Festival Fit: Ah, the walk’ll do you good
As the walking season kicks off, it’s time to get on Shank’s mare and step out on some foot-bound festivals
Walkin’ up that hill
Over the Rainbow: Tipperary’s Brendan Cummins during the All-Ireland Poc Fada finals 2013. Photograph: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
One thing that never ceases to amaze me as I wind through the country on these obsessive festival travels, is the contrast of countryside, coast, peaks and people we enjoy on such a relatively small island. Wanderly Wagon has brought me to and through some wonderful parts of Ireland that I’d never even heard of (Tang in Co Westmeath being my favourite place name to date), but it’s walking festivals that continually invigorate mind, body and a deep appreciation of place. Even on damp and dreary days, the bulk of a mountain can block out a week’s worth of Liveline teacup storms and vinb hashtags.
There are more than 70 walking festivals in Ireland during the year, organised by mountaineering clubs, community groups and Ray Mears-alikes who set out to showcase their particular slice of the country. During May these parties of perambulation peak, but it’s apt that March sees a rise in the steppin’ out session.
This weekend the Táin Walking Festival will be traipsing through the Cooley Mountains. The unique views of our north-east coast and the array of strong Border accents on this trek highlight some of the diversity on offer in the country. Throw into this mix the fact that for much of the day you’re looking across the Border over Carlingford Lough at the towns of Rostrevor, Warren Point and further up to Newry, all in Co Down, and that feeling of variety and localised uniqueness is underlined.
On one of these treks, we stopped on a peak for lunch, momentarily stilled and awed the sky-mirroring expanse of Carlingford Lough. A member of Mourne Walking Club broke the meditation: “That’s Rostrevor over there, where yeer last president came from. Ye always come across the Border to get the best of politicians.” There was a quick (and good-humoured) response: “’Tis a pity ye didn’t hang on to a few of ’em. Ye might have sorted yerselves out years ago.” Ouch!
The historical and cultural significance of this part of the country is something that’s been subliminally planted in many of us who were reared on stories of Cú Chulainn and the band of hurley-wielding warriors who used these hills as a backdrop for their escapades. You can still find some of them here at the Poc Fada championships in August. Supposedly, after Queen Maeve and her crowd stole a load of cattle, the Fianna lads were up here in the hills, picking off her bravest and best with slingshots from a distance of about five miles. They don’t make men (or slingshots) like that anymore. These stories are to blame for the batch of weird and wonderful names some poor crayturs have been landed with of late, making morning roll-calls in Gaelscoils all over Ireland sound like Daghdha’s lament.
Most festival walks are manufactured to take in some stunning scenery or outstanding feature, but it’s the actual walkers who help make the events so enjoyable. It’s impossible to slog up a mountain with an Irish crew without a chinwag. We love the bants. Two recently graduated students from DKIT told me about their Erasmus year in China; Kevin from Dublin laid out his plans to set up a
business taking people for walks in the mountains around the east of the country; and our walk leader Michael filled the gaps with some local knowledge, folklore and baby-name suggestions as we ambled along.
Connemara Four Seasons Festival will be taking walkers around Inishbofin, Errisbeg and Innisnee from March 14th-16th. The same weekend, Ardara
International Walking Festival will be trekking through the homes of Donegal. The week after that there’ll be a jaunt through Mayo’s Tóchar Valley for the Croagh Patrick Heritage Trail Walking Festival. Time to tie up the boots and mush some mud; the country is awash with dirty weekends.
Safe travels, don’t die.