Across the Nephin Beg Range

by Joseph Ryan Glover


This story was found in my grandfather’s documents on 13 pages of photostat-ed onion sheaf paper. The first page has a hand written note that  says “3,300 words uncut — too long!” which leads me to believe he wrote it for publication and needed to edit it for length. Throughout the document long passages have been crossed out in pencil but I have included the entire text here since electrons, unlike newspaper inches, are free. The type-written pages have several spelling corrections pencilled in and I made those corrections in the text below. I endeavoured to keep original spellings intact (e.g. pharaphanelia) for authenticity. The story was unfortunately undated but he does mention “ten years of hill walking” so this possibly places it in the early 1960s. Unusual aside: on the reverse of the last page of the story is written “9 eggs”. Hungry man’s breakfast?


Several years ago when perusing Bartholemew’s ¼” map of Galway and Mayo I noticed that a track was marked from Bangor Erris through the Nephin Beg range to Newport. My experience of these ¼” maps had taught me that these dotted lines represented anything from quite driveable roads to fantasies of the Batholemew mind – so beyond a thought that it should provide a good tramp if it existed I paid no further attention to the track. More recently I was examining the 1” O.S. Map of the Ballyoroy area and was most interested to see that the track existed “officially” – fifty years ago anyway. Later still I bought the ½” O.S. Map of North Mayo and here again the track was shown. This fine map showed the contours of the mountain range very clearly and as I studied the map a wild plan began to take shape in my mind. Would it be possible to walk all the way from Bangor Erris to Mulrany along the mountain tops – had it ever been attempted or accomplished?

Last Autumn I started to study the possibilities and difficulties of this project and to plan a route. At this time, in some ten years of hill walking, the longest route I had ever covered had been about fifteen miles – through semi-civilized mountain country – that is, country where the possibilities of “escape” routes existed at several points on the main route. The country in central Mayo however, is probably the wildest and loneliest in all Ireland and Nephin Beg range itself appeared to be hemmed in on all sides with the worst type of bogland and no roads existed for miles around.

The first thing to decide on was the starting and finishing points. I decided that for the benefit of the future climbers who might tackle the same project it would be better to establish definite, easily-found places. I felt that something like “about three hundred yards west of the second bridge on the main road to Ballina” would be unsatisfactory so I decided quite early on that Bangor Erris and Mulrany were the obvious starting and finishing points.

The next question was “which way round?”. This did not take long to decide after a brief study of the ½” map. North to south was the better way because (1) the dullest part of the route would be covered first (2) the views ahead would definitely be better going from North to South.

The total distance to be covered appeared to be about 27 miles with some 20,000 feet of ascent and descent and it would be necessary to make three major descents and re-ascents. It was also obvious, in my case anyway, that I would not accomplish the task with certainty, in daylight. I therefore decided that the best plan was to start late in the evening, walk all night and as much of the next day as was necessary. The alternative was to start at dawn and take a chance of finishing during the following night. I did not fancy that as I preferred no sleep at all to a short spell before starting.

The next problem was transport to the starting point and from the finishing point and I did not anticipate much difficulty about this as I felt that other members of the N.W.M.C. would willingly co-operate and indeed I expected that my trip would not be a solo one but that there might be three of us with a car-driver co-operating. Indeed this part of the plan did not take long to finalise and early in 1959 four of us were planning to tackle the route at the full moon in min-June, my companions being Barbara and Denis Helliwell.

Long before this I had been in touch with the Hon. Sec of the Dublin Section, to see if I could be put in touch with anyone who knew the area. I was given two contacts and one of these, Pat McMahon of Tuam subsequently gave me invaluable advice. He had, in fact already accomplished the feat in a south to north direction camping overnight midway along the route. IT differed very slightly from the reverse of the one I was planning, omitting only one top – Knocklettercuss, just south of Bangof Erris. I also received advice about bridges and other matters from Sergeant Hogan of the Gardai Barracks at Bangor so as May grew near I felt that I was as fully equipped with information as I could ever expect to be. I should mention, by the way, that it had never been my custom to plan very far ahead on my mountain outings but I felt that this was one where it might be dangerous to set out all “airy-fairy-like”!

The morning of Friday, May 22nd dawned very dull and threatening in Derry. I rang the Barracks at Bangor and found that the weather there was uncertain. I felt a fit as I had ever been and all keyed up but I realizes that unless the weather was settled and the night to come clear and moonlit tackling this route would be foolhardy. At 11.45 a.m. we four had a consultation and somewhat reluctantly agreed that it would be best to postpone our journey west until mid-June. As it happened the weekend that followed was as good as any this year! – but then that is typical of Irish weather is it not?

