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 . . .

A Murmuration

We stood still and listened: the air was filled with humming – Bees swarming in February? But no… it was the murmuring of the pilgrims saying the decades of the Rosary by the grave of St Gobnait…

Making the Rounds at Saint Gobnait's Shrine on the Feast Day

Making the Rounds at Saint Gobnait’s Shrine on the Feast Day

We travelled up into the Muskerry Gaeltacht on Wednesday – 11 February: the Feast Day of Saint Gobnait. It’s a fair journey, and we felt that we had really gone into another world: we crossed over the Mountain of the Fairy – that’s my interpretation of the Shehy Mountains (Shee is Fairy) – others say the Irish Cnoic na Síofra means ‘hills of the animal hides’. For the first time in my life somebody – a passer by – addressed me in Irish… “An bhfuil hata agat le spáráil?” they said – “Have you got a hat to spare?” (I think it was a wry comment about the headgear I was wearing on the day).

Our goal was Saint Gobnait’s Church in Ballyvourney, where the Mass was to be heard celebrated in Irish. Also, we wanted to see the 13th century wooden statue which is brought in to the church on this day. When we arrived there was already a queue to buy ribbons and ‘measure’ them against the statue. In fact, it was quite an intricate ritual: first you wrapped your ribbons around the neck of the statue, then around the feet. Some did the same around the stomach – others passed the ribbons under the body of the statue and rubbed them along the surface. Many people kissed the statue and some picked it up and made the sign of the cross with it. We joined in and came away with a clutch of ribbons, now blessed by Saint Gobnait and imbued with health-giving and good-fortune-bringing properties.

ribbons

Wrapping the ribbons

Making the 'Measures'

Making the ‘Measures’

The church was completely full for the Mass (it was also broadcast outside), which was celebrated by two Priests and a very robust men’s choir – beautiful singing in Irish. It was an uplifting experience, even though I hardly understood a word. A friendly atmosphere imbued all who were there, and excitement was in the air. Afterwards, we visited the statue again and then headed for Saint Gobnait’s Holy Well, her grave and the ruins of her ancient church, where the ‘Rounds’ were being performed all day. That’s when we heard the humming – it should have been Bees: this Saint has always been associated with them, and her statue which overlooks the pilgrimage site (and which was carved by Seamus Murphy in 1950) is decorated with Bees and with a Deer. This is also part of her story: when she was travelling through Ireland looking for a site to establish her community she was told she must continue on her way until she met with nine white Deer. She found them in Ballyvourney and that’s why in our time the little settlement flourishes on this February day.

We heard that there is another Holy Well, hidden in the woods just outside the town and seldom visited. This is known as Tobar Abán – Saint Abban’s Well. That saint seems to be closely associated with Saint Gobnait although not much is known about the lives of either of them – they lived back in the sixth century.

In the local shop

In the local shop

A visit to the Post Office provided us with the information we needed to get to this intriguing sacred site: walk over the bridge, go into the fields and look for a lone oak tree on the distant boundary – this marks the point where a trackway leads up through the woods. We made our way across a muddy pasture; the oak tree was prominent enough, and the track – but once inside the wood everything was quite densely overgrown. We would never have found it without the instructions, but we also had the help of red and white ribbons tied to trees and posts in strategic places – they had been there for some time: we wondered who set them up?

Tobar Abán is a wonderful site – a lonely outpost of religious sanctity but, for me, probably the most beautiful of all the holy places I have visited in Ireland so far. It’s an unexpected find: set away from everything, deep in an ancient oak wood, silent, still – one could imagine that it has always been like this, passing through generations of turbulent history and yet untroubled by it. Archaeologically it appears to be a cist with a cairn of stones built around it: this would imply pre-Christian origins. The lid of the cist (a burial chamber or repository for bones) is not visible – possibly it is under the large ballaun stone which rests on top. Above this is a small, relatively modern concrete cross embellished with offerings, beads and ribbons: other icons and objects are scattered around the site. The whole mound has a boundary defined by three standing stones, one of which is inscribed with ogham. Everything is covered in a layer of moss which seemed to exude a luminescence in the moist shade of the wood.

crucifix

Saint Abban (or Abbán moccu Corbmaic) seems to have been active in many parts of Ireland, and tradition has it that he lived for three hundred years. The stories that are important here are the ones that link him with Saint Gobnait. It has been said that he founded a monastery in Ballyvourney before she arrived, and that he was her mentor and gave the foundation to her. Some say that Abban and Gobnait were brother and sister. Most important, perhaps, is the tradition that Abban had a cell or church just outside Ballyvourney and that he was buried in that cell when he died in 520. Could it be his grave that we found?

Saint Abban's Shrine - cell - or grave?

Saint Abban’s Shrine – cell – or grave?

Saint Abban’s Well is a little distance from the cist, and is quite unassuming, especially compared to the elaborate wells around Saint Gobnait’s old church. It is merely an opening in a rock set in the ground: an old tray covers it and keeps the leaves out, and a wooden box beside it contains some cups and plastic bottles for collecting the water.

Tobar Aban - Saint Abban's Well

Tobar Abán – Saint Abban’s Well

As we were making our way back across the fields we were surprised to see a lady in a red coat walking with a stick towards us. “Did you find it?” she asked. We assured her we had found the well and the shrine. “And did you see his bones?” she continued, “Last time I was there I lifted up the lid and saw the Saint’s bones inside…” We watched her go off towards the woods; when I looked back again she had disappeared.

Cist, Bullaun and standing stones

Cist, Bullaun and standing stones

There’s so much about the day: the journey across the Mountain of the Fairy; the Irish Mass and the ritual of the ribbons involving a 13th century wooden figure; the Rounds and the humming of the Saint’s Bees; the magical shrine in the woods – and I really do wonder about that lady in the red coat…

Offering at the Shrine of Saint Abban

Offering at the Shrine of Saint Abban