IRELAND

Walking the border:Cavan and Fermanagh

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Watching an episode of Canal Journeys with Prunella Scales and Timothy West last night, when they travelled by barge on the Shannon Erne Waterways, reminded me that I hadn’t posted a blog on our trip there a couple of weekends ago.

After all the years living in Ireland we hadn’t really spent anytime in the North, only passing through on our way back from Donegal once and catching a ferry to Scotland from Belfast. We’d had plans to hike the Causeway Coast Way and the adjoining Moyle Way as we’d heard that they were both dramatic and dog friendly but when we had a weekend free we realised that it would take us too long and so struck out for the nearest bit of the UK to us, the lakeland area of Fermanagh.

Being the depths of winter still, we decided against Trusty Tranny camper van, and found an Air B+B place on the shores of Upper Loch Erne. The OS map revealed a complex maze of rivers, canals,lakes big and small, islands and peninsulas-and near our destination, Crom Castle, as appeared on TV last night.

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Not too much remains of the original plantation castle, scene of bloody battles in the Jacobite rebellion when the water of the lake are said to have turned red with the blood of the slaughtered. The nearly 2000acre estate, seat of the Earls of Erne, is now run by the National Trust, although the “new” 1860 castle is still in private ownership.

Although supposedly closed for the winter we’d been told it was fine to walk the grounds and it was a pleasant contrast to the hassles of “no dogs”rules in the south to be directed through sheep fields with a polite request to keep our hounds on leads. Fair enough.

On an ancient formal lawn next to the old castle were a pair of conjoined yews, a male from the 19th century and a much older and bigger female, reputedly the oldest in Ireland at 800yrs. They have a combined circumference of over 100m and ouse history.

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The paths took us along a stately avenue of lime trees, across the deer park and alongside the castle gardens. It was a watery world, with islands strewn across the loch, some lived on, some farmland and one tiny one hosting a little folly of a round tower where estate workers would spend their wedding nights. A fine Victorian wrought iron bridge led us passed some fiery red willows onto Inisherk Island where the grand walled garden was sadly unused.

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There was a rustic summerhouse, lovely ornate lodges and the old church and schoolhouse. A lot to keep together but the National Trust are a huge and wealthy organisation and seem on top of it. They rent out holiday cottages, run boat trips and a campsite, put on all sorts of activities and I’m sure the visitor centre gift shop and tea rooms pull in a few bob over the season. It would be nice to visit the place by boat and tie up at the Irish Waterways Jetty. That cross Border agency took advantage of a lot of post “Troubles” grant aid to restore the canal system leading into the loch and I hope that the Brexit decision does not adversely effect it in any way.

Another National Trust property was on the schedule the next day, but first we wanted tackle a section of the 65km Sliabh Beagh Way that runs over the high ground to the south and east of Lisnaskea, the biggest settlement in Fermanagh next to Enniskillen. The Way is itself a part of the 1000km Ulsterway that encircles the entire province and includes the Causeway Coast and the Moyle and will have to be added to the “must do one day/month”list.

We didn’t get very far or see very much of it when we ventured out into the Jenkins Lakes and Woods looped route along the Way and could only imagine the described views from the bogland boardwalk and lakesides.

We cut the 12km walk a little short and descended to lower ground, clearer skies and the landed gentry civilisation of Florence Court, another grand 18th Century house and estate in the care of the N.T. This one also had miles of dog friendly woodland, parkland and garden paths and again, although the house was closed for the winter, the extensive grounds were welcoming.

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The walled garden here was very productive, supplying plants for the grounds and food for the cafe and a nice working environment for the gardeners.

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On a long loop across the estate we stopped and paid homage to another famous yew tree.This was literally the mother of all Irish yews.

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In 1740 a local farmer discovered a pair of strangely upright yew saplings growing on the slope of nearby Cuilcagh mountain and presented one to the Florence Court landlord, the Earl of Enniskillen and planted one at his own place. Unfortunately his died about 80 years later while the other lives on and has provided the cuttings to grow all the Irish Yews since. Wherever in the world a Taxus Baccata “Fastigiata” exists it is a clone of this venerable great great great etc..grandmother tree. Not so upright herself now ,due to hundreds of years of gardeners taking cuttings, a crime I am now guilty of myself, she stands modestly in a woodland clearing with some progeny around her roots.

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At the end of the forest park we turned away from the rugged and wild Cuilcagh Mountains looming above us to the south and returned to the  tamed nature of the gardens, where we admired the ice house, the waterpowered sawmill and the hydraulic ram pump that supplied water to the “big house”before sitting in the ornamental summerhouse to view the mountains from a safe and civilised distance.

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We discovered the next day that even the inhospitable and desolate vastness of the 2500 hectare Cuilcagh Mountain Park, with a” county high top” for both Cavan and Fermanagh at 666m, could be domesticated.

We were up early to drive the 25km to the Park, gladly watching the misty cloud rise from the lakes and exposing the mountains as we approached. The sheer amount of waterways and lakes in the area must produce a lot of mists, fog and general overall damp even by western Ireland standards. But it makes for an moody and placid atmosphere at sunrise.

We’d been assured by our landlady that it was fine to take our dogs on leads so we tried to ignore the “No Dogs” signs as we left the empty car park and headed up the gravel track towards the now cloud free table top mountain.Empty and long abandoned cottages with their potato ridges slowly being swallowed by the returning bog dotted the lower ground.The protected landscape has meant that turf cutting has been stopped and the rangers spent years in the construction of 1000’s of little dams to block the drainage ditches dug by previous generations of fuel gatherers, in an effort to raise the water table and speed the restoration of the Blanket Bog. It is a fragile environment and so to protect in from the erosion caused by the many walkers on this popular route, a long stretch of boardwalk has been built at the end of the track.

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This took us all the way to the base of the cliffs where a series of 36 flights of steps, complete with banister railings began. A fellow walker told us there were 450 of them and after climbing over 100m of height gain up the to the summit plateau my calf muscles led me to believe him. There’s been some criticism of this construction by hill walking purists who refer to it as a scar on a pristine landscape that allows the unprepared to reach a potentially dangerous environment but it’s costly build (£250,000) was purely to protect the environment and the walkers on what was a delicate and steep and slippery path.

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It has certainly improved access to the mountain top and over the course of the day we witnessed dozens of folk young and old heaving themselves up the steps to the tabletop where many could go no further across the wet and rugged terrain in their inadequate trainers. But i wouldn’t begrudge them the opportunity or the reward of the view from the top and the stairs and boardwalk meant you couldn’t get lost if the cloud came down.

We headed along the ridge with one foot in Cavan and one in Fermanagh, a walk in both Northern Ireland and the Republic simultaneously, to the Bronze age cairn on the summit.Supposedly, on a clear day you can see both the  Atlantic and the Irish sea, as well as counties Tyrone,Donegal, Cavan, Leitrim, Sligo and Roscommon. As we had our sarnies I wondered what the view was like 4000 years ago when the cairn was built.

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The whole area around us was part of the Marble Arch Geopark, made up of 34 sites of geological interest, and since 2008 when it was extended into Co Cavan, the worlds first cross border Geopark. After returning to the now full carpark we continued on past the closed Marble Arch Caves centre to explore the Cladagh Glen below and more flights of steps leading us down past limestone sculpted by water over millenia and the Marble Arch itself, to a lovely waterfall cascading into the deeply cut valley ravine.

We’d been lucky with the weather as it started to rain on our return to the car, the mountain now completely lost to the low lying cloud, and it wasn’t much better on the following day when we finished our exploration of the Geopark before driving home.

We couldn’t resist a visit to the Shannon Pot, where the waters of Ireland mightiest river rise from the ground into a small pool before starting their journey to the Atlantic ocean 360km away.

The pool has been explored by divers to a depth of 14m and it is now thought that some subterranean streams from the slopes of Cuilcagh 10km away flow into it. I wondered how hard it would be to follow all the way to Limerick.

