In 1922 Ireland’s bid for independence was ratified and as a result about four fifths of the island of Ireland severed political ties with Great Britain. Up to that year any mountaineering feat by an Irish man or woman could be legitimately claimed as a British achievement. As a result of this, throughout the history of mountaineering, the contribution of this small western European island has been largely overlooked.
Edmund Burke was an eighteenth century Irish author, political theorist, philosopher and Whig politician in the Westminster Parliament. He was not the first to discuss the concept of the ‘sublime’. Before him most writers on the subject “agreed that pleasant feeling of awe, delight, and admiration were the result of contemplating mountain ranges…”. In his ‘Philosophical enquiry into the Origin of our ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful’ (published in 1757) he developed , uniquely, a physiological theory of beauty and sublimity and was the first to explain the concepts in terms of the process of perception and its effect upon the perceiver. His ideas on this can be seen to have influenced many of the poets and painters of the Romantic Era leading up to the early years of the nineteenth century. In England the key figures of the Romantic Movement are considered to include the poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron and Shelley and artists such as Constable and Turner. An almost forgotten Irish poetess was Mary Tighe (1772-1810). Her writing is said to have influenced Keats, Byron and Shelley and the Irish lyricist Thomas Moore among others. A number of her poems extolled the beauties of the mountains, woods and lakes around Killarney in Ireland.
In general it was the wealthy middle and upper classes that would have been familiar with the works of such people and as much as the appreciation of poetry and art was part of a good education so also had become the appreciation of landscape. All of these may have been part of the motivation for the phenomenon that became known as the ‘Grand Tour’. The benefits of such an undertaking were to ‘enrich the mind with knowledge…in a word to form the complete gentleman.’ This form of foreign travel became the favourite pursuit of ‘the quality’ across Europe and produced a comprehensive literature in English. It was not, however, confined to the English. ‘Despite the scorn and scoffing it may have aroused among the English abroad it had, by the middle of the century (18th), become an integral part of upper-class Irish life…’ Among such well known travellers were James Caulfield (4th Viscount Charlemont, spent seven years abroad), Frederick Augustus Hervey (4th Earl of Bristol) and George Berkley, the philosopher.
Richard Pococke was one such traveller. ‘An Englishman by birth but Irish by adoption’ was how his biographer described him. Although appointed to important clerical positions in the Church of Ireland as early as 1725 (aged about 21) he remained an absentee for about twenty years until he was appointed to very senior positions, including the bishopric of the dioceses of Ossory and Meath. Returning from one of his tours, a visit to Egypt in 1741, it was his meeting, in Geneva, with William Wyndham that was the catalyst that led to their visit to Chamonix and the Mer de Glace. This visit and Windham’s accounts of it that followed ‘marked the beginning of glacier tourism’.
By the mid 1780s the French authorities recorded 40,000 British visitors entering the French ports annually, which number would have included a significant proportion from Ireland. Although the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars curtailed such journeying a small number continued to travel to Scandinavia and Russia. With the return of peace to Europe in 1815 interest in Continental travel was re-established and an appreciation of the arts was an accomplishment that such travellers hoped to achieve. The poet William Wordsworth and the painter JMW Turner would have been familiar to such tourists and the works of each drew heavily on mountain landscapes for inspiration. In 1820 Turner had spent several months travelling and sketching in the Swiss Alps in the company of the Irish medical doctor, Robert James Graves. Both Wordsworth and Turner were familiar with Edmund Burke’s theories of beauty, aesthetics and the sublime and in turn their work and writings impacted on John Ruskin. He was the art critic, artist, essayist and social thinker of the mid nineteenth century and was hugely influential in its latter half. He was a lover of mountain scenery and inspired many to explore the Alps for scientific and aesthetic reasons. Although he sometimes disagreed with the motives of the summiteers his influence, coupled with the activities of the impresario Albert Smith, meant that the time was ripe for the formation of the Alpine Club, the world’s first mountaineering association, in London in 1857. This can be regarded as the apogee of the ‘Golden Age of Alpinism’, during which thirty six summits above 4,000m had first ascents, thirty one of which were made by British climbers and their guides.
