Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ireland: Highland Regions

The Irish Highland Regions: An Overview

Ireland is by no means a flat land. Other comparably sized areas of Europe, such as the Netherlands, Denmark and to a certain extent even England, have a notably flatter landscape. Ireland, however, has no regions that are comparable in size and scale to the Highlands of nearby Scotland. Scotland could be fairly said to be mountainous, but the topography of Ireland would be more accurately described as a landscape of rolling hills, with the occasional tall peak breaking out of the landscape.

Frequently, topographical maps representing Britain and Ireland underestimate the extent of the highland areas of Ireland. Part of the problem may be due to the layout of the Hills and Mountains of Ireland: In Britain, the highland areas are clustered in the West and the North of the island, with the East and South being fairly flat (in the south-east of England, a considerable chunk of land even falls below sea-level). In Ireland, by way of comparison, areas of highland are scattered in all directions, as if having been spewed forth onto the landscape by some ancient Celtic god. There are no regions of highland comparable to the Scottish or Welsh Highlands. However, there are several areas in Ireland very similar to England's only true mountain region, the Cumberland Mountains in the extreme North-West of England. The hilly terrain of Cornwall is also somewhat like the terrain found in some parts of Ireland. Overall, the western parts of England are the regions of Britain most like Ireland in terms of terrain.

The strategic importance of areas of hills and mountains have been long recognised by military minds. In the 18th century, Maurice de Saxe argued in his memoirs that strong natural sites made more defensible strongholds than walled cities, but the logic of the argument had long been recognised, not least by the Gaelic population of Ireland. It is notable that the Medieval Anglo-Normans invaders in Ireland largely failed to conquer areas of Ireland dominated by highland (Kerry, Iar Connacht and Western Ulster) although certainly the remoteness of all these regions from England also played a part here, given the limitations of naval power in the Middle Ages.

The largest areas of unbroken highland in Ireland are located in county Wicklow and in the West of Munster, but it should be noted that in Ireland, many relatively small clusters of hill and mountain could have a disproportionate influence due to their strategic location. The best example of this in Ireland are the Slieve Bloom mountains, located in Laois in the heart of Ireland. As mountains go, the Slieve blooms are not particularly impressive: the tallest peak rises to only 530 metres, and in terms of area, they are only one-quarter the size of the Wicklow mountains further to the east; indeed they would more fairly be described as formidable hills rather than mountains. The importance of the Slieve Blooms lie in the fact that they are the only substantial cluster of highland terrain in central Ireland. A commander hoping to pacify this region had to contend with some serious logistic hurdles: a 50 mile march from Dublin over boggy and wooded terrain was required to reach the Slieve Blooms, and the locals were often ready well in advance, for by taking advantage of the high ground they could see for miles across the low lying surrounding land. The O'Molloy sept native to the area were able to remain unconquered until the Elizabethan era, and this had much to do with the location of this cluster of highland. Interestingly, despite the much greater size and scale of the Wicklow mountains, the Medieval invaders managed to pacify this region in the 13th century, even if only for a few decades. Clearly, other factors apart from the size and area of rugged highland areas are important determinants in the effectiveness of these areas as strong points.

A counter example to the Slieve Blooms is in the extreme west of Ireland, in county Kerry. The Dingle peninsular is dominated by an area of highland comparable in area to the Slieve Bloom hills, but vastly exceeding them in scale. The tallest peak, Mt Brandon, is a mountain by even the most rigid definition, standing 950 meters above sea level at its highest point, and a number of other peaks here are over 2000 feet (610m.) However, the mountains of Dingle have never proved to be of much strategic importance in Irish history. They were conquered by the Normans in the 13th Century (unlike the more southerly mountains of Kerry), and they did not offer sufficient protection to the outlawed Earl of Desmond, who met his end here in 1583 while hiding out near Tralee. The strategic problem in this case is that they are located in the very Western extremity of Ireland, on a narrow peninsular that could easily be cut off by a single company of soldiers. The land is not particularly fertile, and only the town of Dingle was worth any consideration from an invaders view point, though even this town declined in importance over the 16th century.

