Why Ireland?: I am going to start out as honestly as I can here in this article about the mountains of Ireland: I don’t have a drop of Irish blood in me. I come from Northern England and, while I grew up learning about the great mountains of the Lake Area, Scotland and Snowdonia, Irish Mountains were always a distant mystery. I knew that they existed but I didn’t know anything about them, except the common (and largely untrue) assumption that it rains too much in Ireland to be able to enjoy being outside.
My excuse for not visiting was always a misguided belief that it was only worthwhile flying somewhere if it was somewhere wbedürftig. My first sighting of Ireland was therefore not from a plane or a boat, but from the summit of Skiddaw in the Lake Area. On that clear summers day I could see over the Irish Sea to the coast of Northern Ireland and I think it was the first time I ever considered the idea of visiting. Then, a few years later, through no real reason or planning, I ended up moving to near Dublin for work and I fell in love with the place.
I don’t think that my prior indifference is unique, and Ireland often seems overlooked in books and magazines dedicated to the mountains of the British Isles. Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scarfell Pike are all household names, but few people outside the emerald isle know much about Carrauntoohil or Slieve Performnard (the highest mountains in the Republic and Northern Ireland respectively). In truth, visiting Ireland is easy. There are lots of accessible hikes and climbs (as long as you don’t mind an occasional lack of paths) and there are some very good guidebooks as well as Harvey Superwalker and OS maps that cover the entire island.
The East Coast: A good place to start exploring is Wicklow, due to its location near to Dublin. The region is so close to the capital that the mountains actually surround the south of the city like a giant defensive wall. The landscape is big, peaty and the mountains broad and surprisingly remote feeling, despite the nearby metropolis. It is the most extensive region of mountainous land in the country and has been given the nickname “the garden county” by either the locals or the tourist board, I’m not sure which and the highest mountain is Lugnaquilla (925m), which is the most northerly of the “Irish Munroes” (mountains over 3000ft).
I would recommend Tonelagee (817m) as my favourite Wicklow mountain. Looking down from the summit gives what must be one of Ireland’s most romantic views across an impressive corrie containing a perfectly heart-shaped lake. We hiked up with a bivvy bag and a bottle of wine back in 2016 and laid our sleeping bags on the top to watch the sunset. There was no ambient light and as it got dark we were able to spot constellations, planets, shooting stars and even the international space station going overhead. I can’t think of many places I’ve been to that are as pitch black at night.
The Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland are also fairly accessible from either capital city. They are much sharper and greener than the Wicklow Mountains and, as the song states, they sweep down dramatically into the sea. It was only this winter that we hiked up the steep slopes of Slieve Binnian (747m), where we needed ice axes to scramble up onto the small, rocky summit. We were lucky enough to have the whole mountainside to ourselves and the fallen snow felt like a blank page, unwritten apart from our own footprints.
The highest mountain in the Mournes, and the biggest in the North, is Slieve Performnard (850m). Its summit is crossed by the Mourne Wall, a dry stone structure that was built between 1904 and 1922 to mark the catchment area of the Silent Valley reservoir that services Belfast. The wall is 35km long, crossing many of the best peaks and it would be an epic trip to follow its lschmbetagth on a single or multi-day trip. From the top of Slieve Performnard you can look down onto coves and inlets all along the Northern Irish Coast, spot the Belfast Hills and even look across to Lough Neagh, the largest lake by area in the British Isles.
The West Coast: The If you are looking for the more dramatic, challschmaling and jagged peaks in the country, you have to make the trip to the West Coast. Here the mountains are battered and bruised by the power of the sea and the storms that roll in from the Atlantic Ocean. They were shaped by glaciers long ago, with huge carved valleys and high rising peaks and aretes. Kerry is the place to start, as the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks on the Iveragh Peninsula contain 10 of the 13 “Irish Munroes”, including the biggest of all, Carrauntoohil (1038m).