The next month crawled past and during it our driver dropped out of the project. We could not raise another one at short notice and since Barbara did not feel experienced enough a driver to handle a strange car it looked as if Dennis would have to tackle the trip from south to north while I tramped the other way. He was quite resolute in his intention of camping overnight before starting at 6.00 a.m. but this did not worry me as I knew he could comfortably cover three yards to my two and the time discrepancy would soon be gobbled up. Unfortunately Denis was off colour when June 19th dawned but he and Barbara insisted that I should go ahead as planned as they were quite willing to drive to west May and back to help me – such is the true mountaineering spirit! We had one other passenger as we set out from Derry at 2.30 p.m. – my little eleven-year old fox-terrier Kim, a faithful mountaineering companion for several years in many parts of Ireland.

I had planned a 9.00 p.m. start from Bangor and estimated I should arrive at Mulrany about 3.00 p.m. on Saturday. I should still have eight hour of daylight if I needed it. However, we rather ambled across Ireland, making business calls here and there and stopping for a meal twice. As a result it was nearer 10.00 p.m. than 9.00 when we finally drove into Bangor Erris. The weather when we left Derry had been a trifle dull and unreliable but as we drove westward it gradually grew brighter and more settled. At Bangor it was near perfect for such an expedition though perhaps a trifle on the cloudy side. So, at 9.50 p.m. precisely my dog Kim and I set off from the middle of Bangor Erris as the light began to fade and as Barabar and Denis made their plans to camp about a mile back down the Crossmolina road.

I had made a very exact plans of various parts of my route, basing these on the contours of the ½” O.S. Map and during the next five hours I was to learn how every accurate these maps are and the folly of heading over what I THOUGHT looked the best route (in moonlight) instead of sticking to the one planned.

Leaving Bangor I crossed the stone bridge over the Owenmore river and immediately found Kim was missing – maybe he had a premonition of what lay ahead! After he rejoined me I bore left across a playing field and very soon joined the rough track (Bartholemew’s!) climbing steadily across the west slopes of Knocklettercuss. The path was VERY rough and made heavy going so I took to the hillside rather sooner than intended, heading for the broad ridge-top. After some fifty minutes I was within sight of the top and here turned to look north to where in the gathering dusk I thought I could discern the spot where D. & B. were setting up their tent. I flashed our Club “call-up” signal and sure enough the car headlights flashed in reply. Somehow it made me feel less lonely and cut-off from civilization as I headed for the summit of Knocklettercuss (1,208’).

At 10.50 I arrived at the summit and sat for a minute trying to pick out my planned route across the bog to the east towards Maumykelly; this was to be probably the worst and dullest part of the route. I also took a last look at the sunset (indifferent I’m afraid) and at distant Carrowmore Lough before setting off on a more direct approach to Maumykelly than the one based on the contours. From where I stood I could see the great crescent of the hills I was to traverse and far away in the gathering dusk I could see Slievemore and the other heights of Achill.

Off I headed to the west and far the next hour I was time and again deceived in the half light and features (such as they were) that looked quite near proved to be disconcertingly far off. Land that looked like fairly level bog proved to be full of little dips with streams in them. I should have kept considerably father to the left than I did for the temptation to head straight for Maumykelly led me into trouble several times. However, after about 45 minutes I arrived at the bottom of this outpost of the Slieve Car group and crossed the last stream I was to encounter for hours. It was now quite dark and the moon being still quite low to the south-west and being hidden by the surprisingly step slope of the MaumyKelly (1,205’). This was one of those annoyingly hills which seemed to have an unattainable top – at least, I imagined on numerous occasions that “another few yards would do it” but I was wrong on all but the last occasion.

Arriving at the top (slightly to the east side) just before midnight I paused to watch various cars with headlights ablaze heading along the Ballina – Bangor road about four miles away. Behind me now lay several small loughs, just visible in the gloom but not at all visible when I had been amongst them half an hour before. The moon had gone behind a cloud, it was more than cool and fresh breeze was blowing. I shivered and not altogether from cold! I decided that this was my point of no return, early and all as it was on my route, because from here escape, although an irksome undertaking, was fairly straightforward. However I hadn’t come from Derry to give up quite so soon although I knew that what lay behind was simple compared to what lay ahead. I paused to debate my position for a moment. Night walking in bare open country, even by bright moonlight is quite a different matter from jaunting along in the bright sunlit day.

