all enjoying a day-long party in the town square. However, it was far from treasure maps and plundering the high seas these lads and lasses were reared as most headed for the candyfloss and the bouncy castles.

No self respecting pirate goes anywhere with his or her parrot

There were also prizes for the best-dressed pirates. Fears that someone would be forced to walk the plank when it turned out that the prizes were pineapples and not treasure chests were short-lived but the presentation of the prickly fruits did cause one or two muskets to be drawn.

This family of pirates are happy with their pineapple prize

As the festival came to a close, it reminded me that while I spend most of my time enjoying all that Dunmanus Bay has to offer, you can very easily miss all the other beautiful and interesting communities and locations outside of my world on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula.

It’s time to get out and see more of West Cork I think.

 

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An artist disguised as a postman

Let it be said plainly and simply so that future historians are left in no doubt. The summer of 2012, my first summer on the Peninsula, was a complete washout.

It rained, and rained, and then when the sun came out from behind the rain clouds for what seemed like a full ten minutes, it rained again.

Don’t get me wrong; I have no regrets. My summer was filled with other delights, one of which, once again, proved that the people on the Peninsula are, without a doubt, a very creative bunch. Growing up, we’re told never to judge a book by its cover because you never know what’s inside. Well, our postman, here in Kilcrohane is leading a double life.

You know, of course, of our resident world-renowned artist, Alex Chamberlain who lives just outside the village. Back in November 2011 (wow, it’s almost a year since we first came to Kilcrohane) as I was getting to know Alex, he mentioned that our postman Danny Smith loves to paint.

Danny Smith at his very first art show in Kilcrohane

While opening the door to Danny most mornings as he delivers our mail, I never considered that under the polyester gunmetal grey uniform there beats the heart of a true artist. ‘I want Danny to show his work,’ Alex had said to me back in November. I said that I would love to help, promotion wise, and perhaps I could write a piece for the newspaper.

The months rolled on and, as Danny delivered the mail, I found myself wondering if we would ever get to see his work. ‘Danny is very shy about his work; I have been encouraging him to have a show, he needs to let the world see what he has done and how talented he is,’ Alex continued. High praise indeed, now I really wanted to see what our artist postman could do.

Alex Chamberlain and Danny Smith

In Kilcrohane, there are two pubs, a guesthouse, a village shop/post office and a restaurant/wine bar called the Grain Store. Only opened for two months of the year, the Grain Store is within walking distance of our house and serves some of the best food and wine on the Peninsula. There will be more about the Grain Store and the wonderful Marie in another blog. It was here, at the Grain Store, that Danny would show his work to the people of the Sheep’s Head.

As Danny stood at the door of the Grain Store, no longer dressed in his polyester uniform, he looked every inch the artist. There was a large crowd already viewing his work when we arrived and, after a quick hello and a word of congratulations, we joined the queue that was filing slowing around the room.

Enjoying the art at the Grain Store in Kilcrohane

Pablo Picasso once said, ‘The purpose of art is to wash the dust of daily lives off our souls’. Well, as I took in the paintings hanging on the walls of the Grain Store on that July evening, all thoughts of bad weather, cold breezes, and never-ending rain were quickly forgotten. My soul was now dust free, thanks to Danny Smith.

One of the locals that supplied inspiration for Danny

I’m not an art critic but I know what I like and for me Danny’s work hits all the right notes on my visual keyboard. Big bold brush strokes, lots of colour and light, Danny’s work draws you in until you see not just the subject of the painting but also movement and light. I don’t like watercolours. For me a painting should have texture and depth. I know you’re not suppose to but I love paintings that say, ‘go on touch me, feel the contours of the paint on the canvas’. I love the almost 3D effect of heavy oils and acrylics. Danny’s work makes you want to touch it, the use of colour and light almost inviting you to get closer, and the closer you get the more alive the painting seems.

I know that there are people reading this who are aghast at my troglodyte efforts at describing Danny’s work but it really is that good.

Since Danny’s first showcase at the Grain Store in Kilcrohane, I am confident that there will be more in the future and not just on the Sheep’s Head, I find myself wondering just what other talents are the people of the Peninsula hiding?

The locals and visitors arrive at the Grain Store to see just what our postman artist can do

I think it’s time to explore not only the food, landscape and angling prospects that the Peninsula has to offer. It’s time to highlight the wonderful community that is so vibrant, creative and thriving on the Sheep’s Head peninsula.

This is the village on a wonderful summers day. Blue sky and warm breezes

A perfect day

I really, really enjoyed the summer of 2012.

Remembering it now, I can feel the tears begin to well up in my eyes. It’s all fine having warm, dry weather but to have warm, dry weather on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula means that you are in fact transported to what many have described as the Riviera of Ireland.

The summer of 2012 and the beginning of a perfect day.

Well, when I say many I mean me; I describe it as the Riviera of Ireland because when the weather is good, and I mean really good, ‘good enough to wear a polo shirt without losing the circulation in your arms’ good, then there is no place like the Sheep’s Head Peninsula.

