Lush woods and open heath above Bantry Bay

Lush woods and open heath above Bantry Bay

This short, rugged trail follows in the footsteps of a pioneering Irish botanist

Irish Times, March 29, 2017 

In just a few short kilometres this fine little trail near Glengarriff explores lush woods and open heath high above Bantry Bay. The trailhead is beside a fine old bridge over the Coomhola River.

With your back to the mapboard, go left until you see the trail beside a house on your right, heading into the woods. You follow this hazel-lined path into a dark, damp forest rich in mosses and ferns.

Keep your eyes peeled for the blue arrows of the Coorycommane Loop as they guide you through the trees, eventually bringing you out to a muddy lane lined with brambles, gorse and pine. You are also following the yellow waymarkers of the Beara Way here.

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Hit your peak on home turf

Hit your peak on home turf

For a few brief weeks each winter, if the weather is just right, eager climbers grab their ice axes and crampons and head for the high, snowy peaks of… Kerry? Lenny Antonelli spends a cold day learning snow and ice climbing on Ireland’s highest mountain 

Sunday Times, March 5, 2017 

Even in Ireland, winter can bring a deep freeze to the mountains. It might seem balmy at sea level, but up in the hills you can find yourself walking through deep snow and surrounded by thick cloud. If you love hillwalking, this is an exciting time, as the mountains you know and love are transformed into strange, snowy landscapes. 

This is prime time for winter mountaineering, Irish style — ice axe, crampons and all. Which is what I was doing meeting mountain guide Piaras Kelly of Kerry Climbing, and a group of eager climbers, on a dark January morning at Cronin’s Yard, the traditional start point for ascents of Carrauntoohil. Through the dim light I could just about make out the snow-capped ridges of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks above us. 

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'A difficult place for the mind to grasp': walking the Indreabhán bog

'A difficult place for the mind to grasp': walking the Indreabhán bog

Irish Times, February 11, 2017

The vast bogs that lie just west of Galway city are a difficult place for the mind to grasp. Beyond here is Connemara, a region that – while its borders are vague – at least has a coastline, mountains and villages that give it some sense of structure and definition.

But between Galway and Connemara is an empty and nameless space, where few people ramble. In my adolescence, I would often cycle the mountain road here between Moycullen and Spiddal, and stare into these featureless plains, dumbfounded.

But these spaces have gradually been rationalised and civilised over the years. First by the arrival of forestry – there are big plantations here – and now by the development of wind farms rising on once empty horizons. The wild bog north of Indreabhán is one of the few untouched parts of this peatland, and from the coast road, long boreens stretch high into the bog.

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Where's the wild in Wild Nephin?

Where's the wild in Wild Nephin?

Many Irish wildlife enthusiasts have been asking one question over the past year – what’s going on with the Wild Nephin rewilding project? Lenny Antonelli digs a little deeper.

Irish Wildlife magazine, Winter 2016/17

Jointly announced three years ago by the State forestry company Coillte and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), the Wild Nephin Project’s stated aim is to create an 11,000 hectare wilderness area in the Nephin Beg mountains of north west Mayo. The most exciting element is perhaps Coillte’s plan to take 4,000 plus hectares of lodgepole pine and spruce forestry out of commercial operation, and to ‘re-wild’ the plantation into a large-scale mosaic of mixed woods and bogland. 

Coillte said this would be achieved by thinning out the dense conifer stands, introducing native trees, and blocking forest drains to restore bogland. Rather than take an intensive approach to management Wild Nephin, as the project is known, would take these initial steps – then stand back and let nature take over. Under the plans, the forests would be combined with the mountains and bogland of the adjoining Ballycroy National Park to create a large-scale ‘wilderness’ area – the first of its kind in Ireland. Forest roads would be closed to vehicles, and simple huts erected for backpackers, in a bid to facilitate ‘primitive’ recreation.

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'In my mind it had become near-mythic': a bike tour of the Beara Peninsula

'In my mind it had become near-mythic': a bike tour of the Beara Peninsula

A week-long tour of the picturesque area leads to ancient woods, arty villages and colourful characters

Lenny Antonelli, Irish Times, August 13, 2016

The whistle-stop schedules of tourists visiting Ireland can sound exhausting. The Ring of Kerry and Giant’s Causeway in one week? “They should just spend a week exploring one peninsula,” a friend once said, after we’d been talking to some Americans who told us their travel itinerary.

