Monthly Archives: November 2014

Tough times at the top

The felled cross on Carrauntoohil, November 2014. Pic: Kerry Climbing

The felled cross on Carrauntoohil, November 2014.
Pic: Kerry Climbing

On top of a famous Irish mountain there’s a well-known structure, a blot on the otherwise brown rocky heights, a carbuncle whose size is way out of proportion to its surroundings.

But I can guarantee you no one will attempt to remove the summit cairn on Lugnaquilla this week.

Not so the iron cross which, until a few days ago, adorned the top of Carrauntoohil and, by virtue of that peak’s elevated standing, the top of Ireland.

The cross, which had stood for 38 years, was cut down at some point in the early hours of last Saturday morning by persons unknown, for reasons unspecified.

It’s speculated that the incident, dubbed ‘vandalism’ by some, was motivated by secularism. The more outraged have even linked the incident to abortion, gay marriage and assisted dying. Or the work of “the Antichrist”.

Who knew that a piece of weather-beaten metal, unusually masked from most people by the often-present Kerry clouds, signified so much?

Not I. Any time I’ve been to the summit I’ve found little to like about this five metre crucifix, whose rivets and angles stood wholly at odds with the sculpted 250m-year-old sandstone of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks all around.

Carrauntoohil summit, May 2009.

Wild times. Carrauntoohil summit, May 2009.

Nonetheless I’d have preferred if Mother Nature had done her Ozymandias trick on it, instead of an amateur steelworker, whose efforts left behind the heaviest piece of litter on an Irish mountain.

Where does he, she or they intend to stop? The equally remote Galtymore has a fetching, more ornate white cross atop it. And the summit of Croagh Patrick has a cross, and a whole church built to house it.

But the fate of the Carrauntoohil cross shouldn’t just be cast as a battle between the secularists and the religious. Standing off to the side are those who don’t believe that there’s any place for man-made structures in the mountains.

Which brings me back to Lugnaquilla, the 13th highest peak in Ireland, whose lumpy hills are some way off the dizzy wildness of Carrauntoohil.

Where a simple pile of rocks would suffice its summit is marked by a circular stone and concrete structure, not unlike a Normandy beach pill box, on which the summit cairn itself is perched.

(Not content with this someone has plonked a second stone structure nearby, with a stone compass atop and arrows pointing to other mountain peaks. All of which is often rendered redundant by frequent mist and cloud.)

The resultant grey mass is far more unsightly (as is Croagh Patrick’s church) than Carrauntoohil’s cross. Yet it remains, unchallenged.

The truth, as most Irish hikers will know, is that many Irish summits are decorated with structures:  crosses, man-made cairns, ordinance survey trig points or, in the case of Slieve Donard, a giant wall.

Personally I’d like to get rid of the lot – the absence of civilisation being one of the great lures of the mountains.

But, until they disappear, I’ll content myself with the words of one mountain worshipper, John Muir, who wrote: “None of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild.”

Anyone who’s spent a winter’s day on Carrauntoohil – cross or no cross – knows that.

Carrauntoohil summit, May 2009.

Cairn and compass on the summit of Lugnaquilla.
Pic: Cormac Looney

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And the fog gathering and the light dropping

Dublin, November 2014. Pic: Cormac Looney

Dublin, November 2014.
Pic: Cormac Looney

November. Seriously. November.

A month of damp mist, zero mellowness, no fruit. No bright colours of any sort.

All the wind and rain of December without the Christmas food and drink. A month with his hands in his pockets, stiffed on his paycheck, killing time before the place closes.

Without snow a city that just looks cold, mouldy and dirty. The dreary Dublin that emigrants don’t miss and visitors don’t see.

One man said of November in another place: “It only believes in a pile of dead leaves, and a moon that’s the colour of bone.”

Maybe he was talking about here.

And then, walking home at dusk: a clear sky after a week of rain. And silence and the fog gathering and the light dropping above the park, ten minutes from darkness in the clean, cold air, and finally home, to a good coffee or maybe something stronger.

November has its moments, even in November.

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A wamp day in the hills

Lugnaquilla, 2008. Pic: Cormac Looney

Lugnaquilla, 2008.
Pic: Cormac Looney

Is there a word for that chilly, clammy feeling, that sensation of cold water up, under, here, there, in and out, as you trudge across a rain-soaked hillside in early November?

There is, and it came to me as it descended Lugnaquilla amid gales and driving rain last Saturday afternoon. Visibility, if not my whole world outlook, was so limited by the worsening conditions that I’d little else to do but retreat into my own head.

I found myself there on foot of an invite I’d thrown out to friends earlier that week. It was optimistically sent, of course, during a sun-lit lunch on the last Sunday of an Autumn mild snap.

Six days later all bar one of my pals, being wiser and possibly more distrusting of the weather than I, were nowhere near the rain-whipped slopes of Wicklow.

But P and I were, and more than once we came close to winding up face-first on them.

