'Instant calm to the soul': the magic of Cape Clear, Ireland

Whether in search of peace, or adventure, this tiny County Cork island is a haven for escapists

Cape Clear, Ireland’s most southerly island, has been my getaway for almost 30 years. It is the place where I forget which day of the week it is. It’s where I go to imagine a world without Brexit and Trump. The island has a spirit that brings instant calm to the soul. I once had the good fortune to live there for four months. It was then that I first began to write, finding the serenity to hone the craft that would eventually lead to my first novel.

When I’m in Cape I like to sit on the harbour wall and read or chat with the other mams and dads as they watch their children run in and out of the sea, playing, chasing or building dams – my son’s particular favourite.

Cape is an Irish-speaking island. It has a population of 130 in the winter but that triples in the summer. Recently, the community bought 40 acres of land on one of its southerly cliffs to lay down a marked walking trail. The view never fails to take my breath away as you look out on the Atlantic below, stretching to a hazy skyline. You can also walk the island’s roads – you’ll have to share them with the odd passing tractor or possibly a rusty car or two. These roads will lead you to the lighthouse and to a lake with a depth and darkness I find transfixing. You might also choose to visit the ruins of the 12th-century church, the 14th-century O’Driscoll Castle, or maybe the Cape Clear Distillery. But maybe, like me, you’ll just want to appreciate the beauty of the sun shining on the sway of the rushes in a field unfurrowed by human footsteps.

Sea views: a stone cottage on the island’s coastline.
Sea views … a stone cottage on the island’s coast. Photograph: Jackie Ellis/Alamy

Cycling is a perfect way to get around – as long as the gears are good. The island is hilly, making for great views – and strong calf muscles. But if you don’t wish to walk or cycle, there is a decent bus service, too.

Up at the top of the hill at North Harbour, there’s Cléire Goat Farm, where you can milk the goats and taste the homemade ice cream. Southward, there is Mara Farm, where visitors can pet Kerry Bog ponies and Tamworth pigs. Back down in the harbour, the craft shop is worth a detour for its paintings and pottery by local artists.

Each September, the main draw is the Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival. In its 24th year, it is so popular I’ve only managed to get there once. I sat mesmerised by the power of the storyteller as she hopped and skipped on stage, animating every detail of her tale.

Four legs good: goats on Cléire Farm, run by Ed Harper (with guide dog Izzy).
Four legs good … goats on Cléire Farm, run by Ed Harper (with guide dog Izzy). Photograph: Conor McCabe

There are seafaring delights, too. National Geographic recently listed Cape Clear Ferries’ Fastnet Rock Tour as one of the top 10 things to do on the Wild Atlantic Way – the tourism trail on Ireland’s coastline. Internationally, this rock and lighthouse is best known for the biennial Rolex Fastnet yacht race that sets off from England. For the Irish it’s also known as Ireland’s Teardrop, it being the last glimpse of Ireland that the emigrants saw en route to America. After the Fastnet Rock Tour circles the rock it then patrols for whales and dolphins.

Cape’s Heritage Centre explains the history of the lighthouse. It also houses a replica of the Cape Clear Stone. Uncovered in 1874, this stone has markings similar to those in Newgrange, a prehistoric tomb in Co Meath, and is thought to be evidence of an island passage grave dating back 5,000 years. The original stone is now in the Cork City Museum. Another welcome surprise in the centre is a recently restored chair rescued from the wreck of the British ocean liner HMS Lusitania, which washed up in 1915.

Last year a marina was built in Cape’s North Harbour for any yachts that might wish to berth. A short walk around to South Harbour will bring you to a safe, enclosed bay where you can canoe through sea arches and discover caves that echo your voice, the walls glimmering with water dripping from the land above.

Next stop, America: boats at Schull Harbour.
Next stop, America … boats at Schull Harbour. Photograph: Andy Gibson/Alamy

Accommodation options are diverse. There’s Chléire Haven campsite – pitch your tent alongside the yurts and bell tents that look out over South Harbour. There are B&Bs that will serve you a full Irish breakfast, holiday-home lets, Airbnb apartments and rooms, and a hostel. There’s even a bird observatory where you can stay. The ideal perch if you are a birdwatcher spotting Siberian and American rarities on their transatlantic flights.

Seán Rua’s restaurant in North Harbour specialises in seafood and has a cracking Friday night pizza, after which you can pop upstairs to the Club, where local musicians play into the small hours. There’s a shop attached to the restaurant and you can buy freshly baked brown bread. For a pint of Guinness, soup, sandwich lunches or evening meals, try Cotter’s Bar, a traditional Irish pub with pretty views across the harbour.

Cape is a place I will always escape to. It fulfils all our family’s getaway needs. My son has his adventures in a safe place, my husband has his music and swimming and I have the silence I crave as a writer. We are at peace here, contented on this hidden Irish gem.

• Anne Griffin’s novel When All is Said is published by Sceptre (£12.99). Buy it for £11.43 at guardianbookshop.com

Way to go

Access to the island is via Cape Clear Ferries from Baltimore, County Cork. In summer, an additional ferry runs from Schull. Parking is available at Baltimore harbour, or check buseireann.ie for bus timetables. There is no hotel on the island but some excellent B&Bs, such as Ard na Gaoithe, which has doubles from £73 a night. For activities, see capeclearisland.ie

Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips

Anne Griffin

The GuardianTramp

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