FROM A TRIP TO IRELAND 2001

"A JOURNEY THROUGH COUNTY CORK"

by Linda Evans
 
In the spring of 2001, my sister Jane and I brought our mother to Ireland for her 80th birthday.  It was her fifth visit.  Jane and I were only on our second visit.  This is an excerpt from that visit.
 
As we drove towards County Cork from County Waterford, the landscape begin to change.  We knew that we would soon be in County Cork and the home of our ancestors, the Donovans.  The landscape appeared more rugged.  Lush farms gave way to smaller ones and in the distance we could see the mountains of West Cork and Kerry beyond.
 
We passed through Youghal (pronounced Yawl), a small town where the River Blackwater meets the sea.  It’s clockgate, built over the main street,with traffic flowing directly under it’s arched form, was built in 1777 and was once a combination of clock tower and jail.  Several United Irishmen were hung from her walls after the failed 1798 uprising.  I envisioned them hanging there, suspended over the main street of the town.  What a gruesome sight that must have been.  Youghal is most famous for having Sir Walter Raleigh as mayor back in 1588-89.
 
Tradition has it that it was he who brought back the first potatoes from the New World.  He first planted them here.  The introduction of the potato into the Irish diet would help to keep the masses alive and healthy for many generations.  But when it failed, mayhem would ensue, for that was all they had to eat, and many suffered harvest to harvest.
 
Our road eventually brought us to Cobh (pronounced Cove), a picturesque seaside town that seems to simply rise up the hillside from the sea.  It was here in 1912 that the Titanic made its last stop – when the town was known as Queenstown.  It was also here that Queen Victoria landed in 1849 when she visited Ireland.  It was also from Cobh that many emigrants made their way for their journey across the Atlantic and probably the port of departure for our ancestors.  It is said that during the "Hungry Years", otherwise known as the "Great Famine", the streets were so littered with people awaiting passage that one would have to step over them.  Many died waiting for a ship.  The skyline of Cobh is dominated by the spire of St. Colman’s Cathedral.  Today, small boats, fishing and pleasure, bobble up and down in her harbour.
 
Across the marshes from Cobh, we could see the City of Cork and it was here that we ventured next.  Cork City is Ireland’s second largest city with a population of 180,000 – though you would hardly believe it from first glance.  It is compact in size and with a low skyline.  Built on marshlands, the main part of the city is on the flats and an island between the two channels of the River Lee.  Most of the southside of the city is built on the marsh while the northside scrambles up the hillside, clinging to it.  Urban sprawl is evident and signs of Ireland’s new prosperity are visible as subdivisions, all mapped out and tidy spread out beyond.
 
Unfortunately, our timing to visit Cork City couldn’t have been worse.  We arrived in the heart of the city in rush hour traffic so we quickly escaped again across the River Lee.  Following the river west, we passed by some very expensive real estate – part of the new suburbia that spread out along the riverside.  We had been looking for a good Bed and Breakfast, but found none in this area so decided to head north towards Blarney where we were sure to see lots.  We stopped at a crossroad to get our bearings but it took me a good ten minutes with the map spread out to see where we were.  The signpost – like many in Ireland – was topheavy with several direction signs showing not only directions to towns, but other things of note to tourists.  To add to the confusion, it had become loose with time and had spun around on itself.  All of the signs were pointing in the wrong direction from where we had come from!
 
After much twisting of the map and standing almost on my head to read the sign, we left the rush hour traffic and headed north towards Blarney.  At Tower, we found Ashlee Lodge.  The owner, a Mrs. O’Leary, we immediately labelled "Martha Stewart".  The house could have been out of one of her magazines.  It was pristine and absolutely perfect inside and out and very well decorated.  Our room was much the same and well co-ordinated.  The drapes were custom made to match the decor.  The rest of the house was also out of Martha Stewart Living with a lovely collection of Waterford crystal and expensive Irish pottery.  Mrs. O’Leary lived up to Martha’s reputation at breakfast the next morning.  We had fine china, real linen napkins and a breakfast menu – rare indeed in a B&B.  My mother and Jane settled for the traditional Irish breakfast but I couldn’t ignore the variety and settled instead for smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. It was to die for!
 
