Walk of the Week: Canon Sheehan Loop
Ballyhoura Mountains, Co Limerick/Co Cork
'Glenanaar, the glen of slaughter, is a deep ravine, running directly north and south through a lower spur of the mountains that divide Cork and Limerick.'
So wrote Canon Patrick Augustine Sheehan in his novel Glenanaar, published in 1905 when the Mallow-born author had been 10 years the parish priest of Doneraile.
Canon Sheehan might be largely overlooked these days, but his name still resonates around Doneraile and in the Ballyhoura mountains, whose landscape and people he depicted with humour and humanity in a long string of books.
What Ballyhoura is celebrated for these days is walking. Ballyhoura International Walking Festival is one of the showpieces of Irish walking, and the Ballyhoura Bears walking club has a well-earned reputation for combining hiking and craic to delectable effect. It was Cal McCarthy, a dedicated Bear and knowledgeable Patrick Sheehan fan, who volunteered to show us around the Canon Sheehan Loop, a superb walk through Glenanaar Forest in the southern ranges of Ballyhoura.
Walking the forest track, we gazed south over 'Canon Sheehan Country'. The vale around Doneraile and Kildorrery lay low, its frosted hills riding like islands in a smoky sea of mist. Canon Sheehan brought out just this wintry aspect in Glenanaar: "As the weather was intensely cold, there were none of the usual thaws, but the frost knit the snow-flakes together and crusted them all over with its own hard but brilliant enamelling. The white level plain stretched its monotone of silver till it touched the sky-line, and was merged in it."
Cal indicated the line of an ancient trackway, an icy streak of silver making like an arrow for the distant Nagle Mountains. "An Claidh Dubh, the Black Ditch," said our guide. "It's been traced a long way. Iron Age, perhaps? A boundary, but between who or what?" He smiled. "There's just so much we don't know about what's in our land, which feeds the old curiosity."
We turned across the hill and came to a mossy old Mass Rock, three-sided and massive, lying under the trees. Rumours of a priest shot while praying here, tales of his burial under a pile of stones on the banks of the Ogeen River. Down there we encountered ancient broadleaved trees bearded and coiffed with frozen mosses, unearthly snow formations like arctic candyfloss, and the cold exhalations of the Ogeen as it rushed over its sandstone bed.
Patrick Sheehan was a quiet man, by all accounts, but he wasn't afraid to promulgate land reform, education, political freedom and inter-faith co-operation. Through his eyes we see the old Irish countrymen "in their strong frieze cutaway coats, their drab or snuff-coloured vests and knee-breeches, the rough home-woven stockings, and the strong shoes -- all made, like themselves, for hard work and wild tempestuous weather". Sheehan lamented in Glenanaar: "No Wordsworth has yet sung the praises of these Irish dalesmen." He himself did the job.
As we crossed the Ogeen River and came up the ice-puddled track, we puzzled over the slaughter that gave Glenanaar its ominous name. Bard Ossian tells of a great battle between Clann Morna and Clann Baskin at the Ford of Light on the Ounnageeragh or Ogeen River. Was it that ancient blood-letting? Then what of The Battle of the Raven's Glen, the ballad that describes O'Sullivan Beare ambushing a force of "Saxons and kerns from the wilds of Duhallow" on the same spot?
"Then O'Sullivan burst like the angel of slaughter/On the foe by the current of Geeragh's wild water/ And his brave men of Cork and of Kerry's wild regions/Were the rushing destroyers, his death-dealing legions/And onward they rode over traitor and craven/Whose bones long bestrewed the lone Glen of the Raven."
That's as close as we're likely to get to what happened in Glenanaar, if anything happened at all. You know what storytellers are like.