Old Head of Kinsale … Forbidden Territory?

(by John Duignan, May 2008)
A climbing guide to the Old Head of Kinsale, Co. Cork.

It is a well-known fact the Old Head is out of bounds since the golf course was developed there. Well-known but not true! Climbers can access the Old Head by phoning the Kinsale Outdoor Adventure Centre at (021) 4772896 and giving details of IMC membership.

Barry Denton, myself and ex-IMC London-based climber Anne-Marie Walsh visited it last weekend. We enjoyed great climbing above the waves – lighthouse, seagulls, passing sailships and seals all give a great atmosphere. The main crag is south-facing and was sunny until late evening.

Thanks to Cork climber Sinéad Pollock for the draft crag information which follows. Note that this is a draft guide and common sense should be applied!

Old Head of Kinsale

About 35 minutes drive from Cork City, the crags are about 5-10 minutes from Golf Club car park.

This is the oldest, most developed crag in the Cork area. The Main Slabs area give rather unusual climbing on very small but very positive holds and the reaction of visiting climbers has (allegedly) varied from outright boredom to absolute terror.

The Old Head also offers more conventional pull-and-puff type climbing, mostly on steep walls and slabs in the Muscle Cliff and Cave areas.

While the climbs are mostly in the lower grades there are enough harder climbs to give most climbers a case of knee shake. Protection on the main slabs sometimes requires a little in the way of imagination and it helps to have a few RPs or microwedges on your gear rack.

Climbs are in the 12 to 20 metre range. It is almost always possible to climb on the Main Slabs, even in wet weather (if Force 10 gales bring along your anorak).


Climbing at the Old Head of Kinsale has been going on since the 1960s. Because of ease of access it was the local crag of the Cork climbers until the development and opening of the Old Head Golf Course in the late 1990s placed restrictions on public access (contrary to its planning permission – but that’s another story!), including requiring proof of insurance and the need to ring in advance for access via the main gates. The Golf Course had ended the long standing use of the headlands for Sunday strolls, claiming that it is not a properly constituted Right of Way, however they have agreed to allow access with prior notification to “special interest groups” (fishermen, botanists, birdwatchers, geologists and climbers).

Contact The Kinsale Outdoor Adventure Centre in advance to notify them you require access. The management ask (over the phone) that climbers are members of MCI or hold climbing insurance of some sort. They will then inform the Golf Club to allow access . Please park at the lighthouse and change there as changing clothes in the golfers’ car park can upset the golf club and make access difficult for future climbers.

The crag is situated 9 miles from Kinsale. From Kinsale the road to Clonakilty is followed for 4 miles then take a left turn signposted for the Old Head of Kinsale. It is possible to drive as far as the Golf Course clubhouse (5-10 minutes from the crags).

There are several crags in the area close to the lighthouse (Main Slabs, Muscle Cliff and Cave Area) which are all accessed via the lighthouse compound and will be described separately.


The possibility of climbing first occurred to Seán Ryan while bird-watching at the cliffs in 1961 and for a few years he explored the area with Con O’Leary and one or two others others. In July 1964 Seán led Táin Bó Cuailnge, one of the best climbs on the Main Slabs.

The area was further developed in the late 1970s by members of the newly-formed Cork Mountaineering Club and a lot of the new climbs were put up, with Dennis O’Connell and Seán O’Riordan being prominent in the new route list.

Main Slabs

The main slabs are situated almost directly below the lighthouse. It is possible to contour around the lighthouse compound on the left hand side if the gate to the compound is locked.

There is a large ledge at the top to the slabs and there is a scramble descent to the large platform at the base of the cliff on the left hand side of the slabs (if facing the crag).

The rock is mainly thinly-laminated fine sandstone and shale. The angle of the slabs is gentle, at about 50 degrees. Holds are small but positive flakes of rock. All the climbs are above high tide level.

Protection on the easier climbs is generally good, being mainly medium sized nuts. On the harder climbs (VS and above) protection is usually only possible with RPs and microwedges. Because of the gentle angle of the rock these are generally reasonably secure.

Routes are described from left to right when facing the crag.

1  The Chimney  12m  VD
P. Long (solo)
This climb is not on the slabs. To reach the base of the climb go towards the tip of the headland. The corner/chimney is on the left of the descent route.

