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
In the Comeraghs: Coumshingaun Lough, in Co Waterford. Photograph: George Munday/Alamy
Ancient seat: Curraghmore House, home of the Marquis of Waterford. Photograph: Design Pics/Irish Image Co/Perspectives/Getty
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.