This past spring, I was enjoying a cold glass of beer at my local pub in Mérida when a friend pointed out to me, “Do you realize this will be the coolest summer you will ever remember?” I thought about it for a moment, and she was right. This has been the hottest few months I have experienced over all my years living in Mérida, with global warming in real-time. That afternoon over a Guinness inspired my escape from Mexico to cooler lands.
Having been bit by the wanderlust bug as a young man, I have had the pleasure of seeing many countries on and off the beaten path for years. I did a simple search for a remote cottage in an English-speaking country where the temperatures are, on average, below what we in Mérida would consider cold. Behold, Ireland popped up — more specifically, West Cork.
Pulling out my road map of the Emerald Isle, I discovered that the magical cottage was in Ballylickey, County Cork, and was off the beaten path. That very small dot on the map identified it as halfway between Bantry and Glengarriff on the Wild Atlantic Way along the western shore that extends over 1,500 rugged miles, the longest coastal route in the world. I figured that would be the perfect spot to pull up the drawbridge, relax in the cooler weather and perhaps be inspired. The heat and my creativity never made good partners.
Ireland has been on the top of my list since my first visit 29 years ago when I discovered the magic of this land. County Cork is the largest of all the counties, with its countless mountain peaks, narrow gaps, crystal bays, and peninsulas all waiting for my discovery. The only drawback was that I did not have a car and didn’t even desire one.
The trip from Dublin took a few hours with every form of transportation except a traditional Jaunty cart. I was happy to find a stack of local information in the cottage on arrival, which I soon devoured straight away. The area appeared to offer an alternative to the mainstream tour that most seek while visiting any country. There would be no kissing of stones in the castle or rubbing the statue’s body parts. I would save those activities for another time.
Walking would have to be my amusement, something I did daily in Mérida. But I wanted to step up my game. The weather was on my side. Global warming had reached Ireland. What could be dismal days of gray clouds and rain was the opposite for the most part. That hole in the ozone, as one farmer told me, “was finally opened over Ireland.” He was pleased, and so was I. Sunshine and bright blue skies inspired me to hit the road, albeit on foot.
My first destination while seeking out the sites and learning about the local lore was Carriganass Castle. Built in 1541, this ruin is seldom visited; I would have the place to myself. Legends, like in most parts of the world, were never written down. The myths relied on good storytellers to keep them alive, something where there is an abundance of them throughout the land.
Carriganass Castle was the site of revenge, murder, and escape. Donal Cain O’Sullivan Beare is the center of this story. After leading the Munster forces on the failed battle of Kinsale on Christmas morning, 1601, he retreated with his force of 1,000 fighters. His castle was taken by the enemy, and the wife of Donal Cain was murdered.
“No food or rest shall Donal know until he lays the murderer low.”
All good stories have to have a poem, and I believe that is the rule. Disguised as a monk, the now outlaw climbs the castle wall to seek revenge. The castle is festive with victory and a wedding of the doomed assailant’s daughter. Once confronted by the monk imposter, a confession is heard, and the murdered is thrown over the castle walls. Vengeance is always best served at a wedding.
“On piercing shriek was heard, no more up flashed the billows dyed with gore.”
My walk that day turned into a trek up over the hill as the local gardener told me to go “the best view of the bay.” Without a second thought, I went, and then I went farther until I reached the top. Breathtaking views of the pastures, the cows, and Bantry Bay that lay miles away on the coast. The sun warmed the ground, and the dew turned to mist as they ascended into the bright blue sky.
Another tale told to me at the same local pub was that of Priest’s Leap. Not far from my secluded cottage, high on a hill, is the site of another legend of a victorious stand against the enemy. The Queen of England passed the Act of Religion in 1580, which outlawed Roman Catholic priests as traitors and subjected them to horrendous punishment. The local priest mentioned that he was moments away from capture when he mounted a horse and galloped up the mountainside. The Priest Hunters followed and cornered him, quite literally, between a rock and a hard place. His only escape was to jump. No equestrian since has made the three-mile leap over the ravine to land safely near the village of Bantry.
Like all tall tales, seeing is believing. The peak from where he leaped exists, and I saw the evidence of where he landed in the valley. Today, the rider and horse’s hand, hoof, and knee prints are forever embedded into the granite stone. This can be seen on the way to Bantry, a coastal town with the charm and friendliness one would expect here along the southwest coast.
Being the largest town in walking distance, about 8 kilometers, Bantry was my go-to for necessary supplies to sustain me during my stay. Bantry was first written about in 1689 and described as not a pleasant place worthy of note. I took offense to that first travel writer’s observations and decided to discover it myself. With just under 3,000 souls living along the bay, it is the perfect community to enjoy a day or two. Charity shops, the perfect fish and chips, and a Guinness were in order on my walks into town.
But, when you look deeper, the history of this hamlet is renowned throughout the country. It was the site of many a conflict and the failed attempt of the French invasion to help the Irish overtake the English in 1797. It seemed the unfavorable weather caused the French fleet to sail back south; the unforgiving winds never ceased for days. Perhaps that is the origin of its name, The Wild Atlantic Way. If they had succeeded in landing, Irish history as we know it today would have been altered significantly.
The gentry soon discovered the beauty of the bay. Richard White, First Earl of Bantry, who was made a Baron for his loyalty to the crown, built a family estate close to the center. The Bantry House is a stately home that rivals any English country house, Highclere Castle notwithstanding. The home is an imposing structure overlooking Bantry Bay, with gardens that once had seen more glorious days. The family still owns it, and it is a must-see.
Today, I will wander further off the road and onto a cow path. I will be in search of a 3,000-year-old circle of standing stones. According to my research, the site is near the village of Kealkill, and the trek is not for the faint of heart. I am hoping to discover, amongst the formation of strategically placed rocks, a portal, one that might transport me back in time or at least back to my cottage with a lot less wear on my shoes.
My travels have taken me all over the world; I am constantly searching for evidence of the connection between different cultures and countries. Oral history might be all that remains. Like the Maya, the Irish have been gifted the art of storytelling; I encourage you to listen.
Most people never know what is in their backyard; if they do, they seldom visit. Mérida and the Yucatan have so many hidden finds that it would take a lifetime to discover them all. Next time you are out and about and the sky is blue and the air cool, turn down that dirt road on your right; it might just transport you to a place you didn’t expect to be.