By Graham Wade and Mikayla Cree
Sunday was a very exciting day on the Beara Peninsula! After a couple of days enjoying the more urban setting of the city of Cork, this rural gem in the West of County Cork offered us a natural beauty steeped in ancient history. Beara actually has the most ancient architecture and ruin sites of the whole country! Our knowledgeable guide, Barry, gave us an incredible tour of many of these sites. Though the guides of our first few days joked that we brought our California weather with us, the highlands of Beara finally gave us a small taste of the bitter, wet cold, we had prepared for.
Our first stop was the Derreenataggart West Stone Circle, which has been standing for two to three thousand years. They were most likely built for ritual and ceremonial purposes and might have aligned with the sun on certain dates, however many of the stones are broken and 3 of them are missing from the original 15. You may be familiar with Stonehenge in England, which is the most famous stone circle.
Next, we visited Dunboy Castle, or at least what remains of it! The castle was built by the powerful O’Sullivan family, which controlled the area at the time. After the Battle of Kinsale, in which the protestant English conquered the Irish Catholics, the Catholic families of Ireland lost power in their territories. So, the O’Sullivan family lost their castle in 1602 and the English protestant Puxley family took over in their place. Dunboy Castle was destroyed in the process and has been a ruin ever since. The Puxley family then built their own mansion, and they remained in power until the early 1900s, when the Irish revolutionaries burned down their mansion. How the tables turned!
Our 3rd stop was the Hag of Beara, a large coastal stone with a fascinating origin story! Legend has it, an Irish goddess, the Hag of Beara, felt threatened by Naomh (Saint) Caitiarin, who was spreading Christianity throughout the area. After the Saint caught her trying to steal his prayer book, he turned her into the stone which sits on the Beara coast today.
Our guide, Barry, shared a different origin story, in which the Hag was the wife of the Sea God, and her stone sat on the coast, watching the sea and waiting for him to come home. This version of her tale parallels the struggle which couples of the Beara peninsula would have faced—women of this coastal region, just like the Hag, would have anxiously awaited the safe return of their husbands fishing at sea. Barry explained that in reality, the rock of the Hag of Beara was likely dropped in its place when the glaciers of the ice age melted.
Later, we took a short hike up to a Mass Rock. When the Catholics of Ireland were banned from publicly practicing their faith, they began to hold mass privately at “Mass Rocks,” which can be found all over the country today. The Mass Rock we visited has an especially beautiful view of the ocean, which we all enjoyed very much!
Our final stop on the tour was an old copper mine by the town of Allihies. The copper source was discovered in 1813, and it was mined with man power alone until 1862, when an engine house was built to enable deeper mining and improve efficiency. This engine house also could lower and lift men in and out of the mine, and it is the only one-man engine house in Ireland. The mine eventually closed in 1882 after reaching its depth of 421 meters below the surface.
Interestingly, we learned that many miners from this area relocated to Montana, where there were copper mines for them to find work in their trade. We read the poetry book, “The Mining Road,” in preparation for our trip, and the authors’ inspiration for the book and its poems came from her roots on the Beara Peninsula.
We were fortunate enough to meet the author, Leanne O’Sullivan, when she visited us last semester, and having met her and read her poetry made the experience at the mine and on the peninsula in its entirety all the more surreal and special.
Our day concluded with the warmest hospitality from John Murphy at Murphy’s Restaurant, close to our hotel in Castletownbere. He was so happy to host us, share history, and chat about own Irish backgrounds. He even took a photo with us outside his restaurant! He is pictured second from the bottom right in the white shirt.
Beara’s beauty, stories, and rich history surely left its mark on us all. We left with a new appreciation for the natural beauty and undying tradition to be found in humble places outside the hustle and bustle of urban Ireland. A good time was had by all!