There is a green hill, not very far away

There's 11 of them, and they're all mountains over 3,000ft. As St Patrick's Day approaches, Jeremy Seal discovers the joys of bagging Ireland's 'Munros'

On the three-hour hike up Lagnaquilla, the domed granite high- point of Ireland's Wicklow Mountain, we saw more deer than people. Wilderness indicators such as this, a telling measure of upland walking, increasingly seem a thing of the past in Britain, where the more popular tops suffer seasonably from all-over rashes of lurid Goretex and, such is the bootfall, paths that often resemble a muddy porridge.

The deer (seven) were the wild descendants of the resident Victorian sika herd who had escaped from the Powerscourt Estate to the north of the Wicklows. The people (two) were an amazed Yorkshire couple marvelling at the emptiness of the Irish mountains. The "Lug" was clad in nothing more than September purple heather and froghaun (bilberries), with the occasional peregrine winging across the sky. The horrified tone of my 1988 guidebook, Mulholland's Irish Munros - reporting "as many as ten cars at the start" of the Lug climb "on a fine day in summer" - suggested a little-trod mountain at the worst of times.

The Irish mountains, as we were to discover, have long been reserved for the serious business of getting nearer to God or, in the 19th century, taking refuge from the occupying English. "The first few rambling associations are now appearing in Dublin", explained our guide, Englishman Jim McDonald who has been pioneering walking holidays in Ireland since 1989. "But walking for pleasure in Ireland is years behind the UK." Look in vain for an O'Wainwright in Irish bookshops.

Certainly, the mountains did not excite our Irish hosts. Paddy Geoghegan, owner of the Avonbrae Guest House in Rathdrum, had hurriedly patted his golf clubs at our suggestion that he join us as we shouldered our day sacks for the Lug. Later in the trip, Marie Clifford would look from the window of her guest house in Killorglin, County Kerry, at Carrauntoohil, Ireland's highest mountain. "Sure we'll climb it," she said breezily. "Just give us two fine days in a row". In Kerry? It sounded like Marie wouldn't be going anywhere near Carrauntoohil in a hurry.

It certainly rained, but this was a price we were prepared to pay for having Ireland's Munros largely to ourselves. Ireland has just 11 such mountains lying in an inviting necklace across the south of the country (some claim 10, some 12, depending on whether they define hard-by neighbouring peaks as distinct Munros or as part of the same summit). Whatever, Ireland seemed a far better bet than Scotland, when Sir Hugh Munro published his famous list of Scotland's 279 3,000 foot-plus mountains in 1891 he condemned peak-baggers of a fastidious mind to a lifetime's hard work. We would knock off Ireland's in under a week; at a true gallop, Jim McDonald reckons he could bag them all in three days.

Furthermore, extra climbing would be kept to a minimum. If you fancy the romantic notion of being buried atop a Munro, choose an Irish one with care since several of them qualify as such by little more than the depth of a well-dug grave. Not that they would make a bad place to rest; the Irish may prefer their golf, but they sense the spirituality of these wild uplands as well as anybody. Where the Brits have stern, grey cairns, the Irish have Celtic crosses and grottos containing statues of the Madonna. They also have beguiling plaques; one commemorates a man who died while trying to rescue a woman bather in Tangiers, while an unaccountable bicycle used to adorn the summit of Carrauntoohil.

Typically, there was no obvious path up Lugnaquilla. "The landowners are very friendly," explained Jim McDonald, "but British walkers take time getting used to the lack of styles and signs. They then begin to enjoy the sense that they are not following well-trodden routes." From the 3,039ft summit, the Irish Sea made a rare appearance to the east, glittering momentarily among scraps of blue sky. We skirted peat bogs that quivered like jellies, and passed loughs named Art and Kelly after Irish rebels who had once holed up here to avoid execution or transportation to the colonies by the English.

We retreated down the Glenmalure Valley, decked in late-summer ash and birch and once home to 3,000 inhabitants. Now, antique tractors were sunk to their haunches in the mud. Pigeons huddled in the caves of an abandoned farmstead. Palming away the grime at the windows revealed ragged curtains disintegrating in the sunlight, and fallen plaster lying in clumps on kitchen tables.

We drove west to the Galtee Hills above Tipperary, and set out to climb Galtymore, a Munro with just 18 feet to spare, in waves of hail and sunshine, labouring up its tussocky flank under dimmer-switch skies. One of our group, Liam, had spent his childhood in Tipperary but had never once thought of climbing Galtymore. Too busy drinking Guinness and chasing girls, he admitted. Now, after 40-odd years rambling in his adopted England, he had just put the omission right.

