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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.