A few km away was our last port of call, the Cavan Burren Park, another area of interest in the Geopark. This “relict” landscape is not as impressive or large as the Co Clare burren (meaning “rocky place”) but features an unusual number of different types of megalithic tombs as well as habitation sites and prehistoric field systems and a promontory fort. Geologically it boasts sinkholes, karstic limestone pavement, dozens of large erratics left lying about after the retreat of the glaciers in the last ice age and a pre-glacial dry river valley.img_2752

We followed a looped walk around the park, abruptly coming across its exhibits through the misty vista.

But the weather wasn’t in it for a protracted visit or picnic amongst the tombs so we turned our backs on the past and started the long drive home with ideas of returning while we’re still all Europeans and we can be Walkers without Borders.

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A TRIP TO TIPP: St Declans and the Tipperary Heritage Ways

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For awhile i’ve been hankering after another Irish pilgrimage route and this one in particular.

St Declans Way runs for 96km between Cashel in county Tipperary and Ardmore on the Waterford coast. It had been resurrected a good few years ago in the nineties, but had started to fade back into the landscape again until recently, when the current resurgence in interest in Caminos took hold. There’s now an Irish Pilgrim Passport that you can get stamped along various routes that qualifies you for an Irish compostella or certificate but having already done most of the Ways i won’t be applying for one.

Made up by stringing a collection of ancient highways together on the route supposedly taken by St Declan, who was preaching Christianity to the heathens of Ireland before St Patrick’s arrival, from his 5th century monastery in Ardmore to the seat of the Kings of Munster at Cashel.

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I didn’t have the 5 days needed complete the entire walk so devised a circular hike starting in Cahir and going north up St Declans Way to Cashel. After a night there i would circle back down on the Tipperary Heritage Way along the Suir river and skirting over the end of the Galty mountain range to Cahir a trip of approximately 60km.

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The river was with me from the start when i set off under a clear blue November sky through the market town, passed the churchyard sensory garden

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on the route of the Rian Bo Padraig, the Track of St Patricks Cow. Folklaw has it that the path, still visible in sections as a depression in the turf flanked by grassy banks, was created by St Patricks Cow pursuing the cattle thief who stole her calf. As she thundered furiously through the landscape her horns raked the lines of the trail into the earth.

Unfortunately the poetic license of the origin myth is not matched by the prosaic modern reality and i saw no sign of the age old track as i made my way along 25km of unrelenting tarmac. However, once i’d got over the motorway that had signalled its presence with a long aural introduction of hums and roars

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i was off down very quiet back roads through the rich farmland of South Tipperary .The fields were big and open and the farmers seemed to be growing grain rather than the rushes we’re used to around us.

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On it’s way to Ardmore the Way climbs over the Knockmealdown mountains through Bottleneck pass at 540m, but i had my back to that range as i headed north, with the Comeragh mountains to my right and the Galtees to the east on my left.

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The names of the townlands i was passing through were a mixture of the Anglicised, like Mortlestown, Chamberlainstown,Farbankindry and the Irish, like Carrigeen, Carron, Knocksantlour. As i neared Cashel later there was a sequence of places called Lot’s, which seemed to be named after the owners the land had been sold or given to. From south to north i traversed Lalor’s Lot, Bigg’s Lot, Owen’s Lot, Waller’s Lot and Ashwell’s Lot. The houses were mostly pretty grand with big gates and sweeping drives with none of the clusters of close quarter cottages seen in the west.

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Most of the houses had security gates firmly closed to the outside world but perhaps the most down market property on the route had the road going straight through their yard.

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One feature of the landscape stood out for me and that was the size and health of the trees that grew in the deep rich soil.

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The area must have a good reputation amongst arboriculturists as this was where the Annaveigh wholesale tree nursery set up in 2004 and now exports to Holland and Germany which is pretty impressive as was the 70 acres of well pruned and tended trees i walked past on my way toward Cashel.

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My journey up the Rian Bo Padraig had not been rich in sacred sites or monuments of the past but near the end i passed, in quick succession, memorials ancient and modern.

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I was grateful to arrive at Cashel after what had been an early start after a very late night and a long day on a hard road surface. I was too late to visit the castle atop the Rock that the devil had spat at St Patrick so retired to my hostel for a rest by the fire in the lounge.

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Heading out into the sunrise the following morning the sky was bright, the air was crystal clear and a sharp frost sparkled on the grass. It’s coming to that time of year again as autumn turns to winter. It’s been a beautiful season here in Ireland with lots of dry weather and a fine display of red, gold and orange on the trees. The unusually dry weather was enabling me to return to Caher on the Tipperary Heritage way which followed the banks of the river Suir for the first 10- 12km and was officially closed to walkers along the stretch to Golden from October to March due to the common winter floods. I knew from the water levels in the turloughs and rivers around us that there was no risk from that at the moment so set off confidently westwards down the 4km of road to the river.tipp-heritage1

On the outskirts of the town, adrift in a field of cattle, was Hore Abbey, founded in 1266 by the Benedictine order but expelled by the Archbishop of Cashel 6 years later after dreaming that the monks were about to kill him. He didn’t make himself popular with the folk of Cashel as he gave over land and property belonging to the town, and the Abbey, to the Cistercians of Mellifont. Even more grevious was to tax the 38 local brewers 2 flagons out of every batch of ale.

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Looking back from the Abbey the bulk of the castle stood out against the lightening sky.

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Going against the flow of cars ferrying workers and school kids into another day in the hurly-burly of modern life, i felt very privileged to be heading towards a dead end in the road and a peaceful riverside path devoid of the activities of humankind. An illusion of course, as all around me had been created and managed by man. And well managed. I was admiring of the efforts of the landowners along the trail to facilitate the walkers.

The rising sun had still not generated enough heat to thaw the frost that made art of the vegetation and held the moisture off my boots as i laid a new trail through the whiteness.

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I could see why the path was often impassable in winter when a footbridge over a stream revealed the height level of seasonal flood waters.

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There was, as the name of the Way implied, a lot of heritage alongside the river presumably as it was a means of transport in the days before the road network was established. On the opposite bank lay the ruins of Ballynahinch Castle patrolled by a lone swan.

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The gently flowing and winding river is one of the Three Sisters along with the Barrow and Nore, all of which come together to leave the country at Waterford. Rising from the slopes of Devil’s Bit Mountain it takes 185km to reach the sea making it Ireland’s third longest river. There was little evidence of it’s might on this tranquil stretch.

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On my print out maps from the Irishtrails website the Way leaves the riverside on a couple of sections but whatever difficulties there were with landowners has been resolved and now you can stay beside the Suir all the way to the road bridge at Suirville, about 6km south of Golden. At times the path is on the riverbank fenced off from the adjoining farmland and at others you are in fields with cattle that could be muddy in wetter weather.

The day warmed up as i followed the meandering flow, the stillness only broken by startled birdlife splashing a retreat and the gurgling rush of water over weirs.

I’m not sure if the weirs were constructed to slow the flow and alleviate flooding or what but anglers appreciate fishing for Brown Trout and Salmon in these waters and there are plans to attract more people on leisurely pursuits with the creation of a cycle and walking Greenway from Carrick on Suir to Clonmel and a canoeing Blueway from Carrick to Cahir.

Before long i was in Golden, with its 15th century castle sitting on a mid stream island.

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During the 1641 rebellion the castle gave shelter to 120 men , women and children and 10 years later was taken by Cromwell himself. A more impressive structure lay another few km further down stream where what was once the largest abbey in Ireland stands in ruins.

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Athassel Abbey. Dating from 1200 this majestic pile, of which only a fraction appears in the photo, used to have a sizeable settlement around it of which nothing now remains.

A little further on another medieval towerhouse ,Suir Castle, appeared above the trees.

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And then a well kept track had been cut through a copse on a section that had previously been out of bounds and a riverside water meadow with grazing horses sporting hair accessories before i sadly came to the bridge that led me away from the Suir.

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As can be seen from the map above there was a long stretch of road ahead and after less than a km i’d decided to escape what i could of it. The 25km of tarmac the day before had left it’s mark on my feet and with a fair climb to do over the last 8km or so up through Ballydrohid Wood i thought i’d chance my arm- or my hitching thumb.

I must have made the right decision as fate was with me and a car appeared and stopped.    A charming and chatty lady swept me down the road saving me over an hour of wear and tear in minutes, letting me out to cross the main N24 and head for the hills.