I decided to borrow his idea. Despite walking and cycling much of the west coast over the past decade, I had never been to the south-west’s mountainous Beara peninsula, and in my mind it had become near-mythic.

The place-names sounded exotic to me: Allihies, Eyeries, Lauragh, Tuosist. The peninsula itself is said to be named for Princess Beara, the Spanish wife of Eoghan Mór, legendary King of Munster.

It seemed like a place that called for slow exploration. So on a warm, cloudy Monday, I loaded a mountain bike with my tent and sleeping bag and cycled south from Kenmare. I had one week ahead of me and no plan in particular, except to find out what – if anything – makes Beara unique.

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'What it lacks in length, it makes up with spirit': walking the Avonmore River

'What it lacks in length, it makes up with spirit': walking the Avonmore River

A new trail in Co Wicklow explores one of Ireland’s most spectacular rivers

Irish Times, July 27, 2016

The Avonmore in Co Wicklow makes a case for being one of Ireland’s great rivers. What it lacks in length and volume, it makes up with sheer spirit, flowing wide and quick from Lough Dan to the point where it meets the Avonbeg, below Rathdrum. Together they form the Avoca. A new trail launched in April, the Avonmore Way, explores this wooded valley.

I walked it southward on a hot June day. From Trooperstown Forest (just outside Laragh), cross the bridge at the back of the car park and go right at the junction. Soon you pick up the waymarkers for the Avonmore Way as you climb through Scots Pines. In the summer heat, botanical life seemed to sprout from every crevice: bracken and gorse, hawthorn and birch, rowan and wildflowers blooming in any open space.

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'You can sit beside an ant heap and munch away'

'You can sit beside an ant heap and munch away'

Lenny Antonelli discovers how to dine on a menu of red ants, nettles, fish and spruce tea in the heart of the Irish wilderness

Sunday Times, July 10, 2016 

“I think you’re going to have to get your shoes and trousers off and get into the stream for a look,” Nathan Kingerlee said to me blankly. “We’re going to try to flush out the fish from wherever it’s hiding.”

I started laughing — then saw the look on his face. This was no joke. We were hiking into the mountains of Kerry, following the path of a twisting river into a deep gorge. Nathan was teaching me how to gather, catch and cook food in the Irish wilderness. This wasn’t the kind of foraging where you collect elderflower to make cordial in your kitchen. This was about surviving in the wild. 

All down the valley the gorse bushes were flowering bright yellow, while patches of oak, birch and hawthorn blossomed in the shadow of the mountains. Nathan had left seven fishing lines in the river the night before — just bits of fishing line fastened to a stick on the bank, with a worm left dangling in the water. This wasn’t about fishing for fun — this was about catching dinner. 

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Land of rocks & echoes

Land of rocks & echoes

The Slievetooey coastline of County Donegal in the north-west of Ireland boasts exhilarating cliffs, inaccessible beaches and an unrivalled chain of sea stacks. Lenny Antonelli spent two nights walking and wild camping in this coastal backcountry at the edge of Europe

The Great Outdoors, Spring 2016

IT WOULD BE EASY to mistake Gleann Cholm Cille for the end of the earth. Here at the far-flung tip of Donegal’s Sliabh Liag peninsula, the road crosses a high empty bog on its way to the Atlantic, and you expect that at any moment, it might suddenly end on some desolate cliff-top. But then this Gaelic-speaking village appears under you like a Greenlandic outpost, a scatter of low cottages enclosed by high cliffs and mountains. Gleann Cholm Cille sits at the seaward end of an unlikely fertile valley, facing down the mercurial Atlantic.

It took me six hours and three buses to get here from Galway on a dull Friday in July. I came for a weekend backpacking trip on the wild roadless coast north of the village. My plan was to hike along the cliffs for a few hours, set up camp, then start in earnest the next morning.

As I got of the bus the sky was darkening, the wind was picking up, and rain was on the way. My mood was dark too. I don’t really know why, but it almost invariably is just before any solo backpacking trip. Once the excitement of planning and packing is over, my enthusiasm disappears and, almost always, I become overcome with a deep apathy.

