Ireland – A Love Affair
Atoms for Peace was Published Dec 2009
My love affair with Southern Ireland began in 1965 when a friend in Ridgeway House, where graduate scientists and technologists at Harwell’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment lived, got talking to me one evening about the beauty and charms of Southern Ireland, and in particular the beauty and charms of the village of Kilcrohane on the Durrus peninsula where he had just bought a small cottage for holidays and letting.
His cottage was in Cortona Clasha, a tiny community of five or six houses, including the one he had bought a hundred yards from the metalled road which ended there and fifty yards from the edge of the Dunmanns Inlet. This was the last but one of the long inlets or fjords which ran northeast from the Atlantic, 25 miles inland to a small town or village on the mainland – in this case to the town of Durrus which had two pubs, a good green grocer, a general store, Catholic and Church of England (Protestant) churches and a few sandy beaches for children to play on. There was also a sports shop which sold fishing gear, reels and nylon line.
A year later, my friend Nancy Calder and I thought we should spend a fortnight exploring Ireland. We drove the car onto the Swansea – Cork ferry and after reaching Cork, with steep banks of the Lee estuary lined with terraces of fine 18th century houses, we drove the last 80 miles to Kilcrohane. Here, by appointment, the local builder Anthony McCarthy, gave us the keys of the simple wooden hut he had built near the childrens’ playground and we moved in.
There was a single shop in Kilcrohane which sold everything from heavy fishing tackle, paint and paraffin to groceries and even had a small Post Office counter from which one could telephone.
The coast was wonderful, just ten minutes’ walk to the shore with a small unfenced pier with steps down into the water and massive tumbled rocks at the sides of the narrow beach, left over from the last Ice Age. The whole peninsula was strewn with boulders deposited by Ice Age glaciers. Around them, beside the only two roads, one along the north side, the other on the south side, was short-cropped moorland with bog flowers and royal fern.
At the far end of the peninsula was the lighthouse, a low fixed light used to guide in the oil tankers still fetching oil from the refineries at Whiddy Island close to the town of Bantry. The road came to an end and to reach the very end point you had to scramble down a rough track, noisy with the clamour of gannets and guillemots down as far as the spray-drenched rocks. After that, there was nothing between you and America. A few cottages, where the road ended, were occupied by hardy fishermen who cultivated tiny plots of land to grow a few potatoes, a hundred feet above the high tide level.
We loved seeing the many plots of land offered for sale. As we travelled around southwest Cork to Ballydehob to Skibbereen and Sherkin Island, the thought occurred to me that it would be a great idea to buy one of the plots with a stone cottage in good structural repair, get an architect in, provided that water and electricity were easily available and have a holiday cottage either to let to friends or to use ourselves for holidays. I had just sold my mother’s house after her death in 1965 and had £3000 invested pending a decision what to do with it. The O’Mahony family, who owned the village shop and post office in Kilcrohane directed us to the local estate agent on the road to Durrus, Paddy Barry. Paddy was said to be “a great rogue” but we found him professional and helpful. When he asked about local cottages for sale, he said “you could try Paddy Spillane. He tried to sell his deceased grandparents’ house last summer at a price of £2000, but it didn’t sell and I think he would take £1500 for it now.”
We went to call on the Spillanes and they showed us the house, “Ballyroon Cottage”. It was a solid stone built two-storey cottage with a field behind it, half an acre of land, room to put in a septic tank and the electrical power poles taking power to the lighthouse about 40 feet below on the main road. We knew of an Anglo-Irish architect in Bantry who was making a good living out of doing up deserted cottages (many of the former owners having emigrated to America after the terrible famine in 1847) and after a structural survey he agreed to refurbish the cottage and we did a deal.
The upper floor being dry had been used as a grain store but the old wooden ground floor was damp and crumbling away. Our architect spoke to his friend, the electrical engineer in Dunmanway, who installed for us an electricity pole connected up to the main supply on the peninsula. My builder, Anthony McCarthy of the neighbouring village Caher, put in a septic tank (as the cottage was occupied only a few weeks in the year, we never had any trouble nor did we ever need to empty or service the tank). Inside, a concrete floor yielded a large room with a built-in wardrobe, two smaller bedrooms and the hot water cylinder with shelves for the airing cupboard.
My aunt, Geraldine, now widowed but with a sister handicapped by having had an operation for cancer, helped us by buying us our refrigerator for the kitchen. We turned the whole ground floor into one large room with an electric cooker and sink, an open fire to burn peat blocks and a stupendous view across the bay to Mount Gabriel on the next peninsula.
Beside the cottage there was a large flat turning space for our car and a couple of others, and our water supply was by gravity-fed polythene pipe from the moorland above. It tasted rather peculiar but we disguised it by mixing the water with orange squash for drinking and the water never did any of us any harm. Our local Irish neighbours said “Anthony should have put more sand down the well”, presumably to act as a filter. We ignored it and the taste gradually died away.
Finally came the day when the comfortable double bed we had ordered from the supermarket in Bantry (which sold everything from furniture to cheese) could be delivered to Ballytoon Cottage. But when the van with its driver and his mate arrived they took one look at our staircase, which curved round a right angle with a small landing half way up and said in chorus “you’ll never get this bed up there.” Fortunately, at that moment, Geraldine, my adorable aunt drove up in her car, took one look at the problem and said “of course you can get it up; cut a hole in the floor.” Anthony and his saws were sent for and using the extra space, the boys from Bantry lifted the bed and its mattress up to the first floor, while Anthony prepared a short length of wooden beam to pin the floor boards back into place. (Aunt Geraldine was practical and knowledgeable about houses). When she and her sister Betty were overseeing the building of a pair of bungalows for themselves at Adare in Co. Limerick, she took on the whole job of quantity surveying for the builders, saying that when you knew the materials to be used, it was no more difficult than family shopping and saved a lot of money.
We enjoyed our holidays at Ballytoon enormously and were able to let the cottage to friends and relatives when we were not using it ourselves. Bridie Spillane, Paddy’s wife, was unfailingly helpful as a caretaker in the winter. We put storage heaters in the downstairs rooms to keep them dry and well aired but minor emergencies sometimes cropped up. I once got a letter from Bridie which read “Dear Miss Pye, We had a gale which took some slates off your roof. John has mended the roof and you owe me five pounds. Yours Birdie.”
We were careful never to start talking to Irish friends in the village about the troubles in the North. By 1967, the shootings and violence were being constantly reported in the Irish Press, but it was all happening 300 miles away and if the subject came up in conversation, they would say “terrible, ’tis, ’tis terrible the troubles in the North” and then go on to discuss the price of fish in Bantry market or which horse was likely to win the Irish National.