I moved back to the Emerald Isle because Nottingham had me too far from the mountains and sea. Or at least that’s part of the reason, and I’ll not go into the other 99 parts right now. And so when I take a week’s annual leave, you’ll find me at the coast or up a mountain. I mean, I use the term “annual leave” loosely, because we don’t really have a concrete understandings of time off. Our annual leave forms get signed with sporadic dates put in them, and my boss understands that if he calls and I don’t answer, I’m either in the pub, sleeping, or on “annual leave”. If I do answer, I might still be in the pub.
And this last week was no different. My sister arrived in from Africa and an old university friend from England. We worked a few hours, and seamlessly transferred into being up mountains in Kerry and in Down. And it’s there that with an Irish lass (who betrays us all by calling herself Scottish) and an Englishman, that I once again noticed our stark difference in culture, not by those I travelled with, but by the very mountains we traversed.
Arriving into Killarney town always tears me in two. The very authenticity the Gaeltacht and beauty of the landscape marauded over by a gazillion tour buses of a particular culture of people, noisily unpacking the “trunk” and proceeding to tell me loudly:
“you’re country is so green and peaceful! Are there still terrorists here?”
If I was not benefitting from their generous dollar bills, I might correct them gently inserting a past tense into the first clause, and telling them that yes there are terrorists very close. Given that I am very close to hitting them, bundling them into my car, and claiming a leprechaun did it, at which I would assume they’d probably give me more of their funny dollar stuff to see a live leprechaun.
But instead of this type of tomfoolery, I instead will just sadistically enjoy their “authentic Irish experience” from afar. I’ve always enjoyed the throngs of tourists visiting the tarmaced paths around Muckross Lake and marvelling at the fact they’re in “Killarney National Park”. And that no one really questions what the wild mountains ranges beyond the signposted areas are, but instead they flock to a signposted trickle of water down the hill that conveniently is at the end of the “National
Park Tarmaced Path”. I mean, the fact that my granny could walk around the “national park” doesn’t in fact take away from the fact that it is, yes, still stunningly beautiful, and that I admit.
In fact, this re-direction of tourists is a divine plan of the Irish Tourist Board (much like the one where they tell tourists that the Cliffs of Moher are the tall Irish cliffs that need visiting, when actually, Europe’s tallest cliffs lie up the coast a little, but wouldn’t be as easy to market), keeping the less mentally aware away from the real areas of natural beauty, that mean I can enjoy my ridges and hikes without any gasps of “Ireland is soo green”, which, although true, does not need repeated as many times a day as is declared that the ridge we walk along “really screams out for a Starbucks coffee shop right now”.
So by the time I get to Cronin’s Yard, and what I consider the “real Killarney”, I’m pleasantly amused and yet highly frustrated. This combination is going to be a constant one, as I realise my present company.
In the carpark (there are only two buses a day….don’t try it!) around me are Irish people and those of the New Irish who are unemployed or those who have contextualised well enough to realise that you don’t check the weather forecast before booking your holiday. You wake up, look upwards, and see the sun, and set off to the mountains. I think we also had a few German families in hire cars who arrived shamefaced (a week later than anticipated) for their holiday, only to find the weather being unexpectedly brilliant. I’m not sure they could show any joy at this Irish summer weather though, as they were still apologising for their tardiness on not being here the week they intended.
And so we set out. A few moments later, and in a instant that showed just how much she’d betrayed herself to them’uns o’er the sea, my sister sent me back for our map from the car. It was the only piece of equipment or hiking clothing we had accidentally left behind. In my honest opinion, we could see the mountain we wanted to climb, and we’d be grand. What more did we want?
Admittedly such silly requests were off the back of hilariously (but not at the time) dropping down a descent of Mangerton mountain the day before that only could be described as a sheer cliff face. Reading a map and directions printed off Munsterhillwalks.com, we soon realised that someone though it hilarious to see how far those tourists would follow directions like lemmings off a cliff. And we did. And to be fair, looking back, it was quite hilarious. We probably should have sniffed out this, when the route started backwards, and we never saw a path returning anywhere along our route. But these are things you don’t think of when you come from cultures that swear by formal maps.
We were taught our lesson when we reached the top of Carrauntoohil to be greeted with grins from 4 “New Irish” counterparts standing there in their Vans shoes, and jeans. And they continued to stop every so often 50 metres ahead of us to cuddle and selfie til we got fed up of the embarrassment of such a posse and overtook them in our mountain gear, boots and maps, that probably more held us back than achieved anything for us on the day.
