An off-radar adventure in Co Kerry leads to a deserted village, a 19th-century murder mystery, and some of the southwest’s most stunning scenery
There is a lonely valley on the Beara Peninsula where a tough but short walk will suck you out of the 21st century and, cell by cell, feel like it is reassembling you as a time-travelling wayfarer.
Hidden between hulking ridges near the Cork and Kerry border, it takes you to a deserted village set beneath a fierce crease in the Caha Mountains, and a clear, trickling stream that is central to the story of a centuries-old murder-mystery.
The rocky, boggy walk to this place is called The Rabach Way, and I was so captured by its beauty, detachment and dark legend, that I walked it twice in two days.
The first time, I went with my 11-year-old son, Sam. We were on holidays nearby, and I’d been told about the off-grid adventure by Karen Coakley of Kenmare Foodie Tours (@kenmarefoodies). “It’s like going right into the bowels of The Caha Mountains,” she says. “There’s a lost village in there with an amazing story.”
That kind of line is catnip to a travel writer. So several days later, there we were, winding our way towards Lauragh in search of the trailhead.
That was a mystery in itself. Staff in our hotel hadn’t heard of the walk, or the Rabach, but a bit of Googling and maps research gave me enough information to take an educated guess. As we nosed the car down a boreen into the Cumeengeera Valley, my phone signal dipped to zero bars, summer hedgerows whipped the mirrors and tufty grass running down the middle of the road scrubbed the undersurface of the car like a brush.
I couldn’t see signs for the hike and was at the point of turning around — but the boreen was too thin to turn on. So we pushed on and, sure enough, arrived at a weathered sign pointing one way to the Shronbirrane Stone Circle, a ring of rocks sticking like old teeth from a field, and the other to The Rabach Way. Another sign, fixed to a fencepost nearby, signalled a small parking area: ‘Adults €4; Children €2’.
The clouds moved as if in time-lapse overhead, sheep stared from whispering grasses and, stepping from the car, the valley seemed to hold us like ants in the palm of its hand — a grasp that could allow us a spectacularly sunny stroll, or crush us with storming rain and wind at a moment’s notice. I didn’t know whether we should set off in our waterproofs, or shorts and sunscreen.
We did both, hopping a gate and following the last gasp of the boreen down to a stile and a trickling stream, which we used stepping stones to cross. A metallic blue dragonfly hovered over the water like a tiny drone. A startled hare bounded out from behind a rock. Meadow pippets pinged up from patches of fern. The greenery was dotted with pops of bog cotton and violet, and every now and then our feet would spring back surprisingly on soft squidges of sphagnum moss.
Waymarkers were set at just about visible intervals, and we carefully picked out trails between them, watching our feet between the rocks, ferns and boggy mulch. I knew the walk was just a few kilometres long, but kilometres mean different things in different places. “We’ll just have a look from the next post,” I tell Sam, as we huffed and puffed, moving deeper into the valley. And when we got to that: “Just one more.”
Eventually, we reached a marker on an old stone wall, and a jaw-dropping vista opened up before us. Bulging, brutal mountains rose up either side of a newly revealed part of the glen; a stream zig-zagged along its floor like a pattern sliced in felt. Following its line back towards a gully, I spotted the ruins. Using my long camera lens, I zoomed in for a closer look. A handful of stone, roofless houses, sat slowly being reclaimed by the landscape.
“OK,” I say. “Let’s head back.”
As we walked, I recounted the story of The Rabach Way, or what I’d been able to gather of it. It’s named for Cornelius O’Sullivan Rabach, one of a few dozen people who apparently lived in the settlement in the early 1800s. One day in 1815, it seems that an outsider arrived here — a sailor, pedlar, or man on the run, depending on the version — and, believing he was carrying a substantial sum of money, the Rabach murdered him.
A neighbour, Mary Sullivan, witnessed the act, and when she later confronted him, he is said to have murdered her too — leaving her body in the stream to stage an accident. This too, was witnessed, though the man who saw it didn’t implicate Cornelius for years.
