Carrauntoohill, December 2014

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Carrauntoohill is the large peak on the right

I’ve been hillwalking in the MacGillycuddy Reeks since the 1980s and I’ve probably been up Carrauntoohill, the highest peak in the range at 3,406 feet – and the highest in Ireland – at least once a year over that time.

It was in the news recently when some people carried an angle-grinder to the summit and cut down the steel cross that had stood there since 1976. This was in protest, apparently, at the number of schools run by the Catholic Church in Ireland. The culprits have not been identified nor are they likely to be.

The incident resulted in some debate in the media as to what should be done – should the cross be re-erected or, as Atheist Ireland recommended, should there be a “more inclusive” symbol put in its place – if, indeed, there should be any object put there at all. The need for planning permission was mentioned, something that was not of concern back in 1976.

In the event, one week after the felling, the cross was re-erected by a group of local people and there it stands none the worse for its sudden impact with the stony ground. The culprits unwittingly helped in its swift restoration due to the clean cut at the base and because they did not cut it into pieces and hurl them down the steep northern side of the mountain. I suspect that once they felled it they got out of the area as quickly as they could.

I’m glad it’s back upright. The first sight of the cross as one makes one’s way through the last few hundred feet to the summit is always a relief – finally! I’ve made it! In poor visibility it serves as a useful landmark. I’ve never regarded it as a symbol of Catholic triumphalism – it’s just a simple steel cross that has been there for a long time and the summit would not be the same without it. Leave it be.

The incident prompted me to make another trip to Carrauntoohill last Saturday. The recent cold weather would have the Reeks looking their best with their winter raiment of snow. The forecast was for good sunny spells and the only consideration at this time of the year was the hours of daylight – it would be getting dark shortly after 4pm and the round trip to the summit would take about 6 – 7 hours so an early start was necessary. I left home around 5:45am for the 1.5 hour drive to the starting off point at Cronins’ Farm and I began my trek up the Hag’s Glen at 7:30am. The sky was beginning to brighten but a head torch was necessary for the first 20 minutes or so.

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Sunrise behind the Eastern Reeks

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Sheep crossing my path up the Hag’s Glen  

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The first rays of sunlight hitting the flank of Carrauntoohill 

My route was up the glen and thence the ascent of the Devil’s Ladder – a 500 feet steep gully – on to the saddle (a narrow, level stretch of ground between Carraountoohill and the Eastern Reeks) and thence the remaining relatively easy 1000 feet to the summit. This is the most popular route although there are more interesting options such as via The Bone, The Heavenly Gates or O’Shea’s Gully.

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Ascending the Devil’s Ladder

The snowline began about half way up the Ladder and it was thick on the ground on top. The usual path was not visible due to the snow and so I just followed the footsteps of a climber ahead of me. By the time I got to the summit visibility had significantly worsened. It was obvious that there wasn’t going to be any sunlit vistas of the Reeks anytime soon and it was too cold to linger there for  long. After a bite to eat I set off back down the slope. It was snowing now and the marks of my footsteps on the way up were becoming indistinct. I was soon down below the cloud however and the saddle at the top of the Devil’s Ladder wasn’t too far away.

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Looking towards the summit of Carrauntoohill from the top of the Devil’s Ladder

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The first glimpse of the summit cross in the deteriorating visibility

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I usually try to avoid going down the Devil’s Ladder as it can be awkward to negotiate and there is a lot of loose rocks to contend with. However, my preferred option of descending via the Zig Zag path would have meant climbing Cnoc an Toinne the top of which was above the cloud line and I wasn’t prepared to deal with poor visibility in the snow. I made my way down the Ladder therefore and my walking poles gave me badly needed support.

It was disappointing that despite the good weather forecast the night before there wasn’t a clear sky on top. The views are spectacular when there is and especially so when there is snow on the mountains. Still, seven hours traversing this wonderful part of Ireland is always a pleasure regardless of the weather.

Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located about 12 kilometres off the coast of County Kerry. I have been going there once a year for several years now and the trip never fails to lift the spirit. It is Ireland’s Machu Picchu.

