Dursey Island (Baoi Bhéarra or Oileán Baoi – “Yellow Island”) (winter pop. 12, plus rabbits and seals) lies at the south-western tip of the Beara Peninsula in the far west of Co Cork. The English name comes from the Norse Thjorsey – “Bull’s Island“.
Since 1969, the way to reach Dursey Island has been from Ballaghboy by Ireland’s only télécabine, the first aerial cable car in Europe that goes over water. This flimsy contraption dangles high over a narrow (219m) but terrifying stretch of water called Dursey Sound, which has a very strong and treacherous tidal race. It is not unusual for tourists to visit Dursey for less than fifteen minutes, going there and back to the mainland just for the thrill of the ride. A modern gondola car with seating for six human passengers has replaced the original windowless box, described as “a tin-can hanging from telephone wires” by one wizened local who declared that he would prefer to die in his bed. Others said it was like “travelling in a big biscuit-tin” or “crossing in a cupboard”, and you could only look out of by opening the door, a truly heart-stopping exerience. Evidence of its primary purpose of moving animals (it is large enough for eight sheep or one cow) is still often on display. The off-season Sunday timetable depends on mainland Mass times.
The most westerly of West Cork’s inhabited islands, and almost certainly the quietest, Dursey Island is only 6.5km long and 1.5km wide, with an area of 5mi2 and few amenities of any kind. The electricity supply is limited; there is no public water system, and streams are few and far between. The island has no shops, pubs or restaurants, and the only tourist accommodation is in privately owned holiday homes, although for the more masochistic it is easy to find somewhere to camp.
Dursey Island is starkly beautiful, with a rugged indented coastline, lofty cliffs, mountainous open bog terrain and a patchwork of fields divided by dry stone walls and ditches. The landscape is almost treeless since few parts of the island are not exposed to strong winds and salt spray. Visitors come in search of solitude and tranquillity. There are some lovely walks, and breathtaking views of the nearby Beara coast and the mystical Skelligs.
Now largely deserted, Dursey Island had a substantial population in the C19th, but like so many others this community was devastated by the Great Famine, disease and emigration, and the remnants were relocated to the mainland in the mid-C20th. The remains of the island’s three villages provide an insight into the way the people lived and worked.
Ballynacallagh, long the most populated part of the island, is where the most archaeological remains (Ballaun Stones, a Cup Marked Stone) can be found.
St. Mary’s Abbey is a ruin near a graveyard containing the family vault of The O’Sullivan Beara, and the site of the castle garrisoned in the summer of 1602 by Conor O’Driscoll and 60 of his clansmen and followers, supporters of Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beara
Pairc an Air – “the Massacre Field”, near where cable-car passengers disembark, is said to be the place where the O’Driscolls were wiped out by Crown forces under the command of Sir George Carew.
Dursey Head, the furthest tip of the island, has particularly magnificent views. Off the headland, there are sea rocks called in English, The Bull, The Cow, The Calf and The Heifer. According to legend, this was where Donn, one of the Milesian brothers, perished in a storm with the crew of his ship.
Dursey Island and its islets are home to hawks, falcons, guillemots, puffins, the largest colony of fulmars and one of the largest gannetries in Ireland. The Bull and The Cow have been designated as areas of wildlife protection.
Ireland’s most notorious Taoiseach to date, Fianna Fáil fraudster Charles J. Haughey, accidentally sailed his private yacht onto the rocks not far from here, and had to be rescued by the local life-boat.
During WWII the Luftwaffe High Command flew weather reconnaissance aircraft over the area and used the lighthouse at Dursey Island as a navigation marker. The keepers got used to a Junkers plane that used to fly from Merignac near Bordeaux. On 23rd July 1943 the German aircraft crashed on the island, killing the crew of four.
In Penelope Durrell’s excellent book, Discover Dursey (1992), she relates how on the late morning of 21st May 1927 a Ryan Monoplane appeared out of the western skies, flying eastwards. This was The Spirit of St. Louis piloted by Charles Lindbergh, who had taken off from Long Island near New York the previous day; as he passed he was only a few hours from completing the first solo non-stop flight over the Atlantic in Paris. Now planes fly (very high) over the island every few minutes, as Dursey lies beneath one of the main Atlantic air routes.
Dursey’s beautiful sunset featured in a worldwide-televised broadcast of the final hours of the last Millennium.