Holy Moly, Mass on a Mountain

Celebrating Mass on Mount Brandon in 2015. This mass was organised for Ang Wong Chhu, a Sherpa guide whose visit to Ireland’s “holy” mountain was filmed by Seán Mac An tSíthigh for TG4. Photo: Ciarán Walsh


Did you know that Tralee Mountaineering Club has its origins in the pilgrimage associated with Mount Brandon. The mountain was a major pilgrim site in medieval and early modern Ireland but the tradition of pilgrimage stretches back to pre-historic times; it is associated with Lugh, the Celtic god of light and his dark counterpart, Chrom Dubh.

The Christians exploited this but eventually abandoned the pilgrimage in the 19th century, mainly because of the chaos associated with the “moral holiday” that followed the arduous trek to the top.  Many attempts were made to revive the pilgrimage and organised ascents of the mountain in the 1950s indirectly led to the formation of  a mountaineering club in Tralee.


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CYMS Pilgrimmage to Mount Brandon, May 23, 1954. The photograph was taken in Faha, on the site of the grotto that marks the start of the traditional pilgrim route to the summit. Photo Tom Finn Collection.


The first item on the agenda of the new club was the split. Some members of the club argued that it should remain focused on the pilgrimage while other’s argued that the club should concentrate on mountaineering. The club mass became a compromise solution. It was organised by Seán Kelly every January and continued until 2017, when it was dropped from the calendar of club events.

The decision was taken by the outgoing committee (Chairperson Simon Quinn) and was only noticed when the calendar was published. Some members approached the club’s President (Nuala Finn) and asked to have the mass reinstated. The current committee (Chairperson Shane Mulligan) agreed and the mass was re-scheduled for April 16, 2018. It was a little ironic that the 2018 club mass, which traditionally remembers deceased members of the club, recorded the passing of Seán Kelly in 2017 and his brother Pat in 2018.

There is a wider issue here. The tops of mountains are regarded as spiritual places by many people within and without the mountaineering community.  There is extensive archaeology associated with summits, most notably Queen Maeve’s tomb on Knocknarea in Sligo. Many peaks are also marked by crosses, many of which were erected in 1954 to mark the first Marian Year, which was ordered by Pope Pius to promote the cult of the Virgin Mary.  Mount Brandon has both pagan and Christian associations.


Cross on summit of Carrauntoohil after it was cut down in November 2014. Photo: Cronin’s Yard/Twitter  published in The Irish Times


The cross on Corrán Tuathail was erected in 1976 and was cut down in 2014. This generated a debate about the association between mountaineering and spirituality and whether it was appropriate to mark the tops of mountains with symbols associated with one religious denomination. The consensus seems to be that there is room in the mountains for all believers and none and that the process of marking theses places as sacred is, in the end, a personal choice.


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A bonfire lit by a Lithuanian mountaineer on the summit of Corrán Tuathail to mark St John’s Eve or Bonfire Night (June 23). The new cross can be seen in the background. Photo Ciarán Walsh.


The tension between pagans and Christians is now part and part and parcel of the pilgrimage to the top of Brandon. The Christians climb the mountain on Lá tSin Seáin Beag (June 29th) and the pagans, who revived the Lughnasa festival in 1995,  climb the mountain on the last Sunday in July, which is known locally as Domhnach Chrom Dubh.

In 2015 nine of us attended a mass that was organised for Ang Wong Chhu, who was visiting Ireland’s scared mountain. Nuala Finn and I became sherpas for the day, acting as mountain guides and carrying filming equipment for Seán Mac An tSí­thigh of TG4.  We approached the mountain from the west. A month later over 150 pagans climbed the mountain from the east. To each his/her own.


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Sacred Places: the mass that was organised for Ang Wong Chhu, Sherpa guide. Photo: Ciarán Walsh.






Postcards from Connemara


Members of Tralee Mountaineering Club (TMC) in Connemara
Tralee Mountaineering Club (TMC ) in Connemara, April 2018. Photo by Noel O’Connor.


TMC returned to Connemara in April for a weekend of mountaineering organised by Bertie Hickey.  Routes included the Clencoaghan Horseshoe, which includes six of the Twelve Bens mountain peaks of Derryclare (677m), Bencorr (711m), Bencollaghduff (696m), Benbreen (691m), Bengower (664m) and Benlettery (577m).

The Bens were featured in an early guide to Connemara. Rambles in Ireland: A Fortnight in Ireland; 0r, Pen and Pencil Sketches of a Tour in the Autumn of 1846 was compiled by the Gascoigne Sisters, Mary Isabella and Elizabeth (De Burca Rare Books Catalogue No 96, Spring 2011, pages 84-6).

