West is best in the Northern Hemisphere.
Think of the west coasts of Scotland, Norway, Canada, the USA, Alaska, Portugal.
Ireland is no exception. The west coast is a bewildering, fascinating rakehead of protrusions and intrusions. There are countless headlands alternating with equally countless bays and bights, inlets where the untempered Atlantic has probed successfully for weaknesses to exploit. Rotate Ireland one anti-clockwise turn and you would have a wonderfully effective nit-comb.
Halfway down the west coast, immediately below the bulky serrations of Mayo and Connemara, lies the Atlantic’s biggest gain so far, Galway Bay. Then below Galway, County Clare extends its own elegant leg into the ocean via the quiet lands west of Ennis.
Finally, in the south-west, a trailing hand of five graceful peninsulas strokes the sea as if to calm its progress: Dingle; Iveragh; Beara; Sheep’s Head; and Mizen Head. The smallest of these is the penultimate one, Sheep’s Head, a stiletto of rock and turf that slides slyly out into the Atlantic. Stiletto in its original meaning of a narrow blade.
I recently revisited Sheep’s Head and my walk confirmed memories of its understated beauty, its wildness-in-miniature, and its unique character. Its very stiletto thinness means that you always have a sense of being high on a ridge, you can see for many miles on both sides, though the panorama across Bantry Bay to the Beara peninsula is the most enticing. From here, Beara is a long, unbroken swell of 3D undulations, like the slow movement in some contemplative symphony.
Sheep’s Head begins at Durrus and gets better and better as you progress through the hamlets of Ahakista and Kilcrohane. It is from the latter that a superb walk begins, doubling back onto Rosskerrig Mountain (not very high really) and then following the ridge-line over Seefin and Caher Mountain to the tip of the Sheep’s snout just beyond the stubby lighthouse.
The names alone make up a sonic treat of a poem: Clashadoo…Coomkeen…Knockboolteenagh…Letterlickey…Gortycloona…Rossnacaheragh…Faranamanagh…Gortnaclasha…Lahandota Lough…Coolturtaun Lough…Ballyroon…Tooreen…Gooladoo and Gooladane. These are not places, just farms or hillocks or loughs or ancient stones.
The ultimate reward is the very nose of the Sheep. Beyond the lighthouse a series of easy rock terraces and green sward shelves leads down to the point at which the sea continually impales itself on the point of the stiletto. The breaking waves are one continuous explosion of desiccated coconut, pure white seethe-energy for hundreds of square yards around the last visible stoic of rock.
On this November day, in balmy sunshine, I clambered back up to a carpet of lush turf set between rock pitches. The sound of the waves was less overwhelming and more nuanced. The power of the exchanges between sea and land spread up the length of my spine like a healing hand. The Atlantic zoomed out of comprehension all the way to Newfoundland beyond my gaze. Beara refracted the late afternoon sun away to my right. The air tasted like an ice lolly made from the driest Prosecco. To remind me of relationship and community, a pair of choughs that had followed me for a mile earlier hopped from rock to rock in parallel lines to either side of me.
Everything moved with one co-ordinated motion for a split second and for what seemed ages. It all fell into place. It’s all still in place. When it is no longer in place I shall return to Sheep’s Head.
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At least I think it was the same pair of choughs. It might even have been the same pair that chaperoned me on previous visits. They do like to incline their blood-red, elegantly tapered beaks out towards the western horizon.