Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021
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Ireland's Ashes

Gerald Fitzpatrick goes back to County Cork and visits some old ghosts and friendly faces

In the summer of 1948, I made my first sea voyage. After a rough overnight crossing of the Irish Sea, we sailed into Cork Harbour; I still felt queasy, but my father, an ex-sailor, was in fine shape. On the quay was his sister: tall, thin and dressed fearsomely in black. "This is your aunt Polly," my father said. She looked at the skinny kid in short pants before her and clearly thought I needed fattening up. We walked to her home on nearby Camden Quay where, surrounded by curious cousins, we were fortified with strong sweet tea and scones with jam and thick cream. Aunt Polly insisted I have more, and she quickly became less fearsome.

During return visits over the years, Cork City seemed to be in a time warp. Even as late as the 1960s, horse-drawn carts were still common, and clothes in shop windows seemed out of fashion. I recalled those earlier visits to County Cork when my wife and I returned recently to see how things had changed since the "Celtic Tiger" began to roar: due to an economic miracle (and for the first time in modern history), more people emigrate to Ireland than leave it.

The centre of Cork looks the same as ever, even if the horses are long gone. The city has no great sights to speak of, but it has some great pubs and it's a delight to wander streets where few modern buildings intrude. The faìades along the graceful curve of St. Patrick's Street are still intact, but they now house the likes of McDonald's and Laura Ashley boutiques. The Georgian terrace on Camden Quay where Aunt Polly lived is still there, as is the familiar view of St. Finbarr's Cathedral reflected in the River Lee. Houses with grey slate roofs crowd the surrounding hills, and the square tower of Shandon Church still dominates the north side of the city as it has since the 18th century.

We left Cork City on a bright Sunday morning and stopped in Macroom to enquire about the traditional game of road bowling. Two teams compete in hurling an 800-gram steel ball along a stretch of winding road in the fewest number of shots. Sometimes the game involves cutting sharp bends by lofting the ball over hedges and trees. Motorists beware. If it's Sunday afternoon around Macroom and you come across groups of men by the side of the road waiting for your car to pass, you've found a game. This part of the county is one of only two areas in Ireland where the game is still played each Sunday.

To our dismay, we arrived too early in the day to wait for a game -- that might not even occur -- since we were bound for the westernmost part of the country and had other stops to make along the way. We vowed to watch for road bowling when we were next in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, the only other place where the game survives.

We left Macroom and followed the signs for Castletownbere. Once there, we intended to circle the Beara, Mizen and Sheep's Head peninsulas, all less travelled than the more well-known Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula.

From our room just outside Castletownbere, we looked across the harbour at Bere Island. The weather had changed, as it frequently does in Ireland, and a few fishing boats rocked at anchor as driving rain lashed against the window. I tried to envision what the harbour must have looked like over 80 years ago. It has been said that one could walk to Bere Island across the decks of the battleships sheltered there. Part of a huge Royal Navy fleet of 150 vessels assembled in the harbour before the Battle of Jutland in 1916, which most naval historians still call "the greatest naval engagement of all time." My father and three of his brothers survived the controversial battle that claimed almost 10,000 lives, with both sides claiming victory.

These days Castletownbere makes a good base for walking the rugged Beara Peninsula. The 200-kilometre Beara Way is a well-marked long-distance walk following side paths, bog roads, tracks and boreens, which are grass-covered lanes. The way is littered with ancient stone circles, wedge graves and old Celtic tombs. We drove to the tip of the Beara Peninsula thinking we might take Ireland's only cable car to the nature sanctuary of Dursey Island, likely the last sight of Ireland my father would have had from the deck of the HMS Mindful. Although the cable car apparently had a perfect record, its appearance didn't fill us with confidence. It looked as though it had been patched together from spare parts of farm machinery. I read somewhere that cattle take precedence over humans in the line-up for the ride.

It was beginning to rain again, and it was still raining when we came upon the ruins of Dunboy Castle near Casteltownbere. Ireland is full of the ruins of great homes burned down by the old IRA during the "troubles," and this one had the torch put to it in 1921. It was once the home of a wealthy copper-mining family, and the house served as inspiration for Daphne Du Maurier's novel Hungry Hill. The ruined house sits above the sea, surrounded by wild rhododendron bushes and blackberry brambles. It's a melancholy and lonely place where crows fly in and out of its empty window bays. As we clambered over wet stones, we noticed the roofless great hall with its Italian marble columns soaring above us, but we didn't linger.

