The Rock Hill House served a first class breakfast in a dining room overlooking the gentle sea and a big blue sky and we lingered for a while before we left and after dining took some time to explore the surrounding wild flower gardens.
Today we were heading west, to Mizen Head, the most south-westerly point in mainland Ireland and the location of a lighthouse station and a rocky cliff top terminus and after only a short drive along a spectacular coast road overlooking sandy beaches and the Atlantic Ocean we arrived at the visitor centre and bought our entrance tickets.
The walk to the old lighthouse took us up and down steep raking steps and across a bridge where the Atlantic Ocean surged with anger and rage between fiercely jagged rocks just thirty metres or so below our feet and very soon we were at the most south-westerly point of the peninsula and could go no further and we were staring out at two thousand miles of water and next stop Canada and the USA.
At 10°27’ longitude Dingle, slightly to the north of our position today, claims to the most westerly town (as opposed to city – this is important) in Europe but whilst this may be true there are lots of other ‘most westerly’ claims to take into consideration.
The Blasket Islands (10°39’) at the end of the Dingle Peninsula are the most westerly point in the British Isles but these have been uninhabited since 1953, Iceland is the most westerly country in Europe and Reykjavik is the most westerly capital city (21°93’); Lisbon (9°14’) is the most westerly city on mainland Europe and furthest west than anywhere else are the Azores at 31°30.
When someone tells you that something is the biggest or the longest or the highest or the heaviest it is always worth checking up I find. The most westerly point in Asia is Cape Baba in Turkey and in the United States it is Alaska which is also the most easterly as well because it stretches so far that it crosses right into the eastern hemisphere (a good pub quiz question that).
Four miles further south we could see the Fastnet Rock a small rocky islet in the Atlantic Ocean and the most southerly point of Ireland. It is the location of a famous lighthouse because these are some of the most dangerous waters around the British Isles.
Due to its location, Fastnet is known as “Ireland’s Teardrop”, because it was the last part of Ireland that nineteenth century Irish emigrants saw as they sailed to North America. There are sixty-three lighthouses around the coast of Ireland but there are no lighthouse keepers any more because these days they are all automated and controlled from a secret central point somewhere on the mainland.
After an hour or so we left and drove east, stopped for a while for a walk on a magnificent sandy beach and then continued to Crookhaven, the most southerly village in Ireland, which is a leisurely place today which depends on tourism but was once a thriving port because the harbour here was the first and last place for ships to stop before or after crossing the Atlantic to and from America.
Lots of people crossed the Ocean from this part of Ireland because it was very seriously affected by the Irish famine of the 1840s and it isn’t difficult around here to find museums and restored cottages dedicated to the memory of the disaster. Inside the cottages there is generally a recreation of a typical mid-nineteenth century family home and information boards about the famine and the consequences.
It seems that at that time Irish people lived almost entirely on potatoes and that a working man would eat as much as fourteen pounds a day – that is a lot of potatoes, roughly equivalent to two hundred and fifty bags of potato crisps (chips)!
Now, I know potatoes are versatile – boiled, baked, mashed, fried, hash browns, dauphinoise, gnocchi etc. but I imagine this sort of diet can become awfully monotonous!
Unfortunately not only did the Irish rely completely on the potato they specialised in just one variety. The Arran Banner was a reliable heavy cropper but not such a reliable heavy cropper when the potato blight virus dropped by and a succession of harvest failures in the late 1840s led to starvation, death, farm failure, cruel and vexatious evictions by English absentee landlords and eventually mass emigration to the United States.
Interestingly it is most likely that the virus came from the United States in the first place (just like the phylloxera virus that infected French vine crops at about the same time) but regardless of this they blamed the English and five million Irish (80% of the total population at the time) chose to go there anyway. Today nearly sixty million people in the USA, almost 20% of the population, claim Irish heritage and twenty-two out of forty-four of US Presidents (including Barack Abama!) have claimed Irish ancestry.
The U.S.A also stands accused of destroying the iconic Plane trees that line the Canal du Midi. A fungus has been attacking the trees, spreading along the waterway and defying all attempts to cure or control it. Tree specialists have concluded that it is almost certain all the planes will have to be chopped down, burned and replaced because the trees have been struck by an outbreak of a virulent, incurable microscopic fungus which spreads through the roots and is thought to have first reached France with American GIs in the Second-World-War whose sycamore ammunition boxes were infected with the virus.
After we left Crookhaven we drove to the next peninsula to the north and drove around the Sheep’s Head Way but I am afraid I am unable to explain the curious name – it doesn’t even look like a sheep’s head!
We finished our drive in the town of Bantry which turned out to be one of those places that sound as though you should visit but when you get there you wonder why? We walked along the main street, contemplated staying a while for an early evening meal but eventually decided against it and returned directly to Schull where later we dined at a French restaurant and for the second time finished the evening in Hackett’s Bar.