CAPE CLEAR ISLAND MAGIC

A Photographic, Historical, & Dramatic Account of Clear Island, Ireland by Chuck Kruger 
First Published by Collins Press, Cork, Ireland, 1994; reprinted 1995 and 1999.
New publication Comharchumann Chléire Teo., Oileán Chléire, An Sciobairín, Co. Chorcaí. 2008

This fourth edition of Cape Clear Island Magic, reprinted in 2008 by Cape's Co-op, has been significantly updated and enlarged.

Cape Ahoy!

Through historical analysis, personal experience, poems, short stories, & photographs, Chuck weaves Cape's unspoilt island magic.


REVIEWS OF BOOK FOLLOW:

Southern Star, Saturday, August 7, 1999, page 10

Magic of Cape Clear extolled
"Cape Clear Island Magic", by Chuck Kruger. (Published by The Collins Press, £7.99).

When a book makes you want to down tools and drive at illegal speeds to grab a boat to an island, it has achieved something. This sort of historical and very personal account of Cape Clear is written with boundless passion by a Yank whose enthusiasm for the lump of land in the Atlantic is refreshing.

Over the 112 pages, we are given an insight into the lives of the 140 inhabitants on this three by one mile island which incredibly at its peak, had a population of 2,000. Cape is the southernmost inhabited island off the Irish coast and long lives in the memory of any visitor.

There is a magic to island life, a heroic survival element for natives and blow-ins to live through horrendous weather in isolated locations and Kruger captures this indomitable spirit of all Cape Clearers. The book is a collection of stories, poems and photographs by an American who has become an integral part of life in this fascinating kingdom.

The author is a teacher/lecturer/counsellor from New York State who on seeing the island for the first time, "felt a rush of feeling come over me, my eyes wet, I had an ebullient sense that here, dead ahead, was a place where I could die". He and his wife ended up on Cape through a series of coincidences as if fated to live the rest of their days in this remote spot.

I liked the photos, in black and white they added to the land that time forgot image of the island and I’m being a bit picky in suggesting that colour shots would have shown its true beauty. There is a great photo of a cow being lifted onto a boat and from it you get a sense of how difficult day to day living is on Cape, "taking an animal to the Mart becomes quite a logistic challenge."

A photo of Mrs. Kruger struggling to walk on a windy day gives an idea of how often savage weather conditions dictate things. Kruger gives us a greater insight, "you don’t leave home without securing your windows, even wedging them in winter against vibration. Neighbours speak of walking at a 45 degree tilt for months."

Chuck’s description of the almost inaccessible O’Driscoll Castle of Gold is beautiful and I have vowed to risk life and limb on my next visit to reach it. For birdwatchers nationwide the island is the Mecca, the finest spotting ground in Ireland.

DOUBLE F: The double Fs, farming and fishing, remain the heart and soul of island life complemented by a rapidly rocketing tourism industry.

Kruger writes in a chatty, intimate style, very much in the vein of a storyteller and his boyish delight in the little differences of Cape, make this book a delight to dip into rather than attacking in one gulp.

The spirit of a vibrant, tight-knit community with a distinct identity roars across the pages of the book. A Krugerless Cape is now incomprehensible, they have become a critical element in its composition.

The book would have benefited from a brighter cover and as I already wrote colour photos, but who am I to criticise, it’s on its fourth reprint in as many years.
* Our guest reviewer this week is author and businessman, A. J. Cotter  

Cape clear Island from the Air

The Irish Times, WEEKEND, January 2, 1999, p. 9

A list of good reasons to buy Irish, by Yvonne Drysdale

Local History/Guides

American writer, poet and Cape Clear resident Chuck Kruger’s Cape Clear: Island Magic (Collins) is a collection of essays, stories and poems telling how the island has changed over the centuries, how it differs from season to season and what it’s like today.

The Examiner: "This slim volume is a real treasure - a miscellany of history, archaeology and folklore bound together by the author's blend of poetry and story telling. The islanders' pride in their heritage and their self-sufficiency shine through....This book could well become a classic, or at the least, an indispensable contribution to island lore."

The Irish Times: "Chuck Kruger...a poet and a writer...has been reinvented by Cape Clear....The island drew him to it and urged him to put down his thoughts. He has done so in Cape Clear: Island Magic...It is...worth having, if only to enjoy the author's own and very obvious enjoyment at being where he is."

Books Ireland: "A neat and worthy production...."

Condee Reviews: "...apart from being a fascinating and beautifully written book, it is an affirmation of why he is there....This is a little gem of a book."

Of his adopted island Chuck says: "Cape's a poem I read every day, every night. It's a point of reference, a metaphor by which I confirm my very being."

View from our farm

Chuck

Cape Clear

Nell cooking up a storm

North Harbour

The Fastnet


Here are the first three of the twenty-seven chapters of Cape Clear Island Magic.

 

FOREWORD

The long hump of Cape Clear rose out of the sea like a blowing whale....

                                    Peter Somerville-Large’s The Coast of West Cork

A convert to Cape, I’m what locals call a “blow-in”: I’ve blown in from somewhere else like a seed on the wind, with the implication that I could, tomorrow, just as easily blow on to somewhere else. But I’m afraid that Cape’s stuck with me, for I experience myself putting down roots into this rough sandstone island “promontory”, as it was referred to hundreds of years back. Whether I’m the toxic ragwort, the encroaching fern (bracken), the gentle Joseph’s Ladder – the regional name for Montbretia – or something that hasn’t grown here before and that won’t upset the ecological balance, this book will make the determination clear, Cape clear.

