Wondrous ways of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks

THERE are places words are inadequate to describe.

Wild places that are best experienced close up by the human eye and ear. Unfortunately, many people have to rely on photographs or the impressions of painters.

In recent times, there’s been a massive growth in numbers of people walking in the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, in Co Kerry. Such traffic now needs to be managed to protect a mountain environment showing clear signs of wear and tear from human footfall.

As tourism became established in Killarney in the second half of the 19th century, English visitors and hillwalkers began to discover the Reeks: Places like the Gap of Dunloe and the remote Black Valley benefited from tourism.

People are drawn by a rugged and beautiful landscape, which poses challenges and dangers that are often not seen, or overlooked. The Kerry Mountain Rescue Team frequently answers callouts to go to the assistance of people in trouble, especially on Carrauntoohill, the chief attraction. Last week, the Reeks were snowcapped, taking on an Alpine look. The sight of snow is a magnet for some and the Christmas period is certain to be busy.

A new book by award-winning photographer Valerie O’Sullivan, The MacGillycuddy’s Reeks, captures the landscape in all its splendour. There are breath-taking views, with rainbows, vertical cliffs, clouds, sheep and snow all framing some master images taken over several years by a woman who knows the place like the back of her hand.

Essentially a book of photographs, it is also about the hardy people of the hills, who have been there for countless generations. We see sheep farmers like Brendan O’Connor and John Foley at work and a hospitable woman called Eileen Cronin, of Cronin’s Yard.

We learn of the daily life of the people, their culture and recreation. We are also told most of the land in the Reeks is commonage: several people have grazing rights. Sheep replaced herds of goats after the Famine, though some goats are still there.

In an introduction, UCC academics John Crowley and John Sheehan relate the history of the Reeks, informing us glaciers gouged out spectacular breaches in the mountains like the Gap of Dunloe and Moll’s Gap, about 25,000 years ago. Some of the places are steeped in mythology, Cathair na Feinne (fort of the Fianna), or represent wildlife, Ceim an Fhia (leap of the deer).

“While painters have achieved more success, there is always the feeling of greater possibilities yet to be explored. Throughout much of history, then, these mountains have come to represent the antithesis of the ‘civilised’ world. Perhaps, ultimately that is their unique attraction today,” Crowley and Sheehan conclude.

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