Although we had come to Bantry in order to take advantage of the more dramatic Sheep’s Head hikes along the coast, there were some beautiful walks that start right in the center of downtown Bantry.
Along the Coast Outside Bantry
One of these takes you along the coast outside of Bantry, past a secret place where masses were held during the Penal times, and on to an ancient stone pillar. There is no doubt that this is a fun way to spend an afternoon wandering around the countryside near Bantry.
This walk begins in the middle of Bantry and walks toward the harbor on the N71 and on past Bantry House on your left, sweeping around to your left.
Keep walking along this busy highway until you get to the Westlodge Hotel and just a little beyond. At this point, you’ll see walking path sign posts leading off to the right (see Google Maps at 51.672057, -9.476344). Following these sign posts will take you along a road with fields and small farms on either side. You’ll eventually come to a rise and see the beautiful bay and Whiddy Island.
Don’t be afraid to follow the sign posts across country that say “Lady’s Well & Mass Rock” (see Google Maps at 9,29.4038W). You’ll be following in the footsteps of devote Irish catholics who came to this area during Penal Times (1695-1756). The British were attempting to quash all things Irish and in particular catholicism, so mass was forbidden. In defiance, priests would hold masses in secret in the fields. The Mass Rock is one such place still accessible today by the intrepid hiker.
Come back to the N71 heading into town. Before you reach the Westlodge Hotel, you’ll see a sign saying “Kilnaruane Pillar Stone” pointing to a road that leads off to the right. Follow this and keep your eyes open for a sign pointing to the right that says Kilnaraune. Take this and walk through a field up a hill and, eventually, you’ll get to an ancient site. A monastery may have been founded here by St. Brendan in the 6th century AD. Kilnaruane probably means ‘Church of the Romans’ as opposed to the Irish church.
A tall stone stands near the center of the rise – The Kilnaraune Pillar Stone (see Google Map 51 40.2773N 9 28.0828W). This monument is probably the shaft of a high cross dating to the 8th or 9th century. A pair of horizontal grooves on its upper surface would have accommodated the horizontal arms of the cross, which in turn would have supported its upper arm. The shaft has carvings depicting stories such as St. Paul’s visit to St. Anthony in the Egyptian desert and the famous ‘Bantry Boat.’ Nobody knows for sure what this boat represents. It’s difficult today to tell much about these carvings on the marker, but there is an information sign with representational drawings that helps one imagine what might have been on the stone at one time.
The site was probably abandoned by the twelfth century except as a place of burial. According to local tradition, some of the stones within the inner enclosure mark the graves of unbaptized children and victims of the Great Famine in the 1840s.
Make your way back to the N71 and retrace your steps back to the Bantry town center.
Hiking Above Bantry
Behind Bantry is a very steep hill. You’ll be glad that you made the effort to climb it, though, because the views are beautiful. Start at the Killeenagh Burial Ground at the corner of Scart Road and Keyes Terrace (see Google Map at 51.677080, -9.452385).
This burial ground has been in use occasionally down through the years. Prior to the change in Catholic Church law, it was used for the burial of unbaptized babies and non-national seamen. But it was put to hard use during the potato famine of 1846/47. Here is a quote from Fr. Barry, a Bantry based priest, in his writing to newspapers at that time ‘The deaths average 50 per day and the Abby graveyard is so full that they are compelled to bury the corpses in the field adjoining the workhouse.’ There is a marker on the spot memorializing this terrible time.
There is also a sign that shows you options for continuing or you can wind you way through Sheskin and back down to Bantry.