Memories of the Mountain and the Fairy

Shehy Mountains, looking into West Cork
Roaringwater Journal/Co. Cork
Shehy Mountains, looking into West Cork
Roaringwater Journal/Co. Cork

There are different ways to experience Ireland in all its many facets: tour bus, rented car, cycling, etc. The way I did it is the slowest…and the best. I walked. One step at a time, never knowing what the next step may bring, guided only by a compass and the pride of Irish cartography known as the Ordnance Survey maps. (Actually first completed by the British military in 1842, the world’s first large-scale mapping of an entire country, and the accuracy attained, is still marveled at today.)

Specifically, I wanted to hike in two of the most beautiful counties in the southwest–Kerry and Cork. So one fine Spring morning in 1976 I found myself leaving the shelter of a youth hostel in Rathmore, County Kerry, carrying a backpack, sleeping bag, shelter, water, light provisions, compass, two cameras, and my trusty Ordnance Survey map.

My goal was to walk across the Shehy Mountains [“shee” means “fairy” or “hill” in Gaelic], which separates County Kerry from County Cork to the east. The walk looked routine, about 25 miles, or one day’s journey. Paved road all the way, with the hilly part no more than 2,000 feet high. The map indicated a piece-of-cake, no problem ramble. By chance, the head of the Irish youth hostels was staying there at the time.
When I asked him about such a walk, and directions upon leaving the hostel, he replied: “Turn right at the cross (the Irish term for crossroads) and hope for the best.” As it turned out perhaps I also should have “crossed” myself in a religious manner, to care for my own destiny.

An Unexpected Encounter

It was a lovely day for a walk. Bright and sunny, little chance of rain, although in Ireland you never know. The asphalt (the Irish used the word “tarred”) paved road was flat with no traffic that early (about 7 AM). Birds were singing. Beautiful Spring flowers like rhododendrons, blue bells, and cowslip were in bloom. I thought I even heard a cuckoo. All was right with the world.

The first human form I met was an aged, diminutive man with a withered face, wearing a weathered red coat, and an even older looking cocked hat, riding in a cart pulled by a small Irish pony. He appeared to transporting several large milk containers in the cart. After the usual greetings and conversation about the “grand” morning, I continued on my way.

Was there something strange about that little old man and his inexplicable mischievous smile, wearing a weathered red coat, and his old, battered cocked hat? But this was Ireland and you meet the strangest of people. Still…where was he going with his milk, I hadn’t seen a milk-processing dairy plant on the road?

A little while later the stillness of the morning was broken by the rumble and roar of a huge tour bus rushing by me at over 40 mph. I saw tourist faces, flattened against the window panes, looking down at me. They saw a smiling backpacker looking back. What they didn’t see was the startled blue heron I saw after the bus passed, struggling to lift itself off the nearby stream, its beautiful feathers glistening with water in the bright morning sunlight. The tableau reinforced for me once again why I wanted to see Ireland at three miles per hour rather than 40.

A Puzzling Predicament

Looking to turn off the main road, as I looked at the map, I turned at a concrete pillar at the unnamed and unmarked paved road. Most rural roads in Ireland were unmarked at this time, but as this was paved and headed east as mapped, I turned left with anticipation. The asphalt paved road was now raising and I could see the mountains looming in the distance. County Cork, here I come.

Then a surprising thing happened. As I walked upward through the countryside the asphalt started to break up, and soon I was walking on gravel, not hardened “tarred” pavement. Hmm, that was strange. My Ordnance Survey map showed no change whatever in the road’s composition. Somewhat mystified, I continued on.

I had been traveling on a ESE compass heading. Suddenly the road turned in a more easterly direction. The flora also changed. Woodlands gave way to a more grasslands countryside, with Kerry cows and sheep grazing. I also felt the my North Face pack straps pull against my shoulders under the increased angle of the gravel roadway. I was definitely climbing into the mountains.

I quickly checked my OS map. It continued to indicate that I should be walking on “tarred” asphalt. But now, inexplicably, not only was it not pavement, but the gravel was mixed with large clumps of earth. Suddenly, the road had become more of a wagon trail. Two gravel paths separated by soil. Something strange was definitely going on here. I wouldn’t even want to drive a car up this steep pathway. A tractor perhaps, but not an automobile. This was all very strange and unexpected.

Less than a mile later, my concerns really jumped. The two trails suddenly became a single pathway. There was now no road; there wasn’t even a wagon trail. I was on a footpath–where, according to the ever faithful Ordnance Survey map–I should be on an paved road suitable for cars, even trucks. Yet I wasn’t lost. I hadn’t blundered off the route. There had been no other intersecting roads. This was no longer just strange, it was becoming bewildering, unnerving.

I wished I wasn’t carrying all that camera gear. I recalled the parting “…And hope for the best” observation. I wished now he had been more reassuring.

Even worse, the single pathway was becoming more rugged pasture than trail. I could see the top of the ridge line several hundred yards ahead. But as the trail completely disappeared, and the hillside became mountain side I knew I definitely
had no piece-of-cake ramble going on here. The ramble was becoming rigorously rough, and, hopefully, not ruinous.

I had to take the pack off. The gradient was so steep it was pulling me over backwards.
The sheep grazing around me didn’t seem to have the anxiety I felt.

