Jim Ryan - Carrauntoohil & MacGillycuddy's Reeks: A Walking Guide to Ireland's Highest Mountains

The Collins Press, Cork, 2006. ISBN: 1905172338. 141 pp. Price: €20.

Reviewed by Paul Tempan

MacGillycuddy's Reeks, Ireland's highest mountains, offer magnificent scenery and plenty of challenge to walkers and climbers alike, so it is no surprise that the Reeks, along with the other mountains around Killarney, have been the subject of several guidebooks over the years. To the best of my knowledge, The Mountains of Killarney (Dundalgan, 1948) by J. C. Coleman was the first guide devoted completely to walking and climbing in the area. More recent publications include John Murray's guide which was accompanied by the first 1:25,000 map of the area (Dermot Bouchier-Hayes Commemoration Trust, 1990), and the Hillwalker's Guide to Carrauntoohil and Macgillycuddy's Reeks (Higgisson, 1999) by Seán Higgisson, who has also written a guide to Mangerton and its environs.

The Reeks dominate Harry Mulholland's Guide to Ireland's 3000-foot Mountains (Mulholland, 1988) as well, as no less than 9 out of the 12 peaks concerned are in this corner of Kerry, and the range also features prominently in a number of other guides with a wider brief, such as Claude Wall's pioneering book, Mountaineering in Ireland (MCI, 1930); Seán Ó Súilleabháin's Southwest of Ireland in the Irish Walk Guide series edited by Joss Lynam (Gill & Macmillan, 1978); The Hills of Cork and Kerry by Richard Mersey (Gill & Macmillan, 1987); Kevin Corcoran's Kerry Walks (O'Brien, 1992), aimed at the walker with an eye for nature; Barry Keane's The Iveragh Peninsula (Collins, 1997); and Munster's Mountains by Denis Lynch (The Collins Press, 2001), these last two written with the more adventurous mountaineer in mind.

A welcome new addition to the library, and a valuable asset to have in your rucksack, is Jim Ryan's Carrauntoohil & MacGillycuddy's Reeks - A Walking Guide to Ireland's Highest Mountains (The Collins Press, 2006). Ryan is a civil engineer based in Cork. He is a keen mountaineer with a passion for geology, and has also written a guide to Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Andes.

With so many other books already in print, one might wonder whether there is anything left to say about the Reeks, but Ryan's guide manages to cover plenty of new ground. It comes in a robust hardback format, is well illustrated with colour photographs and runs to 141 pages. As well as describing 20 walks in the Reeks, it also has information on geology, climate, wildlife, ecology, history, people and other aspects of the area (though I would have liked to see a section on the history of mountaineering in Kerry, such as accounts of early ascents by Isaac Weld and H. C. Hart). Hill-walking in Ireland has grown and developed enormously over the last couple of decades, and this book responds to the demand for guidebooks with more detail and a greater variety of routes. It also takes account of technological developments: GPS references (altitude in metres and 10 figures co-ordinates) are used throughout in the route descriptions. This is of great help in locating key points on walks, such as good places to cross rivers or the narrow gap on the eastern flank of Carrauntoohil called the Heavenly Gates. It can also come in handy for spotting sometimes precious parking places, where you will not inconvenience local residents and farmers. Certain points of interest, such as the ancient rock art depicting a fish, located at the foot of Broaghnabinnia, would be very difficult to pin-point without GPS co-ordinates or local knowledge. I certainly missed the fish on two previous visits, so I look forward to seeing it the next time, now that I know what to look for, and where.

Having climbed Carrauntoohil myself more than 20 times, and having traversed the whole Reeks ridge twice, one of the things that I appreciate most about this book is the fact that there was still a good deal of information which was new to me, particularly on routes. The only route of the twelve in John Murray's excellent guide which I have not tried out is the Derrycarna Horseshoe, but there are several more described by Ryan which I can look forward to, such as the Black Mare (a steep path climbing out of the head of Coomloughra), and the Cummeenagearagh gully leading to Beenkeragh.

