One of my earliest childhood memories are fragmented recollections of holidays in the Tyrolean Alps. In fact I did my first steps in one of the lodges that are located along the alpine trails, at least this is what my parents told me. My own memories are just snapshots of roaring mountain streams, a freezing cold night at the Three Peaks in the Dolomites, narrow paths surrounded by walls of snow and drooling St. Bernard’s. Despite or maybe because of being dragged up and down mountains in my early years I never became a mountaineer. This doesn’t mean I don’t like mountains, on the contrary, I love the visual drama of the peaks but prefer to admire them from a distance.
Where I live now the skyline of the Kerry mountains is a constant presence. Here at the southern tip of the Loop Head peninsula the outline of the Brandon Range and the Slieve Mish Mountains is sitting between the expanse of water that is the Mouth of the Shannon and the wide open sky. Sometimes the mountain silhouette is illuminated by the light of the setting sun, sometimes it is shrouded in a blue haze and sometimes the rolling shapes disappear into low clouds and mist. The Kerry mountains are not the only elevations that show their presence here on Loop Head and another mountainous landscape exists north of the headland. These mountains are however considerably further away and hide in clouds and haze for most of the time. Only on rare occasions, often after heavy rain has washed the air clean, a faint outline of round peaks sits just above the horizon and makes me long for Connemara.
I spent my first summer as an Irish resident working in a bed & breakfast near the village of Maum. I woke up every morning with a view onto Lugnabrick, its green slopes sometimes shrouded in mist, sometimes illuminated by the warm morning sun. Once the work was done I spent my time exploring the granite wilderness of the Maumturk Montains and 12 Bens. I walked bits and pieces of the western way, a long distance walking trail that traverses the Maumturks at Maumean, and then follows the western flank of the mountain chain through Inagh Valley where the 12 Bens beckon on the other side. From time to time I left the trail to explore the hillside and enjoy the view from further up. The ever changing light made shapes and shadows dance along the mountainside, the granite was glittering under the short lived spotlight of a sunbeam and in the distance a raven croaked.
Having fallen under the spell of this bleak but powerful landscape I returned to Connemara over the following years in regular intervals. I experienced a winter morning at Lough Inagh when the peaks of the 12 Bens glowed red under the rising sun while the ground at the shore was dusted with snow. I recall warm autumn sunshine on the brown fields of bracken that covers the mountainside and mist rising from the peatlands, shrouding the lower slopes in a faint haze while the mountaintops were hovering above like a mirage. Sometimes when I am looking over the flat landscape of my home in west Clare I miss the mysterious confinement and embracing shelter of the hills and dream myself to the dark valleys and the towering walls of rock, the lonely corrie lakes and cold mountain streams. I may not be a mountaineer, but I truly love mountains.
Ireland’s topography is often being compared with a saucer: A flat, low lying interior that is surrounded by mountain ranges. Looking at a map of the country it indeed seems that the majority of Ireland’s mountains are neatly arranged along the edges of the landmass. The only exception are the Slieve Aughty Mountains that reach from eastern County Galway southward into County Clare, the Silvermines Mountains in County Tipperary and the Slieve Bloom Mountains that are being shared by the counties Laois and Offaly. Of those three the Slieve Blooms are the furthest away from the coast sitting almost in the centre of Ireland. With their highest point only reaching 527 meters the Slieve Blooms appear rather like an accumulation of gently rolling hills but these now modest elevations are among the oldest mountains in Europe and once reached lofty heights of well over 3000 meters. Over the millennia much of the Old Red Sandstone these hills are made of has been worn and washed away and what remains is a gentle landscape covered in blanket bog, heath and commercial forestation which is intersected by a network of paths and tracks. These walks are perfect for a non-mountaineer like myself and lead through glens covered in dark spruce forests and along mountain streams to the open country of the flat topped summits. From here the level interior of Ireland becomes apparent with fields and hedgerow spreading into the hazy distance.
The same Old Red Sandstone that made the Slieve Blooms is also the main building block of all the mountain ranges that occupy the south-west of Ireland. This sedimentary rock was laid down in the Devonian Period some 400 million years ago when this part of the island stretched out as an alluvial floodplain near the equator. The regular flooding of this landscape deposited the grains that over time built up to the Old Red Sandstone we see today. The rock gets its striking colour, that can range from a deep red to a gentle purple, from oxidised iron particles known as haematite and it is these particles that let peaks like Hungry Hill or the aptly named Purple Mountain glow in warm, rusty tones in the morning and evening sunshine.