Above mention was made of the fact that the mountains and hills are scattered about the landscape, but there is one notable exception here. The North-Central region of Ireland (an area which roughly corresponds to the ancient province of Meath) is very flat. Although the terrain here was still difficult in parts (due to some lakes and large areas of bogland) there are few hills, and no mountains in this one area of Ireland. The nature of the terrain in Meath favoured forces with effective cavalry, and in general this meant English armies had an edge over the Irish in this region.

The Influence of terrain on Irish History

The geography of any land plays a great part in the shaping of its history. In contrast to England, which gradually unified over the course of the Middle Ages, Ireland remained divided, Even if there was a sense of cultural unity. It is hard not to see that differences in terrain played a part here: Ireland is broken up by not only large highland areas, but also by long rivers and large lakes to a far greater extent than is England. The most extreme example of this is the entire province of Connaught, which is divided from the rest of Ireland by the formidable river Shannon as well as some great hills in the north-east.

There are many lesser examples. The lakes of lough Corrib and Mask partitions Iar Connacht (west Connaught) from the rest of the province just as Connaught is partitioned from the remainder of Ireland by the river Shannon. In the province of Munster, the 'Sliabh Luachra', a long and formidable stretch of highland running from the Beara peninsular to central Cork, acted as a barrier between South Cork and the West Cork/Kerry region. In Ulster, the Medieval era lordship of the O'Neills was sharply divided by the Sperrins, a mass of formidable hills that effectively sliced the territory in half.

The importance of this was that in many parts of Ireland, it was problematic for any conqueror to maintain their grasp on territory. Great lakes and regions of formidable hill and mountain made it hard for conquerors to react swiftly to any resistance, as their armies would be forced to take lengthy detours or organise shipping to get around this impassable terrain. The Norman invaders of England, a relatively flat land, were able to conquer the region in a matter of years. Many of the grand-sons of these invaders then went on to launch an invasion of Ireland in 1170, but the eventual subjugation of Ireland took centuries. Ireland's chequerboard terrain made it a tougher nut to crack. As such, military domination of the island would have to wait until the improvements in England's naval capabilities in the 16th Century made a conquest viable.

The Highlands of the East: Wicklow

At one time, the Wicklow mountains were without question the most strategically important region of highland in Ireland. The main reason for this is simply that the principal city of Ireland, Dublin, is virtually a neighbour to this major block of highland. Apart from that, the Wicklow mountains are formidable in their own right: this area of highland stretches roughly 25 miles North-to-South and 15 miles East-West. If we define a highland region as a substantial area at least 200 metres above sea-level, the Wicklow mountains are amongst the largest of such regions in Ireland, and certainly the largest outside of Munster. One unusual feature of the Wicklow mountains is that a considerable expanse of the region is over 300 metres /1000 feet: measured by area, the largest cluster of land over 1000 feet in Ireland is found within this area of high ground. This is why the Wicklow mountains are occasionally labelled as the most substantial Highland region in Ireland; certainly by using a more restrictive definition, this would be quite accurate.

The Influence of the Wicklow mountains on Irish History

The Wicklow highlands are probably the only area of mountain in Ireland that could clearly be said to have changed the course of British history. In October 1394, the King of England, Richard II landed at Waterford with a large army, demanding the submission of all the Irish lords. In this the king was successful, but only temporarily. The king of Leinster Art MacMurrough was amongst the Irish leaders to have sworn allegiance to the King of England, but within a few years he was once again engaged in hostilities. Richard returned to Ireland in 1399 to quell this warring chieftain, but MacMurrough, having taken refuge in the natural fortress of Wicklow, was able to bog the English army down by cutting off their supplies. While conducting this miserable campaign, an exiled cousin of Richard, Bolingbroke, returned to England and was promptly elected king by a sympathetic Parliament. Richard in desperation left Ireland for England, but was quickly captured on his return. He died in captivity the following year. Richard II would prove to be the only English ruler to lead a major army into Ireland until Oliver Cromwell's invasion of 1649, two-and-a-half centuries later: the miserable experience of Richard II no doubt discouraged the other intervening rulers in England from following in his footsteps.

