Off the beaten track


Avoiding the ubiquitous tour buses heading for Slea Head, JOHN G O'DWYERwas drawn to the untouristy, Gaelic speaking lands of Feothanach on the north coast of the Dingle Peninsula

And so whenever I visit the wind-sculpted lands beyond Mount Brandon I can’t escape a feeling of regressing in time. Avoiding the ubiquitous tour buses heading for Slea Head, I am invariably drawn north to the defiantly untouristy, Gaelic speaking lands of Feothanach – a charming backwater, close to, but removed from the intrusions of mass tourism. Isolated by mountain and ocean the locals unhurriedly go about the traditional businesses of fishing and farming, troubled only by a few individualistic travellers seeking offbeat cultural experiences.

You won’t find interpretive centres, golf courses, or luxury hotels, for the attractions here are rooted within people and place. And these are fully appreciated only if you get out on foot to experience the landscape in its true proportions. A great walk for doing this starts at Ballinknockane (see panel), which lies close to the wave-blasted north coast of the peninsula.

From here go through a gate and follow a track briefly before turning right at a waymarker. Directly below you is the sandstone slit of Brandon Creek from where St Brendan is reputed to have sailed the Atlantic. His journey was recreated in 1976 when Tim Severin made a weather-tortured voyage from Feothanach to Newfoundland in a leather boat and thereby proved it was possible for a sixth century monk to reach America.

The route now follows the Dingle Way resolutely uphill to reach unfenced mountainside. Here, imbibe fully of the views for beneath unfolds a magical meeting of sea, sky and shapely hills with the splendid Blasket Islands forming an impossibly photogenic backdrop.

Next head left towards huge cliffs and contour carefully along the edge. Below, an improbable patch of green will take your eye. This is Fothair na Manach (the greenfield of the monks) – an ancient monastic site lying 400m below. You will immediately wonder how anyone, especially if shod only in Jesus sandals, could possibly descend such monstrous cliffs. Careful investigation will, however, show that descent is possible by a tortuous green ramp, which in summer is enveloped by snowdrifts of wild flowers. Don’t be easily tempted, however, for this option should only be considered by experienced walkers well used to steep ground and with necessary fitness for the quad-burning re-ascent from the site. For most walkers discretion will prove the better part of valour with other alternatives now considered. One is to contour left along the cliffs and then descend easily by a fence leading back to the Dingle Way and your parking place.

Others will continue uphill to a coll adorned with one of Dingle’s ubiquitous Ogham stones. If time is short follow (left) up the craggy south face of Masatiompan for mountaintop views along the entire peninsula before retracing your steps to Ballinknockane.

For a longer circuit, follow a fence (right) as it climbs past two humps (Piaras Beag and Piaras Mór) and then ascends to a clearly defined ridge that undulates in a roughly southerly direction before reaching a level area. After joining with a path from Faha a short incline brings you to the famously misty Mount Brandon summit where you will need a rare clearance to enjoy views from Iveragh’s mountains to the Aran Islands.

From Brandon it is possible to contour over tedious terrain and innumerable streams back to your starting point. My preferred option is, however, to descend uneventfully south-west by following a line of white poles to a parking place at Ballybrack where a previously deposited car or arranged lift ensures easy transportation to Ballinknockane.

Fothair na Manach, Masatiompan and Mt Brandon

Starting pointWest of Dingle go straight through the first roundabout and continue following signs for Brandon Creek. When the Dingle Way crosses the road go right and follow the walking arrows to Ballinknockane parking place.

SuitabilityMost of the walk is straightforward navigationally as it follows close by the densely signposted Dingle Way. Walkers doing the full circuit over Mount Brandon should, however, be equipped for a demanding outing and possess good navigational skills.

TimeAllow two hours to Fothair na Manach Cliffs and back, while four hours should be allowed for the additional descent to the monastic ruins. Three hours is required for a climb of Masatiompan and five hours for the full circuit over Mt Brandon.

MapsOrdnance Survey of Ireland, Map of Mount Brandon, 1:25,000.

RefreshmentsFenton’s restaurant, Green St, Dingle (066-9152172) combines good atmosphere and service with satisfying portions ideal for hungry walkers. Details of accommodation/restaurants are available from Dingle Tourist Office (066-9151188).