Our Own Worst Enemy: 1916 to the Civil War

So when complaints about Irish Water and politicians run out of steam, recently we’ve been inevitably turning back to the commemoration of the Easter Rising, an unsuccessful insurrection against British rule in 1916. Of course nothing in Ireland is ever simple.

History in Ireland tends to be intermingled with myth. Folk memory clashes with facts and even in school, the history we learned was that the road to independence was a popular struggle, whole-heartedly supported by all the population of the island. Or by all “true” Irishmen anyways. Coming up to the centenary of our independence, it’s time we fully acknowledge what happened in the name of independence and sovereignty. And the bloody aftermath with regards to our own civil war.

Our own complicated relationship with our larger neighbour has influenced our reluctance to acknowledge the true situation on the island in the violent decade of 1913-1923, the formative years of what is now the modern state. From gun-running into Larne and Howth, two armed militias willing to fight both for and against Home Rule, battles on the Somme and at Gallipoli, rebellion in Dublin and independence and a civil war, the country changed over the course of a decade that no one could have predicted.

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Bloody Sunday 1913, the DMP and RIC baton charge and engage in street battles with the strikers during the Dublin Lockout.

Nearly a third of the government forces killed during the Easter Rising were Irish. Roger Casement’s plan to form an Irish Brigade amongst POWs to fight for the German Empire (akin to the Czechoslovak Legions) managed to recruit about 55 volunteers. Over 200,00 Irishmen served in WW1 for the Empire from the Western Front to Mesopotamia. They were no different than Poles fighting for Germany, Algerians for the French or Czechs for the Austrians. The Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police were comprised mostly of Irishmen and while in the former, most of the officers were Protestant, a large majority of the rank and file were Catholic. Ireland had been ruled from mainland Britain since the Act of Union in 1800 and while the spirit of revolution had never died out, there were many who were happy with their lot in the Empire.

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The man there is my great grand uncle, Gerald John Fitzgibbon. During the Great War, he served with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers on the Western Front, as part of the 10th (Irish) Division. Gerald from his writings didn’t appear to be too political a man. His writing is simple, honest and always with a cheerful, optimistic tone. Days where his company only suffered from shellfire were described as “quiet”. He would also comment positively on the weather sometimes with a wistful reference to home.

On the 20th of November, 1917, the battle of Cambrai saw the German lines shattered in a stunning assault by the first effective use of tanks in warfare. After three years of bloody stalemate, it was an unparalleled success even more so than the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge. That evening Gerald escorted a column of around a hundred prisoners back to the British lines. Evidently they’d not been searched as one of them shot Gerald with a concealed handgun. He was just one of 4,000 Allied casualties on the day.

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Gerald was nothing special, just one of thousands of Irishmen who’d enlisted, from all over the island and one of the roughly 40,000+ Irishmen who paid the ultimate price. While the 36th (Ulster) and 10th/16th (Irish) Divisions were generally speaking split alongside Unionist/Nationalist and Protestant/Catholic lines, it made no difference on the field. At Messines and Wijtschate, Orangemen and Home Rulers fought and died together. At 3rd Ypres the divisions lost more than 50% of their strength, nearly 8,000 men. Even the much maligned Haig was critical of Gough for “playing the Irish card” (Gough incidentally was also one of the officers central in the Curragh Incident, where British officers said they would resign rather than enforce Home Rule).

These veterans returned home to an atmosphere of increasing hostility towards the government, particularly after the executions of the 1916 leaders and the Conscription Crisis. Largely distrusted, some still joined the IRA, most famously Tom Barry, the west Cork flying column leader. Their conflicted loyalty and feeling is best shown by the poet Francis Ledwidge who wrote that

“I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy of civilisation and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing but pass resolutions”.

The Easter Rising was a shock to his system, he was court-martialed for drunkenness in uniform being sent back to the front.

“If someone were to tell me now that the Germans were coming in over our back wall, I wouldn’t lift a finger to stop them. They could come!”

 

Ledwidge died at 3rd Ypres.

Many demobilised veterans emigrated, in search of employment and also to avoid rising nationalist sentiment at home. Less admirably, some turned to alternative employment, some 10% of the Auxiliaries and Black and Tans were Irish. With divided loyalties, they struggled to find a place in Ireland. Generally ignored in Irish history and their role downplayed by British historians after the War of Independence, it’s only been in recent decades that we’ve begun to acknowledge their experiences.

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British officers pose with the GPO flag after the Easter Rising. On the far right is Lt. Dick Burke MC, a Kerryman from Dingle, Royal Irish Regiment. After the Rising, he fought at Wijtschate, 1917. Three battalions of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers fought to put down the Rising.

The War of Independence was never a widespread affair. A quarter of the country was put under martial law with conflict mostly confined to Munster and Dublin. Smaller flying columns operated in the Midlands and Connacht and Belfast was the scene of frequent sectarian rioting. Commanders were largely independent and columns centred on local loyalty, the ambush at Soloheadbeg was done without the approval of the Army Council.

The casualty figures for the RIC alone could give rise to the argument that it was our first civil war. The majority were ordinary men making a living, not a colonial gendarmie oppressing the populace . Their reputation had been tarnished through their association with landlords and evictions but the force was still acknowledged as a legitimate one. Police service was nothing strange, similar to the large numbers of Irish serving in the British military. In mainland Britain, 25% of the police were Irish-born. Subject to a boycott and shunned by their neighbours, the RIC paid a heavy price for their chosen occupation during the War of Independence. No one denies the numerous British atrocities committed during the War of Independence. But we seem to cast a blind eye to ones committed in the name of independence, such as those soldiers and policemen executed while off-duty or murdered in their homes.

1916 and the War of Independence are relatively safe topics for us to salve our conscience because despite the atrocities committed by both sides, it was in the name of independence and pursuit of sovereignty. The Civil War is largely ignored, school history books sidestepping discussing topics such as illegal executions and murders. And yet this bloodier conflict has shaped the Ireland of today, the scars of the war still living on and at the roots of our oldest political parties.

