Hiking in Ireland


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.

RIVERWALK : The Suir Greenway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lough Ree Rambles : Back to the Heartlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were some photos and illustrations of past activities on the bog including the discovery in 1969 of a Bronze Age wheel while cutting turf. A locally made vintage hopper was on display with a message to Stay Safe laid out in turf sods.

The peatland had certainly played a huge part in the daily and historical lives here and the ending of turf cutting and closure of the Bord na Mona operations across the midlands involves a massive cultural shift. It seemed that the people behind the Cloonlarge Loop could celebrate their past close connection to the bog as a fuel and employment resource and embrace the current understanding of its vital natural qualities and need for protection. There is a 30-100year long term plan here to restore 70 hectares of degraded raised bog to an active state and help to capture carbon.

The future generations were being involved and stimulated in their natural heritage by the inclusion on the walk of fairy trails and bat and bird boxes, insect hotels and even a little library of nature and colouring books and a story telling chair. Top marks to the trail.

Next stop Strokestown House where an exhibition, “Memento Mori”, by Paula Stokes in the 6 acre walled garden commemorates the 1845 famine. The huge Palladian mansion which houses the National Famine Museum has been closed for some time but the Irish Famine Summer School international conference was being held on zoom while we were there and the exhibition opening was timed to coordinate with that. A work consisting of 1845 hand blown glass potatoes in the form of a cairn represents a burial monument to the million people who died.

The exhibit was housed in the Gazebo tower above the pineapple pit where the landlord classes could gaze at all they had dominion over, untouched by the horrors of famine.

Unfortunately the gardens, in the care of the Irish Heritage Trust, are in a sorry and neglected state. Although impressive in size and laid out well the amount of volunteer workers they have cannot keep up with the work necessary and it’s all getting out of hand. But on a pleasant sunny day, with flowers in bloom, it was easy enough to ignore all the weeds and hope for future fulfilling of potential.

The museum is having a massive makeover due to open next year and a newly initiated National Famine Way walking route goes from here to the Royal canal and down to Dublin port where the coffin ships awaited those desperately seeking a new life abroad. I hope that an influx of tourist euros will enable the place to slough off its air of forsaken neglect.

Another looped walk on the shores of Lough Ree awaited at Lanesborough where the looming presence of the ESB turf power station, the last to close in December 2020, signified another seismic shift in the fortunes of the midlands. Ironically many of the Bord na Mona workers made redundant by the ending of turf harvesting are now employed in the peatland restoration programmes. An €11 million ” Just Transition” fund from government and the ESB is set to help Midlands projects that contribute to a move away from carbon intensive activities towards a more sustainable, climate resilient economy.

Parking up beside the lake I was tempted by the sunshine to go for a dip but the scum of millions of mayfly put me off and I contented myself with watching others for awhile before we set off on the woodland loop.

The 4km track led us through two old limestone quarries and a variety of woodland types past callows and reedbeds. Very pleasant in the dappled shade and well appreciated by the Lanesborough people.

Back in Lecarrow in the early morning we cast off in our hired punt and motored slowly down the canal linking the sheltered harbour to the lake at Blackbrink Bay a couple of km away. Opened in 1794 it was busy with boats carrying limestone, corn and flax ( grown on the canal banks and a popular midlands crop) out to the Shannon transport network. The railways bought about a steep decline and by the 1960’s the canal was choked and unnavigable. The start of pleasure boating instigated a dredging scheme and the canal was reopened in 1967.

Once out on the lake we slid across the flat calm waters for about an hour, all along St Johns Wood and then south west around Inchturk to Inchmore, the largest island on Lough Ree at 132 acres. Several families lived here until quite recently with the schoolhouse only built in 1927. We moored at a small quay at the end of a muddy lane leading to the houses and the old fishing lodge of the Marquis of Westmeath.

I have discovered that one of the intact houses has just gone up for sale as the owner is moving to New Zealand. You heard it here first.. €130,000 ( very open to offers) will get you a 2 up 2 down with 70’s extension on an acre. Off grid living. Compost loo. Cooking on the fire ( or less poetically -gas). Rain or lake water. And loads of Peace and Tranquility. Priceless.

