Returning from abroad — how I reconnected with home by running around it

You can look anything up online these days, including how to climb a mountain. Paddy Hegarty from Lahardane kindly showed me through his land after his two well-trained sheepdogs alerted him to the trespasser coming up through his farm from the main road, exactly like the internet said he would.

Paddy lived in England all his life but his untouched Mayo accent and effortless knowledge of the local area makes it sound like he hadn’t so much left to cheer the footballers on in Croke Park the odd summer’s weekend.

He told me his brother had built the pillar marking the summit by making the ascent up with sand, water and cement back in 1958. A pony had carried a load for him every day for two weeks.

One day they went up twice, and the brother would have gone more often but the ould pony hadn’t been quite able for it. I told him I was going to try and run up it.

He wished me well after giving me detailed instructions — too detailed for me to follow to be honest — about how to get through his land, avoid the boggy patches, and mind the fences before getting to the approach to the south side.

I figured I’d find the mountain anyway, and I’d be sure to mind the fences of course.

I was out this Sunday morning to get a bit of training in for the Nephin Up and Over Challenge coming up the following weekend. I only realised on the way up after availing of Paddy’s hospitality that instead of googling ‘How to Climb Nephin’ I probably should have looked up the actual race route, as I was fairly sure this wasn’t it.

The ascent was steep, any attempts to ‘run’ ended quickly even when I tried to traverse up and across the face. The ground was boggy and uneven, some rocks but mostly covered in heather, and it was better to hike at a solid pace than risk serious injury and waste aimless energy over.

I figured the pitch of the race route must be more forgiving for going up at a pace faster than walking. I was conscious of the winning time from last year — an hour and 23 minutes — which was some feat considering it included an up and down of the mountain and a 10km road run spanning either side of the climb.

I stopped worrying about speed and decided to just enjoy the day for what it was, slowing down and turning more frequently to enjoy the stunning views. A beautiful, spring morning, it was fresh but the sun screamed when it emerged from the layers of clouds drifting overhead.

The mountain and surrounding valleys and plains were bathed in dazzling light; the horizons were swallowed by a haze that gave the quality of a stifling late-summer’s evening.

In reality it was colder than it looked, but the sun made the air warmer than it should have been. As I approached the top, some stubborn sheets of snow still lay on the ground, refusing summer and reflecting the sun’s rays.

Lough Conn in the distance from the summit of Nephin; stubborn sheets of ice remain on top, reflecting the early April sun

I reached the top and Paddy Hegarty’s brother’s pillar in an hour. I had the fortune to meet a hiker from Crossmolina who knew the area well enough, and he was able to orientate my view from the peak, which I realised was hopelessly inaccurate. He was familiar with the race and showed me the route, which didn’t look any easier than the steep ascent I’d made myself.

“It’s on the way down those lads win these things — no regard for their own safety” was his bit of insider info.

I assured him I wouldn’t be winning the race in that case and that “it’d be a nice day out on the hill at least.”

We talked about how Nephin is getting more popular, but Westport and the surrounding mountainous coastal area of south-west Mayo “gets all the attention.”

Nobody knows this part of the world exists” he said, sounding more rueful than proud. He’s a local not a hipster.

Whether looking at it on a map, driving through, or marvelling at it from above, North Mayo is a remote place. It is barren, a patchwork of scorched-earth bogs and lonely houses dotted around a forgotten place. We might be close to the nearest Spar shop here, but the rolling hills and sparse farmland just tell the soul of the relative isolation.

Paddy doesn’t live in the cottage he keeps at the foot of the hill — he tells me of incidents of rural crime on lonely householders and farmers which make it too dangerous these days to live so far from civilisation, so he lives in Lahardane village a few miles away.

My tour guide at the top points out which towns and compass points lie in which directions from the top, and I nod along pretending “Oh I knew that”. I promise myself I’ll make it my business to learn more of the geography of my home county in the coming weeks and months. The strange haze prevents us from seeing all the way to the Reek on one side, to Donegal facing north. Most of Mayo itself must be visible from here on a clear day, a perch fit for a king.

It starts to get chilly before long and I realise visibility has dropped slightly, reminding me that even on a beautiful day you can never be too sure that it won’t change. I jog back down the flat ridge and for a few minutes enjoy the exhilarating feeling of flying that running over hills provides. Once I get to the steeper part I have to be careful, such that when I meet Paddy again at his cottage at the bottom, I haven’t come down much quicker than I got up.

Paddy has the sharp intuition of a man who knows the land, and of course he was able to watch my route up the hill as he was out checking on his sheep. It would have been easier if I’d kept to the left and gone up the crest, he tells me, but he assures me I did it “quick enough all the same”.

We talk a bit about Mayo football and getting lost in the fog climbing mountains. He tells me about a Lithuanian guy who came into his farm the same as me one day when visibility was bad. He had climbed the mountain and managed to get down again, but now was lost and didn’t know where his car was. Paddy told him to hop in the car and drove him around the base of the mountain to find it. They eventually came across it hidden away up in a spot that even locals wouldn’t have ventured to much.

He wouldn’t have ever found the car if Paddy hadn’t brought him looking for it.

The road from Nephin (top-right corner of photo) to Castlebar — this is one of the most remote places in the whole of Ireland

He knows a bit about the race next week, and gives me a bit of info on the top competition.

“I know the guy who won it last year” he tells me.

He goes up and over every day of the week, works as a physio. Super fit.”

Another local racer, in his 60’s, “does a full loop of bottom of the hill every morning.” The times they’ve clocked are ridiculous, about half of what I expect to do after today’s tester. Like the last guy I tell him I’ll just enjoy the chance to get up the hill again. I tell myself that winning’s not important. For me it’s all about the feeling of flying.

I’ve learned the joys of running as a means of travel, of how working yourself into a sweaty and muddy state allows you to really explore the environment in a truly immersive way, making you more one with the natural world. I don’t tell Paddy that, but I’m sure he knows well enough in his own way all the same.

When I get back to the car, they’re chatting on the radio about rural depopulation and how it’s affecting the GAA. Looking around you here, you’d think “No shit.” But ironically places like Mayo, Kerry and Donegal are in better footballing health than most parts of the country.

Maybe no-one knows this part of the world exists, but it means a lot to the ones who do.

Psychology | Well-being | Travel | Writing | Flânerie.

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