Ireland’s mountains are by now mythical. Variously interpreted by writers, painters, and photographers, the rich material just keeps on giving.
The Mountains of Ireland by Gareth McCormack and The MacGillycuddy’s Reeks: People and Places of Ireland’s Highest Mountain Range by Valerie O’Sullivan approach the subject from differing perspectives. And perspective is what it’s all about.
McCormack’s studies are predominantly visual while O’Sullivan, an accomplished landscape photographer herself, in part demonstrated here, chooses a portraiture approach of the people for whom the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks is their home and their place of work.
They are the sheepfarmers who go out in all weather, the mountain rescuers likewise, and the guesthouse owners who welcome one and all.
For anyone bewildered by the location and the mountain peaks of the Reeks, one of O’Sullivan’s first shots here lays it all out: To the east, Knockbrinna. Nearby, the second highest mountain in the country, Beenkeeragh.
A little further on, Carrauntoohil. Away to the west, Broaghnabinnia. In the foreground Cnoc na d’Tarbh and Cnoc an Bhraca. That is the template. All she has to do now is bring her camera into the farmyards, the woods, the roads, the homes, the dance halls, and the fireside. And the mountains themselves, of course.
As expressed in the introduction by John Crowley and John Sheahan, “in the hearts and minds of hillwalkers and climbers the mountains confer a freedom and elan rarely experienced in other landscapes”.
The photos here are a tapestry of life. Sheepfarmer Donal Foley guides his multicoloured flock with his dog Jake. A wonderful portrait of the late Pa Joe Kissane sitting by the fire cradling his dog Pup is evocative of centuries of living.
Batty Joe Murphy of Shanara stands proudly on his land after a day’s back-breaking work. Eugene and Mary Tangney pose for the camera outside their home in the Black Valley where the family has lived for six generations.
Another example of the rootedness of the population. Tara Foley, 11, the youngest winner of the Munster Nursery sheepdog trials, offers a beaming smile on a cold day. Many other photographs capture the people at work and at play. This is social portraiture at its finest.
A wonderful set of shots captures the annual Gap of Dunloe Horse Fair. It is said to be more of a social occasion than a market but a fine image of Timmy O’Connor and Paul Cremin striking a deal contradicts that opinion.
The traditions of the Rambling House — a gathering of friends and neighbours to share music, songs, and stories — are captured. Young Breda Kelliher transfixes the audience with her sean nós dancing. Regulars Billy Joy and Eddie Shanahan enjoy the evening.
One of the major themes in the book is Kerry Mountain Rescue which has been in operation for 50 years. The group responds to around 40 incidents a year. Members are pictured in dramatic rescues. Equally dramatic are the photographs of adventurists in mountain climbing, mountain biking, and kayaking for whom the craggy peaks and rough waters are a timeless playground.
Finally, there is a lovely portrait of Esther and John Cronin from whose premises at Cronin’s Yard many a hillwalker has started the hike to Ireland’s highest mountain, Carrauntoohil.
O’Sullivan’s intimate knowledge of the Reeks is exemplary. Her camera has the patience of a Buddhist monk, the sweep of a drone, and an uncanny ability to find the right shot.
Gareth McCormack in The Mountains of Ireland divides his subject into four, sensibly following provincial lines, the borders of which are often mountains. And being an Ulsterman himself, where better to start than the northern territories? He reminds us that this book is not a compendium, merely a personal view; an impressionistic slide. So your favourite mountain may not be included, but a glen you may have visited as a child and forgotten about, may well be.
And of course, our mountains remain elusive: In their remoteness, in their scale and in their naming. McCormack reminds us that they often have four names: their original Irish name; an anglicised version on official maps, a local name, and a familiar name.
First up is the Donegal Highlands: a place of the richly hued Bluestack Mountains, of the glistening quartzite at Errigal.
Errigal itself is captured in a dusky frame of ochrous light, not the typical (cliched) shot of dramatic pink. The magnificent shades of yellow, light brown, and bog black create a stunning contrast. However, a quarter-page doesn’t do justice to Donegal’s most beautiful mountain.
The Mountains of Ireland does not just represent their immemorial majesty but occasionally dwells on the human footprint. Yes, we are relevant, but barely. A study of the marble Dunlewy Church against the snow-clad Derryveagh Mountains is a vivid reminder of austerity.
If his photographs are sumptuous then his prose isn’t far behind. A description of the birth of the Derryveagh Mountains is a Gerard Manley Hopkins paean: “The orientation of the mountain ranges, valleys and fault lines jumps out: rumples, creases and cracks”.
Moving on to the Mournes and a picture of snow melting on the granite tors of Slieve Binnian looks like it could be from Greenland. Other subjects include bog cotton, a crashing waterfall and a contemplative hillwalker. All help sketch the wider picture.
Onwards to Leinster and the Wicklow Mountains take pride of place. A shot of a sunset over Turlough Hill with interlocking mountains suggests cavernous depths and mystery. Several other fine shots of the Wicklow Mountains are included but none of the Dublin Mountains. A pity.
Munster begins with the near cauldron of the Comeraghs. Photographs of Coumshingaun indicate its geological traces: Corries, conglomerate, moraines. A magnificent photo of Carrauntoohil and Beenkeeragh shows a tentative sunrise and reminds us that to capture such images the photographer must brave very cold conditions and very early rises.
The sheer variety of shapes in the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks lends multitudinous viewpoints and McCormack doesn’t disappoint. If these photographs don’t inspire you to get out there nothing will. The Galtees are here, resplendent. How could they not be?
Connemara opens with a magnificent image of the Maumturk Mountains. The alluring Twelve Bens can render you speechless. The relatively undiscovered Nephins are glorious.
As McCormack’s book is low on text, the photographs doing all the talking, it is apt to take an account of a writer’s viewpoint. And as these mountains are immutable to us mortal humans, here is a description by English writer John Ashworth of walking in the Nephin Begs, Co Mayo, in 1850: “I looked upon the scene we were leaving with a feeling of awe.
"The clouds already obscuring the summit of the precipice, the jutting cliffs above, the huge rocks below, and the calm surface of the lake, formed a whole truly and strikingly sublime.”
McCormack resists the temptation to provide geologic history, descriptions of flora and fauna, and historical references. His book is distilled to its essence: Photography, and is much the better for it. In his preface he states he has set out to awe the reader. He has succeeded.
Collins Press, €20.99
Collins Press, €17.49