Slieve Foy, or Carlingford Mountain, is not that impressive, as mountains go. It would be dwarfed by many peaks in mainland Europe, and sports no sheer cliffs to provide a nerve-twanging ascent by super-people hanging from one fingernail at a time. Instead, the slopes of the Cooley range Slieve Foy is part of tend to have relatively gentle gradients, the peaks rounded. You need no more than a few hours, walking boots and a bit of determination to scale it. Even so, it is not known as a popular destination for hookers, which made it the perfect destination for me.
I’d never walked up Slieve Foy before, and because I can get lost in my own bedroom, I thought it prudent to go with a guide. Husband Micky is not only a lifelong rock climbing enthusiast, he also does a lot of hillwalking. On an unusually pleasant winter day, we decided it would be fun to tackle the peak. I tucked a ball of red wool and the 3.5mm hook I always used into an outside pocket of his rucsack.
I’ve cycled up Jenkinstown Hill way more times than I’ve driven up there, and with good reason. This mountain pass from Dundalk to O’Meath is a narrow, winding road with ups and downs galore. It took a lot of concentration on every trick I knew to stop myself getting car sick. In spite of that, I felt the familiar sense of awe, love, joy and melancholy that usually overcomes me when I lose myself in the Cooleys. It goes without saying that almost nothing can stop my endless stream of chattering, which Micky tolerated with good nature.
The sprawling vistas that unfold as you venture into the mountains hold more meaning than you’d guess if you don’t know the history here. The Irish epic of the Cooley Raid played out in and around this part of the land. Seen from Carlingford, the slope of Slieve Foy looks like the face of a sleeping giant. It’s said to be the legendary Fionn Mac Cumhaill. There’s more, though, stories from recent years, less obfuscated by the cloudy lens of time.
A few years ago I cycled through Ravensdale to the Carrickdale hotel. On the last stretch of narrow road, a steep downhill, I encountered a group of people dressed in uniforms and costumes from half a century ago, carrying flags. Some of them held old-looking rifles. I stopped, checked things out, contemplated an alternative route. There wasn’t one. And I was damned if I was going to turn back to Dundalk within a few hundred metres of the cheese toastie and tea I’d been looking forward to.
I asked someone at the back of the parade if I could please pass, and lucky for me they were still minutes from starting. I was allowed to push my bike past the rows of people, past an old-fashioned truck, past a large banner to the safety of the hotel. From here, I watched everyone I’d scuttled past march down the road while sipping tea and munching my well-deserved sandwich. I was somewhat mystified, I’d thought parades like this one only took place in towns, where one faction could tramp through the opposing one’s neighbourhood for the maximum chance of starting a fight. Later, a bit of Googling cleared up the puzzle.
In 1957, five men were killed in an explosion near the hotel, when the bomb they were apparently planning to plant somewhere in Northern Ireland went off prematurely. It’s interesting to see the divided opinions on an Irish forum post about the memorial for these men which was unveiled in 2010. Many are disgusted that anyone could think people killed the way they were planning to indiscriminately kill others should be considered heroes. One commenter remarked: “Apart from the fact that it is a monument supporting terrorists it is also celebrating ineptitude.” Others argue the would-be bombers were soldiers fighting for freedom from British rule. The whole thing descends into a row about where exactly the line between terrorist and soldier is drawn, and it’s very thought-provoking.
In the seven years I’ve lived here, I’ve encountered remnants of the Troubles exactly twice, this parade being one incident. Both times, I did what I always do: I was friendly to everyone, smiled, and refrained from even having an opinion, never mind uttering one. People need to get over the past and look to the future.
Ireland is doing a good job with exactly that. Less than two decades ago, the heart-swelling beauty of the Cooley mountains had a sinister edge for many Irish people. The little back roads could mean death if you had the wrong accent: the invisible border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland runs through this landscape. You wouldn’t in a million years guess that now. More and more people freely enjoy the awesome natural resource lying just north of Dundalk. There were numerous tracks on the dirt path we trudged up, the wind tugging at our clothes.
“Looks like it’s national take your toddler up a mountain day,” Micky remarked and grinned at me. Here on the lower part of the slope, there were two separate toddlers, each with an adult walking slowly beside them. They were having a ball, and we smiled and greeted them as we passed. Farther on we could see two other groups of walkers heading up the path to the peak.
It had been breezy in Dundalk when we left, and while it’s always worse in the mountains, the wind was impressive. I kept up my chattering as best I could, thoroughly enjoying the steady tread of the man I love beside me. We were approaching the mountain’s top from the back, as it were, the side away from the sea, so no chance of seeing that giant’s sleeping face. You can also walk up from Carlingford, but that’s a longer route. We were both sniffing, me from a cold I’d just got over, Micky from the beginnings of the same cold which I’d passed on to him. The shorter route it was, then.