As an outsider to Ireland as well as to Cape, my perspective has advantages and disadvantages: I see landscapes, customs, history, even weather as if for the first time. Thus I can respond enthusiastically but also naïvely, objectively but also blindly, subjectively. While free of some collective cultural biases, I’m also imprisoned by those I bring with me. Without Irish, I’m often at a loss when islanders try to share place names, anecdotes, and stories with me. Thus, to communicate Cape to you, I rely not merely on compiled library research, but on photographs, poems, short stories, lore gained first-hand through conversations in pastures and pubs, tales heard while lobstering or building a house or mailing letters or climbing a stile. I try, then, to present Cape not only from the head, but from the eye, the heart. As a consequence, I vary my style from chapter to chapter and sometimes, as when a personal approach will dramatize or clarify Cape better than statistics or bald facts, within chapters.

People ask how I came to Cape in the first place; others ask – especially when a strong gale has been howling like a banshee about the gables for a week straight – why I stay; still others ask why I left comfy Switzerland after twenty-six years there. The following part of this foreword serves as an introduction to Cape, to me, to my sometimes anecdotal style.

Cut off from the mainland by eight potentially treacherous sea-miles of sudden rock and powerful tidal currents, exposed to the ripping wind from every direction, sometimes covered by salt and foam (some call it sea spit), practically devoid of sheltering trees, stony and hilly, without major stores or services, downright isolated, a last outpost, Clear Island, County Cork, Ireland, called us – my wife Nell and me – away from our secure quiet home in Switzerland. There we might have boasted a peaceful view of lake and mountains and castle, proximity to field and vineyard and forest, easy quick access to what some refer to as high civilization: fabulous hospitals, universities, ski slopes, concert halls, opera house, indoor tennis and squash, a variety of ethnic restaurants, people from all over the world, Joyce’s Zürich a Dublin without poverty, the countryside clipped and pruned and as ordered as a beloved kitchen garden. So why, Cape neighbors asked, do you want to live here? How did you happen to find us? Just how crazy are you?

We first visited Ireland in 1979, returned to Switzerland convinced that, yes, rural Ireland still had a quality of living that we believed made it the most friendly country we had ever toured. Totally pleased with our vacation, we went back to teaching, wondering if another year we would journey to Israel or to Spain.

Not until 1986 did we think of Ireland again, after looking at the photographs we had taken in ’79. I especially remember one showing a deserted cottage (somewhere south of Valencia) that had a riot of foxglove growing randomly on the thatched roof; the fog obscured the background. Then we came upon an old French tourist magazine with a two-page spread, an aerial photograph of the then quaint village of Baltimore, with Sherkin Island resplendently verdant behind it, and a touch of something else out at sea.

The spring and early summer of 1986 friends began to arrive in Switzerland, one group after another, and we began to experience our tiny home as a busy B&B, Nell the cook and me the bottle-washer. While we enjoyed our friends individually – collectively, sequentially, they overwhelmed us: so when we saw two weeks without visitors ahead, we packed our knapsacks before anyone else could arrive. Two days after the idea hit we were hitchhiking in the boiling sun from Cork Airport direction Baltimore. We had meant to rent bikes, but the day was a scorcher, Cork was to the east, and we wanted to mosey west, so that was that. In our late forties, we hitchhiked for the first time since our early twenties. A priest picked us up, then a farmer, a sociology professor, an elderly artist, grandparents with two young children. Three hours later we were in Baltimore, wandering about and feeling that here was a gentle honest one-street town, with a thriving low-key kid-centered harbour, but not quite what we were looking for. Sherkin called.

For three days we tramped Sherkin. One place caught our fancy, a small headland that shot due south, with, we romanticized, nothing between it and the South Pole. Every day we picnicked there, rain or shine – and it was mostly rain – watching the breaking waves and feeling the need to stare emptily out into the sea and to something shadowy to the southeast. After three days, despite the magnificent Horseshoe Harbour, the charm of the Franciscan Friary, and the enthrallment we felt on that point, we were thankful we’d gone to Sherkin but ready to leave. Achill Island next!

Safely back in Baltimore, we hoisted our packs and were about to set forth thumbing when we saw a land auctioneer’s sign, and decided – as far as one can decide to do anything – to go meet him and tell him in all innocence and silliness that if that point ever came up for sale in five years, to let us know. The auctioneer wanted to know what we liked about it, we talked, and finally he said, “I know a piece of land out on Cape, and I think it might be quite like the headland on Sherkin, though a little larger. I’m going in to Cape on the 2:15 mailboat with my wife and mother-in-law; join me if you like; I’ll show you the property. And if you decide not to go, good luck to ye and no harm done.”

At 2:15 we sailed on the Naomh Ciarán, left Sherkin astern, and instead of hiking toward places north, were steaming south toward what our guide books suggested was a haven for those twenty years our junior, what with a youth hostel and a camp site, and bird watchers galore. How impulsive we felt.

And then something happened, something magical, something for which islands are renowned. I was on the starboard side swapping sailing yarns with our gregarious auctioneer; Nell was on the port side exchanging bringing-up-children stories with his wife and mother. As we entered North Harbour I chanced to look up, and there was a picturesque twelfth century ruin of a chapel, beside it a stark homely cemetery, at the head of the harbour a holy well, and, in the middle of hearing a yachtsman's tale, I felt a rush of feeling come over me, my eyes wet, I had an ebullient sense that here, dead ahead, was a place where I could die. I brushed my tears with my sleeve so that he, perhaps, wouldn’t notice anything amiss, and went on listening to his tale.