When police finally came for him, the Rabach hid out in a cave above the village, evading them for months before eventually being apprehended, taken to Tralee gaol, and hanged for his crimes in 1831.
I found some historical accounts and retellings collected into a book — An Rabách of Cumeengeera by Janet Murphy — but it’s hard to unpick fact from folklore. Rabach means “bold, dashing, fast”, Murphy writes, and the place is described bleakly in her sources. “A mountain farm in a very wild and remote part of the barony,” reported The Kerry Evening Post in 1831. “These gloomy wilds”.
Back at the car, the sun moved like a spotlight across the ground. It wasn’t at all gloomy, but I couldn’t get over the remoteness. Just one other car had arrived since we set out. Outside one of the houses near the trailhead, I paid our parking fees and get chatting to Phyllis Healy — the walk traverses her and husband Mike’s land.
“I might come back tomorrow,” I muse.
“Do,” she smiles.
That evening, I couldn’t get the valley out of my head. I wanted to walk among those ruins. I’ve been to and explored on Beara many times, but had never heard of this breathtaking place. Rain was forecast, but I decided to return the next day anyway. The rest of the family shook their heads, opting for lie-ins and late breakfast. But I was like a dog with bone now.
By 9am, I was back at the trailhead, in full waterproofs, heading into the cauldron in spitting rain. By 9.15am, I was shedding layers in the sun, sweating as I moved uphill. Knowing the way this time, I made faster headway, passing under Tooth Mountain, back to that waymarker on the wall. From there, I lined up the next post and made my way down towards it. The ruins drew closer, and I progressed to the foot of the gully.
My tracker app had measured just over 2km, and I know there were much longer, harder walks I could have undertaken in the ridges around me. But there was something enchanting about this one. I felt like a freediver, descending a line into the depths, alone in nature, before rising to reality again.
Beneath the gully, I found the remains of several homesteads and a network of old walls, their stone by now almost blurring into the landscape. I ran my fingers along the damp moss between rocks, stepped through empty doorways and peered through glassless windows. In one of the shells, I could make out the shape of an old hearth. In another, there was a rusted shard of corrugated steel, surely part of a former roof. When did these buildings date from? When did the last people leave?
There are several ways to spell the name of this place — Cumeengadhra is another, meaning “the valley of the hound”. What other stories does it hold?
That morning, I had it all to myself. Sheep stared and munched, stared and munched, occasionally bounding away theatrically. In the stream, clear as vodka, I saw two slim animal bones. I thought about our year-and-a-half with Covid-19 and, of course, of Cornelius O’Sullivan Rabach. I felt uneasy that a murder story drew me there, about yet more folklore favouring a killer over his victims. But I also felt enough time had passed to allow it intrigue. I scanned the landscape for the Rabach’s cave, and wondered how much of the story was true.
Maybe the whole thing is best left with the ghosts.
Back at the car, I spotted Phyllis and asked if she remembered me from the day before. She laughed — it’s not exactly Times Square. I hadn’t planned to write about it, but The Rabach Way had me hooked. Back at my desk this week, I reached out to re-check details and place names, and asked how she would describe the valley.
“It’s peaceful,” she said.
Distance: 4-5km, depending on your explorations.
Level: Moderate to strenuous. Allow three hours, depending on stops and explorations, following the blue waymarkers. It’s a short route, but can get tricky underfoot and the trails aren’t always clear.
Trailhead: Heading west, follow the R571 through Lauragh, taking the first left after the bridge towards Glanmore Lake. Take the first right after 1km, following the signs to Shronebirrane Stone Circle. The trailhead arrives after 2.5km, at the end of the boreen.
Notes: There is no phone reception, shelter or facilities along the route. Pack appropriately, bring snacks and water, check the weather and leave word of where you’re going and when you’ll be back. The walk is on farmland, so park responsibly and do not bring dogs.
For more great walks in Ireland, visit our Irish walks hub.