Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 11, 2017

© Margo Pfeiff

The pyramid-shaped Skellig Michael island is a UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks to its ruins and seventh-century monastery.

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Emerald island-hopping

Seeing the best of Ireland sometimes requires going beyond the mainland

Baby puffins scurried at my feet as I huffed and puffed my way up 600 near-vertical stone steps etched into the rocky flank of a tiny pyramid-shaped island. While I trudged step-by-step, gannets were gliding on thermals in the sky above. The effort was worth it though; rewarding my effort at the summit of Skellig Michael was a striking cluster of beehive-shaped structures built from slabs of flat stones by seventh-century Christian hermit monks eager to get away from it all.

I could relate.

I too was looking to unwind and contemplate life in a quiet place where folks spend their days at a walking pace, and Irish islands seemed to fit the bill. They’re mellow offshore outposts, oases of nature, history and a slower, more traditional lifestyle in a country that welcomes 6.5 million tourists a year, more than 1.5 times the country’s population. Remote, with a rugged beauty, they are home to fishermen, farmers, artists and urban refugees who live simply alongside the ruins and tales of prehistoric settlers, Vikings, past battles and plenty of sheep and cows. The spoken Irish language, which has all but disappeared from the mainland, is still commonly heard here.

According to the Ireland Islands Federation (oileain.ie), there are 33 populated islands with populations ranging from one to just under 800, most of them accessed by ferry. I chose a handful of wild Atlantic islands in the counties of Cork and Kerry, off Ireland’s southwest coast. While most are perfect for day tripping, some offer minimal-frills accommodation so you can linger without having to build your own beehive digs.

CAPE CLEAR

I made my way south from Cork, following the rural, winding coastal route through the gourmet hub of Kinsale — packed with visitors taking in the popular summer arts festival — past the serene remains of 13th century Timoleague Abbey, towards the hub of Skibbereen. En route I re-acquainted my brain with left hand shifting and navigating roads so narrow that swaying foxgloves and fuchsia hedges brushed my side-view mirror when I squeezed past oncoming cars.

By the time I reached the old port town of Baltimore, with its rows of jellybean-coloured row shops, houses and pubs trimmed in overflowing flower boxes, I was glad to park the car and step on board a 40-minute ferry bound for Cape Clear Island. We passed Sherkin Island, known for its artist community where ferries dock at the foot of the ruins of a friary, sacked by a local army in 1537. Lighthouses and dolphins breaking the surface were visible along the way. These waters are awash with tales of piracy and plunder, the islands studded with Martello towers on the lookout for Napoleon’s ships or square watchtowers – some with cannon balls still embedded in their crumbling rock walls - keeping an eye out for invading navies.

On Cape Clear the ferry docks in a small harbour where an ancient church overlooks a café, chip wagon and gift shop/tourist information office — the island’s “downtown”. From there two impossibly steep one-lane roads lead upwards, daunting enough that only five of us (out of 30 passengers) were adventurous enough to tackle them. At the top of the first rise, one couple opted for the hilltop pub, leaving only three of us to continue to the trailhead of a stunning hike. Following low rock walls across hillsides purple with heather in bloom, I reached the headlands and a dramatic viewpoint across to Fastnet Rock lighthouse on a shard of rock, Ireland’s southernmost point and sometimes called “Teardrop” since it was often the last glimpse of home seen by Irish immigrating to North America.

Spotting the lighthouse is a treat, since this region is famed for brutal storms and dense fogs. But it was in the middle of a rare blue-sky heat wave so it was with relief that I sat down at the end of my trek to a cold pint of Guinness in cheery Ciaran Danny Mike’s Pub (capeclearisland.com/Pub_and_Restaurant/pub_and_restaurant.html). I tucked into a traditional ploughman’s lunch, and the only other patrons were four locals out of the island’s 120, happily sunburned and chattering in the Irish language.

The island was long the domain of the O’Driscoll clan, and a short walk through paddocks gave me a glimpse of the ruins of their medieval castle. Then it was up another hill to an excellent little Cape Clear Museum (capeclearmuseum.ie; open daily June to September or by appointment) and a dish of Baileys-flavoured goat’s milk ice cream bought at a farmhouse along the way for the trip back to the mainland.

