A ‘haven’ for soaking up our rich history

August 16th, 2022 7:05 AM

By Siobhan Cronin

Early morning swimmers, from left: Siobhán Cronin, Celine and Conor Buckley, Jerome O’Mahony.

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A couple in Castlehaven are embracing the demand for more tourism ’experiences’ with an inspiring dawn swim, walk and even breakfast, at one of the region’s most historic coves

A BEAUTIFUL little cove in a much-loved corner of West Cork, which is appropriately named Castlehaven, has a colourful and sometimes brutal history that belies its pretty name and appearance.

It’s certainly a ‘haven’ of tranquility, which is probably why it was the site of a pilgrimage which predates even the famous Camino.

Today you can still visit the holy well Tobar Bearcháin, a short walk from the little cove. But you’d need some local knowledge to locate this special site, and to fully enjoy the importance of this very historic location.

Enter local man Conor Buckley and his wife Celine who, with their new walking and swimming venture, are helping to share this special place with interested visitors who share their love of place and story.

Castlehaven harbour is rich in history and has attracted many fascinating characters down the years.

It’s just one arm of their adventure company Gormú and this early morning treat combines the increasing popularlty of gentle sea swims with a renewed acknowledgement of the value of our history and the importance of keeping the old traditions and stories alive for future generations to enjoy.

‘Our pilgrimage this morning took us into the beautiful glen called Gleann Bearcháin and tucked into a ledge on the southside of this glen is the holy well of Tobar Bearcháin,’ Conor explained after my dawn visit to Castlehaven cove. ‘The other local name for this well is Tobarín na Súile (the well of the eyes) which ties into its properties as having healing powers for eye problems,’ he pointed out.

Locals also believe the well gives protection to seafarers, and many fishermen or sailors set out from this beach in the past, but nowadays you are more likely to meet local or visiting swimmers –  but we all still need protection from the unpredictable sea. Conor explains that the pilgrim’s path behind the cove dates back about 1,500 years, making it 300 years older than the Camino.

To evoke the magic of this pretty woods, as we stand beside the little well – still revered by locals, some of whom have left items here to invoke its protection – Conor reads the poem St Kevin and the Blackbird by Seamus Heaney.

A Castlehaven native, Conor – who has worked in the tourism industry for many years – is obviously very proud of the rich heritage of this area, and is enthusiastic about sharing it.

He is also an accomplished swimmer, but both himself and Celine make sure to tailor the experience to suit the individual’s abilities. Knowing I was comfortable enough in water, the couple swam gently with us along the little harbour – known to locals as Cuan an Caisleán, (the harbour of the castle). But he also tells us the Spanish called it Porto Castello and the English named it Castlehaven (probably from a Viking placename Castellhöfn).

We first swam a few hundred metres to ‘Faill Dic’, a cliff noted for its nesting seabirds and plants, such as red valerian. Conor explained the Mediterranean plant was introduced to Ireland about 500 years ago and has now become naturalised on cliffs and walls, an important source of nectar for insects.

Following the coast along, we reached An Poll Gorm, and touched the rock on the far side, noting we were now in the neighbouring townland of Drishane – our fourth townland on the short 25-minute swim. We started in Castlehaven, and also swam through Fearann Deilgín (Farrandeligeen) and Fearann Dáith (Farrandau).

As we swam, Conor stopped now and again to talk about some Irish words and their translations like ‘madra uisce’ which is ‘sea dog’ – the Irish word for seal, and a ‘rabha’ (underwater reef).

Ready for breakfast after a gentle swim just after dawn, at pretty Castlehaven.

Back on shore, Conor broke out the hot porridge and teas and coffees, as he told us more about Castlehaven’s magnificent history. It’s incredible to think this little area, at the end of a narrow winding and very unassuming lane, has links to the Huguenots of Brittany, Santiago de Compostela and Doiminic Ó Coileáin’s transformation from brutal soldier to a Jesuit – and indeed his eventual beatification as a martyr by Pope John Paul II in 1992 as ‘Blessed Dominic Collins’.

We also heard about the complicated life of a hero of the Nine Years War, Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill, and how, after the disaster at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, he was nominated as the Irish leader to go to Spain. On leaving Castlehaven on January 6th 1602, Franciscan annals recount two Franciscan brothers kneeling and kissing his ring on Castlehaven Strand before he boarded the ship that sailed to A Coruña in Spain, where he was received with great honours. For years Fáilte Ireland has been telling us about how the modern tourist has changed – gone are the days of sitting for hours in Irish pubs while the rain howls outside. These days, ‘adventure’ and ‘experience’ are what it is all about.

The new tourist doesn’t mind getting down and dirty with Irish weather – whether it’s swimming off a misty but evocative bay, or traipsing through a sodden forest, shrouded in fascinating backstories.

Gormú, with its tagline of ‘venture, share, discover’, epitomises this hunger for something different, and Conor and Celine are bringing West Cork’s rich heritage to life on the shores of Castlehaven.

If one little cove on a small peninsula in a corner of Ireland can offer so many stories and that word again – a beautiful ‘experience’ – then how much more can our entire island offer those searching for something just a little different but immensely enriching?

And it’s not just for tourists. It’s a wonderful way to start the day and learn a little more about your local area. For just €19, it’s a guided swim, a breakfast and an armful of stories you can share with others.

Google ‘Dawn Pilgrimage and Swim’ to find out more.

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