Winded from the exertion of climbing the rocky slope, I take a moment to lean on my trekking pole and gaze out across the sweeping green fields of western Ireland. From up here, above 2,000 feet on Croagh Patrick, I can see all the way to Clew Bay. "Croagh" is a Gaelic word meaning high, sharp mountain, and we've often seen the peak looming in the distance as we've hiked village trails all over County Mayo. Now that I'm here, I see Croagh Patrick is even steeper than it looks, and honest work to get to the top.
This is a very special place for Irish people: nothing less than St. Patrick's sacred mountain, the summit where he spent 40 days and nights in solitude. I'm aghast at how unprepared some of the hikers are, despite the bad weather, until I realize that for many who come here the strenuous ascent is more religious pilgrimage than recreational outing. As for me, I'm here strictly for the hiking, but I've grown to admire the saint for his Celtic cross, Ireland's familiar religious icon, one that symbolizes the coming together of Catholics and pagans so long ago.
As I climb up into the thick, menacing cloud that's quickly forming on Croagh Patrick's summit, and make out the ghostly outline of the small white chapel perched on the very top, I'm reminded there's no separating Ireland from it's long past. Where ever you go here, you are confronted with history. We've spent the last week hiking up the West Coast of Ireland, starting in County Clare, traveling up through County Galway and County Roscommon and finally to here, County Mayo.
On every walk we've seen the layer cake of this small country's long history laid out before us. It's a veritable litany of human habitation: there's a megalithic grave over there, a Neo-Gothic abbey there, a medieval castle over there, the ruins of a potato famine village on the hillside--even a new condo on the shoreline reflecting the current prosperity.
This trip is proof that hiking is a great way to enhance international travel, to go deeper into the reality of the place you're visiting. Our small group of five is getting in a good hike every day, seeing a new location for each walk, but at the same time having a genuine cultural experience. We're also managing to find a lot of good pubs, the lynch pin of Irish social life. In fact, after the slow, steep descent down Croagh Patrick's flanks of talus and scree, we toast our success with a Guinness down at the pub, the venerable Campbells, before heading back to pretty little Westport and our lodgings. The town, with it's low stone bridges and quaint streets lined with colorful shops, has been our base of operations for the past few days. But our walking adventure began much farther south, in County Clare, after the long flights into Shannon.
County Clare to County Mayo
We worked through our jet lag and warmed up for harder hikes to come by walking the coast along the Cliffs of Moher, where we had lots of company. I was surprised to discover a solitary stroll along the cliff tops dotted with castle ruins was a thing of the past. Yet I still admired the stunning views of thousand foot high cliffs and the historic Aran Islands along this famous coast. Next we raised the stakes a bit by exploring the moonscape of the Burren. This rugged 100-square-mile limestone plateau is like no place I've ever seen. We hike long routes that follow steep, rocky outcrops past megalithic tombs up to barren ridgelines with views of the blue waters of Galway Bay shimmering in the pale sun. We walked through weird micro-climates, past rock roses and foxglove, Mediterranean plants that grow nowhere else in Ireland but here. Inexplicably, other geologic pockets harbor micro-climates of Arctic vegetation, and no botanist can fully explain this unreal diversity.
The whole point of this hiking odyssey is to experience the range of West Coast Irish walking terrain, from spectacular national parks to quiet rural backwaters. So we head for County Roscommon and the village of Cloonfad, where the local residents have taken a classic local walking route and mapped it and marked it so visitors like us might have a look. The route, the Derrylahan Loop, follows footpaths through farmer's fields, wanders across bogs, and curves along country lanes called boreens. But even here, deep in the countryside, ancient artifacts are everywhere. A "mass rock" identifies the place where locals held church services at the risk of death in the 1700's. Scattered stones in a remote corner of the bog marks the graves of children who died before they could be baptized.
A highlight of the three hour trek at Derrylahan was the old mill with a water wheel actually made from sandstone quarried from Slieve Dart, a prominent rocky hill nearby. But perhaps the best part of Irish village walking, at Cloonfad--and elsewhere--was the opportunity to meet the local residents. A small structure at the trailhead known as the Stone Cottage serves as the information and registration hub for the Cloonfad hike. Part museum, the cottage replicates the furnishings of a typical 19th-century Irish dwelling, complete with peat fire. Here, we met Sean, one of the village residents who helped build and mark the trail. Reserved but friendly, he was persuaded by us to come along as a guide and interpreter on our hike.
As we gathered our gear and got ready to go, Sean suddenly took off like a man pursued by demons, and set such a blistering pace it was impossible to carry on a conversation. If I stopped for a photograph, I'd look up to see Sean had become a white speck in the distance. Why, we asked his friend Brian later, over tea, did he do that? "Sean's a former football player," laughed Brian. "That's just the way he walks." The idiosyncrasy, and warmth, of the Irish people was a constant surprise.