Frank Nugent’s ‘In search of peaks, passes and glaciers‘ outlines the contribution of the many Irish participants in in this burgeoning activity during its Golden Age. Notable among them was Charles Barrington, a Dublin merchant (first ascent of the Eiger) and Robert Fowler. The latter was a landowner in Co Meath who visited Switzerland for twenty five seasons from 1854 and made numerous impressive ascents, including the third ascent of the Aigulle Vert and first ascent of the Aiguille Chardonnet. Count Henry Russell, son of an Irish father and French mother, travelled widely up to 1860 when he settled in the south of France and extensively explored the Pyrenees where he made about thirty two first ascents. He co-founded the Société Raymond, which is devoted to the scientific and ethnographic study of the Pyrenees, and he climbed Vignemale thirty-three times.
The three who probably had the greatest impact on mountaineering in its Golden Age were John Tyndall, John Ball and Anthony Adams Reilly. John Tyndall was a leading scientist and populariser of the subject and came to mountaineering, at age thirty six, through his interest in the scientific aspects of the movement of glaciers, light and sound. He was in rivalry with Edward Whymper for the first ascent of the Matterhorn, his attempt in 1860 reaching the highest thus far, a point now called Pic Tyndall and in 1868 he made the first traverse from the Italian side. He was the author of numerous scientific papers and published more than fifteen on geological, alpine and glaciological topics. His four mountaineering titles, which went to numerous editions, were instrumental in popularising the activity as a sport. Following the Matterhorn tragedy in 1865 it was largely Tyndall’s argument that countered the drive to ban the sport.
Tyndall’s influence in scientific circles continues to this day with the foundation of a number of institutes commemorating his work, e.g Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (UK); Tyndall Institute (Cork, Ireland) and there are numerous mountain features named in his honour in many countries.
John Ball was a Roman Catholic, Liberal politician in the Westminster Parliament who visited the Alps in 1827 as a nine year old on the family Grand Tour. From the mid 1840s until his death in 1889 he visited the Alps almost every year. ‘…His experience of politics, his wealth and his deep knowledge of the Alps made him the ideal first President of the Alpine Club when it was formed in 1857’. Following his suggestion and under his editorship was published, in 1859, the first edition of ‘Peaks, Passes and Glaciers’, which continues as the highly respected ‘Alpine Journal’. He used knowledge of Alpine travel as a source for a series of guide books. ‘Ball’s Alpine Guides‘ in three volumes (Western, Central and Eastern Alps) remained a handbook for alpinists up to the end of the century.
His influence spread further afield than the European Alps, for as a politician he gave his support to the ‘Palliser Expedition’ of 1857-60. This was entitled correctly the British North American Exploring Expedition, an attempt to investigate possible railway routes to the west coast through the Rocky Mountains of British North America (now Canada). It was led by Captain John Palliser (from County Waterford, Ireland) and its astronomer and secretary was John Sullivan (of Castletownbere, Co Cork). Palliser had had some experience of Alpine travel, but it was in no sense a mountaineering expedition. A number of passes were explored, a report made to the British Parliament (1863), and a comprehensive map published in 1865. One significant result was that it opened up this western region of North America and the eastern ranges of the Rockies to further exploitation, including mountaineering activity.
The third influential figure of the Golden Age was Anthony Miles William Adams Reilly, who was usually called, simply Adams Reilly. Hailing from the flat Irish midlands his enthusiasm for mountaineering was inspired by his reading, at Rugby School, of Forbes’ ‘Travels through the Alps of Savoy’ and by his drawing master there, George Barnard, an alpinist himself and later a member of the Alpine Club. In his early experience of climbing Mt Blanc he found that the available maps were deficient and he undertook the compilation of an accurate map of the region and enlisted the help of Edward Whymper in some of the survey work. Together they made a number of first ascents – Mont Dolent, Aguille de Trélatête and Aiguille d’Argentiêre – in 1864 and planned to attempt the Matterhorn. The attempt was postponed and Adams Reilly was unavailable, because of survey work on a Monte Rosa map, for the following year’s climb that ended in tragedy.
His maps, both of Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa and published by the Alpine Club, were used by mountaineers for many years. In his survey work Adams Reilly had assisted the French Etat-Major in its work in the region and as a result a number of mountain features were named in his honour (Aiguille, Col and Glacier Adams Reilly).