2  **  Thin Crack (aka Frantic Spider)  13m  HS (4b/4c)
K. O’Mahony (solo)
Just left of the way is a slab with two thin cracks. The climb goes up the right thin crack which runs diagonally up to the right hand corner of an overlap. Move up left to a good foothold just below the overlap. From this point it is possible to continue straight up or to traverse right up under the overlap. It is also possible to escape left, which is easier. Protection is poor, RPs and micros only.

3  *  Overhang Crack  14m  VD
S. Ryan (solo)
About 8 metres right of the way down is an obvious small overhang about 7m up below which is a small ledge. The climb follows the thin twisting crack to the to the right hand side of the ledge under the overhang. This point also can be gained more easily by climbing the obvious diagonal fault on the left. From the ledge the normal finish is to traverse delicately left below the overhang, turn the overhang on the left and go up diagonally to the top. It is also possible to turn the overhang on the right. Both variations are quite delicate.

4  **  Yellow Crack  17m  S (4a)
P. Long
Three metres left of climb 3 is an obvious thin yellowish crack. Climb the crack or the slab to the left of it and continue up the corner to a ledge. Go straight up the top. Delicate. Protection is poor RPs or wedges.

5  Razor’s Edge  17m  HS (4a)
T. Sweetman (solo)
Immediately right of 4 is a steep slab whose only features are ripple marks and tiny flakes. Climb the centre of the slab immediately right of climb 4 to a small overhang, then over this to a good ledge. Continue to the top on friction. Delicate. No protection.

6  Southern Cross  17m  HS (4a)
S. O’Riordan, C. O’Leary
To the right of 5 is a steep holdless slab below a small diagonal overlap (usually wet). Climb middle of slab to a good foothold below where the slab steepens. Climb this keeping to the left to a good ledge. Move left to where two cracks form an X. Climb through the centre of the X. Follow either crack to the top; the left one is harder. Protection is poor.

7  Ar Eagla na hEeagla  18m  VD
S. Ryan, J. Murphy
About one third of the way along the crag a large fault goes diagonally right up the cliff. Climb the fault to gain the large ledge on the left (small nut). Move left for one metre then climb directly to the top on small holds.

Ar Eagla na hEagla – Anne-Marie Walsh dances up this lovely climb; great friction on the sandstone with lotsa chickenheads

8  *  Arrowhead No. 1  20m  VD
P. Long, G. Ryan
Approximately 9 m right of the fault is an inverted V formation in the rock (the Arrowhead). Climb directly up to and through the arrowhead (crux). Good protection.

9  **  Meridian  20m  S (3c)
P. Long, G. McDonnell
Start 3m right of a fault below a small ledge. Gain ledge directly and continue straight up to a small arrowhead. Move through the arrowhead to gain the slab above (crux). Trend delicately up and right towards a crack/corner in the overlap above. Protection can be arranged with small wires and RPs.

Meridian – quite run-out for a severe!

10  Impulse  20m  VS (4c)
E. O’Flynn, D. O’Connell
Start just right of 9. Climb slab directly to the overlap. Surmount overlap and climb slab using ripples (crux). Poor protection can be arranged just below the overlap.

11  *  Levitation  20m  HS (4b)
P. Long, G. McDonnell
About half-way along the cliff is an obvious large arrowhead (climb 13). This climb starts some 4 m to the left of this, below and a little to the right of an obvious thin crack on the upper slab. Climb the slab to a small diagonal fault. Cross this on to the slab above at a good foothold. Move left and up towards a shallow corner. Use this to gain crack in upper slab. Follow this to the top. Protection is mainly small wires.

12  Kojak  20m  E1 (5b)
S. O’Riordan, D. O’Connell
Climb the slab between 11 and 13. Gain the overlap easily and cross to a relatively large but loose foothold. Move up to a rest at a small crack in the slab. Climb the slab keeping to the right hand side. Very delicate. Some protection is available at the overlap and a poor RP runner above. A route giving relief rather than satisfaction.

13  **  Arrowhead No. 2  20m  S (3c)
P. Long, D. O’Sullivan
The route goes up to and through the large obvious arrowhead about half-way along the cliff. Above the arrowhead the route follows the relatively large corner to the top. Protection is fairly good but the climb may appear fairly hard for its grade.

