Through the heartlands


Walking the Grand Canal Way across the bogs of Offaly

Irish Times, 26 April 2014

I left Tullamore on a proper Irish spring morning: icy wind on my face, warm sun on my back. My plan was to follow the Grand Canal Way west through the boggy heart of the midlands.

Just outside Tullamore the canal passes Shra Castle, built in 1588 by an English solider who married into a local family. But Ballycowan Castle, a bit further on, is even more striking.

Nearby the towpath crosses two aqueducts, engineering marvels that lift one waterway above another. Further on I spotted a peacock butterfly, my first of the year, its rusted wings spotted black, cream and lilac. The countryside here was flat and farmed. Some fields were wonderfully disordered, with overgrown hedgerows and rough grass. Others were smooth and symmetrical, their hedges hacked bare.

Seeing this, I thought of an eccentric landowner in the midlands who once who told me that when walking his land, I would know where his farm ended because the fields would suddenly become boring. He celebrated disorder, and I imagined him cursing the neatest fields beside the canal.

Later I was resting by a bog oak sculpture at Pollagh when a barge named the Cheerful Lady passed. She had left Tullamore when I did, but had fallen behind me waiting at a lock. “Maybe if you get tired they’ll give you a lift,” the man from Waterways Ireland had said. The barge and I exchanged pole position a few times until she pulled ahead at Pollagh, and that was the last time I saw her.

Past Pollagh the towpath vegetation was stripped bare, and I had to trudge through peaty mud. The Grand Canal Way stretches from west Dublin to the Shannon, and is marked along its whole length. The walking is flat, but in places the towpath is rough and muddy, so wear good walking shoes. Though this section follows quiet roads in parts, I encountered few cars. Make sure you stick with the waymarkers – if you walk on the opposite bank, you could find yourself hitting a dead end.

Then the land grew wilder, and the blooming gorse gave away its secret: I had entered bog country, where the canal passes through Bord na Móna’s great cutaway peatlands. The houses disappeared, and the land between towpath and bog filled with a hodgepodge of scrub, wood and field, more interesting that any single habitat. Nearby are the Turraun Wetlands, created when Bord na Móna flooded its exhausted peat fields. They form one section of Lough Boora Parklands, 2,000 hectares of cutaway bog where nature has retaken hold to create lakes, meadows, scrub and woodland. The parklands have walking trails, hides for birdwatching, bike hire and angling lakes.

Along the canal the towpath crosses one of Bord na Móna’s bog railways. Nearby something big seemed to tumble into the canal from the reeds. I scanned the water for an otter’s head, but none appeared. Later I watched a heron stalk fish from the towpath.

Early in the evening, I left the canal at Gallen and walked 2km by road into Ferbane. I had just enough time for a tipple before catching a bus out of the bog country.

Map: Trail maps at OSI Discovery Series maps 48 & 47. Start: Bridge over the canal at the end of Colmcille Street ( a continuation of High Street & Bridge Street), Tullamore. Start on north side of the canal. Finish: Armstrong/Gallen Bridge, 2km south of Ferbane. Time & distance: 26.2km on the canal, plus 2km into Ferbane, took me 7.5 hours at brisk pace. But leave 10 hours of daylight for safety. Those preferring a shorter walk could tackle a stage: Tullamore to Pollagh (15.6km) or Pollagh to Armstrong/Gallen Bridge (10.6km).

The colourful and the curious

Step into the exotic at Massey's Wood


Irish Times, 22 March 2014

Heading through Dublin’s southern suburbs towards the mountains, I’m always buoyed by how quickly city turns to country. My curiosity piques as housing estates fade into small fields, wooded lanes and ramshackle farmyards.

Massy’s Estate lies just beyond the reach of the city, south of Rathfarnham. From the outside it appears a typical wood, but look closer and you’ll find something much more exotic.

I arrived on a February afternoon to hike the trail that follows the Owendoher River through the forest. In the 1930s, trees from Europe, North America and Asia were planted here. Plaques mark many of these specimens, and we tried to determine each tree’s identity before arriving underneath it.

My guesses were almost always wrong, but in my defence I had never seen a Bhutan pine or West Himalayan spruce before. There are western hemlock, cedars, limes and giant sequoia here too.

The exotic trees and infesting rhododendron make Massy’s feel almost sub-tropical. This was once the site of a grand estate, of which there’s evidence all around: stone bridges, garden walls, an ice-house where lamb was stored.

According to Frank Tracy’s book If Those Trees Could Speak, the estate collapsed due to the extravagant lifestyle of the sixth Baron Massy. In 1924 his grandson Hamon Massy was evicted from Killakee House and deposited by the road on his mattress.

The family later moved into a gate lodge on the estate, and Hamon was often seen walking in the woods thereafter. Killakee House was knocked in 1941. Part of the original military road, built by the British in 1803 for quick access to the Wicklow uplands, runs through the grounds.

The Owendoher is a glorious little river, dropping through a long series of falls, pools, and riffles. In 1931, the gardaí found a secret IRA weapons stash on its banks. The elaborate, booby-trapped bunker held a tent, bedding, tinned food, and a supply of rifles, revolvers and explosives.

The riverside trail looked short on our map but was tougher than we expected, climbing about 200 metres over its course. The wood narrows at its upper reaches, bordered by fields and farmyards. From here we looked out over the city, and tried to pick out urban landmarks through the pale afternoon mist.

Up here, high and unsheltered, the wind whipped into the woods, and we had to navigate around pines that had been torn up and dumped across the trail.

At the top of the wood, we turned back, and downhill we crossed the river and joined the nature trail. The Dublin Mountains Partnership has published an activity book for the trail on its website. But our legs were weary, and once someone ventured the notion of tea, we were making our way back to the car park before the light faded.

Map: OSI Discovery Series Sheet 50. Maps at Start and finish: Hell Fire Club car park, R115. Exit car park on foot, turn left and the entrance is 100m on. Note car park hours. Time and distance: Our route combined the Riverside Trail (white markers) and Nature Trail (orange): 7.5km/2hrs 30mins. Suitability: Won’t trouble experienced walkers; trails may be muddy and blocked by fallen trees. Deer culling may be taking place, heed safety notices.

A tale of two lakes

Walk the Sligo Way through woods, hills and lakeshore DSC_0308

Irish Times, January 25 2014

Hiding between the wild coastlands of Mayo and Donegal, Sligo’s landscape is less dramatic but more lush and green. Benbulbin draws most of the county’s plaudits, so other hills are forgotten. The 78km Sligo Way traverses the county’s less trodden, boggy uplands. I wanted to spend a day exploring it, so headed for the village of Collooney.  From here the trail follows the Owenmore and Ballysadare rivers into Union Wood, where old oaks and mossy crags sit uncomfortably beside spruce plantations. Further east it crosses the high heathlands of Slieve Daeane.

I had feared a dull slog over this hill but instead found real drama at Lough Lumann, a mountain lake with a backdrop of tall heather-coated crags. Showers passed over and mist erased the summit. This is the best kind of hill weather, an interplay of sun, cloud and rain that changes the light and landscape with each moment.

It’s impossible to write about Sligo without reference to Yeats, whose words have become a filter through which we see the county. He wrote “we should make poems on the familiar landscapes we love, not the strange and rare and glittering scenes we wonder at”.

According to John Cowell’s book Sligo: Land of Yeats’ Desire, a chamber tomb near the summit of Slieve Daeane is known as Cailleach Beare’s house. In a note to his poem The Hosting of the Sidhe, Yeats explains that Cailleach was a fairy who “went all over the world seeking a lake deep enough to drown her faery life . . . until, at last, she found the deepest water in the world in little Lough Ia” on top of this hill. But this lake’s name wasn’t on my OS map.

