IRELAND

COMERAGH MOUNTAINS: The Nire Valley Coums

Just south of Clonmel you leave Tipperary and enter Waterford and the ground before you rises up into one of the most beguiling mountain ranges in Ireland, the Comeraghs ( from Cumarach- full of hollows). Named after the glacial coums or corries nestled into the sheltering arcs of towering cliffs of old red sandstone, their drama has drawn walkers for a long time and I’d been trying to get into them for years. With the dry and sunny weather due to end soon I took off for a couple of days exploration.

Arriving after dark in the Nire Valley car park it wasn’t till the morning that I could appreciate my surroundings, at the head of a peaceful and deeply rural wooded river valley with the massed bulk of the central plateau before me to the south.

The map board indicated a number of colour coded loops which I would incorporate into longer more demanding hikes. First up I followed the white marker posts through the heather on the trail to The Gap, spooking grazing sheep as I went.

This has been a route over the mountains for centuries and was known as Boithrin na Sochraide, the Funeral Road, and was used up till 1926 for transporting coffins 6 miles east to Rathgormack as the Nire valley had no graveyard. Some of the large boulders on the way were known as places to set the coffins down in order to rest. It had also been engineered into a famine relief road in the mid 18th century. This catastrophe, caused by extremely cold and dry weather, resulted in failure of grain and potatoes and a greater loss of life, proportionately, than the Great Famine a century later. 1741 was known as Bliain an Air, the Year of Slaughter.

I past a lot of burnt ground, the setting of fires was a frequent and dangerous occurrence in the hills to increase grass cover, and the dry conditions rendered the boardwalks obsolete. As I approached the Gap I thought perhaps there was billowing smoke advancing but I discovered that it was the whispy edge of a thick blanket of cloud on the eastern side of the ridge.

From the Gap I turned left to follow the Seven Sisters ridge to the summit of Knockanaffrin at 755m. The steep linear arête is a separate northern protrusion to rest of the range and the precipitous drop to the east would have given me views to the Blackstairs and Wicklow mountains were it not for the cloud and haze. Occasional lumps of quartzite sparkled in the sun but most of the lumpen rock sculptures teetering on the edge of the cliffs were a coarse conglomerate.

My first corrie, Coumduala, and its lough revealed itself hundreds of meters below as I moved up to reach the little cairn marking the summit of Knockanaffrin, the Hill of the Mass, although it’s an unlikely setting for Mass even in penal times.

Onwards to the next peak, of Knocksheegowna, past Lough Mohra and the tiny figures walking towards it on loops from Glenpatrick forest. From the trig point I headed down south east across the broad expanse of mountain past a series of sheep pens to reach the stream and track that took me back past ancient homesteads to the road that led to the car park with the sun setting on the Nire Valley.

Next morning I was off early to undertake one of the classic walks of this region- the circuit of the Nire/Nier Valley Coums. The river, which seemed to be spelt both ways, gathers together from tributaries emerging out of half a dozen corrie lakes and this route would take me on a sweeping arc around the plateau high above them.

( Apologies to OSI for flagrant breach of copy-write)

Setting off down the farm track from the parkup I went to admire a tall standing stone before continuing down to ford the river and begin the climb through boggy and tussocky ground to gain the broad western shoulder of Coumfea.

There were many streams to cross and many remnants of sheep that died of unknown causes, another reminder in the pleasant sunshine of how tough things here can be. As I gained altitude Lough Coumlea came into view enclosed by the tiered cliffs.

At last on the easy bit, I had only to follow the tracks of quad and sheep around the corrie rim, atop the precipitous cliffs and through eroded turf hags admiring the necklace of dark Coum pools far beneath.

Passing Coumalocha I continued north around the rim over Curraghduff above the Spilloge Loughs where I had to cross the stream that tumbled over the cliff. In winter the winds are reputed to blow the water back up over the cliffs to freeze into bizarre formations on the rocks and vegetation. Contouring around the mountain I turned into the ” blind” coum of Coumlara, without a lake, and I clambered down to meet the stream that becomes the Nire.

Now down onto one of the waymarked loops I had only to follow it back through the heather, on boardwalks through boggy ground and over a wooden bridge above the nascent Nire to return to the camper.

The final leg was shared with another couple and we talked of the great plumes of wildfire smoke we had seen to the north and watched as a helicopter beat back and forth across the mountains. On my drive out of the beautiful valley I met a flashing fire engine urgently rushing into the hills. The radio news also featured stories of hill fires in Cork, Kilkenny and Wexford. It’s time to hope for rain.

HYMANY WAY: River and Bog in the Hidden Heartlands

A gloriously dry and sunny St Patricks Day holiday weekend gave us the opportunity for our first long walks since being back in Ireland. We decided to keep it local(ish) and headed back to an area we know and love, starting our micro adventure by the motor cruisers in Portumna harbour and starting off on the Hymany Way.

The first 17km are atop the embankment that run along the western side of the Shannon, built by the ESB as part of their 1920’s Ardnacrusha hydro power station mega project.

” One of the finest pieces of working industrial archaeology in the country” the raised earthen bank protected the low lying land from flooding and water levels in the river were controlled by a series of 3 pumping stations taking water from the inner man made water course when needed. It makes for fine walking with views of the river and callows on one side and deeply rural farmland on the other. With no roads nearby the peace and quiet is tangible with only the occasional cruiser interrupting the birdsong and wind rustled reeds.

We stopped for lunch at a small copse of giant ash trees that were home to a large badger colony, some of whose tunnels disappeared into the bowels of the tree trunks.

The 90km Hymany Way from Portumna to Ballygar in East Galway is one of the 11 sections of the Beara- Breifne Way that runs 500km from West Cork to Leitrim roughly following the line of Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare’s March in 1602. The two week retreat from hostile Anglo forces saw his party of 1000 soldier’s and camp followers reduced to just 35 by the time he got to his ally O’Rourkes castle in Leitrim.

When we got halfway to Meelick we stopped again, opposite Ballymacegan island where an old pier and abandoned riverside restaurant project at Esker Riada reminded us of camping here 25 years ago on a boating holiday. From here we returned to the camper, drove to Meelick and explored the newly restored Weir walkway.

Built to control water levels in 1840 the 300 m weir walkway had been closed in 2016 after bad storm damage and restored over 3 years and €3 million. Crossing from West Bank to East you arrive on Incherky Island where the gravel walkway continues to Victoria lock where from the new oak lock gates on the western end you can look out at the point where the 3 counties of Galway, Offaly and Tipperary and the three provinces of Connaught, Leinster and Munster all meet.

Next morning we set off south down the embankment again on to the halfway turn back point. The wild and watery Shannonside was in contrast to the oldest church in continuous use, Meelick Abbey which appeared on our right. Founded for the Franciscan order in 1414 it was preparing for the Saturday evening mass when we went to explore the church and cloister.

The Shannon Callows Special Protection Area stretches for approx 50 km from Athlone to Portumna and we were walking the finest of it. This vast area of seasonal flooding means unplowed or reseeded, enriched fields of mixed species of wildflowers and grasses, scrubby woodland of willow and alder which offer a wonderful habitat for insects, birds ( 66 calling birds identified) and wintering waterfowl along with mammals like otters and hares. Sheep graze the embankment keeping the grass nice and short for walking ( in places without grazing the Way can become almost unwalkable in summer).

