The Priest’s Leap is set in the most magnificent, open, hill country. The views from the top of the pass are simply breath-taking, with Bantry Bay to the south and the picturesque Sheen Valley and Caha Mountains to the north. In the distance are the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks which include Ireland’s highest peak, Carrauntoohill. A minor road (Drive with great care!) from the N71, Kenmare to Glengarriff route leads you to The Leap, taking you on a truly beautiful journey for 7 kilometres (4.5 miles), during which you pass farmyards, cottages and farmers busily going about their daily chores.
Regardless of how you’re travelling – by foot, bicycle or car, you’re captivated by the loveliness of this truly magnificent and timeless place. It’s a serenely peaceful spot with only the sound of the wind as it blows the fionnán (mountain grass) back and forth in waves.
As you approach the summit at 520 metres, just off the road to your right stands a large cross, which is a reminder of the origin of this place’s name – The Priest’s Leap (pronounced locally as ‘Lep’). The legend dates back to the seventeenth century, during the penal times, when practicing Catholicism in Ireland was against the law.
The story tells that before the dawn of day, a priest named Fr. James Archer, disguised as a lowly farmer, made his way on foot, to a sick person in the locality. The priest was carrying the ‘Secret Host’ which he kept hidden beneath his cloak and close to his heart. Fr. Archer was almost at his destination, when a peasant ran to his side and alerted him of approaching soldiers, by speaking the words that have been immortalised in the poem The Priest’s Leap written by the West Cork poet T.D. O’Sullivan:
‘Fly father fly the spies are out they watched you on your way
They’ve brought the soldiers on your track to seize you or to slay
Quick Father dear here stands my horse no whip or spur he’ll need
Mount you at once upon his back and put him to his speed
And then what course you’d better take ‘tis God alone that knows
Before you spreads a stormy sea, behind you come your foes’
The priest mounted the steed and rode in the direction of the mountain’s peak at Coomeenshrule but by this time, the soldiers had him surrounded on all sides. He managed to elude capture however, when his horse made a miraculous leap from the summit, over the bay and landed three miles away, just outside Bantry town.
The story concludes by explaining that the rock which the priest and horse struck as they landed, immediately turned to clay. The imprints of the horse’s head and knees, and also, the fingers of the priest, can be seen there to this day. In the summer of 1972, the community of Bantry erected a memorial plaque just outside the town where the mounted horse is said to have landed. This perpetuates the memory of the priest and his leap.