The example set by Art MacMurrough ensured that the strategic importance of the Wicklow mountains was well understood by later Gaelic leaders, most notably during the Irish wars of the Elizabethan era. In 1580, the English Lord Arthur Grey embarked on an ill-advised attempt to destroy a Gaelic force led by Feagh MacHugh O’Byrne in Glenmalure, the remote valley in the bowels of the Wicklow mountains. Up against a local Irish force defending a wooded slope, the assault was a debacle, becoming infamous in Ireland as a local version of Braddock's last stand.

The Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O'Neill could not have missed the significance of this defeat. During the Nine Years War, alliances with the Gaelic leaders native to Wicklow such as Feagh MacHugh O'Byrne enabled O'Neill to launch a proxy war from Wicklow, forcing the Crown forces to divert resources southwards to Wicklow and securing O'Neill's own northern support base. Fifty years later, the conspirators of 1641 also seem to have been aware of the value of the Wicklow region: Within three weeks of the first movements of the Ulster insurgents, substantial disturbances were recorded in county Wicklow, Carlow, Wexford & Laois. Counties Carlow & Wexford neighbour Wicklow (some of the foothills of the Wicklow extend into the north of Wexford): Laois is the exception, not bordering Wicklow, but interestingly, as earlier noted it is home to another strategically important area of highland, the Slieve Blooms. It has been suggested that the rapid eruption of these areas into rebellion points to some involvement in, or at least a foreknowledge, of the 1641 conspiracy by some of the locals in Wicklow and Laois. (pg 254, Perceval-Maxwell, The Outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641) Wicklow, being so close to the principal city of Ireland, would have made a suitable base for insurgents wishing to avoid detection before embarking upon mischievous endeavours in the capital.

The proximity of Wicklow to Dublin was something of a double edged sword. While Irish forces in Wicklow were within striking distance of Dublin, they themselves were in turn vulnerable to counter attacks from Dublin. In the Nine years war, there were two successful raids launched into Wicklow by the Crown forces, firstly in 1597 and then in 1600. In the first raid, William Russell, the Lord Deputy, employed deceptive manoeuvrers to enact a surprise raid in which he captured O'Byrnes's house at Ballincorr: O'Byrne himself narrowly managed to escape, but thereafter the mountains were flooded with hundreds of soldiers, and eventually O'Byrne was cornered in a cave and killed. Phelim, the son of Feagh MacHugh continued to support Hugh O' Neill, and a second raid was launched on Christmas Eve of 1600 by Mountjoy. In this raid, Phelim MacFeagh also managed to escape by leaping out of a back window, but his own son was captured: thereafter he was induced to surrender. Presumably this raid left an impression on the progeny of Phelim O'Byrne: Hugh MacPhelim, the son of Phelim O'Byrne, would turn Tory during the Cromwellian invasion some fifty years later, becoming noted for his uncanny ability to escape capture.

The last conflict in which the Wicklow mountains played a considerable role was the 1798 rebellion: insurgents fleeing from Vinegar Hill inflicted a defeat on a force of 200 troopers in an ambush at Ballyellis, and for years afterwards the mountains acted as a protective shelter for the surviving insurgents. As a result of the 1798 disturbances, the British government built a fortified military road to the mountain core via the Sally Gap (one of the major passes in the Wicklow mountains). The military road was not much used for its intended purpose, however, for 1798 would prove to be the last time in which the Wicklow mountains played a major part in a conflict in Ireland.

Highlands of the South: West Munster

Although the Wicklow mountains are substantial in terms of area, they can be in no way compared to the sheer scale of the Highlands in the Western parts of Munster. This region is frequently dubbed West-Cork/Kerry, but this is is a little misleading: Although the highland areas here are centred about the border regions of Kerry and Cork, they actually stretch a fair way into the West of county Limerick, an area known in former times as the Barony of Shanid.

Unlike in Wicklow, the areas of mountain and hill of this region form into several medium-to-large blocks, most of which, though in close proximity, do not quite join together to form one mass of highland. The region is dominated by two main blocks of highland. The first of these is the long stretch of formidable hill or mountain running from the Beara peninsula up towards central Cork: this area is called the 'Sliabh Luachra'. The second block is the mass of hills centered on the Mullaghareirk mountains, which spreads out across into three nearby counties. As probably the most impassable area in Ireland, the region was extremely difficult to conquer.

