By Isabel Conway
I have just been on a journey – not to any far flung corner of the world like the port of Valparaiso in Chile, among the many favourite destinations visited in the past. Instead, I meandered through my adopted home town of Kinsale, Co Cork taking me along streets whose intensely colourful facades are similar to those of Valparaiso. Keeping within the strict limitations imposed to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 my Easter weekend journey of discovery has started from the front steps of our house.
Travelling around the world in 2 km (the government’s allowed limit for outdoor exercise during Ireland’s COVID-19 lockdown) my travels have brushed with the Caribbean, Antarctica, and days when Kinsale was a maritime world trade hub.
At every turn in a town on the international map as a tourism centre, you’ll find snapshots of the past, reminders that your journeys can also be memorable without jetting off to faraway destinations.Kinsale has been in the throes of this worldwide ongoing shutdown, shops, bars, cafes and restaurants sadly shuttered by the coronavirus at a time when the tourism season should be kicking off in earnest.
Only 20 metres from my front door every day I pass the remains of the historic Carmelite Abbey, established by hermit monks who fled Saracen persecution in the Middle East and helped treat Lepers here during the 1300s. Part of the original wall still stands, not as ancient as one of Ireland’s oldest surviving churches. St Multose built in 1190, whose spire is visible from my bedroom window. Dating back to medieval times Kinsale’s fishing port and yachting centre marks the start or finish of the Wild Atlantic Way, depending on which direction you’re headed.
I descended the flights of steps known as ‘sallyports’ formerly sentry points to stop smuggling and monitor the comings and goings of soldiers and civilians. Kinsale’s main thoroughfare Pearse Street used to be a deep water quayside where ships from all over the world were unloaded. Travelling fishwives skinned and gutted massive catches in the historic fish Market building on Long Quay, now part of the Blue Haven Hotel.
Ships landing fees and taxes were paid at the Norman Desmond Castle, where the British interred rebels captured at sea during the American War of Independence. It also served as a workhouse, a disease isolation facility and a wine museum.
The town’s many famous natives included Anne Bonny, a notorious 17th century female pirate who pillaged her way around the Caribbean. Another notable whose boots are on display at Kinsale Museum was Patrick Cotter O’Brien, who stood at 8ft ft.3ins and died young, exploited for his extraordinary size at freak show fairs. The McCarthy brothers, renowned Kinsale born explorers and members of Ernest Shackleton’s trans Antarctic expeditions are commemorated in bronze sculptures and plaques overlooking the marina and harbour.
The elder brother Mortimer, was on the ‘Aurora’, an ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, ending his days in New Zealand in 1967. The younger Timothy made an epic 800 mile voyage in an open boat to fetch help after Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ was trapped in pack ice, for which he was awarded the Polar medal. He died in 1917 after his ship was torpedoed during World War One. Enjoying the tranquil view of the harbour, lulled by the gentle sound of the yacht spinnakers I sat on one of the many benches that line the pier. On a normally busy weekend here numerous tourists chill out here and on the picturesque Milk Market, snacking and posting photos of the brightly coloured shop facades. One of Ireland’s most photographed sights Stone Mad Gallery is a favourite stop off Newman’s Mall after you’ve followed the many marked walking trails,traversing the Georgian district lined with lovely craft shops, galleries, restaurants and cafes. Offering a takeaway ‘provisions’ bag during lockdown St Francis is an award winning café on Short Quay, home to Kinsale’s weekly market. I was tempted to strike out on the gorgeous Scilly Walk. This is Kinsale’s most popular town walk taking you along the curve of the sheltered bay with a good chance of spotting seals.
The path rises and then descends into the hollow of narrow cobbled Summer Cove, a former smugglers enclave and home to The Bulman, one of Kinsale’s most popular gastro pubs. On the summit of the next hill is Charlesfort, the enormous star shaped fortification that commands outstanding views of the bay. In the extraordinary unprecedented spring of 2020 that was a world too far to reach – one that exceeded my around the world in two kilometres mission. But once our world re-opens it’s a treat that once more awaits us. (All photos by Isabel Conway, currently Ireland’s Travel Extra Travel Writer of the Year).