Assessing faculty performance: are student ratings the best source of data? (nerdy teaching post)

I wrote something for a blog at work but it was hidden behind a single sign-on so I’m re-publishing it here. It has nothing to do with food or travel or anything lighthearted and fun, but I slogged through a lot of statistics descriptions in the course of producing this and I need to share it far and wide so I feel my pain was worthwhile!

Last autumn, a comprehensive meta-analysis of student evaluation of teaching (SET) ratings received widespread attention after laying bare the many flaws present in previous studies that had sought to relate SET to student learning. Those previous examinations (notably Cohen’s 1981 paper ‘Student ratings of instruction and student achievement: A meta-analysis’ of multisection validity studies’, Feldman’s 1989 ‘The association between student ratings of specific instructional dimensions and student achievement: refining and extending the synthesis of data from multisection validity studies’, and Clayson’s 2009 study ‘Student evaluations of teaching: Are they related to what students learn? A meta-analysis and review of the literature’) suffer from a variety of methodological shortcomings. These include inadequate description of literature search techniques and parameters, small sample size effects, an inappropriate admixture of data with and without corrections for certain factors, and ‘voodoo correlations’ (impossibly high correlations that are merely an artefact rather than a reflection of reality).

The authors of the new work, Bob Uttl (Mount Royal University), Carmela White (University of British Columbia), and Daniela Gonzalez (University of Windsor) discount each of these studies after repeating them from scratch, and then present their own painstakingly performed meta-analyses to support their hypothesis that ‘students do not learn more from professors who receive higher SET ratings’. They end the paper with the following:

…universities and colleges may need to give appropriate weight to SET ratings when evaluating their professors. Universities and colleges focused on student learning may need to give minimal or no weight to SET ratings. In contrast, universities and colleges focused on students’ perceptions or satisfaction rather than learning may way to evaluate their faculty’s teaching using primarily or exclusively SET ratings, emphasize to their faculty members the need to obtain as high SET ratings as possible (i.e., preferably the perfect ratings), and systematically terminate those faculty members who do not meet the standards. For example, they may need to terminate all faculty members who do not exceed the average SET ratings of the department or the university, the standard of satisfactory teaching used in some departments and universities today despite common sense objections that not every faculty member can be above the average.

This statement is, presumably, intended to be deliberately provocative, but nevertheless highlights the intense pressure that SETs place on the modern academic. This theme is also explored in a qualitative analysis performed by Henry Hornstein (University of Hong Kong) in his review paper ‘Student evaluations of teaching are an inadequate assessment tool for evaluating faculty performance‘. Hornstein’s work was published a few months before the paper by Uttl et al., but did not receive similar media attention. This is understandable, since it is a review article, but it’s also a shame because Hornstein’s work acts as an excellent companion piece and provides a more in-depth examination of why we should approach SETs with caution.

As Hornstein points out, SETs were originally used (in the 1970s) in a formative way, to help lecturers understand which aspects of their teaching might require improvement Because the data were so easy to collect, however, SETs became increasingly popular as a method of providing administrators with the sort of snapshot of activities that could prove useful when making decisions about employment. Hornstein writes, ‘…the persistent practice of using student evaluations as summative measures to determine decisions for retention, promotion, and pay for faculty members is improper and depending on circumstances could be argued to be illegal.’

In particular, Hornstein highlights three main problems with the use of SETs:

