Martin Fitzpatrick offers the more discerning traveller the delights of walking in Ireland and the fascinating history of the places and their monuments.
When,the American geologist and mountaineer,Clarence King got to the top of one of the highest peaks of the Sierra Navada in 1871 hoping to make a first ascent he found a small cairn of stones with an arrow shaft pointing due west. For the vast majority of us the experience of struggling to the top of a peak may be uniquely personal however we realise we not the first humans to have been there. The fact is that while the history of mountaineering as a pursuit of getting to the pinnacle of a particular mountain or peak dates from the 18th and 19th centuries, the mountains have formed part of the human experience for thousands of years.
In mainland Europe the long relationship between humans and the mountains was confirmed with the discovery of Otzi ‘the iceman’ in 1991. Melting ice in the Otztol Alps exposedhis remains 4000 years after he had died at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Ireland, with the highest peak at 3000 feet,can provide no comparison to thescale of European counterpartshowever it does share that historical affinity with higher ground that from the earliest times have been the focus of religious practices, farming and small-scale industry. Furthermore the physical presence of monuments in the Irish mountains and the mythology associated with them combine to create unique upland experiences. Walking through deserted forest tracks, green roads and mountain paths in the footsteps of our ancestors allows for an insight into the country and its people that you will never get from the window of a car or bus. Siting in a little bar by an open fire watching the sun set and enjoying a well-earned drink after a day in the hills is satisfying in a way that only those that have experienced it can appreciate.
The physical geography of the island of Ireland, coupled with the easy access to the higher ground, the range of routes available, the mild climate and the history associated with each and every place combinesto ensure that Irelandis a premier walking destination. Measuring just 280 kilometers (171 miles) at its widest point east-west and 486 kilometers (302 miles) north-south the island affords the opportunity to experience walking in a variety of different regions in one visit.The “ancient crumblings of the earth’s crust have resulted in the formation of mountain ranges in the coastal regions leaving a broad low plain in the centre”. It is this distinctive bowl shape described so eloquently by Preager in 1937 that lends itself to an array of walking opportunities throughout the island. As the mountains are predominantly along the coastline it is generally to these areas that visiting walkers congregate. However unique insights into Ireland are to be found in many of the upland areas that are not along the coast such as the Galtees, Blackstairsor Silvermines. Exceptional walkingcan also be found in areas that are not especially mountainous. Many of the latter are associated with local geographical and historical landmarks such as The Lough Boora Mesolithic Loop in County Offaly or the multitude of forest walksand provide an insight into the country that is off the beaten track. Off course for your best experience a combination of all would be ideal and with a country the size of Ireland it is achievable. The Irish Trails web site www.irishtrails.ie offers information on over 750 trails throughout the republic of Ireland. Walkers that want to experience something other than or in addition to the mountain regions can consider something like The Royal Canal walk that follows the route of the canal from Longford in the centreof the country to Dublin on the east coast. While the total trail is 144 kilometers sections of it could be considered as part of an overall itinerary.
Enjoying the view in the Wicklow Mountains.
Map of Ireland indicating the concentration of mountains along the coast.
From the Dublin and Wicklowmountains in the east to the Comeraghs in the south-east, the MacGillycuddyreeks and Dingle mountains in the south-west, Connemara in the West and Darty and Bluestack in the north-west Ireland provides a rich variety of upland experiences. There are just 14 mountains that extend above 3000 feet however there are hundreds of mountain walks that provide a great days trekking. The world really is your oyster when it comes to walking in Irish hills and mountains and while many are not high by international standards they can provide a formidable challenge to any trekker. The Irish climate means that navigation skills are an essential tool in Irish mountains. However taking the proper precautions and using the expertise of a guide if necessary will ensure your back down in the bar that evening to tell your story and enjoy a celebratory drink. A little knowledge of the general archaeological and/or historical background of where you are travelling will really enhance your walking experience. With this in mind lets take a look at some of the monument types you may encounter in the hills during your Irish adventure.
Getting to grips with Ireland’s highest mountain Carrauntoohil in county Kerry.
The relative inaccessibility of the uplandshas ensured that archaeological features often survive where elsewhere they have been removed or destroyed by centuries of human activity. The evidence for this comes from place-names, archaeology, literature, oral traditions and scientific investigations. The settled lifestyle afforded by farming from c. 4000 BC led to the development of religious beliefs, some of which centered on rituals associated with higher ground. The more than fifteen hundred megalithic tombs scattered around the country in upland areas are testament to this.
