IRELAND

CONNEMARA NORTH: Journey into Joyce Country

The 5km restraining order finally lifted, allowing us to travel anywhere within our county so we headed back up to Connemara in the camper- this time to the far northeast.

Joyce Country is a wild, beautiful and often overlooked area of north Galway and south Mayo between loughs Mask and Corrib from Maam to Clonbur, from the mighty Maamturks mountains to the tranquil wooded shores of the lowland lakes.

Named after the Joyce family who arrived from Wales in the 13th c in the wake of the Norman invaders it kept its name and identity due to its remote inaccessibility. The family married into the O’Flahertys and other clans and ended up controlling a vast area of the Barony of Ross.

We parked up on the pier at Cornamona, last visited when our boat had broken down out in the lake and the rescue services had towed us to shore here ( a story told in my Lough Corrib: Walking on Water blog post)

On arrival I noticed a couple struggling with bailing buckets and ropes tied to a listing vessel and went to help. Incredibly, when I told the fella about the circumstances of my previous rescue there he said “That was me”!

He had been the duty commander of the volunteer team that fateful day- and now, coincidentally I was attempting to help with his leaking boat.

Unfortunately it proved impossible to get the holed aft back to shore and the boat was left on blocks for the night.

Our first hike in the morning was up Benlevy or Mt Gable, a 416m mass that dominates the isthmus between Mask and Corrib, guarding one of the major routes into Connemara from the east. It also has what is reckoned to be one of the most beautiful and scenic mountain walks in Ireland and supposedly gives a lot in return for not too much effort, with one of the reviews on the Mountainviews website reporting on a family birthday hike claiming ” an easy walk for first timers- our 9,6 and 3 yr old did it”! It wasn’t that easy!

Years ago we had walked the Seanbhothar route between Clonbur ( An Fhairche) and Corr na Móna, a 10km hike along the old road along the shoulder of Benlevy ( Binn Shleibhe) and had been enchanted by the views of the island dotted lake. The proper Irish names would often be used as most of this area is within an Irish speaking Gaeltacht, the largest in the country.

Pulling up in a small car park at the base of the mountain at Ballard we were happy and grateful to see we were welcome as hillwalkers and a stile and signage had been provided. The route was unmistakeable though as we followed the old turf cutters track steeply up the side of the hill passed some contented sheep.

The views down over the islands got better and better and in the distance to the west the high ranges glowed in the morning sun. The track went all the way to the broad and open summit plateau where we continued west for another km or so to reach the concrete trig point.

Crossing the summit passed the peat hags we gained views northwest over Lough Nafooey and Finny and further on northwest over Mask and Coolin Lough and the woodlands we were off to explore next.

Sally couldn’t resist collecting some bones that belonged to an unfortunate sheep that had died and was being subsumed into the bog.

The area we were exploring was all part of the 1500 sq km proposed Joyce Country and Western Lakes Geopark , a €1.2 million project running in 2020 and 21 to prepare a submission to UNESCO and hopefully be granted Geopark status in 2023 and join the Copper Coast (Wexford), Burren and Cliffs of Moher (Clare) and Marble Arch Caves (Fermanagh and Cavan). Unfortunately started during the Covid pandemic the plan was to run a series of events and activities and an educational programme for all levels.

Having explored all three of the other Geoparks I’d definitely say the area is worthy, with the contrasting upland and lowland landscapes and big range of rock types and habitats so good luck to them.

On to Clonbur to the glorious woodlands on the shores of Lough Mask. Part of the Ashford estate owned by the Guinness family ( along with another 20,000 acres of County Galway) until sold to the state in 1939, Coillte have restored/created 300 hectares of diverse native woodland here under the EU’s LIFE Nature programme.

We parked up next to the early Christian settlement and abbey of Teampall Brendain at Rosshill cemetery and headed off around White Island and then the 7km Ballykine loop.

The spring flowers were a glory as we followed the path over a man made causeway and around the island, stopping for a rest at one of the scenic benches.

Although there were some mature conifers and exotic non natives the restoration carried out had involved the removal of many to encourage natural regeneration of native species and the planting of many more. The yew wood had been extended by the planting of cuttings taken locally.

After our circumnavigation of the lake island we continued eastwards and out onto the limestone pavement that make this mixed woodland so special. Part of the much larger Lough Carra Mask SAC this is the largest area of limestone pavement outside of the Burren and is home to all the same species of tree , hazel, ash, white beam, buckthorn, black and hawthorn, spindle and yew.

Across a wooden bridge over the Clonbur river we passed small lakes to a track junction at the site of an old sawmill. There we had our antisocial lunch on the ” not happy to chat” bench, although I would have quickly moved if anyone had happened along.

Next up a strange collection of moss covered limestone boulders that was referred to as the Guinness luncheon house ruin, a reed bed haven for bird life, a stone built submerged jetty and the chimney remnant of a shooting lodge.

Not wanting to disturb the dead, (or be disturbed by them!), we moved for the night to a park up on the Lough Mask limestone plateau.

A remarkable spot. In the morning we ventured out onto the slab and marvelled at the walls, the grikes and clints, the egg box and boulder in socket formations ( unique globally to the Lough Mask region) , the bonsai tree microcosm and the tenacious orchids.

Our last walk was another circumnavigation, this time the 3.5 km loop of Big Island again joined to the mainland by another Victorian causeway. We were greeted by chainsaw carvings in the children’s nature corner and fine mature tree specimens.

With the sun shining we took advantage of another scenic bench to sit in the sun and admire the views of the Partry mountains before climbing up to the top of the island’s inner mound for more meetings with remarkable trees.

Venerable old trees, giving life even in death, we returned homewards along a fine wide woodland ride, planning our own journey into native woodland management.

Connemara: The Southside

December 2020: Emerging from another Covid lockdown I finally get around to a post on a short exploration we enjoyed just prior to shutting ourselves away again within our 5km cocoon.

Heading west into Connemara we usually favour the mountainous areas to the north, the mighty lumps of quartzite and marble that make up the Twelves Bens and the Maumturk ranges. From the peaks of some we have gazed south, across the low lying bogland scattered with shining pearls of light reflected from a myriad of lakes and pools, to the sea beyond. The coastline there is so wildly indented, so convoluted, with peninsulas bulging out in all directions, surrounded by a flotilla of islands and islets, that it takes effort and time to explore some of the further flung pieces of this mesmerising landscape.

So although we have, over the years, been many times to the (relatively) more accessible beauty spots, we wanted to delve deeper and started with a walk on An Cheathru Rua, anglicised as Carraroe, a low lying peninsular of about 4×1 miles jutting south from Casla.

Home to nearly 2500 people, over 80% of whom are native Irish speakers, this is the heartland of the Connemara gaeltacht and the Irish language media ,being the base of the Foinse newspaper, with RTE Raidio National Gaeltachta and TG4 television station both nearby.

We started our walk on the beach that featured in the first Irish language film “Poitin” directed by Bob Quinn whose home and production company are/ were based in Carraroe.

Tra an Doilin, Strand of the Creek, is nowadays better known as Coral Strand and is made up of a rare biogenic gravel, a coralline algae known as Maerl. An Cheathru Rua translates as the Red or Ruddy Quarter in reference to the poor land of rock, heath, grass and rush possibly through the browning or bronzing of dead vegetation. In the past the Maerl would have been used as a soil conditioner to sweeten the acidic soil.

Heading north along the coastline past grazing horses in rocky fields we soon reached Doilin Quay.

There are very many piers, quays and landing/ mooring places all over the South Connemara area, a reflection of the vital importance the sea had for the generations of people gaining sustenance from these waters for over 4000 years. Roads have only come relatively recently and the sea was the main route from place to place until modern times. Another name for this place is Ceibh na Mine, Meal Quay, because cornmeal used to be landed here.

From here we left the “official” loop and continued on a narrow path along the coast, climbing over and through a wonderful variety of stiles fashioned from the granite to hand.

Soon enough we reached ‘Tadhg’s landing place’, Caladh Thaidhg a once busy port built in 1840 by Tadhg O’Cathain, a prominent local busnessman running a fleet of boats from here to the Aran islands and Galway city.

The hookers and other boats of old were busy transporting primarily turf to the Aran islands, a trade that continued into the 60’s when “cosey gas” as Kosangas was known had started to arrive on the islands. Connemara turf is still important fuel in these parts though and we passed many neatly piled stacks on our ramblings. None of these sods originated in the local area though as the profitable turf trade to Galway city and the Aran islands had ensured that the granite hereabouts had been stripped bare to earn money, at one time leaving only the unsellable top layer of heather roots or “scraw” to be burnt at home.

From the pier we turned up the road toward Loch na Tamhnai Moire , lake of the big field, anglicised as Natawnymore and turned off into a charming little grass covered boreen that led us up, down, around and back to the road from the village to Coral Strand, from where we looked across Greatman’s Bay, Cuan an Fhir Mhoir , to our next walk on Garumna island.

Although only a km away by water we had to drive about 20 km by tarmac ,up to Casla and then on a lovely road that spanned 3 bridges between the islands of Eanach Mheain , Leitrim Moir and Garmna. A beautiful landscape but as in WB Yeats’s words, ” a terrible beauty”, as this area suffered terribly in the famine and post famine years.

Carraroe in particular became famous for the evictions of the cottagers and especially for a rebellious battle against them. In 1880 the western half of the peninsular was owned by the Kirwan estate whose men with 60 police were serving eviction notices and closing houses when a melee broke out that warranted an extra 200 police to be sent down to Galway and on to Carraroe where they charged and bayoneted a group of women defending the homes, wounding several severely and one mortally.

The New York Herald reported that when attempts were made to serve eviction notice at another home the women ripped it to shreds and a did of blazing turf was snatched up from the fire and smashed into the inspectors neck. With 2000 or more protesters now gathered to defend the cottages the situation was deemed too dangerous and the notice server, a Mr Fenton, refused to carry on and all the police were withdrawn.

