Category Archives: travel

The grand finale: Ireland 2017 (Part IX)

I was truly sad to leave my little cabin on the hill, with its lovely views and its army of chaffinches and its convenient location. To distract myself from the ache in my heart, I drew up a list of wonderful places I might visit after I left Kealkill behind me and made my way back to the ferry in Rosslare. This wasn’t hard to do because I had read about so many interesting sites in Sacred Stones of Irelandactually, the harder task was figuring out which potential destinations were most worthwhile and how I could string these together into a (marginally) logical itinerary. The ferry wasn’t departing until 8:45pm and I didn’t need to arrive in Rosslare until 8pm at the absolute latest, so I had quite a lot of time to work with. In the interest of maximising my ability to see great things, stretch my legs frequently, and avoid a long and boring wait at the ferry terminal, I put together the following proposed outline of the day:

Kealkill –> Ardmore (1 hr 45 min)

Ardmore –> Ring (20 min)

Ring –> Ballinageeragh (35 min)

Ballinageeragh –> Gaulstown Dolmen (15 min)

Gaulstown Dolmen –> Knockboy (30 min)

Knockboy –> Waterford (15 min)

Waterford –> Rosslare (1 hr 45 min)

If you don’t feel slightly horrified looking at that list, then something is wrong with you. Even *I* felt slightly horrified looking at that list, and I’m the one who wrote it and was going to try to make it a reality. Not only did I have six destinations to hit prior to Rosslare, but also these destinations were mostly to be found along small and windy country roads that would be as challenging as they were picturesque. On top of this, as on previous excursions, I only had precise navigational instructions for some of the sites. Actually, if I’m being totally honest, I wasn’t even entirely sure what some of the sites were. I was working from notes I’d jotted down while reading. Sometimes all I knew was that there was a sacred stone of some sort in the area, but I’d not indicated whether it was, say, a circle or a dolmen; for other proposed destinations, the name used by the author was slightly different from the names I was seeing on Google Maps or in online fora, so I couldn’t be certain it was even the same place. No matter! You can’t have much of an adventure if you’re already certain of the outcome, right? RIGHT??

I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic about this final day of sightseeing, and it wasn’t even the crazy agenda that was putting me off. I kind of felt that, with my trip to Gougane Barra the previous afternoon, I had already experienced my denouement; there was a sense of closure and finality, and doing more touristy stuff after that seemed excessive. However, I was genuinely interested in the sites I’d read about, and it seemed so wasteful to not take advantage of my proximity (I apply this word generously here) as I passed by on my way to Rosslare.

As you’ll have seen in my schedule above, my first destination was Ardmore, in County Waterford. Unbeknownst to me, I was visiting the town on the penultimate day of the annual Ardmore Pattern Festival, which culminates on St Declan’s Feast Day on July 30th. “Pattern” is another word for “pilgrimage”, so I had come to see stuff related to St Declan at precisely the best or worst time of year, depending on how you feel about sharing spaces with other people. My initial reaction was very negative, but then I thought maybe I should just roll with the serendipity and enjoy the unexpected opportunity to participate in a cultural phenomenon. When I quickly found a (free and convenient) parking space, my mood improved still further.

Ardmore Round Tower, which was founded anywhere between the 10th and 17th centuries

At the time of my arrival in Ardmore, all I knew was that it was home to St Declan’s stone–a large and geologically distinct boulder sitting down in the bay. According to legend, St Declan left his bell behind in Wales when he returned to Ireland after a trip, and so God caused the boulder to float across the sea, carrying the bell back to St Declan. This is only one of many Irish stories in which a sacred stone functions as boat, and this is only one of many sacred stones under which the faithful crawl in order to receive blessings; however, it was the only such stone to which I had ready access during my trip to Rosslare.

The other interesting part of Declan’s story is that he reportedly was so grateful to God, he swore that he would set up shop, spiritually speaking, wherever the rock landed. Thus, in Ardmore you also find a ruined church and holy well dating to the 5th century, an oratory (which possibly once contained the grave of St Declan himself) dating to the 9th or 10th Century, and a cathedral dating to the 12th Century. The latter two of these are located in a cemetery which also features a round tower and is a good starting point for a hike around the headland. The cemetery was conveniently close to where I parked, and so I began my sightseeing there.

St Declan’s Oratory, looking out towards the Celtic Sea

Oddly enough, festival-goers seemed more interested in the shops and restaurants and games down in the centre of town, so I pretty much had the cemetery to myself. The weather had been overcast in Kealkill when I departed (Cork was sad to see me go), but Waterford was sunny and clear. Ardmore was beginning to win me over.

