All around the blooming heather…
I was recently invited by renowned Pilgrim trails writer John G. O’Dwyer to launch his book ‘50 Best Irish Walks’ in his home village of Upperchurch, Co. Tipperary. The scene that greeted Elaine and myself when we arrived in Kinnane’s pub was as welcoming as you could wish for – the warm glow of the log fire, the animated tones of people chatting as they queued patiently to have their book signed, the alluring aroma of Tapas dishes being passed around by Fergal and his team eager to ensure that no one went hungry. It eased us back unknowingly to an age old Irish hospitality that made us feel as though we belonged from the moment we arrived. Some things in life are worth preserving. I was a little nervous given the task ahead. That soon dissolved and the pulse slowed to the pace of the evening dew beyond the hearth as it dropped slowly from the blooming heather.
When it was my time to say a few words, I did acknowledge that it was a brave move on John G.’s part to invite a Waterford man to Tipperary on the eve of the first round of the hurling championship. They love their walks and their hurling in these parts. I thanked them for loaning us Liam Cahill and intimated gently that we were in no rush to hand him back. Sport has a way of bridging the divide. It lightened the way for me as I set out to pay homage to the brilliance of the book and the person who had scripted it. This book is John G.’s All-Ireland – a monumental feat that takes us on a journey of 50 stunning ‘mild to moderate’ walks around this island of ours many within touching distance of where we live. It’s rare to find a book so timely yet so assuredly timeless!
The car journey back to Tramore that evening gave us time to process what we had just been part of. There was something about the book, the place, the people that stayed with us long after we left the warmth of Kinnane’s behind. The common thread that landed so many hardened souls in one room that evening was the respect we all have for John G. There’s something irrepressible in the spirit of this man. He is a master craftsman, unassumingly wise and visionary, who has a unique gift when it comes to capturing the magnetic draw of ancient trails that have been etched in the land over centuries. He knows that once we take that first step into the unknown, something magical happens. We enter a space the world does not always offer. The universe has a way of liberating us to be free again, to carry with us only what matters most and to leave the rest behind.
‘50 Best Irish Walks’ entices us all to embrace the power of the great outdoors. It is not just for walking groups, or hikers, or the supremely fit or for those who love their adventure into the wild. It is for all of these and more. As John G. reminds us, more and more are now being drawn to “the wilder places in what sometimes amounts to a tidal wave of humanity”. John G.’s book nudges us gently beyond the safe sanctuary of our own locality to embrace the stunning plethora of walks within a short drive of our homes. Of the 50 walks, at least 15 are within an hour’s drive of where we live. The same could be said for anyone on the island of Ireland. “Simply put, the richest reward that comes with exploring the Irish landscape is the fact that there is almost always something surprising and enthralling lying around every corner”.
Outdoor walks ease us gently beyond the hold of the world as we know it. Unknowingly, we let go of what we cannot change and we tap into a raw, primordial courage that lies within us. What may have worried us starting out is viewed with new eyes by the time we return home. Perspective is everything. The world may not have changed but you have. From here, there is no going back. In the words of the man himself; “Deep in our subconscious, we seem hard-wired to seek green spaces when daily dilemmas threaten to overwhelm us. Secluded and evocative, these serene landscapes offer a quick avenue to relaxation and mellow thoughts.”
John G.’s book dares us to push out the boundaries. Each walk is a canvas on which he sprinkles beautifully descriptive hues and images with short historical anecdotes that nod towards something deeper and timeless waiting to be discovered. Each page takes us by the hand and leads us on a journey as though we are there. The author’s description of ‘The River Barrow Towpath’ illustrates his breathtaking capacity to weave light, story and mystery into the picture in a way that allows us to visualise and feel it for ourselves:
“These days the river is fully navigable for 68km from Athy in Co. Kildare to St Mullins in Co. Carlow. It boasts a towpath al the way with the result that it has now enticed me along to enjoy some of Ireland’s best waterside walking… Starting from the graceful arches of the Ballyteigelea Bridge, I tag the grassy towpath south where once teams of sweating horses drew barges laden with grain to upstream breweries. The River Barrow was for centuries, not only an important source of power to industry, it was also a crucial transport route from Waterford harbour northwards to the rich agricultural heartlands of Kilkenny and Carlow. The coming railways ended the Barrow’s glory days as an important trade artery, but the river has now been cleverly re-invented as a recreational playground.
Occasional strollers apart, I have the riverbank to myself. Hereabouts, the Barrow is in no haste on its 192km journey from the Slieve Bloom Mountains to meet the Atlantic and this brings the thought that, while successive generations come and go with their trivial cares and concerns, this great river journeys onwards eternally… Here an otter breaks cover from the riverbank as I pass, while a bevy of swans glide serenely upstream in evening stillness. Onwards then past the riverboat community at St Mullins Lock as evening mist creates a floaty river light. This happens where the first saltwater from the Atlantic tides meets the fresh water of the River Barrow and the different water temperatures often create a soft mist that imbues the area with a surreal sense of mystery.”
John G. steers us to a place we may not have found on our own. There is a profound sense in his writing that we are walking in the steps of those who have walked this way before. Whilst, in his words, “the past is never far away”, this moment in the universal scheme of things, is our moment to leave our own imprint on the land. Here on the outer frontiers, we connect to something deeper. We sense with each new step that we are part of something greater than ourselves… that we are not alone. Nature becomes our cathedral calling us beyond the safe sanctuaries we have left behind to a place where we tap into something deeper within ourselves. The unscripted chats along the way have a way of reminding us that kindness is everything in this life, it is all that really matters.
‘50 Best Irish Walks’ ignites a spark that is already in us all. Life is lived at such a pace now, we all need to open the shutters and let the light in, to breathe, to process, to soak in the beauty of the universe, to walk in sacred spaces in the spirit of those who have walked these same paths before. The conflicting currents of our world leave us wanting more. The gift lies in the solitude. In the silence, we come face to face with the wonder of it all. Something happens that draws us back to where we belong.
And we’ll all go together to pluck wild mountain thyme,
all around the blooming heather, will you go lassie go.
John G. O’Dwyer’s book ‘50 Best Irish Walks – Easy to Moderate’ is published by Currach Books 2022 and is available in all good bookstores.
Dr. Phil Brennan and Elaine are looking forward to leading groups from around Ireland and beyond on our signature ‘Celtic Camino in the steps of St Declan’ over the coming months in association with Mount Melleray Abbey and Cahir House Hotel, along with our ‘Celtic Camino in Ireland’s South East’ and our ‘3 Day Camino Escape’ with the Tower Hotel, Waterford as our base. We will also be teaming up with Original Irish Hotels to roll out unique Camino experiences to include Glendalough, St. Mullins, Ardmore, Gougane Barra and Dingle and we look forward to leading our first groups along St David’s Way in Wales this Autumn. You can contact Phil and Elaine directly on firstname.lastname@example.org