The Priest’s Leap

Off the beaten track – that’s how to really see West Cork!

On a recent trip from Kerry we decided to take the road less travelled and ended up coming over the Priest’s Leap. It’s a little tricky to find from the Kenmare side, so Ordnance Survey map number 85 is your best friend here.

Along the way you come to Bonnane Heritage Park. We didn’t have time to stop but promise ourselves a return trip there soon to explore their archaeological sites and their trails. We also passed this ford and stepping stones – you don’t see those too often!

Because we are inveterate graveyard visitors we stopped at the Feaghna Burial Ground for a poke around. The graveyard contained several very old headstones and views to, er, die for (sorry).

Headstones with crucifixion scenes are very rare in this part of Ireland

Shortly after Feanagh we were intrigued to see signs advertising VerArt Sculpture Garden and how could we not investigate that? Vera herself showed us around and the place is utterly charming! She’s from Germany but has been living here for many years and has slowly and steadily turned this remote spot into an enchanted garden.

Around every bend is a quirky and amusing sculpture, fountain, stairway, figure, planter – all made using found and handmade materials. There was even a giant chess set (lead photograph) and an African veranda. We had never heard of this place before so it all goes to show there are lots of hidden gems left for us to discover. If you get a chance, do go – you will be hard pressed to find a more whimsical and enjoyable way to spend an hour or two.

Leaving VerArt we headed up the mountain pass and into a remote a beautiful territory. There are whole valleys here where only sheep live.

It’s strictly single track and we were lucky not to meet any oncoming traffic but the drive is magnificent and well worth the occasional adrenaline spike where the road seems to disappear ahead.

The summit is where we enter Cork and it’s called the Priest’s Leap. According to distinguished historian Gerard Lyne*:

According to tradition in the locality it derives from an episode in which a priest pursued by soldiers escaped through having his horse make a miraculous leap from a mountain cliff in the townland of Cummeenshrule into the county Cork. The pursuit of the priest began in the townland of Killabunane where a rock, which miraculously melted under the pursuing hounds, is pointed out to this day. The rock, deeply pitted with what look like pawmarks, is situated close beside the main road from Kenmare. It is known locally as “Carraig na Gadharaigh” (i.e., Carraig na nGadhar or the Rock of the Dogs?). The present writer remembers his father often pointing it out to him as a child when driving past the spot. Marks of the priest’s knees and hands and of the horse’s hooves appear on another rock a few miles from Bantry where he is said to have landed after his miraculous leap.

Gerard goes on to say that heroic leaps have a long tradition in Irish Mythology and in folklore, Robert’s post Beyond Leap, Beyond the Law is one such example. But also, he says, Mad Sweeny, the Hag of Beara and Gormfhlaith, wife of Brian Boru, were credited with impossible leaps. Even St Moling, whom we encountered in Wexford had a name that meant, in Old Irish, Long Leap.

The foregoing evidence signifies what folklorists call “a recycling of motifs”, whereby, in the case under consideration, feats formerly attributed to mythological heroes are transferred to saints, secular heroes and (in Bonane’s case) a priest. We need not doubt that a priest actually did narrowly escape pursuing soldiers at The Lep. In the eyes of the people his escape would have seemed miraculous. From this it would have been but a short step to ascribe to him the conventional folk motif of the great leap – hence the legend and the placename.

He concludes with a poem:

Look up! Look up! a soldier shouts: oh, what a sight is there,
Behold the priest on a horseback still speeding through the air!
They looked, and lo, the words were true and trembling with fright,
They saw the vision pierce the blue and vanish from their sight!

And after that stirring thought, all that remained for us was to wind our way down to Bantry marvelling as we went at the fact that we could be the only ones driving on what is surely one of Ireland’s most scenic routes. Given that it’s also one of the steepest and narrowest, perhaps that’s not so surprising after all.

*The quotes from Gerard Lyne were found by following a link in the Wikipedia entry on Priest’s Leap: Gerard Lyne: The Priest’s Leap: An Intriguing Place Name. Archived 2016-05-28 at the Wayback Machine. Originally published in Bonane: A Centenary Celebration (1992).

8 thoughts

  1. There is a little rock on the side of the footpath directly across from the GAA ground in Bantry that clearly have imprints of horses hooves marked on it.

    Tom Coughlan

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  2. This is fascinating. My grandfather, already the 2nd generation born in Canada, had a tall tale about a leap on his horse, off a cliff! Quite likely he was following this traditional motif, as you say. I had no idea, until now.

    Liked by 1 person

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