By the time we finished secondary school Leo McGough aka The Hurling Hobo, @thehurlinghobo, had enrolled us all in the cult of Clare hurling! So I have a soft spot for this beautiful county and I was delighted to take a break last weekend from my Darragh and Eimear’s wedding celebrations for a short walk in the Burren. It is the most unique landscape in Ireland, with its rolling limestone hills, underground rivers and caves, unique flora and fauna. An area steeped in history and heritage sites. It’s tricky walking territory and you need to focus on each step as the limestone is full of crevices and cracks, loose rocks and stone walls. That makes it hard to take in the natural beauty surrounding you, so it’s wise to stop and gaze as often as possible! Not everyone in the past was so taken with the wonders of the Burren:
“It is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him…. and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in turfs of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing.”
Cromwellian general, Edmund Ludlow (1617-1692).
An Bhoireann….” a stony place..”. Never was a place so well named for this area of north Clare is world renowned for its unique landscape. Between those rocks and crevices is a unique eco system where alpine and mediterranean plant species are found side by side. It is a botanists paradise!
The Burren landscape was formed millions of years ago and there are clues to its ancient past in the rock surfaces, with fossils such as the coral below in abundance:
The Burren extends from approximately Corofin northwards into Galway, covering an area of about 530 square kilometres. A small part of that is designated a national park and thats where we completed this short walk around beautiful Mullaghmore mountain. The walk extends over a series of rocky terraces with beautiful lakes, some are turloughs (temporary lakes found in limestone areas), the colours of the water were stunning.
We often hear about the farmers in the Alps bringing their cattle to high pastures in the summer. This practice is called transhumance. For thousands of years, Burren farmers have marked the end of summer by herding their cattle onto ‘winterage’ pastures in the limestone uplands where they spend the winter grazing. This ancient reverse ‘transhumance’ tradition is synonymous with the Burren and is key to the survival of the region’s famous flora and fauna.
The story of Saint Patrick, Ireland’s Patron Saint, has been handed down to us over the centuries. It’s a great story in which it is hard to separate fact from fiction as there are scant contemporaneous records of his life in existence. I have some sympathy for poor Bishop Palladius who was sent here by Pope Celestine to spread the Gospel – before Patrick, but he gets little credit!
Patrick though wrote what must be a rare autobiography of an Irish Saint, his Confessio or Confession, which is his life story, though it lacks names and places, is an original source. And we can thank our own St Fiac, of Sleaty, (I often cycle past his cross in Sleaty graveyard, near Knockbeg College) who wrote his hymn on the Life of St Patrick:
He was six years in slavery;
Human food he ate it not.
Cothraige he was called,
for as slave he served four families.
Victor said to Milcho’s slave:
“Go thoust over the sea”:
He placed his foot upon the ‘leac’ (stone):
It’s trace remains, it does not wear away.
Life of St Patrick by St Fiac of Sleaty.
It’s pretty clear he was captured and brought to Ireland and the story is he spent 6 years as a slave of Milchú on Slemish Mountain (or Sliabh Mish) tending to flocks of sheep. This was one of those stories we learned in primary school; I was always fascinated by his time in slavery and so this was a place I have long intended visiting, and what better day to do it than on 17th March, the Feast Day of our National Saint. Slemish is located just outside Ballymena in County Antrim, a nice little drive! My route up took me past two very important sites central to the Patrick story – the Hill of Tara and the Hill of Slane. Had I more time I would have stopped off but it’s 293 kms, door to door, to the foot of Slemish! I’ve been on both these famed hills in the past and the story of the conversion of the High King of ireland is central to the conversion of Ireland to Christianity.
But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day I said from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.
And it was there of course that one night in my sleep I heard a voice to me: ‘You do well to fast: soon you will depart for your home country.’ And again, a very short time later, there was a voice prophesying: ‘Behold, your ship is ready.’ And it was not close by, as it happened, two hundred miles away, where I had never been or known any person. And shortly thereafter I turned about and fled from the man with whom I had been for six years, and I came, by the power of God who directed my route to advantage (and I was afraid of nothing), until I reached he ship.
