This narrative was created by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
The Beara Peninsula in Ireland is the antithesis of a bustling highway. My journey into the Cumeengeera Valley evokes a sense of isolation; wild summer hedgerows brushing against my car mirrors, and tufts of grass sprouting from the country lane, swaying to scrub the vehicle’s underbelly. The towering mountains around me reduce my sense of self to a mere speck of rice in a colossal emerald vessel.
My goal is to locate the beginning of the Rabach Way, a challenging yet rewarding hike that explores the heart of the valley. After a time, I find it. An aged sign indicates two directions: one towards a modest stone circle in a field, and the other towards the trail — a rocky, marshy three-mile trek that escorts hikers to an abandoned village amidst the Caha Mountains, unveiling the narrative of a murder committed two centuries ago.
The Rabach Way honors Cornelius O’Sullivan Rabach, a resident of a secluded settlement here during the 1800s. Allegedly, he murdered a stranger and took refuge in a cave tucked away in the adjacent hills. The Kerry Evening Post in 1831 defined this valley as ‘these gloomy wilds’ after Rabach was ultimately apprehended and executed for his crime. However, as I hike into them today, the term ‘gloomy’ falls short of aptness. The surroundings are absolutely splendid.
This is merely a single diversion, a minor fold on the vast canvas that is the Beara Peninsula. As one of five land protrusions from Ireland’s southwestern corner, it’s a bewildering region astonishingly absent from most tourist radars. Outside of the tourist season, the only hotel in Beara stands shuttered. While the renowned Ring of Kerry, located one peninsula north, teems with tourists, the slender, winding roads here lie undisturbed. These roads open up opportunities for authentic slow travel, and unexpected encounters. One evening, the children living adjacent to the lodge I stay at, present me with surplus mackerel they’d caught, which I grill with a squeeze of lemon.
Beara, according to the locals, is named after a Spanish princess. The story goes that Beara, a daughter of a king of Castile from the second century, fell in love with and married the Irish High King Owen Mór during his travels to Spain. Upon their return to the peninsula, he named it in her honor. Occupying the space between Cork and Kerry, the region can be explored via a 90-mile ‘Ring of Beara’ route, but that merely scratches the surface. The terrain is a maze of hills and valleys, peppered with ancient tombs and standing stones, dotted with intriguingly named locales. The Miskish Mountains. Hungry Hill. Quaint towns like Allihies and Eyeries. Cumeengeera. Or McCarthy’s Bar in Castletownbere.
Pete McCarthy, the renowned travel writer, famously proclaimed, “Never pass a bar that has your name on it.” And his eponymous bar, which also gave his book its title and cover, lives up to the maxim. It’s a peculiar blend of a grocery shop snugly fit within a bar, and a bar cleverly contained within a grocery shop. The counter is home to a ham slicer, the shelves are laden with provisions, and a chess club competes in hushed silence in a room at the back. I relish a Guinness in a cozy nook by the window.
One could consider Castletownbere as the hub of the Beara Peninsula, with its large, vibrant trawlers lining the harbor and a steady influx of tourists in the summer. But the concept of a ‘hub’ seems unfitting for the broken, scattered nature of this peninsula. It’s a place where the wilderness is ever-present, and the tourist season brief. A short ferry ride from the town brings me to Bere Island and the Ardnakinna Lighthouse loop, a six-mile trek. Following the yellow markers on a section of the long-distance Beara Way, I come across a snowy-white horse shrouded in mist. It feels as if I’ve stepped into an ancient legend.
During spring and summer, the roads around the peninsula are adorned with fiery displays of orange montbretia and raspberry-pink fuchsia. The Healy Pass, a mesmerizing gateway through the Caha Mountains, presents drivers with a vista of numerous switchbacks, reminiscent of Norway’s Trollstigen, the ‘Troll’s Road’.
Additional wonders include Ireland’s only cable car linking the tip of Beara with Dursey Island, and the Beara Barista, a quaint blue caravan offering mouthwatering treats such as Macroom buffalo burgers with Milleen’s cheese near Ballydonegan Bay. There’s Helen’s Bar at Kilmacalogue, serving fresh mussels and crab, and Dzogchen Beara, an unexpected Tibetan Buddhist retreat near Castletownbere.
At the retreat, I participate in a guided meditation session, finding it challenging to shut my eyes to the magnificent ocean view through the wide windows. It’s hard to fathom that the gateway towns to this peninsula, Glengarriff in County Cork and Kenmare in County Kerry, are less than 35 miles away — and that many travelers bypass Beara completely on their journeys. They’re unaware of the treasure trove that lies beyond the bustling highways.
For more information
Castletownbere is approximately a 4.5-hour drive from Dublin or two hours from Cork.
For additional information, please visit Beara Tourism.
This narrative was published in the UK & Ireland supplement, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Beara Peninsula
What is the Rabach Way?
The Rabach Way is a challenging yet rewarding three-mile hike into the heart of the Cumeengeera Valley on Ireland’s Beara Peninsula. It leads hikers to an abandoned village amidst the Caha Mountains and reveals the tale of a murder committed two centuries ago.
What unique features does the Beara Peninsula offer?
The Beara Peninsula is a region with crumpled hills and valleys, sprinkled with ancient tombs and standing stones. It offers rich local experiences like the Rabach Way hike, a visit to McCarthy’s Bar in Castletownbere, or a journey on Ireland’s only cable car connecting the tip of Beara with Dursey Island. It’s also home to Ireland’s only Tibetan Buddhist retreat, Dzogchen Beara.
What is the ‘Ring of Beara’ route?
The ‘Ring of Beara’ is a 90-mile route that circumnavigates the Beara Peninsula. It allows travellers to explore the region, although it just skims the surface of the area’s true depth in terms of its diverse landscape and rich history.
How can I reach the Beara Peninsula?
Castletownbere, the hub town of the Beara Peninsula, is approximately a 4.5-hour drive from Dublin or two hours from Cork.
Where can I find more information about travelling to the Beara Peninsula?
For additional information about travel to the Beara Peninsula, you can visit Beara Tourism.