However evictions did eventually continue over the coming years and the Land Leaguers Davitt and Parnell visited and used its example in America to raise funds for famine relief and political change.

Hardships unimaginable to us as we embarked upon the 8km loop in the sunshine with full belly’s and a cosy camper van to return to.

Garumna is the largest of dozens of islands in the archipelago of Ceantar na hOilean, the mosaic of water, rock, bog and land that are the heart of the south Connemara Gaeltacht. Small lumpy fields of dips and hollows bordered by a writhing mass of stone walls are made up of a variety of habitats and flora. Pools and marsh, granite slab and boulder, rush and grasses, bracken, gorse and heather. The low lying acidic land rises bare metres above the Atlantic whose westerly winds beat down any trees attempting a life here.

As we set off westwards towards loch Hoirbeaird we had to disagree with the anthropologist Dr Charles Browne who came here in 1898 to study ” probably the poorest and most primitive population in Ireland” when he said of the area that ” a more utterly barren, dreary looking region could hardly be imagined”, although I had to admit that some of the holiday accommodation had seen better days.

We turned off down a small winding backroad that became a track which took us , after losing our way, down to a tiny quay lost among the seaweed covered rocks.

Gathering seaweed has a long history in the area as a food source and fertiliser and the days of burning kelp for soapmaking, dyeing, paper and glassmaking and producing iodine were succeeded by collecting vast amounts of ascophyllum nodosum or egg wrack for the extraction of alginic acid, used in so many foods, cosmetics, biotechnology as well as animal food and fertiliser. Some 20,000 t are now harvested annually by hand in the region and transported by road to factories across the water in Cill Chiarain where the Canadian owned company Arramara Teo are about to upgrade their factories to food grade and take in bladderwrack seaweed as well, a move which they say will have ” far reaching economic benefits within the local community and west coast of Ireland”

We had our lunch gazing at all the riches clinging to the rocks and reminiscing about the times, 40 years ago, when we earned our living gathering seaweed in West Cork.

Turning back up the track aways we found our turnoff, a grassy track leading us deeply into the island towards a line of smoke in the sky. Someone was clearing heather or gorse in the hope of fresh grass but we passed some areas where this method of burning had resulted in mosses alone.

We reached the coast again at the medieval church and graveyard at An Tra Bhain, the white beach, from where pilgrims would gather for the journey out to the monasteries of the Aran islands.

An enchanting path now led us northwards along the shoreline of Greatman’s Bay, looking back over towards the Coral beach, and on reaching yet another little jetty we turned west again to return to the camper along a quiet backroad.

Looking for a quiet park up for the night we drove back over the causeways to Leitir Moir and Eanach Mheain and followed our noses to a graveyard on the north coast overlooking the Bens and Maumturks way in the distance.

The very tranquil spot was shared by the buried with golfers who got to play in what surely must be the most dramatic setting on the Wild Atlantic Way, although a risky spot for amateurs, being surrounded by water.

The following day we headed further into the depths of the Connemara Gaeltacht by driving around the large peninsular of Iorras Aithneach to Mhairois where another loop awaited.

Another beautiful 5km walk on beach and boreen started at the ancient seaside church ruins and headed southwest along the immense strand where the ghost of a friars massive hound was said to be seen running races from end to end.

At the far end at a headland we turned south along a rock shoreline of wonderfully hued slabs and boulders of granite and tropical looking crystal clear waters, as calm and flat as a mill pond.

The views across Cuan na Beirtri Bui, Bertraghboy Bay were stunning, a palette of blues and greens and pale turquoise from which swellings of land emerged, rocks, islets, islands and mountains. The microcosm was as appealing as the wider picture with miniature seas held in rock pools and the abstract artworks of gigantic stone sculpture under our feet.

There was the work of man here too. Ruins of stone cottages that must have caught the spray of storms sat squatly atop the rock, a testament to the resilience of man and his work. Calm and tranquil in the weather we were enjoying, the usual conditions must have made for a harsh life on the Atlantic’s edge.

I fruitlessly searched around for a Holywell marked on the map below the high tide line, the third of these seashore relics we’d passed on our rambles unspotted. Further along, on the grassland above the beach of An Tra Mhoir, we discovered another of the Eire navigation and neutrality markers from the days of “the emergency”we had spotted in many places around the coast. This was number 52 of 83 and had been recently restored by locals.

Next up was an inlet that was fed by a stream we crossed on a new looking recycled plastic bridge. A good use for the silage wrap that so often gets left to decorate the hedgerows, block drainage and ends up in the bellys or around the necks of wildlife.

On reaching the road we took the detour to the right to check out the Atmospheric Research Station in Mace Head. It is uniquely situated, far from shipping lanes, cities and other pollutant sources to look for aerosol and trace gas elements within the clean air mass coming from the North Atlantic. Part of a large number of international research networks into global warming it also produces data for the weather forecast. In 1994 it was recognised by the World Meteorological Organisation as one of the most important stations in the northern hemisphere.

*Not my photo

Then up to the top of the broad summit of An Mas , translation buttock, where the Coastal Watch Look-Out Post number 82 still kept a watch out for friendly and foreign goings on.

Having our sarnies we had a magnificent view northward to the mountains and southwards over the rough and rocky fields littered with long abandoned cottages and beyond to the sea and islands, the nearest being St Macdara’s, home to an early Christian monastery.

Then back down the winding boreen, passed signs of the low intensity of the agricultural practises in the area. A couple spending a long long time driving some cattle into a ruined cottage and a tractor in retirement.

Finally we did get drawn towards the distant peaks , to the ancient woodland of the Nature Reserve on the shores of Derryclare lake in the Inagh valley north of Recess. This 19 hectare old oak woodland is a remnant of what used to be and an indication of what could be again if the ravages of a “sheep wrecked” environment could be resisted.

Access is down a forestry track off the R344. Parking the camper we crossed the river between locks Inagh and Derryclare above a salmon hatchery, and followed the track around the end of the lake and on until we eventually found an unmarked and slight trail that seemed to be going in the right direction and were soon enveloped in a mysterious green stillness of another world.

The aboriginal oaks, hangovers whose ancestors arrived here after the last ice age, are smothered with thick coats of mosses and host colonies of polypody ferns. Although in theory protected, the sheep continue to find their way in and these elderly trees do not have a lot of youngsters to take their place having been nibbled at birth. The National Parks and Wildlife service have been ringing the non native conifers and have translocated 19 red squirrels from Portumna Forest Park to Derryclare. They have been doing well according to study’s and hair tubes and traps and wildlife cameras keep a close eye on their movements.

The edges of the Oakwood are home to a range of other species, alder and willow on the marshy boggy bits and birch and ash on the dryer sedge covered ground.

Here and there are yew, chestnut and sycamore but the species that the visiting botanist really get excited about are the lichens. The clean air and humid climate have allowed over 100 species to flourish here, some unknown elsewhere in Europe or the northern hemisphere. or extremely rare.

The macrocosm of the mountain ranges, the lakes, the bogs and the vast fractal coastline complimented again here by the microcosm of forests of mosses and lichens and fungi. A beautiful interconnected web reaching out from within the earth up to the highest peaks and passing through the hearts of some who journey here.

Dingle Ramblings

We had thought we might head down to the southwest and do the Sheeps Head, or Dingle Way long distance trails but having just survived Storm Ellen and with Storm Frances on the way thought it wiser to do day hikes from the camper as the weather permitted. And so it was that we arrived at Brandon Head under Ireland’s highest mountain outside of the MacGillycuddy Reeks with a plan.

This was staycation summer on the Dingle peninsular and we were concerned it could be crowded. But no, once you venture into the hills there is always wide open spaces for all. Even on the Wild Atlantic Way.

Our planned route of an out and back to the pass between Masatiopan and Piaras Mor north of Brandon Mountain changed when we saw the signs for a loop to Sauce Creek.

The Loop was 12km I think and we would add another 10 km by continuing west over the pass on the Dingle Way. It was a dramatic place to park up for the night with waves crashing onto the cliffs below us and views out over Tralee Bay to Kerry Head and the Slieve Mish Mountains.

Climbing the stile with the red walking man signs in the morning we climbed higher up the headland and away from the cliffs through a wild and open landscape of russet brown grasses and bracken and the purple and yellow splashes of sheep trimmed heather and gorse.

We passed one of the Second World War lookout posts that we’ve come across on numerous headlands around the coast of Ireland. Manned 24/7 by 2 men who watched for and logged and reported any military activity, the LOP’s were often accompanied with a giant EIRE laid out in white painted rocks on prominent sites to alert pilots they were over the coast of neutral Ireland. Historical remnants that often puzzle the coastal visitor there are still around 50 of the original 83 standing sentinel awaiting some other purpose.

Almost lost in the soft boggy ground and hidden in the long rushy grasses were the stone walls of animal shelters or human habitations from a time of hard and isolated living. We descended into a deep valley to ford a steam and then climb up and over the rounded summit of Cnoc Duileibhe (311m).

Heading due west towards the sounds of the sea we reached the flatish heathery area of Sliabh Glas and a view down into the jaws of An Sas. Translated as “trap with a noose” the horseshoe shaped Bay was reputed to hold fast any boat that ventured, or was swept, in. There used to be 3 families living at the bottom of the 750m long curve of cliff, scrapping a living from a few acres of land and the vastness of the sea, the last to leave in 1910 after a local midwife lost her life falling from the heights on her way down to deliver a baby.

Half of the Kerry coastline is defined as “soft” and liable to erosion and about 10 acres of these cliffs fell into the sea in 2014 so much of the remains of the early settlements are slowly being lost to the sea. As we turned our backs to the ocean and continued south the ground was riddled with deep bog holes and fenced off ravines and care was needed to avoid a twisted ankle or worse.

