Posts Tagged With: Beara Peninsula
You hear the words ‘hidden gem’ so many times in Ireland but more often than not they are not hidden and nor are they a gem. I try to avoid the expression especially when it appears on tourists’ must-see lists (hardly hidden then). But actully they do exist and when you find one part of you wants to scream and shout about it and another part says ‘Shhh! Let’s keep it hidden’
The Arches at Reenroe are one such place. I had been to Allihies on the Beara Peninsula three times but not heard about it. That’s the downside of my penchant for arriving blind to a place to discover it on my own.
Spectacular as the arches are, I want first to tell a bit of a story, about how I discovered it and the adventure I had on the way. Stories such as this so typify, for me travel and living in Ireland and the way things just unfold here. Surprise upon serendipitous surprise. The people, culture and place are interwoven like nowhere else. These experiences are truly the hidden gems.
Let me start at the beginning. Or even a bit before the beginning.
It was a gorgeous sunny June morning (yes, this is Ireland) and I was visiting the location of the Dooneen Copper Mine. This is a marked tourist spot on the Wild Atlantic Way a few kilometres from Allihies, so it has the squiggly iron marker to let you know that it is worth stopping. And to a lapsed geologist such as myself that is indeed true. This is the site of the first of Puxley’s copper mines discovered in 1812. Because of its location on the coast, it struggled both technically and commercially, but the upside of this is that the site is largely intact and we can get a unique insight of how it must have looked before it was exploited.
The cliffs here are a series of headlands of Devonian sandstone. One of these promontories is in shades of orange and cream rather than the more normal greys. It is about 80 m long and up to 10 m wide. This unique coloration is due to oxidation of what was essentially a quartz sulphide rock. As you walk along the narrow path you see traces, under your feet and in the walls, of bright green staining. This is malachite, copper carbonate and a telltale sign that deeper down there are copper sulphides.
Walk onto the next headland to the north and look back. Now you see it in it’s full glory. Brilliant green patches tell of a very rich lode. But why is it still there considering it contains such valuable minerals?
At the eastern end at sea level is an adit and there appears to be another in the adjacent cliff at the western end. These would have been where the miners first chased the copper but constant inundation made it impossible. A shaft was sunk on the land side but again flooding meant more and more sophisticated machinery was needed to keep on top of the pumping. Eventually the elements won and in the 1870s the mine was abandoned never really making much money. But this has left us with this magnificent example of a virtually untouched outcropping ore body.
But I digress. In the car park I met Viv Kelly, visiting from Dublin, with members of her family. She said they were going to look for what they called the Arches and headed off on foot. I was intrigued and headed off in the same general direction. But for me the search proved fruitless and I actually had no idea what I was looking for.
So I continued my explorations, by car, of what is one of my favourite drives, between Allihies and Eyries. The road snakes through sculpted hills, twisted rocks and abandoned houses and at one point the highway (if you can call it that) drives through someone’s yard with the house on one side and the barn on the other. Harking back to the time when living right on the road would have been hugely desirable. There were panoramic vistas, bicycles and bog cotton.
Satisfied, I headed back to Allihies to join an afternoon session with two legends of Irish music – Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch. I soon forgot about arches and such.
It was now about 6.30 pm the music had ebbed away and I was sitting outside O’Neill’s Pub pondering my next move. I was approached by a lady who became my immediate best friend after she complimented me on my fiddling. She mentioned she had been that day to visit some sea arches! Those same arches that Viv had told me about. She reached for her phone to show me some pictures. I politely covered her screen (I hate spoilers) and asked instead for directions after telling her of my earlier vain search.
Basically it appears I was in the right place. ”Look for a white cottage on the left and opposite you will see a wooden gate with a blue rope and a sign saying ‘please shut the gate'”. That seemed simple enough so I had another go. At about the spot she indicated I saw a white building, more of a bungalow really and it wasn’t on the left it was on the right and I couldn’t see a gate, so I was confused and drove on. Fruitlessly. Now the Irish are not great on giving directions so I went back to that bungalow thinking maybe ‘left’ meant ‘right’, and sure enough there was a gate, my view blocked by a beautiful old vintage Mercedes. The gate had a blue rope and a hand written sign saying ‘please shut the gate’. Finally.
