Camino de Cork

St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Way, an ancient pilgrim path through west Cork, was almost forgotten until a local community revitalised…

St Finbarr's Pilgrim Way, an ancient pilgrim path through west Cork, was almost forgotten until a local community revitalised it. It's now developing a reputation as 'Cork's Camino' experience, writes CARL O'BRIEN

DAVID ROSS, a soft-spoken west Cork farmer and pastor of a local Christian church, isn’t mincing his words. He is telling a crowd of hill-walkers at the beginning of a pilgrimage trail that rapid moral decay, people turning their backs on God and the decline of civilised values marked a turning point in Irish history. By now, some walkers are staring at the ground or looking around sheepishly.

“That was in 600 AD,” he points out, to titters of laughter. “And that was when St Finbarr came to this spot, and admonished the people to return to Christ. He then set off for Gougane Barra, about 21 miles away from here.”

And so, 30 or 40 hillwalkers have gathered on an early August morning in Drimoleague in west Cork to re-enact the same walk.


Pilgrims have followed the footsteps of St Finbarr for hundreds of years, though the route began to fade from memory with the arrival of the car. The Drimoleague Heritage Group has since revived the walk by marking trails and producing detailed guides for a series of walkways across the region.

It’s part of a grand plan to make this “Cork’s camino” experience. By linking this route with other walks, it extends some 175km towards the lighthouse at the end of Sheep’s Head peninsula, one of Ireland’s most south-westerly points.

Anecdotally, at least, there’s something of a resurgence in pilgrim walks: record numbers are walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, while Croagh Patrick and Lough Derg in Ireland are attracting a new generation of sturdy-shoed adventure pilgrims. Is it disillusionment with religious authorities? A search for spiritual fulfilment? Or just a healthy social outlet?

If the crowd of hillwalkers gathered here for the two-day trek to Gougane Barra is anything to go by, they’re drawn for a wide variety of reasons, both spiritual and secular.

Daithí and Beatrice, both retired, are from Glanmire, Co Cork, and completed the Camino de Santiago last year. “I’m curious – this is a new walk, and there’s no better place to walk when you have a decent bit of weather,” says Daithí. “It’s nice to reflect and take some time out – even though there’s a bit of debate about whether St Finbarr even existed!”

Elodie from Switzerland and Nitida from Chicago, both in their 20s, are here with their friend Joy. “We’ve been friends for a few years, and we keep in touch. It’s a good opportunity to catch up and to see more of Ireland. It’s quiet and relaxing. The spiritual side is very interesting, too.”

THE FULL WALK from Sheep’s Head would take seven days. This part of the pilgrim route from Drimoleague to Gougane Barra is a two-day walk, though it’s still no easy feat.

It involves several tricky ascents and descents of boggy peaks, traversing at least four river valleys, before descending into the isolated majesty that is Gougane Barra, where St Finbarr reputedly established his first monastery.

The scenery more than makes up for the punishing walk. Along the banks of the River Ilen, there are beautiful cascades and smoothly hewn rock formations. If you’re lucky, you’ll see herons swooping and dipper birds diving into the water in search of insects.

As you ascend the hills you walk through flower-studded meadows and heathers blooming in vibrant shades of purple and red.

At the summit of Mullaghmesha, it’s possible to believe you’ve just arrived at the very ceiling of the Earth: there is a stunning panoramic view of west Cork, stretching from the Old Head of Kinsale towards the Beara Peninsula. Shafts of sunlight turn dark valleys into bright gold, while the Atlantic glistens in the distance.

Word has spread that the annual pilgrim walk is under way. By the time we come to Bridie O’Leary’s farmhouse, there are tables set out with mountains of porter cake, sandwiches, chocolates, and gallons of tea and coffee. God bless you, Bridie: you’re a mind reader. It’s time to rest our battered soles.

“I’m delighted to do this,” she says, as she pours tea for the visitors. “It’s very quiet and isolated up here. Now, we’re getting walkers and you get a chance to meet people. It’s great to see people out and enjoying the scenery.”

In the next valley, the O’Sullivans are ready with yet more sandwiches and cake. With all this hospitality, no wonder St Finbarr spent so much time hanging out in the mountains.

For David Ross and others involved in the Drimoleague Heritage Walkways group, the growing popularity of the walks feels like a major triumph. Just a few years ago, overgrown trails and neglected river crossings, along with uncertainty over rights of way, would have made this journey impossible.

Now, the local group has not only cleared the way for this pilgrim walk, but has meticulously mapped out 11 other walks, together with illustrated guides. It’s an example of what a community can achieve with imagination, creativity and determination.

“The village of Drimoleague was once the busiest railway junction in west Cork,” says Ross. “Now, we’re turning it into the walkers’ junction of west Cork.”

It’s also opening up the area to more tourism. While most visitors tend to hug the coastline and visit towns like Bantry, Schull and Skibbereen, the plan is to draw tourists to lesser-known villages and towns further away like Drimoleague, Dunmanway and Kealkill.

WITH ALL THE devotion on display towards St Finbarr, it seems churlish to raise the thorny issue of whether he really existed at all.

Revisionist historians claim the cult around him was developed by local church authorities for political reasons in the middle ages. In fact, some claim that while there was a Finbarr, he had nothing to do with Cork and the foundation of the city. He was, they say – shock, horror – from the Ards peninsula and not the people’s republic.

“They have a point,” says Ross. “But just like the revisionists with the Bible, they could be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The tradition of St Finbarr doesn’t exist in Drimoleague or the entire area out of nothing. So, why not look at the old story as it came down and take it at face value. Of course, people could get their facts wrong. There’s plenty of room for error.”

Any doubt over the man himself feels irrelevant on the descent into Gougane Barra.

There is mountain on all sides rising hundreds of feet above a lake, forming a vast amphitheatre. Around the valley rim are gigantic boulders and purple rock. There is a magical, mystical beauty to it all. On the valley floor below, the ruined chapel and cloister are evidence that this has been a special, peaceful place for hundreds of years. It’s a stunning vista.

And you feel certain that, even with the changing tides of religion and spirituality, it will continue to retain this sense of tranquillity for hundreds of years to come.

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