A few months later, back in Switzerland at a small dinner party, life savings now into the unexpected purchase of an island property, someone asked me how I knew Cape was where I wanted to be, and I told the story of my first entry to North Harbour. Nell looked at me, not having heard my story before, and told hers. She, she said, happened to look up as we entered North Harbour, saw a crumbling chapel, saw the modest graveyard, the Virgin Mary statue by the well, and felt a rush of feeling come over her, bringing tears to her eyes: she knew that here was a place she could die happily. She went back to listening to a story about bringing up fourteen-year-olds.

I should add that neither of us is particularly anxious to die, nor are we particularly lachrymose. But having lived in Switzerland for all of those years, we had failed to develop any deep connection to its earth, much as we valued its well-kept old houses, its walking paths, its museums, its trains, its carefully farmed fields. Somehow, for us, the very order of the country muffled its spirit. We don’t like park benches in the middle of woods or on mountain tops. It’s too civilized by half. We prefer raggedy Ireland to well run and manicured Helvetia.

Some live wherever they happen to be or to have been brought up, some choose their location, and a few have no choice but to go where they are called. Nell and I have discovered we have no choice, for better or for worse. So that’s our story, written in 1994, of how we found Cape – or, perhaps, of how it found us.

And here’s an update, written in 2008. Not much has changed. Imagine owning a car and never once using fourth or fifth gears – and rarely third – 
because those speeds are too fast for the local roads. Imagine living in a community that’s so relaxed, so safe, that the postman, or post-woman, delivers your mail straight to your handiest indoor table, whether you’re home or not. Imagine that when there’s a knock on the front door, you call out, Come on in! rather than, 
Who’s there? Imagine taking your morning cuppa, weather permitting, to a chair beside your kitchen garden and spending the next quarter hour checking the sea 
for passing ships; the outer harbour for dolphin, shark, and whale; the nearby shrubbery and shoreline for an easy sighting of twenty bird species, and not 
infrequently experiencing a rarity such as a recent hoopoe, who, like many tourists, came for a day and stayed for a week.

A bit curious, you also look around at your dozen closest neighbours’ homes for signs of life, laundry out, car or tractor still in the drive, children at play, 
potato drills dug. And you scan the adjacent pastures to make certain there’s still a sufficiency of grass for the grazing cattle – and that, ever the mischievous ones, they’ve not broken through a ditch and set forth on their moseying way to An Siopa Beag.

Where am I? While Herman Melville wrote that true places are never on the map, I must give my mentor the lie, for I’m sure his nautical charts listed all major islands of West Cork – Dursey, Bear, Whiddy, Hare, Long, Sherkin, and Cape, the southernmost – and Cape’s where I live, vacation, work.

I used to drive thirty minutes every day at a standard eighty mph on a chockablock dual carriageway in the middle of Europe to get to work; now, after my outdoors cuppa, I climb the steep stairs to my study. All that time and stress saved, I now opt for a nature walk with Nell almost every late afternoon. In fact, I’d 
say that the greatest change in our lives brought about by moving to a seemingly remote Atlantic island has been a significantly increased intimacy with nature. And 
an exceedingly pure nature, as even the birds attest. Choughs, for example, one of the most pollution sensitive of all birds, thrive on Cape but have fled most of the 
rest of Europe.

Zorba the Greek had a philosophy that Cape has enabled us to adopt as our own: every day we’re able to see something as if for the first time, a drystone 
wall, a flower, a combination of light and patchwork pastures. And, sure enough, every day, even when those hurricanes are flapping the slates, Cape provides us 
with a setting where nature’s so unspoilt that sometimes we feel as though we’re privy to the beat of nature’s heart – and see the consequences in the bogs, the lake, the heather and gorse-covered scrubland, the sea and the sky, which includes a nighttime firmament undimmed by city lights.

Cape feels significantly larger than its 1578 acres because the topography’s so uneven, the perimeter filled with all kinds of jagged points, dark caves and 
quiet coves, and a host of cliffs and hills. Its primary (national) school hums away with two teachers and around fifteen kids, speaking both Irish and English; it has 
an award-winning museum, a resident nurse, deep-sea angling boats, an early September international storytelling festival, a library, craft shops, two up-to-date 
taxis, two Irish summer colleges.

Yet, as idyllic as Cape can be, the infrastructure is approaching a critical point. In January this year, the post office – a natural and vibrant centre for much social contact – was closed down by the state, except for Thursday mornings. And I’ve witnessed the depopulation trend of rural and especially Western Ireland hit Cape with storm force. Since 1986, when I first visited Cape, a population of 150 has fallen low as 113, a drop of close to 25% in fifteen years, though now, in 2008, it’s come back up into the 130s. Despite the environmental purity and the peacefulness, this number is still delicate. To gain perspective on it, consider the following: Cape had 1800 inhabitants in the 18th century, 1000 after the famine, 600 in 1900, 200 in 1960. Should this present 130 not be the bottom – a drop exacerbated by the fact that most island youth of the last twenty years have finished their secondary education, and many of them their tertiary, and then not been able, given the specialisation of the world, to find jobs or suitable careers except on the mainland – I fear the trend will soon affect the quality of island life, unless, as has been happening the last decade, a few more young couples discover that Cape’s the place for them.