We passed the area thought to be where O’Sullivan and his followers,( already depleted by a third), hoped to escape the hostility of the Munster chiefs by crossing the Shannon into Connaught. Losing 10 men in their first attempt in a small craft the desperate folk slaughtered and skinned 12 horses to cover an 8m boat and ferried across 30 at a time. Unfortunately for them the welcome was no better in the west as they struggled on northwards. Weary ourselves, we were able to relax in the sun.

Having walked back to the camper at Meelick again we missed out a few km of toad walking and drove instead to Clonfert for our raised bog hike in the morning. Before finding our parkup for the night we explored St Brendans Cathedral- founded in 560AD by the man whose own home made animal skinned vessel had got him all the way from Kerry to what became known as America. He is buried in the ancient graveyard near the magnificent 12th c Romanesque doorway with its superb carved sandstone details.

We went to reacquaint ourselves with the votive tree and the 400 yr old yew walk to the ruin of the Bishops Palace. Supposedly an overgrown hedge it was originally part of an extensive pleasure garden now long rewilded.

The Palace, occupied since the 16th c , had fallen into disrepair by 1951 when it was bought by the infamous British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley. As someone who had spoken out against the use of the Black and Tans in Ireland he was kinda welcome here and the money and time he and his wife put into the restoration and the employment of gardener, housekeeper, cook and chauffeur were also welcome. All the work putting in heating, lighting and water was for nothing however as the house burnt down 3 years later.

Just down the road is the Clonfert and Garryduff bog, for decades exploited for the fuel to run the Shannonbridge power station across the river, now still and silent as Bord na Mona cease all peat harvesting and the power station sits idle. We found a peaceful parkup and walked the old rail track for a look.

The final leg of our journey in the morning took us along a tiny back road by the callows past abandoned homesteads to the Grand Canal extension across the bog to Ballinasloe, filled in by Bord na Mona who lay a train track on top to funnel wagon loads of turf towards the hungry furnace of the power station.

The Hymany Way took us off the track and up onto a gorse tunnel track on the bog edge and then into woodland where the waymarkers were being englobed by the swelling trunks.

We were near to Decoy Woods were wildfowl were trapped for the Bishops table. Without the drainage pumping new ponds and lakes of swans and water birds were appearing and birch woodlands were springing up. The Transition from Brown to Green as Bord na Mona has branded its new Eco credentials has started and none to soon. It was shocking and startling to see the vast amounts of plastic used to cover the milled peat had been left in the environment.

An old bog track ( with more saddening sites of dumped rubbish) took us to a stretch of tarmac road. A quiet backwater, already semi deserted with empty houses, I wondered how the unemployment created by the closure of the bogs would affect the dwindling community. The road led us back to the vast expanse of worked bog at Kylemore lock on the Grand Canal extension.

The last picture is of the old lock keepers house and barracks. The boggy nature of the canal banks made for easy sabotage and 3 police barracks were built along the route to deter scheming locals hoping for some repair work. Bizarre to see an old turf locomotive on the track through the lock gates where once a 20 hr daily service ran from Ballinasloe to Dublin with first and second class passengers in seated cabins and restaurant cars with fine wines and spirits ( first class only!).

After lunch around the abandoned Bord na Mona stores and workshops we set off down the track for a long haul back to the camper on the filled in canal. It seemed almost criminal that an amazing engineering feat, employing over 1000 men in its 14 mile of construction in 1824, should have been so robbed of function.

Massive change has come again to the midlands boglands. The rehabilitation of the Brown to Green scheme is underway. The Just Transition fund is channeling millions of euro into projects for walking and cycling routes, climate action training, digital hubs, transport links, bio energy, wind and solar farms, medicinal herbs inc cannabis, and the restoration of bog to a living working carbon sink. The Bord na Mona plan for Garryduff is ” setting the site on a trajectory towards establishment of a mosaic of comparable habitats including wetlands, fen, Reed swamp, wet woodland, heath, scrub and birch wood.”

At a crossroads between turf and renewables, between Brown and Green, I’m glad the transition was started before the current war related fuel crises made cautious minds falter.

CONNEMARA WEST: Walking into Paradise

For Sam

A few days commitment free and an invitation from old friends to visit them on Omey Island was all the encouragement we needed to load up the camper and head into the west. The Wild West weather wise. Our friends place on the far western edge of an island off the far western edge of Ireland was no place for camping the day we set off so we decided to seek shelter and explore the Aughrus peninsular to the north till the weather improved.

Parking up at the harbour in Cleggan we took the little boreen up past the pink granite house that the poet Richard Murphy built himself from the stone of abandoned cottages. The lane led us up one of the many drumlins in the area, little hills of boulder clay and glacial till. The good drainage afforded made for more fertile grazing land and the appearance of the stone studded soil, viewed from the sea that has cut a cross section through it, explains its name- Cnoc Breac / Speckled Hill.

Cresting the rise we continued down a long neglected little boreen through fields of cattle with faint views of the islands of Inisbofin and Inishshark across the misted sea. A fine Neolithic tomb, erected perhaps 6000 years ago sits near the sands of Sellerna Bay ( Sailearnach- sally or willow garden) where willow for lobster pots and baskets would have been grown.

Above the other, western, end of the crescent beach lies another, sadder, memorial to death. A scattering of small stones amongst the grassy tussocks are the only markers to the lives of the unbaptised children in this Cillin.

Crossing a little stream into the town land of Rossadillisk- named after the edible seaweed dillisk or dulse that grows on the shoreline-we clambered over the rocks before discovering an easier cliff top path that led us to the next beach, Tra Bhride ( Bridgets Strand) where some enigmatic structures look out onto the scene of a great tragedy.

The Cleggan Disaster of October 1927 devastated the area when a violent storm swept down the coast taking the lives of 45 fishermen, 16 of them from this small town land – dependant on fishing. Prior to the storm there were 36 households here- within 10 years it had reduced to 6, ruined by the event which also took 10 lives from Inishboffin and 19 from Lacken Bay and Iniskea island further north in Mayo, where the tragedy led to the total abandonment of the island I visited and wrote about in my The Back of Beyond: The Barony of Erris blog post. A heart and community breaking event which saw a calm and pleasant evening turn without warning into hellish maelstrom that smashed the fragile canvas currachs onto the rocks within sight of their families who wailed from the shore.

We left a lone brave swimmer and carried on around Rossadillisk Point to the little harbour pier and jetty jutting out towards the off shore reef.

Paradise in fine weather maybe but the winds on this western fringe can raise a sand storm, tear flags apart and, as it did in October 1927, rip the roofs from houses. Luckily we only suffered some squally showers on our return to Cleggan.

The bald dome of Cleggan Head rises 500ft above the ocean on the north side of the bay and in the morning we walked across the causeway between beach and lake towards it. Not to scale it’s bracken and heather clothed slopes to the ruined Napoleonic signal tower in search of the resident Peregrine falcons but to follow the farm track, past the fine Victorian complex of houses and converted outbuildings of the Musgraves estate and down to the little cove of Port on the headlands northern shore.

