Early memories of the Irish Mountaineering Club

Early memories of the Irish Mountaineering Club

by Robert Norton

“The Past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”,   L.P. Hartley

Given the rate of social and technological change since then it must be hard for the younger reader to picture Dublin in the 1950s when I was in my teens. A place of economic stagnation and mass emigration. No immigration so black or brown faces or foreign languages were highly unlikely to be encountered. 

Nor were there any of the devices now coming under the heading of “tech”, although much of this was already being foreseen in comics and sci-fi writing. An airplane was a fairly rare sight and would attract attention. There was sporadic IRA violence in Northern Ireland about which there were ambivalent views.   

When young, idealistic Limerick-man Sean South was killed in the course of a raid on an RUC barracks. 50,000 people turned out for his funeral and songs commemorated the event.   It was a place teeming with priests and nuns, where even to cut the grass on Sunday was seen as mildly sinful.  

Roman Catholics spending a weekend in the IMC Hut or a youth hostel would regard it as essential to “get” Mass even if this meant walking for some hours. All teachers, male and female were armed with canes or straps to maintain discipline or punish sub-standard performance. The burly Gardai went round on big bicycles and their main job seemed to be to catch boys playing football on the street or directing the sparse traffic on the on the largely traffic-light-less streets. 

Entertainment was provided , apart from sport,  by the large number of cinemas and dance-halls, where at weekends there would be lengthy queues and you might not actually get in. 

Most houses relied for heating on an open fire in a single room where the probably large family would gather to sit in the evening and listen to Radio Éireann or BBC, or read one of the numerous daily newspapers- I seem to recall there were five! The burning of smoky fuels led on occasions to serious smog, when it was difficult to see to the other side of the street and dangerous to cross if you didn’t have sharp hearing. Most adults smoked cigarettes which meant that children were exposed to smoke from infancy

Only the better-off had cars. Bikes, or the bus, were the mode of transport for most people.  If you chose to go by bus, your fare would be collected by a chatty “conductor” 

Bread or milk would probably arrive at the door in a horse-drawn cart and all refuse was taken to landfill often to reclaim land such as Fairview or Ringsend Parks. 

There was nothing comparable to the modern supermarket and household supplies were bought in the small neighbourhood shops. Apart from the fish and chip shops, there were no fast food outlets.

It was possible for quite young children to buy fireworks or indeed, for a few pence, the chemicals need to make your own. Your local pharmacy wouldn’t bat an eye. 

Although there was a meagre supply of scholarships, university education was denied to all but the wealthier classes. However, the secondary schools- mostly owned and run by the much-maligned Christian Brothers or other religious orders- supplied a broad and varied curriculum, often for very modest fees.

If this all seems a bit grim there was another side to life. Crime was on nothing like the scale we see nowadays. A murder might happen once a year and would set the whole country talking. Alcohol was the only drug.

GPs would readily make house calls even at unsocial hours and it was not uncommon for them to waive their fee for poorer people.  There were no queues of trollies in the hospitals, which, again, were run by the religious, and you might be kept in bed for two weeks after a simple procedure like an appendectomy- I was anyway!  

Burnout due to work was unheard of; there was a decent work-life balance and one could, with an easy conscience, go home at 5 pm.

As a child I had always preferred the mountains to the flat boring “sea-side”. We had the use of a cottage – now unfortunately derelict- on the hill behind the An Óige youth hostel at Knockree in Glencree; at that time one of two hostels in the valley. 

Even when I was quite young I used to climb Knockree hill on my own “because it was there” and just to see what was to be seen.  Down in the valley you could cross the Glencree River by means of a foot-stick bridge and go across to what was commonly called Mount Maulin.  It was an enchanted place; no wonder it attracted writers such as John Millington Synge, James Plunkett and Joseph Campbell. 

It may have been the first ascent of Everest in 1953, when I was fifteen, that awakened an interest in mountaineering.  My first encounter with Irish climbers was in 1956. I was on one of many cycling weekends to Glendalough hostel. It was then I met with certain swaggering and, to me, heroic figures with coils of rope on their shoulders and clanking pitons and karabiners (probably heavy steel ones) hanging on their belts. 

Bob Norton 2nd from left with IMC early members  Frank Winder, Joss Lynam and visiting famous British Climber Mike Banks at Dalkey mid-1980’s
Bob Norton 2nd from left with IMC early members  Frank Winder, Joss Lynam and visiting famous British Climber Mike Banks at Dalkey mid-1980’s


They were also armed with wicked little hammers for driving in said “pittins”. The use of jammed nuts or even jammed knots does not appear to have spread to Ireland at that time and was probably even in its infancy in the UK. Though some pitons were left in place (some still remain as pathetic relics of the time), the unfortunate second usually had the precarious task of knocking out the pegs (these things cost money, after all!) 

