The Way that we Climbed: A look at the rivalry of Irish climbers

Hillwalking, climbing and mountaineering have long been favourite pastimes in this country. Dan MacCarthy says Paddy O’Leary’s new history captures the intense rivalry of these sports’ participants

The Way that we Climbed: A look at the rivalry of Irish climbers

IT IS the peculiar nature of certain activities to be omitted from the glare of publicity that attends other pursuits. Thus it is with mountaineering.

There are no Ronan O’Garas grimly hanging on a cliff face. No Robbie Keanes fording an icy river. No Padraig Harringtons carrying a stricken friend down a mountain.

The occasionally interested camera or newspaper article soon turns its attention elsewhere.

But they are there. Giants of their ‘sport’. People like Henry Chichester Hart who walked the 75 miles (120km) from Dublin to Lugnaquilla and back. Also his friend Richard Barrington, who climbed the Eiger in the Alps as well as exploring Carrauntoohil, Purple Mountain and Mangerton in Kerry.

These men contributed enormously to the development of the sport in Ireland.

They started out with basic equipment. To call it ‘equipment’ is even stretching a point. The likes of WT Kirkpatrick who, around 1900, climbed in the Alps in silk shirts and shorts with an aluminum stove in which to cook his dinner. By the early 20th century hillwalking was becoming popular in Dublin and Kerry with civil servants and others.

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A club was formed grandiosely titled the Illustrious Brotherhood of Lug. As the decades rolled by, hillwalking became ever more popular and walkers ascended peaks such as Slieve Donard and Ben Bulben. In Co Tipperary tweed jacket-wearing walkers bestrode the Nire Valley. The sport attracted eccentrics too.

The botanist Frank Winder was known to wander the mountains of Kerry naked as the day he was born. Underlining the often familial links in climbing circles, Winder had been dispatched to Kerry by Arthur Stelfox of the Natural History Museum, grandfather of the first Irishman to climb Everest: Dawson Stelfox.

Climbing soon began to assert itself and Dalkey Quarry and Lug Mountain in Wicklow became favourite haunts of the practitioners.

In 1948, things were formalised with the formation of the Irish Mountaineering Club, which had existed earlier but had lapsed. Now there was a structure to the sport where routes could be discussed, equipment exchanged and youthful enthusiasm fostered.

Two climbers appeared in the 1950s who were to push the boundaries of the sport ever further, Josh Lynam and Sean Rothery. They set up new climbing routes in the Black Valley and the Gap of Dunloe and were in the forefront of the sport for decades.

Paddy O’Leary, the author of The Way that we Climbed: A history of Irish Hillwalking, also had a huge contribution to the sport’s development. He helped toset up the umbrella organisation for climbing as well as being director of the Tiglin National Centre which provided training and support for climbers.

At a time of huge gender inequality in Ireland, women were welcomed into the clubs. Emily Innes was among those who developed many new routes in Ireland. A backdrop to these events of course was the ever-present risk; fatalities were increasing, frequently in the Alps. But the Irish kept on coming and new routes were being established all the time by the likes of Calvin Torrans and Frank Nugent.

Meanwhile, hillwalking was continuing to develop upto an explosion of interest in the 1990s and beyond. Climbers also flocked to Ailladie in Co Clare, Gola Island in Donegal and Fair Head in Antrim. Many of these routes were humorously titled: Satanic Majesty; Obscene Sardine; Box of Chocs — often inspired by the popular music of the day, including Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix.

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The sport continued to develop through the 1970s and ’80s and many names, though not of the household variety began to appear: Jim McKenzie, Con Moriarty, Con Collins (publisher of this book), Dermot Somers. Into the ’90s and the best known public name was Pat Falvey’s. His success in climbing the seven peaks (including Everest) on each of the continents brought Irish climbing to dizzying heights.

What comes through the entire account of this skywards pursuit is the intense rivalry and competition of the participants. There was the class rivalry in the early days with a perceived superiority by the predominantly middleclasses over the occasional workingclass interloper.

There was nationalistic rivalry between Ireland and our nearest neighbour. A British climbing team in the 1950s in Wicklow climbed a very difficult route in the Spillikin area and named it ‘Rule Britannia’ only to be quickly superseded by a home team who opened up a harder route and duly named it ‘Erin go Bragh’.

And while not doubting the mountaineering skills of Pat Falvey and others, O’Leary regrets the commercial direction in which the former brought the sport. The rivalry, if not bitterness, reached its peak in an ascent of Manaslu in 1991 where a disagreement over the style of approach to the mountain saw a bitter falling out to the extent that none of the individuals from one of the groups ever climbed with the other again.

The organisation of O’Leary’s encyclopaedic knowledge of mountaineering surely must have tasked him as much as organising one of his many expeditions. There can hardly be an individual who climbed a significant mountain in the last 50 years not mentioned here.

The Way that We Climbed: A History of Irish Hillwalking, Climbing and Mountaineering; Paddy O’Leary, Collins Press. €19.99.


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