Time to report on a modest Irish ramble after recent foreign escapades.
I’d been reading for a couple of years about a small village in deepest Tipp that has gone to great efforts to sell itself as a walking destination, setting up 3 Failte Ireland looped walks, guided walks and an annual walking festival. So when looking for a bank holiday hike location on line and seeing on the Irishtrails website that one of the loops was dog friendly ( a hard to find rarity) we loaded the camper and headed southeast… to Upperchurch.
West of the Nenagh to Thurles road the village is at the eastern end of the Slieve Felim mountain range and set amidst a beguiling landscape of rounded rolling hills of fine green grassland and forest in the full forty shades with a fair smattering of golden gorse.
Unusually for rural Ireland these days the village still has 3 functioning pubs, a shop, community Centre complete with crèche and climbing wall and an information center. We stopped there to try and get maps of the walks and discovering it to be shut tried one of the bars. The welcoming owner spent some time rummaging around but couldn’t find what we wanted so kindly got his coworker to open the info centre and furnish us with leaflets and maps.
We discovered that the Beara- Breifne Way, a (very) long distance hiking trail that commemorates the 14 day/ 250 mile forced march of Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare from West Cork to Leitrim, passes through here. Too late in the day to explore we headed up to the Ballyboy lookout to park up for the night.
In the very early morning we were surprised to be woken by increasing car activity outside. Still dark we couldn’t see what was occurring. We thought perhaps late night revelers or predawn hunters. But then I remembered some briefly scanned mention of an Easter Sunday Sunrise Mass happening somewhere in the area. I quickly got some clothes on and emerged from the van like a risen prophet to discover rows of seats had been placed in front of the camper and many folk in high viz looking expectantly towards me. Whoops- we’d parked in the alter-place. After a bit of banter I explained we were going to Upperchurch for a walk but as there were by then about 100 walkers heading up the road towards us was advised to go the opposite way, passing many more folk on their way to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.
With the full moon still hanging above the misty valley in the dawn light we headed off into the mountains named in Irish after an ancient goddess, Sliabh Eibhlinne- the mountains of Ebliu.
After stopping for breakfast and waiting for the sun to burn off the mist we started off from the village on the Eamonn an Chnoic loop. Eamonn, or Ned of the Hill, was one of the 17th century Robin Hood type outlaws championing the cause of the dispossessed natives and harassing the English planters. Born locally he roamed these hills after shooting a tax collector dead for confiscating a poor women’s cow before coming to a sticky end , murdered for blood money, and his exploits inspired a famous ballad.
Passing another local walk initiative , a bog walk and garden, we continued up the quiet country road accompanied by our first cuckoo song of the year.
At our first stile we were disappointed to see a no dogs sign. We’d chosen this walk because it was listed as dogs permitted so with our mutts on leads and best behavior we carried on across a series of fields and stiles slowly climbing through Glenbeg.
Passing a picnic spot overlooking the still misty river valley to the south we continued up on farm tracks beside a mass of sweet smelling gorse towards a band of forestry.
Turning east at the forest we followed an ancient sunken greenway through the gorse and bilberries and down towards a cottage near a ring fort.
We passed the site of a pre-famine hedge school where a schoolmaster named Burke held the only available classes of that period. Hard as those times were, the wildflowers in the “classroom” might have made things more pleasant than in the Industrial schools some of the children have have ended up in.
After only 500m of tarred road we were off cross country again for the rest of the walk. Climbing again to another block of forestry on the high ground we walked the fields beside what had been the official trail, now swallowed by gorse.
The forces of nature had overwhelmed other remnants from the past too. We failed to see the old potato ridges and foundations of a famine village supposed to be visible. 29 families from here emigrated to Monroe county in Iowa on one day in 1879. But we did see what’s left of a Bronze Age ring barrow and a little further along a rare bowl barrow.
Downhill all the way back to the village we had one slight route finding problem where signage was missing and fencing down but it was all very pleasant in the spring sunshine.
We took a quick detour to Holy Cross Abbey on our way to another looped hike at the Devils Bit. The restored Cistercian monastery has impressive stonework and a marvelous sloping floor beneath the pegged oak roof timbers.
But the real draw for pilgrims over the last 800 years is a silver crucifix containing a relic of the true cross on which Jesus is said to have died. This, along with another artifact were stolen in October 2011 and recovered by the Garda 3 months later in what the parish priest Fr Tom Breen said ” once again demonstrates the power of praying”.
Another cross was our next destination but at ,45 ft high and a span of 25ft , was somewhat bigger.
Standing at 480m on an outcrop ( known as the Rock) it boasts a view of 8 counties. I always thought that the devil had spat ” the gap” that he bit out of the mountain to form the Rock of Cashel but then I read that the Rock of Cashel is actually (!) the tooth he spat out after breaking it biting the mountain.
Easter Sunday and the car park was jammers with families setting off up the steep track towards the Rock.
Passing Carden’s Folly where Daniel O’Connell is supposed to have addressed a monster meeting of 50,000 tithe payment resisters and a mock ” burial” of the tithes took place, we reached a stone alter and Marion shrine- the scene of another open air mass and pilgrimage in July.
A steep stony scramble had us up to the looming cross and we rewarded ourselves by soaking up the 360 degrees views of the fertile plains and half a dozen mountain ranges faint in the hazy light.
We descended by climbing down a cliff face on the eastern side, down past another Marion shrine and into the gap that broke the devils teeth.
Nice to explore another unknown patch of Ireland and reaffirm that it’s still a varied and beautiful place to ramble around.