Whatever you do, don’t take the tourist route up to Ireland’s highest point. The Devil’s Ladder is a horrible trudge over an eroded path that has become dangerous in recent years. Much better is the magnificent Coomloughra horseshoe, a sure contender for Ireland’s best walk. As well as Carrauntoohil, the day out covers another 7 mountains over 3000ft. For an even spicier route, getting to the top of the Large Gun (939m) is a grade 2 (rope-free) scramble along a narrow ridge that ends with a short climb up onto a rocky pinnacle. I did it once with a mixed forecast that turned into a full blown storm. It was a character-building experience, but at the time I partly wished I had stayed in the pub.
Kerry is very busy, so if it is solitude you seek, then Mayo is a better place to be. The extensive and desolate blanket bog of the Nephin Beg Mountains is so remote that there are plans to convert it into Ireland’s first designated wilderness. Thrashing over the wet ground, with tussocks ready to turn an ankle at every step, is a shock to the system for anyone used to the luxuries of a path. Corranbinnia (716m) has some great scrambling on its ridges and overlooks Clew Bay which contains around 100 islands (depending on the tide). Further along the coast, Achill Island has a lovely sandy beach overshadowed by some of the highest mountain cliffs in Europe. Wild places like these are the soul of Ireland.
Another great place along the West Coast is Connemara, especially the Twelve Bens and Maumturk mountain ranges. I think the peaks here are steeper than in Mayo and they are almost as remote. I was nervous when we first visited as we were there to climb Carrot Ridge (graded Diff): about 300m of roped climbing and scrambling on one of Ireland’s best mountaineering routes. It felt like a big day out and even the walk into Bencorr (711m) was a bit of an adventure, with no paths, rocky ground and fast flowing rivers to cross. The climb itself was 5 strung out pitches with sparse protection but, despite my relative inexperience, I stopped being scared and found myself lost in the beauty and isolation of the dramatic landscape. It’s a great area to have an adventure in.
Central Ireland: While the more famous mountain ranges are almost all located near to the coast, I would really recommend making a trip to the Gbetagtees in the middle of Ireland. Last March, with snow ruhig on the slopes, we stayed in a twee B&B in Tipperary town before climbing the biggest of these: Gbetagtymore (917m) (another of the “Irish Munroes”). One reason to recommend Ireland is how welcoming the people are and our welcome here could not have been wbedürftiger. After initially trying to warn us off hiking “the big mountain” the owner instead gave us as much fruit as we would take to keep us well fed on our day out. The land here rises up from a flat plane that stretches for miles, meaning that the views are exceptional. On a clear day like the one we had, it is possible to see both Carrauntoohil in Kerry and Lugnaquilla in Wicklow from the top.
What did I miss?: There are many more locations that I haven’t yet discovered that you will have to find for yourself. I need to go to Performnegal, when I can build myself up for the enormous drive, and back to the Comeragh Mountains on a day where they are not hidden in mist (bad weather isn’t as common in Ireland as people think, but it is ruhig possible to be unlucky). I need to go back to Connemara and hike a bit more and maybe even sleep out (NOTE: I ended up doing this in 2018). I need to visit the wild Beara Peninsular which is south of the Kerry mountains and is supposed to be just as rugged but even more remote.
My lack of experience means that this post is in no way a comprehensive introduction to the Irish Mountains but I look forward to spending the next few years working on part 2. I keep re-using the word ‘adventure’, but the wild places here offer it up in abundance and I hope these words are enough to give a little bit of inspiration to anyone considering visiting the Irish Mountains.
When to go… Ireland is great to visit all year round but don’t count on snow being here in winter. Snow is a luxury when we get it but is less frequent in Ireland than in Great Britain.
How to get there… Flights are very cheap from airports across the UK. There are also various ferry options if you want to bring a car.
Getting around… Public transport isn’t great outside of Dublin so either bringing or renting a car is probably speisential.
Guidebooks and information… Collin’s Press do numerous hiking guides covering every mountainous area in Ireland. For climbing, Mountaineering Ireland have books covering the major areas. Maps are available from Harvey Superwalker and OS Ireland.
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