The highest of those sandstone ranges and indeed the highest mountains in Ireland can be found in County Kerry. The MacGillycuddy’s Reeks or Na Cruacha Dubha, which translates into “the black stacks”, occupy the eastern half of the Iveragh Peninsula and rise just west of the Killarney National Park. The English name of these mountains replaced the Irish one in the 18th century and is derived from the MacGillycuddy family name, who were one of the biggest land owners in the locality at the time. This chain of dramatic ridges is the only one in Ireland that reaches heights of over 1000 meters. The highest of the conical peaks is Carrauntoohill with 1039 meters, followed by Beenkeragh with 1008 meters and Caher with 1001 meters. These heights are partly responsible for the local climate and subsequently the rich plant life of the area. While the gulf stream keeps temperatures above freezing for most of the year, the mountains catch the moist air coming in from the Atlantic and force it down as rain, drizzle and mist. It is no surprise that the Killarney region has one of the highest precipitation rates in Ireland and the peaks are often hidden in clouds.
The Reeks, as they are locally known, as well as the other mountains of the south-west came into being during the Variscan Orogeny that began about 250 million years ago. Over a period of some 100 million years the forces of colliding tectonic plates folded the sandstone into mountains. In addition to the Reeks these are the Brandon Range and the Slieve Mish Mountains on the Dingle Peninsula, the Caha and Slieve Miskish Mountains on the Beara Peninsula and the Galtee, Knockmealdown and Comeragh ranges further east. Later the grinding glacial activity of the ice ages shaped the rock into its current form. Massive ice sheets cut U-shaped valleys into the rock and scraped out corries, many of which filled with water and dotted the mountain landscape with lakes. Wind and rain carved the upper sections of the hills into a mix of sharp peaks, sheer cliffs, loose scree fields and near vertical gullies. These rugged features make the mountains of the south-west incredibly beautiful but, together with the unpredictable weather, also unexpectedly dangerous. Unexpected weather fronts can cover the landscape in impenetrable mist, turn the rock into a slippery slide and cause sudden drops in temperature. The lower slopes that were once blanketed in vast forests are today for the most part covered in blanket bog and heath which gives the landscape a more gentle appearance. The lichen covered sandstone rocks and boulders that stick out of the soft mixture of sphagnum mosses, grasses and ferns are however a reminder of where you are.
The Wicklow Mountains on the other side of the country are the product of an earlier mountain building process. Some 400 million years ago, when the two halves of Ireland were being welded together by another tectonic collision, massive amounts of magma were pushed up from inside the earth and lifted the overlying sandstones, slates and shales. Many of the mountains further north, the 12 Bens and Maumturk Mountains in Connemara, the Nephin Beg in County Mayo and the Derryveagh Mountains in County Donegal, were created during the same upheaval which is known as the Caledonian Orogeny. Granite is the main building block of all these mountains. This igneous type of rock is formed when magma rises and cools under overlaying layers of rock without breaching the surface. Because of the immense heat and pressure during this event some of the overlaying rocks, which are often sedimentary, are being transformed into metamorphic rocks: Limestone becomes marble, shale turns into schist and sandstone changes into quartzite. These rocks came to sit between the surface rocks and the granite beneath. Over time the erosive forces of ice and water stripped away the surface rocks, exposed the granite and sculpted mountains and valleys. In most places the metamorphic rock shared the fate of the sandstones, slates and shales and disappeared. In some places however the marble, schist and quartzite were spared, leaving the summits of Mount Errigal, Crough Patrick and the Sugarloaf Mountain wearing a glittering quartzite cap while the mountains of Connemara became famous for their unique and distinctive green marble deposits.