A gentle mist fell throughout the next morning, but the skies cleared for the afternoon.  We drove around Blarney and I saw Blarney Castle but opted not to kiss the Blarney stone.  The town, rightly so, is a town built on tourism.  Every second house is a B&B or small junky gift shop geared for the tourist.  It looked like it had been a lovely town before all of that arrived.  We did stop at the Blarney Woolen Mill’s shop which is a massive two-storey building in the heart of town.  I was impressed more with the huge blooming rhododendrum in the parking lot than the shop.  It was massive and tree sized, not like my wee bush at the cottage. We did locate a automated internet machine that was coin operated.  It was finger touch operated, with no keyboard, and we did manage to pump in enough coin to get the NHL scores back in Canada but were not able to check our e-mail before the time ran out.
 
From Blarney we went south again and then west as we followed the River Lee.  We had had enough of brash toursim, and travelled the back roads – R619, 585 and 590 towards Bandon. 
As we came away from the River Lee, the narrow roads became twisty and the countryside less manicured.  We passed near Beal-na-Blath where Michael Collins was assassinated in 1922.  It was easy to see how he was ambushed in this landscape.  A steep forested twisty road brought us down into the valley and to Bandon, a drab little greystoned town.  We found the first evidence of our family name – on a billboard for a convenience store.  We lunched in a cafeteria built in a courtyard of a block of shops. 

 Attached to a bakery, Jakes provided one of the best "soup-of-the-day" we had had.  A menu anywhere in Ireland that advertises "soup-of-the-day" is invariably "Cream of Vegetable" soup.  Only once on our trip was the "soup-of-the-day" not this.  Rich and creamy, with a piece of wheaten bread on the side, this soup clings to your innards.  Jakes also had the best lemon pie I have ever had and the piece was humungous!

 
As we came out of the square we noticed that people were gathering at a massive Roman Catholic Church at the top of a hill which dominated the town.  We thought it was a noon day mass, but it was obvious that it was something bigger.  People strolled in from all sides for a funeral of a local merchant.  We bypassed the funeral, and strolled around the graveyard attached to the church.  We found several Donovans therein, but like many churchyards with cemeteries in Ireland, this cemetery was more recent – and graves there only dated back to the last decade of the nineteenth century.
 
I knew that there must be an older cemetery about somewhere and stopped an elderly man on his way to the funeral for directions.  Now I’ve always had a theory about stopping people for directions – always stop a senior who looks like they belong in the community to get information.  This fellow fit the criteria to a "T", but sometimes my theory fails and did so today.  Dressed in his finest for the funeral, it was pretty obvious that the suit he wore was saved for just such occasions.  Uncomfortable in his church clothes, he nonetheless took the time to try and explain.  He was obliging indeed but I hadn’t a clue what he said.  In his thick Corkian accent, through a toothless grin, he attempted three times to give me directions.  His hands also flailed about as he spoke.  He reminded me of the old farmer Mr. Moleturd on the hotel version of the British comedy series "Are You Being Served?".  Only about every seventh word was understandable.  I got the words "old", "red", "left", "goat", and "right".  Nothing else made sense.  I thanked him for his time and we motored on out of Bandon and on to Clonakilty.
 
High Street ClonakiltyWe setted in Clonakilty – or as my sister Jane called it "Clunk-a-kitty" for the night.  Clonakilty is a lovely market town, known for its colourful handpainted signs and colourful buildings.  I strolled down the High Street and took some lovely shots.  This was apparently uncommon, as three ladies with shopping bag carts stopped gossiping long enough to see what I was doing.  They gave me a stare as I passed by and then resumed gossiping.  I was particularly interested in O’Donovan’s Hotel and not just because it carried our family name.  Many of Ireland’s top politicians stayed here and gave speeches from its small balcony on the second floor to a crowd below.  Among them were Daniel O’Connell, de Valera, Donovan Rossa and even Charles Stewart Parnell.  The town itself was well-kept and manicured.
 