While neither of the major west Munster blocks of highland is confined to a single county, they predominate in the County of Kerry. Today, nearly 50% of Kerry is classed as Mountains or Bog, with most of the remaining land being cultivated regions. The areas of bogland were even more extensive centuries ago.

The Sliabh Luachra

The 'Sliabh Luachra' is a long wall of formidable highland that run from the Beara peninsular (south of the Kenmare river) and into county Cork. This area of Highland encompasses the Caha, Sheehy and Boggeragh mountains. From one end of these mountains to the other, it is possible to walk over fifty miles (80 km) without ever falling below an altitude of 200 metres above sea level. The foothills of the Boggeragh mountains, at the extreme East of this length of highland, are a mere twelve miles (20 km) from the town of Cork. These formidable hills thus were of some strategic importance, providing a protective corridor of movement to a weaker force who wished to move between central Cork and Kerry.

The West Munster Hills

The second major (in terms of area) highland region in western Munster is centred on the borders of counties Limerick, Cork and Kerry. The area centres on the Mullaghareirk mountains but also encompasses the Glanaruddery and Stacks mountains of Kerry and the hills of West Limerick. It is seldom realised that these hills form one of the largest unbroken highland regions in Ireland: these hills cover an area nearly as great as that of the Wicklow mountains. The lack of recognition of this highland area is quite understandable however, for although these hills can be compared with Wicklow in terms of surface area, there is no comparison when it comes to comparing the relative altitude. The tallest peak of these hills is the 438 metre hill of Knockanefune, a formidable hill certainly but less than half the height of the great Wicklow mountain Lugnaquilla.

At their most southerly point, the West Munster Hills come within three miles/ five kilometres of the Mountains of the Sliabh Luachra, only divided by the narrow western extremity of the Blackwater valley. Two of the four great highland areas of Ireland are thus within close proximity; furthermore, a third, smaller but still formidable stretch of highland dominates the nearby peninsular of Iveragh. This peninsular is home to the Macqillycuddy's Reeks, location of the tallest mountain in Ireland, Carrauntouhill (1041). The three of these formidable Highland clusters are divided only by narrow valleys: There is little question as such that the West of Munster is the most mountainous area in Ireland.

The West of Munster in the Eleven Years War

It was common for weakened armies to take shelter in Kerry and the surrounding regions, and this region played a particularly notable role in the Eleven Years War. Murrough O'Brien, the Baron (and later Earl) of Inchiquin seemed particularly adept at this tactic. In early 1643 Inchiquin, facing a shortage of supplies and reinvigorated Confederate armies, led his force of counter-insurgents into Kerry. Several years later, when faced with the Cromwellian push across Ireland, Inchiquin again retreated into Kerry with a large number of soldiers, from where he launched opportunistic counter-attacks against the invaders.

Inchiquin eventually lost hope and departed for Europe, but the county of Kerry would remain one of the last regions to hold out against the Cromwellian invasion. After 1650 it was one of only two substantial areas to remain in Irish hands (the other being Greater Connaught, the area west of the river Shannon). The remote fortress of Ross Castle, located in the valley running between the two largest areas of west Munster highland, caused particular consternation for the Parliamentarian Commander Ludlow. Donough MacCarthy, the Viscount Muskerry had strengthened the fortifications of the remote castle, and many of the surviving Irish leaders and ecclesiastics took refuge there. The stronghold held out for some time against a force of over 2000 soldiers, before finally surrendering in July 1652.

Highlands of the North: The Caledonian Mountain Range

The Caledonians were a vast ancient mountain range, the remains of which still dominate the landscape of much of Connaught and Ulster today. The remnants of these once mighty highlands also stretch into Scotland, northern Scandinavia and even as far as the east coast of North America. The imprint of these mountains is more obvious in nearby Scotland, where the Southern uplands bordering North England still today form a large block of Highland of Caledonian origin, though these hills today are nowhere near as great as they were in past millennia. In Ireland, the Caledonian mountains do not form a continuous block of highland, and as such they are not immediately obvious from a detailed topographical map of Ireland. They can be seen more clearly on a larger scale topographical map of Ireland (or one covering both Britain and Ireland): The bounds of these ancient mountains were on the North-Western fringes of Ulster and Connaught. Although these large hills do not retain their ancient majesty, the remnants form a notable pattern as they stretch across the north-west of Ireland. The ruins of the Caledonians are spread about in fairly close clusters, at intervals of, at most 10-15 miles (15-25 Km). These regular clusters of hill are a distinctive feature of the North-West of Ireland.