HEIR ISLAND

Gourmet cuisine is hardly what you’d expect on an island 2.5 kilometres long and 1.5 wide with a population of 25. But a few “blow-ins” — outsiders — have done just that and a five-minute ferry shuttle brings me to Heir (or Hare) Island where fine dining has been taking place at Island Cottage Restaurant (islandcottage.com; advance bookings required at 011-353-28-38102; open June 15 to September 15; €40) for the past 24 years. With his partner Ellmary Fenton, Chef John Desmond, who worked at three-star restaurants and taught cooking in Paris before coming to Heir Island, serves very locally-sourced meals in their traditional Irish stone cottage with a kitchen barely bigger than a boat’s galley. In the off-season he offers cooking classes for a maximum of two students.

Just down the country lane I checked in for my full-day baking course at the Firestone Bakery and Bread School (thefirehouse.ie; €150 including lunch, wine and ferry; year-round) to learn the secrets of creating sourdough, baguettes, pizza dough and creative twists on local soda bread. Sharing a building with a sailing club, the bakery is the brainchild of Patrick Ryan, a 29-year old with a corporate law degree, who instead followed his baking passion studying under a Dublin Michelin-starred chef. “When we started this the spring of 2012 we hoped to break even with 60 students over the summer,” he said while demonstrating how to properly knead. “We were completely overwhelmed when we got 350!”

After a lunch of gourmet thin-crust pizza we baked ourselves in an outdoor brick oven and watching our loaves and scones rise to perfection, I packed my goodies in a bag and walked to the ferry, stopping en route in an old stable/studio to see local artist Percy Hall’s paintings. We chatted about his 1957 round-the-world-hitchhiking trip and he looked at his watch. “You’ve got time for wine,” he announced and we sipped a glass inside his centuries-old stone waterfront cottage until it was time for the boat.

From Baltimore the road winds northwest and I left early to catch the Saturday morning farmer’s market at Schull, sampling local products like smokehouse meats, craft charcuterie and Gubbeen cheeses; over the past three decades Ireland’s southwest has become renowned for its local products movement that now supplies 70 percent of Ireland’s artisanal goodies. Then I wandered the lush, Gulf Stream-stoked gardens of Inish Beg, a tiny island you can drive to, then carried on to explore the formal gardens surrounding 18th century Bantry Estate where you can sip high tea or overnight in a baroque palace setting.

BERE ISLAND

Near Castletownbere on the scenic Ring of Beara toute around the peninsula, a four-car pontoon boat takes passengers to Bere Island, and what feels like back in time as well. Brendan Murphy greeted me at the inn he owns in the one pub/one café waterfront village with my room key. Then he offered me a bike from the rental fleet at his classic 1908 general store. “I’ll be back as soon as I deliver the mail,” said the bundle of energy, who is also the postman.

I cycled off on a 10-kilometre narrow country road, part of the 193-kilometre walking and cycling route, the Beara Way. At exactly the centre of the island is a three-metre tall prehistoric standing stone 4000 years old and further on, a Bronze Age wedge tomb. I stretched my legs on a hike up to one of the island’s two Martello Towers before heading for Sullivan’s, a classic Irish pub complete with a rickety wood stove, locals glued to the bar stools talking soccer, and luckily for me, just-caught cod with chips and blissfully mushy peas. Heading back to my room at dusk, I ran into Brendan who had just finished bringing in a load of hay. Unsurprisingly, he is also a farmer. “To survive on an island,” he said, “you have to do a little of everything.”

LITTLE SKELLIG

I left County Cork, heading for the Portmagee with my fingers crossed. For a week I’ve heard stories about people repeatedly trying to reach Skellig Michael, a jagged pinnacle jutting from the ocean 13 kilometres offshore. But the sea was like glass and on the 45- minute voyage we passed Little Skellig, white with 30,000 pairs of nesting gannets. When we nudged alongside Skellig Michael’s breathtakingly sheer cliffs it seemed impossible that monks rowing leather-hulled boats 1500 years ago could have reached this place.

These days just two archeologists and countless puffins and other seabirds are the only residents of this monastic outpost. Early Christian monks carved three steep routes 200 metres to the summit and eked out a monastic life for six centuries in stone huts, oratories and a chapel, surviving on fish, seabird eggs and the contents of a walled garden. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Skellig Michael is Ireland’s Machu Picchu, and with the rhythmic step-climbing, the high cliff vertigo and an ethereal aura of spirituality, it exudes the same calming awe — less a visit than a pilgrimage. If there is ever a competition for ultimate getaway, bragging rights go to the monks.

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