St Declan’s Cathedral, which has some unusual Romanesque panels on the exterior wall at the western (left-hand) end

Unlike the roofless church I’d encountered in Baltimore, this one was not filled with brambles and could easily be entered. I popped in for a look because I was curious what it would feel like to stand inside a building that was completely intact except for what is arguably its most important feature. There is actually something quite pleasing about the idea of attending Mass when you are both simultaneously inside and outside, since you could enjoy all the glory of religious architecture as well as all the intrinsic beauty of nature (but, then again, also wind and precipitation…); taking this vision one step further, I imagine it would have been quite a stirring, if frequently damp, experience for Catholics who secretly held mass outdoors at old sacred stones during times when they were not able to openly attend church.

It’s a good thing I strolled through the cathedral shell, since it enabled me to see this:

According to the Internet, which is never wrong, this ogham stone dates to the 5th or 6th Century

This is one of two ogham stones located in the cathedral. Ogham is an early, 20-character alphabet originating in the 1st Century. It was used in both Ireland and western Britain (mostly Pembrokeshire), and the bulk of the Irish specimens are found in the general region of Ireland in which I had been spending my time. Apparently, the two stones in St Declan’s Cathedral likely say: ‘of Luguid son of .. the tribe of Nad-Segamon’ and ‘Amadu’ (or ‘beloved’ in Latin). I was really pleased to see these examples because, even though I had an ogham site on my to-do list for later in the day, you  just never know how things will work out [foreshadowing!].

I followed the helpful signage out of the cemetery and around the headland, enjoying the opportunity to do some exercise and get some sun on a day that I’d anticipated would mostly be spent cooped up in my car. Although I could see some dark clouds approaching in the distance [more foreshadowing!], it was clear and bright where I was, and there were many birds and wildflowers to enjoy.

This was definitely taken in Ireland, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for my homeland

As I looped back in towards the centre of town, I began to hear strains of music floating up the hill on the breeze. At first I thought that someone was having a garden party, but when I headed down towards the beach I discovered a group of women line dancing to some hard-core American honky tonk. I had expected to find many weird and wonderful things in Ireland, but that was most definitely not one of them. The ladies were doing some sort of demo as part of the festival (because nothing says “celebration of a 5th-century saint” like coordinated foot-stomping) by the beach where St Declan’s Stone rests. I can’t quite tell you what emotion I felt stirring in my bosom as I listened to the twangy tunes while breathing in the scent of greasy street food and gazing out to sea, but it probably wasn’t reverence.

Not the most seaworthy-looking of vessels, but even the sleekest of yachts looks awkward when dry docked

It wasn’t until I’d gotten all the way back to my car and was looking at my GPS to programme in my next destination that I realized I’d missed out on seeing St Declan’s Well and the (other) old church ruins. I had a long moment of indecision because I was beginning to feel twitchy about making more progress on my journey, but then I did the math and decided that I had sufficient time and would regret it if I didn’t go have a look.

Although Ardmore has done an excellent job posting visitor information throughout town, I was led astray during my trek to the well. I reached a fork in the road where the left option led down to a hotel and the right option led back up to the walk I had previously taken around the headland; signs for these pointed towards 11 and 1 o’clock respectively, with the label for the well dead centre. To me, this meant that I needed to carry on up the hill, but then keep going straight before the clifftop walk bent away towards the right. There was, in fact, a road, which then turned into a footpath, that allowed me to do this; however,  as I proceeded along this path, I not only could not see a well, but also was pretty sure that I was wandering through someone’s garden. After I felt sufficient misgivings, I turned to retreat and, lo and behold, could see where I wanted to go–but it was below me. I retraced my footsteps, took a speculative trip down to the hotel, walked through the hotel’s parking lot, and then finally found a very understated path leading to the ruins. You really do have to be committed to find some of these places.

St Declan’s Well, from which St Declan drew water to baptise new converts to the faith. I have read conflicting information about the figures on top, but apparently there were originally three–one representing Jesus (left), one representing the repentant thief (right), and one representing the unrepentant thief (destroyed)

The church here is even lacking even more critical features than the one up near the oratory and tower, but it is attractive and interesting in its own right. At the far end of the building (another generous use of a word), visitors have created a shrine near an age-worn crucifix; as at St Finbarr’s Oratory, you can see where pilgrims have chiseled and scratched crosses into the stone. I read an interesting account of a modern-day pattern here–not just the general festival I had witnessed but the actual walk associated with the pilgrimage–and it seems that there are still people who celebrate St Declan’s Day in the traditional way, making circuits around the ruins, praying, interacting with the shrine, and collecting water from the well. The only people I encountered at the site were a flirtatious old guy and his long-suffering wife, so I can’t say I was really in the religious zone during my visit.

This church was probably built in the 12th Century but likely replaced an even older structure (or structures) dating to the time of St Declan

Phase 1 of my trip had taken up considerably more of the day than I’d expected because Ardmore had so much more to offer than I’d realised when planning. That was no problem, since I had some flex time built into my schedule, but I was definitely feeling ready to move out once I’d seen the holy well. Onwards and upwards (or eastwards)!

