The great short story writer William Trevor knew all about exile. His was self-imposed. For the last half century of his life (he died in 2016) he lived in Devon, but his fictional focus stayed firmly on his native Ireland.
In 1969 he published a story called Memories of Youghal. It is set in the South of France resort of Bandol, but harks back to a very different southern port, in County Cork, when a drunken, disheveled stranger intrudes on the annual holiday of two loveless old maids – typical Trevor protagonists.
Miss Grimshaw returns to their hotel from a walk on the beach to find her deckchair usurped by one Quillan, a detective apparently, who has upset her companion Miss Ticher by detailing his tragic childhood in Youghal where he was orphaned by the sea at five months old and sorely neglected thereafter. Whiskey-fuelled, the encounter brings to the surface long-suppressed frustrations.
In contrast, the author had spent the happiest years of his childhood in Youghal (pronounced yawl), where his father was a bank manager. We spent the happiest days of our off-season County Cork sojourn in the town, pre-pandemic. Cork city, which we flew into with Aer Lingus, had proved rather dispiriting, while Youghal was an unexpected revelation. Ireland’s Blue Book had arranged for us to stay at sophisticated Hayfield Manor in Cork and laid-back Longueville House to the North. An interlude in Youghal had seemed like a makeweight despite the seafood reputation of our base there, Aherne’s Townhouse. How mistaken we were. Its true Irishness is preferable to gussied up gastro hub Kinsale the other side of Cork city.
From Walter Raleigh to Oliver Cromwell, from Moby Dick to the legendary lady who danced with Richard III before Bosworth Field the town was full of surprises.
With a melancholy undertow, though. Youghal had clearly seen more prosperous times. Yet we revelled in feeling we were characters in some William Trevor work. Take Treacy’s Bar. A sly afternoon Guinness felt in order after a busy morning exploring the town’s rich heritage. So we ensconced ourselves in in the snug off Main Street. The pub’s live music space has been dubbed the ‘Ballroom of the Romance’. An inadvertent echo of Trevor’s story of that name, turned into a TV film 40 years ago? Another dissection of blighted hopes, it was based on an actual ballroom he stumbled on in Leitrim.
At lunchtime Treacy’s was beyond cosy, but surely they could open the curtains to let the soft coastal light in? “Oh, it’s out of respect for a funeral cortege from St Mary’s that’ll be passing by shortly. One of our regulars, a lovely fellow, taken from us too soon.”
We toasted your man with the dark stuff and pondered the oddness of this town being home to two churches, both St Mary’s, less than 400 yards apart. One is the Catholic Parish Church hosting the day’s funeral, the other the 13th century St Mary’s Collegiate Church, claimed to be the oldest place of continuous worship in Ireland. Church of Ireland, bastion of English Protestant rule, it sits cheek by jowl with the Warden’s House (privately owned and known as Myrtle Grove), once home to Sir Walter Raleigh when he was Town Mayor.
In truth he only lived here intermittently during his 17 years in Ireland as a landlord benefiting immensely from the seizure or rebel lands. But Myrtle Grove (above) has strong claims to be the setting for the story that his servant doused Raleigh with a bucket of water after seeing clouds of smoke coming from his tobacco pipe, believing he had been set alight.
The prosperous English settlers built their grand houses inside Youghal’s medieval walls. Today, well preserved, they still afford magnificent views across the wide Blackwater Estuary.
And to think we’d only come to Youghal on a late detour, for the fish. Specifically to Ahernes Townhouse, which celebrates its 100th anniversary next year. It styles itself as ‘Seafood Restaurant and Accommodation’, which is probably the correct emphasis. The rooms tucked away in a courtyard off Main Street are boutique homely, but it is the locally landed seafood that really sings, treated unfussily and served with a rare warmth by the Fitzgibbon family in both the dining room and the bar.
I’d suggest you share the Hot Seafood Selection, featuring salmon, cod, monkfish, hake and brill in a chive sauce alongside prawns, oysters and mussels cooked with wine, garlic and olive oil. To partner this feast order a Hugel Riesling from Alsace from a wine list full of bargains. Of course, a Guinness and a dozen native oysters might suffice.
David Fitzgibbon kindly arranged tours of both the Clock Tower and the Collegiate Church for the next morning. The first transported us vividly from the site’s 14th century origins as a Walled Town fort, later separating the English incomers from the poorer native ‘Irishtown’, through its rebuilding as a grim gaol in 1777 on to the 20th century occupants of its draughty storeys. Beautifully recounted social history from a volunteer storyteller. Many thanks to Aisling O’Leary for my main townscape image, centred on the Clock Tower.
We made two private trips around the Collegiate Church, there was so much to explore. We loved the monument to Richard Boyle, the first Earl of Cork, who died in Youghal in 1643. Two wives, his mother and nine of his 15 children join him in an astonishing ensemble, which cost over £500, a fortune in those days.
Without the fame of Raleigh whose estate he bought for a comparative song, the eventual Earl of Cork and Lord Treasurer of Ireland certainly cut the mustard as a self-made Jacobean adventurer/entrepreneur.
The only property Raleigh retained in Ireland was nearby Inchiquin Castle (today a ruin), let for life from the Dowager Countess of Desmond. Legend has it she died in 1604, aged 140 (having regrown a full set of teeth), after a fall from a cherry tree. Ireland’s full of tall tales. As a girl she was supposed to have danced with Richard III before his death at the battle of Bosworth. You do the sums.
Turbulent history continued to dog Youghal and its church. A few years later Oliver Cromwell wintered his troops in this strategic port, more important than Cork’s, en route to quell a rebellion. He is said to have preached a funeral oration to one of his officers standing on a trunk, still there in the Collegiate sanctuary.
This is only scratching the surface of the church’s riches and the rest of the walled town offers almshouses, merchant’s mansions and plenty more. Even the many empty shops are housed in rather grand buildings, proof of Youghal’s commercial heyday, now long past.
Surprises abound. Stray the other side of the Clock Tower Gate – Main Street passes through it – and you’ll eventually come to the vast sandy beach that made Youghal a popular seaside resort, reached from Cork City by train. Until the trains stopped in 1982.
My wife’s mother, whose father worked for the railways and so got free travel, often came here as a girl on a Sunday jaunt and never once stepped into the Walled Town.
For sentimental reasons we strolled hand-in-hand across the bracing strand, lamenting that we couldn’t be there for the annual ‘Queen Of The Sea’, a beauty pageant that also features a crab catching competition.
That now seems to have been a casualty of the pandemic, while the Youghal Potato Festival – a homage to the myth of Raleigh planting Ireland’s first spud crop here – bit the dust years ago. Still the The Moby Dick Festival is planning to go ahead this summer, covid protocols permitting. Expect a parade, a bonny baby competition and other blubberly treats.
Youghal famously stood in for New Bedford, Massachusetts when John Huston filmed his 1954 version of Herman Melville’s novel, starring Gregory Peck as Cap’n Ahab out for revenge on the whale that took his leg off. Huston got legless on occasion in Paddy Linehan’s pub, his quayside HQ. In his honour, Paddy later renamed it Moby Dicks and added a gallery of movie stills. Outside there’s a statue of Ahab and his harpoon that the Blackwater gulls show scant respect for.