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THE MAGICAL MAAM TURKS

Updated: May 31


My vote for the roughest hills in Ireland goes to the Maam Turks. Steep-sided, strewn with piles of quartzite boulders and virtually pathless, in mist they are legendarily confusing terrain. Although their Connemara neighbours the Twelve Bens are built of the same quartzite and are craggier the latter generally have more defined ridge lines and get far more visitors so paths have developed. Not so for the Turks, where the broader shoulders and lumpy plateaux rarely offer an obvious route and the endless boulderfields have resisted the imprints of the limited numbers of boots that pass their way. When the mists roll in from the Atlantic (what, mist in Connemara?) there are few places where it's easier to get lost. The actual crest meanders around amorphously, and following direct bearings often takes you into formidably rough terrain. The main line of the hills is interupted by several deep notches, so even when you're traversing from peak to peak you can find yourself going up or down very steeply. Just because the way ahead looks tough doesn't mean that it's wrong!

There is an annual challenge walk that goes along the whole range end to end. It's held in late April and since 1975 has been run by University of Galway Mountaineering Club (or "Univeristy" as their website spells it – students today, eh 😁). It's arguably the toughest single day challenge walk in Ireland and entries are limited to 200. The official distance is 25km with 2300m of ascent, but you get some idea of how confusing the route finding is from the fact that on average people cover 28km and 2600m ascent. It has been run in 6 hours, but 12 hours is a respectable time. There are strict cut off times at checkpoints and it's not uncommon for only a third of entrants to finish. This year the whole event had to be cancelled due to the arrival of Storm Kathleen.

The range is divided up into three segments by the lowish cols at Mam Ean and the Bealach an Mhama, The latter being known as the Col of Despondency to the race goers due to the huge loss of height involved and the steepness of the re-ascent. It's a considerably less masochistic experience to do the seperate segments as walks in their own right, and even then people often split the middle segment into two.


Binn Mhairg and Binn idir an da Log, Maam Turks, Connemara
Binn Mhairg and Binn idir an da Log from the east

The southern section is arguably the easiest, though still with plenty of rough going. It consists of the three summits of Corcog, Mullach Glas and Binn Mhor, although this being the Maam Turks there are several minor summits too. Corcog ("beehive") is fairly separate but the other two form a sinuous plateau about 3km long. There are parts of it that are grits rather than quartzite and make for easier going underfoot, while even the quartzite bits seem to be less bouldery than the hills further west. The three fit together best as an end to end walk, starting from the high point of the Maam Cross to Leenaun road and finishing on the track down from Mam Ean. This obviously needs two cars or a tame driver, although hitching still works much better in Ireland than in the UK. The first time I did them was west to east and although it took three lifts to get back round to Loch Inagh I didn't wait more than a few minutes for any of them. It was a very hot afternoon so the longest delay was due to stopping for a pint in the pub at Maam Cross, which was irresistible.


Southern Maam Turks from Derryneen, Connemara
The southern Maam Turks from Derryneen. Photo copyright Ian Capper, from Geograph Ireland

The track up to the holy well and chapel at Mam Ean is about the only place in the Maam Turks where you are likely to meet other people. It's most often accessed from the west but it makes a good through walk from the Maam road too (it's part of the Western Way). From the well you can head up steeply onto Binn Chaonaigh, quite rough near the top. There is a bit of path along the fence but it isn't much easier than the rest of the slope. Binn Chaonaigh is usually combined with Binn Idir an Da Log to its north-west in a very rough round, and in this case Binn Mhairg off to the north is usually avoided. The latter is a nice pert little summit with a great view though and from it you can descend the mostly grassy east ridge and traverse back round to Mam Ean to make a good short loop. Alternatively you can add excitement by reversing the loop but staying low round the foot of the east ridge to reach the huge quartzite slabs on the north-east flank. This is the biggest expanse of solid rock in the range and looks very impressive from below. It's nowhere near as steep as it looks however, and can be scrambled up at Grade 2. The scale of the slabs make them quite serious but any tricky bits are easily avoided. The basic rock is lovely and sound but because it's not that steep there are plenty of unattached rocks sitting on it which need avoiding.


Binn Mhairg, Maam Turks, Connemara
The slabs on Binn Mhairg

North-west again the Knocknahullion to Letterbreckaun section is probably the roughest section of the entire range. A few years ago I had a hugely enjoyable few hours here on a day when the mara was enthusiastically emptying itself over the lands of the Conmaicne. The waterfalls on the way up were looking spectacular, as the lack of peat means that run off happens fast.


Waterfalls, Maam Turks, Connemara
Waterfalls below Lugbaun

Above them the sheer bald rockiness of Lugbaun came as a shock, even though I knew it was coming. You come over the lip of the last falls and it hits you in the face like a blow. Once into the hidden coum behind another thing hit me strongly too – despite the rubbish weather there was nowhere else I'd rather be. In better weather the scrambles up the back of the coum are fun, but given the (non) friction of wet quartzite I opted for the steep grass up right to join the ridge heading up towards the main summit of Knocknahullion. At the ridge a third thing hit me, the wind, but at least the lumpiness of the Maam Turks enables you to duck out of it a lot of the time.