Arrowhead no. 2 – Johnnie 9 Fingers under the lighthouse

Left of the arrowhead the cliff is divided into two halves by a small overlap. Above this is a smooth slab, below an easier more broken slab. About 5 metres right of the arrowhead on climb 13 is an obvious large crack, the Táin Bó Cuailnge (or Piton Crack).

14  ***  Song of the Sea  21m  VS (4c)
D. O’Connell, S. O’Riordan
With the exception of Kojak this is the most sustained climb on the cliff. Start as for 13 but cross the overlap just below the arrowhead to a small horizontal foothold. Climb the slab above following the thin crack to the top. Protection is poor (microwires only).

15 **  Flanker  21m  VS (4c)
C. Torrans, C. O’Leary
This climb follows the thin diagonal crack in the upper slab which meets the top of the larger crack of 16. Start just to the right of 13. Cross the overlap at a good foothold to a resting position on the slab above. Follow the crack diagonally right to the top. Protection consists of microwedges only.

16  ***  Táin Bó Cuailnge Crack (Piton Crack)  21m  S (3c)
S. Ryan, D. Ryan
Probably the best climb on the crag and a classic of its grade. The climb goes straight up to a recess in the overlap below the obvious crack. Cross the overlap at this point and continue up the crack (crux) to the top. Protection is excellent.

Táin Bó Cuailnge – Great climb – billed as the finest on the crag and lived up to it. The seagull kept joining the pic for that "seaside feeling"!

17  **  The Nut Must Go On  21m  VS (4c)
S. O’Riordan, D. O’Connell, P. Brennan
This climb goes up the upper slab about 2m to the right of 16. Start just to the right of 16, go up to the overlap and cross it at a good hold. There are two parallel thin cracks in the slab above, the route goes more or less straight up using the cracks for any available protection. The climbing is sustained but there is a definite crux where the slab steepens. Protection can be arranged with difficulty with microwedges.

18  ***  Wrinklepicker  20m  E2 (5c)
FA unknown
Climb the lower slab and cross the overlap and continue straight up the unprotected, smooth slab to the top.

19  *  Pussyfoot  20m  VS (4b)
J. Domoney, S. O’Riordan
Near the right-hand side of the cliff the overlap drops down about 1m. The climb starts at this point. Climb to the overlap and cross it to gain the base of a thin crack. Follow this delicately to the top. The crux is about half-way up the upper slab. Protection can be arranged with difficulty with microwedges.

20  Gastronomical  20m  S (3c)
P. Long, P. Brennan
This follows the thin crack in the upper slab between 19 and 21. This route is difficult to see from below and will continue to surprise you as you climb. Start at a fault running across the cliff (good protection). Climb right for about 1 metre then straight up. Protection is adequate but requires a bit of looking for.

21  Wide Crack  16m  D
S. Ryan (solo)
The easiest route on the crag. It follows the wide crack near the right hand side of the crag, hence the original name. Commonly used as a way down, but still a nice climb for someone looking for an easy route.

Barry on Wide Crack

22  Highway  50m  S (4a/b)
T. Sweetman, S. O’Riordan
This climb is a traverse of the slabs starting at Wide Crack (21) and ending at Meridian (9). Start at the point where the angle of 21 lessens to provide a shallow scoop. Traverse left across the face staying just above the overlap. It is possible to belay at the point where the traverse crosses climb 13. The crux is near the end and the protection is good.

To the right of the Main Slabs, separated from it by a large fault, is another area of slabs. At low tide this area can be reached by scrambling across from the base of from the Main Slabs but this is impossible at high tide. An alternative approach is to scramble down from the top of the cliff below a narrow exit in the lighthouse wall. This was the old lighthouse rubbish tip. There are three short climbs on the small cliff.

1  Over the Waves  7m  D
C.Torrans, C. O’Leary
Start at the high water mark at the bottom of the slabs. Climb diagonally left to reach an obvious V-shaped gap at the top of the wall.

2  The Niche  7m  VS (4c)
C.Torrans, C. O’Leary
Takes the overlap near its left-hand end.

3  Discovery  7m  D
C. O’Leary (solo)
Higher up on the right is a broken quartz vein. Climb the crack (giving access to the main cliff).

