The old mountain road from Kenmare to Bantry wanders alongside the Sheen river, and by its tributary Coomeelan stream; then it rises, dips, and winds crazily over the wild western shoulders of Knockboy and Coomhola, before falling to the Cooleenlemane valley and joining the coast road at Dromkeal. At the highest point of this difficult pass (admittedly made less hazardous nowadays by a metalled and gravelled surface), the traveller passes from County Kerry to County Cork at Cummeenshrule, by the Priest’s Leap.
The priest and his leap have passed into legend; but which legend? The name occurs, unremarked, on a map of 1600, but plentiful explanations have been forthcoming in succeeding centuries. Most commonly, it is told that a priest—variously, Father James Archer, or the Jesuit lay brother Dominic Collins—was fleeing from the English soldiery (whose pursuing hounds left paw-prints in a rock at Killabunane) after the defeat of Donal Cam O’Sullivan at Dunboy. The priest, on horseback, reached the summit of this pass, with its steep rock and distant view of Bantry Bay, and leapt; the prints of his horse’s hooves survive, on the rock where he landed, nine miles away on the outskirts of Bantry. In an earlier version, a priest was summoned to attend a dying person in Bantry; praying lest he arrive too late, he leapt from a rock in Cummeenshrule and arrived at his destination. Yet another tale tells of a priest who, in penal times, was celebrating at a mass rock hereabouts when he was disturbed by law officers, and eluded capture by making this miraculous leap. More recently, a known cleric—not a ‘priest’, but the protestant rector of Kilcrohane—died mysteriously here in 1809.
None of this really explains the name. Why a refugee from the massacre at Dunboy should be travelling from Kenmare to Bantry is left unexplained, and, in any case, Priest’s Leap was so called (in English) at an earlier date than the siege of Dunboy. Great leaps are common in Irish folklore, and léim occurs in a number of Irish placenames—though, suggestively, not here. Perhaps a priest did, once, leap from this crag, for reasons as lost as his name; or perhaps legends of more ancient heroes were transferred in the telling, as legends sometimes are, to later dates and contexts; or perhaps the origin of the name was obscure, and stories were later invented to explain it. After all, this road, and this landscape, ravish the eye and the imagination as much as any other on Beara; and every myth seems possible here.