An old photo of Benbulben, taken on one of my first cameras. For me, and I suspect, for many people, it fascinated me from the first time i saw it, which in my case would have been as a very young child.
Even on an Irish scale, at only 526 metres, Benbulben is not a high mountain, not even being the highest in the Dartry Mountains, the range in which it sits. It is however, one of the most iconic mountains in Ireland, and its distinctive shape makes it visible and recognisable from many miles away. It may be spelled Benbulben, Benbulbin, or Ben Bulben among other variations. It has featured in the history of Ireland since the Iron Age, and has seen several battles including during the Civil War. In Irish legend it was said to be the location where Diarmuid died after being gored by a boar, Finn MacCool having failed to save him. In literature, it is synonymous with WB Yeats, and the poet is buried in its shadow at Drumcliffe. The mountain is formed from a limestone layer on top of mudstone, and was carved into its present shape during the ice age.
From some angles, it looks like it would be impossible for the average hill walker to ascend, with its vertical cliffs forming a seemingly impenetrable barrier. However, it really forms one outer edge of a large plateau which includes several other mountains, and there are easier ways up. One route, which I took on this walk in August 2015, is from the large U shaped valley between it and Benwiskin on the northeast side. It is possible to walk to the southern end of the valley and ascend the less steep slope up on to the plateau between Benbulben and Annacoona Top.
Approaching by car, I stopped by the roadside for this view from the northwest.
Starting the walk, and there was no way I would be attempting to ascend this face!
My starting point was a lay by near the end of a narrow road, just before it turned into a rough track which headed south into the bog in a large U shaped valley, surrounded by mountains on three sides. Already, these surrounding mountains presented me with stunning scenery, although it was fairly overcast as I set off. It did soon pick up however, and some patchy sunlight began to appear.
A look along the cliffs.
Sunlight beginning to catch the also impressive Benwiskin to the northeast.
Looking north through the open side of the valley, across Donegal Bay to Slieve League.
Benbulben presenting a different aspect as I began to move deeper into the valley.
Walking deeper into the valley, I was initially on a tarred, but narrow road, alongside a little river. Soon, the road petered out, but there was still a good track across the bog, obviously there for the purpose of the extensive turf cutting. It continued a good stretch of the way towards the wall of mountains at the southern end of the “U” which offered the easiest ascent up to the plateau.
Looking north along the narrow road which formed the start of the route.
The ever changing face of the mountain.
Cliffs ahead – I was heading for the break in the centre to find a way up.
North to Donegal Bay.
Hand cut turf drying in the sun with Benwiskin in the background.
Not going up that either!
Getting closer to the gap in the cliffs where I could ascend, as gloomier weather closed in again.
As I reached the end of the valley and began to acsend, previously hidden dark clouds began to appear over the mountains from the west. It seemed to suit the remote, dramatic landscape.
Beginning to ascend the slope up on to the plateau as clouds rolled in.
The route uphill ahead.
A little height gained now, looking down on the turf cutting, with bagged turf standing out against the bog. Once I got on to the plateau, I would follow one the arms of the “U” back in the direction I had come from going down its centre, to the summit of Benbulben which can be seen on the left of the frame.
The slopes to my left as I made my way up.
This was the easiest way up, but it was still a steep wee climb. Soon however, I found myself emerging over the lip of the plateau and standing on the top.
On the plateau, and looking northeast as it swept round towards Benwiskin.
My route ahead, sweeping round to the summit, close to the point at the far end.
Most of the hard work was now done, and it would be fairly level all the way to the summit, with only a slight rise. On the way, I would also cross Benbulbin South East Top which has enough prominence to count as a separate summit, although there would be a minimal amount of ascent and descent in comparison to the height gained attaining the plateau.
One thing to careful of in this part of the Dartry Mountains is the presence of sink holes, both large and small, where the limestone has been dissolved by rain from above or flowing water underneath. A small one can be seen here, but there are many, some deeper and larger, and they can be well hidden by vegetation which makes them dangerous for the walker.
A much larger sunken area.
Very angry looking skies to the southwest. I was beginning to get a bit concerned about the possibility of lightning on this high, exposed ground.
The nearest rise on the left also has enough prominence to be a separate summit – Kings Mountain, and beyond that across the channel of sea is Knocknarea.
The plateau stretching eastwards.
Benbulben forms a long, narrow off-shoot from the bulk of the plateau, with the summit at the northwestern point, and the slightly lower Benbulbin South East Top at the closer southeastern end, and I will continue the walk along that off-shoot in my next post.