For character, diversity and sheer quality, the hills on the island of Ireland easily match those of Great Britain. Even if they've not had the pleasure in person, most keen British hillwalkers will at least have heard some of the big names, from The MacGillycuddy's Reeks to the Mournes (the latter, of course, being in the UK), while the Wicklow Mountains are sometimes visible from Snowdonia. But there's way more besides the best known.
Despite our close proximity, and a shared culture of hillgoing, I'd be willing to bet that much of upland Ireland remains obscure to the average walker on this side of the sea, just a misty promise over the western horizon. National borders can really close minds.
Though there have been scores of Irish walking guides, including previous volumes covering the whole lot, I have not - until now - found a single authoritative source to every major range, with the sort of clarity and modern layout that will appeal to occasional visitors with a limited grasp of Irish geography, as well as those already in the know.
Produced by Mountaineering Ireland, the Irish equivalent of the BMC, and based on a title first written by the late Joss Lynam in the 1980s, this attractive new large format hardback book is just that. Covering in 71 routes a list of the country's highest hills (the total runs to 101 summits, since one of the original 100 had to be omitted due to access issues), Irish Peaks performs the two key roles of a guidebook equally well, providing a mountain of information and plenty of inspiration too. Having walked in Kerry, Connemara, and the Mournes, I thought I had at least an inkling of the best of Ireland, but flicking through this book's 250 large, glossy pages soon showed me how much I'd overlooked, sparking potentially dozens of future walking holidays.
From the excitingly wild-sounding Nephin Beg range in Connacht, and the rugged Knocknagantee group down south, to the Brecon Beacon-like Galty Mountains on the Limerick-Tipperary border, many of these hills had been little more than names on a map to me until this book gave them shape. I knew Hungry Hill by reputation (a name that's hard to forget), but hadn't appreciated quite how much I wanted to climb it, until now. And who'd even heard of Fascoum, and its incredible-looking Coumshingaun corrie? Well, not me, clearly - though I'm sure everyone in Ireland has, since apparently it's big on Instagram, and currently getting a bit of a hammering.
So Irish Peaks is a valuable source of reference, and one that should fill in some blanks whether you've yet to visit Ireland in your life, or you walk its hills every weekend. But it's not quite as comprehensive as I'd first assumed.
For most guidebooks based on a specific hill list there will be regrettable omissions. The Highest Hundred table that forms the bedrock of Irish Peaks is a simplified take on the Vandeleur-Lynams, a list of Ireland's 2000-foot, latterly 600-metre, summits first compiled by Joss Lynham and Rev C.R.P Vandeleur in the 1950s, and refined several times since (for the current 273-summit list see mountainviews.ie). While the full list covers all 600m+ summits with a prominence of 15m, for Irish Peaks the publishers introduced a more exacting 100m prominence clause. Since there must be a drop of at least 100m between any listed mountain and the next summit, a couple of the highest and most dramatic peaks in the country fail to make the cut, notably Caher and Beenkeragh. It's a shame they've been misssed out, since there's a lot more mountain on both than you'll find amongst most of the included hills; but they had to draw a line somewhere, and this one is logical.
Before getting stuck into the routes, an extensive intro section offers plenty of advice on gear, skills and safety, as well as useful notes covering access (much more tricky and piecemeal than anywhere in Britain), flora and fauna, and geology. The glossary of Irish words commonly found in hill place names will be really useful for anglophone walkers. How appropriate, too, to get a full chapter on the life Joss Lynam, one of the foremost figures in the history of Irish mountaineering and hill-going, and a leading light in establishing a representative body for walkers and climbers in Ireland.
Leaders on the project were Alan and Margaret Tees, but the book is very clearly the effort of a big team, with photography and route descriptions provided by individual members of Mountaineering Ireland, bringing valuable local knowledge to the coverage of each area.
Route descriptions are really thorough, while the essential stats and other info are presented clearly. Mapping is based on OSi extracts, with attractive shaded contours - except in the case of Northern Ireland, where either Harvey or OSNI have provided the maps. As with Munro guides and the like, you only get one walk per peak, and while I'm clearly no expert, the selected routes generally look to me to be the most logical and/or most popular walks on the hill. Most are aimed at 'average' walkers looking for manageable days out, but in the Maumturks, it's great to see that they haven't tried to chop the full traverse into bite-sized chunks, since this long and tough-looking mountain challenge is renowned as one of the great routes of Ireland (if you're made of stern stuff). In a book covering a whole country it would have been impossible to detail more than one walk per hill, though short sections in each chapter do quickly hint at some of the main variations and alternatives.
While Ireland lacks the concentration of quality scrambling you'll find in North Wales or Skye, the classic hands-on routes are every bit as worthwhile. Being much more a guide for walkers than mountaineers, Irish Peaks does not go out of its way to put you on steep, rocky ground. Many people will consider that an advantage, but I was a little sad to see scant mention of some of the greatest airy hill days in the country. On Mount Brandon, for instance, the brilliant Faha Ridge doesn't even get a look in, while on Carrauntoohil the book makes a virtue of avoiding the Beenkeragh ridge, which would be a great pity for anyone who isn't seriously height-averse.
One big exception to this rule is the exciting traverse of the east Reeks ridge, where The Big Gun is perhaps the only major Irish peak that can't be climbed without scrambling (and thus, to my eyes, one of the best of the lot).
Conveying as much of the character of the peaks as the words - and providing particular inspiration to those of us unfamiliar with an area - the hundreds of photos in this book are generally of a high quality, and include more than a few real crackers. Inevitably there are exceptions, for instance the mighty Mount Brandon, which I don't think is done full photographic justice. Overall, however, Irish Peaks is a really attractive guide that makes the most of its large format, and more to the point makes you want to go and climb the hills. When Covid finally loosens its grip, I can feel the urge for an Irish adventure coming on...
- Irish Peaks can be ordered through irishpeaks.ie