This Sunday Independent travel feature I did last year on the Beara Peninsula has nabbed me a nomination at tonight’s Travel Extra Travel Journalist of the Year Awards. Fourth time lucky? We’ll see. Competition is massively stiff but it’s always a good night out.
Finding the Beara necessities of life
THERE are little kingdoms, to quote a Kevin Barry book title. They exist on this island in abundance, especially on the jagged, sea-hewn south-west coast where those five long fingered peninsulas of ours jab out into the ocean.
Beara stretches out in the middle, a little kingdom of west Cork mystery. Often bypassed for famous cousins in Dingle, Cahersiveen or Bantry, its time had finally come for us. Instead of living in ignorance, we would make the long winding journey down to Cork and then out, out and out through winding roads lined with Scots pines that twist along the water’s edge of Kenmare Bay.
If we ever found the place, we’d be in deepest, darkest Co Cork so there was nothing for it but to swing by the People’s Republic itself and stock up. But there are stocks and then there are stocks, and from what we knew of our destination and the luminaries it had housed over the years, only top-drawer fare would do.
Just as well we’re in Cork then. An excuse is found for lunch in the English Market’s Farmgate Cafe before we hit the vendors; Hegarty’s cheddar and Crozier Blue from On The Pig’s Back, pork belly from Tom Durcan and fish procured under the royalty-wooing grin of Pat O’Connell.
Our second, albeit more scenic and squiggly, half of the journey could begin.
Westwards we wound, through Macroom and Kenmare. We should count ourselves lucky – the architect Robin Walker made this journey many times in his life long before the arrival of the M8. From 1970-72, one of this country’s great modernists selected a steep oak-filled hillside just outside Ardgroom as the setting for his family bolthole and temple to friendship, Bothar Bui. We crawl down an elusive canopied driveway and find his vision glowing in the fading light, a bundled settlement of historic and modern buildings linked by paving stones and mossy verges.
Inside, artworks by Patrick and William Scott, Christo and Gerard Dillon hang casually on the walls like they have nowhere more important to be. Seamus Heaney, a friend of Walker’s, was among many icons of arts and politics to stay here over the years, and even reflected through verse on the “athletic sealight on the doorstep slab, on the sea itself, on silent roofs and gables / Whitewashed suntraps, hedges hot as chimneys”.
From the huge studio loft at the top of the site, sundowners go down particularly well, accompanied by a view that tricks you into believing you’re the only souls for hundreds of miles. Across the bay, Glanlough, Sneem and the Kerry Reeks are painted amber and purple by an Atlantic sunset.
When you awake, you see other things, or at least you think you do. Out through ceiling-height bedroom windows in our chalet, layers stack up perplexingly like a Scully painting – treetop, water, cloud, land, more water, more cloud, more land. As the mists clear, it makes more sense from the breakfast patio, the view shared with friends and dogs and the local hawks and swallows up above.
We emerge to find a nation of humans and cars occurring outside Bothar Bui and decide to explore it. There is much to see and more to walk in this endless coastline of undulations, textures and sharp angles where treasures hide. The wind is a little brisk for the cable-car crossing over to Dursey Island this day, so we walk the coves and slopes around Billeragh Head. The signposts say “The Beara Way” but we encounter only young ravens and the odd wheatear picking among the daisy-lined drystone walls.
If all this was not soothing enough for the city-singed brain, there is always the Dzogchen Beara Centre, a Buddhist retreat offering free daily sessions at their secluded clifftop perch. We prefer our meditation in noisier surrounds and make a committee decision to drop into Castletownbere to find MacCarthy’s Bar, the legendary battle cruiser of Pete McCarthy’s bestseller and the setting for that chapter about an impromptu “all-night hooley”.
While landlady Adrienne may have McCarthy’s Bar on sale here along with the rollicking memoir of her war-hero father Aidan, MacCarthy’s does not sell itself as some curio on the tourist trail. Groceries are sold in the front bar and Spanish fishermen gabble away down the back on a stopover at this bustling fishing port. “You can come in here sometimes and not hear a word of English spoken,” Adrienne chirps as she adds the finishing touches to a pint.
On the pier, the sun is settling in for the afternoon. At the far end, next to a slip by a little inlet, sits the converted stone warehouse that is the Sarah Walker Gallery. It is bright and airy and a fine space to show off works by its owner as well as paintings, prints and ceramics by other artists.
If this building and the woozy energy of Walker’s art seem somehow genetically related to Bothar Bui it’s because they are. Robin is, of course, Sarah’s father, and along with architect brother Simon, she would have spent a chunk of her life in that house absorbing its unique philosophical and geographical outlook.
The sting is taken out of our farewell on the bottom half of Beara as we skirt along a shoreline that proves once and for all that Ireland in the sunshine is unbeatable. Off to our right, the water is turquoise tinfoil sheeting around the islands of Bere and Whiddy. It remains thus on that meandering road through Skibbereen, the stunning estuary lands of Timoleague and on to our final resting place in Kinsale.
It’s a summer wonderland of paddling infants and cheerful bikers as we sit on the pier at the Bulman, looking back on Kinsale. Beara feels like a different continent that we cannot shake from our minds as we sip icy cider. For all the magnificence of what Robin Walker designed 45 years ago, it would be nothing without that architecture of topography that harbours Bothar Bui. That perfectly haphazard natural design that cannot be drawn up in an office and only half makes sense in Nobel prize-winning verse. Every broken line and wild arrangement of that little kingdom.
Travelling from Cork, Castletownbere is approximately a two-hour drive. Bothar Bui is situated about five minutes outside the village of Ardgroom (around 20 minutes north of Castletownbere). It is available to rent year round on a self-catering basis with a minimum stay of two nights from €115 per night and sleeps 12+. Botharbui.com
First published in the Sunday Independent