Mountain Walking in Ireland
Jim Perrin recalls a glorious October day’s mountain walking in Ireland’s County Kerry.
TWO THINGS you need to know about the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland’s far south-west: it’s an awfully long way from Dublin on for the most part terrible roads; and it has one of the most characterful, associatively rich and beautiful hills in these islands as its focal point. Also, it rains. A lot. Perhaps not on every day of the year, but I’d take a bet that the wet ones are in the majority. Look at the lushness of the fuchsia hedges hereabouts! I have Irish friends who, despite repeated visits, have never known a ne day on Brandon. My experience of the mountain, by contrast, was singularly fortunate. I climbed it once – it comes as a shock to calculate that this was 30 years ago. And it was one of the most memorable mountain days I ever had.
It started o‑ in An Café Liteartha in Dingle Town – one of those plum-cake-and-dark-roast steamy bookshop-co‑ee-houses with constant traditional music on the sound system and a stove round which you cluster to steam from your clothes the damp in which Ireland abounds. I love Ireland and would gladly live there, but my lungs take a di‑erent view. On this long-departed day, you could sense the rain still falling beyond the misted glass. We – being Tony Shaw, Dermot Somers and myself – had driven down from Dublin the previous night via Tralee and Anascaul, calling at various friends’ houses on the way, and being unprepared for anything but rain was taken aback when a mercury glimmer lit up the café windows. So out we went on to the drying street, clambered into my old Saab and set o‑ for the Connor Pass, beyond which we’d been led to believe Brandon Mountain lay.
Eventually, up to a single-track road doubling back on the direction in which we’d been heading, we arrived at a car park and a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of the Mountains. It was a peculiarly warm day for October. We duly crossed ourselves, pushed waterproofs into our sacks, and set o‑ west up a steep track marked with red and white poles.
Afer a little way, conscious of the dense pall of cloud ahead that obscured all onward visibility, I took it into my head to climb the slope to the right, which led on to a dull whaleback, on the assumption that this must be Brandon’s east ridge, which I’d heard from Joss Lynam was the nest of approaches, and perhaps even the best of all Irish mountain ridges.
Did it disappoint? Far from it! It exceeded every expectation. e ridge narrowed, the views spread wide, the rock was a perfect red sandstone. ere was no path. e little scrambling pitches we encountered were barely scratched. Beyond the deep chasm to our le, skulking in a cloud, was the presence of a huge, craggy hill. And the mist was becoming infused by light. As we scrambled down steep rock-steps that mark end or beginning of the east ridge and toiled up the convex slope of the mountain’s northern gable, that mist was scouring o‑ the mountain, hanging as a dense bulwark of sea-fret behind Masatiompan, and by the time we had turned our faces to the south and reached the cross, well and oratory of St. Brendan the Navigator that mark the 952m (3,123) summit of the mountain, what we saw was an entrancement:
“… full before him, gliding without tread, An image with a glory round its head; e enamoured rustic worships its fair hues, Nor knows he makes the shadow, he pursues!” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Constancy to an Ideal Object
We knew alright! ere were three of them. We could wave to them. Some say you can’t see other people’s Brocken Spectres, or you can’t see your own, or some such prescriptive nonsense. at the day we saw more of them than the sum that I’ve ever seen in the mountains, and the visions they brought danced across the cloud-bank for an hour or more as we cavorted around on the warm turf of that enchanted summit.
It’s a matter of scholarly debate whether Brandon’s named for Brendan the Navigator, who are said to have discovered America before Columbus and was born at Tralee in 484 AD, or for the pagan deity Bran, who gures largely in both Irish and Welsh mythology. What’s certain in both contemporary and ancient terms is that Brandon Mountain is the nishing point of a pagan pilgrimage taken around the festival of Lughnasa, celebrated at the beginning of August.
We were a couple of months late for that, but we’d come up from the right direction and – pagans that we are – had set our spectres frisking across the retreating cloud, before we turned our faces to the long descent into the black cwm, past black rocks and pools of black water that the Christians have characterised as the paternoster lakes, strung together like rosary beads down the shadowy valley where dark buttresses towered on either hand into a returning mist that made of our brief and revelatory summit illumination all the more precious a memory. The gifs that mountains can bestow
Brandon Mountain; 953 m; County Kerry; map: OS Ireland Discovery Series 1:50,000, Sheet 70 (an exceedingly pretty map well worthy of this remarkable mountain)