For the past 48 years I have been hill-walking with a group of men – mainly Dubliners – the length and breadth of Ireland: mainly in Wicklow, but also in Kerry, Connemara, Mayo, Donegal, the Cooleys and the Mournes. I have also joined them in Snowdonia in Wales, the English Lake District and the Cairngorms in Scotland.
Last week we were in Connemara and Mayo, using the cosy and welcoming Leenane Hotel (costing an astonishingly reasonable €180 for three nights bed and breakfast with an excellent dinner) on the shore of Killary Harbour as our base. The highlight was a six hour walk in the crystal-clear after-rain sunshine from the remote Glenummera under the Sheefrey Hills, up a long ridge to Ben Creggan, across Ben Gorm and down to the famous Aasleagh Falls at the head of Killary. In the clear air at the top of Ben Gorm we could see all the way from Galway Bay and the Aran Islands in the south, across to the jagged line of the Twelve Bens and the impressive bulk of Mweelrea (Connacht’s highest mountain) in the west, and as far as Achill Island and Croagh Patrick in the north. On a light-filled day like that, to be in the mountains in the west of Ireland is to be as close to heaven as one can get on this earth. [Of course, this being the west of Ireland, the next morning a thousand varieties of pouring, pelting rain were dumped on us for 36 hours!]
And the ‘craic’ was good. To the casual observer in the hotel bar or restaurant, our group of 18 was just an ordinary cross-section of cheerful elderly men on a jaunt in the Irish wilderness. We were retired printers, engineers, salesmen, electricians, fitters, journalists, taxi-drivers, brewery workers, jewellers, school inspectors, semi-state company and supermarket managers, The talk round the dinner table was of creaking bodies and absent friends, of past days spent scrambling in the hills and nights spent drinking and carousing, with a few hair-raising tales and political arguments thrown in (the group represented the full gamut of Irish opinion, everything from ‘Redmondite’ to ultra-republican).
But this was no ordinary group of Irishmen. For this group have walked and climbed in most of the great mountain ranges of the world: the Himalayas, the Pamirs, the Andes, the Rockies, the Mountains of the Moon in Congo, Mount Kenya, the Urals, the Alps.
Paddy O’Leary is one of the finest Irish mountaineers of the modern age (as well as the author of the classic 2015 book on Irish mountaineering, ‘The Way that We Climbed’). For 20 years he was director of the Tiglin Adventure Centre in Wicklow. In the early 1990s he spent some months wandering in a mountainous region in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh which, because of its proximity to Chinese Tibet, had been closed to outsiders for about 35 years. He crossed high passes into valleys which had not seen a westerner in several generations, and joined in their various religious and harvest celebrations. He reconnoitred routes into mountains which would later be climbed by members of the Irish Mountaineering Club (including other members of our Connemara group). He was arrested for straying into a forbidden zone and had what he calls “the wonderful experience of horse-riding for two long days, while under relaxed arrest, across wild and lovely Ladakhi terrain not seen by outsiders since before the Second World War.”
Back in Ireland, he recalls a night-long walk in the Twelve Bens around 1955. “Having completed a long rock-climb late in the evening, four of us walked over several peaks including the range’s highest, Benbaun. The glorious sunsets were reflected in the myriad of lakes in Roundstone Bog and in the Atlantic. The moon was so bright we didn’t need torches. The midsummer’s night was so short that as we descended dawn broke.”
Dublin taxi-driver Liam Doyle twice went to the Venezuelan Andes in the mid-1990s to climb that country’s two highest peaks, Pico Humboldt (4,940 metres) and Pico Bolivar (4,978 metres), expeditions that were led by another pioneering Irish climber, Tony Kavanagh (who in the 1960s had climbed in the Cerro Torre region of the Patagonian Andes with legendary British climber Don Whillans). He has a vivid memory of the first of those climbs, setting out from their base camp in the pitch black of the small hours, slipping badly while crossing a rock face in the dark, and being saved by Noel McGarry’s (another of the Connemara group) ice axe. This was followed by an energy-sapping crossing of a glacier field with crampons and ropes under fierce morning sunlight.
Gerry Cairns was a member of the Ludlows folk music group in the late 1960s, before moving to Scotland and a career as a schools inspector. He walked and climbed in the Scottish Highlands for over 40 years before retiring back to Dublin. One of his strongest memories is of a rescue by a very courageous young man called Brian Dunne, a member of the famous Creagh Dhu climbing club.
