Smerwick Harbour

My first experience of Smerwick Harbour was as a pupil in the 1960s, a scoláire learning Irish during summer holidays with the Crescent school in Limerick, at the picturesque Gaeltacht village of Baile na nGall (Ballydavid) on the edge of the Dingle Peninsula in West Kerry. We spoke Irish, swam, played Gaelic football, cycled by the coast, climbed local hills and gained lasting lifelong memories. After that youthful introduction, I was delighted to engage again in later years with Smerwick Harbour as a frequent visitor with my wife Sheila and children Jill, Hilary and Ronan. Over that time, Smerwick revealed itself with so many dimensions, and I continue to discover and re-discover these complexities, how a single body of water can be the focus of so much richness – natural and human, all astride a world crossroads. What hits you first at Smerwick is the impact of nature, especially the birds. Smerwick is winter home to numerous Brent Geese, who fly 5,000km from northern Canada after their sojourn there in the summer. They have been drawn to Canada by the 24-hour daylight above the Arctic Circle and the safety of nesting sites remote from predators, retreating in winter to the relatively milder Smerwick. They are joined there by tiny Sanderlings, strutting on the beach, who have come a similar distance from Russia. As the tide comes in, congestion sometimes erupts, with Brent, Sanderling, Plovers, Turnstone, Oystercatchers and other wading birds together jostling at the shore in a feeding frenzy. All this interest is matched by the human heritage of several centuries. Little Gallarus Oratory is a 12th century chapel erected by monks, offering Christian space from medieval times, still in occasional use for religious purposes. Gallarus is built of large cut stones, each strategically positioned at a slight angle, slanted so that the rainwater washes off, thus protecting the structure from the elements. Thanks to this clever architecture, Gallarus has survived to be the only intact specimen of its type in the world. My abiding memory is being at a dawn Easter Mass, with the darkness slowly giving way to the growing light, marked by the quiet prayers of people huddling under the protective shape of Gallarus, just like hundreds of year ago. Nearby, other ecclesiastical remains at Riasc and Kilmalkedar further testify to the enduring stamina of the Irish monks, with the pilgrim trail Cosán na Naomh (Saints’ Way) another mediaeval legacy. But what always haunts me is the desolate Dún an Óir (Castel del Oro in Spanish). This is where 600 Spanish troops landed in 1580 in support of the Desmond rebellion, only to be surrounded by an overwhelming army of English soldiers and, following surrender, were put to the sword and massacred. You can still see the remains of the defensive ramparts hastily constructed by the Spanish, and you can sense the chilling and eerie atmosphere about the place. There is also a story here about the Vikings, that some of these marauding adventurers from the 10th century used Smerwick as a shelter. There is little hard evidence for this, with no archaeological finds to support it. But the place-names give a clue. Baile na nGall translates as “town of the foreigners”. Who were these foreigners? English? Normans? Earlier people like Vikings? The answer lies in Smerwick itself. According to the experts, ‘wick’ is the Norwegian name for a bay or cove, lending itself to coastal place-names like Berwick-on-Tweed and Lerwick in Britain. So the Vikings did come to Smerwick. Perhaps the Brent Geese remember them.