It’s the opposite of a motorway. As I drive into the Cumeengeera Valley, scraggly summer hedgerows slap my wing mirrors. Punky tufts of grass on the boreen work like brushes, scrubbing the car’s undercarriage. The mountains around me make me feel the size a grain of rice in a giant green bowl.
I’m searching for the trailhead for the Rabach Way, a tough little out-and-back hike dipping even further into the valley. Eventually, there it is. A weathered sign points one way to a stumpy stone circle in a field; the other way to the trail — a rocky, boggy, three-mile walk that leads hikers to a deserted village in the clutch of the Caha Mountains. And the tale of a 200-year-old murder.
‘The Rabach’ is named for Cornelius O’Sullivan Rabach, who lived in a remote community here in the 1800s. He’s said to have killed an outsider and hidden out in a cave cut into the surrounding hills. ‘These gloomy wilds’ is how The Kerry Evening Post described the valley in 1831, after the Rabach was finally captured and hanged for his crime. But hiking into them that day, ending up at a scatter of ruins by a trickling stream, ‘gloomy’ is not the word. It’s gorgeous.
This is just one detour, one little crease on the Beara Peninsula. One of five fingers of land protruding from Ireland’s southwestern end, it’s a rabbit hole of a region that feels bafflingly off-radar to tourism. Off-season, the Beara’s only hotel is closed. While coaches queue to circuit the famous Ring of Kerry, one peninsula to the north, the thin, twisty roads here are often empty. They lend themselves to a natural kind of slow travel, and some surprising encounters. One evening, the kids next door to the lodge I’m staying in call over to drop in some mackerel, having caught too many to use themselves. I grill it with a simple squirt of lemon.
The Beara, as locals know it, seems to have been named for a Spanish princess. Beara, daughter of a second-century king of Castile, met and married Irish High King Owen Mór while he was travelling in Spain — as the story goes, when the couple returned to the peninsula, he named it for her. Straddling the Cork and Kerry border, it can be circuited via a 90-mile ‘Ring of Beara’ route, but that just skims the surface. The landscape is crumpled with hills and valleys, sprinkled with wedge tombs and standing stones, popping with place names that hint at the history and adventure here. The Miskish Mountains. Hungry Hill. Towns like Allihies and Eyeries. Cumeengeera. Or McCarthy’s Bar in Castletownbere.
“Never pass a bar that has your name on it,” was one of Pete McCarthy’s maxims, and a night here gave the famous travel writer a title and cover for one of his books. I find the place quiet, but otherwise as described — in parts like a grocery shop squeezed into a bar, in others like a bar squeezed into a grocery shop. There’s a ham slicer on the counter, provisions on the shelves, a chess club competing in silence in the back room. I sup a Guinness in a snug by the window.
You’d probably call Castletownbere the Beara’s hub town. Big, colourful trawlers line up in the harbour; in summer the tourists go by in campervans, cars or on bikes. But this peninsula doesn’t really do hubs. It feels more broken up than that. The season is short, and the wilderness is always close. A quick ferry from the town takes me to Bere Island and another hike, the six-mile Ardnakinna Lighthouse loop. Following the yellow arrows along a section of the long-distance Beara Way, at one point I turn a corner to come face to face with a snow-white horse, staring at me in the mist. It feels like I’ve meandered into mythology.
Around the peninsula, spring and summer see roads fringed with flaming waves of orange montbretia and raspberry-pink fuchsia. The Healy Pass, a breathtaking gap over the Caha Mountains, delivers drivers to views over a baklava of hairpin bends reminiscent of Norway’s Trollstigen, the ‘Troll’s Road’.
Another snaking track might take you to Ireland’s only cable car, connecting the tip of the Beara with Dursey Island. Or the Beara Barista, a little blue caravan selling goodies like Macroom buffalo burgers with Milleen’s cheese above Ballydonegan Bay. Or Helen’s Bar at Kilmacalogue, where fresh mussels and crab never have far to travel to your table. Or Dzogchen Beara, an unlikely Tibetan Buddhist retreat near Castletownbere.
Here, I slip off my shoes for a guided meditation session, struggling to close my eyes to picture windows overlooking the ocean. It’s hard to believe the gateway towns to this peninsula, Glengarriff in County Cork and Kenmare in County Kerry, are less than 35 miles away — and that most travellers drive between the two, bypassing the Beara completely. They’re missing a world here, far from motorways.
Castletownbere is a 4.5 hour drive from Dublin, or two hours from Cork.
Visit Beara Tourism for more information.
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