6 fun things to do in Gougane Barra
Fun in Gougane Barra
I was very excited to go to Gougane Barra that morning, having wanted to go for several months. I’d been to nearby places such as Bantry (my favourite place in Ireland), the Kerry Mountains and Killarney’s beautiful National Park. But we’d always skipped Gougane Barra – “we’ll go next time!”
The weather was great. It was a summer’s day, and the sun was out and shining – a perfect day to go. We woke up reasonably early (10am is ok, right?). To get there involved driving along some winding country roads. The mobile signal was hit and miss driving through some parts along the way. This meant the SatNav was unreliable at times. Now and again we’d managed to get lost.
Despite this, it only took an hour and a half to get there. Regardless, I was very excited about going there. And once we reached the final approach, I wasn’t disappointed at all.
All I knew about Gougane Barra initially was the tranquil lake and a solitary dwelling occupying this place. However, there was so much more to it.
So I just wanted to share with you guys my experience of Gougane Barra, and what you should do to make your experience here as memorable as mine.
I know, I know. so what’s fun about eating? Well there’s nothing fun about the act itself – I’ll give you that. But there is a lovely bar and cafe where you can enjoy eating in some of the most beautiful surroundings nature has to offer.
By the time we reached Gougane Barra, it was easily almost the back end of lunchtime. And we had almost next to no breakfast. Before doing anything, we decided to fuel up at the local Cronin’s Bar & Cafe.
We bought a sandwich each and a drink. Although it was a beautiful sunny day outside, sometimes I’m particular where I want to eat: inside or outside. I insisted we eat inside while we waited for our food to be served to us. I can’t remember exactly what we had, but from my point of view the sandwich was filling. And this was helped by the friendly staff there.
Sounds boring so far? It bloody was!
That was when we decided to go outside with our drinks and not waste a single moment more. Once we made our way to the outdoor tables and sat down with a couple of bevvies bought from the bar next door to the cafe, we knew we’d made the right choice.
Outside. Drinking beers. Conversing. In full view of Gougane Barra. Just one thing. The cars…
Altogether there are 6 walking trails. From a brisk 30 minutes to a 2-hour scenic hike up the mountains, each trail caters to varying levels of fitness.
Initially we didn’t go for a long walk. In fact we didn’t go on any of those 6 walks. Mainly because Ash is apparently averse to long walks – that didn’t stop me from dragging up the mountain later on.
Before that, we took a leisurely stroll along the narrow road skirting along the Gourgane lake. Following this route, we were able to take in some breathtaking views of the lake, and the small structured but significantly visible Oratory against the backdrop where the Kerry mountains start to rise.
Whatever way you wish to explore Gougane Barra, you’re sure to get a unique perspective of this area.
3. St Finbarr’s Oratory and monastery
The main attraction of Gougane Barra is its island and oratory. Together with its surrounding environment, this is what gives Gougane Barra its character. If you don’t visit this, you’ve wasted your time coming here.
St Finbarr’s Oratory is built on an island on the lake – known as Holy Island. As we approached this ‘island’, we felt deceived. Where was the boat to take us there?? Where was the island? You can just walk across without getting your feet wet. Was this a Jesus moment?
It seemed like the island is connected by a man-made causeway of sorts.
The Oratory is a very modest, unassuming building, which considering the size of its immediate surroundings, is very fitting. But it also adds to the building’s charm.
Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos inside the Oratory. I sometimes feel uncomfortable taking photos in places of worship – I feel it would be disrespectful, especially a small place like this.
What I can say is that it’s a very quaint and intimate building – I’d say you’d get no more than 40-50 worshippers in there. You can even get married here.
That tour inside lasted all of 5 minutes.
Back to the action, we carried on through the short winding paths of the island, taking in views from every corner. From the trees, outside the oratory and some magnificent views of the lake from the north side of the island.
We also explored what I assume is a former monastery on the island. What looked like ruins, was actually a walled closure containing a number of cells where monks would used to be based, living an ascetic lifestyle. No doors to keep the winter winds out – pretty hardcore, I’d say.
Despite the basic setting and seemingly cramped conditions, there’s enough room to lay out flat and have a good night’s sleep. There’s plenty of room to toss and turn. Albeit your feet or head would be sticking out. Exposed to the elements.
The name Gougane Barra comes from Saint Finbarr. It was this guy that was said to have built a monastery on Holy Island during the 6th century.
A number of tales contribute to the legend of Saint Finbarr. One story is where he is led by an angel from the source of the River Lee at Gougane Barra to where he founded his most important monastery, and established the city of Cork.
