© Yorkshire Ramblers' Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted.
However, short extracts from it may be used, for non-commercial purposes, provided their source is fully cited, acknowledged and referenced as:
Crowther, W.C.I. (1964) In the Footsteps of the Fianna. Yorkshire Ramblers' Club Journal Volume 9 Number 32: pp244-251. Leeds: YRC.

In The Footsteps Of The Fianna

by W. C. I. Crowther

In June 1963 I was able to fulfil a desire to visit County Kerry and so to fill a glaring gap in my mountaineering experience of the British Isles. It was to be a family holiday but my wife, being a good Y.R.C. type wife, accepted that as we were going to a mountainous region, I would naturally spend some time climbing.

When planning a visit to any of the Irish hills, particularly to the Killarney mountains, it must be realised that climbing is a very little followed pastime in Ireland, that guide books are virtually non-existent and that there are none of the obvious cairned tracks that criss-cross the English and Welsh hills.

Maps are also a problem. The ordinary Irish one-inch ordnance survey map has been little changed since the last complete survey was made under the British Government in the latter half of the 19th century. The printing is of poor quality and the maps are inaccurate. The one-inch ordnance survey "Tourist Edition" of the Killarney district, covering the best, but by no means all, of the Kerry mountains, is a little better but nowhere near the standard of the British one-inch ordnance. The Bartholomew half-inch is a fair alternative.

Through the good offices of the Y.R.C. Hon. Librarian, I was able to get in touch with the Hon. Secretary of the Tralee Mountaineering Club, Sean Kelly, who kindly sent me a copy of a small book by J. C. Coleman, The Mountains of Killarney, published in Ireland about 1948; I recommend this to anybody wishing to visit the district. Although there are many tourist guides to Killarney, there seems to be no other book on climbing. It is rather odd that this fine mountain area, crowned by the highest group in Ireland, Macgillicuddy's Reeks, and close to a world-famed beauty spot, the Killarney Lakes, receives so little attention from climbers.

The highest point, Carrantual, 3,414 ft., is a respectable peak by any English or Welsh standards and the whole range is very attractive and rather mysterious. The Tralee Mountaineering Club has kept a visitors' book at the summit of Carrantual since 1957, and it appears that only 500 people climb it each year, which of course includes the ordinary tourist who wants to walk up the highest mountain in Eire as well as the serious climber. It is only fair to add that the "Tourist Route" up Carrantual, via the Devil's Ladder, is about the most strenuous route of its kind I have come across in the British Isles. Compare this number with the annual tally of those who reach the summit of Snowdon, or Scafell Pike. Hardly anyone visits the other peaks, in fact I saw nobody else on the hills during all the days I was there, except companions from the Tralee M.C. with whom I was privileged to climb on two occasions. The result of this is that there are almost no footpaths and cairns appear only on the summits.

Good rock climbing is not there in abundance, which is, I suppose, the main reason for this comparative neglect. There is scrambling and grand ridge walking in plenty. The rock is mostly old red sandstone and the area is much affected by glaciation so rock is extremely broken. Furthermore, since the south west of Ireland is almost sub-tropical in climate, the vegetation is profuse, fine for the botanist and searcher for Alpine plants, but discouraging for the prospective rock climber. I am sure, however, that good long mountaineering routes of a fair standard are there for the finding, waiting for anyone who is not so concerned as I was with getting in as much as possible in a short time and who is prepared to do some gardening. They may be rather of the nature of steep scrambles interspersed with more difficult pitches. Coleman writes about possibilities under the summit of Caher, 3,200 ft., in the main Macgillicuddy's Reeks range and also on Manger-ton to the south east of Killarney. Personally I would like to explore the slabs and terraces rising up about 2,000 feet from Cummeenoughter. This is an interesting hanging valley on the north side of Carrantuai, spilling its waters down into the lovely and lonely Hags Glen, where gather the waters from the northern flanks of the Reeks. I believe that this hanging valley could provide fine long routes up to the spectacular Carrantual-Beenkeragh ridge. Coleman mentions a first ascent there in 1935 by Kerrigan and Adair but I doubt if much information exists about their route.

I rented an excellent house in Glenbeigh, a few miles away, on the northern coast of the Iveragh peninsular, but camping would be grand indeed, though I didn't see a single tent during my stay. A car is essential for a short holiday as there is hardly any public transport. All the locals seem to travel either by bicycle or the ubiquitous donkey cart. There are plenty of jaunting cars to be hired in Killarney and whilst this is a very pleasant way of going round the usual beauty spots and listening to the highly unlikely stories of the jarveys who drive them, it can hardly be classed as either suitable or economic transport for the mountaineer.

