Most of us have never heard of the Dartry Mountains which straddle the border of County Sligo and County Leitrim but these shapely tabular mountains dominate the area if you are travelling in this part of northwest Ireland. One such mountain in the area that is included in this group has more of a claim to fame as Ireland’s table mountain. Ben Bulbin is almost sheer on three sides with serrated cliffs and a flat top. I’ve yet to climb it but it is high on my list to bag in the coming years.
For this walk, I am going to follow the skyline above the remote Gleniff Valley which will include what I like to think of as Ireland’s Matterhorn and bag the county tops for Sligo and Leitrim in the process. There is one problem however which I hope that has been resolved insomuch that this area has been for many years hostile to walkers. I have read of so many instances where walkers had been threatened by angry farmers, cars damaged and signs everywhere saying ‘keep out’ and ‘strictly private’. Well this was the case several years ago on a visit I made to the area. Not to walk but just to see for myself if it was an issue. It certainly was.
It’s now 2013 and several years later and I’m back with plans for a day’s walking but it’s not going to be a day without incidences. Thankfully the Dartry Mountains are beginning to be opened up and as for the scenery, I can only say it is spectacular with tabular mountains and very steep sides.
My initial plan is to climb Ben Wisken then drive around to park then walk up to Truskmore on the RTE transmitter road which I believe is still private. I set off on the drive from a cloudy Enniskillen towards Sligo and on the coast road the view towards Ben Wisken looks so impressive, an ‘Irish Matterhorn’ I thought with one side sheer and the other side a very steep grassy slope, or a giant wave ready to break.
Entering Gleniff, I park at the recognised parking spot by a forestry track. A new kissing gate is a welcome sign and no indication of any restrictions on this visit. With Truskmore still firmly in the clouds for now I decide that a walk up and down Ben Wisken via the same way might be my walk for the day. At a brisk pace I head up along the good forestry drive to a point where it abruptly ends some 200 metres short of the edge of a felled forest. With no sign of any path beyond, I now have a difficult section of the walk to negotiate and have to test and prod each footstep for hidden drainage channels under the thick vegetation and discarded fallen timber. At the upper edge of this forest I now have a awkward fence to get over before a very steep ascent up a grassy hillside. By now, my thoughts on returning the same way are that I will try a different route. Reaching the ridge I am confronted by a level and squelchy blanket bog along the level summit ridge. I cross this to the western side where the ground falls away very steeply. Heading north the scenery became spectacular with sheer cliffs on my left and a view over the countryside below and out to the Atlantic Ocean. Further north I have to cross a fence to gain the most exciting part of the ridge which narrows down to sheer cliffs on my left and a very steep grassy slope on my right. I pause at this summit to take a few pictures but don’t go any further as this was now an area still out of bounds for walkers. I return to bag the summit of Ben Wisken marked only by the meeting point of three fences. Heading south now my thoughts turn to bagging Annacoona to the south as the hill cloud has lifted off the summit and the limestone country will make it an easier walk. In the meantime, I still have some blanket bog to cross. Once over Annacoona the plan is to join a old quarry track but now a problem presents itself as far below, farmers are turning up to round up sheep with four by fours, quad bikes and dogs. I feel like a fugitive on the run and I must keep out of sight. This is not good news as I know that this was a hostile area for walkers and may be still. It means that I will need to go further before cutting down to the road.
For much of the way up to Annacoona I am out of sight of them. I meet a lone walker coming the other way, an Irishman who had ascended from Glencar to the south to avoid any such hostilities from farmers. After a brief chat we part, he to Ben Wisken and me thinking about a suitable route down. On Annacoona there is a terrific gash in the hill with a limestone overhang and a view down to the precipitous valley. Beyond, the farmers are in view again well below me and on the track I intend to take. Meanwhile, Truskmore to the east of me has become free of cloud and I decide to go for it despite it being a much longer walk than intended. This involves crossing the track higher up, then over about three quarters of a mile of boggy terrain before joining the transmitter road. Once down to the quarry road I follow it for a short distance. Behind me up on the hill is a farmer and it isn’t long before I hear shouting. I don’t know if it is directed at me or to his sheep but I pretend I hadn’t heard it and leave the track to make my way over the boggy col strewn with peat hags. The going isn’t too bad and surprisingly not too wet underfoot but I have to cross a couple of stout bard wire fences which means removing my rucksack. With a short ascent I am glad to be on the transmitter road. A long but easy ascent follows on a good but private road with the tall television mast piercing the cloud base. The road ends at the transmitter and I skirt around to the right to reach the trig point which at 647 metres is the highest summit in County Sligo. It’s not an attractive summit and today the views aren’t all that good. I now set off on a small diversion to bag the county summit for Leitrim which lies on the eastern slope of Truskmore. I find a cairn which I take to be the highest spot. It looks out over a slope and beyond a sea of blanket bog stretching to the east. Back on the transmitter road, I made a steady descent to the foot. The question now was had I’d been trespassing all this time. I had seen a number of vehicles drive up to the gate at the foot of the transmitter road only to drive on. Indeed the gate was well secure and I had to get over the adjacent fence. The sign does say ‘private road’ but I take this to be for vehicles.
It is now simply a walk back along the lane but this means passing the farmers four by fours which at this stage I don’t know if they are just parked up and not occupied. It isn’t long before a farmer drives along the road in a four by four and the window winds down as he draws alongside me. I am expecting the worse but all he says that had I seen one of his dogs that had gone missing. Relieved, he goes on his way and I have a pleasant walk with autumn sunshine back to the car.
It had been an almost magical but forbidden area to walk in. All day I have felt that I was trespassing and did my best to keep out of sight of the farmers. Ironically it was a day when they were gathering all the sheep in from the hills before the winter.