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.