Last month my wife Doireann and I went on a three-day walk across the lovely, little known hills of west Cork from Drimoleague (north of Skibbereen), through Kealkill (east of Bantry) to the unique and marvellous pilgrimage spot that is Gougane Barra. I then walked on alone over the heather deserts on the Cork-Kerry border to Kilgarvan near Killarney. In the summer sunlight – and even through the thick mist on the hilltops and the occasional Atlantic shower – this was Ireland at its most magnificent: remote, unspoilt, close to the other world in the intensity of its green stonewalled fields, white sheep, high bogs, cascading waterfalls, rocks and sky. The impression of being close to the spirit world is only strengthened by the multiplicity of standing stones, ring-forts and holy wells in the area.
Christianity came early to West Cork. In the Annals of Innisfallen we are told that Saint Ciarán returned to Cape Clear in 402 AD after studying in Rome and quickly spread the faith throughout the region. Thus the area around Skibbereen and Drimoleague was probably Christian before Patrick came to the north of Ireland 30 years later.
1,500 years ago Finbarr, the patron saint of Cork, walked this way and established a monastery on an island in the lake at Gougane Barra. The remoteness of its location meant it was much used during Penal Law times for people to hear Mass. The 19th century island oratory on the wonderfully eye-pleasing lake is now hugely popular as a wedding venue, particularly as it adjoins one of Ireland’s friendliest and most charming hotels, the Gougane Barra Hotel, presided over by the genial and knowledgeable Neil Lucey and his family.
Our departure point for the walk, the village of Drimoleague – often by-passed by tourists following the better known west Cork coastline – is the home of a remarkable initiative in community-led sustainable tourism. In 11 months in 2008-2009, a small group of farmers, through a mixture of voluntary labour and support from the West Cork Development Partnership, built 12 kilometres of walking paths across the beautiful landscapes between the Ilen River and Mullaghmesha Mountain. By the end of 2009, an unusual cooperative effort by four community groups in Drimoleague, Mealagh, Kealkill and Gougane Barra had led to the 37 kilometre St Finbarr’s Way being opened to pilgrims and other walkers. Each Easter and twice in August large groups of people take the two day ‘reflective walk’ from Drimoleague. Hundreds of others do it individually and in smaller groups, notably on the feast of St Finbarr on 25th September.
One of the key movers behind this explosion of walking routes has been David Ross, who farms 48 acres just north of Drimoleague village at Top of the Rock. Ross is an evangelical Christian, a description which is far more familiar north of the border than in west Cork. He was brought up a Methodist, which had been strong around Drimoleague since the Great Revival of the 1850s, and preached his first sermon at the age of 19. He then studied for three years at a bible college in north-east England and, although most his fellow students were destined for the foreign missions, he “felt the Lord urging me to return to my own place.”
In 1988 he was touched by tragedy when his first wife Mary, who was from a prominent Presbyterian family in Portadown, was diagnosed with cancer and died at the age of 36 eleven months after giving giving birth to their third child. In the early 1990s he married again – to Elizabeth from County Monaghan – and they had two more children.
In the 1980s the small Methodist church in nearby Bantry had closed, and a decade later Ross and his wife had a vision of a new independent Christian church in the town. This was to become Bantry Christian Fellowship, “similar to Methodism but not labelled Protestant – a bible believing, real life community” in his words. This now has a thriving Sunday congregation of up to 70 people.
David Ross had known little about St Finbarr and his pilgrimage until the late eighties. He tells the story of how Denny O’Leary from Skibbereen had approached him because “he planned to ride a horse from Skibbereen to Gougane Barra by way of a pilgrim journey, a tradition which his parents had passed down.Would I send him on his way from Top of the Rock with a prayer?”
In 2012 David and Elizabeth Ross sought planning permission to build a walking centre in his grandfather’s old stone-built farmyard, with its superlative view across the Ilen valley to the mountains. They bought seven cosy timber lodges known as camping ‘pods’ which had been invented by a young English engineer who had got the idea from seeing the beehive shape of the Gallarus Oratory during a rain-soaked camping holiday in Kerry. They invested (helped by EU funding) in a splendid walking centre containing bathrooms, kitchen, games room and a large upstairs meeting room. In 2014 the centre was opened by the Fianna Fail politician Eamon O Cuiv TD, Eamon De Valera’s grandson, and a strong supporter of rural community self-help projects. “Now the Top of the Rock is once again a meeting place of joy, activity, laughter and reflection”, says Ross.
There are lessons for the often joyless and unreflecting society that is Northern Ireland in this story of strong and harmonious rural communities and successful local tourism in the south-west. If I had my way, I would bring hundreds of Northern Protestants, conservatives and evangelicals (along with their Catholic neighbours, of course), to spend their holidays in Drimoleague and Kealkill and Gougane Barra, so that they can rediscover the delight and revelation of their Irish Christian heritage: the pre-Reformation tradition of saints and solitude and powerful communion with God that once made Celtic Christianity such a light to the world. And so they can see how West Cork Protestants like David and Elizabeth Ross live in a spirit of enterprise, mutual love of place and communal harmony with their Catholic neighbours. “West Cork is a very open society”, says this 58 year old evangelical Christian farmer and tourism entrepreneur extraordinaire.
For when you strip away the anti-Catholicism of the Orange Order and the marching bands, evangelical Christianity is the best and most enduring element at the heart of Northern Protestant culture. It also thrives in the new, open Republic of Ireland. More of the North’s Protestants should come down and visit the magical seascapes and mountains of west Cork, meet its lovely people, attend Sunday worship at Bantry Christian Fellowship (or perhaps Drimoleague Methodist Church) and learn that for themselves.
They don’t even have to contemplate any penitential pilgrimage across the mountains, although I would strongly recommend that for the more athletic among them (the regularly-spaced bright yellow marker posts and stiles make it particularly easy to follow). For me, the Deelish Cascades walk across fields and along river banks from Top of the Rock to the impressive Castle Donovan (three kilometres there and back) – with its wondrous array of wild flowers, trees and plants, songbirds and river creatures – is simply the most beautiful country walk on the island of Ireland.