While most of Ireland’s mountain ranges are the product of the collision of tectonic plates there are three that have a different story. The Mourne Mountains in County Down are a compact set of peaks, also made of granite but much younger than their neighbours in Counties Donegal, Mayo and Galway. The Mournes rose up around 60 million years ago when Ireland’s north-east was shaken up by an era of high volcanic activity that also created the Antrim Plateau and the Giant’s Causeway. During this event a batholith, a mound of magma, rose under the future Mournes and created a massive dome which also met its sculptor during the ice ages when glaciers carved out the distinct succession of round peaks and U-shaped valleys. The Mourne Mountains are one of the most recognisable mountains in the country and their characteristic outline dominates the landscape for many miles around. Seen from the distance they are often covered in a blue haze and seem to rise straight from the jigsaw of fields and hedgerows. Once you get closer you can make out the lower slopes, covered in a thin layer of blanket bog that changes its colour from green to brown throughout the seasons, and the bare, grey granite peaks, smoothed by millennia of ice, snow, rain and mist. Another feature that will catch the eye is the Mourne Wall, an enclosure that was built between 1904 and 1922 and traverses up and down the mountains, scaling 15 peaks in the process. The close proximity of the Mournes to the city of Belfast made these mountains the ideal source to supply the then expanding city with water. A reservoir was built and the wall was erected around the catchment area to keep sheep and other unwanted visitors away from the water source. Over time the wall has not only become a landmarks but also become a handy navigation guide for hill walkers.
Further south and to the west from the Mournes resides an unusual and for Ireland unique set of elevations. Ben Bulben and the surrounding hills that line the border between County Sligo and County Leitrim, collectively known as the Dartry Mountains, are Ireland’s only set of table mountains. The rocks that make up these immediately recognisable hills are limestone and shale that formed some 320 million years ago. Before the repeated glaciations during the ice ages the area was a long continuous ridge but the movement of the ice cut deep valleys into the rock and left the remaining parts of the ridge as flat topped mountains. This unique topography allowed a special set of plants to survive on the plateau which is several degrees cooler than the plains and valleys below. Pollen analysis has shown that parts of the tundra flora that was common at the end of the last glaciation around 10000 years ago has survived on the summit of Ben Bulben. This includes fringed sandwort, which is unique to the Ben Bulben plateau, mountain avens and purple and alpine saxifrage that mingle with more common blanket bog flora.
The members of this blanket bog flora are the most common plants to be found on Ireland’s mountains and come in a mixture of tussocky grasses like the purple moor grass, sphagnum mosses, rushes, sedges, heathers, bog myrtle and bog asphodel. On the higher slopes the blanket bog tethers out and is replaced by grassy patches and bare rock. Here heathers can persist and often mix with crowberry and tormentil. Green spleenwort, alpine meadow grass, alpine meadow rue, alpine saw wort, dwarf willow and three species of saxifrage can also be found in the upper regions and on the summits. These alpine species are however rare and only appear sporadic and are often limited to a few spots in a specific area. The alpine’s lady’s mantle for example is only known from the Wicklow Mountains and Mount Brandon, the parsley fern has only been recorded in Connemara, the Mourne Mountains and some other upland sites in Northern Ireland and mountain sorrel only thrives in a few spots in the mountains of the west and south-west. Some of the species are already classified as endangered and steadily climbing average temperatures make their future look bleak. Unlike plants on lower elevations these mountain specialists have nowhere to go to seek a cooler environment.
Ireland has its fair share of unusual plants and it should come as no surprise that Ireland’s mountains also harbour a few proper oddities and rarities. There is for one the unexplained presence of St. Patrick’s cabbage in the Wicklow Mountains. This small but distinctive flower is a member of the Lusitanian flora that has a very specific distribution range in the south-west of Ireland and the Iberian peninsula. Another out of place plant is the recurved sandwort. In 1964 a handful of colonies of this small flower were found in the Caha Mountains. The recurved sandwort has its main distribution further south on the European continent in the Pyrenes, the Alps and Carpathians. It has been debated at length how this plant ended up in County Cork and the most likely explanation is sheer luck. It is possible that the recurved sandwort had a far wider distribution before the latest glaciations and that the Caha Mountain colonies were lucky enough to survive near a continuously ice free summit until today. A similar explanation goes for another group of plants that appears quite regularly near summits but shouldn’t really be there. Thrift, sea plantain, sea campion and scurvy grass are typical coastal flowers but some individuals have somehow found their way up the mountains. Thrift is the most widespread mountaineer and has even been seen flowering on the summit of Carrauntoohill while scurvy grass is quite common in the Galtee Mountains which are some 100 kilometres away from the nearest coast. It is thought that these plants were forced to retreat from advancing forests during warm interglacial periods and once the ice returned they stayed in their refuge, safe from the returning ice just like the recurved sandwort.