The farms 500 acres of rough grazing on the head along with another 500 of commonage to the east are part of a Europe wide study of extensive grazing and the ecology and biodiversity and farm incomes that can go with such a sustainable system. People have certainly been farming here since the very first clearance of the trees over 5000 years ago, a monument of those original settlers lies next to the sea below the track – a humped backed wedgetomb. Passing another monument, to a family member who died in a riding accident, we carried on through a series of cleverly hung self closing gates to the little secluded cove and its ancient holy well.

We came upon an injured young seal on the grassland above the beach and spent a good while in worried telephone consultation with Jo from the farm and Seal rescue down in Wexford who were sending out a local volunteer before we managed to encourage it back into the water to hopefully find mum.

After watching the seal disappear into the water we explored the dramatic and indented rocky cliffs of schist before retreating from another wind driven shower.

After lunch in the camper on the causeway we embarked upon walk number 2 on the above map of the area, to explore the town land of Sheeauns, or Na Siain, the fairy mounds, an area of low rounded hillocks of glacial moraine or drumlins that accommodates a wealth of Bronze Age monuments. Stone alignments, rows and sacred standing stones litter the landscape hereabouts along with the 1000 year older tombs of Neolithic times. Portal tombs, wedge tombs, court tomb and passage tombs – different designs laid bare after millennia of wind and rain have washed away their covering of soil- 32 of which have been found in this corner of Connemara , the richest concentration in Ireland- testify to a rich and unknowable past life around these quiet fairy mounds that now harbour more recent relics of people gone before.

But in climbing up to inspect the ring fort atop a prominent fairy hill I incurred the wrath, not of the fairies, but of the farmer who owned the land and the cattle or sheep pen that had been refashioned from the Iron Age structure. Banished from the ancient homestead I retreated to the camper and onward to Sellerna beach for the night.

With an improvement in weather forecast we were ready for Omey but had to wait for slack tide in order to cross from the mainland. That gave us time next morning for one more exploration of Cleggan head and its beaches and cliffs.

A couple of km east of Port the OS map showed a track from the town land of Bundouglas crossing northwest across the headland towards high cliffs on the indented coastline. From there we hiked back around to the stony beach below Shanboolard Hall which we also planned to visit.

The track, presumably made for getting to the shallow turf banks scattered across a wide area, ended abruptly at the high cliff edge. The savage seas here have torn into the sandstone and glacial till leaving the harder quartzite jutting out or standing tall in defiance. Kayak tours are popular below the cliffs, exploring the caves, coves, arches, stacks and stumps.

Making our way eastwards along the high ground buffeted by squally showers we passed a series of small bays, deep clefts scoured out by the waves, with exotic names- Ooeyuna, Ooeywalter, Ooeywaria, Ooeyandinnawarriv, Ooeylaunnlauraush and Ooeyansconsa. Views opened up down Ballynakill Harbour towards the 12 Bens and eventually we made it down onto the crescent wall of storm tossed pebbles and crossed to climb the grassy track leading up to Shanboolard Hall, another fine Anglo Irish estate house now an organic farm with walked gardens and a mighty wind turbine.

Related by marriage to the Musgraves of Cleggan House ,just over the headland, the former owner here relished in the name Captain Graham de Montmorency Armstrong- Lushington Tulloch. Now producing a wealth of organic fruit and veg they also have free range pigs and chickens, Connemara ponies and horses and a few Guinea fowl and bee hives. And a 3 bed holiday cottage to let. We had a chat with a couple working away in the garden and returned to the storm beach, crossing the stream emerging from the reed covered wetland.

The constant movement of the beachpebble mound was illustrated by the buried line of redundant fencing that led us to the boot marking the way back to the camper.

The sky was blue, rain and wind gone, the tide was retreating so off to cross the strand to Omey. Home to nearly 400 people before the famine and half that shortly after, it has only one permanent household now, our friends on the far western tip. The way across the wave rippled sands, open a few hours either side of low tide, is marked although locals seem to use other routes.

Once across the one narrow track leads up a rocky shore and passed small fields of grazing cattle on the eastern side. There are no sheep on the island, leaving it to the multitude of rabbits, whose burrows litter the sandy banks, to nibble the machair vegetation down to the nub. A large circular lake, Fahy Lough, takes up much of the centre of the island while the west is open and wild, with outcrops of granite looking like the works of Hepworth or Moore.

We took a leisurely stroll in the afternoon sun across the beach of Tra Rabhach to visit the holy well of St Feichin who came in the 6th century to found a monastic settlement and encountered fierce opposition from the locals, reputedly the very last pagans in Ireland. We carried on over the hillock high point of 26m adding our offering to the cairn and went on to gaze down at the excavated ruins of the medieval church, buried for centuries beneath the sands until dug out by the parish priest and locals in 1981. 100 years earlier, in 1881, a touring Daily Mail writer noted ” against the inhabited part of the island is what is now a mere sandbank. It is covered with sand, and not a soul dwells thereon. But there were people there once who clung in their stone cabins till the sand finally covered them; so that they might fairly be described as dwellers or burrowers therein”

The island struggled to feed its 400 inhabitants in the thin sandy soil although potatoes could do well as the same writer noted,” There us too much fresh air; for it blows so hard that people are afraid to disturb the thin covering of herbage……” if ye break the shkin of ‘um, your honour, the wind blows the sand away and leaves the pitaties bare. And, begorra, there are nights when the pitaties themselves ‘ud be blown away”.”

But we were blessed with being on Omey during a possibly very narrow window of time when the living is easy. There have been many changes to the island since the 1000 yr old shell middens were created here from the wastes of the society. And the changes wrought by the wastes of the present global society are likely to really stir up the sands of Omey. May St Feichin and his pagan god predecessors protect us.

NORTH MAYO: Woods and Moor, Bog and Shore

A couple of weeks after my last ramblings in the Nephin Wilderness Park we returned to Mayo, to explore the landscape to the north. We started by visiting Enniscoe House and its 3 km Woodland Loop. Actually we started in the Kaffa Coffee Cafe and museum in a converted outbuilding of the 18th century Georgian mansion before meandering around the walled ornamental and organic fruit and veg garden restored under the Great Gardens of Ireland Programme. It looked like Covid regulations or something had hit the upkeep of the gardens hard which was sad to see and we moved on to the woodland beyond the walls.

The gardens have been certified organic for over 25 years and other good things have been initiated here over decades. In 1993 10,000 sessile oaks, Ireland’s National Tree, were planted with help from the Tree Council ( and Mitsubishi) and the woods are part of a Neighbourwood Scheme to create local and community amenities for recreation in nature. They won the Forest Service Biodiversity award in 2013. It’s also an International Phenological Garden, one of 28 sites in Ireland that notes important dates in nature each year. Leafing, flowering, ripening and leaf fall etc- all important info- not least for the study of climate change.

We set off to follow the trail to Lough Conn and back around Fox Covert, Burnt Wood and other named avenues.

