We had thought we might head down to the southwest and do the Sheeps Head, or Dingle Way long distance trails but having just survived Storm Ellen and with Storm Frances on the way thought it wiser to do day hikes from the camper as the weather permitted. And so it was that we arrived at Brandon Head under Ireland’s highest mountain outside of the MacGillycuddy Reeks with a plan.
This was staycation summer on the Dingle peninsular and we were concerned it could be crowded. But no, once you venture into the hills there is always wide open spaces for all. Even on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Our planned route of an out and back to the pass between Masatiopan and Piaras Mor north of Brandon Mountain changed when we saw the signs for a loop to Sauce Creek.
The Loop was 12km I think and we would add another 10 km by continuing west over the pass on the Dingle Way. It was a dramatic place to park up for the night with waves crashing onto the cliffs below us and views out over Tralee Bay to Kerry Head and the Slieve Mish Mountains.
Climbing the stile with the red walking man signs in the morning we climbed higher up the headland and away from the cliffs through a wild and open landscape of russet brown grasses and bracken and the purple and yellow splashes of sheep trimmed heather and gorse.
We passed one of the Second World War lookout posts that we’ve come across on numerous headlands around the coast of Ireland. Manned 24/7 by 2 men who watched for and logged and reported any military activity, the LOP’s were often accompanied with a giant EIRE laid out in white painted rocks on prominent sites to alert pilots they were over the coast of neutral Ireland. Historical remnants that often puzzle the coastal visitor there are still around 50 of the original 83 standing sentinel awaiting some other purpose.
Almost lost in the soft boggy ground and hidden in the long rushy grasses were the stone walls of animal shelters or human habitations from a time of hard and isolated living. We descended into a deep valley to ford a steam and then climb up and over the rounded summit of Cnoc Duileibhe (311m).
Heading due west towards the sounds of the sea we reached the flatish heathery area of Sliabh Glas and a view down into the jaws of An Sas. Translated as “trap with a noose” the horseshoe shaped Bay was reputed to hold fast any boat that ventured, or was swept, in. There used to be 3 families living at the bottom of the 750m long curve of cliff, scrapping a living from a few acres of land and the vastness of the sea, the last to leave in 1910 after a local midwife lost her life falling from the heights on her way down to deliver a baby.
Half of the Kerry coastline is defined as “soft” and liable to erosion and about 10 acres of these cliffs fell into the sea in 2014 so much of the remains of the early settlements are slowly being lost to the sea. As we turned our backs to the ocean and continued south the ground was riddled with deep bog holes and fenced off ravines and care was needed to avoid a twisted ankle or worse.
Rising over a knoll following the marker posts we had a vista of uninterrupted bogland and the silver glinting of Brandon Bay beyond. Reaching an ancient trackway we turned west again. We were now following the Dingle Way on its route over the shoulder of Mt Brandon and down towards Feohanagh and Smerwick Harbour.
At the far end of the track we stopped for lunch at a roofed building amongst what had been an extensive settlement. It had possibly once been a home and still had traces and relics of its past life but now looked like it was a shelter for people working on the track or tending the cattle that were now the only inhabitants of this lonely spot.
This was the hamlet of Arraglen and was once home to 13 families. A lot of effort was being put into creating a solid path from here up towards the coll high above with a mini digger creating ditches and drains. At its end we continued to clamber over the steep slope to the pass at 610m where somehow we missed the 1500 year old Ogham stone but reveled in the views down to the west.
Below us were the walls of Fothar na Manach, the Fields of the Monks, where a community of monks lived and farmed what must be one of the wildest and most inaccessible sites in Ireland next to Skellig Michael which would have been visible in clearer weather. We could see Brandon Creek, from where St Brendan and the lads headed off to America in the curragh, the sloping pointed peaks of the Three Sisters, and, fading into the murk of sea and sky, Slea Head and the Blaskets islands.
Returning to the camper via the Dingle Way along the old bog track we were rewarded with equally stunning views to the East which at times included Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest. But Mt Brandon continued to wear its hat of cloud. In the sheltered walls of the boreens in the valley below the colors of the fushia, montbretia and heather were a shock after the bare mountain above.
Moving on to the most westerly point in Ireland , on Dunmore Head , for the night, we were again grateful for an empty and dramatic seaside parkup without any ” no overnight parking/ camping ” signs.
We had planned to tackle Mount Eagle in the morning but the cloud was too low so we explored the short but sweet local loop around the head, where some of the last Star Wars movie was shot. We could imagine the location finder was well pleased with themselves on discovering the stunning otherworldly scenery of this western outpost with only the hauntingly atmospheric Blaskets Islands any more “Far Out”.
Atop the headland was another LOP, that’s Loop Out Point to those who haven’t been paying attention, this one with an Ogham stone for company, it’s 1500 year old script still plainly visible.