I headed along the well worn track, passing a group of picnickers. They had selected an idyllic spot. Smoke rising from a fire and the smell of cooking chicken. I was just a little jealous but I apologised for intruding and after getting a little sage advice on what I was looking for, I continued my search.
Not far ahead I came across the first arch. You don’t actually realise you are on it until you make your way down to the shore and look back. Way grander than I’d imagined. Tantalisingly the calm water in the chasm disappeared to the left. You knew there was more.
Back up to the top and I continued across the fields until I reached a rocky headland. Here there are more arches. Two precarious bridges span a steep sided chasm. One looks like it is about to collapse into the ocean as one day soon it inevitable will. Real selfie territory. They have formed by selective erosion of softer rock (probably along a fault) in places leaving the remnant bridges of rock. I had brought a sandwich and doughnut with me and enjoyed my own little picnic.
I felt there had to be more and sure enough I found a number of other narrow steep sided arches and then a perfectly protected and wave free channel passed under another series of bridges. This turned out to be the other end of the channel under the first arch. I followed it back and observed two land bridges over this channel.
In total I saw six arches. It might make more sense if you look at the google map image. The major channel has essentially created an island with two natural bridge accesses (nos 1 and 6). This has followed a major east west fault. The other arches (numbered 2 to 5) have formed on softer shaley bands within the sediment sequence so they parallel bedding.
I absolutely loved this place.
That should have been the end of my story but it wasn’t.
I must have been exploring for an hour and a half. Heading back past the picnickers I was surprised at being asked to join them. They plied me with wine, crab claws, chicken, potato and roasted seaweed. The burgeoning friendship nearly ended though when they offered me a hot rock to sit on! Brian, from Edinburgh, a scholar in all things gaelic, explained that the picnic was in memory of a time when they ‘cooked’ a salmon in this very fire 20 years ago. Sashimi salmon in the dark was the outcome. No fish this time though.
I met Cormac Boydell and his partner Rachel, who live next door to that white bungalow overlooking this dramatic bay. Cormac is a renowned ceramic artist. I wished I had time to have a closer look at his work. But what was really interesting was that in a previous life he was a geologist. Spooky enough but, hey, he worked in Australia during the nickel boom of the 70s and, get this, he worked for CRA, the first company I worked for. And he was based in Kalgoorlie in western Australia, where I lived for six years.
We talked for ages as darkness descended and until the lure of the music back in Allihies became palpable. I took my leave, happy that my search for the Arches, initiated by a chance meeting with Viv from Dublin had ended with such a rewarding encounter.
These days are truly the hidden gems of Ireland.
Allihies is a very photogenic village near the tip of the Beara Peninsula. I have blogged on it before (click here). There I gave an overview of the whole Beara Peninsula as well as highlighting the extensive history of copper mining in the area, but I didn’t mention the pretty beach near Allihies, which I didn’t visit last time.
Back in the Beara recently, I had a bit more time and found myself on the strand during a break in the bleak weather. This beautiful place has a very interesting back story and an unexpected connection to the mining operations located high up in the hills above the village.
The beach is a surprise. It seems like it shouldn’t be there. The whole coastline here is rugged and rocky and apparently too wild for sand to accumulate. And yet there it is, an extensive thick accumulation of golden sand in a protected inlet.
A close look however shows all is not what it seems.
The sand is very coarse. It is also very uniform in size and it only comprises fragments of quartz and shale. There are no organic bits or shell fragments as you would expect. In fact is unlike any beach sand I have seen. There are no dunes; just a thick deposit of banded unconsolidated coarse sand. And due to the lack of fines, it is not compacted as might be expected. It is very hard to walk on and especially hard to climb its slopes.
So where did it come from?