Strategically, this terrain gave a notable advantage to Gaelic forces, who were generally deficient when in came to cavalry. The constant clusters of hill over this large area acted not entirely unlike stepping stones over a pond, a series of safe places to which infantry forces could escape to if threatened by a swift force of horsemen. Thus, a lightly armed fleet-footed force could hop between one cluster of highland to the next; in this manner they could potentially reach as far as Connemara in Connaught from the hills around the Roe Valley in North Ulster, a distance of over 200 Kilometres.

The Sperrins

The Greatest single mass of the ancient Caledonians remaining in Ireland is to be found in the Sperrins of central Ulster. In terms of area, the Sperrins are an unevenly shaped mass of Highland, running about 20 miles North-South and the same East-West, though narrow valleys cut into the Sperrins in a number of places. With respect to both area and height, the Sperrins are not quite as great as Wicklow: The tallest peak in the Sperrins, Sawel Mt. is 680 metres above Sea-level. This is fairly impressive by Irish standards, but still falls a fair way below the biggest mountains of Wicklow or Kerry. That said, the Sperrins are still a formidable area of High ground, with three peaks over 2000 feet/610 m in height. And though the Sperrins are smaller in area, the difference is not a great one. Perhaps one strategic advantage the Sperrins had over Wicklow was that it is surrounded by clusters of hill, particularly to the north (the hills surrounding the Roe Valley) and to the south-west. As the central and west of Ulster was once part of the Caledonians, these small clusters of hill rise out of the landscape at irregular intervals, each typically about 5-10 kilometres apart. In earlier times, a lightly armed force of infantry would be able to move from one cluster of hill to the next in a matter of hours. In modern parlance the hills acted as a force multiplier: a force based in the Sperrins was able to exert its influence over a wide range, even more so than was the case for Wicklow (the terrain in the immediate surrounds of the Wicklow mountains is predominately low-lying, excepting the Blackstairs mountains to the south-west).

In 1609, when Chichester, Lord Deputy of Ireland was promoting the plantation of Ulster, the representatives of the London guilds were deliberately kept away from the Sperrin Mountains. It would have been obvious to observers of the day that this substantial highland was well suited to act as a shelter for outlaws of all types, particularly given that the province was full of Irish veterans of the recent war. The instability that frequently plagued Ulster was surely in part due to the nature of the landscape: The Sperrins split the northern half of the province, with countless small clusters of hill dotting the landscape further to the west and north.


From the perspective of a historian with any military interest, the terrain of Ireland makes for an interesting study: as an island, the nature of the land means that armies were isolated from outside influences to a greater degree than was the norm in continental wars. In addition, as has been noted above, the Irish landscape is of a patchy nature, with clusters of hill and mountain interspersed with substantial areas of flatter countryside. Fynes Moryson, the Elizabethan traveller and secretary to Mountjoy during the Nine Years War, remarked that the Irish landscape was more varied than he had anticipated, and without doubt the Irish landscape is much less monotonous than in many other Western European lands.

This aspect of the Irish terrain had important historical ramifications. The Irish people have been historically divided to a greater extent than the neighbouring lands of England and Scotland. At times, the terrain of a land can serve to unify a people: something of this sort can perhaps be seen in Scotland, where a culturally diverse group of people gained a sense of identity form the mountainous regions in which they resided; this perception of unity helped the Kingdom of Scotland to survive for centuries.

The Kingdom of England, too, was in part characterised by its terrain, though to a lesser extent than Scotland. But in both these kingdoms, differences in landscape often marked out differences in regional culture: England had a distinct North/South divide between the inhabitants of the hilly regions and those of the low lying lands further South, and in the same manner in Scotland the Highlands and Lowlands were distinctive.

