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10/4/10 - The Swansea-Cork ferry route is back - The Times

Libby Purves takes a slow boat to Ireland saving 380 miles’ driving, and enjoys a cabin and a fine Irish breakfast

Amid recession and austerity, Irish eyes have something new to smile about and so have mine. There should be a folk song about it: O, Cork and Kerry have got a new ferry, too-ra-li-yay!

No longer does a holiday in the wild and lovely southwest Ireland involve either a hideous Ryanair experience and a hire car, or an endless drive to Fishguard and then another punishing day behind the wheel, all the way from Rosslare to the West by way of the Cork bypass. The Swansea-Cork ferry route is back. The West is won!

The route saves 380 miles’ driving, and instead of roaming miserably round a three-hour Rosslare ferry full of fractious children eating crisps, you spend a night fast asleep in a nice little cabin, and wake up to a fine Irish (or Welsh) breakfast as the ship glides into port. It is civilised. It is romantic. It enables you to travel with a carful of holiday kit and tents and boats and children’s junk. It is the ferry that should never have been allowed to die.

It did die, though. In 2006, Swansea Cork Ferries Ltd disposed of the MV Superferry, laid off the crew and turned its back on a service that — during the company’s nine-year tenure — had carried nearly three million passengers and 700,000 cars to Cork. There was a 30 per cent drop in the number of tourists to West Cork from Britain, West Wales lost many of its Irish visitors, even Swansea reported passing trade down, its windswept docks relegated to freight services only.

Our family felt bereft: the ferry was the latest in a long line on which we had been making the night crossing to Cork ever since I was a teenager. In the Sixties, it was the ropy old Innisfallen, which plied out of Fishguard and made its way right up the River Lee to the heart of Cork city. Ro-ro ferries were unborn: cars were swung on board in nets and lowered into the hold. A high spot of our teens was seeing a caravan dropped on to a Bentley, its owner dancing in dismay by the rail.

We couldn’t afford cabins and learnt how to sleep on the stairs, on the beer-scented bar carpet, or in a coil of rope on deck. One made passing friends: my first kiss (at 13) was on the Innisfallen’s grimy foredeck. Never saw him again. The Innisfallen was eventually flogged to the Greeks and a new ship, with stabilisers and bow doors, was introduced.

The departure port moved to Swansea, which was even handier, and the new Cork terminal at Ringaskiddy gave direct access to the western roads. Irish crews were replaced by Polish ones as world economics dictated. By the time B&I Ferries pulled the plug in 2006 the ship was as smart and plastic as modern passengers demand.

But it stopped. For three years we had to do without the easiest route to the West of Ireland. So from the ashes grew a fierce campaign and website, peoplesferry.com . Cork and Kerry politicians helped, local businesses put in money, the Irish Government backed it and, in mid-March, a 1982-vintage car ferry, bought from Finland and called the MV Julia, made her first crossings.

A few technical problems haunted her early days but, a week in, on a windy St Patrick’s night, my brother and I made a ceremonial return to the auld route (not least to congratulate and subsidise our mates in West Cork who had put their money in, from millionaire estate agents to Mike at the drapery).

It ran faultlessly to time, and we loved it. Being accustomed to wild winters in the Gulf of Finland, the Julia has efficient stabilisers but she’s not huge. There is a pleasingly retro quality about her, especially in the bar, with its little dance-floor and bandstand, so my brother and I sat happily with a pint, listening to the music system playing Wild Rover and Hi Ho Silver Lining. We could pretend that we were 17 again, off to sail and sing the holidays away, or work behind bars somewhere west of Skibbereen.

The crew are now Lithuanian and smilingly eager to please, the ship is impressively clean, the restaurant does a good steak, and in the cafeteria the staff rush over with the ketchup, beaming, if you forget to pick it up. Everyone from the Mumbles to Mizen Head wants this quixotic, commercially risky venture to work. I certainly do.

Details 00 353 21 4378892, 0844 5768831, fastnetline.com, Return crossings for car and two passengers from €328 (290).