Rising over a knoll following the marker posts we had a vista of uninterrupted bogland and the silver glinting of Brandon Bay beyond. Reaching an ancient trackway we turned west again. We were now following the Dingle Way on its route over the shoulder of Mt Brandon and down towards Feohanagh and Smerwick Harbour.

At the far end of the track we stopped for lunch at a roofed building amongst what had been an extensive settlement. It had possibly once been a home and still had traces and relics of its past life but now looked like it was a shelter for people working on the track or tending the cattle that were now the only inhabitants of this lonely spot.

This was the hamlet of Arraglen and was once home to 13 families. A lot of effort was being put into creating a solid path from here up towards the coll high above with a mini digger creating ditches and drains. At its end we continued to clamber over the steep slope to the pass at 610m where somehow we missed the 1500 year old Ogham stone but reveled in the views down to the west.

Below us were the walls of Fothar na Manach, the Fields of the Monks, where a community of monks lived and farmed what must be one of the wildest and most inaccessible sites in Ireland next to Skellig Michael which would have been visible in clearer weather. We could see Brandon Creek, from where St Brendan and the lads headed off to America in the curragh, the sloping pointed peaks of the Three Sisters, and, fading into the murk of sea and sky, Slea Head and the Blaskets islands.

Returning to the camper via the Dingle Way along the old bog track we were rewarded with equally stunning views to the East which at times included Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest. But Mt Brandon continued to wear its hat of cloud. In the sheltered walls of the boreens in the valley below the colors of the fushia, montbretia and heather were a shock after the bare mountain above.

Moving on to the most westerly point in Ireland , on Dunmore Head , for the night, we were again grateful for an empty and dramatic seaside parkup without any ” no overnight parking/ camping ” signs.

We had planned to tackle Mount Eagle in the morning but the cloud was too low so we explored the short but sweet local loop around the head, where some of the last Star Wars movie was shot. We could imagine the location finder was well pleased with themselves on discovering the stunning otherworldly scenery of this western outpost with only the hauntingly atmospheric Blaskets Islands any more “Far Out”.

Atop the headland was another LOP, that’s Loop Out Point to those who haven’t been paying attention, this one with an Ogham stone for company, it’s 1500 year old script still plainly visible.

The sky was clearer to the north so we headed round the indented coastline on the Slea Head Drive wondering if pre-covid we would have encountered coach tours on the narrow winding road. Parked up overlooking the embracing shelter of Smerwick Harbour we walked a muddy farm track to gain access to the commonage around the Three Sisters.

An untamed and rugged landscape that had witnessed the savagery of man at Dun an Oir, the promontory fort we explored below the Sisters. It was here in the defensive Iron Age site that one of the bloodiest events in Irish history took place in 1580.

A force of 600 Spanish, Italian and Irish, sent by Pope Gregory in support of the Desmond Rebellion were forced to defend themselves there when their ships had been blockaded within the bay. The English forces, 4000 strong, massacred them all after they had surrendered following a 3 day siege. All but the commanders were beheaded and the bodies thrown into the sea, the heads lined up in an adjoining field, since called Gort na gCeann ( Field of the Heads).

With a wild, wet and windy night forecast as Storm Francis swept in we thought we’d better retreat inland to safety. Glanteenassig Forest Park in a sheltered valley nestled among the peaks of the Slieve Mish mountains sounded good. The 450 hectares of forest, mountain and peatland were billed by Coillte as ” an outdoor enthusiasts dreamland”. Seemed to fit the bill. Up a long single track lane towards the only farm at the valley end we turned in over the Drishoge river and drive on up the forestry track to the upper lake, Caum.

Amazingly the 2 km circular walk around the lake was all boardwalk. Some serious amount of effort and cash had been put into placing the 1000 or so slabs of 9×2. Wether this was to protect us from the environment or the environment from us I couldn’t be sure but certainly made for a dry footed walk over some seriously wet ground.

The deep lake, gauged out by a retreating glacier, was silent and tranquil as we awaited the wind and rain in a carefully selected parkup.

Our sheltered position protected us from much of the storm and it was only when I ventured away from the van in the morning that the amount of rain became evident. It was easy to understand the origin of the name Glanteenassig or Gleann Ti an Easaigh which translates as Valley of the Waterfalls. They were streaming down the mountainsides in silver ribbons and when we walked to Lough Slat the words of the Irish poet J J Callinan couldn’t have been truer,” a thousand wild fountains rush down to that lake from their home in the mountains”.

A roaring, foaming, rushing mass of white water raced down beside us as we ventured up the River Walk alongside the Owencashla and the views from the picnic spot high up on a glacial moraine were elemental.

With the storm abated we headed out to another fine seafront parkup for the night with miles of empty beach backed by a vast expanse of salt marsh. So much nicer than the nearby campsite/ trailer park we abandoned after having our showers and charging Sally’s computer.

Our final hike was around the Glennahoo valley, a truly beautiful u shaped glacial valley carved out of the mountains by unfathomable forces. We started at the old graveyard at Ballyduff or An Baile Dubh, associated with the Celtic deity Crom Dubh, a god of fertility and harvest.

An old narrow boreen led us past empty dwellings and up onto a treeless expanse of rough grass and turf banks, the track once tarmac way beyond ” civilization”.

The extraordinary track continued up the narrow ridge of Beenbo to 475m where we had a fine view back down the romantic Glen of Macha na Bo ( Plain of the Cow) and south across a featureless expanse of bog towards Anascaul, the final destination of the ancient trackway.

A bit of a soggy trudge to an unnamed hillock below us followed by an even soggier trudge back around towards the cliffs at the head of the Glennahoo river valley rewarded us with the panorama of the trip. We stopped for a sandwich and soaked it up. Nearly 300m below us lay the fields and homesteads of people who lived in the isolated splendour of a terrible beauty.

Setting off again we met a sheep farmer and dog out looking for his flock. He told us that the houses had been lived in until the fifties by the Dineens and the O’Donnells. From there another old trackway leading over the mountains from the valley took us down to Wolf’s Step, where the last wolf in Ireland was allegedly killed in 1710.

We crossed over the river here and continued down the steep track with a series of waterfalls beside us until finally reaching the valley floor and stopping again to contemplate the life of Mary ‘Macha na Bo’ the last inhabitant of this lonely spot, supposedly an old lady with long flowing white hair who would emerge to hurl abuse at hikers but also on occasion have them in for tea.

The long straight track out of the valley was about 4 km long but seemed to bring us forward decades or centuries in time. Looking back towards the mountains and turning out towards the sea the path felt in a time and space somehow separate from the 21st century tourism hotspot of Dingle and the busy city of Tralee visible in the distance.

Walking the long track had reminded me of the long long line leading back to the early inhabitants here, so palpable through the wealth of remnants left scattered across the landscape. A special place out on the western fringes of what is now known as Europe that has drawn people to it for Millenia. Long may it last.

Co Laois – The Leafy Loop in Lockdown

Looking for a long circular hike we discovered the Leafy Loop in Durrow, Co Laois. It sounded lovely. 23 km of waymarked trail through plantations of beech, ancient native mixed woodlands, conifer forest, hazel coppice, riparian spinneys alongside steams, over lush fields and along wsterside paths by the Nore, Erkina and Gully rivers.

One of the longest looped walks in the country and in a part of Ireland we hadn’t visited since calling into the Durrow scarecrow festival a couple of years ago. We loaded the camper and printed off the maps and then…

Counties Laois, Offaly and Kildare re-entered a 2week lockdown that night because of rising Covid numbers. Our planned walks were on either side of the Laois and Kilkenny border and we had a decision to make. We could do our Kilkenny Walks no bother. But the Loop went into Laois.

Right or wrong we decided, on balance, that if we stayed outside on the trails, kept well away from anybody else and didn’t stop anywhere else in the county we would be doing no harm but still felt slightly uneasy and guilty for going.

Once out in the woods and up on the hills however, taking a step from an open county to one in lockdown , the arbitrary nature of the winding border made a mockery of the imposed restrictions. We understand the need to restrict people’s contact with the virus and we behaved safely but illicitly.

The walk was normally described as starting in Durrow village but in an effort at social responsibility we avoided the possibility of human contact and started in the Coillte operated Dunmore Demesne woods on the outskirts of town.

The trail immediately lived up to its “Leafy Loop” moniker and continued to do so. Durrow means ” Plain of the Oak” and this area was reputed to have woods so dense in the 18th century that the outlaw Jeremiah Grant and his gang of ne’er do wells were able to hide out with ease. It wasn’t until the early post independence days that mass felling took place making the current tree cover a precious thing.

Following the River Gully for awhile we crossed over a stone bridge past the remains of the outbuildings to the old Dunmore House- rendered roofless in the early 20th century to avoid paying rates and soon becoming a ruin that was knocked leaving only the basement and some steps down to the river Nore.

We encountered a pulley system across the river serving some unknown purpose and later a metal bridge brought us downstream to a stone bridge carrying the main road over the river.

A very pleasant stretch beside the river bought us to another footbridge, this time across the Erkina and out onto open fields where the path followed the meanders of the Nore past the impressive bulk of another grand mansion- Knockatrina House mid way through extensive ( and expensive) reconstruction.

A beautifully bucolic landscape in the ” fat of the land”, so different from the rushy impoverished country where the multitudes wrestled a living around our way in the West. Emerging from the fields and reentering woods we crossed the main road again at the site of the Durrow brickworks, an enterprise that produced fine red bricks from shale dug from the hill we climbed from 1890 to 1922.

The steep climb took us to The Ballagh, our high point at about 250 m from where we got occasional views through the trees over the lush farmland of Laois.

The fields were big, the sheds were big and the dairy herds were big. Down through a hazel coppice , across another road and past the lodge into Bishops Wood where the man of the cloth was executed in penal times beside a tree still growing here.

Bishop’s Wood is one of about a dozen “Life Sites” around Ireland where care is being taken to restore native woodland by removal of invasive species and reintroduction of a variety of original plant life. But strangely this was where we got very confused and thought we were lost as what was marked on our maps and google earth as forest had become mono grassland.

