Where the N71 secondary national road meets the Caha Mountain range, a historic, long, hand-cut tunnel ensures a dramatic entrance to Bonane from the Cork side. It is soon followed by three much shorter tunnels cut into the hillside. These Tunnels were carved out of the rock during the construction of today’s Kenmare to Glengarriff road, the N71 national secondary road. Prior to construction of this road, the Priest’s Leap and the Esk Bridle Path were Bonane’s only links with West Cork. Both these steep mountain roads were not suitable for carriages. When the ‘New Line’ between Glengarriff and Kenmare together with Kenmare Suspension Bridge opened in 1842, communication between the two parish areas was transformed.
During construction of the ‘New Line’, it was reported in A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837: “Bonane […] is the property of the Marquess of Lansdowne, and consists chiefly of rocky mountain and bog; it is intersected by two old roads, both impassable for carriages; one running direct, by a wild rocky pass called the ‘Priest’s Leap’, to Bantry Bay, and the other to Glengariff. A new road from Kenmare to Glengariff is now in progress, under the Board of Public Works, which will pass through the parish, over the range of mountains separating the counties of Cork and Kerry, and will in some places be carried to an elevation of 1,000 feet above the level of the sea, affording great facilities for the improvement of this wild and mountainous district.”
These two vintage postcards above show that the original Tunnel Road was barely wider than a horse-drawn carriage. The twin tunnels and the road were widened at some later stage to make the journey less perilous.
Also known as ‘Turner’s Rock Tunnel’, it is described by Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall in Hall’s Ireland, in 1841: “The entrance to the County of Kerry from that of Cork is through a tunnel of about two hundred yards in length and a very short distance from this there are two [sic] others of much more limited extent. […] As the traveller emerges from comparative darkness, a scene of striking magnificence bursts upon him. […] Nothing can excel the wild grandeur of the prospect which extends mile upon mile; scattered through the vale and amongst the hill slopes are many cottages, white always and generally slated.”
Today’s view opening up on the Kerry side of the Tunnel is somewhat altered but still spectacular nonetheless. On a clear day the eye is drawn by the Macgillycuddy Reeks mountain range all the way across on the Ring of Kerry.
Cork Co Council nowadays owns 110 metres of the 180 metre long tunnel. Kerry County Council owns the remaining 70 metres. The tunnel is only 3.65 metres high which doesn’t allow today’s ever larger ‘high-line’ coaches to pass through it. People involved in the tourist industry bemoan this fact. Many other locals, however, are delighted that those ‘mega coaches’ are kept off our country roads, at least for now. The walls of this historic road tunnel remain rough, in a tribute to the workmen who hew this passage through the mountain by hand.