The same bloody, dirty conflict continued. Except this time it was Irishman against Irishman. Units had divided loyalties, even families were split. But both sides were ruthless in their efforts to assert control. The IRA men who seized the Four Courts were no less determined than the National Army soldiers who used borrowed British artillery to blast them out, six years on from 1916.

The National Army stood at nearly 60,000 strong by the close of the war. A large number of WW1 veterans had joined though substantial numbers of IRA men had also chosen to support the Treaty (the Dublin Guard being the best known). Men who’d been on the same side a year before were now picking sides and preparing for a war.

 

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Bombarding the Four Courts, 1922.

Outside my local GAA pitch is a simple white cross to a Flynn, shot by Free State troops after their landing at Fenit. A few miles further from Tralee is another to an O’Sullivan, killed the same day. With the exception of Listowel, the majority of the IRA in Kerry were anti-treaty and refused to recognize the authority of the Provisional government.

In Kerry, the Civil War was fought to the bitter end, the local IRA and National Army conducting bloody reprisals in response to any success by the other side. The Free Staters are remembered vehemently, being seen as worse than the preceding British forces. Kerry saw more conflict and death during the Civil War than it did during the War of Independence. The actions of the Dublin Guard in Kerry were comparable if not even more deplorable than the worst excesses of the Auxiliaries or the Black and Tans. Paddy Daly, their commander, later commented

“Nobody had asked me to take kid gloves to Kerry, so I didn’t”.

The Dublin Guard beat and tortured prisoners while the IRA in Kerry, reduced to guerilla warfare at this stage, responded by targeting medical orderlies and killing two local National Officers, the O’Connor brothers after separating them from other prisoners.

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National Army troops during the Civil War.

At Ballyseedy Cross outside Tralee on the night of 6/7 March 1923, nine Republican prisoners were tied to a mine by Free State soldiers before it was detonated. The survivors were machine-gunned. It was a reprisal for the death of five National Army soldiers in Knocknagoshel from a booby-trap. Four more Republican prisoners were blown to pieces that same night in Killarney, while five days later another five were blown up in Cahersiveen. Other prisoners had trials before their executions while some were just shot out of hand when captured.

 

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The memorial at Ballyseedy to the eight killed. Stephen Fuller was miraculously blown clear and survived.

The deaths were covered up as accidental, the result of mine-clearing operations. Richard Mulcahy defended it in the Dáil and an enquiry absolved those responsible. It was another wretched chapter in a pointless conflict one that had less than two months to run. The Free State was dogged in its attempts to crush all resistance while the IRA were just as determined to draw out the conflict, even if they’d now lost all hope of victory.

I met the last survivor of the War of Independence, Dan Keating, for a school project in TY. Unrepentant to the end, he never recognized the authority of the Irish Free State nor the successive Republic. He’d been engaged in a shoot out the day before the Truce in Castleisland, where five Tans and four IRA men were killed. Yet his condemnation of the Dublin soldiers was even more damning, a sentiment that was shared by many in Kerry. Clad in borrowed British uniforms, armed with British weapons and with an unfamiliar accent, it’s no wonder they saw little difference between the Dubliners and the British. The soldiers coming from the largest city on the island, they’d have little in common with the inhabitants of the mountainous, rural county. Many of the anti-treaty forces felt they’d fought their own war, independent of the Army Council, so why now should they accept a treaty they hadn’t fought for?

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IRA members patrolling Grafton Street before hostilities.

The Guard was also officered mostly by ex-members of the Squad and ASU. They were loyal to Collins in the same way that a local flying column was to their commander. His assassination stripped away any restrictions. His successes and failings have been debated endlessly but it’s clear he’d been a restraining influence on his men. The weekend after his death, four Republicans were found shot, their bodies dumped around the city. The CID (Criminal Investigation Department) was officially, a plains-clothes detective unit but they began to act with single-minded brutality. Attacks on their men were answered with the finding and killing of known Republicans in simple reprisal.

The Dublin Guard are singled out here just with relation to the conflict in Kerry. Irishmen from all backgrounds, counties and walks of life proved themselves capable of acts of barbarism and savagery during the Civil War. In Wexford, three Republican prisoners were executed on March 13th. The local IRA commander retaliated by capturing and executing three National Army soldiers. In response again, the Free State had two known local Republicans killed. In Donegal after the death of a soldier in an ambush, the National Army by executing four prisoners. The Republican forces were no different, they too abducted and committed extra-judicial killings.

Internment, normally connected with Northern Ireland, was used to great effect by the Free State during the Civil War. Censorship too was invoked, forcing the media to refer to the IRA as “irregulars” or to “armed gangs” of men, further de-legitimizing them in the eyes of the public. While a mere side-show to contemporary conflicts like the Russian Civil War or later ones such as in Spain, the Civil War in Ireland was nonetheless a dirty one. Both sides proved themselves to be motivated by revenge, when all that mattered was ‘sending a message’ to the other side.

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IRA prisoner being escorted by Free State troops.

The reluctance to remember the Civil War is akin to the repression of an uncomfortable memory. But we can’t ignore the reality, that it did happen, the final chapter in the creation of our state. Everyone admits that it began with violence, the “popular” struggle of 1916 and the War of Independence. Not so many are willing to acknowledge that our state began with internment, state executions, censorship and if the actions of the Dublin Guard are anything to go by, death squads.

1916 has to be commemorated but understood with it’s relationship to the events preceding and following it, it’s only one of several formative events in the creation of the state. Examining them in isolation gives us nothing. We can’t just focus on the glory and popular view. Our rose-tinted view of the past has to be tackled along with our tendency to romanticize and ignore the darker aspects of the past. Particularly that of the brutality and savage actions that Irishmen were capable of committing against their own countrymen.