The sizeable chunk of field in the photo had , until recently, been forest. We watched a long long line of cows progressing across the prairie from the milking sheds in the distance before turning back into the woods and the charm of the lush path beside the Erkina.

Liable to annual flooding this is part of the largest alluvial woodland in the country and is remnant of a huge wetland known as the Laois Curragh. It was bursting with green growth of meadowsweet, flag iris, Angelica, bugle, sedges rush and water mint and buzzing with insect life. From here you could continue riverside to Durrow but we took the footbridge over to our last stretch of Bishop’s Wood, freshly strimmed.

A couple of km of road saw us back in Dunmore Wood to complete the Leafy Loop, a delight in the summer and, I imagine, even better in the spring when a carpet of bluebells and wild garlic adorn the forest floor. A few minutes drive later we were in Co Kilkenny, no longer illicit, on our way to Jenkinstown Woods for the night, parked up in the walled garden below the threshing mill. Mission accomplished.

Next day we tackled the Gathabawn Loop, a 12 km hike up and around Cullahill Mountain, small enough at 250 m but towering above the surrounding plains and providing far reaching views over 360 degrees. This walk would have us back and forth across the county borders in an uncontrollable way.

We checked out the terrain from a viewpoint carpark overlooking the mountain and waited for the cloud to lift before driving down to Gathabawn village to start the walk opposite Mackeys bar.

Passing by the pleasant Millenium Garden we climbed beyond the old Coolcashin graveyard and the invisible remains of a Norman settlement to reach the charming in name and nature, Ballygooney Lane, which took us up towards the windmills and forestry of Binnianea.

Emerging from the trees we crossed open farmland to reach the equally charming Shirley’s Lane. Was the abandoned farmhouse Shirley’s old home?

Now out of the mono species grassland and on to the wilder pastures we could see why it had been given special area of conservation status. Plant rich limestone country with many different grasses and herbs and protected because of the population of Green-winged,Frog, Bee, Early purple and Twayblade orchids. We sat atop a rath for lunch and admired the views.

Weaving our way through a short section of new plantation we walked along the back of Cullahill Mountain to discover a well placed bench where we rested again to soak up the vista to the north ( Slieve Blooms), West ( Silvermines), east ( Blackstairs, Mt Leinster, Devils Bit) to add to the southerly views earlier ( Comeraghs, Galtees).

Down below us sat the remains of Cullahill Castle the seat of the MacGiollaPadraig or Fitzpatrick clan long rulers of the area until the castle was sacked by Cromwellian forces. It is apparently adorned by a Sheila- na -gig high on a surviving wall. A 17km linear walk, the MacGiollaPadraig Way, has been created from Durrow to Gathabawn and we had shared much of its route.

Crossing the fields deep in drying hay we passed the sad remains of a famine village reminding us that the rich and prosperous landscape laid out before us had not always been so bountiful for the people. Passing by the rath or fairy fort again we made our way along the Gooseneck road to rejoin Ballygooney Lane and back to the Millenium Park and a more recent Fairy world.

Miners Way and Historical Trail: A Loop Around Roscommon, Sligo and Leitrim

Seems like a long time since we were walking the Camino Mozarabe under a blue Spanish sky. Longtime lockdown under the Covid curfew. We left Spain just as the shutters came down and were blessed with acres of homestead gardens to work and rest in under a blue Irish sky for weeks as a hush fell over the world. As a cautious emerging of people began to take place so the clouds also started to gather and by the time we were able to leave the county the summer had settled into the rainy season.

But a change of surroundings was needed along with a kickstart to a much needed fitness programme and trial of our new homemade lightweight 2 person tent. And so it was that we arrived on the shores of Lough Meelagh on the outskirts of Keadew, Co Roscommon to embark on a trail I had long had on my “to do ” list. The Miners Way and Historical Trail is a complex shaped figure of eight with “wings” to surrounding towns and the Leitrim Way and the Beara Brefne Way. It’s “officially” 118km but many hikers would reckon it’s much more. Our circular route without wings or connections came in at 110 km over 5 days.

Our first day was from Keadew to Lough Key forest park. 28 km

It was a ” fine soft day” as we entered Knockranny Woods, sharing our route with a nature trail to the Neolithic court tomb. We were immediately impressed with the amount of staple studded boardwalks erected to keep us out of the slop.

The whole trail was to impress us with its signage, stiles of many styles, wooden and metal bridges, strimmed and mown grass, general waymarking and above all- access over farmland and open mountain. A lot of people have been caring for it and thanks for that.

The woods were fully formed with many mature specimens. It seemed that the historical estates in the area had bequeathed a wealth of woodland.

The first half of our trip, the first two and a half days, would be spent on the Historical Trail with another couple of days continuing on the Miners Way, bringing us back to Keadew via the iron and coal mining areas around Arigna. The closure of the mines in 1990 had led to the development of the trail in an attempt to encourage tourism to the area. And we felt it was a beautiful but neglected landscape deserving of more visitors, with a wealth of rivers and lakes and varied upland and mountainous terrain.

After walking the southern shoreline of Lough Meelagh we reentered a mossy and mushroom rich woodland for awhile before a quick change succession of quiet backroad and rushy field sections led us down to Knockvicar where we had lunch beside the River Boyle which takes leisure boats from Carrick on Shannon to Lough Key.

We had a look around the Knockvicar Organic Garden with its welcoming orchard and displays of fruit and veg and flowers. It shows what can be done with 10 polytunnels on a very small space. They also run training courses and offer a gardening service.

There was a “Trail Closed Today” sign ( which has been there for at least 3 years!) owing to some ongoing land dispute and we were sent on a detour on a bogside track and through thick scrub woodland before emerging onto the lanes leading into the forest park over the “fairy bridge”.

We were weary by the time we reached the epicenter of the park with many staycationers strolling, cycling, picnicking and boating. There was a camping and caravan park but only catering for those self sufficient in bathrooms, toilets and kitchens so we moved on looking for a wild camping site affording some shelter from the rain.

Sally fancied setting up next to the mysterious mother and child statue but the ground was too peg resistant. I couldn’t find out anything about the sculpture other than it was by Jaqueline Duigan of whom the National Visual Arts Libary says ” virtually no information is available on this artist”.

We ended up a little further down the trail, behind the Nash designed gate house to the Rockingham Lough Key estate. A wet and windy night was promised and we were well sheltered by trees and Nash’s wall.

Quickly into Boyle in the morning under a leaden sky that released its watery payload sporadically as we bought supplies and miraculously found a seamstress to mend my packs shoulder strap for under a fiver. Then a long climb up into the Curlew Mountains. After about 3 km of road we headed cross country on the ancient Red Earls road past the site of his 1599 ” Battle of the Curlews”. It was soggy going across the boggy moorland and into a block of forestry where we stumbled upon a 2 story stonebuilt farmhouse subsumed by the trees.

There was a lot of mushrooms and bilberries available but we filled up on bread and cheese as the midges filled up on our blood and the drizzle cane and went. We stopped again after a few km of empty lane when a heavy shower had us sheltering in the shed of an abandoned farm cottage. With a swing in the garden and a cot in the cow shed it had a forlorn feeling of broken dreams.

But ” things can only get better” and as the weather improved so did the surroundings as we came down out of the saturated Curlew and up into the dramatic karst landscape of the limestone Bricklieve mountains. A tarmac and gravel track turned into a grassy boreen and finally a narrow wall lined path, past beautifully located abandoned farms and cottages with mighty views down to Lough Arrow and Lough Key with the Plains of Boyle beyond. We climbed alongside and then crossed a narrow u shaped valley, the Devils Bite, before joining a disused bog track heading northwest towards the Carrowkeel passage tombs.

We had crossed into Sligo and Carrowkeel Neolithic cemetery with 14 five thousand year old passage tombs was just one of the very many impressive archeological/sacred sites in the area. Our friend was meeting us at the bottom of the access track so we didn’t have time to explore but the Bricklieves had instilled a desire to return for further ramblings.

22km done we were very happy to be transported to our friends house for a night of good food, drink, company, warmth and sleep and a lift back to the trail at Castlebaldwin in the morning for the next 22km leg.

We kept a close eye on the clouds as they rose and fell over Carrowkeel making our way on a mix of road and field around the top of Lough Arrow, over the river leaving it to the north and up past the abandoned Cromlech Lodge hotel, once prosperous enough to warrant a helicopter pad, to the Labby Stone- Ireland’s second largest portal tomb.

Another change in the landscape and we hiked mown paths across fields and up onto the Plain of the Pillars a reference to the 14 megalithic monuments in the area. It’s a place of glacial drumlins formed in groups known as “swarms” for some reason. We had lunch at a trig point at 226m overlooking Lough Arrow and a land inhabited for thousands of years, and left with a mass of reminders of their passing including a rich concentration of ancient saunas or sweat houses.

In recent years many inhabitants have deserted the land hereabouts and we past many homesteads slowly returning to the earth. Another downpour was avoided by resting up in a hay barn where we took the tea in comfort.

Settling off again under heavy dark skies over the rushing river Feorish we were on the look out for a camping spot. Nothing suitable found we asked a farmer if we could erect our tent in his hay shed. He said he had a better,less exposed option for us- the old home place cottage- and directed us toward it. It proved to be completely buried under vegetation outside and junk and rubbish inside, so bad that the damp and dark cowshed next door was preferable.

We did a fine job of fixing it up a treat and settled in for the night. Not everyone’s idea of glamping but we have modest needs!

Still misty and moisty next morning as we started another 22km leg by following an old miners track up towards the wind farm atop Carrane Hill. We had switched on to the Miners Way and the hills here were littered with old coal mines.

Down into The Glen, a narrow valley between Carrane and Corry and Lynchs mountain where many miners had lived and whose children must have attended the school we passed on the way to the Arigna river.