Check out Island House, Inchmore on YouTube for drone footage or island house.site. Your new life awaits.

Further up the beautiful tree lined track we entered a wide field on the southern end of the island. Here was the remnants of much older habitation, a substantial ring fort. Hard to photograph effectively at shadowless midday the site had a timeless vibe to it sunk as it was in prehistory.

More recent relics were the lodge and scattered machinery nearby but we were unable to locate the remains of the early Christian monastery founded by St Lioban.

Back off in the boat we motored west past the tiny Nuns Island , site of another monastic settlement and nunnery and in 2014 the discovery of a cache of rifles, ammo and Semtex. It seems the island may have been used for IRA training in the past, somewhat of a tradition as other islands here were known as hideouts during the War of Independence.

We landed at Safe Harbour on the Rindoon peninsular- the scene of countless conflicts for over 1000 years. The vikings were here in the 9th century before Brian Boru saw them off in the 10th but the impressive remains there now are from the Anglo-Norman days when throughout the 13th century this was a very impressive medieval town of perhaps 1000 people. Abandoned after the Gaelic Resurgence of the early 14th century repeatedly attacked and looted the settlement, it remained left forgotten and overgrown for 650 years. Nowadays recognised as unique in Ireland and Britain the peninsular is rich in visible history with its rare windmill, castle, church, town walls, bee boles and a hospital. We spent a sunny afternoon on the looped trail.

One more stop to make on our scenic cruise of the lake we ventured north of Blackbrink Bay to land on Inchcleraun, another sacred spot with seven medieval churches and yet another monastery , this one founded in 560 by St Diarmaid the Just. We chatted to the farmer who comes to mind his cattle every day and left his dogs guarding the boats while we set off through the lush meadows to explore.

The monastic settlement lasted about 800 years before finally giving up the ghost after repeated raids by the Munstermen. The peaceful air and tranquility of the island belie the turbulent history of being frequently plundered and burnt by invaders.

From the cluster of churches, St Diarmuids, Teampall Mor- Great Church, Women’s Church, St Marys and Church of the Dead, we walked to the top of the island to find the medieval belfry church, Teampall Clogas with its unusual square bell tower.

Near here is the Sunny Place of Maeve, where the famous Queen of Connaught met her end at the hands of Furbraith, the son of her sister whom she had murdered whilst pregnant. The baby survived and grew up plotting revenge. Knowing Maeve liked to bath from the island he practised firing the distance from the mainland with his slingshot. However on the fateful day he spotted her at the Sunny Place he had no stones to hand, so used what he had to hand, a hard cheese for his lunch. His practise payed off and she dropped dead- ending the turbulent reign of the Warrior Queen.

And so ended our more peaceful visit to the islands of Lough Ree with their traces of otherworldly existence slowly smothered by nature and to the woodlands and bogs of the shore hopefully now protected and able to continue in their timeless cycles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return to the Galtee Mountains


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

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


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



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


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



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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Stepping Stones – the Burren Way


In the northwest corner of County Clare, halfway up the Wild Atlantic Way coastline of Ireland lies a unique environment.

250sq km of a glaciated karst landscape, with swirling terraced hills of limestone rising up from the ocean to the west and standing guard over the plains to the east. Scoured clear of earth and vegetation by ice age, erosion and man, the pale grey rock appears otherworldly and from a distance, denude of life.

But the naked stone stores and radiates the suns heat, the grikes or narrow channels between the slabs or clints provide shelter and the calcium rich soils undisturbed by the plough all make for a botanical wonderland and botanists and plant lovers from across the globe come to marvel at species from arctic-alpine and Mediterranean habitats living happily together in the west of Ireland.

The rock has discouraged intensive farming and this has helped to preserve ” a vast memorial to bygone cultures”, with the stone itself used over the last 6000yrs or so to create the tombs, cairns, homesteads, forts, castles and churches and holy wells that litter the maps like freckles on the face of the land.

The Burren Way meanders for 100km, with additional spurs to towns and villages, with Irelands most famous natural attraction- the Cliffs of Moher forming a southern gateway.