High up on the slab there are two parallel cracks cut by a third crack.

4  Twin Cracks  12m  VD
G. McDonnell, P. Long
Start halfway up the slab. Climb the two intersecting cracks on the right.

Farther to the right, separated by a low fault is a larger steep slab with three longer climbs.

5  Fawlty Towers  25m  VD
J. Domoney, P. Long
Climb the sloping corner between the slab and the fault on its left side

6  Ski-jump  33m  HS (3c)
P. Long, G. McDonnell
This is a two-pitch climb.
1) Start at the high water mark in the centre of the slab, going up to the wide crack. Then follow a faint crack up the middle of the cliff and hand-traverse right to a large ledge (crux).
2) From the ledge follow a diagonal crack left and continue up to where the angle eases.

7  Confrontation  30m  S (3c)
T. O’Neill, K. O’Mahony
This is a two-pitch climb. Near the right-hand edge of the slab is a well-defined crack leading up to a large ledge.
1) Start at the high water mark near the bottom of the crack and climb it to the ledge (crux).
2) From the ledge follow a diagonal crack left and continue up to where the angle eases (shared with Ski-jump).
Variation – Go straight up from the ledge (VD)

Muscle Cliff

This is the short but very steep cliff just below the lighthouse just at the point of the headland. The crag is reached by following the same route as for the main slabs to the point where the descent to the platform begins. Go down towards the tip of the headland to a wide ledge. Follow this to the right to the base of the crag.

The climbs are mainly in the VS to HVS grades. Protection is normally good.

The routes are described from left to right.

1  West Corner  13m  S (4a)
J. Domoney, P. Brennan
Near the left-hand end of the cliffs is an obvious quartz-covered ramp. This climb takes the slightly overhanging corner just left of this ramp. Protection can be hard to find, especially at the top.

2  Hot Fingers  13m  HS (4b)
D. O’Connell, H. O’Brien
This route goes up the obvious quartz covered-ramp to a ledge. From here it is possible to traverse left into climb 23. The original route went straight up but the rock here is very loose. Protection is available to the eagle-eyed.

3  Big Foot  14m  VS (4c)
D. O’Connell, S. O’Riordan
To the right of the quartz ramp a shallow groove moves up to an overhang. The climb follows the groove and moves left to the arête at the overhang. Climb the arête for a few feet (crux) to where it is possible to move back to the right. Finish up a shallow gully. (Variation – It is also possible to move right at the overhang, this gives a climb of lesser quality but at a similar grade.) Climbing is sustained and protection is good.

4  *  Slot  13m  HS (4b)
C. Torrans, J. Domoney
About half-way along the cliff is a chimney at about half height. The base of the chimney is reached by a strenuous pull up large flakes to surmount the initial overhang. The chimney is followed to the top. Some loose rock near the top of the climb should not detract from your enjoyment. Protection is good.

5  *  Vulgarian  14m  HVS (5b)
C. Torrans, P. Long
Right of 25 is a shallow cave bounded on the left by a quartz-covered slab. Climb up into the cave on good rock. Move left and slightly down onto the quartz arête (crux). Follow the groove above to the top. Protection in available, but not always at the preferred place.

6  Unnamed  14m  HVS (5b)
J. Thompson, P. Long
Start as for the previous route but before reaching the cave move left to below the shallow groove on the right. Climb the overhang at the groove, tending to the right and continue in this direction over broken rock to finish on the large ledge above 29. Protection is available but is difficult to place.

7  Bludgeon  12m  VS (4c)
C. Torrans, C. O’Leary
Climb the obvious vertical corner below a large chimney. Finish up chimney using holds on the seaward side. Protection is reasonable but there is some loose rock.

Beginners’ Crag

From the small building on the highest point of the Old Head go along the cliff southward for about 150m until a pile of stones is reached. Below this, almost at sea level, is a wide platform of rock. There is a small crag here, good for beginners. A rock shaped like a bird’s beak juts out from the top. The climbs, from left to right, are:

1  The Bulge  9m  D
S. O’Riordan, K. Buckley
Immediately left of the prominent beak of rock is an overhanging block. Climb to the overhang then move left along a horizontal crack to a ledge, then up to the top via a crack in the block.

