Nd’s hts

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mar­riage pro­posal?

And there was Jonathan Swift’s Gul­liver’s Trav­els. The gi­gan­tic Gul­liver was in­spired by the moun­tains over­look­ing Belfast, the 370m Cave Hill sum­mit be­ing the ‘‘nose’’ of the Gul­liver face out­lined on the moun­tain.

Ben Bul­ben and Knocknarea an­chor Yeats coun­try in Sligo, his an­ces­tral home. And then there’s Ire­land’s sa­cred moun­tain, Croagh Patrick, aka the Reek, in County Mayo. Its 6000-year his­tory shows up re­peat­edly in Ir­ish lit­er­a­ture. As many as 25,000 men, women and chil­dren climb it on Reek Sun­day, the last Sun­day in July – some bare­foot and recit­ing the rosary on their way to Mass at the sum­mit. Oth­ers no doubt climbed to have a nod and a wink at the spot from which St Patrick is sup­posed to have driven the snakes from Ire­land.

Each of our walks started at sea level, and with clear weather, each promised spec­tac­u­lar moun­tain and wa­ter vis­tas.

First we walked Howth, the most ac­ces­si­ble. A sim­ple halfhour train ride from down­town Dublin ter­mi­nates at Howth’s lit­tle har­bour. It’s a tourist town, full of restaurants and bars, and signs lead im­me­di­ately east­ward to a shore path to the 6.5km cliff walk cir­cling the penin­sula.

On a sunny day, the path was full of strolling fam­i­lies, lon­ers and cou­ples. Dublin Bay glis­tened, the Wick­low Moun­tains rose pur­ple be­hind the city. We saw maybe a piece of Heaney’s old house across the wa­ter at Sandy­mount, and slum­ber­ing seals lit­tered the shore­line. There was no ev­i­dence of Molly’s rhodo­den­dron love nest, but we did see the sea­side Yeats fam­ily house, Balscad­den, which means ‘‘the town of her­rings’’ in Gaelic.

‘‘He used to sleep with the win­dows wide open,’’ said Stella Mew, past di­rec­tor of the Sligo Yeats So­ci­ety and of Clon­gowes Wood Col­lege, the Je­suit boys’ school fa­mously de­picted in Joyce’s Ulysses and Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man. ‘‘Storms would send sea spray into his room’’, soak­ing the bed­ding by morn­ing, Mew told us. ‘‘He was 16, and I sup­pose the poet is sup­posed to lis­ten to the pound­ing waves . . . he did any­way.’’

It was on Howth cliff walks that Yeats first pro­posed mar­riage to Maud Gonne. The aris­to­cratic Gonne re­peat­edly de­clined the love­struck ‘‘Wil­lie’’, as she called him. Yeats wrote of the ache of her re­jec­tion: ‘‘My world was fallen and over, for your dark soft eyes on it shone; A thou­sand years it had waited and now it is gone, it is gone.’’

In Belfast, the path to Gul­liver’s nose starts at the city zoo, with signs and amap to the right of the en­trance build­ing. Ris­ing above heav­ily forested lower hills, the Cave Hill path opens to re­veal the city rest­ing in its wide, long val­ley. You can just make out Queen’s Univer­sity, where Heaney taught as a young poet.

Far be­low is the ele­phant en­clo­sure, the beasts look­ing like plump mice. Their smell and trum­pet­ing rose far up the moun­tain­side.

As I huffed and puffed near the nose – a knob lean­ing south­west­ward off the top of the moun­tain – one of Swift’s ob­ser­va­tions came to mind: ‘‘Ev­ery man de­sires to live long, but no man wishes to be old.’’

The re­minder held weight, stand­ing as we were in sun­shine over­look­ing the new star-shaped Ti­tanic mu­seum be­side the River La­gan, a glis­ten­ing lit­tle glass crab in the dis­tance, where the doomed ship was com­pleted in 1912.

Knocknarea is a sim­ple power climb over ris­ing meadows and a se­ries of low walls. You have to look for a long de­scend­ing path across from the trail leading up, where a deep fis­sure be­tween two lime­stone cliffs lies hid­den. In this place of ut­ter soli­tude, trees drape one side of the fis­sure and move with the breeze, while the stones pro­duce echoes of great clar­ity.

Yeats, of course, had to take note, writ­ing Man and The Echo to pose the ul­ti­mate ques­tions, with the echo eerily re­spond­ing as if in a con­ver­sa­tion. Never par­tic­u­larly cheer­ful, Yeats wrote, ‘‘I/ Sleep­less would lie down and die’’, and the echo cru­elly com­mands, ‘‘Die’’.

Atop Knocknarea, a loose stone pile 10m by 55m and ris­ing per­haps 12m, is said to be the grave of Queen Maeve, mythic god­dess and ruler of Ire­land. Dat­ing back about 5000 years, the cairn sup­pos­edly cov­ers the un­der­ground en­trance to hell, and within it live the shee, or fairies – a 2.1m-tall race of blue nearhu­mans.

‘‘Many vis­i­tors may not re­alise it, but Knocknarea is amas­sive Ne­olith en­clo­sure, a fort,’’ said Michael Gib­bons, an arche­ol­o­gist who lec­tures at Har­vard Divin­ity School, whom I called af­ter my visit. ‘‘Climb­ing it, you’re cross­ing old ram­parts, sa­cred bar­rows and tombs.

‘‘All these moun­tains and so much of Ire­land, they’re part of one of the great Euro­pean timescapes, places not de­stroyed by in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion or the Ro­mans. We’ve looked at less than 1 per cent of that his­tory, and there’s this an­cient world still wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered.’’

