Planning on embarking on a multi-day hiking trip in Europe? Still not sure whether to visit Scotland, England, Wales, Spain or Ireland? Well in order to help with your decision, here’s our list of the top highlights you’ll encounter on almost any hiking trail in Ireland.
Traditional Turf Cutting and Drying
Hikers in Ireland may notice a unique smell in the air, almost a sweet, smokey odour wafting above the ground. To those who know it, it’s the unmistakable scent of burning turf, also known as peat (although a slightly different process is entailed here). Waning in popularity, turf was once the main way in which the Irish heated their homes and prepared their food. Today, turf is still cut from bogs by hand, but this is becoming rarer and rarer. Those with rights to a bog use a two-sided spade known as a sleán or slane.
To prepare the turf for burning, each rectangular-shaped ‘sod’ (sort of like a long brick) needs to be turned, ensuring that both the wind and the sun will aid in drying it out adequately. The next step involves ‘footing’ the turf, or standing it upright in stacks five or six sods high. Although machinery aids in the process today, there’s still a great deal of physical effort involved, and some still do it the old fashioned way too. Hikers are most likely to see this process carried out along the west coast and in the midlands, for it is these regions where one finds the most bog-covered ground.
The best months to experience this are generally May and June each year. In the past there were often one or two more additional cuttings later in the summer as well, however recent controls have seen many bogs limited to one cutting only. This has been implemented to aid in the conservation of the bogs, yet it also seems to be a natural progression as fewer people burn turf to heat their homes. Despite the romantic element involved, burning turf does require a great deal of manual labour. As it is effectively the least efficient form of coal, the transportation and stockpiling of massive volumes is necessary to ensure a sufficient supply to last only one, long, cold, damp winter in Ireland.
The Remoteness and Escapism Factor
While Ireland is a rather tiny island nation, you’ll be surprised just how remote some of its walking trails are. Particularly along the slender peninsulas jutting westwards into the Atlantic, one can fully escape the hustle and bustle of urban life. This is even true in the summer months when the roads, towns and villages of Ireland’s west coast are jam-packed with a veritable army of tourists. Although you may not think so at first glance, it is indeed very much possible to head off on one of our trails and soon find yourself surrounded purely by nature. In particular the Dingle, Beara and Sheep’s Head peninsulas are very sparsely populated, and you can walk for miles and miles without seeing a single occupied building – derelict houses on the other hand are more prevalent. So if it’s an escape you’re after, Ireland will not disappoint.
The Closeness Factor
However, despite the remoteness of Ireland’s trails, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that you’re never too far away from civilisation either. This is a comforting idea to many walkers who want the best of both worlds. In Ireland you can feel fully immersed in nature, yet relax in comfort at the end of each day of walking. This also makes planning and packing significantly easier. Instead of the mountain of preparation required for a hike into the depths of the Amazon or up the soaring escarpments of northeastern Pakistan, all you need is enough to survive one or two days at a time, if even that! Plus, if you book a self-guided walk through an organisation such as Hillwalk Tours, they’ll plan and prepare virtually everything for you in advance. They’ll even sort you out with brilliant, local accommodation in B&Bs each night of your journey.
The Wild Atlantic Way has received a tonne of publicity in recent years, and it’s no wonder why. Stretching 2,600 kms (1,600 miles) from the top to the bottom of Ireland, the route takes in the absolute highlights of our western coastline – plus a good bit of the northern and southern coastlines too! While most opt to drive part or all of the epic route, the majority of Ireland’s most famous hiking routes take you much closer to the ocean itself, and all of the amazing sights along the way. Walking the Wild Atlantic Way, especially in Counties Cork and Kerry, is without a doubt the single best highlight for the adventurous and outdoorsy visitor to the Emerald Isle.
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And there’s also the people you’ll meet while trekking around Ireland. Staying in local B&Bs during a multi-night walking trip gives you the chance to come into contact with some of the most welcoming and hospitable people you’ll ever meet. It’s no wonder the Irish have a reputation as the friendliest people on Earth. Whether it’s at your guesthouse, in the local pub in town, or along the trails, there’s plenty of banter to be had with the Irish who are always up for a good chat and a bit of ‘craic’ (fun/banter in Irish Gaelic).