Finally, I couldn’t walk upright. I was crawling on all fours, dragging my pack on the ground behind me. Thankfully, I was almost to the top. Alone, except for the curious sheep looking at the bruised and battered intruder, I struggled on until…


Triumph! I was there. Feeling more like a mountaineer than a day-hiker I had made it.
And it was worth it. Looking to the east was the breathtaking visa of West Cork from a height of several thousand feet. Looking to my rear, back into Kerry and the unexpected climb I had just experienced, the panorama was just as magnificent.

I stayed on the mountain crest for another hour, relaxing, sipping water, munching on a candy bar to replace depleted energy. Now the heavy movie camera I had cursed in the climb was worked to full advantage, recording the incredible sight, panning 360 degrees. Unforgettable. The memory of a life time.

The decent into Cork was the reverse of the climb from Kerry: pathway, wagon trail, gravel road, and finally terrafirma and hard, tarred pavement. The remaining hike to a B & B for the evening was the piece-of-cake anticipated at the jumping-off youth hostel.

The wild inaccuracy of the always precise and correct Ordnance Survey map I used remains an inexplicable mystery. I have no explanation. All I know is that Lt. Colonel Thomas, the Engineer Corps. officer in charge of the operation in 1842, would have been troubled and deeply embarrassed by the inaccuracy I found in my scramble up.

Except, um, I actually do have an explanation…and it fits all the facts as I’ve described them. But I hesitate to offer it because you have to believe in, well, Irish fairies, Irish mythology–in a word: leprechauns. I know, I know, you’re skeptical, but let me say a few things about the mystery of the vanishing road.

Unraveling the Mystery

I believe it might all have been leprechaun mischief to stop me from discovering their hidden treasure. Ridiculous? Irrational nonsense? Perhaps, but let me explain a few things:

First, Irish Ordnance Survey maps are never wrong. Col. Thomas, and all the men who came later, all the men who mapped and surveyed the road from Kerry to Cork, did their work accurately and correctly. Irish Ordnance Survey maps do not lose an entire road. Only an Irish leprechaun can cause such unbelievable mischief. Only a leprechaun has the magical power to cause a road to disappear (at least to my eyes). Only leprechaun wizardry can cause such an incredible series of events to happen.

Let’s back up. Return to the first “person” I met on the road. Remember what I said? Even then, without realizing it, I described him as in the “form” of a man. Something said to me then that there was a difference about him. Was it the cocked hat? (Leprechauns are well-known to wear a cocked hat.) Perhaps his dress? Leprechauns have been said to prefer red coats. His inexplicable mischievous smile? Something….

Also, his cart and pony. Why not a truck, or at least a tractor rather than a pony? This was a road over which cars and buses traveled at speed. A lone man riding a cart, pulled by a pony, was dangerous to himself and other vehicles.

The container of milk? Keep in mind I never saw a dairy plant on the road. I didn’t see one because probably none existed. It was all a trick, a Leprechaun-caused sham to discourage me from going on.

Discourage me from continuing my walk? “Walk” is the operative word here. It may be the key to unraveling this entire mystery of the vanishing road.

But perhaps, for those not familiar with Irish mythology, and in particular, leprechauns, I should take a moment discuss Ireland’s national male fairy and his role in Irish folklore.

Leprechauns are the mischievous elves who became the self-appointed guardians of ancient treasure left by the Danes when they marauded Ireland over a thousand years ago. Leprechauns now feel it is their duty to protect this hoard, which is buried in crocks and pots. This may be one reason why leprechauns tend to avoid contact with humans whom they regard as foolish and greedy creatures. According to the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, the great wealth of these fairies, who enjoy practical jokes, comes from the “treasure-crocks, buried of old in war-time,” which they have uncovered and appropriated.

If I am correct, if a leprechaun is behind the mystery of the disappearing road, this is what I think happened. The leprechaun in the pony cart came upon me by accident and realized I was walking directly toward where the treasure was buried. Unlike the usual traveler who was zipping along in a car or bus at 40 mph, and therefore caused no danger to uncovering the buried wealth, I was walking, ambling along at three miles per hour, looking at the ground, observing every flower and rock. I was a danger. I could stumble upon the treasure, and the leprechaun couldn’t take the risk of discovery.

But leprechauns are mischievous, practical jokers, not evil fairies. First, he tried to confuse me by changing the appearance, to me, of asphalt to gravel. When I continued on he progressively became more desperate, changing gravel to wagon-trail to footpath, until finally he made the trail vanish completely. My guess is that the Danish treasure is buried somewhere on the mountain crest, perhaps very near to where I sat filming.

Of course, this is all conjecture. I have no way of proving it. All I can say with certainty is that Ordnance Survey maps are never wrong, the little “man” in the pony cart looked as if he didn’t belong there, wore red, had his hat “cocked,” the road on which I walked disappeared, and lastly, being Irish, I believe in leprechauns. That is my answer to the mystery. What happened to make a paved road completely vanish? If not fairies, what?

This is actually how it happened. W. B. Yeats believed. I believe. Do you?


Title credit: With permission of Roaringwater Journal/Co.Cork 

Image Credit: With permission of Roaringwater Journal/Co.Cork 

Comments about this page

  • Larry well done on these very descriptive images.
    You brought us along on your trip!

    By Noelene Beckett Crowe (31/03/2024)
  • Beautifully written descriptive and enviable walking tour of a magnificent part of Ireland. Irish tourist board pay attention to this writer he is so talented

    By Bridie Reidy (18/03/2024)

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