Summiting Carrauntoohil (for those who want to know) is not hugely difficult, but is not to be laughed at. The route meanders along some stones that look like they were scattered in a rough arrangement by an Irishman after a few pints (they probably were) and through enough bogland that regardless of time of year, you’ll step in something muddy enough to remind you it’s a bog, at some point.
Then, as if the route were designed by a children’s drawing competition in the local school, it just decides to take you straight up the side of the basin all at once. And after that you follow zig-zags up scree to the top, with a glum, bored look on your face as if you were heading up Croagh Patrick for penance.
Sadly half way up we’re gleefully told that the pub at the bottom will soon be closing and that we may as well turn round if we want to have any fun at all. We didn’t.
At the top, the Kerry Mountain Rescue Service politely put a small sign to warn you of the plummet to the ground on the north-east side. Realistically they know this will tempt more Dutch and Swiss (I would say Germans, but I’ve given them enough stick already, and any more may be considered racism) to stand as close to the 800m drop as possible. But I suppose insurance has even come back to bite even the Irish, from our visiting tourist friends, and we’ve had to bough to the dire measures of erecting small signs.
Of course, also at the top of Carrauntoohil is our well renowned giant cross. I say well renowned because for two weeks, the whole country thought it a worthwhile conversation topic while sitting in the pub. The fact that the average Irishman has never ventured anywhere near Carrauntoohil does not stop him passionately having an opinion about the cross on the top of the mountain.
Because we are Catholic after all, and Catholics do like a good cross (let’s not tell anyone it dangerously resembles a dirty British, Proddy cross if it doesn’t have a good bit of Jesus on it). I mean, when I say we’re Catholic, I really mean that we’ve come as near to confession one time as we did to Carrauntoohil, before either being put off by some foreign accented person nearby (sometimes even the Priest these days) or by feeling guilty and returning to the pub. Ah yes, Carrauntoohil/confession – that’s the place I ought to have gone once and I’ll feel guilty I haven’t but really I’m quite happy with a pint in my hand looking at it from afar.
But anyway, back to the cross. To be honest it was only after some angry atheist took a chainsaw up a mountain and sawed the old cross in two that anyone realised there was a cross on the mountain at all (much like the “fleg” on the city hall in Belfast, for that matter). And as good Catholics, we all thought this was a bit far, and struggled to understand what on earth would have made someone to have been angry enough to have left the craic in the pub to start with. And so an even bigger cross was put back in its place, so that we could claim once more that we were truly Catholic.
At the top we briefly stop to exchange photos, asking our photo-taker whether they’ve been up before. “Just a few times” comes the reply. By which the old man could well have meant “every day since I was born”, it was so understated.
But enough of Carrauntoohil. This was meant to be a tale of two mountains…
Supposedly named such after Saint Donard, who nestled into residence there briefly, it’s the closest that a northern mountain will get to being religious. Because let’s face it. If it was too openly called after a saint, there’d be a bunch of loyalist protesters at the bottom with flegs and signs saying “ge’d’off ar maentins” and claiming that King Billy had once sat, not only on the wall, but on the hill back in 1690.
Thankfully on the day we climbed it, there were no protesters at the bottom at all. In fact, there were very few at the bottom who weren’t safely stowed away in coffee shops on the prom. There were two reasons for this. Partly because the summit looked a little like the picture below, and partly because much like Americans are to Killarney, so are coffee shop daytrippers to Newcastle. All local folks mind. Not a tourist in sight.
But one must understand that there are only two places a Belfast city person may go on a day off (and that is well over half the population). Either drive to Portrush (and “the north coast”, by which they may also mean Portstewart, but normally still revert to “the Port”) or to Newcastle. Even on a small island like ours, you would have hoped there may have been more day trip destinations, but sadly the “one hour drive and sit in an ice-cream shop” only works in two directions. I’ve heard no-one out wesht has ice-cream yet. So whether it’s Morelli’s or Mauds, the northern breed will be equally happy at this, quite social event, where doubtless they’ll meet a few they claim to have some relation with.
Now you might be quite surprised that the meeting point for this fine breed is not a pub. But in the north it is quite a different game, and the day-tripping breed tend towards careful inspection of others to make sure they are not spending too much on drink, and are instead spending it on nice cars to drive in, and on cafe delicacies to indulge the waistline.
