Climbing to a strange proverbial summit, an avenging angel in running shorts and the den of a mythical horse thief.
Friends Robert and Finola are attending the ‘Festival of Writing and Ideas’ in Borris, County Carlow and have invited us to share their AirBnB which is a renovated cottage next to a farmhouse under Blackstairs Mountain. It is close to the start of a GPS route up the mountain I have downloaded from my Viewranger app, so the opportunity is too good to miss.
I wake early and am out by 6:40 on a clear sunny morning. The GPS route begins a few hundred metres from the house but there are several gates into different fields and I can’t find the right one. The first one leads me off in the wrong direction and I return to the road. Looking again I realise that my orientation is wrong and the route will be better with the road sections first so I set off down the small road that soon starts to climb gently towards the long ridge. The mountain is part of the Blackstairs range ‘Na Staighrí Dubha’. It’s not the highest but at 735 metres it’s high enough.
As I travel along the narrow lanes everything except the birds seems to be asleep. Sheep lie in fields with their lambs snuggled close; horses doze in the early morning sun; a few cattle with full udders wait to be milked, dogs lie on doorsteps, too sleepy to bark as I pass.
After an hour and a half the temperature has risen as I reach a narrow boreen signed off the road through a small gate. Rising up under the cool shade of high field walls the path feels ancient. Ferns and grasses brush my shins, foxglove and pennywort line the walls; rough stone and peat drum underfoot.
Through an old iron gate onto rough ground with low gorse lining the path and then into a sea of waist high bracken, difficult to navigate except for a few tracks where others have passed.
Then onto a more defined path, climbing up through low heather, granite rocks underfoot. It’s a surface unlike the Old Red Sandstone I am familiar with in the south-west: sharper, more grippy and sparkling with quartz.
Higher up, swathes of of bog cotton dance in the heather, blanketing the mountainside with a white patchwork.
The path rises steadily up the long ridge. After a false summit a steeper section leads to a jumble of rocks near the top.
The small plateau at the highest point is a strange archipelago of weathered peat islands standing proud of their rocky base-layer. A small cairn is decorated with a string of Buddhist prayer flags, a dog lead and some beads. On a nearby peat island a large sign reads ‘Psalm 35/8’. I look it up (and get some unusual Old Testament search results for the next few days)
“Let destruction come upon him unawares;
and let his net that he hath hid catch himself:
into that very destruction let him fall.”
But why would someone put that up a mountain?
As I sit under the cairn, eating my cheese and tomato roll while pondering the strangeness of religion, I am suddenly startled by someone behind me. The avenging angel bringing the wrath of God to an unbeliever turns out to be a woman in running shorts.
“Sorry to startle you” she says, picking herself up, “I tripped on a rock.” and then: “I left my backpack further down and ran up because I’m late for work”
The largely one-sided conversation continues for a while and then she shakes my hand, apologises for talking too much, turns and sets off back down the mountain. The top of Blackstairs Mountain is a strange place!
The descent is relatively easy except for a bit of scrambling over jumbles of rock, following the wide ridge labelled ‘Caher Roe’s Den’ on my map. Later I discover it’s nothing to do with deer but that ‘Caher Roe’ was a type of Robin Hood figure: Cathaoir na gCapall ‘Caher of the Horses’1 which I wish I had known before my hike; the rocky outcrops are perfect for a hideaway, he would have been able to see anyone coming miles off.
The views are stupendous. The heather is joined by patches of young, bright green bog myrtle and then a grassy area leads down to a forestry track where I turn sharply right. The line on my GPS doesn’t quite match the path on the ground so I continue in a different direction that eventually brings me back on course.
As the old, and often indistinct track descends it gets boggier: bright green sphagnum concealing deep holes, so going is slow, but I have plenty of time. Suddenly I am startled again by a thunderous noise as a string of large horses gallop past, manes and tails flowing. Has Caher Roe sent them from his lair to haunt me?
Lower down is a ruin, a wall with a high window and part of a round turret, too grand to be a humble dwelling; possibly an old hunting lodge, but after today’s events it could be anything.2
I can see my destination but have to make several detours to find the path to the field-gate and then back onto the small road again. Unfortunately the electricity is off when I return to the B&B (it’s a planned, ESB thing, not another vengeful act!) so no shower but there is enough water in the tank to wash away the sweat.
In the afternoon, Herself returns for lunch and we then visit St Mullins, County Carlow: an old ecclesiastical site with a Norman motte, a burial ground and ruined abbey buildings. While she finds the nearby holy well, I sit in the shade and sketch.
This gallery also includes sketches I made on the way home the next day: St Mary’s Collegiate Church, Gowran; St Peakaun’s Monastic site and holy well, Toureen, Tipperary; and St Berrihert’s Kyle and holy well, Ardane, Glen of Aherlow, Tipperary3The Kyle is a most magical place: a small enclosure with a large oak tree growing in the wall. On the wall and within are “72 slabs, fragments of a bullaun stone, four wheel crosses, the head and base of a high cross, the head of a small cross and a slab with an incomplete inscription.” (Wikipedia)
About the route
16.5 km in about 5.5 hours.
Total ascent: 739m. Max elevation: 735m.
- Caher Roe https://atlanticreligion.com/2014/10/16/gods-and-robbers-caher-roe/
- I have tried to find what this building might have been. It is marked on the historic OS maps, clearly showing a rectangular structure with a round tower or turret, but nothing is recorded in the archaeological inventory. The track is described as an old military road, so perhaps it is connected to that.