IRELAND

DONEGAL: Rambling in the Gardens of Gentry

A long awaited return to the Republic’s most northerly county luckily coincided with days of late summer sunshine- perfect for strolling the manicured lawns and walled gardens of some of Donegals fine collection of surviving Big Houses.

We started by exploring Oakfield Demesne, originally built in 1739 for the Dene of nearby Raphoe the house was extensively renovated and restored by Sir Gerry and Lady Robinson when they acquired it in 1996 and set about creating a glorious park and gardens over the 100 acre estate.

Sir Gerry who died last year put life and soul into creating a varied parkland in the lower half of the land, digging a 40ft deep lake, planting 40,000 native trees, building follies and a maze and laying 4.5 km of miniature railway track with trains and wagons – all from marshy farmland.

The Robinsons commissioned a lot of monumental sculpture which is placed around the kms of garden trails.

We took an informative tour of the normally private upper gardens- 50 acres of mature trees set in chequerboard lawns, sweeping wildflower meadows, another man made lake with accompanying Nymphaeum fed by the original Victorian ram pump, ancient woodland and award winning restored walled gardens with topiary and paved formality as well as wild and exuberant planting of exotic flowers and scrubs. I was too immersed in the plant spotting to take pictures.

After the cosseting of the comfort of controlled nature we sort out the wild and untamed and headed for the towering sea cliffs of Horn Head on the north coast.

The 360 degree views from what the famous naturalist Robert Praeger called the “finest headland on the Irish coast” were spectacular and covered Inishowen and Malin Head to the East and Tory Island and iconic Errigal and Muckish mountains. Even here all was calm, the normally crashing waves gently resting at the base of the 200m cliffs, the flat waters making an easy job for the boats hauling lobster pots in the morning when we set off from the camper on a 12km hike around the coast.

From the WW2 look out post we headed towards the Napoleonic signal tower never used to warn of a French invasion, and followed the dramatic geology westwards across the heather. The ending of headage payments on sheep and the resulting overstocking and overgrazing had enabled the once sheepwrecked and eroded landscaped to recover into a thick and healthy sward.

The head is rich in natural and man made features- Neolithic tombs and stone circles as well as phenomena like McSwines Gun, a blow hole that used to send a geyser 100 m up into the air with a retort head up to 10 miles away, and the sea carved Marble Arch. From there we watched some of the internationally renown colony of sea birds wheeling in the void. Shags, puffins, razorbills, gannets and many others call this place home returning to nest year after year.

We turned our back to the sea at an impressive stone wall and struck out into the interior on a direct line towards a very distant camper passing a remote farmstead whose horse and donkey were surprised by the unusual visitation. It must be a tough spot to try and wrest a living and we passed a scattering of sad and ruined cottages as we struggled through the heather to the comfort of a tarmac car park.

We drove south to the Muckish Gap on route for the Derryveagh Mountains. A spectacular road led us through the valley to the Bridge of Tears where, in the famine and poverty stricken days of the 18th and 19th century, family’s would accompany those heading for the emigrant ships of Derry port. Sad farewells and painful final partings took place here for a multitude over the decades as the departing crossed the bridge with the expectation they would never be seen again.

From a poignant symbol of the poverty of the peasant class to the ostentatious display of wealth and power of the ruling classes at the scene of “one of the worst excesses of Irish landlordism”.

In April 1861 John George Adair or “Black Jack”,who had used money from his slave owning families’s sugar plantations to buy up 16,000 hectares of mountain, bog, lake and woods to create the Glenveagh estate achieved international notoriety by forcibly evicting 244 tenants and destroying their homes. He had a vision for a grand hunting, shooting and fishing fiefdom and having swapped his Gaelic “eyesores” for imported Scottish sheep he had the castle built in 1870 for his new American wife who, unlike her hated husband (dead by 1885), is remembered as a kind and generous person who survived him by another 35 years. The estate lands were bought by the state in 1975 and the castle and gardens were bequeathed to the nation in 1981, becoming Ireland’s third national park in 84.

The gardens around the castle, originally laid out 140 years ago, were divided into a variety of planting schemes, connected by a network of pathways. A walled garden in Jardin Potager style rises up behind the castle where the stone for its construction was quarried and after exploring these we took the high looping View Point Walk to the hillside above.

