With its turbulent history and its scenery ranging from calming lakes, bogs and woodlands to the churning Atlantic, Ireland has much to engage the dedicated traveller, which is why I keep going back.
I began my latest trip to Dublin, as I always do, with a walking tour. Because the city guides pepper their walks with their own personal stories, I got to learn something new while fondly revisiting familiar sites.
Wanting to explore even more of Dublin, I then walked to 14 Henrietta Street, a new museum that just opened last September. The building is the only standing tenement on its street that remains in its original condition. Originally a mansion for aristocrats, later a Georgian townhouse for a lawyer and family, with servants, 14 Henrietta Street was finally subdivided with crude partitions that reached only partway up its high ceilinged rooms to provide housing for the poor of Dublin in the 1870s, a conversion that yielded tremendous profit for its developer.
In 1911, 17 families lived in this one building, which had only one indoor bathroom. On our tour, we were led up and down dark, narrow, decrepit-looking stairs, into cramped rooms of peeling wallpaper marked by mould and a musty smell. Our guide, with the help of slides, some furnishings and tapes of interviews with former tenants, described how life was lived when almost a sixth of Dublin’s population lived in tenements. Rosie Hackett, founder-member of the Irish Women workers’ Union and member of the Irish Citizen Army in the 1916 Easter Rising, and the only woman to have a bridge across the River Liffey named for her, lived at 14 Henrietta Street. Her life testifies to the fortitude and perseverance of the inhabitants.
Dublin is a city of social activists, and I was particularly gratified to spot a series of murals on a lane wall in the Temple Bar district drawing attention to the great female writers of Ireland, women who were, according to the poster, “airbrushed out of history” due to their radical social views and non-orthodox personal lives. I quickly snapped photos of all the posters so I could seek out the works of these dangerous women in my favourite Dublin bookstores.
At Dublin Airport, I met the group of 14 people, who, along with guide Christopher of Footfalls Walking Holidays, were to be my companions for a week-long trek to the Irish countryside of Cork and Kerry. Our first two days were spent in the fishing port of Castletownbere, where we took the ferry to Bera Island to explore. The next day we climbed high above the sea, taking time to admire the delicate yellow of the asphodel and pinks of the three-leaf bog heather, then descended to lunch on Ballydonegan Beach, whose sands are made of the quartz and crystal tailings of the nearby abandoned Allihies copper mine. Castletownbere is the largest whitefish port in Ireland; the restaurants in this quiet town are superb and the pubs quite jolly.
We departed Cork for Kerry and Killarney. At Ross Castle in Killarney National Park, we boarded an open motorized boat. Our first stop was the Island of Innisfallen with the 12th and 13th century ruins of its once great abbey. Founded in the 6th century by St. Finan as a leper colony, the abbey was an important centre of learning. Brian Ború, the Great High King of Ireland, studied there, and its annals, composed in the 11th century, are now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The small island with its ancient yew trees and stone ruins gave us much to contemplate.
As we boated though the three Lakes of Killarney National Park, the opening of each lake narrower than the last, we heard the cry of the grouse. We disembarked at Lord Brandon’s Cottage from where we hiked through a sessile oak wood with its holly understorey, then felt the soft underfoot of the bog and moorlands and heard the cooling noise of a nearby waterfall, where we stopped to take off our hiking boots and wade in the pools below the fall. We hiked to the larger Torc Waterfall to end our day’s hike at Muckross House and Gardens, the 19th-century Victorian mansion at the base of the national park.
The next morning we explored Muckross Traditional Farms, working farms that replicate life in 1930s and 1940s rural Ireland. We toured various small farms and cottages and watched through a Dutch door as a woman in period costume baked soda bread in a Dutch oven over a peat turf fire. A man milked a shorthorn cow, and another woman fed the turkeys and chickens, while the pigs rested in their sty. With the current cost of shearing a sheep at two euros and the market value of the wool at less than one-and-a-half euros, traditional farming in Ireland needs all the support it can get.
That afternoon I lunched on the sand at Inch Beach on the Dingle Peninsula in Kerry, a beach that has been in use since the Stone Age. After our 18-kilometre walk in Killarney, I was happy to walk the five-kilometre beach in the surf, only leaving the soothing salt water to make short detours around the fishing lines of the poles set up on the beach in what was a brilliantly sunny, breezy day. My only other detour was around a large jellyfish sprawled out in the surf, its radiating dark lines against the transparent disk-like body.
Our last hike of the week was on the Sauce Creek Trail of the Dingle Peninsula with its steady climb to a spot high on the 300-metre sea cliffs overlooking what is reputably a spectacular bay. By then the mist had closed in, so there was no view, and without our guide, we would surely have been lost as we descended to Brandon Point, the end of our 10.5-kilometre hike. St. Brandon sailed off from here in his currach on his seven-year voyage to find the Isles of the Blessed, a land that may well have been North America, and thus would have established that St. Brandon was there a millennium before Columbus.
The end of the week’s hiking was celebrated with the group over fresh cod at a Dingle restaurant and then at a pub for “rince, ceol, caint, and craic” (dance, music, chat and fun). Thoroughly enjoying myself, I thought this hiking holiday with this group through this beautiful countryside has been even better for my heart than all the kilometres of vigorous exercise.