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    West Cork Travel Guide

    By Eimear Quinn
    More by Eimear

    Welcome to West Cork

    Known as the “rebel county,” Cork is the largest county in Ireland. It’s so large that it’s best divided into two distinct regions. What differentiates West Cork from its eastern counterpart is its rural communities scattered across mountainous landscapes, remote peninsulas and wild hedgerows brimming with pink Fuschia. Here, you will find the finish line of the Wild Atlantic Way at Mizen Head and discover stunning golden beaches, islands and coastal villages.

    In this blog post, we will guide you through the very best of West Cork and its many spectacular highlights.

    Take Me Straight To:

    Where is West Cork?

    West Cork is an area of County Cork in the southwest of Ireland. Although it is hard to define the exact borders of the region, its most definitive edge is the one shared with County Kerry on the Beara Peninsula. Beyond this, it is defined as anywhere south and west of the River Lee. It has three stunning peninsulas – Beara, Sheepshead & Mizen Head. And many curiously named islands – Whiddy, Sherkin, Cape Clear, Bere & Garnish – that make it perfect for an island hopping adventure.

    How do you get to West Cork? Cork Airport, Ireland’s second largest international airport, is just 21 km/ 13 miles from Kinsale, the first town in West Cork. No trains connect the city with the remote west, but a dedicated West Cork Connect service operates regular bus routes to Bantry, Skibbereen and Kinsale. For real flexibility, we recommend travelling by car or bicycle (for those feeling energetic). And if you don’t feel like driving, we highly recommend a fully guided experience that takes care of travel for you.

    Check out the map to get a better look at West Cork and its surrounding areas.

    How to Visit

    By Car Read More

    Travelling by car will allow you much greater flexibility while visiting. If you are time-limited, you will cover more ground and pack far more into your trip this way. There are many hidden treasures along those narrow, winding roads that, unfortunately, public transport won’t reach. The downside of going by car is missing out on sampling the specialities of any distilleries and breweries you want to visit. You can bypass this inconvenience by booking a guided trip with an experienced local.

    By Foot Read More

    It’s a very rewarding experience to explore a region on foot. And West Cork is littered with phenomenal walking trails that can get you from A to B. You can opt to hike along the Wild Atlantic Way from the Beara Peninsula to Mizen Head or ramble along the lesser travelled Sheepshead Peninsula for a genuinely authentic West Cork adventure.

    By Bike Read More

    Another energetic option to get around is by bike. Although there are no dedicated bike routes along the Wild Atlantic Way, Cork has plenty of fantastic bike trails of varying difficulties that take you through striking mountain valleys and stretches of coastal road. It is worth considering that Irish roads can be pretty narrow and busy, and you will often be sharing routes with tour buses and other vehicles. We recommend taking a bike trip with an expert guide for safety and local knowledge.

    Local Food & Drink

    The region is famed for its artisanal local produce and fresh Atlantic-caught seafood. Bantry Bay Mussels are a staple in local restaurants, and the natural harbour at Castletownbere provides lobster, hake and mackerel to surrounding eateries. Exploring West Cork is even more delightful with vibrant farmers’ markets in Skibbereen, Bantry, and Clonakilty.

    These markets provide an opportunity to connect with the individuals who play a crucial role in making it happen. Food festivals such as the Taste of West Cork offer the chance to sample a wide range of artisan bread, cheese, chocolate and organic fruit and vegetables from across the region – as well as more unusual offerings such as wasabi and Buffalo mozzarella.

    To sink your teeth into Ireland’s foodie culture, you can read more here.

    Read More

    Seafood Ireland southwest

    Ireland is experiencing a resurgence of whiskey production, and West Cork is one place at the heart of it. West Cork Distillers in Skibbereen was founded by the McCarthy cousins, who descend from a long line of distillers. They pay homage to the ancient tradition of distilling carried out by their forebears, but with a modern twist. You can learn more about the craft and their history at one of their tours and sample from their range of whiskey and gin.

    To discover more about Irish whiskey, you can read our guide below. 

    Read More

    Irish Language

    A Gaeltacht is a district where Irish is the foremost language spoken. In these locations, you will see only Irish on the road signs and be sure to encounter an Irish speaker on your travels.

    West Cork is home to two of these regions, known as Muskerry (Múscraí) and Cape Clear (Oileán Chléire). Macroom is the largest town in Muskerry, and Cape Clear is an island off the Southwest coast, accessible by ferry from Baltimore. People in these areas speak a Munster dialect of Irish and actively maintain cherished traditions of storytelling, music, and dance in their daily lives.

    Interested to learn more about the Irish language? You can find out more here.