The guide included illustrations from sketches made on the spot. The sisters promised that travellers would ‘be sure to meet with novelty, incident, and adventure,’ although the ‘accommodation at the inns would certainly admit of improvement; but there is excellent salmon to be had everywhere.’


A view of the Twelve Bens, Members of Tralee Mountaineering Club (TMC) in Connemara

The Twelve Bens from Clifton. Photo by Sylvain Kerdreux


The sisters spent 15 days travelling through Galway, Mayo, Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Donegal, Derry, and Antrim in 1846, in the middle of the Height of the Great Famine. The sisters were very wealthy. Their family were landlords in County Limerick and owned collieries in Yorkshire. The sisters were noted for their charitable work in England and Ireland. Rambles in Ireland was published to raise funding for relief work in Limerick, which was targeted at Protestant orphans.

The Bens were featured again during the An Gorta Beag or the second famine of the 1890s. Robert John Welch, a naturalist and  photographer, climbed the Bens in 1894 and 1895 and recorded the main geomorphological features of the Glencoaghan Horseshoe. He published the photographs in an album that was presented to Arthur “Bloody” Balfour in recognition of his patronage of the Galway to Clifden railway line.


The summit crags of Bengower from Benlettery by Robert John Welch (1859-1936). Twelve Bens, Connemara, Galway, Ireland. Grid Ref: 53.4915312619, – 9.8343614835.


Light railways were built in the west of Ireland to provide employment to the poorest section of the population, who otherwise, would probably have starved to death. Balfour’s brother described it as a political strategy for “killing Home Rule with Kindness.” Maud Gonne, quoting a priest from Mayo, described these relief works as ‘organised famine.’


On the Summit of Ben Lettery  by Robert John Welch (1859-1936). Twelve Bens, Connemara, Galway, Ireland.


A contemporary view of the Bens, looking towards Clifden. Photo by Noel O’Connor, 2018.




Sun sets on Winter in Loch A’duin: The Vernal Equinox on the Dingle Peninsula


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Spring has sprung. At 16.15.21 GMT today, Tuesday March 20,  the Sun passed the celestial equator (the imaginary line in the sky above the equator) and night and day were, on this date, the same length. This is the Vernal or Spring Equinox and it marks the end of Winter or the first day of Spring, depending on how you look at it.




Space.com reckons that if you were standing on the equator at a point just to the west of the Itapará River in northern Brazil, the sun would appear directly overhead. On the Dingle Peninsula the Equinox is marked in a very different way.  Dáithí Ó Connaill of Tralee Mountaineering  Club discovered that the setting Winter sun shines into a megalithic tomb in Loch A’duin (The Lake of the Fort). Loch A’duin is located just below the Conor Pass on the the Dingle Peninsula. Dáithí is the best person to describe it.


The Vernal or Spring Equinox in in Loch A’duin, on the Dingle Peninsula

The following is a brief account of my curious “discovery” regarding the equinoctial sunsets at the megalithic tomb in Loch a’Duin:


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The “discovery” was made following a hunch that the bronze age tomb of approximate date of 2500 B.C., which has a westerly orientation, may have had some significance due to the fact that it is embellished internally with some prehistoric rock art, leading one to surmise that it may have had some ritualistic significance, similar, in a minor way, to the passage tomb of Newgrange in the Boyne Valley, which is oriented on the winter solstice sunrise.

It was visited at the winter solstice annually over fifteen years but, invariably, the sunset was not visible due to either cloud cover or rain.  There was a brilliant sunset on the winter solstice of 2014 but, alas, it did not have any unusual bearing on the tomb’s orientation.


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However, this led to a little thinking as to the possibility that it may have had some relevance vis-a-vis the vernal and autumnal equinoctial sunsets around March 21st and September 21st.  The reasoning behind this curiosity was that, when one looks at the orientation of the monument, it seems to face directly into an imaginary “v” formed by the spur of nearby “Sliabh Mhacha Reidh” and the distant spur of “An Gearan”.

It transpired that the equinoctial sunsets of September 2015 and March 2016 were visible and it was delightfully noticed that the sun on both occasions(and indeed over a few days preceding and subsequent to the equinoxes) bisected the “v” and spectacularly illuminated the tomb and the rock-art therein.

There are many theories abroad as to why our distant ancestors went to such careful planning and should lead to interesting discussions.


