One wild festival: camping in the Comeraghs

The majestic Comeragh Mountains, scalloped out by ice, are at the heart of a festival this week that offers new pathways into our natural and cultural history

Mon, Sep 16, 2013, 18:40

Robert Lloyd Praeger, whose book The Way That I Went, from 1937, remains an eccentric treasure for anyone interested in our natural history, described the Comeragh Mountains, in Co Waterford, as among the most interesting in Ireland.

He was right, perhaps for more reasons than he realised. The Comeragh region, especially if we include its adjacent Copper Coast, is as rich in human history and culture as it is in the geology and strikingly beautiful landscapes that Praeger described so well.

But it remains an area that is not as well known as it should be. “Tourists get off the ferry at Rosslare,” says Joe Green, of Copper Coast Geopark, “and they drive straight through here to west Cork or Kerry.”

A British agency for mountain tours in Ireland did not, until very recently, even have the Comeraghs on its radar. This is extraordinary, because these mountains are easily accessible and give extraordinary rewards for relatively little effort.

The range takes its name from the word Coum, which indicates both the high corrie lakes scooped out by glacial action and the elegant architecture of the curved cliffs above them. There are lovely corrie lakes in many parts of the country, but there is something especially majestic about the huge natural amphitheatres that have been formed here, as the Old Red Sandstone plateaus that formed the Comeraghs were scooped out by ice.

Or rather, as Michael Whelan of the local company Mountainzone puts it perfectly, they were scalloped out: to hike in one of these valleys is like walking in a giant seashell.

Whelan, whose business is “giving mountain experiences to nonmountaineers”, is participating in the inaugural Comeraghs Wild Festival, which starts on Thursday and runs until Sunday. This Waterford County Council initiative, in co-operation with Comeraghs Mountain Forum and in partnership with Storytelling Southeast, aims to “showcase the natural beauty of the mountain range while celebrating its culture, heritage, spirituality and diversity”.

Whelan’s event is unusual even by the innovative standards of Irish festivals: a full-moon hike, with optional overnight camping – tents and food provided – on Comshingaun, a mountain that Praeger praised as the finest of all the Comeraghs.

Whelan points out that the crags above the lake, at 300m, are twice as high as the Cliffs of Moher. He won’t bring hikers all the way up there by night – the campsite is near the lake – but he will take them to a vantage point where they should see a full moon rising from the east. On a good night, mountain perspectives can make it look enormous, and very close, at this dramatic moment. As Whelan puts it, “They should get to see a bigger sky.” He says that “you only really experience mountains when you sleep overnight in them” and that complete strangers open up to each other remarkably in storytelling sessions in the hills. One of his clients was so moved that he called his brother in the US there and then to tell him about it. They had not spoken in 10 years.

He admits that campers generally make too much noise to see many animals or birds, and even Praeger is a little sniffy about the Comeraghs’ surprisingly limited range of plant species. But there is one unusual little plant that you might see on the hike, at least in the morning light, usually growing on or around rocks.

This is St Patrick’s cabbage, a saxifrage with spoon-shaped leaves. It is part of our curious Lusitanian flora, which we share, for still mysterious reasons, with northwestern Iberia. Most of this flora is found in the Irish southwest, especially Kerry, so it’s a rather special find here.

Curraghmore House
At another extreme from the rigours of overnight camping, the festival offers visits to one of Ireland’s most most remarkable stately homes, Curraghmore House, guided by a former butler to the Marquis of Waterford. Lord Waterford’s ancestors built the original house in 1170, just a year after they arrived with Strongbow. This probably makes it the home longest occupied by a single family since that critical period in our history.

A visit to the house is remarkable for many things. Its unabashed celebration of an Anglo-Irish heritage that remained close to the British royal family long after independence might test the patience of any democrat, but it’s worth biting your tongue to see this world from the inside.

The Shell House, in its extensive gardens, was created by Catherine Countess of Tyrone, the only woman to inherit the property, in 1754, and is in another category altogether from mementoes of Lords Wellington and Kitchener.

Waterford was a busy international port at the time, and the countess instructed any sea captain who would listen to bring her back shells from all over the world. She then decorated the interior of a small folly with many thousands of shells, over 261 days.

Few aristocratic follies have biodiversity value, but today marine biologists are fascinated to find that a wide variety of species, some now endangered, are represented in this bizarre collection.

Globalisation is not as novel as we like to think.

Nearby, Portlaw Heritage Centre reminds us of the contribution of a very different contribution to the region. The Quaker Malcolmson family, who employed 2,000 people in their cotton mills in the 19th century, tried to create a model town in its neatly organised streets.

The defeat of the Confederate States in the American Civil War broke this thriving business. Globalisation, with all its ambiguities, once again.

The Comeraghs have a strong Irish-speaking and republican tradition. If you want to capture its flavour the mill and graveyard walk in the Kilrossanty area, guided by Seán Murphy and JP Quinn, promises a wealth of local history and anecdotal detail, presented with scrupulous respect for today’s (and yesterday’s) plural community. Moving towards the foothills, the events organised by Copper Coast Geopark offer welcome reminders of a dramatic local mining and geoscience heritage that was almost forgotten until this dynamic organisation, endorsed by Unesco, revived its memory.

We have perhaps become a bit blase about the plethora of local festivals that have sprung up in recent decades, but Comeraghs Wild really does seem to promise, along with the usual programme of more conventional arts events, a series of new pathways into natural and cultural history. This first year will be a tough test of the practical viability of such an ambitious vision.

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