We parked up that night on the site of the old turf power station on Bellacorick bog, the flow country that stretches north from the Nephin mountains all the way to the coast.

Opened in 1963 it consumed 1000 tonnes of turf a day for 40 years finally being decommissioned in ’03 and demolished in ’07.

Ireland’s 1st commercial windfarm opened on the adjoining Bord na Mona land ( they have 10,000 hectares of bog) in ’92 with the 21 small turbines producing only 6.5MW. I say only because a new windfarm opened there in 2019 with the 29 big turbines producing 93MW!

In the morning we crossed a new bridge over the Oweninny and joined the 13km looped walk around the site.

A joint venture between Bord na Mona and the ESB, the renewable energy plant is a major part of BnM’s “Brown to Green” rebranding. Although I think much of the cut away bog there is beyond restitution into a working carbon sink eco system, it is heartening to see its rapid transformation into a more ” natural” state.

Cows and sheep grazing, insects and birds on the ponds and wild growth of heathers, grasses, lichens and mosses all testified to recovery. The paths followed the miles of old railway track, laid down to facilitate the removal of 1000 tonnes of ground a day. 10km of new roads have now been made for phase 2, complete next year and doubling the number of turbines and producing an additional 83MW of clean energy.

A nice flat easy hike across an amazing landscape under a very big sky. Unfortunately we discovered we shouldn’t have been on it at all when we tried to go to the visitor centre and discovered it closed due to construction of phase 2. A further, phase 3, is now in the planning stages- to bring another 50 MW on stream further to the east.

From a scene of a landscape heritage destroyed by exploitation of a natural resource to a scene of cultural and historical heritage destroyed for the same reason.

Across the bog a few km, near the proposed site of phase 3, is Blanemore Forest and its 4.7 km loop. A spruce, pine and larch plantation was thoughtlessly put down on top of a wealth of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments.

Although surveyed in the early 1960’s, when the state forestry board first bought and planted the land, the pre-bog boundary walls, field systems, court- tombs, stone row and standing stone here were “lost” for decades before being brought to light in ‘ 93 by a couple of archaeology students. Since then the local community has done much to preserve and present these remnants of Ireland’s first farmers over 5000 years ago.

For 500 years from 3,800BC Neolithic farmers cleared forest and created fields for grazing cattle before a change to a wetter climate and the growth of bog coupled with soil erosion led to the disappearance of the settlement here. The nearby Ceide Fields complex spans 1000’s of acres and is the largest Neolithic site in the world.

The trail led us on forest track and rubber mat boardwalks past information boards at each of the sites. Unfortunately much has been swallowed by the bog and forest and the repeated planting and harvesting operations have caused a lot of damage. In fact the capstone of the largest court tomb was deliberately knocked off by digger in the 60’s to see what lay under “the large flag” of the ” giants grave”. Thankfully all archaeology within state forests is now protected.

The site also contains a couple of impressive Bronze Age monuments from when farming returned about 600 years later as things warmed up again temporarily.

A large standing stone and a stone alignment atop a gravel ridge had a very different prospect before the trees surrounded them. It is conjectured that the stone row is in alignment with Nephin on the winter Soltice when the sun would appear to “roll” down its shoulder, similar to an event we have witnessed on Croagh Patrick.

After a few hundred years the wet returned, the farmers retreated east to the limestone, and the bog reclaimed the area again. Who knows what might be revealed later in this climate change?

It was a big weekend in Mayo and particularly in our next destination, Ballycastle. Not only was the Sam Maguire cup within reach again in Mayo’s 10th Gaelic football final since their last win after a 70 year wait but the Red Bull cliff diving championship was also happening from the dramatic coast there, creating a lot of razzmatazz.

We watched the game in a fairly raucous pub with the excitement growing for hours before the throw in. Sad to say it didn’t go well and we slid away to the camper after the final whistle unable to share the agony of the true Mayo people.

Sunday morning we walked down through town to the trail head of the Sralagagh 9.5km Loop and headed off a small road that became a boreen that became a track. Abandoned gravel pits, rough overgrown fields, some mattress dumping and views of farms smothered by forestry monoculture doesn’t sound great but our surroundings had a melancholy charm enhanced by the frequent gurgling of multiple watercourses.

We reached old turf banks and at the highest point we turned down a bog track that stretched far into the distance. This deserted place must have been a busy hive of industry for generations of families producing fuel. From here we could look back to a sunlit Ballycastle and, further down the fuchsia track, the towering sea stack off Downpatrick Head where the diving was taking place.

A coffee at the beach watching kayakers setting off for a fisheye view of the cliff divers, and we drove east over the headland for our last walking environment- the shore. The tide was out on Lacken Bay exposing miles of golden sands. There is a centuries old tradition of horse racing on the strand and every May thoroughbreds from around the country compete over a 5 furlong looped track surrounded by spectators who also engage in a variety of family fun sporting activities. Rather than sleek steeds racing around the sand we had to endure a boy racer doing doughnuts.

This is the scene of the French landing in 1798, the last act in that ill fated rebellion, and the troops marched across these sands to Killala and eventual defeat at Ballinamuck when the French were allowed to surrender whilst the Irish were massacred. We walked out into wide airy space experiencing a similar openness to the flat bog land horizons, tip toeing over the rivulets of retreating waters and admiring the big skies and small sandy details.

A lovely series of walks, but a slight sense of sadness crept in when contemplating the loss of life in the bloody rebellion and the memorial to fishing disaster, the migratory birds lining up to leave, signifying the end of summer and ,of course, the sad defeat of the Mayo hurlers.

WILD NEPHIN : Into the Heart of Mayo

Sustained sunshine and a dry Indian summer provided too good an opportunity to miss. After a few ” mild” walks I hankered after some “wild”. And so thoughts turned to Nephin and what is usually uncomfortably wet and soggy terrain. I’d twice crossed the boggy wastelands of Ballycroy and the Bangor Trail and relished the empty openness of that Big Country. I had also been inspired by Sean Lysaght’s book on Wild Nephin and had pored over the excellent 1:25,000 scale map of the area put together by Barry Dalby of EastWest Mapping.

So a maiden voyage in the repaired and whine and grind free campervan got me to a lovely parkup on the shores of Lough Cullin with the setting sun rolling down the shoulder of my goal for the morning.

A big full moon hanging over the lake when I awoke added to the call of the wild as I drove off, stopping on route at the poignant Titanic memorial in the village of Lahardaun. 14 souls from the area lost their lives in the disaster and others miraculously survived. Anne McGowan, a local, survived and lived on to reach 95 years finally dying in 1990. Every year here at 2.20 on April 15 th the church bell tolls and a ceremony is held in their memory.

Nephin is the highest standalone mountain in Ireland and second highest point in Connacht, second only to Mweelrea. From its summit at 806 m there are outstanding views over the vast tracts of moorland, forest, blanket bog, farmland and the mountains of Donegal, Sligo, Galway, even Clare on a clear day. And of course Croagh Patrick and the Nephin Beg range. It’s a mountain I’d been attracted to for decades with its enticing and mystical pyramidical formation, but been unsure the best way to tackle it. Problem solved by local community groups with help from Coillte and the Co Council who created a marked trail on the north face with its fantastic Corrie. Known as “Finn Mc Cool’s Armchair” the Corrie does not contain a lake but is certainly dramatic. Leaving the camper in a recently created trail head car park I started off up a forest track with the early morning dew still glowing on the spider’s webs and a small blanket of cloud still draped over the summit.

