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The name Gougane Barra comes from Saint Finbarr, who is said to have built a monastery on an island in the lake nearby during the 6th century. The present ruins date from around 1700 when a priest called Denis O'Mahony retreated to the island. During the times of the Penal Laws, Gougane Barra's remoteness meant that it became a popular place for the celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass. The nineteenth century oratory which stands near the original monastery is famous for its picturesque location and richly decorated interior and is a popular place for weddings. 
It is a popular pilgrimage destination with pilgrims coming to pray a 'round' of prayers described in a 'tablet' at the entrance to the island. This 'round' includes prayers at a series of small stone cells in a small walled court as well as the oratory itself.
There is a hotel near the oratory with a coffee shop and a gift shop.
Afforestation of the area around the settlement began in 1938 and Gougane Barra is now home to a 1.42 square kilometre (or 138 hectare) forest park with 20 different species of tree, mainly Sitka Spruce, Japanese Larch, Scots Pine and Lodgepole pine, and a large number of native species of flora and fauna. The source of the River Lee rises in the hills above the park and flows into Gougane lake. The forest park has 5km of motor trail and 10km of hill walks, nature points and vista trails. 
- Placenames Database of Ireland. Guagán Barra Verified 2011-05-06.
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