We should have known. Because all the hopeful weather forecasts and crossed fingers in the world weren’t going to prevent the very, very typical outcome of a winter day in the Irish mountains.

Rain. In all its forms. Starting at the car, gently drops on a wispy wind. A little mist on the low slopes. Then – beware false prophets – a break halfway up. No need for raingear, even! We should do this more often!

Lugnaquilla, November 2014.

Lugnaquilla, November 2014.
Pic: Cormac Looney

Scratch that. Scratch that and then run to the nearest boulder, or the muddy lee-side of it, and try to pull on a pair of outer-shell trousers while balancing on your one booted leg as, in seconds, every exposed piece of underclothing is drenched.

And so it was. Our best-laid plans started to sink into the waterlogged turf of Camara Hill.

It’s often struck me that Eisenhower put a year’s worth of planning into D-Day, commissioning and monitoring long range weather reports, agonising over the launch date and kitting his troops out for an inclement sea crossing.

I wonder how he would have handled the logistics of a winter day in the Wicklow mountains?

The sun forecasted for noon didn’t show. The rain that was set to clear by 10am had returned. And that unheralded north-easterly gale was the weather gods’ practical joke on two hikers naive enough to believe weather reports.

We bore on, of course. On and up, walking a trail which became a river bed in parts, finally cresting onto the final plateau and on to the summit cairn itself.

Well, we were wet, cold and hungry, and about to get wetter, colder and hungrier, but we were hikers in the Irish hills. In November. Masochists who carry on.

Finally, that word. The one that occurred to me as another tablespoon of icy rainwater slid down my neck, across my back and on down to wherever it else it wanted to freeze.

It’s where cold meets clammy. Where wet meets damp.

Wamp. Just another wamp day in the hills.

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Exiles – from Oscar Wilde to Oscar Wao

Brief-Wondrous-Life-of-Oscar-WaoThe Irish have a diaspora.

More than that – the Irish have The Diaspora. It’s not just a history or a culture or another word for ’emigrants’. It’s far (and away) more.

We even have a Minister for The Diaspora, who this week represented us (them?) in New York.  (We don’t let our diaspora vote, mind you, but that’s another matter.)

From primary school upwards we’re taught about this phenomenon of Irish exile. From the fifth century St Brendan in a currach on the freezing Atlantic, to the 17th-century Flight of the Earls, to the coffin ships departing Cobh in the 1840s.

And on. From those who left in the lean 1930s to the departees of the stagnant ’50s and ’80s – right up to the most recent wave of emigrants, those who left following the economic crash of the late 2000s.

The story of The Diaspora isn’t confirmed to history, academic reviews or news stories. It informs a large part of the national character. It may also go some way to explaining the Irish people’s reputation for melancholy.

It’s also a narrative that’s wound its way through Irish culture and society, a subject in folk memory, books, poetry and song.

Living in Ireland then you’d be forgiven for thinking, at times, that we’re the only country with a diaspora.

Not so, of course. And if you need reminding of this I recommend a novel by Dominican writer Junot Diaz,  that I came across (and tore through) last week.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao taught me about a number of things: the often-tortuous post-colonial history of the Dominican Republic; enough street Spanish to eat, drink and drive my way around Santo Domingo; multiple details of the Watchmen comic book series; the lows of high-school life in 1980s Paterson, New Jersey, and more besides.

It also taught me that the Dominican Republic has a diaspora which in many ways out-Irishes even the Irish one, when it comes to the wrench of exile and the push-pull lure of return.

In terms of emigration the two countries have a lot in common. Seismic social events of the past 150 or so years – a Famine in our case, a brutal 20th century dictatorial regime in the DR’s – catapulted huge sections of our peoples to a common destination, the United States.

And in each case emigration’s two-way street has seen the phenomenon of the returning emigrant, or at least their returning dollars. (It’s no surprise then that Diaz’s novel reaches its harrowing conclusion with the return of the prodigal Dominican son.)

The Irish had an Oscar Wilde, a Dublin-born writer who left to achieve fame and, ultimately, infamy in London. Diaz presents us with Oscar Wao, the overweight New Jersey nerdboy whose descent is intricately linked to his outsider status.

As post-colonial nations both the DR and Ireland are dealing with the often-blinding historical hangover that our histories force upon us.

Oscar Wao

Oscar Wao

But Diaz suggests something more at play, hinting that a fuku, a hex, may lie upon the Dominican diaspora, forcing and following them across the Atlantic to the east coast of the United States.

Oscar Wao finally breaks free of this, at great cost, as Diaz offers up a tragic, hopeful ending to his novel.

Have the Irish a fuku of their own – a jinx born from dire domestic circumstances that’s forced emigration and its rendering effect upon the country?

After centuries has this finally been dispelled? The existence of a Diaspora minister would suggest not.

Perhaps there’s something we can learn from the brief, wondrous life of Oscar Wao.
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