Slieve Car loomed far ahead and as it seemed a quite straightforward tramp to the huge cairn on top I set off. I was somewhat upset when I found myself descending into a distinctly dampish bogland and every step forward confirmed my opinion that I should have kept left. It was now about 1.00 a.m. and the wind sweeping over this lonely upland was getting colder and colder. Then Kim left me again and I stood whistling for him and wishing myself anywhere but where I was. Was it too late to turn back? Yes; Kim suddenly appeared from nowhere and off I set again hopping up and down through big – not quite of the jig-saw variety but tending that way. I kept to the east site of the broad top ridge overlooking a lough far below, and then another. Suddenly I felt very tired and dispiritied and I sat down for a good rest. 2.00 a.m. – would I never get to this so-and-so cairn. Up and on again – odd lights twinkling here and there, miles and miles away. Suddenly the slope steepened, the drop off to the left became quite abrupt and then the immense cairn appeared and at the same time the clouds cleared away and the moon shone bright and clear.

I scrambled to the top of the cairn (a burial mound I should imagine) on top of Slieve Car (2,369’) at 2.40 a.m. but did not stay long. Ahead to the south was a long stretch of high-level big and stoney ground which, according to my maps dropped fairly steeply off at the edges. The next forty minutes I spent circumventing myriad small pools and bogy patches but even now a pale, pale light began to appear in the east. Far ahead I could see the Nephin Beg and away behind and to the right I could just see the rolling mass of hills forming the latter part of my route. Achill was even visible as I pushed steadily forward across the plateau.

Eventually I reached the southern edge at Corsleeve (1,785’) and there was revealed one of the most strange and memorable sights I have seen in fifteen years of hill walking. A thousand feet below and stretching for miles to the south west and west were hundreds of little bog pools and streams with the bright moonlight using them to cut a glittering path through the black bogland. It was a sight never to be forgotten and one I had not expected.

Ahead and below me lay the twin pools of Lough Scardaun and beyond I could see the Nephin Beg wreathed in early morning clouds. Hoping these would soon disperse I pressed on and soon arrived at the west end of the Lough, forgetting Pat McMahon’s advise that I should keep well to the left. I was to regret this as there was an obvious ridge of higher ground leading on to Nephin Beg. However, I pushed on steadily. N.B. was another of these tiresome hills on which the top never seemed to get any nearer. Several times I saw sheep “on the skyline” but when I reached them I had just as far to go as below. I was disconcerted to se that the clouds had increased and they seemed to be blowing over top at a prodigious rate. The light was quite good now and I could see a great deal of the country around as I finally came up on to the large level top of the Nephin Beg (2,065’). Here I encountered the full force of the wind and found it a half gale. I certainly wasn’t going to be able to face into this sort of thing indefinitely and I became more than a trifle worried; I was not yet half-way. However I knew that just beyond the half-way mark the old track crossed my path and that this would serve me if I had to abandon the project.

By the time I had located the true top of the Nehphin Beg (a cairn of about five small stones!) I was well and truly off line so – out with the compass and map. Off I headed and after covering about three hundred yards I came down below the clouds. Nothing made sense – where there should have been mountains ahead there were valleys. No feature was recognizable and I knew that to make a major mistake now could be serious. Back I went to the cairn again – and the clouds! This time I headed slightly right (i.e. S.W.) instead of going S.S.W as I had first time. When I came out of the clouds again I seemed at first to be in as much trouble as ever but it was soon easy to distinguish one lough by its shape and then all at once everything made sense – moreover, the clouds suddenly lifted quite a bit and away to the east Nephin itself was plainly visible. The truly lonely majesty of these hills was most impressive.

Now I went down slightly and across to a subsidiary top at 1,356 feet. There was bright sunlight and the wind had vanished. Everything for miles was now clearly defined and as I sped down towards the old track now clear-cut in the valley below I suddenly felt exhilarated for the first time. Half way just passed, feeling fit though hungry and glorious hours of sunshine ahead – no need to hurry. The scenery was grand and in front to the S.W. lay Glenamong with its top wreathed in a small dark and persistent cloud.

It was 6.45 when I crossed the old track and paused for breakfast on the bank of the Bawnduff river. I took time to survey the scenery round me before setting off again at 7.00 a.m. on the long, long ascent to the top of the Glenmong (2,067’). The little cloud very slowly faded away and after heading slowly upward for about 1½ hours I finally reached the surprisingly broad top and had a chance to see what lay ahead.