When we entered the forest things got tricky. Recent felling had left the track a quagmire of deep mud and muck. The waymarks disappeared and we were left floundering about through a section of clearfell attempting to find the bridge across the river. Not easy.

When we eventually managed to get to the road beyond the forest there was a “Trail closed today” sign! Looking online later I saw a notification on the closure due to felling dated 2018.

Onwards and upwards to the highest point of the whole trail at over 400m. By the time we reached the top ridge the rain was relentless and we were enveloped in cloud with no view to reward our efforts. Too wet to use the phones camera anyway we squelched on down below the cloud towards Lough Allen in Leitrim and the sanctuary of more friends and a place to dry out, warm up, and eat drink and be merry.

Our 5th and last day on the trail was a relief. Blue skies, sunshine and only 16 km over interesting and beautiful countryside to return us to our car.

A leisurely start after a lift to the trail and off over the stiles again and along the thoughtfully laid gravel paths across fields towards Arigna. The sunlit landscape made us appreciate the terrain we’d been through even more as we recrossed the Arigna river and returned to mine country stopping for lunch at the Mining Experience Centre’s restaurant.

The final leg took us up over the flank of Kilronan mountain on ancient old miners tracks. They’ve been hacking away at the rock for over 400 years up there and it felt like we were following in the weary footsteps of generations.

A sunny final days hike was a lovely way to finish a much anticipated but sadly pretty washed out walk. We arrived back at our car by Lough Meelagh well satisfied and tempted to advise the strollers around Knockranny Woods to carry on ( and on and on and……….)

Rambles on the Sheeps Head

On a gorgeous autumnal weekend we returned to West Cork on a visit, staying with a friend on the narrow finger of rocky land that points out into  the Atlantic between the Mizen and Beara peninsulas. With Dunmanus bay to the south and Bantry bay to the north there is usually a stunning sea view to admire from the network of way marked walking routes that the Sheeps Head is blessed with.

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Anyone living around the area is really spoilt for choice when looking for a wild and open hiking route. Not only is there the long distance (175km) Sheeps Head Way that circles the entire peninsular and now continues, via Bantry to Drimoleague and Kealkil, but there about 20 other loops and linear spurs that criss cross north and south, of varying distances . We only had time for a couple of loops but are determined to return.

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The logo for the Way features two rams with interlocking horns and is taken from some 6th century carvings on a standing stone near Bantry. They are supposed to illustrate the Gospel story of the people of Gidgeon and the Israelites who fought for many years. No-one won, no-one surrendered- they accepted to live together. So the interlocking rams symbolise togetherness and resilience. The route was opened by the then President Mary Robinson in 1996 and has since won awards and been chosen as best Irish Walk by Country Walking magazine.

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We headed down in the camper to the end of the road on our first evening to do the Lighthouse loop before the sun sank into the sea. Listed on the Irishtrails website as moderate/difficult the 4km route was supposed to take 2 hours but we found it easy enough though rugged in places which made it interesting. Starting off from the charming carpark cafe the Cuppa Tae ” the tea shop at the end of the world” we set off north to loop anticlockwise.

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A narrow rocky path led us steeply down into a little valley towards the deep blue sea and the mountains of the Beara. In such a remote spot we were surprised to pass the remaining stone walls of a simple dwelling.

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We continued on over marshy hollows and rocky outcrops to where our loop joined the Sheeps Head Way proper and turned west along a narrow undulating cliff top path .

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The bays both north and south of us are thankfully free of the jarring fish farm nets and mussel rafts that blight so many other once pristine seascapes off the coast of western Ireland. Seamus Heaney wrote a poem about here called “The Peninsular” whose last lines describe this end of the world well. “Water and ground in their extremity”

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We puzzled over the enigmatic circle of white stones before spying the tiny lighthouse below us and realising its function as a rustic helipad. The small white building clinging tightly to the rocks at the grounds extremity is not very old. Built in 1968 to guide tankers to the ill-fated oil terminal on Whiddy Island off Bantry, its light is visible for 18 miles across the often ferociously turbulent waters.

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The primitive helipad must have been a busy spot during the construction when 25o helicopter flights were needed to transport all the materials including the lantern and optics from Kilcrohane 9km away. They also had to fly out all the poles needed to bring out the electricity to power the light.

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Gazing out west from the rocks above the lighthouse we weren’t lucky enough to spot one of the whales or dolphins that regularly appear on their migrations and so turned onto the now well worn and larger path back towards the car park passing some dramatic cliffs and then the still waters of Lough Akeen, where the surrounding fields still bore the memories of long gone residents in the form of the potato ridges, clearly visible in the slanting evening light.

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The stony path filled with sheep that scattered into the heathery grass as we slowly climbed up past the outlying farmhouses to the sadly closed “Cuppan Tae”.

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The following day we were blessed with more beautiful weather as we set off on another, longer loop walk. The Seefin loop is 13km and climbs to the highest point on the peninsular at 318m. The route includes a bit of quiet backroad, ancient old boreens, field paths and open and heathery hillsides. We would be hiking down the rocky old red sandstone ridge of what author, musician and walker Mike Harding described as ” the most beautiful landscape in Ireland”. Praise indeed!

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Setting off from Ahakista on a typical tranquil West Cork backroad lined with fuchsia we followed the stream passed the old burial ground, and leaving the tarmac behind, began to climb a boreen between the field hedges.

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Once out on the open hillside we followed the marker posts up the flank of Rosskerrig to Windy Gap as the vistas grew ever more impressive, with the sea views on both sides.

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At a meeting of routes we turned towards the Sheeps Head peak glorying in the sunshine. This area is blessed with perhaps the mildest climate in Ireland due to the warming effect of the Gulf stream that washes this coastline.

 

Ground down over countless millennia the skeletal bones of this landscape show through the thin covering of rough grasses. We spotted many sticky sundew plants hiding in the turves awaiting their insect dinners. It was a fairly steep descent from the trig point on Seefin, heading south with marvellous views to the Mizen Head and Mount Gabriel with Cape Clear and the other islands of Roaring Water Bay faint in the distance.

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Before long we had reached the highest farmyard on the slopes and crossing it, we carried on down an old Mass Path over a little bridge to reach the original Ahakista road now a charming 3km green lane complete with a stone seat to rest awhile.

On reaching tarmac again we turned to cross an impressive stone slab bridge spanning a stream to reach one of west corks many stone circles. This one was cleared of thick vegetation on rediscovery in 1995.

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A short distance through the bracken, heather and gorse and we were back at the fuchsia lined lane and our car. A pint in the waters edge garden of Arundels by the Pier completed a memorable West Cork ramble.

                                                    A BURREN RIDGEWALK

While I’m here at my blogging spot i’ll just do a brief post on my last hike, a 13km Burren ridge walk from the bottom of Abbey Hill to the top of Slieve Carron.

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Parking at the end of the grassy unpaved road that traverses the lower slopes of Abbey Hill I started across the narrow strip of grassland that borders the naked limestone whose shelves of rock reached up towards my first summit on Oughtmama. I followed the stone wall that separated counties Clare and Galway, the views of Kinvara Bay and the Gort lowlands a colourful and fertile contrast to the stark bare hillsides above me.

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A flatish stretch before the peak was followed by views down the wild and lonely valley that contains the remains of the 3 Ucht Mama churches, long roofless and abandoned.

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From here, over Turlough Hill and on towards Mt Carron, I was deeply immersed in the glaciologist-karst landscape, the only sounds the clinking and clanking of the loose rocks I strode over as I crossed the slabs and cracks of the clinks and grikes. A powerful and unearthly world with so many contrasts and contradictions. Seemingly a sterile desert- so rich in flora. Seemingly so empty of human life- containing a wealth of the ghosts of settlement through the ages. Huge areas of bare grey rock-alongside fertile fields of vivid emerald green.

Revelling in the “natural” world I had to remind myself that it all displayed the hand of man. The bare hills- denuded of trees by neolithic farmers, the massive man hours involved in the stone wall building and the sacred sites and defendable spaces of the burial cairns and hill forts.

Atop the huge burial cairn on the summit of Slieve Carron , yet to be excavated, I pondered all those passed lives , including that of a close friend whose memorial site was just below me, and felt deep gratitude that I also lived a life amongst these surroundings.

Return to the Galtee Mountains

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I first climbed Galtymore, at 919m the highest peak in the Galtees, nearly 40 years ago whilst tackling all of Irelands 3000 footers with my old chum Phillip who has long since passed away. I have thought of him on my other visits to the area but have always been thwarted in efforts to climb again in the deeply folded hills by the fact that I’ve been accompanied by unwelcome dogs- forced back by insistent signage and unwilling to incur the wrath of an irate sheep farmer.

But now our dogs have also passed away and Sally and I returned to hike unheeded, parking up the night before under the protection of the famous statue of Christ the King, his hand raised “in blessing the Glen, its people and all those who pass by”.

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The glen being blessed is the beautiful Glen of Aherlow, running east/west below Tipperary on the north side of the Galtees, the highest inland mountain range in Ireland.

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It looked fine in the morning light as I surveyed peaks and valleys and tried to follow the route we would take to Lough Muskry, the largest of the 5 glacial cirques lakes on the northern slopes of the Galtees. From there our 14km hike would take us up to the ridge above before circling around to the east crossing Greenane peak at over 800m before looping back down to the valley floor. Ground out of the mountain by rock and ice 25,000 years ago the 20 acre lake is over 100ft deep and a major source of water for the area.

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On our way from Christ the King to our starting point we called in to Clonbeg ,where St Sedna’s holy well and rag tree rest quietly beside the ruins of a medieval church in the grounds of the Church of Ireland chapel built as the Massey family memorial. The churchyard contains the graves of both catholic and protestant and has a tranquil and timeless vibe about it.

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IMG_3848I cleared the pondweed and had a sip of water to fortify me for the hike. The story goes that 3 local men off to the Crimean war visited St Sedna’s  well before heading off and their safe return was attributed to the miraculous powers of the waters.