After coming off Slieve Daeane, the trail enters Slish Wood and follows a stream toward the shore of Lough Gill. Yeats was inspired by Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s classic account of life in the Massachusetts woods, to spend a night sleeping here. “I planned to live some day in a cottage on a little island called Innisfree, and Innisfree was opposite Slish Wood where I meant to sleep,” he wrote. He spent a night under the trees, but barely slept for fear of being discovered by the wood-ranger. “However, I could watch my island in the early dawn and notice the order of the cries of the birds.”

If anybody lived here like Thoreau, it was Beezie Gallagher, who was born on the lake’s Cottage Island and later returned to live there, rowing into Sligo regularly. She hand-fed birds and squirrels inside her cottage, and banned a visitor who threw stones at rats. She was rescued after a blizzard in 1947, then in her 80s, but rowed back to her island home after a week of recuperation. She died there in a fire in 1951.

Leaving the forest, the trail crosses rough bogland and woods before emerging to a slipway that looks out on Inishfree, the end point of my walk through Yeats country.

Map: OSI Discovery Series sheet 25. Maps at Route: Marked by yellow arrows, description at sligowalks. ie. West of Slieve Daeane above the tree line a waymarker has fallen over – the trail continues under the power lines. Forestry operations at Balleygawley Woods may mean this section is closed over the next two or three weeks. Suitability: Moderate for hillwalkers,tough trail crosses remote upland, lots of boggy ground. Distances: Collooney to R284/ Ballygawley Woods: 6km. Ballygawley Woods to Slish Wood: 9km. Slish Wood to Inishfree car park: 5km


Take a lazy winter walk

A ramble around the woods and shoreline west of Galway City unnamed

Irish Times, December 28, 2013

If you’re like me, the idea of hillwalking the day after Christmas festivities is a tough proposition: my legs are leaden and I am in danger of dozing off mid-walk. Perhaps this time of year lends itself more to sauntering than hiking.

Living in Galway, one of best spots for lazy walking is around Barna Woods and Lough Rusheen, just west of the city. Here the city’s suburban fringe meets its best fragments of wild land. Over a few square kilometres, there’s woodland, grassland, streams, salt marsh, beaches, rocky shore and glacial cliffs.

Every town has somewhere like this – a rich, wild place that’s overlooked purely because it’s so close to traffic and housing estates.

Barna Woods and Rusheen reward those who pay the closest attention. Near the entrance to the woods, for example, is a holy well, where St Enda is said to have rested for a night before travelling to the Aran Islands in the 5th century.

I went walking here the morning after violent winds had cut up the west coast. Huge trunks lay violently severed on the forest floor: had these been fresh victims of the previous night’s storm?

The wind had calmed, but frequent passing squalls showered the woods with hailstones and sent me scurrying helplessly under leafless branches.

The chaotic weather made for a beguiling mix of colours: blue skies, deep grey clouds, green ivy and holly, and the white of hailstones on golden leaf litter. Heavy rain gave momentum to tiny streams, turning them into little cascades of white water.

I remember picking raspberries in these woods as a teenager, but despite searching for the plant many times since, I’ve yet to find it again.

After exploring the woods, head across the coast road to Lough Rusheen park on the edge of Rusheen Bay, a wide and muddy flatland that fills and empties with the tide. Migrating sea trout and salmon pass through here on their way to the Atlantic from the Barna stream, which rises in the bogs west of Galway city and flows into this little bay.

Rusheen is a great spot to indulge in some bird watching, that wonderful activity that starts when you stop walking altogether, and just sit and stare.

Local bird expert Tom Cuffe says the bay’s finest spectacle occurs at the end of summer, when hundreds of migrating sandwich terns gather before flying south to Africa. At this time of year you’ll find wintering curlew, widgeon, teal, grey plover, dunlin and more.

One of Galway’s best keep secrets is the small woodland reserve that Birdwatch Ireland own on the edge of the bay, which was the last stop on my morning ramble.

As I left the wood towards a backdrop of housing estates and the sound of traffic, I watched two farmers in the adjacent field roll out hay for their cattle, one last rural routine surviving in suburban Galway.


Start and finish: 7km west of Galway city centre on the R336 coast road towards Spiddal, there are car parks for Lough Rusheen (left) and Barna Woods (right) just after a petrol station. Birdwatch Ireland’s reserve is down a turn towards Rusheen Bay Windsurfing about 1km towards Galway City (not much room to park). Suitability: Easy, but bring waterproof footwear.


More than a rocky place

Exploring the trails in the Burren National Park IMG_0050

Irish Times, November 16, 2013

Words such as barren and bleak are used to describe the Burren so often, you could be fooled into believing them. Sure the region’s limestone plains can feel desolate, but on a bright day the Burren proliferates colour: silver rock, lime valleys, turquoise water. That’s before you add the summer orchids and wildflowers. And if you walk the Burren National Park you’ll see a rich mix of habitats – woodland, meadow, pavement, scrub, lake, fen. Early in November I cycled from Gort with the intention of climbing Mullaghmore, the hill that dominates the park. Then I got lost on the way and found myself pressed for time. The area’s web of boreens is gloriously bewildering. But if you see the Craggy Island parochial house you’re in the right vicinity – the house filmed for Father Ted is just down the road here.

When I arrived, I took the orange trail to Knockaunroe turlough. Virtually unique to Ireland, turloughs are lakes fed by groundwater during rainy periods, but they disappear in dry weather. I found a crevice where water seemed to bubble up from the limestone.

The word Burren comes from the Irish boireann, meaning a rocky place. The exposed limestone soaks up heat in summer and releases it in winter, making the growing season unusually long – one reason cattle are brought to the Burren uplands in winter.

Later I walked the nature trail through meadows, wood and limestone pavement. The hazel and ash woodlands may be stunted and fragmented but they are thick and lush, dripping with moss, ferns and lichen. The sun warmed my back, the trees blocked the wind, while bees and midges buzzed around: it could have been high summer if it wasn’t for the rusting bracken and yellowing hazel. I reached a slab of limestone and spotted fossilised corals in the rock. “Each fragment of the Burren is a mausoleum, each hill a necropolis of unthinkable dimensions, containing more dead organisms than there are humans who have ever lived,” Robert MacFarlane wrote in The Wild Places, his account of exploring the untamed landscapes of the UK and Ireland.

Mullaghmore was sometimes visible above the scrub. This hill doesn’t break 200m, but it offers one of Ireland’s most intoxicating vistas. Experienced walkers can tackle the looped trail that visits the summit. But even if you don’t aim for the top, you can still follow the markers as far as Lough Gealáin.

But I didn’t have time, so I followed the trail to the Knockaunroe turlough one more time under greying skies.

Start/finish: Mullaghmore/Gortlecka Crossroads. From Corofin, Co Clare take the R476 to Kilnaboy and turn right on to the L1112 before the ruined church. After about 4.5km you’ll reach a trailhead/car park before the crossroads. Suitability: The Orange Route (Knockaunroe Turlough) and Green Arrow Route (Nature Trail) are graded Moderate. Blue Route (Mullaghmore Loop) is graded Very Difficult, includes some light scrambling and enters remote uplands. Treat it as a full hill-walk with map, compass and full hiking gear needed. Time & distance: Orange Route -1.3km/30mins. Green Arrow Route - 1.5km/40mins. Blue Route - 7.5km/3hrs. Map: OSI Discovery Series maps 51& 52 cover the national park. Services: Corofin, Gort. No facilities at the park itself. Further info: The park visitor centre in Corofin opens in summer and runs free guided walks, talks and a bus service to the park.


The Banks of the Boyne

A long stroll beside one of Ireland's most legendary rivers F1020022

Irish Times, Oct 19, 2013

Walking a riverbank gives you new perspective on a landscape. While climbing a mountain opens the land up around you, walking a quiet waterway hides you from the world. The river becomes your own private highway through the countryside. Was any Irish river historically more important than the Boyne?

Ancient landmarks line this valley: Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth, Trim Castle, the site of the Battle of the Boyne, the Hill of Tara.

