© The Listener 21 February 2009

Walking along Ireland’s west coast.

Still decadent and down-to-earth enough to retain all its old charm, Dublin was plastered with political posters when I passed through. It was the eve of the EU Treaty referendum that sent a “get lost” message to Brussels bureaucrats.

Stroppy still rules in Ireland, but a fatalistic attitude was best for me and everyone else driving out of Dublin at a snail’s pace through vast roadworks on the N50. My destination was Cork City, where I was to join a walking tour of Ireland’s West, but getting there wasn’t straight-forward. At the end of narrowing lanes, with my wing mirrors buried in the hedgerows on both sides, I found the locals helpful, but confusing: “Well, if you want to go there, dear, you don’t really want to be starting from here.”

Getting lost had its surprises, though. Just out of Roscrea in County Offaly, I found the overgrown entrance into Leap Castle, reputedly Ireland’s most haunted building. Black crows on the battlements sprang to screeching, flying life upon my arrival. I pushed open the huge door and called out, but no one seemed to be home. Inside, a huge fire blazed in the hearth, and candles were lit all around. Workmen cleaning out an old dungeon in 1920 made a grisly discovery of human skeletons, many still impaled on a huge spike. I left as quietly as I had come.

My 10-day walking tour with 10 other Kiwis began in Cork City. We were motivated by a desire to see where our forebears had come from.

Our first two days were based in the seaside town of Allihies, out on the Beara Peninsula in County Kerry. Locally recruited walking guide John Kelly captivated us with his bucolic brogue as he introduced us to the soft greens and peat bogs of the Beara Way and the old -Berehaven tin mine ruins. Mountain peat fields show the scars of extraction over centuries, but the practice of cutting peat nationwide will end soon when a new law comes into force.

The next day we headed out to roam windswept Dursey Island, 6.5km long and with a permanent population of five. A rudimentary cable car suspended 30m above the raging channel took us over in three lots. A small sign told us livestock had priority over humans in the queue.

Standing stones seem to be every-where you walk in Ireland. At 5.3m high, the Ogham Stone near Bally-crovane is inscribed with ancient script and is -reputedly the tallest in Europe. The farmer extracted two euros from each of us to help cover his public liability insurance for tourists viewing the monument, which dates back to 800BC.

Tour guide Rachel Ryan, who moved from Ireland to Nelson in 1980, introduced us over the week to her illustrious family. Scarteen, the farm in Limerick where she grew up, is still distinctive for maintaining a hunting pack of around 80 pure-bred Kerry beagles, the “Scarteen black and tans”. More affectionate than the English foxhound, this highly strung breed is renowned for its sharp nose and “marvellous music” or vocal capacity.


The hunt, still held two or three times a week in the November to January hunting season, involves up to 50 horses and riders madly following the dogs, which typically range over 30 farms. Add in 40-60 car -followers keeping in touch by mobile phone, and the fence fixers who follow behind to repair any damage, and it all becomes one big circus. Unlike its English counterpart, Irish fox hunting hasn’t been branded an elitist sport, and so it has not been subjected to protests.

Irish rural cuisine is hot these days, and meeting food producers peppered our itinerary. One inspirational visit was to Gubbeen Farm in West Cork, where the whole family turns out an amazing array of top-class products, all vacuum-packed and ready for market.

Viewing the 300m-high Cliffs of Moher was a blast in the raging gale off the Atlantic. Several times I got blown onto my hands and knees. It was as if the Irish Sea gods were ordering me to pay homage.

The “four seasons in one day” Irish weather beat us again, stopping us witnessing the sunrays of the longest day slide down the paved entrance way and through the prominent portal stones of the 30m-diameter Grange Stone Circle at Lough Gur in Tipperary.

When this area was being excavated by archaeologists in 1939, a psychic named Mrs Trent went into a trance within the circle and told of a young girl being dragged out screaming before the high priest who severed her jugular with one of his canine teeth.

Our most strenuous day involved a climb up 919m-high Galtymore Mountain, which has an ancient rock wall snaking across it. If all the rock walls in -Ireland were joined up, they would stretch around the world three times.

The 450sq km chunk of limestone country called the Burren is captivatingly stark in contrast to the soft green and dun contours usually associated with the west of Ireland. Upon closer inspection, a multitude of wild flowers thrive among its karst pavements or “clints”.

We made our way across the limestone to Keelhilla and the ancient hermitage of St Colman Mac Duach, which nestles- beneath the frowning cliffs of Sliabh Cairn. I slurped a few mouthfuls from his “healing well”, then squeezed into the crevice where the monk lived for seven years in the sixth century. In Irish weather, that would have been a big ask.