As Shaw said “Put an Irishman on a spit and you can always find another one to turn him”. 

 

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Silesia: An Outsider’s Perspective.

So while I’ve been living and working in Poland for just over five months now, I’ve written very little about the culture, the people or even the history of what really is a fascinating country.

I work and live now in south-western Poland, quite close to the border with Czech Republic in what is more commonly known as Silesia (Śląsk). Similar to Kashubia or the mountain communities along the Carpathians, it’s maintained a distinctive identity and for some is even seen as a separate nationality. It’s traditionally a heartland for industry and generally speaking, one of the better off regions in Poland, in much the same way Catalonia is for Spain. And they have some impressive food.

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Rolada. A big hunk of meat and….other stuff. Served with dumplings and red cabbage. Amazing taste.

 

Historically Silesia has been a borderland, with the Holy Roman Empire and Kingdom of Poland vying for it as far back as the end of the 9th century. It’s suffered Mongol invasions, Legnica in 1241 being the furthest west into Europe the horde ever came. After that, Silesia would be swapped between rival powers as the fortunes of war waxed and waned in her favour. Hussites, Bohemians, Poles, Germans, Habsburgs, Swedes would all stake their claim.

Frederick the Great of Prussia would be the last main conqueror of Silesia when it was annexed in 1740. A series of conflicts over the next two decades would assure Prussian control over the majority of the region. In 1871 it would become part of the German Empire and continue to be a popular destination for immigrants in lieu of it’s increasing industrialisation. This proceeded hand in hand with the aggressive Germanization of the native population.

 

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A map of the Prussian province of Silesia with German and Polish names for each region.

Naturally, tensions arose. Silesia as a whole was at this time 25% Polish. Of course this distinction is hazy as a policy of forced Germanization had blurred the lines as to whether someone was an ethnic Pole, a Polish speaker or any combination thereof. The tragic partitions of Poland at the close of the 18th century had removed the nation from the map but similar to Ireland, the identity remained. Split between Austria, Prussia and Russia, a Polish identity preserved despite edicts attempting to remove their language and cultural identity. Complicating the issue in Silesia was that Prussia represented a primarily Protestant urban stereotype as opposed to that of the rural, Catholic Poland. This generally ran true for the Polish and German inhabitants of the region.

Upper Silesia, particularly around Katowice was more of an anomaly. Here in this region of the province, it was over 60% Polish. Further west in Lower Silesia, while pockets of Poles still existed in rural areas, the policy of Germanization had been much more effective. Still, the government was forced to issue official documents in both Polish and German.

These issues wouldn’t come to a head till after World War 1 where the botched handling of a plebiscite to deal with the region was compounded by three bloody insurrections by the Polish speaking populace between 1919 and 1921. The final answer to the question wouldn’t arrive till the end of the Second World War when the German speaking populace was mostly expelled and replaced by displaced Polish settlers from the eastern territories. The map below show’s how dramatically Poland’s territory changed in six years.

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A substantial number of the Silesian population (especially in Upper Silesia) were able to stay, swearing allegiance to Poland and also proving competent at the Polish language (much of them being bilingual). Opole the county north of me has enough of a German minority that all the town names are in German and Polish. That’s the official side, what’s been much more interesting has been the personal anecdotes from students who’ve told me about their grandparents speaking German to them or the distinctly German surnames such as Pohl or Bauer that are still around the area. Indeed some have told me they’re candidates for German citizenship due to their grandparents, just as many people of my generation in Ireland had grandparents who were British citizens. It makes you wonder what the confused months after 1945 really were like.

Many of the older generation here speak quite good German and with it being a compulsory subject in school and many having family in German, it’s interesting to see how seventy years changes the perspective. For me, it’s been a good fallback when my diabolical Polish or someone’s limited English severely restricts the conversation. And one day near a bus stop I was quite pleasantly surprised to hear two old women conversing to each other in German, though it was unlike any I had ever heard. It must have been quite a dialect! Whatever someone’s views, it’s left its mark on the region with not only architecture but also in the monuments and graveyards.

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Jerzy Ziętek, Silesian insurrectionist and politician.

 

But since we’re still on language, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Silesian language. Of course even calling it that is a contentious issue. It’s been labelled a dialect, even something akin to a gutter argot but dialect or not, over half a million people still listed it as their home language in the last census. “I don’t understand my husband when he talks to his family” bemoans one aggravated spouse.

From now on, I’ll be talking about Upper Silesia as the population of Lower Silesia was mostly replaced (Wroclaw(“Breslau”) being repopulated by the expelled citizens of Lviv/Lvov) after the war and it’s in this region that the majority of those who identify as Silesian live. The traditional divide of rural/urban has been continued. Here in my town, Polish is what is spoken. But venture to the villages surrounding it and you’ll hear it. Of course this isn’t true for all cases but I have noticed when asking my students that there is usually a divide ‘twixt rural and urban dwellers.

The language is also connected to this Silesian identity that seems to vary vastly depending on who you’re talking to. “I don’t care about it, I’m Polish” says one student who tends to groan whenever the word is brought up. “It’s a language, it’s what I was raised with, it’s what I speak with my children, it’s part of who I am” insists another while a third says “Why can’t they speak properly? I was born in Wroclaw, I’m not Silesian, I don’t understand them”. But these are all anecdotal, everyone gets on with life. This isn’t something akin to the Welsh Knot or the “I am a donkey” sign Afrikaans speaking school students had to wear.  There’s no issue, not from what I’ve observed.