I was in Kerry in mid-November and climbed Carrauntoohil again. There were three of us on the walk and we used the guide to try out another of these unfamiliar routes, namely the ascent by the Zig-Zags (Bóthar na Gíge). With the help of the precise description and co-ordinates in the book, we were able to pick up the start of the path as it branched off the Devil's Ladder (Ryan warns that it is faint at the start, but that it becomes clearer after a while). Soon we were winding confidently up the Zig-Zags, which brought us out near the summit of Cnoc na Toinne. We then descended to the saddle at the top of the Ladder. From here we climbed Carrauntoohil and descended via the Heavenly Gates. The route via the Zig-Zags added between 30 and 45 mins to our total time, but it was an interesting variation and a good deal more stable than the Devil's Ladder. (See contributions by denise-vosges on Cnoc na Toinne and Carrauntoohil for further details of this walk.) In terms of route accuracy, I have to give the book full marks. Having such reliable information to enable a new ascent of an already familiar mountain adds greatly to the pleasure of hill-walking. The routes seem to be accurately described and categorised in terms of difficulty, so far as I have been able to judge. Categorisation is something of a weakness of Higgisson's guide to the same area, as it understates the challenge of certain routes. Ryan also gives plenty of sound safety tips, including safe descents, escape routes and practical advice about specific dangers on certain routes. It is good to see, for instance, a section headed "Do's and Don't's on the Devil's Ladder".

The standard is patchier in the sections giving background information on the Reeks. The author is in his element in the chapter of geology, and his concern for the area comes through in the sections on the people of the area and its future. It is heartening to see that the book got the support of the landowners of Carrauntoohil, who seem to be well disposed towards walkers, to judge by a photo showing their cheerful, smiling faces. Ryan suggests that the "obvious future [of the Reeks] is as a national park. The national park status would safeguard the land as an area with free access to all." He mentions an action plan proposed in 2005 by the Beaufort Community Association which envisaged improvements such as facilities and an expanded car-park at Lisleibane, as well as badly-needed measures to control erosion on the Devil's Ladder. Although this was not initially approved by Kerry County Council, I see that a new plan for a car-park and footbridges in the Hag's Glen has been granted funding by the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism in September 2008.

However, Ryan seems to be on less familiar ground when dealing with certain other topics, such as history, wildlife and place-names. In the section on the history of the Reeks he refers to the McCarthys, O'Sullivans and O'Donoghues as "the Irish clans that dominated this area of Kerry." However, he makes no mention here, or elsewhere in the book, of the MacGillycuddys (a branch of O'Sullivan More), the family most intimately connected with the Reeks, as well as the area to the north, and which gave its name to the range (Cruacha Dubha Mhic Giolla Mo Chuda, usually shortened to just Na Cruacha Dubha, 'the black stacks'). The MacGillycuddy was one of the few Gaelic chieftains to have his lands restored after the Cromwellian confiscations, a circumstance which helps to explain why the name has survived to this day. The MacGillycuddy family tomb is at Kilgobnet, between the mountains and Killorglin. In the title of Ryan's book the range is called 'MacGillycuddy's Reeks' (the correct English name according to Gasaitéar na hÉireann), but consistency is not maintained in the text, where it is also called 'The MacGillycuddy's Reeks' and occasionally 'The MacGillycuddy Reeks'.

In the section headed "Animals", sheep are mentioned along with mountain goats, hares and foxes, in terms that suggest they are wild animals rather than livestock: "The predominant animals seen on the Reeks are sheep. This is a natural grazing area for them and they have made the Reeks their home for many centuries." This conjures up a bizarre image of wild sheep migrating to Kerry, attracted by the favourable conditions. The farmer doesn't come into the picture at all!