Imagine walking the perimeter of Clear Island and spotting a colony of nine gray Atlantic seals basking on a rock. Imagine seeing waves mountainous shoot 
over the roof of the Youth Hostel. Imagine on a foggy night falling asleep to the tune of the reassuring deeply muted hoot of the Fastnet Lighthouse. That’s all a 
part of our island life. Then remember that physicists theorize that a piece of matter the size of a fist could have the weight of the entire earth; and that Cape has 
that kind of density – in an aesthetic sense. The more one comes to know the beauty of the island, the more there is to know.

BACKGROUND

I thought,” he said, “that the Island wasn’t half as big as it is.”
“Ambasa,” said I, “it is much larger than one would ever conceive.”

                        Conchúr O Síocháin’s The Man from Cape Clear                                                                                                                                              

Clear Island, the southernmost inhabited land off the Irish coast, may be small in size – a mere three miles long by one mile wide – but large in history and picturesque scenery.

To reach this rugged, more insular than isolated island, one boards in Baltimore the state-subsidised Naomh Ciarán II – which runs one of two eight-mile routes at least once a day year round (gales permitting) – or the privately owned Cailín Óir (summer season only). In the summer one can also come from Schull aboard the Karycraft. Arriving North Harbour roughly (or calmly) forty-five minutes later, returning locals are, as the idiom has it, now “in”, having been “out”, or visiting that country off Cape’s coast called Ireland.

Island antiquities include Neolithic and Bronze Age standing stones, a passage tomb with the only summer solstice alignment in Ireland (see Chapter V for an account of the national and international significance of this tomb), an alleged ogham stone, a boulder burial (which used to be called a dolmen, or a boulder dolmen), a prehistoric cooking site (fulacht fiadh). Unauthenticated wedge-tombs, souterrains, and hut foundations, which appear on no archaeological maps, await authentication and analysis, as do possible ringforts. A replica of the inscribed Cape Clear Stone, which scholars often compare to stones from Newgrange, and photographs of some of the other ancient stones, may be viewed in the island’s Heritage Centre.

Other antiquities include Bronze Age mines; St. Kierán’s Pillar Stone, whose cross legend attributes to the saint himself, thus placing the reworked Celtic stone in the 4th to 5th Century A.D.; the Romanesque St. Kierán’s Church (erected in the 12th or 13th Century on the site of earlier structures), now a ruin; the 13th to 15th Century O’Driscoll Castle (see Chapter VII), also a ruin since a cannonball attack in 1601 (or 1602 or 1603, sources vary, since the Julian calendar was then changing to the Georgian); a British signal tower and garrison constructed in Napoleonic days; an abandoned lighthouse (of still unblemished Cornish granite ashlars) assembled in 1817-18; the Telegraph House, built in the 1850’s; the Coastguard Station and Protestant Rectory (now the Youth Hostel), built about a decade earlier, though some say the oldest part of An Oige was built in the 1600s.

Then there are the sheer cliffs rising several hundred feet, a knoll beside the windmills 533 feet high (from which one can view both north and south sides of the island), a freshwater lake, reed-covered bogs, miniature hidden harbours, blowholes, sea caves (some hundreds of feet long), stacks, small streams, beaches, vantage points for whale and dolphin and seabird watching, miles and miles of walking paths, lonely sailors’ graves, massive patches of lichen and wild flowers.

One should also mention the Bird Observatory with hostel and warden, the Museum/Heritage Centre (with special exhibitions every summer), three pubs, a fish farm, the Siopa Beag, two craft stores, Protestant and Catholic cemeteries, a Catholic Church (no longer with a resident priest but a priest who comes every weekend), a campsite and a youth hostel on the shore of the mile-long unspoilt South Harbour.

And everywhere one sees the quiet patchwork of over 1600 small fields divided by drystone walls, the stone ruins of houses from days past, vistas of the distant Mizen Head, of Roaringwater Bay, of the mountains of West Cork, including Mount Gabriel and the often cloud-capped Hungry Hill, all defined and redefined by ever-shifting light and atmosphere. Herds of cattle, sometimes with a goat or two in the midst, graze the pastures. Here and there a donkey or pony cross-grazes the land. Rabbits, thanks to some visiting minks, no longer abound but are coming back. And we’ve plenty of cats and dogs, chickens and guinea fowl. But I no longer know a single peacock. Occasionally one may spot a sea otter. All this on – sources vary – 1578 acres.

In summer the island population swells from its 130 permanent inhabitants to as many as 700, not including day-trippers. Two summer colleges attract Irish youth intent on polishing their Irish and experiencing a Gaeltacht area. Yachts arrive not only from Kinsale and Dublin, but from England, France, Sweden, the United States, and often moor for a few days in one of the two main harbours. On a summer bank holiday weekend as many as one hundred tents may dot the campsite. Day-trippers from the mainland, departing from Schull and from Baltimore, walk the hilly meandering roads, bask in the sun alongside the harbours, picnic on some upland rock, snooze in a snug heathery niche.

On quiet days, which most summer days are, canoe (kayak) lessons are provided to college students, island youth, and visitors. Many evenings music, spontaneous or hired, can be heard in the pubs; often of a Saturday or Sunday afternoon a “session” will occur in Cotter’s Yard or in front of Ciarán Danny Mike’s Pub or beside the Club. On regatta days, and Baltimore Lifeboat days, North Harbour fills with yachts and people. As many as a hundred yachts have sailed in the Cape Clear Regatta (the first Wednesday after the August Bank Holiday Monday), a fun race held annually, with prizes going to the slowest boat, to the boat from furthest away, to the boat that didn’t race, as well as to the winner. Set dancing, raffles, traditional music provide active entertainment.