The main attractions of Killarney lie roughly in an east to west line starting with Killarney town at its eastern end, then come the justly famous Killarney Lakes which are really beautiful. West of the lower lake the Purple Mountains drop straight into the water; these rather bare heathery hills are separated from the main ridge of the Reeks by the great cleft of the Gap of Dunloe. This is the legendary stamping ground of the Celtic hero Finn mac Cumhal and his followers the Fianna, the tales of whose exploits I will leave to the guide books and the local story tellers. The northern end of the Gap is the normal starting off point for the traverse of the main ridge. This continues along a rough east to west line, winding somewhat, with Hags Glen to the north and the long valley of Cummeenduff to the south, until the top of the Devil's Ladder is reached at the point where it climbs up from Hags Glen to the col separating the main ridge from Carrantual. Here the ridge splits into two. One branch carries on westwards from Carrantual to the summit of Caher; the other strikes off northwards to Beenkeragh and runs above the Cummeenoughter slabs mentioned earlier. Between the two ridges, 2,000 ft. down, lie the three loughs of Coomloughra, and further still to the west is Lough Acoose beside the road from Glencar to Killorglin.

It was here that I started my first day on these hills, alone, driving my car eastwards from the main road by Lough Acoose, up a rough moorland track to a townland, called Derrynafeana on the map, lying under the shadow of Caher. I set off walking in intermittent showers towards the first peak on the Caher ridge, Curraghmore, 2,695 ft. The peaks were hidden by the cloud base which seems to lie perpetually at about 2,500 ft. The path soon petered out so I decided to leave the stream and strike straight up the side of Curraghmore, a long, arduous and somewhat unrewarding slog up heath and grass. As I climbed up into the cloud it became steadily gloomier and once I had gained the summit cairn of Curraghmore I had to consult my compass to find the way up the ridge to Caher, visibility was very bad and the way not immediately obvious. I found that the compass was very impor-tant in these hills, which collect all the moisture blowing in from the Atlantic in an almost perpetual cloak around them. It is easy to get lost and the broken cliffs fall away steeply for 1,500 to 2,000 feet in many places, the friable nature of the rock adding to the dangers.

I made the summit of Caher but could see nothing at all. Coleman says that the summit is very bouldery but it did not seem particularly so to me. I did not stay long but pushed on along the ridge to Carrantual. The going now becomes more interesting and the ridge narrower and more rocky. The summit of Carrantual actually came as a surprise, I reached it so quickly that at first I was not sure whether or not I was there. However, the collection of hardware, stonework and joinery soon quelled my doubts as to whether this was really the highest point in Ireland. There is a large cairn which appears in the photograph in Coleman's book. Set into the cairn is a little shrine which consists of an old orange box with a Madonna inside, and another box containing the Tralee Mountaineering Club visitors' book. A bronze panoramic direction indicator has been set up nearby by the Irish Youth Hostel Association. Most impressive of all is a large wooden crucifix, about twenty feet high.

This miscellany annoyed me at first but by comparison with the tops of the highest mountains in some other countries it was in very good taste. I ate my lunch and smoked a pipe but it was cold, damp and windy so I had no desire to linger in that bleak spot. I signed the book and glanced through it but recognised no names except those of some Tralee M.C. mem-bers, then I went on northwards along the ridge to Beenkeragh. I did not intend to traverse the main ridge that day but to do the circuit of Coomloughra and return to my car at Derrynafeana.

The portion of the ridge between Carrantual and Beenkeragh is the best on the Reeks. Whilst not up to the standard of the Skye ridges either in length or severity, it nevertheless provides a sporting traverse, with gendarmes, castles, slabs and crags falling away steeply on both sides. The wind was very blustery and I would have preferred to be roped for parts of this section, but I was alone so I did not tempt fate too much with any gymnastics. The exposure was splendid but the wind disconcerting. I found that Vibrams were not to be trusted too much on the lichen covered hard sandstone. I got an occasional view down into the three lakes of Coomloughra, black and shiny below me. The clouds blowing up from the valley with an odd dark peak appearing above them gave the place a weird atmosphere.

Carrying on from Beenkeragh, I traversed Skregmore, the last peak that can properly be said to form part of the ridge, and then descended in a southerly direction into Coomloughra, crossing the river at the head of the smallest and most westerly of the three lakes, Lough Eighter. It only remained to walk over the moors to my car. At Derrynafeana an old peasant woman offered me tea in her cottage and fed me on homemade bread and cakes with great solicitude, asking me to pay her only what I wished and to recommend her to my friends. Somehow I don't think she will ever do much trade in such a lonely place as this. I suppose she was as glad of the unusual company as of anything else.

My next day on the hills was spent away from the Reeks, on a semicircle of two and a half thousanders called "The Glenbeigh Horseshoe", near the place where I was staying. I was glad to have as my companion on this walk Tom Finn, of the Tralee Mountaineering Club. This little range of hills provides walking only, although the scenery is very attractive and mountainous. The most interesting thing hereabouts is the earthwork which appears to be some form of defence system and which runs all the way along the top of the horseshoe. I was unable to get any information about it, in fact nobody I met seemed even to know of its existence, although it is in good condition for most of its length. However, what is one earthwork in a country as full of ancient remains as is the "Kingdom of Kerry"? During the whole of my stay I did not meet anyone local who had climbed any of the hills, they are just not interested. If climbers are considered a weird breed in England, just think how much more weird the Tralee M.C. members are thought to be by the locals of a country whose economy is still largely based on the homesteader or the crofter.