The next item on my itinerary was a court tomb–the only one in Waterford and the most southerly one in Ireland–located on the edge of a seaside cliff somewhere in the vicinity of Ring in a region known as Ballinamona Lower. I think. I don’t actually know because I never got there. I was trying to follow instructions I’d found online and, for some reason I cannot fathom, no road names or numbers are provided for anything after you turn off the main thoroughfare; everything is described using distances (in kilometres) and numbers of turnoffs. To make matters worse, I was approaching from the south but the instructions were from the north, and although I thought I had identified the roads that would get me to some recognisable point in the directions, I was clearly wrong. The situation had some added hilarity in the form of Gaelic-only roadsigns and a traffic jam caused by a seemingly endless herd of cows crossing the road. It didn’t take me long to throw in the towel on this quest, though it greatly pained me to do so because the local name for this tomb is “Cailleach Bheara’s House”. Yes, that’s right: I had another shot at visiting somewhere connected (even remotely) with the Cailleach, but I was thwarted a second time. Clearly I have angered her.

I had better luck with phases 3 and 4 of my journey, though they also took me to properly remote (but English-speaking) parts of the county. The first of these was Ballynageeragh, a portal tomb near Dunhill. It has a double capstone design and is an impressive structure even if it has had a little modern work done to improve its structural integrity:

Ballynageeragh was excavated in the 1940s and found to contain flint pebbles, burnt bones, and charcoal

Next up was the Gaulstown Dolmen, which is evidently considered one of the most impressive not just in Waterford but in the whole of Ireland. It is located on the property of someone who has a gate at the end of their (very long) drive. Rather than just put the gate, say, 100 m closer to the house–which would be imperceptible from the house itself, and remove an intimidating barrier to visitors–they installed it at the very end of the driveway but left a little gap where pedestrians can squeeze through and hike in to find the dolmen. Although there is a sign on the road, it’s not at all clear where the actual tomb is and how you are supposed to get there. As I have said before, you do have to earn your right to enjoy these sites.

I photographed the Gaulstown Dolmen from all angles and firmly believe that this is its most impressive

The last visit I wanted to make before heading into Waterford (town) for a meander was to the Knockboy stone row and ogham stones. Remember what I said before about being glad I saw the ogham stones at Ardmore since that was my only shot at them during this trip? Yeah. I didn’t make it to either Knockboy site, and I am still not entirely sure how that happened. All I know is that there is a Knockboy neighbourhood just outside the town of Waterford, and the stones are not there. They are, in fact, somewhere near(ish) Dungarvan, which was also the nearest town of note when I got lost trying to find the Cailleach Bheara’s house earlier in the day. The area must be cursed. In my defence–lest you think that it’s I who am cursed, and that the curse involves being an idiot who is hopeless at navigation–I just want to state for the record that I deliberately avoided the confusing obscure online instructions for this destination, and instead relied on Google Maps. Google seemed to be sending me to the correct place, and because it had done so well throughout the rest of the trip, I didn’t think to question it. It’s not as if Google hasn’t led me astray in the past, so I’m not sure why I was so trusting in this instance.

Frankly, though, I had by this point seen so many rocks (let’s face it; sacred or not, that’s what they are) and so much scenery that it was okay. I didn’t mind. The day was growing long, my back was growing sore, my energy was flagging, and I was ready to grab a cup of tea in Waterford and power through the last 50 miles to Rosslare. But then two fun (and here I use the term not generously, but ironically) things happened. First, Google twisted the knife that it had already plunged in my back by directing me to Rosslare via the ferry from Passage East. I didn’t realise it was a ferry route when I set out and I had no cash to pay for my ticket, so I drove all the way to the departure point–an arduous journey made even more tedious by a roadblock and a pair of slow cyclists–only to have to turn around and retrace my footsteps (or…tire treads).

Second, my brakes stopped working, which nearly caused my heart to stop working as well. I was approaching a roundabout, tried to slow down, and…just kept right on speeding along. Luckily there were no other cars in my immediate vicinity, but this was a serious dilemma. I would be okay as long as I stayed in the slow lane and encountered no traffic, but this was not something I could guarantee. I kept trying to find a place to pull over so that I could think through my options, but I was on a stretch of road that had no shoulder. After what seemed like an eternity, I did finally come to a parking lot where I could let the car rest and ponder what to do. No garages were open at that time of day, and none would be again until Monday morning. Additionally, I was suddenly aware that my emergency road service coverage might not apply in a foreign country. I couldn’t leave Ireland without my car, so I would need to wait there until it was fixed–if that was even possible; if it wasn’t possible, that made things even more complicated. If I missed my ferry, I would need to buy a whole new ticket and also arrange additional hotel stays. I would not be able to get a refund on the hotel I’d already booked in Pembroke. I might miss some work. I would definitely miss the play for which I had tickets the following day. This was potentially not just complex, but also really expensive. However, I recognised that nothing mattered as much as my safety, so I would just have to suck it up and figure something out.