While Cape’s future remains uncertain, significant changes wrought over the last 30-odd years may well have halted the depopulation trend of the previous 150 years, partly by attracting to the Gaeltacht island students and tourists who spend money on goods and services, partly by improving the standard of living, partly by making nontraditional ways of earning a living possible. These changes include: establishment of the two Irish colleges; the Co-op (which used to oversee the running of the Naomh Ciarán II until 2007, and still oversees the petrol pumps, delivery of coal and cooking gas, renting of heavy equipment, and one of the colleges); the Bird Observatory (ornithologists report that Cape is perhaps the best place for birdwatching in all of Ireland); the Youth Hostel/An Oige; Cape Clear Ceramics; an abalone farm (which we hope will be able to continue beyond 2008); a small cluster of holiday homes, plus a few scattered others; island-wide macadamized roads, thus allowing cars and tractors, JCBs and diggers; water storage tanks supplying customers by gravity-feed.

In this cottage industry/electronic age one no longer needs to live in the centre of a town or city to be gainfully employed at occupations other than farming and fishing. The island too is going high tech: it now has satellite dish antennas, computers, faxes, photocopy machines, phones in almost every house, almost as many televisions and VCRs, broadband. Indeed, reliable electricity, and the high tech it allows, may enable Cape to attract new settlers to its community, thus assuring its viability.

Traditional island occupations, fishing and farming, continue to occupy people, but mostly on a part-time or supplemental basis. Only one sizeable fishing vessel, the Ard Costa, goes out from the island for more than a day at a time, usually six days at a stretch. With a complement of 3 island men on board, one ship doesn’t make Cape – which, according to T.G. Green, in 1920 had a fleet of 43 fishing boats employing 209 – a base for the fishing industry. Other islanders fish directly from Cape, but in open boats in fair weather, usually for lobster and crab with strings of ten to twenty-five pots. Until just a few years ago, one person collected and sold periwinkle. A handful shoot the occasional mackerel or herring net. Except for one fisherman, long-lining has ceased. To be competitive in the fishing industry, it appears that most must operate from a major port, with transportation, ice, support facilities at the ready. For now, the “floating fish factory” ships, which vacuum the seas, and the large trawlers are winning, making margins so small, and capital investment so great, that few fishermen from places like Cape can compete.

If one wants to set up as a successful farmer, one doesn’t normally decide to move to an often wind-swept, sometimes salt-burnt, occasionally unreachable, rocky island without a vet in residence, without arable fields of any size, without much topsoil in the majority of the fields. (A three-acre field, called Gort Mor – The Big Field – is said to be one of the largest fertile plots on Cape.) Consequently not many young couples into farming or fishing, about to commit themselves to taking out a mortgage and to rearing a family, are prepared to settle on Cape – and a comparatively short time later see their children off to mainland secondary school at the age of 12 or 13. The island, then, has not been able to attract young farmers and fishermen to settle there, nor has it been able to provide employment for most of its own maturing youth. This fact could account for approximately half of Cape’s farmers, both full- and part-time, being over 60.

I can’t think of one family which relies solely on farming for its entire income. Most island men supplement their farming by fishing, hauling, building, bartending, working for the County Council, the Co-op, crewing for one of the ferries. As with the fishing industry, it’s difficult to compete with the mainland with any degree of financial success: When mainland farmers can plow more than ten acres without having to back up once or squeeze through one gate or gap; can have all deliveries of seed or feed or building block or cement made right to the barn door; can have woodland protection for delicate crops, and mountains and miles of land to absorb the brunt of Atlantic storms; then it’s no wonder Cape Islanders have to juggle different ways of livelihood. To emend the proverb, Capers are jacks of many trades, masters of most.

Cape women too juggle a multitude of jobs, including farming, running B&Bs and self-catering establishments, crewing on the ferries, managing craft stores, potting, painting, sewing and upholstery, delivering mail, quilting, running the library, translating into Irish, IT work, translating into English from French, from German, caring for Irish college students, working as publicans, teachers, tour guides, Co-op secretary, Co-op development officer, Co-op bookkeeper, resident nurse, bus driver, HSE home help….

Before I determined to move permanently to Cape, I asked many islanders, men and women, what advice they would have for me. The consensus: Learn to do things for yourself, to be independent, self-reliant; then you will survive the rigours of the island – and be able to appreciate its peace.

 

THE SEASONS, THE PEOPLE

...[Cape] is separated from the mainland by the sound of Gaskenane, in which is always a strong tide, and in high winds a very heavy sea; and having, consequently, less intercourse with it than the islands nearer the coast, the native inhabitants have retained more of their original manners, language, and customs.

Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837

Cape’s not only an island of variety but of stark contrasts, and not only from minute to minute – as when you witness half a dozen rainbows of an April afternoon – but from season to season, century to century. Compare its peak population of 1800 to 2000 in the 18th Century with its 130 today; compare a halcyon windless summer day with a January gale and gusts that hammer gables and send roof slates into the next townland; compare the arrival of the mailboat in July with its arrival in January. And then consider the islanders, hardy people who can withstand winter months of lashing wind, torrential rain, battering surf, swirling draw, geographic isolation, as well as summer months of hectic tourist inundation when the bulk of the year’s income for many is earned during nine intensive weeks.