This is where the mining comes in. Copper mining took place at Allihies for over 70 years starting in 1813. In its day it was the largest copper production centre in Europe. Allihies was remote and there were no environmental or safety controls and the Mine Captains pretty much did what they liked. So rather than build an expensive dam to contain the tailings they were pumped into the local rivers that eventually found their way to the coast at Ballydonegan. Standard practice then. Environmental vandalism today.
So what are tailings? In hard rock mining the rock containing copper minerals is brought to the surface for processing. The total percentage of copper minerals may only be about 2-5% so over 95% of the rock mined must be disposed of. It is crushed and then the copper minerals are separated with the remainder of the rock disposed of. It was lucky that the processing this time didn’t involve toxic chemicals so the tailings was reasonably clean. It accumulated at the mouth of the river and eventually the Atlantic Ocean converted it into a beach. The vast majority of visitors are probably totally unaware that it is man-made.
It is a pretty place. A great safe swimming beach and stunning views. It is ironic though that in the 21st century it is one of the attractions of the area whereas two centuries ago it would have been a major blight on the landscape and that a place of such beauty exists because of man’s indifference and ignorance.
I hope my blogs on Ireland aren’t getting too boring. Each time I discover or rediscover a new place I can’t stop scraping up the superlatives. I’ve blogged recently on the magic of Glencolmcille and south west Donegal, on the spirit of Achill Island, on the beauty of Doughmore in West Clare and West Connemara and many places in between. Recently I visited the Beara Peninsula again for the first time in twenty years. And I’m sorry but I have to regale you with more resplendent words yet again.
The Beara Peninula is one of those wonderful headlands that define West Kerry and West Cork, jutting prominently into the Atlantic and adding a whole lot of extra kilometres to the Wild Atlantic Way. Many have well known and evocative connotations. The Iveragh Peninsula, better known as the Dingle Peninsula, and the famous Ring of Kerry are the prime destinations for visitors and do not fail to disappoint. Less well known are the Beara Peninsula, Sheep’s Head and the spectacular Mizen Head.
The attractions of the Beara Peninsula are however becoming better known and I am told by the locals that this summer it was crowded with visitors. I chose to visit in late October. The weather was good (in Irish-speak that translates to ‘no rain’) and it has to be the perfect time. At the western end, the roads are almost deserted and you feel you have this magnificent landscape to yourself.
An obvious draw of this place is that it is more compact than the Ring of Kerry but there is so much variety, so much of interest and so much to fill the shortening autumn days that it was hard to leave.
So what does this little treasure offer? For a start magnificent vistas are around every corner. You can approach from the Northern Road or the Southern Road but my strong recommendation is you find time to do both.
And sometimes you see something that you know could not be replicated anywhere else in the world. The patchwork quilt and stone walls that say Ireland, Ireland, Ireland.
There are a number of mountainous rocky passes. I explored the Caha Pass this time, which links Kenmare with Glengariff. Here there is stunning scenery and four remarkable tunnels (known as Turner’s Rock Tunnels) built in the 1840s when they decided to go through the rock rather than over it. Quite an engineering feat for its day and very unique for road construction as most tunnels in Ireland were built for railways. Indeed the railway construction boom did not start until the 1840s so these tunnels predate any rail tunnel in Ireland. From this impressive road there are craggy mountains, magnificent pasture and grasslands, and sweeping panoramas. Next time I will do the Healy Pass.
Elsewhere you will see wild, coastal panoramas, verdant forests, jagged islands or houses perched on grassy knolls with staggering views or nestled into rugged rocky cliffs.
The drive to the end of the Peninsula and Dursey Island is not to be missed. But be prepared for perhaps a little disappointment. Ireland’s only cable car which links the island to the mainland and at this time of the year only runs between 9.30am and 11am was ‘fully booked’ and not operating for transport of people. It was being used for the day by the local farmers to transport hay across the narrow channel. Where else would tourists be turned away, some mind you who had travelled especially, in favour of bales of hay? Only in Ireland. But somehow it didn’t matter, there was so much else to do and it will be there (possibly) next time. You’ve got to admire the ingenuity of the farmers here. I saw an old ‘retired’ cable car in a yard being used as a chook house. Love it. And love the little insect houses thoughtfully provided by one farmer.
