A trip with my parents… We were intent on some kind of fact-finding mission on the ancestry of my family on my mother’s side, the O’Driscoll’s and so we headed to an island in the centre of Roaringwater Bay in south west Cork – Heir Island, historically part of the ancient O’Driscoll clan’s territory. Just 2.5 km long and 1.5 km wide, we met locals and residents on the boat, in the little café at the sailing school, even on the road…and maybe we know more now than we did before…

Heir is easiest to get to from Cunnamore Pier (between Skibbereen and Ballydehob) but there are also ferries from Baltimore and Schull. Take the MV Thresher, currently €6 return (heirislandsailingschool.com). An alternative is Heir Island Ferries, also from Cunnamore Pier (heirislandferries.com). We were joined by a handful of locals returning with their shopping, a ton of boxes for delivery to houses on the island and two adorably cute westies along for the ride…

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View from Cunnamore Pier, West Cork. On board the MV Thresher. A cute doggie making the boat trip with us.

Setting off from the pier, we made our way along the central spine of the island. Lucky with the weather, the sun blazed down on our faces, the pines and fuschia in the verges and the wildflowers scattered on the side of the quiet country laneways with grass down the centre. We passed artist’s studios, an old phone box, a memorial garden at the site of the O’Neill family’s residence. Heir Island National School – built in 1900, with at one time 100 school children but sadly closed in 1976 – is now converted to a residence in a lustrous yellow with tall windows.

Further along, Gort na Cille (the field of the graveyard), has a small wooden cross and humbling upright stones, a cilín, marking the burial site of unbaptised children, bodies washed in from the sea and suicides interred in the dark of the night…

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Arrival at Heir Island. Gort na Cille (field of the graveyard).

Soon there is an inlet that almost cuts the island in half, spanned by a narrow humpback bridge, tidal, with a few boats drawn up. Unbelievably, this is Paris, derived from ‘pallace’ referring to a factory for extracting oil from sardines. Oystercatchers with their black and white plumage and red bills pick at the mud during low tide. There are lots of houses here – some abandoned, some not – including one painted in a brilliant azure blue. Donkeys, horses and cows graze in various meadows. Fishing paraphernalia clog, rusted farm implements litter and corrugated roofs spike the sky.

Soon a grassy track is all that remains of the road – lichen colonises low stone walls and an overgrown rusting harrow is hidden behind one.  We pass through a style onto the headland that has steep cliffs and a pebble beach hidden far below. There are blankets of bell heather, dwarf gorse and bracken, looking altogether quite bare despite a breathtaking view of the Western Ocean and Calf islands. An Dún, the most westerly point on the island, was once the site of an O’Driscoll fortress.

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Views from An Dún, Heir Island.

After a picnic on our way back to the beaches (including Trá Mór) we found the sailing school has a tiny shop and a lovely woman serving tea, coffee and local lore on a sunny patio…

 

 

We followed up our Heir Island adventure with a trip to Skibbereen Heritage Centre. Set in a restored riverside gasworks building there are exhibits on the Great Famine and on Lough Hyne, a nearby inland saltwater lake and marine nature reserve, as well as a genealogy service (skibbheritage.com, €6). Also worth a look is the Uilinn West Cork Arts Centre with modern and contemporary visual arts (westcorkartscentre.com, free entry). Grab a bite at The Church Restaurant, Apple Betty’s Cafe or Fields.

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View of Lough Hyne. Exterior of Skibbereen Heritage Centre. Looking out at Uilinn, West Cork Arts Centre.

 
We stayed close to Baltimore at Channel View B&B – a homely welcome, lovely gardens and gorgeous bay views. Self catering cottages are available on Heir itself.

While in Baltimore check out Dún na Séad, a 13th C castle with its own pirate exhibition (baltimorecastle.ie, €4, children free), Bushe’s Bar, The Glebe Café and Gardens, La Jolie Brise Pizza and Grill at The Waterfront and Mews Restaurant.

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Dún na Séad, Baltimore. Baltimore town centre. Baltimore marina.
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