Seeking another path – An Irishman’s Diary on David and Elizabeth Ross and West Cork
David and Elizabeth Ross: evangelical Christian farmers and tourism entrepreneurs
In July my wife and I went on a three-day walk across the lovely, little-known hills of west Cork from Drimoleague to the unique and marvellous pilgrimage spot that is Gougane Barra.
In the summer sunlight – and even through the thick mist on the hilltops and the occasional Atlantic shower – this was Ireland at its most magnificent: remote, unspoilt, close to the other world in the intensity of its green stonewalled fields, white sheep, high bogs, cascading waterfalls, rocks and sky.
About 1,500 years ago St Finbarr walked this way and established a monastery on an island in the lake at Gougane Barra. The remoteness of its location meant it was much used during Penal Law times for people to hear Mass. The 19th-century island oratory on the wonderfully eye-pleasing lake is now hugely popular as a wedding venue, particularly as it adjoins one of Ireland’s friendliest and most charming hotels, the Gougane Barra Hotel.
Our starting point for the walk, the village of Drimoleague – often bypassed by tourists following the better known west Cork coastline – is the home of a remarkable initiative in community-led sustainable tourism.
In 2008-2009, a small group of farmers, through a mixture of voluntary labour and support from the West Cork Development Partnership, built 12 kilometres of walking paths across the beautiful landscapes between the Ilen River and Mullaghmesha Mountain.
By the end of 2009, an unusual cooperative effort by four community groups in Drimoleague, Mealagh, Kealkill and Gougane Barra had led to the 37km St Finbarr’s Way being opened to pilgrims and other walkers.
One of the key movers behind this explosion of walking routes has been David Ross, who farms 48 acres just north of Drimoleague village at Top of the Rock.
Ross is an evangelical Christian, a description which is far more familiar north of the Border than in west Cork. He was brought up a Methodist, which had been strong around Drimoleague since the Great Revival of the 1850s, and preached his first sermon at the age of 19.
In 1988 he was touched by tragedy when his first wife Mary, who was from a prominent Presbyterian family in Portadown, was diagnosed with cancer and died at the age of 36, 11 months after giving giving birth to their third child. In the early 1990s he married again – to Elizabeth from Co Monaghan – and they had two more children.
In the 1980s the small Methodist church in nearby Bantry had closed, and a decade later David and Elizabeth had a vision of a new independent Christian church in the town. This was to become Bantry Christian Fellowship, which now has a thriving Sunday congregation of up to 70 people.
In 2012 they sought planning permission to build a walking centre in his grandfather’s old stone-built farmyard, with its superlative view across the Ilen valley.
They bought seven cosy timber lodges known as camping “pods”, which had been invented by a young English engineer who had got the idea from seeing the beehive shape of the Gallarus Oratory during a rain-soaked camping holiday in Kerry. They invested (helped by EU funding) in a splendid walking centre containing bathrooms, kitchen, games room and a large upstairs meeting room.
In 2014 the centre was opened by the Fianna Fáil politician Eamon Ó Cuív, a strong supporter of rural community self-help projects.
“Now the Top of the Rock is once again a meeting place of joy, activity, laughter and reflection”, says Ross.
There are lessons for the often joyless and unreflecting society that is Northern Ireland in this story of strong and harmonious rural communities and successful local tourism in the southwest. If I had my way, I would bring hundreds of Northern Protestants, conservatives and evangelicals (along with their Catholic neighbours, of course) to spend their holidays in Drimoleague and Kealkill and Gougane Barra, so that they can rediscover the delight and revelation of their Irish Christian heritage: the pre-Reformation tradition of saints and solitude and powerful communion with God that once made Celtic Christianity such a light to the world. And so they can see how West Cork Protestants like David and Elizabeth Ross live in a spirit of enterprise, mutual love of place and communal harmony with their Catholic neighbours.
“West Cork is a very open society”, says this 58-year-old evangelical Christian farmer and tourism entrepreneur extraordinaire.
For when you strip away the anti-Catholicism of the Orange Order and the marching bands, evangelical Christianity is the best and most enduring element at the heart of Northern Protestant culture. It also thrives in the new, open Republic of Ireland. More of the North’s Protestants should come down and visit the magical seascapes and mountains of West Cork, meet its lovely people, attend Sunday worship at Bantry Christian Fellowship (or perhaps Drimoleague Methodist Church) and learn that for themselves. They could even join the Rosses’ Contemplative Pilgrim Walks to Gougane Barra every April and August, which attract people from all over Ireland and abroad.