The Avondhu - By The Fireside
Over the past two years or so, with the advent of Covid-19, the number of walkers rose as everyone seemed to take to the roads, paths and trails of the locality as a way of staying entertained during the different lockdowns.
While the relevant councils, local Tidy Towns and similar groups maintain the footpaths on our streets and some local loops, for hillwalkers and mountaineers, the question is, who maintains the mountains? The answer: Mountain Meitheal.
Mountain Meitheal has four branches around Ireland with our local one being Mountain Meitheal South East (MMSE) and they undertake projects to protect and conserve mountain and forest areas in Ireland using sustainable methods.
In October, The Avondhu met with MMSE on a track near King’s Yard in Kilbehenny that the group had been working on and maintaining for around three years.
Group leader for the day, Cork City based woman Phil Fitzpatrick, laid out the aim of the late October work day.
“Today is purely maintenance because we have done all the hard work here already. We have built the drains already - volunteers have crawled through culverts in the past to make sure they are clear to run. All we have to do now is make sure they are still clear, it’s all about water management.
“The main job is to clear away anything that is interfering with the water management we have put in, such as clearing the drains of leaves and landfall and debris, and disposing of it sustainably,” Phil told The Avondhu.
Volunteers on the day were given a ‘tool talk’ and briefed on how to use the tools and equipment and given any safety precautions they may need before heading to work.
While leaders with the group would have received leader training and first aid training, not all volunteers would have, so the group takes an informal and communal approach with leaders guiding those less experienced as they work.
Máire Curtin, who has worked with MMSE from the beginning, is among the ten trained leaders who are regular volunteers amongst the approximately 27 volunteers in the group.
According to Máire, many of the volunteers come from walking clubs, which is how MMSE initially started back in 2013.
Jim Barry, author of The Galtee Skies, had tried to get a group up and running around 2002 when a group of volunteers carried out works on Cush mountain, however it wasn’t until 2013 that they came under the Meitheal umbrella.
“It was all about ‘Get Dirty, Get Out and Give
Back’. That’s the motto. It was the perfect place to start because it was a regional Mountaineering Ireland meet in Clonmel and there were all the different clubs there.
“I think it was the Limerick club and Cork Mountaineering Club who were the two clubs that actually got it up and running. Then the Ballyhoura Bears came in and we have the Galtee Club and Bishopstown Walking Club,” Maire told The Avondhu.
Originally a Mitchelstown native, Máire is now living in Garryvoe, but says that she is very familiar with the Galtee mountains having walked them from a young age.
The first MMSE project then began in 2013 and, after about 12 months of preparations and training, the group got to work on Saunders Lodge Path in the Glen of Aherlow.
“We’re on the go with about eight years and we have over 4,000 volunteer hours done since we started. We would have had more only for Covid.
“We’ve grown from there really. I think we have about 26 or 27 members. I think we’ve had over 90 different volunteers out over the space of a number of years. A lot of the members here today have been here from the beginning,” Máire added.
The path near King’s Yard, located about two miles from Kilbehenny, is a project that the MMSE has been involved in for around three years now.
Initially, the group revived the historic pathway, which is believed to have been there since the 19th century, and this involved removing overgrowth and improving drainage.
“This track was here before. It was an existing track. We reckon it goes back possibly to the time of the estate. The bridge - there’s fantastic pillars on it and they date back to the Kingston Estate,” Máire said.
By reinstating existing tracks, Mountain Meitheal aims to prevent further environmental damage as walkers tend to create their own routes taking the easiest routes when there is no visible trail.
Environmental protection and sustainability are key priorities for MMSE and when they first began on the King’s Yard track, a clean up was organised.
“When we started doing this place first we had a clean up of it and we took away a load of black plastic bags and frying pans and everything, and Moss Fitzgerald from Kilbehenny Community Centre organised for Limerick County Council to come and remove all the rubbish we had collected.
“You don’t just do the path. You take pride in all the bits around it as well. There’s no rubbish here because we cleared all the rubbish before we started,” Máire said.
When working on the King’s Yard trail, the majority of the work related to reinforcing the pathway and drainage.
One volunteer, according to Máire, spent a few days of his volunteer work, waistdeep in a limestone culvert the group had discovered, repairing and unblocking it. It is believed that that same culvert, which is now back in use, dates back to the 19th century.
When describing their work, group leader Phil Fitzpatrick noted that some volunteers actually crawled through culverts to ensure they were cleared.
Another main aspect of their work is that the group do not use machinery, only traditional hand-held tools, meaning their work may be labour intensive at times, but is done in a way that is respectful to the environment.
When reinforcing or creating paths and trails, materials from the surroundings are used. For example, if large stones are needed for a trail, those will be sourced from the surrounding area, often found within metres from the site.
Materials removed from the area, such as leaves and debris that may be blocking drains and culverts, are also disposed of sustainably in the surrounds, likely downhill to go with the natural fall of the land.
Physical work is a large aspect of volunteering with MMSE. However, according to Phil Fitzpatrick, this work is all done within each volunteers’ capabilities.
“Some of the people here are very experienced in the physical work but everybody makes their contribution. It’s very important that you don’t overstretch yourself, it’s not a competition,” she said.
The social aspect of the group plays a key role too, according to Máire Curtin.
“Something we decided ourselves as a unit was that while we wanted to do the pathwork, we wanted to be a social group too. Here in King’s Yard, they have been very helpful and given us support and Kilbehenny Community Centre have been very welcoming.
“It’s a great day out. It’s like the old days when we used to go walking and it was more a social group, nowadays it’s how fast you can get up the hill. On Meitheal, you’re all here together and you have your lunch together - it’s more sociable. We’ve been on holiday together too, and we never met one another before Meitheal. It is a very social group and we get work done as well,” Máire said.
New volunteers of all experience levels are welcome to join too, as the call goes locals in the area to get involved and help in maintaining their local tracks and trails.
“We’d love to see more volunteers, we’d love to see more people getting involved. People who use the track, we would love to see them getting involved because it is their track. Once we’ve moved on, we need people to maintain it and keep on top of it.
“Some come from manual jobs, so they’re used to the equipment and are already trained, more of them are gardeners and they love gardening, so this is a natural extension of gardening,” Máire added.
So far, the group have worked on five projects, the majority being on Coillte lands and in the Galtee
Mountains including a trail near Lough Curra, and a trail in Glengarra Woods.
Catherine Quinlan, Mountain Meitheal Ireland secretary, explained that by working on Coillte lands, when MMSE highlight a track they want to work on, Coillte will have an environmental engineer review the track and walk it with Meitheal and outline what can and cannot be done from an environmental perspective - for example, not using gravel on paths that are too close to waterways.
Catherine has been involved with the organisation for four years now and noted that numbers in Mountain Meitheals are increasing across the country,
“A lot of us joined walking clubs and it’s through some of the relationships that we have with the walking clubs that we got started with South East and now new people are coming in the whole time from all over,” she said.
American volunteers contributed on an MMSE work day while on holiday in Ireland, while volunteers also travel from as far as Kilkenny to pitch in.
Volunteer hours are counted each workday that the group holds and at the end of the year, awards are given out to volunteers as a thank you.
“We add up the hours of the individuals and there is an awards system depending on how many hours they work that year. We get things like a cap with ‘Mountain Meitheal’ on it. I’ve earned a gilet with ‘Mountain Meitheal’ embroidered on it,” Catherine enthused.
A new project is currently on the back-burner for MMSE and the group are awaiting the go-ahead so that they can get cracking on drawing up the plans.
Mountain Meitheal also has groups in Dublin/ Wicklow, in the North West and in the West. Keep up the good work!