Coomhola Country

As the Coomhola River tumbles from Borlin to the sea, gathering tributaries, it forms many pools amongst the riffles and glides. These pools, in summer, provide leafy shelters for salmon and trout. To anyone who has fished or walked the river, each pool has its own character, and each its own name . . .


[From Hidden Gold, History and Folklore of the Coomhola and Borlin Valleys Julia Kemp: Coomhola Borlin Community Development Association 1998]

On the header is the spectacular view from Borlin, looking down the great glen where the Coomhola River finds its way through a country formed by glaciers in the Midlandian period, about 10,000 years ago. The rugged Shehy mountain range (Cnoic na Seithe in Irish, meaning Hills of the Animal Hides) with its peaks of Knockboy, Caoinkeen and Kinkeen provides some of the most dramatic scenery in West Cork, its scarred outcrops clearly showing the downward progress of the ice sheets. The contrast between the barren high land and the lush pastoral meadows laid out below evoke a beauty which is hard to match – anywhere in the world!

The Kilgarvan (Co Kerry) to Ballylickey (Co Cork) road is one of the unsung feats of Irish engineering. Until the middle of the nineteenth century it was no more than a system of ‘nearways’, providing rough, narrow access tracks to remote mountain dwellings and hard-won field systems. A famine improvement project c1846, involving metalling, a tunnel, cuttings and stone retaining walls, transformed it to the ‘through road’ which exists today – although it may seem to us no more than a boreen. It’s there for all to travel on, and will provide a breathtaking experience – but be aware that it could also deliver some hair-raising reversing episodes on the rare occasions when a vehicle is encountered coming the other way. The upper photo shows the road ‘clinging on’ to the face of a mountain outcrop, while the map gives a good idea of the circuitous route that the way takes to keep as far as possible to a level contour on its journey.

This is the country of St Finnbar. If you follow the County border east from the top of the Borlin Glen (off-road) you will very soon come to the site of his sixth century monastic settlement at Gougane Barra. This whole area was loved by the Cork born writer and illustrator Robert Gibbings, whose book Sweet Cork of Thee tells of a seven month sojourn in this mountainous region in 1949, beautifully illustrated by his woodcuts.

Mountain Road by Robert Gibbings, woodcut from Sweet Cork of Thee, published 1951

As we drove along the road beside the Inchigeelagh lakes, we could see moorhens gathering material for their nests among the taselled reeds and swans on islets, piling up dead rushes in readiness for their eggs. A corncrake was calling from a meadow. Celandines and kingcups outshone the gorse.


Mick said to me: ‘My father’s sister lived a mile to the north of us here. She married a man by the name of Scanlan. His mother came from Gougane and ’twas one evening when she was travelling west by the lake – there was no road there then, only a little bit of a track – she looked in the lake and what did she see but fields of corn and sheep and every sort of land and crop and stock. She was an old woman at the time and she knew well enough ’twas a kind of enchantment must be on the lake, so she says to herself, if I can keep an eye on it all and throw a bit of iron at it the spell will be broken. So she kept her eyes fixed on the fields and the cattle and the pigs and the hens, and all the time she was thinking where would she get a bit of iron. And the only bit she could think of was in the heel of her shoe. ‘Twould be worth it to throw in the shoe, says she. But when she went to unrip the lace wasn’t it tangled in a knot, and for the glint of a second she took her eye off the land. When she looked again ’twas all disappeared and the lake was there the same as ever.’


Our road turned south, through a wilderness of rock and bog and lilied pools . . .


[Robert Gibbings Sweet Cork of Thee, J M Dent & Sons 1951]

From the highest rim of Borlin Glen (upper picture), the Comhoola River valley is laid out below. Home to sheep and ravens, the scattered farmsteads emerge from rock and forest and provide a living – as they have for countless generations – to a hardy people.

On the lush valley floor are signs of ancient activity and occupation. A stream flows through a meadow dotted with whitethorn trees (upper), while an old stone clapper bridge has been superseded by the modern boreen taking its way up to the Borlin Valley settlements (centre). Lower – a fascinating stone circle and mass rock site is interrupted by the field fence. Here, too, is a bullaun stone and cupmarked rock (below).

Let us give the last word to Johnny O’Driscoll from Snave, recorded by his grandson Sean O’Driscoll in the 1930s and featured in Julia Kemp’s Hidden Gold:

There is little gold in this area, but there is one place where it is said a crock of gold is buried. It is about a hundred yards from the Glaslough, between Coorycomade and Ardnatrush, about a mile and a half from Coomhola National School.


There is a bush growing at the exact location, and beneath the bush is a large stone which covers the hidden treasure. It belongs to a tiny dwarf, and anybody who visits the place at midnight can see this little creature on the bush above the gold.


People did go on one occasion in search of the gold, but they were unsuccessful. A little bright light is visible about midnight above the bush. I have seen it myself on several occasions . . .

11 thoughts

  1. Dearest William Bryan,
    We just recently were sent on a journey down the Coomhola Valley road into Ballylickey. Believe it or not, our GPS sent us to that ever so picturesque drive albeit very scary for a friend in the car afraid of heights.
    Thank the good lord we didn’t meet any other traveler on that route! I couldn’t imagine that in one of those blind corners!
    Needless to say all other roads have looked perfectly fine after our trek through the mountain.
    If your farm in South Dakota looks anything like that place then you are surrounded by beauty and one lucky gentleman!
    I wish you well!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I grew up on a farm between Bandon & Ballinadee. I used to return during all hollidays from UCD to help on the farm. Occasionally my Dad would say, “Let’s plan a day trip ‘out West’ with George Chinnery”, who lived North of Enniskeane and didn’t have a car. . Those were the days when we made plans by post. On the agreed day we’d get out the appropriate Ordnance Survey maps & set off with a picnic to sustain us. I’d be the driver, we’d pick up Gorge & take the Bantry Line. We explored a number of passes over the Cork/Kerry border. One day we discovered the Coomhola Valley. I remember how enthralled I was, how glorious it was, how majestic, how delightfully quiet & isolated. Coomhola Valley is my favorite mountain place in W Cork. I am now retired & have a farm in Western South Dakota that I call Coomhola Valley Farm. Of course practically no one around here has a clue where that Valley is or how beautiful it is. Most people I know wouldn’t even chance up the boreen. Out of selfishness I prefer that it remain that way!
    Thank you, Robert for a lovely tribute to the Valley.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for that great commentary, William! It’s wonderful to know that there’s a ‘Coomhola’ in Western South Dakota. I agree with you that this is one of the most beautiful and remote places that we regularly visit. It does change, you know: there’s quite a significant new trackway going down through the valley (off the road) that serves a property that’s been upgraded. Its construction has created a bit of a scar, but this will hopefully soon ‘weather in’… Also I wrote a recent post about some new electricity power lines that are routed through part of the valley. Time changes everything, but it will always be a remarkable journey. Presumably you also once knew the Priest’s Leap road?


  3. Thanks Robert, a fascinating glimpse of a beautiful “off piste” area. Some years ago we spent a couple of nights in Gougane Barra but our exploration was curtailed by the rain. Time to revisit me thinks!


  4. this indeed a magical part of the world. always make sure robert that your shoes are tied properly as you never know!!!!!, sorry my capital letter button is not working.


    • I’m sure you must have been along this road, Amanda? Perhaps even with us… If not, it will still be here when you return! That whole complex at Derrynafinchin – stone circle, bullaun, mass rock – is not well documented. It deserves some attention.


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