The gardens are part of a National Phenology Network that records the timing of natural events such as budburst, flowering, leaf fall and migratory bird comings and goings to add helpful data to climate change research and agriculture, tourism and gardening bodies.

Next stop Gartan Lough on the southern side of the estate where we spent the night after a refreshingly cool swim.

Setting off early to walk the Lough Inshagh Trail back over the estate moorland towards the castle we called in to the birthplace of St Colmcille, the 6th century prince turned monk who went on to found the monastery on Iona. The tranquil spot is marked by a large Celtic cross and a large flagstone decorated with Neolithic cup markings. The ” Stone of Sorrows” was thought to hold a cure for homesickness and loneliness and many emigrants are said to have spent the night on it before leaving Ireland.

The old estate road that once took the gentry to the Protestant services at Church Hill must have taken much labour in constructing its 7km across the bog and moor, as did the 45km of fence that encloses the herd of red deer.

The track was lined with prickly heath or Perettya/ Gaultheria Mucronata an invasive escapee from the castle gardens and clumps of rhododendron amongst the heather did not bode well but on Garton mountain, passed the lake, there were sheltered pockets of old oak and holly woodland. We stopped to soak in the view before returning to the camper and our next treat.

Next to where we had spent the night was a gem of a place unknown to us. Glebe House and it’s large courtyard gallery and glorious lakeside gardens is operated by the OPW after being gifted to the state in 1981 by its owner, the English painter Derek Hill. The Regency style house was built as a rectory in 1828 but became a hotel by 1898, welcoming guests for over 50 years apart from a period of occupation by both the IRA and RIC during the war of independence.

Derek Hill was a very well connected artist who also welcomed guests to St Columbs, as it was known, from the worlds of Arts to Royalty. A keen collector he stuffed his house with all manner of art and craft from around the world and over 300 paintings by leading artists of the 20th century, often bartered or swapped for his own work. He bought light and water to the house and decorated it with original William Morris wallpaper and textiles. We had a fascinating tour of the house before exploring the beautiful grounds while ethereal music mixed by sound artist Sven Anderson from Dereks collection of 1500 operatic and classical records floated from exterior speakers.

Derek Hill gave his house, garden and priceless collection to the nation 20 years before his death, living in a nearby cottage all that time and frequently joining the tours to see what people thought of it. A real treasure, well loved and maintained with new exhibitions frequently put on in the courtyard gallery, it deserves more recognition.

Our last stop before the long drive south was a place we first explored 20 years ago. On the shores of Lough Eske near Donegal town we discovered a ruined castle amid a coillte forest. With trees growing up through the roofless interior and an ivy clad tower the grounds were covered in massive rhododendron from which I took a lot of cuttings. None of them went on to grow into new lives but the castle did. Bought in 2006 by developer Pat Doherty millions were invested in a 2 year restoration of the building built by Thomas Brooke in 1861. The giant rhododendrons are gone but now an extensive 5 star hotel has risen, phoenix like, from the ruins.

The Bluestack Mountains formed a dramatic background to Lough Eske estate when we went for a cycle and skinny dip before leaving. Once compelled to hiking up them now content to stroll the gardens wrestled from the wilderness by an Ascendancy long gone.

RIVERWALK: Nore Valley Way

A heatwave upon us we decided on a watery walk shaded by mature hardwoods growing from the fertile soils of the south east. Having boated and hiked both the Barrow and the Suir it was to the last of the three sisters we headed – the Nore.

Following the meandering river south from Borris in Ossory after its journey from the Devils Bit mountain, we drove through Durrow and Ballyragget to The Weir swimming pool on the northern edge of Kilkenny city. Arriving at dusk it was too late to swim (not for others) and the morning was too chilly (not for others again)so we set off to our trailhead in the Castle Park as more swimmers arrived.

The Nore Valley Way is a three stage, 34km, walk and the middle section is still, after many years, not completed. Kilkenny to Bennetsbridge is 12 km, the gap from there to Thomastown is 11km and Thomastown to Inistioge is another 12km. But still, there are bus and train links to and fro between the stages so it’s possible to break it up or complete both stages in a day.

We started on the tree lined avenues of the Canal Walk in Kilkenny Castle grounds and after a couple of km crossed the river to the east bank on the Ossory bridge.

The river was wide, shallow and clear. The long spell without rain had lowered the level considerably and Irish waterways had asked the public to report any signs of overheated and distressed fish. We were kept cool on the shaded path through the trees, refreshed by the gurgling and twinkling of water over shallows.