Just three of Ireland's Munros lie outside the Macgillicuddy's Reeks range in County Kerry, and two days' walking were to be devoted to them. We arrived in weather beautiful enough to worry Marie Clifford, the cluster of peaks showing the colour of velvet in the summer evening light, but our landlady looked much more perky in the morning as low, louring clouds barged and bounced off each other, promising a drenching.

For those counting, the Eastern Reeks would bag us five Munros in a day. A patchwork of fields led us to Commeenpeasta, the dark and sinister Lake of the Serpents, where we filled our water bottles and picked our way through a scree of boulders. At the day's first summit, Cruach Mhor (3,062 feet), we stopped by the grotto housing a Madonna. Given the next stage, a precipitous ridge walk with sheer drops dizzying away on either side leading to a second Munro known as Lackagarrin, or Slippery Bridge, we were grateful for her presence. The tops unfurled in front of us; Knocknapeasta, Maolan Bui, Cnoc an Chuillin. Far below us, through black clouds of ravens, we could see jarveys from Killarney plying their trade up the winding Gap of Dunloe. They then disappeared in a deluge of hail which soon carpeted the rocks like fish eggs hatched from the sky. That evening, the sauna at the Clifford guest house doubled as a drying room.

We prepared for the next day's climb of Carrauntoohil and the Western Reeks (Ireland's three highest Munros) at Falvey's Bar in Killorglin. "So you'll be going up there, you will?" said an old fellow among the hubbub, thumbing at the mountains through a crumbling ceiling yellowed by smoke. "Like that German tourist who spent the winter up there. Found him in the thaw somewhere in the Black Valley. Still upright, so he was." He cackled and slammed his empty glass of Guinness on the counter, smacking his lips.

The ridge walk between Beenkeragh (3,314ft) and Carrauntoohil (3,414ft) was certainly a hairy moment. Westwards, cliffs plummeted to a lake far below while a steep scree fell away to the east. A group howl - partly fear, largely exhilaration - pricked at the ears of the collies flushing out sheep just below Carrauntoohil's summit. "You up here for fun?" asked a disbelieving shepherd as we passed. "Take care up there," he cautioned us. "I've seen rocks the weight of the lot of you ripped away like so much froth in the wind."

The wind had also removed the dynamo-powered light bulb which once illuminated the top of the summit cross, a frankly ugly thing made from girders at the Killarney foundry. But an effusive plaque made up for it, speaking of "the affectionate hand of friendship" being "extended to all nations of the world. May we all work together ... and so help to establish forever a warless world." Being English, we were not up to that, but somebody at least gave me their unwanted ration of Marie Clifford's excellent ham sandwiches.

To the north lay the Dingle Peninsula's holy Mt Brandon, named after St Brendan the navigator who set sail from a creek below here to discover Greenland. We approached the mountain along lanes overflowing with fuschia. Another grotto with a Madonna titled "Our Lady of the Mountains" marked the path across moorland to a series of shining pools called the Paternoster Lakes. "Cross here" read a sign among stepping stones; as the path became precipitous, some of us took this as a religious instruction as well as a geographical one, and sketched crosses on our chests.

At the summit, a huddle of broken walls indicated St Brendan's oratory. We had bagged Ireland's last Munro. "In 1868," Jim McDonald mused, "they say some 20,000 people attended a mass up here." This rather deflated our sense of achievement but, as I looked out over the Shannon Estuary and the Atlantic, a mad cavalry of white horses milling around the Blasket Islands, it struck me you couldn't get much closer to God than this. But was 1868 really the last time the mountain had seen two good days in a row?

FACT FILE

Basics

Jeremy Seal climbed the Irish Munros with Jim McDonald's Irish Ways (00 353 552 7479), who offer a range of guided and self-guided tours throughout Ireland at varied walking standards graded between 2 (easy) and 4 (strenuous). Irish Ways walking weeks feature Connemara, the Burren, the Wicklow Mountains, Donegal, Kerry and The Munros. The Munros tour and several others can also be booked with flights through Waymark Holidays (01753 516477).

Irish Ways run four eight-day Munro tours between April and September. The price, including all transfers, guiding, accommodation, half board and packed lunches, is pounds 430 per person. The tour (12 persons max) is graded 4. A reasonable standard of fitness, and an occasional head for heights, is required.

Walking guides

Walk Guide; Southwest of Ireland by Sean O'Suilleabhain (Gill & Macmillan, pounds 5.00). Macgillicuddy's Reeks; A Hillwalker's Guide by John Murray (Published by the Dermot Bouchier-Hayes Commemorative Trust, pounds 5.95). The guide includes a 1:25,000 O/S map of the Reeks.

O/S Discovery 1:50,000 maps for the other Munros are Sheet 56 for Lugnaquilla, 74 for Galtymore and 70 for Mt Brandon.

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