Cailleach Beara Loop

Bridge over Esk Stream

From heritage experience to the past alive in the landscape. A drove road, a mass rock, a neolithic copper mine and fields, a road tunnelled through rock.

Starting at Molly Gallivan’s on the N71 between Glengarriff and Kenmare, I set out on the Cailleach Beara1 Loop which is the longest of the walking trails around the Sheen Valley, centred on Bonane in County Kerry.

It’s a bright, fresh, November morning. The winter base-layers are on and I am soon grateful for them as I climb gently up through the ‘traditional farm’ past the ruined famine cottage with its heaps of turf and sleepy donkeys, to go over the ladder stile onto the open hillside and into a chilly breeze. The pattern for today’s route is soon set: wet and boggy underfoot, slippery rock and vast, expansive views, some of the later ones as far as Ireland’s highest mountain: Carrauntoohil (Corrán Tuathail: ‘Tuathal’s sickle’ 2in the wonderfully named ‘MacGillycuddy’s Reeks’ (Na Cruacha Dubha: ‘The Black Stacks’), which already has patches of snow on its peak.

Bridge over Esk Stream
Bridge over Esk Stream

The route circles above Molly Gallivan’s, crosses the road and descends down into the valley on a farm track, crossing the Esk stream by a ‘V’ shaped Iron bridge ‘…built many years ago for local children so they could cross the stream safely to and from school’ 3.

Onto a small road and I am re-treading part of the route I walked back in August. A light rain-shower drifts in from across the valley accompanied by a rainbow but passes after a few minutes. Patches of sunlight reappear on the hilltops. The road becomes steeper as it climbs towards the old drove road passing between Esk Mountain (Cnoc Na hEasca see note)4 and Barraboy Mountain (Cnoc Bharr Buí, ‘Hill of Barr Buí or yellow top’). The un-metalled drove road is being ‘repaired’ and has been left thick with mud by a track-laying digger which is parked half way up and I hope that this is not a sign of preparation for new forestry planting.

Near the top of the pass is a mass rock, now overgrown with moss, and it is difficult to see where the worshippers may have stood on the steep slope, but they had a good view of anyone approaching to arrest them!5 A turn to the right and I am off the route I walked before and into unknown territory. Route finding is easy as the path follows a wire fence along the ridge but the mud is ankle deep in places and making headway is slow. The temperature drops on the exposed ridge but there are magnificent views to the south over Garnish Island, Glengarriff and across Bantry Bay; to the north into to Kerry as far as Carrauntoohil. Sunlight and clouds stroke the hills lighting bright, glowing patches of grasses surrounded by dark looming shadow.

The sound of voices hangs in the air and as I approach the turn for the Neolithic copper mines I meet the Clonakilty Walking Group in full flow. I have a quick chat while wailting for stragglers to climb over the stile but am relieved to be back into the pleasures of solitude as I head for the mines.

Neolithic copper mines
Neolithic copper mines

Down a short path, heavily fenced on both sides, the copper mines are two shafts within an enlarged opening in a low cliff and a further shaft in an inclined crevice above them. They are spectacular and the work using fire and stone tools to extract the ore from such an inaccessible and remote site is impressive. As I sit to eat lunch on a sheltered rock bathed in warm sunshine I wonder if ‘remote’ would have made sense to people then or if it is a modern concept?

The steep descent from Turner’s Rock towards the rock-cut road tunnels is very slippery. Iron poles are provided in the rocks to hold onto, but it is still a bit of a clamber down. Below, the route turns onto a farm track but then leaves it again over more boggy ground with water running everywhere. Finally onto the track (I see from the map that it’s actually the same one as before) and past turf cuttings, then a prehistoric field system uncovered by the peat extraction – walls thousands of years old.

Molly Gallivan's
Molly Gallivan’s

Back to civilisation and across the N71 road with its new crash barriers to Molly Gallivan’s, which unfortunately has stopped serving refreshments for the season and is due to close tomorrow until the Spring. I browse aimlessly amongst the shop’s woolly gansies and Guinness tea-towels until Herself arrives, a little windswept from her own adventures, to ferry me home.

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About the route

This well-marked loop proved to be more difficult than expected due to very soft and slippery ground conditions on the off-road sections. It is probably easier in dryer seasons but I imagine that the higher sections may always be wet and boggy. The historical sites, marked with white poles, add to the interest and the views in all directions are excellent.

View my route in Google Maps

Route description on Irishtrails.ie

10km (6.2 miles) in about 4 hours. Height gain 482.5 metres (1583 ft). Maximum height: 408 metres (1338 ft)

  1. The Cailleach is often referred to as the Cailleach Bhéara... Gearóid Ó Crualaoich attributes twin meanings to the name; the legendary context of cow goddess, or association with horned beasts, and a folklore attribution as a word meaning “sharp, shrill, inimical” – bior(ach)  – and refers to the Cailleach’s association with winter and wilderness (Wikipedia)
  2. The name has a complex explanation. See THIS EXTRACT if you are interested
  3. A guide to the Sheen Valley Heritage Area: Bonane Community Council; p19. ISBN: 978-1-78280-096-5
  4. I have been unable to find a good translation of this name – possibly ‘Hill of the channel, fissure or hollow’ Cols and Passes of the British Isles, Robb, G
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penal_Laws_(Ireland)

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