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 coillteoutdoors.ie