An old Mass Path lead me on to the edge of the forest and out on the heather clad open mountain. The path got muddy and eroded in places, the downside of creating a route and car park and increasing the amount of footfall. Moving on up and starting to slow as the incline increased I was bemused to be overtaken by a young one running up the, to me , daunting climb stretching ahead. He turned out to be an Italian, and bizarrely a mad Mayo football fan, over for the final, as I discovered when he passed me again on his way down.

The views opened up as I rose up through the heather and scrambled on the loose rocks. I looked over to the west at the lower rounded hill of Tristia, where I planned to visit a holy well.

I moved over towards the edge of the steep drop into the corrie, thrilled by the views, and clambered on up towards the now visible trig point.

At the summit I found a spiral art work had been created below the trig point and a wasp nest was resident in it. I discovered this while resting against it congratulating myself on a successful ascent, just before receiving a couple of stings. A mysterious figure emerged from the cloud to the west.

Eamon was on a mission from Scotland to climb all the Irish peaks over 600m, known as the Vandeleur-Lynams, of which there are 273. He was doing this without transport, hitching to the trailheads. He was also doing it without paying for accommodation instead hoping to meet friendly folk to put him up or camping out. But just to ensure that his life did not become too easy and diminish the challenge he was doing it without a tent, just sleeping bag and mat!

And he was about my age. Not one for the Saga coach tour then- and way beyond the definition of Active Retirement.

With so many peaks to bag he couldn’t stay too long and disappeared back into the cloud leaving me to carry on around the rim of the corrie and start back down on the opposite slope to complete a horseshoe climb. I could make out tiny figures scaling the shoulder across the gulf of Finn’s armchair and I disturbed a resting sheep who hobbled off with a broken leg. How long to survive?

Jumbled rocks gave way to rough grass and heather on the steep slope down towards the ravine caused by the scouring waters of the stream that becomes Castlehill river.

After the exertion of the climb I took the restorative waters at the holy well on the slope of Tristia, a few km away. Originally a site of pre Christian celebration at Lughnasa it was later dedicated to St Patrick after he was said to have called here himself for a drink. In fact there are two wells, one for Patrick and the other, in a gesture of sexual equality, Bridget. The waters are reputed to cure lost eyesight and to bring about reconciliation to troubled families.

With a fair bit of fine day left I moved around to the opposite side of the hill to Drumleen Lough for a refreshing swim. An easy 3km loop walk encircles the lake thanks to the efforts of local community and willingness of landowners. A laid gravel track and boardwalks take one past an old homestead and around the lake held between the glacial drumlins with a thoughtfully placed picnic table and benches where I stripped off and cooled myself in the placid waters.

With the evening drawing in it was time to head deeper into the Nephin Wilderness and find a parkup. Turning off the Bangor road toward Keenagh with the vast expanse of the bog stretching away to the north I visited Bunaveela Lough before finding a beautiful spot in a little lay-by overlooking the forest and folded landscape above the Goulaun river.

Another place of curative waters was my first destination in the morning – deep into the bowels of Glen Augh under the watchful eye of Mount Eagle. Driving up a forestry track as far as possible, I followed on foot the post markers leading along boggy firebreaks to Jamesie’s Well. The old lodge pole pines were festooned with lichen- a testament to the pure air. Unfortunately the rhododendron that plagues so much of the area, and could cause problems for the hands off rewilding plans for the park, had managed to get a purchase even here.

There were actually 3 spring wells spurting the purist of waters from under the trees. Said to be effective in the treatment of kidney stones, when Jamesie McIntyre passed a stone after drinking the waters, they will not work for those attempting to sell the aqua viva.

I supped deep from each in turn before following the gurgling sounds of the infant Srahrevagh River up to Lough Doo in the saddle between Mt Eagle and Top of Lena peaks. Blazing sun, cooling waters, empty, isolated and open to enormous vistas – perfect for a bit of “wild swimming”.

The views only improved as I climbed on up to the summit, admiring the micro worlds held within the clumps of mosses and the macro world of the vastness of earth under the heavens.

Back down in the river valley I went in search of some waterfalls known as The Lep or leap. Hidden in a deep and steep ravine, sheltered by ancient gnarled oaks whose precarious positions have protected them from browsing sheep and men with saws, the falls are heard way before they are found. Even now, after weeks of dry weather, the cascades were impressive. To be here in a winters flood would be awesome.

Inspired by my view east from Mt Eagle of ancient trackways and settlements at the far end of Glen Lara and the booleys of The Pullidge I set out from Shrahmore Lodge towards the mighty Burren Corrough. This land, once so full of hard lives, was now deserted but still harboured remnants. Potato ridges, ditches and banks, the deep impressions of discarded turf banks, stone walls of cottage and booley huts.

There was a melancholy to the place and I had planned another wild swim in Derrybrock Lough but on reaching it somehow my desire for immersion faltered. Perhaps something to do with the fairies the area is associated with , a place children were warned to avoid. The lakes Irish name , Doire Bhroc ( Badger Wood), is another cause for sadness- the despoliation of the landscape has seen both badger and wood eradicated. In the end though the blue sky and shining sun banished the banshees and the swim was a blessing.

Invigorated by the swim I carried on over the tussocks of rush and grasses into a vision of the American Badlands or the Mongolian steppes. The vastness was a little daunting, or maybe it was the fairies, and I decided I’d better retreat before the light did. From the furthest flung roofed building, adrift in the featureless void, I struggled to follow the ghost of a cart track back to the van. In another few decades this could all be a rhododendron forest, so many of them were progressing across the land, triffid like.

I drove south then west to cross the Black River and around the top of Lough Freeagh to continue down a forestry track into Glennamong. Parking up next to the bridge I was visited by a logging lorry just before dark and another late at night and again in the misty (and midgy) morning. Their timber cargo was going to Enniskillen in the north which seemed absurdly far away but the driver told me they go all over the country.

A still and humid morning had the midges out in swarms so as soon as the mist had risen enough for me to see my route up towards Ben Gorm I was off, first through a clearing in the plantation, then up over the sheep wrecked mountainside of sparse vegetation, hags of turf and swampy hollows. The erosion had revealed a lot of prehistoric tree stumps, relics of another age and another climate. And there were sundews.

I’d read about a discovery I was hopeful to find high up in the moraine of jumbled boulders and rocks that have detached themselves from the side of Ben Gorm and lie strewn around dangerously awaiting careless ankles. A local man had followed a fox into a narrow fissure in the rocks and found a 20 m corridor and later chambers containing human bones. Subsequent examination determined that the chambers had been used for ritual burial for several centuries from over 5000 years ago. My first effort was woefully inadequate as far as Neolithic burial chambers go but I spied what must be it, a huge slab, high up the cliff, guarding a wide opening.