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Boats leave for the island from the village of Portmagee between April and September, weather permitting. It is necessary to book at least a day beforehand as demand for places can be quite brisk. The following are some contact numbers:

  • Pat Joe Murphy  – 087 2342168
  • Joe Roddy – 087 1209924
  • Casey’s  – 066 2371017

Others may be found by doing a Google search. In all, about 10 boats with a capacity for 12 persons each make the trip. They leave at 10am and the journey takes about 50 minutes each way. You are given a maximum of 2½ hours on the island. Expect to pay upwards of €50 a head. Believe me, it’s worth it.

Be aware that the crossing can be very rough. My single most scary boat-trip ever was to Skellig Michael a few years ago. The sea was flat calm in the inner harbour at Portmagee but once we hit the open sea it became a white-knuckle ride. It was like being on a roller coaster with someone throwing a bucket of water at you every 30 seconds or so. Amazingly, none of the 12 passengers, all clinging on for dear life on the open deck, got sea-sick. We should have expected the worst, I suppose, when the skipper insisted on us all donning yellow oilskin jackets and trousers before we embarked.

Be aware also that there are no facilities on the island – not even a rock you can go behind – so be sure to visit the public toilet at the entrance to Portmagee before you set out.

Neither is it a place to visit if you don’t like heights and/or are prone to vertigo. There have been fatalities among visitors, most recently in 2009 when 2 American tourists died – on separate occasions – from falling from a ledge near the beginning of the stone stairway. There are 700 steps up to the remains of the monastic settlement on the top of the island and it can be very challenging for anyone who is unfit.

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The route that visitors are confined to is outlined in red. After disembarking from the boat, the route follows a gentle incline along the Lighthouse Road.

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Blind Man’s Cove – where the boats drop off and collect visitors. Getting on and off the boats can be tricky when the water is choppy – you have to carefully time your jump from the boat to the pier and vice versa.      

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The Lighthouse Road

It is only when one comes to the South Steps that the challenging part begins – the steep climb to the top. Some people, realising that it is beyond their capabilities, are content not to wander beyond this point and are happy to relax in the sunshine and watch the birds instead.  On my last visit (5th June 2014) there was a guide at the bottom of the steps who gave a safety lecture to everyone before allowing them to go further.

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The start of the South Steps. The most dangerous part is where the lady on the right is walking. To her left is the 20 foot drop where the recent fatalities occurred. A chain has since been inserted in the rock as a safety measure.  

       

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The dangerous ledge with safety chain.

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Notice the absence of handrails. There had been demands for them in the aftermath of the recent deaths but, wisely, the Office of Public Works (which looks after the island) refused to countenance them as they would detract from the character of the place.  It is a wilderness area and it is important that it remains so. 

Excavation and restoration work has been ongoing every summer since 1978 in order to learn more about the monastic settlement and to preserve it for future generations. It is not known exactly when the first monks came here but it is probable that it was in the 6th Century. The earliest written record of a monastery was in 824 AD when there was a Norse raid on the island. By the 11th Century the island had been dedicated to St Michael and probably became a place of pilgrimage around this time too. Monks continued to live here until the late 13th Century when, due to climate change resulting in colder winters and stormier seas, and changes in Irish ecclesiastical structures, they left for the mainland and settled in Ballinskelligs.  It is likely though that some monks returned for the summer months for a long time after that.

The island continued to be owned by the Augustinians until 1578 when, in the aftermath of the Desmond Rebellion, Queen Elizabeth 1 dissolved certain monasteries that had been under the Earl of Desmond’s protection. Skellig Michael was given to the (secular) Butler family and it remained with the family until 1820 when it was purchased by the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin – the predecessor of the Commissioners of Irish Lights – which wanted to build 2 lighthouses on it.

The building of the lighthouses was completed in 1826. During the construction period the workers occupied the ancient beehive cells in the old monastery.

In 1880 the Office of Public Works took over responsibility for the monastery and this has continued to the present day.  Apart from the heliport and the lighthouses (only one of which is still operational) –  the property of the Commissioners of Irish Lights – the island is owned by the Government of Ireland. It is a National Monument by reason of its historical, architectural and archaeological importance.

It 1996 it attained UNESCO World Heritage status due to its “outstanding universal significance”.

