Hidden Ireland

As Dan MacCarthy dips into a new series of guides on the country’s best walking spots, he discovers that size really doesn’t matter when it comes to the breathtaking beauty on offer

THE mountains of Ireland are famous the world over — we like to think. Many have climbed our highest peak Carrauntoohil (1,039m). Others in the nearby MacGillicuddy’s Reeks are no less impressive — much more impressive depending on the direction you take on your ascent. Beenkeeragh (1,010m) is approached on a sliver of sandstone that should make the hairs on your neck stand up.

But what of the others? Galtymore (Co Tipperary and Co Limerick) and Lugnaquillia (Co Wicklow) are two mountains that receive a lot of walkers. But there are many others that never get a look-in. To correct that imbalance, a new series of guides from the Collins Press looks at the less well-known mountains and hills in Ireland.

Two overlooked counties are Tipperary and Waterford. Apart from Galtymore, Tipperary has some stunning walks and Waterford hosts the eerie corries of the Comeraghs. Tipperary and Waterford: A Walking Guide by John G O’Dwyer, Collins Press, €14.99, redresses the balance in favour of the two Munster counties. O’Dwyer is a founder member of the Mid-Tipp Hillwalkers, so any routes not covered here aren’t worth knowing.

He writes that our hills are covered in trig points, deflector masts, crosses, altars, towers, huts, etc, but are nonetheless alluring — “the historic, the aesthetic, the commercial and the spiritual all jostle for the psychological dominance offered by the highest summits”.

One of the highlights of O’Dwyer’s volume is the lovely, pastoral routes he describes through the Slievefelim hills near the village of Newport. Compared with their south county counterparts, these hills are on a more intimate scale and do not make the less-experienced walker feel out of place. Here you will find a patchwork of small fields, woodlands, serene villages and moorland tops, he says.

Over to Waterford and the glacier-gouged mountains of the Comeraghs dominate the county. Any hillwalker who hasn’t circuited Coumshingaun Lough should hang your head in shame. Its shattered crags lead to a bog-springy plateau from where you look down into a giant glacial bowl as if scooped out of the earth by a giant ladle.

Glorious, but there is more. Witness the overlooked Knockmealdowns where O’Dwyer says nothing can bring you closer to knocking on heaven’s door — for all the peaks are knocksomethingorother. The Nire Valley in Co Waterford is a place where the Celtic Tiger failed to leave its calling card, says the author. No pretty footbridges, tea shops, kissing gates and story-boarded viewing points here, he avers. You start this walk near the village of Ballymacarbry, heading up onto the Monavullagh Mountains. It should take about five hours.

Scenic Walks in Killarney, Collins Press, €9.99, by accomplished guide writer Jim Ryan sketches some familiar and unfamiliar walks in this most popular of hillwalking destinations. Ryan lists 18 walks here including the centre of Killarney itself, the Gap of Dunloe and Torc waterfall. Walks that readers may not know include the circuit of Tomies Wood — the blue pool nature trail and Aghadoe to St Mary’s cathedral. The Tomies walk takes in a view, if you’re lucky with timing and season, of Killarney National Park’s two species of deer — red deer and sika. And if you’re really lucky, you may spot one of the eagles that nest there. A lot of these are short walks aimed at the usually sedentary or the not so fleet-of-foot. Nonetheless interesting in spite of their brevity.

Ireland’s County High Points by Kieron Gribbon, Collins Press, €17.99, lists our 32 highest peaks by county. Skipping the aforementioned Carrauntoohil, let’s take a look at the smallest county peak. Mullaghmeen in Co Westmeath comes in at a daunting 258m. It’s lowness apart, the hillock is surrounded by Mullaghmeen forest — reputed to be the largest beech forest in western Europe. And its third claim to fame is that it is the country’s 1,000th highest point. It is classed as a ‘marilyn’ — an ironic naming for hills corresponding to the ‘munro’ of Scottish fame which lists mountains above 915m.

Neighbouring Co Meath has nothing to crow about (Carnbane East at 276m). Neither has nearby Co Longford — Corn Hill coming in at 278m. In fact, stack these three on top of each other and you still have room for one more of their size before you reach the height of Carrauntoohil. But it’s not the height that counts. More often than not it’s the place. And walking a few of these routes will appeal to more than just the list-compilers and ‘munro-baggers’. If you’re not able to take on the mighty mountains then forget them and the mediocre and just ‘bag’ the minuscule.

Some counties share their highest peaks (Tipperary and Limerick) while others have standalone peaks that you would hardly notice in some cities. Kilkenny’s Mount Brandon (515m) is just out of reach of that category, but very pleasant nonetheless.

Gribbon’s volume is idiot-proof and is full of useful information: grid references, maps and pictures. It is ended with a handy space to tick off your climbs.

Donegal, Sligo & Leitrim: Mountain and Coastal Walks, by Adrian Hendroff, Collins Press, €14.99 presents walks from the north-west. & Hendroff’s Leitrim walks and pictures are so enticing that you fell like getting on the phone straight away to book a room in Drumshanbo. One standout walk is described as Ireland’s finest coastal walk just north of Glencolumbkille. Has to be seen to be believed.

Throw Sligo and Donegal into the mix and you have enough walks to last you several summers at least.

Finally, Northern Ireland: A Walking Guide, Collins Press, by Helen Fairbairn, €14.99 collects 34 routes from Rathlin Island in Co Antrim, to the cliffs of Magho in Co Fermanagh, to the Binnians north of Carlingford Lough. Described as the finest hillwalk in the North, Slieve Donard (850m) is the highest mountain in the area. Again, grid references are given along with excellent route descriptions.

The books, all pocket-sized and durable, are as vital as your boots to your excursion.

* See our new walking column on Monday’s Outdoors page


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