God bless mighty West Cork

Every county in Ireland has its dedicated followers. For me, the western part of Co. Cork is special. Not only have I spent a great deal of time there, but I can also trace my family roots to Inchigeelagh and Tracton Abbey, both in West Cork. My great-grandfather immigrated from Inchigeelagh.
One of Ireland’s most beautiful and inspiring features is in the Inchigeelagh/Ballingeary area in the Shehy Mountains at the Kerry border. Called Gougane Barra, it is a deep valley surrounded by high quiet cliffs – almost like an upside down Cliffs of Moher that make you feel as if you are in a huge outdoor church. In the center of Gougane Barra is a small lake filled by the runoff from the mountains that feeds the beginning of the River Lee that runs from there all the way to Cork City.
Around 600 AD, a local priest named Finnbarr selected this sheltered lake to create an outdoor oratory for his followers where they could pray and dedicate their lives to God. A representation of the oratory still exists along with a tiny chapel (no bigger than your living room) where weddings are performed and where hundreds of people gather every year on Sept. 25, the birthday of Saint Finnbarr, who is credited with founding Cork City where there is a large cathedral named after him.
In classic Irish mythology, Saint Finnbarr was considered so holy that he was consecrated directly from heaven and the sun did not go down for two weeks after he died in 633.
West Cork features a number of extraordinary towns and villages, each with its own histories and people living their hard working lives and their children going to school every day. Towns like Dunmanway, Skibbereen, Clonakilty, Macroom, and Bantry are filled with the challenges of small town life and losing population each year to larger cities and emigration.
One of the most celebrated parts of West Cork is the Beara Peninsula, which is famous for its formerly active copper mines. Many Bostonians have immigrated from there. Additionally, when the profitable mining of copper ended, a goodly number of Beara residents traveled to Montana to work in their copper mines and establish a significant Irish American population in that state.
The West Cork area was one of the last in Ireland to receive electricity. Unfortunately, this was accomplished by damming the River Lee and creating two hydro-electric dams, resulting in some of Ireland’s worst landscapes. You can still see the ugly tree stumps appearing out of the water where one of Europe’s thriving forests used to be. The price of progress.
Paris, New York, and Boston all had received electricity in the 1870s but it took another 85 years or so – 1955 – before the lights went on in West Cork. No wonder parts of Ireland have taken so long to modernize and remain essentially rural.
The conviction amongst the Irish that Ireland should be free to manage its own affairs has its roots going back a thousand years. The men and women of Cork and West Cork have been at the forefront of that struggle.
Over the centuries, native Irish forces were constantly fighting with the occupying British army, with the years 1916 to 1921 seeing hundreds of deaths in Cork on both sides.
Thomas MacCurtain, a member of The Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret rebel group, was elected Lord Mayor of Cork City in January 1920. By March he had so aggravated the British that their army y broke in to his house in the middle of the night and shot him.
His successor, Terence MacSwiney, served until he was arrested in August 1920 and put in Brixton prison in London where he went on his famous hunger strike and died on Oct. 25. His funeral on Nov. 1 was attended by thousands of mourners. He was buried in Saint Finnbarr’s Cemetery in Cork.
By that time, the British finally had enough and on Dec. 12, they moved to burn down Cork City. Soldiers went to the main buildings and set them afire. Many valuable documents were lost, but today the city has been rebuilt and MacCurtain and MacSwiney are considered heroes.
One of the main figures in all this fighting in West Cork was Tom Barry, a former British soldier who commanded the West Cork Flying column that fought many engagements with the British forces. His favorite hideaway was Gougane Barra; he led up to 104 men in fighting in that region and escaped several times into its high mountains. He lived until he was 83 and, like MacSwiney, is buried in Saint Finnbarr’s Cemetery.
This is only a brief look at West Cork and we can say that everything is peaceful now in Gougane Barra.