Jim Perrin heads to the west of Ireland to celebrate a small but wonderful coastal peak, County Galway’s Errisbeg
IF THE FACT that this month’s hill reaches only 300m in altitude matters to you – that it’s a mere Marilyn – then you’d better stop reading now. For all its lack of height, it’s one of the best viewpoints in Europe, at the heart of an area that is in so many ways fascinating, atmospheric, redolent. And achieving its summit is not quite the pushover you might imagine. his is a rough, rocky, heathery little peak that rises up behind the exquisite beaches of Dog’s Bay and Gorteen Strand on the captivating coast of South Connemara, just a little to the west of the harbour village of Roundstone.
Before I go any further I’d better admit that I’ve already propounded two grave errors, and I’d better quickly correct them. It’s not for nothing that Brian Friel’s great drama on the work of the Ordnance Survey in Ireland, Translations (a recent production of which, at London’s National heatre, received excellent reviews) is one of my favourite plays. We in Wales, and our Scottish cousins, also know what havoc the militaristic, colonialist mindset of the English Ordnance Survey played with our Goidelic toponymy, which is so resonant, so replete with the magical dimensions of meaning and story.
So it’s not ‘Errisbeg’ we’re talking about here, but Iorras Beag, and it’s not ‘near Roundstone’ but close to Cloch na Ron, and unlike this piece, that has nothing to do with circularity – but if my memory serves me well has something to do with seals, of which entrancing presences there are plenty along this complex and hypnotic coastline. Read that standirst of Tim Robinson’s and you’ll begin to understand the power of the spell that’s being cast!
I was having breakfast at a B&B in Cloch na Ron, twenty or more years ago when a woman struck up a conversation with me, asked me what I was doing that day. When I told her I was intending to walk up the striking little peak we could see from the window she obviously decided that I was a harmless old bufer and safe enough, so she invited herself along.
I said I’d meet her in O’Dowd’s in half an hour when I’d packed, because the cofee, to which I was addicted in those days, was better there, and that explains how my little Jack Russell Terrier and myself came to have a bright and talkative female companion as we climbed up the Bog Road towards our intended hill.
Eventually you have to leave the Bog Road, which heads out over the bog itself – a marvellous expanse of heather and peat which was subject to huge controversy at the time because it had been put forward as a site for a new airport. If you’ve travelled the roads into Iar Connacht, as this region of mists, bog, and innumerable islands is called, you’d understand the appeal of aviation; but it was never going to happen, thank heavens!
So my companion and my terrier and myself made it through deep heather and over innumerable false tops to the craggy tors that are the summit of Iorras Beag. It was that West of Ireland oddity, a ine day, and also dry, and believe me, on such a day Iorras Beag is a version of heaven.
If you’ve ever read An Beal Bochd (“he Poor Mouth” – Flann O’Brien’s entirely scurrilous skit on the writers of the Kerry Gaeltacht), you’ll know that the two permissible variants on Irish climate are downpour or drench. So when the sun comes out, you realise you’re in fairyland.
From the summit of Iorras Beag we could see forever – to the south, ultramarine inlets, the gleaming white coral strand of Ballyconneely, mysterious faraway ofshore islands. I’d long been in love with this landscape, and on this enchanted day fell ever more deeply so. Away to the north and east were other, higher hills – Na Beanna Beola, the Twelve Bens: “hese dance, interlinked, in a round (so that it’s hard to make out if there are exactly twelve of them), and their conical tops sparkle like champagne.” (Tim Robinson again!) heir pale quartzite shimmered against the dark heather, and beyond them again loomed the Maumturks.
This is the best hillwalking in Ireland, and little Iorras Beag ofers you the perfect introduction and insight. Map: Ordnance Survey Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery series sheet 44 (Galway)