 

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The beehive huts, so-called because of their resemblance to beehives, which housed the monks.

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The monks graveyard. 

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Looking across to Little Skellig and the Kerry Coast from the monastery. 

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The Romanesque window in St Michael’s Chapel before the restoration work of the last two years. 

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The window as it is now. 

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A wider view of the newly restored chapel. 

I have to say I got an unpleasant shock when I saw the newly restored chapel. I appreciate that the Office of Public Works’ archaeologists and architects must know best as far as restoration work is concerned but I think they have gone overboard in their use of cement mortar. It looks ugly and out of character with the rest of the settlement.  Perhaps the light grey look will darken with weathering over time.

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The South Peak from the high ground above the monastery.   

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The South Peak from the top of the steps.   

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Christ’s Saddle from the base of the South Peak.  Note the final section of steps leading up to the monastery (not in the picture).

For a few weeks in late May and early June each year Skellig Michael is home to hundreds (if not thousands) of Atlantic Puffins. They nest in burrows many of which are alongside the steps so the birds are often literally within arms length of visitors. I doubt if there is anywhere else in Britain or Ireland where it is possible to be in such close proximity to them. I have photographed Puffins on the Great Saltee Island off County Wexford but it is an achievement in itself some years to see any there, let alone photograph them. It is an extraordinary sensation, by contrast, to see them so plentiful on the Skellig.

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All these were photographed with a Canon 400mm lens with an extension tube attached so as to facilitate a closer focusing distance than the 3.5 metres allowed by the lens such was the nearness of the birds to the camera.

The 2½ hours on the island is just enough to visit the monastery and spend some time admiring the spectacular scenery and perhaps photographing the birds.  Most of the island is out of bounds to visitors primarily because of the danger from the precipitous peaks and cliffs. Visitor numbers also need to be managed because of the possible deleterious impact of too much footfall on the ancient remains. The weather helps in this regard as there are often days during the summer when it is not possible for the boats to set out because of heavy seas or driving rain (visitors are not allowed if it’s raining as the wet steps would be too dangerous).

I would strongly recommend more Irish people to visit this national treasure. I’m always struck by how few Irish there are on the boats. Many people tell me that, yes, it’s on their bucket list and they’ll get around to it someday.

Forget “someday”.

Do it now.

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 Heading home from Skellig Michael.  

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The boats usually sail by Little Skellig – home to 20,000 Gannets – on the way back.

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Looking back at Little Skellig (left) and Skellig Michael (right). 

 

 

 

Waterville Beach Hotel

Two miles north-west of Waterville, County Kerry lies the ruins of the Waterville Beach Hotel (a.k.a. the Reenroe Hotel).

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It was built in the 1970s and closed in the mid-1980s.  On the face of it the closure is difficult to understand – it is situated overlooking the beautiful Ballinskelligs Beach but even that was clearly not sufficient to attract enough customers on an ongoing basis to make it profitable.

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Ballinskelligs Beach

The elements have since taken their toll and the place is now a crumbling ruin.

In the early 2000s, Eccleston International Ltd made plans to demolish the old hotel and build a 13,000 sq ft, 120 bedroom hotel on the site.  The proposal had the backing of the local community who looked forward to the employment that would be created. There was however a single objection from a couple – Eugene and Anne McMahon – who are resident in Canada but who have a holiday home in the area. An Bord Pleanála upheld the objection. That objection was in turn overturned by An Bord Pleanála at the end of 2007 and the green light was given for the development to go ahead.  However, the economic climate had changed dramatically in the meantime and nothing happened. The planning permission has since expired and the site is now for sale with an asking price of €150,000.

I had never heard of the place until I read Susan Cloonan’s blogpost:  http://queenofpots.com/blog/2013/08/25/abandoned-waterville-beach-reenroe-hotel/

My interest piqued, I travelled to West Kerry yesterday to photograph the ruin. There is easy access to the hotel. I didn’t see any signs saying “Keep Out” or “No Trespassers”. I ventured inside with some trepidation in case a slab of masonry or something might fall on me but I emerged unscathed.

I’m not a huge fan of HDR but I decided to use the technique to give the interior shots a hyperreal effect which I think the grotesqueness of the place demanded.

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