Of all the lucky things that happened to me during my trip, I’d have to say that the top of the list was not crashing into someone when my brakes failed; the next one down was that my brakes worked again when I restarted my car after finishing my mild panic attack. I tested them out a few times at different speeds and they seemed okay, so I decided to make a go for Rosslare–driving below the speed limit, far behind anyone else. If I could just get on the ferry and get myself back to the UK, I knew that the logistics of this emergency would be so much easier to deal with.

I now know that the brakes failed because one of my brake callipers had been jammed into place such that it was permanently pushing the brake pad against the rotor and creating a whole lot of friction; in turn, this friction created a whole lot of heat that caused my brake fluid to boil and evaporate. Once the fluid was gaseous, there was no way to generate the hydraulic pressure required for the brake system to respond when I pressed down the pedal. By letting the car rest for a while, I gave the fluid a chance to…well, become a fluid again. I don’t know why it reached the boiling point when it did, or why it never did again, but you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth (also, I’m so impressed I understand all that other car stuff, I am willing to give myself a pass on this one minor point).

I arrived in Rosslare with plenty of time to buy myself some dinner before checking in at the dock and, eventually, boarding the ferry. I stayed awake during the voyage, which was quite a bit choppier than the first one because of “adverse tides”. I curled up on a bench and weathered the waves just fine but was, all the same, extremely grateful to reach the other side. We disembarked around 1am and I made my way to The Dolphin Hotel, a no-frills establishment that had the benefit of both being the closest accommodation to the dock and having a 24-hour check-in. From my point of view, at that time of night, it was on par with The Ritz.

I was so glad I’d had the foresight of reserving a room rather than trying to force myself to drive home in the middle of the night. After all my exploring and driving and hiking and driving some more and getting lost and then having my brakes stop working and then doing even more driving, I was tired. In fact, I was more than tired; I was weary. It had been a memorable week packed full of beautiful, fascinating, delightful, and inspirational things, but it had also been pretty intense. I had accomplished a whole lot. Now it was time to rest.

Pilgrimage to Gougane Barra: Ireland 2017 (Part VIII)

If I had had the time, the equipment, and the desire to punish my body, I might have been tempted to have hiked the entirety of St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Way, which covers a mountainous 23-mile stretch between Drimoleague and Gougane Barra, during my time in Ireland. Although I’m sure that the young and fit could manage this in a (long and painful) day, typically it is recommended as two seven-hour hikes spread across two days. It is not an easy walk, since it involves three valleys and four mountain chains and is marked by uneven ground and unpredictable weather. I, therefore, just cut to the chase and headed straight to Gougane Barra by car.

This was my final outing in County Cork, since my long drive back to the ferry was scheduled for the following day. I did not want to spend much time in the car, having just (barely) survived the trek around Beara; I needed to unwind and decompress before hitting the road again. I did some Pilates and read a book and hung around the cabin in a low-key kind of way. Around mid-afternoon, the clouds that had wreathed the mountains that morning began to recede, and I thought it might be nice to have a small jaunt–just one last little venture out–so that I could stretch my legs. I opted to explore Gougane Barra because it is only about 20 minutes away from Kealkill and driving there would allow me to satisfy my curiosity about what lay in, around, and beyond the mountains I was seeing each time I looked out my living room window.

If any one day of my trip could be described as an unabashed success, it was this one. The commute to Gougane Barra was quick, easy, and very pretty, and when I got there I found this:

St Finbarr’s Oratory in Gougane Barra

I mean, come on. Places like this exist in real life? In case you didn’t quite catch how unbelievably lovely the chapel is, let me also share this view:

Close-up of the Oratory and its idyllic surroundings

The feast day of St Finbarr (or, if you prefer, Finnbar, Findbarr, Fionnbharra, or Barra–because why stop at just one name when you could confuse people with a multitude?) is 25th September; the faithful who visit Gougane Barra as the culmination of the pilgrimage over the mountains would typically time their journey to arrive on this day. The appellation “Gougane Barra”, evidently meaning “the rock of Finnbarr”, originally was attached only to the island on which Finbarr lived in the middle of the lake (itself previously named Loch Irce). Now, however, the phrase is used to refer also to the lake, the settlement on the shore, and the area in general.

The island is currently attached to the mainland by way of a (presumably manmade) path, so it is quite easy to access the grounds to complete the contemplative activities associated with the pilgrimage–or, if you are like me, to merely do some sightseeing.

