To me, I feel like I’m living my dream. Mountains have truly become my life, my work, rest and play. I feel privileged and lucky to get to spend so much time in the wild high places of Ireland and in particular its most spectacular and rugged mountains, the magnificent Na Cruacha Dubha, more popularly known as the mighty Mac- Gillycuddy’s Reeks.
But what got me into the hills?
It’s a question I get asked quite a lot while working for myself as a fulltime mountain guide, outdoor instructor, trail and path builder, mountain rescuer, and one I’ve no real definitive answer to.
I suppose, I have just always been into the outdoors in some shape or form. Growing up in the rolling countryside of beautiful East Cork back in the mid 70’s to the early 80’s, when not in school you just naturally spent most of your time out and about, just messing around. In some ways, we had no other choice, for us, there wasn’t much else to do. The TV only had two channels and even one of them didn’t start until 3 o’clock! Kicking a ball or pucking around with a hurl just wasn’t really my thing. I made a half-arsed effort, but I was always the last to be picked and never enjoyed going through the motions.
Playing soldiers, exploring, making camps, cycling miles to some beach or adventuring for days in some dodgy crumbling ruinous castle, days getting lost and found in the forest, climbing trees and falling out of them, making forts out of small rectangular hay bales and defending them to the death, this was our childhood and little did I know then, that these were the early beginnings of my outdoors’ apprenticeship.
Family summer holidays were spent on endless Youth Hostelling adventures around Ireland. All packed into a Fiat Ritmo along with the dog and off on tour, many memorable nights spent in some of the most spectacularly wild, remote and idyllic locations. Back then the Irish Youth Hostel association, An Óige possessed dozens of amazing hostels in the most awe-inspiring and truly breathtaking corners of Ireland where we could stay, for a small nightly fee and of course our annual family membership, as well as all staying guests assisting and completing in some small menial cleaning or maintenance chores before departure. I wasn’t too impressed on one occasion when I was allocated the lovely job of cleaning the lumps of hair from the communal shower blocks and de-skidding the toilets (if you know what I mean!).
We roamed and roamed, discovered and explored, scrambled, climbed and swam, immersed in this wild playground. Prior to departure and after the hostel warden had checked that all your allocated tasks were completed satisfactorily (and the toilet was skid free!), your personal membership book, the An Óige passport would be returned and we would eagerly view our newly gained, cool, unique hostel stamp. Each hostel had their own exclusive stamp, some just had text stating the hostel name, but the majority gave a simple but effective illustration of the hostel’s characteristic location or environs, a castle, a seascape, wildlife, a mountain. I still have my little book, my parents dated each stamp, Ballycastle YH, Castle Archdale, Beinn Leitrí, An Trian Lár, Dúros, Ballydavid, Bundoran, Killary Harbour, Newcastle, Loo Bridge, Indreabhán, Tra na Rosann and many more gems.
My favourite without doubt was Folksrath Castle…. a restored 14th century Anglo Norman tower house situated somewhere in the beautiful countryside of county Kilkenny. Staying in a flippin’ castle for God’s sake – that’s some buzz when you’re 10 years of age to have a castle as a playground. I remember the restless first night, totally exhausted from the day’s games but unable to sleep with excitement for the adventures that lay ahead. My dad, a keen musician, played the banjo or guitar and my mother would sing accompaniment.
My bedroom was adjoining the great hall, bare stone walls and arrow slit for a window. What a day, what a place, I could clearly hear his playing and the gentle applause from the other enthralled castle hostellers as they ended another tune.
And then the hostel warden told his tale. This should be cooI, I thought to myself, I liked this warden!
Fascinated, I had listened to him earlier that day as he’d told my brothers and me about the castle’s connection to the very first aircraft invented in Ireland back in the mid 1800’s. It was called an 'aerial chariot,' the castle owner at the time, an inventor, a Master Swift (a relative of Jonathan Swift apparently, but I had no idea who that was!) tried testing his mad cap contraption by launching it by catapult from the high battlements. Piloted by the castle’s butler, the plane instantly nosedived to the ground and though severely shocked, miraculously the butler survived but with multiple broken bones.