It should be remembered that most of these ascents were carried out with the assistance of local guides and oftentimes a personal relationship existed between the guides and clients. However, Tyndall is recorded as having carried out some solo ascents and in his ‘Hours of exercise in the Alps’ one illustration shows him tackling a steep rock face alone while the rest of his party ascends the nearby snow slope.
The Irish involvement in mountaineering did not end with the Golden Age of alpinism. ‘R.M. Barrington, Henry Chichester Hart, Frederick Fitzjames Cullinan, Charles Jasper Joly, Thomas Henry Carson, George Scriven, Henry Tudor Parnell and James Bryce were all active Irish climbers during the late nineteenth century’ Some of these partnered the well known Alpine Club members such as C.C. Tucker, Douglas Freshfield and Martin Conway.
A notable figure during the final decade of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth was W.T Kirkpatrick. With his Scottish partner, Philip Hope, they pioneered ‘guideless’ climbing. They spurned rock and ice pitons but were in many respects ahead of their time and ‘showed British and Continental climbers guideless tracks to many of the great as well as lesser peaks’. One achievement that is recounted is their traverse of the Meije -‘the first English traverse…without guides – done by a Scotchman and an Irishman’.
Around the same period another figure was operating in the Alps. ‘The Grogans were fiercely proud of their Irish lineage’ but Ewart was at least two generations removed from Ireland. Sent to Zermatt at age eighteen for health reason it was there he met a grumpy old man, Edward Whymper, who instructed him in ice lore and Alfred Mummery who instructed him in rock climbing techniques. After four ambitious mountaineering seasons he qualified and was elected to membership of the Alpine Club, its youngest ever member. This, it seems, was the fulfilment of his mountaineering ambitions for he never climbed again but is remembered, among many other things, for his south-to-north traverse on foot of the African continent, for which he became know as ‘Cape to Cairo Grogan’.
Irish men were active in the mountains much further afield than the European Alps. One of these was James Bryce. He was born of Scottish parents in Belfast, where he had his introduction to the mountains at age eleven. In the course of his long career as scholar, lawyer, author and statesman he had the opportunity to climb in all sorts of places and to bring strange mountains to the notice of a wide public. As well as climbing in the Alps, Dolomites and Pyrenees he also climbed in the Tatras (with Leslie Stephen), Iceland, USA, Basutoland, Turkey and Japan. His book, Mountaineering in far-away places is an indication of the scope of his activities.
Another Irish man who travelled much further afield than the Alps was William Spotswood Green, an Anglican clergyman from Cork. His introduction to mountaineering was with a college friend on a six week visit to Switzerland in 1869 and they were joined there by his cousin, Henry Swanzy, also Irish. They had a comprehensive introduction to mountaineering under the famous guides Alexander Burgener and Peter Knubel and climbed a number of 4,000m peaks. On graduating, Green explored Norway’s Lofoten Islands. This was one of the earliest climbing visits to a region that later became a popular mountaineering destination. Following this he became attracted by the climbing possibilities in far flung regions and settled on the hitherto unclimbed Mt Cook in New Zealand. Hiring Swiss guides he set out on a six month long expedition and managed to reach the summit plateau in March 1882. His dramatic account ‘The high Alps of New Zealand,’ was published in 1883.
Green’s cousin, Henry Swanzy, had visited the Rock Mountains of Canada along with R.M. Barrington in 1884 after a convention of the British Association in Manitoba. Swanzy’s reports of the Selkirk Range fascinated Green and in 1888 they both set out to explore the region. The area had been opened up by the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and although passengers had admired the dramatic scenery no real mountaineering had been undertaken. The pair set about climbing, naming and mapping summits and passes in what is now the Roger’s Pass area of the Rocky Mountains. Although not the first to explore the region – the native peoples had lived there for thousands of years – ‘their enduring contribution…(was that)… they were among the first to write articulately about their explorations…for a mass audience’. Green’s ‘Among the Selkirk glaciers’ was the resulting volume that brought the region to the attention of the Victorian public; was the first book published on Canadian mountains and the accompanying map a work of topographical art.
