VALLEY OF SHEERS The road through the Doolough valley, where Connacht’s highest peak, Mweelrea, stands ‘with its head in the mist for half the year’.Pic: Shay Fennelly/Aquaphoto
Country Sights and Sounds
T here can be no doubt that the west offers world-class hillwalking. There is a notion about the place that we have an established industry specialised to deal with the requirements of hikers and explorers. We do not. We do have the foundation of such, together with tremendous potential. We live, perhaps, at the best time, with widespread (but by no means universal) access to wild areas, yet so few people out there that we might walk all day and not see another soul.
That was our goal when we headed out to the Doolough valley, where Mweelrea mountain stands with its head in the mist for half the year. On the day we set out to climb to the summit that’s just the way it was.
James and I clambered over the lower slopes with ease, hopping over rocks and boulders like a pair of octogenarian mountain goats. Every half minute we stopped to take in the view (and to take the opportunity to catch our breath) which grew ever more expansive as we made our ascent in bright autumn sunshine. A faint mist at our feet was barely discernible and we paid it no heed, not until it pulled back and gathered itself into what quickly became a thick pall that blotted out the sun and stopped us in our tracks. Just as we voiced our concerns about finding a safe route back down it disappeared; it was, and then was not. Rather, it stretched itself out on a zither of wind and was carried away as a long, serpentine trail that glowed white and grey across the bog-ridden hill.
Still, we had been given our warning. To proceed might be hazardous, dangerous even. To turn back would deprive us of our outing. We looked at the sky; apart from the odd high cloud it was blue. Not the warm, soft blue of September, you understand, but a far-off, cold China blue that promised a clear November day. We sat on a rock to take careful note of our surroundings and were thankful for the sheep that have, over many years, wended pathways and trackways over the lower flanks of these high hills.
The sheep are mostly gone now. There are some still but, unlike a decade ago, not so many as would strip every blade of grass from the turf. Now there is plenty of food for them all. Hopefully, given another decade of sustainable stocking levels, we shall see the continued resurgence of mountain vegetation and the reappearance of rare species of plant that were nibbled almost out of existence. I say ‘almost’ out of hope but also with confidence. Somewhere out here, on this desolate, windswept, rain-washed upland, must surely be relict populations that are yet to be discovered.
James was more concerned about the absence of bird life. What had we seen so far? A couple of pipits low down and a small flock of finches that swooped away before we could identify them. There ought to be grouse; how far away are we from seeing them make a comeback?
We know there are Greenland white-fronted geese roosting on the high lakes and feeding on the starch-filled roots of white-beaked sedge and bog cotton that, with little competition for space, grow here in abundance. We have many times heard the unmistakeable calls of these gregarious winter visitors as they flight in at nightfall. What sense of mystery they evoked among lowland folk in the past, with their laughing gabble carried on the wind from who-knew-where! Only the man who walked these heights would know the voice of these truly wild birds.
These white-fronted geese breed in small numbers (less than a thousand pairs) in western Greenland and fly south and east to spend the winter in Ireland and Britain. In this country, about one third of the world population winter on the Wexford slobs, where they can be easily observed. Yet somehow those birds have lost their character. Give me a dozen or a score over Lough Cunnel any day.
Floodwater from mighty Mweelrea keeps this little lake topped up. It is as remote as you can get, but still has an intriguing history, with a concrete dam placed at the natural outflow and an artificial cut to the west, by means of which white trout might be induced into Cunnel via the already existing rivulet that drains Cloonaghmanagh and Thallabawn before entering the sea through beautiful White Strand.
The next time we looked up at our destination it was veiled by swirling cloud. Where had that come from? We were forced to leave the day for younger, fitter men and went instead to explore the vast, natural ampitheatre of Glencullen with its commanding silence.