A wonderful account of a life in climbing by Mick Ward, based around a touching memory of Barry O’Flynn
When I learned of the death of Barry O’Flynn, it was as though, through my tears, I could hear his quietly authoritative voice for one last time. “Why thank you, Mick. But don’t worry – it comes to us all. I’ve had a long life. I got a few things done. There’s no cause for regret.”
In her later years, my mother was wont to remark that the only places she still read about her friends were the obituary columns. I used to think she was joking. These days, the joke is on me.
I once wrote that climbers are, at heart, adolescents who staunchly refuse to grow up. This applies to no-one more than myself. In my mind, I’m still a feckless 15-year-old. But, of course, the timeworn face with haunted eyes, staring back at me from the shaving mirror each morning, is that of a 65-year-old. Fifty years – half a century – have mysteriously vanished, far too quickly for my liking. An uneasy question gnaws: have I learned anything worth knowing?
Fifty years ago, I was probably the youngest and almost certainly the most immature climber in Ireland. I’d graduated from soloing in chossy quarries and on chossy sea cliffs to becoming a regular at the fabled Bloat House in the Mournes. On the face of it, I was a nice middle-class boy. Inwardly however, I was hopelessly confused, sliding inexorably towards becoming a lost soul. Growing up in the only Catholic family in a staunchly Protestant neighbourhood in Belfast in the 1950s and ’60s wasn’t a barrel of fun. It was too respectable for you to be attacked in the road (although not too respectable for the attempted theft of our car by over a dozen people). The neighbours had a variety of ways of letting you know your place. My mum had an apposite term for their persistent endeavours: ‘polished bigotry’.
Boarding school in Newry might have been modelled on a prisoner-of-war camp. Here quotidian brutality ruled. Catholicism and Irish nationalism were battered into us remorselessly. Father Murphy, the Dean, was the man ultimately in charge of us. He had a favourite saying: “The only freedom you have is the freedom I give you.” To which my instinctive response was, “F*** off!”
You, dear reader, may be appalled by this malarkey, although possibly – just possibly – you’re of a certain era and you’re smiling wryly, recalling similar experiences. If so, you have my sympathy.
It’s a truism that things are never simply black or white, good or bad. The Eastern notion that there’s a little bit of Yin in Yang and a little bit of Yang in Yin has always seemed not only sensible but indeed wise. Towards the end of my five-year incarceration, we had a certain Father O’Donoghue take us for Religious Education. Slowly I began to realise that Father O’ Donoghue was a horse of a rather different colour.
Back in the day, with Catholic families, lots of children, one way of culling numbers of mouths to feed was to send boys off to become priests and girls to become nuns. It was obvious that some of the priests at boarding school were little more than rough country lads, given a rudimentary education and basic table manners at the seminary of Maynooth. Others were a separate caste, effete quasi-intellectuals, with airs and graces – what I termed ‘spoiled priests’.
Father O’ Donoghue belonged to neither camp. The spoiled priests had buffed fingernails. Father O’Donoghue would come back from a training run, plastered in mud, thoroughly indifferent. And yet, when pressed, it became clear that both his knowledge and his life experience exceeded that of all the spoiled priests put together. Until then, I thought that either you were a man of intellect or a man of action – or neither. But this man was both.
How did computers work? He knew – and not many, in the 1960s, did. What was the Queen like? A lady who focused all her attention on the person to whom she was speaking, thus making them feel the most important figure present. How were the Beatles viewed in Manhattan? How did it feel to unmask a fraudster? We asked the questions. Effortlessly erudite, he gave comprehensive answers, with an easy, relaxed manner, as though conversing with equals.
The Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh, once coined a marvellous phrase, ‘the oriental streets of thought’. For ten years I’d wandered those oriental streets on my lonesome, never meeting another person.
Father O’Donoghue was the first person I encountered to whom wandering the oriental streets of thought was as natural as breathing. His views were always humane, always well-reasoned, always beautifully expressed. He was the first person to give me hope that reason and patience and decency and kindness and humanity might go a fair way towards resolving the problems of troubled worlds – both outer and inner.
