Our last outing, to Inishbofin, was prompted by the presence of a WWOOFer and my next was made possible by the absence of another. She had to cancel her visit at the last minute which meant i had a couple of, thankfully, fine days to explore the little visited hinterlands of northeast Galway and west Roscommon on the Suck Valley Way, a 105 km clockwise loop from Ballygar to Castlerea on the western side of the river and back down on the eastern.
A relatively unsung Way, this modest low level route passes through the heart of rural Ireland on minor backroads and boreens, across turf bogs, through wooded areas and pine plantations, riverside paths and a surprising amount of crossing of rich grazing farmland.The journey through the quiet countryside reminded me of other neglected Ways i had hiked in the midlands a couple of years ago in Offaly and the Slieve Blooms and there is something about these overlooked areas with their abundance of abandoned houses that i find really attractive in a slightly melancholic way. Perhaps they are far more “Real Ireland” than the lavishly marketed and hyped routes along the Wild Atlantic Way, and although they lack the rugged splendour of the Western, Kerry, Dingle and Beara Ways the big open skies of the flat boglands and the wildflower lined boreens past once loved homesteads exude their own hypnotic charm.
They also go through more villages, unfortunately these days not as lively as they once were, but still a source of interest and hopefully sustenance, requiring less need to carry supplies. The bulk of the country is made up of hundreds of these minor settlements and to visit them is to see where a lot of Greater Dublin, with nearly half the countrys population, has emigrated from. The emptying villages the Way passes through, Ballygar, Creggs, Glinsk, Ballymore, Ballintubber, Donamon, Castlecoote, Athleague, Mount Talbot have also lost countless to America, Australian and the UK and with little tourism only agriculture remains. But less is more, and small is beautiful, and the quiet,empty, green and unspoilt (mostly-rubbish dumpers are everywhere) nature of the midlands could be it’s greatest asset.
Bord Failte have been pushing the Wild West and the Ancient East, let’s hear it for the Forgotten Midlands.
Sally and i had done a 40km loop from Ballygar a couple of years ago, crossing over the river at Dunamon to circle back to Ballygar, so that left me with a 65km stretch to finish over 2 days. Starting at the graveyard in the downland of Kilbegnet, i planned to get to a B and B in Castlerea for the night and carry on down the east side of the valley to Dunamon where i could cross back over. With a weather forecast of minus 2 overnight i didn’t fancy camping which meant i had a light pack, although it did contain a load of waterproofs that luckily i didn’t need.
The graveyard apparently contained many victims of the famine which seemed ironic as i gazed over the rich productive farmland that had been settled for thousands of years and was the site of a church dating back to St Patrick’s days.
The Way took me down a minor road towards more marginal land on the edge of Rosmoylan bog and past a collection of covered turf piles and a wall mounted dustbin that seemed like installations in the landscape.
Leaving the last of the housing behind i headed out on a track across the bog, still supplying a lot of fuel despite the recent legislation that forbade a lot of the turf cutting. There was a patch of ancient oak, hazel and holly woodland , a lough that had been home to a hermit named Peter of the Pikes and more modern archaeological remains.
Emerging back onto tarmac briefly i came to a sign warning of possible flooding on the main overland (or water) route and advising of a longer, dryer roadway alternative.With 30km to do that day i didn’t want to lengthen it any, so i continued and before long came to a high footbridge over a stream or drain feeding Lough Loung. The massive rainfall over the winter had caused widespread and long-lasting flooding on the Shannon and the Suck and it still hadn’t gone down enough for me to avoid taking off my boots and socks at this point to paddle up to higher ground. Still, the reedy debris on the bridge told me i would have been up to my neck in water not long ago.
Then it was a short hike across more scrubby bog to the shores of the Lough where access by a boreen has made it a charming and peaceful park up for the camper van. More lush farmland led to a passage through a forestry plantation and a pleasant stretch of woodland on the outskirts of Glinsk.