We set out from the car park in Navan and followed the old towpath. Canals were built along the river between 1748 and 1800 to make it navigable for trade. Barges carried grain, coal, flour and other goods between riverside mills and the port at Drogheda.

Pleasure boating later became popular, but the waterway succumbed to competition from roads and rail and grew derelict. An Taisce acquired the navigation in 1969, and its seaward end is now being restored.

Above us the sky was heavy with cloud and the forecast was for rain. But the autumn light was clear and liquid, and the landscape full of colour.

The towpath was lined with tall mixed woodland. Autumn leaves were turning yellow and orange as chlorophyll broke down and other pigments took over. Some ash leaves were lemon yellow, and tall gnarled oaks were laden with acorns. We saw a heron fishing by a weir, and watched a moorhen take cover in canal-side vegetation.

I had only come from Galway, but the change in landscape felt dramatic. The trees were taller and stouter here, the fields wider and greener, their boundaries composed of shrubs rather than stone. The land seemed more colourful, though less wild.

My walking buddy picked up horse-chestnut seeds from the towpath, and we went over the rules of conkers to affirm we still knew how to play. “We used to paint them with nail varnish,” she said – to make them stronger in battle, naturally.

We stopped by the ruins of a lock, bridge and cottage. We passed the impressive red-brick manor of Ardmulchan Demesne, the ruins of Dunmoe Castle – which Cromwell’s forces are said to have fired a cannon ball at – and medieval Ardmulchan church and cemetery.

I knew it was unlikely, but I daydreamed that we might see someone rowing a Boyne currach down the river. Unique to this waterway, these ancient oval vessels were made from woven hazel rods and animal hide. Local artist and currach builder Claidhbh Ó Gibne is now helping to revive this craft. He’s building a 36ft version that he plans to sail from Spain to Ireland to mimic the journey of the ancient Celts.

Soon we arrived at six-arched Broadboyne Bridge – an information panel told us it was once customary to bring cattle across the river nearby to ward off fairies and certain diseases.

Then the rain arrived. We sat under a tree and ate lunch, then turned around for the long walk back to Navan in the fresh autumn drizzle.

GO WALK: BOYNE RAMPARTS WALK, NAVAN Start & Finish: Ramparts car park, Navan, just outside the town centre on the R153. If you have two cars you could finish at the car park/trailhead by Broadboyne/Stackallen Bridge rather than return to Navan.
Distance: 16km (8km if going one-way).
Map: OSI Discovery Series Sheet 42
Suitability: Easy, flat path but there are no facilities or escape points along the way.

Restorative ramble

A stroll through one of Co Dublin’s oldest woodlands Irish Times, Sept 14, 2013

There’s so little old woodland in Ireland it feels like an exotic habitat. Trees once covered our island, but today walking in woods is a novelty compared to walking on hills, beaches or bog. I was browsing a study of ancient Irish woodlands recently, hoping to discover those last places this primeval landscape survives and came across one listing for Dublin: St Catherine’s Wood, Lucan.

One Sunday evening in late July, I caught a train from Connolly station to Leixlip Confey and walked to St Catherine’s. The sun was coming out after a heavy downpour and a rainbow formed over a field where highland cattle grazed. This hardy, mountainous breed was introduced here last year to improve meadow biodiversity. The cattle will graze and trample some parts of the field more than others, encouraging a wider range of plants to grow.

The old wood is just inside the Dublin county border. St Catherine’s gets its name from a priory founded by Warisius de Pech here in 1219. At the time it was considered the duty of Anglo-Norman lords to establish religious foundations to save their souls and those of their ancestors.

Over the centuries the estate passed between different owners. Trinity College pharmacy professor Christopher O’Connor owned the lands in the 1940s and 1950s. He grew exotic plants such as poppies, carnations and deadly nightshade, which were sent to a pharmaceutical plant in Tipperary, according to an article by local historian Mary Mulhall in the Lucan Newsletter in 2012.

The OPW bought the estate in 1996.

My walking buddy and I followed the path into the woods which sit on a steep glacial ridge above the Liffey. The canopy here is dominated by ash and beech. The latter was introduced to Ireland in the 16th century. There’s plenty of sycamore here too, but only the odd oak.

Some rare woodland plants recorded at St Catherine’s suggest this wood may be ancient. The naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger found the yellowbird’s nest plant here in 1934, although it hasn’t been seen since. More recently the common toothwort was recorded.

We took a side trail down to the remains of an old sluice gate, where the Liffey is squeezed through a narrow gap in a torrent of whitewater. A kayaker was play- boating in the rapids. We startled a heron on the riverbank and watched a woodpigeon drink from the water.

Then we rejoined the main path and climbed to the upper woodland, following the trail back towards the cattle field and out of the woods.

Our stroll left me thinking that even though there are too few of them in Ireland, woodland walks always provide the most restorative kind of ramble.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in one of this travel essays, wrote: “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of the air, that emanation from the old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”


At one with wilderness

Hiking Ireland's first wilderness area Irish Times, August 17, 2013

We simply need that wild country available to us,” the US novelist and historian Wallace Stegner wrote, “even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.” This is an arresting idea: that wild places nourish our spirit even if we never enter them.

If there is true wild country anywhere in Ireland, it’s in the Nephin Beg mountains of north-west Mayo. In March, Coillte and the National Parks and Wildlife Service designated 11,000 hectares of bog, mountain and forestry here as Ireland’s first wilderness area, dubbed Wild Nephin.

And you can do more than just look in from the edge. Three looped trails at Letterkeen explore the southern part of this wilderness. In early July I set out on the 12km Letterkeen Loop (marked with purple arrows), crossing a footbridge over the Altaconey river and following the bank of a quick, shallow stream. The ground was thick with tall bracken, the trail hard to make out.

The trail crossed streams, traversed wet bog and climbed to over 200 metres in the first few kilometres. The track here is often sopping wet, but after warm weather it was mostly dry.

An hour and a half later I arrived at the Lough Avoher hut (pictured above), a small lean-to for backpackers, built last year by the voluntary group Mountain Meitheal. I had brought my camping gear; this would be my bed for the night. I cooked some pasta and climbed a little up the hill behind the hut to watch the sun set. Then I went back and settled into my sleeping bag. A swarm of midges biting my face woke me at 6am.

In 1964, the US became the first country to legally designate wilderness — public land without roads or mechanised transport, where “man himself is a visitor who does not remain”.

Conifer plantations are often unloved by hillwalkers, but they still offer remoteness and solitude, and plans to ‘re-wild’ the Nephin forests could provide an exciting blueprint for other plantations. The goals of Wild Nephin are certainly inspiriting. Coillte will set aside 4,400 hectares of forestry and re-wild it to improve habitat and boost biodiversity. Forest roads will be closed and converted to trails, and basic shelters and campsites developed for backpackers. Coillte says the region will offer solitude, challenge and “primitive recreation”.

After breakfast, I followed the trail above the forestry. I studied a damselfly, watched a group of ravens play over Nephin Beg mountain, and startled a frog from the grass. I followed the muddy trail up to a 311 metre summit: take care here and stick with the markers, there is very steep ground nearby. Then I descended through the forest to a track that soon joined the Altaconey river again. The mature forest here was thick with ferns, lichen, and moss. Soon I arrived back at the car park, and stepped out of the wild country.

Map: OSI Discovery Series Sheet 23, but older maps may show old trail route. Up-to-date trail route and map at Time and distance: 12km, 3-4 hours Trailhead: Brogan Carroll bothy, Letterkeen, Co Mayo. From Newport, take N59 towards Achill but turn right after 1km, signposted for Letterkeen Loops. Continue for 12km, past Lough Feeagh. Turn left just after a small bridge for the trailhead. Two shorter loops, the Bothy Loop (6km) and Lough Avoher Loop (10km) also start here. Suitability: Remote and tough trail that climbs above 300m where mist is common. Wild camping experience is advised if you are staying in the Lough Avoher hut. Streams here swell quickly during rain. Practice Leave No Trace (

A walk in the woods

Exploring the captivating woodlands on the shores of Galway Bay Irish Times, 1 June 2013

You can climb mountains in search of wildness and yet find it in the most ordinary of places. Rinville is a typical park of woods and meadow near Oranmore, east of Galway city. When I first came here as a teenager the richness of the forest hooked me. The trampling of human feet made most suburban woodlands I knew barren, but here the understorey was thick with life.