Unfortunately a difficult clamber up there revealed only the skull of a sheep, but the view was good.

I had got myself into a position where the only way was up, and it was a sweaty scramble clinging to rocks and heather before I finally breached the ridge and hauled myself to the reward.

Beautiful weather beautiful views. The pinnacle of Croagh Patrick rose above a sea of islands in Clew Bay to the south and the wilderness of the Nephin range faded into the east. To the west were the mountains and cliffs of Achill while down to the east the camper, and a long journey home awaited.

My thirst for the wild had been sated but my attachment to this landscape had only grown. Laid out in such a grand scale it displays its history in geological and human scale openly and I can only wonder what comes next.

CURRAGHMORE AND CHARLEVILLE CASTLE ESTATES: A Walk on the Mild Side

Finally getting my fingers to the keyboard to write about a couple of micro adventures- weeks separated in time but sharing many similarities.

First up was a little side trip from our visit to this years Covid constricted Sproai festival, Waterford city’s annual street performance jamboree. We drove west up the Suir valley to the super wide streets of Portlaw, the 19th century model town created by mill owning Quakers. From there we took the oddly named Scrouty road to the car park entrance to Tower Hill woods to begin a 4.5km loop.

There are 100’s of acres of glorious mixed oak woodland hereabouts, mostly owned by the Curraghmore estate, and although this particular patch had been described as representing one of the larger remaining tracts of oak woods in the country, it seemed mostly coniferous to us. We passed an old stone boundary wall which obviously predates the supposed “ancient woodland” and reached an open area with stunning views to the Comeragh mountains.

We emerged from the shade of the trees into a fine sunny day under blue skies and followed the track across the shoulder of the hill till reaching a road at Hussain gap where one of the Marquis of Waterford had his faithful war horse buried. The gravestone of Jock the Charger had been removed to the house for safekeeping after some inaccurate tree felling had broken it.

Some of the 12 miles of estate boundary walls we passed along the road were being restored with traditional lime mortar aided by state and European GLAS grant aid- an ironic twist on the fact they were originally constructed as famine ” relief” for a penny a day and food.

Shortly turning off the road and into the forest again we climbed on a path past seeding willow herb and spindly holly towards the De la Poer tower.

Sitting atop the 230m hill the tower was built in 1785 by the 1st Marquis of Waterford in memory of his eldest son who died aged 13 in a riding accident jumping his horse over the courtyard railings. A solid construction with walls up to 7 ft thick and a 92 step spiral staircase that leads up to a view over 5 counties.

We sat at the top looking down at our next destination, the house and grounds of Curraghmore. The 2500 acres of the estate make up the largest private Demesne in Ireland and are home to a remarkable tree collection including the tallest tree in Ireland, a Sitka Spruce planted in 1830’s and about 180ft tall.

The De la Poers have been here since the 12th c and the original Norman keep with its 12ft thick walls has been encased by a Victorian mansion. The fine back courtyard, where we took our luncheon in the cafe, is overlooked by St Huberts Stag sporting a crucifix between the antlers.

Traditionally hosting polo matches in summer and shooting parties in winter the glorious grounds of lawn, lake, woodland, borders, parterre and formal gardens were the unlikely setting for the All Together Now music festival in 2018 and 19 and are signed up for 3 more. 15,000 people camped and danced and partied in these refined surroundings over long weekends with no damage done- but leaving tell tale traces dotted incongruously about like objects implanted from a future reality.

I wondered what Lady Catherine, the Countess of Tyrone, would have made of it. Being a creative herself I feel she would approve. In 1754 she took 261 days to construct the Shell House with “her proper” hands and instructed captains leaving Waterford harbour for exotic destinations to return with shells with which to decorate its interior- unfortunately hidden from our view.

We had to return to Sproai and so left without fully exploring the planting Lady Catherine was instrumental in. Exotic trees as well as shells found their way to Curraghmore. Chinese Fir, Japanese Umbrella Pine, Lebanese Cedar, Western Hemlock, Mexican White Pine, Caucasian Fir, Chinese Plum Yew, Serbian Spruce, Bhutan Pine, Japanese Red Cedar, Chilean Southern Beech, Cappadocian Maple- it’s an impressive list, and an impressive landscape. We will return.

Another historic estate that hosts a music festival, and has done annually for 13 years, is Charleville, just outside Tullamore, Co Offaly. It also has a remarkable collection of trees as we discovered on our latest ” train and trail trip”.

Alighting the Dublin bound train in Tullamore it was a short walk to the entrance to Charleville Forest where we were immediately gifted with the presence of The King Oak.

This approx 700yr old venerable being is one of many in the ancient forest that has survived here after 1700 acres were given to the Moore family by Queen Elizebeth 1. Voted third in the European Tree of the Year in 2013 the oak has a girth of 26ft and the lower branches spread 150ft. It was struck by lightening in 1963 and survived, split but still strong.

The forest here has been considered magical for centuries and was sacred to the druids. As we continued up the lane towards the castle we were in awe of the majestic towering oaks that formed the top canopy of a multi story woodland.

The arboreal senior citizens sported some huge burrs that masked hidden wonders for a wood turner.

At the end of the drive we passed through an entrance to the castle itself, built over 14 years from 1798, the year of the crushed rebellion, and designed as a neo gothic statement of power. The round towers were supposedly positioned on the crossing point of key lines and create a powerful energy in the tower rooms. Reported to be full of hauntings the castle hosts overnight paranormal investigations.

Uninhabited from 1912 it fell in disrepair but was saved from ruin by the work of volunteers and supporters from 1970’s and the creation in 1994 of the Charleville Castle Heritage Trust. In 2006 the first small scale Castle Palooza festival was held, raising money for the continuing restoration, increasing in size to 5000 over the coming years.

Skirting the castle we followed the track over a stream and past a wide assortment of mature trees- mighty chestnut, ash and sycamore. There is a planting of yew here in the shape of the union flag, impossible to determine from the ground. We continued our walk down through an avenue of limes from the farmyard and out onto open pasture.

Out through a gate onto the Lynally road and we carried on northwards through farmland that although productive seemed somewhat of a mishmash with abandoned old cottages and sheds alongside brutish new development.

This area was part of a major ecclesiastical centre for centuries when the monastic site founded by St Colman Elo in 590 grew into an important place of faith and learning. The ancient oak woods of Charleville were part of the settlement back in the day and we stopped for a picnic lunch at the atmospheric ruins, kindly shown around by the knowledgeable owner of the land, Mr Mooney.

An unofficial caretaker of this OPW site he had protected it from much official vandalism and seen a partial improvement with the removal of damaging ivy by the county council a few years ago. When I asked him if his family had been here for a long time he replied, No they’d only come in 1668 from another part of the county. “A blow in so”, I replied, ” have the locals accepted you yet?”

A mine of historical info and a welcoming custodian, he left us to tend to his farm and we carried on up the road another couple of km to join the Grand Canal at Ballycowan castle whose grouping of its 6 chimneys led it to be known locally as the 3-2-1.

