Ballyferriter to Cuas, 3rd April 2008

Here Europe makes a doomed stand against the ceaseless attacks of the Atlantic, and air moistened and warmed by the Gulf Stream encounters the rising ground of Ireland’s second-highest mountain range. It therefore comes as no surprise that mist forms, dissipates and re-forms around the headlands in a seemingly random way, and that Brandon Mountain wears its grey cap more often than not.

Ballyferriter sits in a basin, though not in the very bottom: that position is reserved for Smerwick Harbour and a broad area of marshy fields and reed beds. On all other sides the land rises, and stone-walled green pastures soon give way to sea cliffs or hills of rock and rough pasture. This feels like a place that suffers from a dearth of natural resources: the Fens of Eastern England this is not; nor is it the Derbyshire coalfield. But I’ll take this any day: my compensation is the wistful beauty of the stark and quiet landscape.

View from Alice’s B&B: Two of the Three Sisters, and Ballydavid Head

The water of Smerwick Harbour hides under a bank of grey, but the strand is clearly visible. The Three Sisters, those distinctive curving headlands, appear to have been reduced to one. There is no wind at all, and the mist shifts and shuffles like a crowd waiting for the order to form up or move on. Above are fragments of blue sky, so I’m hopeful the day will be fine.

Alice feeds me magnificently. She is the perfect hostess. We discuss the route and my options for B&B tonight. She gives me the phone number of the An Bothar pub at Cuas, which is at the foot of Brandon Mountain. It’s half a day’s hike away.

Yesterday, my helpful cyclists told me how I could walk on the Three Sisters without let or hindrance, so after a very leisurely start I retrace my steps to the beach, and there I shed my rucksack and gaze across the sand to the fine headlands. I’m feeling slightly flat, physically, the aftermath of a long day on my feet. An appropriate description would be “work-shy”. Can I be bothered with climbing the Three Sisters?

I weigh up the pros and cons, and after a good ten minutes I kick myself on the backside and take to the beach. The opportunity is unlikely to come again, and the views are potentially fantastic. Approaching the edge of the world, I climb across heathery moorland, following in the slow footsteps of an elderly man and his panting, overweight, three-legged dog.

The man is Mike, retired now and living in this quietest of spots. After the Second World War he lived and worked in England – “There was nothing here” – and his two sons live in London still.

“I worked on the roads. There was me and a gang of Geordies.” He chuckled. “For two weeks they couldn’t understand a word I said, and I couldn’t understand them either. Then it was all right.”

He and the dog aren’t going to the top, so I sweat my way up alone. The mist comes and goes, but the sun is winning through. The morning warms up. The ocean grumbles and groans hundreds of feet below on this still day with only a slight swell. What must it sound like in a storm?

The Three Sisters, from “Sister No. 1”

“Sisters No. 2 & 3” with Sybil Head in the distance

Once I’m back on the beach I’ve got to walk round Smerwick Harbour, a pleasant and easy duty on the firm sandy beaches but a touch more troublesome where the rocky shore forces me onto the land. That, however, is a minor issue, and I wander along contentedly, enjoying the views.

Smerwick Harbour, Ballydavid Head, and cloudy Brandon Mountain

A phone call to An Bothar secures my bed, and I don’t have a care in the world. It’s something of a shame, then that solitary walking invariably flicks a “Replay” switch in my memory, forcing me to review events from long ago, including deeds I’ve done that I should have done better or not at all. Maybe this is my substitute for the Roman Catholic confession of sin.

Smerwick Harbour, with “Sister No. 1” left and Ballydavid Head right

Leaving the beaches behind at Murreagh, the Way follows the edge of a low rocky cliff before taking yet again to the tarmac through Feohanagh.

Between Murreagh and Feohanagh

Leaving Feohanagh. Route over Brandon Mountain uses the highest col

I’m now walking on a recently widened and resurfaced road. To my left the land rises to the cliffs of Ballydavid Head, and in front of me looms Brandon Mountain. I sense that if the road didn’t look so new I would almost believe I’d stepped back in time. The feeling grows stronger when an unkempt individual lurches out of a hovel to stare long and hard at his sheep before addressing me first in Irish. This place is as remote as you please, and if you want to become any more remote you’ll need a boat. A few hundred yards further on a similarly untidy man is rebuilding a roadside wall, and once more we pass the time of day, initially in two languages. Neither of these encounters is in any way unsettling: rather they confirm the isolation and special character of this uplifting part of the peninsula that is so much more rewarding for the walker and cyclist than for the motorist.

At An Bothar I’m the only guest apart from a group of geology students and their lecturers. The evening weather is sunny and cool, but I’ve spent enough of the day outside on my feet, and it’s now time for Guinness and dinner. Eileen cooks a good meal, after which I sit by the fire and read. The landlord says business in this land of scattered houses and farms is quiet since the Garda introduced random breath tests for motorists. Up until 10pm, when I retire to bed, it’s hard to see how he makes a living. My ear plugs go in and I go out like a light. As is the Irish custom, festivities break out some time later, and the sound of happy voices comes loudly through the floor. I’m used to this now, so I turn over and drop off again straight away.

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