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The ‘Seanchai’: A Story about West Cork

Noreen Wainwright

Article & Pictures © 2009 Noreen Wainwright

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I found the burial place (not the only one, apparently) of the 'Children of Lir' – you know the ones who had been turned into swans by their wicked stepmother. What do you mean, that can’t be true? This is West Cork: land of the ‘seanchai’ and legend. Of course it's true.

The author outside Annie May's pub in SkibereenIt started with a pencil-drawn map on the back of an envelope at a niece’s confirmation. My brother-in law’s sister, Sheila, drew the map for us. As she was a native of Skibereen, we thought she was a well-qualified guide to the beauties of West Cork. My English husband was happy to just spend all our holidays in the small North Cork town which I had left, well… a lot of years ago. However, I wanted to show him a bit of the rest of the country. Not that he was averse to this or anything, he just wanted to absorb my home town — and he seemed to like the pubs there — the very ones where I had idled away a lot of my misspent youth. Anyway, that couldn’t go on, so by dint of plea-bargaining and negotiation, off we went, to West Cork, armed with our map. Being one of nature’s stress-heads I think I asked every single one of my family how to organise this holiday, and where exactly to go. And we are a big family. Come out of the airport and go left, they said... or maybe they said west? Anyway it seemed fairly straightforward.

And it was. Well, okay, a contingent of the aforementioned family met us at the airport, hung about while we collected our hire car, led us in the right direction, had breakfast with us in some service station, and once again gave us even more directions. You may gather that I am not that well-travelled.

A short time later we got to Clonakilty; a very clean, colourful Clonakilty. I later learned that the townspeople have a civic pride — maybe obsessive-compulsive disorder — which ensures that bands of them set off every evening armed with bin bags, and maybe even lavender polish, for all I know. Anyway, the town is a credit to them. In Clonakilty, though, I had, I think, the worst fish-and-chips of my life. But apart from that low point, we had a wonderful few days. Inchidonay beach was pebbly but clean; and we reveled in the particular excitement you only get from the feeling of sea-water lapping your ankles, while you breathe in the salt air so deeply that you almost become light-headed. An important factor in holidaying infrequently is that you run the danger of trying to cram everything into a few days — instead of the relaxation and “going with the flow” sort of approach which is essential to a good holiday.

We went a bit further one day, into Skibereen, a town celebrated in lore and song. It was a huge surprise (not really) to find pubs full of atmosphere; and here, in Annie May’s Bar, a great lunch too, served by a barman with what has just got to be an innate West Cork charm and warmth. Of course we wanted to sample the night-life of Clonakilty, too. No, not the night-club scene, but you know, the small town pubs... for preference, ones that I hadn’t squandered my youth in.

We stumbled across The Teach Beag (the Small House). Yes, it seemed every night they had music and story-telling. We liked the sound of that. And “beag” it certainly was. Its smallness added to the atmosphere. When I say atmosphere, I mean that people listened so quietly that you could hear a pin drop, as the saying goes. And then in the middle of one of the story-teller’s tales, a mobile phone rang out jarring into the soft voice and turf-smoke air like a raucous laugh at a solemn event. And what’s worse, the woman answered it. And had a conversation. 'Yes, we’re here in a pub in Clonakilty...' Aaaagh! After that embarrassment, an elderly man, dressed in elegant elderly man clothes of shirt, tie, suit, and slipover jumper, played the squeeze box to the tapping of feet.

West Cork scene - click to enlargeNext the ‘Seanchai’ (story-teller) told a tale of lighthouses and brave rescue at sea, and transported us off in the proper style of the ageless oral tradition. In the middle of one of his stories there was a loud bang. In the few minutes before this, I had actually noticed a nearby lady’s eyelids droop and her body slump to one side. But now, to her huge embarrassment —and everyone else’s amusement — she actually fell asleep and keeled over. 'She must have heard the stories so many times…' said my husband. And it was true:she was the Seanchai’s wife. Brian has dined out on this anecdote ever since. In fact if he relates it one more time, I might just fall asleep myself... Brian was reluctant to leave Clonakilty. Have I said that he doesn’t like change? But I was determined to go further. 'You are only at the gateway to West Cork, in Clonakilty,' my brother Paul had told us at the airport. And I was determined to get right in there.
On Sheila’s map, she had written “lovely” alongside Glandore, so that was a must-see for us.

It was indeed beautiful, with something which reminded me of a certain type of English gentility (which has actually vanished from many English coastal towns, nowadays). She had also mentioned Baltimore, where we had a drink and gazed at the calming sea and harbour. We found a small Church of Ireland Church, called St. Matthew’s, just like our own little village church, and wrote our names in the visitor’s book.

Here I just have to say a word about the weather. Not for nothing do we speak and sing of the 'forty shades of green'. So, to cut my lecture short, green means rain, and if you are too bothered by that, you have to ask yourself if anywhere in the British Isles is really the best destination for your holiday. For me, the Highlands of Scotland in autumn, in the cold, golden sunshine was one of my best ever holidays, so hot sunny weather is not a prerequisite. But you can’t deny that low clouds and relentless drizzle do nothing for visibility and you completely miss the scenery. I’m afraid that was our experience of the southern tip of the country —we went almost as far as Mizen Head — and Bantry Bay. 'Brian,' I said, 'you'll just have to take my word it. It is very scenic.'

We got to Glengarrif in the same sort of weather; but I got the distinct impression that Brian had left his heart in Clonakilty. Such, indeed is the effect of the weather on the enjoyment of some people. The mood was greatly improved by a drop of Guinness, and the lively airs emanating from the musical instruments in what seemed like all the pubs. Maybe, it is just for the tourists? Who cares? it was great. In the morning, in the manner of this corner of Ireland, the mist and drizzle had disappeared, leaving behind a sparkling lush Glengarrif and its almost incongruous plant life, more typical of exotic and eastern parts.

Of course many tourists would take the next step and go on the ferry to Garnish Island. However, at the sign of the sun, I really was desperate to get to the sea-side. By my very hazy geography, I thought we might have to go to Kerry. However, serendipity took us on the next bit of our journey. Setting off the next morning we got into conversation with an elderly man from Dublin who had come to this part of the country every summer for years. 'Do we have to go to Kerry to find a beach?' I asked. He got his map out and told us about the Beara Peninsula and Alihees (and Ballydonegan beach). It sounded good.

A beautiful scene from West Cork - click to enlargeDriving along the Beara peninsula feels like you are following the contours of the map — well you are, I suppose. It is wildly beautiful, and remote. Even in August, for long stretches of time, we felt like the only people there. We spent the night in Alihees, which more than justified the enthusiasm of the man from Dublin. The whole of Alihees, seems to be owned by a family, and their relation: shop, guest house and petrol station. The guest house was inexpensive and simple, one of the nicest places we had stayed. After we had eaten, we went for a walk and Brian — ever the farmer — used his silage-seeking radar to find probably the only dairy farmer in that little place, and was chatting to him. I found the burial place (not the only one, apparently) of the 'Children of Lir' – you know the ones who had been turned into swans by their wicked stepmother. What do you mean, that can’t be true? This is West Cork: land of the seanchai and legend. Of course it's true.

See also: Ed's Travels in Ireland

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