Prayer could not possibly be any more healing than the simple privilege of enjoying this view

Legend has it that Finbarr, back in the 6th Century, told the people of Drimoleague that they needed to get right with God; he then turned on his heel and hiked down to Gougane Barra to establish his monastery–hence the “Pilgrim Way”. The area fell into ruin after his death, but a new monastery was built around 1700 by priest Denis O’Mahoney. The oratory shown above was built in the 19th Century. Unsurprisingly given how utterly charming it is, it’s a popular destination for weddings; in fact, one had taken place on the day of my visit. Back in the days of the Penal Laws, though, Gougane Barra had a somewhat more serious role to play: Because it is tucked away in such a quiet and disconnected spot, it was a good place for Catholics to secretly continue performing Mass even after it had been forbidden.

The eastern half of the lake, which is fed by the River Lee

Those who are interested in doing the pilgrimage properly and making the rounds at Gougane Barra had better set aside a good chunk of time; after you’ve made your two-day hike across the mountains, you also need to complete a 13-step prayer series. You start in the middle of the island in a walled-off area marked by a large timber cross:

You say the Creed, after which you make a confession, say an Our Father, follow it up with a Hail Mary, and then finish with a Glory Be to the Father. So far, so good. You’ll notice that the stone walls here are decorated (if that is the correct word) with the Stations of the Cross. Don’t let these fool you! You don’t actually have to interact with them directly (not as part of the pilgrimage, anyway; presumably they would come in handy around Easter time). What you do need to do is visit each of the eight cells between them; then you go outside and head to the old altar; finally you swing by the holy well and the slanan (or “health stream”). At each of these spots, you do another five each of the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be.

The old altar at St Finbarr’s Oratory; the crosses have been scratched in by pilgrims. Back in the day, and possibly also now, people would save the flecks of stone they’d etched off and then drink them (preferably in water from a holy well). Refreshing!
St Finbarr’s holy well, in which was swimming many very blessed invertebrates and microorganisms

You end your circuit at Father O’Mahony’s tomb, where you finish off with one last Creed, one last confession (shame on you for already slipping up just since you left the cross at the beginning of the round, tut), one Our Father, and one Hail Mary. The placard on which all these instructions are listed finishes here with “etc.”, which I find to be awfully blasé; after all, you don’t want to mess up right at the end and have all your efforts invalidated. The sign also suggests you might want to insert an optional prayer visit to the Oratory. Once you’ve said your piece to God, you collect half a bottle each from both the holy well and the slanan (honestly, wouldn’t it have been more efficient to collect these while you were there the first time?) and then sprinkle the person or people whom you were hoping to help with your prayers.

The tomb of Father O’Mahoney lies near the well-trafficked entrance to Holy Island; not much resting in peace to be had here

The information point also said that lights have been installed on and around the island so pilgrims can safely visit and pray at all hours. Part of me finds this kind of impressive and endearing, but the other part of me thinks that maybe it’s enabling people to be a little  more devoted, or perhaps you might say fanatical, than is strictly necessary? But I guess there are some pretty short days in the fall and winter, so I can see where it is better to be safely well-lit than sorry.

On another day, I might have been tempted to sit and enjoy the incredible scenery, or to stroll along the paths in the nearby woods. On this particular day, however, there was a prematurely autumnal wind blowing down off the mountain, and it made for a very blustery experience. It wasn’t too bad when the sun was out, but when clouds rolled back through, it was uncomfortably chilly. I could see why all the Pilgrim Way websites took care to caution hikers to be responsible; it would be all too easy to set off during a sunny period and then get caught out as a result of quick-moving weather systems blowing in off the sea. Poor St Finbarr and Father O’Mahony, who had no access to microfleece or waterproof jackets.

One last glimpse of the picturesque Oratory, plus bonus bird (yes I know that’s a swan, but there’s no alliteration to enjoy if I use an s-word, is there?)

As I reached the end of the Gougane Barra access road where I would turn right to head back to Kealkill, I came across this display at the junction:

Sometimes I feel that Christians in general, and Catholics especially, are a little too subtle with their imagery. I just don’t get what they’re trying to convey here.

I don’t know how I’d managed to miss this on the way in, given that it is at least life size, if not a bit bigger. I can see where this would be quite an affecting display for believers just reaching the end of the Pilgrim Way, but, IMHO, it is a bit of a shame to be bombarding people with the concepts of SACRIFICE and SUFFERING and DEATH when they have just been surrounded by beautiful, calming, uplifting natural scenery that has probably (if they are like me) gifted them with a sense of peace and serenity. Why harsh everyone’s mellow? Can’t we just celebrate the nice bits of Creation? No? Well, I think we can all see why I’ve not been nominated for any Catholic faith awards recently.

Celebrating the nice bits of Creation: This is how it’s done.

It took me a whole week, but with Gougane Barra I finally demonstrated that I’d learned how to do a day trip right: Choose somewhere close and easy to find, swoop in, enjoy the sights, and then go straight home before anything could become overly complicated, onerous, or generally unpleasant.