North Harbour, when the Naomh Ciarán or the Cailín Óir or the Karycraft berths of a sunny summer Saturday afternoon, has all the makings of a festival. Cars, tractors, empty trailers line the pier, some facing one way, some the other. Young island children splash about in the shallow water out from St. Kierán’s Strand, Trá Chiaráin, while the older kids learn lifesaving techniques further out, their swimming instructor shouting instructions on how to effect a rescue; the young offspring of yachtspeople dart here and there in their dinghies, catching fish, spinning round and round; a local transport vessel unloads twenty tons of sand onto three trailers parked along the edge of the adjacent quay outside the safe harbour. It’s not just a time to collect the week’s groceries, or the food supplements for the cattle, or a new bathtub, or visiting friends; it’s a time to people-watch and to visit with neighbours.

Some islanders are content to enjoy the hullabaloo from the comfort of their “bangers”; others mingle with the crowd, or stand next to a neighbour, who’s already standing next to a neighbour, and thus a natural line of islanders forms well back from where they know the Naomh Ciarán or the Cailín Óir will berth. As the ferry docks and unloads, the chaos and the fun begin – if you’re not in a hurry, that is.

Two usually local lads (and ‘lads’ around here can sometimes be female) leap to the pier from beside the wheelhouse before the boat has been made fast. Once the ropes have been looped over bollards, pulled taut from the ship, and cleated, a mate unbolts the starboard stern deck door, swings it open, secures it, and out file the hodgepodge of passengers, up the concrete steps, into the mass of vehicles (usually one or two idling, since the salt in the penetrating winds, the consequent swift corrosion, and the general damp don't guarantee a quick start). Visitors and islanders alike slowly thread their way off the pier or eventually climb into one of the cars or vans or the now regular bus and wait for the traffic jam to untangle.

Out step islanders back from their errands in Skibbereen (often referred to as our “Big Smoke”), the older ones assisted by one of the mates; German youth, half helmeted, wait anxiously to be handed their bikes from off the bow deck; Irish musicians carry their instruments, ready for a session into the wee hours at the Club; English, Scottish, and Irish birdwatchers appear, binoculars dangling around necks, telescopes, tripods, and luggage hanging from their shoulders. Out step the eager parents of Irish college students; the young set with their tents and sleeping bags wonder where the campsite is;  an assortment of people hope An Oige – the Youth Hostel – isn’t full-up; day-trippers, with their prams and picnic baskets and shiny shoes, emerge from the passenger saloon. Out step people speaking Düütsch, cockney, Brooklynese, and, of course, Irish. It’s hard to distinguish islanders on these days, except maybe the farmers, recognizable by their work clothes and their healthy weathered complexions.

If it’s the Naomh Ciarán that’s berthed, a large “box” – one of two small ferry containers for supplies, with a volume of 10 cubic meters for the closed box and half that for the open – is lifted by the mailboat’s hydraulic hoist and lowered to the pier. The closed box is unlatched, and the friendly ferreting begins. The process has a ritual quality and can’t be hurried. Since people are never quite certain how many cardboard boxes their telephone-ordered goods will be packed into, they have to examine the label on every box; and thus they can’t leave until the last message has been claimed. Consequently, everyone awaiting supplies figuratively, and often literally, bumps into everyone else, greetings and banter flying.

Perhaps because so many people have similar Christian and surnames, but more because there’s so much stacking and re-stacking of cardboard boxes, with grown-ups and children carrying other people’s supplies to help out, boxes do, albeit rarely, end up in the wrong homes, and further shuffling for a box gone missing ensues, even from one end of the island to the other.

The boat came in at 3:00. The crowd was dispersed by 3:40.

If, however, you wish to see the rule rather than the exception, it’s better not to judge by summer activities: Islanders are bustling then, what with students, harvests, tourists, regattas, lifeboat days, visiting friends and relatives. And in the evenings, the pubs are so full, visitors cheek by jowl, that many islanders don’t bother to have their weekly chat and pint because there’s too much noise and crowding to contend with. Far different to observe Cape off season.

Watch the mailboat come in some Wednesday in mid-January – assuming there’s no Force 10 blowing, no heavy draw in the harbour which could render the mailboat as good as rudderless in fast-moving water, and force her to return to Baltimore. A dozen natives along the pier climb in and out of each other’s cars to have a chat and keep warm and dry. Periodically they scan the sea for the first sign of the boat’s antenna. Instead of docking in the outer harbour, the boat is deftly manoeuvered into the inner, where it’s made secure with hawsers six inches in diameter, ropes so heavy when waterlogged that the hydraulic hoist has to be used to lift them into place. Since there are no stone stairs built into this side of the pier, the mate and a bystander wrestle an aluminum railed gangway into position. It balances on the edge for a moment, like a teeter-totter, and then the men on the pier lower it to someone in the stern who guides it into place.

Four local lads disembark. They’ve had a relaxed long chat during the crossing. One had his hair cut while he was out. Because of the forecast, the trawlers on which two work won’t be sailing, so they’ve come home.

Up the gangway walks an intrepid birdwatcher and a professor from the University of Cork in for his monthly monitoring of the fish farm (a monitoring later done by post; and the fish farm now the abalone farm, since, sadly, neither the turbot nor the ragworm trials worked). Everyone’s well bundled up, and a few wear oilskins. Two middle-aged women emerge. An island couple who have spent a week in Dublin are back from their holidays. An elderly woman in kerchief is handed up the gangway, since it’s both steep and slippery and you need to gain careful purchase on the widely-spaced wooden cross-pieces. Then those waiting descend and return from the hold with a dozen cartons of food, some building supplies, a hundredweight bag of supplement cattlefeed. The gangway’s pulled up onto the pier, tied securely to a ring. The mate lowers the locking levers over the doors to the hold, the captain locks the wheelhouse, checks the moorings one last time.

