The Devil's Bit and Slieve Bloom

(by Claude Wall, from the IMC Journal 1953-54)
Hillwalking, and a bit of rock-climbing, in the midlands.

Once again a lone voice cries in the wilderness: What of the hillwalkers? They seem content to trail around the more familiar Wicklow moors with a sheep-like trust in their leader and to go on occasional excursions to other well-known ranges on Club week-ends. Surely it is one of the functions of the Club to investigate all our hill systems?

Perhaps these notes on two little-visited ranges may arouse some interest in exploration.

Two winter visits – by two parties of five – have been made to the Devil’s Bit. This range runs north to south for about six miles, with the celebrated gap, from which it takes its name, near the southern extremity, a few miles west of Templemore. The gap was originally called Bearna Eile, the Gap of Eile, the ancient district of Ely O’Carroll. Popular legend credits the Devil with taking a bite out of the mountain, when fleeing from St. Patrick, and dropping it in South Tipperary – hence the Rock of Cashel.

Travelling by the Saturday morning train from Dublin, we reached Templemore before noon. We cut the ridge about a mile north of the Bit and passed along a rocky outcrop to the highest point (1583 feet) near the edge of the cliffs which are more imposing than one would expect.

A rope was produced here for some rock-climbing and unrehearsed acrobatics. Peter Kenny supplies the following note on the climbing of the Gap:

“The amount of climbable rock in this area is limited to outcrops on either side of the ‘Bit’ itself. These consist mainly of a coarse, fairly hard conglomerate, and would be of little interest, but for the fact that they are all that the range will allow the rockclimber. Bearing in mind, however, the results which concentrated attention has produced in places like Dalkey, Helsby and Harrison’s Rocks, there is no doubt that a climber’s ingenuity will here also find scope for his craft. The routes will nowhere exceed about 35 feet in length, and will mostly be of a strenuous nature. They should provide excellent training for arms and fingers.”

The range stretching away to the West towards the Shannon looked tempting but the December day was short, and we turned northwards by Kilduff and Borrisnoe to Benduff over a waterlogged featureless area rather like the Wicklow foothills. Snow fell heavily on the return journey to Templemore which we reached at 8 p.m. We were well catered for there until we left on the 1.30 a.m. train.

The trip was repeated last winter. We did not delay in the Gap but pushed west to the next summit, Caoran (1541), which links the Devil’s Bit group with the spreadeagled hills of North Tipperary. In summer it would be possible to penetrate into this area by car from Templemore. We had a lively sojourn in Templemore but reached the station with no casualties except a lost railway ticket.

In July last, a party of five on an official meet made a moonlight crossing of Slieve Bloom. This range stretches for about 25 miles along the borders of Leix and Offaly. “Sliabh Bladhma the Fair, over the head of Ossory, is above the heights of Eire,” says O’Dugan. It is only 1740 feet high. The range may lack boldness of outline, but has legendary and historical interest. The first battle between Nemedians and Formorians took place on Slieve Bloom. Bladh – whence Bloom – was a Milesian chieftain slain in battle with the Tuatha de Danaan. Hugh O’Neill passed this way to the disastrous battle of Kinsale.

We travelled to Kinnity by bus and started our long trek at 8.30 on Saturday evening. After some vicissitudes in wandering boreens, we had to “drum up” before gaining the main range. Moonlight was scarce and heavy showers were frequent before we reached the summit of Arderin, the highest point, in the small hours after a gruelling slosh through swampy ground. The dawn was breaking as we passed the head of the Glendine Gap and trekked over interminable summits into the morning. Several of the wooded valleys cutting into the plateau looked attractive but the summit ridge is without interest. We came off the range at Baunreaghcong after about 15 miles of moorland. A road walk of about ten miles brought us to Mountmellick at 2 p.m. on Sunday. We decided that the range would be best visited via the wooded valleys.

Mention should also be made in despatches of the stamina and good burnout displayed by the ladies of the party on this long trip. There was not a solitary feminine growl in eighteen hours.