When people think of Ireland, they might think of Guinness, music or even Leprechauns, but did you know that Ireland has a King?
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A 280-mile solo hike across Ireland.

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Travel Articles
ONE MAN AND HIS BACKPACK
Why would an overweight, unfit thirty-something carry a heavy backpack on a 450km trek across Ireland for charity? There were many reasons I suppose, but the mains ones were: it was for charity, and I was overweight and unfit, and hate going to gyms.

The plan was to leave Kirwan House hostel in Wexford town and pioneer my own walking trail via the country roads, canals and waymarked trails to Bunbeg in far north-western Donegal, avoiding main roads wherever possible. The main ingredients for success would be: stamina, determination, and lots of painkillers.

I'd obtained most of the maps and guides I would need, which added more weight to an already overloaded backpack. Regular consultation of the OSI maps meant I was able to navigate the backroads with relative ease.
Just outside Wexford I picked up a stray dog as I approached Forth Mountain. It just appeared behind and faithfully followed me for miles through the county. I chanced upon a sign indicating a walk called the Three Rocks Trail. It went along the old logging roads, past a lovely secluded lake and then out onto a ledge overlooking the county. I sat there for a moment, one man and his dog looking out to the distance sea, before making my way off the mountain to the main country road and onto my first destination for the night.

I walked 40kms in the first two days and paid for it dearly with gigantic bulbous blisters. Of the many pieces of advice I got along the way, the best was to rub surgical spirit into my feet to harden them. The other was to rub in urine. Although the latter was cheaper and would please recycling enthusiasts, I preferred the former.

Much of the first half was walked via the now refurbished canal towpaths. From St Mullins I followed the Barrow Line northwards for 60kms through Graignamanagh, a village that lies on a particularly attractive stretch of the river. I then joined the Grand Canal at Athy for 35kms to the sleepy village of Rathangan. The waterways association has done an excellent job clearing the towpaths and waymarking the trail. It's a nice flat, easygoing walk. Much of the trail is along soft grass and although a little uneven in sections, it was an ideal route to begin such a long trek.

I linked up these walking trails using country roads. Some were old bog roads that weren't really designed for heavy traffic. Passing trucks would turn the road into a huge trampoline, aiding my progress somewhat.

From Rathangan it was a two-day walk to the Royal Canal (a less successful rival to the Grand Canal), which has now been cleared all the way to the Shannon in Longford. Just beyond Mullingar though, the route had become overgrown. It was still passable, but involved trudging through grass up to my waist. The reason for this soon became obvious: Shandonagh Bridge was closed off and undergoing major repairs. Getting around it involved climbing some fences and gates. Rain was lashing down on me. After the bridge the path was clear but muddy and laden with cows. At the next lock was a sign on a gate announcing this section of the canal was closed. There had been no sign on the other side. Shortly after this the towpaths became gravel roads all the way into Ballynacarrigy.

It was surprising just how remote the centre of Ireland is. Even on the canals I spent long days without hardly seeing a soul. At times I began to wonder if the holocaust had happened and no one had told me.

My main encounters were bored fishermen who weren't catching anything, day walkers and the odd character like the artist and sculptor from Carlow who was dredging the canal with a magnet for old pieces of iron. He pulled out three old horseshoes, which may have belonged to the horses that used to pull the barges.

Oddly enough, my main encounters were with cows. Back in New Ross I'd become aware of being stealthily followed by a herd. When I stopped and looked around, the herd was directly behind me, but had also stopped. They were swinging their heads in a variety of directions in an attempt to conceal their actions. Since then I'd been followed by herds and even stalked on occasions by a solitary cow. Others would simply stand and stare, or run across the field and watch me from the fence. It was almost as if I was being revered as some kind of Cow God.

By the time I arrived in Co. Westmeath my spirits were low. The first couple of weeks had been hell: sore feet and aching joints, bad weather mostly and the lack of people making it a lonely trek. There is only so much of your own company you can enjoy before you start to realise that you are not that much fun to be with. I'd even begun talking to the cows to make sure my voice still worked. Fortunately a series of events on the approach to Mullingar had lifted them once again.

It was one of the few sunny days on the walk when I met Nuala and her friend. As a keen walker herself, Nuala was fascinated with what I was doing. After five minutes talking she was inviting me to a dinner party that night at her house. It was a perfect way to celebrate the halfway point of the walk; although it was a good thing the next day was a designated rest day.

