There are few places in Ireland as enchanting as Gougane Barra – the out-of-the-way but picturesque spot which is associated with Cork’s patron saint, Finbarr.

It was once a secluded place of monastic prayer. Later it became a place of pilgrimage. At one time, the pilgrimages developed into wild parties and debauchery which were roundly condemned by church authorities and later banned!

St. Finbarr’s Oratory, Gougane Barra, Co Cork (1901)

Later still, it evolved into a place where couples seeking to avoid the glare of publicity on their wedding day would go for a quiet family wedding. Then it became a place where couples desperately in need of something novel and unique would come — and bring half the world with them!

It’s a small island on a lake which is part of the early miles of the River Lee and it’s joined to the mainland by a narrow but short causeway. It is part of the parish of Uibh Laoire which also includes Ballingeary and Inchigeelagh.

The St. Brendan Window at St. Finbarr’s Oratory, Gougane Barra, which was made by Watsons of Youghal.

Much of what is visible on the island today owes its origin to Fr Patrick Hurley who was parish priest of the parish from 1888 to 1908 when he died.

Patrick Hurley was born in Enniskeane Parish and studied at the Irish College, Paris, where was ordained a priest in 1865.

He obviously had an interest in reading history because it was while he was browsing old manuscripts in the library of the Irish College in Paris that he happened across the life story of Thaddeus McCarthy — the Cork man who was appointed bishop in Co Cork twice but was never installed.

During his time as the local parish priest in Uibh Laoire, Fr Hurley set about conserving what was left of the old ruins and restoring the life of St Finbarr. On the ruins, he erected a set of Stations of the Cross and thus restored the sense of it being a place of prayer rather than superstition.

A cast iron bell hangs on the outer wall of this structure and it bears the date it was cast. It reads 1025.

Nearby, Fr Hurley set about erecting a new chapel and it was dedicated in 1901.  Its design is simple in the Neo-Romanesque style and brings to mind the many similar oratories that were scattered across the land of Ireland in the middle ages.

He commissioned Watsons of Youghal to make a set of stained glass windows for the chapel. The illustrate the lives of local Cork and Irish saints – with an additional window to Our Lady. Watsons’ widows of that era are part of the Celtic Revival style which take iconography from ancient Irish sources – like the Book of Kells – and entertains it with a new iconography.

The craftspeople who made these windows were truly gifted to be able to replicate in stained glass the complex interweaving of items that the monks of old had taken years to perfect on parchments.

If you’d like to read more about Watsons’ work see Finola’s superb treatment of their work here.

There are few people buried in this sacred place in recent centuries but one of them — understandably — is Fr. Patrick Hurley. His grave lays inside the old chapel ruins close to the spot where St. Finbarr and his monastic companions slept and worked and prayed.

Tá leaba aige measc na naomh.

Grave of Fr Patrick Hurley at Gougane Barra.