From hubbub to solitude. A stone row. Climbing, climbing the hill and crossing the bog. A slippery descent.
Herself takes me to Kealkill where I plan to walk to Drimoleague but when we arrive, the village is a walker’s nightmare with the Fastnet Rally vehicles and their drivers revving ear-splitting engines and polishing their go-faster aerofoils and spoilers. The road I was to take is closed for the rally so plan-B is required.
Slí Bharra (St Finbarr’s Way) is a pilgrimage route from Drimoleague to Gougane Barra. Kealkill is half way along it so instead of going south, as planned, I decide to head north on the section that will take me to St Finbarr’s Oratory at Gougane Barra. I have walked this route twice before and know that it is quite challenging, especially as there has been a lot of rain recently and the Conigar Bog is high and always as wet as its name suggests.
I walk out of the village to Carriganass Castle, a tower house standing over the crossing of the Ouvane River with a statue of St Finbarr watching over the road junction. A long slow climb up a small road with the noise of rally cars drifting across the valley brings me to the little boreen that starts the first climb up Knockbreteen (‘Little yellow hill'[?]) and Shronagreehy (Srón na Gaoithe ‘Nose of the Wind’). The first part of the climb is very steep and handrails have been provided up the high rocky outcrops. Looking back, I can see Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island, sunshine glistening on the water.
Most of the 220 metres (722 ft) I have gained is lost as I descend through a forestry fire-break to meet a small road. I decide to make a short detour to the Maughnasilly Stone Row which has a beautiful setting above a small lake.
Back on track and the long straight road leads past rough bogland until the route turns to cross a stretch of blanket bog with its black, raised edges clearly visible. Across the bog, fallen trees make going difficult and I detour onto a forestry track to avoid them. Another stretch of road follows the Owenbeg river with the turbines of a wind-farm across the valley standing white and motionless in the calm air.
I stop to eat lunch at a walkers’ shelter that sits by the cascades of the river. A notice has a stern warning about the next section:
“The route crosses over the Conigear Ridge (500m)
and should only be undertaken in suitable weather conditions,
with appropriate footwear, clothing and provisions.
Dangerous cliffs on the northern slopes can be hazardous in fog and mist.
Phone coverage can vary.
Please notify someone of your expected time of arrival.
It takes 2.5-3 hours to reach Gougane Barra from here”
I text herself as advised. She texts back that she has just slipped and dunked her backside in a stream – but that’s another story. I cross a field and go onto a track that snakes up the hill. It’s steep and stony, then steep and wet, then steep and boggy. For the next 90 minutes or so, I climb up and up and always up. It’s hard going and my progress is slow as I negotiate bog, rock and slippery, muddy steps. The temperature drops and a cold breeze chills me if I stop.
The Conigar Bog is a protected ‘National Heritage Area’ (Conigar: An Coinigéar ‘The Warren’ to the South West and Maolach ‘Bald Hill’ to the North) 1 and the landscape has a bleak, dark beauty with huge boulders casting deep shadows and cloud drifting down from the ridge. Conigar is part of the Shehy range (Seithe: ‘Animal hide’) that includes Knockboy, Cork’s highest peak. Small lakes are dotted across the plateau and I pass Lough Namar, Logh Fadda, Lough Glass and Logh Namrat.
Over a ladder stile and a right turn begins the descent towards the lake at Gougane Barra which occasionally comes into view through dips in the hill; but still a long way down. The late afternoon sun casts a golden light on the hills beyond the lake while leaving me in deepening shadow. The path is well marked and it needs to be: a wrong turn could lead to some precipitous cliffs and a much speedier descent than I would want. As the gradient gets steeper, the going becomes slower and more difficult. In places the mud is so deep that my poles and/or my feet sink into in deep, black, peaty soil and my forward progress is abruptly halted. I have wet legs and a wet bum too after one of these events.
Eventually I meet the track that marks the final descent to the tourist honeypot of Gougane. A few families pass on a short walk up the hill and at last, the welcome sight of the thatched roof of ‘Ireland’s top toilet’ is below me. I sit by the lake to eat the last of my ginger biscuits before Herself arrives to take me home.
About the route
This route is known as The Pilgrim’s Way and is a section of the longer St Finbarr’s Way pilgrimage route from Drimoleague. It is also part of the Slí Gaeltacht Mhuscraí, a section of the Beara Briefne Way long-distance route.
This is a strenuous route and the warnings on the sign reproduced above are accurate and should be heeded. The route over Conigar is well marked and for most of the way, follows the line of a fence. The descent is very steep and needs great care to avoid falls.
View my route in Google Maps
18km (11 miles) including the detour, in about 6 hours. Total ascent: 740 metres (2428 ft). Maximum altitude: 531 metres (1742ft).