Gougane Barra, Schull, and Bantry
I’m baaaaaaaaaaaack! Nick and I are currently in West Cork, staying at the house in Castletownbere. This year we drove ourselves down and we’re both looking forward to exploring in the country once again!
Today, we decided to do some driving and see some new towns and scenic views. We left the house with the end goal of going to Schull, and then winging it after that. Our first stop was the town of Bantry. This spot is well known for the massive street market on Fridays and the most amazing views of Bantry Bay. There is also Bantry House, and old Great House full of old treasures and various historical exhibitions. We didn't go to Bantry House on this day, but will likely return to see it in the future. Nearby is Sheep's Head Peninsula where there are plenty of walking trails for amazing views. We are going to do that later this week!
It was easy to find a parking space and we took a stroll around the town. Right away there’s an obvious statue in the square of Wolfe Tone. He was a very important figure in Irish history and the development of Irish republicanism. His failed rebellion was a source of inspiration for several movements throughout the 19th century, and later success in achieving independence. You can read more about him here! There are two heritage walks you can easily do around the town and all the historical spots are sign-posted. The streets are colourful and right away I noticed there are plenty of places to have a nice lunch. The town is full of anything you could actually need! In my head I pictured Bantry as being much smaller than it actually is. Since it was Sunday, things were a bit slow. However, I really appreciated that, and it was a nice environment to wander around.
Nick subtly led the way to one of the historical walks and we landed upon the library and water wheel. Way back in the day, electricity was first introduced to Bantry via a water wheel. Following the library we found our way to a small burial ground off a residential street. The stones were VERY old and many could no longer be read whatsoever. According to the heritage sign, both Protestants and Catholics were buried in the grounds during the famine and it was the first Church of Ireland built in Bantry. I liked seeing the mix of very old, but also more recent resting places in the grounds.
During our walk, we also passed the old butter market, as well as St. Finbar's Church. The town is also brimming with pubs, all of which have very interesting shop fronts. There are also several places to stay and I think Bantry would be a great place to hang out for a few days and a good base for exploring more of West Cork. There are also big supermarkets (a Lidl and a SuperValu) so all of your food needs for camping etc. can be met too. I would really like to come back to the markets and explore even more of the town.
After Bantry, we made our way to Schull. The drive between the two towns was full of sharp curves, and very fun. Schull is also on the Wild Atlantic Way so you are guaranteed to have some amazing views on your way there. As usual there were plenty of cows and sheep around! I'm always amazed at how the sheep are able to manage themselves in the craggy landscape. Nearby is also the Mizen Head Peninsula, another drive I would like to do later this week.
When we arrived into the town, right away I was craving a Mocha (what else) so we stopped at Nickie's Kitchen to get some coffee. The drinks were great and the view from the cafe is lovely for both people watching and scenic perspectives. If you were to spend some time here, I can definitely recommend Nickie's Kitchen for coffee!
With coffees in hand, we walked down to the harbour to enjoy the view. It was very easy to find because there are plenty of signs around. We passed a few stalls selling a variety of things. There was also an agricultural fair going on a little ways out from the main street and people seemed to be enjoying the day! At the harbour, there is a big fish & chips restaurant, as well as public toilets and a boat ramp. The view of the harbour was amazing and we sat on the wall for a long time, just enjoying the day. Some sort of fire must have been going on across the way as we could see the smoke rising. The vibe was so mellow. There was also the most gorgeous black dog that I just wanted to take home with me.
Even though the sun was hiding, it was just as nice to sit and relax. Nick and I were entertained for a while watching people dropping their boats into the water. There was a moment where a tiny nissan nearly got pulled completely down the ramp, but somehow managed to not slide into the water! It was a bit scary to watch! There were also families kayaking, and a cute family of swans passed us by too. I really got the impression that Schull is a very family-friendly place to be. I love the slower pace of life in the small towns of West Cork.
After our time down at the harbour we strolled around the main streets. The shops in Schull were a bit more awake than in Bantry. The streets are a charity shop DREAM because there are loads of charity shops and antique stores that seem to be thriving. I also noticed plenty of art galleries and special gift shops. It would be a great place to find that perfect gift for someone back home.