We’d walked the Grand canal from Dublin to the Shannon about 15 years ago and had mixed feelings about the Greenway “improvements” that saw the grassy tow path converted into a tarmac cycle and walkway. It was still pleasant to meander along beside the reedy water towards Tullamore but we crossed over from the official surfaced route to the south bank over Srah bridge to take our chances on the rougher grass bank.

Passing Srah Castle, the 1588 defensive tower house of English settler John Briscoe we were soon passed the traveller halting site,( with adjacent sewerage plant), and into the 28th lock on the edge of town.

The 14km loop hadn’t taken as long as thought so we had time for tea in town reflecting on the pleasures of a walk on the mild side before returning to the station for the train home.

CANALWALK : The Shannon Greenway

Collecting the camper from a garage in Carrick on Shannon, ( don’t ask ), we decided to spend the night in it and explore a walk on the upper reaches of the Shannon Greenway/ Blueway, an expanding network of paddling, cycling and walking trails on and by 200 km of Ireland’s mighty river.

In 1817 a canal was opened to transport clay, iron ore and coal from the western shores of Lough Allen down to Battlebridge on the Shannon. As usual the faster railways muscled in on the trade and by 1930 the ESB had decided to raise the water level of Lough Allen ,( to create a reservoir for the new engineering marvel that was Ardnacrusha power station nearly 100 miles away), and the canal was abandoned.

A big drive to establish recreational boating tourism in the 90’s saw the canal dredged and reopened in 1996 and the current big drive to establish Greenways has led to the development of a 13 km looped walking trail from Acres lake in Drumshanbo to Battlebridge.

We started at Ireland’s first floating boardwalk, a 600m construction leading walkers out across the lake and into the canal mouth. The €500,000 cost has been declared well spent with 120,000 extra visitors attracted in its first year and ” Drumshanbo has just thrived on the back of it”.

Certainly thought had gone into encouraging use of the old towpath route with picnic tables and shelters appearing now and then. The new gravel surface made it bike and buggy friendly but avoided the unnatural and hard tarmac of some other greenways.

The verges and hedges were richly coloured and scented by summer blooms as we approached Drumleague lock where we crossed over to return to Acres Lake on the opposite grassy bank.

Although the new Greenways on the river and canal banks of Ireland have definitely increased traffic on what were already lovely walking routes the waterways themselves still seem sadly underused and must be costing Waterways Ireland dearly. The Blueways projects have received mighty funding for their facilities, signage and branding but we have seen very little activity so far on our rambles, although one boat came zooming passed.

Still, the empty canal made for a very tranquil walk beside the still waters.

We drove back to the lock to spend the night and continued in the morning down to Battlebridge, with the Shannon running alongside us towards the end.

The canal was raised a fair bit above the wet land to our west side that farmers accessed by lowering metal bridges and sheep grazed amongst the thick clumps of rushes.

At the lovely lock house at Battlebridge we gazed at the confluence of the waters. From here the Shannon would take you to Limerick and out to the Atlantic. Or you could branch off at Leitrim and explore the Erne waterways in the North through the Ballinamore and Ballyconnell canal (and then on to the Newry or Ulster canal) . Originally only open from 1860 till 1869 it was returned to optimistic leisure use in 1994. The cross border nature of the project meant the opening ceremony was conducted under very tight security in an area sealed off by police and soldiers and patrolled by camouflaged commandos. Or further on you could branch off down the Royal Canal to Longford and Dublin or you might choose to continue south to Shannonharbour and then turn left down the Grand Canal towards Dublin where, at Lowtown you could head down the Barrow canal and river to Waterford.

There is , again, a long trailing network of boating, cycling and walking trails open and in development across Ireland on the remnants of its industrial past. The abandoned canals towpaths and railway tracks are once again the scene of huge investment of labour and cash. This time it’s for the health of the people and the planet. Minister Eamon Ryan announced recently a €63 million allocation under the Carbon Tax Fund to 26 Greenway projects. For 2021 alone! You will soon be able to walk and cycle traffic free across the length and breadth of the country. Bring it on.

RIVERWALK : The Suir Greenway

After our last micro adventure on and around the waters of the midlands we decided to do a linear riverside hike in the south east down the Suir valley.

The Suir, one of the Three Sisters (along with the Barrow and the Nore) that come together to flow into the sea at Waterford harbour, rises in the Devils Bit mountains and flows for 185 km through the lush landscape of Tipperary, Kilkenny and Waterford and for millennia has been a major commercial and transportation route providing access to towns and ports in Ireland, Britain and to the continent.

The Anglo Norman Butler dynasty had ruled over this corner of Ireland for 800 years creating castles, tower houses, quays and huge wealth and along with various Quaker families had made Clonmel an important commercial centre with milling, tanning, textile, brewing and distilling industries making it the largest inland town in Ireland.

The greenway runs along the tow path route from Clonmel to Carrick on Suir a distance of over 21km. We took 3 trains to get to the historic town, staying overnight in the fabulous Birdhill House and setting off bright and early to the starting point 4km down stream.

The riverside location has been embraced with new cycle and walkways through parkland and lots of sponsored tree planting. There is a longer “Blueway”, a kayaking route from Cahir to Carrick, and we passed a canoe slalom course running 300 m from Lady Blessingtons Weir with groynes, islands, poles, ledges and lines that is reputed to be the most exciting in Ireland , though the heron didn’t seem impressed.

Back and forth across Convent, Old and Gashouse Bridges we finally set off in the sunshine passed flood defences and the hotel on the opposite bank.

The path was busy with walkers and cyclists for a long distance out of Clonmel with quite a few access points along the way. We were treated to some quirky man made artworks and plenty of natural splendours.

In 1537 a right of way 7 ft wide was established along the riverbank to allow for the towing and loading of boats. The boat towing was done by men and ropes who had to negotiate rocks, gravel banks and other obstacles until in 1755 a petition for funds to create a tow path allowed the use of horses and reduced the costs by two thirds. The 60ft boats, called Yawls, would carry between 12 and 20 tons and be pulled by between 4 and 12 horses. The journey upstream from Carrick to Clonmel would take about 5 1/2 hrs. The horses would return by road in about 2 1/2 hr whilst the yawls would float back on the current. The trade dwindled after the railway came in the 1800’s and finally finished in the 1960’s.

The apple orchards of Bulmers were a pleasant feature of a stretch of the greenway where sheep grazed beneath the trees in a fine example of silvopasture. Established in 1935 by local man William Magner it’s become a global brand and here 17 different varieties of cider apple are grown to create the Bulmers blend all pollinated naturally by bees. The local authorities had also adopted the Pollinator Plan and No Mow May in an effort to increase the food source of bees and all the other pollinators. The path was rich in wild and planted flowers that we appreciated as much as the insects.

The river is world renown as a brown trout and salmon fishery, lying over limestone and having the best characteristics of a chalk stream. The fish get big having very few pike predators and no coarse fish competition and a record breaking salmon weighed in at 57lb. The fishing ” beats” are run by private and public clubs and syndicates and there are about a dozen little huts adorning the banks along the greenway.

The good folk of Kilsheelan, half way along the route, where we have enjoyed the greenway previously, have upped their game again with more planting of trees and wildflower meadows around the village and a riverside garden. We stopped for coffee and a snack and remembered our encounter with an otter last time we walked here.