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I had my first ascent of the walk as i rose up through beech woods and conifer plantation onto the easternmost shoulder of the Galty mountains. I’d spent a couple of days eyeing up this range when i hiked the Ballyhoura Way and there is something about Galtymore, the highest peak and one of Irelands few that reaches over 1000m, that attracts me. I did climb it decades ago when i tackled all of the county’s “Munroe’s”,but it calls again.

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The views from the edge of the forest unveiled the rich patchwork of fields of the Golden Vale, the heartland of Ireland’s productive agriculture industry.

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A network of forest tracks switchbacked up the folds in the hills leading me deeper into wilder country with patches of bare rock and scrubland, a welcome contrast to the manicured and managed farmland i’d been travelling through over the last couple of days.

But this was Ireland where an area of bogland and conifer forest in Mayo is declared a “Wilderness” so my impression of walking in the wild is relative to the general lack of anything approaching it. The levelled gravel track led me through the serried ranks of the conifer crop and then, thankfully and unusually, a more attractive stand of Scots Pine.

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Cahir appeared in flashes between the trees, nestled down below me at the base of the hill. As the forest track morphed into a farm track and then a road overlooking ,(and overhearing), the busy M8 i noticed the sky, clear and blue all day, turning a little dark. So i was grateful that after going over the motorway and under the N24 i had only a km of suburban street to go to reach my car and complete my Tour de Tipperary.

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Beara Peninsular : Dursey and Derreen

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On a trip to our old stomping grounds in the south west to visit an ailing friend we had the pleasure of exploring a couple of places we had never been able to get to. Dursey Island and Dereen Gardens.

Connected to the mainland by the steel wires of Irelands only cable car, Dursey, on a gorgeous  summers day at least, is a stunningly beautiful and tranquil place. 6 1/2km long and 1 1/2 wide it rises from the sea like the whales that swim in the surrounding waters, (along with dolphins and basking shark).

Once home to around 300 people there are now only two permanent residents although the more benign months see an influx of visitors, both day trippers and others staying in the renovated houses in the three tiny villages.

Our long drive down from Galway became seriously rugged when Serena, our sat nav, decided we would be up for some off roading  beyond Eyeries and sent us up a switchback track, through a couple of luckily unlocked gates and onto an old mountain pass that is now part of the Beara Way walking route. We couldn’t imagine how a well heeled tourist in a hire car would have reacted to the directions.

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The Tranny is made of sterner stuff and we relished the views from our high road as we climbed over the Slieve Miskish mountains and approached Allihies past the copper mines

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Keen to take full advantage of the fine weather we pushed on the remaining 10km to the end of the road where the signpost indicated a long swim would bring us to the mystical land of Tir na nOg.

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As you can see this also the starting point of the Beara Breifne Way, a 500km hiking route linking up 12 separate Ways that finishes way up in Leitrim and Cavan. This follows the route taken by Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, clan leader and Lord of Beara, and 1000 of his remaining followers after horrendous defeats in the Nine Years War. 2  very tough weeks later only 35 of them arrived at the allied O’Rouke castle in Leitrim.

Dursey is the trailhead of an even longer walk. It is the beginning of the European E8 that ends in Istanbul 4,700km further on. The Irish leg is about 600km. Making it’s weary way along half a dozen Irish Ways to Dublin and then across Europe we did a bit on the South Leinster Way a few weeks ago and a tiny bit in Slovakia last year.

In 1969 Dursey became one of a very few islands anywhere to be joined to the mainland by cable car. It made sense as the water separating them is well known for it’s dangerously strong rip currents and hidden reef. Storm waters can make a boat trip inadvisable for days on end so the cable car is a reliable means to transport nearly everything.

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6 people, 4 sheep or 2 cows at a time, the car sails 80 ft above the waves in a quaintly dishevelled fashion with a little swaying and creaking and the passing view visible through the gaps in the floorboards.

Arriving shortly at the islands station ( stuffed full of sacks of sheep wool for the export market) we headed off on our 14km hike.

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This was our third visit to an island this year and yet again it fuelled fantasies of an extended stay in a simple cottage, watching the weather approach across the atlantic, bird spotting, whale watching and producing a book or paintings or photography exhibition, or maybe merely reaching a state of true enlightenment.

Stone built tables and benches had been erected on the way to encourage the contemplation necessary to achieve the higher consciousness by imploring us to “sit down and take it easy”.img_1199

It hadn’t always been such a peaceful place however. We were looking out over the scene of the “Dursey Massacre” where 300 women, children and the aged of O’Sullivans clan gathered, ironically, for their safety in his castle stronghold were attacked by English forces and, tied back to back, were hurled from the cliffs or shot by musket. The chieftains family vault is in the graveyard of the monastic ruins of St Marys Abbey lying below us.

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Maybe the first, Neolithic, settlers had a tranquil time of it erecting their standing stones and alignments but the Vikings bought trouble and strife by using the island as a holding pen for the Irish slaves they had gathered before shipping them off to their fate elsewhere.

All was tranquil as we walked the islands only road up towards Ballynacallagh, the first of the 3 little villages that punctuate the route to the west end.

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The fields on either side, covered with a swathe of rich green grass, were fenced and grazed by cows and sheep but didn’t seem to have the old potato ridges that had been so prominent on our visit to Inishkea last month. Unlike that island there were quite a few smart homes in the villages, which have the luxury of electricity and water, but also many abandoned old stone farm buildings stoutly built to withstand the wild winds and driving rain.

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The sea glinted in the sunshine and the clear ozone filled blue sky meant we could see across it to the mountains of the mainland and the Sheeps Head and, dimly in the distance, the Mizen peninsulas.

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We had past a surprising number of rusting cars resting or rotting by the wayside but I guess once they had made the crossing by boat they weren’t going to be worth the expense of a return trip. Used by the local landowners to tend their stock they didn’t seem to need tax or test and there was little danger of collision on the single lane track only shared with a summer mini bus that shuttled tourists from one end to the other.

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The island was almost completely tree less although one fenced farmhouse garden we saw as we neared the final village of Tilickafinna proved it was possible to grow sheltering scrubs and the end house had a little plantation of pines struggling against the wind.

The tarmac ended and a path led on, up the open hillside, to our first view over the sea to the north and the islands of Bull Rock  and The Cow.img_1220

Bull Rock had an automated LED lighthouse nowadays but the old keepers house could still be seen on the summit of the sheer tower of stone. Easily desending towards the western head over the springy but shallow turf another old lighthouse appeared clinging to The Calf, a much smaller island that was overwhelmed by a storm in 1881.

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At the tip was a fine cut stone building whose purpose is a mystery to us but maybe connected to the Napoleonic signal tower that topped the island. The waves crashed relentlessly on the colossal slabs of rock that are favoured by all manner of nesting seabirds including at times visitors from both arctic and mediterranean waters.img_1227

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It was a place to savour and the hypnotic beat of the sea and the hazy divide between the earth and the heavens induced a feeling that the sign to Tir na nOg was possibly accurate.

Finally turning away we retraced our steps to Tilickafinna and started up the steep slopes of the islands high point rising to 252m with the 2oo year old signal tower still waiting for an invasion.This was the site of another giant EIRE layed out in whitewashed stones to warn WW11 pilots they were heading over neutral territory. The third we’ve seen this summer, but only the third we’ve seen in 3 decades of exploring the west of Ireland.

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The undulating spine of the island was laid out ahead of us, the broad ridge offering us serene views in all points of the compass. Atop the next rise we stopped to puzzle over a small area of denuded ground, with the turves piled and covered, and a neighbouring patch of turned sods. Some experiment in erosion and regrowth ?

The coating of soil was certainly very thin but seemed tough and well drained and supported a fine crop of dwarf gorse and heather, both vibrant in the sunshine.

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An ancient, skilfully constructed, ditch and wall ran beside us with stonework that would not have looked out of place in a gallery but was a beautiful and effective sheep barrier.

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Looking back up at the signal tower it was with a slight sense of regret that we climbed the final hill and came back down to the sound where we watched a lobster boat being tossed about in the swirling gyres while waiting for our ride to the rest of Ireland.

Driving away from Dursey we had one more sight of an island artefact. A few miles down the road the old cable car was now serving as a chicken coop in a farmyard garden.