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Healed, guided, protected and guarded by St Sedna we drove to the trailhead, (truth be told, after getting lost) and started up the forest track from the empty car park. We were the first onto the hills on this fine sunny weekend morning.

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The track followed a rushing stream up a long valley as we slowly rose to the forest boundary and the open mountainside. The formidable cliffs above Lough Muskry came into view as we continued up a grassy path alongside the sheep.

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Looking back northwards the rich and fertile Tipperary farmland lay like a green blanket to the horizon. We climbed steeper now, across the eastern slopes of Knockastackeen, forded a stream and reached a point above the still and dark waters of the lake. Originally known as Lough Beal Sead, the Lake of the Jewel Mouth, it was the dwelling place of 150 comely maidens who would be transformed into birds every second year, one of whom became The Most Beautiful Bird in the World and was allowed to wear a necklace containing the sparkling Jewel of Beal Sead.

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We were now at about 500m and had a very steep climb up the grassy slope beside the cliffs to an unnamed peak at 785m where we turned east towards the jumble of conglomerate rocks known as O’Loughnan’s Castle standing atop the ridge. These and other nearby rocky outcrops are former nunataks, the bits of rock that poked out above the glaciers.

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Crossing the broad peaty col through some peat hags we climbed the long and gradual slope to the trig point on the flattened summit of Greenane. The wonderful view from there was not only of the whole Galtees but also the Comeraghs and Knockmealdowns to the south and east and the Slieve Felims and Silvermines to the north as well as pale ranges in counties Clare, Limerick, Kerry, Galway, Offaly, Waterford and Cork. I was also sure I could see the sea around Dungarvan through a gap in the mountains. Greenane means ” sunny spot” and so it was, enjoying our sarnies and feasting on the view.

 

After a chat with the fit fellow we’d seen racing up the slope behind us we headed off down the ridge to a lower peak “Farbreaga”- False Man, from the pile of rocks at the summit that supposedly looks like a man from afar. The rocks could be the scattered remains of a booley house- a stone shelter used by farmers until the 1850’s when grazing cattle high on the mountains in the summer months.

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We turned off the ridge and descended through the maze of eroded peat hags enjoying spectacular views of Muskry and the cliffs.

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With our eye on the forest entrance we had left in the morning we clambered down the tussocky slopes to reach the rushing stream, its tumbling waters twinkling in the sunshine.

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It had been a fine hike and we determined to return again, realising in was as near to us as the more frequently visited Connemara. There were more people about now heading up into the hills for a post sunday lunch walk but by the look of the sky we’d had the best of the day and it was time to have a quick hidden skinny dip in the chilly waters before rejoining the forest track back to the now full carpark before the rain arrived.

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A Trip to Tipperary

Time to report on a modest Irish ramble after recent foreign escapades.

I’d been reading for a couple of years about a small village in deepest Tipp that has gone to great efforts to sell itself as a walking destination, setting up 3 Failte Ireland looped walks, guided walks and an annual walking festival. So when looking for a bank holiday hike location on line and seeing on the Irishtrails website that one of the loops was dog friendly ( a hard to find rarity) we loaded the camper and headed southeast… to Upperchurch.

West of the Nenagh to Thurles road the village is at the eastern end of the Slieve Felim mountain range and set amidst a beguiling landscape of rounded rolling hills of fine green grassland and forest in the full forty shades with a fair smattering of golden gorse.

Unusually for rural Ireland these days the village still has 3 functioning pubs, a shop, community Centre complete with crèche and climbing wall and an information center. We stopped there to try and get maps of the walks and discovering it to be shut tried one of the bars. The welcoming owner spent some time rummaging around but couldn’t find what we wanted so kindly got his coworker to open the info centre and furnish us with leaflets and maps.

We discovered that the Beara- Breifne Way, a (very) long distance hiking trail that commemorates the 14 day/ 250 mile forced march of Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare from West Cork to Leitrim, passes through here. Too late in the day to explore we headed up to the Ballyboy lookout to park up for the night.

In the very early morning we were surprised to be woken by increasing car activity outside. Still dark we couldn’t see what was occurring. We thought perhaps late night revelers or predawn hunters. But then I remembered some briefly scanned mention of an Easter Sunday Sunrise Mass happening somewhere in the area. I quickly got some clothes on and emerged from the van like a risen prophet to discover rows of seats had been placed in front of the camper and many folk in high viz looking expectantly towards me. Whoops- we’d parked in the alter-place. After a bit of banter I explained we were going to Upperchurch for a walk but as there were by then about 100 walkers heading up the road towards us was advised to go the opposite way, passing many more folk on their way to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

With the full moon still hanging above the misty valley in the dawn light we headed off into the mountains named in Irish after an ancient goddess, Sliabh Eibhlinne- the mountains of Ebliu.

After stopping for breakfast and waiting for the sun to burn off the mist we started off from the village on the Eamonn an Chnoic loop. Eamonn, or Ned of the Hill, was one of the 17th century Robin Hood type outlaws championing the cause of the dispossessed natives and harassing the English planters. Born locally he roamed these hills after shooting a tax collector dead for confiscating a poor women’s cow before coming to a sticky end , murdered for blood money, and his exploits inspired a famous ballad.

Passing another local walk initiative , a bog walk and garden, we continued up the quiet country road accompanied by our first cuckoo song of the year.

At our first stile we were disappointed to see a no dogs sign. We’d chosen this walk because it was listed as dogs permitted so with our mutts on leads and best behavior we carried on across a series of fields and stiles slowly climbing through Glenbeg.

Passing a picnic spot overlooking the still misty river valley to the south we continued up on farm tracks beside a mass of sweet smelling gorse towards a band of forestry.

Turning east at the forest we followed an ancient sunken greenway through the gorse and bilberries and down towards a cottage near a ring fort.

We passed the site of a pre-famine hedge school where a schoolmaster named Burke held the only available classes of that period. Hard as those times were, the wildflowers in the “classroom” might have made things more pleasant than in the Industrial schools some of the children have have ended up in.

After only 500m of tarred road we were off cross country again for the rest of the walk. Climbing again to another block of forestry on the high ground we walked the fields beside what had been the official trail, now swallowed by gorse.

The forces of nature had overwhelmed other remnants from the past too. We failed to see the old potato ridges and foundations of a famine village supposed to be visible. 29 families from here emigrated to Monroe county in Iowa on one day in 1879. But we did see what’s left of a Bronze Age ring barrow and a little further along a rare bowl barrow.

Downhill all the way back to the village we had one slight route finding problem where signage was missing and fencing down but it was all very pleasant in the spring sunshine.

We took a quick detour to Holy Cross Abbey on our way to another looped hike at the Devils Bit. The restored Cistercian monastery has impressive stonework and a marvelous sloping floor beneath the pegged oak roof timbers.

But the real draw for pilgrims over the last 800 years is a silver crucifix containing a relic of the true cross on which Jesus is said to have died. This, along with another artifact were stolen in October 2011 and recovered by the Garda 3 months later in what the parish priest Fr Tom Breen said ” once again demonstrates the power of praying”.

Another cross was our next destination but at ,45 ft high and a span of 25ft , was somewhat bigger.

Standing at 480m on an outcrop ( known as the Rock) it boasts a view of 8 counties. I always thought that the devil had spat ” the gap” that he bit out of the mountain to form the Rock of Cashel but then I read that the Rock of Cashel is actually (!) the tooth he spat out after breaking it biting the mountain.

Easter Sunday and the car park was jammers with families setting off up the steep track towards the Rock.

Passing Carden’s Folly where Daniel O’Connell is supposed to have addressed a monster meeting of 50,000 tithe payment resisters and a mock ” burial” of the tithes took place, we reached a stone alter and Marion shrine- the scene of another open air mass and pilgrimage in July.

A steep stony scramble had us up to the looming cross and we rewarded ourselves by soaking up the 360 degrees views of the fertile plains and half a dozen mountain ranges faint in the hazy light.

We descended by climbing down a cliff face on the eastern side, down past another Marion shrine and into the gap that broke the devils teeth.

Nice to explore another unknown patch of Ireland and reaffirm that it’s still a varied and beautiful place to ramble around.

ST DECLANS WAY : Cahir to Ardmore 85km: 25th-27th June

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A year and a half after I first hiked some of St Declans Way in Co. Tipperary I went back to complete it last June. Previously I had walked the ancient route from Cahir north to the finish/start at the famous Rock of Cashel, and then returned to Cahir along the Tipperary Heritage Way following the River Suir. This time I started again at Cahir and continued south for 3 days to reach the Co Waterford coast at Ardmore where Declan is said to have founded Ireland’s first monastery sometime in the 5th century, and beating St Patrick to the claim of bringing Christianity to the Irish.

With the pilgrimage revival in full swing and this route being dubbed the Irish Camino, my hopes were high. There has been a lot of promotion of this and other Ways recently and now, thanks to the Camino Society of Ireland, 25km walked on Irish pilgrim paths will count towards the 100km needed to claim your certificate or compostela in Santiago.

Indeed, there is now now need to travel to northern Spain to obtain a certificate, with Irish pilgrim passports stamped on completing 125km over 5 routes in Mayo, Wicklow, Cork and Kerry entitling you to a Celtic Compostela.

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And so on a fine midsummers day I set off from Cahir Castle admidst a bustling crowd of holiday makers. A quick stroll in the riverside park to admire all the tree trunk carvings and then I followed the Tipperary Heritage Way signs through a woodland thick with “fairy” houses and along a sunlit dappled path passed the golf course and towards the rustic and ornate “Swiss cottage”.