    Read More

    Traditional Music

    Ireland hiking trails

    In West Cork, the enduring tradition of folk music thrives. You won’t have to go far to hear authentic Irish traditional music. You’ll likely encounter an impromptu session on any given day in places such as Harrington’s of Glengarriff or Bushes Bar, Baltimore, to provide a few examples. The atmosphere of a session is second to none, and visiting musicians are often welcome to join in. De Barra’s in the seaside town of Clonakilty is a bastion of live folk music that should undoubtedly be on the bucket list of a folk music lover.

    For a fully immersive experience, numerous festivals showcase the best of Irish folk talent throughout the year. In Spring, the Ballydehob Trad Festival brings throngs of people to the coastal village. In summer, the Baltimore Fiddle Fair and Bantry Masters of Tradition Festival welcome musicians from across the country for the celebration of all things trad.

    To get a taste of all sorts of Irish music, we’ve curated our own playlist, which you can listen to here.

    The Famine

    West Cork was one of the worst affected areas during the terrible famine that plagued Ireland from 1845 to 1851. It was a humanitarian disaster of unreal proportions that saw one million die from starvation and over a million more forced to emigrate. The Irish folk song “Farewell to Skibbereen” tells the haunting tale of a man as he tells his son why he had to leave his homeland.

    Skibbereen Heritage Centre holds fast in its remembrance of the crisis, as the town was so profoundly affected, with story collection and exhibitions where visitors can learn more about its history. Doctors and priests in the area kept records during the worst of the famine, which enabled the harrowing accounts of its people to be held in living memory. The town has many famine heritage sites as evidence, from the Chapel Lane Graveyard and the Soup Kitchen to the relief road on Marsh Road.

    Aeral view of Beara Peninsula, known for Hag of Beara

    Battle of Kinsale

    In 1601, following centuries of English influence, a battle raged in the southwest as the Gaelic chieftains fought against English crown forces in an effort to rout them out of Ireland once and for all. Kinsale became the accidental battleground for a siege when headwinds re-routed Spanish ships arriving in support of the Irish. Gaelic troops led by Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell raced to Kinsale with support from the Cork clans of O’Sullivan-Bere and MacCarthy-Reagh. In an unfortunate turn of events, the O’Donnell troops arrived too late, resulting in a surrender for the Irish. The English victory led to the destruction of old Gaelic systems in Ireland and the eventual banishment of the chiefs in an event known as the Flight of the Earls.

    War & Rebellion

    During the 1920s fight for Irish independence, West Cork was a hive of activity, giving much credence to the Rebel County title. Many critical events of the Anglo-Irish War and the Civil War that followed happened in the remote hills and valleys of the area. The 3rd Cork Brigade of the IRA, led by Irish Republican commander Tom Barry, carried out many operations in West Cork against occupying British and pro-treaty forces. Places such as Dunmanway, Crossbarry, Allihies and Ballyvourney are battle sites, and there are often memorials listing those who perished. The revolutionary leader Michael Collins was also of West Cork stock, having been born in Rosscarbery, where his birthplace still stands. He met his end during an ambush at Béal na Bláth, and the Michael Collins House in Clonakilty tells his story.

    If you’re looking for a more in-depth journey into Ireland’s past, we’ve compiled a brief article on important eras and events in Irish history.

    Read More

    Flora

    In late spring, White Hawthorn trees signal the beginning of summer with their white-pink fragrant blossoms that provide generous coverage for birds, like the common blackbird and chaffinch, to nest safely. By summer’s end, the blossoms turn to red berries known as Haws, which are used in folk remedies and make a tasty jam.

    In the height of summer, the hedgerows from Castletownbere to Kinsale are flourishing with the pinks and reds of tall Fuchsia Riccartonii. Originally from South America, fuschia has been naturalised in Ireland and grown to become a defining feature and floral emblem of West Cork. In addition, foxglove, oxeye daisy, blackberry, common vetch, honeysuckle, dog rose and meadowsweet are all out in force, bringing the landscape to life.

    The West Cork Garden Trail provides a beautiful resource that outlines a network of gardens and nature trails where you can fully appreciate the flora of West Cork.

    Fauna

    Lough Hyne Sea Lough and Nature Reserve is a biodiversity hotspot and a perfect example of a unique marine habitat. It is Ireland’s only marine nature reserve and is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by a narrow channel, but it remains sheltered from the elements. It is home to numerous species of sea sponges, anemones, sea squirts and around 72 fish species.

    Beyond the shelter of the reserve, the Atlantic waters off the Irish coast are brimming with marine life. To catch a sighting of Dolphins, Whales, Basking Sharks, Porpoises and Seals, it is possible, and highly recommended, to hop on a boat in Baltimore or Bantry for a marine life excursion. Learn more about Ireland’s marine wildlife here.