Pre-historic monuments associated with the uplands include passage tombs, wedge tombs, cairns, court tombs,portal tombs, stone circles, standing stones, stone rows and others. They all had a general similar function in that they are associated with the dead or possibly rituals associated with death. In the case of stone rows and standing stones they may also have been associated with important prominent hilltops, and the rising and setting of the moon. Arriving at any of these monuments during a trek in the hills is a real bonus that can instantly transport you to another time and place and gives you an insight into the people that inhabited this land over 5000 years ago. To put it into some context the passage tombs in the Boyne Valley, on the east coast, and Carrowkeel in County Sligo, on the west coast, are earlier in date than the pyramids of Egypt.
A stone alignment in the Connemara mountains.
Pulnabrone portal tomb in the Burren in county Clare.
Easily recognizable monuments of the Late Bronze age/Iron Age are the hillforts, promontory forts and hilltop enclosures that occasionally cross our paths.The early Christian period (c. 500-1000AD) saw the introduction of new technologies and a new religious culture. It also saw a diffused power structure with the country divided into over a hundred local kingdoms by the 7th century. This period of history saw woodland clearance and an extension of grasslands and between the 5th and 10th centuries AD saw the construction of thousands of ringforts in the Irish landscape. They are the most widespread and characteristic of monuments in the Irish countryside and generally consist of a circular area, enclosed by one or more banks of earth or stone, or a combination of both. They were often located on sloping ground affording visibility of the surrounding countryside. The construction of ringforts in Ireland dates from the early medieval period (c. 400 AD to 1100 AD) and possibly continued up to the seventeenth century. Rath is the term applied to those ringforts of earthen construction, while cashel refers to those constructed from stone. The function of ringforts was generally as enclosed farmsteads that protected the houses and outbuildings in the interior, but they may also have been used for social gatherings. Ringforts have gained legendary status over the centuries and their survival in many areas has been attributed to their association with fairy folk and the super-natural. Before they were protected structures farmers would do nothing to disturb these monuments for fear of the bad-luck that would be thrust upon you for such a deed. Indeed the reverence in which these monuments were held is highlighted by their use throughout the country as burial places for unbaptized infants. It is not that long ago that un-baptized newborns were not allowed to be buried in consecrated grounds and it was often to ringforts that their loved ones buried their remains.
A real treat in the hills is to incorporate a visit to a holy well in your day’s trek. A holy well can be described as anywhere that water is used as a focal point of devotion or ritual. While many appear first as Christian monuments much of the tradition associated with them is pre-christian. With some 3000 holy wells in the country they vary in appearance from simple natural springs in the ground to chambers with steps and surrounding walls. Often dedicated to a particular saint they usually have a pattern on the saint’s day. Votive offerings and specific trees or bushes are sometimes found in association with these monuments while cures for specific aliments are ascribed to individual wells. The well at MámÉan (Maumeen) in Connemara remind us yet again that the mountains were revered landscapes. Devoted to Saint Patrick the well and pattern associated with it are pre-christian in origin and thought to be associated with the festival of Lughnasa. Saint Patrick reputedly spent the night here as part of his journey through the range. Having reached this spot he blessed the well and spent the night on a rock bed. Tradition has it that was the limit of his journey as next day he blessed Connemara and turned back. Anybody that has ever arrived at the well as part of the Maumturks challenge will know exactly how he felt.
Skipping a number of centuries to the 17th century we see the privatization of former communal mountainsides that allowed for small farm communities to develop on the mountain slopes. Between 1770 and 1840 it is recorded that upland rural dwelling increased five times faster than on lowlands. The resulting population surge was utilized to grow potatoes in the labour intensive lazy beds that are a feature of the upland landscape, particularly in the west of the country. The famines of the 1840’s and the resulting deaths, mass emigration and agrarian revolts meant that many of the structures were abandoned. These symbols of our past survive in ruins on our mountain slopes today and are a poignant reminder of the rich and often bleak heritage that is Ireland.
Furrow lines where potatoes had been grown up the side of the mountain in the west of Ireland.
Walking in Ireland as a holiday is an experience you will never regret. The rich culture combined with great accommodation choices, good food and off course friendly, inquisitive natives combines to ensure that Ireland is a place you can return to time and time again.