The waters of the river flowed swiftly at times running over rapids which must make it exciting for canoeists although we were surprised not to have seen any on the Blueway since the slalom at the start. There were also 15 weirs on the route made to power mills, maintaining water levels, trapping eels and fishing. The light played on the surface to create constantly changing patterns.

The land around us looked top quality without the rushes of the west as we passed through bucolic scenes of productive countryside with the rising bulk of the mystical Slievenamon or Sliabh na mBan, the Mountain of the Women, in the background. We’ll have to come back for that to explore its 5000yr old tombs, portals to the Otherworld.

The vast agricultural exports and easy transportation had generated a wealth and power reflected in the impressive tower houses from the Middle Ages and mansions that line the river including castle Gurteen de la Poer from 1865 near Kilsheelan by the same Archetect and builder as Kylemore Abbey in Connemara. For over 20 years it’s been owed by controversial Austrian artist Gottfried Heinwein and been the venue for all sorts of celebrity gatherings including the marriage of even more controversial Marilyn Manson to Dita Von Teese.

The skilled and dedicated fly fishermen we passed in their waders were working the “slow pools and slick water”, ” shallow and deep glides, interrupted occasionally by shallow riffles”, but you probably guessed that. The names of the fly they would have been using, and possibly made, are equally poetic. Alders, reed smuts and midges, pale wateries, blue winged olives, black gnat, yellow stoneflies and various sedges. Access to the pools etc was by way of numerous metal ladders and care had to be taken when wading in a strong current.

Although there is a strict catch and release policy in place the value of wild salmon ensures that poachers will break the law and this can lead to nasty confrontations. In July 2020 gun shots were fired at Inland Fisheries officers who had come across poachers near Carrick on Suir who then fled. Their boat, net and 9 salmon were seized. Those fish were just a few miles from their final spawning destination after swimming all the way from Greenland or the Faroe islands.

Other, more damaging, environmental crimes may have been perpetrated here too by a far more powerful entity. Seeing a large factory partly hidden by trees approaching and a “Private MSD Fishery” sign I asked a fisherman we were passing what the place was. Turns out to be the Merck, Sharp and Dohme pharmaceutical plant at the centre of a long running sorry saga. The international pharma giant, 2nd largest in the world, arrived to the 188 acre sit in Ballydine in 1976. Within 2 years local farmer John Hanrahan had accused the company of air pollution that had caused a range of problems from still and deformed births to barren animals, cancer, unexplained sudden deaths of pets, rusting metal, poisoning of grazing and by 1986 the death of over 200 cows. In one of the longest civil cases ever heard in Ireland the High court eventually found for the company and he was ordered to pay over €1 million in costs. But he appealed to the Supreme Court in 1987 and won his 12 year battle bringing about a major change of attitude by government and the setting up of the Environmental Protection Agency. A supposed victory by the small man over a Goliath but the Hanrahan family were never able to recover and have had to give up the farm after over 700 years. The episode bitterly divided the community with other neighbours reporting strange behaviour,illness and death among both stock and family and others afraid to speak out whilst the majority, unaffected, were happy with the employment offered by the giant.

A month ago in, May 2021, it was reported that MSD have applied to expand the plant with a new €140 million facility bringing in 300 construction workers for 18 months and adding to the 2,700 workers already at Ballydine. Hard to argue with that.

Soon after we came upon a sacred spring and a lot of memorials. Serendipity.

On the last leg into Carrick and into tidal waters we saw a lot of the narrow wooden traditional craft known as cots, sadly many half sunk. Another sunken vessel here was the cause of the worst Irish inland waterways tragedy ever in 1799. A large barge carrying soldiers, men women and children broke its mooring above the town bridge and was swept broadside into it shattering the boat and casting the passengers into the river. Over 100 died including 60 children.

Our last few Km, to the station for the return series of trains, passed the restored glories of the Butler Tudor manor, built to impress a visiting Elizabeth 1st with whom Black Tom Butler was reputedly having a ” liaison”. Now owned by the OPW, and unfortunately closed inside by Covid, we had a wander around before crossing the park to the little used station.

Lough Ree Rambles : Back to the Heartlands

A fine weekend forecast we headed back to the heartland of Ireland – literally – for a series of lakeshore walks and a visit to some historic and sacred islands by boat.

Lecarrow in Roscommon, on the midwestern shore of Lough Ree, is the nearest village to the geographical centre of the country and that was where we began and ended our trip.

First up a long anticipated exploration of St John’s Wood, one of the finest, biggest, most intact, oldest and species rich ancient native woodlands in the country. Although it has been used as a timber source for hundreds of years and no really mature trees exist it has survived as continuous tree cover and is now protected.

We parked up for the night in the blue dot car park and dived in to a sea of green on a damp evening, immediately enveloped in an otherworldly tree presence.

Mostly in State ownership and managed by the NPWS the wood is part of a Special Area of Conservation with rich and varied biological diversity. The main tree canopy is made up of fine big oaks and ash ( not so fine), wild cherry, wych elm, with an understory of hazel, holly, willow, crab apple, white beam and yew. The rich variety of forest floor flora testifies to a long history of uninterrupted woodland cover with species such as the rare Toothworth and Birds Nest orchid.

A stone wall bisects the wood and runs down to the lake where the shallow soil is washed away to reveal the limestone bedrock to which the trees cling. In a patch of deeper earth badgers have made themselves at home.

On the western side of the wall the wood is left to do its thing whilst on the eastern side it is managed for conservation which has involved some “coppice with standards” plots for a few years in succession as well as some limited grazing by ponies, bat and bird boxes, maintenance of nature trails including the cutting back of trees alongside to encourage herbaceous flowers and an educational program and scientific monitoring.

The Irish Native Woodland Trust, which does great work and deserves support, owns a small bit of the wood and has recently obtained more land nearby where it is planning to establish a native tree nursery using seed collected in St Johns Wood and to plant an additional 15,000 trees. This project has been part funded by Ryanair through their customers carbon offset donations.

The following morning we drove north through rich and fertile farmland, admiring the size and spread of the many mature hardwoods, and shocked yet again by the massive loss Ash dieback will cause.

We were on route to the Cloonlarge Loop, a lovely peatland walk put together by the proud citizens of the tiny village of Kilteevan, just east of Roscommon. With some development assistance and support from the NPWS and Dept of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht a 7km trail had been put together that meanders quiet back roads through the bog and woodland and features a host of creative and educational features. Fair play to them.

The way was dotted with a wealth of info boards explaining the importance of the peatland habitat and the regeneration efforts going on post extraction and displaying the various species of flora and fauna to be found on the loop. There was also rock art of the local national school, quirky woodcarvings and places to sit and be still.

The flowers were buzzing with pollinators and butterflies flapped past through the warm and sultry air. It felt like a timeless summer day as we wandered the lanes and callows to the lakeside, and agreed with the words of botanist and geologist John Feehan.

“Bogs are places of enchantment. …You feel drawn to them as though they awakened an echo deep within us of the open savannah landscapes in which our human kind had its origins……”