  1. Measurement. This includes not only the statistical issues described by Uttl et al. above, but also difficulties associated with the fact that SETs typically involve qualitative data (usually collected by offering a range of categories along a Likert scale, e.g., ‘unacceptable’, ‘satisfactory, ‘very good’, etc.) that are then converted into quantitative data (e.g., unacceptable = 1, satisfactory = 3, and very good = 5). There is no real-world numerical difference between ‘unacceptable’ and ‘very good’, for example, so it is difficult to interpret what these selections mean in terms of actual teaching performance. Further, Hornstein writes, ‘it is not possible to interpret average scores of categories [because] the categories are not truly ordinal’, and yet this is the very information being used to make important strategic decisions. Like Uttl et al., Hornstein points out that ‘[administrators’] reasoning seems to be based on the improbable assumption that all of their faculty members should be above average in all categories.’
  2. Validity of student assessment. Hornstein cites a range of studies that provide evidence that students may not be ‘dispassionate evaluators of instructor performance’. For one thing, even the pedagogical literature does not yield an agreement on ‘effective teaching’, so it seems inappropriate to ask relatively untrained undergraduate students to be able to assess it. Rather, he writes, ‘students can reliable speak about their experience in a course, including factors that ostensibly affect teaching effectiveness such as audibility of the instructor, legibility of instructor notes, and availability of the instructor for consultation outside of class’. This is not the same thing as being able to ‘evaluate outside their experience’, e.g. determining whether instructors are truly knowledgeable within their field, or are well versed in, and demonstrative of, accepted good practice in learning and teaching.
  3. Response rates and satisfaction. As pointed out by a number of previous authors, SETs may reflect student satisfaction more than anything else; as a result, ratings are often given only by the students who feel most excited by or upset about their learning experience. Further, students may fixate on particular attributes–a perception of career preparation, relevance, and innovation, as well as factors such as classroom facilities, which are usually out of the instructors’ hands–that do not directly describe lecturers’ abilities. If students are mainly focused on getting good grades and not having to work too hard, as studies suggest many are, then lecturers that ensure the most challenging and educational environments may actually get the lowest SETs. Perhaps worst of all, SETs are known to be biased against particular types of instructor, in particular women. Hornstein writes, ‘…gender biases can be large enough to cause more effective instructors to get lower SET than less effective instructors’.

On the basis of these serious issues, Hornstein states that ‘the conservative and more appropriate approach is to question the validity of SET for all summative purposes’, else we risk alienating good lecturers who have been on the receiving end of SET bias, and also inappropriately encouraging academics to put on a performance just to make students happy rather than to choose the best pedagogical practices for ensuring a stimulating and effective educational environment. He also has an answer for how to assess good teaching in the absence of SET:

If one truly wants to understand how well someone teaches, observation is necessary. In order to know what is going on [in] the classroom, observation is necessary. In order to determine the quality of instructors’ materials, observation is necessary. Most of all, if the actual desire is to see improvement in teaching quality, then attention must be paid to the teaching itself, and not to the average of a list of student-reported numbers that bear at best a troubled and murky relationship to actual teaching performance. University faculty benefits most from visiting each other’s classrooms and looking at others’ teaching materials routinely. Learning can occur from one another, exchanging pedagogical ideas and practices.

Again, the strength of the author’s language evidences the passion that many lecturers feel about evaluation of teaching. Hornstein’s recommendation hopefully resonates with my University of Exeter colleagues who participate in the institution’s Annual Review of Teaching — a practice that many may find onerous to organize beforehand but beneficial to discuss afterwards. Demonstrating and discussing best practice with colleagues is an essential part of a well-rounded reflective teaching practice (and is one of the ‘four lenses’ advocated by Brookfield); as indicated by the work of Hornstein and Uttl et al., student feedback alone may not always tell the full story, and so it can be helpful and encouraging to also hear what colleagues have to say.

Hornstein notes that SETs can be a useful way of helping students feel engaged in their own education; rather than discounting the importance of the student voice, he questions the way in which that voice is recorded. Universities are increasingly exploring ways of empowering students to work side-by-side with academics in shaping their own learning process, as demonstrated in the growing importance of more experiential learning activities such as engagement in research projects and flipped classrooms in which students teach their peers. Work like that by Hornstein and Uttl et al. should encourage institutions to build on these positive advances and find more equitable, accurate, and beneficial tools for measuring the student learning experience–something that is also better for students, as it rewards the best educational practices and encourages the development of staff who are not quite up to snuff. Ideally, these data would then be used alongside colleague observations to produce more comprehensive, constructive evaluations, hopefully leading to ever more effective learning environments.

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.