Backpacking with friends is jovial and social, but heading out alone forces you confront the extremes of your thoughts and feelings. On any solo trip to the wild, my mood will swing from total elation to deep melancholy. But it usually starts of at its worst, particularly if the weather is grey, which it was that Friday evening. I knew this would change dramatically so long as I kept putting one foot in front of the other.

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'This felt like freedom': canoeing the Royal Canal

'This felt like freedom': canoeing the Royal Canal

Lenny Antonelli spends four days winding through rural the heart of the midlands on a canoe camping trip up the Royal Canal

The Sunday Times, Sunday August 16, 2015

(Please note this is my original version of the article, not the edited final version that appeared in the paper, which is available behind the Sunday Times paywall here)

Last March I was learning to canoe on the Lakes of Killarney, under craggy mountains and ancient oak woods, when my instructor Nathan Kingerlee from Outdoors Ireland said to me: “You know, there’s something really special about canoeing on the canals.”

The canals? There we were paddling on one of Ireland’s iconic beauty spots, and he was eulogising about canals. But I knew there was an understated beauty to Ireland’s inland waterways, even if many people associate them with stagnant water and submerged traffic cones. Nathan had recently taken a canoeing trip on the Royal Canal, and suggested I do the same.

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Huge Romanian rewildling project aims to create 'European Yellowstone'

Earth Island Journal, 11 May 2015

In an ambitious new rewilding project, conservationists hope to create a ‘European Yellowstone’ amid the beech woods, spruce plantations and alpine pastures of Romania’s Fagaras Mountains. Backed by wealthy donors, the nonprofit Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) is buying land for what it hopes will ultimately become a vast national park.

So far FCC has spent €45 million buying 40,000 acres of land, but the group’s ultimate goal is to protect 500,000 acres, which it then plans to donate back to the people of Romania. Although FCC is buying some of this land, the group also hopes to convince some stakeholders — such as the state and other local landowners— to put their land into the park. FCC’s largest backer is the Wyss Foundation, a philanthropic group founded by the Swiss medical devices billionaire Hansorg Wyss, which has already contributed $175 million to protect 14 million acres of wild land in the American West.

The Fagaras Mountains lie at the southern end of the 1,000-mile long Carpathian range, which stretches across east and central Europe. The Carpathians are a stronghold for Europe’s three big predators — the grey wolf, brown bear, and Eurasian lynx — as well as the continent’s most extensive old growth forests.

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The wild streets of Galway

The wild streets of Galway

Take an urban safari on the city's waterways

Irish Times, February 22, 2015

I know few betters ways to see wildlife in Ireland than to walk Galway’s inner bay, and waterways. Start from the aquarium in Salthill and follow the prom towards the city. For me, Galway Bay seems most vital on calm autumn evenings, when the syrup-still water shakes with life as mackerel chase sprat inshore, while seals and gulls stalk the frenzy.

The prom brings you to Grattan Beach, where I’ve found everything from cuttlefish to sea stars to small conger eels in tidepools. Past here, you can walk the causeway out to Mutton Island, under an amphitheatre of mercurial light and weather. But don’t venture out here in high winds or very high tides. The causeway was the first place I saw an otter: when I approached at dusk, a lone walker, it slinked from the road into the sea and was gone.

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Walking with the tides

Time your visit to this mysterious tidal island with care

Irish Times, 10 January 2015

For years, Omey Island seemed a near-mythical place to me. Despite exploring much of the Connemara coast I had never been to this tidal island, which you can walk to at low water but which becomes cut off at high tide. Inishbofin, Inishark and Inishturk print their silhouettes indelibly on the western skyline, but Omey hides away under the Aughrus Peninsula.

You can cross the wide strand from Claddaghduff Quay to Omey around low water from roughly half-tide to half-tide. But tidal conditions vary each day, and with the weather, so ask in Sweeney’s shop and pub in Claddaghduff for local advice before setting out.

We crossed Omey Strand an hour before low tide one gusty October day, roughly following a route described in Paul Phelan’s book Connemara and Mayo: A Walking Guide (Collins Press, 2012). Rather than follow the signposts all the way over the strand, this route veers right towards a prominent house near the island’s northeastern corner.

