As I said, I’ve been trying to take mornings to write, and afternoons to wander. And I’ve been trying to quantify why the Sheeps Head feels like such beautiful desolation. Part of it, obviously, is the sheer, objective sparsity of population. I can’t nail down precise numbers but, even including the towns of Durrus and Ahakista down at the base of the peninsula, and tiny Kilcrohane, the average population density seems to be about one person per 25 acres or so.
It didn’t used to be. Everywhere you walk, there are stone walls and the classic, roofless frames of houses long abandoned. Again, I’ve had a hard time coming by numbers, but this part of Ireland was one of the worst hit, and lost most of its population to potato blight and the resulting famine from 1845-1850.
It’s hard to walk these paths and not imagine these relics as thriving households, smoke coming from the everpresent twin chimneys, cattle in the pasture and children hoeing rows of crops. They’re all gone. Many emigrated to America, many just dead. The stories of privation and quiet starvation are difficult to take, but hard to ignore when you look out at the ruins crumbling into the abiding earth.
Maybe someday someone will reclaim some of them – sort out property rights and permits, rebalance and repoint the stone, add timber, concrete, drywall and a new slate roof and create for themselves a new life out here. I’ll admit to entertaining thoughts like that when stuff on the farm has gotten me down. But running away from the thing you’ve run away to from something else is neither a class act nor one that provides particularly good auguries for success. Still, as one tromps along the glorious desolation, it’s a soothing daydream.
I had a good one of those tromps a couple of days ago. A loop along the Poet’s Way – out to the lighthouse and back in toward Bantry on the north side of the peninsula, dodging sheep and shoe-sucking bogs. Then over the ridge to the south side, and back out along the spine to the remains of the signal tower atop Ballyroon Mountain. The tower dates from the early 1800s, as part of a ring from Dublin around to Donegal built in the face of threat from Napoleonic France (Roaringwater Journal has written a lot about them). In theory, in case of attack, messages could be passed from tower to tower by flags or fire, relaying a message from Cork to Dublin in less than three hours.
The Poet’s Way drops you off back at Bernie’s Cupan Tea – the much-vaunted “Teashop at the End of the World.” Bernie’s is a well-weathered, but clearly more modern stone building that the famine cottages; and while it’s only open weekends, the picnic tables outside are a fine respite in the sort of weather we’ve been having.
In all of my perambulations back in 2019, I only crossed paths with another hiker once, while approaching Bernie’s after a loop around the Poet’s Way. This time I passed a trio of young Germans going the other way about halfway around; we met again a few hours later, finishing our respective loops at the otherwise deserted Bernie’s. I offered them dried ginger and granola; they offered me a shot of the Islay whisky they’d toted, and we all agreed that I’d gotten the better half of the deal.
But there are other stone buildings here that are much, much older. Just over the ridge from the cottage, and east of Kilcrohane there’s another loop that will take you along the low green pastures bordering Dunmanus Bay, where you can explore a smattering of smaller, rougher stone houses. Archaeologists have identified it as the remains of a Bardic school run by the O’Daly clan from the 1300’s on. Powerful men, including the King of Spain, are believed to have sent their sons here to be educated.
How little we know of the lives of those who lived in the famine cottages, how much less of those who came far before them. Can we imagine the sons of kings hiding from their tutors, crouched and giggling as they stuffed themselves with late summer blackberries from the cove? And before them, the children of those who placed the standing stones?
It is sobering to wander such ruined but enduring reminders that our lifespan, our civilization is but the flicker of a candle’s flame. But it feels like good medicine. It reminds us to use our own brief time well, and to choose our legacies wisely. And right now, it’s reminding me that I’d best be getting back to working on that damned book.