“We have bought a cottage in Ireland,” Dad had announced.
There had been vague talk within the family that it might be a good idea for us to acquire some kind of holiday home. We either had children or they were on the way and our lives were in a state of flux. But we all had a different idea as to where might be best. My view was that a small place in Spain would be just about right; ideally it would be within walking distance of a good market, stalls piled high with fresh fruit and veg and white counters of glistening fish and butchers that sold the more obscure parts of the animal along with the rest. A warm beach would have been good as well.
We didn’t pay too much attention when Mum and Dad said they were going away to West Cork, Ireland for a long weekend. They had been there the year before and it seemed they had found something about the country that they liked. For the rest of us our only experience of Ireland had been a Guinness fuelled weekend in Dublin and the adverts that appeared in the Sunday papers from the Irish Tourist Board – pictures of green fields, wild coastlines and pubs full of music. We also knew that with those green fields came an awful amount of rain.
We paid more attention when they came home and Dad made his announcement.
They had seen a small advert for a cottage for sale in the back of one of the Sunday papers. The sale price included all of the contents; not just the furniture but the bed linen as well, the pictures on the wall, the cutlery in the kitchen drawers, all of the books and some tangled mackerel lines in the back of the garage.
This was 1998, pre-internet, and the news was given to us over the phone.
“It is right by the sea,” Dad said. “ And there is a small rocky beach at the bottom of the garden and then behind the cottage there is a pier and up the road there is a pub and then down the road the other way up round the back there is a small shop run by a lady called Marie Burke and they sell milk, cornflakes and bacon and ice-lollies.”
Dad knew the ice-lollies were important, if only to provide something to keep the grandchildren amused.
“Is there anywhere else to buy food?” I asked.
“Well there is a bigger shop in the nearest village, Durrus, which is 10 minutes away and then there are shops in Bantry which is another 20 minutes away.”
Whilst all this sounded very good it was a long way from my thoughts of a Spanish market and a warm beach.
It was another few weeks before we saw Mum and Dad and they were able to show us the photos they had taken over the course of their weekend in Ahakista and it all started to become clear.
The Cottage was really just that. A small squat cottage by the side of the pier in Ahakista. It was painted a bright white with a dark slate roof. There was a yellow stable door in the middle facing out over the lawn and two lean-tos either side. The lean-to by the road housed the kitchen and there was another split door that opened out to a metal gate and the road. The other-lean squeezed in a small bunk room and a bathroom. There was one large room downstairs, which was divided by the stairs, on one side of which there was a small living room and on the other side of which there was a heavy oak dining table. There were two bedrooms upstairs on either side of the landing. There was just enough room to swing a cat but you would have to stand at the right angle.
They showed us a photo of Mum stood on the lawn looking back over the Cottage and the clear blue sky that was overhead. It had obviously been one of those days when sun has come out and the weather stands still in all its glory.
There was another photo of Mum sat with Mr and Mrs Gould, the then owners, by a green metal table drinking tea in front of the yellow door and there were photos of the sea that ran from the bottom of the lawn. The tide had been in when they visited the water almost up to the low wall at the bottom the garden.
The Gould’s children had grown up and to their disappointment they found that they were not visiting the place as often as they had done before. They had a vague concern that Ahakista was getting busier. The pier had been extended the previous year and there was a worry that this would give rise to an increase in activity round the back of the Cottage. They were also wary of some of the locals and had decided not to advertise the place for sale locally, which is why the advert had appeared in Mum and Dad’s Sunday paper.
Dad explained the benefit of being able to buy it all lock, stock and barrel. There was no need for us to be carting beds and furniture over. It all came with the price.
But it was clearly the weather that had sold it. The blue sky and the water sitting so close together as if it might never rain.
And so the family bought the Cottage by the Pier. There wasn’t much say in it and we went along trusting in Mum and Dad’s judgement on the weather.
It took us a year to get there.
The children know it now but for me there still is a tightening in the stomach as we drive out from Durrus along the coast road to Ahakista. It is there not just on the day of arrival but each journey back from Durrus along the sea road to get to the Cottage.
We first did the drive from Dublin across Ireland to get there in Easter 1999. We had taken the early morning ferry from Holyhead to Dun Laogharie.
Before that we had other plans that took in friends in Italy and Spain and there was wariness about going there. Those photos of the green in the sun set it all up and with so much invested it was difficult to see how it could live up to those expectations.
The journey from Dublin to Ahakista took the best part of eight hours that first trip across. We went in two cars with Mum and Dad in one and the us with the two children, Kristen and Galen, in the other although we stopped a couple of times to swap around passengers and children.
