Sunday 26 July 2009

Cultural community beside a cliff

Vision and the creative use of modest funding have transformed an abandoned limestone quarry in Ballykeeffe, Co Kilkenny, from a rat-infested dumping ground to a rock-climbing hub and unique, popular amphitheatre, writes JOHN G O'DWYER

IN THE LATE 1950s, Kilkenny County Council abandoned a remote limestone quarry at Ballykeeffe, near the Tipperary border, that had previously been used for the extraction of road metal materials. Inevitably, in those less environmentally conscious times, the quarry quickly became a dumping place for car wrecks, washing machines and other rubbish and was also a repository for sugar beet awaiting transportation for processing.

It would probably have continued unkempt and unremembered like thousands of worked-out quarries countrywide were it not for the fact that, in 1981, a new mountaineering organisation was established in Kilkenny. Not content with hillwalking alone, members of Tyndall Mountain Club were soon out seeking suitable crags for the challenging activity of rock climbing.

Eventually, Tyndall member Don Roberts discovered the sheer 20m cliffs at Ballykeeffe quarry, which were conveniently located just 13km west of Kilkenny city. Scaling this ungenerous rockface required more than square-jawed determination – it also demanded a resolute insouciance, since it was first necessary to scramble over abandoned Opels, Fords and Toyotas, along with the decomposing leftovers of last year’s beet crop.

More than a quarter century later, it’s a rare, blue-sky July evening in Ballykeeffe on which the sun seems reluctant to set. Large numbers of climbers are clearly having the time of their lives on the limestone crags above. A group of young people, perched atop the stone seats, have abandoned texting and become engrossed by the antics of the climbers. Cries of “on belay” and “take in” echo in the twilight air while an occasional dog walker ambles past, heading up behind the cliffs for a ramble in Ballykeeffe Wood and Nature Reserve.

Kevin Higgins, who was among the pioneering rock climbers to frequent Ballykeeffe, has just descended, having completed a climb. He gazes over the now-pristine amphitheatre and recalls the early days when things were less sanitised. “When we first came here in the 1980s, the quarry was a mountain of rubbish, and we kept a low profile since technically we were trespassing on council property. It was great fun, though. We often had 20 people climbing on a summer evening.”

He adds that at times it was necessary “to first scare away the swarms of rats attracted to the rotting beet by tossing rocks in their direction. Our group went on to ascend all the then feasible routes in the quarry, including The Animal, which was first ascended by Brian Dunne and Ned Mahon.” The reference is to a 15m nail-breaker route that still ranks as a test piece for the best visiting climbers. Modestly, however, he fails to mention his own contribution, which is Kevin’s Corner, a very severe route that remains extremely popular.

IN A COUNTY where the camán is king, rock climbing was a new and altogether different kettle of scarifying fish that was never likely to move centre stage – so initially the Ballykeeffe pioneers ploughed a lone furrow.

Higgins believes that the efforts of the Tyndall members had some import on subsequent events, since they drew attention to the quarry and the idea that it could be used as an amenity for leisure purposes. “The quarry is now an outstanding example of co-operation between community, sporting and local-authority stakeholders,” he says, while crediting much of this success to the initial vision of local man Matt O’Sullivan.

Praise for O’Sullivan’s initiative and hard work also comes from Padraic Flaherty, a Galway native who is presently treasurer of the Kilmanagh-Ballycallan-Killaloe Community Enterprise Group (KBK). He agrees with Higgins that the idea of turning the quarry into an amenity area was prompted by the example of the climbers.

“Members of the local community never really became involved with rock climbing,” says Flaherty, “but they got to know the climbers and realised that the quarry could be an asset to the community. So when the millennium celebrations came along the obvious project was to clean up the quarry.”

The seed planted by the Tyndall pioneers had now taken root. At the end of the last century ambitious plans were unveiled by KBK to turn Ballykeeffe into a multipurpose amenity while maintaining its role as one of Ireland’s leading rock climbing locations. With support from Tyndall, the community took charge of the quarry under licence from Kilkenny County Council, but only to within one metre of the cliffs, thus removing community liability for any possible climbing accidents.

The rubbish, the beet and the car wrecks were removed; financial support of about €150,000 was obtained from State agencies, another €50,000 from the local community. Soon the once decrepit quarry was transformed into a unique auditorium representing one of Ireland’s most innovative community projects. But how did the idea come about? What persuaded a small, hurling-mad community in rural west Kilkenny to invest so much time and money in an ambitious project normally associated with sunnier climates? According to Flaherty, several ideas were considered, including an amenity lake in the quarry, but when landscape architect Desmond Fitzgerald was retained by KBK, he suggested an amphitheatre to take advantage of the spectacular setting and unique acoustics. “Some of us were already aware of the Minack Theatre, a very successful cliff-top amphitheatre in Cornwall, so we readily accepted the idea and you could say that Ballykeeffe is modelled on Minack,” says Flaherty.

THE PASSAGE OF time has certainly proved the value of the idea. Ballykeeffe has become hugely popular as a venue for theatrical presentations and concerts, and performers such as Andy Irvine, Anúna, Kila, Cora Venus Lunny and Nóirín Ní Riain have praised the great acoustics and unique atmosphere.

“There can’t be anywhere else like Ballykeeffe in Ireland,” says Moya Brennan, who has performed at the venue. “Playing there was a pleasure – it’s intimate and easy to connect with the audience, but at the same time there’s a sense of grandeur and drama beneath the magnificent rock face.”

This summer’s amphitheatre programme begins tomorrow at 3pm with Cinderella – a family show presented by Chapterhouse Theatre Company. Over the August bank holiday weekend, choral group Anúna will perform on Saturday followed on Sunday by an outdoor céilí. Events continue in August with English rock band Oliver/Dawson Saxon playing on the 14th; and the summer programme concludes on the 15th with the Rafter Family’s mix of classical and traditional music.

Ballykeeffe isn’t just a venue for concerts. It’s also been used for fun days, lectures, exhibitions and as a picnic and recreational facility by voluntary organisations, schools and outdoor activity centres. And the amphitheatre merits a visit in its own right. To soak up the atmosphere of the place just go along at a quieter time and enjoy the solitude of a walk in the Dúchas-managed nature reserve, followed, perhaps, by a picnic while watching the climbers in action. And at some stage it will surely cross your mind that this innovative community project represents an example of how modest amounts of taxpayers’ money have been spent to excellent effect.

Irish Times

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