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Ireland: More than bog-standard tramping

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Dun Beag Fort, Dingle Peninsula, Ireland. Photo / Jill Worrall
Dun Beag Fort, Dingle Peninsula, Ireland. Photo / Jill Worrall

It was a wet two weeks of walking on the West Coast of Ireland recently. It rained almost every day although the Irish would probably prefer I called the persistent showers and frequent downpours mist or at the very most, drizzle. But despite the conditions my enthusiasm for the Irish outdoors remains undampened.

At the head of the valley known as Lough a Duin (the Lake of the Fort) that stretches back into the mountains of the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, lies a grave - a simple rectangular outline of stones.

There's no headstone with an inscription because the people who performed the burial couldn't read or write. They were Bronze Age men and women who settled in this valley more than 4000 years ago.

There are about 90 other stone structures scattered around this glacial valley, evidence that thousands of years ago what is now rough grazing land was once intensively farmed. There might be only a few of us walkers here today, and a couple of sheep, scrambling around the slopes above us but we're certainly not the first to pass this way.

The grave lies a short walk from a waterfall from the highlands above, cascading down among a tumble of giant boulders. A fine misty spray glistens on the surrounding rocks, making the grass slick and slippery. A lake has formed at the base of the fall, its waters dark and ruffled by a breeze eddying around the peaks above us.

This walk is a short diversion from the main route of the Dingle Way, the higher sections of which are inaccessible today as they are swathed in thick cloud, the path under foot made treacherous by relentless rain.

Dingle Peninsula, because of its isolation and less intensive forms of modern farming, has one of the richest concentrations of archaeological sites in Ireland. Whereas the grave of Lough a Duin is a simple if rather poignant reminder of a life-long gone, the Iron Age promontory fort on the other side of the peninsula is a far more complex structure.

The fort, which was probably built in the 8th-9th century AD, perches on the edge of sheer cliffs. Although Dun Beag has a sophisticated series of banks, ditches and ramparts, researchers are not sure if it was used as a defensive post against raiders or was simply a well fortified home or a place for special rituals. It is sturdily built and the walls provide some shelter against the wind but even so, on a rainy day with the cloud blanketing the hills above, one can imagine that life here would still have been a struggle.

From the fort, a footpath, flanked by drystone walls, leads up the hill winding through flowering gorse and past the odd shaggy-fleeced sheep. They stand on rocky outcrops, black faces turned towards us.

Out in the mist we should be able to see Slea Head, the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, but there is just an ocean of wet whiteness. But then while we sit fending off giant sea gulls from our sandwiches the curtain of cloud lifts and reveals a curve of golden beach and, rather incongruously, the sleek black forms of surfers.

Although the Dingle Way (and its neighbouring walking route the Kerry Way which is even more popular) are some of the best known walks in Ireland there are many others including several that criss-cross the extraordinary landscape of the Burren in County Galway.

The Burren is 280 square kilometres of limestone landscape which millennia ago was then covered in glacial ice. This ground the limestone smooth and in places left behind massive boulders that now sit perched on vast pavements of striated rock. Strangely enough for an area that at first looks so barren, the Burren is rich in plantlife, including dozens of species of flowers.

We ascend onto the flanks of the Burren which face out into Galway Bay, once again accompanied by a persistent drizzle. But the soft light makes it easy to spot the flowers that grow beside the stonewalls and fill the crevices, known as grikes, that separate the vast slabs of limestone pavement.

There are pale pink, purple and white orchids, cranesbill (the precise name is actually Bloody Cranesbill, which is a name open to misinterpretation), campanulas and even a lone, vividly blue gentian. The unique ecosystem of the Burren means that artic plants grow near Mediterranean species, and acid-loving plants can thrive next to those that love lime.

With the rain still accompanying us we travel further north into County Donegal in the far north west of Ireland. Our destination is the Blues Sack Way, a 65km walk through what the Irish sweetly call mountains and we would call hills, the highest point being 1230 metres.

Over two days we do two sections of the walk, the most challenging of which is over the main ridge of the Blue Stacks themselves. This involves a steep pull uphill and without the aid of a track.

What surprises me most is that here at least Irish bogs are not confined to the valleys. As we toil uphill through ground oozing with moisture we come across a raised bog, something of a rarity throughout Europe in general.

Raised bogs have domed masses of peat, sometimes several metres high, around which lie swampy areas, even streams of water. It's fascinating terrain but makes for demanding walking. It can also be very slippery in places, which is my excuse for being the only member of the walking party to fall into a bog during our two weeks in the outdoors.
I can report that although I emerge looking a little like the creature from the black lagoon, the bog water itself seems relatively sweet-smelling. At least I can detect no odour - on reflection, that was why the rest of the party was happy to leave me as "tail-end Charlie".

We stop for a breather on the spur between two of the peaks that form the Blue Stacks, Binbane and Cloghmeen Hill. We should be able to see for kilometres in all directions, but despite the fact that for once it is no longer raining, low clouds are still scudding over the landscape. Bars of sunlight light up only brief glimpses of the boglands, deep green patches of forest and even the Atlantic in the distance.

Down in the valley on the other side we meet a farmer who had taken his young sheepdogs out for a practice session with a small flock of sheep. He asks where we'd come from and we point back up at Cloghmeen.

"My grandmother used to walk over that regularly. In her day it was the quickest way to get to the villages on the other side," he says, while his dogs lie panting in the truck beside us. "But did you know too that once the young men and women used to go up there once a year in early summer as a kind of courting ritual? There was a lot of singing and dancing and..." His voice tails off.

Clearly the courting couples of yesteryear were made of stern stuff - finding all that extra energy after the slog uphill, not to mention their abilities presumably to arrive there, still looking suitably alluring, and not as I had, as if I'd been bathing in Guinness.

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