Hitching the Beara Peninsula
Round Ireland with a Limp, Episode 3: Cork to Cahermore
Monday 16th April 2012
It’s impossible to say “Cahermore” in an English accent and have people understand you. “Ohh – Caa-herr-mohrr” – locals roll it through their mouths like wind rolling through a tunnel, when they finally work out where it is you want to go.
We pass over onto the Beara Peninsula. Just before Glengarriff, the landscape changes instantly. Gone are the lush green fields and hedgerows that have so far characterised my experience of Ireland. Here we have deep greys and dry browns; crags jutting into swashling waves on our left; boulders rising up into barren hills on our right.
I’m with a guy named Marcus, who lives in Glengarriff. He’s one of a series of short lifts I’ve had since Skibbereen, where I found the Heritage Centre I was aiming to visit closed on Mondays. Once again I’m reminded of how disorganised I am.
I left Cork city several hours late this morning after a rip-roaring few days, which my liver will no doubt punish me for in later life. The late start was not, however, due to self-induced brain curdling, but a mission to settle a wee dispute between my father and his sister Mary.
An email from my father, dated 5th August 2010, says:
You have at least two relatives who were in some way instrumental in bringing about the Irish Free State :-
John Thaddeus Harrington born 25/1/1898
IRA activist in the run-up to the Partition of Ireland, survived into the 1960s and I remember him well.
Daniel V Harrington born between 1898-1899
IRA activist along with John Thaddeus, died of pneumonia while on the run from British forces.
His grave in Cork bears the legend “Daniel V Harrington IRA aged 19 yrs died 23/11/1918.
Mary thinks this is load of old bunkum. Still, thanks to a spot of grave hunting this morning, I think I can settle things.
A coffee-stop later, an English guy takes me another 5km up into the Ring of Beara. He has a copy of ‘Notes From Down Under’ by Bill Bryson on his dashboard, which we have time to discuss briefly before I get out. When I grow up, I want to be a travel writer just like Bill Bryson, only more political – is that possible?
I find myself standing outside the garden of a short, wide white house on a long straight road – the only house within eyesight. I love hitching small country roads. For me, they’re second only to remote mountain passes, where locals reckon a car might come along once a week. On this occasion cars are coming every ten minutes or so but, strangely, they aren’t stopping for me. This may or may not have something to do with my companion: a nervous and bedragled border collie who has fallen in love with me.
After 20 minutes or so a man comes out from the house. “That your dog?” he asks me. “No, I thought she was yours!” “Never seen her before in me life.” The dog runs behind the nearest hedge as another car approaches and drives straight past my outstretched thumb. The man goes back inside.
More time passes. My compañera is growing more gutsy by the minute and has taken to chasing and barking at cars briefly, then running back and cowering behind my pack.
A woman comes out from the house. I shout a jovial “hello!” and she nods in my direction, looks at the dog and goes back in. After a time, she comes out again and loads up her car. I cross my fingers behind the “Castletown” sign I’ve written on a page of my notebook. She gets in the car, rolls a small way down the drive and calls over to me – “I’m only going up the road, but come on.” I get in the car, thanking her profusely. The dog looks very unhappy about all this, but there’s nothing I can do for her. The woman drops me outside a small shop 6km further on.
This road is even quieter. A few cars drive down to the shop, buy milk and a paper and drive back up the road away from me. The one man going my way waves as he drives past.
A 40 ton truck grinds to a halt in front of the tiny shop. The guy calls out the window – “Where’re ya headed?” Alan is from Belfast and has been on the road since the early hours. He’s not supposed to pick people up, but I won’t tell if he won’t. This is my first – and will be my only – truck ride in the whole of Ireland.
My host Iris meets me by the Dinish Bridge just outside Castletownbere, the local name for what my map calls ‘Castletown Bearhaven’. We stop for chips in town on the way out to her place; there are no shops out there at all.
Iris lives in Cahermore: an area of a few scattered houses near the end of the wild and barren Beara Peninsula. It’s my favourite place in Ireland so far.
By coincidence, there is a Dzogchen retreat and meditation centre up the road. While browsing couchsurfing hosts in the area I noticed it mentioned in another woman’s profile and it cemented my decision to come here. There are 9am and 3pm meditations daily, so I rise bright and early to a beaming sunny day. Ten minutes later it’s pissing rain, but has brightened up again by the time I’ve had breakfast. I open the door with my camera poised and a storm hits as soon as I set foot outside. Crazy, crazy Irish weather.
Cars drive past my soggy thumb every few minutes. Why, oh why won’t they stop? There’s only one road and they can’t be going anywhere but past the Centre. Finally, at ten to nine, a woman stops. I get into the large spacious meditation room exactly as the session starts, positioning myself on a cushion opposite one of two walls of floor to ceiling windows looking straight out to sea. The weather has brightened again and the waves froth happily below us. Coloured prayer flags line the small peninsula running out to the East. I exhale and settle into my body properly for what seems the first time in eons.
After hitching into town for coffee and a look around I’m back at the Centre in time for the big communal lunch. It’s €10 and not very vegan, but they’ve made a separate “special diet” version for people like me. No pudding though. I get confused by Buddhist centres advocating the use of dairy and therefore animal torture – seems a little out of step with the principle of “non-harm”. Perhaps they just don’t understand how Western food production works?
The second meditation is in a different space on the same grounds. I pass time before it in the Dzogchen Beara coffee shop, on a window-seat of cushions and a view to steal one’s breath. I’m reading through a pamphlet about ‘Harriet’s Death’, bringing up a few tears and residual emotion – from Dad I suppose. Harriet was one of the co-founders of the Centre and she had a particularly moving and supported death, which has since inspired the Centre to focus on death and terminal illness, working with healthcare proffessionals through seminars and training; creating the ‘spiritual care centre’ Dechen Shying – a space welcoming ‘those who are facing life challenges, such as ill health, life-limiting illness or loss’. I am all admiration.
Evenings in Cahermore are stormy and bleak, the waves crashing at the rocks along the coast. I can watch them from the large windows that line the conservatory that Iris uses as her lounge, a cat on my lap for company. It’s the perfect place to darn the holes in my gloves, write postcards I’ve carried for weeks and chat with Iris about life out here in the wild west of Ireland. The jaunty bustle of Cork seems a far-away memory now.