An access issue forced us up onto a road for a little while before crossing a stile into riverside fields again. This walk was characterised by the wide variety of stiles employed- seemingly every type going. We passed Inch sawmills with huge stacks of planked hardwoods, sawn by the power of the water for generations. This river, for hundreds of years has provided the power for woollen, paper, grain and sawmills as well as the water for breweries and irrigation of the fertile land. We passed many, both ruins and fine homes, with a network of mill races and ponds slowly returning to a pre industrial landscape.

There were areas of quarried stone where the famous Black Marble was worked but now all was quiet and the cobbled track was used solely for recreation. Walkers, fisherfolk and in this weather, wild swimmers. We passed an extravagant and forlorn designer extension in the woods before coming to a swimming spot near the motorway bridge.

Soon after our cooling swim we came upon a remote horse box coffee shop, unfortunately closed, and then were approaching Bennetsbridge and the old mill complex now housing the Nicolas Mosse pottery totally powered by the water turbine that also feeds into the national Grid.

From another mill building and grain silos we caught the bus back to the castle where we explored more of the park and toured some of the arts week exhibitions.

Originally a wooden structure built by Strongbow to control the fording place, in 1195 the stone towers were built, three of which still survive. Home to the Butler family for 600 years, the Marquess of Ormond gave it to the nation in 1976 and it continues to be a very popular place for local and tourists to visit.

Leaving our overnight camper spot in the riverside park the next morning we drove to Thomastown swimming spot where the glorious sunshine, a gouty toe, a charming village packed with over 30 art exhibitions and a reservation for the night at the nearby Mount Juliet estate were enough to persuade us to leave the next stage walk for a day and kick back a little.

A swim, sunbathe, tour of Creative Arts Festival shows and more repurposed mill buildings and it was time to see how the other half lived up at the Big House that is Mount Juliet.

The 500 acres of rolling parkland that the house overlooks from its high ridge include a golf course (of course) , formal gardens, mature oak woodland, man made lakes, the Nore valley and acres of fenced horse paddocks. Riding, fly fishing, archery, falconry – and golf- all go on in this pocket of privilege. We wondered if the delay in completing the Way was due to obstruction by the estate.

Taking the bus from Thomastown in the morning we set off on the final 11km walking upstream from the pretty village green at Inistioge. Picnickers, canoeists and fishermen were soon left behind and we saw no one else the entire walk.

The abundance of fish in the clear waters ensured a lot of herons on watch and I was thrilled to see a florescent kingfisher darting along the bank. Swifts and ducks were plentiful but we didn’t spot an otter unfortunately. Climbing up through the woods around Ballyduff House we had a couple of Kms of backroad walking before we were led down through dappled old coppice to the river again.

With the temperature reaching record heights we searched unsuccessfully for a good swimming spot as we drove sheep from the shade on the final stretch past a Strongbow tower to finish at the GAA pitch.

Back to the swimming place to cool off before the drive home happy to have completed the trio of the Sisters river walks.

Another recent waterside walk was back in the Hidden Heartlands, on the banks of the Shannon.

Starting at the River Cafe housed in the early 19th century Napoleonic tower, part of a series of defences against a French invasion that never happened, the 5km loop led us from the 1757 bridge, along the riverbank and back on an old bog road.

The bog lands of central Ireland are going through a huge change, from Brown to Green as the marketing lingo has branded it. Bord na Mona, in its seismic shift from carbon source to carbon sink, is embarking on a “Just Transition” to renewable energy producer, recycling operator and bog restoration through rewetting. The vast area of Blackwater Bog, down the road from the decommissioned peat power station at Shannonbridge is silent. The once familiar yellow machinery for the vast milling, harrowing, ridging, harvesting and transporting operations are rusting slowly as they become consumed by the Greening.

The Irish waterways are a beautiful natural resource, no more than its mountains and coast, and vastly under appreciated. Here’s hoping that in the attempts towards a more sustainable future they are nurtured, promoted and protected.

COMERAGH MOUNTAINS: The Nire Valley Coums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HYMANY WAY: River and Bog in the Hidden Heartlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONNEMARA WEST: Walking into Paradise

For Sam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NORTH MAYO: Woods and Moor, Bog and Shore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WILD NEPHIN : Into the Heart of Mayo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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