Saturday 16 December 2017

Walk of the week: Fairy castle Dublin mountains

Christopher Somerville

The three grey granite rocks in the foreground broke through the waves of frosty moor grass, like humpback whales about to breach. In the distance another wave of mountain, slate-blue and seamed with white, rolled to the horizon where white snow-clouds billowed.

On my way to breakfast in the Merrion Hotel, I was caught and held by Trevor Geoghegan's great 1981 painting A New Dawn. You could almost taste the chilly sunrise over the Wicklow Hills.

Usually I run far and fast from the suggestion of 'pampering', especially the hotel variety -- all that saccharin smiling and 'let me help you with that, sir'. Might as well make with the nappy and pap bottle, harrumph!

But at the Merrion, that's exactly what they don't do. Jane and I found ourselves riding a magic carpet of comfort and well-being without the sense of having been led there like a pair of lapdogs. And then there's the art on the walls. Jack Yeats, Paul Henry, Mildred Butler, Martin Gale... a cornucopia.

We couldn't wait to get out on Geoghegan's wintry hills. "The Dublin Mountains, I think," said Christopher Stacey of Footfalls Walking Holidays as he drove us out of town. "We'll try the Three Stones and Fairy Castle."

Rising right on Dublin's doorstep, just across the M50 from Ballinteer, the Dublin Mountains make a downbeat overture to the symphony of the Wicklow Hills. But many a mightier mountain owns views far less stunning than those from the modest peaks of Kilmashogue, Three Rock Mountain and Fairy Castle.

Climbing away up the track through the pines of Kilmashogue forest, Christopher talked of a Wicklow childhood spent exploring these hills. "My father was a sheep farmer just outside Laragh, and I was on the mountains from the age of four or five, walking over the hill to Mass or the shops with the grandparents -- no cars around at that time!"

As we climbed, with the view opening behind us, mist began to settle over the far Wicklow fells. There was an ominous thickening of the sky across the flatlands to the north of Dublin, from where the wind blew cold and strong, though Howth peninsula still lay out on the bay in honey-coloured sunshine.

The talk ran long and strong: ravens and the bad press they get, the hikers of many nations, the wonders of Rathlin Island, the humours of whiskey.

Up at the Three Stones, the radio masts whistled and clanked in the wind like Dickensian gibbets. Huddling in the lee of the wind-sculpted granite tors we took on board a cargo of hot soup and oaty bars, along with one of the most breathtaking panoramas in Ireland -- the Sugarloaf and Kippure spattered with snow, the swell of the higher peaks trailing whorls of hill fog, and the coast from almost up to the Cooley Mountains to the lumpy outpost of Wicklow Head, indented by the jaws of Dublin Bay where the city drifted inland like grey and white ash.

From the summit of Fairy Castle, high over the Three Stones, the prospect might have been even better. But that's when the snow flurries decided to hit. We scrambled down in shortish order and took to the Wicklow Way, a sure guide back to earth in poor visibility.

Between one snow shower and the next, two verticals claimed the eye among the horizontals of the city -- the twin chimneys of Poolbeg power station, striped red and white like a Cork hurler's stockings.

Yesterday, I'd stumbled across Jack Yeats's memorably smeary painting of them in the National Gallery; this morning, Trevor Geoghegan's granite rocks and hoary grass had caught and held me unawares.

Inspiration from unlikely sources: what makes a landscape painter great.

Irish Independent

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