This article was presented with the Outdoor Writers’ Guild Award for Excellence in the Feature category.
Gaze toward any direction from a Connemara hillside. Silent lakes, reed-fringed, glittering. Racing clouds, loaded with pitiless Atlantic rain. Stark mountains, boggy-based and rocky topped. And the loneliness of it all, redolent of the sadness of wailing pipes, lyrical nostalgia and the loss to Ireland of its greatest gift to the world, its people.
About two miles from Lough Inagh, the long, narrow spur of Ben Baun made its final, rapid descent to the road. I soon gave up any attempt at keeping my feet dry, for the turf had soaked up the rains of many months and now released it like the squeezing of a sponge with the pressure of each footfall. The brown of the mud, the green of sodden mosses and the prints of animals’ feet ran together as smudges of paint on a wet canvas. The air was heavy with the smell of the sheep and cattle that grazed in the heather.
I climbed the spur. The sky showed every shade of grey, from dark lead to pale slate, with here and there a patch of silver where sunlight tried to break through. Also grey was the small crag that stood proud of the slope, just below the summit of the spur, its colour highlighted by the solitary clump of purple that clung to a crack in its wall and its brooding silence emphasised by the staccato drip of water from an overhang.
At the top of the spur, Knockpasheemore, I felt the gusty coolness of the wind. Three ravens rose above the ridge, to be caught and tossed by the turbulence. To the north, the summit of Mweelrea was hidden in the cloud, while elsewhere, the peaks stood sharp enough to scratch the sky. The way led horizontally along the ridge, through an ocean of peat edged by brown, cresting waves and dotted by heather-topped islands. To the left, the ground fell away steeply into Gleninagh. To the right it dropped to the valley of the Kylemore River.
After a mile the peat gave way abruptly to a sea of quartzite, the white ripples of its beach increasing in amplitude as I passed through them, becoming waves, and finally rising up into the towering tsunami of Ben Baun.
Scrambling up the slope, over small crags and across clattering scree, I glanced continually back to the shallows to gauge the progress of my laborious ascent. The view of the ground receding behind me was encouraging, in contrast to other glances towards Bencollaghduff to my left, or upward to the top of Ben Baun, for neither appeared to be shrinking as they should, but continued to reach higher into the air, with the offer only of more struggle, aching legs and thudding heartbeats.
Then, quite suddenly it seemed, I was at the summit. I sat down to eat, just as the first wisps of mist blew in from the West. The temperature, already low for the summer, went down sharply. My skin, cold and damp with perspiration, rose in a prickle of goose-flesh. Then the rain came, signaling its approach by a light, intermittent tapping on the hood of my anorak. A break in the cloud showed the direction of Muckanaght, so I set off, racing down the slope, vainly trying to beat the weather.
The rain battered in across the hillsides, pushed almost horizontal by the wind. It exploded in ducks-and-drakes over the rocky ground and cast a foot-deep layer of fine spray back into the air. I pulled the hood of my anorak around my face and turned my back to the storm, so that I bounded sideways down the slope. My left hand froze.
I reached the col and galloped on up the next gradient, all tiredness banished by the desire to outrun the storm. On pulling over the top, I realised that this was not Muckanaght, but a small, subsidiary peak on the flank of Ben Baun. I ran over the crest, staggering slightly in the gusts, and down again toward a hoped-for sanctuary on the next col. And all the time, I was aware of Garraun, Mweelrea and other nearby peaks mocking me from the warmth of a sunny patch. But sanctuary awaited. I ran breathlessly from thundering noise into abrupt silence, under the huge shadow of Muckanaght, and sat thankfully down on the grass beyond the col.
The rain continued to sweep up the valley of the Owenglin and across the slopes of Benbreen and Ben Baun: great sheets of water washing away the view. Then, finding it could no longer reach me, it slowly relented, to a shower, then a drizzle, and then was gone altogether, leaving only a cold humidity to mark its passing. Clouds formed out of nothing in the valley, feathery and tenuous at first, then thickening as they were caught by the updraught and swirled into tangible, opaque masses, finally joining the great grey shroud that buried the summit of Ben Baun.
Muckanaght towered to what seemed a ridiculous height above me, grassy yet appearing far too steep to hold grass. I moved upward, using hands almost as much as feet. With the storm no longer there to focus my energies, I became once more aware of effort and fatigue and paused every hundred feet or so to regain my breath.
I stayed on the narrow summit for perhaps less than a minute, then turned northwards, to where it plunged even more steeply than on the ascent, to a col so far below me that it appeared to lie on a level with the valleys it joined. Again, vegetation clung to the slope with amazing tenacity, though there were a few places on which it had failed to secure its grip, leaving small crags around which I had carefully to pick my way.
The ascent of Benbrack, beyond the col, was the most gradual of the day, but my growing tiredness turned it into a long, slow drag. The clouds parted and a warm sun began to glare off the wet whiteness of the rocks. A rainbow shone brightly from a squall over Killary Harbour, suggesting that perhaps the bad weather was coming to an end.
I dropped from the summit toward the fence, which marked the upper limit of the forest that clothed the hillsides above the Kylemore River. A fox leapt up from the heather and bounded away from me across the slope. Lower down, sheep contentedly crunched the grass and ignored my passage. On the distant road I could just make out the dark green of the roof of my car.
Connemara is a strange place. Its mountains have a sense of isolation and a toughness that are out of all proportion to their size. Other much bigger mountains, such as the Reeks of Kerry or the hills of Snowdonia and the Lake District always seem to me to be much easier and more friendly. And the views they offer are of a finer degree altogether than those to be found in the Twelve Bens. Even in Galway, the best views are to be seen from relatively insignificant, outlying peaks such as Tully Mountain, Lissoughter and other summits of too little importance even to be named on the map.
Yet I find myself returning time and again to the Twelve Bens, for the impressions I have of them are lasting ones: deep cols above boggy valleys; light glinting from quartz; white cumulus, casting shadows over the Atlantic; countless blue lakes; great shoulders of hill rising ahead; lead in the legs; sunrays descending from cloud like a benediction.
And there is always a feeling that is beyond logic, of having struggled hard to achieve something that is of no consequence whatever, to anyone, except oneself.