Field notes from St. Finbarr’s Way

October 25, 2018 (Day 1 of 2) Mullaghmesha’s southwestern slope, about halfway between Drimoleague and Kealkil, 2:00 PM

Today I’m walking the first half of St. Finbarr’s Way, which follows the path the early Christian saint would have walked from Drimoleague back to Gougane Barra. As far as I can glean, he only left the remote fastness of his monastery (on an island, in a lake, surrounded by steep mountains) to come and instruct some errant new Christians. Methinks there is more to this story. I’ll have to look into it sometime.

20181025_080411The day broke clear and crisp at the Top of the Rock in Drimoleague, where David and Elizabeth Ross have established a “Pod Pairc” for camping on their family cattle farm. The full moon still hung bright in the western sky and shone its pale beauty at the sand-colored streak in the east which grew and warmed and blossomed into pink before seeping round the whole horizon. It was one of those morning skies that proclaims uncategorically: Today, anything is possible.


As I shivered in my pajamas and took big gulps of the fresh air, David hurried across the farmyard to check on the little bull calf that had been born in the night. A sweet brown curly thing with a white face, wobbling around his mother in the paddock.

Now miles away from that homestead, I’ve walked past the farms and roads and castle ruins and houses to reach these mountain slopes, higher than the cattle venture or the trees grow.  I’m pausing here on the rustic memorial bench in a hollow which the late Owen Sullivan fondly referred to as his kitchen.  20181025_140738I can see northwest over Bantry Bay, and south over almost the whole of County Cork as far as the ocean. The only sounds are the soft lonely wind and a passionate little rill that runs busily down the mountain in secret, hidden by the spongy overhanging turf. Occasionally a bird cries or a fly buzzes in the unseasonably warm October air. Wish I could stay, but I must continue northwards to Kealkill and my waiting car.


October 26, 2018 (Day 2) The Gougane Barra Hotel, 5:45 PM

Less than two hours ago I was alone on the rugged Foilastookeen ridge, about 1200 feet above this place, and just to the south. I was pelted by cold rain and hail as I splashed through mud and battled furious winds which nearly made a kite of me. I had to cling to an old fence along the spine of the mountain for a stretch just to stay upright in the deafening gale. It was utterly marvelous.



Now, I’m sitting snuggly ensconced in the lounge of a plush hotel. Outside the tall windows, the last shreds of daylight are fading from the hushed valley. In here, there are 9 foot ceilings and landscape paintings in gilt frames. A crackling hearth. Rich upholstery and patterned carpet. Fiddle music is gently playing through some invisible speakers. The other occupants of the room look as if they just finished giving an interview for a lifestyle magazine and are now unwinding with a small brandy before dinner. Tasteful. Serene. Clean. Perfect.

In my corner, I shove my backpack behind the armchair and cross my ankles in a futile attempt to make my muddy boots inconspicuous. With fingers still stiff from the cold outside, I try to hold my coffee cup daintily and crunch my shortbread cookies cleanly so as not to spread crumbs everywhere. I fail. 


20181026_172426When I blew in here after finishing the elaborate prayerful “rounds” of the St. Finbarr’s ruined monastery, Camille at reception stamped my pilgrim passport and let me use her phone to call a cab. Mobile reception is weak in this deep valley. Since there’s just one cab company out here and since that cab company consists of just one man, I’ll be waiting for a while, but I can’t say that I mind.

Nor does it seem to matter to the hotel staff that I am sporting the natural hairdo of a highland cow (see photo, below) and probably something of its aroma too. My cheery hostess is all  warmth and smiles. 20181026_134229

“Make yourself at home,” Camille said. “Can I get you tea or coffee?”

“But I’m all muddy,” I protested weakly as I struggled out of my rain gear in the tiled hotel foyer.

“Oh just come as you are,” assured Camille, with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Boots and all.”

Had my arms not been momentarily tangled in a backpack, hydration hose and an excessive number of velcro and drawstring closures, I would have bear-hugged that lady. 

Highland cows certainly have their charms, but aren’t human beings just lovely? 

Heaven forbid that I ever forget the way the wind bowed down the gleaming blond grasses and drove veils of silver rain southwards across the broad valley behind me and whipped the hard drops off of my hood and and sleeves and sent them careening away into oblivion and billowed through my jacket and swept me off my feet and felt like all the chaotic love of God Himself.

I hadn’t seen a human being for hours. Up there on that ridge I could almost pretend that I was the only person on earth. I could have disappeared into the elements.

Yet for all that isolation and grandeur, the cab ride back to this morning’s starting point will only take about 20 minutes. HA! How I’ve romanticized this little adventure.

Maybe this is why we walk. Maybe the role of pilgrimage today is just to let the world be big at us. Big like it was not so long ago for our whole human race. Big like it still is for wide-eyed children, for the elderly, the infirm and the very poor. Its bigness makes us feel small, vulnerable. It should humble us and draw us closer to God, closer than planes and trains and automobiles can ever take us.

The best thing about the Gougane Barra Hotel is this: it’s so warm!

Hand-sketched monochrome cabbage in a magenta hue- Cabbages and Kings

Edited by Gloria Shim.

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