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We parked up for the night outside Allihies at the site of an old copper mine and marvelled at the bands of rock making Knocknagallaun into a really groovy mountain.

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I’d read about a mine collapse around there recently,suddenly  creating a hole big enough to swallow a couple of tractors so was a little wary of the ground opening up beneath me but had to have a look at the copper streaked quartzite seam that been extracted from the old red sandstone during the days of this short lived but large scale local industry.

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A fine night slowly segued into a misty morning where the low visibility made the WAW signboard useful for determining our whereabouts.

The day was spent with our friend in Castletownbere and the night at the top of the Healy Pass hugging the sheltering mountainside as a gale funnelled through the cleft in the rock that the serpentine road wound it’s way through.

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The 8 mile road was built during the famine times in 1847 “to help prevent starvation”! from Adrigole Bridge in Co Cork to Lauragh Bridge in Co Kerry on the route of an ancient track known as Bealach Scairt, The Way of the Sheltered Caves, and the pass was the county border. At dawn the following morning I set out up the dividing line in an attempt to scale the 2nd highest peak on the peninsular, Knockowen at 658m.

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The line from the Thin Lizzy song Whiskey in the Jar was reverberating in my head “As I was goin’ over the Cork and Kerry mountains”and the light,very slowly, revealed a wild landscape of rock and bog.

As I climbed higher Glamore lake and the Kenmare River estuary to the north came into view but i was soon in the clouds and decided the summit, lost in the mist, could not compete with the breakfast that awaited in the Tranny and retreated.

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And so to our second destination of the trip, Derreen Gardens, nestled into 60 acres of a sub tropical like sheltered cove at Lauragh. In 1870 the Marquess of Lansdown embarked on an ambitious plan to transform the bare rock and scrub oak around his house into a luxuriant woodland garden. As Viceroy of India and Governor of Canada he was able to bring back many exotic specimens and many of the trees and rhododendrons in the gardens were planted at that time. The mild moist microclimate is ideal for the huge collection of tree ferns that line the 12km of paths we explored, winding through the slabs of sandstone down to the seaweed shoreline where seals and otters are often seen.

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This is one of the few places where the “little people” live. Called Derreenies they are elusive folk and the last known sighting was in 1855. It was fairly easy to spot their houses amongst the mossy boles but they often seemed vacant.

It was a still and dreamy environment of which I have little to say other than to recommend a visit if your ever in the vicinity.

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THE LOUGH DERG WAY : Limerick to Dromineer

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One of the nearest long distance trails to home, the Lough Derg Way stretches for approx 70 km and having done a couple of sections and loops on it previously, I wanted, before the summer was out, to complete the whole thing in one go.

Travelling through three counties it has an easy trailhead to get to on public transport, starting in Limerick city and then following the tow path of the disused Guinness or Park canal to a short leg along the Shannon. Crossing it into Clare alongside the old Errina canal  and the Ardnacrusha power station head race you rejoin the river to enter O’Briensbridge.

From there it’s another waterside walk for a couple of km before heading up on small backroads to Killaloe, over the bridge into Tipp and a long ascent on tarmac and moorland path up and over the Arra Mountains with views across Ireland.

Cross country from there to the shores of Lough Derg, which the trail stays close to for the rest of its winding route to the finish at Dromineer. I believe there are plans to extend the way to the top of the lake at Portumna which would then also include Co Galway.

My bus to Limerick was 40 minutes late so i didn’t get going from the Hunt Museum till nearly 4 o’clock, setting my sights on camping up somewhere around O’Briensbridge roughly 15kms away.
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Turning my back on the busy shopping streets I followed the old Limerick Navigation Canal, opened in 1799 and closed in 1960, it avoided shoals on the Shannon and allowed passage up to Lough Derg and from there into the Grand Canal to Dublin a journey that took 4 days.IMG_0947

Passing by the sunken wreck of a barge and the derelict warehouses I stopped on the old quay with its cut stone work and abandoned crank, once used for loading and unloading the cargo , and marvelled at how a once busy transport route, teeming with industry was now, literally, a backwater.

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Back in 1831 it would have cost me 2pence to travel by boat to O’Briensbridge and 100,000 people a year used the route. Now as we left the city behind,(and above), the canal was a place for graffiti artists and wildlife.

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And pedestrians of all kinds.IMG_0954

Unfortunately I hadn’t seen the comment on the Irishtrails website about the route being closed on the University of Limerick campus so as i approached the confluence of Park canal and river it was a bit of a shock to come up against harris fencing and warning signs.

Fortunately “desire paths” as they are known had forged a route through, round and over the many obstacles. It’s hard to stop a determined walker on his passage of choice.               A refurbished track was being laid from the uni into town which will be great in the future but was a bit of a hassle for me.

 

Then I was in the clear again alongside the river, with people out enjoying the sunshine.

Looming out of the woods by my side, the remains of a tall stone building appeared. This was Plassey Mill a six story corn mill from 1824 which, thanks to a 10ft drop in water level here, was the most productive mill in the area when it was operated by the Russell family, themselves the most renown millers in Munster. For some reason the corner tower was left when the rest of the building was demolished in the 50s.

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This was once a tricky section for the horse drawn barge men. The towpath alongside the river was so high and narrow that the horses often fell into the river and at times of flood would be completely submerged, forcing men with long sticks to go ahead and feel for the  path beneath the water. A little further along was a greater challenge, to cross the 450ft of the Shannon and get into the Errina Canal on the Clare side. The river now carries a fraction of the water it did before Ardnacrusha hydrostation was built. The head race of the power plant, above O’Briensbridge, takes the first 400 cubic metres of flow, leaving the old course of the river a mere 10, unless of course, as all to often happens these winters, the ESB has more than enough.

Back in the day it was a struggle to cross against the currents and passengers and horses would have to be transferred to smaller vessels and ferried or winched across.( Mind you, not as much as a struggle as when the Navigation first opened. There was no tow path for horses and the barges were manhauled up the canal and sailed or paddled on the fast flowing river section.)

A bridge needed to be built and in 1842 the Black Bridge was finally opened, carrying in 1 week over 4000 passengers and 76 horses.

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Although still tresspassed upon by fisherman it is now closed and I had to use the more modern Plassey road bridge at the uni.IMG_0970

The next section on the Errina canal was very tranquil. Less than 5km from the city I was in a green and leafy corridor with water to my left and cows grazing the fields to my right. Faint shouts came from the distant playing fields and a poignant memorial to a fellow walker left me contemplating his fate.

At the hump backed bridge guarded by a white goat I joined the dead end road that led, after about 3km, to the massive grassy banks of the Ardnacrusha head race. This is now the navigation course for any boat wanting to get from the Shannon to the Atlantic and involves a double chamber lock that drops 100ft at the dam end. Having manoeuvred our little boat through the locks of the Grand and the Barrow I’m impressed. The next biggest drop in the British Isles is 19ft I believe. When completed in 1924 the hydro scheme was the biggest in the whole world and produced more energy than the entire country used.

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At Clonlara the Way rejoins the canal for a few km till it finishes at the Shannon again below O’Briensbridge. I had already hiked that section awhile ago and decided to continue on the slightly shorter option of following the head race into the village, where a tree drowned in the floods last winter had been decorated by the school kids.

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With the evening drawing in I stopped briefly for some liquid refreshment in the only bar of many in the village still open for business and carried on into the sunset. Finding a quiet spot was not a problem and I made camp on the sheep mown grass of the bank and after a soup and sandwich , crawled into the tent under a full moon in the clear cobolt sky.IMG_1008

The clear sky remained in the morning as I broke camp and headed on atop the bank to the  Parteen weir where the head race begins.The hills of Clare and Tipperary rose upon either side of the waters there as the Shannon widened into the bottom of Lough Derg.

I was soon directed away from the lakeshore onto a length of busy main road, thankfully turning off after a few 100m, and up a wooded lane with the beginnings of autumn showing in the leaves that formed a canopy above.

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A sign at the top informed me this was on the route of Sarsfield Ride, the site of a dramatic  episode in Irish history.

