Cape Clear Diaries (5): Preserving History

Maritime centre, Cape Clear

Pat O’Driscoll, a great man (read on to find out more)

As a person, I’m inquisitive. If there’s a cave that says DO NOT ENTER, I’m always going to go in and have a good poke around. That’s probably why I’m a writer. And probably why I spend lots of time on my own!

But being an inquisitive writer, I’m naturally drawn towards history and tradition. Real life, past and present, provides a wealth of information and often sparks incredible ideas. By taking interest in the past, you gain colourful backdrops, lively characters and solid plots. There’s plenty of information there; you just need to decide how to shape it and bring it alive for a reader.

Throughout Ireland, there’s a strong sense of cultural preservation and that’s partly why I love the country. Growing up in Southbank, Middlesbrough, I saw the green spaces and traditions erode around me, and the already tenuous sense of community die away. Lately, I discovered that even certain words have now disappeared completely and I find it hard to describe how sad that makes me feel.

The instant I moved to Ireland, I was amazed and impressed by the extent that community values and traditions still prevail here. And this feeling has never left me.

Cape Clear is a perfect example. Being an island, it takes its history and traditions seriously and the inhabitants make a real effort to preserve the island’s spirit. In case you didn’t realise, Cape is a Gaeltacht island, which means all of its residents speak Irish as a first language. This gives the island an incredible richness. From a writer’s perspective, imagine the host of beautiful ballads, poems and laments that can be hinted at but not fully understood in translation. Never mind the views, the walks, the welcome; it’s worth visiting the island just to witness the language thrive.

I met many incredible people on the island – all doing their bit to preserve the island life – but one person who really struck me during my stay was Pat O’Driscoll. A warm, welcoming man with a hearty laugh and deep respect for his heritage, Pat is working hard to make sure that the island’s maritime traditions are both remembered and recorded.

A seafaring man his whole life, Pat decided a few years ago to use his retirement to gather as much information as he possibly could about the people of Cape Clear. With a small collection of personal photos and documents, he set up the Maritime Centre in a small portacabin facing the pier and set about sourcing more information.

maritime centre, a little gem on Cape Clear

A wonderful resource for locals & visitors alike

The Maritime Centre is run by Pat on a voluntary basis and contains an excellent selection of photos, certificates, shipping bills, letters, fisherman poems, newspaper articles and cuttings, dating from the 1800s to the present day. There’s even a drawing of how to measure the time left until sunset using the width of your hand. The documents refer to people who were born on the island, had close relatives from the island and those who adopted Cape Clear as their home. There’s a whole wall dedicated to people who are still alive.

I asked Pat how the idea came about and his answer was simple:

“There wasn’t anything like it and it’s only right.”

How very true. After all, since the maritime Centre has been open, it has welcomed visitors from all over the world and has assisted people in tracing their Irish heritage, providing a valuable resource for locals and tourists alike.

A precious find on a gem of an island, I’d recommend that any visitor to Cape takes some time to stop in The Maritime Centre and have a look. Pat has created an incredible resource and is doing a wonderful job, but like one of the dedications on the walls says:

“It’s not the work of one man,
That brings us to the goal,
It’s the everlasting teamwork
of every bloomin’ soul”

(Rudyard Kipling).

maritime centre interior, cape clear

A few treasures worth seeking

I’ve seen first hand what it is like to lose all sense of tradition and place. I’ve wandered for years looking for ‘home’ and have finally found what home means to me in the rugged shores of West Cork. I wasn’t born here, but the people, their passion and the general way of life in this area embody what I believe home should be and I’m determined to help preserve it.

As you pull into the harbour and disembark the ferry, you’ll be struck by the beauty of the island and will be eager to go exploring. But before you do, seek out the little portacabin near the chip van (an institution for over 20 years), and pay homage to the mariners, past and present, that walked the same pier as you, only with a lot more at stake.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Pat for showing me around and for letting me take photos.

Note: If anyone has access to memorabilia about Cape Clear, please let Pat know so that he can take copies and continue his collection for the island.

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