But of course in 1968 my fellow countrymen in Northern Ireland decided that our long-standing problems might be better solved with scant recourse to notions such as patience or kindness. The doomed province – which I later described as ‘an apology for a State’ – came perilously close to civil war. Many died. Many more were maimed, physically and psychologically.
In 1968 I left boarding school for much more prosaic reasons: I couldn’t stand the place any longer and I wanted to go climbing every weekend. With the selfish fickleness of youth, all thoughts of Father O’Donoghue promptly vanished. At the Bloat House I found a subculture of kindred spirits. After my friendless, lonely childhood, it was a profound awakening.
Most people were Protestant – but religion and ethnic background mattered little in this liberal, educated milieu. While the Northern branch of the Irish Mountaineering Club was thoroughly middle-class and establishment, it didn’t feel at all stuffy – well, at least for the first few years.
Compared with my nasty neighbours and the horrors of boarding school, it seemed an oasis of freedom. Sadly I was undeserving of it. It shames me to admit that I was a precocious brat; I simply didn’t know any better. And, with the sublime indifference of youth, I hadn’t a clue as to how to assess risk in climbing. In an understated manner, people such as John Forsythe and Lionel Carew tried their best to keep me alive. I’ll always feel a deep sense of gratitude to them.
It was the time of my time. I started to explore the world of climbing. Everything was new; everything was exciting. Remote Mourne crags enticed. Then the first cherished visit to Donegal, hundreds of feet of pale granite gleaming high above in the moonlight at Lough Barra. I tossed and turned all night, yearning and dreaming to be high above on those pale granite walls.
Naturally, inevitably, I came to Wicklow. Glendalough was my dream valley, Camaderry my dream crag. And, at the Glendasan hut, I first met Barry O’Flynn.
Looking back, over 50 years, I can still remember my initial sense of confusion. I fiercely loved the Bloat House. But the Glendasan hut was entry to another realm. Here was a world of neatness, of well-nigh artistic order. Everything had its place, carefully deliberated and chosen. Each choice had been made by one man: the hut warden, Barry O’Flynn.
If you were there, in those happy years, you’ll know exactly what I mean. If you weren’t, the following vignette gives a sense of how it was. The classic new visitor experience of finishing your meal and having Barry gently relieve you of your dirty dishes left many thoroughly bemused. Unconcerned, he would pensively clean and dry those dirty dishes while covertly lining up his next victim. Reading this, you may find it bloody annoying, even downright rude. But it wasn’t; it just wasn’t. Instead there was a sense almost of devotion. Only now, far, far too late, do I realise the truth. It was as though Barry was pursuing a vocation.
Barry had taken a cottage similar to the Bloat House and transformed it – not through money but through care and love and patience. In the 1960s there was a ‘Teach Yourself’ series of little instructional books with yellow and black covers. By modern standards of lavish illustrations and internet videos, they were hopelessly rudimentary – but they were pretty much all you had. Barry needed to make shelves, so he bought himself ‘Teach Yourself Carpentry’. He needed to re-wire the place, so he bought himself ‘Teach Yourself Electronics’. There was a copse which came with the hut, so he bought himself ‘Teach Yourself Forestry’. Years of hard toil later, I heard those trees were worth a pretty penny.
Barry seemed of indeterminate age. (In reality, I suppose he’d have been around 40.) Back then, most adults seemed really old. I was a teenager. My teachers, many of whom were probably only in their thirties, seemed positively ancient. Back then, you went from childhood into an all too brief adolescence, then dreary middle-age (which lasted about 40 years!) and then finally the doddery indignities of old-age. The baby-boomers, of whom I was one, were the first generation in history to refuse to accept this social tyranny, to want to stay young – at least in their minds – forever.