 Dáithí Ó Connaill




International Women’s Day + TMC


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TMC Club President Nuala Finn
TMC Club Secretary Máire Ní Scannláin
TMC Club Treasurer Monica Dillane (left) with Maura O’Sullivan
TMC Committee Member Mags Twomey


TMC Committee Member Anna Allen
TMC Committee Member Mena Cahill



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Helen Lawless, Mountaineering Ireland, Anna Allen, TMC and Jane Carney, Mountaineering Ireland,


New Badge for Blog

To clear up any confusion about the status of this blog, this a member’s blog. It is determined to be an independent forum for debate about matters relating to our membership of Tralee Mountaineering Club and mountaineering in general. The logo was causing a bit of confusion, people were concerned that the use of a graphic of the logo suggested an official blog.

Point taken. I have substituted a photo of the original badge of the club from which the logo is derived, a small piece of design work that I did for club in the Year of The Mountain, way back in 2002.

The badge was designed by Mick Kellett, and the idea behind it was set out by Tom Finn in a club log book, the inspiration in a way for this blog. Here is a copy of the original log entry.



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These images record the TMC Level 3 Walk led by Andrew Kelliher on Feb 11, 2018. The route took us from Lisleibane, up a spur to Coomeenapeasta, across the Reeks to the Devil’s Ladder, out the Heavenly Gates and back to Lisleibane, a total distance of 13.39 Km, over 5 hours and 40 minutes, with a total height gain of 1184m.

The conditions were fantastic. The forecast (BBC) was for snow, which fell in bursts as pellets/graupel, and lay as powder snow. There was some pack on the ridges and a few patches of ice. The wind was light but gusting in snow bursts that reduced visibility on an otherwise bright and sunny day.



It was a fantastic day in the mountains and the question is this:

   does it qualify as a QUALITY MOUNTAIN DAY?


   would it be classed as a Quality Hill Walking Day (QHWD)?


A QMD matters if you wish to progress in the sport. The ML or Mountain Leader award requires that you log at least 20 quality mountain days. A QHWD, on the other handis the cornerstone of the award for group leaders. More about that in a later post.



According to the Irish Mountain Training Board, a broad definition of a QMD is one which presents new experiences and challenges. Such a day would generally consist of the following:

  • The candidate is involved in the planning and instigation.
  • The walk would last at least 5 hours and take place in an unfamiliar area.
  • The majority of time should be spent above 500m, distance should be over 16km with over 600m of height gain during the day, and cover a variety of terrain.
  • The use of a variety of hill walking techniques.
  • Adverse weather conditions may be encountered.
  • Experience must be in terrain and weather comparable to that found in the Irish and UK hills.


Then there were six, approaching the top of the Heavenly Gates. Bertie is behind the camera. Connie and Billy headed for the summit.


Does Andrew’s walk qualify?

Six of us were involved in doing a recce with Andrew under very similar conditions, which qualifies as being involved in the planning and instigation of the walk. The conditions were challenging, cancelling out familiarity with the terrain, although there was still no need to navigate. The snow meant we had to carry extra  equipment, although the quality of the snow (pellet) meant that ice axes and crampons weren’t much use. That required other techniques. We were well over 500m for most of the day and our total ascent of 1184m was almost twice the minimum requirement of 600m. We covered 13.39Km, a good bit short of the 16Km recommended but we did have to use a variety of hillwalking techniques, especially going down the Heavenly Gates, which were full of powder snow.




Generally speaking – and the Irish Mountain Training Board has given a broad definition  that generally includes the above – Andrew’s walk would have to qualify as a QMD. It certainly did present new experiences and challenges. That is why TMC has always  climbed in snow, and there is no better place for a quality day in the mountains than the Reeks on a snowy day.

For more on quality mountain days have a look at this forum or this blog.


Next: Far Away Hills Are White!









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Tom Finn, founding member of the club and a young boy (unidentified) working on a section of the Dingle way. Jimmy Laide and Nuala Finn are in the background.


TMC members vote tomorrow on a motion to remove the ban on membership for people under 18 years of age. No one is quite sure when or why the club introduced that rule but the club was built on participation by young people and family members, like Nuala Finn, who was introduced to mountaineering by her father when she was seven years old and now serves as club president.

There are members of the club who climb with their children, but these young climbers are barred from being members until they reach 18 years of age. We are seeking to make a small change in the wording of the constitution that would change this situation and create opportunities for the club to develop by giving other young people a chance to participate and progress in our sport.

That change is being put to the members at a special general meeting that has been called to decide on the issue.



An honourable tradition, four generations of mountaineers on the Dingle way. From left, Jimmy Laide, an unidentified girl (suggestions please), Tomás ‘An Gréasaí’ Breathnach, Sean Kelly, Nuala Finn, Noirín Carroll, and Tom Finn (front). The Dingle way was developed by members of TMC as a way of encouraging greater participation in mountaineering in Kerry.


This whole process started a few years ago when Ian Hassell, then Chairman, pointed to the aging profile of club membership and suggested that the club needed to be more attractive to younger members.  This is a chance to make such a change.