 These were hard men, dressed in military cast-offs and when not luxuriating on the bare canvas bunks of the hostel would often sleep on the ground in a lean-to structure adjoining the  Royal Hotel, or in a hay barn near the round tower.  

There was also a shelter under a boulder beside the Camaderry crag, known by the French term ‘gite’ or, more usually, “the gyte”. There used to be a First Aid box maintained there (I don’t suppose it still exists.) 

They were the pioneering An Óige climbers and were not affiliated at that time with the only serious  mountaineering club in Ireland, the IMC which had been formed (or re-formed) in 1948. The IMC might have been beaten to it by the secretive “Brotherhood of the Lug”.

My first experience of climbing was with the IMC in 1957.   Brid Hardiman, the sister of a friend, was a member and invited us to to Dalkey Quarry.  

She was there one Saturday to “show us the ropes”, literally. The only other member I can recall was Harold Johnson a genial older man. He was the owner of Irel Coffee, a company making a liquid form of instant coffee.  He was a life-long enthusiast for the mountains and climbed in the Alps every Summer with his wife and children. He used to give wonderful slide shows in the club, – then based in 16 Lower Mount Street – of him and his family climbing in the Alps. 

This was usually accompanied by a thunderous sound-track of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto or such like. Harold was a great encourager of new members and used to run regular “scrambling “outings to The Scalp or Rocky Valley.

It seems strange now, but at that time Dalkey Quarry had almost no trees. The quarrymen left it as a bare rocky bowl and the only vegetation to have begun to establish itself were brambles and other low things. In the Eastern bowl of the quarry there were vestiges of the quarrymen’s cabins.

We used Viking nylon cable-laid ropes, which got fuzzy with wear and which had only recently superseded hemp ropes.   They had a great safety advantage over hemp because of their greater elasticity. In those pre-harness days, the rope was tied around the waist with a bowline knot. The commonest footwear was bendy hiking boots with Vibram rubber soles or for harder routes black canvas “runners” which had quite good sticky soles. 

I never saw nailed boots in use; they had been abandoned by most people from the early 1950’s.  The first pair of proper climbing shoes I saw were worn by Englishman Ronnie Wathen a member of the Dublin University Climbing Club,  later to become an accomplished performer on the uillean pipes.  

They were called PAs after the French climber, Pierre Allain,  who had invented them. Helmets had yet to become normal wear. Paddy O’Leary recalls being amused when he first saw them in use in Switzerland.   

Standard wear on the head- in Winter, anyway- was a scratchy woollen balaclava, often bright red. 

On that first day in Dalkey, we were led up ‘Paradise Lost’, which was climbed in two pitches, and a number of routes on the Eliminates. I think ‘Paradise’ was probably a harder climb then, as its cracks were much thinner than they are now. The crux, then as now, was edging on a tiny hold near the top.

I was thrilled but petrified and was sure I would never be able to lead. The leader belayed with the rope over his shoulder. That was common practice then but was soon given up in favour of putting the rope around the waist. The waist belay was still in use by British climbers Deacon and Stevenson when they made the first ascent of ‘Spearhead’ on Luggala in 1959.   

Former member Michael Lunt, using a waist belay, once held a big fall by his leader George Narramore on “Nightmare” in Glendalough, at the expense of burnt hands. The modern friction devices were of course unheard of.   

Apart from “pittins”, some slings of light rope (no tapes then!) were carried to use as running belays if you could find suitable rock spikes or flakes. 

In October of that year Paddy O’Leary, Liam “Smithy” Smith, Noel Lynch, Bob Lawlor and other An Óige climbers organised a beginners’ weekend in Glendalough.  Some An Óige members had themselves been on a beginners’ course organised by the IMC in 1955. I was so exhilarated being part of the climbing scene that the day is engraved in memory. 

“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very Heaven”

(Apologies to Wordsworth for quoting him out of context)

It was a perfect Summer-like day. There were about a dozen beginners including Patricia Flynn (then McLachlan and her sister Maura, later to be the wife of Noel Lynch. Paddy O’Leary thinks Bríd Arkless, later to be one of the first female mountain guides in the UK, was one of the novices. 

