There’s an ancient place in County Cork where hidden groves of oak, ash, hawthorn and hazel keep age old secrets entwined amongst their mossy, ivy strewn branches. Here lies one of the few remaining alluvial forests in Western Europe and the only one west of the River Rhine in Germany. The Gearagh was formed at the end of the Ice Age when meltwater from the great glacier which originated in Com Rua in Gougane Barra cascaded out from the grip of the upper River Lee Basin. This rapid outpouring of water resulted in deposits of huge amounts of soil and stone which formed islands divided by veins of streams. It was on these islands that woodlands developed. With the march of progress and the ever increasing hunger for power, several hundred acres were wiped out in the 1950s to make way for an hydro-electric scheme downstream. Much like the inhabitants of the great Yangtze river in China, families who had worked and farmed the area for centuries were relocated. When you walk in the area today you can still see roadways and paths where the old houses once stood.
The name Gearagh comes from the Gaelic “An Gaorthadh”, the wooded river. In 1987 the area was declared a statutory nature reserve. The islands are now mostly covered by the burgeoning River Lee. However, during those rare summer months when the weather is warm and dry, numerous rare species of plants emerge from the watery winter depths, one of the rarest for example is Mudwort which has only been found in one other location outside this unique location.
This area is very popular with bird watchers having both summer and winter feathered visitors. From October onwards migratory birds arrive in large flocks. The Gearagh today is a unique haven of peace and tranquillity and offers lovely off road walks and trails. When I spent a few days in the leafy, mossy ancient woods I could swear that I heard the gentle pitter patter of fairies and goblins. They say this place was a favourite haunt of Wiccans and in particular Wolf Wicca which today is a modern spiritual movement derived from traditional Wicca, eastern theosophy, and shamanic practices. It was thought that in ancient times the Wolf Wiccans could shape shift from human to wolf-like forms especially on the eve of a full moon thus leading to the well known tales of werewolves.
Indeed it would be well worth noting for those who lightly dismiss this tale to be aware that wolf bones were discovered in a number of cave sites, particularly in Cork, Waterford and Clare and indicated the presence of wolves throughout the Midlandian ice age which is said to have reached its peak between 20,000 BC and 18,000 BC – The earliest radiocarbon date for Irish wolf remains come from excavated cave sites in Castlepook Cave, north of Doneraile, County Cork, and dates back to 34,000 BC.
A great way to finish off your day would be with a visit to Gougane Barra where you will encounter the stark cliffs of Com Rua where the glacier itself originated. Top Tip – Don’t forget to bring some insect repellant if it’s not a windy day as midges (like the fairies and goblins) have a Grá Mór for these woodlands.