At 3:15 the boat came in, at 3:35 the pier was empty. At 10:30 that night seven islanders sit at the bar or on either side of the fireplace in Cotter’s and discuss the wind, then the latest oil spill off some foreign coast. Perhaps at 4:00 a.m. the next morning, weather permitting, the captain will move the boat into the outer harbour so that at 9:00 it’s not aground at low tide.

Who are these people who seem to thrive on hardship? Are they, as a local historian from Clonakilty told me, “a breed apart”?

I have often wondered whether his comment is germane, though certain that it once was. And I have heard it echoed in various guises throughout mainland villages in West Cork. Indeed, some mainlanders, when they hear I live permanently on Cape, respond, “Aren’t they the fierce independent ones?” Or, negatively, “I wouldn’t like to be tangling with the likes of ’em.” But these are characterisations from afar. When questioned further, most of these people admit to never having visited Cape.

Since Cape has utterly devoted visitors, visitors who come back year after year, decade after decade, I have regularly asked them over a pint or on a birdwalk or while waiting for the mailboat to come in, “What’s special about Cape, about Cape islanders?” They generally link the place with the people. Here’s a composite answer: “There’s no more peaceful, beautiful place, no friendlier people. They have time for you, they get to know you. You walk along their roads and lanes, and when you say hello, they don’t just say hello back and continue on their way, they stop and talk; they’re genuinely interested in you, they remember you. I know most of the islanders by name, and they know me, and I’m here just a few days a year.”

“But isn’t that true throughout rural Ireland?” I ask.

“No, not as much so. It’s harder to trust people because so many have become so mercenary.”

“Even in the country?” I ask, just to be sure.

“Even in the country.”

“Well then,” I say, “why are Capers special?”

And I receive answers like this: “Cape has kept itself free, free of development. It hasn’t the high-speed of modern life. Here you’ve no two-way roads, rarely can a car get out of second gear; you've no supermarkets, no department stores, no immediate access to essential services, few of the mainland’s modern stresses. All you’ve got is each other. And you all know each other. There’s something basically decent about the people here, they have such a sense of humor, they seem highly intelligent, they reflect on things. The older people have a wisdom, and the younger people appear energetic and resolute. I find I can relax here the way I can nowhere else. The air’s fresh, the people fresh, and that all helps to recharge my batteries.”

As I come to know the islanders better myself, I discover that they are a strong self-reliant people, a proud people, hardworking survivors. The worst thing I could do would be to talk about them individually, for that would turn me into a spy instead of a neighbour and turn them into objects instead of private citizens; it would be like gossiping. So I will limit myself to generalisations; when I do present an individual, he or she is a composite, not necessarily any one person but three or four or more...together.

I find considerable truth in the description “breed apart”. First, most people on the island are O’Driscolls or related to the O’Driscolls. Almost all families – except a few of the blow-ins like mine – are related by blood. Many’s the kitchen conversation I’ve been unable to follow once fourth and fifth cousins begin to be mentioned, or when I discover that some people are related to others through both parents. While infusions of new blood arrive regularly from outside, from other islands, from Dublin, Galway, Kerry, Cork, the O’Driscoll clan dominates the area, including neighbouring Sherkin Island and Baltimore.

Dr Smith, in the 18th Century, wrote of the inhabitants of Cape: they “are generally a very simple honest people, thieving being a vice little known among them.... Most...are strong and healthy, and are seldom invaded with disorders, dying generally of old age, chiefly owing to their temperate living, hard labour, and clearness of the air.”

In Lewis’s 1837 Topographical Dictionary, from which the epigraph to this chapter was taken, we learn that “the island was formerly remarkable for a race of men of extraordinary stature and strength, whose feats are the subject of many interesting narratives.” And Donovan, in 1876, wrote: “The natives of Cape Clear are distinct in a great measure from the inhabitants of the mainland; they have remained from time immemorial as a separate colony, always intermarrying amongst themselves; so that we must regard them as amongst the most typical specimens at the present day of the old Milesian race. The name of nearly all the islanders is O’Driscoll or Cadogan, the latter being only a sobriquet for the former....There can be no doubt but that they were the aboriginal race residing along the sea-coast of Carbery. The isolated position of the island, and its difficulty of approach, have kept its population in a comparatively antique state and distinct condition during the lapse of centuries, so far as nationality and descent. Irish is still the language spoken by nearly all. In features and complexion they bear a strong resemblance to the Spanish race in the Basque provinces and Gallicia in the north of Spain, from which provinces, their progenitors migrated to Carbery, and with which country they always preserved a close communication down to the 17th Century.

“Until the year 1710 Cape was a sort of established monarchy, an ‘imperium in Imperio’, and an O’Driscoll – the head of the clan – was always styled ‘King of the Island.’ They had a code of laws handed down by tradition from father to son, and as strictly obeyed and rigourously administered as if they had been drawn by a Solon or Justinian.....The general punishment was by fine, unless some grave offense was committed, and then the delinquent was banished for ever to the mainland, which was looked upon as a sentence worse even than death.

“The climate is remarkably healthy, none more so in the world, as evidenced by the longevity of the inhabitants, their stalwart frames, healthy appearance, trivial mortality, and freedom from disease. They are a quiet, peaceable, and industrious people, and possess greater gravity of manner, more ponderous bodies, and are built in a larger mould than the more vivacious and excitable race residing on the mainland.”

The most frequently cited inherited characteristic has been that of size. Perhaps the most famous man ever to live on Cape was Conchobhar O’Careavaun. He is reputed, writes Burke in 1908, to have been “eight feet high, stout in proportion, and of incredible strength. ‘As strong as Crohoor O’Carevaun,’ is a prevalent saying in West Cork.”