The section on place-names is particularly unreliable. There are too many problems to mention them all, so a few examples will suffice. Ladhar Bhuí (Lyreboy) is explained as "yellow lair". Ladhar in fact means 'a fork' or 'confluence of streams'. Coomloughra is actually from Ir. Com Lothair, not *Com Luachra, and apparently means "coom of the basin" rather than "coom of the rushes". Bóthar na Lice (The Lack Road) is interpreted as "road of the flagstones" (plural), but actually means "road of the flagstone" (singular) and refers to a single stone known as Leac Uí Chróinín, "Cronin's flagstone", located at the point where it crosses the hill from Derrynafeanna to Bridia. (This misinterpretation leads to an unnecessary explanation later on: "The name Lack Road may give the impression that the route is paved underfoot. Not so - the Lack Road is quite overgrown.") There are two different attempts to explain Lough Acoose: only the one deriving it from Loch an Chuais, 'lake of the recess' is correct. Loch Gabhrach is rightly explained as "lake where goats abound", but elsewhere in the text it is misinterpreted as "lake of the area abounding in sheep" (those troublesome sheep again!). Eisc na bhFiach is misidentified as Curve Gully - it is actually (Brother) O'Shea's Gully. The Irish forms of Screig Mhór (Skregmore), Gaortha Mín (Gearhameen), Na Tóimí (Tomies) and Cill Airne (Killarney) and several other names are misspelt. This is a pity, as Ryan is aware of Toponomia Hiberniae, the excellent place-name survey conducted by Breandán Ó Cíobháin in Iveragh (Baile Átha Cliath: An Foras Duibhneach, 1978-84, 4 vols). It is regrettable that the names and meanings provided in this work were not reproduced verbatim by Ryan in his list, as all these errors would then have been avoided (and one may note that the place-name section by Dáithí Scolard in Murray's 1990 guide is far more reliable, precisely because it draws heavily on Ó Cíobháin's work with his permission). This may be due to a certain scepticism about the value of work carried out by place-name scholars, which one senses when Ryan says that Ó Cíobháin "provides much research into the possible origin of the placenames." He goes on to comment that "folklorists differ on these placenames, the precise area or feature referred to and their translation or meaning." Whilst the study of place-names is admittedly not the most exact science, it is more rigorous than these remarks suggest, and it is not to be confused with folklore. To be fair, the treatment of place-names is a shortcoming of many Irish walking guides, with a few notable exceptions, such as Scolard and Seán Ó Súilleabháin, whose knowledge of Irish and understanding of place-names enhances his walk commentaries. It is baffling why so many authors feel compelled to dabble in place-names if they are not confident in this field. Many would do better simply to quote a reliable source for the area covered, or leave the section out altogether.

My other main gripe is with the maps in the guide. On the plus side, the routes are very clearly indicated and are easy to follow, but there are several problems. The maps are reproduced from the recent Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 sheet for MacGillycuddy's Reeks, which Ryan describes as "the most appropriate map" of the Reeks. In fact, the OSI map is rather shoddy and represents a major slip in their map-making standards. The Harvey's map at 1:30,000 is considerably better in terms of the marking of paths and rock features, the correct spelling of place-names and the provision of additional information useful for walkers. (I will be looking at these two maps in detail in a future review). As a result of taking information at face value from the current OSI 1:25,000 map (the place-names were much more accurate on the 1:25,000 map produced in 1991 by OSI to accompany John Murray's booklet), several errors made there have been reproduced in the guide, such as *Lios Leadhbán for Lios Leadhbáin, *Cnoc Toinne for Cnoc na Toinne, *Cnoc an Chuillin for Cnoc an Chuillinn, and while Ryan's *Cnoc na Tarbh is an improvement on OSI's outlandish *Cnoc d'Tarbh, the correct version is Cnoc na dTarbh. Although these typos are not life-threatening, it would be nice to get the names of the peaks in Ireland's highest range right. Another problem with the maps is that they have not all been reproduced at the same size, and consequently the contours are extremely dense on those covering large areas (e.g. Maps 12 and 13). Nor is the orientation of the maps consistent. To view Maps 11 and 13, which have a landscape rectangular shape, one turns the book on its side to read the names of the features, with grid north at the top. This seems the most intuitive presentation. Maps 7, 8 and 12 could have been treated in the same way, but in fact the place-names have been turned through 90º, so that one keeps the book upright to read the place-names, but north is on the left of the map. This is disorientating and a possible source of confusion if one were to navigate solely using the guide, though I acknowledge that the vast majority of walkers will have the sense to take a complete map of the area as well.

Nevertheless, most of these reservations are minor and without serious safety implications. The book lives up to claim on the back cover that it is "the most comprehensive guide available" and I can thoroughly recommend it. I'm already looking forward to using it to try the Black Mare next time I'm down in the Kingdom.

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