By Judy Enright
Special to the BIR
There was a time not so long ago in Ireland when bicycles and feet were the primary modes of transportation, especially out in the rural areas. Of course, there were motorized vehicles then, too, but certainly not the numbers that there are today. And, bicycles were mostly useful, old-fashioned, and clunky – not sleek racing machines.
A lot has changed in Ireland over the years and that includes the somewhat recent focus on active recreation and having fun. Today, you can find all kinds of independent or group activity sports all over the country as well as any number of adventure centers. It’s not uncommon these days to pass joggers or bicyclists on the main roads where once you only saw the renegade horse or sheep.
If you’re a walker or a cyclist, there’s so much for you to see and do in Ireland in every season. There are many groups and individuals that lead walking and cycling tours and numerous cycling races and cross-country events to sign up for as well.
Walkers can brush up on their history while getting some exercise by taking guided heritage and historical tours offered in many cities and some of the smaller towns. Dublin, for instance, has a two-hour guided walking tour to see landmarks from the Easter Rising of 1916. See 1916rising.com for more.
Several years ago, we took a fascinating guided walking tour to the many historic spots in Youghal, Co. Cork. And, that’s just one small town, so imagine how many other towns and cities all over Ireland offer tours. See heritageisland.com or discoverireland.com for more details.
The best way to find out what’s available wherever you are in Ireland is by stopping in at the local tourist board office (Bord Failte) where you see the big green shamrock or, if you know in advance what areas you’ll be visiting, by checking out Tourism Ireland’s website (discoverireland.com) for activities, events, festivals, accommodation and so much more.
If you are looking for great places to walk, be sure to include Connemara (Co. Galway), the Burren (Co. Clare), and the Great Western Greenway (Co. Mayo) on your list.
In Connemara, you can stroll the many marked walking trails and enjoy the sea, shore, and mountains. Down the coast, in Co. Clare, is the magical Burren, a hauntingly beautiful limestone moonscape bordered by the sea and by some wonderful coastal towns like Doolin, Lahinch, Ballyvaughan, and Liscannor. Guided and self-guided tours are offered in both Connemara and the Burren that focus on various aspects of the region, including ecology and history.
The Great Western Greenway, Ireland’s longest off-road walking and cycling trail, connects Westport to Achill Island in Co. Mayo. You can walk the route or hire a bike from one of many locations along the way. There are many places to stay and numerous spots for an enjoyable lunch in the area, such as the Granuaille Pub in Newport and the Mulranny Park Hotel that overlooks lovely Clew Bay. See greenway.ie for more details.
Recognized by UNESCO in 2011 with Global and European Geopark status, the Burren and Cliffs of Moher region not only has the geological importance required of a Geopark, but also a network of organizations that oversee tourism, education, and conservation.
With land mass measuring more than 530 kilometres, the region offers a diversity second to none, according to the Irish website, burrenconnect.ie. “There is
the natural beauty of the 200-meter high Cliffs with its eight kilometers of rugged coastline, and there is beauty in the vast array of flora, including Arctic and Alpine flowers that bloom alongside Mediterranean species. There is also a staggering amount of history in the Burren region with more than 2,700 recorded monuments, some dating back more than 6,000 years. This has led to the Burren being described as ‘one vast memorial to bygone cultures.’”
The Burren is “an upside-down world of contradictions where rivers run underground through a honeycomb of caves carved by nature through low-resistance limestone; year-round pasture flourishes at rocky heights. Burren roads that vary in age from 200 to 1,000 years lead back through 7,000 years of habitation marked by 120 ancient stone tombs, 500 stone forts plus castles, and churches from every century of the Christian era,” according to Burren Connect.
When you and I look across the limestone landscape in the Burren, though, it’s tempting to see only a sea of dull, grey rocks. However, when you get out of your car and walk across the uneven plates, look down into the crevices and you’ll see (during growing season) the most fascinating plants and flowers. Sea pinks flourish by the water and inland are blue gentians and orchids and so many more species.
A number of companies offer guided walking and bike tours of the area. We thought Burren Wild sounded especially interesting because the founder, John Connolly, is reportedly the only walking guide in Ireland to give tours on his own land. John has a degree in Irish Heritage and his day tours or weekend hikes cover such subjects as history, archaeology, mythology, botany, story telling, folklore and traditions, Poteen distilling, and more. For details, contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website burrenwalks.com
Keep an eye out in the Burren, too, for a wonderful magazine, “Burren Insight,” published by the Burrenbeo Trust in Kinvara. For more about Burrenbeo, e-mail email@example.com or visit the website at burrenbeo.com. We usually find Insight at the tourist office in Ballyvaughan.
Here’s an idea for an interesting holiday adventure. Be a participant in classes, tours, or workshops through the Boghill Centre, a residential holistic Eco venue in Kilfenora, Co. Clare.
There are workshops, courses, meetings, events, retreats, weddings, and more at Boghill, a sustainable complex in 50 acres at the base of the Burren that is open all year as a B&B and hostel and also offers group accommodation.
At Boghill, you can visit organic vegetable and fruit gardens, walk a nature trail, see a stone circle, wildlife pond, reed labyrinth, chicken coop and pigpen, orchard, and several recently planted native woodland areas. The gourmet menu is renowned for vegetarian fare, sourced primarily from their organic garden and orchard. The Centre caters to specific diets too such as wheat, dairy, or gluten free.
At the nearby Burren Perfumery in Carran, you can also enjoy a walk through an outstanding garden and stop for a delicious organic lunch. And don’t forget to take home some of their wonderful perfumery products – soaps, balms, creams, and more.
When you talk about small world, we were in Doolin recently and met Brockton (MA) native Mary Sheehan. A professional chef, Mary moved to Co. Clare some years ago and has since written a cookbook called, “Coming Home To Cook - Vegetarian Recipes Inspired by the Organic Gardens of Ireland.” For more information on the book and Mary, visit her website at marysheehan.com.
Here’s a fun way to learn about the heritage of Connemara and get some exercise, too. Take a Heritage Walk with the renowned local archaeologist Michael Gibbons, the author of numerous books about the area. There are currently three guided walks in the area of Connemara - on Inishbofin Island, Diamond Hill, and the Roundstone bog. Each of the three walks has been designed with the casual walker in mind. Further walks are being planned for the summer season. For more information, e-mail Michael@connemarawalks.com or visit the website connemarawalks.com.
You can also enjoy a five-day walking tour of Clifden, Killary, Inishbofin, Inishturk, and Clare Island with the archaeologist Gerry McCloskey. The tour includes breakfast, gourmet picnics by day, dinner each evening and accommodation. For more, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website walkingconnemara.com
This is a bit of a departure from the wilds of Connemara but the gardeners in your group would no doubt tremendously enjoy a guided tour with Head Gardener Michael Byrne through the 10,000 beautiful tulips in Powerscourt Gardens on April 12. For details, contact email@example.com or visit the website at powerscourt.ie/events.
Visit discoverireland.com to see what counties list gardens that are open to the public during the time you’re in Ireland. Kylemore Abbey in Connemara has magnificent, restored gardens that are definitely well worth a visit.
Be sure to check with your favorite travel agent or jump on the internet to search for the best air and ground deals, and enjoy your trip to Ireland whenever and wherever you go.