The people of Kerry's rugged hills tend to be made of tough stuff, and none came tougher than Molly Gallivan of Releagh townland in the shadow of Barra-bui Mountain.
Wandering around the tiny rooms of her roadside cottage before setting off up the hillside, I marvelled at how this mother of seven small children, widowed in the hard times of the late 19th century, had kept body, soul and family together.
Anyone with a scrap of imagination couldn't help but be fascinated by the exhibition assembled by local historian Stephen O'Sullivan in Molly's restored cottage.
Not only did Molly spin, weave, sew, cook, bake and scrub, she also cut turf, dug spuds, milked the cow, produced eggs and honey for sale to tourists rattling by on their way to Glengarriff, and brewed the meanest poitín this side of the Caha Mountains.
If ever a man was deeply in love with his native land, it's Stephen O'Sullivan. He's turned the old cottage into a heritage centre with lively nights of craic. He's also restored Molly's farm on the hill behind.
In company with Maria Farmer, Kerry's energetic Rural Recreation Officer, Stephen and I wandered up the boreen past tiny walled fields of potato ridges and pasture, each with its handmade hazel-stick gate. Bessie the black Kerry cow and Jinny the grey donkey in her rain-plastered coat came up to have their noses stroked, nodding ruminatively as if to say, 'Humans and their sentimentality, eh?'
As we climbed the slope, a sensational view began to open out. Molly Gallivan's farm looks south across the broad, deep valley of the Esk River, a delectable wooded dip under the long rising ridge of Barra-bui, itself a rise of ground between the upland ranges of the Sheehy and Caha Mountains.
Today there were veils of fine rain rippling through the valley, but nothing could detract from the prospect across to Barra-bui, particularly when the clouds relented and a finger of sun poked through to turn the drifting vapour into a brilliant opalescent dazzle.
"See the cairn up at the peak of Barra-bui? It's right in alignment with the stone row here." I followed Stephen's pointing finger, up to the tiny pimple of the cairn, down to a row of boulders half-buried in the bog.
A long phallic stone leaned nearby, chocked into position with supporting slabs to point directly at the place on the horizon where the sun would make its solstice appearance.
Over the course of a decade, Stephen has turned his eyes and, one might say, his psychic antennae to note such ancient alignments. Under his guidance I picked out the ancient signs and symbols, a 6,000-year-old calendar of sun, moon and stars, subtly concealed in the landscape of fields, bogs and empty mountain sides.
Between one shower and the next the sun slipped out, magnified through a million drops of rain, to brush the moor grass into rich gold. A sloppy hill path led across gushing streams, their banks starred with the lime-green rosettes of butterwort. The track dipped to the main road, and ran as a stony boreen down to the hurrying brown torrent of the Esk River.
We crossed by a slender iron footbridge, rusted into latticework, and followed the farm lane at the foot of Barra-bui, talking of the Bronze Age copper mine high up in its shoulder. "I was never particularly interested in archaeology," remarked Stephen. "But then a friend told me about seeing the sunrise spotlighting an old stone circle, and it was like a light switching on for me.
"We've so many fascinating sites all across Kerry, and all over Ireland, and the truth is that most people don't even know they're there!"
Back at Molly Gallivan's Cottage we dried out and warmed up with a cup of tea. The Fionn MacCool Loop had been a pure pleasure to walk. The mighty man Fionn's connections with it? Well, tenuous at best, Maria and Stephen both had to admit.
But with a drop of the cratur to sweeten the tea, that somehow didn't matter a jot.
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 85 TRAVEL: N71 Kenmare- Glengarriff. Park opposite Molly Gallivan’s Heritage Centre, two miles south of Bonane.
WALK DIRECTIONS: Through gate to right of cottage; follow boreen uphill through traditional farm, and on up hillside to cross stile (blue arrows/BA on yellow-topped posts/YTP). Bear right across hillside, following YTP down to N71. Left for 50m; right (BA) down farm track following BAs. Cross Esk River; up to lane. Right (BA) along it. In 600m Cailleach Beara Loop bears left (purple arrow), but keep ahead here, and follow BA along lane for 1½ miles to N71. Right to Molly Gallivan’s cottage.
LENGTH: Four miles — allow two hours.
CONDITIONS: Hillside track (can be muddy); farm lanes.
DON’T MISS: Molly Gallivan’s cottage and traditional farm; many archaeological sites and stones (see notice boards); superb views of Barra-bui mountain.
REFRESHMENTS: Tearoom at Molly Gallivan’s Cottage; hot chocolate at The Chocolatier, Bonane (yes, really!).
ACCOMMODATION: Brooke Lane Hotel, Kenmare (064 664 2077; brookelanehotel. com) — extremely friendly and comfortable.
MOLLY GALLIVAN’S COTTAGE: Heritage Centre, traditional farm, Irish Nights, crafts etc. Tel: 064 664 0714; mollygallivans.com.
INFORMATION: Kenmare Heritage Centre. Tel: 064 664 1233. Killarney Tourist Office. Tel: 064 663 1633; discoverireland.ie/southwest.
WALKING NEWS: Glen of Aherlow Winter Walking Festival, Co Tipperary, January 28-30. Tel: 062 56331; aherlow.com; aherlowhouse.ie.
Our round-up of Winter Walking Festivals on December 18 included Ardara Walking Festival, Co Donegal. Please note that the dates are March 12-13, 2011. Thanks to Donal Haughey for the update.