The wild places we explore as kids dig themselves into our memories – their sights and smells never leave us, and it only takes the slightest sensory trigger to send us right back.

This place has changed little through the years. I went back in mid-May, when the forest floor was dense with the bloom of wild garlic. Glance quickly and you think the ground is covered in snow – only the bluebells poking through the whiteness give the game away.

The woods here are small, but big enough to feel pleasantly lost in – you can look in all directions and see nothing but sycamores. There’s plenty of beech, horse chestnut and ash too. On our island of few trees, this is the kind of place that reminds you what a wood is supposed to look like.

The evening was humid, the air thick with the scent of garlic, and when a heavy shower fell it seemed as if the forest was steaming. Swallows fed acrobatically in the meadows, and the call of the cuckoo was a constant presence.

Walking the dogs here once years ago, a fox cub came ambling up the trail towards me, its head down, sniffing intensely. It was just yards away from the dogs when it finally looked up, realised the gravity of its navigational error and dashed into the undergrowth, the dogs chasing after it in vain. There are otters in the pond and streams here too apparently, though I’ve yet to see one.

The park’s trails bring you to Rinville Castle, a 16th century tower house, and to Rinville Hall, a ruined Georgian manor. South across a narrow inlet of Galway Bay is the commanding facade of Ardfry House. Over the centuries these properties were variously owned by wealthy Galway families such as the Blakes, Athys and Lynchs.

It’s one our landscape’s great contradictions that, although our landed estates are symbols of gross inequality, they have given us some of our finest public spaces and nature reserves, partly because their owners could afford not to work all their land to the bone.

Once you’ve walked the park, head down to the sailing club and follow the track that heads out above the rocky shore towards Rinville Point. Here I watched a cormorant diving in the shallows, and an irritated heron fly up and down the strand trying to avoid walkers.

Outside the forest the scent of gorse floated through the air, and the sky was chaotic. To the west clouds edged slowly forward like glaciers, the sun slicing through in horizontal planes. But to the east a tremendous blue-grey wall of cloud obscured everything, and turned the sea the same colour.

Soon this monolithic cloud was over me, then it started emptying its waterload. Near Rinville Point, I turned around and faced into the long, wet walk back to the car park.

Island in the sun

Lenny Antonelli takes a spring walk on one of Connemara's less visited islands Irish Times, April 27, 2013

Inis Ní always seemed elusive to me. I had often passed the seductive signpost for the island after coming over the vast and empty Roundstone bog. Just when you think you've found the wildest coast in Connemara, there is Inis Ní, stretching further into the sea. The island's new looped walking trail seemed a good excuse to finally explore it. On a grey April day the cone of nearby Cashel Hill had emerged from the mist to dominate this bogscape. But slowly the sun came out and dissolved the cloud, turning the sky blue-bright and revealing the Twelve Bens, which dwarfed everything.

You can see why this mountain range is iconic: their clustered, alpine profile pierces the skyline from north Connemara right down to the Burren.

Inis Ní is one of the most northerly outposts of the south Connemara Gaeltacht. But in Listening to the Wind, the first of his Connemara trilogy of books, Tim Robinson says use of the language has declined to the point that it is no longer a bona fide Irish-speaking community. The island's name, he says, might relate to the surname Ó Niadh.

The trail followed a quiet road past granite walls caked in lichen and moss, old peatland inundated by the tides, and patches of earth blackened by the burning of gorse. There were signs of modern Ireland too, like obtrusive bungalows and unfinished buildings, but the deeper into Inis Ní you go the further you feel from 21st century Ireland.

The trail runs down the west side of the island, looking over the water to sandy Gorteen Bay, Errisbeg Hill and the village of Roundstone that Scottish engineer Alexander Nimmo founded in the 1820s.

According to Tim Robinson, the island's tradition says that local landlord Patrick Blake evicted what few tenants remained after the famine and turned Inis Ní into a sheep ranch. This was before the first bridge was built, when the island could only be reached by scrambling across rocks at low tide. But when the ranch failed Blake brought new settlers in from nearby Carna.

I walked down to a pier overlooking Roundstone Bay, and stopped to explore the tidepools. These habitats are our own miniature coral reefs, rich in biodversity. In just one I counted beadlet anemones, polychaete worms, a rock goby, tiny crustaceans, limpets, dog whelks, and all manner of algae and lichens.

In The Story of Connemara, Patricia Kilroy writes that a Mrs Faherty of Inis Ní, who used to walk for miles carrying a basket of fish on her back to meet the train to Galway, had recalled, "the joy of welcoming the travelling fiddler, the dancing in a cottage that night, followed the next night by crossroads dancing — for no house could contain the crowds. In fact, most elderly Connemara people remembered the happiness of their youth rather than the hardship."

The sun was, the coconut scent of gorse filled the air and cattle dozed on the grass — this felt like the first day of spring.  I left the marked trail and took a cul-de-sac towards the island's barren southern tip, where a cacophony of birdsong emanated from the heath.  Then I made my way back to the marked route and followed it past the ruined chapel of St Mathias with its graveyard, past another small harbour, and back towards mainland Connemara.

Inis Ní loop, Co Galway

Map:  OSI Discovery Series Sheet 44 or Tim Robinson's map of Connemara published by Folding Landscapes. Trail map at

Suitability: Easy. Minor roads & tracks.

Start & finish:  The turn for Inis Ní/Inishnee is off the R341 2km north-east of Roundstone. Cross the bridge and the trailhead is on your left.

Distance & time: Inis Ní Loop is 6km (two hours). My extension added an extra 3km (one hour).

Services: Roundstone, Clifden












Dawdling along the Dodder

Irish Times, April 13, 2013 Lenny Antonelli walks the Dodder river through Dublin

By the time they reach cities, most rivers have deposited their personality: they're flat, dull, dirty. But the Dodder is different. Flowing from Kippure mountain to the Liffey, it's a river rich in whitewater and wildlife.

I set out from Ringsend, once separated from the city by the Dodder's sprawling estuary, until the river was brought under control and the marshlands were reclaimed in the 18th century.

But in the years that followed this area was lawless, a refuge for outlaws that was known for its burglaries and highway robberies, according to Weston St John Joyce's 1912 book The Neighbourhood of Dublin.

A little egret was foraging in the shallows of the river at Ringsend. Once rare in Ireland, these small herons are now common in coastal counties.  When breeding they develop extravagant plumage, which was once so popular for decorating hats that it threatened the species.

Walking the Dodder gives you an alternative view of the city, showing you islands of countryside in the suburbs, and fragments of architecture that remind you Dublin was once built around its rivers as much as its roads.

But this was the wrong time to walk the Dodder. It had flooded after heavy rain and deposited all manner of rubbish along its banks. But every year the group Dodder Action undertakes a big clean up of the river, restoring it to wildness.

Snow started falling, but anglers braved frigid temperatures on the riverbank. After Donnybrook and Clonskeagh, the riverside paths wind through parklands, passing weirs, waterfalls and rapids.

A watercolour painting titled 'On the River Dodder near Rathgar' by the 18th and 19th century artist John Henry Campbell shows a dramatic country scene: tall trees looking over a waterfall, a farmstead on the riverbank, the Dublin Mountains looming behind.

Near Rathfarnham a grey heron, surely the most zen of all birds, stood motionless on a branch high above the river. As passerby told me this was also a great place to see foxes, and that there were mandarin ducks on this stretch of the river too. And a minute later, a group of strikingly coloured males — white, brown, blue, pine green and orange — flew past. At Bushy Park another man pointed out the best spots to see kingfishers and dippers.

