A walk amid the unbelievably picturesque landscapes of Ireland is something everybody should try sometime. The scenery will inspire you and the Irish will charm you to bits with their ‘talent for eloquence’ (gift of the gab). In Ireland the welcome is like no other and as likely as not there’ll be a surprise or two before your journey’s end.
Although celebrated for its lush landscape – the 40 shades of green are obvious everywhere in the countryside – the island of Ireland is much more than a tapestry of emerald fields. Gentle mountains, deep valleys cut with meandering rivers, rugged ridges, wild bogland, watery lakelands and majestic cliff tops offer breathtaking vistas, views and panoramas at every turn. And, steeped in Celtic history, the wildly varied Irish landscapes and seascapes have a magical or spiritual quality and a mythic resonance.
Big Walking Advantages
“The Irish landscape was made for walking on,” says Loretto Coyle, a blue badge mountain guide (the highest standard possible) based in Newcastle, County Down. She provides individual and group walking, as well as hiking and cycling tours in the Mourne Mountains, the Causeway Coast and Glens and Strangford Lough – all in Northern Ireland.
Coyle’s company, Outdoor Ireland North, has played host to many international visitors. The most recent a group of Canadian walker-artists who picked the rugged Mourne Mountains for their Irish sojourn.
“They were absolutely amazed at what we have here,” says Coyle. “They got it straight away. They understood Ireland’s big advantages - variety, compactness and relatively easy access.
“If you go to somewhere like the Rockies – and I’ve been there and to the Andes and the Himalayas and many other high mountains around the world - you have to travel vast distances between the walks.
“But in a circuit of the Mournes, for instance, you are able to get into the wilderness at several points and get straight back out again to meet and enjoy the local people. Then you can leave the heathland, the heather, the granite and the sheer ruggedness and go two hours up the road to the Glens of Antrim for an utterly different landscape, geological structure and feel.
“On top of that you have superb coastal views from almost anywhere high along these two places anyway, and the beach or headland walks are always there if you want them.
“But walking in Ireland is also about compactness and manageability. People with an ordinary level of fitness can get up to the top and over two or three mountains in a day’s hike. They can feel like they’ve had a really good day’s outing and taken in a whole range of inspiring scenery.”
A walking break amid the inspirational Irish scenery has become very popular for visitors of all descriptions. Of course, the main attraction is the vast array of unspoilt walking routes and trails, some over gentle ground, others over challenging terrain.
Ireland has 14 peaks in excess of 3,000ft and a large number over 2,500ft offering moderate to challenging climbs all with magnificent views.
Wherever you roam in the mild Irish climate it rarely gets too hot or too cold, so walking is possible year-round. Even in the winter snowfalls of 2010 - the heaviest in 25 years - there was something of a rush to the high ground to experience the crystal clear air and the rare snow-clad spectacles.
For the skilled walker, Northern Ireland provides the long-distance trek of the 1,000km Ulster Way. A real test of stamina. Elsewhere in the north there are numerous walking packages – day, week, detox, boot camps – offering a myriad of walking experiences along long and short coastal trails, peaceful mountain routes, parkland, city, nature and forest tracks.
In the south, there are excellent waymarked trails of all kinds for those who want to walk for recreation or health. The first of these trails, the Wicklow Way, opened in 1982. Since then Ireland has added a large network (some 4,000 kilometres worth) of routes, ranging in distance from 25km to over 200km.
There are also over 150 ‘looped walks’, designed so that users do not have to retrace their steps. These walks are predominantly located off-road and can take anything from an hour to a half- or a full-day to complete.
The latest addition to Irish walking facilities is a new European-style ‘greenway’ – a trail suited to all non-motorised traffic, from roller-bladers, through walkers to cyclists. The first 18km section of a planned eventual 42km route called the Great Western Greenway opened in County Mayo in the West of Ireland in 2010.
Walking in the Wild West
An absolute walkers’ paradise, the West of Ireland stretches over five counties, from County Donegal in the north, down through Sligo (Yeats country), Mayo, Galway and Clare.
Walking in the wild West guarantees several things: fresh air, magnificent views and, one of the most vital parts of an Irish holiday, the chance to meet the friendly locals and fellow walkers of all nationalities along the way. When this happens, walks turn into experiences, especially when someone who has a passion for the place you’re visiting guides your way.
Step forward Gerry Greensmyth of Croagh Patrick Walking Holidays, a centre-based operator (the first in Ireland to offer this) located in Westport, County Mayo, smack in the middle of the pristine wild West, which boasts some of the most spectacular coastlines in Europe.
Greensmyth’s walks take in Mayo and Galway, including the 2500ft Croagh Patrick – Ireland’s ‘holy mountain’ - overlooking the majestic Clew Bay; Famine roads in the unspoilt wilds of Connemara; the Nephin Mountain Range, where traditional methods of turf cutting are still in evidence; and Achill, the largest island off the Irish coast, population 2,700.
Greensmyth is the classic Irish host. He brilliantly looks after his guests by making sure the food and accommodation is tip-top (it’s his family-run B&B), tailoring walks to meet the tastes and varying standards of his groups, drawing people into the ‘craic’ on the walks, giving the back stories not in the guide books and helping walkers to find the best restaurants, pubs and music on their ‘off’ days.
But in the Irish way he does all this naturally and effortlessly, always thinking ahead, anticipating needs and putting the guests first.
“Everybody is gobsmacked when they get here,” says Greensmyth. “They absolutely love the views, the history and the folklore.
“I show them a few secret beaches, pre-Famine settlement ruins, holy wells and ancient pilgrim and smugglers’ paths. It all speaks for itself.”
Croagh Patrick, under which Greensmyth’s house sits, is one of Europe’s best known places of pilgrimage and a destination for all kinds of curious walkers. St Patrick is said to have spent 40 days and nights fasting on the summit more than 1,500 years ago. On the last Sunday of July thousands upon thousands commemorate him and make acts of atonement by climbing the mountain en masse; many do this in their bare feet.
But on any other given day throughout the year dozens will ascend part or all of ‘The Reek’ as it is known locally. Even then some insist on the bare feet and proceed gingerly. Others will be ‘fast’ walkers, and some - the very fit - even jog up and down just for the sport.
Greensmyth has completed this walk more times than he can count and plans to have his ashes scattered over Croagh Patrick when his last walk is over. He doesn’t agree with the fast approach on this mountain at least: “The way to do it is to walk slow and easy, so you can chat with the people,” he says. “This is the West of Ireland, walking is a social affair.”