A picnic spot with a more dramatic view could not be found in the whole of Ireland. Our lofty perch was on a ridge overlooking an ice sculpted corrie lake; a short distance away our goal, the summit of Mount Brandon. Utter silence, air so pure and nourishing one could eat it along with the sandwiches and fruit! What an exhilarating feeling! There is something special about climbing to a high elevation that you just don’t experience with the same intensity if you travel by car to an elevated spot.
Mt Brandon at 952m in the Dingle peninsula is Ireland’s second highest mountain outside of the Macgillacuddy Reeks. If one imagines SW Ireland as having parallel fingers extending horizontally into the Atlantic Ocean, the Dingle peninsula is the first finger, and the mountain runs in a north-south direction roughly at the first knuckle of the first finger.
It is thought that the mountain was named after St Brendan the Navigator who was said to have retreated to the summit of Mt Brandon before setting out on a long voyage west to America.
Our starting point that morning was near the village of Clochane, where we parked in the little carpark, and commenced an eastern ascent of the mountain. With us was Hugh Courtney who had grown up in Brandon’s shadow in the Maharees a few miles away, though he now resides in Tasmania. Hugh had climbed the mountain many times and proved to be an excellent guide.
A less steep starting point for the climb is from the other side, from the west at Ventry where the route is known as The Pilgrim’s way. I believe it is marked with numbered crosses and white poles. Another point of access is from Dingle in the south.
Apart from some evergreen plantations at the bottom, Mt Brandon is a bald mountain, so our walk was without cover, not a problem on that day of gentle heat. It would have been a different experience had the weather been windy and wet and the mountain does have a reputation for being dangerous when visibility is low. Clear conditions can quickly deteriorate to swirling mist. A few years ago I recall hearing about a nun who perished while doing the pilgrimage on Mt Brandon. Hugh pointed to where a World War 11 German plane had crashed into the mountain. On the summit we were to encounter a huge cross made with parts of the plane’s wreckage.
It is thought that climbing Brandon has been part of an ancient pilgrimage route going back to pre-Christian times. Lughnasa on the last weekend in July was the traditional pilgrimage time (though in Christian times Brandon had other climbing days as well, including 16 May on St Brendan’s day). The Lughnasa festival was to honour the pagan god of the harvest, Crom Dubh, who was said to have lived locally at Ballyduff, about two miles from Clochane. According to folklore, he was converted to Christianity by St Brendan. A stone head in the ruined church in Clochane is claimed to represent him.
The archaeologist Peter Harbison in his book, Pilgrimages in Ireland, admits that very little factual information is known about early Irish pilgrimages. This is hardly surprising since they were lay pilgrims and as the poet, Seamus Heaney, has commented, the lay majority never wrote about the experience.
One theory put forward by Harbison interested me: he thinks that the many beehive huts found along the western seaboard in Ireland may have been used as temporary residences by pilgrims undertaking a maritime pilgrimage down the western coast. Beehive huts are dry stone huts with corbelled roof structures. In school we had learned that it was probably religious hermits who lived in them; we had never associated them with lay people. Harbison writes:
Lughnasa festival gatherings on Croagh Patrick (in County Mayo) and Mt Brandon provided an annual framework for pilgrimages… Islands such as Skellig and Magharees in Kerry, the Aran Islands off Galway, Inishkeas and Inishglora off the Mayo coast and Tory in Donegal all have ecclesiastical monuments that could be interpreted as… (being connected to) pilgrimage activity… beehive huts … inhabited by small communities (of monks) who provided shelter for participants…
On the western side of Brandon, between 150 and 200 beehive huts have been found, whereas there are correspondingly few on the landward eastern side, and Harbison says that this supports his argument. Further, he notes that the traditional starting point for the pilgrimage at Ventry has a fine flat beach which would have been useful for launching currach boats. In local folklore, pilgrims would ascend from the western Ventry side but descend on the eastern side (the way we climbed) and congregate at Clochane for a ‘patron’.
In my mind I tried to bring back to life those ancient pilgrims. A hardy bunch, I have no doubt, when one thinks of the hazardous voyage down the coast and then a climb of about five hours, followed by singing and dancing and faction fighting at the bottom. The effort in climbing releases the ‘feel good’ hormone endorphin which I have no doubt would have made them feel exuberant and happy with their achievement.
Thinking of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, I imagine the Mt Brandon pilgrims telling each other tales to enliven the journey, just as Hugh told us stories about colourful characters from his youth around Brandon. Travelling was a great way to meet strangers and patrons were associated with matchmaking and courting. I wonder were some pilgrims hoping to meet a future husband or wife?
After our picnic on the ridge we continued our climb to the summit. The first people we encountered were five men, looking red faced and jovial after their climb. It was windy up there and for the first time that morning I felt cold and needed to don another layer. Intermittently the cloud dissolved and permitted a wide angle view down the southern side all the way to Dingle Bay. We also met a lone climber who told us that he had ascended the mountain by a number of different routes. This man, in his 30s, was a seriously proficient climber. His planned descent was via a precipitous ridge on the eastern side which looked to me to be a perilous undertaking for a lone climber. However, in the days that followed, we didn’t hear of any accident on the mountain so he must have made it!
We finished the day with a reviving Guinness in a lovely little pub looking out on Brandon Harbour. With its eighteen inch thick walls and tiny window and door, it felt as though the pub had been in that spot forever. And guess who we spotted outside in the sunshine downing cans of lager? The five men we had met on the top of the mountain!
There is no doubt ancient Irish people were intensely attuned to nature and many were seafarers. Theirs was a homespun form of Christianity that married the pagan cult with the new religion. Climbing Brandon that day felt as though I were one of a thousand links in a chain that stretched back through centuries and will carry on into the future. Whether or not I practice conventional religion doesn’t matter, this ancient pilgrimage helps to assuage any fruitless longing I may have for immortality. When my human body dissolves back into the ground, Mt Brandon will be there to inspire those coming after me to undertake the climb.
(If any Irish people reading this essay have interesting anecdotes or stories about ancient customs associated with their local area in Ireland, I would be interested to read them at email@example.com. Please enter ‘Irish Customs’ in the subject line so that I can identify the email.)