I was saving all of those traits for the mega-crazy road trip I had planned for the following day.

The Ring of Bheara: Ireland 2017 (Part VII)

Although I was spending a fair amount of time outdoors, my trip to Ireland wasn’t quite as outdoorsy as I’d originally planned–other than my stroll around the Glengarriff Nature Reserve, I hadn’t done much that was focused on exploring and enjoying the local habitat as opposed to interesting features found within it. I decided to rectify this by visiting the Killarney National Park, a beautiful and ecologically important part of the country that sports woodland and lakes as well as a castle and some gardens and nearby sacred stones; it is, in other words, something of an Irish smorgasbord.

En route to Killarney was Kenmare, a small town that was perfectly positioned to act as a rest stop and which, conveniently, is home to another stone circle that I could tick off my list. During all the time I spent in Cork, I never saw much advertisement for Kenmare, and yet it is much more welcoming and enchanting than either Bantry or Baltimore, which (as far as I could tell) get more attention.

Kenmare was bustling when I arrived; car parks were full, shops were busy, customers were occupying every sidewalk table in front of the town’s many cafes and restaurants. The town reminded me of a wheel, with a pleasant park located at the hub and many streets radiating outwards; one led to a dignified stone church and, beyond it, residential neighbourhoods; others were lined with an assortment of shops whose facades were painted in an array of cheerful colours; and still others headed back into the scenic countryside. There was kind of a timeless feel about Kenmare, which looked as though it probably had maintained that same basic layout, more or less unchanged, for a few hundred years.

The very tidy Kenmare stone circle

The Kenmare stone circle is not far from the town centre and is extremely well signposted; on the one hand this was very convenient for navigational purposes, but on the other hand it meant that I ended up sharing the site with several other groups of people. The other unusual thing about the Kenmare circle is that it is actively maintained. To quote the author of one of my favourite online resources:

“…the monument and its surroundings are so well tended it looks more like a garden feature than a prehistoric monument. There are pine trees completely encircling it and the grass is kept very short, almost lawn-like. All this is reflected in the name it is known by locally: ‘The Shrubberies’. A little too pristine for my liking.”

I agree that the ambience of stone circles is, generally, enhanced by an air of wildness and naturalness, but I still felt that the Kenmare circle was worth visiting. It is 17.5 m across at its widest point, which makes it the largest stone circle in southwest Ireland; also, it is elliptical rather than circular, which is uncommon. The central stone is actually a boulder burial dolmen, and rests upon at least three other smaller stones beneath it.

Boulder dolmen in the centre of the circle; it seems to have some very small bullauns?

There are many online fora where megalith-lovers share photos, information, and opinions about sacred stones, and Kenmare gets an overwhelmingly bad rap across most of these. In addition to a prevailing distaste for the well-manicured lawn, there was also negativity about the landowners’ request for a €2 donation from visitors, as well as the lack of an impressive water view from the site. I didn’t mind paying–in fact, I had been surprised at how many of the other sites I’d visited were free–and I thought it was very pleasant to see and hear the River Finnihy running by just down the hill from the stones; I can see, however, that the site might have been even more dramatic when the surrounding trees didn’t block the probably even more impressive view over to the nearby bay.

One of the other charms of the Kenmare circle is what I will call, for lack of a better word, a “wishing tree”:

I refrained from reading anyone’s notes, but boy was I tempted

I couldn’t find any information on this particular tree online, but I do know that there are many instances in which “wishing trees” are associated with sacred stones. Back in the day, one of the many ways in which you could interact with a stone in order to promote a positive outcome was to hammer something into it as a request or offering; this wouldn’t have been easy, so it was a good way to ensure that only the most motivated of supplicants  had access to a stone’s power. Over time, this practice morphed into the slightly easier method of leaving things draped on the stone, or sitting at its base, or hanging in a nearby tree. I’m not sure how long visitors have been engaged in this activity at Kenmare specifically, but in general I do know that it’s a prayer technique that is centuries old. Although some of these leavings were written-out prayers–such as those you find posted near votives in cathedrals–others were simply ribbons or strings or objects. Again, I don’t know any specifics about Kenmare, but I have read that in other places, these more general items might be left for a time and then retrieved for application to the problem at hand, with the idea that they would have absorbed, and be imbued with, some power from the stones. I kind of wanted to leave something of my own just to take part in the ritual and see what it felt like to do so, but I searched my bag and found absolutely nothing of use; that will teach me to leave home without some emergency spiritual sundries.

Back in town, I stopped to read a sign about Kenmare and the surrounding area and was quite taken with an image of a stone circle–Uragh–in the midst of breathtaking countryside. I very much wanted to see it in person but noticed that it was in the opposite direction from Killarney, which meant that I needed to make a decision: Did I head north towards the woodlands or did I spontaneously change plans and head south along the Beara Peninsula? In addition to being interested in this particular stone circle, I had been wanting to see more of the Beara and the coastal areas in general, so I decided to opt for the latter.

