In the footsteps of O’Sullivan Beare but in a very different season. From Ballingeary to Ballyvourney in a rare Irish heatwave.
Herself drops me off where my route leaves the road just up the hill from Ballingeary (Beal Atha an Ghaorthaidh ‘Ford at the head of the Gearagh’). Down a road to a bridge and I am quickly in fields of high grasses with large erratics scattered around. These big rocks are typical of this area and always look as if they might be archaeology instead of geology.
The grasses hide a few resting sheep who jump up, startled as I approach, and run off. (But why do they often stop to pee before they run off? It doesn’t seem to be a wise habit). Some of the waymarker posts are almost hidden too and I have to scan the fields for the next ones. The route follows the small Bunsheelin River and then joins small roads to almost where it began before heading off through more fields, following the loop of the river.
In a clump of trees at the top of a slope lie the ruins of Eochras Church. Shaded by a huge ash tree growing from one of the low walls, the stones look dark and weather-worn. Stumbling over the small grave markers hidden in the grass, I find the information panel that tells the story of this place…
The little Church
On the first night of their exodus from the Beara peninsula, December 31st 1602, Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare rested here at Eachros Church by the Bunsheelin River. One thousand followers, including four hundred soldiers, camped in the vicinity. Forced from their shelter in the woods near Glengarriff, the column of guerillas and refugees had marched twenty six miles that New Year’s Eve to shake off possible pursuit by Crown troops.
Following the Irish defeat at Kinsale, 1601, O’Sullivan had spent a year in rebellion against the Elizabethan conquest of Munster until the threat of starvation had forced him out. His plan was to join forces with the rebel Hugh O’Neill in Ulster. facing a winter march of at least two weeks, the column carried rations for a single day. O’Sullivan held funds in Spanish gold, but parts of the country were on the brink of famine and his followers would be forced to raid and forage for food.
The church at Eachros was already in ruins when O’Sullivan spent the night here. He camped on holy ground wherever possible on his fraught journey north. It offered sanctuary in hostile territory and added sense of pilgrimage to his march. The treatment of the Irish by the English was reported in Europe as the persecution of Catholics by heretics.
The site has long been used as a cillin, or burial ground for unbaptised and stillborn infants, adding a deep sense of poignancy to local memory.
Folklore records that O’Sullivan lost his favourite horse the following morning, soon after leaving Eachros. Callen An Chearc, (the Hen), perhaps for a highstepping style, the horse broke a leg while crossing boggy ground.
From the information panel on the site, text by Dermot Somers.
I like that last sentence: it paints a picture of the earl, who is usually depicted wearing fine Tudor clothes, on a thoroughbred steed that was, perhaps, less than suitable for the long march. But the story gives the site with its many small grave markers an added poignancy and I begin to feel a little uncomfortable in the clearing surrounded by dark trees. 1
The heat increases and after a short, hot road section I am thankful for a narrow path heading uphill through shaded woodland. When the path emerges from the trees I am presented with an exposed hilltop, glaringly bright in the sunlight. I try to sit in the last of the shade for a while but am quickly discovered by persistent horseflies so head out into the midday heat.
The track is rough stone, hot, dry and unstable underfoot. I feel the heat radiating from the ground. Deep ruts from now dry water channels cleave the surface. I switch from side to side and onto the parched grass in the centre of the track, seeking the best path as the track descends. On the hill above me a tall communications aerial soars into the clear sky, humming gently. The track descends more steeply but the views across the valley are breathtaking. I find a flat stone by a gate under tall pines to rest and eat my lunch and the flies stay away this time.
Back onto small roads where cattle have left their mark and along shady lanes past farmyards with sleeping dogs not as mad as this Englishman to be out in the midday sun. On a long, straight, rising road with cattle lying in the fields on either side, I feel like the only moving being in the heat and my feet are burning.
Finally I come over the crest of hill to find that I am above St Gobnait’s and An Sulán – the river running by the road through Ballyvourney (Baille Bhuirne ‘Town of the beloved’ 2). I leave the marked route, to go through the ecclesiastical pilgrimage site and the burial ground below it, meeting the forest path that leads down towards a bridge over the river where I find a rock to sit and dip my feet into the icy cold water. The water is wonderful but I have a sore, beetroot red, prickly-heat rash on my feet and ankles that doesn’t bode well for more walking tomorrow which is forecast to be even hotter than today.
Across the busy road, I get a welcome ice-cream and cool drink at The Mills and wait for Herself to arrive from her own adventures.
About the route
This easy route is well marked and has plenty of interest. The sections through woodland were still wet even after several hot days so will probably be quite boggy in other seasons.
18km (11 miles) in about 5 hours. Total ascent: 486 metres, Max elevation: 377 metres.
I was unable to complete the last section of the Slí Gaeltacht Mhúscrai from Ballyvourney to Millstreet due to the heat. I will go back to it later.