Just five years after Green’s visit the Rocky and Selkirk Mountains were designated for official survey by the Department of the Interior of the Canadian government. Arthur Oliver Wheeler was the one commissioned to carry out the survey. He had emigrated from Co Kilkenny in 1877 as a seventeen year old, had studied photographic methods of land surveying (a pioneering technique) and become a professional surveyor. This survey method required that photographs be taken from prominent high points and in the survey of the Selkirks this meant climbing to numerous summits, many of which were first ascents. The survey report was published in book form – ‘The Selkirk Range‘ in 1905. Through this work Wheeler became interested in mountaineering as a recreational activity especially after meeting some of the leading mountaineers of the day on their visits to the region. This interest culminated in his becoming the co-founder of the Alpine Club of Canada in 1906, being elected as its first President and then Managing Director until 1926. His biographer claims that ‘without (his) fervour an organisation as novel and impractical as a Canadian Alpine Club would never have got off the ground’. Arthur Wheeler married the daughter of another Irish immigrant, Clara Macoun, and their son Oliver became a surveyor and mountaineer also.
It is clear that mountaineering in the nineteenth century was a fairly costly pastime involving distant travel and expense. Its adherents were usually people of substantial wealth. If one was professionally involved, for instance as a guide or surveyor, wealth was not a prerequisite but most of the above mentioned were men of substantial means. John Tyndall had overcome his humble origins (father a policeman and shoemaker) to become quite wealthy at the height of his mountaineering career.
Richard Cotter left Ireland for the USA with his mother and siblings in 1848 when he was about six or seven years old as a famine emigrant. Taken into an orphanage in St Louis, Missouri, from where he was fostered by the Sutton family up to age eighteen. Like the Sutton children he then left for the gold mines of the west but was hired as a ‘packer’ by the Geological Survey of California under Josiah Whitney. The survey party was likely to have been the first Europeans to have visited the Josemite Valley while exploring the Sierra Nevada. Cotter and his immediate boss, Clarence King, discovered Mt. Whitney as the highest point in the contiguous USA while making the first ascent of a nearby 4,000m peak which they named Mt Tyndall. King is profuse in his praise of his partner as a mountaineer in his ‘Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada‘. After completing his contract with the survey Cotter went to Montana, later enlisting in the Western Union Telegraph Expedition to British Columbia and Alaska where he carried out hazardous and successful exploration but appears to have done no further climbing.
Irish involvement in mountaineering continued into the twentieth century – W.T. Kirkpatrick has already been mentioned as an exponent of guideless climbing at the this time. It was V.J.E Ryan, of Co Tipperary, who had a meteoric, if short, climbing career in the first decade of the century. Winthrop Young, with whom Valentine Ryan climbed, felt that, like Whymper before him, Ryan was:
‘…fired into something like heroism, inspired to pursue adventurous and almost romantic achievement…he attacked new spheres of difficulty and danger…Ryan’s name lives on among the Alps’.
The Lochmatter brothers were his usual guides and together they had a number of impressive seasons climbing numerous new routes.. Valentine’s brother, Lionel, in the British Army, was posted to India where he died in 1903. In the previous couple of years he had also climbed with the Lochmatter guides and in January 1901 had made the first winter ascent of the Weisshorn. Does this make that mountain of particular interest to Irish climbers – first ascent by John Tyndall; first winter ascent by Lionel Ryan?
The British Raj was the British rule in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947 and the term conceals numbers of Irish people. Patrick O’Leary in his ‘Servants of the Empire, the Irish in the Punjab 1881-1921’, details the contribution made by many Irish in that region of India. It is likely that some of these administrators spent their leave by travelling or venturing from various parts of India into the high regions of the Himalayas as mountaineers. From the state of Himachal Pradesh (formerly part of Punjab) this certainly happened. R.I Bruce (from Co Cork), on leave from the NW Frontier trekked in the mid 1870s over Hampta Pass, Parang La (5,578m) and Rohtang Pass. Arthur Banon left his regiment, the Munster Fusiliers, to settle in Kullu and his descendants were facilitators to a modern generation of Irish mountaineers. Louis Dane (from Co Fermanagh), made the first crossing of the Pin Parbati Pass (5,400m). Colonel James Kelly and Lieutenant Cosmo Stewert took a regiment of Punjab Pioneers over the Shandur Pass (3,700m) in 1895 in the relief of Chitral; a military operation but a feat of mountain travel. This whole area of the Irish in British India offers further scope for detailed investigation.