The route to my destination was very well marked, but it was not an easy drive. It was a one-lane road with many twists and turns and quite a few dramatic hills–and sometimes the twists and turns came on the dramatic hills, which made for an exciting but somewhat nauseating journey. For the sake of my safety and my stomach’s integrity, I needed to concentrate on where I was going, but this was extremely hard because the landscape was phenomenally gorgeous. I pulled over a couple of times to gawk and take photographs, but none of my images really do it justice.

Cloonee Upper Lough, which feeds into Cloonee Middle and then Cloonee Lower Loughs, which ultimately decant into Kenmare Bay
Almost all the countryside I passed through was pastureland for sheep and cows.     

The quickly changing weather added a certain je ne sais quoi to the view, which was already impressive enough thanks to the rugged terrain and vibrant colours; in addition to the low-lying fog hovering at the tops of the hills, there were also dark grey clouds punctured by spears of brilliant sunlight and patches of gold that rolled across the land as the clouds raced overhead.

The stone circle is located between two lakes–Cloonee Upper and Inchiquinn (which sounds to me more like a Native American word than an Irish one)–and these, too, are stunningly, distractingly beautiful.

Lough Inchiquinn, which is bordered by the Uragh Wood nature reserve (running along the far side right-hand side of the lake)

There was a family hiking around Cloonee Upper when I arrived, but nobody else in sight–not entirely surprising given that the access road dead-ended in the middle of the wilderness a couple miles further on. I left my car at a little lot just off the main thoroughfare and hiked the remaining quarter mile or so to the stone circle. A bracing wind was howling down the hills and across the lakes, but in between gusts the land was silent and still; though I was not actually that far from a main route or from civilisation, I had the impression of being truly isolated. It was great.

The Uragh Stone Circle is located on a little knoll at the edge of Lough Inchiquinn, and since I was approaching from below, I was unable to catch any glimpses of the stones until they were right in front of me; one moment all I could see was a grassy incline, and the next I was suddenly presented with this:

If you didn’t hear a choir of angels burst into song when you looked at this photo, then something is wrong with you.

I honestly don’t think you could ask for a more scenic, more quintessentially Irish, more perfect view than this one. There are even waterfalls at the eastern side of Inchiquinn, for heaven’s sake. It’s amazing. It was worth sacrificing Killarney, it was worth every stomach-turning bend in the road, and it was even worth the horrible hairdo I was sporting as a result of all the wind. When I returned home later and did some reading online, I found my sentiments echoed by previous visitors to the same spot:

“Even though it rained continually on our visit, I thoroughly enjoyed this magical location. Set against a backdrop of mountains, lakes, and waterfalls, Uragh Stone Circle was certainly one of the main highlights of our recent trip to Cork and Kerry and surely one of the most beautiful. A gorgeous drive along the narrow, meandering road to this remote spot adds an air of anticipation to the journey.”

Before I headed back to the car, I climbed a hill located to the left of Uragh so that I could see even more of the landscape and have another vantage point from which to view the megaliths. As I stood surveying the scene, a patch of brilliant sunlight slid down the opposite slope and swept over the grass towards the circle. I managed to snap a photo just as the beam reached Uragh:

The stone circle illuminated by a roving shaft of sunlight. Cue more angelic singing.

I don’t really believe in destiny or luck, but sometimes things work out so perfectly, you do have to wonder.

I was also wondering what I should do next. I didn’t want to push myself too hard and have another back-breaking day in the car like I did when I visited Baltimore, but…I did really want to drive the Ring of Beara route that would allow me to circumnavigate the peninsula and access various other sacred stone sites along the way. Yet again, I felt driven to take in as much of the countryside as I could while I was there, since anything less just felt like a wasted opportunity. I don’t even know why I pretended that there was actually a choice to make here, because obviously I was only ever going to opt for the more time-consuming and strenuous plan. That is just how I roll.

I passed these sheep on the way back to my car. I’m no expert, but I think the one in front needs a better barber.

According to the map I had (temporarily) filched from my cabin, there was a cluster of interesting sites right off the R571 road that I was planning to follow around the peninsula. I figured that I could investigate these as and when I was interested; the weather was becoming increasingly inclement, and the roads this far out were more challenging, so it seemed sensible to be flexible and feel out the situation as I progressed.

Throughout my explorations of the Ring of Beara, I was driving along, into, out of, and near the Caha Mountains. In crossing from Cork to Kerry on my way to Kenmare, I had reached an impressive elevation (for the area) and traveled through a dramatic and beautiful pass before descending into the town. I kept wanting to pull over so that I could admire the view, but there weren’t many places to do so and those that were available were not advertised early enough for me to be able to turn in without causing a pile-up on the road. The situation was not dissimilar on the peninsula, but there I spent more time driving down than up, and this time around I also had to be on the lookout for the many hikers and bikers who explore Beara more up close and personal. On the one hand, I was loving the scenery and appreciating how it soothed my eyeballs, but on the other hand I was disappointed that it wasn’t easier to document that part of the trip and collect some photographic mementos. [Insert philosophical comment here about living in the moment, blah blah blah.]