There was a brief drop and then a rise to higher ground again surmounted by a very well erected and preserved cairn. Then there was a long gradual drop and a steady climb to the top of Cushcumcarragh (2,343’) from which a grand lateral ridge ran miles to the S.E. over Bengorm and the other tops terminating near Lough Furnace. There appeared to be climbing possibilities on the N.E. side of this ridge.

For some time now I had been keeping an eye open for Denis and Barbara. By prior arrangement they were bringing the car round to Mulrany and were to come eastwards along the ridge to meet me. As it was not yet 11.00 a.m. I was perhaps being a trifle optimistic! Doubtless I should see them from the next top. This was about 2,230 feet in height and lay less than a mile away. However, in between lay the most interesting obstacle I had yet encountered. A fine arête about 100/200 yards long. Although I had been feeling very jaded I decided this was too good to miss and my passage along the sides and top of this made the next fifteen minutes most exhilarating.

This ridge led up to the nameless top which we were later to call “the Green Monster” – a very apt name if one climbed it from the west as Denis and Barbara did. From the summit I was able to see most of the remainder of my route and I sat thinking deeply. It was obvious to me that one of two things would happen; either I would go too fast so as to finish in reasonable time and thus become completely exhausted or I would go slowly, not over-exert myself – and then fall asleep because I had been too long without any!

Just before mid-day I hurried off down the long western slope of the Green Monster searching ahead all the time for Denis and Barbara. Suddenly I saw them just west of the 1,446’ top above Glen Thomas. About mid-day we made contact and the feeling of relief heartened me no end. It was wonderful to have company again! For the last few hours Kim had been taking a poor view of the proceedings but the sight of a tin of dog-food, produced by Denis, heartened him too!

We sat and chatted about our experiences for fifteen minutes and then Denis and Barbara decided to take full advantage of the possibilities offered. They had intended to accompany me back to the car but we all felt it would be a pity if they had to retrace their steps when so much fine country offered itself. Off they set for the top of the Green Monster their intention being to push on to Cushcumcarragh and set off along the Bengorm ridge to the main Newport road about 2½ miles west of that town. Off I staggered, Westward Ho, finding that as I started uphill again that I was only just going to be able to make it.

The next top, 1,646’ seemed attainable. I would pause and consider carefully the alternatives of climbing down ten feet into a dip and up the far side, or walking thirty yards on the level to avoid this. The temptation to lie down and have a good long rest was almost irresistible – Kim succumbed to it several times!

The day was now brilliantly fine, there was no wind and it grew hotter and hotter. Stripped to shorts and encompassed all around by my pharaphanelia I struggled on. Going downhill even required stern resolution while each step upwards was torture.

Presently I reached Glebbanaddy Lough having covered 1½ miles in as many hours. The last top Claggan Mountain lay ahead and it seemed to have several tops in fact. I was mentally very weary too and changed my mind three times. First I decided to stick strictly to the main ridge right down to Mulrany – then I thought it would be more interesting to go out to the point overlooking Bellacragher Bay and come down to the main road. Having back-tracked for a time and reached this point I then decided I was better off where I had been so – back to the main ridge again! This became so irksome and bitty that I finally decided to take the shortest possible route to the road to the west. This was another mistake! – briars and later, man-made obstacles, such as barbed wire, made misery of this decision. Eventually however, I reached the road and in a heatwave set off on the last two miles to the car. How I made this I do not know – it was the worst part of the journey.

At probably 4.07 p.m. arrived at the car half dead from exhaustion and lack of sleep – and elated with the realization that I had achieved my ambition – and with the thought that I had to drive the car eight miles towards Newport!

I fell asleep innumerable times during that journey and eventually reached a stage when I had to stop the car every time traffic approached me from the opposite direction! And when I reached my “contact” point there was no-one there! I turned off the engine, settled down – and found that now I could not sleep at all. Denis and Barbara arrived about 5.30 p.m. having themselves covered about 15 miles in 8 or 9 hours.

Off we all set for Westport where I indulged in a hot bath and followed this with a steak and early bed. Surprisingly I felt fine now and not a bit sleepy but soon I was “off” and into the depths of twelve hours slumber.

Next day instead of setting off direct for Derry nothing would do us but a detour to Achill and Slievemore – just to taper off nicely.

A long story about a longish walk – try it sometime I can guarantee it is not overcrowded!

J.B. Glover
36 Strand Road