As I approached the access to the tiny island, the only sound was the soft crunch of my footsteps on the loose gravel. The day was sunny and warm; the crystal azure sky
turned the glacial lake a deep, almost ocean blue. Beyond the lake, the red sandstone mountains soared above the basin enhancing the dramatic setting of St. Finbarr’s Oratory and giving the valley its name – Com Rua, the Red Hollow.
Nearing the grey stone church, I was again struck by the absence of sound. Birdsong and the occasional soft pat-pat of the lake lapping at the shore were the only sounds to disturb the contemplative silence. The brown, Gothic entrance was closed, but the handle turned easily and granted entry to the Chapel. As my eyes adjusted to the dimly lighted interior, they were rewarded with a view of one of the most charming Chapels I have seen in Ireland. The main altar, constructed in marble, is carved with intricate celtic symbols and statues. Behind, the honey-coloured, wooden altarpiece continues the carved celtic theme, with intertwined celtic knots and symbols of eternity. Above the altarpiece, two narrow stained glass windows rise like tapers and filter the natural light with images of St. Finbarr and St. Maria Patrona.
Gougane Barra. The name trips lightly off the tongue and for anyone who has been there, the idyllic setting begs a return visit. It is no wonder that the 6th Century Saint Finbarr decided to build a monastery here in this quiet place to educate his followers. Originally, access was only by boat, but today there is a footpath that leads from the mainland. The monastery at Gougane Lake became known as Gougane Finbarra, which eventually shortened to simply Gougane Barra.
The site has inspired poems and songs, and the Chapel is a favourite for brides. During the penal times locals secretly wended their way through mountain paths in order to celebrate Mass at the monastery and still today, it is considered a Holy Place where pilgrims come to pray and collect water from the Holy Well.
St. Finbarr’s original monastery no longer exists, and the current ruins are part of a 17th Century monastery built by a priest who, following in the footsteps of St. Finbarr, also aspired to a life of prayer and contemplation. Behind the chapel, enclosed by four stone walls and surrounding a large wooden cross, are a series of prayer cells. Each of the back walls of these prayer caves or cells is inscribed with a cross. Even today, it is a wonderful place to pray and reflect.
In addition to the historical information surrounding Gougane Barra, there are numerous legends as well. One of the more famous ones tells of the chase and expulsion of a great sea monster from Gougane Lake which resulted in the creation of a large channel that is now the River Lee. The river, whose source is Gougane Lake flows west to the sea at Cork City. To commemorate this legend, tucked into a hedge along the road near the isle, is a charming little sea monster just waiting to have his photograph taken.
Situated in West Cork near the village of Ballingeary, Gougane Barra features a lovely hotel (closed in winter) and bar with views of the scenic splendor. We will visit it again on the Emerald Essence Tour 2014.