Shortly after I descended through the town of Lauragh, I caught sight of a sign pointing towards the Shronebirrane Stone Circle. I had been so distracted by the views and the steep driving and the rain and the crazy bikers who were trying to take in said views while torpedoing down steep hills in said rain, that I had kind of forgotten that I was also supposed to be keeping an eye out for stone circles. I did some quick manoeuvring and turned left onto the sort of dark, narrow, windy road I’d come to know and love; after a little while the signs told me to turn right onto a better-lit and straighter road that was, however, even narrower and also a little pot-holey. To be honest, it looked like someone’s driveway–and, in a sense, it was, as it dead-ended after maybe a mile or two at someone’s house, which was positioned right at the base of some pretty imposing mountains. There was not really anywhere else for the road to go at that point except maybe through the mountain, if someone ever cared to make a tunnel. In my quest for stone circles, I had, at last, literally reached the end of the road.

I passed a few scattered homes along the way, and at one point I had to back into the driveway at one of them because I could see a caravan coming towards me about half a mile off; given that it took up the entirety of the road, there was no other way for us to proceed. I’m glad we had this encounter where we did, because otherwise I would probably have had to reverse all the way back to the main road or risk the quagmire of a sheep field. Maybe a quarter of a mile after this encounter, I caught a glimpse of my destination and also noted, to my extreme surprise, two other vehicles full of intrepid megalith enthusiasts who had also made this most absurd of trips. They were just leaving and, unfortunately for them, were the ones in a better position to backtrack on the road and give me room to replace them in the ersatz car park near the monument. The whole journey required a lot of automotive ballet.

Shronebirrane Stone Circle, which was maybe the most ridiculously remote circle I visited in Ireland–and that is saying something

There is nothing particularly noteworthy about Shronebirrane, other than the patience required to access it and the impressive geology of its surroundings. As I believe I have previously indicated, however, each circle has its own personality resulting from its size, shape, stone morphology, and geography, and so each one–and the experiences of getting to it and viewing it–is new and different and worthwhile. No matter the effort involved, I never reached one and thought, “Well, I could have done without that, really.” Part of me wants to say that Shronebirrane was the wildest circle that I saw, but Uragh also felt pretty primeval; Shronebirrane was wild in a mountainous and green sort of way, whereas Uragh was wild in an aquatic and peaty sort of way. (Please do not ask me to quantify either of these impressions; hopefully you get the gist of what I’m saying from the photos above.)

I didn’t get many photos of Shronebirrane or its environment because the rain picked up shortly after my arrival and I had to protect my camera. I had a quick commune with the circle from the edge of the field, hopped back in my car, and retraced my footsteps. About a quarter mile down the track, my progress was hindered by a truck and trailer sitting right in the middle of the road; two men and their boys were building a sheep enclosure in a nearby field. I know they all saw me, but they opted to ignore me in favour of finishing what they were working on before doing anything about the road obstruction. To be honest, I couldn’t really fault them, because it was clearly a laborious thing to be working in the mud and rain, and whereas they were engaged in something related to their livelihoods, I was merely a visitor having a jolly. I just turned off my car and ate my apple until the truck driver came to move his vehicle elsewhere. He had a dog, but didn’t let it get in the cab with him; instead, it cheerfully trotted down the road in its master’s wake. It was squarely in the middle of the track, so I had to crawl along behind it at a safe distance for quite a while until the dog suddenly seemed to notice me for the first time; it very responsibly moved over to the side of the road, stood and waited for me to pass, and then resumed its jog homewards (luckily not too far away; I passed the truck in its driveway as I pulled back onto the main road).

I’d originally been interested in searching for the Cashelkeety Stone Circles just outside Reenkilla, and not far from the turnoff to Shronebirrane, but I won’t lie: After that interesting but arduous little side trip, I was happy to call it a day. I now wish that I’d consulted my notes one last time before setting my sights on home, because I accidentally missed an opportunity to head out to Kilcatherine Point and investigate the purported petrified remains (or, alternatively, the chair) of the Cailleach Bheara, Ireland’s ancient witch-like creator deity. That said, Kilcatherine Point is well remote and a trip there would have extended my journey to the point where I would probably have been hating life, rather than feeling somewhat disgruntled by it, by the time I returned to Kealkill. I only mention it because the Cailleach will feature in another travel tale from the end of my trip, and, cumulatively, my two experiences with her left me suspicious that perhaps I had accidentally made an enemy of this powerful divine figure…