With a few exhausting weeks on the project at Intel in Ireland under the belt, along with the tedium of a repetitive weekly travelling schedule, a break in the routine arrived not a moment too soon, when I decided to stay over in Ireland and spend my first weekend weekend there. I had packed in my hiking boots which, along with a laptop, had caused the hotel receptionist to ask whether I had a dead body in my suitcase. At Intel, the secretary instantly recognised my Seffrican accent despite 10 years in the UK, an observation that deflated me in a single shot.
Outgoing early morning flights from Stansted on a Monday coupled with late Friday night returns had begun to wear us down a tad. The interior of the somewhat dated Oakwood Arms Hotel, comfortable though it is, was beginning to take on an air of familiarity. So too was the limited menu. Thank heavens for the Bistro across the road, which serves as a welcome alternative, providing superior cuisine in the process. Having said that, two consecutive visits with an order placed for a glass of South African Chardonnay culminated in the serving of red wine instead. This proved a source of great mirth, not least with the overtly camp waiter in attendance at our table, who quipped “I would have no problem downing it afterwards meself, boyo”. In fairness, he offered not to include one on the bill.
It’s a safe bet that Shannon will not win any prizes as Ireland’s most exciting, progressive town, though a walk along the estuary is a rather pleasant experience. Lacking any sort of historical context doesn’t help. Shannon is a new town. It was built in the 1960s on reclaimed marshland alongside Shannon Airport, along with the Shannon Free Zone industrial estate. It has suffered significantly as a result of the economic downturn. A single outing one evening to Limerick for a steak and a beer at bar serving up blues music rather than the customary traditional Irish variety signaled our first venture into a world beyond the confines of Shannon town.
With a distinctive local accent, Bob, our salt-of-the earth taxi driver, advised us where to eat and where some fun might be had. Curious as to whether we intended staying out late, he advised where not to go to stay out of trouble. He recommended a visit to “Smithy’s Bar” in Limerick and with consummate conviction, suggested that “you wouldn’t leave it without getting laid”. “Turty-tree and a turd”, nothing could have been further from the truth! I suspect that, as far as Bob was concerned, it was uttered more for effect than it being actual fact. Despite an similar sortie to the village of Bunratty and its historic castle, the pub there turned out to be something of a disappointment. Word has it that it was sold for a princely sum just a before the current recession, the current owner unlikely to recoup his investment.
However, I digress. Colleague Dave Gray also decided to stay over the weekend, being joined by his partner, Sue, who had flown out from the UK. We checked out of our hotel in Shannon Saturday morning and headed down to the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, stopping for breakfast en route in the town of Adare. The weather looked promising as we cut through Tralee, where the Dingle Way Walking Trail or Slí Chorca Dhuibhne (as it is known in Gaelic), a 179 km circular route around the Dingle Peninsula, begins and ends. We edged our way through thick cloud along the R560 over Conor Pass, Ireland’s highest, the summit of Mt Brandon to our right also shrouded in cloud.
Expecting the coastal landscape to be bleak and windswept, I was surprised as to its beauty and lushness. Passing through the town of Dingle itself, the R549 north led us to a car park from where we set out on our hike around midday. Low cloud had formed a blanket on the western side of the mountain, serving only to block any semblance of the blue sky above. The path (click here to view GPS track) took us up a dirt track which soon merged into the surrounding hillside and the walk across the waterlogged peat bog made for fairly heavy going. Hampered by a calf injury I had acquired whilst out running one midweek evening from the hotel, I was finding it particularly difficult to negotiate the terrain, every pace forward deliberate and measured.
At 952 metres, Mt Brandon is the highest Irish peak outside the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks. Though the summit is rounded and smooth, it owes its craggy shape to the work of local glaciers during the ice age, which gouged out a series of corries on the eastern flank of the mountain. Due to its link with Saint Brendan, who legend suggests climbed to the summit around AD 530 to see the Americas, before setting sail for them, the mountain is therefore popular with Irish Catholic pilgrims. The path to the peak, known as Cosán na Naomh (The Saints Road), is marked by small white crosses and the peak itself is topped by a large metal cross. It was along this path that two women emerged from the mist. I thought I had seen a ghost. It was Fiona, an employee on the same project team at Intel in Shannon. She seemed as startled as I was that, of all the places, we should meet on the slopes of Mt Brandon!
As we approached the final cross that marked the summit some two and a half hours later, we emerged above the cloud-line. It was a surreal setting, the entire valley and coastline covered in a thick layer of white, resembling cotton wool. Facing east, with the sun directly behind us, we found ourselves on the edge of the mountain as it dropped away dramatically below us. As my frame caste a shadow over fine droplets of water, forming a halo in the process, I witnessed what is known as a “Brocken Spectre”, first observed by Johann Silberschlag in 1780. It was the first time I had encountered this phenomenon myself.
