Islands of Ireland: Islands stack up in Donegal

Islands of Ireland: Islands stack up in Donegal
Dan MacCarthy, Mary Claire and Annie Sheridan after summiting Berg Stack, Co Donegal. Picture: Iain Miller

A 90-degree vertiginous cliff above, and a disappearing ground below, is no place to contemplate the nature of landscape and what actually constitutes an island. Actually I lie.

This 70ft quartzite behemoth called Berg Stack near Glencolmcille in Co Donegal leans back about five degrees making the true angle only 85 degrees. Pah, easy!

This momentary experience is all about concentration and finding the next handhold, the next hole for your foot and scanning ahead for more places to grip as you inch yourself upwards.

However, this small climbing party is in very safe hands. Climbing specialist Iain Miller of Unique Ascent has been doing this kind of thing for over 20 years and what he doesn’t know about climbing, rocks, Tyrolean traverses and the 1,200km of Donegal coastline isn’t worth knowing. In fact, in these parts he is simply known as ‘the Climber’ which is street cred to burn.

Certainly, no one ever lived or could have lived on Berg Stack. Nor could sheep have grazed there as there is scant vegetation, just clumps of sea campion here and there. It measures about 3,000sq m and lies just north of Sturral Headland. The area is infamous for a sea tragedy in 1870 when a ship called the Sydney foundered on the rocks with 19 lives lost.

Iain Miller of at Berg Stack, An Port, Co Donegal. Picture: Dan MacCarthy
Iain Miller of at Berg Stack, An Port, Co Donegal. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

“We will take you to places that have been visited fewer times than the moon,” Miller’s website states. And Berg Stack really feels like that. It lies 100m off the cliffs and is reached it by rubber dinghy.

When Miller began exploring Donegal’s craggy coastline in the 1990s most of the sea stacks didn’t even have names. So out of pure necessity he put names on them and they stuck. He sought out local knowledge but found many of the stacks were unnamed, so he filled the breach and now climbers who come to Donegal can find the stacks. As good a method of nomenclature as any. So there are Lurking Fear Stack, Cobbler’s Tower, Vertical Picnic, Realm of the Senses and many others.

“I spoke to a number of local people, including Rita Cunningham, and the stacks have been named in Irish for fishermen. The stacks [not all] were given names as landmarks. I renamed them purely for climbers,” he says.

At a certain point it becomes a philosophical point about what can reasonably be called an island. There are several vertical rock stacks that are just narrow columns, that for this scribe at least, can not fall into the island category.

However, many of Donegal’s sea stacks are larger than islands around the country — Goat Island in Co Waterford and Flea Island in West Cork, spring to mind. Their naming may come down to the fact of accessibility. If an island is obvious it gets a name, if it is in a place which is difficult to access, by land and or by sea, then it is less likely to have been named.

Miller gives his tuppenceworth: “In my opinion an island is a place where people have lived or is a place where people have used, to raise sheep for instance, or in some way have managed. A big enough piece of land to have a purpose. To define a sea stack for me there must be a technical interest in terms of rock climbing.”

Islands of Ireland: Islands stack up in Donegal

About 4km north of Berg Stack lies Tormore Stack which is given as an island on maps but not so the dozens of others. Miller, the first person to ever summit this stack, is unequivocal about the magnificent coast of Donegal. He has climbed over 60 previously unclimbed sea stacks.

“In my opinion it is the world capital for stack climbing. There are more sea stacks in Donegal than Scotland combined and Scotland has a lot of sea stacks. The best sea stack climb on Earth is Cnoc na Mara or the Hill of the Sea,” he says.

When the likes of the National Geographic (“Donegal is the coolest place on the planet”) and the adventure wing of Red Bull, and Outside Magazine come calling then you know you’re on to something good. Miller has done more than most to promote the county including kayaking underneath several islands and capturing the wondrous interior light — blues, pinks, emerald greens — with illuminating videos.

How to get there: 20km west of Ardara in Co Donegal.


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