Martin Fitzpatrick offers the more discerning traveler 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 exposed his 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 the scale of European counterparts however 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 combines to ensure that Ireland is 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, Blackstairs or Silvermines. Exceptional walking can 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 walks and 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 centre of 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 Wicklow mountains 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.