A unique opportunity to follow in St Finbarr’s footsteps this Easter

April 6th, 2023 7:10 AM

By Southern Star Team

A pilgrim’s progress: walkers on the route from Drimoleague (Photo: N O’Callaghan)

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Some walkers on the pilgrim’s path from Drimoleague do it to focus on God but plenty more follow the track simply to enjoy the magnificence of the countryside, writes Mary McCarthy

THE journey is the destination. 

‘That’s the spirit pilgrims carry on foot on the St Finbarr’s Way,’ according to Drimoleague farmer, David Ross. This West Cork Pilgrimage goes from Drimoleague to Gougane Barra across country over three mountain systems and down four valleys, namely the Ilen, Mealagh, Ouvane and where the Lee valley begins. 

It takes two full days to walk – a longer first day to Kealkil for 20kms, and a shorter second day continues from Kealkil to Gougane Barra over 17kms. The track is a collaboration between local groups in Drimoleague, Mealagh, Kealkil and Gougane Barra that established a new pilgrim route.

‘Medieval pilgrimages were popular in European countries,’ according to David, ‘but sometimes the travel was dangerous, because of thieves and wild animals. That’s why more local tracks in Ireland were sought, such as St Kevin’s in Glendalough, Tobar Phádraig in Mayo and St Finbarr’s Way. The path from Drimoleague has traditionally been walked since the early times, when it is said St Finbarr met the people on the way to Gougane Barra to admonish their ways and return to Christ.’

‘The idea of being a pilgrim has changed from those times,’ he said, ‘as some no longer do it for spiritual reasons, but perhaps to encounter healing or have a sense of adventure.’ 

David prefers to call it a pilgrim path or a pilgrim walk rather than a pilgrimage, as those walking it come from all faiths and none. 

Stopping at landmarks en route. (Photo: David Ross)


According to him, ‘people that travel in this scenic countryside are predominantly in their sixties, but all ages are represented. Some come on their own, while others arrive as couples or in groups that are local, national or come from abroad. Some are influenced by the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain that has grown in interest in recent times.’

An interesting anecdote he conveyed was the history of how this pilgrim path gained popularity again was when one day back in 1996, a local Skibbereen jeweller, Denis O’Leary, told David that he wished to make the journey on horseback to Gougane in a manner like his parents and grandparents had done years before him. He asked David to say a prayer and he went on his way. 

That prompted David and his wife, Elizabeth, to establish a walking centre at The Top of The Rock, where the pilgrim way begins, as well as the Pod Páirc for camping accommodation, that has both eating and meeting facilities. The first organised pilgrimage was revived in 2009 and the route opened up is with the goodwill of landowners, who maintain the walks under the Walk Scheme.

The next contemplative pilgrim walk takes place from Drimoleague to Gougane Barra after Easter on Saturday, April 15th and Sunday, April 16th. This walk is described as ‘contemplative’ and short talks will take place at breaks on the journey about scripture and folklore. 

The history of place is transferred through conversation by David with many stories. It forms part of the Pilgrim Path Week 2023 Events in Ireland. Another contemplative pilgrim walk is planned to take place on Saturday, June 17th and Sunday, June 18th 2023.

In The Parish as Oasis by Kevin Hargaden and Ciara Murphy, David was interviewed and said that pilgrimage ‘opens our eyes to the magnificence of it all to the breathtaking wonder of the beauty of our countryside, slowing down, our senses work better, we hear birds, the flow of water, see the dippers dipping.’

‘The lovely experience of being on a pilgrim walk,’ he said, ‘is that those that walk are in the company of those they might never have met before, all travelling in the one direction to Gougane Barra with the desire to be together.’ 

He said that some focus on God and his mercy, while others come to enjoy the magnificence of the countryside.

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