But this was a more sinister tale he was about to tell. He had distinctly waited for the kids to go to bed to tell this one, but little did he know that my little ears were tuned to his every word.
“There were 3 ghosts in all,” the Warden began, in an ominous tone. What?! Ah jaysus, now hang on here a minute, I’m not sure if I like this warden after all!
“The first was a woman who had been seen on many countless nights looking down from the castle windows. Staring, gaunt, on occasion crying. She was thought to be the daughter of a previous owner from the distant past who had been locked away and starved to death at the hands of her cruel father after falling for the handsome son of a family foe.”
“The second ghost is that of a guard who fell asleep on duty and was thrown to his death from the ramparts as punishment and a warning to those others under service to the castle’s lord. His footsteps can still be heard as he wanders the castle to make amends for his carelessness.”
I was now huddled like a cocoon in my sleeping bag, not willing to emerge until morning and already making emergency plans for my essential loo visit. I’d just wee in my shoe.
“The third was another ghostly female, a woman seen wandering the castle accompanied by the scent of wildflowers. Lavender, Honeysuckle, Gorse.”
Great. That’d surely hide the pong from my shoe and the stench when I crap myself.
At least the butler had survived his crash from the roof or else I’d be dealing with a fourth ghost. My head ran riot, I pictured him clawing his way up the stairs, leather Biggles hat, all torn, smashed flight goggles, blood soaked and his white bones protruding!
A restless night I remember, my brain on overdrive but in time I drifted off to sleep.
I remember the devious wink from the warden the following morning as he stamped my logbook, enquiring if I’d enjoyed my night’s sleep and curious if I had happened to hear anything go bump in the night?
It was like our scout badges, another tick, another mind-blowing experience, another cool place, we’d jump into the Ritmo and off we’d go again to the next one…YAHOO!
One of my true passions, fascinations and interests in life is of ancient Gaelic Ireland and Irish medieval history, without doubt I credit this to those memorable days of my youth.
Both my parents were also passionately involved as leaders in the local cub and scout troops and together with my two brothers we spent endless evenings, nights, weekends and blissful summer weeks on troop camps, jamborees and micro expeditions as my folks ticked off their various 'badges' of scout leadership. Not forgetting, just as many 'character building,' truly depressing, drenched and dour wet days shrivelling up in smelly tents as the midges feasted on our young sugar rich blood. Ah the joys…
I’ve often heard it referred to as a mountain apprenticeship, the path of knowledge and gaining of solid experience and mountain 'sense'. Every day’s a school day for the outdoors person, the mountaineer, the climber, the hill goer, the fisherman, the sailor, the surfer.
A fascinating and broad knowledge of our wild natural environment, natural history, bird and wildlife, our long human history, plant life, ecology, weather, navigation, movement, technique, cop-on (common sense - for non-Irish readers), hill savviness, just dealing with whatever comes your way, learning from endless mistakes, field first-aid as we patched ourselves up after yet another mishap, basically just gaining confidence and competence.
I can genuinely look back fondly to those endless care free days of my youth as well as all those far from blissful and difficult times thrown in for good measure and trace all of these experiences, the good and the bad as the very beginnings of my life in the hills and wild places. The direct sowing of that wonderful life-giving seed and the river source of my start in this long amazing apprenticeship and deep satisfying love for the great outdoors.
And now I work, rest, play and literally breathe the mountains. I work alongside my wife Catherine, running our own successful outdoor business and living in the shadows of Ireland’s most spectacular peaks. We work hard but are deeply satisfied with where life has led us.
I climb Ireland’s highest mountain – Corrán Tuathail quite a bit. Probably close to 200+ times a year, guiding hundreds of happy clients in the process and sharing with them the joy and delights of these mighty, lofty peaks and rugged valleys that I love and adore so much.
I get asked all manner of things. Why are the sheep painted red? Are the lambs red when they’re born? (I kid you not!), Have you been up it in the dark? Have you done Everest (don’t get me started with this one!) How is bog made? What’s the fastest you’ve done it in? Have you ever had an accident? Are there wolves? Can you drink the water?
And almost daily that recurring question crops up…What got you into the hills?
I enjoy reminiscing. Sometimes the journey is just as memorable and important as reaching the destination.