As we crossed the beach, a hearse started out across the hard sands, followed by cars. The burial procession advanced slowly through the grey wind, bound for Omey’s graveyard.

As you reach Omey, turn right and follow the shore, passing the graveyard if you haven’t already. Ignore the sandy road leading inland towards the house and continue along the beach. You can now pick up a sandy track above the curving shoreline and follow the northern coast (no fence-hopping required).

You will come to one beach, then another. Where a fence turns inland above the second beach, follow it to the remains of Teampall Féichín. This medieval church was built on the site of an earlier monastic settlement founded by St Féichín. Omey’s Gaelic name is Iomaidh Féichín, the bed of Féichín.

Return to the beach and continue to follow the shore. This exposed corner of the island is called Guairín, meaning small dunes, according to Tim Robinson’s book Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness, from which I have gleaned much of my information. It is mostly machair, a sandy grassland only found in western Ireland and Scotland. The grass is populated by snails that use the lime-rich sands to build their shells.

You will reach the island’s northwest corner, where there is another small tidal island offshore, and, further west, Cruagh Island. Follow the shore of Omey as it turns and heads southeast.

The wind was heavy and the sky grey – not a solid grey, but a fluid mass of moving shades and shapes. To the south, towards Slyne Head, the dim sunlight broke through in crepuscular rays. Keep the sea on your right until you come to a small bay. St Féichín’s well, where pilgrims have left strange trinkets, is above the shore here.

In 1841, Omey was home to 396 people; just 10 years later, after the Famine, this had almost halved. The island’s school closed in 1973, and today there is just one year-round resident.

Cross the beach, join the road by two mobile homes and go left, past the lake and back down to Omey Strand. Presuming you haven’t horribly miscalculated the tides, you can follow the posts back across the sand to Claddaghduff.

WALK: OMEY ISLAND, CO GALWAY

Map: OSI, Discovery Series Sheet 37.

Start/finish: Claddaghduff Quay, Co Galway. The turn for Claddaghduff and Omey is about 3.5km north of Clifden on the N59. Turn at Claddaghduff church for the quay, or continue straight for Sweeney’s shop/pub.

Time and distance: Roughly 8km, 2.5 to 3 hours.

Suitability: Easy to moderate walking. Head out well before low tide. Omey has no services.

Secrets of Slieve Bloom

Walk in a wooded valley in the Slieve Bloom mountains

Irish Times, 30 August, 2014

An experienced hillwalker once told me that his least favourite range was the Slieve Bloom mountains of Laois and Offaly. I can’t recall his reasoning, but I imagine it might have been that it’s boggy and fairly flat, with no soaring peaks, and covered in forestry.

But the Slieve Blooms hide glorious secrets. Having lots of wooded rivers in one small range is invigorating, and you can explore one of these by walking the Brittas loop at Clonaslee, Co Laois.

The Slieve Blooms were behind a wall of mist when I approached, after heavy showers soaked the midlands. From the trailhead, the blue markers followed a track into woods along the river, where there was plenty of hazel, beech, ash, and Douglas fir.

These woods are part of the old Brittas estate, held by MP Francis Plunkett Dunne, who built nearby Brittas House in 1869. The Dunnes were said to be descendants of the legendary high king of Ireland, Cathair Mór.

The trail passes an old weir and the ruins of an old bridge. You will pass new footbridges too, but stay on the right bank as the trail goes through a series of stiles. After a while the track climbs away from the river, leaves the wood and joins a grassy lane between two fields.

Hints of autumn were everywhere: blackberries ripening, bracken beginning to rust and birch leaves yellowing. The boreen emerges to a road, where the trail turns right, then immediately left into more woods of beech and holly.

The path brings you to Brittas lake, built as a reservoir for the old estate, with water pumped up from the Clodiagh river. There are picnic benches and old fishing stands.

Beside the lake is a grove of Scots pine, a graceful tree rooted deeply in Ireland’s ecological past. This species once thrived on Ireland’s uplands and marginal habitats, but was pushed out as the climate grew wetter, bogs expanded and early farmers cleared the land. It may have survived in isolated refuges. But most Scots pine across the country today is from Scottish stock.