Having set off late in the day, we considered our options and decided on a route off the ridge to the north, though I remained sceptical as its feasibility, mainly due to the path not being visible, initially at least, as well as it not being marked on the Ordnance Survey Discovery Series 70 map. The line of contours down to Piaras Mór at 748 metres, located close to the Dingle Way path, suggested a more gradual drop than I had visualized. Fortunately, white markers provided a safe bearing out of the cloud base. We reached the track on the Dingle Way, an uneven, somewhat eroded path strewn with rock, where we stopped for tea, before continuing on, reaching the road at dusk, over two hours after leaving the summit.
It was only around eight in the evening that we eventually made it back to the car. We still had to locate the B&B, which proved something of a challenge. I can honestly say that Greenmount House is one of the best B&Bs I have ever stayed in. The rooms are gorgeously spacious. A good number of Dingle’s pubs seemed to be located in a dip along Main Street, a short walk down from the B&B, many decorated in bright, garish colours in an effort to outdo the competition.
It seemed a sensible choice in this seaside town to opt for seafood for dinner. Nash’s Bar had been recommended, though they seemed to be charging up-market prices for what was essentially a pub setting. When the portions can best be described as ‘adequate’ and a dash of sauce, referred to as ‘jus’ on the menu (the influence of masterchef?), appears as a signature across sprawling plates, then it’s a tell-tale sign as to any restaurant’s business strategy. To be fair, the food was really good. Besides, we were celebrating Dave’s birthday and so it was only fitting that we had chosen a place of quality. Our Slovakian waitress (I initially thought she was Dutch) provided good, friendly service.
Touted as a live music venue, we stopped off at An Droichead Beag, Mall Bridge, off Main Street, a watering-hole that seemed the focal point for groups of girls out on a weekend razzle. A couple on fiddle and harp bravely attempted to establish some ambience, however few seemed to notice, as they were all but drowned out by the general noise. Soon they faced stiff competition from the thumping disco next door that seemed to cause even the wood-panelled wall to flex in rhythm. Back at the B&B, a pleasant fatigue overcame me as I crawled between the sheets, the sounds of ‘Match of the Day’ soon drifting into oblivion.
Breakfast at Greenmount House the next morning proved a real treat. We were almost reluctant to leave. Our damp hiking boots and socks which we had left in the boiler-room had not dried to any significant degree, thereafter threatening to knock us out every time the car boot was opened. Cameras in hand, we strolled down via the Main Road to the working harbour, before setting out on a drive around the peninsula along the R559.
Stopping at Coumineole Beach near the village of Dún Chaoin, where scenes were shot for the 1970 film Ryan’s daughter, set in the immediate aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising, we walked up a hillside that afforded us a splendid view of the Blaskett islands beyond, a truly magnificent sight. I remarked to Dave and Sue that I had heard that some of the beach scenes had been filmed in Cape Town, South Africa, probably due to the weather. What I said in jest turned out to be true. I had been thinking about the Great Famine in Ireland, a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration between 1845 and 1852, so I had a look online.
“Also known as the Irish Potato Famine, approximately 1 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%. The proximate cause of famine was a potato disease commonly known as potato blight. In the first two decades of the 18th century, potatoes, introduced into Ireland as a garden crop of the gentry, became a base food of the poor, especially in winter, eventually becoming a staple food all the year round for farmers. Although blight ravaged potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s, the impact and human cost in Ireland – where one-third of the population was entirely dependent on the potato for food – was exacerbated by a host of political, social and economic factors which remain the subject of historical debate. In 1846, three quarters of the harvest was lost to blight.
The famine was a watershed in the history of Ireland. Its effects permanently changed the island’s demographic, political and cultural landscape. Catholics made up 80% of the population, the bulk of whom lived in conditions of poverty and insecurity despite Catholic emancipation in 1829. Prior to this, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish Catholics had been prohibited by the penal laws from owning land. At the top of the “social pyramid” was the “ascendancy class”, the English and Anglo-Irish families who owned most of the land, and who had more or less limitless power over their tenants.
In contrast to Britain, which was beginning to enjoy the modern prosperity of the Victorian and Industrial ages, Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard of living unbelievably low. The famine is still a controversial event in Irish history. Debate and discussion on the British government’s response to the failure of the potato crop in Ireland and the subsequent large-scale starvation, and whether or not this constituted genocide, remains a historically and politically-charged issue”.
It was no coincidence, given Sue’s background in the arts, that we stopped for tea at Louis Mulcahy, a pottery outlet in Clothar, Ballyferriter, headquarters and site of the studio and workshop. It was an extraordinary place with an amazing selection of artwork and functional pottery and I could not resist a purchase myself. Heading back towards Dingle along the road we had traversed the previous day, we ascended Conor Pass once more before stopping off for a walk on the beach just off Kilcummin on the R560. Popular with fishermen, I was surprised to see vehicles on firm if somewhat brown shoreline sand.
This turned out to be our final port of call prior to the two hour journey back to Shannon, in a weekend which had offered us a variety of outdoor and cultural memories. Back at the office Monday, I related the weekend’s activities and hike to an Irish colleague. “What was the weather like, then?”, she enquired. I mentioned that we saw the sun on Mt Brandon, after climbing above the cloud-line. “So it does exist!”, came the response.
(click here to view Mt Brandon walk GPS track)