It’s not threatening to split away like Moldova or Transnistria. A conflict like in Northern Ireland or Basque Country isn’t in the works. There’s no issue being simultaneously both a Silesian and a Pole. But the former are definitely proud of their heritage and history and it is indeed an interesting one. And this identity is one that crosses borders, the town of Cieszyn being literally split in two by a river into a Polish and Czech section. It’s been something governments have always been equal to capitalize on, even as recently as 1945 when the Czechoslovak military occupied Racibórz in an attempt to expand their control where Czech minorities lived (not something one-sided, the Poles were doing the same in Spis and Orava). But regardless, it has continued to exist and live on in peoples imaginations, Silesia looks to remain Polish but people will still be proud of where they’re from.

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The typical Silesian lowland.

Like I said, these are merely the perspectives of an outsider, in a location that for now is home. I hurry to add that people in Silesia (and Poland as a whole to my experience!) have been nothing but welcoming and helpful since my arrival. And while I’ve yet to understand this love for vodka, I think I’m slowly falling in love with the country.

I’m heading away today down to Zakopane and the Tatra mountains, home of another fiercely proud culture and in what’s meant to be some of the most spectacular scenery in the entire country. As such, there’ll be no blogging for the next couple of weeks but I think everyone will survive. I’ll do my best to have some good photos for next time I post!

Slán go foill.

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How to Stop Worrying and Avoid Rockfall: The Rout(e)

So we’d drifted off to prepare ourselves for the coming trial and prepared to sleep.

Except to be awoken again and again by the lovely sound of rocks moving and rockfall further off. I don’t think we slept much, just curled up in the sleeping bags and tried to ignore the prospect of the mountain gods dumping a metric shit tonne of geological marvels atop us. It was a long bloody night and we were quite cranky come 4am.

Being knackered, we dozed off again and I’m not sure what time it was exactly when we did get a move on but it was a grey dawn, the sun still not fully up. Stumbling over boulders and rocks, we forged our path onwards, striving to aim for our “shortcut” to the base of the route. It wasn’t.

 

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I think that’s meant to be ice we’re on…..

 

There was a reason the route description said come from the direction of the hut. It was so you don’t have to go through shitty icy slabs, lots of loose rock and terrible grey brittle ice that was more pebbly than solid. We scrambled a good bit and did three terrible pitches of ice climbing where I said probably three deckets of Hail Mary’s in an effort to stave off bad luck. That picture above does it justice. It was like going on rock. If I’d known Darragh was taking the photo while belaying me, I’d have been a bit more nervous! Being the gentlemen we were, we swapped leads and both exhausted our extensive vocabulary of swearing.

 

We probably spent 2-3 hours negotiating through this absolute….well….shite is the only word to describe it. Then we got onto the snow slope. And that just went up and up. Taking in coils, we headed on up. Zig to the zag to the zig zig zag. Christ it was long. Sun was beating down on us and I was panting like a near dead dog. Being an Alpine novice I’d gotten lovely and sunburnt on the roof of my mouth and inside my nostrils from my brief forays on the Valle Blanche. The morning was us just slogging up, treading across snow bridges and trying to ignore burning calves. Feeling it was unseasonably hot, we weren’t disappointed in our assumptions. We witnessed quite a bit of rockfall and got caught in it a few times, amen for helmets. Progress was anything but rapid. I still remember one lovely little rock giving me a nice dead arm. It made route-finding suddenly become a lot more important. And had us worry about the condition further up where the sun was already shining.

 

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The long way up.

 

That snow slope is deceptively gentle in that photograph. Viewed from across the valley it looks absolutely beatific. All I can recall is slogslogslog, gasping for air, forcing food down my gullet. It just got hotter and hotter, I was grateful I’d a lighter pack on my back (having dumped half our kit at the bivvi). Still it was rough. Nearing the top, we were reduced to stomping up some twenty steps, pausing, stomping up some twenty more. I think Darragh was in a bit worse shape than me. I’d been cramming in food so I was making it a bit. He seemed to be suffering. The frequent rockfall and soft snow had us both very frayed. But earlier on, I’d been the one down in the dumps while he’d powered through!

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Midway up on one of the plateaus. A pleasant lull.

 

Making it to the base of the climb, it was after midday. We’d spent six hours negotiating the slabs and snow slope. And now in the heat of the day, the climb was weeping. It was absolutely crap. We went to see about putting in protection, it was just going to come right out. No way were we going to go up that. Like wildlings on the Wall, we’d have plummeted down. We were knackered but more pissed off now that we’d come this far only to be halted at the last 100-150m because of a unearthly hot day. Worse was looking at the tramp down to camp.

 

From Route to Rout

 

 

The crevasses had opened up now and it was very uncomfortable for us treading our way through them, trying to avoid looking down. We glissaded a bit but getting wet arses and legs was dispiriting. As was panic strewn braking when we realized that might be a drop in front of us. It was nightmarish. We were dehydrated, neither of us had eaten much but with our main experience in days like this being in Ireland or Scotland, we just didn’t recognize the signs.

 

 

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The long way back down. Aiming for the bottom right corner.

 

It wasn’t fun. I just remember being so bollocksed at one point that even our reactions were dulled. Traversing the ridge in another zigzag (we saw what looked like a more gentle ramp down), I watched Darragh in front of me catch his crampon on a sling that had worked it’s way loose from his harness. He tumbled and started sliding down the slope while I just gawked as the rope fed out. About three seconds after this had started, sense kicked in and I flattened myself on the ice axe, bracing. I felt a tug and started sliding slowly but the momentum stopped as Darragh arrested as well. A big wake-up for both of us!