The best way to truly experience the unique history of Ireland is to hop out of your car or off that bus and put your feet on the ground. It’s along the many hiking routes in the west of Ireland that you’ll see and experience things not found anywhere else on the Emerald Isle. The west coast features some of our most scenic hiking routes, and it’s here that Ireland was also worst affected by the two great famines of the mid-1800s. Walkers may notice strange ripples travelling across fields in remote areas – places I previously thought nobody surely ever lived in. Yet these areas were once well-populated, and it turns out that these ‘ripples’ in the ground are in fact “famine ridges.” They appear all over the west of Ireland. When planting potatoes, farmers created folds in the soil, which would later be flattened once more at harvest time. Such corduroy waves indicate that a field was actually never dug up when it came time to harvest, and this was due to recurring potato blight during the period of the great famines.
This period in history also left numerous tracks and pathways crossing the hills and valleys in the most obscure places. Today these roads seem inexplicable, as there’s no one living out there and virtually no sign of anyone ever having lived here in the first place. However, look a little closer and you’ll see signs of previous habitation. You’ll soon see the ruins of famine villages poking out through bracken and brambles, sometimes almost completely covered by view under thick vines of ivy. Nearby you’ll again see the famine ridges, and these famine roads sprang up as the government’s way of putting the impoverished and starving locals to work in return for payment. Also referred to as green roads, these overgrown tracks now make up components of many of Ireland’s most popular walking routes, such as the Dingle Way, the West of Ireland route in Connemara and Mayo, and the Kerry Way. Perhaps the most obvious of these roads is located along the Burren Way, where the emerald hues of the track contrast starkly against the limestone landscape from which it was roughly hewn.
Returning briefly to the topic of famine villages, oftentimes your hike will take you straight past them and you can enter these ruined huts (safely of course!) and get a glimpse into the history of rural Ireland. Believe it or not, it’s from here that many people across the globe, and especially in America, can directly trace back their ancestry. Keep an eye out for groups of stone ruins on your next hike in Ireland and don’t be afraid to take a closer look.
Another piece of Irish history can be found in its multitude of ring forts. Some of them are very simple in nature – insignificant earthen mounds providing rudimentary defence and now long overgrown with grass. The keen eye can spot their rounded edges in the distance when hiking in Ireland. Other ring forts are quite complex affairs, featuring multi-tiered ramparts connected by stone staircases, as well as internal chambers and tunnels both within the walls and under the ground.
Some even incorporate multi-layered systems of defence outside of the walls containing slender, jagged stones placed at varying angles, clustered together to create barriers that would certainly impede even the most agile of enemies. This would help funnel the attacking troops into certain areas while also hampering their movement, a tactic similar to that exhibited by the dragon’s teeth and Spanish horse tank traps used in World War 2 (something you may remember from the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’).
Although estimates vary, historians agree that between 40,000 and 50,000 of these ring forts once existed here, with approximately 80% still identifiable today. Quite an accomplishment for such a small island! The best-preserved number only in the low 100s, however. When you’re next out hiking around Ireland, keep an eye out for the markers on your map denoting nearby ring forts, and see if you can spot them or hike over to one for a closer look.
OK, quick disclaimer here, but unfortunately Connemara Ponies are not found absolutely everywhere in Ireland. However, hikers all along the west coast of Ireland, especially in Connemara of course, will often find them grazing serenely in the fields and along our windswept slopes. Previously confined mainly to the Connemara region of County Galway, I’ve personally seen the unique, gleaming white breed all over the west coast in numerous other counties. Keep an eye out for these majestic creatures on your next hike in Connemara and also while further afield elsewhere on a walk in the west of Ireland.
Sheep are synonymous with the Irish countryside, however most of those found along the well-trodden tourist trails are of the rather domesticated variety. It’s the stray ones that I find to be almost wild, in a way, which I find most intriguing. They often come replete with ram’s horns (both male and female in fact, something I only learned recently). Should you venture off the beaten path and head cross-country you’ll soon come face to face with some exceptionally Irish sheep as they float about the fields and across steep slopes like fluffy white clouds. Another interesting characteristic of Irish sheep is their various paint jobs. In more remote areas, farmers keep track of their roving herds by spray-painting them. Some are even emblazoned with the local county’s Gaelic football team colours (usually County Mayo’s Red and Green!)
A pretty comprehensive list of the highlights of hiking in Ireland, don’t you think? Yet I’ve probably missed a good few all the same, as there’s plenty to see and do when you get out and about on our hiking trails. Comment below with your personal favourite highlight or anything you’d like us to write about in future posts, and don’t forget to check back for other trail-specific highlights lists in future.
We hope that you enjoyed this guide and if you’re interested in more information on hiking in Ireland – check out www.hillwalktours.com