Similar to the flora, the fauna of Ireland’s mountains is similar to the one that can be found on blanket bogs and includes the common lizard, common frog, Irish hare and various butterflies, moths and dragonflies. Red grouse, meadow pipit, ring ouzel and the peregrine falcon are common birds in the uplands but the one animal mostly associated with Ireland’s mountains is the raven. The biggest member of the crow family is truly at home between the peaks and its lonesome croak encapsules the wild mountain landscape like no other sound. Ravens mate for life and start breeding early in the year, sometime as early as February. Their nests are perched in inaccessible cliff faces and are being repaired and improved every year before the three to seven bluish-green, brown-blotched eggs are laid. Only 50 years ago ravens were close to extinction in Ireland but since then have made a remarkable recovery. So much so that the highly territorial birds have explored new habitats and can now also be found at the coast, where sea cliffs very much resemble their original habitat, lowland areas and even towns and cities. One reason for this recovery is their high intelligence which makes it easy for these birds to solve problems and seek out and adapt to new surroundings. The raven’s ability to overcome difficulties has been proven in countless experiments, one of which presented the bird with a piece of meat tied to string which is hanging down from the bird’s perch. The only way the bird can reach the meat is by pulling in a length of the string with its beak, stand on the loop and then pulling in another length. After looking at the puzzle for a while four out of five birds solved the problem simply by thinking it through without having to refer to the trial and error principle.
Another iconic animal of the mountains is the red deer. The only native herd of these striking animals lives in and around Killarney National Park where the animals spend most of the year on the slopes of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks and the adjoining forests. Red deer were once common all over Ireland which is reflected in numerous place names, for example ceim an fiadh is “the pass of the deer” and cluain fiadh translates to “the meadow of the deer”. Overhunting wiped out the species in all parts of Ireland bar the Killarney area and even here the red deer came very close to extinction. In the 1960s efforts were undertaken to save the Killarney herd and as part of these efforts a group of animals was exiled to Inishvickillane, a small island off the Kerry coast where they roam until today, a genetic time capsule in the wild Atlantic. Another group was introduced into the Connemara National Park in the 1980s where they thrived and eventually roamed past the national park boundaries. Another herd of wanderers, these being of English origin, escaped from an enclosure near Maum Cross at the eastern border of Connemara and these two parties are by now well established in the Connemara mountain wilderness. Further north in County Donegal Scottish red deer were brought in to re-introduce the species into Glenveagh National Park and these animals have also spread across both national park and county boundaries. The other two deer species living in Ireland, the sika deer and fallow deer, are not native to the country and have been introduced as game animals into the big estates and subsequently escaped into the wild. Both are known to hybridize with red deer which is an ongoing concern for conservationists.
Another somewhat introduced ruminant is the feral goat. Technically speaking this is not a native species but it wouldn’t be fair to these charismatic animals to simply dismiss them as non-native or even invasive. The feral goat is, as the name suggest, a domestic goat gone wild and can be found in all the regions of Ireland, mainly on mountains and along the coast on rocky shores and cliffs. These formidable climbers travel in groups and some individuals are truly impressive. They carry massive horns, a long goatee and their scruffy coat comes in all shades and patterns of white, black and brown. For how long the feral goat has roamed around Ireland is not known but the origins of the Puck Fair suggest that it has been hundreds if not thousands of years. The Puck Fair that is being held every year in Killorglin, a small village north of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, is said to be the oldest festival in Ireland dating back to pre-Christian times. Every year a wild goat is being caught in the mountains and brought to the village where it is being crowned King Puck. From a lofty cage the king then oversees the three day festivities before it is being released back into the wild. While the organizers claim that the welfare of the animal is of utmost importance, the festival has become rather controversial.
Festivals like the Puck Fair are unfortunately the smallest threat Ireland’s uplands and its inhabitants are facing. Climate change already has a noticeable impact. In addition to the effect rising temperatures have on the highly specialized alpine flora, high rainfall amounts in short periods of time on overgrazed ground make large scale landslides more likely while prolonged dry periods provide the perfect conditions for uncontrollable wildfires. Mountain climbers and hill walkers unfortunately also often have a negative impact on the land when they ignore the simple “take only memories, leave only footprints” rule which is especially frustrating considering that if you tread carefully you won’t even leave your footprints…
Carsten Krieger, September 2020