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 06.46.39

Setting off from Liscannor I planned to take 4 days to cover the route, ending my ramble in Tubber to take in the splendours of Mullaghmore in the Burren National Park. The first leg was 20km to Doolin and the long straight road headed west past field walls made of the flag stones the area is renown for. The movements of sea creatures millions of years ago are etched into the surface of these slices of time as a record of the oldest journeys on earth and the flags are used as hardwearing floors and heavy roofing.

300 million years ago the Burren was the floor of a tropical ocean, and the Cliffs of Moher were formed by layers of shale and sandstone building up and up in a vast river delta. As I climbed up from the coast past the last farm with its brimming car park supplying a modern cash crop I was joined by others on the way towards the tower at Hags head.


There is a cliff face here that supposedly resembles a womans head where, the story goes, the hag Mal crashed into the cliff while pursuing her love interest, Cu Chulainn, who stepped across the sea stacks to escape her advances.

As we reached the tower the dramatic views opened up and the number of people drawn in to the area by the successful marketing of the Wild Atlantic Way since my last visit became apparent.

Moving on along the cliff path I past a Liscannor flag quarry producing the stone for the nearby walls and a public gallery of miniature sea stacks in a dramatic setting.


The nesting seabirds were a constant distraction as they wheeled around the cliff face with perfect timing and grace and I stopped to watch their acrobatics and spy on their domestic activities.


Living as I do in a very quiet rural pocket and not getting out among mass humanity much, I found the antics of my species nearly as fascinating and spent a while photographing them photographing themselves. The ‘selfie’ phenomena .


My favourite selfie photos were many years ago and accidental. A friend working in a photo lab had developed a roll of film taken on a tour of Europe’s top tourist destinations and was puzzled to see pictures of only bits of head and ear and crowds of people before realising that the hapless photographer had held the camera the wrong way round.

At the highest point in the cliffs, near the car and coach park and the “visitor experience”, is a tower built as a viewing platform in 1835 by local landowner, M.P., and descendant of Brien Boru, Sir Cornelius O’Brien. He once fell very ill in London and asked for some water to be sent over from St Bridgits well near the Way at Liscannor which he attributed to his recovery and payed for the construction of a well house, still much used today.


700ft below me the atlantic rollers crashed onto the base of the cliffs and it would certainly be the spot from which to watch the worlds top big wave surfers try their luck riding Aileen, the 50+ft wave that can form here.


It was a beautiful sunny day and I certainly didn’t begrudge sharing the natural splendours with so many people but by the time I had had my lunch around O’Briens tower I was ready to escape the hordes and carry on towards Doolin another 8km away.

Although Doolin is another of Ireland’s tourist hot spots and the coastal path goes all the way there this was definitely a quieter section, allowing more space for contemplation of the surroundings and take notice of the birdsong and wildflowers.



In a couple of places streams tumbling over the cliff edge were being blown back up on to the top creating a kind of natural perpetual motion of water as it tried to reach the sea.


The Aran islands were visible to the north west, strung out in a line towards the mountains of Connemara and as I approached Doolin the first sight of the rounded grey hills of limestone made me keen to get amongst them.


The path descended to near sea level and continued along the shore past strange diamond shaped rock formations and blowholes to the colourful shops and pubs at Fisherstreet where a ferry goes to the nearest Aran island, Inisheer, and people come to swim with Dusty, a dolphin that likes to hang out with humans.



Back on tarmac I made my way past the 16th century Doonagore tower house on the outskirts of Doolin to my bed for the night at a friends house.


The next days stage was a 30+km hike, mostly on ancient green roads, into the Burren uplands where I planned to meet Sally and the Trusty Tranny camper van at the top of Corkscrew Hill above Ballyvaughan.

But first I had to make my way along about 10km of country roads through a sometimes gorsey and rushy landscape under a leaden sky, which coupled with a number of neglected and abandoned homesteads made for a slightly melancholic atmosphere.

Climbing up the backroad from Ballylacken castle at about 200m the tarmac gave way to track and the green road leading over the shoulder of the Burren’s highest hill, Slieve Elva, began.


There was a stiff wind and from the look of the contorted vegetation there usually is. The lack of shelter on this exposed hillside must have made it a tough place to live and the remnants of stone cottages told their own tales of hardship.