In the winter of 1974 Cairns, Dunne, two experienced climbing friends and two novices, were trying to get out of the remote bothy at Knoydart because torrential rain had made the surrounding glen impassable. They climbed the 3000 foot ridge between Glen Pean and Glen an Lochan Eanaich, but met a ferocious gale at the top. Cairns was blown against rocks and fractured two ribs, and their compasses were spinning out of control because of the ridge’s magnetic field. They were forced down into Glen Dessarry where the main river was in terrifying spate. One of the novices, Eddie Daly, was swept away in the flood. Dunne, in full mountaineering gear including heavy boots, dived into the raging river and managed to drag him to the bank. As Daly kept fainting after his ordeal, they were forced to build a makeshift wall from rocks and to erect a shelter using a fly sheet propped up by a bush. During the night they had to retreat again as the adjoining burn burst its banks and started to sweep the shelter away. “I eventually walked out to safety wearing one boot and one tennis shoe. But if Brian Dunne hadn’t dived into that torrent, Eddie Daly would have been dead”, Cairns recalls.
My experience of high mountains is in the ‘ha’penny’ place when compared to my adventurous friends in the west. The highest mountain I have climbed was Popocatépetl (in 1978), the 5,426 metre snow-covered volcano 70 kilometres outside Mexico City. This not a difficult mountain – one is likely to be greeted at the top, having ascended with the full gear of crampons and ropes and ice-axes, by day trippers who have driven up the other side and parked a few hundred feet from the summit! In Europe I have climbed the Monte Rosa, on the Swiss-Italian border, another ‘easy’ mountain not requiring any great rock, snow or ice climbing skills (although at 4,634 metres it is the second highest peak in the Alps).
So that’s my short tribute to the company of men – they resolutely refuse to give their group a name – with whom I have spent many a happy hour over nearly half a century in the mountains of Ireland and further afield. Thanks for the company and the conversations and the adventures to Noel McGarry, Mick Behan, Joe Bent, Gareth Jones, Paddy O’Leary, Eddie Cody, Gabriel McCarrick, Gerry Cairns, Liam Doyle, Willie O’Brien, Derrig Monks, Con Woulfe, Sean Stevenson, George Mongey, Christy Greer, Gary Forde and John Casey (and some who have passed on, notably that lovely man Mick Slevin , who left us last November).
POSTSCRIPT: I was out of the country last month during the controversy over President Micheal D. Higgins’ declining of an invitation by the main church leaders to attend – along with the Queen – a “service of reflection and hope” in Armagh on 21st October “to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland.” President Higgins objected that the title of the service “wasn’t a neutral statement politically.”
I felt I had little to add to the hundreds of thousands of words in the media on that issue. But now that the Government has announced that it will be represented at that service by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Chief Whip Jack Chambers, I have three thoughts.
Firstly, I was extremely disappointed at our President’s decision. I thought he should have been statesman enough to have compromised in a small way on his nationalist/republican beliefs in order to attend the service of ‘reflection and hope’ which was the church leaders’ carefully considered attempt to join together in remembrance of a very significant (and, many would say, very tragic) landmark in Irish history, and to look forward to a better and more reconciled country in the future. How are we going to begin to contemplate making the huge compromises needed for a harmonious united Ireland – in definitions of Irishness, governing ethos, political systems, health and education, flags and anthems and a host of other areas – if our President can’t even bring himself to attend a harmless ecumenical service?
As the respected Derry nationalist Denis Bradley put it: “The most transformative moments in Anglo/Irish and unionist/nationalist relationships have been when individuals and institutions have gone beyond the politically correct and the judicially safe.” Citing Albert Reynolds meeting loyalist paramilitary leaders and Martin McGuinness shaking hands with the Queen, he said these events were “the result of political astuteness that recognised the changing atmosphere that was demanding a more courageous leadership. The generosity that was shown was in tune with the prevailing winds.”1
Secondly, his action has diminished what I would call the ‘reconciling space’ above tribal politics which was created by the presidencies of his two wise predecessors, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, not least by their invitations to all shades of Northern opinion to Áras an Uachtaráin every July (a custom which Michael D. has continued). Moderate unionists – as well as those of us who insist on believing in the possibility of reconciliation between unionists and nationalists on this island – will find it hard in the future to see President Higgins as anything other than a traditional old nationalist/republican whose credibility as a key symbol of reconciliation has been irrevocably damaged.
Thirdly, President Higgins’ supporters will say that his action was vindicated by the Irish Times opinion poll finding that 68% of people in the Republic supported his decision. I wonder if there was an overlap with the 82% who in the same poll opposed higher taxes on energy and fuel to help prevent the approaching climate change catastrophe.2 Clearly, truth and wisdom are not found in opinion polls.
[I imagine that most of my mountaineering friends would disagree with the sentiments in this postscript. These are entirely my own opinions.]
1 ‘President can and should attend service in Armagh’, Irish Times, 20 September
2 ‘Poll reveals Higgins ‘right to decline’ invite to partition event, Irish Times, 8 October (and other opinion poll results)