The journey out of Dublin itself took two hours following our noses and each other and trying to find the road to the west. There was a bit of motorway out of the City which stopped at Nass and then we were on Ireland’s main roads, no by-passes and no dual carriageways – two lanes and the occasional widening – an ambitious line towards the side of the road to indicate that perhaps you could pull in so as to let the speed happy Irishman stuck behind you in his souped up Ford escort get past, avoiding the tractors.
Near Kildare a lorry had got stuck under a bridge and we spent an hour sat still before being sent on a detour through green lanes and the country. It was then onto Portlaoise, Abbeyleix, Urlingford, Horse and Jockey, Cashel and Cahir, Mitchelstown and Fermoy and then the road down from the central plain to Cork. We had to slow down going through each town or string of house along the road.
Over the following few years we would become familiar with some of these towns and their car parks as they became stopping off places for a coffee, change of nappy, a sandwich or just somewhere to stretch the legs. The Japanese Gardens outside Kildare and the car park for Cahir Castle. Sometimes we would stop having taken a side road through green fields. The roads were quiet and once we had a picnic next to one of the thin castles or watchtowers next to a farm.
Now there is a by-pass around Dublin and it is either motorway or dual carriageway all the way to Cork. As the dual carriageway was extended it by-passed the towns we had stopped at and now they are just names on signs as we hurtle past. On a good day now it is possible to do the journey in a quick four hours.
But the drive from Cork is still almost 2 hours following the signs for Bantry through the easy rolling countryside and little different from when we first did it. Over the years the towns we drive through have become familiar, but we have rarely stopped such is the desire to get there; first Bandon, then Enniskeen, then Dunmannaway and finally Drimoleague.
A few miles out of Drimoleague on a clear day if you look to the left you can see through the hedges and trees the distant grey mountains of the Sheep’s Head.
Mostly it is easy driving although suddenly the road will sharpen and narrow and there is always the slow unyielding clump of a tractor to take you unaware as you come out of a corner.
At last you come to the turn off for Durrus and the Sheep’s Head. Rinn Mhuintir Bhaire. It might be the sign for the end of the world. The road rises up and past Knockboolteenagh and then down into the green valley of the Durrus River. There is another quick glimpse of the mountains of the Sheep’s Head and that is the last sight of them before you pass Durrus and reach the water.
Through Durrus and if the tide is high, the black stench of mud, normally stalked by a couple of herons, is covered with water which can rise so high as to almost drown the bridge past the Anglican Church the last building in Durrus and then the water on the left of the road pushing and pulling away from the land and the first proper sight of Knocknamaddree sitting in the middle of the Mizen moving out of the narrowing of the bay out of Durrus past the grain store and then through the trees the bay widens slightly to take in on the left the blue of Blair’s Cove.
We normally make the journey down in late July or August when each side of the road, each hedgerow, is coloured and marked by a blaze of red or pink from fuchsia in its full summer bloom and the orange montbretia flowers pushing through to dominate through all the thick green leaves. The fuchsia has been chosen as the symbol for West Cork, but for the lack of an attractive shape montbretia would do just as well, the flowers spill out of every ditch and hedgerow, a surprise that there could be so much colour against all that green.
The road chases back to the land as the swallows cut up, over and through the hedges on either side and then up to and past Rossmore Point, its rambling farmhouse and ruined castle stuck in a plot of land away from the sea the road rises and then falls to cling back to the coast and the view is the full sweep of the bay opened up. Knocknamaddree squat over the Mizen on the left and on the right the mountains of the Sheep’s Head, Rosskerrig, Seefin and in the distance a misty glimpse of Ballyroon Mountain the last stop before the Atlantic and between the two peaks of the bay the straight line that separates sky from water dominating the distance.
f it is late afternoon in summer the sun will be falling behind Rosskerrig and the water is silver fast as the flash of a belly of mackerel. At each beach there is a rush of smooth stones to the water, cars parked and people are swimming or fishing looking for the boiling of water as sprats are chased to the shallows.
Then the bay opens up and fills with the water sliding down from the Atlantic as if it the world is not going to stop tipping and the waves will soon be lapping over the seawall. On the left the mountains of the Mizen hovering over the back of Doneen Coos mostly shrouded in the mist of distance and the yawning gap of the mouth of the bay.
Now the sea is touching the sky not touching dissolving into a smooth milky blue the eye forever drawn and never quite seeing. The sea still and the bare glimmer of wind rippling the surface, looking out again, perfectly mirrored so water and air seem one. The horizon then disappears and there is space you could move through if only you could just carry on. The sea sits very still and the sky is perfect summer blue dwarfing the clouds through its enormity.