From the early years of the twentieth century Conor O’Brien is remembered principally as a sailor who circumnavigated the globe between 1923 and 1925 in his 13m yacht Saoirse (meaning ‘Freedom’ in Gaelic). He was also a climber and pre World War I regularly sailed to North Wales, with other members of the Dublin Arts Club, to climb at Pen-Y-Pass with some of the leading British mountaineers of the time. Geoffrey Winthrop Young and George Mallory travelled to Mt Brandon in Kerry to meet O’Brien (who sailed to join them) in the summer of 1913 to spend an unfruitful week looking at the climbing possibilities there.
So far no women have been mentioned in this survey of Irish mountaineers. However, three names spring to mind – Mrs Burnaby, Mrs Main and Elizabeth le Blond – in fact one and the same person, the thrice married Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshead. Daughter of an Irish landowner, she grew up in Greystones, within sight of the Wicklow Mountains. At about eighteen she went to live in Switzerland for health reasons and there she took up mountaineering. A lady of the upper class, her first summit attempt, Mt Blanc, was unsuccessful. She had great difficulty pulling on her high heeled boots, something she’d never had to do in her life before without a maid’s assistance. Undeterred, she went on to become an accomplished climber, making numerous winter ascents. Her climbing shocked the Victorian society of the day, not only because of her assertive and independent approach to this activity which was almost completely a male preserve but also because of her travelling alone with male guides and dispensing with her voluminous skirts for more practical breeches.
She had three seasons in Norway from 1897 and visited the Lyngen area with the Imbodens as guides. Her subsequent book lists twenty six first ascents and several new routes. Her books were illustrated with her own photographs; she had become adept as a photographer, her images winning numerous prizes. In 1907 she was a founder of the Ladies Alpine Club and became its first president. She has been described as ‘one of a small group of adventurous spirits…who did so much so much to pave the way for women climbers of a later day, by bearing the brunt of, and calmly ignoring, the criticisms heaped upon them for indulging in so “unwomanly” a sport’.
Her worldwide travels were cut short with the outbreak of Word War I, during part of which she worked in France assisting in a hospital in Dieppe. She was later awarded the Légion d’honneur by the French government for her work.
The Great War 1914-18 had a profound effect on mountaineering, not least that the activity was put in abeyance for the duration. ‘Into the silence, the Great War, Mallory and the conquest of Everest, is a deeply researched volume, by Wade Davis, that details the effects of the conflict on the climbing fraternity and outlines the possible influence it had on mountaineering in the immediate post-war years. Thousands of Irish fought and many died in the war. One of these who saw action on a number of fronts but survived, was Charles Kenneth Howard Bury. Born in London, his family home was in the Irish midlands and he attended Eton and the military college at Sandhurst after which he was posted as an army captain to India. He travelled and hunted big game in northern India and secretly entered Tibet in 1905 and gained a knowledge of a number of Indian languages. In 1912 he journeyed to the Tien Shan Mountains and the onset of the war prevented the publication of an account of that journey which was to have been entitled ‘Mountains of Heaven‘.
After the war the question of exploring and climbing Mt Everest was mooted again by the Alpine Club and Royal Geographical Society. It was decided that in 1921 there would be a reconnaissance expedition and Howard-Bury was chosen as leader. There was a variety of reasons for this choice; the preferred leader, Captain Charles Bruce was unavailable; Howard-Bury had been instrumental in obtaining permission for the expedition’s travel through Tibet; he was a very experienced leader of men and he was willing to pay the costs of his participation in the expedition.
The expedition was deemed to have been a success. It produced an original survey of 12,000 square miles and a detailed photographic survey of 600 square miles in the region of Mount Everest. Oliver Wheeler was responsible for the photographic survey, a technique that became known as the Canadian photo-topographical method and had been pioneered by his father, Arthur Oliver, in Canada some years earlier (see above). Wheeler was one of the party to reach the North Col and determine a feasible route to the summit. This was the route used in 1993 by Dawson Stelfox, from Belfast, who was the first Irishman to reach the summit and the first British climber to reach the summit from the north side
From this it may be seen that Ireland has had a significant involvement in mountaineering from its earliest beginnings and it could be safely claimed that mountaineering is a forgotten element of Irish heritage.
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