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2006-08-08 Fit graffiti artists and sheep staring weirdly

It would surely be no overstatement to declare our beloved Benbulben the most photographed mountain in Ireland, as well as Sligo's natural flagship attraction.

 

Perhaps named after `Gulbin'  son of the legendary ancient chieftain `Niall of the Nine Hostages'  Benbulben (sometimes spelt Benbulbin) is geologically fascinating and mythologically mesmerizing. The scarped edge of this limestone plateau was at one time a coral reef, and now reigns like a majestic Sphinx on the North Sligo landscape, like a battleship poised for an Atlantic attack.

 

I have always been led to believe that Sligo's own "Table Mountain" is the second flattest mountain in the world, superseded only by its more famous relative in South Africa. It is important to remember however, though plateaux are flat-topped, they are very steep-sided. And so, when I made the decision to once again climb Benbulben, my blasé approach to the ascent was short-lived. One only had to see how tightly packed the contour lines around the entire Dartry range were on my Ordnance Survey map. Passing through Drumcliff, I turned right at the creamery, left at the first fork in the road, drove up to the corner and parked safely, not far from "Benbulben Farm" B&B. A grassy, and at times stony path veered around to the right through the townland of Cartronwilliamoge. Having grown up in Cartron, I was intrigued by the numerous Cartron-based names in this part of Sligo, but then reminded myself that `Cartron' is in fact just a `parcel or quarter of land'.

Flowers and shrubs which are not planted by anyone, to me, are weeds. And in my garden, weeds invoke `Garden Rage', but somehow on country paths like these, weeds appear beautiful. Fuschias, honeysuckles, white and pink clovers, astilbes and foxgloves lined my route.

Benbulben is of course only the extreme western tip of the Dartry range (526m / 1730ft), and it is necessary to approach it via King's Mountain (c600m). I crossed a gate, the path came and went, and then seemed to more or less follow a gully. Suddenly the climb became more strenuous as I scaled the plateau sides. I thought of the anti- British grafitti in the 1980s, and how fit those grafitti artists must have been. The sheep, who had recently had a `Number One' shear, were guarding their young, all the while staring at me weirdly, eerily, inanely. The path had by now disappeared, or maybe I had just temporarily mislaid it, but after a steep climb I was on top, with a long flat walk ahead of me. Various unusual alpine plants caught my eye ; bog cotton swayed in the mountain-top breeze.

The western headland (Benbulben proper) was strangely still and peaceful. A strong gust might have hurtled me down to Barnarobin, and yet, sheep were `safely grazing', while others slept, on the edge of the hard resistant limestone cliff faces. Behind me, mighty Benwiskin and Truskmore stood proud among the Dartries. My view encompassed Mullaghmore, Streedagh, Inishmurray, Ballyconnell, Knocklane, Drumcliff, the Point, Strandhill, our sprawling `Gateway City', and picturesque Lough Gill. I looked down on Knocknarea (200m lower) and Maeve's grave, and then remembered hearing how these carboniferous slopes of Benbulben had once been a wild boar hunting ground for Fionn McCumhail  King's Mountain was his table  while behind me lay the cave, and perhaps love-nest, of Diarmuid agus Gráinne.

Is it any wonder this area became a source of inspiration to the Yeats brothers? A week ago, I went to the Yeats exhibition at the National Library of Ireland in Kildare Street (Admission free). I learned so much that afternoon about the life of Yeats, about his thinking, his loves (including his obsessive relationship with Maud Gonne), his interest in the occult, about his sisters Lily and Lollie, and about the way he worked. Manuscripts, books, photographs, films (including the Drumcliff re-interment), paintings, artefacts, at times explained by incredibly enlightening touch-screen computer technology, all helping to illustrate the journey of the writer and the man. I also learned that two days before Yeats died, he chose to omit the original first line of his epitaph  "Draw rein, draw breath".

I will never appreciate the ridiculous way Yeats read his own inspiring poetry. But as I stood on Benbulben's proud head, I fully understood why Yeats chose his final resting-place to be "Under bare Benbulben's head".