 

It was there that the first directional confusion occurred. I was working off the maps that were produced in the mid 90’s, when the route was initially devised and laid out. These maps aren’t the most clear or detailed but were all I could find. I had also managed to download the route on to my phone Viewranger app but this disagreed with the maps and all physical signage had disappeared. Calling into the Swiss Cottage reception for help the ladies informed me that there seemed to be a lot of directionally confused people trying to locate the Pilgrim Path nowadays and were unable to shed any light on which of a multitude of choices was the right one.

2018 had been billed as the official relaunch/ revival of the route, touted as being fully signed and “de-vegetated”. I knew that the very active “KnockmealdownActive” group had organised a series of 5 hikes over the entire route on the last Saturdays of the month, starting in March, and had been attracting about 300 people a time, but these were of course guided hikes without the need for signage. Considering the fanfare that accompanied the relaunch and the €150,000 from the Rural Recreation Fund to get it together I was disappointed over the next few days to be confronted with old, fallen or hidden signage from the 90’s and often no signage at all, abandoned at the crossroad.

After following the wide and sparkling Suir for another km or so I was led up to a road where I was heartened to see a yellow arrow, a sure indicator of a pilgrimage route, even if it was pointing in the opposite direction to mine.

 

 

It was more than 10km of tarmac road before I crossed the Suir again at Ardinnan on small roads that roughly followed the ancient Rain Bo Phadraig, the Track of St Patricks Cow, through lush and productive grain growing farmland, occasionally passing the earthen cottages of a bygone era.

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Ardfinnan, now a sleepy village, had once been an important and strategic stronghold, protecting a major route into the province of Munster. The castle from around 1100 was built by King John, later to be owned by the Knights Templar and the bishop of Waterford before being sacked by Cromwells cannons. I stopped here for a fish and chip dinner by the river before pushing on toward the Knockmealdown Mountains another 10km away to the south. I had to backtrack a little when I missed the sign hidden in the hedge. I was now following the Heritage Way again until the forested slopes of the Knockmealdowns.

 

 

A few kms to the south of Ardfinnan lay the ruins of what must once have been a beautiful monastery whose history is now lost in obscurity. Lady’s Abbey has been dated variously between the 12th and 15th centuries and lying, as it does, alongside the Rain Bo Phadraig-“the most important Ecclesiastical highway in the Diocese” it must have witnessed a lot of foot traffic over its life, including the shuffling lines of the starving in the famine years as they made their way to the nearby poorhouse.

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The renowned fertility of the Tipperary landscape showed through in the golden grain as I passed fields of barley, oats and wheat awaiting the summer harvesting.

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Another few kms walk on the quiet backroads and I was led down a path to the River Tarr, a tributary of the Suir, where i crossed on a 1930’s metal bridge while a dog chased sticks in the wide and shallow waters below. The river, which rises in the Galtee mountains to the northwest, meanders across the limestone through which a couple of mighty springs bubble up, feeding the flow of clear waters. It’s rich in life; salmon, eels and sea lamprey and has a reputation as an excellent brown trout fishery, which in turn attracts herons, egrets and kingfishers.

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Not far down the river, when a fine new stone bridge was built to span the Tar,  the first pedestrians to cross were a couple of goats and so the village that grew there became known as Goatenbridge. The evening was drawing in and although it was high summer and the light would stay with me for a few hours yet I was anxious to move on and reach the forested mountains where I stood more chance of finding a place to bivvy for the night. The forecast was for the prolonged dry spell to continue so I had left the tent at home to cut down on my pack weight and only carried a sleeping bag and mat.

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The first St Declan yellow arrow I had seen led me up on forest trails into the Knockmealdowns as the lights of the farmhouses in the rich vale below started to twinkle on. I was driven on from my first choice of encampment by clouds of midges, a problem of being tentless I hadn’t considered. Losing my way for awhile I blundered and backtracked through more and more unsuitable surroundings before finally, as the light faded, chasing some sheep from a trackside patch of grass and settling down for the night, weary after 8 hours hiking over 26km.

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The morning sky was a similar canvas in reverse, the darker reds slowly dissolving into slighter hues of pink and blue.

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Another fine day promised in this summer of official Irish heatwave and drought. I retraced my steps aways, past the waterfall heard but not seen the night before, to find the route revealed by a tiny sign amidst the bracken, up through the trees to the open moorland above, a relief to be beyond the embrace of the dark green forest and out in a space with further horizons.

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Clearly visible as I made my way up and over Bottleneck Pass at 537m were the deep trenches cut by the horns of the enraged cow belonging to St Patrick as she chased the robbers of her calf from Cashel to Lismore. Or so they say. An ancient path certainly did cut through the shallow turf southward towards the sea shining silver in the mornings light.

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Crossing from Tipperary and into Waterford it was a fine hike down the Rian Bo Phadraig, the sunken, sometimes sodden, path through the heather and bilberries eventually merging, on more level ground, with stony tracks and finally tarmac roads.

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The Rian led me all the way to beyond Lismore when I turned onto the Bothar na Naomh (Path of the Saints). We have visited Lismore castle a few times in the past and the gardens are always a delight. After a cafe breakfast I embedded myself amongst the flowers, scrubs, trees and architecture for a restful few hours, reluctant to leave in the heat.

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There were a lot of sculptures dotted around the grounds including ones by a couple of my personal favourite artists- David Nash and Antony Gormley- and the castle has its own contemporary gallery with a continuous showing of exhibitions.

Finally wrenching myself away I watched a fly fisherman below the castle and then followed the river Blackwater downstream through verdant growth on Lady Louisa’s Walk.  Lady Louisa was the daughter of the 7th Duke of Devonshire, ancestor of the current owner the 12th Duke. It wasn’t long before the sweltering sun and the cool looking water conspired to slow my hike again by tempting me into a still pool at the edge of the fast flowing river.

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Much refreshed I continued cross country for awhile before joining a road to Cappoquin. From there I had many many kms of Tarmac road, passing some grand but neglected remnants of the colonial and protestant past. Affane Church of Ireland, nearly lost beneath a mass of Ash and ancient Yews, was surrounded by overgrown gravestones and mausolea with fine cut stone and handcrafted iron railings, attesting to the wealth of the inhabitants of this productive land. It was here that the route turned away from the Bothar and onto the Casan na Naomh (Path of the Saints), long buried under the hard footsore surface of bitumen.

Eventually reaching Knocknaskagh I at last started down the charming ribbons of narrow boreens that marked my walk across Waterford and that proved to be the fond and abiding memory of the whole St Declan’s Way. In fact I was now, for the first time, on what is known as St Declans Road.

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I was getting weary after travelling 30km that day and the slender tracks with high hedges either side didn’t make for great camping so I was optimistic when a chatty local recommended that I stop in at a “new age travellers” house a couple of km further along who would be sure to put me up.

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And so it was. I was welcomed into the restored cottage on a few acres of grazing by a lovely fella whose name my declining memory refuses to return to me. Although suffering from a debilitating disease he had, with the help you tend to get if you give, built up a homestead previously destined for the bulldozer, rescuing and raising horses and foals- and sheltering weary travellers. He offered me a variety of options and I chose a caravan, sleeping soundly after a couple of pints of homemade cider. Cheers.

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With the high ground of the Knockmealdowns and Bottleneck Pass sat on the horizon 30km and a days hike behind me I set off on my final leg to Ardmore down a sequence of peaceful and still boreens, some recently cleared of vegetation in what my host had said was preparation for the creation of publicised walking routes.

At the crossing of the River Lickey I somehow missed the path to the left and crossed over the stepping stones, the unusually dry summer and low water levels helping considerably. It was only after fighting my way through the undergrowth on the far bank and blundering into a pilgrim path waymarker that I discovered the handsome wooden footbridge.

The Pilgrim Path post was the first i’d seen on this route. The design comes from a stone carving in Co Cork and depicts a medieval pilgrim complete with tonsure, or shaved head, hat, tunic and staff. Used when the Heritage Council first initiated the re-awakening of various pilgrimage routes in Ireland I had come across it in Mayo, Cork, Kerry, Wicklow and Offaly.

After leaving the dragonflies and darting fish behind in the babbling brook I climbed up onto another earthen trackway, once known as the Bothar na Riolog, and back into a sunny summers day with the temperature rising.

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As the heat rose my desire to get to the sea climbed towards obsession. Passing a bicycle atop the hedge I stopped and internally debated the likelihood that it was abandoned and the morality of taking it on a final, speedy journey to the coast and the cool blue waters. A pilgrim couldn’t  take a chance on bad moral judgement so I reluctantly turned away and plodded on what was now hot tarmac.

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A short(ish) distance and a lot of sweat later I broke through the crowds of beachside holiday makers and followed the retreating tide to the relief. Dropping my pack and stripping off my clothes I ran into the shallows and, without a pause for the jellyfish, continued until submerged. Ahhh.

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The hottest summer on record. The hottest day of 2018 would be the next day. And only a few months since Storm Emma, The Beast from the East, had dumped tonnes of snow on this area, filling the sunken roads to the top of the hedges and shutting the county down for days.

But my journey was not over yet. I had to complete the 5km Cliff Walk, taking me passed the 12th century round tower and cathedral. At 95ft high the tower is one of Ireland’s finest and very well preserved and next to it is St Declan’s oratory where once the saints body lay before the medieval enthusiasm for relic collecting saw him scattered.

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A sandy path between potato fields drew me up to the cliffs edge with an invigorating Atlantic sea breeze whipping up the waves crashing on the rocks way below.  In the distance stood the castle and coastguard station of 1867 now surrounded by a dancing mass of wild flowers and circled by raucous seabirds.

A concrete lookout post from WW2 seemed incongruous amidst such harmonious beauty and was certainly of no use in 1987 when the Samson, a crane barge, went onto the rocks. The rope that attached it to a tug had broken in gale force conditions off the Welsh coast and a day later it washed up on Rams Head. It now slowly rusts away and a couple of years ago the entire jib collapsed into the sea, depriving countless seabirds their roosting spot.