Our path didn’t sight the top of Slieve Foy and charge straight to it. That would be quite steep, so instead it tackled the target sideways, veering right first, then back left over a neck and up to where a beacon marked the highest point of the Cooley mountain range. The higher we got, the worse the wind became.
When we crested the neck, it shot up another notch in strength, but this couldn’t take away from the heart-melting beauty of the view. We looked across Carlingford Lough to the mountains in the North, undulating into the distance. Onward and upward again. We walked single file now, and I kept my eyes on where Micky trod. The ground here was like a water-logged sponge. Everytime he put a foot down, it triggered a little flow in every direction, and in this spot the water trickled away rather than disappearing once more when he moved on.
My fringe started whipping my face quite painfully, and I gratefully accepted Micky’s offer of a beanie hat. “I have gloves, too, if you want them.” He knows my hands are cold at the best of times, two blocks of ice at the worst. Yet in spite of the wind, it wasn’t that cold. I’d worn a jumper under my jacket to start with, but had to take it off as it was too warm.
The myriad sensations the now howling wind caused were fascinating. It blew from our left, meaning everytime you lifted a foot, the wind pushed it away from where you intended to put it down. You really had to focus to keep from stumbling.
A runny nose is also an interesting experience when the wind blows. I’d taken two pocket packs of tissues, used them regularly, but, well. Let’s not go there.
Breathing was difficult. It was a challenge to divert some of the air racing past your face, like something driven mad with terror, to your lungs. You sucked at this screeching stream almost in vain. I turned my face into the oncoming rush now and then for a few proper breaths. Still it got worse as we climbed.
We stopped for a few moments’ rest in a U-shaped gap we were trudging up, almost at the top. Micky and I looked at each other, and I was caught between fascinated and worried to see the skin of his face wrinkling as if in a wind tunnel. Another group passed us, coming down: a father and two sons, probably about twelve and fourteen. The boys held hands, the younger of the two flapping from his brother like a flag from a post. Okay, I exaggerate, but only a little.
Up again, and up, past a false summit to where a beacon marked the true high point of the mountain range. I looked around for a spot to sit, somewhere on the Carlingford side, out of the worst of the wind. Micky beckoned me over to a nearby boulder. It was perfect. Less wind, and a dry spot to sit. He passed me a bottle of water, I took a few grateful sips. Then I dug for my hook and the ball of bright red wool I’d packed.
We chatted about this and that as I shaped stitch after stitch. Even sheltered by the boulder, the wind grabbed and shook our jackets as if trying to convey some urgent message we simply couldn’t understand. Stitch after stitch lined up, the usual fascinating process of organised knots gathering to shape a fabric.
My hands were freezing by the time I was done. I broke the wool, tucked the whole shebang back into the rucsack pocket. “Can I maybe take you up on that gloves offer?” I asked.
“Of course. They’re in one of the outside pockets.”
I found the gloves and pulled them on. “Thanks.”
We didn’t take the gentler, longer path to descend. With the wind yowling its encouragement, we just headed for the shortest route. I was glad we hadn’t come up this way. We had to really watch our step, and several times one or the other of us would slip on smooth, long grass.
“I saw a badger here, once,” Micky told me. He pointed out a small cave, hidden from view unless you were right on top of it. “It didn’t spot me right away.” He pointed to a ledge. “It went over there, then it saw me and ran back into its house. That’s the only badger I’ve seen in Ireland, except road kill.”
He’d seen some awesome sights on his long walks, nearly stepped on a sleeping fox one day. Another time, the kids and I spotted a deer. Today, though, the only animals sharing our relief as we descended out of the worst of the wind, were cows and sheep. I slipped again, felt cold water seep through the gloves as I broke my fall. Now the ground leveled somewhat. We crossed a small stream, then we were back on the wide dirt path. The deed was done. I had another granny square to add to my collection.
“I feel guilty using your gloves and your hat, and you having to go without,” I said.
“It’s okay.” Micky smiled at me. “I don’t need them. I get quite hot when I’m walking. I brought them for you.”
I’ve seldom in my life been given flowers, chocolates, or Valentine’s teddies with satin hearts. I couldn’t care less. All of them pale against the gifts Micky has given me. Gifts such as knowing me well enough to realise I’d need a hat and gloves, and loving me enough to pack them for me. And walking me up Slieve Foy with a cold, huddling beside me behind a boulder as I crocheted a granny square in a near gale.