Walking West Cork – Top of the Rock

When we could still walk within the boundary of our own county – and in company – we went with our friends Peter and Amanda in the footsteps of a saint! The walk from Drimoleague to the Top of The Rock – and beyond – is one which has been on our ‘to do’ list for a long time, not least because the first person to do it was our own Saint Finnbarr, founder (in 606AD) and patron saint of Cork city. The motto of University College, Cork is Ionad Bairre Sgoil na Mumhan which means ‘Where Finbarr taught let Munster learn’.

Finbarr is also famous for establishing a monastic site at Gougane Barra in the sixth century, and today you can follow St Finnbarr’s Way all the way from the Top of The Rock to that magical lake in the mountains where you can find an oratory and chapel dedicated to the saint: the full walk is 37km. Our own walk was a mere 3.5km but rewarding nevertheless.

Our walk started at the former Drimoleague railway station. The line opened in 1877, connecting Dunmanway with Skibbereen, and subsequently extension lines went in all directions: to Cork, Bantry, Bandon, Courtmacsherry and – via our own narrow gauge line – from Skibbereen through Ballydehob to Schull. Sadly, all lines coming south west out of Cork have closed, some of the routes surviving until the 1960s. The picture below, dating from 1898, shows the track at Schull Harbour, the most south westerly point on any railway line in Ireland.

Leaving the old station at Drimoleague the path follows the road going north past the architecturally intriguing All Saint’s church, built in 1956. Finola has written about the building and its unusual stained glass (above) – it’s well worth a look inside. Beyond the modern church is the ruins of an ancient one, surrounded by a burial ground which is full of history (below):

After a steep climb we reached our highest point: Barr na Carraige – which translates literally as Top of the Rock. Evidently the first settlement of Drimoleague was established up here and only moved downhill to be more convenient when the railway arrived. At the ‘Top’ we were fortunate to meet David Ross (below) who owns the farm and ‘Pod Park’ here, and has also masterminded the establishment of these walking routes. Great chat was had, and David suggested our best routes for the day as storms had affected some pathways: work is in hand to restore these. We couldn’t leave the ‘Top’ until we had fully appreciated the long views across to Castle Donovan: our own way then headed downwards and along the Ilen River.

Descending from Top of the Rock we were mainly ‘off-road’ on dedicated footpaths. We first met the Ilen River at Ahanfunsion Bridge, a place which has seen a lot of action historically. The name means ‘Bridge of the Ash Trees’. There was a battle here in ancient times and it is said that the victors planted trees at the ford to commemorate the event. The bridge was built originally in 1830 but was blown up in the War of Independence and subsequently reconstructed. It’s a great spot for a picnic and everyone has a good time crossing the stepping stones, hopefully while keeping their feet dry.

David and his team have worked hard to create and maintain these paths. They have also embellished them with discrete but apposite plaques which include local information and poetry. The work has also involved bridging the river in places to maintain a continuous footpath. We have to commend and appreciate the work they have done and the legacy they are leaving to future generations.

The river walk is truly beautiful, and the wooded valley is quite unusual terrain for West Cork, which is more often high, craggy and dramatic. Wildlife and wildflowers abound, in season. All too soon we came to the boreen which would take us back to our starting point. We are determined to return and follow the network of pathways further when our current restrictions are lifted. We promise we will report back!

The Gate to My Heart

Orchard Gate, David Ross

Everywhere I go in West Cork I take pictures of gates.* Most, nowadays, are galvanised metal, rather than, as in the past, forged by a blacksmith taking satisfaction in making each piece unique. Our friend David Ross of the Top of the Rock Pod Páirc & Walking Centre collects and preserves these wrought iron gates where he can. The first two photographs are kindly supplied by him. At the top is an orchard gate he found lying in a ditch and restored – note the blacksmith’s marks of an X and four dots. The gate below is also his, salvaged from the site of an old monastery in Castlemartyr.

David Ross Gate

Another friend and fellow-blogger, Pat Crowley of the encyclopaedic Durrus History, shared his photographs with us – see below. This kind of gate is called a ‘band iron trinity’ and this one was made in the 1930s. The blacksmith was an O’Donovan from Kilcrohane or Kealties.

Band Trinity Gate

Such gate-dedication is rare: large wrought iron field gates are often left to rust, or cast aside in favour of an easy-care option. But you can still find them, hanging in there, often by a thread, and doing their job. Their days are numbered so we enjoy them while we can.



Smaller gates fare better. Perhaps maintaining them isn’t as big a commitment. Garden gates establish the atmosphere the homeowner wishes to evoke – or in the case of abandoned houses, once wished.

Elegant Gate, Ahakista


Here are details from a pair of matching red gates near us – a large entrance gate and a smaller side gate.

Graveyards are fertile sources of wrought-iron. The entrance gates still stand sentinel, sometimes double gates, but often single, as most coffins were shouldered in.



Long-disused church yards with little walls separating off the church precinct from the surrounding cemetery or from the vicarage, feature overgrown gates with fetching designs.


Castlehaven graveyardHoly wells are accessed through through special gates, many dating from the mid-20th century, when holy well sites were re-furbished.

The boreens leading to the well can be accessed occasionally by edging through a kissing gate. This one is not wrought iron, but I like the little details on it.

Kissing Gate

Still, the common field gate manages to establish its own character, and often acts to frame a vista across a valley, or a tantalising glimpse of old stone farm buildings. The vast majority now are galvanised metal, but some have been painted, or hung between substantial stone pillars.

green gate

Nick's GateMost are secured using a highly technical local form of lock called the loop-a-bit-of-rope technique. Seems to baffle the cattle, who stay inside, but it’s great for your friendly wandering archaeologist wanting to investigate a pile of rocks in a field.

The ultimate, of course, is to dispense with the gate altogether and simply use the loop-a-bit-of-rope lock on its own.


Will this gate, below, sadly neglected, be replaced with a wooden or galvanised model? Perhaps new owners will see what they have and try to salvage it. But it does look like it’s on its last legs.


When we decided we need some wrought iron for our own entrance, we went to Cronin’s Forge near Durrus. Working in time-honoured ways they make gates and signs that will last the course.

Fitting to end with a church gate, as this has been a hymn to the West Cork Gate, in the form of a photo essay. This is one of my favourites, access to and guardian of so many treasures: the gates to St Barrahane’s Church in Castletownshend. Like so many aspects of this place it is elegant and unique. The photograph was taken by my 11-year old niece, Ava.

St Barrahane's Church Steps

*My apologies to those of you who followed a broken link to this page earlier. At an early stage of writing, I pressed ‘publish’ rather than save (easy to do!) and then had to delete the post. I hope you came back!