Then near Firhouse a flock of starlings — called a murmuration — floated in unison across the dusky sky, creating all manner of shapes that dissolved as quickly as they formed.

Starlings form these huge groupings to avoid predators, keep warm and exchange information such as where good feeding spots are, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

In his poem 'Down by the Dodder', the Rev Matthew Russell, founder of the Irish Monthly, confessed that he had spent too long living near the river without exploring it.

"And so from life's loud, dusty road / A somewhat jaded plodder," he wrote, "I steal to this serene abode / And thee suburban Dodder!"

The Dodder, Ringsend to Firhouse, Dublin

Start: Ringsend Bridge

Finish: Dodder Valley Linear Park, Firhouse Road. Bus 49 heads to Pearse St from stop 3004 on nearby Ballycullen Ave.

Route: There are paths near the Dodder most of the way, but for some stretches you must detour away from the river. Bring any detailed street map to find your way.

Suitability: Easy, but the river rises quickly and floods during heavy rain so avoid it at these times. Walk on designated paths rather than on the bank itself. Bring walking footwear, rain gear, snacks, water.

Time: A leisurely five hours

Distance: Approximately 15km




















High in the clouds in Co Mayo

Exploring the river banks and mountain passes on the Western Way

Irish Times, 14 March 2013

Mist can play tricks with mountains. Walking on the Western Way on a March morning, cloud had covered the body of Devilsmother mountain but left its summit exposed. Wrapped in cloud, you forget the mountains are there until you see a detached peak far up in the sky, higher than it ever looked before. But more often the opposite occurs: mist rubs out the tops, so you forget where the summits are and imagine you’re walking under the Alps or the Andes. The Western Way winds through Connemara and west Mayo, and I spent two days ambling on it north of Leenane. From Aasleagh waterfall, the trail heads under Devilsmother along the sandy, salmon-rich river Erriff. I met a farmer here with his sheepdog who told me he was sick of wearing wellies and asked me to recommend a brand of walking boots. Wagtails jumped between rocks on the river.

The trail leaves the waterway and enters Tawnyard forest. As I turned one corner here, frogs bounded chaotically in every direction: I had stumbled uninvited into their annual orgy. The common frog spawns in early spring – the male croaks to lure a female, then piggy-backs on her until fertilisation. But only a tiny fraction of the fertilised eggs become adults. Gradually the tadpole’s gills and tail disappear, lungs and legs form and in summer the froglet leaves the water.

I counted 22 frogs in a single puddle, but it was drying out and frogspawn lay desiccating in the mud. But most had wisely chosen deep ditches, where the males were croaking loudly.

The trail emerges to a platform overlooking Lough Tawnyard encircled by mountains, then joins a quiet stretch of twisting road cut into the mountainside. Ravens clucked over the precipices.

Walkers have two options after Sheeffry Bridge: follow the road for 5km to Drummin or head over a high pass in the hills. The latter is only for experienced hillwalkers – there is no path, only sparse waymarkers on the open mountain. The mountain route climbs to a stone wall on the hillside and follows this, then turns off right and ascends to a flat valley.

The sky was blue and bright, and I could hear the guttural and exotic sounds of a farmer commanding his sheepdog in the distance. The trail follows a stream over boggy ground up to the east side of a saddle above ice-scooped Lough Lugacolliwee. Don’t head up here if visibility is poor, and stick with the marked route - there are cliffs on the north side of the saddle, but the trail takes a safe route down to the east of the lake. Care is needed though as this section is steep and wet.

The trail follows the lakeshore and emerges to a road a little west of Drummin.

But I didn’t get that far: I had no transport from Drummin, so on my second morning on this intoxicating stretch of the Western Way, I sat looking over Lough Lugacolliwee to Croagh Patrick, then got up and started the long walk back to Aasleagh.

Map: OSI Discovery Series, 37

and 38. These may show old trail route, latest route at

Start: Aasleagh Falls, just off the N59 northeast of


Finish: For Drummin, turn off the N59 about between Leenane and Westport at Liscarney. Turn at Drummin church for shop/pub.

Suitability: Erriff and Tawnyard forest are easy but remote. Lough Lugacolliwee route is a moderate mountain walk for experienced hillwalkers.

Take a walk in the woods

Irish Times, Saturday March 2, 2013

LENNY ANTONELLI visits a forest park on the shores of the Shannon

The Japanese term shinrin-yoku means “forest bathing”, or immersing yourself in the woods. The country even designates forest bathing sites to promote relaxation and health.

If you can’t make it to Japan, you could try Portumna. The Galway town’s Irish name, Port Omna, means “landing place of the oak”, but its 450 hectare forest park is dominated by mature conifers. We set out from Portumna marina, with no real plan but to see where the park’s maze of trails would take us.  Portumna Castle watches over this side of the park. It was built in the early 17th century by the earl Richard Burke, a Catholic who fought for the English and was knighted for bravery at the Battle of Kinsale. Living however in his residence near London, he may have never even seen Portumna Castle. A fire gutted the residence in 1826. The state bought the demesne in 1948 before the OPW started restoring the castle.

Coillte has felled mature spruce trees in the east of the park and replaced them with native oak, ash and hazel. We followed trails here to the shores of Lough Derg, where a cormorant colony had blackened the trees of an island offshore.

We passed open grassland, mirror-like forest ponds and a pine grove with a grassy floor smooth enough for a game of woodland golf. Then we went west through rows of scots pine. This species was once common in Ireland, but is thought to have become extinct before being reintroduced from Scotland. The park is home to more exotic conifers too, like monterey pine and monterey cypress, cedar of lebanon, and western red cedar.

Japanese research suggests that “forest bathing” reduces blood pressure and concentrations of stress hormones and even helps boost immunity. Studies suggest that phytoncides – aromatic compounds released by plants – could be directly responsible for some of these effects. We were certainly getting our fill. Suddenly there was a scramble from the undergrowth; a female fallow deer was standing motionless a few metres from the trail. She soon bolted, though, abandoning her plan to remain silent and still. I grew up in suburban Galway and as a teenager, coming to Portumna Forest Park for the first time was a revelation – it’s hard not to see deer here. Fallow are the most widespread species in Ireland. The bucks are known for their large palmate antlers. The Normans introduced them to Ireland in the 13th century and there are over 200 in Portumna Forest Park. This wood is a stronghold for red squirrels too.

We passed a many-limbed oak tree in the quiet Bonaveen section and before I knew it, my walking buddy was working her way up the trunk. I scrambled behind her out on a thick limb. We were only a few feet up, but it was enough to look over the lake and linger.

On our way back, we followed a trail through the deepest section of forest to a beech grove, also known as the ladies tea garden. “We can’t be that far away from the castle now if this is where the ladies came for tea,” my companion said wryly, as we made our way back towards the marina.


Start and finish:Portumna marina, Portumna, Co Galway. Main entrance on R352 was closed for maintenance at the time, but you can enter at marina.

Time/distance:A very slow 12km/ hours for me, but any length is possible.

Suitability:Easy; rough trails through the woods, plus buggy and wheelchair friendly paths and mountain bike trails.

Map:OSI Discovery series, sheet 53. Map, trails and info at

The scenic way to Shannon

Irish Times, Saturday 9 February 2013

LENNY ANTONELLI walks the Royal Canal on the Meath-Kildare border

The Royal Canal was raised in the shadow of its big brother. In the 1750s the idea of a waterway linking Dublin to the north Shannon was rejected, and instead the more southerly Grand Canal was built.

In the 1780s a director of the Grand Canal Company quit to build a rival waterway. But the route of the Royal Canal wasn’t precisely planned, the project amassed huge debts, and the founding company was ultimately dissolved. The Royal Canal finally met the Shannon in 1817, costing far more than its rival. It never saw as much traffic either.