Farther north, in County Mayo, we enjoyed two more village walks, routes that despite their proximity showed a very different character. At Ballintubber, we were met by Mickey at a picturesque stone cottage that serves as the Clogher Bog Loop information center. Mickey is right out of central casting, standing at the half door of the cottage, puffing away at his pipe, making ribald jokes on our arrival. Over tea we met some of the other residents of the village, a place famous for being the location of an abbey that is among the oldest Catholic worship sites in Ireland. Dating from 440AD, the abbey marks the beginning of the pilgrimage route to Croagh Patrick. The Clogher Bog Loop follows a series of time-honored turbury, or "turf cutting" tracks that have been in long use across the bogs surrounding the village. In fact, Mickey and his friends stopped to demonstrate for us how the peat is dug out, one spadeful at a time, put aside to dry, then hauled away by donkey cart to be used by villagers as fuel.Sister Maureen, from the nearby Ballintubber Abbey, serenaded us with a moving vocal of "The Boys of County Mayo," her strong, smooth voice ringing out across the bog in one of the most touching impromptu concerts I can remember. We were amazed, it's the kind of thing that can happen only on a walk down a remote village track in rural Ireland. The loop here touches on yet more history while making an intriguing circle through bog and forest. At one point we cross the tochar, the original pilgrimage route from Ballintubber Abbey to Croagh Patrick. In fact, at Drom Cemetary, some say the depression in an old stone is the footprint of St. Patrick himself. This hike is loaded with power for the faithful. For much of the route, the sharp, daunting summit of St. Patrick's mountain itself was visible to the west.
Even better views of Croagh Patrick came the next day during our last village hike near Newport. The scenic Lettermaghera Loop starts at Derrada and follows a farm track along the moors before climbing into the Nephin Beg Mountains just east of Clew Bay. It's a great hike, one that offers views to the bay, dotted with low islands, and the always surprising pinnacle of St. Patrick's mountain beyond. We are accompanied on the route by Francis, a local farmer, who tells me as we walk along that the varying spray-painted spots on all the sheep we see are there to identify the owner, like a cattle brand. When we pass the ruin of a cottage, Francis knows it once belonged to a long dead violin player, and points out the stone floor and small rooms that characterize homes of the era. Ruins like this are everywhere in Ireland, from small cottages to entire villages abandoned during the potato famine in the 19th century, to looming castles. It takes some getting used to.
History rules in rural Ireland, but with the green fields rolling out to Clew Bay under a soft Irish sun, it's a lovely 10 kilometer route in its own right, the essence of what a good country walk should be. As someone accustomed to more challenging multi-day backcountry trips, these surreal loops through the Irish countryside in the company of local residents became a new way to think about hiking. It was relaxing, and seductive, and I was sorry to see our time begin to draw to a close.
Connemara National Park
The strenuous ascent up Croagh Patrick came the next day, just as the weather worsened, and we all think the climb is going to be the high kpoint of the trip. But in fact, without knowing it, we've managed to save the best for last: Connemara. For those who have been there, just the name evokes memories of the Irish landscape at it's most dramatic. Connemara, where some of western Ireland's highest peaks roll down to meet the Atlantic along a craggy, rocky coast, is an unforgettable place. The combination of ocean, islands, rugged coast and high mountains makes this landscape unique, and the Irish are wise to have set aside a big chunk of it as a national park.
In keeping with our loop theme, our first hike here was in Connemara National Park itself. We set out from the visitors center near Letterfrack on a blustery, overcast day, climbing up impressive Diamond Hill, returning by the circle route. We were fortunate to do the route with scholar and archeologist Michael Gibbons, who knows the West Coast of Ireland like no one else, from the colorful heathers to the land's ancient history.
The weather robbed us of the view however, so it was time to retire to busy little Clifden, one of the most charming small towns on the West Coast. Over lunch in Griffin's pub, a local favorite, Michael gave us a crash course in how Ireland was transformed from an Island of druids and pagans to one of Catholics. Over the ubiquitous pints of Guinness, he agree to come along on several other hikes so I could get a better feel for the region's long past.
The next few days were spent in glorious sunshine as I took in the pleasures of Connemara. With Michael I walked the coastal bogs of Connemara looking for megalithic toombs and standing rocks that date from pre-history, and explored tiny islands just offshore that are reachable only by the traditional west coast boat called a curragh,long and narrow and black. Some of these small islands are home only to a few families, a half dozen donkeys and cows, and maybe a pair of the famous Connemara ponies, bred locally and prized for their strength and willingness to work hard.
I spent a day tramping through the expansive bogs of the Twelve Bens, a cluster of quartzite peaks that offer some of the best and most strenuous hill walking in all of Ireland. (I learned from Michael that these peaks are often (and erroneously) called the Twelve Pins, but the proper term is Bens, and moreover, there are 17 of them, not twelve. It was tough going in places where standing water made for wet walking-- not for nothing are these wet meadows called bogs. There's danger here as well, as even local walkers have perished on the bogs by falling into deep pools hidden by grass and mud, and drowning. That's also why the Bens harbor that most precious of backcountry attributes, even in this country: solitude.
This is a wild place, and it made a fitting end to a week-long hiking trip down the West Coast of this island nation. My final night was spent at the Dolphin Beach Hotel, a guesthouse perched on the rocky shore, a stunning setting for sunset. Dinner here reflected a growing sense of sophistication in food that is reflected all over the west coast, including restaurants such as Westport's Lemon Peel, a combination of fresh local foods and traditional cooking married to an innovative style that reflects the best of European cuisines. Ireland surprised me with interesting walking and even great hiking, but even more so with its civilized way and great food and drink.
One wonders if the new economic prosperity that is washing over all of Ireland--experts refer to its booming economy as the Celtic Tiger--will transform the slow and peaceful country into something not as appealing. Only time will tell, but with one of the best-educated English speaking populations in Europe, things aren't likely to slow down. It's reason enough to come back in a few years to see, but there's yet another reason: legend holds that if you climb Croagh Patrick seven times, you are guaranteed entrance to heaven. Only six more times to go...