2  The Beak  10m  D
C. O’Leary (solo)
Climb the small chimney onto the block, then on to the top.

3  Beak Crack  10m  VD
C. O’Leary/R. Evans
Immediately right of The Beak is a crack which goes up to the beak. Climb the crack.

4  Problem  4m  MS
FA unknown
A few metres to the right of Beak Crack is a shallow, smooth groove leading up to a wide ledge.

5  Black Crack  10m  D
C. O’Leary, R. Evans
Four metres right of 4 a crack goes up to the ledge and continues to the top. Climb the crack. Variation – at the ledge go left a few metres and climb an obvious crack.(D)

6  Overhanging Corner  8m  D
C. O’Leary (solo)
Climb an obvious corner to a ledge and then easily to the top.

7  Permanent Wave  8m  D
C. O’Leary (solo)
There is a grey wall on the right scarred with horizontal cracks. Just right of 6 there is a crack. Climb the crack then trend left to the top.

The Lay-back Crag

Continue along the top of the cliffs from the Beginners’ Crag for ten minutes towards the lighthouse. Below a gently sloping slab is a platform where an enormous block leans against a small cliff. The climbs start from the platform.

1  The Lay-back  7m  MS
S. Ryan (solo)
Right of the block is a corner with a crack in it. Climb the crack by laybacking.

2  Happy Days  8m  VD
S. Ryan, C. O’Leary
Climb the corner between the block and the cliff.

3  Sunshine Corner  4m  VD
S. Ryan (solo)
Climb the corner on the left of the block.

The Cave Area

This area is sometimes called the Little Red Gate crag as there used to be a small iron gate through the lighthouse compound wall above the crag, but the opening has since been bricked up. Cross the compound wall at the bricked-up point and follow the wall on your left to the top of the crag. At this point is a large ledge (sometimes slippery) with a large boulder.

Climbs in this are mainly steep wall and slab climbs. Most are short but afford good sport. The tide can affect climbing in this area, especially in rough weather. It is not possible to climb here if there is a high sea running.

The base of the crag can be reached most easily by continuing out the headland until it is possible to climb down easily (not possible at high tide). The chimney at the headland end of the basecamp ledge can be downclimbed (Black Cleft) but is not easy and an abseil descent is probably safer.

30  Bonus  14m  ungraded
Near the descent route on the headland 2m right of a shallow chimney a series of small ledges lead back to the ridge. Climb these to the top.

31  Details unknown

32  Details unknown

33  Details unknown

34  Q.E.D.  14m  ungraded
At the end of the wall is an obvious large chimney (Black Cleft). Start at the base of this and climb directly up the steep wall on the left. Protection requires thought.

35  Black Cleft  14m  ungraded
This route takes the obvious large black chimney sometimes used as a descent to the platform. No protection but the climbing is easy.

36  Pisa Problem  14m  ungraded
Take the large rectangular sideward-sloping buttress just right of Black Cleft. A route made less serious by the fact that it is possible to step off it to rest on the ledge of Black Cleft. Protectable with small wires.

37  Groovy  13m  ungraded
Climb the shallow corner/groove left of Black Cleft, delicate to start. Protection requires imagination (you have to imagine it is there).

38  Hidden Meaning  13m  ungraded
Left of Groovy is a large overhang. This route takes the corner just right of this. A good memory is required. No protection.

39  Tenticles  12m  ungraded
This route is in the wide gully between the headland ridge and the arête from the cave. Climb the steep slab just below the left-hand side of the overhang to a resting foothold at the same height as the overhang. Climb the slab above tending to the right to the top. Protectable poorly with small wires.

40  Squib  12m  ungraded
This route goes up the corner near the back of the gully. The route is usually wet. Protection is good.

41  Playground  13m  ungraded
This route goes up the ledges at the back of the gully. Finish up a wide corner/crack. (Variation – for more fun, try tackling the projecting blocks near the top).

42  The Arête  15m  ungraded
Climb the obvious large arête. Climb up edge to a ledge. Turn the arête on the left (seaward) side, delicate. Then climb back onto the arête and follow the crest to a ledge. Go left to the top. (Variation – It is possible to move right from the second ledge to the projection block, then move left to the top. The overhanging snout of the arête gives two more fine variations to the start of this climb. To climb just right of centre is quite difficult, just left of centre is nearly impossible.)