Now the choosing of our route came to kick us in the ass. Having bailed off we were retracing our steps and there was no way we could ab down to our bivvi site. We aimed left on the way down, hoping we’d come across a track but it just seemed to terminate in slabs. Since it was getting late and were both broken men at this stage, we negotiated a good few of them on our derrieres, the rock surprisingly grippy. I’d go first, working my way down to a suitable spot whereas Darragh would come past me in a sort of reverse climb. Eventually we were able to downclimb properly onto the scree though not before a bloody terrifying slip and slide on some of the wet slabs. The last made me ponder my life choices and how that had led me up to this moment. Why go climbing? Why?
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The fact Darragh snapped a shot of this meant it was probably one of the easier parts. And that he wasn’t fervently praying that I wouldn’t tumble to my doom. Terrible, terrible terrain.
It was just coming to 1800 when we made it back to the bivvi. We’d blundered around a while trying to get our bearings and while a little shell-shocked, were glad to get back to “home”. We sprawled out, drank water, took off our drenched boots, socks and trousers to dry them. Packing our bags, we enjoyed the sun and tried to brace ourselves for the next part. At 1900, we rolled out, both aware we weren’t fully right in the head. The extra weight in the bags had us both groaning like old women.
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Back at the bivvi, sundown on it’s way and us gearing up.
I was dopey as anything crossing the Glacier D’Argentiere. I’m not sure whether it was from dehydration or what but I just was following Darragh like he had me on a leash. My memory is very vague here, I just dumbly followed him. I was tired, wanting to just stop and lacking any motivation at all. Reassuring to have a mate who know’s what he’s doing! Getting off this glacier was much harder than last time since we’d both decided not to try and do the 1000m ascent to the Grand Montets and go for the lower down one that was midway up from Argentiere. Problem was that the rocks we’d skirted on our way down, now obstructed us. We spent a good half hour looking for ways off and trying to scramble onto the cliff face. So fucked (there really was no other word to describe it) were we that this was our conversation when scrambling.
Darragh: “Wheres the rack?”
Me: “Bottom of my bag”
Both: “Fuck it”
Still roped together, it was like some warped version of “If I go, you go with me”. We managed to spot a via ferrata maybe 4-5m atop us but we couldn’t get to it. You’d scramble up a few feet, then it was too steep so you’d traverse, downclimb, all to gain a little bit more on it. We were so tired that it was our one goal and we couldn’t abide time wasting. I think I kissed the metal when we made it. We ditched the rope and coiled it. Using our cowstails, we just followed along it for maybe half a klick till we found a ladder. This was a bloody long thing. I don’t know why but I felt more afraid on it than I had been downclimbing and scrambling across the slabs earlier. My arms shook on it and I was very grateful to get onto solid ground. We descended some 20m to the glacier again and found ourselves on a track. “Féarghal me lad” I thought “Ye’ve made it”.
It was getting dark now and we moved fairly fast. So fast that we somehow blundered off the track (classic us) and were wondering where the hell did we go now? Finding a pair of abandoned skis and a camera wasn’t too reassuring either. At first we thought we were grand till morbidity had us imagine this place as some sort of Purgatory for outdoorsmen, we felt like rats in a maze at the time. It seemed everytime we aimed for something, we’d find ourselves traversing left, right, up, down around it in order to get that little bit closer. Hoping the skier hadn’t taken a plunge, we continued on.
With night falling and us getting the headtorches out, we decided to take one last risk and scramble up these immense boulders blocking us on our left. To the right was the glacier and somewhere to our front was Argentiere, a few thousand feet lower. Darragh went first but the loose rock was unnerving, he came back off it and was all for bivving there. The rock just seemed to move as soon as you touched it. Me being stubborn, crazy or just downright ignorant decided I’d chance it. It was to be our last gamble, after this was headtorches and us bedding down. It was maybe 5-6m up but requiring care in choosing holds. I let out a whoop as I crested it and found a sign. I didn’t care what it was for, a sign meant a path and a path meant an easier way down. I belayed Darragh up and we savoured knowing we were below 3000m. Gritting our teeth, we pressed onto the track and began a painful descent, wet fully rigids never being fun.
Just as I’d hit my slump earlier crossing the glacier, Darragh hit his now. He wanted to bivvi on a flat patch but I was a bit sleep-deprived and grouchy now. I don’t sleep well at altitude and in my sleep-addled, dehydrated brain I’d figured that if we got to the line where we could see green things like grass and trees, I could sleep. We kept going though it was a mostly silent trudge. Up high to our left were lights and we argued over which station that was, Darragh being convinced it was the one were  aiming for and we should bed down again. I’d been like that earlier, just wanting to stop and worry about everything the next day. Darragh had bullied me through it and now it was my turn to make sure we got further down.
Being an absolute dickhead, I held onto the map and was fairly certain that the intersection we’d reached was just about 4km from the lower station. Naturally I didn’t tell Darragh this and lied that it was one and a half (friendship entails this sometimes!). We slogged in silence till we saw the lights whereupon we both perked up and resisted the urge to sprint for the station (a broken ankle was all we needed now).
I spent about ten futile minutes attempting to break into the station (fantasizing about such luxuries like a roof over my head, a bench to sleep on etc) but in the end we found a corner with walls on two sides under a boardwalk. Bedding down there, we cooked up the last of our miserable rations, just delighted to have made it. it was after 2300 and we’d been on the go since 0500/0600.
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The gourmet dining facilities the night before.
There was one little bit of drama left. While dozing off that night, it began to piss rain with the boardwalk above not really acting as a roof, it just channelled the dripping to several locations. I was already in my sleeping bag with the bivvi bag over it but the Chinese Water torture had me frayed. Tossing my jacket over my face, I dozed off again.
But I couldn’t sleep. I could hear the avalanches and rockfall going off but that didn’t worry me. What did was the constant flash of light. Convinced it was Darragh flashing his headtorch at me for arcane reasons, I was rising with the intent of strangling him when I saw the sheet lightning. The thunderstorm had broken all out over Chamonix and it was lashing rain. The lightning was flashing all over the valley with the variance in the thunder making me think it was just avalanches. Delighted not to be out on the glacier or via ferrata, I dozed off again.
We got woken at 0700 by the first cable car crew, their dog deciding our faces needed some attention. Grumbling and ignoring the comments in French (no doubt hilarious judging by their laughs) we packed our kit and stumbled for the entrance, feeling like we’d entered civilisation again.
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The sun helped everything dry off fast except the sleeping mats!
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A reminder of the ugly, ugly terrain.
The French wan got short shrift from us. We settled for slumping on the floor after a muttered “ca va”. Having lost our bus tickets we risked hopping on for free, figuring the way our luck was going, we’d probably get caught. We stumbled back to camp, chowed down on a baquette, throw our kit out to dry and I gratefully slept under a tree.
So to sum it up, what I learned was
1. Don’t try and take shortcuts in unfamiliar terrain. Half the time we made mistakes, it was us assuming we knew better than the guidebook or advice of others since we were clearly such hotshot climbers.
2. Drink and eat. Getting hunger pangs and dehydrated wasn’t fun. It was a new country, new conditions, we should have been guzzling down sustenance in liquid and solid format. Instead we tried playing the hard man and suffered for it, we were lucky to not get hit worse by it. Or make worse calls in our messed up state.
3. Be patient. Even with a mate like Darragh, I got riled up easy. Being hungry, tired, cold, frustrated, all that will do it to you. We both had our ups and downs but thankfully at different times.
4. Don’t take stupid risks. Writing this appalled me but it was good to see where I’d come from and whats changed since then. If I can learn from it, so can others. And bloody hell, does yours truly have a lot yet to learn!
I’ll be back on that route in the near future I hope and I’ll conquer it. You truly do learn more by failing on a route than completing it. It was an amazing experience and it helped knock some cockiness out of me. 5 years on, I’m improved but there’s a long way to go yet. Just goes to show, even on little disasters of trips, you can have a good time!
As Oscar Wilde said “Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes!”.
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At least the views were worth it.