For that was the rub. Back then, once people left adolescence, most seemed to became instantly boring, like cute lambs suddenly morphing into thoroughly boring sheep. But it was clear, at least to me, that Barry O’Flynn, while clearly a demon for practical work, had a mind which was supple, elastic, catholic, inquisitive. Every weekend, when he wasn’t busy with hard graft, he’d be forging his way through yet another thick paperback on any subject under the proverbial sun. Self-development was as natural to him as brushing his teeth. You could have a conversation with him about pretty much anything and come away thoroughly enriched.
Physically and psychologically (I realise now, a mere half-century later!) Barry O’Flynn strongly resembled Father O’Donoghue. In fact they might almost have been brothers. Both had sturdy, thick-set bodies. Both had square-cut, determined faces. Both had a gently pensive air. Both were men of thought. And both were men of action.
There’s so much I wish I’d asked Barry… about climbing, for instance. He’d been active in the early 1960s, to me another age, in reality no more than half a decade away. He’d climbed with my hero, Emmett Goulding. He’d been to the Alps and the Karakoram. Yet he showed absolutely no desire to go climbing on Camaderry. It was as though climbing had been quietly laid aside, as though it belonged to a previous part of his life. I couldn’t understand how he could come down to the hut every weekend and work away at improving it, yet not want to climb. To me, the hut was there for one purpose – to enable you to climb.
I only ever once saw Barry at a crag. I was half-way up something at Dalkey quarry and unexpectedly he appeared. “Hi, Barry!” I shouted across, with an immature sub-text of, ‘Look at me!’ “Put a runner on,” he tersely advised. “It’s OK. I don’t need one.” “Put a runner on,” he repeated – and now there was steel in his voice. Abashed, I did.
In those few seconds, he taught me a huge lesson. In climbing, so many have died because they never learned it.
And yet, for all this, I slowly began to realise that not everyone shared the same high opinion that I did about Barry. Little was said but… you sensed things. And it wasn’t just Barry. It seemed that Irish climbing was riddled with factions, little groups squabbling with one another. There were personality clashes. I gather that, half a century later, there are still factions and personality clashes. I couldn’t understand it then and I don’t really understand it now. To me, the climbing world was so wonderfully liberal in comparison to the shitty society in which I’d grown up. We all shared this wonderful love of climbing, didn’t we? Why couldn’t we just… get on with one another?
I suppose people viewed the Glendasan hut as Barry’s personal fiefdom and resented it. But it seemed to me that everything he did was primarily for other people’s benefit. I don’t remember him as being in the least officious. Certainly to me he couldn’t have been more kind.
I’ve always been hopeless with names. Introduce me to someone and embarrassingly I’ll have forgotten their name in two minutes flat. Barry was brilliant with names. You might have been to the hut just one time, in a party of a dozen and returned three years later and it would be, “Hi, Jim. Good to have you back.”
Once and once only, he wasn’t quite sure of someone and inveigled me to introduce myself so they would do likewise. I covertly passed the name on to him (must have been inside the two minute limit!) and he swept into the room with a big smile. “Hi, Jim. Good to have you back.” Was this as an affectation? I suppose so. But surely it was the most harmless of affectations?
The selfishness fickleness of youth… Despite the Glendasan hut having so much going for it, on one occasion I forsook it for the Spillikin hut, down the road. I guess I thought that spending time with the likes of Paul McHugh, then the best climber in Ireland, was pretty cool. (It didn’t occur to me that I was no more than a blatant hanger-on.) For the couple of days my girlfriend Maggie and I somehow survived in that dank hovel, the heavens delivered torrential deluges which found their way through innumerable holes in roof and walls. McHugh and his dead hard mates remained the epitome of unconcern.
Eventually Maggie and I packed sodden sleeping bags into sodden rucksacs, pulled sodden boots over sodden socks… and fled. As we arrived shamefacedly at the Glendasan hut, the heavens mysteriously cleared and a watery sun blearily emerged. Barry was outside, brushing a rug. With an amused glint in his eyes, he appraised the sodden pair of us, before going back in to put the kettle on and gently pump us for information about the rival establishment.
