Gougane Barra is spectacular, like West Cork itself, a place apart. Set in a valley surrounded by a forest park it was the monastic hermitage of St. Finbarr, patron saint of Cork, who is said to have walked from here to the mouth of the River Lee where he founded the City of Cork, or as we call it in these parts the Real Capital!
An area of wild and beautiful scenery, this magnificent Forest Park covers over 137 splendid hectares (339 acres). It is tucked in a lush valley at the edge of the Sheehy mountains, the ideal place to hike, get in touch with nature, picnic and inhale the fresh air. It is in these hills where the majestic River Lee rises, flowing to Cork Harbour approximately 89km away. Steeped in history, there is a tiny island at the edge of the lake at the entrance to the Forest Park where St. Finbarr, patron saint of Cork, founded his early Christian monastery in the 6th century. A place for all seasons, visit the park in spring when the new growth mellows the stark winter landscape, or in Summer when the sounds of birdsong on the high trails ring out in the hills.
On entering Gougane Barra you are met with the natural beauty of the hills which tower over Gougane Barra Lake and then the well known St Finbarr's Oratory or Small Church out in the Lake on the little island all on its own. Just behind the Oratory are the remains of St Finbarr's monastery from the 6th century, with beautiful old stations of the cross above the ancient prayer cells. It was here that St Finbarr spent time, before making his way to Cork. The Oratory has some lovely stained glass windows. Pilgrims still visit this holy site and the 25th of September is the feast of St Finbarr with a mass being held on the Sunday closest to this date. During the Penal times people made their way to Gougane Barra for Mass and hence the many Mass Rocks around the West Cork area.
The scenery in this area is breath taking and it offers the visitor a little time out in this peaceful valley. Cork's River Lee has its source in Gougane Barra's Lake, where it flows through Ballingeary and onwards towards Cork City. It must be the most photographed Church in this part of Ireland and many a happy wedding have enjoyed this wonderful setting for their photographs. Truly magical, peaceful in a stunning location.
As well as the excellent facilities of the Forest Park with its toilets, picnic tables, car park and market walks taking you into the heart of the valley there are two much loved family businesses looking after visitors in Gougane Barra, Cronin's Café and Restaurant and the Gougane Barra Hotel, perennially popular for weddings which are held in St. Finbarr's Oratory, so great photographs are guaranteed. The friendly family owed café serves a great selection of drinks, salad, sandwiches with plenty of space inside and out. The newly refurbished hotel was originally Cronin's Hotel and the sixth generation of the family continue the tradition of hospitality Gougane Barra, and realise that they are the minders of something special.
Gougane Barra is one of those places which draws you in, has a magical sense of place and for Irish and overseas visitors alike leaves you with an memory that you have been somewhere special which provides balm for the body and the soul.
Top Tip: if you continue westward past Gougane Barra just before you come to the hamlet of Keakhill there is Future Forests Garden Centre with a marvellous range of Irish native species of trees and shrubs and a forest friendly building made with tree trunks and waney timber. Anything bought here is a good buy as they are used to the Irish climate, as are the staff!
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