After the defeat of the Jacobites at the battle of the Boyne in 1690 James II fled to France and the remnants of the Irish army retreated to Limerick pursued by William who had swept down from the north seizing most of Leinster, intent on securing a river Shannon crossing at Limerick. Most of the command were for abandoning the city to Williams forces fearing the defensive walls were no match for his mighty new siege cannons on their way across the country to Williams camp just outside of Limerick. Not anticipating much resistance on their journey across subdued territory the convoy had only 100 men and Sarsfield, a general in the Irish army, hatched an audacious plan to intercept them.

Riding out under cover of darkness with 600 hand picked cavalry he headed north through friendly County Clare on the route I was now walking. Crossing at an unobserved bend in the river just north of Killaloe they stealthily made their way east into the hills. As luck would have it one of their scouts came across a wife of a Williamite soldier on the convoy whom he plied with whiskey and she revealed that the password for the siege train was “Sarsfield”.

The large convoy of formidable weaponry had made camp at Ballyneety just 10 miles from Williams position and the story goes that, when sneaking up on them after a long ride south, Sarsfield himself was challenged by a sentry for the password.                                                   “Sarsfield is the name, and Sarsfield is the man” he is said to have roared as his men swept in and quickly dealt with the sleeping troops.

Then gathering up the 150 wagons of stores, ammunition, powder, motor guns and canons whose mussels he rammed deep into the earth he set off a hell of an explosion that lit up the sky and was heard in the Williamite camp. Taking all of the enemies horses with them they hightailed it north around the top of Lough Derg at Portumna, back through Clare to arrive in Limerick as heroes.

Without the massive siege guns William had to wait for more to arrive from Waterford and the Irish had time to regroup. Morale was high after their victory and when the attack did come it was successfully beaten off, helped famously by many rock throwing local women.

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And so, following in the footsteps, or hoof prints,of heroes I made my way to Killaloe for breakfast, fortifying myself for a long climb into the Arra Mountains of Tipperary on the other side of the Shannon.

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The small road that led me up out of Ballina on the eastern side opened up views back down towards Parteen and across the Clare hills, with the forested slopes of Slieve Beamagh, the counties high point, rising above the waters.

The Way turned off up a narrow track strangely signposted to discourage cars.

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The sun was shining brightly in the morning sky and I was shedding clothes as I climbed up into the heather and gorse covered moorland. I was left to wonder why so much of the land surrounding me had been left to go wild and who owned it.

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Skirting the edge of forestry I joined the road the leading to the masts that sit on the summit of Tountinna at 460m and contemplated having a cooling dip in the Black Lough.

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The high point of the Way reached, I stopped for lunch with a view and dried off my sweat soaked t-shirt and dew drenched tent. From here, with good eyesight (maybe binoculars) and visibility, you can see into 9 counties from the Twelvepins and Maumturks in the west to the Slieve Blooms and Wicklow Mountains in the east. The whole of Lough Derg is laid out before you complete, on this fine day, with a flotilla of boats competing in the Optimist dingy national championships at Dromineer. My phone camera could not cope.

The trail led steeply down from here to the site of the Graves of the Leinstermen, where the King of Leinster and his men, on the way to High King Brian Boru’s place to marry his daughter, were ambushed and killed in an attack planned by Brian’s wife Gormlaith who did not approve of the match. Seems harsh.

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From here the route is changed from that shown on the ordinance survey maps to climb Laghtea Hill with its shiny steel cross replacing an earlier concrete one destroyed in a storm. The hills here are mainly slate and a lot of old mines and quarries dot the landscape

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From here I started to have problems with the trail being overgrown and untended. Another steeply stepped path ran down through bracken and brambles adjoining a young plantation of conifers which threatened to overwhelm the track.

A short tarmac section later I was again directed off road, this time at the edges of fields through thistles, before arriving at a more accommodating farmers land who didn’t electric fence me into the nettles and prickles but instead trusted me to cross his land without causing damage, admiring the lake view on offer.

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Reaching another road at a carpark known, not surprisingly, as The Lookout, I was way marked through a lovely section of mature mixed broadleaf woodland and down a lane past the award winning and attractive old church and graveyard at Castletown and the ruins that supplied the name.

Minutes later I gratefully joined the families cooling off in the waters of Lough Derg.

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An hours R and R later I shouldered the pack once more and continued on through what was obviously a grand estate of many acres, the solid stone wall and forest of mature trees hiding whatever mansion lay within. The land here on the Tipperary side was seemingly much richer than the Clare side across the lake and the houses reflected that.IMG_1064

This was obviously a much desired location and exclusive looking lake view properties lined the road into Garrykennedy where the marina, busy gastro pub and expensive motors in the car park added to the effect. After a meal and pint I found myself a discreet camp.

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The tent survived the nights rain and the day dawned fair, but it wasn’t due to stay that way.

With 25km left to go to Dromineer I was hoping to make quick progress around the lake before the weather changed. It started well enough on a stretch of road away from the village then the way marks lead me onto farmland where the grass was tall and wet and I had trouble finding the markers at times.IMG_1079

Leaving the cows behind I was led on a lovely path to a well managed woodland, well tended, with a trail to match.

Crossing a lane that led down to Youghal Harbour I followed a” new improved” farm track between park like grazing meadows, with huge mature trees generously strewn across them, that led me down to the enchanted setting of a holy well.

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St Conlons Well had benefitted from the same facelift bestowed upon the land and woods around it and was “well” tended with a planting of flowers and a multitude of offerings hanging from the thorn tree. I have visited many a holy well and sadly a lot are falling into an unloved state of ruination but not this one. I filled my water bottle and was still awhile.

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Unfortunately St Conlon could do nothing for the conditions of the Way that awaited me.

The manicured farmland gave way to wilder country with ragwort and thistle taking over neglected fields as I approached the low flat lake side area known as The Callows. This land was crisscrossed by wide and deep drainage ditches and the trail proceeded along the top of flood prevention banks that were choked with under, (and over), growth.

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I struggled on constantly looking for a way around the obstacles. Everytime I tried a short cut across grazed fields I came up against another impassable ditch and had to fight my way back onto the bank of briars, nettles and waist high grass. To cross the ditches the route forced me a long way up them to a bridge, only to go a long way back down them on the other side. Frustrated by the nearly impenetrable scrub I wondered why the bridges couldn’t have been placed in more appropriate places.

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I understand that many of the walking routes in Ireland rely on the good will of the farmers and that there is no “right to roam” and very few rights of way but I also know that under the National Walks Scheme launched by Minister Eamon O Cuiv nearly 2000 landowners on 49 trail routes are paid an average of €1000 annually to manage the tracks. In 2011 the local media reported that the Lough Derg way had been reconfigured and relaunched with many sections being taken off road. This had been achieved by an investment of €115,000 to “support landowners to maintain the trail”.

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Walkers, especially those from abroad, do not want to hike long distances along the roads.But equally there is no point in leading them into an impenetrable morass on a National Waymarked Way with no escape route.

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I found my escape route when I arrived, wet and weary, at a road. I had been looking forward to the lakeside sections and there was another 3 or 4km length coming up, but with the amount of time it had taken me to cover the last overgrown few km I didn’t think i’d make my rendezvous in Dromineer on time. And anyway I didn’t relish the thought of more fighting through the vegetation.

So I regretfully gave up on the Lough Derg Way and charted another course along the back roads for the remaining 5km or so. It was pleasant enough, passing through quiet farming backwaters and joining up with another walking route out of Dromineer.

Arriving just before the heavens opened i had time to check out the castle by the harbour then took shelter in a bar with a welcome bowl of leek and potato and await my lift.IMG_1115

Overall it was good hike but the overgrown section on The Callows was a serious flaw which could have denied me the best bits. I’ll have return at some stage to find out.IMG_1121

The Back of Beyond: The Barony of Erris

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After a few days on the Loophead Peninsula, voted the best place to holiday in Ireland , our next trip was up to County Mayo, to an area deemed “the best place to go wild”. We were going to explore the Erris or Belmullet Peninsula, a little dog leg of land sticking out in the  Atlantic off the North West coast of Ireland.

On route we had hoped to climb Croagh Patrick again but the ground zero cloud base meant there was no chance of a view of the islands of Clew Bay from the summit, so we headed north around the bay and past Lough Furnace and Feeagh for another skirmish in the Nephin Begs, at the start of the Bangor trail, which i’ve written about elsewhere on this blog.

