Early Mountaineering in Ireland: A Note and a Bibliography

(by E.C. Pyatt and P. Robson, from IMC Journal 1953-54)
An early history of Irish mountaineering.


Although Irish mountaineers were prominent in the early development of Alpine climbing, mountaineering in Ireland did not take firm root until recently.

The Irish Alpinists did not neglect their homeland hills, but they treated them principally as practice grounds for the Alps, and their attentions did not give rise to a vigorous school of local climbers as was the case in Great Britain. Thus, although as long ago as 1910, Norman Collie suggested the formation of an Irish Mountaineering Club, it was not until 1942 that a club was founded, and not until 1948, when the present Irish Mountaineering Club was formed, that rock-climbing possibilities began to be thoroughly explored.

However, the Irish hills were not entirely neglected. A good deal of exploration was carried out over the years, but, as there was no local club, the records tend to be inaccessible, and the history of the growth of mountaineering in Ireland is therefore obscure.

It is the object of these notes to indicate the extent of the information available in mountaineering literature on the exploration of the Irish hills.

It would be interesting to know when the Irish hills were first “discovered.” By the early nineteenth century at any rate ascents of the higher mountains were made quite frequently. Otway,* for example, gives an interesting account of Muckish. “B” in the Dublin University Magazine for 1853 describes a descent with rope of the Poisoned Glen cliffs. The cragsman who performed this feat was obviously no chicken for it is recorded that several years before this with a simple coil of rope and by himself he “succeeded in accomplishing the fearful ascent of the Peter Botte mountain (in the Mauritius) a feat which three gallant Englishmen with every available assistance from rope ladders, crowbars, guys, training lines and climbing negroes, accomplished only with the greatest difficulty, and, of course, tremendous risk of life.”

In those days ascents were leisurely and surrounded by more of the creature comforts than nowadays. One thinks with envy of the “mountain dew girls” who, we are assured by an early traveller, were a feature of the popular ascent of Mangerton. These girls carried a small can of goat’s milk and a small bottle of whiskey with which they refreshed the weary traveller on his ascent. They would condescend to accept nothing less than sixpence.

The first published account of a serious climb in Ireland is probably that which described the ascent of Powerscourt and Djouce in 1895. In that year near-arctic conditions prevailed all over the country. Powerscourt waterfall itself was frozen. On the 10th February three mountaineers, with ropes and axes scaled the frozen rocks to the left of the fall, and, avoiding a cornice at the top, ascended Djouce in the face of a blizzard. They carried a thermometer and recorded the temperature at the summit as 18 .

The earliest systematic exploration of the Irish hills from the mountaineering point of view seems to have been that of H. C. Hart who contributed the section on Ireland to Haskett Smith’s Climbing in the British Isles, published in 1895. This survey, made in the course of his botanical work, is still a most interesting and useful guide. Of Hart himself many tales are told. Perhaps the best known of his local exploits is his walk from Dublin to Lugnaquillia and back – 75 miles in less than 24 hours – undertaken for a wager.

Somewhat later, in the first decade of the present century, a good deal of exploration was carried out by a small group of members of the Dublin Arts Club, which had been founded in 1906. Yeats, the Markiewiczs, Orpen and “A.E.” were also members of the club, but they do not seem to have evinced any mountaineering proclivities, except Yeats who did toy with the idea of joining Winthrop Young for a season in Wales. The climbers included Conor O’Brien, Page L. Dickinson, Professor Julian of Trinity, and one or two others. This group regularly climbed with Winthrop Young at Pen-y-Pass.

It was two of this group, O’Brien and Dickinson, who were responsible for the second major survey of the Irish Hills, this time from the point of view of rock-climbing.* This survey describes early ascents of a number of climbs which have since become very popular, for example, at Ireland’s Eye and Howth. In addition it mentions a number of possibilities which seem not to have been followed up. Nevertheless, their conclusion that “rock suitable for climbing is almost entirely lacking,” rendered a disservice to their native hills, since for many years this summing-up was accepted as final.

These two surveys represent the major contributions to the published record of mountaineering in Ireland for some years. These apart, the record is confined to scattered articles on particular localities, frequently by visitors. Doubtless a good deal of mountaineering and rock-climbing was done by local climbers in this period. YHANI, for example, made many climbs in the Mournes at the end of the thirties, and An Oige explored the Dublin and Wicklow mountains very thoroughly from the hill-walking angle. But the picture which emerges from the record is one of sporadic and partial development.

It may be mentioned in passing that the kindred sport of caveing has a much more extensive literature and that exploration was much more extensive and systematic. From the publication of Martel’s Cavernes Irlandaises the story is one of continuous activity. But the scientific interest was a strong force here.

The following bibliography provides a list of books in which there are references to mountaineering in Ireland and a coverage of the principal mountaineering journals in general – except the Journal of the I.M.C. – up to 1952. In the case of the articles some indication is given of their content. The degree of interest of the books is indicated by asterisks in ascending order.