Now the tide is going out. Slipping its suck and leak from the shore. Soon the bay will feel emptied, drawn out and plug gone.
From the Cottage it is not possible to see the head of the bay but boating out of Kitchen Cove to the point off Owen Island it again opens up and the two peninsulas – the Sheep’s Head and the Mizen race off to that milky point.
Galen was 2 ½ years old that first visit to the Cottage and Kristen was just over 4.
Most of the week was spent in and around the Cottage getting our first feel for the place. It bore no relation to the holiday home I had had in my minds eye in Spain. Although there were days when the sun came out for a while it was only to punctuate the rain. The walls of the Cottage are almost two foot thick and downstairs the windows that look out of the lawn are low with alcoves big enough for small children to sit in. They spent a lot of time sat there watching the rain come down over the lawn and the grey clouds that obscured the water and the bay. We started to learn how to watch out for the weather and cheered when the cloud lifted so we could see the other side of the bay. We cheered even more if there was a chink of blue sky and we could see the tops of the hills and the white beacons on the top of Mount Gabriel.
“There’s enough blue sky now to make a pair of sailor’s trousers.”
Galen still had the rounded figure he had has a baby. When it stopped raining we put him in waterproof trousers and a pair of blue boots and he and Kristen spent time down by the rock pools. They were supposed to be looking for shrimps but Galen spent most of his time picking up the biggest stones he could carry and seeing how much of a splash he could make throwing them into the pools.
The road into Ahakista runs along the side of the Cottage separated from the garden by a thick hedge of fuschia. It was a busy time of year for the farmers and they trundled past with their heavy machinery and tractors. Every time we heard the rumble of one approaching Galen put down whatever stone he was holding and pointed as it went past shouting to let us know, “Tractor!!”
He found it impossible to spend time down by the sea without it filling his blue boots with water and they would periodically have to be emptied out so he could get back down there again. A dozen or so prawns were eventually netted from the rock pools and we cooked them quickly in boiling water along with some periwinkles that we had to ease out of their shells with toothpicks.
Apart from those prawns and periwinkles there was a frustration that although we were almost surrounded by the sea there was very little seafood to be had. There were no shops selling fish and we had not yet caught on to what the local fishermen were bringing in. The only opportunity for seafood came one evening when there was a knock on the kitchen door and a tall man with a slow soft voice looked in.
“Good evening,” he said shaking our hands. “My name is Michael and I have some fish in the back of my car if you would like to have a look.” He spoke slowly as if he was taking us into his confidence.
It was early evening and dark. This was before they put a street light up on the other side of the road and we had to take a torch out with us so we could peer into his boot. The only fish that he had was a large bucket of gnarled mussels. We bought a bag and ate them the following day cooked with garlic and white wine.
The following day I spent time trying to untangle the knot of mackerel lines that had been left in a drawer towards the back of the garage. After an hour or so unpicking the knots I was left with an orange line, some hooks and a small lead weight. I tied them altogether and took them to the end of the pier determined to catch some fish. There was no great expectation that I would actually catch anything but with the sea all there and the equipment to hand it seemed worthwhile having a go. Without any great idea as to what I was doing I hurled the weighted line as far as I could across the water. As I did so it was quickly apparent that my knotting skills had not been up to the task and before the lead weight had hit the surface I could see that it and the hooks had come loose from the line. I pulled in the slack line but could find no more weights or hooks in the back of the garage. That was the end of my fishing that week.
For the first few years we went there was a line of four or five trees that ran along the seaward side of the garden providing something of a windbreak against the worst of the weather. Over those years the trees gradually died off and were cut down to be used for firewood. But during that first visit they stood strong still and we built a swing from a branch that came out from the last of the trees. Ropes were thrown over a long horizontal branch that pointed out to the sea and somehow a wooden seat was made and fixed to the ropes. Because Dad and I were not good at these things we ended up with the seat at a slight angle which made little difference to its use as a perch to look at out over the water.
Eventually that tree also died off but we kept it standing so the kids could continue to make use of the swing. But nothing lasts for long with the weather. It was Easter Sunday and we were about to go for a long lunch at The Good Things Café. Galen was waiting for people to get ready and he walked down the garden so he could sit in the swing. The branch was rotten by then and as he took his feet off the ground it snapped and just missed his head. He was more shocked than hurt.
But for those first few years of our visits to the Cottage the view across the lawn and over the bay was coloured by that remaining tree and the branch sticking out with its out of kilter swing.