 

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How to Stop Worrying and Avoid Rockfall: The Approach

Chamonix 2010

I’m in the Alps for the first time. I’m 19. I’m climbing with another guy just as inexperienced as myself. We’ve been here maybe a week and a half. It’s been a great time so far. I’ve led on L’Index, Cosmiques Arete, Petit Vert, seconded Chéré Couloir, plodded around the Valle Blanche, sprained my ankle and gotten really really drunk. I’m living the dream but we’ve sorta been intimidated by the huge amount of routes on offer. Conor who’s one of the senior lads in the group has been patient the first week with us, he’s taken us out under his tutelage, looked after us but it’s time for us to spread our wings a little. So me being bored and flicking through the guidebook at PD/AD level, stumble across something called the “Whymper Route”. It’s a bit further north near Argentiere, I was there a couple of days ago on Petit Vert.

I don’t know who he is (I do now, thank Christ!) but recognize the name as sorta famous, he’s some sort of climber isn’t he? I bring it to Conor who’s preparing for his own little odyssey and he sorta brusquely says “Just get on with it”. So we look at the whole prep for it, get some food etc and theres a bit of excitement about it all. I’ve stayed up below the Aiguille du Midi before but this is something else. It’ll be the two of us just. I’ve only been lead climbing since maybe March/April and I first used crampons and axes back in January. Darragh’s in the same boat. We’re both experienced hikers but being left off the leash is disconcerting….

Worse is throwing my pack on at the campsite and wincing already. I’m skinny, always have been and still am. Suddenly being weighed down by my sleeping bag, rack, rope, axes, food, water, I’m getting a bit glum.

 

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Packed and ready.

 

Look how hopelessly unaware we are of what’s yet to come. I’m the one on the right, myself and Darragh both figured ourselves quite cool getting a chance to wear shades. And our lovely ghostly Irish complexions meant suncream was a must.

We left that afternoon, traipsing down a kilometre or so into town where we’d catch the bus. I felt a bit like a geriatric, wondering if I was finding it hard now, what would it be like later? A few curious looks but nothing major. Chamonix is a Mecca for climbing and skiing, us tourist or dilettante climbers don’t get a second glance usually. For me it was a bit surreal sitting on the bus with my rucksack and iceaxes, watching kids hop on with their parents or old French mamans with their shopping.

Also buses? They didn’t even seem to care much about tickets, bit of a shock to someone who’s lived in Austria, a place with bureaucracy Kafka would have enjoyed. More on that later.

So its late afternoon, we hop off at Argentiere to get the cable-car up. We’ve read the route description and being teenagers with cheapskate tendencies, put the kibosh on the idea of paying to stay at the hut. Instead we’re going to go up on the  cable-car to Petit Vert, head in a NE direction, descending around 1000m to the Glacier D’Argentiere, cross it and bivvi in the rocks above it, closer to the route and for free. Wake up early, climb the route by ascending up to the right of Aiguille du Chardonnet, descend via Glacier du Mileu, pick up our bivvi stuff, cross the Glacier D’Argentiere again and head for the lower down cable car station. Seems simple right?

It was a pleasant ride up, we were going for the high point so it was a bit eerie heading to the clouds and being on a nearly empty cable car. I attempted some conversation with our attractive young cable car driver but she seemed to have definitely encountered higher quality than us. We weren’t disheartened, we knew she’d see us as conquering heroes on our descent tomorrow.

The top cable station was deserted. Only the staff were left and I felt quite a few butterflies in the stomach as we got off. With an “au revoir” bid to them, we headed for the exit.

Anti-climax. It was locked. Cue me and Darragh running in a panic back to the cable car to grab one of the staff. Enduring day one of our mini epic in a cable car station was not our plan. Thankfully they unlocked it for us though the guy seemed concerned due to our youthful appearance. After assuring him we were heading for the hut and we knew where it was, placated, he bid us farewell. Hearing the door lock shut behind me really rammed it home where we were. Good luck boys, you’re on your own.

 

 

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Leaving the cable car station at Petit Vert.

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Darragh ensuring that we actually go in the correct direction.

The touch of fog and mist outside made it seem much much worse than it actually was. The carrion birds fighting for scraps of food left behind by tourists was less reassuring. Nonetheless we decided to plod on down to the snow, throw on our crampons, harnesses, helmets and bring out the axes. We were mountaineers, what did we need to fear?!