The waymarkers at Brittas lake are a little confusing, but essentially they direct you to lap the lake fully. As you leave the lake behind, rather than turn left down the path you came from through the woods, continue straight to some barriers, and go left.

There was once a large oak forest here, and you can see old oaks along the track. When you reach a fork, follow the waymarker right. A bit further on, you swing left where a grassy track leads off to the right.

Here a fallow deer and her fawn stood on the path ahead of me. I expected them to bolt, but the mother strayed into the woods, leaving the youngster behind to stare dumbly at me. I moved closer, until the mother returned and both deer darted. The route then crosses straight over a forest road and onto a grassy lane. Where a fallen tree blocks the path, circle around it to the left. The path emerges through an old gate of the Brittas estate to the west side of Clonaslee village.

From here you can continue straight on past some houses to reach the crossroads, where you turn right for the trailhead to complete the loop.

Map: OSI Discovery Series Sheet 54, or download from coillteoutdoors.ie. Start/finish: Clonaslee, Co Laois, 14.5km west of Mountmellick on the R422. From the crossroads by MD Hickey’s pub, take the road south along Clodiagh river, towards the mountains. Trailhead is on your left. Time and distance: 8km, 2 to 2.5 hours, not including breaks. Suitability: Graded moderate. Trail follows woodland trails, forest tracks and farmland lanes. Some parts are wet and muddy.

Those not-so-wild Europeans

Re-creating wilderness on a continent that has almost none

Sierra magazine, July/August 2014

In Ireland’s blustery Nephin Beg Mountains, the state-owned forestry company Coillte is rewilding roughly 11,000 acres of pine and spruce plantation. By thinning the canopy, closing logging roads, and establishing a system of shelters, it hopes to turn this industrial forest and parts of neighbouring Ballycroy National Park into a 27,000-acre recreational wilderness.

Coillte won’t fully liberate the forest to natural processes for another 14 years. But when it does, this will will be a rare parcel of European land unmanaged by humans. “We actually want our landscape to become one where there are no humans driving the changes,” says Bill Murphy, who’s overseeing the project for Coillte.

Nobody is certain how much wilderness Europe has left, but the best estimates say it’s 1 percent or less. Most of this land is in the east, where bison roam Poland’s Białowieza Forest, old-growth trees carpet the Carpathian Mountains, and taiga blankets the Russia-Finland border. The rest of Europe has been paved, cultivated, grazed, logged, urbanized, or otherwise degraded.

Definitions of “wildland” and the laws protecting it vary across the continent. Europe has no shared wilderness literature or history, says Mark Fisher, an honorary research fellow at the Wildland Research Institute; there is no European Muir or Leopold. While America’s early preservationists were idealists who fought to protect wild places from development and safeguard the public’s right to explore them, their European counterparts were instead driven by the science of conserving species and habitats.

The planned wilderness in the Nephin Beg Mountains, called Wild Nephin, is part of Western Europe’s nascent rewilding movement. In Germany, the Brandenburg Wilderness Foundation is returning vast military camps to the wild, while in Scotland, the nonprofit Trees for Life is restoring Caledonian Forest to highlands. All three projects are guided by the principle that nature can take over again, so long as it gets a leg up.

Up to now, hikers have shared Nephin’s forest tracks with logging trucks. But Coillte plans to cease commercial logging, shut out motorized vehicles, and turn forest roads into rough trails. When rewilding is complete, backpackers will be able to hike through Ireland’s most extensive wild forest, camp in backcountry shelters, and explore a roadless expanse of woods, mountain, and bog with no trace of human habitation or modern infrastructure.

It’s a paradoxic, of course, that such rewilding requires human intervention. But if Europe succeeds, hearts and minds may follow, and Nephin’s resurrected forests, bogland, and rivers could serve as a glimpse of Europe’s modern frontier.

Land of woods and water

Walk the woodlands and turloughs of little-known Garryland

Irish Times, 28 June, 2014

You’ve probably heard of Coole Park, the former home of Lady Gregory and setting of famous WB Yeats poems. But you might not have heard of Garryland, which is where Yeats’s hipster cousin might have hung out: it’s just around the corner but way less visited and that much harder to find.

The whole interconnected Coole-Garryland complex must be one of Ireland’s richest nature reserves, with 400 hectares of woodland, turlough, limestone pavement and grassland. But the Garryland side sees little footfall compared to Coole.

