© Wild Tomato February 2009

Escape the hustle and bustle of Dublin in search of greener pastures to reveal a bucolic green landscape of hedgerows, peat bogs and Irish foxhounds | By Gerard Hindmarsh

The bane of civilization everywhere, mega road works on the N50 kept me at a snail's pace driving out of the Irish capital, Dublin. My destination was Cork City, where I was to join a walking tour of Ireland's west.

But getting there wasn't straightforward. Road signs seemed at odds with logic, and I soon found myself driving in the opposite direction to where I was supposed to be going. At the end of narrowing lanes, with my wing mirrors buried in the hedgerows on both sides, locals were helpful but just as confusing: "Well, if you want to go there, dear, you don't really want to be starting from here."

I was pleased to be rid of my rental car, and my 10-day walking tour with 10 other Kiwis began in Cork City with a typically over-the-top Irish cooked breakfast. A desire to see, with our own eyes, where our forebears had come from was a motivating theme amongst us.

Our first two days were based in the seaside town of Allihies, way 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 to the ruins of the old Berehaven Tin Mine. The mountain peat fields show the scars of extraction over centuries - big avenues of cut peat allocated to different families. But the practice of cutting peat nationwide will finish in this month, when a new law stops it forever.

The next day we headed out to roam the bare and windswept Dursey Island - 6.5km long and with a permanent population of five. A rudimentary cable car, which suspends 30m above the raging channel, took us over in three lots. A small sign informed us that livestock takes preference over humans in the queue.

Standing stones seem to pop up everywhere you go in Ireland. At 5.3m high, the Ogham Stone near Ballycrovane is inscribed with ancient script and reputedly the tallest in Europe. With Ireland now the second most litigious country after the US, the farmer extracts two euros from each of us to help cover his public liability insurance for viewing the 800BC-erected monument.

Later we drop into Scarteen - the farm where our guide, Rachel Ryan (now living in Nelson), grew up. Rachel had plenty of pictures of what New Zealand was like when she was a child, in the form of three rows of tea towels her mother pinned to the wall in their kitchen.

"I can still see them: Lake Mangamahoe, three different views of Taranaki and the boiling mud pools of Rotorua. Even before I came out for the first time, I'd seen them all."

This family home in Limerick is still distinctive for maintaining a hunting pack of around 80 purebred Kerry beagles, the "Scarteen Black and Tans". Meeting these dogs en masse was both full-on and overwhelming. Kerry beagles are more affectionate than English foxhounds, and the highly-strung breed is renowned for its sharp nose and "marvellous music" or vocal capacity.

Imagine the hunts, if you will, as they are carried out two or three times a week during the November-January hunting season. Up to 50 horses and riders madly follow the dogs, which typically range over 30 farms. Then add in 40-60 car followers that keep in touch with mobile phones (not to mention the fence fixers, which have to follow behind to repair any damage done). Conducted on low-lying terrain with demanding ditches and banks, the Scarteen Hunt is described as one of the world's best. Irish foxhunting has not suffered the elitism of its English counterpart, so protests have been rare.

Irish rural cuisine is hot these days, and meeting with food producers peppered our itinerary. One inspirational visit was to Gubbeen Farm in West Cork. Fully utilising the output from their 150-cow dairy farm, 20-sow piggery, free-range chook farm and massive vege/herb garden, the entire family turned out an amazing array of top-class products - all vacuum packed and ready for market. Ireland does not suffer the same debilitating food-hygiene regulations that stifle small goods production in New Zealand.

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

Our biggest day's walking was the climb up the 919m-high Galtymore Mountain, which featured an ancient rock wall snaking across it. The day was beautiful (one out of the box) and the view went on forever. If all the rock walls in Ireland were joined up together, they would stretch around the world three times!

Another staunch Irish tradition, extinguished in 2004, was smoking in pubs - many of which still sport a framed picture of the London Herald's front page from 23 November 1963 headlined, "Kennedy Assassinated". Even in homes, JFK's picture is up there next to the Pope.

In contrast with the soft green and dun contours usually associated with the west of Ireland, the 450 sq km chunk of limestone country called the Burren is captivatingly stark. Upon closer inspection, a multitude of wildflowers thrive amongst its karst pavements or "clints". Old roads built with relief work during the famine go nowhere, and deserted cottages crumble back into the landscape.

Across chinking limestone, we made our way to Keelhilla and the ancient hermitage retreat of Saint Colman MacDuach, which nestles beneath the frowning cliffs of Sliabh Cairn. I slurped a few mouthfuls from the crystal-clear stream that still flows from the monk's "healing well", then squeezed into the same crevice cave in the limestone where he lived for seven years during the 6th century. A damp sort of spot to make a home ... but a small price to pay for such a green green land.