Then there is the colourful palette of the charming village of Allihies, which single-handed may be responsible for keeping alive the paint pigment industry in Ireland. Purples, pinks, indigo and every other colour merged harmoniously into the greys, greens and reds of its rocky backdrop.
And towering over the town is the architectural masterpiece of the Engine House of the Mountain Copper Mine built around 1810. Maybe you think masterpiece too strong a word but it is at least the equal from a heritage perspective of the megalithic ruins or the monastic abbeys that populate the tourist guide books. This is the finest example of an historical mine building I have seen in this remarkable condition. It speaks of the confidence and wealth that the mine brought to this remote outpost as it became one of the jewels of European copper mining during its heyday from 1810 to its closure in the 1920s. There are plenty of reminders of the mining period; old shafts and adits, mine workings, two other engine house ruins, stone walls and in places the tell-tale green and blue staining of copper carbonates.
There is a museum which gives a very good account of the mining story but unfortunately it is a bit expensive which turns some away. All aspects of the story are covered including the geology, mining technology and social impact. As a geologist it was of course fascinating. And even more so for me having met the next generation of miner there, young J and his mum Frances, locals who had come to see if they could find any copper. As it happened I had seen some workings with strong copper on the way up the hill, so I offered to show them and took them there. J’s wide eyed fascination and enthusiasm was enough reward. Maybe I have helped kick start another geologist’s career.
Still on copper, I stopped at Puxley Manor near Castletownbere. Actually the site of the mansion is right near the ruins of Dunboy Castle but more on that later. It would seem that the location is well cursed having witnessed a number of tragedies over the past 4oo+ years.
When I first saw the Puxley mansion it was 20 years ago it was a shell of a ruin. It had been the home of the Puxley family since the 1700s. They pretty much owned the copper mining industry here and ended up fabulously wealthy. As the industry declined so did the Puxley wealth and when his wife died in childbirth Henry Puxley, the last owner, abandoned the castle. Worried that the British Army would take over the abandoned house, the IRA torched it in 1921, destroying it and its contents. The shell was sold at auction in 1927 but remained a forlorn ruin as this photo shows.
This is what it looked like when I saw it in 1996. It was sold to a developer in 1999 and the Celtic Tiger roared. It was to be transformed into a luxury 6-star resort hotel, the only one in Ireland. Massive restoration and conservation work was carried out and all progressed swimmingly with a soft opening in 2007. That was until the money dried up in 2008 with the GFC. By 2010 the project was abandoned and a mesh fence erected. The bats returned but not the visitors. This is how it appears today. The rotting hull of a large boat sits in the harbour as if to reinforce the tragedy. Such a grand vision. The restoration did not however extend to the gate house which stands impressively ruinous.
I said earlier that Dunboy Castle remains were nearby. This was the ancestral home of Donal Cam O’Sullivan, last of the Gaelic chieftains and a thorn in the side of Elizabeth I during the nine years war which started in 1594. In 1602 she sent a large battalion of troops to destroy O’Sullivan and the 143 men, who tried to defend the castle, could not withstand the British canon. Surrender was not an option after an emissary sent to discuss terms was hung in full view of the defenders. This ultimate fate awaited all those remaining once the British destroyed it and the castle was never lived in again.
The name O’Sullivan however is everywhere on the peninsula. You can’t avoid it.
This little enclave of Cork is truly a gem and you could spend a week here or even a lifetime. There are plenty of stone circles, forts, monuments, holy places (such as the Mass Rock) and extraordinary natural wonders to explore and discover. Oh, and sheep. And there’s Dursey Island, if the cable car is running. And if you’re up for it you can walk it all on the Beara Way.
The beauty though is not just in the grand vistas but in a host of other details for me that capture the personality of a place. Here are a few photos that speak loudly about the struggle for life for both nature and man.
So that’s it. I’ll be back and very soon.