Leaving the Garryland car park, the woods along the trail are rich with hazel and ash. These trees are often found together on limestone, and they thrive here on the lowlands east of the Burren.

I recently heard a local farmer say that there’s no place on earth like the Burren in spring and, though you’re not really in the heart of the Burren here, you can sense its presence in the trees, wildflowers and rock.

The old building beside the trail, just after you enter the wood, is used as a summer roost by more than 60 lesser horseshoe bats. Close by there’s also a specially built hibernaculum, an underground chamber for the bats to hibernate in during winter.

We took a side-trail and followed it to a dead end, then continued on a rougher track into the woods. We startled two hares from the path and they hopped off, bouncing noisily through the undergrowth. All along, the trails were spotted with the scat of pine marten.

The air was so warm and sticky that Garryland felt more like primordial jungle than an Irish woodland: bugs attacked my neck, the air was thick and humid, and the wind dropped to nothing.

Later we took a side path down to the dry grassy bed of a turlough. These “disappearing lakes”, fed by groundwater during wet weather, are interwoven with the forests here, stretching their watery fingers deep into the woods. There’s nowhere else in Ireland where turloughs are so intimately associated with old woodland.

We passed a grove of oaks and one old yew, then rested on a rock in a clearing. “It looks like something out of Jurassic Park,” my walking buddy said, staring at the scene in front of us: a small turlough, surrounded by a grassy savannah that was dotted with boulders. I could see what she meant: it looked so green and primeval that we half expected Brontosaurus to emerge from behind the hawthorns.

But when the turloughs rise in wet weather, the trails flood. You probably won’t get far if you come here in mid winter, so visit in summer during a dry spell.

The full linear walk from the Garryland car park to Coole is almost 5km one-way, and you could make this much longer by exploring different side paths. This is what makes Coole-Garryland so special: there are few other places in Ireland where you can spend so long walking through woodland (unless you like walking in circles).

But the swampiness of the day seemed to call for a lazier approach. After resting we turned back, then took a different trail to another turlough fringed by steep limestone crags. Tired and thirsty, we walked back to the car park in the still May heat.

Go Walk: Garryland Woods

Map: OSI Discovery Series Sheet 52 covers the area but may not show trail details.

Start and finish: Garryland Woods car park. From Gort take the R460 towards Corofin, but turn right for Kinvara almost 1km after crossing over the motorway. Follow this minor road for 2.5km and take the first right. The car park is 1.5km up on your right hand side. Room for only a few cars.

Time and distance: My walk was 7km / 2 hours with breaks, but this can easily be made longer or shorter such is the variety of trails.

Suitability: The main paths are flat and easy, but side trails can be rougher. Go during dry weather in summer as the trails flood in wet weather / winter.

Info: Coole Park Visitor Centre (www.coolepark.ie).

Services: There are seasonal tea rooms at Coole Park and full services in Gort.

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 irishtrails.ie. 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 dublinmountains.ie. 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

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 irishtrails.ie. 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

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.

BARNA WOODS/LOUGH RUSHEEN

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.

The Wild Country

The Wild Country

Ireland has designated its first national wilderness: a vast area of mountain, bog and forest on the country’s wild west coast. But is a real ‘backcountry’ experience possible on such a small island?  

The Great Outdoors magazine, December 2013

You won’t meet many other walkers in the Nephin Beg mountains. You can kind of understand why. Only two of these hills peep over 700 metres, they get about four times as much rain as Dublin, and they’re a long way from most places.

But these hills guard the wildest terrain in Ireland. In 1937 – after 5,000 miles of walking through Ireland – the naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger wrote: “Indeed the Nephinbeg range of mountains is I think the very loneliest place in this country, for the hills themselves are encircled by this vast area of trackless bog. Where else even in Ireland will you find 200 square miles which is houseless and roadless...”

The Nephin Begs rise to the north of Clew Bay in County Mayo. West of their central spine is the immense Owenduff blanket bog; to the east are huge conifer plantations. The only roads out here are forest tracks. In March, Ireland’s national parks service, together with the state forestry company Coillte, designated 11,000 hectares of this landscape as Ireland’s first national wilderness area: Wild Nephin.

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