The regional cultural divisions in Scotland and England could be profound, but they were generally manageable. But in Ireland, these regional divisions were more problematic. Instead of the massive Highland regions in Britain, Ireland was endowed with numerous smaller areas of highland scattered around the landscape. In the Middle Ages, though these areas of Highland more often than not remained unconquered natural strongholds, they also found themselves increasingly isolated, perhaps leading to a greater degree provincialism across the island. It is worth pondering if by the end of the 16th Century, the Gaelic inhabitants of Kerry felt much of a cultural connection with the Gaels of Ulster, given the gulf that had emerged between these two regions. It would be fair to surmise that the divisions that would plague the Irish in the wars of the 1640s were at least in part a legacy of this variable Irish landscape.

Appendix: Defining a Hill and a Mountain

It is not particularly easy to determine the cut off point between a Hill and a Mountain. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines a mountain as a peak reaching at height of least 610 metres (2000 feet) but some hold even more rigid definitions, with heights of 915 metres (3000 feet) being proposed as the minimum accepted size for a mountain. To add the confusion, on a local basis peaks are often labelled mountains, with no consideration given to any technicalities. All across Ireland there are areas of highland which have long been described as mountains, though often the tallest peak falls far short of even 2000 feet. Some definitions of mountains also stress the importance of local elevation, rather than just the height above sea level. By this method of measurement, the overall height is measured purely from the foot of the mountain to the top of the tallest peak: the height of any 'base' the mountain may be sitting on is disregarded. Using this definition, Galtymore mountain, in central Munster, would come down to the same height as the Ulster peak Sleive Donard (from 919 metres, down to 850 metres- Galtymore is further from the coast from Slieve Donard, so it is raised somewhat by the higher lie of the land). Generally speaking, given that Ireland is not a large island, using the elevation above sea level is not problematic. Local elevation is of more importance when dealing with massive areas of highland, such as in the central areas of Europe or Asia.

The 3,000 + peaks

If we accept the most rigorous definition of mountain, that of at least 3000 feet above sea level, then mountains are found in only three regions of Ireland. The first of these is Wicklow: the tallest peak in this county, known as Lugnaquilla, reaches 926 metres in height, and would therefore make the grade. Central Munster has a peak of comparable size: Galtymore, as mentioned earlier, stands at 919 metres, and would pass as a mountain without debate. The third region is the mountainous peninsulas in Kerry. Kerry has not one, but two clusters of highland which reach heights in excess of 915 metres. The first of these, Brandon mountain in Dingle, is 953 metres, and the second, at 1041 metres, is the tallest mountain in Ireland, Carrantuohill. This mountain in fact has multiple peaks breaking the 3000 foot point, but for the sake of simplicity only the tallest points of individual mountains have been counted here

It is noteworthy that all of these mountains are in Southern Ireland, but it would be a mistake to infer from this that the Southern Provinces of Ireland are more rugged than the North. The highland areas of the north of Ireland are most ancient in nature, considerably older than the mountains in Kerry or Wicklow, but due to weathering over the millennia, they tend to be modest in size. At any cost, the 3000+ definition used above is one of the most restrictive out of many definitions. In many ways, the size of a mountain is a matter of opinion. As mentioned above, some define a mountain as being over 2000 feet, and some definitions allow peaks even less than this.

Peaks of 2000 +

If we use the 2000 feet/610 m. cut off point to determine a mountain, the island of Ireland would have in total 25 mountains, considerably more than in England/Wales (which together have 11 all up) though many less than can be found in Scotland, which has more than 80 in the 2000+ range. Oddly, for whatever reason Ireland has a particularly large number of peaks falling in the 2,000 - 2,500 foot 'borderline' range (12 in Ireland, compared to only 7 in mountainous Scotland and none in this range in England/Wales). Going through all 25 of the 2,000+ peaks is not practical for the purposes of this article, but the list below of the tallest peaks in Ireland by region is pretty indicative as to the location of the most significant peaks in Ireland.

Greatest Irish Peaks: By Region

Name of
RegionHeight (metres)
CarrantuohillThe Reeks, West Munster104
BrandonDingle, West Munster95
LugnaquillaWicklow, Leinster926
GaltymoreCentral Munster919
Slieve DonardMourne Mountains, Ulster850
MweelreaSouth Mayo, Connaught815
Nephin MountainNorth Mayo, Connaught8o6
Mount LeinsterBlackstairs, Leinster795
KnockmealdownTipperary, East Munster794
ComeraghWaterford, East Munster792