The following Sunday I was invited to attend a day meet of the T.M.C. to climb on Mangerton, which is part of another range to the south east of Killarney. The weather was really appalling and we spent most of it floundering about in the wettest, blackest and most primaeval bog it has ever been my misfortune to encounter. The day was so bad that we did not even reach the mountain, so I cannot give any first hand account of it. Coleman says that there is good climbing to be had there, on sound rock, and my companions told me that it was in the "Horses' Glen" (Gleann na Capull). When we had finally dragged ourselves, half drowned, from the quagmire, we ate and drank in a copse and spent a pleasant social hour or two discussing, among other equally important matters, the relative merits of the various brews of poteen known to the T.M.C. members. Very instructive; I can now tell at a glance a bottle of moonshine merely dangerous to drink from one that is positively fatal.

My stay in Kerry was now drawing towards the inevitable day when I would have to start off on my long drive northwards, right across Ireland, to Larne in Ulster and I wanted very much to complete my tour of the Reeks by traversing the main ridge. I decided therefore to use my last full day in the district to scramble up the normal tourist route to Carrantual, the Devil's Ladder, then to turn eatswards along the main ridge, walking as far along it as was practical, bearing in mind that I had to return to the starting point to collect my car.

The usual starting place for the Devil's Ladder, and the place where cars must be abandoned, is the little village of Gortboy, or Gortbui, at the entrance to Hags Glen and north of the main ridge. A small concrete road bridge crosses the River Gaddagh, which flows from Hags Glen near Gortboy school. This is marked as a ford on the map, though the bridge has been there for many years. The track southwards from there up Hags Glen is something of a mystery, at least for its first mile or so, because it has virtually disappeared. The start of the track is quite clear, a small wicket gate at the side of the road, near the concrete bridge, and the map shows it quite clearly as a cart track leading through the townland of Lisleibane, but it soon becomes a matter of beating one's way through virgin jungle, though it is possible to see traces of what must have been a passable track at one time. Anyway, keeping the sound of the river to my left and walking more or less due south, the mystery was solved when I eventually emerged from the wood. The townland of Lisleibane was deserted, and had been for many years by the look of it. Here the track can be picked up again and it is a surprise to see just how wide a track it in fact is. In the days when the houses here were occupied it would have served to carry turfs down from the peat beds further up the valley. These peat beds are still being cut and probably supply the people of Gortboy and the neighbouring townland of Alohart.

Prominent here, on the right hand side of the valley, are the rocky outcrops and promontories of the hill of Knockbrinnea, 2,782 ft., which are known as the "Hag's Teeth" and very odd they are. Unfortunately, on closer inspection, these imposing crags are seen to be nothing more than piles of loose and unsafe looking rubble, but they make a grand picture rising up above this lonely valley.

Actually the valley was not so lonely on the day that I was there because there was a sheep round-up going on and the hills echoed to the sound of barks, bleats and whistles. After reaching the tongue of land between the loughs of Callee and Gouragh, the track seems to lose itself again and I began to scramble over low lying slabs and terraces towards the scree shoot of the Devil's Ladder which could now be quite clearly seen rising from the head of the valley up to the col between the main ridge of Macgillicuddy's Reeks and the great mass of Carrantual itself. Further to the left is the hanging valley between the rocky and terraced west face of Carrantual and Beenkeragh. This is the valley I mentioned earlier, which I would have liked to explore for climbing possibilities, but there was no time. The way up the Devil's Ladder although not really difficult, is a hard grinding scramble up the large loose boulders of a scree shoot and the grassy saddle at the top comes as a relief. Behind, the glen is a truly magnificent picture.

Even though this is the tourist route there is no trace of a path leading from the col up to Carrantual so far as I could see, but my way lay in the other direction, eastwards along the main ridge, and very few people venture along it. In the main ridge there are eight distinct summits, four of which are over three thousand feet in height, strung out in a wavy line eastwards to the Gap of Dunloe. The map does not name any of them. I did not intend to traverse the last, and lowest, two. I had to return to my car at Gortboy and to have completed the ridge would have meant a long walk back over the moors north of the hills. I could not spare the time as the day was already getting on. The ridge, grassy at first, gets rockier and more exciting as you get further east, Caher, Carrantual and Beenkeragh looked very imposing indeed behind. The cloud base was again at about 2,500 feet and so the compass once more became necessary. At one point I got completely lost, so much so that I doubted my compass. I hastily consulted Coleman, found no mention of ironstone deposits hereabouts and ploughed on across a steep and rocky hillside until a break in the clouds revealed the Gap of Dunloe where it should not have been! However, a little reorientation soon sorted things out satisfactorily and I got back to the ridge without further mishap. Although the cloud break was brief it was enough to prove that I, not the compass, had been wrong. This had wasted a lot of time so I had regretfully to leave the ridge a little before I had intended. I made my way down to Lough Cummeennapeasta, then across the moor to the River Gad-dagh, down the valley, through the wood and the little wicket gate back to my car.

My holiday was done, and the lovely Gaelic songs of a girl harpist in the pub that evening added poignancy to my parting from that delightful country.