When most people think of Ireland, they imagine bucolic green fields dotted with fluffy sheep, or cobblestone streets lined with signs advertising Guinness. But I was looking for a lesser-known side to the Emerald Isle. I was deep in the grey, barren mountains of the Connemara region, in County Galway, hiking through land that has remained virtually untouched for thousands of years. The only remnants of human activity are scattered relics left behind by the few others who have been devoted enough to traverse this inhospitable environment.
During the Act of Settlement in 1653, Oliver Cromwell famously ordered Irish landowners to go “to Hell or to Connacht”, one of Ireland’s ancient kingdoms. The two were synonymous in his mind because of the rocky ground conditions and mountainous landscape. Today, Connacht encompasses five counties in the western part of the country, including Galway. But while farming has destroyed most of Ireland’s forested regions, the Maumturk mountain range in Galway’s Connemara region was agriculturally useless, and it was left to grow wild.
Culture and information are fluid in this part of Ireland, which is home to the country’s highest number of native Irish language speakers. As such, climbing these mountains requires an equal amount of science (in the form of a good relief map and compass) and reliable local knowledge. My plan was to hike the 8km over the 609m-high Corcogemore (more commonly by known by its Irish name, Corcóg) into Máméan (known in Irish as Mám Éan), the pass that runs between the Inagh and Maum valleys. The Maumturks, a range of six peaks across Connemara, can also be spelled as Maamturks or even Mhám Toirc, and then sometimes colloquially referred to as “The Turks”. It is a reminder of the rapid changes Ireland experienced in its modern history. Not everything could keep up, and not everywhere wanted to.
I picked my steps carefully along Corcogemore, starting on thick, boggy terrain. The Earth’s crust cracked in parts, creating a recessed stream bordered by tall and muddy walls of peat. While not as statistically impressive as other ranges, the Maumturks present a surprisingly challenging climb. Parts of Corcogemore lack any kind of solid ground; sometimes I took a step and sunk up to my knees, other times the spongy ground only gave a few inches. After an hour, the brown and yellow bogscape gave way to granite. Half-dead grass and thick twigs poked out from the jagged rocks, which turned entire parts of the mountain white. The wind picked up and the mist rolled in. I walked through icy fog that cut through each layer of clothing and seeped straight into my bones. I could see the rain start to fall, but I could no longer distinguish that form of water from any other.
The Maumturks are an area of brooding beauty and solitude, which makes them both magnetic and dangerous. The weather changes abruptly and dramatically. A sunny day at sea level could turn into a fog so thick that it feels like it might choke you. The silence and greyness can be so disorienting that sometimes it is impossible to turn back.
For this reason, the Maumturks account for 40% of the Galway Mountain Rescue Team’s annual casualty calls, and the majority of those requiring help are tourists. Fluctuating temperatures and unpredictable weather put hikers in danger of hypothermia. Many people underestimate the difficulty and overestimate their abilities to correctly read a relief map and a compass. Beyond all of that, the volunteer-run Galway Mountain Rescue Team has never had a steady headquarters in its nearly 40-year history, making it difficult to train both prospective climbers and new rescuers before they both embark on the dangerous terrain.
A proposed rock climbing wall and mountaineering training centre at the Tonabrucky Quarry in Galway city might alleviate both of these issues. (Pending final approval, development could start as early as next year.) The site aims to draw in tourists before they head into the mountains, and would also serve as a training centre for the Galway Mountain Rescue Team’s volunteers.
At the summit of Corcogemore, I could see the land around me roll and slope downward, as if the ground had slid down suddenly and the rocks holding it together made one final grab at staying put. I too was forced to stay put, while waiting for the rain and fog to let up.
Once the weather cleared, I set off. The hike through Máméan seemed to narrow and drop down sharply before it rose up once again. The mountains around me looked identical, giving nothing away as to what was above or below them.
Climbing the next ridge, I finally caught a glimpse of what I had come for. I followed a foot-worn path that had emerged in the stones, winding its narrow way down the mountain. Here, clustered together in the middle of nowhere, were relics of Irish civilization that spanned thousands of years.
The remnants of an ancient stone prayer circle stood before me, sunken and eroded, but still visible after an estimated 5,000 years. This had been an important structure for the annual Lughnasa Festival, when the ancient Celts celebrated the harvest season.
Nearby was a hollowed, cave-like hole in the side of the mountain. In the 5th Century, Saint Patrick reportedly climbed Máméan to bless the Maumturks. He used this cave as a bed and a small stone well for his water.
Next in history’s timeline was the Mass rock, a tall, flat surface often used as an altar. During the Penal Laws (approximately the 1690s to the 1820s), when Catholicism was outlawed, people climbed high into the Maumturks to practice their religion in secret. Decades later, the devoted took part in annual pilgrimages up the mountain, similar to those held on Reek Sunday on nearby Croagh Patrick. The Máméan tradition dwindled until the mid-20th Century, when a local priest started to climb up the mountain to say Good Friday Mass. This led to several more modern stone structures.
In front of me, a small chapel was built into the side of the mountain. It was a beautiful, unassuming church meticulously made out of stone and stained glass. A statue of a pensive Saint Patrick, depicted as a shepherd with a staff and a sheep, stared down the slope outside. Simple Celtic crosses and plaques were scattered down the mountain, serving as the Stations of the Cross.
Here, in one of the most desolate areas of the Connemara, was a spiritual time capsule built into the mountain. If I had gone back down Corcogemore or walked across the peak in either direction, I would have missed it.
Part of the appeal of the often-bleak Maumturks is in their wild, unchanging isolation. Up here, you feel like the only person left on Earth. As I found out that day in Máméan, I was merely the most recent.