A story still told by islanders runs this way: In Cork Harbour, a group of men were standing on a quay trying to pull toward them a huge anchor some yards out. They hadn’t yet been able to budge it. Conchobhar O’Careavaun came walking along, saw the predicament, and asked for a go alone. They stepped aside, seeing the size of him but knowing that no one man could lift what five strong men couldn’t. To their amazement, Conchobhar easily raised the anchor. Irritated that what might have been half a day’s paid work for them was completed in a matter of minutes, the men mocked Conchobhar, who promptly hefted the anchor, threw it out into the harbour, twice as far as it had been in the first place, and stalked off.

Another story about Conchobhar, told by Donovan and still current, concerns his last days. Perhaps a year before his death, he retired to the Castle of Gold, already a ruin. He roughed it there, living like a hermit, the seas crashing around him, until he died. For many years his shinbone, as if a relic, was exhibited to strangers at the main cemetery gate.

While Donovan adds that “many of the natives, even at present, by their large stature and great strength of body, uphold the credit and tradition of their ancestors such as we never witness in this degenerate age”, I’m afraid that one can no longer agree with him. As recently as the nineteen sixties, it was not unusual to drop in to Burke’s Pub and see, seated on the bench with their backs against the wall, a group of local men all over six feet. But not today: The island has more than its fair share of tall men, but not so tall that as a group they attract special notice.

What “breed apart” is left on Cape is effected by the island’s geography and traditions rather than by its genes. To make it on Cape you have to learn, basically, to do things for yourself; you have to develop self-reliance and hardihood. Mainlanders have a population of tens of thousands to call upon for immediate help, and thus have access to all the specialists that such a population supports. But on Cape, with its tiny population cut off completely from the immediately accessible services most people take for granted, islanders learn not only to do a vast variety of things for themselves, but, more significantly, they develop a mentality, indeed a psychology, that confirms in them that they can in fact do most things. Here, I suggest, is what makes the Caper a “breed apart”.

Back in the sixties, for example, the first automobiles arrived on Cape. While many islanders didn’t know how to drive, let alone how to maintain a car, within a year most island men could strip down and reassemble any VW engine – almost all the bangers then were Beetles – as well as a trained mechanic could. Necessity may be the Mother of Invention, but she has other children too, “Survival” and “Balin’ Wire”. One day, for example, back in the late 80s, the washer in a critical waterline in my house suddenly gave up the ghost; undismayed, my neighbour calmly borrowed my penknife and shaped from the top of his welly the requisite replacement. Now, however, in the 21st Century, matters have again become difficult, as so many cars are computerized and the island hasn’t a mechanic with those skills.

Islanders have learned to make a variety of decisions that mainlanders never face, never imagine. Each family has to establish and manage its own garbage dump, since there’s no municipal garbage collection. Nell and I, for example, bury all our organic garbage deep in the garden, deep enough so that no rats are attracted. And the island, for the last few years, has been managing a number of public recycling bins for glass, aluminium drink cans, food tins, plastic bottles, cardboard…, bins which are hauled off the island by the Naomh Ciarán every two weeks to Baltimore to be picked up under the jurisdiction of the Cork County Council Environment and Recreation Department.

Each island family has to determine where its children will attend school after the age of twelve, since the island population cannot support its own secondary school. To go shopping requires considerable organization, and can’t be done on the spur of the moment: the Naomh Ciarán, our year-round ferry, leaves the island, normally, at 9:00 a.m., and for most of the year – the off-season year – it returns at 5:30, tides and weather permitting. If you're in the middle of baling hay, or using the washing machine, or any of a thousand tasks, and a specialised part snaps (and so many parts today are specialised), you normally can’t find or purchase a replacement on Cape, and you may well have to wait several days before one can be shipped in, as I had thought would be the case with that washer. The simplest five-minute task, consequently, can sometimes take days if not weeks, and one has to develop a healthy natural philosophy to handle the frustration. Many islanders develop an attitude that enables them both to accept what would drive most contemporary mainlanders to distraction and to get on with the task at hand even when Murphy’s law strikes for the nth time.

A person from Cape, then, learns to depend on himself, herself. When there’s some kind of an emergency, an islander’s first impulse isn’t to reach for the phone to call the hardware store or the electrical appliance shop or the tractor dealer, or any of the multitude of specialists technology has created, but to sit down and figure out how to effect a resourceful solution. Thus, I suggest, people from Cape keep using their common sense and intelligence – usage which might just hone those attributes and bring about what one of Cape’s regular visitors, earlier quoted in this chapter, referred to as “wisdom” – instead of relying on someone else’s. Yes, islanders are, perforce, a “breed apart”: They don’t simply survive the stark seasonal contrasts, the weather, the geographic isolation – they thrive on them.


If you’d like an autographed copy of  Cape Clear Island Magic, for yourself
or a friend, simply enclose a personal cheque, for  €20.00 (from within the EU), or for $21 (from USA), payable to Chuck Kruger, with the name & address of the recipient attached, and mail to:
Chuck Kruger
Glen West
Cape Clear Island
County Cork, Ireland

(Above price includes handling and shipping.)  

Alternatively, if you wish to pay by credit card, you may buy online through an island website: emara.com

And if you'd like to read about Chuck's other books, then click on The Man Who Talks To HimselfBetween A Rock or Sourcing.

E-Mail:chuck@chuckkruger.net

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