Bucket List: Number 1 – Slieve League by Mike Cavanagh
I’d never really thought about having a ‘Bucket List’ before I started planning on a trip to the UK and Ireland in 1993. My partner, Katie, and I managed to wrangle over six months off work and were planning on a mini-European adventure, mainly though focussing on the UK and Ireland. While it was Katie who originally mooted the idea, as she’d been OS a number of times while I hadn’t (apart from New Zealand, which really doesn’t count when you’re an Ozzie!), I quickly gained enthusiasm as we researched where we’d like to go. We had a notebook we used to list all the places we thought sounded good to stay, mainly BnBs and self-catering cottages, but my main job was to collect info on ‘where’ we wanted to go: castles, mansions, gardens, national parks, walks, drives, all that sort of stuff.
Two small booklets we got from the local tourist centre set me off on my ‘bucket list’, and I determined that above all else I wanted to walk the Slieve League sea cliffs in Donegal, Ireland, visit The Skelligs off the south west coast of Ireland, and get to St Kilda, a rocky, wind swept island 70kms west of the Scottish mainland. As tends to be my wont, having set my mind to these things, ‘obsession’ is probably a fair and accurate assessment of my determination, hence my bucket list began with these three places. Each place seemed to echo in me my desire for the wild – winds, wild seas, craggy, beetling cliffs, and cloud torn skies; places isolated from the heavy hand of civilisation where nature in its primal rawness can be experienced. Yes, well, I do tend to the romantic as well, so it seems.
So, did I manage to tick them all off? Well, no. St Kilda remained out of reach, and still does these 25 years on. Slieve League and The Skelligs… hmmm, no, yes, sort of, but not as I had hoped.
The day we parked to walk Slieve League began promisingly; sunny, mild, blue skies, light breeze. My hopes were high as we set off to traipse up to the top of these 2,000 foot high cliffs, the highest sea cliffs in Europe so I’d been informed by the little tourist book. Ah, but this was Ireland after all and ‘soft weather’ is always just around the corner. We’d learned that soft weather could mean anything from a short-lived pea soup fog to constant drizzle for days that left any patch of ground a quagmire.
Half way up we stopped to admire the view. Three hundred metres below us already, down the vertiginous, twisted rocks of these towering cliffs, the broad, sun-kissed, blue-green swathe of the Atlantic swept away to the horizon with nothing but ocean between us and the ‘next stop’, Labrador, Canada. The cloudless sky seemed to roll along above us, a fresh-washed, blue canopy over what portended as one of those perfect days when you feel you can reach out and touch the hand of God, or as Jimi Hendrix put it: ‘scuse me while I kiss the sky. A dense bank of low cloud sliding around the point of Slieve League was the only issue for concern, but with only half an hours walk to go, of no concern, surely?
Twenty minutes later we were stumbling along, cold, dripping wet, cocooned within a saturating, dense blanket of cloud with visibility down to about ten metres. We could only surmise we were still on the track as we hadn’t fallen off the cliffs and the little rills of water forming tended to do so in the middle of the bare path. We pressed on, hoping the clouds would lift, part, vapourise, anything, so we could take in the view we were so doggedly now aspiring to.
At the top of Slieve League, the land falls away on both sides, and the path along the ridge is called ‘One Man’s Path’ for very good reason. On a fine, fair day, no place for the faint hearted then. In this now wretched weather, slippery underfoot, with our cold wet bodies beginning to shiver (foolishly we’d been lured by the earlier sunshine and blue skies to venture forth from the car in light summer clothing), and no foreseeable views to come, literally, we stopped.
Sitting on the rocks, we stuffed ourselves with chocolate bars to warm ourselves and bemoaned the desperately disappointing turn in the weather. If anything the cloud bank was darkening, the heavy mist turning to drizzle, the sort that says ‘I think I’ll just hang around for forty days or so.’ After twenty minutes, we gave up and headed back down to the car.
It was slowish going back down, the path now sheened in a thin cover of mud that threatened to send our feet flying at ever step. Forty minutes later we were back at our car, out of the clouds, and drying and warming ourselves as best we could. We were booked to be in a cottage that afternoon quite some distance away, then further on after that, and on a ferry to Scotland the day after that. This had been my one chance, this trip, to tick Slieve League’ off my list. Despondent, we drove off, away, promising ‘next time’.
A quarter of a century later, and ‘next time’ still hasn’t arrived. Disappointed? Yes, but…
Truth is, I wanted to see these wild places because they are wild, not picture postcards, pretty views to admire, tick off, before moving off to another; ‘railway carriage charm’ as so aptly said by Van Morrison, Ireland’s living breathing songwriter/poet/ madman.
Well, hadn’t I got what I came for, then? And what’s more, I’d had my cake and eaten it too: been there and it’s still on my list. Seriously, what was there to complain about?
So, fair play to you Slieve League; fair play to you.
As for The Skelligs… well, that’s another story.