Denise Hall: Natural gems and history on doorstep

Q&A: Ger O’Sullivan
Denise Hall: Natural gems and history on doorstep

His family were born and bred here for hundreds of years and over the course of our regular fireside chats, significant local historical details would frequently emerge, events that were in no way the dry stuff of the classroom, but were as fresh and as real as any recent happenings.

A favourite topic was often the chequered history of Donal Cam O’Sullivan, whose legendary march to Leitrim began from our glen.

My friend would say of Carew’s predations in the area as he and his men searched for the O’Sullivan Beara “the blood ran east” when he was describing the slaughter of those followers who, because of age or disability, were considered unfit to make the proposed march to Leitrim, and who were left in local woodlands, where the smoke from their fires fooled Carew’s men into believing that they had Donal Cam cornered.

Their anger when they realised that he had given them the slip was brutal and to this day, that woodland still seems to me to be a strange and haunted place. My friend simply wouldn’t go there.

Lively discussions regarding the morality of abandoning those of his followers to such an inevitable fate often followed and usually ended with the conclusion that this was a man who was at the end of his tether, the last of the earls to stand against British forces, who had seen his castles destroyed and his people decimated, and whose own life was hanging by the thinnest of threads.

There was a cave, too, hidden in the Cahas, where it is said that Donal Cam hid his wife and son, to wait out the freezing winter, until they could rejoin him. Now the haunt of wild goats, this same cave, my neighbour told me on one of our rambles, was also used to hide weapons during the troubled times.

He also pointed out a poignant famine grave, a small mound that marked the final resting place of one of the desperate souls who had trekked through these wild mountains hoping to find relief in Skibbereen.

For me, this close connection with such important events brought such history into sharp relief. And it is a fact that without such detailed local knowledge, significant history would simply vanish into the mists of time, considered too small to be entered into official historical records.

And while it is probably true to say that knowledge handed down in this way has not been through any formal verification process, still, such accounts contain much that is vivid and relevant to the history and culture of local areas.

The village of Leap — Leim Uí Dhonnabháin — was actually named after one such incident. A local O’Donovan chieftain was being pursued west by the English after the Battle of Kinsale, and on reaching the deep gorge at Leap, which at that time, had no bridge or road crossing it, decided to urge his horse to jump the 12m chasm.

And it must have been some horse, because he made it and escaped into the wilds of west Carberry, giving rise to the phrase “beyond Leap, beyond the law”. The village was named after this heroic feat.

The blasted battleground of Kinsale in 1601 was the site of an epic confrontation that was to decide the fate of a nation, lead eventually to the end of the long-running war between England and Spain, and the establishing of the Ulster plantation which decimated Gaelic Ireland.

Today, Leap is a peaceful and pretty village where Ger O’Sullivan, has rediscovered this scenic and dramatic gorge and waterfall and opened it up to the public. He told me how it came about.

Ger, are you a local man?

Yes, from between Leap and Skibbereen. I opened Ger’s Wild Atlantic Diner and B&B two years ago now and I always thought that it was a shame that the gorge and beautiful waterfall had been hidden away for so long. And it’s such an important part of our local history. So I decided to do something for local people and for the tourists.

It’s important to give visitors a reason to stop and to keep them here for a while. I have a background in tree work and landscaping and so I set to to sort it out. We’ve built a viewing platform that takes visitors right out over the gorge and gives them a stunning view of the waterfall and right out over the ravine.

This hidden natural gem is right behind your diner, isn’t it?

Yes it is. Now we have got the site sorted out and made safe and accessible, I am working on establishing a West Cork room in the diner. This is going to tell some of the story of the history of our area, which will be of great interest to the visitors and locals alike.

We’ve already had local history groups wanting to support it. Things have been going pretty well since we opened and the Wild Atlantic Way has definitely made a difference to us, even though it has been a pretty bad summer as far as the weather is concerned.

But we have to do what we can to improve things, make our area more interesting for visitors. And what better way to do that from a natural resource like the gorge and waterfall, and one that has such a strong historical connection.

Did you know that the gorge and waterfall were there when you bought the diner?

No, I didn’t. And when I first went to check it out, it was very unsafe. But now you can walk all over it. We’ve made a good start on the project now and in the future, I’m thinking about developing something for the children , a fairy village down the river. I got the idea when I was walking around down there.

It just has that sort of atmosphere, trees, river, water and I think it would be really good to have something for the kids.

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