NEW Ireland Hillwalks
by Bill Burnham
The rugged massif Seefin towers over an idyllic Irish countryside of patchwork green fields and small farm buildings. Upon this peak rested Finn MacCool, Ireland's Bunyanesqe folk hero, whose legs, it is said, stretched far out into Dunmanus Bay, a thousand feet below. And there, at Seefin’s base, along the water's edge, Aongus O'Daly, Ireland's great satirist of the Middle Ages, drew inspiration for poems so mean-spirited, an enraged subject stabbed him dead.
The Poet's well is dry - as well it should be. In hospitality as in beauty, the Sheep's Head Peninsula has few rivals. A finger of land 15-miles long and no wider than three miles, set between blue water bays of Bantry and Dunmanus, this peninsula of low mountains and beaches features an ideal form of Irish get-to-know-you: the walking path.
Of Ireland’s 31 Waymarked Ways (marked trails), Sheep’s Head’s natural beauty and connection with local residents, who built and maintain the trail, help it stand out. The generosity shown walkers here makes the region’s traditional greeting – “Welcome home again” – ring true.
Sheep’s Head Way
Fuel up for the walk at The 1796 Bar on Wolfe Tone Square in Bantry, which serves platefuls of steaming mussels pulled fresh from Bantry Bay. The pub’s name references a foiled French overthrow of Britain’s Irish rule, orchestrated by a United Irishman, Theobald Wolfe. The spoiler was the first Earl of Bantry, who received his title and a fine Georgian-style home for ratting out the plot. Bantry, the official trailhead for Sheep’s Head Way, bustles with a large farmer’s market every Friday, an event that was once the economic centerpiece of this farm-dominated peninsula.
After passing through the estate gardens of Bantry House, the Sheep’s Head Way’s distinct markers (two rams with horns locked) leads you down a narrow gravel lane, across a fence stile and through a field. A herd of grazing cows is a reminder that this trail, like most Irish waymarked ways, is made possible by the permission of private landowners. There are rules of behavior – including not chasing livestock and leaving all gates as you found them.
Near this pasture is the Lady’s Well and penal alter set in the nape of the hillside. Irish Catholics worshiped in secret here in the 17th and 18th centuries when Britain outlawed public practice of the religion. Local lore has it that the Virgin Mary cloaked worshippers in a fog and prevented their detection.
Atop Seefin’s moorland-like crest, you walk through a sea of swaying grass and tough, wind-sculpted brush. The landscape is pocked with bogs and small lakes, or lochs. A stunning view from the hilltop down onto Glan Lough caps a four-hour journey. From here, it is another hour’s walk to Sea-Mount Farmhouse in Glanlough West. Proprietors Julian and Charles McCarthy helped build the Sheep’s Head Way and Charles leads tours of archeological sites on the peninsula.
The second leg climbs Seefin to 1,000 feet at Gouladane. Many rock outcrops navigated via short, steep climbs and descents require walkers be in good physical shape and wear sturdy shoes. At day’s end, Finn MacCool’s oversized bench – a sculpture unveiled at the dedication of the trail in 1996 – will seem as inviting as a first-class seat. Seefin is translated as “seat of Finn,” and references the folk legend’s visit to Bantry in days of yore.
In Kilcrohane, locals might let slip that actor Ralph Fiennes is a native, but shameless name-dropping is not necessary here where visitors are treated like family and their snapshot photos frame the dark wood bar inside Fitzpatrick’s (visitors, that is, who spend their good money on the good Irish beer, Beamish, and Irish whisky). The folksinger Christy Moore is known to host “locals only” concerts in the Community Hall. Standing outside with your ear pressed to the door is tolerated.
From Kilcrohane westward, walkers are advised to break the journey into short day hikes. Consult innkeepers for a shuttle to the Car Park, near the western tip, and walk the last mile or so to spectacularly situated Sheep’s Head lighthouse. This unmanned strobe alerts ships of treacherous cliffs and offshore rock formations that define the rugged northwest shoreline. Take a moment to soak in the balmy – yes, balmy – breezes. The Gulf Stream nips Ireland on this southwest coast, explaining the presence of palm trees in some yards.
The Tooreen Loop is a three-hour walk around the tip of the peninsula, beginning and ending from the Car Park. Rough terrain and a route that traces cliffs in some places demands walkers use caution and good judgment.
A longer walk (five hours) from the lighthouse to Crimea passes ghostly remains of stone homes camouflaged by a landscape of gorse and heather. Sheep’s Head is nothing if not aptly named; the livestock, many curiously marked with either a red or a blue paint slash, are constant companions. Enroute to Crimea, you pass the Gortavallig copper mine, dating from 1845. During its three-year history, the mine employed 70 men who, despite dangerous conditions, were happy for food and shelter offered at a time when millions of Irish were dying from famine.
Peakeen Ridge is a side trail to the Sheep’s Head Way, and is considered the most technically difficult walk on the peninsula. The way is not well-marked and frequent small bog holes pose risks. Hazards notwithstanding, the scenery is inspiring. You pass Wedge Tomb (approx. 4,000 years old) a half-hour after departing from Finn MacCool’s seat. Beyond, the path wends its way over and around Caher Mountain and Peakeen Junction, both 1,000 feet plus in elevation. A return to Kilcrohane is possible on the Black Gate Path and Goats Path road.
Walking the Sheep’s Head Way from Kilcrohane eastward is technically easy, and historically fascinating. A stone circle in Gorteanish is thought to date to the Bronze Age (3,000 years ago). A headstone in the church cemetery in Kilcrohane bears the inscription “O D”, for the O’Daly family, chief bards of the region during medieval times. At Farranamanagh Lake stands the ruins of the O’Daly clan castle. Nearby to this, overlooking Dunmanus Bay, are ruins of a bardic school. These earliest of Irish learning institutions trained students in poetry as well as the cumulative lore of Ireland. The noted bard of Sheep’s Head, Aongus O’Daly, authored a satirical poem, “The Tribes of Ireland,” which contained insults so injurious to the reputation of Irish noblemen, it earned him a knife in the neck from an enraged servant.
In Ahakista, a side trail, Sli Bhran, leads uphill to Windy Gap via Bhran, a rock outcrop standing at 1,043 feet. Views from Bhran soar southwest onto Dunmanus Bay. On windy days, waves break across an offshore shoal. The frothy white crest rises silently, then disappears, replaced by another and another in slow motion poetry. Watching this, you come to understand the Irish laureate Seamus Heaney’s description of Sheep’s Head: “Things found clean on their own shapes; Water and ground in their extremity.”