Conquering Everest on a Mayo ridge for a good cause

Michael Viney: Crumbling hilltop trig pillars’ played key role in the mapping of Ireland

 Ridge above Thallabawn.  Illustration: Michael Viney.

Ridge above Thallabawn. Illustration: Michael Viney.


Day after day as May began, the sun rose from the ridge in one of our kitchen windows and started to set, around nine, in another, behind the slope to the sea. At that point, low in the clear air, it was just too blinding to look at.

For Cathy McGrail, who lives a couple of kilometres north along the road, the stunning weather was a blessing on her great idea. If you’re going to climb the ridge 34 times, to equal the height of Everest, it helps if the cosmos is with you.

Cathy is a friend, a busy, buoyant woman who takes badly to doing nothing. When lockdown came, she lost her daily work with special needs children at the Sunbeam centre in the local school.

Community effort thrives in the small-farm west. She decided to raise money for Sunbeam classroom equipment and for Meals on Wheels as well. Held within two kilometres and looking up at the steep slope above the road, she thought “doing an Everest” might work.

Killadoon Hill, where the ridge curves inland, is 267 metres high, so that, by rough count, Cathy needed 34 climbs to match the 8,84 metres of Everest. The last of them comes tomorrow, when she could lead a suitably spaced line of supporters, along with a friend who has been her “Sherpa” from the start.

This is what happened on the climb to back the national Darkness Into Light appeal. Pictures on Cathy’s website ( Cathy does Everest) show a magical, crystal-clear night with a full, white moon above the ocean and another with the group in silhouettes spaced out against the dawn.

By climb 19, through familiar drizzly mist, the amazing views were lost, but Cathy’s target of €1,000 was already multiplied five times over.

Meanwhile, at our stretch of the ridge at Thallabawn, I look up past the sheep and the mountain fence, to heights I shall never reach again. A pity, I suppose, yet I once dismissed the ridge as a great bare lump of a hill. “Unless you have sheep,” I wrote, “ you have no business going up there.”

My first ascents, in new and eager exploration, followed the stream, up through the rushes, around the rocky footprints of pre-Famine bothies and over the crotch-skimming barbs of the mountain fence.

The view from the ridge was rewarding, with a gleam of Croagh Patrick in the north, and the ramparts of the Sheefrys in the south. A millionaire with a Mayo mansion used to land his helicopter there, on his way to Connemara to buy scallops. He would climb out and stand for a while, for the huge sea view and a pee.

These were also my rewards when, in training for Greenland, I went up before breakfast bearing a rucksack full of rope. Perhaps it was then, too, coming down sodden from rain and wind, that I made my disparaging remarks.

Puzzling structure

The ridge curves south and broadens into a plateau where hollows still carry the old, dark scars of turf-cutting, But at the highest point of all, Cathy came upon a puzzling structure: a stubby concrete column with a tarnished metal plate on the the top.

Í had never seen it, but could explain it as a “trig pillar” used in the triangulation of Ireland, the geometrical, trigonometrical grid by which the island was mapped, first by the British, then by the Irish Ordnance Survey.

Old maps have been my love, among them our fistful of slim, red-jacketed editions from 1909. They fold out on stiff linen, each a small rectangle of the west mapped at one inch to the mile. Their hachuring – meticulous, hand-penned shading – shaped mountains long before contour lines.

It embellishes cartography that grew from men hauling heavy theodolites in boxes across bogs and up the highest peaks. Their vital measurements were made by squinting at night, in cool, clear air, for a pinpoint of limelight on another summit, perhaps 70 miles or more away.

In Britain, its birthplace, the Ordnance Survey served military, strategic needs; in Ireland, those of taxing 60,000 townlands. In a “retriangulation” from 1959 by the Irish Ordnance Survey, heights were progressively studded with concrete pillars, each moulded with wooden shuttering and crowned with its spider of brass as a firm base for a theodolite.

Cathy’s is at Corrymailley, named for a townland of O’Malleys. It is one of more then 500 trig points across Ireland. and under the strain of so many storm gusts looked to be tilting a bit.

Today, as maps are refined by satellite and computer, many pillars are crumbling at the corners or even vanishing in hill scrub. But those on summits are often treasured as ramblers’ destinations – and googling “trigpointing Ireland” will lead to ample narratives of their role.

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