Another section of farmland drain by a multitude of ditches brought me onto a track leading across heathy bogland that was being well and truly infested with the rhododendron scourge.
Into Ballymoe and, strangely, the empty shops at the southern end of the village seemed to have been taken over by a radical pro beard movement.
At the other end of the street, behind the old abandoned Church of Ireland , was a neglected tomb for the Bagot clan who where the landowners of the area and have a Dublin street to their name.
A bizarre and somewhat sinister story concerning the church tells of how Mary Burke,the niece of a Catholic bishop had wanted to convert after attending lectures there by the Reverent Welden only to be locked in a lightless room for a month by Fr O’Connor and some of her relatives and then starved for days in an attempt to force her to attend mass. Mary managed to flee to Castlerea where she was put under the protection of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
Leaving the village on a bridge over the river it was back to the bog at Corliskea and more thoughtful artistic pieces dealing with the meltdown of consumer society and it’s hostile reaction to pervasive technology. Or not.
After that is was nice to enjoy the bright spring sunshine among the happy sheep families in the pastoral splendours of the riverside pastures. Even though it was pretty wet going at times my HiTec boots performed very well and i arrived at my B and B on the outskirts of Castlerea weary but dry.
Revived by cups of tea and a hot shower i went for a fish and chips dinner in Castlerea , neither of which i found very inspiring and was disappointed that the possible excitement of “The only pub in the world with a train in the bar” was closed.
A bright morning with a sparkling frost that made me grateful for the nights warm bed saw me retrace my steps to Cloondacarra bridge and a drainside section of track alongside the prison, that had been badly poached by horses.
Crossing the main road by the traveller site the lane that led to the Dublin-Westport railway line had been visited by a heath conscious litterer.
Over the train track and along some tranquil lanes past remnants of a 5th century monastery founded by St Pat’s nephew Brochard and more real estate of potential i had to negotiate fields of lively cows before coming down into Ballintober and the ivy clad castle ruins.
The 13th century castle has been the scene of many battles and sieges but now all is quiet in this well kept tidy town winner with its Bridgits Well and Memorial and Biodiversity Gardens. There is a grocery store from a byegone era with its window display of essential items of the past and elsewhere an intriguing building of unknown use. After lunch at a picnic table i had a long section over farmland criss-crossed with drainage channels and badly poached by cattle. One herd of cows had a frisky collie harassing them, nipping in to snap their snouts when they lowered their heads to graze.
Some of the landowning farmers (or maybe volunteers)along the way took great care over their segments, fencing off the livestock, clearing the brambles, putting down stepping stones and even providing picnic tables. Others didn’t bother, making the walker negotiate strings of temporary electric fencing and slop through a sea of mud. In one field someone had set a couple of wire snares across an animal run which could have upset an unwary hiker.
A firm raised path through a wood got me out of the preceding slop and up to some higher ground.After the vehicleless farmland it was a bit unpleasant to have to approach and cross the noisy N60 but i was soon away from it and enjoying a hike on bogland next to the much less used railway again. The turf here was very deep and impressive ditches had been dug to drain off the banks.
Corbally Bog was succeeded by a bit of field path, a lovely dead end boreen and a track leading past an abandoned farm with huge mature beech trees to a sylvan riverside setting. Briefly turning away from the waters i came to another flood warning sign and longer alternative route. With the end in sight (figuratively) i was not for turning and carried on down a bog track to the river again. Waving to a solitary fisherman i followed the way marks into a birch wood which turned into a rhododendron forest before emerging ,once again, Suckside.
So that was it more or less. A few pleasant kms alongside the water brought me into Dunamon, with a castle that had originally been the stronghold of the O’Finahty clan, then the Norman English Burkes, then Cromwellian then an estate belonging to the Caulfields and finally in the 30’s became home to the Divine Word Missionaries and a care home for disabled.
It was a fine building, but as i made my way slowly and wearily back to the van i reflected that it seemed a little out of character with the small and humble dwellings that had typified this enjoyable ramble.