Overall, Schull was a charming town to stop by, and I'm really glad we visited. Each town in West Cork has its own charm. If or when we come back, I would definitely like to have lunch at the fish place (it was packed with people, must be good) and drive out to Sailor's Hill. I was taking photos when a local came up to me and recommended it. We tried to go up as we left Schull but with the agricultural fair, some of the roads were blocked. For next time!
As we left Schull thinking of what to do next, we decided to visit Gougane Barra on a whim. We passed the sign for this spot earlier in the day when going through Glengariff. Neither of us had been before so we were both down to check it out. Gougane Barra is one of those famous Irish photos you always see on Instagram and I've wanted to check it out for myself for a long time. I didn't realise it was close to us until I saw the sign in the morning!
With the help of Google Maps we left Schull and made our way to the lake, which was in the same direction as going back to Castletownbere. Because we left Schull by going through the town rather than turning around and going back the way we came, we ended up on a very narrow, long and winding road for a while before ending up on a main road. It was a very typical countryside experience with an occasional moment of pulling to the side so other cars can pass. If you're ever visiting Ireland and end up on a road like this, remember to drive smart and be prepared to have to reverse on the road for others to pass you.
The drive from Schull to Gougane Barra was about 50 minutes. There were plenty of signs directing us back to Bantry and Kealkill, which then brought us to a 18km road winding through a lush green valley. There was a moment going through a notch on the drive where I felt like I was in Franconia Notch back home! Finally after the last leg of the drive, the sky opens up and you suddenly land upon a valley with a gorgeous lake.
We parked on a grassy knoll to the side of the main road coming in. Right away you can see the small church planted in the middle of the lake. It's very picturesque, even on a cloudy day. Saint Finbarr supposedly built a monastery in this location during the 6th century and the oratory was later built during the nineteenth century. The remote location also meant that Catholics could celebrate Mass here during the Penal Laws time. The Penal Laws were a series of legislation throughout the 1700s designed to prevent Catholics from regaining power in Ireland.
There is a cafe and bar, as well as a hotel right across from the lake. I wasn't hungry or thirsty at this point, but I imagine it'd be a lovely place to stop for a snack and a pint after a long day of exploring. Obviously the views from the cafe and bar are stellar. The hotel looked big and would certainly be an interesting place to stay!
The small oratory is impossible to miss as you walk around the lake. Its bright orange door is very welcoming and the grounds around it are well kept. As you walk to the oratory you'll spot a holy well, and some small walking areas too. Apparently the oratory is very popular for weddings and it's not hard to see why! I could have eloped right then and there!
The grounds are open to walk around and the area is very calm. There were a lot of visitors milling around but it never felt crowded. Gougane Barra is actually a national park with plenty of recreational things to do. There are different walks and biking trails in the park. The valley is so gorgeous that you can completely understand how some might feel it is a holy place or a "mirror of God's grandeur" if you like.
The oratory was open for visitors to walk in and a donation could be made to light a candle inside. I loved the way the door was slightly ajar, just asking for you to peek your head in. The stained glass windows were exquisite and I loved the pink walls. It was a small space and would be perfect for an intimate wedding. I would love to attend mass here just once.
After a look in the oratory we walked around it for a while. There was a stone structure and inside looked liked outdoor versions of stations of the cross, and there were some resting places for priests as well. When we walked into the structure, I was amused to overhear a conversation about Brexit going on right in the middle of the structure. Brexit-chat cannot be avoided it seems!
In the end, Gougane Barra was a GREAT place to visit and I am so glad we did. You can see why it's Insta Famous at this point and the valley is so serene and calm. If I were to come again I might do some of the walking trails around the park. I'm sure there are some incredible views to be seen! If you're in the area or staying Macroom, Bantry, Castletownbere etc. it is well worth your time to make a stop here. The drive alone is really fun (and a little bit thrilling!) and if you are just visiting the church, it doesn't cost a dime. I also love how remote the area is. I was entertained by the small post box we passed as we left; a reminder that the ongoings on human life always find a way, no matter how secluded one is!
Who knows where my next post will be about, but I do know wherever it is will be beautiful too! Perhaps a stop in Macroom is in order?