It all began on Friday morning; somebody somewhere turned up the thermostat, switched on the sun and turned off the cloud machine. Blue skies, temperatures in the mid-twenties (that’s the high-seventies for our American friends – practically a heat-wave for Ireland), warm, blue water in the Bay and the swallows returning en mass from South Africa to their holiday homes along the Peninsula.

As I left the house, there was a blast of warm air, warm air that was coming in from the outside not the other way around – like when the cabin crew open the door of the aircraft upon landing at your sun holiday destination. The birds were singing, there were smiling people everywhere and all was right with the world.

Now, here in Ireland we have learned down through the generations that you have to make the most of the good weather when it arrives. So, if you are ever on this Island and you encounter people who look like they have third-degree burns, this means there must have been good weather in the not so distant past. If indeed you are lucky enough to be here when the weather is good then you will see people (men for the most part) stripped to the waist as they go about their daily business: driving cars, shopping, sitting on buses, drinking in pubs, etc. A simple rule applies – when the sun comes out, take off your shirt. As for sun cream to protect against skin cancer and sunburn, well, that’s just for girls and children. A real man knows that the harmful effects of the sun do not apply to his milky white skin and, anyway, the ladies love it when the Irish male goes topless.

You will be glad to hear that I did not strip off my top to celebrate the good weather. I did however put on my first polo shirt of the season and I got out the ‘legs’. That’s right; I exposed the good people of Kilcrohane to the milky white goodness that is my legs. At first, I feared for the eyesight of my neighbours who would be exposed to their blinding whiteness but I decided to risk it and hope for the best. Now, suitably attired with shorts and a polo shirt (I also removed my vest but decided not to go ‘commando’), I headed out to enjoy the Irish summer.

And enjoy the summer we did. Plans were quickly put in place for a picnic. Armed with marinated chicken, a mushroom and pepper frittata, olives, bread, a really good bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (we also included a flask of tea, after all this was an Irish picnic) and the fishing rods, we headed for a tranquil and beautiful bay just down the road from our house.

An ideal spot for a picnic

After a short walk along the headland, we found our spot overlooking Dunmanus Bay where it joins the Atlantic Ocean. As we sat on our perch, looking at the blue sky, the green patchwork of fields along the Peninsula and the clear water, it was hard to imagine the gale force wind and driving rain that had only a few days ago rushed down the length of the Bay.

We drank our wine and toasted our good fortune to live in such a beautiful place. At this very moment, our day out enjoying the good weather was almost perfect. Just one more element needed to fall into place and then this Saturday could go down in history as ‘a perfect day’.

I had the fishing rods; if only we could return home with sun-kissed skin and a few fresh fish, that would be something to tell the grandchildren about.

Ready for the first cast of the day

I set off armed with my rod and a new lure that cost me the princely sum of €1.50 ($1.89). ‘This,’ the man in the tackle shop said as he held the new lure up to the light, ‘this will have the fish out of the water and on to the rocks quicker than dynamite’. I wasn’t convinced but dynamite is a lot more expensive and harder to come by (typing ‘dynamite for sale’ into Google seemed unwise) so I handed over the €1.50.

My new ‘dynamite’ lure

As I stood on the rocks ready to cast, I could see gannets diving in the distance and a cormorant drying its wings on the rocks. ‘I hope they left some fish for me,’ I thought as I cast the lure out into the Bay. When it hit the water about 36 metres (40 yards) from me, I counted to 10, slowly, to give the lure time to sink. Then, as I began to retrieve the bait (still wondering about the possibility of getting dynamite), the lure suddenly stopped and the rod was almost wrenched from my hand.

At first I thought the lure was caught in rocks or some dense seaweed, a situation I have found myself in many times. However, this was different, my fishing rod was bent over and the tip was moving in all directions. I lifted the rod up; the movement became quicker and stronger. I began to reel in, there was definitely something alive on the other end of the line and after a few minutes (minutes that felt like a lifetime) I got my first glimpse of the fish. A long, silver body attached to the end of my line getting closer by the minute.

How about this for a stunner? And the fish ain’t bad either! Please note the ‘legs’ have been cut from the photo to avoid blindness.

After some mad thrashing on top of the water, I managed to land the pollack on to the rocks. I stood there amazed; not only had I caught a fish, a very big fish, over 3 kilos (7lbs), I did this on my first cast. It seems I don’t need to order the dynamite after all. Three more fish followed in quick succession. I actually arrived home with fish, no excuses about the wrong tides or the wrong water temperature, real fish that I didn’t buy or get as a present. A perfect day at last.

Pollack from Dunmanus Bay

Today as I sit here writing my blog and looking out at the rain lashing against the window, watching the grey sky and the trees swaying in the wind, it all seems like a dream. Ah, the Irish summer of 2012; it was the best 48 hours ever.

Heading for home at the end of summer 2012