Cascades, a castle, a tomb – hill, rock, bog, forest and boreens. From Drimoleague to Bantry over Mullaghmesha.
With only a few local hikes and no new blog posts since before Christmas, I am keen to explore a new trail after a long inclement winter. With Herself off on a jaunt to the UK, I need to find a way to organise a linear walk with no-one to ferry me to the start and collect me at the end, so I park in Bantry early on market day and catch the Cork bus as far as Drimoleague, just 20 minutes away.
The old station is a trail-head for the Drimoleague Heritage Walkways which go through some beautiful countryside in the hills to the south-east of Bantry. The disused station building is overlooked by the modernistic 1950’s All Saints church on the hill behind. 1
As I start up the hill I meet Hildegard who walks with me on her way to tend her cow. She tells me how she saved it and how it thrives well past the end of its ‘economic’ life. We go through the red gates of a farmyard and there is ‘Mama Cow’ looking calm, safe and well. Even though I have a long way to go today it is good to take some time to hear Hildegard’s story.
Past ‘Top of the Rock‘ pod park and walking centre the view opens out across rolling fields, to Nowen Hill (Cnoch na nAbhann – Hill of the Rivers), Castle Donovan in the valley and an area steeped in history.
“You are standing on the “Top of the Rock” (Barr na Carriage). From time immemorial this has been a meeting place, the most notably around the “Dhá Liag” (standing stones) of antiquity, and in medieval times around “an t-Annoch Mór” (the Big Fair). St. Finbarr came here in the 6th Century to preach the gospel, and later Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa came here (c1864) to halt the practice of faction-fighting. In the 1870’s the old village of Dhrom dá Liag finally moved to its present location. Today, in quieter times we wish you Blessings and Peace in this place.” 2
Its a cool day with a light haze that leeches the colour from the landscape below me. I am testing a new back-pack, loaded with the gear I will be taking on an up-coming multi-day trip. It’s bigger than I am used to and I nearly become wedged in the first kissing gate.
The path threads down around field edges to Ahanafunsion bridge over the confluence of the rivers Ilen and Clodagh and then up a small road before turning onto a path that follows the Deelish Cascades. For the next kilometre or so I am accompanied by the sound of rushing water as the Ilen tumbles down over rock steps.
Over the bridge, Castle Donovan stands coldly grey in the valley with Nowen Hill (Cnoch nAbhann “Hill of the rivers”) rising through the haze beyond. The path climbs and as the road ends, turns onto a ‘Board of Works’ track3, steeply rising now towards the two huge rocks that give the place its name: Glanacloghy “Glen of the rocks”. One of the rocks balances on a narrow base. It has a personality of its own with a topknot of vegetation and is a perfect place for lunch as a patch of warming sunshine breaks through the haze.
Around a bend and I am up on Mullaghmesha (Mullach Méisa “Summit of the altar”?). There are deep turf cuttings up here, rising cracked and oily like black cliffs above the path. The boggy ground sucks at my boots. A skylark pipes its rising song above me. The grasses, bleached of their colour, waiting for some spring warmth cloak the hill, the telecoms masts breaking the horizon. Coomanore Lough lies quietly below, reflecting the sky. I find a way-marker to ‘George the Sky’ 4, a ruined homestead and follow the path for a little way but it is seriously wet and I decide against taking the extra detour today.
I turn off the main trail that continues to Kealkill and begin to descend around the Lough. I feel a strange presence here – but realise that a small Shetland pony, almost the same colour as the grasses, is grazing just below me!
The route across rough grassy tussocks and wet sphagnum pools soon becomes another track that horseshoes steeply down the hill and passes a wedge tomb before reaching a farmyard. I meet a man plotting a route for his walking club, out of breath on the steep incline.
The route joins a road in the Little Mealagh Valley and then climbs up through fields to enter forestry: wet, dark and silent. Out of the forest, I take a break before a stiff climb into cold wind on an exposed ridge. Once across, the trail enters more forestry, mostly felled and very wet underfoot. It’s slow going with each step needing care on the slippery downhill slope. I am tired by now. The route has taken longer than expected, I have been going for over 5 hours and there is some way to go. The next 6km is all on road through Trawlebane (Trá Líobáin “Beach of Liban”(?) 5 and it seems to take forever. I rest at the Captain O’Neill monument and dance area by the crossroads6 and do some stretches to ease my back.
Up again onto rough hillside over Knocknaveagh (Cnoc na bhFiach “Hill of the Ravens”) 7. The temperature drops as the light begins to fade but as I reach Queen Maeve’s tomb patches of red shimmer across Bantry Bay as the sun sinks. Finally I reach the car park at Vaughan’s Pass which has a stunning view over Bantry town and go down the road which conveniently takes me right to the excellent chip shop where the fish & chips taste better than ever.
About the route
This is a long but very varied route with plenty of interest and great views everywhere. It is well marked but there are several other routes here so planning is required to take the correct one. The route leading west, down from the hill towards Bantry, is marked as an ‘Escape Route’ from the main one which goes onward to Kealkill.
This route is part of the Sheep’s Head Way (East) 8 and the St Finbarr’s Pilgrim Path. The Glanaclohy Loop Walk comprises the section from Castledonovan to Mullaghmesha and back: it would be a good choice to include George the Sky.
The printed guidebook to the ‘Sheep’s Head Way Eastern Routes and Drimoleague Heritage Walkways‘ (ISBN 978-0-9563184-0-4) has excellent route descriptions but is not available online, as far as I can see.
In Part 2 of this post, I follow the sections of the Sheep’s Head Way (East) and St Finbarr’s Way not covered here.
23.5km (14.6 miles) in 8.5 hours. Total ascent: 711m. Max elevation: 413m
- There are fine stained-glass windows in this church described by Roaring Water Journal.
- From the panel at the viewing area
- These tracks were built and maintained by the Office of Public Works to facilitate turf (peat) extraction from the bog
- His real name was George Mahony, a hill farmer
- “Liban was an enchanted lady well known as inhabiting lakes …” https://www.logainm.ie/en/13190
- See https://roaringwaterjournal.com/2013/03/10/music-mad/
- There is very little information online about the Sheep’s Head Way Eastern routes but the trails from Bantry to Drimoleague and from Drimoleague to Kealkill are way-marked and are shown on the OS Discovery series No.85 map.