Finally moving beyond the sandstone and shale and onto the limestone the track became stripped for awhile as it revealed the underlying formation of clints and grykes in the adjoining fields(?).

After roughly 8km of the high plateau I was led down into the Caher valley where the only surface river in the Burren to make it to the sea runs down to the beach at Fanore. The porosity of the limestone means that water easily eats it’s way through to create a network of underground caves and tunnels, another feature of this area that makes it special and contributed to the famous saying by one of Cromwell’s generals that ” it is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury them”.


Up and over the long southern plateau of Gleninagh Mountain on another green road and I landed back on the tarmac of a cul de sac backroad running down the Feenagh valley.


A couple of kms later I was off up another ancient green road, lined at first by another section of river, then hazel scrubland,and winding past megalithic tombs, ring forts and enclosures with fantastical views of the surreal landscape surrounding me, to eventually, and suddenly, leave the limestone and find myself atop an upland of turf bog and forestry.

The wind was still blowing and now as evening approached it was cold so, getting to our meeting point early after 30km, I was happy enough to do an extra couple of km down Corkscrew hill to the warm embrace of the Gregan House hotel bar and a pint of Murphys while I awaited the arrival of Sally in our mobile kitchen and bedroom.

We woke the next morning to a nasty drizzle blowing in on a horizontal wind and with only about 20km to do that day we decided to trust the forecast that the rain would clear in a couple of hours and take a quick spin to Kilfenora, location of The Burren Centre and   cathedral ruin.


The Catholic cathedral, part of which is used by the church of Ireland has a glass roofed transept, built to protect some ancient high crosses and there are other fine carvings.

Back on track we had a fair bit of road walking to do but it was pleasurable hiking along tiny backroads through a varied landscape dotted with megalithic and early christian sites, including an impressive baptismal font in the ruins of Kilcorney church.

Crossing the high ground above Carron it started to drizzle again and we ducked into Cassidy’s bar for a drink in the dry before carrying on along the eastern shore of the turlough, or seasonal lake. These loughs are another unique feature of the area, with the groundwater beneath the limestone rising and falling with the water table and creating what can be huge areas of flooding in the winter and rich grazing land in the summer.


The hazel woods were thick alongside the road and rich with wood anemone, ferns, sorrel and mosses and lichens. All of which make good feeding for the herds of feral goats that keep the vegetation in a bonsai condition and sometimes end up as burgers in Cassidy’s when the population is deemed in need of a cull.


To end the days hike we had another green road stretch, leading us eastwards into the National Park. The sun was out and it was a truly beautiful path, a match for anywhere in the world in weather like that. A little over halfway along is a charming cottage in what has to be one of the finest locations in the country. (Teas available in the summer).


Another good dinner and comfy bed courtesy of friends just off route and we were ready and able for our last day on the trail. I had walked nearly all of the Burren Way previously but not continuously and I had never walked one section of the days route so it felt like the highpoint of the Way to be climbing the iconic terraces of Mullaghmore and gazing at the virgin territory ahead.

We were a little early for the glories of the wildflowers for which the area is famous but we were lucky enough to have early purple orchids, wild garlic and gentians strewn around our feet that day.


As we climbed above Lough Gealain to the summit at 200m the full effect of this special place became tangible. Feeling deeply connected to the surroundings and yet looking out onto a strange and foreign land, it’s no wonder the area has attracted “outsiders” for many years with the magnetic appeal the landscape holds.


Clambering down the rough stony track on the north of Mullaghmore we turned to follow a wall below Slieve Roe down to a crossroads at Cooloorta where some of the pre mentioned “outsiders” have created homes for themselves.


3km up the road we turned to come 3km back down on another green road through an area of limestone canyons studded with ash woods until, passing through a swing gate, we walked towards Lough Bunny on a long straight and flat track to the grassy farmland.


Surrounded by green fields and grazing cows again, with the bare grey stone of the Burren behind us, it wasn’t long to the end of our journey where friends conveniently living right on the Way supplied tea and biscuits and a lift back to the Tranny.

Beara Peninsular : Dursey and Derreen


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Speed limits still (jokingly) applied !img_1212

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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.



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.



THE LOUGH DERG WAY : Limerick to Dromineer


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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”.


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.


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