The highlight of the town, however, was our accomodations.  I recommend the Riverside B&B, just off the High Street, to anyone passing through town.  It is a treat in itself and came with it’s own entertainment.  The "woman of the house" offered us a separate contained unit – a "Granny House" they had had built for her parents who had decided they "were not old enough for one" and we were thrilled. It was nice to have a place to ourselves.  The entertainment was provided by the "man of the house".  Tall and wiry, and a bit spastic, Richard Darcy’s movements and antics kept us in stitches throughout our stay in Ireland and well afterwards too.
 
My sister Jane first encountered him while taking our luggage out of the trunk.  He literally bounded out of the house and popped up in her face to ask if all was well and if we had enough towels.  She was startled at first and arrived at our door with the luggage and fits of laughter.  A little while later I went out to the car for something and again he bounded out of nowhere with arm outstretched.  In it was a cup of milk for our tea.  As quickly as he bounded out of the house, he rushed back inside again, leaving me standing in the driveway with a cup of milk and startled out of my mind.  I returned to the room in fits of laughter as my sister did and nearly spilled the milk on the way.  Richard Darcy was immediately dubbed "Basil" of the British sitcom "Faulty Towers".  All his mannerisms were hilarious.
 
Breakfast was just as comical.  We were hardly in the house when he bounded about again, jumping out in front of us with a towel over his left arm.  He rushed us into a very tasteful dining room of bright yellows and blues.  He then flitted about a cupboard on his tippy-toes as he listed off at full verbal speed the list of offerings which included a vast array of juices, fruit and cereals to hold us till the "full breakfast" arrived.  He was so spastic and full of such energy that it was everything we could do not to burst into laughter.  His mannerisms and appearance were unmistakable.  Had he tipped our breakfast in our laps, poured coffee in our cereal bowls, or even walked away with the tablecloth tucked in his pants, we would have not been surprised – or cared!  The entertainment was worth the cost of Riverside B&B and I recommend it to everyone!
 
After breakfast we went to explore an old abandoned graveyard we had seen the day before on the top of a hill in Clonakilty.
 
CLONAKILTY’S FORGOTTEN ONES

They lie at the top of the hill Clonakilty Burial Ground
On a road that went to others 
But now leads to nowhere. 
Overgrown with gorse and bramble,
There are no signs – no recognition. 
The gate and turnstile,

Rusted from years of disrepair and neglect
Encase their shrine. 

Here lie Chieftains and seanachies, 
Bards, farmers, and townspeople – 
Makers of the past – now forgotten. 
From massive tombs open to the wind, 
To Celtic crosses once lovingly carved, 
And small markers hand-tolled crudely, 
And beyond – to the unmarked expanse 
of the famine graves – all silent now.

Moss and weeds cling to the stones, 
Yet mayflowers and bluebells battle them 
to stand sentinel over all who lie here – 
A precious splash of colour in salute. 
A crow shrieks menacingly from on high – 
His cry a warning that this is his domain now, 
And that it is he who is guardian and 
Caretaker of the souls that lie within.

There is family buried here, 

On the hillside above Clonakilty.
Their names have passed down 
Through the stormy generations
And crossed the seas to Canada.
Here lies John, and Daniel and Michael 
Alone you are, but not forgotten, 
Your memory crosses the sea with me.

It was a clear day, but cool, as we left Clonakilty to explore West Cork and Donovan territory.  We took the N71 towards Rosscarbery, the birthplace of O’Donovan Rossa in 1831.  He was born the same year our people left Ireland.  We stopped in the small village of Leap – a one-way street village, squeezed between two steep hillsides.  We were really in Donovan territory now as evidenced by the many shop-fronts signs with Donovan on them – or perhaps it was one wealthy Donovan who owned all of them!  It seemed that half the village was going into mass so mother and Jane followed them in while I went to explore the High Street and the graveyard behind the church that was literally built into the hillside.  It was a steep climb to the cemetery behind and I wondered how the pallbearers managed such a climb after funerals with caskets as well!  There were several O’Donovans buried here and many of their tombs listed their farm names as well.  But again, the graveyard was modern – early 20th century.