The sky was clearer to the north so we headed round the indented coastline on the Slea Head Drive wondering if pre-covid we would have encountered coach tours on the narrow winding road. Parked up overlooking the embracing shelter of Smerwick Harbour we walked a muddy farm track to gain access to the commonage around the Three Sisters.
An untamed and rugged landscape that had witnessed the savagery of man at Dun an Oir, the promontory fort we explored below the Sisters. It was here in the defensive Iron Age site that one of the bloodiest events in Irish history took place in 1580.
A force of 600 Spanish, Italian and Irish, sent by Pope Gregory in support of the Desmond Rebellion were forced to defend themselves there when their ships had been blockaded within the bay. The English forces, 4000 strong, massacred them all after they had surrendered following a 3 day siege. All but the commanders were beheaded and the bodies thrown into the sea, the heads lined up in an adjoining field, since called Gort na gCeann ( Field of the Heads).
With a wild, wet and windy night forecast as Storm Francis swept in we thought we’d better retreat inland to safety. Glanteenassig Forest Park in a sheltered valley nestled among the peaks of the Slieve Mish mountains sounded good. The 450 hectares of forest, mountain and peatland were billed by Coillte as ” an outdoor enthusiasts dreamland”. Seemed to fit the bill. Up a long single track lane towards the only farm at the valley end we turned in over the Drishoge river and drive on up the forestry track to the upper lake, Caum.
Amazingly the 2 km circular walk around the lake was all boardwalk. Some serious amount of effort and cash had been put into placing the 1000 or so slabs of 9×2. Wether this was to protect us from the environment or the environment from us I couldn’t be sure but certainly made for a dry footed walk over some seriously wet ground.
The deep lake, gauged out by a retreating glacier, was silent and tranquil as we awaited the wind and rain in a carefully selected parkup.
Our sheltered position protected us from much of the storm and it was only when I ventured away from the van in the morning that the amount of rain became evident. It was easy to understand the origin of the name Glanteenassig or Gleann Ti an Easaigh which translates as Valley of the Waterfalls. They were streaming down the mountainsides in silver ribbons and when we walked to Lough Slat the words of the Irish poet J J Callinan couldn’t have been truer,” a thousand wild fountains rush down to that lake from their home in the mountains”.
A roaring, foaming, rushing mass of white water raced down beside us as we ventured up the River Walk alongside the Owencashla and the views from the picnic spot high up on a glacial moraine were elemental.
With the storm abated we headed out to another fine seafront parkup for the night with miles of empty beach backed by a vast expanse of salt marsh. So much nicer than the nearby campsite/ trailer park we abandoned after having our showers and charging Sally’s computer.
Our final hike was around the Glennahoo valley, a truly beautiful u shaped glacial valley carved out of the mountains by unfathomable forces. We started at the old graveyard at Ballyduff or An Baile Dubh, associated with the Celtic deity Crom Dubh, a god of fertility and harvest.
An old narrow boreen led us past empty dwellings and up onto a treeless expanse of rough grass and turf banks, the track once tarmac way beyond ” civilization”.
The extraordinary track continued up the narrow ridge of Beenbo to 475m where we had a fine view back down the romantic Glen of Macha na Bo ( Plain of the Cow) and south across a featureless expanse of bog towards Anascaul, the final destination of the ancient trackway.
A bit of a soggy trudge to an unnamed hillock below us followed by an even soggier trudge back around towards the cliffs at the head of the Glennahoo river valley rewarded us with the panorama of the trip. We stopped for a sandwich and soaked it up. Nearly 300m below us lay the fields and homesteads of people who lived in the isolated splendour of a terrible beauty.
Setting off again we met a sheep farmer and dog out looking for his flock. He told us that the houses had been lived in until the fifties by the Dineens and the O’Donnells. From there another old trackway leading over the mountains from the valley took us down to Wolf’s Step, where the last wolf in Ireland was allegedly killed in 1710.
We crossed over the river here and continued down the steep track with a series of waterfalls beside us until finally reaching the valley floor and stopping again to contemplate the life of Mary ‘Macha na Bo’ the last inhabitant of this lonely spot, supposedly an old lady with long flowing white hair who would emerge to hurl abuse at hikers but also on occasion have them in for tea.
The long straight track out of the valley was about 4 km long but seemed to bring us forward decades or centuries in time. Looking back towards the mountains and turning out towards the sea the path felt in a time and space somehow separate from the 21st century tourism hotspot of Dingle and the busy city of Tralee visible in the distance.
Walking the long track had reminded me of the long long line leading back to the early inhabitants here, so palpable through the wealth of remnants left scattered across the landscape. A special place out on the western fringes of what is now known as Europe that has drawn people to it for Millenia. Long may it last.