© Nelson Mail 23 July 2008

A Nelson woman has returned to her home country to give visitors an insight into the real Ireland. Gerard Hindmarsh joined the inaugural trip.

A shaky start for me it is. En route to Dublin, I make the mistake of transiting through the United States, where I am hauled off by black-shirt Border Security guards in San Francisco.

My crime was 30 years ago holding a temporary visa to enter the US, which, since the "War on Terror", now renders me ineligible to go through, even on transit. After an extensive grilling, fingerprinting and mugshots, they let me board my Air Lingus plane, which has thankfully waited for me.

Landing in the Irish capital is sheer relief. The super-helpful immigration official holds up the queue to give me her extended take on the All Blacks vs Ireland rugby match played in freezing conditions in Wellington just two days before.

"Could have been Irish weather," she laughs. Natural optimists the Irish ain't; rather, they imbue their fatalism with bravado and an irresistible black humour that keeps me entertained from start to finish.

I am here because Nelsonian Rachel Ryan, of Delaware Bay, an Irish expatriate, is setting up a venture to introduce people to the real Ireland: a 10-day Walk the West of Ireland tour, which she launched last month with eight of the 10 first-timers hailing from Nelson, including me.

Dublin is in a delightful mood these days, yet still decadent and down-to-earth enough to retain all its authenticity. With an IRA-declared ceasefire that has firmly held, plus a buoyant economy now referred to as the Celtic Tiger, the whole country appears largely in good shape.

But some things will never change. The place is plastered with political posters. "Vote No to Lisbon!" (They dealt to that EU treaty resoundingly in the June referendum). Another shows George W Bush holding a machine-gun with words underneath: "Mobilise against the real world terrorist now!"

Stroppy is definitely still alive and well in Ireland.

Our tour proper starts in Cork City, where we meet over a typically over-the-top Irish cooked breakfast.

To keep it personal, Rachel has limited this walking tour to 10 people. Most of us have Irish roots and a desire to see with our own eyes exactly where our forebears came from. My own paternal great-grandparents came out from the Galway area after the Great Famine of 1845 to 1851, when 3 million Irish either died or were forced to emigrate.

"The people aspect was very important to me in organising the itinerary," says Rachel. "I wanted the group to go back to New Zealand really feeling like they had experienced real Irish hospitality - that X-factor a lot of tourists just don't get to see."

To this end, Rachel's illustrious Irish family features prominently throughout the tour, and they are all a smash hit. Her brother, Hugh, is our co-driver, while his partner, Elin Payne, is a graduate chef from the esteemed Balllymaloe Cookery School in Cork and prepares nearly all the food for the trip as we go along.

Irish rural cuisine, based on top-class ingredients, has a growing gourmet reputation, and meetings with food producers pepper our itinerary. One inspirational stopoff is Gubbeen Farm in West Cork, which is basically a dairy farm with a piggery and what seems like a zillion chooks, along with a huge vege/herb garden.

Rachel hails from Limerick, so the itinerary concentrates on Ireland's picturesque western side.

Our first two days are based in the seaside town of Allihies, way out on the Beara Peninsula. Our walking guide, John Kelly, introduces us to the soft greens and peat bogs of the Beara Way, with the ruins of the old Berehaven tin mine. We also meet his 19-year-old terrier.

The next day we head out to roam 6.5km-long Dursey Island. A rudimentary cable car, suspended 30m above the raging channel, carries us over in three lots. A small sign tells us that livestock take preference over humans in the queue.

Despite three small hamlets, permanent residents on Dursey can now be counted on one hand. We take a break out of the weather in an abandoned schoolhouse, then hit the ridge before the weather beats us down again. The day is bleak but utterly inspiring.

In 1602, English forces put to the sword 300 old men, women and children who had taken shelter on this island, including breastfeeding infants. Their crime? Being Catholic.

A personal highlight is our visit to Scarteen, the Ryan family estate in County Limerick where Rachel grew up. Her father, Thaddeus "Thady" Ryan, who retired to his wife Anne's homeland of New Zealand in 1987, was legendary in the Irish fox-hunting scene and was influential in raising horse-breeding standards in Ireland. He served as chef d'equipe of the Irish three-day eventing teams at the Tokyo and Mexico Olympic Games and often travelled for Ireland as its international sporting ambassador.

Scarteen is distinctive in still maintaining a hunting pack of about 80 purebred kerry beagles, the "Scarteen Black and Tans".

The Ryan hunting tradition on this estate goes back to 1640. Thady received the hunting horn from his father in 1946, hunted the famous pack for the next 40 seasons, then passed it on to his son, Chris (Rachel's brother), who is today's Joint Master and Huntsman.

These dogs are full-on to meet en-masse. Kerry beagles are more affectionate than the English foxhound, and the highly strung breed are renowned for their sharp noses and "marvellous music", or vocal capacity.

The hunt is still carried on two or three times a week in the November to January hunting season, with 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 with cellphones, not to forget the fence-fixers who have to follow behind to repair any damage done, and it all adds up to one big circus.

On low-lying terrain, but with demanding ditches and banks, the Scarteen Hunt is described as one of the world's best, with participants from all over Europe and North America paying big euros for the privilege of joining in.

It is hard to miss the standing stones in Ireland. They pop up everywhere we go. At 5.3m high, Ballycrovane is inscribed with ancient Ogham script and is reputedly the tallest in Europe.

Ireland is now the second most litigious country after the US, so the farmer extracts two euros from each of us to help cover his public liability insurance for viewing the 800BC-erected monument.

Viewing the 300m-high Cliffs of Moher is a blast in a raging gale off the Atlantic. I am blown on to my knees and hands several times. It's as if the Irish sea gods are ordering me to pay homage to the inspirational landscape.

Our biggest day walking is the climb up 919m Galtymore Mountain, which features 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.)

Many of the mountain's lower sides were cut for peat last century. In February, a law will stop peat extraction in Ireland forever.

Another Irish tradition now extinguished (in 2004) is smoking in pubs, establishments we take every opportunity to stop in and partake a pint of Guinness or Murphys. Many pubs still sport a framed picture of the London Herald front page from Saturday November 23, 1963 headlined "Kennedy Assassinated". JFK is still revered as much as the Pope here.

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

It is now clear that Christianity came to Ireland well before St Patrick. Across chinking limestone we make our way to Keelhilla and the ancient hermitage retreat of St Colman Mac Duach, which nestles beneath the frowning cliffs of Sliabh Cairn. I slurp from the clear stream that still flows from his healing well, and we take turns squeezing into the little cave where the monk lived for seven years in the sixth century.

I leave the group on their last day as they depart by ferry for the Aran Islands, but not before I canvass them all about their Ireland experience.

Gavin Dowdall of Annesbrook, whose great-grandfather Patrick Dowdall came from Dublin to Patea in 1848, has always hankered to come here.

"It was an amazing feeling when I landed on Irish soil, the place I came from," he says. "I almost can't explain it, but it's all lived up to my expectations."

Desi Gorton of Wakefield, travelling with husband Keith, is on her second visit to Ireland, the first being seven years ago.

"The best part for me on this trip was meeting all the locals. Rachel's tour gave us the introductions that you wouldn't normally get," she says.

The end to the Troubles in Ireland convinced Peter and Ngaire King of The Glen that they should come on this tour, while for Cynthia Midgley of Glenhope, who turned 70 on the trip, Ireland was on her "bucket list", of things to do before she kicks the bucket. With that sort of humour, no wonder she loved the place.

The author's trip was funded by Tourism Ireland.