2017-12-01 / ReBooted

Mystic Mountain

Jill Gleeson

Ever since I first heard tell of Mount Brandon, which rises magnificently 3,127 feet from Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, I’ve been more or less obsessed with summiting it. That was five years ago, before the thought of climbing mountains like Kilimanjaro had crossed my mind, before I’d trekked much more than the occasional gently rolling Appalachian. Brandon achieved a mythical status for me from the moment my Irish friends regaled me with tales of the monk said to have set off for America from it a millennium before Columbus was even a twinkle in his father’s eye.

According to legend, one morning St. Brendan took a notion to climb up Brandon. After fasting and praying at its peak for 40 days he received a vision of the land that would become known as America. He hightailed down the mountain, rounded up a few of his buddies, and set off across the heaving sea in a currach, or leather boat, eventually landing in Newfoundland. Thanks to his adventurous heart and epic journey he was dubbed “St. Brendan the Navigator” — the patron saint of travelers.

As a travel journalist, how could I not want to retrace Brendan’s journey up Brandon?

But Brandon is an arduous climb and I was never in the shape to do it. It’s also often socked in by fog and rain, which makes scrambling up its rocky slopes impossible. Every time I heard the story of Brendan and his mountain, it was invariably followed by a warning. “But Brandon, it’s tricky. It isn’t for the faint of heart.”

And so it wasn’t until my visit to Dingle this fall that the stars finally aligned and I found myself at Brandon’s base. It was a fine day, overcast but not cold. I was accompanied by Kevin O’Shea of Celtic Nature Walking Tours. Although I’d recently summited Kilimanjaro, I wasn’t taking any chances. Just a month earlier a hiker had been killed when, alone and lost in the fog, he’d plunged off one of Brandon’s steep drops. There was no way I’d risk tackling the ascent solo.

Brandon starts like most mountains do, with a long slog up a dispiriting incline, the kind that doesn’t quite wind you but makes your legs ache enough that you wonder what you’d been thinking when you signed up for this. The difference with Brandon is the hike from the little parking lot at its bottom is immediately gorgeous, winding past ancient stone walls and quizzical sheep, until you come to a small grotto. The trail gets steeper from here. Because Brandon is a pilgrimage site — in Ireland, St. Brendan is almost as beloved as St. Patrick — it’s also marked with crosses all the way to the top.

As we methodically plodded up Brandon, the clouds began to break and, as if on cue, the sun popped out. I stopped frequently, as much to admire the view as to catch my breath. When National Geographic called the Dingle Peninsula “the most beautiful place on Earth” years back it wasn’t hyperbole. The vista from Brandon was the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. It seemed to go on forever, encompassing not only verdant, rolling fields and the blue ocean beyond, but even the Blasket Islands — pretty much the last land masses you hit before America.

After a couple hours we reached the most challenging section — a rocky incline so steep I ascended it in a few spots on my hands and knees. Kevin smiled at my caution, but my mind was on the climber who’d been killed a month before. There were spots along the trail that fell away almost straight to the valley floor. Should I have taken a tumble the only thing to break my fall would be sheep a thousand feet below.

We made the summit with the sun still shining down on us. The view was jaw-dropping, unobstructed in every direction, from Dingle Town and the soaring Conor Pass beyond, to the beach lining Ventry Bay. We had time to snap a few photographs before mist, driven by a sudden brutal wind, blew in and sent us scurrying back down the mountain. As we descended I fantasized that Brendan himself accounted for the uncommonly fine weather, in the way that inveterate travelers often lend each other a hand. •SCM

For more information about Celtic Nature Walking Tours, visit

Jill Gleeson is on the biggest adventure of her life. Follow her journey on her blog at and via her column at

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