And so why, given these two things, did we dander up the hill? Well, precisely (or not precisely at all, as the case was) because we’re Irish. And we looked at the hill, and all the locals cowering away in their posh cafe experiences and thought:
“That would be crazy to go up in these conditions without any gear, in tweed jacket, jeans, and Vans”
And so we did. Because still crazier would have been to conform to the comfort of expectations and organised plans and weather forecasts.
The fact that we also only had a few hours til sunset didn’t seem to buoy our mood, and in fact drove us on all the more, as we found that the average person on google seemed to take 5.5 hours to climb Donard. We had 5 hours till sunset. And so we fancied our chances, bought a bottle of water each, found some Tesco value chocolate lying in my boot, and set off up the steps from the car park.
Ten minutes later and I distinctly remember looking at my friend in slight puzzlement that we were still climbing these very steps. Until I realised about 90 minutes into the walk, that this is what the whole path was going to be. You see some northerner had clearly got worried that we might find the whole mountain thing a little bit tricky, and, in infinite wisdom, had provided us with steps all the way. Perhaps a dream for some unused to traversing the great slopes, but for us, quite frankly boring.
But these were not just any steps. These were stones carved into the ground at quite some level. Barely did I meet a loose one, and occasionally did one ever reach over a comfy height to lift my leg. On such moments, it rather felt like a sign might have been nice to say “sorry we caused you to move a bit further than normal leg-reach, we’ll repair this soon”.
Despite this help, we were still slightly concerned at the darkening weather, the setting sun and several other slight issues (the Tweed jacket no longer being one of these, as we’d sadly decided to abandon it in the car). Asking those coming off the mountain for some advice on distance remaining, our time was further eaten when we realised that such questions were taken quite literally, and a minute by minute summary of the route was regurgitated from a route-map carried in plentiful supply by well-clad mountaineers.
Half way through this description, most of us (apart from my English friend) stopped caring about much that was coming out of the mouth of our nimble mountain goat-friends beside us, and instead we decided that we didn’t know why we’d asked really at all, as we were going to continue regardless.
And so up the steps we continued to go, until we hit the next quite remarkable “quality” of a northern mountain (should you want to call it that).
And I better be careful with all this mention of flegs and walls, lest we get all political again. But I’d take a fair bet that Mr Trump would only dream of a team of wall builders like built this Mourne Wall. All 22 miles of it in all its glory. Summiting 15 peaks in total. Yet every time I’m stepping up in the Mournes, someone asks me
“why did they build this wall?”
And every time, I can’t help but forget why on earth someone would build a 2m high wall of dry boulders for 22 miles up and down some of the tallest peaks in the country. Scenes of the World’s Strongest Man boulder lifting competition come to mind. I mean, unlike our Carrauntoohil path, if an Irishman on pints tried to lift even one of these stones, he’d be doomed to roll down the hill with it. Nevertheless in Belfast tours both sides probably say it was the oppression of the “other side” that made them have to do such a feat.
In reality google always reminds me that the real reasons for miles of walls was to keep some sheep out of certain bits. Y’know, those sheep who like to summit mountains in their spare time? Well, ok, ok, yes you’re right that there are many mountain sheep in incredible places that make you think “how on earth did that sheep get there?”.
But I would have thought that if a measly sign keeps thousands of mountain climbers and tourists from their deaths in the south, that something slightly easier to build would keep a few sheep from straying over certain lines in the north. And that even if it was the answer, that someone would have thought that the sheep who love to bag munros (summit mountains to you and I), would probably learn how to summit styles over the walls or find broken-down-bits before too long.
But sure, if they were havin’ the craic, who am I to stop them? Though I would have thought that when it came to the top of the mountain, that they’d think of something more to celebrate the summit than a wall, much like had been beside us all the way up.
Stopping there for a brief rest, we swapped photos with one other group also summiting daftly late in the day. They assured us the reason they were “late” was because they’d been drinking wine til 05.30 the previous morning and had got lost on the way up. I didn’t ask what side of the tarmac motorway steps they got lost on, on their way here. Rather, I was pleased that some others were enjoying an adventure.
I’m not sure the sentiment was shared as we crashed back down into Newcastle, three hours after we’d started, and into one of those aforementioned coffee shops. Looks of bafflement from pristine teenage couples out for a date, were followed by those of disgust from older relations, alarmed at how rugged people like us could ever come in to the cafe like this.
But so our tale of two mountains finishes. And we hope you appreciate that not only was this a tale of two mountains but a tale of two cultures too. One in which we went round and round until we summited. The other, where we went straight up some stairs. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that too…