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Bridie Keating RIP 1934-2018

22nd January 2018
The perfect place. Derrynane Harbour was made even better by the hospitable presence of Bridie Keating The perfect place. Derrynane Harbour was made even better by the hospitable presence of Bridie Keating

To understand why the recent death of the kindly and hospitable Bridie Keating of Derrynane at the age of 83 has deeply affected so many people in the area, across the country, and throughout the world, we have to understand her home place, and the way she lived there and played such a central role in the local community

Derrynane in the far southwest of Kerry is of sublime beauty, set within a sea of myriad islands, rocks and beaches intertwining into a steep coastline where hills soon become mountains in a benign climate which, combined with its seeming remoteness, make it seem a place apart, a place where you feel more relaxed yet much more alive at the same time.

At the heart of this unique little region, this small kingdom, is Derrynane Harbour, one of the loveliest anchorages in all Ireland. Glimpsed from the mountain road far above, its presence seems obvious. But coming in from seaward for the first time, it is only the local knowledge provided by the Irish Cruising Club Sailing Directions which provides the reassurance that, close in under the steep coastline, there is indeed this hidden haven of perfection which only finally emerges as the leading marks encourage you in past rocks and islets on either hand, until this dream of a place opens out ahead, and you shape your course for your favoured anchoring spot.

bridie keating2The soul of hospitality. One of the last photos of Bridie Keating, taken in December 2017. Photo courtesy Dermot Mangan

It is large enough to accommodate a small and busy local fishing industry, while also having sufficient room for an anchorage for visiting cruising craft and the activities of a little sailing school. Yet it is on such an intimate scale that it is sensed as a world unto itself. But far from seeming utterly remote, Derrynane is so complete that, when you’re there, you feel you’re at the hub of the universe.

It is a feeling which has been shared by people of national and international significance over centuries. Historically speaking, Derrynane is of course primarily the home place of Daniel O’Connell, The Liberator, and the O’Connell’s Derrynane House, set discreetly in woodland with convenient access to the shore, is now maintained as a National Monument and a centre to the local national park.

derrynane house3Derrynane House, ancestral home of the O’Connells

But while the O’Connells – renowned sailors themselves - preserved their ancient chiefdom through centuries because of Derrynane’s remoteness by land, over the years the area’s charms for anyone inclined to sailing have attracted some other very interesting families. The Dunravens of Adare in County Limerick, noted for their America’s Cup connections, retreated in summer to a modest holiday place by Derrynane’s natural harbour, and did much good work in the neighbourhood.

mary brigid4Conor O’Brien’s 27ft open whaler Mary Brigid sailing at Derrynane Harbour in 1908. Photo courtesy Gary MacMahon

Their near neighbours on the south side of the Shannon Estuary, the O’Briens of Cahermoyle at Ardagh, regularly spent summers at Derrynane far to the southwest, and young Conor O’Brien, while he may have started his sailing at Foynes, really learned the ropes with a 27ft sailing whaler, the Mary Brigid, at Derrynane, and his name and signature are in the guest book at Keating’s.

That renowned Cork Harbour sailing family, the Dwyers, were likewise enchanted by Derrynane and spent long happy summers there, while more recently a Derrynane sailing name which has acquired international note is Foxall. Roger Foxall sailed from Derrynane to Russia many years ago in a 32ft sloop, and his son Damian acquired the deep-sea sailing enthusiasm from a very young age through sailing from Derrynane, which he still regards as his home port. Bridie Keating proudly displays a Foxall information feature at the heart of the family hostelry which she ran for more than fifty years.

damian foxall5Damian Foxall kept in touch with Bridie, and thinks of Derrynane as his home port

It has been owned by the Keating family since 1896, run first as a small hotel – it was Keating’s Hotel when the O’Brien family stayed there – and then it became the perfect Irish pub when a bar was added by Bridie’s father in 1926-27. Even with the additions, it’s a modest building in harmony with its setting, snugly located and almost hidden away beside the small road running down to the harbour.

bridies derrynane6It may officially be known as Keating’s, but for many near and far, it has been “Bridie’s” for decades.
For those arriving by sea, it comes as a sweet surprise to amble up the little road and find this oasis of hospitality where Bridie was welcoming to all, cheerfully tolerating heaps of wet foul weather gear – indeed, providing facilities to dry it - and happily providing simple but nourishing food to go with the excellent pints.

She was a complete realist about the Kerry weather. In good conditions, Derrynane is warm sunlit perfection all day and long into the balmy night, its many beaches reflecting the sun to provide a special light. But if there was a spot of rain and a damp chill, she wasn’t slow to light the fire in the little bar, even in mid-July when we arrived in one very wet Saturday afternoon a couple of years ago to find warmth and welcome and good cheer and news from everywhere, for in Bridie’s the connections were global.

bridies july fire7In good summer weather, Derrynane is 24-hour perfection, but on a wet Saturday afternoon in July, Bridie didn’t hesitate to light the fire, a wonderful welcome for damp crews just into port after a rugged passage. Photo: W M Nixon
Very quickly it became known as Bridie’s after she took over the running of it in 1963. She’d been making a career in Dublin in secretarial work, but as is the way with Irish family pubs, when her father became ill in 1963 it fell to her to return to Derrynane and take over the running of the place, and that was the rest of her life for the next 55 years.

It was quite a a complex little operation, for in addition to the thriving bar with food, the hotel had become a bed & breakfast, and set nearby though unobtrusively was the Keatings’ caravan park where some families – for many, Derrynane is simply the only place to have a family holiday – have retained sites for generations, two such being the Mangans from Dublin and the Clarkes from the north.

Dermot Mangan of a later generation was to become a catamaran pioneer while retaining his Derrynane links, and when he was setting a new Round Ireland Record with Robin Knox-Johnston in the 60ft catamaran British Airways I in May 1986, the VHF crackled into life while they were off the Blaskets, with Valentia Radio putting through Bridie from Derrynane to see how they were getting on, and wish them well.

Years later when Damian Foxall was becoming a world figure in big-time offshore sailing, he always puts through a call if his mighty sailing machine happens to be anywhere near Kerry, and this sense of being in close touch with a great outside world was balanced by a surprisingly intimate knowledge of events nearer home – the Clarke family who summered for decades in the caravan next to the Mangans were the family of Mick Clarke, currently Admiral of Lough Erne YC after years of service to that noted northern club, and some aspects of life on Lough Erne were surprisingly well known in Derrynane.

Among the many boat photos displayed on the walls of the bar is one of the Provident, the quintessential Brixham sailing trawler which is run by the Island Cruising Club of Salcombe in Devon. In times past, if the Provident didn’t take in Derrynane on one of her training group cruises to Ireland, it was regarded as missing out on something special, so she was a regular visitor, and Bridie’s provided so much pleasure that Provident is now enshrined on the wall.

provident derrynane8The Island Cruising Cub’s ketch Provident is one of many noted vessels in the photo display in Bridie’s.
This was how it was in Bridie’s at Derrynane. You might drop in thinking first of refreshment and one of your hostess’s legendary Kerry lamb sandwiches, and soon find yourself as likely talking with her to a voyager from a distant land or a mountaineer just down from some remote peak. Yet among such people the locals could more than hold their own, for they were a specially sagacious assembly, every one of them of special interest. And at their heart was kindly, wise, hospitable and occasionally very witty Bridie Keating, the soul of the place, genuinely interested in people, and in her quiet way, the very perfection of hospitality. She will be much missed.

WMN

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