 This apparently…………………………..

 

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The tourist barrier…

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Roping up time for the descent to Glacier d’Argentiere.

So myself and Darragh roped up rather promptly (we were going to do it anyways but the skulls and crossbones markings gave an added impetus!). It actually felt better after we’d being going a few minutes, dropping below the clouds and seeing the sheer majesty of the Alps open before us. Things weren’t as daunting and with the sun still out, it felt pretty good! We skirted a few crevasses, wet glaciers psych you out unnecessarily, you start imagining crevasses opening beneath you like a colder cousin of the Tatoinne Sarlacc pit. They’re still finding bodies from the First World War in glaciers so our concern was understandable. We took it easy, made good time and most importantly, didn’t plunge into a bottomless pit.

 

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The descent.

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Realizing we’re actually making progress!

 

That big block in the background of the last picture, I think that was around halfway down, useful marking even though we saw plenty of yawning chasms opening up around it. We made good time and we felt a bit relieved to hop onto a bit of rock, it was early evening but still bright in Chamonix and we’d warmed up substantially. A quick break for snacks but I was still freaking out a bit thinking about the dry glacier, never been on one before so getting to see a proper crevasse was going to be something. And I was wondering where to sleep…..

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The Aiguille d’Argentiere looming in the distance. Across the glacier near the little patches of snow below the cliffs in the centre, we slept there.

 

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The Glacier d’Argentiere looming above us.

So I’d imagined a little smooth transition from rock to glacier, simple as kiss your hand. Turned out the glacier actually loomed up some 3-4m over us and if we kept on our descent trajectory, we’d end up slipping in underneath it. So a little bit stumped, we beetled up and around hunting for a way onto it. To our left we were being blocked by a massive rock cliff while going too far right and we’d waste time coming back left. We could make out the hut and didn’t want to go there. Light was failing too so we made a move on.

 We found a little ice bridge onto the glacier and decided to go for it. We double-checked our prussiks and kit, having had our break before crossing onto it, we wouldn’t stop till we were on the other side.

It was weird. The two of us didn’t even spend an hour on it but the short distance was exasperated by us constantly back-tracking and trying to find a path through the glacier that wasn’t blocked by crevasses. Going across any bridges was quite disconcerting, me belaying Darragh out while he’d return the favour when I came across. We both heaved a sigh of relief when we’d gotten across. Looking down into the openings was disturbing, the drops seemed to just go on forever and ever. We spoke barely a word to each other, just wanting to get off the glacier as quick as possible.

On the other side we ditched the crampons as it was all scree and loose rock. Little patches of snow but nothing amazing. It was getting darker so we decided to horse on and find a bivvi spot. Everything was at an angle and with rocks more suitable for bashing skulls in than a mattress. Don’t ask me how but I managed to stumble across a patch of sand and grit that for us seemed like feathers. Tilted at a modest 10-15 degrees, we decided to bed down here. Stumbling through the rocks, we got the food on, though not before some quick posing.

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Darragh. Behind him is the way deeper into the heartland of the Alps.

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Me in front of the way down to the Chamonix Valley. Symbolically turning our backs on it!

These photos would come in useful later when we tried to pinpoint where exactly we’d bivvied. We got out the pocket rockets for some noodles cooked with soup. Rations wise we had been very optimistic. We had that, plus chocolate, sweets. I’d brought some pasta and meat pre-cooked and stuffed in a lunchbox to eat cold. For water we boiled snow and we had 2 1l containers each.

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Rocks, rocks everywhere.

Of course if I’d listened in secondary school during geography lessons, I’d have realized something that I’d learn about much later. Bellies full we were lying on our backs, getting into the sleeping bags and enjoying looking down at the lights of the valley. It was blissfully clear, a crisp night with visibility of the stars enhanced a hundred fold. Sleeping in the open air is an unforgettable experience. It’s even more spectacular above 2000m and away from the noise and light pollution of urban areas. I could see constellations I hadn’t known  existed, shooting stars were swarming the sky and we even saw a huge golden one that we dubbed a comet! With the usual bullshit philosophical discussions sorted, we drifted off into an uneasy sleep towards an uncertain morn.

 Part two coming soon!
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Back to Reality

Well it’s been quite a long hiatus from the blog but I owed it to myself to get at least one final post in before 2015 makes an appearance and we bid adieu to yet another year! Already owe an immense backlog of posts relating to Kilimanjaro, Poland and just general life though this has never been more than just a vanity project.

So I shall attempt to sum up roughly what’s been happening since then. So first up, I graduated. I now officially hold a degree in English and History which isn’t too shabby though the graduation went into a bit of a blur after that of…..

Graduation drinks

So it begins…

Yes there are pictures at the conclusion some 48 hours later but there’s no way that’s being uploaded! Having gotten all that out of my system, it was time to prep for Poland, I was heading there a week later. Thankfully since I had luggage and spoke absolutely zero Polish, my boss was kind enough to pick me up at the airport which was reassuring since the 3 hour early morning flight with wailing children and turbulence meant nerves were frayed and I was running on no sleep.

Naturally being the fantastic individual that I am with first impressions, I promptly fell asleep in the car five minutes in with my boss struggling to wake me when we finally arrived in Racibórz, my new home. Shown my flat, I went to explore, looking a right proper tourist. And yes, on a mild day in September, I got sunburnt.

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Rynek, the town centre.

The town itself is somewhere between 50-60,000 people. A city for me, considering the place I grew up outside just past the 20k mark a few years ago. But for a place the size of Galway….there’s comparatively little going on. I’m probably fulfilling the stereotype of the alcoholic Irishman here but the amount of pubs/bars per resident is severely low. Anyone attempting a 12 pubs extravaganza or a game of pub golf would find themselves making repeat visits.