Saint Patrick’s words form his Confession.
He was out of there!
I thought there might be a few people walking the route to the top and it was shock to see Police bollards along the narrow local roads to prevent parking. There was a Park and Ride system in place from the village of Broughshane, about 7kms away. The mini buses were ferrying people all day long from 9am to the base of the mountain and they came from all over the north. I met quite a few from Derry and Tyrone including the father of Paul Wilson, who won an All Ireland Club medal all of 21 years ago with Ballinderry as an attacking half back. It was great to see families of Polish and Ukrainians, who made the hard trek up to the cross on the mountain top. And not a sign of a Far right protestor making the pilgrimage…
At just 437 metres high, technically this is not a mountain, but it is a tough little nut to crack! The path is very very steep – 29% gradient at one point. Underfoot the ground is extremely wet and slippy and there are lots of protruding sharp rocks to provide added danger. It’s not a place to go in runners – as many did today! I found this to be one of the toughest short rambles I’ve done in a long time and to see little kids scrambling past me was a little hard to take!
I’m not a fan of what St Patricks Day has become. Today was much more enjoyable for me than a lot of the paddy whackery we see typically associated with our celebrations of being Irish. I like the outdoors, solitude, visiting interesting places, heritage and history and today had all of that.
Saint Patrick is not the exclusive preserve of Catholics and Slemish of course is located in the ‘Bible Belt’ of the North. I got a lot of leaflets and pamphlets handed to me on my finishing the climb from different groups of evangelists. I’m not sure if they all work together or are separate distinct groupings.
I mentioned earlier that a Park and Ride system operated out of Broughshane. (I had come through Ballyclare to the start point). After I was directed there by two very helpful PSNI officers I saw a few people with their Orange sashes and bandsmen outfits. I thought it was a bit strange that the Orange order were taking part in the celebrations! It was only when I got home that I read an online article in the Irish News about disruption caused to pilgrims by an Orange March through the village which created huge delays for the pilgrim buses heading to Slemish. Luckily I missed all that. Somethings never change.
If Morat Rais and his band of Barbery Pirates had not sacked Baltimore in 1631 and forced the survivors to row up the Ilen River and establish the town of Skibereen, Éire Óg might well have been crowned All Ireland Club Champions in 1992!! Of course I jest but I found myself, accompanied by my good wife Mary in ‘Dear Old Skibereen’ at the weekend for a beautiful wedding of a lovely Carlow couple, Maeve and John. We had a few great days in the home town of the O Donovan Rossa Club, the team that beat us in that epic All Ireland Final, over two glorious games, in March 1993. Two games that really launched the Club Championship, drawing massive crowds to Croke Park and The Gaelic Grounds in Limerick.
Of course Skibereen, not being content to ‘keep its eye on the Czar of Russia’, has truly been placed on the World Map thanks to the exploits of its rowers especially the O Donovan brothers who really captured the heart of the nation.
It’s a great place to visit and, like a number of other west Cork towns, it has retained its charm. The town centre remains an historic busy market town. We’ve stayed in some lovely places up and down the country but I don’t think any come near to our three nights in the wonderful Bridge House B&B, run by hostess supreme, Mona Best! Her home is indescribable – a Victorian film set with every room uniquely furnished and decorated. You see something different every time you open a door. It is eccentric, exotic and quirky and it’s obviously a labour of love for Mona. Her beautiful organic breakfasts were the perfect start to the day. Words fail to do it justice, so here’s a few photos that may!
If you are ever in Skib, be sure to give Mona a call and she will look after you better than your own mother! With all those fine breakfasts and the beautiful food in the lovely West Cork Hotel, we needed to get out and about for a bit of exercise and exploring. The farmers markets of West Cork are famous – Skibereen has a great one every Saturday. West Cork is home to a lot of ‘blow ins’ who crave an alternative lifestyle and many of them are into organic food, art and crafts. It’s all there in the market!