I followed the towpath east from Blackshade Bridge, Co Meath on a cold January afternoon, the sky coated with cloud too thin to dull the clear winter light. The canal was frozen shut in parts, while in places it seemed ice-free until I got close enough to see a film of cellophane-thin ice.

I day-dreamed of skating down the canal rather than walking beside it.

The canal bridged the Boyne on a limestone aqueduct, then passed under the Ribbontail footbridge, built to bring Massgoers to the church in Longwood. It may have been named after the Ribbonmen, a secret agrarian society that fought for farm workers’ rights.

In his book Irish Popular Superstitions, William Wilde described the departing journey of Longford emigrants on Royal Canal packet-boats.

“Their friends followed for a considerable distance, many, brimful of whisky as well as grief, crowding upon the bridges, and sometimes pulling the boat to the brink by the tow-rope, for the purpose of sending a message to one of their transatlantic friends,” he wrote. “All gradually fell back, except one very old woman, who, with her grey elf-locks streaming in the wind . . . ran after the vessel which contained her only son.” The canal welds human and natural engineering together. It’s layered with wildlife habitats but never too wild. Instead human design makes it seem sedate: the flat level, the straight channel, all those right angles.

The drone from the nearby M4 was constant, but it just made the canal seem more secret.

The Dublin-Sligo railway line follows the canal too.The Midland Great Western Railway Company bought the whole waterway in 1845 to build a track on the land beside it. But the arrival of trains to Ireland undercut the canal boats – even the light “fly boats” took eight hours to ferry passengers from Dublin to Mullingar.

CIÉ closed the Royal Canal in 1961. The western end dried up, locks decayed, and there were even plans to build a motorway on the Dublin city section. But campaigners fought to save to it, and in 2010 the full canal reopened. The towpath is now a long-distance walking trail, the Royal Canal Way, running from Dublin to the Shannon.

I passed Furey’s pub at Moyvalley and walked into Enfield in declining light. But you don’t have to follow my route to the letter: the train stops plenty between Dublin and Enfield, making day-walks between stations easy.


Trail Start at Blackshade Bridge, Co Meath, near M4. Finish at Enfield. At Moyvalley the trail crosses a busy road, and some steep road bridges are hard to see over. Seewaterwaysireland.orgfor canal sections. Three hours, 12.5km

Map OSI Disc Series sheet 49.

Wildest Dublin

Irish Times, 5 January, 2013 Lenny Antonelli walks the Dublin Mountains Way, one of Ireland's newest long-distance trails

I went to Dublin seeking wild landscapes, not really expecting to find any. Living on the west coast I usually don’t travel far for this sort of thing. Going to Dublin to find mountains felt incongruous. Zig-zagging over the hills from Tallaght to Shankill, the Dublin Mountains Way is two years old. I started from the trailhead at Seán Walsh Park, Tallaght, aiming to make Glencullen by sunset. The trail skirted housing estates, then dropped me into comparative wilderness around the Bohernabreena reservoir, where the river Dodder was damned in the 1880s and wooded hills fall to the lakeshore.

This valley is also home to orchid-rich grassland and petrifying springs, where lime-rich water rises from the ground and deposits calcium carbonate in a white, crunchy coating.

The trail brought me into the hills, looking over to lime and rust-coloured slopes on Seahan and Corrig mountains. Walkers need to be cautious as this section is on narrow, windy roads.

I expected Celtic Tiger mansions up here and there were some. But it was mostly old stone cottages, hay sheds, farm yards and signs warning that dogs worrying sheep would be shot.

This valley – Gleann na Smól, glen of the thrushes – was one of the last places in which the Irish language survived near Dublin.

Heavy mist pressed down on the hills as I climbed. And though I couldn’t see them, I was surrounded by mountains.

The trail entered the Featherbed forest, but the name felt euphemistic as it crossed felled planation. I felt like a lone survivor in the aftermath of some brutal apocalypse, surveying a landscape of decaying tree stumps, black pools, churned peat and a few limbless trees. It reminded me of the writer Tim Robinson’s description of clear-felled forest in Connemara as “frozen at a moment of maximum horror”.

But soon I entered the forest at Cruagh, passing a mossy stone bearing an inscription to the naturalist HC Hart, who in 1886 bet a colleague that he could walk the 111km from Terenure to the summit of Lugnaquilla in Wicklow and back within 24 hours.

He won, returning to Terenure with 10 minutes to spare. The trail followed rows of mature spruce trees, heather, mosses, and flowering gorse.

I went up Tibradden Mountain and towards the summit of Two Rock, the way’s highest point. Writer and nationalist Stephen Gwynn described this area as “bare and lonely, as devoid of any suggestion of a great city’s nearness as even Connemara could show”. This is what I had come looking for, but I could only see a few metres of the trail rising into the clouds ahead of me.

Soon a gust of wind blew off the clouds to reveal Fairy Castle, Two Rock’s summit tomb, and the orange glow of the city below.

The trail brought me towards the huge transmitters at Three Rock. Writing in 1780, the artist Gabriel Beranger reckoned the mountain’s distinctive rock clusters were altars built to offer sacrifices. They are, in fact, natural granite formations.

But I was in trouble: the walk had taken longer than planned and the sky was blackening, so I donned a headlamp and high-vis jacket to descend Ticknock forest in the dark. The final stretch into Glencullen on country roads in the dark was the most treacherous bit of my walk – without a headlamp I’d have been in serious trouble.

The lesson? Walking from Tallaght to Glencullen is probably too much at this time of year – if you want to walk this route in winter, tackle it over multiple days, or just pick a sub-section.

Dublin Mountains Way

Map : Get trail maps from DMW route can change). OSI Discovery Series Map 50 covers the area but shows an old DMW route. East West Mapping also publishes Dublin Mountains map.

Start : DMW trailhead in Seán Walsh Park off Kiltipper Road, a short walk from the Tallaght Luas stop. Or start anywhere along the route.

Finish : Johnny Foxes pub, Glencullen.

Time and distance : Tallaght to Glencullen is 20 miles with lots of ascending. Seven to 10 hours.

Route : Walking Tallaght-Glencullen in daylight during winter is a big challenge. Suitability: Bring food, water, rain gear and warm clothes, hiking boots, map, compass, high vis clothing and a torch/head lamp.

Take a walk on the Grand side

Irish Times, 15 December 2012

LENNY ANTONELLI walks a quiet section of the Grand Canal in Kildare

The Grand Canal Way is a rarity in Ireland: a long-distance walk that’s almost entirely off-road, stretching from Adamstown in west Dublin to Shannon Harbour, Co Offaly.

The section between Hazelhatch and Sallins is a perfect microcosm of it – a half day’s walk between two towns serviced by a railway whose own history is entangled in that of the canal.

I set out from Hazelhatch, where houseboats line the channel. This must be Dublin’s most chaotic and inspiriting row of homes: the barges are cream, red and highlighter blue, fat and slim, tall and squat. The towpath is decorated with bicycles, tables, old kayaks, wheelie bins, solar panels and wooden sculptures. Smoke rises from their chimneys, but nobody emerges from below deck, so I walk on.

Work began on the Grand Canal in 1756 in Clondalkin. But progress was slow, and it took more than two decades before the 20km channel to Sallins was open. Further west, the immense Bog of Allen almost sunk the project when clay walls built to support it failed. The Grand Canal finally reached the Shannon in 1803, but the age of fast rail travel was looming.

For those who normally walk the mountains or coast, the canal is an entirely different creature. While hillwalking is adventurous, canal-walking is ponderous – you needn’t worry about navigation or the terrain here, the towpath just carries you endlessly forwards. But our canals play a crucial ecological role, linking up rivers and lakes that would otherwise be isolated. And their landscape makes you pay attention for its subtler rewards, like a moorhen hiding in the sedges, or bubbles breaking on the water’s surface, perhaps released by a tench eating grubs on the floor of the canal.