After some preliminary training on the enormous boulders along the path, we were introduced to the three V. Diffs.; ‘Expectancy’, ‘Garden of Eden’, with its classic hand-traverse and chimney and ‘Holly Tree Shunt;. My fear quickly turned to sheer euphoria. The most frightening part of the day was having to abseil down ‘Expectancy; by the Dulfer method, i.e. with the ropes running behind one leg and over the opposite shoulder. NO safety top-rope was employed and it was a painful and “white-knuckle” experience!  

Another clear memory is of Paddy wearing a pair of stiff-soled black climbing boots which he said he had bought in Courmayeur, which might as well have been have been Shangri La as far the newbies were concerned and, of him recommending  “Lets go Climbing”, by Colin Kirkus; still a favourite book.

It may surprise young climbers to hear that there were no shops in Ireland selling mountain equipment. One had to go to the UK or Europe to buy a decent pair of boots or mountain clothing, or import them by mail order. There were, of course, shops in Dublin selling ex-army stuff.

I became a member of the IMC shortly after that memorable day. With a friend Padraig Hardiman, I used to cycle to the hut with our rope, boots etc precariously balanced on the carrier. We would climb on Saturday and Sunday and ride home to Drumcondra. 

Being unable to afford a climbing rope we bought 100 ft of hemp rope in McCann and Verdon, “Ships Chandlers” on Burgh Quay. This was used for some top-roping before we invested in a half-weight nylon rope. That may horrify the modern reader, but it was probably adequate for the lower-class routes we felt able to tackle. 

We would repeat the routes we had been introduced to and also did routes on Hobnail Buttress. We did a lot of exploring too, on Howth Head, Rocky Valley, and the Scalp.

Apart from cycling or hitching, one could  get to the Hut on the St Kevin’s bus route, but most people preferred to catch the bus half-way, either by hiking on Saturday afternoon from Enniskerry to Roundwood, or even by traversing Bray Head and the two Sugarloafs and meeting the bus at the top of the Long Hill. 

The IMC in those days did a lot more hill-walking and camping than is common now. Wicklow then, with the small numbers of hikers, was happily devoid of beaten tracks and you were usually trudging through knee-deep heather. This was particularly a Winter activity where the cliffs were wet and cold. There were of course no indoor training walls 

I once saw, accompanied by my late friend Tom Fenlon, a fabulous Brocken Spectre, while we were on top of Little Sugarloaf. There was a fog-bank out to sea and the setting sun cast our giant shadows upon it. The image was surrounded by a circular “glory” or halo. The only other incidence of this phenomenon I saw was while on a peak in Zermatt, with Gerry Moss.

I was lucky enough, also, to see the Aurora Borealis from the hill down into Enniskerry past the Anglican Church, at about ten o’clock on a Winter evening, while coming home solo from the hills. It was very clear even though I was looking at it over the city lights. It was like big wavy curtains of pink and green. It most have been close to the peak of its eleven-year cycle.  

An Óige, was formed in 1931. Although it was set up by a group of very influential people, its raison d’etre was essentially to provide simple accommodation for people of scant means, especially the young.  Serious mountaineering on the other hand had traditionally been practiced by the leisured classes. It was inevitable therefore that the IMC founded in 1948 would attract on the whole, a middle-class educated membership.   

There was a high level of education and general “culture” in the club and some people have reported that they found the “posh” atmosphere somewhat intimidating.  

It has been reported elsewhere that a class war of sorts developed when the IMC was infiltrated by more down-to-earth An Óige members.  

This classification of the memberships is of course something of an over-simplification. I was only a peripheral member for a short number of years, mixing climbing, as I did, with cycle racing and rowing (Neptune Rowing Club), but I found the IMC a welcoming and stimulating place with unfailingly friendly and encouraging people.  

Being a bit bookish myself, I enjoyed the conversation around the big iron stove in the hut; lots of talk of books, music (classical of course!) and exploits in the hills.  

The names of climbs put up at that time – Helios, Hyperion, Byzantium, etc, reflect the cultural leanings of the pioneers. Frank Winder was an important influence on me at the time, on account of his erudition and his ”necky” climbing ability.  

I once succeeded in losing my fiancé and another girl on Djouce on a foggy October evening and they had to spend the night in the open. In the days before organised Mountain Rescue, Frank got up a search party and roped in a few cantankerous and unwilling young Gardai. We succeeded in locating them the next morning.

On marriage and relocation outside Dublin, I lost contact with the IMC and did not rejoin until the 1980’s to re-kindle my enthusiasm in a very changed climbing scene,  but that’s another story.