I love the multi coloured shop fronts and houses in West Cork, local shops with local produce, local book stores; Skibereen has its fair share of them, these caught my eye:
No weekend away would be complete without a cycle or a walk and doing it in West Cork is as good as it gets. We had a couple of walks out by Lough Hyne, one of them accompanied by our good friends Declan and Áine. What an incredible body of water! I have to go back in season to do the night kayaking. Lough Hyne is just 1km long and 3/4km wide, it is one of the most important marine habitats in Europe and was made Ireland’s first Marine Nature Conservation Reserve.
In the centre of the lake is Castle Island on which stand the ancient ruins of Cloghan Castle, once a stronghold of the O’Driscolls. According to local folklore here lived King Labhra Loinseach, who had asses ears, a story we learned in primary school and it was great to visit the area!
We did a beautiful looped walk, we thought it would circle the lake but it actually turns west in the direction of Baltimore and it’s a lovely scenic 5kms of road walking. There’s a few nice hills on it and we ‘had to pull like dogs’ to get up them! I mentioned the sacking of Baltimore earlier; that was areal event that occurred when Barbery pirates attacked the village and captured over 100 locals which they brought back to North Africa and sold into slavery. It’s an astonishing little known piece of our unique history which I read about about a few years ago in a terrific book, ‘The Stolen Village’ by Des Ekin;
All in all a great weekend in ‘Dear Old Skibereen’.
Saturday night National League games are great! A big crowd in Netwatch Cullen Park to witness the opening game between Carlow and Wicklow which ended with honours even. That left Sunday free and a chance for a walk in the woods and plenty of fresh air! Christopher Somerville wrote a lovely book titled ‘Walking in Ireland’ with 50 walks scatttered across the country. Many of them featured in the Irish Independent and I was always taken with his beautiful sketch maps incorporating some lovely detail of things to watch out for.
The last time I was in Aghaviller was when I cycled through on an 80km loop out of Inistioge; I had a rest stop here and I was taken with the beautiful church ruins and Round Tower of this ancient site. Today I was out walking and I took the purple route through Castlemorris Woods which was a gentle 8kms with 170 metres of ascending.
It was a bit of an experiment today- I recently purchased a set of trekking poles to get my arms working more and assist with rehab. Although I’m still getting used to them they were great! I could really feel the benefit of the pushing action to activate my triceps and it’s a great way to get more from a walk than just leg exercise. The poles take pressure off the hips and knees. I’ll keep them in the car for future walks and handy for fending off any hungry dogs!
Every walk is different and while most of this route is encased in the forest, it’s a nice change of scenery, the surfaces are good and there’s a nice uphill pull in the middle section. This part of Kilkenny has some interesting heritage sites and makes for a good day out of you like to delve into our ancient past. Aghaviller has a terrific church ruin with a tricky staircase that you can climb to the roof which affords a fabulous view of the round tower.
Áth an Bhiolar (Field of the Watercress) was mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters
I took Christopher’s suggestion on the way home and had a short stop off at Gáirdín an Ghorta, The Famine Garden. It’s so easy fly pass these little places and I was glad I did. The Great Famine was such a tragedy that decimated this country, sending millions to early graves or onto coffin ships looking for new beginnings in far off lands. Its a worthy memorial to our dark history.
This time last year I had completed over 7,000kms on my bike around the country. As I faced into 2022 I had ambitions of covering even more ground on my trusty steed. I won’t forget the date of the 29th January. Kilcoo were due to meet St. Finbars in the All Ireland Senior Club Football Semi Final in Portlaoise and Carlow were playing London in the NFL. Tickets bought online at 9am and I planned an early cycle in beforehand to make a great day of it! Unfortunately I never made it to either game as I had a bad fall from the bike only 800 meters from home- it was completely my own fault. It always helps to watch where you are going… instead of O Moore Park it was Waterford Regional Hospital for me with a mangled arm requiring 3 plates and 10 pins inserted.