Like a forgotten thoroughfare it sneaks behind fields and country estates. It’s hidden from Kildare’s modern commuter towns, and has an architecture all of its own. I passed steep stone bridges, derelict lock-keeper’s cottages, and an old canal-side church and school at Ardclough. I walked by the old Lyons demesne, with its immense Georgian manor, and Oughterard, where Arthur Guinness is buried and Daniel O’Connell killed John D’Esterre in a pistol duel in 1815. Bring a map though: often these features are behind high walls or rows of ivy-wrapped trees.

About half way to Sallins, the light started to disintegrate. Colour drained from the landscape, leaving only the black trees and the shadows they cast on the inky water. Walking in the half-light was thrilling, though, and dead silent except when my presence sent terrified birds screaming from the trees.

Soon I passed under the railway bridge just before Sallins. The Grand Canal Company fought the building of the railways, and this bridge proved pivotal: once the Great Southern and Western Railway Company won the right to bridge the canal in the 1840s, the rail network could stretch out to Cork, Limerick and Galway. Just two decades later, the mass transport of people and goods on the canal was finished.


Map : OSI, Discovery Series, Sheets 49 and 50. Downloadable maps of the Grand Canal Way at also for train times).

Start : Hazlehatch Bridge, 600m from Hazelhatch and Celbridge rail station.

Finish : Trail ends at Sallins.

Time and distance : 12.6km. Takes four hours if you want to explore slowly.

Suitability : Easy. Bring food, water and warm, waterproof clothes and footwear.

Rail services: On the Dublin-Kildare line, with trains leaving Heuston station frequently.

The waters and the wild

Irish Times, 24 November 2012

LENNY ANTONELLI encounters a trout river and deceiving mushrooms

The terrain between the northern end of Lough Corrib and the mountains of Connemara is tough to categorise. It’s a place where flat lakeland meets quartzite peaks, yet it doesn’t belong to either. The region’s folding plateaus are softer and greener than the neighbouring mountains, yet more complex and cryptic, and less walked. The stretch of the Western Way between Curraun Beg and Maam Cross offers an easy introduction to this zone of transition. Right at the end of a cul de sac winding 13km from Oughterard, the trailhead is a remote spot with few houses and a patchwork of field and forest that includes modern plantation and scraps of old woodland. The electricity network didn’t stretch here until 1975. The car park looks across a narrow neck of the lake towards the sessile oak woodland on the Hill of Doon.

The trail goes west along the boreen under Curraun Hill, past the ruins of a 19th century national school, and into a mossy conifer plantation. Hop over the stile at the end of the forest and on to the open bog.

Heading towards Lackavrea mountain, the trail crosses a footbridge and enters a vast conifer plantation near a townland known as Doirín na gCos Fuar – the small wood of the cold feet. According to cartographer Tim Robinson, local folklore says a herdsman was killed by a bull here, and all that was found of him was his feet. But Robinson says the term “cosa fuara” also referred to poor people, or newcomers to an area, so the name could have a more prosaic explanation.

The trail follows the Falamer river, where brown trout spawn in autumn and winter. The females excavate nests in the gravel bed of the river, then lays eggs that are immediately fertilised by the male. The female covers the nest, known as a redd, and the fish that hatch in spring will spend a year or so here before migrating downstream to Lough Corrib.

After the trail leaves the river, the rest of the walk to the Maam valley is a fairly dull slog through the plantation, so you could turn back now. But I decided to persevere, and the abundance of mushrooms growing beside the boardwalk was enough to hold my interest, their names as curious as their shapes and textures: the deceiver, the sulphur tuft, the sickener.

Lackavrea mountain appears through gaps in the forest. This is a rough and complex mountain, as indicated by its Irish name Leic Aimhreidh, the rugged rock-slab. The trail eventually leaves the forest over a footbridge, crosses the bog and emerges onto the road under the Maamturk mountains.

Oscar Wilde’s father William wrote about a similar journey, from the lakeland into the mountains, in his book Lough Corrib: Its shores and islands, but by boat instead of on foot.

“Steering through the narrow intricate passage under the wooded promontory of Doon, we literally leave Lough Corrib and the scenery of Mayo behind us, and pass into another region, grander, wilder and more romantic,” he wrote.


Map : Ordnance Survey Ireland, Discovery Series, Sheet 45

Start: Car park at Hill of Doon viewpoint

Finish : The trail emerges onto the R336 between Maam Cross and Maam village.

Time and distance: The full linear walk is about 9km and takes about three hours.

Suitability: Easy to moderate. Map, waterproof boots, warm clothes, rain gear, food and water essential.

Dizzying Donegal

Irish Times, 27 October 2012

GO WALK: LENNY ANTONELLI explores the seascapes of Gleann Cholm Cille

DRIVING IN FROM the bog above, Gleann Cholm Cille appears like a Greenlandic outpost, a scatter of low buildings enclosed by sea and mountain. A web of bog tracks takes you into the hills north of the village – a branch from one leads to an early 19th-century lookout tower, on the 220m cliffs at Glen Head.

Local teacher Thomas McGinley found this height too great to comprehend the sea below. “Both vision and hearing fail . . . at this awful altitude,” he wrote.  McGinley walked this coast in the 19th century, documenting its wildlife and history. The Derry Journal published his notes weekly under the pen-name Kinnfaela, and later collected them in a book The Cliff Scenery of South Western Donegal.

I abandon the trail at the tower and follow the coast. Soon the cliffs indent sharply and the ground drops steeply to a small valley – move inland to cross the valley safely and rejoin the cliffs on the other side.

Up ahead the coast cuts out to sea at a right angle – this is the Sturrall, a vertical headland where locals once picked edible rock samphire, McGinley wrote. Some even descended the cliff to gather seaweed on the shore far below.

His book tells the story of a rector’s son who planned to swipe eggs from an eagle’s nest on the Sturrall. Locals warned against it, but this hardened the lad’s ambition, and he raved about the idea in his sleep. One night he sleepwalked up to the cliffs and strode out the Sturrall through wind and rain. The next morning he told his mother he had dreamt of robbing the nest, and she promptly handed him the eggs he’d brought back in the night.

Following the cliffs, the terrain shifts from dry heather to muddy bog to a forest of dead ferns. Two choughs let out laser-like calls above me – these red-billed crows live along our western coasts, but their numbers are declining.

Soon a track leads down to the shore at Port, a ruined settlement that was home to a few shepherds during the 19th century. Nearby in 1870 a storm sunk the Sydney, a cargo ship taking timber from Quebec to Scotland. Four of the 19 dead are buried at Port.

I climb up Port Hill along the cliffs for a view of Tormore, Ireland’s highest sea stack. Local folklorist Seán O’Heochaidh told a story of the stack: Jack Mór climbed it to hunt seabirds during the famine. He met another man on the same mission, and both filled their bags with birds. But Jack Mór weakened on his way down and couldn’t carry on. The other man went for help, but a great storm blew in. Jack Mór was stranded for a fortnight. When his rescuers arrived, there was nothing left of Jack but his bones. It was said these could still be seen on the side of Tormore 70 years later.

Daylight was against me and it was time to head back down to Port, where the bog track offers a different return route to Gleann Cholm Cille. Since setting out, the valleys had grown progressively more remote: first Gleann Cholm Cille itself, then the backwater of Port, and now ahead of me was Glenlough, with ruined cottages that no road reaches.

The American painter, Rockwell Kent, stayed at Glenlough in 1926 while painting this coast. The Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, spent a summer there too, trying to wean himself off alcohol by walking and writing. But the black nights and isolation got to him, and in letters to a friend he recalled encounters with Count Antigarlic, “a strange Hungarian gentleman . . . coming down the hill in a cloak lined with spiders”. The local poitín may have gone to his head.

Gleann Cholm Cille

Map: Ordnance Survey Ireland, Discovery Series, Sheet 10.

Start finish: We parked in the townland of Beefan, just north of the village, joining the bog track around grid reference G 524 858.

Route: My walk followed sections of various official trails, starting on the Tower Loop. The bog track from Port back to Glencolmcille is part of the long distance Slí Cholmcille, and also joins the local Drum Loop. Seeirishtrails.iefor details.