Not that nightlife is the sole indication of life in a town but it just strikes me how quiet this place is. That said, it is pleasant and there’s little trouble. Some people even leave their bikes unlocked outside their flats or the shop when they visit it. Quite interesting to think that this town is also the home to one of Poland’s maximum security prisons!

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The town symbol. Eagle and broken wheel.

Supposedly the town was settled when the wheel on a noble’s carriage broke and he decided that this stopping point was where he’d establish his rule. There’s quite a lot of history in the place, even though most of the old town and historical buildings were levelled during the war. The town would have been predominantly German-speaking until 1945 and a lot of the older inscriptions here, if they’re not written in Latin are written in the former tongue.

The people here have been fantastic, friendly, helpful, open. As far as being an immigrant here is, I’ve no complaints! My job likewise though it has it’s ups and downs, is still a great one overall. And it has been reassuring to know that moving to a country where you barely speak half a dozen words of the language is not so insurmountable an obstacle as it initially seems!

I think I’ve rambled on just about enough. Posts on work, travel and the omnipresent terror of the Polish language can wait for another day. I guess it’s just good to be back writing. And even better than that is knowing that I’ll get to see the ocean in less than a day. And with luck, get a hike or two in as well over the inevitable madness that is Christmas.

 

Slán.

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A view from back home, one that I’ll be glad to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Kilimanjaro Conquered!

Well all,

apologies for my delay in posting. I’ve been back in Ireland a week now and just waiting on some photographs, some of them are being developed the old fashioned way as I’d brought only disposables with me. Thanks for your patience, ye will be rewarded for it and thanks to those who’ve been checking in over the last couple of weeks.

Well first things first. Yes we climbed Kilimanjaro successfully.Kili

Dave casually blocking me out. We had a diabolical fellow trekker take the pics up top.

It’s quite high, that Kilimanjaro is! Expect a rant on altitude and despite all of global warming, there’s still plenty of snow and ice up there, almost a shock to find once you’re in the sun. Over 10% of Africa’s glaciers are left atop the massif of Kilimanjaro.

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The team atop one of the ice fields. Lucky me didn’t have to kneel.

That’s all for now, I’ll have some more posts up soon with some good photographs as well to accurately show what I can’t describe. I’m in perfect form, just a bit skinnier after the 10 days in Africa, came away with no health issues! Thanks for following.

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Kick off for Kilimanjaro.

Well all,

the time has come, the moment I’ve been waiting for, for quite some time. I’m getting ready to go eat prior to heading to Dublin airport for the first leg of my journey towards Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s the highest peak in Africa and my first (ideally!) of the Seven Summits.

Sadly Elbrus won’t be happening. Not this year sadly. Well just for me. My visa was rejected by the Russian embassy and I didn’t have enough time to re-apply and visit in person as I was still working in Switzerland. Considering how action-packed the summer is, I shan’t complain, maybe it’s all for a good reason! And while I won’t see Moscow or the Caucasus this year, they’ll still be there next year and the mountain isn’t going anywhere. I’ll be glad to be part of the team for even one summit and I’ll support them all the way with the second. It’ll be a success to have members of the club on both summits, the OPC having conquered Aconcagua 11 years ago.

It’s good to learn abit about disappointment. Life doesn’t always go your way and it’s nothing compared to what my friend Paul Devaney went through with his Everest experience this year. He’s not letting himself get rocked back by it and he’s prepping for next year already. While I may not be on Elbrus next year, I shall be there someday and while it’s easy to throw names down on the screen, the dreams are Mont Blanc and Matterhorn and Cuilin Ridge in the next few years. It’s not the end of the world and sometimes you just can’t help it.

We’re doing it for Mountain Rescue in Ireland. These guys along with their counterparts in England, Wales, Scotland and indeed the rest of the world are amazing individuals who are all volunteers and I’ve witnessed their efforts in the past. Thankfully never having required their services, it’s good to know they are there if you need them. If you have a spare coin or two, feel free to donate to us on https://www.ammado.com/community/148779 .  Afterall, every little helps 😉

I left Switzerland rather hungover and tired on the morning of the 21st in a journey more akin to Planes, Trains and Automobiles as well as The Odyssey (More on that for some anecdotes later!). Despite being a bit down, I have had a great summer so far and it isn’t over yet! I made some good friends and definitely will see some of them again, some in the very near future. And I learned abit more about being continental. My languages are still diabolical, I’m still extremely uncultured but I am learning. Slowly. And it is nice to have friends. I’ve been in Dublin since, got to spend two days with my mother, rediscover the city and explore a bit (as well as shop!). It’s not been too bad but it hasn’t been Kerry!

Dublin is big, it’s got a lot of people and considering the biggest place I’ve ever lived in was Salzburg (120,000 maybe?) it’s absolutely stifling the amount of concrete. That said, the city has a bit of character and while my accent is a bit amusing for some of the locals, I find theirs just as entertaining! And did I mention I did some shopping?

It’ll be weird now heading off first to Germany and then into Tanzania. On my journey home, I’ll be laying over in Kenya, Turkey and Romania but regrettably I’ve decided not to spend any time there beyond in the airports. I’ll be on my own, knackered and with lots of climbing kit and still have a lot of stuff to sort out before my move to Poland this September! And I’ll be graduating, did I mention that?

So don’t panic, no posts will be coming from this till after the 4th of August I’d say, but expect some interesting ones after that!

All in all, it’s been a bloody good few weeks.

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Enjoying the last night of the Montreux Jazz Festival.

 

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Working with absolute lunatics.

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Failed attempts at facial hair.

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Rediscovering the primeval depths within.

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Ah Chamonix, so close yet so far. I’ll see you there in 2015!

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I mean who could complain about working in Valais?

 

Well that’s all from me. With luck I’ll be back soon.

Slán go foill mo chairde agus ná bí dána!

 

 

 

 

 

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