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Walking back in time from 20th to 4th century ruins I rounded Ardmore Head and west along the cliff path overlooking Ardmore Bay to arrive at the origins of Christianity in Ireland. St Declan’s Well served as his Baptistery from 416AD, a good few years before St Patrick was to appear on the scene, when he founded the first monastery over by the round tower a little distance inland.  In later life, tiring of the hordes of pilgrims he built himself a little cell near the well and retired to a life of quiet contemplation. He died there and a church was erected that to this day is the site of pattern rituals on the saints day, July 24th, and often a midnight mass the night before.

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There was one more sacred relic to witness before I finished with St Declan’s Way. Before leaving Wales for Ireland Declan received a golden bell from heaven after giving mass. Now this bell was obviously very precious to him and he wanted to bring it with him to Ireland. Unfortunately it was forgotten when they set off leaving Declan to pray hard for its safety and low and behold his prayers were answered and the bell appeared, borne atop a rock floating on the waves ahead and leading the way to the Irish coast. Declan promised to build a monastery wherever the rock, and the bell, came ashore. And so it was.

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I don’t know if the tradition continues but it used to be that on 24th July people would crawl under the stone to receive spiritual benefits (and cure arthritis – although it’s hard to imagine a sufferer of that being able to manage ). It’s also said that the stone should not be approached by the “unworthy” so I kept my distance.

And so this pilgrimage was complete. I don’t have a “passport”, and will receive no certificate or “compostela”, but I carry with me abiding memories of walking beside the Suir and the Blackwater, climbing over the Knockmealdowns on an ancient trail, strolling the sunken sandy boreens of Waterford, from the seat of the high kings in Cashel to the origins of Celtic Christianity  at Ardmore. I think I would have been OK with the rock on the beach.

THE CAUSEWAY COAST WAY : 52km: June 2018

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It was now almost 2 months ago that we finally got round to heading north to experience the Antrim coastline over a couple of days hiking the Causeway Coast. In the middle of June we drove north through Storm Hector, listening to the government warnings on the camper radio telling us to stay at home and not to risk venturing out. A long blustery drive up the west from south Co Galway, we were surprised when we reached Donegal to discover we were only half way there.

However by midday we were parked up in the harbour at Ballycastle, the finish of the Way, where we left the camper and took a taxi over to the start of the walk in Portstewart. It was another of those slightly irritating journeys when you ponder the sense of taking 2 days to walk a winding route of 52km whilst sitting comfortably in a car that takes a bit over half an hour over a straighter road.

The Blue Flag beach where the taxi dropped us was basking in sunshine, and vast. Owned and managed by the National Trust which tries to protect the dunes and has established bird hides to admire the wading birds and waterfowl.

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We took a look at Tubber Patrick, St Patricks well, originally used by prehistoric communities as a source of water and medical cures. When St Paddy past through around 450AD he blessed the well and started a pilgrimage which developed into a fair on the last monday of August with horse races on the beach. Locals would sell the holy water to tourists right up until the 1940’s.

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Setting off on the 10km section to Portrush we past a salmon fisherman’s cottage, part of a once thriving and prosperous industry all along this coast until quite recently. Maybe the occupant of the grave of an unknown sailor, a little further along the shoreline, was a salmon fisherman himself.

On the rocky sections of this coast, between the sandy beaches, we came upon numerous swimming pools over the next couple of days. A little bit of well placed concrete and some ladders and steps turned the wild waters into placid bathing places.

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There were also a lot of golf courses and beautifully positioned houses amongst the cliffs and dunes. The whole causeway coast is an AONB, an area of outstanding beauty, and within it there are a number of SAC’s (special area of conservation), SPA’s (special protection area’s), ASSI’s ( area of special scientific interest) and an NNR (national nature reserve). The Giants Causeway itself is a WHS (world heritage site) and with all these protected areas the owners of these houses are obviously living where no planning would be granted now.

 

The Rosa Rugosa plants obviously liked it here and were running wild and rampant along the Way for miles. They had colonised the edges of the many golf links and must have made the retrieval of errant golf balls a prickly business. Passing a grassy promontory where we struggled to make out the remains of Ballyreagh Castle before we crossed the wide sweeping bay of the West Strand and on to Portrush harbour with its neat display of  boats made fast with a network of ropes.

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Unfortunately the route east along the Curran Strand, a glorious 2km stretch of fine golden sand to our bed for the night at White Rocks, had been closed off for filming Artemis Fowl and rather then walk along the busy A2 we decided to try climbing over the dunes and cutting across the famous and expensive Portstewart golf course. A bit of a mistake as we hadn’t realised the size of the three 18hole courses and the number of fairways we were going to have to negotiate whilst wealthy players waited for the rucksack ramblers to get out of their way.

We eventually and somewhat miraculously made it to the back door of our airbnb where we discovered that the winding coast road we were to continue on in the morning was also due to be closed for filming. We went off to the neighbouring hotel for a drink and to mingle with the stars supposedly staying there. And to complain to Kenneth Branagh, the director, about the inconvenience his movie was causing us. Maybe. If we saw him.

We couldn’t find Kenneth so hung out on the patio soaking up the moody sea views and discovered from security that the road wouldn’t be closed till 8am, giving us time to claim it.

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Bright and early we were down on the shore admiring the limestone cliffs backing the beach that give White Rocks its name. Amongst the white were many hard black boulders of basalt, spat out of volcanos in one of the 3 great outpourings of lava over 60 million years ago that also created the Giants Causeway.

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The car parks above the beach were getting very busy with film crew and we figured it was time to get going. There are numerous locations along this coast made famous through the filming of The Game of Thrones and the roads can be full of tour buses rushing from one to another. Luckily for us the A2 we were walking down had been closed to vehicles but filming had not started, allowing us the rare opportunity of sauntering down the middle of the usually busy and noisy road, admiring the magnificent sea views in peace.

We stopped to explore Dunluce Castle a medieval masterpiece perched spectacularly on a rocky promontory high above the sea. The castle was still not open when we got there but we were able to explore around the outside and imagine the “lost town of Dunluce” recently unearthed by archaeologists.

Back to join another, open road, we passed through the small town of Portballintrae, down to Runkerry Beach and crossed the river Bush (of Bushmills whiskey fame) to join a wooden boardwalk alongside the bank for a bit before turning onto a gravel path through the sand dunes and crisscrossing the old Bushmills to Giants Causeway railway line.

At the far end of the long beach we past under the impressive victorian edifice of Runkerry House, around the Point and climbed up on to the grassy clifftop we were to follow for the next 10km. Next up was the tourist honeypot of the Giants Causeway, and it was heaving. Declining the offer of £11.50 tickets to visit the Visitor Centre we instead joined the human snake down the access road to the (free2view) causeway.

The legendary basalt rock formations and columns were impressive enough to overcome the distraction of hundreds of other sightseers although the cliffs and coastline beyond were equally impressive and devoid of people.

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From the sea level we climbed the steep “Shepherds Steps” to rejoin the cliff path and walked along the highest part of the Way rising slowly up to Benbane Head from where we looked back down to the final resting place of the Girona, a Spanish Armada ship wrecked with the loss of 1300 lives. In 1967 the wreck gave up many treasures to a team of divers which are now displayed in Belfast’s Ulster Museum.

From this highpoint of 100m we steadily descended south east, passing above the beautiful Port Moon bay, an historical fishery now home to a bothy for kayakers and down to sea level again at the ruins of Dunseverick Castle, an ancient promontory fort once important enough to lie at the end of one of the 5 roads emanating from Tara. After being sacked by vikings it fell into ruin and little remains of it now.

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A little way passed the ruins we made a mistake. We believed our guidebook, published by WalkN.I., when it told us that the way forward along the coast had been blocked by landslides and it was necessary to divert along the busy A2. We did think about risking it and trying to find a way through but with the evening approaching and a fair way to go we didn’t want to get stuck on some cliff face and have to retraced our steps so we reluctantly turned on to the pavement less road and put our heads down for the couple of kms to Portbraddan squeezing ourselves into the hedge as cars and buses roared passed.

From there we were able, just, to negotiate the slippy boulders at the foot of the cliffs as the tide was sufficiently out, and to clamber around to White Park Bay, one of the first places in Ireland to be settled by Neolithic communities.

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Nearing the end of the beach we turned off route, away from the rock arches, stacks and islets that lead towards Ballintoy harbour, (another Game of Thrones location) and up a farm track to find our accommodation for the night. A long day of nearly 30km with the diversion was celebrated with a good dinner and some samples of local ale.

In the morning we backtracked slightly to visit the scenic harbour before continuing on a path between the potato fields and along the cliff tops with fine views down towards Rathlin Island and Fair Head.

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From Larry Bane Head it was a short distance to the car and coach park, tearoom, giftshop, toilets and ticket office of another National Trust money spinner, the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. For over 350 years fisherman raised a rope between the mainland and a small island on the migratory route of the salmon to access their nets. The rope bridge has been remade into a sturdy permanent structure with enough wobble to thrill a stream of tourists as they cross 30m above the waves for a brief visit before returning to claim their certificate.

Avoiding the groups queuing to leave the reception at timed intervals, and the £8 fee for crossing the bridge, we walked the 1km to the island to see what all the fuss was about.

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The salmon are gone and the fishermen with them but what was once a scene of hardship has been modified to satisfy the booming industry of today, tourism.

After the previous days experience of avoiding the tourist buses hurtling down the road we decided to avoid the remaining 8km of tarmac to Ballycastle and take the bus. In the towns tourist office they told us that they recommended to all walkers on the Way to do likewise as the traffic was so bad and there were no footpaths or pavements. They also told us that the diversion we had followed was no longer in use and we could have followed a lovely coastal path.

They still had the misleading WalkNI guide on their shelves.

Overall it was a beautiful hike with some of the most impressive coastal scenery we’ve ever seen. You certainly can’t blame the masses of tourists for wanting to visit the sights, but its a pity more of them didn’t get out to explore the equally spectacular sights a little further down the trail.