Mizen, Sheep’s Head, Beara, Iveragh and Dingle: these are the five peninsulas which make up the south-western coast of the island of Ireland. We live on the Mizen and, for that reason, we are always trumpeting the qualities of the place, historical and scenic. However – to be fair – the other peninsulas have much to offer. The Sheep’s Head is a mere stone’s throw from us – just over the waters of Dumnanus Bay – and our visits there are frequent. The Beara has been calling us recently: we tend to think of it (unfairly) as somewhere quite distant but we can be on it in less than an hour. In the last two weeks we have taken two day trips out there (with our holy-well hunting friends Amanda and Peter), in contrasting weather conditions, and we can report back that the landscape is stunning whatever the weather, and the visible history is palpable. We have visited before – a while ago now: see our posts here and here.
Header picture – I titled this photograph ‘unbelievable’ in our file: look at the tiny house and the monumental stone walls heading up the mountain above it, dividing up the land into enormous fields. Above – a typical view of mountain, meadow and wild scenery to be found on the Beara
The Beara comprises around 58,000 hectares, or 228 square miles, and covers 330 townlands. The larger, southern portion of the peninsula lies in County Cork, while the northern area is in County Kerry.
We were searching for – and found – some of the Beara’s holy wells. Head over to Amanda’s blog Holy Wells of Cork for more information on these (and hundreds more Cork wells!)
A significant and comprehensive study of the history of the Beara has been carried out by Cornelius J Murphy (more popularly known as Connie Murphy). In all he has examined and documented some twelve hundred archaeological and historical sites, some half of which had been known and recorded previously, but as many had not. Our little expeditions pale into insignificance compared to Connie’s work, but they will inspire us to spend more time ‘on the ground’ in the area, while also simply taking in the spectacular views of the wildly variable topography.
Top – Day 1, in the mist: standing stones can just be made out in the distance. Lower – same stones, different day! On our second trip we were most fortunate with the weather
Tradition has it that, in around 120 AD, Conn Céad Cathach (Con of the hundred battles) fought a fierce battle against Owen Mór, King of Ireland at Cloch Barraige – these are the words of Connie Murphy:
…Owen was badly injured in the battle. Those of his followers who survived took him to Inis Greaghraighe (now known as Bere Island) as a safe place for him to recover. There, the fairy Eadaoin took him to her grianán (bower) where she nursed him back to full health. Nowadays, this place is known as Greenane…
…Owen and his followers then sailed southwards until they reached Spain. There he met and married Beara, daughter of the King of Castille…
…Later Owen, Beara and a large army sailed from Spain and landed in Greenane. Owen took his wife to the highest hill on the island and looking across the harbour he named the island and the whole peninsula Beara in honour of his wife. Rossmacowen, Kilmacowen and Buaile Owen most likely are named after Owen Mór and his son. Owen’s wife, Princess Beara, died and was buried in Ballard Commons in the remote and peaceful valley between Maulin and Knocknagree Mountains….
Top – down by the water, a tiny settlement by the pier, and – lower – Derrenataggart Stone Circle, Day 1
Our first day’s expedition took in the southern side of the peninsula, from Glengariff to Castletownbere. The mist was down and we went off the beaten track to search for holy wells, standing stones and stone circles, and were rewarded with some good finds. I was particularly intrigued by the ‘raised ring fort’ at Teernahillane: I could not trace anything in the archaeological records to describe or explain it. Our conclusion was that it could be a natural phenomenon that has been mistaken for an unusual (and rather unlikely) form of defensible structure. There is no sign of any retaining stonework, although this might have been robbed but, other than being more or less circular, it bears no resemblance to any ring fort we have seen elsewhere. If anyone has any more knowledge or ideas about this site, please let us know.
On our travels this week we were rewarded with brilliant weather which cast a whole different hue over the Beara – and opened up the incredible views which are everywhere, but nowhere more spectacular than the journey over the mountains on the Healey Pass. This road was constructed as a famine relief project in 1847 on the line of an ancient trackway that connected Cork and Kerry and was first known as Bealach Scairt – the way of the sheltered caves. It was renamed after Timothy Michael Healey (who lived from 1855 to 1931) – a Bantry man, deserving of a future blog post, who achieved notoriety in the Irish Parliamentary Party under Charles Stewart Parnell. The two fell out – and came to blows – when Parnell was involved in a sensational divorce case. After the 1916 rising, Tim Healy declared his sympathy with Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin movement, but was opposed to the use of physical violence. Healy returned to prominence in 1922 when he was appointed the first ‘Governor General of the Irish Free State’. In that post he pursued the improvement of the road between the Kerry side and the Cork side of the Beara Peninsula and, shortly after his death in 1931, the restored pass was dedicated to him.
At the top of the Tim Healey Pass we were treated to the most incredible views of our entire journey: our photographs hardly do them justice, but we hope they give you a sufficient taster to inspire you to journey that same way.
Top pictures – Christ looks down, on the summit of the Tim Healy Pass; middle – one of the views from the top: snowy peaks seen on the sunniest of days! Lower – another view from the summit, with the Iveragh Peninsula (and the Kerry mountains) in the distance
Other highlights of our second day trip included the Uragh Stone Circle – surely the most dramatic situation for any megalithic monument? Beyond that site – through serpentine narrow boreens – lie the Gleninchaquin Lakes, Woods and Waterfalls, on a privately owned and run park covering 700 hectares. The very modest entrance fee allows you to freely use all the walking trails, the longest of which – around the perimeter – will take you six hours! We chose a shorter route through unbelievably green meadows, passing the enormous waterfall and being treated to glimpses of newly born lambs, all in hot March sunshine worthy of the middle of summer.
Views of the Uragh Stone Circle in its magnificent mountain and lake setting and – lower picture – looking from the circle back towards the landscape
Ancient cottage in an ancient land; the green glens of Gleninchaquin
All roads lead to home and we found ourselves eventually in Kenmare – where we suppered and visited another rather special holy well – before travelling over the mountains to Bantry on another high road – spectacular also – the Caha Pass – which finds itself tunnelling through the rocks in places.
Saint Finian’s Holy Well, on the shores of the river at Kenmare – still visited, and still effective!
We hope these little descriptions, and the photographs, will stimulate you to explore the Beara. We are looking forward to many more visits there, and to the discovery of yet more of Ireland’s fascinating history.
Thank you Robert, your blog is just what we needed now that our yearly trip to West Cork had to be cancelled.
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Shame – how can you manage without a regular dose of West Cork?
Your blog and the Beara tourist website speak very highly of Murphy’s book: “The Prehistoric Archeology of the Beara Peninsula” but I can’t seem to find a copy of it in print anywhere.
My wife and I will be staying the month of April in Tragumna, just south of Skibereen and are looking forward to exploring some of the older archealogical sites on Beara during our stay. This book would obviously be very handy for planning our time there.
Would either of you happen to know how we could find and purchase either a new or used copy? The accompanying map looks like it would be very helpful besides all the historical descriptions and insights.
BTW, I am enjoying the photography on your blog and your trips and posts! Great work!
An awesome set of pictures. My visit via the Healey Pass was long ago and too brief but you’ve re-captured the incomparable scenery and atmosphere. Love the homemade ‘Stone Circle’ sign, no expense spared 🙂
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Thank you, Roy. You only have top step out of the door here to be captivated…
Great write up Robert and some superb photos of two incredible days – rather special to see the landscape and monuments in two very different weathers! I think there’s another trip to be had too for we haven’t reached Allihies yet!1
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There must be so much more to see! 1200 historic sites, according to Connie…
Great stuff altogether !
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Pleased you liked it, Sean
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Thank you, Pat