During the times of the Penal Laws, the remoteness of Gougane Barra made it a popular place to celebrate the Roman Catholic Mass without any consequence.
The Oratory is a freestanding single-cell Celtic Revival style Roman Catholic church, built in 1903. Designed by S.F. Hynes, it was built at a time when interest in Irish art, architecture, culture, literature and tradition was growing.
The square enclosure houses a number of cell structures. It also contains a large cross in the middle which apparently marks the original cell of Saint Finbarr. You may think this is a very ancient structure, however it is a reconstruction by a priest (Father Denis O’Mahony) dating back to the 18th century.
4. Look for the source of the River Lee
The Gougane Barra lake is considered the source of the River Lee. But is it really? I mean the lake itself must have been fed from a source too. Surely that source must be the real source of the Lee. That’s what I challenge you to find when you go to Gougane Barra.
We wanted to go to the far end of Gougane Barra to see where the lake starts. So we headed back to the car and proceeded to drive down the scenic route into the forest park. The further we drove, the higher and steeper the forest-covered mountains around us closed in.
We parked next to a modest building containing some public toilets. Once we stepped out, we then wandered through the trees in the forest. It wasn’t long before we noticed a stream bisecting through. This fed into the Gougane Barra lake, so naturally we thought further upstream would be the true source of the River Lee.
Following this stream led up to a path at the start of the mountain side. I’m sure this was the start of a hiking/walking trail – cue Ash’s protestations of a long walk. After explaining we’d surely lose track of the stream as it disappears into the mountainside, I’d convinced her to go on a short walk.
No chance of that happening.
Following the stream uphill took us a few hundred metres up the mountain.
We’d been pretty lucky with the weather last summer. Because there’d been very little rain, this meant the water levels were very low. This also meant we could take advantage and climb up through the stream itself. Any other time, and the water coming down would have swept us away.
At this point I was determined to find the true source of the River Lee – this walk up had all of a sudden become an adventure. An adventure that Ash didn’t want to go on. She did have a brief distraction from the exercise – we passed by a family she knew from her job. Small world.
Once we moved on, we eventually reached one of the high points, and could see the stream disappear further up the mountain. I was determined to follow this. Ash wasn’t. So I went ahead.
I got further up than I thought I did. I felt like an explorer. Someone who’d dared to push themselves to the limit. Going somewhere where no-one has ever been.
Looking back downstream, I was impressed with how high I’d climbed.
But then I reached a dead-end. Almost a sheer cliff face. No way around it or to climb up without the proper equipment. The alternative would have been to follow the official trail, but this doesn’t follow the source. And so my adventure looking for the source came to a premature end.
So I decided to come back down, which is always easier than climbing up. By the time I came back to Ash, she already had enough.
On the way down, Ash had told me that every one of her family had never managed to walk down through the source without slipping in. I was determined to buck this trend.
If only I wasn’t so over-confident.
10 meters from the bottom, I misjudged a rock, and plop, splash. I slipped off, both legs submerged in water.
So there you have it. It’s fun to search for the source of the River Lee. Just don’t fall in trying to do it.
5. Take in the views of the lake and mountains
There are numerous places where you can admire the view of the area, all having different perspectives. You can sit outside the pub on a summer’s day, watching windswept mountain faces contrast with blue skies.
There are points along the lakeside where you can enjoy the calming and peaceful sky reflected water. This is accentuated more when approaching the oratory.
Or you can take in the views of the lake from the island where you can slip off your shoes and dip your feet into the cold but soothing lake waters.
6. Scenic drive
Before you leave, I’d also recommend you take the 3km scenic drive along the motor trail where you can take in some spectacular views, appreciating the deep valley surrounding Gougane Barra. Spectacular they may be, but I found the drive around it uninspiring. It would have been better for me just walk the route while taking in the fresh air, enjoying a more intimate experience with nature.
Gougane Barra was all that I expected and more. The views and the scenery are simply breathtaking and spectacular. There are different ways you can enjoy this. Whether that is through climbing up the mountains nearby or through more leisurely historical pursuits, you will come away from here with a lasting impression.
I certainly found the climb up the mountain to find the River Lee’s source one of my favourite things to do.
The most beautiful thing I found about this place was its remoteness. And it’s this remoteness that gives Gougane Barra a sense of calm, tranquillity and security.
It was this security that made it an attractive area for Catholics. To get away from the religious insecurity of the time. To practise their faith without any fear of the consequences.
Today Gougane Barra provides similar security in a modern sense. It provides an escape where you can get away from the daily grind of life. Where you can forget about your worries for a day. Where you can come out refreshed and ready to face the world again.
It’s a place I would gladly return to.
And it’s an historic place I recommend you visit.