Romantic Toe Head

Toe head is dramatic and scenic – but romantic? Let me explain.

Conor Buckley – the dynamo behind Gormú eco tours – was offering a Romantic Sunset Walk on Toe Head in honour of St Valentines weekend. Who could resist? That’s Toe Head in the distance, above.

To us, in the past, Toe Head has been synonymous with the Signal Station – Robert has written about it here. But we’ve always known there’s a lot more to Toe Head than that and have been wanting to make a return trip, especially in the company of someone with lots of local knowledge. The black arrow above shows our starting point and the red arrow our destination.

We met at the Lifeboat Station – it was Kathleen, John, Robert and I –  and Conor started us off with an introduction to the story of Diarmuid and Gráinne, which he used as the organising theme for the whole walk. A Seanachie (pronounced shanakee) – an Irish story-teller – had told, about 100 years ago, of Diarmuid and Gráinne’s travels in West Cork. The star-crossed lovers are responsible for landmarks all over Ireland. They ran away together, escaping from the aged Fionn McCuamhaill (FinnMcCool), Gráinne’s intended husband, and rested in many places along the way. The dolmens or wedge tombs where they slept are often known locally as Diarmuid and Gráinne’s bed. I won’t recount the whole story here, as there are lots of accounts online: this is a good version

Our walk took us along quiet country roads and out to An Móin Rua – the Red Bog. Not really a bog, but a heath, and in the summer alive with colourful heathers and Irish Gorse, and the home of swooping and calling choughs. 

As we reached the place traditionally thought to be the leaba – bed – of Diarmuid and Gráinne, a sheltered spot with a natural clearing, Conor, in honour of the day that was in it, produced champagne, strawberries and chocolates.

We continued on, with a new part of the story every now and then, interspersed with lots of place name lore, and snippets about our surroundings and the ecology of Toe Head. The little crag below is called An Srón (pronounced shrone), which means The Nose. Not hard to guess why.

The next stop was at the EIRE sign, painstakingly restored now by a group of local volunteers. 

These signs, spelled out in whitewashed stones, were placed all along the coast during WWII to alert German Bombers that they had overshot Britain and were approaching neutral Ireland. 

Our last point of interest was a wonderful Promontory Fort, Dooneendermotmore – or Big Dermot’s Little Fort. I’ll be returning to this one in the future, as I am planning to retrace the footsteps of Westropp, who was the first to describe these coastal forts. As it happens, I will also be following in the wake of my old Professor of Archaeology at UCC, Michael J O’Kelly, as he excavated this site in the early 1950s. 

It was getting dark as we made our way back. Before we broke up, Conor told us the story of the Death of Diarmuid. The whole sad saga was originally translated by Lady Gregory. Above is an extract from her Gods and Fighting Men.*

The illustrations I’ve chosen above (and the one of Diarmuid and Gráinne at the start of this post) are both from Andrew Lang’s Book of Romance,* and are by Henry Justice Ford. Anyone else remember being entranced by Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tale books, with their wonderful illustrations, as a child?

I will leave you with an image of the leaba – the bed – of the lovers. Not a comfortable place to spend the night, but when you are being chased by Fionn MacCumhaill, you can’t be picky.

*Gods and Fighting Men and The Book of Romance are available in The Internet Archive

8 thoughts

  1. Many years ago I remember visiting one of the many small islands in Lough Ree in Co. Roscommon with a local folklorist and he showed us an old ruin and beside it were two trees twisted tightly around each other. He convinced us at the time that this was the burial site of both Diarmuid and Gráinne. I had previously done ‘Toraíocht Dhiarmuid agus Ghráinne’ for the leaving cert, a wonderful story and of course believed him.


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