After having trudged through an unchanging landscape for 280kms, I was glad to arrive in the mountainous northwest.
From Carrick on Shannon I headed northward and picked up the Leitrim Way at Drumshanbo. I followed this along the edge of Slieve Anierin overlooking Lough Allen to Dowra. The route went along country lanes mostly. One section leads along a muddy lane through some farmland, a part of which is overgrown and impassable due to lack of maintenance. But you can skirt around it on the main road.

Dowra is the intersection point for three waymarked trails: the Leitrim, Miners and Cavan ways. Yet despite this there is only one B&B in the village, one on the outskirts, and no campsite.

The second half of the Leitrim Way is by far the most interesting. It takes you over Boleybrack Mountain. The ascent was relatively steady. Passing the last house on the Dowra side, I was greeted by old farmer Frankie Cullen and his sheepdog Flossie (Sounds like an excerpt from a children's bedtime story, but I swear it's true).
Frankie kindly offered me a cup of tea and something to eat. He owned 80 acres of the land we were on and explained that this section of the Leitrim Way was actually the old country road to Manorhamilton, but nowadays you couldn't get a bicycle over it. He walked it often taking the cattle to town.

It was a beautiful day and it seemed I'd timed my arrival just right, as the week before had seen rain and hail. The last two sunny days had dried much of this, leaving just the odd saturated, yet crossable section. The first half had been along country roads, then the ascent was via old forest and farm tracks. The hardest part was near the top where the tracks ran out and I had to traverse a bog with no discernable trail. Other than this and a mean-looking bull at the summit (who, obviously not wanting to offend the chosen one, moved out of my way), the going was relatively straightforward. The reward for the effort was lunch by the summit lake (371m) and a magnificent view of the two giant lakes of Enniskillen. Lovely Leitrim was certainly living up to its name. It was June and the landscape was awash with wildflower, making it much more colourful and attractive than the canals.

The next set of waymarked trails lay in County Donegal. From Manorhamilton I found my way through a valley between Saddle Hill and Crocknagapple Mountain. The lanes took me along the edges of the two mountains, providing better views and less chance of being added to the many roadside graves. This route took me up into County Fermanagh and around the shore of Lough Melvin towards Ballyshannon. The backroute from here to Donegal, through rocky, hilly farmland was especially attractive. All this was without doubt the best non-waymarked section I'd taken yet, and I was surprised it hadn't been made into one. Perhaps they could call it the Middleton Way?
County Donegal is home to two major waymarked trails: the Bluestacks and the Donegal Way. The latter is the largest comprising of four circular walks throughout the many Gaeltacht areas.

After a couple of days rest I set off for the final leg of the journey. The Bluestacks Way leads on from Donegal Town to Lough Eske and loops back around and over a pass on Carnaween Mountain. I joined the trail just south of this pass.

During much of the walk I'd encroached upon local people to refill my water bottle. In Letterbarra Seamus provided my water and some local information. Every year on the first Sunday of June people make a pilgrimage here to the very peak of Carnaween (521m). My route didn't quite take me to the peak, but close to it. Once again I was blessed with good weather. In fact, it had only consistently rained on me for two days out of the entire walk.
You would think that after two days rest and 390kms of walking that I'd be well prepared to tackle this peak. I wasn't. I felt no fitter than the day I'd left Wexford.

The waymarking of these routes are fairly good, but an OSI map is an advantage as certain signs are missing or obscured and could easily be missed.

The hike over the peak was well marked, but there was no actual trodden path. It was simply a case of scrambling over the rough, swampy terrain. To add insult to injury it was also one of those deceptive hills where the summit always seems in view, but you arrive there only to find another uphill section. There wasn't much of a view from the top, just a couple of small lakes. But once down off the other side the trail follows the rocky Owenroe River flowing through a mini gorge. The final stretch into Glenties was along a narrow farm track.

I left the Bluestacks Way at Glenties and soon joined the Donegal Way. Once you cross the Gweebara River the county's scenery makes a dramatic change from lush green vegetation to a stark weather-beaten wilderness. The trail now led me along a coastline of scattered rocky hills with isolated lakes and large, stunning bays and inlets and was by far the most scenic along the entire walk.

Thirty-three days after leaving Wexford (twenty-four walking) I trudged into Bunbeg Harbour via the Rosses, where Mt Errigal and the rest of the Derryveagh Mountains provided a picturesque backdrop. The sun was out and the landscape sparkled. The only downside was the ugly site of wrecked cars strewn across the countryside.
At Bunbeg House I threw down my cumbersome backpack and vowed never to walk anywhere ever again, until I discovered my van wouldn't start.

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