In 1995, Gib­bons led an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Croagh Patrick, find­ing hun­dreds of tombs and re­li­gious sites all around. At the top of the moun­tain, the team found a ‘‘place of rit­ual vi­o­lence’’, awalled en­clo­sure with the dressed stone fac­ing in­ward. ‘‘It wasn’t a fort,’’ he said. ‘‘It was a sa­cred place in Mesolithic times, when the Egyp­tians were build­ing the first pyra­mids, and we’re not sure yet what ex­actly went on.’’

For us, Croagh Patrick was the most dif­fi­cult walk. It was Gar­land Fri­day, the Fri­day be­fore Reek Sun­day, and along with sev­eral thou­sand oth­ers, we set off for eight hours of climb­ing, some­times claw­ing and a few times fall­ing on our way up 764m over rock-strewn paths rut­ted with gul­lies and fis­sures. Oc­ca­sion­ally, a loose rock dis­lodged above us and tum­bled down.

Once at the top, bathed in sun­shine, cooled by gen­tle breezes and daz­zled at the in­fin­itely vari­able blue colour­ings of Clew Bay spread be­low, we paused for re­flec­tion, our sand­wiches and the wa­ter­less toi­let.

And a stop at the lit­tle chapel, a white build­ing vis­i­ble for miles and a beacon for climbers. In 1905, pil­grims car­ry­ing ev­ery­thing on their backs had as­sem­bled it near a de­cliv­ity used for Chris­tian wor­ship since about the 11th century, and pos­si­bly for rit­ual mur­der long be­fore that. Af­ter mo­men­tar­ily los­ing track of my wife, I found her in­side upon a kneeler. We’d car­ried along a rosary for her 96-year-old mother. (Once back­home, we’d share­with her the story about how, af­ter St Patrick con­verted the Ir­ish around 400AD, God granted him a wish – to judge all the Ir­ish at the end of time. Patrick then blessed Ire­land and, throw­ing a sil­ver bell off the moun­tain, ban­ished snakes from the is­land for­ever.)

There are sta­tions of de­vo­tion on the moun­tain, where be­liev­ers may win ple­nary in­dul­gences for the climb. Some of our fel­low climbers knelt bare­foot be­fore the lit­tle stone al­tars. The only sound was the soft play of the breeze, and an oc­ca­sional cough from the two don­keys, teth­ered to the tiny snack bar, that haul up the soft drinks and snacks sold to climbers the last week of July.

John Paul Ryan met us in Drum­cliff ceme­tery park­ing lot. Be­hind us, Ben Bul­ben – ‘‘Binn Ghul­bain’’ in Gaelic, mean­ing ‘‘jaw-shaped peak’’ – rose straight up 300m. Tree­less, ser­rated with dry wa­ter­fall gul­lies, it was dot­ted with white specks.

‘‘It’s not a hard climb. We just fol­low the sheep,’’ said Ryan, a cer­ti­fied moun­tain guide and long­time vol­un­teer at the Coast Guard sta­tion on Sligo Bay. ‘‘But it can be a death trap.’’

Carved by glaciers be­gin­ning 320 mil­lion years ago, Ben Bul­ben is un­sta­ble – por­ous mud stone, peat and bog on top of a moun­tain of lime­stone that acts like a sieve, he said. The un­der­brush hides sink­holes big enough to break an an­kle or to suck down a small car.

In wet weather, quick­sand forms on the boggy top, and the gul­lies rage wa­ter over the ser­ra­tions seen from be­low, he said. ‘‘A sunny day can turn quickly, with cloud cover so thick you can’t see 10 feet in front of you, and then the wa­ter vapour cools you rapidly. Hy­pother­mia stops your think­ing; you can make ter­ri­ble de­ci­sions.’’ In his back­pack were two GPS sys­tems, a tent, blan­kets, food, wa­ter, a cell­phone and a ra­dio, ‘‘and a good map’’, he em­pha­sised.

We walked the sheep trail, hear­ing their bleat­ing near and far, and rose through the af­ter­noon higher and higher to even­tu­ally fol­low a small stream tish-tosh­ing qui­etly to a notch at the top. It be­comes Bal­lagh­nair­il­lick River on the low­lands, but it starts as a shal­low pool, ‘‘cham­pagne of the moun­tain’’, as Ryan called it.

On top, we found the rain­bows and lush land­scape cou­pled to the po­etry in our back­packs. We saw the Isle of In­n­is­free and mum­bled along:

I will arise and go now, and go to In­n­is­free. . . .

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes drop­ping slow.

To the west be­low was Glen­car Wa­ter­falls and Yeats’s haunt­ing The Stolen Child:

Where the wan­der­ing wa­ter gushes From the hills above Glen-Car And the aching re­frain: Come away, O hu­man child! To the wa­ters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weep­ing than you can un­der­stand.

Maybe the poet’s job is to press us on the large, ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions, we re­flected later that night, af­ter roast lamb and red wine in town. But the climbs had some­how cheered and con­soled us. Sombre dis­course is for men, here in their low­lands, we con­cluded. But the moun­tains rise above it, and give peace.

Time out: Vis­i­tors buy re­fresh­ments at a stone shel­ter with no roof near the sum­mit of Croagh Patrick.


Rest­ing place: Aguide on Ben­bul­ben moun­tain in Sligo, Ire­land, points to Sligo Bay and Drum­cliff ceme­tery, where poet Wil­liam But­ler Yeats lies.

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