© Limerick Leader 14/06/08 Áine Fitzgerald

An unfulfilled curiosity about her own home place prompted Rachel Ryan to go on a voyage of discover. Now she plans to share this with tourists, writes Áine Fitzgerald.

Back on Irish soil, Scarteen native Rachel Ryan is sitting at a table in her aunt Gwenda’s home outside the village of Knocklong, itching to “get under the skin of Irish culture”.

Just like her late father – the legendary Thady Ryan – Rachel is bringing different cultures, attitudes and backgrounds together in the great outdoors. While Thady did this in the Irish hunt scene, Rachel is doing it through walking – a ten day walking tour of the West of Ireland to be more precise.

“It all started about a year and a half ago when myself, my nephew Tadhg and my daughter went over to Lough Gur. We were standing in the middle of the stone circle in Grange and I was thinking ‘look at this place, I can’t believe it. I lived so near it when I was young but I had never been to that stone circle in my life’. We had been to the lake alright but I wanted to know more and it was that which really urged me on.”

From June 16 – June 25 Rachel, brother Hugh, his partner Elin, an accomplished chef and a group of 10 Kiwi guests will walk the West of Ireland, seeking out the real Ireland; none of this shamrock business.

Their footsteps will carry them through The Glen of Aherlow, the Beara Peninsula and the Burren over the course of the 10 day excursion which Rachel hopes will see the nitty gritty of life in rural Ireland, exposed.

“For me it’s all about the people,” says Rachel as she gives a lingering look out aunt Gwenda’s window into the lush green Knocklong countryside.

“I want to show people from New Zealand the real Ireland. Over there you tend to just get things like the shamrocks and St. Patrick’s Day, the stereotypes depicting only a very small piece of Ireland. I want to get under the skin of what it is to be Irish.”

Meetings with craftspeople, food producers, owner of homes of historical interest, along with experience of music, dance, theatre and storytelling are on the itinerary.

“The focus will be on food, culture, landscape and,” her voice dipping with an air of mischief “having a great time.”

The motivation, according to Rachel, to organise this event grew from a sense of connection and a longing to get back to her birthplace more often. Having moved to New Zealand in 1980 – she married Grant Williams and has two daughters Kiri and Alice – in more recent years she realised that she wanted to learn more about the history of her homeland.

“I was brought up in Scarteen so for me to be here today is like heaven. I used to get back to Ireland about once every six or seven years but that wasn’t quite often enough. I had been teaching for many years and I thought I wanted to do something completely different. I was to get out and get fit and I love being in the countryside.”

All 10 of the walking guests taking to the West, are from New Zealand, eight of them from Rachel’s local area, Nelson, in the South Island. One woman is 69 years of age and she is being accompanied on the trip by her 19 year- old granddaughter. “The rest of the walkers are couples,” says Rachel.

“Possibly two people in the group have been in Ireland before but for most of them it is their first time. Many of them made it to England but they never quite made it across to Ireland. A majority have Irish heritage so they will be spending a lot of the time outside of the tour researching and going back to their roots.

One of those is travel writer, Gerard Hindmarsh who is only “dying to explore his Irish roots”.

Tourism Ireland in Auckland have a grant of 1,000 Euro to bring him out here so he will be doing some writing for them as well. He has written a few books so he is just the right person for the job. He sees beyond things, he is a good writer; he gets to the nitty-gritty of things and of people.

“The people aspect as I said is very important to me. I want the group to go back to New Zealand really feeling like they have experienced Irish hospitality, the x-factor.”