Maybe it's to combat frequent grey skies (there's a reason why Ireland's so green), but many West Cork towns have come alive with brilliant colour in the last few years. Irish towns and villages are compact and uniform, with long two-storey terraces of simple design that contain dwellings, shops and, of course, pubs. Slate roofs and white paint give a monochromatic but unifying effect to the whole look, but all that's changing.

When the Irish use colour, it's not muted Italianate pastels but in-your-face crimson, purple, bright yellow, green, orange, blue and other solid tones -- windows and doors contrasted with vivid colours. On the Beara Peninsula, the villages of Allihies and Eyeries have gone overboard with the paintbrush. It takes some getting used to, but one of our hosts, Cyril Casey, said that his grandfather recalled brightly coloured villages in the Cork of his childhood. Maybe there's some precedent for this razzle dazzle.


Sheep's Head is the least visited of Cork's three peninsulas. It has good spots for walking along the Sheep's Head Way, which starts just outside Bantry. This narrow spit of land is the site of the Air India Memorial near Akahista. A path with carefully ended shrubs leads to the beach where a simple memorial records the names of the 329 people who died on Flight 182 on June 23, 1985. It's a quiet, peaceful place.

The adjoining Mizen Head Peninsula is another spectacular drive. Much of its coastal road is lined with wild fuchsia bushes, and its tip is the former Mizen Head Light, whose last keepers left in 1993. The station now houses an exhibit called the Mizen Vision and provides dramatic views of the cliffs on Ireland's most south-westerly point. From Skibbereen we left the main Cork highway (N71) and took to the minor roads that hug the shoreline. We travelled through tiny one-pub villages and past the scores of ancient remains that are scattered so liberally throughout the countryside. One example is Kilnaurane Pillar Stone, just outside Bantry, and the Dromeg Stone Circle near Glendore, the finest in the county.

Ex-Dubliner Louise Casey spends many Sundays with a friend searching out these archeological sites. She asked her friend what they'd do when they ran out of places to visit. "Don't worry," her friend replied, "We'll never run out."

Near Clonakilty, a small sign points to the Four Alls pub, still owned by the family of Michael Collins, the military organizer who reluctantly signed the treaty that partitioned Ireland in 1921. Collins thought the treaty was the best deal possible at the time and that it would serve as a first step toward an independent Ireland; instead, it split the Irish people and Collins declared, "I've signed my own death warrant." A brutal civil war developed and Collins was ambushed and killed by his own men near Macroom. His birthplace is now a simple, low-key national memorial.

Other sites in Cork tell of its violent past. Not far from where Michael Collins was assassinated at Bealnablath, is the site of the Kilmichael ambush. On November 28, 1920, a squad of 36 IRA members led by Commander Tom Barry, opened fire on 18 Black and Tan officers. Only seven men survived the action. The commemorative plaque states that the event contributed to the end of the reign of terror by the Black and Tans and hastened peace negotiations.

After a night in Kinsale, the self-styled gourmet capital of Ireland, it seemed appropriate to end our visit to Cork at the port city of Cobh (pronounced Cove), the departure point for over three million Irish emigrants between 1815 and 1970. The former railway station now houses the excellent multimedia exhibit The Queenstown Story, which brings the port's human history to life.

I knew of the sickness and appalling conditions on the early emigrant vessels, but I'd never heard about "the American Wake." Family members who were left behind keened, or wailed, over a departing relative as though he or she were dead (they might just as well have been), as they were unlikely to ever see Ireland again. The crowded typhus-bearing "coffin ships," many of which ended up at Quebec's Grosse Ile, are included in the exhibit as well as prison hulks that held captives before their four-to-nine-month sail to Australia.

The Queenstown Story also tells the story of the great Atlantic liners, including the Titanic, whose last port of call was Cobh, and the Lusitania, which was torpedoed just off the Old Head of Kinsale in 1915. Again, I bumped into my family's past: both my father and grandfather worked for the White Star Line; my father served aboard the Olympic, the sister ship of the Titanic. The old White Star Line passenger shed is still on the Cobh waterfront as is the kiosk (now a taxi stand) where ladies of the town once served meals to departing emigrants.

Cobh is filled with ghosts. As I walked along the town's promenade, I thought about how I always seem to chase ghosts of my own whenever I visit Ireland. There's no longer any sign of the tiny cottage above the beach at Aghada where my father was born, but the rambling old stone house by the sea, where two of my cousins still live, is much as it was when we stayed there over 50 years ago; although it now has indoor plumbing. The familiar faces grow old, another generation of cousins comes of age with confidence in the new Ireland of opportunity, and I wonder what will be left of the Ireland of my memory the next time I return, since I surely will.


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