Bibliography on Mountaineering in Ireland

BOOKS

***Climbing in the British Isles – Wales and Ireland: W. P. Haskett-Smith & H. C. Hart.
***Climbing in the Himalaya and other Mountain Ranges: J. N. Collie.
***Mountaineering in Ireland: C. W. Wall.
***Mountains of Killarney: J. C. Coleman.
***The Open Road: J. B. Malone.
***The Dublin of Yesterday: Page L. Dickinson.
***An Oige: Handbooks.
**Mountains with a Difference: G. W. Young.
**On High Hills: G. W. Young.
*Mountaincering: C. T. Dent.
 Mountaineering: C. Wilson.
*Mountaineer’s Week-end Book.: Showell Styles.
 Complete Hillwalker: J. H. Palmer.
 Irish Hill Days: A. F. Airey.

ARTICLES IN JOURNALS *

CLIMBERS CLUB JOURNAL:

  • Sturrall–Donegal: (Old Series.) Vol. 3, p.130.
  • Along the Cliffs of Antrim and Donegal: (E. A. Baker) (Old Series) Vol. 10, p.48.
  • A Rock Climb in Co. Wicklow: (P. L. Dickinson) (Old Series) Vol. 11, p.8.
    This describes the Black Route on the crags above Lough Dan.
  • Irish Mountaineering: (Conor O’Brien & Page L. Dickinson) (New Series) Vol. 1,1, p.90.
    A fascinating article with a great deal of valuable information.
  • Home Exploration: (Conor O’Brien) (New Series) Vol. 1, 2, p.47.
  • Ireland: (A. C. Crichton. New Series.) Vol. 1, p.115.
    Refers to climbs on Ben Corr and Luggala.

YORKSHIRE RAMBLERS’ CLUB JOURNAL:

  • The Ancient Kingdom of Mourne : (Lewis Moore.) Vol. 1, p.155.

CAMBRIDGE MOUNTAINEERING:

  • Lugnaquilla: (E. C. Allberry.) 1934, p 110.
    Describes a few climbs on Percy’s Table and on the Scalp.
  • Connemara: (J. W. Crofton) 1934, p.111.
    Describes a climb on the north face of Bencorr.

OXFORD AND CAMBRIDGE MOUNTAINEERING:

  • The Mountains of Kerrv: (C. R. P. Vandelcur) 1921, p.10.

FELL AND ROCK CLIMBING CLUB JOURNAL:

  • Irish Hill Days: (A. F. Airey) Vol. 10, p.205.
  • A Crowded Day: (G. N. Glegg) Vol. 12, p.46.
    Describes an attempt to ascend Nevis, Scafell Pike, Snowdon and Carrantual in 24 hours.

WAYFARERS CLUB JOURNAL:

  • The Mountains of Eire : (E. W. Hodge) 1939, p.67.
    A list of mountains over 2,500 ft., and notes on climbing in Kerry.
  • On Irish Hills : (W. G. Stephens) 1947, p.31.
  • More Impressions of Ireland: (E. W. Hodge) 1950, p.15.
    Miscellaneous notes.

RUCKSACK CLUB JOURNAL:

  • Across the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks: (John Wilding) Vol. 1, p.89.
  • On Tramp in the South of Ireland: (C. H. Ashley) Vol. 1, p.152.
  • A Holiday in Donegal: (C. H. Ashley) Vol. 1, p.267.
  • Casey’s First Climb: (H.H.) Vol. 2, p.151.
  • Glengarriff: (C. H. Ashley) Vol. 2, p.213.
  • The Caha Mountains: (Robin Grey) Vol. 7, p.152.
  • The Mourne Mountains: (A. F. Airey) Vol. 7, p.411.

SCOTTISH MOUNTAINEERING CLUB JOURNAL:

  • A Day Amongst the Mourne Mountains (J. A. Parker) Vol. 3, p.109.
  • Some Irish Hills: (A. F. Aircy) Vol. 8, P.101.
  • Glencar, Co. Kerry: (J. A. Parker) Vol. 13, p. 1.
  • The Donegal Highlands: (J. A. Parker) Vol. 17, p.227.
  • Notes: Vol. 18, pp. 132, 251.

CAIRNGORM CLUB JOURNAL:

  • The Mountains of Mourne: (J. G. Kyd) Vol. 8, p.145.
  • The High Grass of Galtymore: (W.M.A.) Vol. 13, p.243.

MOUNTAINEERING:

  • Mountaineering in Ireland: (P. Robson) Vol. 2, 2, p.7.

The following journals yielded no references:

  • Alpine Journal; Mountaineering (the earlier journal of that name);
  • Midland Association of Mountaineers Journal ; Manchester University M. C. J.

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