The consultant told me I’d be lucky to be back on the bike in 10 months. He did an incredible job on reconstruction and my rehab started almost immediately. Slowly but surely movement and strength returned and while I couldn’t cycle I could walk and I got an opportunity to do some nice rambles near and far from home.
Near Askamore, County Wexford, being watched over by the Boss herself..
Trips to National League games always included a walking route to keep some semblance of fitness and mobility.
Heading for Temple Stadium with Tommy Wogan, we had a lovely 6kms loop walk at Grange, just over the Tipperary border
Viewing point on Grange Loop Walk
I think my favourite walk is Shannons Lane. It’s a terrific access route for Mount Leinster and Knockroe. So many incredible views, so much history from ancient rock art to the Second World War…
This way to the cross on Knockroe
Hiking to Knockroe Cross with an intercontinental cast of my cousin Sineád (Germany), my uncle in law Peter Kearney (County New South Wales) and Sinead’s boyfriend Gaym (Eritrea).
Going to games always provides an opportunity as a spectator to add in a ramble and there is a really beautiful walk on Forth Mountain Wexford which I did on the day of Wexford v Dublin in the Leinster SFC.
Love the pink hew on these rocks at Carrigfoyle trail on Forth Mountain.
Often on my travels on match days I’m accompanied by my great friend Tommy Wogan. We go back a long long way; we have covered the country by bike and on foot, from the top of Carrauntohill to Rathlin Island. Great memories and more to come.
Tommy at the Lia Fáil stone on the Hill of Tara.The vibes were good & we were confident of an upset v Louth. It wasn’t to be.
Traipsing across the Wicklow Hills with Mary!
The Plains of the Curragh on the way to Conleth Park for Kildare SFCdouble header
All the walking and rehab work began to pay off and instead of being off the bike for 10 months I was back on the bike after less than four months. I was very cagey but delighted; I really thought the year was a write off and I could see that a big tour would be possible if I could continue to recover at the same rate.
The Barrow Track is my default route when getting back on the bike after time off.Loved the colours of this barge.
Probably the best Stones Concert of all time…
A great little hike to the Devils Chimney Waterfall, County Sligo
My plan from last year was that having completed Malin to Mizen in 2021 I wanted to cycle Coast to Coast (west to east) in 2022 but I didn’t want to take the flat and straight Galway to Dublin route incorporating the Grand Canal.
I wanted a route with lots of scenic views and historical sites to visit. I poured over ordnance survey maps and plotted a magical route – to start at Blacksod Bay, taking the north Mayo coast around to Ballina, crossing Leitrim, Fermanagh, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth to finish in Carlingford. The drumlins nearly killed me on those local roads! It was shorter than Malin to Mizen but I found it harder. The constant up and downs with some serious gradients and a possible lack of fitness made it a true test of character. I loved it.
The added bonus was meeting Unison MacCraith agus a bhean chéile Treasa Ní Ghearraigh in Glenamoy County Mayo. We had a marvellous few hours walking and talking along the cliffs above Portacloy. I got a lovely surprise when I got home as Vincent had posted me copies of his local history books and guides for the area. In 1983 Vincent lined out in goal for Rathvilly (and captained them) against Éire Óg, winning their first ever SFC Final.
At the Céide Fields
Despite Robbie Molloy’s request, Vincent didn’t push me over the edge and into the North Atlantic…
The Caves of Keash, County Sligo
Before heading into the clouds on the Ox Mountains … what a network of local roads we have for cycling…
Walking and cycling are a tonic and the combination of exercise, fresh air, fantastic sights, sounds and smells give a natural high. I love getting out, especially to new places – and there are loads of them still to be explored..
I didn’t go anywhere near the distance travelled in 2021, managing just over 3,000kms but 2022 turned out to be a great year between the hiking and the cycling and it has filled me with a burning desire to get moving again from today and explore more of the hidden corners of this grand little country. Any suggestions for routes in Ireland – on local roads or off road? I’m thinking about following the River Blackwater from source to sea as one..