The old drovers track, dating from the 16th century, that crosses the vast empty bogland of Ballycroy for 30km and takes you as far as you can get from “civilisation”in Ireland, has been recently named by The Telegraph as one of Europes top walking routes but that accolade is unlikely to draw the crowds to this remote and lonely line through the landscape. A big chunk of it has been designated a Wilderness Area and the 50 year plan is to leave it entirely to nature, without any management intervention. Lets hope the encroaching rhododendron doesn’t take over.

We had a wet 3 hour slosh from the Brogan Carroll bothy up the Letterkeen Loop, circling back on the lower and shorter option as the surroundings were shrouded in mist and drizzle. We saw that the roof of the little hikers shelter near Lough Archer had been blown off …so campers beware.

On the way up to Belmullet we stopped at the  Ballycroy  National Park Visitor Centre, a modernist slab set into the hillside with permanent and temporary exhibitions, a cafe, picnic area, boardwalk out over the fragile bog and a flag waving Gael on the front desk who we had an argument with about the “right to roam”or how to improve access over private land. His argument seemed to be that once Eire’s green fields had been wrested from the oppressive colonialist landlords and distributed amongst the downtrodden peasantry they had every right, even an obligation, to keep everyone else off them for ever. Not an attitude that continental walkers are used to, or appreciate.

The Erris peninsular is attached to the mainland with a thin strand of an isthmus at Belmullet. From a few kms north at Erris Head it projects south over 30km with the  Atlantic on one side and the sheltered waters of a succession of bays on the East. Both sides are threaded with pearls of white sand beaches, at one point a mere 50m apart, one wild and one placid.

We spent a night parked up on the shore of Cross Lough, a storm beach away from the waves whose energy is being tapped by a range of several device types on one of the worlds best stretches of coastline for this renewable resource. I did the looped walk that took me along the beach with a huge bank of beautiful smoothed pebbles piled up by the waves protecting the dunes from inundation and back around the lake where kite surfers took advantage of the strong on shore winds.

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Opposite me a couple of kms across the sea was Inishglora island with the remains of an early Christian monastery, one of many ancient religious sites in this far flung edge of Europe. Looking south i could see the next days destination, the Inishkea Islands, (Geese Islands) ,also dotted with churches, cross slabs and other antiquities.

The following morning we drove down to the bottom of the narrow peninsular to Blacksod harbour from where a charter boat was going to take us the 45 minute trip out to the south island. From the same harbour in 1883 and 1884 an assisted emigration scheme, funded by the Quaker philanthropist James Hack Tuke, saw 3,35o people from the area leave on 15 steamships for Boston and Quebec. In an effort to alleviate to hardships of the “last Irish Famine” of 1879/80 Tuke was concerned with the comfort and welfare of those travelling and provided new clothes and “landing money” on arrival in the New World. We strolled through the memorial garden while waiting for our voyage back into the old world.

Plaques representing each ship had been erected bearing the names of every passenger.It is estimated that there are 2 million descendants of the emigrants and the project behind the gardens hopes to strengthen the bond between these descendants and the home place of their ancestors whose last view of the familiar would have been Blacksod  lighthouse,( whose unfavourable and unexpected weather report led to the delay of D Day),  and the mountains of Achill.IMG_0804

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Ironically the Islanders themselves seemed to have had an easier time of it during the famine years as the dreaded potato blight, carried on the westerly winds, didn’t appear until the mainland.

6kms out,the Inishkea’s,  North and South, cover a couple of sq kms each and are separated by a very narrow channel with strong currents. The northern, rounded, island is lower and flatter  while a hill 72m high in the middle of the southern island gives protection to the village and harbour on its eastern shore.First colonised in the neolithic period, they were christian outposts from the 6th to 10th centuries and abandoned in the Middle Ages before being reinhabited with the spread and growth of the mainland population in the 17th century. About 55 families lived there by 1850 and the disaster of the drownings in 1927, when 10 men lost their lives fishing from their currachs in a terrible storm that swept down the west coast,was the prime reason for the eventual evacuation in the early 1930’s.IMG_0814

The fine white sand, rich with mica, that now fills the abandoned houses, supports a well drained machair grassland that brings up to 300 barnacle geese from Greenland overwinter and the fish rich waters  of the islands feed 1/3 of the nations grey seal population with 150 pups born each year.

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These favourable conditions also meant that the islanders were relatively well off compared to much of western Ireland.Each island had a “king” who cast lots every 3 years for the allotment of the tillage land farmed on the Rundale system. The potato ridges are still visible across the islands and oats and barley were also grown in large amounts as well as good grazing grass for cattle, sheep and donkeys.

They lived mainly by the rich fishing and sale of kelp. Lobster fishing was also extremely profitable and plentiful and their catch would be sent by train to Dublin and then ship to England. A visitor to the islands in the 1830’s described the cod, hake and ling as being inexhaustible and all shellfish were bountiful.

The Islanders were a bit of a breed apart, perhaps literally. They were reported as having different characteristics to people on the mainland- fairer hair and complexion, although a number had dark Mediterranean type of colouring.It was also said that they had very acute sight and hearing and could see small objects floating in the sea that others would find impossible.

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They were tough folk and although they had a landlord they refused to pay rent or rates and woe betide any collector who could persuade a mainland boatman to risk his craft by taking them out where they would be greeted by a hail of rocks and pebbles.One gunboat sent as an escort was smashed by the islanders. So many failed efforts eventually resulted in giving up and the landlord John Walshe was probably only too happy to sell the islands to the Congested Districts Board in 1906.

There were also renown for piracy and would frequently hold up cargo vessels with a volley of stones and make off with their currachs full of flour and meal or whatever was going.

The many wrecks around the coast also supplied all sorts of domestic items most mainlanders had to do without and their homes sometimes contained surprisingly fine furnishings, hard to imagine now.

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One of their luxuries were feather mattresses or ticks, while most at the time were straw or rush.

IMG_0832Every year the men would collect vast quantities of feathers by going out to  Black Rock where the birds were so tame they could be knocked by sticks from the rocky ledges.

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They also had fine wool from the sheep raised on the machair which supplied insulation and the material for their distinctive navy blue homespun clothes.

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They had a thriving export market in quality poitin with one contemporary visitor remarking,” if such be the customary produce of their stills, those islanders are worthy of being canonised”. It must have helped them cope with the harsh winter weather.

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The illicit liquor, brewed without much fear of discovery, was reckoned to be so good because of the island grown barley and the copper stills when most on the mainland were tin. These stills were prized family heirlooms, handed down father to son, and lowered by rope into sea caves when not in use.IMG_0829

After exploring the forlorn remains of the village we headed off on the green road which heads south across the close cropped grass.

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Passing the remains of an ancient church and a holy well surrounded by large stones of quartz it was interesting to think of the religious life of the islanders.

IMG_0850 Although there had been a busy monastic style community here more than 1000 years ago the more recent inhabitants were happy to weave a layer of paganism over any christianity and practice a form of stone worship that could have its origins in the neolithic past. Ancient graves have been excavated on the north island with the bodies clutching quartz stones to their chests, some of the christian cross-slabs are thought to have been carved onto existing pillar or standing stones and when the storm winds blew up the raging sea or the potato crop didn’t flourish it was a 2ft high  totem known as the Namhog stone that was idolised and asked for help. Dressed in a new homespun red flannel every year and kept in a niche in one of the houses it’s supernatural powers were not appreciated by the late 19th century curate Fr O’Reilly who threw it into the sea….and died shortly after.

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We followed the old track passed a couple of seal filled bays opposite each other and separated by a huge storm beach whose mass of rocks and pebbles are still breached by waves in rough weather and will one day join up to form another island.

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From here we turned back to scale Knocknaskea the central hill which opened up an amazing vista south to the cliffs of Achill.

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At the top the white beacon towered over the land and seascape as a sentry point for the village and guide for those plying the surrounding ocean.

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From here we followed the long high stone wall running towards the north island which gave some protection to the strip fields which ran down from it to the houses on the eastern shore.

