Dursey Island

A dense morning fog covered the town of Glengarriff. I walked down the roadside with my thumb out, not expecting a ride to come quick due to the early hour and being soaked from the rain. To my surprise, a few minutes later, a girl pulled over.

"I'm heading to Dursey Island," I said. "But any closer you can get me there would be great."

"I'm actually going really close to Dursey," she said. This was also a surprise. Dursey Island is a remote four by one mile island off the coast of the Beara Peninsula in Southwest Ireland. I didn't expect to get there in one hitch. Actually, I was prepared to walk the last few miles.

I put my pack in the backseat and hopped in.

"I'm Ryan."

"Aoife [pronounced 'ee-fa']," she said then sped down the windy road, not afraid to use both lanes whether or not we could see oncoming traffic.

Today was one of the three days out of the week Aoife works with children at the Lehanmore Community Center. On the drive, we talked about the volunteer work she has done in Sri Lanka, the Caribbean, and other countries across Europe and Asia.

The closer we got to the coast, the more remote the area became and the thicker the fog.

"Aww," she pointed at a white wall of fog just beyond a turnout. "Normally there's a gorgeous view of both peninsulas right there. It's too bad you weren't here yesterday. The weather was really beautiful."

Later, she pointed out the community center where she worked, but didn't stop. "I might as well drive you all the way," she said. 

When we arrived, I could see the island in the fog beyond a narrow stretch of water called the Dursey Sound. The only way across is by cable car.

After the sound of Aoife's engine faded away, it got eerily quiet. The only signs of life was an old black dog with matted wet fur standing by the ticket booth. I petted him behind the ears. He loved the attention, but demanded more. He stood on my feet, leaned on my legs, and stared at me with the most pathetically sad eyes.

"Hey!" a gruff voice said behind the ticket booth window. "Get back ya mutt!"

"It'll be eight euros," the man said. I paid and walked to the cable car. A sign on the inside said, "Safe working load, six persons or one large animal." I know I put on weight before this trip, but fortunately I still weigh less than a cow, so I climbed inside and latched the door shut.

The car crept slowly toward the island, 100 feet above the sea. I could see my route west beginning as a gravel road with a row of grass growing in the center. When the cable car came to a swaying stop, I climbed out, threw on my pack, and headed up the road into the fog.

The rain and wind only grew stronger. Ahead I saw a small village consisting of a few houses and barns, some merely the remains of foundations and walls from generations long past. People have lived on Dursey Island for over 400 years, but after the fishing industry collapsed thirty years ago, nearly everyone relocated to the mainland. Today, there are only a dozen permanent residents.

I spotted an old barn with an open door and an intact roof, but it looked dilapidated enough that I thought maybe nobody had used it in a while. I looked around to see if anyone was looking then ducked inside. There were piles of scrap wood and metal, an empty bag that said "Sheep Feed" on the side, and a few window frames leaning up against the walls. I slid my wet pack off my shoulders, shook the water from my raincoat, then sat on a windowsill. I decided to stay here until the weather improved, even if it took hours. One thing I have plenty of is time.

I heard tires on gravel out front. Through a crack in the closed window shutters, I saw a man in a red raincoat get out of a car and walk toward me. I picked up my pack and prepared to apologize, but he didn't come inside. Instead, he turned to the field next to the barn to tend to some sheep. I felt trapped, but I figured if I'm going to get caught, I might as well be dry, so I sat back down. A half hour later, the rain stopped. I poked my head outside. The farmer was still in the field, but I sneaked out undetected and got back on the road.

Soon, the fog starting to lift and the adjacent peninsulas became increasingly more visible. Then the clouds broke to reveal bits of blue sky. In less than an hour, Dursey Island went from cold, wet, and gray to a sunny paradise with vivid blue skies and deep green pastures with views of waves crashing against steep rugged coastlines.

I fell in love with this place. It's clear why the twelve residents stayed. The new homes were built next to the old ones using the exact same design and building materials. Some of the other crumbling buildings on the farms, probably over 200 years old, were still in use today. It's something worthy of hanging on to.

At the westernmost edge of the island I climbed the first of two hills. The wind whipped up and over them with speeds strong enough to make walking in a straight line not an option. Between the two hills was an open pasture with dozens of grazing sheep. As I walked through the herd, there were moments when a group of them would run away from me in the same direction I was moving. For the first time, and hopefully not the last time, I felt like a shepherd.

Beyond the coast, there were three large rocks called Bull Rock, Cow Rock, and Calf Rock. Bull Rock is now home to an automated lighthouse. On Calf Rock, the remains of an old manned lighthouse, left after a storm destroyed it in 1881, can still be seen. This coast is also home to a whale and dolphin sanctuary, which are frequently seen swimming in the surrounding waters.

When I finally got as far west that I could possibly go, there sat the ruins of another building. I never found out what it once was, but today it was a great place to get out of the wind, have lunch and do some whale watching before I finally started walking to Dublin.