Tag Archives: Kerry

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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‘Next parish America’

Slea Head

The Blasket Islands from Slea Head.

IS there one single place that sums up Ireland?

Some people have their own, some may have one from a guidebook and others might think of a long gone location from their youth.

Most of us could easily list off a dozen contenders: the Ha’penny Bridge, the Giant’s Causeway, the mountains of Mourne, Shandon Church, the GPO, Croagh Patrick. You know the rest.

For me it’s tiny lay-by off a section of the crumbly R559 road, just past Ballyickeen, in Co Kerry. And as lay-bys go this one surely has one of the best rest-stop views in the world.

That’s because it sits atop Slea Head, the furthest point west in Ireland and the most western point of the European mainland.

The headland looks out over the Atlantic, west towards the windswept and now uninhabited Blasket Islands and south to Valentia and the Skellig Islands.

As my grandmother would say: “the next parish is America”.

I first visited this place as a toddler. Our family returned almost every summer of my childhood, travelling west from Tralee and picnicking past Dingle before reaching Slea Head.

One of my strongest memories of those years is my mother handing out ham and tomato sandwiches from the car boot, wrapped in tin foil, at the same spot we’d pull in at each year.

Over time my visits to Slea Head dropped off. I think I’ve been there once in the past 20 years, if that.

Slea Head for the first time. For one of us.

Slea Head for the first time. For one of us at least.

Until I returned last weekend.

I’d forgotten how the view looked, and felt.

I’ve been lucky enough to breath the air at the highest summit in Europe but I still think the draught off the Atlantic at Slea Head tops it.

As I stood there again last Saturday, on a rare fine day, it occurred me that this place is Ireland. Or as close as I’ll ever get to it in a single spot.

The sun, the mist, the rocks, the green, the sky, the sea, the place names (Ceann Sleibhe, Corca Dhuibhne, Dun Chaoin), the people who battled out a living here, buffeted on the edge of Europe, for centuries.

Some might call this concept ‘Mother Ireland‘. And this would be apt in my case.

Because Slea Head has always been a female place to me – my memories of visiting there are entwined with those of my mother and grandmother.

It was fitting then that when I travelled there last Saturday it was to show my wife Slea Head for the first time.

She’s not Irish by birth but she’s seen plenty of the country.

I doubt though, as she stood over the Atlantic, faced with the sweep from the Skelligs over the Blaskets to Dun Chaoin, if she’d ever seen anything as Irish as Slea Head.

Taking in the view, 1960. Pic: MJ Richardson

‘On the edge of Europe’. The rest-stop in 1960.
Pic: MJ Richardson

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Some like it hot…onsen hot

Yukata clad, onsen bound. Pic: Anne Alderete

Yukata clad, onsen bound.
Pic: Anne Alderete

Growing up in Ireland an outdoor dip meant a once-yearly trek to the west coast, where you’d nervously brave the 12c waters of the Atlantic Ocean for a few minutes, before retreating, shivering and chastened, back to the car.

If you were lucky you might get a ‘99’ for your troubles.

But growing up in Kinosaki Onsen, in the west of Japan, an outdoor dip entails a slow (no diving in here, trust me) immersion in waters whose temperature averages 44c.

Until recently I’d had plenty of the former. Childhood holidays in the west of Ireland, at places like Rossknowlagh or The Maharees, were great fun, but I don’t recall spending much time in the water.

And the water on the east coast, like that at Wexford‘s beaches, was even colder.

Mind you this was only by a degree or so – which goes unnoticed when you’re trying not to chip a chattering tooth, or running headlong for the car from yet another rain shower.

But no such issues in Kinosaki Onsen.

The clue’s in the name. Onsen means ’hot springs’ and Japan – volcanically active as it is – has got thousands of these.

The water is heated geothermally and, in its freshest state, emerges from the earth at temperatures as high as 80c.

Thankfully the baths I visited with my father- and brother-in-law were considerably cooler, though 40-odd degrees feels anything but cool as you stand water-side.

Set the timer to 35 minutes - cooking eggs in hot springs' water.

Set the timer…to 35 minutes – cooking eggs in hot springs’ water.
Pic: Anne Alderete

Like the icy Atlantic though, once you’re in, you’re in. And, hopefully, availing of the health benefits of the mineral rich water.

The Japanese have been doing this for hundreds of years. I was introduced to the idea by my wife’s family and we travelled there to experience it earlier this month.

The simmering water itself is just one part of visiting an onsen though. You’re not fully dressed to attend the baths unless you’re wearing a traditional yukata robe (see above) and sporting geta on your feet.

I spent two days like this. Having a whiskey, yukata-clad, with the guys before a quick dip and then meeting up with our wives for a traditional Japanese dinner.

And keeping the onsen theme our ryokan (a local inn) served us onsen tamago, eggs slowly cooked in the hot spring water itself (35 mins in 70c water, Heston fans).

We spent a couple of eye (and pore) opening days in Kinosaki Onsen – a unique place, particularly to a gaijin like me who usually has his showers lukewarm and his boiled eggs from a saucepan.

Kinosaki Onsen is thousands of miles, physically, mentally and thermally from where I grew up. For all the differences there was one similarity though.

Whether the water’s 10c or 44c I still get in the same way – one tentative toe at the time.

Order (almost) up. Cooking my beef while my sis-in-law Anne toasts.

Order (almost) up. Searing my wagyu beef while my sis-in-law Anne toasts.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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Always, in all those places

I imagine peace
I imagine sun
I imagine her garden in May
I imagine her hiking into the blue on Curra Hill above Rossbeigh Strand
I imagine her underneath a row of cypresses by a Tuscan chapel
I imagine her always saying ‘I hope the weather holds’.

As for the rest, that can look after itself.

I just imagine she’s there. Always, in all those places. At peace.

Rossbeigh Strand from Curra Hill, Kerry, June 2009.

Rossbeigh Strand from Curra Hill, Kerry, June 2009.

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