 
As the church spewed out the worshippers after mass, I stopped an older fellow again asking for directions to the old cemetery.  I hadn’t learned from my experience in Bandon.  This fellow had teeth but I still couldn’t break through his thick accent.  My baffled face brought on a second detailed list of directions to the old cemetery but we left confused still.  In fact, I couldn’t swear on a bible, but I think that the second set of directions were entirely different from the first.
 
We opted instead to continue on to Skibbereen.  A market town steeped in history, especially as it related to the Great Famine years.  Thousands died here between 1845-1850 and are buried in mass graves.  We visited Abbeystrowry Cemetery on the River Ilen, just outside the town – the site of the massive burial pits from the famine years.  I couldn’t help but sing the folksong "Skibbereen" while I walked through the site.  We also visited the Famine Museum in Skibbereen.
 
Donovan CastleAs we left Skibbereen, we were very quiet after all that we had seen.  Our laughter over breakfast in Clonakilty seemed so long ago.  We took one of the back roads north through farmland and rolling hillsides towards Aghaville and then turned east towards Drimoleague.  We had every intention of visiting the village as mother had spent time there years ago and first visited Donovan Castle from this small village.  Here she waited hours for a "taxi" to go to the mountain where Donovan Castle was located just to the north and she had to wait as the taxi driver also ran the mortuary and some other business.  It was a real "no hurry" town.  Unfortunately we didn’t get into Drimoleague.  Just before the village, we saw a signpost for O’Donovan Castle and we took this road north and then east to the castle ruins.
 
Built in the 12th Century, by the O"Donovan Chieftain (who had been driven out of Limerick by Brian Boru), the castle was a pitiful reminder of her glory days.  She had gaping holes from an attack by Oliver Cromwell’s men in the 17th century – when she was abandoned.  Impressive still, the castle juts out of a rocky outcrop, and the hole made by Cromwell’s army is still visible.
 
O’DONOVAN CASTLE
 
Once a stronghold
She offered refuge to all around her,
When wars were commonplace.
Her walls were strengthened
By the seanachie’s words
Told ’round a turf fire till dawn’s wee hours.
Her being was once filled
With the dancing music of jigs and reels
Scratched from a fiddler’s bow.
Subdued by Cromwell,
Her people scattered, not by choice,
To the four corners of the earth.
Alone the ruins stand now,
Isolated on a rocky outcrop –
A testament to a history once rich and full.
 
Because the mountain near the castle was named the same as my son, Owen, we motored on thinking we would find a way back to Drimoleague.  The road was paved near the castle, but as we climbed the mountain it quickly turned to gravel and eventually loose dirt and then rose sharply.  Having nowhere to turn around, we continued to climb, balanced precariously on the edge.  Halfway up the track, sheep bounded out in front of us, the wee lambs lagging behind.  They were quickly followed by a small red Toyota – a shepherd on wheels!  We watched this modern farm method with amusement.  He continued to shout at the herd of sheep which went up the mountainside in parade.  At a gap in another field, the shepherd issued another command, and without a fuss, all the sheep entered the new pasture.  We continued to follow the shepherd in the Toyota up the mountain and it eventually turned into quite a climb through switchbacks.  We had no idea at this point where we were but felt he would lead us out somehow.  He did.  We peaked the mountain and roared down the other side.  The shepherd turned into his farm for lunch and we motored on.  The countryside was typically West County Cork, where rock and farmland melted together – a landscape that could support nothing more than sheep.  Farms were scarce and not very prosperous – nothing like the pristine farmlands we had seen in southeastern Ireland.
 
Hopelessly lost, we continued on our trek as we knew we were at least heading west.  We stopped some children and found that we were on a back road leading to Bantry.  We were now a long distance from Donovan Castle and the village of Drimoleague and so carried on.  After a quick lunch in Bantry, we headed north to County Kerry and left County Cork behind for another time.  There will be another time – perhaps several.