Lough Inagh, Maam Turks, Connemara
Looking across Lough Inagh to Lugbaun and Knocknahullion

After visiting the summit I retraced my steps to the col and continued over the north top and Barr Log Riabhach, with the little lochans providing comforting indications that I was where I thought I was. The first bit of the ridge up to Letterbreckaun is nicely narrow, a reminder that I really must investigate those slabs down to the right one day. The main hill itself was blocking the wind nicely too. Eventually I will get a view from the top of Letterbreckaun, but realistically it was never going to happen that day, and duly didn't. That was hill 4 me 0, but at least it wasn't snowing this time. Back down at the col with Barr Log Riabhach I decided to cut down directly westwards. I'd scrambled about here in the past and figured I could find a way down. All went ok, with a few zigzag sheep tracks to help, but there were a few 'don't slip here' moves and it definitely isn't a recommended way off unless you're happy with commitment and exposure. Needless to say the weather improved as soon as I got down.


Letterbreckaun across Lough Inagh, Maam Turks, Connemara
Letterbreckaun across Lough Inagh

Letterbreckaun is a hugely confusing summit, covered in boulders and with minor ridges running randomly across it which don't reflect the overall shape of the hill. The north-east and south-east ridges aren't at all obvious where they leave the crumpled area and the former has a radical change of direction at a minor top. The more obvious west ridge isn't a great way off as it finishes with cliffs on the lower slopes (it's an entertaining way up though). My first visit to the hill was one November starting up Glen Craff in sunshine and reaching the notch of Mam Tuirc itself just as the mist rolled in and the rain started. The notch was much steeper sided and impressive than the map of the time showed and came as a surprise, bordering on scrambling going up the far side. Beyond the notch I arrived on the quartzite and things immediately got rougher, both in terms of ground and weather, until by the summit I was clambering over boulder piles and it was snowing. I didn't hang around at the cairn! Even though I was retracing my steps the way back felt uncertain in the thick mist and I needed a bearing to reassure myself I was on track. Bailing out from the high ground as soon as possible seemed a good plan so I carried on down the ridge beyond the Mam Tuirc descent, aiming for the Western Way.


Maam Turks, Connemara
Typical ground in the northern Maam Turks, on Binn Bhan looking to Mweelrea

The abandoned village of Lettershanbally wasn't marked on my map and came as a surprise. It shouldn't have, given the name of the townland, but I hadn't made the connection. Given the way I'd arrived, the weather and the absence of the houses from the map it felt like I'd come down into a parallel universe. Was I still in modern Connemara? For several years I took American groups there and they often had the same feeling. It's spookily atmospheric, reminiscent of the cleared villages you find in the Highlands, though in this case the people had left voluntarily, mostly heading across the Atlantic. It's actually a really well-sited place, catching the sun, sheltered from the worst winds and above the bogs of the main glen, but remoteness and poverty had eventually sealed its fate.

I had hoped that the Western Way would provide a nice easy way back but I was disappointed. It had fairly recently been designated as a long distance path and ditches had been dug along both sides of the route to drain it. Unfortunately the digger used had been much too heavy for the surface of the 19th Century road and had converted it into a long thin swamp. It was far easier to walk on the bogs either side!

The northernmost section of the range is outside the quartzite and makes for much easier grassy walking, though it's often quite steep. I went straight up the front of the Anacair ridge once – never again! Leenaun Hill is the main summit and I used to regularly cross it with groups, starting up from Glen Craff and descending to the pubs in Leenaun. I did it once with a group from the US south, not experienced but very keen, full of American gung-ho. The wind got up as we reached the ridge, with gusts reaching 50mph. Walking in this was tough, with plenty of staggering, and wasn't something they had met before. They coped really well, and we managed the full crossing. They weren't a group prone to minmising their achievements though and once ensconced in Hamilton's in Leenaun the wind speed had become 70mph, and by dinner it had reached 90. I dread to think what they reported it as by the time they got back to Georgia!


Killary Lodge and the northern Maam Turks, Connemara
Killary Lodge and the northern Maam Turks

It feels like I've had far more days of epic weather on the Maam Turks than on other Connemara hills, but if I go back and add them up this isn't the case. My suspicion is that the convoluted nature of the Turks gives wild weather much more of an impact than on their more open friendly neighbours across Glen Inagh and so those days stick in your memory more tenaciously. The days of sunshine, light breezes and fluffy clouds all fade into a blur, though I know they existed. If I'm pushed I pick the Twelve Bens as my favourite Irish hills but for sheer impact the Maam Turks have everywhere else beaten hollow.



Three paragraphs of this are a slightly amended version of a comment on Mountainviews.ie

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