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…