The meeting will be preceded by an information session, in which Ruth Whelan of Mountaineering Ireland will bring people up to speed on the new child protection legislation and any implications it may have for the club as a whole. There has been a lot of talk about “law” but we have never regarded this as a legal issue. It is about fairness and the future development of the club.

There is opposition to the move, which is puzzling given that young people participate in the ‘Tuesday Night’ walks and in the very successful Park Run, and it doesn’t seem to a problem for other participants.  It doesn’t seem to be a problem for most sports club in the country for that matter. Why is mountaineering so different?


Remember, turn up and vote … early and often! It’s your club after all.


Ian Hassell making a point about changing the club constitution at the  club walk two weeks ago … though we’re not quite sure what it was. Any suggestions for a caption?







What skills should somebody have to lead a club walk?

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=Anna Allen, Tralee Mountaineering Club with Helen Lawless and Jane Carney from Mountaineering Ireland, photo by Ciarán Walsh

Mountaineerintg Ireland:

Report from Regional Meeting, Clonmel 10.01.2018

(from Mountaineering Ireland)

This was just one of a range of questions addressed during last night’s Mountaineering Ireland regional meeting in Clonmel. More than 40 members attended with representation from 11 different clubs, including groups that had travelled from as far away as Tralee and Wexford.

The format included presentations from Training Officer Jane Carney on training schemes and supports available from Mountaineering Ireland, and Helen Lawless who spoke about Mountaineering Ireland’s work on access and conservation matters.

Other topics discussed included ideas on how to encourage younger members to join clubs, suggestions that Mountaineering Ireland engage more with schools, colleges and Gaisce, and tips on how to enjoy the hills responsibly. Some of the resources available on www.mountaineering.ie were demonstrated including the Digital Log to record activities in the mountains and the Club Handbook.

Clubs were encouraged to participate in the Club Training Officers’ workshop on 24-25th February (venue TBC) and Mountaineering Ireland’s Spring Gatheringwhich takes place in the Galtees from 23rd-25th March.  There was time for chat and networking too!

Mountaineering Ireland extends thanks to Greg Kenny and Peaks Mountaineering Club who arranged and promoted the meeting. Other clubs that would be interested in hosting a regional meeting should contact the Mountaineering Ireland office on 01 6251115 or info@mountaineeering.ie.

And to answer the question above a club leader doesn’t need to have a formal qualification but should have appropriate experience, be able to navigate, choose and find appropriate routes, look after themselves and others.

Related information:

National Guidelines for Walking and Climbing Leaders

Link to Mountaineering Ireland Skills videos 

Link to Mountain Environment videos

Mountaineering Ireland Club Handbook

Leadership articles from Irish Mountain Log:

When is a Leader not a Leader?

Being a Leader

The Extraordinary Photography of Billy Horan, Mountaineer.

Billy Horan TMC heading up Howling Ridge with his rucksack packed with photography gear.

There is no light like the light you get on the mountains but you have to push yourself hard to be in a good location to capture it at it’s most extreme which for me is early in the morning.  It’s all about being out there, high up on a mountain ridge before sunrise. I usually setoff climbing about 2 to 3 hours in advance with a heavy backpack complete all essential mountaineering equipment plus my camera and tripod to capture the shot. The ice and snow add an extra dimension to the photographs but these shots can be difficult to take as you have to endure the ice cold winds for short periods of time without risking hypothermia.

Nature can often surprise you, it has been many a time that I was on a summit expecting certain weather conditions but only to come away with something totally different and yet equally as beautiful. For instance the photo titled ’Frost Flowers, Cruach Mor’ was taken the day after the photo titled ’Howling Ridge’, both photos are different and equally as spectacular. I could not stop myself going one day after the other, that weekend.


FROST FLOWERS by Billy Horan
FROST FLOWERS by Billy Horan.


The day I captured the photo titled ’Frost Flowers, Cruach Mor’ was an experience to remember. I got up at 4.30am, checked the forecast and left home at 5.30am with the outside temperature at -1°C. It was 6.15am when I started climbing in dense fog with the aid of my headtorch and compass as I could only see 8 feet in front of me. I was about to give up on the chance of getting a descent photo as I neared the summit of Cruach Mor when all of a sudden I poked my head up above the fog, the top of the fog was only 10 to 15 meters below me as I stood on the summit. It was a sublime experience to be up there on my own and see all the highest peaks protrude above the cloud into a clear blue sky like islands in a sea of fog.



Photography for me is all about recording the landscape and weather as it unfolds, directly from nature – what you see and experience is what you get as the end result in a print.

Billy Horan