Shortly afterwards, I decided that I’d had my fill of headbangers in the North and went to university in England. There was just one more brief visit to Glendalough when I became embroiled in a farcical search for a missing person. Drunk as lords, the infamous ‘Magic Sam’, his bonkers mate (whose name sadly escapes me now) and I wandered around all night on the hill, with no torches, hopelessly lost, our only navigational aid an outdated Mourne climbing guidebook. A single bottle of Guinness provided sustenance.
A while later I heard that a rule had been passed by which you could only be the Glendasan hut warden for a certain number of years – which, it seemed, had either been reached or exceeded. I remember a fierce spurt of anger. Surely it would have been more honest to have passed a rule to tell Barry O’Flynn to sod off? So this was his reward for all those thousands of hours of hard work, for all that loving devotion! Subsequently there was a bizarre rumour that he was living in a big industrial pipe. I believe (though this may be incorrect) that he worked for the railways. If it was up to me, he’d have been running the civil service.
By this time, on my visits home, the general climbing lethargy in the Mournes was becoming downright depressing. Very low technical standards, sometimes combined with outright incompetence, meant that often it was both easier and safer to go soloing. I’d always written up activities in the logbook. Eyebrows were raised at lists of routes soloed which, for me, comprised no more than fun days out. I decided it was better not to write anything more. If pressed, I’d merely say that I’d been out for a walk – not untrue.
The factions and schisms were as strong as ever. I remember somehow getting involved in a second ascent on Eagle mountain and realising that I’d innocently wandered into a first-class grudge match. Climbing competence, that day, was conspicuous by its absence. If I hadn’t intervened, the other two members of the party might have been killed. There was a malicious aftermath from a third party. Another spurt of anger from me. And a decision – I’d had enough.
And yet, and yet… I suppose I remained homesick for Irish climbing, for the Mournes in particular. As the hedonistic 1970s yielded to the bleak 1980s, I continued to make sporadic visits to an increasingly forlorn Bloat House. It was nearly always deserted. I’d spend the weekends on my own, go out soloing, see nobody, come back again and clean the hut to the standard I should have done in my misspent youth. I’d read the logbook and the visitors’ book, occasionally note names of acquaintances from the past who’d made similarly lonely pilgrimages. It was obvious that our era had vanished.
Finally in the early 1990s I came back and found a very different building, with no key to enter it. Almost half of another decade passed before I learned of the tragic circumstances of the demise of the Bloat House.
When I chanced across them, I’d devour copies of ‘Irish Mountain Log’. Eventually I plucked up courage and sent a few articles to the editor, Joss Lynam. There was no feedback, so I never knew how my writing was regarded by the readership. Joss seemed to approve though and for me that was enough.
Occasionally I’d read letters from Barry, always immaculately reasoned, always beautifully written. They were such a joy. Oh, Jonathan Swift would have approved! But I had the feeling he was banging his head against proverbial brick walls, that the establishment was simply shrugging indifferently. “Oh yes, that’s just Barry doing his thing.”
As you grow older, time goes faster. The years whirl by. With time comes reflection. In my mind, I returned to my childhood, saw what was good, realised where I’d gone wrong. Amid a plethora of crap, I was grateful that I’d been fortunate enough to encounter people such as Father O’Donoghue and Barry O’Flynn.
And then finally one day you learn he’s gone. Yet, though he’s gone, a part of him will always live on in me. And maybe, when I’m gone, it will live on in others, who’ve never heard of Barry O’Flynn.
From his obituary, it seems that Barry devoted pretty much all of his life to helping other people, in one guise or another. I can’t think of a better use of a life.
Undoubtedly he was a thorn in the side of the establishment. Well sorry, but establishments invariably need thorns in their sides. Some may claim that he liked the sound of his own voice. I believe he said things – sometimes uncomfortable things – because he firmly believed they needed saying.
But now he’s gone – to where we’re all going, sooner or later. A magnanimous touch might be to have a framed photograph of him in the Glendasan hut, with a caption giving his name and the dates of his tenure. It would commemorate a man who gave an immeasurable amount to others, an inspiration to all of us to do our bit to make this world a slightly better place.
© Mick Ward, 2018