Denise Hall: Spiritual trek across God’s own country

Q&A: Pádraig O’Mahony
Retracing St Finbarr’s footsteps through Gougane Barra in West Cork.

It had rained all night, heavy bursts that rattled the dormer windows. And it was still lashing by the time I took the dogs out. This was the third time I’d planned a trip to the lovely Gougane Barra, I realised morosely, as I sloshed down rain sodden trails.

A violent storm and severe flooding had stopped me before. Today it was just cold, and very wet with a nasty wind that drove the rain sideways. But then a handkerchief-sized patch of blue appeared suddenly in the sky and I decided to go for it.

I packed my rain gear and wellies and set off. And how glad I am that I did. I hadn’t been on the road for 15 minutes before the cloud cover lifted, the sun came out and the sky became a clear, miraculous and vivid blue. It was one of those rare transformations that make the weather such an irresistible topic of conversation.

And as I entered Gougane I held my breath for a moment, overwhelmed by its austere majesty and the brilliance of the day, which illuminated the brooding rocks and dark blue lake.

Guagán (“little fissure” in Irish) Barra is a deep, U-shaped valley carved out of the mountains of West Cork at the end of the last Ice Age and once the territory of the O’Leary’s who lost possession of the land following the Cromwellian wars. Subsequently it passed to the Townsend family and ultimately, farming tenants under the Land Acts.

But before all this, the tradition is of St Finbarr (560-610) from nearby Inchigeela. Originally his name was said to have been Lochán, but when he was a young man, he went to be tonsured as a monk.

The man shaving his head is reported to have said: “The hair of this servant of God is beautiful.” Another said: “You have spoken well, because his name will be changed and he shall be called Finn-barr, that is ‘beautiful hair’ from his offering to God.”

When disciples gathered around him, Finbarr moved his monastic settlement to Loch Ince, at the mouth of the Lee, where the present city of Cork grew up.

There is an image of St Finbarr on a Harry Clarke window in the Honan Chapel at University College Cork where the college’s motto is “Where Finbarr taught, let Munster learn” and stories of Bishop Finbarr’s gentle nature and love of learning soon abounded.

Just behind the iconic St Finbarr’s oratory are the remains of St Finbarr’s monastery from the 6th century, with beautiful old stations of the cross above the ancient prayer cells.

Pilgrims still visit this holy site and September 25 is celebrated as the feast of St Finbarr, with Mass being held on the Sunday closest to this date. During Penal times, people made their way to Gougane Barra.

The area is rich in Mass rocks which were once important sites of worship for the people. It was between 1938 and 1942 that planting began in Gougane, of lodgepole pine, Japanese larch and Sitka spruce.

Coilte have since developed Gougane as a more recreational than commercial concern and in 1966, it became one of the first — and best-loved — parks in Ireland.

Last year, the park was stricken with an outbreak of Phytophthora ramorum, a fungal like disease, detected on Japanese larch. This resulted in the felling of 16,000 trees, primarily larch. To safely facilitate this operation, the park was closed for six months.

Coillte forest manager Pádraig O’Mahony showed me around and told me about the massive amount of restoration and renewal work that has gone on in the park over the last year.

Am I correct in thinking that right in the middle of this problem, the global storm known as Darwin hit and compounded your problems, Pádraig?

Gougane Barra was one of 20 Coilte forests, where the disease was confirmed. Control measures were implemented in accordance with Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine protocols. And yes, in the middle of it, the storm hit and made everything worse.

There were trees down, blocked drains, flooded roads, it was incredible really. But we just had to get stuck in and put things right again.

We’ve done a massive amount of clearing, unblocking and we are replanting over 90,000 in the next while. The forest is still finding its feet. The conditions were a perfect storm for us.

Although there are some obvious bare patches, it’s hard to imagine what you’ve described. The place looks pretty well groomed.

Well, we’ve improved and upgraded trails, re-gravelled paths, and this year, we are making a big investment in replacing the bridges and picnic benches.

I’ve been very involved in this work over the last months and it is gratifying to see the results now, like some seedling trees coming up, and the areas of natural regeneration. This is a very special place and it is good to see it slowly coming back to life.

Coilte is Ireland’s largest provider of outdoor recreation, with some 2,000kms of waymarked trails. In Gougane there are a choice of trails: Slí Laoi, the Lee Walk, the popular Nature Trail, and for the more energetic, the Slí Easa — the Waterfalls Walk with magnificent views of the glen and the great mountain wall that encloses it.

What about flora and fauna?

On the drier slopes, fringe grasses such as brents and fescues thrive, and heather and ling are abundant. There are bog mosses, cotton grasses, sedges and rushes and rock faces are covered in lichen.

As for wildlife, there are otter, stoat, badger, fox and rabbit and birds such as the coal tit, willow warbler, red bunting, cormorants and herons, and the occasional mute swan. It is an incredible place to bring the family and spend the day and especially at this time of year, when everything is coming back to life.”


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