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From the island’s tip we looked across at its neighbour, from whom it is thought it stole the Namhog stone. It’s said there wasn’t much love between them, especially when, due to the influence of teachers during the civil war, the North Island was pro treaty while the South was anti, and they lined up on either shore to hurl rocks at each other. A fine example of the futility of war.

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Another reason for the prosperity of the south island and the bad relations with its neighbour involves the whaling station set up in 1908 on Rusheen Island just next to the harbour and village. This Norwegian enterprise was forced to only employ men from the south island although the smell and pollution had to be endured by both.Paul Henry, the celebrated artist, reported that “this was so appalling and so bad was it that it was a couple of months before i got it out of my clothes.” He also spoke of the loads of whale offal being thrown to the great numbers of the most enormous pigs he ever saw.

Up to 40 men were employed there at generous wages for the time although the company found them “indolent and unreliable”, perhaps understandably as they were unused to conditions of employment and would be absent for days at wakes and during the lobster season when two men in a curragh could earn £20 a week opposed to the £1 they were getting from the whaling station. (And that was after striking for more than the original 15 shillings).

But to put that into context those wages meant they were doing well enough to employ men from the mainland to dig their spuds for 1 shilling a day. They were even paid when sick and got overtime wages. You can understand the company’s displeasure when, with a load of whales to process before they went off, they offered overtime and men on full pay sick leave left their beds to avail of it!

The self reliant attitude of the islanders encouraged them to make hay while the sun shone and harvest whatever money they could. The families who had been living on Rusheen before were claiming rent from the company even though they had never paid any themselves.But all good things come to an end, and bad management, tricky access and employee problems meant that even in 1909 when 102 whales were caught, a loss of over £2000 was recorded and so the whole thing folded after 5 years . The men helped themselves to materials and equipment before it could be removed for sale and returned to their traditional way of life for another 15 years before hardship and tragedy drove them ashore to 5 acre plots allotted to the families on the mainland overlooking their island home.

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………………………………………

From the bottom of the peninsular to the top and the next day we did a looped walk around Erris Head where the land rises north of Belmullet across miles of blanket bogland to end at the dramatic cliffs overlooking the Atlantic.

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A well known and recognised landmark featuring in weather reports, it is a Special Area of Conservation and the protection extends out to sea aways to include nesting seabirds. From the steep slipway and steps at the oddly named Danish Cellar cove where an adventure sports operation had set up we crossed a stile onto the open land.

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We followed an earthen bank that could have been defensive, a parish or field boundary or maybe just to prevent sheep from tumbling over the cliff.

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This led us around the headland with more and more of the even more dramatic cliffs of Benwee Head coming into view towards the east. They rise to 250 m and drop vertically to the sea below but were too far away for my cameraphone to capture.Somewhere between us under the water was the gas pipeline leading towards Rossport and whole heap of trouble and strife (or possibly clean energy and local employment).

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Beneath our feet the turfy grass and heather was eaten to the bones of the quartzite and gneiss below, the oldest rocks in Ireland and originating from what are now Greenland and Canada.

The seas here are often visited by pods of dolphin, porpoise and whale while the skies above are the arena for aerobatic displays by fulmars and ring to the cries of the chough. There are a number of mini islands and at the heads extremity a couple of acres of rock has broken away over millennia to form a narrow channel of booming waves and sea arches.

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10km away across Broad Haven bay you can just make out the jagged peaks of The Stags at the bottom of the Benwee cliffs. `From the promontory the route led up to one of the WW2 coastal lookout posts, like the one we had seen on Loop Head the week before, again complete with a giant “Eire” laid out in stone for any lost pilots.

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Manned by locals 24hrs a day the 82 of these stations dotted around the coast reported any noteworthy events to HQ by radio.

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We followed the climbing ground passed the vertically sided inlet of Ooghwee to the trig point at 82m that had once held meteorological equipment and from there white stones set in the turf back southwards to the starting point.

 

Our time for “going wild” was over and it was time to return to the sedate surroundings of South Galway.

South Clare: A Trip to Loop Head

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Many moons,or decades, ago, we made our first trip out to the foot of County Clare, into what seemed then a little known or visited corner of Ireland. With the coming of the Wild Atlantic Way and all it’s signage and viewpoints and after being voted the best place to holiday, things have changed. Some good, some bad.

To be fair to the folk promoting its beauty and benefits they have tried hard to keep tourist developments sustainable and to keep the financial rewards amongst the local community but it has, inevitably, lost some of its quiet mystery. Luckily, and consciously, the narrow lanes of the peninsular are not conducive to mass coach traffic so it will not become a Ring of Kerry although the wild and dramatic seascapes deserve the increase in people enjoying them.

With a gathering happening in Kilkee to watch and cheer on an extended family member rowing for Ireland in the Olympics (not our genes) we took the opportunity to head down across the treeless landscape of flat rushy pasture slowly rising up to Loop Head where we could park up by the lighthouse.

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Originally ,350 years ago,a single story cottage with a signal fire on top it was built in its current form in 1854 and its blinking beam of light projects across the waves for 23 miles to warn seafarers of the 200ft cliffs it sits on.

These days you can rent the cottages and there are guided tours for a fiver but its still a wild  spot with the salt laden westerly winds ensuring that coastal plants can survive far from the sea.

We went walking down to the lower edges of the cliff tops and around the headland and were watched carefully by a seal and ignored by a pod of dolphins as we bounced across the springy matts of sea pinks that made a thick carpet over the shattered rock. It must be a beautiful sight when they are all in bloom.IMG_0740

(Not sure what the Aster type flowers are)

The cliffs were black and sheer even though there were a lot of strata and twisting and turning of rock made up of layers of solidified sand and mud carried down a vast river system some 300 million years ago when it was all underwater. At that time the area would have looked like the Mississippi delta does today and the cliffs bear the marks. In places you can see fossilised ripples created on the seabed by wave action then buried by a subsequent layer of mud and sand.

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I’d read some reports by sea kayakers who had had trouble rounding the Head and remembered an aborted fishing trip when the captain had turned us back to Kilbaha as the vomit to fish ratio climbed as steeply as the boat climbed the waves. This is not a coast for paddling.

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It is a coast though of epic sea warfare from the Armada to the Battle of the Atlantic in the second World War and on our way back around the Head and up towards the lighthouse we came upon puzzling white stones laid out on the ground in a pattern we couldn’t recognise. I later discovered there had been a WW2 lookout here built by local soldiers of the Coast Watching Service and were an early warning system against invasion.There were 83 of them built around the coast and coincidently we came across another one a few days later on Erris Head in Mayo. They had also laid out the stones to alert pilots that they were now flying over neutral Eire.Eire-Sign-in-Loophed-From-the-Air

The lookouts witnessed much of the Battle of the Atlantic from their eyrie with the cliff top views taking in most of the west coast from the Twelve Bens of Connemara, the Aran Islands, Cliffs of Moher and to the south the mountains of the Dingle Peninsular and even the distant dots of the Blasket Islands.

We carried on to another geological wonderland a few miles east at the Bridges of Ross. Once again we were greeting by the WAW signage including the bizarre empty rusted metal map? boards and new car park. From there a path led us the few hundred yards along the coast to the one remaining sea arch. Originally 3, there now remains only one but the waves are working on creating more even as they try to destroy whats left. Life is change especially in geological time frames.

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The little cove formed at the back of the arch was an artwork of swaying seaweed.

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After exploring the amazing natural architecture created by the movements of the earths plates folding and tilting the sedimentary rock beds we were keen to find one of the sand volcanos we had heard about. With advice coming over the internet from our geologist son in Australia as to their whereabouts we headed northeast along the chaotic shoreline but weren’t convinced the lumpy heaps of gravel were what we were looking for.Resting up overlooking a dramatic cove IMG_0756

i spotted a team of international “rock stars”on a study trip on the cliff opposite. I headed over, interrupted their learned discussion, and asked for directions. Only too happy to spread the good word one of them told me how to find the nearest, and best example. Showing me pictures on his mobile phone and explaining the secrets to their formation in a dumbed down kind of way he informed me that back in the day when all around us had been a sandy sea bed, there had been a massive landslide of the coastal cliffs covering the sea bed with debris. This had trapped air which the huge pressure had caused to erupt up through the layers of mud and sand to create the “sand volcanos”. Or something like that.

