It's a typically Irish summer’s day of sunshine and occasional showers. Travel restrictions have been eased again and we venture forth to one of nature’s gems, Gougane Barra, deep in the mountains of West Cork.
This is our first visit in many years. The previous foray was on a cold and rain-swept winter’s day and the place was deserted. But it’s crowded now.
People are going hither and tither, cars are parked on grass verges and everyone wants to get out there and walk.
A strong breeze is blowing down from the Shehy mountains as we set off past the island oratory and into this Coillte-run national forest park.
There are six trails to choose from: some are mere strolls and take about half an hour, others are more strenuous and rise into the hills but none are killers.
People of all ages are here but what’s most striking is the number of families and children out enjoying themselves. The lilting cadence and rhythm of Cork accents compete with birdsong for background music.
We start on the easy Sli na Laoi which follows the course of the infant, gurgling river Lee to the head of the valley. Then, it’s a short and mildly testing trek, Sli an Choim Rua, before finishing on Sli na Sleibhte which ups the heart rate.
The reward is an overview of the park. At this height, you can almost touch to the tops of the tall, stately pines _ probably the most demanding walk.
There’s a walk suitable for everyone in this well-maintained park with clear signage, solid steps, footbridges and plenty of picnic tables. It even boasts award-winning toilets.
The 19th century oratory on the island, a serene haven, was closed on the day due to Covid-19 restrictions. St Finbarr chose well when he picked Gougane as the location of his sixth century monastery. Even on days when the place is crowded, there’s a sense of peace and wildness about it.
Unsurprisingly, the area is also rich in tradition and folklore, with Ireland’s most famous storyteller, Eamonn Kelly, saying it was the best place of all to source his material. Dinny Cronin, whose descendants still run a hotel of that name in Gougane, was one of Kelly’s main contacts and he would have local people ‘taking the legs off one another’ to tell Kelly stories.
The place is also renowned for colourful residents such as tailor Tim Buckley and his wife Ansty about whom a banned book was famously written by Eric Cross. The tailor had many sayings, one of which was: ‘take life fine and easy, and life will be fine and easy with you.’ Which just about sums up the spirit of Gougane.