    If you’re a fan of birdwatching, Courtmacsherry Estuary on the Seven Heads peninsula is a great spot to bring your binoculars and scan the mudflats for sightings of Choughs, Egrets, Redshanks, Oystercatchers and many species of Gull. The area has dedicated walking trails that take you along the coast or through woodland for sightings of Ireland’s birdlife. Learn more about birdwatching in Ireland here.

    Exploding Tree Chocolate

    If you would like to try your hand at something new when you’re travelling, we highly recommend a visit to Exploding Tree Chocolate in Clonakilty. They are Europe’s smallest chocolate factory and ethically source their cocoa beans for production. Whether you want to make chocolate or just taste their excellent Bean to Bar products, there are various fun workshops and demonstrations suitable for all ages.

    Kayaking

    Having a phenomenal coastline, it’s only natural that kayaking is on the list of things to do in West Cork. This is a great way to look at the region from a different angle. It is also an opportunity to explore places you couldn’t reach by car, foot, or bike. With kayaking, you can experience first-hand the wonder of places like Roaringwater Bay, the Old Head of Kinsale, and even remote islands such as Sherkin and Whiddy.

    Garnish Island

    You won’t often hear tropical and Ireland in the same sentence, but Garnish Island brings them together. The unique microclimate of West Cork provides the perfect conditions for lush exotic plants to prosper. Its location in the sheltered harbour of Glengarriff in Bantry Bay enhances its status as a sub-tropical wonder, and you find flora from all over the world growing on the island.

    Lovers of horticulture will delight in its historic walled garden filled with varieties of roses, petunias, dahlias, euphorbia and asters. All set against the wild backdrop of rhododendrons, azaleas and palm trees that conceal a Grecian Temple just waiting to be discovered.

    Explore Remote Peninsulas

    It’s hard to recommend just one peninsula in West Cork, as they all deserve a mention. Mizen, Sheepshead and Beara each carry authenticity and maintain a charm that’s sometimes lost in more populated areas. Their lesser-travelled landscapes make the towns and villages a breath of fresh air along the way.

    Mizen Head is the most southerly point of mainland Ireland and the iconic final stop along the 2500 km/1550 miles Wild Atlantic Way. Sheep’s Head Peninsula is a hiker’s dream with a wealth of waymarked trails taking you along stunning boreens to the wild, windy coast. Beara boasts a wealth of archaeological heritage amidst its Caha mountain range, such as the Ballycrovane Ogham Stone, the tallest Ogham stone in the world.

    Dursey Island coastline

    Dursey Island Cable Car

    On Beara, you will find Ireland’s only cable car – and Europe’s only one to cross the sea. This is quite a unique venture to take while travelling in the area. A journey of only 15 minutes, this aerial tramway carries you across Dursey Sound from Ballaghboy to the island of Dursey. The Beara Way takes you on a loop around the island, where only three permanent residents live. The island also marks the beginning of the E8 European long distance trail, which ends in Istanbul, Turkey.

    Learn about Garnish, Dursey Island and other isles in our guide to Ireland’s southwest islands.  

    Read More

    Pop Culture

    • Graham Norton, the hilarious comedian of Father Ted and Graham Norton Show fame, was raised in the town of Bandon.
    • Paul and Gary O’Donovan, the brothers who won silver at the 2016 Summer Olympics and went viral following their post-win interview, hail from Lisheen, outside Skibbereen.
    • The hugely successful 2006 film The Wind That Shakes the Barley, starring Cillian Murphy and Liam Cunningham, was filmed in Bandon and Ballyvourney. And Star Wars: The Last Jedi also filmed some scenes around Brow Head in Crookhaven.
    Wilderness Ireland Departure DatesAvailabilityStatusPriceBook
    Self Drive – West Cork Escape

    26th Apr - 30th Apr 2024

    Trip FullGuaranteed 2,340Trip Full
    Hiking & Island Hopping – Cork & Kerry

    8th Jun - 14th Jun 2024

    2 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,520Book Now
    Hiking & Island Hopping – Cork & Kerry

    22nd Jun - 28th Jun 2024

    1 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,520Book Now
    Hiking & Island Hopping – Cork & Kerry

    27th Jul - 2nd Aug 2024

    5 place(s) leftGuaranteed 2,520Book Now
    Hiking & Island Hopping – Cork & Kerry

    10th Aug - 16th Aug 2024

    7 place(s) leftAvailable 2,520Book Now
    Self Drive – West Cork Escape

    24th Aug - 27th Aug 2024

    Trip FullGuaranteed 1,305Trip Full

    Meet the Author: Eimear Quinn

    Originally from Northern Ireland, Eimear is particularly interested in gardening from a Permaculture perspective, exploring the Irish landscape, understanding the rich and wonderful world of Irish mythology, legend and folklore, and preserving Irish language, tradition and music.

    View profile More by Eimear

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