There is a map board of local loops at the walking centre in the village. Do not attempt a shortcut back to the start point by going off trail across Beefan and Garveross Mountain – its south face is extremely steep.

Suitability: Inexperienced walkers should keep to the marked trails and avoid open mountain and cliff. Utmost care and attention required. Stay inside the intermittent fence. Map, warm clothes, good boots, rain gear, packed lunch, food and water needed. Compass and navigation skills required if heading off trail.

Time: Six to seven hours for my route, or four for both local loops.

Distance: My route was about 19km. Combing both local loops is 13km.

Services: Shop, food and accommodation in Glencolmcille.

The Blasket Islands

Irish Times, 29 September 2012

LENNY ANTONELLI walks Great Blasket and its lesser-known smaller cousins

OF ALL IRISH islands, Inishnabro offers its rare visitor the grandest entrance. We climb from our ferry into a dinghy and search for a landing spot among the steep rock. Suddenly a sea arch appears, and our boatman steers through it to a hidden cove. We hop out onto the wet rock and up a steep gully to the grassy slopes above.

Inishnabro is one of the Blasket Islands, those last half-drowned scraps of Ireland before the open Atlantic. Much has been written about Great Blasket, home to authors Peig Sayers and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, which was evacuated in 1953. But little is said of neighbouring islands such as Inishnabro and Inishtooskert.

Without animals to graze it, Inishnabro’s flora seems primeval, a kaleidoscope of colour and texture unseen elsewhere. Its upper slopes are thick with purple heather, spongy sea pink and yellow goldenrod. We hike to the 175m summit, on the north face where the land drops into the sea in a kilometre-long stretch of grassy cliffs.

In 1973, private space flight pioneer Gary Hudson proposed building a spacecraft launchpad here, and said the idea was backed by an astronaut “who walked on the moon”. But according to a memo, a Department of Foreign Affairs official feared the idea could be a “gigantic leg pull”.

But we can’t linger here – we must get to the next island before sea conditions get worse. At Inishtooskert we land on the steep, rocky shore. The odd sight of strangers sends sheep, which are grazing above us, scurrying up a precipitous ridge.

In his book The Blaskets: A Kerry Island Library, Muiris Mac Conghail describes how sheep were taken off Inishtooskert. The men would “pull and and jump with the sheep down the cliff edge, almost becoming in the act sheep themselves”, then embark on the “long row home with a heavy boat with up to 15 sheep tied together”.

We hike up to the island’s highest point, a 172m north-facing cliff, then down to an early Christian oratory and beehive hut, on the south slopes, whose past is grizzly. Tomás and Peig O Catháin were living here around 1850 when a storm cut the island off for six weeks. Tomás died and his body putrified, but his wife was too weak to remove the corpse. There was no other shelter on the island, so she dismembered the body and removed the pieces.

When neighbours from Great Blasket could finally visit, the “woman was alone, nearly dead from hunger, and a maniac”, wrote archaeologist George Du Noyer.

Our boat drops us at Great Blasket next, near the sands of An Trá Bán. The island is essentially a long mountain ridge, and green roads let you explore its wild spine.

Great Blasket’s summit lies near its remote western tip, out of sight of any civilisation, modern or extinct.

From here you have a clear view to the sheer pyramid of Tearaght, the most westerly Blasket and Ireland’s most westerly island, with a lighthouse that clings for dear life to the cliff face.

Tearaght “appears as an astonishing distant rock”, wrote Joan and Ray Stagles in The Blasket Islands: Next Parish America. “More fantasy than reality, far out in the Atlantic, a final punctuation mark to Europe.”


Map : Ordnance Survey Discovery Series 70.

Getting there: Various boat operators including

Routes: Inishnabro and Inishtooskert are small so finding the highest point is straightforward. To get to the Great Blasket summit follow the green roads from the village west to Slievedonagh and walk the island’s ridge.

Distance and time: About 12km on the three islands: roughly four hours on the islands and six at sea. Suitability: Our boatman insisted he would only land experienced walkers here.

Photo available from Wikimedia Commons and may be reused according to terms of GNU Free Documentation License

Middle ground

Irish Times, 25 August, 2012

There’s an allure on this Aran island that is hard to grasp, writes LENNY ANTONELLI

DAY TRIPPERS HEAD FOR Inis Mór. Those seeking the road less travelled usually go to Inis Oirr. Few go to Inis Meáin. The island seems happy to keep it that way. The island is, of course, a Gaeltacht island. The academic AJ Hughes wrote that Inis Meáin was one of the only places he “found people who could not speak English” during his travels through the Gaeltacht in the 1990s.

After I got off the ferry, a car with a trailer full of passengers pulled up. “Want a lift?” the driver asked. I had to decline – I was here to walk.

Leaving the pier I went west above the beach, then turned on to a boreen through the labyrinth of stone walls and up to the main settlement. Dozens of five-spot burnet moths, with red spots on black wings, flew around. I headed west on the island’s main road, past JM Synge’s old cottage retreat – open to visitors during the summer – and Dún Chonchúir, a huge hillfort that I had all to myself.

It’s wise to pick up cartographer Tim Robinson’s meticulously drawn map of the islands before you go – it names every cliff, inlet and headland cut from the coast of dark limestone.

The main road climbs and ends where a path through the fields leads to Synge’s Chair, a stone shelter the writer frequented above the cliffs. I turned south here, walking between the patchwork of fields and a huge embankment of shattered limestone that had been cleared from the land.

I climbed over the rocks to find a wide pavement above the black cliffs. Here, on the island’s most desolate corner, you can engage in what Synge called “the wild pastimes of the cliff, and to become a companion of the cormorants and crows”.

Follow the coast south, but watch out: the rock can be slippery, and the cliffs overhang.

The cliffs turn to shoreline after you turn the island’s southwest corner, heading towards the windfarm that powers the island’s desalination plant. The poet Dara Beag Ó Flatharta sees the turbines as enhancing the island’s beauty, like “‘feathers in the hats of ladies at the Galway races”.

Herring gulls patrolled the coast, and the limestone was littered with their handiwork: crushed purple urchins and huge discarded crab legs. I followed a faint trail near the stone walls to avoid the wet rock. No sunshine pierced the clouds, and on days like this in limestone country, the sea, rock and sky bounce greyness off each other.

But there is plenty of colour. Past the windfarm, I turned at a walking marker on to Bóthar na gCreag, a grassy boreen surrounded by green fields splashed with the red, purple, yellow and blue of the wildflowers. I followed the track through a complex of stone walls – some taller than me – and up to the island’s other fort, Dún Fearbhai, just above the main settlement. Then it was time to head back for the ferry.

The allure of Inis Meáin can be difficult to grasp. It is, essentially, a flat grey rock. But when you leave you find yourself being drawn back to the place, almost subconsciously.

Synge found a “tawdry medley of all that is crudest in modern life” back in urban Galway after he left the island. “I have come out . . . to stroll along the edge of Galway Bay and look out in the direction of the islands,” he wrote. “The sort of yearning I feel towards those lonely rocks is indescribably acute.”

Inis Meáin

Start and finish : The pier, Inis Meáin

Distance : About 13km

Time : Four to five hours – maybe too long for a day trip, but you could get a taxi between the pier and the main settlement, and back again.

Suitability : Moderate. Avoid cliffs and remote coast in rough weather. The limestone pavement can be tough underfoot; proceed carefully near the cliffs. Bring a good map, boots, rain gear and plenty of food and water.

Map : Oileáin Arann map, produced by Tim Robinson (Folding Landscapes); OS Ireland, Discovery series, sheet 51.

Route : This is a shorter version of one in Paddy Dillon’s book Irish Coastal Walks. There are also waymarked walks that follow the boreens through the island’s interior.

Food and services : There is a shop, pub, restaurant, cafe and accommodation, but many services are seasonal.