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Mission accomplished.

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(A Bit Of) The South Leinster Way

clashganna lockThere’s not many dog friendly Ways in Ireland as i have complained before, and the South Leinster Way was the last on my list, having previously walked the Grand and Royal Canals, the Ballyhoura,the Slieve Felim, the North Kerry and the Offaly Ways and not wanting to do the only other, the Dublin Mountains Way.

I didn’t want to do all the 104km of the South Leinster either, which starts in Kildavin Co Carlow, near the boundary with Wicklow and Wexford and travels southwest passed Mt Leinster, down the Barrow to Graiguenamanagh, across it into Kilkenny, over the Nore and Blackwater and finally  the Suir to finish at Carrick in Tipperary.

With a weekend available we concentrated on what we thought would be the nicest stretch with the easiest start and finish logistics, a linear walk always throwing up transport complications. We’d park up in the camper at Ballytiglea bridge, on the Barrow just outside the village of Borris, and on the first day hike downriver the 12km to Graiguenamanagh and then the 16km over Brandon Hill to Inistioge. Hopefully we’d find somewhere to camp around Woodstock Gardens and carry on over hills and down dale the next day another 30km to Mullinavat on the main road bus /taxi route and so get back to the van.

I had originally thought it would be nice to hike without the added weight of camping gear and had looked for a B+B on route but a concert by Rod Stewart in Kilkenny had, unbelievably, filled every bed for miles around. Another major event that we needed to try and work into our schedule was Ireland’s Euro 16 knockout stage match with France at 3pm on the Sunday. It would be nice to be happily settled in a big screen pub for that and we thought there might not be too many taxi drivers on the road then.

IMG_0480And so it was, we spent a peaceful evening on the waterside wondering if we could remember it from our boating trip the length of the river 4 years previously. A jogger and a couple of strollers were all that passed us by and the frequent splashes awoke the optimistic hunter in me and i wished i’d brought a rod to catch the obviously massive fish that filled the unseen depths.The lack of one saved me from the mundane reality of waiting hours to,perhaps, eventually land a miniscule and inedible roach.

Next morning at 7 we set off down the grassy path that the powers that be have unfortunately earmarked for a tarmac or gravel cycle greenway. I’m all for encouraging more people to explore the beautiful waterways of Ireland by boat, bike or foot but the  towpaths as they are are much kinder on the eyes and sole than the envisaged “improved” version.

IMG_0481As with the canals, the Barrow is certainly an under-utilised resource and it must be hard for Waterways Ireland to justify the expense of keeping the channels clear of weed and silt and the paths mowed. There certainly seemed to have been a build up of vegetation since we motored through on the Jack Daniells.

This was a very attractive wooded stretch of river, with Borris Demesne hidden behind the trees. The grand house, now used as a wedding venue, is the seat of the MacMurrough Kavanagh family, descendants of the kings of Leinster. A remarkable 19th century member of the family was Arthur,The Limbless Landlord, born without arms or legs, who never the less managed to become an expert horseman, shot, yachtsman and travelled throughout the Mediterranean, Russia, Prussia and India. He was a popular local figure and a caring and generous landlord who became an MP and travelled to London on his yacht, mooring it outside the houses of parliament where he made many powerful speeches on the obligations of the ruling classes. I’m not sure if the lock houses in the area were designed and built by him but know that he won prizes for best designed houses at lowest cost.

Leaving the woods of the Borris estate behind, the river winds through cultivated land and  it’s course becomes more tortuous as it approaches the hills ahead. I remember being careful to keep our boat well clear of the weirs at Ballingrane and on the approach to Clashganna Lock, which features in the photo at the top of this blog post.IMG_0491

It wasn’t long before we were approaching Graiguenamanagh as the river cut itself deeply into the surrounding tree covered slopes to emerge near the slipway and warehouse lined quay. This was the busiest place for moorings on the river and justifiably, as the stretch from here south to St Mullins  was probably the icing on an already sweet cake.IMG_0502

However, we had to leave the river here, and passing over the barge rope worn bridge onto the west bank we made our way through the pretty flower bedecked streets and out onto a dead end lane into the hills rising above the town.

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Climbing up our first rising ground of the walk the weight of the camping gear started to be felt as the views across Carlow to the Blackstairs Mountains opened up and we hurried past deadly dogs.

Past the last isolated farmhouse and onto forestry tracks we ascended to about 350m of the  500m Brandon Hill, stopping for lunch at the charming Freney’s Well just off the trail.IMG_0523

Revived, we headed back to the track and carried on through the cleared forestry. Here we came across the huge bundles of compressed brash we had only seen once before ,on Keeper Hill in Tipperary. Coillte are looking  to transport these heavy bales out of the forest for use as a biofuel, a controversial practise as it was previously thought good management was to leave it as a biodegradable nutrient source for future forest growth. The jury is out.IMG_0529

Hiking across the hill we could see a track not far below us to the north and many kms and a good while later we had done a huge switchback dogleg to arrive there at the approriately named Sally Bog where we started to climb again onto more open moorland.IMG_0534

Following the wide track we somehow missed the small footpath we were supposed to take off to our right and blithely carried on for 3 km in the wrong direction to emerge onto a road without, (obviously), any trail direction markings. Complaining aloud about the lack of signage we continued on what we thought must be the way, becoming more and more uneasy as the surroundings didn’t match where we thought we were on the maps. Not only should i have “gone to specsavers” but i should have checked my GPS and i would have discovered we were way off route before being told so by a farmer we passed.

Bad news. We were going to have to detour about another 5 km to get back to where we should be, just when we were looking forward to arriving for much needed refreshment at Inistioge which we wearily trudged into over an hour later. To add insult to injury the supermarket, in which we had planned to get supplies for dinner, as well as for breakfast and lunch the following day, had closed a few months ago and there was nowhere else.But there was a bar where we were able to have some craft beers and a pizza and a bottle of wine, decanted into a water container, for later. We also found a cafe that made us up a couple of sandwiches for the next day’s hike.

Feeling much better about the situation we headed off once again through woods on the banks on the Nore passing a planting idea i have since copied at home with some of my worn out hiking boots, each with a trail tale to tell.IMG_0543

It was a pleasant path leading up into Woodstock Park and the gardens that charged for cars but not for people and were still open.

The house is still in ruins but the gardens and arboretum have been restored to something of their former glory after a programme of more than 15 years. I remembered coming here at the time they had just started, when i was collecting tree seed for the Coillte nursery and had heard of the Monkey Puzzle avenue, the longest in Europe. The seeds of these trees are worth a fortune, or what was a fortune to me then, but unfortunately they did not give up their riches on that occasion.

On this fairly dismal evening we had the place more or less to ourselves and were able to wander at will around the rose arbours, the dove cote and glasshouse although the walled vegetable garden was, frustratingly, locked.

Climbing to the very top of the grounds we came upon what we thought would make a nice shelter for the night and so it proved to be. A bamboo rustic summerhouse constructed of materials from the grounds and copied from an earlier victorian one on the same spot that in contemporary reviews offered the leisured classes fine views over the extensive estate.

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So we didn’t need the tent after all, but the bottle of wine came in handy and it made for a good nights sleep after a hike of what had eventually added up to 39km. We woke to a wet morning and the weather forecast was for “heavy and persistent” rain. Our plan was not looking good or at least not pleasant. We decided to be flexible and abandon it.

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So we had time to explore the grounds some more and strode along the Noble Fir and Monkey Puzzle avenues and wandered through the ferny grottos and over the sunken lawns of the winter garden as if they were our own, which for one night they had been.

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Back down in Inistoige a kindly cafe proprietress opened up to serve us coffee while we waited more the dog, and human, friendly taxi driver from Borris to spin us back there after being up most of the night with the Rod Stewart fans. On the direct road rather than the winding track over the hills, our 12hr trek of the day before was reduced to minutes.

Back at the van, with the rain coming down as we tucked into a hearty breakfast rather than the frankly unappetising and soggy white bread/cheese slice sandwich, we knew we had made the right decision and when, a few hours later on our sofa, i watched Ireland score the first goal after 3 minutes, walking the South Leinster Way was the last thing on my mind.