Walk for the weekend: A stroll through Ireland's fight for independence

Following in the footsteps of IRA commander Tom Barry in 1921 and St Finbarr in the 6th century is a steep scramble over slippery rocks and boggy ground, best appreciated on an unhurried journey

Gougane Barra holds a timeless appeal.

Everybody seems to be on a journey these days. Students embark on educational journeys, GAA teams on championship journeys, Buddhists journey towards enlightenment and ex-terrorists towards reconciliation, while Donald Trump is apparently on a journey “to make America great again”.

My attempt to capture the zeitgeist was altogether less ambitious. On a misted morning, I journeyed to explore west Cork and established base in Gougane Barra. From mystically alluring Finbarr’s Oratory, it was “shanks mare” beside the aquamarine lake and along the Forest Park trail. Just shy of the end, I broke left and followed an indistinct trail uphill through some forlorn conifers. Above the trees, I was funnelled towards a seemingly insurmountable cliff – but I knew better.

In June 1921, the IRA’s West Cork Flying Column retreated up the Borlin Valley above Bantry. The commander was the charismatic Tom Barry, who had recently rendered Cork virtually ungovernable. In pursuit were thousands of British troops while others blockaded the escape to Kerry. The position seemed hopeless until Barry embarked on his most desperate journey. He moved his men, under cover of darkness, onto the Shehy Mountains and struck out for Gougane Barra, which lay outside the British blockade on Keimaneigh Pass.

The volunteers slithered down supported by their rifles and ropes

Here, I recalled Barry's gripping account from Guerrilla Days in Ireland of a nightmarish march in thick darkness over boggy ground. Eventually, he reached Poll – a steep defile that narrows to an unstable gully – that now lay directly above me. Somehow, the volunteers slithered down supported by their rifles and ropes. An hour later "bruised and wrenched" they reached the valley and soon after were enjoying the hospitality of Cronin's Hotel as British forces abandoned the blockade, having been outwitted once again.


Knee-twisting boulders

Intent on matching Barry, I entered Poll and mused that while the Burren is termed a place of stone, this was more a stony place. It was necessary to scramble upwards over huge knee-twisting boulders that were mostly damp and slippery. Lacking mountain experience, it must have been a terrifying ordeal for the volunteers descending in darkness with the constant danger of falling or being hit by rocks displaced from above.

Emerging onto the plateau of the Shehy Mountains, I headed towards the summit of Conigar. Marked by a small cairn, this eminence rewarded with a splendid 360-degree vista, particularly over visceral Lough Nambrackderg.

His journey onwards took him across these mountains to found Gougane Barra monastery

Downhill and east brought me to an elongated sliver of water, accurately denoted Lough Fada. Here, I joined the footsteps of another journeying person: St Finbarr arrived in Drimoleague during the 6th century and having admonished the locals to return to Christ, his journey onwards took him across these mountains to found Gougane Barra monastery.

A fence now conveyed me to Foilastookeen, which offered views to the outrageously photogenic Gougane Barra Lake. Yellow markers denoting the descent route for St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Path as I traversed, steeply at first, over slippery rocks, but then more benignly to reach a stile beside a wood. Here, a track passing farm buildings led to the valley floor. Afterwards, by the hissing log fire in Cronin’s Bar, I concluded that Gougane still holds a timeless appeal, best appreciated on an unhurried journey.

Getting there: From Cork city, take the N22 Killarney road and then follow the R584 left. Beyond Ballingeary, Gougane Barra is signposted right.
Suitability: Even in good weather this is a demanding outing, suitable only for those comfortable with scrambling on steep ground. Navigation can become challenging in mist.
Time: 4 hours
Map: OSi, Discovery Series, sheet 85.

  • For details of guided walks on St Finbarr's Path visit: topoftherock.ie